Maneuvering to the Top
"I swear to you, Nicholas, that's not how it happened!" a desperate Michael pleaded to his brother in the throne room, "I saw...!"
"I saw everything unfold in a dream presented to me last night!" Rasputin proclaimed, sweeping his arms grandly through the air, "I saw the grand duke break into Colonel Wulfert's house, force him to the ground at gunpoint, beat him, and drag his wife off against her will! Concerned for her well-being, I searched out the colonel, and he informed me that my vision was entirely true, is that right, Colonel?"
"Indeed it is, Father," Wulfert grinned darkly, "And now, your Majesty," he told the tsar sycophantically, "I demand as a Russian citizen that the Grand Duke be punished severely for this crime if he does not return Natalia to me immediately."
"Why, so you can go ahead finish what you were starting and kill her!?" Michael roared at him, "Nicholas, you've got to hear...!"
"Silence," the tsar held up his hand, looking glum and grim, "Michael, you've been exposed by a dream from Heaven; they are never wrong. I'm going to have to demand you tell us where you've taken Natalia Wulfert, or I'll have to come down on you severely."
"I can't do that," Michael shook his head.
"Michael, the fact we are brothers is not germane here," Nicholas glared him down, "You are violating a cardinal law of Christian faith to steal another man's bride, and thus bringing shame to our whole family. Now for the last time, where did you take her!?"
Michael lowered his head and shook it hard. "Very well," Nicholas's voice was cracking, "Father, since you've uncovered this, tell me what punishment I should dole out?"
"Let me wait for a sign here, your Majesty," Rasputin glanced skyward and closed his eyes. "...it must be banishment, your Majesty, lifetime banishment from Russia."
"Banishment for trying to save a woman's life!?" Michael was aghast, "I don't think God would find that fair at...!"
"Silence!" Nicholas shouted again, lowering his head in misery as well. "So be it then. Michael Alexandrovich Romanov, you are to leave Russia immediately-without Natalia Wulfert-and never return. Is that clear?"
Michael nodded numbly. He turned to walk away, then stopped halfway to the door and looked back. "I'll do it, Nicholas," he said softly, "But remember this: if Alix had been in the same situation, would you have done the same if she wasn't your wife?"
"I probably would have, but that's not relevant to this case," the tsar had his hands over his face in grief, "Now go, please."
Michael trudged out of the throne room, a broken man. "Do not feel bad, your Majesty, you have done the right thing," Rasputin commended him, winking at Wulfert when it was clear the tsar wasn't looking at either of them.
"I sincerely hope so, Father," Nicholas seemed choked with regret already, "Now you might say the dynasty's entirely in your hands."
"Well you won't have to worry, your Majesty, for these hands will take very, very good care of you," the sorcerer winked at his bat this time, doing his best to suppress the deep snicker he wanted to let out at the moment. The royal family was falling deeper into his hands.
"How could you!?" Maria Feodorovna berated her son over the phone, "Your own brother...!"
"I didn't have a choice, Mother!" Nicholas protested grimly, "The evidence was overwhelming that he was guilty of kidnapping and assault, and possibly worse! I didn't want to do it any more than you think I do, but the law is the law! Besides, it is what Father would have done."
"Nicholas, you are not your father! And you based the judgment entirely on a dream Rasputin had!? Doesn't it seem a hair suspicious to you that this whole case again Michael was built on his vision!?"
"It's FATHER Rasputin, Mother, and dreams don't lie, especially when they come from a holy man, you know that quite well."
The dowager tried to suppress the scream of complete frustration she wanted to let out. "Listen, Nicholas, and listen good!" she roared, "As the former empress of this country and your mother, I demand you curb Rasputin's influence at once, if not completely remove him from the palace! If you are unwilling to reverse what I'm certain was a grave mistake against your brother, I demand you at least make sure Rasputin doesn't try anything like this again!"
"Now Mother, you know I can't do that."
"Yes you very well can! If you could use your power to send Michael away, you can certainly do the same with that...that...power-mad grandstander!"
"Mother, you don't understand the position I'm in!" Nicholas shouted desperately, "Even if I wanted to, Alix wouldn't let me! We need him for Alexei's sake; you saw it yourself, only he could stop the bleeding!"
"Well maybe he cured him for good when he stopped the attack when he first came to our attention, assuming you're right," she argued forcefully, "In which case, it wouldn't hurt to at least send him on a vacation! You need not tell Alexandra the whole story, just please get him away from the royal family for a little while to see for sure!"
