Sitting on a stool at the bar in the bright and airy kitchen of the cottegi as she helped Zenaida Korinova chop up vegetables for the hearty stew that was already starting to smell delicious on the stove top where she was braising the meat. Fai sat at the heavy table near the fireplace on the other side of the large room with Konstantin and his father, who had introduced himself as Maxim, the Siberian regent. That man was even bigger than Konstantin—also a Kamchatka-brown-bear-youkai—had a warm and friendly face and the best, deep, ringing belly laugh. He was a little reticent when they’d first arrived, but once he realized that Fai really had no intention of usurping him, it didn’t take long for him to warm up.
They’d arrived at the cottegi this morning, having stopped at the local town to rent a room there last night, mostly to give Konstantin time to prepare for their visit and to allow Fai a chance to decompress, to regain his perspective before walking into a meeting that could easily go either way. In fact, he’d tried to talk her into staying at the inn. Saori, however, wouldn’t oblige him, and he’d given up fairly quickly.
Zenaida bit her lip as she scooped the chopped veggies into a bowl. “I apologize. The stew isn’t fancy . . . We didn’t realize . . . I mean, we thought . . .”
Saori grimaced, understanding what Zenaida meant, even though she was reluctant to say it. “Fai-sama’s a very good man,” she said, offering the woman a reassuring smile. “He said that he feels there’s more to it, that he wouldn’t want to carry out a challenge against someone who issued it because of baseless rumors.”
Zenaida sighed, glancing over at the men, but this time, she smiled. It was a small smile, but Saori could see the affection in it as she watched her men and Fai. “He . . . He wasn’t given a fair chance when he became tai-youkai . . . There were so many who questioned his ability, simply based upon his age, even those who professed to serve him. The regents discussed it—banding together, asking him to step aside—or at least to appoint an interim while he continued to grow, to strengthen. Maxim was of the opinion that he should do the latter, for his own good. A twenty-year-old was young, and assuming that much responsibility at that age . . . It wasn’t really fair, but the others? Most of them were of the opinion that a change in regime was in order. They were dissatisfied with Alexei, you see? It had little to do with His Grace . . .”
Frowning as she considered Zenaida’s commentary, Saori slowly shook her head. “Why?”
Zenaida shrugged, smoothing back a long strand of her pale blonde hair as she stood to put the vegetables into the pot. Giving it a little stir, taking the time to add salt and pepper, she gestured for Saori to follow her when she grabbed a basket and moved off toward the back door. Saori scooted off the high stool and hurried over to get the door and hold it open for Zenaida, who had stopped to retrieve an old pair of scissors.
The warm sunshine was weak and watery as it filtered through the nearby trees. She followed Zenaida over to the herb garden—an absolutely fabulous one, at that, breathing deep, savoring the earthy smells. “Your garden is beautiful,” she remarked, gently touching the delicate leaves of a gorgeous parsley plant.
Zenaida laughed softly. It was a very soothing sound, almost lyrical in its delivery. “Thank you.”
“Oh, thank you for welcoming us in your home,” Saori hurried to say. “It’s a beautiful place.”
“It is humble,” Zenaida insisted, brushing aside Saori’s praise. “It’s been in Maxim’s family for generations, and each generation leaves its mark upon it.” Raising her face, she pointed over toward a beautiful little arbor, surrounded by wildflowers, partially hiding the rustic old bench swing from view. “Maxim built that for me when we were mated. I’m originally from Greece, and I was so homesick . . . I grew up amid olive trees and mild temperatures with the sea breeze on my skin every morning, drenched in sunshine, and coming here was as different as daylight and darkness . . .”
“I’ll bet the culture shock was terrible,” Saori ventured as they moved slowly between the rows of herbs.
Zenaida let out a deep breath, nodding slowly, her long ponytail, blowing in the fresh breeze. “Oh, it was . . . I knew it would be different, but I hadn’t realized just how different. It felt like an entirely new and frightening planet . . . Does that make sense?”
Saori nodded, taking the basket so that Zenaida had an easier time, harvesting the herbs. “I think so. It’s a world apart from Tokyo, too. It’s not bad, just very, very different.”
“I would like to go there one day—Tokyo . . .”
Saori smiled. “It’s a nice place to grow up. So many places to go, things to see . . . I was never bored . . . Now, tell me, how did you meet Maxim-san?”
