It was the latest the princess had ever remembered staying up. Her mother had protested, but her father had insisted. He'd said it was a celebration, so the entire family should be allowed to take part.
It wasn't every day that the Russian Imperial family got to mark their tricentennial, after all!
That was what her Papa had said, if she remembered right – a full week of celebration, and a ball where she got to wear a new party dress that her mother had eventually ordered after rolling her eyes at Tsar Stewart's suggestion that C.C. stay up past her bedtime.
The dress that she was wearing right then, as she balanced on her father's shoes to dance with him in a slow circle. The room was really warm and it was all making her feel dizzy, but she wasn't going to say this, in case they decided she'd had enough for the night; she was liking it all too much and the last place she wanted to be was her bed!
Her father held her hands securely, and his smile was bright.
"Having fun, Kotyonok?"
"Yes, Papa!" she replied with as much excitement as she could put in her voice, letting her father lift her up in the air and spin her around. That made her head hurt more, but she wasn't letting it get in front of spending time with her Papa.
Stewart was a busy man, but he always made time for the family. He was a good husband and an exceptional father, and although he wouldn't admit it openly, his youngest daughter, Grand Duchess Chastity-Claire, was the apple of his eye. Everyone thought that was Tsarevich Noel, but there was no rival for C.C. in her father's affections.
He loved Noel, not to get him wrong, but he was his son. The future emperor of Russia. He had to be stern and strict with him, to help shape his character so he would someday make a just and skilled monarch.
His little girl, on the other hand…
Well, she could be (and certainly was) spoiled rotten.
"I am glad, Kotyonok," said the Emperor. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his mother, sat on her throne, gazing at them from a distance.
Just like with Stewart, C.C. was her grandmother's most beloved grandchild. They just were so alike! And she was also a vivacious and kind child. A bit mischievous too, yes, but overall she was a good little girl.
Stewart smirked at his mother – he knew she was leaving for Paris in a few days, so every moment spent together would be greatly appreciated by both Grand Duchess and Dowager Empress. Not to mention that his mother had a little surprise in store for C.C. – she'd told him so before the ball had begun.
It looked like it was time for her to get it!
"Look over there," said Stewart, "Someone's looking for you!"
C.C. looked eagerly, spotting her grandmother waiting almost straight away. The minute she did, she beamed at her father, bouncing up and down a little on his feet. The motion felt funny and uncomfortable if she did it too quickly.
Stewart stroked her hair with one hand, his skin feeling even warmer than the room against hers, "That's right, Kotyonok...! Why don't you go over and see her?"
At his suggestion, she climbed down from his shoes and headed off in her grandmother's direction. Had she not felt too warm and hazy, she would've sprinted, dodging butlers carrying drinks and the scolding voice of her mother telling her not to run all the way.
"Grandmama!" she cried out again, as loud as she could manage.
Her grandmother's bright, shining blue eyes greeted her first, followed immediately after by a beaming smile.
"Hello there, my little one!" she reached out her arms towards her. "Have you come to see your dear old grandmama?"
"Yes..." C.C. rushed into her grandmother's arms and lifted herself into her grandmother's lap so the elder woman brought her in close for a cuddle.
"Oh, you're getting so big!" she exclaimed playfully. "Soon I'll have to sit on your lap!"
C.C. giggled, delighting in her grandmother's antics. She'd always have fun with her...
She was going to miss her, when she went away to Paris. She didn't know why she had to go, but was holding onto her father's promise that they'd all still see each other.
Though it would be better if she didn't have to go at all.
"You know," her grandmother said. "I have just the thing for a girl as big as you..."
She reached behind her, onto a little table she'd had a serving boy place there, and brought back a little wooden box.
"Here we are, darling," she said with a smile. "A gift, from my heart to yours."
C.C. gasped softly at the beautifully handcrafted piece that had so kindly been given to her. She stroked its gilded lid, her fingertips tracing the edges of the inlaid pearls that decorated its edges. The little piece was also decorated with emeralds and rubies, which had been inlaid in the shape of a flower.
"Do you like it, my dear?" asked the Dowager Empress, stroking her long blonde hair, which her ladies-in-waiting had braided and decorated with diamond-studded ribbons.
She also couldn't help noticing how warm her granddaughter felt. And it didn't entirely feel like heat from being up and about as she danced...but it was hard to tell for the moment, whether it was used up energy or sickness.
