The expansive estate wasn’t quite as big as Demyanov Castle, but the opulence, the grandeur, seemed to fairly drip from every visible orifice. Completely adorned with garlands of flowers in a riot of colors that snaked their ways up and around the tallest pillars that flanked the great porch, that draped across the overhang in a very welcoming display. The ivy that climbed impossibly high on the outer walls were dotted with more flowers, adding a gaiety to what could have been a rather imposing structure.
Two majestic fountains rose high on either side of the long and winding driveway, in the midst of the well-manicured gardens, and Saori could see, even from the distance, that the driveway was already lined with a number of vehicles.
“They’re not all staying here,” Fai said, following the direction of Saori’s stare. “Most of them take rooms at the local inns and just drive here for the festivities.”
“And is there a reason you had to drag me along?” Yerik complained from the back seat of the car. “You’re the Demyanov that they want to see, not me.”
“You normally love the Ivan Kupala celebrations,” Fai pointed out.
Yerik snorted. “Sure, when I was ten and all I had to do was run around like a little banshee and drive all the adults crazy . . .”
Fai chuckled. “It’ll be fine,” he assured him. Saori covered her mouth to hide her amusement since his tone made it sound like more of a threat than a reassurance.
“Does Feodosiv-san have a mate? Children?” she asked, figuring that it might be for the best to change the current topic.
Fai shrugged. “A mate, yes. Children? No. Evgeni isn’t exactly fond of them.”
She nodded. Yes, she supposed she could see that. He didn’t seem like the warm and personable type, not really . . . “And you, Fai-sama?” she ventured. “Do you want children?”
“Well, whether I want them or not, it’s kind of part and parcel with the title,” he remarked.
His answer caught her off-guard. She wasn’t entirely sure how to interpret it. He’d said it in such a dry tone . . . She’d never stopped to consider, whether or not she’d find a mate who didn’t really relish the idea of starting a family, had she? And certainly, Fai would have to have at least one child since he’d need an heir to his title, but something about that bothered her, too . . .
‘Come on, Saori . . . Maybe you’re reading too much into it . . .’
But she didn’t think so; not really. If Fai didn’t really want them, what would that mean for any children they’d have, since it really was necessary?
‘But he is your mate, you know. There’s really no going back on that now. Besides, you know he liked the children at the orphanage well enough . . .’
‘They . . . They weren’t his, though, and that makes a huge difference . . .’
‘Well, try to look on the bright side. Either way, you’re guaranteed at least one pup, right?’
Biting her lip as the car came to a stop before the impressive edifice that was the Feodosiv cottegi, she managed a very wan smile when Fai came around to open her door, took her hand to help her out of it.
As true as that may be, if he didn’t want any, then the child would know it, and if that were the case, just how fair would it be? Maybe Fai’s upbringing was a lot stricter than Saori’s ever was, but having children, simply because one had to? It wouldn’t be fair, not at all, not to any children born into a family like that . . . She simply hadn’t thought that Fai would feel that way—or she simply hadn’t really considered it.
And if he didn’t want children, could she really be all right with that? Certainly, it wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t decided such a thing just to spite her. Even so . . .
It was a question that really required a lot more time and thought to truly figure out. That it had come up now, just before the midsummer festival was simply rotten timing, but somehow, she didn’t think she’d really be able to brush it aside, not when it really was such a huge thing to her . . .
A couple of servants stepped outside, hurried over to retrieve their luggage from the trunk. Evgeni emerged, waiting on the porch to greet them. It all passed Saori by in a haze, even as they were led upstairs to their rooms.
It wasn’t until the door closed behind the servant with her bags that Saori blinked and looked around.
She was entirely alone.
“Why do you look like you’re a million miles from here?”
Blinking, forcing a little smile as Yerik stopped beside her, golden hair shining softly, bright green eyes sparkling, decked out in a very nice, very conservative suit that wasn’t quite a tux but wasn’t exactly something one would wear to the office, either, Saori gave what she hoped was a casual shrug. “Just thinking, I guess,” she replied, careful to keep her tone light despite the darker thoughts that were still swirling around her brain. “Who’s that woman over there, staring at Fai-sama like he hung the moon?”
Yerik chuckled, the sound of it muffled by the glass of vodka hovering at his lips as he followed the direction of her gaze. Fai, wearing a plain white dress shirt and black slacks, tie hanging loosely below the first undone button at his neck . . . If he weren’t the Asian tai-youkai, he probably wouldn’t have turned up in such a casual way. “Honestly? I have no idea. It happens all the times at gatherings like this. To be honest, I have no idea if they’re interested in him or if they’re just trying to get a piece of the tai-youkai . . .”
