A year or so ago, Sarah A. Hoyt and Kate Paulk challenged me to write a historical fantasy. Now, I know some of you don’t see that as being all that hard. But you have to take into account the source of the challenge. Sarah has been known to put on her pointy boots and kick me in the butt to get me to write. Kate, on the other hand, can be down right evil in her attempt to assist Sarah in keeping my butt in chair and fingers on the keyboard. So any old historical fantasy just wasn’t going to do. Oh no, they had to choose something not only off the beaten path but also something, to quote Monty Python, “completely different”. The result was Russian Nights. It’s almost finished, but hasn’t been edited yet…so take that as fair warning.
Set in St. Petersburg, Russia in the months before the Russian Revolution, this is a world of intrigue, political machination and magic. Grigori Rasputin, the Mad Monk, is at the center of it all and knows his life depends on finding a way to save the life of the tsaravich. But in this world, young Alexei doesn’t suffer from hemophilia, although the world at large believes he suffers from the “curse of the royals”. No, magic is the source of his illness and the only means to save him. But to do so, others must be sacrificed. All for the good of Mother Russia — and, of course, Rasputin.
As with our own timeline, Rasputin is feared and despised and the royals mistrusted. Too many people, too many children have simply disappeared. The tsars cossacks have been too enthusiastic in quashing the protests and strikes. The pogroms have only stirred the troubled pot even more.
That should do as an intro…at least I hope it does. Kate and Sarah didn’t give me much more than that when they set me down this road. Now, with apologies to those who have already seen this, I give you the opening of Russian Nights.
* * * *
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 darkness that mimicked an early dusk. Snowflakes, larger than any he’d seen in a long while, danced in the wind and mocked 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. Of course it did. A little discomfort was small enough price to pay to avoid discovery. He’d 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. He wouldn’t.
No doubt about it. Winter here 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’d wanted the Russian capital to be 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 with moving this far north. Nor had he thought about how those coming after him would pay for his ambition.
Instead, he’d 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 hadn’t been enough. Not to build an entire city on marshlands. So many of those possessed of the old magic had been pressed into service. They had reshaped the land and the weather so construction of Peter’s showplace could proceed.
None of that mattered when all Grigori Yefimovich cared about was reaching his destination without catching his death of cold.
If only Peter I 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 unable to control 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 contemplations 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’d 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’d 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 Smolny 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 had envisioned the cathedral as 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.
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 look over his shoulder confirmed what he already knew. No one who might be passing could see him from the street.
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’d been there.
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 itself 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’d prayed that just this once he’d be able to slip in and out of the cathedral without the priests knowing he’d been there. Perhaps this was his test. If he managed, again, not to let them know 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 wouldn’t 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 his hat 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’d 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 a respectful servant, one not worthy to be interrupting 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 hadn’t realized 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? 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’d come to expect once more 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’d come to the cathedral, as he had on a number of other occasions, to make a selection. He would visit the boys he’d heard singing and take their measure. Then he’d choose from them 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’d saved the future tsar of all Mother Russia. The lucky one would become playmate and confidante to the Tsarevich. What an honor, 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 for something very unique to him. 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 had led in great part to the challenges now facing the Tsar.
But that would, if all went according to God’s plan, 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 senstives. 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’d 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 just like all the rest, all those who whispered their poisonous lies in the Tsar’s ear. Just like those who tried to diminish him in the eyes of the Tsarina. They’d succeeded once because he’d allowed himself to grow too sure of himself and of his place in the Royals’ lives. That carelessness had 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