Note: Let this horrific 14-month gap in updates serve as a lesson to you all: don't start posting a story when you don't know how it ends. Many thanks to Esoteric24 for the beta. ;)
"Sins cannot be undone, only forgiven."
- Igor Stravinsky
"Strange, isn't it?"
Anastasia starts; she wasn't expecting her sister to return for another hour yet. Nevertheless, she puts on a sly half-grin as she turns, hiding the letter in the folds of her skirt. "Mm. We'll have ever so much space now, we shan't know how to fill it."
Olga laughs and comes further into the room she's always shared with Tatiana. Tatya's side is intact, but Olga's half has been quite dismantled. Photographs, paintings, letters, ribbons, perfume, poetry books, rocks from the beach at Livadia – childhood relics, boxed up and whisked away, ready to be shipped to her new home in Britain. The camp bed remains, as does the great mass of icons above it.
"They shan't know," her oldest sister corrects. "You are also leaving, my Nastya."
The thought stabs into her stomach, but she tosses her hair and says airily, "Oh, not for months yet. Time enough to rearrange the furniture."
That earns an imperial scoff from Olga, who sits on her bed and begins unfastening the wimple of her nurse's uniform.
Anastasia leans back and peers through the door that connects the Big Pair's room to the one she shares with Marie. No one about. Brilliant. Except… it would have been much easier to leave the letter and be finished with it. "How are the soldiers?" she asks, deliberately stalling and cursing herself for that.
Olga sighs, her lovely face settling into sad lines. She finishes removing her wimple and holds it in her lap, smoothing the white cloth. "They organized a farewell celebration for me today. I nearly cried. Those poor brave boys."
Anastasia smirks. Olga is forever falling in love with soldiers. Hopeless romances, all of them, from Pavel to Mitya and every poor, brave boy since: no common soldier can marry an Imperial Grand Duchess. Certifying as a war nurse, in addition to aiding Russia, gave Olga infinitely more opportunities to trade meaningful glances and quiet, star-crossed sighs.
Mama quit the hospital as soon as peace was declared, but Olga and Tatiana go several times a week. Olga's latest is a lieutenant, or perhaps it's a major. Anastasia has quite forgot his name.
"I'm certain they will miss your tender care," she says, waggling her eyebrows.
It's meant as a jest, but Olga stiffens, her hands clenching around the wimple. "Don't be cruel!" she says fiercely, eyes blazing. "You haven't any idea –!"
"No," Anastasia says. She lets the bitterness show: "I suppose I never will, either."
Olga glares at her for another moment, then subsides. She presses her hands to her face. Smoothes her pinned-up hair. Looks at the icons still hanging above her bed. Looks at Anastasia.
"How are you coming in your lessons?" she asks, tired now. They both have been deluged in lessons about their new religions; Olga is to become an Anglican, and Anastasia, a Catholic. For Anastasia, there is also the utter delight of instruction in her new language. English, Russian, and French will only take her so far in a German-speaking court.
"Well enough." Anastasia fingers the letter. It would be comical, how much time she now spends with her nose in a book – she, the champion shirker! – except there is nothing amusing in her current situation. "Father Drechsler says I'll be perfectly ready for confirmation. And," she adds, "Herr Oberst is elated with my accent."
She does not mention her studies of life threads and wayward Scots girls.
"I want to hear," Olga says, forcing a smile. "Say something."
"Auf Wiedersehen, meine Schwester."
Olga's smile fades. She regards Anastasia in all seriousness. "You know why we must do this," she says, reminding and rebuking simultaneously.
Anastasia sits on Tatya's bed, directly across from Olga. "Of course I do. My dear fiancé's family are past masters at the game. Tu felix Austria, nube – ha!"
"Russia will be safe from attack by any of the Clanker nations," her eldest sister says, primly echoing the lesson for a nonexistent tutor, "while Papa secures his throne with the weight of the British Empire."
Anastasia leans back on her hands. "It's a clever scheme."
Olga gives her a look. "Nastya."
