Alexandra, Hack at her side, stood chatting with callers who had gathered at the palace after the funeral to pay their respects, all the while keeping a watchful eye on Farah across the room, surrounded by friends of Megan and Nickolai. When she saw that Farah appeared to be handling the situation, she relaxed.
She hadn't really anticipated any trouble unless Farah paniced. In her black dress of mourning with its touches of white, her hair combed in the fashion recently favored by Megan, she looked as young as any of the girls clustered around her. Alexandra could hardly believe it wasn't Megan she was seeing.
It occured to her to wonder how it had escaped her notice before that Farah never seemed to have aged. She knew there had been no cosmetic surgery. It must be good genes, she thought, and, under the circumstances, wasn't that lucky?
For a few moments Farah felt like she had been thrown to the wolves as all these young people clustered around her. Could she handle it? Fortunately, she knew most of them and could greet them by name. They certainly didn't seem to be having any problem accepting her as Megan, and her fears subsided.
After offering condolences and partaking of the food and drink provided, most of those making a token appearance left early, and soon the group narrowed down to family friends. When they, too,, had gone, Alexandra, Farah and Hack paid a visit to Nicky at the hospital.
Dr. Mornay happened to be on duty and came out to greet them. "Prince Nickolai is doing fine," he said. "I've never seen anyone recover so quickly from such serious wounds."
"Is he still under sedation?" Alexandra asked.
"Yes, but we would like to discontinue that tomorrow if you think he's ready to be told what happened."
"If he's well enough to hear it, yes," Alexandra said. "Megan and I will be here. Just tell us the approximate time."
"It's hard to say."
"Then perhaps we should come early and be prepared to stay all day if necessary."
"Very well," he said. "He's been moved to a private room. The three of you may go in now if you wish. But be very quiet and don't stay long."
Nicky had lost his pallor and looked young and vulnerable against the pillows. Bathed and shaved, his bandages invisible beneath the jacket of his pajamas, it was hard to believe that just a few days ago he had been near death. Farah's heart ached with the knowledge that he would no longer think of her as his mother, but he had survived, and that made the sacrifice bearable.
After dinner, a call came from the Prime Minister inquiring about Nickolai's condition. "You know, of course," he told Alexandra, "that as soon as he is fully conscious he must be sworn in as the new ruling Prince. He is nineteen now and legally old enough to take over. However, until his health is completely restored, it will be necessary to appoint a regent. Are you ready to take on that responsibility?"
"Of course," she said. "With you to advise me I should be able to handle it."
"Good. We'll see how he is tomorrow, and perhaps be able to perform the ceremony the next day at the hospital."
Prince Nickolai regained consciousness slowly. He had a feeling that bad news, just beyond his grasp, awaited him. There had been gunshots, that he knew, but it seemed such a long time ago. And where was he? He should open his eyes and find out, but he felt so tired. Sleep overcame him again. He woke the second time with a clearer mind and opened his eyes. A hospital room, yes. And his grandmother sat by the side of the bed, half turned away from him, looking out the window.
"Gram?" he asked, his voice hardly above a whisper.
"Oh, Nicky," she said. "You're awake."
"Of course, I'm awake." He noticed Megan sitting on the other side of the bed. "Hi, Sis," he said. "Where are Mom and Dad?" Suddenly he didn't want to hear the answer. He had remembered. Comprehension showed in his eyes. "Oh, God," he moaned.
Alexandra sat on the bed and cradled him in her arms. "They're gone," she said. "Boris, too. I'm sorry to have to tell you."
He broke down and sobbed, his chest heaving. The sobbing reached a soreness in his chest, and he pulled away to investigate the cause of the pain. He was wearing a thick bandage. "How long have I been in this hospital?" he asked. "Am I badly hurt?"
"You're going to be all right," Alexandra told him. "You've been here a week."
"Did they . . . suffer?"
"No. It was instantaneous for all of them."
"Were you hurt, Megan?" he asked. "And how about Mom? She was in the chair, out of sight."
"Oh, Nicky, I'm so sorry. You remember you had a phone call and went in the house to talk? While you were gone Mim and I changed places, to play a trick on you." She burst into tears. "It should have been me."
"Don't cry, Megan. You couldn't know. It's not your fault."
He looked from her to his grandmother. "Why?" he asked. "Why did someone try to kill all of us? Have the police found out who did it?"
"We may never know," Alexandra said. "The world is a dangerous place, especially now with so much terrorism in the Near East. Try not to think about it until you're stronger."
"How can I not think about it?"
"By remembering that so much depends on you. You are now the ruler of our country. The Prime Minister plans to perform a small ceremony to swear you in, as soon as you're up to it. And while you're recupperating he wants me to act as regent."
"Why couldn't they just crown you Queen and leave me out of it?"
"Because, darling, I'm not a direct heir."
