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Crown Jewel Of Russia
May, 1718, Age Nine: St. Petersburg, Russia
Alexis stepped out from the shadows surrounding the altar with the oily smile he wore so well slicked onto his face. “How is my favorite tsarevna, Elizaveta?”
I suppressed a shudder and clutched the crucifix in my hands tighter. “She is well.”
My half brother’s smile started to fade. “And has she seen our father of late?”
I shook my head, wishing that he would leave me to my praying. “No, Alexis, I have not seen Father.”
He cursed under his breath, and I knew he was hoping that I would say I had seen Father today. He and Alexis had been at odds again, and he hoped for news that the storm had passed. If there was one thing that Alexis should have known about his father, however, it was that Peter the Great never forgave his son within a month of their quarrel.
I gestured to the altar. “May I continue with my service, brother?”
He turned on his heel and left. I sighed in relief and added that to my list of thanks I was about to give to the Lord.
August, 1724, Age Fifteen: St. Petersburg, Russia
I giggled in joy when I saw the huge dress box occupying a decent portion of my bed. Without even shutting the door to my chambers, I pounced upon the box, tearing the lid from the top and flinging it away. Pulling the paper out, I gently took the heavy dress out and held it under the light filtering in from the window in order to inspect the quality.
It was of Madame Olga’s make, with fine silver embroidery throughout a rich red fabric. I held it up to my chest and admired the details in the large dressing mirror on the wall. It would offset my brown eyes perfectly. The dress was simply exquisite.
A knock on my open door snapped me out of my adoration; I turned to find Father standing in the doorway. Peter the Great was a proud tsar, standing at just under seven feet, with broad shoulders and a handsome face. However, of late, Father seemed to hunch a little more, and his handsome face was wrinkled now. He might have only been fifty-two years old, but he was aging rapidly.
This unfortunate result brought an expected, harsh thought that inevitably accompanied any aging ruler: who was to be the next tsar? Alexis was gone, dead for just under seven years now. After sentencing his son to treason, Father had not named anyone his successor.
I, however, had no interest in state affairs. With a swift but gentle motion, I laid the dress on the bed and kissed my father’s aging cheek in thanks. Now to find slippers and a hair ribbon for tomorrow…
January, 1725, Age Sixteen: St. Petersburg, Russia
I ran as fast as my tight corset would allow to Father’s chambers. Flinging open the door on silent hinges, I rushed across the room and dropped to my knees next to my father. His sallow face was beaded with effort as he struggled to write his final will.
Mother dabbed his perspiring head resting in her lap with a damp cloth. Her own face was wet with not sweat but tears; her beloved husband was dying in front of her eyes. My sister, Anna, knelt across from me, keeping her hand on father’s arm. The Archbishop stood nearby, a cross and bible halfway tucked into his voluminous sleeves. To complete the company, taking up so little space in Father’s huge bedroom, was his most trusted advisor, Alexander Menshikov.
Father drew a ragged breath and dropped his pen to grab my hand. For all the strength slipping out of his body, his grip was incredibly strong from the years spent doing carpentry work and building ships. He pulled me roughly towards him and murmured in a fading voice so quiet I struggled to hear, “You must make me proud, Elizaveta. You must care for more than dresses and dancing.” He gasped and, with all his energy, fiercely whispered, “Learn to be Tsarina!” And then he gently pushed me back so that my shocked face was visible to all.
Me? A tsarina? Father was surely delirious. My only asset was the charisma that earned me friends with everyone I conversed with, but charm alone did not make me worthy of the title empress.
Father slowly and deliberately picked up his pen and began to write again. I could feel the eyes of the occupants in the room flickering between my father and me as he struggled to write. And then, in a suddenness we knew was fast approaching, Father slumped backwards, pen falling from his grasp to land on the floor, dotting the thick carpet with ink.
After a long, dramatic, pause in which we were stunned to silence by the final breath of Tsar Peter the Great, Anna reached out a shaky hand towards his final will. She gasped and looked up, wide-eyed, at Mother after reading. Mother quietly pried the smooth paper from her hand and read it before passing it to me with a carefully measured amount of shock.
And there, on the paper, in a shaky, unstable hand, was written, Give it all to Elizaveta Petrovna, my daughter and tsarevna.
