INSIDE THE WINTER PALACE...
"Faster, all of you, faster!" Head Chef Lebedev shouted at the palace's cooking staff, pacing back and forth behind them at their stations like a madman, "The tsar and his family will be here in less than ten minutes; we must have their evening meals ready to go by...!"
There came a loud shattering in the corner. The chef growled in utter frustration. "Dmitry!" he roared mercilessly at the undersized boy manning the dish washing station, "Can't you do anything right!?"
"I...uh...I..." the boy stammered desperately for an answer.
"Mr. Lebedev," one of the butlers stuck his head in the kitchen door, "Count Vladimir and Prince Andronikov will be arriving at the front gate with their gifts to the tsar from their trip through the Orient; they'll need a spare set of hands to carry their wares in."
"A spare set? I've got just the set for you. Dmitry," he rounded back on the child, grinning as if he was hoping the boy would break the nobles' presents and give him a reason to fire him, "See to this, and do not screw this up."
"I promise I won't, sir," Dmitry mumbled quickly, eager to just leave the kitchen for the moment. He heard the snickering of Artyom in the corner. Artyom the delinquent from the streets, set to work in the palace by the magistrates as punishment for theft, and who pushed the other boys in the palace employ around every chance he got. Oh well, at least the current task at hand would take him away from him...
He followed the butler down the secret servant hallways that went around the royal family's rooms. He had been working at the palace for a year and a half now, put up into service when his aunt and uncle had become too infirm to take care of him following a particularly severe accident at a factory in the city. He had come into their care at age two after his parents had tragically been killed in a pogrom-although it had been quite a strange pogrom, for although he remembered very little, the one thing that did stick in his mind was a strange glowing light of some kind that didn't make sense offhand. At first he had been thrilled to be working for the royal family, but since then his feelings had grown much more mixed, given that Lebedev and much of the staff had a strict hierarchy in place and treated everyone lower than them like dirt. Perhaps in a couple years or so, he hoped, he'd get a promotion to a more respectable position in the palace.
He shivered a little in the autumn air as they stepped outside the servant's entrance and walked briskly towards the driveway, where the main staff were already lined up, awaiting the tsar's return from Kiev; ever since word had gotten back earlier in the afternoon that the royal family would be returning to the palace that evening ahead of schedule, the staff had been hectically trying to make the last minute preparations for their arrival. But an earlier arrival was now coming through the main gate in another carriage. Dmitry had never met either Count Vladimir or Prince Andronikov before, but their reputation around the palace as high-livers who spent money like water was well known. Indeed, as the carriage was braked to a stop right before him, he could hear a voice he had heard before inside saying firmly, "...promise me you two, no matter how desperate you are that you've completely drained your funds on this trip-yet again-do not ask the tsar or the dowager for any more money, because their answer will be a very resounding no."
"Well Felix, perhaps if we don't..." a rather jovial-sounding voice started to say.
"Vladimir, we've been friends for twenty years, you're going to have to trust me on this; Mikhail, you should take my word for this too," the familiar voice told them both, "If you hadn't spent so lavishly on so many questionable items to try and get back in the tsar's good graces..."
"Well then, let's see if we can, Felix," the door to the carriage swung open. A large bearded roly-poly man jumped down, dragging a large trunk with him. "Hello there, my good man," he gave the butler's hand a vigorous pumping, "Could you put this in the family dining room?"
He thrust the trunk onto the butler's shoulders. Grimacing terribly, the butler staggered back into the servant's entrance. "Nice, Vladimir, very nice," an unkempt prince with sideburns and a beaver coat hopped down next, "He looks like just the type who'd throw out his back and blame it on us."
"Oh he wouldn't do that, Andronikov old chum; he knows we'd never hurt a flea," Vladimir countered. He then finally noticed Dmitry at his feet. "Well, have you come to help with our gifts?" he asked kindly.
"If, if you want me to, Count," the boy bowed.
"Oh, please don't, Count is much too formal; call me Vlad," the fat man dug a much smaller trunk out of the carriage and handed it to him, "And you are...?"
"Dmitry. Dmitry Oldenstein."
"Why are you bothering asking him that, Vladimir, he's just a servant," Andronikov scoffed, hefting a trunk of his own.
"And for the moment he's OUR servant, Mikhail, so we might as well treat him well," Vladimir argued. "Dmitry Oldenstein, my good friend Mikhail Andronikov," he gestured at him, "And our mutual friend, Prince Felix Yusupov."
