Today's Reading



I PULLED THE collar of my coat close around my face as I sneaked between the sleighs and automobiles parked in front of the grand duke's house, hoping I could get beyond the light of the braziers before our coachman spotted me. If Yermak saw me, he'd want to know why I was leaving the ball early and without my stepfather.

No one inside would miss me. The partygoers were too busy sharing the latest rumors swirling around the czar and the czarina. And even though I liked dancing, the choice of partners was limited to friends of my stepfather, or staff officers who had wrangled headquarters jobs for themselves to keep away from the fighting. For some reason those men felt the need to constantly remind one of their great wisdom and wit.

Sewing up a saber cut is not like embroidering a handkerchief, my dear Miss Mason! You should stay with your nursing instead of trying to become a doctor, though you should really attend to soldiers instead of working in that absurd hospital for women. I must say, you American girls find the strangest ways to occupy your time!

The captain who had made this pronouncement about my future was so pleased with himself that I wished I'd had a suture needle handy. I would have sewn the ends of his overly long mustache to his overly bushy eyebrows before he knew what was happening. I hoped by the time I returned, he'd have found another victim to bore.

The sounds of the orchestra faded as I walked away toward the square, picking up my pace as I moved into the darkened streets. The snow had tapered off, so I was at least able to see where to put my next step. I loved Petrograd during the day, when the sun shone on the beautiful buildings painted in a dazzling array of pastels, but at night the city changed. Then the silent buildings felt more like giant tombs, and I could never forget the story visitors were told: that the city was built on bones, the skeletons of a hundred thousand serfs who were forced to erect a city on a swamp, all to please the ego of a czar.

I breathed easier when I saw Znamenskaya Square ahead of me. Since it was nearly two a.m., the square was mostly empty, though there were a few groups huddled around small fires, refugees who had poured into the city from the war zones with nowhere to go and no money to procure a bed or even a warm spot on a floor.

When I reached the entrance to the hospital, I didn't see the dark shape standing outside the circle of light the streetlamp cast until I heard a soft voice that made me jump.

"Charlotte, I'm here," Raisa said as she moved into the light.

"You were holding so still I didn't see you." I put my hand on my chest. "I think my heart skipped a beat or two."

She laughed, a sound I hadn't heard from her for a long time. "Then my practice has paid off. Tell your brothers I've been working at staying still so I can be a better vanishing lady in your magic show. When we're able to practice again, I want to be ready."

"I'll tell them," I said, though it was a bit of a struggle for me to imagine a future that included amusing ourselves with our little family circus again.

She loosened the shawl that was draped around her head, shaking off the snow. "I want you to teach me the trick of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, too. I promised my sister I would show her that when I see her again."

"We'll have to recruit some new rabbits," I said. "Mr. Hatter and Miss Fluff have grown too big to fit in a hat. They spend all day lazing around their pen being spoiled now."

Raisa smiled, but then a shiver overtook her, and she wrapped her arms around herself. I noticed that her gloves had holes in them. I knew I wouldn't be able to get her to take mine, but next time I'd bring her another pair, some that had been my mother's. She wouldn't refuse those.

"Come into the hospital and get warm," I urged. "We can talk a little. It's been weeks." I'd missed her so much, and I didn't know when we'd be able to meet again.

"I wish I could, but I don't want anyone inside to see me."

"There is only a night nurse on duty. We can trust her. You'll be safe, I promise."

"You don't know that." She lowered her voice. "People are so desperate, they'll try to sell any information they have to the Okhrana for a few kopeks."

Even the mention of the Okhrana, the secret police everyone feared, sent a shiver down my back. I knew the nurses were on my side, but I understood why Raisa didn't trust people she didn't know. Her father had been betrayed by one of his own employees and sent to prison for speaking against the czar inside his own newspaper office.

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