Not that C.C. would ever say anything, of course, even if she was – she was trying not to miss out on her chance at a ball!
"I love it, grandma!" said the girl, crying out as much as she could. "It's a music box, right?"
Maria nodded. "Indeed. And let me show you how to open it."
With a click of her fingers, a young boy came forward, carrying a silken cushion covered by an equally delicate handkerchief. The boy bowed low to the Dowager Empress, but when he looked up he froze. He seemed to have forgotten why he was there, and it had happened the moment he'd set his light-blue eyes on the princess.
He was completely awestruck by her. It made part of Marie want to let out a light chuckle, really; this particular lad was always following C.C. around like a little lost dog. He insisted on serving her meals (as she'd heard from the older servants), cleaned her room, brought her anything and everything she ever asked for...it was no wonder he became overwhelmed at the sight of the princess, in her gorgeous dress with her hair done just perfectly...
It was only a pity that the boy couldn't have any chance of anything more than a harboured fancy. A dream, which was sweet and innocent and warmed the Dowager Empress some, but that everyone knew could never come true.
Marie leaned over towards him, finally deciding when the moment was right to bring him back to the real world.
"Young man, it is not polite, nor your place, to stare," she said quietly, not wanting to scold him too hard for what was truly a minor infraction.
Plenty of boys his age stared at C.C., anyway. It was impossible not to – she was a princess, she was beautiful, she was accomplished, despite her young age...
But it didn't mean she would allow him or anyone else to gawk, either. C.C. wasn't some doll in a toy shop window! She was a person, a lady, a Grand Duchess of Russia, and she would be shown courtesy and respect.
Luckily, the Dowager Empress' words appeared to bring him out of it, because he started and looked horrified and embarrassed.
"M-my apologies, Your Majesty, Your Imperial Highness!" he bowed his head, cheeks reddening. "I meant no offence."
"I know. But this behaviour shall not be repeated," she said, taking the cushion in her delicate hands. She passed it over to her grandchild, who inspected it with care, not aware or interested in the embarrassment of the young servant.
"Leave us now," she waved him away. The boy went, daring to sneak one look over his shoulder as he did.
The Dowager Empress saw (and, feeling her slight telling off had been enough, said nothing) but the intended recipient of the look was occupied. She had just taken the handkerchief off and was studying the stunning pendant which lay beneath, a look of wonder on her face.
"Grandmama, it's beautiful!" the girl gasped, before at last dropping her gaze from it to hug her grandmother again. "Thank you!"
Marie laughed quietly, and hugged her back. She had always adored spoiling her grandchildren, C.C. especially so, and getting to do it again before she left for Paris was a blessing. She also hoped it would be something of a "farewell for now" present to her granddaughter.
Stewart had told her C.C. didn't like hearing about her moving away at all. It was clear she liked things the way they were, and Marie didn't blame her. At such a young age, any change might suggest something permanent, and even though she was only going away for a season, the time in the princess' mind might seem longer than it was.
But little gifts to remind her that no matter what happened, she was loved, were just the right way of smoothing things over.
"Read what it says, my girl," said the older woman, bouncing the girl on her knees a little. Not too much, just in case.
The princess squinted her eyes at the pendant. It had a little inscription on its back...
"Together in Paris..." she said, and looked up at her grandmother, eyes shining. She knew her grandmother was going away, but maybe this meant that...
"You'll be spending summer with me, in Paris," explained Marie, closing her hands around C.C.'s.
C.C.'s eyes widened in excitement and Marie thought she was shaking.
"Really," Marie lightly tapped her on the nose. "We'll shop, we'll see famous artworks, we'll have lunch in beautiful restaurants...! It will be wonderful, my child. And completely the right time!"
It truly was the right time. C.C. wasn't going to be a girl much longer, and she needed to spend some time away from her parents, learning a little independence.
The necklace would be a reminder of, and an instrument in, that.
And speaking of instruments...
"You know your pendant also has a very special other job to do?" she asked, only continuing when the girl shook her head no. "Bring it here, I'll show you..."
She took her granddaughter's hand with the pendant in it towards the music box. There was a tiny hold in it – a gap no more than a few millimetres, and together they unlocked it.
When opened, the lid was inlaid with soft velvet. Dusty, but still useable.
And it played the most wonderful tune...!
And Marie began to hum it. C.C. knew it like the back of her own hand as well - her grandmother often sung it to her as she put her to bed at night.
It was their song.
