The Snow Palace of Count Orlov
Three years earlier…
Anna ran through the palace corridors, her breath coming in quick, painful gasps, her heart pounding. Behind her, the rumbling growl of the
wolfhound became more menacing as he grew nearer, closing in on her with every stride.
“Niet! Please! Stop!”
The marble floors were slippery beneath her feet and as she rounded the corner by the grand ballroom, Anna found herself sliding out of control.
Her shoulder glanced hard into the corner of a gigantic oil painting of her father, Count Orlov,mounted on horseback and brandishing a sabre,
and tilted it dangerously to one side.
The hound lost his balance on the corner too. As she pelted away, Anna heard the thin screech of his claws as he scrambled frantically to get a foothold,
paws skidding across the glassy surface. Then he was up and running again, gaining on her once more. Anna threw a look back over her shoulder
and the choking pain in her chest made it impossible to run any more.
She was simply laughing too hard.
She collapsed forward, her hands on her knees, trying to catch her breath and giggling madly. “Wait,Igor…”
The puppy did not stop. Delighted to have bested her, he made a dramatic leap into the air and came crashing down on top of his mistress.
“Igor!” Anna shrieked as she went down in a heap on the floor, the skirts of her silk gown entangling them both. She rolled on to her back
with the borzoi on top of her. Igor was still playgrowling and refusing to give up the game, making darting lunges at her face as she fended him off.
“Igor, niet!” Anna grappled the snarling bundle of fluff out from the folds of her gown and held him aloft in both hands so that he was dangling
above her. Suspended in mid-air, Igor wriggled and squirmed, his little legs waving about wildly, his mouth wide open in a toothy grin. “You are so
fearsome!” Anna teased him. “Oh, but I am terrified of you, such a big powerful wolfhound you are,Igor!”
Igor swooped down and his pink, wet tongue slushed over Anna’s cheek. “Ick! Doggy breath!”
She screwed up her face in revulsion. “Come on, Igor! Be a good borzoi now!”
Borzoi – the word meant “swift”. Anna’s father, Count Orlov, had given this name to his hounds because, as he often boasted, “they are the fastest
in all of Russia”.
In the royal court of Empress Catherine they praised Count Orlov as an “alchemist of nature”.
He was a magician, the master of the dark art of manipulating bloodlines to create strange and fantastical new beasts.
To Anna, who had grown up at Khrenovsky, their palace estate, surrounded by her father’s “living experiments”, it seemed commonplace to share her
home with a menagerie of rare and exotic animals.
It felt perfectly natural that a pair of Amur leopards in black velvet collars roamed the palace halls, although Katia, the head of housekeeping, was less than impressed when they clambered all over the velvet chaise longues in the drawing room.
The cooks too, were not so happy that a family of cheeky long-tailed squirrels had taken up residence in the kitchen and would leave half-gnawed loaves of bread and nibbled apples in their wake.
Count Orlov gave the animals free rein and no room in the palace was sacred. The chandeliers in the grand ballroom were alive with the beating wings of the butterflies who clustered around the crystals.
Pythons lazed in the bathtubs and refused to budge.When Anna entered the drawing room for breakfast the air would be filled with green-throated parakeets,thrashing the air with vermilion wings.
There were a few creatures that the Count considered too large or too wild to dwell inside the palace walls, and these were housed outdoors.
Leading away from the grand western entrance of the palace there was a winding maze of topiary that led across the lawns to a series of elaborate gilt cages. Row upon row of these golden prisons housed animals gathered from all over Russia and the lands beyond. Two enormous Siberian bears, captured to be a mating pair, occupied one of the largest cages.
Anna thought them a sadly ill-suited couple. The male was much older and more careworn than his mate, with a tattered coat and chunks ripped from
his ears. He had a permanent scowl on his face and lumbered about his cage as if he was always spoiling for a fight. The female was much smaller and younger, and had glorious rich, dark brown fur. Her muzzle wrinkled when she growled, giving her a sweet expression, and her dark cherry eyes stared wistfully out through the bars, as if she were desperate to escape both captivity and her arranged marriage.
In the golden cage beside the bears, silver foxes made themselves invisible during the day. Lurking underground in their burrow, they would emerge at nightfall to snap and snarl at each other over chopped-up chunks of meat that Anna had tossed into their cage, crunching the bones with their
The beautiful musk deer who lived in the cage next door would shrink back as the foxes growled over their supper. Wide-eyed, with soft taupe fur, they seemed the most gentle of all the creatures in the menagerie, but they had needle teeth that protruded like vampires’ fangs from their velvet muzzles.
The deer did not bite, but the little minks who scurried about in their long, low cage were savage.
Their teeth, tiny and white, were as sharp as knives.
“You will lose your fingers if you are not careful,” Vasily the groom would warn Anna when he found her stroking the baby minks through the grille of their cage.
