For weeks, the siblings had gone over their plan again and again. Now, as Ana stood in the castello biblioteca leaning against her grandfather’s desk, staring at a geode emitting a holographic model of the room they were invading, she could have recited the plan herself. So she did.
“When I arrive, they’ll check me for weapons at the door, so—“
“You’ll have your Glock on te since the guards expect it, but you’re prepared to be weaponless anyway,” Ana interrupted. The hologram zoomed in to focus on the front door. Aleksander nodded and continued.
“I’ll go into the room alone, except for my plus one, though she’s really only there for my cover—“
“And you’ll actually be there alone, unarmed, to socialize and mostra yourself off as Prince Alexi Romanov’s heir.”
“All the while, I’ll—“
“Be spreading the truth, exposing Magnus as a rotten, conniving pig who’s been planning to use us against the Red Army and current government of Russia, all without telling his own people, the White Army.”
Aleksander’s jaw twitched with his annoyance. The hologram had focused on the opposite end of the room where Ana would enter. “Anything te missed?” he inquired cooly.
“Nope. Oh, wait, yeah: my only role in this is to mostra up at the end to look pretty and waive.” She huffed and swiped the hologram so that it spun in a wild whirl before resettling with an uncertain shimmer.
Aleksander slid the geode away from the fuming teen. “I know te aren’t used to fighting this way. te won’t get to use your claws tonight, but using your name and image will be much più effective. It’ll shock these people, so convinced that the Romanovs are merely a symbol of the White Army’s continued fight to rebirth the monarchy, to see the last legitimate heir disagreeing with their leader’s plans.” He came around from behind the scrivania, reception to stand beside her, the closest they had physically been since Ana had followed the man into their tomb. “Annie, te know exactly what happens if we don’t do this: Magnus will hunt us until the ends of the Earth and force te to help him mobilize the White Army and any doubters against the present government of Russia. We’re talking civil war. Millions could die, especially if Russia’s allies become involved and this war bleeds into other Eastern states. There are plenty of power-hungry people sick of democracy, sure they can run their countries better themselves, who will stand with the White Army if it means they get to be kings and queens of a new age.”
Anastasia stared down at her feet as the man spoke. It sounded far più heroic when the young man laid their mission out. In her own mind, it was far più terrifying to stand against someone who possibly held a weapon capable of turning them to breathing corpses for an eternity. “Fine,” she breathed finally, “But do I have to wear a dress?”
Aleksander stood up straight, crossing his arms with a confident smile that reminded her too much of their father.
Aleksander stepped through the shimmering white gate to enter the antique kitchen, thd cold of the mountain melting away to the warmth of the small house. A young woman was seated at the oak tavolo with straight dark hair cut to her chin and a white dress flowered da rosa roses. She jumped up when Aleksander exited the portal, but her expression suddenly changed from alert to exuberant when the short redhead stepped out beside him. Ana flinched at the squeal that escaped the brunette, then stiffened as she suddenly found herself trapped in a fierce embrace. The hug would have been a welcome surprise in the midst of a life-threatening ordeal if the teenager were accustomed to such attention. The other woman sensed her discomfort and jumped back with a grinning apology.
“Sorry, sorry, I got overexcited. I’m Octavia Rurik!” she thrust out a French manicured hand, barely containing the urge to hug the girl again.
“I know,” Ana replied, unable to contain a shy smile as she accepted the handshake. “I recognize te from pictures when te and Thomas were together during the war.” She noticed a twinge of pain in Octavia’s features, but the young warlock’s grin quickly reappeared. “Oh yes, I suppose it’s only pictures that te remember. te were just a tiny toddler when I last saw te back in ‘42. te had the cutest curls! What am I saying? You’re still so adorable! Do te have a boyfriend?”
“Tavvy,” Aleksander interrupted for his blushing sister’s sake, “I wish we had più time to catch up, but we really should start getting ready.”
