The following morning, the Thistle reached its point of rendezvous off a Crimean beach. When it dropped anchor, a launch emerged from a tiny cove screened by a jumble of rocks. Handled by a single sailor in Russian uniform, the launch carried four passengers, including one woman, all sitting in the prow.The party on the yacht gathered near the top of a stairway lowered over the side.
One of the men in the launch stood as it maneuvered into position for boarding. He looked up at them, smiled, and waved.
"My God!" Ardie cried. "It's my brother!"
Bart raced up the steps two at a time.
In the confusion of joyous reunion, the remaining three passengers ascended to the deck scarcely noticed. Only Eugénie, ever the conscientious hostess, bade them a formal welcome, smiling and graciously extending her hand. Not until one of the men took the hand and leaned forward to brush it with his lips did she fall back in surprise.
"Chavadzy!" she cried. "Is it you? The goatee! It is gone! Why, you almost look like your old self in the Edinburgh days! Ah, would it were so easy for a woman to erase the ravages of time!"
She smiled with pleasure.
Philo turned to Chavadzy as well, while Ardie and Bart exchanged emotional greetings and chattered like schoolboys about Romelle and all the years apart. Prince Dayan stood aside shyly.
"Her Imperial Majesty is correct," Philo agreed. "One always appears younger without a hairy chin. That's why I go about clean-shaven, never mind fashion, except for these bushy 'sideburns.' I've maintained them in good order since my days in the service of General Burnside who made them popular and which, in reverse, bear his name!"
Chavadzy laughed. "The youthful look has become modish in Russia now that the old Tsar has passed away. Our new Tsar just turned twenty-seven on the sixth of May. The whole Imperial Court seems to be in the springtime of life."
"The sixth of May?" Philo noted. "Why, Madame Eugénie, your birthday is on the fifth. That's quite close!"
Chavadzy shook his head. "Not so close as you might think, Captain. Here in Russia, we still use the old Julian Calendar. We're twelve days behind your Gregorian Calendar in the West. So our Tsar was actually born on the twenty-fifth of April, by your reckoning."
The Empress fluttered her fan. "Such confusion! I was told on the morning of the first of August at Cap Martin that this rendezvous was arranged for the morning of the first of August in the Crimea! 'God did not make man to fly!' I scolded the messenger, telling him jokes were inappropriate at such a time. Then, he explained. So we have arrived the same morning, technically, yet twelve days later! It makes the mind spin!"
The elegant young woman in Bart's party, not yet introduced, demurely tapped the unborn child she carried beneath a summery gown of crisp white linen.
"I am German-born," she said in British-accented English, "and I plan to give my baby two birthdays, a German one in the Gregorian Calendar and a Russian one in the Julian Calendar. Won't that be delightful? His birthdays will connect like the Twelve Days of Christmas!"
Her dashingly handsome young man shook his head decisively. "Sunny, it will be a girl!"
"Oh, no," she responded poutingly, "it must be a boy, Nicky. It simply must be!"
Bart and Ardie were with them now, Bart with his arm slung protectively around Ardie's shoulders as if they were youngsters again.
"We must have proper introductions all around," Bart announced. "I pray you will forgive my attention to my brother, but we have always been very close."
"As I am close to my sisters, whom I seldom see anymore," said the pregnant young woman. "You are forgiven, Doctor Bart, for we quite understand. One's family are the most precious possessions one can have."
Eugénie sighed in agreement. "How well I know this, my friends, and how sad life can be when we know that we must wait for Heaven to see them again!"
She looked curiously at the husband of the pregnant woman. "Sir, I feel I know you. Somehow, you look familiar. Surely we have met before?"
He bowed. "No, Madame, although you once entertained my grandfather, and I believe you know my mother's sister. One of her sons, my cousin George, is said to be quite like me in looks." He laughed. "Of course, I am a much more attractive fellow!"
Eugénie looked puzzled, but her puzzlement suddenly gave way. "Aha! Your aunt is the Princess of Wales and your cousin, Prince George! I know them well! Heavens! Then you must be.....!" She swept into a low curtsy. "Sire, forgive me!"
"Please, Madame, we have asked Chavadzy and Doctor Bart to make this little visit as informal as possible," insisted the young man cheerfully. "My wife is in the habit of reminding me that the Russian Court is too rigid, not flexible like her grandmother Victoria's. I beg you to think of us as friends who have come to welcome you to Russia. My family have not forgotten, Madame, your gracious efforts many years ago to comfort my grandfather after an assassin's attempt on his life, and your husband's, in Paris."
