Hide in the open.
The whisper from her subconscious quieted as Ahnya Fahre backed the small sedan between two SUVs in the cul-de-sac of a suburban neighborhood. The dash clock read a few minutes after four. She was grateful for a nearby street lamp and the glowing landscape lanterns in the yard beside her. Their narrow tunnels of light brightened the dark of early morning and made her feel less alone.
Exhaustion washing over her, Ahnya fumbled for the lever and released her seat to its full reclining position. She made certain the doors were locked before turning on her side to face the sleeping infant in a car seat next to her.
“Welcome to the world,” she murmured to the hours-old child, placing a protective hand on the baby as she herself drifted off to sleep.
She was awakened later by the dim dawn. Her neck was stiff, her shoulder ached from laying against the seat belt buckle, but her tiny charge was safe. Nothing else mattered.
Pulling the seat upright, she unlocked her door and stepped outside to stretch. She welcomed the pull in her muscles as she raised her arms above her head, then bent down to loosen her back. The small ache reminded her how soft she had become. She hadn’t been on the run for a long time. And back then, she’d been alone, with nothing at stake but her future.
She had a child to protect now. As the realization of what she’d agreed to struck Ahnya anew, she folded her arms around herself and gave in to a moment of fear.
“Misha,” she whispered, “what if I fail?”
Her only answer was the whisper of the wind and the song of a few early birds. She was alone, with nothing more to guide her than the contents of the envelope Misha had thrust at her as he’d urged her to take the baby and flee.
A substantial amount of cash, a false driver’s license for her and a fake birth certificate for the infant. But most importantly, the envelope also contained directions to find Misha’s deepest enemy.
The one man who could be trusted to keep her, and this child, alive.
* * * *
Thirty-six hours earlier
Griff huddled beneath the protective branches of the old weeping willow tree, night goggles trained on the limestone mansion across the street. His camera with its zoom lens lay within easy reach. As stakeouts went, he’d been on worse. He liked this part of the city. Old Louisville, the locals called it, the epitome of Victorian elegance and tradition. The neighborhood was especially beautiful now in late April, with the dogwood trees in bloom and brilliant azalea bushes in red and pink flanking the wide steps to the houses. Since he was going to spend the night out here, he might as well enjoy the ambiance.
“Aw, shit, don’t park there,” he muttered as a long, black sedan coasted by. He held his breath as it slowed, expecting the driver to park between him and the mansion he watched. He settled back as the car sped up and turned at the end of the block, leaving the view unimpeded.
Griff relaxed and returned his attention to those entering the house. Dressed in formal wear, some carrying gifts, their appearance led him to new speculation. Maybe the event was nothing more than a Derby party. Only two weeks remained until the famed Run for the Roses, and Misha Tsarentza was known for extravagant entertainment during the season.
Yet Griff was sure whatever was going on had nothing to do with horseracing.
* * * *
Inside the mansion, the party was in full swing. The ballroom with its brocade wallpaper and polished floors was crowded tonight. The babble of voices floated across the music by the tuxedo-clad band; no invitation had been turned down. Everyone who was anyone in this particular circle was here, and the festivities would continue until almost dawn.
Ahnya stood at the top of a curved staircase, hands crossed on the carved rail. She stared down into the ballroom where a laughing Tatiana danced. Tonight, her young charge was very much the queen of the party. Why shouldn’t she be? This was, after all, Tatiana’s night. Her celebration.
“That little girl has become a very beautiful young woman.”
Ahnya smiled at the man next to her. “As I always expected. Did you ever doubt it?”
Misha shook his head. “Never. Not with her mother’s looks and her father’s spirit. Yet what you have given is most important.” He ran a gentle finger along the inside of Ahnya’s wrist, tracing the faded and narrow scar. “You have not forgotten how difficult it can be to be young. Your guidance will help Tatiana decide what to do with those gifts.”
“You flatter me. The love with which you, her family, surround her shapes her life. My role is small.”
“Perhaps we must agree to disagree.” Ahnya felt the coolness of Misha’s hand as he laid it atop hers and lapsed into silence. She wondered if he shared her thoughts as the girl danced with Stenos, her father. Tatiana had so much of her mother in her—her beautiful and strong-willed mother, whose recklessness had been her downfall and eventually, her death.
