Prince Christian was eventually expelled from the study, where most of the men had gathered.
He left with a sulky face.

   Isabelle Dniester smiled like she knew and pointed to the furthest seat.
It was next to Princess Greta, who was daintily sipping at her tea.
The prince sighed as if displeased with having to sit next to his younger sister, but he obeyed his mother.

   Erna watched the Dniester family with curiosity.
The Queen and Princess Louise were enveloped by quiet conversation.
Princess Louise’s children, a boy and a girl, were being looked after by their nanny.
Prince Christian, who was frustrated at still bring treated like a child and Princess Greta, who was just having fun. 

   All these faces, that all had some resemblance to one or two of the others made Erna feel a little left out.
There was no one here of her family and she realised she missed her Grandmother very much.
People had said that Erna bore a very close likeness to her Grandmother.

   “No, leave that lady’s dress alone.”

   Erna looked down to see Princess Louise’s daughter clutching at the hem of her lacy dress, where gold thread made strange patterns.
The nanny was rushing over.

   “Leave her alone, I’m so sorry,” the nanny said.

   Erna laughed and stopped the nanny.
The child watched her with rolling eyes and a bright smile.
Erna thought she looked like Duke Heine, Louise’s husband, but the smile was definitely from the child’s mother.
The same smile all the Dniesters seemed to have inherited.

   Erna looked at the tiny, chubby hands that were playing with the patterns of her dress.
The little girl had peachy cheeks and fine hair tied up with ribbons.
This was actually the first time Erna had encountered such a small child.
She was nervous because she didn’t know how to act around the toddler.

   “Hello,” she said to the little girl.

   As their eyes met again, Erna smiled awkwardly.
The child looked at Erna with big, blank eyes and tried to wave.
Her hands were like a maple leaf and Erna’s smile was as bright as the child’s.

   Erna let the little girl play with the hem of her dress to her hearts content.
Then she began pulling on Erna’s hand, as if trying to lead her somewhere.
She pointed to a palm tree on the other side of the room.

   Erna got up and slowly walked the child around the room to the palm tree.
Isabelle watched the pair from over her fan.
Louise, realising who her child was with, called for the nanny.

   “Let them be, Louise,” Isabelle Dniester said.

   Erna and the child stood before the palm tree and Erna listened intently to the little girls mumbles and chatter.
The whole thing made Isabelle giggle.

   “I don’t understand why you are so lenient with the Grand Duchess, mother,” Louise said, disappointingly.

   “Is there a reason not to be?”

   “Well, no, but…” Louise swallowed Gladys’ name and sat tight lipped.

   Erna was now holding the child in her arms.
It disgusted Louise, to see Erna do something she did not want her to do, just to satisfy her mother.
Erna circled around the room, bringing the child wherever she pointed.
It was a shameless display, like Erna didn’t know what she was doing to get all the attention.

   “I didn’t know you loved children,” Louise said to Erna, when she came back with her daughter.
Louise sat the little girl on her lap, “is there any news of your having children yet?”

   “Louise, shush, they’re still newly-wed,” Isabelle said.

   “But now is the time, Gladys came back from her honeymoon with news of her pregnancy already.” The mood in the room stiffened as Louise let slip the name.

   Louise realised that she had slipped up and looked at Erna, who looked startled.
Louise had just crossed the line, she would have placed the blame on the pressure from her mother, who seemed to be taking Erna’s side.

   “That’s rude, Louise,” Isabelle Dniester said in a low voice that broke the delicate silence.
“Apologise, now.”


   “Now, Louise.”

   Despite her daughters stubbornness and stern look, there was not a child alive that could stand up against their mother.
Christian and Greta had stopped their conversation and where looking upon the scene with a sigh.

   “I’m…sorry,” Louise said reluctantly, “I spoke without thinking, please forgive me Grand Duchess,” Louise’s face wrinkled in humiliation.

   “Oh, no, I’m fine, it’s really alright,” Erna flustered, not sure what she should do.

   “Thank you for understanding,” Louise said.

   It was only when Erna met her pleading eyes, that she finally showed a smile.

   “I’m so sorry for my daughters rudeness,” Isabelle added with soft words.

   Word came in that the business the men were conducting in the study was nearly concluded.
It was time for the Dniester family dinner.


“I think our father has changed his mind for sure, too.” Leonid said.

   With narrowed eyes, Bjorn hit the ivory ball and watched it roll down the table with narrow eyes.
It looked to be slightly out and his six ball streak came to an end.