"Indeed," Prince Yusupov looked a bit disgruntled as he dragged another enormous trunk out of the carriage, "So, do you want all this thrown in a pile in the palace lobby, or is there some semblance of order to any of...?"
Trumpets rang out from the top of the palace. The tsar's carriage was approaching. Yusupov bustled over to it as it ground to a halt right by the palace steps and opened the door for the tsar. "Your Majesty, welcome home," he said formally, "My deepest condolences for Mr. Stolypin and his family; I heard about..."
"Thank you, Prince Yusupov, but my family and I would really just like to get inside and eat," Nicholas stepped down. He definitely looked stunned and worried, Dmitry thought, now down on his knees in respect for the sovereign's presence, as if the events of the day were seared into his very bones. Occasionally when he'd been sent to the market to fetch food for the palace, shopkeepers had grumbled the tsar had to be a complete idiot the way things were going in the country at the moment. He'd usually take that opportunity to protest that the tsar was really a nice man, although they didn't always listen to him.
But any thought of the tsar was immediately driven clean from his mind. For there she was, climbing down off the carriage right behind her sisters. The first time he'd seen her when he'd started working at the palace, he'd had to pinch himself to make sure she was real. And even then, he hadn't been completely certain she wasn't an angel. He felt his heart start melting. Yes, no one in all of Russia's incredible expanses could ever top the princess Anastasia in terms of pure loveliness.
At the moment, however, she appeared terribly shaken, perhaps not all that surprising given what the staff had learned had happened earlier in Kiev, and quickly bustled into the palace holding her mother's hand tightly. He stared longingly after her. If only she knew he existed...
"Say kid, you still in there?" came Andronikov's voice in his ear, "We're expecting service here."
"Oh, right," Dmitry snapped out of it and hopped back up.
"Come with me, then," Vladimir waved him towards the main entrance, an entrance Dmitry had never been allowed to go through before. "Um, Cou...Mr. Vlad, I'm not really supposed to..." he started to say.
"You're with me, my little friend, so it's all right by me," Vladimir was quite unconcerned about the whole situation. "So, Dmitry Oldenstein, what exactly do you do here at the palace?" he asked jovially, taking his hand and leading him through the front entrance.
"I, uh, wash the dishes and pick up the royal family's food from the city," he explained, quite happy that a nobleman was willing to be friendly with someone like him. "How about you, Mr. Vlad?"
"Prince Andronikov and I hold positions with the Synod," Vladimir explained to him, "Rather vague positions actually; neither of us really know what we do either. But we still earn more than enough to travel extensively, as you might have heard. Have you ever wanted to travel to faraway lands, Dmitry Oldenstein?"
"Many times, Mr. Vlad," the boy nodded; when his life was at its harshest, he'd often dreamed of being able to fly away from the dreary St. Petersburg.
"Well, the next time Andronikov and I have the funds to travel, maybe we'll take you along," Vladimir proposed, "And together we'll strike it rich rubbing heads with some big figure in the world."
"And blow it all yet again, no doubt," Yusupov was bustling back after dropping off the latest batch of presents, "You'd be better off with someone else as your role model, boy," he advised Dmitry, "If you like to keep your money in your pocket, that is."
"You look unhappier, Felix," Vladimir pointed out.
"I am," the prince growled, "The tsar's letting that crazy preacher discuss the next prime minister with him. As if he really has the right to be talking over something like that with the sovereign. Word's going around the dowager wants dirt dug up on Father Rasputin; if it's true, I want in on it; I've never been comfortable having someone like him around the royal family."
"Oh you're overreacting, Felix," Andronikov came up with a trunk of his own, "I for one think Father Rasputin's quite a nice gent. Will you back me up on this, kid," he looked to Dmitry for a plug.
"Dmitry, Mikhail; might as well give the boy some respect," Vladimir corrected him. "Actually," he gently lifted Dmitry up onto his shoulders, "Why don't we go listen in? I myself wish I could be in the loop with some big decisions in the family, as I'm sure you do."
He carried his young friend to the cusp of the dining room. The royal family was already seated and awaiting their meals. The tsarina was giving some sort of diatribe against some candidate or other, but Dmitry barely heard her as his eyes went straight for Princess Anastasia again. Yes, she was definitely distraught, staring numbly ahead into space and looking like she wasn't hungry. If only he could say something to her to make her feel better, although he wasn't sure what he could say. He kept his eyes on her as Grand Duke Michael's voice went up. "...incredibly clear, Nicholas, that Witte is far and away the best person to succeed Stolypin," the tsar's brother was demanding, "We had our best years financially with him in control; we can easily return to that state with him back as Prime Minister."
