July 24th, 1923
C.C. bolted upright, eyes opening wide and gasping for breath with the same fervour as one who was drowning, finally getting to surface.
But she wasn't drowning – she wasn't even where she'd been only…moments?... ago! Her eyes darted around, taking in the too-small-yet-still-large space as her heart kept on racing. Her mind could only take in so much at once, and thoughts came out stunted in the panic. Decorated, not destroyed; dimly turned-down lamps, not raging hellfires; mirrors and paintings hanging from walls; plump, comfortable furniture; shelves stacked with well-worn books and clearly much-loved ornaments...
It looked…familiar, she thought. Incredibly familiar…
But how could it, when she didn't even know where "it" was? What even was this place, and how had she gotten there? The last she remembered, she was still in the ballroom! She'd just defeated Rasputin! They'd...they'd won.
Even thinking that brought up an awful doubt that made her slightly sick.
They had won, hadn't they? This wouldn't be happening to her if they hadn't, surely – Rasputin wouldn't have let her go somewhere so nice, so easily!
But...why would she be there if they had won?
It all nearly made her want to cry out loud in her distress – to her grandmother, to Niles, to anybody! She wasn't anywhere like she had been, and she had no idea how it had happened! This wasn't her grandmother's home – not in Paris, or anywhere else in the entire world! The ballroom was gone; the fighting, the destruction...the skeleton that had once been the man known as Rasputin, disintegrating before her eyes...
She shivered just thinking of it, automatically pulling up covers...covers?!
Her eyes dropped down from the room to her own current situation. She was in a bed, wearing a...a softer, more luxurious nightgown than she had ever worn before.
Since when had she been in a bed...?! Was she injured? She couldn't feel anything – she wasn't hurting anywhere, and there weren't any medicines or bandages on her bedside table. And whose bed was it, and whose nightgown, if nobody's that she knew? This couldn't all have been Irina's doing; the witch was powerful, but C.C. very much doubted that she'd be able to – or even want to – conjure up a whole house!
They'd obviously had outside help, in order to get her there. But who from? Who had gotten her there, to that room, and who had dressed her for bed? Who had, as an obvious extra, done her a perfect manicure that she was now using to dig into the nightdress?
How long had she been there...?!
How long had she been unconscious after the fight?
She had to snap herself out of the direction she was going – it was no time to panic! She was warm, safe, and not being attacked, so she was already better off than she had been. She just had to find somebody who knew where she was. If she was somewhere in particular, her grandmother had to be there too, didn't she? Her Grandmama wouldn't have gone off and left her somewhere, without telling her where that was or when she'd be back. Niles wouldn't have done it, either! Come to think of it, she was surprised that he wasn't in there, sleeping respectfully on the sofa, while Marie kept a chaperoning watch like a hawk on him...
Maybe...maybe one of them was outside? Waiting for her to get up?
There was only one way to find out…!
She swung her legs out of bed, feeling the cushioned mattress shifting underneath her as she planted her feet on the floor. The carpet was as plush and soft as the furniture looked, and it cushioned her feet as she padded around, first starting to look for clues to finding out her location.
She was drawn to the window with the thought of position tracking – it had to have an idea around it, didn't it? Any grand house like the one she was obviously in had to be in some big city! Perhaps she'd recognise it (from being there, or seeing pictures; whatever, as long as it was recognisable), or be able to peer out and see a road sign and read a name from that? It was a long shot, but it was worth a try.
Parting the not-completely-shut curtains and pulling back the netting, she peered out into the dark. It took her eyes only a moment to fully adjust, aided by the bright light of the lamps out on the...the square? Palace Square?
She blinked, stunned. Could that really possibly be Palace Square outside her window?! If it was, that could only mean she was back in St Petersburg!
But how on Earth could she possibly be back in St Petersburg?! She'd only been in Paris, what, hours ago? And there was no way she would've been able to sleep all the way there from France!
No, no, no – there had to be another explanation! One that wasn't as stupid or unbelievable as the one going around in her head! She had to check outside again. She'd...she'd probably just gotten confused, that was all. Taken too quick a glance and mixed up her former home with some other place –besides, her old city had never been as quiet or as peaceful as what she'd just seen outside! There were never as many lights on in the buildings, or an overall innate sense of calm. Instead, there had always been some shady deal going on, or a fight breaking out in a street, or a scream which may or may not have been ignored. This wasn't that place.
It couldn't have been.
She went back to the window, laughing at herself already for how ridiculous she was being. She knew that, when she'd gotten there and pulled back the curtain again, it had to be somewhere else. Somewhere that might've looked like St Petersburg at a glance, but was really another place entirely.
She had to hold back a yelp of surprise when she tugged back the curtains again, clamping her hand down over her mouth to make sure it didn't come out. Or, maybe not so much a "yelp" as a "shriek".
She cast her eyes out over the sight before her, again and again, thinking it had to fade out to another place, as though she were in a dream, or that the light would change and it would look different. But it didn't. It could only be Palace Square in front of her, the bricks of the pathways and the plaza stretching out in a deep grey sea that glimmered faintly underneath the streetlights, unchanging and unmoving. The Alexander Column cast a silhouette against them, one dark spot in the illuminated space, just as it had always done when she was little and had seen it from her bedroom window at night.
The General Staff Building greeted her from the other side, looming and bow-shaped and as vast as she remembered.
It...it really was St Petersburg, without any shadow of a doubt!
She knew the sight so well, it was clear to her – she couldn't be anywhere else! She supposed that having to take orders out on a bicycle in the early hours of the morning would do that to a person – it had helped her to learn every street and every sight, in every possible setting. Rain, snow, or sun, she would know where she was, and how to get where she needed to be.
But then...then that would mean that she was inside the Winter Palace, and that wasn't possible at all! How could it be, when the palace had been a ruin – an absolute wreck – for years?! She'd seen inside it herself, and there was no way anybody could've turned that damage around in, what, days? A week or so at the most? The place had been left derelict, and it would've taken magic or some kind of miracle to get it looking back the way it had been!
The way it used to be, when her family had lived there.
She turned away from the window, immediately coming face to face with a sight that nearly forced the scream out of her.
She wondered if Niles would've laughed, at the idea that she'd been spooked by her own reflection in a mirror. But she couldn't worry about that now. It didn't matter anyway, when she could look at the image in the glass and see...changes in herself that she hadn't noticed before. Had she been so caught up in where she was that she hadn't noticed them?
Since when had her hair been so long, for a start? Or her cheeks and...and yes, other parts of her body, been apparently so rounded, hearty and nourished? Granted, she was still thin, but she hadn't ever been thin like this – she had never eaten enough to fill her stomach every day once, let alone three times! She couldn't have gone from malnutrition to full health overnight!
"Apparently in perfect health" wasn't usually a good medical sign, in the St Petersburg she knew. It sometimes meant you were hiding something, or that you could be working harder, still...
Or, maybe, she was thinking in completely the wrong direction? After all, she'd heard nothing since she'd been in there – no footsteps or voices from other rooms. No noises outside, either; not even from animals!
Perhaps...perhaps that meant she was dead? It might've been bizarre to suggest and hurt to think about (Niles and her grandmother would both be devastated!), but it made at least a little bit of sense in her mind – she'd somehow died after battling Rasputin and now she was in the afterlife. the revolution had taken everything from her, so to reward her for giving her life up when saving the world from Rasputin, God and the universe had put her back there.
Back where it had all begun...
The words "quite literally" came to mind as she turned to her bed, but she didn't fully understand until she had stared at it for some time. And it made her want to drop her jaw again.
It was no wonder she'd thought the room was familiar, before. This...this wasn't just any bed they'd put her in, in the Winter Palace. This was the room that her mother had always told her would be for Noel's wife, whenever he got married! She'd come through there all the time when she was little, with her sisters – whenever they had been charging along on the way to get Noel to play with them…!
But…but it hadn't ever looked this…lived in. Especially not by her, and it had to be lived in by her – the stuff she could see around the place was all hers. The old pictures on the walls were all her favourites that she'd asked for as a child (her father had let her have her pick). The books on the shelves were ones she'd thumbed through until the pages were nearly worn thin, from classics to contemporary pieces (her mother had gotten so exasperated when she'd dog-eared them!). Her embroidery box and supplies lay, lid askew and work half-finished, on the table set in front of the sofa…
So…was it her room, now? Who else could it belong to, if all her possessions had been moved into there? It wouldn't make any sense for…for whoever had set her up in there to take all the pictures off the wall and replace them specifically with the ones she had liked the most when she'd been twelve! But why had that person put her in there? She had her own room – well, not her own room, she'd had to share one with her sister, Maria (their older sisters Olga and Tatiana had shared a room, too), but that wasn't really the point! It had been a perfectly good room and it would most likely continue to be so, if it was in as good a condition as the rest of the place seemed to be!
Did this have something to do with her being dead? Was it kind of a…an upgrade from the cosmos, given to her as a heavenly reward? A peaceful, final rest after so much chaos and suffering (even though hardly any of it had really been her own)?
