The warped windows into the courtyard distorted—but did not conceal—the lines of Bolsheviks standing at attention and waiting. Our chickens pecked at their valenki boots, tearing off bits of grey felt. The Bolsheviks didn't even blink. There had to be over a hundred of them! Why so many?
Papa strode toward the dark-eyed man and extended a hand of greeting. "Welcome to Tobolsk, Commandant."
The commandant did not shake it but instead announced in a loud voice, "I am Yakov Yurovsky. By order of Lenin's Central Committee, the Romanov family is to be relocated."
Relocated? Could it be that they were going to send us home? We'd been holed up in this cramped house for a year, unable to enter town or breathe more than a few hours of fresh air every day. I longed to be free in the forests again, picking opyata mushrooms, growing a life . . . dabbling in spells.
I cupped the small flare of hope in my palms and waited for more explanation.
Papa lowered his unshaken hand and asked calmly, "Where?"
"That is to be decided." Yurovsky's flat monotone caused the spark of hope simmering against my skin to wither.
"When?" Papa asked.
Mamma sat at the edge of the room wrapped in thick blankets and a steely expression despite her own illness. She straightened in her chair. "But our son is too ill to travel."
"I am ordered to remove the former tsar without delay." Yurovsky clipped his heels, sending mud from his boots to the entry rug. "The rest of the family is not my concern."
I gasped and it echoed across the room until it turned Yurovsky's gaze toward me. He would take Papa without us? Our only solace during this time of exile had been our union. Our strength as a family. The bonds of our Romanov blood keeping us from despair.
Please. Please no.
Papa lifted his chin, and the guards in the room who had come to respect him all seemed to stand taller. He resembled a tsar again. "I will not be separated from my family."
"Then you will be taken by force." Yurovsky did not need to gesture to the Bolsheviks outside. We were outnumbered. "You may bring traveling companions, but we will leave by morning. The rest of your family will follow once the boy is . . . well." He almost said dead. That word hung heavier in the room than any other.
Leave. Tomorrow. By force.
Yurovsky's words were final. My control slipped through my fingers, threatening to break out in the form of a scream. They couldn't separate us! Why? Why must they take Papa away so urgently? And without telling us 'where'?
Yurovsky turned on his heel and addressed three Bolshevik soldiers. "Oversee the packing."
There was no search. I'd burned my diaries for nothing. Instead they were tearing us apart. With Alexei ill and Mamma's health declining . . . this might be the last time we were all together.
Perhaps Papa sensed my rising outrage, because he took my arm and steered me away. "Come, Nastya."
"They cannot separate us," I hissed as we left the Bolsheviks behind. "You cannot let them!"
"This is not the time to resist."
"But where? Where are they sending you?"
"Probably to Moscow for trial."
My throat burned hotter than the scorched pages of my diaries. "Curse those Bolsheviks. I ought to poke holes in the soles of all their boots!"
A smile entered Papa's voice, hidden by his mustache. "That is why you must stay, Nastya. To cheer everyone up with your impish mischief."
I ground to a halt. "I am to stay?" He'd made up his mind already?
"There are things I need you to do here—"
"Nikolai . . ." Mamma caught up to us, her composure held together by only the clasp of her brittle fingers on her worn handkerchief. Papa went to her.
I stomped away from them, from the pain, leaving him to make the necessary arrangements and decisions he needed to focus on. None of which involved stitching up the gash in my heart.
But I wasn't the only one with a gaping wound inside. We would all have to carry this pain....