St. Petersburg had changed.
It was something Feliks remarked upon every time he made the walk to the market. He remembered St. Petersburg so well, the real St. Petersburg, from childhood; the countless shops and houses, the bustling streets, the bright colours of the storefronts and the passers by and the vast, decadent expanse of the imperial palace. But there was no such brightness now; somehow it was as if the colour and the energy had drained from the city. The peasants now walked about in clothes that had either faded from years of over-washing in dirty water or were simply black or brown to begin with; half the storefronts were dark, windows broken and cleaned out of goods long ago, and the bulbous towers of the churches stood like dead husks among the smoke stacks, jovial colours that once shone in the sun having all but chipped away.
Feliks blamed the communists.
Of course, he could somehow trace a line from every pain and inconvenience in his life back to the communists. The continued shortages of commodities was definitely the communists, the damn bread lines were the communists, the plummet in the market for tailoring, communists. The checkpoints everywhere, the factory smoke that choked the air, communists, communists, communists. Hell, he remembered the frigid cold of winter from his imperial-era childhood and he still blamed it on the communists; though, he supposed, considering the number they’d done on him, the communists had definitely made the cold harder to bear.
And now they were screwing St. Petersburg again.
“Fucking Leningrad?” he almost threw the newspaper into the fire that he and some others had gathered around on the side of the street, seething. “Haven’t they violated St. Petersburg enough without taking her name, too?”
The young man who’d leant him the newspaper almost had a fit, snatching it from his hand as it came dangerously close to the fire. “Hey, you don’t get to burn it until you trade me those cigarettes.”
Cigarettes, good idea. “Take it back then,” Feliks snapped, brushing the kid off and pulling a cigarette from the case in his breast pocket. “I’m not paying for bad news anyway.”
Feliks nearly burned his hand trying to light his cigarette on the trash bin fire, but the drag he was rewarded with afterwards made it worth it. Savouring it for a moment, he exhaled slowly, peering through the blinding winter sun at a figure across the road, staring at him. The man wore a Bolshevik uniform, a gun and billy club at his side, and a warning in his eyes. Feliks only scowled at the man, begrudgingly tearing his eyes away and huddling closer to the fire. The officer seemed satisfied, glaring only a moment longer before continuing on.
“Some good news, then?” asked an older man by the fire once the officer had passed by, short and plump with a mess of gray whiskers poking up from a checkered scarf.
Feliks raised a brow. “What, did the regime decide to drive winter from Russia along with everything else that made her who she was?”
The man chuckled, and came closer, Feliks leaning over to he could whisper in his ear. “There’s a rumour that one of the Vasilievs may have survived the revolution.”
Feliks scoffed, standing to his full meagre height and rolling his eyes. “Is that so,” he said bitterly, pulling his coat tighter around him. “Who’s dull enough to believe that?”
“The Dowager Empress, apparently,” the old man smiled, “She’s offering a reward to whoever can find her granddaughter and bring her back to her.”
This time, both of Feliks’ eyebrows shot up. “Which granddaughter?”
The old man gave him a knowing smile. “The Grand Duchess Katerina.”
Feliks blinked, allowing a moment for the memories of that night, the girl who looked like an angel cornered by the window, the officer with the gun, the images of bodies and snow to pass over him before his usual vague scowl settled over his features again. “A fool’s errand,” he replied, crossing his arms, “There’s no way she survived. And even if she had, they would have tracked her down and gotten her by now.”
“Maybe,” the old man conceded, turning his attention to the road. “But it’s a fool’s errand with a reward of ten million rubles.”
Now that could get his attention, but nonetheless, it would be a wild goose chase. “One would think such a thing would have made it into the papers,” he replied, looking off in the same general direction as the old man.
“Please, with this government?” the old man laughed. “This is the same regime that slaughtered everyone who laid eyes on the Vasilievs for fear that the monarchists would rise up. They’d never allow information about a survivor to circulate.”
Feliks quirked his head; he supposed that was true enough. Hell, they wouldn’t even publish a word critical of Lenin - rumours that one of the Vasilievs might still be alive would definitely have resulted in the quiet murder of someone before the news had any chance to go public. But Feliks wasn’t worried. He knew Katerina was dead, but he’d entertain a rumour. Wasn’t as if he had much else better to do while he waited for that damn shopkeeper.
“So where, pray tell, was Grand Duchess Katerina meant to be hiding all these years if she did survive?” Feliks asked incredulously, “She certainly couldn’t have stayed in St. Petersburg, but where would a recognizable little girl, wanted by the Bolsheviks, have gone on foot in the middle of winter?”
The old man quirked a brow at the detail, but didn’t press on it. “Who knows?” he simply shrugged, “All I know is that the people of St. Petersburg may have something to buzz over again.”
Feliks frowned, twirling his cigarette between his fingers. “Well, I suppose we’ll see what comes of that,” he replied somberly, taking another drag.
The old man nodded, chuckling. “I suppose we will.”