The Jewel of St Petersburg
Copyright © 2010 by Kate Furnivall
To Carole and Wendy
I am deeply grateful to Jackie Cantor for her patience and humor while bringing this book through its birth pangs, and to all her team at Berkley, especially Pam Barricklow, a true miracle worker. Many thanks also to Amy Schneider for her impressive skill in polishing the manuscript.
Brilliant thanks to my agent, Teresa Chris, for her constant guidance, as perceptive as ever, and to Patty Moobrugger for her support.
My gratitude also to Elena Shifrina for her enthusiastic assistance with research and the Russian language, and to Susan Clark for her musical advice. I am indebted to Marian Churchward for transforming my scrawl into a readable manuscript and for sharing my chocolate biscuits.
Huge thanks to my husband, Norman, for his encouragement and understanding, and especially for his cool ideas.
TESOVO, RUSSIA JUNE 1910
VALENTINA IVANOVA DID NOT INTEND TO DIE. NOT HERE. Not now. Not like this. With dirty feet and tangled hair and her life barely started. She looked down at her fingers in the fuzzy green gloom of the forest and was surprised to see them so steady. Inside she was shaking.
She always paid attention to fingers rather than faces because they told so much more. People remembered to guard their faces. They forgot their hands. Her own were small, though strong and supple from all the hours of piano playing, but what use was that now? For the first time she understood what real danger does to the human mind, as flat white fear froze the coils of her brain.
She could run. Or she could hide. Or she could stay where she was, molded to the trunk of a silver birch, and let them find her.
Dark figures were flitting silently from tree to tree, swallowed by the sullen vastness of the forest around her. She couldn’t see them now, couldn’t hear them, yet she knew they were there. They seemed to vanish like beetles into the bark, invisible and untraceable, but each time she flicked her head suddenly to one side or the other, she caught their movement at the corner of her eye. A trail of air, thin and secretive. A shift of light. A break in the twilight of the forest floor.
Who were these people? They carried rifles, but they didn’t look like hunters. What hunters wore black hoods? What hunters had face masks with narrow slits for eyes and a jagged hole for a mouth?
She shivered. She wasn’t willing to die.
Her feet were bare. She’d kicked off her shoes after the long gallop up the slope through the fields. The sky was still dark when she’d crept out of bed. She’d ignored the hairpins and the buckles, the gloves and the hat, all the paraphernalia that her mother insisted a young lady must wear at all times outdoors. At seventeen, she was old enough now to make her own choices. So she’d pulled a light sleeveless dress over her head, sneaked out of the house, saddled up Dasha and come up here to her favorite spot on her father’s country estate. She’d plunged into the dark somber fringe of the forest from where she loved to watch the dawn rise over Tesovo.
Her bare toes relished the black earth, moist as treacle. The wind had whipped her long dark hair in a fan across her cheeks and twined it around her neck. There was a freedom up here that loosened something inside her, something that had been wound too tight. It was always the same when the family left St. Petersburg and arrived in Tesovo for the drowsy months of summer and the long white nights when the sun scarcely bothered to drop below the horizon.
That was until she saw the rifles.
Men in hoods. All in black and moving with stealth through the shadowy world of the forest. Sweat pooled in the hollow of her back as she dodged behind a tree. She heard a murmur of blurred voices, nothing more, and for a while she waited, willing them to leave. But only when the crimson dawn drew a line like a trail of blood between the trees did the men suddenly spread out, vanishing completely, and Valentina felt her heart thump in panic.
A whisper? Was that a whisper behind her?
She spun around. Peered into the shadows but could see no one.
A moment later a shape flicked. Dark and quick, off to one side. Another directly ahead. They were circling her. How many? She sank down into the dense mist that rose from the ground and, crouching low, she started to run through the thick undergrowth. Thin gray ropes of mist coiled around her ankles and fronds reached for her face, but she didn’t stop until she almost crashed into a pair of legs crossing an animal trail in front of her. She froze. In her leafy cavern under the ferns on the forest floor she didn’t breathe. The legs paused, her terrified gaze fixed on a cloth patch that was badly sewn on the knee of the trousers, but then they moved on. She jinked to her left and scuttled farther. If she could find the edge of the forest where her horse was tethered, she could…
The blow came from nowhere. Knocked her flat on her back. She lay sprawled on the damp earth but struck out at the hand that seized her shoulder, sinking teeth into its wrist. Bone jarred on her teeth but she bit harder and tasted blood. The hand abruptly released its grip with a curse and she bounded to her feet, but a heavy swinging slap cracked against her jaw and sent her crashing into a tree, cheek first.
“She’s over here!” a deep voice yelled.
Valentina tried to run. Her head was spinning but she saw the second slap coming and dropped to one knee. She heard her attacker’s hand snap as it smacked into the trunk instead and a bellow of rage. Her feet were up and running, but the earth wouldn’t keep still. It was swaying under her, merging with the gray mist and flaring into flames each time she crossed a streak of sunlight.
“Shit! Dermo! Put a bullet in her.”
The sound of a bullet rattling into the breech of a rifle ripped into her mind. She jerked behind a tree and saw her hands quivering uncontrollably on the peeling bark.
“Wait!” she called out.
Silence. The noise of bodies crashing through the forest ceased.
“Wait!” she called again.
“Get out here where we can see you.”
A voice laughed at her, an angry sound. “No bullets.”
They hadn’t fired at her yet. Maybe they couldn’t risk the noise of shots. In the countryside sound travels far. She tried to swallow, but her throat was raw. These men weren’t playing games. Whatever it was they were doing, she had disturbed them at it and they weren’t going to let her just walk away. She had to talk to them.
“Hurry up! Bistro!” the angry voice shouted.
Valentina’s heart stopped in her chest as she stepped clear of the tree.
THERE WERE FIVE OF THEM. FIVE MEN, FIVE RIFLES. ONLY one, the tallest figure, had his rifle slung loosely over his shoulder as if he didn’t expect to use it. The black masked faces stared blankly back at her, and her skin crawled at the sight of them.
They didn’t put a bullet in her. That was a start.
“It’s just a girl,” one scoffed.
“Quick as a bloody rabbit, though.”
Three of them moved nearer. She tensed, up on her toes, ready to run.
“Don’t look so fierce, girl, we’re just…”
“Get away from me.”
“No need to be unfriendly.”
“You’re trespassing on my father’s land,” she said. Her voice didn’t sound like hers.
“The land of Russia,” one of the hoods growled, “belongs to the people of Russia. You stole it from us.”
Chyort! Revolutionaries. The word swelled in her head, crushing all other thoughts. Stories circulated throughout the salons of St. Petersburg about men like this, about how they intended to seize control of Russia and kill off all the ruling classes. She would be just the beginning.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded.
A loose lecherous chuckle came from the one closest to her. “Enjoying the view.”
She felt her cheeks flush. Her thin muslin dress was plastered to her body where sweat and sodden foliage had streaked the material. Defensively she looped her arms in front of her but shook her hair back from her face in a gesture of defiance. The three loomed closer, and one moved behind her to cut off her retreat. Caging her. She breathed warily. She couldn’t see their faces behind their black hoods, but she could tell by the speed of their rangy limbs and the eagerness in their voices that they were young. The other two men seemed slightly older, more solidly built, and kept themselves farther away across the break in the trees, murmuring to each other in low tones. She couldn’t tell from their masks whether they watched her, but the taller of them was clearly the one in authority.
Why were they here in Tesovo? What were they planning? She had to get away, had to warn her father. But two of the young men started shouldering each other, jostling like jackals for the spoils.
“Who are you?” she asked, to shift their thoughts from herself.
“We are the true voice of Russia.”
“If that’s so, your voices should be heard in the Duma, our parliament, not by me in a forest clearing. What use is that?”
“I can think of one use,” the stockiest of the three responded. He touched her breast with the tip of his rifle.
She knocked it fiercely to one side. “You may claim the land,” she hissed, “but don’t think you can claim me.”
His two companions burst out into coarse laughter, but he yanked his belt from his waist and wound one end around his fist, swinging the buckle threateningly. “Bitch! Suka!”
Valentina’s heart slid into her throat. She could smell his anger on him, sour in the fresh morning air.
“Please.” She addressed the tall man among the trees. There was a stillness about him that frightened her even more than the unfocused energy of his men. “Please,” she said, “control them.”
The man stared back at her from within the dark folds of his hood, slowly shook his head, and walked away into the forest. For a moment she panicked and her hands clenched together to stop them shaking. Yet it seemed that he’d left instructions because the man to whom he’d been talking pointed abruptly to the one standing behind her.
“You,” he said. “Deal with her. The rest of you, follow me.”
Deal with her.
They were well trained, she’d give them that. The angry one with his belt in his fist strutted away at once with no comment, the other alongside him. Behind her the solitary figure shifted his rifle purposefully and shuffled his homemade boots in the damp earth.
“Sit,” he ordered.
She thought about it.
“Sit,” he said again, “or I will make you.”
AN HOUR PASSED, MAYBE MORE. VALENTINA LOST TRACK OF time. Her limbs ached and her head cramped. Each time she attempted to move or to speak, her guard made a sound of disgust behind her and jammed the metal tip of his rifle into whichever part of her anatomy took his fancy: her ribs, her shoulder, an arm. Worst was the nape of her neck.
But he didn’t shoot her. She clung to that faint thread of hope.
What were the others doing? The question ricocheted around inside her skull, splitting her thoughts into a thousand answers.
They could be thieves. She hoped so fiercely that they were here to rob her father’s house that she almost convinced herself it was true. Here to steal the antique paintings, the gold statues, the Oriental carvings, her mother’s jewels. It had been tried before, so why not again? But what thieves would wait till daylight? What thieves were stupid enough to rob a house when the servants were up and about?
She pulled her knees to her chest. Sank her chin on them and in return received a prod in the spine from the rifle, but behind her heels she’d dragged a stone to within reach. She wrapped her arms around her shins and shivered in the breeze that was thinning the mist. Not that it was cold, but she was frightened. Frightened for her parents and for her sister, Katya, who would be rising from their beds about now, totally unaware of the black hoods that stalked Tesovo. Katya was only thirteen, a blond bubble of energy who would come bounding into Valentina’s room to entreat her for a swim in the creek after breakfast on their first morning at Tesovo. Mama liked to keep to her room first thing in the morning, but Papa was a stickler for punctuality at breakfast. He would be ruffling his whiskers and glaring at his pocket watch because his elder daughter was late.
Papa, be careful.
“Are you Bolsheviks?” she asked suddenly, tensing herself for the blow.
It came. On the neck. She heard something crunch.
“Are you?” she asked again. She wished she could turn and look into his hooded face.
“Shut your mouth.”
The second blow was harder, but at least he had spoken. It was the first time she’d heard his voice since he’d ordered her to sit. She wasn’t certain how far behind her he was crouched, silent as a spider, except that it was obviously less than a rifle length away. She’d been submissive so long, he must have dropped his guard by now, surely. If she was wrong… She didn’t care to think about that. She needed to lure him within reach.
“You know who my father is?”
The rifle slammed into the side of her jaw, jerking her head almost off her neck. “Of course I bloody know. You think we’re stupid peasants or something?”
“He is General Nicholai Ivanov, a trusted minister in Tsar Nicholas’s government. He could help you and your friends to-”
This time he thrust the tip of his rifle against the back of her head, forcing it forward till her forehead was jammed against her knees.
“Your kind is finished,” he hissed at her, and she could feel his breath hot on the bruised skin of her neck. “We’ll trample you bastards into the earth that you stole from us. We’re sick of being kicked and starved while you stuff your greedy faces with caviar. Your father is a fucking tyrant and he’s going to pay for-”
Her hand closed on the stone hidden under her skirt. With a violent twist she spun around and slammed it into the front of the hood. Something broke. He screamed. High-pitched, the way a fox screams. But she was too quick, gone before he could pull the trigger. Racing, ducking, dodging under branches and plunging into the darkest shadows while his cry fluttered behind her. She could hear him charging through the foliage and two shots rang out, but both whistled past harmlessly, raking the leaves and snapping off twigs as she stretched the distance between them.
She slid down a slope on her heels, desperate to find the river. It was her route out of the forest. She swerved and switched direction till she was certain she had lost her pursuer, and then she stopped and listened. At first she could hear nothing except her pulse in her ears, but gradually another sound trickled through: the faint but unmistakable ripple of water over rocks. Relief hit her and to her dismay she felt her knees buckle under her. She was stunned to find herself sitting upright on the damp earth, fretful and weak as a kitten. She forced herself shakily back onto her feet. She had to warn her father.
After that she moved at a steadier pace. It didn’t take long to locate the river and set off along the narrow track that ran along its bank. Disjointed thoughts crashed around inside her head. If these hooded men were revolutionaries, what plans did they have? Were they just hiding out in Tesovo’s forest, or had they come here for a specific purpose? Who was their target? That last one wasn’t hard. It had to be Papa.
She clamped her lips together until they were bloodless in an effort to silence the shout of rage that roared inside her, and her feet speeded up again, weaving a jerky path through the overhanging branches.
A sound jolted her and she recognized it at once: the noise of a horse’s hooves splashing through water. Someone was coming upriver. It was shallow here, a silvery burble over a bed of stones, the morning sunlight flouncing off the eddies and swirling back up into the trees. She crouched, curled in a ball behind a bush, the skin stretched tight across her cheeks as if it had somehow shrunk in the last few hours.
The big man on the ugly flat-footed horse swung round at the sound of her voice. “Miss Valentina!” He was leading her horse, Dasha, behind.
The expression on his face under his black corkscrew curls surprised her. It was one of shock. Did she look that bad? Normally Liev Popkov was a young man of few words and even fewer expressions of emotion. He was several years older than herself, the son of her father’s Cossack stable master, and he seemed to have time and interest only for four-footed companions. He leapt out of the saddle and stomped in his long boots through the shallows. He towered over her as he seized her arm. It surprised her that he would touch her. He was only an outdoor servant, but she was far too grateful to him for bringing her a horse to object.
“I heard shots,” he growled.
“There are men in the forest with rifles.” Her words came out in gasps. “Quickly, we have to warn my father.”
He didn’t ask questions. He wasn’t that kind of person. His gaze scoured the forest, and when satisfied, he swept her up onto the back of her horse.
“What made you come up here?” she asked as he untied Dasha’s reins.
His massive shoulders shrugged, muscles stretching the greasy leather tunic. “Miss Katya came looking for you. I saw your horse was gone”-he rolled a hand fondly over the animal’s rump-“so I rode up. Found her tethered.” As he handed her the reins, his black eyes fixed on hers. “You well enough to ride?”
“You don’t look good.”
She touched her cheek, felt blood and saw scarlet slither down her fingers. “I can ride.”
“Go slow. Your feet look bad.”
She gathered the reins in her hands and twitched Dasha’s head around. “Thank you, Liev. Spasibo.” With a brisk touch of her heels she set the horse into a canter, and together they raced off down the river, water scything like a rainbow around her.
She rode hard through the forest, with Liev Popkov and his big-boned animal tight on her trail. At one point a tree was down across their path, but she wasted no time finding a way around it. She heard an annoyed shout behind her but she didn’t stop, just put Dasha to it and lifted her into the jump. The horse soared over it, pleased with herself, and swerved to avoid the roots that writhed up from the black earth to trip the unwary.
They burst out of the forest fringe into the open, into the quiet sunlit somnolence of the landscape, a quilt of greens and golds, of fields, orchards, and pastureland that was spread out lazily before her. It made her want to cry with relief. Nothing had changed. Everything was safe. At the top of the slope she reined in her horse to give her a moment to breathe. She’d tumbled out of the forest nightmare back into the real world where the air was scented with ripening apples and the Ivanov mansion sat half a mile away at the heart of the estate, fat and contented as a honey-colored cat in front of a stove. It quickened something inside her and, like Dasha, she breathed more freely. She shortened the reins, eager to ride on.
“That jump was dangerous. You take risks.”
She glanced to her right. The young Cossack and his horse were silhouetted against the sun, solid as a rock.
“It was the quickest way,” she pointed out.
“You’re already hurt.”
He shook his head. “Have you ever been whipped?” he demanded.
“That jump was difficult. If you had fallen off, your father would have had me whipped with the knout.”
Valentina’s mouth dropped open. A knout was a rawhide whip, often with metal barbs attached, and although its use had been abolished in Russia, it still prevailed to enforce discipline. One hung coiled like a sleeping snake on the wall of her father’s workroom. For a moment they stared at each other, and the sunlight suddenly seemed lost to her. What must it be like to live each day in fear of a whip? Liev’s features were heavy and solemn, already set in grooves despite his young age, as if there had been little in his life to smile about. She felt ashamed and embarrassed.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
She was the first to look away. She stroked Dasha’s feathery ears, then clicked her tongue to set her off at a gallop down the grassy slope. The air buffeted Valentina’s lungs and dragged at long strands of her hair, and one stirrup threatened to snap loose from her bare foot. She leaned forward, flat along Dasha’s back, urging her to a faster pace.
The roar of an explosion shattered the silence when they were only halfway down the slope. One end of the house shuddered and seemed to leap up into the air, before it disintegrated inside a gray cloud of smoke. Valentina screamed.
NYET! NO! THE WORD FILLED VALENTINA’S MIND, ECHOING inside it till there was no room for other words. Nyet! No room for words like blood and pain. No room for death.
Their horses skidded to a halt on the gravel in front of the house and Valentina threw herself out of the saddle. There was noise everywhere. People frantic, servants running, shouting, crying. Panic leaping from face to face; the air was thick and heavy with it. There was the stink of smoke, shattered glass underfoot. Riderless horses hurtled into view from the stables, skittering in terror. She heard the word bomb repeated again and again.
“Papa!” she screamed.
Her father’s study was at that end where the smoke was pouring out, swallowing the house in greedy gulps. Each morning when at Tesovo, her father would go into his study to write his ministerial letters immediately after finishing his newspaper over breakfast. Her heart lurched as she started to fly toward the crumpled wing of the building, but after only two steps she was jerked to a stop. A fist like an anchor chain had seized her wrist.
“Liev,” she screamed, “let go of me!”
“I have to see if Papa is-”
“Nyet. It’s not safe.”
His filthy fingernails dug deep into her white skin while in his other hand lay the reins of the two horses. Dasha was prancing wildly, nostrils flared, but the ugly one just stood flat-footed, its curious brown eyes fixed on Popkov.
She stopped struggling and drew herself up to her full height. “I order you to release me, Liev Popkov.”
He looked down at her imperious figure. “Or what? You’ll have me whipped?”
At that moment Valentina caught sight of her father’s back-she recognized his navy frock coat-stumbling into the dense pall of rubble dust.
“Papa!” she yelled again.
But before she could make Popkov release her, the blackened form of a man emerged from the smoke, choking for air. In his arms lay what looked like a broken figure. He was cradling it, his head bent over the boneless body, its sooty legs dangling limp and unheeding. The man was bellowing something, but for some reason Valentina’s ears weren’t working. She couldn’t make out what he was saying. The man drew closer and with a shock she realized it was her father, but her father with a cocoon of black dust encasing his skin, his whiskers, his clothes.
“Papa!” she screamed.
This time the Cossack let her go. As she scrabbled to her father’s side, her eyes took in one of the figure’s feet. It was wearing a single red shoe, one she herself had helped her sister choose in the shop on Nevsky. The rest was blackened like Papa: her legs, her dress, her face, even her hair, except for one stray strand on the side of her head that was still blond. But streaked with scarlet.
Valentina tried to shout the name, to make her sister open her blue eyes, to sit up and laugh at the game she was playing. But the word had no life. It died on her lips.
Her father was bellowing at the servants. “Ride for the doctor! For God’s sake, bring him here at once. I don’t care what he’s…”
His voice thickened and seemed to splinter. Valentina stood at his side, her face frozen, but when she reached out to touch the broken doll, her father swung his arms away.
“Don’t touch her.”
“Don’t touch her. You did this to her.”
“No, Papa, I rode up to-”
“You should have taken her with you. She was looking for you, waiting for you. It’s because of you she’s hurt. You-”
“No,” Valentina whispered.
“Yes. I was still in the breakfast room, but she was fretting because you’d gone off riding without her. She must have wandered into my study where…” His mouth collapsed into a low cry. “I’ll have the murdering savages shot, I swear to God I will.”
The blond-black head moved. The red shoe started to judder and shake, and a strange unearthly sound rose in a thin thread from the lacerated throat. Grasping his child tighter to his chest, crooning her name, her father hurried to the wide steps up to the front door, Valentina at his heels. As he stepped over the threshold he snapped his head around to look at her. What she saw in his eyes made her halt.
“Get out, Valentina. Get out of here. As horses mean so much more to you than your sister, go and help catch them.”
His eyes almost closed and for a moment he swayed unsteadily. With his foot he kicked the door shut in her face.
VALENTINA STOOD THERE AND ROCKED BACK ON HER HEELS, staring at the door. At the iron studs in it, at the place where she and Katya had nicked its surface with a stone to show how deep the snow had risen last Christmas.
“Katya,” she moaned.
Where was Mama? Gathering hot water and bandages?
An earsplitting squeal behind her made her swing around. Horses were charging about the drive in panic, tossing their heads, kicking their heels. Who had let them out? Flecks of foam littered their mouths and flanks. What had happened in the stables? Had the revolutionaries been there too? The grooms and stable boys were pursuing the frightened animals, coaxing and calling, but there was no sign of the stable master, Simeon Popkov, a powerful man who knew how to take control and steady nerves. He was nowhere to be seen.
Where was he? And where was Liev?
She abandoned the steps and flew around the side of the house toward the stables. Had he already caught the men who had done this terrible thing to Katya? Surely Papa would forgive her selfishness if she brought him one of the revolutionaries responsible.
“Simeon!” she shouted as she raced into the stable yard.
Abruptly she stopped, lungs pumping. The yard was quiet and oddly empty. Only Dasha and the ugly mount that was Liev’s were tethered to an iron ring in the wall. They were jumpy, edging in circles, bumping into each other. At the far end of the yard beyond the stalls stood the shack that was the stable master’s office, its door hanging open. In the dim interior she could make out a broad male figure, his back toward her. He was kneeling on the ground, his black head bowed.
“Simeon,” she called out. She could hear the fear in her voice.
But even as the word left her mouth she realized her mistake. It wasn’t the stable master; it was his son, Liev, huddled over something on the floor. She burst into the shack.
“Liev, where is…?”
His father, Simeon Popkov, was there in front of her. The stable master was lying stretched out on his back on the ground, limbs askew, black eyes open. His throat had been cut to the bone. She’d never have believed there could be so much blood. Crimson seemed to flood her world. It had taken over his tunic, soaked his hair, laid claim to the floor. Specks of scarlet floated in the air, and the smell of it made her choke.
Her mind grew hazy. She blinked, as if her eyelids could sweep away what lay before her, blinked again and this time focused on the Cossack’s son. Tears were coursing down his cheeks and his hand was holding his father’s, wrapping the strong fingers in a grip that would cheat death if it could. She put a hand on the young man’s back, feeling the tremors under his shirt.
“Liev,” she whispered gently. She touched his hair, the black wiry curls, wanting to draw out the splinters of pain but not knowing how. “I’m so sorry. He was a good man. Why would they harm him as well?”
Liev raised his head and gazed bleakly at the splashes of crimson on the wooden walls. Words roared out of him. “My father was nothing to them. Nothing! They did it just to prove they could, to show their power. And to give warning to those who work for other families of your class.”
She stood there for a long moment, her chest too tight to breathe, seeing in her head the broken figure ofKatya, reliving the expression in her father’s eyes. Listening to the pain in the guttural moans that shuddered out of the Cossack’s throat. Her hand lay on his shoulder in an attempt to offer comfort, though she knew that comfort was the last thing either of them wanted. A thrashing tide of anger was rising within her.
“Liev,” she declared, “they will pay for this.”
He lifted his dark eyes to hers. “I’ll not rest,” he growled, “and I’ll not forget. Not till they’re dead.”
Her gaze slid to the dead body of Simeon, who had been the first to lift her up onto a horse’s back when she was scarcely three years old and the first to pick her up from the dirt each time she fell off. He would dust her down, tease her with his huge laugh, and throw her straight back on again.
“I’ll not forget,” she echoed. “Nor forgive.”
THE HOUSE LAY SILENT, THE ROOMS DARKENED. EVERYONE moved on tiptoe and spoke in low whispers, the way they would around the dead. Valentina wanted to throw open the curtains and shout, She’s still alive! But she kept quiet, ignoring the ache that crippled her chest, and sat close beside her mother on the chaise longue in the drawing room.
They were past words. Locked inside themselves, waiting for the doctor’s heavy tread to descend the stairs. The room was hot, the sun straining to creep between the curtains, but Valentina remained cold deep in the center of her bones. Her eyes followed her mother’s delicate fingers, watched them crouch in the lap of her lavender morning gown, hooked around each other, twisting and digging, tugging at the lace cuff on her sleeve, while the rest of her slight figure sat quiet. It upset Valentina more than the expression of despair on her mother’s face or the two fierce bursts of color on the white skin of her cheeks. Elizaveta Ivanova was a person who believed in restraint at all times. To see her hands so out of control made the world feel unsafe.
“How much longer?” Valentina murmured.
“The doctor has been up there too long. It’s a bad sign.”
“No, it means he’s still helping her. He hasn’t given up.” She tried to smile. “You know how stubborn Katya is.”
Elizaveta Ivanova gave one dry harsh sob, then silenced herself. She had been brought up as part of that breed of women who regarded a wife’s role in life as being a decorative and largely voiceless adornment to her husband, to look attractive and well mannered on his arm at all times, and to produce children for him, one of whom was expected to be a boy to continue the bloodline. In this latter area she had failed. She had given birth to two healthy girls but seemed unable to forgive herself the lack of a son, viewing it as a punishment from God for some unknown mortal sin. Now this curse on her younger daughter.
Despite her mother’s daily routine of social engagements, Valentina sometimes thought her lonely. She slipped an arm around her in a rare gesture of physical contact between them and was astonished by the warmth of her body. Her own skin was chill as marble. Even now her mother’s luxuriant golden hair was elegantly dressed on top of her head and she sat rigidly upright inside her armor of French silk and lace, of amethyst brooch and whalebone stays. It occurred to Valentina for the first time that maybe her mother already knew how dangerous a place the world was, and that was why she never relaxed. Security police were scouring the fields and forest, but so far had found no men with rifles.
“Mama,” she whispered softly, “if the revolutionaries hadn’t kept me in the forest, I’d have been back here long before Katya woke, she’d have been with me down at the creek instead of wandering into Papa’s…”
Elizaveta Ivanova turned her head to inspect her daughter, her nostrils flared, her eyes almost colorless as if their usual deep blue pigment had been washed away by hidden tears. “You are not to blame, Valentina.” She held her daughter’s hand in hers.
“Papa thinks I am.”
“Your father is angry. He needs someone to blame.”
“He could blame the hooded men in the forest.”
“Ah.” Elizaveta Ivanova released a long sad sigh. “That would be too easy. Be patient with him, my dear. He has more on his mind than you know.”
Valentina shuddered. Nothing, she was certain, would be easy from now on.
THE BEDROOM WAS STIFLING. WHAT WERE THEY TRYING to do to her sister? Suffocate her? A fire burned in the grate although it was a hot summer’s day, the curtains were drawn shut, and a dim light cast shadows that to Valentina felt like secretive figures hiding in the gloom. She had been allowed five minutes, that was all, and only because she had pleaded so hard. Immediately she knelt beside the bed, rested her arms on the embroidered silk counterpane, and balanced her chin on her hand, so that her eyes were level with her sister’s.
“Katya,” she whispered. “Katya, I’m sorry.”
The face on the pillow tugged at her heart. It was Katya as she would be in fifty years’ time, her skin and her hair gray and lifeless, her lips thin, drawn into a tight line of pain. Valentina gently kissed her cheek and smelled the dirt on her. Once when she was young, one of the gardeners had dug out a rats’ nest from under a shed, and she and Katya had watched wide-eyed when the small furry bodies squealed as they fought to escape. They had given off a rank musky odor that had stuck in Valentina’s nostrils. That was what Katya’s skin smelled of now.
She didn’t know if Katya was awake. Conscious or unconscious. They said the doctor had given her something. What did that mean? Morphine? How could her precious blond sister who was always bursting with laughter and energy be hiding under this little old lady’s skin? Tentatively Valentina touched the dusty arm that lay outside the cover, and it felt like a stranger’s, gritty and rough. Where were the satin-smooth limbs that loved to swim in the creek and pull down branches from the willows to build silvery dens to hide in?
A large tear splashed down onto her sister’s arm and startled Valentina. She didn’t know she was crying. She rested her cheek against her sister’s hot arm, and it felt like a furnace under her skin.
“I, Valentina Ivanova, caused this,” she murmured under her breath, so that her ears as well as her mind would bear witness to the words. She scraped away her tears and said loudly, “Katya, it’s me, Valentina.”
She kissed her sister’s filthy hair. “Can you hear me?”
A gray-gold eyelash fluttered.
A slit of blue showed in one eye.
Valentina leaned closer. “Hello, privet, my sweet.”
The slit widened a fraction. Katya’s lips moved, but no sound emerged.
Valentina placed her ear to her sister’s lips and felt a faint whisper of breath. “What is it? Are you in pain? The doctor has…”
Valentina’s throat closed. She kissed the soft cheek. “Don’t be frightened, Katya. I’m here. I’ll look after you and keep you safe. For the rest of our lives.” She squeezed her sister’s small hand and saw a slight movement at the side of her tight bruised mouth. A smile.
“Promise me,” Katya breathed.
“I promise. On my life.”
Slowly Katya’s eyes fell shut and the narrow slit of blue vanished. But the edge of the smile stayed, and Valentina cradled her limp hand until they came and made her leave.
ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA DECEMBER 1910
GIRLS, MESDEMOISELLES, TODAY IS A GREAT HONOR FOR OUR school. A day to remember. I expect the best from each of you. Today you must shine brighter than…”
The headmistress stopped in mid flight. Her neatly drawn eyebrows rose in disgust. The girls held their breath, waiting to see on which wretched creature her wrath would fall. In her somber dress with its high neck and cameo brooch, Madame Petrova was marching up and down in front of the benches in the grand hall of the Ekaterininsky Institute, eyeing each pupil with the unbending scrutiny of a general reviewing his troops.
“Nadia,” she said crisply.
Valentina’s heart sank for her friend, who had dropped ink on her clean pinafore.
“Sit up straight, girl. Just because you are in the back row doesn’t mean you can slouch. Do you want the broom handle tied to your back?”
“No, Madame.” Nadia straightened her shoulders but kept her hands discreetly over her soiled pinafore.
“Aleksandra, remove that curl from your cheek.”
She glided farther along the ranks.
“Emilya, put your feet together, you are not a horse. Valentina, stop fiddling at once!”
Valentina flushed and stared down at her fingers. They were drumming on her knees, desperate to keep warm. She couldn’t play with cold fingers. But she folded them obediently on her lap. Her heart was hammering. It was always like this before a performance, but she had practiced the Nocturne till it accompanied her through her night dreams, the way the sound of screaming horses still did. She hadn’t ridden a horse since the day of the explosion and had no intention of ever doing so again, but still the sound of them wouldn’t leave her, however hard she thundered across the piano keys.
“Remember who you are performing for today. The tsar himself.”
This time she would play Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat better than ever before.
JENS FRIIS GLANCED AT THE DOMED CLOCK ON THE WALL. The afternoon was crawling past as though it had frostbite in its toes, and he was tempted to yawn.
He stretched out his legs and shifted position with irritation. He was tired of the interminable poems and songs, as well as uncomfortable on an absurd chair that was not built for someone like himself with limbs like a giraffe’s. Worse, he was annoyed with Countess Serova for dragging him to this schoolgirl frivolity when he was short of time. He needed to study the blueprints of the new construction that had only come in this morning and, damn it, it was cold here in this hall. How on earth did the poor wretches stand it? On the benches arranged along the wall, the rows of pupils sat stiff and upright in their dark frocks with white capes and pinafores, like delicate snow carvings.
His gaze moved dutifully to the institutka who was singing. Pleasant enough voice, nothing special, but the song was dull, one of those tedious German lieder he loathed, the ones that go on forever. He glanced at the door and wondered what the chances were of escape.
“Jens,” Countess Natalia Serova whispered next to him. “Behave.”
“I fear such elitist delights are above my churlish brain.”
She gave him a glare from steady blue eyes, then turned away. He could smell her perfume. Most likely from Paris, like her hat, a frivolous confection of silk and feathers that made him smile. Her long fitted coat in the palest of greens showed off her girlish figure though he guessed she must be about thirty, and emeralds glittered at her ears and throat. She had exquisite taste, no doubt about that. As the son of a Danish printer, Jens had grown up in Copenhagen with the stink of ink forever in his nostrils, but now at twenty-seven years old he was learning to appreciate the finer fragrances on parade in St. Petersburg.
“You are very provoking. Listen to Maria,” she murmured under her breath.
Ah, so this songbird was Maria, the countess’s niece. Vaguely he recalled her from the time the countess had dragged him to a concert here two years ago, when Jens had the honor of meeting Tsar Nicholas for the first time. Countess Natalia Serova had introduced him, he must not forget that. He owed her much, even if her husband did make good use in return of Jens’s skills as an engineer to do work on their estate.
This time Tsar Nicholas was sitting bolt upright in a high-backed chair in the center of the hall, and it was impossible to tell whether he was bored or amused. The muscles of his face were so rigidly well trained. He was a small man and hid his weak chin behind a prominent chestnut beard, in the same way that he hid his slight frame inside a series of bulky military uniforms designed to impress. Today he was resplendent in a peacock blue jacket weighed down by an abundance of medals and gold braid.
Jens was not the only one who believed that Tsar Nicholas Alexandrovich Romanov was the wrong man in the wrong job, unlike his big brash bullying father, Tsar Alexander III, a man who had stood six feet six inches in his bare feet and thought nothing of behaving like the iron fist of God. But now, more than ever before, Russia was in danger of slitting its own throat, in desperate need of a leader of wisdom and strength.
“Bravo,” the tsar called out. “Well done, Mademoiselle Maria.”
Applause burst out around the hall. The niece had finished, thank God. Jens breathed a sigh of relief because now he could leave and get back to work. But a grand piano that dominated the far end of the room suddenly stirred into life and music started to flow throughout the high-ceilinged room. Jens groaned inwardly. It was something by Chopin, one of his least favorite composers, always so plaintive, so full of despair, whining in your ear like a cat in heat.
He glanced at the pianist and saw that she was a slight young creature with a mane of dense dark hair pulled back from her face by a black hairband. About sixteen, he’d guess, maybe seventeen. She wore the Ekaterininsky Institute uniform and should have looked as shapeless and anonymous as all the other girls. But she didn’t. There was something about her that caused his eyes to linger, something in the way her hands moved with hypnotic grace. As if they were part of the music itself.
She had small strong fingers that flowed over the keys, connecting to something he couldn’t see, something that was part of her private world. The music soared, rising in a minor chord and flooding his senses with its beauty, then without warning, when he was totally unprepared, ripped his heart out. He closed his eyes, aware of the music alive inside him. Of its notes touching places within him, secret corners. With an effort of will he forced open his eyes and studied the girl who could transform music into such a weapon.
Her body didn’t sway dramatically on the stool. Just her hands. And her head. They moved as if they belonged to the music, rather than to her body. Her skin was palest ivory and her face almost expressionless except for her eyes. They were huge and dark, full of an emotion that to Jens looked closer to fury than rapture. Where had a girl so young found such powerful feelings? As if she drew them in with each breath.
Finally the music sighed to an end, and the girl hung her head. Her dark hair curtained her face from view, and she placed her hands quietly in her lap. Only one telltale tremor shook her spine, and then silence filled the hall. Jens looked at the tsar. Tears were rolling unchecked down Nicholas’s face. Slowly he raised his imperial hands and began to clap, and immediately applause echoed around the hall. Jens looked again at the young pianist. She hadn’t moved but her head was turned to one side and her luminous dark eyes were directed straight at him. If it weren’t too absurd to be true, he’d have sworn she was angry with him.
“Mademoiselle Valentina,” the tsar said, his voice thick with tears, “thank you. Merci bien. That was a magnificent performance. Unforgettable. You must come and play for my wife and my dear daughters when they are next at the Winter Palace.”
The girl rose from the stool and dropped a deep curtsy. “It would be a great honor,” she said.
“Pozdravlyayu. Congratulations, my dear girl. You will be a great pianist.”
For the first time she smiled, “Spasibo, Your Majesty. You are too kind.”
There was something about the way she murmured it that startled Jens. He almost laughed out loud, but the tsar seemed not to notice the faint rustle of mockery in her words.
“So,” Jens’s companion whispered. “At least you enjoyed the Chopin, if not the singing.”
Jens turned to Countess Serova. “I did.”
“Friis, good heavens, man, what are you doing here?”
It was Tsar Nicholas. He was strutting over to his entourage to stretch his legs before the next performance. Everyone rose to their feet. He was considerably shorter than Jens and had a habit of rocking up and down on his toes. The women ruffled their finery in greeting and the men ducked their heads in acknowledgment of his attention.
“Friis,” Tsar Nicholas continued, “you’re not here to flirt with the girls, I hope.”
“No, Your Majesty, I am not. I’m here as a guest of Countess Serova.”
“Shouldn’t you be hard at work? That’s what I expect of you, you know. Not to parade in front of Petersburg’s elite young ladies.”
Jens bowed, a crisp click of his heels and a dip of his head. “Then I shall take my leave.”
Nicholas’s manner became serious. “You are needed elsewhere, Friis. I can’t afford to waste a good man on”-he waved a jeweled hand at the school hall-“on this frippery.”
Jens bowed again and turned to leave. As he did so, he cast one more glance around, seeking out the pianist. She was still watching him. He smiled but she didn’t respond, so he tipped his head to her and walked out of the room. As the door closed behind him he felt as if something of himself still lay on the hall’s polished floorboards. Something he valued.
He stopped midstride. “Ah, Countess. As you see, I am in a hurry.”
“Wait,” she called. Her footsteps echoed along the school’s empty yellow corridor, hurrying to catch up with him. “Jens, I’m sorry. I didn’t intend that rebuke from the tsar to happen.”
“No. Forgive me.”
“Countess Serova,” he said, lifting her gloved hand and pressing it to his lips, “there is nothing to forgive.” But his voice was brittle with irony.
She exhaled sharply. “Don’t be so arrogant, Jens,” she said. “Not with me.”
She stretched up and placed a kiss full on his mouth. Her lips were soft. Tempting. But Jens stepped away. She gave him a reproachful gaze and walked back the way she had come.
Damn the woman. Damn her.
JENS WRAPPED HIS HEAVY RIDING CAPE TIGHTLY AROUND HIS shoulders. The dismal gray mist clung to his clothes and hair and even to his eyelashes. On horseback he drifted like a ghost through the city, over bridges that were illuminated by streetlamps day and night now it was winter. Carriages rattled past unseen in the fog and cars blared their klaxons at each other, while pedestrians kept a firm hold on their purses and wallets. It was a day for pickpockets and thieves.
The temperatures were harsh this year, harsher than usual in St. Petersburg. The Moika Canal had frozen over and the Neva River disappeared in a deathly pall that swallowed the city. It was a winter of bitter strikes in the factories and of shortages in the food shops. Unrest slid and slithered through the streets, workers gathered on corners and smoked their cheap makhorka cigarettes with resentful fury. Jens heeled his horse into a canter and swung away from the wide boulevards, leaving behind the fashionable Nevsky Prospekt with its sables and its silks.
The streets grew narrower, the houses meaner till dirt and despair hung in the damp air. A pack of three feral dogs snapped at the horse and received the tip of Hero’s metal shoe in exchange. Jens gazed along the street at the pinched faces and the blackened buildings. The cold was so intense it had cracked windows.
This was why he was here. Places like this. Streets that stank. No water to wash. Just wells that turned sour and backed up in the rain, and pumps that iced over. This was why he was here in Petersburg.
IT WAS FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING WHEN VALENTINA tapped the door with her fingertips.
“Vkhodite, come in, my dear.” The voice was soft and welcoming.
She turned the handle and entered Nurse Sonya’s private quarters, where shadows had settled on the carpet like tired dogs in the dim light.
“Dobroye utro, good morning,” Valentina said in greeting.
The nurse was in her fifties, seated in a rocking chair and tapping the floor with her foot in a steady rhythm to keep it in motion. Her large form was engulfed in a battered old housecoat and a Bible lay open on her lap, her finger trailing over each line she read.
“How is she tonight?” Valentina asked at once.
Sleeping? Or just pretending? Valentina knew that Nurse Sonya was not good at knowing the difference. Katya had endured three operations in the last six months to try to repair her shattered spine, and since the last one her mobility had definitely improved, but still she was unable to walk. Not that she ever complained. No, Katya wouldn’t. But purple hollows gathered under her eyes and a sallow bruised look to her face betrayed when the pain was bad.
“What have you given her?” Valentina asked quietly.
“A little laudanum, the usual dosage.”
“I thought you were cutting back on it.”
“I tried, malishka, little one. But she needs it.”
Valentina made no comment. What do I know about laudanum? Just what I see in Katya’s eyes.
The nurse stilled the rocking chair and studied Valentina’s face with a look of gentle concern. “Guilt is a terrible thing, my dear.” She shook her head, and her hand trailed across the wafer-thin page open on her lap. “God forgives us.”
Valentina walked over to the window, pulled the heavy curtain to one side, and stared out into the night. Lights flickered as sleighs and carriages with bright torches continued to charge through the city that prided itself on its reputation for never sleeping, on its reputation for wild living and even wilder dying. St. Petersburg was a city of extremes. All or nothing. No one in St. Petersburg seemed to have any time for anything but their next drink, their next dissolute party, their next insane throw of the dice. She stared out at it all and craved something more for her life.
“No,” she murmured to the nurse, “it’s not God’s forgiveness I want.”
IT WAS STILL DARK. THE KIND OF DARKNESS THAT IS THICK and heavy, the kind that clogs the mind. The first muted sounds of the house coming to life drifted upstairs as servants laid fires and polished floors. Valentina was perched cross-legged on the end of Katya’s bed, a towel spread out over her lap.
“I hear Papa has bought a new car while I was at school,” Valentina said.
“Yes. It’s a Turicum. From Switzerland.”
“Isn’t that fearfully expensive?”
“I expect so. But Tsar Nicholas has just bought himself a new Delaunay-Belleville. You know what it’s like at court; they’ve made a big fuss of it and all rush to copy him.”
“Who is driving it?”
“Papa has hired a chauffeur. His name is Viktor Arkin.”
“What’s he like?”
“Very smart in his uniform. Rather quiet but I suppose good looking in a serious sort of way.”
“You always did like a man in uniform.”
Katya laughed delightedly, and Valentina felt pleased. Some days it took more than that to make her sister smile. But she noticed that Katya’s eyes were blurry this morning, as though the fog had slunk up the Neva River and slid into her head overnight. One of her feet was propped on the towel and Valentina’s hands were massaging its delicate skin, manipulating the joints, bringing a semblance of life into the paralyzed limb. A fine sheen of lavender oil eased the repetitive movement and scented the air, disguising the odor of a sickroom.
Katya snuggled into her pillows, her hair a haze of pale gold around her head. “Tell me again about the tsar.” She watched Valentina’s busy hands. “What was he like?”
“I’ve told you already. He was handsome and charming and complimented me on my playing.”
Katya narrowed her blue eyes, as if she were peering at something very small. “Don’t think I can’t see through your lies, Valentina. What happened yesterday? Why didn’t you like His Imperial Majesty?”
“Of course I liked him. Everyone likes the tsar.”
“I shall call for Nurse Sonya to throw you out of here if you don’t…”
Valentina laughed and paused in working oil into the pale toe-nails. Her sister’s foot lay on her palm as dead as a doll’s. “All right, all right, I admit it. You know me too well. You’re correct, Katya, I didn’t like Tsar Nicholas yesterday. But only because he strutted into the room as if he owned the whole world, not just the Romanovs’ half of it. Gaudy as a peacock. A small man in big shoes.”
Katya suddenly banged her hand on her forehead with mock annoyance. “Of course, I remember now. He told you he wanted you to play the piano for his wife and children when he heard you play before at the school two years ago. Didn’t he?”
“Yes. And I was stupid enough to believe him then. I practiced and practiced and practiced, waiting for the summons. But it never came.” She moved Katya’s foot down onto the sheet. “I have far more sense this time.” She smiled at her young sister. “You can’t trust a tsar. Lies come too easily to his royal tongue.”
Katya’s eyes opened wide. “Was he there again?”
“I remember that you told me there was a man with Tsar Nicholas when you played for him before.”
“No, I said no such thing.”
“Yes, you did.”
Valentina picked up the other foot, placing it on the towel. She dipped her fingers in the warm oil and started to massage the dry skin on the heel. “What on earth are you talking about?” She kept her eyes on Katya’s toes as she gently eased them apart, one by one.
“There was a man. With the tsar two years ago when he visited your school,” Katya insisted. “I remember, you said he was…”
“Don’t be silly.”
“You told me he looked like a Viking warrior.”
“With fiery hair and green eyes.”
“You’re imagining things.”
“No, you told me. He stood by the door, and you said…”
Valentina laughed and tweaked a toe. “I said a lot of silly things when I was fifteen.”
But Katya’s gaze was fixed on her sister. “You told me you had fallen in love with him.”
Valentina’s fingers pummeled the scrap of flesh behind the ankle bone. “If I said such a thing, it was just schoolgirl nonsense. I didn’t even speak to him. I scarcely recall now what he looked like.” But the blood had risen to her cheeks.
“You told me,” Katya said softly, “that you intended to marry this tall Viking warrior.”
“Then I was a fool,” Valentina insisted. “I don’t ever intend to marry.”
