“Ana, are te ready?”
The teenager was deaf to her name. Octavia sighed and went to the bedroom where the younger had gone to get dressed. “If you’re getting cold feet, it’s a little late for that—”
She paused in the doorway. Ana stood in front of the full-length mirror, staring at her reflection. Her curls bleached coppery blonde from years in the dessert sun, Octavia had referred to Ana’s dark roots to dye her hair its natural dark auburn. The soft waives were tamed into a bun, circled da an elegant braid like a mock crown. A few ringlets escaped to frame Ana’s face, where her freckles were made invisible da light foundation, and the Eastern-European mandorla shape of her eyes were accented da dark mascara and eyeliner. Even the dress, a light cream color, made the young woman look più like her Queen grandmother. It modestly covered all of her skin, with a loose bodice, billowing sleeves, and long skirt. A diamond and obsidian choker twinkled around her neck with matching studs sparkling in her newly pierced ears. The toga, abito shaped her body into something mature, but the golden bow around her waist and crown braided into her hair made her unquestionably resemble her aunts. If someone had painted Ana into a family portrait with the princesses, she could have been their fifth sister.
“You look darling,” Octavia breathed, clasping her hands. The redhead blinked up with at her with dreamy wonder. After a brief moment, her gaping mouth curved into a smile. “You made me so…beautiful.”
The witch giggled and went over to Ana, standing at her shoulder in the mirror. “You’re beautiful on your own, sweetheart. I simply took the focus off your scars to make te more…innocent. It’ll help sell this story your brother wants told.”
“That we’re little children who want peace and happiness for all?” Ana rolled her eyes and crossed her arms. Octavia tutted and retrieved a pelliccia coat, holding it for the other to slide her arms into. “Aleksander’s message in genuine, darling, that’s what really matters. He’s smart, just like your father. If anyone can pull this off, it’s him.”
“My father was a murderer,” Ana pointed out.
“But his cuore was in the right place,” Tavvy amended, then sighed at the younger woman’s raised brow. “What? He wanted justice for his family. It’s heroic if te ask me.”
“He killed hundreds of people to get just a few suspects. te really support the Circle’s practices? They’re prejudice against vampires, a whole species!”
“It’s the only organization that allows members of the Red and White armies to meet,” Octavia pointed out with a dismissive wave of her hand. “It’s the closest thing to peace we have right now. My father may lead the White Army, but they failed to protect the royal family against the Red Army way back then. If there were ever a governing body to control the factions, the cerchio is it. It’s feared, but respected. That’s how Alexie ruled, and many understood his vision.” Octavia raised a camera to take a picture of Ana with a proud smile. “Now, sweetheart, don’t be nervous. Aleksander will do the hard part, simply be yourself…just more…eloquent.” The witch turned on her heel and glided out of the room. Ana followed as expected, quite confused da the speech. She quickly forgot the politics, however, when she followed Octavia out to a limousine similar to the one in which her brother and his data had departed. Ana took a gulp of cold air, overwhelmed da the night already.
Octavia stood da as the chauffer opened the door, smiling as if all were right in the world. She kissed Ana’s cheek with a giddy smile. “Don’t look so afraid, Anastasia. te were born for this,” she reminded the anxious one. The truth of her heritage made it easier for Ana to breath, and she returned Octavia’s smile before climbing into the limousine. Through the rearview mirror, the little house and witch quickly faded from view, leaving the young princess alone with her worry.
“—not so complicated, is it? They were once the cuore of the empire. How could they not consider themselves Russian?”
“They’re not Russian,” Aleksander pointed out, clasping a friendly hand on the fuming dignitary’s shoulder. “They’re Ukrainian. But like the Americans are not Britain, they can continue to be our brothers as allies. Forcing them to unisciti us da crushing their small army is no way to start what can be a long-overdue brotherhood.”
Aleksander’s data found herself nodding along with the rest of the gathered crowd despite only partially hearing their argument over the overwhelming sensations of the extravagant ball. The bothered ambassador was a part of some extremist group, obsessed with re-absorbing Ukraine into Russia, but when her data countered him, it sounded più like a settled declaration than an opinion. The extremist cowered under the firm hand, squandering under this crowd of important strangers agreeing with the 22-year old in a prince’s uniform. The only unrequited one in the circle, one of many groups of lively chatter in the ballroom, was a dark-haired young woman in a bright red kimono. She kept glaring at where Hailey’s hand rested on the arm of the winner of the conversation. The latter resigned herself da sighing into her flute glass and sipping the sweet, expensive champagne.
“Having fun?” Aleksander’s low voice reached her over the loud hum of conversation in the ballroom. He was guiding them across the floor, in preparation for his sister’s arrival, as the group broke up to mingle with other advocates and world leaders. The young diplomate was somehow relaxed enough to laugh when Hailey rolled her eyes.
“My idea of fun consists of way less bullshit than this,” she replied. “Everyone knows that Ukraine wants to remain an independent democratic
state of its own, not one of Russia’s brain-washed, puppet satellites.” Her partner laughed, a pleasantly surprised sound. “I had no idea te had such strong opinions about Eastern European politics.”