"It is," she says. "Frightfully cruel, but clever."
Olga's patience has never been strong; these days it is as brittle as ice in spring. "That's a childish thing to say!"
Anastasia sticks her tongue out. Olga flings the wimple at her. She ducks sideways, though it isn't necessary, as the cloth falls short. She snatches it from the floor and flings it back. "Childish, is it!"
Olga stands with a huff, throwing the wimple onto the bed behind her. "I don't want to quarrel with you!" she exclaims, visibly torn between anger and distress. "Shvybzik! Who knows when I shall see you again, after I leave!"
"At least you shall have Mama's family with you," Anastasia says, standing as well. She puts her hands on her hips, then bites her lip and crosses her arms over her chest instead. "I won't – I won't have anyone."
Just a husband who's madly in love with someone else, and a plan that might destroy two empires.
Olga makes a pained noise and sweeps her into a hug, resting her chin atop Anastasia's head like a mother hen tucking its young beneath one wing. "I'll visit," she says fervently. "As soon as I am able, as often as I am able. Oh, Nastya, you know this isn't what any of us wanted."
Anastasia nods against her sister's collarbone. The letter is lying abandoned on Tatya's bed, but its contents are seared into her heart. "Olga. Will you make me another promise?"
Olga stiffens slightly; her voice is wary. "What is it?"
Anastasia pulls away, though she remains within the circle of Olga's arms. "Don't give him children."
This time the noise is one of dismay. Impatience. You are still acting like a child, it says. When will you grow up, Little One? As though Olga hadn't stormed and raged for weeks when Papa announced she would go to Britain.
Olga frowns prettily. "David is the crown prince. There isn't any reason to marry except to provide him an heir."
Anastasia isn't pretty when she frowns. Flatly, she says, "And our life threads carry hemophilia."
She steps back from her sister. "It's a poison."
Olga closes her eyes for several heartbeats. They are both remembering Baby, crying in pain for hours on end, too exhausted by his agony to rest. "I know what it is," she says, almost inaudible.
Desperation claws at Anastasia's chest, hot and overwhelming. "Promise me, Olishka."
Her eldest sister looks at her, eyes bright with unshed tears, searching for something. Then she turns her face away.
Even before she speaks, Anastasia knows the words that are coming.
"There are no laws there," Olga says quietly, "to keep daughters from the throne."
It's cold in the chapel. Anastasia's breath shows white, temporarily clouding her view of the crucifix beyond the altar. She draws the edges of her dressing gown's sleeves over her fingers and clasps her hands in her lap, trying to keep what warmth she might.
There are prayers she could be saying, ought to be saying, but her mind has gone blank.
No. If only her mind was blank. The truth is, her mind has fixated on the worst moment of her life. When she looks through the fog of her breath, she does not see her Lord and Savior on the cross. She sees her brother –
- dear Aloysha -
She sees him lying in his bed, his skin so horribly pale, dark smudges sinking his eyes, but his face at last peaceful. Gone – at last – to a place where pain cannot find him. Martyred.
Her fingers tighten, and the telegraph paper crinkles.
Something hot traces down her face.
There's a sound behind her – not the ordinary creaks of nighttime Konopischt, and far too large to belong to vermin. Rodents aren't at all intimidated by emperors.
She sniffs and reaches up with one hand to discreetly wipe away the tear. She never cries. She loathes crying. "I was just thinking of you," she says to the intruder.
Deryn comes into the chapel, boots scuffing on the stone floor. She's wearing a dressing gown, too, and beneath that, men's pyjama pants and a nightshirt. It ought to look ridiculous. Instead, Anastasia finds herself wishing she had the freedom to imitate her.
"Of me? Not bloody likely," Deryn says.
"Well," Anastasia says, "I suppose you would make for a very large mouse."
Deryn snorts: a pale cloud of disdain. She nods at the altar and lowers herself to the pew beside Anastasia. Lowers, where a few months before she would have thumped down without thinking twice.