KATYA WAS RIGHT. ABOUT THE VIKING. VALENTINA HAD tried to laugh about it but couldn’t. She was angry at him now. He didn’t remember her, it was obvious, but that didn’t matter. Why should she expect him to, after the way she’d played when she was fifteen?
No, that wasn’t what irked her. It was the way that he’d walked out yesterday. As soon as she’d finished playing, he had left with an eagerness that was insulting: he’d jumped to his feet and, after a few words with the tsar, had loped for the door as though he couldn’t get out fast enough. Was he so disappointed that he couldn’t bear to stay? But she had been so proud of her performance this time. His indifference to it was like a bee sting in her flesh.
She sat down hungrily at the piano in her parents’ music room and as always stroked its surface. It was a beautiful glossy black Erard grand, which she loved. She let her fingers touch the keys and immediately the tension swerved out of her body, like a train jumping the tracks. As instant as that. It was always the same. Her fingers caressed the ivory and started to flow steadily up and down its length, moving at different speeds, rising and falling, warming the muscles, stretching the tendons. The rich exuberant sound that rose from the body of the Erard soothed her, calmed some of her excitement. Because she was excited, but for all the wrong reasons. She wanted to see the Viking again.
Katya was right about that.
Valentina had been stunned when he’d walked into the hall just behind the tsar yesterday, tall and upright in his frock coat. She hadn’t expected him. He was the tallest man in the room by far, lean and broad shouldered with an air of invincibility about him. Two years ago at the Ekaterininsky Institute concert he had strolled in among a party of the tsar’s courtiers and dazzled her fifteen-year-old eyes with his energy and his fiery red hair. His vivid green eyes had swept the room with a look of amusement, as though the whole situation were too absurd to take seriously.
On that occasion she’d watched him, all through the singing and the dancing, wanting to catch his eye, but she’d seen that he was bored by the performances and had eyes for no one except the beautiful woman by his side, dressed in green silk and fine emeralds. When her own turn came to play, Valentina had been determined not to bore him, but his presence had made her nervous and she hadn’t played well. At the end he’d applauded politely, smiling at his companion as if at a secret joke. Valentina had been furious with herself. But you couldn’t love someone you’ve never even spoken to, someone you’ve just seen across a room. It was impossible.
Her fingers abandoned the exercises and launched into Mozart’s Sonata in C Major, a piece she always relished, but abruptly she lifted her hands from the keys. There were times, odd, uncomfortable moments when she was playing and the music was really seizing hold of her, that she would break off like this. Aware that her mother considered her passion for the piano to be excessive and therefore unbecoming in a young woman. She knew her mother could never understand why she had no interest in going shopping with her, choosing dresses, all the things young ladies were meant to do, instead of sitting at home on a piano stool hour after hour. Worse, Valentina sometimes feared that her mother felt that if she wasn’t going to behave like a proper girl, she might as well have been the longed-for boy.
She wished Katya had been there to hear her yesterday. With a sudden movement she rose, drew a chair from beside the wall, and placed it next to her piano stool. The chair was padded in a creamy brocade and had slender fluted mahogany arms. She sat again on her stool, then rested first one hand on the chair and then the other. Without using her legs at all she tried to swing herself off the stool toward the chair seat, but missed it completely. Her arms became entangled and the chair edge stabbed her shoulder blade as she tumbled like a rag doll to the floor. She glared at her legs as if the fault were theirs.
It took five awkward attempts, but finally she succeeded. Her heart was racing and her arms shook with the effort.
“Chyort!” she swore again. Then she stood up and ran up the stairs to her room.
IN FRONT OF HER AT HER DESK VALENTINA HELD A LIST, NEATLY written out on a sheet of ivory-tinted paper. It was a list she had drawn up four months ago and which she kept locked in the drawer of her table away from prying eyes. Maids peeked into everything. But the paper was already dog-eared at the edges because she liked to handle it, to remind herself. Her eyes traveled down each point methodically.
1. Contact every spine specialist in Europe.
With painstaking care she’d scoured medical journals in the library for articles on spinal damage, and she’d written to doctors as far away as Berlin, Rome, Oslo, even London. Few had bothered to reply.
2. Make Katya happy.
She smiled at that one. Such a simple aim. Four months ago, making Katya happy after her operations had seemed the easiest of all on her list: she would read to her, play cards with her, whisper secrets, and pass on the latest tittle-tattle from school or from the servants’ hall downstairs. She brought her ribbons and jigsaws, as well as the latest books from Belizard’s bookstore. From the parks or the riverbank she collected magpie feathers and the first coppery maple leaves of autumn. She smuggled in chocolate from Wolf & Beranger’s or risked the sticky confections from the bazaar at Gostiny Dvor.
But now she understood that making Katya happy meant far more than that. It meant creating a whole new future for her. Those words in the silence of her head felt huge.
So what next?
3. Find employment.
She ran a finger over the word employment and her stomach lurched. For years she’d had a dream. Ever since she was a gawky gap-toothed child she had planned it, while others giggled in corners and played with toys. To be a concert pianist. That was her aim. To tour the greatest concert halls and palaces of Europe, performing before heads of state in Rome and Paris, London and Vienna. But it was gone. Blown apart by the bomb. It couldn’t happen now. It would mean years of dedicated work at the St. Petersburg Conservatoire, and she no longer had that luxury. She had to care for Katya. She stared at her fingers, at their strong tendons and well-rounded pads, and she felt disloyal to them. Disloyal to herself. She had to forget the dream.
But how? How could she tear it out of her head when she could still see herself at the keys, pouring her heart into the music, then rising from the piano, her audience on their feet? She would wear a scarlet Parisian gown, a single strand of pearls in her hair, and she would play the finest concerts in Europe. She could actually see herself. Feel her heart thudding.
“Forget the dream.” She said it aloud.
The paper in her hand shook. Find employment. Yes, she had made her decision about that.
She must talk to Papa. She knew that wives and daughters of distinguished families didn’t go out to work and that Papa would be ashamed if she did so. He would regard it as demeaning to the Ivanov name. But she would explain to him, persuade him to agree.
4. Make Papa forgive me.
One day, Papa. One day.
What saddened her most was that she and her father had always had a quiet understanding, and now that was gone. He had never been an attentive parent and constantly put his work before everything, but he and she had always had a special bond between them. Katya was the one he petted, indulged, and smiled at most, and Valentina understood why: she was the image of her mother when she was young-blond, blue-eyed, and with a gentle smile. Whereas Valentina was like her father: dark-haired, brown-eyed, and possessed of a single-mindedness that matched his own.
Over the years he had made no secret of the fact that he often found his elder daughter maddening, but even when he was reprimanding her for some misdeed, there was a gleam of pride in his eye, a hint of respect in his voice. The way he might feel about the son he never had. But since the bomb he had withdrawn from her, and she felt the loss keenly. He needs someone to blame, her mother had said, but it didn’t seem right that it was her.
One day, Papa, one day, you will forgive me.
5. Obey Mama.
She was still working on that one.
6. Play the piano better every day.
What was the point now?
7. Play for the tsar.
She laughed at herself and drew a line through it.
8. Marry the Viking.
The words were already crossed out with fierce black strokes of ink. A silly girl’s fancy. She shrugged it off, ignoring the heat that rose up her neck.
9. Buy a gun.
She stared at that one and felt her pulse quicken. She’d not yet worked out a way to do it. The revolutionaries had come once. They could come again, the way bad dreams came back when you thought they were gone. But next time she would be ready for them. Number 9. She underlined it in black ink. Buy a gun. She sat with her eyes fastened on the list and thought out each point in detail. Finally she picked up her fountain pen and wrote one more:
10. Find a Bolshevik.
Find the Bolshevik. That was what she really meant. The promises of the police and of her father to make the bombers pay for their crime had proved as meaningless as the lies of the tsar himself. The men in hoods had vanished into thin air. Oh yes, pockets of known Bolsheviks had been rounded up and questioned, but no one knew anything of the ghosts who walked in the forest.
Find a Bolshevik.
DOBROYE UTRO, GOOD MORNING, MINISTER.”
“Dobriy den, good afternoon, Minister.”
“Dobriy vecher, good evening, Minister.”
Those were words that Viktor Arkin liked least. Instead of “Good morning, comrade.”
“Yes, master. Da, barin.”
“No, master. Nyet, barin.”
Those were words that grated in his gut.
Every day Arkin drove Minister General Nicholai Ivanov in the Turicum along the Embankment in St. Petersburg to the Ministry of Finance, and each day he listened to the words that were spilled in the back of the car. The minister had a loose tongue. Often he would talk too openly with colleagues as Arkin drove them across the city to meetings. Once Minister Ivanov had even been fool enough to leave his attaché case lying on the seat in the car after too many brandies at the Donon. Arkin had read its contents meticulously and made notes for an hour before he returned it to the minister.
Worst were the evenings. Waiting outside restaurants like a dog in the cold. Outside nightclubs. Outside brothels. Outside the mistress’s apartment on Izmailovsky Prospekt. But some days Madam Ivanova requested the car instead of the carriage, and on those days Arkin smiled.
ARKIN WATCHED ELIZAVETA IVANOVA WALK DOWN THE front steps of the house and considered how women of this class moved differently, held themselves differently. You could wrap them in rags and still you would know who they were, what they were. Beautiful, elegant, fragrant parasites.
She approached across the gravel, picking her way with delicate care over the thin layer of snow that had fallen since the drive was last brushed an hour ago. He stood beside the car in his maroon uniform and peaked cap with its gold band and waited for her instructions.
“Arkin, I want you to drive both my daughters into town today. To Gordino’s restaurant on Morskaya.” Her blue eyes studied him assessingly, and he knew she was wondering whether she could trust him.
Both daughters. That was rare. The crippled one didn’t go out much even though he had removed the front passenger seat of the car to allow for her wheelchair to be stored there. It must be the influence of her dark-haired sister. The one who looked at him with eyes that were not easily fooled by a chauffeur’s uniform and a submissive lowering of his gaze.
Into town today, she’d said. For one fraction of a second he almost let the wrong words slip out. Today is not the day for your daughters to be in town. Keep your daughters at home. But instead he nodded politely and opened the car door.
ARKIN LISTENED TO EVERY WORD. HE ALWAYS DID. THAT was his job.
The Turicum was a magnificent monster of a vehicle. Imported from Geneva, all deep blue leather and fearsome brass fittings that he polished each day within an inch of their life. He sat up front in the driver’s seat, swathed in his maroon coat, and today the air had the bite of a tiger. To keep it at bay the daughters were bundled up with a weighty bearskin rug over their knees and fur hoods over their ears.
It will be cold for the marchers today. No bearskins. No fur hoods. Just the heat of anger in their bellies.
As he drove through the city, the streets of St. Petersburg slid past with their tall pastel buildings and people scurrying about their business, unwilling to linger in the freezing wind. It gave him satisfaction to see the cars and carriages jostling axles, the horse-drawn drozhky lumbering along, heedless of the klaxons that demanded room to pass. The more traffic, the better. The more chaos there would be.
He listened to their girlish chatter. Worthless words. An expression of delight as Madame Duclet’s fashionable dress shop came into view on Morskaya, a murmur of approval as they passed the renowned Zhirov establishment with its windows full of exotic china from the Orient and silverware from England. When he glanced around he saw Katya’s hands nestled in the warmth of the rug, but her eyes watched the outside world the way he would watch a circus.
“Today,” Valentina announced, “we shall do exactly as we please.”
“Yes,” Katya laughed, “we shall.”
Seldom had Arkin seen the younger one allowed out without her mother or Nurse Sonya as chaperone. Today she seemed to smell freedom. But suddenly he had to brake hard. The road was blocked by a line of policemen, dark and menacing. He brought the car to a halt, but the carriage in front swayed dangerously as the horse slammed against its shafts, unnerved by a noise from up ahead. It sounded like distant thunder. Except it wasn’t. He sensed his passengers listening to the sound carefully. It was more like the drag of waves on a pebble beach, harsh and grating. Coming closer.
All movement down Morskaya had ceased and pedestrians were backtracking along the pavement, casting nervous glances over their shoulders. Drivers found no room to maneuver around the police cordon but were wedged within the stationary traffic as tempers were roused and arguments flared.
“What is it, Arkin?” Valentina asked. She leaned forward, close to his shoulder, in an attempt to see what lay ahead. “What is causing the delay?”
“It’s the strikers,” he answered, careful not to alarm her. “They’re marching up Morskaya.”
“Strikers? They’re the ones causing such trouble in the factories, aren’t they? I’ve read about them in the papers.”
He made no comment.
“Prime Minister Stolypin has denounced them,” she added. “For trying to destroy Russia’s economy. They’ve managed to shut down our mines and stop our trains running.”
He still made no comment.
“I can’t see them,” Katya complained. “The police are in the way.”
“Look, there are the tops of their placards,” Valentina pointed out. He could hear the unease in her voice.
Wait. Just wait. You will see more than you want.
Ahead lay the backs of policemen, a solid wall of them from one side of the street to the other.
“Do you think there will be trouble?” Valentina was so close behind him he could feel her breath warm on his collar. He pictured her hands, white and nervous, and the hairs rising on the back of her neck. “Why are these men on strike, Arkin?”
Didnt she know? How could she not know?
“They are demanding a fair wage, Miss Valentina. The police are advancing on them now.”
Slowly, relentlessly. Advancing on them. He could make out batons in their hands. Or were they guns? The chanting of the marchers drew closer, and instantly a sense of real danger sparked in the street. It crackled in the air and people started to run, slipping on ice, skidding on snow. Arkin felt his pulse kick into life.
“Arkin.” It was Miss Valentina’s voice. “Get us out of here. Do whatever you have to, but get us away from here.”
“I can’t. We’re trapped in traffic.”
“Arkin,” Valentina ordered, “please drive us out. Now.”
He felt the muscle tighten at the corner of his jaw, and his maroon gloves curled around the rim of the steering wheel. “I cannot drive the car anywhere at the moment,” he said evenly, looking straight ahead through the windshield. “We are stuck.”
“Arkin, listen to me. I have seen what Bolsheviks can do. I’m not going to sit here with my sister like a helpless calf and wait for them to do it again.”
He heard it then, the whisper of fear. He swiveled around in his seat and looked her full in the face. For a moment their gaze held, until at last he looked down. “I understand, Miss Valentina.”
“Please do something.”
“There’s no need to be afraid of them,” he lied. “The marchers only want better pay and working conditions. No one is going to harm you. Or Miss Katya.”
She lifted her hands as if she would shake him. “Then take out the wheelchair,” she ordered. “I’ll push it up the street myself.”
“No need for that.”
Abruptly he swung down hard right on the steering. He shouldered the back of the carriage in front with the Turicum’s fender, forcing it out at an angle. Ahead of them a horse whinnied, but now the heavy car’s wheels were free and Arkin could maneuver it up onto the curb of the pavement and into the open.
“I’ll get you out of here.”
WHICH ONES SHALL WE CHOOSE?” “You can have the meringue, it’s your favorite.”
“What about the chocolate one?”
“No, you can’t have that,” Katya laughed. “I want it.”
With a delighted smile Katya circled her fork over the silver tiers of the cake stand in the middle of the table.
“I shall choose first,” she announced.
Valentina wanted to act as if nothing had happened. She wanted her sister to enjoy herself, that was why she’d brought her here-and it had been a long time since she’d seen Katya so bright and animated. But Valentina’s cake fork felt like lead in her fingers.
Arkin had been as good as his word. He’d barged the car along the sidewalks, indifferent to the shouts from the pedestrians who scattered at the approach of the big blue motor. He found a route out of there, just as he’d promised. They drove to another restaurant, La Gavotte, with no further comment on what had passed, and Valentina selected a table against the rear wall, near the door to the kitchens. As far from the front of the establishment as it was possible to be.
Around her everything went on as normal, the waitresses bobbing about in black frocks with frilly white aprons and frivolous twists of white lace in their hair. All so courteous. All so polite. No anger here. No shouts. The customers were smiling and smartly dressed, bathed in the healthy glow cast by the pink glass wall lamps, picking at patisseries, sipping hot chocolate. Laughing. Talking.
Valentina was stunned by her own fragility. No one else seemed frightened, and certainly no other customers appeared ready to bring up their lunch over the pristine white tablecloth. Everyone else was breathing normally. Was it she who was foolish, or was it them?
“Are you all right?” Katya was peering at her closely.
There was a space between them that felt fragile. Breakable. Valentina refused to touch it.
Katya deliberately changed the subject. “The new car is good, don’t you think?”
“And Arkin was excellent.”
“He drives well.”
Valentina cast a wary glance at the wide arched windows that looked out onto the road through net curtains. Something in her chest gave a slippery shudder.
“Can you hear something?” she asked. “I thought I heard…”
Katya’s hand wrapped itself around Valentina’s and they lay on the cloth together, Katya’s fingers like fine strands of delicate porcelain, whereas Valentina’s were more robust, a strong pad of muscle on each finger. All those piano scales.
“It’s all right to be frightened sometimes,” Katya said, “after what you went through in the forest.”
Valentina looked back at the net curtains. “You weren’t frightened today.”
“That’s because my life is so dull, I am too stupid to know when I should be afraid and when I should not. You have more sense.”
“Katya,” Valentina asked softly, “do you think-”
That was the moment when the barrage of bricks hurtled through the windows, when tiny raindrops of glass sliced like diamonds through powdered cheeks. When one arrow-shaped shard lodged in a woman’s neck, that was the moment the screaming began.
VALENTINA WAS RUNNING. SLIPPING AND SLIDING ON THE snow but still running. Her legs didn’t know how to stop. The wheels of the chair screeched and skidded.
“Valentina, don’t!” An icy hand seized hers. “Please stop. Please.”
It was Katya. Begging her. With an effort her legs stumbled to a halt, but her fingers still gripped the handles of the wheelchair as though they had become a part of it, stiff and rigid, welded to the metal. The scream of the woman with the glass in her neck echoed in Valentina’s mind. She dragged air into her lungs and felt it peel away her flesh, it was so cold.
“Valentina, we’ll freeze to death.”
Katya had twisted around in her wheelchair, her ungloved hand pulling at Valentina’s sleeve. Her blue eyes were panicked.
Valentina looked around, momentarily baffled to find herself in a narrow dirty street where household slops had frozen into treacherous yellow mounds on the pavement. A drainpipe, covered in snow, was lying like a corpse in the gutter and windows were blanked out with cardboard. Paint peeled, walls cracked. A man was watching them, his beard and his dog as ragged as his clothes.
Oh God, what had she done?
The moment the bricks hit the window, she’d had only one thought. To get Katya out of there. Out. Away. Safe.
Her hands had seized the wheelchair with her sister in it and had propelled her straight through the door into the restaurant kitchen, then out the back of the building into an untidy courtyard. From there her feet had started running. Out. Away. Safe. The words hurtled around in her head. She’d darted down streets she’d never seen before, as if she knew instinctively she would be safer here among the destitute and the forgotten than among her own kind, where bombs and bricks had become the tools of speech.
Katya’s cheeks had turned white. She was freezing to death. The north wind had whipped up from the gulf, and neither of them was wearing a coat or gloves or even a scarf. Everything had been abandoned at La Gavotte. She could almost see blood congealing in Katya’s veins. She was killing Katya. All over again. She headed straight for the nearest door. It was split down the middle and patched with strips of rough planking, but she banged on it hard. After a long wait it was opened by a child, no higher than her hip.
“May we come in? Please. Pozhalusta. We’re cold.”
The boy didn’t react. His face was crusted with scabs, and one filthy finger picked at a ripe spot on his chin.
“Pozhalusta,” she said again. “Is your mother here?”
He stepped back and she thought he would swing open the door for the wheelchair to enter, but instead he pushed it shut. She banged the wood so hard that the crack widened.
“Open the door,” she shouted. “Otkroite dver.”
The door eased back just enough for one blue eye to peer up at her. “What do you want?” a girl’s voice asked.
“My sister is freezing to death out here. Please let us in.”
But she’d learned her lesson and didn’t stop there. This time she accompanied her request with a push against the door that took the child by surprise, so that she stumbled backward. Before she could recover, Valentina had the wheelchair and herself inside the dim hallway and the door firmly shut behind them. The musty reek of rat droppings loitered on the stairs.
“Thank you,” she said. “Spasibo.”
In front of her huddled three filthy urchins, two identical boys and a girl with dirty blond hair. The twin boys were nervous, their clothes torn and misshapen, trousers not meeting their ankles. The girl, younger than her brothers, was staring at the wheelchair with wide-eyed curiosity.
“Is your mother in?” Valentina asked.
The girl pointed to a door without shifting her gaze from the spokes of Katya’s chair. “Is it a bicycle?” she whispered.
One of the boys clipped her lightly around the ear. “Don’t be stupid, Liuba. It’s for cripples.”
Valentina opened the door the girl had indicated and pushed the chair into a small room that was only fractionally warmer than the air outside. A stained sheet was draped over a section of the window in an attempt to keep out the cold, turning the air gray and streaky. It smelled of damp plaster and unwashed bodies.
“I’m sorry to intrude.”
A woman was breast-feeding an infant on the end of a narrow bed. Her body was as scrawny as an old woman’s, but her eyes were still bright and young. She was wearing fingerless mittens, a brown scarf knotted around her head. She fastened the front of her dress.
“What do you want?” Her voice was tired.
“My sister and I need help. Please…” Valentina hated to ask for something from this woman who so clearly had nothing to give. “My sister is cold. She needs warmth. Some hot food.”
“My children need hot food,” the woman said sullenly, “but they don’t get any.”
Valentina took Katya’s cold hand in hers and massaged it vigorously. The woman immediately placed the infant on the bed and went over to the small black stove in the corner. She opened its metal door, a tiny wisp of flame within it, barely alive. No wonder it was so cold. Using tongs, the woman removed a heavy stone that lay inside the stove, wrapped it up in a blackened piece of toweling that lay ready for the purpose, and placed it on Katya’s lap. Katya’s hands burrowed under it.
“Can’t you put more wood on the fire?” Valentina suggested.
“I have money.”
The three children edged closer. The girl held out a grubby palm. “We can buy firewood.”
Valentina had to trust them. She pulled two white ten-rouble notes from the purse in her pocket, even though she knew it was far too much for firewood. “Bring some food too. Hurry! Potoropites!”
All three children vanished.
“Here, take this.” The woman held out the blanket from the bed. Valentina looked at it. Probably riddled with lice.
“Spasibo.” She wrapped it around her sister’s shoulders and tucked it around her limp legs, aware of the woman’s watchful scrutiny as she did so, and for the first time in her life it occurred to her to wonder how much the wheelchair was worth. As much as this woman’s family earned in a month? In a year? She had no idea. This wretched, damp place was smaller than Valentina’s bedroom at home. Part of the ceiling was hanging down and black mold was crawling up one wall. “Thank you for helping us,” she said, genuinely grateful. “There was an attack by strikers on the restaurant we were in, and my sister and I escaped, but without our coats.”
The woman nodded her head at Katya. “Is she sick?”
“She was in an accident.”
The baby on the bed started to whimper and the woman said, “Pick her up.”
Valentina looked at the squirming bundle.
“Pick her up.” The woman’s voice was sharper this time.
“You want my help. In exchange I want yours. A moment’s peace from the child.” She smiled, and there was a flash of youth in it. “Don’t worry, I won’t steal your sister’s chair.”
A flush burned its way up Valentina’s cheeks as she picked up the baby. It had almost no hair and little twigs for legs.
“Valentina.” It was Katya’s faint voice. “Let me hold her.”
Valentina brought the child close to the wheelchair but didn’t hand it over. “It is dirty,” she muttered. “You don’t want…” But she saw the needy look in Katya’s eyes. She deposited the child on her sister’s lap and was appalled when she leaned down and kissed the bony little head. A smile spread across Katya’s face. Wherever she had been, she was coming back.
THE AROMA OF HOT PIROZHKI CHANGED EVERYTHING. THE three children seemed to swell out into their skin before they’d even been given one of the meat pies from the greaseproof paper package. They sat on the floor, in front of the blazing logs in the stove, and watched the fire with the kind of fascination that Valentina would give to a performance of the ballet.
“Shouldn’t they wash their hands?” Valentina suggested as she placed a pie on each palm. The dirt on their fingers was blacker than the floor.
“The water pump is frozen.” The woman shrugged and took a large bite out of a slice of bread spread with black currant conserve. As she chewed on it, Valentina watched the features of her face melt with pleasure and grow astonishingly younger.
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“I’m Valentina. My sister’s name is Katya.”
Katya was sipping hot tea and honey from a tin mug, and there was color in her cheeks now. The infant lay like a kitten on her lap.
“Varenka, what does your husband do?”
The woman’s eyes grew cautious. “He works in a factory.”
“Is he a Bolshevik?”
She saw the tightening of the skin under the woman’s eyes. “What do you know of Bolsheviks?”
“Was he in the march today?”
Varenka started to laugh. The children looked around at her, astonished, as though unused to the sound, but the laughter didn’t stop. It went on and on, rolling from her open mouth. Veins in her neck stood out and tears slid down her cheeks, but still the laughter filled the air. She dropped to her knees, and then the laughter stopped as abruptly as it had begun. She yanked off the headscarf, releasing a crop of chestnut curls. Valentina stared. Katya gave a small smothered gasp. One side of the woman’s head was hairless, and a wide white scar, glistening as though wet, ran from her temple right across her skull to the back of her head. She regarded the sisters with a mixture of pity and hatred.
“Five years ago in front of the Winter Palace gates,” she said in a hard voice, “your soldiers came at me with their sabers when we marched to speak to the tsar. We intended no harm but they mowed us down. Yet I survived. And because of that, you survive today. Because of my help, you survive. But do you deserve to?”
Valentina lifted the baby from Katya’s lap and laid it on the bed. “I think it’s time we left.”
“You!” Still on her knees, the woman was pointing at Valentina. “I promise you that one day soon we will come for you and your kind, and this time you will not survive. You idle rich. You parasites.” She spat on the floor. “The workers will demand justice.”
Valentina took out her purse and upended it on the table. Roubles clattered everywhere, and the children scurried around like mice, gathering them up. “Take this because you helped me today. I am grateful.” She walked over to the kneeling woman and let her fingers touch the shiny scar on her head. Not wet, but smooth and slippery, as colorless as something that lived underground. “I’m sorry, Varenka.”
“I don’t want your pity.”
“Valentina.” It was Katya. “She wants us gone.”
“Yes, you’re right. Before my man gets back.” Varenka glared defiantly at Valentina. “My Bolshevik.”
A loud bang on the front door startled them. Before they could react it came twice more, like a hammer blow, and they heard the wood splinter. The woman scooped up the baby and clutched it to her breast so hard it started to whimper. Valentina’s heart pounded. “Wait here, Katya,” she said.
“No, Valentina, don’t…”
The hammering on the door came again. Without hesitation Valentina opened the door into the dismal hallway and unlocked the shattered front door onto the street. A massive figure blocked out the light.
“What the fuck are you doing in this shit hole, Valentina Ivanova?”
It was Liev Popkov.
ARKIN WAS A MECHANIC, BUT IN HIS HEART HE REGARDED himself as a skilled surgeon of machines. He took good care of his hands and read constantly about the latest inventions, expanding his knowledge. Thank the Lord he could read. Not that the Lord had anything to do with it. Most peasants couldn’t read or write, but his mother was the exception and used to rap his knuckles with her knitting needle to jog his sluggish brain into action.
“Viktor,” she used to say when he was at her knee struggling with a jumble of letters, trying to cram them into the shape of words, “a man who can read is a man who can rule the world.”
“But I don’t want to rule the world.”
“Not now. But one day you will. Then you will thank me.”
HE SMILED TO HIMSELF AT THE MEMORY. “SPASIBO, THANK you,” he murmured. Now he was twenty-three, and he did want to rule the world. His mother had been right.
He lifted his head. He was crouched on the concrete floor of the garage, rinsing the oil and horse dung off the spokes of the Turicum’s wheels, leaving their blue paint gleaming. His cloth splashed grimy suds onto his boots.
“What is it, Popkov?”
The Cossack had entered the garage on silent feet. For a big man he moved noiselessly. Like the wolves in the forest back home.
“What?” Arkin asked again.
“The mistress wants to speak to you in the house.”
“About this afternoon?”
“How do I know?”
Living on a farm in the middle of the godforsaken steppes teaches a man patience. In the countryside life is never in a hurry, the rhythms are slow, and Arkin knew well how to wait. He had left his village six years ago when he was seventeen, determined to live and work in St. Petersburg. Here he could feel the heart of Russia beating. Here the ideas of great men like Karl Marx and Lenin grew and spread underground like the roots of a tree. In this city, he was convinced, lay the future of Russia. He turned back to finish off the wheel before rinsing out the cloth and hanging it tidily on a hook. When he looked round, Liev Popkov was still there, as he’d known he would be. The big man was a law unto himself in too many ways for Arkin’s liking.
“What the hell were you doing?” Popkov demanded.
Arkin removed his long brown apron and hung it on another hook. “Doing? I was protecting them.”
“Letting them run loose? Is that your idea of protecting them?”
“They’re not children, Popkov. They’re young women. They make their own decisions, right or wrong.”
“This city is dangerous.”
“Dangerous for them? Or for the workers who die in the factories every day?”
“You’re a fool,” Popkov snorted.
“No,” Arkin said patiently. “I’m just doing my job.”
IT WAS THE FIRST TIME ARKIN HAD SET FOOT IN THE HOUSE beyond the servants’ kitchen, and it was hard not to stare. Why would anyone want so many things? Pictures taller than himself hanging on the walls. Rubies festooned like drops of blood around a mirror and strips of gold around the plinth of each statue. A footman ushered him into a small sitting room. It struck Arkin as the most feminine room he had ever stood in, all lilacs and creams. Flowers scented the air with exotic fragrances that were new to him.
Elizaveta Ivanova was sitting very upright on an elegant chair, a glass of hot water in one hand. Her lavender gown made her look like one of the flowers herself. He bowed, with his hands at his sides, and waited for her to speak. She took her time. A full minute ticked past.
“Arkin,” she said at last, “explain yourself.”
“Certainly, madam. I drove the two young ladies to take tea at Gordino’s, but we were prevented from approaching it by a crowd of strikers marching up Morskaya.”
“We were caught in a line of blocked traffic, but I managed to maneuver out of it and take the young ladies to a different establishment of their choice.”
“You should have brought them straight home. The streets were dangerous.”
“I did suggest it, madam. But both young ladies were against the idea; they declined to return home.”
“Now why doesn’t that surprise me?” The words escaped from her, startling them both. “What I don’t understand is where were you when they left the tearoom? You have a responsibility, Arkin, when you chauffeur for this family. I thought that was explained to you when…” She stopped, holding the glass of water near her mouth but not actually touching it. “They are headstrong,” she murmured.
He gave her a faint smile. “You know your daughters, madam.”
“I deeply regret that the marchers forced me to park the Turicum in a side street and when I returned on foot to the tearoom, the place was in a state of panic. Miss Valentina and Miss Katya had gone.”
“Did you search for them?”
“Of course, madam.”
Did he search? Did he shout their names? Did he race like a fool from street to street and shop to shop? Did he seize people by their lapels and demand whether they had seen a wheelchair? Yes, he ran until his lungs hurt and cursed those young girls till his tongue burned, but still he didn’t find them.
Elizaveta Ivanova nodded. “Of course you did. I can see you are a reliable young man.”
“I’m sorry, madam. I apologize for giving you cause for concern.”
“How did you find them in the end?”
“I came back here and gathered a team of men to search more thoroughly.”
She remained silent, forcing him to voice more than he wanted.
“Liev Popkov found them,” he admitted with reluctance. “He traced the tracks of the wheelchair in the snow.”
Like a bloodhound, the Cossack had been. Scouring the pavement, his face inches from the ground, finding the faintest of treads from a tire even when the surface had been trampled on.
She let the conversation cease. Sipped her water, her throat contracting above the creamy pearl necklace. “Katya is unwell,” she said after a silence.
“It wasn’t your fault.”
The fairness of her comment astounded him. Most employers liked to blame servants for everything. He waited, but no more words followed.
“Would you like to speak to Popkov himself about it?” he asked.
She gave the smallest of shudders. “No,” she said. “I wouldn’t.”
IT WAS THREE O’CLOCK IN THE MORNING. VALENTINA HAD been sitting in the dark for two hours. When she heard Nurse Sonya’s heavy tread finally leaving Katya’s room, she waited a few minutes, then slipped out into the corridor. Her bare feet were soundless and she turned the doorknob to the sickroom with no more than a faint click. A fire crackled in the grate behind a mesh guard and on the bed a bulky quilt had been pushed aside, so that it lay humped like a range of mountains. The slight figure of her sister lay immobile under a sheet, though her head tossed restlessly on the pillows as if it belonged to someone else.
“Katya,” Valentina whispered.
Instantly the blond head lifted off the pillows. “Valentina?”
“How are you?”
Valentina knelt on the end of the bed. “You know what gave you the fever, don’t you?”
“That kiss on the filthy baby’s head.”
“It was worth it,” Katya smiled.
“You didn’t tell Mama or Nurse about it, did you?”
“Of course not. I’m not stupid.”
“Think of it as an adventure. But one we won’t be repeating. I overreacted, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t say that. Don’t say you won’t take me on any more adventures.”
“If you really want adventures, Katya, you must get better. I’ll give them to you,” she promised, “only not quite as dangerous as that one.”
“An adventure isn’t an adventure if it isn’t dangerous. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” She pushed her damp hair from her eyes. “Tell me what the woman’s scar felt like when you touched it.”
“Like warm glass. Hard and slippery.”
“I felt sorry for her.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true, Katya. I hate them. I don’t care whether they call themselves Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, or Social Revolutionaries, they’re all the same to me. I hate them because of what they did to you.” She moved forward and kissed her sister’s hot cheek.
Katya lifted her hand and tenderly stroked her sister’s dark hair. “It’ll go eventually, the hatred,” she said with confidence.
“Did yours?” Your hatred of what they did to you? Of what I did to you?
Valentina didn’t tell Katya it was too late. That the hatred had already burned its way down into her bones.
SHE KNOCKED ON THE DOOR OF HER FATHER’S STUDY. IT was time to tell him of her decision.
“Come in. Vkhodite.”
She pushed open the door. Her father was seated at his broad leather-topped desk and raised his head from the papers he was studying.
“You asked to see me?” he said. He didn’t look pleased about the interruption.
He folded his arms. An unlit cigar flicked impatiently between two fingers. He was still a good-looking man, though a little heavy now from too many banquets at the Winter Palace, but she remembered him lean and fit when he served as a general in the Russian army. He wore his hair swept back from his face, with thick eyebrows over shrewd deep-set eyes. Dark as her own. They assessed her now.
“Sit down,” he said.
She sat on the chair in front of the desk and tucked her hands neatly in her lap. “Papa, I wish to apologize for taking Katya down to the Rzhevka district yesterday. I was trying to keep her safe from the strikers who-”
“I accept your apology.” He brushed a hand over his dark whiskers, as though he could brush away his thoughts. “What you did,” he said, “was foolish, but I realize you were trying to protect your sister.”
She had expected worse.
“Is that all?” he asked. “I am busy.”
“No,” she said. “That’s not all.”
He placed his cigar in an ashtray, then lined it up precisely beside a pen and a red pencil in front of him. His eyes lingered on the cigar as if he preferred to smoke it in peace. Her father had an orderly mind, which was why he worked where he did. Valentina didn’t know exactly what he did as a government minister, but she knew it had something to do with finance. She used to imagine him in his office at the Chancellery counting the tsar’s money, tall stacks of roubles right up to the ceiling.
Finally he grew tired of her silence and glanced up.
“What else?” he asked with a touch of impatience. “I have work to do.”
“Papa, I don’t want to return to school when the new term starts.”
He stared at her, surprised. No hint of the anger she had expected.
Then he smiled.
“I hope you approve, Papa,” she added quickly.
“I do indeed. Your mother and I have discussed the situation and we are convinced that schooling can do nothing more for you. It’s time to think about your future.”
It was only tiny, that first prickle of unease. She gave it no thought.
“I agree, Papa. I’m so pleased you think so too. That’s what I’ve been planning. I have an idea.”
He sat back in his chair and picked up the cigar on his desk with pleasure. He dispensed with its band, clipped one end, and smelled its fragrant leaves before taking his time lighting it. She had the feeling he was already celebrating something.
“So, Valentina,” he said, “for once we agree. You are a good daughter now.”
Now. Even so. It was a first step.
She tried to hold the moment, to not let it trickle through her fingers. “This idea of yours, have you discussed it with your mother?”
“Not yet, Papa. I wanted to discuss it with you first.”
“Foolish girl.” He smiled and exhaled a twisting string of smoke in her direction. “What do I care for dresses?”
“Yes, the dresses you have an idea about. You must discuss them with your mother. Mothers are the ones who deal with such matters.”
She inhaled quickly. Tasted the smoke. “Papa, I didn’t mention dresses.”
“Well, don’t worry, I’m certain your mother will want to talk about them.” He nodded indulgently. “I know what ladies are like when it comes to gowns.”
He rose from his seat and marched across the room, his body thick-waisted inside his frock coat. He was making a lot of noise, his sleeves rustling, his feet striding over the polished boards, his fingers tapping his shirt front. She knew these signs, recognized them as indications that he was exceedingly pleased. What was happening here? This conversation was not going right.
“I won’t need more than a few dresses,” she pointed out warily.
“No, my dear. If you’re to make a catch you’ll need at least thirty or forty gowns, I imagine. But I leave all that to your mother. The important thing is that the decision is made and we have already compiled a list of names for you to consider.”
“Papa, what do you mean, make a catch?”
He looked at his elder daughter fondly. “Find a husband, of course.”
“A husband?” Her hands fell off her lap.
“Yes, of course. Isn’t that what we’re talking about? Leaving school and finding a husband.” He drew on his cigar with obvious pleasure, paced the room, and flicked away stray strands of tobacco from his shirt front. “You’ll soon be eighteen, Valentina. Time to behave responsibly. Find a suitable husband this season and get married. Plenty of fine strong officers out there from good families.”
“I am not getting married, Papa.”
“Let’s have no foolishness, Valentina. What are you going on about now?”
“I am not getting married.”
“You just said you were ready to set about planning your future.”
“Yes, but not as a wife.”
“What else is there for you, my dear girl? Your mother and I…” He stopped, as if struck by an unwelcome thought. In the middle of the room he seemed to swell inside his clothes, and the veins on his cheeks filled with blood. “What is this idea you have for your own future?”
She stood up to face him. “Papa, that’s what I’ve come to tell you. I want to train to become a professional nurse.”
THEY SAT HER DOWN. NOT IN THE STUDY. NOT IN THE drawing room, where serious discussions usually took place. Her parents sat her down in the music room, the room she had poured her hopes into for so many years. They sat her on the piano stool with its tasseled seat that she had frayed and picked at when the music wouldn’t come right. Her mother took a seat on the chair by the window. Though her face was under the usual control, her fingers held a handkerchief screwed into a tight ball in one hand. Her mother’s silence was almost worse than her father’s outburst.
“Valentina,” General Ivanov said, “you must rid your head of this unpleasant notion at once. It astonishes me that you give such an idea even a moment’s serious thought. Look at the education you’ve received, the music lessons. Think about all that it cost us.”
He was striding back and forth in front of her, the edge of his frock coat flapping with agitation. She wanted to put out a hand to quiet it. To quiet him.
“Please try to understand, Papa. I can speak four languages and I can play the piano and I can walk well. What does that fit me for?”
“It fits you for marriage. That’s what all young ladies are groomed for.”
“I’m sorry, Papa, I told you. I don’t wish to marry.”
Her mother’s intake of breath was too much. Valentina turned to face the piano, her back to them, and lifted the lid. Her fingers found a soft chord and then stretched to another, and as always the sound of the notes calmed her. The trembling in her chest grew less. She played a snatch of the Chopin piece and saw a flash of the flame-haired Viking lounging in the corner of her mind. Behind her all movement had ceased, and she imagined her parents exchanging glances.
“You play well, Valentina.”
“Thank you, Mama.”
“Any husband would be proud to have you entertain his guests after dinner with a piece by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky.”
Valentina clamped her fingers together to keep them off the keys. “I want to be a nurse.” She spoke quietly. Patiently. “I want to look after Katya. Nurse Sonya won’t be with us forever.”
A sigh drifted across the room, and suddenly her father’s tall dark figure was standing right behind her. His hand stroked her hair and settled on her shoulder. She didn’t move. He hadn’t touched her in the six months since the bomb at Tesovo, and she feared that if she so much as shifted a muscle, he would retreat and not touch her for another six.
“Valentina, listen to me, my dear child. You know I want the best for you. Nursing is a miserable occupation, full of whores and alcoholics. It is not suitable work for a respectable young lady.”
“Listen to your father,” her mother urged gently.
“They have lice. They have… diseases.” It was clear from the way he spoke that he didn’t mean just smallpox or typhoid.
“But Nurse Sonya isn’t a whore or an alcoholic,” Valentina pointed out. “She doesn’t have a disease. She’s a respectable woman.”
His hand tightened its grip on her shoulder, and she sensed it wanting to tighten its grip on her mind. “There is another way,” he said, “for you to help Katya. A better way to make it up to her.”
“It’s not difficult.”
“What is it, Papa? What can I do?”
She swung back to the piano, disappointment catching at her throat. She didn’t want to cross her father.
“You heard me, Valentina.” The general’s voice was beginning to rise. “Damn it, girl, you must marry well. You must marry now. I insist on it. For the good of the Ivanov name.”
EXPLOITATION! DEPRIVATION! STARVATION!”
Mikhail Sergeyev was good. He knew how to work a crowd, how to spark the emotions in men and put fire in their empty bellies. Arkin assessed tonight’s crowd with satisfaction. Most were peasants like himself, simple workmen who had flocked from the rural provinces to find employment in the factories of St. Petersburg. Most couldn’t read. Few could even write their name. Oddly, that fact saddened Arkin even more than the terrible conditions under which they worked in the factories or in the mills. The knowledge that the minds of the masses were being deliberately stunted by depriving them of education was to him the harshest injustice of all. It was why he believed in Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He had gone with Sergeyev to hear Trotsky address a meeting, and they had both been so enthralled by this man of vision with his bush of unruly hair and forever-glinting spectacles that they had walked the streets all night, unable to rest. He had shown them a new world. One in which justice and equality weren’t just empty words but were the living, breathing heart of every man’s life. From that moment on, they had started to recruit others to the socialist cause.
“Men of Russia”-Sergeyev was passionate in his urging-“we have to fight for our rights ourselves. The iron fist of tsarism must”-he paused and gazed around the room at his audience-“must be overthrown.”
There were shouts of approval.
“They gave us the Duma to shut us up.” Sergeyev said the words mockingly. “Yet Prime Minister Stolypin treats it with scorn. Instead he puts Stolypin neckties, the hangman’s noose, on all who dissent.” Sergeyev yanked up his own tie as if he were being throttled by a rope, and the crowd roared. Arkin added his voice to theirs.
“Does Stolypin care that there is no bread on the table for your children?”
“No! Nyet! No!”
“Does Stolypin care that you are made to work in conditions that even a dog would bite off his leg to escape?”
“Does Stolypin care that-”
“Comrade Sergeyev!” The shout came from a whippet of a man who was on his feet, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth.
“Sit down!” a voice yelled.
Sergeyev held out a hand to demand silence. “Speak, comrade. All have the right to be heard.”
“Comrades,” the man said, raising his voice, “this talk will lead us nowhere. We cannot fight the enemy, we must make treaty with it. The Duma was only a first step. All the time we are working and arguing for more concessions. Alexander Guchkov, leader of the Octobrists in the Duma, is working hard to obtain agreement for better conditions in the mines of-”
“Alexander Guchkov,” Sergeyev thundered, “is nothing more than an instrument of tyranny.”
This delighted the crowd. “Da! Yes!”
Sergeyev drew himself up to his full height. “The only answer is the seizure of power by the workers. Strength to the unions.”
Thunderous applause. Voices clamoring. Hands pushing and pulling at the intruder in their midst until he swore they would all be wearing Stolypin’s neckties before long and stalked out of the hall in defeat.
“Power to the workers!” Sergeyev bellowed.
Against the wall, Arkin lit himself a cigarette and nodded. A dictatorship of the proletariat, Leon Trotsky had called it. It would be a bitter and bloody battle, but it was coming. The only question was when.
THE PRIEST WAS CLEVER. THERE WAS NO QUESTION OF THAT. Father Morozov understood people. He tempted the gnawing bellies into the church hall with a cauldron of hot stew. No meat, of course, just vegetables, but they were pathetically grateful all the same, and it fed more than just their bodies, it fed their anger. That they were reduced to this. It enraged the sense of injustice in them, even before they were funneled into the hall for Sergeyev’s speeches. The only trouble with Father Morozov was that he believed in God and in God’s love for all mankind, however miserable an example of the human race a person might be. That got in the way sometimes.
The priest was standing like a crow behind his cauldron of steaming stew, ladling it out into enamel mugs, listening to the men’s woes, offering a word of advice or a shred of comfort. He never tired. He never changed from the tall patient figure in homespun black with a slight stoop and a thick beard. He was probably no more than forty but he looked much older; his hair had already lost its color. Maybe it was the result of all those years of hearing other people’s pain, or maybe it was the loss of his wife.
Arkin stood beside Father Morozov, waiting for a brief gap in the hungry flow of mugs.
“Father, we have the equipment.”
“Downstairs. Come down when you’ve finished.”
The priest nodded and smiled fondly at the next man in the queue. Arkin admired his coolness. No one would know he dealt in death.
BOMB MAKING WAS A DELICATE BUSINESS. FATHER MOROZOV was the brains, the one with the plans. Mikhail Sergeyev was the provider who acquired the necessary equipment, no questions asked. And Arkin himself supplied the hands. None of the others liked to touch explosives.
