TEN YEARS LATER...
"Whoa, easy there," the coachman yanked back on the reins of the ornate carriage, jerking it to an abrupt stop right in front of the fabulous train lined up to head out at the station. He hopped down, foot stand in hand, and placed it underneath the door as he thrust it open. "Sorry about the delay, your highness, it appears we did make it just in time."
"So it would," former Empress Maria Feodorovna stepped down off the carriage and bustled towards the train, managing a smile at the porters that bowed to her. Although she wasn't sure the trip she was about to take was absolutely necessary, she didn't want to miss it.
She paused briefly in the doorway to stare back at the smokestacks rising over the St. Petersburg skyline. How much things had changed since she'd come to Russia so long ago to be Empress. Everything had still been as it had been for centuries then. Now the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, making the city almost unrecognizable. Yes, it was so long ago that she'd come to marry her beloved Alexander, then watched him rise from heir to tsar, then leave this world too soon, leaving the kingdom to their oldest son Nicholas. True, there had been times she had questioned Nicholas's ability to hold the position, not least of all a few years ago when everything had almost gone down the drain, but that constitution had quieted everyone down, even if Nicholas didn't particularly think sometimes that it was the best way to have gone about business. Hopefully it would be all smooth sailing from here on. And hopefully what her son was planning to do on this trip would work and make things a lot easier for all the Romanovs.
The train whistle blew loudly; almost time for departure. She strolled briskly towards the imperial car, where through the window she could see her family seated and watching for her. "Oh, good, Mother," Nicholas rose up at her appearance, "We were getting worried you weren't going to make it."
"Traffic on the Nevsky Prospect was heavy then usual," she told him, "But I would have caught another train if I had been late."
"But it wouldn't have been the same without you, Grandma," bright-faced Marie strode towards her with her arms extended.
"I know," the dowager empress smiled as she bent down to hug her granddaughter. While her son was still trying to bear a son of his own with his wife, she loved her granddaughters just the same. Eight-year-old Olga and six-year-old Tatiana, already lovelies in their own rights, followed their four-year-old sister in hugging her. And resting peacefully in her mother's arms, two year old Anastasia was peacefully asleep. "She couldn't sleep at all last night," Tsarina Alexandra explained to her mother-in-law, having noticed her looking at their youngest, "She was so excited thinking we were going to give her a younger brother today that she was up till four. She said she wants a brother more than anything."
"Well, I guess it will depend on how things pan out," Maria Feodorova eyed the empress down. She would be the first to admit she had reservations about Nicholas wanting to marry the German princess; something had just seemed off, for lack of a better phrase about Alexandra when she'd first met her, and her husband had initially felt the same, but Nicholas had been deeply in love and would not be swayed, so in the end she and Alexander had consented, although she still wasn't completely sold on her daughter-in-law. Indeed, Alexandra had, in her twelve years thus far as empress shown a somewhat strong belief in the mystic and supernatural and had stringently pressed her husband against signing the constitution-even though it was clear to anyone at the time that was the only thing that would have stopped the riots in the streets that had broken out the previous year after the end of the disastrous war with Japan. And the courtiers were starting to feel the same way given her continued inability to give her husband a male heir thus far. Still, she had to admit, at least Alexandra's heart usually WAS in the right place...
With a low rattle, the train jerked forward and picked up speed. "Off to Sarov we go," Nicholas seemed quite pleased. "Hopefully this will work," he told his wife.
"I just know it will," Alexandra seemed hopeful, "As Russia's patron saint, Serafim of Sarov could grant us the son we need if pray hard enough at his grave and bathe in his holy river."
"Why do we even need a boy?" Olga spoke up, her nose crinkling in disgust, "Can't you just change the law, Papa? You are the ruler, and I'm the oldest..."
"And I'm sure you'd make a great empress, Olga, but custom is custom; Paul I set it in stone when he laid down the law that only males could rule," Nicholas shook his head, "I can't overturn custom that's been in place for a century."
"Even though he put that stupid law in place just to get back at his mother!?" the girl wasn't placated, "If we do get a brother out of this, I'll make sure he overturns it when he takes the throne."
"And if he doesn't?" her father inquired, amused.
"He's going to get a bloody nose for one thing."
