After a deadly confrontation at the end of Darkness Falls, the second Immortal Beloved novel, Nastasya Crowe is, as she would put it, so over the drama. She fights back against the dark immortals with her own brand of kick-butt magick...but can she fight against true love? In the satisfying finale to the Immortal Beloved trilogy, ex-party-girl immortal Nastasya ends a 450-year-old feud and learns what ""eternally yours"" really means.
Laced with historical flashbacks and laugh-out-loud dialogue, the Immortal Beloved trilogy is a fascinating and unique take on what it would mean to live forever."
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By Cate Tiernan
PoppyCopyright © 2012 Cate Tiernan
All right reserved.
UPPSALA, SWEDEN, 1619
Vali! Vali! Where is the girl?”
I heard my employer’s voice and scrambled up from the storage cellar.
“Here!” I said breathlessly, setting the heavy box of gold thread on the counter. The wooden steps to the cellar below the shop were barely more than a ladder; I’d had to hold the box with one hand while the other kept me from pitching head over feet. In time I would become as nimble as a mountain goat, but I’d been here only a month and these stairs were, even by Scandinavian standards, steep and narrow. Factor in the long skirts and petticoats and you had potential disaster in the making.
My employer, Master Nils Svenson, gave his customer a smile. “Vali is new here; she’s still learning the stock.”
I made a little curtsey, keeping my eyes down.
“She’s doing very well, though, aren’t you, dear?” Master Svenson nodded at me approvingly, then turned his full attention to the man who was deep in the throes of deciding whether large ruffs were truly going out of fashion or not.
I took a feather duster from my apron pocket and began to dust the bolts of fabrics lining two walls. My master was one of the most sought-after tailors in Uppsala, known to have the finest fabrics: finely woven wools, smooth to my hand and dyed in deep jewel tones; plain and colored linen in various weights, from moth-wing gauzy to the heavy, sturdy cloth for breeches and bodices; unbelievably fine silk from the Far East in bright, parrot colors that were completely exotic and out of place in this country in November.
The silver bell over the shop door tinkled, and a very elegant woman came in, her hat trailing a turquoise ostrich plume that I knew cost as much as what I earned in six months.
“Hello, my dear,” said the man, turning and lightly catching the woman’s gloved hand to kiss. “I apologize for being late.”
“I’m not inconvenienced in the least,” she said graciously. “You finish your business.” She seemed to glide across the shop on fine kid shoes that made barely a sound. Moments later she stood near me as I flicked the duster and tried not to stare at her beautiful storm-gray cloak, chain-stitched all over with black flowers.
“What exquisite fabric,” she murmured, gently touching a peach-colored watered silk, its silver-thread embroidery making it heavy and stiff. She turned to her husband. “My dear? You really should have a waist—”
I don’t know why she looked at me just then, but she did, her clear blue eyes skimming absently across me and then sharpening and locking on my face like a magnet. She stopped in midword, her eyes wide. Her hand gathered a bit of silk and held it, as if without it she would fall down.
“Yes, my dear?” her husband said.
She let go of the silk and gave a shaky smile. “One moment.” She gracefully turned her back to the two men and looked at me again.
“You,” she said in a voice too low for them to hear.
“Yes, mistress?” I asked, concerned. Then—I don’t know how to describe it. I still can’t. I don’t know how we know or what it is. But I met her eyes, and there passed between us an instant of recognition. My mouth opened, and I almost gasped.
We had seen each other for what we were: immortal. I hadn’t met another person like me in three countries, eight cities, and almost fifty years.
“Who are you?” she whispered.
“My name is Vali, mistress.”
“Where are you from?”
The decades-old lie came easily to me. “Noregr, mistress,” I murmured, hoping that there were in fact immortals in Norway. I hadn’t met any when I lived there.
“My dear?” her husband called.
With a last penetrating look, the woman left me and joined her husband. Soon they went out into the dark, cold afternoon—it was only three thirty, but of course the sun had set already, this far north.
I stood still, my mind turning wheels, until I realized Master Svenson was looking at me. I started busily dusting again.
The next day my master called me over from the glass-fronted display of silk ribbons that I’d been arranging.
He was wrapping something in brown paper, folding it neatly and then tying it with waxed twine. “I need you to take this to Mistress Henstrom,” he said. “She’s requested several cloth samples.” He took up his pen, dipped it in ink, and wrote her street and house number on the paper in his educated, slanty script. “Make haste, Vali. And here—buy yourself a bun on the way back.” He handed me a few copper coins.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. He was a genuinely kind man, and working for him hadn’t been at all bad so far.
I retucked the scarf I wore always, pulled on my own loden-green rough-wool cloak, and hurried out. This Mistress Henstrom lived about a thirty-minute walk away. I dodged street filth, horses, and people crowding the high street’s shops, and was glad again that I lived in a town and no longer in the countryside. Uppsala was by far the biggest town I had lived in since Reykjavík. In the countryside, night closed in on you like a bell placed over a light, silent and grim. Here even at midnight you could occasionally hear the clopping of horseshoes on the cobbles, a baby’s wail, sometimes the off-tune and bawdy singing of men who’d drunk too much. And here, in this town, lived at least one other immortal.
The streets twisted and turned, and more than once I had to backtrack and take a different route. I walked as fast as I could, mostly to keep warm, but the damp, misty chill slipped under my cloak and through my ankle-high boots. By the time I found the correct house number, I was chilled down to my fingernails and shaking with cold.
The house was large and fine, made of brown brick with other colored bricks set into a pattern, and it had a false front with ziggurats. It was four stories high, with the entrance up a tall flight of stairs. I struck the lion’s-head heavy brass knocker several times. The black enameled door was opened almost immediately by a big, round woman wearing a spotless white apron. She had the reddened, work-roughened hands of a servant but also an unmistakable sense of importance. So the head housekeeper, maybe.
“I’m from Master Svenson’s shop?” I said. “With fabric samples for the mistress.” I held out the package for her to take, but she opened the door wider.
“She’s waitin’ on you in the front drawing room.”
“Me? I’m just the shopgirl.”
“Go on then.” The housekeeper nodded toward a double set of tall, paneled doors painted dove gray.
Inside, a woman sat before a white marble fireplace carved with fruit and garlands. Blue and white tiles with ships on them surrounded the firebox, and I wanted to kneel down and look at each tile, enjoying the fire’s delicious warmth. Instead I stood uncertainly in the doorway, and then the woman moved and I saw her face. My heart sped up: It was the woman from the shop the afternoon before. The immortal.
“Oh, good—the samples from Master Svenson,” said the woman, her voice smooth and modulated, the accent refined. “I need you to wait, girl, while I look at them. Then you can directly return my choice to your master.”
“Yes, mistress,” I said, bewildered.
“Thank you, Singe,” she said to the housekeeper, and the woman reluctantly backed out, clearly curious and disapproving of a shopgirl in the fine drawing room.
When the door had quietly clicked shut, Mistress Henstrom beckoned me closer. “Forgive the deceit, but I couldn’t call on a shopgirl,” she said in a low voice, and I nodded. “You said you were from Noregr?”
I nodded again. “And you, mistress—where are you from?” I asked boldly.
“France,” she said. I knew so little about immortals then that I was shocked. Were there immortals all over? In every other country?
I’d been in my early twenties when I was first told what I was. I hadn’t known it before then. After all, I’d seen my whole family slaughtered in front of me; they had died, and so, clearly, I could die also. But after the death of my nonimmortal first husband when I was eighteen, I’d made my way to Reykjavík and become a house servant to a large, middle-class family. I learned that they too were immortal. The mistress there, Helgar Thorsdottir, had first instructed me about our kind. At the time I was actually young, so the concept of going on endlessly had no meaning for me.
