Note: This was inspired by Holly Marie Fowl's very cute story "Speak Now", although it otherwise has nothing to do with that. Put simply, I love Anastasia and wanted to play with her myself. The girl may be a saint now, but when she was alive… well, I still think the best term is "holy terror".
And before anyone asks: yes, there will be more. :)
"The most important thing when ill is to never lose heart."
- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin
This has barking disaster written across it in twenty-foot-high letters.
The servant announces her, and Deryn remembers to curtsy, not bow, as she enters the solarium. For all the good it does her: she's promptly blinded by a camera flash and her bum nearly ends up on the tiled floor.
She blinks hard, catching her balance again as she clears her vision. Barking disaster.
Across the solarium, Grand Duchess Anastasia of Russia lowers the camera. "So sorry, Miss Sharp," she says – a politeness belied by the sly twinkle in her eyes. Her English is perfect, with no trace of an accent. "It's a wedding present, and I haven't entirely figured out the flash. Clankers make everything so complicated, on purpose I believe. They've a mania for gears, don't they?"
What do you say to that? Thrown off-balance in more ways than one, Deryn settles on, "It's a lovely camera."
Anastasia gives it a critical glance. "I prefer my old firefly, but Mother insisted I leave that at home. Danke, Johann," she says to the servant, who bows and leaves. "Please, have a seat, Miss Sharp."
Deryn waits until Anastasia sits before she takes a chair herself; she knows that much protocol, at least. Feeling like a trespasser in the palace she's made her home for years, she keeps a wary eye on the other young woman.
They're of the same age, nearly. The Grand Duchess has reddish-blonde hair and blue eyes, but isn't very pretty, and is dressed rather carelessly, although she smells strongly of perfume. Deryn is several inches taller; Anastasia outweighs her by at least a stone, if not more, and is thick in all the wrong places.
But Anastasia's father is the Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, and her blood is as royal as they come – more royal, in fact, than her soon-to-be husband's. And much, much more royal than Deryn could ever hope to be.
"Thank you for inviting me, Your Highness," Deryn says, trying not to let the words stick in her throat.
"Anastasia Nikolaevna, please," the other young woman says. The sly twinkle returns. "It's how all of my servants at home address me."
And what do you say to that? Deryn has the sudden urge to whack Anastasia Nikolaevna over the sodding head with her new camera. Luckily, she's saved by the arrival of a servant with tea things. Anastasia thanks this one by name, too, and unlike her comments to Deryn, the kindness seems sincere.
Deryn sips at her tea and wonders, again, why she agreed to attend this farce – and why the Grand Duchess would want to meet in the first place.
Anastasia is in no apparent hurry to enlighten her. She's looking around the floor and chairs, teacup and saucer balanced in one hand. "Where did Sasha get to...? Sasha!" She leans over the arm of her chair and whistles like a sailor. Little clawed feet immediately skitter toward them, and suddenly there's a miniature bear wobbling around the Grand Duchess' legs.
"There you are, my baby," Anastasia coos, picking up the fabricated beastie one-handed and plopping it into her lap. It licks at her chin and the bottom of her teacup. "Isn't it darling? Father gave it to me."
"Aye, it's dead adorable," Deryn agrees, enchanted despite herself. Sasha is just like a proper bear - brown fur, black eyes, stubby tail - only smaller than a cat. Cuddlier than a real bear, too. (Or some cats, for that matter; her auntie's comes to mind.)
Sasha makes a yowling sort of grumble when it sees it's not going to be getting a snack, and hops down from Anastasia's lap again to snuffle around the floor.
" 'It's dead adorable," Anastasia says, perfectly mimicking Deryn's accent, but giving the words a nasty twist. "What a charming turn of phrase. Is that how everyone talks in Scotland?"
"I wouldn't know," Deryn says shortly, "I'm only from Glasgow. Is this how everyone in Russia treats their guests?"
Anastasia's blue eyes go wide in false innocence. "I wouldn't know; I'm only from St. Petersburg. As is that little fellow." She crooks a finger at Sasha. "Apparently all the fashionable Viennese ladies must have one now. A fine revenge, don't you think? Seeing a Clanker general forced to buy a Russian bear for his daughter… or his wife… or his mistress."
Deryn puts her teacup down with a clatter. "Four years," she says, angry.
"I'm sorry?" Anastasia asks. There's nothing apologetic about it.
Her temper is getting the best of her, and her voice rises as she goes: "Four years Alek and I have been together. And I don't regret a second of it, so you can take your bear and your camera and get stuffed! Your Highness."
Anastasia blinks at her. Then – incredibly – the Grand Duchess turns her head and laughs.
There's a bit of a cackle to it, as if she's a wee devil that's finally met it's match. The impression isn't helped by the sidelong glance Anastasia gives Deryn: full of mischief and plotting.
