The end is near, my loves :)

J.F


My Darling Anastasia,

Please forgive my absence this morning - I assure you only preparations for your official homecoming could have pulled me from your side today. Please rest as long as you'd like. Sophie will be in later this morning to keep you company. I'll see you this afternoon.

I love you,

Grandmama

Anya read her grandmother's note for the hundredth time, still running her thumb over the embossing on the stationary. She'd been sitting cross-legged for the past hour, staring at the neat handwriting that was both recognizable and foreign. My Darling Anastasia. The message seemed addressed to someone else, an acquaintance from long ago whom Anya had only known in passing.

At present, she felt tiny and pointless perched upon the huge, high bed, adrift in a sea of luxury as alien as some exotic, faraway land. Anya sighed and looked up at the ceiling, finding nothing but flawless ornamental plaster work swirling around the perimeter of the room, unblemished even by cobwebs.

It was all too much - too much unfamiliarity and stringent perfection, too much loss. It took her shoving the jumbled memories of her parents and siblings to the back of her mind to manage crawling out of the covers to greet the day.

Anya drew her legs to her chest and rested her head on her knees. Waking alone with no sound in the room but the birdsong floating in through the open balcony doors, she'd found herself seized by a strange panic that necessitated sucking down deep breaths until she could stop shaking.

She liked to think she had always been entirely self-sustaining, but she supposed that wasn't true. Anya had depended upon the kindness of strangers for food and shelter in the days when she roamed the streets of St. Petersburg, and God knew she didn't go a single winter's day in the orphanage without sharing a sleeping space for warmth. Most recently, it wouldn't be long after waking before she'd see Vladimir's smiling face. Or Dimitri's, usually still scowling at being disturbed since she'd always wake before he did.

Her stomach churned at the thought. Anya hated that she missed him. Dimitri didn't even deserve to be an afterthought, but there she was, recalling their debates while lying in the grass in the clearing in Latvia and his tickling her sides until she'd agree with him.

Anya wrapped both arms around her head to hide from her thoughts. God...how pathetic. She couldn't go a day without thinking of the man who'd utterly betrayed her.

She gritted her teeth and focused on her grandmother, Anya's love for her glowing like embers within her heart. Her grief and hurt may have threatened to snuff it out, but it endured, just enough light to remind her she wouldn't always feel as if she were suffocating in her personal darkness.

Still, she wished someone had been there when she woke up. She'd never felt so alone in her life.

Another half hour of staring out of the window had passed before nature made her leave the bed and cross the great distance to the bathroom. She handled her most pressing matters first then turned to the mirrored sink. Someone had been in the room while she slept and had set out everything Anya could need: toothbrush, a metal tube of fancy mint toothpaste, silver hairbrush and comb, face towel, hand towel, a new bar of soap even though the old one was hardly used. Everything was placed so neatly on the marble counter it looked as if someone had measured how far each item was from the edge. It was absurd.

Though Anya felt a little relief in finding at least the toothbrush wasn't encrusted with jewels, she could feel her nameless anxiety growing in strength and breadth like a creeping vine that could eventually choke her to death.

Mid-brush, she heard a polite knock on the door. Probably Sophie at last.

Anya spit in the sink before padding over to the door.

"Oh!" Sophie's big grin faltered as she took in Anya's disheveled state. "I am sorry, I can come back - "

"What for?" Anya said around her toothbrush, smiling and stepping aside. "It's fine - come in."

Sophie's smile met her eyes as she entered, three maids in matching monochromatic uniforms filing in behind her. Two of them looked to be about Anya's age, if not a little younger. One began attacking imaginary dust along the baseboards with her feather duster, while the other strode to the bed and began making it up with a practiced flair. The oldest of the group bobbed a quick curtsy to Anya and took the large garment bag she held draped across both arms to the closet. All three remained silent as they tended to their tasks, their eyes glued to the floor.

Anya didn't know why it rubbed her the wrong way - they were doing what they had been trained to do. Expecting a servant to be personable was ridiculous, given her title, but it bothered her. More than it probably should have.

Sophie distracted her with an air kiss to both cheeks, likely to avoid the toothpaste smears around Anya's mouth. She grabbed Anya's free hand and held it tightly. "How are you, dear? Did you sleep well?" Sophie certainly looked as if she had. With her soft fragrance of vanilla and her bare, pale shoulders revealed by her pink day gown - covered in ruffles, of course - she looked and smelled like a an elegant party cake.

Anya shrugged and kept the toothbrush moving, not able to answer as honestly as she wanted to in front of her still-silent guests.

"Ah, but you will tonight - that is for certain. It will be such a party! There is so much to do, but I brought you a little something I think will help you relax." With a wink, Sophie reached deep into the large handbag dangling from her inner elbow and pulled out a wriggling ball of fur.

Anya gasped so hard she almost choked. "Pooka!" Sophie placed him into her waiting arms and he licked her face like he hadn't seen her in years. "Oh, Pooka I've missed you so much!" She rubbed her nose against his warm little head, feeling like she was home for the first time. Finally, something she recognized, that was hers and hers alone. "Thank you, Sophie." She glanced up at her with a giggle. "He smells like flowers."

