"Looks like about ten, fifteen thousand out there," Marie stared out the bedroom window at the troops marching regally past the palace on their way to the front. She sighed dreamily. "I'd love to marry a soldier some day. How about you, Anastasia?"
"Maybe," Anastasia was much more subdued watching the procession.
"Maybe!?" Marie raised her eyebrows, "Who could possibly be more romantic than someone in uniform? And what's been bothering you? You've been all down and out for the last week or so?"
"Well, it's just...it feels like the whole world's slipping away, and we're helpless to do anything about it," the younger girl confessed, staring down sadly at the troops marching into the distance, "Knowing a lot of these men won't be coming back from the war...probably a lot of them have children our age, and knowing they may end up without a family...I just wish there was more we could do to either stop it or end it soon."
"Actually, I was hoping it goes on a little while longer than everyone says it will; I don't want to spend the rest of my life listening to Olga and Tatiana gloating about the services they rendered for the country," Marie grumbled bitterly, "I hate being told I can't help because I'm too young, and they get to become nurses and honorary commanders. If there's one thing I..."
The door behind them opened with a creak. "Oh, Alexei," she noticed their brother standing there, "Weren't you with Papa on the balcony watching the parade?"
"Papa said I could go once everything got started," Alexei looked uneasy himself about the war. He bent down and rubbed behind Joy's ears when the dog nuzzled against his leg. "I still don't understand why we'd have to fight the Germans," he admitted, picking up the dog and joining his sisters at the window, "I don't hate them or the Austrians, and I don't see why they'd hate us."
"War doesn't make sense to either of us either," Anastasia put an arm around him, "It doesn't really make any sense at all to have to fight people over really questionable things. Like I was telling Marie, I wish there was something we could do."
"Yeah," Alexei nodded softly, "If I were tsar now, I'd put an end to this before we started. Since I'm not yet, let's just hope Father Rasputin and the generals are right and this is over with by Christmas."
"Well, maybe a little past Christmas," Marie mumbled, still not letting go of the fact her older siblings had official roles to play with the war effort. "In the meantime, Anastasia," she turned to her younger sister again, "If a uniform doesn't impress you, what will?"
"Well," Anastasia thought hard, "I'd just want a man who would treat me well and never lie to me about anything. That's basically it. He can be anything in the world as long as he has those traits." Her gaze went past the troops towards the smokestacks of St. Petersburg. "And he's out there somewhere right now, doing who knows what, probably not even knowing about me."
"Well I say you're crazy, but I guess it's your life," Marie shrugged, "But so you know, I can't see how you'll possibly meet anyone outside royal circles or the military, so who out there is even going to get a chance to impress you?"
"Cocktails, take as many as you want," Dmitry called out loud, holding up the tray with them for the many distinguished men in the rear wing of Count Vladimir's palace to take at their will. Many of them did, all without giving him the benefit of a glance. Dmitry didn't care as much as he normally might have, though, for he was just glad the count had remembered him. It had seemed ages ago that the two of them had last met face to face, and he was convinced the jovial nobleman had forgotten all about him, and so had been just as surprised as Chef Lebedev when Vladimir had called to request his services for a benefit at his palace to raise war funds. Lebedev had resisted initially, bringing both Vladimir's sobriety and sanity into question on the phone over why he would want Dmitry of all people for this, but had eventually relented when Vladimir had continued insisting, and so the boy for one night at least was surrounded by the wealthy and powerful men he'd long dreamed of coming into contact with since coming to work at the palace.
The benefit had been going at full steam for the last two hours, with the rich entrepreneurs and various noblemen gambling their fortunes at craps or cards or other gambling stations for war-related causes. Vladimir himself was stationed at the roulette wheel, dropping the ball into play for another roll as Dmitry approached him, his cocktail supply exhausted now for the moment. "Oh, black; too bad, Mr. Stankevich," the fat man told the scowling regional governor across from him, scooping the money on the table towards himself, "Anyone else want to take a chance? Yes, you want to?" he asked a mustached man nearby who was nodded and approaching the table, "Well, have a seat then and we'll get started. Oh, you need more, my little friend?" he noticed Dmitry next to him.
"Yes, sir," the boy nodded.
"Semyon, another round of cocktails, A.S.A.P.," Vladimir called to his nearest butler. "Ah, Bishop, still here?" he noticed Feofan walking by the roulette wheel, frowning darkly, "Well, again, thank you for agreeing to come and give your invocation to kick off the evening, and let me invite you to..."
"I'm not interested, Count Vladimir," Feofan scowled at him, "Indeed, although I agreed to give my blessing to the war's successful conclusion, I find these proceedings in very poor taste, especially given that so many average men are going to be dying in the trenches for what I find a questionable cause in conditions much less opulent than you have it at the moment."