The three men worked well together, but today Arkin noticed that his comrade Sergeyev was restless. He was constantly up and down from the table where Arkin was working, irritating him, until Arkin put down the pliers in his hand. The basement room was so cold that their breath curled like smoke each time they spoke, and Arkin worried that the gelignite might congeal if the temperature fell too low. He looked at Sergeyev. His jacket was filthy and full of holes, his scarf so greasy and wound around his neck so many times it looked like a thick serpent that had fallen asleep.
“What is it, comrade?” Arkin asked. “You gave a good speech today. You should be pleased.”
Sergeyev fiddled with the cigarette packet in his hands, the makhorka tobacco smelling cheap and unpleasant in the enclosed space. Arkin had forbidden him to smoke anywhere near the detonating caps. Two of the caps lay on the table in front of him, and his eyes were drawn to them even as he spoke to Sergeyev. Long thin copper capsules containing a small quantity of mercury fulminate. Highly explosive. Arkin always handled them with respect but liked to lay one across his palm, as harmless looking as Sergeyev’s cigarette. So much power in his hand, it made his heart beat faster.
He had been surprised by how simple it was to learn about explosives. In St. Petersburg’s library he’d studied Alfred Nobel’s ingenious invention, so that he understood better the five rough shaped sticks of gray gelignite clumped together on the table in front of him. Gelignite was an explosive compound of nitroglycerine and nitrocellulose mixed with nitrate of potash and wood meal. Twelve percent more powerful than dynamite. Dermo! That was a lot of power. And the compound was unaffected by damp and free from noxious fumes when it was detonated. He wrapped his hand around one of the sticks, felt its cold slick surface on his skin. Mr. Alfred Nobel, he thought, was a man of exceptional character. Who else could inflict so much destruction on the world and still sleep easy in his grave?
“Arkin,” Sergeyev said, “I’m sorry, but I must leave now.”
Arkin raised an eyebrow. “What’s the matter? Not nervous, are you?”
“No. It’s my wife. She’s due to have our baby soon but is still working in the glue factory. It makes her sick.”
“Don’t say it like that.”
Arkin smiled. “Sergeyev, the day will come when families will be a thing of the past.” He glanced at the priest. “Religion too. The opiate of the masses, as Karl Marx pointed out. The only priority will be the state. If you have the perfect state system, you will have a contented population. The state must come before the family. It will be our family.”
“I agree with you, of course,” Sergeyev said, and shrugged awkwardly. “But not tonight.” He stood up and headed for the door. “Don’t blow yourselves up,” he laughed and left quickly before the others could object.
Arkin and Father Morozov turned back to the table.
“He’s a good man,” Morozov said.
“He’s a rousing speaker and he’s committed to the cause,” Arkin agreed as he inserted one end of the safety fuse into the open end of the detonating cap. With pliers he crimped the edges carefully around it. Squeeze it too tight and it could explode. “But he has no stomach for killing.”
“And you?” the priest asked.
“I’ll do whatever I have to.”
“Even working for a family you despise? For Minister Ivanov.”
“Yes, Father, I work for that parasite and yes, I spy on him. Like you, I do whatever our cause requires of me. Ivanov has thirty servants to pamper just four indolent people. If all the servants throughout Petersburg were released to work at something that was of use, what a different city we would have.”
“Have you suggested this to the Ivanovs?” Morozov asked mildly.
The irony amused Arkin. He laughed and wound a strip of wire around the sticks of gelignite with the two detonators clutched in their midst. He measured out the fuse. It consisted of a length of cotton fiber wrapped around a core of fine gunpowder, the whole thing coated in white varnish to protect it from damp. This one was a slow burner, two feet per minute. It gave time for escape. He cut a length of four feet.
His pulse was steady, and that pleased him. Father Morozov said a prayer over the bomb and drew the sign of the cross above it. He always did that.
Before they killed.
JENS PLUNGED DEEPER INTO THE DARKNESS. THE NOISES inside the tunnel were drilling into his head, but still he liked to come down here regularly. He needed to climb down into the sewers to ensure that the work was progressing fast enough, to check for himself that the overseers were keeping the men digging along the lines he had laid down.
The air grew thicker and he had to bend double beneath the low roof. Water dripped onto his shoulders. In his hand a powerful flashlight threw a circle of light onto the curved walls so that he could inspect the brickwork with careful attention, and every few paces he reached out to touch it. His eyes were not enough, he needed his fingers too. A rumble came from up ahead. Under his feet ran the rail for the wheels of the trucks that disposed of the excavated rock and soil, and he felt a vibration skipping through them.
“Truck rolling,” he called out.
The three men behind him jumped to the side of the tunnel wall and stood with their backs pressed flat against it. The noise of the truck was deafening as it passed, stacked high with rubble. The two pushers straining to keep it moving were clothed in anonymous overalls and cloth headgear against the ever-present dripping water, faces black with grime. They could have been men, but they weren’t. They were women. The men did the digging.
“Line free,” he called out.
But he’d spotted a shudder in the movement of the truck. He walked over, kicked at a rail, and felt it shift. He turned to the man behind him. “Get this tightened. I don’t want any accidents.”
He was sick of the accidents, sick to his stomach. It was the darkness. Workers didn’t see things. The shifts were too long, the tools too blunt, the wages too low.
And he was the one they blamed.
BLOOD MADE EVERYTHING SLIPPERY. JENS HELD THE MAN down in the chair with brute force. He blocked out the screams and ignored the curses. He kept one arm locked across the man’s chest, pinning him from behind to the seat, the other fist gripping his elbow tight, immobilizing it. The man arched his body in pain and jerked his head back, cracking it against Jens’s jaw.
“Hold him,” Dr. Fedorin urged.
With one final wrench, which brought forth another gut-churning groan, Fedorin straightened up. His hands were scarlet. Sweat had painted a sheen on his skin and there was a slash of blood across his brow where he’d brushed his hand.
“It’s the best I can do, Sergeyev.”
Through glazed eyes the man stared down at his shattered right forearm and uttered a moan. The bones were still visible through the mat of blood, but there were no longer jagged edges spiking in all directions. Jens felt Sergeyev’s chest start to shake. He released his grip on it.
He rested a hand on the tunnel digger’s trembling shoulder. “The doctor has done a fine job.”
A fine job? How dare he call such a mangled mess a fine job? He knew Fedorin had done all he could, but what in God’s name would this man live off now?
“Give him more morphine,” Jens said.
“What good is morphine to me?” Sergeyev groaned. “I can’t work.” Nevertheless he accepted several drops on a spoon when it was offered.
“It’ll mend,” Dr. Fedorin assured him. “It may not be as straight or strong as it was before, but it’ll mend. You’re young enough for it to heal fast.”
He bathed the damaged limb with boiled water and iodine, then proceeded to stitch the wounds while Jens kept up pressure just inside the man’s elbow to reduce the blood loss. When fresh lint, bandages, and splints were all in place and Sergeyev’s arm fixed in a sling, Jens drew a bottle of brandy from the drawer of the table that made do as his makeshift desk. He poured three slugs into tin mugs.
“Here. Get this down you.”
He thrust one into the good hand of Sergeyev and gave one to the doctor. Dr. Fedorin knocked back half the drink in one swallow and began to scrub his hands in the rest of it over a bowl, shirt sleeves rolled up to his elbows. They were in the wooden hut that served as Jens’s office at the entrance to one of the tunnels, but he knew these accidents shouldn’t be happening. Somewhere somebody was cutting corners. He poured the digger another brandy and, now that the worst was over, the man’s gray pallor started to fade.
“Spasibo, Direktor Friis.” He raised his mug to Jens and Fedorin. “Spasibo.”
“Sergeyev, here is money for a drozhky ride home.” Jens handed over a fistful of notes from a drawer. “Take it and feed your family.”
The man set down the mug and took the money. His fingers gripped it hard, smearing blood on the notes, but it was an uneasy moment. Jens laid his hand again on the man’s shoulder. “You are a good worker, Sergeyev. I’ll need you back here when your arm is mended.”
The digger studied the roubles in his hand. “You’ll keep my job open for me?”
“Yes, I will.”
“The foreman won’t like that.”
“The foreman will do as I say.”
The man gave a half-smile. “Da. Of course he will.”
Jens again felt that uneasiness seep into the hut. “Go home,” he said. “Go home and get better.”
“It will need a clean dressing,” Dr. Fedorin pointed out.
Sergeyev still stared at the money. “I can’t pay you, Doktor.”
Fedorin glanced at Jens. “Your Direktor is good enough to cover the costs.”
At last the man looked up at Jens. “Direktor, tell me, do you intend to pay personally for every man who needs a doctor here in the tunnel? To hold the job open for every digger who is injured? Every factory worker in Petersburg? Even for men like me who will now have a crippled arm?”
Jens took a grip on the man’s good arm and hoisted him up out of the chair. “Get out of here, Sergeyev. Go home to your wife.”
Clutching his right arm with his left, Sergeyev headed for the door.
“What I do in these tunnels,” Jens said sharply, “is my business.”
Sergeyev turned abruptly and his eyes fixed first on Jens, then on Fedorin. “Not for much longer,” he said softly.
HE COULD HAVE BEEN MORE GRATEFUL, THE BASTARD,” the doctor said.
“He was humiliated. He wanted to throw the money back in my teeth. It’s work in decent conditions that he wants, not charity.”
“Jens, my good friend, sometimes I think you do not even now understand the Russian soul. Your Danish mind is too rational. The Russian soul is not.”
Jens smiled at him and raised his glass. “Za zdorovye! Good health! To the Russian soul and the Russian mind. May they triumph over the enemies of progress.”
“Complacency and corruption. Stupidity and greed.”
“Hah!” Fedorin slapped Jens on the back. “I like that.”
“The trouble is that no one is warmer hearted than a Russian, yet no one is crueler. There is no middle path in Russia; it is all or nothing. Look at Tsar Nicholas. He believes he was put on this earth by God himself to rule Russia and is even convinced that God sends him omens to guide him. He has spoken of them to me.”
“Don’t depress me, my friend.”
“He chases after spiritual guides such as Monsieur Philippe of Lyons and St. Serafim of Sarov. And that foul monk, Grigori Rasputin. The tsarina is besotted by him.”
“I’m told she believes the illness of her son, Tsarevitch Alexei, is a curse from God and they try to keep it secret.”
“How bad is it, this illness?” Jens asked.
Fedorin poured himself another shot of brandy. “The tsar’s son is a bleeder. That’s why they hide him away at Tsarskoe Selo.”
Jens did not let the shock show on his face. “A hemophiliac?”
“They don’t live long, do they?”
“Not usually, no.”
“God help Russia.”
Fedorin knocked back his brandy. “God help all of us, my friend.”
He shook hands and left Jens’s office. Jens poured his own brandy over his desk and scrubbed the blood off the wood with it. Whatever Dr. Fedorin said, Jens felt a kinship with the Russian soul, with its black aching moods of despair. He’d come here when only eighteen years old to escape servitude in his father’s printing business and had studied engineering in St. Petersburg instead. During the nine years he’d been here, he’d learned to love Russia with a passion. He wasn’t ready to see it brought to its knees by greed.
EXPLAIN IT TO ME, WILL YOU, FRIIS?” MINISTER DAVIDOV instructed.
The map of the city was spread out before the group of six men. Jens lit a cigarette and narrowed his eyes through the smoke, taking in the tension in the faces around the table. Andrei Davidov was a man whose voice rarely rose above a murmur. At times people forgot to silence their own tongues and listen to his, but Jens knew such people were fools.
“Minister.” Jens leaned forward and picked up a tapered ivory pointer from the table. “Let me show you.” He traced the tip of it along one of the lines that zigzagged across the map. “See this blue line; this depicts the sewer tunnels completed. Notice how they cluster around the central area and the palaces.”
Davidov nodded. His eyes were hooded but watched the pointer intently.
“This one”-Jens indicated a series of green lines-“represents those under construction.”
The minister drew his craggy eyebrows together and flicked the cover of his watch open and shut with a sharp little snip. “Do we need so many?”
“Indeed we do, Minister. Petersburg is expanding every year; the population is increasing as more peasants pour in from the fields to work in our new factories. That is why this one”-he drew the pointer along a thick red line-“shows the planned tunnels that have not yet been started.”
There was a heavy silence in the room while Davidov contemplated the map. It was broken only by a snort from Gosolev, who was in the habit of taking snuff. “I am thinking of the cost. Everything,” Davidov said, “comes down to cost.”
“We need a new water and sewage system in this city, Minister. Sickness and diarrhea are rife in Petersburg’s workforce because of the lack of clean water for hygiene. How can we rid the city of its slums without sufficient sewers and water pipes?”
“The cost,” the minister murmured once more. “Last year we had to strip funds from the Trans-Siberian Railway to find the million roubles for that damn statue of our emperor’s father.”
“Minister,” Jens said in a voice no louder than Davidov’s, “this was once marshland. It floods. We have to pump out the tunnels day and night while we construct them. There have been roof collapses because of-he narrowed his eyes at Khrastsyn farther down the table-“because of lack of wooden supports and shortages of lamps.”
“You shouldn’t pamper the poor,” Davidov cut in.
“How right you are, Minister,” Khrastsyn agreed. “They work better when they are hungry.”
Jens looked from one to the other and placed both hands down on the table, as if to crush their words. “The men work best,” he pointed out, “when they are not afraid of dying every moment.” He drew a deep breath. “The tsar has asked me to report personally to him on the progress this water scheme is making. It is something dear to his heart. Shall I tell him I am prevented from proceeding faster by you, Minister, and by you, Khrastsyn?”
Davidov raised one heavy eyebrow. “Is that true? That His Majesty asked you to report to him?”
“Yes,” Jens lied.
“Khrastsyn,” the minister ordered, “let us rethink those funds.”
Jens lit himself another cigarette, surprised to see his hands so steady. He had just made two powerful enemies.
THE COUNTESS SMELLED OF ATTAR OF ROSES. SHE LAY stretched out on the bed.
“You are irritable today,” Natalia Serova announced.
She took a handful of Jens’s red hair between her fingers and twisted it gently, just enough to pull on his scalp. Sometimes he thought she would like to tear him into little pieces so that she could put each piece in her pocket and own him completely.
“I’m not irritable, Natalia. I am impatient.”
“Impatient for what?”
“For the changes that must come.”
“Oh, Jens, please don’t start that again.” She leaned down and kissed his brow. “For once in your life, silence that whirring Danish brain of yours.”
“Davidov is trying to remove me,” he said.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jens, can’t you just do what the man asks?” She brought her hand down hard on his bare chest and pushed him away roughly. “You know that he has Stolypin on his side, don’t you? Don’t even think of going up against our prime minister.” She rolled her eyes dramatically. “Because you will lose.” She moved away across her huge bed and slumped among the pillows. “Please don’t tell me you’d be that stupid.”
He reached out and stroked her foot. “No,” he said, “I’m not that stupid.”
“Stolypin is a force of nature. He’s a giant and storms over everyone.”
“Including Tsar Nicholas himself, who is afraid of him. Just like he was afraid of his own father.” Jens sat up. “I am sick of politics. Tell me, how is your son?”
“Alexei is well, thank you.”
He had been having his affair with the countess for a full three months before he learned she had a son. She had once confessed to him that her husband, Count Serov, was not the boy’s father but refused to tell him who was, except to admit she had a weakness for green-eyed suitors. It would explain why Count Serov paid the boy scant attention. Alexei was six now, and Jens enjoyed taking him riding.
“My niece, Maria, is coming to stay with me for Christmas,” she told him as she ran a fingernail down his spine. “You might like to meet her again. Remember the concert?”
Jens recalled the concert with instant clarity. The unforgettable music. The mass of hair at the piano, the huge dark eyes. The anger in them directed straight at him.
NURSE SONYA, WHAT IS IT LIKE?” “What is what like?”
“Being a nurse. Always helping someone.”
The woman inspected her with a kindly gaze. “Why do you ask?”
“Because I’ve decided to train to be a nurse.”
“A nurse? You?” Nurse Sonya burst out laughing, and Valentina felt it like a slap on the face. The older woman noticed her expression and silenced her laugh at once. “Are you serious?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Have you told your father and mother?”
“Yes, I have.”
There was an abrupt silence. Outside in the garden, huge snowflakes were drifting down like white apple blossoms.
“Well? What did he say?”
Valentina tried to laugh. “Papa, would prefer that I marry an officer.”
“Valentina, you can’t be a nurse.”
“Because you’re too thin-blooded. You’re too fragile. You’d wither and die in the harsh reality of a hospital. They are not pleasant places, I assure you.”
“You survived it.”
“I was raised on a farm.”
There was nothing Valentina could say to that. She inspected her own hands, viewing their palms and their straight fingers. They didn’t look fragile to her or thin-blooded. They looked strong.
“Nurse,” she said as Sonya was leaving, “will you teach me things? About nursing, I mean.”
The nurse shook her head, her eyes soft and sad. “Nyet, no, malishka. I cannot teach you about nursing. That way we’d both end up being horsewhipped in the snow.”
The door shut quietly behind her. Valentina unlocked her drawer and took out her list.
SPASIBO, BARYSHNYA. THANK YOU, YOUNG MISTRESS.” THE kitchen maid bobbed a curtsy.
“Merry Christmas, Shastlivogo Rozhdestva, Alisa,” Valentina responded.
It was the annual Christmas evening ritual of presenting every servant with a gift from the Ivanov family. There were festive swathes of greenery and a brightly decorated Christmas tree from the fir tree market next to Gostiny Dvor. Valentina stood first in the line, passing out sweets and soap, shaking each hand in turn. Next to her, her mother wore gloves and a fixed smile as she handed out a length of good woolen material to each of the women, and a new razor and a pouch of tobacco for the men. Elizaveta Ivanova insisted that her male employees be clean shaven, even the gardeners. Her father stood with his back to the fire, legs apart, as he toasted his coattails and presented each member of his staff with a small velvet bag of coins. Valentina heard the chink of them as they landed in the outstretched hands and was curious as to how much they contained.
“Shastlivogo Rozhdestva. Merry Christmas, Miss Valentina.”
“Merry Christmas to you, Arkin.”
This was the first time she’d seen the chauffeur out of uniform. He was wearing a neat jacket and clean white shirt. He looked lean and athletic. A determined face. The forthright way his gaze met hers made her wonder what went on behind those cool gray eyes of his. She placed the absurd sweets and soap in his spotless hand.
“Spasibo,” he said, but the smile he gave her wasn’t quite a chauffeur’s.
“Arkin, you drove well the other day. When we were caught in the car on Morskaya. Thank you.”
He seemed about to say something but changed his mind and gave her a respectful nod of his head instead.
“Where is Liev Popkov this evening?” she asked. “I don’t see him here.”
His polite smile hardened. “Popkov is otherwise engaged, I believe. In the stables.”
She frowned. “Is a horse sick?”
“You’ll have to ask him, Miss Valentina.”
“I’m asking you.”
His eyes remained on her far too long for politeness. “I don’t believe it’s a horse that is sick.”
“Liev? Is he unwell?”
“Valentina, you are slowing the line, my dear,” her mother said firmly. “Come along, Arkin.”
Immediately he moved onward to accept his next gift. Something about this chauffeur, something carefully hidden under that polite exterior of his, sent a shiver down Valentina’s spine.
Where the hell was he?
“Liev Popkov!” she shouted again in the stables.
And then she found him. Eyes shut, heavy limbs lifeless. Stretched out on his back on a pile of straw in a vacant stall. Her heart stopped. Not again. First his father, Simeon, and now him. The smell of blood in her nostrils all over again.
She started to scream.
“For fuck’s sake, stop that racket, will you? You’re scaring the bloody horses.”
He had one eye half open, scowling at her while he scratched his armpit.
“You stupid dumb Cossack,” she yelled at him, “you frightened the life out of me. I thought you were dead.”
His scowl faded. He mumbled something unintelligible and lifted a vodka bottle to his lips, spilling trails of clear liquid down his throat and over the straw. The bottle was almost empty.
“Liev, you’re drunk.”
“Of course I’m bloody drunk.”
“I thought I smelled blood.”
“You always did imagine things.”
“I’m not imagining the trouble you’ll be in.”
He grinned at her then, his mouth a dark cave in the shadows, and upended the bottle to his lips.
“Liev! Don’t!” she scolded, but more softly this time.
He tossed the empty bottle toward her at the entrance to the stall, but it fell short. “What are you so frightened of?”
“I don’t want you whipped.”
She held out the packet of sweets and soap. It felt absurd. “My father has a proper present for you.”
He laughed, a big guttural explosion that burst from his chest. “He’s already given it to me.”
“The pouch of roubles?”
His eyes narrowed into black slits. “Nyet, not the roubles.”
“What then? The razor and tobacco?”
In response the big man suddenly sat up, swaying violently, and yanked his black tunic up over his head, revealing a broad chest matted with thick black curls. Valentina couldn’t tear her eyes away. She’d never seen a man half naked before, not this close.
“You’re drunk,” she said again, but the words had lost their sting. “Put your top back on at once before you freeze to death.”
She might as well not have spoken. He threw the tunic aside and rolled over on the straw so that he was lying face down.
“Liev!” This time it came out as a faint gasp. She put a hand over her mouth and stared at his back.
The massive muscles were striped. Red tracks ran diagonally across them, so regular they looked as though they’d been painted on. The paint was still wet and glistening. Slowly she walked into the stall, where she dropped to her knees in the straw beside him. The lash cuts were deep in places, raw edges of flayed flesh laid bare. “Why?” she whispered. There was no need to ask Who?
Liev rolled away, seized his tunic, and pulled it over his head. She couldn’t understand how he could even move with a back like that.
“Why did he do such a thing?” She felt shame for her father, sour in her stomach.
Popkov ferreted out another bottle from under the straw. This one was full. “Yesterday,” he said, “I went to your sister’s room when the nurse wasn’t there.”
“Oh, Liev. I’m so sorry.”
He shrugged and poured more of the alcohol down his throat. “I wanted to give her a small gift for Christmas, that’s all.”
“But it’s her bedroom.”
“I’ve been in there many times to lift her in and out of her wheelchair.”
“But never without Nurse Sonya present.”
He snorted. “Nyet. Your father walked in when I was sitting on the end of the bed talking with her. So he whipped me.”
Suddenly Valentina was hitting him in a fury. Her fists hammered down on his chest, pummeling its granite muscles.
“You stupid dumb oaf,” she shouted, “you brainless Cossack, you’re crazy. You deserve to be whipped.”
He just laughed, then seized one of her wrists and pressed the neck of the vodka bottle into her hand.
“Here, have some.”
She stared at the innocent-looking drink, gave a deep bone-shaking shudder, and raised the bottle to her lips.
VALENTINA FELT VERY WARM. SHE COULD HEAR THE NIGHT wind scratching at the wooden stable walls. Something pleasant was floating around in her head, something with wings like a butterfly or a moth. Her lips no longer seemed to belong to her and kept curling up into vacant smiles. She was seated on the floor, leaning back against the side of the stall with a pile of straw tucked around her legs. How did all that heat get inside her stomach? Whenever she shut her eyes a whirring sound set off inside her skull and she found herself tipping sideways.
“Valentina, you’ve had enough. Go to bed.” Popkov kicked her, but gently. He slid his boot over the straw and prodded her thigh as though she were a pig. “Get out of here,” he growled.
“What did you give her?”
He paused, staring down at the straw. “A horseshoe. I polished it and”-she could tell he was embarrassed-“and wove ivy and berries through it.”
Valentina thought it the most beautiful gift she could imagine. “Nothing for me?” she asked.
He raised his black eyes to hers. “You’ve got my vodka. What more do you want?”
She laughed then, and felt the world drifting in confusion out of her reach. “Mama and Papa are making me go to a Christmas ball,” she said, and closed her eyes. The darkness started to spin alarmingly, so she forced them open again. The wretched creature was watching her with amusement.
“You’re drunk,” Popkov said.
“Go away,” she muttered, the words slow and slurred.
The next moment she was floating in the air, her hands and feet weightless. When she squeezed her eyes open a crack she saw darkness whirling around her like dust.
“Liev, put me down.”
But he ignored her.
Dimly she was conscious of being carried into the dark house through the servants’ entrance, but her eyes slid shut and opened only when she was plonked on her own bed with no attempt at courtesy.
“Liev,” she murmured, struggling to keep the ceiling from somersaulting on top of her, “I don’t think-”
“Sleep,” he growled.
“Spasibo, Liev,” she said softly. “Thank you.” But he had already left the room.
PLAY FOR ME.”
Katya was in her wheelchair and they were alone in the music room. Valentina’s head still throbbed at the base of her skull but at least she could turn it now without it falling off. Vodka, she vowed, would never touch her lips again in this lifetime. She’d cursed Popkov. Cursed his uncorked bottle. Cursed the way he had led out the horses the next day, whistling a jaunty folk song with no hint of a brain pickled in alcohol.
“Please,” Katya said, “play something for me.”
“I won’t be good today,” Valentina muttered as she lifted the lid of the piano. Just the sight of the keys, lined up and quietly waiting for her, loosened the tension within her.
Katya laughed. “You’re always good, Valentina. Even when you say you’re bad, you’re good.”
Valentina was unaware of what she would play until her fingers found the keys. From under them came the opening bars of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat, the piece she had played for the Viking. Instantly she forgot there was a world outside. Aching head or no, her music professor would be proud of her as she balanced the melodic line perfectly against the left-hand chords, producing a pure cantabile legato in the right hand, feeling the music flow with each beat of her heart. Through her lungs. Across her shoulders. Down to her wrists and fingers.
“Valentina.” It was her mother. When had she walked into the room?
“Valentina,” Elizaveta Ivanova said again, “it’s time to start getting dressed for the ball tonight. You agreed to go, remember?”
Valentina’s hands froze above the keys.
Number 5 on her list: Obey Mama.
Her hands sank down onto the keys in a harsh jarring chord. “Yes, Mama, I agreed.”
Carefully she closed the piano lid and walked over to a small silver box on the table beside Katya’s chair. She removed a brass key from the box, returned to the piano, and locked it, then walked over to the window. She opened it a crack and tossed the key out into the snow. Without a word, she walked out of the room.
VIKTOR ARKIN’S FACE WAS DISTORTED. ONE EYE SLID away into his hairline while his mouth stretched to the size of a wrench. For a second he stared at his reflection in the curved surface of the Turicum’s brass headlight and wondered what else in him might be distorted, somewhere deeper where he couldn’t see. It worried him how much he loved this car. It was dangerous. To love something or somebody that much-it created a weak spot inside you. He couldn’t afford weak spots. Nevertheless he smiled fondly at the gleaming blue curve of the front fender and ran a cloth along its graceful line.
“A visitor for you.”
Arkin looked around at the sound of Liev’s voice. The Cossack stood in the doorway. He looked amused. Not a good sign.
“In the yard.”
Arkin folded his polishing cloth and placed it on the shelf before moving past the Cossack and out of the garage into the yard where darkness was just beginning to fall, laying shadows like dead creatures on the cobbles. On the right stood the stables and the coach house, in front of him a water pump and trough, but to the left rose an archway over a path that led around to the front of the house. Just beside the archway stood a young woman. She wore a headscarf tied tightly under her chin against the icy wind and a long belted coat that looked as though it had once belonged to a man. Her manner was awkward, a self-conscious dip of her head.
“A friend of yours?” Popkov laughed and gestured to his own stomach, making a wide imaginary bulge over it.
The woman was heavily pregnant. Even under the coat it was obvious.
“Go and polish a hoof or comb a mane or something,” Arkin said, and went over to the woman. He greeted her cautiously.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
“I’m here with a message. From Mikhail Sergeyev.”
Immediately he took her arm. It was thin and unresisting. He led her into the garage, where, out of the wind, her face relaxed and she gave him a shy smile.
“I’m Mikhail’s wife, Larisa.”
In that moment, something came undone inside him. All that he’d been keeping so tight and orderly in his head seemed to shift out of place. The way she said it, so simply, so proudly. I’m Mikhail’s wife, Larisa. Her hand resting on her swollen stomach. He recalled his mother saying the same. I’m Mikhail Arkin’s wife, Roza, her hand resting on her swollen stomach. Two weeks later she and the unborn child were dead from septicemia because his father had no money for a doctor. It happened on his ninth birthday. With a sense of something close to pain, he found himself wanting a child of his own, wanting a woman with a swollen belly that carried that child, despite all that he’d said to Sergeyev about families being a thing of the past. He smiled at her, shaken.
“Is something wrong?” he asked.
She nodded. Her lips were pale, her eyes dark-ringed and anxious. “It’s Mikhail. He was hurt in an accident at work.”
“Is it bad?”
“His arm is broken.”
He gave her a smile of reassurance. “It will heal quickly,” he said. “Mikhail is strong.”
But he knew what it meant for them. No work meant no money. For food, for rent, for the baby. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his last three cigarettes and a few coins. It was all he had.
“Here, give this to your husband.”
She let him place his offerings in her small hand. “Can you spare it?”
“Get him to Father Morozov’s church hall. There’s hot food there.”
“Spasibo,” she whispered. “His boss gave him enough roubles to pay our rent.”
“That’s unusual. Who is this man?”
“Are you still working in the glue factory?”
She shrugged. “Da. Yes.”
He felt the fire in his gut kick into life, the one that burned to bring justice to this wretched city. One brass headlight. That’s all it would take. He could wrench it off the car and give it to her to sell. Enough to mean life for the new baby, enough to prevent its mother’s milk drying up from starvation.
“He’s worried,” she said nervously, “about… the job he has to do with you tonight.”
“Tell Mikhail from me not to worry. I’ll deal with it. Go home and rest. Eat something.”
“Good luck with the baby.”
She smiled, a gentle hopeful smile. Slowly she set off back across the uneven cobbles with the rolling gait that belongs to a drunken man or a pregnant woman. Arkin watched her until she was out of sight, standing there in the wind. So the time had come. He felt a nerve start up on the edge of his jaw, and no matter how hard he tried to control it, he couldn’t. But he was ready for what he would have to do tonight.
JENS WAS NOT A DANCING MAN. HE’D COME TO THE DAMN ball to waylay Minister Davidov, for no other reason, but so far there was no sign of him. He lingered briefly in the Anichkov Palace’s opulent anterooms but their marble columns and lavish gilt moldings were hardly relaxing, so he took himself off to a salon where a game of cards was in progress.
After an hour he was content to pocket a handful of roubles and promissory notes. He enjoyed gambling. But he was wary of it, too. He’d seen what it could do to a man. He’d sat at a card table with a man who put a revolver to his forehead in the middle of a game and blew his brains out. And once on a station platform he’d embraced an old friend who was being carted off to ten years in Siberia for taking part in a conspiracy. The man had risked everything on an intrigue at court to oust Grand Duke Vladimir from control of the army. He’d gambled and lost.
Yes, Jens liked to gamble, but he picked his moments. Tonight was one of them.
FRIIS, I DIDN’T EXPECT TO FIND YOU HERE.”
Jens was surprised that Davidov sought him out among the crowd, but it made the first step that much easier.
“Good evening, dobriy vecher, Minister.”
They greeted each other with a formal incline of the head, not exactly a bow but close. The minister was a saturnine creature with heavy eyebrows, and after the clash the other day in the meeting over the tunnel funding, there was a certain frigidity in his manner. He was wearing an elegant tailcoat with a stiff white waistcoat and collar but had the look of a man with his mind set on things other than enjoying himself. Nevertheless his cheeks were florid instead of their usual ash gray, and Jens wondered how much good French brandy he had already consumed.
“Good evening, madam.”
Jens bowed over the hand of Andrei Davidov’s wife, a small, fluttery middle-aged woman in a violently purple gown. She smiled a lot, as though to make up for her husband’s solemn face.
“What a lovely evening,” she beamed. “My goodness, how I love to see you gentlemen looking so grand.”
The place was thick with military men in dress uniform. Elaborate braid and colorful shoulder boards strutted the grand rooms as young soldiers vied with each other to attract the flutter of a fan from one of the young ladies. At social events in St. Petersburg the army officers dominated the room, magnificent in their white or blue or scarlet uniforms, the Hussar Guards always the most splendid and the most arrogant. It was the army that had made Russia strong, and they never let St. Petersburg forget it.
The master of ceremonies, in powdered white wig and tight red breeches, struck the marble steps three times with his golden staff to announce yet another new arrival.
“Do you dance?” Madam Davidova asked Jens, her head tilted to the side like a hopeful sparrow.
Jens’s stomach sank. He glanced at Davidov.
“Go ahead,” the minister urged. “Not a dancer myself.”
“I’d be honored, madam,” Jens responded with a gallant bow. As he offered his arm to escort her toward the dance floor, he said casually over his shoulder, “Davidov, a word or two later, if you don’t mind.”
Davidov’s eyes narrowed, but his wife chirped, “Of course you will, won’t you, Andrei?”
Jens turned to his dance partner with new respect. He smiled. She smiled back.
THEY DANCED A MAZURKA. IT WAS ONE OF THOSE ENERGETIC dances that gave him the shudders, a set of eight couples weaving inexplicably between partners. Finding the right path among the sliding steps was worse than threading his horse through a forest in the dark.
He was concentrating so hard on the fast tempo that he almost missed the pair of deep brown eyes staring at him from across the room. He stumbled. Apologized to his partner. But when he glanced back, the dark eyes had gone, lost amid a swirl of elegant coiffures and a shimmer of silk. He recalled a striking impression of a long pale neck, a delicate line of cheek, and a white dress with high white gloves. The images had vanished in the crowded ballroom, but he’d recognized those eyes. And he intended to find them again.
DON’T WASTE YOUR BREATH, FRIIS.” ”Minister Davidov, I suggest you listen to what I have to say.”
“More money. That’s what you’re after. More funds for the bloody sewers.”
Jens found a tight smile. “I’m not here to talk sewers.”
The minister expanded his narrow chest. “I’m listening.”
“The population of Petersburg is increasing at a rapid rate, as we both know. The result is a severe housing shortage. So the cost of a house or apartment in the center of the city is growing exorbitant.”
“I am aware of that.”
“Yet there are many vacant plots. Scraps of scrubland in the poorer areas and on the outskirts of the city that are available for a few hundred roubles. But no one wants them.”
“Because they’re in the bloody slums.” Davidov snorted out a coil of cigar smoke. “If you want to go off and live packed into a filthy shack with ten other families, feel free. But don’t expect the rest of us to follow you.” He started to move away.
“Some of those areas won’t be slums much longer.”
The minister stopped. Turned back. And Jens knew he had him.
“People always want houses. But at the moment the wealthy only want to live where there are shops, restaurants and, more importantly”-he paused, making Davidov wait-“modern hygienic sewers and water supplies.”
He watched the minister’s eyebrows lift. “Go on.”
“Modern bathrooms. Modern kitchens. These are made possible by the tunnels I am building under the city. And it means that a plot of land, worth nothing one day, can be worth a small fortune the next.”
Davidov’s thin lips stretched into what was meant as a smile. “You’re right.” He drew on his cigar thoughtfully. “Damn you, you’re right.”
“Who is the person,” Jens asked softly, “who controls which tunnels are excavated into which areas? Who is the person who knows which parcels of land will therefore rise in value?”
Davidov placed sinewy fingers on Jens’s wrist, gripping hard.
“You do,” the minister said in a hoarse whisper. “You bastard.”
JENS FOUND HER.
The chandeliers in the ballroom glittered in the tall mirrors, turning them into golden worlds within worlds. The young girls in their first season in St. Petersburg society wore white. Like lilies. Delicate and untouched. They stood together in small clusters with fragile smiles. Nervously they fingered their long white gloves and gazed with doe eyes at the young bucks who strutted for their benefit. Those whose dance cards were not yet filled with the names of captains and lieutenants stood close to the windows and fanned themselves with a languid motion as though too hot to dance.
Jens lit one of his Turkish cigarettes, leaned an elbow on a bronze statue of a seminaked javelin thrower, and watched the dark-eyed girl. She was dancing. The orchestra went from mazurka to polka to polonaise, and she went from blue uniform to scarlet to green without pause, but he noticed she never danced with the same man twice. She moved well. That was what struck him first. The graceful way she held her shoulders and head, not stiffly erect like some of the girls, but in a smooth flow to the rhythm of the music. Her spine made him think of a lithe young cat, smooth and supple, her feet neat and light.
“I’ll introduce you if you’d like. I know her mother.”
“Madam Davidova,” he said as she popped up at his side, “what a pleasure to see you again.”
“You’re staring at her.” She tapped him sharply with the ivory handle of her fan. “She is too young for you. I hear your taste is for older women.”
He gave her a long look, tucked her arm through his own, and led her onto the dance floor for a waltz. “You dance well,” he said as they glided around the room.
A flush of pleasure rose from her bosom up to the heavy pearl and amethyst necklace at her throat. Her bird eyes twinkled up at him. “She doesn’t look happy.”
“I hadn’t noticed.”
“Liar! Ask her to dance with you.”
He found himself liking this woman. And she was right: the girl’s face possessed a solemn expression that scarcely varied from partner to partner. She seemed to listen to what they had to say but added little herself. Only now and again did she dart a look up at them with her large brown eyes suddenly animated, as if they had said something that caught her interest. Jens found himself wondering what kind of comment would catch her interest.
“Time to interrupt them, I think,” he murmured to Madam Davidova, “if you’re sure you don’t object.”
“Not at all. It’s ages since I’ve had the pleasure of a waltz with a dashing young officer.” She fluttered her eyelashes at him in anticipation, making him laugh.
He guided her over to where the girl was moving in the arms of a lieutenant, and Madam Davidova immediately broke into introductions.
“My dear young girl, this is Jens Friis.” Madam Davidova turned amused eyes on Jens. “Valentina is the daughter of my dear friend, Elizaveta Ivanova. The two of you have much in common, I believe. You’re both enthusiasts of”-she hesitated for no more than a quiver of a second, adding a sparrowlike twitch of her head-“of stargazing.”
Jens didn’t even blink.
“It’s rare,” he said with a gallant bow to Valentina, “to meet a fellow enthusiast. May I cut in for a moment or two? To talk stars, you understand.”
“Well, no, actually I…” The young lieutenant started to refuse, but he was no match for Madam Davidova.
“Delighted to dance with you.” She launched herself into his arms with the speed of a military attack.
The lieutenant had no alternative but to relinquish his partner. Jens stepped in and swept Valentina away.
STARS?” VALENTINA QUERIED. ”Yes. Orion’s Belt. The Great Bear. The North Star.”
There was a pause.
“That’s it?” she asked.
“You want more? There’s the Giant’s Hammer and Astralis Gigantis… I could go on. Awesome sights, all of them.”
“What makes you think I’m interested in stars?”
He flashed her a teasing smile, aware of her gaze on him, one eyebrow raised in a delicate arch. “I wanted to ask you something. How else was I to hack a path through that forest of uniforms around you?”
She gave him a mock frown. “Tell me what it is you want to ask.”
He became serious. “Why were you angry with me? At the concert, I mean. Scowling at me as though I had the devil on my shoulder.”
She threw her head back in a laugh that was so relaxed and natural in this unnatural world of jewels and corsets and crimped curls that it took him totally by surprise. It was a wonderful sound. Rich and infectious. He spun her in a quick turn across the floor. This close he could see that her eyes were not just brown but gold and brown, as if whoever painted them had dipped the brush in the wrong color pot. His gaze drifted to the creamy smoothness of her throat.
“It was nothing,” she smiled. “I was just being a silly schoolgirl.”
“Now I’m not angry with you any more. Nor am I a schoolgirl anymore.”
“So what are you? One of this season’s debutantes, here at court to find a husb-?”
“I’m here because my parents ordered me to be here.”
He could feel the sudden heat of her anger, though she hid all trace of it from her face, but her fingers in his betrayed her. He let her dance in peace, no more questions. She seemed to float deep within the music as he guided her away from the throng of swaying couples toward the ballroom door, and as soon as she saw it within reach he heard her take a deep breath. Felt her small ribs expand under his hand on her back and he had a sense of a creature scenting freedom.
“Would you care for me to show you the Astralis Gigantis?” he asked with a straight face. “A star that not many people have ever seen before, I believe.”
“I would be fascinated.”
He liked the hint of mockery in her voice.
She turned quickly to walk through the double doors to the refreshment room beyond, and as she did so he smelled the fragrance of her hair. The beautiful dark waves he’d seen at the school were pinned up in an elaborate coiffure high on the back of her head, emphasizing her high cheekbones and long neck. As she walked in front of him, a small slight figure in her white silk gown nipped in to her tiny waist, he experienced a strong impulse to extract the large pearl hair comb in her coiffure and release the thick coils. As though it would release her. He felt an urge to set free whatever it was she was holding in so tight.
He steered her to one of the tall windows that stretched from floor to ceiling, draped with golden velvet and decorated with silk flowers. Valentina leaned toward it as though the night outside held something she wanted.
“Which one is this Astralis Gigantis of yours?” she asked softly.
“It’s up there somewhere, I promise you, just waiting to be found.”
“I hope so. I like to think there are more to discover.”
“There is always more to discover, Valentina.”
She made no comment but swayed to the distant music, her reflection insubstantial among the shadows outside.
“May I have something to drink?” she asked.
So he fought his way to the refreshment room, but by the time he returned with a glass of lime cordial in one hand and a stiff brandy in the other, it was too late. The uniforms had gathered around her. Like bees. He could hear their hungry buzz. He pushed his way through them to where a tall fair-haired captain of the Hussar Guards in a scarlet uniform was holding her dance card between his fingers, talking heatedly. Jens took one look at Valentina’s face and placed the drinks on a table, plucked the dance card out of the captain’s fingers, tore it in two, and returned it in the man’s hand with a curt bow.
“Excuse us,” he said, and tucked Valentina’s hand under his arm. “We have a star to inspect.”
As they walked out of the room, he felt her shaking. For one appalling moment he thought she was crying, but then he glanced at her face and saw the laughter.
A SLEIGH RIDE. VALENTINA GASPED, THE AIR WAS SO COLD. The wind tugged at her beaver fur hood and her hands were tucked firmly inside the fur muff on her lap. She liked the cold. It scraped away the stink of cigars from her skin. The Viking had bundled the rug around her, so that only the tip of her nose and her chin gleamed pale in the stretch of moonlight.
The sleigh was fast over the snow, its greased metal runners singing like music, the horse’s hooves barely audible. The Viking drove the open sleigh with relish. It should have made her nervous but didn’t. Her mother would faint with horror if she found out. Valentina shouldn’t be here at all, she knew that, but in her opinion she shouldn’t be at the ball either. The sleigh flew through the streets of St. Petersburg, along the granite Embankment, past the bridge where the towers of the Fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul loomed. Mist lay like a winter coat on the river, blurring the reflected lamplight into greasy smears.
He didn’t talk. That suited her. She closed her eyes, listening to the hum of the runners. He was taking her away from the city lights so that they could look at the stars. A smile rose to her chilled lips. No one had ever shown her the stars before.
THAT’S ODYSSEUS. HE WAS A GREAT WARRIOR WHOM THE gods couldn’t bear to let die, so they flung him up into the heavens where they could wrestle with him whenever they grew bored.”
Valentina pointed to another cluster of stars. There were thousands of them, sharp pinpricks of light in the thick black arc of the sky. “What are they? They’re beautiful. They seem so close.”
“They’re Zeus’s handmaidens. Each one was an earthling girl when the all-powerful god fell in love with them. He stole them. Raised them up to be his eternal handmaidens. It’s said they all have flowing brown locks and deep brown eyes.”
She suddenly realized he’d stopped looking at the night sky and was staring directly at her. “You’d better watch out,” he said. “You’re just his type.”
She laughed. “I wouldn’t mind being up there, looking down on all the puny efforts of the tiny creatures on earth. It would be a relief. To be free from all”-she waved her fur muff in the vague direction of the city-“this.”
He raised his head and sat up. They had been leaning back in the sleigh as they gazed at the stars.
“Is it so bad?” he asked softly.
She thought about it. About bombs in the hands of revolutionaries. Two government ministers had been murdered by them: Sipyagin at the Mariinsky Palace, and Vyacheslav Plehve had one tossed into his carriage. Even Alexander II, the tsar’s grandfather, was killed by one. The magnificent Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood was built on the spot beside the Griboedov Canal where the fatal explosion took place. She thought about her father’s face when he said, You did this to her, and about the lifetime of dress fittings and tea parties her mother would condemn her to. About the woman with the shiny scar stamped on her skull. About Katya.
“No,” she lied, “it’s not so bad.”
“You play the piano like an angel. Isn’t that worth staying down here for?”
“I’d persuade Zeus to let me play it in the heavens too.”
“Ah yes. Join in with the music of the spheres. He’d be a fool not to let you.”
She couldn’t see his face as she leaned back in the sleigh, concentrating on the gleaming diamond chips in the sky above her. The moonlight streamed from behind him, robbing him of any features. Just his hair shone bright where it curled out under his thick fur hat, but it shone purple, not red, in the strange thieving light.
“What is it you do?” she asked. “Other than walk out of concerts and drive sleighs like a madman.”
His laugh echoed through the vast silence of the night. They were outside the city, on the edge of the forest where the snow lay like a silver tablecloth spread out for them in the moonlight and the trees huddled behind them like a dark ragged army, whispering together.
“For your information,” he said, “I didn’t walk out of the concert. The tsar ordered me back to work.”
“As for sleighs, yes, I like to drive them fast when I have a good horse between the shafts.” He leaned a fraction closer, and she could see his breath trail from his lips in the frosty air.
“What is it you do?” she asked again.
“I’m an engineer.”
“An engineer? Does that mean you make things?”
“Yes, you’re right. I make things.”
She could hear the smile in his voice. He was laughing at her. She sat up straight, forcing him to twist in his seat beside her. Now she could see his face.
“What kind of things?”
“Tunnels? What sort of tunnels?”
“For water. For sewage. For drains. But I’ve also built them through mountains. For trains.”
Valentina was speechless. She’d never in her life met anyone who did anything so constructive.
“And for fun I tinker with engines,” he added. “I like fiddling with metal.”
She stared at his silvery face and saw the way the words slid out over his lips as if they were nothing. I’ve also built them through mountains. Such small words for something so big. She wanted to cry, she envied him so much. Instead she said, “How interesting.”