Vasily came up from the stables once a day to fill the cages with straw. He was different from the rest of the serfs in Count Orlov’s service. A head taller than any other man at the stables, he was broadshouldered and strong. And while the other serfs had the appearance of boiled potatoes, Anna thought Vasily handsome, with his thick russet hair, high cheekbones and deep, brooding eyes.
Sullen and serious, Vasily did not smile easily, and Anna liked to set herself the challenge of making him laugh.
“I have taught the mink a new trick!” she would exclaim whenever he arrived with the straw for the cages. “Come and see!” The mink were untameable and their “tricks” mostly involved standing on their hind legs and nipping food from Anna’s fingers, which only made Vasily beg her to stop.
“They will not hurt me,” Anna would laugh at him. She had no fear of any of the animals. Any…except the timber wolves. There was something in
the way they glowered at her, shoulders hunched in menace as they paced the perimeter of their gilt cage, jaws hanging open, white teeth glistening. It
was as if they were just waiting for the bars to part, biding their time until they could devour her.
Once, her brother Ivan had dared her to go inside their cage. She had refused at first, but Ivan was good at bullying her into doing things she shouldn’t.
He was three years older than Anna and in their lonely palace in the wilderness he was her only playmate.
“This is the game,” he told her. “You walk in, and I will lock the gate behind you and then I count to ten and let you out again.”
Anna looked at the wolves. They were pacing the bars, their hackles raised.
“I don’t want to,” she said.
“I knew you were a coward,” Ivan said.
“I’m not a coward,” Anna insisted.
“Then do it!”
Anna pushed the fear down into her belly and stepped closer to the cage.
Ivan kept goading her. “Pathetic baby sister!” he gloated. “You need to show them you are not afraid.”
The wolf pack were waiting, pacing and watching her, glassy-eyed and panting, jaws open in anticipation. Anna didn’t want to get any closer,
but Ivan kept taunting her.
“Come on, open the door and get in the cage.
What are you scared of ? They will not bite…”
Anna stepped forward and shut her eyes tight as she stretched out her hand to grasp the cage door.
She began to swing the door back and as she did so the largest wolf lunged for her. He threw himself at the bars of the gate, shoulder-barging it with his full weight, trying to force his way through. He would have succeeded, if it were not for the giant of a man who stepped between the girl and the
wolf. He thrust the gate shut and yanked Anna fiercely by the shoulder so that she was thrown back out of danger.
Anna found herself sprawled on the ground, panting and looking up at her father, who towered over her like a monster. His face was crimson with
rage, except for the thin white line of the scar that ran from his temple to his chin. Le Balafre – it was his nickname in the royal court, where they whispered it in French – Scarface.
“Idiot child! What were you thinking?”
“I wasn’t… Ivan dared me to do it!” Anna blurted out the words and instantly regretted them. Her brother had ways of making her pay if she told on him.
Count Orlov turned to his son. “It was a game,” Ivan said airily. “We were only playing.”
Many years later, Anna would look back on this moment and remember the sickening smile that had played on Ivan’s lips when he spoke.
“He hates me,” Anna complained to her mother,later that day.
Anna was sitting cross-legged on a velvet cushion, watching with total absorption as her mother, the Countess, arranged her potions in front of the mirror to begin her toilette.
“He doesn’t hate you, Anna,” the Countess replied, staring into the mirror and picking up a powder puff, buffing the powder into the alabaster skin of her décolletage. “He is envious, that is all. You have a way with animals, and a natural charm. Your brother on the other hand…” the Countess hesitated. “… Ivan is not so blessed as you.”
Countess Orlov tapped her fingertip into a tiny pot of rouge and sucked in her cheeks to dab it on, then used the same crimson stain to paint in the
cupid’s bow of her lips. With a kohl pencil, she defined the arch of her brows. Finally, with the very tip of the pencil, she added a black dot like a
punctuation mark above her top lip.
“Why are you doing that?” Anna asked.
“It is the fashion in Versailles to have a beauty spot,” the Countess replied. Her gaze fixed on Anna’s eyes reflected in the mirror. “And the Empress likes anything that is French.”
“Why does she want us to copy the French? We are Russians.”
The Countess put down the kohl pencil and turned to her daughter. “But Empress Catherine is not true Russian, is she? Our Empress was born
German. Yet she speaks French at court because that is the language of sophistication and culture.”
Anna frowned. “Why don’t we speak our own language?”
“Only serfs speak Russian,” the Countess said.
“This is why you must pay attention to your studies with Clarise.”
Anna rolled her eyes at the mention of her tutor and the Countess cast her a stern look. “One day you will be old enough to join us for a dinner party
like the one we are having tonight and then you will need your very best French, oui?”