"That's why they fight and we provide the money for them to do it," Prince Andronikov, having visibly imbibed a bit, half-stumbled over to the roulette wheel himself, "Where would the lower classes be without us, Bishop?"
"I could ask that question the other way around, Prince Andronikov," Feofan gave him an even sharper scowl, "You and Count Vladimir would do well to remember Obadiah: 'Though thy exalt thyself and make thy nest among the eagles, I will bring thee down, says the Lord.'"
He walked off, shaking his head in disgust. Prince Yusupov brushed by him, looking upset himself. "Vladimir, HE'S here," he told his friend.
"He who?" Vladimir groaned as his latest patron won substantially off him.
"You know very well who, and I'm very sure he wasn't invited," Yusupov told him sharply, "I won't stand to have him in here, so I want him out this instant. This very instant," he added sternly as a warning he wanted action taken. Vladimir sighed. "All right, Felix, if it will make you happy," he conceded, getting up from the wheel, "But given the amount of money I've heard he takes in these days, I'd say he'd make a good customer here. Mikhail, take over."
Andronikov slid behind the wheel. "You're up," he told the well-dressed general taking his place at the wheel now, "Take your pick, red or black?"
"Black," the general said. Andronikov spun the wheel and put the ball in play. Dmitry noticed him look suspiciously to both sides before pressing a button under the table that he hadn't seen Vladimir touch all night. The ball immediately zipped into a red space. "Sorry, General, you lose," the prince could barely suppress a snicker as he scooped the money into a basket under the table. He only then became aware of Dmitry's presence next to him. "You've got a problem, kid!?" he hissed softly, leaning towards him, "Let's get a few things straight; Vladimir may like you, but I certainly don't. So beat it."
A servant approached Andronikov as Dmitry turned to leave and whispered something in the prince's ear the boy couldn't make out. "Now?" he could hear Andronikov saying out loud, however, "Did he say what he wanted? OK, folks, we'll have to take a break; important business I have to attend to This is..."
His eavesdropping abruptly ended as he ran into a well-dressed man heading for the door. "Watch where you're going, you little rat!" the man snarled at him, storming away. It was then Dmitry noticed his wallet on the floor. "Sir, you forgot..." he called out, but the man was already out the door. Shrugging, he opened up the wallet-and almost had to pinch himself. For the wallet contained at least a hundred thousand rubles, maybe even more. He dug it out and stared eagerly at it-more money than he'd ever dreamed of holding in his life. Perhaps this was a gift from Heaven, he had to wonder, to ensure he'd have a chance with the Princess Anastasia. Yes, he could envision it now: this much money could easily get her a new fur coat at one of the pricier stores on the Nevsky Prospect, or at least a whole batch of fancy jewelry. He could leave whatever he could buy inside one of the royal family's private rooms, leaving his name and where she could reach him in the palace by it. And then, she would love him, that much no one could deny. He shoved the wallet into his pocket, eager now for the night to be over with...
"May I ask what you're doing, child!?" came a sudden stern voice from behind him. Feofan was behind him, his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. "I, uh, um..." Dmitry stammered.
"That money does not belong to you," the bishop extended his hand, "It is your moral obligation to return it."
"This very instant," Feofan glared right in his face. His heart crumbling, Dmitry handed the wallet over. "Very good," Feofan took his hand and bustled him out the door. "Who dropped this?" he questioned the boy.
"Him," Dmitry reluctantly pointed to the man in question, just about to close the door of his carriage. "I see," Feofan strode briskly towards the man. "Mr. Raspopov, you dropped this," he called out.
"Oh. Thank you, Bishop," the man eagerly reached out the door and snatched the wallet away. His carriage lurched down the street with a snap of the coachman's reins. Dmitry lowered his head. So close and yet still so far away. "I wasn't going to steal the money," he mumbled to Feofan softly.
"Well taking what isn't yours is stealing no matter which way you look at it, my boy," Feofan told him sternly.
"I wasn't going to use it for me!" Dmitry protested, "I was going to buy...!"
He trailed off. No, it was too embarrassing for anyone to know openly. Feofan's attention, however, had already been piqued. "Buy for whom?" he inquired.
"You would just laugh, Mr. Bishop."
"Maybe. Maybe not. Tell me what your motives were?" Feofan inquired. Dmitry sighed; cornered already. "Mr. Bishop," he started slowly, "I, uh, I'm not...I don't follow your...we'd never confess to a priest, my family, they'd consider it, being that we're..."
"Oh," Feofan seemed actually rather understanding, "Well, don't worry about that, child, for it makes no difference to me if you are Jewish-after all, we do worship the same God, don't we? Now whom would you be bent on taking large sums of money for?"