But he must have heard something in her voice. Or seen something in her face. Because he studied her for a long moment, during which the horse lifted its head and pricked its ears toward the black line of the forest as if it had heard something.
“Playing the piano the way you do is a rare talent,” Jens said softly. “You are still young, yet you play with your whole heart and soul.”
She looked away.
“You must have worked very hard,” he said, “to be so good.”
“You can’t call that work. Not real work. Not like building tunnels.”
“Valentina.” He touched her arm. His gloved hand was outside the fur rug while hers was underneath, so it hardly counted as a touch. But she was aware of it even so. “Valentina, which do you think gives people more pleasure? A tunnel? Or music? Which lifts the heart and makes it sing? Beethoven or Brunel?”
She laughed and felt a rush of gratitude toward this unruly Viking who had whisked her away to the middle of nowhere to study the stars. “Who is Brunel?”
“An English engineer. Isambard Kingdom Brunel.”
It was the way he said it. The respect in his voice.
“Is he good?” she asked.
“He was one of the greats.”
She nodded. “I’m jealous.”
Again he brushed her arm with the touch that was barely a touch. “Women are not given the chance,” he acknowledged, “to be useful. But it will change, Valentina, given time.”
“I haven’t got time,” she said fiercely.
Her comment took him by surprise. She could see it in the sudden stiffness of his jaw. But the words wouldn’t stay in her mouth. “How would you feel if you had to sip tea and admire dresses and jewelry all day? Your mind would melt, I swear. I want to do something… more. I’m not a Russian matryoshka doll, I don’t want to be just an ornament. I want dirty hands and an exhausted brain and-”
A noise emerged from the forest. The sound of horses, the approach of heavy wheels as something forced its way between the trees. Without a word, Jens picked up the reins and deftly clicked the somnolent horse into motion, so that the sleigh glided out of the moonlight and plunged deep into the shadows.
THE WAGON NUDGED ITS WAY OUT OF THE FOREST. IT WAS lumbering toward the snowbound road like a large hump-backed animal, pulled by two elderly, heavy horses that wheezed as they hauled it into the moonlight. Behind the wagon five men trudged over the ruts and ridges, forcing their shoulders against the tailgate whenever the going grew tough. To Valentina it looked as though they’d been walking for a long time.
The Viking was watching the dark figures intently. In the blackness she couldn’t see him, but she could sense the sharp spike of his curiosity. His hand gripped her arm, but she didn’t need to be told. Don’t move. The man at the front, the one leading the horses, was carrying a rifle. He shouted orders to the men behind, but she couldn’t make out the words. Jens bent close, his breath intimate on her cold cheek.
“They’ll be gone,” he whispered, “as soon as they get the cart up on the road.”
She nodded and risked taking her eyes off the rifle. The Viking was so close she could feel his pulse racing through him. He was no more than a darker shadow, invisible in the black forest, but she could hear his breath. In and out. Steady as a rock, reassuring her.
“Probably hunters,” he murmured.
Probably not, she thought but didn’t say.
“On their way home,” he added.
But both of them knew there was no elk meat in that cart. The moon plucked at the tarpaulin that was covering it, tied down with ropes, and whatever lay underneath looked bulky. The horses strained to haul their load up onto the raised level of the road, and the men pushed from the rear while the one at the front yanked hard on the animals’ leading rein. It pained Valentina to see a person handle horses’ mouths so harshly, but curses abruptly sliced through the silence.
Jens saw it coming before she did.
“It’s tipping over,” he warned.
The weight in the wagon had shifted. One of the horses tried to rear out of the shafts, its hooves flashing, but the men fought hard, pushing and pulling till finally they halted the cart’s descent and manhandled it up the rocky slope onto the road. With a lurch the wagon settled on the snow-packed ground and the men leaned heavily against its wheels, chests heaving. That was the moment in which Jens’s horse took it into its head to call out a greeting to the exhausted nags. Jens tightened the reins and swore under his breath.
“Valentina,” he spoke softly. No sign of panic in his voice. “Say nothing.”
The man at the head of the wagon was striding fast toward the forest’s edge, searching for the source of the sound. Rifle alert in his hands.
“Over here,” Jens called out.
The man veered in their direction. She could hear the crunch of his feet over the snow. It clashed with the thumping of her heart.
“Cover your face with your hood,” Jens murmured without turning away from the man.
She pulled the beaver skin low over her face till only a small hole remained. She heard a bullet slam into the breech of the rifle as the footfalls drew closer and stopped. Jens’s hand crept under the rug and grasped hers.
“Dobriy vecher,” he called out. “Good evening, friend. The lady and I came out for a quiet sleigh ride. We’ve no interest in your business, whatever it may be.”
To her surprise the man’s response was a loud laugh as he slapped the shoulder of Jens’s horse with amusement. Valentina tried to draw air through her tiny hole, but her lungs had forgotten how.
“Clear out of here,” the man said easily. “Take her back to Petersburg before she freezes her sweet little arse off.”
Jens withdrew his hand and flicked the reins into action, making the animal leap forward so fast the man had to jerk out of its path.
“Spokoinoi nochi,” he called. “Good night, comrade.”
The horse picked up its feet, eager to be on the move, and Jens kept the sleigh traveling fast across the snow in the direction of St. Petersburg.
Valentina emerged from her hood. “That man wasn’t so dangerous.”
The sleigh shook and juddered beneath her, so that she had to cling to its side.
Jens laughed. “I’m glad you think so.”
A loud crack reverberated. At first Valentina thought something had broken on the sleigh, one of the runners or a shaft fixing. But Jens swore furiously and whipped the reins along the horse’s back to drive it faster. One of his hands seized the back of Valentina’s neck.
“Down!” he ordered.
He forced her to the sleigh floor, face down in the dirt. She spat out a mouthful of filthy slush and that was when she heard the second crack. Followed by a third. Rifle shots.
Jens didn’t let the horse slacken its pace for two miles.
Finally he prodded her shoulder. “Safe now.”
Her limbs uncurled and she slid back onto the seat, aching and embarrassed.
“I was…” She stopped. What was the point in trying to explain? She’d seen what horrors men are willing to inflict on each other. A rifle? A bomb? It was all the same.
“Frightened?” He snorted and allowed the horse to slow to a walk. “Damn right, you should be. So was I.”
She stared at him. “Were you?”
“Of course. Rifle bullets aren’t exactly friendly.”
HE SMILED AT HER AND PULLED HIS FUR HAT DOWN OVER his ears. She could feel adrenaline tingling in her fingers. Or was that the cold? “The man wasn’t trying to kill us,” he said confidently. “The bullets went far too wide of the sleigh.”
“So why shoot at all?”
“To scare us off and show what we will get if we’re stupid enough to report the incident to the police.”
The cold was seeping up her arms, tracking its way to her heart. The shuddering in her chest wouldn’t stop.
“Are you all right?”
She nodded jerkily. “I’m not dead. Not yet.” She laughed, but it sounded sad.
Abruptly he halted the sleigh. The horse stopped in its tracks but stamped its front hooves, unhappy about doing so. Maybe it too was frightened of the rifle. Jens didn’t say anything. On an empty ice road in the dark, far from everything but wolves and rodents, the Viking put his arms around Valentina and pulled her to his chest. All he did was hold her. But the moment her cheek touched the warmth of his heavy overcoat, her body seemed to turn itself inside out. All the wrong parts were on the outside, the fragile parts, the secret corners. She clung there, trembling. She inhaled shakily, and his coat smelled of a masculine world. Of smoke and horses and cards and wide-open spaces. But she could smell his tunnels on him too: dark places, narrow passages, bricks.
For a long moment he didn’t speak, just held her head close while he stroked the fur of her hood as though it were her hair and murmured words in a language she didn’t understand. When finally she sat up, he peered into her face and what he saw must have reassured him because the green eyes smiled at her. He took up the reins and chirruped the horse into motion.
“Forgive me, Valentina Ivanova. I should never have brought you here.”
She shook her head in disagreement but kept her lips closed tight. She feared they would let out the words, the ones crammed inside her mouth like chunks of ice, the ones that confessed she knew the man, the one with the rifle and the false laugh. She’d looked into those sharp eyes before.
It was Arkin. Her father’s chauffeur.
THE LIGHTS OF ST. PETERSBURG PEELED PAST THEM AS THE sleigh skimmed along the Embankment, past the palatial façades with their classical columns and golden fountains. The river had the look of a restless soul, black and moody, never still.
“What do you think was under the tarpaulin?” Valentina asked.
“Probably something stolen. Machine parts maybe. Whatever it was, it was heavy.”
“Why would they steal machine parts?”
“Thieve from one factory and sell to another. I know in my own work that getting hold of the right equipment can be a lengthy process.”
“Do you buy from people who steal?”
He gave her a sharp sideways look. “Is that what you think?”
“I have no idea how business is conducted. I didn’t mean to-”
“Would you buy from people who steal? If you were in business.”
She thought seriously about the question. Would she?
“Yes,” she answered, surprising herself. “Yes, I think I would. If I had to.”
He laughed. “Good,” he said. “Then we shall get on well.”
Didn’t he know? They were already getting on well.
OUTSIDE THE ANICHKOV PALACE AGAIN THEY STOOD together in the drive in front of the triple-arched entrance. A thousand lights blazed out in a brash display of gaudy wealth. The palace belonged to the dowager empress, the tsar’s mother, who was adept at maintaining a magnificent rival court that eclipsed her daughter-in-law’s halfhearted efforts. The guests had grown raucous at this late hour. Some were spilling out into their carriages to move on to other balls that would go on until five o’clock in the morning. There was the clatter of wheels and the jangle of harness. The night was loud and the stars felt worlds away. Neither Valentina nor Jens made any move to re-enter the party.
“Your chaperone will be waiting,” Jens said.
“Will you be in trouble?”
The way he looked at her made her want to stay here exactly like this, with his tall figure in the gray overcoat so close she could touch it. She pushed back her hood.
“My friend’s mother is acting as my chaperone tonight. She’s watching over several of us now that the new season is starting. I expect she’ll be furious, but”-she slid him a conspiratorial smile-“I shall say I have been improving my knowledge by learning about the stars. Anyway she has probably been so intent on her own enjoyment that she scarcely noticed I was gone.”
“The whole room would notice you were gone.”
“Spasibo. Jens. Thank you for showing me the stars tonight.”
He glanced over his shoulder at the palace, seemed about to say something, then inclined his head instead. “It was my pleasure.”
So formal? So suddenly correct? His face not the face that had peered so intently into hers beside the forest. Is that what a court party did to a person? Made him someone else?
“I wish you luck with your tunnels,” she offered, because she didn’t know what else to say.
“Shall I tell you something?”
His feet didn’t move even an inch closer, yet she felt him edge nearer.
“I know as much about tunnels,” she said, “as you do about stars.”
His long elegant nose gave a snort.
“I may not know the chemistry and biology I need, but I do know my stars,” she said.
She wanted him to laugh but he was staring at her instead, a hard questioning stare. “Why on earth would you need to know chemistry and biology?”
“I intend to become a nurse.”
He studied her face and she couldn’t tell what was going on behind the shadowy green eyes. She saw him breathe heavily.
“My friend is a doctor.” He spoke in a careful voice. “He tells me that to be a nurse you need to be tough. To deal with the blood and the wounds. And you need to work hard.”
“I work hard.”
Slowly he smiled, one edge of his mouth curling higher than the other. “I believe you do.”
“I’ll not faint at the sight of blood. And I can be tough.”
“Maybe you’ll have to work at that one.”
“Trust me. I can do it.” With a lift of her chin, she set off and hurried toward the grand entrance.
She turned. Jens still stood there, like the mast of a Viking sailing ship, tall and straight. The night air swirled around him.
“May I call on you?” he asked.
She didn’t even make him wait, didn’t pretend to think about it. “You may.”
“I enjoyed this evening.”
“Even the rifle shots?”
“Especially the rifle shots.”
She knew exactly what he meant.
THE ENORMOUS BRAZIERS OUTSIDE THE ANICHKOV PALACE burned with flames that licked at the darkness, painting it a strident orange. Hundreds of coachmen, beards stiff with ice, warmed their hands on the welcome heat throughout the night and abandoned it only reluctantly when summoned back to their carriage by a departing guest.
Arkin watched the sables and the tiaras descend the palace steps. So expensive, so showy, so worthless. Butterflies to be stamped on. What about women like Sergeyev’s wife? Heavily pregnant yet still slaving to earn a pittance, barely enough to stay alive. Did these butterflies have no conscience? But it was not the women he was interested in tonight, it was the men. One man in particular.
Prime Minister Stolypin.
Arkin had changed into his chauffeur uniform, even though Minister Ivanov was not attending the ball tonight. The uniform made him invisible among all the other chauffeurs and coachmen, and he needed to be nothing more than one of the shadows of the night lifting off the thick blue ice of the Neva.
The incident earlier this evening in the forest had set him on edge. Was it an omen? That tonight was a night when things would go wrong? It was the first time they had been caught hauling the guns, and he’d had to restrain himself. The open spaces out there always made him jumpy. A quick bullet, two bodies in the snow. It would have guaranteed silence, but the police would inevitably have come sniffing around and found the cart tracks through the trees. No, just a few shots over the head of the pampered pet in the sleigh, that was enough. But even so. He clenched his teeth and told himself he didn’t believe in omens.
A murmur flicked like a spark around the groups at the braziers, and Arkin was quick to react. He moved silently toward the palace. Someone important was leaving the ball, someone who could stir the jaded coachmen to pause as they took a nip of vodka and turn to look. The tall figure of Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin was descending the steps with three others: two young men in bright uniforms and a pretty young woman with almost white-blond hair and a large laughing mouth. These three were nothing to Arkin. He saw only Stolypin.
Arkin reached for the sack that was hooked onto his belt under his liveried coat. This is political, he told himself. Political. This man is inflicting terror on the people of Russia. Sixty thousand. Sixty thousand. That was the number of political prisoners he’d had executed or sentenced to penal labor in his first three years in office. Thousands more peasants were tried in military field courts when Stolypin decreed that all farm communes must be dismantled. Hundreds of newspapers and trade unions were being closed down by force because their aims did not coincide with Stolypin’s.
I am fighting against revolution.
The prime minister’s words were etched in his brain. No matter how many times Stolypin claimed he was in favor of reform or how many lies slid off his tongue, he believed the only way forward was through vicious repression. Arkin had seen the results of it all around him. Heard the screams at night, seen the heartbreak, felt the scourge on the backs of the workers. Tonight’s action would be a service to Russia. If he died himself… He shrugged and stood in silence in the black shadow of a sedan car. He pushed an arm inside the sack and lit the fuse. Instantly his heart rate rocketed. He had two minutes. One hundred twenty seconds. No more.
This is political.
But in his head reared an image of his father, a proud barrel-chested farmer arguing with and defying a tall bear of a man who had come to the rural provinces to address a village meeting. That tall man was Stolypin. Another image of crimson streaks slithering down flayed flesh into the dirt, his father’s fingers clenched in agony, his back caving in with each lash of the knout. The shame, not for himself but for his father, would never go away.
This is not personal, this is political.
Everyone knew Prime Minister Stolypin wore body armor at all times and surrounded himself with security men, because this would not be the first attempt on his life. Arkin could see them gathering like cockroaches around the carriage that had drawn up, a pair of horses breathing heavily into the cold air. Arkin had expected a car, but it made no difference. The young people climbed in as other cars and carriages milled around, drivers and footmen jostling for space.
Lights from the palace threw long shadows, distorting the shape of the carriage, as Arkin edged closer. The prime minister clambered up the steps into its interior, booming his big laugh.
The sack hissed in his grip and there was the smell of scorched fibers as the fuse burned down. With Stolypin safely inside the vehicle, the guards relaxed and started to move toward the front. Arkin slipped forward into the deep shadow at the back, threw the sack under the carriage, and stepped away quickly.
He was counting each tick of the clock in his head.
A hand gripped his shoulder and his heart stopped. Sweat gathered at his throat. He turned and saw a giant guardsman towering over him. “What do you want?” Arkin demanded gruffly, surprised to hear his own voice so calm. “I’m in a hurry. My minister has ordered me to fetch his car.”
The man registered Arkin’s livery. “What’s your name?”
“Well, Grigoryev, you tell your minister to wait until…”
Arkin stopped listening. Stolypin was stepping out of the carriage. He was shouting something over his shoulder to his companions inside.
“Wait here,” the prime minister called, “I must remind Prince Vasily that we are riding together tomorrow.”
Arkin watched every movement as if it were slowed a hundred times. The gleaming shoe pressing down on the red carpet into the palace, the gloved hand opening and shutting like a mouth talking, the lift of a shoulder, the twist of the beard as Stolypin hurried away.
Oh God, he’d lost count.
He tried to pull away from the guardsman’s grip but it remained firm. Quickly he pointed toward the two horses at the front of the carriage, which were tossing their black heads and restlessly stamping the ground. Could they smell the fuse burning?
“You need to help keep those animals quiet or the prime minister’s carriage will be off without him. He won’t like that.”
Instantly the guardsman lost interest in Arkin and headed forward. Other horses were whinnying, struggling to back away into the darkness, and Arkin cast a glance at the shadowy space beneath the carriage, but nothing was visible.
Ninety seconds? Or was it more?
He swung away and started to run, counting in his head. Thirty paces. Would it be enough? He dragged icy air into his lungs, cursing as his legs leapt over curbs and dodged wheels, cursing Stolypin, cursing the guardsman.
Cursing his luck.
He threw himself behind a magnificent Rolls-Royce, solid as a rock, just as his mental clock clicked to one hundred twenty. For two seconds he crouched there, heart slamming into his ribs, not thinking. Nerves raw.
The explosion tore a gigantic hole in the night. A bright flash ripped through the darkness and the force of the blast rocked the Rolls-Royce on its wheels, smashing its windows and bending its solid metal panels. Arkin’s ears pulsed painfully. Glass rained down on him like ice daggers from the night sky. He forced a breath into his empty lungs and made an effort to stand, but what he saw as he stared at the scene of destruction in front of him made him wish he’d just kept running.
Screams, bodies, and blood filled the gap where the carriage had stood. A slick scarlet stream leaked across the road, while the smell of gelignite and fear hung in the night air sharper than the ice daggers. Figures lay on the ground, but panic sent others fleeing this place of death. Arkin felt sick. Directly in front of him lay the two beautiful horses that had pulled Stolypin’s carriage. One was clearly dead, its back twisted at an impossible angle; the other had lost both its rear legs, but it was alive and screaming. Men in uniforms were running around waving guns in their hands, seizing anyone still on his feet. Arkin wanted to melt away into the darkness, away from the carnage, away from the powerful man standing like a vengeful devil at the top of the palace steps, bellowing his fury into the night air. Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin. He was still alive.
Arkin cursed him under his breath. Then, oblivious to the risk, he drew a gun from under his jacket, hurried over to the horse, and put a bullet in its brain. The animal’s brown eyes widened in surprise as it died, forelegs thrashing. Tears rolled down Arkin’s cheeks.
FAILURE LAY LIKE COLD GRAY ASH IN HIS MIND.
The words meant nothing. Arkin shook his head.
“Viktor, the tsar will tread more carefully in future. You have frightened him and his government. They will be wary of rejecting our demands for-”
“You aren’t thinking straight, Father Morozov. Stolypin is still alive.”
“I know.” The priest rested a hand on Arkin’s shoulder, and his patient gaze sought out Arkin’s soul. “Don’t deny yourself the satisfaction of striking a blow for the new world we are building. You and I both know we have to tear down the old one first.”
“Stolypin will retaliate.” Arkin’s eyes darkened. “More deaths.”
“It is the price we must pay.”
“Tell me, Father, how do you think your God deals with that? How do you balance your religious conscience with planting bombs? What excuse do you give in your prayers each night?”
The priest lifted the engraved cross that hung around his neck and placed his lips on its battered surface, then leaned close to Arkin’s forehead. His lips were cool, and against his will Arkin felt a shiver of calm slide through the bones of his skull into the burning tangle beneath.
“The war we fight is a just war,” Morozov told him firmly. “Never doubt that. It is God’s holy battle for the souls of his people of Russia. He is our pillar of fire by night and our pillar of cloud by day. We wear his breastplate of righteousness.”
Viktor Arkin turned away. “Father, they will come searching for us.” He gestured around the basement room. “You should leave here at once.”
“I shall return to my village. It’s not far outside the city, so I can come back here quickly if needed. What about you?”
“I’ll stay close to my government minister. He will be angry after this attack on the prime minister, and when he’s angry he is indiscreet. He thinks of me as no one, a maroon uniform with nothing inside it, so in the car he says things out loud that would do better to stay in his head.”
“As I said, Viktor, God is on our side.”
Arkin picked his cap off the table and headed for the door. “You know we shall have to kill all of them in the end,” he said quietly. “Even the women and children.”
“Death is a beginning; look at it that way. The beginning of eternity for them, the beginning of a just and honorable new world for those who choose to build it here. Paradise on earth.”
Arkin saw in his mind a pair of large dark brown eyes and soft full mouth. Do whatever you have to, she’d said to him in the car when the marchers were coming close on Morskaya. Calm as a cat in the sunshine. Her little blond sister beside her on the blue seat, eyes huge as a child’s in a candy store.
All of them. Kill all of them. That day would come. His hand shook as he seized the door handle.
UPSTAIRS THE CORRIDOR WITH ITS HIGH CEILING WAS cold. The wind raced straight through the attic, struggling under the roof tiles in an effort to push inside. Valentina heard the rattle of it and felt its echo inside herself, a wild kind of moaning that seemed to come from the forest. Then we shall get on well, he’d said. She smiled. She recalled the way his fingers held the reins, the smell of his coat. His hand on the back of her neck. May I call on you?
No light came from under Katya’s door; nevertheless she opened it and slipped inside. Making no sound in the darkness, she kicked off her dancing shoes, raised a corner of the quilt, and slid into the well of warmth.
“Katya,” she murmured. She wrapped an arm around the still figure and held her sister close, twined their feet together, and laid her cheek beside Katya’s shoulder. She lay in the bed for several minutes before her nostrils registered an odor among the sheets, a sickly coppery smell that she knew too well. She sat up quickly.
No answer. That was when she felt the moisture. It was all down her arm.
She twisted around and frantically found the switch of the bedside lamp. Her own hand was bright red.
Her sister was lying peacefully on her back. On the far side of her was a pair of long-bladed scissors, and they were sticking upright out of her wrist. Like a knife in butter. Everything was red, the sheets drowning in scarlet, all from such a small jagged hole. Valentina leapt from the bed, seized the belt from Katya’s dressing gown on the chair, and bound it tightly around the limp arm, just above the elbow. The flood slowed. She tied a hard knot. The scarlet flow faltered and stammered to a trickle. Katya’s face was as white and as lifeless as her pillow, her blond curls the only part of her that seemed to possess any spark. Her eyes were closed.
“Katya.” Valentina cradled her in her arms for one brief agonized moment. Her heart hurt in her chest as she pressed her lips to her sister’s cold cheek. Then she ran for Nurse Sonya.
VALENTINA WAITED AT THE BOTTOM OF THE STAIRCASE and watched the first spiny fingers of dawn sneak under the shutters. A thumbprint of pink sunlight appeared on the veined marble of the floor. She watched it grow and when it was the size and shape of a child, she heard footsteps descending the stairs. They were slow and ponderous, as though each foot were heavy.
“Dr. Beloi.” She looked up into a broad face with a neat little beard on the point of the chin. “How is she?”
The doctor plodded on down. His coat smelled of laudanum and two fingers of his left hand were badly stained with nicotine, but he was one of the finest medical men in St. Petersburg, as well as the costliest. He placed a hand on Valentina’s shoulder as if to pin down her impatience.
“She’s still alive. Your mother is with her now.”
Valentina released a small noise.
“Your sister will come through this… aberration. God forgive her.” He shook his head and pinched a finger and thumb to the bridge of his nose as though he had a pain there.
“She won’t die?”
“No, don’t look so frightened. She won’t die. Thanks to you. You saved her life.”
“She won’t die,” Valentina murmured again.
“She’ll be weak for a while because she’s lost so much blood. You should go and change your dress. It’s covered in blood.”
He patted her shoulder again as if she were a fretful pet and plodded on across the hall. Valentina remained gazing up the stairs. As a footman swung open the front door, the doctor turned back and beckoned her to him.
“Valentina, come here.”
She came, reluctant to leave the stairs.
“Tell me, young lady, how did you know how and where to apply a tourniquet?”
“I read things.”
“Well, your parents will be thanking God on their knees that you went into your sister’s room when you did last night. She’d have been stone cold long before anyone found her this morning.”
Valentina just looked up at the galleried landing above. Her fingers couldn’t keep still.
“You did a fine job stemming the flow of blood. Worthy of a real nurse, my dear.”
His words drew her attention. “Dr. Beloi, how would I go about becoming a real nurse?”
“Good God, girl, don’t be absurd.”
“Would you give me an introduction to one of the hospitals, so that I can train?”
“Valentina, this is no time to be making jokes.”
“I’m not joking.”
He sighed and pinched his nose again. “I will do no such thing. Your parents are distressed and have enough problems without you adding to them. It’s just a silly notion you’ve got into your head because of this”-he waved a hand, clutching at straws-“this mistake by your sister.”
“You won’t help me?”
“Certainly not. Go and comfort your poor mother instead of coming out with such absurdities. Nursing is not for the likes of you.”
“Don’t be foolish, girl. You know perfectly well why not.”
He pulled on his coat with a dismissive shrug and left the house.
VALENTINA PUT DOWN HER BOOK.
“I think we should forget about Mr. Rochester’s misfortunes now and talk about you instead.”
She was sitting on the edge of Katya’s bed, reading Jane Eyre aloud to her sister. It was one of her favorite novels, so packed with bird imagery that she constantly saw Katya fluttering through its pages, her wings damaged, her eyes bright and desperate.
Katya looked at her with muted defiance that brought faint color to her cheeks. “Let’s not,” she said.
“You’re going to have to tell me, my sweet sister.”
“I already have.”
“No, I mean really tell me.”
“What I said is true. I was tired. I’d had enough.” She put a hand over her eyes, the fingernails soft and white. Blocking out the world. “Enough of everything.”
Gently Valentina removed the hand. “Enough of me?”
The blue eyes blurred with tears. “That’s not fair.”
“What you did wasn’t fair.”
Valentina shuffled up until she was sitting next to Katya, an arm around her thin frame. She stroked the bandaged arm.
“Tell me about the ball,” Katya said.
“It was dull. Too many stiff military types. Too much testosterone.”
“It’s what men use instead of perfume.”
Katya chuckled. “You know so much.”
“No, I’ve just looked through some medical books.” She turned her head and placed a finger under Katya’s chin, tipping it to face her. “Katya, is that why you did it? Because of the ball?”
Her sister lowered her eyes, but Valentina continued to wait in silence.
“I knew you’d find yourself a husband there,” Katya whispered at last. “That’s what they’re for.”
“Rubbish, you silly thing. It was horribly dreary. I only went because Mama made me, you know that.” She entwined both arms around her sister and pulled her close, smelling the eucalyptus embrocation that Nurse Sonya had rubbed on her skin. She kissed her hair.
“I’ll not leave you,” she promised.
“You didn’t meet a husband then?”
“No, of course not. I just danced a bit. Drank lime cordial and looked at the stars.”
“Did you meet anyone special?”
Valentina pictured a pair of intense green eyes probing hers. And hard gray ones behind a rifle barrel.
“No,” she smiled. “No one of interest.”
VALENTINA AND HER MOTHER SET OFF TOGETHER TO GO to a bookshop. The sky was heavy with snow, the clouds like leaden weights sinking down to crush St. Petersburg. In the car Valentina could not keep her eyes from the back of the chauffeur’s head. She wanted to beat her fists on the stiff shoulders of his padded coat and say, You frightened me. You frightened me so much I made a fool of myself in the sleigh. In front of a pair of green eyes. She wanted to say, Tell me what was under the tarpaulin.
Instead when he politely opened the car door for her to alight, she looked him directly in the face and said, “There will be no moon tonight. Unlike last night.”
She saw the sharp eyes grow blunt. Confusion made him blink.
Nothing more to say about my sweet arse? No rifle now to make you strong?
She left him standing beside the car and walked with her mother into the warmth of the bookshop on Morskaya. She’d make him wait. Damn him, she’d make him wait until his feet froze in the gutter.
DO YOU HAVE A SECTION ON ENGINEERING?”
She spoke quietly so that her mother at the other end of the shop wouldn’t hear. The assistant craned forward to catch her words.
“Indeed we do, miss. Let me show you where-”
“No, just tell me. I can find it.”
She headed quickly for the shelf he had indicated. She inspected the titles, but not many were available: one on bridge construction, several on mining, one on the building of the Kremlin in Moscow. None on tunnels.
One on cars. He liked engines; he said he liked fiddling with metal. Her finger lay on its leather spine, ready to extract it from its position, when her eye caught the name on a book below it. Isambard Kingdom Brunel. She snatched it off the shelf, hurried to the counter, and paid for it. The assistant wrapped it in brown paper.
“What’s that?” Her mother’s voice was curious.
“It’s a biography of Brunel.”
“And who is this Brunel, Valentina?”
“Just an Englishman, Mama,” she said casually. “Look, I’ve bought a book for Katya as well.” She held up a copy of the poems of Charles Baudelaire.
“Will she like that?” her mother asked doubtfully.
“You are good to her.” Elizaveta Ivanova smiled affectionately. “I want you to know that your father and I are deeply grateful to you for what you did, for saving her life. She is lucky to have you.” She touched her daughter’s hand, the one holding the book for Katya. “So are we. I mean it, my dear.” As if embarrassed by her display of affection, she added more formally, “By the way, Valentina, I forgot to mention. Captain Chernov from the Hussars-I believe you spoke with him at the ball-left his card this morning. He is coming to call on you tomorrow afternoon.”
AS HE DROVE THEM HOME ARKIN LISTENED TO THE SILENCE in the car. Something had happened in the shop. The spark that had made the girl’s dark eyes challenge him earlier had gone. There will be no moon tonight. Her words nagged at him. Yet she couldn’t know about last night. Damn it, she couldn’t.
He needed to speak with Sergeyev. But after the bomb he had to lie quiet. Quiet. He sounded his klaxon at a cart blocking his road because noise was the only way he could keep the other sounds out of his head. Quiet was something he could only dimly remember. Quiet was no more than a word now. Paradise on earth came at a high price and he was willing to pay it, but the nights were hard. His mind was beyond quiet.
Behind him the mother was filling the heavy silences. She pointed out a new dressmaker’s establishment and promised to arrange fittings for her daughter, suggesting different styles of gowns. As Arkin listened he realized that he liked the sound of Madam Ivanova’s voice. It was brighter than the rest of her. Hearing just her voice as he sat in the driver’s seat, he could picture her without the wary look that was always in her eyes. She didn’t trust people, and she didn’t trust life. Nothing wrong with that. He knew exactly how she felt.
He slowed at a crossroads on Nevsky and heard her daughter say quite distinctly, “Mama, I’m worried about Papa. This bomb attack on Prime Minister Stolypin could be the start of a plan to attack all the tsar’s ministers. They could come for Papa again.”
“Valentina, we have to leave such things for your father to deal with. Don’t interfere. He doesn’t like it. He is the one who makes these decisions, not us.”
“Do they frighten you, Mama, the revolutionaries?”
“Of course not. They are a disorganized rabble. And anyway, don’t forget that we have our army to protect us.”
“Men like Captain Chernov?”
“Exactly.” There was a long uncomfortable silence before Elizaveta Ivanova added, “Please don’t be difficult about this visit by him, Valentina.”
Arkin could imagine them behind him. Believing their Captain Chernov could keep them safe.
ARKIN WOKE IN A SWEAT. SOMEONE WAS SHOUTING, BELLOWING in his ear. The bed was tangled and he tried to kick his legs free, but they were trapped. Cobwebs gathered on his face in the pitch blackness, threads like hot wires, scorching his skin. Still that shouting. Wouldn’t the bastard ever stop? His head hurt; his heart pounded so hard that his stomach abruptly heaved and he vomited on his sheets.
A different hammering. A fist on a wall.
“Shut the fuck up!” Popkov’s voice.
Too late Arkin clamped a hand over his mouth, and the terrible shouting ceased. It had been coming from his own throat. He sat up in the darkness and yanked his legs to the floor, where the touch of the cold boards on his bare feet brought him to his senses. He came back to his cramped little room above the stables and wiped the sweat from his eyes.
What kind of man has nightmares about the horses he killed? What about the people he’d slaughtered? Each night the dream came to him, vivid images of the black horse with its hind legs blown off, twisting itself in half to sink its massive yellow teeth into what was left of its bloody rear end, trying to gouge out the pain. Its screams splitting the night.
Where were the people? Where were their screams?
Dear God, what kind of man was he becoming? He stripped off his soiled nightshirt and stood shivering. The dark suited him. He liked the way it blacked out everything. It was only the future that was bright.
THE COUNTESS’S SON WAS FEARLESS. JENS COULD NOT DENY that. He bobbed over every obstacle Jens set him to. He was not a talkative child, but as he spent his days incarcerated with a dry stick of a tutor, who could blame him for keeping his words locked inside his head? But he would release great whoops of childish joy when his stubby little pony took off in sudden darts of energy, the boy’s heels drumming its fat sides. A trickle of sun flashed through the trees, sending arcs of light bounding across the trails.
“Alexei,” Jens called over his shoulder, “let’s head down to the stream.”
“Can I jump it?” the boy yelled.
“You fell off last time.”
“It didn’t hurt.”
His mother had complained that her son’s shoulder was black for a fortnight and had forbidden them to jump the stream again till he was older.
He grinned at Jens. “I won’t fall.”
“Keep your heels down, boy.”
They barged through the undergrowth to where the stream carved a path through the black earth. The boy’s cheeks were red. Jens watched his small hands tighten on the reins; a quick kick and the pony gathered itself for the jump, but at the last moment Alexei yanked hard on the reins, forcing the pony to skid to a halt. The small figure leapt out of the saddle and dropped to his knees in the freezing water.
“Get out,” Jens ordered.
But the boy was holding a dog. Or rather, a dog’s head. The large brown body lay under the water, but Alexei had lifted its head above the ice to allow the animal to breathe. He was stroking its wet muzzle, pulling weeds from its eyes.
“Alexei, leave it. It’s dead.”
“Come out of the water. You’ll freeze to death.”
Alexei had never defied him before. Jens swung from his saddle and heaved the lifeless animal out of the water. It was a large hound with rough black fur and white young teeth. It lay limp in his arms, soaking his clothes, and with Alexei still hanging on to one of its dripping ears, they waded back onto dry land.
“I want to bring it home,” Alexei said.
The boy clutched the sodden head to his chest. “If I die in a river, I want someone to bury me.”
Jens couldn’t argue with that. He strapped the dog onto the pony’s back with his belt, then lifted Alexei onto Hero and swung up behind. He wrapped the shivering boy in the folds of his coat and rode fast.
“Uncle Jens, did you ever have a dog?”
“Yes. When I was a boy, a strong sled dog. All heart and teeth, he was. Gave me a few scars to remember him by. Every boy should have a dog.”
The small head nodded, then swiveled around, and eager eyes gazed up at him.
Jens sighed. “I’ll speak to your mother.”
JENS CALLED ON VALENTINA AS HE’D PROMISED. HE STOOD on the doorstep and felt as awkward as a young dolt from the fields with straw in his hair. It was laughable. He had wined and dined the finest ladies of St. Petersburg’s elite without batting an eyelid, except to flirt with them. Yet this tender slip of a girl could make his feet feel too big and his shoulders too broad just by turning her head on that neck of hers and letting her velvet brown eyes study him for a moment too long. There was a music in her movements that made others clumsy, even in the way she had uncoiled from the filthy floor of the sleigh and settled on the seat beside him. As smooth as the breath of a summer breeze on the Neva.
The door was opened by a liveried footman who showed him into the reception hall. Impressive indeed. Jens glanced around at the gilt chandelier and the marble statues that lined the niches in the walls. Russians loved to display their wealth as ostentatiously as peacocks unfurl their gaudy tails.
“Miss Valentina is engaged at present. In the blue salon.”
The footman was a wiry fellow with a narrow face and extraordinarily large hands. Jens passed him his card.
“Please inform her that I am here.”
The footman vanished. So she was engaged at present. Maybe a friend from school? It was the custom for the ladies of St. Petersburg to drive around to each other’s houses in the morning handing out their visiting cards, and then to call on each other in the afternoon for tea, followed by a string of engagements and parties in the evening. It was nothing for a woman to change her dress six or eight times in one day. Jens thought about Valentina’s words in the moonlight: I want… more. He couldn’t blame her. But nursing? That was a different matter.
“Miss Valentina will see you now.”
He entered the blue salon. Presumably it must have been furnished in blue, but he didn’t notice. All he saw was Valentina: her slender form seated on a brocade sofa, hands quiet in her lap, her back straight, too straight. He had the feeling something was making her uncomfortable. Was it his intrusion? Yet she smiled at him, rose to her feet, and held out her hand.
“How kind of you to call.”
Her manner was formal, as though she’d never been curled up against his chest on an icy road in the dark.
“I hope I find you well.”
“Very well, thank you,” she responded. “Though I’ve felt the cold these last few days.”
Her dark eyes held his for a moment longer than necessary, and there was that teasing spark in them before she lowered her lashes and turned away with a rustle of silk.
“Let me introduce you to Captain Stepan Chernov.”
Only then did Jens notice the other occupant of the room. A fair-haired captain of the Hussar Guards, a broad handsome face with a confidence that came from having killed people. Jens had seen it before in the military, that belief in their own invincibility after they’d fought in battle and survived. But today there was no stink of blood on him, and he made an impressive figure in his immaculate uniform and highly polished boots. Jens bowed politely and thought about putting him to work in one of his tunnels. Dirty him up a bit.
Valentina smiled at the captain. “This is Jens Friis. He’s an engineer. I believe you met each other at the ball the other night.”
“Did we?” Captain Chernov asked. “I don’t recall.”
“Apparently so,” Jens replied. “The halls were crowded.”
But they both remembered. Jens could see it in the other man’s eyes. That moment when Jens had arrived bearing lime cordial and had whisked Valentina away from under the captain’s nose. Chernov had not forgotten.
They sat down in high-backed chairs and a maid served them tea in paper-thin porcelain cups with ornate gold rims. Doll’s cups. Jens could have crushed his in his hand. Valentina guided the conversation down safe paths; she talked about the latest restaurant on Nevsky, then invited gossip about Prince Felix Yusupov, heir to the richest family in Russia, who had just returned from Oxford University to the Moika Palace. She touched on Kschessinska’s latest performance at the ballet. But she was bored. Jens could see it in the stiffness of her shoulders. So he was interested when she turned on Chernov with wide innocent eyes.
“Tell me, Captain, do you hunt?”
A simple question, although Jens heard the undertone in her voice. But the captain was young and had not yet learned to listen to what women say behind their words.
Chernov leaned forward, balancing the ridiculous cup on his knee. “I do.” He gave her a broad smile, anticipating her approval. “I was in the tsar’s hunting party last year with the American ambassador.”
“Wasn’t that the hunt when half the forest was slaughtered?” Jens asked mildly.
“Yes.” Chernov nodded at Valentina, unaware of what was happening. “Eighty stags and a hundred and forty wild boar. Not a bad day’s haul. I have a pair of magnificent antlers on my barracks’ wall from one of the animals I downed.”
“How clever of you,” Valentina said.
The moment stalled. Too late the captain sensed he had been tripped up. Leaving Chernov to wallow in his blood-splattered hole, Jens stretched out his long legs and contented himself with studying the way Valentina’s hair tumbled in gleaming ripples around her shoulders. Darker than the night sky. Swept back at the sides by pearl clips, her ears just visible, soft fragile shells.
“Do you hunt, sir?” Chernov asked in an attempt to drag Jens in with him.
“No, I don’t, Captain.” Jens decided to help his companion dig a little deeper. “But I’d be interested to know what kind of rifle you favor?”
Valentina’s dark eyes flicked to Jens and she tilted one eyebrow at him. But before either of them could learn the secrets of the captain’s preference, the door opened and Elizaveta Ivanova walked in, elegant in pale blue crepe de Chine. Both men rose to their feet.
“Captain Chernov”-she held out her hand-“my husband is free to see you now. He’s in his study. Let me show you the way.”
But the captain delayed her. “Before I leave, with your permission, I’d like to invite Valentina to a display of Hussars’ swordsmanship next Friday afternoon.” He turned to Valentina and bowed with such style, Jens wanted to chop off his knees. “I’d be honored if you would attend the event.”
“Of course she will,” her mother enthused. “Your displays are legendary. Fine demonstrations of skill… and danger. I’m sure my daughter will be impressed by them.”
“Madam Ivanova.” Jens stepped forward. She was small like her daughter and he towered over her despite the height of her fair hair, braided on top of her head. “Valentina has agreed to a previous engagement for next Friday afternoon.”
“Oh? What might that be?”
“I came today to confirm it. An inspection of the tsar’s commissioned engineering works. It’s an official tour and Tsar Nicholas himself will be there, as well as Minister Davidov and his wife.”
He saw Valentina’s eyes grow wider. “How wonderful.”
Her mother frowned.
The captain scowled at Jens. “Not a suitable amusement for a young lady, surely.”
“And watching men pretend to stab each other is?” Valentina asked.
“I’m sure you would not want to disappoint Tsar Nicholas,” Jens addressed her mother. “He was enchanted by your daughter when she played the pianoforte for him at the concert. A great credit to you.”
He saw her waver.
“With a chaperone, of course,” he added.
He heard Valentina draw breath.
“Very well,” her mother conceded reluctantly. “She will have to wait till another occasion for a display of swordsmanship. But come now, Captain Chernov, my husband is waiting to speak with you. In the meantime,” she said briskly to Jens, “I wish you good afternoon, sir.”
She escorted both men from the salon, but as the door was closing behind them a light burst of laughter skipped through the gap.
VALENTINA STOOD ON THE CURB AND EYED ST. ISABELLA’S Hospital with excitement. It was larger than she’d expected and its pale stone was blackened with age, flaking like an old man’s skin. Its tall windows were barred with rusty iron strips, but not even that discouraged her. The cold was intense, and she tucked her hands into her muff.
To be a nurse you need to be tough.
That was what he had said. She straightened her shoulders, pushed open the door, and walked into a large vestibule that smelled of disinfectant and something else, something unpleasant, something that made her stomach flip over. The interior was large and gloomy with too much brown paint. Corridors led off to places she couldn’t even imagine. On one side was an office with a glass hatch that slid from side to side, and behind it a woman sat in residence. Her fingers rippled a coin over her knuckles as Valentina approached.
“Dobriy den, good afternoon.” Valentina offered a smile but didn’t receive one in return. “I am looking for someone to speak to about nurse training.”
“You want to hire a trained nurse?”
“No. I want to find out how to become a nurse.”
“Well, you need to send the girl in herself. Our medsestra, our Sister, will want to speak to her directly.”
“It’s for myself,” Valentina pointed out. “I’m the one.”
“You want to become a nurse?”
The woman turned away and busied herself with some paperwork. Valentina assumed she was searching for a form but then noticed the narrow shoulders shaking. She felt her cheeks flush crimson.
“Is there someone I should speak to?”
“Up that corridor there. Third door on the left. Gordanskaya is the name.”
“Thank you,” she said. “Spasibo.”
“Girl, you want some advice?”
“Don’t waste your time.”
“Eighteen,” she lied.
“Do you have your parents’ permission to be here?”
“Do you have any nursing experience?”
“My sister is paralyzed. I help take care of her.”
“Have you had a job before?”
“I worked in an office.”
“Why did you leave?”
“I found it dull.”
“So you think nursing won’t be dull?”
“It will be more interesting than filling out forms all day.”
Medsestra Margharita Gordanskaya threw down her pen on the desk, leaned her bulk against the backrest of her chair until the wooden frame creaked, and narrowed her eyes so that her fleshy cheeks threatened to swallow them.
“Get out of here,” she said in a crisp voice. It bounced off the walls of the small room.
Valentina stood her ground. “Why? Don’t you need more nurses?”
“Of course we do. We’re desperate for them. But not like you.”
“What’s wrong with me?”
“Everything. So go.”
“Please tell me why.”
The narrow eyes popped open. Brown and humorless. “You’re a liar, for a start. The only truth in that pack of rubbish you told me was your name and the bit about your sister.”
“I learn fast.”
“Tell me, what’s wrong with me?”
The medsestra shook her head, making her roll of chins surge alarmingly. “Look at you in your finery. You’re a rich young woman with too much time on your hands and nothing to do. You’ll tire of nursing in five minutes. Please don’t waste my time.”
Valentina had worn her plainest dress. Her oldest coat.
“I won’t tire of it,” she insisted.
“I cannot afford to waste the hard-pressed resources of this hospital on training the likes of you.” Gordanskaya rose to her feet. Her starched uniform fought a momentary battle to contain the swing of her impressive bosom and won. “Now, for the last time, young woman, please take your fancy clothes and your fancy ideas out of my office.”
Valentina looked down at her sable muff, at the way her fingers were squeezing the life out of it. Without a word, she walked out.
ARKIN LAY FLAT ON HIS STOMACH ON THE WET GROUND, his coat stuck to him, his attention fixed on the empty horizon. He’d brought along three young apprentices from the Raspov foundry, one with a handcart, all of them eager as puppies. He was glad of their company. The job wasn’t hard, but it was risky. The train had to slow in exactly the right place to offload its cargo or they would be spotted. He’d chosen a section of rail track that was dead straight so that no one in the front carriages could look behind. Here the pine forest crept close on one side, its dense trunks offering easy cover. The wind swirled through the branches above their heads, gusts dislodging frozen icicles that fell into the snow beneath with a thud that made them all jump.
