by Ted Dekker
By Ted Dekker
My name is Toma Nicolescu and I was a warrior, a servant of Her Majesty, the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who by her own hand and tender heart sent me on that mission at the urging of her most trusted adviser, Grigory Potyomkin, in the year of our Lord 1772.
It was a year of war, this one the Russo-Turkish War, one of so many with the Ottoman Empire. I had slain the enemy with more ambition than most in the humble service of the empress, or so it has been said, and having earned Her Majesty’s complete trust in my loyalty and skill, I was dispatched by her to the south and east, through Ukraine to the principality of Moldavia, just north of the Black Sea and west of Transylvania, to the country estate of the Cantemir family nestled up against the base of the Carpathian Mountains.
To my understanding, the family descendants of Dimitrie Cantemir, the late prince of Moldavia, were owed a debt for his loyalty to Russia. Indeed, it was said that the path to the heart of Moldavia ran through the Cantemir crest, but that was all politics— none of my business.
On that day my business was to travel to this remote, lush green valley in western Moldavia and give protection to this most important family who retreated to the estate every summer.
Russia had occupied Moldavia. Enemies were about with sharp knives and blunt intentions. The black plague had mercilessly taken the lives of many in the cities. A ruler loyal to Catherine the Great would soon be selected to take the reins of this important principality, and the Cantemir family would play a critical role in that decision as they held such a lofty position of respect among all Moldavians. My charge was simple: No harm could come to this family. These Cantemirs.
The sun was sinking over the Carpathian peaks to our left as my friend in arms, Alek Cardei, and I sat atop our mounts and stared down at the valley. The great white castle with its twin spires stood on emerald grasses an hour’s ride down the twisted path. A tall stone wall ran the length of the southern side where the road ran into the property. Green lawns and gardens surrounded the estate, encompassing ten times the ground as the house itself. The estate had been commissioned by Dimitrie Cantemir in 1711, when he was prince of Moldavia for a brief time before retreating to Turkey.
“I see the twin peaks, but I see no gowns,” Alek said, squinting down the valley. His gloved hand was on his gold-busted sword. Leather armor wrapped his chest and thighs, same as mine. A goatee cupped his chin and joined his mustache but he’d shaved the rest of his face in the creek earlier, anticipating his ride into the estate, the arriving hero from abroad.
Alek, the lover.
Toma, the warrior.
I looked down at the golden ring on my finger, which bore the empress’s insignia, and I chuckled. Alek’s wit and charm were always good friends on a long journey, and he wielded both with the same ease and precision with which I swung my sword. I nodded at my fair-headed friend as he turned his pale blue eyes toward me. “We’re here to protect the sisters and their family, not wed them.”
“So then you cannot deny it: the sisters are on your mind. Not the mother, not the father, not the family, but the sisters. These two female frolickers who are the talk of Ukraine.” Alek turned his mirthtwisted face back to the valley. “Heat has come to the dog at last.”
To the contrary, though Alek could not know, I had taken a vow to Her Majesty not to entangle myself while here in Moldavia. She was all too aware of the sisters’ reputations, and she suggested I keep my head clear on this long assignment that might too easily give us much idle time.
“One favor, Toma,” she said.
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
“Stay clear of the sisters, please. At least one of you ought to have a clear mind.”
“Of course, Your Majesty.”
But Alek was a different matter, and there was hardly any reason to deny him his jesting. It always lifted my spirits.
If I were a woman, I would have loved Alek. If I were a king, I would have hired him to remain in my courts. If I were an enemy, I would have run and hid, because wherever you found Alek you would find Toma, and you would surely die unless you swore allegiance to the empress.
But I was the furthest thing from a woman, I had never aspired to be a king, and I had no mortal enemies save myself.
My vice was honor: chivalry when it was appropriate, but loyalty to my duty first. I was Alek’s closest and most trusted friend, and I would have died for him without a care in the world.
He blew out some air in exasperation. “I have gone to the ends of the earth with you, Toma, and I would still. But this mission of ours is a fool’s errand. We come here to sit with babies while the armies dine on conquest?”
