In the early morning of her eighteenth birthday, Tatiana Romanov woke to someone in her room. She had been dreaming of dancing with Alexei – in the ballroom at first, then beside the lake, then deep in snowy woods. Alexei had spun her away and into the waiting arms of Grigori Rasputin.
The dream lingered, so much so that she thought Rasputin was in the room watching over her.
The balcony door creaked open, pushing the curtain aside and spilling moonlight onto the floor. Tatiana was frozen in bed. But when someone stumbled inside wearing a bloody soldier’s uniform, she grabbed the heavy, gold clock on her bedside table.
“One more step and I’ll scream!” Her voice came out as a lilting croak, and her hands shook.
“That would be much more frightening if you weren’t wearing a lace nightgown, Tatya.”
She exhaled a pain laugh, then collapsed onto the chaise lounge. Tatiana dropped the gold clock and ran to her older sister’s side.
“What on earth is going on?!” Tatya cried, lighting a lantern so she could see the damage clearly. “Shall I call for someone? There is so much blood…”
“It’s not all mine. And please, don’t tell anyone, you can’t. Mama would kill me, and Papa… can it just be our little secret, please?” Her voice was ragged but strong.
“That all depends on how big this wound is. Take off your jacket and shirt, I will need to examine you.”
As Olga undressed, Tatiana gathered her nursing kit, a bowl of water and a bottle of vodka. Olga brightened when she saw the vodka. Tatiana took a swig before handing it over. She wasn’t a big drinker, but the liquor would calm her nerves, and hopefully it would dull Olga’s pain.
The injured Grand Duchess had stripped down to her bloomers and a unique corset that flattened her chest. Bringing the lantern closer, Tatya realised that the corset had protected Olga from a wound much more severe. She almost laughed – she had never thought of corsets as more than a pain. But Olga’s blood kept her expression severe. The knife slash would need stitches.
“What happened Olga? If you don’t want to tell me, I won’t force you. But if someone hurt you—”
“It’s not that. I was in a fight, that’s all Tatya. I won, too. But escaping was… more difficult than anticipated.” She took another gulp of vodka and winced when Tatya pulled out the needle. “Is it going to hurt?”
Tatiana poured vodka over the wound and needle, then returned the bottle to Olga’s eager hand. “I imagine so. Drink deep and grit your teeth.”
She did as instructed. Three stitches and half a bottle later, Olga passed out. Tatya finished up and wrapped a bandage around Olga’s waist.
A knock came at the door and Natasha, Tatiana’s handmaiden, crept in quickly and quietly.
“Extinguish your candle, Natasha. I need a hand.”
Tatya washed her hands as clean as she could, then she and Natasha carried Olga to the bed and tucked her in. When she turned to survey the mess, she sighed heavily and pushed her hand through her hair.
“Don’t worry about this, my lady. I’ll clean it up, you get back to bed. You’ll be wanting to look your best in the morning.”
As soon as Natasha said ‘bed’, a wave of exhaustion hit Tatya and she covered her mouth to yawn. Her handmaiden guided her to the bed and Tatiana curled up beside her older sister. Within seconds, her eyelids fluttered closed and she fell into a dreamless slumber.
When Tatiana woke in the sunlight of a new day, Olga was gone. The only sign that it hadn’t been a dream was several dark red stains on her white lace nightgown. Tatiana’s heart twisted with concern, only assuaged when Natasha entered carrying a tray of tea and biscuits.
“There’s no need to worry, my lady. I helped Lady Olga back to her room shortly before dawn.” She set the tray down on the bedside table and offered Tatiana a delicate porcelain cup of tea.
Tatya accepted it gratefully and took a deep sip. The hot tea soothed her chill, but not the anxiety she felt for her sister.
“Thank you, Natasha, for last night. And I hope I can count on your discretion.”
The teacup settled on the saucer with a musical chime, and Natasha curtsied, her head down.
“Always, my lady. And you needn’t thank me. You’re my mistress, I’ll always be here to help you.”
“Until you get married, of course,” said Tatiana with a chuckle.
