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Wednesday 28 November 2012

Shattered Crowns: The Betrayal

I am happy to announce that the final book of my Shattered Crowns trilogy will be available in Kindle format tomorrow.
Here is a brief excerpt from the book. In this scene Tsar Nicholas meets his brother, Misha, for the last time before his enforced departure to Siberia:
...Nicholas pushed open the door of his study and, pulling a handkerchief from his pocket, dabbed it to the corner of his eyes. The room, in which he had spent so many hours for the past twenty-three years, felt bare and devoid of life. Stripped now of his dearest possessions, it took on a sepulchral atmosphere and, as he ran his fingers over the desk and ledges, he felt like a ghost from another era, unwelcome and out of place in this present age. There was nothing left to do here but to strengthen himself to ensure that neither his captors nor his children should see him cry. It had been easier earlier in the day when he had been able to continue the routine of strenuous manual labour, chopping logs and tending the gardens, which he had adopted since the beginning of his captivity. Now, in the stillness of the study the full tragedy of his situation overwhelmed him. Determined not to let his tears fall for fear that, if they did, he should not be able to stop them, he set about searching for any meaningless employment to occupy his hands and his mind.
A stack of books, which had been left untouched for years, caught his eye and he took them one after another from the shelf with a view to returning them in alphabetical order. Dust floated from their pages – something that would have been unthinkable prior to his abdication when servants were forever busying themselves to keep everything pristine – and, as he blew a cobweb from a cover, a photograph fell from the pages and floated down to the carpet. Stooping to retrieve it, he smiled sadly at the faces looking back at him: a happy scene of a family holiday in Denmark several decades earlier. His father, proud and strong, stood beside his mother whose face shone with the radiance of joy and pride in her loving family. There were Nicholas’ sisters, Xenia and Olga – then, still a baby, and now, he reassured himself, safe in the Crimea. Georgy, his late brother, looked so young and healthy in his white sailor suit, smiling and happily unaware that his life would be so brief. Beside him stood Nicholas, though he barely recognised his own youthful features which the pressures of his reign had now aged prematurely; and there, sitting cross-legged on the ground by his father’s feet, sat Misha.
A hundred regrets stormed through Nicholas’ mind as he murmured, “Dear Misha…”…such an innocent, open face displaying the childlike spirit that even the horrors of war could not diminish. Now that everything had fallen to pieces, it seemed to Nicholas that the years of his brother’s exile had been so pointless, bringing nothing but unnecessary pain. At the time of Misha’s banishment, of course, it had been the Tsar’s duty to put family feeling aside to uphold the traditions which had sustained the dynasty for almost three centuries. It would have been incorrect to have granted his brother permission to marry the non-royal divorcee who had stolen his heart. As Head of the Orthodox Church and head of the family, Nicholas had no alternative but to send him away. Now, though, as he stared more intently at the photograph, those years of separation tore at his heart.
He gazed more intently at the image on the photograph and recalled, with no trace of bitterness, that their father had always viewed Misha as a more suitable successor than Nicholas would ever be.
“Papa was right,” he murmured and, in the lonely silence of the study, was convinced that his younger brother – so cheerful, so brave and popular with the troops – would have handed everything so differently.  He might even have saved the dynasty and prevented the chaos which now engulfed their beloved country.
“It would have been better,” he whispered to the image, “if I had never been born, and you had succeeded as Tsar Mikhail II…Oh, Misha, I am so sorry…”
The door creaked open and suddenly there he was, tall, handsome, and dignified, looking every inch like a Tsar.
“Misha,” Nicholas mouthed, too overcome by emotion to speak.
Misha stood in the entrance to the study, gazing directly into Nicholas’ violet-blue eyes; so soulful they were, and so tender, that Misha felt like a drowning man, being drawn deeper into a whirlpool and watching his life flash before him in a myriad of disjointed images. First he was a tiny child, looking up in admiration at the elder brother whose cheerful kindness endeared him to everyone. There had never been any arrogance about Nicholas; no pride in his position as the eldest son and heir to the throne. He had simply been one of the family; respectful of his parents, attentive to his siblings, and gifted with that rare combination of inner strength and outer gentleness which enabled him to set everyone at ease. Throughout his childhood, Misha had always felt safe in his elder brother’s presence and even later in life, when their father died and Nicholas ascended the throne, Misha had been so sure of his brother’s ability and devotion to duty that had never imagined that his reign could end in such an abrupt tragedy. 
