Anastasia pulled her elegantly trimmed fur coat tight over porcelain shoulders as she followed in the wake of Boris Semenov; the man who had bought her. She was not cold, but the roiling in her gut had only worsened throughout the long journey from the city. The numerous rural villages which their horse-drawn carriage had ambled past on the way to Zakharova Estate had reminded Anastasia acutely of her home town, Sakhtysh.
“This will be a good introduction for you into high society, Anastasia. Few will know of how or where we met,” Boris said, his deep voice echoing in the deserted courtyard.
All of those villages had been dotted with modest thatched cottages, bordered by forests of ash, birch, elm and pine. Grazing sheep and sprawling vegetable patches made her stomach groan at the memory of her mother’s traditional bortsch; the rich aromas of beef, onions and root vegetables wafting out of the kitchen window to find her in the back garden.
She remembered her father clambering up to slap white paint upon the wood whilst Kolya held the bottom of the ladder. Kolya had been stern-faced, trying not to look as Anastasia did her best to distract him. He had not faltered, but later, he gave her a beautiful red lotus flower which she knew were very hard to find. Smiling, as his light-blue eyes yearned in earnest under those boyish ash-blond curls, she had woven the flower into her thick chestnut braid on the first day of spring.
Presently, her hair was piled on top of her head, leaving her neck exposed. Numerous needles, pins and tight clips held it in place. Occasionally, a sharp point would prick her skull as she walked. Boris said – when she had voiced her discomfort – that it was an apt reminder of her duty to him, lest she get too comfortable and complacent. A few days later, he presented her with more expensive hairpins glistening with rubies that sliced her scalp like wet tissue paper.
Tilting her head as far back as she dared, she wondered at how big the ladders must have been to paint Zakharova Estate. The entrance was set back behind four white-stone columns with marble steps leading up to a wide oaken door. A tingling between her shoulder blades made her pause to turn and look behind her. The estate needed maintenance. Even she could see that the whole place lacked the hum produced by the army of servants required to keep an estate of this size in order. If only work like that had found her instead of Natalya’s hounds with their coarse ropes, head-sacks and intimate probing. She shivered.
“Anastasia?” Boris said, “What is it?” His deep-brown fur coat hung low, concealing his rotund figure gathered in middle-age, making him look like a grizzly bear. The thick fur hat, bushy eyebrows and slightly greying beard did nothing but add to the effect.
At first, as the carriage wheels had crunched along the gravel driveway, she worried that she had been here before as a… guest. Rarely did they know where they were taken or to whom. Often, they were blindfolded for the entire journey. This estate had been vacated for some time, however, that did not ease her stomach. The feeling that she had been here before had latched on and would not yield. Maybe, the time had finally come.
“Oh! Yes!” Her smile was just the right blend of demure and sultry. “I’m sorry, it’s just so beautiful.” Taking a deep breath, her eyes flickered to Nikolai, Boris’ shaven-headed bodyguard, as she added, “It just seems so familiar, like I’ve been here before… in a dream.”
Boris grunted and produced an enormous set of keys from one of his deep pockets. They jangled; the noise impossibly loud in the surrounding stillness. Anastasia’s heart raced at the sight of those keys and somewhere close by, a jackdaw crowed.
There were so many rooms, each one more imposing than the last with high vaulted ceilings, ornate woodwork and an absurd number of fireplaces. Her valenki felt boots glided over the carpets, each footstep producing a little puff of dust.
“This will do very well,” Boris said over his shoulder, “We shall hold many balls here. Invite only select members of the upper echelons. Politicians, Olympian athletes, Hollywood…” He paused to run his eye over a wide curved staircase to their left, the banister etched with elaborate carvings of woodland creatures. “Yes, this will do very nicely.”
The bodyguard, Nikolai, strode ahead to inspect each room before they entered, moving through the shadows with a deadly grace. Boris acknowledged his man’s efforts here and there with an approving nod, but other than that, there was little more than perfunctory words spoken between them. She knew their relationship ran deeper. Boris had been mesmerised by her graceful movements, choosing her out of hundreds, or so he said. But she knew it was Nikolai who had ferreted her out as a potential candidate. Men like Boris did not search for their jewellery or artwork themselves; others did that for them.
Anastasia kept her swan-like neck held high with the jaw gently tilted in the regal manner which Boris required. The diamond encrusted choker, teardrop earrings and silver bracelets were icy cold against her skin. It was an effort not to rip them off. They produced the same feeling as when she used to awake tight-chested and sweating in the dead of night.
“It’s a premonition,” she had told Kolya, his arms encircling her quivering body, “Recurring dreams always are, Mama says. It will come to pass.”
“I’ll be there to save you.”
“You can’t protect me from everything.”
“I’m here,” he said stubbornly, “I will never let anything happen to you.”
Such a valiant, naïve promise. A promise that cradled her soul, keeping the embers of her will alive all this time.
That same summer, her father had come home with a Matryoshka doll purchased from a travelling salesman. There were seven dolls in total that fit neatly within one another, each decorated with a woman in a red kerchief and bright golden dress. Each one harder to open that the one before and the last one, the smallest doll, was the hardest. Kolya never managed to open it, but Anastasia did. That was where she kept the purest essence of herself. In the smallest, near-impossible to open layer of the Matryoshka doll that she had become in order to survive.