“So you’ve made abundantly clear for a week now,” I returned.
“What happened to your yearning for these sisters? As you’ve said, they are rumored to be beautiful.”
“Rumors! For all we know they are spoiled fat poodles. What can this valley possibly offer that the nights in Moscow can’t? I’m doomed, I tell you. I would rather run a sword through myself now than suffer a month in that dungeon below.”
I could see through his play already. “From frolicking sisters to suicide so quickly? You’re outdoing yourself, Alek.”
“I’m utterly serious!” His face flashed, indignant. “When have you known me to sit on my hands for weeks on end with nothing but a single family to occupy me? I’m telling you, this is going to be my death.”
He was still playing me, and I him. “So now you expect me to give you leave to exhaust your fun here, then go gallivanting about the countryside seeking out mistresses in the other estates? Or would you rather slip out at night and slit a few evil throats so you can feel like a man?”
He shrugged. “Honestly, the former sounds more appealing.” His gloved finger stabbed skyward. “But I know my duty and would die by your side fulfilling it.” He lowered his hand. “Still, as God is my witness, I will not tolerate a month of picking my teeth with straw while the rest of the world fights for glory and chases skirts.”
“Don’t be a fool, man. Boredom could not catch you if it chased you like a wolf. We’ll establish a simple protocol to limit all access to the estate, post the sentries, and mind the women—I understand that the father will be gone most of the time. As long as our duties are in no way compromised, I will not stand in the way of your courting. But as you say, they may be fat poodles.” A sound came from behind us. “Who has business with the Cantemirs? Eh?”
I spun to the soft, gravelly voice. An old shriveled man stood there, grasping a tall cane with both hands. His eyes were slits, his face was wrinkled like a dried-out prune, and his long stringy gray hair was so thin that a good wind would surely leave him bald. I wasn’t sure he could actually see through those black cracks below his brow.
Alek humphed and deferred to me. How had this ancient man walked up on us without a sound? He was gumming his lips, toothless. Silent.
I held my hand up to Alek and drew my pale mount about to face the man. “Who asks?”
A bird flew in from the west, a large black crow. As I watched, somewhat stunned, it alighted on the old man’s shoulder, steadied itself with a single flap of its wings, and came to rest. The man didn’t react, not even when the crow’s thick wing slapped his ear.
“I don’t have a name,” the old man said. “You may call me an angel if you like.”
Alek chuckled, but I was sure it was a nervous reaction without a lick of humor.
“Who inquires of the Cantemir estate?” he asked again.
“Toma Nicolescu, in the service of Her Majesty, the empress of Russia, Catherine the Great, who now rules Moldavia. And if you are an angel, then you may vanish as all angels vanish, into the air of superstition.”
“Toma?” the old man croaked.
“What business do you have with this estate?”
“Eh, that is you? Toma Nicolescu?”
His demeanor now bothered me more than I cared to admit. Was this my elder, whom I should honor, or a wandering lunatic?
“Watch your tongue, old man,” Alek snapped.
The crow cocked its head and lined up one of its beady eyes for a hard look at Alek; the old man did the same.
“Eh? Is that you too, Toma?”
Alek’s brow furrowed. “Stop playing the buffoon. And get rid of that cursed bird.”
“State your business, old man,” I demanded. He lifted a bony, scarcely fleshed hand and pointed to the west.
“There is evil in the wind. Beware, Toma. Beware the evil.”
“Don’t be a loon . . .”
I held up my hand to stop Alek, interested in the oddity before us, this ancient blind prune and his all-seeing crow.
“What makes you think there is evil to beware?” I asked.
“Eh? The crow saw it.”
“The crow told you that, did he? And does your crow speak as well?” Alek’s voice wrung mockery from each word.
Lightning stabbed at the plains in the east. I hadn’t noticed the clouds on the horizon until now. A muted peal of thunder growled at us, as if in warning I thought, and I wasn’t given to superstition. The devil wasn’t my enemy and God wasn’t my friend. Nothing I’d experienced in my twenty-eight years had moved me to believe in either.