There was silence on the other end of the line before the tsar spoke up again. "And you're sure that's what I should try?"
Nicholas sighed on the other end. "All right, I suppose it couldn't hurt to try-but if Alix finds out, it was your idea, Mother."
"And don't take this as a banishment for you, Father, because it isn't," the tsar told a kneeling Rasputin, "it's just, well...we'd like you to take a little vacation, that's all. Just take off for a couple of months back in your home diocese, wherever you said it was..."
"Pokrovskoe, yes, so please, just take the first train there and wait until we call you again, which won't be too long, I hope, if we'll need your services again," Nicholas shook his head softly, "And thank you for what you've done for us so far again. We'll have a cab to take you to the station outside."
"I respect your decision, your Majesty," Rasputin bowed, "Just remember to call if you need me at any point in the near future."
He rose up and walked out of the throne room, muttering softly to Bartok on his shoulder as he did, "And that'll be a whole lot sooner than he thinks. If they think they can get him to force me away, I'll show them what I'm made of."
The tennis ball sailed over the net, far too fast for Anastasia to hope to make contact with. "Not so hard!" she protested to Olga on the other side of the net, "Give us a chance over here; this isn't a professional competition!"
"Service," her oldest sister was already winding up for the next serve. This one shot right by Marie on the other side of the court. "I don't think these teams were drawn up too fairly!" Marie had complaints of her own.
"Why didn't you say anything at the beginning then?" Tatiana had to ask them, "If you didn't want the usual splits, you should have said so."
"How would we know you two would be playing for keeps? Time!" Marie called again as Olga began winding up another serve. "Any ideas!?" she whispered in Anastasia's ear, "Otherwise we're going to get killed here!"
"Well," Anastasia thought hard, "They have alternated back and forth between us, so I guess she'll be bringing it back my way next. Why don't we try a double attack; two heads are better than one, after all. Just make sure you get over quickly enough."
"Oh I see," Marie nodded knowingly. She returned to her usual position on the court. When Olga's next serve did in fact come Anastasia's way, she leaped towards her younger sister, and the two of them made contact at the same time. Over the clang of their rackets, the ball zipped between the two older sister before they had a chance to react. "Score, at last!" Marie raised her arm in celebration.
"Uh, was that legal?" Tatiana stared confusedly at Olga.
"I certainly don't think it was," the oldest sister looked miffed. "Alexei, it wasn't legal, was it?" she demanded to their brother, sitting on the sidelines stroking Joy in his hands. "Well..." he said hesitantly.
"WASN'T IT!?" she waved her racket menacingly at him. Before he could give in to her demands, however, there came the sound of trumpets and many footsteps trudging out of the woods towards the royal hunting castle. "Father's done," Tatiana realized, setting down her racket, "Let's see how many he was able to bag this year."
The five of them abandoned the court and approached the procession. Servants were toting along the bodies of no fewer than a dozen large deer before the tsar, who seemed quite pleased as he marched back to the castle, rifle in hand. "At least two more than last year, Papa," Marie was the first to reach him, looking impressed, "That's pretty good."
"Yes, there seems to be a little more activity in the woods this year, I've found," he gave her a big hug, then repeating it on each of his children in turn, "Who won the game?"
"We did," both sets of sisters said simultaneously. "Huh?" they glanced accusingly at each other, also simultaneously.
"I see," Nicholas chuckled, "Olga, Tatiana, didn't I ask the two of you to split up this time?"
"We agreed we were too good a team to be broken up," Olga said strongly.
"I see," he chuckled again, "Well," he checked his watch, "Looks like it's about an hour and a half until dinner, so finish up anything the four of you want to try before then. Your mother's going to be to see how big this year's haul is too, I know it."
He strolled off, whistling. "An hour and a half," Marie glanced towards the fields and woods to the north, "I bet I can be the first one to the lake this year."
"You'll never be first," Tatiana scoffed, "You just don't have the riding skills the rest of us have."
"Oh really? First one to the stables gets to go first," Marie rushed off in the direction of the stables.
"Wait," Alexei called out, looking desperate, "Can't one of you take me too? I won't cause any trouble; I'll just hold on to the back of..."
"No, because you know the rules; nothing dangerous," Olga frowned at him, "But we'll tell you all about it when we get back, so you won't miss out, really. Just have fun with the dog until we get back."