A puff of smoke billowed on the horizon. Arkin felt his pulse kick. Beside him the youngest of the apprentices raised his head and grinned. Arkin nudged him.
“Keep down, Karl. Be patient.”
“If the wrong stoker is on board, he won’t be able to stop.”
“It’s arranged. Trust them.”
Karl nodded but with a frown. He was a boy of sixteen with a lion’s mane of sandy hair whose father was the engine driver on the train. His enthusiasm for every task was so infectious that Arkin slapped the boy’s bony shoulder affectionately. “Don’t worry, your father can handle this.”
“Of course he can.”
The noise of the steam engine pumped through the chill air, raising a string of crows from the trees. Their ragged calls sounded a warning and Arkin’s mind was caught by a moment’s fear. Not for himself, but for the boy. The birds seemed to cry Karl, Karl. No. Omens were for the weak-minded.
The growl of the engine grew louder with the endless grinding of pistons, and suddenly it was in full view, steaming toward them down the track. Arkin turned his head and checked on the other apprentices farther back among the trees with the handcart, two pale young faces in the twilight of the forest. He signaled. Keep down. There was a screech of metal and a hiss of brakes that grated on his nerves. He tasted soot in his mouth. Slow and cumbersome, the train drew to a halt and it took only seconds for Arkin to leap from his position, open the heavy sliding door of the last wagon, and seize the small crate that was being pushed toward him.
The boy kept guard. He watched for anybody fool enough to come looking. The crate was manhandled into the cart and immediately the two apprentices started to haul it back to the dark cave of trees. The wagon door slammed shut, and the train started to move. Only at the last moment did the window of the next carriage fly open and a rifle spit out a single bullet before Arkin yanked Karl away from the track. They raced for the trees. Blood dripped like crimson flowers on the snow at their feet.
“Are you hurt?” Arkin shook the boy, worried.
“No, but you are.”
Arkin blinked, then felt the sting of pain. He put a hand to his ear and his fingers came away painted scarlet. He laughed and wiped it on his trousers. “It’s nothing. A scratch. Now let’s see you shift this cart.”
They all stole away through the trees with the precious crate, their breath coiling in front of them. Arkin thanked Morozov’s God that this time the crows had been wrong.
THE FOG WAS THICK AND WAYWARD. IT TWINED ITS fingers around Arkin’s neck and clutched at his face, leaving his skin damp and chill. He urged the ugly brute of a horse under him to a faster pace, but it had a mind of its own and paid no heed. It chose its own pace. Like it chose its own path. The creature belonged to Liev Popkov, so what else did he expect of the damn thing? The village appeared on the side of the road with no warning, gray and ghostly, sliding in and out of sight as the fog curled around the wooden cottages. Arkin could hear the drag of an unseen river somewhere nearby as he rode past a blacksmith’s forge where a furnace was belching out scorched air. He called down to the man in the leather apron.
“The priest’s house?”
“At the far end.” The man drew a cross in the dirt floor with the fiery tip of the metal spike in his hand. “Can’t miss it.”
Arkin didn’t miss it. Above its door loomed a large iron crucifix painted white that seemed to leap out of the fog as if to seize him by the scruff.
“Stop here, you brute,” he grunted, tightening the reins, and for once the creature did as it was told. He swung quickly from the saddle, a burlap bag over his shoulder, and rapped on the door.
“Vkhodite,” a small voice called out. “Come in.”
Arkin opened the door. The smell of lingering damp mingled with scents of cooking and burning pine cones. It reminded him of that feeling he used to have as a child in his own village-that the outdoors was always in danger of slipping indoors if he left a window open. He closed the door behind him now, shutting out the fog.
The place was sparsely furnished: a couple of poloviki, handmade rugs, on the floorboards; a few rough chairs; a woven basket that looked like a dog’s bed in front of the fire. Disheveled stacks of books in one corner. There was no sign of Morozov. But across the room a young girl of no more than four or five was perched on a wooden stool, frying onions in a skillet on the stove. She shook the pan expertly to prevent burning while she regarded Arkin with large blue eyes that were speculative rather than welcoming. Her hair was striking. It fell in a long straight sheet halfway down her back, so pale it looked almost silver.
“Hello,” he said and smiled.
She didn’t return the smile. “My father is busy,” she said.
She picked up a kitchen knife that was far too big for her small hand and started chopping garlic on a board beside her. It was oddly disturbing to see such a young child performing these tasks with the ease of long habit, but Arkin recalled that Morozov’s wife was dead and this tiny mite of a girl had clearly taken on her role.
“May I speak with your father?” he asked. “It’s important.”
Her attention turned away. He was of less interest than her onions, but she pointed with the knife blade toward a door at the back of the room. He walked over and lifted the latch. Instantly he regretted it. In the middle of the cold bare bedroom a man with head bowed was kneeling on the floor stripped to the waist, flagellating his back with a small whip. Each of its five tongues of rawhide had a tight knot at the end, and each knot was tinged with crimson. The man was Father Morozov.
“Excuse me,” Arkin said quickly and withdrew.
In the outer room he sat down on one of the wooden chairs and waited.
“I told you he was busy,” the girl said.
“Yes, you were right.”
He’d never have believed it of the priest. What the hell was Morozov thinking? Day after day he was fighting to relieve the pain of others, and yet at the same time he deliberately inflicted it on himself. It sickened Arkin. He sat in silence until the bedroom door opened and the priest walked in, fully clothed in his cassock, the usual gentle smile on his face. Arkin looked for the self-satisfaction such penitence must bring but saw none.
“Hello, Viktor, I’ve been thinking of you. Was the delivery of the grenades a success?” He sat down with no sign of discomfort, physical or mental, though he must have heard Arkin enter his room.
Arkin smiled despite himself. “Yes, that’s why I’ve come. The crate is hidden in Sergeyev’s bathhouse at the moment, but it’s not safe there. His place is probably being watched. We have to move it quickly.”
“The grenades themselves? In good condition?”
In response Arkin reached into his burlap bag and extracted its contents: a short canister with a metal handle attached and a box of ammunition. He passed them across to the priest, who inspected them carefully.
“German military equipment is always the best,” he commented.
The crate had been smuggled across borders, adding to the stockpile of arms. When the moment came they would be ready. The armaments were spread around St. Petersburg and moved regularly, some buried in pits deep within the city, which meant if one cache was discovered, the rest were still safe. Precautions were always necessary, infiltrators a constant danger. Arkin constantly had to fight his irritation at the slow pace of the glorious revolution.
Unexpectedly Arkin thought of Valentina Ivanova in the car. Get us out of here, that was what she’d said. Imperious, yes, but it was the us that stuck in his mind. Not me, but us. It was Katya, the little cripple, she wanted to save, her loved one. He despised all that the Ivanov family stood for. Exploitative capitalists. But he couldn’t help a grudging respect for the older sister. He recognized in her the same single-minded determination that stirred and breathed in himself.
“Trotsky has agreed to come and talk to us,” he informed the priest.
“So we will need the church hall.”
“I’ll arrange it.”
“I must leave now. The minister wants me to drive him to his mistress’s party this evening.” Outside, the fog had thickened.
“Here.” The little child jumped off her stool and thrust at him a hefty slice of black bread covered in fried onions. “My name is Sofia.”
“Spasibo,” he said, surprised, and took a bite. It tasted hot, full of spices and garlic. “Wonderful, thank you.”
“What’s wrong with your ear?” she asked solemnly.
The bottom of Arkin’s left earlobe had been shot off by the rifle bullet from the train and was covered in a thick black scab.
“Nothing much. Just a scratch. What’s a little pain?” His gaze met the priest’s, and for that moment they understood each other better.
“My father says pain is how we learn.”
“Then the whole of Russia is going to learn, Sofia.”
He finished off the bread and onions, swung up into the saddle, and cantered back into the swirling fog. Within seconds he had become invisible, one thought still pulsing in his mind. The whole of Russia is going to learn.
VALENTINA HURRIED THROUGH ALEXANDER SQUARE, shadows rolling across her face as a fitful wind herded the clouds across the sky.
Nothing was ever easy.
She’d traipsed around three other hospitals and the response was the same. You’re too wealthy. You’re too well educated. You’re not right. Yet she could roll bandages with her eyes closed and already knew all the bones in the body, as well as the pressure points and arterial system.
You need to be tough. She took Jens’s visiting card from her pocket and looked again at the address. She would walk. She asked the way twice but even so, at one point she found she’d taken a wrong turn and wandered into a quiet side street with a white-faced church up ahead. A golden cross on its dome cast a long shadow on the road. A group of men huddled over a brazier at the far end as though waiting for something. As she was passing the church, a young man came out of it in a hurry and hoisted up two sacks from a handcart parked outside.
“Arkin. What on earth are you doing here?”
She might as well have stuck a knife in the chauffeur’s ribs. He jerked back and stumbled under the weight he was carrying, dropping one of the sacks. As it hit the ground, the side of it split and two potatoes rolled out.
She stared at the sack. Arkin stared at her.
“Why are you here?” he asked quickly.
“I have taken a wrong turn.”
“It seems to me you have no idea where you’re going.”
He said it not with his chauffeur’s face. This one had hard lines and arrogant edges. His words froze in the icy air between them, and she wanted to push them back into his mouth. She crouched suddenly, picked up the two potatoes, and held them out to him.
“Yours, I believe.”
She waved a hand at the sacks. “What are you doing with these?”
“I’m helping Father Morozov.”
She glanced at the church. “Is he the priest here?”
“Yes. He distributes food among the poor.”
She could feel his eyes on her, curious. “I’m trying to find my way to the main road. Would I do better to retrace my steps?” she asked.
“That’s up to you. You can go on, or you can go back to what is familiar.” It seemed that he wasn’t talking about the road. Still, he pointed over her shoulder. “The main road is back that way.”
As she started to leave, he lifted up the sacks, one under each arm, and strode back inside the church, unaware that he was leaving a trail of potatoes behind him. She watched him disappear, then picked up each potato and marched into the church. The air was colder, the entrance hall cramped. In front of her stood a set of ancient wooden doors leading into the body of the church, but to her left lay a short passageway that ended in stone stairs going down. A potato lay on the top step.
She descended soundlessly. The stairs wound down into an underground room, dim and cavernous with a vaulted ceiling and the smell of damp stonework so strong it slapped her in the face. Men’s voices rose from rows of seats lined up in front of an unoccupied table. The men had their backs to her.
“All they want to do is talk. Talk and more talk. I’m sick of it,” someone said.
“I’m with you on that, Oleg. We’ve had enough of words. It’s time for more action.”
“Stop complaining.” Arkin’s voice. “We all want to see more action. He’s coming to address us today and then we’ll be able to find out what plans he’s-” He stopped.
He’d seen her. All eyes followed his gaze, and she heard the rumble of annoyance as they became aware of her presence.
“You forgot the rest of your potatoes.” She held out her handful to him.
The men’s eyes crawled over her. Scarves were pulled tighter, obscuring faces. She noted that the sacks had been dumped on the table, the split one spilling its lumpy contents like a gutted pig, but under the potatoes lay something that bore no resemblance to a vegetable, something angular swaddled in black cloth. Arkin was approaching her fast.
“My dear girl, let me relieve you of those.”
The voice came from behind her. She spun around and found a black figure standing over her on the bottom stair.
“Thank you,” she muttered and thrust the potatoes at him.
“This is Father Morozov.” Arkin had reached her side. “What on earth are you doing down here? I thought you’d left.”
“Brother,” the priest said in a warm voice intended to smooth the edges off Arkin’s rudeness, “that is no way to welcome our visitor.” He inspected her face with thoughtful eyes and fingered his beard as if it were an aid to decision. He was clothed in a rough black cassock and a tall battered black hat, a brass crucifix pinned to his chest just below the straggling ends of his beard. “You are welcome to join us, whoever you are, my dear. We are gathered here to join in prayer for our country in these troubled days and to ask our dear Holy Father for guidance and wisdom.”
No sound came from behind but she could sense them watching her. The priest’s face was as lined as the skin of an old apple, but she didn’t think he was any older than her own father. She smiled at him. Her cheeks felt stiff.
“Thank you, but I must leave now. I just wanted to bring you the potatoes that were dropped outside.”
It sounded stupid even to her own ears. So when he stood aside, she scampered up the stairs quickly. The men from the brazier parted to let her through, and she walked at a brisk pace to the end of the road. Aware of their eyes on her, she wondered who was coming to address them today. And what plans he had.
THE FRONT DOOR BANGED SHUT, ALERTING VALENTINA. A wave of chill air from outside ruffled the calm on the upstairs landing, and she ceased pacing. Instead she peered over the balustrade and inspected the floor below. Unaware of her above him, Jens was taking the stairs two at a time, the light from the gas lamp spiraling down onto his fiery hair. His hand flew up the banister rail, quick and purposeful. Did he always arrive home from work like this? So possessed by life?
He stopped and darted a look upward. The moment he saw her, something shifted in his eyes. His mouth opened as if he were about to say something, but he didn’t. He bounded up the last stair and came forward until he was almost close enough for her to touch. His eyes scanned her face.
“Is something wrong?” he asked quickly.
“No. I just need to talk to you.”
Still, that gaze on her face.
“How did you get in here? Like a magic fairy you materialize outside my apartment door.”
She laughed. Saw his eyes watch her mouth.
“Your concierge let me in. I told him I was your cousin.”
He smiled. “Did he believe you?”
“I think so. He said I could wait up here on the landing in the warm instead of out on the sidewalk.”
“Then the dolt is more stupid than I thought.”
“Because you’re far too beautiful to be any cousin of mine.”
The words caught her off guard. He didn’t laugh when he said them, just tossed them out into the quiet dusty air and walked past her to unlock the door of his apartment. The building was an old one with ornate plaster moldings and a baroque extravagance of carvings and cornices, but it was tired now, its glory days behind it. Even the air tasted old and velvety, as though it had been breathed in by too many people over too many years. Valentina found it appealing that a man with such modern ideas chose to live in such an old-fashioned apartment house.
He opened the door with a flourish. “Would you care to step inside?”
She shook her head. “I think I’d better not.”
“Of course.” He inclined his head courteously. “We wouldn’t want to compromise your reputation, would we?”
He was laughing at her beneath that polite manner of his.
“Maybe,” she said with a flick of her dark hair, “it would be permissible… as your cousin, you understand.”
The green eyes grew greener. “As my cousin,” he echoed.
She walked past him into the apartment.
IT WAS LIKE NO OTHER ROOM SHE’D BEEN IN. THE FURNITURE was all pale honey-blond with such plain straight lines that for a moment she thought it was unfinished. The floor, made of sanded pine boards, was strewn with colorful rugs, and in front of the fire lay a large long-haired fur rug, as creamy as a dish of milk. On the walls were hung framed pictures of reindeer in snowy landscapes. It was hard not to stare.
“So, cousin, may I offer you tea?”
“No, Jens, thank you. I mustn’t stay long.”
He took both her gloved hands in his and studied them. “Such small hands.” His finger touched her palm. “Yet so much talent in them.”
She shook her head. Her lungs felt as if they were overheating.
“So,” he said, “what is it you need to talk to me about?” He didn’t release her.
“You said you have a friend who is a doctor.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“I need his help.”
His grip on her hands tightened. “Are you ill?”
“No, nothing like that.”
“What kind of help then?”
So she told him. About the hospitals. It all came rushing out, the scornful eyes across the desks, the rejections. She told him that all of them regarded her as unsuited to nursing. Despite needing nurses, none of them trusted her.
“Not even my own family doctor will help.”
She told Jens how angry it had made her and how she’d wanted to put her head down on the table and shout with frustration, but instead she’d walked all the way across town to this tree-lined avenue and waited for him. He listened without interruption, and when she’d finished he didn’t tell her to give it up. That was what she’d feared, that his voice would join all the others, would try to wrest her future out of her fingers without realizing how important it was to her. But he didn’t.
“Come,” he said briskly. “We’ll go and speak to Dr. Fedorin.”
“Spasibo. Thank you.”
“He will help. Even if it means I have to promise to let him beat me at cards for the next month. But”-he leaned closer and studied her face intently-“are you sure this is what you want?”
She nodded. “I’m sure.”
“Very well. Let’s go and talk to the old quack.”
“May I have my hands back?”
He glanced down at them, surprised. As if they were somehow his now.
“If you must.” He raised one to his lips and gave her a formal bow over it. “To the future of Sanitarka Ivanova.”
She was finding it hard not to love this man.
DR. FEDORIN WAS SEATED ON THE FLOOR OF HIS DRAWING room playing cards with his five-year-old daughter when they arrived, scratching at his whiskers in an effort to concentrate.
“Excuse me if I don’t get up. My little Anna is thrashing me.”
The child grinned up at them, holding her cards pressed against her small chin. “I let Papa win one game.” But she crowed with delight when he played his last card and she promptly trumped it. Her eager little hands scooped up the pile of sugared almonds with which they had been betting and Jens laughed, ruffling her feathery blond hair.
“Anna, your father is the worst card player in Petersburg and you are going to be one of the best.”
She popped an almond in her father’s mouth, patted his cheek consolingly, and scampered off to the window seat with her winnings. The doctor ordered wine to be served.
“Now what can I do for you?” He inspected his guests with interest.
“This is Valentina Ivanova,” Jens introduced her. “She needs your help, my friend. She wishes to train as a nurse but the hospitals have turned her down as unsuited.”
“Are you?” the doctor addressed Valentina.
“Am I what?”
“Unsuited to the task.”
“Maybe that judgment is not yours to make.”
The words sounded harsh, but she didn’t object. How could she object to anything said by this man who, in his olive green trousers, sat sprawled like a long-legged grasshopper on the floor with his daughter and let her beat him at cards? She didn’t know fathers did that.
“Let me tell you why I believe I am suited to nursing. I have helped nurse my paralyzed sister for the past six months. I have learned the anatomy of the human body, and”-she cast about for something else that would decide it for him-“I play the piano.”
He blinked. She smiled. “I’ll teach your daughter to play ‘Für Elise’ right now.”
Against the far wall of the room stood an upright piano with books piled on top of its lid, obviously never opened. The child abandoned her sugared almonds and stood stiff as a soldier, holding her breath.
“My wife used to play,” the doctor said softly. “The piano hasn’t been touched since.”
“I am sorry about your wife, Doktor. I would be proud to play her piano and to teach her daughter. Is it a deal?”
His gaze lingered longingly on the mahogany piano stool where his wife used to sit. He nodded.
Anna skipped across the room to remove the books.
THANK YOU, JENS.”
He had driven her home in his carriage, but they had spoken little as the skies darkened and the lights on the bridges sprang into life. Winter afternoons were short-lived in St. Petersburg. Jens and Valentina stood on the gravel drive outside her house, their shadows shuffling awkwardly side by side. The words for good-bye wouldn’t come.
“I am looking forward to the visit to your tunnels on Friday,” she said brightly. The darkness stole parts of his face from her. “It will be exciting to see what you have engineered.”
The way he said it. It wasn’t right.
“Is there a problem?”
“Nothing I can’t deal with.”
She caught a glimpse of the weight he had to carry on his broad shoulders, the expectations he had to fulfill.
“It’s a responsibility, isn’t it?” she murmured. “Each day.”
“You will find the same when you’re nursing.”
“I look forward to it.”
That brought a smile at last. “I can’t wait to see you in your uniform.”
She laughed, but she could feel something wrong, like a knot in a smooth-running thread. “Thank you anyway for saving me from a fate too awful to contemplate. I would have died of tedium if I’d had to spend an afternoon watching grown men play with swords.”
“Epées. Not swords.”
She shrugged. “Both are boring.”
“And tunnels aren’t?”
“No, tunnels definitely aren’t. They have a purpose.”
He took a small step back. Away from her.
Her pulse slowed. She waited.
“Valentina, what did that Hussar want to speak to your father about?”
“Yes, Captain Chernov.”
“He’s nothing to me. Forget him.” She trailed her fingers through the crisp air as though to flick any trace of him from their tips. No stars to gaze at. No moon.
“It’s not hard to guess what he wanted to speak to your father about. You.”
“He’s nothing to me,” she said again, more deliberately this time, and she stepped forward. “I will have nothing to do with Captain Chernov. Nothing.”
His fingers cradled her chin, tilting it directly into the beam of lamplight from above the door. “You promise?”
“I’ll hold you to that.”
She wanted to say, Hold me. Just Hold me.
The sound of a car’s engine rumbled its way into the silence, and the crunch of wheels dug into the gravel. Her father had arrived home.
“Valentina,” Jens said in a low voice, releasing her chin, “don’t let others decide your life for you.”
The car door banged and her father came striding toward them. Valentina’s eyes caught those of the chauffeur sitting in the driver’s seat in his uniform, observing her sharply, but she turned her head away as though he were invisible.
“Good evening to you, sir.” Jens gave a courteous bow to her father and received a curt nod in response. Wrapped in his thick fur coat, General Ivanov resembled a bear lumbering into its den as he threw open the front door with a grunt of satisfaction.
“Inside, Valentina. Now, please. I wish to have a word with you.”
He walked into the house without waiting for a reply. She stood where she was until the car moved away toward the garage at the back of the house, and for a brief moment they were alone again.
“Jens,” she said, “don’t forget what I have promised you.”
“No,” he said in that low voice that burrowed under her skin, “I won’t forget. Have nothing to do with him.”
She nodded, and in the slash of light from the doorway she saw his mouth curve into what might have been a smile. But now he was out of reach. She watched him move with long easy strides toward his carriage, and the horse whinnied a soft welcome. Valentina knew she couldn’t stop the words that had to come next.
He halted. The lamplight caught the edge of his jaw and a twist of his hair.
“Jens, will you do the same?”
“What do you mean?”
“What about the woman who wears green gowns and who sinks hooks into you with her eyes? The one who walks as if she owns the world.”
He frowned. “Countess Serova?”
“Ah yes, she looks like a countess. That one.”
“What about her?”
“Will you have nothing more to do with her?”
She heard his intake of breath.
“Will you?” she insisted.
He started to return to her, one hand extended, palm up, the way he would hold out an apple to a horse. “It’s complicated,” he explained, “not so easy to…”
“I see.” She clamped her teeth together.
“No, you don’t see at all. I do promise that I will have nothing to do with her in the way that you mean, but I still have to visit her because… Valentina, don’t…”
It was too late. She had vanished into the house.
IT’S COMPLICATED. WHAT DID HE MEAN BY THAT? How could he still be intending to visit Countess Serova? Surely he realized that…
“Valentina,” her father was saying, “I want to start by stating that I have good news for you.”
He was going to agree to the nursing. She relaxed and gave him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Papa.”
“You’ve met Captain Stepan Chernov?”
“A handsome man, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
Valentina nodded. She was trying to be agreeable. She had not forgotten Number 4 on her list. Make Papa forgive me.
“His father is Count Chernov,” he expanded, “head of one of the most distinguished families in Petersburg. The captain is an extremely wealthy young man. Are you aware of this?”
“Mama mentioned it to me.”
“I want you to marry him.”
The words cut her. Razor sharp.
“Papa.” She didn’t shout. Didn’t beg. Instead she spoke quietly. “I don’t intend to marry anyone. I intend to take care of Katya.”
For a moment he wouldn’t look at her. “Captain Chernov has asked my permission to pay his attentions to you. It is a great honor.” His cheekbones were working, as if he were chewing on something hard. “I don’t want any more of this foolishness from you, Valentina. Your mother and I are in agreement about this. As your father, believe me, I know what is best for you. You will thank me when you are older.”
She stood immobile on the Persian rug. “Papa, I don’t wish to cross you, honestly I don’t, but neither do I wish to marry Captain Chernov. I’ve explained that…”
Color rose to his cheeks in a dark flush, and his heavy brows bunched together over disappointed eyes. She knew he felt she was letting him down.
“Please don’t disobey me, Valentina.”
“Or what, Papa? What will you do?” She tried to smile. “Horse-whip me?”
He walked over to her, put an arm around her shoulder and kissed the side of her head. “Thank you for saving Katya. Now I need you to do this for me. It’s as simple as that.”
HER ROOM WAS COLD BUT VALENTINA DIDN’T NOTICE. She slipped out of her clothes, dropping them on the floor, but she couldn’t slip out of her skin. She crawled into bed and pulled the quilt over her head. Shivers came.
As simple as that.
Nothing about this was simple. Not with her father and not with Jens.
“Jens, I made a promise to you. Nothing to do with him. I swore it to you.”
Outside the wind tapped at the window.
“So why, Jens,” she whispered, “why wouldn’t you make the same promise to me?”
She stilled her pulse, waiting for that low voice of his to murmur in her mind. Minutes ticked past but no voice came, so she threw off the quilt.
WHAT ARE YOU DOING OUT HERE?” Valentina jumped. “Nothing.”
She could just make out the looming bulk of Liev Popkov in the darkness. He was ten paces away, leaning against a wall of the house, and her eyes would not have picked him out of the dense layers of black if he hadn’t spoken.
“How long have you been standing there?” she asked.
“Spying on me? For my father?”
He grunted. She heard him spit.
They were outside on the gravel at the back of the house, where by day the sun barely reached at this time of year and by night it froze hard. Ice and snow bunched in treacherous ruts. Valentina was scraping them with a stick, prodding at them, sliding her gloved fingers over them. With great care she examined them inch by inch in the light that fell from the music room window. She wanted to ask Liev to help her but the words stuck in her throat, so she continued her search alone and in silence. For a full five minutes neither spoke.
“Looking for something?” he asked at last.
“What is it?”
“That’s my business.”
“It’s cold out here.”
She said nothing but continued to scrape at the ice. Another five minutes of silence.
“Is this what you’re looking for?”
Her head snapped up. He hadn’t moved from the spot but he was holding out his hand. She walked over, wary of the ice, and stared at his big paw. In the center of it lay something that gleamed, something metal. She snatched it from him, closed her fingers tight on it. It was the key to the piano.
He laughed, loud and boisterous.
She slapped his knee with her stick, then tossed it aside and started laughing with him. A strange isolated sound, their laughter echoed in the freezing folds of the night air.
“You bastard,” she said again.
And stalked back into the house.
VIKTOR ARKIN WATCHED POPKOV AMBLE BACK TO THE stables. He’d seen the big man skulking in the shadows for hours, indifferent to the snow and the raking wind, waiting to see if the girl would come in search of whatever it was she’d lost. He’d observed the way Popkov baited her, teased her till she lost her temper with him, and he envied the careless ease of it. As if Popkov didn’t give a damn. She’d called him a bastard but they had laughed. Together they had laughed. Arkin couldn’t work out why.
He felt awkward with women, tongue-tied and mystified by what it was they wanted to talk about. The women at his political meetings and on the committees were all vociferous and aggressive. Wanting to be men, it seemed to him. He sometimes felt the urge to talk to Valentina and her mother, to stop the car and really talk to them, to find out what was in their minds. There was something about Valentina that didn’t quite fit in. That was why she had startled him so much when she caught him unloading the ammunition in the church, because he had no idea how she would react. It was obvious she was suspicious, but would she voice her suspicions to her father? Would she ask him to call for the Okhrana?
He would have to be more careful, more than ever now. He walked silently back to the garage, let himself in, and closed the door behind him. His nerves tightened, but hardly anyone else came in here. It was safe. Always it was the same, this fire that was consuming him, this need to march forward into the new tomorrow. Impatience plucked and pulled at him, and he tried to quiet it by moving to the back of the garage behind the car. Against the wall he had arranged a tidy stack of cardboard boxes containing engine parts, oil cans, polishing cloths, spare tools, machine bits and pieces, all things that belonged in a garage. No one would suspect, no one would delve deeper.
Only he knew of the crate that lay at the bottom of the boxes. Only he knew what it contained.
NURSE SONYA WAS TO BE VALENTINA’S CHAPERONE FOR the afternoon. Her bulky figure sat upright on the seat in the Turicum in her best black coat and gloves, and Valentina noticed that her hat with its red velvet band was new.
“We are very privileged,” Nurse Sonya said, eyes bright. “To see the tsar.”
It was true. Valentina was acutely aware of that fact. But Arkin was sitting in front of her at the wheel of the car, and she wondered what thoughts were crowding through his proletarian brain. When the car drew up, the place wasn’t remotely as she had been expecting. She had imagined a wooden hut next to a giant hole in the ground and a rusty metal ladder fixed to the inside of the hole. She’d been nervous about climbing down and had abandoned most of her petticoats to make leg action easier. She wore a fox fur coat and hat at her mother’s insistence, as she would be in the presence of Tsar Nicholas, but underneath she’d chosen a simple wool dress with a high neck for warmth and a loose design for freedom of movement.
“Excited?” she asked the nurse as they stepped out of the car.
“To meet Tsar Nicholas will be one of the best moments of my life.” Nurse Sonya shook her head in astonishment. “I never thought I would live to see the day that I would receive such an honor.”
Arkin was standing beside the step to help her out of the car, and Valentina glanced up at his face. But she saw nothing there. He was wearing his usual bland expression, but she would bet her sable muff that he was listening to their conversation.
“Arkin,” she said.
“Yes, Miss Valentina.”
“When you have parked the car you may come back here to cheer the tsar when he arrives.” She looked straight into his impassive gray gaze. “If you wish.”
“Thank you, Miss Valentina.”
She gave him a small smile. A tiny victory in return for that rifle shot. Then she inspected the building they were about to enter. It wasn’t a wooden hut of any kind, quite the opposite in fact. It was an imposing three-story structure built of brick with an entrance framed by elaborate stonework. Most striking was the way its façade curved outward, as though imitating the curves of the tunnels that crept like thieves under the city’s streets. No giant holes in sight, not yet. No uniformed Cossacks either, the tsar’s personal bodyguards.
The doors swung open as she approached, and her pulse lost its rhythm when she saw Jens standing in the entrance. One hand was already stretched out toward her in greeting, as though impatient with the immaculate manners of the rest of him.
“Ladies, good afternoon, dobriy den. You have arrived. I thought you may have had second thoughts about coming out in this foul fog.”
Did he really think that she wouldn’t come?
He bowed over the older woman’s hand first and said, “You brighten my day, Nurse Sonya, with your glorious hat. It’s my pleasure to meet you.”
Her cheeks flushed. “This old thing. I thought its brim would protect me from any drips in the tunnels.”
“How perceptive of you,” he smiled.
Valentina wanted to snatch the nurse’s gloved hand from his, but when he finally turned to her she forgave him. Forgave him anything because he looked at her as if he had been waiting for this moment all day and counted the minutes all night. He let her see this, didn’t hide it from her. She thought that in today’s fog his eyes would be dull and colorless, but they shone as vivid as the first shoots of spring grass. He took her hand and for a moment she thought he was going to raise it to his lips, but he restrained himself. He bowed low over it instead, so that she saw the top of his head, the way his hair sprang from his scalp as though it had somewhere to go. She resisted the urge to touch it.
“Good afternoon, Jens,” she said quietly.
Their eyes held. Her fingers curled in his for a moment before she withdrew them.
“Is everyone here?” she asked him. “Ready for Tsar Nicholas’s arrival?”
His mouth tightened. “His Imperial Majesty has been unavoidably detained, I’m afraid. He will not be accompanying us on the tour of the engineering works after all.”
A squeal of disappointment came from Nurse Sonya. “Oh,” she said in a long, drawn-out sigh.
“I apologize for the unforeseen change of plan, but there are many calls on His Imperial Majesty’s time. Minister Davidov and his wife are here.”
“But no tsar?” the nurse wailed.
“Don’t be foolish, Nurse,” Valentina said sternly. “It’s the engineering accomplishment we have come to see. It will, I’m certain, make up for your disappointment.”
“Are you also disappointed, Valentina?”
It was Jens who asked, his question so sharp, so direct, it took her by surprise.
“I came to see the tunnels.”
“Then I’d better take you to them.”
He offered her his arm and they walked through the door together. There must have been an entrance hall and other people, but she didn’t notice them. She was aware only of the strong straight bones of his forearm under her hand and the warmth of his shoulder against hers.
The tunnels, she reminded herself. That’s why I’m here.
SHE’D BEEN WRONG ABOUT THE RUSTY LADDER. THEY’D descended in a heavy mechanical elevator, more suitable as an animal cage than a transporter of humans. The iron door slammed shut and Valentina’s stomach clung to the ground floor while the rest of her sank into the bowels of the earth. She’d greeted Madam Davidova, remembering her from the ball the other night, and been introduced to the other guests, but her thoughts were only with Jens and his tunnels.
They were distinctly menacing, The air underground smelled like a dead animal. Water dripped down the walls, and pockets of darkness hid from the string of lamps that looped along the arched roof.
There were twelve guests, including herself. Four officials from the project: an engineer, a surveyor, the foreman of the works, and lastly a water specialist. All of them moved through the tunnels as naturally as moles, ducking their heads without thinking when the rooflevel lowered, turning their faces automatically to one side when they passed an offshoot tunnel with its onrush of dank air.
Up in the entrance hall there had been speeches. Jens had given a talk on the aims of the project, on the need for drainage and sewer system to improve the health of the city. Two thousand dead last year, cholera rampant in the slums. So many millions of gallons pumped out each day. The low water table caused flooding because St. Petersburg was built on mosquito-infested marshes. So many million bricks, fired in Moscow and transported. A workforce that labored in twelve-hour shifts, night and day. Sewage pipes running arrow-straight all the way north to the Gulf of Finland.
Valentina stopped listening to his words. She stared at his mouth, watched the way his lips moved. He was wearing a leather hat that flattened his hair and thick rubber-soled boots that squelched through water, making slapping sounds. She liked the way everyone listened when he spoke, even the sour-faced Minister Davidov, and that when he eventually stopped speaking, he maneuvered himself into a position next to her.
“Interested?” he asked.
“I don’t believe you.”
She laughed. “Your achievement is spectacular,” she added. “You must be very proud.”
He nodded, smiling at her, examining her face. Nurse Sonya was busy in front of them conversing at length with Madam Davidova about the use of camphor in rooms to rid a house of stale smells. She was just turning to advocate its use underground to Jens, when a sound like the crust of the earth cracking open roared through the tunnel, ripping at eardrums. The ground splintered beneath Valentina’s feet.
Lights blacked out as people’s screams echoed, only to be swallowed by the crash of rocks and bricks spilling down from above. Valentina stumbled, caught up in the panic, and would have fallen if a hand had not seized her wrist and yanked her against a wall. She groped for direction in the darkness. Blind and choking on dust, she had the sense to keep her mouth shut.
“This way.” Jens’s voice at her side was harsh and angry.
He pulled her along behind him. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. Her ears hurt. She lowered her head as he dragged her into a smaller offshoot tunnel.
Valentina’s mind struggled. But she reached behind her, found someone else’s hand and pulled it along with her. Together the group stumbled forward. But ahead of her, even in the suffocating blackness, Jens seemed to know where he was heading, and his fingers had latched around her wrist tight as wire. He wasn’t going to let go of her. She clung to that single thought.
SILENCE. IT CAME IN THE END. THE SILENCE THAT ONLY exists underground. Jens knew it well, that total absence of sound. Sometimes he wondered if death was like this, not a burning raging hell but a cold and implacable absence. No life, no sound, no fresh air to breathe. A grinding ache gripped his skull. He lit a candle and only he saw the tremor in his hand. Around him he heard the whimpers of relief as the flame flickered into life. It was his rule never to venture underground without matches and a candle in his pocket.
“How many of us?” He counted heads. “Eight.”
Eight out of seventeen. Dear God! Minister Davidov was here and his wife, as well as Kroskin, the young surveyor. But no assistant engineer. No Prutz, the water specialist. Who else? He raised the candle higher, sending shadows scrambling through the thick dust-ridden air.
Valentina was here, crouched on the floor. For one sickening moment he feared she was hurt, but no, she was helping the nurse, both of them tending Kroskin, the young surveyor, who was stretched out on the damp ground. One of his trouser legs was shredded, and the flesh on his shin gleamed wetly. Two others stood trembling, a whiskered member of the Duma parliament and his wife. He was crying, deep hacking sobs, and she was rocking him in her arms, whispering sharp little instructions. “Hush, no tears, Jakob, hush now, wipe your eyes.”
“We’re going to die here.” His words came in short gasps.
Valentina raised her head. Her hat was gone, her dark hair coated in dirt. She turned steady eyes on Jens.
“Are we?” she asked. Just a straight question. “Are we going to die?”
All eyes fixed on him and Jens felt the weight of them as heavy as the layers of rock above their heads.
“No. Nyet. Of course not. Take a look at where we are. It’s what is called a passing chamber. Two sluice gates, one beside the other to channel and control the flow of water through the open gully over there.” He gestured into the darkness beyond the reach of the candle’s glow, and hot wax dripped onto his fingers. Keep talking. Keep crowding their minds with words to flush out their fears. “But over here”-he walked away from the huddle of figures-“on a hook, ready for emergencies, is this.”
He held up an oil lamp, like a magician producing a rabbit. He lit it from the candle flame and watched its light paint the ashen faces a sickly yellow. Their eyes grew rounder, no longer flat and stunned.
“We must give the aboveground engineers time to assess what has occurred,” he continued. “Everyone will be in shock up there at the moment, as we are down here.” He forced out a smile. “We’re safe here,” he told them. “Be thankful.”
“How do you know there won’t be another roof collapse any moment?”
It was Minister Davidov. Damn the man. Everyone scanned the curve of bricks three feet above their heads at its highest point, seeking cracks. Jens could smell their fear slinking around the chamber.
“The tunnel is strong and solid.”
“So strong it crashed down on us.” Davidov’s lean face was hollow with tension.
“What do you mean, Friis?”
“The tunnel did not collapse because it was weak.”
Valentina rose to her feet, a small figure in the gloom of the cavern. “There was an explosion. I heard it.”
“Don’t talk rubbish, young woman. The roof was weak. It crashed down on-”
“She’s right,” Jens cut in.
Such sharp ears. She was alert, she listened. Most people didn’t listen.
“What the fuck are you trying to-”
“Andrei,” Madam Davidova said pleasantly as she laid a firm hand on her husband’s arm, “not now. Let’s get through this the best we can. Leave the recriminations till later.” She looked around her and smiled. It wasn’t a particularly convincing smile, but it helped. The tension slid down a notch.
“Madam Davidova, what you say is true. We must remain calm. The most important thing now is to check on everyone’s wounds.” Jens walked over to Kroskin, the surveyor on the floor. The young man’s arms were curled across his chest to hold in the pain. “How bad is it?”
Kroskin grimaced. “I’ll live.”
“We’ll all live.”
The nurse nodded encouragement. “The flesh is stripped off one leg below the knee but fortunately the bone isn’t broken.” Already in her hands was one of her voluminous petticoats, pressed hard against the wound.
“Here.” Jens pulled a pocketknife from his belt.
Kroskin’s eyes widened.
“We’re not going to hack your leg off, boy,” Jens reassured him. “Just cut up bandages.” He placed a hand on the nurse’s shoulder. “Do your best,” he murmured. “Davidov, come and slice up some bandages here.”
He passed the knife to the minister.
“Any more wounds?”
No one spoke. He looked around at his companions, trapped in this alien nether world of near-darkness, and he was impressed by their fortitude. He felt a rush of respect for them, even for that bastard Andrei Davidov, who had set to work on the petticoat with quick efficient strokes.
“We’ve all got bangs and bruises, I know, but”-they weren’t going to like this-“if there’s nothing else major, I’m going to leave you.”
It was Valentina. He noticed a graze on her neck.
“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” she said.
“I have to.”
“Because there might be others who are wounded.”
Wounded. Crushed. Pinned under rocks. Bleeding and dying. Maybe already dead. Everyone saw images in their heads.
Valentina said quickly, “It’s too dangerous to go alone. Take someone with you.”
Take me with you. That was what she meant.
He glanced across the chamber. “You.” He pointed to the Duma man, the frailest of them. “You come with me.”
Valentina made a soft noise in her throat. This close he could see the dirt caked on her eyelashes. But he couldn’t take her. He didn’t know what mangled limbs they might have to tread on down there. He relit the candle and took hold of the Duma man’s elbow, steering him back toward the mouth of the tunnel. He could feel the man’s arm trembling.
“Wait!” Valentina stopped him. “Take the lamp, you’ll need it more than we will. Leave us the candle.” She removed the lamp from beside the wounded man and carried it to Jens. She held it out. “Take it.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Spasibo.”
He nodded. “Minister Davidov,” he called out, “watch out for the women.”
“Jens,” Valentina said in a low voice, “don’t you know that it is the women who watch out for you men?”
“So I should be taking you with me?”
“I know. No stars to look at this time.”
He couldn’t help a smile. Then he was gone, swallowed by the black tunnel so effortlessly that for a bleak moment he doubted his existence.
THE LIGHT, WHICH NOW HAD DWINDLED TO A MISERABLE candle flicker, made people more anxious, nervy as cats in a wolf cage. But for Valentina, the loss of him, that strong center of him, was the worst. Without Jens the chamber felt much emptier, the air fouler, the people smaller. The rescue that only minutes ago had seemed likely, abruptly became unlikely. She was frightened he wouldn’t come back.
She’d seen how he moved in the darkness as if he owned these tunnels, as if they were his, not the city’s. The way you own a house. And for the first time it hit her forcibly what this collapse of his beloved tunnels must mean to him. A groan came from the young surveyor, and she switched her thoughts. She had done all she could to make Kroskin comfortable after Nurse Sonya had finished binding his leg, but it wasn’t much. She had placed a scarf under his head and her fur coat over him, tucking it around him, trying to keep out the pain. His groans were muffled by the arm he had draped across his face and though she held his other hand between hers, he didn’t speak.
“Is your family here in Petersburg?” she asked.
He nodded, nothing more.
“I have a sister,” she told him softly. “Her name is Katya.” Katya, I’m not dead. Don’t believe them if they tell you I’m dead. And don’t be frightened for me. I’ll come back, I won’t abandon you, I promise. “She’s blond like you and loves to play cards. Do you have a sister?”
A nod again.
“What’s her name, your sister?”
Nothing. His shivers grew worse.
“They have safety systems,” she told him. “Rescue procedures. They’ll get us out of here, don’t worry.”
His arm fell from his face. “Is that true?”
“Of course it is.”
“She’s lying.” Davidov stood beside her, his sharp-angled shadow resting on her. “Just like she lied about hearing an explosion.”
“Why would I lie?” she demanded.
“To protect Friis. He’ll be hauled up for incompetence if we get out of here alive.”
She looked around at the others. “Did anyone else hear an explosion?”
Nurse Sonya shook her head. Madam Davidova was standing motionless, close to the candle on the floor as though nervous of leaving it. Its flame sent her shadow scuttling up the walls. She stared at her husband with a bemused expression. Only the Duma man’s wife, who had sunk down on her heels, nodded vehemently.
“I heard it,” she stated. “My ears still hurt from the blast. Don’t yours?”
“Yes,” Valentina said, and looked at Madam Davidova.
Slowly the minister’s wife nodded her head.
“An explosion,” Valentina repeated. She knew the sound. It had been blasted into her brain at Tesovo. “A bomb.”
The word splintered the fragile shell they had been sheltering under.
“Why would anyone attack the sewers?” Nurse Sonya whispered. Tears were running down her cheeks.
“It’s not the sewers,” Davidov snapped. “Are you too foolish to see the target?”
“The tsar,” Valentina stated bluntly. “They meant to kill the tsar.”
SHE WATCHED THE CANDLE, THE WAY THE HOT WAX pooled. Watched time burn. Still he didn’t return. She wanted to go after him. Instead she listened to the ever-present swirl and rush of water. She tried to assess the damage to the five faces huddled around the flame. It kept her mind off Jens’s absence.
Nurse Sonya was steady. She had seen death and damage before. Yes, there were tears, but her hands were steady as she tended her patient on the floor. The surveyor was crumbling. Sweating. Pain and fear too much for him. But Madam Davidova was harder to judge because she was schooled in self-control. Just a small crease between her eyebrows, pulled tight the way Mama did when she had a headache.
Mama? Don’t worry about me.
The Duma man’s wife was different. She couldn’t keep still. She sat, she stood, she paced, fingers fretting at her clothes, at her hair, at her throat. She was a thin woman. In the darkness she looked more like a shadow than a person. “The men have been gone a long time,” she said.
“Searching for others,” Valentina assured her. “It takes time.”
“But more rocks could fall.”
“We’d hear if they did. And, don’t worry, the men would shout to us.”
Davidov stepped between them. “We should not be too alarmed because we have among us someone who is the guarantee of our rescue.”
“Who?” the woman demanded.
Davidov directed his gaze at Valentina.
“Because you are about to become the jewel of St. Petersburg.”
“What do you mean, Andrei?” his wife asked.
He paid her no heed. “Is that not so, young lady?”
“Valentina Ivanova is about to marry,” he announced. “Into one of the finest families in the city.”
“No.” Valentina wiped her hands on her filthy skirts. “It’s a lie.”
“Your father himself informed me of the match. Congratulations, my dear. And because of you, the Chernov family will move heaven and earth-and rocks-to get you out of here. They’ll send the army in if necessary.”
Valentina felt the air around her change. Hope fluttered faintly. Eyes brightened and hearts beat faster.
“Do you have matches, Minister?” Valentina asked coolly.
He frowned. “Yes, I do.”
“The candle is disappearing fast. We should save it.”
“We must blow it out.”
THE DARKNESS WAS TOTAL. SHE LIKED IT THAT WAY. SHE could hide in it. She couldn’t believe she had ever been frightened of Jens’s tunnels.
Jens. Come back to us.
All six of them were seated on the cold ground in a circle, feet touching, so that all were anchored to each other. No one would feel that he or she had been cut adrift in the blackness, alone with the scurrying sound of rats slinking from tunnel to tunnel.
Valentina felt, rather than saw, the minister on her right lean close. “You are a bright and lovely creature, my dear,” he said under his breath, “far too intelligent to bow to the will of others when you so clearly have one of your own. Take this advice from an old campaigner. Use your weapons.”
“The greatest of all, my dear. Your beauty.”
“Do you know what the strongest weapon is?” she asked him in the pitch darkness. “One I will never possess.”