Sophie rolled her eyes. "A large improvement, to be sure." She suddenly clapped her hands, making all three of the maids jump in their various working stations around the room. "Now, these three will help you with anything you need this morning until I return - "

"Wait - where are you going?" Sophie planned to leave her alone with them? Anya didn't know how to...her panic began to rise again. Pooka whimpered and sniffed at her ear. Anya held him tighter against her chest, a furry security blanket.

"I have to get to the seamstress and make sure your court gown completion is on schedule. Rush orders are notorious for being late. Not to mention the dinner and desserts and the decorations..." Sophie trailed off, then touched her finger to Anya's chin with another wink once she'd reigned in her wayward thoughts. "Don't worry, little one. I'll return to fetch you as soon as I can."

Pooka licked her earlobe and Anya bounced him with one arm like a baby, trying to calm down. "Fine...I'll be here, I guess - "

"Splendid! Enjoy your morning, dear - I'll be back soon!"

The door slammed shut before Anya could open her mouth again.

As if the noise were some kind of cue, the maids hurried to where Anya stood wide-eyed, lining up before her with downcast eyes as if to be inspected. The room fell so quiet, she could hear them breathing.

Toothbrush still in hand, Anya wiped her mouth on her nightgown sleeve and cleared her throat, thanking the heavens for Pooka's presence to temper the unbearable awkwardness. "Um, you can sit down. No need to be so...formal."

"Yes, Your Highness," they said in Russian with a curtsy, speaking and moving in unison.

After a long moment passed and no one sat, Anya pressed her lips together in frustration. The difference between these maids and the ones Sophie had hired to help her prepare for the ballet was like night and day. Those girls were giggling and bubbly; these were downright stoic. They wouldn't look at Anya, let alone smile and engage in conversation. They had probably enjoyed better childhoods than Anya had had overall, and she hated that their subservient demeanor made her feel undeservingly privileged, just because of who her parents had been.

"Diedre, stop staring." Anya caught the angry whisper of one of the maids under her breath and looked in time to catch the younger maid at the end - Diedre, presumably - gaping at her in astonishment. Tensing, the girl's face blazed red and she looked back at the floor like her job depended on it.

Anya smiled. Finally, signs of life. "It's alright. This whole situation is kind of crazy, I know." She walked over to the chaise and sat down, lowering Pooka to the floor. Now they'd have to follow her or risk being rude at best, insubordinate at worst. "You can ask me anything you want. I'm just a person...not that different from the three of you."

The older maid audibly scoffed at that as they followed, going pale when she realized Anya had heard. Anya didn't blame her, though; she felt stupid the moment she'd said it. She was different, no matter how much she didn't care to be.

She nodded at the surly maid. "What's your name?"

"Emily, Your Highness," she said and squared her shoulders, gray eyes meeting Anya's with a steely gleam. "That is Ines," she continued, gesturing at the curly-haired girl who had made the bed, "and Diedre." She threw a glare over her shoulder at the one who'd been caught staring.

Anya returned her skepticism with a benign smile. "Hello, Emily. Nice to meet you. You can call me Anya."

Emily curtsied again but did not reply.

Though Anya's smile dimmed, she refused to give up trying to find a foothold in this new world she'd been thrown into. She wouldn't keep her sanity long if she couldn't be herself, if nowhere else than behind closed doors. "Are the three of you from Paris, or somewhere else?"

"All of us are Parisian-born, Your Grace." Emily answered for them all, her lips tight. The girl's emphasis on the title told Anya she had no intention of addressing her as anything else.

Anya scanned the faces of the other two maids while Pooka sniffed around at their feet. When Diedre cracked a tiny smile at him, Anya pounced on the opening. "And Diedre, was it? How long have you worked here?"

Diedre blinked. "Ah, just a year or so, Your Grace."

Anya's smile was relentless. "And how do you like it?"

"I..." Diedre cast a concerned glance toward Emily before looking back at Anya. "It is more than a girl like me could hope for, Your Highness," she said softly, smoothing a loose strand of hair back into her low bun.

Anya frowned. "What do you mean?" At this point, Anya could see the daggers Emily's eyes were throwing at poor Diedre, who had started to tremble. "Hey, it's okay - you won't get into trouble if you answer. Not by me." Anya let her smile stretch slow and Dimitri-like across her face and Diedre instantly calmed.

Anya didn't have long to muse on her own experiences with such a smile, since Diedre said, "I-I had no parents. A friend of mine helped me get this job." She swallowed.

"You grew up in an orphanage?"

"Yes, Your Highness."

Anya's grin broadened. "So did I."

Diedre finally looked up, a genuine smile on her round, rosy face.

Emily clapped her hands like Sophie had earlier, startling everyone. "Your Highness, I am sorry to interrupt, but we are short on time and must get you ready for breakfast." Her bitter tone did not suggest regret. She turned to her subordinates. "Come, ladies."

The three of them fell out of line into their individual tasks as if it were some kind of choreographed dance, leaving a deflated Anya to sag back against the chaise. Pooka jumped up from the floor to curl up at her hip. Anya stared at her bare feet, feeling like she could burst into tears. None of this felt right. None of it felt like her.

