Russian Nights – snippet 5

(This is the fifth snippet from one of my current works-in-progress. It is unedited and very likely to change by publication date. Needless to say, it can’t be copied anywhere else without my permission, etc., etc., etc. Hope you enjoy.)

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Chapter Four

 

Rasputin paused and drew a deep breath.   Two days.  Two days since he’d visited Smolny Cathedral.  Two days in which he’d been unable to identify the source of the old magic.   Now he had to face the tsarina and tell her he might have an answer, only he couldn’t be sure. Not yet, at any rate.

He stood before the door to the tsarina’s favorite sitting room and waited.  As he did, he could feel the contempt radiating from the guard on duty.  How dare he?   He was nothing, a mere cur from questionable stock. Who was he to act as though he was better than the tsarina’s spiritual advisor?  Well, he’d soon realize his mistake.  A carefully placed word to Alexandra and the young whelp would find himself walking a post in Siberia.  Let him see if he could survive that cold pit of Hell as well as Rasputin had.

A few moments passed before the door opened. A quick whispered exchange with someone out of sight and the guard stepped aside.  Finally.  Rasputin stepped forward and then paused again, leaning in to the guard. “May God grant you what you deserve,” he whispered and smiled  as the guard blanched in response.  Good.  Let him consider exactly what God might feel he deserved after his actions this day.

The door closed behind him with more vigor than protocol demanded, and Rasputin stepped further into the room. He stopped when he stood a precise six feet from Alexandra Feodorovna Romanova, Empress of Russia, and formerly Alix of Hesse.  Hands folded before him, he bowed respectfully.  She was his patron and empress.  He was her spiritual advisor and healer to her son.  But they would never be equals.  Society would never stand for it.

Society! He cared little for what those narrow minded fools thought.  Especially where the tsarina was concerned.  How little they knew about the woman.  They condemned her as cold and distant because she did not have the force of character the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna possessed.  How wrong they were.  Alexandra was merely shy and uncomfortable with the life suddenly thrust upon her by the death of Alexander III almost ten years ago.  His death forced her into the very core of a Russian society that had mocked her when Alexander initially forbade the marriage.  He’d relented and, a mere fortnight after his death, Alix of Hesse married her beloved Nicky and became the new tsarina.

Unfortunately for the newlyweds, and most especially for Russia, the new tsar was too young and ill-prepared to take over the reins of leadership.  Content in the knowledge his father would live a long life, Nicholas had taken his pleasures in women, in the hunt and in sport.  That illusion was shattered the day of his father’s death and Nicholas found himself forced into the one role he’d never wanted.

As for the aristocracy, instead of realizing Alexandra was as intimidated by them as they were of her, many condemned her behind her back.  Those foolish enough to condemn the tsarina were also the ones who spread the lies that Rasputin shared her bed.  Those poisonous tongues hoped to not only hurt their empress, but bring him down as well.  Fools.  Such lies served only to alienate them even further from the Royal Family.  As long as Alexandra looked to him for spiritual guidance, and as long as he continued to help the Tsarevich, they would not succeed.

“I was beginning to fear you would not come,” the Tsarina said as she rose and took his hands, bending to touch her forehead to them in a show of respect that never failed to surprise – or please – him.

“I would never ignore your request for my presence, your majesty.”  Even if that request came before he had anything to tell her.

“I know.  It is just that I seem to worry so much these days.”  She smiled almost apologetically and settled on the padded bench before the window.  Her gaze momentarily fixed on something only she could see.  Then she shook herself and motioned for him to be seated opposite her.

“Please, tell me what concerns you and I will do whatever God wills to ease your worries.”

“It’s Alexei.  He seems to be weakening again.  Yesterday, he brushed a bit too heavily against the door and now his arm is so badly bruised and swollen.”  Her voice broke and tears glistened in her eyes.  She produced a delicate lace handkerchief from the folds of her dress and pressed it against her face.

Rasputin waited as the tsarina regained control, his concern growing as he realized for the first time that they were alone.  Not even Anna Vyrubova, one of the tsarina’s closest friends, was present.  That simple breach of protocol brought a lump to his throat and he cursed his bad luck.

