Saori bit her lip, shot Yerik a nervous glance as they knelt on the balcony, overlooking the gardens below where people milled about, enjoying the Kupala Eve celebrations. The holiday—a long-standing pagan tradition, celebrating the god of fertility and purity always held on the summer solstice—the longest day of the year—had become the celebration of John the Baptist, also known as Ivan Kupala, after Christianity had spread into the region centuries ago. It still retained many of the old traditions, however, with an emphasis on purity and fertility, focusing largely on the use and imagery of water and the purifying properties of it. This day, however, was Tvorila night—the night of good humor and mischief—and Yerik, still caught up between being a pup and becoming an adult, had roused Saori out of bed just before the crack of dawn with a bucket of used bathwater in an effort to get her to go swim with him since it was a well-known fact that the most purifying swims should always be taken at dawn . . .
And since that shocking wake up call, here they’d been, hiding on the balcony, waiting for unwitting targets that they could pour water on, hence making them participate in the purifying swimming in the nearby lake . . .
“I suppose we ought to be a little sorry for this,” Yerik remarked in a hushed tone as he scanned the area below.
“You don’t sound sorry at all—and why didn’t you douse your brother instead of me?” she demanded, also careful to keep her voice low.
Yerik chuckled. “Are you kidding? They already left for their hunt well before dawn,” he explained. “Asked me if I wanted to go, but . . . spending hours with Evgeni and his band of peacocks? I’ll pass.”
“You . . . You don’t like him?” she asked, rising up, carefully taking aim with her bucket as the woman who had been fawning all over Fai at the party last night stopped conveniently under the balcony.
Yerik shrugged, standing up, helping her to steady the cumbersome wooden bucket. “It’s more that he’s just . . . boring,” he explained. “Oh, look! There! One . . . two . . . three . . .”
And they tipped the bucket in one fluid motion before dropping back down once more, hands over mouths to stifle the giggles as the woman shrieked in surprise when the water struck true. Saori collapsed against Yerik’s shoulder, her face turning an unsightly shade of red with her efforts to contain her overall amusement since she could hear the woman’s rapid and outraged words, and she didn’t dare lean toward the railing, lest she could be discerned.
Yerik chuckled. “Maybe we should go down, see what the locals are up to,” he suggested. It was the one time of year, he’d told her, that Evgeni opened his estate to the people in the local village, and they flocked here in droves, some of them, handing out flower and herb garlands along with garlands for the young ladies to set adrift, while others were gathered around bonfires, singing songs and visiting as boys competed against one another to see who could jump the highest over the burning fires . . .
It was a time of revelry and celebration, of merriment and hope. It wasn’t unusual for people to bring shirts of their ailing loved ones, too, to cast them into the flames in the hopes that it would purge the sickness from the afflicted ones, and, though it may not really help, having faith was a precious thing, too . . .
Setting the bucket aside, Yerik gestured for Saori to follow him as he squat-scooted toward the balcony doors, just in case the woman wasn’t done berating them. She crawled after him, both of them laughing in low tones until they closed the doors. Saori collapsed, laughing so hard that her stomach hurt and her eyes watered while Yerik rolled onto his back, unleashing a deep belly laugh. They stayed that way for a few minutes, and it might have ended sooner, but every time one of them managed to stop, the other one would burst into another round of laughter, dragging each other along.
By the time they finally managed to wind down, they were both gasping for breath, wiping their eyes. Yerik was the first to speak. “I don’t remember the last time I laughed that hard,” he admitted, shaking his head slowly, as though he didn’t believe what he was saying.
“Me, either,” she said, wrapping her arms over her stomach with a low groan. “Oh, I hurt . . .”
Yerik chuckled and stood up, extending a hand to help her to her feet. “Come on. You need one of those wreaths, right?”
“Do I?” she asked, allowing him to pull her up.
He shrugged, letting go of her hand as he poked his head into the hallway, as though he were making sure that they weren’t about to be waylaid. The coast was clear, so he pushed the door open and stepped back to allow Saori to pass him.
“Sure, you do. You’re not married or anything . . . Of course, you’re going to want to set your garland adrift. Maybe . . . Maybe some young man will manage to snare it before it sinks, and then you’ll have to marry him.”
She rolled her eyes despite the sparkle still in her eyes. “You don’t have to marry the one who does that,” she countered.
He chuckled. “That’s true, but you’ll break his heart if you don’t . . .”