Her personal maid crew left her alone only for the half hour she managed to snatch for herself in the bath tub, after flat out refusing when Emily suggested she help her wash. Once she finished, Anya let Emily guide her to the center of the room, her firm hands poised to keep Anya's outstretched arms aloft. She droned on and on in her childish voice about all the obligations Anya would have to meet before the day ended. Anya remained quiet as the other two maids, blushing as they literally dressed her from head to toe, Diedre's hand attending to her hair trembling so badly she banged the top of Anya's head with the heavy silver hairbrush more than once, bringing tears to her eyes.

As she stood in the center of the little circle they'd formed around her, an insistent resentment tightened Anya's jaw. She loved her grandmother and Marie was all she needed. Anya didn't want any of this - this constant bowing and scraping, her inability to do anything on her own without fear of causing an embarrassing scene for breaking protocol.

Staying here and living this life day after day...the idea was as uncomfortable as the new shoes she stood in, a full size too small. Maybe they were the size everyone expected her to be. And maybe, had her feet not spent most of her childhood bare and unrestricted, they would have fit. But they didn't. Not the shoes, the corset, the tight hairstyle that had evoked a headache - none of it.

Life in The People's Orphanage had been hell, true, but the beatings had made Anya strong. The neglect had made her fiercely independent. The undernourishment had made her resilient and compassionate to others in need. So much lack had left her ever resourceful, always able to make something out of nothing at all.

All the values Anya held dear, the ones that had kept her alive, she'd learned there. Not in a palace.

Sophie gasped dramatically upon her return as she crossed the room to circle Anya, who stood stiffly with arms akimbo and not a single strand of hair out of place.

Anya tried to smile. "Hi."

"You look magnificent! Excellent, chéries."

The maids curtsied in unison and headed toward the door.

"We're following them out," Sophie said to Anya, slipping her plump arm into the crook of Anya's elbow. "First breakfast, then I'll show you to your room before your meeting with some of the high-profile guests who've already arrived for the party."

Anya gave her a mute nod, overwhelmed again. Diedre was the last maid to leave, and to Anya's surprise she spun to face her just as Anya reached the door. "It was a pleasure to meet you, Grand Duchess Anya," she said on a whisper, slipping something from the pocket of her apron into Anya's hand while Sophie's head was turned. She grinned and hurried away without waiting for a response. Anya stared after her in shock and glanced down at her opened palm.

Two small caramels wrapped in waxed paper. She smiled. There was hope for her yet.

With no pockets in her slinky drop-waist dress in which to secret them away, Anya's cheeks bulged after quickly unwrapping them and stuffing both into her mouth.

Sophie didn't notice. She prattled on with barely contained excitement as she propelled Anya through a labyrinth of hallways to the dining hall reserved for the royal family and their guests. Anya frowned as Sophie directed her to the end of the longest table Anya had ever seen.

She sat down and tucked her crumpled bits of waxed paper under the edge of her plate. "Is...anyone joining us?" Aside from the multitude of empty chairs feeling excessive, she missed her grandmother so much her chest hurt.

"No...it will just be us girls for breakfast," Sophie said as she sat next to her. "Marie will join you for tea later while I attend to some last minute details for your ball. Ah - speaking of which!"

Anya's heart dropped into her lap. "What about the ball?" The idea of a room full of people staring at her made her itch.

"Do you know how to dance with a partner - to waltz? With your...history, I hate to ask, but it's important for tonight." Sophie smiled at the male waiter who'd arrived with hot chocolate and fresh baguettes and butter, ghosting around them with hardly a sound.

Oh, Anya knew how to waltz. The warmth of Dimitri's hands on her body and his eyes staring into hers made sure she'd never forget the lesson.

She swallowed the hard, cold lump in her throat. "I do. I learned...recently."

"Ah, wonderful." Sophie poured chocolate that smelled surprisingly of spices into each of their porcelain cups without spilling a drop. Anya hung her head, her face tight. The warm scent just reminded her of Dimitri in his tux, wearing a nervous smile. "This evening should be easy then," Sophie continued, rocking in her seat with delight as she sipped at her chocolate with little hums of pleasure. "There are so many dignitaries coming last minute to see you! All the men will want a dance or two." She winked, then noticed Anya staring into her cup and cleared her throat. "Will your, ah, handsome 'friend' be in attendance? I know he caused a dreadful scene at the ballet, but I thought - "

"No." Anya raised her eyes with clenched teeth. No way she was talking about him. Or thinking about him. "The person of whom you speak is not coming, and please don't ever mention his name."

Sophie sobered and lowered her cup to its saucer with a careful clink. "Well, I - " she blinked long enough to erase the hurt look that had crossed her face. "Consider it done, dear."

Anya sighed. The last thing she wanted to do was hurt Sophie's feelings; she'd been so kind and seemed genuinely delighted to plan a ball in Anya's honor. Dimitri had even robbed her of common courtesy.

Forcing a smile and picking up her cup with both hands with sudden gusto, Anya said, "So tell me again - who all is coming to the ball?"

