Home > The Morning Star (Katerina #3)(15)

The Morning Star (Katerina #3)(15)
Author: Robin Bridges

Chapter Twenty-five

We paused in front of a golden statue of a fierce-looking lion-headed goddess. "That is Sekhmet," Danilo said quietly. "Both a deity of war and of medicine."

I stared at the statue in wonder and had a pagan urge to ask the goddess for her blessing. But before I could commit such blasphemy, the crown prince was pulling me toward another jewelry collection.

I wondered how the Cantacuzene family had gotten a hold of the Talisman of Isis. I suspected it was an artifact that should have been under a glass case in a museum as well. I examined the beautiful ruby bracelets and sapphire earrings and lapis necklaces in the case. Dariya would have been beside herself to see these jewels. She would have enjoyed vacationing in such an exotic place as this.

But I was not here on vacation. I'd been abducted by an insane lich tsar who believed I was going to be his tsarina. And I had to keep him from finding the sword that could destroy the whole world.

Chapter Twenty-six

We passed through the marketplace on our way to the hotel. The bazaar was a dazzling chaos of colors and sounds and scents. Merchants ran up to us, shoving silks and foods and perfumes, while children pulled on our clothing, begging for coins. Haunting songs from the minarets called the faithful to prayer at intervals throughout the day. I watched the shopkeepers stop and prostrate themselves on their rugs and face west to pray.

Danilo ignored them. "This way," he said, leading me toward the stalls of the spice market, where one could buy frankincense and myrrh, cinnamon, and the precious attar of roses. Wax candles hung by their wicks from one stall, and an old woman sat in the shadows in front of a tray of glass vials. Some were filled with narcotic drugs: opium and mor**ine. Danilo pulled me onward, until we came to a young man with frankincense resin.

Danilo took a handkerchief out of his pocket and used it to pick up a piece of the resin. "Dragon's blood?" he asked.

"Yes," the young man said. "From the southernmost part of Arabia."

"Do you have myrrh as well?"

"Of course, my lord."

"I'll need some of each."

I noticed that Danilo seemed reluctant to touch the frankincense, which the empress had used as an antidote to the hemlock poisoning caused by Danilo's veshtiza sister at Smolni. Militza, too, had used frankincense to poison her veshtiza aunt, Princess Cantacuzene. Did the resin affect him as well? "What do you need these herbs for?" I asked innocently as Danilo completed his purchases.

"They are key to the ritual outlined in the papyrus. These are the fragrances that helped souls cross back over to the land of the living."

"Whose soul are you planning to aid?" I asked warily. I wanted no part of this.

But Danilo merely laughed. "Come, Duchess, no need for you to fret. Let me buy you some food at the other end of the market. Let us enjoy this beautiful weather."

I looked up at the clear blue sky and took in the dizzying pandemonium swirling around me. Above the sounds of barking dogs and shouting shopkeepers, amid the dusty streets crowded with carts and donkeys and people, it was indeed a beautiful day. Danilo bought two pieces of warm flatbread sold by a shy girl who did not look to be older than eight or nine. She took the coins from him greedily and scampered back to her mother's bakery stall. The bread was delicious and soft.

The crown prince tried to buy me several trinkets as we walked back toward the entrance of the marketplace. Red silk slippers, silver bracelets, statuettes of ivory and alabaster were all offered to us by loud men and women. I admired the woolen blankets and rugs from Tunis and the damask silks of Arabia. But I would not let Danilo buy me anything expensive, as I had no way of repaying him.

I did stop, however, when I saw the bookseller's stall. Here, stacks and stacks of books and clumsily sewn together folios were being sold by an elderly man in a red fez. I tugged on Danilo's coat sleeve. "May I take a look?" I asked.

"Of course," he said politely. "Let me know if you find anything you like."

Wedged between two piles of Arabic poetry were a few old medical journals. Many were written in Arabic, but one was from England and another from France. They were not too terribly out of date, both written in the past ten years.

At the bottom of the pile, I found a leather-bound reprint of an ancient Greek text about the Alexandrian physician Herophilos. "How much for this?" I asked the shopkeeper, sliding the faded brown book out from beneath the others.

