As I noted in my earlier post, this is a story that has been with me for a long time. I fell in love with St. Petersburg, Russia years ago. Even under Soviet rule, there was something about the ancient city that seemed to call to me. Add in the myths surrounding Rasputin and his hold on the Romanovs, especially the Tsarina, and it was all my muse needed to go down the path to a story–or more.
In my early notes about the story, here’s what I wrote:
Russia, land of the tsars and land of magical fairy tales. A land preparing to celebrate three hundred years of Romanov rule. A land teetering on the brink of disaster.
Tsar Nicholas II is determined to do whatever is necessary to prove to his people, and to the world, that Russia is as strong and unified as ever. The festivities designed to commemorate the tercentenary anniversary are only one part of his attempt to make his detractors forget the disastrous Russo-Japanese War and the 1905 Revolution that had forced him to relinquish much of his power as tsar.
All of that might have been enough save for two things. The first, Nicholas II did not want to be tsar. He’d been forced into a role he was ill-prepared for when his father, Alexander III, died an early death. The official explanation was that Alexander died from a kidney ailment. It was a lie, of course, like so much that came out of the palace these days.
Since then, Nicholas had done too many things wrong in his attempt to strengthen what he saw as his family’s God-given right to rule. Too many of his subjects felt distanced from him and betrayed by him because of the pogroms carried out by his Cossacks.
Even that could have been survived if the royal family been as steeped in the ancient magic as it once had been. That magic helped the early Romanovs, and the tsars before them, build Russia into a force to be reckoned with. But with each subsequent generation, the magic had decreased and, with it, the Romanovs’ ability to control the land and its people.
Desperate to do whatever was necessary to preserve the Romanov family and its place as the rightful rulers of Russia, Nicholas and his wife, Alexandra, turned more and more frequently to the Mad Monk, Gregori Rasputin, for guidance. Their fates become irrevocably intertwined when the royal family is forced to publicly admit that the tsarevich, the future of all Russia, suffers from the “Royal Curse”, hemophilia.
But that, just as with the cause of Alexander Ill’s death, is a lie. The “Royal Curse”, a life-threatening disease passed down through the common lineage of Queen Victoria’s family, has nothing to do with the blood, at least not in the sense that those suffering from it possessed the inability of their blood to clot. No, the problem lay with the fact the ancient magic the aristocratic families of Europe had relied upon for so long is almost gone. In some, it means their own bodies seem to be at war with themselves. Without the magical energy, the body tries to consume itself, using its own magic to remain alive. No amount of food is enough. Without an influx of magical energy, the one afflicted suffers and dies.
This is what killed Alexander III and what is happening at an increasingly rapid rate to the tsarevich. And it is that condition Rasputin is there to “cure”, no matter what the cost to anyone outside of the royal family.
That’s the world of Russian Nights. It isn’t so much an alternate history as it is historical fantasy. There is still magic in the world, but the old lines, the corrupt lines, are weakening and their hold on power is lessening. This isn’t the story of the Bolshevik Revolution, although it will play a role. This is the story of a family fighting to survive against the machinations of the “Mad Monk” and the powers behind him.
And so it begins. . . . before it does, this work is copyrighted. It may not be reproduced, etc., without permission. It is also a rough draft, so there may–and probably are–things that will be corrected when it finally sees print. Now on to the story.
St. Petersburg, Russia
Winter settled on the city, blanketing it with a fresh coat of snow. Several blocks away, ice covered the Neva River, a reminder Spring was still several months away. Clouds hung heavily in the sky. Only the pale light from an occasional street lamp broke the shadows mimicking an early nightfall. Snowflakes, larger than any he’d seen in a long while, danced in the wind, mocking him as he moved as quickly as he dared in the direction of Rastelli Square.
Why had he insisted the cab drop him so far from his destination? Surely the need for discretion didn’t require him to chance freezing to death. He frowned, not liking the path his thoughts took. They presented a distraction he could little afford. His current mission required absolute discretion. A little discomfort was a small enough price to pay to avoid discovery. He had learned that lesson well over the years.
A gust of bitterly cold wind blowing in from the Gulf of Finland cut through him, chilling him to the bone. His step faltered as his boot heel landed on a patch of ice. His foot slid. His arms flailed as he struggled to keep on his feet. He would not fall.
No doubt about it. Winter in St. Petersburg had to be the earthly representation of the Third Circle of Hell. Only Russian snow was white, not the black Dante wrote of.
Damn Peter the First! He dreamed of the capital being a showpiece; something to prove to the Europeans that Russia was a country to be reckoned with not only militarily but artistically as well. That was all well and good, but Peter had not considered the problems that came with moving this far north. Nor had the Tsar considered how those coming after him would be forced to pay for his ambition.
Instead, the Tsar instructed his ministers to find the best engineers to design a new capital on the Gulf of Finland. That would give him the natural port he desired. More importantly, the new capital would be closer to Europe, better for trade and, if one was to be honest, rapid troop movement.
