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First paperback printing, July 2018


Copyright © 2018 by Wayne Goodman



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form with­out permission. Please do not participate in or encour­age pi­racy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.


Version 1.00

1 July 2018


Library of Congress Control Number: 2018907064





Contents



Section One: An Emerald Among Rubies


Section Two: Sour Apple Pastilas


Section Three: Wonderful Things


A storybook tale requires a storybook setting. St. Petersburg defied the reproach of its critics and de­tractors as a precariously improbable city that should never have been. Built upon the bones of laborers ordered to drain and fill the swamplands (and perched on the brink of inevitable disasterseither natural or human-caused), it fell and rose time after time. Floods, fires and violent uprisings periodically devastated the well-ordered streets, crisp stone buildings and majestic metal monu­ments, but like Sisyphus or the Phoenix, St. Petersburg persisted.

It all began with Tsar Peter, who wanted to be as far away from Moscow as possible and closer to the more modern cultural centers of Europe. He feared the sinister forces in the old capital and longed for the sophistication of the cele­brated ones to the west. A new version of Amsterdam–a place he had visited and admired–sparked his imagination and vision. Perhaps even a Russian interpretation of Paris or Rome.

According to legends and myths, in May 1703, Peter stood on a marshy island in the mouth of the Neva Riverwithin visual range of the far eastern edge of the Gulf of Finlandgrabbed a halberd from the hand of a nearby guard, cut two rectangles of peat, formed them into an ‘X’ (or Cross), and proclaimed, “The city will be here!” He then dropped the weapon, picked up a shovel and began digging the founda­tion for a fortress to be named (in Dutch) ‘Sankt Piters­burkh,’ after the monarch’s patron saint.

According to historical records, Tsar Peter was nowhere near that site the day excavations began.

This tale begins when two servants of the House of Romanov meet for the first time under rather auspicious circumstances.

Section One:

An Emerald Among Rubies


February 1880

Alexander Palace Kitchen, St. Petersburg


This soufflé must be perfect!

Boris Mikhailovich, the 20-year-old son of peasant farmers had a pale, pink face with an aquiline nose, short, curly blon­dish hair and a pointed goatee. He broke eggs over a large, just-scrubbed-clean bowl, separating out the yolks the way Adolphe Dugléré had taught him at Café Anglais in Paris. There must be no trace of yolk or the albumin would not be able to retain the air he would beat into it with a large wire whisk, which he had brought back with him from Paris. He knew no such thing existed in St. Petersburg. Even if the ti­niest piece of shell fell into the bowl he would have to start all over.

It would take an hour or so to prepare, and if dinner was to begin in 15 minutes, dessert would be called for about 45 minutes after the guests had been seated, giving Boris ex­actly one hour to finish his grand finale.

This was to be the first time he made his signature dish, Soufflé à la Russe, for a Royal Family dinner, and he wanted to impress his new employers. Alexander of Battenburg (the recently-elected Prince of Bulgaria and a nephew of the Tsaritsa, Maria Alexandrovna of Hesse) was to be the hon­ored guest.

It was only a week ago that he had served the Tsar’s son, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, this dessert at Café Anglais. Duke Sergei even made the effort to go into the kitchen with his younger male companion to meet the chef who had developed the specialty just for him. The Grand Duke then invited the young man to work in the palace kitchen, as one of their favorite cooks had just left due to pregnancy.

His recipe called for eight egg whites, and he had just com­pleted number six when the door banged opened to reveal a stunning fellow wearing a bright scarlet, knee-length mili­tary jacket, black boots and a white fleece hat with the red crown emblem. Below the visor, Arctic-blue eyes sparkled from a pale, pink face framed by a dark-brown trimmed beard. The two men locked gazes for a slightly uncomforta­ble two seconds, and half an eggshell dropped into the bowl of previously untainted whites.

Ebat,” muttered Boris as he looked down into the contami­nated goo.

The handsome guard, Vladimir Yuryevich, had to walk a dozen arshins1 just to get out of the Palace and then a few more after that to reach the kitchen, which sat outside the main Palace, off to the side. He strutted over to the kitchen chief, Nadezhda Ivanova, a middle-aged, somewhat mascu­line, woman with care lines generously distributed around her burnished face. Along the way he glanced once more at the cute blond fellow wash­ing a large bowl at the sink. Their eyes locked again, and the guard stumbled on a loose floor­board. The blond man smiled quickly but then returned to his chore.

“Nadezhda Ivanova,” Vladimir’s voice reverberated off the metal pots hanging from racks. He then whispered as to not cause further interruption. “The Prince’s train has been de­layed from Berlin. Dinner will not begin as scheduled.”

The woman nodded, then turned to the open room. “Peo­ple,” she croaked, “the guest of honor will be late to arrive. Please halt your preparations.”

Boris sighed in relief. His mistake would not cause a delay after all. He could stop blaming himself for being distracted by the handsome guard. The guard who kept looking over at him.

“Who is that new fellow?” Vladimir started to point but pulled his hand down before his gesture became obvious.

Nadezhda followed the guard’s gaze and then turned back to him. “Oh, that one! The Grand Duke found him in a Paris kitchen and brought him back here to replace Ludmilla Maximova, who is with child. Apparently, he prepared a special dessert for Sergei Alexandrovich, and the Duke took a liking to both.”

“He is very attractive. I can see why Sergei Alexandrovich has an interest.”