No matter what he did, no matter how hard he prayed, Alexei was weakening more and more rapidly after every treatment.  It was no wonder the tsar and tsarina feared the worst.  In his own all too rare moments of doubt, Rasputin did as well.  Not only was the tsarevich dying, but so was Imperial Russia.  Somehow, he had to find an answer that would save them all.

Damn the current state of affairs.  Nicholas II had to deal with the seeds of discontent sowed years earlier by his grandfather.  Alexander II had craved personal power, not realizing – or not caring — how his policies alienated peasant and aristocrat alike.  Nor did he understand how long that alienation would last.  Nothing mattered to Alexander II as long as his personal power as tsar was strengthened.  After all, why worry about something that might happen years after death.

Things would have been better had Nicholas’ father lived longer.  Alexander III had realized the world was changing.  More imporantaly, he understood Russia had to change with it.  Unfortunately for them all, and most especially for the current tsar and his family, Alexander had finally succumbed to the “royal curse” after secretly battling it for years.  Nicholas had watched his father those last few weeks after the curse could no longer be denied.  He’d seen it consume the tsar, no matter what the physicians and healers tried.  It was no wonder that, after seeing how Alexander suffered, the family would do anything necessary to save young Alexei from that terrible fate.

Not that they’d actually

That forced Rasputin to do the dirty work necessary to save the Tsarevich.  His ability not only to sense the old magic in people but also to siphon it from them, with or without their permission, was all that kept the boy alive.  Unfortunately, it might no longer be enough.  If Alexei was already exhibiting the symptoms of the curse returning, time was running short — for both of them.

But not even the Tsarina’s worry for her son could account for the different circumstances of this meeting.  Before, the only time they had been allowed to meet privately was when in prayer.  Even then, they hadn’t been truly alone.  Guards or, more often than not, one of Alexandra’s lady’s maids waited unobtrusively in the distance.  It did not prevent him from discussing the truth of her son’s condition, but it at least gave the impression of privacy.

Meeting alone was not only foolish, it was dangerous.  Word would get out that he’d been called to the Tsarina, a private meeting  behind closed doors.  Alexandra knew how palace gossip worked.   Sooner for later the news would leak. All it took was the cost of a drink or a few rubles crossing a servant’s palm.

The Tsarina must understand how dangerous this was – for both of them.  Their enemies already spread lies that they had shared more than mere prayers.  There were those who claimed not only that he had bedded the Tsarina, but her daughters as well.  They would point to this meeting as proof of an illicit affair.  Why else, they would ask, would the Tsarina break all rules of protocol to see this man, this so-called priest, alone?

If they only had to worry about those few jealous aristocrats and minor bureaucrats, he’d not be so concerned.  But those jealous fools weren’t where the real danger lay.  No, it lay with the middle class in the cities and the peasants in the countryside.  Should they suddenly decide they no longer supported the Tsar or, worse, if they demanded he send Rasputin away or forfeit the throne….

Somehow he had to impress upon his tsarina just how careful they must be.  The Royal Family had to be mindful not to stir the pot of discontent or else everything they’d worked for would be for naught.

Still, how does one tell a mother she must put public perception above her fear for her only son?  More importantly, how do you do so without severing all ties with her?

“There is more troubling you, my lady.  Otherwise, we’d not be meeting this way –” He gestured with his left hand, indicating the lack of any of her usual guards or companions.  “So, what may your humble servant do to assist his empress?”

Before she could respond, the door leading to the outer corridor once more swung open.  Without turning, Rasputin knew who had arrived and he couldn’t prevent the almost instinctive tightening of muscles and quickening of his pulse.  How well he knew the feel of the Tsar.   Despite the almost negligible level of the old magic Nicholas possessed, there was still enough to let Rasputin know whenever he came near.

Fighting a quick flash of fear, Rasputin forced down the instinct to reach out to the Tsar and touch his magic.  The moment he did, he’d seal his own death warrant.  Unlike so many of those he had used over the years, Nicholas II would know the moment Rasputin attempted to tap into his magic.  The Tsar, ever suspicious, had insisted set the proper spells on the Royal Family to prevent him from using them to feed Alexei’s need for magic.  Much as he loved his son, Nicholas would not allow the sacrifice of any of his daughters or his wife.

