Chapter 4

"What a surprise to see you here," Victor said, putting his fist over his heart and bowed. There were about thirty black-coated soldiers standing behind him. Jean's bodyguards approached them, but they were signaled away by the host.

"Likewise," I said.

"My apologies for showing up unannounced, Grand Duchess," he said again.

Lyra was about to move away, but I wrapped my arms around her waist to keep her with me.

"You stay here," I whispered. Lyra silently complied. She then rested her head on my shoulder. Her long bare legs still straddled over my lap. I wanted to make Victor feel uncomfortable talking to me like this. Besides I didn't mind letting Lyra curl up in my arms since her warmth comforted me.

"You arrived quite late to dine, Victor," I said, straightening my posture a bit. "I didn't know Jean had invited you, too."

"Nyet, Grand Duchess," he said with a slightly hardened face. "I have an important matter that requires me to find you immediately. I ask for your forgiveness and hope that you could spare a few moments to hear it in private."

I stared at his business-like face. Victor was no-nonsense. I knew whatever brought him to France out of the blue wasn't a minor issue. But ever since I left Russia, I did not want anything to do with it.

"You may speak it now as I couldn't bring myself to disturb my resting friend here," I said casually as I stroked Lyra's soft cheek with the back of my fingers. Her eyes were closed, but I knew she was partly aware of the tension.

"I'm afraid we cannot discuss this in public, Your Highness," Victor stated again.

"These are my friends if I do say so myself," I told him. Victor's brows furrowed. Part of me just wanted to annoy the man as he did me with his sudden interruption. He must have sensed the mood I was in and did not dare to refuse. The least he could do now was to get my attention.

Victor cleared his throat again.

"Russia needs you," he finally said. At the mention of my country, I frowned. From the corner of my eyes, I could see Jean-Phillip leaned forward in his seat and strained his neck out in curiosity. Estella and Claire had gone back to sit beside each other. Their bright violet eyes stared at me and Victor.

"And should I ask why?" I said, raising the wine glass and twirling the drink in my hand.

"The Royal Council has encountered a new crisis," he said. "We need your attendance to fulfill the role for the Alliance wants you to be present. There is a number of shared problems that will need to be discussed."

"They have carried on without me after all these years. Why need me now?"

Victor looked around himself, feeling uncomfortable with the surrounding. Then he turned to me again. With a heavy sigh, he went on.

"You're the only one who can bring orders back to the empire, Grand Duchess."

"I'm not bringing back anything!" I snapped. Victor fell silent again. Everyone was staring and yet even more intrigued by our conversation. My face turned to Jean.

"May you excuse us?" I said flatly to the French royal.

"Of course! Of course, Your Highness," Jean said and quickly stood up. "I would leave you in privacy as you wish."

He bowed to me and waved the audiences away. The guests slowly moved from their spots, leaving us. I looked back at Victor again.

"I may want to talk about it later, Victor." I decided with a wave of my hand. "Right now I'm busy..."

"But Grand Duchess, Russia needs you!" he said.

"I said later, Victor," I dismissed him with a heavy tone.

Victor let out a long sigh before he spoke again.

"The Czar wouldn't want to see you like this, Anastasiya," he said.

My eyes flashed with flaming rage, causing Victor to swallow. He knew he had hit a raw nerve.

"You know that using my father's name isn't going to make me leave for Russia, Victor," I said in a low hiss that even Lyra tensed up in my arms. "I don't care what happens to the empire anymore."

I leaned in and kissed the top of the French girl's head, reassuring her.

"I beg this of you, Anastasiya," he said again. "If you don't return to Kremlin soon, Russia will fall under the old threat and a new one will rise."

"What do you mean?" I frowned at him.

"The Hunters and one of the Allied Nations are causing quite a worry for all of us," he said, "We need your support to make some critical decisions on this matter..."

As much as I tried not to mention my sister, I couldn't help it.

"Why don't you go and find Alex instead?"

"Grand Duchess Alexandra is no longer involved in state affairs. I have tried all possible ways to invite her back, but her decline is resolute," he replied.

"And you consider mine isn't?" I asked sharply. "She wanted Russia back in the first place. If she doesn't care about it now, then why should I?"

There was a long silence.

"Then I have nothing left to say," Victor said in a defeated tone at last. "The whole world is coming to an end. And this time, it starts with us."

I stared at him blankly. Then I noticed the middle-aged vampire for the first time. He looked worn out like he hadn't fed for weeks. The dark circles around his eyes were visible under the dimly lit hall. Victor had always been like a friend for many decades. His work for the empire was his whole life. For a moment, I realized I was being childish and a little too selfish.

Victor bowed to me again and took a few steps back before turning around. The rest of the black-coated soldiers were ready to follow him.

"Wait!" I said. The man stopped in his tracks and I silently cursed myself for this. "Alright, I'll go with you."

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