Christmas with a Czar by Emily Murdoch
“And yet you promised to abide by our agreement when we left home,” Anne said with a heavy sigh. A smile was still plastered over her face; they were in public. She was not going to be the one to draw attention to their argument. “After this Christmas, no more talking about marriage. I will remain single, and happy.”
“And I said it was a foolish agreement in the first place.” Sir Thomas Marsh frowned at his daughter as two footmen bowed them through another set of double doors. “I should never have agreed it with you.”
Anne knew it had been foolish of her to think her father would abide by their compromise. The entire carriage ride to St. James’ Court, he had been quiet – a little too quiet.
A footman stared and Anne fought down her desire to blush. She knew she looked ridiculous, dressed up in last decade’s fashions, but that was what Prinny wanted.
The Prince Regent. She must not use his nickname here, at his court! Anne had always hated the pomp and circumstance of the court, but Prinny did not. He loved to feel important, special, loved.
They walked towards another set of doors, and two footmen in the royal family’s livery bowed as they opened the doors.
“Really,” Anne hissed at her father as they walked through, “St. James’ Court, of all places? You think I will find a husband here?”
“You are twenty nine years old,” her father reminded her, not unkindly. “If not now, we are rapidly running out of time.”
Anne rolled her eyes. “I am not quibbling over my age, Father, but your methods. Every young chit of a thing will be here this Christmas, for the Season. Beautiful, young women. You really believe that any gentleman will even be able to notice me?”
“Will there be any girls here like me?” A small voice piped up.
Anne turned to look behind her. Meredith looked uncomfortable in the formal bodice Sir Thomas had insisted she wear.
“Ask Father,” Anne said shortly. “Not many twelve year olds are brought to St. James’ Court.”
She glared at her father for good measure, who protested, “You think I would leave her behind? Besides, you are not unattractive, Anne – ”
“Well, thank you!”
“ – and you have a little charm and wit,” Sir Thomas continued steadily. “If you are determined this is to be your final Season, foolish as I think that is, then I would like the best for you.”
Their little family passed a pair of ladies in the styles of the 1790s, who stared at them. Anne tried to keep her head up high. They may not be highly titled, wealthy, or noble, but there had been Marshes in Romney since the Romans. She belonged here, as the daughter of a gentleman, just as they did.
“Papa, will there be anyone like me here?” Meredith’s voice, a little plaintive now, rose above the growing noise emanating from the double doors ahead of them.
Sir Thomas paused and looked down. “No,” he said finally, “I do not think so, Meredith. But there may be a few children that live around here that you could play with.”
Meredith scrunched up her nose and Anne’s heart squeezed. “I suppose so.”
Anne opened her mouth to speak but they had just reached another set of double doors. Loud chatter poured underneath it, and there was laughter, and music.
Sir Thomas breathed in heavily. “We are here.”
“Yes,” said Anne quietly. “And this is our last fortnight here at Court, Father. You promised. Our rooms may only be downstairs, but this is the last time I am coming here.”
She caught his eye and tried to show him, through the fierceness of her look, that she was in absolutely no place to debate this.
Her father sighed. “You always get your own way eventually, Annika.”
Her heart softened. He only used her pet name when he felt the loss of her mother most profoundly. But before she could speak, the two slightly sneering footmen opened the doors.
The Marshes were hit with the noise and smells of a royal court preparing for Christmas. The room was large, ordinarily a ballroom but today used for the many visitors to the Royal Court to circulate, admire, and be admired. A pair of thrones were situated at one end, at present completely empty.
Anne attempted to hold herself as though she absolutely belonged there, but it was a challenge. It had only been after a lengthy argument that they had even come here, leaving their warm home in the Kentish countryside, to come to this cold and stiff place – and for Christmas, no less.
The smell of sickly pomades hit her, and she paused, so strong was the intoxicating stench. Her father looked at her quizzically.
“This is my last Season,” she whispered forcefully. “And then I am disappearing from society.”
Sir Thomas rolled his eyes and continued walking into the room, nodding at a few acquaintances as they slowly circulated.
