Sixth Moon, 350

"Sergei, I do sympathize with the need to express your personal grief, but to expect all of Barovia to do the same is unrealistic. The whole thing will be a waste of time better spent working." Sergei planted his hands on my table and thrust his head forward. "You've told me more than once about maintaining appropriate behavior before the common folk. For you to let Kir's passing go unmarked implies a lack of respect for the church and all it stands for. A public show of sorrow and acceptance of the will of the gods in taking the Most High Priest will reaffirm their faith and bolster their confidence in your rule."

I directed a long-suffering look at Lady Ilona Darovnya. She met it with a restrained smile and shook her head, meaning she was going to remain strictly neutral on this issue. She saw it as a conflict between two brothers rather than between church and state, otherwise she'd have openly taken Sergei's side.

Sergei noted the interplay and waited, watching me closely. Gods, but he was young and earnest. I might have been tempted to lose patience with him but for the knowledge that he was completely sincere in his views. His argument with me was not for personal gains - else I'd have had an excellent reason to arbitrarily overrule him - but for what he perceived to be answering a need others might have.

I'd never seen anything good come from attempting to fulfill such needs, but on the other hand, he did have a reasonable political point to make. It rankled me that he knew the best road to persuading me lay in that direction.

I gave in with undisguised ill-grace; just because I'd been persuaded did not mean I had to enjoy the decision. "Very well. Make your gesture. I'll declare the first day of next week to be one of nationwide mourning for him. Like as not the peasants will use the time away from their fields to clean out their stocks of tuika and spend the following day struggling to recover from the debauch."

"Oh, Strahd - " he began, drawing my name out in his own expression of long-suffering.

I waved him down. "I know them better than you do. You'll have your gesture, but I doubt if one in fifty of them will observe it in the way you intend. A rich man thinks all other people are rich, and an intelligent man thinks all other people are similarly gifted. Both are always terribly shocked when they discover the truth of the world. You, my dear brother, are a pious man."

He eased back and finally laughed a little. At himself. "Yes, I see what you mean, though I am aware that not everyone is pious. But I tell you, this day will mean much to those who are, and perhaps, a day away from toil may allow those who aren't to become so. It may even do you some good, Strahd."

Had anyone else said that to me, I might have had him beaten, but Sergei was only at his usual gentle chiding. I let it pass. "Go on and arrange things, then. Tell my clerk to draw up something appropriate, and I'll sign it later."

Gratitude warmed up his pale face. For many, the news of Kir's untimely death had been sad and shocking, but Sergei had been stricken especially hard by it.

He'd been very close to the young priest, both from the requirements of his training and the genuine friendship between them. "Thank you, Brother," he said, favoring me with a wan version of his smile before leaving.

"I just hope he doesn't expect me to wear an armband as do the peasants," I murmured to Ilona.

"I think plain black clothes will suffice," she responded. "You're more or less dressed for it now."

"I like to wear black."

"It does favor you, my lord." Lady Ilona also wore black in the form of a near-transparent veil that completely covered the sky blue of her robes. It was not a flattering color on her, and she had just enough personal vanity to be mildly annoyed by it. "Do you really think a day of mourning for Kir is that much a waste of time?"

"I suppose not, but I don't want the people believing they can just drop their tools and make merry whenever it pleases them, or we'll have no end of holidays to put up with."

"I hardly think they'll make merry on this occasion, my lord."

"You should talk to Alek, then. There's a custom in one country he's been where the relatives of the dead sit the body up in a corner and have a party with dancing, song, and drink until the wine puts them in nearly the same condition as the dear departed."

"That certainly sounds more appealing than some rites I've heard of. I may look into it for myself. Better to celebrate a soul's passage to a better place than to wallow in sorrow over their leaving. We'll all be there soon enough ourselves."

I looked away briefly and pinched the bridge of my nose. "Lady Ilona, forgive me, but I do have other duties that require my attention."

Her clear eyes clouded a moment, for she could see that my work table was quite bare, but she took the hint and rose. "As do I, my lord."

