Wrinkling her nose at the dusty and spicy smell of the small tent that had been setup near the gardens behind the Feodosiv cottegi, Saori sat on the small hassock at the squat, rough wood table across from the aged fortune teller, a human woman named Izolda. She reached out with trembling fingers, palm up, as she smiled. “Give me your hand, child,” she said, her voice as thin as paper.
She did as requested, letting the woman take her hand. Leaning in close, she idly traced the lines of her palm before turning it over to inspect the back in much the same way. Then she let go and leaned over, rummaging around beside her for a small wooden cup that rattled mysteriously as she set it on the table. “Shake that, then dump them on the table,” she said.
Saori did that, too. The five stones had no markings on them at all, and the old woman held up her hand, as though to stop Saori from touching them as she studied them slowly, a wizened smile spreading over her wrinkled features. So wrinkly, she was, that her eyes seemed to be deeply recessed under folds of skin, lending her an owlish appearance that could have been a little daunting if the woman herself wasn’t so gentle.
She inspected the stones for a little while longer before sitting back, folding her hands on the table top. “You . . . You come from great power. Your people hold the reins of the world, don’t they? Yet, you are not touched by this. You do not live your life, looking for what the world will do for you. Instead, you seek to find a place where you can flourish apart from them . . .” she said. As she’d spoken, her voice had gained some strength, her gaze, a little fire, and her smile—that endearing, almost caved in smile—had widened, too. “You are surrounded by love, child, and love is the emotion that drives you, and in the trials to come, hold to that love, and it will guide you.”
Saori frowned. “Trials?”
The old woman nodded, her expression growing more somber. “They come in the night, and they come from places that you would not seek to find them, and the greatest one of all . . . It will threaten that which you desire most. Be vigilant. Only you can flush the poison that has already been allowed to flourish.”
“But . . . What does that mean . . .?”
Izolda sighed, offered Saori a compassionate little smile. “I can only tell you that which I’ve seen, child. The poison has yet to touch you, so I cannot see it . . . but I can feel it in the air around you. Someone you hold dear is tainted—will be tainted. ‘And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.’”
Why did the sound of those words send a distinct shiver right up her spine? None of it made any sense to her, almost sounded more like nonsense than anything she really needed to concern herself with. Even so, there was a certain level of warning, a heavy undertone of something almost frightening . . .
Saori shook her head, opened her mouth to question the woman further as the tent flap opened, as Yerik stuck his head inside. “Saori, are you finished?”
The old woman chuckled, entirely dismissing Saori’s feelings of trepidation—if she sensed them, anyway. “That’s all I can tell you, child. Go with God.”
She wanted to say more, but Yerik took her hand, pulled her out of the tent and back into the bright light of day. He seemed excited, and he didn’t seem to notice the frown on Saori’s face as he led her through the milling crowds and down toward the far side of the garden where the generous stream flowed near the cottegi. “It’s almost time for the maidens to set their wreaths afloat. Fai said that you’d probably want to do that, right?”
“Oh, uh . . . Yes, I . . . I guess . . .” she said, trying to brush off the things that the old fortune teller and said. She’d think it over later, see if there was anything in it that she could make sense of . . .
Yerik followed the crowd as they made their ways along the paths that led to the water’s edge beyond. Here, as in the rest of the immense gardens, were strings of lights, bright garlands of flowers. The lights were dormant at the moment, given that it was still mid-day, and along the way, they stopped at a collection of long tables that were strewn with various herbs, flowers, vines, small candles, ribbons of raffia in bright and brilliant colors that were offered for the fashioning of the wreaths that the girls would release on the water.
She took her time as she twisted together a handful of stiff vines, took her time in selecting the right greens, the perfect flowers, even as she skipped the candles. Yerik chuckled, helping her to manage the wreath while she wrapped bright yellow raffia ribbon around it, tying the ends together to hold it in place.
“. . . The poison has yet to touch you, so I cannot see it . . . but I can feel it in the air around you. Someone you hold dear is tainted—will be tainted . . .”
‘But . . . What does that mean . . .?’
