Diplomatic activities usually weren't scheduled during winter, and most definitely not in Russia, because Ivan's mood was unpredictable at best during the snowy months, and often ran the gamut from exhilarated to terribly sulky, and everything in between.
Usually, because some things cannot be helped.
So it was a surprise when, upon leaving your office one Monday morning, you found Ivan's Minister of Foreign Affairs' secretary waiting for you. For a middle-aged man, he looked decidedly nervous.
You glanced at your secretary.
"Coming in representation of the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ma'am!" he cheerfully announced. Well, you would forgive the ignorance; he was new, and still very young. In fact, he looked downright excited to be meeting a foreign minister's secretary. Probably for the first time, you thought.
"Why didn't you show him in?"
The Russian secretary cleared his throat. "Thank you, Madam, but I insisted on waiting for you outside."
Your eyebrows rose. "Do you not come for official business?"
He stammered an affirmative. "But more like a 'will you do us a favour' sort of official." He fumbled a moment and then produced a miraculously pristine white envelope from inside his coat. He offered it to you.
"For Mr. Russia," he explained, when you turned it over and saw that it was neither signed nor addressed. "There's to be an official ball next week. It requires his presence. And...ah, yours, too, if it please you."
Well. At least now you understood. Periodically, members of Ivan's staff or of his extensive Government asked you to deliver messages of the less welcome sort in their stead. You really didn't mind, and even appreciated these people's wisdom, but those entrusted with the task for the first time seem to have put it into their heads that you were as frightening as Ivan, and that, anyway, it was less than polite to be asking nations to play messenger.
"I will make sure Ivan knows, as soon as possible," you promised. It did not put the man completely at ease, but he relaxed enough to tentatively smile back. Perhaps now, your reputation wouldn't be so bad.
Ivan was arranging a vase of sunflowers when you arrived home. His face was almost beatific, and he was warm and cuddly as you dove out of the cold, snowy day and into his arms.
"Look! My children sent me sunflowers, da?" He cooed, leading you to the bright spot of yellow in the living room.
Cunning people, you thought, and had to give the Minister of Foreign Affairs more credit than you previously did.
"It livens up winter, doesn't it?"
"Da," Ivan agreed, leaning his cheek on the top of your head.
"And maybe some company next week will do the same?" You asked hopefully, producing the white envelope.
Ivan scanned the contents. He said nothing, but neither was he tensing up. You took that as a good sign.
He folded the notice, put it back into the envelope, and wrapped his arms around you fully. "Just a little conspiracy between the Ministers of Tourism and Foreign Affairs," he said almost contentedly. "Those two are always thinking up funny things to do. Now it seems they want to throw a grand party."
"Oh? What kind of party?"
He shrugged. "The international kind."
"You're not terribly opposed to it, are you?"
"Nyet. We agree on one thing, at least - we're going to show you off."
It was your turn to be surprised.
"It says right here -" he wriggled the letter free again and flapped it open. "Highlight of the evening will be the Russian jewels. How very sensible to show off the most beautiful принцесса in the world!"
But flattered though you were, "Ivan, I think your Ministers are talking about actual jewels, of the crown type."
His face fell and he shook his head, gravely disappointed. "Those clowns haven't improved a bit, after all. But he did not object, at least.
Tuesday went without incident. The Minister of Foreign Affairs' Secretary telephoned your office to follow up on the notice. You were glad to report good tidings.
And then Wednesday began with an early morning caller whose ringing of the doorbell cut off an impromptu kissing session in the hall. Ivan, slightly annoyed, went to answer the door himself, only to come face-to-face with a cheerful, red-cheeked woman. Behind her, a cargo truck coughed to a park at the end of the driveway. Men in uniform jumpsuits hopped out and began bustling about with armloads of supplies.
"What is all this?" Ivan asked, narrowing his eyes at the surprise visitors. "Who are you?" he said to the woman.
"Alina," she replied, still smiling, "the events coordinator for the promotional fete of the Minister of Tourism and Foreign Affairs. We're here to start decorating the venue."
"But this is my house..." Ivan protested.
"Yes! I was told that the venue would be the Fatherland's Petersburg residence."
Those "two clowns" were immediately rung up, given respective earfuls of Ivan's displeasure, and decried as "naughty boys" for having neglected to include the party's venue in the notice they sent him.