That had been fifty years earlier. As time passed, first slowly and then more quickly, it started to become real for me: to look into a piece of shined metal or the occasional real looking glass or the still water of a pond or puddle, and see the same me. Decade after decade. My skin was unlined; my hair, though light enough to be almost whitish, had no gray of old age. I was the same, always.
“How old are you, my dear?” Mistress Henstrom asked. She neither asked me to sit down nor offered me refreshment; I was just a shopgirl.
“Sixty-eight,” I said faintly. And still looked barely sixteen.
“I’m two hundred and twenty-nine,” she said, and my eyes widened. She laughed. “Surely you’ve met people older than I.”
I didn’t know how old my parents had been. I wasn’t sure how old Helgar or her husband had been, though from things she’d said she seemed about eighty. Back then. So she would be about 130 now.
“I don’t think so. I haven’t met many others like us.”
“But my dear, we’re everywhere!” She laughed again, and a small spaniel I hadn’t seen before came out from under her chair and jumped on her lap. She stroked its silky head and preposterous butterfly ears. “France and England. Spain. Italy. Here in Swerighe,” she said, gesturing out the window.
I waited for her to say “Iceland,” because that was where I’d been born, but she didn’t. I hadn’t been to any of those other countries, but that one instant, that moment, stood out so sharply against countless moments, because right then I knew that someday I would. The thought caught my breath, opening up a future I had never contemplated. In fifty years, the idea of being something more than a servant or shopgirl or wife, the thought of living somewhere besides these northern countries, had been a dream so without form that I had never grasped it.
Likewise, questions I hadn’t asked Helgar, things I’d wondered about, uncertainties that had simmered in my brain for years now boiled to the surface, and I could hardly get the words out fast enough.
“Do you know many other—people like us?”
Mistress Henstrom smiled. “Yes, of course. Quite a few. Certainly the ones who live in Uppsala—which was why I was so surprised to come across one I’d never seen.”
“A mortal, I’m afraid. A dear man.” Sadness swept over her lovely, porcelain face, and I understood immediately that one day he would die, and she wouldn’t.
“Are all the ones you know like you?” I waved my hand at the damask wallpaper, the furniture, the house. I meant rich, fancy.
She tilted her head to one side, looking at me. “No. We’re at all classes of society, at each level of birth, education, breeding.”
I’d been born to wealthy, powerful parents. We’d had the biggest, most luxurious castle in that part of Iceland—made of huge blocks of stone with real glass in the windows; at least fourteen rooms; walls hung with tapestries; servants, tutors, musical instruments; even books. When I lost my childhood, I’d lost everything about it.
“The nature of the thing is,” Mistress Henstrom said, “that when one lives quite a long time, one has quite a lot of time to fill. With educating oneself, in whatever way you can. With meeting people—influential people. With taking a small occupation and being around long enough for it to grow. Money grows over time. Or it does, at least, if you’re not silly about it.”
“I don’t have any money.” I hadn’t meant to say that, but I had absently given voice to my thoughts. I blushed because it must have been glaringly clear that I didn’t have money.
Mistress Henstrom nodded kindly. “Have you never been married?”
“Twice. But they had no money, either.” I didn’t want to think about them, not the sweet, uneducated Àsmundur I was married off to when I was sixteen, or the awful man I’d thought I could make a life with, some forty years later. They were both dead, anyway.
“Perhaps you married the wrong men.” Mistress Henstrom wasn’t being sarcastic—it was more like a suggestion. She waved her hand toward the room, much as I had done. “I have money of my own, but I also take care to marry wealthy men. And when they die, their money becomes mine alone, do you see?”
I gaped at her. “Do you mean… I should try to marry a wealthy man?”
“I think marrying poor ones did nothing to advance your position,” she said, stroking her little dog. “You have a lovely face, my dear. With different clothes, a hairstyle au courant—you could catch the eye of many a man.”
“I have no family, no connections,” I sputtered. “I’m an orphan, with nothing. Who would want to marry me?” Not to mention I never wanted to get married again.
Again Mistress Henstrom tilted her head to one side. “My dear—if I told you I was the fifth daughter of a wealthy English landowner, how would you determine it was true? The world is so big—there are so many people. No one knows them all. Letters, inquiries, take months and months. Create a family for yourself, a history, the next time you’re scrubbing a floor… or dusting bolts of fabric. Then be that person. Introduce yourself that way. Become a new person, as you’ve no doubt done before—don’t just be the same person with a new name.”
Her words tore through my brain like a comet, leaving room for new ideas, new concepts. Then my limited reality set in again. My hands plucked at my rough cloak, my plain skirt with its muddy hems. It was all too much. I didn’t know where to start. It was frightening. “I don’t—” I began.
Mistress Henstrom held up her hand. “My dear—it’s November. Stay at Master Svenson’s while you think of who you want to be, if you could be anyone—anyone at all. I’ll send for you in March.”
“Yes, mistress,” I said, overwhelmed and scared and… exhilarated.
And in March Mistress Henstrom did indeed send for me. I left Master Svenson and took the money I had scrimped and saved in the last six months and went to the Henstroms’ country house, a good ten miles out of the city. Her personal seamstress was there, and under the lady’s direction, three new dresses were made for me, indulging my particular whim of keeping my neck covered. They were much fancier and grander than anything I’d had before, but not so fancy as to arouse curiosity.
As I looked at myself in the mirror, my sunlit hair coiled in complicated braids, my blue dress so much nicer than anything I had owned since I was a child, I met Mistress Henstrom’s—Eva’s—eyes as she smiled with approval.
“May I ask…” I began hesitantly.
“May I ask why you’re doing this for me? It will likely be years before I can pay you back.”
A thoughtful look came over Eva’s face. “Because… more than a hundred years ago, I was very like you. Twice the age you are now but no further advanced. I was ignorant, with no dreams for the future. And then I met someone. And she—took pity on me. She simply wanted to help me. She was the oldest person I had met—well over six hundred then.” Mistress Henstrom smiled, somewhat wistfully. “Anyway. She did for me much the same thing that I’m doing for you. I’ve always wanted to help someone myself, as a way of paying her back.” Another gracious smile. “This is my good deed. Take it and enjoy it, my dear.”
A lot happened after that, up and down, but a mere twenty-eight years later I was Elena Natoli, middle-class owner of a lace shop in Naples, Italy. I could have been much richer, with a much more leisurely lifestyle, but I just couldn’t bring myself to marry again.
I’ve never again seen the woman who called herself Eva Henstrom back in the early sixteen hundreds. If I did, I would thank her. She changed the course of my life, the way a storm can make a river jump its banks and surge ahead.
WEST LOWING, MASSACHUSETTS, USA, PRESENT
Okay, raise your hand if you’ve ever (1) dropped food or ice cream or a drink in front of (or on) someone; (2) realized you had a big stain on your clothes and it has apparently been there all day and people must have seen it but no one said anything (extra points if it’s related to a female cyclic event); (3) realized after an important dinner with someone that you had a big crumb on your lip and that’s what they kept trying to subtly signal you about but you didn’t pick up on it; (4) mispronounced an obvious word in front of a bunch of people.
I could go on. The point is, those kinds of things happen to everyone. I bet you’re still upset or embarrassed about it, right?
Well, you can freaking get over your lame-ass, sissy-pants, drama-queen self.