Her youkai-voice didn’t answer. She didn’t know what to make of that. Yerik was talking on about something, but Saori wasn’t listening. He didn’t seem to notice her preoccupation, though, and she supposed that was for the best. Holding up the wreath, she gave it a half-hearted once-over, but the excitement she’d felt before her visit with the fortune teller was conspicuously missing, and she sighed.
“You’re thinking about something,” Yerik said, drawing her out of her reverie. “Something the fortune teller said?”
Sparing him an almost nervous kind of glance, Saori tried to shrug off her concerns. “Kind of,” she admitted, slowly shaking her head. “I think most of it was good . . . but she did mention some trials or something? I’m just not sure . . .”
He considered that for a minute. Then he shrugged. “It’s just an old fortune teller, Saori. They can’t just say everything’s great or why would you bother going to see one again?”
He had a valid point. “So . . . So, what she said . . . It might not mean anything at all,” she said, almost more to herself than to Yerik.
“What did she say?”
Saori fiddled with the wreath in her hands, hesitating as she tried to decide if she wanted to say it out loud. Even though Yerik seemed to think that there was no real truth to the woman’s words, she couldn’t help but feel like saying it out loud would somehow give the whole thing just a little more power . . . “You’re right,” she said, forcing a smile, brushing the words away. “I’m just overanalyzing. Besides, the rest of it was really nice. She said . . . She said that I’m driven by love . . .” That thought made her giggle. “I like that.”
Yerik stared at her for a moment, narrowing his eyes as he slowly nodded. “Love, huh? Yeah, I can see that . . .”
She felt her cheeks heat under his scrutiny, but he chuckled, taking her hand to drag her down to the water.
“I guess congratulations are in order.”
Evgeni blinked, arching an eyebrow as he peered over the rim of his tea cup at Fai, who was staring out of the bank of windows in the solar. “Congratulations? What for?”
Fai shrugged, lifting a hand, gesturing outside at the overflowing crowds, all of whom seemed to be have a very good time. “This,” he replied, reaching for his tea cup. “You’ve outdone yourself.”
Evgeni grunted. “You mean, Arrida has,” he said. “It seems like every year, she wants it to be bigger, more fun, more everything . . . which, to me, means more noise, more interference, more strangers, traipsing into and out of my home . . .”
“But you allow her to do it,” Fai pointed out.
“It pleases her,” he replied. “If it pleases her, then she pleases me.”
Fai rolled his eyes, breaking into the smallest of smiles. “It would be something like that.”
Evgeni chuckled. “It could be worse, Fai. Find yourself a beautiful mate, do what it takes to ensure her happiness.”
“You make it sound simple,” he said.
“It is,” he stated. “So, tell me . . . your assistant . . . Did I . . . see the two of you, walk out of the forest together last night?”
“When have you known me to go hunting for nonexistent flowers?” Fai countered. He still wasn’t sure why he was so reluctant to talk about Saori to anyone, even Evgeni . . . Maybe it was just the newness of it. After all, he was still trying to get used to the idea for himself . . .
Evgeni nodded slowly, setting his cup aside in favor of turning his full attention on Fai. “I assume you thoroughly checked into her background before you hired her. Where is she from?”
“I know everything I need to know, yes,” Fai replied evenly. “Besides, she used to work for the orphanage, so she already had all the clearance she required.”
“That would be a good reason to hire her to help with that . . . issue . . .” Evgeni allowed. “I only hope that your subjects don’t see the farming out of the Russian orphans as some sort of indication that you cannot take care of your obligations . . . Strictly saying, you know better than anyone that we prefer to solve our own problems.”
“And I say that their best interests are far more important than our misplaced sense of pride,” he shot back evenly. “Those who would not be bothered to open their homes to these children before have no right to criticize me for doing what it best for them. Here, there . . . Russia, North America . . .What does it matter where these children go, as long as they belong to a family—a real family? Because it doesn’t matter to me.”
Evgeni stared at him for a long moment, a strange sort of expression on his face. He looked like he might well be near smiling, a sense of warmth in his gaze that Fai hadn’t really seen before. “Well said, Your Grace,” he said. “You . . . You’re more like Alexei than I ever thought you be . . .”
“Thank you,” Fai replied, hauling himself out of the chair. “It looks like the girls are ready to set their wreaths afloat . . .”