I rose too, we made our bows, and off she went. Her walk was a bit stiffer than normal due to indignation, but I didn't care: the woman knew very well how much I detested being reminded of my mortality. Kir's death had also been a singularly unwelcome reminder, made doubly unpleasant since he'd been so much younger than I. Apparently I was entering the stage of life where the people of one's youth start dropping away one by one. What was next? Watching my hands for the bulge of veins and the onset of age spots? Soon my contemporaries, like Alek or Gunther Cosco, would be huddling in shawls about the fire and shaking their heads over whoever had died that week.

By contrast, even Sergei's bright presence was a mixed blessing. I could not help loving my brother for his youth and spirit, and respecting him as a proven fighter, but those very qualities made me aware of the span of years between us.

Sometimes it was most difficult for me to bear his company, knowing that all his life lay ahead of him, while most of mine was forever lost.

True, I had many accomplishments in conquest and war. I had turned Castle Ravenloft into the jewel of my vision. But what was this compared to the swift and unstoppable passage of time? Once I'd been as Sergei, unconsciously convinced that I'd live forever. Like the proverbial rich man and intelligent man, I, the young man, had encountered the hard truth of the world as it now concerned me. In these three years of peace, that truth had grown upon my soul like some parasitic plant run wild. With every passing day I felt its roots dig themselves in more deeply.

Alek Gwilym seemed to understand me best, but was wise enough not to speak of it directly.

"Get yourself a woman, Strahd," he'd once said, picking up on my sour mood.

"Your solution, not mine," I replied dryly.

"Not a solution so much as a distraction. Find some pretty flower and have a few brats with her. There are plenty of prospects to choose from right here in your own court."

"Aye, and with any number of relatives attached to complicate the balance of power."

"Then talk to Lady Ilona. I'm sure she can put you on to some orphans of rank that have been placed under her protection. You're a hero - I guarantee you'll find every one of them willing and grateful for the honor of carrying on the Von Zarovich name."

"My brother Sturm has already seen to that detail."

"But Sturm's more clerk than ruler. You've often said as much. He does fine playing administrator to your father's estates, but do you see him handling an entire country? Would any of his children have the necessary knowledge or experience to ably govern after him? Hardly, not with him as their only model. I suppose he could send his eldest to live here and learn from you..."

But then I'd have the same feeling toward that child as I have toward Sergei.

"It's different when they're your own," Alek said, uncannily reading my thoughts. I wondered, and not for the first time, whether he was truly gifted with the Sight or merely good at deducing what was on my mind.

"Different?"

"Because it is your flesh and your blood being carried on, not your father and mother's in some other vessel, but yours. That's the difference, Strahd. Find some pretty flower, and if the gods are smiling, within nine moons you'll be holding your own immortality in those two hands. Much better than a sword, and far more magical than anything you'll find in all those books you've collected."

I looked hard upon the books now. Despite the rough-and-ready world of camp life, I'd managed to assemble and preserve quite a number of them. Not as many as I would like; there was room on the empty shelves of my library to hold five times as many volumes as I presently possessed. Their implied knowledge and wisdom seemed empty to me, though. My mood would pass, I knew, and I'd again fill my hours with reading and magical experiment, but with the memory of Alek's words haunting me it seemed uncomfortably certain that he was, after all, right.

*****

The day of national mourning was marked in court by continuous services in the chapel. I put in my allotted time in prayer for the soul's rest of Most High Priest Kir, then spent the rest of the day in my library. No food was cooked; all the land supped cold on whatever they'd prepared the day before. I, for one, was not deprived by its absence. The cheese, bread, strawberries, and wine that sustained me were little different in temperatures from the more elaborate meals I'd had since moving into Castle Ravenloft. (The master cook and engineer still hadn't solved things.) Sergei, though not yet ordained, was given the Priest's Pendant to wear as a symbol of the approaching ceremony. He was much moved at the sight of it, since it brought solidly home to him that he was soon to take Kir's place.

"I'm not sure I'm worthy of this office," he confided to me later.

"Who of us is?" I responded, which he seemed to think a very wise answer. So affected was he that he wrapped his arms about me in a brief embrace and whispered thanks before rushing away to his room to privately mourn.

Lady Ilona presided over the chapel services. It was very solemn and beautiful in its way. When I'd been there, I saw Sergei watching her every move from his seat in the balcony overlooking the chapel. Very soon, he would have to serve at future functions, and he studied her closely, his brow furrowed with concentration. One could not fault him for such honest concern, and though he was inexperienced, he promised to make a good priest - perhaps because he naturally possessed all the humility that old Zarak's holystoning chores had failed to inspire in me.

