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Sponsor Sophia Gallegos has brought her harrowing retelling of the July 16, 1918 overthrow of the last Tsar of Russia. In Mashka: the Unlocked Secrets of an Imprisoned Teenage Royal, she turns her narrative eye to the Tsar's middle child, Maria Nikolaevna.

Just nineteen when the revolution came, her father was taken into custody and the family was sent to a residential prison ruled by the vengeful Ural Soviet. Inside the Ipatiev House, the family struggles to adapt, and survive.

Gallegos has captured the last hours of the infamous family through the eyes of Maria, casting a narrative, fictional light on mysterious events that have been speculated on for a century.

Read the full first chapter below from this engaging story, and click through to purchase. What a great time to find an thrilling story to engage with.


Chapter 1 - June 30, 1918 - O.T.M.A.

Each of us had a favorite.

It began with O as she began to show a shy liking for Pavel, the young Lieutenant from Papa’s ship, the Standardt. When she called him by a pet name – Shurik - as the two of them pasted Anastasia’s best photographs into our albums, we exchanged knowing smiles. As firstborn, she led the way in all things and though Pavel was not tall or even very handsome and his shy smile seemed to be swallowed up by a somewhat unfortunate chin, we knew this must be it. He was only a naval officer but Pavel had a particular way of speaking – mostly softly spoken questions – that was at once amusing and endearing. What else could it be but love? My sisters and I whispered our agreement that his manner reminded us a lot of Papa. And it explains how O fell so deeply. Olga is the oldest of my three sisters - named after our favorite aunt. I took up the habit of calling her O after she took up the bright idea to sign our thank-you notes as “OTMA” – the first letter of each of our names: Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

Next, Tatiana - second oldest and most practical – settled her attention on Alex Dashkev – an officer from the Tsar’s Escort and a frequent visitor to our home in Tsarkoe. Obviously, his skill at tennis – our favorite outdoor pastime– was the explanation in this case. With Mama’s will to dominate tamed by her own measure of reason, Tatiana beat all of us in successive sets but I secretly wondered if Alex didn’t let her win because she was the Emperor’s daughter. No matter - such prudence would’ve scored evermore points with Tatiana.

Kolya D was my favorite – my first romantic crush. Nastia referred to him as “fat”. In truth, Kolya was a favorite of our whole family. But until fate brought me to Ivan, I had not fallen in love as capably as my sister, Olga. After arriving here in wretched Ekaterinburg, it seemed unlikely I ever would.

Anastasia – we call her Nastia - preferred Vitya Z, a wit who loved mischief and ribaldry as much as she. As another member of the trusty Tsar’s escort and a frequent attendant to Aunt Olga’s parties, his chief talent was the ability to rush to Nastia’s defense when circumstances went sideways, which was often enough.

How I wish to God we had him with us now.

At this minute, everybody is anxious and fatigued by boredom and uncertainty. Mama, installed stiffly on the dusty sofa, becomes more imperious as the gloomy mood grows. Her chin is raised and her lips are pressed into some semblance of a smirk that proclaims her thoughts: ‘_exactly as foretold’_. Dr. Botkin gazes at her as if he has never seen her before. I’m not sure what that can mean but I know it cannot be good.

Outdoors, it’s raining again - everyone is busy writing letters and though I have enough inside my head to fill thousands of letters, I cannot sit still or bear to pick up a pen. No letters are getting through. We’ve not had a word from Lili or Anya in weeks and while the others scribble away, I wonder if they really believe their letters will be received, much less read. Out of sheer boredom, I’ve been reading some of the letters Nastia and I wrote to Papa when he was away from home at Army Headquarters in Mogilev. Though I’m glad he saved them, it seems incredible and I can hardly believe I am the same person who wrote those letters. Just a few months ago I had so little in my head - such childish concerns. In the last few months my education has been sorely extended and now I see things I never recognized before. Now it is perfectly clear we are at the war front with no weaponry to aid us – no one and nothing – except our own wits to rely upon. And now I understand exactly why our merry friends and favorite beaus like Kolya who was fortunate enough to return from war, was so altered. Our young men were so abysmally different from the hardy boys who proudly went away to fight for Russia that it was hard to believe they had not been replaced by imposters. War washed over all of us in relentless crashing waves, dissolving our identities – our lives, bit by bit.

The sound of water as it drips from the eaves, escaping in small torrents of mud, creates unbearable tension inside this cramped, stuffy house in the middle of the Urals. The smell of dampness pervades the air. My family is gathered in various corners of the drawing room and though all eyes seem to be averted from the water-stained wallpaper in this garishly decorated room, I’m unable to drag my eyes away from it. It is positively ugly. Someone should tear it all down and start over again.

