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Late-night assignment
Consul Alexandrova Lesya Vladislavovna
Consul on Public Engagement, Propaganda, and Interdominance Relations
Responsible for the private face of the CCD, especially in relation to other nations. It oversees the international image of the CCD and carries out clandestine operations to promote CCD interests throughout the world.

Not even eyedrops helped relieve the aches in Alexandrova’s eyes. This business with the homeless displacement took all of her attention. Between days of meetings, marketing and planning the Kremlin had effectively controlled the messaging around this blip in the day to day lives of ordinary people. Nikolai had been his usual obtuse self whenever he received her reports. There was more to the story than even Alexandrova knew, but it didn’t surprise her.

The official word was that there had been a fire in one of the tent cities and a few of the homeless had been displaced as a result. They were quickly relocated by Custody officials for theirs (and most importantly, the public’s) safety.

The work had been intense, and Alexandrova was eager for a well-earned soak in the bathtub and a pinot. The Consul slipped her devices into her bag, slipped on her jacket, and locked up her office. By her estimate, the wider Consulate would be mostly empty excluding the overnight staff – employees dedicated to round the clock propaganda posts – but among the head-down workers, one face caught her attention.

Her new assistant had similarly been busy, but luckily, she was energetic and eager to prove herself. Noémi had no idea of the real reason Alexandrova had assigned her a last minute task. The work probably could have waited until the following morning except that the request derived from the highest of Kremlin levels.

“Thank you again, Noémi. Hopefully you are almost done?” Alexandrova stayed and chat for another minute – making sure that the assistant didn’t need anything else – before departing herself.

At the exit, Alexandrova looked over her shoulder one last time. It wasn’t that many decades ago that the Consul saw herself in the young woman’s place. The feeling left her nostalgic as she departed to find her own pleasantries for the evening.
Late nights were not unusual, though they rarely came by actual request. It wasn’t a problem, and she had not complained. Noémi preferred to keep busy anyway; her life was built upon the diligent foundations which saw her from poverty to the Custody’s beating heart, and such hard work left little room for idleness. Sometimes, sleepless in the shadowy early hours, she feared that the moment she stopped would be the moment she fell all the way back down to those humble beginnings. Crushed so underfoot, she was not sure she’d have the strength to make the journey twice.

She paused for Alexandrova’s interruption, and while not expecting thanks, accepted it graciously, if a little surprised at the pleasantry. The hours were not an inconvenience, and she did not deign to question the urgency of the task set; she was content to see it through – she assured Aleandrova as much, before she departed.
[Image: Alexandrova.jpg?w=750]
Consul Alexandrova Lesya Vladislavo
Consul Alexandrova Lesya Vladislavovna

One small perk of heading a Consulate meant Alexandrova could take the short route to the car. On a late-night when even the best pumps left her feet aching, the walk through the Grand Palace was preferable to the long, twisting halls of the Senate. She was head-down, scrolling messages that she hadn’t yet processed, when a blur caught the corner of her eye. Then a touch on the arm. She gasped, jumping aside.

When she realized what it was, not even a flood of relief slowed her breathing.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Nik,” she blurted out before she had a chance to stop herself.

It was Nikolai. Standing there like she was the one out of place.
“I’m hardly Jesus,” he replied with a coy smile that once upon a time made her blush. He probably thought that Jesus could only be so lucky.

There was no point in saying that though.
“I’m sorry. You startled me is all. You should have messaged me.” She found herself looking at her messages again as if one might manifest right then. Avoiding his gaze had nothing to do with blushing. It really was incredible that he looked the same as he had twenty-five years ago.

“I am sorry for having startled you. Are you done for the night, then?” The way he asked made her check the time on impulse.

“Yes, actually. That project you asked for should be completed anytime. It's being worked on as we speak,” she said, suddenly acutely aware of the time. They were alone as far as she could tell. Any of the lingering staffers lacked the clearance to walk these hallowed halls. One of the other Consuls may have appeared, she supposed, or a Dominion. 

Sensing her disquiet, Nik seemed to soften just a little. “Good night, Alexandrova,” he said with a gentle nod in parting. It was like she couldn’t help herself. It was probably why she would die of old age doing whatever he asked of her.

