In the midst of winter, there lay a palace. Surrounded by a beautiful city, behind a bleak, spear-topped wall, beyond the line of patrol of the sentries, it sat like a dragon on a nest of jewels. The buildings of the eastern wing hoarded courtyards and parterre gardens. Each block was honeycombed with offices and living suites; their lit rooms hung in the darkness like lanterns in a tree. The burn of chandeliers and fireplaces illuminated scenes recently or temporarily abandoned. Stockings flung over chairs, neckties aligned on bedheads, rejected dresses and shoes lay abandoned in weeping piles in corners. Their masters and mistresses had reserved their favour for others this night. Here and there, maids mopped at the high tide line of ball preparation.
For in the middle of the palace, a ballroom blazed with life. Here gathered the palace's occupants in eddys and flows of dance and conversation, display and flirtation.
Beyond that lay a shadow.
Like a dark reflection, a phantom twin, behind the ballroom an entire wing lay empty. Some rooms were locked, gutted and deformed by hate-filled graffiti. Some were simply bare. Empty shells. A few, and more and more as the years went by, looked more or less as they did twenty odd years ago when Tsar Nikolai II and his family lived there. Now, as then, furnishings sat fat with pride in glorious reupholstered comfort, huge oil paintings opened windows to other scenes on the walls: Tahiti, Paris, Amsterdam. Rich curtains and tapestries clothed the walls, and rugs hugged the patterned floors.
But for all that, for all the effort in returning it to its former glory, the western wing felt empty. Hollow. It was a wing inhabited by the ghosts of those who had once walked its halls, worked in its kitchens, danced in its ball rooms. They were all dead.
The western wing sat in the shadows, whilst beyond, a gathering filled the Ballroom with life. There, nobles partied just within the limits of chaos and extravagance. Vodka flowed like water. By turn elegant and passionate, lively tunes pulled at all good Russian heartstrings from the corner inhabited by the balalaika orchestra. Diamonds were sprayed across the room in earrings and chandeliers and cufflinks, as plentiful as the glowing orbs of beluga roe cupped in oyster shells. Streams of gold encircled wrists and necks: the shackles of the nobility. Voices roared and guffawed, laughter like bells pealed from one affected expression to another, as desperately infectious as the latest fashion. It gave the appearance of a good time being had by all, and appearances were everything. Caged within the rigid corset of high society, it was better to laugh loudly than weep softly. Even if fear held you so tight it threatened to shatter you. Even if your soul were dead.
Sitting by the tables slathered with food, Gorodin did not have to pretend. He had the kind of oval face whose edges sagged under the weight of its eyebrows and cheeks, giving him a perpetually gloomy expression. In fact, he was wallowing in vat of deep satisfaction at the evening's progress. Gorodin had his new young wife on one side and his mistress on the other. When his last wife had died, all had expected him to marry his longstanding mistress, Yulya. But Yulya was pushing twenty eight: why marry what you already have when seventeen year old Afimiya Ivanovna, with her titles and jewels, was ripe for the taking? So here he was, having his cake, and eating it too. That one was an angel sponge, and the other a Devil's chocolate cake only made the evening all the more enjoyable.
Pretty and headstrong, a spoilt baby of the nobility, Afimiya was the type of girl that would've been quickly crushed under Stalin's regime. But now that Alexei Iron Fist reigned, her kind had thrived.
The music changed, and Gorodin grunted in approval. He hauled Yulya to her feet and towed her to the dance floor. There, he barely moved his feet. The purpose was not for him to work off the masses of fat he had accumulated over years of banquets, but to have his mistress dance before him so that he could better ogle her. Yulya did not mind. Gorodin was one of the richest men in Moscow. This sole fact forgave him everything in her eyes. Besides, he was that drunk he could barely string two sentences together.
Then the orchestra struck the chords of 'Katinka' and the fat man became alive. With a series of great shouts he transformed into the adept athlete of his younger days, at least in his own mind. His arms crossed and raised he executed a series of jumps worthy of a professional dancer, and the crowd cheered him on. Young Afimiya watched in dismay as her new source of income grew as red as a beet. Sweat slopped from his brow and his jowls hung open trying to gasp oxygen into his lungs. The redder he got, the more she fretted, seeing him dance closer and closer to a heart attack. At last she could bear it no more.
She slipped a hundred rouble note into the band master's pocket with a subtle motion at her throat. The band master made no move that he had noticed her, but the song whirled to a last ditch frenzy and clamoured to an end shortly after. Amid thunderous applause, led with great relief by Afimiya, Gorodin came to a dripping, heaving standstill. Beneath his drooping brows, his small eyes narrowed in the direction of his effusive young wife. He knew. He knew what she had done.
Sausage fingers grabbed his wine glass. For a moment, they jittered around the crystal stem. The glass flew through the air, pelted by the full force of his anger. It smashed at his wife's feet. A carpet of sharp-edged diamonds imprisoned her. A silence held the company frozen for a moment.