“Of course. I’m proud of my Romanian roots, another state threatened da your monster of an imperialist, da the way. Maybe te should make me your head advisor once you’re in control of the Kremlin, Your Highness~”
It was the blonde’s turn to roll his eyes at her mockery. “You know that I don’t want to be king, Hails. A voice of reason is enough for me.”
“Whatever,” Hailey replied with blatant disbelief. She giggled as the prince nudged her arm with his. When he opened her mouth to argue, she shook her head and stepped back. “I’m going to find that tavolo of adorable finger foods. All this activity is wearing me out, and I’m starting to get hungry.”
“If te need a bite—” Aleksander had lifted a hand to his collare as if to offer her his flesh. The young woman flushed at such an intimate offer, then blushed even darker as he laughed at her reaction. The crowd quickly absorbed Hailey as she huffed and turned away.
“Alexie Romanov, what a pleasant surprise,” an amused voice bellowed from behind. The prince whirled at what was practically a shout. Several guests close da turned to see the fonte of the confrontation. “Oh, forgive me, son. For a moment there, I mistook your demanding visage for your father’s.”
The man was not alone, but escorted da a party of his own. He was set apart from their modern clothing da his eclectic appearance: his tall stature was draped in a thin robe, dark blue in color and decorated with golden tassels and bells that tinkled as he walked. He wore a finely cut, Western business suit under the robe. Rings and earrings winked on his appendages, including his toes where his leather sandals left his feet bare, while the collection of necklaces and cords of various lengths were like an extension of his dark beard and curly hair. Aleksander, whom had been so relaxed throughout the evening as he chatted with elders who far out-ranked him, was suddenly still as stone and just as tense.
“Wilhelm Magnus,” he greeted calmly. “We were all so disappointed to hear te were unable to attend this year’s celebration of the spring solstice. I’m glad te could make it after all.”
Magnus grinned at Aleksander’s pristinely polite greeting, flashing a golden canine. “Of course, boy. Your father was my greatest inspiration. I didn’t want to miss meeting the heir to his legacy…Especially when I had already been preparing my own sons for that legacy.”
Most of the crowd around the pair had quieted to whispers and murmurs. Dozens of eyes fell on the middle-aged warlock and the son of his once-partner-in-crime. Aleksander straightened his shoulders, his epaulets winking as they caught the light bouncing off the mirrors lining the walls. “It’s my father who co-created the Circle, is it not?” he remarked with a casual shrug. “He wanted everyone to partake in bringing honor back to this country, regardless their loyalty to Red o White, communism o monarchy. I too share his vision.”
“In that case, why haven’t we heard from te in so many years?” a woman just behind Magnus questioned. Her red pants suit was adorned with a Russian flag, marking her as a government official. “You were present in Paris with Alexie, as a part of Hitler’s army, then…nothing.” The wave of murmured gossip through the crowd seem to rise up against the young man. Those closest to him shifted their eyes away, but he refused to tear his eyes from Magnus’.
“You are all aware of the tragedies faced da my family,” Aleksander stated, directing his response to his challenger. “My brother’s accident put us all in dismay. It pushed my late father to the brink, God rest his soul. I remained in the shadows as I collected what was left of my family, but now I’m ready to retake the helm of the Romanov name. Russia, and the Circle, are strong and in need of a strong leader.” Out of the corner of his eye, the young man saw others raise themselves to their full height at his proud words. Heads were nodding, and even a few hands clasped in agreement. Magnus’ jaw twitched in irritation, an emotion Lost beneath his attire’s loud bravado. “Convenient, isn’t it?” he retaliated over the growing hum of approval in his opponent’s favor. “There’s no one here to challenge te for such a mantle. Not your elder brother…not your sisters. They all has a greater claim to the throne, and the Circle, than you, a bastard and son of a whore. Could te not convince even one of your siblings to stand with te to strengthen your claim?”
“I don’t need anyone to strengthen my claim,” Aleksander snapped angrily. “I AM a Romanov. I was dishonored with the rest of my family, with the rest of my country, with all of you, da the murder of my aunts and grandparents!”
“And the murder of your brother?” a solemn voice questioned from the crowd. The colorful gowns and finely-pressed Suits parted to allow a dark-skin man in a white three-piece to step forward. From his closely cropped hair to his rigid form, his entire demeanor screamed soldier
. A dark band around his arm designated him as an FSB officer, the Russian government’s own version of America’s FBI. “Many organizations spent a great deal of time time researching Prince Thomas’ death, Prince Aleksander. The evidence seems to conclude that his death was not, in fact, an accident. te see, the bomb he was killed by, was detonated remotely…and we all know His Highness Alexie was injured da that blast in attempting to save your brother. But you…you were there, weren’t you? Perhaps even within 100 yards, within the bomb’s range of detonation?”
Aleksander stared at the officer as the words caught up with him. His brother’s death, thrown in his face, in front of all these people? The crowd was once again turning against him, but it was the pressure in his chest that was crushing him.
