A FATED MEETING
Just as television shows like to tease with a quick trailer, here’s another short excerpt from THE LAST EMPRESS —
On the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, Anastasia was given a special gift from her mother the Empress: personal riding instruction from the captain of the royal guards, Henryk Michonski. The captain himself proposed he train Ana to ride her horse Orion. The Empress was delighted, but none more so than Ana.
The captain instructed her at the stables and horse track behind the Alexander Palace while Peter Andersen and Anna Andersen looked on. The summer months were humid and unusually hot, but that didn’t stop the captain from drilling Ana. Orion was not even taken out of his stable, not until Michonski was satisfied with Ana’s form as she sat in her saddle precariously on a fence rail. If she even slightly leaned the wrong way, she and the saddle would fall over into the filthy mud, enraging her.
“Patience. Practice. All cavalrymen must be these things,” he lectured her.
“I am not a cavalryman!” she protested. “I am a duchess!”
“For Orion’s sake, you will become a cavalryman. Anything less is an insult to the horse.”
“You treat the horse better than me,” she sobbed there in the dirt, her beautiful clothes muddy and ruined.
“Then prove me wrong, Little Duchess.”
Ana hated when he called her by titles such as “Her Majesty”, “Her Most Highness” or “Little Duchess”, knowing he was being spiteful and cruel. Complaining to him only brought more titles, each one more ludicrous than the previous.
“Yes you are a poor student, Your Supreme Delicate Duchess.” “No you cannot rest, My Esteemed Grand Holiness.”
A rage built up inside of Ana. She wanted to do better and prove him wrong.
After Captain Michonski was satisfied with her saddle work, they took up riding. Up and down the dusty track the captain rode his luminous white charger beside her and Orion, correcting her with a strike of a rider’s whip across her leg or back. Everyone, even her sisters, taunted the captain’s young “cadet”.
Ana stopped wearing dainty riding clothes, replacing them with sturdy trousers, riding boots, a white button blouse and a sash around her waist like the Cossacks wore. She tied her long hair up instead of wearing a sassy satin riding hat.
After seeing her dress this way, her sisters Tatiana and Maria started accusing her of being Alexei’s long lost brother, “Anok.” Even her mama found her appearance too unsettling after a long afternoon spent training.
“You’re a grand duchess, not a stable boy,” she would scold her.
Ana didn’t pay any attention to them or their teasing, only to the young captain. A man who grew more admirable—and handsome—with every day.
“Are you enjoying your lessons, Duchess?” he asked her as they took off together to the wide swath of dirt of the riding track behind the palace.
“Yes, very much!” Anastasia played with Orion’s mane. “I have learned to appreciate him like the great stallion that he is.”
He turned to her and grinned, putting his white charger into a gallop. Ana at once followed him, prodding Orion to follow.
The two horses rushed off at once. The summer wind and its sweet breezes filled her nostrils while she followed the captain. The thundering horse and its powerful strides yielded to her commands as she leaned forward in the saddle. Orion was set free and so was Ana. She found herself laughing with joy, breathless and exhilarated all at once.
They stopped at the far end of the track, almost at the entrance to the woods where she would try to run off to when she was younger. She knew better than to disappoint the captain and turned Orion back around, ready for another gallop back down the way they came. But the captain was in no hurry. Pleased with her progress so far, he nodded towards her.
“What shall your next lesson be, Duchess?”
The thrill of the ride only made her bolder.
“Teach me how to handle a sword,” she said, noticing the fine saber in its scabbard resting in its loophole on the saddle beside his waist.
“Are you enlisting, Grand Duchess?” Henryk joked back. “Or would you prefer an officer’s commission?”
“You said I was to become a cavalryman. Teach me to be a real one.”
“Little princesses do not handle swords. They hold scepters and rule from thrones. You should act like the rest of your family.”
She looked back out across the horse track, towards the palace. There was a sheltered promenade where her sisters, Olga, Tatiana and Maria, along with their giggling friends of the royal court were taking high tea. They were surrounded by shade, music and servants. Anastasia was always left out—too young to understand their gossip and treated as a clingy annoyance.
There was still young Peter Andersen, the boy who remained by the stables while she went out and rode Orion. He seemed content to watch her practice riding. The son of the chief inspector was a writer and would divide his time between private schooling in the village and staying at the palace. But recently Peter had become gangly and dour. He spent a great deal of time keeping to himself, writing in his journal.
Anastasia did not care so much for her sisters or Peter. She wanted the attention of the captain of the guard.
“I don’t want to be like them. I want to be like you.”
The captain looked surprised. He brought his own white horse around, circling Ana and Orion with perfect gait and precision. Ana could not tell if he was concentrating on riding or if he was deep in thought. With no effort at all, he brought his horse to a halt right next to her.
“Your parents would not approve of such things,” he caught Ana’s disappointment and returned it with a mischievous smile. “However, I believe it’s time you and Orion learned to ride in the woods.”
Ana brightened at the challenge, but remembered her mother’s warning.
“Mama said I should never go there alone.”
“You will not be alone.” His gloved hand grazed the saber nestled inside its scabbard. “And we can train there in peace.”
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