Home > The Unfailing Light (Katerina #2)(15)

The Unfailing Light (Katerina #2)(15)
Author: Robin Bridges

"Mon Dieu!" She cried from her boudoir. I rushed in to see her fretting over her tarot cards.

"Maman, please do not get upset. It's just a silly card game." But even as I was saying this, I knew it wasn't true.

"No!" she wailed. "He returns again and again in my readings!"

"Who does?" I sat down at the side of her chaise lounge and peeked at her cards.

"La Mort." She looked up at me, her face pale. "Death."

"Maman, please put the cards away. I think you just need your rest."

"Mais non, I am sure he is stalking this family."

I looked at her more carefully. I had not seen the cold light in so long, it was strange to see the pale glow that my mother gave off. Her cold light looked normal; I could not see anything wrong with her. "Maman, the Death card can mean so many more things than just death. It is a symbol of change." The cards could say many different things to many different people. Even I had picked up some of the symbolism over the years. Maman tended to see the worst in her cards.

"He follows the Knight of Cups. A young man. I fear for Petya!"

I looked at the card. The young man rode a white horse. It was not my brother, but George I feared for. A clammy feeling clenched my stomach. I couldn't wait to get to Miechen's ball. "Maman, are you feeling well enough to go out tonight?"

"Of course, dear. Let me pull myself together." She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. "Thank you, Katiya."

"For what?" As I looked at her more closely, I realized she too seemed years older than when I had seen her last. I was suddenly aware how warm it was in Maman's boudoir. I wanted to open the window and let the icy breeze off the Neva River sweep through the room. Maman always did like to have her bedroom cozy to the point of suffocating. I had to have fresh air.

"You always seem to calm me down. I've missed you so much." She looked up at me and smiled, and I saw that her cold light had indeed changed a little. I never could see auras, so I had no idea what color surrounded her, but I remembered what Dr. Badmaev had told me long ago. And what Princess Cantacuzene had said to me as well. Maman had dabbled in the occult for so long, her protective glamour had worn thin. It would not take much for her to see the truth about the Dark and Light Courts. How hysterical would she become if she learned that vampires and dark lich tsars had already returned to St. Petersburg? That her own daughter had the power to raise the dead? I wanted to put off her knowing that for as long as possible. Never would be fine with me.

Chapter Twenty-Four

The Children's Ball held at the Vladimir Palace was the signature event of the Christmas season for the Dark Court. The imperial family was always invited as a courtesy, but they knew they were not totally welcome. Nevertheless, the empress delighted in stealing the spotlight from Grand Duchess Miechen every chance she could.

The enormous ballroom was ablaze with candlelight. A string quartet in the middle of the room played selections from Tchaikovsky's ballet, Swan Lake. I looked all over the ballroom for signs the imperial family had arrived.

Maman had engaged the famed dressmaker Madame Olga to come to Betskoi House and fit me for a new gown. It was a dark-blue velvet dress the color of midnight. Pearls had been sewn into the bodice, in the same teardrop shapes that adorned my kokoshnik. This was the lowest-cut neckline Maman had ever let me wear.

Petya escorted both Maman and myself up the curving marble staircase at the Vladimir Palace, warning me softly that the grand duke would probably be in attendance. I shivered, partly from the bareness of my shoulders as my wrap was taken at the front door and partly from excitement. Even with the formal pearly-white kidskin gloves that covered my arms, I was still cold. My heart beat faster. I could not wait to see him. To hear his voice again.

I wondered if he could hear my thoughts, now that I was no longer hidden away at Smolny. Surely, he could, if he were close by. But what if he had not returned to St. Petersburg after all?

"George?" I whispered to myself, as I searched through the twirling young people. I was stopped by Miechen's eldest son, the young Grand Duke Kyril.

He bowed very seriously. "Katerina Alexandrovna, my mother has been asking for you. Will you come with me?"

