Razvan gripped Ivory's hand as they approached the ceremonial cave. Gregori's summons had reached them just before dawn, with his invitation to the naming ceremony, and both had been nervous before they had succumbed to their rejuvenating sleep. They had spent so long in the ground recovering from wounds, both had thought the naming would have already taken place, but Gregori had honored them by waiting, which meant they had little choice but to attend.
"They are not going to search you this time," Ivory teased. "I think."
"They try that this time and the dragon in me may just come flaming out." He gripped her hand tighter.
Ivory looked up at his face. Instead of his usual calm, he looked strained. She knew it had nothing to do with the distrust of the Carpathian ancients and everything to do with his daughters and sister.
She halted and tugged him around to her, lifting her palm to frame his beloved face. "You are han ku pesa-protector. You are han ku meke piramet-defender." Her voice softened. Her eyes swam with love. "Most of all, you are han ku kuulua sivamet-keeper of my heart."
He caught her face in his hands and lowered his mouth to hers. He couldn't have spoken. Not with love shaking him and setting his hands trembling, or with the lump in his throat so big he might choke. He could only pour everything he felt for her into his kiss. When he lifted his head, her eyes had gone antique gold. "Thank you. I needed to hear you say you loved me."
She parted her lips to protest. She hadn't actually gone that far, but he kissed her senseless again, scattering her wits until she could barely remember her own name, let alone what she'd said to him.
"Razvan!" Natalya rushed them. "You came."
They had barely time to break apart before she threw herself into her brother's arms, rocking them both so hard Ivory had to catch his arm to steady them.
"Of course we came. Gregori said it was a naming ceremony. I have never been to one." Razvan gently set his sister back on her feet, looking her over for injuries. The time spent rejuvenating in the ground had done her good. She bore little evidence of the encounter with Xavier and Sergey.
"You have to come to see Lara. Gregori let her up for the ceremony. She's fragile and weak, but he said whatever Ivory did, she can still bear children." Natalya's eyes were bright.
"Mother Earth saved her, not me," Ivory protested.
Natalya ignored the protest as well as all personal barriers, catching Ivory's arm and tugging toward the ceremonial cave. "Hurry. Everyone is waiting inside for you."
"Give them a chance to catch their breath, Natalya," Vikirnoff advised with a small smile. He tucked her beneath his shoulder. He still had a couple of burn marks on him from having shielded Natalya.
"I do not wish to upset Lara, especially in her fragile state," Razvan objected, halting abruptly.
Ivory swung around to him, her hand actually curling around the hilt of her knife. We do not have to do this. She wasn't going to have anyone-sister, daughter, ancients, anyone-make him feel unwelcome or less than what she believed him to be: a great hero.
Shockingly, Razvan laughed and the sound was carefree. He swept his arm around her. "You are a treasure, fel ku kuuluaak sivam belso-beloved. My greatest treasure. I believe you would stand between me and . . ."
"Anything. Anyone." Her eyes deepened from her light amber to that antique gold that always sent his heart stumbling.
He brushed a kiss on top of her head. "Let us go to the naming ceremony for Gregori's sake. He has done much for us, and if this pleases him, it is a small thing to us."
Natalya frowned. "Lara wants to see you, Razvan. And Nicolas is dying to see his wonderful little sister Ivory. He can scarcely believe what you did-what the two of you did. What a relief it is to know Xavier is gone from this world."
"Not entirely," Ivory cautioned. "No one must ever forget those two fragments found a host in a master vampire. He was terribly wounded, but he will rise again, and with the shadow of Xavier dwelling within him, he will be more evil than ever."
"We have warned the people," Vikirnoff assured. "A hunting party went out, but no trace of Sergey was found." His eyes met hers. "I am truly sorry about your brother. He was a great warrior once."
Ivory forced a smile, and was grateful for Razvan's understanding. He didn't touch her, which might have been her undoing, but he surrounded her with warmth. "My brother has been long dead. What is in his place is truly evil and bears no resemblance to the man I love, but I thank you for the thought."
Young Travis ran up to them. His eyes were bright again, his hair long and tied with a thin leather cord. "Gregori says to get a move on."
Laughing, they followed him to the entrance of the cave, but got no farther. A young teenaged girl Ivory recognized as Skyler stood waiting just inside. Her shoulders were square, her gaze hesitant. Francesca, the female healer and her adoptive mother, stood with her, shoulder to shoulder, her hand on Skyler's back.
Ivory's heart jumped. There was no denying this girl was Razvan's child. She was beautiful, but in her eyes, eyes very much like Razvan's, there was far too much knowledge. The girl had been through hell and back again. This was going to break Razvan's heart. Ivory wanted to wrap her arms around him and get out of there, take him far away where no one else could hurt him.
"This is my daughter, Skyler," Francesca said. She wore a smile, but her expression was strained. "You might remember that she aided in fighting Xavier's evil."
"Yes, of course," Ivory said. "You were amazing. Everyone thinks so highly of you, Skyler, obviously for a good reason. I am Ivory and this is my lifemate, Razvan."
