The Smolny Institute for Young Noble Maidens
November 1825, St. Petersburg, Russia
Two little girls in identical brown dresses skipped down the long corridor on their way to dinner. It was Thursday, and they knew the cook was making cabbage soup that evening. And cabbage soup meant warm black bread to go with it.
They stopped when they saw the tall, thin woman standing in the shadows at the end of the hall. It was not the headmistress, nor was it one of their instructors. Sophia and Natalia had never seen this woman before.
The woman had dark hair pulled tightly against her head, with loops of raven-black braids twisting prettily from the back. Sophia's eyes grew wide at the woman's elegant red gown, which was trimmed with several rows of lace and embroidered pearls at the sleeves and neckline. She was certain this woman must be the empress. Sophia skidded to a stop and curtsied. She nudged Natalia to do the same.
This did not seem to please the beautiful woman. With a slight frown, she told Natalia to "run along." Suddenly dull-eyed, Natalia abandoned her friend without a single glance back. The cabbage soup would be getting cold, she was thinking, and it tasted best when it was piping hot.
The strange woman stared down at the little girl left alone with her in the hallway. "Walk with me, Sophia Konstantinova."
"Yes, Your Imperial Majesty."
"Foolish girl. I am not your tsarina. I am here on behalf of your father."
Eight-year-old Sophia had never known her father. Orphaned as an infant, she'd been brought to Smolny and raised by the nuns until she was old enough to attend classes. She knew her mother had been a lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress Marie Feodorovna, the wife of the old tsar Pavel, but Sophia did not even know her mother's name. She had, however, overheard the vicious whispers of the nuns regarding her paternity. She knew she was a Romanov bastard, even if she wasn't quite sure what that meant.
The dark-haired woman suddenly clutched Sophia's arm and pulled her into the empty library. "Your father has wanted a child for so long. And I have been unable to give him one. Until now." She smiled a sharp, wicked smile. Sophia gasped as she saw the tiny fangs.
"Why does he want me now?" the little girl asked, turning pale.
"He has watched over you from afar since the day you were born, my dear. But his mother and brother would not allow you to come and live with us."
"And now his brother, the tsar, is dead, and your papa is going to be tsar." There was a gleam in the woman's eyes that frightened the poor girl.
"Who is my father?" she asked. "And who are you?"
"You are going to come and live with us, little Sophia. And we will live happily together forever."
Sophia shrieked, "But you are a monster!"
"Yes, my love," the woman crooned. "And soon you will be one too."
But the poor child panicked and tried to get away from the woman who wanted to make her immortal. She pulled away from her with such force that the woman let go of her arm in surprise. Sophia stumbled backward, not expecting to be freed so easily. She could not catch her balance, but instead hit the back of her head on the doorframe. There was a dreadful thud, and then Sophia Konstantinova slid to the floor, lifeless.
The woman sighed as she picked up her skirts and stepped around the growing puddle of blood. Her nostrils flared slightly, as if she were trying to hold in something terrible. She reached down and picked up the dead girl's hand. It had already turned cold.
The woman smiled. "You cannot run away from a necromancer so easily, my silly child." She ran a sharp fingernail across the girl's palm. Dark, thick blood began to leak out. Closing her eyes, the woman started to chant in an ancient, almost-forgotten language. Using her fingernail again, she cut open her own palm, and her undead blood oozed out. She held her bloodied hand to the dead girl's and resumed her chanting as their blood mingled.
The walls in the cozy library began to shake. Books tumbled from the shelves.
The temperature in the room dropped dramatically. "Do not fight me, love," the woman said. "Don't you want to come back and meet your papa? He is anxious to see you."
"LET ME GO!" The hysterical voice seemed to vibrate off the walls. A mirror in a golden frame fell from the wall, shattering into several pieces.
The woman looked around her in shock. "Sophia, what have you done?" she whispered with a frown. "This was not supposed to happen."
"LET ME GO!" the voice boomed again.
A small gasp at the doorway caused the woman to turn around. Little Natalia stood there, staring at her friend. She was trembling and pale from shock.
