“After four years at Oxford and another five at the London School of Economics, I return to St. Petersburg and his only directive is to find a husband?”
Victor Nikiforov, Heir Tsesarevich and Grand Duke of Russia, stared at his former tutor, the esteemed Yakov Feltsman, and tapped his finger lightly on the great oak writing desk that once belonged to his great-grandfather. His great-grandfather, who was also named Victor, a younger brother of the doomed tsar, who saved Russia from the Bolsheviks in the early 20th century. Victor tapped on the desk and thought of how sturdy it was, like his namesake, like he wanted to be for his country, his Empire.
“Or, wife,” Yakov finally said. “He did not stipulate gender, Your Imperial Highness. Only that he desires an alliance through marriage be made on your part to secure good relations with one of our Sister Empires.”
“He means Japan,” Victor replied through gritted teeth.
“He said only an Empire. The choice lies with you.”
“The heirs of Imperial China are all children. None within an appropriate marriageable age. Since it seems he does not want me to wait, I shall not look there. Nor would it be my preference to marry anyone fifteen years my junior. Cousins have recently married into both the British and Portuguese empires, so we do not need to solidify those ties at this time, and my mother’s favorite aunt is the Empress Regent of Spain. We have no familial ties in Asia at all, so it is with Japan father desires me to make a match.”
Victor was tired of having to prove to everyone he understood the machinations of statehood and the role he was expected to play. At 27, he was better educated than any other member of the royal family, and more than ready to begin working for his country in earnest. But he’d slowly recited the reasons for his decision to Yakov, who would in turn report back to his father, Tsar Alexander IV.
“Do you know who you will choose?” Yakov asked calmly, betraying no surprise at Victor’s innate grasp of the desires of his father and the needs of the Empire, nor any anger at Victor’s clear impatience.
“Give me a goddamned moment to think about it,” Victor snapped. He stood from his chair and paced over to the window, which overlooked his beloved city, with its ancient spires and the long hallways of the Winter Palace. “There’s so many of them,” he muttured.
“Heirs,” Victor rolled his eyes. “The Emperor of Japan has a pack of sons all with sons and daughters of their own. Father knows they’re all scrambling for something to do with their lives. One will readily accept a proposal, especially from me, but I can’t just pick his name out of a hat, now can I?”
Yakov only shrugged.
Victor strode back to the desk and snatched up his phone, thumbing through the apps until he landed on Instagram. “I can barely remember what any of these boys look like. They’re all sent to study at Harvard and Todai. I believe I met one or two at my uncle’s funeral in Spain last year but--”
“Your father did not stipulate that the match must be with--
Victor gave Yakov a long-suffering look, which effectively silenced him. “I understand the complications, but there is nothing barring me from choosing my preference. I won’t compromise that, Yakov, and you can go directly and tell my father so.”
Yakov’s lips twitched in what Victor fondly remembered was a suppressed smile, usually one of pride. “Of course, Your Imperial Highness. I’ll leave you to your decision.”
Victor waved him out and turned to lean against the great desk where his country’s history had been forged. He looked briefly up to smile at the sun shining down on his city, then turned his attention down to the smiling face of a black-haired prince, dressed in athletic clothes, arms thrust out wide, as though he were spinning.
Victor pressed play on the video.
“Yuuri, let me take it!” Yuko called to him across the ice. “You’re so good. You’ve really been practicing in America!”
Yuuri smiled at her praise. “Boston has cold winters, Yuko-chan,” he called back as he skated towards her. The truth was, even in summer, Yuuri had paid for private ice-time at a rink in Cambridge. Now that he was done with his degree at Harvard, he was glad to be back at the small Hasestu Ice Castle at the base of his family’s estate. Yuuri loved the solitude of the rink in the very early morning, or late at night. He loved that he could just skate, just glide and soar, and no one would bother him.
Not that Yuuri got as much bother as other members of his family. Being from the Kyushu branch of the Imperial family, his father and mother were often written off as country bumpkins and were usually the first guests crossed off lists for family functions.
Not that his parents, or even his sister Mari, cared. They loved their small estate in their small community, with their hot springs and their length of coast. They loved that it hardly mattered to anyone in Hasetsu that they were, in effect, or in myth anyway, the descendents of a god and the children of Japan’s beloved Emperor.
Yuko, his childhood friend and herself the descendant of a long line of family retainers, brandished his phone, which he had carelessly left on the rail at the edge of the ice. “Let me take a video,” she said.
Yuuri stuck his tongue out at her. “I saw you press the button. You’re taking it anyway!”
“So do the routine!” The camera shook as she waved him on.
“So play the music!”
When she did, he struck his pose.
