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Alex spent a long time preparing for this moment.
Seven years working up the courage. Two weeks crafting the proposal. Four days agonizing over the perfect ring. An hour in the garden, cutting Kristiina’s favorite flowers.
Everything had to be perfect, because that’s what she was to him.
But now that he was down on one knee, holding the diamond ring to her delicate finger, the words he’d put so much thought into evaporated from his tongue.
The horrors trapped inside his brain operated to their own rhythm, popping up when they were least expected, triggered by the most banal of memories.
The red sun sinking below the mountains was the exact shade of the blood that seeped from his father’s head; the lavender stalks he’d cut for Kristiina triggered a scent memory of his mother’s perfume the last time she hugged him.
Even the ring held poignant memories; the diamond one of the jewels entrusted to Alex moments before his family was slaughtered.
A color, a scent, a family heirloom.
Alone they were harmless, but combined they were dragging him back to the cataclysmic violence.
Alex blurted out a hurried “Marry me.” He saw Kristiina’s mouth open in reply, but he could no longer hear her voice.
He was already back there.
“Package for you,” Anna said, handing Alex a small, rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper. “And Mama, there’s a letter here for you, too. It’s from Rasputin.”
Alex cringed. His mother might think Rasputin the most talented physician in Russia, but to Alex, who had to endure the man’s vile hemophilia treatments that included leeches, tourniquets, nasty potions, transfusions and even, on occasion, the drinking of blood, Rasputin’s name was synonymous with pain.
They were supposed to cure Alex, to stop the pain of bleeding into muscles and joints. More often than not, it was the treatments themselves that confined Alex to bed for days on end.
“You’ll die if I don’t do this,” Rasputin would say as Alex’s parents held him down.
Some days, Alex would have preferred death.
“Is everything okay?” Anna asked, watching Mama’s eyes fly across the page, and her face blanch milk-white.
But Alex had already lost interest, caring only about the package clutched in his hands.
He tore the paper, his heart galloping when he spied the treasure within; gold lettering spelling out Peter and Wendy.
A smiling boy sat on top of a dragon playing the flute, while two mermaids climbed up the dragon’s side, reaching for Peter. Along the spine of the book was a nefarious pirate with a hook for a hand.
“Take Alexei and go play,” Mama said.
Alex let out a wild whoop; glad he could get started on the book right away.
However, Anna didn’t share his glee.
At seventeen, she thought herself too mature to entertain her little brother.
Later that afternoon, when Alex wandered down to the basement, he overheard his mother ordering the servants to knock holes in the walls. He didn’t give it much thought. She often devoted to renovation projects, especially since they’d been forced to move out of the palace into such an austere villa.
Yet, a few days later, when Alex reentered the basement to hide from Anna, he discovered his mother stashing food and water inside the walls – and most puzzling of all, great piles of jewels and family heirlooms.
“Mama, what are you doing?”
“Hush, Alexei. Go back upstairs. Promise me you won’t come back down here,” she said, “and don’t tell anyone what you saw.”
Alex thought it an odd thing to ask, but nodded his head. What did he know of adult affairs?