“Oh, that,” Evgeni grumbled, all traces of the near amusement vanishing in an instant as he curled his lip and shook his head. “I’m going to my office before that she-devil of a mate of mine decides I need to participate in that, too.”
“You love that she-devil,” Fai reminded him.
Evgeni grunted. “I do, but I hate her penchant for guilting me into doing things that no man ought to ever have to do. If you see her, tell her I don’t want to be disturbed—that I’m working on something—for you.”
“As far as she’s concerned? Yes.”
Fai chuckled as the older man strode out of the solar, his footfalls retreating rapidly as Fai turned to head for the doors. Yerik had mentioned, taking Saori to see the fortune tellers and to make a wreath, and, even though he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted to draw attention to her—to them—by trying to fish out her wreath, watching her childlike delight would be well worth the effort.
The wind blew Yerik’s dark blonde hair, lifting it gently up and away from his youthful face. Not for the first time did Saori notice just how good-looking he really was. True, he still retained so much of his boyish charm, hadn’t quite grown into the angles and planes that lingered beneath the rounded contours. He still possessed the almost emaciated body of a callow youth, as well. Saori knew well enough, though. In a few years, maybe ten? He was going to look so much different, and she had very little doubt that he would end up, breaking a few hearts before it was all said and done.
It didn’t surprise her at all, either, when she looked around. Quite a number of young ladies were staring at Yerik: some of them very obviously while others were a little more circumspect about it. “I think there are a few girls who are hoping that you’ll intercept their wreaths,” she pointed out, leaning toward him as she lowered her voice.
Yerik glanced around and sighed. “I’m too young to tie myself down, don’t you think?” he quipped.
She laughed. “I suppose you’re right . . .”
He shrugged. “It’d be poor form to do that, anyway, considering I just broke off an engagement.”
“Oh, I suppose . . .” she relented. Then she sighed. “Where’s Fai-sama?”
Yerik shrugged, leading the way as they continued on the path to the water. “Last I saw him, he was having coffee with Evgeni.”
“I see . . .”
“I’m sure he’ll be along. I think he wanted to try to intercept your wreath. You know, just . . . just what I think, anyway,” he teased.
She smiled, ducking her chin a little bashfully. “That wasn’t what I . . . I mean, he’s busy, so . . .”
Yerik chuckled. “Well, it’s not like you have to float yours right away. Besides, I’m not very good at interpreting things about the way it is on the water . . .”
“Do you suppose there’s any truth in it?”
“Do I think that there’s any truth to the idea that how your wreath floats down the river—whether it stays afloat or sinks has any bearing at all on your future relationship with some random man?” Shifting his eyes upward from side to side for an exaggerated moment, Yerik finally leveled a grin at her. “No, I can’t say I do.”
“That was the most pragmatic and unromantic thing I’ve ever heard,” she chided. Sighing as she let her gaze drop back to the flower wreath in her hands, she slowly shook her head.
“Uh, um . . . S-S-Saori . . .?”
Blinking as she looked up into the friendly but anxious face of a fair-haired, blue-eyed young man that she didn’t know, she met his gaze as his cheeks reddened. Beside her, she could feel Yerik take a step closer to her, but she didn’t stop to think about that. “Yes?”
The young man grimaced. “Oh, oh . . . I’m, uh . . . I’m Gustav Totstoyev . . .”
Eyes flaring wide, Saori’s mouth rounded in an, ‘oh’. “Totstoyova-san’s son? The . . . The . . .” Snapping her fingers as she tried to remember Ekaterina’s enthusiastic decryption of her son over tea in the solar with Arrida, she winced inwardly. “You’re the doctor? The eye doctor?”
Visibly relieved that she did, in fact, know something about him, Gustav smiled despite the slightly wary glance he shot Yerik, who sidled up another step, casually standing in such a way that his shoulder was very obviously situated between the two. “Yes, that’s me . . . Mother said that you work for His Grace.”
“Y-Yes, I do,” she blurted.
He nodded, trying his best to ignore Yerik as he leaned slightly to the side to look past him. “I was wondering, um . . . That is, if you don’t have an escort for the ball tonight? I thought maybe—”
“She has one.”
