The girl tries to remember.
She tries to remember the feel of her mother’s touch; she tries to remember the sound of her soothing voice or the colour of her eyes. She tries to recall the shape of her father’s face, the roughness of his hands, the pace of his gait.
What she does remember are the men who stormed her house. She remembers their loud barking voices and black uniforms, and how they took away her mother and put a bullet through her father’s head.” “Traitors,” one of them has said, spitting on her father’s corpse.
What she remembers is her life being shattered.
What she remembers is Karamzin, a mansion covered in ice, an orphanage, a prison.
The girl grows.
She leaves the prison, the missing memory of her past fuelling her anger. She loves a good, hardworking boy, who dreams of a better life, who dreams of freedom. She hopes until she hears their voices again, until her world gets shattered again, until she sees him fall.
The girl takes the quill into her hand.
The girl takes a banner into her hands.
She moves, feeling the moistness of the stone wall underneath her palms. In front of her, in the darkness, she sees her scrawny, white legs with ball-like knees.
Sometimes she stands up and paces; here and there, here and there, here and there, until she cannot feel anything anymore, until those legs give in to her own weight, until there is nothing left but the darkness surrounding her. Lost in her thoughts, her mind is preoccupied with concepts she will never be able to formulate, questions she will never know the answers to.
“Why?” she asks herself in the darkness.
“Why?” she whispers to the moist stone in front of her.
There is no answer. Only silence and the sound of her own heavy breathing.
She walks in darkness, hiding behind her closed eyes. She expects to hear them shout, hear the voices of the people she is fighting —dying— for. She wants to hear them for one last time, hear them condemn her to death. It’s how it goes, after all; the crowd that applauds your coronation is the same crowd that will applaud your beheading. Yet all she hears is silence. Pure and perfect, visionless, broken only by the dull sound of their own footsteps. She feels the guard’s grip on her arm. Hard, merciless, while at the same time undeniably emitting the natural warmth she has craved so very much. How long has it been since the king’s soldiers dragged her down from the barricade? How long has it been since she has awoken in the darkness? Weeks? Months? She cannot say. She is weak, her bony legs almost unable to walk. What she believes to be tile is cold beneath her feet. She savours the sensation, knowing this might be the last time she will ever feel it.
Creak of an old wooden door.
Then, the momentary return of the visionless silence. She hears her knees collide with the floor before she begins to register the convulsive pain. She forces her eyelids to rise, facing a delicate tile floor made of white marble, embroiled with golden veins; the brightness of the colour hurts her brain.
“I brought the prisoner, moi soverenyi.” She hears the words as if her head were underwater: loud, hollow, everywhere.
“Leave us,” says another voice. It sounds sharper, less muted. She lifts her head, searching for its owner. What she finds is a silhouette of void facing away from her. She knows him. He has many names — the shadow of the Tsar. She knows she should not dare to speak out without being asked, but while a moment ago she was prepared for death, this is not the execution block and he is not the hangman. Not directly, at least.
“I thought I was going to die,” her own voice feels foreign in her throat. Not as hollow as the others, but too present, too forceful.
“A lot of things can happen until dawn.”
“I’ve read your manifesto. It was… stimulating.” He says to the window and continues to quote her own words. “‘What light is to the eyes—what air is to the lungs—what love is to the heart, liberty is to the soul of man.’”
Her words vocalized by his velvet voice vibrate through the room. Her body tenses in a spasm. They feel like venom to her ears. He turns, his gloved hands neatly clasped behind his back. Bowing her head, she listens as he brings the darkness that is his physical form closer, as the slow, carefully measured footsteps erase the distance between them. She thinks she feels his proximity the way prey can sense its closing predator. The tile presses its flat surface into her knuckles as she sinks into herself, preparing her body for the collision of his fist with her skull. In her head she prays. She prays for herself, only herself.
She does not hear.
