As night fell on Christmas Eve, the Dowager Empress stared out her window overlooking the Seine. She smiled down at the people rushing past with their coats drawn tight about them. There were packages tucked under their arms or bottles of wine held close to their chests. They hurried to carry out those little last minute errands before the holiday officially set in and the entire city took one true day of rest.
She sighed and rose from her seat to wander into the dining room. It had been set for breakfast the next morning, though when her guests would arrive, she was unsure. Her lady in waiting and fake count houseguest would not be back from midnight mass until very late. The Dowager was not Catholic and she was keeping to her tradition of refusing to attend mass. She considered that maybe it was time to let go of that tradition, considering it had stemmed from the resentment she held against her now deceased daughter in law. Maybe next year...
She surprised the footman as she passed into the study. He was lighting a few candles but jumped and bowed when he realized he was no longer alone.
“Is there anything I can assist you with, Madame?” he asked, his eyes flicking to the clock before back to her. She shook her head.
"No, please, go to your family. I believe that we deposed royalty can take care of ourselves for this one night." she told him. His eyes lit up but he pressed to make sure she was serious. When she had sufficiently convinced him, he took his leave with much bowing and thanks.
When she heard the door to the kitchen close, she couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face. It was such a novelty to her to be truly alone for a few moments. Rarely had she ever been given such freedom in her life. But with Russia gone and her claims to anything important vanished, she was freer in that moment than she had ever been.
Her smile thinned into a more mischievous smirk. The Dowager decided that she would go somewhere she had never gone before and may never be allowed to go again. Treading carefully, though she could not put her finger on why, the old lady made her way cautiously to the kitchen. It was located down the stairs to the back of the house, behind the dining room.
Looking around the brick floor and shiny metals, her forehead wrinkled in consternation. She didn't have the slightest clue what half of these implements were for. More confident now that she was there, she began to poke about, opening cupboards and flipping through cookbooks. She found the ham in the oven, ready to be cooked early the next morning. She smiled over how the footman had thought of everything. He was a good man... she would be giving him a raise in the new year for sure.
Continuing her exploration, she noticed a pile of rags by the door. She wrinkled her nose at the mess. Maybe not as big a raise as she thought.
Suddenly the pile shifted and she startled with a little yelp. A head poked out of the rags and two huge brown eyes stared up at her. A girl no older than 13 slowly rose from the rags, her shabby clothing blending with them perfectly. For a moment, neither of them said anything. Then the girl's eyes went extra wide as she realized who, exactly, she was looking at.
In an instant, she was on her knees, touching her forehead to the cold floor.
"I apologize for my rudeness, your Highness. I didn't mean to fall asleep. I beg your forgiveness." she said in rapid, terrified French. The Dowager stared down at her, trying to decide just what she should do. All of her grooming as an Empress of Russia told her to look past the girl, scold her for laziness, and leave in a sweep of her robe. But she was no longer an Empress nor was she in Russia. She was simply Maria Feodorovna, alone in a kitchen with a terrified servant girl.
"You have nothing to apologize for, child. Please, get up off the floor.” She said as kindly as she could. Her vision blurred and for a moment, she saw her granddaughters in this girl’s trembling frame. It hit her full force that this girl could have been her Anastasia in the years she had been lost. Her heart clenched and she reached out her gloved hand. The girl glanced up and flinched at the sight of her hand reaching down. The Dowager stilled, not pushing but not wanting to pull away either. After a few more tense moments, the girl slowly reached up to take the white gloved hand. Her grimy fingers left dark prints on the fine silk. Tears sprouted in her eyes when she saw the marks and hunched her shoulders. Maria’s eyes narrowed and she stripped off both gloves.
“You have nothing to fear from me. Would you join me for a cup of tea?” she asked, nodding to a stool next to the long, sturdy wooden table in the middle of the kitchen. The girl hesitated but finally sat gingerly and watched with big eyes as the Maria began to prepare the tea things. She was a little stumped by the fancy stove but soon enough she had a kettle boiling away.
