Suspicions and Murder
LIVADIA PALACE, CRIMEA
"...it soon became known as the Time of Troubles among the people for good reason indeed," Maria Feodorovna solemnly told her grandchildren, seated on the floor before her in the front parlor of the newly constructed palace overlooking the Black Sea, "The vile Khlyst and their paid mercenaries ravaged the land at will, attacking and killing anyone they pleased whenever they felt like it, stealing anything they wished from anyone they wished, burying the people under oppressive taxes. From inside the Kremlin, the Master Khlysts continuously conspired to devise new and terrible means of oppression, including conjuring up blizzards in the heat of summer to destroy all the crops and starve the people out of sheer malicious pleasure. Any who crossed them paid savagely; few have long forgotten the fate of the town of Vologda, which they set about wiping off the face of the earth after the town bishop preached against their rule in a fiery sermon; every human being and even all the pets were murdered, and the town obliterated through terrible magic so that no trace remained. Every month, a young and pure woman in each district would be forcibly taken to Moscow and sacrificed in one of their terrible rituals...are you all right, Alexei?"
"Oh, of course, Grandma," he said quickly, but she could see the unease on his face from the story, as if it was deeply getting to him. "There's no need to feel ashamed about being upset, Alexei; this tale appalled me as well when I first heard it from your great-grandfather after I first came to Russia," she comforted him gently, nonetheless deciding it would probably be best at the moment not to go into detail on exactly what the Khlysts had done to each selected virgin as part of their horrible rituals before sacrificing them.
"Then why are you telling it to him if it's clear he can't take it?" Olga complained.
"I can take it," her brother protested.
"Oh sure, you've been..."
"All right, all right," their grandmother held up her hands to restore order. "I'm getting to the best part now, Alexei," she reassured her grandson, "And the worst is behind us from here." She took a deep, dramatic breath. "Your ancestor, Michael Romanov held many lands at the time, and was a distant relative of the murdered tsar, although the Khlysts did not know this at first," she continued, "When the terror first swept over the lands, he grew scared and fled, taking refuge in a monastery outside Kostroma whose monks had long been sheltering victims of the Khlyst oppression. But the longer he stayed, the more ashamed he'd felt about running, the more he felt he should have done more to protect the people. And so it was that after about a year and a half in exile, he was awakened one night by cries of anguish outside, and saw outside his window a band of Khlysts dragging out into the night the Susanin family who lived nearby and whom he'd become quite friendly with, demanding to know where he was. As they started torturing them to get answers, Michael Romanov finally decided it was time to take a stand. He charged out and defeated the Khlysts, and swore an oath with the Susanins as witnesses that he would rid the country of the terror once and for all. And so he gathered together supporters and headed straight for Moscow."
She dramatically rose up. "In the face of impossible odds, they swept forward, defeating the Khlysts at every turn, driving them all back to the capital," she proclaimed grandly, raising her arms high for dramatic effect, "It culminated in a pitched battle all throughout Moscow, and not even the Khlysts' tactic of setting the entire city ablaze with their powers could stop the army of the people. Soon the battle reached the Kremlin itself, and in the heat of the fight, Michael Romanov found himself atop the Ivan the Great Bell Tower in a duel with the Master Khlyst Otrepiev, most powerful of them all. Their fight raged back and forth, but just as Otrepiev was about to finish him for good, your ancestor knocked away his dark reliquary into the recesses of the bell tower and hurled him over the edge, where he was impaled below on one of the iron stakes he'd had set up outside to impale his own victims. With the Khlysts defeated and driven into exile, Michael Romanov was appointed the new tsar by the grateful people, and so our line continues to this day. Didn't I tell you it would get better, Alexei?"
"Yes," the boy nodded softly, appearing to have taken the evil sorcerer's impaling surprisingly well, "But they won't be coming back, will they?"
"Of course not, because the whole thing's a fairy tale," Olga scoffed, "Just a scary story meant to make sure we all behave nicely and..."
"It's not a fairy tale; it's written down in all the books in the palace library, for your information; I read about most of it," Tatiana scowled at her sister, "No, they're not coming back," she assured her brother, "It's been almost three hundred years now; logic says they would have made their move by now..."
"Perhaps, Tatiana, perhaps," her grandmother said softly, "Of course, though, there is the matter that Otrepiev reportedly shouted at Michael Romanov as he plunged to his death that one day, another Master Khylst would arise, more powerful than he and all his cohorts combined, who would make the order more powerful than before and exterminate every last Romanov in revenge."
