Revenant Eve by Sherwood Smith


  “He said nothing at all, Countess,” Aurélie said.

  “Donnerwetter! So simple a thing.” And as Aurélie waited politely, Irena fidgeted with her painted fan, then said, “It seems that the queen herself negotiated your marriage with Jaska. Or, you negotiated it with her, and if so, I commend your skills.”

  Aurélie made another slight curtsey.

  “I must beg your forgiveness, I see. I do. I misunderstood what was before my eyes. You arrived with the barest vestige of a respectable entourage, but I didn’t know you were ahead of French pursuit. Jaska might’ve told me,” Irena said darkly. “But he was ever such. The last time I saw him, it was in this very ballroom. I was turned sixteen, and my father wished us to cement the betrothal. Jaska had only to speak the words, and what did he do? He bored on the entire night about the differences between the uhlans and the winged hussars, their tactics upon the battlefield, and how such was useless in our mountains.”

  Aurélie put her hand to her mouth, but it was too late.

  “You laugh,” Irena stated, her brows raised. “Do you find that interesting? Is that how you attached him, with such talk?”

  “No, not at all,” Aurélie said, valiantly trying to subdue her mirth. It betrayed her only in an added huskiness to her voice.

  Irena flung a curl back from her neck in a grand gesture. “It is an impossible subject. He never talked of anything but war when he was a boy, either that or he nattered with Marcus von Mecklundburg and Shmuel Ridotski about philosophy, every bit as boring. Very well! It’s done, and I profess to be well rid of him. But there’s so much talk of how Domnu Zusya, the angel of the battlefield and of the violin, refuses a barony. Why should not the Chevalier Hippolyte de Vauban be so fortunate? That is what I ask. It is a simple enough thing.”

  Aurélie blinked in surprise at the introduction of Hippolyte from out of the blue.

  Irena was scowling at her hands, which gave Aurélie a second or two to recover. She said, “Am I to understand, Countess, that you have formed an attachment to the Chevalier? So gallant a man,” she added, and Irena bridled with such pleasure, that the question was answered before she spoke a word.

  “You don’t know, then?” Irena seemed amazed, as if everyone in the country was aware of her love life. Maybe they were. “My father expects my brother or me to marry one of the Dsarets. At least, it cannot be both. There is a law against brothers and sisters of the same family marrying here, though I don’t know what obtains in France.”

  “So…your brother is to marry Princess Margit?”

  “That’s what Father wants. He and the king spoke of it when Father served as one of the sponsors at Jaska’s baptism. But neither Mikhail nor Margit want to marry the other, and so there was also the possibility of Jaska coming back, in which case Father regarded me as honor bound.”

  “Does your brother have someone in mind?”

  Irena scowled again. “Of course, and she’s impossible. A beautiful face, and no birth. But he is the heir! He can do what he wants. If Father cuts him off for a year, at the birth of a grandson he welcomes him back. But I? I’m told I must marry at least a baron, if I fail to become a princess.”

  “And if the Chevalier became a baron?”

  “That’s what Mikhail was to ask you. A favor for a bride, so simple a thing for Jaska to agree to! But I see he failed me. Tchah!”

  Aurélie said, “I promise I’ll speak to Jaska about Chevalier de Vauban. He’s a very…” I could see her hesitating at the word handsome because that, de Vauban was emphatically not, even if he’d had both eyes and no hideous scar on one side of his face. “…charming gallant.”

  The two parted with mutual curtseys, then Aurélie made her way through the watchers. She observed the observers, coming back most often to the princess.

  “Who is Margit watching, Kim?” Aurélie breathed.

  Floating as I did somewhat above Aurélie’s shoulder, I could see Margit on the other side of the ballroom. She had her lasers locked on…

  “Benedek Ysvorod,” I said.

  Aurélie betrayed astonishment, then tipped her head inquiringly. “Is he watching her back?”

  “No. Oh, yes. Yes, he is. But he’s at the other end of the ballroom. Is there some political trouble there?”

  Aurélie’s expression was thoughtful as she made her way around the ballroom, pausing to nod or curtsey when others saluted her.