“Yes, well you best keep your eyes off of the Duke’s new plaything if you know what is good for you,” the cook admonished.

Vladimir faced her, “And how is Svetlana Grigoryevna? Is she well?”

The woman waved a hand, “You knowor perhaps you don’tafter ten years, you hardly talk.”

“Nadezhda Ivanova. I am surprised at your cheek,” the guard responded. “She has been very good to you.”

“Yes, I suppose you are correct in that. Ten years.” She ex­haled heavily and raised her eyebrows. “Ten years,” she mumbled as she turned back to her sack full of unpeeled potatoes.

Boris finished cleaning the mixing bowl and looked across the room at the guard speaking with the kitchen chief. “Ser­geant!” he called out, waving his hand to attract the man’s attention. When the object of his summons failed to respond, he shouted again, “Sergeant!”

“Oh, no,” Nadezhda whined at a low pitch. “Be careful with that one, Vladimir Yuryevich, he could be trouble.”

“Trouble?” he responded. “Trouble often finds me, and I have a way of handling it, Nadezhda Ivanova.” As the guard marched away from the kitchen mother and toward the beckoning Boris, he added, “Thank you for your concerns.”

“Sergeant,” Boris started again, “I need to know exactly how long it is we are to be delayed. My dish takes one hour to prepare, and dessert is scheduled for 45 minutes after the beginning of service, so—you see—I must begin 15 minutes before the start of the dinner. The timing is of utmost im­portance!” he finished with a flourish of fingers and hands.

Vladimir smiled at this performance, appearing to suppress a grin. “And whom do I have the honor of addressing?”

“Boris,” he announced, “Boris Mikhailovich. Pastry chef to his Imperial Majesty, Tsar Alexander.”

The guard looked back at Nadezhda, who squinted and rolled her eyes simultaneously. He grinned at this but waited until his smile relaxed before facing the cute blond tempest again.

“And you are, sir?” Boris beckoned.

“Vladimir Yuryevich, sir. Royal Guard and personal body­guard to his Imperial Majesty, Tsar Alexander.” He bowed slightly for effect. “So you see, we serve the very same master.”

“Volodya—may I call you Volodya?” Boris intimated.

Vladimir bristled. “No. No you may not. My name is Vladimir Yuryevich, and I do not believe we are quite ac­quainted sufficiently for you to use such familiarity.” He stared down at the slightly shorter man with the adorable curls.

Boris trembled slightly. “I did not intend offense, Sergeant, but from the way you looked at me, I assumed–incorrectly, perhaps–that…”

The guard stared into Boris’s hazel eyes as if to appear men­acing, but when one eyebrow popped up, and that side of his mouth raised, the charade ended. “Perhaps someday I shall call you Borya and you shall call me Volodya, but to­day is not that day. Now, I must return to my post, but before I do, my curiosity has infected my thinking. What dish is it that you were preparing that is so time-sensitive?”

Boris smiled, “Ah, I am glad you asked.”

Nadezhda had walked up behind Vladimir during this ex­change, and she elbowed the guard’s ribs as she passed, as if to say, “You’ve done it now!”

Soufflé à la Russe!” the chef expounded. “Developed at Café Anglais especially for His Majesty, the Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, on his most recent visit to Paris.”

Vladimir nodded as if he understood, though perhaps he did not. “And what is it that makes this particular dessert special—Boris?”

The chef raised his chin and pointed his face victoriously, “I use the ginger root from Tula, my family’s home, and mo­lasses to flavor the dish. It is unique!” He pointed toward heaven in an attempt to increase its uniqueness.

The guard glanced over to where Nadezhda ended up by the pantry. She shrugged her shoulders and reached for the handle just as the whole room shook violently.

A noise, louder than anyone had ever heard before, erupted from beyond the door to the kitchen. Smoke and dust blasted through the opening. Several people lost their foot­ing and fell to the floor. Pans sprung from their racks and a table careered over.

The blast propelled Vladimir up against a wall, which kept him from falling to the floor. He surveyed the wreckage, pausing briefly at each person’s face. He hesitated for an ex­tra second on Boris’s frightened eyes. “Is anyone hurt? Do you need assistance?” he shouted out.

Several grumbles filled the air, as well as a few curses. No one seemed injured, just shaken and dirty. People began to take stock of the damage, cautiously looking around at their anxious fellow workers. Another blast might be imminent.

Boris approached Vladimir. “What was that, Sergeant?”

The guard looked down at the angelic face covered in soot, the eyes a pair of emeralds staring out of the dirt. Vladimir raised his arm as if he were going to hug Boris, but the lift paused prematurely, and he merely patted the chef’s shoul­der reassuringly.

“All of you remain here where it is safe. I shall go determine the cause of the disruption and return with some answers,” he announced to the entire kitchen staff before exiting. The others looked to Nadezhda, who had begun to clean the area and return the fallen cookware to its proper place. Boris’s eyes followed the retreating guard.

The kitchen staff had no idea that Stepan Khalturin, a dis­sident from the political action group Narodnya Volya (“the People’s Will”), had hired on to assist with Palace construction. He was able to sneak in a stick or two of dy­namite each day, hiding it in a storage room. When the plans for a formal family dinner had been announced, the assassination plot advanced. Khalturin relocated the nearly 300 pounds of explosives to a space beneath the dining hall and lit a fuse timed for 18:30, the hour the dinner was to commence. As the guest of honor had gotten delayed, the blast went off while none of the Royal Family were in the hall. Several nearby rooms, including military quarters, collapsed into heaps of bricks, plaster, granite slabs, and dust. Eight staff members died, and almost 50 soldiers re­ceived wounds from the blast. Fortunately for the kitchen staff, the distance between the Palace and their workroom provided sufficient space for them not to be directly im­pacted by the massive explosion.