When you’ve run away from people who were only trying to help you; taken up with a former friend who everyone (including yourself) knew was bad news; hung out with him even as he showed signs of being certifiable; and then witnessed his complete meltdown, which, unlike some meltdowns, did not simply involve quaintly taking off his clothes and dancing in a public fountain, but instead featured huge, dark, horrifying magick, kidnapping, dismemberment, and death—well, when you’ve done that and then gone back to the people who were only trying to help you… you call me, and we’ll talk. But until you’re there, I can’t deal with whatever pebbles you’ve got in your shoe today.
I blinked, focusing quickly on the face of one of my teachers, Anne. Her round blue eyes were expectant, her mink-brown hair in a shiny bob above her shoulders.
“Um…” I fiddled with the scarf around my neck. What was her question again? Oh. Right. “Marigold,” I said, naming the familiar orange flower on the card Anne was holding up. Flash cards, designed to help us students learn the endless facts about Every. Single. Thing. in the physical, metaphysical, and spiritual world. For starters.
Next to me, Brynne uncrossed her long legs under our table and recrossed them. I could feel her vibrating with the urge to jump in—she knew way more than I; everyone here did—but she managed to keep her mouth shut.
“Properties?” Anne was not as patient as River, and we were both starting to chafe at spending so many hours together, trying to funnel knowledge into my brain as fast as possible. I hadn’t been doing too badly—I was willing to learn—but today, focusing seemed out of reach. My cheeks started to heat as the silence swelled to fill the room. I was skin-tinglingly aware of Reyn, sitting silently next to Brynne, and Daisuke, who was studying by himself in the corner. Defeat was imminent: Searching my brain for facts about marigolds was like running around trying to catch lightning bugs. Turbo-charged lightning bugs. On coke.
“They’re used extensively in… Thailand and India, for religious purposes,” I said, trying to save face. I hated looking stupid, though by now it should feel as natural as breathing. But Reyn was here, and I hated, hated, hated looking stupid in front of him, of all people.
“Yes?” Anne said, prompting me.
Images flashed through my mind—wheeled wooden carts piled with musky-smelling bright flowers lining street markets in Nepal. No doubt they still did that today, but the memory I had was from the late eighteen hundreds. Going through Nepal on my way to Bombay to catch a merchant ship to England. And right now, let’s all give props to the Suez Canal for chopping a good four, five months off that whole journey. Who’s with me?
“Nastasya.” Anne sighed and brushed her hair off her forehead. “It would help you to know things like this.”
“I know,” I said, trying not to cringe as I heard Reyn shift in his seat. “I want to. I know I need to. It’s just—my head is really full of stuff already.”
I mean, obviously, right? Four hundred and fifty-nine years’ worth of stuff. Identities, adventures, lifetimes and lifetimes lived, each one as full as the last. Part ’n’ parcel of the whole immortal gig.
Brynne was now wiggling like a greyhound that had spotted a rabbit.
“Okay,” I said briskly, sitting up straighter. I knew this. I’d learned it a million times. “Okay, mainly used for… protection. And strength. Like to strengthen your heart or protect you from evil. Oh.”
The point of learning about the marigold sank in, and I realized that it, along with a daunting number of other things (like frankincense, fleabane, vervain, nettle, iron, and onyx, to name just a few), was intended to help me protect myself from evil. Some people try not to catch colds. I try not to attract ancient evil to me. It’s all relative.
Ancient evil. How odd that it actually exists. But it does. And my most recent brush with it, the whole horror show in Boston with my ex-bestie, Incy, had demonstrated with searing clarity how inadequate my mastery of magick was. If I’d known more that night, I might have been able to save Katy and Boz. Might not have had to witness their nightmarish deaths. I might have been able to save myself sooner, and without almost causing my head to explode.
I’d been back here at River’s Edge for a month now. I could have, probably should have, run off to a distant corner of the world, hidden in a cave, and licked my wounds for, like, an eternity. But I was far gone enough to admit that yes, I really did need help. I needed help more than I needed to be proud, or brave, or cool, or even just not gut-wrenchingly humiliated.
So far everyone here had been awesome about what had happened. No one rubbed it in, no one tsked, no one even looked at me funny. Because they’re all so much cooler than I am, right? So much more experienced, both in the ways of the world and the ways of redemption. By not giving me a hard time, they were advancing on their own karmic joyride. So, actually, they should thank me. For giving them so many opportunities to shine.
But it was clear that my centuries-old pattern of not learning anything was not, in fact, working well for me. So I’d sat pinned, a fish on a hook, and had lesson after lesson thrown at me: spellcrafting; the uses of stars in magick; magickal properties of plants, stones, crystals, oils, herbs, earth, sky, water—everything everywhere is connected, and everything around me can be used for good or for evil. My head felt crammed full of facts and lore, history and tradition, forms and patterns and sigils and meanings—if I barfed right now, actual words would spill out onto the floor in a spiky, tangled heap.
I blinked and tried to look alert, but Anne sat back and put the flash cards down. “Let’s all take a break,” she said. She looked tired—teaching me wasn’t anyone’s idea of a good day at the fair. Doing most things with me wasn’t a rockin’ good time; I know this, and traditionally I haven’t given a flying fig. Lately, with my gradual uphill meandering toward maturity, I’d started to feel guilty and a twinge embarrassed. But so far I’ve been able to shake that off.
“Okay,” I said, trying not to sound elated. I glanced toward the window; the early February sunlight was trying to be brave but not quite succeeding. I judged it to be around ten in the morning and couldn’t help flashing to just a couple weeks ago, when at ten in the morning I would have been tidying the shelves at MacIntyre’s Drugs. If I still worked there. If I hadn’t been fired twice.
“I hope there’s coffee left in the kitchen.” Brynne unfolded her long, lean self and stretched, the tightly wound coils of her caramel-colored hair bouncing slightly. She was the closest thing I had to a friend here, even though we couldn’t be more different: tall and black versus short and snow-white; American versus Icelandic; 230 years old versus 459; cheerful, friendly, confident, and competent versus… not. With a large, loving family versus having no one.
“Maybe I’ll go check the chore chart,” I said. “Do something mindless for a while.”
“Good idea,” said Anne, smiling gently at me. She came over and rubbed my back for a moment—Anne was real touchy-feely, in the literal sense of the words. I’d been practicing my not-flinching, and I barely hunched my shoulders before making myself relax. “Sometimes doing something boring or repetitive is a good way to have knowledge sink in.”
I nodded and picked up my puffy coat. If doing something boring or repetitive was the path to knowledge, then I was on the fast track. Daisuke stayed behind in the classroom as Brynne, Reyn, and I filed out. Of all the students, Daisuke was the furthest along, in my opinion. He was the closest to peace, the one who had the fewest large, visible flaws. But no one ended up at River’s Edge just for kicks. I didn’t know what kinds of things Daisuke had done to make spending years in rehab seem like a good plan, but there had to be something. I’d learned that much in my four months here.
Brynne slanted me a tiny smirk, then strode quickly out the door ahead of me and Reyn, oh-so-obviously giving us space.
I glanced at him, but his face was—and I know you’ll be surprised by this—impassive. As usual, being close to him made my heart carom from skipping a beat to racing, feeling like hard rain hitting a metal roof. I was about to say something that had a 99 percent certainty of being inane when I heard a skittering sound in the wet leaves behind us. We turned to see a small white object catapulting our way: Dúfa, Reyn’s runt puppy. She must have been watching, waiting for him.