“Where do they keep the tea, dear?” she asked. The girl pointed wordlessly at a cupboard and Maria retrieved a canister of chamomile and lemongrass tea. She hoped it would soothe the girl’s nerves.
“I didn’t know rich folk even knew where the kitchen was.” The girl commented as Maria placed a steaming cup of tea in front of her. She slapped a hand over her mouth but the old woman merely chuckled.
“I wasn’t always important enough to be excused from making tea. It was a very long time ago but I still remember a few things.” She told the girl as she placed the honey and sugar in between them. Carefully, she sat on the opposite stool.
“Thank you, Your Highness.” The girl whispered but she still waited until the Dowager had fixed her tea and taken a sip to do the same.
“You’re welcome… I’m sorry but I do not know your name.”
“Melanie, your Highness.” Melanie replied before taking a sip. She sighed happily and her shoulders relaxed down a little. Maria smiled behind her own cup.
“Melanie. A lovely name, I think. How long have you worked in my house?” she asked. Melanie’s eyes lost a little of their happy shine.
“A few months, Your Highness. Just before All Saint’s Day.” She told the old woman. Maria nodded.
“Ah, after all the turmoil of the summer. I’m glad you weren’t here before that. I was terribly unpleasant before this summer.” She admitted. Melanie ducked her head.
“Oh, I was here before then! I just worked outside. I never was allowed in. But when the last scullery maid left, I was hired in.” she clarified.
“Ah. Let me rephrase then: how long have you worked for this household in any capacity?” she asked, stern.
“I started sweeping this street two winters ago, I believe. The footman gave me odd jobs for a while before bringing me on board to tend the gardens with the gardener last summer. And now I work in the kitchen or the garden, depending on who needs me.” Melanie explained, her voice rough. Maria peered into her eyes and saw she was about to cry.
“What is wrong, my dear?”
“You’re just being very kind. It- It’s been a while since people were kind.” She admitted.
“Is the rest of my staff unpleasant to you?”
“No, they’re fine. But I’m just a street wench. They tolerate me… Honestly, I don’t know why you are being kind.” She admitted. Now both hands flew up to cover her mouth. “I don’t mean to be so forward. I don’t usually take liberties like this.”
“Thank you for being honest with me. I appreciate someone who can speak frankly with me on occasion. I’m far too old to appreciate it all the time.” The lady attempted to joke. To her surprise, the girl smiled.
“I’ll keep that in mind, your Highness.” She replied, an impish look of fun creeping into her formerly terrified eyes. They sat in companionable silence for a few minutes before Melanie looked up into the older woman’s face with a look of consternation.
“Your Highness?” she asked. Maria nodded, indicating she could continue. “That girl… the pretty one with your eyes… was she really your granddaughter?”
“I’m not going to tell a reporter or anything. I just wondered because I expected her to be here for Christmas and she’s not. So I wasn’t sure if she really was or not. I know you have to tell the world that she’s not. The boys at the pub say the Bolsheviks would try to kill her again if she really was the Princess. But… she’d still be your granddaughter, right?”
“You are very well spoken for a street girl.” Maria noted, deliberately not answering these dangerous questions.
“My father imported spices and tea from Asia before he was killed in a dock accident. My mother died in childbirth. He gave me the best education he could afford while he was alive. But my cousin inherited everything and when I wouldn’t marry him, he turned me out.” Melanie said in a quiet, stilted voice.
“I see. So you took the only work you could find.” Maria asked gently. She wanted to be angry with the thought of a cousin trying to marry a girl so young but she wasn’t blind. She knew it happened far more often than anyone should be comfortable with. The girl nodded.
“I’m too young for proper work and I didn’t want to go to an orphanage. So I did what I could and it eventually lead me here.”
“And are you happy here?” Maria pressed. The girl shrugged.
“As happy as anywhere. I get to sleep inside so that’s nice.” The nonchalance of her comment made the old woman smile. This girl reminded her strongly of another girl child who had been more outspoken than was considered polite.
“I’m glad to hear it.” The sound of her voice seemed to bring the girl back to herself and her eyes widened.