Although their beloved Tsar Alexander II had done much to advance the quality of life for most Russians, this was not the first attempt on his life. He had assumed the throne in 1855 following the death of his father, Nicholas I, who had traveled to Sevastopol with his troops fighting the Crimean War. During Alexander’s reign, he made every effort to clean up the corrupt government: restructuring the judicial system, modernizing the military (after the dismal defeat in Crimea due to outmoded weaponry), en­couraging local self-governance, and, most importantly, emancipating the serfs, thereby ending hundreds of years of impoverished peasantry. Even with all his improvements upon the nation’s status, attempts to take his life began in 1866, when a group of disenfranchised university students acted upon radical, Socialist ideas set forth in a popular call-to-action book, ‘What Is To Be Done?’ Formal plans for an assassination attempt began following the execution of Solomon Wittenberg in 1878, a dissident who had been caught trying to use a mine to sink a ship carrying the Tsar into Odessa harbor.

Vladimir returned to the kitchen to find the staff still a bit nervous and fearful, working to clean up the mess from the blast. He explained what he had discovered, and several people burst into tears as some of the dead happened to be their friends and family members. Even as the messenger of sad tidings, coated with ashes, choked with regret, the hand­some young guard displayed respectful compassion, patting a shoulder or two around him.

A set of hazel eyes peered across the room, “Thank you, Ser­geant.” A slight smile followed. In the dust on the work table, the pastry chef wrote with a finger:

БОРИС + ВЛАДИМИР БОРИМИР

[BORIS + VLADIMIR BORIMIR]

He gazed down at his creation, grinning at the way the two names interlinked, providing him with fanciful thoughts of future possibilities. But then Boris realized Vladimir, the Tsar’s private bodyguard, would never have any interest in a mere kitchen worker. His hand smoothed the dust from the blast as if it were pastry flour until his hieroglyphs dis­appeared into the woodwork.

позже

Later that evening, in his rather spacious and comfy quarters large enough for two people, Boris sat at his desk reading and writing correspondence with his friends and family back in Tula. He needed to let people at home know that he had not been harmed by the earlier assassination attempt on their beloved Tsar.

Hours after sunset he still felt sleepless, and he decided to venture out into the St. Petersburg nightlife to calm his nerves. Extra guards surrounded the entrance, but they knew who he was and acknowledged him as he passed through the grand gate. Nearby church bells rang out the happy news that the Tsar continued to live on.

Snow patches decorated some of the sidewalks, and a fog of frozen breath formed as Boris hurried to Nevsky Prospekt, a few blocks away. Most evenings St. Petersburg was a city of night-dwellers, life after sunset flourished and blossomed under the gaslights glowing through the late evening mist.

When he reached the grand street where he had hoped to satisfy his urge for companionship, it appeared very few other people had sought out the same entertainment. The sidewalk cafés stood empty, no groups of young men argu­ing about philosophy or politics, punctuating their beliefs with rolled-up newspapers and tracts. Even the heavily-trafficked Passage past Mikhailovskaya Square proved unu­sually vacant and quiet.

He realized finding male companionship to ease his tensions would not be easy that night. Finally, in resignation, Boris crossed the bridge over the Fontanka River and followed the shadows to the notorious Znamensky Baths. He was no stranger to the Turkish bath, he had even been born in his village bathhouse because it was the cleanest place in town. This St. Petersburg bath would not have received such an honor; it stung the nostrils with the odors of musty Russian sweat and pungent sour cabbage.

Once inside, Boris approached the proprietor, Gavrilo. The older, grizzled fellow from the Balkans showed him a set of miniatures, each with the face of one of the attendants avail­able. After fingering through a dozen or so candidates, Boris found just the one: a fellow who slightly resembled the good-looking but stand-offish Sergeant he had met earlier in the day.

Gavrilo nodded and told Boris to wait at the front. A minute later, a younger, leaner version of Vladimir appeared. Boris’s smile gave away too much information because these lads were not necessarily inclined to pleasure themselves with other men, and if they knew you had a special interest, their price rose accordingly. “Igor,” indicated Gavrilo, and Boris knew that was not the boy’s real name.

Boris followed “Igor” down the main hallway to a room where the handsome, muscular fellow parted curtains to a small parlor with a tall table in the middle. The attendant indicated for him to enter, and Boris gladly stepped into the room, happy to be away from probing eyes. Steam poured from vents around the baseboard, giving the place an aura of mystery and sensuality. It did not, however, cover the pervasive stench of sweat and sour cabbage. Around him he could hear moans of pleasure and groans of delight. Some of the other patrons received rubdowns and baths, others re­ceived slightly more, depending on the price.

And the price did not matter anymore because Boris now worked in the service of the Tsar and he needed particular personal attention. He knew the routine, and as soon as the tattered curtains fell together, he began to disrobe, placing his fur-lined coat, shirt, pants, and small garments on the hooks provided. “Igor” had placed a fresh towel on the ta­ble, and Boris climbed up, positioning himself face down.

