Dimitri has been in the palace for two days and he's trying to find his way back to his quarters but he thinks he might be lost. All these grand hallways look the same: very pretty, but very confusing.
He sighs, and a noise answers him, a rustling from one of the tall curtained windows.
"Hey," he says. Maybe it's an assassin; maybe he will get a medal for foiling a murder attempt on the tsar. He walks cautiously over to the window and, after pausing for effect and to screw up his courage, pulls the red drapes aside.
There is a girl behind the curtains, sitting curled up on the windowsill, elbow pressed against the glass.
"Shh," she says. "I'm hiding from Monsieur Gilliard."
He doesn't recognise her; he thinks perhaps she is some country courtier's daughter, here in the palace to entertain one of the Grand Duchesses. She certainly doesn't look rich; her simple frock is torn at the collar and her fair hair, lit red-gold in the yellow sunlight streaming in the window behind her, is frizzy and dishevelled.
Dimitri is confused. He does not know who Monsieur Gilliard is. "What did Monsieur Gilliard do to you?"
She shudders. "He's trying to speak French at me."
"Well," Dimitri says intelligently.
"Don't get me wrong, I would like to know how to speak French," she says. "My grandmother lives in Paris, you know. But it's terribly trying to have to learn it."
"I see," he says. She is certainly very chatty. And not from the country. If she were one of the girls back home, he would be able to talk to her. But he doesn't know how to deal with these city-dwellers; they talk and talk and never once mean a word they say.
"What's your name?" she asks, peering out over his shoulder, around the curtains. The hallways is still empty.
"Dimitri Feodorov," he says. "And you?"
"Ana - Anya," she says, settling back onto the sill. "What's your job, Dimitri Feodorov?"
He sighs. "For now? I clean shoes," he says. "It's lots of fun, really. But I'm sending money back home, at least."
"You won't get rich cleaning shoes," she says. "Was there anyone behind you?"
"I don't think so, no," he says. "You're probably safe to go."
Anya climbs down off her windowsill. "Well, all right," she says. "But if he catches me it's your head."
"Fair enough," he says.
She smiles, and runs.
He stands there for a moment, trying to fix the curtain tie - he doesn't want to get in trouble for messing something up - but they're velvet and very heavy. "Dima," someone hisses behind him. He turns: it is one of the maids, Sophia Alekseevna, a stack of linens in her arms.
"What'd I do this time?" he asks miserably.
"That was Anastasia Nikolaevna," Sophia Alekseevna tells him. "Hiding from her tutor, I don't doubt. That child has the devil in her."
Dimitri stares at her, and she clucks her tongue and puts down her stack of linens. "Go on, boy. I'll fix these."
"What, are you serious?" he says.
She waves him on. He walks away, feeling a little shaken.
"Hello, shoe-boy," Anastasia says.
Dimitri stops and turns. It is his second year making the summer cruise on the Standart, the imperial yacht, but he is still not used to it; the sort of elegant claustrophobia it inspires is a little overwhelming.
"I'm not a shoe-boy anymore, you know," he says. "I'm assisting your father's valet, now."
Anastasia Nikolaevna is sitting on the deck, her photographs spread out around her ready to be pasted into an album; the whole family has a bit of a mania for photography, and she is the worst of them - she has already run through two albums this month. She is dressed all in fresh white lace and pearls this time, but her hair is tangled and windblown and her pink sash is drooping around her waist.
"Whatever," she says. "Valet, shoe-boy. It's all the same to me."
"Where are your sisters?" he asks. They are rarely out of sight of one another.
She shrugs. "They're all on shore picking flowers. I wasn't allowed to go. Mama said I was giving her one of her headaches and Papa said I was being bad."
"Well, were you?" Dimitri asks.
She looks up at him; her blue eyes shine with mischief. "Maybe," she says. "I put frogs in Tatiana's shoes. But they're all such spoilsports, they didn't think it was funny."
Dimitri is starting to understand why they all call her 'imp'.
"You can sit, you know," Anastasia says. "You're being weird, hovering like that."
Cautiously, he sits down on the deck beside her. The wooden planks are sun-warmed and smooth.