"I agree wholly with Michael, Nicholas, it would have to be Witte," the dowager agreed, "No one else qualifies as well."
"But, if I may," Rasputin's voice rose up from the far end of the table, "Let us also not forget, your Majesty, that Witte bullied you into accepting the constitution a few years back. Would you really want someone that insubordinate to you in power again?"
"Father, Witte's positives more than outweigh his negatives," Maria Feodorovna snapped as gently as she could muster, "And I wouldn't consider the constitution a negative at..."
"You may not, but I do," Alexandra spoke up forcefully, "Witte stole Alexei's legacy through cowardly actions. I won't stand to have him back, because he doesn't deserve to be prime minister again."
"And who might you suggest, then?" her mother-in-law dared her.
"Father, who would you call for?" Alexandra deferred to Rasputin.
"Let me see...God is telling me to go with...Goremykin," the faux mystic proclaimed.
"Goremykin is too old and didn't have any idea what he was doing the last time he held the post," Michael scoffed.
"But he has experience, which comes in handy in troubled times like this," Rasputin countered, "Trust me, your Majesty, Goremykin is more than qualified to..."
"Are you done with Dmitry's services yet, Count Vladimir?" hissed Lebedev's poisonous voice from behind the two of them, "He has work to do in the kitchen if you are!"
"Well, I suppose our work is done," Vladimir gently lowered Dmitry to the ground, "But I hope we can work together again, my young friend. And as a token of my goodwill..."
He pulled out a ruble and flipped it in Dmitry's direction, but Lebedev snatched it out of midair before he could grab it. "Thank you, Count; Dmitry, let's go," he dragged his ward back towards a secret servant entrance in the wall.
"That was my money!" the boy protested.
"And don't forget you are a servant here, and you're not qualified to hold any money just yet!" Lebedev glared at him, "And further, don't you ever talk back to me if you know what's good for you. Now get back to work!"
He shoved him forcefully up the corridor. Dmitry sighed and trudged back to the kitchen. Still, it wasn't a total loss. He at least knew he had a friend in Count Vladimir if nothing else. Now if only someone could cheer the princess up...
Anastasia couldn't sleep at all. The image of the prime minster crawling into the box at the opera mortally wounded was seared into her brain as she stared up at the ceiling in her bedroom. At least the shooter was dead too. But who else was out there, if anyone? And could she be among his or her next targets? How safe was the palace really?
She sat upright and sighed. It was no use; she needed an outlet if she could ever hope to get to sleep. "Too bad you can't be any help," she whispered, gently stroking her dog Joy, sound asleep at the foot of the bed (a birthday present two years ago-her favorite birthday present to date, in fact). Perhaps her father was still up at this hour.
She softly climbed out of bed, trying to be careful not to wake Marie, still sound asleep next to her, slipped on her robe and slippers and sneaked out the door. The hallways of the palace were largely dark. But there was a distinct light visible at the end of the hall in her father's study. He was still up after all. She bustled towards the light and stood in the doorway. The tsar was hunched over his desk, going over several papers before him. "...same thing every time, they want more, more, more!" he was muttering under his breath, "When I reconvened this session of the Duma I should have made sure Guchkov and Shulgin stayed home! The two of them cause more trouble than...!"
He noticed his youngest daughter in the doorway. "Oh, sweetheart, can't sleep?" he asked her gently, "Come on in," he gestured her up to his desk, "I guess you're still worried about what happened today, huh? Come on over here."
He gave her a big hug. "Papa," Anastasia found her voice crackling, "Are we safe in here?"
The tsar looked a bit somber. "I understand," he stroked her hair, "But I give you my word, Anastasia, nothing bad is going to happen to you or your brother or sisters as long as there's an ounce of life left in my body. I'd give away the throne before I let anything happen to any of you. We'll catch whoever was behind what happened to Mr. Stolypin soon, and put them away for the rest of their lives. So don't you let this bother you, OK?"
"I'll try," she told him, "Grandmama told me about what happened in Japan before I was born..."
"I had a feeling she'd bring that up at some point," he looked resigned to this.
"I guess you were scared, weren't you, Papa?"