Deryn's tall, slender frame has proven unexpectedly good at disguising pregnancy as well as gender. Only recently, as they come to the end, has she begun to show. For her part, Anastasia's false and quite prominent belly has been achieved via clever padding and an unabashed love of chocolate.
Paper crinkles in her hands again, and Anastasia forces herself to keep the mask in place. "What are you doing awake?"
The other girl shrugs and rests a fond hand on her rounded abdomen. "The wee devil decided kicking me in the liver was more fun than sleeping."
Anastasia lets herself look, and imagine what it would be like… but no. An impossible dream, and one best locked away again.
"I thought if I was to be awake at sodding three o'clock in the morning, I might as well see what was left in the kitchen." Deryn fishes around in her dressing-gown pocket and produces a cloth napkin. Unfolded, it reveals a large piece of pastry. "D'you want some?"
Anastasia's stomach curls unpleasantly. "No, thank you."
Deryn shrugs again and takes a bite. "Why are you awake?"
Anastasia plays with the slip of paper for a long moment, staring at the crucifix. "You're not Catholic."
Deryn speaks with her mouth full: "Not a whit."
Another reason why Aleksandar, descended of Holy Roman Emperors, had faced opposition to the match. Common, foreign, Darwinist, Protestant. After all of that, the trousers and swearing hardly mattered.
Anastasia mimics the other girl's accent: "Church of Scotland, aye?"
A careless swallow. "Aye, the Kirk. But I haven't been in ages."
"Mama was Lutheran. She had to convert to marry Papa." Anastasia draws a breath. "She told me it was no sin to take on my husband's faith. And as I hadn't any choice in the matter, I did."
Deryn lays the empty napkin aside and regards her – with sympathy.
Anastasia forces her fingers to open around the crumpled telegraph. Offers it up for the other girl to see.
Deryn takes the scrap of paper and holds it close to her face in the dim chapel light. The candles are failing to illuminate so many things tonight.
She frowns. "This is from London. Someone's ill?"
Anastasia closes her eyes. "Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales."
"Your sister?" Deryn's surprise is audible. "She's on a sightseeing holiday. Balmoral Castle?"
Anastasia shakes her head. Her voice is strange to her own ears: "She has a fever – an infection, really. The doctors called it 'septicemia'. None of the medicines have worked. By now…"
The unfinished thought hangs in the chapel, dark and heavy as the angel of death.
"Mama is hysterical," Anastasia says, still flat. She can feel something immense cracking and shifting around her, inside her, like an ice flow breaking up when it's drifted too far south. "She's on her way to Britain this instant."
Deryn is staring at her. "Barking spiders."
"It's for the best, I suppose," Anastasia says, dropping her eyes to her lap. "Now Mama will be in Britain until this –" she gestures at Deryn's abdomen "- is well over. And Olga… Olga will be…"
And she can no longer hold back the tears. They come in a great, ragged flood that doubles her over, crying as she has not cried in years.
By St. Andrew, she loathes crying.
She presses her hands over her eyes, trying to force a stop to it, but Deryn chooses that moment to lay a hand on her shoulder, hesitant and then more firm.
"It's all right, then," she murmurs. "Have a good cry."
The madness of it – of this girl comforting her, when in another month Anastasia will be stealing her child and sending her into exile – stabs a bright needle of shame into her aching heart. This is a mercy that Anastasia does not deserve.
She finds that this time, she cannot fight the tears down.
Deryn continues to sit beside her, rubbing warm circles on her back and murmuring Scottish nonsense. She would, Anastasia thinks, be a brilliant mother.
And what a horror that Deryn will never be any sort of mother at all.
Between one thing and another, it's a long eternity before Anastasia pulls herself together, though there shall be no salvaging of her dignity. She wipes at her damp cheeks and sniffs hard, several times, wishing she'd thought to bring a handkerchief.
"Here," Deryn says. She holds out the cloth napkin. It's full of pastry crumbs and a sticky smear of what might be jam.