Misha was a satisfied man. Life was good. Things had gone well for his clan, for all his people, for many centuries. Secret truces hammered out hundreds of years ago with powerful church leaders and governments still stood; the unspoken agreements were in force. Yet change was coming. He had sensed it even before the Prophetess interrupted the last gathering of the council to warn of unexpected and unbidden chaos.
He could do little but wait…wait and gather around him those he could trust, and prepare himself for the unexpected.
Ahnya’s small sigh brought him back to the moment, and the reassuringly normal scene below.
“Do you tire?” Misha’s voice, smooth as velvet, was a throaty whisper as he moved closer to her. He sought not intimacy but the ability to speak without having to guard his speech. Every word, every action of an elder was noticed.
He waved a hand toward the throng below.
“No matter what our guests may think, this celebration belongs to you as well as my godchild. It would please me if you stay. However, the festivities have only begun, and the hour is late. If you choose to leave, I will understand.”
“I know.” Ahnya smiled at her friend and protector. “Unlike you and your guests, I’ve been up since early this morning. Still, I’m not tired enough to leave and miss the ceremony.”
“A wise woman, for Tatiana will not forgive you if you did.” Misha smiled and offered Ahnya his hand as the music stopped. They walked down the stairs to join the others moving down a wide hallway and away from the decorated ballroom.
Even after all these years, Ahnya had not forgotten her awe walking into this house for the first time with nothing but the clothes she wore and a dirty backpack holding the pitiful remnants of her life. The foyer alone was larger than the living room of the ranch home back in Kansas, and the high ceilings and elegant décor reminded her of a museum.
The first floor was formal, its walls covered with satin fabric, the parquet floors accented with a wide hall runner. The third story was unique. The rooms were arranged around a wide, open space looking down into the ballroom they had left. The dance floor shone from years of polishing, and the plaster walls were tinted a pale blue to contrast subtly with the ornate white ceiling.
The rest of this second floor, where she moved now with the others, was off-limits to all but Misha and his intimates. The private rooms of those in residence were lavish and welcoming. Ahnya’s own room had been at the end of this hallway, connected by a thick door to the room that had been Tatiana’s since her birth. Once her changing was complete, the girl would leave behind the room of her childhood and take up residence in one of the sumptuous suites they now passed.
And Ahnya would leave this world for the one she’d left thirteen years before.
She couldn’t bear to glance in the open door of the old nursery as they passed. Turned into a guest room, it reeked of opulence, furnished with mahogany furniture and an antique oriental rug. Ahnya had spent countless hours there when it was a baby’s room, decorated for a child of the clan whose life rivaled that of any princess.
She’d paced this hall many a day, Tatiana cradled against her, walking back and forth until the child finally fell asleep. Silence had surrounded them as the other occupants slept. In those early years, Ahnya had often pretended this was her house and her baby.
Pretended she, too, was an Ancient.
Misha’s gentle voice interrupted her musing.
“I must leave you.”
Misha gave Ahnya’s hand a final squeeze and joined his fellows, leaving her lingering outside the doorway. Her stomach tightened as she studied the ritual room with its sparse furnishings. She could not enter the sacred place. Only those of the blood were permitted inside.
A thick black rug covered the pale marble floor. Two pieces of furniture stood on its center: An elaborate carved, gilt-trimmed chair resembling a throne, and a red velvet Victorian fainting couch. The only illumination came from tapers in tall candelabras, the shadow of their flames flickering against the walls and dancing on the ceiling.
Ahnya stepped back as the Ancients formed a circle in the center of the room, and found a viewing place in the hall as their chant began in a language nearly as old as time. The rhythm of the words grew stronger and faster with each moment. The aroma of the oddly-scented candles filled the air until it seemed to press against Ahnya and made her dizzy.
The candlelight shimmered against the glittering dresses of the women, but Ahnya was captivated by their faces. Joy and expectation filled them as they threw back their heads. The high female voices grew increasingly louder, faster, more primitive, joined by the lower chanting of the males. The sound moved around her, through her, as the celebrants discarded the inhibitions of polite society.
A shiver snaked down Ahnya’s spine. She pressed back against the wall as the chant reached its pinnacle and a man entered the room. Tall and sharp-featured, he wore a long black robe that swept the floor behind him, and walked with the assurance of a man who knows ultimate power is his. Ahnya’s eyes widened as he approached the others and candlelight fell upon his face.