The day of mourning came and went, but the church continued on quietly with its own ancient rituals and devotions. Until the proper period of time had passed, no ordinations could be performed, so Sergei was in a kind of limbo, unable to bury himself in any official duties to get his mind off things. With that outlet blocked, being a Von Zarovich, he made another for himself and began daily trips down to the Village of Barovia, frequently spending the night.

As a soldier, my initial idea of what he was doing there had conflicted with the sort of behavior one might expect from a future priest. It struck me as being entirely normal, though, and not worth my concern... until Alek reported that my brother was working among the poor people. The news about Red Lukas had been inevitably garbled, and now the popular story was that, single-handed, Sergei had captured and beheaded him and his whole troop. No word of truth on the subject from Sergei's lips could change their minds, and he was frequently subjected to a cheering welcome and a shower of flower petals. Recently, he'd taken it upon himself to see to the beautification of the church and was attempting to set up some sort of hospice for the sick.

The news was hardly pleasing to me.

"He's only practicing for his vocation, my lord."

"That's fine for a priest, but not for Sergei. When he's put on his robes, he can do whatever he pleases, but not until then."

"What harm is there in it now?"

"Before you know it, every beggar and layabout in the land will find his way to the village with his hands out and hopes high. The lad has a good heart, but he doesn't know enough yet to see when someone's taking advantage of him. Worse, the people may think he's acting in the Von Zarovich name. I can't have that."

"Why not? How could his generosity pose a threat to your name?"

I leaned back in my chair and sighed. "Suppose for a moment you were one of my boyars, and you'd just spent the last month collecting taxes from your district and sent them in. You then hear Lord Sergei Von Zarovich is making life easier for the poor of Barovia. How good-hearted of him, you think, until you begin to wonder where the money is coming from. Just when you trust your taxes are to pay for road upkeep and military protection, you hear that Von Zarovich's brother is tossing it into the gutter by the bushel load. Might he not be taking his funds directly from your contribution? Would you not resent that and perhaps think your own people deserved some similar gratis for simply being poor? You might even consider that since Lord Strahd's brother has so much money to give away, you might not need to send in as much tax next year, if at all..."

"Yes, I see where you're going with that idea: Sergei helps out one minor village and the whole power structure of the country collapses."

"This is nothing to be mocked, Alek, I am serious. Should the boyars ever decide to revolt, how long do you think we would last?"

"You have reason to believe they would?"

I didn't answer him right away, giving him plenty of time to work it out for himself. He had a fine mind; it did not take long.

"Who do you suspect?"

"All of them."

That took him aback. "I know blood oaths of loyalty may be broken, but all of the boyars?"

"Or a single strong one to sway the others. He or she can make certain promises, drop a casual word over the wine. 'These are uncertain times, you know. The gods forbid such calamity, but should anything happen to Lord Strahd, I hope I can count on your support.' You know what it's like."

Alek frowned, his lips a thin line, and his eyes narrow and harder than usual.

"So... there is still a traitor in the camp."

"Essentially. I want you to sniff him out."

"Execution, too, should I find him?"

"It depends on the circumstances. If he's smart, then a word of warning may be all that's needed. If not..." I opened and lifted my hand. "But tell me first."

"Of course, my lord."

*****

On the morning following Alek's departure, I was of a mind to summon Sergei for a good talking to; he'd been away all yesterday and had only just returned. I thought it best to get it over with before he took it into his head to run off again.

He came into my study looking unsuitably cheerful for a man in mourning for a dead friend. He wore a peculiar, stuffed expression on his face that he'd never sported before and seemed ready to burst from whatever was bottled up within him.

"Sergei, about these trips you've been making to the village..."

That was all the opening he needed. It didn't matter to him that I was still speaking; the sound of my voice alone was enough to set him off. That's when the whole dismal story came bubbling out of him.

He'd met a girl.

Fuming with impatience, I was barely able to tolerate listening to his drivel about her endless virtues, beauty, and all the many traits men in love attribute to their women when the fever is on them. I'd heard it before from others; Sergei's variation on the theme was hardly original, and certainly less welcome.