He closed his eyes, and tears ran down his cheeks onto his pillow. He dashed them away, suddenly realizing that Alexandra and Megan were suffering, too. "I'm sorry to be such a crybaby," he said, opening his eyes. "I haven't even asked how you and Megan are coping. You've probably been going through hell, and having to make all the arrangements . . ." He broke off and said in a faltering voice, "Have the . . . arrangements been taken care of?"
"The funeral was yesterday," Alexandra said.
Nickolai looked so tragic that Farah, seeking to divert him for a while, said, "Hack is here. He's in the waiting room and would like to see you if you feel up to it."
"Good old Hack, he always rallies around," he said. "Bring him in."
As she hurried down the corridor Farah remembered having told Alexandra that she thought she, Farah, should be the one to tell Nicky the bad news. Now she blessed Alexandra for having taken over the task, for she knew she would have been too emotional to handle it. She was Megan now, and Megan would not have been the one to comfort but would have needed comforting herself.
Hack unfolded his lanky frame from a waiting room chair and came to meet her. "Has he been told?" he asked.
"Yes. He took it hard, but he's tough. Now he wants to see you."
Nicky and Alexandra both looked drained of emotion. Nicky greeted Hack cordially, but they could see he was tiring and soon left. On the way out they encountered Dr. Mornay, and Alexandra asked him if he would give Nicky a sedative to help him through the night.
The ceremony of crowning Prince Nickolai was held at his bedside two days later, followed by the official designation of Alexandra as Regent pending Nickolai's recovery. At the Prince's request the occasion was not televised, and only a handful of government officials were allowed to be present. The newspapers gave it a field day, with pictures splashed over the front pages, and a rerun of the tragedy that had wiped out three members of the royal family.
Almost unnoticed on the obituary page was an item about the funeral the previous day of Prince Andre, who had died of a heart attack while on a vacation in Hawaii.
A week later, Prince Nickolai had recovered sufficiently for Dr. Mornay to feel he could be discharged from the hospital. "I'm releasing you under certain conditions," he said, "that you get plenty of bedrest, that you be under a nurse's supervision, and that you recieve only a limited number of visitors."
As the ruling prince, Nickolai now occupied Boris's former quarters with Alexandra, and both he and Alexandra underwent instructions for carrying on affairs of state. Farah asked to sit in on these meetings, for mixed reasons, as she explained to Alexandra.
"Since I'm the present heir apparent I think it would be a good idea for me to be included in these sessions. More important, it keeps me too busy to socialize much with Megan's crowd until I have made some adjustments."
Megan had graduated from high school the previous spring and had planned to enter college in the fall. At Farah's request, both Nickolai and Alexandra approved her decision to postpone college for a year, understanding her need for their support during this time of tragedy. Only Alexandra understood her need for time to adjust to being Megan.
And so she began a slow metamorphosis into a teenager for the second time. She found her previous experience of changing from Donna to Farah helpful, but her years as wife and mother made the metamorphosis more difficult.
Alexandra supported her as much as she could during this transition. Any trace of their former differences had long ago dissolved, and in their dependence on each other, a strong bond grew between them.
Alexandra was the rock on which both Nickolai and Farah leaned, and this responsibility proved beneficial to her in her sorrow. Hack's presence helped all three of the survivors through this crisis in their lives, but a few days after Nicky's return home, an urgent message came from the foreman at the dig, that something requiring Hack's handling, had come up, and he left the next day.
"If you need me," he told Alexandra, "you know where to find me. Just call me and I'll come."
Farah watched him leave, wondering sadly if there was someone he could call to help him through his sorrow over Farah, whom he believed to be lost to him forever.
The crowning of Prince Nickolai took place in mid-October. Healed of his wounds, his youthful energy restored, he cut a dahing figure in his bemedaled uniform as he knelt to be crowned.
The tragedy of the previous June had not been forgotten by the press, who descended on Zhad for the ceremony along with the usual important personages from other countries. Businesses and shops closed for the occasion and employees enjoyed a holiday.
Hack came a day early and stayed over the weekend. Aunt Margaret's granddaughter Jo, with her husband, flew in from Boston for the ceremony and spent several days visiting at the palace. "Megan's" resemblance to Farah astonished them. Almost the same age, Jo and Farah had been fast friends from their first meeting, and Farah found it difficult to maintain her role of Megan during thier visit.
Her days were difficult and her nights often sleepless. She grieved for Michael, for Megan, and for Boris. And she also grieved for her lost self. She had been comfortable as Farah, an identity she had "borrowed." She gave up that identity for a new identity as Megan, also borrowed, for there had seemed at the time to be no alternative. Her role as Farah had provided her with a happier life and she had never regretted the change. But Jason's magic had not only restored her youth, it had eventually led to as alteration in her mental outlook and personality to match her apparent age. Even if Jason were here to make the same alteration for her now, she couldn't see any future in it.
And the old worry returned to haunt her: What if she was destined never to grow old?
But Farah enjoyed such perfect health, she had so much energy, that she found it impossible to sink into a state of prolonged inaction and self-pity. Soon she and Alexandra resumed their public appearances at civic and social affairs as representatives of the royal family. Nicky, (or Nickolai, as they now more often called him in view of his new authority) kept busy learning the intricacies of government.