"On the wind, across the sea
hear this song and remember
soon you'll be, home with me
Once Upon a December"
Marie smiled at her granddaughter as she sang. She'd always had a lovely voice – a voice she'd know anywhere.
"It's to remind you of me, whenever we are apart," she told the girl. "It will only be for a short while, though. We only have to wait until the summer."
C.C. shifted uncomfortably and tried not to groan. She still knew she was going to miss her grandmother. It would feel like a very long time until then, even if her parents did try to distract her. But she didn't want to upset her grandmother, either. She had done everything she could, really, even if some people might have said that she didn't have to go away at all.
But C.C. nodded anyway, "I know, Grandmama. And summer will be so fun, when it comes..."
Marie beamed, and kissed her forehead.
She had been about to declare it the most fun summer anyone had ever had, when something else took her attention. The worrying heat that was still there and apparently growing, as she pressed her lips against her granddaughter's skin.
She frowned, "Hm. You appear to be feverish, child..."
Marie pressed the back of her hand against C.C.'s forehead, wanting to confirm what her maternal instincts (which rarely failed) had just told her. And indeed, it confirmed what the dancing before might have disguised. Marie had been right in her suspicions about her granddaughter's sneakiness, too; C.C. hadn't mentioned it because she was having the time of her life.
Her brother, Tsarevich Noel Stewarovich, had turned twenty-two that day, and as his birthday had coincided with the Romanov tricentennial, it had been decided that both celebrations would be held together. As such, the family hadn't spared any expense in making the event as lavish and as grandiose as possible.
The day had begun with extravagant pageants and parades, followed by the Imperial Family processing from the Red Square to the palace in an open carriage escorted by two squadrons of His Majesty's Own Horseguards and Cossack riders donning black caftans and red Caucasian hats.
The ball was only the icing on the cake, and C.C. had been waiting for this event for a long time.
After all, this was her very first ball!
Regardless, she was sick. She needed to go back to her rooms. There would be more balls that she could attend in the future; they had to think of her health first.
"I must tell your parents about this," Marie sentenced, helping C.C. slip the pendant on. "And then I'll take you to bed."
C.C. felt a jolt of annoyance go through her. This was her first ball – the first one she'd been allowed to stay up for! She'd tried so hard to keep the icky feeling from taking her over, for nothing? And her grandmother was going to leave whilst she went to bed?!
No! She wouldn't have it!
"But Grandmama!" she protested, trying hard to cling to Marie as she got up. "I feel fine!"
"That doesn't mean that you are," the Dowager Empress told her, getting up from her chair and taking C.C. with her. "You could be quite sick, my darling. And if you are sick you cannot play, or have your lessons, or feel like you are enjoying yourself! It is best to rest, and take care."
C.C. didn't want to rest. Her first ball was being spoiled!
Though part of that might have been the uncomfortable warmth coming over her...maybe she just needed to sit down for a while...
Marie halted them both half-way to her parents, "Besides, if you are too sick, you might still be sick when summer comes. And if you are that unwell, you will not be allowed to come visit me in Paris..."
That seemed to shut down any complaints coming from the young princess.
If there was something she wasn't willing to risk, it was summer in Paris. She'd never visited any other country apart from Russia, and although she loved her home, she was itching to discover the great capitals of Europe.
She'd always had a fascination for Western Europe. She knew her mother came from England, and also that her great-grandmother had been the great Queen Victoria, Queen of England and empress of one of the biggest empires in the world. To her, Western Europe represented rich and intriguing cultures, wealth, class, fashion, innovation...
It was all so alien! So foreign...
And at the same time, it enticed her curiosity to no end.
A missed ball seemed like a small sacrifice to make if it meant visiting the City of Lights.
She remained silent as they made their way over to her parents, who were dancing the Mazurka – partially because she knew her grandmother wouldn't give any room to her complaints and also because she was starting to experience the symptoms of an upcoming cold.
When her Papa realised something must have been going on, he stopped, and her Mama soon followed. They looked concerned as Marie brought C.C. over, now actively leading her by the hand as the little princess started to feel slightly dizzy.
"Mother?" Stewart blinked. "Is something the matter?"
Marie brought C.C. forward, "Your daughter has a fever. I just came to inform you that I will be putting her to bed."
Stewart looked disappointed, and he crouched down to his daughter, "Oh, no! And on your very first ball too, Kotyonok!"
B.B. sighed a little at her husband, "It cannot be helped, Stewart...! Her health comes first!"
