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It’s been centuries, but Alina has never been able to develop a taste for balls. Her first experience with a fete most likely ruined them for the rest of her life. But if she’s learned anything about leadership in her first and second time as Tsaritsa, it is that palaces must remain the same, and with them, their traditions and occasional extravagances. And that it is good to keep her council happy, even if it means listening to inane conversation and watching the dukes drink too much sweet champagne.

But another thing Alina has learned over the centuries, is that while palaces must remain the same, their occupants can change faster than the color of leaves lining the entrance to the Grand Palace. And with such knowledge comes room for freedom. Tonight, for example, was the annual Ravkan summer fete. And it was a celebration typically only shared with nobles. Now, it is instead shared with the highly ranked members of her army, Grisha andotkazat’sya alike, and representatives from the merchants’ guilds. That particular lesson she owed to her first husband, and that was to always invite those with money to the decent parties.

And she supposed this was decent. As far as balls went. But there was a bitterness that always seemed to arrive uninvited to these functions: a silent guest who put a dark aftertaste in the kvass, who brought a sorrow that clung to the brightly-colored skirts as they spiraled out during the waltzes, and gave a dull monotony to the cheers of “Dlya Ravka!” as flutes connected in delicate ‘tings’ of glass.

Alina has attended many, many dances.  But she has only enjoyed two. And of those, both have corrosion at the edges of her memory. Both have been tainted by time and loss.

But she was their Sankta. And as a Sankta, she had practice at smiling even when her lips felt too heavy to do so. The hem of her gown, because one of them had to be formal, and it had somehow managed to become solely her burden to wear propriety, moved in slow, crescent-like motions as her feet crossed the marble floor in smooth steps. And with every move she made, she felt his stare. Like a bird of prey circling overhead.

Alina paid her consort no mind, even as those grey eyes bore holes into the exposed skin between her shoulder blades. Despite herself, she smiled as she extended fingers to grab her own flute of champagne off of a server’s tray. The two of them always had the unique ability to make battlegrounds out of ballrooms.

“Saints!” The server, a thin man with spectacles, gasped in surprise, before he remembered to bow his head with the appropriate amount of reverence.

“Yes,” she agreed, helping herself to another flute despite her better judgment. Normally, she avoided alcohol, for it only enhanced the weight on her chest and drew her down into those rusted memories until they sunk into her belly, but tonight would do a fine enough job without its assistance. And the look on the server’s face only provided a bittersweet reminder of her new nickname in the streets of Ravka:

Koroleva Kamnya. The Queen from Stone.

Well, she thought to herself as she tipped back a flute, drained its contents, and deposited the empty container back on the bewildered servant’s tray, let’s see stones drink.

A warm hand covering her exposed shoulder made her stop from grabbing another helping of champagne. She paused, and turned. Though slowly, as she already knew it was not who she was eventually expecting. Him, she still felt staring at her from across the room, where he spoke with generals of the Bol’shoy.

Alina took in the man before her. Lean, though not thin, with almost rust-colored hair and the hawkish stare of ambition. She frowned, taking a moment to recall his name. That particularly unsettling smile.

“Count…”

That hawkish stare dimmed somewhat, but when he corrected her, his words held an intensity she was more than familiar with, and Alina mentally prepared herself for a round of inflated flattery, “Uvarov, moya sovereniy. Semyon Uvarov. We spoke at the winter fete?”

Of course they did. Still feeling that stare from across the room, and having no desire to indulge this man, Alina turned her head for a quick glance at the other side of the floor.

She was mistaken. It wasn’t her exposed skin that Aleksander was glaring at, but rather the hand that was touching it. Her consort stood in the middle of a crowd, yet somehow apart from it, as he kept his attention directly on them, glass of kvass tightly gripped in his hand. Alina sighed before taking another drink. It was going to be that sort of ball.

The man she didn’t remember spoke again. Alina closed her eyes, counted to two, and turned to face him once more. “What?”