Reyn stopped and knelt, the easy smile that crossed his face making my chest feel tight. Dúfa galloped clumsily toward us with a puppy’s single-minded intent, giving a couple of high-pitched yips in case we hadn’t noticed her. She flung herself at Reyn, rising up on her hind paws to lick his face, and I have to say, I knew where she was coming from.
“Okay,” he said softly and held up his hand. “Sitta.” Instantly Dúfa’s small hindquarters dropped to the cold ground, her odd hazel eyes focused on Reyn’s face. He kept his hand up as he stood, six feet of overwhelming attractiveness and danger, and Dúfa’s eyes didn’t leave his face, though she allowed her overlong, skinny white tail to give a small swish. “Okay,” he said, and released her. She sprang up, leaping into the air and yipping.
“She knows sit already,” I said, with my gift for stating the obvious. “In Swedish.” How could I put my next plan into action? I want to lure you someplace. Jump on you. Not think about whether our “relationship” makes “sense.”
“She’s smart,” he said, scooping the puppy up and tucking her into his corduroy barn coat. Her white face and long, floppy ears poked out below his chin, and she looked both adoring and self-important.
A small ding sounded inside my head. “Like, she’s smart, but I’m not?” As soon as the words left my mouth, they sounded ludicrous—I mean, how paranoid am I, to assume a simple statement about his dog was somehow aimed as a dig against me?
“Exactly,” he said coldly, and my eyebrows shot up.
He stopped abruptly on the path and turned to me, his face angry. “You almost died in Boston!” he snapped. “You’re a thousand times more powerful than that pathetic waste, but he had the upper hand. You were this close to getting your power ripped from you like ore from a rock!” He held out two long fingers very close together in case I needed visual representation.
“I know!” I said defensively. “I was there! I remember. Muy bad. So?” I crossed my arms and tried not to notice when Dúfa gave Reyn a lick on his neck.
“So why aren’t you studying your ass off?” he exclaimed. “Why are you not taking this seriously? You saw two of your friends die horrible deaths. You should be scared, doing everything you can, reading, studying, practicing.” Narrowing his eyes, he jabbed me in the chest with a strong forefinger, which actually hurt. “Next time you might not be able to pull your magick off,” he said. “Next time you might get killed. You might be dead forever because you were too much of a lame-ass to get your shit together and learn how to protect yourself!”
How dare he? My own eyes narrowed and I started to jab him in the chest, except Dúfa was in the way and I couldn’t tell where she began and ended. So I scowled and gave him the old threatening schoolmarm finger-shaking—so much less satisfying. Between that and the fact that he was almost ten inches taller than me, I might not have presented as fierce a picture as I hoped.
“You—” I started furiously, but I really had no follow-up to that. “I—” As I began to vigorously defend myself, it dawned on me with crushing humility that he was right.
He waited, his breath making little puffs in the air.
“I am trying,” I said stiffly.
“You’re full of crap,” he retorted, completely unappeased. “You’re here to begin taking things—like life, and yourself—more seriously. Let me know when you start.” Before I could even pretend to come up with a snappy response, he pushed past me and strode to the house, his long legs covering ground fast. I hesitated for a few moments, unsure of what to do.
After I’d gotten back from Boston, Reyn and I had almost come to theoretical terms with how we may or may not feel about each other. Okay, maybe not exactly how we feel about each other, but more like we agreed that we would attempt to stand each other. Like, enemies with benefits. Enemies is too strong a word. Maybe benefits is too strong a word.
But right now he was really furious with me. Why did he even like me, anyway? Why did he keep grabbing me and groping me and kissing me with that hot, hot mou—
Okay, this was bad. Nastasya? Get it together, I told myself sternly. Yeah, that should have some effect. Very, very slowly, I started toward the house, giving myself some time to think.
Finally I went up the steps and opened the kitchen door, to be greeted by the scent of baking bread and Reyn still in the kitchen.
At the worktable, Rachel nodded at me, her tan arms strongly kneading a smooth, elastic lump of dough as big as a melon. She was wearing a dark green sweatshirt, her shaggy black hair held back by a bandanna. I knew she was originally from Mexico, and was about 315, younger than me by more than a century. She looked like a college student.
“Hey,” I said, striving for normalcy. “That smells great.”
She nodded again—Rachel wasn’t a smiley person, but her face did soften when she glanced over at the gorgeous man holding the small, ugly puppy under his coat. I mean, could you come up with a more estrogen-spurring picture? Scowling again, I went past him to the dining room just as the swinging door opened and Charles came in. His face brightened when he saw Reyn, and he came over to scritch Dúfa under her chin, which she relished.
“Glad I ran into you,” Charles said to him. “Can you come help shift the big hall wardrobe upstairs?”
“Sure.” Reyn gave me a look that made me shiver, and followed Charles out.
I tore my eyes away from his back to see Rachel watching me.
“Uh-huh,” she said, and pushed her glasses up on her nose, leaving a floury white streak.
“Uh-huh what?” I said coolly.
She just nodded, looking amused, and I rolled my eyes at her and headed into the large, plain dining room where we ate. Right now there were thirteen of us—four teachers: River, Asher (who was River’s partner), Solis, and Anne; and eight of us students: me, Brynne, Rachel, Daisuke, Charles, Lorenz, Jess, and the forbidding Reyn. Plus Anne’s sister Amy, who was visiting.
I hung up my coat and actually checked the chore chart in the hall, and the mere fact that I did this and did not, say, quietly slip upstairs to my room for a little naparoonie was testament to the strength of my commitment to taking life and myself seriously. Said commitment was stronger some days than others, and there were days when I had to force myself to recommit, like, fifty times.
Damn Reyn. Who did he think he was?
All of a sudden the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. Footsteps vibrated on the wooden front porch, and a tall shadow appeared across the frosted glass of the front door. The paranoia I’d felt since I got back from Boston kicked in instantly as the doorknob turned.
The door opened. And if you were going to cast someone in the role of “Devil” in an old Hollywood movie, this would be your guy. He was tall, dark, and handsome in a severe, possibly soul-snatching way. Gull-wing brows arched over eyes as black as mine—no, blacker, deeper, with no light shining from them at all. Shark eyes. He focused on me instantly, then set a suitcase down on the floor and put his head back. I watched tensely, expecting a wolf howl.
“River!” he bellowed, filling the hallway with reverberating sound. I shrank against the steps, planning to edge backward a bit to disappear into the back parlor.
Almost instantly the door at the end of the hall opened and River came out of the small room she used as her office. I glanced at her; if she showed anything but delighted good cheer, I was going to snatch up the brick holding the parlor door open and brain this guy.
It was delighted good cheer, mingled with astonishment around the edges.
“Ottavio!” River exclaimed, and then I remembered him, vaguely, from when River led me on a guided memory from her life. (One of those immortal magicky things.)
This fierce-looking guy was River’s big brother. She had three younger brothers as well.
Holy moly, I thought, the weight of it hitting me. This is River’s brother. He was even older than River, and she was one of the oldest people I’d ever met. She’d been born in Genoa in 718, and at one time had been very, very dark (magickally). Today River was just about the best person I’d ever met. Here’s hoping her brother had also made a few strides forward.
“Dearest!” said River as they hugged and then kissed each other’s cheeks—both sides, the European way. “Why on earth—why didn’t you let me know you were coming?” She drew back, searching his face. “Is everything okay?”
Ottavio nodded, and I again noticed his severe handsomeness, the perfection of his Roman-statue features, the faint lines around his eyes.