“Do you really think there’s any truth to all of that?”
Yerik shrugged. “You never know, do you? I mean, it’s entirely possible that there is some. Let’s go see if there are any fortune tellers down there. There’s usually one or two at these things, anyway. We’ll see if they can’t make any predictions about you.”
She wrinkled her nose as they descended the staircase. “Only if you do it, too,” she said.
“Okay,” he agreed. “Not that I’m going to find my mate or that I’m even remotely interested in looking for one at this point, but maybe they’ll know where I can go later when I’m ready.”
Saori nodded. She supposed she could understand that. After all, Yerik was still only eighteen years old. There was plenty of time for him to worry about something like that, especially when he didn’t really need or want the distraction of a woman in his life at this point while he was out on a hunt . . .
Venturing through the opulent great hall, lined with various statues, pedestals with beautiful antique vases . . . Very old paintings, bathed in softened spotlights—even a couple Cain Zelig pieces that Saori recognized simply by the style of the paintings . . . Evgeni was not shy about showing his wealth . . .
“Oh, Master Yerik! Saori! Good morning,” Arrida Feodosova greeted as she hurried forward to intercept the two of them. The golden-fox-youkai smiled warmly, her pretty face, bright and eager as she grasped Saori’s hands and gave them a welcoming squeeze. She wasn’t a kitsune; those did not exist outside of Japan without direct lineage. It struck Saori again, just how vastly different the woman was from her mate, Evgeni. Impossibly friendly, warm, she had been genuinely pleased and had taken the time to chat with Saori awhile last night when she and Yerik had returned from their sojourn in the gardens. Then she’d gone out of her way to introduce Saori to most of the women in attendance, as well. She was as sweet and kind as Evgeni was brusque and even a little foreboding, but she brushed that thought aside as she returned Arrida’s smile. “I trust you slept well?” she asked, including both of them in her question.
“Absolutely,” Yerik replied with very welcoming smile.
“Thank you,” Saori replied. “I did.” That was a lie, but that had nothing at all to do with her room and everything to do with the idea that Fai . . . He hadn’t even stopped in to say good night . . .
Arrida seemed entirely pleased by their answers, however, her bright green eyes sparkling even more as her giggled. “You know, the ladies and I were getting ready to have some tea in the solar,” she remarked. “Would you like to join us?”
“Oh,” Saori exclaimed, casting Yerik a quick glance. “I would love to, but, umm . . . I was going to go outside with Yerik-kun . . . Take a look around . . .”
“If you’d rather, that’s fine,” Yerik told her.
Arrida seemed to believe that the entire thing was settled, and she grasped Saori’s arm and started to lead her away. “The men should be back from the hunt soon,” she called over her shoulder. “I will assume you’re not interested in sitting around with a bunch of gossiping women, after all.”
Yerik’s soft chuckle sounded behind them, and Saori frowned. She hadn’t bothered to get dressed in anything special, really—just a pair of tan slacks and a pale pink blouse. Arrida, however, was turned out in a rather proper day dress befitting the festive occasion.
“Should I go change?” Saori blurted before they could cross the threshold into the bright and airy sun room that Arrida had called the solar.
Arrida blinked, pausing long enough to give Saori a quick once-over. “You’re fine,” she assured her, her smile returning. “Lovely, in fact! To tell you the truth, I was looking for you, you know.”
Saori blinked. “You were?”
Arrida nodded enthusiastically. “Well, my dear friend, Ekaterina has a son who couldn’t seem to keep his eyes off you last night, so she wanted to get to know you better . . .”
If Arrida noticed her sudden reluctance, she ignored it. “Now, come on! Besides, Ekaterina’s son? He’s a very accomplished man, even if he isn’t very old . . .”
She tried to think of a reason to back out of the invitation to attend tea. It was too late, however, as Arrida herded her toward the women, milling around the solar, chatting in small groups. At least some of them weren’t dressed any fancier than Saori was, and that was a small relief. Even so . . .
A huge knot formed deep in her belly, and Saori could only wish that she’d opted to go wandering with Yerik instead . . .
“How was hunting?”
Sparing a moment to pin his younger brother with an entirely longsuffering kind of stare, Fai tried to weave through the milling crowd in his effort to get back to the cottegi—and to find Saori.