"Um," Dmitry shuffled about uncomfortably, "Actually, sir...it was meant for...for...the Princess Anastasia."
"Oh," Feofan repeated, a smile now crossing his face.
"But please don't tell her I said that!" Dmitry pleaded with him quickly, "She'd just laugh at me if she knew...I mean, someone like me, and someone like her...she'd just laugh..."
"Would she?" Feofan bent down to the boy's level, "What makes you so sure you would be rejected?"
"Princesses don't fall in love with kitchen boys," he lamented, "It's just as simple as that."
"Well I don't know about that," the bishop told him, "I for one would think a young woman like herself would appreciate a young man like yourself who would be willing to treat her well-and do so honestly, of course," the scowl returned for a minute, "No relationship can last that is built on deceit, remember that always. Now, if you are intent on buying her a gift, keep in mind that sometimes the simplest items may mean the most to a woman."
"But she doesn't deserve anything simple!" Dmitry told him, "She deserves only the best of everything; that's why I needed that money!"
"I see," Feofan mused, "Well, my boy..."
"It's Dmitry, Mr. Bishop, Dmitry Oldenstein."
"Well, Dmitry, it appears the only thing standing between the two of you is the way you see yourself," Feofan explained to him, "If you keep convincing yourself that you're unworthy of her affection, you'll become unworthy, it is as simple as that. If you love her, you don't need to be a millionaire. If your heart is pure, then she will love you in turn...but only if you truly give yourself a chance. Trust me on this; love need not be constrained by class, much as too many of the elite these days seem to think."
"I don't know..." Dmitry wasn't convinced.
"You'll see what I mean in time," Feofan assured him, leading him back into Vladimir's palace, "Just try and remember all that I've told you until then..."
"Mr. Rasputin, this is a pleasure," Andronikov greeted him inside the deserted drawing room in the west wing, "To what do I owe your request for my presence?"
"Mikhail Mikhailovich, I'm prepared to make you an offer that I believe will be much to your liking," Rasputin told the prince, "How would you like to become the greatest and highest Romanov of them all?"
"I don't follow," Andronikov looked confused.
"Mr. Andronikov, I sense you have no like of your present line of work," the sorcerer told him, "And who can blame you, sitting around at a desk all day with no real duty, despised and laughed at by your colleagues? Well, if you agree to my terms, I can elevate you above that; in fact," he paused dramatically, "I can make you more powerful than the tsar himself. Change is coming, Mr. Andronikov, and I can sense you are the type who can benefit from it. So, if you will agree to help me, you will gain power in Russia beyond your wildest dreams. And, moreover; Simonovich," he snapped his fingers at the sleazy-looking man behind him, who opened the briefcase he was holding to reveal a huge cache of diamonds. Andronikov's eyes bulged right out of his head. "Those'll be mine!?" he huffed greedily, "You name it, Mr. Rasputin, I'll do it."
"I thought your heart was in the right place, Mr. Andronikov," Rasputin snickered, "Yes, those diamonds shall be yours for your services, and you'll have an endless stream of money coming from me that will never run out. In return, I want you to find me people to run the new government-without actually letting them know that's what you're approaching them about, of course. Find me people who are as hungry for wealth and power as you are, people who will obey my orders without a second thought. And if you succeed in this when the time comes, you'll sit practically at my right hand when Russia is in my grasp. How you got all that?"
"Pretty much," Andronikov nodded, staring eagerly at the now closed suitcase, "And Vladimir...?"
"You don't need Vladimir, Mr. Andronikov; you're so much better than him that only you deserve this honor," Rasputin assured him, "He was holding you back all these years, you know; you could have gotten so much further ahead without him."
"Perhaps you're right," Andronikov was apparently an eager Judas, "Well, whatever you want, you've got it. Now can I have the first batch of diamonds now?"
"Simonovich," Rasputin ordered his associate, who handed over the briefcase. Laughing in delight, Andronikov ran out of the room with it. "That was easier than I thought, Rasputin," Simonvich remarked, "But don't you know how much this could get your other Khlysts up in arms, sparing a Romanov to work with us...?"
"It's only until the others are dead and out of the way, Aron Ivanovich," Rasputin told him, "Then we'll purge out that weak-minded dolt too. But if we can use one Romanov to destroy the others, so be it; it's a very fitting revenge indeed. He'll help fill out our shadow government, too, so we can concentrate on destroying the tsar's forces without worrying about that."
He glanced at the clock on the wall. "And it's time we leave this party anyway, for I have a meeting with the tsarina," he told Simonovich, walking briskly towards the door, "Why don't you fetch me a cab?"