Sophie lit up anew as she spoke of the young, handsome grandsons and nephews of other royal families expected to attend the festivities, but it wasn't long until Anya's mind began to wander. What would she do if Dimitri showed up tonight? Besides have security escort him out. She almost wanted him to, just so she could have the satisfaction of spitting in his face.

Breakfast finished, Sophie dragged Anya into the kitchen to meet the entire staff. Anya's three maids were there along with several others, standing in the long line of butlers and cooks and valets that stretched all the way through the elongated room. Anya offered a grateful smile to Deidre as she passed and was happy to see it returned.

Sophie also insisted on showing her around the entire royal residence and grounds. Anya found everything beautiful in a detached way, as if she were a visitor herself admiring a local landmark. She despised that she somehow saw Dimitri in every flowering fruit tree and sculpted shrub they encountered. So stupid. She never wanted to see his face again after what he did to her. It didn't make sense that her mind couldn't seem to let him go.

The rest of the morning whizzed by in a blur of pleasantries with foreign nobility who couldn't wait until the ball to make Anya's acquaintance. Everyone was perfectly powdered and rouged and slick with pomade as they lunched in the formal dining room, and each of them studied Anya like she was some kind of zoo exhibit as they ate. The whole ordeal was as painful as the straps of her shoes digging into the tops of her feet. All she could think of was how happy and free she had felt lying barefoot in the grass next to Dimitri with sunshine pouring over them, blissfully ignorant to his nefarious plans to stab her in the back.

Already exhausted, Anya powered through the endless curtsies and fake smiles until Sophie finally showed her to her own room - her grandmother's quarters in miniature, which only meant it was the size of a room in an everyday mansion instead of a royal palace. Anya paid no attention to the abundant paintings and precious artifacts on display on the walls and shelves; she only had eyes for the bed.

Sophie's laughter tinkled as she watched Anya launch herself face-first across the soft mattress. "Don't get too comfortable; you have tea with your grandmother in twenty minutes. There's another dress for you to change into in the closet. I'll send the maids back here to - "

"No! Sophie please...I promise I can dress myself."

Leaning on the door frame, Sophie crossed her arms and looked honestly perturbed for the first time. "I understand, but there are certain standards we have to keep here that are centuries old - "

"I promise I won't say another word about it after this. Please." Anya rose up onto her knees and clasped her hands before her, poking out her bottom lip.

"Fine," Sophie said with an eye roll that warred with her emerging smirk. "Meet the Dowager in the dining room and don't you dare be late. I'd walk you there myself but there's an issue with the roses I've ordered..."

Anya had stopped listening, already scrambling off the bed to the closet. She shed her current ensemble and threw on the cobalt velvet confection hanging inside, making quick work of its silk sash around her waist. It coordinated with her current shoes, and since the maids apparently didn't leave any other accessories, she lamented that there was no chance of changing into a more comfortable pair.

Sophie promised to retrieve Anya for her gown fitting in an hour, so Anya hurried to find her way back to the dining room. She discovered the Dowager seated at the head of the table where Anya had been a couple of hours before.

She glanced up with a brilliant smile and Anya felt the sun shining in her heart again.

"Grandmama." Ignoring her pinched feet, Anya dashed across the room into her grandmother's outstretched arms.

"Hello, my love." Marie held on tightly as Anya buried her face in her neck, inhaling the soft peppermint scent forever etched into her memory. She took a long time to draw back and the Dowager didn't rush her.

Feeling much calmer, Anya sat in the nearest chair and scooted as close as she could get. Marie held Anya's hand on the table. "How are you?" Her eyes searched Anya's face.

Anya tamped down the distress she'd been wrestling with all day and grinned. "I'm much better now."

"Good." Marie smiled back, handing Anya a bowl of lemons and a pair of tiny silver tongs. "You look lovely; that color suits you. Sophie chose very well."

The Dowager Empress looked stunning in her emerald day gown with its wide lace collar, but Anya didn't comment like she'd intended. Her mind had latched onto the simple fact that Sophie had picked out her clothes. It made sense, but...

Would it always be like this? Not having any say in something as mundane as an outfit for tea with her own grandmother?

Anya fell silent and plunked a few lemon slices into her tea cup.

"Did you hear me, darling?" A frown formed between the Dowager's immaculate brows. She studied Anya while pouring steaming water into her granddaughter's cup.

"I'm sorry - I didn't. What did you say?"

Marie placed the silver teapot on the table with more care than was due. "I asked if you liked your bedroom."

"Oh! Oh yes, it's...perfect. Everything is, thank you." Anya smiled again, noticing the motion had started to feel robotic. She reached for a crustless cucumber sandwich on the tiered tray on the table between them and nibbled on the end.

She had to stop this. She should be happy. This was everything - more than everything - she had ever wanted.

"You would tell me if something were wrong, wouldn't you?" The Dowager folded her hands beneath her chin, her eyes unblinking. Unsettling.

Anya gulped. Marie was more perceptive than she would have thought, but what could Anya tell her? She missed the freedom of being poor? That she was still in love with a man who'd sold her like a prized cow?

