Veil of Midnight (Chapter Four)

Renata had no idea what the blond stranger might have said to persuade Sergei Yakut into inviting the outsider home to his private compound north of the city. In the two years since Renata had been introduced to life as a member of Yakut's personal guard, no one outside the vampire's small circle of servants and private security detail had ever been permitted on the secluded woodland grounds of the lodge.

Suspicious by nature and reclusive, cruel to the point of tyranny, Sergei Yakut's world was one of scrutiny and mistrust. God help you if you crossed him in any way, for when the fist of his rage came crashing down, it came down like an anvil. Sergei Yakut had few friends and even fewer enemies; neither seemed to survive long in the chill of his shadow.

Renata had come to know the male she served well enough to sense that he was not exactly amenable to the notion of uninvited company, but the fact that he hadn't killed this interloper – this warrior, as he'd referred to him back in the alleyway – seemed to indicate at least some small degree of respect. If not for the warrior himself, then for the group he belonged to, the Order.

As she swung the armored, custom Mercedes up to the entrance of the rough-timbered main house at the end of the long drive, Renata couldn't resist flicking a glance in the rearview mirror to the two vampires seated in silence behind her.

Ice-blue eyes met her gaze in the glass. He didn't blink away, not even as the seconds stretched beyond curiosity to that of bald challenge. He was pissed off, his ego no doubt still bruised by the fact that she had duped him in the alley and led him into a trap. Renata feigned polite ignorance as she broke the heavy hold of his stare and brought the car to a halt in front of the lodge. One of the Breed males on guard at the entrance came down the wide plank steps to open the back door of the sedan.

Behind him a few paces stood another guard, this one holding a pair of leashed Russian wolfhounds. Their bared teeth gnashing, the big watchdogs barked and growled like savages until the moment Sergei Yakut came out of the car. The animals were as well trained as the rest of the vampire's household: one look from their master and they fell into an instant, submissive silence, massive heads held low as he and the warrior stalked into the house.

The guard standing near the car closed the open back door and shot a questioning glance at Renata through the tinted glass of the window.

Who the hell is that? was the obvious look on his face, but before he could motion for her to roll down the window so he could ask it, she put the sedan into gear and tapped the gas.

As she eased the car off the gravel drive and took it around to the garage in back of the lodge, the pain and tension she'd been feeling earlier began to creep back into her body. She was tired from the whole confrontation tonight, her limbs and mind equally wrung out. All she wanted was her bed and a long, hot soak in the tub. She really didn't care which came first.

Renata had her own small quarters in the lodge, a luxury that Yakut did not afford any of the males who served him. Even Alexei bunked with the other guards in common quarters, sleeping on fur pallets spread out on the floor, like a garrison straight out of the Middle Ages. Renata's room was only fractionally better than that: a narrow space big enough only for the twin bed, nightstand, and the trunk that held her meager clothing. A bathroom with a footed tub was located down the hall and shared with the only other female in Sergei Yakut's charge.

The amenities were rustic at best, as was the rest of the hundred-year-old log compound, and the furnishings were sparse. Not to mention a bit revolting.

Although Yakut once told her he and his household had only been living there for the past decade, the old hunting lodge was filled with what seemed to be half a century's worth of animal pelts, stuffed game, and mounted antlers. She assumed the taxidermy decor had belonged to the previous owner, but Yakut didn't seem to mind sharing his home with all the morbidity. In fact, he seemed to relish the primitiveness of the place. Renata knew the Siberian vampire was older than he appeared – much, much older, as those of his kind often were. But it didn't take a lot to imagine him clothed in skins and furs, armed with steel and iron, and wreaking bloody havoc on the defenseless villages of Russia's remote northern regions. Time hadn't smoothed away any of his edge, and Renata could testify firsthand to Yakut's deadly nature.

