Demon Prince of Mangala Ch. 05byTheWitcher©
"Liar," Lord Prince Mikhail Ilyitch Azarov said smoothly, only his eyes betraying his anger. "I send you for a name and you bring me a worthless location... Not even a corpse. Such incompetence is unheard of, Andryusha."
Andrey stood before him, holding himself impassive, the polished length of the table between them. Sunlight through the intricate panes of the stained glass windows cast the room in shades of gold and red, painting them in harlequin colours. "Lord Prince, it was a misjudgement on my part, I accept that," he said quietly. "She attacked me, we fought, she fell awkwardly. I thought the body unimportant."
"She fell awkwardly," Mikhail said quietly, mocking. He steepled his fingers, staring at him over their tips. "I don't believe you, Andryusha. You're lying to me."
Andrey willed himself not to react, focusing instead on the opulent decor - the vaulted ceiling, the decorative friezes depicting the Nine, the decoration of the walls. The room was hot but a cool breeze carried the smell of brine off the Dragon Sea from beyond the open windows, offering some small comfort. He had come alone. Apart from a half-dozen of Mikhail's bodyguards, firelances held discretely on him, they were the staff room's only occupants.
"What, no protests? No declarations of honesty?" Mikhail said, peering at him, eyes wide - mock surprised.
"Highness, I have served you well and continue to do so," he said, voice earnest. "I have reported what happened as you have bidden me... Lord Prince, I can make this right - allow me to set surveillance on the Drissa Falls-"
"Idiot," Mikhail said sharply. "Do you think I would trust you with this again? Do you think me as much a fool as yourself? No. Let me tell you what I think." He leaned back in his chair, face pensive. "I think you used this girl badly. I think you discovered the information that I sent you to find. I think it's possible you killed her to conceal that knowledge. I also think it's possible that you didn't kill her at all - you have grown sentimental of late."
He paused for a moment, pinning Andrey with his gaze. "What I don't understand, Andryusha, is why? Why you want to conceal the information? Why you dropped the 'corpse' over the wastes? Why you failed to do what I wanted?" He stopped, letting the silence leak back in, his eyes flickering with suspicion.
Cold fingers ran over Andrey's spine. The Lord Prince had ever been shrewd - a necessary qualification for any ruling prince - but it was easy to forget quite how shrewd. More than one person had died because they'd underestimated him - Andrey knew that he was in real danger of becoming the next.
After a time Mikhail sighed, turning to look off toward the windows. "Do you know why we spend so much time controlling the supply of old tech?" Rhetorical. A pause to collect his thoughts. "No? Most of it is junk, utterly useless - its only possible value decorative despite the obscene prices it commands - but scattered amongst this junk are items that are far from useless: machinery far beyond anything we can manufacture today; weapons the like of which we can only imagine... If items like this were to fall into the wrong hands, Andrey. Do you see?"
"Yes, Lord Prince."
Mikhail turned back, watched him carefully. "You have ever been a conundrum, Andryusha," he said thoughtfully. "I have never understood you, what motivates you, but until now I had never feared that you were disloyal." A pause, eyes watching him carefully. "Well, Andryusha," he said, voice turning matter of fact, "I am willing to offer you a second chance, a chance to come clean with me. Is there something you'd like to say? Something to add to my speculation...a name?"
The silence grew once again, sitting like a weight on Andrey's shoulders, creeping along his spine.
"No?" Mikhail said, finally. "Disappointing. Well, then it seems that this will remain a mystery for now." He stared at him, contemplating, thinking. "I don't believe that you're disloyal - which is why you still live. But I think that your loyalty is divided. I think that when I find the name you conceal I will know the answer to these riddles." His face turned hard. "When that happens, Andryusha, be assured - you and I will discuss this again." For a while Mikhail held his gaze, then he looked down at the papers on the desk, dismissing him.
Too shrewd by far, Andrey thought, walking towards the door. As he reached it Mikhail spoke again, not lifting his eyes from the papers.
"Don't trouble yourself with matters of house security from now on," he said, voice flat, matter of fact. "It is no longer your concern."
Andrey's blood ran cold. Not unexpected, perhaps, but it meant that his position was increasingly vulnerable, exposed, his power base eroding. "As you wish, Highness."
"Are you sure you want to go through with this, Natasha?" Yelena said.
"What? You sound like my mother, Lena."