   “That reading table, father kept it and uses it regularly,” Leonid continued with a flat expression.
He seemed like someone unconcerned with how far behind he was on the score board.

   “Reading table, the one Erna got him?” Bjorn chuckled.

   At first, Bjorn had thought the gifts she had bought were ridiculous, but it turned out that they were very well received.
His mother had even praised Erna for the gift of the pruning scissors, saying that she uses them very carefully.
It seemed like a deliberate compliment at the dinner party.
It made Erna quite happy.

   “His Majesty the King of Lechen is easily swayed with gifts,” Bjorn said, watching Leonid line up a shot.

   The ball rolled down across the table and Bjorn could see that it was a perfect angle and as he took a sip of brandy, Leonid sunk a ball and scored.

   “The Grand Duchess seems like a nice enough person,” Leonid said.

   “I distinctly remember the Crown Prince saying he did not like Miss Hardy.
It felt like a very firm opinion at the time,” Bjorn said, puffing out smoke from a cigar.

   “Yes, I thought so at the time, but that was only because I did not know the Grand Duchess.”

   “Well, I must say that I am glad you have corrected your opinion,” Bjorn said, laughing.

   Leonid closed the gap by scoring four more points, before missing his next shot and conceding the table to Bjorn.

   Bjorn took one last sip of brandy before taking up his cue.
Even though he had drunk a fair bit already, it was hard to detect any drunkenness in him.
Given how much he usually drinks, it was fair to say this was nothing more than pre-dinner drinks.

   The Grand Duchess was doing her best for her husband.
Those who supported the ill-fated Crown Princess Gladys thought it only a myth and tried their best to ignore it.
But any one with eyes could see. 

   When Leonid’s turn came back around, he calmly grabbed the chalk and went on to win by three points.
Bjorn accepted the miraculous defeat graciously.
It was only a friendly game, so nothing to worry about.
His twin was obsessed with winning more than he was.

   “Since you got yourself a good wife, have you thought about becoming a good husband?”

   Bjorn frowned deeply at Leonid, who had put his spectacles back on.

  “Aren’t you the one who asked me to play billiards so I had to leave my wife in another room?” Bjorn puffed out a few smoke rings from his cigar.

   Leonid sighed and sat down at the table opposite his brother, giving him a stern look.
It was him who always invited Bjorn to play billiards, when he wanted to discuss matters of state and importance.
He was well known for it.

   “So what are you doing now? The game is finished, are you not going back to your wife?” Leonid said, feigning scorn.

   “You have no alcohol left, Your Highness,” Bjorn filled their empty glasses with a shake of his head and a smile.  “The Bald Eagles have broken their stubbornness,” Bjorn said raising the glass, “they will not touch the government interest rate, or the tax on securities.”

   “What do they want in return?”

   “Well, it would be most urgent for them to resolve the fiscal deficit with Lechen’s funds.
Apparently they want to sell the northern railway, unless you have another card to play.
What we’re going to give and what we will receive in return, that’s between you and Maxim.” Bjorn put the cigar back into this mouth after patting away the ash.
It was a casual gesture, as if to say it wasn’t his problem any more.

   Leonid no longer asked.
He knew well enough, Bjorn didn’t like to get involved in things that weren’t his business.
Given Bjorn’s attitude and the information he brought from last visit, he probably already had a plan of action.

   “I’m suddenly curious,” Leonid explained, deep in thought, “if you added that bank job to the trips schedule, what the hell did you do on your honeymoon?”

   “I took care of business, if you would care not to pry, Your Highness.”

   “Bjorn, I think you should…”

   “She’s my wife, Leonid,” Bjorn cut him off with cold words, “I know her better than anyone and I’m actually a pretty good husband, when you get to know her and her needs.”

   Leonid stared at Bjorn for a long moment, then laughed at Bjorn’s words, as if they had been sharing crude jokes.

   Leonid put down his half empty glass and let Bjorn top it up.
He thought about Pavel Lore, randomly and it deepened Bjorn’s mood.

   “Why?” Leonid asked sullenly, holding up the glass.

   “Just because,” Bjorn sat obliquely against the back of his chair and sucked the last of the cigar, “I’m having a hard time dealing with her.”

   Bjorn exhaled smoke that obscured him briefly and as the smoke dissipated, Leonid looked into his blank face.
He ended up laughing at his brothers deadpan expression.

   “What? You’re crazy.”

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