The unfailing light, p.1
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       The Unfailing Light, p.1

         Part #2 of Katerina series by Robin Bridges  
The Unfailing Light
Prologue

 

  The Smolny Institute for Young Noble Maidens

  November 1825, St. Petersburg, Russia

  Two little girls in identical brown dresses skipped down the long corridor on their way to dinner. It was Thursday, and they knew the cook was making cabbage soup that evening. And cabbage soup meant warm black bread to go with it.

  They stopped when they saw the tall, thin woman standing in the shadows at the end of the hall. It was not the headmistress, nor was it one of their instructors. Sophia and Natalia had never seen this woman before.

  The woman had dark hair pulled tightly against her head, with loops of raven-black braids twisting prettily from the back. Sophia's eyes grew wide at the woman's elegant red gown, which was trimmed with several rows of lace and embroidered pearls at the sleeves and neckline. She was certain this woman must be the empress. Sophia skidded to a stop and curtsied. She nudged Natalia to do the same.

  This did not seem to please the beautiful woman. With a slight frown, she told Natalia to "run along. " Suddenly dull-eyed, Natalia abandoned her friend without a single glance back. The cabbage soup would be getting cold, she was thinking, and it tasted best when it was piping hot.

  The strange woman stared down at the little girl left alone with her in the hallway. "Walk with me, Sophia Konstantinova. "

  "Yes, Your Imperial Majesty. "

  "Foolish girl. I am not your tsarina. I am here on behalf of your father. "

  Eight-year-old Sophia had never known her father. Orphaned as an infant, she'd been brought to Smolny and raised by the nuns until she was old enough to attend classes. She knew her mother had been a lady-in-waiting to the dowager empress Marie Feodorovna, the wife of the old tsar Pavel, but Sophia did not even know her mother's name. She had, however, overheard the vicious whispers of the nuns regarding her paternity. She knew she was a Romanov bastard, even if she wasn't quite sure what that meant.

  The dark-haired woman suddenly clutched Sophia's arm and pulled her into the empty library. "Your father has wanted a child for so long. And I have been unable to give him one. Until now. " She smiled a sharp, wicked smile. Sophia gasped as she saw the tiny fangs.

  "Why does he want me now?" the little girl asked, turning pale.

  "He has watched over you from afar since the day you were born, my dear. But his mother and brother would not allow you to come and live with us. "

  "His brother?"

  "And now his brother, the tsar, is dead, and your papa is going to be tsar. " There was a gleam in the woman's eyes that frightened the poor girl.

  "Who is my father?" she asked. "And who are you?"

  "You are going to come and live with us, little Sophia. And we will live happily together forever. "

  Sophia shrieked, "But you are a monster!"

  "Yes, my love," the woman crooned. "And soon you will be one too. "

  But the poor child panicked and tried to get away from the woman who wanted to make her immortal. She pulled away from her with such force that the woman let go of her arm in surprise. Sophia stumbled backward, not expecting to be freed so easily. She could not catch her balance, but instead hit the back of her head on the doorframe. There was a dreadful thud, and then Sophia Konstantinova slid to the floor, lifeless.

  The woman sighed as she picked up her skirts and stepped around the growing puddle of blood. Her nostrils flared slightly, as if she were trying to hold in something terrible. She reached down and picked up the dead girl's hand. It had already turned cold.

  The woman smiled. "You cannot run away from a necromancer so easily, my silly child. " She ran a sharp fingernail across the girl's palm. Dark, thick blood began to leak out. Closing her eyes, the woman started to chant in an ancient, almost-forgotten language. Using her fingernail again, she cut open her own palm, and her undead blood oozed out. She held her bloodied hand to the dead girl's and resumed her chanting as their blood mingled.

  The walls in the cozy library began to shake. Books tumbled from the shelves.

  The temperature in the room dropped dramatically. "Do not fight me, love," the woman said. "Don't you want to come back and meet your papa? He is anxious to see you. "

  "LET ME GO!" The hysterical voice seemed to vibrate off the walls. A mirror in a golden frame fell from the wall, shattering into several pieces.

  The woman looked around her in shock. "Sophia, what have you done?" she whispered with a frown. "This was not supposed to happen. "

  "LET ME GO!" the voice boomed again.

  A small gasp at the doorway caused the woman to turn around. Little Natalia stood there, staring at her friend. She was trembling and pale from shock.

  The woman heard voices approaching down the hallway and frowned. Whatever magic was at work here, it was stronger than her own. Konstantin would not be pleased. But she could stay at the school no longer.

  The woman vanished before Natalia's eyes. A small black moth flew toward the little girl, lightly touching her cheek before fluttering past.

  When the headmistress reached the library, she found Natalia sitting in a puddle of blood, cradling the lifeless Sophia Konstantinova in her arms. There had been some sort of horrible accident.

  Natalia had heard her friend's voice shouting at the wicked lady in red. She knew that Sophia was safe from the horrible woman, for now. She promised Sophia she would not let anyone separate them ever again.
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