Gods, one would have thought she was the first female he'd ever encountered, from the way he spoke of her.

My reaction was, to put it kindly and say the least, cool. In addition to the ludicrousness of a Von Zarovich coupling himself with a peasant, I was compelled to point out that he was destined to enter the service of the church as the next Most High Priest. But the moral implications, the political repercussions, the sheer idiocy of this new direction he'd taken meant absolutely nothing to him.

No word from me would change his mind or move his heart. He was well and truly besotted - blind and deaf to everything but her - and to the devil with his responsibilities and the rest of the world.

We did not part on amicable terms.

The truth be told, I was furious. Never before in my life had I been more angry with anyone and less able to do anything about it. And, while I was yet in this volcanic frame of mind, my clerk announced that Lady Ilona was without and requesting an audience.

"Are you come to take his side or mine?" I demanded of her as she glided through the door. "Is it to be church and state today, or is this merely another family matter to you?"

"My Lord Strahd needs to better control himself," she murmured.

Her quiet voice had the same effect on me as a sharp rap between the eyes. I'd been pacing up and down my study, positively shaking with frustration over this new crisis, then abruptly stopped. After a few moments, I was able to speak again in a more civilized manner.

"The boy doesn't know what he's doing," I finally growled.

"They never do when they're that much in love."

Suspicion sparked in me. "How long have you known about this?"

"Sergei only now spoke to me. He was concerned about your unhappiness over his plans."

More likely that he asked her to rush over and calm me down. "And you've accepted it - just like that?"

She shrugged. "What am I supposed to do?

Forbid him to love?"

"But he's throwing away his priesthood, everything he's worked for - "

"There are other ways to serve the gods, my lord."

My soldier's instinct wearily informed me I was fighting a losing battle. Until this moment, surrender had been an alien concept; the loss and emptiness I now felt were utterly disgusting and instantly exhausting. I found my chair and dropped into it, feeling tired beyond my years. "What's to be done?"

Ilona came around to face me. "Nothing at all. These things always find a way of working themselves out for the best. Trust that that will happen and don't worry about it."

"You sound like my mother."

She smiled; as a girl she had known Ravenia. "I shall take that as a great compliment, my lord."

"This is completely ridiculous, you know that."

"i suppose it is, but there's never anything sensible in a young man's love. It exists, and one can do nothing else but stand aside. Anyway, you know in your heart Sergei is incapable of besmirching the honor of the Von Zarovich name. I'm sure the girl will prove to be perfectly lovely and suitable."

"Oh, I'm sure she will be, too. Doubtless the fortune attached to Sergei's name will inspire her to a great deal of goodness."

"You speak as if goodness does not really exist, Lord Strahd."

"I've had little enough experience with it."

"Then you'll have something pleasant to look forward to."

*****

Less than a week later, Sergei brought her up by carriage from the village for the first and last time. She had no family, having been one of the orphans protected and raised by the local church, and would now be chaperoned by Lady Ilona herself until the wedding day. It was my faint hope Ilona would be able to teach the girl enough about court etiquette so as to avoid any wretched embarrassment at public functions.

I directed to all the staff and retainers that her arrival was to be an informal event; she would be properly introduced to everyone at the dinner Sergei was giving in her honor that night. Those who could read the true meaning in this would see the wisdom behind it. If she turned out to be a total disaster, there was still time to declare her indisposed for the evening and postpone things.

Sergei, the gods preserve his innocent heart, hadn't the faintest inkling about the business. He alighted from the carriage and helped her out as though she were an empress, and not a lowborn orphan jumped up from the gutter by some quirk of the gods.

I was just considering that her lack of a family was probably fortunate, in that they wouldn't be mucking about the court and being awkwardly in the way, when Sergei escorted her up the steps to present her.

Then all my disparaging thoughts fell away like dead leaves. She was, without doubt, the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen.

As she approached, I came to see that she was as beyond beauty as a river in spring flood is beyond a drop of water. I felt myself drawn into the flow, swept under by the current. Overwhelmed. I could almost hear the roar and rush of it instead of my brother's voice when he spoke.

"Strahd, this is Tatyana."

