Sixth Moon, 351

"Lady Ilona, how can you be so blind? Sergei I can understand; he's been tottering around in a lovesick haze for the last year. But you should be able to see the folly of it."

"Whether it was a mistake on Tatyana's part or not, time will tell, but your reaction has made her and Sergei very upset. And on the day before their wedding, too."

I'd lost all desire to continue on the subject. "If they're so upset, then go and comfort them. In fact, I think you would best serve the court if you confined your concerns to the upcoming ceremony rather than this matter. There must be much for you to do yet."

"It is being seen to, my lord," she said coolly.

That voice again. I was hearing it more and more often, and each time it grated harder on the ear than the time before. I hated the sound of it, and the gods help me, I was beginning to hate its source, but Ilona returned my look, stare for stare, without wavering. There were damned few people who could still do that these days.

"Do you really expect me to stand to the side and condone foolish behavior in my own house?" I finally demanded.

"The girl was only being generous - "

"She had no right to throw away her jewels on some pig of a peasant! By the gods, those were the ones I gave to her!"

"Meaning they were hers to give in turn."

"Meaning I entrusted them to her care as part of the family heritage. They belonged to my mother and hers before her and so on. Tatyana might have been unaware of their true value, but not Sergei. Yet instead of stopping her, he publicly approved of it. The whelp has no idea the door he's left open."

"I'm sure arrangements can be made to get them back - "

"Of course they can, but that's not the point.

She shouldn't have debased herself so, particularly before the rabble. Now she won't be able to put a foot outside the gates without some muck-covered beggar crawling all over her. Everything will be recovered, rest assured, but I'll see to it that the filth that laid hands on her is flayed alive for his insult."

"It was but a remembrance of childhood play - "

"If grabbing her and beating her head against the floor in some sty of a tavern is play, then she's well rid of the motherless animal."

"But until she comes to that realization, how do you think she'll feel when she finds out what's happened to her old friend? Do you think it will please her to hear of it? Will she respect you for causing injury where she sought to bring healing?"

My hands had balled into fists, and I was hard-pressed not to use them. Gods, but I wanted to smash something, anything or anyone, just then. Instead, I backed away and forced them open. "Very well," I said in a much quieter tone.

"I'll have someone buy back her jewels and cause no harm to the - the... man."

Her lips parted for another comment, then snapped shut. She knew when she was ahead.

When she'd gone, I threw myself into the chair before my overloaded study table and spent a very long time glaring at nothing. Anger such as I'd never known before burned through me from the bones outward. I felt that if I held on long enough to the chair arms, they would kindle into flame from the heat.

Much as I loved Tatyana, today she'd exasperated me beyond ail patience by giving her jewels away to some begging brute out of her past. He'd been just cunning enough to compare her good fortune in life to his own lot and then played upon the guilt he'd created in her. She'd turned everything over to him without a second's thought. It was the most idiotic and irresponsible act I'd ever heard of, but Lady Ilona was right. Any reprisal from me against the peasant would serve no constructive purpose. The damage was done.

But I was still angry.

I could talk to the girl, but instinctively shied away from that ploy. Earlier, she'd been so enmeshed in her good mood for helping her old "friend" she'd been unable to really hear me. There was no reason to expect that she'd be any more receptive now. She was yet too inexperienced in the realities of the world to understand why I was so furious over what she'd done.

Tatyana needed someone to... guide her. Sergei was hardly the one to do it, though. For all my talks with him, he seemed unable to grasp that generosity was a dangerous liability. Had he entered the priesthood as he should have done, his pet charities would have been properly regulated by time-honored and proven checks and balances. As it was, the income from his own lands was constantly being drained away, and I could see the time arriving when he'd be living off charity himself.

My charity.

Of course, I'd support him. It would not do for my enemies to see a Von Zarovich in rags and somehow contrive to use him as a weapon against me. But, while I trusted Sergei to be too loyal and smart to be turned to obvious betrayal, I knew there were other, more subtle ways to create a traitor. He was still a pious man and a stranger to deception. As went the axiom, so went Sergei; he was a sheep vulnerable to any wolf who could put on a kindly face.

And Tatyana... gods, if Sergei fell into some waiting trap, then what might happen to her?

After the wedding, they were planning to travel back to our ancestral lands so Tatyana might meet the rest of the family. I couldn't rely on my brother Sturm to keep things under control; from his letters to me, it was apparent that he thought Sergei could do no wrong. Bad enough, but the most intolerable thing of all was the simple fact that Tatyana would no longer be here. I might never see her again.