She frowned. It was pretty obvious to her that Fai was not exactly encouraging the attention. Standing with one hand, holding a drink and with his other hand dug deep in his pocket, he was listening politely despite the body language that was definitely gracious, even if unmistakably aloof. Not for the first time, his gaze shifted to meet hers, and again, she managed a wan smile. He offered her the tiniest nod before returning his attention to the woman before him.
They were in the midst of a small—that was Evgeni’s word for it; Saori would have called it rather large—cocktail party—a party she’d wanted to skip. Too bad she figured that it would have drawn way too much attention, at least, from Fai . . . Truth be told, she’d much rather be left alone to think, to try to make sense of the feelings of trepidation inspired by Fai’s candid words in the car, but after the huge dinner in the grand hall, Fai had reminded her that she might wish to change before the party started . . .
“Come with me.”
She blinked when Yerik grabbed her hand, led her over to the doors that opened out onto the stern brick patio behind the cottegi. He stopped just outside the doors, letting go of her, and grinned at her as she stepped forward, her face upturned as she stared in wonder at the illuminated gardens, slightly aglow with a matrix of fairy lights, all in varying shades of white. Some of them were set to blink, giving the illusion of a million little fireflies in the darkness. The beautifully tended flowerbeds, hedges, bushes, small trees . . . the flawlessly cut grass . . . All of it was lit by those twinkling bulbs, and, for the first time since their arrival, she giggled softly. “Beautiful,” she breathed.
Yerik chuckled. “Oh, you haven’t seen anything yet,” he remarked, beckoning her to follow him as he led the way down the steps and onto the flagstone path. “Good thing that I’ve done this before,” he quipped as he veered to the right when the path split. “I’ve seen all this many times already.
She smiled. It was a real one this time. It was rather impossible to maintain such a pensive mood when she was surrounded by such understated wonder . . .
“You’ve been quiet since we arrived,” he said when she remained silent. “It’s kind of unlike you.”
Sighing inwardly, she shook her head. “I’m fine,” she told him, hoping that he wouldn’t see right through her lie. “Just a little tired.”
Yerik nodded slowly, eyes carefully trained straight ahead of them. “You know, you could always sneak over to Fai’s room,” he told her. “I don’t really think he’d mind, and, to be honest, I don’t think anyone else would notice, either.”
“W—I-I . . . No, it’s fine,” she muttered. “I mean, it would be entirely improper, wouldn’t it? And it’s only for a couple days . . .”
Yerik chuckled as they rounded a bend in the path, stepping through an opening in a six-foot hedge that ran in a circle, enclosing a large court. The other side of the split path must have circled around the same way but in the opposite direction, because there was another opening directly across the circle, and Saori’s eyes widened.
In the center of the courtyard stood a beautiful little pond that almost reminded Saori of the koi ponds back home. The entire thing was aglow with the tiniest net of lights, spread over the bottom under the water. Those lights were all a single shade of the palest blue, and she couldn’t help the small giggle that slipped from her as she knelt beside the water’s edge, letting her fingertips dangle in it.
Yerik sighed, standing back, hands deep in the pockets of his slacks, but sometime since they’d stepped outside, he’d ditched his jacket, lost his tie, unbuttoned the top two buttons of his dress shirt, and rolled up his sleeves a couple of times for good measure. “If I thought that I could get away with it, I’d take you for a run,” he said. “That’s what I do when I’m . . . fine . . .”
She felt her back stiffen, and she winced. He didn’t see it since she was facing the pond. “I told you—”
“It’s okay, you know,” he interrupted gently and in the same conversational tone. “If you don’t want to tell me, I get it. Now, my guess is that it has something to do with Fai . . . I just thought that maybe some fresh air, some quiet, might be good for you.”
She stood up, flicking her fingers, sending droplets of water, flying from her hand. Caught in the dancing network of lights, they sparkled and shimmered as they shot out over the pond and dropped back into the water once more. “Will you walk with me a little longer?” she asked as she turned to face him again.
“Sure,” he replied, offering her a lopsided grin. This time, he headed in the opposite direction from the cottegi. She hadn’t noticed the opening in the hedges on this side, and little wonder why. The path led to a less ordered, but still beautiful part of the garden—less formal and more freeform, and this one was simply accented with the occasional garden lamp, most of them masked by clumps of greenery, of small and less articulated trees . . . Clumps of wildflowers that meandered wherever they wanted, a few benches tucked away here and there—the perfect spot for quiet reflection, for reading a book, or for simply being alone . . .
“Can I ask you something?”
