Slipping and stumbling down a snow covered sidewalk, a young man hurried away from the Winter Palace, plunging into the crowd of thousands that trudged along the icy streets of St. Petersburg without an inkling of the history-altering events that he had witnessed. Tugging on the ill-fitting bearskin coat that he'd stolen after ditching his grenadier's uniform, he cursed the staggering images that assailed his mind and ducked into a dark alley to figure out what to do next.
It was absolutely unfathomable that just a few hours before he'd been at his post, watching the royal family celebrate their three-hundredth year on the throne. He could still hear the youngest grand duchess laughing and teasing her older sisters about the men who came to ask them to dance. For once, no one had bothered to scold the beautiful impish little girl and she had enjoyed the freedom to its fullest extent. He remembered the czarina and the dowager sitting regally on their thrones, watching the proceeding with the stately reserve of queens, and the czar himself had presided over the festivities with all the greatness of his heritage. Even the young tsarevich was enjoying certain freedoms that were hitherto unknown, through his nurse hovered nearby, tensely wringing her hands.
But the gaiety of the grand party and the lights of the powerful family had been rudely snuffed out when Rasputin returned to claim vengeance for some offence that the grenadier knew nothing about and now he was on the run, having deserted his post and the family that he'd sworn to protect.
"I'm sorry!" he moaned, muffling the sound in his hands and burying his head between his knees, "I'm so sorry!"
Suddenly, a soft groan jerked him back to the present and his heart lurched with terror. Had he been discovered?
Peering into the darkness he saw a young girl trying to rise out of the grit covered snow, feebly shaking her head and coughing softly to clean the grim from her mouth. Instinctively, he reached out to help and felt the blood on her arms.
"Easy there," he whispered, "Take your time."
"Thank you," she murmured softly.
"How-" he gasped, a powerful convulsion almost bringing him to his feet; instantly he began fumbling through the coat, searching for the matches in his pant's pocket, desperate to see her face.
"Forgive me, your highness," he murmured automatically, catching himself cursing the coat's bulkiness.
"Who are you?" she questioned, her voice thick with confusion, as he stuck the match and held it up, staring at what had to be a ghost.
It was definitely her. The youngest grand duchess was not, as he had assumed, lying dead with her family on the blood-stained carpet of the palace. She was out on the cold dirty street, alive, alone, and unprotected from the evil that had destroyed her father, mother, brother and sisters.
"What happened?" he gasped, grasping her arm as if his life depended on it, horrified to see her fine glossy ringlets clotted with blood.
For a moment, he felt cold dread at the thought of having to face her father and tell him how she'd come to be in such a state...but no, that wouldn't be necessary...or was it? He had thought that the whole royal family was dead but, suddenly, he wondered if they really were...if the youngest girl could survive, wasn't it possible that they all had?
"Who are you?" she asked, forcing his brain to stop its jumbled reasoning and focus on her.
"It's Mikhail," he answered obediently, his breath catching in his throat, "D-don't you remember me, your highness?"
In response, her eyes widened in terror, as if seeing some image that he could not, and she tried to wrench free from his grasp.
"Let go, let go…" she whimpered.
"Shh, shh," he spoke soothingly, "It's alright! I'm a friend! Please your high-"
With a sharp gasp, the answer hit him like a ton of bricks.
He had seen memory loss like this before, most vividly on the battlefields in Europe when someone was terribly wounded. It was horrible to realize that the youngest grand duchess was suffering from such an affliction, but then a far more urgent realization jumped into his mind.
Her life was in danger here!
"Come, your high-," he said, but caught himself; suddenly realizing that even the barest mention of her royal title could bring danger upon her.
"Come Anya," he began again, using a nickname that he'd heard the czarina employ from time to time.
"Is that my name?" she asked, hesitating for a moment before obediently trudging into the street behind him.
"Yes," he answered softly, dropping his gaze in shame as they walked towards the bridge that spanned the Neva river; it was a name that was forbidden to him.
She grew increasingly stronger as they walked together over the next few days which both elated and terrified him. What could he possibly tell her if her memory returned?
But he had other things to consider as well…
What was he to do with her? As for his own future, he had decided that he could no longer live in Russia; the country that he knew and loved had died when the czar took his final breath. But, undoubtedly, Rasputin was watching the ports, making sure that she would not escape his grasp again
And even if he did get her out, how could he support her?
Then he saw a small rural orphanage and knew that he'd found the solution. Hopefully, she could grow up there in anonymity and learn to live in a world that had no room for grand duchesses anymore.
Kneeling with bitterness in his heart and tears in his eyes, he almost choked as he explained that she must stay here while he went on alone.
"What is it?" the gruff matron spat, sizing them up with critical eyes when they knocked on the door.
"This girl has lost her family," he answered softly, fighting the emotions that surged in his heart, "and I cannot keep her with me any longer."
"My name is Anya," she added sweetly, earning a grunt from the woman.
"Listen you!" he growled, flying into a rage at her rudeness. He picked her up by the collar and screamed in her face, "If you knew who-"
"Put me down, you insolent young fool!" her voice was shrill as a harpy's call, "I'll see that you pay for that!" She spit in his face, making him reel backwards into the snow, furiously scrubbing his eyes.
Grabbing Anya roughly, the woman shoved the girl roughly through the door, "Get inside, you little welp! I'll be there in a minute to assign you your share of the chores." Then turning back to the grenadier with a stout broom in her hands, she let loose with furious blows and, heartsick with grief, he sank to his knees and submitted without a sound until he collapsed.
Hours later, when his senses returned and he could stagger to his feet, he saw his former charge silhouetted in an upstairs window, toying with a piece of jewelry around her neck, and couldn't help but salute one last time.
"Goodbye, your highness," he whispered, "I pray to God that you never remember what has happened these last few days."