—but no. I can’t think about that right now. Instead I straighten the tiara on my head and pretend I know what the hell I’m doing.
LATER THAT EVENING, AFTER MY MAIDS (I HAVE THREE) have dressed me in a loose nightgown and settled me into my bed, I lay the pieces of my Firebird on my embroidered coverlet. This enormous bed of carved wood is high above the floor, every blanket and sheet pristinely white, so it feels a bit as though I’m considering my options while resting on a cloud.
With a sigh, I flop onto the soft pillows piled at the head of my bed. The room surrounding me isn’t that large, nor is the decor gaudy, and yet there’s no mistaking the wealth and elegance that created it. The walls and high ceiling are painted the cool, soft green of aged copper. A writing desk in the corner is scrolled with vines of inlaid wood, as if it were being reclaimed by the forest leaf by leaf. Across from my bed, a broad fireplace set with enameled tiles glows with the fire that warms my room.
My jewels are back in their velvet boxes, along with all the others.
At least this version of me has books, several of which are strewn around me right now. Many of them are in Russian . . . but I can read that here, and speak it too. Apparently that kind of memory is hardwired into the mind differently than emotions and experiences.
From what I can tell from the books I’ve scanned, just as technology had developed slightly faster in the London dimension, here it has developed far more slowly. My surroundings seem to belong in the year 1900 more than in the twenty-first century. Although some elements of this world are more or less advanced than my dimension was at this point, the overall feel is like stepping back a century in time. In this world, the twenty-first century simply looks very different. People travel by railroad or steamship, or even sometimes on horseback or in sleighs. Telephones exist but are so new we only have a few in the palace, and they’re only for official use; nobody has even thought of telephoning a friend merely to chat. The internet hasn’t even been dreamed of. Instead, people write letters. I can see a stack of creamy stationery waiting on my desk.
The United States of America exists but is thought of as remote and provincial. (I have no idea whether that’s true or not, but everyone here in St. Petersburg would agree.) Royalty still reigns throughout Europe, including of course the House of Romanov. The man everyone thinks is my father is Tsar Alexander V, emperor and autocrat of all the Russias. So far as I can tell, this dimension doesn’t yet contain the equivalent of a Lenin or a Trotsky. This is good, as I have zero interest in pulling an Anastasia—getting shot to death in a basement and then having every crazy woman in Europe pretending to be me for the next fifty years.
A set of leatherbound encyclopedias on a lower shelf has an entry about the House of Romanov. There, in plain text stark on the page, I learn that Tsar Alexander married a young noblewoman named Sophia Kovalenka. With her he had four children: the Tsarevich Vladimir, Grand Duchess Margarita (i.e., yours truly), Grand Duchess Yekaterina (a very fancy name for the brat who stuck her tongue out at me), and finally Grand Duke Piotr.
My mother died giving birth to her fourth child.
Mom and Dad always said pregnancy was “difficult” for her; I never realized that meant “dangerous.” They stopped after me and Josie, for the sake of her health. Here, I realize, the Tsar never stopped demanding more children, pressuring her into pregnancy after pregnancy until, finally, she died while in labor with her younger son.
They cut him out of her after she died. I wish I hadn’t read that.
My mother is a scientist. She’s a genius. She’s strong and she’s fierce and, okay, she can be a little obtuse about ordinary life, plus she doesn’t understand art at all, but still, she’s Mom. She has more to give the world than almost anyone else I can imagine.
Tsar Alexander thought all she had to offer were heirs to the throne, so he . . . bred her to death.
I pick up a silver photo frame from my bedside table. The oval portrait there, in slightly fuzzy black and white, shows my mother with younger versions of me, Vladimir, and Katya; she’s dressed in an elaborate long-sleeved gown, but the way her arms are curved protectively around me and Vladimir, the way she smiles down at the toddler Katya in her lap—something in her, too, remained the same in this universe.
But not enough. Here, my mother never had the chance to study science. What interested her here? How did she occupy her brilliant, restless mind? Did she ever look at Tsar Alexander with anything like the love and trust she always had with my dad?
And here, Josie was never even born. Dad must have been a fleeting presence in her life, which is almost impossible for me to imagine.
With a shaky hand I put the photograph back where it belongs; even the thought of what happened to my mother is too much to bear right now. I slump back on the piled feather pillows and take slow, deep breaths.
My eyes go to the sliver of light visible beneath my bedroom door. Until a few minutes ago, that light was broken by two dark lines—the shadows of Paul’s feet as he stood guard outside. But apparently even the personal guard of one of the grand duchesses is allowed to sleep. The encyclopedia informed me that I live in St. Petersburg, currently in the Winter Palace.
What about Theo? If he exists in this dimension, he probably would be in the United States, or maybe in the Netherlands, where his grandparents were from. My heart sinks as I realize that, in a world where the swiftest travel possible is by train, there’s no way Theo could reach me today, or tomorrow, or even within a few weeks. Given the famous savagery of the Russian winters, it’s entirely possible he couldn’t get here before spring. Even if he did manage to travel to St. Petersburg, how would he ever win an audience with one of the grand duchesses?