Maria Feodorovna had to laugh at this. "Let me have her for a while," she asked Alexandra, gesturing at the sleeping Anastasia. The tsarina handed her youngest over. The dowager empress gently rocked the child in her arms. Everyone had seemed certain she would have been the long-awaited heir; when she had instead turned out to be a fourth girl, the renowned churchman John of Kronstadt, whom the royal couple had previously gone to for help for a son, had said that that had been a sign that the girl would be destined for some kind of greatness. And already, her grandmother could sense something about her-something she couldn't quite figure out yet, but something she knew deep down would serve Anastasia well at some point. "Sleep well," she whispered gently in the child's ear, "We'll get you that brother you want here if God smiles on your parents."
She pulled Anastasia close to her chest. Apparently she fell asleep herself at this point, for the next thing she knew, the train was coasting to a stop, and loud cheers could be heard. "Looks like everyone in Sarov came out to meet us," Tatiana was looking out the window right next to her grandmother.
"Certainly looks like it; look at all the people, Anastasia," Maria Feodorovna held up her now wide-awake granddaughter to see the throngs outside, "There still some people who hold us dear to their hearts."
"Now Mother, don't try and fill her head with pessimism," Nicholas told her, "You know as well as I do that only a small, deranged portion of the population took to the streets last year, and once the war was concluded and the police got out and about, the ones we didn't arrest went right back into their shells."
"Well for your sake, Nicholas, I hope we don't have to fight any more wars," his mother stated firmly. The train lurched to a stop by a platform decorated with bunting. "Your Majesty," a police chief stuck his head in the car, "Security is all set; you may proceed to the Sarov monastery at your convenience."
"Thank you. Girls, let's go see what God can do for us," Nicholas scooped up Marie in one arm and handed Anastasia to his wife with the other. A band began playing loudly as the royal family stepped off the platform and strolled down a long gauntlet of police towards the royal carriages. Maria Feodorovna breathed in the refreshing country air with relief; St. Petersburg was getting far too dirty these days. And regardless of whether her own or her son's assessment of the country was correct, it was good to at least be back among exultant subjects again-anything was better after having spent several months a virtual prisoner in her own palace fearing the revolutionaries could come crashing in at any time. But with the war over and the constitution in place, things had indeed quieted down. And at least the vile Khlyst, whom she suspected had derailed her husband's train twenty years ago, eventually causing his death, had at last been wiped for good out under Nicholas's watch; even his foes had to give him credit for that.
In no time at all, they reached the Sarov monastery. The monks bowed humbly before the royal family as the stepped down from their carriages. "You girls wait here," Nicholas instructed his daughters, "Your mother and I must do this ourselves. "After you, Alix."
He gestured the empress before him towards Serafim of Sarov's grave, a few meters ahead with an eternal candle burning before it. The two of them knelt humbly before it and started reciting prayers. "I still think they should just change the law and make me the heir," Olga grumbled when her parents were out of earshot.
"Oh sure, as the oldest, it should all be about you, huh!?" Tatiana snapped at her.
"All right, we're not here to fight," their grandmother pushed the two of them apart, "We're hoping for good fortune to smile on us, and whether either of you want a brother or not, we should hope for the best here. Now quiet while your parents pray."
The older girls obeyed, but still glared at each other. The dowager empress stepped between them to prevent any further problems. "They're asking God for your brother," she lifted Anastasia up with another smile, "It's in his hands now. If we're lucky, he'll grant it, and everything will be good for all of us."
"Yes, fall down on your knees and pray, Nikolasha," sneered the bearded figure watching the scene unfold from the mist emerging from his reliquary, "I enjoy any opportunity to see you humble yourself like a common fool."
"Fool, sir?" a white bat fluttered down in front of him and took a good look at the tsar praying to Serafim for a son, "I don't know. Holy fools, you know, they usually tend to..."