Even if it was, it didn't entirely matter right at that moment. C.C. just couldn't understand it! If she was dead, how had it happened? She'd been fine when Rasputin had died – she'd have noticed if there were, say, a huge chunk of ceiling caving her skull in, or something! She couldn't have died – she would have felt it! Wouldn't she? She wasn't familiar with the process...
Either way, her mind screamed questions. What had happened, once she'd collapsed in the ballroom? Were the others okay? Was she back in her childhood home – back in the "life" of a princess – for a reason, rather than watching over Niles as he lived a full life on Earth without her...?
She didn't know. How could she know, she didn't even know if she was alive or dead, for crying out loud! She had to find someone who would know!
And that meant getting out of there, right away!
Grabbing a sumptuous robe from a hook on a nearby wardrobe and shoving her feet into a pair of slippers she found down by her bed, the (former?) Grand Duchess threw open the door into the next room, marching out to head for the corridor and in search of her answers.
Every room she passed came back to her in a flash as she hurried, picking up her nightdress out of the way so she could move faster. It felt…almost like being a child again, watching the gorgeously patterned walls and vibrant-patterned rugs and carpets rushing past, picking up the pace at certain points. When she saw certain features, particularly. It felt like muscle memory, knowing where to go without even thinking about it. Slowing down and chuckling at the large porcelain vase her grandmother had once been gifted, but had always secretly hated. Passing by the painting of her father on the wall and trying not to tear up, or let the pain overtake her…
This was it. This was the Winter Palace – there was no room left for any kind of doubt in her mind that she was anywhere, apart from home.
The thought made her skid to a halt (something else she'd done plenty of times in childhood, too). The painting, as much as it had hurt to look at, had gotten her thinking. If…if she was home – the first home she had ever had – and there was real a chance that she was dead, then...shouldn't her parents have been there as well? Even if Niles was still on Earth, her parents were still…gone. They had been for many years, and would've been watching over her the whole time! Her brother and sisters, too – they should all be there, if she really was dead!
She could shout for them, if she was right! From where she was, they would have to hear her. And her parents being who they were, they would obviously come running – they'd want to hold her in their arms, after they'd been apart for so long…
Perhaps, if this really was what she thought it might be, they had been the ones to receive her, when she'd entered Heaven? Maybe everyone arrived asleep or something, so they'd dressed her for bed and tucked her in for the night?
They always used to. Back when...when everybody had been together before.
She wanted even more to be in their arms, just thinking about it. She wanted to be held by them again and know it, like when she was a little girl. And, if she was correct, then she would be. But she had to find out first, and seeing as it was the middle of the night, there was one quick (if slightly unorthodox) way to do that.
So, taking a deep breath in, she took off down the corridor in the direction of her parents' bedroom, all the while calling and shouting out to them. It would be a journey (one end of the palace to the other!), but it would be worth it for the results.
"Mama! Papa?! Hello, is anybody there...?!"
Her voice and footsteps reverberated off the walls, louder and more urgent every time. If they were there, they had to hear that, didn't they? Or, they would have to hear it, the closer she got...!
"Mama! Papa! It's me, it's Chastity-Claire! I'm here!"
She tried hard not to let it creep into her head, what she would really be doing if she was wrong. If she wasn't dead, and her parents weren't there to open their door and take her into their arms, in the reunion she'd waited for since losing them. The feeling settled in her stomach instead, refusing to budge given that it knew the odds.
This was only a test. A guess, at the most – she had no real proof of anything! But she ran, nevertheless, narrowly avoiding crashing into centuries-old furniture and just missing priceless statues, plates and vases as she went.
She ran on, nearing their rooms with every footfall – she was almost there, she knew it! She hadn't been there in so many years, but she'd recognised the way after what might as well have been an entire lifetime!
"Mama, I'm here! Can you hear me?! Papa! It's me! I'm home!"
She stopped and listened, hoping that someone might call back to her. No one did, though; the only words she heard then were her own as they faintly reverberated off the walls.
But even as they died away, she could still hear something. A faint tapping or patting, rhythmically repeating itself as it got louder, echoing a little in the corridor. Closer – it was coming closer?
She nearly wanted to kick herself as the penny dropped and she realised what she was hearing were simple footsteps. And the longer she listened, the more she realised exactly where they were coming from, too.
That place seemed to be a...a stairway, over to one side of the rooms...? Had one of her parents really needed to go downstairs for something, at this time of night?
The familiar voice calling out caught her off-guard, startling her and making her gasp. Her head snapped in the direction it had come, and her eyes were immediately rewarded with the sight of a very confused-looking Niles making his way up the last of the stairs. He was...skinnier than she remembered (even though, again, it had only been hours!), and he was wearing pyjamas that looked like they had been put through so many hard washes that the person's hands had taken all the colour and softness out.
But it was definitely him – she'd know her love anywhere, even with the changes! And, if he was there, then that meant her theory was wrong. Her parents couldn't be waiting, and she couldn't be dead...
The gut feeling had a smug self-satisfaction to it that would've made her feel like kicking herself, had she not immediately replaced it with relief at the sight of her love. Niles really was there! Even if she wasn't dead, she wasn't alone – she had him, and it warmed her from the heart-outwards to know they could be together, even if it was only the two of them. He hadn't left her there all by herself, and he'd be able to tell her exactly what was going on in this place!
But the explanations could wait a few moments. He'd just made it to the top of the stairs, and he'd already taken off running in Her direction!
She set off running towards him as well, arms extended and eyes brimming with tears. She still had no idea what was going on, where she was, or what had happened to her grandmother and Irina, but with Niles around, her fears didn't feel quite as overwhelming. He was the rock in the middle of a raging ocean, and she wanted nothing more than to hold onto him and never let him go. He was the only thing that made sense, presently, and if someone could give her answers, it would be him. And even if he couldn't, she'd much rather be scared and lost together than on her own.
She had a hunch the feeling was mutual – Niles picking her up in his arms as soon as she was within arm's reach certainly seemed to suggest that. So did the wonderful kiss he pressed to her lips, which she welcomed eagerly and happily.
She was there, and so was he. This, whatever it was – nightmare or dream come true (heavily looking like the latter) – was real. And it was theirs, to share together.
But now, they had to find out just exactly what was going on! So, reluctantly pulling away, she managed to get out the questions she'd nearly tossed out the window the moment she'd seen him.
"What are you doing here? What are we doing here...?!"
Niles thought he could've made a joke about that, saying that he thought they'd been kissing just now. But he thought better of it; as overjoyed as he was to be there with her, he didn't think it appropriate with such a huge question in mind.
He was as stumped by it all as she apparently was – what had happened?! The last thing he remembered clearly was seeing the Dowager Empress faint, back in the ballroom in Paris! That had happened just after Claire herself had...had passed out? Had they all passed out?! He'd certainly felt woozy before everything had turned black, and he'd woken up as he was, in his own former bedroom in the servants' quarters at the Winter Palace!
But he couldn't say for sure what any of it meant, or why. He had, partially, been hoping that C.C. might have an idea of what was going on, if he could find her. But that had been a hope easily dashed; he had only been going on the logic that, wherever they were and whatever had happened, she'd arrived before him. She'd had a head start, which was better than nothing.
Not that it had been any use! Neither of them had been given so much as a clue, clearly!
He was just sorry he didn't have an answer for his C.C. – she'd had a confusing enough time as it was, over the past few years! To have this happen, too...
"I don't know; I was hoping you might be able to answer that," he told her, setting her back on her feet but keeping his arms around her, not wanting to let go for a second. "Last thing I remember was Paris, and then all of a sudden, I'm waking up in a bed I haven't slept in in nearly ten years!"
"Me too!" C.C. cried out. "I mean...sorta – I woke up in the room that's supposed to belong to the Tsesarevna rather than my own. I...I don't really understand what's happening! How did we get back to Russia?! If this even is Russia – it can't be, if we are back at a seemingly perfectly functional Winter Palace!"
Niles' mouth opened and closed uselessly. He didn't know what to say – what could he say anyway? He was just as confused as she was, there was no one in sight who could explain what was going on to them, and quite honestly the only thing he was (still) thinking about was kissing her silly.
"I don't know what to tell you," Niles said, "I...I fainted, right after I saw you and your grandmother collapse—"
"So we didn't die?!" C.C. cut him off, eyes widening. "We...uh...nothing hit us or hurt us?"
"Not really – you just... collapsed, as did your grandmother and myself," he said, nuzzling the top of her head with his cheek. "I couldn't do anything, and Irina—"
"Irina!" C.C. gasped, suddenly remembering the witch and how she'd been their eleventh hour salvation. "She was there too – did you see what happened to her?"
Niles shook his head. The last thing he remembered was the witch screaming at him that everything would be alright, but he had no clue what had happened to her after he'd blacked out.
"She...she said something about things going to be alright, but I don't know if she fainted too," Niles explained.
"Then we need to find her!" C.C. said, pulling away a little to look at him in the eye, but never leaving his embrace. "If there's someone who can help us make sense of what's happened, it's her!"
"You're right – she will know what's going on," he said, smiling — Claire really was a genius! "We just have to find her."
C.C. nodded, beginning to smile as well. Getting Niles back had been a wonderful surprise, but the prospect of getting actual answers to their questions was like the cherry on top!
