Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva stood for a long moment staring up at the sliver of silver moon in the dark bluish sky. She loved this time of night when millions of stars were scattered like a blanket across the sky and it was clear and perfect. She inhaled to take in all the scents around her, a habit ingrained for self-preservation, taught from the time she was a toddler.
The pavilion was empty, a mixture of black and white squares where often others came to dance and party late into the night, but that hadn’t happened for a long while. She knew her family wanted her to settle for a husband and during every ball they pushed eligible bachelors at her. She detested the disappointment in brothers’ eyes, especially her eldest. She knew if she didn’t cooperate soon, he would demand she comply with his choice—and she knew she wouldn’t.
Andros, ruler of her family, was running out of patience with her. He thought she would do as he said, mostly because he was used to everyone doing as he said. Her other brothers, the twins, Garald and Grigor, knew her so much better. They knew her stubborn streak and they watched her carefully after each ball. The more Andros pushed her, the more they kept their eyes on her.
She had to smile to herself. She had her ways of sneaking out of their palatial home and her brothers had never caught her. Not once. Not in all the years she’d been doing it.
They lived in a small community in a very remote area in the Eastern Siberia boreal forest. The community had existed for hundreds of years. More. They had kept to themselves for generations, although now, the younger ones had left the villages to seek employment and service in the more modern settings. They blended in seamlessly.
The villages dated back so many centuries that they still considered themselves ruled by a monarchy rather than acknowledging the government, although every man and woman served in the military for the experience of it. Vasilisa came from that monarchy and her brother, Andros, was the current ruler.
Vasilisa had been extremely uneasy lately. Restless and moody. Edgy. She always maintained her serene composure. She was too skilled in battle technique to give anything away. That cool exterior didn’t mean she wasn’t burning hot with passion deep down. She needed an outlet. She knew she desperately needed out from under her brothers’ watchful eyes. They’d felt it too—that unrest in their land which was why they were even more vigilant watching over her.
She was particularly terrified of what that edgy, moody, wanting to snap at everyone just for looking at her wrong feeling actually meant. She had no power over the things that were changing. Things that could directly affect her. She needed a friend to talk things over with. Someone she trusted who would never betray her confidence. That fire inside her was growing, right along with the terrible dread she tried not to exam too closely.
She moved with quick, silent strides down the wide steps onto the snow-covered path that led to a trail into the forest of larch trees. The path was well-used by members of her family to travel to the small inn where locals gathered in the evening to drink and gossip. A roaring fire in the great stone fireplace kept everyone warm in spite of the bitter cold. The more bodies packed inside, the warmer the interior.
The inn was owned and operated by Kendal and Odessa Balakin. The older couple had been around for as long as Vasilisa could remember. They were unfailingly friendly and welcoming to everyone in spite of the fact that the village people could be a superstitious lot and often were suspicious of strangers.
She glanced at the moon again as she wound in and out among the thick trees. A few brave mice scampered across the vegetation lying on the snow, hurrying to grab the seeds and burrow deep under the branches that had fallen on top of the snowpack so they wouldn’t be spotted by the owls on the lookout for food. Snowy owls, Great Gray owls and Pygmy owls occupied the larch forest and hunted relentlessly.
A snow-white mountain hare suddenly emerged from behind a tree trunk and stopped moving abruptly, rising up on its hind legs. She froze as well. The two simply stared at one another. Her heart began to accelerate, the blood circulating with a hot rush through her body. The little rabbit thumped its back foot on the thick bank of snow, a warning to the rest of its extended family they weren’t alone in their pursuit of food.
“Be at peace, little sister. I’m not hunting.” She spoke softly to the animal.
The rabbit cocked its black-tipped ears at her, turning them this way and that as if it could understand everything she said. She spoke in her native language and who knew? Maybe the rabbit was that intelligent. It had survived long enough to grow to adulthood. Many didn’t. She ignored it and continued along the narrow trail winding through the larch forest to the inn. It was a good distance from her home, but she welcomed the walk. Sometimes she felt as if she was a prisoner in her own home. She had needed to get out and the night air was exactly the perfect antidote.