Yuuri was untutored, he knew, and his choreography was simple, but his own, self-taught from years watching professionals on television and in the audience at competitions. It was a private hobby for a private prince, one he’d never cared to share with many others before. But once he finished his brief dance, after swaying and swerving around the ice with two little jumps--a waltz and a lutz--and a sit spin, he thought, perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to share it with the world.
Yuuri’s grandfather, the Emperor Hisahito, encouraged all his family to, with wisdom and circumspect, share their lives on social media. He enjoyed having over twenty grandchildren, and enjoyed the world knowing that they were all beautiful, successful people. He bragged often about the virility and fertility of his sons and daughters.
The internet was yet another, more youth-friendly, way to show the world the strength of Japan and its Imperial House, and one in which Yuuri had rarely ever participated. More often than not, his social media posts were locked as private, only accessible to friends and close family.
But now, with Yuko urging him on, he watched himself skate to the muted, tinny music, an Italian aria a friend told him was about love, and smiled. He watched himself, flushed and happy, skate up to Yuko and snatch his phone from her, heard his playful voice cry, “Give it back,” before the video cut out.
Yuuri took a breath, and uploaded the whole thing to Instagram, with no privacy settings, for everyone to see.
Two days later, Yuuri came home after an early morning skate to find his entire family gathered, in formal kimono, holding a hushed conversation in the drawing room of the castle, a large, but somehow stuffy space no one ever used unless something important was going on.
“What is it?” Yuuri asked as he stepped onto the dusty tatami. “Has something happened to--”
“Yuuri. You’re back. Great. Perfect. Come here. God, what are you wearing?” Minako, his parents’ Chief of Staff--in reality she was more of a secretary and chief of only five other people--yelled across the room.
Yuuri froze. “I was just down at the Ice Castle. No one was skating so I stayed longer than usual. Um, I thought maybe I could spend more time there, since I’m finished at school. Like, maybe to run it for a while, if--”
“There’s no time for that now,” Minako said, striding forward and looking him up and down despairingly. “There isn’t even time for you to change. And, ugh, those glasses! He’s going to take one look at you and walk right out the door,” she wailed.
Yuuri stepped back at cast a wild glance at his parents, who were sitting at the table, on plush satin pillows, and smiling gently at him. “What’s going on?” He asked cautiously.
Yuuri’s mother, Hiroko, beamed and said, “There’s a visitor here to see you, Yuurihito.”
Yuuri stood up straighter, since she used his formal, princely name. “W-who?”
A shadow passed into the doorway behind Yuuri. He saw it move slowly across the floor. “Oh, I hope I’m not interrupting a family meeting,” a low voice said over Yuuri’s shoulder.
Yuuri spun, awkwardly, to stare into the face of a tall caucasian man, who while not instantly familiar to him, was at the very least recognizable. “Y-you’re…” Yuuri could not speak his name. His tongue was tied. His brain was leaking out his ears. What was...he...doing here?
Yuuri’s father, who was always a little slow but very gracious in formal social situations, saved him. He motioned for the visitor to step further into the room, and came to stand by Yuuri. “Grand Duke Victor Nikiforov of Russia, please allow me to present my second born child and only son, Prince Yuurihito of Kyushu.”
Victor Nikiforov, the heir apparent of the Russian Empire smiled at Yuuri and took his hand. Victor’s fingers were long and they held Yuuri’s gently, with a tenderness Yuuri could not say he’d been expecting. “Prince Yuurihito, it is wonderful to see you again,” the Grand Duke said. He spoke softly, as he had in the doorway. “I believe we were formally introduced many years ago at the wedding of one of your cousins. Of course then, we were both children.”
Yuuri remembered the slender frame of a boy much taller than he. A flash of long silver hair and a brief clasp of hands near the back of an endless receiving line. A sly smile and a fumbling of words exchanged in English, their only common language: “It’s hot today, Prince.” “Yes.” “It’s a long line.” “It’s a… big family.” Yuuri remembered a few minutes later someone sent a waiter over to his part of the line with cups of water. He was so caught up in the memory, and in the Grand Duke’s warm expression, that he didn’t say anything for much too long.
“Prince Yuurihito,” Yuuri’s father said, with a slight barb in his tone. “His Imperial Highness is here to speak with you about a… personal matter.” His Imperial Highness was also still holding Yuuri’s hand.
“I hope to someday speak with you about many personal matters,” the Grand Duke said and bent his head as he raised Yuuri’s hand to brush a kiss across his knuckles. Strands of his silver hair fell across his brow as he looked up from the kiss and into Yuuri’s wide eyes. “But first, I would like to express to you my most sincere interest in securing your hand in marriage.”