Eugénie curtsied again. "It was my privilege to serve him in that small way."
Chavadzy stepped forward. "I should like to present all of you to Tsar Nicholas the Second and the Tsaritsa Alexandra Feodorovna."
Stunned, Philo, Ardie, and Prince Dayan hastily bowed to the young couple.
"My father, Captain Philo Duncan, my brother, Ardmore Duncan, and Doctor Dash's son, Prince Dayan," added Bart, nodding his head toward each in turn.
"We regret that we must leave you so soon," said the Tsar, "but we have been given to understand that this will of necessity be a short visit. Will you please accept our invitation, Madame Eugénie, to take tea with us at Livadia while Doctor Bart and Chavadzy discuss the business at hand with the other three gentlemen?"
He turned toward the railing and lifted his arm to indicate a breathtaking palace of white limestone looming from a cliff above the waters of the Black Sea. The Tsar informed them that the columned, Italian-style structure was his principal summer home.
Left to themselves after the departure of the three Imperials, the men sat around the table on the afterdeck.
Bart took command, first addressing Dayan. "You should know that your father is well. For reasons I cannot specify at this time, he asks that you return with me to Mongolia. I warn you the journey will be arduous. I have taken great pains to come from Mongolia by the least likely route, in order to avoid being followed. The road is fraught with danger. We cannot travel an easier way without putting our lives even more at risk."
Addressing Philo then, Bart proceeded to say: "Captain, my fondest wish is to come home, but I cannot. There are layers of political intrigue it would be impossible for you to understand. However, no politics, at any price, could keep me from my daughter, if there were not a price on my head. I simply cannot expose my child or any of you to such danger! It is the scourge of Dragon's Heart, Captain, that I dare not risk sharing with those I love.
"I am also practicing medicine, albeit in secret. Dash and I have uncovered extraordinary things in the mountains. I am giving you a letter to Louis Pasteur in which I offer details of several of our discoveries. They should prove of great interest, and perhaps of practical use, to him. I want him to know we have saved hundreds of lives with his rabies vaccine."
Bart reached into a pouch he carried and extracted a smallish box. "I wish now to make a very special request of you, sir. As I do not know what will happen to me, I ask that you safeguard this." He held out the object, which was wrapped in paper marked with strange symbols. "Only Dash and I know that it has been placed in your possession. In the event that something should happen to you, please make arrangements for it to be given into the care of someone whom you trust completely. It is of great consequence."
Bart extended to Philo the hand in which he held the box. His father, sitting to his right, took it from him. Their fingers touched.
At that moment, Chavadzy, who sat opposite Bart at the circular table, stiffened in his chair.
"My God, Doctor Bart," he cried, "look out behind you!"
Ardie, seated to his brother's left, trained his eyes in that direction. His mouth dropped open with shock at what he saw. A man whom he recognized as the Thistle 's steward stood at the end of the gangway leading from the amidships saloon. Sun glinted from a revolver the man was sighting on Bart.
Ardie leapt to his feet. The instinct to protect his beloved brother led him to throw himself into a position covering Bart from the rear.
Still seated, Philo toppled backward as Chavadzy knocked the table aside when pulling out his own revolver.
The Russian crouched to take aim. He squeezed the trigger.
Dayan, catapulting himself through the air with the litheness of athletic youth, descended on the steward as both weapons fired.
Shot in the heart by Chavadzy, the steward was dead before he dropped to the deck under the weight of Dayan.
Ardie, struck in the same instant by the gunman's bullet, crumpled, his brain exploding in a cloud of bloody mist.
Seconds seemed like hours before Bart emerged from a daze to appraise the devastating scene around him. Philo lay stunned on the deck. Chavadzy still crouched, frozen in place, both of his hands grasping the butt of his revolver, his finger not yet released from the trigger.
Dayan, lying across the body of the slain steward, rose to his feet. The gunman had fallen against the railing. He was seated upright, his head fallen back, lifeless eyes staring straight ahead. Blood gushed from a hole in his chest. Ardie sprawled pathetically at Bart's feet, the top of his head blown away.
As if roused from a nightmare, Bart slipped down beside his brother, mindlessly cradling the ghastly remains of Ardie's head in his lap.
