Alexandre got up, pulling Antonya up with him. “Princess, I’m going okay, and I’ll see you around later. Be good my beautiful. I love you” he smiled cheekily, and picked up his coat. Antonya walked over to the strawberries, her platter nearly finished, and ate one, nodding in acknowledgment to him. “Goodbye” he smiled.

Just as he walked through her doorway to leave, Cristian came bursting in the room, with a young man not far behind him. Alexandre frowned, and Cristian slapped his cheek lightly. “Your Highnesses!” he laughed, mocking a bow, walking over to kiss Antonya on the cheek. “Have a good time? It’s funny how I’m always right, wouldn’t you agree Vlad?” Vladimir looked up from the floor, and smiled at Cristian. His eyes fell on Princess Antonya, and he broke into the cheesiest smile. “Princess! It is good to see you again” he laughed, and bowed. He held out a hand to Alexandre, who shook it. “Antonya, Alexandre, this is Vladimir, a very old friend of mine. Do you remember how I used to train with the general for war Antonya? And there were three of us troublemakers? Well, this is my third friend! It was me, Velibor and Vladan” he explained, turning to Alexandre “who caused all the trouble in the castle back in Serbia.” He put a hand on Cristian’s back.

Wow, thought Antonya silently. He was dressed in one of Cristian’s suits until his clothes were ready, and he looked quite nice. To imagine he was here in Moscow! What a coincidence! She laughed quietly to herself, and the boys excused themselves from her room. She could remember Velibor and Cristian quite well from their training days, but not once did she recall seeing Vladimir. His name sounded familiar though. Maybe he was the little boy that always used to stare at her. He played a lot with the other two boys back then. Come to think of it, they had the same brown eyes. If that was him, how he’d grown!

Her mind drifted back to Velibor, and looking outside, she noticed the leaves falling from the trees. How she missed him! Thinking back to last night, she realised just how wrong she was. It was her who had used Velibor, not him to her. Velibor was like that at the start, but he truly loved her. The last day I spent with you, Velibor, she thought, that was when I realised just how much I had ruined you, and you had ruined me. “I left because I couldn’t bear to face up to what I had done to you, and even then by the time I knew it was too late. I’m sorry Velibor, I killed you” she whispered, leaning out of her window. “Velibor, I love you. I’m sorry.”

Glancing at the tray of strawberries, she realised it was empty. Picking it up, she thought of calling a maid to refresh it for her, and decided not. She walked down to the kitchen herself, in search of Andrei, wanting to talk to him. He was in the kitchen, but busy preparing the midday meal. Walking out the door in the kitchen that lead to the gardens, she wandered around there, hoping to find a gardener to thank for the beautiful strawberries. Walking through the countless plants and fruits, she found no gardener, but found herself thinking of Lukas.

Upon reaching the end of the garden, she had seen no gardener, only the most beautiful dog. She bent down and ran her fingers through its coat. How soft it was! The dog was a husky, and looked a little old. She stayed with it, enjoying it’s company. It licked her fingers and looked happy to see her. “Oh, you are truly a beautiful dog! Do you belong to the gardener? I wonder what you’re name is…” she sat there, stroking it a little while longer, when all of a sudden a deep voice boomed from behind her. “Diego! Come!” The dog raised itself slowly, and limped towards the man, stopping to lick Antonya’s hand once more before leaving. She stood back up, and dusted off her dress, turning around to see who was there. Behind her stood Cristian, Vladimir and a reluctant looking Alexandre.

“A friend of dogs, are you Princess Antonya?” asked Vladimir politely, stroking Diego. “I couldn’t say,” she replied. “I was looking for the gardener to congratulate him on such wonderful strawberries, when I found this wonderful dog. Does it belong to you?” “Yes, his name’s Diego.” Diego lifted his head in response to hearing his name, and Antonya laughed. Cristian moved right up to Diego and patted him, but Alexandre kept his distance. “Is Russia’s soon-to-be Tsar scared of a dog?” she laughed, but he did not take it lightly. “Leave me alone. Royalty does not belong down in the dirt with an animal” he scolded her. She glared at him, and Cristian was amazed. He had never seen this side of his friend before. Was he scared?