The woman heard voices approaching down the hallway and frowned. Whatever magic was at work here, it was stronger than her own. Konstantin would not be pleased. But she could stay at the school no longer.
The woman vanished before Natalia's eyes. A small black moth flew toward the little girl, lightly touching her cheek before fluttering past.
When the headmistress reached the library, she found Natalia sitting in a puddle of blood, cradling the lifeless Sophia Konstantinova in her arms. There had been some sort of horrible accident.
Natalia had heard her friend's voice shouting at the wicked lady in red. She knew that Sophia was safe from the horrible woman, for now. She promised Sophia she would not let anyone separate them ever again.
August 1889, The Crimea, Russia
I stood at the edge of the cliff, shouting into the wind and down to the waves crashing on the jagged rocks below us. "And steep in tears the mournful song, / Notes, which to the dead belong; / Dismal notes, attuned to woe, / By Pluto in the realms below."
Dariya's laugh was unladylike. "Katiya, must you be so morbid?" my cousin asked as she twirled around in her makeshift toga. We had stolen the snowy white linens from our villa and carried them down to the ruins by the beach. Wrapping the linens around us over our dresses, we looked like ancient Greek goddesses.
"Mais bien sur," I replied with a curtsy and a melodramatic sweep of my toga. "It's a morbid play." We were reenacting scenes from a Greek drama we had read in literature class last year, Iphigenia in Tauris. It was here at Khersones, an ancient Greek temple at the edge of the Black Sea, where the Greek priestesses had sacrificed shipwrecked sailors to the virgin goddess Diana. According to the play, of course.
Our families traveled south to the Crimea every year at summer's end, along with most of the Russian court. This summer marked the end of my childhood. In a few weeks, I would be leaving Russia to attend medical school in Switzerland.
I would never again attend the Smolny Institute for Young Noble Maidens, the school I had attended in St. Petersburg since I was twelve. Dariya had completed her studies at Smolny as well, and had been appointed a lady-in-waiting to Grand Duchess Miechen. Dariya was excited about her new life at the dark faerie's court, and her stepmother, Zenaida Dimetrievna, the countess of Leuchtenberg, was excited for her as well. Aunt Zina, as we called her, was an ambitious woman, always eager to further her own position in the grand duchess's court. She would be keeping a close eye on Dariya.
It was a hot day in late August, cooled only by the salty spray that splashed upward as the gray and green waves churned against the sun-baked rocks.
We poked around in the rubble, searching for ancient coins or pottery shards. "Mon Dieu! Katiya!" Dariya picked up something and dusted it off with her sheet.
It was a skull, or part of a skull, at least. Definitely human. But the front teeth had been filed to sharp points.
"What on earth?" Dariya asked with disgust. "Are those ..."
"Fangs." I couldn't help shuddering. They reminded me of someone I knew. A devilishly handsome but wicked blood-drinking prince in the faraway Black Mountains of Montenegro.
My cousin laid the skull back on the ground, and I frowned as I pushed the horrid blood drinker's face from my mind.
"Dariya, you girls must come back up here immediately!" My cousin's short, round stepmother shouted over the wind as she stood next to my mother under her parasol. My mother squinted against the bright sunshine, trying to see us from so high up. The countess was Maman's sister-in-law, and she had attached herself to Maman's side for the summer.
It was late afternoon, and time for tea. The servants had brought a picnic basket filled with sandwiches and fruits and pastries along on our expedition.
"I do wish you would be more careful," Maman said when we finally rejoined them on top of the hill. "It's entirely too dangerous among those ruins."
"But it's so beautiful," I said, taking a cup of tea from Maman's maid. "And we saw a few bones down there. Imagine how old they must be!"
"The teeth were pointed, like fangs!" Dariya couldn't help saying. "I think it was an ancient vampire!"
"Mon Dieu!" the countess exclaimed, her lace-gloved hand fluttering to her heart. "I'd heard that they lived in this region thousands of years ago." She glanced around nervously. "I do hope there aren't any around now."
"Don't be ridiculous," Maman said. "There are no more vampires in Russia."