The girl made a low curtsy. She wore the simple, homespun costume of Barovia, but she wore it like royalty, and her copper-colored hair like a crown. She made me suddenly believe in the folktale of the kidnapped princess raised by peasants and eventually returned to her rightful place in the castle.

"Welcome," I whispered, barely able to make my response.

She raised her face to me. The clear skin, the great eyes - brighter than gems - and full dark lips had come together in such a way as to make all other women seem ugly by comparison.

There was no comparison. She was unique. She was perfect.

I felt my heart swoop and soar at the sheer joy of looking at her. This raised a blush on her cheek, and I instantly knew I must put her at ease. I took one of her hands, and she straightened - how like a tall flower she was - and with a bow, lightly kissed her fingertips.

"Welcome to Castle Ravenloft, Tatyana. Be welcome and look upon this as your true home, forevermore."

My words seemed to go right to her heart, and her returning smile was like that first glimpse of sun after a bitter winter. All I wanted to do for the rest of my life was keep that smile on her ever after.

And then she looked at Sergei.

It was as if the sun that had favored me had been all along hidden by a cloud.

Its brilliant glory now shone in full upon him... and him alone.

*****

Unused as I was to informing anyone about my activities, custom demanded I tell Sergei of my plan to take Tatyana for a short walk before supper. He was for it, of course, his eyes alight with the knowledge that my purpose was but to get to know her better and thus approve of her. My approval was of no importance. One might as well "approve" of the air one breathed or the true azure of a summer sky. The need for one and beauty of the other were there with or without any pompous human judgments; such was Tatyana. She was sky and earth, air and music, sunlight without shadow.

And, though the most unaffected girl I'd ever met, she also held a deep awe for me that needed be - must be - dispelled.

After ascertaining that she was ready, I called at her room, and with one of Lady Ilona's acolytes walking in escort well behind us, took her down to the main floor and outside to the south courtyard. She rested one hand on my arm the whole time, but hardly murmured a word beyond her initial greeting. Perhaps she was bracing herself for some horrible question-and-answer session from me.

Once outside I did make inquiries about the comfort of her quarters and the suitability of the clothes she'd found there. She'd changed for the evening, wearing a copper-colored gown of flattering lines, which Lady Nona had been at some pains to acquire for her.

"Everything is wonderful, Old One," said Tatyana. "Everyone has been more than kind."

This form of address was perfectly acceptable and proper for her to use with me, considering our social stations and, unhappily, the difference in our ages. In Barovia, it was a sign of great respect; she did not know to call me Strahd. I decided not to correct her, though, concerned that it might add to her shyness with me. Above all, I wanted to put her at ease.

I paused and faced her. "I am very glad to hear it. And you must know that if there's anything else you need or want, you have but to ask. This castle and all who dwell here are your most humble servants, myself included."

Instead of reassuring her, this comment seemed to make her somewhat more disconcerted.

"Is something wrong?"

"Nothing at all. Only that I think you are the kindest one of all to speak to me so. Before our meeting, I was a little afraid of you, you know."

"Afraid?"

She opened her palms, spreading them out toward the whole of the keep. "All my life, this place has loomed over the village. When Dorian was here, we all lived with the dread of him as the elders live with the pain of their bones. When your armies came, we were in fear of what might happen to us, even as we rejoiced in our freedom. But the years of your rule have been peaceful. You've taken away our fears, and we are grateful."

That was not the sentiment I had heard from the village, but then what my soldiers might gather in the tavern and what a young girl might hear in the protective walls of a church are bound to be quite disparate reports.

"And what of your fears?" I asked.

"Gone as well. I've seen some of the beauty you've made here, which means that I've seen some of your soul as well, and this is a good place. You may be a fierce warrior, but there is much warmth in you, or you could not have made such things."

I laughed a little. It was good to do so. I had years of laughter stored up inside me, it seemed, and without the least effort this lovely girl was bringing it forth. "I think your tribute would be better directed to the artisans than to me."

She smiled at me. Oh, gods, how she smiled. "Now I also see why Sergei loves you so."

My good humor faded with the mention of my brother. To cover it, I resumed our walk. "Come, I wish to show you something that I had no influence on in regard to beauty."