"Bartok, when I want your opinion, I'll ask for it!" Rasputin glared at the bat. He would have preferred not to have had a "pet," but fate had thrust Bartok upon him. During the end of his bid for total control over the Khlyst, he'd taken refuge in a cave in the Urals to escape a band of renegade Khlysts bent on eliminating him, and had found the bat inside, and was amazed that it could in fact speak. Although "speak" was an understatement, for it seemed Bartok never shut up about anything. All that night, while he waited for his enemies to give up the pursuit, Bartok had peppered him with his whole backstory and revealed all the adventures he'd had in the years prior. He'd seemed especially keen to tell of one recent tale, one that involved something about a bear and a prince; Rasputin hadn't cared to pay attention to the whole thing. And he couldn't shake off his new-found "friend" either; Bartok had been awed when the sorcerer had told him he was on a vital quest, and had offered his services to him, refusing to take no for an answer until Rasputin had caved in and let him join as his companion just to shut him up. But at least the bat was loyal and could be trusted, he'd been glad to have come to see over the ensuing years.
He stepped away from the reliquary and started pacing in a circle on the stone floor of the now fully restored Khlyst citadel atop Ipatiev Mountain. As Makary had foretold to him, it had been in ruins when he'd arrived at the mountain (it hadn't been too hard to find; Ipatiev Mountain was the only peak in the Urals on which nothing grew at all), but a few quick blasts from the reliquary had broken the curse on the rubble and magically restored the fortress to its prime. It had been built over the spot where the Khlyst's founding pact with the Dark Forces had been made, and had been the Master Khlysts' place of respite when they ruled Russia. Later, it had also been the site of the last stand of a group of diehards after the order had fallen from power, and it was during this final battle, as it was turning sharply in the Romanovs' forces' favor, that the citadel had been cursed to ruins to save the Khlysts' core dark magical heritage from falling into the Romanovs' hands. Now it was back in Khlyst control and in its original form, and Rasputin had been pleased to find numerous dark spell books hidden in secret compartments all over the citadel that he could use to continue his revenge against the hated dynasty if they proved needed.
It had been a long road to reach the position he was in now, finally secure as leader of the Khlyst. His first task after fleeing Verkhoturye had been exacting payback on Mitya for allowing Makary to be betrayed; they'd only found pieces of him afterwards. Then, he'd had to fight his way to gain control of the organization, as many other Khlysts had refused to accept someone they hadn't heard of as their new overlord. But the power of the reliquary had been stronger than their numbers; by his estimate he'd sent over a hundred dark sorcerers to their graves with it before all resistance to his rule had collapsed, and the remaining Khlysts had accepted him as their leader. And so, secure in his position, he had earlier in the year finally enacted his revenge on Makary's betrayers, who would cause no more trouble for the Khlyst or anyone else now. Which freed up his schedule to concentrate wholly on bringing down the Romanovs.
"If they do have an heir," he mused out loud, continuing his pacing, "That may present an opportunity. Or perhaps one of the princesses could be the answer. I have to know what the future holds before I can make a move."
"Well unfortunately sir, you know what they say about the future; it becomes the past quicker than you realize," Bartok offered a questionable piece of advice. Rasputin chose to ignore him. "If there is a son, I can make sure I have control...yes, but only if their prayers are answered," he thought out loud, "Well, the Dark Forces can show me the truth."
He seized hold of the reliquary and thrust it up into the air, where it started glowing bright green and levitated in midair. "Tell me, Dark Forces," the sorcerer commanded as smoke poured from the dark object, "Will the tsar be granted the son he yearns for!?"
ONE YEAR LATER...
"Something's gone wrong," Nicholas was mumbling out loud, pacing in circles himself in the hall outside his wife's room.
"You don't know that, Nicholas," his brother, having come to the palace for the occasion once word had spread that Alexandra had gone into labor yet again, tried to reassure him, "I remember Tatiana took about this long as well, right Mother?"
"Yes, Michael, I remember," Maria Feodorovna nodded. Michael had always been her husband's favorite child; indeed, there had been times Alexander had confided in her that he thought Michael was better suited for the throne than Nicholas, more fit in the mold of a tsar. This had caused undue stress between the brothers over the years, as Nicholas had long felt pushed aside by Alexander and written off by him. Still, Michael had always been there so far when the tsar had needed it, the present included.
"What will the people say, what will the court say if it's another girl, or if there's no baby in the end at all," Nicholas wasn't placated, "I can't face them with that; they'll want Alix's head for failing again."
"Well maybe you should trying going to the Holy Land then?" Michael proposed, "That's the next logical step after visiting Serafim of..."