[Image: Bently_1115-e1659150882612.jpg]

Alexandrova’s departure lingered even as the distance parted them. With the power flexing within, he could still smell her perfume. It was the same brand she’d worn for decades. It made him think of his first campaign for President, nights traveling between St. Petersburg and Russia, and the eventual thrill of winning the seat. Alexandrova had been a girl then. She was still beautiful, but back then, she was fierce and stunning. The nostalgia made him sigh. It was her damn perfume. There was a special connection between scent and memory - some stimulation of the reptilian brain left within the mind. Would he still be burdened with the thoughts of those younger years in a century? Two?

He had to put Alexandrova from his mind. All of them. The power flowed through him. Not so much to tempt a god sucking Ijiraq. Enough, though. Yes, he owed them his loyalty – Leonid, Borislav, Alexandrova, others – and they would have it as long as they needed it. Tonight, he needed someone else. Someone who only knew the god.

He paused at the Consulate’s entrance, thoughtful frown overtaking his expression. Now that he was here, he wasn’t really sure what he was going to say. It was rather shocking. Him? He had a plan for everything under the sun. His plan was walking around the United States right now, delivering the final corner of the world to his feet. Evelyn was half a world away, and more importantly, busy. He had a plan for the world, but not how to talk to one girl? Hmm.

The strange sensation passed in a few moments, swept away by a power so much greater. In one sweeping gesture, he opened the door and called out, “Alexandrova? Are you still here?” but paused in the threshold when it was clear there was only one staff member in the Consulate this evening.
Noémi was comfortable amongst the quiet shadows of the empty office; moreso, she realised, than when it was bustling with her colleagues. The job was the best she had ever had, and not just because of its salary and perks, yet this elite world felt utterly unknowable to her - a world that would never truly be hers. She was still getting to know the new faces around her, was warm and friendly in her interactions, but she was reticent to share too much of her own beginnings lest that too revealed her to be an imposter. It was a delicate balance, one she hoped would become easier in time.

The door flew suddenly open; likely not Alexandrova returned for something forgotten, though, not by the way it swept so grandly on its hinges. The gesture actually made her jump a little, so engrossed in the pleasant quiet and her work; she hadn’t exactly anticipated interruption. But her heartbeat never quite returned to normal, even after the initial surprise; when the voice, and then the face, shivered recognition that sped her pulse for an entirely different reason.

It was difficult not to think of obsidian roses.

Noémi was quiet a moment, not shy of taking a moment for composure. She held his gaze. If there was curiosity, it was well managed beneath a layer of propriety. Gifts were not invitations, not when the man concerned was the Ascendancy. And it had meant something to her; enough that she would protect herself from misunderstanding.

“No,” she said eventually. “I’m afraid you have just missed her. I am just finishing up here.”
From eyes cool as spring, a gust of wind swept at the darkness clouding his soul, but it was like standing at a door looking upon a glowing world that didn’t welcome him. Considering others never usually gave him that much pause, something held him at the threshold. Women were not the sorts of ambition that occupied much space in his mind. He didn’t have the time for a chase. Ambiance and stoicism did most the work. Whatever else was needed was usually overcome by pure blunt proposition. Only once was he turned down, and only a handful of times was the pairing negotiated through offer of a third party, but Nikolai was a jealous lover. He did not like to share anything of his.

To the moment at hand, he couldn’t help but notice that Noémi’s boss was indeed absent. Of course he knew that, but may have known by the absence of her perfume.
“Ahh,” he finally said, gaze settling thoughtfully on the dark office in the back.

When Alexandrova was distracted, Nikolai had stood silent in the shadows while she passed right by. It was an inward variation of the same weave he used to obscure his public comings and goings with darkness, but this was a darkness that went unnoticed. Usually the flows broke when he moved. Tonight, he was able to touch Alexandrova on the arm before she even noticed he was there. What would happen with Noémi watching directly?