"I know that," Stewart said, stroking his daughter's cheek. "It's just a shame that it happened today, that's all!"
It was more than a shame to the little girl. But she wasn't going to say so – she didn't want to risk complaining if Paris was still at risk.
But Stewart continued so it didn't matter.
"You get comfortable in bed, sweetheart," he told her. "We'll be up to see you soon. And we'll tell Noel you said happy birthday. Alright?"
C.C. let go of Marie's hand to hug her father, unhappy that she had to miss out on the fun. She wanted to stay with them, taking part in the celebrations...
It seemed not even being a princess saved her from the nuisance of having to keep bed rest.
Her mother joined in on the hug, "I promise we'll hold another ball soon. Maybe we can even hold your very own ball for your birthday next February."
That did sound like it would be nice. A big celebration, surrounded by her loved ones...
Apart from her Grandmama. But then she'd spend a whole season with her, and everything would be alright.
She hugged her parents tighter, "I love you..."
"We love you too," Stewart kissed the top of her head.
Her Mama did too, "Now get upstairs and get into bed. Get a good night's sleep, and be refreshed in the morning, my darling."
C.C. nodded, and let herself be kissed by them both once more, before Marie took her hand again to lead her upstairs. It wasn't long before she was in a pair of comfortable pyjamas, and Marie was tucking her up in her bed. The music box had been placed carefully on her bedside table, next to a bowl of cool water and a cloth that Marie would occasionally use to dab at C.C.'s forehead.
She insisted on doing it herself. No maid was going to take a job which belonged to a grandmother.
"How are you feeling, my darling?" the Dowager asked, smoothing out her bedsheets.
"Not so good," the girl mumbled. "It's really cold..."
Marie shushed her, brushing her hair out of her sweaty forehead again.
"I know, sweetheart, I know," she murmured in return. "Just let me pick up the cloth and I'll..."
She never finished her sentence. There was some kind of commotion going on downstairs – it must have been loud, as she could hear it all the way up where they were.
Bidding her granddaughter to wait, she went to the window.
Her eyes widened at the horror she found.
Men. Uniformed men, storming the palace with rifles in their hands!
And they were… killing. They were shooting at the guards, the guests who'd come outside for air, the servants who got in their way...everybody!
Her eyes went to C.C.. She had to get her out of there, whether the girl was sick or not!
Rushing to her, she threw back the bedcovers.
"There has been a change of plan, my darling," she told her. "We are getting you up and dressed, and then we are getting out of this place!"
She pulled her grandchild out of bed, knowing they had little time to try and escape. They had to get rid of all their jewels and ornaments – anything that could give away their identities and get them killed by the intruders.
Marie had no idea who these people were or what they wanted, but C.C. had to be removed from the palace. Urgently.
"What's wrong Nana?!" C.C. asked as Marie ordered her to remove her nightgown. "What's happening?!"
"We are in danger, child," said the Dowager Empress, removing her own jewels and fancy dress. She'd ordered two maids to bring over a dress for her and C.C., and the two woman had only just returned with their clothing.
"Put this on, darling, and pocket as many jewels as possible," said her nana, handing her one of the dresses before beginning to put one herself.
C.C. did as she was told, despite the confusion. But if her Grandmama was telling her to do something urgently right then instead of making her rest, it was very important that she followed the instruction.
So she dressed as quickly as she could, with Marie helping her occasionally if she didn't think she was moving fast enough. They filled her pockets with all that they could, fastened C.C.'s new necklace around her neck, and then they went to take a peek out the door.
Marie went first, opening it just a crack...
And there she met a set of bright-blue eyes.
Gasping, she leapt backwards, prepared to defend C.C. with her own life if necessary.
"Do not touch her!" she screamed, throwing her arms out to shield her granddaughter.
But there were no bullets. Only...desperate shushing?
Then she looked properly.
It was the young boy who'd served them, down in the ballroom! He was trying his hardest to get her to be quiet.
"Please, Your Imperial Majesty," he implored. "We must all be quiet, or else we will be discovered! Do not fret, I am here to get you out!"
He was...getting them out. A little serving boy was going to be their saviour that day. Marie never thought she'd live to see any of this! From a militia destroying her home and killing her friends, to a servant taking charge and practically promising them they would be safe...
But there was clearly no time to be wasted in thinking. She couldn't wait around questioning why it was the boy in particular who was helping, she just had to be grateful that anyone was helping at all!