"Of course, Grandmama." She held her earnest expression in place, mimicking what she'd seen on Dimitri's face time and again. At least he'd taught her how to make a lie sound like the God-honest truth.

Marie cocked her head. "Are you quite sure? I don't ever want you to feel as if you need to hide anything from me."

"I'm sure, I promise." Anya pulled her cheeks back in another smile and took of sip of her hot lemon water. Anything she said would come out ungrateful and petty, and Anya was neither.

"Oh, Anastasia," Marie said on a sigh.

Anya actually bristled. She couldn't help it. She thought hearing her given name on a regular basis would break it in, make it feel normal and comfortable, but it hadn't. Now she feared it never would. That name and the life attached to it...it may have been her birthright, but the weight of it grew every time Anya heard it, and she wasn't sure she'd ever be able to properly uphold it.

But it didn't matter. Anya couldn't afford to disappoint the one person in the world who loved at least a part of her. Even if it was a part Anya barely remembered.

She cleared her throat to break the heavy silence. "I'm looking forward to the ball tonight, Grandmama. Sophie said it's going to be quite the affair." She stuffed half a watercress sandwich into her mouth so she didn't have to force another smile. It tasted like grass and she suppressed a grimace.

The Dowager's smile was genuine, if not suspicious. "Are you? I was concerned it would be overwhelming for you, but -"

"Not at all! I'm excited about it. Besides, Sophie said I'm getting my court gown today."

Marie actually giggled. "She is probably more excited about it than you are, I'm willing to bet."

They both turned at a soft knock on the wood-paneled door across the room. A butler poked his head inside. "Your Majesty, it's ready."

Marie nodded, dabbing at her mouth with her cloth napkin before standing. "I'm afraid I have to take my leave for now, darling. More business to attend to."

Anya thought she'd have a little more time with her. She swallowed her disappointment and stood as well, falling into her grandmother's embrace again. Marie pulled back after leaving two soft kisses on each of Anya's cheeks, gently holding her chin with the fingertips of both hands and looking deep into her eyes. "I'll see you at the ball."

Anya returned to her seat after Marie's exit and mechanically stuffed whole finger sandwiches and scones into her mouth.

Approaching from behind a little later, Sophie laughed when she caught Anya licking a bit of clotted cream off her knuckles. "How do you expect to fit into your gown, eating like that?" Changed for the night's event, she placed her hands on her hips, the movement gathering the lush maroon velvet of her own ball gown at her fingertips. Her up-swept hair had been topped with a simple but stately gold tiara.

Anya jumped, shamefaced. She'd eaten through an entire tier, having been too self-conscious to eat much at lunch with all the gawking going on. "Sorry," she mumbled around a wad of sweet pastry, but Sophie was already shooing her toward the door to head to the seamstress' quarters.

Anya's nerves eased somewhat under the hands of the chatty seamstress, her comfy room packed so with dress forms and bolts of fabric there was hardly space to turn around. Careful of Anya's hair, Sophie helped her drop the heavy gown over Anya's head inside-out so the seamstress could pin it in place on her body. Anya stood like a statue on a small platform as the woman hand sewed the needed changes, not keen on getting poked with the needle. Sophie giggled at the seamstress' incessant gossip from her post against the wall all the while. Anya had no idea who they were talking about, but their shared laughter eased the knot of tension in her stomach.

Sophie assisted again when the seamstress finished, this time helping Anya slide into a pair of formal shoes - ones no more comfortable than their predecessors - before helping the seamstress reverse the gown and hold it open the from the bottom so Anya could put it on correctly. Heart pounding, Anya gingerly ducked under their hands with her arms up and let them settle the many yards of fabric over her head. The seamstress checked the fit with eagle eyes, adjusting with a tug on the bodice here and there.

Sophie answered the knock on the door and brought in a large box, placing it on the small sofa against the wall.

Anya eyed the royal seal engraved on the top. "What's that?" Reverence made her whisper.

Sophie grinned. "From the Dowager. She is so sorry she wasn't able to give it to you herself." Sophie eased the lid open and Anya couldn't stop her sudden intake of breath. Inside the box was a tall crown reminiscent of a clam's shell, inlaid with more diamonds than Anya could had ever imagined. Nestled beneath it against the dark velvet interior was a folded satin sash of ocean blue.

"It belonged to your mother," Sophie said gently, eyes glistening with pride and sadness. The seamstress stepped aside so Anya could bend at the waist, and Sophie placed the crown carefully atop Anya's head before draping the royal sash over her shoulder.

Anya straightened and her reflection in the full length mirror near the sewing table left her breathless. The gown left the curves of her shoulders exposed, but her bare arms were free courtesy of elegant slashed sleeves that reached toward the floor. A pattern of crystal-encrusted filigrees on either side of the tight bodice repeated down a split skirt rich with gold metallic threads that gleamed, revealing a blush pink underskirt of shimmering silk. She looked...

She looked like a princess. Through and through. Anya held her head high, shoulders pressed back the way Dimitri and Vladimir had taught her. Turning her head this way and that, she tried to see herself and the crown from as many angles as possible. That girl, the one looking back at her with determination in her eyes - she deserved to be here.