"Yes, basically the same as you are now, I guess," Nicholas admitted, "But the one thing I've learned, Anastasia, is that fears have to be overcome, or they'll eat us alive. After all, that's what a tsar's supposed to do anyway, overcome whatever tries to impede his efforts to rule his country well."
He forced a smile. "But let's not linger with the bad things right now," he lifted her up onto his lap, "Maybe you can help me with a few big decisions here, not least of all who's going to be the next prime minister."
"I'd go with Father Rasputin and go with Goremykin," Anastasia told him, "He's the oldest one, so he's probably the smartest."
"Well, that's one way of looking at it," Nicholas smiled openly now, "Yes, I was leaning towards him, so I guess he's the man for the job. Now let's see if the Duma takes him."
He sighed as he stared at the papers before him. "I'll confess, just between you and I, that sometimes I feel the world's starting to pass me by," he admitted to his youngest daughter, "When I was your age, everything was so easy; whatever the tsar said was law. Now the Duma's pulling me one way, the rest of the family's pulling me another, Father Rasputin often pulls me a third way-sometimes it's all a little much for a simple man like me to bear sometimes."
"Well, you're a strong man either way," Anastasia leaned her head into his chest, "You'll get through it all right. As long as you're able to make sure the people are happy."
"I'm trying that every day; I just wish there wasn't so much bureaucracy between me and them these days," he shook his head, "I'm glad we do have Father Rasputin available as a voice from the people to let me know. Cursed bureaucrats," he grumbled out loud, "I can't do anything if they keep blocking me." His expression brightened. "But I do know one thing they'll never stop me from being able to do."
"Make a young girl fly," he scooped her up and zoomed her through the air over his head. "Faster than a bird, or anything to ever take to the skies, it's the amazing flying Anastasia!" he shouted, laughing along with her. After about three minutes of carrying her around the room in "flight," he gently lowered her back to earth. "That felt good," he was definitely smiling now, "Why don't you run on back to bed now, and again, try not to worry about anything, because everything's going to be all right from here on out."
"I'll try. Good night, Papa," Anastasia gave him a farewell kiss. Indeed, she now felt much better, that nothing bad could happen as long as her father was around to take care of it.
Down in the depths of the palace, Dmitry also couldn't sleep. He stared at the top of his bunk in the cramped servants' quarters, dreaming about dancing with the princess. He'd been having that fantasy for a while now, and it really had varied very little: the two of them alone on the floor in the ballroom, the Romanov family all around and applauding them on-as well as two shadowy figures off to the side who had once been his parents; with no idea what they looked like, they could only remain shadowy. It was a fairy tale scene. And in this scene if nowhere else, the princess loved him. He could see it in her eyes, in her every step. If only it could be more than just a mere fantasy. If only...
He exhaled dreamily. "Thinking of her again?" his bunkmate leaned over the top bunk in the darkness. Yegveny would probably have qualified for Dmitry's best friend among the servants, himself an orphan from all the way out in Petropavlovsk.
"Yeah," Dmitry told him, "Even after what happened earlier, she was no less lovely tonight."
"Well personally I think Tatiana's the prettiest one," Yevgeny admitted, "Of course, there's age problem, so that won't work for me. Anyway, why don't you just tell her?"
"Just go on up to her and tell her how you feel."
"I can't just walk up to her and tell her!" Dmitry protested, "She'd laugh me right out of the room! And the tsar and tsarina would kill me for daring it! I'm too far below her to be a serious consideration for her."
"You know, you really have a problem with your own image," Yevgeny told him, "One thing my grandfather told me before he was killed was, regardless of where we stand, we've got to aim for what we want and go for it."
"Indeed," came an unwelcome voice from the other side of the barracks. A match was struck on the opposing bunk, revealing Artyom's cold and taunting face. "That's why the revolution will be coming soon," he approached the two other servants ominously, "And these wretched bourgeois slave drivers who exploit us will be thrown down and punished for their oppression of the proletariat, including your precious princesses."
"But they haven't done anything to deserve being thrown down!" Dmitry managed to say, a lot braver than he actually felt.
"They're as much bourgeoisie as the tsar is, therefore their destruction is a historical inevitability," Artyom all but laughed, "Marx and Chernyshevsky say so specifically in their bibles."
"Oh you and your stupid revolutionary texts again!" Yevgeny groaned from the top bunk, "How much longer are you going to get the message that no one here cares for your stupid theories of revolution and...!"
