Read The Romanov Cross: A Novel Online

Authors: Robert Masello

The Romanov Cross: A Novel

The Romanov Cross
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2013 by Robert Masello

All rights reserved.

Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of the Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.

and the rooster colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Masello, Robert.
The Romanov cross : a novel / Robert Masello.
p.   cm.
eISBN: 978-0-345-53359-3
1. Antiquities—Collection and preservation—Fiction.   I. Title.
PS3613.A81925R66 2013

Cover design : Eileen Carey
Jacket images : © John Burcham /Gettyimages (cross);
© David Clapp/Oxford Scientific/Gettyimages (background)



, 1918

“Sergei, do not die,” the girl said, turning around in the open boat. “I forbid you to die.” She had hoped, in vain, that her voice would not falter.

When she tried to reach out to him, he pulled away, still holding on to the tiller with dead-white fingers.

“No, no,” he said, drawing back in horror. “Don’t touch me.” His eyes were wild, the stubble on his pale young cheeks flecked with blood and foam. “You have to sail there,” he said, as he pointed with one trembling finger over the prow of the boat. “There!” he said, demanding that Ana—a willful teenager, who had never been responsible for anything more than picking a frock—turn, and do what he, a farm boy no more than a few years her senior, was ordering.

Reluctantly she looked back, the ragged sail crackling above her head, and saw in the distance, beyond a cloud of fog, the indistinct outline of an island, dark and forbidding, rising from the sea. From the boat, it looked like a clenched fist, encircled by a misty-gray bracelet. Ana had never seen a more unwelcoming sight.

“Look for the fires,” he croaked. “They will light fires.”

“But I can’t sail the boat alone. You have to do it.”

Sergei shook his head and coughed so hard the blood ran between his fingers. He glanced down at his soiled hand, his eyes glazed, and whispered, “May God protect you,
.” And then, as calmly as if he were turning in bed, he rolled over the side of the boat and into the icy waters of the strait.

“Sergei!” she screamed, plunging toward the stern so abruptly she threatened to capsize the boat.

But he was already gone, floating off with his sealskin coat billowing out around him like the spread wings of a bat. For a few more seconds, he bobbed on the surface, riding the waves until the weight of his body and his boots and his clothes dragged him down. All that remained was a single wilted and frozen blue cornflower floating on the water.

The sight of it made her want to weep.

She was alone in the boat—alone in the world—and the tiller was already lurching wildly from one side to the other, screeching louder than the gulls swooping in and out of the fog. The hollow place in her heart, the place where she had already stored so many deaths, would now have to find room for Sergei’s, too.

How many more could she possibly be expected to hold there?

Clambering over the icy thwart, her fur coat as wet and heavy as armor, she perched on the little wooden seat in the stern. Even with her hood pulled low, the wind blew sleet and spray into her face. But at least the gusts were driving her toward the island. Her gloves were as stiff as icicles, and it was a struggle to loop the rope to the sail around one wrist, as she had seen Sergei do, and grasp the tiller with the other. The open boat cut through the waves, rising and falling, rising and falling. The fog surrounded her like a shroud, and she was so exhausted, so cold and so hungry, that she fell into a kind of stupor.

Her thoughts wandered to her garden in Tsarskoe Selo, the private enclave outside St. Petersburg, where she had grown her own roses, and to the fifteenth birthday party her parents had thrown for her there. It was only two years ago, a time before her life had gone from a dream to a nightmare. Now it seemed like something she must have
imagined out of whole cloth. She thought of her sister, giving her a book of poems by her favorite writer—Pushkin—and her little brother sitting on his pony, as Nagorny, the rough sailor who had become his constant attendant, held the reins.

Her father, in his military uniform, had been standing stiffly on the verandah, holding her mother’s hand.

A wave dashed her full in the face, the frigid water running down her neck and under the collar of her coat. She shivered as the tiller threatened to slip out of her hand, and the rope attached to the sail cut into her wrist like a tourniquet. Her boots were slick with ice, and her bad foot had no feeling left in it at all.

But she also remembered, towering right behind her mother, the monk with the black eyes and the long, tangled beard. The bejeweled cross that he wore on his cassock, she was wearing now, under her corsets and coat; it had protected her from much, just as the monk had promised, but she doubted that even the cross would be enough to save her now.

As the boat came closer to the shore, it bucked like a horse trying to throw its rider, and she had to brace herself firmly against the stern. The slush in the hull was several inches deep and washed back and forth over whatever was left of her frozen provisions.

If she did not reach land tonight, she would surely follow poor Sergei into the freezing sea. Gulls and ospreys circled in the pewter sky, taunting her with their cries.

She pulled in on the sail, and the boat keeled, slicing through the waters. She was close enough now that she could see a jumble of boulders littering the beach and a dense wall of snow-covered forest just beyond them. But where were the fires that Sergei had promised? With the back of her sleeve, she wiped the seawater from her eyes—she had always been nearsighted but too vain to wear glasses. Dr. Botkin had once offered her a pair, at the house with the whitewashed windows, the house where …

No, she could not think about that. She had to keep her thoughts from straying there … especially now, when her life once again hung in the balance.

An osprey shot across the bow of the boat, then doubled back past the creaking mast, and as her eyes followed it, she saw a flickering glow—a torch as tall as a tree—burning on the cliffs ahead.

And then, squinting hard, she saw another.

Her heart rose in her chest.

There was a scraping sound as the surf dragged the bottom of the boat across a bed of sharp rocks and shells. She loosened her grip on the rope, and the sail swung wide, snapping as loud as a gunshot. She clung to the tiller with her frozen hands as the boat bumped and spun onto the wet sand and gravel, lodging there as the tide surged back out again.

She could barely move, but she knew that if she hesitated, the next wave could come in and pull her back out to sea again. Now, before her last ounce of strength abandoned her, she had to force herself to clamber to the front of the boat and step onto the island.

She got up unsteadily—her left foot as numb as a post—and struggled over the thwarts, the boat pitching and groaning beneath her. She thought she heard a bell clanging, a deep booming sound that reverberated off the rocks and trees. Touching the place on her breast where the cross rested, she murmured a prayer of thanks to St. Peter for delivering her from evil.

And then, nearly toppling over, she stepped into the water—which quickly rose above the tops of her boots—and staggered onto the beach. Her feet slipped and stumbled on the wet stones, but she crawled a few yards up the sand before allowing herself to fall to her knees. Her head was bowed, as if awaiting the blow of an axe, and her breath came only in ragged gasps. All she could hear was the ice crackling in her hair. But she was alive, and that was what mattered. She had survived the trek over the frozen tundra, the journey across the open sea … and the horrors of the house with the whitewashed windows. She had made it to a new continent, and as she peered down the beach, she could see dark shapes in the twilight, running toward her.

Yes, they were coming, to rescue her. Sergei had spoken the truth.

If she’d had the strength, she’d have called out to them, or waved an arm.

But her limbs had no feeling left in them, and her teeth were chattering in her skull.

The figures were coming so fast, and running so low, she could hardly believe her eyes.

And then she felt an even greater chill clutch at her heart, as she realized what the running shapes really were.

She whipped around toward the boat again, but it had already been dislodged and was disappearing into the fog.

Had she come so far … for this?

But she was too exhausted, too paralyzed with cold and despair, even to try to save herself.

She stared in terror down the beach as, shoulders heaving and eyes blazing orange in the dusk, the pack of ravening black wolves galloped toward her across the rocks and sand.

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