The old wizard with his crow was staring at me through slits, silent. I wanted to know why the man seemed to sense the threat— it was my job to know. So I dismounted, walked up to him, and dipped my head, an easy thing to do considering his age, for I had always been given to respecting the aged.
The black bird was only three feet from me, jerking its head for a better look, sizing me up, deciding whether he should pluck my eyes out.
I spoke kindly, in a low voice. “Please, if you feel it wise, tell me why your crow would warn us of evil.”
He smiled a toothless grin, all gums and lips. “This is Peter the Great. I can’t see so well, but they tell me he’s a magnificent bird. I think he likes me.”
“I would say he looks like a devil. So why would a devil tell an angel that evil is near?”
“I’m not the devil, Toma Nicolescu. He is far more beautiful than I.”
I was sure I could hear Alek snickering, and I had half a mind to shut him up with a glare.
“And who is this beautiful devil?”
“A man with a voice like honey who flies through the night.” The old man removed his right hand from the staff and used it like a wing. “But God was the one who told me to tell Toma Nicolescu that evil is in contest with you. He said you would come here, to the Brasca Pass. I’ve been waiting for three days, and I do think one more day might have claimed my life.”
“So the crow saw it, and then God told you, his angel, to warn us,” Alek scoffed. “How is that possible when we didn’t even know which route we would take until yesterday?”
“Perhaps God can read your minds.”
“Our minds didn’t even know!”
“But God did. And here you are. And now I have done my thing and can live a little longer with my crow. I should go now.” He started to turn.
“Please, kind sir.” I put my hand on his. “Our mission is only to protect the estate. Is there anything else you can tell us? I don’t see how a warning of evil given by a crow is much use to us.” The man’s gentle face slowly sagged and became a picture of foreboding. “I can hardly advise you, who thinks the devil is only hot air, now can I?”
I was surprised that the old man knew this about me. But it could as easily have been a lucky guess.
“As for your oversexed friend, you may tell him that this valley will certainly exhaust his feral impulses. I suspect that you are both in for a rather stimulating time. Now, I must be going. I have a long way to travel and the night is coming fast.”
With that he turned and walked away, a slow shuffle that made me wonder how he expected to reach the path, much less the nearest town, Crysk, a full ten miles south.
Lucine and Natasha stood on the balcony above the courtyard under a full rising moon, watching the guests who had gathered for this Summer Ball of Delights, as Mother had called it. The name tempted scandal by itself.
“The man in the black coat, there,” Natasha said, pointing to a crowd of seven or eight by the fountain that led into the hedge garden.
Lucine saw him now, one of the Russian aristocrats from the Castle Castile. A group of five had come to the ball and shown themselves for the first time since the castle had come under new ownership three months earlier.
“I see him. What of it?”
“What of it?” Natasha cried. “He’s magnificent.”
Perhaps. Yes, in a way he was, Lucine thought. “A magnificent monster,” she said.
Natasha’s eyes flashed with mystery. “Then give me a monster.” She wore a red silk gown draped over a slight petticoat, white lace whispering around her slippers and wrists. A trim of black satin graced her chest, low enough to provoke curiosity without revealing too much. Her blonde curls flowed over her pale shoulders—positively glowing under the bright moon.
Lucine’s twin was a goddess, night or day. The kind of goddess any monster would gladly consume.
“Just watch yourself, Sister. We don’t know them.”
There was no summer except the summer in Moldavia, Mother said, and Lucine agreed.
It was said that Mother had once been the very vision of proper behavior under the scrutiny of her first husband, Dimitrie Cantemir. He’d ruled her with an iron fist, she said, and she grew to resent her life. But when Dimitrie had died of pneumonia while she was still pregnant with Lucine and Natasha, she had reportedly become a new woman.
Mother had waited six months, then she accepted the full benefits of the Cantemir name and wealth left her, gave birth to twin girls, and, as soon as her body allowed it, set out to find a man who would allow her to live a life full of joy, not servitude.
