Today's Reading

Before she could investigate the cause of his amusement, a new footman, resplendent in a red waistcoat and black tailcoat, walked up to her husband, bending to mutter something in his ear that Masha could not catch. Yuri flushed, pushed his chair back without a word, and followed him out of the room.

Looking back, Masha blamed herself for mentioning fairy tales. Somehow, this was all her fault. Because when you consider them, fairy tales always have dark forces at their heart. Evil lurks where we most desire it not to be, and evil often wins. How stupid she had been to think of Disney, when instead she should have remembered Baba Yaga in the forest.

We are never safe. No matter how many furs and diamonds we wrap ourselves in. And one day I shall be old and all alone.


2

"SIMON?"

"Yes, ma'am?" The Queen's private secretary, Sir Simon Holcroft, looked up from the paper agenda he was holding. The Queen was back from her ride and sitting at her desk, dressed in a grey tweed skirt and a favorite cashmere cardigan that brought out the blue in her eyes. Her private sitting room was a cozy space-for a Gothic castle—filled with sagging sofas and a lifetime of treasures and keepsakes. He liked it here. However, there was an edge to Her Majesty's voice that made Sir Simon slightly nervous, though he fought not to show it.

"That young Russian. Was there something you didn't tell me?"

"No, ma'am. The body is on its way to the morgue, I believe. On the twenty-second, the president intends to arrive by helicopter and we were wondering if you'd like to—"

"Don't change the subject. You had a look on your face."

"Ma'am?"

"When you broke the news earlier. You were trying to spare me. Don't."

Sir Simon swallowed. He knew exactly what he had been trying to spare his aged sovereign. But the Boss was the Boss. He coughed.

"He was naked, ma'am. When he was found."

"Yes?" The Queen peered at him. She pictured a fit young man lying nude in bed under the covers. Why would this be unusual? Philip in his youth was known to spurn pajamas.

Sir Simon peered back. It took a while to realize she didn't see this as odd. She needed more; he girded his loins.

"Um, naked, except for a purple dressing gown. By whose cord, most unfortunately . . ." He trailed off. He couldn't do it. The woman would be ninety in a fortnight.

Her stare resolved sharply as she grasped his meaning. "Do you mean to say, he was hanging by the cord?"

"Yes, ma'am. Most tragically. In a cupboard."

"A cupboard?"

"Strictly speaking, a wardrobe."

"Well." There was a brief silence while they both tried to picture the scene and wished they hadn't. "Who found him?" Her tone was brisk.

"One of the housekeepers. Someone noticed he wasn't at breakfast and"—he paused fractionally, to remember the name—"Mrs. Cobbold went to check he was awake."

"Is she all right?"

"No, ma'am. I believe counseling has been offered."

"How extraordinary . . ." She was still picturing the discovery.

"Yes, ma'am. But by the look of it, accidental."

"Oh?"

"The way he was . . . and the room." Sir Simon coughed again.

"The way he was what, Simon? What about the room?"
...

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