Cathryn Constable: The Wolf Princess Extra Chapter

The Tower                                                  <Back to Extras

Behind a double-locked door in a tower room of the desolate Volkonsky Winter Palace, a woman sat at a paper-strewn desk, alone. It was night time, the depths of winter and a snow storm raged beyond the cracked windows. Screaming in defiance at the palace, the vicious wind broke through the shutters and blew a vertiginous stack of stolen letters onto the floor. The woman watched the pages fly up like startled birds in the uncouth draught, but did nothing to stop them. Let them go. They were of no use to her, anyway. Her body was draped in an extravagant fur, so she was impervious to the cold of the Russian winter. What she did feel, and so keenly, so sharply that sometimes her breathing became ragged, was something far more deadly. Defeat. What would happen if... Nyet! She shook her head to rid herself of the thought, and, staring at the second hand of a gilt clock under a glass dome, managed to focus only on the rigid movement of the tiny arrow as it jerked between the numbers. But the thought could not be banished so easily and it crept back into her mind, as she knew it would. She had been at the palace for eight, long, months already and still she was outside the secret. A knock at the door. A man’s voice, ‘Princess?’
Ivan spoke in English, as she had instructed him to; a necessary precaution so that the foolish servants, just a woman and her two, staring, dirty, children, would not understand. She frowned in frustration as the voice said, ‘It is late, Princess. I have brought you coffee.’
‘Leave it on the floor!’ she snapped. She knew he wanted her to unlock the door and thank him with a smile. Fool! As if she had time. She allowed her frustration to get the better of her and she kicked the desk in irritation. She watched the second hand on the clock move round and counted... Now he would be gone. She stood up and moved to the door, listening at the crack and then turned the key, gently, slowly, not wanting him to hear the lock click and turn round.
She looked down the circular stairs, lit only by candles, their flames jerking in the sudden draught; she could see his white jacket moving through the gloom. He started to turn his head, but she bent down quickly, avoiding his gaze, picked up the tray and shut the door. She balanced it on a pile of maps and sea charts laid out on the faded velvet of a gilt sofa and deftly locked the door again. She sighed. Perhaps Ivan was right. It was late. She needed coffee to get through the night. She poured the strong, black liquid into a cracked, though beautiful, painted cup and sipped it. Yes. The coffee would help her carry on with her work tonight. She caught her reflection in the mirror, and smiled slowly. She had changed in the time she had been at the palace. She wore her hair differently: a thick plait of heavy gold hair, pulled off her remarkable face and wound in a coil at the nape of her neck. It amused her to wear it like this. It made her look stern, imperious... She stifled a laugh as she thought that the General would hardly recognise her. And, she noticed, she was getting more used to wearing the clothes ordered from Paris with a greater ease and poise. But then, if you are a princess... the first Volkonsky to return to the family estate in almost a century, you are required to look a certain way. It is expected. It is your duty.