"With pleasure, sir," Simonovich seemed quite eager to do so. He was not actually a Khlyst per se, having no actual magical qualities, but Rasputin had known when he'd heard about Simonovich's illicit dealings in St. Petersburg's underworld that he would be a strong ally to have given his insatiable greed and lust for power. And so, part of his agreement with Simonovich when he had approached him had been to grant the loan shark magical powers, conditioned on Rasputin's own whim and his power over the reliquary. He watched thus as Simonovich bounded down the steps of the palace, stopped at the curb, and pointed his finger at a passing cab. A beam of green energy shot from his finger and latched onto the back of the cab, pulling it over to the curb. "The Winter Palace, kind sir," Rasputin told the stunned driver as he climbed into the back. "You are free to do what you want, Simonovich," he told his henchman, who nodded and skipped merrily up the street in the opposite direction. "Didn't you want to ask Count Vladimir too, sir?" Bartok asked his master as the cab lurched off down the street towards their destination.
"He may be greedy, Bartok, but there's an honest greed about him," Rasputin grumbled bitterly, "He would never join me, not like Andronikov, so we have no use for Count Vladimir, except to destroy him when the time comes to eradicate all the Romanovs."
"You say we'll dump the prince once we're in power, sir; what about Mr. Simonovich?" Bartok gestured with a wing at the loan shark as he disappeared up the street, "When the other Khlysts find out he isn't a natural..."
"What they won't know isn't going to hurt us," Rasputin assured his pet, "And if it does come to a head, we just purge the little weasel out; there's plenty of others here in St. Petersburg eager for power who I can bestow the same gift of magic on. Meanwhile, tonight we must ensure the tsar's first assault on the Germans fails miserably, and I know that the empress can be of great service to us with that regard."
"How? She's loyal to the Russian state, sir; you yourself heard..."
Rasputin squeezed the bat's mouth shut again. "You'll see in due time," he hissed softly. There was merciful silence the rest of the way to the Winter Palace. "I am here to see the tsarina," Rasputin told the footman in the lobby.
"She is inside her private drawing room, waiting since you called to say you were coming," the footman told him. Rasputin nodded and made his way through the palace to the tsarina's location. Alexandra was slumped behind her desk, staring blankly out the window; her eyes were deep red, and she was sniffing loudly. "Father, thank you for coming," she greeted him softly, "The pressure of everything that's happened, it's becoming too much to take."
"I am here to ease your burden, Madame," Rasputin put an arm around her, "You worry for your family back in Germany, don't you? Your brother in Hesse-Darmstadt..."
"Ernest didn't want this war either," Alexandra confessed to him, "Before Nicholas decided to commit and we cut the phone lines to Germany, he said he was begging the Kaiser not to go to war, but Wilhelm blocked him out. Now, we're going to have to fight him, and if he personally commands the forces in the field..."
She broke down again. "Why did you have to beg Nicholas to go to war!?" she cried at the sorcerer.
"Because the Lord told me very clearly it will all be over very soon," Rasputin assured her, "In fact, I know exactly how this conflict can be ended soon, Madame, and therefore ensure that your brother and your family survive intact."
"You do!?" Alexandra bolted upright. "Tell me, what, what can stop it!?" she pleaded with him.
"The answers you search for, my dear Empress, are right...here," Rasputin pulled open his robe with one hand and tapped the reliquary inside with the other at the same time. A blast of green energy hit the tsarina square in the face. Immediately, her eyes went out of focus. "Hello, anyone home?" Bartok waved a wing in front of Alexandra's face and knocked on her forehead. She made no sign that she had noticed any of this. "Wow, that's one powerful spell, sir," the bat commended his boss, "I don't think she'll be back till next week."
"She'll come back whenever I deem her ready to come back, my little friend. Now then, Madame, your husband keeps his battle plans in the safe in his private study, doesn't he?" Rasputin asked her, a dark smile crossing his face.
"Yes...he does..." Alexandra droned, not really in touch with reality.
"You will bring them to me at once," the sorcerer ordered her.
"Yes, Father...anything you want, you'll have..." the tsarina shuffled off in a daze. A few minutes later, she returned with several rolled up pieces of paper. "You are too kind, Madame," Rasputin eagerly snatched the battle plans off her, "In the future, maybe you can help me with this again. Now why don't you run along now, and when you come to, you'll remember absolutely nothing of what has transpired. And here," he fired the reliquary at his palm, where the green mist formed a spare set of battle plans, "Lock these in your husband's safe, so he won't know anything of our little arrangement."
"Yes...Father..." Alexandra stumbled away with the duplicate plans. Rasputin shoved the original copies under his robe, cackling softly in delight. "Hold on tight now," he snatched Bartok close and opened the window, "We're going to take a little trip to the front lines. Not only will the Kaiser pay us a fortune for this information, but we'll have ensured that thousands of the tsar's legions will never bother us again when they march blindly into a German trap."