He’d been too irritated to go to her last night. It had taken everything in him to keep his temper in check. The idea that Evgeni would even propose the idea that Fai might consider selling a part of his jurisdiction, especially to the likes of Ian MacDonnough?
Even thinking about it now was enough to send his temper soaring, all over again.
“That bad?” Yerik deadpanned when Fai didn’t answer him.
Fai leaned to the side to avoid a bunch of children who were running along the same path. “It was fine,” he replied, figuring that it wasn’t worth repeating. Given that Evgeni had studiously avoided any so-called, ‘shop talk’ during the hunt was but a small reprieve in his estimation, anyway . . .
‘You know, Evgeni’s grown more vocal with his . . . concerns . . . of late . . .’ his youkai remarked thoughtfully. ‘Perhaps you should remind him where his place is in the grand scheme of things? Friend or not, he openly criticized your policies last night in front of the others in the room . . . You’re letting him be a little too complacent, don’t you think?’
He sighed inwardly. Yes, his youkai had a very valid point. Of course, he understood that Evgeni tended to be passionate in his views, and Fai didn’t begrudge him that. Arguing with him in front of others, however . . . That was very, very different.
“You haven’t heard a thing I’ve said, have you?”
Blinking away the thoughts that had so thoroughly preoccupied him, Fai shot Yerik a quick glance, only to find his brother, frowning at him. “I beg your pardon. You were saying?”
Yerik wasn’t at all impressed with Fai’s question. “I was telling you not to bother going to find Saori. Arrida has her ensconced in some boring as hell tea party with the rest of the womenfolk, so the odds that you can get to her without raising a lot of eyebrows—female eyebrows, at that—are slim and none.”
And didn’t that just figure, too? Here he was, in a hurry to go and find her, to possibly steal a few minutes alone with her, but no, because if he did go marching in there, demanding to see her, those women would start talking, and, while he didn’t much care what they said, there was a logical order to things . . .
‘Because you’re trying to be a gentleman or because you’re tai-youkai? You know, if it’s because you’re tai-youkai, that’s one thing, but the gentleman thing? You realize that this is the twenty-first century. You’re not going to besmirch her character just because you want to talk to her. At worst, they’ll think you’re a spoiled brat who has to have Saori’s undivided attention, and some of the ladies will probably think that’s terribly sweet—romantic, even. Some of the others will probably think that you’re entirely needy or have some unresolved mommy issues, Oedipus . . .’
‘You’re . . . really not even slightly amusing. You know that, right? And I meant as the tai-youkai.’
His youkai laughed. ‘I don’t need to be . . . So, what are you protecting her from, exactly?’
‘What do you think? Whispers . . . Rumors . . . Threats . . .’
‘Threats . . . Hmm, okay, I’ll give you that one. No better way to get to the tai-youkai than to get to his mate, right?’
Fai’s eyes flashed open wide, and he stopped abruptly, like he’d just walked into an invisible wall. ‘My . . .?’
‘Oh, come on, Fai! You can’t tell me you didn’t already realize it on some level. That woman . . . She completes you . . . But yes, I can understand entirely, what you mean . . . You’ve got way too many enemies—enemies that you don’t even know of yet, and if they found out about Saori, or worse, if they find out who her family is?’
He gritted his teeth and started walking again as his youkai-voice’s words tumbled over and over in his head. Sometimes, he really hated being tai-youkai. This was definitely one of those times . . .
“Fai, you have got to help me.”
Looking up from his reflection in the standing mirror as he tugged on the shirt that he’d set out after his shower, Fai blinked as Yerik slammed into his room and slumped back against the door. Green eyes wide, almost . . . scared . . .? he looked like he might well have seen the devil himself. He hadn’t seen that look on Yerik’s face since he was eight and had gotten angry enough to kick Vasili in the shin when the butler reminded him that he needed to straighten his room since the staff had been forbidden to do it for him, and if that weren’t enough, the unmistakable throb in Yerik’s youki was enough to make Fai turn on his heel to offer his brother his undivided attention.
“Well, I know Vasili’s not here, so you can’t have kicked him again. Why do you look like that?”
Yerik grimaced as he pushed himself away from the door and cleared his throat. “Do you remember Liliya Herzikova?”
Shifting his eyes as he lifted his gaze heavenward, Fai tried to place the familiar-sounding name. “No, I . . . Oh, wait . . . Isn’t she the little girl that you asked to marry you when you were, like, five?”
Yerik nodded. “That’s her.”