“Oh! Papa always told me I was too frank. He was right...” she murmured. Maria could see the tears beginning to well in the girl’s eyes and took a handkerchief from her sleeve. The girl flinched when she raised her hand to wipe them away.
“I’m not going to hurt you, dear.” She said carefully. After a tense moment, the girl nodded ever so slightly. Her eyes closed for a brief moment as Maria wiped her cheeks. When she opened them again, she saw the exquisite silk handkerchief was now stained with soot and grime.
“I’m sorry. I’ll wash it!” the girl tried to reach for the cloth but it was raised above her grasp. Maria smiled.
“Not to worry, dear. It is Christmas Eve after all. No work tonight. Now-,“ a loud bang in the back garden stopped her short. In a fluid movement, Melanie was off her stool and picking up a poker from next to the hearth before striding to the door. She raised the poker in a threatening gesture and waited.
Finally, the door opened and two figures practically fell into the room.
“I told you to be careful!” a female voice said, shoving at the larger person’s shoulder.
“I was careful! That rake jumped out and bit me, promise.” The second voice was definitely a man’s but the light baritone was warm and amused.
“You both have three seconds to turn tail and run before I beat you to a bloody pulp.” Melanie growled, her voice going as deep and menacing as she could get it.
“Wait! Melanie!” the Dowager called, finally picking her stomach and heart up off the floor from where they fell when the shadowy woman had spoken.
Melanie froze but never took her gaze from the intruders. Maria stood and rounded the table, putting a gentle hand on the girl’s shoulder. The fiery servant girl took a step to the right so she was directly between the Dowager and the intruders.
“But Your Highness!” she sounded confused but still she kept her poker up. The intruders finally stepped into the light and the poker fell to the floor with a clatter.
“Merry Christmas, Nonna!” Anastasia smiled up at Maria, her eyes shining and cheeks red from the cold. She waited to approach until the girl had knelt before embracing her grandmother. Dmitri shifted from foot to foot behind her, looking uncomfortable. There were tears in both woman’s eyes when they finally separated. Before he knew what was happening, he was also wrapped up in a warm hug by the old woman. She looked deceptively weak. Sighing with something close to relief, Dmitri returned the embrace.
“I had hoped to see you both this year.” Maria murmured, stepping back to clasp Dmitri’s shoulders. He blushed and looked down at the floor, not sure what to say.
“We would have come earlier but I wanted to go to Mass at Notre Dame… for Mama.” It was Anastasia’s turn for rosy cheeks. Maria smiled.
“I’m sure she’s smiling down on you for it. Perhaps tomorrow morning we can go to an early service together.” The old lady smiled. Anastasia’s eyes lit up.
“Oh Nonna! Could we? I’d like that so much!” she exclaimed. Dmitri rolled his eyes fondly behind her. A squeak from the floor reminded them that they were not alone.
“Ah, Melanie, dear! Please, get up!” Maria yelped, reaching down to help the girl to her feet. The child looked terrified.
“So she really is your granddaughter? I thought it was a bunch of prattle but she’s really real.” The girl whispered. Dmitri’s eyes darkened and he shifted his weight, blocking the door.
“This is my granddaughter, yes. But she is not The Grand Duchess Anastasia… in fact, my love, what would you like to be called?” Maria turned to ask.
“I go by Anya, usually. Every once in a while Dmitri will use Anastasia just to get my attention. But it’s easier out in the world to be Anya. I respond to either.”
“I’m just Dmitri, in case anyone’s wondering.” Dmitri interrupted, his mouth sloping into a lopsided grin. Anya smiled back at him.
“No. That’s enough of that. So what next?” he looked up pleadingly at Maria. Only her years of life at court kept her from burst into laughter.
“Please, come in and make yourself comfortable. I’ll put on some more tea. Melanie, could you set the table for 4?”
“You want me to add to the sets in the dining room?” she asked.
“No, just the kitchen table will be fine. No need for all that pomp and circumstance this late at night.” Maria responded, her nonchalance hiding her excitement. So many rules broken tonight… it was thrilling.