Count Semyon Uva…something moved his hand from her shoulder to grab her fingers. He bowed over them, and Alina counted to two again as he pressed his lips to her knuckles, “I was wondering if I could have the honor of a dance?”

He was painfully young, in that moment. And she, painfully old. Alina frowned at the top of his head, “Or,” she offered, voice flat, “We skip to the part where you ask for an exorbitant favor from me.”

It used to be fun, to watch the young men think her so impressionable. The long-lost Lantsov orphan who claimed the throne, virgin to the ways of court. Ready to grant her favors in return for flattery and half-hearted attempts at seduction. How wrong they all were, and how tired she was. Because now it was taxing instead of amusing, and she still had a flute of champagne to finish and a ball to suffer through.

She watched apprehension crawl over his muscles like spiders. The hand around her fingers went slightly limp. He cleared his throat, “I…I don’t know what you mean-“

“Very well. Enjoy your evening, Count Ustanik-“

“-Uvarov-!”

“-the champagne is particularly refreshing.”

Alina did not bother to listen to the rest of his protests, withdrawing her fingers from his own and turning away. Perhaps, she conceded as she took another drink, her nickname was well deserved.

She had not made four steps before she felt a different hand rest between her shoulder blades, this one cooler to the touch.

“Champagne?” A smooth, low voice muttered into her ear, as the hand slid languidly down her spine, only stopping once it rested on her opposite hip. Possessively. As usual, when he saw her with another man, regardless of the circumstances.

She looked up, meeting the gaze of her consort. Aleksander’s face was in its usual, formal mask of aloofness, but Alina saw the small hints of frustration: the tick in his jaw, the heat in his eyes, the thinness of tightly-pressed lips.

“The vodka servers were at the other balcony,” she replied, finishing the flute in her hand and placing it on the first available serving tray.

The fingers at her waist tightened, “…He is the same one who spoke with you at the winter fete.”

Alina snorted, not surprised he remembered when she did not, “Then he wasted an opportunity tonight, since he won’t get to speak to me at the next one.”

Aleksander’s eyes narrowed, wordlessly expecting an elaboration. No doubt on the word choice of ‘opportunity’. She shook her head.

“They all run together,” her voice went a little softer, “…You know they all run together.”

The fingers relaxed, slightly. And he simply stared down at her, until the orchestra began to play a waltz. Then, he moved the both of them towards the floor, “Come.”

Alina frowned, “I wasn’t planning on dancing.”

His stare moved, almost imperceptively, towards where the Count still stood, “They need a reminder.”

Yes. It was one of those balls.

With only a short grumble of protest, she let him take the lead, one of his hands cradling hers as the other rested on her hip. Alina was always a miserable dancer, but she allowed him compensate for her own shortcomings. He held her much closer than what the waltz required, and she did not doubt there were hostile messages being communicated from where he looked over her shoulder. She smiled, more out of a sense of exasperation than true amusement, as she continued the steps despite the fact that she was just a little off-tempo, her chest flush against his own as their heartbeats mirrored their footfalls. She could feel the stares of the guests on them as the crossed the floor; despite any other uncertainty, Alina knew that the pair of them together always managed to attract attention.

The waltz concluded, and the orchestra moved seamlessly from one song to the next. Aleksander did not release her hand, and so they continued.

One of the violins created the trill of all-too familiar notes.  Alina’s smile fell, as she tried to place it.

Don’t worry, moya zhena, I won’t embarrass you too badly.

The accompaniment of the cello sounded like an echo to a sound made so long ago, it was nearly forgotten.  

I’ve just lost half of it to a horrible dancer.

She stilled, and Aleksander gently corrected their timing.

This song…was from one of the two balls she had enjoyed. Alina’s mouth went dry, and for a moment she was in the Grand Palace as it was centuries ago, a hazel-eyed face smiling down at her in amusement.

The heavy feeling that arrived uninvited to all balls let its presence be known again.  And she felt foolish, because for a moment she had almost believed she could ignore her unseen guest.