Saori smothered a gasp as Fai’s strong and measured voice sounded behind her. Glancing over her shoulder, only to do a double take, she blinked, stared. His expression was blank, sure, but his normally warm hazel eyes were glowing in an entirely menacing kind of way. He didn’t stop until he’d stepped past her, insinuating himself beside Yerik and effectively blocking her from view.
“Your Grace,” the young man sputtered. “Forgive me, I—”
“She is here with my brother at the moment. It should have been obvious that he was with her on my behalf.”
“Fai-sama . . .”
“Not now, Saori,” he growled.
He waved a hand behind his back to hush her, and she narrowed her eyes and snorted. Shaking her head since she was being ignored, anyway, she turned on her heel and stomped away. She didn’t know what had gotten into Fai. He was acting completely irrational—entirely unnatural, really . . .
Peering over her shoulder—they were stills standing there, grilling poor Gustav, she rolled her eyes once more, letting out a deep breath as she knelt down next to the water, carefully laid her wreath in the water and gave it a gentle push.
It’d serve him right if someone else grabbed her wreath, not that she really figured that would happen. Resting on the balls of her feet, wrapping her arms over her knees, her hands curled in and resting atop. Letting her chin drop onto her hands, she sighed. Men, those strange creatures . . . She’d never figure them out, and most especially Fai, no matter how long she lived . . .
‘You know, I think he was jealous . . .’
‘Fai-sama? But that’s—’
‘What? Silly? Stupid? And just how would you describe his current behavior if not jealous?’
‘I . . . I don’t know, but . . . I mean, it’s insulting, don’t you think? Like, he thought I’d accept Totstoyev-san’s invitation?’
‘I’m not so sure that he thought that, no . . .’
She rolled her eyes, ducked her chin a little more. ‘And why are you taking his side, anyway? You’re my youkai-voice, remember?’
‘I am. But he’s your mate. You’re angry because he dismissed you like that, but maybe, in his mind, he was defending you, so even if he was misguided, his heart was in the right place . . . And, at least, now you know now that a jealous-Fai-sama? Not a good thing.’
She heaved a sigh, mostly because she wasn’t entirely sure that she believed that he was even jealous. Why would he be? She hadn’t done anything to make him jealous . . .
“So, I . . . I found this . . .”
Blinking as she turned her head, stared up at Fai, who looked just a little disgruntled as he sat down beside her, setting her wreath on the sparse grass in front of him. Hooking his arms around his bent knees, he stared out over the water without a change in expression.
She might have ignored him, but she noticed the dampened legs of his slacks, and she frowned. He’d waded out to get the wreath?
And just why did that dissolve the irritation that she’d been nursing?
“You found it?” she echoed, staring pointedly at his dampened legs.
He shrugged. “Yes. I found it in the water.”
She almost smiled—almost. Then she winced and sighed. “I wasn’t going to say yes to him or anything,” she murmured, turning her face back toward the water—watching as a couple of very pretty wreaths floated by on the soft current.
“I know,” he replied with a heavy sigh. “I just . . . You’re here with me, aren’t you? It should have been obvious that you were attending the ball with me.”
She sighed. “I tried to tell Totstoyova-san that I wasn’t really looking for anyone yesterday over tea, but she kept talking, and she talks so fast . . . I couldn’t really get much of a word in, edgewise.”
“Ekaterina?” He snorted. “Yeah, she’s kind of a talker, and that son of hers? Biggest mama’s boy on the planet. She probably still presses his underpants for him, too.”
She gasped, shaking her head at him. “That was really not nice,” she chided.
He looked entirely belligerent. “The truth usually isn’t,” he retorted.
She shook her head. “I was introduced to everyone as your employee,” she reminded him. “What was he supposed to think?”
Fai didn’t look entirely pleased with that. “What was I supposed to tell them? I don’t even know—” Biting off his words, he clenched his jaw tight and turned his attention back out over the water once more.
But he’d said enough. Saori didn’t know how to process it, even as the rest of his words were hanging in the air: the ones he hadn’t said. Abruptly, she stood up. She thought she might have said something about needing to start getting ready, but she honestly didn’t know. All she knew was that she desperately needed to get away—needed to be somewhere quiet, somewhere where she could be alone . . .
“I don’t even know . . . what we are . . .”
That’s what he was going to say.