Under such duress memories rise unbidden to torment me. Things that seemed unimportant at the time they occurred are now weighted with meaning. Realizations rise like

cream in the milk bottle and I cannot help myself from examining and savoring every drop. Many months ago, because Mama burned her letters, I burned my diary. Since then every single item of value, every person of worth has been taken from us. Nothing is left but the crowded thoughts in my head - and pen and paper. What else is there for me to do?

There is only one person I should write to: You.

If, by some lucky circumstance, this reaches you and you take the time to read it, then I’ve not wasted my effort. If not – well honestly, waste has lately been the predominant theme in life. Since the war began wagonloads of life and blood have been shed – so much precious time has been wasted that a meager bit of paper and ink cannot matter much.

Can the others feel the urgency pressing down? I hear alarm in Tatiana’s voice every time she goes to see the new Commandant and Papa can hardly look us in the eye anymore – those deeply earnest blue eyes used to be his most endearing feature. Even Nastia has been long at her prayers – a most unusual development.

And me? I find myself preoccupied with one thing only – living. Envisioning life with an adoring husband, a fat, gurgling baby, warm hands and feet in the winter and cool water and deep shade in the summer - is that reaching too far?

If it is, then I must use the time remaining to tell you – everything!

First, my name: Maria. Simple - like me. I am nineteen years old and have a father and a mother and three sisters and a brother but that’s where everything gets so complicated. As for me, I would hardly be considered complicated except that I happened to be born in the middle of a very complex family and then fell in love in the middle of a disastrous war. Also, I am named after my grandmother. You see, Mama and Granmama are old enemies.

Papa and Nastia are the center of my universe. Nothing is more unbearable than having Papa out of my sight. When Papa went away to Mogilev to fight the war, I begged him to take me with him. “Please, Papa – if you leave without me, I will jump onto the train as it pulls from the station.” He only smiled sadly - Papa almost never yields to threats.

On the other hand, Nastia is quite dependent upon me and can hardly bear to have me out of her sight while our brother Alexei hates to be left behind by Nastia. She is his favorite playmate, especially when he is bedridden. Nastia says that she and Alexei share a special understanding because they were both born in the current century. She claims they are the only members of our family with sufficiently modern minds. I was born in 1899. Isn’t it a terrible piece of luck to be born a girl and just six months short of the new century?

I prefer peaceful reading and crunchy biscuits on the deck of our yacht, the Standardt. while Nastia and Alexei prefer to explore grimy hiding places and testing new devices for hanging upside down. Nastia adores roller skating on the ship deck and Alexei relishes sledding down a staircase – they greet danger and excitement with open arms. Boredom is simply intolerable. If Alexei does not meet an early death, he and Nastia will drag us into the modern age.

Nastia has many talents and her genius for mimicry is without rival. She can hear a song on the gramophone only one time and then repeat it word for word, hitting each note without tremor– that is, until the tune becomes stuck in her head, like the needle on a gramophone record, then it all goes awry. It seems Nastia is never short of salty words. Once, during a lesson, the usually mild-mannered Professor Gibbes told her to “Shut up!” He and Mssr. Gilliard cannot condone her poor study habits and incorrigible talent for pranks. Yet both of our devoted tutors would never willingly abandon Nastia, for underneath it all she has a tremendous instinct and a sensitive soul.

When I left Tobolsk with Mama and Papa back in April to travel to this place, she wept for days. Please understand Nastia rarely cries – unless she has been caught committing a crime and will be punished for it.

I am not as intelligent as Olga or as talented at Tatiana nor as witty as Nastia but I must possess some special quality – though I can hardly say exactly what it is. This much I can say: only I was at Mama’s side during the night of drunken revolt and again on the night we crossed the Irtysh; only I was with Mama and Papa as our train pulled into Ekaterinburg to a waiting furious mob. My own sisters can hardly imagine the scenes I’ve witnessed and yet, only God knows the real meaning of those revelations.

I’m simple but I am not a fool. I’ve known most of my life that I am superfluous. Mssr Gilliard taught us that word. It means unnecessary - more than enough and this word fits me best. Mama and Papa already had two daughters – more than enough - when I came along but what they really desired – desperately needed - was a son. They prayed and tried again and again until they finally got their wish: a son and heir. Is it not remarkable that all our worst troubles began on the day they finally got what they wanted?

It’s all very complicated, you see. My beloved Ivan explained it with one sentence. I love him for many things but Ivan’s talent for being direct and his appreciation of simplicity set him apart from the rest of my life. He made clear, for the first time, the true nature of our predicament.

“.... if your parents had possessed any ability to anticipate consequences....”

Anger and futility sprang in tiny droplets of spit from his lips as he said it and I felt a warm blush spread across my face. O would’ve called me a traitor for hearing the words but I knew it myself as I felt their ring of truth in the pit of my stomach.