She wore a long coat of white fur that fell to her ankles and a matching white fur cap that covered her ears to keep the cold from sneaking into her bones through her scalp. Her gloves were white as well. If she needed to disappear into the snow, she blended easily, even with her choice of lipstick and her blazing blue eyes. Her coat, although slim and looking as if it hugged her figure, hid a multitude of weapons. She wasn’t a woman who trusted. She had been raised to defend herself. Her lessons had taken place early and she had been expected to take them very seriously. It had been drilled into her by her mother that there was no room for mistakes—everything was about life or death.
Strangely, her brothers weren’t ever invited to those daily training sessions and she was cautioned never to discuss anything her mother taught her with them or her father. As she grew up she realized why—her mother had passed a legacy to her—one that had been handed down mother to daughter. She felt the weight of that legacy every waking moment. Lately, she knew, the weight had increased, pressing down on her because something had changed.
There had been a dangerous shift, a seismic tremor that had opened a fissure deep within the earth somewhere. She was certain of it. She felt the dread of it, the constant danger surrounding her beloved people. Little things were suddenly going wrong. Small animals had been found savagely eviscerated miles from the village, and that had been enough to alarm some of the hunters who had gone out to track the culprit. There were tracks, of course, very small, ones they weren’t familiar with, as if an unknown animal had come up from below and then burrowed back into the ground after killing several rabbits and squirrels.
Vasilisa had been unsettled ever since. Nightmares affected her ability to sleep. She rarely slept at night, preferring to rest during the day, but even with the blackout curtains at her windows and her music on, nothing seemed to help. She had an ominous feeling that continued to get worse as the days went by.
The inn was completely lit up as it often was, with a cheery bright radiance that threw a glow across the snow through the uncovered glass of the big windows in the lobby of the bar. Travelers seeking a room could check in, but mostly the inn was full of locals who came for their vodka, tea, kvass, and warm black bread.
She pushed the door open and the swinging wolf-head bells on a rope announced her arrival. She stomped on the outside snow mat, trying to remove the worst of the mess on her boots while she caught her breath. It was difficult to adjust to the heat after the brisk cold of the night.
She had been inside the Wolf’s Retreat hundreds of times yet this time it felt different. This time it was different. Her breath caught in her throat and she glanced toward the stairs leading to the rooms Kendal and Odessa rented out. Her hand crept protectively to her throat. Already she could feel the invasion. A scent reached her first. Something wild. Completely feral. Not wolf. She was used to wolf. Something even wilder. Further back than wolf. They had tigers in Siberia. No, she shook her head. Not tigers. Something even more dangerous.
She tried not to inhale but she couldn’t help herself. It wouldn’t have mattered. She was being surrounded. Enfolded. More scents invaded but this time through her pores. Branding her. Cedar. Birch. Spring water. If she crossed the threshold, she felt as if her world would instantly be changed and there would be no going back.
She wanted to turn and run into the night, but she knew if she did, whatever had settled around her, slowly invading through her pores, going deep—bone deep—she would take with her. She forced herself forward and held onto her smile because she was no coward—and she had been waiting all her life for this night. It was just that dreaming of it and the reality of it were two very different things.
“Vasilisa,” Odessa broke into a huge smile. “I should have known you would be in tonight. It’s that kind of night. Full of surprises.”
Vasilisa ignored the men who were seated around the curved bar and had turned to face her as she walked all the way into the room, pulling off the white gloves covering her hands. She pushed the gloves into the deep pockets of her coat. “Surprises? You’ve had surprises tonight, Odessa? I didn’t think there were many surprises in our village anymore.”
Odessa put tea service on a tray. “Ordinarily, I would agree with you. Skyler and Dimitri have been coming around. You know Dimitri. He’s been around for years. He avoids people, much preferring wolves. Now he’s got himself a wife. She’s young too. I think Skyler’s too young for him, but who am I to say? She does all those wolf experiments with him, or whatever it is he does.”
“He set up a wolf sanctuary to make certain the wolves have a safe place to go as the forest shrinks in other places,” Vasilisa explained patiently as she’d done so many times before.
Dimitri Tirunul was a prime example of how mistrustful the locals were. Dimitri had been coming there for years. He’d helped them countless times, but he was still regarded as an outsider and he wasn’t trusted in the least. He had a residence there. Vasilisa had met him often in the forest. He had skills that riveled her brothers’ and that was saying something—saying a lot because few could match her brothers’ skills. Of course, she knew Dimitri was married.
