One bullet will save a nation. A female assassin vows to deliver it, but what if its path is through the heart of the man she loves?
Russian-born and English-bred, Anna Lansdale journeys to St. Petersburg in 1825 to carry out the assignment her uncle has trained her for since she was a child: the assassination of Tsar Alexander I. It will likely result in her death, an outcome she’s prepared for if it means that the people of Russia will be free. Only she meets one particular Russian, Gavril Danilov. The heat of his gaze, of his words, of his breath on her skin makes her suddenly long for life. Not that he can offer her a future. A crown spy with a private agenda, he intends to curry favor—in the court and the bedchamber—to regain his family’s estate and the four thousand serfs oppressed under the present owner.
Then through a series of events involving tea and tyrants, the two are forced into a life together. But even as their days and nights become entwined, Anna still plots to kill, and Gavril, bound by oath to serve his Tsar, grows suspicious.
Long afterwards, Anna Lansdale would hold an orange and inhale Ivan Shuvovsky. They came upon each other in the Palace conservatory when she was head and shoulders in the canopy of waxy green leaves and rough-skinned globes, picking one for herself.
“Please? Get for me one, too?”
No one ever snuck up on her. She steadied herself on the ladder rung and bent a branch. Through the leaves she made out a wide smile, heaps of dark brown hair and the green uniform of a soldier from one of the Tsar’s personal regiments. How had she not heard him? She was quite sure no one else was here when she’d entered and given that the door hinges sounded like quarreling cats, no one could’ve slipped in undetected. She glanced around. All blooms and greenery and statuary, everything as surveyed earlier, no hiding spots visible. She squinted harder at him and his smile broadened.
Anna felt a strange sort of loosening inside her, like the string slipping on a tightly wrapped parcel or like the laces giving on her cursed corset. It was subtle, hardly remarkable, but when it visited her again and again over the next year she found a name for it, several names, in fact. For now she only knew it as the thing that made her reach for a second orange.
“No,” he said. “That one is too much green. The one there.” He pointed above her head.
She looked up, and spotted the coveted orange. It was much superior to hers. Bigger, darker and as her hand wrapped around it, heavier. She looked about for another its equal. There wasn’t one.
She descended, dropped the prize fruit into his hand. He bowed, expressed his thanks and repaired to a stone bench nearby. He patted the empty stretch of the bench in casual invitation. It never occurred to her to decline.
He lifted the orange to his nose. “Mmmm…ahh.”
Anna eyed hers, thought about it and gave a short sniff. It smelled like…orange.
He raised his, waited for her to do the same. “A toast. To us, of course.” They bumped fruit together.
She dug her thumb into the skin and began tearing off the peel in chunks.
Not so for the smiling soldier. Only when his nostrils had extracted the scent completely did he remove the peel. He started at the blossom end, his thumb a fine chisel, circling around and around to get one long spiral which he—and even yet she didn’t how he did it—set on the bench and rewound until a perfect hollow replica of the original orange rested between them. Beside it, he placed a miniscule pyramid shaped from the fruit’s white thread matter. Only then did he settle into the pleasure of eating.
Anna, who had long finished her pulpy thing, was riveted. He transferred one section at a time into his mouth, suckling on it, suffusing his mouth with orange before swallowing. Even then, his tongue nudged along inside his cheeks, licking up stray droplets. And then he repeated the same heady experience with the next section.
Once done he turned to the effects of the deceased fruit, for in addition to the peel and the white pyramid, he had three seeds lined up. He reshaped the pyramid into a tight ball, told Anna that he was aiming for the pink rose right there and then hit it. He dangled the orange spiral from the ear of a stone angel and it seemed pleased. He stuck his thumb into the dirt around the rose bush three times and planted the seeds. Under his hands, the orange had become a toy, jewelry, a food of pleasure, a producer of life.
He gave her another wide, life-embracing smile.
“Where to, mademoiselle?”
It occurred to her, when she had to clear her throat thick from disuse, that she hadn’t spoken a word nor had he asked anything from her. And that she really ought to be getting back, for her aunt would need tea for her migraine and her uncle’s meeting was nearly done.
“I was thinking,” she said, “of trying the plums.”