“Oui!” Anna giggled. It was so nice to see her mother like this, dressed up so beautifully, her eyes shining at the prospect of glamorous company.
Often at the Khrenovsky estate it felt as if they were n total isolation, so far away from the bustle of the city of Moscow and even further still from St
Petersburg, where her father devoted himself to life at court in the service of the Empress.
Tonight’s dinner was a farewell to her father who was about to depart once more for St Petersburg.
The meal would be served in the grand dining room and all the nobles from the neighbouring estates had been invited. Anna had watched with fascination as endless bouquets of lily of the valley and white tulips
were carried upstairs by the housemaids. Their sweet and sickly aroma now filled the bedchambers of the palace while downstairs tea roses in delicate shades of peach and cream tumbled out of ivy-clad urns.
In the grand marble hallways, young serving boys with rags tied to the soles of their feet swept through the halls as if they were ice-skating, using their
gliding movements to buff the floors until they gleamed.
A hunting party had been sent out the day before and had returned with wild boar and deer. In the kitchens the cooks set about preparing the meat,
pots and pans banging and fires roaring as they busily chopped beetroots and scoured potatoes for the banquet.
The peacocks, who often roamed the corridors, had been banished outdoors by Katia, the head maid, because they made too much mess. But the Amur leopards still had the run of the place and presently they were lounging on the Countess’s bed as Anna stroked their velvety fur.
The Countess lifted up a silver powdered wig and swept back her luxurious blonde hair under the elaborately stacked hairpiece.
“What do you think, milochka?” She poked at the wig, repositioning it on top of her beautiful blonde tresses. “Do I look pretty?”
“It’s grey, Mama,” Anna replied. “It makes you look old.”
The Countess’s smile disappeared for a moment but then she regained her composure. “Powdered wigs are very Parisian. You do not understand
fashion yet, my little one,” she said sweetly.
From a dark blue box on the dressing table the Countess picked out a pair of black diamond earrings, their tiered crystals glistening like miniature
chandeliers. She put aside the earrings and then picked up the box that had been stacked beneath.
Anna’s heart leapt. She rose from her velvet cushion and came over to stand at her mother’s shoulder.
“Can I open it for you?”
The Countess smiled. “Of course.”
Inside, nestled against silver silk, was a priceless necklace. The black diamond, attached to a silver filigree chain, draped across the cloth like a
glittering teardrop, the size of a walnut. Round the brilliant-cut gemstone a setting of smaller, white diamonds created a halo that contrasted its rare
“It is so beautiful,” Anna breathed. “Where did it come from?”
She had heard this story a million times, but she still wanted to hear it once more.
“It was given to me by my mother,” the Countess said. “And to her by my grandmother. It is a family heirloom, passed down from generation to generation.
One day, milochka, I will give it to you.”
The Countess fixed the clasp on her earrings and looked at herself admiringly in the mirror. Then she reached out her milk-white fingers to grasp the silver chain and lift the necklace from its case. She was about to lift it up when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in,” called Anna’s mother.
“Excuse me, Countess?” Katia, the head maid, quietly entered the bedchamber.
“Yes, Katia? What is it?”
“There is a problem in the dining room. We have Count Tolstoy seated next to Count Bobrinsky…”
The Countess stood up. “That will not do at all! They cannot stand each other!” She made her way
briskly to the door. “You had better show me what can be done. Quickly now, Katia!” And with that, the two women left the room.
Anna waited until their footsteps had receded down the corridor and then she sat herself down at the Countess’s dressing table.
She twisted up her dark blonde hair and secured it in a loose bun on top of her head, revealing the pale ivory skin beneath, just like her mother’s.
As the diamond teardrop fell against her breastbone, Anna admired its darkness. It contrasted against the whiteness of her skin, the light glowing
from inside the stone as if it were on fire. For a moment she was lost in its beauty, and then she raised her eyes to see her reflection. But the eyes
that returned Anna’s gaze were not her own. There was a girl looking back at her from the mirror who Anna had never seen before.
The girl in the mirror was blonde too, her ice-white hair twisted in a braid on top of her head, her alabaster skin glimmering as if it had been
dusted with stars. She wore a glittering costume that shone like a star, covered with silver spangles. She was leaning into the mirror and painting on makeup, lining her lips with a brilliant scarlet.
Anna stared at the girl. And, holding Anna’s gaze, the girl in the mirror smiled right back at her! Then she smacked her red lips together and adjusted her glittering costume, wriggling the straps so that her silver spangles shimmied. Then the ice-white blonde reached out to the dresser in front of her and lifted a black diamond necklace to her throat. It was identical to Anna’s. They were both wearing the same necklace!
Anna reached out her hand to the mirror glass.
The girl smiled again and then she stood up. There were voices in the distance calling out her name:
Valentina, Valentina, it is time…