"Very well, then," Marie said, starting to herd C.C. to the door. "How do you propose to do so, boy?"
He ran out ahead of them, "There are escape tunnels here Your Imperial Majesty! I was informed of them when I was brought into servitude. They lead right out of the palace!"
Of course, Marie already knew that. It just surprised her that a serving boy who had previously gawked at the sight of C.C. could now be so...determined, and driven to do his duty!
"Now, follow me, I will guide you to safety!" said the boy, beckoning both royals to follow him out of the room and across the hallway.
Before, when her life hadn't been at stake, C.C. had never paid any attention to the wall's ornate panels. Now, as the servant boy pushed one of them in to reveal a secret passageway, C.C. was surprised by her own obliviousness.
Had she known about these corridors, she would have used them to wreak havoc around the palace!
Marie pushed her into the corridor, instructing that she remain silent, which was a stark reminder of the dire situation they currently found themselves in. Marie followed her, and lastly came the boy, who made sure to close and bolt the passageway door shut.
"Let me go first, Your Imperial Highnesses," spoke the boy in a hushed voice, groping his way to the front of the line. "I shall guide you through the passageway."
They really weren't in any position to argue, so they let the boy go first. He seemed to have been down the passage before, so it was for the best. He hurried away down the little corridor, and Marie and C.C. had to move as quickly as they could to keep up. They didn't care how fast he was going. If he could get them out he could sprint for all they cared!
One thing was certain – it was taking C.C.'s mind off her cold!
It was impossible to be worried about such a thing, when they didn't even know where they were going...
"You are doing wonderfully, Your Imperial Majesty, Your Imperial Highness!" the boy half-whispered back to them. "We are almost halfway to the way out already!"
Only halfway?! Marie felt like they'd been running forever! She could hear shouting and gunfire coming from just the other side of the wall, and C.C. was getting tired already...
But they had to keep going!
It was only a few more yards before they absolutely had to stop, and the boy appeared to be allowing them. There was a gap in the panel where they fell, and C.C. took a chance to glance into the room.
A room, which had once been a grand parlour, but was now emptied of loot and mostly destroyed otherwise. It had been stripped bare, and C.C. could only watch in helpless silence as her siblings were dragged and shoved, crying and screaming all the way, and made to line up along the wall.
Then her parents were thrown in too, staggering but not quite falling.
The uniformed man who threw them brandished his rifle at them. More men soon piled in behind him, all dressed the same way and carrying the same weapons. Her sisters were still sobbing, and so was her Mama. Her Papa reached out to them. C.C. wished he could see her, and take her hand to tell her everything was going to be alright, too.
"Please, sweethearts, it's all going to be–"
He was interrupted by a round being fired into the ceiling.
"Shut up!" the soldier in charge ordered. "Get against the wall!"
Her Mama and Papa did as they were told. C.C. had never seen anybody order her parents around like that – ever! They were the Tsar and Tsarina of the Russian Empire! No one told them what to do!
At least, no one did until now...
They took her siblings' hands, Noel helping, as they stood in a line, facing towards the men lining up in front of them.
"It's just like a parade, children," her Papa said, calmly but loudly. "We're all walking, watching the soldiers..."
"I said, shut up!" the man in charge snapped again, pointing his gun at them. "Now kneel. All of you."
Stewart's chest swelled in indignation. C.C. knew he wouldn't kneel – he had never knelt to anyone in his whole life!
C.C. saw him grip all their hands tighter, encouraging them to do the same.
And he looked every inch a Tsar as he answered.
That seemed to enrage the soldier. C.C. felt a horrible feeling in her gut, like it had been the wrong thing for her Papa to say.
The soldier in charge approached him, rifle still pointing at his heart.
C.C. held her breath.
That was her Papa, and that man's Tsar! He couldn't point a gun at him!
"So you are not going to kneel?" asked the angry man.
The cries of her siblings were terrible, and Noel and her Mama tried to shush them, but it was no use.
"Never," her Papa replied, gripping her Mama's hand tighter.
There was a pause.
"Very well then," said the soldier, preparing to shoot.
Her father took a deep breath.
But in the last second, the soldier cocked his weapon to the side, and shot her Mama in the chest. The children screamed as she fell, and C.C. wished she could do the same. But her grandmother clamped a hand over her mouth to stop her from doing so.
Mama… her Mama…!