Natasha blushed. “Even then, my lady. I should like to be your handmaiden for as long as you will have me – or at least until I have a child.”
They shared a laugh as Natasha bustled around the room preparing a gown, slippers and jewels for the day ahead. Tatya had chosen a peach gown the day before – a celebration of womanhood and purity – but now it felt wrong. Seeing the gown made her feel like a game piece, and after the trauma of last night, she didn’t want to play.
“I think I’ll wear the gold gown today, Natasha.” She wanted to explain herself but couldn’t find the words.
“Certainly, my lady.”
It was mid-morning by the time Tatiana made her way downstairs, wrapped in a gown of gold satin and white lace, with pearl drop earrings and gold slippers. It was snowing outside – light enough to see the dark sky, but heavy enough to cover tracks on the ground. Tatya stalled at the window for a moment, watching the guards stand motionless as snowflakes danced around them, biting their cheeks and noses.
Footsteps hurried down the stairs and Tatiana turned to see Olga in a maroon-lace gown, her yellow hair bound up off her neck and her usual grin only slightly strained.
“Tatya! I was hoping to catch you.”
Tatiana scrutinised her from head-to-toe. “Are you sure you are well enough to be up and about?” she whispered, eyes darting around to check for eavesdroppers.
“I’m perfectly well, though a little sore. It’s nothing I can’t handle.” Olga slid her hands over her corseted sides. “Please, keep last night to yourself Tatya. It’s bad enough that Natasha—”
“I trust Natasha, she won’t tell anyone. But you need to tell me what happened. Were you in some kind of knife fight? How did you manage to get in and out of the castle without being caught?”
“I’ll tell you everything, Tatya, I promise. But not now. This is your day.” Olga squeezed her sister’s arm, then moved to the dining room before Tatiana could ask any more.
The majority of the family was already present when Tatiana entered. Her father, Tsar Nicholas II sat at the head of the table, one hand holding a half-eaten slice of toast and the other a letter from the large pile beside his plate. But as soon as the eldest Romanov sisters entered, he dropped everything and stood to greet them. Their younger brother Alexei would have been expected to do the same in polite society, but his poor health had left him largely wheelchair bound.
“Good morning, Olga,” said Nicholas, and gave her a peck on the cheek. But he didn’t linger. He turned to his second born and pulled her into a warm hug. Before he drew back, he planted a bearded kiss on her cheek, making her giggle. “My lovely Tatiana, how gorgeous you are. Happy birthday dearest.” He held her arms and beamed with pride.
Olga sat, but kept her eyes transfixed on the pair even as her napkin was placed in her lap.
“Thank you, Papa. You’re too kind,” Tatya replied with a demure blush. “Will Mama be joining us for breakfast?”
“I believe so; she’s at prayer at present.”
Tatiana moved to sit, but Nicholas held fast.
“Wait a moment, my dear. I have a small present for you.” He nodded to the butler, who brought forth a small, velvet box on a silver platter, then offered it to Nicholas. He released Tatiana and offered her the box, popping it open to reveal a signet ring engraved with the letters TR. They sat atop one another with a small grown on the head of the T. “From now on, this will be your seal,” he explained. “No more ink signatures, you can seal your own letters with wax now.”
Tatiana smiled and slipped the ring onto her right index finger, then pecked her father’s expertly shaved cheek. “Thank you again, Papa. I love it.”
She closed the box with a snap and returned it to the butler just as her mother entered, the holy man Grigori Rasputin close behind. Tatiana sat on Olga’s right, while Alexandra took the left beside her husband.
Rasputin swept into a bow beside the Tsar, who gave a nod and returned to his stack of correspondence.
“Forgive the intrusion, your excellence,” said Rasputin as he straightened.
“I’ve invited Grigori to break his fast with us. You don’t mind, do you my love?” Alexandra presumed, delicately selecting a piece of bread.
“You’re most welcome,” Nicholas replied, then gestured to the seat at the opposite end of the table. “Please sit.”
Rasputin bowed again, then tussled little Alexei’s hair before taking his seat. Alexei gave him a jam-covered smile.