“That’s the surprising news? That Dimitri has a young wife?”
“No,” Odessa laughed merrily as she added to the tray. “We had strangers come to the inn. That’s the surprise. Four men. They looked very dangerous.” She lowered her voice, although the room was packed and the strangers were either out of the inn or upstairs. The noise level was loud. “They came asking for Dimitri.”
A chill went down Vasilisa’s spine. Dimitri may not have been born in their village but as far as she was concerned, he was one of them. He protected the wolves, the same as they did. “What did you tell them?”
“I certainly didn’t know where Dimitri would be. He goes wherever he wants.” Odessa gestured toward the forest. “It’s a big place out there and he runs with the wolves. Let them try and find him.”
Vasilisa tried not to openly wince. Even that last little bit might have been too much to say. She had to warn Dimitri. Often Dimitri and Skyler would stay out in the woods for weeks on end and they wouldn’t see him or his new wife.
There had been a terrible incident that had nearly taken Dimitri’s life. Rumors swirled about it, and she knew the truth was far worse even than the locals realized. He had been a very handsome man. He had scars now, although they were faded to thin white lines dissecting his face, neck, arms and hands. She hadn’t asked him about the scars or rumors—she hadn’t wanted to bring up anything unpleasant, but her family had been briefed on the entire disturbing and horrifying event. It had made all of their people look bad.
Dimitri had always stayed away from others, but since that incident, even after marrying, he avoided everyone even more. She couldn’t blame him. She was well aware that the two people he had saved from certain death had betrayed him and then had him tortured and hung up in front of others to die a slow, painful death. Young Skyler had saved his life.
Vasilisa didn’t understand people. Maybe she never would. She didn’t think she wanted to go out into the busy world where so many of the younger crowd wanted to go. She wouldn’t fit in. Even at twenty-eight she retained the old-fashioned values and ethics her mother had instilled in her.
“I think I’m a dinosaur, Odessa. I don’t fit in anywhere.”
“You fit in just fine right here, Vasilisa,” Odessa assured. She leaned over the counter, looked both ways again and nearly whispered. “There’s more. I was waiting for you to come in. It made me happy that your friend was here to see you. You always seem to show up when we need you the most.”
Vasilisa frowned. She could tell that Odessa wasn’t being dramatic. She was concerned. “What is it?”
“Government men. They’re pretending not to be, but they are. I can smell them a mile away. I’ve seen too many of their kind. They’re here to cause trouble for us.”
Vasilisa’s stomach instantly knotted. That was the worst possible news. The one thing the villagers tried to do was stay under the radar. Most of the time the government ignored their existence. They were up too high in the wilderness. They lived off land no one else really wanted. They kept to themselves and didn’t cause trouble.
“Did they ask for Dimitri too?” She hoped not, but it wouldn’t surprise her. Dimitri was a man who went his own way. He had to work with the government to get permits for the protection of his wolves and the lands he wanted to safeguard.
“No, but they were asking about your brothers, Andros in particular.”
Vasilisa’s breath caught in her throat. “Thank you, Odessa.” She didn’t have to ask if Odessa or Kendal had spoken to the government agents about her brothers. They never would, nor would any of the villagers. No one would ever betray the monarchy.
Odessa pulled back a little and put a smile on her face. “There now, I don’t want to ruin your time with your friend. She doesn’t come often to see you. She’s waiting in her usual spot in the corner. You know how difficult it is to see her when she doesn’t want to be seen. Have a lovely time with her, Vasilisa.”
Vasilisa took the tray and moved smoothly through the crowd, mostly because the men and women parted for her the moment she got close to them. She had known Sorina as long as she could remember and she’d always looked the same. Tall, gorgeous, impossible to tell her age with her very thick ice-blonde hair and generous mouth that always seemed ready to smile. Sorina stood up and took the tray immediately.
“There you are. I thought I might have to come looking for you. You get lost looking at stars, Vasi.”
Just Sorina’s voice lifted Vasilisa up, making her feel lighter. She instantly wished she’d asked her to come visit earlier. Some of the dread that was overshadowing her mind dissipated just listening to the musical quality of her voice, allowing Vasilisa to think more clearly.