  Jaska was in conversation with a couple of graybeards and a gloriously dressed guy in purple brocade—all three wore gold chains on their shoulders. Jaska broke off what he was saying then excused himself right and left.

  He leaned heavily on his cane. After his, “How are you doing?” which Aurélie asked him right back, he said: “It’s the standing. I can walk all day. I can even dance, if there isn’t much jumping. But standing? And they all want to stand.”

  “You can’t get them to sit?”

  “I’m not holding court,” he said apologetically. “I’m fine. That necklace is quite striking. I don’t remember ever seeing it. Or did I, once? In Paris? Yes. It was the first time I saw you as a young lady.”

  She whispered in English, “It’s my protection. I hid it on my ankle.”

  “I’m amazed I never noticed that,” he observed.

  She shrugged. “Nobody ever saw it.”

  Instinct prompted her to dart her fingers to her collarbones in a defensive check, though this was Dobrenica, and she was safe.

  Wait. Was that a shadow, or the curve of a wing beyond the cluster of women watching the dancers? I looked the other way, as far as I could. Was the shadow in the alcove deeper than normal beyond that group over there? The alcove was at the edge of my vision. Well, if the seraphs, or the shadow wing things, had come to the Eyrie, what matter? They seemed to like hanging around, but they didn’t do anything beyond that.

  The piece ended. The orchestra in the galley began the introduction to a new country dance as some left the floor and others took their places in the forming line. Aurélie turned, giving me a wider view. The extra deep shadow seemed to have been only a trick of the eye. Relief!

  “Jaska, I wish to ask a favor,” Aurélie said.

  “A favor, is it?” he responded as they began to stroll. “I’m already offering you the smallest kingdom I know of. Do you desire me to conquer France?”

  She chuckled, then said earnestly, “It’s for Irena, not for me. If you’d consider making the Chevalier de Vauban into a baron. Can you do that?”

  He glanced down at her, tenderness in his smile. “I was already planning that as one of my first actions when I’m crowned. I put the notion before Hippolyte in Vienna, knowing his republican dedication. He’s reconciled. He said that if restoring the de before his name magically re-established his bona fides, then who was he to deny others the absurdity of giving greater value to his words as a baron than as a citizen? He agreed to accept as long as he could continue to despise all human hierarchies.”

  Aurélie grinned. “Including you as king?”

  “I believe that’s what he meant when he exclaimed, ‘Scélérat! Remember this, I have seen you naked, and your backside is made exactly like mine.’”

  They laughed, then Jaska said, “Shmuel is also going to become a baron. The empire forbade the admission of Jews to the privileged ranks until Emperor Joseph changed some of the punitive laws. Did you know Shmuel’s father was killed on a diplomatic mission to Russia? I’ll have to drop a word about Hippolyte in Irena’s ear. I wonder why she didn’t ask me during that interminable ride that she spent glaring at my back, when we arrived in Dobrenica.”

  “Perhaps that was her intent when she rode to meet you. Then she saw me.”

  “I should have foreseen that,” he said ruefully. “I planned badly. Here, let’s step into this little room. I do need to sit for a moment and rest my knee.”

  She’d taken his arm. They turned into a small antechamber with a side table, a bench, an old framed mirror, and a door on the other
side that probably led to a garderobe.

  Jaska sank down on the bench next to the mirror and stretched out his bad leg. “Much better.” He glanced toward the door, which they did not close—not before they were properly married. He lowered his voice and continued in English. “The biggest problem before me is Benedek and Margit. I think I told you that our oldest sister wouldn’t marry anyone below a prince, and so they her found one in Russia. She in turn tried to arrange a suit for Margit with one of her husband’s connections. The Empress Catherine favored this suit, as she needed the wealth of our mines for her wars. My mother didn’t dare to refuse Catherine outright. But neither was she going to give away the Dsaret mines as Margit’s dowry. She protracted negotiations, trusting a solution would present itself. Then Catherine died. Paul had no interest in us, with vast tracts of new land to play with.”

  “Yet Margit is still unmarried.”

  “Now the problem is the other nobles who want Margit to marry Mikhail Trasyemova only because they don’t want her to marry Benedek Ysvorod. The Duke of Trasyemova wants a royal grandchild, and the rest of them don’t want to see the Ysvorods gain power—they were kings for a long time. The last Ysvorod king is reviled in our history as our worst. That was centuries ago, but memory is long in Dobrenica.”