Of course, engineering prowess had not been enough. Not to build an entire city on marshlands. Not to be deterred, Peter ordered those possessed of the old magics to be pressed into service. Those mages and elementals reshaped the land and the weather, ensuring construction of Peter’s showplace could proceed.
And none of that mattered when all Grigori Yefimovich cared about was reaching his destination without catching his death of cold.
If only Peter had left the capital in Moscow. St. Petersburg was too far north and too cold in the winter, especially now that the royal mages seemed incapable of controlling the weather as they once had. Something had happened since the days of Peter the Great—and even Catherine after him. The old magics had deserted the royals. But this was neither the time nor the place for contemplation about things he could not control.
He hunched deeper into his heavy coat and reminded himself that, cold as it was, this was nothing compared to all those winters he survived in Siberia as he grew into manhood. Not that the memory warmed him any.
Today, however, the weather acted as his ally. The threat of being caught in one of Russia’s infamous blizzards kept the faint of heart safely inside, all but insuring he could arrive at Smolny Cathedral without curious eyes seeing. He might look like someone from ordinary peasant stock — which he happened to be—and, therefore, no one of any importance. But, as the last few years had proven, sometimes unpleasantly, he was no ordinary peasant, no ordinary man. Because of that, even the most lowly of St. Petersburg’s citizens knew his face and would mark his passage. At least now he had a chance of moving through the streets unseen.
He quickened his pace and soon turned down the stone path leading to the cathedral. A slight smile touched his lips as his gloved hands worked the ornate iron gate’s locking mechanism with an ease that betrayed the number of times he’d done so before. Neither Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, who envisioned the cathedral as a monastery for nuns, nor Catherine the Great, who had halted construction on the cathedral because she disliked the design, could have imagined his use for Smolny. Not that they would object. Both of those great women knew the importance of protecting Mother Russia and her rulers, no matter what the cost.
Nicolas might not approve of his methods but those two women would.
As would history, if only he found what he looked for.
His booted feet moved surely yet carefully along the path, avoiding the occasional ice patch, until he stood before an unadorned door near the rear of the cathedral. A quick glance over his shoulder confirmed what he already knew. No one who might be passing on the street could see him.
He didn’t pause to knock or announce his presence. He didn’t need to, not when he came in service of the Tsar or, more precisely, the Tsarina. Besides, it would be so much better if he could accomplish his task without any of the priests inside realizing he had come and gone.
He closed the door behind him and almost moaned in relief to no longer be buffeted by the wind. Cold as the corridor was, it was still much warmer than outside. He could take comfort in that and not much else.
The cathedral might be a showplace with its ornate stylings, high ceilings and polished Revel stone floors. Yet it offered him little in the way of comfort. No, that wasn’t right. It wasn’t the building that denied him. It was the priests within, those who resented him and his place with the Royal Family.
Determination replaced his relief to be inside. He had no time to waste, not if he wanted to avoid being caught there should the weather deteriorate even further. So no more ruminating. He had a job to do.
A soft footfall as he turned to the ancient coat tree in the corner warned him he was no longer alone. Frustration boiled and, for one brief moment, he closed his eyes. He had prayed that just this once he would be able to slip in and out of the cathedral without the priests stopping him. Perhaps this was his test. If he managed, again, to conceal the real reason for his visit, he might finally accomplish his goal.
That had to be it. God did work in mysterious ways. Perhaps He used these priests to remind Grigori Yefimovich not to become too sure of himself. The sin of pride had felled many men. Grigori Yefimovich would not be one of them.
But what to do now?
That he had an answer for, one born from experience. He would not acknowledge the newcomer. Not yet. Let them make the first move so he could decide the best way to respond.
He waited, doing his best to ease the frustration from his expression and still his emotions. Instead of turning, he finished unwinding the scarf from around the bottom of his face and neck. Then he removed his hat, stuffing his scarf and gloves inside before placing it atop the coat rack. To give himself a few moments more, he slowly unbuttoned his heavy black coat, ignoring the frayed cuffs and the third button barely hanging on by a thread. He must remember to have someone fix that. Or maybe not. A missing button, like the frayed cuffs and worn wool of the coat, even his long hair and scraggly beard, were all part of the image he had so carefully crafted to suit his needs.
By the time he shrugged out of his coat, revealing an equally worn black cassock beneath it, hands were there to assist him. He bowed his head slightly, indicating an appreciation he didn’t feel.
“It has been some time since you last visited us, Father Grigori,” the newcomer said as he made use of the coat rack.
There could be no mistaking the slight note of censure in the younger man’s voice, and an anger as cold as the wind outside knotted in Grigori’s Yefimovich’s stomach.
How dare he!
“My duties to the Royal Family keep me very busy, Father Dmitri.” Let that be a reminder as to which of them bore the real power. “Is the bishop in residence today?”
“He is. Shall I announce you?”
Grigori Yefimovich paused and chewed the edges of his scruffy mustache, as if deep in thought. Let Father Dmitri believe him hesitant to interrupt the bishop. Much as he hated it, he had to maintain the illusion of respectful servant, one not worthy to interrupt Bishop Malenko. How ironic. If anyone was unworthy, it was Malenko and the priests who served him. They had no true calling from God, not as he did.