“Being born a man.”
He chuckled, low in his throat. She sensed him nodding acknowledgment that she was right.
WAS SHE DEAD? ARKIN WONDERED. He had asked himself that question a thousand times.
He didn’t want her dead. Or hurt. Or frightened. It shocked him how much he wanted her to be alive. Before this he had killed only strangers and always to further the cause, but this time it was different.
He glanced up at the window of her room, but she wasn’t there. He was waiting in the cold beside the Turicum outside the front door. Waiting. Half his damn life was spent waiting. When finally Minister Ivanov and his wife descended the steps, both wrapped in heavy furs, both stiff and silent with each other, they seated themselves on the blue leather and didn’t speak. They stared out at opposite sides of the street. It was a familiar routine, but it saddened Arkin that at a time like this, with their daughter missing, they couldn’t find something to hold them together. Was there so little left to their marriage?
As he drove, his mind replayed his conversation with Sergeyev.
“Tsar Nicholas is paying a visit to the new sewerage tunnels,” Arkin had told his friend. “This is our chance, Sergeyev.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. The nurse in our household can’t stop jabbering about it. She’s been invited along as chaperone to the older Ivanov daughter. It’s the perfect place for a trap.”
Sergeyev groaned. “Fuck this arm of mine. It means I’m no use to you. I’m not working underground again yet.”
Arkin had slapped him affectionately on his good shoulder. “No, my comrade, I know that. But your brother is.”
Together they started to distribute rifles, and for the first time in many months Arkin allowed himself to get drunk that night. Tension was a creature with claws and fangs, living in his guts, eating him alive.
MINISTER IVANOV DEPARTED WITH NOTHING MORE THAN curt nod to his wife and headed into the ministry on the Embankment, while Arkin turned the car around and drove back up Nevsky. Outside Madame Monique’s fashion house, he opened the Turicum’s door and though it was not his usual custom, he offered his hand to Elizaveta Ivanova to steady her on the car’s steps. To him she looked frail, the firm lines of her face blurred and uncertain. She accepted it, and before walking under the blue-and-white awning over the shop she thanked him.
“I’ll be an hour,” she said to him. “No longer.”
He bought a newspaper and read it in the car. But it told him little. An accident, they were calling it, a tunnel roof collapse. No mention of a bomb. No mention of an attempted assassination. Fuck the bastards. He cursed Tsar Nicholas for his fickle mind. Without the tsar, the corrupt regime would crumble because it had nothing to prop it up. When Minister Ivanov told him that His Imperial Majesty had gone ice skating that day with his children at Tsarskoe Selo instead of inspecting the tunnels, he’d wanted to howl. Where was the uprising? Where was the start of the brave new world Arkin had sold his immortal soul for?
Finally Madam Ivanova emerged, and he cranked up the engine. He waited for a tram to rattle past before pulling out in front of a monogrammed carriage, but the sight of all the extravagant shops and restaurants only deepened his sense of disappointment. He had truly believed these places would belong to the ordinary people of Russia today. He drove fast, needing to be away from there.
The noise, when he first heard it, startled him. For a second he thought he must have run over a cat. It was a single loud shriek that made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. Abruptly it ceased, but by then he’d realized it had come from behind him. He turned in his seat and saw Elizaveta Ivanova slumped forward, her elbows tucked into her lap, her face in her hands. She was moaning.
Arkin pulled into a side street and stopped the car. “Are you unwell, madam?”
The fur coat didn’t move. Just the low moan that went on and on. He stared at her crumpled figure and found himself breathing awkwardly. He climbed out of the driver’s seat and stood on the icy pavement, the wind snatching at his peaked cap.
“Madam?” he said.
The moaning broke off. Still the sable coat remained hunched forward, but quivers ran through it and quiet sobs began to leak between her fingers. Instinctively he slid into the seat beside her. It broke all the rules, but to hell with the rules. He sat next to her, not touching, not speaking, just being there. When the quivering finally ceased and one of her gloved hands reached into the small gap between them, he placed his own hand over it. Glove on glove, the faintest of comforts, and they remained like that. Minutes passed. Several pedestrians glanced at them with a surprised expression, but Arkin ignored them.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Slowly, Elizaveta Ivanova hauled herself back to an upright position and took a long shuddering breath. She didn’t look at him or remove her hand, but her back was ramrod straight once more and the tears had stopped.
“She may still be alive,” Arkin said quietly.
“I can’t believe it.”
“Don’t give up hope.”
Her mouth pulled into a faint parody of a smile. “I gave up hope years ago.”
“There’s no need to. Hope is what keeps us going.”
“Hope for what?”
“For a daughter still alive. For a life worth living.”
She turned her face toward him, and he saw the cold loneliness in her blue eyes. Her fur hat was crooked and a strand of fair hair had come unpinned, hanging in a curl across her cheek. He wanted to straighten both for her. To straighten her life for her.
“Is your life worth living?” she asked.
She inspected him, taking in as if for the first time the dark spikes of his hair under his hat, the line of his mouth, and the careful expression in his eyes. Still her hand lay under his.
“Thank you, Spasibo,” she said again.
She sat back against the seat and closed her eyes. Beneath the almost transparent skin of her eyelids he could see her eyes moving, restless as his own heartbeat, and he waited quietly while she found in herself whatever it was she needed to go on. When it started to snow, he removed his hand, returned to the front seat, and drove her home.
JENS FRIIS CAME BACK TO THEM. VALENTINA WAS THE FIRST to sight the faint glow of the lamp, the first on her feet, the first to greet him and to see that the Jens who returned was not the same Jens who’d left them. His face had changed. In some indefinable way the bones sat differently, as if they had been taken apart while he was gone and reassembled by an unfamiliar hand. His eyes had sunk deeper in his head and a hard line ran down from each corner of his mouth. He was brusque. Unapproachable. He explained in brief sentences what he’d seen.
“The tunnel is completely blocked back there by rocks and rubble.”
Valentina studied his hands. Gloves in tatters, blood oozing down his wrist.
“It is too much to remove. The roof is unstable. No rescue teams will be coming that way because more of the tunnel roof could come crashing down at any time.”
“Did you find anybody?” Nurse Sonya asked.
The Duma man backed off to the gully and vomited into the water.
“There were bodies,” Jens acknowledged. His mouth was tight. No one asked for more.
“Now,” he said, “we wait.”
DO YOU SWIM?”
Valentina’s stomach flipped over. “Yes.” In the creek in the summer, back in the days when her sister could kick. “Yes, I can swim.”
“Will it come to that?”
She imagined the cold water. “I don’t think my nurse can swim.”
“Then we shall keep her afloat between us. Don’t look so worried. It most likely won’t be necessary.”
“I hope not. Will the water be filthy?”
WHEN THE OIL LAMP WAS LIT, THEY LIVED IN ONE KIND of world. Valentina paced up and down the cavern to the limit of the lamp’s range, but she didn’t venture beyond it. That would be too much. She was thirsty, her throat dry. The older women remained seated on the damp ground, quietly discussing the desirability of a hot bath. Jens stood by the gully water and smoked cigarette after cigarette. His leather hat had disappeared and his red hair had turned a dirty gray, flattened to his head by the weight of brick dust. At intervals he walked over to the young surveyor, studied the flushed face, and exchanged a few words with Nurse Sonya.
When the lamp was off, they lived in a different kind of world, one that released the demons that fled from daylight. The small group sat in a circle again, feet touching.
“Try to sleep,” Jens ordered.
He crouched down beside Valentina, took off his coat, and draped it over her.
“Spasibo. Let’s share it,” she said.
In the total darkness she felt the touch of his hand as he spread the heavy coat over their laps. As time crawled past and voices quieted, the incessant swirl and flow of the water filled her mind and she pictured it rising, slowly, implacably, until she was drowning in her sleep.
Jens’s voice in her ear. Jens’s hand on her chin. Her eyes jerked open but met only blackness.
“Hush,” he murmured again.
She was aware of his body leaning over hers.
“You were whimpering. Bad dream?”
“This place invites bad dreams.”
The blackness was thicker than pitch. She could make out no trace of his face, but she heard him swallow and felt the soft brush of his lips on hers. There one moment, then gone. So brief she wasn’t certain. Tentatively she touched his face and her fingers found the high forehead, the straight line of one eyebrow, and slid down to explore his eyelid and the dense fringe of eyelashes. She had never touched a man’s face before.
“When will the water come?” she whispered.
“Soon, I imagine. They have to evacuate the tunnels that we need to escape through and rid them of water.”
She breathed carefully, drawing in the air they shared.
“Do you know what I would like now?” he asked.
“Four slices of cool refreshing pineapple, sweet and tangy. Two for you, two for me.”
She laughed with surprise.
“Sleep now,” he murmured. “No more dreams. Don’t worry, I’ll listen for the water.”
THE WATER CAME, JUST AS JENS HAD KNOWN IT WOULD. His sharp ears picked up the change in its voice, a sudden shift in note long before it reached them: a distant sound rattling through pipes and tunnels far off in the system. Water was being redirected, sluices opened and closed. Certain tunnels had to be emptied before the trapped group could escape, and now the sound of the water grew louder.
“Just remain calm,” he told them. “As soon as the water is through this chamber, we can all climb up into the higher tunnel and walk our way out. Watch your heads; the ceiling height will be low. Keep together and take a firm hold on the rope.” It wasn’t a rope. It was their belts fixed together into a long line to stop anyone being swept away.
“How deep will it be?” the nurse asked. Her teeth were chattering.
“Not deep at all. Hold on to the rope.”
They stood in a line behind him. The wounded surveyor was belted onto Jens’s back, just conscious enough to grip around his neck. He was a skinny young man, not too much weight, but Jens worried about the open wound on his leg in the foul water. Next to him stood the nurse, dropping prayers from her lips like rosary beads. Jens raised the lamp in one hand and took a grip on her arm with the other. On the far side of her stood Valentina. He would have given much to be able to seize her hand and not release it, but he had given his word to help her nurse. One on each side of her, he’d promised, but all the time he’d be watching Valentina. He’d put Davidov behind her, then Davidov’s wife, followed by the Duma couple.
When the water came, it rose out of the gully and sneaked across the floor of the chamber as black as oil, but no one panicked. There were raw gasps as the icy flow increased to a flood, crawling over their feet, sliding up their shins, and swirling around their knees. When it reached Valentina’s thighs, billowing her skirt around her, her eyes sought his. Her hands held tight onto the rope and onto Nurse Sonya as a rat swept past them, swimming frantically.
Jens judged it carefully. “Now,” he shouted.
He raised the lamp and set off. They followed meekly, up the four stone steps to the higher-level tunnel where the outflow had slowed to a knee-high slick of freezing filth. The stench was suffocating and the roof level low. Davidov crunched his head against bricks and swore, but Jens led them as fast as he dared, pulling the makeshift rope behind him. Once in this channel, it was not far to an exit.
“All well?” he shouted out.
“Not much farther.”
But Jens’s ears had caught a sound, a rumble. Above the noise of legs splashing through the water came a distant but distinct rumble.
“Faster,” he ordered.
He lengthened his stride. “Almost there,” he called out.
“What’s that noise?” Davidov yelled.
The panic swept out of nowhere. One moment they were orderly and then suddenly they were running through the filth, stumbling and sprawling, all realizing what the rumbling heralded. The rope was abandoned. The surveyor tightened his grip till he was throttling Jens, but Jens still clutched the nurse and saw that Valentina had an arm around Madam Davidova, who was having difficulty breathing. Her husband was up ahead.
“Take that opening up there on the right. You may see daylight from it,” Jens called to him.
Daylight. It was only a word. Daylight. Jens had saved it till now. It brought hope in its wake. They hurried, scrambling and splashing to the side recess, turned the corner into it, and immediately Jens heard shouts. He came through last, dragging Nurse Sonya with him, and immediately saw what he’d known would be there. An iron ladder, a metal trapdoor above it. Daylight seeping through the small holes, air that was clean. A cheer went up, and tears were rolling down Madam Davidova’s cheeks.
The rumble of water burst into a roar right behind them.
“Up,” Jens ordered sharply.
Davidov climbed first. He raised the metal trapdoor with his shoulders, so that it clattered open onto the roadside and white air billowed in, making those in the tunnel squint as they stared upward. Quickly Jens hoisted the surveyor off his back and onto the ladder, so that Davidov could haul him up, followed by the Duma man and his wife. The water was rising fast now, up to Jens’s waist already.
But she pushed the nurse onto the lowest rung. Nurse Sonya was shivering so fiercely her plump hands could scarcely hold the metal.
“Bistro! Quickly!” Jens shouted.
He hooked an arm around Valentina’s shoulders and lifted her onto the rung as a surge of water cascaded through the tunnel.
“Go,” he said. He gave her sodden boot a push.
He seized Madam Davidova’s wrist and placed her hand on the ladder. Saw her fingers curl around it. A dozen more steps and it would be over. But that was when the torrent hit. A great churning wall of water crashed into them, ripping the ground from under them, leaping up the ladder, tearing fingers from metal. The lamp went. The world blacked out. Jens was hurled into the water. Filth in his mouth. His head cracked against a wall. His lungs burned as he fought his way up toward the square of light, but something or somebody crashed against him, submerging him again.
He seized a flailing arm underwater and dragged it back to the surface. For a brief moment he held it and caught a glimpse of a terrified face before the roaring current ripped it away. It was Madam Davidova. Valentina was screaming at him. Her dark figure leapt over him, into the water.
“No!” he bellowed, “Valentina, no!”
He lashed out and caught her long hair; his fingers twisted into it and yanked it toward him against the rush of the current. Her body was small and slight, but Valentina was kicking at him. “Let me go,” she screamed, dragging them under. He didn’t let her go; he would drown before he let her go. A hand stretched out from the ladder, hurling a coat onto the water’s surface. He snatched at a sleeve and was hauled in toward the metal rungs by the Duma man.
“Spasibo,” he grunted.
Valentina was quiet now, locked in the circle of his arms, staring back along the path of the water’s torrent. Madam Davidova was gone. A low moan seeped out of Valentina, an animal sound of grief, but she didn’t resist when he lifted her up the ladder. In the cold gray light of a winter’s morning, they stood in a battered huddle, wet and exhausted, in the empty road. Davidov dropped to his knees, his face in his hands. Jens was not ready yet to look at the extent of his own failure. That time would come, when he was alone, away from the eyes of the world. For now he held Valentina’s trembling body against his and stroked the filth out of her hair.
“I could have saved her,” she whispered, the words shivering on her tongue.
“No,” he said. “You couldn’t.”
In the distance he could hear cars speeding toward them. But the future he had prepared for himself was speeding away from him, as out of control as the raging flood in the tunnels below St. Petersburg.
VALENTINA LAY SUNK DEEP IN HER PILLOWS. DRIFTS OF snowflakes buffeted the window as icy patterns clung to the corners of the glass, delicate as spiders’ webs, cold and unwanted as the thoughts in her head.
Time was passing. She wasn’t sure how long. Two weeks, three weeks? More? She’d been ill, the days blurred; a fever burned inside her, drenching the bedclothes with sweat, tying her limbs in knots in the sheets. She’d welcomed it. In her more conscious moments she knew it was a lung infection from the sewer water, but in her wilder spasms she was certain it was a punishment. Madam Davidova had drowned, her body washed up against a sluice grid, while Valentina had survived because she had climbed that ladder ahead of her.
At times the woman’s gentle face came to Valentina in her dreams and said sweet words. But other times, at night when the darkness grew too hot and heavy inside her head, Madam Davidova came like a fiend out of hell. Eyes blazing fire. Mouth spitting obscenities. Then Valentina screamed. Nurse Sonya was always there, telling her, “Ssh, malishka, quiet now.”
Something cold on her brow, a sip of liquid on her lips. Sometimes the bitter taste of laudanum.
The door opened quietly and there was the whisper of wheels on carpet. “Are you awake?”
“Yes. Good morning, Katya. You’re looking well.”
It was true, Katya did look well. Her skin had color, her hair was freshly washed, and she was sitting more upright in her chair.
“I’ve brought you some pineapple. Look.”
She placed a dish on Valentina’s side table. Inside a bowl lay two slices of canary-yellow pineapple, their fragrance drifting around the wintry room and turning it into summertime.
“How are you feeling?” Katya asked.
“Good. Will you come downstairs today?”
Valentina closed her eyes. “No. I have a thumping headache.”
“Nurse can give you something for it. You could get up and-”
“No. Not today, Katya.”
There was a long silence. The window danced and rattled in its frame. Valentina felt her hand lifted by Katya’s fingers.
“Valentina, you can’t go on like this.”
More silence. Thicker this time, harder to breathe.
“Nurse tells me,” Katya said gently, “that your fever is cured. That you are better.”
“But I feel weak.” Eyes still closed.
“Too weak to walk downstairs?”
The small fingers soothed her own with soft feathery strokes. “I hear you, my sweet Valentina, I hear you every night.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Of course you do. I hear you creep past my room every night when you think the whole house is asleep. You go downstairs and you play the piano. Sometimes for hours, even for most of the night.”
“Yes. You creep back just before the servants start to stir. Admit it.” Katya squeezed her hand hard, jerking Valentina’s eyes open. “So,” Katya said, “now you will look at me?”
Valentina looked. This wasn’t her Katya, this was someone who had slid under her sister’s skin. The blue eyes were cold and pale as moonstones. This person was masquerading as Katya, getting it all wrong.
“Valentina, what is the matter with you? What is it that has paralyzed you as totally as the bomb paralyzed me? You’re not hurt. You’re not ill. Yet you’re hiding away up here. You didn’t even bother with your birthday. Where has all your spirit gone?”
“It was washed away in the sewers.”
“You’re alive. You weren’t crushed and you didn’t drown, nor did you lose part of your leg like the surveyor did.”
“The surveyor? Lost his leg?”
“Below the knee. Amputated.”
Valentina recalled his young face. Sweat-covered. Frightened. His arms around Jens’s neck, tight as tentacles.
“He’ll be able to walk with a crutch,” Katya said.
“Madam Davidova will never walk again.”
“I saw her die, Katya. I watched this good woman drown.”
Katya’s hand slackened its grip, and her tone grew gentler. “Grieve for her. Yes, that’s your right, but don’t stop living because of her.”
Valentina slumped against her pillows. “Katya, it should have been me. She should have been on that ladder, not me.”
“But she wasn’t. She died; you didn’t. So get on with your life.”
“Jens put me on the ladder.”
“Thank God for Jens Friis. Though he shouldn’t have invited you down there in the first place.”
“Shut up, Katya. It’s not his fault that bloody revolutionaries meant to murder us.”
“Good.” Katya was smiling. “A spark at last. You owe it to Jens to come back to life.”
But Valentina yanked the quilt over her face. “Go away, Katya.”
The quilt was wrenched from her grasp. “Look at you!” Katya shouted.
Valentina looked down at herself. A grubby nightdress, her hair lank and knotted. She started to close her eyes, to shut it out, when she felt a quick sharp slap on her cheek.
“Get up!” Katya yelled. “Get out of that bed.”
“Are you just going to stay in your pit and rot?”
“Yes. Leave me alone.”
“Look at yourself. You have everything. Everything. You have no reason to hate the world. None.”
Valentina said nothing, in case she said too much.
“Poor Madam Davidova would give anything to be you right now,” Katya cried out. She sat back in the wheelchair, holding her hand to her throat as if holding something in. “Valentina,” she said in a harsh whisper, “I would give my eternal soul to be you.”
A swirl of wheels and she was gone from the room. Valentina gave a long moan and turned her face to the wall.
SHE FELT SOMETHING MOVING INSIDE HER HEAD. SOMETHING slithering like a snake around her thoughts until it was throttling them as efficiently as a rope around a pickpocket’s neck.
Guilt was crushing her. Breaking her back. Pressing her face down in the dirt. Katya. Her mother. Her father. Madam Davidova. The amputated leg of the surveyor. Even her beautiful discarded horse, Dasha, still unridden since the day of the explosion.
And a thought kept intruding, like a voice murmuring in her ear, so low she could barely hear it. If it hadn’t been for her, would Jens have arranged the visit to the new sewers at all? If he hadn’t wanted to steal her away from Captain Chernov, would all those others still be alive? Was it all her fault?
Staring blank-eyed at the wall, she slowly took herself apart.
Piece by piece she attempted to put herself back together. It took a long time to make what was left fit together.
It was the pineapple that finally drove her out of bed. With each breath she inhaled of its fragrance, something of Jens imprinted inside her. She could feel it seeping through her lungs and into her bloodstream, pumping along the twisting paths of her veins. Because only Jens would have brought her a pineapple. He must have been here. Called at the house. He wasn’t curled up in bed like a wounded animal. She threw off the quilt and swung her feet to the floor.
Pulling off the nightdress, she picked up a segment of pineapple and slid it onto her tongue. A burst of sunshine in her mouth. She walked over to her writing table, unlocked the drawer, and took out the list. Pen in hand, she started to write.
11. Come to an arrangement with Papa.
THE STREET WAS DRAB. A RAW WIND OFF THE SEA SWEPT along the dirt road, chasing the falling snow so that it flounced in lacy swirls through the air, as grubby as a whore’s petticoat. Jens paced along the stretch of scrubland, his thoughts busy, jotting down his calculations. He almost didn’t spot the lone figure hunched in a heavy overcoat that seemed to belong to a broader man. Jens tucked his pad and pen in his pocket, stamped the ice from his valenki boots and moved forward.
“Good morning, Minister Davidov, dobroye utro.”
Davidov did not even attempt to look pleased to see him. These days nothing and nobody pleased the widowed minister. Least of all himself.
“We are making progress,” Jens announced.
“Is the sale of the land agreed?”
“The papers are drawn up and ready. Did you arrange the bank transfer?”
Jens nodded, satisfied. That was what he needed to hear. This tract of wasteland and the jumble of shabby shacks next to it would soon be under new ownership and ripe for rebuilding. He glanced at the shacks, no better than dog kennels.
“When it’s signed and sealed,” Jens said, “I shall announce the extension of the sewers to this district next spring.”
Davidov sank his fists into his pockets and sniffed the air. What was he expecting to smell? Money? Fat greasy roubles lining the plot of land? A woman in a headscarf and shoes made out of rope came out of one of the shacks with a zinc bucket full of liquid waste and tipped it into the dirt road. Jens turned his head away. The street stank of piss. The woman stood in the cold and watched them, shoulders slumped.
“So?” Davidov asked.
“So you will have steered the committee into voting by then.” He stepped forward, crowding just a little, his height an advantage.
Davidov murmured something, more to himself than to anyone, but the wind carried it away.
“Is there a problem?” Jens demanded.
“I am sick of sewers. I don’t want anything more to do with them now; neither does the committee after-”
“Minister, we agreed. It is your duty to correct the misunderstanding of the committee.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cigarette case, a gift from Countess Serova, exquisite silver work from Fabergé. He handed a cigarette to his companion, took one himself, and lit them both with a match, cupping its flame against the wind, drawing Davidov into an intimate closeness.
“Minister, don’t lose your backbone now. You are the one who decides what the committee thinks; we both know that.”
He saw Davidov swell slightly, as though the flattery slid like cushions of fat under his skin.
“The committee’s idea is that-”
“To hell with the committee’s ideas,” Jens snapped.
He turned, sent his cigarette case arcing through the air, and watched it land with a clatter at the feet of the woman in the homemade shoes. She jumped, startled, dropped her empty bucket, and snatched up the silver case. She scurried back into her kennel like a dog with a bone.
“We have an agreement,” Jens continued. “When the ownership of the land is in your name, you will order the release of further government funds for next year’s extension to the sewers.”
Davidov drew on his cigarette and stared at the empty wasteland scattered with rusting metal and broken bedsteads. “It’s not the same,” he said with an ache in his voice. “Not without her.”
“I hear,” Jens said quietly, “that it’s certainly not the same. For you, I mean.”
Something in his voice alerted Davidov. “What?” he demanded. “What have you heard?”
“That your wife’s brother had extravagant gambling debts. That in her will she left her money to him to pay them off.” He spoke gently. “That you, Minister, need to invest wisely to recoup such a loss. It must have come as a blow.”
He meant the money. He didn’t mean her death. Couldn’t mention her death. It stuck in his throat like glass.
Davidov exhaled a plume of smoke into the snow and watched it curl around the falling flakes. “You are remarkably well informed,” he said stiffly.
“Minister, do as we agreed. You can bend this committee to your will. You’re good at that.”
He left it there. Enough had been said. He returned to his pacing across the wasteland, jotting down numbers with cold fingers.
IS SHE ANY BETTER TODAY?” JENS ASKED.
“Come with me.”
Katya spun her wheelchair with deft hands and set off at a fast pace along a wide corridor lined with antique silk tapestries.
He strode along behind her between the thin wheel tracks on the dark-green-and-gold carpet. It was always visible, where she had been. Always audible, where she was going. Never able to move silently. No privacy. A world where people looked down at the top of her head and she had to crane back her neck to meet them eye to eye. He had no concept of how to live in such a world. “Katya,” he said cheerfully, “you have the speed of a wolfhound. What strong wrists you must possess. I’ll have to get you welding my metal joists for me.”
She laughed and speeded up, so that he almost had to run to keep up with her, but he stopped dead when he heard the music. It hit him in the center of his chest like the flat of a hand. It came rippling under the door, a bright fluid Russian folk song bursting with energy. Katya glanced over her shoulder, shaking her blond curls at him with a grin.
“Come on, she doesn’t bite.”
“I don’t want to disturb her.”
“You won’t,” she said, and pushed open the door.
VALENTINA ROSE FROM THE PIANO STOOL. SHE WAS WEARING a pale silvery dress that hung loose on her because she had grown painfully thin. She extended a hand. He took her fingers and felt a knot of pain at the base of his throat.
“Jens,” she said, smiling at him.
Her dark eyes looked huge in her face, the lines of her cheeks hollowed into shadows, her skin so transparent he could trace the fine veins. But her hair swayed in soft waves that he found hard not to touch.
“Jens?” she said again.
“Dobroye utro, good morning, Valentina. I’m delighted to see you recovered from your indisposition.”
“Indisposition?” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Is that what it was? I did wonder.”
He smiled and her gaze lingered on his face. If he scooped her into his arms and pressed her fragile skull close to his chest, would she slap him? You overstep yourself, you Danish tunnel builder. You drowner of women. You gazer at stars. Take your hands off me.
Is that what she would say?
And what would she say if he were to sweep her up, tuck her under his arm, and run from the house like a thief stealing a carpet? Would she roll her eyes at him and laugh?
“Valentina, please play for me?”
“I’ll need my hand.”
He looked at the delicate hand in his own, kissed its fingers, and released them.
“What would you like me to play?”
“Play some Chopin,” Katya suggested.
Valentina gave a small shake of her head. “This one. I think it might suit you.”
She sat down at the piano and turned her back to him, but he picked up a chair and moved it so that he could view the side of her face as she played. Katya parked her chair by the window as though it were her usual place and gazed out at the skeletal trees. The room was large but muted in its colors, so that it felt surprisingly intimate, dominated by the large grand piano. It dwarfed the small figure of Valentina, and for a moment she sat quietly, unmoving, her hands stilled, as though silence were part of the piece.
When she finally began, she played something dark and complex, something he had never heard before, a difficult piece, and her fingers flew with a rhythmic assurance that stirred him, raking his emotions and drawing out of him thorns that were buried deep. Yes, she was right. It suited him. Suited his mood these days. Dark and deep and as twisting as the tunnels he had built that almost buried them both alive.
Abruptly the music ceased in midflight. Her hands were poised above the keys, eager to plunge into the music once more, but she held them back.
“Did you tell her?” she asked.
He didn’t ask who.
“Yes, of course. I told Countess Serova.”
“So it is settled?”
Her eyes scanned him from head to toe as if seeing something different in him, and then she swung back to the music.
Did you tell her?
Yes, of course. I told Countess Serova.
He’d told Natalia. In her garden on a cold sunlit morning, deep snow on the ground. They were walking down the path, Natalia’s arm through his, and she was talking too much. Unlike her. As though nervous of any silences. Ever since the bomb she had been like this, tense around him. But his gaze was fixed on Alexei, who plowed through the snow with his new puppy. The dog would grow into a good hunter, he was certain. He wondered if the boy would too. His noise disguised the silences; his laughter filled the chill air with warmth and made Jens smile. Recently he wasn’t good at finding smiles. The tunnels had seen to that.
“It’s good to see Alexei so happy,” he said.
“You were right, I admit it. The puppy is already his best friend.” She tapped her fingers on his sleeve. “Jens, whatever it is you have come here to say today, spit it out. I’m tired of the wait.” She pulled her fur coat around her like armor.
“Natalia, I’m sorry.” He was frank with her, brutally frank. It was the only option with a woman like the countess, so used to having her own way in everything. “It’s over between us.”
Her hand didn’t move from his sleeve, but for one brief moment her jaw dropped. He heard a moan before she gathered herself together once more and gave him a cold stare.
“I see,” she said. “How dull of you. Who is she?”
“Don’t play games.”
“Her name is Valentina.”
‘Ah! The little snippet of a pianist. The one in the tunnel with you. That Valentina?”
He nodded curtly. He did not intend to discuss her. Gently he removed Natalia’s arm from his and called to Alexei. He threw snowballs for the pup to chase and a flurry of them at Alexei, who squealed with laughter. Jens was giving Natalia time to become a countess again, but when they reached the wide steps into the house he stopped.
“Won’t you come in?” she asked. “For a warm brandy.”
“I think not.”
She nodded indifferently. “Very well.”
“But I will call again, if I may.”
“For the boy. You care more for him than you do for me.” An edge of hostility bad crept into her voice. “Some put it about that you are his father,” she said coolly. “It’s the green eyes.”
“You and I both know they are mistaken.”
“So why bother with him at all?”
He looked her full in the face, at the arrogant set of the mouth, at the intelligence behind the blue eyes, and a flash of anger shot through him.
“Because if I don’t,” he said, “no one else will.”
Jens lost track of time. The music enthralled him. When it finally ceased, he drew a deep breath. He felt as he did after a long hard ride through the forest. Exhilarated. More alive.
“That was wonderful, Valentina. Thank you.”
She sat very still on the stool, and he could see the rise and fall as she breathed. Without looking at him she asked, “How is the surveyor?”
“He is recovering well.” He said it briskly. “I still employ him because there’s no reason the fellow can’t do desk work.”
She turned to study him. What had she heard behind his carefully chosen words? With an abrupt shift of mood she swung back to the piano and broke into a lively Russian folk song bouncing with energy.
“Look!” Katya said pointing to the window.
“Good God!” Jens almost fell off his chair.
Outside in the snow a massive young man was dancing a wild Cossack dance. He was crouched down on his haunches, kicking out his legs in traditional style with his arms across his chest. Then up on his toes on one leg, spinning and kicking and leaping.
“It’s Liev Popkov,” Valentina laughed.
When it ended with an outburst of laughter and applause, the Cossack bowed politely and departed, the falling snow filling his footprints.
They looked at each other, smiling. Jens could not remember a moment when the rest of the world had seemed so far away. Valentina’s cheeks were flushed and she was laughing, when abruptly the door burst open and Elizaveta Ivanova entered the room.
“Ah,” she said stiffly as her gaze settled on Jens. “I had no idea you were here.”
“Good morning.” He rose to his feet and bowed.
“Jens came to inquire after Valentina’s health,” Katya said quickly.
“I am happy to find her so well,” he smiled. “She has been well cared for.”
Elizaveta Ivanova noted the color in her daughter’s cheeks. “You have a visitor,” she announced.
“Tell whoever it is that I am busy, please, Mama.”
“I will do no such thing. It is Captain Chernov. He is waiting for you in the drawing room.”
For a second Jens expected her to refuse her mother’s request. She had promised him, I will have nothing to do with Captain Chernov. But he saw the fractional moment in her dark eyes when she made the decision to break her promise.
“What an unexpected pleasure,” she said coolly, and walked out of the room. “Thank you for the pineapple.” Five words trailing softly behind her.
DARK PARALLEL HARMONIES.
In music. In life. Valentina could sense them. In her fingertips. In the secret cavities of her heart. Vibrating sounds that belong together yet fight each other, pushing apart. She sat upright on the edge of her chair in the drawing room, and her cheeks ached with the effort of smiling. Yes, Captain. No, Captain. How interesting, Captain. How astonishing. How clever you are.
How unforgivable is your intrusion into my life.
Caught like a hook in her mind was the look on Jens’s face when her mother came into the music room with the name of Captain Chernov on her lips. No harmony there, parallel or otherwise. Just darkness. His broad shoulders pulled back, dragging him away from her as though the sight of her jarred on him, jangled his nerves. A clash of chords. She folded a crease into her skirt, crushing the material beneath her fingers.
“Are you feeling unwell?”
The expression of concern on Captain Chernov’s handsome face did little to dull the edges of her thoughts.
“No, I am much better, spasibo.”
“I am extremely pleased to hear it. I was disturbed when-”
“I am recovered now.”
He was running out of words. Maybe his head could only hold so many at a time, filled as it was with sabers and rifles and military rules. His uniform was stiff and shiny, a bright scarlet and glittering with braid and brasswork, his boots polished till they shone like mirrors. His white gloves lay like a spare pair of hands on the seat beside him and he kept touching them, twitching them, as if he could provoke them into life. He was nervous of her. His mouth under its blond mustache was hidden and gave no clues.
Small silences. Brittle breaks in the conversation. She could almost snap them with her fingers.
“Captain, tell me this. If there is something you want, really want, how do you set about getting it for yourself?”
“That’s easy. I just put my mind to it and go for it the way I would ride a saber charge. No distractions. Single-minded. Go for the kill.”
“I can imagine that.”
He twitched at a glove. “I didn’t mean…”
She smiled. “I understand what you mean.”
He flushed and looked like a schoolboy instead of a twenty-three-year-old officer in Tsar Nicholas’s great Russian army.
“And women. Should they do the same?”
He slapped his thigh with a laugh. “No, if a woman really wants something, she should ask a man.”
Valentina lowered her eyes and stared at her hands.
“Is there something,” Chernov asked with an eager voice, “that you would like me to do for you? I’d be honored to.”
“No.” She made herself look at him. “Several weeks ago I saw the factory strikers marching up Morskaya.”
“Troublemakers, the lot of them. We’ve received new orders for a harsher response. We’ll ride them down next time they try it. Don’t let them upset you; they’re just ignorant peasants.”
She waited for him to finish. “Among the marchers were quite a number of women.”
“So I’ve been told.”
“Women who were single-minded. No distractions. Going for the kill to get what they want.” She spoke mildly and eased herself back into her chair, interested in him at last.
“They do what their men tell them to do. Don’t you concern yourself with them. They won’t be bothering you anymore. We cannot allow anarchy to threaten the stability of our nation. How much more are these strikers going to demand? They’ve been granted their own Duma, and that should be enough for them. But instead it turns out, as my father prophesied, that the more you give these people, the more they want.”
“Thank you for explaining that to me, Captain. So when you ride them down next time they march, will you take your saber and rifle to the women as well?”
His face suddenly grew somber. “I don’t think this is a suitable discussion for me to be having with you. A young lady should not have to listen to talk of such things.” His fingers stopped fiddling. “A young lady should have other pleasanter occupations on her mind. I came today to invite you to supper.”
“Captain,” she said demurely. “I am honored.”
HE’S NOT HERE.”
“I thought he’d wait.”
“Why would you think that?” Katya asked.
“Because”-Valentina looked around the music room as though Jens might be hiding under a chair-“because I wanted to explain.”
“You should have thought of that before.”
“Did he say anything?”
“He gave me this letter for you.”
Valentina tore it open, read the few lines.
“Good news?” Katya asked.
“Yes. It’s from a doctor friend of his.”
“So he said.”
“I thought it would be from Jens himself.”
She walked over to the chair he had used and sat on it. She closed her eyes.
TODAY VALENTINA WAS DETERMINED TO PLEASE HER feather. She sat in front of his desk, which was drowning in a tidal wave of papers and files, and wondered how on earth he could possibly keep track of it all. To one side lay a large envelope with Tsar Nicholas’s gold crest embossed on it.
“You asked to speak to me?”
“Be quick, please, I’m busy.” He was always busy.
She started cautiously. “Is there anything I can do to help, Papa? I know you have your assistants and secretaries at the ministry, but maybe here at home I can help with this.” She waved her hand toward the paperwork.
He had been scanning a sheet of figures in his hand, but now his focus shifted to her. His fingers pulled absently at the collar of his frock coat, and she felt the familiar tug of affection when she noticed yet again that his nails were like Katya’s, round and pale.
“Spasibo. Thank you for the thought, but no. So what is it you want to discuss?”
“I thought you might like to know that Captain Chernov has invited me to supper.”
His dark eyes widened with pleasure, and he gave her a broad smile. “Otlichno! Excellent!” He let the paper float down to the desk and pressed his hands together in a gesture of prayer. “Thank God,” he muttered, then suddenly grew tense and leaned forward. “You accepted, I hope?”
“Well done. He is an important young man and his father is a powerful influence at court, so don’t make a mess of this, Valentina. I need you to handle it carefully.”
She smiled sweetly and shook her head to set her hair dancing. Use your weapons, Davidov had told her. Her reward was to see the crease between her father’s eyes relax, and she knew she had made him happy, if only for a brief moment.
“I won’t disturb you any longer, Papa.” She rose to her feet and started to walk to the door, but halfway there she stopped and looked over her shoulder as though she had just recalled something. “One other thing, Papa.”
He had picked up his pen, his large head already bent over another sheet of paper. “What is it?”
“I am applying for nurse training at St. Isabella’s Hospital.”
The words were out.
“No!” His fist slammed down on the desk so that papers slid from their piles and his pen clattered to the floor. “You will do no such thing.”
“Papa, listen to me. Please. Pozhalusta. I want to do this because-”
“Valentina, I’ve already told you, I need you to forget this foolish idea.” There were beads of sweat on his brow.
“I thought,” she said mildly, “that we might come to an arrangement.”
“What kind of arrangement?”
“I need your signature on a form because I am under twenty. Please, Papa, sign it for me. In exchange I will dance with your charming and important Captain Chernov. I will smile and laugh for him and flutter my eyelashes along with my fan like an empty-headed ninny. I will do exactly what you want.” In the pause that followed she presented her father with a soft compliant smile. “If you sign.”
“I will do no such thing.”
“Papa, imagine it. By day I will be quiet and unseen, an unknown nurse in an unknown hospital. But by night I will become the darling of Petersburg society for you, with all the champagne and caviar and dancing you could desire.” She swayed her hips as though swept up in a waltz. “Your name, Minister General Nicholai Ivanov, will be spoken at court, your position envied. That’s what you want, isn’t it? That’s what I want for you, too.” She smiled at him. “It would suit us both. Agreed, Papa?”
He extracted a large white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his face. There was a pause. “Agreed.”
“Thank you, Papa.”
She left before he could change his mind. As soon as she reached her bedroom, she removed the key from her pocket and unlocked the drawer. Lifting out the sheet of ivory paper, she read it through carefully before placing a line through the last point: Number 11. The arrangement with Papa was made.
She knew her father would not like her for it, any more than she liked herself for it, but it was the only way she would be allowed to set foot in a hospital. Slowly she unfastened the pearl buttons on her sleeve, peeling back the material to look at her pale skin and to imagine Jens’s fingers on it.
Please, Jens, please understand that I have to see Chernov.
She tried a smile for him, but it faltered on her lips. I want this job as a nurse. I need it. Please, don’t take it from me, Jens.
DID YOU EVER POLISH SHOES LIKE THAT?”
Arkin was surprised by the question. He was driving Elizaveta Ivanova alongside St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and its glorious golden dome immediately brought to mind Father Morozov. Such a bright well-read man, yet condemned to live in a damp shack and to wear homemade boots with holes in them.
“Did you, Arkin?” Elizaveta Ivanova asked again.
“No, madam.” They had just passed a row of four shoeshine boys in the square, busy with their brushes and impudent smiles, hungry for kopecks. “I was brought up on a farm.”
Behind him he heard a small sigh of approval, as though life on a farm were something to be desired.
“What made you leave?” she asked.
“The lure of the big city.”
“Petersburg is very beautiful, I admit. Did it live up to your expectations?”
“Yes,” he lied. But her ears were sharp and she laughed.
“I hope you’re happy here,” she said after a moment’s thought. “And happy working for my husband.”
“Of course. I couldn’t ask for better.”
“I hope that’s true, Arkin, and that you’re not just saying it to please me.”
“It is true.”
He half-turned his head, one eye still on the road, and caught a glimpse of her in her black fur coat, sleek as a panther’s pelt. She was smiling. Oddly, it pleased him to see it.
“I have a favor to ask of you.”
The way she said it, he knew immediately it had nothing to do with chauffeuring.
“Madam, I am always at your service.”
“Stop the car a moment.”
He pulled into the curb and it happened to be opposite a fish stall so that the smell of dead fish on the slabs drifted into the car. He swiveled around in his seat and noticed the tiny lace handkerchief in her hand. She dabbed at her nose.
“How can I help you, madam?”
Her eyes considered him for a moment, and he saw uncertainty in them. She was wondering how far could she trust him.
“It is… a delicate matter,” she said, and her cheeks colored. She glanced away, and the black feathers on her hat bobbed as she moved. “I don’t know who else to ask.”
“I am discreet,” he said quietly.
He thought of the times he had collected any of Minister Ivanov’s young mistresses in the car or even driven his employer to his favorite brothel down by the Golden Apple nightclub where the French gypsy girl, Mimi, awaited the minister’s favors. Oh yes, Arkin had learned to keep his mouth shut.
“I will help you if I can,” he offered.
Her gaze studied his gloved hand where it lay on the back of the seat as if it held an answer for her. She swallowed awkwardly. “I want you to find out whether my elder daughter is seeing… someone.”
Arkin almost laughed. She wanted to turn him into an Okhrana spy. It was ironic.
“Who is this person?” he asked, genuinely interested.
“The Danish engineer she was trapped with in the tunnel. His name is Jens Friis.”
So that was it. He suddenly felt sorry for this proud woman, reduced to such snooping on her daughter.
“I’ll find out what I can,” he agreed, and immediately her eyes lifted from his hand to his face.
“We understand each other?” she asked.
She smiled at him, but he reminded himself who she was and what she stood for. He didn’t want to like her.
“Shall I drive on now, madam?” he asked, suddenly formal.
“Yes.” But as he turned to the snow-covered road ahead once more, she added in a low voice, “I’m grateful, Arkin. For this… and for the other day when I was…”
“You are welcome, madam,” he interrupted.
He preferred not to think about it. It did not help the cause to feel sorrow for your class enemy. It was dangerous. Yet he couldn’t help it.
THE MORNING WAS BRIGHT AS POLISHED GLASS. NO HINT of fog today, just an endless arc of sky and the smell of the sea in the air. It made Arkin restless. He was waiting beside the car outside the front steps for Valentina to emerge, with the Turicum gleaming as gaudy as a kingfisher in the sunshine.
“Good morning, Arkin.”
“Dobroye utro, Miss Valentina, good morning,” he said as she crossed the gravel. She looked thin and pale. She was dressed in a plain coat and headscarf, yet there was a nervous energy in her step as though she were in a hurry.
“Miss Valentina, I’m glad to see you have recovered and are looking so well.”
The comment took her by surprise. “Thank you, Arkin.”
“I hope Miss Katya passed on my good wishes to you when you were ill.”
“Yes, thank you.”
Still he stood there, forgetting about the car. She moved to climb the step into its interior, but he raised a hand that, even without touching her, made her stop.
“What is it, Arkin?”
“The men who caused the explosion in the tunnel would not have wanted to harm you in any way. Those people are fixed on a goal. You were in their path, that’s all.” He wanted her to know.
“So tell me, Arkin, what is their goal?”
He dropped his voice. “Their aim is to build a new and fairer society. They want to bring down the tsar. Not to endanger young women.”
“Is that what you believe in too, Arkin? In bringing down our tsar?”
“No, Miss Valentina.”
“Good. If you believed in that, you would be arrested.”
She stepped past him into the car and sat on the sleek blue leather, staring straight ahead. He started the engine with the crank handle and jumped up in front of her. Neither of them spoke.
VALENTINA WAS THANKFUL TO CLIMB OUT OF THE CAR half a mile from the hospital and send it back home for her mother’s use. She enjoyed the short walk and tried to fix her mind on what she was to say, rather than on all that had been said last time. She entered St. Isabella’s Hospital and went through the same procedure as before, the name checking at the window hatch and following the green trail of worn linoleum down the corridor to the door marked GORDANSKAYA. She knocked.
“Vkhodite. Come in.”
Whatever she had been expecting, it was not what she found. The large figure of Medsestra Gordanskaya seemed to have ballooned further inside her white uniform since their last meeting, and she was leaning against a row of filing cabinets with a pair of long-handled tweezers clenched between her fingers. Her attention shifted to Valentina for no more than a second.
“Ah, yes, the little aristocrat who thinks she has the makings of a nurse.” She grinned into the mirror propped up on the cabinet, but it had nothing to do with humor. Valentina realized she was inspecting a side tooth that was black and broken.
“Good morning, Medsestra Gordanskaya.”
“Know anything about teeth?”
“Not much use to me then, are you?”
“I’m good with tweezers.”
“Here.” The woman thrust the instrument at Valentina.
Valentina took it and wondered whether the medsestra initiated all her would-be nurses with this exercise. But then she wouldn’t have a tooth left in her head.
“Friends in high places, I gather,” Gordanskaya said, but without rancor, as though it were a fact of life. “But of course you would have. Look at you.” She laughed a deep laugh that wobbled her cheeks. “You can’t hide behind a headscarf and a servant’s mended gloves. I know what you are.”
“I’m not hiding.”
“I want to be a nurse. To do something more with my life than arrange flowers and drink tea. I promise you I know how to work hard, and I am already familiar with Dupierre’s book on human anatomy. I’ve nursed my younger sister and practiced bandaging.”