We strolled under the center portcullis gate, and I guided us toward the chapel garden. The wind had died down with the waning of the day, and the scent of roses filled the air. She loved them, breaking away from me to dart from one to the other and breathe in the sweetness of each. With my dagger, I cut off an especially large bloom, careful to strip away the thorns before giving it to her. This brought forth another smile, making me wish the garden were a hundred times larger so I might offer her a thousand such roses.

"There's more to see," I said, taking her hand. We passed through the gate to the overlook and approached its low wall. "This is not my creation, but at the very least one may come here and appreciate it."

Hesitant from the height, Tatyana nonetheless came to the edge. The sun was behind us on its last crashing fall toward the western peaks of the Balinoks.

Its golden light streamed over the valley. As we watched, the shadow of Castle Ravenloft began to visibly creep away from us to cover the land far below like a dark blanket. In its soft folds, tiny lights appeared one by one in the village as candles were lighted and cooking fires built up.

"There's the church, my home," she said, pointing. I didn't bother to look. To see the wonder and happiness upon her face was what I craved. Nothing else was important.

"This is your home," I said.

Her eyes turned to meet mine. "Thank you, Elder."

I let it pass. "No more fears?"

"None. I feel complete, somehow, in being here. Before, I was happy enough, but it was as if only part of me existed, and I never really knew there was anything else. Only after meeting Sergei did I truly realize how much more there is to the world."

I managed to keep my smile in place.

"I feel alive and real for the first time. I believe now that all the life I'd led before was but a time of waiting until Sergei came into it."

The last of the light had faded, and the castle and valley lay both in darkness.

I could hardly speak. My voice was a dry whisper, like a desert wind. "You love him, then?"

"More than the gods, more than myself, more than anything I've known, imagined, or could ever imagine. I hope you don't think it's wrong of me to love him so much."

"No, not at all."

She had just put into words that which I felt for her, myself. I turned away so she could not see my face in the emerging starlight. Along with the sharp joy of love, I was being cut in two by the razor edge of utter hopelessness, and I was unable to keep it from showing.

It was worse than any sword thrust, colder and more cruel than a blast of winter sleet upon naked skin. I could have cried aloud from the pain she so innocently gave me.

To have such raw elements tearing through my brain and body was too much. I would have to tell her or die on the spot from the torment. I faced her and kissed her hand once more, my heart booming like a battle drum.

What to say? How to say it?

My throat was clogged solid with so many words that none of them could escape.

In this darkness, I was a tongue-tied youth of twenty again and not the tempered warrior. I looked to her and held her eyes, and it came to me that she knew without having to be told, and just as swiftly, I knew she did not. Reason fighting with emotion and neither winning, such was my state of mind for this, the longest moment of my life.

The madness passed as the sheer impossibility of it overcame me. Everything in me had wanted to blurt out how I felt, everything but the small voice of doubt we all possess that causes cowards to flee and wise men to wait. I knew myself to be anything but a coward, and so it must have been some innate wisdom that insisted on silence. For me to speak now would only confuse and frighten her, and spoil any chance of making her forget Sergei and turn to me.

Sergei... No.

And I blotted that malignant thought out before it could complete itself. To even have allowed it to lightly brush against the most distant reaches of my mind was beyond dishonor, something so shattering it was beyond evil itself.

"Elder?"

Her sweet voice brought me back from that abyss.

"Are you well?"

"Of course I am," I lied.

Sergei... I shook myself. "Time to go in, don't you think?"

Twelfth Moon, 350 That first night, the following day, and all the others afterward soared past more swiftly than a hawk in flight. Each revealed a new delight in Tatyana and inflicted fresh agony upon my heart. Each drove home the fact that, no matter how much I wanted her, she was not interested in me.

The idea that I was - in her eyes at least - too old to be considered a lover was first and foremost in my mind, though looking in the mirror made me doubt it. My body was as lean and tough as ever, daily sword practice made it so, and if my face was hard and had its share of weather lines, better that than the sag of loose skin. In the past, not a few lady guests of the court had given me to understand that I was anything but repellent to them and more than satisfactory in meeting the demands required by the physical art of love. But this innocent girl seemed immune or unaware of me in the way that I desired. She never called me by my name, only as "Elder" or "Old One" to show her respect for me and all the years of life I'd lived - daily proof that my doubt was only my own hopeful self-deception.

