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Zoya closed her eyes again as the troika flew across the icy ground, the soft mist of snow leaving tiny damp kisses on her cheeks, and turning her eyelashes to lace as she listened to the horses' bells dancing in her ears like music. They were the sounds she had loved since childhood. At seventeen, she felt grown up, was in fact almost a woman, yet she still felt like a little girl as Feodor forced the shining black horses on with his whip. . . faster. . . faster. . . through the snow. And as she opened her eyes again, she could see the village just outside Tsarskoe Selo. She smiled to herself as she squinted to see the twin palaces just beyond it, and pulled back one heavy fur-lined glove to see how much time it had taken. She had promised her mother she would be home in time for dinner. . . and she would be. . . if they didn't spend too much time talking. . . but how could they not? Marie was her very dearest friend, almost like a sister.
Ancient Feodor glanced around and smiled at her, as she laughed with excitement. It had been a perfect day. She always enjoyed her ballet class, and even now, her ballet slippers were tucked into the seat beside her. Dancing was a special treat, it had been her passion since early childhood, and sometimes she had secretly whispered to Marie that what she wanted most was to run away to the Maryinsky, to live there, and train day and night with the other dancers. The very thought of it made her smile now. It was a dream she couldn't even say out loud, people in her world did not become professional dancers. But she had the gift, she had known it since she was five, and at least her lessons with Madame Nastova gave her the pleasure of studying what she loved best. She worked hard during the hours she spent there, always imagining that one day Fokine, the great dance master, would find her. But her thoughts turned swiftly from ballet to her childhood friend, as the troika sped through the village toward her cousin Marie. Zoya's father, Konstantin, and the Tsar were distant cousins, and like Marie's, her own mother was also German. They had everything in common, their passions, their secrets, their dreams, their world. They had shared the same terrors and delights when they were children, and she had to see her now, even though she had promised her mother that she wouldn't. It was stupid really, why shouldn't she see her? She wouldn't visit the others in their sickroom, and Marie was perfectly fine. She had sent Zoya a note only the day before, telling her how desperately bored she was with the others sick around her. And it wasn't anything serious after all, only measles.
The peasants hurried from the road as the troika sped past, and Feodor shouted at the three black horses that drew them. He had worked for her grandfather as a boy, and his father had worked for their family before him. Only for her would he have risked her father's ire and her mother's silent, elegant displeasure, but Zoya had promised him no one would know, and he had taken her there a thousand times before. She visited her cousins almost daily, what harm could there be in it now, even if the tiny, frail Tsarevich and his older sisters had the measles. Alexis was only a boy, and not a healthy lad, as they all knew. Mademoiselle Zoya was young and healthy and strong, and so very, very lovely. She had been the prettiest child Feodor had ever seen, and Ludmilla, his wife, had taken care of her when she was a baby. His wife had died the year before of typhoid, a terrible loss for him, particularly as they had no children. His only family was the one that he worked for.
The Cossack Guard stopped them at the gate and Feodor sharply reined in the steaming horses. The snow was heavier now and two mounted guards approached in tall fur hats and green uniforms, looking menacing until they saw who it was. Zoya was a familiar figure at Tsarskoe Selo. They saluted smartly as Feodor urged the horses on again, and they rode quickly past the Fedorovsky chapel and on to the Alexander Palace. Of their many imperial homes it was the one the Empress preferred. They seldom used the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg at all, except for balls or state occasions. In May each year they moved to their villa on the Peterhof estate, and after summers spent on their yacht, the Polar Star, and at Spala in Poland, they always went to the Livadia Palace in September. Zoya was often with them there until she returned to school at the Smolny Institute. But the Alexander Palace was her favorite as well. She was in love with the Empress's famous mauve boudoir and had asked that her own room at home be done in the same muted opal shades as Aunt Alix's. It amused her mother that Zoya wanted it that way, and the year before she had decided to indulge her. Marie teased her about it whenever she was there, saying that the room reminded her far too much of her mother.