The witch shouldn't be hard to find anyway – if she and Niles had gone back to their old homes, it only made sense for Irina to be back at her bakery! It was only a matter of getting there, and luckily for them it was only a train ride away!
Witch or not, Irina had made the bakery her home (although now her extraordinary success and unusually delectable goodies made a little more sense), so it was only logical for her to be there. They had too many things to talk about, really, so the faster they got moving, the better.
C.C. pulled away from Niles, clutched at his hand and started marching back to her room, trying to pull him along.
"Then let's get dressed – I know just where to find her! She will be—"
She was cut off with a light "Oof!" when she felt herself being pulled back in to Niles' chest. And when she looked up at him, he was staring down at her with an expression C.C. wasn't quite sure she understood.
What was he doing? They needed to go see Irina, as soon as possible! It had to nearly be light enough to go out, didn't it? And he did want to find out what was going on, as soon as possible...!
"What's this for?" she indicated to the lack of space between them. "We need to get to Irina...!"
Niles shook his head a little, an adoring smile forming on his lips.
"We can do that in a while. She won't be going anywhere."
C.C. blinked, "But don't you want to know sooner, rather than lat ––"
Niles pressed one finger gently down on her lips, cutting her off for the second time. And when he spoke, the words were tender, but completely serious.
"I've waited my whole life to be here, with you, like this. I think fate can spare a few more minutes before it goes on."
C.C. couldn't help the whimper that left her throat, nor the feeling of her entire body melting under his touch and loving gaze. She'd never felt more safe and secure, but also never so...loved? Wanted? She knew about her own desires, of course, but she hadn't ever felt before what it was like when someone else wanted her, in exactly the same way...
She didn't get a chance to express this. But she didn't have to, and didn't care to. The moment Niles slipped his finger away, replacing it by cupping her cheek, their lips met again and melted into one another. She sighed, half-groaning, into his touch as his arms slipped around her lower back and hers settled comfortably around his neck. She let her mouth open a little so his tongue could slide in and start to explore and taste, moaning softly and wishing that they could––
"In the name of God, what on Earth is going on here?!"
The shout came like a blast, forcing them apart almost as violently as the explosion of the reliquary. As they sprang apart and their eyes snapped in the direction of the sound, they quickly spotted the source: a small, balding, red-faced man (though it was up for debate if his face was always that red, or if he was just angry), coming up the stairs. C.C. recognised him almost immediately – it was as though the very memory of him as a person had come straight back into her mind, just from hearing him shout and seeing his face once.
It was the household butler, Kuznetsov. The man she'd often driven mad with her games and pranks around the palace! She, Niles and her sisters had all done it – the man was too much of a prime target not to try hitting it! They'd hidden items he'd needed to complete his daily workload, locked him in rooms (never for too long, though) and used every available opportunity his back was turned to raid the palace's extensive pantries.
Right then, as it came back to her, she knew she'd never forget the look on his face when he'd walked in on them all, having been "held up" looking for the polishing kit for the silver, only to find them all using the forks to dig into the chocolate cake that had been destined for the dinner table that night...!
And, had she been in his mind, she would have known just how much trouble this particular moment was going to bring, as well. He was fuming – how dare that...that insolent cad of a boy take it upon himself to...to take Her Imperial Highness?! What the hell did he think he was playing at, other than trying to ruin the last unmarried Romanov daughter?!
Did he not care about the family's honour?!
Clearly not, if he was about to put the horrid thing between his legs before the dignity and respect he should be showing to a princess of the royal line! He'd see that bounder ruined himself, for this! He'd kick him into the street with his own boot, with even less to his disgraced name than he had now!
"You!" the butler snarled, jabbing the air at the boy with one finger and marching towards him at great speed. "What do you think you are doing, putting your filthy hands all over Her Imperial Highness?!"
The insolent little weasel – infuriatingly – didn't seem to take much notice at that. In fact, after exchanging an odd look with Her Imperial Highness, the smug bastard had the gall to turn and actually smile back at him!
"Well, I was actually seeing where Her Imperial Highness enjoys my "filthy hands" best," he replied brightly, never once letting go of the princess.
That did it for the butler. How dare this...this utter degenerate treat this as nothing but a joke?! How the hell did he think this was funny, or something to be treated as bawdy humour?! The little cretin didn't deserve so much as to be in the same room as Her Imperial Highness, let alone...let alone...!
He couldn't even think such disgusting words! The rage was building so much, all he could do was leap forward to grab the cad by his arm, ripping him away from the princess before she was fouled any further by the pervert who had his arms around her like an octopus!
"You disgusting little whelp!" he screamed, dragging him away. "You will be out of this palace before the morning light comes in through those windows!"
He intended to take him all the way downstairs, where he was then going to throw the boy back into his room. The butler would watch him pack his meagre belongings from the doorway, before he slung him out into the street without so much as a word for a reference. He was going to enjoy every minute of it, too. The boy was an embarrassment and a disgusting cad, and he had no business appearing anywhere in polite society after this – not even to serve it! And he had the nerve to protest and struggle against his completely justified hold, even as he was being led away by his employer!
He seemed to be trying to reach out for the princess, pushing back even as the butler heaved him away again.
"Why are you saying that...?! What am I to you, that means you want me out of here?!" the boy cried. "Let go of me!"
"Don't you dare talk to me like that! You know perfectly well that this cannot go on!" the butler snapped back. "You should just count yourself lucky I'm not calling the guards and having you arrested for treason!"
"Who's not being arrested for treason? And why are you manhandling Prince Romanowsky, Kuznetsov?"
C.C., who had been caught up in the terror and confusion only moments before, gasped aloud at the sudden voice and turned, only to see that her parents' bedroom door had been opened.
And there, right in front of her eyes again, after so many years, were her parents. They looked older, dishevelled from interrupted sleep and had obviously hastily thrown on dressing gowns, but they were just the same, even still. Her father was already busy directing a stern brow and practically all his attention at Niles and the butler, clearly ready for some sort of fight (though C.C. wasn't sure what kind). Her mother, on the other hand, had turned straight towards her, and seemed to be overwhelmed, almost like she was trying hard not to cry.
They were alive...they all were...!
At least, they all seemed alive – she still couldn't be certain. She hadn't even entirely ruled out the possibility that she, Niles and her grandmother had all perished in the ballroom in Paris!
They weren't gone, at least. They were there, right in front of her, and she felt a surging in her chest that made her eyes well up, until she was almost crying in an instant. It was them, alive or not, after the terrible night that had ripped them from her, and so many years of thinking she would never see them, ever again!
Both looking so much like the night of the Revolution had never even happened, and they'd been allowed to age in peace...
But it didn't matter whether the Revolution had happened or not. Not anymore, at least. Whether her parents were alive or they were all dead, it no longer had any meaning. All that mattered was that they were back together again, and that none of them were ever going away again.
"Your Majesties!" said the butler, who'd also noticed the arrival of the two monarchs. "I caught this cad red-handed!"
He shoved Niles in their direction, smiling smugly and looking a lot like a cat who'd just gotten. C.C. didn't like it one bit – it implied he knew something bad could happen to Niles simply for having kissed her, which was exactly the last thing she needed after everything that had happened that night.
"I did nothing wrong!" Niles snapped back, picking himself up and dusting himself off. "You were the one who––"
"Oh, for Heaven's sake! I saw it with my own two eyes – you… you were…" the butler frowned, suddenly at loss for words as he gesticulated rather comically between Niles and Claire, clearly trying to reproduce the "vile" act he'd witnessed without actually doing so, lest he was deemed crass and disrespectful!
"He was what, Kuznetsov?! Speak!" Stewart barked, clearly growing impatient. "What happened here?"
Perhaps it was the Tsar's commanding tone or the knowledge that, if he didn't speak soon, then he himself could face dire consequences, but the butler soon had gathered her thoughts and, after shooting a dirty look in Niles' direction, he finally spoke.
"This cad was…fraternising… with Her Imperial Highness, Your Majesties," said Kustnetzov. "I heard a ruckus coming from up here so I decided to investigate. To my horror, the moment I got here I saw that this…this man, if he can be called that way, was…all over Her Imperial Highness – I was about to kick him to the curb when Your Majesties arrived!"
Niles felt his stomach sinking, even as the Tsar looked at him. Stared down was more like it, making him feel like he was shrinking the longer he held his gaze. Tsar Stewart was angry – no, furious, underneath a calm exterior.
He...well, wherever they were, it was clearly somewhere that the Tsar could have a say in the man his daughter...saw. And he obviously didn't want some lowly, pathetic, unworthy exile of a noble anywhere near her...
And it was like waiting for a bomb to explode. It would go off the moment he'd told him what had happened. The truth. Because that was what he had to do, wasn't it? There was no sense in lying – not when Kuznetsov had seen them! There was nothing the Tsar would believe the boy who'd been caught with his daughter over; not when the trusted family butler had witnessed it all.
But...but maybe he could try and explain himself? He had that right, didn't he? To say that he had meant no harm, and had simply been happy to see the woman he loved? All while probably leaving the word "love" out of it, in case that made things worse for C.C...
He couldn't keep on thinking about it, though. The longer he stood there, not saying anything, the worse it would be for him, most likely.