"I'd be more careful with your words, shrimp," Artyom reached out and seized Yevgeny's collar in the dark, "If you're not with the workers of the world, you're against them, and we'll have to destroy you too. I hope the day of revolution comes quickly so I can join the ranks of the vanguard and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. It'll be so much fun," he glared sinisterly down at Dmitry, "Making your stupid bourgeois Princess Anastasia be thrown down and crushed. It'll be more fun if..."
Dmitry heard not another word as he flung himself on top of Artyom in a rage. Unfortunately, Artyom had the strength advantage and pinned him to the floor, pinning his arm harshly behind his back. "That's why we'll win!" he taunted him, "We're stronger than you, and...!"
The bedroom door swung open. "What's going on in here!?" a furious Lebedev demanded.
"He started it," Dmitry and Artyom pointed at each other.
"Back to bed, both of you, or no food for a week!" the chef snarled, making sure they were both in bed before slamming the door shut again. "Of course," Artyom continued hissing across the room, "If by some chance the Khlyst come back, that'll make it even better. They supported the work of Zhelyabov and Barronikov back in the 70s and 80s; an alliance between the two of them would ensure a total crushing of the capitalist..."
Dmitry jammed his pillow over his ears, trying to block his tormentor out. He didn't care to hear anymore about supposedly great revolutionaries, whose terrible tactics and lack of belief in any responsibility for one's actions made him feel sick most of the time anyway. His mind drifted back to the Princess Anastasia, no doubt dreaming peacefully above him without a care in the world. A princess wholly deserving of a prince, he knew. "She'd only look at me if I were rich," he rued in his mind, "I've got to get enough money to even have a chance..."
Another day, another group of people with special needs," Rasputin gazed with a dark grin through the keyhole of his private office in his apartment.
"Maybe today one of them'll actually be someone we can use, sir," Bartok squinted through himself, "We've gone too long with anyone of use to us dropping in. Oh, and sir, I have been wondering for a while now, why'd you press for Goremykin as prime minister? He's not inclined to work for you."
"He's merely a stopgap, Bartok, someone who won't force me away from the tsar and will hold the fort until I can find someone who will be subordinate to me alone to hold the post. And we'll find him soon enough; there'll always be someone greedy enough for power that can serve me well," Rasputin sat down behind his gold-plated desk. His operation, ostensibly to provide an opening to the palace for petitioners to the tsar-a service Nicholas had earnestly approved of given his openly stated desire of getting closer to the people-was a convenient cover for him to search out possible conscripts to the Khlyst, or officials he could use at a later time. He pressed the button on his intercom. "Is everything set out there for today's business, Akilina?" he asked his secretary.
"I think you'll be quite please with this lot, Rasputin; we've got quite a few people who could be easily lured to our cause," Laptinskaya crowed. She had been a very easy convert to Rasputin's agenda, with a lust for absolute power and a cruel streak to match, and had joined him almost immediately after his bid for total control of the Khlyst had begun.
"Very well, send in the first petitioner," he commanded her.
"Dr. Peter Badmaev, coming in right now," she told him. Moments later, the office door swung open. A man with Asiatic-looking features wearing a Chinese-style robe entered. "Mr. Rasputin, is it?" he asked.
"It is," the sorcerer told him, "State your request for my aid."
"I'm Dr. Peter Badmaev from Siberia-Doctor of Tibetan medicine," he explained, "Mr. Rasputin, I am currently the head of several large camel farms and a gold mining operation in Siberia, in addition to my practice with herbs and potions. My reason for coming is this: I have long believed Russia should have control over Mongolia and Tibet. I have petitioned the palace repeatedly to conquer these regions, but I've been rebuffed by the tsar each and every time. Since you are close to him, I was wondering if you could force him to accede to this."
"Hmm," Rasputin mused, rising from his chair and pacing around, "It appears, Mr. Badmaev..."
"DOCTOR, if you don't mind."
"Doctor Badmaev, you have a thing for power," Rasputin started to grin, "That really isn't so bad a trait as many would say. Tell me, given that you know some magic, are you affiliated with any magical group?"
"No, I am not."
Rasputin walked over to the wall and tapped it with his reliquary. A door magically appeared, with howling sounds and green mist on the other side. "Come with me, Doctor, and we'll talk over your proposal," he told Badmaev, throwing the door wide open. He walked forward onto a thin gray walkway extending into the distance in a sea of green mist. Demonic faces appeared and disappeared on each side without warning. "Come on if you want what you ask for!" he shouted back at the Siberian potion master, "Or is your heart not what you say it is!?"