The sisters rushed for the stables again. At the corner however, however, Anastasia stopped and glanced forlornly back at Alexei, staring sadly ahead into space, barely noticing Joy rubbing against his feet. Plus, she could hear him sniffing as well. It just wasn't fair he could do nothing with his condition. If only there could be a way...
And then she realized: the riding trail to the lake was well away from the castle. No one went out there when her father wasn't hunting, so no one would have to know Alexei was going riding. Flushed with delight, she rushed towards him. "Alexei, I..." she started to say.
"Why do I have to be different from everyone else!?" he lamented to her, fighting back the tears, "I just want to..."
"I know, and this time you will, Alexei," she told him gently, making him spin in surprise, "I won't say a word if you won't."
"You mean...?" his face lit up.
"Shh," she looked around. No one seemed to be watching them. "Come on, quick," she took his hand and led him towards the stables, "We'd better do this quickly."
Fortunately, their sisters had already mounted up and headed off towards the lake, so the stables were also empty at the moment. Anastasia scanned the horses for one that would be docile enough to handle Alexei without problems given his beginner status. "There, this one will do for you," she told him, pointing to an old, graying one in a corner stall. She strained to lift her brother up into the saddle. "Now just hold the reins really tight," she instructed him, "I'll be right behind you all the time. Feeling all right?"
Alexei nodded, looking half scared stiff and half exhilarated. "Come on, let's go," he snapped the reins. The horse galloped gently out of the stables. "This way, this way," Anastasia waved at him, settling into the saddle of her own mount and putting it in a mild gallop; the quicker they got away from the castle, the better; once on their own in the wilderness, they could ease up a little. "Don't act too scared; it can tell if you're scared. Don't worry, I'm right here," she eased up and let Alexei go by, "Now get him up as fast as you feel comfortable with; I'll keep pace."
Alexei nodded, still looking a bit white in the face, and cracked the reins hard again. The horse went indeed faster as the two of them went around the bend and into a patch of woods. Slowly the tsarevich's expression became much more excited. "This is great!" he told his sister, increasing his pace even more, "I could probably do this for hours!"
"You're doing good, Alexei, you're really doing good!" Anastasia commended him, smiling, "Let see if we can catch up with everyone else!"
"Here he comes, sir, heir to the throne at one o'clock," Bartok announced from his perch atop a pine about a mile up the trail.
"Good," Rasputin called up from the bushes below, "Let me know if he changes course at all."
He fingered the reliquary eagerly, ready to use it and use it well. Once he was done with the tsarevich now, he'd never be forced out again. He glanced out through the bushes. Alexei's horse was coming closer and closer now, arcing around a wide turn around the bend in front of his hiding place. "That's it, come right to me," he snickered, extending the reliquary forward, "All right, Nikolasha, let's see how well you do without me around now."
He fired a green demon-like figure out of the reliquary. It quickly assumed the form of a snake. As Alexei rode right overhead, it struck at the horse's leg with a loud hissing. This was enough: the horse bucked in terror, almost throwing Alexei off right then and there, and tore madly down the trail with the heir to the throne clinging on to the reins for dear life. Behind him, Anastasia, coming around the corner too late to see the magical mishap or even Rasputin's arm retracting into the bushes, lurched to a sudden stop upon seeing her brother's horse suddenly run off wild. "Alexei!" she cried, hearing him cry out in terror. "Go, go!" she spurred her own horse as fast as it would go, but Alexei's mount was going far too fast for her to get anywhere close to him. It then leaped to the right off the trail and down a steep embankment, throwing Alexei sideways off the saddle still clinging to the reins, and charged across a small river, bucking in midstream. This last motion threw Alexei off, sending him flying hard into a rock and sinking softly into the water. It was about ten seconds later that Anastasia finally caught up. Horror-stricken, she dove off the horse and waded through the water to where her brother lay stricken. "Alexei no!" she screamed, panicked to see the water already streaming red with his blood, "Oh God Alexei no!" she pulled him upright and shook him desperately for any sign of life. "Help, anyone, I need a doctor!" she screamed for anyone to hear, "Olga, Tatiana, anyone, help!"
"You've got to let me in!" Alexandra shrieked hysterically, pulling on the locked doors to the room Alexei had been taken to, "I know how to stop all this!"
"He can't do any good, and he's a thousand miles away anyway!" Maria Feodorovna upbraided her, barely able to suppress her own terrified anxiety with the dire situation.
