A swing band crooned a muted waltz as the first guests wandered into the ballroom. From a curtained side room, Dima and Shvybs peeked out.
"Do you think I should've worn the peach dress?" Shvybs whispered, worrying at the velvet jacket cuff circling his wrist. Dima said nothing, staring hard at the door.
And then they came.
Chelyadin entered first, leading Valeriya by her gloved hand. Valeriya glided in, head bowed, elegant as always in a pastel green gown.
Dima jumped up and ran towards them, glowing. It made Shvybs smile, to see him happy this way. His arms wrapped around Valeriya's like a creeper up a tree. Valeriya hugged him tight, as if afraid to lose him too. Though her face was lit with a gentle smile to see her Dima, Valeriya was a shadow of the woman bursting with warmth and happiness in his photos. Shvyb's smile faltered. It wasn't enough. Chelyadin, Valeriya, Dima: loss haunted them all. Bringing them together just completed the rim around the hole in their souls.
Dima herded Valeriya away, detailing the birthday feast, and Chelyadin continued on to where Shvybs was approaching more sedately.
"Fondest Birthday wishes, your Imperial Highness," Chelyadin said with a bow, presenting her with a bouquet. Shvybs beamed and kissed his cheeks.
"Did you see what Chelyadin brought me?" she called to Alexei, who approached from the balcony. "I do declare he has the best blooms in all of Russia!"
Chelyadin bowed lower as Alexei drew nearer.
"Get up, get up," Alexei chuckled, clapping him on the back. "It's Shvybs' day today."
"And Dima's," Shvybs reminded him.
"And Dima's." Alexei rolled his eyes.
Dima ran over to them, dragging Valeriya behind him.
"You must be Valeriya," Shyvbs said, presenting her a flawlessly gloved hand to kiss. "Come and sit by me. Have you come all the way from Tsarskoye Selo?" She led Valeriya to a lounge on the far side of the champagne fountain, out of sight of the Tsar.
"Yes." Valeriya had a voice like a breath: hoarse, almost silent. She glanced back to the boy, but he was gazing at Chelyadin.
"It must be lovely in the country." Shvybs sat and summonsed a servant to get them drinks. "His Majesty keeps me imprisoned in the city constantly."
Too late she realised her mistake.
But Valeriya rallied. "I couldn't live in the city, anymore, I don't think. All that hustle-bustle." She gave a scattery laugh, her eyes darting away. "It gets on my nerves."
Shvybs patted her arm; Valeriya still stood as if waiting on her. "Well, our little garden is as far from the hustle-bustle as it's possible to get. You can't even hear the trams. Come sit by me and tell me of the delights of the countryside."
With a hesitant smile, Valeriya sat.
Dima ducked around the fountain and snuggled up beside her. Valeriya's arm snaked around his shoulders and gripped hard. A flare of jealousy burned across Shvybs' chest, but she doused it at once. The boy was her playmate, but these people were his family. The last he had left. Even Shvybs would not deny him that.
"Sir brought me a present." Dima clutched a box to his chest.
"Aren't you going to open it?"
Dima shook his head, staring at the filling ballroom.
Shvybs understood. He didn't want to stop wishing. His birthday with hadn't yet come true, and wouldn't fit into a box, no matter how fine. She didn't need to ask what he was wishing for. She knew the only thing he wanted to make his life complete.
From across the room, Alexei watched the boy pressed into Valeriya. He saw the strength with which she held onto him. Almost as if he was her son.
He cleared his throat and studied the polish of his boots. "Chelyadin, I think you should take Valeriya to Chelyabinsk. It will be more therapeutic for her there. Warmer, quieter… yes."
"Yes, Sire." There was gratitude in Chelyadin's voice, but indecision too. Hesitation. Alexei had learned to listen to silences, for they told him much of what people were afraid to tell him. Or ask of him.
"Take Dima too, of course. He is a menace without your guidance. Do you know I found him in the armoury the other day? He'd memorised the names of all the knights and was working out their family trees."
"Thank you, Sire." Chelyadin's voice held profound relief this time.
The Tsar bathed in the quiet glow of job well done.
Nora took in the scene before her and closed the door.
"Ah, the whore returned," Mogilev murmured, straightening, leaning back. He said it low enough that Nora could pretend she'd ignore it, but just loud enough to ensure that she'd hear.
"Get out." Nora brushed past him into the hall as if he didn't exist.
Mogilev rose, riled. "You can't order me out of my own house."
"It's not your house, it's the Tsar's," her voice came from the hall, "and he gave these particular rooms to me."
Affimiya scrubbed slowly so she could concentrate on listening.
"A short-lived error of judgement, I can assure you." Mogilev followed towards her voice like a rat to the Pied Piper.
Nora strode past with a bundle of ruched silk in her arms. She dumped the dress on her bed and bent to pull off her shoes. Mogilev gravitated closer.
"He'll tire of you, whore, and then what? You don't think I'll let you within a thousand versts of anywhere decent, do you?"
Nora's hands had meanwhile deftly unbuttoned her blouse. She slipped it from her shoulders as if she were quite alone. Mogilev watched, spellbound. Affimiya gave up her pretence of scrubbing and sat on her heels.
"Why don't we just wait and see? He hasn't tired of me yet. Quite the opposite, in fact."
She unpeeled her skirt from her petticoat and let it slip to the floor. The movement seemed to grab Mogilev's reply and snuff it.
Hands on her hips, in nothing but her underclothes, she turned to him. "Do you know, I think I do a better job of guarding him than you do. You're so often away. And I'm by his side twenty-four hours a day." She enunciated the numbers for emphasis. Mogilev was turning red. Affimiya ducked her head, damming the dread that he might take his anger out on her, later. As Gorodin had. Like husband, like master.
