Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
I stood with my back against the doorframe while Miss Priddy held the yardstick to it.
“You’ve grown again,” Miss Priddy said. “You need new uniforms.”
She really hadn’t needed to measure me to see that my skirt was too short and my wrists stuck out of my sleeves, but the woman was a stickler. Priddy had been headmistress at a girls’ school long ago, before America had dissolved into five countries. She resented being a house manager for the Grigori Rasputin School in San Diego, which not only didn’t belong to her but was also mostly run by Russians—who, by the way, are hell on uniforms.
Students at the Grigori Rasputin School wear navy blue and yellow. I think it’s so the general population can get away from us quickly in public, in case we try to practice magic, even the ones like me who aren’t really supposed to have it.
I stepped away from the doorframe and waited. I wasn’t going to apologize to Priddy for having grown. The old woman glared at me, the lines around her mouth deepening as she scowled.
I couldn’t help growing now that Father had been dead for two years.
Father—Oleg Karkarov, a fair-skinned Russian—had decided I’d be safer in the slums of Ciudad Juárez if I was small and grubby and brown, indistinguishable from any other Mexican urchin. Or maybe both Father and my uncle were dismayed at the idea of coping with a maturing girl. Or both.
So my father spelled me to stay little. It was a clever spell, and it didn’t have to be as potent since I never had enough food.
Since Father been killed, I’d grown—very slowly at first. When my half sister Lizbeth and her partner, Eli, had found me living with my uncle, they’d thought they were rescuing a skinny eleven-year-old. When I’d arrived in the Holy Russian Empire (formerly known as California and Oregon) with Eli, I’d looked that age or younger. I’d been placed in the lowest grade, naturally. Though I’d been insulted, that mistake had given me time to acclimate.
Now that I’d been attending the school for well more than a year, getting regular meals and rest and no doses of magic, my body had begun making up for lost time. I was beginning to have breasts. My hair was not dusty black anymore but dark brown. And my skin had grown several shades lighter since I spent so much time indoors.
Miss Priddy didn’t like me or my skin, and she wasn’t moving to help me.
“I do truly need new uniforms. I don’t want to embarrass the school,” I said. That should jolt her into action.
With great reluctance, Priddy turned away to rummage through the neatly stacked shelves, her hard white fingers flipping through the folded garments. She turned to hand me two bundles, each containing a skirt, a blouse, and a sweater. One of the blouses had a large faint stain on the front. The skirt in the other stack had a botched hem.
I glimpsed a familiar silhouette through the glass of the door. It began to open.
“I would prefer a blouse that wasn’t stained and a skirt with a level hem, please.” I made sure my voice was even and respectful as I pushed the clothes back across the counter.
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride,” Miss Priddy shot back with a sneer. “Be grateful for what you are given, Felicia. You’re a charity girl. And you’re not even a grigori!”
Thank you, Miss Priddy. I suppressed a smile.
“That’s the way you treat this student? A blood relative of our founder?” Madame Semyonova, the headmistress, croaked from behind the housekeeper.
Priddy actually jumped.
“Madame—I didn’t…” Priddy was so horrified that she could not go on.
“I assume you were going to say, ‘Madame Semyonova, I didn’t know you were standing there observing my rudeness.’?”
Priddy glared at me with anger she could not express. She would not forgive me for this. But she hadn’t liked me anyway.
It was worth it.
Madame leaned on her cane. She made it clear she was going to remain in the storeroom until I had proper clothes or Miss Priddy died of mortification.
Priddy turned back to the shelves, her shoulders rigid. I watched her ribs expand and fall as she took a deep breath. She reached up to gather another set of garments and swiveled to toss two brand-new uniforms to the counter between us, plus the beret and undergarments that went with them.
“Better give her a third set,” Madame Semyonova said. “After all, we don’t want her big sister to come calling, do we?” Madame’s smile was grim.