"Which, as the bookworm here pointed out, was so long ago that none of them can possibly be left, not after the last leader died right after Father rose to the throne," Olga retorted, "As I said, it's all a morality tale."
"And I feel a good one, Olga, for I've always felt that they who choose not to learn from history are doomed to repeat it," the dowager told her, "But enough about that tale. What shall the next story be?"
"Well, you never have told us about your marriage to Grandpa yet," Anastasia spoke up.
"Not that one AGAIN," Olga rolled her eyes, "I've heard that one at least half a dozen times..."
"Well some of us haven't," her youngest sister retorted, putting at arm around her brother.
"I'll tell you all what; while some of you have heard of the wedding, I don't think any of you have heard of the reception afterwards yet," the dowager chuckled at the pleasant memories, "The wedding had been beautiful, and all the guests had gathered for us to do the first dance-only your grandfather refused to go out. He was scared stiff of dancing. Imagine that if you will: he would rule the country very firmly during his time on the throne, but he was scared that he didn't know how to dance. All night long, I was basically leading him along, and he copied my every move as best he could. From that day on, though, he refused to dance publicly again."
She sighed contentedly at the joyful memories of years gone by. "And afterwards, we had the most magical honeymoon you can imagine," she continued, "His father, your great-grandfather, arranged for us to spend three whole weeks in Paris-truly a magical city if there ever was one. Those would become the happiest days of my life. Your grandfather would rent a boat, and we'd row down the Seine together. And on some nights, we'd simply walk the boulevards hand in hand, watching the trees blossom and the birds sing. I'll admit, there are times when it's snowing heavily that I think back to that magical time, and it makes me feel so much better about everything. Someday," she stared dreamily out the window, not really taking in the Black Sea billowing in the afternoon sun, "I'd like to go back and relive it all again."
"We should all go someday," Tatiana proposed, "It would be nice to get out of the country for a change. Sometimes I think Father's afraid something will happen if we..."
"Kids," their mother stuck her head through the veranda door, "Father Rasputin's here."
"I distinctly don't remember him getting an invitation to this palace's dedication, Alexandra," the dowager frowned.
"I sent him one of my own. A special privilege invitation," there was distinct disdain in her daughter-in-law's voice. Her children eagerly ran off to greet Rasputin; Anastasia, however, hung behind. "Grandmama," she had to ask, "Why don't you like Father Rasputin? You've seen what he does to help Alexei..."
"Yes, I have seen, but it's just...there's just something about him, Anastasia, that says to me he may not be trustworthy in the long run," the dowager admitted.
"I wish the two of you could get along better; I'm sure you both have so much in common," the girl remarked. She walked over to the window and stared out at the Black Sea herself. "Tatiana had a point, though; why can't we go more places? There's so much of the world I'd love to see if I had a chance."
Maria Feodorovna sighed softly; how could one explain the nuances of social discord to a seven-year-old? Then she realized there was at least one easy answer. "Well, sweetheart," she began, "I suppose your father's still on edge in some ways after he was attacked in Japan a few years before you were born..."
"What?" her granddaughter's eyes flew wide open.
"Oh he was all right in the end," the dowager reassured her, "And don't worry, the attacker's still safely locked up today; they found he wasn't right in the head. But having someone come at him with a sword clearly bent on killing him scared your father deeply, and I suppose deep down he's always been worried the same thing might happen to you or your brother and sisters if he wasn't careful. And in a way, he's also following the precedent your grandfather set after his father was killed by the revolutionaries shortly after I married him; Alexander, your grandfather, decided at that point it would be best if we stayed in our palaces from that point on."
"But why should we feel afraid of the people, Grandmama? Why wouldn't they like us?"
The dowager sighed again; another tricky path to tread. "Well, Anastasia, it's not as easy in Russia as you might think," she told her, "Some people think it isn't fair we have such a good life while they don't. Others are just naturally angry people who like spreading hate and destruction. And the Duma sometimes thinks we control too much, that they should have more of a say. The way your father tries to navigate all of this might..."
"Ah, my dear Anastasia, there you are," Rasputin stuck his head in the veranda door, "And looking lovelier than ever, I see."
"Thank you, Father. Oh, and you've brought that bat again too," with a smile, she extended a finger for Bartok to land on. He swan-dove towards it, only to stop inches from it and gently touch down. "Father, tell Grandmama some of your favorite sayings, the ones you always tell us when you visit in St. Petersburg," she encouraged him.
