Home > Palace of Treason (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #2)(8)

Palace of Treason (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash #2)(8)
Author: Jason Matthews

The car shot through the Borovitskaya Gate—suddenly filled with the kettledrum notes of the tires on the Kremlin cobbles—and past the yellow and gold Grand Kremlin Palace, around the ivory Cathedral of the Archangel, and through the arch into the courtyard of the green-domed Senate building. Dominika shuddered inside. The Kremlin. Majestic buildings, gilded ceilings, soaring halls, all filled to the rafters with deceit, rapacious greed, and cruelty. A Palace of Treason. And now Dominika—another sort of traitor—was coming to the palace, to smile and lick the impassive face of the tsar.

A quick tug at her skirt and tuck of a strand of hair behind her ear as they heel-clicked in unison down the corridor. They waited under the vaulted ceiling in the grand reception hall in the Kremlin Senate, a room so large that the colossal Bokhara carpet on the parquet floor seemed like a prayer rug. Dominika could see the bloom of green around the director’s head, and she was surprised that he was nervous, even fearful, of the interview with the president. Putin’s chef de cabinet came out a door on the far side of the room and walked with muffled footsteps toward them. Brown suit, brown shoes, brown aura. Closed down and proper, he bowed slightly as he addressed them.

“Mr. Director, would you take advantage of the opportunity to call on the minister? He would be pleased to welcome you in his office.” Another door opened and a second aide stood with his heels together. The message was unmistakable: Putin would see Egorova alone. The director of SVR nodded to Dominika and watched her dancer’s legs as she crossed the room toward the massive twin doors of Putin’s private office. Just like in the old days, he thought—how long would this one remain in favor?

Putin’s aide stuck out a protocol arm and led her across the warmly paneled office of the president to another door, knocked once, and opened it. A small sitting room, blue flocked wallpaper bathed in afternoon sunlight, richly carpeted, a satin couch in celeste blue beneath the window. Outside, the copper spire of the Troitskaya Gate was visible over the Kremlin garden trees. The president came across the room and shook her hand. He was dressed in a dark suit with a white shirt and deep blue silk tie that matched those remarkable blue eyes.

“Captain Egorova,” Putin said, referring pointedly to her new rank—a stunning promotion after her return. No smile, no expression, the unblinking stare. Dominika wondered if he chose his neckwear to match his eyes. He gestured to her to sit, and the satin brocade sighed as she sank into it.

“Mr. President,” said Dominika. She could be phlegmatic too. He was bathed in a turquoise-blue haze, the color of emotion, of artistry, of intricate thought. Not the yellow of deceit nor the crimson of passion—he was deep, complex, unreadable, never what he seemed.

Dominika was dressed in a dark-gray two-piece suit with a navy shirt, dark stockings, and low heels—thank God for that; she would not tower over the president. Her brown hair was up, the recommended style in the Service, and she wore no jewelry. Standing, Putin continued looking down at her, perhaps measuring the depth of her blue eyes against his own. If he saw her black eye he gave no indication. An aide came in silently from a side door with a tray that he set down on a small side table. The president nodded at it.

“I have called you to the Kremlin during the lunch hour, for which I apologize. Perhaps a snack?”

An exquisite fluted Lomonosov porcelain serving dish in the cobalt net pattern first used by Catherine the Great held glossy sautéed mushrooms and greens, swimming in a mustard sauce. Silver spoon and toothpicks. Putin bent and spooned a dollop of the mushrooms onto a toast point and held it out, actually held it flat in his palm, to her. Eat kitty, won’t you taste? Dominika thought of politely refusing, but accepted. The president watched her chew—the dish was mushroom earthy and complex, the sauce smooth and rich—as if he were assessing how she ate. He poured mineral water. This was madness. The blue haze behind his head and shoulders did not change. Bozhe, God, eating appetizers in the Kremlin, she thought. What next, perhaps he’ll offer me his toothbrush? She shifted slightly to ease the throbbing in her ribs.

“I am glad you returned safely from Estonia,” Putin said, finally sitting down beside her on the couch. “The information you acquired was instrumental in unmasking the traitor Korchnoi. I commend you for your coolness and fortitude.”

SVR General Korchnoi had spied for the Americans for fourteen years, the best Russian agent in the history of the Game. The general had been her protector, like a second father, when she entered the Service. After the general’s arrest, CIA had concocted the swap to exchange Dominika for him, simultaneously saving the general and inserting Dominika as the new CIA supermole in Moscow. But something had gone wrong—she didn’t know what. Someone had been hurt on the bridge after she crossed the midpoint and was back in Russian hands—through the night fog she had gotten a glimpse of a body on the ground, had heard a man bellowing. A monstrous double cross? And the man sitting next to her had certainly given the order. It could have been Korchnoi crumpled on the bridge roadway; it could even have been Nate. Nate could be dead, and all along she had been thinking about him as if he was safe. He could be dead. At the thought she tamped down the cloying taste of mushrooms in her mouth, swallowed the mustard sauce in her throat.

“Spasibo, thank you, Mr. President,” said Dominika. “I only did my duty.” Not too much sugar, she thought; just a teaspoon. “I regret that the izmennik, the traitor, found refuge in the West, that he did not pay for his betrayal.”

Putin’s blue halo flared. “No, he was destroyed,” he said bluntly, without inflection. Through the shock Dominika thought, Nate is safe. Then, They killed the general. Silence in the sun-drenched room. “Now you know a secret,” Putin said, one corner of his mouth curling a fraction. This Putin smile surfaced from the mineshaft of his soul, a mortal threat all the same, and the bitter revelation bound her to this new tsar, this imperator, her neck in the noose and the bit in her mouth. But he had just confirmed it: They had killed Korchnoi on the bridge, meters from freedom. The old general had dreamed of retirement, of a life without risk, devoid of fear.

Dominika breathed through her nose and looked at Putin’s impassive face. Out of some obscure memory, Dominika recalled that Khrushchev’s favorite Cold War threat had been the earthy, peasant curse Pokazat kuz’kinu mat’—I’ll show you Kuzka’s mother—which meant I’ll annihilate you. Well, call Kuzka’s mother, Mr. President, thought Dominika, because I’m going to punish you. Over the taste of copper in her mouth, the edgy secret that soared above it all, the ice-cold diamond in her breast, was that she was CIA’s new penetration of her service. Not even this blue-eyed python knew that.

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