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Chapter 1Copyright© 2003 by Sarah Ash
"Shall I sit over here, Maistre Andar?"
Gavril Andar looked up from unpacking his oil paints and saw Altessa Astasia Orlova in the doorway. She was dressed for her portrait in a plain muslin dress of eggshell blue, her cloud of dark hair tied back with a single blue ribbon.
He glanced around.
"Where's your governess, altessa?"
"Eupraxia? Oh, she's still sleeping off the effects of the fruit punch at last night's reception." Astasia began to laugh. "You mean--is it seemly for me to be here alone with you, unchaperoned? But this is Smarna, Maistre Andar! Surely one may relax the strict rules of Muscobar court protocol when on holiday?"
Her laughter was infectious, and Gavril found himself smiling back at her.
"Was I facing this way? Or that?" She fidgeted around in the chair. "I can't remember."
He went over to her. "Your head was inclined a little more to the left."
"Like this? You'll have to help me."
Gently he tipped her chin to the correct angle. Now her shoulders were awry. Carefully he placed his hands on her shoulders to alter the pose. As he moved her, he became aware that she was gazing intently up at him. He could feel the sweet warmth of her breath on his face. Heat flooded through him. If anyone came in and saw them in such a compromising position. . . .
"And my hair?"
Gavril consulted his sketches.
"No ribbon. Loose over your shoulders."
"But if I pull out the ribbon, I'll lose the pose," she said with that little smile again, grave yet oddly provocative.
As he undid the ribbon he felt the dark curlsagainst his fingertips, soft as the strands of sable in his watercolor brushes.
"How long must I sit still?"
"Long enough . . ." Gavril was concentrating on his palette, blending and mixing. The luminous dark of her eyes--so difficult to match the shade exactly. It was almost the intense purple of viola petals. . . .
"If the conversation is diverting enough, I can sit for hours. Yesterday you told me all about Vermeille. That was very diverting. But you said nothing about you. Tell me about Gavril Andar."
"I was hoping," he said, "that you would tell me about the Grand Duchess's reception last night."
"Mama's reception?" A slight flush suffused her pale face. Had she met someone special last night? "Well, my brother Andrei flirted outrageously with all the prettiest women, especially the married ones. He has no shame!"
"And," he ventured, "was your fiance at the reception?"
"Oh, heavens forbid, no!" The dark eyes blazed. He must have touched a sensitive nerve to have produced such a vehement reply.
"I beg your pardon, altessa, but when I was commissioned to paint a betrothal portrait, I assumed--"
"A natural assumption to make. It's just that there is no fiance as yet; this portrait is to sell my charms to the highest bidder," she said bitterly. "Papa sees my betrothal as a way to bring an end to a difficult diplomatic situation. He's looking for a rich and powerful ally."
Gavril looked at her blankly.
"Haven't you heard? Eugene of Tielen has invaded Khitari. And now his warships are in the Straits. Things are looking a little . . . tricky for Muscobar. That's why Papa has stayed in Mirom."
"I had no idea." Gavril, like most Smarnans, paid scant attention to international politics. Smarna was a sunny summer retreat for the rich aristocracy from the northern countries, too small and unimportant to play a major part in world affairs.
"And of course, my feelings are not to be taken into consideration, oh no!"
All trace of laughter had vanished; he saw how miserable she was at the prospect of this marriage of obligation.
She glanced around guiltily. "But you must never let slip you heard me say such a disrespectful thing. Papa would be so angry."
"Portrait painters are trained to be discreet."
"I feel I could tell you anything."
"Anything?" he echoed, blushing in spite of himself.
For a moment her gaze rested on him and he felt a delicious shiver of danger. Hadn't his mother warned him? Never become involved. The gulf between a Grand Duke's daughter and a young, impoverished artist was so great that he knew he must never dare to think of her as anything more than a wealthy patroness. . . .
And then she began to chatter again, affecting the charmingly light, idle tone of their earlier conversations.
"My dancing partners from last night. Lieutenant Valery Vassian for one. The First Minister's son. Very good-looking, but a terrible dancer." She smothered a giggle. "My poor toes are still bruised. And then there was Count Velemir's nephew, Pavel. He's been abroad on some kind of diplomatic mission about which he would say nothing of interest. I suspect he may be one of Papa's secret agents! I don't think I could marry a spy. One would never know if he were telling the truth. . . ."