Oh, I could persuade them to stay easily enough. Their affection for me would respond to a well-placed word or two. But would that be any better? Op to now, I'd been just able to bear seeing the two of them together, even steal a moment when I could forget about Sergei and pretend that she loved me only. But after the wedding... knowing that tomorrow night she would be in his bed, knowing that she'd be finding a virgin's delight in his clumsy maulings... it sickened and disgusted me beyond all measure. How much longer could I continue to hide the truth from her?

Not long.

But I'd have to, perhaps forever.

As surrender had been, black despair was once an alien concept to me. Now I was as familiar with both as with my own features, for there they were in my mirror, gaping back at me every day.

*****

The sun was well down and my rooms dark and close despite the tall, open windows of the bed chamber. I paced over to them, searching for and not finding any breath of fresh air. Only very rarely on this side of Mount Ghakis did the wind drop away to nothing, and it usually meant a storm was coming. Stepping through the windows onto the courtyard overlook, I peered up at the night sky but saw no sign of threatening clouds yet.

All was quiet within the keep. I could just make out the shadow shapes of the guards on the western curtain wall. Theirs was a soft enough job these days.

Castle Ravenloft was one of the best located and most nearly impregnable fortresses I'd ever seen. Alek was of the opinion that the only way it could ever be taken was from within, and it was a necessary point of pride for him that such would never happen while he was steward.

He'd returned from his latest ambassadorial tour several days ago to resume his duties, making sure all was running smoothly for the wedding. He was still not happy about the many guests that had come crowding through the gates in the last week. For all his searching and sniffing, he'd not turned up anything conclusively suspicious about any particular house and had taken this as a personal failure. For my own part, I was satisfied that if anyone was actively plotting mischief, he or she would see that Alek was there to block the plans.

If they were wise, they would cancel them.

The air being the same inside as out, I returned to the study and lighted some candles. The books Alek had brought back six moons ago had proven to be highly unusual and uncommonly advanced. Most of the lore in them was quite incomprehensible, and that which I did understand was... dark. I suspected that the original writer of the books had participated in a number of ceremonies that would have met with disapproval from most of the magically talented. Certain diagrams, ingredients, and even the sound of the words of power made me decidedly uncomfortable, but the spells themselves were fascinating.

And frustrating. During this time I experimented relentlessly on the most simple of them and met with failure again and again. As for the more complex spells, I was unable to even translate their titles; the language was outside my magical vocabulary. The reason behind this was to prevent any overly eager apprentices from jumping ahead in their education, thus heading off a disaster before its occurrence. The popular legend I'd heard about this concerned a student who attempted to summon some form of invisible servant. When it came, the thing was invisible all right - and rather hungry. Suffice it to say, the student lived just long enough to deeply regret his precipitate act.

The candles burned low and began to gutter. The shadows jumped as each flame struggled to remain alive against the flood of melted wax. Another night was slipping away from me. My last night. My last chance to have her.

Blackness surged up and clouded my brain for a time. This had happened before and was now becoming more frequent. I had thought it was simple illness before realizing it was but another part of my growing despair. Secret and safe in some hidden cache within me, the blackness was always ready to rush forth and resume gnawing at my soul like a starved monster. It was a long-suppressed hatred toward Sergei, toward the life I was trapped in, toward life itself.

Shuddering, I pushed it back. Time was short. I could waste none of it wallowing in such a useless self-indulgence.

I bent over my book and tried to draw sense from it once again.

Two of the candles succumbed and went out at the same time, casting the page in darkness just as some of the words were becoming clear in my mind. Impatiently, I grabbed up the book to take it to better light. The pages were stuck together now, probably by some errant blob of wax. I parted them. Carefully. The words - suddenly crystalline - jumped out at me.

A Spell for Obtaining the Heart's Desire.

Gods, why couldn't I read this one before this moment? I'd gone through these books a hundred times. Perhaps the constant study was needed in order to obtain understanding. Perhaps only now was my mind able to discern the more difficult facets of the Art.

And this spell... this was the one I needed, had searched so long to find. My heart raced so from the possibilities that my chest ached.

I looked at the list of ingredients, for without them it was pointless to start.

Bat's wool, ground unicorn horn... yes, yes, I had those.

The candle flames flickered again. A curl of smoke drifted into my eyes. I blinked them clear and resumed reading.

Bat's wool, ground manticore spike... That wasn't right. I started over.