The song ended, and Alina removed her hand from his. She had just enough time to see the look of confusion on his face before she walked to the balcony that served the vodka without another word.

She had enough time to find a full glass and an empty balcony before she felt him approaching behind her. Alina took a deep breath, and rested her elbows on the marble railing, looking out into the gardens of the Grand Palace, sparsely illuminated with dimmed, golden light.

Aleksander stepped in close behind her, his arms encircling her waist and his chin resting on her shoulder. She could sense his anger once again. “Explain.”

She bit down on her lip, staring at the rosebushes. They had been Vasilia’s favorites.

“Alina.”

Hearing her name, her real name, spoken out loud was enough to get her to close her eyes. Alina drew a breath, feeling the hard warmth of him against her back.

“That was…” she frowned, trying to remember the name of the piece. She couldn’t. And that felt heavy, too. Because she knew she had once known it very, very well. “My wedding song.”

It took him a moment to realize the implication, and it struck her suddenly that he had probably, willfully forgotten that she had ever been married to someone other than him. Because it was not unlike him to displace the memories that did not suit his tastes. She knew, though, when he made the connection. Because his quiet, still anger intensified, and his body wrapped tighter around her.

“You remember your wedding song,” he whispered, almost in disbelief.

Alina frowned, “Yes. Why wouldn’t I?”

He gave no answer, but the arms around her waist spun her until she was facing him. Alina looked up into his grey eyes, his stare heated with an emotion she was all too familiar with.

“Do you remember ours?”

Alina almost laughed, “We didn’t have one.”

“We didn’t?”

“Unless you count the sound of Fjerdan rifles, no.”

Aleksander’s jaw tightened in that well-known tick. And for what felt like a thousand moments, they merely looked at each other. It was not the first time her ghosts had visited, and it would not be the last. And his presence would never banish them, not completely.

But that also wouldn’t stop him from trying. Selfish, though it was.

“It’s time to retire from the ball.” He finally said, his words strained but no doubt a command.

Alina rose an eyebrow, “Why?”

Aleksander’s hand tightened on her hip, as the other ran up her side before resting on her bare shoulder. Where the Count’s hand had been. Where her scar was. He splayed his long fingers across the expanse of it, his fingertips precariously close to the already low neckline of her gown. He lowered his face closer to hers. His lips hovered but didn’t touch, though she could feel the formation of his words against her own as he spoke.

“Because,” he whispered with weakening restraint, “It seems like you’re in need of a reminder as well.”

“A reminder.” She echoed dully, already knowing how this particular situation would play itself out. This was not the first time she had left a party early, after all.

Aleksander claimed her lips firmly with his own, parting Alina’s mouth with an urgent, demanding pace. The glass of vodka in her hand fell to the ground, shattering, as the hand on her shoulder slid over to her back, fingers digging into her skin with desperation. Alina’s body moved without much direction, hands burrowing into his hair and undoing the small, short ponytail he had worn for tonight’s festivities.

She felt the strap of her gown move lower down her arm, resting in the crook of her elbow as he pressed her against the railing. The stone dug into her back, but as soon as she let out a short exhale of pain, he lifted her until she was sitting on it. Aleksander’s knee parted her legs as the hand on her waist moved lower to raise the skirts of her ridiculous gown. His long fingers smoothed over her now exposed leg, with each movement bringing his hand higher up her thigh.

“Alina,” he growled, breaking apart from her with a heavy breath. He moved down the line of her jaw, his tongue and lips leaving sensuous, circular patterns against her neck, “May I come to your room?”

Alina squeezed her eyes shut, and tried to only think of the man in front of her. Of the comfortable weight of his hand on her leg. Of the sound of their quickened pulses, instead of the lingering echoes of the orchestra. Of how when they came together like this, that heaviness abated for a short while.

“…Fine,” she surrendered.

Aleksander smirked, before he brought both hands underneath her body and lifted. She wrapped her legs around his waist, and he carried her through the side door that led discretely back to her quarters.

And the orchestra began another waltz.