Badmaev shivered, but walked through the door onto the walkway. The door slammed shut behind him and vanished. "All right," Rasputin had to shout to be heard over the wailing, "Here's the deal, Dr. Badmaev: you join with me and agree to serve only me from here on till the day you die. In return, I will see to it you get Mongolia and Tibet as your own personal fiefdoms. Is it a deal?"
He extended his hand. Badmaev hesitated for a split second, then shook it. Lightning crackled around them. Congratulations, Doctor, you are now a fully-initiated Khlyst," Rasputin commended him, "When I summon you, you will come to this apartment and through the door you just passed through and follow it..." he galloped down the walkway to another door which sprang up out of nowhere. He pushed it open and stepped into his citadel on Ipatiev Mountain, "...right to our home base," he concluded to the wheezing doctor as he came through the door as well, looking glad to be out of the ghostly intermediate area. "Therefore, I suggest you move your base of operations here to St. Petersburg so you'll be able to get here quickly when I need you."
"Uh, yes, I see," Badmaev quickly regained his composure, "Well, Mr. Rasputin, as long as I get what I ask for, you can count on my services."
"I'm sure I will, Doctor," Rasputin told him, "Let's head back to the office, shall we?"
The two of them went back through the unearthly void to the office on Gorokhovaya Street. "Take care now," Rasputin wished his new associate a good day once he was back behind his desk. He snickered loudly. "Another day, another recruit after all," he grinned at Bartok on the ledger on the corner of the desk, "And I didn't evening have to grant this one temporary magical powers."
"Just one little detail, sir; the whole brewing and bubbling bit behind the door; I kind of think that'll scare people off if you keep having the inter-dimensional sidewalk work that way when you get them to work for you," the bat proposed, "Maybe if the two of you just popped out and popped back in back on the mountain, that would be so much quicker and easier." He pressed down on the intercom button. "OK Akilina, who's next?"
"Colonel Vladimir Wulfert," Laptinskaya announced, "He wishes for revenge against someone who's wronged him."
"Send him in," Rasputin leaned over his pet to the speaker. A very angry-looking colonel with a bald head and large mustache stormed in. "I hear you can make things happen," he told the sorcerer, "I would like you to bring down Grand Duke Michael Romanov by any means necessary."
"The Grand Duke?" the sorcerer's eyes flew wide open. Perhaps the chance for a grand blow against the Romanovs was in the offering, "Explain to me how he has offended you."
"The blasted grand duke stole my wife the other night!" Wulfert thundered, "He stormed right in and tore her away from me against her and my own will! He has been lusting after her for weeks, and now he has crossed the line! I demand he be made to pay at once!"
"Very well, Colonel. Please, step back into the waiting room and I'll see what I can do for you," Rasputin waved him out the door. Once it was shut, he set the reliquary right in front of himself. "All right, let's see what the story here is," he told Bartok, waiting for a scene to emerge from the mist. He could see an image of Gatchina-specifically the parade ground of the famed Blue Cuirassier Regiment, which the sorcerer knew Michael commanded. "Company, dismissed!" Michael, in full uniform was in fact barking to the members of his unit lined up before them, prompting them to break up in different directions. The grand duke's gaze turned to the right, where, off in the distance, a rather pretty young woman was watching from behind a fence. She turned pale and ducked down behind the fence upon realizing he was watching. Michael, however, smiled warmly and spurred his horse towards her. "Well hello there," he greeted her with a kind tone, "I thought I'd saw you coming back to watch again. Four times now over the last three weeks at least, I've counted..."
"Your Highness, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to..." she stammered fearfully.
"Oh, there's nothing to be upset about," Michael climbed down off his horse, "It's Natalia, I believe, isn't it? You're Colonel Wulfert's wife, aren't you?"
"Yes, yes I am, and he's a good, good man..." she rambled quickly, her eyes darting around in all directions, as if expecting her husband to appear from thin air at any moment.
"Good man, is he? Where did you get those bruises from?" frowning, Michael bent down to look her square in the eye. Rasputin clearly saw scores of red marks all over the woman's face. "Has he been mistreating you lately?" the grand duke inquired solemnly, "Every time I see you watching the drills, it seems like..."