I found the eyes of Mother, Tsarina of Russia until another was crowned, and mouthed, “No.” I would not be tsarina. I had no interest in the politics of the Empire. I would run Russia to the ground.
Resentment and respect battled in her pale blue eyes before she nodded once. She picked up the will from where it had slipped from my grasp and, with a deliberate motion, dropped the wet cloth onto the paper, smearing my name beyond recognition.
No one would ever know it was not an accident but the five of us in the room on that cold winter day.
November, 1741, Age Thirty-Two: Moscow, Russia
Up ahead, the shining domes of Moscow could be seen glowing in the silvery moonlight. I dug my boot into my horse’s flank and he quickened his pace in response. Men of the Preobrazhensky Regiment fanned out behind me, riding at full gallop to keep up.
Keeping one hand tight on my stallion’s reigns, I pulled my cloak tighter with the other. The Russian winter had come early this year, and it was absolutely frigid out. Especially with the brisk wind combing its icy fingers through my hair and over my exposed face. Even with the coming violence, I longed for the warmth of the Terem Palace. Its enormous hearths, canopied beds, overstuffed chairs, and bright golden chandeliers gave it the warm, welcoming feel that no place else besides the Terem could provide.
The snow had started to fall again, covering my guard and me in a light dusting as we pounded up the ice-covered road to Moscow. After twenty minutes of galloping through the night, we came upon the gates to the city. The Third Watch already had the gate open, informed by my messenger to be ready for the night when the rightful ruler of the Russian Empire would come home to claim her throne. As we thundered through the gates, five of the Watch members saluted me.
Before heading to the Terem, we slowed our horses and made for the Kremlin complex and the Cathedral of Assumption, where, if all went well, I would be crowned tsarina by week’s end. Half of us dismounted while the rest held the reigns of our horses and guarded the gold domed Cathedral. We hurried inside and made it into the central chamber, following the voices of over four hundred men, warriors and clergy alike.
At the sight of me, the soldiers dropped to their knees and the churchmen bowed their heads respectfully. “Honorable men of Russia! Stand on your feet!” I began. They obeyed my command and stood to face me. “Will you continue to follow the rule of the infant Ivan when your real Empress is ready to take the throne of Russia?”
The men crowding the opulent cathedral cheered like they used to when I visited them in the barracks. Only this time the stakes were so much higher.
“Will you serve the thieves of the Empire? Or will you help me win back my inheritance?” I shouted over the roar of the men, delighted in the effect I was having over them. “My inheritance rightfully earned from my father, Peter the Great, the first Emperor of Russia, as his last remaining child?”
Peter the Great was a powerful name in Russia, especially to the soldiers gathered in this room, loyal supporters of my father. “What I ask of you is simple,” I sucked in a breath before yelling like commanders do on the battlefield, “Will you ride with me to Terem, to overthrow the baby-tsar and his merciless regent? Or will you stand by and watch as Russia falls to ruin under my cousin?” I paused for the roar to quiet and continued on softly, “What we do tonight will be without bloodshed. There will not be another drop of Russian blood spilt under my reign as of tonight.”
The clergymen scattered throughout the room made pleased noises, as I knew they would. Days from then, when I sat on the throne, my first decree would be abolishment of the death penalty. I would not start my reign in blood.
I raised my chin and set back my shoulders, “Make your decision now, for we ride on Terem within the half hour.” My statement was met with bellows of approval.
By first light tomorrow, I would be Empress of Russia.
July, 1745, Age Thirty-Six: St. Petersburg, Russia
I took Sofia’s hand lovingly, “I have chosen you, dear girl, to marry my nephew.”
She squealed in delight and clasped my hand tightly, “You have granted me a gift far beyond my wildest dreams!” Sofia spoke in perfect Russian with only a slight German accent, showing just how far she had immersed herself in her new country’s culture.
I smiled and released her soft hand, “I am sure you wish to tell your mother,” I gestured to the door. “Go and tell her the news.”
Before leaving, she kissed my hand and cheek, a bold action, but one I did not mind. After all, Sofia was the only hope Russia had of a capable ruler once I passed.
And Sofia, the one they would come to call Catherine the Great, would be a very competent ruler indeed.