Once again, she is underwater, in the dungeons of the underworld. It is the sensation of his warmth that brings her back—back from the darkness of her cell, from the darkness of her own soul, back to this world, back to him. She looks at him. He is beautiful, but only a fool would expect terror to be anything else.
“Let me help you get up,” he says, his voice nothing but a whisper and she does. She lets him raise her to her feet, lets his eyes linger on her wretched from, lets him slowly sit her down into an overly padded ebony chair. She sees his youth then—a boy buried beneath a steel exterior, cloaked in shadows.
“I hope you excuse Ivan’s harsh ways.”
She clasps her hands together. The trembling seems to ease. The guard, Ivan, does not care for her forgiveness.
“Why am I here?” she asks, his dark form towering above her.
“I … I already talked to—” she pauses. “I already talked to someone.”
“Someone isn’t me.”
She looks at him, her hands still forcibly pressed together. She does not understand and she does not know if she wants to. She knew people, important people, people who wrote words of consequence, great people, people whom she admired, people who left to meet this man and never returned—and if they did, they carried scars deeper than on the surface of their skin. She wants to spit in his face, to let him know what she truly thinks of him and the things he has done to those she has loved. Deep down, however, she knows she is too weak to do anything but stare. She is too weak to die when she might be given an opportunity to live.
“Things have changed since your containment, Miss Starkov. When we arrested you, you were a free thinker, a writer, a fighter—one of thousand. But now, you have come to be something else entirely.” She watches as the man’s lips curve into a small, appreciative smile. “You became an embodiment of hope, a symbol of revolution. You and the rebels have became one.”
He eases himself into a seat next to her. She swallows, releasing her dirty hands so they could freely rest in her lap. She thinks back to the moment when the bullet hit Mal’s chest, to the moment when she lost all hope, all sense of self-preservation. They killed the man she loved and along with him, the world she dreamed of. A symbol? She would laugh if the weak muscles in her stomach would allow her to. She is no symbol. She used to be a young girl in love, a selfish girl who faced death only because she had nothing to lose. And now? Now she is not even that.
She looks down at her hands, avoiding his inquiring stare. “Why? Why me?” There were so many others. Others, dead and alive, more suitable to become leaders, and yet...
“Oh Alina,” he says, shaking his head as if he were approaching a child. “You are everything; the orphan, the commoner, the intellectual, the soldier. No one cared about your little pamphlet before you decided to grab a flag and face the royal army—on your own. Now it’s the only thing people read. The city is filled with inscriptions: liberty is to the soul of men, they say. Sol Koroleva, svobóda buda. I have dozens of men washing them down—it serves no purpose. Next morning, they are back. They love you, Alina.”
“That’s ridiculous,” she whispers.
“I could not agree more,” his voice vibrates with amusement. “And yet, Sol Koroleva.” He says, his lips curving into a mocking smile, “it is so.”
Sol Koroleva, the words echo in her head. What a repulsive, monarchy-stained title they gave her. “Do you want to make an example out of me?” she asks, raising her head to meet his eyes for the first time. If he is her end, she might as well meet his gaze. “Do you want to stage a public execution?”
“It would be a smart move, wouldn’t it?” He asks rhetorically, his eyes gaining sudden intensity. ”But no, Alina. Why make you a martyr when I can make you a conqueror?”
There is a certain quality to the velvet voice that consumes her senses. He is like a drug; sweet but blinding, intense but terminal.
“Sol Koroleva,” he whispers, smiling slightly as she shakes her head in resistance. She is no queen, no conqueror, and she is not for him to make.
“You can end this bloodshed, Alina. You can bring our people the freedom and liberty they ache for. It is you who can feed them. It is you who can give them justice. But you need someone to stand at your side, someone to be able to watch over you. Someone who will make you rise.” She watches him lean towards her, watches him, as their faces are only inches apart. “You need me, Alina, as much as I need you,” he says, his breath warm against her face. “I've been waiting for you a long time. You and I are going to change the world.”
She does not argue.
When she leaves the room, she does not bear scars. But how many scars can someone who has made a pact with the devil truly bear?