Rat's skin, ground manticore spike... On the fourth reading I saw that it was useless. The spell's protection was too strong for me to break through. The last candles danced, flickered, and went out. I was in total darkness. I didn't bother trying to replace them. What was the point?

Heart's Desire. More like heart's breaking. It was hopeless. The answer to all my problems, the cessation of all my agonies, was in my hands, but I was utterly unable to use it. I might have to study for years before -  Hopeless. Hopeless. Hopeless.

It was too much to bear. I blundered over to the study table and slammed the useless thing down with all my strength. I wanted to slam other things, break them, tear them apart, tear the whole keep apart starting with my idiot's collection of magical studies.

Blindly, I scrabbled for the offending volume. I'd begin with it.

"That's a very old book. You should handle it more carefully."

The voice - coming from everywhere and nowhere - took me cold. My back hairs shot up, but long training overrode the initial shock, and I dropped to a fighting crouch, dagger in hand, before the last words were out.

"Who's there?" I thought it might have been Alek's voice. Only he would have grit enough for such a prank, but I wasn't sure.

"You ought to know." Tatyana's voice now, yet not her. It was behind - no, in front of me. "You called me," she continued, the sound moving first one way, then another. "I heard your hate. I am here to give you your Heart's Desire."

"Stand still!" My tone was rather too harsh. Even in my great anger earlier, I would not have spoken to her so. And as for what she was saying to me... "Tatyana?

Show yourself!"

Sergei laughed, in such a way as he'd never laughed before. "You could not tolerate the sight."

It was then I knew this to be an illusion born of magic. Whatever spoke to me was using their voices, hoping to frighten me by their very familiarity. But I was no trembling child to fear a noise in the night. I was -  The laughter grew, filling the rooms, filling my head. I clapped my hands over my ears, dropping the dagger. Whatever was with me would not be vulnerable to such an insignificant weapon.

I was dealing with something far beyond my experience in magic and needed no wise teacher to tell me it was deadly. Yet it wouldn't have come without some type of summoning on my part, which meant I had a portion of control over it.

Dispelling it was no problem; I knew how to do that easily enough, if I chose.

"Strahd," Ilona now. Whispering. "You called me. Don't you want your Heart's Desire?"

"Don't you want your Heart's Desire?" Tatyana sweetly echoed.

"Or will you let her go to your brother?" asked Sergei.

"Will you let me go to your brother?" Tatyana questioned mournfully.

Gods, it knew exactly what to say to me.

"Will you let her go?" Alek demanded.

No... she will be mine, I whispered in my own mind. I couldn't not at least think it.

They heard me. And laughed.

"What will you do to get her?" Alek again.

I refrained from answering, but it accurately picked up on the question in my mind: what might be required from me in turn?

"Nothing beyond your means or skill, Strahd." I would have sworn it was Alek's voice, but for the fact that he'd never spoken to me with anything remotely like the contempt I heard now. "Shall we begin?"

I gestured vaguely toward the table, wanting to buy more time to think. "But the rite... I've not..."

"Nothing beyond your means or skill," said Tatyana in a tone that only an expert courtesan could use without insult. I felt her hand - or something like her hand - caress my face in a feather-light touch. I even smelled her scent on it.

"Nothing beyond your means or skill," Sergei sneered, and the hand slipped down to close upon my throat. It was much larger now and smelled of battle-sweat, blood, and oiled leather.

I grabbed for the hand. It was gone as if it had never been. "What are you?"

The voices merged and separated around, above, through me. They took on weight with no substance and pressed upon me. My heart... pounded... labored. My blood seemed too chill and thick to push through my veins, and I cried out against it.

The voices laughed at my pain, and in that sound they seemed to assume a single, huge shape.

I was in total darkness. The shape was darker.

It writhed and twisted and pulsed without rhythm - pleasure from pain, pain from pleasure - and it murmured of things still darker than itself, things I knew and things I did not, things that should never be said and were said anyway, and with each word it grew and grew, until the room was filled with its presence, and the sheer bulk of it pressed me down so that my knees crashed into the floor, and I was pushed flat, and the weight ground at me with pressure so great I couldn't scream, not even in my mind.

Then it was gone.

I rolled on my back, clawing at my chest where iron bands yet seemed to squeeze upon me and felt... nothing. No broken ribs, no burst heart -  Not yet. But the next time. The thing would return and crush me into -  I knew it now. Knew what it was. We were old, old friends.

Death was in the room with me.

My heart turned leaden; it would collapse in upon itself by its own heaviness.