“Oh,” Yuuri breathed as sudden understanding swept over him. He felt his adrenaline spike or his blood sugar drop, something anyway, that made him far too lightheaded to say anything else.
How can this be happening? he thought desperately. There must be some mistake.
“Perhaps we should all sit down and discuss the matter,” Yuuri’s father said gently.
“Do you mind if we speak English?” The Grand Duke asked. Yuuri blinked. His Japanese, while not flawless, had been fluent enough that Yuuri hadn’t even thought he might not be comfortable with it.
He nodded as his father said, “Not at all. Of course,” in what now sounded like a heavy accent to Yuuri’s Americanized ears.
“Yuuri looks like he’s going to pass out,” Mari said from the far side of the room. She’d studied at Cambridge, in England, and hers sounded as native as it did bored. She stood with her arms crossed and an unimpressed expression on her face as she gazed at the Grand Duke. Yuuri had completely forgotten she was there.
“Princess Mariko,” Yuuri’s mother said, “Your presence is not required for this discussion. We will keep you abreast of any new developments in the family as they occur.” She motioned for Mari to leave.
Mari scoffed. “Just send me an invitation to the wedding,” she said as she sailed out the door.
The Grand Duke, a paragon of grace and manners, did not betray that he had heard anything out of the ordinary for a house full of Imperial Princes and Princesses.
“W-wedding?” Yuuri asked, helpless to stop himself from sounding terrified as they steered him to sit on one of the cushions at the table. Yuuri clung to the dark lacquered surface. They must have dusted the furniture off before letting the Grand Duke into the room. God, they must have received him earlier, maybe hours ago, and he’d been kept waiting. By Yuuri. “W-when?” he asked, shakily, and not entirely sure if he was asking when the Grand Duke arrived or when the wedding would be. Did he even want to get married? What was happening?
The Grand Duke sat across from Yuuri and Yuuri’s parents settled on either side of him. The Duke raised a hand to draw the hair from his eyes as he smiled gently at Yuuri. He replied, “Oh, not for months. Years if you would prefer to wait. And never, Prince, if you do not desire it.”
Yuuri clasped his hands and pressed them into his lap to stop them from shaking.
“Also, if you need to conclude any schooling, that would absolutely be priority over choosing a date for a ceremony.” The Duke leaned forward, pushing his hand across the table as though to reach out, or grasp at something. At Yuuri?
Yuuri cast his eyes down at the table. He had no idea what to do.
Yuuri’s parents said nothing, but Minako spoke before Yuuri could decide to break an ever-extending silence. “Forgive me, Your Imperial Highness, but Prince Yuurihito has completed a Bachelor of Arts degree from Harvard University. He has no need to complete any other schooling.” Her tone gave no doubt what decision she would recommend Yuuri make.
The Grand Duke glanced at her, but turned his smile to Yuuri and spoke directly to him once again, “Of course. I only wondered if perhaps you would like to continue your history studies to a Masters’ or PhD level. I would not oppose such a course for you, if that is what you desired, and if we were to be…” He trailed off.
A playful twinkle came into his eyes then and Yuuri, staring at him and still trying not to shake, couldn’t keep the word inside his mouth. “Married,” Yuuri finished the sentence and blushed beet red.
“Yes,” the Grand Duke replied. “Please, Prince, ask me whatever you wish to know.”
Yuuri hesitated. It seemed strange to ask completely outright what he really wanted to know, but the Duke had said ‘whatever,’ so he said, “Y-your Imperial Highness, we don’t know each other at all. Why do you want to... get married?”
The Grand Duke brought his hands together on the table. “Good question,” he said. “But first, please call me Victor.” He paused, clearly waiting for Yuuri to do so. But he just gaped at the Duke, who continued with a small smile, “I won’t dissemble. My father asked me to arrange an advantageous match. I have completed all my schooling and am of sufficient age. You and I were born to such things, and should not try to paint pictures that are prettier than the truth.”
Yuuri frowned. “That might be the truth, but it’s no answer,” he said, then bit his tongue. He raised his hands hastily, as if to ward off the Duke’s anger, “I-I mean--”
He was cut off by laughter, a bark really, and clear as a bell, coming from the Grand Duke. “No, no, Prince. You’re right. We don’t know each other. And I didn’t really answer. I confess, a match to your household is my ultimate goal, but I came here specifically because what I was able to learn of you--you, Yuurihito of Kyushu--made me think I would like to know you. Do you think you might like to know me?”
His expression was so gentle and kind, a wordless cajoling, that Yuuri almost said yes right away. But he closed his mouth with a snap, stood quickly and clenched his fists at his sides. The Duke scrambled to stand himself, while Yuuri’s parents were left craning their necks from the floor as Yuuri cried, “I’m sorry, I have to think about it. Please excuse me!” And fled the room.