"Tanya drives me crazy," she confesses. "She's so perfect. And bossy. And pretty, and tall... I don't think I'm ever going to grow. Short, dumpy Malenkaya, that's me."
"You'll grow out of it," he says. "My sister Nina did. My mother said she was short as a hen and fat as a pig when she was little, but now she's almost as tall as Father."
Her eyes are wide and curious. "You have a family?"
"Everyone has a family," he says, and quickly adds, "Your Highness." But that doesn't help, because he remembers, now, that they're not supposed to call them by their titles, that their father doesn't like that, and he could kick himself. She watches him, one eyebrow raised.
"Imperial Highness," she corrects saucily. She looks him up and down. "So, you're a peasant, then?"
"Yes," Dimitri says. He is starting to get irritated. He was only trying to be nice, and look where it's gotten him. "Obviously."
She starts slapping paste on the back of a new photograph. "My great-grandfather freed the peasants, you know," she says, sticking the photo down on the page and nodding with satisfaction at it. "You should thank me."
"For what?" he asks frankly. "You didn't do anything."
She looks up from her album and stares at him. His cheeks go hot, and he thinks, oh, my parents are going to kill me if I come back home in disgrace.
He really does not want to have to go back to the village.
But then she smiles. "I like you, shoe-boy," she says.
"Well, thanks, your Highness, that makes me feel so much better," Dimitri says automatically, and then he is horrified. He just cannot help himself.
The next time they speak it is winter and they are in the white, bare gardens of Tsarskoe Selo. He and some of the other boys are helping the guards build a mountain of snow so the children can sled; Anastasia comes out to watch before they're done, holding the tsarevitch's hand, dragging her sled behind her in her other hand.
"Shoe-boy!" she says. The first thing he notices is that her hair is darker now, more red than gold.
"You know," Dimitri says, leaning on his shovel, "most people, if they want to go sledding, they find a hill to sled down rather than having one built for them. I'm just saying."
She laughs. "But where's the fun in that?" she says. "More snow!"
Dimitri rolls his eyes at her, then turns to the tsarevitch. "Where's your sled?" he asks. "Aren't you going up with Anastasia Nikolaevna?"
Aleksei looks at his older sister.
"No," Anastasia says shortly. "He can't."
Aleksei puts his tongue out at Anastasia. Dimitri wants to ask why, but from the look on Anastasia's face, he knows he has stumbled onto something they can't talk about.
"Go over there with Grisha and Mama," Anastasia says, pointing over to an adjacent path. The tsarina is walking, slowly, with the staretz Rasputin and her friend, Anna Vyrubova; her face is pinched and tight. The tsarina, Dimitri thinks, never looks happy.
Aleksei does as Anastasia says, which surprises Dimitri, a little; from what he's seen, all the Romanov children are ridiculously willful.
"That's Rasputin?" Dimitri asks.
Anastasia turns away a little, burying her face in the fur collar of her coat. "Yes," she says.
Dimitri wonders if he should bite his tongue here. He doesn't. "He's a little... sinister, don't you think?"
Her blue eyes over the white fur are sharp. "You're not the only one he frightens," she says, and then she shakes her head. "But I don't want to talk about it. Are you gentlemen done here?"
He stands back. "We're ready if you are."
She grins, and begins clambering up the hill, her neat white boots digging into the snow, her sled clattering behind her.
Across the square, Rasputin looks up, and meets Dimitri's gaze; his pale eyes are eerie, and he smiles a little. Dimitri wonders if he heard them talking; it's impossible, but still -
Anastasia hits him in the back of the head with a snowball. "Ow," Dimitri says. He tries to fish the snow out of the back of his collar. "That's not fair, that was all ice!"
She is laughing, climbing still higher, above his head.
The next day, Dimitri finds himself demoted to the kitchens.
He remembers the look on the staretz's face, and he is not all that surprised - and at least he isn't being sent home in shame, or thrown in prison, or any number of worse things.
He'll miss talking to her, though. He doesn't think he will have much opportunity to come across her, now that he's a kitchen-boy; he tells himself that he's being stupid, that she will forget about him anyway.
(He hopes that she doesn't.)