“What is it, Vasi?” Sorina asked. “I can feel your concern.”
Vasilisa shook her head. “I want you to reach out and see if you can find something on your own without me saying anything. I don’t want to color whatever you might get.” She poured the tea into the small glasses, added milk and set the glasses in the gold filigree containers.
“I have already been uneasy and just coming here tonight has confirmed that something is wrong.” Sorina studied her face with her dark, knowing eyes. The combination of blonde hair and her dark eyes was striking.
“Odessa told me that there are strangers at the inn. Four men came looking for Dimitri.” Vasilisa couldn’t keep the worry from her voice.
Sorina smiled. “There is never a need to worry about Dimitri, Vasi. On his own, he could take on any enemy or number of enemies. He is back to full strength after the treachery of his enemies. He has his wife who is a force on her own. With them right now are Razvan and Ivory. They are training young Skyler and Dimitri to hunt vampires with wolves. Ivory and Razvan are legendary, known in our world as two of the most famous vampire hunters alive.”
Vasilisa couldn’t help the little spurt of excitement when she heard the names. “I certainly know those names. They’re here? Close by?”
Sorina took a sip of her tea. “They could be anywhere. The point is, Dimitri is safe. He is surrounded by an enormous pack of wolves who accept him as one of their own. He has Ivory and Razvan with him and his wife, Skyler. I think he is safe from any intruders who might wish him harm.”
The relief she felt was tremendous. There were so many other things she had to worry about that she didn’t want to think she might have to rush out and check up on Dimitri’s well-being. She would look for him eventually, but she was going to put him on the back burner until she discovered everything else that was going on—and she feared it was quite a bit.
“The government men were asking about my brothers. Specifically, Andros. All three of my brothers served their time in the military and there are records. They are known to the government. They served with honor. It scares me that these men are here asking questions. Especially now.”
“Why especially now, Vasi?” Sorina asked.
“Did you feel the tear in the earth? The tremor? There was a large seismic event a few days ago. It woke me up, nearly threw me right out of bed. The moment I went outside I felt the tear. I heard wails of the dead. There is a vent open somewhere and I have to find it, Sorina. I have to find a way to close it.”
“You aren’t telling me everything. I hear something in your voice. A reluctance to speak of it aloud.”
Vasilisa sighed. She fiddled with the gold filigree on the small glass holder. “There is a prophecy in my family handed down from mother to daughter, a very sacred one we never share with any other. Not a male sibling. Not our father. No one else.” She looked up at Sorina. “Our mother alone speaks of the prophecy. Our father is not privy to it. My mother told me that a man would come to claim me, that he was my true mate. If he doesn’t appear to claim me within a certain time period, and I’ll know when, then I must marry a good man and pass the soul I guard to my daughter.”
Sorina continued to look at her for a time in silence. She didn’t object or say Vasilisa was crazy; she simply asked her a straight question. “Are you guarding a man’s soul?”
“Yes. I feel him sometimes. He’s close now. Very close. When I walked into the inn, I knew he was extremely near and that he’d been here.”
Sorina let out her breath and reached across the table to touch Vasilisa’s hand briefly. “You must be frightened.”
“Very. Why aren’t you telling me I’m insane?”
“Because I hold the other half of a man’s soul as well,” Sorina explained very calmly. “It’s the way of my people. I know it isn’t the way of yours. You know I’m Carpathian and if your people knew who and what I am, they wouldn’t accept me here. They’re very superstitious. Still, I’ve been coming here for a very long time and we’ve been friends since you were a young child. I grew up with you. I’m not quite certain how you happen to carry a soul as well, but if you were told by your mother that you do, know it is very real, Vasilisa.”
“My mother said it is my duty to guard his soul against any and all who might seek to take or destroy it. That if it is taken from me, he could destroy the world. He might be that powerful. Is that true as well?”
Sorina nodded slowly. “You’re aware of vampires. You’ve seen the destruction they cause. You know what we guard together. That’s even worse. Whoever you’re lifemates with could be an ancient who has been in this world far too long. He might not be able to be contained by other hunters should you give up his soul. It would be a disaster. You have a huge responsibility.”
Vasilisa nodded, running her finger along the rim of her glass. “My mother drilled that into me.”
“Have you consulted the cards?”
