Taras stared out the window, leaning his chin against his hand, frowning.
A report sat on his desk, flipped open, but unread. His work was usually more than enough to hold his attention, but today he found himself distracted.
Taras looked up to see Anya standing in the doorway to his office, holding a stack of files against her chest like a shy schoolgirl carrying books to shield her from the world.
“I brought those files you requested.”
Taras smiled and leaned back in his chair.
“Have I told you lately that you’re a sweetheart?”
She glanced down, blushing a little as she came in and set the files down on his desk.
“I seem to remember that, Captain,” Anya said.
Taras liked that he could still make her blush in spite of everything that had happened in Ilarion’s office the other day. He had wondered if it would be awkward afterward, but Anya had been just as efficient and kind as ever.
Like nothing had happened, though she was no longer afraid of him.
He’d had to think about that one for a while, but then he’d decided he liked that too.
“Well, good. Thank you, Anya,” he told her.
“Of course,” she said, pleasantly brisk, and moved to the door.
Taras reached to pick up one of the files, flipping through the paperwork she’d brought, even though he was sure it was all there. Anya never got anything wrong, at least not as far as he could tell.
After a few moments he realized that she hadn’t left yet.
He looked up again. Anya was lingering at the door, looking at him, her brow creased lightly.
“Is…everything all right?” she asked, sounding hesitant.
She took an apologetic step forward.
“You seem distracted, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Taras sat back in his seat, and let out a sigh.
“Maybe I can run something past you and see what you think.”
“Yes, of course, Captain.”
Anya closed the door behind her and stood in front of his desk attentively, but he gestured at her to sit down. Anya moved to a chair and swept her black skirt underneath her, crossing her legs as she sat. Deliberately, Taras leaned to the side to ogle.
She blushed again, but then gave him a pointed look, the kind his sisters gave him when he teased them too much.
“It’s about this…costume ball,” he started, slowly. “The one next week.”
“Oh!” Anya brightened. “Yes! Major Liadov – ”
She broke off, hesitating, looking at him carefully. Like she expected him to have the same reaction to that name as Isaev did. Taras wasn’t sure what he thought about Liadov, but he knew he didn’t mind talking about the guy with Anya.
Taras raised his brows.
“Oh, I was just going to say that Major Liadov enjoyed going to those. He would tell me about the costumes everyone wore.”
Anya sounded more subdued.
“Anyway…I think you’ll have a good time. What are you going to go as?”
Taras picked up a pen, and used it to scoot a stray paperclip across his desk.
“Well, that’s what I was…”
He paused, gesturing vaguely.
“I hadn’t decided yet,” he finished.
“Oh. Well, what are your options so far?” Anya asked, helpfully.
“Yeah. Well, I’m still…”
There was silence.
“Oh,” Anya said then. “Well, if it’s not too presumptuous of me, maybe I can suggest something. I’m sure what you had in mind would be splendid, of course, but it never hurts to have options.”
Taras tried not to nod too quickly.
“Options, yeah, sure. Sounds good.”
In truth, the idea of the masquerade ball had plagued him since he’d first heard about it, but he hadn’t said no. Not with Isaev sitting there so blithely, acting like it was the most normal thing in the world.
Taras knew how to dress nice, put on a suit and tie, how to choose the subtle colors that flattered without being too ostentatious. Grey, black, dark blue. He could handle all of that. He even knew how to dress up black-tie.
But this whole matter of dressing up in costume had distressed him. What was he supposed to dress as, something that wouldn’t make him look like a complete fool? He’d heard other people talking about it in the office – a sailor, one said, and another said a czar, and yet another, an American cowboy.
Taras had no idea if they were joking or being serious, and there was no way he was going to ask Isaev for help.
It had even started to keep him up at nights, thinking about it, wondering what he was supposed do.
Anya was looking at him speculatively, a frown of concentration on her brow. She tapped her carefully-trimmed and lacquered nails idly against her lip as she thought.
“Well…what about…a gladiator?”
“A gladiator,” Taras repeated.
“It’s very strong and masculine, isn’t it? A warrior who makes his living fighting other men to the death? It would be perfect with your hair.”
Taras wasn’t sure what that last was supposed to mean, but the rest sounded pretty good to him.
“What does it look like? I mean, the costume.”
Anya beamed suddenly. “Wait right here!”
She sprang from her chair and hurried out of his office, leaving him sitting there, a bit bemused, in her wake. A few minutes later, she came back, carrying two heavy books.
Taras stood up to help her set them down on his desk. Encyclopedias, he saw, from the reference room. She flipped through the thick, glossy pages.
Anya turned the book around and showed him the picture.
“That looks like a skirt.”
“It’s not a skirt,” Anya said. “It’s part of his armor. It’s what they wore back then. I think it’s very masculine, especially for someone as – ”
She broke off.
“Well. I’m sure you’re in very good shape, Captain.”
He smirked at that.
