The Death Dealer
March 1, 1881
St. Petersburg, Russia
The ice beneath her had turned to ash and blood.
Katya lurched forward, flying through the air above the frozen river of the Catherine Canal. Instinct and experience did little to protect her fall, for no one had taught her how to land on ice slick with blood. Her skates slipped beneath her, and she fell face-first onto the ice, her chin colliding on the ice with a crack.
The blast had stripped her of her senses, and she lay dazed against the ice. She couldn’t hear; she couldn’t see. All that she knew was blinding pain and the memory of her first fall on the ice, fifteen years earlier.
“To fall is an art, ptichka,” Papasha had said, as he helped his six-year-old daughter off the ice. She remembered the smell of cigar smoke on his jacket as he straightened her fur cap. “You must learn to fall properly, as all little birds do. To skate is to know freedom, but only if you can learn to fall so you can pick yourself back up.”
To skate across the ice in the open air — that was freedom. For some, freedom was a call for reform, for the right to choose. Liberal thoughts in a conservative world, immediately silenced for the danger they posed.
But Katya was content. She had her own freedom. Sunday mornings were her own, an arrangement she and her husband had abided by during this first year of her marriage. She was free to skate, unescorted, across the Catherine Canal, so long as she stayed within the boundaries of St. Petersburg and returned to the shop by evening.
It was an arrangement which served him well, for it was uncomfortable business to have your mistress in the house at the same time as your new wife.
Katya would spend the winter mornings breathing in the crisp, cold air. She’d long since learned to fall, and as such, had learned to never fall again. She’d skate her way up and down the canal, memorizing the architecture of each house and the delicate curves under each bridge. The children of nobility would join her along the Palace Plaza, and she would teach them to fall, their mothers, grateful for the respite, gifting her with sweet buns and warmed chocolate milk. Katya would sit beneath the Pevchesky Bridge, sharing her cakes with a small terrier, and listening to the bustle of St. Petersberg above her.
It was beneath these bridges that she’d first heard of the Narodnaya Volya, The People’s Will. Between the clopping of horse’s hooves, Katya would pick up the snatches of conversation as the nobility scoffed at the failed assassination attempts against their Tzar, Alexander II. But their confidence belied their fear. Katya did not fail to notice how many more guards escorted the Romanov family across the bridges of late, or how they traveled in a bullet-proof carriage of ugly metal and fortified glass.
But this was beyond Katya.
Complacent ignorance suited her. She had her own problems, and she settled comfortably in the reality that she would never be important enough to need to care about the liberal manifesto or their Romanov threat.
It was that complacency that had thrown her off her feet when the Tzar’s carriage exploded on the street above her. Had she been watching more carefully, she’d have noticed a woman she’d never seen before throw a red scarf in the air as she crossed under the Pevchesky bridge that morning.
For a few moments after the blast, she lay cradling her head, her face pressed against the ice as her head throbbed painfully. The ringing in her ears gave way to panicked shouts and the screams of dying horses as Katya tried to push herself upwards. Red cloth, burning in the air, rained around her. She noticed her feet felt cold, and looked down to see nothing but her woolen socks. She had been blown clear out of her skates, which lay behind her — next to a severed wrist bleeding freely on the ice. It was still clutching the smoldering ruin of a horse’s rein.
It was then that the second blast ripped across the air.
The force sent her sprawling again, but this time, she was able to curl herself up and protect her head. She opened her eyes just fast enough to see a body, one of the Tzar’s royal bodyguards, thud next to her, little more than a mutilated specter of a man, a metal fragment impaled straight through his skull.
Panicking, she scrambled backwards away from the body, finding solid ground in the river’s embankment. Without even trying to stand, Katya began to claw her way up the frozen bank to the street, her bare feet little less than useless as she crawled her way up onto the pavement. Her hands met metal and flesh, blood seeping into her gloves.
It took a moment for Katya to fully understand what she saw before her.
The Tzar’s carriage had been blown apart, his guards strewn in a circle around it like wheat beneath a scythe. Blood blanketed the area, and the rushing sound of fierce flames from a nearby cart mingled with the chorus of shouts and demands from what remained of the Royal Guard.
In the center of the mass were a half dozen men, guards and countrymen, supporting the shorn body of Alexander II, the Great Father, of Russia.
Katya stared at the scene, transfixed, as a gentle snow fell on her eyes. Or was it ash.
She watched as the men in front of her dragged the Tzar into a wagon, attempting to staunch the flow of blood that poured out of him as freely as the Neva River.
One of the men, his business suit covered in the Tzar’s blood, turned away from the scene, his face pale, his hands shaking violently. He surveyed the scene, awe in his face, and his eyes found Katya’s.
Suddenly, a large mass blurred Katya’s vision and a panicked horse clipped her shoulder, sending her spinning to the ground.