“I live by the cards. You gave your blood to keep the cards alive and allow me to guard the gate, Sorina. I am very careful of the cards. I consult them daily. This morning I drew the chariot. It was upright, staring right at me. It’s a card of determination. Inner strength. It also can signal change and, in this case, I think it’s screaming change.”
Sorina smiled at her. “The attributes sound like you. You’re always determined and you have more inner strength than anyone I know.”
“When I dealt the cards this morning, I realized the hand wasn’t for me alone. The chariot was for him as well. He has determination and inner strength. His willpower is strong. He is so strong I felt him as I was laying out the cards.” She pressed her hand over her heart where the goddess card was protected at all times. “Sorina, I know he was aware of me. He felt me. We somehow connected. He’s that strong. I didn’t understand how he could have connected with me when I wasn’t looking for him or expecting to find him.”
Sorina’s white teeth bit down on her lip. Vasilisa noticed that two of her teeth appeared just a little sharper than the others. Instead of detracting from her looks, the teeth only enhanced her beauty.
“Why do you look so worried? You need for this man of yours to be strong. You’re in an untenable position, Vasi. You have to protect everyone and suddenly you’ve become vulnerable through no fault of your own. You are going to need help. His help. All along you must have known this. Your mother must have told you when she said he was coming.”
Vasilisa pushed back her dark hair. “I had my girlish fantasies,” she admitted. “It isn’t the same thing as facing a real, living man in the flesh. For all I know, he could be a raving madman bent on ruling me. You know that’s not going to happen.”
Sorina smiled. “I know he might try. He’s Carpathian. The males were born with an attitude. They speak the ritual binding words and you’re stuck together. That gives them an advantage.”
“Carpathian?” Vasilisa all but spit the word at her. “He can’t be Carpathian. Do you know how much trouble I have as it is hiding what I am from my brothers? From my people? Can you imagine what it would be like trying to hide it from him? I don’t think you can have secrets from Carpathians.”
Sorina shook her head. “You’re right about that. For one thing, he wouldn’t stand for it and another, he’ll be able to read your mind.”
“Just great. I mean, that’s just great.” Vasilisa slumped back in her chair. “As if I didn’t have enough problems. I’m going to avoid him.”
“What does the chariot mean as far as the relationship goes?” Sorina sounded curious.
Vasilisa looked at her suspiciously. “Did you just read my mind?”
“No, of course not. I promised you I wouldn’t unless you gave me your permission. It’s just that if you’re going to believe in the cards, you have to actually believe everything, not just pick and choose what you want to take from them.”
Vasilisa waved her hands in the air. “It doesn’t always work like that, Sorina. Card readings are never absolute.”
“Most cards readings aren’t, because they aren’t your card readings,” Sorina corrected. “You don’t want to tell me.”
Vasilisa sighed. She didn’t want to tell her, but she knew she was going to so she might as well get it over with. “Fine. It’s time to move forward with confidence in my relationship. But that could mean our relationship. My relationship with my brothers.”
Sorina’s laughter was bright. Joyous. Musical. The sound, although soft, dispersed the blanket of negativity in the room, replacing it with cheer. The flames in the fireplace responded, leaping and springing higher, throwing orange and red figures dancing on the walls. The competing conversations vying for air space grew animated and happy, voices soaring with enthusiasm.
“You don’t lie very well,” Sorina told her.
Vasilisa flung herself backward in her chair again. “I know. I’ve never been able to tell a decent lie. I used to try, but I always got caught. Fine. I’ve got this impression of a massive man. Not in terms of his body but his brain. One who is very intelligent, quick-witted and stubborn as hell. He goes his own way.” She frowned, concentrating. “I just got a small glimpse of him, but his mind is a mine-field.”
“What does that mean?”
“All joking aside, he’s scary, Sorina, and very dangerous. I just caught a glimpse of what he’s capable of.”
“When a Carpathian male is born, his soul is split. He retains the darkness and the light is given to the female to protect. It is his responsibility to find her. He loses his ability to see in color and feel emotion when he is around two hundred years old. Sometimes it happens much earlier to him, depending on the circumstances. He hunts the vampire and searches for his lifemate. There is only one woman who can restore color and emotions back into his life. If he lives for centuries, can you imagine how difficult it would be killing old friends or even those he grew up with in his family? Seeing people from his village die? It wouldn’t matter if he had emotions or not, it would still register somewhere.”