Yerik blinked, shot her a quick glance, almost as though he were surprised by her question. “Okay,” he told her, veering toward a bench that stood in a cove between two small trees.
She sat down with him, taking a moment to gather her thoughts before speaking, savoring the crisp evening air to drift over her cheeks, tossing the strands of her hair that had escaped the twist she’d pulled it up into before the party as she fussed with the hem of the short black dress she’d packed, ‘just in case’. “Fai-sama . . . He raised you, right?”
He nodded. “He did.”
“I know both of you said that,” she hurried on to say. “It’s just . . . I wondered . . . What . . .? What kind of parent was he to you?”
“Parent?” he echoed, a sense of confusion, knitting his brows together. Then he barked out a terse laugh, leaning forward, elbows on his knees, hands dangling between them. “Well, I guess he kind of was, wasn’t he? I just never really thought of it quite like that, I guess . . .” He sighed, pondering her question more fully. “He, um . . . He . . . rarely said, ‘no’ to me. I mean, he did if it was something really stupid, but I’d ask him if he’d play with me, for example, and . . . and he always did. I know, that seems like a dumb thing, but looking back now? How busy was he? How many times did I ask him to basically drop everything, and he always did . . . Never made me feel like a pest or a nuisance, and he really had to have thought it, at least, once in a while, right? I guess, if I had to say, one way or the other . . . He was . . . He was a good one—a, uh . . . a parent, I mean.”
She frowned. Somehow, Yerik’s answer confused her even more . . .
Yerik sighed. “You know, Saori . . . I know that it’s really none of my business. After all, I think I’d be a little offended if my younger brother tried to meddle in my, uh, affairs. But . . . But there were a lot of times as I grew older that I’d realize things—things that I’m sure Fai had tried to hide from me. Of course, he would, right? I was just a pup, so I didn’t understand at the time . . . Anyway, as I grew older, I started to get it. Fai . . . Fai dropped out of college to take care of me. Between raising me and being tai-youkai, I wonder sometimes, how he found it in himself to do it all, and he did it alone. I can’t remember ever having a nanny or anything, and I don’t remember Fai ever being far away from me, either . . .”
Trailing off, he shook his head, as though he were trying to figure out exactly how to say what it was on his mind. In the end, he shot her an almost apologetic kind of smile, all lopsided and bashful and entirely endearing . . . “Fai never brought home women. If he met with anyone on a regular basis, I never heard of it. It’s not surprising, I guess, given that he’s always taken his station very seriously . . . but in the length of time that I’ve known you, I’ve heard my brother laugh—really laugh—more often than I can remember the whole time, growing up, and that has to mean something. You . . . You have to mean something.” Shaking his head, he chuckled softly. “Anyway, I, uh . . . Thank you for that.” Slipping an arm around her shoulders to give them a gentle squeeze, he kissed her temple before turning his attention upward again. “Just . . . thanks . . .”
Fai surreptitiously flicked his wrist, tried to glance down at his watch without being too obvious about it as he sat in Evgeni’s office, along with a few other people that he didn’t know, but that Evgeni had introduced as business associates. They were currently discussing the stock market, and Fai was actively considering sneaking away.
He’d seen Yerik pull Saori out into the gardens behind the cottegi, and he’d seen when they’d slipped back inside once more an hour later. Saori had seemed a lot more relaxed, too, which only made Fai wonder if he hadn’t imagined the subtle sense that something was bothering her before . . .
In any case, he really did want to go find her, to talk to her, to make sure that she was all right, and he’d been ready to do that a couple hours ago, only to be intercepted by Evgeni, who said that he had some associates he wanted Fai to meet.
A woman slipped into the room—Evgeni had introduced her as Katja Petrova. She said nothing, striding straight over to Evgeni to whisper something in his ear. Evgeni’s usual stern expression seemed to draw together in a thoughtful scowl, and he held up a hand for silence as his gaze locked with Fai’s. “Your Grace, did Konstantin Korinovich issue you a challenge?”
Fai’s expression gave away nothing, despite the internal surprise that Evgeni had hears about that at all. “He rescinded,” Fai replied evenly, almost carelessly.
Evgeni’s scowl darkened even more. “You let him out of it? Why would you do that? What if he comes back later? What if he spreads rumors about the entire affair? Your reputation—”
“—Is just fine and will remain just fine,” Fai cut in. “Turns out, he was fed a bunch of rumors. I have since reassured him that his place—his father’s place—as regent is as secure now as it has ever been—not that I really need to explain my actions to you. Last time I checked, I am not answerable to anyone—anyone but the Inu no Taisho, anyway.”