"Wake up, Ardie!" he wept frantically. "Forgive me for coming back! Oh, God, please wake him up!"
Dropping his revolver, Chavadzy helped Philo to his feet. One look told him Ardie was beyond all human help. Next, he gave the dead gunman a careful examination. Something strange about the man's eyes gave Chavadzy pause.
By this time, other crewmen from the Thistle had crowded around, making efforts to help, and the yacht's captain, employed by the Empress for years, came on the scene from the bridge.
He hovered over Chavadzy and the dead gunman.
"Who was this man?" the Russian asked. "Tell me all you know of him."
"We hired him in Cap Martin, just before this voyage, when our regular steward disappeared," the ship's captain recalled.
Chavadzy clicked his tongue. "Disappeared? No doubt he was dragged into an alley, where this vermin slit the poor bugger's throat from ear to ear."
The captain shuddered. "This man offered excellent credentials. He was an Italian, I think, or a Portuguese. He was a quiet fellow, claimed not to drink or carouse, and caused no trouble on board. It never crossed my mind that he....."
Chavadzy interrupted. "The eyes. Do you see the tiny scars at the edges? Did he squint?"
The man mused for a moment. "I think not. He was the saloon steward and worked inside. He doubled as the waiter. I thought him rather bland, a man not given to emotion. No squinting, no frowning, no passion of any kind in his face. What do the crows feet at the sides of his eyes have to do with it?"
"Those are not crows feet," Chavadzy replied grimly.
The Russian returned to Bart and Philo. Both were kneeling beside Ardie, their grief was so deep, they simply stared wordlessly at his body. Dayan was kneeling behind them, chanting softly while he spun a tiny Tibetan prayer wheel he took from his pocket.
"Come, my friends," Chavadzy soothed, "nothing will bring him back. Ah, the Cossacks!"
Two men in uniform dashed up the stairway from the returning launch, their weapons drawn.
"We heard shots," said the first.
"You are too late, gentlemen!" Chavadzy barked. "Where were you when we first left the cove? I looked for you! You were instructed never to leave Doctor Bart alone while he is here!"
Sheepishly, the bodyguards glanced at one another.
"The doctor..." ventured the first, "the doctor does not allow us to smoke, sir. We stole away to share a Turkish cheroot on the far side of the cove. The yacht came in so quickly, sir, we did not see it until too late. By the time we got back to the landing....."
"A Turkish cheroot, eh?" Chavadzy turned up his nose in disgust. "I might have known from the stink of you! That rotten cigar may have cost your lives, gentlemen. The Tsar will not take kindly to you after what has happened here!"
Both men trembled. Then they heard Bart's voice.
"My bodyguards are not to blame, Chavadzy," he called over from his place beside Ardie. "Had we been going aboard anything but the Thistle , I would have waited for them to return. Who would have thought our enemies would be so clever as to plant someone here, under the aegis of the Empress! And a European at that!"
Chavadzy turned to him. "The assassin was not European. He was, I expect, a fair-skinned Manchu. They performed surgery around his eyes to make them look Western and round instead of Oriental and almond-shaped. I suspect if we were to check, we might find him to be a eunuch, too. Our enemies are diabolical. I am sure this killer was promised a permanent place in Peking's Forbidden City, and riches beyond measure, in exchange for your death, and whatever else he was dispatched to get. They doubtless sent him on a faster route than yours to Europe. They will do anything for the secrets of Dragon's Heart. They also want Mongolia free of the Tsar's influence."
Philo, on his feet again, rested his hand on the pocket containing Bart's package.
"I shall guard this with my life, son," he promised. "Also, I will notify Irene and take care of all the arrangements for Ardie. I suggest you leave immediately with Prince Dayan. God speed you on your way."
Bart got up and embraced his father. He opened his mouth to speak.
"No, please say nothing," Philo pled. "Simply take Prince Dayan and go. I...I would like to...be alone with Ardie for awhile. Chavadzy...everyone...please....."
As Bart began his descent to the launch, he paused and looked back at Philo.
Despite his father's admonition, he spoke. "Goodbye, Captain. Give my love to Romelle. I do not think we will meet again. God keep you and all my loved ones safe. I pray I am taking the curse with me. May its shadow will never fall across you again!"
Philo offered him the ghost of a smile, then knelt, clasping Ardie's hands.
With a sharp twist in his heart, Philo heard Bart's launch pull away from the yacht.