“Yes, Your Highness. Shall I make up two guest bedrooms as well?” she asked as she gathered silverware from a drawer.
“I’ve already had one made up. A guest inexplicably didn’t show up for Christmas… The maids were frightfully annoyed behind my back.” Maria chuckled. Melanie looked scandalized. Looking back at the couple who were taking off their layers by the door, she whispered,
“But Madam… they aren’t married!” she stage whispered in horror, as if this was the most surprising thing to happen all evening.
“Hmmm… perhaps.” She turned from the fire and looked up at Anya. “Are you two married yet?”
Both instantly turned red. Without even thinking about it, they reached out for the other’s hands, clasping each other’s fingers in white knuckled grips. Anya visibly swallowed.
“Not yet, Nonna. We were… well.” She looked at the ground, searching for words. Maria’s heart warmed as she realized exactly what was going on here.
“Ah, as I thought. Melanie, they are free to share their bedchambers if they so choose.” She ordered. The girl looked confused but shrugged and continued to set the table on the far side of the room.
“We can discuss anything you would like in the parlor after supper.” She smiled at the young woman by the door. “Now, could you please get the milk from the cold box. And Dmitri, could you fetch more firewood. We are running low.”
Dmitri, who had not removed all his outer clothes yet, put his cap back on and stepped out the door.
“So… is he planning on asking for a blessing? Or funds?” Maria asked as she placed the teapot on a hotplate on the table. Anya’s eyes widened.
“Just your blessing. I think he wanted to ask me properly… I already agreed when we took off like the two young fools we are.” Anya told her. Maria smiled.
“I can’t imagine why.” Her grin was sly and knowing. Anya giggled and continued pulling food from the larder.
“When will the others be back?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Lily and Vlad will be back at approximately 1:30am. Lily wanted to go the actual midnight mass. And Vlad wanted to show off Lily. I honestly can’t believe that man has stuck around since all this drama culminated. But he and Lily seem happy to complement each other’s nature’s for the rest of their lives.” Maria told her. Anya actually sighed, worried Vlad may have taken off. He was a flighty thing. “Otherwise, there is no one else visiting. I am still a bitter enough old woman that no one argued when I refused all other guests.”
“Why would you do that?” Anya asked as she opened the door for Dmitri and took a few logs from his arms to lessen his burden.
“Ah, I have my reasons,” the old woman said slyly, thought Anya was hardly paying attention now that Dmitry was back. The sight of her youngest granddaughter dressed in rough wool and carrying firewood made Maria’s heart clench. If Russia had not fallen, this girl’s skin would never have known such rough treatment. But then she caught a glimpse of Anya’s face as she looked at Dmitri and her chest relaxed. She probably never would have found such happiness as this either, forced into a court marriage with a stuffy royal who would never make her happy.
The party finally sat to a small supper of cold foods, mostly because none of them were quite sure how to cook up anything else and they didn’t want to disturb the foodstuffs prepared by the servants for the next day. Lily would have their heads if they touched the ham or the potatoes.
They ate quietly, happy to just exist in this warm space with food on the table in the presence of good people. Maria and Anya couldn’t stop looking at each other, drinking in the sight of those they had lost for so long. Dmitri was as quiet as Melanie, neither quite sure how they ended up at a table with such fine folks. When the food was gone and the kitchen tidied, there was a silent agreement made by all participants that any conversation could be saved for the next day.
Melanie started to settle onto her pile of rags again but the Dowager Empress tutted at her.
“No, dear. You won’t be sleeping on the floor tonight. There is a room behind the pantry with a bed. Go wash up and sleep there.” She told the girl. Melanie’s eyes lit up and before she could stop herself she wrapped her arms around the old woman and squeezed.
“Thank you. Merry Christmas.” She whispered before scurrying out of the room.
“I had no idea any of my servants slept on the floor… even a scullery maid.” Maria remarked as she showed Anya and Dmitri up to their room.