"I would be delighted to," Rasputin swelled up in a regal posture. "Several of my teachings that I am most proud of," he proclaimed grandly, "One should know what the most valuable thing in one's life is. When you do, you know what is important. Aim then for that goal no matter what."
"Mm hmm," Maria Feodorovna remarked dryly, unimpressed with such stupefying commonplace knowledge.
"Another," Rasputin swelled up again, "Don't believe in the church bureaucracy; their medals are all that matter to them. Truly holiness is found where you will least expect it."
"A sentiment I fully believe in as well, Father," Nicholas himself appeared from the veranda, "I hope you've found the palace was worth what we sunk into it to build it."
"It couldn't have turned out any better, your Majesty," Rasputin said with a faked humble bow, "Your daughter was just having me tell your dear mother some of my favorite teachings."
"I see. Well, Anastasia," he bent down to her level, smiling, "I'm just about done with the prime minister, so why don't you get ready, and we'll see if you can beat me to that big rock off shore this year."
"Can't Alexei come too this time?" the girl looked somber, "He was almost ready to cry last year when Mama told him he couldn't go..."
The tsar bowed head. "I wish he could, sweetheart, but we can't take the chance of him hurting himself, even with the Father here," he said regretfully, "Maybe some other time...well, I guess we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."
"Your Majesty..." called an impatient voice from the veranda.
"Just a minute Mr. Stolypin, if you please," Nicholas called back authoritatively. "Run along now, and don't worry too much about your brother," he patted Anastasia on the head, trying to sugarcoat it for her, "Maybe your mother can row him out to watch us."
Anastasia didn't look placated, but left for her quarters anyway. "Oh, Father, I don't think you've met the prime minister yet," Nicholas told the faux holy man, "Why don't I introduce the two of you now?"
"It would be an honor, your Majesty," Rasputin snapped his fingers to bring Bartok back to him, and followed the tsar out onto the veranda. The dowager in turn followed him; she preferred not to take her eyes off him when he was around if she could help it. "Father Rasputin, Peter Stolypin," Nicholas introduced the two of them, "You both may be seeing more of each other soon; I've invited the father to join us for the ceremonies in Kiev next month, Mr. Stolypin."
"I've heard so much about you, Prime Minister," Rasputin suppressed a glare as he shook the large bearded man's hand, "Namely how you've had so many people wearing your neckties, so to speak, over the last few years..."
"The measured I authorized during the period of major unrest a few years ago were absolutely necessarily to restore order, Father," Stolypin said defensively, "Of course, from now on we must make sure the people never consider revolting again, which is why I consider it imperative to push my land reform package through the Duma as soon as possible..."
"Never mind pushing that through, just push all those malcontents out when you get the chance," Alexandra snorted from the nearest table, cuddling Alexei as he drew a picture, "It's clear to me they won't stop until they've reduced my son to nothing; Nicholas and I want him to rule unhindered and freely."
"Your Highness, I'm afraid time has passed absolutism in the empire behind, and nothing can bring it back; not even the most conservative Duma will allow it, and I think we need to be pragmatic about that from here on," Stolypin shook his head.
"Oh I wouldn't be completely sure of that, Prime Minister; less likely things have happened before," Rasputin said, fingering the relic under his robes.
"Whatever, Father. At any rate, your Majesty," Stolypin turned back to the tsar, "as I was saying, this land reform bill should be fast-tracked as soon as possible. If the peasants are allowed to buy up the maximum amount of land allotted in the bill-at least triple what they can have now, I may add-and are allowed to earn enough money from the land's development to be reasonably well off, then none of them will ever consider taking up arms against you again. To elaborate on my early point on the matter..."
"Yes, well, hold that thought, Mr. Stolypin; I did promise my daughters I'd go swimming with them this afternoon," Nicholas held up his hand, "Wait here until we're finished. Father, you may continue exploring the palace if you wish until I get back," he informed Rasputin.
"I would delighted, your Majesty. After you," Rasputin gestured him inside the palace. "Well, we may as well leave the prime minister on his own then, Alexei," the tsarina lowered him gently to the ground, "Why don't we go take a walk on the beach?"
"Again?" he looked sad, "Why can't I go swimming with my sisters, just this once?"