It didn’t take a great deal of power as he walked, but it was more focus than he was accustomed to dedicating. He reached Alexandrova’s office in a few seconds, but upon emerging, he was extremely interested in Noémi’s reaction. Would she have seen him enter it? Would she be as startled Alexandrova? Or was she a curious witness to the Ascendancy retrieving something from among the Consul's belongings?
Noémi watched him, thoughts of work laid carefully aside for now. The first time she’d seen him flow through the consulate he’d been effortlessly charismatic, and she reminded herself often that she was one of many drawn by a magnetism which had laid almost an entire world at his feet. In a room full of people he had made them feel like the only two there, but now they really were. There were no eyes here but hers, and whoever he chose to be was for her alone. She wanted to remember the moment, innocuous or not. To arm herself against a baseless infactuation, else to fall deeper under its spell. Her fingers brushed the inside of her wrist, where her pulse still thrummed in his presence, and the soft scent of wood, spice, and decadence lingered.

"I’m surprised you did not see her on your way in.” Her lips softened into a quiet smile, and if there was some hint of humour, it was of course not an accusation.

He swept passed, and it felt like the shadows moved too, rippled almost like water, but it proved difficult to focus on. Like phasing and soft blurring, a shadow on the lens. She’d never seen evidence of the power in person, but it was not simply that which parted her lips into a softness of surprise, it was the ebbings of memory it decanted like her first scent of Les Larmes Sacrées de Thèbes. Melancholy haunted her since childhood, like ghosts of an old life, but it was the first time memory overwhelmed so strongly. The skeletal reeds of a riverbed. A mantle of darkness. A home. Her chest ached with a devastating nostalgia - and for something she could not even name, but felt only as a piercing loss.

Only seconds had trickled by, but she felt them like ancient weight. The certainty.

"I think I would always know you, whether I could see you or not," she said, knowing it sounded odd, but also knowing it sounded true. Surprise had reigned into thoughtfulness, but whatever epiphany waited, it vanished when she realised by the intensity of his attention that he was examining her reaction. A little late to wonder what reflections passed freely across her expression, let alone what he was actually looking to see there. The world realigned, as it so often did, into a world into which she was not so sure she belonged. Had he just been testing a new trick? A fear simmered; that she was wrong, and she factored no part of this strange after-hours errand; that as quickly as he’d arrived he’d leave.
Surprise flickered her expression and the satisfaction flowed deep. Not fully invisible but obscured, he’d passed. Which meant the flows were more stabilized, although not fully impervious to motion. He was so close to the goal, but while that was a success, another agenda occupied his mind.

He hovered professionally nearby but in no hurry to depart as suddenly as he came. Noémi’s guess was accurate, and one that Nikolai did not deny. He might have known where the Consuls were at any time. Chips tracked their every step (for their own safety of course). He wasn’t bothered to care about those steps, but the business of the government had to continue uninterrupted. A missing Consul could not be risked even for a few hours. Should one go missing, a quick retrieval was necessary. Nor was Nikolai on the other end of monitoring their whereabouts. He had neither the interest nor the time to spy on his Consuls. Ready access was accomplished by the mere press of a button, but there was no need to explain such measures to Noémi.

“I must have only just missed her, but instead I found you. I admit I am not heartbroken,” he added with the easy afterthought of intentional charm. The power continued to linger, and he wondered if the baccarat scent decorated Noémi’s porcelain skin. He wouldn’t be offended if she opted to save the draught, but even with his divine enhancements, he would need to be closer to find out. He found his heart beat ever slightly faster just to wonder, and his gaze settled on the curve of her neck. 

After a moment, he considered saying something about knowing her too. That if he reached out in the dark to caress her cheek, he’d know every part of her face without ever opening his eyes. Instead, the Ascendancy's sharp blue gaze returned to hers and he smiled a reassuring smile, one of safety and promise. To break the spell of intensity, he edged nearer and spoke soft as sharing a secret. 

“Would you care to join me for a drink? I think I can say with some confidence that work can wait,” and he offered a hand to assist her up.
“La chance sourit*,” she said, with the soft hint of her own smile. Whether he could translate she did not know, but French was so much more beautiful than English. The sultry peeks and curves chimed like music, and he did not need to know the exact words to feel the sentiment.