Through room after room, with those accursed keys tickling at each lock, Boris led her further into the heart of the building. The intersecting hallways stretched to either side in such a way that Anastasia felt as if they were pulling at her… tugging at a part of her mind she didn’t allow to roam free lest it cause her perfect mask to crack. The part filled with not-entirely-innocent whispered longings, springtide blossoms and reddened cheeks.
The first tentative kiss she had shared with Kolya had been beneath the haunted glow of a gibbous moon. They had snuck out one summer’s night with a woollen blanket and some moonshine his friend had made in a hollowed-out pumpkin. It made their eyes water and their hearts brave.
“Do you know, Kolya,” she said, “that your eyes are like a cloudless sky in early morning. So blue and so clear.”
“If I am the sky,” he said, intertwining his fingers in her own, “Then you are the moon for you will come and go and change, but I will always be here, waiting for you.”
Anastasia sometimes thought these memories might break her heart instead of easing her pain. How far had the moon drifted from its beloved sky? How far? And all the while, she followed obediently behind a man who made her skin crawl even when he wasn’t touching her.
“Ah! Here we are!” Boris strode into the central ballroom with his arms held out to either side. It was void of furnishings, as were all the rooms, but the ceiling boasted intricate swirls and clefts like wave crests, rippling outwards in all directions. Slightly lighter oblong and square sections of the walls told of large paintings that had once adorned them and a rich blue carpet framed the vast hardwood dance floor. “Isn’t it magnificent! Imagine this room swarming with billionaires? Yes.” He nodded to himself; not wanting a response. “The Semenov name will be strong once more.”
“This is it,” she said, walking past the door held open by Nikolai.
“What is it now?”
“Have I ever told you, Boris, about the recurring dream I had as a little girl?”
He shook his head, his disapproval plain, “Dreams are for children, Anastasia. Talking of them is weak, do you understand? I cannot present a woman to –”
“It was more of a nightmare really,” she said, ignoring his blatant shock at being interrupted, “I was being chased by a fearsome woman in a stiff, grey apron holding a blood-stained meat cleaver in one hand and a large, jagged key in the other. I knew she was going to kill me and I would run into a big house… a big house with endless rooms. I raced and she walked, but she was always just behind me. I had this massive bunch of keys that jangled as I ran. I didn’t know which key was for which door so every time, I had to try one after the other. My hands were slippery and I kept dropping the keys. I would run ahead, close the door and lock it, but that woman had the master key and she would always catch me… in this room.” She took a deep breath. “It was this house. In every detail. Especially, this room.”
Boris’ expression became darker and darker the more she spoke until it hardened into a fearsome sneer as he held up the keys, “And what is that supposed to mean?” He shook them inches from her face. “Who am I in this pathetic tale?”
“It was always in this room that she caught me,” she said, willing her voice not to tremble, “And I would wake up. Screaming… terrified. It was a foretelling.”
Abruptly, Boris spat on the floor at her feet. “Maybe you would like to go back to the Moscow Tochka? Hmmm?” His eyes had become fathomless black pools, forcing Anastasia to take a step backwards. “To your bandersha, Natalya? I’m sure she’d find plenty of work for you. Plenty of clients with more… peculiar tastes than my own. One word and you’re gone.” He snapped his fingers. “Is that what you want?”
His anger flared like the orange flames upon the thatched roof of her childhood home. When the village daughters were snatched from screaming mothers and howling fathers. Her own proud father beaten by four men before her eyes. Black smoke filled the air, invaded the lungs and stained her precious world. Her father’s kind features contorted with anguished rage. Hot, streaking tears mingled with blood and the metallic taste of defeat soaked through to her bones as she was hauled away.
She never saw Kolya that night... and she thought she would never see him again. That was until their eyes had met across the crowded sweat-stained pit of Moscow’s underworld. That was when she had known.
“You w-wouldn’t do that, w-would you?” she asked Boris, her eyes wide and pleading.
“You are stunning, Anastasia,” he said, fury tainting the edges of every word as his wet lips curled backwards, “but you are nothing special.”
Anastasia saw only the smallest flash of steel before the blade sliced across Boris Semenov’s throat. His black eyes went wide and his jaw fell open as a jet of crimson gushed out onto the dancefloor, snaking along the pattern of the floorboards. She stepped out of the way, her stammer and nervous bearing discarded.
Nikolai snatched the keys up and shook the blood off, his pale-blue eyes burning with long-concealed passion.
“Are you alright, Ana?” Nikolai – Kolya - said, brushing his fingertips over her slanted cheekbone.
Nodding, she stepped into his embrace, intertwining her fingers in his own. His racing heart thumped in time with hers as she pressed her cheek against the hardened muscle of his chest.
“It’s over now," he said, kissing the top of her chestnut hair, "I promised I would save you.”
A glistening tear met his woollen shirt and disappeared, “I know,” she said, “I always knew.”
No further words were needed as they fled the Estate, Kolya meticulously locking each and every door behind them. They untethered the horses and rode them hard until the sun threatened to sink below the horizon.
That night, shadows danced around their campfire, beneath a sky brimming with iridescent stars.
And nearby, moonlight winked on a discarded pile of exquisite silver hairpins.