"No, no, you have it wrong, he'd never do a thing like that!" she insisted, but her fear was quite audible.
"Natalia, you can tell me," Michael reached out and took her hand, "I hold the men under my command under the highest moral order, and if Colonel Wulfert has been doing anything unbecoming of an officer..."
"So here you are," came Wulfert's stern voice. The colonel approached the fence, an angry scowl directed at his wife, "I thought I told you to get dinner ready by the time we were done here!?"
"It, it, it is ready, honest!" Natalia rambled, not meeting his eyes, "I...I was just getting a breath of fresh air..."
"Well this is more than breath enough; back to the barracks you go," Wulfert seized her roughly by the arm.
"Colonel, I'd like a moment of your time..." Michael tried to intercede.
"It can wait, General Romanov; I've had as long a day as you, and my wife needs to cook me a good hot meal," Wulfert glared back at him.
"Colonel Wulfert, would you care to explain why your wife seems to have those marks on her face...?"
"With all due respect, that's none of your business, General Romanov, even if you are second in line to the throne!" Wulfert shouted contemptuously at him, "My wife is my concern alone, especially since she loves me dearly, don't you!?" he shot Natalia a harsh glare that made her nod wildly, "So if you have no further business, General, I bid you good night. Let's go, back to the barracks where you belong," he dragged Natalia harshly towards the barracks. She shot a pleading backwards glance towards Michael that clearly telegraphed the words, "Help me." Rasputin could now in fact make out Michael's eyes starting to water. "No one as beautiful as she is should be treated like that..." he mused darkly, leaping back onto his horse and spurring it away from the fence.
"No dice, sir, he's lying to us," Bartok shook his head, "We've got nothing with this case."
"We'll see," Rasputin wasn't as convinced yet. "Show me more!" he commanded the reliquary. The scene changed. He jumped as a heavy pot was flung straight at him in the mist. Natalia was cowering in terror in the corner of Wulfert's barracks as the colonel, clearly drunk, staggered murderously towards her, a sword in hand. "You're utterly useless, Natalia!" he screamed hatefully at her, "You can't even cook me a proper meal! I ought to teach you a lesson about respecting your husband!"
"No, don't, I beg you!" she pleaded him as his shadow fell over her menacingly.
"You'd better learn from this not to let me down again!" he roared, raising the sword high. Suddenly Michael burst through the door. "You'll do no such thing, Colonel!" he shouted furiously, thrusting a pistol in Wulfert's face, "Drop it!"
Pale, Wulfert complied. Michael kept the pistol trained on him as he bent down to the terrified woman. "It's OK, Natalia, it's over now," he extended her his hand, "Come on with me; I'll take you out of here."
"Keep your hands off her; she is my wife, and I...!" Wulfert started to protest, but went silent as Michael pressed the gun hard between his eyes. "It's all right, you can trust me," he tried to assure Natalia. Shaking, she nonetheless reached out for his hand and took hold of it. "Thank you," she managed to whisper softly.
"Come here," Michael pulled her into a hug, "No one as lovely as you should be treated this way. Come with me to my palace. I'll give you a whole wing to yourself for the night, and make sure the staff gives you a full course meal fit for..."
He'd taken his eyes off the colonel, who now jumped him with a roar. Michael, however, flipped Wulfert to the floor and planted a foot on his chest. "I said, don't you ever come near her again if you value your life, you abusive filth!" he growled, shoving his pistol right in his subordinate's face again, "And for the record, Colonel, consider yourself dishonorably discharged from the Cuirassiers, effective immediately!"
He slugged Wulfert hard for good measure, knocking him senseless. "Come on, let's go while he's out," he told Natalia, putting an arm around her and leading her out the door, "You can stay with me as long as you feel comfortable, and under my roof, you'll be treated like a royal princess, I promise that. And when..."
The mist dissipated. "Nope, nothing we can use here," Bartok shook his head.
"On the contrary, my little friend," Rasputin was smiling darkly, "This is exactly what we can use."
"Huh?" the bat frowned, "But you saw what..."
"I did see it. But the point, Bartok, is what the tsar doesn't know won't hurt us," the sorcerer rose up, his fists clenched, "If he believes I carry a holy vision that shows the colonel's side of the story to be true, then it'll be only the tsarevich left to succeed him once I get through with the grand duke-the tsarevich whom I control. Akilina," he pressed the intercom button, "Show Colonel Wulfert back in. He and I are going to take a little trip to the palace to plead his case."