After a very short flight, followed by a contested parking spot, Laszlo finds himself walking along the southern branch of the Neva River in St. Petersburg. I’ve never been there but have heard from many that it is a beautiful city. Someday, when my books are optioned into movies, I’ll take a chartered flight; commercial flights are more and more a dry-run for slavery.
As you will shortly see, the PM of Imperial Russia, Reina, stomps onto the stage. First among equals of tribe Mendrovovitch and possibly the most dangerous of all Machines, she also attacks my stories like kudzu: taking over and displacing everything which was already there. And from the last line below the fold, it seems she is in for most of this part of the novel. Oh, well. What can I do?
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Crown Prince Laszlo walked just to the left of Crown Prince Nikita. Neither was in uniform but the cut of their business suits was of the martial style currently popular in Russia, Laszlo’s a charcoal gray, Nikita’s field gray. From Laszlo’s left came a cool, almost cold breeze off of the Great Neva River. It hit the north face of the Winter Palace, green with white marble and some gilded accents, and chilled them from that side, as well. Les looked northeast, to where the Neva split into its two branches to the Baltic Sea.
“I would like to apologize, on behalf of the government, for the misunderstanding about your approach to the city,” Nikita said in good English with just a touch of a Russian accent. He allowed his shoulder to briefly touch that of the man to this left.
“Hmmm,” Les replied, noncommittally. “Being informed that I was to land at Petrozavodsk, nearly two hundred kilometers northeast of here, was a surprise. I mean, given who I am and what I was piloting.”
Nikita said nothing.
“It was almost a deliberate slight,” Les said with a small smile, looking right. His friend was just a fraction taller and his flaxen hair – rare among the Romanovs – had been the subject of much mirth as to who his father was. “A slight which could only have come from the highest reaches.”
“Are you requesting a formal inquiry, Prince Laszlo?” the other asked, now turning his head to look at Les and his pale blue eyes set in a Prussian face under black, Chinese hair.
“Of course not, Nikky,” Laszlo said, his smile just a little bigger. “I’ll see your PM in time.”
With Lionheart paused over Lake Ladoga at ten thousand feet yesterday morning, Les had waited patiently until ground control radioed to explain their mistake and that of course he should take his ship to St. Petersburg’s main airport, Pulkovo, just south of the city. The coordinates sent indicated the secure, military section of the field. He was not received in state then, but a limousine with security escorts took him north at speed to the Winter Palace where he was greeted by the Foreign Minister. Speeches and photographs over and the press hustled out of the meeting hall, Nikita had appeared from a side door and strode quickly to him.
“Welcome back to Russia,” the man at twenty, two years Les’s junior said with honest emotion. “I am very glad to have you here.”
“If you’ve not eaten, I’ve a light meal set out just there,” the Russian said to the imperial, gesturing back to the door he had stepped through. Les gave a nod and followed him through and down a short corridor to a parlor. The opulence of the Petrine Baroque of the interior of the palace was nearly overwhelming. Mother does not go for ostentation such as this. There were some bits of food set out on a table in the center along with a crystal decanter and several glasses. His host poured a long measure into two and handed one over.
“Welcome back, my friend!” Nikita said, raising his glass.
“Good to be back, Nikky.”
They tossed back their vodka, set aside their glasses, and stepped into each other’s arms.
“I’ve missed you so,” Les whispered into his lover’s ear.
Setting aside the recollection of yesterday, Laszlo paused his walk and turned north to look across the river at the Peter and Paul Fortress. A fairly typical Vauban-style design.
“I’m told by my Empress we are to leave in two days,” he began. “Will your sisters be ready? Women take forever to pack.”
“This trip is just less than a week and Annie and Kira are not the spoiled girls you may recall from even last year,” Nikita replied. “While the more feminine of the two, Anastasia is working just up the road here, at the Science Ministry, on human modification and improvement. One of the PM’s pet projects.”
“And Kira?” Laszlo remembered her as a darker-haired little sprite who had time only for her dolls.
“Space Navy.” Nikky laughed at his friend’s look. “No! I’m not kidding! When she found out about this trip, she was packed in an hour and standing outside in the rain, waiting for you to arrive.”
“But…” Les was still surprised. “She was that little kid. Played with dolls. Couldn’t even be bothered to comb her hair out…”
“It’s all your family’s doing, my closest friend,” Nikky continued to explain. “When she found out about your sister Liz and what she’s doing in space and on the Moon, Kira became obsessed. Badgered Father into letting her sign up before she was eighteen – though she’s nineteen now – and completed her training in near-record time. She’s a starshiy matros, a ‘senior spaceman,’ I guess like a very junior centurion in your legionary ranks.”
Les pulled data from the Void.
“So an E-3, or ‘spacer,’ in our ISN. That’s a lot of rank in two years. Because of who she is?”
“Being a princess?” Nikita rolled his eyes. “Father would never permit that. And, even if he had, there’s someone else who would have vetoed it. No, my little sister did this on her own.”
The Russian prince just rested his hand onto his friend’s.
“I understand the scope of your mission here, Les. I hope you like her.”
Turning to Nikky and words of apology in his mouth, Laszlo froze at the little figure just in the corner of his right eye. Standing entirely too close. Perhaps we’ve just been recognized and a local wants a picture with us?
“Please don’t do anything disgusting in public. I can only tolerate so much of your deviant behavior.”
The voice of a young girl but with a hard, grating edge to it. It was a voice Les knew well but only in a machine’s construct. He and Nikita turned away from the Neva River to face their interlocutor.
Maybe five three with short, black hair except for an inch-wide fringe down the right side of her face. Slavic eyes and a cruel mouth on otherwise flawless alabaster skin. Even here, in the heart of St. Petersburg, she wore a thin black leather coat over a dirty collarless cotton shirt, gray uniform pants and riding boots. Looking all the world like a Chekist from well over a century ago.
“Prime Minister Reina,” Laszlo said with a nod. “I was unaware you had a mortal form.”
“I’ve had this android body in storage for some time,” she snarked with a toss of her head. “We do plan for everything, human.”
“In that case, Prime Minister,” Nikita spoke up, “what is the plan which brings you here now?”
“I will not allow all three children of the Tsar off planet at the same time.” Reina glared at Laszlo
“You do know this trip has the sanction of my father?” his son and heir carried on.
When she stomped one of her small feet, it was everything Les could do to not burst out laughing.
“I know!” she shouted, drawing looks from the passersby. “And that is why this shell was activated!”
She took three steps and looked straight up the almost ten inches into Laszlo’s eyes. He noted hers were colored close to what his brother Edward once had.
“I,” she placed her right hand on the robot’s small chest, “shall be second in command of your ship. Yes, human: I am coming with you!”