As always, for my mother, Ann, and my sisters, Katharine & Nancy, for their continued love & support.
In loving memory of Anastasia Nicholaievna Romanova, The Grand Duchess Shvibzik, who came to me in a dream and told me her story;
Of my grandfather, Major Horton Munro Reynolds, who was there at The House of Special Purpose in Ekaterinburg in the summer of 1918 with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces;
And of Patrick J. Wren & Sally-Ann (Sam) MacGillivray Wren, gone too soon.
Kharkiv, Ukraine. May, 1916.
WITH HER EVER-present Kodak Brownie camera in hand, fourteen-year-old Anastasia strolled a short distance away from the Imperial train while the crew replenished the locomotive’s tender with water from the adjacent tower. They were less than a day away from Livadiya and the grand summer palace, but she had been cooped up in the train for two days and was restless. Just that morning, she and her sister Tatiana had snapped at each other over the meaning of William Blake’s “The Divine Image” from their morning lesson. She took a long, deep breath of the crisp mountain air, yearning for even a hint of the mildly salty Black Sea hundreds of miles to the south.
The Livadiya Palace was one of her all-time favourite places and she, Maria, and Tatiana were looking forward to celebrating all three of their June birthdays with the grandest fancy party ever held in the courtyard. But they weren’t there yet, and for the first time in ages the mood on the Imperial train was dark and sullen. Curt words were exchanged and once or twice in the night she thought she’d heard Father’s angry voice over the sound of the great steam engine.
Humming to herself, Ana looked around at her family and the off-duty servants, as they stretched out sore muscles or sat on and around the platform, soaking up the cherished sunshine. It had been a cool, damp spring in St. Petersburg and the Ukrainian sunshine felt absolutely marvellous. She snapped a photograph of the tender and the tower, turned the crank to wind the film, then carefully framed and snapped another of the Stationmaster conferring with an Imperial Guard captain. Finally, she turned ever so subtly and faced her sisters, Olga, Tatiana, and Maria.
Olga sat on a box, with her legs straight out and her hat tilted to shade her winter-pale face. Tatiana leaned in the doorway of the royal blue carriage, hatless and sneaking peeks at a guard with whom she had been flirting the entire trip. Beautiful Maria—Mashka—sat on the folded-down step of the compartment she shared with Ana, as tired of being cooped up in the train as Ana herself. It was quite obvious by Mashka’s slouched shoulders and downcast gaze that she was already missing Luka back home.
Ana snapped the photo and smiled to herself. Some day she, too, would entertain suitors, and the four Tsarevnas would all marry their true loves and live happily ever after together in one of the royal palaces. She so loved her sisters to pieces. Olga and Tatiana were The Big Pair while Mashka and herself were, appropriately, The Little Pair.
“Mashka, come! Wipe away that frown and let us find Father. He’s certain to know how soon we can be bathing in the sea and riding along the beach.”
Maria shaded her face from the sun with her hand and looked up at her younger sister. “You, Shvibzik, have far too much energy for your own good. Fine, let’s see what news we can squeeze from Father, Little Imp.” She stood and with a quick shake of her skirts, chased out the wrinkles as best she could.
“Best to leave Father to his business, Shvibzik.” Tatiana stepped down from the carriage and stretched her arms out in the sunlight. “He’s meeting with a member of the Ukraine parliament. There has been trouble further west and the guards in the palace have been doubled.”
Ana stopped mid-step. She wanted to cheer Mashka up but not at the cost of disturbing Father. “And you know this how, Tatya?”
“The soldiers talk, and I overhear.” She nodded toward the carriage. “Come, let’s find something cold to drink before Chef gets too busy with dinner.”
Ana thought about it for only a moment before she took Mashka’s hand and followed Tatya and Olga to the dining car.
Two Years Later: Ekaterinburg, Russia. The night of July 17-18, 1918.