“You talk too much. You educated ones always do. Learn to keep quiet.”
Valentina nodded. “Yes, Medsestra.”
“If you were applying to be a soldier, I’d call you cannon fodder, but instead I call you-and all the other chits like you-bedpan fodder. That’s what you’ll be dealing with most of the time, and that’s what will finish you off in the end. Bedpan fodder, the lot of you. Dear Mother of Christ, why don’t they send me some young women able to work? Not just these whey-faced milksops.”
Valentina didn’t make a sound.
Gordanskaya snatched up one of Valentina’s hands, turned it over to inspect the palm, and prodded its pale pads with her thumb. Valentina felt like a farm animal in the marketplace.
“Skin as white as a piglet’s tits.” The medsestra shook her head. “But there’s muscle in there. What is it you do with them?”
“I play the piano.”
Gordanskaya burst out laughing. “Dear God, give me strength.” Abruptly she opened her mouth wide and pointed to a black tooth that was hanging half loose. “Pull it.”
One quick jerk with the tweezers and the black stump slid out like a nail from rotten wood. A tail of blood followed it and a whiff of pus. A flicker of relief passed over the nurse’s broad face, and she pointed to the chair in front of her desk. Valentina sat down and she placed the tweezers, still clutching the tooth, within Gordanskaya’s reach.
“You’ve been recommended to me for training by Dr. Fedorin,” Gordanskaya said briskly. “I will need your parents’ consent as you are under twenty. Now read this form and get them to sign it,” she ordered before adding with a sly lopsided smile, “I take it you can read and write?”
“Medsestra Gordanskaya,” Valentina said, “I can do whatever it takes.”
IT IS STRANGE, VALENTINA THOUGHT, HOW LITTLE IT TAKES to tilt the world. As she retraced her steps along the mottled green floor and down the front steps of the hospital, nothing looked the same. As though she had been viewing it through a distorting mirror before but now saw it clear and pin-sharp. Her heart felt tight, drumming loudly in her ears.
Before leaving she had stopped at the heavy swinging doors to one of the wards and peered through its glass panel, astonished at the huge size of the room. It seemed to stretch away forever with endless rows of beds like long white coffins. She was tempted to push open the door, to enter this unfamiliar world where pale faces lay on rumpled pillows. Some were talking; others lay flat and silent with eyes closed.
“Out of my way.”
A young nurse barged out of the ward, holding an enamel bowl piled to the brim with bloodied bandages.
“What are you gawking at? Got your lover in there?” the girl grinned. “Don’t worry, I give ’em all a kiss good night. He’s in safe hands with me. I’m Nurse Darya Spachyeva, in case you don’t know.”
She was taller than Valentina and wiry as a weasel, with the broad cheekbones and swarthy skin of a southerner. Black stalks of hair escaped from under her headdress, but her hands looked capable, a peasant’s large-knuckled hands. Her smile was open and easy.
“Got a tongue in your head?” she demanded.
“I’m going to be training as a nurse here.”
The girl raised the bowl of bandages, thrusting it under Valentina’s nose. It stank. “Get a whiff of that. That’ll be your new perfume when you work here.”
“I’ve smelled worse.”
The untidy nurse rolled her black eyes in her head. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Valentina smiled. “I won’t.”
“It’s hard on the legs too.”
“My legs are strong.” All those years of horse riding. “If it’s so bad, why are you here?”
The girl wiped a hand on her apron, adding a stain to the others. “It beats milking fucking goats halfway up a fucking mountain.” She tucked the bowl in the crook of her arm as naturally as if it had been one of her newborn goats and scurried off on muscular legs.
Valentina had never heard a woman swear like that. She smiled and hurried down the front steps of the hospital, and that was when she saw Jens. He was standing stiff and stern in the shade of a lime tree, arms folded across his chest, face unsmiling. Waiting for her.
THEY WALKED SIDE BY SIDE, NOT TOUCHING. SHE HAD TO quicken her pace to keep up with his long stride because he made no allowance for her, as though he didn’t care whether she was there. Yet he had come to the hospital at the time of her appointment. She held on to that.
Jens looked a mess. A heavy gray dust was spattered over his coat and had burrowed into the black fur of his hat and into the red hairs of his eyebrows. She scarcely noticed where they walked, but there was a sense of purpose to his steps as he headed down Zagorodnaya Street. They barely spoke, yet she was acutely aware of him at her side. Aware of the crunch of his boots in the snow, and the sight of his breath spiraling out white and impatient into the cold air, and the triangular spot right in the corner of his jaw that clicked and jumped as though punctuating his thoughts. He looked directly ahead, shutting her out, and she wondered if he had forgotten her.
When they crossed the Moika Canal, she said, “Please thank Dr. Fedorin for me.”
“You can thank him yourself. It’s to his house we’re going.”
“He wants to give you advice on what to expect at St. Isabella’s. He’ll explain how things are done and what you’ll have to learn. He can tell you where to get your uniform and teach you how to ward off the advances of male patients. Fedorin is a good man. He spends a lot of his time in the missions for the poor and in the hospitals for the destitute. He’s not just a doctor for the scented parlors of the rich and pampered.”
She wanted to say, Thank you. She wanted to say, See, you do care. You wouldn’t be doing this if you didn’t. But instead she seized his arm, fixing her fingers on his dusty coat.
She meant, stop all the words that were blocking the space between them. Stop refusing to look at her. Stop the ache that the cold edge in his voice set up in her throat. Stop. Stop. But it was her feet that stopped. In the middle of the bridge they jerked to a halt, and her hand was still attached to him, a shackle that he did not try to throw off. For the first time that day he looked straight at her.
“You promised me,” he said. “You swore you’d have nothing to do with Captain Chernov.”
Standing there in the street, she slowly undid the buttons of his coat, one by one, and slid her arms around his waist.
“I promise,” she said, “I promise on my sister’s life that my heart will never have anything to do with Captain Chernov.”
She rested her cheek against his chest, smelled the damp earthy odor of the dust on his clothing and felt the warmth of his body as he wrapped his coat around her, drawing her tight, pinning her to him. Below them on the frozen Moika canal, an elderly couple in matching beaver-skin hats skated sedately back down toward the Tauride, hand in hand. Valentina burrowed deeper, listening to the rapid beat of his heart.
THE DOCTOR WELCOMED THEM AND POURED JENS AND himself a glass of fine Georgian wine while Valentina and his little daughter, Anna, drank hot chocolate in front of the fire. She liked this man who was such a devoted father, liked his generosity and the way his bony fingers kept touching the diamond tiepin at his neck as he spoke. It was clear it meant something special to him.
“Now, young lady, let’s discuss what lies ahead of you.”
“I’m grateful, Dr. Fedorin, for your help. Medsestra Gordanskaya made it clear she expects me to fail.”
He took her chin in his hand and inspected her closely in the way he would inspect his own daughter. “You’ll do,” he said. “If it’s what you really want.”
“It is. I’ve already studied anatomy and-”
“One step at a time. Let’s talk first about the discipline of bed making, clean uniforms, and Medsestra Gordanskaya’s filthy temper.”
She sat and listened to him. He filled her mind with facts and figures about the hospital, its history, its rules. He told her the correct way to address a doctor, exhorted her to walk behind him at all times, and described with enthusiasm the wider range of drugs being developed, including the refinement of morphine to give more precise relief of pain. Again and again he emphasized the need for cleanliness, clean hands, clean linen, clean uniform. Sterile equipment. He talked about operations. Tested her knowledge with questions, all the time tugging on the ends of his mustache or stroking the bright diamond nestled in his cravat.
It was a strange sensation. In an odd sort of way she felt that his questions were opening doors within her that she didn’t know were closed. Across the room Jens and Anna were perched on the window seat playing cards, Anna pouncing with the squeal of a kitten whenever she won a hand.
Finally Dr. Fedorin leaned back in his chair, tucked his thumbs into his waistcoat and exhaled a sigh of satisfaction. “She’ll do, Friis. She’ll do very nicely.”
Jens smiled. “I know.”
Something in the way he said it unbalanced her. It was as though he were letting go of her. She wanted to rush over to the window seat and sit herself on his lap to prevent him slipping away. She wanted to smile up at him and hear him say, She’ll do me very nicely. She rose to her feet and took a step toward him.
“Jens…,” she started.
“Anna,” Fedorin interrupted, “time for us to find your governess and see what she has planned for you today.”
The child pulled a face but planted a kiss on Jens’s cheek, bobbed a curtsy to Valentina, and scampered out of the room after her father.
“Jens,” Valentina said softly.
He patted the window seat beside him and she sat down, nervous. But as soon as she felt the warmth of him-his leg next to hers, his hip touching her dress, his shoulder solid beside her-she knew she’d be able to explain everything to him.
“Jens, listen to me.” She didn’t take her eyes from his hand as she linked her fingers through his. “It is my ace, Jens, my only high card. It’s all I have.”
“To bargain with?”
“Yes. Without him I have nothing.”
“You have me.”
You have me. She tipped her head against his shoulder and let it lie there, the three words safe inside it.
“You have to trust me,” she whispered. “It’s the only way I can train as a nurse. My parents will not permit it unless I entertain Captain Chernov.”
She rubbed her cheek on the material of his jacket. “A few smiles, a few dances, nothing more.” His hands released hers, and her fingers felt bereft. “Jens, it won’t be for long. He’ll soon tire of me and my silences. You and I can still-”
“Still talk to each other.”
He made a sound, then wrapped his arms around her, lifted her onto his lap and tipped her back until she was cradled in his arms and looking up into his face.
“Now,” he said, “let’s talk to each other.”
He lowered his head and kissed her lips. She raised a hand to his hair, twisting fiery strands between her fingers. “You see,” she murmured as his lips brushed along the hollow under her ear and set a pulse racing in her throat, “I’m just like your tunnels.”
“Dark and difficult?”
She tightened her grip on his hair and shook it roughly like the scruff of a stray dog. “Not easy to destroy.”
THE REVOLUTIONARIES WORKED IN POCKETS WITHIN THE city, in individual cells that kept contact to a minimum to reduce the consequences of betrayal. Small furtive groups gathered in basements, huddled in back rooms that smelled of bad tobacco and bitter resentment. Arkin found it impossible to be patient. The food shortages were worse and prices were rising. Trade unions were being shut down, while all the time the gutters heaped higher each night with the sick and the homeless. The middle-class intellectuals continued to call for reform and needed to be taught that reform would never be enough. Only revolution would provide a decent life for Russians.
Beside Arkin sat Sergeyev. He was nursing his arm and smoking a pipe. God only knew what was in it, but it made the dingy room stink of horse dung. There were twelve of them at the meeting in the storeroom of a candle maker’s shop, and the air was thick with tallow. Arkin could taste it at the back of his throat, slick and greasy. At the head of the table sat Krazhkov, a shaggy bearded man who had fought in the Imperial Army against Japan and who spat every time Tsar Nicholas’s name was mentioned. He was older than the rest and had only one leg. He banged his fist down on the table and demanded silence.
“Arkin,” he growled. “You are quiet tonight. What news?”
“The reprisals have started.”
“The murdering bastards!”
“I overheard Minister Ivanov in the car talking to one of his assistants. He says that Stolypin has ordered the Okhrana to fill the prisons to overflowing.”
Anger spilled hot onto the table.
It was Sergeyev who brought them to order. “Comrades, the harder they crack down on us, the more the workers rally to our fight.”
“Sergeyev is right,” Krazhkov agreed. “Each time we plant a bomb or toss a grenade, the Okhrana and the tsar”-he spat on the floor, just missing his dog-“see our strength and fear us. But the proletariat see our strength and respect us. More and more will flock to our side when they start to believe we have the power to crush the rule of the cursed Romanovs.”
“Our problem is that we are desperate for funds,” Arkin pointed out quietly. “Without more roubles, how will we equip this proletariat army?”
But Krazhkov would not be sidetracked. “What else did you hear?”
“The police intend to make an example of the union leaders,” Arkin warned. “The minister was specific about that.”
“We will alert them immediately,” Krazhkov frowned. “We’ll have to get some of them into hiding.”
Sergeyev rapped the table with his pipe stem. “My nephew Yusev works at the Tarasov factory.” The Tarasov brothers owned one of the largest toolmaking factories in Petersburg and drove around in a glossy Benz limousine while their workers begged for bread on the street. “He swears the apprentices are ready to revolt. Just yesterday two more boys died when an overhead gantry snapped.” He pointed his pipe at Arkin. “One was the boy who did the train job with you.”
“No, the short kid, Marat. He’s dead.”
Arkin’s rage was as thick and as stifling as the tallow in the air.
Krazhkov hunched forward with eager eyes. “What do you suggest, Comrade Arkin?”
“Tsar Nicholas may be ruthless enough to send his cavalry to hack and slash at his own people when they march on the streets, but not even he would slaughter the innocent children of Russia. It’s time to use the apprentices of this city.”
THEY LEFT THE MEETING IN PAIRS. FIVE MINUTES BETWEEN each Arkin and Sergeyev went first. They dodged quickly through the darkness along a series of back alleyways until they were far enough from the candle shop to slow their pace. It was snowing softly, and there was scarcely any wind, so that the flakes tumbled straight down from the black sky as gentle as feathers. Arkin welcomed the touch of them on his face. A pulse at the back of his eyes was throbbing, and he knew the dreams would be bad tonight.
“Viktor,” Sergeyev said at his side, “don’t blame yourself. For the danger to union leaders in retaliation for the attack on Stolypin.”
“How can I not?”
“We always knew we would have blood on our hands. Trotsky warned us of that.”
“Did he warn us of-” He stopped his tongue. His companion had enough problems of his own. “Tell me, my friend, how is your wife? Has she given birth yet?”
“Any day now.”
Arkin could hear the pride in Sergeyev’s voice and felt again that unexpected spike of envy. Like a nail hammered under a rib. One day, he told himself, one day you’ll have your own woman. And your own child.
“Give her my best wishes,” he laughed, “and tell her-”
A hand seized his shoulder. He was slammed against a brick wall, knocking the breath from his lungs. His own fist shot out, his knee rammed into a groin. He heard his attacker grunt, felt the hand on his shoulder grow slack, and a body slid to the ground. Another figure loomed out of the darkness.
“Stand still or I’ll put a fucking bullet between your eyes.”
Arkin stood still. He glanced quickly to his right to check on Sergeyev, but his friend was already motionless, his shoulders gathering snow. He was bent over, hugging his arm in its sling as if it had taken a beating.
“What do you bastards want?” Arkin demanded.
“We want some answers from you.”
The man with the Mauser in his hand was broad chested with a beer belly and rolls of flesh instead of muscle. The other, shorter one was sprawled on the icy ground clutching his groin and cursing. They wore black leather coats, shiny as snakeskin, and possessed the cold focused eyes of hunters. They were the Okhrana. No one else.
“It depends,” Arkin said politely, “what the questions are.”
The one on the ground did not take kindly to Arkin’s response, so he stumbled to his feet and slammed an elbow into Arkin’s gut.
“Keep this bastard off me,” Arkin growled, “or I’ll tear his balls off.”
“Vroshchin, back ofl!”
“What questions?” Arkin repeated.
“What are you doing roaming the streets at this hour of the morning?”
Arkin shrugged. “A card game. Nothing sinister. The only trouble is that my stupid friend here lost his rent money and is bleating like a lamb at the thought of telling his wife. Isn’t that so, Mikhail?”
Sergeyev grunted. Arkin laughed and had the satisfaction of seeing the hard mouths of the secret police pull into a sneering smile. The trigger finger relaxed.
“He’s in enough trouble already,” Arkin added, and slapped Sergeyev on the back, straightening him up. “Let me take the poor idiot home.” He tucked his arm under his friend’s good elbow and started to swing him away a few paces. “Good night. Spokoinoi nochi, my friends. It’s too cold to hang around here.” The snow fluttered down thickly, and he was thankful for it.
A few more steps and the snow would swallow them. “Yes?”
“Stand against the wall, hands behind your head.”
“Against the wall.”
Arkin backed against the wall, drawing Sergeyev with him, but he noticed his friend was shaking. The Okhrana officers proceeded to search them with rough hands, turning out their pockets, opening their coats, and Sergeyev kept a protective hand curled over his sling. Arkin’s mind was racing. Something wasn’t right.
“Where have you come from?” demanded the fleshy one with the gun.
“I told you, a card game.”
“Or one of the meetings of revolutionary scum?”
“No, nyet, of course not. I work for one of Tsar Nicholas’s government ministers.”
That made them blink, and the fierce grip on his sleeve loosened a fraction. Sweat trickled down his back despite the cold. In the thin ridge of light that fell from an upstairs window, cutting a yellow slice out of the darkness, he could see the misery on Sergeyev’s face.
“Here! What’s this?” The shorter policeman was yanking at Sergeyev’s injured arm, dragging off the sling. “This fucker has something hidden in here.” The man pushed his fingers under the top layer of bandage and drew out a small pistol that fitted in the palm of his hand. It gleamed pearl white in the falling snow.
Damn you, Sergeyev. Damn you.
The men in black coats showed their teeth. The one with the pistol slammed its butt against Sergeyev’s arm, and he buckled with no sound, but Arkin seized him before he fell and swung him back like a battering ram against the two men. Their eyes opened in surprise as Arkin threw his weight behind the push, and they skidded backward on their heels, arms flailing. The ice underfoot won. Both crashed to the ground. Arkin heard a skull hit concrete, but he didn’t stop to ask whose brains had been rearranged. He snatched the small gun from where it lay on the ground and seized Sergeyev’s good arm.
They ran. Skittering in and out of alleys, pounding down slippery banks, throwing themselves over railings and under archways, hearts straining in the freezing night air. Always they kept to unlit streets. Arkin was slowed by his wounded friend but refused to release his grip on him while behind them they could hear their pursuers’ shrill shouts and foul-mouthed curses. Only once did Arkin risk a glance over his shoulder, and he saw that the shorter one was in the lead, face sharp as a hound on the scent. The fatter one was struggling to keep up but failing. Four shots rang out, but it was too dark and each time the bullet whistled wide.
They kept running and dodging, twisting and turning.
With Sergeyev in tow he scrambled down to a spot beneath a canal bridge and they crouched under its arch, lungs dragging in freezing air. Underfoot the ice crackled if they moved so much as a knee.
“Where are we?” Sergeyev whispered in his ear.
“No idea, but stay quiet.”
For thirty minutes they remained immobile, no more than shadows, disturbing only a cat on its nocturnal run across the thick ice of the canal. When eventually they climbed up the frozen bank, everywhere was silent. The snowfall was heavier, stinging their eyes and gathering in mounds on the toes of their boots. They hurried through the streets, heads ducked down, keeping to the darkest areas of the city, and when they finally reached the Liteiny district they stopped.
Through the lace curtain of snow Arkin peered at his friend’s strained face. “How’s your arm?”
“It’s still attached.”
“Did those bastards do much damage?”
Sergeyev shrugged. “Wherever the Okhrana go, they do damage.”
“You shouldn’t have been carrying the gun. Why did you have it?”
“I swapped a good spade for it in a bar. I thought I’d be safer.” He shrugged again. “I was wrong.”
Arkin thrust the dainty pistol into Sergeyev’s pocket. “Sell it,” he suggested. “It will only get you killed. Buy some food for your wife instead.”
“No.” Sergeyev returned it to him with an apologetic grimace. “You keep it.”
Arkin didn’t argue. Sergeyev was less likely to get into trouble without it. “Take care, my friend.” He rested a hand on his shoulder. “Tell your wife from me, good luck with the baby.”
“It’s what I’m fighting for. To build my son a better future. Thank you, comrade.” He said it awkwardly. “For helping me. My wife will starve if I’m thrown in prison.”
Arkin nodded, an image of her swollen belly vivid in his mind as he drifted away into the night, the snow so thick now that the air was almost solid. In his pocket his hand curled around the pearl-handled gun. Sergeyev was right. It did make him feel safer.
WELL, HOW DO I LOOK?”
“Like a nun.” Katya inspected her sister with a critical eye. “It’s the headdress.”
Valentina twirled on the spot to show off her nurse’s uniform from all angles. It was white and stiff and made her feel like someone else. In the mirror she stared at the tight wimple crossing her forehead in a straight line and at the neat linen folds hanging down to her shoulders, hiding every trace of her hair. It was her first day, and nerves scuttled like ants in her stomach. She patted the starched apron over the plain white frock and smiled at Katya.
“Take a good look.”
“Because when I return from the hospital, I will be different.”
Katya laughed. “Dirty and smelly and dead on your feet, you mean.”
But the look that passed between the sisters lasted a long moment because both knew that wasn’t what she meant at all.
ST. ISABELLA’S HOSPITAL WAS A RABBIT WARREN OF CORRIDORS. Its drafty wards seemed to suck all sound into its granite walls, leaving the place muted and blank. The murmur of voices remained subdued, the groans and coughs halfhearted, as though life within these thick walls existed at a minimal level. The first day altered Valentina’s sense of perspective. It seemed that as Sanitarka Ivanova she was no longer an individual, but an insignificant part of an indifferent machine, and this realization took time to get used to. She had expected other things but not that. The day started with an inspection. A row of nurses lined up and Medsestra Gordanskaya’s small eyes narrowed with pleasure as she pointed out faults. She picked on shoes, apron straps, frayed cuffs, fingernails. Valentina displayed her hands and heard the irritated puff of displeasure when no fault could be found.
Bedpan fodder. Gordanskaya was right. She stopped even noticing the stench of them. She was taught how to make envelope corners on blankets and sheets, folding them around the thin mattresses, told to make and remake them until she did it right. She practiced turning patients in bed and maneuvering soiled sheets from under them.
She was put on a female ward with rows of sad fearful eyes and untidy hair. But Valentina learned not to walk quickly. She learned to look, swiveling her head from side to side, seeing the patients occupying themselves with small empty tasks. Playing cards, sewing, picking their feet, thinking about their next meal. Stiff bodies and closed eyes made her nervous. She witnessed one young frizzy-haired patient suddenly sit up, screaming that there was a worm slithering in her heart and tearing the dressing off her chest so that her breasts hung naked and bloody. Valentina ran to fetch help, calling out for assistance. For that lapse she was reprimanded and had to face Gordanskaya in full flow.
“You don’t run.”
“You don’t shout.”
“You don’t panic.”
“You don’t scare the patients.”
“You don’t make yourself look like the fool you are.”
“You don’t disgrace St. Isabella’s.”
Valentina stared straight ahead, unblinking in the face of Gordanskaya’s wrath, her hands behind her back, toes clenched in her shoes. “I’ll do better,” she vowed.
“You’ll bloody well have to.”
She would bloody well have to.
By the end of the day her hands were raw and her feet felt as if dogs had chewed them up and spat them out. But she had gotten through it without killing any of the patients. That was an achievement. She threw her navy cloak over her uniform, pulled on her valenki boots, and stumbled out into a dark and snowy world.
It seemed impossible that the city of St. Petersburg had continued its usual life, gone through the motions of a normal day when hers had been so completely abnormal. But the carriages rattled past, footmen shouting to each other as they held on at the back. Trams clanked. Boys trundled laden sleds and lights glimmered through the snowfall. Nothing had changed. Except her.
She pulled up her hood and hurried down the steps.
JENS WAS THERE. WAITING FOR HER AT THE CORNER UNDER the streetlamp, just the way he had promised. She walked into the circle of his arms and felt her fatigue and the dull shame of her mistake vanish. Her forehead rested on the damp wool of his coat and she could smell his sweat and exhaustion, a thousand times worse than her own.
“A good day?” he asked.
“Good, yes. The way having a painful tooth removed is good.”
He laughed and pulled her tighter.
“And yours?” she whispered.
“It’s good now. This is where my day starts. The rest I forget. Sanitarka Ivanova, you look tired.”
“No, I’m excited.” She snuggled against him. “And happy.”
He curled an arm around her waist and together they started to walk across St. Petersburg, wrapped together, the snowflakes startlingly cold on their tongues when they laughed.
“Tell me more,” she said, “about your day.”
“Which do you want? Good news or bad?”
“I heard today that construction of the new treatment station is going ahead this year, to provide the north of the city with clean drinking water. The funding is finally all signed and delivered.”
“How do they make the water clean?”
“Long version or short?”
He laughed, a contented roll of sound that spiraled out ahead of him. “The raw water is treated with a coagulant-I’m sure you’re desperate to know which one, so I’ll put you out of your misery by telling you it’s aluminum sulfate-and then pumped to sedimentation tanks.”
“Is that it?”
“No, by no means. This is 1911 and we use the most advanced modern technology there is.”
“So what next?”
“This is the exciting part.”
“I can hardly wait.”
“It’s then supplied to rapid sand filters and…” He paused for dramatic effect.
“Don’t stop now.”
“And ozonized. So,” he said with a broad grin, “I hope you’ll think of all that each time you drink tea in your refined ladies’ drawing room.”
“I swear I shall never look at the water running out of a samovar tap in the same way again.” She brushed her cheek against his shoulder. It was damp. “Sand filters indeed!”
They walked the dimly lit streets together, her hip against his thigh. It pleased her, considering the difference in height, how easily and how naturally they fitted together.
“Now,” he said, turning his head to look directly at her, “tell me, how did your day go?” There were snowflakes caught on his eyebrows.
“First, tell me your bad news.”
He shook his head, and his mouth, always so expressive, turned down at the corners. A chill that had nothing to do with the cold air of the river ran down her tired legs and made her uneasy.
“Tell me, Jens,” she murmured.
He hesitated, and for a moment she thought he was going to lie, to cover over whatever it was that was concerning him, but he didn’t. Instead he stopped and pulled her into the uncertain circle of light from a lamppost. The hood of her cape was raised over her nurse’s headdress and he slid his hands inside it, tugging out the clips that held the white material in place so that he could touch her hair.
“One day,” he said, “I want to brush out your beautiful hair.” His fingers buried themselves among its waves. Strong capable hands. Hands that knew how to do things. “Valentina,” he said quietly. “I’m frightened for you.”
She placed her gloved hands on each side of his jaw as if she could manipulate the words in his mouth. “Why, Jens? Why should I be frightened?”
“Nurse Ivanova, haven’t you heard?”
“That cholera is back.”
WELL? HOW WAS IT?”
”It was good, Mama, thank you for asking. I learned a lot.”
She’d been surprised to find her mother waiting for her in the doorway of the small reading room the moment she arrived home. She was dressed in a burgundy evening gown and wore rubies in her hair.
“Come in here, please, Valentina.”
“I’m weary, Mama. Please let me wash and change first.”
“No. I need to talk to you first.”
“What is it that is so urgent, Mama? It’s not Katya, is it?”
“No, it’s not your sister.” Her mother looked at her sadly. “You have to keep your side of the bargain.” Her tone was gentle. “I know you’re tired, but…”
Valentina realized what was coming next.
“You have one hour, Valentina. To get yourself ready.”
“Ready for what?”
“To go out. Don’t forget, Captain Chernov is calling for you to take you to supper.”
“Mama,” she said carefully, “would you ask the Captain to be so kind as to postpone the supper. I will be no kind of company for him tonight. Honestly, I’m too tired to think, never mind to entertain anyone.”
“Valentina.” Her mother’s voice was flat. “You agreed to this. It’s all arranged.”
“Please, not today.” She couldn’t bear the thought of Chernov.
“You gave us your word. You must keep it. This is important. Do you understand me, Valentina?”
“Yes, Mama. I understand.”
Her mother smiled, but her eyes remained watchful. “Thank you,” she said, as she kissed her daughter’s cheek and walked out of the room. Valentina closed her eyes. Slowly she lifted the shoulder seam of her damp cape, put her face to it, and inhaled. Was that Jens? That smell of something new. Or was that the hospital?
Quickly she ran upstairs, feeling her muscles twitch with fatigue. But the first thing she did when she entered her room was to take out the list and strike a line through Number 5.
Then with a smile she added another. A big fat line through Number 3. Find employment.
CAPTAIN STEPAN CHERNOV ARRIVED IN A MAGNIFICENT shiny black rig that bore his family’s crest on its doors and was pulled by two pairs of perfectly matched horses. He took her to Donon’s, a fashionable French restaurant. When she learned he had booked a private room, she was alarmed, but she needn’t have worried. He was unfailingly polite and courteous, at times even hesitant, uncertain what to say to her now they were alone. She didn’t help him.
Over oysters and caviar there were long awkward silences, which she didn’t attempt to break. At one point her eyelids turned into lead weights and slowly descended, but she managed not to fall asleep into her plate of baked sturgeon or into its mustard and olive sauce. Over coffee Chernov leaned forward and stubbed out his black cigarette with its gold filter, a quick impatient gesture.
“Am I boring you?” he asked.
The question was so unnecessary that she started to laugh. She didn’t mean to, but she couldn’t help herself, and once she’d started she couldn’t stop. Laughter just bubbled out of her. It was tiredness. And the absurdity of what she was doing here with this man, the stupidity of her father if he thought she would be forced into marrying a blond mustache because it carried a high price tag.
Captain Chernov sat in his chair opposite her, watching her. She clamped both hands over her mouth to silence the sounds, but they still sneaked out between her fingers. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
“Valentina, please stop.”
She nodded. More tears.
He took his time lighting a cigarette, observing her through the smoke. “So I amuse you, then.”
His face drew nearer across the table, and she could see his blue eyes spark as he studied her. Was it bewilderment? Or just plain fury that she was behaving so badly? She had no idea.
“So,” he said. With a sudden dramatic sweep of his arm, he brushed all the glass and crockery onto the floor in a crash that sent splinters of crystal flying around the private dining room. “Now we have a bare table in front of us. We can start again, you and I. You can put on it whatever you choose.”
He watched her closely as he continued to smoke his strong-smelling black cigarette.
The laughter stopped, as did the stifling boredom. She lifted a corner of the white damask tablecloth, wiped her eyes, and hiccuped softly.
“Some rules,” she said.
“If you have anything to say, you say it to me. Not to my parents.”
He looked surprised, the pale freckles on his nose darkening so that they looked like tiny bruises. “Agreed.”
“I know you have already spoken to my father, but I want nothing settled. Not for twelve months.”
“A whole year! That’s… inconsiderate of you.”
“It’s what I insist on.” She was buying herself time.
“Then I agree to it.”
“Now my turn, Valentina.”
“Only one rule.”
“No other men. I’ll kill any other men.”
She stared down at the smashed fragments lying around their feet like the torn feathers of some wretched bird. “You’re not afraid of breaking things, are you, Stepan? To get what you want.”
A dull flush crept up his cheeks and along the side of his nose. “I’m a soldier, Valentina.”
As if that explained it.
“Stepan.” He watched her mouth as she talked. “If I speak with other men or walk with other men or even dance with other men, I don’t expect to find them dead at my feet.”
“Of course not.” He shrugged his shoulder, his epaulets shifting uncomfortably. “I didn’t mean…”
Her lips formed a smile. “I know what you meant.”
“So, what now? A nightclub? The Aquarium, I suggest. You’ll like it there. It has fish tanks on the walls of its dance floor.”
“No,” Valentina said. “Now I go home and get some sleep.”
AT THE HOSPITAL, SHE LEARNED TO NOTICE THE SMALL things. Little telltale signs. A droop of a mouth, fingernails turning blue, a sudden rash on the skin, a mild shortness of breath. She learned to look for them. Even a change in the smell of the hated bedpans was a signal.
Her first death came at the end of the first week. It was a thin-haired woman who slipped away from life as unobtrusively as she had occupied it, and the sorrow that jumped into Valentina’s chest was out of all proportion. She hid in the sluice room, angry with herself. She’d barely known the poor woman, yet tears flowed down her cheeks and she had to hold a wet cloth over her mouth to silence the sobs. She would die of shame if Medsestra Gordanskaya found her like this.
That evening when she came down the steps, Jens knew at once. “Valentina,” he said, “it was never going to be easy.”
As they walked, his pace slowed. She didn’t know if it was for her or himself, or just to delay the moment of parting. For today at least, winter had eased its grip on St. Petersburg and a fine drizzle trickled out of the dark sky, refreshing with its light touch and its tang of the sea after the cold dismal corridors of the hospital. Her nostrils burned from the stink of disinfectant.
“So,” he asked, “how was the dreaded medsestra today?”
“A slave driver. Had me turning mattresses and swabbing floors.”
“Good for her. It’s what you young slackers need.”
Valentina prodded him in the ribs. “I’ll shut you up with an anesthetic injection if you say things like that.”
“Oh, I’m impressed. You mean you’ve started giving injections already?”
“No, not yet. But”-she tilted her face up at him-“I could practice on you.”
He chuckled and tucked her arm through his, holding on to her hand. “You can practice anything on me.”
She liked the way he said it. A horse cantered past and the rider called out, “Dobriy vecher, good evening,” as if they were any ordinary couple wending their way home to cook schnitzel and read aloud to each other in front of the fire. That thought did odd things to her heart. She wondered if he felt it too.
“How is Katya?” Jens asked. An unexpected question.
“She’s cross. Thoroughly bad-tempered.”
“Because she’s better at the moment. In less pain.”
“Isn’t that cause to be happy?”
“No. It means her tutor comes every day and makes her do mathematics, which she hates.”
He laughed. She loved his laugh. It was as much a part of him as his red hair and his long rangy limbs. The sound of it came to her sometimes at night and woke her. In her dreams, he sat on the end of her bed, his red hair shimmering in the moonlight, and told her things while his black shadow shifted from wall to wall. She was certain that what he told her was vital for her to know, yet each morning it all vanished the moment she raised her eyelids.
“Jens,” she said as they crossed a bridge, “how is progress on the collapsed tunnel?”
“It must be frustrating for you.”
He shrugged, but she wasn’t fooled.
“I’m taking this opportunity,” he added, “of using the Duma’s outrage to channel more funds into replacing another section of the old wooden sewage pipes and improving the gradients into Neva Bay.”
They had stopped at a crossroad, pausing as two heavy horse-drawn wagons trundled past, rain gleaming on the animals’ thick coats.
“Jens, why is it you care so much for your tunnels?”
“It’s my job.”
She laughed and shook her head. The hood of her cape slid down. She had removed her nurse’s head covering but was still wearing her hospital uniform. “Yes, it’s your job, but it’s obvious the tunnels mean more to you than that.”
She fastened both hands on his arm, holding him there on the curb though the road had cleared. The rain was growing heavier, streaking through the darkness, coating the roofs and puddling on the roads. Later it would turn to ice.
“What makes you want to build tunnels? Instead of bridges, like your Isambard Brunel in England. He built the beautiful Clifton Suspension Bridge, didn’t he?”
“I am impressed.”
She stood on tiptoe and kissed his chin. A slight stubble felt rough against her lips. “Do you know what I think?”
“Tell me what goes on in that convoluted mind of yours.”
“I have a theory. I think you like to impose order on chaos.”
“Hah! That’s quite a theory.”
“A pile of bricks, you turn them into a tunnel. A city that needs pipes underground, you work out the gradients. A row of houses sinking in filth and flooded basements, you give them a sewerage system. Order out of chaos.”
His face was still, eyes intent on hers. Only his breath moved, lacing in and out of the raindrops. He lifted his head and stared up at the roofs of the city. Above them a blanket of low clouds blacked out any hope of stars. “Petersburg itself needs cleansing. Not just its water supply.”
“Come with me, Jens. I want you to see something.” She seized his hand and together they ran across the road.
ARKIN PEELED HIMSELF OFF THE WALL OF THE SHOP DOORWAY. He slid out of the shadows into the sleeting rain as the headlights of a car picked out the figures of Valentina and her engineer. They were running, her cape flapping like wings, as if they could sense him stalking behind them, even though he was certain they couldn’t. He was too careful.
The rain served him well. People scuttled along the sidewalks under a wave of umbrellas that created a black barrier for him to duck behind. He tracked Valentina and Jens easily, following their twists and turns. He waited patiently in dark corners when they stopped at shops, curious about what lay in the bundles under their arms when they emerged.
He saw more than he wanted. The way they touched each other. The way they could not stop looking at each other, again and again, so often they could have stumbled on the road. The way their bodies never lost contact, as though drawn together by an invisible thread. He saw it all.
They were moving fast now, choosing unlit roads. Making it easy for him.
IT TOOK VALENTINA SOME TIME TO FIND THE RIGHT ROAD, but as soon as she turned into it she recognized the place. The wind had picked up, driving rain into their faces.
“This is the house.”
Jens showed no inclination to knock at the door where she had stopped. In fact he showed no inclination to be taking part in this expedition at all, but she had steered him into these backstreets, aware of his disapproval. His shoulders were set in a hard line.
“This is no place for you, Valentina. Your nurse’s uniform is not a disguise, you know. It doesn’t hide what you are. It’s not safe for you here.”
She laughed at him, provoking a frown. “Of course it’s safe. I’ve got you with me. Look, this is the door.”
Jens pushed at it, and it swung open with a grating sound. He led the way over the threshold and they were hit by the rank smell, so strong this time that Valentina lifted her handkerchief over her nose. The door to the left was closed, but this time there were no children to challenge her, so she walked over and knocked. There was no response from inside. Jostling his bundles, Jens tried the handle and it turned easily. The room was freezing cold and lay in semidarkness, just one stub of a candle spitting out a reluctant light. Valentina grew wary, knowing that the woman with the damaged skull had not welcomed her the first time.
“Varenka?” she called.
As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, she took in the silence. There was no bustle of children or squawk of a baby. No noise at all except a hot harsh breath like the sound of a wheezy horse. The smell in the room was worse than in the hallway.
“Varenka?” she said again.
There was a movement on the bed. A hand tugged at a blanket and a face grayer than ash stared at them through slits of eyes. It was Varenka. She wore no scarf on her head, the scars visible in the semi-darkness, but she roused herself to a sitting position.
“Get out,” she hissed. “Leave me in peace.”
Valentina dropped the bundle of kindling she was carrying and hurried over to the bed, shaking out the thick folds of the woolen blanket she had brought. But Jens seized her arm and jerked her away from the bed.
“Don’t,” he said sharply. “I’ll light the fire and then we’ll leave.”
Valentina yanked her hand away. “No. Now I’m here I want to cook her some eggs and-”
“Go away.” The woman sank back down. There was no pillow. Just a bare soiled mattress and a patched blanket that stank of vomit and worse.
“I’m a nurse now,” Valentina pointed out. “I can help.”
She’d never lit a fire before. Never cooked eggs before. But she was determined to do so now. She calmly set about looking for a pan while Jens organized the fire. He was efficient in his movements, spreading kindling in the stove, using the paper bags that he’d carried the food in to catch the flame from his match. Instantly the fire’s glow cast more light into the room, and Valentina shuddered. The place was filthy, worse than filthy, with a metal bucket overflowing with excrement in one corner and yellow trails of dried vomit across the floor. She felt bile rise in her throat.
“Jens,” she murmured. “I expected that we would present her with the food, thank her again for her help with Katya, and leave. Debt canceled.” She looked around her. “But now this.”
His face hardened as he looked at the woman on the bed. “She’s sick, Valentina. You can smell how sick she is. If you stay here, you’re taking a risk. We don’t know what she’s got and you could catch-”
She put a finger to his lips. “Just a few minutes, Jens. We’ll be quick.”
“I know,” he said. “You won’t leave this sick stranger any more than you will leave your Katya. That’s who you are.”
He wrapped his arms around her as though the woman weren’t watching with envious eyes. He kissed Valentina’s forehead. It silenced the chattering of her teeth. “We’ll be quick,” she promised.
“You’re a nurse.” His smile, when it came, did something extraordinary to her insides. It made them hum, taut as piano strings.
THEY WORKED TOGETHER, SIDE BY SIDE WITH SCARVES looped around their noses and mouths, their hands safe inside their gloves. They took shallow breaths, gulping in air only when they ducked outside into the street. The night air tasted sweet by comparison, though in reality it was acrid with factory waste and God only knew what else.
The worst came at the start. Valentina approached the bed.
“Where is the baby?” she asked.
The woman seemed to convulse, her limbs twisted in pain. “Dead,” the woman said flatly.
“I’m so sorry.”
Valentina squinted into the gloom of the far side of the bed. Only then did she make out the three small bundles under the edge of the blanket, so thin and flat they looked no more than rumples in the material. She leaned closer. So there were the other children.
“Stay away,” the woman snapped.
Valentina took a quick look at the small bluish-gray faces and turned away. “I’ll find some water,” she said. “There must be a pump somewhere in the street.”
She snatched an earthenware bowl from a shelf and hurried outside. She only just made it. In the darkest corner she vomited up her day’s food, wiped her mouth on her sleeve, and stood in the rain, her face turned up to the clean cold blast of it. The children in the bed were the ones who had accepted her coins with such eagerness. Now they lay there beside their mother, still and stiff. All dead. By the time she had found a water pump and was making her way back to the house, a stray dog was gobbling up her vomit.
THE DOOR SLAMMED OPEN, STARTLING VALENTINA AS SHE was boiling up another can of water on the stove. Even after boiling, the liquid still looked gray and brackish.
“Who the hell are you?” A man in an army greatcoat with the insignia cut off, dark at the shoulders from the rain, had kicked his way into the room.
Even without the swaying of his stocky figure, it was obvious he was drunk. He threw his cloth cap onto the floor, revealing a shaven head and skin that was mottled with brown speckles like birds’ eggs.
“What the hell are you doing in my house? Get away from my wife.”
Jens moved immediately. He took the skillet out of Valentina’s hand and swung her cape over her shoulders. “We’re just going.” He threw a hefty handful of rouble notes on the table. “Get your wife a doctor and your children a decent burial.”
“You.” The man was trying to focus on Valentina but had to blink hard. “Who are you? What’s a pretty thing like you doing in-”
“She’s leaving,” Jens said. His voice was as cold as the dog in the street.
“We came to help your wife,” Valentina said. “You should be here helping her yourself.”
“Shut up!” The man lunged for her.
She sidestepped him with ease. But before he could unscramble his feet, he was slammed against the wall with a crash that cracked the plaster and Jens’s forearm was jammed across his throat.
“Don’t push your luck,” Jens growled.
“Ivan,” the woman on the bed wailed. “Please, don’t hurt my husband.”
Jens released the man. “You are of no interest to me,” he said sourly. “Your wife once helped my friend here, and she wished to return the favor. That’s all.”
“You bloodsucking parasites.”
Jens shrugged and moved away, keeping himself between Valentina and Ivan. He pulled out a cigarette and lit it, tossing another to the man, who caught it and pushed it between his lips.
“Do you work?” Jens asked.
“Yes. Da. I work fucking hard every bloody day.”
“In the Raspov foundry.”
“Foundry work is tough,” Jens commented.
“So am I.”
“Ivan,” the woman called. “They’ve helped. Look at the fire.”
For the first time the man’s bloodshot eyes shifted around the room, and his gaze took in the food package on the table and the new candle on the shelf. Finally it settled on the flames in the stove, and the sight of them seemed to sober him. He shuffled over to the candle flame and stuck his cigarette in it, drew on it with satisfaction, and held his callused palms out to the warmth of the fire.
“You’ve come from one of the meetings, haven’t you?” Jens gestured at the pamphlet sticking out of the man’s coat pocket.
“Da, I have. What’s it to you?”
“What are they saying now?”
“They’re saying we’ll soon be rid of the lot of you. Justice for the proletariat is so fucking close we can taste it. We stand shoulder to shoulder, comrades in arms. We are organized.”
“I hear the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks are at each other’s throats.”
“You hear wrong.”
Valentina sensed Jens being drawn in. He’d said, You are of no interest to me, but it wasn’t true; she could see it in his eyes.
He nodded but didn’t shift his gaze from this Ivan, this man of committees and strikes whose wife lay sick. This man whose house she had just scrubbed, whose excrement bucket she had helped empty, whose children lay dead and unheeded on his bed while he drank himself stupid.
“Time to leave,” she said.
Still Jens didn’t move.
“It needn’t be like this, Ivan,” he said. “There are people working for change within the government, men like Garyatan and Kornov. The Committee of Industrial Development is meeting with factory owners, forcing changes that improve the conditions for the workers.”
“No, it’s true.”
“They tell you lies. The factory owners pay off the bastards on your committees with fat bribes. Nothing is changing.” The man’s face sank into folds of despair. “Nothing. You are fools, people like you, if you believe this can be settled with talk.”
“The alternative, comrade, is rivers of blood on Nevsky.”
“So be it.”
Valentina strode over to the door and yanked it open.
“Who are you?” Ivan asked her. “A dainty little rich girl. I bet your father is someone important. Corrupt and worthless, but important.”
“How dare you?” She wanted to slap the loose smile from his face. “My father is Minister Ivanov, and he is an honest and upright man.”
Suddenly Jens took a grip on her shoulder and hurried her into the street. The freezing rain sank like ice picks into her cheek.
“Valentina,” he muttered as he marched her away from the house, “you should not have said that.”
“But it’s true. My father is an upright man.”
“You should not have said your name.”
ARKIN WATCHED THEM DISAPPEAR UP THE RAIN-SODDEN street, the engineer’s arm clasped around the girl’s waist, her head on his shoulder. As if they owned each other. He watched them until they were out of sight, and then he strolled across the road to the front door they had just left.
It didn’t take much. A quick nudge of his shoulder and it sprang open. No lights. A filter of night sky through the cracks of the door. So he stood for a moment, listening, waiting for his eyes to adjust. Why this hovel? What made her come here? What the hell was she doing? He wondered what her mother would say when her daughter came home laden with lice and fleas.
From the doorway of the house opposite he had watched the pair of them go in and out with buckets of stinking shit and of water; he had seen the girl lean over and vomit against the wall in the pouring rain. She had marched right back into the hall and turned to the door on her left. It opened at the touch of his knuckles, and he stepped inside.
A big man with a shaven head was slumped at a table, glaring at him with bloodshot eyes. A woman lay on the bed, and her lifeless gaze sent a shudder through him.
“I’m here to talk to you, comrade,” he said to the man, “nothing more.”
It was the use of the word comrade that did it.
“Talk about what?” the man asked suspiciously.
