Stumbling down the blurry hall coughing and choking on smoke and tears, Alexey climbed the wooden steps up from the basement, tripping halfway until he tumbled out into the courtyard. He dropped to his knees on the hard earth, his body folding, already drenched in sweat in the muggy, summer morning.
He still held the gun.
It fell to the ground with a thump as he buried his face in his hands, blackened hands that reeked of gunpowder and wouldn’t stop shaking. And then he sobbed like a child.
It had been a bloodbath. Worse than anything he’d ever seen in his life, than anything he had seen in his nightmares. The screams and cries for help and mercy rang in his ears. Their pleas with God, their reckoning moments he knew would haunt him the rest of his days. Body parts had splattered against the walls mixed with plaster and dust. He still coughed it out, still wore the blood.
And the blood! Everywhere—an angry sea of red, thick and deep. With his eyes closed, he could still see it all; still see her.
Normally cool and hypnotizing, Tatiana’s eyes had held so much fear before he shot her. He couldn’t say what had possessed him in that moment when he raised his gun, her pale face watching him from behind its aim. It was as though some other force had taken over, some deep-seeded hate and loathing he had never known he could feel. He became blinded by it.
Just two nights ago he had stolen a moment alone with her while he stood on guard, watching her floor as he had done many times before. In the shadowy night she had slipped out of the room she shared with her three sisters and he swept her into his arms, swaying with her as he sung in whispers. She had smiled at him—that smile of hers that could knock the breath out of his lungs.
He held her close and kissed her lips and asked her to marry him.
“Alexey,” she had breathed, pulling back from him. The moonlight glistened in her weary, silvery eyes. “You know I cannot.”
“Why can’t you?” he pleaded—he didn’t care how pathetic he sounded. He lowered his head, his lips and nose brushing her cheek. “I told you, I’ll protect you.”
“It’s not that.” Her gaze fell to his chest as her lips turned in a pout; she lightly fingered the buttons of his jacket.
“Then why?” He took her face in his hand and raised it so she had to look at him. The curls of her short hair brushed against the back of his fingers. She had kept her hair short since contracting measles, the disease requiring her to shave her head. He remembered how she had looked before, her hair long and thick, and loved her just the same.
Tatiana pressed her hands flat against his chest, her body leaning into him as if surrendering. Alexey had hoped she would.
“Foremost, I could never leave without my family, Alexey,” she said. “And because…” She swallowed, her gaze dropping again. “Because it just could never be.”
He dropped his hand and straightened up. His jaw clenched as he looked down at her. “It could never be because I’m a commoner? A peasant. Am I not good enough for you? Is that it?” His voice had turned hard and he could feel his ears heat up.
“Well…,” she looked up, frowning. “Yes. I’m a princess, Alexey; it’s unheard of. Our marriage would never be allowed.”
“You’re a princess of a fallen kingdom,” he reminded her cruelly. “And I am the ruler of fools. I guess we’re both left pissing in the wind.”
Her lip curled as she pushed him back. “How dare you speak to me that way,” she hissed. Stalking past him, with her little chin tilted up, she disappeared behind her bedroom door and left him standing alone in the dark, hurt and fuming.
The last few months had been torture for him. He had entered the House of Special Purpose with a plan, a purpose. He was part of The Revolution—the uprising of peasants demanding their voices to be heard. The hatred for the Tsar ran rampant among the commoners—farmers and factory workers—made worse by the Tsar’s purges of Jewish settlements around Russia. The stirrings of revolt had been an undercurrent growing stronger and stronger, spreading out from the students at the universities and reaching the workers and rural areas; something had to be done. Russia was dying.
Meanwhile the Tsar still threw lavish parties, paraded his pretty daughters in their white dresses, sheltered his sick son so that the people of Russia wouldn’t know the heir was dying, and kowtowed to the foreign princess he called a bride.
The people rose up.
But Alexey’s cries of revolution and freedom grew weak once he found himself in Ekaterinburg. Once he came to know the Romanovs as people and not Divine Authority.
The Tsar worked as hard as any factory worker, chopping wood and taking on repair tasks himself. His daughters were the same, all eager to keep their hands busy, cleaning their rooms, preparing the meals. They would even chat pleasantly with the maids who came in once a month to clean their linens and laugh with the guards who had also let their Imperial hatred wane in the face of the people behind the crown.
