Everyone gathered for tea at four o'clock.
Small tables draped with white cloths were set with glasses encased in silver holders. A large, priceless samovar of chased sterling studded with ancient gems sat steaming with hot water under a delicate porcelain teapot filled with strong Russian tea. The Tsaritsa herself poured a short ration of the dark liquid into each glass, adding water from the spigot of the samovar to the strength of each individual's taste. On this occasion, croissants and fresh American biscuits had been added to the trays of delicacies spread about.
"A touch of France for you, Romy, in the croissants," said the Tsaritsa, "and plain biscuits for Brad, made from a recipe Jim Hercules brought us from the United States. You have no idea what a stir it caused when I ordered these up today! The Russian Court is so rigid about such things. Sometimes I think we'd have more variety if we were servants below stairs! Look, there's some lovely clover honey and Devonshire cream for the biscuits!"
"What a treat, Mama!" blurted Anastasia. "Really, Miss Romy, I wish you and the lieutenant would stay a month!"
"OK, Sis!" piped Alexis, flattening his aristocratic English accent to match Brad's Southern drawl. "It'd be right nice if y'all stuck around, Cousin Romy and Loo-tenant Duncan!"
"Alexis!" his mother declared in remonstrance. "We do not say 'OK,' and we never mock a person's speech!"
"Forgive me, Ma'am, but I'm responsible for that," Brad volunteered. "When Alexis demonstrated the Cossack manual of arms in the infirmary this morning, I pointed out some of his anglicisms. I told him if he said 'leftenant' to an American, instead of 'lootenant,' he would be considered a little too snooty, even for a Crown Prince!"
The Tsaritsa flushed slightly. "Oh! I really didn't mean...but, you see, the Russians get very annoyed with me because I speak their language as an Englishwoman would. I suppose I am overly sensitive about such things."
"Well, we won't do it again, will we, Alexis?" Brad said with a wink at the Tsarevich.
"That's OK with me!" the boy chortled, ducking an annoyed grimace from his indulgent mother, and a playful thrust from his sister Anastasia's fist.
"That's for stirring up my patient's blood this morning!" Anastasia rebuked him. "The lieutenant's pulse made a terrible clamor after your military performance!"
Brad smiled. "She said it felt like a marching band!"
"Ah!" exclaimed Romelle. "So my brother was the 'new patient' Anastasia and Olga spoke about. You keep secrets very well!"
Olga touched her hand. "Mama and Papa asked us to say nothing. We loved being included in such a wonderful secret. On behalf of all of us, let me say how happy we are that this reunion has taken place. We hope that he might convince you to stay an extra few days. Our sisters, Tatiana and Marie, will be coming home then. They'll be so unhappy to have missed you!"
"No, children," interposed the Tsar, "our friends are involved in serious business. We have no right to interfere. Miss Romy must go to her father. Can you imagine what it would be like if you had not seen me since you were babies?"
A chorus of noes echoed around the tables.
"Don't even suggest it, Nicky," protested the Tsaritsa. "We need you with us every minute of our lives!"
"Just as Miss Romy needs her father, Sunny, and as I need all of you," the Tsar smiled at his wife, lifting her hand for a gentle kiss.
Someone coughed in the doorway. Nicholas turned. "Chavadzy! Come in."
The Okhrana chief came forward timidly, noticeably lacking his usual self-confident stride.
Romelle gasped and fell back in her chair.
Chavadzy stopped before her and bowed. "I see you remember me from the dining car, Madame, and from your drug-induced dream."
She stared at him, speechless with consternation.
He reached into his pocket for the ruby. Its prodigious size elicited exclamations of awe.
Romelle's hand went to her mouth to stifle a cry.
"I apologize for the adventure on the train," Chavadzy continued. "Had I anticipated it, as I should have, you would not have suffered such worry and discomfort. Those responsible...have been...severely punished. Upon my life, I swear to you that such a thing will not happen again."
His gaze momentarily flickered toward Nicholas, whose face remained impassive.
"The Tsar has granted me the privilege of guiding you and your brother into your father's hands. I shall be with you every verst, every Russian mile, of the way. It will be a long and arduous journey requiring every dram of fortitude you can muster. With humility and respect, I return this gem to your care."
He offered her the ruby.
She extended her hand. He placed it in her palm.
"This is a stone of death," she said through trembling lips.
"Not really," the Tsaritsa contradicted her. "For me, a ruby is a stone of love. Look, Romy."
She lifted a chain concealed in the bosom of her dress. Suspended from it was a ruby ring.
"My husband," the Tsaritsa continued, "gave this ring to me when he asked me to marry him. It marks our engagement. I wear it on this chain to keep it close to my heart. I know the story of your wedding day, Romy. I have wept not only for your sorrow, but also for the beauty of your sentiment in wearing the ruby to symbolize the giving of your heart."
"My Alix is right," added the Tsar, "and I shall ask her now to tell you the meaning of that stone you hold in your hand, as it was told us by your father."
He turned his head to the Tsaritsa.
She smiled benignly.
"It belongs to a goddess," she explained. "It is the eye through which her mercy shines into the world. It is an eye which shines wisdom where ignorance prevails and love where there is hate."
"Ah! It belongs to Tara," Romelle whispered, her thoughts racing back to the swooning diablesse in Martinique, and to the night Eugénie gave her the diamond earrings at sea, "goddess of mercy, wisdom, and love."
Startled by her knowledge, the imperial couple looked at each other in surprise.
"I am so glad you told me," Romelle went on. "You have given me a new understanding of this journey to Mongolia. It is a heavenly commission, larger than just my father and me. I suspect that my life, and others, including my husband's, perhaps even my mother's, may have been lived to accomplish a single purpose toward which I am directed. I have been spared from deluge and fire, and from the hands of would-be assassins. I must follow the pathway to my destiny."
While she spoke, an early winter sunset flooded the room with red. Every eye focusing on Romelle's upraised hand felt itself drawn to the vibrant glow at the center of the stone.
Quickly, it passed. Romelle hid the ruby in the roomy pocket of her dress.