Fall 1888, St. Petersburg, Russia
An afternoon spent solving quadratic equations would have been infinitely more pleasant. I smelled like a salad. Cucumber slices for soothing puffy eyes. Blackberry vinegar for brightening dull skin. Goat's milk and honey for softening rough hands. I politely declined when my cousin offered a pinch of her goose-lard-and-pomegranate facial cream.
It was Friday afternoon and our lessons had been canceled at the Smolny Institute so everyone could prepare for the ball. Because dressing up like a doll was much more important than studying literature or learning arithmetic.
Matrimony. That was the true mission of the Smolny Institute for Young Noble Maidens. It was nothing more than a meat market for Russia's nobility, where princes from all across Europe sent their daughters, intending them to marry well. So there I sat, Katerina Alexandra Maria von Holstein-Gottorp, Duchess of Oldenburg. Great-great-granddaughter of Empress Josephine on my mother's side, great-great-great-granddaughter of Katerina the Great on my father's side. Princess of the royal blood. Royal meat for sale. I would rather have been dead.
I once told Maman I wanted to attend medical school and work at one of Papa's hospitals in St. Petersburg or Moscow. I always accompanied her to the Oldenburg Children's Hospital when she made her charity visits at Christmas and Easter. I thought it would be wonderful to take care of sick children and discover cures for diseases. But Maman was horrified by the idea.
"What man would marry a doctor?" she asked, not bothering to wait for an answer. "What a foolish notion!"
But someone needed to find cures for such ill nesses as meningitis, which had taken my younger brother before his first birthday. Why couldn't that someone be me? I'd been only three at the time and too little to understand, but his death had devastated our family. I could remember hearing both of my parents sobbing night after night. There had been too much death in my childhood. My brother, my grandparents, my favorite aunt. I looked forward to the future, when science could perform miracles.
And when we would not have to live in fear of disease.
One of our maids, Anya Stepanova, had a brother Rudolf, who attended the School of Medicine in Kiev. My father, a great believer in philanthropy, had paid Rudolf's tuition. I begged Anya to tell me about his studies, but they did not interest her. Even she was more absorbed with the petty female plots that went on at Smolny. As she fixed my hair for the ball, she told me and my cousin Dariya Yevgenievna the latest gossip about our fell ow student Princess Elena.
"She's a witch, I tell you," Anya whispered as she fussed with my curls. "I saw her earlier in this very room holding a moth by one of its wings over a candle and chanting. She was making some sort of charm, I'm sure of it."
"Don't be ridiculous," I said, shivering all the same. I couldn't help feeling sorry for Elena, even if she was a witch. If she couldn't keep her powers hidden here at Smolny, what hope did I have? Raising the dead was my own secret, a talent I kept hidden, even from myself when I could.
"It's true," my cousin Dariya agreed. "Do you know what the cook said about Elena's dead sister?"
With a frightened whisper, Anya crossed herself. "Holy Mother of God!" One of Princess Elena's sisters had died two years earlier at Smolny. If she was indeed one of the ghosts rumored to haunt these halls, then why didn't she appear to her sister in our dormitory? Unless the ghost was too frightened of her own sister to haunt her.
"There are no ghosts at Smolny," I said, thinking that if there were, I would certainly know. "Anyway, Elena is dancing with the tsar's son tonight.
The tsar and the empress would never allow him to dance with a witch." Dariya sighed. "And how do you think Elena managed to catch the tsarevitch's eye in the first place? You and I both know she's using magic." Our silver-haired headmistress, Madame Tomilov, swept into our room just then with a basket of white corsages, one for each of us. "Here we are, girls. Time to take a flower for your dress."
Dariya and I helped each other with ours. "Don't give me that one, Katiya," my cousin said as I reached for one. "It's yellow," she whispered.
"You know it's bad luck to give someone a yellow flower."
"It's just a little brown around the edges," I said.
"Just pick another one, please, Katiya?" she begged.
I sighed heavily and gave her my flower, pinning the faded rose on my own dress.