“Fai, surely you understand—”
“What else did she just tell you?” Fai cut in, flicking his gaze to the woman—Katja—for a mere second before meeting Evgeni’s once more.
Evgeni uttered a small chuckle. “She’s got an uncanny ability to come by information; that’s all,” Then he sighed. “I’m not trying to question your motives, but surely you can see just how questionable that could be. Korinovich could well prove to be dangerous if left unchecked. Siberia’s never been an easy region to govern—many of those who call it home are also the ones who seek to avoid undue notice.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Fai replied a little tightly. “It’s entirely unnecessary.”
Evgeni nodded. “Good, then . . . Oh, but I was wondering, how are the orphans’ placements going? Has Saori been able to make any headway with that?”
“She’s looking through the list of potential adopters. I imagine she’ll start making arrangements to have them come here to meet the children as soon as we go home.”
Evgeni’s eyebrows lifted in very obvious surprise. “You’re leaving her in charge of the entire process?”
Fai shrugged, rising from his chair, moving off toward the wet bar to refill his glass. “Of course, I am. That’s why I hired her.”
‘Not the only reason, Fai.’
‘Not now,’ Fai told his youkai-voice.
The voice snorted indelicately.
“But she’s so young . . . That’s a lot of responsibility for one who is little more than a child herself.”
“And yet, I hired her anyway,” he retorted dryly.
Another man in the room—Fai had already forgotten his name—laughed. “Oh, come now, Geni . . . if I were His Grace, I’d have hired her, too. By the way, is she single?”
Loosening his grip on the glass mere moments before it shattered in his hand, Fai had to tamp down the instant and violent surge of anger inspired by the man’s misplaced question. “I hired her because she is quite capable of doing the task I asked her to do,” he replied without turning away from the wet bar.
“Well, I did notice that your younger brother seemed to have taken an interest in her,” the last man remarked. “Maybe not single for long, eh?”
Gritting his teeth, Fai turned around, deliberately taking his time as he sipped the vodka. “Surely there’s something more interesting to discuss other than the young lady I hired?” he asked, pinning Evgeni with a very pointed stare. “If not, then I will retire for the night.”
Evgeni nodded slowly. “Well, if you want my opinion on the subject of the regents . . . You’ve already lost a few of them. Do you really need to have them at all? Your father never had use for them. You’re strong enough without their backing. Get rid of them, I say.”
“I have no intention of usurping the regents,” Fai said, turning far enough to set the empty glass on the sideboard. “I’m tired, Evgeni. Thank you for an enjoyable evening.”
That said, he started out of the room with every intention of finding Saori, to at least speak to her, even if he wasn’t at all sure that he ought to try to tempt fate by sleeping in the same room as her.
Evgeni fell into step beside him in the hallway, heading back toward the great hall once more. “I understand your feelings regarding the regents,” he said as the headed for the grand staircase. “But how do you know you can trust them—especially the likes of Konstantin Korinovich and his father?”
“It’s not open to discussion, Geni,” he warned in a tone that should have left no room for debate.
The griffon-vulture-youkai looked about as frustrated as it was possible for him to look, eyes narrowing as he puffed up his chest, but he let the subject drop, only to bring up another one entirely. “I was told the other day that Ian MacDonnough might be willing to buy the rights to the area on his side of the continent.”
Fai stopped in his tracks for a second before striding down the hallway toward the bedroom he’d been given for his stay. “No.”
“Be reasonable, Fai . . . He’s offering what you desperately need: money—a lot of it, and all he wants is the European side of Russia—the western Slavic nations . . . It’s not that big of an area, and really, it would give you that much less to have to worry about.”
“I said no,” Fai stated once more, stepping over the threshold of the bedroom, starting to close the door.
Evgeni grabbed it before Fai could close it completely. “Just think about it, please. If things keep on the way they are now . . .”
“I am well aware of my finances,” he said. “Now, I’m tired, and you’ve got that hunt planned early tomorrow, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to bed.”
Evgeni didn’t look entirely pleased, but he nodded. “Then I bid you sleep well, Your Grace.”
Finally, blessedly, Fai closed the door. Hand over part of his jurisdiction? No, that wouldn’t be happening, and he didn’t rightfully care if the money would help or not. Sell off parts of his jurisdiction? The idea unleased a rage in him that erupted in a low, vicious growl.
Auctioning off pieces of his father’s empire? “Never,” he hissed under his breath.
Pacing the length of the room and back, he struggled to get a tight grip on his anger. It didn’t really work. The longer he thought about it, the angrier he grew, and the angrier he grew, the more he needed to rip something to shreds . . .