She put her cup down, revived, as the lights trembled and flicked off for a second. The electricity supply to the tower room, brought by a crazed tangle of cables and wires pinned around the door, was intermittent at best. The winter storms treated the lights like candles, extinguishing them for minutes at a time. The woman was never fazed by such interruptions: the plunge into darkness gave her a delicious jolt, like vertigo, and focussed her mind. The secret. Her eyes scanned the stacks of papers, maps, charts, in piles around the room. She was looking for something that had been lost many years before. She shook her head and flared her nostrils in disdain. It was a beautiful, haughty expression, and might have made Ivan cry out at the perfection of it, but no one was there to witness it. Nothing was ever lost! Objects didn’t just disappear into thin air! Was she as gullible as a child at a magician’s show? She must not allow the secret to get the better of her! She was a scientist. Years of rigorous training proved to her that every particle of matter left a trail if you were prepared to look for it. She was tracing the trails of extremely precious particles, it was true, but they behaved no differently. She pinched the bridge of her nose. She was close to them, she knew. So close, that surely, if she just reached out her hand into the darkness, she could pluck them from behind a cracked oil painting or hook them out of a secret drawer. The lights came back on. She straightened up, drew the fur a little closer around her throat and swept the room once more with a more scientific gaze. She had, in a rare moment of sentimentality, been bewitched by the romance of this circular room, stacked with worm eaten furniture and portraits of dead princes. After her one-roomed flat in a decaying apartment block at the very edge of St Petersburg, a room like this had appealed to her sense of entitlement about the life she would soon, if everything went to plan, inherit. But that mood did not last. As her time here had dragged on she had become indifferent to the palace. She no longer went up to the floor above to look at the abandoned observatory... she had no time for stars. The gymnasium below, filled with dusty fencing equipment remained locked. The leather breastplates with the skin dried and cracked would never be worn and the sabres, whose blades had once flashed under the light of chandeliers, would stay as rusty slivers on the wall. The discarded mesh masks that had made the young princely swordsmen look like elegant bee keepers, were still in a dirty, dusty heap on the floor. She had no use for them. The wolves howled. Their cry curled through the storm from their compound on the other side of the palace. That stupid servant boy, Dmitri, the one who looked at her with such cold defiance in his eyes, had been feeding them and now they would not leave the palace confines. She hated them. Their cries tormented her, they stalked her, even in her dreams. The white wolves of the Volkonskys. She should have had them shot the moment she arrived. But something, and she cursed herself for her irrationality, stopped her. She had a feeling that if she killed even one of them, she would not live. She shivered. It was stupid superstition, that was all. But why did the thought of shooting even one of those animals fill her with terror?
Bending over the papers on her desk, she forced herself to concentrate. She would not think of the wolves. She would not think of the Volkonskys, the poor, tragic fools, who spent millions of roubles to build this now forgotten Winter pleasure palace. She would think of the very thing that had made the Volkonskys, the great, grand, forgotten Volkonskys, what they were... Strip away the superstions, the stories, the tragedy, the thing that made the woman’s pulse quicken was their wealth. The Volkonskys had once been rich... rich in a way that was scarcely believable. All of it was gone, now, of course. The Revolution a century ago had seen to that. But there was something remained, she was sure, other than this dilapidated palace...
A rope of diamonds, which, it was boasted, was long enough to hang a man... that was what she was looking for. They were here, in the palace, somewhere. All the evidence she had amassed, spending months bribing access to government documents, annotating caches of stolen letters, photographing secret correspondence, pointed to the fact, yes, she would use the word ‘fact’, that the Volkonsky diamonds were still in the palace. These diamonds, a fantastically long string of exquisite, candle-light cut, stones, that the rest of the world had forgotten or had believed lost, she had traced with the sort of persistence that compels someone drowning to breathe. They had not been lost. They had been hidden. Princess Sofya Volkonskaya had not taken the diamonds with her when she was forced to leave the palace with her child. She was dead now. The child, too. But had the secret of the diamonds’ hiding place died with her? As the lights teetered on the brink of going out, something caught her eye in the pile of papers that had blown onto the floor. Just before the room was plunged into darkness, she bent down and grasped the paper. In the darkness, the seconds played with her, moving languorously, making her heart beat faster. It could not be!
At last! The light!
In her hand, she saw a small piece of paper. Written very faintly, in pencil, were a name and a date. She stared at the two words... Was it possible? Those two groups of shapes on the paper could ruin everything she had worked so hard to achieve. There was a child, now.
She strode towards a sea chart, traced her finger along the shipping lane. Was it possible that the woods, the snow, the cold had not taken the life of the child, that he had survived and lived and escaped?
This name changed everything. And if the General knew? She shivered. Her time was running out.
Her Serene Highness, Anna Feodorovna Volkonskaya, struck a match, the flame leaping in the draught and put it to the corner of the stolen paper. The greedy flame swallowed the writing. The words were gone. But not the information.
She must work quickly.
She must form a plan. As she knew, as she had told herself all winter long, nothing is ever ‘lost’. If even a rope of diamonds leaves a trail... How much more... a child? © Cathryn Constable 2012