Dancing at St. Petersburg balls was extremely formal. We spent hours in class every day practicing the steps for the quadril e and the mazurka. We spent even more time dancing than we did studying French, the official language of the Russian court and the language spoken by all polite society. I hated the difficult polonaise, but it was one of the favorites of our empress and was usually the first dance at every ball.
Only the eldest students of Smolny, the White Form, were allowed to attend the annual Smolny Ball, given by the empress in our honor. The younger girls, the Brown and Blue Forms, would have to wait several years for their turn. The Browns moped sadly as we finished getting ready. "I wonder what the empress will wear," one of the Browns said wistfully. She begged us to wake her when we returned so we could tell her every last detail.
Madame Tomilov frowned at everyone, as if she could scare us into being on our best behavior. "Be mindful of your futures, ladies. Everyone will be watching you tonight. Do nothing to stain your reputation or that of Smolny Institute."
I amused myself by thinking up ways I could do just that. Not that I would, of course. But the thought was so tempting!
The sleighs arrived to carry us to the Winter Palace for the ball. Dariya and I, wrapped in our woolen cloaks, our hands tucked into warm fur muffs, climbed into the first one in line. Three more girls piled in, and we were almost full. Then Elena rushed over, giggling as she joined us in the now-crowded sleigh. "This night is going to be unforgettable," she promised, shoving Aurora Demidova into Erzsebet of Bavaria. Ignoring the girls'
complaints, Elena smiled. "Can't you feel the magic in the air?" My cousin rolled her eyes at the Montenegrin princess. She muttered under her breath, "No good can come of this, Katiya. I have a horrible feeling about tonight."
I shivered, feeling nothing but the bitter cold. I was certain that, witch or no witch, Elena would not do anything foolish. But as I looked back across the line of sleighs, full of excited young girls, I had a terrible vision. A brilliant bluish-white light ill uminated each girl's face.
This vision was, unfortunately, very familiar.
Death would be dancing with us at the ball that night.
I crossed myself and prayed it would touch no one I loved.
Princess Elena caused a stir when she opened the ball with the tsarevitch Nicholas Alexandrovich, the heir to the throne of Russia. She looked like an angel gliding across the marble floor in her white dress. We all looked like angels, all in the same virginal white with our hair coiffed perfectly in braided chignons.
"It's heaven on earth!" Dariya said with a sigh.
Boys from the Corps des Pages, the elite military academy, lined up in chairs directly across the cavernous ball room from the girls of Smolny Institute. They looked very smart and very handsome in their black military uniforms. Dariya had spent the entire sleigh ride to the palace considering which of these cadets were foreign princes and which ones were the most suitable to marry. As Elena and the tsarevitch finished the opening polonaise in the enormous Nicholas Hall, the young men rushed toward us to claim our hands for the next dance. The meat market had opened for business.
Rumors flew from one end of the room to the other, from the youngest Smolny maid to the oldest lady-in-waiting, about a possible engagement between Princess Elena and the tsarevitch. Her father was the King of Montenegro, and a close ally of the tsar, but there were many more princesses of larger and more important countries for Russia to make all iances with. As coldhearted as it may sound, this match seemed improbable to me. But Elena already looked like she was in love.
I kept my eye on Elena throughout the night, even as I danced one tedious set after another. A grim-looking, pale young cadet was my first partner. He barely spoke two words to me when I tried to be polite and ask about his lessons at Vorontsov Palace. But our dance was over soon, and with a quick, halfhearted bow, he slipped back into the crowd.
Another cadet replaced him, and then another. Their faces blurred together in the wild crush. It was not much different from dancing with my fell ow students during our lessons. The ball room was a flurry of white dresses and black uniforms, all of us twirling under the bright lights of the glittering chandeliers. It grew hotter and stuffier with each dance, and the petticoats under my gown became sticky and damp.
The entire ball room had begun to smell of sweat. The heavy colognes and perfumes everyone wore did nothing to disguise it. I wished I had a fan to keep the stench away from my nose. I settled for a glass of lemonade.