“Yeah, well, it also has bare arms and legs. That’s not going to work.”
Anya looked at him, frowning inquisitively. Taras hesitated, then pushed up his right sleeve to show her the edge of his snake-and-dagger tattoo.
Her eyes widened.
“Oh,” she said.
“That’s not the only one.”
“Ohhhh,” Anya said, again.
She looked at him, and for a moment, he thought he almost saw that old fear, the way she’d given him timid mouse-eyed looks before. But the expression was fleeting, and quickly replaced by a small, warm smile, the way she looked at him now.
Maybe he’d just imagined it.
“Well, we’ll just have to think of something else then,” Anya said briskly, in a way that reminded him of his mother.
She turned the book around and began to flip through it again. He waited, trying to think of something helpful to say, make a suggestion, something he’d thought of already, but he was at a loss.
“What about an American cowboy?” she asked.
“…no. I don’t think so.”
“Hmm…a soldier? You look good in uniform, Captain.”
Taras thought about the Evropeiskaya, the soldiers that had loitered in the parlour, smoking and casting jaded smirks in his and Ilarion’s direction.
His shoulders twitched.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea.”
Anya nodded absently, still focused on the encyclopedia.
“What about a vampire?”
“Isn’t that…bad luck?”
Anya looked up, her pale eyes clear and unexpectedly amused.
“Captain, are you superstitious?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head quickly. “No, of course not. I just thought – ”
Anya pressed her lips together.
“You’re not pale enough. Of course, what was I thinking? That’s entirely wrong for you.”
“Right,” Taras muttered.
“Too much skin.”
He looked at her.
“What do convicts look like?”
Anya opened her mouth, and no words came out. Her face flushed.
“Captain – I didn’t mean – ”
For a few seconds it seemed like she was going to say something else, then she seemed to think better of it and cleared her throat.
“I suppose you’re right,” she said, evenly. “No one would be able to tell what you were. You need something that’s easier…what about a doctor?”
Taras thought about that one.
Anya was already shaking her head.
“No…on second thought, I don’t think I like that for you. It should be more manly, if you don’t mind me saying so, Captain. Something a little more exciting. Let’s see…a priest…no, an astronaut, no, a devil…too obvious. I suppose you could be one of the Greek gods, though I think that usually involves at least bare arms…A prince…no. A pharaoh…maybe. You could be a chicken…”
“I thought it was supposed to be manly.”
“Well. Or another kind of animal, I mean. Like a lion or a rooster, or a bull – oh!”
He leaned forward, trying to get a look, but she was flipping through pages too rapidly.
“No, I just had an idea…let me see if there’s a picture. Oh, here! Look. What do you think?”
Anya turned the encyclopedia again to show him the picture of a man wearing snug red pants with fancy gold designs down the sides. He had a crisp white shirt, and a gold and red jacket, also fancy, and a strange-looking black hat.
“What is it?”
“He’s a matador.”
“A bullfighter. He has a red cape – see? Here. And he waves it, and challenges the bull to charge him. They he gets out of the way, because he’s smart and quick and strong.”
“And then what happens?”
“Oh. I don’t really know. I think he’s supposed to kill it, eventually. Matador means ‘killer.’”
“Really?” Taras asked.
“Yes. Though that seems terrible, doesn’t it?”
Taras raised his brows.
“I guess so. People really do that?”
“Well, mostly in Spain. Matadors are heroes to the people. Unafraid of anything.”
“Huh,” Taras said.
He rubbed his jaw, looking at the picture.
Anya smiled then.
“What do you think?”
“You’re sure that red’s not too fancy?”
“Oh no. That’s the color they use on purpose. Bulls get angry when the see red. They charge at it. At least, that’s what someone told me.”
Taras didn’t know what people Anya was talking to, because no one had ever told him anything like that. But he supposed Anya must have had a lot of book-learning as well, and just knew things he didn’t.
“You sure those pants aren’t too tight?”
Anya looked up at him, her gaze unreadable for a moment.
“Trust me, Captain. I think they should be just fine.”
Taras looked back at the picture.
“All right. A matador it is.”
Anya got up and picked up the encyclopedias again. Taras tried to help her, but she shooed him away.
“Don’t worry, I’ll arrange for the costume and make sure you get it in time,” she said as she walked to the door. “It’s a wonderful choice. Major Isaev – ”
She paused at the door.
“Well, I don’t suppose you’ll be telling him what you chose beforehand, will you?”
“Well…no,” he said.
Anya nodded vigorously.
“Oh good. You’ll be wearing a mask, you see, and no one will know who you are. It’ll be very exotic and mysterious. I think you’ll enjoy yourself, Captain.”
Taras nodded, slowly, sitting back, finding himself glad for Anya’s input. He didn’t know how she’d managed to come up with so many ideas in just a few minutes, or figure out what would be best for him, but he guessed that was all part of her job.
“Thank you, Anya. For your advice.”
“It’s always my pleasure, Captain,” she said as she left.