The masseur quoted a price for the bath and a price for any­thing else the customer might require. Boris readily agreed to both, knowing exactly what it was he required from “Igor” and how much he needed it. The bathhouse boy be­gan by swabbing Boris’s legs and arms with the hot, moist towels used for bathing. “Igor” paid special attention to cer­tain areas that might garner him an extra tip for his services.

After a few minutes, the lad nudged Boris to suggest he roll over. By that point, Boris had become aroused and there was no hiding it. “Igor” continued to bathe his client, again pay­ing special attention to certain areas. Once he realized the time was right, he lifted Boris’s legs and placed his own aroused member where he knew it would extract a hand­some gratuity. While this young man was no substitute for the attractive and swarthy palace guard, Vladimir, he was what was available to Boris in the moment. A stifled yip, tightening and relaxing followed, and “Igor” thrust deep in­side, earning his money and ensuring a large tip as well.

At first, Boris felt remiss and uncomfortable with the situa­tion he had devised. He tried to keep his eyes closed, hoping the boy would get tired and give up after a while, but with just about every thrust of “Igor’s” well-developed hips, an arousing grunt accompanied the motion. After a few minutes of frustrating pleasure, Boris opened his eyes and looked up at the sweaty, contorted face of the fellow holding his ankles. When the boy opened his eyes, they were a light blue, similar to Vladimir, but not as intense. This realization propelled Boris to the brink. He shifted his own torso slightly, and with the next stroke, the well-equipped bath at­tendant hit the target inside, resulting in spurt after spurt from the pastry chef’s pent-up reservoir.

As the bath attendant mopped the many splashes of sticky substance off of Boris’s chest with a fresh towel, the chef felt the insufferable weight of the real world and realized he had to return to the Palace before it got too late. He leapt from the table and reached into his pants pocket, grabbing enough rubles to satisfy “Igor” plus two more for superior service. Boris finished dressing himself with a satisfied grin.

At the front, he thanked Gavrilo for a most excellent time, and Boris hurried along the frosty cobblestones hoping no one he knew from the Palace recognized him.

позже

The next morning Boris dashed to the kitchen a few minutes late because he had overslept. With no time for his usual morning toilet, he appeared quite unkempt, with uneven beard stubble, frowzy hair and bits of crust around his eyes.

When he stepped into the room, everyone seemed to be standing at attention because the Palace chief-of-staff, Dmitri Konstantinovich, appeared to be holding some sort of session. Sporting a shiny satin suit and matching shiny bald head, Dmitri paused when Boris entered, and his squinty, disapproving eyes followed the young man as he hustled to the proper station. An exasperated “Hmmph,” passed through the chief’s nostrils as his lips gathered tightly. This new pastry chef had been placed in the kitchen by request of the Tsar’s son, thereby removing Boris from the usual scrutiny applied to job seekers at the Palace, and Dmitri Konstantinovich did not approve of such side-step­ping procedures.

“As I was saying,” the Chief-of-Staff droned, “due to the dis­turbance of evening last, we are short five military quarters and some of you will have to double up in your own rooms until the reconstruction is completed so that we may accom­modate the guards.” His head rotated on its rather narrow neck so that the gaze ended up pointing directly at Boris. “Especially those of you with luxurious staterooms.”

Boris swallowed uncomfortably. Perhaps he did not realize his quarters were somewhat superior to those of his co-workers.

“Excuse me, sir,” Boris began speaking and stepped for­ward. “I wish —”

“Yes? And you are?” the Chief-of-Staff balked in a mean-spirited manner, as if he did not to know the boy’s name.

“Boris Mikhailovich, sir. Pastry chef.”

Nadezhda’s eyes turned heavenward. The corner of Dmitri’s mouth began to twitch, the way it did when he had to take orders from Tsaritsa Maria Alexandrovna.

“And what is it you wish, Boris Mikhailovich? If it is a spe­cial request, I suggest you not abuse the staff time with your personal issues, thank you.”

“No, sir, not at all, sir. I wish to volunteer to host a specific military guard, sir, if that pleases you.”

Dmitri’s eyes narrowed. “While I appreciate your spirit of volunteerism, I do not believe I would entertain such a re­quest. It is my specific duty and position to make these important decisions.” He turned to face the room. “Now, may I see a show of hands from —”

“Excuse me, sir,” Boris interrupted, “but if you are not able to entertain my voluntary request, perhaps I could have His Majesty, Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich assist you in making such a decision.”

The rest of the kitchen staff shuddered and sucked air. Dmitri startled visibly. He was not used to such imperti­nence from staff members, especially new ones who had escaped his usual comprehensive interview process. “Per­haps, Boris Mikhailovich, we can discuss your issue in private after I conclude my business here.”

“Yes, sir.” While he returned to his station, his fellow kitchen workers looked at Boris more oddly than usual, and he be­gan to wipe the crust from his eyes and tousle his hair into position.

“Now, as I was saying, may I see a show of hands —” Dmitri Konstantinovich continued over the next 15 minutes on his mission to arrange having the military guard take tempo­rary beds in the rooms of the other kitchen staff. During this process, he gazed at Boris a few times, observing the insub­ordinate air and cocky smile. He also paid attention to the attractive blond’s curls, boyish face and goatee.

When the Chief-of-Staff had concluded his ministrations, he bellowed, “Boris Mikhailovich! Come with me.” He wag­gled his stubby finger, turned abruptly and strode out of the kitchen.