"Listen!" Marie spoke up loudly, pressing her head against the door. Indeed, the wailings of a child could be heard inside. "Could it be...?" the tsar was sweating profusely, "Is this finally...?"
The door to the room burst open. "Congratulations, your Majesty," the doctor greeted him with a wide smile, "You have an heir."
Everyone in the hall roared in delight (excepting Olga, who looked a hair disappointed). "At last," the tears of joy flowed from Nicholas's eyes. "Count Fredericks," he called the the chief court minister up the hall, "Ring out the city's bells at once! The people need to join in the celebration!" He turned back to the doctor. "Can I see him now?"
"If you'll be quiet," the doctor told him.
The tsar eagerly bounded into his wife's room. The dowager empress was smiling as she rose up to follow her sons and grandchildren inside. At last the dynasty's prayers had been answered. "Come on," she picked Anastasia up off the floor, where she'd been drawing a picture of what her grandmother guessed was an estimation of what her brother might look like, "Your brother's finally here. Let's go meet him."
The girl giggled happily. "Well, this is a weight off my shoulder, Mother," Michael asided in her ear as they entered the room together, "I won't have to be in one hundred percent perfect health at all times now."
"Still, Michael, try not to do anything to get yourself killed in the next few years," Maria Feodorovna advised him, "Just in case anything happens to go wrong..."
She dared not contemplate any such thoughts further, and they were put out of her mind anyway when she approached the empress's bed. Alexandra was smiling warmly at a bundle in her arms. "He's so handsome and he's not even a minute or two old," she was crying with joy as well.
"He's everything I hoped he'd be," Nicholas bent over his child. "Hello there, Son. Welcome to the world. There's so much waiting for you in this life."
"What are we going to name him?" Tatiana inquired, staring intently at her brother.
"Well, I think it will be...Alexei," the tsar snapped his fingers, "After Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich from our dynasty's earliest days."
"Good old Tsar Alexei, always your favorite," Michael half-joked, "But you sure you don't want to have a Nicholas III?"
"There've been enough Nicholases and Alexanders ruling Russia over the last century as it is, Michael; he needs to be able to stand out," Nicholas told him. "Don't you, Alexei?" he picked the child up gingerly and held him in front of his face, "You're going to be special, so you deserve to stand out."
Anastasia whimpered and extended her arms towards the baby. "I think she wants a chance to hold him, Nicholas," the dowager empress told her son.
"Very well. But be careful with him, Anastasia," the tsar handed the baby to his youngest daughter. He needn't have worried, though, for Anastasia cuddled Alexei close and held him still, which in fact made Alexei stop crying. "How sweet," Alexandra gushed, "They know they're family."
She leaned up in bed and embraced her husband. "Everything's perfect now," she said happily, "Nothing could ruin what we have now."
"Blood of a salamander, yolk of a viper's egg, a pinch of yew..." Rasputin rambled off a list of ingredients as he mixed up a magical potion inside a flask inside his citadel later that evening. The liquid inside bubbled a deep black and jerked about, threatening to spill to the floor. "Uh, I think you put a little too much in there, sir," Bartok landed on a spell book next to his master's work station, "It's going to blow any minute now."
"It HAS to be this intense, Bartok, or the curse won't work right," Rasputin informed him, "If I'm to have the tsarevich under my thumb, I need him weakened as much as possible by the spell. Now where's that last ingredient...yes, here, four teardrops of an owl, and...!"
He dropped the owl teardrops into the concoction, which turned red and started bubbling out of control. A sick smile crossed the sorcerer's face as he gently carried it to the large cauldron in the center of the chamber. Sure, the tsar may have gotten his son, but it was going to be a gift he was going to regret once the curse was enacted.
"Stand clear," he instructed Bartok, "This is contagious." Thus, he himself stepped back a few paces before he tossed the flask into the cauldron. With an explosion, a red column of magic rose to the ceiling. And now for the final touch. He seized the reliquary from the nearest table and aimed it at the column. A green misty demon-like creature emerged from the skull's mouth and flew straight into the column. It emerged on the other side glowing red itself. "Go," Rasputin pointed at the window near the ceiling, "Fulfill your dark purpose and bind the heir to me."