"Y-Yes, Your Imperial Majesty. I was here, with your daughter, and we were...kissing," he began, trying not to visibly gulp. "But I––"
"Niles, please," C.C. immediately cut him off, grabbing for his hand. "You don't have to defend yourself! We didn't do anything wrong!"
She didn't know who the butler thought he was, deciding what she could or couldn't do! If they were all dead, it didn't matter who she loved, or how she showed that she loved them. And if they were alive, then something very strange was going on, which should honestly be a bigger problem than her kissing Niles in the middle of the corridor. She was certain that Irina could explain everything, if they could get out of there to just go and ask!
She was about to step up and protest further, when her father raised a calming-but-ultimately-silencing hand. It reminded her of being a child again – it was something he'd done whenever he'd wanted her or her siblings to stop squabbling over trivial matters, so he could get to the bottom of his own investigation.
"He kissed you, and you were accepting of this?" he asked her.
More than accepting, part of her mind wanted to practically gush in Niles' defence. But then she remembered that her mother was right there in front of her, and probably wouldn't take kindly to hearing about her daughter's...enthusiasm.
Instead, she just nodded, "Yes, Father."
Stewart appeared to consider this. Whether he considered it in a positive or negative light, however, was harder to tell.
"And he was respectful of you, and your wishes, the entire time?"
That time, C.C. couldn't help but let it all come out.
"Completely! He never did anything that I didn't agree to! I was kissing him just as much as he was kissing me, and everything was just fine! Niles would never hurt me…!"
The Tsar's mouth moved from side to side, as though he were chewing something slightly bitter and unpleasant while he mulled everything over. Both the young couple held their breath before he spoke.
"Alright," he turned from them, to face Kuznetsov directly. "Her Imperial Highness has made her position clear; everything that happened here tonight was completely honourable – far more honourable, I'd imagine, than your attempts to get this man into trouble. As such, and with no small warning attached, I say that you are to leave them alone if you see the two of them together in the future. Is that clear, Kuznetsov?"
As utterly uncouth as it was, Kuznetsov let his jaw drop.
Was...was the Tsar really letting the boy get away with this?! Giving him free permission to... to be with Her Imperial Highness?! Not even expecting him to do the honourable thing and propose?!
Not that the Grand Duchess marrying Prince Romanowsky would be a cause for celebration – Kuznetsov knew full well that that boy was not fit marriage material in the first place, and Her Imperial Highness would already have to be destined for a life by the side of a duke or prince from one of Europe's great royal houses! It was tradition!
And it wasn't tradition to let the future bride be tested or tried out, like a bowl of grapes just anybody could pick from!
He was utterly indignant at the fact that no one seemed to recognise that, apart from him! He'd just saved Her Royal Highness from ruin (perhaps – how long had this been going on?), at the hands of this shame on the nobility, and the Tsar wasn't even on his side over the matter?!
Truth be told, Niles and C.C. were both as surprised as the butler was, and their eyes widened even if they managed to hang on to their jaws. They...they almost couldn't understand it! What had just happened in those moments?! What had changed?! Her father had seemed so geared up to shout at them; to scream and rave and rant, before finally allowing Kuznetsov to throw Niles out of the palace!
But now...now, he seemed to look as though he'd happily throw Kuznetsov out – and he wouldn't necessarily be kind by letting the action move downstairs first! Or by opening the window beforehand! The butler recognised this look, too. Not that he understood why he was getting it in the first place! He hadn't done anything wrong – he had been stopping a wrong from being committed on Her Imperial Highness!
In his eyes, this was the height of injustice! A travesty, and a crime! He had done nothing to warrant this sort of treatment, and he needed to demand that he be allowed to defend his actions! They had been nothing but noble, unlike the filth the Tsar had sided with!
Unfortunately, his indignation was an unstoppable force met by the immovable object of his complete and utter kowtowing cowardice, when it came to his monarch. He wrestled with it in his mind, protesting and shutting up vying for control, until his words fell out in a jumbled mess.
"B-But! But, but I saved...I saved Her Imperial Highness! From becoming some...some dirty-blooded cad's––"
The rest of his argument went unheard, drowned out by a loud, piercing cry of surprise, followed by a mysterious crumpling thud from the doorway, and a near-cried gasp from B.B., when all eyes snapped to see what had happened.
C.C. nearly joined her mother in gasping. It was her grandmother that had just come in, collapsed on the floor in a heap! There was only one thing she could've fainted over, too, C.C. thought to herself. Marie had to have seen that C.C.'s parents were there, up and about as though nothing had ever happened – it had to be that, didn't it? Who wouldn't faint dead away, entering a room to find the son and daughter-in-law you lost nearly ten years ago were back up, walking and talking, acting like everything was fine?!
She didn't know if it was the comments the butler had almost made, or the stress of his mother falling, but Stewart glared at the man.
"You did nothing but bring embarrassment on yourself. Consider yourself lucky I'm not turning it into more than humiliation!" he gestured to his mother, hurrying to her as quickly as he could. "Now, do something useful for once this night and help me bring my mother somewhere she can recover!"
Kuznetsov's mouth opened and closed uselessly a few times, part of his brain still not comprehending his master's anger towards him rather than towards the disgusting cad that had been about to shame the entire Romanov family, but another bigger, smarter and more dutiful part of his brain compelled him to quickly comply with the Tsar's orders. There was no telling what could happen to him otherwise…
He rushed to Marie's side in silence, and together he and Stewart picked the old woman up.
"Let's take her to mine and Her Majesty's bedroom," Stewart said to Kuznetsov. He then looked over at where Niles and C.C. still stood wide-eyed and, curiously enough (or maybe not curiously at all), holding hands. "You two – follow us. When my mother is settled, we are going to have a conversation."
The Tsar didn't wait for an answer before he, B.B. and Kuznetsov started heading back to the room, but had he been looking at them, he would have noticed the panicked look Niles and C.C. shared. It was the kind of look that was attached to an unspoken "uh-oh". Still, they knew there was no way to avoid "the talk". Stewart had given them an order, and they could only follow.
"It will be okay," C.C. whispered to Niles as they made their way to the room, and gave his hand a supportive squeeze. "Whatever it is, we'll face it together."
Niles wasn't so sure about it – well, he was certain about them facing adversity together, it was the "all will be well" part he wasn't buying. This wasn't a fairytale – they still had no idea what was going on, for a start. If they were dead, then he wasn't sure if they had enough autonomy to decide what their eternity would be like. If they weren't… well… he wasn't quite sure what he thought about that possibility. It was simply too out there for him to believe it! Still, if that somehow was the case, their relationship would be threatened by the obvious issue of him being a servant without a penny to his name. He wouldn't be able to provide for her, and he wasn't sure her father would allow his daughter to run away with a disgraced nobody like himself…
Scratch that, he was completely sure her father wouldn't allow his daughter to run away with a disgraced nobody like himself. Who would? His name had been synonymous with dirt since he was a boy, he'd carried trays of food and drinks for people who'd barely ever looked at him, he'd grown into a criminal who'd tried to con an old woman who'd only ever wanted her granddaughter back...
He had to get that out of his head, though, if he wanted to even manage to get through the doorway into the next room. He was almost sure he'd break down before he could make it, otherwise!
To stop himself, he squeezed C.C.'s hand back, and offered her as much of a smile as he could bring to his face. It probably wasn't a lot, and she'd be able to tell that he was still upset, but he wanted to show his appreciation. If her father was about to forbid them from being together, he wanted to show her everything that he felt for her, as many times as he could.
When they'd made it through the door, the Tsar and Tsarina were already waiting for them with the still-out cold Marie, who had been stretched out on a soft velvet fainting couch, while Kuznetsov waited several feet away, his face looking as though he had been given several verbal slaps. His eyes were directed away from the royal couple, too, as though he were worried about a second round.
It had to be bad – he didn't even glare at them as they came in.
The Tsar, however, did look up and immediately point them towards a comfortable-looking seating area.
"Sit down; we will not be long," he said, then turning to the butler he was still angry with. "Leave us. Return to your duties, and let this never be spoken of again."
"Yes, Your Majesty," said Kuznetsov, bowing to the emperor.
The butler then bowed to the remaining royals in the room (although he made his bow to Niles quick) and then rushed out of the room, closing the door behind him – he knew when he wasn't needed, and this was one of those times.
As soon as he was gone, leaving only Niles and the Romanovs left in the room, Stewart and B.B. checked that Marie was comfortable one last time. Then, simultaneously, they turned and rushed C.C., who hadn't had a chance to sit down yet.
She was in their arms before she even knew it, caught up in the tightest, safest hug she had ever remembered in her life. Their eyes were overflowing with tears that wetted her hair, their hands stroked her own hair and her back, pulling her as impossibly close as they could manage. And their voices were crying out in happiness that permeated the entire room.
"Chastity! My baby, my baby girl...!" B.B. kissed her daughter's cheek hard. "Oh, we missed you so much!"
"It's been so long, Kitten!" Stewart squeezed his wife and daughter harder, resting his cheek on the top of C.C.'s head as he rocked them both from side to side. "We had almost given up hope of you ever joining us...!"
C.C., relishing in the hold of her parents as much as she was, couldn't help but take those words in with a stabbing feeling in her chest.