As Boris passed Nadezhda, he smiled, but she glowered back.

He followed the stumpy Dmitri along the concrete path adorned with marble Greek-style colonnades and trailing vines. They entered a service door of the palace and made the sharp turn into the Chief-of-Staff’s office. Inside, Boris gawked at the lavish, expensive-looking appointments. An intricately-designed, deep maroon, hand-woven carpet nes­tled beneath fine French padded settees. A short, roll-top desk with inlaid wood occupied the area below the oval win­dow at the rear.

Dmitri sat at his desk and indicated one of the settees for Boris. The Chief-of-Staff took a moment to further analyze the young upstart. “I am not in the custom of being ad­dressed with such collegiality in front of the service staff.”

“I am sorry sir, but I wanted to display my initiative.”

“Initiative, yes.” Dmitri fiddled with his fingertips. “Initia­tive can be good in many circumstances, but this is the palace of the Tsar, a structure of tradition and history where is no place for personal initiative. Do you understand me, Boris Mikhailovich?”

Boris merely nodded, his unwashed curls bouncing with each bob of his head.

“And I would also appreciate it if you did not hold your per­sonal relationship with the Royal Family above my head like a dangling sword.”

Again, the curls followed Boris’s nodding head.

The Chief-of-Staff closed his eyes and inhaled slowly. “Now that we have the preliminaries out of the way, you say there is a particular person you wish to have as a temporary mate?”

“Yes, sir. Vladimir Yuryevich, one of the Tsar’s personal bodyguards.”

“Vladimir Yuryevich,” Dmitri pondered, savoring the name of the handsome young fellow whose family had served for many generations. “I will consider your request,” the Chief-of-Staff gritted his already ground-down teeth. “However, I cannot guarantee that your demand will be addressed as ordered.”

“Thank you, sir,” Boris responded.

“Now, on to a separate—but related—matter.” Dmitri locked the pastry chef in his gaze. Boris swallowed pain­fully. “Your deportment demands some attention, young man. I do not care if you were placed in my kitchen by His Imperial Majesty himself, you must behave according to cer­tain… standards.”

Boris’s head tilted to one side, suggesting his inability to un­derstand the veiled request.

“How shall I put this,” Dmitri gazed down at his paper-filled desk. “We do not tolerate particular behaviors in our staff. Do I make myself clear?”

The pastry chef continued to stare at his superior with a blank look.

Dmitri’s domed head tilted back in annoyance as he took a noisy breath through his nostrils. “Why do you have to be so thick?” He gazed at Boris once again, attempting to dis­miss his unbidden attraction. “We request… nay, require that the male staff act like men, not… well…” He gestured limply with an open hand toward Boris.

“If my behavior upsets you, Dmitri Konstantinovich, I am not sure what it is that I am doing to unnerve you, sir.” He looked directly at the Chief-of-Staff, who immediately looked away.

“Let us just say that you prefer the company of men over women, and that sort of thing is frowned upon here.” Dmitri could not face the young man now.

“I am not sure how my personal life has any bearing on my kitchen position, sir. I have not committed any criminal acts, nor do I discuss my personal business at work.”

“Criminal acts?” coughed Dmitri Konstantinovich. “Have I accused you of such things? As long as you do not violate Article 995,2 there should be no problem.”

Boris held his head up with chin pointing, “Sir, I do not see any reason for this line of interrogation. I have not heard of your Article 995. How does it relate to my service?”

Dmitri swallowed a grapefruit uncomfortably. “It refers to certain conduct between certain men. When you… pene­trate,” the word seemed difficult to say, “another fellow for sexual pleasure, you have violated Article 995.”

The pastry chef swung his head away from the Chief-of-Staff’s attention. “I see. Well, I shall attempt not to violate your Article while in the service of His Imperial Majesty. Is that all, sir?” Out the window gardeners tended to the lawns around the fountains.

“Not quite. I also request that you please try not to strut about like a white peacock while you are on duty. It is most distasteful and distracting.”

“Birds of a feather…,” Boris mumbled to himself. He stood and started toward the door.

“Wait!” cried out the chief.

Boris halted and turned back. “What?”

Dmitri stared at Boris intently, “Your face, boy. Your face!”

Boris lowered his eyebrows at this undecipherable accusation.

“You keep clean-shaven. It is a clear indication of your pro­clivities, and I will not have it in my kitchen!” The blush of his own face and scalp rose quickly. “Even your friend, the Grand Duke himself, maintains traditional masculine facial hair, despite his untraditional lifestyle.”

The pastry chef stepped toward the desk to face his accuser from above. “I believe I was hired on for my abilities in the kitchen, not my manner of grooming, sir. Perhaps I shall have to call upon the Grand Duke to discuss this particular issue.” He turned to leave again.

“Wait!” Dmitri called out. “There is no need to go above my head for this, Boris Mikhailovich.” He rubbed at his scalp while attempting a calming smile but achieved only an in­gratiating grin instead. “You are correct in that your facial hair does not impact your performance in the kitchen. How­ever, I expect that your personal business will not interfere with the completion of your duties. If we must have this con­versation again, I shall consult with His Highness beforehand.”

“Thank you, sir. And thank you for entertaining my housing request, sir.”

Dmitri waved the back of his hand, “You may return to your duty now.”