She and Mikhail Ivanov met a year later and were married in two months, but only on the condition that she be allowed to keep her full name, Kesia Cantemir, and pursue whatever pleasures she wished. For the most part Mikhail lived in a different world, and he rarely accompanied his wife and stepdaughters to Moldavia. At present he was busy conducting his affairs in Kiev. Mother taught her twin daughters to embrace the full offering of life, and both Lucine and Natasha had, with more passion than most.
Lucine was only seventeen when she’d become pregnant. The father remained nameless, because she’d sworn never to think, much less speak, his name again. The thirty-year-old beast swept her off her feet with all the promises any seventeen-year-old might like to hear.
She’d shoved the memory of what followed to the deepest hiding places in her mind, but it was still there, dulled by time. The way she’d felt a new life grow inside of her belly. The way her passion for this life had found fulfillment in her love for her unborn child.
Kesia and Natasha had joined her in her delight—it was the Cantemir way. But the brute who’d given her his seed did not share any such pleasure. Lucine grew to detest him, and when she refused to be silent about her passion for this child within her, he flew into a rage, tracked her down, and beat her to within a single breath of death. With a stick of firewood he hit her belly until he was certain no life inside survived the beating.
She miscarried that night, while she clung to life. She arose from bed two weeks later, tracked down the beast, and took his life with a knife while he slept.
Then she put the incident behind her and insisted not a word of it be spoken. But she was not the carefree lover of men she had once been.
Four years had passed, and Lucine longed to be romanced by a true man who would win her for only one kiss if that was all she would give him. A man who would die to protect her.
Her twin sister, on the other hand, still preferred the wild ones with teeth because she was a ravenous wolf herself. And yet, at times Lucine wondered if they, being twins, were really still one and the same, living within themselves and vicariously through each other. Didn’t a part of her long for the wolf as much as Natasha did?
“. . . more men than I can possibly consider in one evening,” Natasha was saying.
“Whatever you say, Sister. I—”
And then Lucine saw the blond man staring up at her.
“What is it?” Natasha twisted her head and followed Lucine’s gaze to the courtyard below. “What’s wrong?”
He was just a man, a soldier of some kind, dressed in an officer’s black suit with short tails, and sporting a black hat. But he was such a fine specimen and he looked at her with such intensity and confidence that she felt immediately ruffled.
The man with the golden mane removed his hat and, keeping his eyes on hers, bowed.
Natasha chuckled. “My, my, does he ever clean up.”
“Who is he?”
“One of the two I was telling you about, sent by the empress herself. That one is named Alek.”
“Alek Cardei. They arrived an hour ago and were shown to their quarters. I saw them only from a distance.” The man replaced his hat and stepped back, dipping his head.
“They? Who is the other?”
“The hero, you mean. Toma. Toma Nicolescu. I don’t know . . .
There he is.” She pointed to another man in a similar uniform. Toma Nicolescu stood twenty feet from his partner, studying the crowd over a drink, which he held delicately in his left hand. His right hand rested on a sword that hung by his side. He was cavalry, she guessed. A horseman.
“Stay if you must, Sister,” Natasha said, “but I will not hold myself from this feast for a moment longer. See to Alek and Toma, and leave the Russians to me.” And then she was flying down the stairs.
We had arrived at the Cantemir estate as night fell, and instead of the peaceful home of noble descent that we’d envisioned during our weeklong journey, we found a mansion crawling with lords and counts and dukes and all manner of aristocrats intent on frivolous behavior.
This so-called Summer Ball of Delights. A ball in the country wasn’t unheard of, naturally, but considering the urgency with which Her Majesty had dispatched us to secure the estate, I was surprised to find not the slightest concern of danger here. But then, ordinary people rarely see real danger until the sword has fallen and they lie bloody in the street. They prefer to set their minds on phantom dangers that float through the air unseen. Ghost and devils and ridiculous religious imaginations that cannot be proven.
Still, were they so stupid to allow such an influx of strangers into their home?
Alek and I were shown to our quarters in the west tower, and at first I thought the servant who led us had made a mistake. We were to stay in separate rooms, each lavishly outfitted and beautifully appointed, mine with stuffed silk bedding and lavender drapes that swept across expansive windows framing the towering Carpathian peaks to the west. The velvet curtains sweeping down from an ornate ceiling like sheets of water, the overstuffed golden chair, the writing desk with lit lamp . . . it was all too much.