"Thank you," Anastasia says, voice small and unsteady and terribly un-imperial. She wipes her face, blows her nose, folds the napkin, and lays it on the wooden pew beside her.
Deryn shifts positions, awkwardly stretching her boots out as far as the baby and the pews will allow. "Blisters, it's no trouble. I hate crying."
"Something else we have in common, I suppose."
The other girl lifts an eyebrow.
Anastasia matches the expression, though her red, tear-swollen face undoubtedly falls short. "Stubbornness being the chief similarity."
"True enough." Deryn looks up at the painted ceiling and exhales in a white puff. "We're both terrible at doing what our mothers think we ought to."
Anastasia studies her posture and slouches down, matching it. It's not uncomfortable. "How are you at climbing trees?"
One hand smoothes over that curving abdomen. "I was aces at it."
"Mm. So was I." Deryn's eyebrow goes up again, this time in surprise, and Anastasia manages a small smile. "Years ago, of course. I couldn't do it now. Whenever my tutors made me cross, or gave me too much work, up I went…! Then I would refuse to climb down until someone fetched Papa. 'Nastya, come down this instant!' Order of the czar only. It was a silly game."
The tutors had not appreciated it, which made it even more delightful.
"My da taught me," Deryn says. She glances at the altar, then returns her attention to the ceiling. Her face is sad; not dramatically so, but quietly. An old wound, scarred, that still pains her when the weather turns.
A new wound gapes wide and ragged in Anastasia's chest. For a moment, reminded of the injury, she struggles to breathe around it. "I wish Papa were here now. I wish –"
I wish I'd never left Russia.
I wish Aloysha was alive; I wish Olishka was whole and well.
I wish all of our sins could be forgiven.
Deryn says nothing, but it isn't necessary. They sit in silence for a great while. If Anastasia closes her eyes, she can almost imagine herself back in the Alexander Palace, sitting in the window with Mashka on a cold winter night.
It will never be like that in the future. She sees that clearly now. Her childhood was an fairy enchantment, shattered by the realities of the world. Geography and politics have divided the four of them, O-T-M-A, who were once inseparable, and each step on their individual roads only takes them farther apart. They cannot draw together again, except in God's holy kingdom.
"I tried to make her promise," Anastasia says, breaking the silence. "I had hoped I could make her swear against trying for children. She refused, and I thought, oh, how monstrous you are, condemning your children and grandchildren. But the path I've come down – Deryn, forgive me, please, if such a thing is possible. I should not have asked you. I should never have asked –"
The other girl is shaking her head. "D'you know what would become of him, back in Glasgow? Ma would never turn us out, but the sods not spitting on me for being a whore would be spitting on him for being a bastard – as if he had any help in it. It'd be a fight, every day. No. I won't have him go through that, if I can have him be a prince instead."
"He is a prince." Deryn frowns, and Anastasia flushes. It sounds positively daft when she says it aloud: "You see – I've always thought – that you and Aleksandar were married long ago. In the eyes of Our Lord at least."
"Oh," Deryn says, taken aback. Then she smirks. "I reckon that makes you the other woman, then, aye?"
Anastasia thinks of her disastrous wedding night and pulls a face. "And quite a disappointing mistress I am, too."
Deryn starts suddenly, and curses – completely oblivious to the onlooking Christ. Her hands go to her stomach. "At it again, the wee fiend. Why aren't you sleeping in there? Heard us talking about you?"
"I expect he's going to be just as much trouble as his mother."
Deryn grins, though it fades. "Aye, or his da."
Anastasia laces her hands over her own stomach. "Both, perhaps."
Deryn jumps again, and laughs at herself. She reaches over and grabs Anastasia's hand, bringing it to the curve of her abdomen. "He's showing off. Here, have a feel."
Outside of some dimly-remembered moments when Mama was carrying Aloysha, Anastasia has never had the fortune – if one might call it that – to press her hand to a pregnant woman's belly. She finds it uncomfortably intimate.
And then the baby kicks.