Yelena lay back on the bed while Nataliya, her slim body dressed only in white bra and panties, fished through the collection of dresses in the large wardrobe in the corner of the Berezin guest room. Every now and then she would hold another one against herself, examining how she looked in the glass of the door, turning to allow Yelena to nod or comment. At Yelena's instruction, the seamstress, Mariya, had adjusted the dresses for just this occasion.
"I know, I don't mean to, but..." Yelena propped herself up on her elbows, "you know, if you go there... You know what's likely to happen, don't you?"
Nataliya paused in her search, her arms draped with fabric, faced her. "I know, Lena," she said, biting her lower lip gently. Know? It was all she could think about. She hadn't slept properly since her return from the Azarov Kremlin for thinking about it - it even haunted her dreams.
"It's a big step, that's all."
"You've done it." More of a question than a statement.
"Yes, it's just - are you sure it's what you want?"
"Lena, I... I want him. I want him so badly. I want to be with him - he's all I think about..." She smiled wistfully. "Lena, what's it like..." lip between her teeth again, her voice small, vulnerable. "You know, the first time?"
Yelena smiled gently, patted the mattress next to her. She waited for Nataliya to sit down, the bed suddenly scattered with dresses from her arms, then pushed herself up so that she sat next to her.
"First, promise me that you won't tell anyone else."
"Okay. I promise."
"Well, my first time was with Dmitri - you know, Bezhukov?"
"You're kidding?" Nataliya said, giggling slightly.
"Natasha, if you want me to tell you..."
"Yes, sorry - it's just, you know... Dmitri Bezhukov."
"He's handsome enough," Yelena said, a little defensively, then she laughed. Dmitri Bezhukov, local ladies man, how had she ever been so foolish? "Oh, okay, I know... But you promised not to say, remember?" Nataliya nodded.
"Okay, we were at a party at his place - all of us - I had a little too much to drink. Dmitri and I were in the garden, staring at the sky - I can still remember thinking how many stars there were. Then he was kissing me. Before I knew what was happening he had my dress up around my waist and his trousers off." She laughed for a moment, then paused, thinking. "I knew what was happening - I wasn't that drunk - I suppose I just wanted to get it over with. Anyway, it wasn't the best moment of my life."
"Did it hurt?"
"It did a little, yes." She saw the worried frown on Nataliya's face. "Oh, Natasha, this is Dmitri Bezhukov we're talking about," she said, giggling a little, saw Nataliya smile in response. "If the man you're with is careful, considerate, knows what he's doing - there's no reason why it should hurt." And the Nine know, if anyone knows what they're doing it's your Prince Andrey, she thought.
Nataliya pulled her knees up, wrapping her arms about them, resting her head on them. "I'm a little scared, I guess."
"There's no need to be. Really." She took hold of Nataliya's hand. "It's supposed to be fun, remember?"
Nataliya smiled. "I know, I know..." she sighed. "It's just that I've not had much to do with men. I'm afraid he'll be disappointed."
"Disappointed?" Yelena smiled, somehow she couldn't see any man being 'disappointed' with Nataliya Fyodorovna offering herself to them. "Come on, what's troubling you?"
Nataliya looked away, her face thoughtful. "When he kissed me..."
"It's just... Lena, I didn't know what to do," she said, looking down. "I felt lost, all confused - like I didn't know what bit went where."
Yelena laughed. "Have you never kissed a man?"
"Lena!" Reproachful. "When have I had the chance? You know I haven't..."
They were both laughing now.
"That feeling - it's meant to be like that, Natasha," she said. "That's kind of the point."
"Didn't you like it?"
"Don't be horrible, it's not my fault I've never done it with anyone else."
Yelena giggled again at that. "Did you want to do it with someone else?"
"No. Yes. I suppose. I don't know."
All of a sudden Yelena was kneeling up next to her, her brown eyes twinkling mischievously. "I wouldn't do this for anyone else... Don't you dare tell Vasily, he'll want us to do it in front of him," she said.
Yelena's lips pressed against hers, her arms snaking around her back, pulling her close. For a moment she froze, startled. Yelena pulled back slightly, but only slightly. "You wanted to do it with someone else..."
Yelena was so close she could feel her breath whispering on her skin as she spoke, her heart was racing, pounding.
Like a breath of wind Yelena's lips brushed hers again - then again, more firmly this time - her soft skin delicate, moist on her mouth. Nataliya felt Yelena's tongue flick over lips and, instinctively, she parted them - felt her friend's tongue slip into her mouth.