I was more accustomed to a tent and the ground than this pillow before me. My first instinct was to retreat and ask Alek to exchange rooms, only to find that his was as lavish.
I showered and shaved and dressed in the only uniform I’d packed. We were here for Her Majesty, not on the army’s time, so we wouldn’t dress in our normal military garb, but Alek insisted on dressing his part if only for this night. Women have always been attracted to the uniform.
Honestly, I felt a bit put off by the levity of the ball.
The old man with the crow’s warning whispered in my ear.
How had he known we would come through that pass?
Standing in the courtyard an hour later, watching the dancers step with the music, I couldn’t shake the impression that we were being watched. But I saw nothing that caused me irregular concern.
There was a group of five Russians who’d only recently purchased the Castle Castile, which lay five miles into the mountains. The mysterious lot dressed differently—the men with long black slacks worn outside of their boots, the women with velvet gowns hiked up in the front to their knees, revealing tall leather boots. But Russia was in a bit of a renaissance now, there was no telling what kind of style or culture might emerge.
“She’s stunning,” Alek said, looking up at the balcony where the twin Cantemir sisters stood. “God bless the empress. Can you believe our fortune? I would knock a platoon over for her.”
On balance, Alek might pose a greater risk to the peace than anyone.
“Both. But the blonde wants me, I tell you.”
“Just remember why we’re here,” I said.
“We’re here for her.” “For her safety.”
“Can you imagine a safer place than my arms?” He took off his hat and bowed, and I saw the brunette, the sister named Lucine, acknowledge him. He turned and winked at me. “Other than in your arms, that is.”
But my mind wasn’t on love or beauty. Moldavia was a task to conquer, not a pleasure to be plucked.
Five minutes later the blonde sister, Natasha, was down the stairs and crossing the courtyard toward the Russians. Her eyes fell on us and she scanned us flirtatiously, but then she moved on.
“What did I tell you?” Alek growled. “She wants me.”
“And she wants the Russian as well.”
“Only because she doesn’t know me as well as you do, Toma.”
One of the Russian women was heading our way. She passed Natasha, eyes set on us, as if this were some kind of exchange. Natasha for the Russian temptress.
“Are you seeing this?” Alek said.
I stepped away to give him some space with her. I had no interest at all.
Lucine, the other twin, was making her way down the stairs.
Her long dark hair reminded me of that crow on the old man’s shoulder. But this was no crow. In my view she was unquestionably the more beautiful of the two. For that matter, the most beautiful woman I might have yet laid eyes upon. If Natasha wouldn’t warm to his advances, Alek would surely play his games and sweep Lucine off her feet. In all likelihood, he would have them both head over heels within the week.
Now, I must say that up to this point, in spite of the old man and his crow, my world was well centered. I was simply a man about his duty.
But that all changed in the next moment.
Looking back now, I can say the series of incredible events that forever changed my understanding of this ordered world began in earnest in that moment. Though I did not recognize or embrace it then, the axis of this planet surely shifted. The stars reversed their course and sent a spell of love and anguish, tears and laughter into the valley, and I was too thickheaded to yet see it.
The scent of the Russian woman reached me before she did— sweet musky flowers—and I turned to see that she’d walked right past Alek and had her eyes on me.
Deep golden eyes that drew me like a warm fire. It’s the only way I can describe the feeling I had first looking into those beautiful eyes. I’m not suggesting that I was interested in her, though any man with blood would be, for this woman, not Lucine, was surely the most beautiful woman in the estate.
She moved closer, refusing to shift her eyes. The night seemed to slow.
No, not the night, nor the others in that night, but she. Only she. This vision of beauty seemed to slow right before my eyes while the rest of the courtyard went on. Her arms, the swirl of her black skirt, the bending of her booted legs cutting through the black velvet that hid them so poorly as she walked—it all happened at half pace. Thoughts of the black plague filled my mind. I was ill, I thought, feverish, hallucinating. Her tongue traced the bottom of her teeth. I blinked, and the world returned to normal.