As November drew to a close, Farah wondered aloud what they should do about Christmas. "For my part," she said, "I'm not in the mood for a celebration. I keep remembering that last year we failed to invite Andre and what that led to.
"Life has to go on, Megan," Alexandra said. She had confided that much of the time now she thought of Farah as the real Megan, just as Jason had so readily accepted Donna as the real Farah.
"I must be doing something right," Farah had answered.
The problem of Christmas was solved by Hack. The warm weather at his site in tropical Africa made it possible for him and his crew to work during the winter months, and in a letter Alexandra received from him in early December he wrote:
"We are closing down for a week to celebrate Christmas, but several of my crew can't afford to fly home and are facing a bleak holiday. If you would allow me to bring them to spend Christmas with you and yours, it might make for a happier time for all of us. Perhaps they could stay at the farm, if there is no "rrom at the inn." I have not mentioned this to them, so if it is not convenient please don't hesitate to say so. In that case I would appreciate your allowing me to come alone. You have often told me I was like a member of the family, but I am no Andre, so if it would not be convenient I will understand."
Alexandra's response was immediate. "That man is a saint," she said. "He wrote instead of using the telephone because he wanted to save us embarrassment if we turned him down."
"If you're putting it to a vote, I'm in favor," Nickolai said. "How about you, Sis?"
"The more the merrier," she said. "Why don't we give them the royal treatment and put them up in the palace?"
"They might be more comfortable at the farm."
"That shows how little you know, Big Brother. These people are not peasants, they're educated college students, for the most part."
"Well, listen to Miss Know-it-all."
"I agree with Megan," Alexandra said. "It may be more trouble for the staff, but we can double their bonus."
"I see I'm outnumbered. Never say I don't give in gracefully."
"Should I call him right now and tell him it's okay?" said Farah.
"Only if you get down on your knees," Nicky said. "Remember, he's a saint."
Not to be outdone, Alexandra got down on her knees. Nickolai and Megan burst into gales of laughter and Alexandra joined in. "See?" Megan said, "already he's got us in a good mood."
Christmas fell on Saturday, and Hack drove up on Friday afternoon from Orly Airport in a rented car, accompanied by two girls and a young man. Security at the palace has been tightened since that dreadful day in June, but Hack was well known to the guards and they allowed him to pass through the gates without question. Additional guards met them in the driveway in front of the palace, and they, too, directed him to the courtyard in the rear without question. There, servants parked his car and carried in the luggage.
Farah came out to meet them, and Hack introduced his three companions: a very attractive young lady named Tanya Reed whose warm tan accentuated the fairness of her hair, an impish-looking brunette with cropped hair named Valerie Kendall, a young man of about twenty-one with a studious look and an intelligent face named Jeffrey Roberts. All three tried unsuccessfully not to look awed.
"We'll get you settled in your rooms and then Hack can bring you down to meet the family," Farah said as she led them upstairs. "We'll put Jeffrey next to you, Hack. Do you mind if I call you Jeffrey?" He shook his head. "We have a special room reserved for Hack's visits," she explained.
The two girls followed her down the hall while Hack and Jeffrey went off in the opposite direction.
"We thought you girls might like to be together so we're putting you in a suite." The door already stood open, with their luggage inside, a beautifully appointed apartment with living room, bedroom and bath. Both girls thanked her, and as she left them to freshen up she added, "Hack will come by and get you when you're ready." Indicating the telephone, she added, "Calls are handled through a switchboard, and you can contact Hack by his room number if you wish." She told them the number. At the door she turned, "You'll find us very informal here."
After they had all assembled in the apartment occupied by Nicky and Alexandra, the conversation became general. Both girls had changed into dressier clothing and Jeffrey wore a suit and tie.
"We're having dinner early," Alexandra told them, "in order to attend Christmas services at the cathedral. We thought you might enjoy it, and we like to show off our magnificant cathedral," she said with a smile.
"That sounds wonderful," Tanya said. "We're all very grateful to you for making this such a special holiday for us."
"And we thank you for coming. Hack knew we needed help to get through the holidays this year." She smiled at Hack. "Have you changed your mind about letting me adopt you?"
Farah looked at Alexandra with affection, amazed at the change in her. Tragedy seemed to have swept away her former haughty exterior and softened her disposition. She had even acquired a sense of humor, for until lately she had never been one for jokes and banter. Perhaps it helped her deal with her sorrow.
The service at the cathedral was reverent, the music beautiful, and afterwards, accompanied by guards they joined a group singing carols. Trudging through snow, they breathed in the crisp air of December. Decorated trees sparkled in shop windows, and a huge tree had been erected in the town square. Bundled up in hoods and scarves, Alexandra and her family felt anonymous, and few recognized them.
It didn't escape Farah's notice that throughout the caroling Nicky and Tanya held hands.