Ten years felt like an eon in Soviet Russia.
Springs and summers were always fleeting, gone too soon like a genuine smile or hot, fresh bread. The icy fingers of a winter wind would caress the leathery necks of the populace as early as mid-September.
Every long winter was a war pitting man against hunger. In the frozen streets of St. Petersburg, where the air smelled of factory soot and lost hope, where the ash-gray of slush along uneven sidewalks seemed to always match the sky, hunger was victorious over the strongest of men.
The strongest of women, however, was another story indeed.
She had no memory of her life before she awakened and there was only gloom and filthy snow. The vague suggestions she had were slippery, oily things that constantly slid in and around each other, sometimes twisting and merging into something almost recognizable before they'd dance away again into the black clouds of her mind, mocking her.
For years, Anya had tried hard to forget the fact that she was trying to remember. It was easier to accept that hunger and cold and debilitating want was all there was. But that was over today.
"Pooka! Pooka, where are you?"
She stood for a few heartbeats, squinting into the darkness between the rotting wooden planks barring the doorway into a palace the size of a small town. The pristine courtyard stretching wide and white at her back seemed to be as large as the center of St. Petersberg itself. The world around her was silent as the grave as it held its breath, watching. Waiting.
Her fingers were numb now, but it didn't have much to do with the holes in her wool gloves. Anya couldn't name the catalyst that had sent her down this path. She didn't know what had happened to her. She had no idea what history had been snatched away from her. Up until this day, until this very moment, uncertainty had been in her every heartbeat, pumping in acidic cycles through her veins for as long as she could remember. Anya was a smart girl. She had learned how to survive on her own, and quickly. She also knew with crippling clarity that what she was about to do was the single stupidest act she'd ever committed in her life.
But it didn't matter. In the murkiness of that uncertainty, a chance meeting with a withered old woman at the train depot had made several things painfully clear:
One, the dreams that had haunted her for so long could never tell Anya who she was.
Two, her necklace - which she guarded with her life - was the only link to her "before". It had whispered "Together in Paris" in solid gold during the lonely nights of the orphanage, and that meant France was the key - to who she was, to everything.
Three, a man named Dimitri could get her there.
So here she was, damp and shivering, perched upon the precipice of the miserable existence she knew and ready to leap headfirst into a abyss of dangerous unknowns. She could be in the fishing village near the orphanage now, maybe huddled in front of the cozy fire of a local pub and gnawing on some boney fish bought with her day's wages from the fish factory. But this decision was more important than the hunger clawing at her stomach. The not knowing was eating her alive from the inside, slowly hollowing out her bones. If she stayed in St. Petersburg, there would be nothing left. She'd be an empty shell, a gray ghost of a woman with no hopes or dreams, one of the millions in the city who drift to work every morning in the smog. She would cast no shadow on life at all.
Anya bit at her wind-chapped lips, drawing a bit of blood in determination. She would die before she let that happen. If there was any chance of learning something - anything - about where she came from, it was here, contained within these dilapidated walls.
That was it, then. In the likelihood Dimitri wasn't here - and she had to admit, it was a long shot, anyway - it was still as safe a place as any. There was bound to be something like old sheets or coats unfit for wear that she and her misfit pup could bundle up in to keep an arctic death at bay until morning. And if Dimitri was here and couldn't help her, she would just have to help herself.
It was now or never.