“You know, it is only because I love you both that I agree to pull myself from bed at this ghastly hour.” Genya yawned as she settled into an overstuffed chair near the fire in Zoya’s receiving room. She looked as though she might fall asleep again right there.
Tolya filled the other chair, picking up the immense volume of poetry he had left on the side table for just such occasions. In times of peace, he had little to say at these meetings.
Tamar perched on the hearth, drawing one knee to her chin, and grinned at Genya. “Dawn’s a lucky time of day,” she said. “I’d say we’re destined to win.”
“If we were fighting a war, I might be inclined to celebrate,” Genya said flatly.
Adrik and Leoni took the settee, looking like a wet blanket and a firework, respectively. “I love these meetings,” said Leoni brightly. “They’re the only time I get to see all of you these days!”
“My love,” Adrik said, his voice glum, “you know no one likes a cheery morning person.”
Leoni chuckled, her laugh like a bubbling stream. “That’s why we invited you, dear,” she said, kissing him on the cheek. “You’re the cloud that covers the sun!”
“Right,” Nikolai said, smiling at their banter. He could sense Zoya growing impatient next to him. “Let’s get to business, shall we?”
“ Please ,” Zoya groaned. At least she was nothing like Leoni.
He took her hand to smooth her feathers, but she pulled away and scowled. “Genya,” he said, crossing one leg over the other, “what’s on the agenda today?”
She gave him a withering look and sighed, glancing at the schedule in her lap. “Tamar leaves in an hour to rendezvous with the Hringsa at the border—five new Grisha refugees coming over this week.”
Leoni nodded in satisfaction, having once worked with the Hringsa network of spies in Fjerda. Genya continued.
“Tolya’s on duty here this week, what with all the ambassadors arriving for treaty review, so he stays. Adrik and Leoni, you’ll give two presentations, one tomorrow and one at the end of the week—I assume your students are ready?” She paused, eyeing the couple.
Adrik sighed. “We’ve done our best,” he said bleakly.
“They’re perfect,” Leoni said with a radiant smile.
Genya gave one nod of her head. “Nikolai, you’re with ambassadors all week, obviously. Today, it’s the Kerch—Hiram Schenck, ever punctual.”
Zoya snorted into her tea. “That man won’t be punctual to his own death.” She looked up at Nikolai hopefully. “Unless of course you’d like to take him out for me.”
“I would, in fact,” he said. “But I think the Kerch would have some objections.”
“They must have someone at the ready,” Zoya said, dropping her chin into her hand. “Why Hiram Schenck is still representing is beyond me.”
“Which is, of course, why you send me to do the talking, while you…What is she up to today, Genya?”
The Tailor blinked as if to clear her vision, looking down at her paper. “Brunch with Novyi Zem, luncheon with the Wandering Isle, supper tonight with the Fjerdans—Nikolai, you’ll be there, too—oh, and tea this afternoon with a group of Suli entertainers we’re reviewing for the Winter Fete.” For the first time since she’d entered the room, Genya flashed a genuine smile. “I think you’ll like them.”
“The Ghafas?” Zoya asked.
A smile tugged the corner of Zoya’s lips. “I’ve worked with them before. Hopefully they haven’t lost their touch—I’ll be in need of something lively in the middle of all those politics.”
“Well, they’re known for the fact that they don’t use nets on the trapeze, so I doubt it will disappoint.”
“Might give you a heart attack,” Nikolai added cheerfully. “But at least you’ll be awake.”
Zoya shot him a look. “Anything else, Genya?”
Genya shook her head. “At some point, we need to go over plans for the Fete, but…”
“Not today,” Zoya declared, standing up to refill her cup at the samovar. “Too much to do already.”
“Agreed,” said Nikolai. “But pencil it in next week, Genya, we do want to hear what you’ve been up to.”
The Tailor smiled and made a note on her paper. “That’s it, then,” she said when she finished.
“Good,” Zoya breathed as she sat back down. “Nothing from me today, everyone go back to bed until breakfast.”
There was a collective sigh of relief and the team eagerly vacated the room. Nikolai and Zoya were left staring into the fire.
“We need to find another time for these meetings,” Zoya said wearily.
“There isn’t another time,” Nikolai answered, looking at her. “Flight practice tonight?”