The elderly man happily bargained with Danilo for several minutes in Arabic before Danilo finally handed him a paper bill. "The book is yours, Duchess."

"Was it very costly?" I asked.

"Don't be ridiculous. We must rejoin the others."

I placed my hand on the crown prince's arm. "Merci, Danilo."

He took my hand and kissed it. "It is nothing. I am happy to find something here that pleases you."

Mala and the elder Grigori met us at the front gates of the bazaar. "Did you acquire what you needed, Your Majesty?" Mala asked with a formal bow.

"Yes. Now it is time to prepare Katerina for the ritual."

"Ritual?" I asked. "What are you talking about?"

Mala took me gently by the arm and pulled me away from the crown prince. "You will not be harmed, Duchess." In a lower voice she added, "The necromancer who performs the ritual must be ceremonially pure. She must not have eaten the flesh of any animal, and she must not have consorted with men."

"What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means that His Majesty needs you to remain a virgin until after the ritual," she answered, her eyes sparkling with mischief. "But after that, he will wish to marry you as soon as possible."

Chapter Twenty-seven

That evening, the elder Grigori escorted me to my room, waiting patiently outside while I washed up and changed into a clean gown for dinner. I decided to wear the blue dress again and found Danilo and Mala waiting for me in the dining room.

They stopped talking as soon as they saw me. Whatever they'd been discussing had surely not been pleasant, as neither looked happy.

"We will make plans to board the boat in the morning," Danilo said. "It is safer than the carriage, I believe. Especially with our own steamer."

"You've found Papus, then," I said.

"No," Mala said, frustrated. "I've told His Imperial Majesty that he should not believe the sphinx's cryptic words. But he feels we are very close on the French mage's tail." She turned to Danilo. "The Order of the Black Lily is dangerous. They could be luring you into a trap."

Danilo laughed. "My dear dancer, your concern is touching. But we are leaving in the morning nevertheless."

"Papus and his band of Grigori were seen leaving Cairo this morning," Mala told me. "Our Grigori believe they have found the resting place of the sword. And I worry that they will reach it before we do."

"Does Papus know any necromancers he would take with him past the seven gates?" I asked. I hoped Papus had joined forces with George and the Koldun for real this time. But what if he was still pursuing his own ambitions? What if he was working with another necromancer?

Konstantin stared into his wineglass, his eyes glowing green, his face bitter. "The French mage betrayed me. He turned to the Pretender's side when the ritual at Vorontsov Palace went wrong and he escaped like a coward. He will pay for his betrayal. But I must complete tomorrow's ritual first. Then we shall be able to deal with Papus."

Mala nodded obediently. "The Grigori will speak with their brothers in Armana, then. They will prepare everything for the ritual." She waited until the waiters served our plates before telling me, "The Grigori are able to talk to one another mentally across thousands of miles. Not deep, meaningful conversations, of course, but they are able to relay simple messages. Short commands and such."

If only I could convince the Grigori with us to betray Konstantin and send a message to those working with Papus. And George. But I had no idea how to gain their loyalty. And I still was not sure about Papus.

I was about to remark on the fact that my plate consisted entirely of rice and vegetables, without a main course of meat, but the mention of the Grigori's special abilities reminded me of something that had puzzled me earlier. "If we can enter the Graylands in one location and leave them in another, why can we not just travel through the Graylands to get home to Russia? Or to wherever it is we need to go for this ritual?"

Danilo laughed. "It is much more dangerous to travel through the Graylands than it is to travel through our world, Katerina. It can take years off one's life or drive one insane. Mortals cannot spend long stretches of time in the Graylands."

I sank back in my chair. "I see." Even as a necromancer, I was still mortal. Unlike Danilo. Or Mala, the wild fae. And yet Danilo had still dragged me to that place in order to escape Papus.

I barely tasted dinner. Danilo was preoccupied with his dark thoughts and Mala did not seem eager to engage in conversation either. The elder Grigori appeared and spoke into Danilo's ear.

Danilo sat straight up. "We're leaving," he announced. "Immediately."

I stood up. "Fine. I wasn't very hungry anyway."

