In a cave shaped by five centuries of the earth’s temper, the wind’s hand, and the sky’s will, a witch stirs from beneath the dry leaves and twigs that make up her resting place. She pushes herself through, then brushes the blanket of brittle leaves from her furrowed face and shriveled limbs. But after five centuries of sleeping and waking in a bed of earth, she does not recognize foliage from skin.
She plants her emaciated feet on rough stones and drags herself across the cave to the aged branches of her door, her steps shaky like those of an infant learning to walk. The door grinds as it opens with one silent command. The world outside her hovel is as it is inside—dark, dank, musty, the bottom layers of centuries of overgrowth and the absence of human vanity. Yet she hears everything, worms burrowing, insects feeding, foliage breathing. They have been her companions and teachers through the ages as much as they have been her nourishment.
Her bones slipping against the shell of her body, she stumbles toward the ragged stump of an ancient beech. Over five centuries ago, she snapped the sapling from its roots, nurturing its swell to remind herself of the passage of the years, the turn of the centuries, and the approach of salvation. It is as old and as dead in life as she is, but it has kept her will strong and focus sharp.
Instead of resting her frail body on it, or sipping from the water trickling over one of its gnarled roots and collecting in a hollow at its base, she climbs onto it. She crawls to the middle, appearing no bigger than a rodent on a master’s grand table. Her pupils are dull and worn away, but she finds the first ring with her fingertips and begins to count. One, two, three, four, five…It is slow and meticulous work for one taught only the basics of language and numbers by those she once served. But her voice is strong, her need to count a hunger, her focus unrelenting.
Once she had magnificent eyes. Dark, almost black, alert and alive, eager to see the world, to touch it and to know it. Her hair matched the black of her eyes. Long and thick, it shone brighter than those nobles with marigold hair. Once, she was a young woman, until the nobles of the two warring families tore her from her family, wrenched her life from her body and her soul from her flesh, turning her into what she is now. Once, she had a name, a lovely, rhythmic name. But that was robbed from her, too, and she inherited another name. Strigoaic. Witch. A witch who was once a girl. A girl who once had a life. A life now trapped in death.
The Strigoaic counts the rings without stopping, her voice moaning through the clearing and the dense trees around it. She stops when her fingers grasp a ring larger and more pronounced than the others. Her heart begins to thump as it did when she first discovered it, as it did in her human life. Slipping over the edge of the stump, her fingers never leaving that ring of hope, she begins to count again, but from one again, to two, to three, all the way to eighteen.
She lowers her head, a drop of blood falling from her eyes.
Crawling back onto the stump, she lies on it, the pulse of the ancient tree pounding against her palms and heating her chilled skin.
The time has come. After centuries of waiting, the time has come to summon those two nobles who robbed her of her humanity. But it is not them she wants. She has already punished them. She imprisoned one noble and his family in the boundaries of the earth once known as their homeland of Wallachia, while the other noble and his family she exiled from it. Unwise about her sorcery, however, she imprisoned and exiled them for eternity to an immortal life.
That will right itself in time, too. Now she wants—no, needs—the last born of each family. She decreed them, and she will have them. Clawing her fingers through the flesh of the stump, she lets a shrill break from her lips that shakes birds and trees and mountains.
The time has come to get her name back.
On her eighteenth birthday, Anasztasia got the Fendi purse she had told everyone she couldn’t live without, the latest and greatest tablet to ease her way through her first year at Columbia, money toward wants and needs, and a plane ticket to Romania to meet a five-hundred-year-old witch. The Fendi purse was pure bliss, the tablet an academic luxury, the money a given, but the witch gift, if she could call it that, left her unable to enjoy her strawberry gâteau with crème pâtissière. But it was time, her grandfather had proclaimed with the clarity and conviction expected of a crown prince without a country. Time to move beyond the facade of her comfortable life in Manhattan to the royal court of their noble homeland. Time to shed the frivolities of the common adolescent and embrace her inheritance as a princess. Time to change the circumstance of her birth and become like him, her grandmother, her parents, and all those people who had followed him out of their homeland over five centuries before. Immortal.
Anasztasia knew the time for visiting the homeland and acting the princess would one day come. She also knew that the “circumstance of her birth,” as her grandparents referred to her mortality, would one day also need to be addressed, and, according to them, remedied. She was open to visiting the homeland. Who wouldn’t want to see life and the shops on the other side of the Atlantic? She was capable of pulling off a princess act. How hard could smiling demurely and wearing designer outfits be? But changing her mortality by dropping in on a witch?
If the witch was some endearing Wiccan with heartfelt beliefs of magical powers who would offer some incantation or herbal concoction for undoing mortality, she’d be more than happy to set up an appointment with her. But this witch wasn’t. This witch was the Strigoaic of the Carpathian Mountains. Over five hundred years ago, she had cursed her grandfather’s family, the Senestis, and his rivals for the throne, the Barbats, to eternal battle. Whether her curse backfired or she just wasn’t tuned in to the fine art of sorcery, she had made them immortal like herself. After several decades of unrelenting battle where no one died and few were born, her grandfather and the head of the House of Barbat appealed the curse like good penitents. Instead of absolving the curse, the Strigoaic exiled her grandfather, her family, and all those who swore allegiance to him from Wallachia, an ancient principality of his homeland of Romania, while imprisoning the House of Barbat in it. The Strigoaic then went into seclusion, coming out only on the Easter weekend to look for the family she had lost. Gaining an audience with this Strigoaic, the only one who appeared to have survived the centuries, wasn’t going to be either easy or pleasant. The witch was sure to remember her grandfather.