Sophie was beside herself. "I cannot tell you how incredible you look!" She bounced on her toes in her high heels. "Come, let's go out into the atrium in the good light."

When seamstress squealed in delighted agreement and followed them out, Anya laughed in spite of herself. In the grand hall, with all the sunlight streaming in through the tall windows, Anya sparkled like a precious jewel and needed no encouragement to twirl again and again.

As high as her spirits soared, gravity returned one hundred fold the second she spotted Dimitri walking down the grand staircase.

Everything Anya had ever felt for him - the rage, the hurt, the gratefulness, the soul-rending love - landed on her shoulders at once, making her hands and knees shake with the brunt force of it all. She glanced up at the top of the stairs, noting he had to be coming from the main study. Anya had learned throughout the course of the day that only her grandmother used that room.

So he was the reason afternoon tea ended early. He and his goddamned reward.

She watched him descend one step at a time in what seemed like slow motion, his eyes never leaving the ground before him. He'd almost reached the bottom when Anya realized in alarm he had no intention of looking up.

So he thought he'd escape with his millions scot-free? Not a fucking chance.

Her pulse raced as she abandoned Sophie and the seamstress and moved in front of the landing to block his way, eyes blazing her fury. She would make him see her.

"Hello, Dimitri." Hands balled into fists, she practically barked his name. Everything in Anya wanted to make a scene. Though those days were behind her now, he would see no more softness or warmth in her, so help her God. He deserved only stone.

He stopped and raised his head. "Hello." When he met her eyes, all she saw was a cool distance. Anya supposed money did change people after all.

There was so much she wanted to say. So many names she wanted to call him, so many questions she wanted to demand answered. They all crowded her mouth as he stared blankly at her, looking for all the world as if he were waiting in line for a bus.

"You're looking well, Dimitri," Anya said in an effort to bait him into an argument, not bothering to hide her vicious sneer. "Off to spend your riches, I presume?"

He chuckled darkly. Anya didn't care that it sounded odd; she still wanted to sock him in the throat. "My business is complete," he said, holding up his hands in a gesture meant to put an end to her interrogation.

As if it ever could.

Before she could open her mouth with a lethal retort, the major domo peered around the corner with a disapproving scowl, drawing both their stares. "Eh, young man...you will bow and address the princess as 'Your Highness'."

Anya stayed the little old man with gesture of her hand, a hot flush burning her neck. She wanted to hate Dimitri and was well on her way to quelling the love she still had for him, but they were beyond that level of formality. He knew too much about her. They had been through...too much together. "No, that's not nece -"

"Please." Dimitri interrupted her with an upheld hand before bowing low. Anya watched him and tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear with trembling fingers. "Your Highness." He rose, his expression a picture of graciousness that replaced Anya's embarrassment with bitterness. "I'm glad you found what you were looking for."

Part of her believed him. He had been just as invested in this venture as she, just for an entirely different - and revolting - reason. Anya raised her chin to ensure she looked down at him through her narrowed eyes. "I'm glad you did, too."

Dimitri's raised brows made him look nonchalant. Anya didn't doubt it. He had his money now, probably wired into a bank account since she didn't find him scuttling away with a bulging sack slung over his back. "Well, then...goodbye." He bowed again briefly, adding as an afterthought as his dark eyes scanned her face once more, "Your Highness."

He was down the last few steps and out of sight before Anya could blink again, leaving her to speak the last word she'd ever say to him to the space he'd vacated: "Goodbye."

She stared after him for a long time, feeling unanchored and lost. Her gravity was gone now.

"Your Grace...is there anything you require?" Back so hunched with age he stood half her height, the major domo smiled up at her.

Anya shook herself. "Ah...no, thank you. I - " She stopped, so drained all of a sudden she could hardly find the strength to speak. "Could you tell Sophie I'm going to my room? I need to lie down for a while."

"Of course." He bowed and stepped aside.

Anya gathered her skirts and forced herself to walk at a dignified pace to her room; she needed to be alone so badly she wanted to run.

A napping Pooka didn't stir at her entrance on his little floor pillow by the bathroom. Anya fell onto her back on the bed, stiff as a board, her heavy crown and corset making a comfortable position - or normal breathing - impossible. God, she wished she could sleep and forget everything, just for a little while. Every time she closed her eyes she saw Dimitri smiling at her. Could feel his strong arms around her, making her brave. His soft lips on hers, lighting her on fire.

Anya threw an arm over her eyes to block out the light of the chandelier.

She'd never see him again.

Why was it, now that he was truly gone, her memories of what she loved about him had grown stronger than that of his treachery?

Anya started at a knock, then rolled her eyes. It seemed her life had become a laborious dance of answering the polite rapping on closed doors. Probably a handmaid come to rouse her early for the ball. She detested the realization that she would rather fight with Dimitri the rest of her life than be put on display like a prized stallion tonight.

She looked back at the ceiling, not bothering to get up. She needed another few minutes to be her own person. "Come in."

The door opened, closing again with a quiet click. "You look even more beautiful than I had imagined, Your Grace."