  “Can you help her?”

  “Not until I’m king. If I’d died, Benedek would’ve been my heir. If I marry and have no sons, he will be my heir. Many resist this prospect.”

  “There can be no reigning queens?” she asked.

  He gave his head a shake. “No. Though my mother has been queen regnant in all but name—she’s a regent, and a good one—for twenty-five years. But now that I’m home, everyone clamors for me to claim the crown.” He took her hands. “A prospect I resisted mightily but am swiftly becoming reconciled to.” He kissed her hands and pulled her into a quick kiss, then they drew apart, both sending self-conscious glances at the open door.

  She let go his hands and ran hers up her arms. “The next thing is to find this Eldest.”

  “We’ll do that Monday, when everyone else is traveling back down the mountain.”

  Aurélie agreed, and rubbed her arms again. “Why is it so cold in here?”

  “There you are.” Mord walked in with Elisheva at his side. She was dressed in leaf green with embroidery in shades of wheat, gold, and yellow. Mord wore new clothes, though as before his black coat was free of embroidery charms. “Jaska, did you know that this castle is filled with seraphs?”

  Elisheva clapped her hands, her eyes flashing wide when she saw the necklace. “Where did you get that?” She thrust her hand into a hidden pocket of her gown and pulled out her prism.

  “It is my protection,” Aurélie said.

  “That’s it,” Elisheva whispered. “That’s what they saw.” She turned an astonished gaze to Mord, then Jaska, then Aurélie again. Then Elisheva took a step closer and recited in a melodic chant as she pointed to each of the necklace gems:

  There is the stone of Reuben Odem that protects families

  Shimon Pitda that protects animals,

  Levi Bareket that protects children,

  Yehuda Nofech that gives the power to overcome evil intent,

  Yisschar Saphir that heals and protects vision,

  Zevulon Yahalom that protects the sleeper and guides dreams on the righteous path,

  Gad Leshem that grants true sight,

  Dan Shevo that protects the home,

  Naftali Ahlamah that prevents sudden death,

  Asher Tashish that protects the growing things,

  Yosef Shoam that protects the seasons, and

  Binyamin Yashfeh that wards the evil blood drinkers.

  Aurélie touched the necklace. “My Nanny named the stones differently, and she didn’t have words for these three lesser stones.”

  Elisheva said, “It is very ancient, this protection.” She turned her head, addressing Jaska. “I’m convinced that the crown of power wasn’t you, your highness, nor yet Domnu Zusya, nor even the spirit that follows Donna Aurélie, as we once thought. This necklace is the crown of power that the seers saw coming east.”

  “How do you know that, Elisheva?” Jaska asked.

  “I see it.” Her hands lifted. “Its light in the Nasdrafus is nearly blinding.”

  “And it has also drawn the seraphs.” Mord lifted his head.

  Aurélie turned to look, and there they were, reflecting in the mirror. Jaska’s hand tightened on his sword cane.

  “Be not afraid,” Pewter Hair said. “Call me Uriel.”

  “Call me Raguel,” said Fake Jaska.

  “Call me Jeremiel,” said Lady Midnight, who up close lost the female semblance. Such beauty had no gender, the long midnight-black hair shrouded a slender, androgynous form.

  “Angels?” Elisheva whispered, her face so blanched the only color was the stippling of her freckles. It was difficult to see the seraph’s wings in the mists surrounding them.

  “Was it not you,” Raguel turned my way, “who said that one cannot prove a negative? Permit us to prove our good will with gifts.”

  Aurélie had been fingering her necklace. She yanked her hand down, closing her fingers over Jaska’s on the hilt of the sword cane.

  “A gift of knowledge,” the soft voice went on as the beautiful face smiled at Aurélie. “You wish to be sundered from the spirit enslaved to you.” Aurélie recoiled, her breath catching on the word enslaved. “You already know you can touch hands within the mirror. Take her hand,” he said to me. “Pull her within.”