The feeling was odd - pleasant and shocking at the same time. Yelena's hand was on the back of her head, pulling her mouth onto hers; almost unconsciously she felt herself respond, her tongue pushing into Yelena's mouth - the faint taste of wine - her hands clutching her head as she felt Yelena doing to her.
For a long while their tongues danced together - soft, warm, flicking back and forth between their mouths - then, eventually, Yelena pulled back, planting a chaste kiss on Nataliya's mouth, smiling warmly.
"Mmm - you taste nice..." Yelena said, finally.
"Uh, thank you..." Nataliya felt a little odd. How had that happened?
"So, how do I compare?" Yelena's eyes were shining, her voice a little breathy.
"Uh..." Nataliya tasted her lips, tapped her mouth with her finger, mock pensive. "Andrey was better," she said, at last, laughing.
Yelena hit her with a pillow.
"Highness, this is madness!" Piotr said, standing behind him, looking at Katerina for support. "Your feelings for this girl have already cost you your position, they could cost you your life!"
Andrey remained silent, his back to them, staring through the open window at the twins above the forest. "Katya?"
She shifted in her chair, pulling herself upright. "You know Piotr is right," she said.
"See... If you won't listen to me, listen to Katya, you know how she feels-" he bit off his words, clamped his mouth shut. Katerina glared at him. "Uh...why risk everything on this...dalliance?"
Unseen, Andrey smiled. "Sometimes things cannot be seen in a measurement of risks and benefits, Petya," he said, not turning from his contemplation, talking as if to the moons. "Do you know what my mother sacrificed to have me? Do you think if she'd weighed up risks and benefits that I would be here now?"
There was no answer, the silence settling around them. They didn't know, of course. That was something only he and his mother shared - although they would have heard the stories, the speculation, it was what his reputation was built upon.
Eventually he turned, entered the small room from its balcony. Katerina sat near the fire, slumped in a soft chair facing the window, feet on a low footstool. Piotr stood just inside the doors, his hand resting on the back of a second chair.
"My doom is set, Petya, I will meet with Nataliya - you will assist me with arrangements. Katya..."
Katerina looked up, meeting his gaze. For a moment their eyes met, then he flicked his glance aside, to Piotr.
"Petya, leave us, I will seek you out later," he said.
"Highness," Piotr bowed slightly, quickly left the room.
"What is it, Andryusha?" Katerina said.
"Things are in serious danger of coming apart," he said, sitting opposite her. "You are the only one I fully trust, Katya. Not even Piotr is above being bought, threatened."
She stared at him, face thoughtful.
He sighed. "If you are taken by Mikhail, by Alexander... He will carry out his threat, do you understand?"
She shrugged. "I've never doubted it, but you've protected me so far..." A pause. She looked at him, her face concerned. "Andryusha, if things have turned so bad, why stay? We could run..."
He shook his head. "Not yet - it could come to that soon enough. Katya, I don't want your death on my conscience..." He leaned forward in the chair, his eyes sparkling with their strange inner light. "From what I've done I can't release you, you know that, but I can send you away... You could make your own way, forge a new life-"
"Andryusha," she said, sitting forward, matching him, stopping him. "It wouldn't make any difference... I would come back - I'd be compelled to even if I didn't want to. My soul belongs to you, there can be no freedom for me. I am yours - while you live." She shrugged again. "And when you die - then I will die along with you."
He sat back, sighing. "I know, Katya. I'm sorry..."
"Why? I'm not."
He looked at her closely.
"Oh, Andryusha. It's true I wouldn't have chosen this path, not willingly, but being with you, I-" she paused, as if she was going to say something else but thought better of it. Forced a smile. "-am content with that. I don't regret what happened and I don't want to leave - so don't even think about sending me away."
Andrey smiled. "Thank you."
She shrugged again, sitting back.
For a while the room was quiet, filled only with the gentle crackle of the fire. Finally Andrey spoke quietly: "When I caught you, what were you doing in the wastes?"
She looked confused. "Looking for old tech."
"Anything in particular?"
Katerina nodded. "There was a rumour that the site I was in had a working power generator of some sort, but I never had the chance to find it."
Andrey stood, pacing pensively.
"Why? Is it important?" she said.
"I don't know yet. Maybe. It might be useful," he said, thinking. "In any case, we need to be very careful from now on."
"And how do tonight's plans with Nataliya fit into that?"
He smiled at her.