“Most rich people don’t, Your Majesty.” Dmitri murmured. Maria sighed and nodded while Anya stepped on his foot.
“Well, no one will sleep on the floor tonight if I have anything to say about it.” She said, opening the door to their room. It was a beautiful suite, decorated in Anastasia’s favorite colors. The bed was a massive four post bed with a luxurious duvet and sweeping canopy. Anya’s eyes widened. Even for royalty, this was excessive. Dmitri stared at the breakable things on the dressers, perfume bottles, picture frames, and decided he just wouldn’t touch anything.
“And there is an ensuite bathroom with a tub.” The dowager continued, pointing to an adjoining door. Except the bathtub Dmitri amended his promise.
“Nonna… this is too much!” Anya cried. She had picked up on Dmitri’s habit of shifting from foot to foot when she was nervous. Instinctively, Dmitry put his arm around her waist and pulled her close to his side.
“Please, Your Highness, we don’t need all this.” Dmitry’s voice was a little weak and breathy as he stared around.
“Nonsense. You are my guests and you shall have the best I can provide for you.” Maria said curtly. She sighed and turned to look at both of them. They looked small and unsure, something she had hoped to never see again. “Children, please. This is a selfish gesture… I do it to ease my guilt.”
“What guilt, Nonna?” Anya asked, concern in her voice. Dmirti just frowned.
“For both of your childhoods. For how I failed as Tsarina to care for my people and my country so that by the time my son became Tsar, the dominos had begun to fall and he died for it. For every child I’ve passed on the street who has nowhere to go the way you did for so many years.” The old woman’s eyes were haunted with decades of pain. Anya broke from Dmitry’s hold to wrap her arms around the old woman, tears in her eyes.
“You are forgiven, Nonna.” She whispered.
“Not yet, I am not. Tomorrow, I will to go to morning mass with you. I need to ask forgiveness from a few other people.”
“I’m sure Mama has already forgiven you, too.” Anya said haltingly. Maria’s eyes hardened for a moment, an immediate reaction ingrained by years of dislike bordering on hatred. But then they softened and she smiled.
“I hope so but I still need to go ask properly.” She told her granddaughter. Anya nodded.
“We could go early. Notre Dame is having a 6:30am service. Very few people go to that one, even on holidays. At least, that’s what we’ve been told.” Anya glanced back at Dmitry. He nodded.
“She’s trying to convert me with all this religion.” He tried to joke. That drew smiles from both women, to his relief.
“I do not! It’s important to me and you never let me go alone.” Anya argued. Dmitry’s eyes clouded and he knelt to start taking off his shoes. Maria suppressed a frown at his reaction and intervened before Anya could press him.
“I will leave you two. I’m sure you’re exhausted. We can talk tomorrow. I’m terribly curious where all you’ve been. I’ve appreciated your postcards though.” Maria distracted her. Anya spun back to her grandmother, her eyes alive with excitement.
“You got them! Oh, I’m so glad to hear it. I had hoped that it would work.”
“You are the only one who calls me ‘Nonna’.” Maria kissed the young woman’s forehead before pulling her in for another hug. “I’m happier you are here though.”
“Me too, Nonna.” Anya whispered. The Dowager looked up to see Dmitry carefully avoiding looking at them, his hand grasping his opposite shoulder in a defensive gesture. Sighing, Maria released Anya and approached him slowly. He looked up, unsure of her intent. But when she raised her arms in an open invitation, he took it. He hugged her fiercely. She pet his hair as only a mother would know how.
“Merry Christmas, Dmitry.” She murmured. He mumbled something unintelligible into her shoulder. She squeezed a little tighter for a brief moment before releasing him.
“Merry Christmas…” he glanced away again.
“Nonna. My grandchildren call me ‘Nonna’. And if you are going to remain Anastasia’s young man until you are an old man, then that makes you my grandchild.” She told him. He blinked quickly before smiling and nodding.
“Merry Christmas, Nonna.” He told her. She smiled, reveling in the sound of her name on their tongues.
“Get some sleep, both of you. I will see you tomorrow.”