"Girl, see to the stays, would you?" Nora sighed.
Affimiya's head snapped up. Bewilderment rounded her eyes.
"Yes, you." Nora had pulled on the silk dress and held it ready for fastening. Her head tilted,,,, considering her reflection in the mirror. "Leave the floors, I scrubbed them last week."
Affimiya got to her feet. She caught Mogilev's acid glare as he marched out. She didn't care. She almost ran to get her hands on the silk.
Alexei stepped out a slow, careful square in perfect accompaniment to the orchestra. The young girl in his arms locked her gaze on his shoulder. Such large dark eyes, practically brimming over with terror. Alexei was almost amused that his nobles automatically equated his blood-stained disciplining of their numbers to an equal thirst for blood in the bedroom. No doubt they wondered which of their number he would take as his queen. No doubt the rumours flew as swiftly as swallows at sunset, darting all over their Palace nests.
The truth was almost unbearably barren in comparison. At least, it had been, until Nora had graced his sheets.
At last the swell and tip of the waltz's melody came to a close, and Alexei released the quivering girl into her father's care. She curtsied so deeply he found himself wondering mildly whether she was in fact staving off a faint. Though she – and all the nobles – were perfectly dressed, perfectly washed, perfectly groomed, and perfectly behaved, Alexei found himself unable to evince a spark of interest in them. In their similarity, they had paled into a blur of consistency that inclined precariously towards monotony. Even their names were just exhibit tags to him now.
Alexei strode around the room as slowly as was required to hide his limp. Bright, extravagant costumes surrounded him, reminding him of that Maslenitsa Ball a year ago. How different life was now. Firstly, he could walk with only a mild ache in his knee. And over there, Shvybs had accumulated a flock of entranced admirers. It was pleasing that she should at last be enjoying herself. If only he could say the same for himself.
He nodded at perfect faces and replied to perfect, unchanging phrases of welcome and adulation. They all left him cold, like lines parroted by puppets. It was dangerous, he knew, to lose sight of a people's humanity. History had taught him this indelibly. But his nobles showed no signs of rebellion. They were grateful for the chance to live in his little zoo, his captive breeding program. It was infinitely preferable to living in Stalin's gulags.
He came to a set of tall glossed sandalwood doors, and eased through. Two footmen closed them behind him as the Tsar made his way to his office. For all the intricacies of the gulag system, it had its weaknesses. When he'd enquired, Alexei had found he could not grant his sister's birthday wish. That damned boy had disappeared.
His pay had been sent to his allocated camp, and someone had been picking it up, but upon closer enquiry, this someone was not, in fact, Nikolai Chelyadin. The telegrams flying back and forth were full of vagaries and diversions. Tonight, Alexei wanted a final answer. He picked up his private phone and instructed the operator to connect him to the Chelyadin's boys regional Superintendant. The man could barely stammer out a greeting.
"The thing is, your Majesty," the superintendant finally managed. Alexei bet he felt the bite of the axe on his neck. "I cannot procure this soldier for you."
Alexei waited in a dark silence that was more powerful than words.
"It's just that, at least, if you take all the reports in toto, if you get my meaning, you see, your Majesty, but the thing is, well, the long and short of it is that, well, he died."
"Well if that's all it is, why couldn't you just come right out and say it!" Alexei hung up the phone in disgust. Petty bureaucrats trying to cover their arses infuriated him. So they had cheated the government of a soldier's pay for months. A trifling expense. It wasn't as if they had let him escape.
Alexei chewed on the edge of his lip. A strange absence of guilt filled him. He was disappointed, certainly, not to be able to grant Shvybs' birthday wish.
But that the boy had died undergoing his punishment, well, that was nothing more than the will of God. Alexei stretched back in his chair. He had made the right decision, not to send the boy to the Front. That would have felt too much like murder. This way was better. This was natural justice. God could have saved him from the fevers or the murderous convicts or whatever it was that had killed him. That he hadn't been saved was simply proof of his guilt.
The question was, whether to tell Chelyadin. He rubbed the swollen joints of his knuckles, trying to ease the constant ache. His frown deepened the lines creasing his face.
On balance, it was perhaps best not to tell them. Let them hold onto their hope. He stood slowly and made his way back towards the ball.
In a room adjoining the ballroom, the Tsar paused. The room was otherwise empty, its polished parquetry floor extending into shadows from the central light of the chandelier. Well, not quite empty. Bathed in the cone of the chandelier's glow, Nora awaited him.
Her beauty brought an instant, effortless smile to his lips. She had donned a new dress, red and black silk trimmed with precise black lace. It left her shoulders bare, hugged every curve of her abdomen and chest, yet still spoke of elegance and power more than lust. That was why he loved her. She could take a centuries old tradition and push its boundaries wide, transforming it into something fresh, new, but still unmistakably, recognisably Russian. It was just what his reign needed.
"Sire." She curtsied deeply, breaking their gaze. The orchestra struck up a fresh waltz past the closed doors behind them, and Alexei took her into his arms.
"You look stunning." He led her in a series a floating circles under the chandelier.
Her chin dipped modestly, but her smile was undeniably proud. "Thank you, Sire."
"You are a jewel too beautiful to waste on my eyes alone."
A flight of laughter fled her lips. "That's what comes of looking at the world through those sapphire eyes of yours. I assure you the gem quality is entirely yours, Sire."
"Nonsense. Don't contradict your Tsar." He swept her in an arc closer to the doors. "I looked at the assembly through there with the very same eyes, and not one moved me as much as the sight of you."
Nora's head tilted, exposing a length of luscious neck. "Alexei, hush."
But Alexei nodded to the footmen, and they opened the sandalwood doors wide. The Tsar swept his mistress into the swirl of society's ball.