"Let me in, please let me see him!" the tsarina paid no attention and continued pounding maniacally on the door. The dowager sighed sadly and trudged down the hall, desperate to just get away from the scene of the tragedy. She'd taken the first and fastest train to Spala once the horrible news had reached her, and if nothing else was relieved Alexei had at least stayed alive long enough for her to make it there and see him. It didn't look good at all, though; worse than it had ever been, in fact. Alexei hadn't regained consciousness yet, and had lost an inordinate amount of blood already. If the doctors didn't have anything positive to report, that would probably mean...she couldn't bear to consider it, especially since Michael was no longer around as a possible heir himself.
Her mind turned to poor Anastasia, in hysterics of her own since help had arrived. Even now, she could hear her granddaughter crying severely just around the corner. Steeling herself she turned the corner to see her hunched limply on the couch. "Anastasia, don't feel..." she started to say.
"It's all my fault, Grandmama!" the girl sobbed uncontrollably, "I just wanted him to be able to play like everyone else; I never wanted this to happen! He's going to die, and if I hadn't...!"
"There, there, it's not your fault," Maria Feodorovna pulled her close, barely able to hold back her own tears, "You did nothing wrong at all. This was wholly an accident, do you understand me? And it's no given he's going to die from all this; there's always hope until the doctors say otherwise. So don't think like that, please."
She could hear the door to Alexei's room opening up now. She debated whether or not she wanted to hear what they had to say. Anastasia answered the question for her, rushing breathlessly up the hall. "Please, please tell me he's going to be all right!" she begged the distinguished doctors her father had called from every available city around Spala.
"Yes," Nicholas himself rushed up as well, "Please tell us that...!"
"Your Majesty," the head doctor shook his head sadly, "The heir is now suffering bleeding of the kidneys, and his prior wounds are experiencing blood poisoning. We've done all we can, but the only thing we can advise..." he wiped away a tear of his own, "...is to contact a priest to deliver last rites, for that is the only possible conclusion of the heir's condition."
Alexandra screamed in agony and collapsed to the floor. Her husband slowly did the same. "So it's all over now," he mumbled numbly, "My son is..." he broke down, "My poor, dear son..."
"Wait," his wife bolted back up, "If we can reach Father Rasputin, he can still stop this!"
"Alix, he's a thousand miles away, what good can...!?"
"Telegram him, now!" she demanded, "If you hadn't sent him away, we wouldn't be in this mess! If he could heal Alexei up close, nothing says he can't do it from afar, so wire him right away!"
"Trusting fools, just as I thought," Rasputin laughed out loud as he watched the somber scene unfold through the reliquary's mist from his position in the bushes, "Oh well, might as well not disappoint them, right Bartok?"
"Guess not, sir," the bat shrugged, moving further up his master's arm to get a better look, only to have the image disappear and be replaced by a shot of Laptinskaya sitting behind a desk. "Oh Akilina, it is I," the sorcerer announced, making her spin and bow, "In a few minutes, the tsar will be wiring you begging for help for the tsarevich. Send the following telegram to him: 'God has seen your tears and answered your prayers. Do not cry. Your son will live. Signed, Father Rasputin.'"
"As you wish, Rasputin," Laptinskaya started dictating her boss's request. "And then we lift the curse then?" Bartok inquired as the mist vanished.
"No, we wait until sunrise," Rasputin chuckled darkly, "If I've got them in agony now, might as well let them suffer a little longer before I make them all indebted to me for the rest of their miserable, worthless lives."
"Here is the miracle we've been looking for, gentlemen," a calmer and triumphant Alexandra waved Rasputin's telegram in front of the doctors' faces, "Alexei will live, so your prognosis was all wrong."
The doctors stared at the telegram, turned to each other, and shook their heads in unison. They trudged grimly back into Alexei's room. "All right, don't believe me, but don't say I didn't tell you so," she snapped at them.
She all but skipped up the hall to where the rest of the family was glumly keeping vigil. "He's praying for Alexei now," she announced to them, "He'll be all better very soon." (had she looked in the nearest mirror, however, she might have caught a faint glimpse of Rasputin watching from the bushes outside. The sorcerer tapped his reliquary, which stopped glowing again, and quickly slid completely out of sight).
"I hope so," Tatiana seemed hopeful yet still despondent.