Noémi knew others often found her beautiful. It had been the only currency to her name once, and one she had never spent unwisely. Her maman had always urged her to grow up smart, not beautiful, but beauty had been the tool to keep her clothed and fed. His intensity did not make her wilt nor blush, though his eyes were sharp enough to cut right to the soul, and for a moment the air felt so charged she was not sure breath made it through her parted lips. She was mesmerised by that thrill of power, of being desired. Of desiring in turn.

He drew closer. The gesture was old-world gentlemanly, and she luxuriated in the moment as she reached for his hand and let him pull her to her feet. There was never a moment she considered refusing. The Fates themselves might assure a knot of heartbreak in every thread, and she would always choose this.

“A pause,” she agreed, thinking on the note that had accompanied the inky black roses. A pause from her work. A pause to give this dream wings, while it lasted.

(*fortune smiles)
Her native language rolled smooth as silk. The language of romance was alluring as the lips that parted their birth. Despite his appreciation for the woman that spoke such loveliness, she uttered a language not allowed in the Kremlin. The Ascendancy did not react beyond consideration of their meaning but neither was the reminder dismissed. Noémi was new to this world of power politics. An irony in the Consulate of Propaganda, where things like cultural identity and language were smoothed to CCD uniformity.  She was a good little worker bee flitting from flower to flower at the behest of another, but her oblivion was part of her charm. If he wanted a broker of power, he would turn to Evelyn who was conveniently absent.

Her hand was delicate as a flower, but ridges in the palm suggested the opposite of a pampered princess. She knew what it was to use her hands, and Nikolai was surprisingly intrigued by what that meant. In Moscow, that was a rare thing. Stunning women were bountiful in their city of Nouveau Riche, but he doubted any of them knew what it meant to wash their own dishes. The thought summoned a flash of his childhood, of his own mother at the kitchen sink while young Nik ate dinner alone. It was only a moment, but the pang that followed was stifled quickly. He smiled and led Noémi from the department from the crook of one arm. Nikolai was dressed in a dark suit, one uniform among many of the unchanging nature of his appearance. To the surprise of many given his vast wealth, the clothing was well-made and from a reputable designer, but it could easily be outdone in the throes of Moscow’s billionaire business-class. Other than the pin on his lapel featuring the sharp points of the Double Crescent symbol of his office, he was relatively unadorned. There was nothing to flaunt but himself.

Their walk through the Tsar’s palace was occupied with commentary regarding the portions of the Kremlin they passed. The building that housed the Consulates was plain in comparison to the grander palaces that he guided their journey toward. He pointed out Katherine the Great’s throne on display at the end of a corridor. The Amber Room was passed nonchalantly, an ironic afterthought following its recovery being one of the greatest long-lost treasures of the post-world war era. The grand ballrooms were empty, although the lights were kept bright to always exploit their grandeur.

Finally, an elevator carried them to the upper level. The Kremlin fortress was built on the highest hill in the area. Such were the ways of thousand-year-old fortresses, and although the upper level was only a short ride, they would be high enough to make for a stunning city view. The red walls glowed beyond windows dressed with exquisite drapes that matched the general opulence of the Tsar’s tastes. This was the same wing that Nikolai hosted other personal guests when the event required somewhere more private than the Executive Offices they previously left behind. While the quarters were his temporary home, no guest no matter how important were privy to his truer retreat. It had been severely damaged after the Regus’ attack and the basement reconstruction was only recently completed. Not even his beloved Evelyn bore witness to Nikolai’s last thread of private life.

The wing may as well have been a hotel for all the space. There were quarters for guests down the hall. The sitting rooms of the former Tsars now made for a gilded living room. There were plush seats for lounging, a formal dining room, and even a serving bar. Fuller kitchens were located elsewhere (as were the round-the-clock staff). He invited Noémi to make herself comfortable with a welcoming smile, commenting on the excessive walk to their present location and her likely innate desire to be off her feet. The Ascendancy was the perfect host, practiced in all the ways of formality that one expected as befitting his station. While the gentile charm was usually disarming of his company, it was the spectacle that followed that truly enraptured his guests. Seemingly all at once things moved around the room as if on their own. Baccarat flutes were plucked from their shelf, a champagne bottle suddenly beaded with condensation, and a heatless fire spun to life in the hearth, made solely for the dance of its mesmerizing flames. The power was as natural to him as using his own two hands and completed just as thoughtlessly.