But what if the Strigoaic did extend them an invitation? What if she didn’t know of any cure to undo mortality? What if she knew and refused? Other than the family’s private physician of many centuries and his daughter, her best friend Chloe, no one outside the family knew about the “circumstance of her birth.” Her family had kept her hidden on the other side of the Atlantic and away from their loyal followers for eighteen years. She was an embarrassment to them now. If the Strigoaic didn’t feel sorry for her, then she’d be an outright failure.
Holding her Fendi purse to her chest, Anasztasia had pleaded a bad case of the frights to her father, hoping tears and the promise of graduating cum laude would work in her favor. When that hadn’t worked, she had begged her mother with dramatic finesse to talk to her father, who would in turn talk to her grandfather and dissuade him. She was very content living the comfortable life of the unassuming rich girl in the semi-aristocratic Upper East Side, preparing for her senior prom, sipping lattes with her friends, and dreaming about the pleasures of impending university life. She didn’t want to go to Romania to meet the Strigoaic. She didn’t even want to be a real princess. There were far too many duties and responsibilities to handle. Too many old-world things like protocol and obedience and marriage by arrangement. Being an uptown no-name princess suited her just fine.
The revelation of her mortality was also at stake. What if she tripped, cut herself, and bled at the royal court? The royal court would know she was mortal. The royal court would accuse her of being a fraud. The royal court would disgrace her family, usurp their historical titles, and damn the House of Senesti forever and ever.
Of course, the histrionics, tears, pleas, and promises didn’t work in her favor. Her grandfather won, as he always did. Now here she was, on the Orthodox Good Friday, in Brasov, Romania, in Serban Castle, and at a grand ball honoring her grandparents, her parents, and her first royal visit to the homeland. Not even the Carolina Herrera gown and matching stilettos made her feel better.
“Mind your step, Anasztasia.”
Anasztasia stopped short on the last step leading into the knights’ hall. Her grandfather’s words rang loud and clear as a warning through the clamor of nobles and ladies filling the hall, and the circle gathering around him and her grandmother. His constant reminders annoyed her. She had all but memorized the code of conduct he had written just for her and recited like some ancient edict. Besides the obvious—absolutely no tripping, cutting, or bleeding—there were to be no American quips, no adolescent-female attitude, no inane texting or tweeting, and no unsolicited opinions. In other words, she was to be the storybook princess.
She glanced around for Chloe, whom she had dragged to the Old Country to act as her lady-in-waiting. But Chloe was failing miserably. She was more interested in snapping pictures of anything that moved, or didn’t move, than staying at her side and propping up her teeter-tottering confidence.
A young man in a tuxedo must have seen her look around for her backup. He separated himself from the entourage around her grandparents and rushed to her. Bowing, he offered her his hand. “Allow me, Princess.”
For the benefit of her grandfather, she smiled demurely and placed her hand over his, avoiding the tangle of dark hair over his knuckles. “Thank you.” She took the final step into the knights’ hall, withdrew her hand, and nodding her gratitude, effectively dismissed him. One good thing about being a princess was that she could end a conversation anytime she wanted to. That was the extent of her conversation with yet another son of yet another noble.
But he wasn’t leaving.
“We haven’t had the pleasure of meeting.” He inclined his head. That was when she noticed the red sash draped across his chest, the military medals over his breast pocket, and the insignia of the chivalric Order of Saint George around his neck. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Laurentiu Paisic Serban of the House of Amlaş.”
Shit. A prince.
“Prince Laurentiu.” She almost choked on her breathlessness. “Lord Serban speaks very highly of you. You manage the Amlaş Inn.”
“I own it.”
Anasztasia gave the required “ah” to show that she was impressed.
“It would be my pleasure to have you and your family visit. I’m very proud of our five-star rating, and I assure you, you shall be delighted with one of the finest meals of your life.”
Invitation number twenty-six or thirty-six. Since she had arrived in Brasov two days earlier, every eligible male between the ages of sixteen and five hundred and fifty, from every noble family throughout her family’s rich history had left invitations for tea, lunch, dinner, or cocktails. All of them were vying for the honor of becoming the future grandson-in-law of Constantin and Zamfira Mushati Seneslau of the House of Senesti.
But this guy was the first in line to the historical throne of Moldavia. This guy would be the one her family would have arranged for her to marry if it were five hundred years ago. This guy was probably the one her grandparents would like to see her hitched up with when her mortality was reversed. Immortals kept the physical face and body of their social and familial status until it needed to change. But nothing ever changed. Nothing ever compromised their status. Births among immortals were rare. Laurentiu was not married. As far as she knew, he had never had any children with mortal women—in this century anyway—which would have forced him to pretend to grow old along with them. Using illusion, or rather mind games, was how immortals had survived centuries with mortals. Laurentiu looked about thirtyish, but could be as old as her grandparents.