Tatiana was not so social. Her nighttime screams made her reticent; something haunted her in the night and Alexey wondered if it was more than him and the other rebels who kept her prisoner. He fell in love with her instantly, as though he had always been in love with her. And when she showed herself to feel the same way, he could no longer bear to remain in this boarded-up home with her. He wanted to get her free. He wanted to be free with her.
But as always, Destiny had other plans.
He could hear the others coming up from the basement, loud and clamoring; some celebratory, many sick. Wiping his hands over his face, he inhaled deeply and stood up, pulling out a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his inner coat pocket. Hands still trembling, he knocked one loose and lit it.
Horror had nearly brought him to his knees when he shot her and stood watching her clutch her side, glaring at him. He had been paralyzed by her slow death until Yurovsky came behind her, placed his gun against the back of her head and put her out of her misery. Still it took him awhile to look away while Yurovsky’s gun rang out several more times, ending the suffering of all the dying.
Some of the guards were laughing and merry, as though they tripped out of a bar and not a massacre. Almost all of them were drunk anyway. They had needed the courage to take on the task of killing innocent women and children.
“Did you see the look in the German bitch’s eyes?” laughed one.
“It was a shame those lassies had to go, though,” lamented another with a smile. “At least before I had my way with them.” They both gave Alexey a sidelong look. He had wondered if the other guards suspected his affair with the Tsar’s second daughter. His suspicions were soon confirmed.
“Especially that Tatia,” the second guard said loudly, using her nickname in a show of disrespect. Ivanovich, Alexey remembered his name. He had never liked him. “She’s still a looker, even with half her face blown off. She was a tight priss. Wonder if she’s tight ev—”
Alexey didn’t let him finish his lurid comment. Teeth clenching his cigarette, he grabbed the drunken guard—no more than a few years older than him—and clutching his collar, twirled him around, smashing him face first into the side of the house. With a loud smack, blood exploded from Ivanovich’s nose, spilling down and painting his coat.
At first startled, covering his face with his hands, Ivanovich soon became enraged, charging Alexey. Alexey crouched, expecting the hit, but other guards ran out and came between the two of them.
“What is this?” a shrill voice cut through the crowd. Yurovsky, the head guard at the Ipatiev House, pushed his way through. He was a small man with black, greasy hair and a messy mustache. He stood before Alexey, looking up at him with his tired, red eyes blazing. “What’s going on here, Comrade?”
Alexey didn’t answer, nostrils flaring as he breathed heavily, his lips pinched together. Ivanovich cried out, “Alexey attacked me for no reason!”
Yurovsky looked from the bleeding guard to Alexey. “Is this true?” he asked him.
“He was speaking poorly of the dead,” Alexey said with a low voice, glaring over Yurvosky’s head.
The look the head guard gave him was almost one of pity. Waving an arm in the air, he ordered, “Control yourselves and remember your orders.” He turned back to the house. “We have bodies to dispose of.”
The rest of the guards, including the one with the broken nose, shuffled after Yurovsky, reluctant to complete the already trying task. Alexey bent over and picked up his gun as the lorry rattled around the house, pulling up to the basement door. It sat idling, waiting for its cargo of corpses.
Dread mounting, Alexey walked steadily down the stairs, turning into the hallway leading to the room with pink and white striped wallpaper. Already bodies were being pulled out from it, dropped haphazardly into a pile. Several guards prepared stretchers and started to place the bodies on top, the task made more difficult by the small space of the hall.
Forcing himself to focus on anything but their faces, Alexey helped lug a heavy body to the stretcher. One cot could hold no more than one body. A couple of guards lifted it and carried it down the hall, quickly followed by more men with cots. After several trips were made to move the dead, Alexey turned and took hold of a pale wrist.
Her silk blouse clung to her slender body, shining red with little white still showing of the material. Another body—her sister, Olga—covered her head, but he could see the gold chain glinting from around her neck. He swallowed a sob and slid his arm under her back, taking her legs in his other arm. As he cradled her to his chest, he was grateful her head hung back; he couldn’t bear to see what remained of her face. He couldn’t look into her grey, lifeless eyes and see the afterimage of his crime.