It labored hard against my breastbone. Futile effort in the face of the inevitable.

Death stirred around me like an ocean's tide.

I fought to drag in one more breath.

Death washed over and... receded. For the moment.

"Have you come for me?" If so, then take me and be damned.

Nothing. I waited for many terrible, slow heartbeats. Then: "I have come... on your behalf," it answered, using all the voices at once.

This was some last trick. A final taunt before dragging me into the Abyss.

"You have fed me well," it continued.

Gods, but wasn't that true. All those years of war. How many had I killed in the cause? What did it matter now?

"You are due your reward."

Yes, I thought bitterly. Another death for Death. What other fate was there for a blood-steeped warrior when there were no more battles to fight?

"Your reward, Strahd Von Zarovich," it emphasized.

Reward?

Then the voices assumed a secretive tone. "You hunger for your brother's betrothed, for your lost youth. I shall remove the rival from your path, and you shall age not one day more..."

Sergei gone, time removed as an adversary, Tatyana turning to me as I'd dreamed a thousand times over. My Heart's Desire. It must be a lie. Had to be. Could Death lie? Why not? But why should it even bother? What was I if not one more mortal to fall spiraling into its bottomless maw?

"... if you do as I tell you."

There it was. The parley, the bargaining, the trade. What did it want of me?

What could Death possibly want from me?

"Nothing beyond your means or skill," Tatyana said clearly.

The iron bands about my chest eased. I sucked in air, gasping, coughing. It had pulled back, but was not gone. It was waiting for my answer. I had no way of knowing for how long.

Not long.

It waited. Silent. I could hear nothing but the pant of my breath and the tiny creak of my own joints as I sat up.

It waited. One minute. Two. I wiped sweat from my brow. My skin was colder than stone.

It waited... then began to draw back. I felt it going. Going with my only chance.

My last chance.

Tatyana.

Going.

"What must I do?" I whispered.

It stopped.

Turned.

And laughed.

*****

My fingers were shaking and so icy I could hardly feel them, but I managed to strike flint and iron, one against the other, and the tinder caught on the first spark. I lighted a fresh candle from the brief flame, then used it to light others.

The study looked the same as before. Felt the same. There was no sign that anything had been in here with me. It was gone; but I sensed - or imagined - it hovering close by, like someone listening from the next room.

The shaking subsided after I downed a healthy dose of tuika. More potent than wine, it warmed the belly and soothed the nerves. Much as I disliked dealing with the Barovians, I had to acknowledge that they knew how to make a good brandy.

With restored light and vision, the reality of what I'd just been through should have faded like a dream upon waking, but not so for me. It had happened, and I had listened to the thing with a fearful eagerness. Some of its instructions made no sense, but ofttimes in magic, one must perform rituals with no discernible purpose to them. It's a foolish practitioner who ignores them or discounts their importance.

This was dark magic. I was on the threshold of true necromancy, yet oddly calm about the fact, as though someone else were about to make the crossing for me, as though I would reap the benefits and someone else would pay the price.

There would be a price. No bargain was without one, but I knew I'd be able to pay it. And cover for it. A bluff here, a lie there, a blatant misdirection; it was hardly different from the statecraft I was presently engaged in with the other ruling families.

But the benefits - to not age one day more was one thing, but to have Tatyana... she was worth any price. If Death had wanted my very soul, I'd have given it up for her. She would turn to me and smile and laugh for me alone. She was springtime and summer rain, autumn color and winter stillness. And by tomorrow night she would be mine.

The harsh scrape of metal on stone jolted me from my dream of love. Very close.

From the bedchamber. No, just beyond it. I glimpsed a man's shape moving away from the open windows.

One of my swords hung on the wall by my bed. It was in my hand and I was through a window in a few short seconds. I was in time. He'd gone but five yards along the courtyard overlook and, hearing me come out, stopped and turned to look at me.

Alek Gwilym.

The wind had kicked up, herald of the storm to come. It flowed strongly down the flanks of Mount Ghakis, and Alek had to brace himself against its growing force as it gusted into the keep. His own sword was out and probably the source of the noise that alerted me: its edge must have brushed against the wall or walkway.

He held it angled across his body as though wary of an attack. High clouds began to choke off the starlight. There was just enough illumination left for me to see the guarded expression on his face.

"My lord?" And there was a new note of cautious doubt in his voice. "Forgive me, but I came to tell you - "

I strode close to him, my own blade held ready. "What?"