“I wish he wouldn’t sit there,” Olga murmured to Tatiana, careful to stay out of earshot of their mother. “Only Grandmama has the right to sit opposite Papa.”
Tatiana’s response was quick and harsher than usual. “He heals our brother, he can sit wherever he likes.” When she saw Olga’s shocked expression, she sighed and sifted her spoon through her thin soup. “Besides, you’re forever rallying against Papa and his rules, why do you care so much?”
“Just… something Dmitri said. He and Felix loathe him, they think he disgraces us.” Olga’s eyes darted between Rasputin and Alexandra. Why had they needed to pray together, alone?
“A pessimist and a gossip – you know better than to listen to them,” Tatya chastised.
Olga rolled her eyes. “It’s amazing how you sound like a perfect blend of Mama and Grandmama.”
Tatiana quirked an eyebrow at her sister and lightly trod on her foot. Olga grinned. Maria and Anastasia, who were sitting across from their older sisters, were squabbling as per usual. Before long, Anastasia yanked Maria’s unbound hair, causing her to squawk.
“Mama!” Maria whined.
“This isn’t fair!” Anastasia grumbled. “Why do Olga and Tatya get separate rooms but I have to share with her?” She stuck her tongue out at Maria, who made an offended gasp.
Alexandra was so accustomed to such petty arguments that she didn’t even look up from her soup. “You know why. Your sisters are women grown; they need their own space. When Maria turns eighteen, you can both have your own rooms. I expect Olga to be married by then anyway.”
Olga rolled her eyes into her teacup and Tatiana concealed her smirk with a spoonful of soup.
“But that’s two whole years away!” Ana pounded her feet against the floor petulantly, but her parents ignored her.
Instead, Alexandra turned to Tatiana. “Which reminds me, happy birthday Tatya. Olga, did you obtain what I asked for?”
“Oh, yes!” Olga fished in her pockets and pulled out a crimson, octagonal box just larger than her palm. She placed it beside Tatya’s bowl with an undercurrent of excitement.
Tatiana thanked her mother politely, and gently opened the box. Inside was a ruby and diamond pendant in the shape of a large, eight-pointed star. There was a crown atop a circular phrase which read ‘For Love and Fatherland’, paired with the wheel of Saint Catherine.
“Is this?” Tatiana gasped quietly, and Olga nodded.
“What is it?” Anastasia demanded.
But Tatya closed the box and slipped it into her pocket, heart racing. “A pendant, a very lovely one, thank you Mama.”
Alexandra nodded without looking up from her correspondence. But amusement twitched on her lips, and she and Nicholas exchanged a glance. They both knew what the pendant represented. Tatiana was eighteen now, which afforded her knowledge of certain secrets – secrets her younger sisters would never be able to keep.
“Give it to me, I want to see it!” Anastasia commanded, and Maria rolled her eyes.
“You can’t just take whatever you like, Ana. It’s Tatiana’s gift, just let it be,” Maria chastised, taking a dainty sip of tea.
“You think you’re so high and mighty. You’re just a little piggy – wee wee wee!” She jabbed Maria in the side, and she coughed into her tea.
“Stop that! Mama, make her stop!”
“Wee wee wee!” Anastasia punctuated her taunt with a snort of laughter.
Amidst the jests and Alexei’s raucous laughter, Rasputin turned to Tatiana and held out his hand.
“My little Tatya, congratulations on your eighteenth year. It isn’t much, but I wished to give you something to bring you even closer to God.” His voice was a low rumble and his eyes were so focused that Tatiana felt like the only person in the room.
She opened and closed her mouth before realising that he held a gift in his fist. She placed her palm beneath his and he dropped a simple platinum cross with a long chain. Their hands remained close for a tense moment before Tatiana blushed and pulled away.
“It belonged to my mother,” he continued as Tatiana studied the cross. “So it may be slightly worn; she was quite a pious woman.”
“Thank you, I will cherish it always.” She bent her head and slipped the chain onto her neck. The cross fell squarely between her corseted breasts.
Rasputin leaned closer, his piercing eyes dipping to her chest. “Always keep it close to your heart.”