Despite the Russian cold outside, I found my current surroundings both warm and opulent. I’d handed off my heavy greatcoat to a servant over an hour prior. Despite that, I soon found myself prying at the stiff collar of my uniform jacket as I began to overheat. My auburn hair lay in a heavy braid down my back, my captain’s uniform impeccably tailored. It had taken weeks to find a tailor that could make a woman’s version of the Special Courier Service uniform. Apparently, the situation did not come up very often. Dignitaries and ambassadors in formal attire mulled about the Winter Palace, greeting each other, exchanging pleasantries, or simply marveling at the décor. Blinding white marble floors, polished to a mirror sheen, stretched across the massive entry hall. A split staircase curled upwards to either wing, deep crimson carpet cascading from above to muffle the steps of the descending nobility. Intricate gold inlay swirled and stretched like a persistent vine across wall and furnishing alike. Startlingly large fires crackled and snapped within two fireplaces big enough to fit a tank, set to either side of the room.
“A waste of time and resources!” The man near me blustered. He was rotund, barrel chested and small in the legs. A bushy white mustache stretched down from his muttonchops in one long, continuous line from temple to temple. His eyebrows, equal in volume to his mustache, gesticulated wildly as he complained. His uniform identified him as a British staff colonel. The bright red contrasted ridiculously with his pale skin. Any combat he’d seen personally would have involved muskets and firing lines. “I’ve not even heard of this courier service, and I do not see why I should have to entertain these two common rifle carriers.”
“Military command insists, Colonel Rathbone. Captain Masters has proven herself many times.” A second man placated the first. Smaller, he wore a civilian three-piece suit. The smartly dressed man served as deputy ambassador for Britain, one Henry Walt. He handled all our arrangements in Russia.
“It’s downright disgraceful that his Majesty’s military would name a woman to the rank of captain.” Colonel Rathbone fumed and fussed, his beady eyes smoldering down at me. “Why, I bet she would turn tail and run at the first sound of gunfire.”
My partner, Lieutenant Wesley Hartley, winced in response to the tirade. I knew the cause of the wince – not Colonel Rathbone’s words, but my anticipated response. I smiled. A slow, languid process that curled my lips at either end, ensuring the humor never reached my eyes.
“It’s hard to run when you’re surrounded, Colonel,” I said, smoothing an errant strand of hair back behind my ear. “I chose to hold the line at Fort Vaux instead. You get used to the gunfire easily enough. Tell me, have you ever heard the hiss of a Kraut flamethrower?”
“You hold your tongue!” The Colonel growled in a low voice. He leaned towards me menacingly. I flashed my teeth and held my ground, grinning up at him. Wes fidgeted beside me, looking imploringly to Mr. Walt. The deputy ambassador cleared his throat loudly and acted as if he planned to get between the two of us. Providence diffused the situation, as a servant announced in a booming voice from the bottom of the stairwell.
“Daughter of Tsar Nicholas II, the Grand Duchess Tatiana Nikolaevna!” The room fell instantly silent as our host for the evening arrived. Roughly as tall as myself, she dressed in a cream-colored gown that trailed along behind her as she descended the stairs. Her practiced poise and a noble presence combined with fine features and a polite smile to give a breathtakingly beautiful impression. A white fur stole wrapped about the back of her neck and under either arm. Jewelry of a variety of shapes and colors all complimented her outfit perfectly. Her dark auburn hair stood in an impressive array of whorls and pins behind an understated tiara inlaid with a single sapphire. The sight of her had apparently had a similar effect on the Colonel as it had me; we both forgot our clash in the wake of her entrance. Mr. Walt and Wes wisely ushered me away from the officer, and I chose not to argue. We found a spot beside a bust of a Russian leader that I couldn’t immediately identify.
“Captain, you must be on your absolute best behavior here.” Mr. Walt insisted. I gave a sidelong glance to the Colonel. I must have made a face because the deputy ambassador quickly waved his hand in dismissal. “Not him, with the Grand Duchess. You are here because we have reason to believe there are threats to the Imperial family.”
“And you think that my skills in particular would be helpful for that?” I asked, unable to hide the slight confusion in my voice. He shook his head.
“The Tsar is quite militaristic, and he insisted that his daughters learn to live a camp life. Tatiana and her sisters serve as field nurses on occasion.” Mr. Walt explained. Realization dawned on me.
“You expect me to guard the Grand Duchess?” I laughed in disbelief. As the weight of the realization dawned on me, I gulped. “I’ve never talked to nobility before, in any way, shape or form.”
“I suspect that I am here to handle that particular side of the mission.” Wes piped in. “I have some experience with it, although not on a scale nearly similar.”
“The Grand Duchess will not be a problem,” Mr. Walt insisted quickly, “She is not so stuck on pomp and circumstance, you only need to survive her various retainers tonight.”
“You might avoid antagonizing the Russian military officers in the same way that you’ve set yourself against the Colonel,” Wes chided, “They may not have nearly so much patience.”
I swallowed heavily again, feeling far outside of my scope of expertise. Mr. Walt disappeared back into the crowd and left me alone with Wes on the periphery of the assembly.