As Victor turned to watch his would-be fiance sprint out of the drawing room, he thought overall the meeting could have gone worse.
So far in his visit to Kyushu, and the small community where this strange branch of the Imperial family lived, Victor had been charmed. Charmed by the tiny train station, by the benevolently neglected castle, which was dusty and worn, yet still evoked a grandness that impressed Victor. He also, perhaps inevitably, had been charmed by Yuurihito himself.
The boy, whose Instagram video had so captivated Victor that he watched it more than 10 times before doing any other research on its subject, was...charming. Clearly taken by surprise, Yuurihito had displayed no artifice that Victor could detect and he found that profoundly refreshing. The long corridors of the Winter Palace, while always welcoming to him, could often be cold and draughty, full of courtiers with faces frozen in the traditional Russian stoicism.
Victor’s mother had made sure he knew how to laugh and what Victor wanted most out of his search for a husband was to find someone who he could at least make smile sometimes.
Granted, Victor hadn’t yet done anything of the kind for Yuurihito, but he had time, he thought. If the Prince could be convinced to allow it.
Victor shifted his weight from one foot to the other and drew his hand distractedly through his hair. From the floor, Yuurihito’s father, Prince Toshihito said, “He is a good boy, Your Imperial Highness. He is...hard to know. He has not many friends and maybe not much to do with...such matters before.” Toshihito trailed off but added quickly, after a not-so subtle elbow from his wife, “We think he will come around, though!”
Victor looked down and smiled at the man, who now seemed very small and precious sitting there on the floor. “I would not want him to do anything he doesn’t wish. I am here to woo, not demand, or barter. In matters of the heart, I always strive to be most sincere.” He puffed out his chest a little at that and they both seemed quite impressed. “And please,” Victor added, turning up his own charm, “you both must also call me Victor. Since we are all Imperial Highnesses, I see no reason to stand on ceremony.”
Princess Hiroko smiled up at Victor in relief then stood, dusting off her pink kimono. “Oh, good. Now then, Vicchan, would you like us to tell you where Yuuri went?”
Victor beamed and struck his hands, palms together in front of his chest. He let the slap resound for a moment before announcing, “Yes, that would be amazing. Thank you!”
It wasn’t until Yuuri completed the routine a second time that he noticed the Grand Duke--Victor, he’d said Yuuri should call him--standing at the edge of the ice, leaning forward on the railing. Yuuri skated over to him sheepishly.
“I’m sorry if I seemed to take off in a rush,” he said, biting back another honorific like Sir, or Your Imperial Highness. “When things get…” Yuuri shook his head and tried to say what he meant that wouldn’t be too embarrassing. “I just like to come here to relax. I shouldn’t have--”
“It’s nothing,” Victor said, waving a imperious hand. “Everyone needs time alone. I would apologize for intruding, but I can’t say that I am sorry. Did you know it was the video, here on this ice, that made me think of you? That pushed me to come here?” His smile was soft and confident as ever, but his eyes betrayed a sweet uncertainty that captivated Yuuri. “I should have just said that before.”
“Eh? Really?” Yuuri put his hands out and grabbed at the rail, steadying his feet. His heart began to beat wildly.
Victor’s smile turned enigmatic. “You’re talented,” he continued. “Do you ever think of competing?”
Yuuri blushed. He’d often longed to be able to show the world what he could do. “I-I couldn’t. Being who I am, it would steal all the attention. It wouldn’t be fair to...you know, everyone else.”
Victor made an impatient gesture and his eyes grew flinty. “Yes, but I wonder in our pursuit of fairness and comfort for everyone else, where is there room for the pursuit of happiness for people such as you and I?”
Yuuri blinked. It was a bold statement, to push back against the privilege they’d both been born to. Yuuri had never heard anyone in his family say such a thing. To suggest that the station of their birth had ever been anything but a blessing.
When Yuuri didn’t speak right away, Victor’s expression shifted and he suddenly seemed nervous, almost guilty. “Forgive me for intruding, Prince. For speaking so out of turn, I--I’ll leave you--”
“Wait.” Yuuri caught Victor’s hand at the wrist. Victor’s eyes grew wide as they met Yuuri’s. Yuuri’s skates bumped against the boards as the force of their connection pulled him closer to Victor. Yuuri smiled. “Do you want to join me?”
As he took in Victor’s breathless agreement and saw the excitement in his grin while he fumbled to tie the skates Yuko brought out for him, Yuuri thought perhaps together they could find plenty of room to pursue something very like happiness.
When Victor took to the ice, on wobbly legs accompanied by an even wobblier smile, Yuuri held out his hand and said, “Victor, I would like it if you called me Yuuri.”