"I'm sorry, Sunshine, but you could hurt yourself, and none of us want to see that happen, even with the Father here now," she shot a sad glance of her own through the door Rasputin had walked through before glumly leading her son down the steps to the sand below. Stolypin watched them go curiously. "Is something wrong with the heir?" he asked the dowager as she sat down at his table.
"It is a family matter, Prime Minister," Maria Feodorovna said quickly; although she wasn't entirely convinced Nicholas's official policy of keeping Alexei's illness a state secret was the right one, she was going to abide by it unless the situation explicitly called for doing otherwise, "Tell me," she leaned forward, "How exactly is the Duma's mood at the present?"
"Mostly rational at the moment, your Highness, but I do hope your son treads correctly with the land reform bill and everything else being proposed currently, or there's sure to be more flair-ups of denunciation," Stolypin informed her, "And if that does happen, I sincerely hope he doesn't try to disband the legislature again; almost every party has made it clear they won't submit to it this time. Actually, if I may speak freely," it was his turn to lean forward, "I couldn't help feeling the presence of your late husband's spirit when he read the last disbandment order out loud, given that was something the previous tsar would have done at the drop of a hat. Seeing how well your son the current tsar does with his family, it surprises me sometimes he would consider following your husband's path..."
"If I may speak confidentially, Prime Minister, I've long felt Nicholas has been trying harder than he needs to to live up to Alexander's legacy," Maria Feodorovna told him, "If you could in fact call it a legacy in hindsight, that is; lately," she sighed deeply, "I can't help wondering if so many of Alexander's policies were misguided, namely sending the police out to crush any and all dissent and supporting official pogroms, both of which I feel were major factors in the all the recent unrest. But Alexander cut a strong figure, rightly or wrongly, and Nicholas has been trying to live up to that, trying to impress his father even after he's now long gone by doing what he thinks Alexander might have. To be completely honest, Mr. Stolypin-and you're the first person I'm telling this to-there was a time before his death that Alexander wanted to make Michael the heir, feeling he was better suited for the role. Perhaps he is in some ways, but Nicholas had done the best he could under the conditions he was given to ready himself to be ruler, and it was only through intense pleading and a few words from me that Alexander relented and kept him as the heir."
She sighed again and stared out at the sea once more. "Sometimes I think he'd just be happier away from all this, just himself and the children," she confessed, "He doesn't have the determined streak his father did, and in his profession, that can't be a virtue, even if it is elsewhere; if enough of his enemies seize on his compassion as a weakness..."
"Presenting Bishop Feofan," the nearest footman unexpectedly announced. The two of them turned to see Feofan striding towards them, a briefcase in hand. He looked surprisingly haggard and worried. "Your Highness, Prime Minister," he greeted them both, "Is the tsar available? I must have a word with him if I could."
"He went to swim with the children. We will be willing to hear you out for him, however, Bishop," the dowager told him, "Please, sit."
"Thank you," Feofan slid into the chair across from her. "Your Highness, Prime Minister," he began, his face growing taut, "I must tell you that, in recent months, I've begun having grave doubts about Father Rasputin's professed spirituality."
"Have you now?" Maria Feodovna's eyes shot up. Apparently she wasn't the only one to think of Rasputin this way after all. "What made you come to that conclusion, Bishop?"
"Well, it has been fermenting in my mind for some time now, in particular given his increasingly lavish lifestyle since he has moved to the capital," Feofan confessed, "For a man of God, he has very much become a man of gold; lately he has been taken in huge sums of money from bankers and other moneylenders, certainly not the way a man of the cloth is supposed to go about his business in this life. There are even rumors circulating that he's agreed to do favors for them if they pay him, and that he's been offering to advance the careers of anyone who comes to him without consent from the palace. When I protested to him about all this, he insisted that God had told him to undertake this manner of work, and that all the money he was taking in would go to charity. I contacted several of the organizations he'd swore he'd donated to, however, and none have received anything from him whatsoever."