Feodor climbed from his seat while two young boys held the prancing horses, and the snow whirled past his head as he carefully held out a hand to Zoya. Her heavy fur coat was encrusted with snow and her cheeks were red from the cold and the two-hour drive from St. Petersburg. She would have just enough time for tea with her friend, she thought to herself, then disappeared into the awesome entranceway of the Alexander Palace, and Feodor hurried back to his horses. He had friends in the stables there and always enjoyed bringing them news from town, whenever he spent time with them, waiting for his mistress.
Two maids took her coat while Zoya slowly pulled the large sable hat from her head, releasing a mane of fiery hair that often made people stop and stare when she wore it loose, which she did often at Livadia in the summer. The Tsarevich Alexis loved to tease her about her shining red hair, and he would stroke it gently in his delicate hands, whenever she hugged him. To Alexis, Zoya was almost like one of his sisters. Born two weeks before Marie, she was of the same age, and they had similar dispositions, and both of them babied him constantly, as did the rest of his sisters. To them, and his mother, and the close family, he was almost always referred to as "Baby." Even now that he was twelve, they still thought of him that way, and Zoya inquired about him with a serious face as the elder of the two maids shook her head.
"Poor little thing, he is covered with spots and has a terrible cough. Mrs. Gilliard has been sitting with him all day today. Her Highness has been busy with the girls." Olga, Tatiana, and Anastasia had caught the measles from him and it was a virtual epidemic, which was why Zoya's mother had wanted her to stay away. But Marie had showed no sign whatsoever of the illness, and her note to Zoya the day before had begged her to come. . . . Come to see me, my darling Zoya, if your mother will only let you. . . .
Zoya's green eyes danced as she shook out her hair, and straightened her heavy wool dress. She had changed out of her school uniform after her ballet lesson, and she walked swiftly down the endless hall to the familiar door that would lead her upstairs to Marie and Anastasia's spartan bedroom. On her way, she walked silently past the room where the Tsar's aide-de-camp, Prince Meshchersky, always sat working. But he didn't notice her as, even in her heavy boots, she walked soundlessly up the stairs, and a moment later, she knocked on the bedroom door, and heard the familiar voice.
With one slender, graceful hand, she turned the knob, and a sheaf of red hair seemed to precede her as she poked her head in, and saw her cousin and friend standing quietly by the window. Marie's huge blue eyes lit up instantly and she rushed across the room to greet her, as Zoya darted in and threw her arms wide to embrace her.
"I've come to save you, Mashka, my love!"
"Thank God! I thought I would die of boredom. Everyone here is sick. Even poor Anna came down with the measles yesterday. She's staying in the rooms adjoining my mother's apartment, and Mama insists on taking care of everyone herself. She's done nothing but carry soup and tea to them all day, and when they're asleep she goes next door to take care of the men. It seems like two hospitals here now instead of one. . . ." She pretended to pull her soft brown hair as Zoya laughed. The Catherine Palace next door had been turned into a hospital at the beginning of the war, and the Empress worked there tirelessly in her Red Cross uniform and she expected her daughters to do the same, but of all of them, Marie was the least fond of those duties. "I can hardly bear it! I was afraid you wouldn't come. And Mama would be so angry if she knew I had asked you." The two young women strolled across the room arm in arm and sat down next to the fireplace. The room she normally shared with Anastasia was simple and austere. Like their other sisters, Marie and Anastasia had plain iron beds, crisp white sheets, a small desk, and on the fireplace was a neat row of delicately made Easter eggs. Marie kept them from year to year, made for her by friends, and given to her by her sisters. They were malachite, and wood, and some of them were beautifully carved or encrusted with stones. She cherished them as she did her few small treasures. The children's rooms, as they were still called, showed none of the opulence or luxury of her parents' rooms, or the rest of the palace. And cast over one of the room's two chairs was an exquisite embroidered shawl that her mother's dear friend, Anna Vyrubova, had made her. She was the same woman Marie had referred to when Zoya came in. And now her friendship had been rewarded with a case of measles. The thought of it made both girls smile, feeling superior to have escaped the illness.
"But you're all right?" Zoya eyed her lovingly, her tiny frame seeming even smaller in the heavy gray wool dress she had worn to keep her warm on the drive from St. Petersburg. She was smaller than Marie, and even more delicate, although Marie was considered the family beauty. She had her father's startling blue eyes, and his charm. And she loved jewels and pretty clothes far more than her sisters. It was a passion she shared with Zoya. They would spend hours talking of the beautiful dresses they'd seen, and trying on Zoya's mother's hats and jewels whenever Marie came to visit.
