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

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

I, Katerina Alexandra Maria, Duchess of Oldenburg, was a necromancer. And I hated it. Ever since I had been a little girl, I had been able to bring the dead back to life. Fortunately, only a few people close to the tsar knew my secret. His son, Grand Duke George Alexandrovich, was one of them. Unfortunately, there were several dangerous and powerful people in Russia who knew my secret as well. People such as Maman's friend Grand Duchess Miechen.

"Are you certain, dear?" Maman asked. "The Montenegrins have arrived at Yalta and promised to call this evening. You've missed the princesses Anastasia and Elena, haven't you?"

My head began to pound even worse. I had not missed them at all. The Montenegrin princesses had almost killed me last spring by casting a charm to make me fall in love with their brother, Crown Prince Danilo. Although I had broken off the engagement, Maman still retained hopes that I would reconsider my feelings for the wickedly handsome Danilo and become a crown princess.

No one had told her the crown prince was a blood drinker. Like most of the nobility, she lived her life bedazzled by the glamour of the light and dark faerie courts and believed that all the vampires had been driven from St. Petersburg many years ago. I hoped I was doing the right thing hiding the truth from her. My brother and father, however, knew that evil creatures roamed our city. And they knew about me.

"Please send my regrets," I said, taking Maman's hands. "I think I will go to bed early tonight. Tomorrow is the excursion to the caves, is it not?"

"Mais oui! Zina will never forgive me if we do not go!" She kissed me on the forehead. "Sleep well, Katiya. Should I send Anya up here with some tea?"

"That would be wonderful." I smiled. My maid would be happy to escape from the company downstairs. She feared the Montenegrin princesses as much as I did.

Maman left, and it was not long before Anya knocked on my door. "Duchess? Your mother said you were not feeling well."

"It's just a headache," I said, coming in from the balcony and locking the doors. "Thank you." I sank down into the chair and inhaled the steam from my cup. For some reason the tea in the Crimea always tasted better than the kind we drank at home.

"I heard the princesses asking about you," Anya said, fussing with the tea tray. She'd brought a plate of brown bread and butter, along with some cheese and fruit, to ensure that I did not go to bed hungry.

Not everyone knew that the Montenegrins were veshtiza witches, with the power to turn into bloodsucking moths, but rumors of their dark magic had spread throughout St. Petersburg. Now shunned by the empress and the Light Court, they were attempting to curry the favor of the Dark Court faerie, Grand Duchess Miechen. Her court rivaled the Light Court, and the empress knew it.

The tense power struggle between the light and dark faerie courts had not improved since the battle with the lich tsar at Peterhof. Their powers might not have been apparent to most inhabitants of St. Petersburg, but the aristocratic elite knew the rumors and the legends, mostly tales spun by the fae themselves. Behind a veil of glamour, the two dangerous faeries plotted and schemed for control of the fate of the empire. The empress, of course, blamed the Dark Court for the attack against her husband, the current tsar. Grand Duchess Miechen, who dreamed of the day when her own son would wear the imperial crown, had no love for the lich tsar Konstantin. Nor was she particularly fond of the blood-drinking Montenegrins, whose treachery had caused her to miscarry twins last month.

"What did the princesses say?" I asked as I reached for a slice of bread. Anya loved to gossip, and I would not be allowed to rest until I'd been told everything she'd heard.

She sat down in the chair next to mine and lowered her voice. "They said their dear brother was still at home with his parents, languishing and heartsick over you, but that they hoped to see you at the grand duchess's birthday ball this week."

I rubbed my temples. I knew I'd have to see them in public eventually. There would be plenty of people at the ball, and hopefully any conversations the Montenegrins and I had would be brief. If I never saw the crown prince again, it would be too soon.

Anya helped me get ready for bed and then took the tea tray away, leaving me alone in the dark. I heard the sounds of laughter coming from Maman's seance in the parlor. And someone, probably Aunt Zina, singing a gypsy love song. I closed my eyes and listened to her rich, husky voice.