Anastasia makes a small noise of surprise and nearly jerks her hand away. She doesn't, and the baby kicks several more times in quick succession. "Goodness," she says, smiling like a fool. "Quite the hooligan."
Deryn smirks. "Maybe he's Russian after all, then."
Anastasia laughs. For some reason, it brings back the tears – easy tears this time, gentle and soft. She wipes them away and gives Deryn a watery smile. "I don't know if we can be friends. But… do you think… we could be sisters?"
Deryn looks at her for a long while, then grabs her hand again and squeezes. "Aye," she says firmly, and that simple word has all the force of a holy vow.
"You're attending the opera tonight," Anastasia informs her husband over tea.
Aleksandar, caught mid-sip, grimaces before he swallows and sets his teacup down. Their afternoon tea is strictly family: no servants, no guests. A small ritual which gives them a chance to relax – and scheme. He gives her a dark look across the small table. "I hadn't forgot."
Anastasia ignores him in favor of feeding Sasha a bit of dried meat. The fabricated miniature bear plumps down on its hindquarters and begins to chew noisily. Silly thing. "It's Götterdämmerung. The Court Opera always does a marvelous job with Wagner, don't you think?"
"It's not their performance that I object to," Aleksandar says drily. "Rather, it's the one that I shall be giving."
"Rita is a lovely girl," Anastasia says. She wipes her fingers on the skirt of her dress and picks up her camera. Four-month-old Maksim, asleep in his bassinet, looks as though he's dreaming of something grand, and she has the sudden urge to snap a photograph for his mother.
She's taken so many photographs of the dear sweet boy. It isn't a trouble; she loves to watch him, loves when he smiles at her, loves when he drools all over her shoulder and gums her fingers. He's brilliant. She could happily pass an entire day doing nothing more than dandling him on her knee.
Thou shalt not covet – but she does. Oh, she does. The greatest difficulty, when it comes to Crown Prince Maximilian, Archduke of Austria-Este, is remembering that he belongs to another. That her joy comes from someone else's pain.
Half the court finds her preoccupation with the prince to be vulgar, common, beneath an empress – and the other half finds it a mark of motherly virtue and commends her for it. The newspapers are equally divided, though everyone seems to agree that she did the right thing in hiring a wet nurse.
Except Mama, of course. Mama has scolded her in every letter. At length.
"I don't know why you dislike her company," she adds as she adjusts the camera's aperture.
Aleksandar arches an eyebrow, a small smirk playing at the edges of his mouth. "I can't imagine why, either."
"Bah," she says, echoing Volger. The whir and click of the lens doesn't cause Maksim to stir at all. "Rest assured, she's playing a role as well."
Miss Rita Dahl, Viennese stage actress and determined gold-digger, believes her role is that of the emperor's darling – the bright, glittering star who's caught his attention, who is too beautiful to resist, who need only flutter her eyelashes to bend the most powerful man in Austria-Hungary to her will.
Anastasia picked the girl out herself. She's enjoyed every moment since.
Aleksandar, however, has not.
"Comforting," he says now. "I should hate to think she bears actual affection for me."
Anastasia grins at him sidelong. "So tart today, Your Majesty."
His stern look gives way to a half-smile. He chuckles and picks up his tea again, returning his attention to the sheaf of official papers by his plate, and Anastasia takes his picture before he can notice.
He looks tired, she thinks. He adores Maksim, delights in him as she does, but there's been sadness etched around his eyes since the night of the prince's birth. Pretending to be besotted with Rita has been a burden, not a distraction, and Anastasia suspects he's only keeping up the charade to humor his Empress Consort. Or to humor the viper pit of the court.
After all, it's either a publically loveless marriage, or share the same bed – and neither of them have any desire for the latter.
It isn't a terrible marriage. Far better than she'd hoped, in fact. Aleksandar is unfailingly respectful to his wife, giving Anastasia her every due and insisting that the members of his court follow suit when they balk at honoring a Russian. The two of them have similar ideas about raising an Imperial Crown Prince who isn't spoiled beyond measure, and the importance of establishing a private family life, isolated from the outside world. They both dislike the pomp and formality of state occasions. They both enjoy films more than opera and theater, and he has promised to teach her how to pilot a walker.