Anya sat up so quickly her head swam. Vladimir stood at the room's entrance in a smart navy blue military jacket and crisp cream trousers, but his bowed head and slumped shoulders hinted that he was less proud than his attire suggested.

"Please," he said with raised hands as he moved a few steps closer, sensing Anya about to send him packing. "I know you do not want to see me. You do not have to speak. Just listen."

Flushed with heat, Anya's anger at his involvement in Dimitri's scheme made her skin crawl. Vladimir had a lot of gall coming to her room.

Hands behind his back, he got right to the point. "I will be brief. What I did to you was wrong. Abhorrent. I know this. We - I - violated your trust in order to save myself. I have never been a perfect man. It is not an excuse, but..." he paused, eyes boring into Anya's from across the room. "I want you to know that I am truly sorry for how I hurt you. I love you as much as I had my own daughter...you have made me desire to be better than what I have always been, and I will spend the rest of my life in your debt."

He'd had a daughter? What happened to -

Anya clenched her jaw, refusing to be touched by his admission or apology. It didn't matter. None of it did anymore. "Is that all?"

He coughed in such a way that Anya suspected he'd hidden his hands to hide their wringing. "No. I saw Dimitri before he left and -"

"I saw him, too." Anya's hot stare could have melted iron. "And he had an opportunity to speak for himself. But he didn't." Her lip curled. "So good riddance."

Vladimir acknowledged her with a slow nod. "I see." He reached into his jacket and walked to the bed. "I will leave you, then." Bowing, he left his offering near Anya's hand on the embroidered coverlet. "Long live the Romanovs."

Anya stared at the long-stemmed rose long after Vladimir had closed the door behind him, eyes welling with tears. The unexpected happiness she had found with he and Dimitri, when they had nothing but the clothes on their backs and each other to rely on, was lost to her forever. She learned a long time ago nothing in life was free; finding the family she had been born to had cost her the one she had made along the way.

Sophie found her sitting on the edge of the bed a while later, still feeling like her chest had been caved in.

"Darling," Sophie sang as she danced into the room. "It's time!" She cast a curious eye at the rose but said nothing, all smiles as she grabbed both of Anya's hands and pulled her to a stand. Anya winced as her shoes cut anew into her swollen feet.

"Wait until you see the turnout! I think every royal in the world has come out to see you!"

Anya tried to smile but couldn't quite accomplish it.

Sophie was undeterred. She'd arrived with a smaller box embossed with the royal seal - this time containing diamonds in the form of a choker and matching earrings. Numb, Anya barely glanced at them.

No sooner had she donned the jewels than Sophie swept her down the hall toward the grand ballroom. "I know you're tired, but you'll perk up once you see what I mean!" She wrapped an arm around Anya's waist and squeezed.

Anya doubted it. The knot in her gut that had plagued her most of the day was back and worse than ever after her interlude with Dimitri and Vladimir's visit, now wrenching her lungs of air and making it hard to breathe.

Sophie delivered Anya to the backstage area before running off again to deal with some appetizer disaster. Anya could hear the soft classical music of the band, muffled by a heavy theater curtain.

Curiosity got the best of her and Anya tiptoed forward, her heels clicking against the polished parquet floor. She slipped a hand into a gap between the curtains and peeked out into the ballroom. It looked like something out of a fairy tale. Twinkling lights were strung like banners from the very top of the high ceiling to the ground floor, as well as across every arched entrance to the dance floor. Couples were out laughing and dancing, twirling in blurs of color and sparkle. Hundreds of people chatting and sipping expensive champagne crowded the balconies, stretching so far along either side of the dance floor that those at the ends looked like writhing groups of ants - all of them there to witness Anya's spectacle.

Her moment of awe ended when she caught sight of the single opulent high-backed chair placed in the center of the raised dais just beyond the curtain. Intricately carved, covered in gold leaf, cushions the color of the royal blood in her veins. Empty only because she was hiding in the shadows.

Anya's gut seized to the point of painful nausea. Her gaze flickered over the dance floor, searching in vain for the one person who made her feel like she belonged to herself, someone she knew she'd never lay eyes on again.

"He's not there, you know."

"Oh, I know he's not, he - " Anya broke off, realizing too late she'd responded to her grandmother's soft statement in a moment of vulnerability. Had she read her mind?

Her warmth and peppermint aroma enveloped Anya from behind as Marie placed her hands on Anya's shoulders and squeezed gently, reassuringly.

Blushing at being caught, Anya turned into Marie's embrace and blinked like a naughty child trying to charm her way out of punishment. "Who's not there, Grandmama?"

Marie smirked. "A remarkable young man...who found a music box." She slipped past Anya to peer out of the curtain.

"Remarkably selfish, I'd say." Frowning, Anya joined her, seeing nothing but Dimitri's face as he said his last goodbye. "He's probably too busy spending his reward money as fast as he can."

Marie looked resplendent in her own court gown, a simpler but no less sumptuous version of Anya's in royal blue velvet with plum-colored trim. Her crown sparkled in the muted light of the wall sconces behind them as she turned to Anya with a tiny smile, one imbued with a sadness Anya didn't understand. "Hm," was Marie's reply.