When finished, Nikolai held one of the flutes of golden liquid, though he did not partake, and the other hovered within arm's reach of his guest. He rarely consumed alcohol, the last being a simple glass of red wine on the night of the grand ball. Neither did he indulge in espresso, having abandoned the habit following the fateful departure from Bologna all those decades ago.

When he chose to sit, it was across from whatever location Noémi selected. He felt as if he’d done most of the speaking, and now was interested in gauging her in return.
“What do you think of all this?” he asked, gesturing vaguely at their surroundings.

By this time, the general response was one of astonishment and slack-jawed marveling. Indeed, it was remarkable to live in history and sharing champagne with the most powerful man in the world. What everyone always overlooked was the complete and utter lack of himself in his surroundings. That it was all a charade, a façade meant to elicit a reaction. Would Noémi be the first to notice? He wouldn’t mind if the river of oblivion continued to wind its way wherever it wanted, including through his guest. A disappointment, perhaps, but it wouldn’t make a difference to him by the end of the night anyway.

But he did wonder.
Noémi had never seen such opulence beyond a photograph or screen, let alone been invited into its midst. She was mostly quiet throughout their walk, although was an interested party in the history and wonders that surrounded them – she was curious, as anyone would be, to marvel at things most would never get to see first-hand. At least not those with her humble beginnings. But beyond the captivation of her attention, she had very little to add to the conversation. As the minutes trickled by the chasm of their stations began to cut a little deeper. This was utterly ordinary for him. It could never hope to become ordinary for Noémi.

The suite into which he finally led her was palatial, and if it stole a little of her breath she wondered if it might be a drowning rather than wonder. Understanding the Ascendancy’s vast wealth and power was one thing, but being confronted with it was something entirely different. Nikolai was an unfaltering host, and Noémi was a demure and polite guest while she collected her composure. His charm smoothed the cracks of her discomfort, but surrounded by the beauty of his world she could not imagine a way she fit that did not end with the crush of reality’s heel.

Distraction came in the form of bottles and glasses that leapt to swift attention, and a fire blossoming like magic in the hearth. Noémi marveled at the crystal flute suspended perfectly in midair, wrapping her fingers carefully around its stem. “It feels just like La Belle et la Bête,” she said, a little wonderingly, only for her eyes to take a quick glance of his. “Though even as I say it aloud, I fear you may find just cause to declare it an awful comparison. Forgive me.” A little teasing laughter suggested she did not fear to have truly offended. Certainly she had been talking of magic and not beasts. The smile softened, but left the twinkle of its trespass in her eyes. Away from the office, formality fell away like a robe from shoulders. She did not choose to think of him as the Ascendancy.

She sat, champagne in hand. She did not generally drink. A woman alone, especially in a city like Moscow, learned to abide by the sorts of self-imposed rules that would help keep her safer. Given her early line of work, Noémi quickly learned the value of having all her faculties. Though she never regretted the ways in which she survived, she had no wish to become trapped in that underbelly life, as she had witnessed happen to so many around her. That was not the danger here, but lunch had been a long time ago, and she didn’t want to make an embarrassment of herself should it all rush straight to her head at the first sip of bubbles.

“I will be honest, Nikolai. The luxury is overwhelming. Even this glass, it is so delicate I feel I might accidentally break it between my fingers, yet if I were to set it down it would make for so slovenly a picture I could not dare.” As she finished confessing, her gaze swept obediently about the room (though that seemed too small a word), but did not stray long before finding him again. She spoke true, but also seemed capable of finding her own equilibrium in a place so out of her depth. If she was moved, it was not with the pink-cheeked wonderment of spring-time youth. If she was mesmerised, it was with him.

“It is beautiful and intimidating. A dwelling fit for a god. It dazzles me with the legacy I have known of the Ascendancy all my life. But I see nothing here that tells me anything of you. I find myself surprised that you would care for my opinion on it.” She had the sense, as in the office, that he was testing something of her, but if she was both astute and perceptive, she was no politician, and she did not try to second guess where the motivation lie. The weight of judgement was not too heavy, and she was curious for his reaction.

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