She laughed, her gaze taking on that faraway kind of sheen, as though she were looking back through the years . . . “My Maxim . . . I met him at a party that I didn’t want to attend. It was for old people, I told Papa—a lot of dignitaries from exotic lands . . . It bored me, silly little thing that I was . . . But Papa said that I had to go, that it would look bad upon my family if I didn’t, and, being the dutiful daughter that I was, I went along, and I was right—terribly right. It was the worst experience . . . Even more really old and really stuffy youkai, all with their families who spent more time, comparing themselves to each other in silence, than they did, trying to mingle and meet one another. You could tell who thought that they were better than you. They wouldn’t deign to speak to you, you know? But those who felt as though they didn’t quite measure up? They were worse: sitting there, whispering and pointing and staring . . . Just awful!”
“Well, but you met your mate there,” Saori pointed out. “It can’t have been all bad . . .”
Zenaida ducked her chin, her cheeks pinking prettily. “I did,” she agreed.
“Was it like one of those storybook meetings? You see each other across the room . . . Your eyes meet, and there’re fireworks . . .?”
Zenaida grimaced, but smiled at the same time. Then she laughed. “Not exactly . . . I was outside, taking some air, wishing that I was anywhere but there—out with my friends or watching a movie at the cinema—all those things that a seventeen-year-old girl would rather be doing. I didn’t see him out there. He was sitting on a bench in the shadows, and the next thing I know, he grabs my arms and kisses me—this stranger. I was stunned—and angry. How dare this man do that when I don’t know him, not even his name! So, I . . . I slapped him—hard. He laughed, which only fueled my rage, and he said that he was my mate . . .”
Saori blinked. “That fast? Is that even possible? Well, I mean, I guess it is . . .”
Zenaida chuckled. “He pursued me for five years. Every time I thought I was rid of him, he’d show up again. I finally agreed to go on a date with him just to get him to leave me alone. He promised that he’d go away if I didn’t like him, but . . . But he was kind and gentle and sweet . . . and he said he didn’t know why he kissed me that night. He just felt that it was the most natural thing to do . . . It wasn’t love at first sight, no . . . But he did make quite an impact on me.”
Saori cleared her throat. “If . . . If it makes you feel better, I . . . I appropriated . . . Fai-sama the first time I met him . . . Well, I guess you could say I, um . . . kidnapped him . . .”
Zenaida blinked. “You . . .? Excuse me?”
She grimaced. “I wanted him to meet the orphans . . . I was working at the St. Nicholas II Home for Children at the time as an advocate, and he had sent word that he was going to end funding, so they sent me to try to talk him out of it, and . . .” She made a face. “Do you know, like, when every single thing you can think of just starts to go wrong, but it happens so fast that you can’t really control it or stop it . . .?” She sighed. “That’s kind of what happened . . .”
“Oh, my . . .”
Saori slowly shook her head. “But he did meet the children, and he decided that he could keep it open, so now I’m working with him, looking for placement for some of them, even if they go to homes outside of Asia . . .”
She pondered that for a long moment and then nodded slowly. “It’s a good solution,” she said. “All children deserve a family of their own, even if it means they have to be sent to a whole new world . . .”
“I think so, too,” Saori allowed. Still, she couldn’t help but to remember what Zenaida had said before they’d come outside—the things about Fai’s father . . . “But . . . But I wondered . . . I mean, about Fai-sama’s father . . .? What did you mean when you said the regents were dissatisfied with him?”
Considering the abrupt change in topic, Zenaida slowly shook her head before she spoke. “Alexei—He was a good tai-youkai, please believe me. But he was a very proud man, and he held little value in the regents’ opinions. They are here to assist the tai-youkai—to help him govern this region. It is not an easy place. It is so vast, the people so diverse . . . It is the reason that the regents were established, and they all have served with unmatched pride and loyalty, but Alexei . . .” Shaking her head, she made an exaggerated frown. “Somehow, he was convinced that a strong leader needed to stand on his own, that he needed to trust himself above all others, and he was not wrong, but he failed to recognize that it was also not weak to listen to the wisdom of others, especially when it was their jobs to assist him in those things.”
Saori bit her lip. Sure, she could understand the underlying sentiment, especially in a place as large as Asia. Even so . . . “They are the undisputed law,” she said. “You may not agree with what they do, but they’re in office for a reason . . .”
