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It was not often that dreams wracked his sleep, but the night of the ball was filled with torment. Something chased him through the city streets he could never quite glimpse. The walls closed in as he ducked through allies. The sky darkened and finally he was cornered. When he turned to face his assailant, it was while brimming with the power of the universe, power he unleashed with everything he had. Then it all burned and he woke from licking flames searing his skin.

He was slicked with sweat when he attempted to regain his bearings. The disconcerting moments that followed swirled a man like lost in a snowstorm. When recognition of his surroundings settled, it was not comforting. The gilded rooms were dark and hollow; palace of the tsars a cavernous, cold marble. He ripped the blankets from his lap and angrily stalked toward a shower.

Anger billowed like the power from his dream. At whom the anger was directed was as indecipherable as the assailant chasing him throughout it. Stalked in his own home, teased and mocked by the Atharim, humiliated before his aristocracy, and impotent to defend himself, he trembled with fury throughout the entire ordeal of the morning. The routine itself was a show; even the pristine way his hair was combed was but another masquerade. But the costume was donned as it was daily. Imagery was everything to him. Identity was nothing but what others assigned. The weakness and impotence displayed at the ball could be erased from the minds of those present if repainted and replaced. Persistence, he told himself, was key; and patience.

When he emerged from his rooms, a studious examination fell upon the first staffer he encountered in the Executive Offices of the Ascendancy. They quickly averted their gaze and hurried about their business. It only soured his already thin demeanor. Only his Deputy-Consul Chief of Staff, Viktor was brave enough to approach.

The rest of the morning was spent mitigating fallout from the ball. He wrote personal messages to each of the attendees, or at least drafted a template message for the staffers to customize to each guest before approving their distribution. Most of the contents were similar, inquiring about their wellbeing, ensuring his own and the strength of the Kremlin, promises to avenge the flagrant disrespect shown to them, vows to protect from further sleights, gratitude for support, commitment to the Custody’s missions foreign and domestic, so on and so forth. Finally, he asked to see Alexandrova sometime mid-morning. The look on her face the previous evening was not lost on Nikolai. Clearly, she required a conversation about topics she dared not confront without invitation: namely, Evelyn. Some of his simmering mood was lidded behind the mask of the man named Nikolai Brandon by the time she arrived. He would be careful as handling fine china because Alexandrova was valuable to him for many reasons. Offending her was not something he desired, the opposite actually. But at one point, he had to share an insight to a truth he’d never reveal completely to anyone. “I need Evelyn, you must see that.” She may assume he meant to manipulate the pretty, young American, but there was a stretch to his voice that he wasn’t sure he obscured perfectly. His gaze settled on something far-sighted when Alexandrova asked a pointed question that she eventually retracted. Nik didn’t know the answer himself and had little inclination to delve in search of it.

Evelyn would be departing Moscow in the coming days. Her entourage of American politicians had come to its end, and Nikolai grew increasingly sharper as the time for their parting drew near. He understood the need, but the box of reason was wrapped with barbed wire for ribbon in his mind. Logic, cold and calculated, became his central dogma. Others noticed it, the mask was more transparent than before, but remained. Only one brief moment when Evelyn squeezed his hand under the table of a state dinner did the façade fade and the man within revealed. He centered himself on her, and the epiphany that flashed through his mind was startling.

In that moment, he came to a decision.

Later, he inquired about the state of communications with the resurrected Atharim Regus. Another was named from Vatican City, but Nikolai barely bothered with the news. It was obvious the Atharim were choosing new tactics and the Catholic Church was careful to toe their association with an apparent terrorist organization. It was only for the love of his Catholic citizenship that he did not denounce the entire church the same time he did the Atharim. To reveal the truth of their demonic allegiance would throw the world’s largest religious organization into chaos, and that was a play Nikolai would save for only the direst of moments.

Instead, he guessed where the real power behind the Atharim slept, and such was a beast he wanted to rouse. Thus far, his messages to Armande were undeliverable or unanswered.

His mood was nearly reconsolidated when the cabaret was brought to his attention. In the shadows of a long evening alone in his office, he watched the video in its entirety. Every shred of footage as could be recovered from social media outbursts to reaction from the street, he consumed it all.