That devotion to family could easily turn him against Rasputin just then.  In the right frame of mind, he could easily jump to the wrong conclusion and expel Rasputin from all their lives.  It wouldn’t matter that Rasputin had come to the Winter Palace at the Tsarina’s invitation.  No, all that mattered was the fact he’d compromised Alexandra by being alone with her in violation of protocol and discretion.

“Thank you for coming, my friend,” Nikolai Alexandrovich Romanov, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, known to the world as Nicholas II, said as he stepped forward, closing the door behind him.

“I am, as always, at your service, my Tsar.”  Pulse slowing, he bowed slightly.  One catastrophe averted.  So why did he still feel as if there was more to this summons than the concern of parents for an ill child?  “The Tsarina was telling me that young Alexei is not feeling well.”

The moment the words were out of his mouth, Rasputin regretted them.  The Tsar’s expression went flat, almost empty.  But his eyes, those piercing blue orbs that seemed to look into one’s very soul, flashed coldly.

Fear churned in Rasputin’s stomach and a thin line of sweat rolled down his spine.  Had he come too late?  Was the Tsarevich dead?  He reached for the crucifix safely tucked into the breast pocket of his robes, his fingers tracing its heavy chain as he did.  God would not have betrayed him by letting young Alexei die.  It had been through His intervention Rasputin had first come to St. Petersburg and met those who eventually gave him his introduction to the royal family.  God would not abandon him now, would He?

“My Tsar?” Damn his voice for betraying his fear.

“Come.”

With that, Nicholas turned.  As he neared the door, it swung open.  Obviously, the guards on the other side had been listening for just that command.  The fear churning in Rasputin’s stomach turned into a tight knot.  He’d seen similar scenes before, scenes where the Tsar walked out and, as his companions followed, the guard seized them.  If they were lucky, they met a quick death….

Much as he wanted to, he couldn’t refuse to follow his tsar.  That would be disastrous.  All he could do was gather his confidence that God still had a plan for him and hold it close like a shield.  He had to walk that tightrope between arrogance and subjugation.  He’d walked that tightrope many times before without falling.  He could do so again.

He hoped.

He stepped past the guards, his fear building. They could so easily reach out and grab him..  Instead, one closed the door before once more taking up his post preventing anyone from disturbing the Tsarina without her leave.  The other fell into step behind and to one side of Rasputin, close enough to rush to the Tsar’s aid if necessary, but far enough away to give the appearance of at least some modicum of privacy.

For a man who barely stood five feet six inches tall, the Tsar moved along the corridors of the Winter Palace with a speed that never failed to surprise Rasputin.  From the back, Nicholas II looked like any other man one might meet on the street.  His brown hair, lightly sprinkled with silver, was cut short, as was the current fashion.  Broad shoulders and a narrow waist hinted at solid muscle.  Past his fortieth birthday, the Tsar still found time almost every day to exercise. Rasputin knew the solid muscle was the tsar’s way of making up for his lack of stature.  Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tried, Nicholas’ legs never attained the definition his upper body did.  As a result, the royal tailors carefully crafted the tsar’s suits so they enhanced his upper body without calling attention to the lack of muscular development of his legs.

It was this lack of stature that led so many to underestimate him.  Rasputin had once made that mistake, and he’d paid the price. He hadn’t believed the Tsar would listen to those who whispered their lies to him any more than he’d believed the Tsar would care about his activities away from the palace.  He’d been wrong and the Tsar had turned his back on him until Alexei’s condition worsened to the point he laid near death.  Only then had Nicholas allowed Rasputin back into their lives.

Rasputin learned his lesson that day.  As long as Alexei lived, so did he.  Once the Tsarevich died, unless he had managed to convince the Tsar – or, more likely, the Tsarina – of his importance in the continued viability of House Romanov, Rasputin was dead.

As they neared the Tsarevich’s rooms, relief washed over Rasputin even as he quickly reinforced his shields.  Reaching out, searching desperately like a starving man for food, was that part of Alexei that demanded magical energy to survive.  That meant he lived, at least for the moment.

The guard on duty outside the door, braced to attention at the tsar’s approach.  A moment later, the door swung open almost silently.  Nicholas nodded once, and stepped inside, waiting for Rasputin to join him.