Antonya began to walk away from the group just as Alexandre walked up to Diego to prove to them he wasn’t scared. With arrogant intentions, he leaned down to pat Diego. Diego barked at him, but he did not acknowledge his warning, for Diego could sense his arrogance. Just as he touched Diego’s head, Diego lurched forward and sunk his teeth into Alexandre’s leg. He screamed out in pain, and Antonya turned around and immediately ran to him. Kneeling beside Diego, Cristian and Vladimir coaxed the dog to release it’s teeth from his leg, and move away. Thankfully he did not bite into his leg fully, and there was minimal blood. “Alexandre! What is wrong with you?” yelled Cristian. “Alexandre shot a glare at Cristian. “I am your best friend, and here you are questioning me? You should be reprimanding the dog, not I!” Vladimir looked at them both, and glanced at Antonya. She shot him a sympathetic look, and scolded them both. “Do you boys have no respect for each other? The dog bit you for your arrogance, Alexandre. As soon as you entered the garden, the air stank with it. But Cristian you should have known better. Shame on you both!” dragging Cristian and Alexandre behind her, she left Vladimir to tend to Diego, and took Alexandre to his room.

Between them they managed to fix up Alexandre’s leg, and within a few days it was as good as new. Alexandre, Vladimir and Cristian became like best friends, but Alexandre hardly talked to Antonya. She spent a lot of time in the kitchen every day, talking to Andrei. One day, during their conversations, a young man came in, laden with two baskets packed to the brim. He said something to Andrei in a foreign language unknown to the princess, and they laughed. Turning to Antonya, the man bowed. She nodded her head in his direction “this is the man who makes the wonderful strawberries you love so much princess!” he explained, gesturing towards the young man. She smiled and stood immediately, and shook the man’s hand. “Thank you so much! I love these strawberries! I love them!” he looked at her a while, and then smiled. “You like my strawberries your highness?” he asked, bowing again. “indeed! Say, what was your name?” “Oh, I am Ivan. I have been the gardener here since I was fourteen. I owe it to Andrei, for he begged Master Marco for this job for me. I am most grateful!” Antonya laughed, and turned to Andrei. “Andrei, do you mind if I have some of these fresh strawberries? You needn’t worry about making a sauce. I just would like the strawberries.” “Why princess!” offered Ivan “come with me now, and you can pick and choose for yourself from the strawberry patch your favourite strawberries to eat!” She delighted at this idea, and ran to follow Ivan out to his garden.

The walked right through the first garden, and passed Vladimir who was visiting Diego. She smiled at him, and he got up and ran to join her, Diego following not far behind. “Your Highness, what are you doing?” he asked playfully, looking for something to do. “Strawberry picking! Did you ever do that in the gardens back home with Lukas? Come!” she called back to him. They walked through the orchards, and right at the end of the garden, in their own ‘secret’ courtyard, were the strawberries. “Ivan! This is truly wonderful! How come I have never seen this garden before? Wow!” she said quietly ,shocked by the sheer, utter beauty of the courtyard. “Do you like it your Highness? I made it myself. Marco allowed me this end of the castle for my gardens, to grow the food for the kitchens. I call this end the strawberry courtyard. Feel free to come whenever you please!” He smiled, handed her a basket, and then left her and Vladimir to it, while he went to work in the orchards.

Soon their basket was full, them having eaten enough to fill another basket while they were picking. Laughing, she began to walk back up to the kitchens, when Diego began to bark. Putting her basket down, Antonya walked back to where he was. Vladimir was nowhere in sight. Trying to figure out what Diego was hinting at, she bent down to stroke his fur. Just as she did, Vladimir appeared behind her, holding her basket. She stood up, sensing someone’s presence, and turned around. He grabbed her by the waist, blinded by his desire, and kissed her. “Vladimir” she warned, and took the basket from him. Without looking back to him, she picked up the basket and returned to Andrei. Watching from the windows in the castle above, Cristian and Alexandre watched silently.