So, they were dead, after all. They had always been dead. And that could only mean one thing, even if it seemed cruel and unfair, after everything that had happened. Well, she supposed it didn't really matter what was just and what wasn't; all she could contend with was the reality.
She and Niles were dead, too. So was her grandmother. Whatever had happened to Rasputin back in that ballroom in Paris, it had had a knock-on effect and taken them out, as well.
"How could I not join you?" she murmured into her mother's shoulder, resting the top of her head more against her father. "Even if I hadn't come right away, I'd have had to come here eventually – everybody does, when they...go."
She would've added that she wouldn't have had it any other way, when her parents both paused for a moment, before pulling back to look at her. The eyes that had been blinking out tears now looked like they were questioning every word she'd just said.
"Wh...what are you talking about, Kitten?" Stewart asked.
B.B. looked between Stewart and their daughter, "Yes – we...we don't fully understand what you are saying, dear..."
C.C.'s eyebrow started to raise, an odd feeling declaring itself in her stomach. They didn't seem to have the faintest idea of what she was talking about!
But they had to, didn't they? How could they not know about, arguably, the most famous and tragic day on their calendar?! You couldn't just forget about being dead, surely? Maybe she just wasn't explaining herself right?
She tried again, looking over at where Niles was now leaning against a chair, for comfort.
"I...we...have to be dead, don't we? This is the afterlife, and we are all...well, as dead as a door nail."
"Ah, you see! That's where you are not really correct, my dear," said a very familiar voice.
C.C. felt her legs shake underneath her, like some tiny earthquake rumbling beneath her feet. It...it was Irina! She hadn't left them there by themselves! She'd been with them the whole journey, and she wasn't going to stop now. She'd just been...well, there in the back! She'd probably heard everything and was waiting for the right moment to come out and say something...
And that nearly made C.C. want to let out a bark of laughter.
She knew it, really! She knew that she'd made a good call, in insisting on her and Niles seeing the older woman! Irina had always known the most difficult answers, even when C.C. had only been poor amnesiac orphan Claire! She'd had her fingers on every pulse, knew how to get information from just about anybody and she was smarter than half the leaders of Europe!
She'd know what to do, and it was just as well, because C.C. still didn't have the faintest idea! How could she, when Irina had told her that she wasn't "really" correct about being dead! What did that mean, all by itself?
Irina knew what was going on there. And at least that made one of them. Irina wouldn't be there, if she didn't know what was happening. She would be able to finally answer all of the questions that C.C. had been thinking as long as she'd been awake in this new, strange and familiar-but-not world!
Beaming broadly, she turned her whole body towards the witch, ready for whatever explanation she could possibly have up her sleeve. The Grand Duchess didn't care what it was – she just wanted to know what it could be, if it wasn't the obvious explanation!
She wanted to know how they were all there, and how they were all alive.
"I should have known that you would be here to enlighten us!" she teased. "Niles and I were about to go to your bakery to find you!"
Irina smiled pleasantly back, "Well, it would appear that I have saved you a journey. After all, you have already come such a long way, in such a short amount of time."
C.C. saw Niles' eyebrow quirk as he turned more towards their friend. It was obvious that he was prepared to hear what had gone on while they had been sleeping. If they had been sleeping, that was.
"Are we about to learn how we managed to travel so far, and so fast? And apparently with some..." he tried not to let his eyes wander over to where Stewart and B.B. stood with their daughter. "Changes, in the meantime?"
He didn't want to openly and blatantly ask how it was that the Tsar and Tsarina were alive. He still wasn't certain he wasn't in their bad books for having his hands all over their daughter in a corridor of their home, no matter what Tsar Stewart had told Kuznetsov!
He didn't want to do or say anything that could come across even more disrespectful. And nothing came across as more socially inept and insulting than asking why the Tsar and Tsarina of Russia were both alive and apparently living in their own home.
The focus was quickly shifted back to Irina anyway, as she promptly nodded.
"You certainly are lad. It is just a pity that Her Imperial Majesty the Dowager Empress is...otherwise occupied," she gestured towards Marie with a concerned look. "It would be better to tell you all, all at once..."
She approached Marie quietly, rubbing her hands together as though preparing them for hard work. It wasn't going to be hard work, luckily; the poor dear had just had a bit of a shock, that was all. Something simple would be more than enough to do the trick. The spell equivalent of smelling salts.
When she was directly in line with the fainting couch, Irina clicked her fingers together. Immediately, Marie jolted and began to stir, wiping her eyes and blinking them open. It was almost as if she had been asleep, not that she'd fainted dead away.
"Oh, goodness..." she murmured, trying to sit up and look around, still slightly dazed and confused. "Where...where am I?"
"Safe and sound, in your son and daughter-in-law's chambers, Your Imperial Majesty," Irina replied happily, coming closer to help her up. "How're you feeling? Do you remember what happened?"
"I remember enough, thank you," Marie accepted the witch's help as, between them, they got her sat fully upright. "But how on Earth did we get here...? How is any of this even happening? Are...are we dead?!"
C.C. took that moment to come forward and help Irina with getting Marie to her feet. She could already feel in her bones that her grandmother was going to want to hear everything, and she certainly deserved to know as soon as the rest of them!
Especially the part about not being dead...
"No, no – we're not dead! We're just about to find out what's going on, Grandmama; come sit down with us and let's let Irina explain."
Her grandmother agreed (after some minor muttering about not being so old that she needed two people to help her walk, and expressing relief over not being dead), and together the three made their way over to the sitting area where Niles, B.B. and Stewart were waiting.
The Tsar and Tsarina were waiting in particular, to share a hug with the mother and in-law they'd missed for so long. And Marie could only return it as hard as possible, trying not to tear up too much even as she finally got to hold her family again. But it wasn't for long – they still had to listen to Irina's story, after all.
The witch and the Grand Duchess got the Dowager Empress seated before C.C. took her own. She made sure it was the one next to where Niles could sit, if he felt comfortable enough to do it. She wasn't fully convinced he was going to, after what her father had caught them doing outside...
"I take it that you all have a number of questions," Irina started. "I'll get to them in good time, but in order for this process to go faster, I ask you all to simply listen to my entire explanation before you ask me anything. Is that alright for you all?"
Niles and the Imperial Family nodded.
"Good. Now, our story begins with myself, of course – as you might have realised, I'm what you people traditionally call a 'sorceress'," Irina said, nose wrinkling in disgust at the moniker that had been so rudely thrust upon her kind. "There are many of us upon this world, and most of us have been around for millennia."
"Millennia?!" cried C.C.. "As in, you've been alive for thousands of years?"
"Indeed," Irina said, unfazed – she might as well have been reading her shopping list! "My kind have been tasked with the role of acting as guardians to the whole of creation. Occasionally, in very special circumstances, we are allowed to meddle in human matters, but as a general rule we tend not to interfere. Fate must run its course, you see."
The five humans in the room nodded automatically, all of them both baffled and wondered by what Irina was telling them.
"But just like we are here to ensure creation unfolds without any mishaps, there are also forces tasked to do the exact opposite. I believe your kind call them demons. It is precisely when they stick their noses into business which doesn't concern them that we are allowed to intervene."
"Was Rasputin one of them?" Marie asked, unable to stop herself.
"In a manner of speaking," Irina replied. "Rasputin begun his life as a human, much like all of you. He had a soul and the potential to do good in this world. But some human spirits, like Rasputin's, are fickle – it's easy to tempt them with power or riches, and these dark forces take advantage of this."
"So Rasputin wasn't one of them?" Marie said.
"Of course he was! Just not in the way he would have liked. You see, just like humans can do a lot of good, your kind is also capable of the most heinous atrocities. The Enemy knows this very well, so it often gets humans to do its bidding – destruction by proxy, if you will. Rasputin was blinded by his greed and bloodlust, so he sold his soul in order to destroy all of you. In doing so, he became a mere slave to Darkness, who deluded him into thinking that he was some sort of all-powerful demi-god. If a human sells their soul, they are essentially bargaining with their existence because, if something happens to a person's spirit, then said human ceases to exist. Which is exactly what happened to Rasputin."
"So… Rasputin died?" C.C. asked.
Irina's eyes darkened as she shook her head.
"No, child, he suffered a fate worse than death," said Irina. " Death does not mean that a person ceases to exist, it only means that their time in this world is up, and that they have to move on to a different plane of existence – or, as you call it, the afterlife. When Rasputin sold his spirit, he renounced his chance at entering the afterlife. He was left only with his physical body – an empty vessel that was always meant to rot and decay, thus tying himself to this physical world. Remember the vial? The one you smashed?"
"That vial in itself was Rasputin's existence. Its dark forces tied the monk to life and provided him with almost unlimited power. The moment it was no more, neither was he," said Irina. "And when he ceased to exist, anything and everything he ever did in this universe, was also erased, including bringing about a revolution. That's why you are all alive and back in Russia – there was no Rasputin to begin with, which means that there was no revolution. None of you were killed, had to run away to Paris, or wound up amnesiac and stuck in an orphanage. By erasing Rasputin from existence, you also erased your unfortunate fate."
