"At time it vas great honor." Taking a sip of his port, Kostya Martinov leaned back in his chair, his Russian accent thick even after many years spent outside of his homeland. At the age of sixty-five he was still dashingly handsome, his shoulders broad and figure still fit. "Looking back now I know it vas only out of desperation, after they lose so many in first World War."
"That's not completely true, you were a very skilled fighter," his wife interrupted, her own accent no longer thick, but dulled to a charming lilt.
"I vas child, vhat did I know?" He shrugged a broad shoulder, grinning.
"Just get on with your story then," she chided softly, rolling her eyes.
"Fine, fine! I think, though, you must fill in spots." Settling further into his chair, Kostya surveyed the group gathered around the fire and started the tale everyone had been pestering him for. "It vas beginning of 1917 when I vas accepted into the Imperial Guard. I vas twenty and living alone in Petrograd…"
I couldn’t remember the last time I felt so excited. I work up even earlier than usual to make sure everything was perfect and pristine. I polished my shoes, shined my sabre and, after placing my new Kiver atop my head, I thought I might actually look like I belonged on the Imperial Guard.
Russia was full of unrest, there was war with Germany, but I felt hope blooming in my chest for the first time since my father had died. I was going to follow in his footsteps, after all.
Before I left the house, which had belonged to my father, but now seemed too large and empty, I glanced toward my parents’ wedding picture on the mantle. I tipped my hat and smiled, “I will make you proud.”
The walk to the guardroom outside of Winter Palace was tedious work, there had been a large snowfall the night before and there were drifts up to my thighs. I carefully made my way down the stairs outside, then struggled through the snow until I got to the main street where it was packed down. The air stung my cheeks and I pulled my scarf up higher before digging my hands into my pockets.
People were just getting ready for the day; the baker was sweeping snow from her sign, and there were children racing with each other on their way to school, laughing and teasing. A few soldiers were on patrol and I nodded to them as I walked by, feeling so much pride because I was to be one of them.
The halls leading toward the commander’s office were long, well lit, and immaculately kept. I had been escorted by a quiet young man with large glasses and mousy brown hair. He lead me down to one door with ornate carvings running along the edges and large brass handle. The young man ducked inside the commander’s office to announce my arrival, and left shortly after.
I stepped inside the room; it was large, spacious and Spartan. Bookcases lined the wall to the left and part of the back, to the right was a large fireplace with a few bits of military memorabilia set on top, and two overstuffed chairs were sitting in front of it. Across from where I stood was a large oak desk and behind it sat Commander Tomlin.
The commander was a man of medium build and indeterminable age. He was fair skinned with a pair of wire rimmed glasses perched on a long nose, and his hair was as white as mine; although it looked far more natural on him than me.
“Please, sit comrade,” he said gesturing to the straight backed chair in front of his desk and I complied. He took a moment to look over his desk for my file before finally locating the document and skimming the pages. “Kostya Martinov?” he mumbled under his breath, brows furrowing slightly before looking up at me and staring. “Dmitriy’s boy?”
“Well, I’m quite shocked to see you here.“ The commander leaned back in his chair and pulled off his glasses. “I met you once before, I doubt you would remember, it was before your mother died. I believe it was your birthday, you had gotten a new train set and you had covered the entire living room with the tracks. That seems like such a short time ago, now here you are all grown and in my office.” He shook his head as if to clear it. “Tell me, Kostya, what made you want to join the Imperial Guard?”
“My father. I know it would make him proud if I followed in his footsteps.”
Tomlin smiled at me softly. “He was a great man, I was very sorry to learn of his death. You have my condolences. How long has it been?”
“Six months, and thank you, sir.”
Tomlin nodded and picked up my file again, reading it more thoroughly. “I see you’ve completed all the basic training, and it looks like General Artamov has given you his full endorsement.” Tomlin looked up at me with a grin. “That’s not a thing that happens often.”
“So I’ve been told, sir.”
“Well, not much more to it then to get you situated in a patrol. I will send for someone to show you around.” As the words left his mouth there was a knock on the door, before Tomlin could even form a reply a young girl with dark hair rushed in.
“Shh, Helena, I have a guest.” The girl stopped suddenly at that news and turned to look at me. She was slight for her age, which I placed to be about seven, with dark eyes and shockingly pale skin; I assumed she was very unwell.