He shifted about uncomfortably. "But my opinion really solidified last week, when I was invited to a luncheon he was hosting," he continued, "I was glad I decided to leave early, for the salon that has formed around him is comprised of some of the most unscrupulous collection of rogues ever assembled. For example, my colleague Bishop Hermogen," he opened his briefcase and handed the dowager a photograph, "We were at one time close friends, but it has become increasingly clear he is narrow-minded and power-hungry, bent on reestablishing the patriarchate at all costs, with himself as absolute head. And his colleague, the monk Illiodor," he handed another photograph to Stolypin, "From what I understand, his sermons are basically extended calls for violence against those who practice Judaism. Some of my less enlightened cohorts in the priesthood may support such a stance, but I wholeheartedly do not. However, Father Rasputin visibly has no qualms associated with someone who makes such hateful statements, and seemed to hint at times that he agrees with them. Nor are they the only questionable brothers of the cloth he associates with," he dug out more photos, "Pitirim here is a known thief of monastic funds who once assaulted his diocese's bishop. Varnava here is himself a power-mad zealot with a history of severe violence, both against his colleagues in the church and even his parishioners. Isidor...I can't tell you out loud what they accuse him of. Martemian and Augustin, they both may be murderers. But what's more disturbing," he lowered his voice, "Rumors abound in church circles that these supposed churchmen may have...may have, hard as it is to believe...severe Khlyst leanings, leading me to suspect it's possible they might even be Khlysts themselves."
"That is impossible," Stolypin scoffed, "The Khlyst were exterminated for good over fifteen years ago."
"Or so it would appear, Prime Minister. But who's to say Makary the Merciless was in fact the last Khlyst standing? We don't know how extensive the order actually was when he died," Maria Feodorovna was frowning; for a while now, she'd started to wonder just how dead the Khlyst actually were, in particular ever since Rasputin had arrived. Perhaps, she'd thought for some time, there was substance to Otrepiev's vow that a stronger Khlyst would some day rise to avenge the order. "Did anyone else at that luncheon strike you as being a possible Khlyst, Bishop?"
"Oh all of them did, your Highness," Feofan gulped at the memory of that day, digging out some more photographs, "For instance, Father Rasputin's secretary Akilina Laptinskaya is a former sister of mercy; I discovered when I inquired about her that she was dismissed from her hospital for trying to poison her patients. Leonid Molchanov here is the son of a former priest expelled from his order for Khlyst-like actions; from his conversations, it's clear the son thinks the same as the father. Vera Zhukovskaya here is rumored to be a Satan-worshipper. Alexander Pistolkors here is a former army colonel who's rumored to have overstepped his bounds during the recent unpleasantness and executed scores of Latvians without trial or even any reason. And you remember Madame Lokhtina, the state councilor's wife? She's been a supporter of Father Rasputin for three years now, and this is what she's become."
The dowager frowned at the last picture; the once lovely Madame Lokhtina was now an ugly hag. "She has apparently lost her sanity as well," Feofan told her, "The blind loyalty which they all show to him is rather disturbing to me, almost as if they're a cult rather than an actual salon. I protested to the Father about this as well, but he insists they are merely coming closer to God through him. As I see it, however, he is increasingly holding himself to be higher than God."
He took an even deeper nervous gulp. "But even all that I was willing to forgive and forget, given what we know he seems to be capable of," he leaned towards the dowager, "But then came the sudden death of John of Kronstadt. While it was publicly reported as a heart attack, it so happens that my colleague the Metropolitan Benjamin was leaving a Pentecost service down the street from John's cloister around the time of his death. He tells me he swore he saw a robed and hooded figure rushing away from the cloister, and while he didn't get a good look in the darkness, the person's dimensions seemed awfully similar to Father Rasputin's. I will admit, this is hardly enough evidence to convict anyone of anything, but there is the matter that John had been speaking out against Father Rasputin recently, and might have been able to gain the sovereign's ear for a formal discussion. And certainly history tells us that the Khlyst knew how to use frightful evil magic to kill their victims, including causing abrupt circulatory failure."
He took a deep drink of water from a nearby pitcher. "So you see what has me worried," he told the former empress and prime minister, "And so, I felt it only right that I inform the tsar about who he appears to be dealing with. It's possible the royal family might even now be in a large amount of danger if Father Rasputin is in fact who I fear he may be."
"Well you have done the right thing, Bishop," Maria Feodorovna told him, "I will see to it the tsar is told of this immediately."
"Oh Mother, you're just overreacting," Nicholas, however, scoffed a few minutes later, standing on the veranda in his bathing uniform, looking eager to join his daughters on the sand below.
"I would take the bishop's warning seriously, Nicholas," his mother advised him, "Father Rasputin hasn't really told us that much about his past. And seeing the type of people he associates with..."
"And I don't think it's a crime to befriend sinners if you have no intention of taking up their ways," the tsar interrupted, "And there is no proof his friends are killers, let alone the Father himself, so it's quite possible this is all an understandable misinterpretation by the bishop. Besides, you yourself know many of the saints were associated with sinners in their earthly lifetimes."