“I’m fine,” he said, then pointed to me. “I’m here because of her. She shouldn’t be here.”
My eyes widened. Very nice. So much for the Italian charm.
River blinked, surprised, then glanced at me. “Maybe just give us a minute,” she murmured.
I managed a tight smile and nipped sideways into the dining room, then escaped outside, wondering what the hell Ottavio had meant.
Now what? It was cold out here, and of course I had no coat. My eyes fell on the big barn, straight ahead across the yard. I headed for it.
Inside I heard Anne humming in her classroom, probably still enjoying the Nastasya-free space. I put my shoulders back and knocked.
“Hi.” Anne looked surprised to see me.
“Hi,” I said awkwardly. “I thought… if you had time, or wanted to… maybe we could go over herbs again?” Please don’t say no. Don’t be too fed up with me already.
Anne looked at me, as if weighing her options. “I would like that. Sit down.”
“I know I need to get better. And… I’m avoiding the house,” I admitted. And admitting this instead of making up a white lie to make myself look better was more progress, visible to the naked eye. “River’s brother Ottavio is there.”
Anne’s surprise changed to astonishment. “Ottavio! Here?”
I nodded. “He already hates me. And he just got here. Usually I have to, you know, talk or something.”
“Hmm,” Anne said thoughtfully. “Curiouser and curiouser.”
In my life, I have had to: hide from bloodthirsty raiders; pick my way through piles of pox-laden corpses just to get out of town; barely escape from a flood on a stolen horse; pull guns on men who tried to rob me during the gold rush; kill a wild boar that was charging (I had, like, a freaking spear and some rocks); talk my way out of any number of harrowing situations with any number of forged papers and identities; and come back to River’s Edge after running away and almost getting killed by Innocencio.
So why was facing Ottavio at dinner causing my stomach to knot up?
Maybe because I was so known here. After four months, these were no longer strangers and I couldn’t talk my way out of anything. You can get out your handkerchiefs if you want, but I cared about these people now. I… didn’t want them to think badly of me.
So to have Ottavio show up, all dark and stern and righteous, and immediately want to boot me out of here, this place I was finally starting to sort of settle into—it sucked.
By the time I was halfway down the stairs, I could smell Rachel’s bread and some kind of chickeny situation. We often had vegetarian meals, so the thought of actual chicken made me speed up.
I paused in the doorway, then very quietly slipped into the last free place at one end of a long bench. (Yes. We use benches here. Too quaint for words. At least words I can say here.)
“Hey, girl.” Anne’s younger sister, Amy, was next to me. Despite her crush on Reyn, I couldn’t help liking her. She seemed to have cottoned on to the fact that Reyn and I were (usually, not right this minute) making eyes at each other, and she had graciously stepped back. Which was thoughtful and mature of her. Unlike Nell, a former fan of Reyn’s and a past student at River’s Edge, who had tried to kill me. True story.
“Hi,” I said. “What did you do today?”
“Ahem.” Amy patted the loopy glob of yarn around her neck. “I’m learning how to knit. After resisting the process for two centuries, I’m giving in. This is my first effort.” She made a smug face and unwrapped the scarf to show me.
“Uh…” I said. It was a disaster—a garbled throng of yarn and knots and gaping holes and, here and there, bits of recognizable knitting. I glanced at Amy, racking my mind for something diplomatic to say, and then I saw her face, the suppressed humor, the glint in her eyes as she tried not to laugh. She knew it was awful.
“Wow!” I said with overdone enthusiasm. “Gosh, that is something, Amy! You’re a natural!”
She laughed and passed me a bowl of sliced chicken and the platter of bread. “Tell me your favorite color. I’ll make one for you.”
“Periwinkle,” I said, unconsciously tucking my current scarf a little tighter around my neck.
“You got it. Want some mustard?”
It was sandwich night here at hacienda River, and I took the mustard. So far, I was successfully ignoring Ottavio, sitting next to River on the other side of the table.
But not for long.
“Everyone?” River tapped her water glass with her knife. “Many of you know my brother Ottavio. For those who don’t, this is my brother Ottavio.”
Smiles and nods of welcome. What she didn’t say was that he was the king of their house in Genoa—one of the eight main houses of immortals, worldwide. A few houses, the one in Russia and the one on the border between Egypt and Libya, had been destroyed and had no living survivors. The others—in Australia, Brazil, Africa, Italy, and here in America (Hi, Salem, Massachusetts!)—still maintained their ancestral sources of immortal power and inheritance. Ottavio was the oldest member of the Genoa house. The last house, in Iceland, had been completely destroyed by raiders back in 1561. Not many people knew this, but that house had one survivor who recently surfaced. That would be moi.
“He’s come for a surprise visit, and I’m thrilled to see him,” River went on. A glance passed between brother and sister, but I couldn’t read it. I began to hope that maybe he’d just been cranky or jet-lagged or something and hadn’t really meant what he said before. I’m highly skilled at deceiving myself like that. How else could I have remained friends with Incy for a hundred years?
“Lovely to see you again, Ottavio,” said Anne, putting some winter lettuce on her sandwich.
I kept my eyes on my plate, working busily with the mustard and mayo.
“And you, Anne.” Ottavio’s voice was deep and grumbly, like a bear woken too soon from hibernation. He seemed so different from River, though his hair was gray, as hers was. When I’d first met River, I’d been struck by her unusual looks—the smooth, light olive skin; the wise face that still looked barely thirty; and the not-often-seen-in-immortals silver hair that came a bit past her shoulders. Obviously she was the nice one of the family.
“What brings you to town?” Charles asked politely, just a bit of his Irish accent detectable. Usually by the time an immortal is more than a hundred years old, they tend to lose their original accent and become more neutral, in every language they learn. Like being newscasters. For eternity.
Wait for it…. I took a bite of my sandwich.
Ol’ Ottavio didn’t pull punches. He pointed his knife at me (way to go with the symbolism) and said, “I’m here because of her. Because of the danger she represents. She shouldn’t be here; my sister shouldn’t be harboring her. And I’ve come to find out what else she knows.”
I tried to swallow quickly so I wouldn’t spew crumbs across the table. It felt like a marble going down my esophagus, slowly and painfully.
Forcing myself to look up instead of crawling under the table, which was my first instinct, I saw irritation on River’s face and saw her try to temper it. Others looked surprised, even shocked. I focused on trying to breathe normally and glanced at Reyn. His obvious anger, the tautness of his shoulders, at first cheered me up because I thought it was aimed at Ottavio for attacking me; then I had the icky thought that he might still be mad at me from this morning.
On top of that, a fast scan of the rest of the table revealed a couple of people actually nodding in agreement—Jess, Charles, and even Solis, who had taught me so much.
Blood rushed to my cheeks, and I wanted to sink through the floor.
“I was home, in Italy,” Ottavio went on. His black eyes seemed to bore through my skull as his long fingers ripped apart a piece of bread. “News came to me of big, dangerous magick—Terävä magick—being worked in America. In Boston. Because of its proximity to my sister, I tried to gather more information.”
I nodded. Yep. Big, dark magick. It sure was. Actually it had truly been so bad that I couldn’t even joke about it. Not after a month. Not after a hundred years. “I didn’t work any dark magick,” I said.
“No. But you were involved with the person who did.” Ottavio dropped the bread onto his plate, as if he hadn’t realized what he was doing.
“I’m not anymore,” I said, aware of how incredibly limp that sounded.
Ottavio made a derisive sound.
