Home > Dark Whisper (Dark #32)

Dark Whisper (Dark #32)
Author: Christine Feehan

 

PART ONE

 

 

CHAPTER

1


   Vasilisa Sidkorolyavolkva stood for a long moment staring up at the sliver of silver moon in the dark bluish sky. She loved this time of night, when millions of stars were scattered like a blanket across the sky, and it was clear and perfect. She inhaled to take in all the scents around her, a habit ingrained for self-preservation, taught from the time she was a toddler.

   The pavilion was empty, a mixture of black and white squares where others often came to dance and party late into the night, but that hadn’t happened for a long while. She knew her family wanted her to settle for a husband, and during every ball, they pushed eligible bachelors at her. She detested the disappointment in her brothers’ eyes, especially her eldest. She knew if she didn’t cooperate soon, he would demand she comply with his choice—and she knew she wouldn’t.

   Andros, ruler of her family, was running out of patience with her. He thought she would do as he said, mostly because he was used to everyone doing as he said. Her other brothers—the twins, Garald and Grigor—knew her so much better. They knew her stubborn streak, and they watched her carefully after each ball. The more Andros pushed her, the more they kept their eyes on her.

   She had to smile to herself. She had her ways of sneaking out of their palatial home, and her brothers had never caught her. Not once. Not in all the years she’d been doing it.

   They lived in a small community in a very remote area in the Eastern Siberia boreal forest. The community had existed for hundreds of years. More. They had kept to themselves for generations, although now, the younger ones had left the villages to seek employment and service in more modern settings. They blended in seamlessly.

   The villages dated back so many centuries that they still considered themselves ruled by a monarchy rather than acknowledging the government, although every man and woman served in the military for the experience of it. Vasilisa came from that monarchy, and her brother Andros was the current ruler.

   Vasilisa had been extremely uneasy lately. Restless and moody. Edgy. She always maintained her serene composure. She was too skilled in battle technique to give anything away. That cool exterior didn’t mean she wasn’t burning hot with passion deep down. She needed an outlet. She knew she desperately needed out from under her brothers’ watchful eyes. They’d felt it, too—that unrest in their land—which was why they were even more vigilant watching over her.

   She was particularly terrified of what that edgy, moody, wanting-to-snap-at-everyone-just-for-looking-at-her-wrong feeling actually meant. She had no power over the things that were changing. Things that could directly affect her. She needed a friend to talk things over with. Someone she trusted who would never betray her confidence. That fire inside her was growing, right along with the terrible dread she tried not to examine too closely.

   She moved with quick, silent strides down the wide steps onto the snow-covered path that led to a trail into the forest of larch trees. The path was well used by members of her family to travel to the small inn where locals gathered in the evening to drink and gossip. A roaring fire in the great stone fireplace kept everyone warm in spite of the bitter cold. The more bodies packed inside, the warmer the interior.

   The inn was owned and operated by Kendal and Odessa Balakin. The older couple had been around for as long as Vasilisa could remember. They were unfailingly friendly and welcoming to everyone in spite of the fact that the villagers could be a superstitious lot and were often suspicious of strangers.

   She glanced at the moon again as she wound in and out among the thick trees. A few brave mice scampered across the vegetation lying on the snow, hurrying to grab the seeds and burrow deep under the branches that had fallen on top of the snowpack so they wouldn’t be spotted by the owls on the lookout for food. Snowy owls, great gray owls and pygmy owls occupied the larch forest and hunted relentlessly.

   A snow-white mountain hare suddenly emerged from behind a tree trunk and stopped moving abruptly, rising up on its hind legs. She froze as well. The two simply stared at each other. Her heart began to accelerate, the blood circulating with a hot rush through her body. The little rabbit thumped its back foot on the thick bank of snow, a warning to the rest of its extended family that they weren’t alone in their pursuit of food.

   “Be at peace, little sister. I’m not hunting,” she spoke softly to the animal.

   The rabbit cocked its black-tipped ears at her, turning them this way and that as if it could understand everything she said. She spoke in her native language, and who knew? Maybe the rabbit was that intelligent. It had survived long enough to grow to adulthood. Many didn’t. She ignored it and continued along the narrow trail winding through the larch forest to the inn. It was a good distance from her home, but she welcomed the walk. Sometimes she felt as if she were a prisoner in her own home. She had needed to get out, and the night air was the perfect antidote.

   She wore a long coat of white fur that fell to her ankles and a matching white fur hat that covered her ears to keep the cold from sneaking into her bones through her scalp. Her gloves were white as well. If she needed to disappear into the snow, she blended easily, even with her choice of lipstick and her blazing blue eyes. Her coat, although slim and looking as if it hugged her figure, hid a multitude of weapons. She wasn’t a woman who trusted. She had been raised to defend herself. Her lessons had taken place early, and she had been expected to take them very seriously. It had been drilled into her by her mother that there was no room for mistakes—everything was about life or death.

   Strangely, her brothers were never invited to those daily training sessions, and she was cautioned never to discuss anything her mother taught her with them or her father. As she grew up, she realized why—her mother had passed a legacy to her, one that had been handed down from mother to daughter. She felt the weight of that legacy every waking moment. Lately, she knew the weight had increased, pressing down on her, because something had changed.

   There had been a dangerous shift, a seismic tremor that had opened a fissure deep within the earth somewhere. She was certain of it. She felt the dread of it, the constant danger surrounding her beloved people. Little things were suddenly going wrong. Small animals had been found savagely eviscerated miles from the village, and that had been enough to alarm some of the hunters, who had gone out to track the culprit. There were tracks, of course, very small ones they weren’t familiar with, as if an unknown animal had come up from below and then burrowed back into the ground after killing several rabbits and squirrels.

   Vasilisa had been unsettled ever since. Nightmares affected her ability to sleep. She rarely slept at night, preferring to rest during the day, but even with the blackout curtains at her windows and her music on, nothing seemed to help. She had an ominous feeling that continued to get worse as the days went by.

   The inn was completely lit up, as it often was, with a cheery, bright radiance that threw a glow across the snow through the uncovered glass of the big windows in the lobby of the bar. Travelers seeking a room could check in, but mostly, the inn was full of locals who came for their vodka, tea, kvass and warm black bread.

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