Boris exhaled and left, regaling in the ornate appointments of the palace hall and the garden path back to the kitchen. As he arrived, Nadezhda was in the midst of reviewing the day’s schedule and menu for the family meals.

Soon after, the kitchen door opened and all heads turned to see who entered. There stood the handsome, young guard Vladimir Yuryevich, tall and seemingly at attention even though it was not required. He marched over to Nadezhda and smiled. She merely nodded her head toward Boris, who bristled in anticipation of the visit to come.

“Boris Mikhailovich,” Vladimir began as he approached the pastry chef, who busily prepared pirogi for the day’s meals.

“Oh, Vladimir,” he looked up with mock surprised, as if he had not seen the guard even though everyone in the room could see he had. “How nice to see you again so soon.” He smiled. “Is there something I can assist you with?”

“As a matter of fact,” the guard whispered, “it seems the Chief-of-Staff has assigned me to sleep with you.” He pointed at Boris.

“I must sleep with you?” the chef acted taken aback. “Isn’t it a bit soon for that kind of thing? We have barely spoken…”

“Keep your voice down!” Vladimir did not seem to pick up on the drama Boris attempted to create. “Because of the ex­plosion, some of the military guard are being housed with other staff members, and—for some reason I cannot under­stand—he has chosen you to be my host until the barracks can be repaired.”

Boris halted his pastry work and looked up at Vladimir. “I see. Then I shall have to have a little talk with the Chief-of-Staff because I cannot, and will not, share my room with just anyone. It is my personal space, and I find this totally unac­ceptable!” He chopped the table top with his flattened hand. Some of the other workers giggled at this gaudy display.

The guard peered down at Boris with the hint of a smile. “That is quite interesting because—you see—my quarters were not affected by the blast,” he spoke in a hushed tone, “and there was no reason to move me. Apparently, someone requested that I be placed in your room, Boris Mikhailovich, and I think we both know who that someone might be.” He grinned his enigmatic grin again.

“I saw the way you looked at me when you first entered the kitchen yesterday,” Boris protested. “I think we both know what that means, sir!”

Vladimir’s Arctic-blue eyes smiled at the suggestion and he touched a finger to his lips. “I’m not sure exactly what you might think it meant, but I intend to follow my marching orders nonetheless. I shall arrive with my belongings this evening after the Tsar has taken to his bed.” He started to leave but then turned back, “And you could do with a de­cent shave.” Vladimir stroked his own smooth cheek for effect.

Thankfully, Boris did not have a knife in his hand at the time. Otherwise, he might have unintentionally cut off a piece of his finger. He looked up to the guard, “And what time might you be arriving, sir? I usually turn in rather early.”

“Really?” Vladimir suppressed a smirk. “I believe I saw you leaving the Palace last night rather late. I went to your room and knocked. No one answered. Perhaps our ideas of ‘rather early’ differ quite significantly.”

Boris turned his head away, “I could not sleep after the trau­matic events of the evening, and I went for a walk to calm my mind.”

“To the Passage, no doubt.” Vladimir whispered the word ‘Passage’ as if it were the day’s secret password.

The pastry chef faced the guard with a look of surprise. “And how do you know about the Passage, Sergeant? It does not seem the type place someone like you would know about.”

Vladimir looked around to see if any of the others happened to be listening. Their heads snapped dutifully back to their work. “I know quite a bit about our beautiful St. Petersburg. One does not spend his whole life in a city and not know such things.”

“Well, if you followed me, Sergeant, you saw the Passage was completely dead last night and I ended up going to Znamensky —”

“Gentlemen,” Nadezhda shouted, “please take your inter­view outside. This is a place of work, not a coffee house where university boys argue over the state of things!”

“I apologize, Nadezhda Ivanova. It was improper of me to conduct such an interview here, and I shall return to my post now,” Vladimir stated. He turned to Boris, “And you, my new friend, I will see tonight. Please make every attempt not to upset your superiors in the meantime.” An about-face and strut to an unheard military cadence propelled the guard out the door.

“Tonight…” murmured Boris.

позже

The hours could not fly quickly enough for the young pastry chef. During the afternoon, military officers visited the kitchen to observe the damage caused by the previous day’s blast. Each room of the Palace received its own scrutiny to ensure nothing like that ever happened again. While it was somewhat disruptive to have a straggling stream of strangers parading through their workspace, comfort could be drawn from the sense of increased security. Knowing that their beloved Tsar remained the target of the very people he had tried to assist weighed heavily upon the Russian souls of the Palace staff.

Once the Royal Family had finished their evening meal, and the kitchen cleaned, Boris headed back to his room in antic­ipation of the events to come. On his writing desk he found a few letters waiting for him. One in particular, from Alexander Borodin, caught his attention. A mutual ac­quaintance, Vladimir Stasov, the impresario and critic who supported many of St. Petersburg’s artists and composers, had organized a concert to help their old friend, composer Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, raise some funds for living expenses. He had been fired from his civil service job the previous month (some say he only had to show up and breathe to receive his salary) and had run out of money (most of it spent on cheap Vodka). Stasov had gone through the composer’s correspondence and sent these notices to everyone he found.