The cry of horror and sorrow came from her father, who tried to reach out for her hand. But he wasn't able to grab it, before she collapsed to the floor.
"No...!" he was nearly sobbing, but his anger overcame that. He turned to snarl at the men. "You monsters! I'm the one you want, take me!"
"We will," the soldier reloaded his weapon. "But not until you kneel."
Again, C.C. knew he wouldn't kneel.
Romanovs were proud, her father had once said. They'd rather die standing than on their knees.
"You only need me," Stewart said. "Let the children go."
The man's eyebrow raised, "And let there be heirs to this crumbling symbol of tyranny? No, I will not allow that to happen."
C.C. didn't know what that meant entirely, but she knew it wasn't good.
And that was confirmed when the man then pointed the gun at her siblings.
"So… which one will it be first?"
Stewart tried to pull his family to him.
Well, some of his family. His youngest daughter was still being kept silent even as she sobbed.
"Get behind me, children," her Papa said. "Don't look at Mama, just get behind me..."
C.C. couldn't help looking at her Mama. And her siblings tried to do as their father said. C.C. could see they were trying. But it was hard – their mother wasn't moving anymore, and her blood was pouring out over the worn ground, and she couldn't help wanting to see her still.
But they weren't given much of a chance. The man marched forward, grabbed them by the wrists and forced them back into line.
"You'll stand where I tell you to!" he screamed.
He then stormed away from them, going towards his own lined up soldiers.
C.C. wanted to look away, but she couldn't.
"I will tell you again to kneel," he shouted to his Tsar, her Papa. "And every time you don't, I will also order these men to fire."
But he didn't kneel.
What's more, he and all of her siblings puffed out their chests.
C.C. knew that she would've done the same. They were the imperial family of all Russia. They were powerful and strong. They had pride and courage.
They would never kneel.
Her Papa had always said so.
"Are you going to kneel or not, Romanov?" spat the man.
Her Papa's answer was to spit on the floor.
"Fine, on your head be it," said the soldier. He turned to his soldiers and gestured for them to take aim, each guard pointing at one Romanov.
C.C. held her breath and prayed, but it changed nothing.
Her brother Noel was the first to be shot.
They continued with her sister Olga.
C.C. flinched with every gunshot. They all fell to the floor, still alive but their bodies wracked with spasms as their lives left them.
They left her Papa standing, guns loaded and trained on him.
"And now, Romanov?" the man snarled. "Will you now kneel, with nothing left to lose and your children's bodies at your feet?"
C.C. was still crying. She had no idea what her father would do now.
But he was staring straight ahead. It was almost like...
No. It was! Her father was looking straight at them, through the gap in the passage wall!
But he was soon distracted again.
"There's one princess missing, sir!" cried out one of the soldiers as he studied the bodies. "There's supposed to be five children, right?"
They knew she wasn't there. But her Papa wouldn't tell. Not if it meant being shot like her Mama and her siblings.
Thinking about it and seeing them made her want to cry more.
"Yes...there were five," the man said, glaring at her Papa. "Where's the last of your brood?!"
Her Papa stayed stone-faced.
C.C. knew he wouldn't say a word, even though it was obvious what would happen next.
He'd always promised to keep her safe, and that's what he was doing.
"Away," he told them. "Far away from here."
C.C. felt her tears pooling as they were caught in her grandmother's hand.
Papa...her Papa was going to let these men shoot him...
All to let her live...
"What?! Where is she?!" the soldier screamed, stalking towards the Tsar.
He used the butt of his rifle to strike Stewart on the side of his head. The blow was hard enough to force her Papa to the floor, but he still got back to his feet. Or he tried to.
He was struck again. And again. And again.
He was struck every time he tried to stand. But he remained strong. Even there was blood trickling down the side of his head, staining his fine clothing, he continued to try.
And C.C. didn't think she'd ever loved her Papa more, or needed him more.
"I won't die on my knees!" screamed Stewart, and pushed the man, managing to stand. "And you won't find my C.C. — she left for the ports with her nannies long ago!"
It was a lie, of course, but C.C. thought maybe they wouldn't realise. And it kept her Grandmama safe too, by not mentioning her.
The soldier sneered at him, "You stupid shit," he said, "Now we know where and who to look for. And I'll make sure she has a slow and painful death. Just like you."
The man unsheathed his knife then, and stabbed her Papa over ten times. All in front of C.C. and Marie's eyes. There was nothing Marie could do to stop her watching as her father was murdered in cold blood.
