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The Heart
[[Continued from the events in The Height of Rumour]]

It was late, of course, by the time business concluded and Zhenya returned home. The apartment should have been shrouded in shadow, but a faint light still burned in the sitting room. She deposited her purse onto a sideboard, slipping down from the lofty height of her heels. It might mean Halima was still awake, though it seemed unlikely. Possibly the woman had fallen asleep in front of a screen, but more probably it meant they had had a bad night. Zhenya’s lips pursed, for no messages had pinged her wallet the whole duration of the evening, and Halima knew the order of Zhenya’s priorities. She would have answered.

Her head canted around the door, quiet lest she disturb the occupants. Though it proved an unnecessary consideration.

“Mama?” a small voice mumbled.

Auri’s bare feet padded quickly across the distance, and Zhenya knelt and allowed the small child to sweep into her arms, smoothing the dark strands from around her cheeks where they stuck clammy with sweat. Auri nuzzled away from the ministrations, pushing closer, her face burying into the soft fall of Zhenya’s hair and her arms wrapping about her neck.

“You should be sleeping, precious one,” Zhenya said, rubbing a hand up and down her back. She was warm as a furnace, fresh from the heat of blankets. Halima hovered, having risen from the sofa where the two had clearly been snuggled. A nest of bedcovers half hung from the cushions behind her, fortressed with a platoon of small stuffed toys. The woman’s face was weary, her eyes smudged with sleep captured and lost too quickly. Zhenya slowly prised her daughter free, adjusting her silky hair, smoothing her small arms. Bright amber eyes stared out of a pale face. The shadowy crescents cupped beneath her eyes were too dark for one so small. She wished it were so easy as to sweep them away with her thumb.

“Bad dreams?”

A reluctant nod.

“And did Yulian check the closet, and under the bed?”

“Yeah.” Her voice was mushy with the cadence of sleep fought valiantly off. A balled fist pushed against her eye, her face scrunched up around it.

“Then you are in the safest home in all of Moscow,” she assured, pressing a kiss to her forehead. “Get yourself to bed, Halima,” she added softly, clasping Auri’s hand as she stood.

“There was something else,” the woman said, a touch of guardedness to her tone. Enough to pull Zhenya’s gaze up. “A call. I did not answer. It was late.”

“Lorcán?” She was not quite sure whether the question held hope or concern, though either way the sentiment was only fleetingly felt, for she could tell by the flatness of Halima’s expression that such was not the case. She nodded, smoothing away the other possibilities. A thought for tomorrow.

She tucked Auri up in the castle of her own bed, knowing they would both sleep better without the battle of insisting the girl back to her own room. Amongst the silk and mountainous pillows her dark-haired head was almost lost peeking above the blankets. A meandering lullaby played from the music box set on the nightstand, plucked with an expert twist of seidr. Light glittered like a thousand stars gleamed upon the ceiling, dancing lethargically on the air much like they had on the Apex Lounge’s dancefloor. Zhenya sat at her dresser, seeing to her nightly rituals.

“Will you tell me the story?”

“Which one is “the” story?” Her eyes found her daughter’s in the mirror, head tilted a little with the indulgence. The peep of that voice was sleepy though, already floating and quiet. Even as she spoke, Auri’s eyes fluttered shut.

“My favourite one, mama. The one about the Prince,” she yawned. “And his Kingdom of Ashes.”

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