Fai shook his head. “What about her.”
Yerik sighed. It was a long, drawn out, almost defeated kind of sound. “She’s here.”
Yerik snorted. “So . . . She thinks we’re engaged, and she’s . . . You know, she might have a lovely personality, Fai, but . . . but . . .”
It took everything within Fai to keep from laughing outright at his brother’s horrified expression. In the end, he had to clear his throat to keep from doing so before he spoke again. “How the devil does she even remember that? You were, what? Five?”
Yerik snorted again. “She’s a woman; that’s how!”
Fai sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as he slowly shook his head. “Well, then, there’s no helping it, Yerik.”
“What do you mean?”
Fai shot his brother a rather bald look. “I mean, you proposed. You’re going to have to marry her.”
“. . . What?” he barked.
Fai shrugged. “You can’t go around, breaking girls’ hearts. It’s bad form. I’m sure she’s a perfectly lovely—”
Yerik erupted in a menacing growl, grabbing Fai by the shirt and dragging him over to the door that he inched open just far enough to allow them both to see outside into the hallway—Yerik hunkering down so that Fai could see over his head.
Fai blinked, watching as a rather . . . robust young woman, all decked out in a lot of white tulle, paced nearby. When she started to turn, to look toward the door, Yerik slammed the door closed once more as Fai jerked back to keep his nose from being caught in the sudden slam. That done, Yerik stood up straight, using one arm to yank a gesture at the closed door as he raised his eyebrows and pinned Fai with another pleading look.
“So . . . you’re saying she’s . . . too much woman for you . . .?”
Draping his hands on his hips, Yerik glowered at Fai. “You’re being a jackass,” he pointed out.
Fai rolled his eyes, heaved a sigh. “Relax, Yerik. You were five. No one in their right mind would hold you to a proposal you made when you were five.”
Yerik snorted. “Her mother hugged me to welcome me to the family.”
“Wow . . . She involved her mother?”
Yerik nodded glumly.
“And her father?”
Yerik’s jaw was ticking. “Her father wants me to take her name so that I can take over the family business.”
“What kind of family business?”
“Beets,” Yerik replied. “They own . . . a beet farm—no, a beet empire, according to her father.”
Fai shook his head. “So . . . You’re going to be . . . King of Beets?”
“Fai . . .”
Fai held up his hands to placate his brother. “It could have at least been potatoes,” he said. “That’s all I’m saying . . . Free supply for the distillery . . .”
Yerik grunted. “I would charge you double,” he grumbled. “Now, seriously, how do I get out of it?”
“I am being serious! Just tell her that you were five; you didn’t mean it—and to be frank, they’re a little looney if they honestly think you did.”
Yerik grimaced. “I . . . might have said that she was my . . . mate . . .”
“Now or when you were five?”
“It’s the logical question! Why would you even say that? How did you come up with that back then?”
Yerik sighed. “I . . . I wanted her to kiss me,” he admitted. “And even then, it wasn’t that good—just a peck on the cheek.”
“And that’s why you sold your soul to the King of Beets? Damn, Yerik . . .”
“A kiss on the cheek was a pretty big deal in my mind back then . . .”
“I think I should have beaten you more as a child,” Fai remarked. “Did you at least get to see her panties?”
Yerik narrowed his eyes. “It didn’t occur to me at the time, no.”
Fai stared at his brother for a long moment. Then he sighed and jerked his head toward the door. “All right. Come on. Let’s go end your engagement.”
Yerik finally let out a deep breath and followed Fai to the door.
He started to open it, but stopped, craning his neck to peer over his shoulder at him. “Yerik . . .”
“Are there any other engagements that I should be aware of?”
Yerik rolled his eyes, reaching up to rub the back of his neck in a decidedly nervous kind of way. “Well, maybe a few more,” he admitted. Then he grinned. “Hopefully they’re smart enough to realize that I didn’t actually mean it . . .”
Fai grunted. “Okay, but promise me you’ll stop using offers of marriage to get what you want from women? It’s frowned upon, you know.”
Yerik’s grin turned a little wolfish. “I haven’t done it since I was . . . ten . . . Damn shame, though, because it worked . . .”
Fai narrowed his eyes. “Do you want out of this, Yerik?”
Yerik nodded quickly. “Yes, I do. So sorry. I promise. I swear.”
Fai heaved a deep breath, but yanked the door open and stepped into the hallway . . .