STUBBORN LIGHT FROM the gibbous moon forced its way through the heavy clouds as though determined to provide illumination for a chance passer-by to witness the “cleansing” taking place. But it was midnight and the only two “citizens” still about stood casually sharing a hand-rolled smoke, awaiting further orders beside the tailgate of an empty, dark-green, canvas-sided truck.
Yellow light spilled out through the propped-open back door of the once-stately Ipatiev House, and scruffy flowering shrubs caught the spill, but neither of the men gave a damn, wanting nothing more than to finish this night’s “business” with the Tsar and get back to their bunks. Their commander, Yakov Yurovsky, had ordered them to remain by the truck, and that’s exactly what they were doing.
Sharp laughter burst from just inside the building, down in the basement, followed by heavy boot steps quickly ascending wooden stairs. A smirking corporal appeared and crunched across the gravel to the truck’s cab, ignoring the lackadaisical attitude of his fellows stationed out in the fresh air. The engine of the truck started with a pair of backfires and a roar that settled down to a rumble. The moment of truth had arrived and when the corporal slammed shut the truck’s door, Piotr—the older of the two men on duty—dropped the remains of the cigarette and ground it under his boot. He took his place to the right side of the open tailgate and his nephew, Sergei, followed suit on the left, ready.
The sound of the truck’s sputtering engine filled the night, then a gunshot was heard from inside the house. That first shot was followed quickly by two more and a woman’s shocked scream, then a fusillade of gun and rifle shots nearly drowned out the horrified screams and cries of two men, eight women, and a young boy. Sergei knew that his fellow Bolsheviks were making quick work of the Tsar, his family, and their servants. Not even the youngest daughter’s puppy was to be spared in this decisive action.
The shots came further apart, but the terrified screams went on and on. Sergei thought he recognized the macabre steel-in-flesh sound of bayonets doing their dirty work while gruff, fear-filled voices shouted at the victims to finally die. The two men above smirked, knowing that this night marked the true end of the Tsar’s corrupt rule.
Twenty minutes later, two more shots echoed up from the basement and then a shout for Piotr and Sergei to come at once. They rushed down into the killing zone in the bowels of The House of Special Purpose. Smoke filled with the heavy stench of gunpowder, fear, and blood assaulted them, but they listened closely to their commanding officer’s orders. Sergei saw the crumpled bodies out of the corner of his eye and hid a smile.
THE TRUCK IDLED away the minutes in the alley above, then all at once the flurry of action from the basement rushed up the stairs and out into the warm night. Wrapped in bloody bed linens, the remains of the Russian Royals and their household were awkwardly and unceremoniously hustled up and into the back of the truck. In the urgency and darkness no one noticed a small, cloth-bound book slip from inside one of the smaller bundles and tumble onto the shrubs beside the doorway. The slim volume teetered there long enough for the wan light to illuminate the bullet-torn, bloodstained cover of William Blake’s
Hushed, harsh commands urged the soldiers to finish their grim work. Soon the truck was loaded and the men all seated on the benches beneath its canvas cover. A shadowed officer slammed the tailgate and the vehicle left, the spinning tires spitting gravel while the senior conspirators mounted their own vehicles and followed. Silence quickly re-established itself as the master of the night.
THREE DAYS LATER, outside the dark Ipatiev House, Captain Martin Powell folded his camera, stowed it in its leather case, took a much-needed swig from his canteen, and wiped the back of his tanned hand across his narrow moustache. He was one of forty drab-olive-and-dust-uniformed soldiers, many of whom stood at ease, smoking and batting idle conversation around in the warm sun. Except for a small Russian escort in their midst, the armed men were members of the Canadian Siberian Expeditionary Force, there to reinforce the anti-Bolshevik forces. They’d secured the area and were nearly done investigating, having not found the royal family they’d come to liberate but instead discovering evidence of unknown sinister acts committed in a small, cramped room in the basement. The blood had been hastily washed away, but uncountable bullet holes remained.
The voice of Powell’s commander cut through the chatter to his right.
“That’s it, lads! We have a train to catch. Load ...