“Right, sorry, I just never thought I’d see either of te ever again, and here te are. I wish my mom were here right now, but she’s getting ready at our family’s mansion to keep Papa occupied. But, all well, she’ll see te both at the party.” Since Aleksander would leave for the party first, Octavia quickly shooed the young man off to the one doccia in the house and sat Ana down to start choosing a palette for her make-up.
The red-head tried not to fidget too much as Octavia tested colored powders on the back of her freckled hand, eyes narrowed in concentration. It was odd to be sitting with the daughter of their greatest enemy. Even if the diviso, spalato between Katerina Rurik and Wilhelm Magnus, the former choosing to side against impending war and the latter choosing the head the White Army in her place, was as well known as their children picking sides between the two, Ana couldn’t help but wonder at Octavia choosing to betray her father's plot to her and her brother. Would she have been able to do the same if her father were still alive? She doubted it. Even if Alexie Romanov had been notorious for committing mass murder to eliminate a few enemies, Ana still wished più than anything that she had grown up under his care.
“Are te worried about Cal?”
Ana jerked from her thoughts at the question. She realized the other woman had been chatting relentlessly and was now staring at her with concern in her baby blue eyes. “He’s going to be okay, te know. He’s already back to eating solids, and quickly gaining the strength to walk quite a bit without any help.”
“That’s...good.” The memory of the young man laying prone as a corpse in a hospital letto weeks fa was still fresh. Ana ached to see him, to apologize for putting him through so much pain, but the news on his recovery would have to do. She would never again put him in danger. “You’re not angry with me for what happened...?”
“What? Of course not!” Octavia reassured, taking Ana’s hand in hers. “That wasn’t your fault. It’s not like te summoned those creatures.” Octavia’s forgiveness caught Ana da surprise, and she thought she understood why the witch was willing to help if Aleksander had downplayed his part in Thomas’ death as an accident. This stranger was meant to be a part of the Romanov family upon marrying the oldest male of the family, and it seemed with all her sisterly Amore that she had embraced Thomas’ siblings as her own family despite his death. Ana was prepared to ask Octavia about the topic when the the witch’s eyes suddenly widened. The girl turned to see what the brunette was watching over her shoulder.
A taller, broader, blonder, beardless version of Ana’s grandfather stood in the doorway. His traditional military uniform was solid black with a shimmering double row of golden buttons. The collare and cintura were decorated with soft golden leaves and vines, with sleeve cuffs of the same color. Black and gold: the Romanov family colors. The glittering pins on his chest likely represented his service in the secondo world war as a child soldier, but his slicked blonde hair and celebratory sword in its fondina gave him the appearance if a proud, well accomplished general. Octavia’s mesmerized expression gave Ana a sinking feeling in her stomach as she realized the older woman was probably paying too much attention to the justice the uniform did to her brother’s well cut figure and sharp jaw line.
“Did I leave my fly down?” Aleksander asked bashfully of their stares, glancing down at his clothes.
“No, you’re fine,” Ana answered for him. Octavia found her voice and quickly added, “You look great!”
“You have to say that,” he replied with a chuckle towards the oggling witch, “Since you’re the one who made the uniform.” Octavia only blushed at that and stood, straightening Aleksander’s collare as if it really needed it. Ana stayed where she was and watched them. If things had been different, it was Thomas’ uniform the brunette would be fussing over—not that her gentle brother could have had nearly the same deadly determination dominating his expression.
Octavia had seemed to finally decide Aleksander was wearing her masterpiece correctly when there was the honk of a horn from the driveway. “That’ll be my plus one, as patient as ever,” the young man concluded. “I’ll see te ladies later.” He moved to the door, but was stopped when his sister suddenly rushed over, nearly tackling him in a hug. Aleksander stood Frozen in surprise before smiling and ruffling the girl’s hair. She stepped back with a huff, her glare serious. “You better not die before I get there, because I can’t do this da myself.”
“I won’t leave te alone,” he promised, giving her shoulder a squeeze before stepping out of the house. Ana stood in the doorway, watching him climb into the dark limo. She wanted to believe that promise, but with his uniform accentuating their father’s dangerous charisma, she could never believe him.