“Them!” Dirty fingers tore a chunk off the loaf of black bread and pushed it into his mouth. “What about them?”
“Why were they here?”
“Bringing bread and blankets to my wife. When what we really need is a decent wage so that we can buy our own bloody bread.” He sank his head on his arms on the table.
Arkin took a few paces nearer the bed. It smelled bad. “Did they say anything?” he asked the sick woman.
“They just brought you gifts?”
“She is my friend,” she whispered.
He almost laughed out loud. This woman and Valentina. But he recalled again how she’d stood in the rain. And then, still, she’d returned to this place. As if she cared.
“Who are you?” the woman croaked.
“I work for her father.”
So she’d told them that much.
“She came once before,” the woman mumbled. “With her sister.”
Now he understood. This must be where Popkov tracked them to the day of the march on Morskaya, and Valentina had not forgotten the kindness.
“Where does your husband work?” he enquired.
The foundry on the edge of the city. Immediately he went back to the table, lit a cigarette for himself and one for the husband, then prodded him awake.
“Here.” He offered the smoke.
The man took it with ill grace and sat up bleary-eyed. “You still here?”
“You work at the Raspov foundry.”
“You have many apprentices there.”
“What of it?”
Abruptly the woman started to retch, and Arkin rose quickly to put a zinc bowl in front of her. He reached over to pull up the blanket but jumped back in shock. Three faces, tiny and gray as stone.
“Leave them.” Her voice was a faint whisper.
Sorrow for her lay like lead in his chest. “I know a priest,” he said softly. “May I bring him here?”
Her wretched eyes clung to his as she nodded. He headed quickly for the door, stopping only to shake the man by the shoulder. “Sleep it off, comrade. I will be back and I shall want to talk to you about your Raspov apprentices.”
The man looked bemused. “Why?”
“Because I have a job for them.”
VALENTINA DIDN’T GO STRAIGHT HOME. SHE SAID SHE couldn’t, not yet. Jens bundled her into a drozhky and took her to his own apartment, but he was acutely conscious of the impropriety of doing so. A young woman after dark without a chaperone, but neither of them could bear to face a public place right now, with strangers’ eyes inspecting her disheveled and stained appearance.
“Valentina,” he said, “let me dry your hair.”
She was seated in a deep armchair, and its high sides swallowed her small frame. Her hands lay white as bone in her lap. He approached her with a towel, and she looked up at him for the first time, a quick flash of her dark eyes. He let her hold on to her silence while he unpinned her hair and stroked its damp strands with the towel, slow rhythmic sweeps that ran from the crown of her head where the hair was wettest. It fell in a dense mass of waves that clung to her scalp, outlining the elegant shape of her skull. He dried them right down to the tips where they danced and curled, teasing his fingers.
The intimacy of the task was immense, more intimate than a kiss. He perched on the arm of her chair and she sat with her head slightly bowed as he dried it, so that time and again the strands would fall forward, revealing the pale slender stem of her neck. At one point he cupped her chin in his hands to hold it steady while he rubbed gently at the top of her head, but still she said nothing. Just let her chin sit in his palm, as if it belonged there.
He continued to stroke the dark mane long after it was dry, first with the towel and then with his hand. It sparked within its shimmering depths as he lifted it and entranced him with the way the light rippled within it like moonlight in a restless night sky. He relished the silky sensation of it on his skin and the way it slid smooth as ink between his fingers.
He leaned his head down and kissed the nape of her neck.
HOW DO THEY LIVE LIKE THAT?”
She was talking now. He had fed her pirozhki and a glass of hot chocolate, tempting her out of the dark place she was hiding in. He was seated on the sofa opposite her, his legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, enjoying a glass of red wine. He was trying to distract her.
“Do you know,” he asked, “that over half of the wine produced in France is freighted to Russia. Can you believe that? We drink more wine than any other nation on earth.”
He often caught himself using we. We Russians. Our country. As though he were one of them, someone from Perm or from Tver.
“I couldn’t live like that,” she said staring into the fire. “Not like that.”
He knew she was not going to let it go.
“We all live,” he responded quietly, “the best way we can.”
“I would rather be dead.”
“I doubt that. And anyway,” he added, “I would come each day and light your fire for you. And dry your hair whenever it rained and brush out the tangles when the wind caught it.”
She lifted her head.
“Then when the summer came,” he continued, “instead of attending glittering balls at Anichkov Palace or lavish meals at Donon’s or nights at the ballet in diamond-studded evening gowns, I’d walk you in your rags down to a quiet spot on the banks of the Neva and we’d eat boiled eggs and dangle our feet in the river.”
Her head turned. Her eyes met his. “And music?” she asked in a solemn voice. “In this new world of yours, would there be music? Or no piano for me, no opera, no ballet?”
“Of course there’d be music,” he smiled at her. “You would sing for me to the music of water lapping around our ankles, and I would accompany you on my violin.”
Her mouth dropped open. “You play the violin?”
“Not play exactly. More like scraping out a few squawky notes that make a tomcat sound musically accomplished by comparison. But,” he hurried on, “I would improve, I promise.”
She laughed. “You warned me before to beware of the Neva River,” she pointed out. “You told me it was polluted.”
“Well, that’s the advantage of having a sewage tunnel engineer to steer you to the right spots. I know all the secret nooks where the fouled currents don’t reach.”
“Is it really so polluted?”
He didn’t want to have this conversation. He shrugged. “It could be cleaner.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I’d rather play my violin for you.”
Her eyes grew round as coins, and he was embarrassed. Only a visiting mouse had ever listened to his playing. She scooped up her knees to her chest and balanced her small chin on them with a stubborn tilt. He was tempted to pick her up and pop her in his pocket.
“Play,” she commanded.
He stood, gave her a deep bow with an elaborate flourish as though doffing his cap to one of the Romanov grand duchesses, and said, “I am totally at your service, mademoiselle.”
He meant it. But he wasn’t sure she knew that yet.
DON’T!” JENS INSISTED. “I can’t help it.”
“It is unkind.”
“I know.” Valentina collapsed into great whoops of laughter again. “Unkind to human ears!”
“That’s not what I meant.”
Jens frowned at her sternly, bounced his violin bow against the neck, and tapped his foot with mock impatience on the polished floorboards. He was standing in the middle of the room, violin tucked under his chin as comfortable as an old friend. He’d been performing a section of Bizet’s Toreador Song for her, but paying it scant attention. It was lively and made her laugh; that was all he cared about. She’d seen too much today. Now he wanted her to laugh. She did so with the total abandon of a child. Her nose turned pink, her lovely mouth burst wide open, and her eyes scrunched up, bright with tears. And the dark glossy wings of hair that he had dried and smoothed so lovingly broke loose and took flight around her as she rocked with noisy laughter.
She was still young; he had to remind himself of that. Young and vulnerable.
He placed the violin and bow down on the table with a clatter, glared ferociously at his audience of one, and stalked over to the sofa where he sat down, stiff and offended, arms folded across his chest. But she wasn’t fooled for a moment. She flung herself out of the chair and pounced like a hungry cat on the patch of sofa beside him. She laid a hand on his wrist and tugged his arms apart.
“We must teach these fingers,” she laughed, holding up his left hand, “these culprits!” She threw back her head with delight and rolled her eyes at him, then tenderly pressed the tip of each culprit to her lips as though forgiving them. “Teach them to know what they’re doing.”
Did she know, he wondered, what she was doing?
“I shall find you a teacher,” she declared.
“Can’t you teach me?”
“No, no.” She grinned at him. “Anyway we’d only end up shouting at each other.”
He tweaked her pink nose. “That might be fun.”
“I don’t shout at Anna, Dr. Fedorin’s daughter, when I teach her the piano but that’s because she’s well behaved. I have a feeling you wouldn’t be well behaved.”
Their eyes held, and he knew the moment lasted too long when he heard a tiny gasp seep out from between her lips. He looked away because she’d seen too much of what was in him.
“Valentina, it’s time I took you home.”
She half-lowered her lids, looking up at him through her dense eyelashes, and he was certain that if he didn’t get to his feet now, he would never do so. He retrieved his hand as a first step, but the look on her face froze him to his seat. It was naked. Openly revealing her need for him, dark and desperate.
“Jens,” she whispered, her eyes fixed on his, “I am frightened of losing you.”
“You will never lose me, my love. You and I belong together. Don’t you realize that?”
He curled an arm around her, drawing her closer, and she leaned into him, snuggling her head on his chest as though trying to listen to his heartbeat. He held her there. Only their breathing sounded in the room, light and even, as they matched each other breath for breath. For a long time they sat like that, watching the light from the fire throw shadows that crept nearer, nudging their knees and hiding in their shoes. Jens kissed the top of her head, warm and musky.
“Jens.” Her voice was thick. “Tell me who you are.”
No one had ever asked him such a question before. He thought about it and started to talk. About his childhood spent on boats and beaches in Denmark, about building things, with pebbles, with rocks, with driftwood. About a bridge design that won him a prize, about a boat that sank and nearly managed to drown him and his dog in the gulf. He owned up to his passion for engines, for machines, for anything that possessed moving parts. He talked about the Wright brothers in America and Louis Blériot in France.
“Aeroplane flight,” he said. “That’s the future. You’ll see.”
He felt her smile. She didn’t believe him.
“Your parents?” she queried.
He kept that part short. His father’s printing business in Copenhagen, their arguments when Jens informed him that he wanted to study engineering instead. The disappointment in his mother’s kindly brown eyes. He still wrote to them once a month, but he hadn’t been back to Denmark for five years.
“I am Russian now,” he declared.
“As Russian as a giraffe.”
He told her more about his hopes for Russia and his longing that it would find stability through talking and compromise, not through violence. But he didn’t mention the war he was certain must come; he kept his fears locked away from her. Gradually he felt the weight of her head on his chest increase and sensed the melting of her body into the lines of his own. Her hip molded against his hip.
“Tell me about the countess’s son.”
So it was then that he told her about Alexei.
“Alexei is Countess Serova’s son, only six years old. You’d like him, Valentina. He has such courage.” His fingers stroked her slender shoulder. “Like you,” he said under his breath. “Just like you. You have to understand, my love, that I can’t desert Alexei. I can’t turn my back on the boy. His father, Count Serov, cares only for his own gaudy life at court and his mistress in her lavish apartment on the English Embankment. The countess is angry. She resents the boy because…”
He let his words trail away. Natalia Serova’s emotions were far too complex to untangle so simply. He put his lips to Valentina’s cheek, inhaling again the hospital smell rising from her uniform, and wrapped both arms around her, rocking her, holding her. “Be generous, Valentina,” he whispered. “Let me keep Alexei. I have grown to love the boy, and he is not to blame for my mistakes with his mother. She and I are finished. Don’t ever doubt that.”
To his surprise she let the subject lie untouched. Instead she lifted her mouth to his and kissed him fiercely, erasing all memory of other lips, imprinting her own. Laying claim. Her fingers undid the buttons of his shirt, stumbling over them, and her palms brushed his skin, tentative at first. But when he ran a hand down her spine, seeking out the delicate curves under her uniform, she grew bolder. Her hands caressed his naked chest and her lips tracked down the beat of his heart.
He kissed her neck, tasted her skin, felt her hair trail like threads of silk over his ribs and smelled the musky scent of her. Not of her uniform, of her, the slender hungry creature inside it. His desire for her raced through his veins and he forced himself to his feet.
“No, Valentina.” The words came out roughly. “No, my sweet love, you are too young. You must go home.” The words cost him dear.
Her gaze fixed on him so intently that he had to force himself to look away. Yet her voice was soft and teasing.
“How old were you when you first made love to a woman?”
“That’s not the point.”
“I think it is. You made the decision for yourself. Now I am doing the same.”
She stood up slowly and without hesitation proceeded to undo the many buttons on her cuffs and bodice. She didn’t look at him but concentrated on what she was doing as if she were alone in her room. He stood there, his back to the fire, and watched her. Watched her when her arm emerged from a sleeve and he saw for the first time the pale secret skin of her shoulder, the way it gleamed in the firelight, fresh and smooth as buttermilk.
He watched while she untied the laces of her stays and he could see clearly the form of her ribs under her camisole. He watched as she removed her wool stockings, balancing on one leg with the ease of long habit, rolling down each stocking with care, revealing slender white thighs. He must have breathed, but he was not aware of it. His heart must have continued beating, but he was sure it had stopped. It was as though for this moment he lost all ability to do anything but watch her.
She dipped her head, allowing the sleek veil of her hair to fall forward so that he could not see her expression when she slid out of her last garments. She stood naked before him and, God forgive him, he wanted her more than he wanted his own life.
“You are beautiful,” he said softly.
She lifted her head and smiled at him. Her cheeks were flushed and her eyes darker than he’d ever seen them. Her breath came in short swift gasps. If he put his lips to hers, he knew they would be hot.
“I love you,” she said.
The nakedness of her statement was more overwhelming than her beautiful body. Naked in its simplicity. In its trust. He stooped, picked up her cloak that was drying in front of the fire, and walked over to her. So close he could see a faint sheen of moisture between her young breasts.
“Valentina, if you don’t wrap up in this right now,” he said sternly, swinging the cloak around her shoulders and fastening it under her chin, “I shall ravish you in front of the fire.” He refused to look at the expression in her eyes. “Now dress your exquisite self once more while I fetch us a drink.”
He walked from the room. In the kitchen he leaned over the sink, ran cold water, and splashed it over his face and throat. He poured himself a shot of vodka and drank it down.
“Valentina,” he murmured, “what is it you’ve done to me?”
He gave her time. After a few minutes had passed, when his pulse was steadier and he thought she’d be dressed, he refilled his own drink, poured out a lemonade for her, and, with a glass in each hand, walked back into the room. Immediately a long groan escaped him. The light was off and she was stretched out on the reindeer rug in front of the fire, the glow of its flames dancing over her skin, painting her naked body golden. A wide smile greeted him.
“Are all Vikings so slow to ravish their women?”
WAS HER SKIN DEAD BEFORE?
It must have been. Pale, lifeless, and limp. Because it came alive on the reindeer rug in a way Valentina didn’t know was possible. She no longer recognized this extraordinary covering on her body as hers. Each pore, each fine layer, each smooth unexplored part of it possessed a separate existence of its own that only needed the touch of Jens’s lips to bring it to life. The hollow of her throat, the inner curve of her elbow, the thin coating over each individual rib. Now they vibrated with life. When he kissed the underside of each breast, his tongue warm and moist as it circled up toward her nipple, it was as if her skin started to re-form. To become something other than skin.
Her fingers twisted his shirt from his shoulders, and she laid the flat of her hands on his chest, on his back, feeling the ridges of muscle. Exploring the structure of him, the sinews, the hard lines of his bones, her hands learning the intimate shape of him. She could feel the heat within him. Or was that radiating from herself, from the blood racing from her heart to the tips of her fingers?
When she tasted with her tongue the path of coppery curls that rose from his belt buckle to his throat, he uttered a sound she’d never heard before. It ricocheted up from somewhere deep in his lungs and somehow became a part of her, drumming in her head.
Quickly he slid out of his clothes and, with a noise like Thor’s hammer resounding in her ears, he carried her to his bed.
VALENTINA DIDN’T WANT TO LEAVE. BUT JENS MADE HER. She didn’t know how she persuaded her body to rise, to abandon the sheets that smelled of him, to lift her head out of the warm curve of his pillow. Her skin still felt his touch and her body was still shaking with pleasure as he lifted her into his carriage and drove her back to her father’s house. When the footman opened the door, she was certain he could see the change in her, smell the musk on her, and she hurried across the hall.
She stopped, one foot on the bottom stair, acutely aware of her untidy appearance. She had thought to reach her room unseen. “Yes, Papa?”
He was standing in the doorway of the drawing room, his face flushed. He was in full evening dress and in his hand he brandished a glass of champagne, which he jabbed in her direction, sending golden spills down his white waistcoat.
“Valentina, it’s late.”
“Where have you been?”
“At the hospital, at St. Isabella’s.”
“Till this hour?”
“There was an emergency. An accident in one of the factories.” She wasn’t any good at lying.
He viewed her uniform with distaste. “So you cleaned it up with your apron, by the look of you.”
She didn’t want to provoke him, not this time. The smile that wouldn’t leave her lips was not for him, but he was not to know that, so he advanced toward her with an amiable expression. His gait was unsteady.
“I have something for you.” He fumbled in his pocket and eventually produced a letter folded small. “From Captain Chernov.”
She wanted to turn, to run up the stairs, to fling herself on her bed and refuse to allow Captain Chernov anywhere near her mind. It was too full of someone else. Her fingers hung at her side.
“Take it, girl.”
“I don’t want it, Papa.”
“Take the damn letter.”
It hovered between them, pale and insistent. Her fingers didn’t move.
“I’ll read it tomorrow, Papa. I’m too tired tonight.”
“I’d like you to read it now, in front of me.”
She didn’t look at him. She stared at his black patent shoes, the spiky lights of the chandelier reflected back at her from their gleaming surface. She held out her hand and he thrust the folded paper into it. She let it lie there.
“Read it, please.”
Slowly she opened the letter and words in a bold black hand reared up in front of her eyes, but they remained a blur. She refused to focus on them.
She shook her head.
He took the letter and read it aloud. “My dearest Valentina,…”
“I am not his dearest.” Her voice came out low and disconnected.
Her father didn’t notice.
“My dearest Valentina,
I took the liberty of calling on you today but you were not at home. I hope you are well and not inconvenienced by the military presence that is patrolling the city, dismantling street-barricades and breaking up unruly gatherings. Don’t worry, dear Valentina, I am making it my personal mission to keep you safe during these troubled and troubling times.
There is to be a grand imperial ball at the Winter Palace and I would be greatly honored if you would accompany me to it next Wednesday evening.
Thank you for the delightful pleasure of your company the other evening.
Her father nodded and his contentment spread pink streaks across his cheeks. His chest swelled. She could see he was pleased with her. “You’ve done well, Valentina.”
“Papa, I know every father wants his daughter to make a good marriage.”
He raised his glass to her. “Indeed they do.”
“So I understand that you intend the best for me.”
He stepped forward and draped an arm around her shoulders, and the image of her list flashed through her mind. She thought of how easy it would be to make her father forgive her at last.
“But Papa, please don’t force me into-”
He laughed and tickled her cheek with the corner of the letter. “Hush, child, hush.” He came close and kissed her cheek.
“Papa”-she moved away and pulled her cloak tight around her body, isolating herself from him-“please inform Captain Chernov that I’m sorry, but-”
“Nicholai, are you ever coming back in here?”
It was a woman’s voice, light and faintly slurred. It issued from the drawing room and was followed by a soft enticing laugh and the chink of a bottle against a glass. It was not her mother. But her father showed no sign of embarrassment, and his dark eyes gleamed with amusement as he observed his elder daughter. He patted the back of her wrist where she clutched the edge of her cloak, an affectionate fatherly touch.
“Don’t look so shocked, Valentina. It’s how marriages work. When you and Stepan Chernov are married, you’ll soon get used to the idea, like your mother did. No, don’t-”
But she was gone. Up the stairs two at a time, leaving him with his letter and his woman.
HER DIRTY CLOTHES LAY ON THE FLOOR, JUST AS SHE’D dropped them a thousand times before for the maid to pick up. But this time when she looked down at the soiled uniform lying like a dead person on the carpet and pictured the clean one hanging crisp and ironed in her wardrobe, she frowned. She stooped, picked up the dirty clothes, folded them, and placed the pile neatly on a chair for Olga to find when she came in. The little things. They made a difference. She was noticing them now.
It wasn’t until she was curled up in bed, hugging her knees, that she allowed her mind the luxury of slipping away. Her eyes closed and immediately she was on a different pillow, in a different bed, in a different life. Her body ached for Jens, a sharp driving ache that drew out a raw moan from her throat. The heat of him was still inside her, making her thighs restless, unable to keep still.
She had no idea it would be like this. The wanting. The recall of his every touch. His lips so tender on her breasts, his hands caressing and coaxing till her body became his instead of hers. The desire to please him, to taste him, to own him. Her lips claiming him. Her body and soul so in thrall to him that lying here on her own was like being only half a person, having only half a life.
“Jens,” she whispered into the darkness. “I’ll never be able to give you up.”
Not even for Katya.
SNOW FELL IN CURLING WHITE SHEETS, BILLOWING FORWARD in sudden bursts of violent energy, then retreating like an army gathering its troops before the next attack. The roofs and roads glittered white and the city that had been created out of a dingy swamp so many years ago by Peter the Great looked as graceful and elegant as one of the tsar’s own swans.
Arkin did not notice its beauty. It was the dark police uniforms that held his attention. They were gathering in twos and threes on street corners, their eyes watchful as wolves. He hadn’t expected them yet. They had moved fast, which surprised him, and they were nervous. The Raspov apprentices were on the march, stomping through the streets, noisy and rowdy as boisterous dogs let off the leash, chanting the slogans he had taught them, shouting and waving their handmade banners.
“Give us justice!”
“United we fight! United we win!”
“We demand a fair wage!”
“Victory for the workers!”
Again and again their united voices shouted out the words that were dearest to their hearts, “Give us bread! Khleb!”
Scrawny skeletons, that was all they were, a jumble of skin and bones inside coats too thin to keep out the Russian winter. So young and yet so resigned to their fate. It angered his heart. It had taken all his persuasive powers to convince them that they could change the terrible conditions in their foundry if they worked together. Flat white faces had stared back at him at first with helpless, hopeless eyes.
The person who helped him put fire inside their hungry bellies was Karl, the engine driver’s young son who’d collected the crate from the train with him. Only sixteen and already he understood.
“Comrades, things can change,” Arkin had told them. He was standing on a box in the icy yard of the foundry, and he could feel their excitement mingling with the snow that blew in their faces. “You can change them. You workers are the ones with the real power-if only you have the courage to wield it.”
“Brothers,” young Karl had shouted out, “listen to our comrade. We are treated worse than rats by our masters. Yesterday Pashin lost half his hand, last week Grigoriev lost the skin on his neck. Who will be next?”
“The hours are too long,” Arkin declared. “Mistakes are made.”
“No safety at work,” Karl added.
“No right to complain.”
“No water. It’s hot as hell in there.”
“Do your masters care?” Arkin punched a hole in the white air with his fist.
“No,” the young voices shouted back.
“So let’s teach them to care,” Karl yelled.
That was when they started to march. Ivan Sidorov had stood at the foundry gates, eyeing him with respect. He looked a very different figure when he wasn’t drunk and sprawled over a table, a man Arkin could use. Sidorov was the one who’d gathered the apprentices together for him in the yard. They exchanged a look, that was all. It was enough.
WORD SPREAD FAST. As THEY SWUNG PAST THE SHOE FACTORY on Strechka Ulitsa a string of young boys burst out, still in their leather aprons, and hurled themselves into the Raspov crowd. Apprentices from the Tarasov toolmaking factory swelled their numbers to well over three hundred, marching shoulder to shoulder and shouting their slogans. Behind them strode Sergeyev, his arm still in a sling.
“Good work,” he commented to Arkin.
He nodded a greeting. “How’s your wife?”
“Concerned about how today will turn out.”
“Tell her we are rolling a stone downhill, gathering speed. Nothing can stop it.”
Sergeyev clenched his fist in agreement, but he looked tense and tired.
“Go home,” Arkin urged. “Your arm is clearly bad today, my friend. These apprentices hardly need us now that they can scent victory.”
“Hah! They are blind to the battles ahead.”
“This is just a skirmish, Sergeyev. It’s a beginning. Let them have their day of glory.” He studied him with concern. “You go home. Tend to your wife.”
To his surprise, Sergeyev clapped him on the shoulder, gripping it hard. “Good luck, udachi, comrade.” He peeled back from the line of marchers and was gone. Instantly the place at Arkin’s side was taken by the lanky figure of Karl, a grin on his young face.
THEY FLOODED INTO THE RAILWAY SIDINGS, AN OPENING windswept soulless place where rail carriages were shunted to die. Boots stamped on the ice-packed earth. Arkin listened to them and felt his blood quicken. It was the sound of the feet of Russia on the march. Not even the tsar on the imperial throne would dare to slaughter these innocents. He felt hope, hot and liquid, surge through his gut at the thought of the future for Russians.
“Arkin, good man, you’ve fired up their young minds.”
It was Father Morozov. He grasped Arkin’s hand. Snowflakes had settled in a halo on the priest’s tall black hat, diamond sharp, at odds with his shabby coat.
“This is my young comrade, Karl, from the Raspov foundry. He has already proved he is one of us, valuable to the cause.”
The priest held out his hand in welcome. The boy took it, dipped his head over the gloved fingers, and pressed them to his lips. “Father,” he murmured with respect.
The simple gesture annoyed Arkin intensely, but he gave no sign. Didn’t they realize? That was exactly the kind of automatic subservience the Bolsheviks were trying to eradicate. There was no place for religion in the future of Russia, where all would be equal. No obeisance, no knee bending. Not even to God.
“Are they coming?” Arkin asked urgently.
Morozov smiled. “Da.”
“They’re on their way now.”
“Good. They’ve kept their promise.”
Karl looked from one to the other. “Who? Who’s coming?”
“The rail workers,” Arkin informed him. “This depot has gone on strike in support of the apprentices.”
“It’s starting,” Karl said quietly. “Isn’t it?”
The boy straightened his back and puffed out his bony chest. “Comrade Arkin, Comrade Father, I am proud to be a part of this great-”
“They’re here!” a voice in the crowd cried out. “The rail workers are here!”
Immediately the air filled with eager shouts, and a phalanx of about a hundred or more men in navy caps and work jackets crowded into the sidings, fists punching the air.
“Father,” Arkin murmured under his breath, “give thanks to your God from me.”
The priest closed his eyes and smiled. One of the rail workers, a big burly man with a voice to match, climbed up on a rusting flatbed and launched into a rallying speech that swept the apprentices into a frenzy of excitement. Not even the icy curtain of snow could chill the heat that roared through their veins or the anger that built into something as hard and sharp as the Admiralty spire. Arkin was satisfied with his morning’s work.
“Horses coming,” an apprentice near the back called out.
They’d sent in the army. The apprentices and rail workers were slow to react, but Arkin leapt up onto the steps of a decrepit carriage. “Get ready. Troops are coming.”
From under jackets and coats, iron bars suddenly appeared. The sound of hooves grew louder, clattering over cobbles, until the veil of snow seemed to part like the Red Sea to reveal the platoon of scarlet uniforms on horseback, capes flying out behind. They halted and spread out in a long line, blocking access, leaving no chance of escape.
Panic started. It flickered from boy to boy, quick gasps and nervous shouts, but they took their lead from the railway workmen. They regarded the sabers with wide eyes as each soldier held his sword out in front of him, its blade flat to the sky. Snow settled on them as if to soften the threat.
The order came from the captain at the head of the line. He sat astride a magnificent stallion that was eager to charge, its forefoot scraping at the dirt, raking through the trampled snow. The rider fixed his gaze on the rail worker on the flatbed.
“Disperse immediately!” he ordered again.
Arkin moved. He threaded his way through the apprentices and emerged at the front of them, nearest the soldiers.
“The boys are doing no harm.” He spoke calmly.
The captain glanced at him, and something in what he saw made him stop and look again.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“A comrade of the apprentices. Captain,” he said sharply, “do not provoke trouble here today. We do not want bloodshed.”
The captain’s mouth curved at one side, revealing a satisfied smile. “Don’t we?”
“No. These young boys are-”
“No. They are voicing their dissatisfaction and demanding to be listened to.”
“We want justice,” Karl insisted at his side. He was clutching an iron bar with his two fists.
“Then, young troublemaker, justice you shall have.”
With no warning the captain stretched forward and flicked his saber through the air. A faint whistle, that was all. Arkin was fast, but not quite fast enough. He yanked his young friend back on his heels, so that the saber strike intended to open up the boy’s pale throat just caught his nose and split one side of his nostril. Crimson spurted down his chin.
The railway workers surged forward. Angry words were hurled at the horsemen. Tempers flared. Metal bars and tools were brandished until the demonstration was on the edge of violence. It was to avoid exactly such violence that Arkin had involved the apprentices in the first place, but now he dragged Karl back from the front line. He inspected the boy’s face. He was holding a hand to his nose, blood twining around his fingers, but his eyes were on fire. Fury, not fear, was making his arm shake in Arkin’s grip.
“Get behind the railway workers,” Arkin ordered. “Prepare the apprentices to give support.”
The boy disappeared. Snow fell heavily in dense white veils and voices grew louder. The Hussars’ attack, when it came, was lightning fast. The horses sprang forward, sabers scything right and left, silent and brutal. Screams rang out in high-pitched voices, and the snow on the ground turned crimson as feet skidded under hooves. Metal bars crashed down on the troops, crushing bones and twisting heels out of stirrups until uniforms vanished under a mass of workmen’s boots. Yet the sabers continued to strike with expert skill, again and again, laying bare a back, slashing open a cheek, a throat. Charge, regroup, charge. Even the snow in the air turned scarlet as the horses wheeled in formation up and down the railway siding.
Arkin snatched Sergeyev’s small pistol from under his coat. Six times he took precise aim, six times slamming a bullet into a scarlet chest. The strikers fought back with fury. Horses crashed to their knees. Helmets fell to the ground. Arkin threw himself into the battle, dodging blades, parrying blows, all the time working his way nearer to the tall blond captain on the devil-black stallion.
Arkin found Karl’s body. His young eyes were wide open, staring up at the falling snow, but glazed and lifeless. Flakes settled in his lashes and melted on the warm eyeballs like tears. Arkin broke the neck of the soldier standing over him with his saber still dripping on the snow and dropped to his knees beside the boy. He closed the young eyes. Nothing was sacred in this world. Not even the innocents. He snatched up the saber and with a roar of rage went to work on the scarlet uniforms.
THE WOMEN WORKED HARDEST. VALENTINA QUICKLY became aware of that fact. In St. Isabella’s Hospital the women worked hardest and were paid the least, yet they didn’t complain. They just treated the male nurses with a deference Valentina felt they didn’t deserve and the doctors like gods incarnate.
She worked hard and spoke little. She didn’t mind that she spent most of her time in the sluice room scrubbing things and sterilizing equipment. That was a good part, the instruments. She handled them with respect, finding unexpected pleasure in their fine steel edges and baffling shapes. She liked the way each one had a specific purpose: a clamp, a probe, a syringe, and many that she could only guess at. Each day she and her fellow novice nurses were given an hour of instruction in which she focused her mind with the same intensity as when she learned a new piece for the piano. During her time in the wards, she asked clear questions and paid close attention to the answers.
“You’re a good listener,” one of the patients told her.
St. Isabella’s was a hospital for the poor. It had been set up more than one hundred years earlier at the insistence of Catherine the Great, but there were never enough beds and never enough wards. An unending stream of the sick and the dying stumbled through its doors, but many were turned away with no hope of finding treatment elsewhere. But Valentina was learning to lock things out of her head. Like the man this morning lying on the steps outside, dead as a dog. People with money didn’t use hospitals. They were places you went to die. Doctors would come to the houses of respectable people, numerous times a day if necessary, and treat patients in their own bed. They even performed minor operations there. Only for a major operation did a wealthy patient enter a hospital.
Valentina plunged her hands deep into soapy water and started scrubbing a speculum, but after a minute she lifted her hands and inspected them. Red and raw, with hairline cracks around the knuckles. She felt a ripple of shame. A nurse’s hands, not a pianist’s hands. She hated herself for caring.
A door swung open behind her. “Ah, there you are. We need you.”
Valentina turned, suds dripping to the floor. It was young Darya Spachyeva, the nurse she met the day she came for her interview, the one with black hair and the swear words. Her wide smile was missing today.
“Do you know,” Valentina asked, “that you have blood all down your neck?”
“You have to come,” the girl said. “Quickly.”
THE AIR LAY THICK AND HEAVY. WALKING INTO THE MEN’S ward was like wrapping her face in a stale blanket. Blood and fear and a deep raw anger packed the room so full that there was little space for anything else. Bodies lay everywhere: on beds, on mattresses on the floor, on thin blankets, on bare boards. Too many, far too many.
“What happened?” Valentina demanded.
“Well, they weren’t playing with their nice shiny sabers for nothing.”
Valentina could see their smooth unlined cheeks. Young men with dreams that had been shredded. Blood streamed from their heads; gaping wounds yawned open on their shoulders. They had fought, on foot, against men on horseback.
“Chyort!” Valentina swore.
Captain Chernov had kept his promise.
“Darya”-her pulse was thudding in her ears-“where do I start?”
NURSE IVANOVA, TAKE THESE. BE QUICK.”
Medsestra Gordanskaya thrust a pair of shears into Valentina’s hand and moved with calm efficiency to the other side of the ward, where Darya was struggling to prevent a man with a bandage over his eyes from crawling toward the door. Valentina laid a gentle hand on the patient in front of her. He was lying facedown.
“Hello, I’m Sanitarka Ivanova.”
She kept her voice firm and reassuring. With the shears she snipped through the material of his jacket from its hem right up to its collar, then the same with his shirt. Two long parallel cuts ran down his back like scarlet tram tracks. She bathed them with antiseptic, but as fast as she mopped up the blood, more flowed onto his white flesh. It needed stitches. All the time she worked, she talked to him. His frightened eyes, as he tilted his head to one side, kept darting up at her.
“The doctor will be here any moment,” she assured him. “A few stitches, that’s all you’ll need.” She placed a dressing pad on the wound and pressed hard to stem the flow. “You’ll soon be back at work.”
“They were waiting for us. Determined to finish us off this time.”
“Were you marching?”
“Nyet. No, just gathering in our factory yard. Me and the other apprentices.”
“The soldiers attacked you in the factory yard?”
“No.” His eyes fluttered closed and opened again, small fragmented movements, and a smear of vomit slid from his mouth. “We went down to the railway sidings to have talks with the rail workers. Their foreman was…” He started to sob, raw animal sounds.
“Hush, you’re safe here.” She touched his hair on the back of his head and it was stiff and matted with blood. She stroked his cheek. His neck.
“Nurse,” he whispered, eyes closed, “I can’t move my arms.”
A doctor in a white coat summoned her. All day it had continued, the young men dragged in on carts, on shoulders, on makeshift stretchers. Valentina steeled herself to the moans and the tears. She learned to hold a man’s hand against her own throat because the strong pulse there somehow gave them something to hang on to. She learned not to say Hush. She let them talk or cry or shout. Whatever gave them respite. She wrote brief notes for them to their loved ones, held water to their bruised lips, and bound so many reels of bandage that the gauzy white strips seemed to become extensions of her own skin, skimming over arms and legs and heads. Holding their young bodies together.
“One grain of morphine here.”
A young boy, dark as a gypsy and not much older than Katya, was lying on his back in a bed with his thin arms crossed over his chest. His skin was slick with sweat. He smiled at Valentina while his lips continued to form his prayers. She measured out two drops of the painkiller from a vial into a small glass and held his head while he sipped the liquid. His pupils were pinpoint specks.
“Spasibo.” The word was so faint it was barely there. “Do svidania. Good-bye.”
“He was crushed,” the doctor murmured. “By their horses.”
“Is there a priest?” Valentina asked quickly.
“He’s in the next ward.” He exhaled an exhausted sigh. “His services have been much in demand today.” He raised his head and looked properly for the first time at the young nurse at his side.
“Valentina! My dear girl, I had no idea it was you. Your uniforms turn you all into-”
“I know, Dr. Fedorin. We nurses all look the same.”
“Hardly.” He brushed the back of his wrist across his eyes. “You and Medsestra Gordanskaya are scarcely the same species.”
She smiled, and it was such a relief to untie the knots in the muscles of her face that she almost slipped an arm around his neck, the way she’d seen his daughter do when she was pleased with him.
“You should take a rest, Doktor.”
He shook his head. “This wasn’t exactly the kind of nursing I had in mind for you when I recommended you to St. Isabella’s.” For a moment Dr. Fedorin took his eyes off the wounded in the ward and studied Valentina’s face. She wondered what he saw there. “A baptism of fire,” he said quietly.
The boy on the bed lifted one hand and carved the sign of the cross in the air. “A baptism of blood,” he corrected, eyes on Valentina.
“I’ll find you the priest,” she said, then squeezed the boy’s hand and vanished.
BUT THERE WAS NO PRIEST IN THE NEXT WARD. SHE BROKE the rules. Picked up her skirts and raced down one of the corridors, searching for a figure in black. She refused to let the boy die without the comfort of absolution. You need to be tough, Jens had told her. To deal with the blood and the wounds.
A hand fell on her shoulder, so heavy she felt her bones sag, and she jumped away, startled.
“Child, don’t be frightened.”
She stopped running and regarded the man who seemed to have appeared in the corridor from nowhere. He looked like a priest of some kind. He was an impressive broad-shouldered figure, imposing in a plain black tunic. And yet there was something about him that made her want to step away. His eyes were large and round, a striking pale blue and set deep in their sockets. They didn’t blink, just stared at her. They seemed to burn. She could find no other word for it. They fixed on her and burned right into the coils of her mind till she longed to look away, but couldn’t.
“I need a priest,” she said quickly.
“Child,” his voice was deep, his words measured. In the cold corridor they resonated with conviction. “Child, the whole of mankind needs a priest to show them the pathway to God. I see you are troubled. Let him cleanse you.”
She almost laughed out loud. This strange man was anything but clean. She dragged her eyes from his and focused instead on his long straggly beard, which was filthy and matted with spilled food. His tunic was stained and his hands thick with grime. Worst of all, he stank. The only clean thing about him was the jeweled crucifix that gleamed on a chain around his neck.
“Maybe you should ask God to cleanse yourself first,” she suggested. “But come quickly, please. You’re needed in-”
He reached for her. Huge dirty hands. He clamped one on each side of her head and fixed his powerful gaze on hers. “You’re the one in need, malishka, little one. I can bring you the peace you crave. In the Lord’s name.”
He lowered his head as though to give her the kiss of Christ on her forehead, but at the last moment he ducked down and placed the kiss on her lips. Shock and distaste shook Valentina as his mouth, huge and cavernous, swallowed hers. She lashed out. Her hand struck his cheek, the sound of the slap muted by his wiry beard, and all the hardship of the day poured into her anger.
“You are no man of God. You are an impostor, a disgusting, lecherous-”
He laughed, a delighted rumble of pleasure, as though the words she poured on him were words of praise. She was tempted to slap him again but couldn’t bear to touch him. She scrubbed at her mouth with her hand and kept a safe distance from him.
“You’re needed by a boy who is dying,” she told him.
“He doesn’t need me. You are the one who needs me.”
“You are not a real priest, are you?”
“I am just a poor starets. With humility I offer myself to souls in suffering, souls like yours. Souls who don’t know how to find their way.”
“My soul is my own affair,” she said. “You are not a starets, not a holy man. This boy needs a proper priest.” His pale eyes held hers and she felt her tongue grow heavy in her mouth, her mind start to drift. With an effort of will she forced herself to turn away from the dark figure and hurry back down the corridor. She struggled to make herself dismiss him from her head.
“Nurse,” he called after her in a deep voice. “Malishka, we shall meet again, you and I, and when we do you will offer me a kiss in exchange for your soul.”
VALENTINA FOUND A PRIEST AT LAST, A REAL PRIEST. HE was dressed in a hand-woven cassock that was frayed at the hem, with a prayer stole around his neck, and wearing a tall black hat that had seen better days. At first sight she took him for a peasant priest who must have traveled to the hospital from an outlying village when he heard of the carnage, but when he responded to her shout, raising his head from intoning prayers over a wounded man, she recognized him at once. He was the priest she’d met with Arkin, the one she’d stumbled across when the chauffeur was unloading sacks of potatoes into a church.
“Father, I need your help.”
“What is it, Nurse?”
“A young man is dying.”
His reaction was not what she expected because, though he walked with an outward calm at her side when she led him to the other ward, his boots kicked out at the frayed hem ahead of him in a gesture of fury.
“Father, do you know what happened?”
“The apprentices work in terrible conditions.” His words were controlled, even if his feet were not. “They held a meeting after one of them lost a limb in a machine, but there are always police spies everywhere.” He shook his head and raised the Bible in his hand so that it was fixed in front of his eyes as he hurried along the corridor. “May the Lord God have mercy on the souls of those soldiers, because I can find none in my heart for them. I would damn the lot of them to hellfire for all eternity.” He shook the Bible fiercely as though his fingers could provoke an answer from its black cover. “The apprentices are little more than children.”
“But they joined forces with the rail workers, I was told.”
“So that must mean it was well organized.”
As she pushed open the swinging doors the priest stopped, and she was forced to look back at him.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
“Just a nurse. Trying to help save the lives of your apprentices.”
Just a nurse. Simple words. They seemed to calm him.
His eyes became gentler, and he moved forward again. “Of course, I am distressed. What I saw today when the sabers slashed down, no man should see.” He clutched his Bible to his chest like armor.
She put out her hand and touched the cross embossed on its surface. “You were there?”
“Tell me, Father Morozov, was Viktor Arkin there too?”
The bones of his face slackened. “Who are you?”
“Was he hurt?”
A shake of his head, so slight it was barely a movement.
“Tell him,” she said, “to remove the box he has hidden at the back of the garage. Before the Okhrana come for him.”
Medsestra Gordanskaya stopped Valentina as she was leaving the ward at the end of the day. The older nurse looked tired, something bruised about her eyes as though the day had taken too harsh a toll.
“Sanitarka Ivanova, you did well today. You have the makings of a decent nurse.” Her features softened. “I admit, you surprised me.”
“Thank you, Medsestra.”
“Now go home and wash today away with scalding hot water and a slug of vodka, if you know what’s good for you.”
A decent nurse. She pulled her cape over her shoulders. A decent nurse.
On the steps outside she bumped into Nurse Darya and immediately asked her, “Do you know the priest who was here today?”
“Father Morozov? Yes, he’s often here. Can’t stand his preachy stuff myself”-she pulled a face and snatched off her headdress-“but he brings the patients food as well as comfort. They love him.”
“No, not him. Another one. Dirty and repulsive. With hypnotic blue eyes and a very expensive-looking crucifix.”
“Oh shit, that bastard. Didn’t touch you, did he?”
“No.” The lie slipped out.
“Don’t worry, that creep isn’t here often. Only when he feels like slumming it for a change.”
“What do you mean? Where does he normally spend his time?”
Darya poked Valentina in the ribs. “Jesus Christ, don’t you realize who that stinking bastard is?”
“He claimed he was a starets, a poor holy man.”
“Like hell he is. I wish I was that poor.”
“Who is he?”
“That’s Grigori Rasputin. The so-called miracle worker who spends his time at our fragrant empress’s side. Tell me you didn’t let him put a dirty paw on you.”
“That’s what he calls himself.”
JENS, WHAT KIND OF WOMAN IS THE EMPRESS?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I was wondering what kind of person she is.”
“Tsarina Alexandra? She has a cold and aloof manner and behaves like the arrogant German princess she is. But I’m not so sure how deep it goes.”
He swept his hand up the delicate curve of her naked hip and walked his fingers one by one up her ribs. He was sitting upright beside her on his bed because he loved to let his eyes feast on her. Feast. It had always struck him before as an absurd word for eyes, for how could eyes feast? But now he understood. His eyes felt hungry when she was not with him. No woman had ever done this to him, made him hoard the images of her like jewels inside his head. He tried now to work out what it was that had triggered this interest in the tsarina.
“I believe,” he explained, “that a part of it is that she’s shy. The tsarina may be an aristocrat, but she has no idea how to make small talk, so she shuns the court’s social life and they resent her for it. But there’s no doubt that she’s a very determined character.”
“Determined in what way?”
“She keeps Tsar Nicholas shut away with her down in Alexander Palace at Tsarskoe Selo most of the time. He works from there. I know it’s only twenty miles from Petersburg, but it’s twenty miles too far when there is so much unrest in the city. He has a duty here.”
She nodded as though this were something she had given thought to. “Their four daughters, the young grand duchesses, they are shut away as well?”
“Oh yes. Everyone says they all enjoy family life together, riding and sailing and playing games. They love tennis. And of course taking care of the boy. He’s the center of their universe.”
“Yes, the boy, Tsarevitch Alexei.”
He lowered his head and planted a gentle kiss on each of her knees. She buried her hand in his hair, drawing his face closer to hers.
“What are you staring at?” she frowned.
“You. I’m trying to work out exactly how you are put together.”
“Why? Are you thinking of taking me apart?”
He kissed her lips. “As an engineer, it would be an interesting challenge.”
She sat up facing him and coiled her legs around his waist. He scooped his hands under her buttocks and pulled her closer. Her skin smelled faintly of carbolic soap.
“Tell me about the monk, Rasputin,” she said.
“For heaven’s sake, Valentina, why on earth do you want to know about that vile man?”
“Tell me.” She was serious. Her forehead rested on his collarbone so that he couldn’t see her face, but he could feel her breath on his naked chest, small shallow puffs of warm air. “He came to St. Isabella’s,” she told him.
“Keep away from him. He’s done enough harm.”
“What kind of harm?”
“Grigori Rasputin is widening the divide between the tsar and his people.”
“Jens, my love, don’t be angry. Tell me about him.” Her tongue touched a patch of his skin.
“He claims to be a holy man of God, sent by Christ to guide the people of Russia, particularly to guide the tsarina. And through her, to guide the tsar himself.” This was a subject that roused him to despair. “Tsar Nicholas is a fool. The monk is meddling in politics, turning His Imperial Majesty against his appointed advisers and-” He halted.
He shrugged. “Forget about him. Let’s have no more of Petersburg’s problems. The battle lines will form soon enough.”
“Are you so sure it will come to that?”
He tumbled her back on the pillows. “None of us can be sure, so…”
“Don’t placate me, Jens. I’m not a child.”
The way she said it chilled him. Her eyes had witnessed too much today in that damn hospital of hers. Where was the girl who had gazed at the stars with him on a cold winter’s night in the forest? He caressed the smooth slope of her shoulder. He sat back against the pillows, reached over to the bedside table, and lit himself a cigarette.