The humans – because, with Irina there, they supposed they had to term themselves that – all felt their jaws collectively drop as the gravity of it all descended upon them with the speed of a train.
They were all alive because Rasputin had basically undone himself and the revolution?! Remade the universe over, without even realising what he would do?! He'd changed the past – everyone's, not just his own! He'd written himself out of existence and written them all a new timeline, all by accident!
If it hadn't been such a serious moment, at least a couple of the people sat there might have felt they could've laughed at the irony. It also seemed anything but possible, but what else could they believe had happened? Even if Irina hadn't been the one telling them, how else would they explain the fact that they were all there, alive and well, and apparently back to their usual stations? Why else would it be that Kuznetsov had spoken so rudely to Niles, unless he believed him to be nothing more than just another servant?
It all made sense now. Well, strictly speaking, it made no sense at all, but it tied everything together and it offered them an explanation! What else could they do but take it? Especially when it meant that they were all back together, with no chance of being separated again!
Rasputin had done the impossible – good riddance – and they got a future as a family out of it.
However, there was still one question on C.C.'s mind – one that had been nagging at her the whole way through Irina's explanation. She had only kept it in her head and not said it aloud because Irina had asked them all to be quiet, and she knew the last thing she wanted was to interrupt. It had been difficult not to, but she'd also seen people practically crushed simply by Irina's sheer disappointment in them, and she'd had no desire to join that list.
"But...how do you come into all of this, Irina?" she finally got to ask. "How does Rasputin's choice and the...universe resetting...have anything to do with you?"
Irina gave C.C. a soft, loving smile – one that spoke of just how dear she was to the sorceress. It warmed the Grand Duchess up inside, much like it had done during those terrible years she'd spent at the orphanage and when she would run away to her bakery for refuge.
"I protected you, child," Irina said. "When I found you wandering the streets, I immediately knew who you were, and I knew it was a matter of time before Rasputin chased after you. That's why I took you to the orphanage – had I taken you to your grandmother's you would have been found and killed. By keeping you near me, I was able to use my abilities to hide away your existence from Rasputin and his minions. He looked for you, you see, so I hid you away until it was safe. I wish I could have taken you in and spared you all the suffering at the hands of Ekaterina, but it would have been counterproductive. Our kind aren't mothers and we don't take wards – had I taken you in, it would have put a bullseye on the back of your head. So I kept tabs on you and did my best to make sure you were alright. I gave you time to grow and mature, and when the time was right, I sent you off to face your destiny. My protection was our way of helping you in your battle against evil…"
Not for the first time in her life, C.C. felt the urge to hug Irina. She'd always known she'd looked after her, but she'd have never imagined she'd kept her safe from harm in the way she had. It was humbling, really, to know that she'd had such a powerful being in her camp and rooting for her all along…
"I also followed you on your trip to Paris," Irina continued, smiling still as she approached and wrapped an arm around the Grand Duchess. "I knew you'd need help to face Rasputin. I also wanted to be nearby to give you my last blessing after you'd won."
"Blessing?" C.C. asked, brows knitted into a confused frown. "What do you mean?"
"Yours, Niles' and your family's memories, child," Irina said. "You see, no one but you five remembers they were in a different reality until a few moments ago. You wouldn't be able to remember either, had I not decided to give you back your memories – you'd have woken up as if nothing had happened…"
She looked between Niles and C.C., and sighed.
"You wouldn't have remembered what you had with Niles, and he would have gone back to being just another servant…"
C.C. felt heart prepare to leap into her throat, and her arm gave a twitch. She knew she was reaching out for Niles, purely by instinct. She never would have remembered what they'd been through, if it weren't for Irina! All their adventures, all their talks, all that...dancing and those kisses...it would have all been lost to a different life!
She wanted to at least partially believe that even if she hadn't remembered, she might have looked at Niles, there with the other servants, and felt a spark. Like he made her feel warmer and happier than the others did, but did no reason that she would have been able to explain. She wanted to believe that her heart would have remembered, even if her mind couldn't. But she didn't dare ask if such a thing were possible out loud. She didn't want the illusion shattered, or to think of the possibility of forgetting her love anymore.
Instead, she simply let Irina continue.
Irina, who may have sensed her change in mood, or noticed the tiniest little curve of a frown starting to appear on her face. She might have even realised that C.C. had been reaching out for Niles.
Either way, she never stopped giving the Grand Duchess that reassuring look and smile.
"But I could never let that happen – the two of you are too suited, too matched, to ever be fully happy apart," she continued, giving C.C. a squeeze. "That was why I let your father and mother remember everything that happened between you two. So that nothing could ever come in between."
C.C. beamed brightly between the older woman and Niles, and would have begun to thank Irina for everything that she had done, but before she could say so much as a word, Stewart cut in.
"Which brings me to my first intended order of business," he said, loudly enough to attract their attention. "This whole...business between you and Prince Romanowsky."
It was also more than stern enough to let a deep, unsettling heaviness start to weigh down inside C.C.'s heart and stomach. She recognised that voice – it wasn't the kind that her father had used when she was a child and she and her siblings had done something to get into trouble. It was the voice he had always used when speaking to diplomats or politicians who'd angered him, and it had always happened behind closed doors she was listening through.
She found no relief in her mother joining in, either.
"I'm not necessarily sure I'd call it "business", Stewart. It goes far deeper than that," B.B. folded her arms, suddenly looking as displeased as her daughter had ever seen her. And it was all directed at Niles. "Though, if I may bring it up early, that was how this all began, wasn't it?"
An uncomfortable silence fell over the group. Niles once again looked like he wanted the ground to swallow him whole, and C.C. thought she could join him in that wish. They must have been watching, even from...well, wherever people went when they died, and Irina must have helped them to remember absolutely everything, including Niles' plan to con Marie out of her money by using a fake Grand Duchess! They would have seen...they would have seen him using her amnesia – using her desperation for a family – to lie and cheat his way into a fortune!
Stewart took B.B.'s hand and gripped it, "We will get to that, in due time. There is much to be discussed here, and I am not planning on skipping over any details."
"Mama, Papa, please, don't be too hard on him," C.C. quickly pleaded with them, panic taking root in her heart. "He…he did the right thing in the end! He brought me back and refused the money!"
C.C. felt a warm, comforting hand on her left shoulder – Niles' hand, she instantly knew. She could tell his soft touch from anyone else's…
She looked up at him, eyes wide with alarm, and was met by the sight of a broken man. One that knew he was about to face judgment for his misdeeds and was ready for it, even if the outcome could be catastrophic. Part of C.C. wanted to simply pull him into the tightest, most secure embrace she could muster and never let go – Russia and her titles could go hang, for all she cared. If being a princess meant giving up the one man she loved, then she didn't want her life back. Not without him…
He couldn't give up now! Not when they were so close to having it all…
"No, love, they are right – I was a complete and utter bastard to you. I didn't take you to Paris for the right reasons, I took advantage of you and your amnesia, and I…" he paused a second to take a deep breath, somehow looking more ashamed than he'd been moments ago. "I made fun of what I thought was naivety. Words can't possibly describe just how sorry I am for that – I wish I could take it all away – but that doesn't take away the fact I don't deserve you."
Crestfallen, C.C. turned even more to him, gently tugging at his hand. It sounded like he really was giving up – giving her up, giving up on their relationship and everything they'd built!
But...but he couldn't be! They'd fought so hard and come so far; they'd won! They'd won the fight and that meant getting the happy ending now, didn't it? What kind of justice was there in the world if you could fight and win and not be allowed peace and love at the end of it?
"Niles, please don't say things like that—"
"Whether or not I say them out loud, we all know that it's true," he cut her off. "I was a conman. A thief."
"Yes, but you're not anymore! You've changed," C.C. sprang back in as she gripped him tighter. He couldn't go anywhere if she kept hold of him. "You're a good man, you've proven that! And if I can get past what happened before, then everybody else can, too!"
She felt a pain like a sharp knife slicing through her heart and her gut as she watched Niles start to shake his head.
"I'm sorry, but I don't believe that everybody can," he looked like he might cry himself, at any given moment. But he held it in, as he looked between C.C. and her parents. "And I wouldn't blame them for that. I know what I've done, and it is truly unforgivable. So, I'll go and I'll never bother you again."
He tried to get up, but suddenly found a suitable weight – C.C.'s whole body weight – attempting to hold him down.
"No!" she cried out, "Niles, I won't let you––"
A loud and firm clearing of someone's throat cut clear across what she was about to say. It was somehow more than enough to make both of them turn in the sound's direction – back towards her parents.
"If you've both quite finished being so dramatic that you are putting Romeo and Juliet to shame," B.B. said, obviously ready for their conversation to end. "Then we might be able to have an actual, decent talk."
"We're not trying to send anybody away," Stewart picked up where his wife left off. "We just want to make some things perfectly clear."
Both Niles and C.C. (now feeling both painfully awkward and more than a little ashamed of their probably juvenile behaviour) exchanged a look. They had no idea what they could possibly want to discuss, but at least it didn't mean immediate banishment for Niles. Considering the situation, that was as good a start as any.
"What does "making some things clear" mean, exactly?" C.C. asked her parents.