“Pleased to meet you, sir.” She dipped down into a graceful curtsy. Smiling gently I rose to my feet and gave her a formal bow. “A pleasure, Helena. I’m Kostya.”
She beamed up at me, and as I took my seat again she dashed over to her father. “Papa, Milena wants to take me to the ballet! If you say it’s alright? Please, Papa, please?”
Commander Tomlin sighed heavily at this. “How are you feeling today?”
“Much better than yesterday!”
“Let me see your eyes.” He pulled his daughter close and looked into her eyes while tilting her head side to side. “Do you promise that if you start to feel the slightest bit tired you will tell Milena and come straight home?” The girl nodded vigorously. “Then you may go.”
“Thank you, Papa!” Helena flung her arms around his neck and kissed each cheek before running toward the door. Before she left completely she turned back and curtsied again. “Goodbye, Kostya!”
“Goodbye, Helena.” The door closed and I turned back to the commander, “She’s sweet.”
“She is, I do so worry about her, but her Governess is a Godsend. Pah!” He shook his head, throwing his hands in the air. “No need for my troubles, come let’s go find your escort.”
Tomlin guided me down the long corridors, taking me further into the palace and finally out into a large courtyard, it was walled in to the left, the right side sheltered by the palace. The entire area was cleared of snow, the large fountain in the middle was frozen over, the spouting cherubs caked in ice. Tomlin did not pause, walking swiftly across the cobblestones and entered a door on the other side. I followed him closely, trying to take in everything around me, once we were inside I realized this was the barracks.
“Alex!” Tomlin called out to a man with short blond hair down the hall. His back was turned, but he was slight of build and most likely a junior recruit. “Just the man I wanted to see, I need you to show our newest recruit around. Can you handle that?”
“Of course, sir!” The young man turned around, saluting the commander, and I nearly fainted. Tomlin turned back to me, worried. “Kostya, are you alright?”
“Yes, sir. Fine.” I tried to keep my face neutral; I must’ve succeeded because Tomlin only nodded gently and clapped me on the shoulder before taking his leave. I watched him go before rounding back on ‘Alex.’
“Alexis, what the hell are you doing here?” I growled.
“Kostya, shut up! Come here!” Alexis pulled me into a break room off the main hall that was thankfully empty, locking the door behind us. “Good to see you again, cousin!” Alexis said lightly, too lightly, a wide smile plastered in place. I hated that bright smile, it always meant trouble.
“You’re supposed to be in Moscow, attending school! I saw you leave on the train! Do your parents know you’re here?”
“Of course not you fool! I’ve been sending them letters through a friend. They think their little girl is getting the ‘proper education of a lady.‘ Meanwhile I’m here, getting the education I want.”
“How? You’re parents are one thing, but how have you convinced them that you’re a man?” I eyed her shorter hair and military uniform, all in all she gave a good impression of a young recruit… but there were doctor checkups and other things to get around.
“It’s not that hard, I dress in corners and bathe at night when no one is around. The physicals are the only problem, but I made friends with one of the doctors. He understands and keeps my secret.” She waved a hand airily while leaning back against the door.
“Alexis, do you understand what you’re doing? You’re impersonating a guardsman…”
“I am a guardsman.” The look she gave me was enough to melt snow. “I have completed training, I work hard, harder than most others here. I know what I’m doing.” And then her features softened and she looked up at me through her lashes. “Dmitry was my uncle, and you were not the only one affected by his stories and bravery and honor.”
“I know, he loved you like you were his own daughter.” I sank down on a chair and rubbed my face. “But why not tell me?”
“I thought it would be safer if no one knew.“ She shrugged. “At least while I got settled.”
“So you’re not upset that I’m here now?”
“No! I’m excited, I’ve missed you! Besides, now I have someone to talk to.” She pulled out one of the chair across from mine and settled herself. “I’ve met someone!” Her eyes were glowing like blue flames; more trouble.
“How did you meet someone?”
She spread out her arms and rolled her eyes. “What can I say? I’m full of surprises.”
“Apparently,” I snorted. “Does he know you’re a woman?”
She smiled slowly, “Yes.”
“What’s his name then? Is he a solider?”
That grin again. “No, a civilian, and her name is Mischa.”