Kerensky, who had pushed past him into the study, was wittering about the limited time available for the visit. As irritatingly as a wasp, he buzzed around the room, before taking a book from Nicholas’ desk and settling in a chair. There he sat, flicking through the pages and pretending to read while obviously remaining alert to whatever might pass between the brothers. Nicholas paid him no attention. His eyes remained fixed on his brother and his anguished expression was filled with such sorrow that Misha felt that his heart would break. He longed to fall to his knees with a litany of apologies and regrets but his grief was so great he could not utter a word.
Would all this have happened, he wondered, if he had been more supportive throughout Nicholas’ reign. Time and again, from his first failed attempt to elope with his sister’s lady-in-waiting, to the scandal of his affair with Natasha, the wife of one of his officers, he knew had brought nothing but disappointment. He trembled to think of how deeply he must have wounded Nicholas when, despite all his promises that he would do nothing without the Tsar’s permission, he had reneged on his word and married Natasha in secret, only informing the family of what he had done when everything was signed and sealed. Even worse, he thought now, was the explanation he had given for his actions: little Alexei, the Tsarevich, was suffering from such a severe episode of haemophilia that the doctors doubted he would live. If the boy died, Misha knew his position would change dramatically as he would become Nicholas’ heir. Then it would be impossible to ever marry Natasha. He would be obliged to find a more suitable wife who would one day become Tsarina.
Looking now into Nicholas’ eyes, he understood the great disparity between his brother’s selfless devotion to duty and his own selfish pursuit of satisfaction. Nicholas had no desire to be Tsar but he had sacrificed his personal wishes to dedicate himself to the role, and the least he could have expected in return was the loving and staunch support of his family. Repeatedly, Misha knew, he had failed to give that support and his spirits sank to the depths as he thought of recent events and how, once again, he had failed to accept responsibility. He thought of what anguish Nicholas must have suffered at his abdication, and he understood now that his last hope of saving the dynasty had been to pass over his haemophiliac son, and name Misha as his heir. Had he accepted that role, Misha wondered, would he have been able to prevent this ignominy by ensuring that Nicholas and his family could enjoy a dignified retirement in Livadia or some other country estate?  But he had failed. He had refused to accept the crown without the support of the Duma and, since that support was not forthcoming, he had allowed the dynasty to fall into decay. 
“Misha,” Nicholas said softly and it wounded him even more deeply to realise that there was no malice or recrimination in his tone. If anything, Nicholas appeared even more apologetic than he was as though he somehow considered himself to blame for this tragic turn of events.
To be greeted with such humility and kindness in the face of his failures was more than Misha could bear. Were it not for Kerensky’s unwelcome presence, he should have fallen to floor to beg forgiveness but instead he heard himself ask a series of trite and ridiculous questions.
“How are you, Nicky?”
He heard Nicholas swallow.
“And how’s Alix?”
“Bearing up, you know?”
He nodded, “The children?”
“The same.”
“Good. That’s good.” The tension was unbearable. “Have you heard from Mama?”
“She’s quite safe in the Crimea with Olga and Xenia.”
            And so it went on – meaningless chatter to prevent an intolerable silence which would compel them to face the magnitude of what was occurring – and all the while Misha could only pray that, beneath the inanity of their words, Nicholas understood how deeply he felt and how much he longed to communicate.
            All too soon Kerensky stood up and, dropping the book onto the desk, pointedly looked at his watch. Biting his lip to restrain his tears, Misha nodded, and was about to whisper some final words when a shuffling behind him distracted him. He turned to catch a glimpse of Alexei peeping in from behind the door.
            “May I see the children before I leave?”
           The question was intended for Nicholas but Kerensky answered abruptly, “That won’t be possible.” He looked again at his watch, “It is time to go.”
           Unable to restrain himself any longer, Misha threw his arms around Nicholas’s neck and, kissing his cheek, whispered, “Nicky, I’m so sorry.”
          Nicholas held him so tightly he might have been clinging to him for life, “I love you, Misha. God bless you. God bless you.”
         Kerensky coughed and Misha, choking, tore himself from his brother’s arms and, without looking back, followed Kerensky from the room, pausing only to tousle Alexei’s hair as he passed and wondering whether he would ever see Nicholas or his family again. 

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