Though everyone stared or gave him harsh glances, he ignored them all, carrying Tatiana’s lifeless body outside. What little disdain he held for the Imperial family had nearly dissipated when he became their guard, seeing them in their everyday chores. The girls never complained, but rather welcomed the labor. The Tsarevich was always so curious, asking him about working in the land and then becoming a rebel. Even the Tsar wasn’t the monster the Red Army painted him out to be. He was simply a family man who should have never become Tsar.
Once he reached the lorry, Alexey placed her carefully in the back, next to her mother, to whom she was so close. The sky had begun to lighten and her necklace almost glowed in the coming dawn. He ran his fingers across the small flower on its chain and turned just as more guards brought out the remaining deceased.
And then one of the bodies sat up and screamed.
Everyone froze in place, unsure what to do about the beautiful princess still fighting death. She was covered in blood, cuts and holes gaping, one eye swollen shut, the other blazing as she wailed and thrashed on the cot. The men nearly dropped it and her before lowering both to the ground. They looked at each other frantically, frozen with fear and doubt.
“Silence her!” Yurovsky ordered through clenched teeth, just arriving at the threshold to check on the commotion. One guard pulled out his rifle and began stabbing at her with his bayonet. But still she screamed for life, her arms and hands sustaining cuts and gashes. His eyes wide, he turned the rifle around and began slamming the butt into her face and head, beating her back down onto the cot.
Horror-stricken, Alexey pulled out his gun, wanting to end this mercifully, but Yurovsky stopped him.
“No,” he said, placing his hand on top of Alexey’s. “The people will hear.”
Each smacking whack made Alexey jump. The beating felt endless until Maria finally stopped moving.
“There’s another one still alive over here!” someone called out. Both Alexey and Yurovsky turned, where more men hovered around a cot. Laying on it, her face covered in blood, Anastasia groaned and draped her arm over her eyes. Alexey only recognized her by her fair hair, and she was the only sister left.
When they began to stab at her and pound in her head, she didn’t fight like her sister. Alexey hadn’t eaten since the previous morning but he had to turn and retch, his stomach twisting. Yurovksy gave him a hard look and ordered the men, including Alexey, to pile into the lorry quickly, they still had to drive out to the Four Brothers and bury the bodies before the town people began to stir.
Nothing about the evening had gone as planned. The executions themselves should have been cleaner and quicker, the drive out to the burial site should not have included the truck breaking down. With the sun rising, Yurovsky once again had to improvise.
An abandoned mineshaft became the temporary burial for the last royal family of Russia. There in the woods, the Ipatiev executioners met a bigger group of men, all members of the Bolshevik party and looking for their piece of history by helping in the total destruction of the Romanov dynasty.
The bodies were removed from the truck and stripped of their clothing, the clothing tossed onto a bonfire. Alexey could no longer participate. He didn’t care what anyone else thought, not even Yurovsky—he couldn’t watch, much less defile her body that way. Instead he stood aside, watching the horizon and chain-smoking while the others pilfered and ravaged and made their jokes at the former Tsar and Tsarina’s expense.
Once the dead were tossed down the mineshaft, Alexey walked to its edge and bowed his head. He didn’t know how he would live with this pain and guilt—it made him hollow and filled with sick all at once. He didn’t know if he wanted to live with it.
All his life, he’d been plagued by nightmares and visions of death. Too many nights he’d awake drenched in sweat or screaming. But none of that compared to this. Never had he felt so contemptible. Tatiana’s body lay at the bottom of a dank and dirty hole, and he helped put her there—no amount of pride should have allowed this.
“Comrade Dayovitch?” Yurovsky addressed him from behind. Alexey inhaled deeply, still staring at the dark hole, not really caring if he made the head guard wait.
“Yes?” he said as he finally turned around only to find a gun pointed at him.
“We have no room for traitors.” The gun fired, hitting point blank Alexey’s throat. Pain and sudden shock gripped him, air sucked from his lungs. His eyes wide, he clutched his throat and blood flowed from the wound, seeping between his fingers. He couldn’t even speak as he found himself paralyzed, falling backward, down into the mineshaft. He hit the uneven ground with a slapping thud, landing on the pale, naked bodies.
His lungs seizing, clenching desperately for air, he felt a heavy weight press down on him. The abyss of the shaft crept toward him, consuming the edges of his vision, and just before it all turned black, he looked to his left, his arm pressed against pale flesh, and saw a golden necklace, gleaming in the dark.