Anya raised a curious eyebrow as the Dowager watched the couples on the dance floor swaying in time to the music. "Look at them dance...you were born into this world of glittering jewels and fine titles, but...I wonder if this is what you really want." Her hand found Anya's shoulder again, her expression warm and knowing.

Knowing what?

Anya just felt confused, as well as guilty for not making more of an effort to settle into her new life with some semblance of grace and gratitude. "Of course! Of course it is. I found what I was looking for. I found out who I am. I found you. That's all I need."

Marie took Anya's hand, letting the curtain close at last. "My Anastasia," she whispered, a hitch in her voice. She traced Anya's face as she had the night they reunited and said, "Yes, you did find me. And you will always have me. But is it enough?"

As she folded Anya into her soft arms and held her there, Anya felt consumed with dread. Did she break a rule sometime during the day? Did her grandmother have to put her out on the street now and was trying to gently break the news? "I don't know what you - "

"My darling," Marie said, her voice breaking in earnest as she pulled away. Anya watched tears gather in her eyes, their shimmering rivaling the diamonds in her crown. "He didn't take the money."

"What?" Anya's heart stopped. The world stopped. " He-he didn't -"

"No." Marie smiled even as she dabbed her tears away with a knuckle. "He accepted my gratitude for your safe return but left the money, quite literally, on the table."

After its initial seizure at her grandmother's declaration, Anya's heart jerked so hard she began to tremble from head to toe. What did that mean? "I saw him, as he was leaving, but he didn't say anything..." Anya began to pace with measured steps, watching her own feet. "Did...did he say why?" When she looked up and stared at Marie, Anya had the oddest sensation of looking into a mirror of her future.

"He did not." Marie inclined her head. "But I think you know."

If Dimitri didn't take the reward, did that mean he'd meant what he told her the night of the ballet? But, if that were true, how could he just walk out on her and let her believe...

"I don't know anything," Anya said, throat closing. This was worse. Knowing Dimitri had simply chosen to exit her life - without the millions for which he'd risked everything - just made her feel...abandoned.

Marie's sadness drained away and her face shone with pride as she stepped back to take Anya in once more. "Knowing that you are alive, seeing the woman you have become, brings me joy I never thought I could feel again." She leaned forward to press an earnest kiss to Anya's forehead. "However, if there is one thing I have learned in all our years apart, it's that life is both precious and short." Marie grabbed both of Anya's hands and squeezed them. "If you want answers, track him down and demand them, Anya. Before it's too late."

But what if Dimitri was already gone? What if he wanted something from her she just couldn't give? What if he wasn't the person she thought he was, that she had fallen in love with, and she -

Did the Dowager just call her Anya?

Having turned away to process the storm brewing in her head, Anya stopped and gaped at her grandmother. "How did you know -"

"I am fairly observant for an old woman." In Marie's smile Anya saw kindness, and understanding, and a beautiful, selfless, unconditional love. This single simple gesture of acceptance, calling her by the only name Anya knew inside and out, made Anya feel in that moment she was already everything she ever needed to be.

Her eyes burned and she let herself fall into Marie's outstretched arms as she had before, this time feeling the familial love she craved reach all the way to her scarred heart. Marie had no other reason to reveal the truth about Dimitri than to give Anya the tools to create her own future, knowing Anya might have to leave her behind to use them so soon after finding her again.

Anya grasped at her like a lifeline, shaking with gratitude. "Thank you, Grandmama."

Tears slipped freely down the Dowager's cheeks. "Whatever you choose, we will always have each other." Anya nodded at her with a watery smile when she withdrew and Marie gave Anya's palm a kiss before releasing her. Whirling in a swish of skirts to collect herself, Anya's mind went to work. If Dimitri had left the reward money, he couldn't have gotten far; they were practically penniless by the time they'd made it to Paris. He wouldn't have left by boat. Too long a trip, especially if he were going back to St. Petersburg. If he even planned to go back. The train made the most sense, but how many train stations were there in this city?

"Grandmama, can't you tell me -"

Her question died on her lips when she turned to find Marie had stepped beyond the curtain and out of sight, leaving her alone.

Anya sighed hard. What the hell was she thinking? She had every right to this life set before her. So what if Dimitri didn't take the money? He'd left her without a second thought.

Jaw set, Anya marched right up to the curtain, pulled it aside, took one step toward her destiny -

And stopped.

She couldn't do it. She couldn't move forward, in any sense of the phrase. Not without knowing for sure.

Anya hiked up her skirts and hightailed it in the opposite direction, out into the vestibule, her grandmother's blessing buoying her above her own doubts. She startled a butler hustling toward the ballroom with a silver tray of canapés and made him guide her to the kitchens after bracing herself on his shoulder to kick off her ridiculous formal pumps.

She found a lounging Vladimir stuffing his face with foie gras and caviar near the stove, exactly where the butler said he would be.

He choked when he saw her.

"Vlad," Anya said with every ounce of regal authority she possessed, ignoring his coughing and the stares of the kitchen staff. "There's something I need you to do for me."