“Hello, Toma,” she said in low, breathy voice. “You may call me Sofia.” And then she winked and was past me. She walked through the archway leading into the main room where half the guests were gathered.
How did she know my name? I glanced at Alek, and to my surprise his eyes weren’t even on me, or her. He was fixated on Lucine, who had stepped off the stairs ahead of us.
I must have imagined that woman’s voice. Nothing else made sense to me.
Lucine came to us—to Alek—and although I greeted her as any gentleman might, my mind was still clouded and I hardly heard a word.
“Would you mind, dear?” Kesia, the mother, said, stepping up behind Lucine. “Would you show our two guests around? I’m sure they have questions, and I have others to attend to. I can assure you fine gentlemen that no nasty predators will come for us tonight.
Eat the lamb, drink the wine, enjoy yourselves.”
“But you don’t understand, madam,” Alek said. He took Lucine’s hand and kissed it softly. “When this much beauty presents itself, there is always terrible danger lurking.”
Lucine blushed. “Well, now. That’s . . . nice.”
Kesia smiled knowingly and left them.
And then Alek departed with a slight bow. “If you don’t mind, I must see to other matters.” He left us to pursue Natasha, who was already in the arms of another man, one of the Russians. Lucine turned from the scene and I dutifully followed her into the main house. Slowly my mind was drawn to the gracious movements of the Cantemir sister who led me. As soon as I stepped into the ballroom, thoughts of the Russian who called herself Sofia were gone.
The walnut doors from the courtyard led to a magnificent ballroom with a white marble floor, lit by one of the largest crystal chandeliers I had ever seen. White stairs on either side rose to a second-story balcony that surrounded the entire venue.
Along with the candles in the chandelier, roaring twin fireplaces lit the room. The orange light of oil lamps mounted on walls added shadows. Guests milled about in every corner, tasting pastries that were stacked on four round tables with the drinks.
Lucine led me through the grand space past the curious gazes and into the dining room, where there were no guests. She closed the door, shutting out the party, and I could not mistake her slight sigh of relief.
“It gets to be a bit much, don’t you think?” she asked.
Her voice reached into me like a wisp of perfume. I don’t know why, but to this day I can’t understand why those words affected me so. Perhaps it was the sweet tone with which she expressed precisely what had occupied my mind.
Perhaps it was the sincerity in her eyes, as if she was as relieved as I to be free from the cacophony of meaningless drivel that typified these sorts of balls.
Perhaps it was my being alone with her profound beauty. I think it was more and less than all of these. I think it was part of what was written in the stars. When Lucine said those simple words, my heart began a most rapid thaw.
“It was a bit much from the moment I entered the house,” I said carefully.
She looked at me, hazel eyes brightened by a hundred candles, and then offered me a slight knowing smile. “Was it, now?” She walked past me, along the table, running her fingers on the backs of the carved wooden chairs. Rather small fingers, mind you, but so elegant, like an angel dancing over the backs. Her nails were painted rose as I recall.
“So tell me, Toma Nicolescu, have you seen any criminals among us?” She faced me. “That is what you’ve come to find, right? Criminals?”
“I don’t know what I’ve come to find, madam. My orders are only to protect you and your family from any danger that presents itself in this time of political anticipation. And that is what I intend to do.”
“Then perhaps the first danger you should look to is your stable boy.”
“Alek, you mean? He’s not a stable boy.”
But of course she knew that. She was hurt by Alek. He’d left Lucine to attend to Natasha, and she was jealous.
I suddenly didn’t want her to be jealous of Natasha. Alek had enough women running after him.
“Of your sister,” I said. But I was in no position to stand in judgment of these sorts of things. “Forgive me, that was out of order. I—”
“It’s fine. But you misunderstand me if you think I could possibly develop an interest in a man, no matter how beautiful or strong or endearing, at first meeting. Or during the course of a week or a month for that matter.”
But this did not cool me. The thaw that had just warmed my heart was spreading, and I felt a little bit of panic. My feelings were confusing to me, and in light of my promise to Her Majesty, offensive. So I forced the interest aside and proceeded with sincerity.