By subtle acts, I did try to play the suitor; I gifted Tatyana with jewels and fine clothes, commissioned her portrait. I even played music for her while she sat for it, and though she accepted all with deep appreciation and happiness, it was always in a way that made it clear she saw me only as Brother and not rival against Sergei. Humiliating as it was, I held fast to that small piece of cold comfort.

It was better than nothing.

As the harsh months of winter made outside activities less attractive, I spent more of my free time in the study, going through my books. Previously, my interest in the Art had been that of an experimenting dilettante; now it occurred to me that some magical spell might afford the means to draw Tatyana's attention away from Sergei and over to me. But the constant distractions of government and other duties had had their effect, so my skills were not as they should have been. Some spells were easy enough to master, others were quite incomprehensible. Those I did understand were useless in regard to my situation; nonetheless, I broke open each book in its turn and went through it page by page in hope of finding something.

Human desires being what they are, one would think the ritual for casting a love-spell or creating a love-philter would be more common, but my books were bereft of such things, except for a single short treatise on the subject. The writer's conclusion that love was a force that could not be successfully reproduced by magical methods struck me as being inanely smug. I tore the page out and summarily tossed it into the fire.

"Burning books for warmth, my lord?"

My dagger was out even as I pivoted to face the speaker.

It was Alek Gwilym, leaning against the door-way with his hands in his pockets.

He looked me up and down, his eyes settling on the blade. "Good."

"Announce yourself next time," I said, with no small irritation.

"An assassin wouldn't. I just wanted to see if you could still guard your back, so please don't have your clerk whipped for keeping quiet. Anyone coming after you would have killed her as a simple precaution."

"I won't." I replaced and resheathed the dagger. He'd gotten his message across.

"What is it? Another Ba'al Verzi after me?"

Alek had been gone for months on his errand. The Barovian winter had left its mark on him. His face was a touch gaunt and still red from the wind, his clothes smelled of snow, and he looked in need of a new pair of riding boots. He removed his fur hat with the ridiculous-looking but necessary ear flaps and strode over to the fireplace.

"Gods, but this feels good. We've been out in the white muck for weeks, with drifts right up to the horses' shoulders and the road so buried even the guides were getting lost. The worst part was the last mile before we made the castle.

The last one's always the longest, you know." He hopped on one foot to remove a snow-sodden boot, dropped it and its mate near the fire to dry out, and drew up a chair for himself.

"Make yourself at home," I said.

"You've got true luxury here, Strahd." He stretched his long hands toward the flames. "Some of the so-called courts I've been to would murder to have something like this."

"Would they now? Who?"

"The Van Roeyens, for one."

"That's my mother's family!"

"Blood's thicker than water, but gold..." He rubbed his thumb against his fingers meaningfully and raised his brows.

"Which of them?" I asked wearily.

"Your Uncle Gustav."

"Really, Alek, the old boy must be over eighty by now."

"Eighty-two. But he has a houseful of poor relations, and the income from his lands is hardly up to the task. I suggest you might send him a generous Winterfest gift as a distraction."

"Ransom myself without being made captive? There's a novel way for him to obtain money without work."

"Better than having him send some of your cousins over for an extended visit.

Young Vikki is almost as good with a sword as I. I'd hate to learn firsthand about her talents with a knife on some dark night."

He was right. Beyond my late mother's marriage tie, the Van Roeyens had little enough regard for me, except as a source of income by means of inheritance.

Perhaps a timely "gift" would put them off and keep them at their strategic border location for a few more years. I made a note of it for my clerk to see to.

"Who else?"

Alek ran down the list he kept in his head of all the households he'd visited, ostensibly as my ambassador. The more clever hosts would have been able to correctly interpret his real mission, especially the ones with anything to hide.

Ironically, the truly innocent were indistinguishable from the more careful guilty. Those who were obviously guilty were less a threat since I knew for certain where they stood.