Strong hands grabbed her under her arms and pulled her up. She slipped, falling into the chest of the man who she’d seen moments before. His body was solid, and Katya instinctively gripped him to keep from falling again — before desperately pushing herself away as she caught sight of the Emperor’s blood on it.
“Are you hurt?” the young man said, still holding Katya’s arms tightly.
Katya shook her head. It was all she could manage.
“Good. Can you walk?”
Katya looked down, her thoughts hazy, and the man followed her eyes to her bare feet. She then turned to look into the Canal, where her skates lay among the dead and dying.
“Ah. Stay here,” the man said, and he released her, climbing down and over the wall into the canal. Katya hadn’t even realized she’d climbed over it.
The man seemed to bounce on the frozen river as he skillfully picked his way through the mess and bent to retrieve her skates. She saw him pause over the body of the guard. Almost religiously, he folded what remained of the man’s hands over his chest, before grabbing Katya’s skates and returning to her.
Wordlessly, the man strapped the skates to her feet, his hands no longer shaking. Then he rose, gently gripping her hands between his, as would a lover asking for a dance.
“I know it isn’t ideal, but at least this is better than nothing,” he said gently.
“Thank you,” Katya whispered, as the man moved to her side and hooked his arm under hers. He was close enough for her to feel his warm breath on her ears, and though she could smell death on him, she found she was more grateful to have someone to lean on as he began to lead her away from the alley.
Around them, Imperial Guards were surrounding the square, shouting demands to the onlookers, and those in the houses and stores above the corner. Many rushed past Katya and her guardian, who bent low to avoid their frantic action. It was awkward skating around on the salted cobblestones, a far cry from the smooth face of a frozen river, and Katya relied heavily on the hands under her arms.
They traversed several blocks until the frenzy of the massacre was far behind. The man pulled Katya across to the top of the bridge, leaning her against the brick wall at the top. From within his jacket, he pulled a roll of newspaper out with deliberate delicacy and set it tenderly on the wall next to her.
The man turned to see a woman rushing across the bridge towards them, her face shining with glee. She threw her arms around him, kissing him twice on each cheek. He spun her around, her red scarf trailing behind her, kissing her back.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” the woman said, her voice an eerie cold that belied the joy in her eyes. “Ignaty?”
The man called Ivan put the woman back on her feet and shook his head, “He’s gone, nothing left. I checked. I’m sorry, Sophia.”
Sophie cupped his face between her hands. “We shall honor him,” she whispered hoarsely, as if to a lover. Ivan breathed in with her, the warm breath between them painting portraits in the air. “Now that we have dealt our blow, freedom is ours.”
Katya stared at the couple before her. Something was wrong. She could feel it in her body as if she were drowning above ground. The way Ivan talked — the way this woman talked — they spoke as if death were something passionate, something reverential. Whatever this was, whoever they were, Katya needed to leave. Now.
“Who’s this?” Sophia asked, her eyes darting past Ivan’s face as she found Katya leaning against the bridge.
“A girl,” Ivan shrugged, his back still to Katya. “My ticket out of there. No one was going to stop a man escorting a hobbling skater through the streets.”
Sophia hummed in approval, her gaze moving pointedly to the parcel wrapped in newspaper on the wall. Her eyes widened.
“Mhm,” Ivan mumbled. “Never had to throw it. When Timofy’s first bomb missed the carriage, I thought I was going to have to use it, but Ignaty was smart. Waited until Alexander stepped out before throwing his. Tore the bastard apart. I know, I was there to load his corpse onto the carriage.”
He laughed. “Much good it will do him.”
Katya gasped as she understood what she was hearing. The red scarf. Sophia’s red scarf. She had seen it — moments before the first blast.
“It…it was you!” she blurted gracelessly, “you…you killed the Tzar!”
Ivan turned, a cruel grin on his face, and Sophia laughed. It was a low trill of a thing, and Katya thought she had never heard something so vile in her life.
“Does that shock you, girl?” Sophia said, advancing slowly on Katya. “Does death shock you? For I am death’s dealer. I take a death, and make it mean something.”
Katya felt her bones rattle beneath her skin, as if she had swallowed thunder.
“What is your life, hm?” Sophia asked cooly, “Skating beneath bridges, going home to a husband who could care less if you don’t come back? I could take your life and deal you a new hand. I could make your life worth something.”
She traced her fingers across Katya’s bruised chin and down her neck.
“That is what we did today, little bird,” Sophia murmured, settling her palms across Katya’s chest. “We made his life worth something. I gave him the only honor he shall ever have: death, with a purpose. For our freedom. For yours. But alas, you shall never taste it.”
Then Sophia shoved Katya, who toppled across the wall and plummeted to the ice below. Katya’s last thought, the moment before Death took her, was that perhaps she hadn’t learned how to fall properly after all.