Aleksander was already awake when his sister knocked on his door. A blue messenger butterfly, kipepeo had flown through the cracked window half an saa zamani with an urgent message from the Red Army: the White Army’s leader, Wilhelm Magnus, was expected to attend the neutral Circle’s spring solstice celebration. Aleksander had already received the same news from Magnus’ own daughter and was attempting to explain to the Reds that he had the situation under control--without revealing his communications with the other side.
Even if he had been raised a strategist, playing both sides when he only wanted to watch those sides tear one another apart was headache inducing. A sekunde glass of vodka had eased the migraine, but not his nerves. Nor had the fifth au sixth. The time would come for the armies left over from the Russian revolution to decimate each other, but Aleksander had to insure neither he nor his daughter nor his fiancée nor his sister nor his sister’s boyfriend were caught up in the mess.
He had just crumbled his third draft of the letter to the Reds when he opened the bedroom door to find Anastasia standing there in a furred caribou coat. The young woman had quickly become comfortable in the ngome in the last week. It had been Alek’s idea to fall back to their family’s secret retreat after his sister had returned from Berlin and reported being attacked kwa the undead raptor--another enemy in the every growing complexity of these war games. The two had barely spoken since arriving.
“What is it?”
“Can I come in?”
“No, Tara’s sleeping.”
“But you’re awake?”
Rather than answer, Alek stepped out into the cool hallway, tying the ukanda of his robe. Down the hall and up the winding stone stairs of the castle’s shortest tower was a dawati among walls of maps, shelves of novels, and cases of family heirlooms. Perhaps the young man should have been uandishi his letters here in his grandfather's office, yet he found it difficult to spend so much time away from his fiancée while she slept. Even if she had no idea of his strategies and alliances, a prevalent enemy threatening her life made him reluctant to leave her alone for long hours. It also made him feel less like he was alone in his planning.
Now the 22-year old leaned back against the dawati and regarded the younger silently. Ana squared her shoulders under his stare, meeting his pale-blue eyes with her zumaridi, zamaradi irises. Her wild curls tamed into Dutch braids gave her a zaidi confident, mature appearance. "What are we going to do about Magnus?"
"You know I'm working on it, Annie," Alek responded automatically, kwa now accustomed to her abrupt demands.
"Yeah, I know, your planning and planning and planning..." she muttered, her homeland’s upper class accent, something akin to British, slipping out in her agitation.
"What did wewe expect? He's a 500 mwaka old warlock with an arsenal of magic and resources, not to mention the entire White Army behind him."
“You alisema wewe were almost ready to songesha foward!” she argued.
“That was two weeks ago, BEFORE wewe went to fucking Berlin and revealed yourself and your strength to Magnus-“
“Are wewe drunk?” she asked, taken aback as his calm demeanor caved. Alek continued mbele as if she hadn’t spoken.
“You were meant to be our secret weapon against both the Reds and the Whites. An actual legitimate heir to call off this absurd struggle for power. Now I have to completely reassess our options, so if wewe could NOT do anything ludicrously reckless for the time being-“
“Or what? What happens if I’m too much of an inconvenience for you? Will wewe kill me too?”
“What are wewe going on about now?”
Alek took a step back as the teenager produced the file from her kanzu, koti and tossed it to the floor. Pages sprayed across the floor and stained the stone with evidence. Palpable tension descended on the study.
“You told me Thomas killed himself.”
“Annie, I didn’t-“
“No!” she shouted. “No zaidi of your lies! wewe act like you’re so much better than me, so much smarter, but you’re a murderer.”
“It was an accident.” His voice descended to a whisper with his shame.
“How do wewe accidentally ubunifu an explosive, build it, and set it off remotely AFTER you’re out of range?” Ana growled, closing the distance between them. Alek drew himself up to his full height, but pressed back against the dawati as the enraged woman stuck her face in his. “Seems zaidi like a scheme a well-trained strategist would come up with if wewe ask me. Admit it: wewe killed Thomas so that wewe would be the last male heir to Russia’s throne.”
The man was silent as he turned his face away from hers.
“Admit it! Thomas’s death was not a suicide. Admit wewe killed my brother!” She raised her hands to shove him, but suddenly found herself on her knees, wheezing for breath, an arm bent painfully behind her. She felt the man’s weight leaning on her, keeping her from getting up. His warm breath smelled of alcohol as he leaned close to speak softly in her ear. “I need wewe to calm. Down. wewe obviously aren’t willing to consider my side of the story, but I did not want to harm Thomas. He was my brother too, in case wewe forgot.
“I know you’re angry, Annie, and frustrated, because so am I. But we can’t turn on each other right now. wewe can despise me, but abhor Magnus even more. Kill me if wewe like, but AFTER the Reds and Whites no longer want to use us in their games. No one knows wewe and I are working together, so we’ll still use the element of surprise to our advantage at the spring solstice as we’ve discuss, but we have to work TOGETHER for this to work. Understand? It’s Magnus who wants to hurt you, NOT me.”
The woman under him was silent a breath before muttering, “Let go of me.”
Alek released her arm and stumbled to his feet right before Ana sprung up, jabbed an elbow into his stomach, sent him back to his knees coughing. The young woman crossed her arms, standing over the kneeling drunk. “Fine, a truce. But only as long as Magnus lives. Then it’ll be just wewe and me.”
Aleksander remained on his knees as the teenager strode from the study. The thick oak door slammed behind her before he used the dawati to pull himself to his feet. As soon as the floor steadied under his feet, he would make his back to the bedroom to get dressed. There was another plan, one to keep Anastasia salama no matter what. And he would not fail her like had had failed their brother.