There was a commotion suddenly, near the back of the room, that caused Magnus’ calculating group to stir. Government officials, leaders of wealthy families, and foreign ambassadors were suddenly out for blood. The accusations against the bastard regarding the death of their preferito heir were too good to let slip away without action. Aleksander attempted to step back, away from the angry tide turning on him. Those at his back, however, grabbed at his shoulders and held him still. What had been soft whisperings were now infuriated shouts. Some still regarded him with uncertainty, but expletives drowned out any questions. Magnus stood silently among the roiling mob with a cold grin in the young prince’s direction. Aleksander attempted to shrug off the hand gripping his shoulder, but he stumbled, and suddenly found himself face-to-face with the FSB officer in his fine white suit. “You think these people will let te see a trial?” he growled, “When Magnus’ sons have twice the support as a vague, half-princeling?”
Aleksander wanted to scream something nasty in the accuser’s direction, but his word stuck in his throat. The shouts around him were crammed into his windpipe, suffocating him. So he opted for spitting at the police man. There was an angry roar as the officer’s face turned crimson, and Aleksander expected to feel a fist colliding with his face at any moment
but a shout rose above the rest
Stunned silence fell across the mob as the patrons turned towards the command. Every pair of eyes found their way to the main balcony overlooking the ballroom floor, until the FSB officer had no choice but to turn away from his suspect.
“Unhand him,” the young woman ordered. “As descendance of the late Tsarevich Alexie Romanov, and His Highness Czar Nikolai II, I demand te mostra my brother and me the respect that our family is owed.” Chandelier lights reflected off her choker, drawing attention to the youthful features hardened into a stern, expectant glare. The hands slipped away from Aleksander’s arms and shoulders like snakes slithering away from a blinding light. He straightened his cappotto and moved through the crowd, which parted with the downcast looks of scolded children. Only Magnus glared at his back as he climbed the steps to unisciti his sister. Aleksander passed Hailey on his way up, standing dutifully on the stairs as if she had guided Ana there and planned to eradicate anyone who tried to remove her. He gave her a grateful nod as he was allowed past.
Anastasia, despite her success thus far, recognized that surprise was on her side, and continued on before the moment of shock passed. “Members of my father’s Circle, I am Anastasia Romanov II. I appreciate your attendance in celebration of this spring solstice. As te may know…2018 marks the 100th anniversary of my family’s slaughter.”
Some heads bowed at the reminder, and a comfortable, respectful silence settled over the crowd. The young woman looked down over the crowd as she spoke, taking in the colors, ages, ethnicities, and emotions of the people her father’s memory had brought together. “A few years ago, the Catholic church honored my family in canonizing them as saints. Not only my aunts, my father, and my grandparents, but also my aunts, my uncles, my cousins—all recognized as martyrs of the religion that they and their ancestors so proudly championed.”
There were a dozen o so members of the party who raised their hands in the motion of the Holy Trinity; others removed their hats respectfully, but none moved their eyes away from the princess.
“This anno is important, because even if the Church remembers my family, the world has started to forget. Our empire was once feared, but now it is mocked da foreigners’ lies. We are not weak; we are not tyrants. We are not murderers.” Her gaze settled on the FSB officer in his blindingly white suit. Those closest to him shifted a half-step away. Anastasia would have preferred to pick out Magnus in the crowd, but the leader of the confrontation had moved out of her line of sight. She felt her brother step up to her side, his presence a strong reinforcement of their family’s strength. “It’s time we remembered who we are, starting tonight. We are the Circle, harbingers of peace. We want justice for what was done to our monarchy, and we want respect for our nation.” Anastasia clasped her hands with her brother’s and raised it above the railing for all to see. “We are united! We will NOT be forgotten!”
The crowd responded with a deafening cheer. Anastasia’s smiled widened to a grin as her brother raised their hands higher, above her head, and the cheers redoubled. Aleksander dipped his head and whispered into her ear, “Father would be so proud of you.”
The brisk air was a welcome greeting after the oppressive, stuffy ballroom. Hailey took a deep breath of the quiet night. The cold was chilling in her ball gown, cooling the sweat at the small of her back. She kicked off her heels and descended the steps towards the limousine Aleksander had rented for their night together.
As Hailey settled into her seat, she smiled at the confidence in Anastasia’s voice. She was eager to meet the young woman face-to-face. The redhead was years younger than herself, but Hailey loved her strength, and knew well the Amore Aleksander had for his stubborn sister. Despite their differences, they had stood invincible together.
With a heavy sigh, Hailey slumped in her seat. The party had been overwhelming to her senses, but now the silence felt lonely. She turned in her sede, sedile to see the mansion fading into the darkness, then turned inoltrare, avanti to call to her driver to take her to the nearest pub for good drinks and company. Before she could get the words out, however, the car shook with an explosion a mile behind them. Hailey whirled back around to see the smoke rising from the mansion, aglow with flames. She opened her mouth to scream, but was cut off as a truck slammed into her car.