Yes, I had screwed up—not just once but over and over. That’s usually how rehab goes, people. Being involved with Incy when he’d wrought such destructive magick, when he’d killed two of our friends right in front of me—that had been a tragedy. But I hadn’t made him do it. I hadn’t had any part of his madness. It had been the last thing on a very long list of Things Beyond My Control. Like being born into my family. Like being the only survivor the night everyone—my parents, my sisters, my brothers—had been killed by northern raiders, trying to usurp our house’s magickal power.
Ottavio’s black eyes were hard. “Why are you here? What are you trying to pull my sister into? Who—if anyone—sent you here, and for what dark purpose?”
I stared at him, so appalled that he was doing this in front of everyone. I tried to think of how to explain Incy and our century-long friendship. How could I describe how lost I’d felt, how inadequate, the night I’d run away? Did he know that Incy had been working magick on me for a month, so I would crack and leave River’s Edge? I felt panicky: Everyone was watching this. Was River going to ask me to leave? Did any progress I made no longer count? Maybe I could talk to her, alone—
Wait a second. Wait. A. Second. I wasn’t ten years old. He wasn’t my father. He wasn’t my teacher or my uncle. He wasn’t the Tähti police. What was he going to do? Ground me?
Hold on, Nastasya, my brain cautioned. Think this through, don’t do anything rash. This is River’s brot—
“Who the hell do you think you are?” I said, smacking my palm flat on the table. Ottavio’s eyes flared, and Charles actually jumped. I stood up, pushing my plate back. “I’m not answerable to you. This is River’s place. She apparently still wants me here.” I frowned. “Are you saying you don’t trust her judgment?”
River blinked at that, and Ottavio started to open his mouth.
“If River asks me to answer your buttinsky inquisition, I will. But until she does, Ott—can I call you Ott? Until then, Ott, you can bite me.” I stepped over the stupid bench and got ready to stalk out the dining room door.
Lorenz’s eyebrows arched. Ottavio went pale and stood, towering over my five-foot-three. Reyn pushed back on the bench, as if getting ready for action. River was solemn but biting her lip, and I would have sworn she was trying not to laugh. And it was right about this time that I remembered that I was still pretty fresh off my latest personal disaster, and that maybe I shouldn’t be so self-righteous. Oops. Well, too late now!
“And you guys, sitting there like bobbleheads?” I looked at Charles, Jess, and Solis. “Are you blanking on your own pasts? Do you really think you’re in a position to judge me?” Jess and Charles looked down at their plates, like they were remembering, Oh, yeah, I’m a total screwup waste myself. That slipped my mind for a sec. Solis met my gaze, looking thoughtful.
A smart person would have turned then and left the room with dignity. But we’re talking about me here, so that was out.
“Do you know who I am?” Ottavio thundered. His depthless eyes were practically aflame, and two spots of anger appeared on his aristocratic cheekbones.
Reyn stood up, maybe an inch shorter than Ottavio, but with a look of deadly calm on his face that would have stopped a lion in midleap.
“Yes,” I said to Ottavio. “You’re River’s brother.”
At the other end of the table, River gave a muffled cough behind her hand.
Ottavio stood up even straighter.
“I am Ottavio di Luchese della Sovrano,” he boomed. “King of the sixth house, Genoa!” He was tall and imposing, seeming to take up that whole end of the room with his dark suit and pristine white shirt. Extremely kinglike. The combination of thick, wavy silver hair and a relatively unlined face that put him in his early thirties did nothing to soften his imposing effect.
The hoodie I was wearing had been an innocent bystander in an unfortunate laundry incident, and my jeans were, I noticed just now, streaked with dirt and something—perhaps strawberry jam. Not so kinglike.
“That’s very special, Ott,” I said.
Everyone in the room was watching with round eyes, holding their breath: Here was more Nastasya-provided drama, for their benefit. Dinner and a show.
“Yes, it is,” he ground out. “And you’re a dangerous stray dog my sister found! A piece of Terävä flotsam!”
I can never remember the difference between flotsam and jetsam.
River reached up and tugged on his sleeve. He ignored her.
“Not exactly,” I said. Everyone here knew about my past, the unexpected legacy that I’d denied and avoided for 449 years. Apparently River hadn’t mentioned it to ol’ Ott here. He probably hadn’t let her get a word in edgewise, the windbag.
My fingers were tingling, and I felt kind of otherworldly and weird. I’d spent a long, long time not thinking about my heritage, suppressing all memories of my childhood, my parents, my siblings. I think I would have been able to truly block it completely out of my mind if it weren’t for the permanent, irrevocable reminder I carry with me always: the scar on the back of my neck. It’s round, almost two inches across, and is the exact image of one side of the amulet that my mother had worn every day. It had been burned into my skin the night my parents died. Every day for the last 449 years, I’ve worn a scarf or a high collar or both, and in all that time, only three people had ever seen it, that I know of: Incy, River, and Reyn.
The point is, I’d invested huge amounts of effort into forgetting my identity. But I was suddenly itching to drop a bomb on Ott.
“Yes, exactly!” His voice was loud in this plain room. “And whatever plan you have here, whatever goal you have in mind, you will fail. I’ll see to it.”
“Now that’s seriously bad news, Ott,” I said. “Since my only goal is to learn and become all Tähti-tastic.”
My parents had been Terävä—practicers of the “dark” kind of magick, where you take power from things around yourself, stealing their energy to increase your own power. This process tended to kill things. Tähti magick was a relatively newish form where one channeled the earth’s innate power through oneself, thus not killing anything around you. Most immortals are still Terävä—it’s much easier than being Tähti. Incy was Terävä. I was choosing not to be.
“Ottavio,” River murmured, and again her brother ignored her.
“You may have fooled my sister,” Ottavio said.
River sat up. “Hey.”
“But I see you clearly: an opportunist, here to weaken our house, to learn our secrets, to plant evil here. The events that took place in Boston—they were unforgivable.”
“I totally agree with you,” I said seriously, and I meant it. “But I didn’t set those events in motion.”
“You deny that you took part in that desecration?”
“I deny that I caused it or helped it,” I said, losing whatever passed for patience in my life. “I mean, please. I can barely match my socks in the morning, much less cook up some big plot. Long-term siege? I can’t commit to a cell-phone plan. I need to be here—I need to become better. But I have no need to weaken your house. I have no need for anyone’s power but my own.” I stood there and crossed my arms over my chest, trying to look serious and determined. Eleven sets of eyeballs followed us left to right, like a Ping-Pong game.
When I had acknowledged myself as my mother’s daughter, my father’s heir, I’d chosen to claim my ancestral power and my position as the sole heir of the House of Úlfur. It was like an effete hamster choosing to become Mr. Universe. I had a long way to go, to use understatement of galactic proportions. But that didn’t mean I was going to take this crap from Ott lying down.
Ottavio gave a derisive laugh. “Your power is laughable. Of course you would want ours.”
“Not that laughable,” I said. I was getting more and more wound up, more anxious to have this be over.
“Ottavio,” River said firmly.
But he was on a tear now and drew himself up, ready to launch into me again.
“My name is Lilja af Úlfur,” I said quickly, almost quaking with nerves. Across the table, Reyn’s eyes were riveted on me. “Daughter of Úlfur the Wolf, king of the Iceland house.”
River sat back, giving a slight nod, and seemed proud of me. The knot in my stomach relaxed.
The best part was Ott’s face—the slack jaw, the pop-eyed stare, the draining of blood. “That’s impossible.” He glared at me coldly. “That house was destroyed in 1559. The family was killed; the tarak-sin was lost. How dare you try to usurp a noble lineage!”