"If he's not, then let's just go ahead and change the succession law like I've been saying for years," Olga groused out loud, "Because I just can't see why..."
"OH JUST SHUT UP!" Anastasia abruptly upbraided her, furious, "You've been jealous of him since the day he was born, and I'm not going to take any more from you on him!"
"Oh really, well why don't you do something about it then!?" Olga dared her. Before things could get more heated, however, the doctors came abruptly rushing up towards them all. "A miracle!" the lead doctor exclaimed, stunned and ecstatic, "The heir has returned to perfect health in a matter of minutes! I wouldn't have believed it if I didn't see it myself!"
"You mean...!?" Nicholas leaped up and led everyone into a full-on rush into Alexei's room. Sure enough, the heir to the throne now looked completely healthy and showed no signs that anything had been wrong in the first place. "Oh thank God, my son, my precious son!" the tsar embraced him ecstatically, "I thought we'd lost you!"
"And you would have banished the man whose prayers saved him!?" Alexandra glared at him, "I think Father Rasputin deserves a rich reward for his intercession here!"
"And indeed he will get it," Nicholas let her hug their son next, "I'll see to it he has the finest reward any commoner could wish for."
"For great and effective assistance to this dynasty, and to the Russian state, it is hereby decreed that Father Grigory Rasputin be on this day appointed official and formal state councilor," Nicholas proclaimed grandly to his court back in St. Petersburg. "Step forward, Father," he commended the sorcerer over a smattering of half-hearted applause from the rest of the court, clearly not that eager to have a commoner amongst themselves, "From this day forward you are one of us. May your wisdom from Heaven guide us for all days to come."
"I will interpret the Lord's signs as best I can for your Majesty," Rasputin bowed humbly, "With his blessing, I hope the rest of your reign will be bountiful and memorable."
The applause was again scattered and uninspired. In the back of the throne room, Maria Feodorovna shook her head softly. Either the best or the worst possible scenario had now come true; she was no longer quite sure which after having seen Alexei's recovery.
She turned and walked briskly out of the throne room and eventually out of the palace. "Back to the Anichkov Palace," she instructed her carriage driver, climbing inside. She mulled over everything that she'd seen with her own eyes. Had she been wrong about Rasputin from the start?
Bishop Feofan was waiting in the front parlor when she arrived, looking concerned. "So it is done now?" he asked solemnly.
"It is," she nodded, "I thought I'd never say this after we've started working together, Bishop, but maybe we're wrong about him. To be able to cure Alexei from so far away...maybe he actually is a holy man, and we've prejudiced..."
"Gendarme Chief Dzhunkovsky, requesting your presence," one of the courtiers announced from outside the parlor. The two of them straightened up as Dzhunkovsky strode in, manila envelopes in hand. "Your Highness, Bishop, I have finished my investigation," he bowed to them, "You definitely need to hear what I've found."
"What, then?" Feofan leaned forward, eager to hear.
"This is big," Dzhunkovsky handed him the first set of papers from one of the envelopes, "My agents interviewed pretty much everyone in Pokrovskoe. Fact of the matter is, no one there's ever heard of a Father Rasputin."
"Really?" the dowager frowned. It appeared her first intuition about the man might be right after all-which would mean Nicholas had just made a grave error.
"There's more," Dzhunkovsky continued, "His route there from St. Petersburg by train would mean he'd have to get off at the Tyumen station and finish the journey on foot from there. We interviewed the station manager and most of the employees at Tyumen; not one of them saw Father Rasputin get off any train there over the last six months."
"Then where was he?" Feofan frowned at the official report in his hands, "If he didn't go there...was he stalking the royal family, waiting for a chance to...?"
He couldn't finish the thought. "But here's the thing that'll really cement your case," Dzhunkovsky handed the dowager his final envelope, "We picked up two men that several witnesses claim they saw talking to the revolutionary Bogrov right before he shot Stolypin..."
"Hermogen and Illiodor," Feofan frowned grimly at the photos of his former colleagues in the church.
"Not only did they confess to hypnotizing Bogrov to commit the murder," Dzhunkovsky went on, "they insist Rasputin was the mastermind. They're demanding to speak to the tsar immediately."
"Well then, I propose we give them that audience right away so Nicholas can reverse this situation," Maria Feodorovna rose up, determined, "Bring them to the Winter Palace at one, Mr. Dzhunkovsky. And order a search of Father Rasputin's apartment; if we can get more proof to seal the case against him, let's get it."