The demon flew up and out the window. Rasputin cackled maniacally. Revenge against the tsar was close at hand. "I still don't see why we have to do it this way, sir," Bartok had to tell him, "I mean, why don't we try the old kidnapping ploy; you know, the old 'Give me your throne if you ever want to see him alive again' routine? That would make a lot more sense if we wanted..."
"Because, you miserable rodent, the tsar has to suffer beyond words for his crimes against the Khlyst and myself," Rasputin explained shortly, "Which means his precious little son must suffer. And as long as the curse remains in effect-and only I can release it-the child WILL suffer, and the ruler of all Russia will need the Khlyst to keep his throne."
He set the reliquary down on the table. From the mist emerged an image of the demon soaring out of the Urals. It crossed large fields and wide rivers before finally approaching St. Petersburg. It swooped around the top of tall buildings across the city before approaching the Winter Palace. It circled once around before zooming in through an open window. There, Alexei lay sound asleep in his crib, unaware of the danger approaching. He continued sleeping while the demon flew straight towards him, landed on his back, reared up, and bit down. There was a bright flash of red before the room returned to darkness as if nothing had happened, and with no trace of the demon in the room at all. Back in the citadel, however, Rasputin was in pure bliss. "It is done!" he shouted in glee, twirling around in circles in delight, "The heir to the throne belongs wholly to me!"
"So, now what then?" Bartok asked, confused by the whole spectacle, "Does this whole thing start right away, because I can't see..."
"We'll wait until the effects of the curse come to the tsar's attention," Rasputin informed him, unable to suppress his pleased laughter, "And when they do, the sovereign of all Russia will come begging to me help once he hears of me."
ANOTHER YEAR LATER...
Something was definitely very wrong. Maria Feodorovna had guessed as much from Tatiana's hysterical state on the phone. She'd managed to make out from her grandchild's incoherent ramblings that Alexei had fallen out of his crib and there was blood everywhere. To have lost the child so quickly after so happy a birth...and to know it would have broken Nicholas's heart and soul...
Her feeling of dread didn't get any better as she rushed through the front doors of the Winter Palace. Normally things were bustling and servants could be seen everywhere. Today, however, everything was almost deathly quiet, and it was completely deserted except for a worried Tatiana near the end of the entrance hall, apparently waiting for her arrival. "Tatiana!" she waved her forward, pure fear in her voice rising up, "Is he...!?"
"He's alive, Grandma, but the doctors really seem worried about something," Tatiana shook her head, panicked herself, "I've never seen anyone bleed like that, it's almost as if...!"
"Tatiana!" it was Marie running down the stairs from the private quarters, "Go find Nurse Vishnakova; Mama just fainted when the doctors said Alexei has a hemisphere or something like that!"
"Oh no..." the dowager empress's heart froze. All that blood...it could only mean...which could mean the dynasty...
She found herself rushing up the stairs as fast as her aging legs could manage. The scene outside the heir's room was one of pure chaos; Alexandra was indeed sprawled unconscious on the floor, trying to be revived by several of the numerous doctors bustling about. Nicholas himself was slumped limply against the wall, pale white. "Nicholas," she braked to a stop right in front of him, "Please tell me it isn't...!"
"Hemophilia," her son confirmed it for her, too stunned to even look at her, "And Dr. Derevenko says the chance of recovery from it is practically zero."
"I'm afraid so, your Highness," the leading doctor shook his head sadly at the dowager empress, "There's just no way he can ever live a normal life, I'm afraid."
"None..." Maria Feodorovna couldn't find any further words to sum it up. She glanced a crestfallen look at Alexei's crib. He had stopped bleeding now, and seemed happy enough as he played a sort of hand-slapping game with Anastasia through the bars, unaware of the huge pall that now hung over him and the entire family.
"Nonetheless we have to try for a miracle," there was sudden resolve in Nicholas's voice behind her.
"What are you saying?" she turned to him, puzzled, "You can't cure hemophilia, Nicholas, it's a sad truth of..."
"Nothing's impossible with God's help," a steeled look came into his face, "There's got to be plenty of faith healers in the far reaches of Russia; surely one of them can intercede and save Alexei. Somehow we've got to find them no matter what it takes!"