“Do you have to meet all of the blood drinkers in the city?” I asked, shuddering.
“No, but they generally seek me out.”
I remembered a pale young hussar and his wife who had politely approached Maman at the opera several weeks earlier. How many blood drinkers remained in St. Petersburg? How many of them would remain loyal to Militza?
“I don’t see any of the upyri, of course,” Maman was saying. “They generally aren’t the fashionable sort.” The upyri were the feral blood drinkers who lived far from the city, in the ancient forests. It was rare to see one of their kind anywhere near St. Petersburg.
Maman’s calm way of handling her situation made me want to giggle—and beat my head against the wall. She had no notion of how dangerous her position was and how many dangerous creatures in the city now wanted that position. Especially Grand Duchess Militza.
“Now, the Montenegrins aren’t so bad,” Maman continued, fussing with the flowers in the vase on the table, “as far as blood drinkers go. The crown prince is a perfectly well-mannered gentleman. Oh, I do wish you hadn’t broken off the engagement.”
“M-Maman!” I sputtered. “He and his sisters kidnapped me! They drugged me and forced me to—” I stopped. I still couldn’t bring myself to tell her what I’d done in Cetinje.
My heart was pounding and my palms were sweating, partly from being so close to Maman and partly from coming dangerously close to revealing my secrets. It might have devastated her to know the truth years ago. What would she say now if she knew her daughter could raise the dead? Would she condemn me? I didn’t believe she had that right anymore. She’d drunk the blood of monsters. And become one herself.
And yet I still loved her. She was the same kind and generous, if not slightly frivolous, woman I’d grown up with.
“What has Miechen said?” I asked, trying to change the subject. “About you? As the striga?”
Maman sighed. “Oh, she thinks I should make the vampires swear loyalty to her as the head of the Dark Court. Which means I would have to swear my loyalty to her as well.”
I looked at her in surprise. “What about the empress?”
Maman shrugged. “Of course, she believes all the blood drinkers should be loyal only to her.”
“Oh, Maman,” I said. “What will you do?”
“Ignore all of them. Except Militza. I’ll have to make sure she doesn’t anger the empress or Miechen. Have you seen Sasha? He’s been missing since Militza arrived.”
I suppressed a sigh. Maman’s undead cat did not like anyone but had a special hatred for blood drinkers. He still seemed to be devoted to my mother, however. Perhaps because he no longer had a cold light for the striga to affect. “He’ll reappear before long,” I assured my mother. “Maman,” I continued tentatively. It was time to have a serious talk with her. The one I’d been dreading since I was little. “Have there been other people in our family who have had … special gifts? Are there any other vampires in our family?”
“Of course not!” she exclaimed.
“Dariya told me once that Grandmaman married into the Dark Court. Did Grandfather Max have fae blood, then?”
“Only a small bit, my dear. His grandmother was Empress Josephine, but I think he got his fae blood from his Bavarian ancestors.”
I knew that the poor mad king of Bavaria, Ludwig the Second, was Maman’s second cousin. And somehow in the tangled family tree, I was very distantly related to the Bavarian princesses Augusta and Erzsebet. The letters Augusta had written to me told me how excited they were to be in their final years at Smolni. “And there are no other unusual creatures in your family, Maman? No shape-shifters or magicians?”
Surely I couldn’t be the only necromancer in Russia. My cousin Dariya had hinted that her own mother had had the dark gift, but no one knew much about the poor woman. She had died giving birth to Dariya, and Dariya’s father would not speak of her, so my cousin and I could only speculate.
Maman crossed the room and sat next to me, taking both of my hands in hers. “Dearest Katiya. What you’ve been born with is extremely special. I know you don’t like to speak of it, but I promise you, I’ve known since you were little. And I’ve been extremely proud of you for helping the tsar. You would make your grandmother and great-grandfather exceedingly proud.”
The heat in the room became suffocating. My head was swimming. “You’ve known?” Tears threatened to leak out. “All these years, you’ve known?”
She pulled me close to her, the scent of her French perfume nearly overwhelming me. “I knew when you brought Sasha back for me, dearest. I thought it was the sweetest thing. I never told your father what I suspected.”
“He knows,” I said, choking on a sob. “He’s known that I’m a necromancer since Militza’s wedding last summer at Peterhof.” After a moment I added, “Petya knows as well.”