Truthfully, Vasilisa couldn’t imagine such an existence. “Why in the world would fate complicate his life even more by matching him with someone like me? I’m the absolute worst of the worst as far as matches go.”
Sorina shrugged. “You may think that...”
“I know it. He’ll be under such scrutiny. The moment I show any interest at all in a male, my brothers are going to study him with a magnifying glass. You know they will. Then it will be the villagers. Not one or two, all of them. And we don’t know if we’re compatible. I’ve become someone different. He might not like that.”
A headache came out of nowhere. She pressed her hand to her pounding temple. It came on fast, a hard punch over her left eye that felt as if someone had shoved a hot poker into her skin, right through her bone. It was excruciatingly painful, so much so that she clapped her palm over her the offending spot with a soft cry.
“What is it?” Sorina asked.
“Pain,” she managed to gasp out. “It’s bad.”
Sorina reached out and gently removed Vasilisa’s hand to place her two fingers over the pounding spot. She closed her eyes and inhaled sharply. “Vasi, let me in for just a moment.”
Vasilisa hesitated a moment and then opened her mind to her friend. The pain was so bad she knew she needed help. She didn’t want to cause a scene in front of everyone. At the moment they were in the secluded corner where no one was paying attention to them but if she began vomiting, everyone would look.
“This isn’t your pain,” Sorina said. “This is his. You have to disconnect from him. You’re feeling a kind of echo of what he’s enduring.”
“His pain? What’s happening to him? What do you mean, echo?” If she was feeling just a portion of what he was feeling, he needed help. She had to find him. She kept one hand pressed tightly over her eye.
“He’s in some kind of battle. Sit down, Vasi. That’s what these men do. They go after vampires. Evidently, he’s found one.”
“You don’t know that. He’s in wolf country. He could have stumbled onto a large pack.” She sank back into the chair she hadn’t realized she’d vacated.
“It didn’t feel like wolves to me.”
“Or worse. When the earthquake occurred, it opened a vent to the underground. I think something evil is escaping,” Vasilisa continued. “He could need assistance. That’s what I’m trained for. Even if he’s an expert in vampire fighting, it isn’t the same thing as battling demons from the underworld.”
She rubbed at her head and started to make a deliberate attempt to disconnect from the man who she was supposedly destined to be with for the rest of her life. She stopped. She would need a way to find him. Perhaps distancing herself just a little bit would ease the ache in her head.
The door opened, allowing a blast of cold air in. The flames rolling over the logs in the fireplace flared into bright hot tongues of fury. A sudden hush fell over the bar as the newcomers came inside, stomping the snow from their boots and removing their scarves, gloves and hats.
Sorina leaned across the table. “I can’t take the chance of being seen. They’re certain to come over to talk to you.”
Vasilisa knew it was true. She wasn’t going to get out of the inn without a conversation with at least one of the government’s agents. They were looking for members of the monarchy and she was sitting right there.
“Thanks for coming, Sorina.”
“I’ll try to help you when you need it,” Sorina promised. The lights in the inn flickered and dimmed—just for a moment. Even the flames in the fireplace settled low. Sorina simply vanished. As she did, the tea service in front of Vasilisa was for one, not two. There was no evidence that she had been sitting with anyone enjoying an evening out.
Vasilisa had gotten used to Sorina’s comings and goings over the years. When she didn’t want to be seen, she simply faded away. The Carpathian race had their secrets, just as she had her own. She sat back in her seat, rubbing at the painful spot in her head, breathing deep and doing her best to touch the man she was connected to through her mind.
The bridge between them was extremely strong. She had no idea what he looked like or where he was. She knew nothing about him—only that he was hers. She had to work at clearing her mind, something she usually could do very quickly, but the throbbing pain in her head was very distracting—and worrisome. She also kept an eye on the government agents. So far, they hadn’t spotted her in the corner of the room. Some of the villagers had deliberately stood in front of her little table, further obscuring her from the view of the outsiders.
She had to hurry and take advantage of the opportunity they were giving her. What could she read about him personally? And what could she see of his surroundings? She knew her land intimately. She’d walked every inch of it. Mapped it out in her head and she never got turned around or lost. That was another gift from her heritage.