And they both labor under the living ghost of Deryn Sharp.
Theirs is an odd friendship, to be sure, but it's real and Anastasia treasures it.
"It won't be much longer," she says.
She replaces the camera on the table. "You'll have to discard Rita soon."
"Thank God for small mercies," he says, dry again. Maksim stirs in his bassinet, screwing up his face and making a small noise of protest, and Aleksandar rises at once. He crosses to the bassinet and has Maksim in his arms before Anastasia can do the same. "Awake again. Guten Tag, mein Schatz."
Maksim's brow furrows. His wide blue eyes fix on Aleksandar's face before drifting elsewhere. One small, fat hand bobs in the air, and he makes a protesting noise once more.
Aleksandar grins at his son. "Indeed! No doubt you are hungry, just like – " he glances at Anastasia "- your mother."
"I'll ring for Mrs. Weiss," she says, pretending not to feel the sting in her heart. She pushes back her chair, sending Sasha snuffling away under the table, and gives the old-fashioned bell-pull on the wall a firm tug.
"Here." Aleksandar kisses Maksim's cheek and passes the baby to her. "I shall have to leave anyway – apparently, I must attend the opera tonight, and there is a rather large stack of documents awaiting my attention first."
Anastasia, her arms full of warm, solid baby, coos at the scrunched-up face. "Wonderful!" she says to her husband. "I had a necklace delivered to Miss Dahl this morning, on your behalf. Small diamonds only, low quality. She should have had it appraised by now. I expect she'll be upset."
There's a brief rap on the door and Mrs. Weiss is shown in. The wet nurse curtsies and gathers Maksim from Anastasia's arms – though not before Anastasia kisses his soft sweet forehead.
"Thank you, my dear," Aleksandar says to Anastasia, in a passable imitation of gratitude. "I have a gift for you, as well."
There's a subtle glint in his eyes that puts her rather in mind of Deryn – or her own reflection. "Oh?" she asks, airy and careless.
The glint becomes unmistakable. "I've kept the negotiations a secret, to surprise you. But within the month, Austria-Hungary will be receiving her Imperial Majesty Alexandra Feodorovna."
"That's lovely," Anastasia says, in a passable imitation of pleasure. "Thank you ever so much."
Aleksandar nods at Mrs. Weiss, then graciously holds the door for the woman before departing himself.
Anastasia sits again and picks up a biscuit, eating it while she thinks. She posted the package yesterday… if there's no disruption in the mail service… and then passage from Glasgow to Vienna… by airship, no doubt…
Sasha waddles over and looks up at her imploringly.
"Within the month," she says, tossing the bear a piece of meat, "we should have another visitor. 'A gift for you, as well' – ha!"
"Yes, I know," Anastasia says. She can't resist a cackle. "This should be quite exciting indeed."
Note: Shvybzik, "imp" or "devil," was one of Anastasia's nicknames. Her mother, Alexandra, drew widespread criticism for breastfeeding OTMA and Alexei. Visitors complained that all she ever wanted to talk about was her husband and kids - she was a "helicopter mom," sometimes suffocatingly so.
Miss Dahl is my invention. The figurative meaning of "gold digger" was first seen in print in 1915.
Paul I, Catherine the Great's son, passed the Pauline Laws, which forbid women from taking the Russian throne as queens regnant. It was a petty revenge against his awesome mom… and, one hundred years later, left Nicholas II fairly screwed.
Then-Prince of Wales Edward, called David within the family, was considered as a match for Olga, though none of the Romanovs seem to have been in favor of it. Edward, much to the benefit of history, was probably sterile.
Alexei's remains were discovered in 2007 alongside those of one of his sisters, finally reuniting the entire family. (Everyone else was recovered in 1992.) DNA tests have shown that he suffered from Hemophilia B.