That she could serve someone like that made her gut twist with regret. That she was pledged to protect him, to be loyal to him, both in thought and action, made her feel herself a stranger in her own skin. She had her reasons for staying – especially now – but there was still so much she wished she could change. So much still to regret…

She pushed aside the thoughts that were too dangerous to even let form in her mind. If Sergei Yakut were to sense the slightest weakness in her allegiance to him, there would be swift, severe repercussions.

Renata closed her door after she entered her room. She unfastened her weapon holsters and laid the guns and knives neatly on top of the old trunk at the foot of the bed. She ached all over, muscles and bones screaming from the earlier tax on her mind. Her neck was stiff, full of knots that made her wince as she tried to massage them away.

God, she needed some peace from the pain.

A gentle scratching noise started up on the other side of the wall. It grated in her ears like nails on a chalkboard, her head feeling as fragile as a glass bell.

"Rennie?" Mira's girlish voice was soft, just a meek little whisper coming through the gaps in the logs. "Rennie…is that you?" "Yes, mouse," Renata answered. She moved up to the head of the bed and rested her cheek against the rounded timber of the wall. "It's me. What are you doing still awake?"

"I don't know. Couldn't sleep."

"More nightmares?"

"Uh-huh. I keep…seeing him. That bad man."

Renata sighed, hearing the hesitation in the soft admission. She thought about the warm bath that was only a few minutes out of her reach. It was a welcome solitude she needed more than anything at times like this, when the aftermath of her psychic ability – the very thing that had spared her life two years ago on this plot of remote, wooded land – seemed determined to kick her ass.

"Rennie?" came Mira's quiet voice again. "Are you still there?"

"I'm here."

She pictured the innocent face through the knotted pine. She didn't have to see the child to know that Mira had probably been sitting there in the darkness all this time, waiting to hear Renata come back so she wouldn't feel so alone. She'd been pretty shaken up the past few days – understandably, given what she'd witnessed.

Oh, screw the damn bath, Renata thought harshly. Swallowing down the pain that ran over her skin as she stood up, she reached over and pulled a Harry Potter novel out of her nightstand drawer.

"Hey, mouse? I can't sleep right now either. How about if I come over and read to you for a little while?"

Mira's joyful shriek sounded muffled, as though she'd had to cover her mouth with her pillow to keep from alarming the entire household with her outburst.

Despite her pain and fatigue, Renata smiled. "I'll take that as a yes."

Sergei Yakut led Nikolai into a large, open room that might have been a banquet hall when the old hunting lodge was in its heyday. Now there were no rows of tables or benches, only a pair of big leather club chairs arranged in front of a towering stone fireplace at the far end of the room and a massive wooden desk crouched nearby.

The pelts of bears and wolves and other, more exotic predators lay spread out as rugs on the wood plank floor. Mounted to the stone above the fireplace was the head of a bull moose with a huge rack of broad bone-white antlers, his dark glass eyes fixed on some distant point across the wide expanse of the hall. His long-gone freedom? Niko thought wryly as he followed Yakut to the leather chairs at the hearth and sat down at the Gen One's gestured invitation.

Nikolai idly glanced around, guessing the lodge to be at least a century old, and built for human residents originally, although the sparse windows were currently rigged with crucial UV-blocking shutters. It wasn't the sort of place you might expect a vampire to settle in as his home. The Breed tended to prefer more modern, luxurious surroundings, living in family groups or communities called Darkhavens for the most part, many such places equipped with perimeter alarms and security fences.

As civilian Breed domiciles went, Yakut's rustic camp, while remote enough for a good amount of privacy from curious humans, was anything but typical. Then again, neither was Sergei Yakut himself.

"How long have you been in Montreal?" Nikolai asked.

"Not long." Yakut shrugged, his elbows braced on the arms of the chair he was slouched into. His posture may have been relaxed, but his eyes had not stopped studying Niko – assessing him – since the moment they sat down. "I find it to my benefit to keep on the move and not get too comfortable in any one place. Trouble has a way of catching up to you when you overstay your welcome."