That was the first moment in his life he feared his control over the CCD was slipping.
“Kill them all,” he told Viktor coldly.
“Deserved, Ascendancy, but I advise against so harsh a reaction.” Viktor responded unflinchingly.
Nik fixed him with a stare that dared him to question the order a second time.

But Viktor was unwavering, and logic was slow to trickle through the cracks of blind fury. “Only the owner. Then strip the theater of everything not bolted down and turn it into a school for the impoverished. I want everyone on that stage tonight to lose everything. They won’t be able to get a job cleaning the toilets after the Custody is done with them.”

Viktor nodded. “And Scion Marveet’s son?”

Nikolai fixed the frozen image of Jaxen’s smirking, smug face in his view.
“Send him a message he won’t forget. Then bring Scion to me.”
Following the ball, a great deal of pressure was put upon them to return to the States. Everyone from her constituents, to the President, to her mom insisted she return home as soon as possible. It took a good half-day of her best persuasion to insist that would only make them seem cowardly, which was the exact opposite intention for her trip. Truth be told, Evelyn was a necessary image of stability for the world. Her faith in their safety helped reassure the public at large. Nobody wanted to see the Moscow-centered market destabilized, even if her friend Secretary Trano preferred otherwise. A weak CCD only hurt everyone, but her logic fell on deaf ears. The longer she tried, the less convincing she was, but only because she was above bloviating endlessly.

It was at a State dinner the evening before their departure when a moment caught her breath. She was speaking with one of the ambassadors from southeast Asian dominance when Nikolai caught her eye. It was like the chaos of the ball was obliterated, though she knew others hadn’t forgotten. There was so much potential there that if only she could harness it and wield its power for the greater good, she knew they’d be successful. It was reinvigorating, the epiphany. The rest of the evening even Evelyn was aware of the shift in her mood. She was almost excited to be going home if only to begin a campaign that would guide her to the greatest service her life could be devoted to leading.

It was well before dawn the next day when employees came for her luggage. She was dressed in a (Chanel) travel suit and wrinkle-free blouse along with simple jewelry that wouldn’t alarm the security detection systems at the airport. “Everything is over there,” she gestured near the door and continued her final checks of email while it was carried out.
It wasn’t spur of the moment that carried Nikolai to these doors. He was acutely aware of the Americans’ impending departure, if only for the slow burn in his gut for what that meant. Unaccustomed to the throes of excitement let alone nervousness, the emotion was unsettling. So it was with confidence threaded with the strands of a plan that he was outwardly so calm. Her doors were already parted awaiting staffers to retrieve her luggage. She did not look up when he entered, fixated on her messages for the moment as she was. Evelyn was a serene willow of a woman, the line of whom was drenched in sunlight that promised to not bend even in the greatest of hales.

The plainness of her orders tugged at one of his brows. It was with only a moment’s hesitation that he seized the power of the universe. Trickle though it was, echoes of greater torrents threatened to fracture the dam that held back those terrible memories. He was woefully ignorant of the creature that attacked him three times, but neither was it lost upon him that one of their number was more learned in the mythos. Nox knew their name and how to kill them. Marcus and Nikolai knew from experience, but Nox knew first-hand: knew more. The Atharim channeler was likely to be more valuable than Nikolai originally credited. There was a need in that police-force, Domovoi, for someone with such arcane knowledge. Nox would need a job.. These were thoughts for later, though.

The power funneled to the luggage and lifted them with the ease of moving feathers. Task completed, he clasped his hands behind his back and watched her silently a moment longer.

“What else, my Lady?” He called, a smile touching patient lips for her realization to surface.
Her heart fluttered when she heard his voice. The biography books never said Ascendancy was chivalrous, a secret only Evelyn owned. A playful streak curled her spine and tickled her lips. The great Ascendancy, that ominous figure at world’s helm, her servant for the moment? Her smile pondered a great many things, but it was a flick of the wrist that guided him nearer. “The fire has died, and my tea has gone cold.” A silly, flirty thing to say, and as soon as she did it felt foolish and girlish, but the way he looked at her was beguiling. No other woman in the world won his attention like this, she was certain.