Anne tried not to allow her thoughts to be obvious on her face. She could not wait to leave this place, and they had only arrived twenty minutes ago! To think, they would have to spend Christmas here, amongst the intrigues of Court, when all she wanted to do was celebrate the joys of the festive season with her father and Meredith, at home.
Sir Thomas had consoled her on their journey here with tales of excitement and drama, but Anne knew better. In the last ten years of being trotted out in the hope of securing a husband, she had seen little true excitement. It was all restrictions, rigid rules, and no true fun at all.
“You never know,” Sir Thomas murmured as they continued to walk around the edge of the room, ensuring they were seen by everyone, “you could still get married.”
She could not help but laugh aloud at his words. “After all that has happened, the secret we have kept for…”
It was then that Anne caught Meredith’s eye, and she allowed her voice to trail away.
“I suppose you are getting old,” her father muttered.
Fury rose in Anne’s heart, but she controlled herself. She would not snap at her father, not in public, not over this tired old argument.
Instead, she turned her gaze around the room, and sighed. It was precisely what she had expected: plenty of elderly women, in the fashions from their youth, and a few gentlemen of around her age, all likely married. Their foppish styles looked ridiculous, but she swallowed down the boredom.
This was the last year she would be trotted out to the marriage market, and would have to put up with those idiotic young fools.
Meredith pulled at Sir Thomas’ sleeve. “Papa, my bodice is…I cannot breathe properly.”
Anne smiled. She was not the only one then, who hated the restrictive clothing of the Court.
“Hush, Meredith,” Sir Thomas said quickly, looking around to ensure they had not been overheard.
Anne squeezed Meredith’s hand and spoke under her breath. “I do not like my clothes either, Merry, but we only need stay here an hour or two. We can then retreat to our rooms just around the corner, and you can get into your day gown.”
“But why do we have to stay here at all?” Meredith looked around the room with wide eyes.
Anne sighed. “To be seen.”
The double doors opened once more and a further rush of people entered the room, which grew even stuffier as people started to push their way through. A few gentlemen were in the crowd of newcomers, but they gravitated almost immediately to a small gaggle of young ladies, all younger than twenty if Anne was any judge.
She sighed and tried to keep her head high. This was so foolish, so ridiculous. She had been an ignorant chit ten years ago, certainly not worthy of any interesting conversation. She could probably run rings around those young men, but none of them would look at her twice, and all because she had a little more experience!
“I cannot see any other children my age,” Meredith whispered to her father. “I thought you said…”
But Anne’s attention was distracted away from their conversation. As her gaze had moved lazily around the room, she had spotted a gentleman on the other side in the most formal clothing she had ever seen before. It was almost a military uniform, but not one she recognised, covered in gold trimming and brass buttons.
He was also prodigiously handsome. Tall, with dark hair that was incredibly unkempt, with dark eyes and a closely clipped beard that did not hide his strong jaw. His eyes were bright but he looked just as bored as she felt.
Anne felt a flicker of curiosity well up inside her. Who was this man? Why did he stand so alone, so aloof, away from everyone else in the room. What sort of strange costume was he wearing?
A footman had approached them with a tray of drinks, and her father took one thankfully.
Anne thanked him as she took a glass for herself, and then added, “Do you know who that gentlemen is?”
The footman looked in the direction she had pointed, and then sniffed haughtily. “He calls himself Alexei Dmitry Immanuil Maximilian Konstantinvich. Says he is the true Czar of Russia.”
The servant was called away before Anne could make any further enquiries, but the answers she had received just made her even more curious. He says he is a Czar? What could that even mean?
She looked at him again. He was evidently an important gentleman – or at the very least, self-important. That was not a gentleman who would consider Miss Marsh from Romney a suitable bride, and she did not wish to marry either, but could he be a distraction for the next two weeks that she was forced to be here?
* * *
Maxim nodded at a gentleman who passed him, but did not say a word. It would just encourage him to stop, and he was in no mood to speak to anyone.
The formality of the room, the stifled conversation, the reserve; it was too much. It reminded him too much of home, the rigours of the Court, the careful way everyone had to speak – and though there were moments of joy, there were few positive memories.
