Today's Reading

ASIDE

My blood is my crime.
If you look at it, it's still red. If you touch it, it's still wet.
But if you listen to it, it speaks a single name in a pulsing chant.

Romanov.

Romanov.

Romanov.


For that name alone, bound to my blood like a Bolshevik is bound to the Russian Revolution, I am destined to die.

Because not even royal blood can stop bullets.


1

APRIL 25, 1918 TOBOLSK, RUSSIA

I watched my diaries burn.

Pages curled in on themselves, like spider legs accepting death. My past—my stories—turned to ash and tendrils of smoke. But I would not weep for them. The Bolsheviks could take far more precious things from me. I would not give them my tears.

I shoved another diary into the white-tiled stove that filled the corner of the bedroom I shared with my three older sisters here in Tobolsk. Here in exile. A photo slipped free from between two pages, as if putting forth a last attempt to escape its fate. I picked up the black-and-white portrait.

Tired, hooded eyes, a long, dark beard, and his hair parted meticulously down the middle: Grigori Rasputin. Our friend. Our spell master. He healed Alexei, he counseled Mamma, and he had been about to teach me spell mastery . . . until they shot him. The Bolsheviks shot him as easily as they threw back a shot of vodka at the end of the day. Or the beginning of the day, depending on how many deaths weighed down their hands.

Now they were coming for us.

I threw Rasputin's photo into the fire. That photo, more than any other, could get me in the most trouble if the approaching Bolsheviks conducted a search. Evidence of our connection with the spell master would work against us. And they were searching for any reason to condemn Papa, no matter that he'd abdicated the Russian throne.

I snatched my book on spell mastery from my bedside table and shoved it on the bottom of our small bookshelf with the other volumes. It was a German translation—one the Russian guards likely couldn't read—and I'd rebound it with the cover from a German book of folktales. Still, they'd find it if they tried hard enough.

The clip, clip, clip of Papa's polished boots sounded down the hallway. They passed my door, stopped, and then returned. The door opened, and his calm beard-and-mustached face turned toward me. "Nastya. They're here."

I shut the stove door and stood. Papa held himself straight and regal, despite his short stature. We walked down the chilled corridor together. In silence. Ex-tsar and ex-princess. We passed Alexei's room and I glanced in. My thirteen-year-old brother lay thin and haggard on his bed, his skin yellow and eyes like dark bulbs in his skeletal face. He didn't look at us as we passed by.

I balled my fingers into fists. I would heal him. No matter the Bolsheviks' quest to murder all spell masters or if they searched us or if they sent us back to St. Petersburg. I would study spell mastery and find a cure for Alexei.

Noise came from the entryway and I focused forward. The strain of the Bolsheviks' arrival was overshadowed by the anxiety of not knowing why they were coming.

We joined our guards—the ones who had been with us the past year and become our friends—in the entryway. The weathered rug cushioned our weight once we stopped.

A new man stood in the doorway, filling it like a giant shadow. He was tall with pale skin, black eyes, and an angular face beneath a mass of curly dark hair. I'd seen his type before, at the few lavish balls and parties Mamma had allowed us to attend. The type who stood on a pedestal in his mind. Usually those types were the scheming grand dukes or political leaders more interested in social climbing and control than dancing or conversation.

For some reason they never seemed to like me.
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