“This is not going to go well,” I murmured.
“Do I hear a lack of confidence from Captain Chance Masters?” Wes asked, clearly amused. He adjusted the jacket of his uniform and smirked, adding; “I never thought I would see the day.”
I bristled and pursed my lips.
“I wasn’t chosen because of my social expertise, you know. I barely use a fork at all, let alone a half dozen of them.”
“It’s just as well, they won’t be serving hardtack and salted meat.” Wes said, grinning. I was torn between annoyance and being thankful at his diffusing of my growing nervousness.
“How am I even supposed to address a Grand Duchess?” I asked, “Your majesty? Ma’am? Lady?”
“I would suggest just referring to her as Grand Duchess, when you have to at all.” Wes answered, pondering the question. “You’re American. They are not going to expect much in the way of formal etiquette.”
“I feel like I should be insulted,” I began, following with, “But I choose to use that as a point of pride.”
“Also, typically American,” Wes lamented, before his eyes went slightly wide. He stepped away and to the side, but not before gesturing over my shoulder with a quick jerk of his chin. I turned to check what he had seen and suddenly found myself face to face with the Grand Duchess. The gaze of the crowd fell upon the two of us, with most seeing me for the first time. Dozens of critical, judging eyes sparkled as officials from countries across Europe all calculated my worth.
“Captain Masters, I presume?” The Grand Duchess’ voice was warm and confident, more pleasant than I had expected. She spoke excellent English and I could hear only the ghost of an accent. This close, I could see that her eyes were a shocking blue, like the polished gem in her tiara.
“Yes, ma’am,” I gaped once, having instantly reverted to normal pleasantries, before continuing with what I believed was a smooth transition, “Captain Eve Masters, but most refer to me as Chance.”
Wes didn’t move, but the expression on his face suggested that he would have slapped his palm to his forehead if he could have done so discreetly. I noticed a few disapproving stares from the ministers flanking the Grand Duchess. The woman herself went from politely smiling to absolutely beaming in an instant.
“Chance, such a unique nickname!” She exclaimed, “It’s true then, Americans are so informal. Only when I am tending to the injured do I get to stave off the stifling formality of courtly life.”
She tittered, a soft, melodious sound, and reached to light her hand upon my arm.
“I’ve heard you were a nurse first, before becoming a soldier. You must tell me all about it. I find it fascinating! A woman captain,” She finally paused long enough for me to respond, and I gave a quick glance to Mr. Walt. He seemed pleased and nodded for me to continue.
“At Fort Vaux, ma’am. They didn’t much care who held a rifle, so long it was pointed at the Huns and stopping their advance.” I explained.
“Ah, yes, of course! I have heard oh so much about it all. Fort Vaux was the carrier pigeon fortress!” She was leading me through the crowd, lacing between men and women that looked on at me jealously. I tried to focus on the Grand Duchess’ words over the growing stare. “And now you are here, in my Russia. So, let us give you the welcome you deserve. You will sit next to me tonight at the dinner. I want to have someone that will not talk to me about politics or my father.”
The Grand Duchess artfully avoided potential traps in conversations with the old men of the gathering, apologizing that her father was not available. We slowly caroused our way across the entry hall to the dining room, where we sat at a massive oak table. I could see an irate Colonel Rathbone in the distance, his face nearly purple as he spoke quickly and quietly to Mr. Walt. The ambassador sat beside him. I could easily guess the subject of the tirade. Wes sat on Mr. Walt’s opposite side, pointedly avoiding getting involved.
Tatiana and I spoke at length on being field nurses, living at the front and her fascination with my rise through the ranks. I explained to her that the courier service was not your average outfit, but it didn’t seem to dampen her impression. Our conversation rapidly lost any semblance of formality, and she insisted on my calling her Tatiana within a matter of minutes. A polite, low din had risen in the dining room. A soft hum of conversation floated through the room, much like the mouth-watering scent of the food being prepared nearby.
A tall, hooded figure entered the hall and the conversation ground to a halt. I could see little of his face, save for a scraggly beard projecting from below the dark hood. Everyone in the room seemed transfixed, their heads coming up and tilting to focus on the cloaked man. The unison felt suspicious. Tatiana leaned over to whisper in my ear.
“Grigori Rasputin, a wonderful man and a superb faith healer. He has done more for my young brother than any doctor could ever hope to accomplish. Only Rasputin can stop his terrible illness. My mother adores him, and father is fond as well.” I nodded but found the silence of the dining hall disconcerting.
“Gentlemen,’ Rasputin’s voice was deep, pleasant, and unexpected. I had assumed, given his frame and condition, that his voice would be like the sound of dry gears and grinding sand. “It is nice to see such cooperation between nations. This war had begun to convince me it was not possible.”
His smile was craggy, unpleasant, and short lived. I scanned the crowd for a negative reaction, but everyone seemed enraptured by the man. That is, save for a single dark-haired man across the table from myself. A Dutch emissary if I recalled correctly. He looked around in confusion, until our eyes caught one another. I looked pointedly at Rasputin, raising an eyebrow as I turned back to face the Dutchman. He gave a slow nod, crossing his fingertips together in front of his face. I turned back to Rasputin, feeling as if a heavy, thick mist surrounded my mind.