For the thousandth time Nataliya straightened the short jacket of her uniform, tugging nervously at the cuffs. Approaching Prince Andrey's dacha, the wings of the flyer whirring, she had a horrible feeling of deja-vu - her stomach fluttering with nerves.
The flyer banked heavily, circling the dacha. It was a magnificent setting. Surrounded by the deep greens of the montane forest, its red stone walls set against the emerald backdrop of the southern mountains, their steep slopes and deep valleys wreathed in mist, framed by the shining spray of the Osinov Falls.
Although insignificant compared to the Azarov Kremlin, the dacha was nevertheless a substantial estate in its own right - a small vineyard, several orchards, a number of outbuildings within the enclosing walls, an impressive gatehouse. It was certainly comparable to the entire holdings of her own family, Nataliya thought.
Sat next to her, Yelena peered over her shoulder, unusually silent. Vasily, on the seat opposite seemed less affected, rubbing at a mark on a button of his uniform. Below, in the late afternoon sun, the dacha shone like a jewel - its tall central building and attached tower stark against the surrounding woods, the sculpted gardens.
"Nice place," Yelena said.
Nataliya made no reply, staring out of the window, face thoughtful. This wasn't what she'd expected...
For the first time she felt reality biting into her fairytale. Something about the sheer scale of the dacha depressed her. What hope was there that there could ever be anything between her and Andrey? She was the princess of a minor family. A nobody. He was the son of the Tsar-Emperor's niece, the bastard son of House Azarov - a significant prize for the younger children of any major family.
"He has another estate on the western rim of the plateau, a bit smaller than this one," Vasily said cheerfully, continuing to worry at his button.
Nataliya grimaced. What could she ever be to him? "Are they his? Or House Azarov's?" she said, a little sharply.
Vasily shrugged. "Is there a difference?"
She felt cold - even if he was interested, if he did come to love her, his family would never let him marry so far below him. Whatever they had was doomed. Or was she nothing more than another trophy? A plaything? The nerves gave way to a feeling of sickness in the pit of her stomach. She leaned her forehead against the window of the flyer, closing her eyes. Was he using her? Her father had warned her, had warned her away. Oh God, what if he was right?
As if sensing her despondency, Yelena took her hand, squeezing it. She squeezed back, but it made her feel no better.
From above a number of flyers bearing the insignia of different families were visible on the ground adjacent to the dacha. There were also an unusually high number of armed men, many in full armour, grouped about the flyers or scattered artfully about the grounds - done in such a way that they were effective without being obvious.
As they circled to land a small group of these men - several in Azarov livery, the gold dragon obvious, one in the insignia of House Karzhov, a silver griffin prominent on his chest - approached their chosen landing site. Even before they touched down the Azarov troops had a loose cordon about the flyer, casual but present. No sooner had they settled than the remaining Azarov soldier, wearing the rank of kapitan - bodyguard not house military - opened their door, standing aside to allow them to exit.
"Good evening Highness," he said, glancing briefly at their insignia before addressing himself to Nataliya. "Princess Nataliya Fyodorovna Rostova." He bowed slightly. "I am Kapitan Piotr Ivolgin, head of the Lord Prince's bodyguard."
Nataliya nodded slightly, uncertain. Where was Andrey? The man in the Karzhov insignia - a skinny man about the same height as Nataliya but a few years her senior, his mousy hair a little too long for his face - smiled at her.
"The Lord Prince sends his regards and instructs me to tell you to do as I ask," Piotr said, looking at her almost desperately. She raised her eyebrows, nodding again and glancing quickly at Yelena, as if to say 'does he?' Piotr couldn't help but notice, his face twisting into an awkward grimace.
"Please, Princess," he said unhappily. "I am not good at this. Prince Andrey will explain everything to you later..." He took a breath before hurrying on. "But for tonight, Prince Leonid Karzhov here will escort you to the dinner." Piotr almost winced as he said it.
In contrast, Leonid grinned happily, clearly relishing his part. Nataliya stared at him, too startled to speak.
Piotr swallowed, coughed slightly, looked decidedly uncomfortable. "It is vitally important that it seem as if the two of you are together tonight - I promise, the Lord Prince will explain later..."
"Oh," Nataliya said, unsure how to react. Should she be angry? Once again in seeking Andrey she was left feeling utterly deflated, disappointed. "Not exactly what I was expecting." Certainly not what I hoped for, she thought. Another sign?