She felt the impact when Razvan raised his head. The punch to his gut, hard and deep. He hadn't really paid attention to anything but protecting Ivory from Xavier's evil and trying to keep everyone calm. Now, there was no mistaking this child. Or the trauma she'd suffered. He swallowed hard, but his expression didn't change. Only Ivory felt the terrible blow.
"I am Dragonseeker then," Skyler said, her chin up. "That is why I can sense the earth in the way Syndil does, although she is not Dragonseeker, but has the gift of bonding with earth as the Dragonseekers do. I am part Carpathian, although for some reason, unlike others who are half, I have not needed blood."
Razvan took a breath, let it out. Ivory reached for his hand, clung. She didn't know which of them needed the support more.
"You are my daughter." He made it a statement, although he had no recollection of her mother. He must have been buried deep, suppressed by Xavier when the mage had impregnated the woman. Skyler had been spared being kidnapped and taken because her blood had not called to Xavier, the Dragonseeker in her hiding deep, probably sensing a mortal enemy. It was her eyes that gave her away. Had Xavier looked closer, had he not been so greedy for the "right" blood, he would not have allowed Skyler and her mother to escape so easily.
What happened to her? Razvan asked his sister. When he sensed her hesitation, he snapped an impatient order. Tell me.
Ivory put her hand on his shoulder. It was the first time she'd seen him really shaken. She felt him tense beneath her hand, but he didn't pull away.
Natalya bit her lip and then capitulated. Her mother ran when she was a mere infant. For years Skyler believed the man her mother married was her birth father. He was a very bad man and sold her to other men. Francesca rescued her.
Razvan closed his eyes briefly. Only Ivory's touch steadied him. His children seemed destined to live with pain and suffering even when Xavier didn't get his hands on them. He opened his eyes to look directly at Francesca. "I am grateful to you."
He had no idea what to say to this young girl. His daughter. A girl he knew nothing about, who had lived in hell and had far too much knowledge of monsters in the world. "I do not know what words I can give you, Skyler, other than to say I am sorry I have not been in your life to protect you from all the horrors of this world. Had I been able, I would have protected you."
She shrugged her shoulders, far too mature for her age. "That was a little impossible, as you didn't even know I existed."
"I do know now," Razvan said, "and I hope you are willing to get to know me. I will never take the place of your parents, but I certainly want to be a part of your life, if you will have me. You are someone any parent can be proud of. You stood your ground against evil, and I hear you work with Syndil to heal the earth. That alone is a miracle."
The tension seemed to leave her. "I'm glad we met." She held on to Francesca's hand, seemingly unaware she did so even as she reached out to touch the scars webbing his arm. "You destroyed Xavier. Gregori told us what happened."
"Without the others, Skyler, I would not have been able to do so. We worked together."
"They are waiting for you inside," Francesca said. "I wanted to look at you and Ivory again. I had hoped you would stay and allow us to heal you after the initial session."
Razvan and Ivory exchanged a long look. There had been so much pain. The Carpathian people had gathered to help speed their healing, but neither could stay in such close proximity. They needed their own sacred ground and they had gone together to the cave where Mother Earth surrounded them with her richest soil. Both still bore the scars, but like Vikirnoff and Natalya, the scars were fading.
"Thank you, Francesca," Razvan said, with a slight, formal bow. "We both appreciate your aid. You probably saved our lives."
"I doubt that." Francesca led the way through the cavern to the ceremonial chamber where everyone waited.
A hush fell over the crowd as they entered. Ivory moved closer to Razvan. She could smell sage and lavender. Candles adorned every conceivable crevice and ledge, the flickering lights casting soft shadows over the walls. Above their heads, crystals adorned the ceiling, and the dancing lights sent the gems sparkling on and off like a blanket of stars. Ivory slid her arm along Razvan's, shocked that such a crowd of people ringed the room-staring at them.
Mikhail glided from the center of the room, closing the distance between them. He clasped Razvan's arm in the formal manner of greeting between two experienced and respected hunters. "Pesasz jelabam ainaak-long may you stay in the light. Thank you for your great service to our people."
Razvan didn't move. Didn't speak. He stared over Mikhail's shoulder even after Mikhail turned to Ivory and clasped her arms in the same formal manner.
"Sivad olen wakeva, han ku piwta-may your heart stay strong, hunter," Mikhail greeted. "Your people thank you for your great service." He stepped back and bowed, a long, low sweeping bow indicating great respect.
To Ivory's shock, the entire room bowed with him. Emotion choked her, constricting her throat, and she glanced to Razvan. He hadn't moved. Hadn't changed expression, as if he were frozen there, his face carved in stone. He hadn't seen the tremendous tribute. He hadn't taken his eyes from across the room. She turned her head to follow his gaze.
There was no mistaking who the woman was seated beside Nicolas De La Cruz-Lara. Ivory couldn't drink in her beloved Nicolas, not when Razvan's heart shattered into a million pieces. He just crumbled inside. Outside, he appeared aloof and apart from everything. Inside, he simply dissolved. His inner peace was gone-destroyed. He couldn't breathe; his heart accelerated to the point she feared it might explode.