"So the Markous clan can be trusted to stand with me as long as the Darovnyas remain loyal," I said an hour or more later. I'd ordered food brought up for us both. Alek chose tea over mulled wine, and this time it was hot. (The cook and engineer had come up with the brilliant idea of heating water right in my study by making use of the fireplace. Perhaps in another three years they'd successfully solve the soup problem.) "And the Darovnyas will remain loyal as long as Lady Ilona supports your rule,"

Alek added, spearing an apple with his dagger.

"She supports her faith over her family - and even over me."

"Ah, but she is a flexible and practical politician as well. She knows you're the strongest, so here she stays - close to the core of power."

"But the others? You picked up no clue on the Dilisnyas?"

He shook his head and cut a slice from the apple. "Reinhold's belly still enslaves him. If he'd loosen his purse strings enough to properly endow his local temple, I'm sure the chaplains there would not be ungrateful; then the rest of us wouldn't have to listen to his groans after supper. He had the worst food, too: gruels and milks, fruit boiled to such a pulp you couldn't recognize what it had once been. Out of pure self-defense against starvation I'd sneak off with young Leo and raid the pantry at midnight like some thieving scullery drudge." He popped the slice in his mouth and crunched with obvious pleasure, and before it was quite gone, he followed it up with a fat square of yellow cheese.

"What does that have to do with anything?" I had little patience for idle stories today.

"The pantry was close to the wine cellar, and Leo had his own key. Reinhold doesn't drink, so his stocks were in sad need of paring down. The two of us did our best."

"And did Leo confess anything interesting once you got him drunk?"

Alek smiled; then it turned into one of his rare laughs, signifying he was very pleased with himself. "I wish you could have been there. The young dog was doing his best to get me drunk, so that I might talk. He didn't know it, but I caught him downing a few swigs of olive oil just before that first raid on the cellar.

He put on a very good act; if I hadn't seen his preparation, I might have believed his every mumbled word that night."

"Did you learn anything useful?"

"That he's very smart and highly interested in the affairs of Barovia. He had many questions about your political plans and how the Dilisnyas will figure in them."

"Nothing unusual in that, or particularly secret."

"Mo, but - now I don't have proof of this, it's only a feeling - but I don't think he shared any of this with Reinhold."

"Indeed? One wonders what he's up to, then. Is it for himself or someone else that he is so curious? He struck me as being rather feckless and easily led."

"Which leaves the Wachters and the Buchvolds as possible influences. He was very close to Illya, don't forget."

"And cut his throat without hesitation, don't forget."

"In your defense," he pointed out.

At the time, I'd had a fleeting hope that the need to watch my back so closely had passed with Illya's death. Alas, no. Never, for a man in my position.

Alek's information on the Wachter and Buchvold families was just as inconclusive. Well, I'd have a chance to judge things for myself, soon enough.

"My brother is getting married this summer," I said.

"I'd heard some news of it on my way up."

"It's to be a large wedding. Invitations are being prepared."

"I think I see where this is going, and I can't say I like it."

"You don't have to. Just be there when the guests arrive and have your eyes and ears open for anything... interesting. Have you enough people to cover them all?"

"I should, unless any have died from winter fever while I've been away. Haven't had a chance to check on things."

"Then go do so while you can."

"May I take this to mean I have additional goodwill visits ahead of me?"

"Yes, you may."

He sighed and shook his head, but voiced no real objection. I knew that, discomforts aside, he preferred being out and doing something over being tied fast to his castle duties.

"Give yourself a week to thaw out, fatten up, and look your people over, though."

"Thank you, my lord. I may even find time for a bath." Having raised a brief smile from me, he nodded at the clutter on my table. "Another magical project?"

"Something like that."

"I turned up five new volumes for your book collection. Cost more than a few coppers, I can tell you. There's not such change left in that purse you gave me."

My eyes snapped up. "If they have true spells of the Art in them it doesn't matter." Alek had standing orders to buy any books concerned with magic for me, and he carried a generous supply of gold to pay for them.

"I'm sure they do. I couldn't read a single word of them. Made my head ache just to look at the pages."

My heart began to beat faster, but I did not let it show. "Sounds most promising. Where did you get them?"

"From the private library of some minor noble. He was selling off his grandfather's estate to pay for his wine. Seems his life's ambition has been to drink himself to death. With what he charged me for that lot, he should be well on his way by now. Let's hope you get a more constructive use from them than he."

"Indeed, yes," I murmured.

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