“Still, we must continue to fight for our Motherland. I hope that you will all find it in your best interest to aide us,” Rasputin continued, and I suddenly felt as if his words showed unexpected wisdom. My mind rejected this suggestion. I narrowed my eyes and felt the mist clear. I clenched my hand, digging my fingernails into my palm. The pain helped to clear my thoughts. Rasputin circled around to stand behind Tatiana, forcing me to turn in my chair to see him. At this distance, his presence felt overwhelming - cloying but no longer persuasive. Whatever the man used to affect the others lost any hold on me.
“The Czar’s presence at the front is sure to bolster the morale of the troops, give it time.” He droned causing me to quirk an eyebrow. The Russian front was a mess and it was a well-known fact that the Czar’s micromanaging contributed to their deteriorating positions. I opened my mouth, which instantly drew the monk’s attention.
“Isn’t it dangerous for a head of state to lead from the front in this day and age?” I questioned. The room erupted instantly with angry chattering, shouted insults, and ire. I snapped my head back around to view the crowd. Even Wes gave me a disapproving look. Mr. Walt frowned, and Colonel Rathbone practically foamed in anger. Tatiana herself looked at me curiously, as if I had done something remarkably unexpected. Rasputin stared at me silently for precious seconds, before reaching out to lay a hand on my shoulder. It took every fiber of my being to not recoil in disgust, staring up at him with the full force of my own will. Nothing supernatural impacted our battle of wills now, but it was clear that the man was gauging me.
Finally, Rasputin gave a smile that showed no humor. His lips curled up, his teeth bared, and he spoke.
“Clever for a young girl, but you have no need to worry. The Czar will not fall to the Germans,” He removed his hand, much to my relief, and shuffled off to his seat opposite myself - on Tatiana’s right. Rasputin’s statement placated the crowd, but I noticed quite a few stares. The Grand Duchess had warmed to me once again, her doubt evaporating readily. Yet, I spent the dinner uneasy.
Once the evening had concluded, I rose from my seat and excused myself. The crush of people attempting to leave prevented me from immediately reuniting with the British contingent, so I lingered near the wall. I crossed my arms over my chest, one ankle over the other and tried to ignore the stares of a dozen men I had never met. I had made a name for myself in Russia quickly, or so it seemed, and whether that was beneficial or not remained to be seen.
“You even stand like a man,” A voice to my left said simply. I turned to see the Dutchman that had resisted Rasputin.
“Not a good start to the conversation,” I snapped, “You felt the same thing I did.”
“Like I had drank to excess, and that monk was the only person in the room I could focus on?” The man whispered, leaning against the wall next to me.
“You don’t want to hear about the only time I was drunk, but yes, that sounds about right,” I murmured.
“Cale Meijin, Dutch Envoy, formerly of the Legion.” He began, “Currently employed as a spokenjager.”
“Unless you want to wait until my partner arrives, you’ll need to clarify in English.” I felt testy and the spot where Rasputin had touched my shoulder crawled.
“It’s not so easy to explain, I deal with...” Cale made a pained expression, “...things not readily of this Earth, perhaps?”
“Ghosts, monsters, dragons, spirit wolves and artifacts of immense power?” I said with a snort. He narrowed his eyes, pursing his lips.
“I would think you would be more open to the idea, considering what we just experienced,” He said coolly.
“Captain Chance Masters,” I said smartly, darting my hand out to offer it to the man, “And that wasn’t a joke, it was a list of what I’ve had to deal with since I joined the Special Courier Service.” The man visibly relaxed, seizing my hand in a firm handshake. I flashed a conspiratorial grin. “And I think we have an investigation to conduct.”
“I’m glad you agree,” Cale said, now smiling as well. “You have the Grand Duchess’ ear, I would suggest you get whatever information you can from her. I have connections here in Petrograd, I can find more information on Rasputin himself.”
“I’m supposed to go on a ride with Tatiana tomorrow, I’ll see what I can learn and meet back with you tomorrow night.” I said.
“Until then, Captain. I think your friends are looking for you.” He pointed across the considerably thinned room, to where Wes and Mr. Walt waited.
“Just Chance,” I corrected, giving the man a quick nod before slipping off to link up with the two Brits. Mr. Walt seemed relaxed - not that I had ever seen him particularly high strung. Wes was smirking.
“That could have gone better,” Wes commented dryly, glancing over at the entrance.
“It could also have gone far worse,” Mr. Walt added quickly, “The Captain seems to know how to play to her crowd, Rasputin specifically. He seemed to appreciate the straight forwardness.”
I looked them both over and narrowed my eyes.
“So, neither of you felt anything strange when Rasputin was here?”
“Not a thing,” Mr. Walt insisted quickly.
“He seemed quite well spoken,” Wes began, stroking his chin, “It’s good that the Czar has such a strong advisor to guide him.”
“Right,” I said, “That’s disconcerting.”
“What is?” Mr. Walt asked.
“I think we should be moving, or we’ll be the last to leave.” I said, changing the subject. The other two quickly agreed.