I smiled politely at him, wishing he hadn't spotted me so soon. "Of course." There was no sign of the imperial family. What if the empress had decided not to make an appearance at the Dark Court gathering tonight?

Grand Duchess Miechen was talking with Aunt Zina. At a nod of Miechen's head, my aunt curtsied to her and left. "Young Duchess, it is good to see you again."

I curtsied low. "I have been at Smolny these last few months."

Her blue-violet eyes narrowed at me. "I am aware of the empress's spell. It was I who convinced her to let you return to your mother for Christmas holidays."

"I am extremely grateful, Your Imperial Highness. I have missed my family very much."

"And how are your studies going?"

I did not know if she was merely being polite, as the empress had been when she asked me at Smolny, or if she was truly interested. I took a deep breath and decided to confide in the grand duchess. "Your Imperial Highness, it is not safe at the institute. For the past few months, the girls have been terrorized by a ghost. We thought it was Marija of Montenegro until recently."

The grand duchess frowned. "How did the ghost get past the empress's spell?"

"She has probably been at the institute for many years, but perhaps the spell agitated her."

"I suppose that is possible," the grand duchess said, deep in her own thoughts.

I quickly explained all the incidents with the ghost over the past few months.

The grand duchess shook her head. "How intriguing. I wish I'd known about the ghost sooner."

"I hoped to do something about her myself, but the empress's spell prevents me from seeing the cold light. I am helpless."

"Then the ghost should be helpless as well. She must be incredibly powerful if the empress's spell does not affect her." Miechen smiled maliciously. "Or the empress is not as powerful as she claims?"

I shivered.

"How many people know about the ghost?" Grand Duchess Miechen asked.

"The instructors deny that she exists, but most of the girls have seen or heard her. The servants as well. I wish I knew who she was. Maybe I would be able to reason with her."

The grand duchess shook her head. "I would advise against that, Katerina. I will make my own inquiries about the ghost. Meanwhile, I am responsible for your safety while you are home these next few weeks. My spells are not quite as powerful as those of the empress, so I expect that you will not go looking for danger to test my protection." She looked as if she would have rather eaten dirt than admit to any such weakness.

"Of course, Your Imperial Highness."

"And now, you will owe me a favor, for I have bestowed this gift upon you."

"I understand, Your Imperial Highness," I said, curtsying again unhappily. A debt owed to the Dark Court was not a good thing. She knew she could not ask me to deliberately betray the tsar or the empress, but she could do any number of things to make their lives difficult. And mine in the process.

"Do not worry, Katerina. I will not call upon this favor this evening. I believe there is a handsome young gentleman waiting to speak with you in the winter garden." Her needle-sharp teeth flashed as she smiled at me.

She knew. She knew that George was seeing me in secret without his mother's knowledge. "You should probably hurry, before anyone else decides to take a walk in the garden room this evening." The Dark Court faerie was actually encouraging us. That could not be a good thing.

I curtsied one last time and tried not to look like I was rushing toward her tropical indoor garden room. I would have run if I could.

"George?" I whispered as loud as I dared. And he was there, sitting on a stone bench beneath two very large palm trees, partially hidden from view. No one would find us in here unless they knew where to look. "George!"

He stood up as soon as he saw me. "Katiya." He gathered me up in his arms, kissing me as if his life depended on it. Now I was truly home. Where I belonged.

I could feel the cold light rising within me, though. I gasped and tried to pull away.

"Shhh," George whispered as he held me against him. "It's all right. I'm fine."

"But it will kill you." I was frightened for him. I struggled to fight back against the cold light.

"No, Katiya. I'm much stronger now," he murmured as his lips pressed against my temple.

I made one more halfhearted attempt to push him away, but did not succeed. "What do you mean? Why haven't you written me? Where have you been?"

"Shhh" was all he said, his hands slowly moving up from my waist, sliding up my back and caressing my shoulders. "I don't want to talk about that right now, Katiya. Please."