My half sister, Lizbeth Rose, a gunnie by trade, is a great shot with both pistols and rifles. For all I know, she’s good with a bow and arrow or a slingshot, too. She’s killed many other gunnies. Also, she’s married to a prince. She is a hard act to follow. To give her credit, Lizbeth doesn’t seem to know that.
With a curtsy to Madame Semyonova and a “Thank you, Miss Priddy,” to prove I was the better person, I carried my three sets of clothes out of the supply room on the ground floor of the dormitory.
My room is on the third floor. I bounded up the stairs to make my heart pump hard, since I didn’t get as much exercise as I liked.
Our door was open, so I knew my roommate was in. Anna Feodorovna is a trainee grigori (magic user) from a Russian family. She had not liked being saddled with a charity case as a roommate, much less one who was only enrolled due to her Rasputin blood, not her grigori talent. But her room had the only empty bed, since Anna’s first roommate had had to go home.
“I’m not rooming with a filthy Mexican null bastard,” she’d said to one of her friends the day I’d arrived, her eyes on me and her voice loud so I’d be sure I knew where I stood. My father was the bastard, not me. He’d been one of Rasputin’s by-blows, but he had been married to my mother. For sure.
Father’s favorite life lesson to me was, “Never let anyone get away with anything.”
That night, while Anna slept, I’d turned her hair darker than mine. Anna had burst into tears and refused to leave the room until I returned it to its original blond, shimmery straightness.
Now we get along much better. In fact, I sit with her and her coterie every morning at breakfast, even though I find their conversation insipid and boring. I am just that contrary.
Practicing magic on Anna wasn’t without risk, since I was not supposed to have any magic to practice, as far as the instructors knew. But the result had been worth it.
I wanted to stay here, at the Rasputin School for Grigoris, with a passion that shook me sometimes. This place was a haven for a half-Mexican, half-Russian orphan.
I wanted to be a real grigori, not just a blood donor for Tsar Alexei, who has the bleeding disease that only Rasputin’s blood can alleviate. When the raggedy Russian flotilla had finally landed in California after years of wandering, William Randolph Hearst had invited Tsar Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, and their family to the compound he was building north of San Diego. It was heaven for the longtime fugitives whom no country would accept—and now their son ruled this new country.
It was heaven for me, too. I didn’t have to steal, I wasn’t in fear, I got to eat every meal. And there were books. I got to learn.
“Anna, I have new clothes,” I called—in English, of course. No one else in residence spoke Spanish.
“Good for you, now you won’t look like a scarecrow,” she called back in Russian. “You have a visitor.”
The students and teachers of Russian background spoke fluent Russian. The students and teachers from England, Ireland, and Scotland spoke English. Since the former State of California USA was now the Holy Russian Empire, classes were taught in American English.
Luckily, I had a great gift for languages.
I still had a lot to learn in San Diego.
The clothes and shoes were strange. (Not so bad.) I got to eat three times a day. (Wonderful.) I had my own bed to sleep in and indoor plumbing. (That was best of all.) I had to go to church, and that was boring, but boring didn’t hurt.
My new life was a lot to adjust to. Since Eli and Lizbeth had left for Texoma (the former states of Texas and Oklahoma), I had no one to discuss all this with except Peter Savarov, Eli’s younger brother.
I wasn’t too surprised that Peter was my visitor. He was sitting in my desk chair looking at my class notes, while Anna pretended to read as though Peter wasn’t there.
“New uniforms!” I told Peter, throwing the bundles onto my bed.
“Good,” Peter said. “The one you’re wearing is a scandal.”
I shrugged. “Now I’ll look better,” I said.
“If you two are going to talk, can you do it somewhere else? I have to study.” Anna held up her book to make sure I noticed it was a secondary text for spell-casting, the text for a class I wasn’t offered as a mere blood source for the tsar. Even though Anna knows what I can do, she’s also realized that for some reason, I don’t want everyone to know. So she acts this way.
Peter is no favorite of hers, since his father and stepbrothers were staunch supporters of Grand Duke Alexander in his attempt to stage a coup. She fears contamination by association.