When the door closed behind them, the Tsar crossed the room and pulled back the heavy curtains.  Sunlight flooded the room.  Across from the window, Alexei moaned in protest, writhing on the bed as if the sudden rush of light hurt him.  His right hand plucked at the sheet while his left arm, swollen and blackened as if horribly bruised, lay motionless at his side.

“Look at him!” Nicholas hissed, pointing at his son.  “Less than two months have passed since you found his last companion and this is what happens.  You swore the boy you brought would be strong enough to keep my son alive for months more.  Are you losing your ability to heal my son?”

Unable to resist, Rasputin did as told.  He looked at the Tsarevich and fear exploded.  Never had he seen the boy so close to death.  But why?  He’d made no mistake with the last boy he’d chosen as companion to Alexei.  That boy had possessed more of the old magic than any of the tsarevich’s previous companions.  It should have been enough to keep Alexei alive and healthy for months yet.

So what had gone wrong?  He wouldn’t know until he saw the boy – what was his name?  Georg something.  But that had to wait.  He had to help Alexei now, before it was too late for both of them.

“My Tsar, you son must feed now.”  He dropped to one knee beside the bed, his large hand brushing lightly across Alexei’s forehead.  The Tsarevich was feverish, a sure sign the curse was once more active.  “Can the other boy be brought to him?”

“Do you think you’d be here if that was possible?”

Rasputin recoiled under the scorn of the Tsar’s voice.  He obviously couldn’t rely upon using Georg to help Alexei.  Nor could he allow the Tsarevich to attempt to feed off of his father’s magical energy.  Not that it wasn’t tempting.  Unfortunately, there was only one course of action available, the one Rasputin had sworn never to use.  It was too dangerous, not to the Tsarevich but to himself.

Still, looking at the Tsar’s stone-like expression, he knew he had no choice.

“Alexei.”  He spoke softly, his right hand once more lightly brushing the boy’s brow.  His left hand freed the crucifix from his breast pocket and held it tightly, the one talisman he still believed in.  “Alexei, it will be all right.  I promise.”

God, you have favored me many times, I rely upon you to do so again.

Slowly, carefully, he lowered his shields.  Instantly, he felt Alexei reaching out, grabbing for his magic the way a starving man grabs for food.  There was an instant of panic as instinct demanded he save himself.  For a moment, there was an internal tug of war as self-preservation battled with the fear of being drained of all his magic and left nothing but a husk of what he had been.

All you have to do is control the flow.  Give him enough to survive until you can locate the boy from the cathedral.

Still, there was a danger.  If the Tsarevich took too much too quickly, he might not be able to sever the tie before it was too late.  But it was a chance he had to take.  The only other alternative was to let Alexei die, thereby signing his ours death warrant.

Slowly, leaning heavily against the bed, Rasputin climbed to his feet.  Despite the sun streaming into the room, he was cold, so very, very cold.  It was reaction.  He knew that.  If he didn’t soon find some place to lie down, he’d pass out.  But at least the Tsarevich no long thrashed about, held firm in the fever’s grip.  Even the arm that had looked so horribly bruised now appeared almost normal.  Good.  That was good.  It meant he’d managed to buy them both some time.

Hopefully, he’d be able  to identify and collect the boy he’d sensed at the cathedral before another crisis occurred.

“Thank you, my friend.”  The Tsar nodded and then moved to the door, speaking softly to the guard beyond.  “Stefan will see you to a room where you can rest.”

“Thank you.”  His hand trembled as he reached up to wipe the sweat from his brow.  “My Tsar, there is another, one with more of the old magic than I’ve seen in a very long time.  I sensed him at Smolny Cathedral recently, but I was unable to determine his identity.”

“We shall discuss it when you’re recovered.  Whatever you need, you will have.”  He paused as the guard entered.  “Take him to his room and then send for the healer.  Inform the healer I expect his report when he’s finished.”

With that, the Tsar moved to his son’s bed, carefully sitting on the edge of the mattress.  Knowing he’d been dismissed, Rasputin let the guard slide an arm around his waist and help him into the corridor.  He’d managed to survive to see another day.  Now all he had to do was locate the boy from the cathedral, before his luck finally ran out.

 

 

 

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