C.C.'s eyes wandered in horror over the scene, as her father lay on the floor, twitching in the throes of an agonising death, as his blood mingled with her mother's and that of her siblings. And his eyes, rapidly becoming glassy, never left hers.
But it didn't once catch the attention of the soldiers. They were too caught up in the adrenaline of the murders they had just committed, not paying attention to the rest of an apparently empty room.
And, God willing, they would stay that way.
There was a moment of silence suspended in the air, before the unspoken prayer was answered.
"Good work, comrades," the uniformed man said, chest swelling with pride at his barbarism. "Let's move out!"
The men filed out of the room soon after, heading out to look for more innocents to savagely put to death, leaving the young C.C. crying quietly and helplessly into her grandmother's tight embrace.
"We have to move," Marie said, voice cracking.
She'd tried her hardest to hide the utter despair coming forth, but it was impossible to push it down completely. She couldn't even do it for her granddaughter; not when her very heart and soul had just shattered into more pieces than she could ever have imagined.
She didn't know if they could ever be put back together.
She only knew that nothing would ever be the same ever again.
She'd seen her own son die. She'd witnessed as his own subjects – traitors – murdered him and his family in cold blood. Only C.C. and herself remained. They only had each other, and Marie would protect her with her life. And she had to get the little one moving.
But C.C. didn't want to move – she wanted to stay right where she was to be held by her last remaining relative. Marie couldn't allow it – at least, not until they were safely away from there. When they were in Paris. Then they could start to process it all – she'd hold the girl until she fell asleep at night, and they'd cry and remember the people they'd lost, but not before.
"Come on, my darling – we must leave this place," she muttered into the girl's hair. "We cannot stay. Your Mama and Papa would not want us to stay."
C.C., hurting deeply all over, nodded. She knew her parents would tell her to get away, and even though it was painful to even think of carrying on and tearing herself away from the closest she'd ever be to her parents again, she had to go.
They had to follow the boy, and get out before they were found as well.
So they did. They followed him all down the passages and endless corridors, Marie making sure her girl – her sole responsibility now – stayed firmly with her, and didn't listen to the shouting and the sound of gunfire going on just the other side of the wall.
She wasn't letting C.C. out of her sight ever again.
And, after an eternity of more corridors and endlessly winding twists and turns that Marie hadn't thought possible at her age, they came to the end. Said end held a door, which marked the point they'd leave the palace and take to the streets.
They'd never return, once they'd stepped through. But there was no time for goodbyes, or for any hesitation whatsoever!
The boy knew that, too, and unscrewed the hatch to shove the door open. It led out into a little side street just by the kitchens, quiet and deserted for the time being. Probably just long enough for them to get away from the building, and to be on their way to the station before anybody had noticed two of the Romanovs were missing.
"Follow me, my ladies," he was still ready to run, despite the exhaustion they'd all suffered. "I can take you safely to the train station!"
Marie grabbed C.C.'s hand and made to follow him. The boy had helped them so far, so it didn't feel like he would just suddenly give them up to the revolutionaries.
He seemed good, and trustworthy. So, they would be safe to stick by him.
The streets surrounding the one they fled along were full of looters and fleeing servants, all coming from the palace. The only way to tell which was which was to see what they had in their hands – if it was a painting, ornament or candelabra, it was a thief. If their hands were empty, they were servants who had posed no threat and had been allowed to leave with their lives.
If they had guns, they were most likely off-duty soldiers. They turned away from them like they had the plague, just in case one man decided that he could stand to go back on duty long enough to check who they were.
It felt like they'd been running all night, and that they'd never get out before they were found, when an eerie voice came to them. A voice that made them freeze, and the hairs stand up on the back of their necks.
"Running off to somewhere, are we?"
Marie knew the voice better than C.C.. She had only been young when the man had been thrown out of the court. She'd hoped that none of them would ever have to hear it ever again – that the man it belonged to would never dare to darken their doorstep again!
But he had come back. He had returned, just like he'd threatened, the day Stewart had forced him to leave.
Why had he returned?! Why now, of all times?! How could he possibly have known to come on that day, to find them at the moment their house stood on the verge of collapse? Had he been hanging around, hoping for something like this to happen so that he could come to gloat as he handed them over?
Had he heard rumours of a revolution coming, and come back to take advantage?
Taking advantage was what he did best, after all.
"Rasputin," she growled, bringing C.C. behind her.