Fortunately, the bishop had yet to realize why he continued to visit. Of course, that was because Malenko and the younger priests were so busy being bastions of condemnation for what he did and for how he served the Royal Family, especially the Tsarina. Let them. He would no more abandon his calling as spiritual advisor to the Romanovs than he would willingly return to Siberia.
“Shall I tell Bishop Malenko you wish an audience, Father Grigori?” Father Dmitri repeated. “He has a full schedule today, so I cannot promise he will be available to speak with you.”
That hint of impatience, of censure he had come to expect once again crept into Father Dmitri’s voice. Fool! He would never enjoy the privilege of serving the Royal Family. Dmitri Rostapovich, newly ordained and assigned as the aging bishop’s secretary only because of who his family happened to be, would never understand that either.
Full schedule, indeed. Now the young fool lies to me. One day he shall learn just how foolish it is to try my patience.
Before he could answer, the sound of young voices raised in hymn filled the air and Father Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin smiled slightly. Excellent. He hadn’t braved the elements for naught after all.
No indeed. He had come to the cathedral, as he had on a number of other occasions, to make a selection. He would visit the boys he heard singing and take their measure. Then he would choose a suitable candidate to act as companion to Alexei Nickolaevich Romanov, Tsarevich and supposed hemophiliac.
It sounded so simple, so harmless. One or two boys chosen by the priest who advised the Royal Family, the holy man who worked tirelessly to save the future tsar of all Mother Russia. The lucky boy would become playmate and confidante to the Tsarevich. What an honor that was, not only for the boy, but for his family as well. An honor none had yet to decline.
But the one chosen would also be so much more than a simple companion to the Tsarevich. Not that the boy, or his family, would be told. The Royal Family couldn’t afford for their subjects to know the truth, not when so many already questioned the need for a tsar. Any hint of weakness in the Tsarevich, any hint of him being different, had to be avoided, no matter what the cost.
It fell to Rasputin to make the selection. After discussing his choice with the Tsarina, he would visit the boy’s family and give them the glorious news that their son had received the honor of being the Tsarevich’s close companion. It was his duty to convince the family to say goodbye to their son, to remind them of the benefits their son would receive—private tutors, the finest clothes, social contacts and, most important of all, a personal connection to the future ruler of Mother Russia. Then he’d promise they would soon be invited to the Winter Palace, or one of the other royal residences, to visit their son.
A visit that would never happen if everything went as it should.
So he had to be careful, not only in how he dealt with the bishop and the priests at Smolny, but also with his choice of whom to invite to become the Tsarevich’s companion. The lad, just like all those before him, would be chosen with only one thing in mind. He must be strong in the old magic. The magic that had run through the royal lines of Russian aristocracy since before the Romanovs took power three hundred years earlier. A magic that had tragically, disastrously been declining within the Royal Family for generations.
A decline, Rasputin knew, that led in great part to the challenges now facing the Tsar.
But that would, if all went according to God’s plan as shown to Grigori Yefimovich Rasputin, change once the right boy was at the royal palace and introduced to the Tsarevich….
It was best not to think about that now, however. Several of the priests assigned to the cathedral were sensitives. Of them, some already plotted against him. He knew it. Just as he knew they were jealous. Jealous of how God favored him. Jealous of his relationship with the Royal Family. Because of that, Rasputin couldn’t allow himself to become careless. He would play their games and be patient until the day came when he could finally show them just how dangerous it was to attempt to undermine him.
A soft cough reminded him one of those sensitives stood before him, waiting impatiently for an answer. Rasputin once again carefully schooled his features before answering.
“Please, Father Dmitri.” He bowed slightly, hands folded before him. “While I wait to see the bishop, I shall look in on the boys and see how their lessons progress.”
For a moment, it seemed Father Dmitri might object. Then, with a nod just short of being curt, the young priest turned and started down the corridor. Rasputin watched, his pale blue eyes cold and hard.
Father Dmitri was like all the rest, all those who whispered their poisonous lies in the Tsar’s ear. He was like those who tried to diminish him in the eyes of the Tsarina. They succeeded once because he allowed himself to grow too sure of himself and of his place in the Royals’ lives. That carelessness found him torn from the Royal Family and his place at their side as ordained by God. Not again.
How much simpler things would have been had the priest on duty been anyone save Dmitri Rostapovich.
Still, plans made could just as easily be altered as the situation dictated. That lesson he’d learned well back in Siberia. So he’d look in on the boys today, making note of any who seemed likely to suit his needs. It would be easy enough later to arrange to meet the boy somewhere away from the cathedral. Some place where they would be uninterrupted as he took the boy’s measure. Then, if the boy was suitable, an “introduction” to the Tsarevich would be arranged.
Yes, patience today, success later and without those of his enemies who would work to foil his plans being forewarned.
Remember to let me know if you want to see more. The next installment will post Tuesday. Until later!
Featured Image by Brigitte makes custom works from your photos, thanks a lot from Pixabay