Now she met his eyes, aghast. “With representatives here from every major country in the world? Have you lost your mind?”
“That’s up for debate,” he said with a wink and shrug. “But they won’t see. One lap around the lake is all it is.”
Zoya sighed. She could feel the dragon’s wings aching for a stretch; in fact, the itch was beginning to distract. “Fine,” she said. “One lap only.”
“That’s what I said, isn’t it?”
“I know you, Lantsov,” she said. “If I give you an inch, you’ll take the whole country away.”
“Now, now, Nazyalensky—let the record show that I have been quite generous with the country.”
“You mean giving it to me?” She got up and shrugged a prim shoulder. “That was common sense. Now are you coming to bed, or not?”
He followed her. “I was thinking,” he mused. “What if I take the girls?”
“To what?” She turned her back on him and slid out of her dress, throwing on a silk nightgown in its place. Zoya loathed to sleep in uncomfortable clothes.
“The meetings.” He shrugged out of his jacket and began to unbutton his shirt.
“With the ambassadors?” She turned toward him again, crossing her arms. “They’ll be frightfully bored.”
“No.” He shook his head, smiling. “They’ll be fascinated.”
She squinted at him. “I’m the queen, and I am never fascinated by that lot.”
“Fair point,” he said, “but you weren’t born knowing you’d need to be.”
Zoya arched one dark brow. “Very well,” she said, climbing into bed. He followed suit. “But I don’t want anyone getting ideas about an alliance. My daughters are not for sale.” She bared her teeth like an attack dog when she said this.
He put a hand on her cheek. “Zoya. I would never even think of it.”
“I know,” she said. “But Hiram Schenck would.”
The thought nauseated him. “Perhaps I’ll bring a shotgun to the meeting later.”
Zoya laughed, nestling against him. “Wouldn’t hurt,” she murmured, pulling a sleep mask over her eyes. “Goodnight.”
Within one minute, she was snoring lightly.
Nikolai smiled, tucking an arm around her. Sleep did not come for him. He lay there awake, turning over the particulars of a meeting with the Kerch. Relations with the Merchant Council were always tenuous, driven as they were by trade and, ultimately, greed. There was no such thing as a noble deal in Ketterdam. Negotiation with this particular country was an art form involving smooth words and copious amounts of fine wine.
Thankfully, he had an abundance of both.
Two hours later, he was fresh and fed, striding from the dining room to the study where his children would be hard at work. At least, he hoped they would be, though nothing was ever promised in that area.
The children’s quarters were a safe distance down the hall from his, where he could hear them only if they were at their maximum volume. When they’d been babies, they had slept first in Zoya’s chambers and then with a nursemaid nearby, but one by one they had graduated to this apartment. He and Zoya had agreed to keep the four of them together, believing it would help them to know they had allies within their own family. That plan had actually worked: The siblings were thick as thieves—and often three times as disruptive.
He arrived to find Tolya seated outside the apartment, the enormous volume from earlier in his hands. Of course, with him it looked like a normal-sized book.
Behind the door, Nikolai could hear screaming and what might have been the thumping of pillows.
“Good morning again, Tolya,” Nikolai said.
The big man looked up and stood to attention. “Good morning, moi tsar.”
“What are you doing out here?”
“Guarding the door,” Tolya answered. “From a safe distance.”
Nikolai raised a brow. “That bad?”
Tolya shrugged. “No one’s been hurt yet.”
“Yet.” Nikolai sighed and pushed open the door. He was greeted by a flurry of goose down that filled the air in such profusion it might have been snowing. At his entrance, his sons drew up short and blinked brown eyes at him. “Good morning, my hooligans,” he said with a smile. “Is this a study in the creation of weather patterns?”
“ Moi tsar! ” Nadia hurried from the study into the entryway, breezing the feathers into a neat pile as she went. “I can explain.”
He chuckled and shook his head. “No need, Nadia, I know what they’re like.” He eyed the little boys. “Giving your tutor a run for her money, are you? You know we’ve talked about this.”
Isaak hid behind Dominik, peeping out from his brother’s shoulders. “We made it snow,” Dominik mustered, looking slightly afraid.