"Your Majesty, I'm afraid I must side with the former empress on this," Stolypin stood up, "I must insist the Father be asked to account for both his friends and his excessively lavish lifestyle, which would appear to compromise..."
"I assure you, Mr. Stolypin, the Father has more than earned the right to live the lifestyle he leads," Nicholas cut him short, "Now if you have no more true crises for me, it's time to take time for my family."
"Do not just shrug this off, Nicholas," his mother gave him one last warning as he descended the stairs to the beach, "If God forbid you're wrong, and this man is dangerous..."
"He healed Alexei, Mother; what could be dangerous about someone who can do that?" the tsar almost laughed as he walked away. Maria Feodorovna shook her head grimly. "As I've said, gentlemen, my son is a good man, but he trusts far too easily," she admitted to them.
"What do we do now?" Feofan looked worried, "If the tsar won't believe what I tell him, how do we protect the royal family if I'm right?"
"We'll need more proof for one thing, Bishop. Mr. Stolypin," she turned to the prime minister, "Contact gendarme chief Dzhunkovsky once you return to the capital; tell him to covertly maintain surveillance on Father Rasputin from here on-tell him that this is exceptionally top secret, that not even Nicholas is to be informed of this. Also, have him run the names of everyone the bishop said was at that luncheon through the Department of Police's files; perhaps one or more of them have criminal records that can be used to persuade Nicholas...yes, Bishop?"
Feofan looked ill. "There is one name that will certainly be in the Department of Police's files," he told her and the prime minister, "He was seated right next to me, and made it clear all through dinner that he believes God to be a total sham. Vladimir Bonch-Bruevich was his name, and I believe he's connected to one of those large revolutionary groups that caused all the trouble for the dynasty during the unrest."
"Yes, Bonch-Bruevich of those accursed Bolsheviks that want to tear down the very fabric of society," Stolypin smiled triumphantly, "Thank you, Bishop, that's certainly an ace we can play. Knowing the Father associates with the likes of him..."
"Did I hear my name?" Rasputin stepped out onto the veranda at that moment, "Ah, Feofan, you've come to visit the tsar as well. To what...?"
"Rasputin," Feofan glowered at him, "I have told the former empress about the details of your dinner engagement the previous week. She and the prime minister agree you should not associate as closely with the royal family until you distance yourself from your salon and renounce your lavish lifestyle that I tell you explicitly mocks God in Heaven."
"But the tsar explicitly says he wants me on standby for the reason you and I both know at a moment's notice, Feofan," Rasputin said in mock indignation, "Now if something were to go wrong..."
"Father," Stolypin warned him, "Do not play coy with us. We will find if you are misleading the tsar, and if you are nothing more than a charlatan..."
"I assure you, Mr. Stolypin, I am indeed a messenger of God," Rasputin stared right into his face, "In fact, last week, he gave me a vision that you will very soon be departing your post."
"I most certainly will not," Stolypin frowned, "I have the tsar's complete confidence at this time. Now if you have seen the palace in full, I demand in tandem with the former empress that you leave immediately."
"If you insist, Prime Minister. But let it be known, I was told that you will in fact be departing," Rasputin told him, a dark smile crossing his lips as he turned to leave. What mattered now as far as he was concerned was making sure that vision came absolutely true...
"Fifty years ago, my grandfather Alexander II had a dream," Nicholas announced to the crowd standing before him in Kiev's main square, "A dream that Russia could move forward from its backwards past. And so, on this day in 1861, he declared all serfs in the empire to be immediately and forever free. Today, it is my distinct honor to dedicate this memorial to that momentous moment."
He stepped forward and nodded to the mayor of Kiev, who joined him in grabbing the large sheet covering the memorial. The two of them pulled it off in unison, revealing a large statue of Alexander II atop the memorial's marble pedestal. "May this monument serve as the bronze serpent Moses raised in the wilderness, so that all who feel oppressed by a bitter life may look to it and live," the tsar concluded, "May God bless Russia."
He soaked in the applause before walking back to his family on the dais next to the statue. "Was I good?" he asked them.
"Absolutely perfect," his wife squeezed his hand approvingly, "Wasn't he, Father?"