Every memory, every horrendous detail of this child's life, crowded into his head. The scent of her blood. The feel of his teeth tearing into her flesh, unable to stop, unable to do anything other than warn her, try to get her to run. Yet there was nowhere for her to run. No place for her to go, and he was helpless to save her. The hopeless despair and weight of terrible guilt drove him to his knees. Tiny red beads tracked down his face. His hands were unsteady as he tried to push himself up.
Razvan just knelt there beside her, and for the first time, Ivory felt panic. He wasn't ready for this. She should never have allowed him to come to this place. She dropped to her knees beside him, her arms around him in spite of the fact that he didn't want her comfort. He didn't feel he deserved it. He had been unable to protect his child not only from Xavier, but from himself, from the monster Xavier had forced him to be. To Razvan, possession was no excuse. This child, his beloved Lara, had been born of him, but like Skyler, she had been in the midst of monsters.
He knew her. He loved her. Even when he couldn't feel the emotion, it had been there, far off, remembered. His sense of family, the Dragonseeker blood, calling to him, to her.
"Father?" The voice was a child's voice.
Razvan looked up and there she stood, right in front of him, tears sliding down her face. Lara wrapped her arms around him and held him to her with Ivory.
"It's all right. Really. I'm all right. Nicolas has taken great care of me, and now that you're here with us, and I know you really were trying to get me out of there, everything is all right."
"I do not deserve you."
Lara smiled. "Neither does Nicolas, but I love him all the same." The smile faded and she looked serious. "I am proud to be your daughter."
Nicolas helped Razvan to his feet. "And I, your son." He grinned a little mischievously, something that shocked Ivory as he leaned over to brush a kiss on her cheek. "Hello, Mother."
Ivory gave him a mock scowl, but the ease in Razvan was worth the unfamiliar teasing.
Razvan found a smile forming in his heart. "Take my daughter and sit where she can rest," he instructed, "so they may get started."
Ivory touched his mind again. The terrible pain had eased, but she knew he still felt it. She wrapped her arm around him tightly and clung there while the prince walked to the middle of the room and the hush fell again.
Gregori and Savannah carried their babies into the center of the room. The crowd erupted with joy, the walls expanding as though they couldn't contain so much happiness. Razvan wrapped his arm around Ivory's waist and held her close.
"Everyone will pledge to love and support those children," Ivory said, remembering the ceremony from her childhood. "All of us are expected to educate, love and become family to them so that should anything happen to their parents, they will not feel alone in the world." She brushed a kiss along the side of his face. "More children for you."
He flicked her a promise of retaliation at the laughter in her voice. "We will have to have at least ten more."
Ivory sucked in her breath and scowled at him. She didn't know the first thing about babies-give her a sword every time.
Razvan made a little snorting sound and even the wolves stirred as if they were laughing.
Gregori handed his daughter to the prince. The baby seemed impossibly tiny to Ivory, but she had all her fingers and toes and a head of thick, dark hair-and she was alive. Her head turned and her eyes met Ivory's. There was awareness there. Ivory's throat tightened more.
"Who names this child?" Mikhail asked.
"Her father," Gregori answered.
"Her mother," Savannah proclaimed.
"Her people," the entire crowd chanted back.
"I name you Anastasia Daratrazanoff," Mikhail said. "Born in battle, crowned with love. Who will accept the offer of the Carpathian people to love and raise our daughter?"
"Her parents, with gratitude," Savannah and Gregori answered formally.
The second infant was handed to Mikhail with great care. She was visibly smaller and a little more fragile, with the same head of dark hair. She, too, looked at Ivory as Mikhail held her high in the air for the Carpathian people to see. Elation swept through the room at the sight of the small baby, an almost electric excitement that had tears swimming in Ivory's eyes. She smiled at the baby and was shocked when the infant smiled back.
"Who names this child?" Mikhail asked.
"Her father," Gregori answered. His voice sounded choked, as if he could barely get the words past the lump in his throat.
"His mother," Savannah replied, cuddling little Anastasia protectively against her body.
"Her people," every man, woman and child in the room proclaimed in unison.
"I name you Anya Daratrazanoff," Mikhail announced. "Born in battle, crowned with love. Who will accept the offer of the Carpathian people to love and raise our daughter?"
"Her parents, with gratitude." Gregori and Savannah accepted the tremendous honor and duty together.
The crowd erupted into singing and chanting, joy filling the ceremonial chamber. Laughter broke out. Ivory caught sight of Travis hugging Falcon. He looked happy and carefree. She found herself smiling right along with the rest of them.
"I suppose we should swear allegiance to the prince," she whispered.
"I suppose," Razvan agreed, "but not now. Now, I want to take you home and start on those ten children we are going to have."
Ivory laughed and placed her hand in his. She doubted the ten children thing was ever going to happen, but she certainly had no objections to the trying.