"Well, isn't it obvious?!" B.B. snapped, her no-nonsense attitude (and notoriously thin patience) showing. "If you two are to be together, then your father and I would like to lay down some ground rules, lest you two youngsters run a little too wild."
"That's exactly right," Stewart said. "Your mother and I had to go through this conversation when we began dating, and so will you."
Niles and C.C. exchanged another set of more confused looks. This hadn't been what either of them were expecting – where was the insistence that Niles would never be good enough for their daughter, and a demand for him to leave the palace immediately? Why were they planning on talking it out, when they could so easily be scolding their daughter for trying to hold onto a conman, even as she argued right back that she loved him, and nobody else?
And, more to the point, what were these "rules" they were intending to lay down in this newfound "conversation"?
C.C. discreetly sniffed and gently wiped at her eyes with one hand, not letting go of Niles with the other but certainly loosening her grip. She didn't want to suddenly grab too tightly and hurt him!
"What conversation was that, Papa?"
"One that every young couple must go through in this family," Stewart replied. "Setting out the framework for your courtship, to make it as respectful and true to our beliefs as it can be."
"With no deviations," B.B. added, particularly looking at Niles. "And certainly no breaking of the rules."
Niles suddenly found a lump forming in his throat at that. Even without the actual words, he understood what the Tsarina meant, and knew that she didn't fully trust him not to...well, "try to behave as a man might". Hence, he supposed, why these rules were being mentioned in the first place.
Every man who wished to properly court a woman in this realm of polite society had to behave accordingly. And he was more than ready to hear them out; he wanted as much of their approval to be with C.C. as he could manage.
He already knew he had started off on the wrong foot with them. Why risk his chance of being with the woman he loved by disrespecting her parents and their wishes even more?
"Your Majesties, I know I started off on the wrong foot with your daughter, but suffice to say I will never be anything less than a gentleman to her," Niles said, trying to sound as confident as a man dating a Russian Grand Duchess should be.
"You had better, Prince Romanowsky," replied the Tsar, giving him a hard look. "I don't take kindly to cads."
"Hence our initial dislike for you, young man," B.B. added.
"Indeed. But you have proven yourself worthy of our daughter. Not only that, but you helped both save her life and bring her back to us, and that deserves praise as well as commendation," continued Stewart, hard look melting into a soft smile that spoke volumes about how he felt about this new, budding relationship. "What we ask of you is to be respectful towards our daughter and, by extension, our family. Treat her with the dignity she deserves, and in exchange we are more than willing to give you two a chance."
"Not only that, Stewart," B.B. interjected, beginning to smile, too. "You see, any man courting our daughter needs to be a man of the right standing. Being a prince, you certainly check some of the requirements."
"The only remaining issue here, is your family's situation, of course," Stewart said.
Niles felt his face fall, wiping out a smile that had been growing in the hope of what he'd felt was to come. But with one sentence, the Tsar had taken that all away.
His "family's situation". The fact that they were poor, in more debt than they could ever manage to claw their way out from, and didn't even have as much as a roof of their own over their heads! Reduced to servants in the palaces of the still-mighty, all in the hopes of earning a meagre living, keeping themselves from ending up out on the street, and dreaming that – perhaps one day – they would be able to go home and back to their lives.
But none of that had happened. It had clearly been years and they were still stuck where they were. The lowest of the low, with their family name and reputation nothing more than a stain on someone else's family tree.
He hung his head, not wanting C.C. to see him in this state of humiliation. They both had to know what was coming – her father would say that she couldn't possibly be courted by someone like him. Someone with a disgraced family name that would only drag her down with the weight of it...
And here it had to come.
"Which is why I have taken it upon myself to forgive the debts," Stewart said. "And to set you, your mother and brothers up in a manor home that we own ourselves, here in the city. That, combined with a comfortable stipend, should see you suiting the bill for our daughter nicely."
Niles' head had snapped up the moment the debts were mentioned, but as intently as he listened from then on, he still couldn't believe that he'd heard the Tsar correctly.
He...he'd forgiven the debts? Given them a home and a stipend? They...they were free? To do and live as they please, and not have to work as servants anymore?
It...it really sounded like it. And the longer no one spoke a word, the more it sank in. They'd been given their lives back. The Tsar had granted them a pardon he'd once lost hope of ever hearing, and they were free of the shadow of debt and shame!
The mere thought of his mother's face upon learning that she could put down the washing baskets and the sewing and walk to her new home with her head held as high as ever made him want to weep with joy. And his brothers! They could put down the trays and the jackets of men who thought they were better than them, and pick up their sports and their books and return to being young gentlemen themselves – they could grow up not missing as many of the things that he had gone without...!
And he himself...he could finally court his beloved, just as he had always dreams and fantasised that he could. They could be together as they wanted to be (probably under her mother's watchful eye, but still), without any shame on her part. And he could hold his head up high, and know that he was worthy of her time, affection and attention.
He was a true prince again, and no one could take it away from him.
Niles didn't even know how to begin thanking Stewart for this. How could he? What could he possibly give the Emperor of Russia, in exchange for the whole world he'd once imagined he'd lost?
"Your Majesty…" Niles managed to say. "I…I don't know how I will ever than––"
"You don't need to thank me, lad. Just make sure to treat my child with the dignity she deserves, both as a woman and as the future empress of Russia."
Niles started to smile again; he knew he could do as the Tsar had asked.
It only occurred to him – to both him and C.C. – just exactly what Stewart had said a few seconds after that.
Wait. Future empress? What exactly did he mean by "future empress"?! C.C. was a Grand Duchess, yes, but that didn't mean she'd inherit the throne! She wasn't even the oldest girl, let alone first in line! That obviously went to Noel – he was the first in line, and always had been! He'd been trained his whole life to become the next Tsar of Russia, so it didn't seem right that their father would suddenly turn around and declare that she would be the Tsarina one day!
Why would he be saying it now? Had them saving the world changed something? It didn't look like much had changed, apart from the obvious; maybe they just hadn't noticed how much was different yet? But surely they would have been told by now if anything major had been swapped around – Irina wouldn't have left them in the dark!
Would she? It couldn't have slipped her mind; something so big would never have left her mind! But what was there to gain by not telling her? Was there anything at all, or did she feel this piece of news had to come from Stewart himself?
It didn't make any sense...
Whether or not Irina has intended it, C.C. had to ask – she couldn't just leave it there, even if it was nestled in amongst the nice things they'd done for Niles. And for her, really, by letting them stay together.
She had to know what was going on! How come Noel and her sisters had all been passed over for her? What had she done to warrant or deserve being given the throne?
"Father...what are you talking about? What do you mean, "future empress"?"
A sudden look of realisation came over Stewart, and he turned sadly to B.B.. They both went oddly quiet, like they had just silently shared the worst possible news, which they would now share out loud.
The Tsar shifted uncomfortably in his seat, "I'd forgotten that you didn't know..."
"Don't know what?" C.C. said, breath hitching in her throat. "What's going on here?"
Stewart and B.B. shared a look – a look that spoke of such pain and devastation C.C. could feel her heart sinking in her chest.
You know that strange – almost surreal – lull before the start of a storm? That protracted silence that looms overhead as the dark clouds take hold of the sky? The kind of ominous quiet that heralds impending doom?
Well, that was exactly how C.C. was feeling. Something was coming – something bad. Something painful. Something that made her wish she could hide away until the worst had come to pass…
"You see, Kitten," her father began in a quiet voice. "Since Olga, Tatiana and Maria are all married––"
"Married?!" C.C. cried out, making everyone in the room jump. "Since when are any of my sisters married?!"
"Well, since 1919, 1921 and 1922 respectively, dear." Irina intervened. "As I explained before, this is how things would have been like without a revolution. In this reality, your sisters are already married. Maria is now a Danish princess, Tatiana is the Queen of Yugoslavia, and Olga is married to the King of Romania."
"Upon their marriages, the three had to renounce to whatever claim they had over the throne," Stewart continued.
"But what about Noel?" C.C. asked. "He is the heir! Even if my sisters are no longer in the line of succession, he is to take the throne…right?"
Much like she used to do when she'd been a child, C.C. looked up at her parents in a mixture of expectation and utter despair. She wasn't stupid – she could tell the direction where their conversation was going, but something in her simply refused to even consider the possibility that was becoming increasingly real as seconds ticked by and her parent's heartbroken faces didn't budge.
"C.C., sweetheart, your brother…he is no longer with us," Irina finally said, having realised the Tsar and Tsarina were struggling to explain the situation to their youngest. "He succumbed to haemophilia almost a year ago. He crashed his car while on his way to your family's summer residence, and there was no way to stop the bleeding."
Even if she had been expecting the fall, it still came more quickly, forcefully and with more sharp, unbearable pains to her heart than C.C. had imagined possible.
No...no, no, no – she couldn't have heard it right! There had to be some mistake; Noel couldn't be...gone. He just couldn't be! He was her big brother – he was always there and always would be! He'd already lived longer than the doctors said he would; why did that have to be taken away?!
It wasn't fair; she couldn't have come back to a seemingly perfect world, only for part of her own to be missing! How had Irina not fixed this? She could've done it, couldn't she?! She'd turned back time itself to get them there, so surely the solution to getting Noel back from wherever he had gone was at the click of her fingers!