He flinched. I'd never seen him do that before, not once in the eighteen years I'd known him had he ever been like this. Afraid.

He knew. He'd heard everything.

And he would talk.

As though someone else guided my arm while I stood idle in mind and heart, I made a fast cut to his head.

Just as fast, he parried and dropped back a pace.

"No, Strahd! Do not - "

Another cut. Another parry.

"Strahd ..." His mouth moved, but the wind carried off his words. Its whisper had gusted to a roar, obscuring the ring of metal on metal. None of the watchmen would hear us or see us in the dark. We might as well have been in the middle of a desert for all the help either of us could expect.

I struck again. Alek retreated. He was backing his way toward the corner turret.

Someone would be there. I feinted right, then circled to that side to cut him off.

"Don't do this - "

I lost the rest of what he said, but took his meaning. He did not want to fight me. No matter. Neither of us had a choice. That's what I told myself, anyway.

On my next attack, he parried, then countered full force. This was no practice match with blunted blades to stop just short of their mark; this was as earnest and deadly as any battle we'd ever fought.

Lightning flashed over the shoulders of Mount Ghakis, instantly followed by the drumbeat of thunder. The sound pounded through me, quickening my blood, stirring my muscles to greater speed and strength. The battle fever was taking me over.

With savage joy I embraced its heat.

Alek recognized it in me, then gave in to it himself. This time, he didn't wait for my attack. He whipped in, pushed me back, and when we were clear, a parrying dagger was in his other hand.

I went for another head cut. Sword block. Struck lower. Sword and dagger. Dagger swipe to my belly. Drop back. Leg cut. Dagger block. Chop to the dagger hand.

Sword block.

More lightning. Fat drops of rain spattered hesitantly over the walkway and, meeting no resistance, increased to a deluge. Water clawed at my sight. I barely got my blade up in time to block an attack launched when I blinked. My hold on the sword was loose from the rainwater and my own sweat. The leather soles of my boots slipped on the wet stone paving. Alek had little better balance, but he wore gloves, and that was a major advantage for him in maintaining a solid grip on his weapon.

He used the advantage, doing a quick lunge and twist, trying to take the sword from my hand. I went with the motion instead of fighting it, but my arm was pushed wide, and Alek seized his one opportunity and drove in with his dagger.

I didn't feel it. Not at first. Only something tugging at my clothes. Nothing more until the next flash of lightning revealed the abrupt stain of red on my white shirt. I'd not worn my chain mail; there was no need to, after all, here, safe in my own rooms.

You would draw my blood, armsman?

Only a drop or two, he'd answered.

More than that, much more, was welling from me now. The pain shot through me like a sudden, unquenchable fire.

He broke off, staring, perhaps in shock. Not that he lacked a stomach for slaughter, but he'd struck down his lord, the man he was oath-bound to protect.

The man who'd betrayed him, who was repaying all his years of loyalty with death.

And was receiving death in return.

No.

But no denial would heal it or stave off the outpouring of my life. My knees were going to jelly, and my flesh felt both hot and cold. This was a bad wound, worse than any I'd ever had before. It was also my last. I knew the signs, having seen them in others; I was going to die.

As Alek hesitated, I made one more strike. It was a dishonorable gesture of pure vindictiveness; it should have also been impossible for me to complete. A terrible frailness had seized my whole body, blurring my sight, slowing my arm, but somehow my blade found solid flesh and bit hard. He cried out once and dropped his dagger to clutch at his belly. He'd not been wearing mail, either.

My strength was swiftly draining away; I used what was left for a final push and turn, then yanked the blade free. It fell from my nerveless fingers and clanged dully against the paving stones next to Alek's dagger.

He grunted and gasped and sat down, still holding his sword. He could yet finish me, but made no move to do so. Instead, he let go his weapon and sank forward onto the walk, as though settling for sleep in his own bed.

Pain kept me from going out entirely; I couldn't breathe very well. Somehow I'd lost my feet and now lay curled on my side, the stones pressing hard against my joints.

"Don't you want to live, Strahd?"

Not Alek. The voice was too clear in my head, undistorted by wind and rain, but it sounded like him. And Alek heard it, too. I saw his wincing reaction.

"Don't you want to live?" asked Tatyana.

"Live?" Sergei.

"Live?" Ilona.

"Yes... damn you..."

It laughed in all its voices. "You know what to do."

And, so help me, I did.