I couldn't help sighing. His fingers on the back of my neck were casting their own magic spell over me. I didn't want to talk anymore either. I wanted the rest of the world to melt away and leave us alone forever. I kissed him back as my hands slid under his arms and up his back, pressing him closer to me. His fingers traced lightly down the sides of my dress's bodice, causing me to arch my back and shiver in pleasure.

His passion frightened me, but I didn't want him to stop. I knew there was much we needed to talk about, but at that moment, I needed his kisses more than anything. The mages in France, Konstantin, the Smolny ghost: none of them mattered right now. It had been months since we had seen each other. A lifetime since I'd felt his touch.

"I've missed you so," I whispered.

His breathing was ragged as he rested his forehead against mine. He was smiling. "You don't know what it means to hear you say that. I've missed you as well."

I put my hand on his chest. Surely I only imagined that I could feel his heart pounding beneath my fingertips. It was beating just as fast as my own. I'd never been so deliriously happy in my life.

If the boy had asked me to run away with him that very moment I would not have been able to say no.

"Katiya, there is so much I want to tell you, but I cannot." His voice was weary, as if his struggle to control his passion was exhausting him.

"What do you mean?" I did not pull away from him. I was scared to let go.

"Please go back to Smolny where you are safe. I don't know what I would do if something happened to you." He led me toward the stone bench, where we sat down.

I wanted to laugh at him but I couldn't. "No. I can't go back. Not now. Talk to me. Tell me about the mages and the Inner Circle. Are you in danger?"

He shook his head and frowned. "Don't be ridiculous. And don't worry about me. I told you. I'm stronger than I ever was before."

"But you won't tell me about the mages."

"I'm sorry, Katiya, but I'm bound by oath not to talk about them. I cannot."

I shuddered. The grand duke had joined their brotherhood. Danilo had been right.

George mistook my movement, thinking I was cold. He slid his hands up and down my gloved arms to warm them. "You look so beautiful tonight."

I blushed. His touch was setting my skin on fire. I had missed him so much. I gazed up into his dark eyes, and was frightened to see his cold light, spiraling around him in a dim coil. I reached out and held him close to me, as if I could keep his light safe. What had he been doing in Paris? It could not be anything good. "My brother believes there is a traitor within the Order," I told him. "That you and your family are in danger."

"Yes, I've heard. I'm sure your brother and his soldiers will find the traitor. My father is safe, thanks to the Order. And thanks to you."

"What about Konstantin? Has no one heard anything about him? Is he still imprisoned in the Graylands?"

"No one knows, Katiya. That is why I want you safe at Smolny under my mother's protection." He hugged me close to him, his breath warm on my hair. "Please promise me you will not do anything foolish."

"George, I am more worried for you. What are the wizards teaching you? What do you plan to do with that knowledge?"

He sighed, his hands caressing my back comfortingly. "I cannot discuss it. And there is so much I wish to tell you." His smile was grim. "I think you would actually enjoy attending some of the lectures I've had to endure."

"Such as?" I leaned my head against his shoulder and closed my eyes. As long as he kept talking, he wouldn't let me go.

"Alchemy, auras, even the history of ritual magic." His finger toyed with a fallen curl at the back of my neck.

"Is it all so boring for you?" I asked.

He laughed quietly. "I do like the astrology lectures. Not the casting of horoscopes, but the study of the planets. I prefer the more rational astronomy. They assigned me Nicky's chart, as he is the future tsar, and it is full of malign stars. But I spend my nights at the Paris Observatory, using their telescope instead of ancient star charts. It's so beautiful, Katiya. I wish you could see it."

"One day you will show me," I said, smiling up at him.

"Perhaps." He did not smile back.

I pulled away to examine him more closely. He looked sad. And he looked thinner than when I had seen him in the Crimea. I touched his cheek with the palm of my hand. "Tell me more about Paris."

He closed his eyes. "I shouldn't. I've probably said too much."

I sighed. This was getting us nowhere. If George wouldn't, or couldn't, tell me about the French wizards, then who would?

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