Boris had met Modest Petrovich a few years prior at a Bacchanalia he attended soon after reaching Paris. Mussorgsky had undone his shirt, and he flounced about the room, hair like a thistle, wriggling his fingers in ecstasy as he danced from person to person following rhythms of un­heard music. People shouted at him, giving him suggested poses to adopt: a faun, a nun in ecstasy, Napoleon. At one point he halted, facing Boris directly. Neither of the two men knew the other, but the composer studied the young man’s face intently for a few seconds before bursting out, “I shall take two of this one!” He grabbed Boris’s shoulder tightly as the assemblage laughed on. “Does anyone have a match for him?” People roared with laughter as Boris froze, not know­ing how to conduct himself in the situation. Modest Petrovich reached into a coat pocket with his free hand, drew out a cigarette case and queried the room, “Does any­one have a match for me?” The crowd burst into hysterics at the antics of the famous man.

The claw-like grip eased as the older fellow smiled upon the face of the younger. “So fresh, so innocent. If only I could make you mine.” He walked off in a grey cloud of despair, leaving Boris standing amidst a throng who converged upon him. “Ah, men…”

“Did you know who that was?” one of the other party-goers asked. Boris just shook his head. “Only Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky, of course! One of your best Russian composers!”

The next day, Boris received an invitation to visit Modest at his Paris hotel, which happened to be on the next street over, next to Palais Garnier, where Mussorgsky’s opera Boris Godunov enjoyed a month of performances. Given the chef’s busy schedule at Café Anglais, he had to decline the offer but invited the composer to dine at the restaurant. The next evening, Mussorgsky and his entourage of noteworthy ad­mirers dined under the ministrations of the famous Adolphe Dugléré. When Modest Petrovich inquired regarding Boris, explaining he was the sole reason his party dined in that par­ticular establishment that particular evening, the head chef sought out the young man from the kitchen and brought him to the table of dignitaries. From then on, Dugléré spent more time with young Boris, imagining him to have other im­portant, impressive and wealthy friends.

Following this episode, Boris and Modest kept up irregular correspondence, until a few months back when the com­poser’s life descended into a dark abyss of alcoholic excesses.

Just as Boris considered reaching for his diary to determine if he was available the evening of the benefit, a set of author­itative raps sounded on his chamber door. Rather than display any eagerness for the arriving guest, he continued to sit at his escritoire, with his back facing the door, trying to respond as calmly as he could muster. “Enter.”

Boris heard the door open behind him and the rhythmic clacking of the guard’s boots on the polished, parqueted wooden floor. “You should not do that,” admonished Vladimir.

“Do what?” Boris turned to face the intruder while still sit­ting in his chair.

“Sit with your back to the door and ask a stranger to enter. That is how people get assassinated, you know.”

Boris stood, still holding the letter from Borodin, and looked at the guard directly. “Yes, I imagine it is your job to protect important people from their enemies. However, I am not an important person as such, and, as far as I know, I have no enemies.”

Vladimir closed the door behind him and set his valise down. He had changed out of his Royal Guard uniform at the barracks and now wore a belted, grey wool kaftan. “Per­haps you are correct, Boris Mikhailovich, in that you are unaware of your enemies. However, we all have enemies, sir, whether we know it or not.”

A chuckle escaped from Boris, “I would be very surprised to learn that I had any enemies, Sergeant.”

The guard performed what appeared to be a quick visual survey of the spacious, luxuriously-appointed room. “One is usually unaware of his enemies until it is too late, I am afraid.” His eyes stopped at the beautifully-crafted Chip­pendale chair on which Boris sat.

“You sound like a suspicious, overly-protective guardian, Vladimir Yuryevich.”

Now the guard chuckled, “It is my exalted position to per­form those precise duties, my friend. I am one of the personal bodyguards to His Most Excellent Emperor of Russia, King of Poland, and Grand Prince of Finland, Tsar Alexander Nikolaevich Romanov.” He bowed and saluted.

“Where are my manners?” asked Boris as he waved the let­ters about in the air. “Please make yourself comfortable.” He stood and placed the piece of paper atop a growing pile of correspondence.

“What is all that?” Vladimir pointed at the papers on the desk.

“What is what?” replied Boris, looking about, trying to de­termine what it was the guard did not recognize.

“All of those papers on your table there.” He pointed.

Boris looked at his desk. “Oh, this?” He turned back. “I keep correspondence with my family back home in Tula, and I have many friends in Paris and here in St. Petersburg that I write to almost every day.”

“That sounds exhausting,” Vladimir offered. “How can you keep up with all that social interaction? It must take hours.”

“An hour or two—every evening—but well worth it, I as­sure you.” Boris now appeared a bit puzzled. “Do you not write your friends and family, Sergeant?”

“I have no family, sir. They have all died in the service of our Tsar. As for friends, I see them every day on duty and there is no need for me to be writing correspondence to them.” He stared back at Boris.

“That sounds utterly dreadful! Having no friends or family to correspond with.” He lifted his goateed chin slightly. “I would be lost without having my letters every evening.”

“It appears you and I lead very different lives, sir.”

“Indeed, but now we have to share one very small room un­til your quarters are repaired.”

Vladimir laughed. “I would not call this a small room. No, not in any measure. It is twice as large as the one I usually sleep in—along with three other people!”

Boris looked around, “I am sorry, then. I had no idea my room was so superior to others.” He also took note of how nicely the belt of Vladimir’s kaftan accentuated his mascu­line physique.

“Well,” the guard responded, “when you are a personal friend of the Grand Duke, you receive special attention.”

“What are you speaking of, sir?” His eyes popped open.

“Are you not the ‘special friend’ of His Imperial Highness, Sergei Alexandrovich?”