“Oh, Ottavio,” River murmured, dropping her head into her hands. Asher reached out and patted her arm.
“It was 1561,” I said quietly. “And not everyone died. Not me.”
Ottavio said, “I don’t believe it!”
I started to think that River should have killed all her brothers after all. Or at least this one. Long story. But here was a man more than thirteen hundred years old who was, like, still bullheaded. Still full of himself. Running on ego. I mean, you’d think that he’d have had enough life experience to have that beaten out of him.
“It’s true,” River said in the silence.
Ottavio gaped openly at his sister. She gave him a rueful smile. “I tried to tell you,” she said.
“Yes!” said Brynne, smiling. “Fiver on being the Iceland heir.” She held up her hand, and her silly, friendly gesture made me smile. I leaned over and smacked a high five.
The whole room was silent as Ottavio processed this unappetizing information. My fellow students, reminded of my past, were clearly trying to mush together what they knew about me: Immature Embarrassing Failure + Tragic Family History + Potentially Big Power = Nastasya. Well, I do like to keep people on their toes.
A lot of Ott’s bluster was gone. He sat down somewhat heavily, his eyes never leaving me, and said, “Heir to the Iceland house. Úlfur’s daughter.”
“Yep,” I said, suddenly feeling both more cheerful and starving. I sat down, too, and picked up my sandwich. My father’s name, Úlfur, meant “wolf.” So I had basically called him “Wolf the Wolf.” But it had sounded awesome.
“Well,” said Lorenz, placing both his hands on the table. Lorenz was Italian, and only about 120 years old. He was one of the most perfectly handsome men I’d ever seen, with crisp, straight black hair and bright blue eyes, yet he’d always left my heartbeat completely unaffected. “I will go ahead and say it, since no one else appears brave enough to.”
I looked up, taken aback.
“We know that you are the heir to an ancient throne,” he said, enunciating carefully. “The daughter of a king.”
“Looks that way,” I said cautiously, chewing.
“I will say it.” He gave me a serious, accusing look. “Your fashion sense is all the more incomprehensible.”
Several people gave muffled snorts, then quickly focused on their food.
I smiled, then started chuckling and couldn’t stop, feeling curiously lighthearted. As others started laughing, too, I felt a delicious sense of relief, of—I daresay—belonging.
Take that, Ott.
As it turns out, Ott wasn’t about to take that or anything else I hurled his way. The next morning as I came downstairs, I heard River and her brother arguing in her office. Naturally, I made my way quietly to the door and stood there, listening. I mean, just how good do you want me to be?
At first it was garbled and hard to make out—it was possibly really old Italian. Maybe. It switched around as they bickered—I picked up some form of German, then something that sounded of the Hispanic persuasion, but nothing I could instantly translate in my head. Which was a little weird, because I’m good with languages, picking them up easily, jumping back in when I need to. But River and Ottavio seemed to be drawing on older dialects. I can go back to the mid–fifteen hundreds in the Nordic tongues, and then the early sixteen hundreds with most of the Romance languages. And later for the others: the Slavic dialects, Russian, Japanese, a bit of Mandarin, English.
“You’re so pigheaded!” I heard River snap. That, I understood.
“You’re naive!” said Ottavio harshly. “Gullible! How do you know this girl is Úlfur’s heir?”
“Once more. I will tell you one more time. I’ve been inside her head. I’ve shared images of her past with her. Her story rings true. She has the tarak-sin.”
“She could have stolen it!”
This was hurting my tender, delicate sensibilities, and I wished they would switch back to old German or something.
“Où est-il maintenant?” Ottavio demanded.
“Avec Asher,” River answered wearily. “Il est cassé. Asher le répare.”
Yay, I thought, Asher is mending my tarak-sin. I decided to leave River and Ott to their argument. Because eavesdropping is wrong.
I was on milking duty that morning, so I trudged across the yard to the cow barn, which also housed a couple of sheep and a few goats. Jess was mucking out their pens and Daisuke was mixing up the feed, supplementing their hay with goat chow, sheep chow, and cow chow. He nodded and smiled at me as I came in with the sterilized buckets.
I’d felt weird after dinner the night before and had escaped to my room as soon as I could. Revisiting the tragedy of my childhood always made me feel like there was barbed wire inside my chest. Part of me wished I hadn’t shot off my mouth like that. And isn’t that a familiar feeling? Which was one reason I’d been self-medicating so determinedly over the centuries. Just to feel… less. Less pain, less anxiety, less self-loathing.
Since I’d come here, I was in fact feeling less of all of those things. Another decade or two and I’d be as good as new!
I grabbed the little three-cornered milking stool that looked like it had come original to the house, and set it down on the left of, yes, Buttercup. I think it’s some sort of farm law that if you have more than one cow, one of them must be named Buttercup. Anyway, the Cupster gave me a disinterested glance and swished her tail, but I was ready for that and leaned back quickly so it didn’t flick my face. Then I dove in practically under her side, set the pail in place, and began milking.
My tarak-sin. My amulet. It was heavy and solid gold. My mother had worn it almost all the time, and when I was little I’d loved looking at it, feeling the thick links of its gold chain. It was carved all over with runes, magickal symbols, sigils, and things I didn’t recognize. I had no idea how old it was—very? Like, really, really very? Back then I’d thought it was just a favorite piece of jewelry, but now I knew my mother had worn it to keep it safe, to not let it out of her sight. Now I knew that it channeled and amplified the ancient source of my family’s power, the power of the immortal house of Iceland.
I pulled at Buttercup’s udder with gentle firmness, hearing the warm milk hissing against the side of the metal bucket. As always some of the barn cats gathered around, watching intently, their tails whipping back and forth on the straw.
I sighed and pressed my head against Buttercup’s solid flank, and everything about my tarak-sin, my family, and Reyn came back to me in a rush. Because Reyn was inextricably tangled up in my whole family tragedy, with my tarak-sin, and with me—my family’s appalling end mirrored his own.
When I was ten years old, a horde of northern raiders broke through our city walls, then the bailey gate that surrounded my father’s hrókur—like a small castle. The chieftain of that horde was the aptly named Erik the Bloodletter, and he was Reyn’s father. Erik and one of Reyn’s brothers had smashed through the thick library door where my mother, my siblings, and I were barricaded in, weapons in our hands, even in my little brother’s. Háakon had been seven years old.
Reyn’s father and brother killed my sisters, Tinna and Eydís, slicing ferociously through their necks with curved, wide-bladed swords. My older brother, Sigmundur, had charged manfully, swinging the heavy blade my father had given him when he turned fifteen.
My mother, holding her amulet, worked dark and terrible magick and flayed Reyn’s brother, causing his flesh to fly off his body, right through his chain mail. The man had stood there, sluicing blood, a surprised look on his skinless face, his lidless eyes popping from their sockets. Sigmundur cut off his head, because flaying wasn’t enough to kill an immortal.
Then Sigmundur made a deep slice in Reyn’s father’s arm, forcing him to switch sword hands. But it hadn’t been enough, and Sigmundur’s head fell to the floor moments before his body collapsed like a Jacob’s ladder.
Terrified, I’d dropped my dagger and leaped behind my mother as the marauders burst through the door. And when her head with its long blond braids had tumbled to the floor, her body had fallen on top of me, hiding me in her wool skirts. I’ll spare you the long story of my escape, of finding out that my father and every other person in our castle had been slain.
