"What do you mean?"
Evdokia raised the teakettle and refilled my cup. "Sugar?"
"No, thank you." "You should have some. I'm about to speak ill of the dead. Sugar helps with the bitter."
She and Doolittle were separated at birth. Every time I suffered a near-death experience, he brought me syrup and claimed it was iced tea.
The older woman leaned back, gazing at the garden. "When I first saw you, you were two years old. You were such a cute, fat baby. Big eyes. Then Voron left and took you with him. I saw you again when you were four and then some months after, and then again. Every time I saw you, you got harder and harder. I'd braid your hair and put you in a pretty little dress and we'd go to Solstice Day, or out to our coven, and you would be so happy. Then he'd return and make you take it all off, and send you out to hunt feral dogs with a knife. You'd come back all bloody and sit by his feet like some sort of puppy, waiting for him to tell you that you'd done well."
I remembered that, sitting by Voron's feet. He didn't praise me often, but when he did, it was like I'd grown wings. I would've done anything for that praise.
"Finally Anna Ivanovna called me to come and see her. You were seven then and she was an Oracle Witch at the time. Old, old woman, frightening eyes. I took you with me. We visited at her house and she looked at you for a while, and then she said that it wasn't right what Voron was doing to you. It never sat well with me, and I'm not one to hold my tongue, so I cornered him that night over dinner and told him so. I told him that you were a little girl. An innocent. That if you were his own flesh and blood, he wouldn't be treating you this way."
If this was true, she stood up to Voron for my sake. Few people would. "He made me this way so I would survive. It was a necessity."
Evdokia pursed her lips for a long moment. A shadow darkened her eyes. Something inside me clenched, as if expecting a punch.
"What did Voron say?"
Evdokia looked down at her knitting.
"What did he say?"
"He said that you weren't his flesh and blood, and that was the whole point."
It hurt. It was the truth and I'd known it all my life, but it still hurt. He was my father in everything but blood. He cared about me, in his own way; he ...
"I told him that the Covens would take you in," Evdokia said. "He said no. So I asked him what did he think would happen when you and Roland finally met. He told me that if he got lucky, you'd kill your father. If his luck ran out, then Roland would have to murder his own daughter and that was enough for him."
A sharp pain stabbed me somewhere right below the heart. My throat closed up. It wasn't true. That conversation never took place. Voron loved my mother. She died for me. He trained me to make me stronger so that when the final confrontation came, I'd hold my own against my real father.
Anger vibrated in Evdokia's voice. "I told him to get out. I thought he'd cool off and I'd persuade him to give you to me. But he vanished and took you with him. The next time I saw you, you came to ask for a favor in the Belly of the Turtle. I almost didn't recognize you. It's not what we wanted for you. I know it wasn't all him. Kalina had ruined him, but I blame Voron all the same. It was his fault as well."
I struggled to speak, but the words wouldn't come out. I felt helpless, as if I were stuck in the middle of some void and couldn't break out of it.
"You were one of ours. We would've taken you in and hid you and taught you, but it was not to be. It gnaws at me to this day that I couldn't get you away from him."
My mouth finally managed to produce a sound. "What do you mean, one of yours?"
"Because of your mother, of course."
I stared at her.
Evdokia gasped. "He didn't tell you, that pridurok. Kalina, your mother, she was one of ours. An old Ukrainian family. Your grandmother's sister, Olyona, married my uncle Igor. We're in-laws."
The world jumped up and kicked me in the face.
"THEY'RE FROM A SMALL SETTLEMENT ON THE BORDER of Ukraine and Poland," Evdokia said. "Zeleniy Hutir. It has been a bad place to live since antiquity. The border there jumps back and forth; one generation they'd be Polish, the next Russian, then Turkish, then something else. Legend says, in savage times, back when Ukraine was home to Slavic tribes, they made war with the Khazarian Empire to the east. During one of those raids, all the men from the village were taken. Magic was still in the world back then, although it was growing weaker, and the old ways were strong in the area. The women worked a charm on themselves, the power of enchantment, to make people want to please them. They got their men back. The power came with a huge price--most of them went barren after that--but if they wanted the shirt off your back, all they had to do was smile and you'd give it to them. That's where your mother's power comes from."
That sounded suspiciously familiar. "There is a woman working for the People. Her name is Rowena."
Evdokia nodded. "I've seen her. Same ancestry, but watered down. Her magic is like a fireplace; if you stand real close, you'll feel the warmth. Nothing to write home about. Your mother's magic was like a bonfire. It didn't just warm, it burned."
That would be a hell of a power.
"A lot of us, the old families that came over here from Russia and Ukraine, have known we were magical," Evdokia continued. "Even when the technology was at its peak, just before the Shift, a tiny trickle of magic still remained in the world and we saw its effects and we used it, in the small ways. The old women would spell a toothache away, find the drowned bodies, or meddle in people's love lives. I had a friend whose mother once dreamed that their house would catch on fire. Two days later her senile grandfather poured kerosene into their stove to get the fire going. Almost burned the whole place down. Small things like that.
"Your grandmother had the power but didn't use it. She got a doctorate in psychology and didn't truck with any of the old superstition, as she called it. She pushed Kalina the same way, except by the time your mother finished all her degrees, the magic was here to stay and she'd come into her power. She was very good at what she did. She used to lecture all over the country. Universities, military, cops. She did all that."
A light went on in my head. That had to be how she met Greg, my guardian. "Did she work with the Order?"
Evdokia nodded. "Oh yes. They tried hard to recruit her, too. Then she met your father, your real father, and all that went by the wayside. She vanished." "Do you think she loved him?"