There was a time, not very long ago, where we lived in an enchanted world of elegant palaces and grand parties. The year was 1916, and my son, Nicholas, was the czar of Imperial Russia.
I remember that day so well. Catherine Palace, our home, was gleaming, shining, beautiful, full of equally beautiful people and those who waited upon them, and even they, the servants, were dressed in their very best.
We were celebrating the 300th anniversary of our family rule. And that night, no star burned brighter than that of our sweet Francisque, my youngest grandson. He begged me not to return to Paris, so I had a special gift for him to make the separation easier for both of us.
Even though I could see the hopefulness in his bright eyes from across the ballroom, he had been raised like the little gentleman that he was and waited until I had politely worked my way through the swirls of dancers and nobles before flinging himself at me and burying his face in the folds of my dress. His father, my son, Tsar Nicholas II, was laughing, as his son had just been dancing with him before tearing away, and I was struck by the similarity of him and his son's laughter.
"Grandmama, I missed you so much," Francisque said, voice muffled through the fabric. "Must you go again? Can't you take me to Paris with you? My name is French; can't I be French, too?"
I smiled and stroked his hair. It was getting longer, a dark, shiny brown color like his father's. He was going to grow up to be a beautiful man. My own little prince. "Ah, Francis," I said, using my nickname for him, "I fear I must return. But I've brought you a gift, something to always remember me by."
Instantly he broke away, smiling hugely and clapping his hands. "Yes! Oh, Grandmama, what is it?"
I went down on my knees so that I was level with the eight year old, both of us blinking at eachother with solemn eyes that looked very much alike, if one took the time to observe. I was getting old, and my bones creaked in protest, but I said to him, "Francis, close your eyes, and hold your hands out." He obediently did so, practically shaking in excitement and anticipation. I produced two objects from the folds of my embroidered cloak, both of which I placed into the palms of his hands.
His fingers curled around them curiously, and when I informed him he could then open his eyes, he did, and stared at the gifts I had given him, awe written on his face.
The first was a small, round music box, and the other, its key, a lovely gold and green necklace.
"For me?" he gasped. "Is it a jewelry box?" In answer, I wound it up with the key, and soft notes of a beautifully lilting song filled the air as it opened. The two figures which danced within it were his mother and father, Nicholas and Alexandra. Francis smiled in delight. "It plays our lullaby!"
I smiled right back. "You can play it at night before you go to sleep, and pretend it is me singing." And so I began to sing the words we both knew so well. "On the wind, 'cross the sea, hear this song and remember," I took his hand in mine and we danced in our own funny little way, swaying back and forth together. He sang with me in his high, child's voice as we continued, "Soon you'll be, home with me, once upon a December."
We finished and looked happily at eachother. But I wasn't about to forget the second gift. I held the key up for him, and said in a conspiratorial whisper, "Read what it says."
Biting his lip, he leaned close, fingers tracing over the words on the beautiful pendant of the necklace. His mouth opened as he sounded out the words, "Together in Paris." He looked up when their meaning sank in, beaming at me. "Really?! Oh, Grandmama!" He all but fell forward, embracing me tightly. I only laughed, but inside, I was just as joyful as he was.
But, we broke apart when something dark, something evil, swept over the ballroom. A hush fell across the room, and Francis broke away from me, confused and nervous. His eyes widened as he made out the figure across the vast room, tall, crooked, horrifying. Lightning flashed from the high windows, a storm was brewing outside in the dark of the night.
Someone dropped their wine glass, and the crunch of a boot crushing it followed soon after. Our breath caught in fear, and Francis clung to me, terrified. "Grandmama, what's happening? Who is he?" I did not reply, my eyes round in horror, holding him close to me. I knew that awful man. His name was Robsputin. We thought he was a holy man, but he was a fraud! He was a powerful man, dangerous.
Nicholas stepped forward at once as the evil creature neared the steps where his family was assembled uncertainly. My dear son. He would rid us of this terrible thing at once, I knew it.
When the czar spoke, he was angry. Livid, almost. "How dare you return to the palace!" Nicholas stared at the dark man without fear, did not quail beneath the slitted, sickly blue eyes.
"But," Robsputin said assuredly, "I am your confidant!"
Nicholas responded just as confidently. "Confidant? Ha! You are a traitor! Get out!" Yes, he was livid now. But Robsputin seemed to have no thoughts about stepping away. The air was thick and tense. Francis was shaking.
But now it was Robsputin's turn to be infuriated. "You think you can banish the great Robsputin?" He hissed the words out as though they pained him, yet his tone was sordidly eager. He pulled something from his belt, a glowing green reliquary. "By the unholy powers vested in me, I banish you, with a curse!" He pointed a spindly finger at the czar, my son. My skin prickled with unease. Something was wrong, something was terribly wrong.
"Grandmama," Francis whispered, "what does he mean?"
Everyone gasped. I felt a bit faint.
Robsputin turned to the crowd, away from Nicholas. "Mark my words," he growled, "you," he pointed again at my son, "and your family will die within the fortnight! I will not rest until I see the end of the Iero line! Forever!" He raised the reliquary, and horrible green light erupted from it, unholy demons which flew to the chandelier and sent it crashing down. Guests scattered. Francis screamed, as did his brothers and sisters. His mother had gone ghostly white, and poor Nicholas didn't know what to do.