The metal bed was not as comfortable as my bed at home in St. Petersburg. It felt more like my old cot at Smolny. But the linens smelled like sunshine and sea air. As I fell asleep, I dreamed of paper-thin white wings, fluttering outside on my balcony.

Chapter Three

The next morning, we met Dariya and her stepmother for our excursion to the Massandra caves. Adjacent to the imperial estate of Livadia, the grounds of Massandra had recently been bought by the tsar, and a grand palace was being built. Some of the caves were open for excursions, and that was where we planned to spend the day.

Dariya grinned at me, holding her parasol up to protect her fair skin from the late-morning sunshine. Accepting the footman's arm for support, I climbed into the carriage next to her. It would be a short ride to Massandra, for the estate was very near to our villa, but we would have to walk across the beautifully cultivated vineyards to reach the caves. The servants had packed two large picnic baskets for us. I could smell the freshly baked baklava that had been wrapped up for later.

Maman and Aunt Zina seated themselves in the carriage seat across from us. "What a glorious morning!" my aunt said. She smiled like a cat that had gotten into the cream.

Maman, however, looked a bit weak. "How did your seance go?" I asked with concern.

"It was so exciting!" the countess said, ignoring the fact that I'd addressed my mother. "We made contact with a servant of Empress Yelizaveta Petrovna! He shared the most delightful recipe for a raspberry sorbet."

"What a comfort to know that spiritism has such practical uses," I murmured. Dariya poked me in the arm and stifled a giggle. "Maman, are you feeling all right?" I asked, turning toward her. She seemed paler than usual.

My mother forced a laugh. "Of course, dear. It is just unbearably early for me. I'm not used to being out of bed before noon, you know."

But it was more than that. The cold light that shimmered around her, the light that only a necromancer can see, looked different this morning. Not brighter or dimmer necessarily, merely different. A person's cold light grows brighter the closer one is to death. A necromancer uses her own cold light to manipulate life and death, just as she can manipulate another person's cold light. I was still learning how dangerous my powers could be. I did not understand what the change to my mother's cold light meant, but I suspected it was related to the previous night's seance. Had one of the ghosts touched Maman?

Our carriage ride was pleasant, as the dirt road took us high into the hills where we could look down at the harbor. The Crimean Peninsula was very rocky, and full of mountains dotted with caves. The narrow strip of beach along the southeastern coast was known as the Riviera of Russia, and this was where all the palaces and dachas belonging to the nobility glittered like gems in the sun.

The carriage stopped at the gates of Massandra and we climbed out, taking our picnic baskets. Maman and Aunt Zina carried their parasols. It would not be a long hike, but I was thankful for the fresh air.

I hurried ahead to walk with Dariya. She was swinging her picnic basket and humming an aria from the opera Iphigenia. I wished we'd had more time to spend at the ruins in Khersones. We still planned to perform the Greek play before our holiday in the Crimea ended.

As we walked down the shady path leading to the caves, we came to a bridge that crossed a crystal clear stream. We could hear voices on the other side of the bridge.

"Georgi! No!" There was a splash, and then a young girl shrieked with laughter.

My heart pounded in my throat as I recognized the voice.

Dariya looked at me and shrugged. "The imperial family?"

It was their estate, even if they were staying at Livadia while Massandra Palace was being finished.

"Perhaps we should have chosen another day," I said, starting to turn around.

"Katerina Alexandrovna!" A pleased young female voice stopped me. The tsar's eldest daughter had already seen us. "And Dariya Yevgenievna! Georgi! Nicky! Look who it is!"

Grand Duchess Xenia was dripping wet. Her older brothers behind her looked as if they'd been swimming as well.

My skin felt as if it were on fire as George Alexandrovich's gaze swept over me. His hair was wet; a lone, limp curl fell over his forehead and my fingers itched to push it back off his beautiful face. He eyed me warily. His siblings obviously did not know he had proposed to me less than a month ago. Or that I had refused him. And I hoped he would never tell them. What good could ever come of it?

The eldest of the tsar's sons, Grand Duke Nicholas Alexandrovich, smiled his shy smile and gave us a polite bow. "What brings you two out here this morning?"