My legs were gone, but I could use my arms to crawl. Rain spattered into my eyes and stung my back through the thin fabric of my shirt. I was soaked and cold and more than halfway to death... and moving ever closer - but Alek lay between us, and in him was my last hope.

His breathing was shallow, and there was a yellow-gray cast to his skin that's only found on the dying. His eyes rolled toward me. Blood welled up in his mouth and spilled from one corner.

"Didn't have to, my lord," he murmured.

I said nothing.

"I'd have helped you... no matter what. This... did not... have to be."

"I'm afraid it did."

He choked and coughed and finally cleared his throat. "Should have let me die on the mountain... spared me from seeing this."

"Alek - "

His near hand came up and clutched at me. He sucked in another precious draught of air. More blood spilled from his mouth, obscuring his words. "Traitor in... the camp..."

A reproach to me? Or was his fading mind spewing out an old memory?

"Ba'al Verzi..."

What did he mean?

"... sleep." His grip on me relaxed, and he drifted off to briefly dream his last dreams. He was nearly gone.

What did - but there was no time to waste on his mutterings. With every beat of my heart I, myself, was weakening.

I found his second dagger in its belt sheath and pulled it out. He still lived, but was too far lost for awareness. He couldn't have felt it as I dragged the edge firmly across his throat.

Blood. A whole fountain of it.

Life. If I dared to take it.

As my own life ebbed, I didn't dare not take it.

I drank. Deeply.

And lived... again.

*****

The rain washed away all trace of evidence that might have otherwise inspired awkward questions. Gallons of fresh cloud water poured upon us, diluting the blood, preventing its stain from fixing permanently to the stones. It washed everything clean again, the excess flowing in waves to butt against the wall and swirl down the drainage holes to the gutters, then to the keep's storage cisterns far, far below.

I stood up and threw back my head, letting the rain plaster my hair from my face. It was glorious. My death wound was gone. A hole remained in my shirt.

That was all.

Alek Gwilym, valiant soldier, trusted officer, loyal companion - for eighteen busy years my only true friend - was dead by my hand, but I was unable to regret or even mourn that death. I seemed beyond such mundane thoughts this night.

The first part of my pact was sealed. The bargain was begun, the healing effect of Alek's blood had proved it so. I felt... different. My heart was pounding from all the exertion, but I wasn't the least bit fatigued. Quite the opposite.

I felt young again.

Leaving Alek, I rushed back through the windows, got a candle, and peered at my image in the bedroom mirror. I looked the same. Time had not reversed itself.

Disappointing, until I recalled the voice's promise that I would not age one day more. Well, this was as good a time in life as any for aging to cease; I was still very much in my prime.

The flame gave a slight gold sheen to my skin, but I could tell I was very pale, even ill-looking, though I felt better than I had in years. The sickly effect would probably pass soon enough.

There were other things to think about, anyway.

With little effort, I pulled Alek's body inside and bundled it ignominiously into the closet, making sure the doors were locked, particularly the one leading to my private dining room. There was to be a small wedding supper for the immediate family there tomorrow - the servants would be in and out of the place all afternoon. Alek deserved better, but it couldn't be helped. Later I would think up some story to account for his death, but not now. Avid anticipation of what was to come left me too agitated to concentrate or feel anything but suppressed excitement.

There was no question that I wouldn't see things through. In a few more hours Tatyana would be mine.

*****

I awoke, sluggish and stiff, very late the following morning, and only because my servant took the liberty of violently shaking me to consciousness. My snarl of protest got the apologetic response that he had feared I was unwell, a conclusion readily confirmed by me in the barber's mirror a little later. I looked positively ghastly in the searing, bright daylight and ordered the curtains drawn. The sun was out as if the storm had never happened, and there was entirely too much of it for me. No one else seemed to mind it or the overbearing heat, and I found their cheerful attitude about the weather extremely annoying. I kept to my rooms, hardly able to move from bed to chair, as enervated now as I'd been energized the night before. Only in the late afternoon did I begin to feel like my own self and was able to tolerate a few necessary visitors.

Reinhold Dilisnya, Victor Wachter, Ivan Buchvold, and all of my former staff officers took turns trooping in to pay their respects. I took particular note of Ivan's behavior toward me, but despite the scandal about his brother, Illya, nothing seemed to have changed. He looked older, of course; they all did.

Wives and children were brought in and introduced, as if I had any interest in them. At least Reinhold understood me enough to leave his family at home.

Rubbing his fretful belly, he looked like he would have preferred to be with them.