Dariya and I both knew better. We'd been roommates with a blood drinker all last year. Dariya had almost died because of the poisonous veshtiza, Elena, who had the most annoying habit of turning into a moth and sipping blood from her sleeping classmates.
But my mother knew nothing about that. She'd heard there were blood drinkers once again in St. Petersburg but had disregarded those rumors as nonsense. Maman had no idea the new head of the St. Petersburg vampires was none other than her niece-in-law, Grand Duchess Militza.
"Katiya, I do not want you girls rummaging around down there anymore," Maman said severely. "If you wish to perform Greek plays, you can do so at our dacha, where it's safe. And more people can watch. We can set up a stage in the garden."
"Perhaps you can find a part for me to play," Aunt Zina said as she piled her plate high with fruit tarts and bits of cheese. "I've always wanted to be Helen of Troy. I know how great a burden it can be too beautiful." She sighed as she bit into a cheese dumpling.
My cousin and I looked at each other and giggled. I saw even Maman stifle a smile. Dariya fell back on the blanket and rolled over onto her stomach. "I think you would be perfect as Helen," she told her stepmother. The countess did not notice the irony in Dariya's voice.
It felt good to laugh and be carefree for a bit longer. We stuffed ourselves on lemon-curd tartlets and closed our eyes to the hot sun shining down on us. The sea breeze kept us from getting too warm.
The countess sipped her tea and gazed out across the breaking waves. "I do believe it's more beautiful here than in St. Petersburg. The landscape is more romantic. Wilder. Don't you agree?"
Maman shook her head. "I'll be much more comfortable when we reach our dacha in Yalta. The empress and her family are already at Livadia."
My heart sputtered as I thought of the empress's middle son, George Alexandrovich. I wondered what he was doing right now in his family's summer palace. I wondered if he was thinking of me.
I had refused him last month when he proposed, but I still loved him. My beautiful boy. I ached to see him again, and yet I was afraid of what would happen the next time we were together. It would be so easy to accept his offer of marriage, but I did not want to give in to him. It was far too dangerous for us both. What hope was there when my dark powers had almost killed him the last time we kissed?
It would be much better for me to start a new life in Zurich and pray that George fell in love with someone more suitable for him, someone the empress would approve of. Such as a princess aligned with the Light Court. Someone I, with my dark powers, could never be.
The trip from Sevastopol to Yalta took us all day by carriage along the dusty, winding Vorontsov Road through the mountains. Aunt Zina complained for the entire trip, bemoaning everything from the state of the roads and the age of the carriage to the color of the horses pulling us. Even Maman was glad when the countess and Dariya left us at our villa and continued on to their own rental closer to town.
Maman's mother, Grand Duchess Maria Nikolayevna, had built our family dacha more than fifty years ago. The estate had been given to her by her father, Tsar Nicholas, as a wedding present. Grand-mere had died in 1876, and her many properties had been divided up among her children. Our villa nestled in the hills at Yalta was almost as grand as Livadia, the palace of the current tsar and his family.
We settled in, and later that evening, I opened the windows in my bedroom, stepping out onto the balcony. I could still smell the salt on the breeze, even though we were far from the sea. Here, the nights grew much darker than the summer white nights of St. Petersburg. There were more stars in the sky, more chances to make a wish.
I closed my eyes, breathing in the night, and wished the summer would hurry up and come to an end. I was eager to get started on my new life. For as long as I could remember, I'd wanted to be a doctor. I had never wished for a life at the Russian imperial court, which was full of empty-headed, gossiping women. Not to mention ambitious vampires and scheming fae.
"Katiya?" Maman found me out on the balcony. "Come downstairs with me. Aunt Zina has come and brought a spirit board. We are going to hold a seance in the parlor."
I shook my head. "Please, not tonight, Maman. I feel a migraine coming on."
"Oh, how dreadful!" Maman said. "We are planning to summon someone from the sixteenth century!"
It did not matter whose spirit they wished to bother this evening; I wanted no part of it. My mother still believed that spiritism and seances were simply innocent fun, amusing diversions for ladies of the aristocracy. I, of course, knew better. My ability to conjure up the long departed went far beyond summoning spirits.