"Yes, indeed," Rasputin said quickly from his seat at the back of the dais, trying as hard as he could to suppress his disgust over the moment-Makary had long lamented that allowing the Romanovs to abolish serfdom had been the biggest mistake allowed under his watch, "Very, very concise indeed, your Majesty. Well, if you won't be needing me for the moment, I have important business to attend to here in the city."
"Oh come on, Father, you'll love the play," Alexei tried to goad him, "It is The Tale of Tsar Saltan, after all."
"No, no, my dear tsarevich, I'm afraid this matter of mine is of the utmost importance," Rasputin told him, "But I'm sure you will enjoy the play nonetheless; it should be rather memorable for you. Till we meet again, your Majesty, Prime Minister."
He bowed to them both before bustling off the dais and disappearing into the crowd. "Well, he certainly seems to be in a hurry to leave," Stolypin frowned after him suspiciously, "In fact, I can't help wondering how much he really wants to be here, given how he didn't applaud the unveiling..."
"A man of God doesn't need to explain himself to those who only see things in earthly ways, Mr. Stolypin, much as I know you do," the tsarina gave him a frown of her own, "Perhaps he's grown tired of your pompous grandstanding in the Duma and decided to..."
"At any rate," Nicholas quickly cut in to stop the political debate, "Why don't we all head on into the opera house; the show should be starting soon, and like the Father said, it should be memorable."
"Miserable wretched fool!" Rasputin bellowed out loud, hurling the garbage cans in the alley behind the opera house into the walls, "If he says one more word about the glorious liberation of the masses...!"
"OK, I think you're a little too uptight right now, sir," Bartok slid down his back and started squeezing his shoulder, "Just relax, let calm thoughts flow through your head..."
"I don't need a massage!" the sorcerer slapped at him. He turned to the other two men in the alley with him. "Hermogen, Illiodor, I'm counting on you to put Peter Arkadevich Stolypin in his place. You know what to do?"
"Absolutely, Rasputin," the thin, mustached Hermogen nodded softly. Next to him, the huge, bearded Illiodor started firmly straight ahead, mentally preparing for what lay ahead.
"I've already sent for the emissary," Rasputin continued, "You'll know him when you see him. Stolypin in is Box #3. Make sure to arrange this so the tsar can never trace this to us. Good luck, gentlemen, and don't fail."
He strode out of the alley, melting away into the crowds dispersing from the scene of the statue's dedication. Once he was out of sight, Illiodor rolled his eyes. "How much longer do we have to put up with him?" he complained to his colleague.
"Only till we get a powerful patriarchate of our own, Illiodor," Hermogen assured him, "Then we merely expose him as a Khlyst and reap the reward from a grateful royal family. Until then, we need him to keep our rise going, and this job will be part of that. So let's get going and get it done."
The two of them sauntered out of the alley and waited by the corner of the opera house, watching the patrons stream inside. After about five minutes, Hermogen pointed. There, that's the emissary," he declared, gesturing at an unkempt man in plain clothes that stood out from the more formally dressed government officials and military men entering the opera house, "Let's do it."
"Right," Illiodor weaved his way through the crowds towards the man. "You there, sir," he called out.
Anastasia watched with rapt attention as the Swan Bird magically created the city of Ledenets for the prince. While plays had been often performed at the palace, none were as magical as this.
She joined the rest of the house in giving the actors a rousing applause as the curtain came down and the house lights went up for intermission. "This is really good, isn't it?" she asked Alexei in the seat next to her.
"Yes, it really is," he agreed, visibly enamored as well.
"This is so boring," Olga was far less pleased in the back of the box, "How much longer till we can get out of here?"
"Still two more acts to go, my dear," her father told her, "And I think you'll like..."
Suddenly shots started ringing out in the lobby. "Down, your Majesty, down!" cried the guard at the back of the box, scrambling to cover the tsar. Anastasia grunted as her mother threw herself onto her and her brother. Immediately, everything her grandmother had said about the insane man in Japan who'd come after her father flashed through her mind again. What if her grandmother was wrong and the man was back again...?
"What happened out there!?" Nicholas cried to the captain of the guard as he rushed through the curtain.
"The prime minister's been shot, your Majesty!" the captain related breathlessly, "The shooter killed himself immediately after...AAAAKKKK!"
Olga and Tatiana's scream joined with his as a heavily bleeding Stolypin crawled into the royal box. Gasping terribly, the prime minister just barely managed to make the sign of the cross at the royal family before collapsing to the floor, dead. "My God," the tsar mumbled weakly, utterly shocked, "Who could have done this...!?"