Even as she chattered on, Gavril painted as he had never painted before. Her freshness, her utter lack of self-consciousness, inspired and enchanted him. In repose, he noticed a wistful expression darkening her eyes as she gazed out of the window, beyond the breeze-blown gauze curtains, to the blue haze of the sea beyond.
"Ahh. I'm stiffening up."
"Time to take a break, then," he said, laying down his brush.
She came around to his side of the canvas.
"Well?" he said, rather more tensely than he had intended.
"I think you've flattered me, Maistre Andar," she said after a while. "I always thought myself a pale shadow of Mama. She is such a beauty. But you've made me look almost pretty."
"But you are," he began, only to be interrupted as the double doors opened and a stout woman hurried in.
"Altessa! How long have you been here--alone--with this man?" The governess was so out of breath she could hardly speak.
"Oh, don't be such a prude, Eupraxia."
"If the Grand Duchess were to hear of this--"
"But she won't, Praxia, will she?" Astasia wound her arm around Eupraxia's ample waist.
"And if some impropriety had taken place--"
"You've been reading too many romances," Astasia teased.
"That's quite enough portrait painting for today, Maistre Andar," Eupraxia said, ignoring Astasia. "When the arrangement was made, I was told your mother Elysia was to accept the commission. I had not expected a young man. If I had known, I would have made my objections clear at the time--"
"Yes, yes," Astasia said, "but Maistre Andar is doing such a good job. Do take a look, Praxia. See? Isn't it coming along well?"
Eupraxia grudgingly admitted that it was a fair likeness.
"So we shall expect you at the same time tomorrow morning, Maistre Andar?" Astasia gave him a smile of such bewitching charm that he could only nod in reply.
He turned back to the canvas in a daze, still intoxicated by her fresh hyacinth scent, her smile. . . .
Gavril painted until the light faded: The sun was setting and the last dying rays deepened the misty blue of the sea to lilac. He had been so absorbed in his work that he had not noticed till now that his back and arm ached. He stood back from the canvas, looking at it critically in the twilight. Yes, he had captured something of her elusively wistful expression, even though it was not yet as perfect as he could wish.
Music came floating on the drowsy summer night. Carriages were drawing up, wheels crunching over the gravel on the broad drive. Gavril took out a cloth to wipe his brush and started to pack away his paints.
Colored lanterns glowed like little jewels on the terraces. The guests were arriving, the women dressed in bright spangled muslins of primrose, coral, and turquoise; diamonds and sapphires sparkled around their throats. The men wore uniforms stiff with gold brocade and brass buttons. The night gleamed with golden candlelight, trembled with the babble of conversation and the frothy dance melodies, light as foam on the waves in the bay.
It was time to leave. And yet he could not go, not yet, not without seeing her one more time.
Servants, resplendent in the blue liveries of the duke's household, hurried past them with golden punch bowls, silver trays of petits fours and crystal dishes filled to the brim with sugar-dusted berries.
The dancers spilled out onto the terrace and Gavril strolled into the gardens to watch, leaning against the pillared balustrade from which the wide, dark lawns rolled down to the sea beneath. The warm night air tasted of sparkling wine, headily effervescent. Little trails of white moths fluttered around the flickering lanterns.
No one challenged him. No one seemed to notice that he was not wearing military uniform or evening dress.
And then he saw her, one hand resting on her older brother Andrei's arm, gazing gravely at the spinning dancers. In her gown of white organdie, trimmed with green silk ribbons, she reminded Gavril of a snow flower, clean and pure among the garish costumes of the guests.
Suddenly he realized that she had seen him and was gazing at him with an intensity that made him shiver.
She moved away from Andrei, rapidly fanning herself with her white feather fan. He caught a few snatches of words as she came closer, smilingly shaking her head as attentive young men offered her ices, sherbets, fruit punch.
"So hot . . . fresh air . . . maybe later . . ."
He watched as she drifted down the marble steps onto the darkened lawns and followed.
"Altessa," he said softly.
She turned to him. "Gavril," she said.
His heart beat faster to hear her pronounce his name without the formality of "Maistre Andar." It had a wonderfully intimate quality, as if they were equals, as if he could hope--against all hopes--that a poor painter could . . .