“Then you’re not jealous?” I asked.
“Precisely. I’ve always tried to understand what women find so appealing about that boy.” What was I saying?
“Everywhere we go, they seem to fall all over him. He would never pass up the opportunity to be the life of the party, which he manages like a well-wound clock. Not to mention he’s a war hero, skilled beyond belief with that sword of his. I trust him like a brother and would put my life in his judgment any day.”
“So then, you’re jealous,” she said. Strands of her dark hair curled around her face like adoring fingers.
“I stand in jealousy of all things better than I, so that I might better myself.”
“And do you also look for ways to dismiss one woman for another?”
As you think Alek has dismissed you, I almost said. I was right. She had indeed seen something in Alek that pulled at her heart. I could see it in her eyes and it bothered me.
“I think my sister will like him,” she said. “If she can pull herself away from that Stefan fellow.”
We spent the next fifteen minutes walking around the mansion, and at every turn I had to remind myself that my awkward attraction to her was only natural, considering her beauty. I had pushed the trivial pursuit of women from my mind so many times for the sake of honor that my thirsty heart was only drinking out of instinct. There was nothing else to it.
She took me to the tower, and from there she pointed out the property boundaries by moonlight. In my need to remain focused, I must have asked her a hundred questions regarding the comings and goings of servants, the proximity of towns and estates, all things pertaining to any potential threat.
None surfaced. But they rarely do before their time.
As I stood by the wall that circled the tower, looking over the grounds, my eyes were secretly and repeatedly drawn back to Lucine. To her dark brown hair cascading over her shoulders. To her neck and her gown, to the curve of her mouth and her small nose. I prayed she did not catch my eyes shifting about.
“I don’t really care for horses,” she said, resting her hands on the stone wall. Then she caught herself. “Does that bother you?”
“No. Why would it?”
“You’re cavalry. Horses are your precious friends. I’m sure I should love them.”
“But they don’t routinely save your life as they do mine,” I said. “You see?” She turned her light brown eyes to meet mine. “I have no right.”
“Nonsense. You can’t love something because it saves my life. What does my life matter to you? I don’t mean to suggest that you seem like the type who doesn’t care if others live or die. People like me. I mean to say I’m sure you value people like me a great deal.” She didn’t respond.
“After all, we save the world,” I said. “Not that we deserve any special attention for our sacrifice. Or that what we do is really even a sacrifice. I’m just saying.”
She responded after a pause, eyes still on mine. “And what are you saying?”
Finally I found some sanity. “That you are free to like or dislike horses as far as I’m concerned. Not that my opinion matters to you.”
I think I saw her lips curve into a slight smile. I can’t be sure because I was dizzy with my own foolishness. She pointed to the trees and made a remark that I missed about pines.
She could have been the plainest of creatures and I would have felt the same because her spirit was that of an angel’s. I was drawn to her values and kindness, her honesty, and the ease with which she led me around, unencumbered by the social pressures waiting beneath us.
She led me down the stairs from the tower, and I could hardly ignore the scent of her perfumed hair. Like gardenias in the summer. If Alek were following her, he would have said something.
Perhaps he would have been my savior in this matter. I thought I should send her to him so that I could be free of these ridiculous thoughts.
We returned to the dining room and walked toward the door leading into the ballroom. “You should make a play for Alek,” I said. She paused and tilted her head as if to say, Is that so?
“He would like that,” I said. “I mean, he likes confident women. And you shouldn’t cast judgment before you get to know him.”
A roar came from beyond the door.
She stared at me.
Another cry, this time a woman’s voice gasping.
I reached the door in two long steps, threw it wide, and stepped into the ballroom. The lights had dimmed by half, candles extinguished. Dozens of guests lined the walls and the balcony. As one their eyes were fixed on the floor beneath the chandelier.
There stood Alek, sword drawn, point pressed against one of the Russian’s throats. But the Russian also had a sword stretched out and it lay alongside Alek’s throat. They stood two paces apart, glaring at each other.
Natasha lay on the floor six feet from them. There was blood on her face.
“I will kill you for that,” Alek said.