His brother Leo was no longer in the keep, he told me. The young man had fallen ill and asked permission to leave, which I found to be rather curious. When one is not feeling well, one is not usually inclined to go traveling. And in this case, Leo was perfectly aware that Lady Ilona, with her unquestioned reputation as a healer, was present to deal with all kinds of infirmities.

Very odd.

It could have had something to do with Ivan's presence. Leo might not have been comfortable around the brother of the man he'd killed and chose to leave rather than... Forgive me, but I came to tell you... Purposely not glancing in the direction of the closet, I uneasily wondered what it was that Alek had not been able to say; why he had come secretly to me by way of the overlook walkway instead of more directly, using any of the other entrances to my rooms.

Impossible now to know. Perhaps later, when there was time to think, I'd figure it out. The restlessness was beginning to return to my mind, jangling my thoughts, preventing me from concentrating on much of anything for more than a few moments at a stretch.

I'd been vaguely hungry, but nothing the kitchen or cellars offered looked or smelled appealing except for my morning cup of beef juice. That was all I had to sustain me through the whole interminable day, but instead of increasing, my initial fatigue wore off as the sun began to sink behind the mountain.

My last caller was Gunther Cosco, and had I been able to stomach anything, we might have enjoyed toasting each other's health as in the old days. The years of peace had not completely destroyed his good looks, but time and drink were having their way with him. His skin sagged, and I noticed he kept his hat on to hide the receding hair and the brown spots starting to appear high on his forehead. He served as a reminder of what might still be in store for me if I wavered. But soon I would complete the ritual and put that possibility behind me forever.

Guests having gone down to the main floor or the chapel, I dismissed the servants and saw to my own dressing. Unlocking one of the closet doors to get the proper clothes, a frisson of shock went right through me like last night's dagger thrust.

Alek's body was gone.

Heart in my throat, I searched all the closets and double-checked the other locks. No visible tampering. My servant had no key of his own. He was trustworthy, but not so much that I would allow him easy access to the gems and other family treasures I kept here. I was one of two people who knew the locks and in what order to safely open them. The other had been Alek Gwilym... Far, and yet not far enough, I heard the laughter of familiar voices. His was one of them.

He must have been part of my payment to them, a portion of the bargain that had not been quite clear to me. I tried to shake the voices from my head, wondering what else I might have overlooked at the time.

Time... There was none to spare. I shrugged the problem off as something to be dealt with later and got dressed for the wedding: white silk shirt, red neckcloth, stark black trousers and coat, and the Von Zarovich ruby on my breast. All the others would be decked out in peacock finery and revel in it; I had never shared their taste for garish fashion and would not go in for it now. Knowing what was to come, I deemed their frivolous dress to be... inappropriate.

From the massive strongbox that had held the ruby, I also withdrew a small bundle of elaborately embroidered fabric and tucked it into a pocket of my coat.

It seemed to weigh no more than a feather. But, insulated as I was by the layers of cloth and thread, I still felt the cold, dark magic pulsing from it as though it lay right against my bare flesh.

*****

Sergei was done up in his gaudiest uniform, a soldier who had never really served. At least he had refrained from loading it up with assumed honors as had some of the vain fops that were visiting the court. Other lords rewarded their servants with these trinkets, but I held the opinion that such things were to be earned, not given as bribes. The only bauble on Sergei was the Priest's Pendant, which he would have to ceremonially give up just before walking into the chapel.

In his chambers, he greeted me with a broad smile and an embrace, and readily accepted the apology I'd prepared for him. How easily the words flowed from me, how happily he lapped them up; yesterday's incident over Tatyana and the jewels was forgiven and forgotten just like that. He still didn't understand.

No matter.

I went through the motions and said the right things. He babbled back in turn, displaying his nervousness for the approaching event. I watched him and looked hard into my heart, searching for a single vestige of warm feeling for this young man. Nothing. For all the fact that we shared the same blood, he was no different from any other strutting fool I'd ever encountered. No different, except that he was about to marry the one woman I loved, could ever love.

"I wish you had someone like Tatyana," he enthused at me.

Oh, but I will.

I took out the bundle of fabric. "For the groom, I have a present," I said, handing it to him. "It's magical and quite old. Well suited to the day."

Sergei's constant smile faltered when the red, black, and gold hilt seemed to leap from the wrappings. He went still as stone, gaping at the thing.

Yes. Sergei was most definitely a sheep, vulnerable to any wolf who could put on a kindly face.

