Russia

17th November, 1796

Mother,

You hated me. Almost as much as you hated father.You paraded your lovers before me and called me bastard.

But now you’re gone.

And now I will be Tsar.

Not my son.

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Princes Never Cry

Alexei was sleeping soundly in his warm bed when he felt the gentle touch of his mother’s hand along his head. He opened his sleep-weighted eyes and peered through the dim light in his family’s room. The first thing that came into focus was his mother’s worried face.

“Mama, what is the matter?” he asked, still rubbing his eyes. His mother always looked nervous since they’d moved to the house in the spring, but tonight she looked beyond petrified.

“You have to get dressed now darling, we’re leaving the house soon,” she said, smiling and trying to appear calm. Alexei noticed the doctor with the thin beard standing at the doorway. Alexei liked the doctor. He was always so kind and helpful; he always had a smile on. Tonight something was different. Gone was the optimistic twinkle in his eyes. That alone made Alexei nervous.

“Hurry now, my loves. We mustn’t dawdle,” his mother said as she woke up his sisters. With the delicate help of his servants, Alexei got dressed as quickly as he could. His sisters made a fuss about being awakened at such barbaric hours, but their mother hushed them and urged them to get dressed. Alexei’s father walked over to the doctor and the two had a conversation that Alexei couldn’t hear. When the two men finished, his father walked over and sat beside his son.

“Papa, what is the meaning of this?” Alexei asked, waiting for his wheelchair to be brought.

“The gentlemen who are protecting us must take us someplace safe,” his father replied, not making eye contact. Alexei didn’t like the “gentlemen”, his father spoke of. They were mean and crude men with thick accents and no manners. They never let Alexei go outside to play unless he went with his father and they carried guns. The leader had a thick black mustache and sinister eyes.

Alexei felt a wave of fear tugging at him. His chest tensed and he felt his throat suddenly dry up. He felt the urge to cry bubbling up behind his eyes but he fought them down. Princes never cry.

Anastasia and Maria looked on the verge of tears. Olga came over and comforted them with words of faith and hope. Tatiana helped her mother gather the family’s personal belongings. Their suitcases had been taken by the “gentlemen protectors” when they had moved in. Tatiana stripped the pillows of their golden pillowcases and placed belonging in them. Anastasia grabbed her favorite doll, the one that mother had gotten from Berlin, and held it close. Normally Olga would chastise her for acting childish but now she just kissed her on the forehead.

Two men with guns came to the door as the family was finishing preparing for their flight. The leader with the pointed black mustache was one of them. Father went to the door to speak with them. Mother and his sisters stood frozen in fear at the sight of the two shadows in the doorway.

“We must move you to the basement. You’ll be leaving soon in truck,” the leader said loud enough for the whole family to hear. His Russian was rural and course, not at all like the elegant Russian Alexei had heard all his life. Father tried to ask a question but the two men turned and left, leaving the doctor in the hallway. Anastasia started to cry quietly. Olga wiped her tears away and comforted her, as did mother. Father returned from the doorway and sat down on the bed next to Alexei. He tried to hide his fear from his father. He straightened his shirt and tried to swallow the growing lump in his throat.

“Come now, little prince, we must get you downstairs,” father said with a half-smile. He carefully hoisted Alexei up and made his way down to the basement.

The basement room was close and dimly lit. The faded white plaster walls looked deathly grey in the pale lantern light. Alexei held tight to his father as the family stood as if for one of the many photos they had taken. The soldier guarding the family had a crocked nose and a pale, smooth face. He couldn’t have been much older than Maria. He looked at each of them nervously and then fidgeted with his uniform. He wasn’t like the soldiers that guarded the family. The old soldiers had bright white uniforms and chests full of medals.

“This is insufferable. If you’re going to keep us in this dungeon, kindly bring down some chairs,” Mother said, her patience waning by the second. The young guard tried to offer some retort, but one steely glance from Mother was enough to rob him of his voice. He stepped outside and returned shortly to tell the servants to bring down a chair each. The three servants looked to father, who nodded in agreement and they were off.

“It won’t be much longer, little prince” Father said to him in a soft voice. Alexei took comfort in his father’s arms and words. He hugged his father just a little tighter. After a few minutes, the servants returned carrying three chairs from the dining room. Father gently sat Alexei down first before seeing to mother and then taking the last seat for himself. The girls stood around mother, all of them holding onto mother’s hand.

“Be strong, my loves. The blessed Virgin will protect us. Be strong,” she whispered to them in English. Anastasia wiped away more tears and Maria prayed to herself. Alexei took his pillow and braced his back with it as the minutes wore on in that dark and cold room.

The fear in the room was palpable. Mother was trembling and the girls were gathered close together. Everybody looked afraid, even the guard. Everyone except Father. Father simply sat in the uncomfortable chair graceful and composed as Alexei could always remember him being. Just one look was all Alexei needed to sit straighter and try to emulate his royal father.

Even through the shut door, Alexei could hear the old grandfather clock chime off quarter past the hour. He heard footsteps outside and in walked the mustached leader and several other guards. The leader took the center and spoke quickly.

“Nikolai Alexandrovich, in view of fact that your relatives are continuing their attack on Soviet Russia, Ural Executive Committee has decided to execute you,” he said without so much as taking a breath.

A lightning bolt of abject terror struck through Alexei’s body. He felt his heart drop into his stomach and white hot tears burned the back of his eyes. He looked desperately to his father. If Father was afraid, he didn’t show it. His composure soothed the waves of anxiety that ravaged Alexei.

Father had been facing the family when he stood up and only uttered a single word.

“What?” he said before the loud cracks of pistols being fired filled the small room. Alexei watched in horror as bullets burst through his father’s chest, leaving bright crimson stains down his pressed white tunic. He fell to his knees with a look of utter defeat and sadness in his eyes before collapsing dead at the foot of his dynasty.

Alexei looked up at the assassins, but their faces were obscured by the pistol smoke. More shots crackled through the air and Alexei felt sharp impacts across his chest. He fell back in his chair and landed hard against the cold concrete floor. He could feel blood leaving his frail body as he turned to see his mother and his sisters collapse to the ground in the middle of trying to cross themselves.

The sound of the gunfire ceased, only to be replaced with the pained groans of his sisters. His mother’s tear-filled face was speckled with blood. He could make out Maria whimpering softly in unimaginable pain. Alexei tried to call out to her but could only cough up blood. The pain changed from sharp and acute to dull and uniform.  Don’t cry, Alexei forced himself to think through the growing haze. From where he was laying, he could see the German-made doll clutched in Anastasia’s soft pale hands. Don’t cry, Alexei choked aloud. Mother was sobbing as she reached out for her dead husband’s hand. The leader walked up to her, put a pistol to her head and shot her after a moment of hesitation.

As the world grew dimmer and darker, Alexei felt himself being turned over and looking into the face of the pale-faced guard. The boy’s gun quivered in his hand and he was crying even as he brought the pistol within inches of Alexei’s face. Alexei swallowed his pain in his final seconds, proud of his tearless cheeks.

Princes never cry, he thought.