She took a step away, almost stepping on her gown. “I will let my family know of your invitation, and they will get back to you.” She sounded as formal and stiff as he did.
“It has already been arranged. Easter Monday for lunch.”
Her eyes rounded in forced delight. “Wonderful.” Now, how did a princess get rid of a prince? Her grandmother had only instructed her on the rules about dismissing the everyday noble, or boyar, as she still referred to them.
“I believe I have the honor of the first dance with you this evening, Princess Anasztasia.”
She hoped the delight was still sparkling in her eyes and her smile wasn’t cracking. When were her parents or grandparents going to let her know about this particular duty? She knew how to waltz, but her only partners had been her father and mother.
“I look forward to it.” She spied her parents speaking to Lord Serban at the very front of the cavernous knights’ hall, close to where the chamber orchestra was setting up. But there were too many people between them, and they were too far away to pick up her stress signals.
“It will be a Viennese waltz,” he continued. “One of my favorites.”
She caught sight of Chloe’s fuchsia gown on the landing, leading down into the hall. She was jostling through a sea of tuxedos and glimmering gowns to take a picture of the arched doorways lining one wall of the hall and offering a view of the mountains beyond.
“I’ve practiced so I won’t step on your feet.” The instant the words were out of her mouth, she wondered if she had violated one of her grandfather’s rules of decorum or opinion or one of the others in the fine print.
Thankfully, Prince Laurentiu chuckled. “Even if you were to step on my feet or hold my hand too firmly, I would not object.”
Now that was too forward for her comfort. Ignoring protocol, she waved to Chloe. Chloe caught sight of her over several people’s shoulders. She nodded fervently as she remembered her sworn duty to remain by her side, and hurried down the steps, her newly dyed black hair bouncing around her pearly white bare arms.
“If you’ll excuse me, Prince Laurentiu,” Anasztasia said, “I would like to take some pictures of the hall before the dancing begins.”
“By all means. The castle is one of the oldest in all of Romania. We will speak soon.” He bowed and moved back to the circle of dignitaries around her grandparents.
“Sorry,” Chloe mumbled, coming up beside her. “I got caught up with the armored guards.” Her smile was sly. She indicated Prince Laurentiu. “He’s cute.”
“He’s immortal,” she replied, taking Chloe’s point-and-shoot camera and, without zooming in, snapping a picture of the chamber orchestra.
“Like everyone else here—except you-know-she-who-cannot-be-named. Can I have my camera back?”
“He’s also a prince. Firstborn. Unmarried. No, I need it.”
The light of realization went on again in Chloe’s eyes. “Uh-oh. I hear the sound of church bells.”
“The toll of church bells.” She zoomed in and took a picture of a musician tuning her violin. It was silky ebony with grains of black. She peered over the top of the camera. Was she seeing things? Could that violin possibly be the Black Stradivarius, the only one that had made its way to Romania in the eighteenth century? She adjusted the focus again. That’s what she had believed her grandparents were going to give her for her eighteenth birthday, one of their priceless Stradivarius violins, not a trip to the homeland to change her fate. She had to get closer and check out the violin. If it was the Black Stradivarius, she couldn’t let this opportunity slip away. Maybe the violinist would let her play it.
“Okay, so he’s not cute anymore,” Chloe was saying. “Not enough to marry anyway. Probably only rich enough.”
“He’s my first dance partner. My grandparents probably arranged it. If that isn’t a setup, then what is?”
“You’re just going to dance with him—and every other unmarried immortal here tonight. You’re not marrying him or anyone else here.” She looked around to make sure no one was listening. “Not in your fragile condition,” she ended in a hushed tone.
“What if the Strigoaic reverses my fragile condition?” Anasztasia asked in the same low voice.
Chloe took the camera from her. “Then you’ll be stuck with the prince for eternity and beyond.” She held up the camera. “Smile.”
But Anasztasia didn’t smile.
“You worry too much! It’s the twenty-first century. Your grandparents might want to see you hooked up with a prince, but your parents won’t allow it, and you certainly won’t go through with it. You do have a voice, Annie.”
Yes, she did have a voice. It was just unfortunate she couldn’t use it with her grandfather, and her parents weren’t listening to her anymore. The dos and don’ts of their noble court now ruled.
Out of the corner of her eye, Anasztasia spotted three young men tracking her movements, ready to pounce on her with introductions. Slipping her arm through Chloe’s, she led her toward the orchestra and the possible Stradivarius.
“You have to admit, some of these immortals are really hot,” Chloe said, smiling at the three men. “I have my eye on that one right there, under the center arch, talking to that big lady with the dog collar–looking diamond necklace. I sat next to him at dinner. Roman. He’s from your grandmother’s side of the family, the Mushati side.”
If he was attractive, his air of invincibility and overdose of pride, the trademark of all immortals, disqualified him from her notice. “He’s immortal.”
Chloe shook her head. “You’re in for a long night.”