Boris’s jaw fell. “What are you saying, Sergeant? I have no relationship with the Grand Duke, ‘special’ or otherwise. Where did you hear such nonsense?”

“Your kitchen boss, Nadezhda Ivanova, suggested that you are beholden to His Imperial Highness.”

“No, no, no!” Boris stomped in a little circle. “That horse of a woman most likely has a penis larger than mine! And she certainly has the eggs of a man.” As he pronounced the word ‘eggs,’ Boris cupped his crotch in a rude gesture. “The Grand Duke invited me here to make pastry, nothing more!”

“It appears His Imperial Highness might think of you as a bit more than just a pastry chef, sir.” Vladimir waved his arm about the room to indicate the special status provided.

“Well, I do not know what to say to your ungrounded accu­sations, Sergeant! I requested no special treatment from the House of Romanov. All I wanted to do was prepare my ex­quisite pastries for them.” Boris locked heated eyes with the guard, and for a few intense seconds, neither of them blinked or looked away. “I am truly sorry,” he finally had to turn his head, “to hear about your relatives.”

“There is no need for your sorrow. We have lived in the ser­vice of the Royal Family for over 100 years. I have never known any life other than that of the Russian court. It has been an honor and a pleasure to serve our country’s rulers.” Vladimir stiffened, almost to attention.

“And I come from a long line of poor, country peasants. I have had no connection with royalty in my life until now. How silly of me to believe that all the other servants had similar quarters.”

Vladimir raised his eyebrows, “Yes, how silly of you.” His gaze locked upon the other’s face. “And you still require a shave.” Boris glared back at him. “But where am I to sleep? I see only one bed in this rather large room.”

“One bed, yes, but I believe it is big enough for two to share,” Boris raised his eyebrows.

“Was it not you who protested that it was too early in our acquaintance to sleep together?” Vladimir grinned. “Perhaps I should sleep on the floor for now until I can req­uisition a folding cot or some other temporary bed.”

“Yes, perhaps you should.” Boris smiled to himself as he re­turned to the writing desk. “You can stow your belongings there,” he indicated a marble-topped dressing table with deep drawers.

“Thank you, Boris Mikhailovich.” He opened the valise and surveyed its contents. “Or may I now call you Borya?”

“As you wish, Vladimir Yuryevich.” Boris picked up the letter from Borodin and began to peruse it while his new roommate organized his belongings with a bit of a smirk.

“What is that you are reading now?”

“Hmm?” Boris looked up, turning the paper in his hand. “Oh, this? It’s an invitation to a piano recital on the weekend to help a friend who has recently lost his job.” An idea struck him. “Do you fancy piano music, Sergeant? Perhaps you could join me.”

Vladimir smiled slightly. “My mother used to play for me when I was a child. Glinka, mostly.” He nodded with nos­talgia. “Yes. Perhaps it would be a good opportunity for you and I to spend some time together away from this Palace.”

“Excellent! It is settled then. I shall inform my friend, Alexander Porfiryevich, that we are planning to attend. Now please excuse me while I finish my daily correspond­ence.” He sat at the desk shuffling papers around, barely able to keep his mind focused on reading and writing.

While Boris pretended to continue his correspondence, Vladimir pretended to continue unpacking his belongings, neither looking across the room at the other. After about a quarter of an hour, the guard had arranged some bedclothes on the floor near the dressing table.

“Good night, and thank you, Boris Mikhailovich,” the dark-haired man uttered as he lowered himself to the ground.

“Yes, a good night to you as well,” the blond absently re­sponded. “You are most welcome. Most welcome.”

позже

Vladimir woke to the sound of metal tapping on porcelain. He had been dreaming about the feel of raspy, blond bristles on his own smooth-shaven face. When he opened his eyes, he saw a pinkish pair of feet about one arshin away, and he realized he was lying on the ground. Recalling what led up to sleeping on the floor, a night or two of this uncomfortable abasement seemed like adequate penance for the gift be­stowed upon him from Providence the previous day. Through a veil of glaze, he observed Boris hacking at his face with a razor, attempting to remove a few days’ worth of beard stubble. At the all-important chin, the chopping con­verted to short, sharp strokes, as the pastry chef was careful not to remove the goatee, to which he seemed particularly attached.

When Vladimir coughed unexpectedly, Boris gazed down and smiled enigmatically. “Good morning to you, Ser­geant.” He then returned to his morning toilet.

The guard stirred himself from the floor, realizing how stiff some of his joints felt. Perhaps more blankets tonight would provide a warmer surface. Once he managed to stand fully, he placed himself next to Boris and looked into the mirror. It would take but a few minutes to prepare for the day’s duty. However, as he considered the relative position and likeness of the two men, it reminded him of a photograph he had seen of his own parents. How he resembled his father, Yuri Vladimirovich, proudly wearing his service military uniform. The softer, smoother, angelic face of his roommate was not as close a match for his mother, but the difference in heights seemed similar.

“Sergeant, if you please,” Boris requested. “I must prepare myself for the day.”

“Yes, Borya. I am sorry. I did not intend to impede your pro­gress.” He stepped back, giving the pastry chef more space. “By all means.”

“Thank you. I shall finish soon and you may have your time at the basin, sir.”

At hearing Boris address him so formally, “sir” and “Ser­geant,” Vladimir winced. “And, by the way, I believe it would now be acceptable for you to address me more personally.”


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