And indeed, a tall figure emerged from the shadows – the supposed healer. He was nothing but a disgusting conman who'd taken advantage of her family's desperation. Months ago, Stewart and B.B. had offered a fortune to anyone who was able to cure Noel's haemophilia. Rasputin, being the conniving snake he was, had almost immediately appeared at their doorstep like a Godsend, and offered a cure.
When he'd come to them with his supposed "cure", he had appeared no more than a humble monk, robed and wearing nothing on his feet. But every word he'd spoken had promised hope – hope coming directly from a man of God.
So, he'd set to work on healing Noel, but over time it had become more and more obvious that the Tsarevich wasn't getting any better. All the while, the strange, dirtied man who'd turned up on their doorstep had insisted that the family should pay him more and more money. For a miracle that would never come.
Stewart's patience had quickly worn thin, becoming so angry that he'd thrown Rasputin out of the palace, taking back all the money they'd given him and refusing him a single penny more.
Rasputin had promised he'd get his revenge.
"Your Former Imperial Majesty," sneered the thin, bearded man, wearing a tattered monk's robe. "What a lovely night for a revolution!"
"What could you possibly know about any of this, you lying cheat?!" Marie snarled back. "Are you in league with those...those people?!"
Rasputin let out a horrid, screeching peal of laughter that cut straight through them.
"You stupid woman! I made this revolution!" he declared. "I told you I would have my revenge, and I sold my soul to do it!"
He reached into his robes and pulled forth a glass vial, ancient-looking and glowing bright green.
Marie's eyes widened and she nearly stumbled back as her stomach started to churn with the awful implications.
He'd...he'd sold his soul?! But...but how?! And who to?! She regretted that question immediately, as it didn't bear thinking about! He could have only sold it to the absolute worst possible place and...and things that Marie could think! It made her want to scream, and cry out, but she was frozen to the spot and wouldn't do either. She couldn't do either!
She almost couldn't believe that Rasputin had gone to such lengths, purely for the purpose of getting back at one family! That charlatan had let himself become a monster! He'd let himself be surrendered to darker powers, all to bring about a revolution?!
All to ensure death and destruction unlike any seen before!
All to get revenge on her and everyone she knew and loved!
"The price was small to pay, for the power I received in return!" the monster continued, almost reading her mind with a leering grin.
"You will never get away with this, you foul creature!" the Dowager Empress screamed defiantly back.
She was determined not to seem afraid – to let him know that she wasn't going to simply fall to her knees and beg for her life. Even if he had given up the most important part of himself and had gained terrible powers to get back at them all, she would never do anything less than fight back.
Rasputin looked unfazed by it, however, casually putting the vial back in his robes, "I believe I will, little woman. You have no power anymore, and no way out. And I will take your granddaughter first, just to prove how alone you are!"
But as he took a step forward, so did the serving boy. He leapt up, and started to punch wherever he could on the older man's body!
"Go!" he cried, continuing to hit and kick and otherwise keep Rasputin occupied. "You have to leave now!"
Marie wasn't about to disagree. She took C.C. and they ducked down the nearest street, taking off as quickly as they could through the city. They were nearly there. The boy had taken them most of the way and bought them time. He'd be remembered for his courage.
Marie had started to recognise some of the landmarks, too, and knew that the train station was only a little way away. All they had to do was cross the bridge, and go through into the station.
The train was waiting there. The whistle was blowing, and they were going to make it! Marie very nearly laughed to herself in relief. She got to the steps and pulled herself up.
C.C. was directly behind her, feeling the same sense of relief as her grandmother. They were going to Paris! They'd gotten away! They were going to––
She never finished the thought. Her hand slipped on the smooth metal of the rail, and she fell.
The world froze in an instant moment of tragic horror, speeding up again as the Dowager Empress' heart leapt into her mouth. Her hand reached forwards, only to snatch at air as her girl fell out of her grasp.
No. No, no, no – they were so close now! They were there – they were safe! She couldn't have let go of her – she had to grab her and get her back onto the train! They could catch their breath and regain their footing in a moment; all that mattered was being on their way to Paris!
But she couldn't reach. Not in time.
"C.C., no!" Marie cried out, hand flailing as it stretched out helplessly again for her granddaughter, as the train began to pull away.
C.C. fell backwards onto the platform, smacking her head on the snowy concrete below, and the world immediately went black, the fading train whistle drowning out the screams of her grandmother as it carried her away.