He was a vicious fighter. A brilliant strategist. She was too. They would mesh well there. She liked that they had that in common. She needed to hold onto to anything they might have in common. As a rule, he didn’t mingle with human society, avoiding people other than to feed. He was highly intelligent and well-versed in magic, capable of outthinking or outsmarting most master vampires, but often he preferred to engage in battle with them. Why?
His brilliant mind alone should have prevented him from making the decision to fight with an enemy when he didn’t have to. What was he up to? Why would he put himself in harm’s way if he didn’t have to? She tried to get an impression of where he was.
“Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva?” One of the four strangers stood at the side of her table, staring down at her with hawk-like eyes. “I have a few questions to ask you. Do you mind if I join you?”
She didn’t care for the way he was looking at her. There was just a little too much male interest. She forced a smile. “I was just leaving, but perhaps I could stay for a few minutes. Not long though.” She glanced toward the bar where she knew Odessa would be waiting for any kind of signal from her. She indicated the tea set with a small lift of her chin. Odessa hurried through the crowd to retrieve the tea server, never saying a word that part of it was missing.
Around the table several of the villagers crowded close, cutting off the stranger from his companions as he slipped into the seat Sorina had vacated.
“My name is Nikolay Sokolov and I served with your brother Andros. We were good friends for many years and then lost touch. He told me he lived in a remote village, but honestly, I never considered it was this remote.” He gave her a quick grin that was mostly teeth. The smile didn’t reach his eyes. He waited several heartbeats, but she didn’t reply. What was there to say?
So far, she couldn’t detect a lie. Nikolay Sokolov had probably served with Andros in the military. They certainly could have been friends. Once Andros was home, it was more than likely they had lost touch.
“There’s a rumor that Andros is royalty, that these people follow his rule rather than the governments.”
It wasn’t a question, but Vasilisa first stared at him with shock on her face and then burst out laughing. “Surely a man as intelligent as you appear to be hasn’t fallen for that persistent rumor. Our home, which is on the old palatial grounds, keeps those rumors alive. I must tell my brothers we should burn down the existing house, rather than modernize it. Renovations are very costly so we can only do a little at a time. How utterly ridiculous that you would think they would turn against the government when my brothers served our country with distinction and were honored to do so.” She kept her tone light, but with just a touch of contempt. She’d perfected that touch over the years.
Nikolay’s eyes were sharp. Shrewd. A chill slid down her spine. This man was an adversary worth watching. He was most likely an interrogator. The worst of it was, she could smell treachery. The stink of betrayal. Someone in her village was talking to this man. That meant she would have to ferret out who and why they were being betrayed.
She didn’t like the way his gaze moved over her face and down her body. “I’ll let Andros know you’re staying here at the inn and would like to visit with him.”
“Forgive me for asking a personal question, but I don’t see any evidence that you have been claimed by a man as of yet.”
Her stomach clenched hard. They were on very dangerous ground. She forced a pleasant smile. “I do have a man,” she said simply. “I really must go.” Vasilisa stood up decisively, dragging on her gloves and fitting her hat on her head. She pulled her white fur coat more closely around her, making certain the buttons were in place.
“You have no escort?”
“This is my home, Nicolay Sokolov.” She inclined her head to show respect to him. He was older, the same age as her brother. “I have no need of an escort, but thank you for your concern.” She turned to leave.
“You truly are a beautiful woman.” The compliment slipped out almost as if he couldn’t help himself and hadn’t been expecting it. “Your brother has hidden you away from the world.”
She smiled at him. “My brother knows I do not do well away from the forest and mountains. I can’t breathe in the cities. Here, he protects me.”
“And this man of yours?”
“He is the same.” She hoped she spoke the truth. She had no way of knowing whether she did or not. She knew nothing of the man whose soul had been handed down from mother to daughter and guarded so carefully for centuries. Only that he was close now and that he was in trouble.
She lifted a hand, gave Nicolay Kovolov an enigmatic smile and moved into the crowd. They parted to allow her through so she could get to the door. Behind her, they closed ranks, making it nearly impossible for Nicolay or his three companions to follow her quickly. By the time they made it outside, she was gone. They couldn’t even find her tracks in the snow.