So handsome and calm, like he was alone on the pedestal guiding everyone else because none came close to comparison to him. His eyes clasped her soul, clear and blue like the sea struck by starlight. The obsidian of his neatly combed hair was all the darker above those crystal eyes.  “What are you doing here? I thought we already said good-bye in the Palace hall?” She hoped that formal declaration was not the end of their parting words, but neither could she say as much in front of the press. She caught herself staring more than once. The way he interacted with the press, although hand-selected members of the Kremlin corps, was absolutely legendary.
With a flash, the girl from the United States blinked away and a lady of bygone ages appeared. The role was briefly played, but Evelyn’s regal countenance was apparent. A sweetness soon replaced the act, brief as it was. For a moment, Nikolai wondered which was the façade and which was the authentic woman hiding behind.

Regardless, a sweetness floated to the surface that first grasped his attention. Evelyn was on one hand equally innocent and incorruptible as she was shrewd and smart. He stepped further within as the power drained aside. A pleasant company took its place.

“Did we say goodbye?” The question was rhetorical, of course, as a flame lit his pulse. Before he knew it, his steps ushered him near and her hands were curled in his. More seconds passed than Nik realized before mindfulness pricked the bubble of the moment.

“Your plane is scheduled to depart, but trust me, it will not leave without you. Unless I decide to kidnap you and keep you for myself.” Humor was foreign for Nik, but somehow the idea seemed fitting as her hand curled tighter in his. She did not seem averse to the idea.

“There’s something I want to show you before you leave. I promise you’ll make your flight on time.”

Their hands released by the time they returned to the public halls of the Kremlin. Yet he hovered near her shoulder the entire time he led the way. The Kremlin was their palace, his fortress, but the exterior grounds might as well be Evelyn’s gardens. Even in winter, they were immaculately kept. A helicopter was warming up as they arrived. Nik wondered whether the young Representative ever rode in one, and he led her fearlessly forward.
Swift as a sneaking wind, Ascendancy – Nikolai – approached. His stride direct and steady, but it was the rapture in his eyes that cusped Evelyn in the throes of surprise. Thoughts swarmed like leaves caught on that swirling wind, flashes that Evelyn could hardly grasp their meaning before they were gone again.

How could the world’s most powerful man find her so fascinating? Obviously it was because Evelyn was a darling star that clearly the whole of the country found their sweetheart, and while the recognition was humbling, she found the notion of Ascendancy’s heart captured by flattering fame an oddity. Yet the hands of a man who rewrote the history of the world now closed around her own. The closeness of his chest beckoned her cheek just to ride the breaths drawn within. She forced herself to withhold the winds of the gale threatening to sweep her asunder by sheer determination to hold to dignity. Awareness of an open doorway floated near as well.  

What was she doing in return? It all seemed so transient, their lives flickering flames in the eons of time, that for a heartbeat, she did not care about lines on a map and flags in the air: only him. This brilliant, gorgeous man that needed her so fiercely, she could hardly abandon him now despite the journey ahead.

Smiles and the slip of her fingers from his marked their exodus from the Kremlin. Fresh air flushed the red warming her cheeks, hopefully sharpened her tongue and her wit. Her head was held high as she shared his shoulder, all too aware of those that glanced her direction. Somehow she managed to send a message that she would be meeting the delegation at the airport ahead of the departure time moments before the whirring of a helicopter floated her hair about her shoulders.

As Nikolai likely surmised, this was indeed her first ascent nestled in the belly of such a machine. Nikolai climbed into his seat like normal men might climb into a minivan, mundane and ordinary. Supple leather cushioned her back, sleek straps secured her place. Two pilots and two other men joined them: one of whom wore the grays and chains of those Rods of Dominion. The flash of a smile attempted to break the solemn atmosphere wafting from those certain to be Nikolai’s detail. The handsome, young one she recognized, though was unaware of his name. Whenever video of the Ascendancy broke, this same face hovered within arms’ reach.

Soon, they were lifted easy as a child plucking a babe from the floor. The ground rushed away and the red walls of the Kremlin were lines among the black crawls of the city streets.

A coy look searched Nikolai’s expression. What exactly did he need to show her that needed a helicopter to make the journey.

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