As I have grown old, I have watched the world of my youth fade with me. The damage done by the Great War will never be calculated. And yet, even now, I hear from my friends in the circles of power – in truth, most are now the children of my friends – that a third war in Afghanistan is all but certain. Even more than the war on the continent just passed, I find myself in dread of this new conflict and the powers it may provoke.

And yet, also I feel the nostalgia of old hunts, old games, old enemies now lost to history, and feel again not the rush of conflict but its echo. And recall the unparalleled eyes of a most singular woman I once knew…

–From the Last Notebooks of Mr. Meriwether, 1919

CHAPTER ONE: The Two Empresses

It was the third of December in 188-, and snow swirled down grey and damp upon the cobblestones of London. Meriwether paced before the wide window of the King Street flat impatiently. Balfour sat before the roaring fire, correcting a draft monograph he had written on the subject of Asiatic hand combat as adapted to the English frame.

“I cannot understand how you can be so devilishly placid,” Meriwether said at last.

“Practice,” Balfour grunted.

“Every winter it’s the same,” Meriwether said, gesturing at the falling snow. “The darkness comes earlier, the cold drives men from the roads, and I have this…stirring. This unutterable restlessness. The winter traps me, my friend. It holds me captive.”

Balfour stroked his wide mustache. His bear-like grunt could have passed for agreement or mere acknowledgment. Meriwether turned away from street and snow, pushing pale hair back from his brow.

“If only something could break this, this malaise…”

Balfour glanced up in time to see the figure–slight, clad in dark leather, and swinging from a near-invisible tether–just before it shattered the windows. Shards of glass and wide, wet snowflakes accompanied the figure as it rolled across the carpeted floor. With a shout equal parts alarm and delight, Meriwether dove for his paired service revolvers. Balfour leapt from his chair, drawing blades from the sheaths concealed by his dressing gown’s sleeves, only to find the mouth of a huge handgun pressed firmly to the bridge of his nose. The leather-clad figure met his gaze, brown eyes flecked with gold. Her lips were the soft red of rose petals, and her smile sensual and touched by madness. The scent of clove perfume filled the air like a memory.

Maria Feodorovna.

“Czarina,” Meriwether said, pulling back the hammers of his revolvers with an ominous doubled click. “I’ll ask you to stand away from Mr. Balfour, if you please.”

The Empress Consort of Russia lifted her fine-plucked eyebrows. When she spoke, her voice betrayed nothing of the physical effort she had just expended.

“My good Mr. Meriwether, I’ll ask you to note that I have already depressed the trigger of my weapon.”

“Ah,” Meriwether said, sourly. “A dead man’s switch, is it?”

“Indeed. Fire upon me, and you author your good friend’s death.”

“Cheap at the price,” Balfour grunted. “Shoot her.”