"I'm fine. . . except that Mama says I can't go to town with Aunt Olga this Sunday." It was a ritual she above all adored. Each Sunday their aunt the Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna took them all to town, for lunch with their grandmother at the Anitchkov Palace, and visits to one or two of their friends, but with her sisters sick, everything was being curtailed. Zoya's face fell at the news.
"I was afraid of that. And I so wanted to show you my new gown. Grandmama brought it to me from Paris." Zoya's grandmother, Evgenia Peterovna Ossupov, was an extraordinary woman. She was tiny and elegant and her eyes still danced with emerald fire at eighty- one. And everyone insisted that Zoya looked exactly like her. Zoya's mother was tall and elegant and languid, a beauty with pale blond hair and wistful blue eyes. She was the kind of woman one wanted to protect from the world, and Zoya's father had always done just that. He treated her like a delicate child, unlike his exuberant daughter. "Grandmama brought me the most exquisite pink satin gown all sewn with tiny pearls. I so wanted you to see it!" Like children, they talked of their gowns as they would of their teddy bears, and Marie clapped her hands in delight.
"I can't wait to see it! By next week everyone should be well. We'll come then. I promise! And in the meantime, I shall make you a painting for that silly mauve room of yours."
"Don't you dare say rude things about my room! It's almost as elegant as your mother's!" The two girls laughed, and Joy, the children's cocker spaniel bounded into the room and yipped happily around Zoya's feet as she warmed her hands by the fire, and told Marie all about the other girls at the Smolny. Marie loved to hear her tales, secluded as she was, living amongst her brother and sisters, with Pierre Gilliard to tutor them, and Mrs. Gibbes to teach them English.
"At least we don't have classes right now. Mrs. Gilliard has been too busy, sitting with Baby. And I haven't seen Mrs. Gibbes in a week. Papa says he is terrified he'll catch the measles." The two girls laughed again and Marie began affectionately to braid Zoya's mane of bright red hair. It was a pastime they had shared since they were small children, braiding each other's hair as they chatted and gossiped about St. Petersburg and the people they knew, although things had been quieter since the war. Even Zoya's parents didn't give as many parties as they once had, much to Zoya's chagrin. She loved talking to the men in brightly hued uniforms and looking at the women in elegant gowns and lovely jewelry. It gave her fresh tales to bring to Marie and her sisters, of the flirtations she had observed, who was beautiful, who was not, and who was wearing the most spectacular diamond necklace. It was a world that existed nowhere else, the world of Imperial Russia. And Zoya had always lived happily right at its center, a countess herself like her mother and grandmother before her, distantly related to the Tsar on her father's side, she and her family enjoyed a position of privilege and luxury, related to many of the nobles. Her own home was but a smaller version of the Anitchkov Palace, and her playmates were the people who made history, but to her it all seemed commonplace and normal.
"Joy seems so happy now." She watched the dog playing at her feet. "How are the puppies?"
Marie smiled a secret smile, and shrugged an elegant shoulder. "Very sweet. Oh, wait. . . ." She dropped the long braid she had made of Zoya's hair, and ran to her desk to get something she had almost forgotten. Zoya assumed instantly that it was a letter from one of their friends, or a photograph of Alexis or her sisters. She always seemed to have treasures to share when they met, but this time she brought out a small flacon and handed it proudly to her friend.
"Something wonderful. . . all for you!" She gently kissed Zoya's cheek as Zoya bent her head over the small bottle.
"Oh, Mashka! Is it?. . . It is!" She confirmed it with one sniff. It was "Lilas," Marie's favorite perfume, which Zoya had coveted for months. "Where did you get it?"
"Lili brought it back from Paris for me. I thought you'd like to have it. I still have enough left of the one Mama got me." Zoya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, looking happy and innocent. Their pleasures were so harmless and so simple. . . the puppy, the perfume. . . and in the summer, long walks in the scented fields of Livadia. . . or games on the royal yacht as they drifted through the fjords. It was such a perfect life, untouched even by the realities of the war, although they talked about it sometimes. It always upset Marie after she had spent a day with the wounded men being tended in the palace next door. It seemed so cruel to her that they should be wounded and maimed. . . that they should die. . . but no crueler than the constantly threatening illness of her brother. His hemophilia was often the topic of their more serious and secret conversations. Almost no one except the intimate family knew the exact nature of his illness.