Nikolai considered the comment, wondering if Yakut spoke from personal experience or if it was meant as some kind of warning to his unexpected guest.

"Tell me about the attack on you," he said, unfazed by either the flat stare or the obvious suspicious nature of the Gen One. "And I'll need to talk to that witness too."

"Of course." Yakut motioned over one of his Breed guards. "Fetch the child."

The tall male nodded in acknowledgment, then left to carry out the order. Yakut sat forward in his chair. "The attack occurred here in this room. I had been sitting in this very chair, reviewing a few of my accounts when the guard on watch heard a noise outside the lodge. He went to investigate, and returned to tell me that it was only raccoons that had gotten into one of the sheds out back." Yakut shrugged. "This was hardly unusual, so I sent him out to drive the pests away. When several minutes passed and he did not come back, I knew there was trouble. By then, no doubt, the guard was already dead."

Nikolai nodded. "And the intruder was already inside the lodge."

"Yes, he was."

"What about the girl – the witness?"

"She had taken her evening meal and was resting in here with me. She'd fallen asleep on the floor near the fire, but she awoke just in time to see that my assailant was standing directly behind me. I hadn't even heard the bastard move, he was so stealthy and quick."

"He was Breed," Niko suggested.

Yakut inclined his head in agreement. "No question, he was Breed. He was dressed like a thief, all in black, his head and face covered with a black nylon mask that left only his eyes visible, but there is no doubt in my mind that he was our kind. If I had to guess, I would say he might even have been Gen One himself based on his strength and speed. If not for the child opening her eyes and crying out a warning, I would have lost my head to him in that next instant. He brought a thin wire garrote down on me from behind the chair. Mira's scream drew his attention away for a crucial second, and I was able to bring up my hand to block the wire from slicing across my throat. I twisted out of his range, but before I could leap on him myself or call in my guards, he escaped." "Just like that, he turned tail and ran?" Nikolai asked.

"Just like that," Yakut replied, a slow smile teasing at the corner of his mouth. "One look at Mira, and the coward fled." Niko swore under his breath. "You were damn lucky," he said, finding it hard to reconcile that the sight of a mere child could cause such a distraction for what had to be a highly trained, expert assassin. It just didn't make sense.

Before he could point that out to Yakut, footsteps approached from the other end of the long room. Walking in ahead of the guard Yakut had dispatched was Renata and a delicate waif of a girl. Renata had shucked her weapons somewhere, but she strolled alongside the child protectively, her cool gaze wary as she brought Mira farther into the room.

Nikolai couldn't help staring at the girl's odd attire. The pink pajamas and bunny slippers were unexpected, but it was the short black veil that covered the top of her face that he found most jarring.

"Renata was reading me a story," Mira supplied, her soft voice chiming with a bright innocence that seemed so out of place in Yakut's crude domain.

"Is that so?" the Gen One asked, a slow reply that seemed directed more at Renata than the child. "Come closer, Mira. There is someone who wants to meet you."

The guard stepped back once Mira stood before Yakut, but Renata's booted feet held steady at the girl's side. At first Niko wondered if the child might be blind, but she moved without hesitation, walking the few remaining steps to where Yakut and Nikolai now stood.

The small head pivoted toward Nikolai without error. She definitely was sighted. "Hello," she said to him, and gave a polite little nod.

"Hello," Nikolai replied. "I heard what happened the other night. You must be very brave."

She shrugged, but it was impossible to read her expression when just her small nose and mouth were visible beneath the hem of the head covering. Nikolai looked at the young girl – the impish, three-and-a-half-foot waif who had somehow driven away a Breed vampire on a mission to kill one of the most formidable members of their kind. It had to be a joke. Was Yakut jerking him around somehow? What could this child possibly have done to thwart the attack?

Nikolai looked to Yakut, ready to call him out for what had to be a line of pure bullshit. There was no way in hell the attack could have gone down the way he'd described.

"Remove your veil," Yakut instructed the girl, as if he knew the line of Niko's thinking.