He had expected Prinny to be here by now. Everyone had told him that the Prince Regent loved to preside over his Court, when in town, and so he had dressed up to – what was it they said here? Ah, the nines. He had dressed up to nine, if that was the phrase, all in the hope of finally conversing with the ruler of this country man to man. But he was not here.
Maxim pulled at the tight collar and sighed. All he wanted to do was get out of these stuffy clothes and let off steam. Jump on a horse, maybe, and ride full pelt to the countryside, to get out of the coldness of London.
But he had to stay. He could not leave now, and hear later from an acquaintance that the moment he had stepped out of the Court, the Prince had stepped in.
A gaggle of ladies passed him by but he did not watch them go. No matter how many beautiful women there were, it did not change the fact that St. James’ Court was more like a prison than a palace, and he knew far too much about the former.
He has to stay. No one can ever discover his secret, and if he left now…
His lazy eye meandered around the room. His gaze caught the eye of a woman who smiled coquettishly. She was rather pretty, in an English sort of way, and for a moment Maxim considered wandering over to flirt for a few minutes. Anything to take his mind off this boring wait for a Prince who may or may not appear.
But no; he must stay focused.
“I think the food here is absolutely awful.” His companion had returned from the table which had been laden with the best food England had to offer, but his expression was one of disgust. “Répugnante.”
Maxim smiled. Well, there was one prince here, but Prince Éduard of Aviroux was not the one who could give him his throne back. They were family, of a sort, and had gained him his invitation to this dratted place.
“You think French cuisine is better?”
Prince Éduard grinned. “Well, yes, actually. I suppose that is of no surprise to you?”
Maxim laughed but said nothing. This fortnight over the Christmas festivities would be much drabber once Éduard returns to his country estate.
“What is on your mind, Maxim – actually no, do not tell me. It will drive you mad, I am sure, if I attempt to guess.”
“All this formality,” Maxim growled. “All this waiting around – I am of royal blood, I should be able to just go and find the Prince Regent and – ”
“You, complaining about English formality?” Prince Éduard laughed. “I thought the Russian royal court was the strictest in the world? You’re a Czar, damnit!”
Maxim did not reply.
His friend sighed. “I hate to leave you in a bad temper, but I need to be off.”
Maxim’s attention snapped to their conversation. “Be off?”
“Leave,” Prince Éduard said with a wry smile. “My apologies, but you will enjoy your Christmas here. I do think that everyone should experience Christmas at St. James’, at one point or another. No one does Christmas like the English.”
“It will not be the same without you,” Maxim said honestly. “Where are you going?”
Strangely for his friend, Prince Éduard hesitated. “You would not believe me if I told you. Letters will find me.”
Without another word, he walked away, slipping out of the door.
Maxim frowned. Éduard always had been very impetuous, but he did not have time to consider his strange parting words as an Englishman wandered up to him.
“You the Czar, y’say?”
Maxim sighed. He had had this type of conversation before, but there was no way to avoid it. These people simply had to know. Where did the English get this sense of curiosity?
“Your servant,” he said stiffly.
The man sniffed. “Don’t believe in royal titles, me.”
Maxim attempted to smile, but it was difficult. “Really? I think the Regent would be interested to know that.”
“Well, when I say royal titles, I mean people like you. Foreigners,” said the gentleman, with seemingly no idea of his own rudeness. “You are just a Czar pretender, if you ask me.”
Irritation rushed through Maxim’s veins but he would not rise to the temptation of shouting at this idiot. “Thank you for your opinion.”
Surely anyone would take the hint, but the gentleman did not seem to have any idea that Maxim did not wish to speak with him.
“And if you ask me,” he continued, “the English crown should not be protecting you.”
Maxim swallowed down the retort that he had not, in fact, asked him, but said instead quietly, “I am here to speak with the Regent, to have him confirm me as the rightful Czar, and then I shall indeed be on my way.”
The gentleman stared, seemingly unable to think of anything else to say, and then walked away.
Maxim watched him accost a pair of ladies on the other side of the room, and considered calling him out for a duel as a defiler of his name, when he was distracted by a tap on his shoulder and a female voice.
“So, you are the Czar, are you?”