“I agree,” she replied. “However, he ought to know—to understand—that it is the pride of the regents, too. Maxim—those like him? They want to do their jobs, too. They want to offer that insight into the area that he may not have since he doesn’t live here . . . Maxim disagrees with those who resorted to challenging His Grace. He thought they would make more of an impact if they had stood together to voice their opinions . . . and then, the rumors . . .”
“Every day, there are new ones, and every day, the sense that Maxim’s position is being threatened has grown, and the troubling thing to him is that, through this, His Grace has never reached out directly to him, one way or the other. Well, until now . . .”
Saori bit her lip, wondering really, if she ought to say anything, given that it wasn’t really her place, but then, maybe she didn’t have to. Her gut instinct was to rush to Fai’s defense, but somehow, she had a sneaking suspicion that Fai . . . He wouldn’t appreciate it, would he?
‘It’d be weird, don’t you think, if you didn’t want to defend your mate.’
Blinking, eyes widening at the matter-of-fact revelation just dropped on her by her youkai-voice, Saori’s universe froze. Zenaida was speaking, but the words were lost to her. The only thing that kept repeating in her mind, over and over again?
‘My . . . mate . . .?’
Pushing his plate away on the table, Fai let out a deep breath as he reached for the glass of kvass. As much as everyone had eaten, the serving bowls and platters that covered every inch of the table were still piled high with all kinds of food.
Maxim and Konstantin were still eating. Saori was watching them with a little smile on her face. She intercepted his gaze, her cheeks pinking prettily as she quickly looked away, leaving Fai to ponder her rather strange reaction for a moment.
‘Come to think of it, she’s done that every time she’s caught you looking at her today,’ his youkai-voice remarked.
‘Yeah, but why . . .?’
‘Maybe she’s thinking about that kiss yesterday . . . God only knows you stayed up late enough, thinking about it . . .’
He sighed inwardly, mostly because his youkai was right: he was awake almost all night, thinking about that kiss, that moment, about just how perfect it had felt to him . . . The question that had plagued him? Did she feel it, too? Those emotions that he’d felt? Part of him thought that maybe she had, but he couldn’t quite shake the lingering sense of doubt . . .
‘You could always ask her . . .’
Snorting indelicately, Fai set the glass down. ‘No, I really can’t.’
Some things, he supposed, just couldn’t be rushed, even if he wanted to . . .
“We are honored that you took the time to come to our home,” Maxim said, leaning back in his chair with a satisfied sigh. “You are welcome here any time, Your Grace—and you, Saori.”
“Thank you for your hospitality,” Fai remarked. “We cannot stay too much longer, though. It’s a long drive back home.”
“Of course! Of course!” Maxim said. “What we spoke of earlier—rest assured, we will get to the bottom of it.”
Fai nodded. He wasn’t entirely sure, what to make of any of the things that Maxim and Konstantin had told him. So many rumors—some specifically targeted toward the regent—while others were far vaguer, and yet, some of them held at least a small token of truth. That’s what bothered him most . . .
Those rumors hadn’t been what drove Konstantin to challenge him. They had only served to deepen their overall suspicion, painting a picture of Fai that was wholly inept and almost megalomaniacally dangerous. Rumors that the treasury was almost empty—that he’d managed to squander it completely—that he turned an apathetic eye upon those in need . . . Even that he was closing the orphanage and turning those children all out onto the street . . . and more. Those, he supposed, were the highlights . . .
Maxim and Konstantin had promised to try to find the source of those rumors, but there were no guarantees. Rumors, he knew, tended to take on a life of their own, even if the one who had propagated those rumors bordered upon committing outright treason . . .
Zenaida stood up, hurried over to the kitchen to retrieve a beautiful silver tray, piled high with baklava. She set it on the one empty basket that had held slices and slices of black bread. Though he wasn’t really a big dessert eater, he took one. He had to admit, it was the best baklava he’d ever had . . .
Maxim laughed heartily, popping a piece of the confection into his mouth. “And this Saori . . . She is your . . . personal assistant . . .?”
Fai didn’t miss the bawdy teasing in the man’s tone, and, glancing at Saori, he figured that she hadn’t, either. Her cheeks pinked sweetly, and she ducked her head when Zenaida reached over and smacked her mate with the back of her hand. “Stop that!” she scolded, despite the sparkle in her eyes, which only made Maxim laugh harder. “And it’s none of your business, you know!”