"And imagine," Anastasia says, saluting with her teacup, "I didn't think I'd like you, Miss Sharp."
"I still don't like you, if that makes you feel better," Deryn says.
The other girl flaps one hand in a dismissive wave. "Of course you don't. I'm usurping your place – I'm not so naïve as to fail to realize that. You really needn't worry; I'm sure he and I will grow fond of each other in time, but truth to tell, Aleksandar Ferdinand seems rather dull. If that makes you feel better," she adds, mocking again.
Deryn gives the camera another glance. It looks heavy enough to put a sizable dent in someone's head; all those gears, you know. "Oh, I feel just brilliant, thank you, Your Highness."
"Anastasia Nikolaevna, please." Her smile has a cruel edge. "It's touching, really, how desperately he tried to avoid this. Do you know, he hired people to trace your family tree, hoping for the tiniest drop of royal blood? Of course they didn't find anything. You're as common as dirt."
Well, that's the end of this disaster.
Deryn stands and brushes off her skirts – barking stupid things; she ought to have worn trousers – and says, "You're lucky I don't fancy starting a diplomatic crisis today. I'm leaving."
The Grand Duchess makes a moue of false disappointment. "But you haven't finished your tea."
Deryn snaps, "I mean I'm leaving Austria. As soon as I bloody well can."
For the first time, Anastasia seems caught by surprise. She blinks. "Why?"
Now it's Deryn's turn to laugh – except all she can manage is a short, unamused bark. "Why would I stay? I'm not keen on adultery."
Anastasia sets down her teacup and saucer to pick up her camera. "I'm so sorry, I wasn't aware that fallen women had rules about these things – Sasha! Sasha, look at me, malenkaya!"
Sasha turns its head just as the flash pops. It sneezes and swipes at its eyes with its front paws, grumbling.
"- and, besides," Anastasia continues without missing a beat, "I hardly think it's wise for you to be traveling. In your condition."
The last three words hang in the brightly lit air, echoing and ringing like a challenge. For a long moment the only sound is Sasha's miniature snuffling.
"I hardly think it's wise," Deryn says softly, deadly, "for you to say another word."
Anastasia turns her head and cackles with delight. "You can't threaten me, Miss Sharp; I haven't anything left to lose! My family, my faith, my homeland – I've given all of them up so that I might come here and marry a dull man who can only talk about you."
"Why don't you go home, then?"
"I can't. Russia needs this alliance." She blows an imaginary speck of dust off of the camera lens. "Papa needs it. Now that he has no heir, the empire is teetering. Surely you are familiar with the delicacies of a disputed succession."
"Aye, and I'm sorry for the loss of your brother," Deryn says, getting impatient, "but if you expect sympathy –"
Anastasia waves her off. "No, no. Dislike me all you wish; rest assured I'm doing the same to you. But I would like to secure your cooperation."
"With insults?" Deryn asks tartly.
The Grand Duchess smiles, sly and secret. "Well, I had to take your measure."
Fair enough; Deryn's been taking hers, too. What she's seen she hasn't much liked, but then, you can't expect to like the woman who's swooped in to marry your man. Anastasia Nikolaevna just makes it easier by being a barking witch.
Still… "How did you know about my 'condition'?"
"You were thoroughly researched by the Ministry of Internal Affairs before Papa accepted the marriage proposal." Anastasia picks up her tea and takes a sip, her tone and demeanor suggesting such a thing is entirely normal. "The Okhrana still have spies in your household."
Deryn sits back down, hard. Spies? Who? The maid, the cook – not the butler, surely? This is exactly why she told Alek she didn't want to fuss about with staff and servants. Too many eyes, too many ears, and what does she need a maid for anyway?
She bites her tongue on a stronger, more appropriate curse and goes with, "Blisters."
"Mm, yes, quite." Anastasia tilts her head to one side, then the other, as though she's trying to find the best angle for another photograph of Deryn. Diffidently, she says, "It's a shame, you know. People in our positions so seldom work together."
Deryn pulls herself together and glares at the other girl. "Maybe that's because they dislike each other."
Anastasia lifts her teacup, acknowledging the point scored. "Be that as it may, we have a mutual interest."
"Alek," she says, to which Anastasia shakes her head.
Despite herself, Deryn puts a hand to her stomach – still reasonably flat. She hasn't had to let any of her clothes out yet, and she doubts Alek has noticed; she doesn't intend to tell him, either. This is all heartbreaking enough as it is. What good would it do, to add to his pain?
"I'm not going to interfere in the succession –" she begins.
"But that's exactly what I want you to do," Anastasia says, cutting her off.
Anastasia glances around, then leans forward and says, low and serious, "What do you know about hemophilia, Miss Sharp?"