As far as Lady Agatha Danbury was concerned, the inhalation of snuff was a most undignified habit, but far be it from her to correct Her Majesty.
She watched, trying not to grimace, as the Queen leaned over to a nearby table and indulged a hearty snort. Indeed, it was all Lady Danbury could to do to keep from twitching at the heinous sound, and the graceless manner in which the Queen leaned over the side of the couch.
"Who is this Dowager?" Queen Charlotte asked, sitting back up and lightly dabbing her nose. "Do we even know a Lady Mironova?"
"She's the youngest daughter of the late Baron Worthington," Lady Danbury.
The Queen frowned as she adjusted herself in her chair, patting the space next to her so her favorite Pomeranian could join her. "I remember Worthington. He was a soulless miser and his wife a bitter old shrew." Her brow furrowed as she paused. "I thought they had only two daughters."
"They had three," Danbury assured her with a nod, one hand firmly grasping her signature cane. The Dowager Countess was a slightly darker brown shade than the Queen and some years older. As was the fashion, both women wore wigs: Danbury to hide her grays, and the Queen to display her opulent and sometimes outlandish tastes.
For Queen Charlotte insisted upon dressing in the style of the previous century, no doubt to remind herself of happier times.
"The eldest, Margaret," Danbury continued, "married the Viscount Beckwith, while her sister Justine married the Baron Dryden."
"Elizabeth," Danbury nodded. "Married a Russian count some twenty years ago."
The Queen looked as though she were trying hard to remember. "I think I'd remember such a match."
"She never had a debut," Danbury shook her head. "Instead, the baron married her off at fifteen. Apparently, the Count paid a rather substantial dowry to her family, rather than the other way around."
Queen Charlotte was visibly shocked. "Why? Was there a scandal?"
"I think the Baron was trying to avoid a scandal, ma'am," Danbury smirked.
The Queen's mouth remained agape as she struggled to process this information. "How old was Elizabeth at the time?"
"I hope ze rococo style isn't too different from ze sarafan you're used to, madame."
Elizabeth gazed at her reflection, unrecognizable in the mirror as she took a deep breath to suck in her waist. The gown was muslin, flowing, and the palest shade of purple she'd ever seen.
"The waistline is so high," she gasped.
"Do you like zee color?" Madam Delacroix asked, smiling proudly at her handiwork. Elizabeth had spent enough time around actual French people to know the modiste was faking her accent, but as grating as it sounded, she let it slide.
No longer wearing her favorite kokoshnik, Elizabeth had instead been fitted for a jet black wig, the hair pulled away from her face and off her neck. She suddenly felt naked without her headdress, without her pearls caressing the sides of her face.
She remembered receiving her first kokoshnik. It was a wedding gift, in fact, smaller than her favorite one but no less beloved. She recalled how her heart raced at the unveiling, the way the silk wrapping fell away, revealing a bejeweled masterpiece which made even her father pause. Andrei had chosen sapphires set in white. Elizabeth remembered how cool the pearls felt in her hands.
English style is not for me, she suddenly realized. It was true she had waited years for this moment, when she was back on English soil, surrounded by English culture and couture, and yet now that she was here it all felt wrong.
Perhaps I'm just moving too fast.
"Madam Delacroix," she stiffly asked, "how versed are you in Imperial Russian fashions?"
Delacroix was visibly caught off guard by the question. "Madame?"
"I find I like the sarafan," Elizabeth told her simply. "When the new season begins in January, I may require more. Can you oblige?"
"Certainement," Delacroix bowed her head slightly.
"Good," Elizabeth said, straightening up. "Clementine, be a dear and bring me the sarafan with the cerulean panels."
Iakov took a long final drag off his cigarette before flicking it out the window of his room. It was nearing dusk; the Count would want to hear some music while enjoying his Turkish coffee.
Iakov was a young, curly-haired man in his late teens, but the Count often told him he was old soul. He walked and talked with the confidence and conviction of a much older man, such that the English servants moved aside when he approached.
The kitchens were on the same floor as the servant's quarters, and sure enough, the housekeeper Allegra already had the tray ready to go. Allegra was Clementine's older cousin. She was a short woman with light brown skin and honeyed, curly hair pulled back from her face.
"Spasiba, Gospozha Allegra," Iakov bowed his head slightly, rounding the center table to get the table.
Allegra raised an eyebrow. "English only, remember? Dowager's orders; she thinks it'll be good practice for you."
"I was saying thank you, Miss Allegra," Iakov replied, his tone neutral like always. His blue eyes weren't any more readable. Iakov was perfectly capable of speaking in English--and French, and German as well--he simply didn't like to.
"There now," she smiled at him. "Isn't that better?"
Iakov wanted reply, Ne ochen (Not really). Instead he said nothing and took the tray to the drawing room.
For all her talk of getting a new wardrobe, the Dowager was back in Russian garb, working away at her needlepoint, while the Count was lounging with his pipe and a book. They were doing that thing where they were sitting opposite each other and not talking or even making eye contact.
The silence spoke volumes.
Wordlessly, Iakov poured the Count his coffee, with four sugars and a healthy splash of heavy cream. The Dowager didn't enjoy coffee; she said it hurt her stomach.
"Thank you, Iakov," the Count said without looking up, as Iakov set it on a nearby end table.
"Sir," Iakov stated almost bluntly, before taking his seat at the pianoforte. Behind him, the Count smirked. Iakov was usually a much more verbal person, but it seemed the Dowager's English-only rule had curbed his tongue.
Iakov began to play, his quick fingers moving in rapid succession, his shoulders relaxing as he fell back into familiar territory. Recognizing potential, the late Count had gifted him music lessons in childhood. In addition to the pianoforte, he could also play the violin and cello.
The Dowager was the first to speak. Looking up, she instinctively said, "Etot ya ne uznayu (This one I don't recognize)."
Iakov made a point to respond in English, "It is Davydov, madam. From his opera about the mermaid."
"Oh," she replied, blinking and nodding slowly. "Ya dolzhen byl znat (I should have known)," she murmured to herself, resuming her embroidery.
Iakov and the Count met gazes. The Count smiled broadly now. Switching to Russian, he casually asked the Dowager, "Are we expecting callers anytime soon?"
"Yes, yes," the Dowager murmured absently, replying in Russian. "I invited the Baroness Patridge for the day after tomorrow. I knew her as a girl."
The Count turned back to Iakov, whose stoic expression was finally tempered with just a hint of humor.
"How lovely," he mused.