"We're leaving the hotel, Katerina. You have five minutes to gather your belongings from your room."

"Five minutes!" I exclaimed.

Mala grabbed my arm. "Hurry, Duchess."

But they weren't even my belongings. Danilo had bought everything that was in my trunk. I didn't care whether I ever saw that wardrobe again. "I'm ready now," I said.

Danilo and Mala were not, however. Reluctantly, I followed Mala back to her room, where she threw her things into a small suitcase. She was cursing in Polish in a low voice.

"Why did our plans change so quickly?" I asked.

She muttered something under her breath, and I caught a whisper of the Romanov name.

"Are they here?" I asked. Had George come for me after all? My heart began to pound.

"Who? You are being silly for not taking your things, Duchess. It will be a long time before you will see fancy dresses again."

"First tell me why we must leave so quickly." I would stall as long as possible if it meant helping George and Papus stop Konstantin.

"The Grigori who sided with the French mages were seen traveling south. They know where we are headed, it seems. But Konstantin Pavlovich does not wish to face them before he's completed his ritual. We are in danger here. Now you must go get your things."

"Why do you remain loyal to Danilo?" I asked her. "Because of your loyalty to Princess Cantacuzene? The Montenegrins killed Johanna. Konstantin may mourn her death, but the crown prince does not."

Anger flashed in her eyes. She looked as if she wanted to strike me, but her hands remained clenched at her sides. "I will remain loyal to Konstantin, for one day he'll be able to bring the princess back to me."

I looked at her in shock. George had cut off the blood drinker's head after Militza had poisoned her. There was no way Princess Cantacuzene could return. Not even the lich tsar was that powerful, was he?

"Now," Mala said, pushing me down the hallway to my room, "no more stalling. The crown prince's Grigori will not allow you to interfere with his plans. You have five minutes to gather your things."

Reluctantly, I hurried next door and hastily packed as much as I could from the wardrobe Danilo had provided. Once I was safe in St. Petersburg, I would burn every last one of these dresses.

My five minutes were up before I could finish. One of the Grigori came to carry our baggage. Danilo entered my room behind him. "Are you ready? Very good. We must go quickly."

"Why?" I demanded. "If the grand duke is coming, you cannot stop him. He will find me, Danilo."

I received a slap to my face before I knew what was happening. It was Konstantin's harsh laugh I heard. "Forget about your precious grand duke. He already knows we've been together for the past week and he assumes we have eloped. He will never marry you now, Katerina."

Tears leaked from the corners of my eyes, as much from the pain of being struck as from utter despair. He was right. There was no way George would ever believe I had not been compromised. Mala was not a sufficient chaperone. I would not have trusted Petya's dog with the faerie dancer.

"Please hurry, Your Majesty," Mala hissed. She was standing in the hallway, dressed once again in her black habit and head covering. No one would recognize her as the tempting belly dancer from yesterday.

"Come along, Katerina," Danilo said, clutching my arm so tightly that he bruised my skin.

We descended the staircase flanked by several Grigori. They did not appear to be armed, but I could tell they were prepared to defend Danilo to the death.

We made it through the hotel's lobby and into the waiting carriage outside without incident. Mala sat across from Danilo and me, glancing out the window repeatedly as we raced to the dock at the river, where a chartered steamer was waiting. But surely traveling by rail would be faster? How far south did Danilo plan to take us?

The moonlight glimmered across the dark waves on the wide river. I was a little sad to be leaving such a beautiful city.

"Step quickly, Katerina," Danilo said as he rushed me up the gangplank. I stumbled, but two ship porters standing at the entry were quick to offer their assistance. Danilo brushed them aside and gently pushed me onto the steamer. "Your room is this way, Katerina."

He took me directly to a small cabin on the upper level and promptly locked me in.

Chapter Twenty-eight

I awoke in a tiny room, not remembering at first where I was. And then it all came back to me. I'd given in to the tears and cried myself to sleep. Now my head ached and my eyes were puffy. The ship rolled gently, and glancing at the window, I could see the lights from the waterfront passing by slowly. The sky was just beginning to lighten. We'd left Cairo. I had no idea where we were.

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