Maman pulled back from me in surprise. “Well, then I suppose we have no more secrets in this family, do we?” She smiled. “And if the Dark and Light Court queens ever try to coerce you into their schemes, I promise I won’t let that happen.”
I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. How could my mother protect me from the two most powerful faeries in St. Petersburg? They both feared her power, I was sure, but didn’t that make her more vulnerable?
“There you are, you naughty animal!” Maman exclaimed as she picked up the raggedy cat that had slunk back into the parlor. Sasha hissed at me. He would never forgive me for what I’d done to him. And I couldn’t blame the poor creature.
I sighed and stood up. I had to complete my anatomy assignment for Dr. Badmaev. Kissing Maman on the cheek, I begged her pardon and escaped from both her and the undead cat.
Anya was in my bedroom, putting away clothes. “Duchess, did you hear about my brother and his wife? They are expecting their first child soon!”
“How wonderful for them!” Anya’s brother was one of the doctors at Papa’s hospital and was a leading researcher for the Oldenburg Institute of Experimental Medicine. “Give them my love, Anya.”
With a smile and a curtsy, she was gone, and I pulled my notebooks out from under my bed. I needed to compare my lung tissue drawings from earlier with illustrations from the medical textbook I’d taken from Papa’s library. A Necromancer’s Companion was under my bed as well. With a shudder, I prayed I would not have to use that book anytime soon.
The next day I was seated at a small table in a large room at Anichkov Palace, eating a delightful niçoise salad at a charity luncheon with Princess Alix of Hesse and Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna. Princess Alix was growling. It was unnerving to those of us who could hear her. Fortunately, only the grand duchess and I were close enough.
“Who does she think she is?” Alix asked, stabbing her lettuce with a sterling silver repoussé fork that was probably older than the palace itself. The Sèvres china service had been a present to my great-great-great-grandmother, Katerina the Great, from Marie Antoinette. “She is nothing but a skinny dancer. And a witch.”
Xenia patted her hand in sympathy. “She has dazzled him with her glamour. It’s nothing more.”
Alix was upset because upon attending the ballet The Pharaoh’s Daughter with her sister, she had seen the tsarevitch talking with one of the dancers behind stage. Mathilde Kschessinskaya was a beautiful dark faerie who was bewitching all of St. Petersburg with her seductive dancing. Alix had been dismayed to see the way her Nicholas had been completely enchanted. The tsarevitch had not even seemed to notice Alix when she stepped out of her sister’s theater box at the Mariinsky Theater. “The heathen,” Alix growled again.
I glanced around nervously, hoping none of the empress’s other guests took notice. Most people believed the Hessian princess to be soft-spoken and modest, but I knew she could be quite feral if she believed there was evil or injustice for her to battle. Even though she knew all of my dark secrets and had seen one of my undead creatures, she still counted me as a friend. She had decided that my soul was good. I was terrified of ever disappointing her.
Xenia shook her head, her dark ringlets swinging as she dug into her pheasant croquette. “Do not fear, Alix. Nicky does not feel anything for Mathilde. She is a pretty diversion, nothing more.”
“And would you feel the same way if your Sandro was the one making eyes at her?” Alix asked.
Xenia frowned at both of us. “What can you do? She is protected by the Dark Court, is she not?”
“Do you truly think Miechen approves of her?” I asked. “Her husband has been seen smiling at her a little too fondly as well.”
Xenia giggled. “If Uncle Vladimir acts too friendly with the girl, Aunt Miechen will see that poor Mathilde is sent to a ballet troupe in Siberia.”
Alix looked thoughtful. “Could the grand duchess actually do that?” she asked. “Or the empress?”
“Mother would not deign to interfere,” Xenia said. “The ballerina is a creature of the Dark Court. She is Aunt Miechen’s responsibility.”
As I ate my pheasant, which was unfortunately cold and dry, I was secretly glad it was not George who had caught the wicked ballerina’s attention. But what would I do if I had a rival for his affections? Especially if it was someone the empress approved of? Would I have the grace and courage to stand aside and wish him every happiness he deserved? The pheasant stuck in my throat.
“Are you all right, Katiya?” Xenia asked as I tried to choke quietly behind my napkin. She waved to the liveried servant behind us. “She needs more wine.”