Afimiya sat petrified before her husband's boiling fury. He did not say a word. His glare said all he needed to say to her. Servants rushed to wipe up the shards but Gorodin stopped them with a bark.
"That is for her to clear up." He spat her name with such derision that she jerked as if it were a physical blow. The servants hovered, staring anxiously at the spiky mess.
A chair scraped back. Descending onto her knees amidst clouds of silk, Afimiya began to scuff the glass together with her gloved hands. Gorodin turned his back to her, and the party resumed.
From a curtained doorway, two pairs of eyes watched.
"He thinks himself very powerful," the shorter, stockier man noted, glancing at the other. "And it's true that his businesses have made him very rich."
At the edge of the curtain, its shadow hiding the glint of braid from his uniform, the other man watched the nobility frittering their idleness, burying deep their fear. His gemstone-blue eyes narrowed beneath his straight brows. "Too rich, perhaps."
The Tsar's leg straightened, stretching, a reflex gesture from an old injury. "His pride offends me." His eyes flicked towards the stockier man. "Thank you for this, Mogilev. He shall be dealt a lesson."
The man nodded, his heels clicking, his hand raising in a deferential salute. The curtain fell.
The next evening saw all the usual suspects of high society gatherings assembled once more. The location was different: another ballroom inside the labyrinthine palace complex. Gilt plasterwork rather than marble, the ice sculpture this time an imperial eagle, but everything else was the same. It was like roll call in a prison, and everyone was present or accounted for. This was a prison no one escaped voluntarily.
Yes, Gorodin was there, of course. He sat at a table, the folds of flesh hanging at his throat wobbling as he crammed in roasted meats.
Yulya fetched him more wine. Afimiya sat pale and deathly silent by his side. Her ropes of pearl necklaces were more luminescent than she. In the privacy of their apartments, she had felt the full force of her husband's displeasure, and feared beyond all else provoking him somehow tonight.
Around them, people flirted and caroused and danced and sang. The currency of the night was gossip, as always, and with the ballet season beginning, a fresh new wave of potential affairs and scandals was brewing. The Austrian upstart rattling swords in Germany didn't rate a mention. But even those thoroughly jaded with the winter's stale rumours found fresh life in discussing the much anticipated Mariinsky Ballet's opening night.
Amidst this enclosed hot house of over-refined society, Emperor Alexei strode in. His walk was slow, stately, fitting for a man of his position. A wave of silence followed in his wake.
All eyes watched as he closed in on Gorodin and his women. Gorodin's half-eaten lobster carcass lowered to his plate.
The Emperor's hand closed over an empty shashlik skewer. He plunged it downwards into the base of Gorodin's neck. Complete silence held the room tight. The Emperor let the welling blood fill his cupped palm. Lifting it to his mouth, he drank. Spat.
"Bad blood," the Emperor muttered, and the company would have gasped if they were not already holding their breath so painfully. Not a word was said until the Emperor left the rooms, and everyone could be sure he was not coming back. Even then, people only talked in whispers.
No one moved Gorodin. The nobles avoided the body as if the pool of blood swelling on the dance floor would contaminate them.
Bad blood was the seal of death for a noble family.
After the ravages of Stalin's purges, the nobility had been decimated. Those left had been rotting in prison, or forced into hiding, chaffing their soft hands in menial jobs. But with Alexei's return, the place of the nobility at the top of society had returned as well. Though only if their blood was pure.
Some could prove this through photos and family trees and testimony from other nobles. Some had claims that were less solid. Alexei Iron Fist was merciless in hunting out impostors. And his word, of course, was law.
Red Square had never looked more medieval now that the gallows along its western limits were as often as not swinging with gruesome fruit. The blade, a bullet: these were two good for the impure of blood and soul. The Emperor had decreed a dirty rope was more fitting.
Alexei's public brutality served two purposes. A lesson to other and future impostors, and a lesson to everyone in general that their Emperor was not the sickly boy of a foreign mother and a hopelessly out of touch father, Nicholas II. He was the Tsar, the Russian Emperor, God on Earth, all-powerful and all-knowing. He was not called Iron Fist for nothing.
Those that remembered the young Alexei had at first been troubled by this disparity. But the Tsarevitch had been well cloistered as a child, and in truth no one knew that much about him. Further, Stalin had taught them to believe what the state told them, and they had all learnt that lesson profoundly well. If nothing else had come of Stalin's years in power, it was that: a country that knew how to fear, and how to obey.
Nikolai Valeriyich Chelyadin had not learnt those lessons particularly well. He was young. And young men always think they know what's best, for themselves and everyone. He scarcely remembered Lenin, and he had only just been born when the Revolution had torn the world apart. His family had kept him sheltered from the worst of that world. Or rather, society had exiled his family from it.
For Nikolai was a bastard.
AN: Hi all! Thanks for reading! Just wanted to say, yes, this is an alternate history. No, Alexei Romanov did not, in reality, survive to his 14th birthday. And finally, yes, Stalin lived throughout his entire reign until his natural death in 1953. I have to say this so no one fails a history test XD (And thanks so much to my awesome Beta Narq!)