"I see that you recognize it," I said. "The time-honored weapon of a Ba'al Verzi assassin. The sheath is made from human skin, usually from the weapon's first victim. The carvings on the hilt are runes of power."

Had our roles been reversed and Sergei the one offering me such a gift, I'd have had my sword out and been backing toward the nearest door and calling for help.

All he could do was stare with blank shock.

One should never store a blade in its sheath lest tarnish or rust set in, and this knife had not been out since that night I'd taken it from Illya. But as I removed it now, the blade was as perfect as ever. It gleamed like a mirror in the candlelight and was razor sharp. The runes had their share of preservation magic as well as evil power.

"Legend has it that it is bad luck to draw such a dagger unless you can give it blood," I went on.

Sergei's lips parted, but plainly he could not think of anything to say. This was something quite outside his limited experience.

The Ba'al Verzi.

Deception was their greatest weapon. Your oldest friend, your most faithful servant - by the gods, even the mother that bore you could be a Ba'al Verzi.

Even your own brother... I smiled warmly. "I'm generally not superstitious, but I think this time it's better not to tempt fate. Don't you agree?"

Moving swifter than the eye could follow, swifter than thought, I struck, driving the short blade up under his breastbone and into his heart.

No man dies in an instant. For what seemed a very long time, he met my hot joy with a look of hurt astonishment, then slowly, slowly, doubled over, silently falling into my arms. I felt the life thinly cling to him for a few seconds more, and then... it just wasn't there.

I eased his inert weight to the floor and worked the knife free of his body.

"Drink of the blood, first from the instrument and then of the chalice."

Thus ran my instructions.

After last night's business with Alek, this draught was nothing for me. Taking care not to cut myself on the blade, I licked every drop of blood from the dagger, dried it, and left it on the floor.

Then I opened up Sergei's tightly buttoned uniform. It was a small wound, seeming hardly large enough for the amount of blood that had poured out. With his heart stilled, the flow had slacked off, but there was yet much to be had. I put my lips to the wound and drank.

Alek's blood had been taken out of fevered necessity, Sergei's as an inseparable part of death's ritual, but its taste was... satisfying. Alek's had kept me alive, Sergei's was the fulfillment of appetite. It was the sweet savory one keeps to brighten up the end of a dull meal. There was perverse warmth to be found in his cooling life; it renewed my energy and spirit, and I felt strength such as I'd never known before, tearing through my veins like heat lightning.

Without, I heard the laughter of guests and clatter of servants, the whisper of long skirts and the tap of dress boots; within, I heard the beat of my own racing heart. My fingers discerned the very warp and weft of Sergei's garments; I smelled the soap he'd used, and the sweat, light upon his skin, and the difference between wet blood and that which was already beginning to dry. It was as if I'd spent my whole life with my senses heavily wrapped in the thickest of cotton bandaging, and only now had it been stripped away, freeing me.

Free.

One more thing to do, though. A bluff here, a lie there, a blatant misdirection... I found my feet, stooped, and swept up Sergei's body, aware of its weight, yet able to ignore it. Raising it high, I balanced it a moment - one-handed - then let it fall. It landed with a bone-jarring thump, sprawling in a most natural and satisfying manner.

His eyes were still open. They were the same blue as his uniform, the same blue of our mother's -  Free.

I knelt and closed them.

"You were supposed to have been a priest," I whispered. "Why didn't you just do what you'd been born to do?"

The thudding commotion I had just made drew attention, and Sergei's personal servant came through the door, but I'd heard his approach and threw myself over my brother's body, as though overcome by grief. I looked up and, in a fair imitation of one of my own rages, imparted the bad news to him. Like Sergei before him, all he could do was stare until my bellowed orders at last penetrated his skull. Then he departed quickly enough to summon help.

Easy. Very, very easy.

I tasted blood on my lips and felt the stab of sudden worry. What had the man seen? Horror at his master's death would account for most of his shock, but what else... Mirror. There was one just over there. Sergei had been preening before it when I'd come in.

Yes, there was blood on my mouth, my face. Bad, but if I cleaned it off, anything the man said could be discounted. A bluff here, a lie there... There was a basin of water on the table below. I scrubbed my face, cleaned my bloodied hands, dried off, then checked in the mirror.

Clean. No need to fear -  I was so pale. Paper white. Whiter. My very image was fading as I watched. My last sight of myself was of a man utterly consumed by surprise, utterly ludicrous, utterly laughable with his popping eyes and hanging mouth. Myself, Strahd Von Zarovich. Faded-Fading - Gone.

***

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