Her small hands reached up to grasp the edge of the short black strip of gauze. She swept the veil back off her face but seemed careful to keep her eyes downcast. Renata stood very still beside the child, her expression placid even while her fingers curled into fists at her sides. She seemed to be holding her breath, waiting with an air of wary anticipation. "Lift your eyes, Mira," Yakut commanded her, his mouth curving into a smile. "Look at our guest, and show him what he wants to know."

Slowly the fringe of dark brown lashes came up. The girl raised her chin, tipping her head up and meeting Niko's gaze. "Jesus Christ," he hissed, hardly aware that he was speaking at all as he got his first glimpse at Mira's eyes.

They were extraordinary. The irises were so white they were clear, as liquid and fathomless as a pool of colorless water. Or, rather, a mirror, he amended, looking deeper into them because he couldn't help it, drawn closer by the startling, unusual beauty of her gaze.

He didn't know how long he stared – couldn't have been more than a couple seconds at most – but now her pupils were getting smaller, shrinking down to tiny pin-pricks of black within the endless circle of silvery white. The color shimmered, rippling as though a breeze had skated across the tranquil surface. Incredible. He'd never seen anything like it. He peered deeper, unable to resist the strange play of light in her eyes.

When it cleared, Nikolai saw himself reflected there.

He saw himself and someone else…a woman. They were naked, bodies pressed together, sheened with sweat. He was kissing her heatedly, burying his hands in the dark glossy strands of her hair. Pushing her down beneath him as he thrust deep inside her. He saw himself baring his fangs, lowering his head and placing his mouth to the tender curve of her neck.

Tasting the sweetness of her blood as he pierced her skin and vein and began to drink –

"Holy hell," he ground out, tearing his gaze away from the startling, all-too-real reflection. His voice was rough, his tongue thick behind the sudden emergence of his fangs. His heart was racing, and farther down, his cock had gone stiff as stone. "What just happened?"

Everyone was staring at him except for Renata, who seemed more concerned with helping Mira replace her veil. She whispered something in the girl's ear, soothing words, by the soft tone of them. Sergei Yakut's low, rumbling chuckle was echoed by a few amused chortles from the other men.

"What did she just do to me?" Niko demanded, not the least bit entertained. "What the fuck was that?"

Yakut leaned back in his chair and grinned like a tsar making a public joke of one of his subjects. "Tell me what you saw." "Myself," Nikolai blurted, still trying to make sense of it. The vision was so real. As if all of it were truly happening just then, not the mirage it had to be. God knew his body was convinced it was real.

"What else did you see?" Yakut asked blithely. "Tell me, please."

Fuck that. Niko mutely shook his head. He'd be damned if he was going to lay the whole salacious thing out for everyone in the room. "I saw myself…some vision of myself, reflected in the girl's eyes."

"What you saw was a glimpse of your future," Yakut informed him. He motioned for the girl to come to his side, where he wrapped his arm around her thin shoulders and pulled her close, like a prized possession. "One look into Mira's eyes and you see a vision of events in your life that are destined to come."

It didn't take much to conjure the image back into his head. Oh, hell no, not much at all. That picture was as good as permanently burned into his memory and all of his senses. Nikolai willed his thrumming pulse to calm. Called his raging hard-on to heel.

"What did Mira show your attacker last week?" he asked, desperate to turn the attention away from himself now.

Yakut shrugged. "Only he can know. The girl has no knowledge of what her eyes reflect."

Thank God for that. Niko hated to think of the education she might have just gotten otherwise.

"Whatever the bastard saw," Yakut added, "it was enough to make him hesitate and give me a chance to escape the death he came to deliver." The Gen One smirked. "The future can be startling, especially when you are not expecting it, yeah?" "Yeah," Nikolai murmured. "I suppose it can be."

He'd just gotten a decent dose of that knowledge firsthand.

Because the woman who'd been wrapped around him, naked and writhing so passionately in his arms? It was none other than cold, beautiful Renata.