  Jaska, Aurélie, and Mord looked totally confused. They could only see the reflection of me, and they clearly thought I somehow lived in the mirror. Only Elisheva had her eyes closed, her lips moving as she breathed a prayer.

  But that command also confused me, because I saw the seraphs—if that’s what they were—in the mirror, but I didn’t see myself with them.

  “Within where?” I asked, and then it hit me. “The Nasdrafus? Is that how I’m to get free again?” I didn’t trust them enough to mention Xanpia, the Blessing, or even Dobrenica in danger.

  “Yes. There, you will be two again. And then you have only to go back as two.”

  “Don’t do it,” Elisheva said urgently. “You are not prepared for the Nasdrafus. I am not prepared. Everything is different there, even death.”

  “You will not die, for you will be under our protection,” Jeremiel declared. She (or he) had a voice like wind chimes.

  Aurélie looked up at Jaska then back at the seraphs. “My guardian has completed her task. It is time for her to return to her own home.” She had spent all these years touching my hand in the mirror. Now she reached, intending to grip my hand—

  There was a dizzying sensation and my awareness smeared as if I’d fallen into jello as she put a foot over the frame.

  Jaska’s face blanched. “You are vanishing. I won’t lose you.”

  He grabbed her hand, as Elisheva cried, “No, do not—do not—”

  She reached out to pull them back. Mord glanced at Elisheva’s anxious face, then lunged forward to grip Jaska’s hand. Whatever happened, he was determined yet again to protect his friend if he could.

  Elisheva gritted her teeth and took hold of Mord’s coat tail.

  They were all through.

  They stared at me as I gazed down at myself.

  “How did that happen?” I asked, delighted to see my rumpled blouse with the Dobreni embroidery, my long blue skirt, my sandals.

  Aurélie was staring at me. “This is what I dreamed. This moment.” She looked from one of us to the next, blinking as if fighting dizziness.

  “Okay. Let’s get out of here,” I said, thinking, Alec, I’m coming home!

  We were in the reverse image of the little antechamber, which disoriented me. I whirled around, and there was the mirror.

  But instead of reflecting us, it had gone dark.

  FORTY-FOUR

  “WHAT’S THE MEANING OF OKAY?” Aur?
?lie asked me in a whisper as we looked around room. The seraphs had vanished. I blinked rapidly against the light, which brightened steadily to incandescence.

  I was too distracted to answer. I stepped uncertainly toward the mirror, then Elisheva darted between me and it.

  “Do not touch it,” Elisheva commanded, glancing over her shoulder in horror at the mirror. The brilliant glow bleached her skin, making her freckles stand out and her blue eyes startlingly pale.

  “Why?”

  “It is cursed. In the Nasdrafus, a lightless mirror sends you to eternal darkness.”

  “While I don’t believe in hell,” I muttered, backing away, “I am not testing that theory.”

  Elisheva wasn’t listening. She gazed at Aurélie. I whirled around and discovered the source of the bright light. The stones in that necklace were glowing like lasers.

  “Stop it,” Elisheva whispered, waving her hands. “Hide it. Do you not see? That is what drew the demons. Here in the Nasdrafus, it has even greater power. It is going to draw all manner of magical things.”

  Aurélie fumbled at the clasp. The light vanished like a switch had been turned as she bent and once again clasped it onto her ankle. “I don’t understand how—”

  “Uh, oh,” I said.

  Through the doorway shot the Ugly Squad. You name the monster, it seemed to be there. Green, blotchy gray, scaled, bulbous eyes or red lizard ones, snake-tongues, hulking orcish things in leather armor that looked grown on, skinny, warped bodies…they all one thing in common: weapons.

  With a screeching and gobbling and grunting, they began to advance, waving maces, scimitars, cleavers.

  I kicked the bench into their way, halting their advance. Jaska took Aurélie’s arm and dashed through the servants’ door into a narrow hall, followed by Elisheva and me, Mord last. He pulled the door shut behind him and turned the antique lock. The uglies whammed into the door, pounding, bellowing, and gibbering. Somebody gave them a couple extra doses of ugly instead of brains, I thought as I sprinted after Jaska through another door. It felt so good to run again. I stretched my legs out into a leap. Nothing hurt, no weakness. Awesome!

 
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