"Do you believe in fate, Gavril?" she said, softer still. "It's as if we were meant to meet. As if we were meant to be together."
The strains of a waltz drifted out from the ballroom.
"Listen," she said, "they're playing 'White Nights,' my favorite tune. . . ."
Before he knew what he was doing, she was in his arms, her head close to his and they were dancing slowly, circling on the dew-wet grass, in a pool of moonlight.
He leaned toward her--he could not help himself--and kissed her. Her lips tasted as cool and fresh as her hyacinth scent, but her mouth was warm. His hands touched her bare shoulders, caressing the soft silk of her skin. . . .
Suddenly he felt her shiver in his arms.
"What is it?" he asked. Astasia was looking up at the sky.
"Can't you feel it?" she said. "Like a storm coming. Far out to sea. Look . . ."
Gavril gazed out across the bay. The moon had dimmed, as if covered by thin clouds, and the stars seemed less bright.
"Odd," he said. He knew the moods and humors of the bay well. And this was not the way a summer storm began.
A strange, chill little breeze ruffled the sea-pines and cedars. It seemed as if the thin veil of dark cloud was scudding along too fast for the breeze to carry it, moving almost of its own accord. A feeling of dread clouded his mind.
"You should go in," he said suddenly.
They turned--but too late. The Orlov Guards, led by Andrei Orlov, were running across the lawns toward them, sabers drawn.
"Arrest that intruder!"
Two burly guardsmen threw themselves onto Gavril and bore him to the ground.
"Are you all right, Tasia?" Andrei demanded. "Has he hurt you?"
"I'm perfectly all right!" Astasia blazed back. "He was here by my invitation. Let him go!"
Gavril struggled against the restraining arms of the two guards. Andrei came closer and, placing the razor tip of his saber beneath Gavril's chin, peered down in the moonlight.
"So, it's the portrait painter." He sheathed his blade. "You little fool, Tasia. If you must create a scandal, at least try to choose someone of our own class." He turned to the guardsmen. "Throw him out. And you, painter, don't even think of coming back--or asking for your fee. Your commission's canceled."
"No!" cried Astasia. "It's all my fault. . . ."
Gavril was hauled to his feet. In spite of all his attempts to break free, the guards began to drag him toward the gravel drive.
"Mama is making a terrible fuss. She thinks you've been abducted--or molested by some Smarnan peasant."
"Gavril, I'm so sorry--" Astasia cried.
"Come inside, Tasia." Andrei hurried his sister away across the lawn.
At the villa gates, the guards flung Gavril out onto the rough gravel. Bruised and shaken, he picked himself up, brushing the dirt from his clothes--only to find the heavy iron gates clanged shut in his face and locked.
"Hey! What about my paints?" he yelled, grabbing hold of the bars of the gates and shaking them till they clanged noisily.
One of the guards came back, and Gavril found himself staring into the muzzle of a carbine.
"Get out," the man said in heavily accented Smarnan.
For a moment, Gavril felt a dangerous flicker of anger. Was it always to be like this? Was he always to be excluded, always the poor painter, on the outside looking in?
And then he heard a click as the guard primed the carbine and pulled back the hammer.
"All right, all right, I'm going." He let go of the bars and backed away.
The unlit lane, which wound down the cliffside through pines and brambles to the beach far below, was wide enough to accommodate the carriages of the Orlov's wealthy visitors--and dark enough to suit his mood. Humiliated and angry, he stumbled blindly on.
How could he begin to explain to his mother that he had ruined his first prestigious commission?
The beach was deserted and silent, save for the soft lapping of the tide on the pale sands. The cloudshadow that had scudded across the moon had gone, and the waters of wide Vermeille Bay shimmered in the moon's clear light.
Gavril walked slowly along the beach. It was a magical night, a night for lovers. . . .
He turned and gazed back at the Villa Orlova, gleaming high up on the cliffs above. Torchlight and lanternlight still lit the white stucco of the villa; there would be dancing till dawn.
In whose arms was she dancing now? The clumsy young officer who had bruised her toes? Or had she been sent to her room in disgrace? Was she thinking of him now? Would she remember his name when she had returned to distant Mirom? Would she remember how they had moved together in the dance as one? Or would he just be a fading memory of a sunlit summer?