The dance master called for the mazurka and Dariya squealed. "This is my favorite! Oh, Katiya, I don't know why I was worried about tonight. I never dreamed the ball would be so wonderful!" She blushed when a handsome blond cadet took her hand and led her onto the dance floor. I smiled, happy for my cousin.
The tsarevitch did not dance the mazurka but stood beside his mother, the empress. Elena danced with the pale and grim cadet I'd partnered with earlier.
"Duchess, would you do me the honor?" I spun around to see the tsarevitch's younger brother the grand duke George Alexandrovich standing before me.
I placed my gloved hand in his. "The honor is mine, Your Imperial Highness."
He led me onto the dance floor and bowed as the music started. Like all the other girls, I curtsied deeply in response to my partner. Then he put one hand lightly on my waist and we were off.
Dancing with the grand duke was nothing like dancing with fell ow students in Madame Metcherskey's class. Very conscious of his hands touching me, I felt a strange light-headedness as we promenaded around the ball room.
I must confess: like Dariya, I'd always been fond of the mazurka. The boys stamped their feet and the girls kicked their heels and it was so much livelier than the other dances. And the music the orchestra played was by Glinka, one of my favorite composers.
The grand duke did not speak as we completed our circuit of the ball room. He did not speak when we crossed hands and turned clockwise.
There was no need for us to make polite conversation. As he got to one knee with one hand on his hip, the other barely holding my fingertips as I pivoted around him, the grand duke looked up at me, his eyes sparkling under the brilliant lights. The faintest hint of a smile was beginning to form on his lips. He was having fun after all.
I smiled back.
It grew even hotter in the ball room at that moment. I could feel myself blushing.
I completed my circle around the grand duke, and he stood with a click of his heels. A hundred pairs of boot heels clicked together at once as the mazurka ended.
With one last gracious bow and a polite smile, the grand duke excused himself to join his brother. I needed to catch my breath. Another glass of lemonade would be nice as well, I thought.
Dariya pushed through the crowd and swung me around, squeezing my hands. "Mon Dieu, Katiya!" she gushed. "This has been the best night of my life!"
I smiled and squeezed back. The night was not quite as terrible as I'd feared either.
We sat down to dinner at half past ten, right after the mazurka. Elena's two older sisters met us in the grand dining room. All the Montenegrin princesses favored each other: tall, with raven-black hair, eyes just as dark, and strong noses.
"You look beautiful," Elena's sisters said to her. "Papa and Mama would be so proud of you!"
I'd heard sinister tales about Elena's sisters. Even though they were rumored to be witches, they were still the toast of St. Petersburg society, coyly appearing at all the smartest balls and card parties. Princess Militza was engaged to the grand duke Peter Nikolayevich, cousin of the tsar on his father's side and also my cousin on his mother's side. Another sister, Princess Anastasia, known as Stana, had her eye on my uncle the Duke of Leuchtenberg.
As we were shown to our seats, I was shocked to see the tsarevitch and his brother being seated at my table-next to Elena.
I whispered to Princess Militza, "To what do we owe such an honor?"
"It is the tsarevitch who is honored tonight, dining with daughters of King Nikola," she answered. Militza tended to think the universe revolved around her father's tiny kingdom of Montenegro.
"Oh. Then I am honored as well," I said with a reverent bow of my head to her. She nodded regally, oblivious to my sarcasm. On the other side of me, Dariya snickered softly.
The food had been prepared under the direction of the empress's French chef. The soup was excellent, the fish not so much. I discreetly pushed it around on my plate, certain no one would concern themselves with what a silly Smolny student ate or did not eat. The empress was entertaining her Danish relatives at her own table, the tsar having already returned to his private quarters after a brief appearance.
Besides, I knew all uneaten food would be given to the beggars outside at the end of the ball. I believed I was doing my part to help them by leaving more food for the poor. I just hoped they liked fish more than I did.
I glanced around our table, where Elena was laughing and batting her eyelashes at everyone. She caught my eye and winked. The tsarevitch was talking to a young officer to his left. Elena turned to his younger brother the grand duke George Alexandrovich, on her other side, and whispered something.
He looked toward my plate and nodded. "Not fond of the salmon, Duchess?"