There was almost too much to absorb at once—Etta saw her stunned reflection in the mirror that hung over the small fireplace, just past the gold clock and candelabras artfully arranged on the mantel.
Etta was led to a seat two over from the tsar, beside Henry, who sat at his right. Winifred, preening, sat to the tsar’s left, and beside her was Jenkins, who seemed as much at a loss as Etta over what to do with himself. Missing were the other Thorn bodyguard and Julian, who, despite being invited to the palace, was not welcome in the tsar’s company. She thought that wise, given the havoc his grandfather had brought to this side of the world in the other timeline.
A footman pulled out her yellow-silk-covered chair for her, guiding it back in once she’d settled into place. Now that she was sitting, the arrangement of the table seemed egalitarian—the tsar could easily look at and speak to everyone around him. It did have the trappings of some kind of a family dinner in that way, at least.
And then, the elaborate dance that was their meal began. Soup was spooned into Etta’s bowl, and small meat pies were placed on one of the plates. Etta’s eyes slid over to Henry, watching him watch the tsar. Once he began eating, so did Henry, and, for that matter, so did Etta. With gusto. She’d had a bit of bread in San Francisco, and a little fruit at the hotel where they’d changed, but nothing as filling as the rich, creamy soup, or as warm as the meat pies.
“Tell me,” Henry said into the silence, “how does your wife fare, Your Imperial Majesty? She was unwell during my last visit, and I regret I wasn’t able to see her.”
“She’s much improved, thank you,” the tsar said. “She is enjoying life outside of Petrograd, and it gives me pleasure to see her so content.”
“Indeed,” Henry said. “I’m glad to hear it.”
As he finished his course, Henry set his cutlery on the plate and his hands in his lap. Within seconds, one of the waiters was there to clear. Winifred did the same, and like magic—or at least a well-rehearsed stage production—another waiter swept in.
Etta did the same, and was still surprised by the speed at which her bowl and small plate were taken, and by the sudden realization that each diner had his or her own waiter to serve them. The tsar’s, even more surprisingly, was an older gentleman, who seemed to bow beneath the weight of his heavy tray. Etta watched in sympathy as the tsar subtly helped steady the waiter’s trembling arm when he refilled his wineglass.
Winifred’s and Jenkins’s waiters exchanged a glance over the table at the sight, young and robust compared to Etta’s own waiter, who looked as if he was on the verge of being ill. He was pale-faced and sweating profusely at the brow as he carried another tray out.
The next course was fish, Dviena sterlet in champagne sauce, for which Winifred went into such overblown raptures that Etta felt embarrassed to be sitting at the same table as her. Next came chicken in a richly flavored sauce she couldn’t identify, and, because that wasn’t enough meat, a course of ham. Each was served with a different kind of wine; there was so much of it that Winifred looked ready for a nap, and Etta herself had to switch to mineral water to keep from sliding out of her chair.
Some pirate, she thought. Can’t even handle a few glasses of wine.
Etta was still picking at her ham when the tsar finished his plate. Another apparent rule: when the tsar was finished, so were you, regardless of whether or not you were still eating. Etta lost her plate with the fork still in her mouth.
“Peach compote, my favorite!” Winifred crooned as the next batch of small plates was brought out. Jellies, ice cream, compotes—Etta was afraid that if she ate even one more bite she might be sick. Her waiter might actually have been sick. His hands shook as he set the last of the plates down in front of her, shook so badly that the porcelain clattered against the table. Etta could have sworn she felt a drop of sweat hit her bare neck. She turned toward Henry, to find his narrowed eyes already tracking the progress of Etta’s waiter as he made his way back around the table. Etta felt a jump in her pulse like a staccato note.
“I remembered as much,” the tsar said. “I’m sure they had quite the time finding peaches during this season, but it’s worth it to see the smile on your face.”
Etta’s waiter had left the room at last, and a new waiter swept in, moving to the sideboard. He lifted a wine bottle out of an ice bucket. It looked no different than any of the others, with the tsar’s monogram and the imperial insignia, but as he turned back to the table, he held it by its neck, not its base.
“You are too kind,” Winifred said. “I’m sure it was—”
Jenkins lurched up out of his seat. “Iron—”
One minute Etta was seated; the next she was falling back, knocked over by the force of Henry’s arm as it smashed across her chest. In the sliver of an instant before she hit the ground, she saw the waiter raise the bottle of wine and send it sailing down onto the table, between the tsar and Winifred. Just before the glass shattered, two words tore from the man’s throat.
The whole of Henry’s weight drove into her, knocking the breath from her as he covered her. The walls and ceiling above her seemed to run with colors, as if washed with rain. Time trembled, thundering with the force of the oncoming change. And with an eardrum-piercing roar, the air exploded into a tidal wave of fire, and the floor disappeared beneath them.
THE FIRELIGHT CAUGHT THE LONG blade of Remus Jacaranda’s knife as he held it between them, but the man’s face was in shadow. The only sound in the room beyond the popping fire was Nicholas’s harsh breathing.