“Something like that,” Fai allowed after clearing his throat. “Saori . . . Are you ready?”
“Oh, but . . .” Biting her lip as she surveyed the mountains of dishes still on the table, she looked like she was torn between the idea that they really ought to get moving and the perceived carnage left in their wakes.
“No, no! His Grace is right,” Zenaida insisted, rising from her chair and shooing Saori away from the table. “You two have a safe trip home.”
“Dinner was delicious,” Saori said, offering the woman a polite Japanese bow. “Thank you so much!”
Fai stood, too. Both of the men rose, as well, to shake hands after Fai stepped around the table. “Your hospitality is greatly appreciated,” he told them.
Maxim nodded, his dark eyes suspiciously bright. “No, Your Grace . . . Thank you . . . Thank you for allowing Kostya to rescind his challenge—for listening to his words. I am in your debt, and should you ever, ever have need of me, I will be there.”
Nodding slowly, Fai grasped the man’s hand tightly. “I may take you up on that,” he said a little ruefully.
“God be with you,” Maxim said.
“I will leave tomorrow, search out the ones who I’d heard talking before,” Konstantin said as he walked Fai and Saori out to the car. “I . . . I’m so sorry, Your Grace . . . That I believed the things that I was told . . .”
“Don’t worry about it,” Fai said.
Konstantin didn’t look any less guilty, despite Fai’s attempt to brush it off. “Konstantin—”
“Kostya,” he interrupted. “You . . . You can call me Kostya.”
“All right,” Fai agreed. “You don’t need to address me so formally, either.”
The bear-youkai looked rather horrified—almost enough to make Fai laugh. “Oh, uh . . . I-I-I can’t do that . . .”
“If you find out anything, don’t hesitate to let me know. Maybe it’s nothing, but . . .”
Konstantin slowly shook his head. “No, you’re right,” he said, scratching at his bearded chin thoughtfully. “It feels . . . It feels like there was a method to it—like someone might have wanted these things to reach me.” The expression on his face hardened. “I don’t like it. If someone was trying to manipulate me . . .”
“Let me know what you find out,” Fai reiterated. “Stop in if you’re near the castle.”
Blinking away the lingering memory, Fai glanced over at Saori. She yawned and stretched as well as she could, given the confines of the car. She’d fallen asleep about ten minutes into the long drive and had been asleep for the last couple hours. “You’re awake.”
She smiled a little vaguely. “I can drive if you want to take a nap,” she offered.
He grunted. “Knowing you, you’d take off for the orphanage again if I let you.”
She giggled. “I wouldn’t! Then again, it wouldn’t hurt to get more pictures of the children . . . Some of the files only have one or two of each of them, and some of those are pretty blurry . . .”
Fai shook his head. “I thought you wanted to go to Evgeni’s Kupala Night celebration?”
She gasped, eyes flashing wide. “Oh, I do! I mean, I’ve heard stories, but it sounds so intriguing . . . We don’t have anything like that in Japan . . .”
Fai rolled his eyes. “I can’t say that I’ve ever particularly enjoyed it, but . . . maybe this year will be different . . .”
Biting her lips, Saori smiled even as her cheeks pinked.
He sighed, propping his elbow on the window frame, resting his temple against his curled fist as he trained his eyes on the road before them. The sun was starting to sink on the horizon, and they were still a good few hours from home. If they had any camping gear, he’d seriously consider, just stopping, but it was probably better that they just went home.
“Oh!” Saori exclaimed, twisting around in her seat to retrieve the basket that Zenaida had packed for them. Given that it was such a long drive, she’d insisted that they take some food. She pulled a couple pirojki out of the basket and handed one to Fai before biting into hers. “Mmm . . . this one’s beef!”
Leaning back slightly to eye the one in his hand, he snorted very loudly and gave it to her before grabbing the one out of her hand.
“Hey!” she protested with a little laugh.
“That one’s potato, and you did that on purpose,” he accused, shoving the entire pirojki into his mouth at once.
“But I wanted the beef one!” she complained.
“You got a bite of it,” he told her. “Now be good and eat your pirojki.”
She giggled and bit into hers. “Baka,” she grumbled around the food in her mouth.
“What does that mean? Baka?” he asked.
She shot him a sidelong look, then smiled sweetly. “It means that you’re lucky I like you, Your Grace.”
He snorted and shook his head as he tightened his grip on the steering wheel.