But as it turned out, my family had their revenge: Erik, Reyn, Reyn’s two remaining brothers, and seven of Erik’s men had gone a mile or so down the road, where they could still enjoy watching my father’s castle burn. Then they’d tried to use my mother’s amulet, our house’s tarak-sin, weighty with centuries upon centuries of immortal power and magick. But they didn’t realize the amulet was broken—one half was with me, back in the burning castle—and their stolen magick backfired. Every man standing in that circle had been incinerated, literally turned to ash. Except for Reyn, who had fallen backward.
Their half of my mother’s amulet had burned itself into the skin on Reyn’s chest, giving him a permanent scar that matched mine but wasn’t identical. After I’d gotten back from Boston, Reyn had stunned me by giving me the piece that had marked him four centuries earlier. He’d kept it all that time, though it was useless to him. He’d told me that he kept it as a reminder not to want too much.
In a twist that had made Irony wait four hundred years for its completion, Reyn and I… had a thing. I didn’t know what it was yet, but we were caught up in each other and it was clear it had a long way to go to run its course. It left us both bemused, upset, torn by memories, conflicting feelings, longing, desire—you name it.
“I think that cow’s empty.”
I broke out of my sad memories to see Daisuke leaning against the slats of the pen. He pointed downward; my hands were moving but nothing was coming out. The cow had turned her head and was looking at me curiously, like, Um, excuse me? I’d been so lost in events that happened more than four centuries ago that I hadn’t even noticed the opportunistic cats that had crept beneath Buttercup and now had their triangular heads muzzle-deep in the milk bucket.
“Oh, shoo, guys!” I said, brushing them away. I pulled the bucket up and grimaced when I saw the few stray cat hairs floating on the surface. Well, those would strain out.
“Still only two gallons or so, I see,” Daisuke said. His voice was always calm and even—I don’t think I’d ever heard him raise it in either excitement or anger. “She’ll give more later in spring, after she calves.”
This was not my first time at the cow rodeo, so I said, “Yep,” and stood up. I realized that last night I hadn’t seen any kind of reaction from Daisuke about Ottavio’s accusation, and with typical, not-recommended Nastasya impulsiveness, I said, “Daisuke?”
“What do you think about what Ottavio said about me?”
His dark brown, almond-shaped eyes looked into mine, as if he could see right through my head. And who knows, maybe he could. I have no idea of what a really learned immortal can do. I waited, my throat feeling tight as the uncomfortable idea filtered in that I did actually care about what he thought. I hadn’t known that until just now.
“I think Ottavio is trying to protect his family,” Daisuke said carefully. “And really, all Tähti immortals.”
I slowly let out a breath. “Do you think I’m actually a threat to all this?” I held the heavy pail with one hand and gestured with the other, to encompass River’s Edge and all it stood for.
There was a long pause, and my cheeks started to heat as I began compiling smart-ass responses to whatever hurtful thing he was about to say.
“No,” he said at last. “I think you have a lot of baggage, and some of it may be dangerous. The people who come to River’s Edge tend to be weighed down heavily with it.” He gave a slight smile, looking down, rubbing his chin with one hand.
“I can’t imagine you with baggage,” I said frankly. Yes, I’m discreet. I don’t pry. I always think through what I say to make sure it doesn’t hur—
Daisuke gave a sad smile. “Appearances are superficial, as we all know.”
I wasn’t sure I myself knew that, but he seemed quite certain, so—
“I was born in the 1760s,” he said, “in Nippon. For some reason that I’ll probably never know, I was left on the stone steps of the local Buddhist monastery, still wet from being born.” Daisuke reached up to touch his hair, as if he could still remember the sensation. “The monks took me in, and I grew up there among them, not knowing I was immortal. First I was a ward, then a student, then an apprentice monk.” He gave another rueful smile, focusing his gaze in the distance, looking past me into his history.
“I was… not of a suitable temperament to be a monk. Over and over I was punished for fighting, for showing anger. I now understand that the monks thought my soul was in danger—so they did everything they could think of to set me on the right path. But at the time I saw only their oppression and what I felt was their cruelty.”
I’d wondered about Daisuke—his past was more convoluted than I’d been able to imagine.
“When I was eighteen, I ran away. I wandered, lost in both body and spirit, until I came upon a training house, a place to learn the art of bushido.” Laughing, Daisuke rolled his eyes. “If I thought the monks were tough, the master of the training house was fifty times worse. We were beaten, starved; we trained at all hours. I was there for eight years before I was given the honor of the title samurai. I was chosen to serve the most important shogunate in our district—the House of Five Peonies.”
Even now, when he had clearly renounced violence and pride and every other fun thing, Daisuke’s eyes gleamed as he recalled being first in his class, being chosen for the best shogun. I tried to picture him young and hard and tough, with a belligerent chin and fire in his eyes, and it wasn’t easy. Today he was so refined, as smooth as a stone worn down by the ocean for millennia. Can people really change that much, over hundreds of years? It was something I wondered about myself. And about Reyn.
“At the shogun’s house I became a bully over the younger samurai, the servants.” Daisuke swallowed, ashamed of his younger self. “I made their existence one of pain and dread and humiliation. It appeased something in me, something dark and ugly. Finally I left the house and became roōnin—a warrior for hire.”
I looked at him, unable to reconcile this with the Daisuke of today.
“I worked for anyone,” Daisuke continued. “Traveling from town to town. I became morally weak, almost unable to tell right from wrong. It would have been far better for me to commit seppuku and spare the world my worthless existence, but that would have required me to recognize what I had become, and I… couldn’t. And of course, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Just made a horrible mess.”
I looked down. I too had tried to kill myself before I knew I was immortal. My husband had died; my family had been destroyed; I lost the baby I was carrying. There had seemed no point in going on. But an immortal is forced to go on. And on.
“I didn’t age, didn’t die.” His voice was a monotone. “I believed I was too evil to be granted another life in which to live more usefully. I lost count of how many murders I committed, how many treacherous acts I visited on strangers. The years blurred together; each life I took less important than the one before.”
My throat got the familiar tightness I felt when emotions hit too close to my heart. I swallowed and focused on a wisp of hay that stuck out from a crack in the pen’s boards.
“Then one night I was approached by a messenger. He wanted to hire me to kill the local lord’s two nephews, who were due to inherit their father’s land. If they were dead and the brother had no more children, then the lord would one day own the combined estates and become very powerful. The two sons were five and seven years old.”
Oh no, I thought, feeling his anguish. This was the person who I thought was the most advanced of all the students, the one who seemed the closest to achieving peace.
Kneeling, Daisuke picked up one of the barn cats and cradled it, stroking it softly. “That commission changed something in me,” he said. “I couldn’t do it, and it shocked me out of my miserable complacency. That day I gave away everything except the robe I was wearing and became a beggar, making myself the lowest of the low, the most humble of the unfortunates.”
I nodded sympathetically.
“One day, a monk in saffron robes came up to me. It was one of the monks who had taken me in, more than a hundred years before. An immortal himself, he had seen me as one when I was very small. I said, ‘Why did you never tell me?’ He said, ‘Because you never deserved to know.’ And he was right. But he took me in once more, and I began the long, painful path toward redemption. Eventually I met River. This is my fourth time here and the longest I’ve ever stayed—five years so far.”
“Holy moly,” I couldn’t help saying. Five years was a long freaking time in rehab.
“But you worry about your baggage—” Daisuke said, his face solemn. “Four years ago, a man came here to kill me.”
Excerpted from Eternally Yours by Cate Tiernan Copyright © 2012 by Cate Tiernan. Excerpted by permission.
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