She could've stopped that car crashing. She could've saved him. Couldn't she?
C.C.'s breathing sped up as her mind went into overload, getting faster and faster as her thoughts started to burn in her head. And they burned directly at the woman in front of her, who had told her the tragic news.
"Why didn't you fix it?" she asked.
It was more like demanded to know, and it made Stewart try to speak up.
But she wouldn't let him interrupt, "No, Papa. Why didn't you fix this, Irina? You fixed everything else; you brought us back, you gave us our lives again – why didn't you let me keep my brother?"
"The choice was never mine to make, dear," the witch replied. "I don't get to decide who lives or dies."
"Bullshit!" snapped the Grand Duchess – once again, the only remaining Grand Duchess. "You fixed everything! You brought my parents back! Why can't you bring Noel back?!"
"Child, haven't you listened to what I've been saying? I didn't do anything – I didn't rewind time or resurrect your parents – that was your undoing when you beat Rasputin. The fabric of reality fixed itself; I had nothing to do with it. I was merely an aid and an ally in your fight."
Irina spoke in a loud, stern voice – probably the most stern she'd ever been to C.C. in all the years she'd known her. She'd straightened her posture as she'd spoken, and in doing so she'd somehow grown much taller than C.C. remembered Irina being. She towered over the young princess with outstanding ease, almost as if reminding her that, as much as she cherished her, Irina wouldn't stand for her rudeness. The Grand Duchess ought to remember she was still dealing with a creature far wiser and more powerful than herself.
"I will repeat it once more, young woman – I have no say over what course fate takes. That is not my mission upon this Earth. I can only lend a hand, if needed, which I did by protecting you from the moment I found you wandering the streets, to allowing you and your loved ones to keep your memories. This reality wasn't created by me – it is the result of there not having been a revolution to begin with, and your brother's death was sadly already written…"
The silence that followed left a horrible, awkward atmosphere hanging between the two of them, swirling around the others like a mist they could only watch, not try to evaporate away.
And at the same time, the shame came crashing over C.C. like a tidal wave and made her want to shrink right down – to become smaller and weaker, more vulnerable than she felt even at that moment.
Irina was right; of course she was right! How could she not be? She had explained it all to them in as clear a tone as she knew how! C.C. had understood it! She'd understood what had happened, with Rasputin and the bargain he'd struck, and how losing had changed fate!
Noel's death wasn't Irina's fault – she'd done more than enough for them over the last few days (years? They had been given their whole lives back, after all) and none of it had involved undoing the past they'd been living! She'd helped set the whole thing in motion, but she hadn't decided on the direction it would take. That had been entirely fate.
And fate's plan had been to take Noel, whether anybody liked it or not. C.C. just hadn't been prepared to learn that even if the revolution was gone and her family restored, she would still never see her big brother again.
Sighing, she cast her eyes briefly to the floor. She hadn't meant to let herself get so out of control! She hadn't ever been the type to just scream at a person, in order to get what she wanted!
Especially not when what she wanted was impossible.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have lashed out at you. I let my feelings get the better of me – it won't happen again."
Irina nodded a little in return, putting a hand on her shoulder, "I know. You were overwhelmed, thinking about your brother. It's only natural and understandable."
C.C. felt the knot in her stomach come loose, even if it didn't undo itself completely. She still felt angry at herself for being so ungracious and enraged at something Irina hadn't done and had no control over, but she supposed it would pass eventually.
"We will talk more about your brother later, dear," her mother's voice brought her out of her thoughts. "Now is...not really the time."
"Indeed it is not," her father agreed, leaning forward a little in his seat. "However, now I do believe it is time that you learned more about what will be expected of you. As future empress, you must be informed of what your role will entail."
That was when C.C. looked up again. In her anger and hurt at losing Noel, and then her shame at lashing out, she'd completely cast aside the fact that she was – for some reason – now the heir to her father's throne!
But she still didn't understand; since when had that ever been an option in the first place?! By law, she wasn't immediately granted the title once her siblings had either died or renounced their claims! There were whole written, established rules that her house lived by on this. Each and every single one stated that the nearest male relative would take the throne on the death of the Tsar, and the next nearest male relative after him, and the next after that!
Between her uncle, all her cousins, second cousins and beyond, it should've practically been impossible for her to even have been considered! Shouldn't it? Why had it all suddenly gone away, or changed?
"I'd like to say I understand that, Papa, but I still don't even know why I'm your heir in the first place," she said. "Doesn't the law say—"
"I amended the law, sweetheart," Stewart cut across her gently. "We have returned to the system of Peter the Great. As emperor, I can choose my heir without relying on rules which may not allow the most deserving candidate the chance."
"But…that means that…you chose me? Over everyone else?!" C.C. said.
"That's exactly right, Kitten. When Noel died, the question of succession arose again," Stewart continued to explain. "Since your mother and I weren't going to have any more children, your uncle – and everyone else, really – assumed he'd be the next tsar, as tradition dictated."
"What they didn't take into account, however," B.B. said, smiling up at her husband. "Was your father's desire to keep this branch of the family in power."
"I'll be damned before I let my own legacy fade into obscurity," Stewart said. "My decision caused great upheaval among nobility – not to mention your uncle vehemently refuses the change as well as your claim to the throne – but my mind was made up. You are to be the next empress, whether they like it or not."
Had C.C. not heard it before now, she would've almost said (or at least thought) that she couldn't believe it. She really was the heir to the throne now – one day, she would be the Tsarina of all Russia! An empress in her own right, and a ruler to her people!
The more she thought and the longer she thought, the more it all came down on her like falling bricks. She wasn't ready; she couldn't be ready! She had so much to catch up on that the fear crept in over not being ready when it was time to actually ascend to the throne, too! The weight of it all was almost suffocating and she didn't think her mind could take the questions that came barrelling into her head with the worry.
What if her father was wrong to choose his line over someone else's – someone who hadn't had the same interruptions she'd had and could actually do something as great and important as ruling an entire country? What if the time came for her to take her place and she still wasn't ready and screwed it up, when somebody else wouldn't?
What if it made her a bad empress, and she did so much wrong that she ended up hurting the people she was supposed to help?
The very idea of it felt like the moment she'd had to jump from the train; like she was dropping through nothing and utterly terrifying, in every sense of the word. In a matter of mere days, she'd gone from Claire, orphan baker's assistant and complete nobody, to Grand Duchess Chastity-Claire, daughter of the Tsar of Russia and now heir to the throne of a restored empire!
What was she supposed to say to that? What could she do?! She'd lived what had felt like her whole childhood – all of it that she remembered – in complete squalor and abject poverty. The idea of suddenly being transformed into this...this crown princess was practically unthinkable! How could somebody who had grown up with no memory of where she was from, who her family was, or even her own name suddenly be catapulted to the absolute pinnacle of society?!
She used to get beatings from a leather belt at the hand of a cruel orphanage governess, for Heaven's sake! And yet now she was somehow supposed to be the person that all eyes fell on when she entered a room, the one all others bowed and curtsied to and pledged oaths she wasn't even sure she'd remember, or know what they meant...!
And that was another matter entirely, that seemed to only make her feel smaller! She hadn't grown up with the education or training that Noel had – she was the heir now and yet she didn't think she knew how to act like she was the heir to anything! And even if she learned, there surely had to still be so much she needed to catch up on; the rules, responsibilities, her duties!
"So, sweetheart," her father's gentle (and clearly expectant) voice eventually cut across her troubled thoughts. "What do you think?"
"I think you are insane," replied the princess, taking a step back from her father. "You and Mother and anyone else who ever thought that making a poor orphan twerp the future empress of Russia was a good idea!"
She saw her father's face immediately fall, and he took a bewildered step in her direction.
"What? Twerp? What are you talking about, Kitten...?"
She looked between them all, seeing them getting closer – trying to comfort her? She didn't know. She was too overwhelmed and boxed in to care.
She had to get out of there.
"I'm not ready!" she screamed, turning on her heel and rushing from the room. "I'm not ready for any of this!"
She heard her mother scream from behind her, "C.C.!"
She ignored it, even as she heard her father, grandmother and Irina all joining in.
"C.C., dear, where are you going?!"
"Your mother's right – you need to talk about this!"
She didn't care even if that was what Irina thought! She didn't want her joining their side and trying to convince her, too!
No. She was on her own, and being on her own meant getting out and away from there!
C.C. – Claire? Just Claire? She wasn't even sure which felt most comfortable, most like her anymore – let out a hard sob as she ran. She wasn't ready for this; this wasn't her life, it was the life she'd been put into in place of her brother, who'd gone away far too soon! She wasn't ready for any of what she'd the expected to do! She'd ruin it all if she even tried!
But what else could anybody expect from a poor little orphan, brought up surrounded by destitution, who just happened to have been born a princess?!
She bolted without turning back, half-convinced they were trying to follow her but not wanting to turn around and see their faces despairing and pleading for her to come back and sit and talk with them. She wouldn't have been able to bear it.
"Claire! Please, stop!"
The worried voice of the man she loved was the last thing she heard before she slammed the door behind her, taking off in the first direction she thought might lead her out of the palace.