"He is all right, isn't he? I mean. . . the measles won't . . ." Zoya's eyes were filled with concern as she set down the prized bottle of perfume and they spoke of Alexis again. But Marie's face was reassuring.
"I don't think the measles will do him any harm. Mama says that Olga is a great deal sicker than he is." She was four years older than either of them, and a great deal more serious. She was also painfully shy, unlike Zoya or Marie, or her two other sisters.
"I had a lovely time at ballet class today." Zoya sighed as Marie rang for a cup of tea. "I wish that I could do something wonderful with it."
Marie laughed. She had heard it before, the dreams of her beloved friend. "Like what? Be discovered by Diaghilev?"
The two girls laughed, but there was an intense light in Zoya's eyes as she spoke. Everything about Zoya was intense, her eyes, her hair, the way she moved her hands or darted across the room, or threw her arms around her friend. She was tiny but filled with power and life and excitement. Her very name meant life, and it seemed the perfect choice for the girl she had been and the woman she was slowly becoming. "I mean it. . . and Madame Nastova says I'm very good." Marie laughed again, and the girls' eyes met, both of them thinking the same thing. . . about Mathilde Kschessinska, the ballerina who had been the Tsar's mistress before he married Alexandra. . . an entirely forbidden subject, to be spoken of only in whispers on dark summer nights and never within earshot of adults. Zoya had said something about it to her mother one day, and the Countess had been outraged and forbidden Zoya to mention it again. it was most emphatically not a suitable subject for young ladies. But her grandmother had been less austere when she'd brought it up again, and said only in amused tones that the woman was a very talented dancer.
"Do you still dream about running away to the Maryinsky?" She hadn't mentioned it in years, but Marie knew her well, well enough to know when she was teasing and when she was not, and how serious she was about her private dreams. She also knew that for Zoya it was an impossible dream. One day she would marry and have children, and be as elegant as her mother, and she would not be living in the famous ballet school. But it was fun to talk about things like that, and dream on a February afternoon as they sipped the hot tea and watched the dog gambol about the room. Life seemed very comfortable just then, in spite of the current imperial epidemic of measles. With Zoya, Marie could forget her problems for a little while, and her responsibilities. She wished that one day, she would be as free as Zoya was. She knew full well that one day her parents would choose for her the man that she was to marry. But they had her two older sisters to think about first. . . as she stared into the fire, she wondered if she would really love him.
"What were you thinking just then?" Zoya's voice was soft as the fire crackled and the snow fell outside. It was already dark and Zoya had forgotten all about rushing home for dinner. "Mashka?. . . you looked so serious." She often did when she wasn't laughing. Her eyes were so intense and so blue and so warm and kind, unlike her mother's.
"I don't know. . . silly things, I suppose. . . ." She smiled gently at her friend. They were both almost eighteen, and marriage was beginning to come to mind. . . perhaps after the war. . . "I was wondering who we'll marry one day." She was always honest with Zoya.
"I think about that sometimes too. Grandmama says it's almost time to think about it. She thinks Prince Orlov would be a nice man for me. . . ." And then suddenly she laughed and tossed her head, her hair flying free of the loose braid Mashka had made for her. "Do you ever see someone and think it ought to be him?"
"Not very often. Olga and Tatiana should marry first. And Tatiana is so serious, I can't even imagine her wanting to get married." Of all of them, she was the closest to their mother and Marie could easily imagine her wanting to stay within the bosom of her family forever. "It would be nice to have children though."
"How many?" Zoya teased.
"Five at least." It was the size of her own family, and to her it had always seemed perfect.
"I want six," Zoya said with absolute certainty. "Three boys and three girls."
"All of them with bright red hair!" Marie laughed as she teased her friend, and leaned across the table to gently touch her cheek. "You are truly my dearest friend." Their eyes met and Zoya took her hand and kissed it with childlike warmth.