“Yes, I can see that.” Nikolai bent close to them. “Now, the question is, can you make it spring?”
“Well, the feathers won’t melt, Papa…”
“Alas not,” he said. “But they will fit quite nicely back into those pillow cases.” He winked, and left the two of them looking between the empty linens and the downy pile.
In the study, he found his girls working a bit harder. Liliyana was at the window making real frost; it crept up in intricate patterns on the glass. He stood back so as not to break her concentration.
“Good,” said Nadia. “Remember, patience is key. You’ll shatter the glass if you go too fast.”
Lili’s brows creased into a deeper furrow, and for a moment, she was the exact image of Zoya in her younger years. She raised her fingers, pushing the frost over the top of the window frame and then sat back and sighed relief. “Can I do something bigger now?” she asked Nadia.
“I have an idea about that,” Nikolai said, stepping forward.
“Papa!” In an instant, Lili was in his arms.
He kissed her cheek. “Morning, chickadee.”
Lada remained seated at the table, the tip of her tongue poking between her lips as she puzzled through what looked like a complex equation. She appeared not to have noticed him.
“Hello, little one,” he said, coming to plant a kiss on her golden head.
She tilted her head back and gazed up at him, her blue eyes bright behind her spectacles. She was the only one of his children who took after him. A grin lit her face. “Hi, Papa.”
“What’s this?” He pointed to the page in front of her and she blushed.
“General relativity,” she said, as if he’d just caught her stealing dessert.
“Aha.” His second daughter’s intelligence was staggering. He was grateful for people like Nadia who were smart enough to keep up with her fast-moving brain. “Have you solved it yet?”
“No,” she said, scowling, but Nadia’s eyes sparkled.
“She’ll have it done by the end of the day,” she said. “She always does.”
Lada crossed her arms. “They keep getting harder.”
“Because you keep getting smarter!” He tousled her hair. “Nadia, how would you feel if I took your best pupils away for part of the day?”
“Do I get to practice outside?” Liliyana asked.
“Even more exciting than that,” he said.
“Are we going to Count Kirigan’s?” Lada guessed.
Liliyana frowned at her sister. “That is not more exciting.”
“More exciting than watching you show off.” Lada was also the only one of his children who was otkazat’sya, a fact which he knew she resented. By all accounts, it shouldn’t have happened that way, but Zoya’s genes were as strong as the rest of her, and Lada alone had evaded them.
He pulled out a chair and draped his arm over the back of Lada’s. Liliyana came to stand beside him. “You’re coming with me to meet the Kerch ambassador,” he said eagerly.
Both girls looked back at him in dismay.
“Okay, but after that, can I please go practice?” Lili pleaded.
“I think I’d rather stay here,” Lada said, pushing her glasses up her nose.
“Oh, come on, it’ll be a grand old time!” Nikolai squeezed them both in. “Hiram Schenck is quite funny.”
“Will we think he’s funny?” Lili asked suspiciously.
Before Nikolai could think of an answer, Tolya entered the apartment. “Is the coast clear?” he asked, ducking in and looking around.
“Tolya!” Nikolai untangled himself from the girls and stood. “I’m going to have you stay with the boys today.”
Tolya blinked. “Why me?”
“Because you’re the only one strong enough to keep them out of trouble,” Nikolai said quietly, putting his arm as best he could around Tolya’s shoulders.
The boys were now standing in the study, grinning up at the big man. “We have a new game for you, Tolya!” Dominik said.
“Does it involve felling a very large tree?” asked the soldier, rolling his eyes to the ceiling.
“No, that game’s boring,” Isaak said with disdain.
“It was highly entertaining last week,” Tolya replied.
“We have a better one,” continued Dominik. “This time, I’m Captain Ghafa, Isaak’s my first mate, and you are on a slaver’s ship we’re about to capture.”
“You made me a slaver?” Tolya looked aghast.
“No, silly,” Dominik said with a giggle. “You’re the mast.”
Tolya grumbled something indistinguishable, but Nikolai grinned. “Sounds like a marvelous adventure! I’m sorry I can’t join,” he said. “But I am taking your sisters on an adventure of their own.”
The girls groaned once again.
“Follow me, my loves,” he said, beckoning them toward the door. “You have no idea how much fun we’re about to have.”