Consumed by his hatred for Nicholas and his family, Robsputin sold his soul for the power to destroy them.
From that moment on, the spark of unhappiness in our country was fanned into a flame that would soon destroy our lives forever. The people revolted, driven by the madness Robsputin's demons had planted within them. Statues of the czar were torn down, and then came that fateful day when the people, our loyal subjects, stormed the palace.
"Hurry, children!" Nicholas shouted, as we all ran down the carpeted hallway like terrified animals, with no sense of direction but escape.
Francis and I held each other's hands tightly, when suddenly he broke free, crying, "My music box!"
"Francis!" I called desperately, running after him. "Come back! Come back!" I couldn't lose him. Not my little Francisque. I followed him into his room, where he was pulling the music box from a room in the large dollhouse there, holding it with shaking hands.
"Francis!" I gasped, closing the doors tightly. How would we escape? It was too late now.
I heard gunshots outside and Francis struggled to his feet in fear, eyes darting around. There was fire outside, bright and orange, casting flickering shadows everywhere. He dashed to me and we hugged eachother. "Grandmama," he started, and the two of us rushed for the doors back to the hall again.
But we were both grabbed from behind by small hands, Francis squealing in terror, only to see a servant boy just a bit older than him grabbing both of our sleeves and looking at us with earnest hazel eyes. "Please, hurry! Come this way, out the servants' quarters!" We complied easily, knowing he could have been trying to trick us but hardly caring.
Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw Francisque's music box fall from his coat, landing dully on the rug, but there was no time to get it now. The boy pushed us into the small door and the passageway beyond, closing the door, but not fast enough. Francis fought his way past me again, gasping and trying to get past the older boy. "My music box!" he said breathlessly, but the servant boy said roughly, "Go! Go!"
I heard someone pounding on the door. "In here!" the voices of rebels shouted. I heard the doors to Francis's room fall open, and the crack of a weapon against the boy's head, then a soft thump. Had he died saving us?
But there was no time to worry over servant boys. The two of us fled down the corridor, and kept running as fast as we could, until the stone beneath our feet became snow, and then ice, our slippers sliding on the slick surface.
Francis was gasping for air, the poor child's lungs had never been good, and he said helplessly, "Grandmama!" clutching at my dress and faltering in his steps.
"Keep up with me, darling, please," I said urgently, pulling him closer to me. It was bitingly cold, and Francis was still in his nightwear, the silk robe doing little to protect his small body from the elements. But we were almost there, if only we could make it to the train station-
We crossed under a bridge, and there was a horrible sound, and then Francis was pulled from my grasp, screaming. I turned, expecting the worst and finding it.
"Robsputin!" I shouted. He was grabbing Francis's ankle, pulling him back, and the child could only fight back weakly. My grandson's efforts were in vain.
"Let me go, please!" he wailed, thrashing against the ice, threatening to make it break. No! It couldn't end like this!
"No!" snarled Robsputin, "You'll never escape me, child! Never!"
And then the ice broke beneath him. The evil man was half submerged in the freezing water within seconds, hand still clutching Francis's ankle, until he was dragged down by the dangerous current, hands scraping at the ice, Francis panting and gasping as he broke free, collapsing against me and shivering. The creature made all sorts of ghastly sounds before his head was sucked under the black water.
We wasted no time in watching the river claim him, instead we ran, away from him, away from our lives, away from everything.
The trains whistled and smoked, they were about to leave! People bustled about, and we ducked our heads, hoping, praying that they would not recognize us.
"Francis, hurry, hurry!" I cried as I almost lost him in the crowd. The train was starting to depart, whistling loud and piercing again, and I reached my hand out, willing for a kind soul to see an old woman and the last thing she had left; to come to our aid.
Sure enough, the strong hand of a mustached man gripped mine, pulling me up to the train. But my fingers slipped from Francis's, and he was left running behind the train, so close, so very close, yet miles apart.
"No!" he cried as the train went faster and he strained to keep up. He was already exhausted from our escape.
"Here!" I said frantically, extending my arms, hands outstretched. "Take my hand!" And yet, a part of me knew it was all for naught, that this was hopeless and that I would lose him, I would lose everything. But I refused to believe it, it just couldn't ever, wouldn't ever, be true.
"Hold on to my hand!" I shouted, and our hands connected strongly, his tiny fingers gripping mine with desperation.
"Don't let go!" he panted, eyes wide and shining and frightened.
And yet our palms, slippery and numb from the cold, were torn apart by the train, and I heard his shriek of panic as he was thrown backwards from the force.
"Francis! Francisque!" I cried, hand still outstretched.
I saw him hit the platform as though in slow motion, his head connecting hard with the wood. His eyes fell shut and the rest of his small body hit the ground limply, looking deceitfully peaceful.
People tried to pull me back, telling me that the train was going too fast now, I needed to take my seat, but I refused, my eyes focused on the fallen boy.
"Francisque!" I wailed, long and drawn out, made even longer as the train carried my voice away from me, and away from the only person who mattered in my entire world.
So many lives were destroyed that night. What had always been was now gone forever. And my Francisque, my beloved grandchild...I never saw him again.