Five minutes to eight, you found Ivan standing alone in the golden grand ballroom, looking up at the arched ceilings and their crystal chandeliers of a thousand lights. Dressed in full black, he looked rather intimidating, but also very handsome in a heady, exotic sort of way. He turned when he heard you, and walked over, one hand held out.
"принцесса, what are you hiding behind the door for?" He lured you out; tugged you to himself. "It would be so much better if we were to show you off, instead of those old things."
You wanted to tell him that he looked very dashing himself, but the words caught in your throat. In the adjoining chamber, the orchestra was warming up, playing the beginnings of old waltzes. The yellow light bouncing off the mirrors lent a golden glow to Ivan's hair, and a warm flush to his skin. You reached up. He caught your hand and murmured,
"May I have this dance?"
And the next thing you knew, you were swirling around the room, white ball gown fanning out behind you. Ivan's feet were light, his movements graceful. The lights, the sounds, whirling around you in a heavy blanket of decadence. Suddenly, the Ivan you always knew became that princely Ivan in the old portraits - the one with the arrogant smirk, polished rapier at the waist, and smooth, regal bearing.
You shivered at the thought. Ivan pressed you closer and then, slowly, drifted to a stop. Dazed, you lifted your head from his shoulder. The members of the orchestra hovered at the adjoining door, unwilling to disturb. Ivan waved them on.
"The guests are here," he said, hands sliding to your fingertips. He moved to lean to you, remembered that there was an audience, and settled for brushing your cheek with the back of his hands.
"Thank you," he whispered, the sounds weighed with nostalgia. "I love this ball room so much more now."
When the party picked up, you slipped out, white fur coat trailing as you descended into the frost-bitten garden. Light snow had begun to fall, catching the twinkling lights strung around what remained of the shrubbery. Ivan found you ten minutes later, seated on a stone bench staring up at the snow.
"Playing the wallflower?" he chuckled. "The more beautiful you are, the more you hide. Why is that?" He kissed you briefly, mouth tasting faintly of alcohol but -
He sat down beside you, passing a wineglass of deep, amber liquid. "The Italian Ambassador brought a barrel of red wine, imagine that," he said, thoroughly amused. "I thought it would be polite to try it."
You took a draught, and then started a little when the alcohol burned a bit stronger than you expected.
"Do you like it?"
It was dry and bitter, with a woody scent, but it left an interesting after taste. You nodded; drank another mouthful. On an empty stomach, the alcohol went straight to your head. You drained what remained of your ration and then stared dazedly into the shadowed garden.
Ivan plucked the wineglass from your hands. "принцесса is very quiet tonight, da? Are you not enjoying yourself?" He spoke quietly, as if loathe to disterb the magic of the snowy night.
"I am just..." a silly little smile crept across your face, "...a little embarrassed." You gave him a shy, sideways glance. "Ivan is very different tonight."
"Oh? How so?"
The lilting tones from the orchestra floated out into the garden. Ivan, hair silver and eyes incredibly violet in the moonlight, was absolutely dreamy. Like a fairytale prince you wanted to say. But the thought of saying that out loud abashed you, and you turned away, hiding your face in your hands.
Ivan laughed gently. He got up, and tugging at your wrists said, "Would you like to dance?"
Finally, you peeked at him. He wore a charming smile, but was crouched before you like a silly schoolboy trying to sneak a conversation with his young lady. You let your hands drop.
He led you to a patch of grass on the law, but just when you were getting into the waltz position, he picked you up and began spinning very fast. Your initial shriek of surprise turned into laughter, which was later drowned out by a yell as Ivan lost his footing and the two of you tumbled into a heap of snow.
You were still laughing when you rolled off Ivan, who grinned even as he gasped for breath. He pulled you flush against his chest.
"Are you still going to be a wallflower?"
You shook your head, manic laughter calming into giggles.
"Shall we dance properly then, in the ballroom?"
Again you shook you head. Ivan shifted. You didn't have to look to know that he had pulled his famous adorably confused face. Throwing your arm across him, you snuggled deeper into his side. "I'm too comfortable to move."
He sighed contentedly. And then, contemplating the night sky, remarked, "I love cuddling with принцесса, but the snow is melting and my butt is getting wet, da.
The giggles erupted back into laughter. Ivan wasn't so different tonight, after all.