“Of course, dear,” I said, and kissed Anna on the cheek. She gaped at me. Peter and I left the room before she could recover.
“Does Anna bend that way?” Peter whispered as we went down the stairs side by side.
“You didn’t ask me if I do!”
“Oh, who the hell knows what you will do?” he said, sounding twenty years older. “I’ve given up. You could kiss a bear, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
Good! I smiled at him.
“But I am keeping an eye on you, just so you know. My brother and your sister have charged me with watching out for you, and I will do that.” He stood proud and tall, his grigori vest still new and unstained.
“Is that why you were waiting in my room? To find out what I was doing?”
“I don’t hang around where I’m not wanted, even by such a nobody as Anna, unless I have a reason.”
We reached the covered walkway that led from the dormitory to the school. Instead of walking along it, Peter stepped onto the grass and went over to the Founder’s tomb, elevated and white and topped with the Russian Orthodox cross. Rasputin’s tomb was situated between the school and the high iron palings of the fence enclosing the school grounds, visible but not accessible to passersby. I shrugged and followed him.
Peter looked over his shoulder. “My mother wants to know if you will come to dinner with my family tomorrow night. Felix is invited, too, and he’ll stop by to pick you up and return you to the school after, if you can come.” Peter, now a full-fledged grigori, was living at home until he got his first job or assignment. Peter hadn’t yet gotten either.
“I’d be glad to come,” I said. “Unless the tsar needs me, of course.”
Any slip or fall, any accidental cut, and the tsar would bleed. Then he’d need me or one of the other remaining Rasputin-descended bastards whose blood kept Alexei alive. There weren’t many of us left, but at least the rate of attrition had slowed down since the tsar’s uncle had been shot. Alexander had been devious enough to start picking off Alexei’s blood donors. He would have gotten to me in time.
“Of course,” Peter said. He looked self-conscious, and I could tell he was boosting himself up to say something. “Since you gave Anna a kiss, will you give me one?”
“No,” I said, astonished. “Why do you ask?”
“Just wanted to see what you’d say. Why Anna but not me?” Peter cocked his head.
“Because Anna is not important in my life, and your family is,” I said.
“You sound like I should have known that.” Peter was half smiling.
“If the shoe fits,” I said, tossing my head. I was proud of working in that adage. I wheeled and walked into the school building at a brisk rate. I didn’t actually have a reason to go into the school, but I needed to walk away from Peter, and I didn’t want to go back to face Anna yet. Let her simmer for a while.
This kissing people was a new thing and had popped up along with the appearance of my breasts.
Tom O’Day was on door duty in the lobby. Tom was the only grigori I knew of who came from Texoma, like Lizbeth. I felt it formed a bond between us, though Tom did not share that opinion. Many of the girls were interested in Tom, though he was at least ten years older than most of them, surly, and (as far as I could tell) humorless. Good-looking, though.
“Tom,” I said, to get him to look up from Great English Wizards.
“Um?” He marked his place with an envelope and shut the book. His face did not change at all when he looked at me. Hell.
“I’m invited out tomorrow,” I said. “The Savarovs. Felix will fetch me and return me.”
Tom’s broad face turned even grimmer. “Felix,” he said. He might as well have spat.
“You know Felix is engaged to Lucy,” I said.
Tom looked blank.
“Peter and Eli’s sister.”
“Felix isn’t interested in women,” Tom said, his sandy eyebrows shooting up like caterpillars.
A breakthrough in our relationship! Tom had volunteered an opinion.
“He and Lucy seem quite pleased about the engagement,” I told him, sounding prim.
Tom shook his head and reopened his book. I was dismissed.
“Aren’t you going to enter it in the log?” I said, just to aggravate him.
Tom didn’t make any effort to keep his own sigh silent. He laid his book aside and took up a pen to write in the logbook.
“Thank you, Tom,” I said, just to stay there for a moment more.
The fire grigori did not look up. “Girl, get yourself some new uniforms.”
“Just got them,” I said.
“Then for God’s sake, go change.”
So I left.