Just then, Maman and Aunt Zina caught up with us. They became excited when they saw the tsar's children. "Your Imperial Highnesses!" my mother said, bowing. "We did not mean to intrude, but we had hoped to visit the caves."

The tsarevitch took Maman's hand gallantly and clicked his heels together. "No intrusion at all," he said with a grin. "We were searching for a new fishing spot. Would you like for us to accompany you up the path to the main cave? It can be tricky to find."

George looked as unhappy as I was with the suggestion. It appeared, sadly, that his passionate regard for me had already cooled. Which was for the best, I realized. But even though I knew we could never be together, I also knew that I would never love another.

"You are most kind, Your Imperial Highness," Maman said with a slight nod.

George stepped closer to me; I could smell the sunshine and fresh air on his damp clothes. His shirt was unbuttoned at the top, his sleeves rolled up to reveal tan, muscular arms that glistened with beads of water. I blushed as soon as I realized I was staring.

"Allow me to carry your basket," he said, holding out his hand.

His fingers grazed mine as I handed the basket to him. It was like an electric current passing between us. "Of course I still feel the same," he said in a low voice, so the others couldn't hear. "How could you doubt that?"

My cheeks burned and I felt a strange, light fluttering in my stomach. "Forgive me, Your Imperial Highness. I had forgotten my thoughts were so transparent to you." His telepathy was one of his faerie gifts, courtesy of his mother.

He held my elbow gently, forcing me to stay until the rest of our party had gone on ahead. His touch sent shivers up and down my entire arm. I could see Dariya talking with Grand Duchess Xenia before they disappeared on the winding forest path. No one noticed our absence.

"How have you been, Your Imperial Highness?" I didn't know what else to say to him.

He smiled, and his face seemed to light up. "Terrible. And you?"

I didn't answer him. "How is the Order? How are your Koldun studies?"

He sighed. "I leave for Paris next week to study with a secret circle of wizards."

"Paris? For how long?"

"Several months, I'm afraid."

It had always been my and Dariya's dream to visit the City of Light. What beautiful sights the grand duke would see. "How exciting," I said, happy for him. But I could not help feeling sad that he would be so far away.

"And you leave for Zurich soon," he said.

I nodded and kept staring straight ahead as we walked. If I stopped to look at him now, would I change my mind about leaving?

"My father actually believes it is a good idea for you to go."

That caused me to stop in the middle of the path. "He does?"

George shrugged. "Normally, he does not believe women should have occupations, but he feels a university education would be beneficial for you as his imperial necromancer."

Of course. I was a valuable pawn to the tsar and his wife's Light Court. My education would depend solely upon my usefulness to the Crown.

"Is he feeling better?" I asked. The ritual at Peterhof that had transformed our tsar into the ancient warrior of legend, the bogatyr, had been draining. For the tsar as well as for me. But Tsar Alexander possessed an almost inhuman strength. His battle with the lich tsar Konstantin had been amazing to see. And frightening.

"He is much improved," the grand duke said. "But as a physician you may be able to discover ways for him to recover faster the next time the bogatyr is needed."

I sighed and shook my head. "But that's not why I want to be a doctor. I want to help all people. Not just the tsar."

"At least he is letting you leave, is he not?"

"He does not want me anywhere near you. Neither does the empress."

"I'm going to Paris. You wouldn't be near me even if you stayed in St. Petersburg." George stopped us again and grabbed my hand. "Katiya, I'm concerned for your safety. The Order has seen signs that there are other people working with Konstantin. We think someone else in St. Petersburg wants to finish what Princess Cantacuzene started. Even after all these years, there are still those who believe that Konstantin Pavlovich was the rightful heir after Alexander the First."

"The Dekebristi, you mean." They were the undead minions of Konstantin's vampire clan, first raised by Princess Cantacuzene more than sixty years ago.

He nodded. "Among others."

"But we stopped him at Peterhof." The lich tsar had tried to defeat Tsar Alexander and had failed because I summoned the bogatyr to fight him. "He can't come back, can he?"

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