The Tsarina's Legacy: A Novel

The Tsarina's Legacy: A Novel

by Jennifer Laam

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250068798
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 1,336,605
Product dimensions: 8.20(w) x 5.50(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

JENNIFER LAAM is the author of The Secret Daughter of the Tsar and The Tsarina's Legacy. She earned her master's degree in History from Oakland University in Michigan and her bachelor's degree from the University of the Pacific in Stockton, CA. She has lived in Los Angeles and the suburbs of Detroit, traveled in Russia and Europe, and worked in education and non-profit development. She currently resides in Northern California.

Read an Excerpt

The Tsarina's Legacy


By Jennifer Laam

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Laam
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7734-4


CHAPTER 1

THE WINTER PALACE MARCH 1791


The sharp smell assaulted his senses immediately. Fortunately, Grisha Potemkin had been warned in advance. He tucked his scroll tighter underneath his arm and withdrew a lavender-scented handkerchief from his pocket. The tight breeches and heavy fabric of his European waistcoat felt thick and burdensome against his bloated stomach. Serving in the south, in his own military encampments, he had grown accustomed to silk robes and loose trousers.

He settled next to a stout cadet in an ill-fitting uniform. The young man gave him a sideways glance and edged slowly away, mopping his broad forehead with a mottled handkerchief. No matter. The opinions of Catherine's courtiers scarcely fazed him anymore. Seventeen years had passed since he left the monastery and returned to this world. He'd long since ceased to care what anyone thought.

Except Catherine. Always Catherine.

Grisha surveyed the crowded salon with his one good eye. Many of the men fidgeted and inched closer to the walls. A few appeared near to forty, while most looked straight out of the Cadet Corps. Catherine had always surrounded herself with youth. Even the chefs in the kitchen were rosy and slim, their youthful metabolisms impervious to decadent preparations. Amid the fresh faces, Grisha spotted a few men even older than him, bodies stiff in formal uniforms, rusting medals and frayed sashes adorning their fragile chests.

An elderly brigadier, face sun lined and flecked with brown spots, hobbled to a silver samovar and struggled to fill a delicate china cup with hot water.

"Not too strong this time." Catherine's newest favorite, Platon Alexandrovich Zubov, called. He reclined lazily on a richly upholstered chaise longue, long limbs sprawled, nibbling on a wedge of brie. "And don't forget my pot of raspberry jam. Mishka adores it. Let's try to keep him happy. We don't want another accident."

Zubov waved at his pet monkey, its clever face surrounded by a cream-colored ruff of fur. The creature's urine clouded the plush rug, one of many gifts Grisha had presented to Catherine at the close of the first war with the Turks. The rug was woodland green and woven with interlacing curlicues and darkly blossoming roses, a pattern modeled after a concubine's boudoir in Topkapi Palace. He remembered Catherine's breath, warm and gentle in his ear, when she thanked him. It is as I said. You were meant to be a man of this world.

The brigadier passed, attempting to balance Zubov's tea and jam in each hand. Tucking his scroll in place under his arm, Grisha extended his hand to take the pot of jam. The old man signaled his gratitude with a weary smile.

Zubov's monkey assessed the room, smacking his lips, small eyes glittering. Grisha flexed his hand and tried not to shudder. He had seen that look before, in the eyes of one of his officers while choosing a man to execute, to break the will of the other prisoners.

At last, the monkey chirped and bounded over to a courtier cringing near the back exit. The creature plucked the freshly powdered silver wig from the man's head and twirled it in his hand, as though preparing for some exotic ball game. He hoisted the wig up in the air, where it caught on the chain of a crystal chandelier.

Sputters of nervous laughter erupted from the corners of the room. Zubov choked on his cheese and coughed, handsome features distorted as he worked the food down his throat and laughed. He took a long swallow of wine. "Priceless! Priceless!"

The men in the room managed a few more chortles. Even the courtier who'd lost his wig tried to smile at his ruined hairpiece. Silver powder scattered on the dark green carpet below.

The monkey scampered up Zubov's arm and hopped onto his shoulder. Zubov ran his hand through the creature's luxuriant fur. Grisha escorted the old man to Zubov's side table, where he placed the pot of jam next to the tea.

"Prince Potemkin!" Zubov cried, catching Grisha's eye. "When did you sneak in?"

The cadet who had been standing next to Grisha suddenly straightened his back. Grisha realized the young man hadn't recognized him at first.

"Your Most Serene Highness," Zubov intoned. "Field Marshal! Grand Admiral of the Black Sea! Have I learned your titles correctly? It seems the empress enjoys frequently adding to their number." He fluttered his large hands at Grisha's medallions and ribbons. "My brain simply cannot keep pace."

"Prince of Tauride," the cadet told Zubov helpfully, using the ancient name for the Crimea.

Zubov glared at the cadet but kept his voice merry, still reclining as though he hadn't a care in this world. "We've been expecting you, Prince. What kept you?" He cocked an eyebrow imperiously. "Fucking one of your officers' wives again?"

Low laughter filled the room, this time genuine.

Grisha needed to appear as though he didn't care — only the laughter had grown so loud he feared Catherine might hear. He felt sure she'd taken to her neighboring study, quill in hand, scribbling her correspondence, one ear inclined to the door for signs of unrest.

But he had no intention of being driven away by Zubov's hollow attempts at wit. The stench of urine cut through the lavender oil in his handkerchief and Grisha stuffed the linen in his pocket.

"And here I thought I was early for our appointment. We were meant to discuss plans for the construction of a mosque in Moscow. I didn't realize you'd planned court entertainment first."

"Yes, yes." Zubov drew to full attention, straightening the ruffles above his ridiculous velvet frock coat. The monkey dug his fingers deep into Zubov's shoulders so as not to fall when his master moved. "But a mosque in the very heart of our land? Wouldn't a church make more sense? We're still a Christian people, are we not?"

Grisha needed to tread carefully. Rumors had reached his ear, even in the faraway southern lands where he had spent the last several months, tales of Zubov's youthful beauty and hold on the empress's affections. He saw it for himself now: Zubov's fine features, broad shoulders, and brilliant eyes, so different from the lumpiness that had spoiled Grisha's own looks as the years passed.

"The empress has taken care to preserve cordial relations with her subjects of the Islamic faith," he said. "I am particularly pleased with this design. It is modeled after a mosque in the old fortress of Ochakov."

"And yet you ran the heathen into the ground in that godforsaken place."

Grisha's hands, slick with perspiration, worked in and out of fists. He had assumed his audience with Zubov merely a formality to make Catherine feel she had taken care with her favorite's pride. He had expected this boy to fuss a bit but ultimately put his stamp of approval on the project, as all of Catherine's other favorites would have done, to curry favor. "The empress's Muslim subjects worship one God, as do we."

"But we have more pressing problems now, what with England rattling a sword in our direction and trying to drive us out of the Black Sea. Your prize, Prince. Should we not ready our forces to teach the dolts a lesson?"

Catherine isn't foolish enough to make needless war, you pretentious twit. "A gesture of goodwill seems all the more appropriate, then," Grisha said. "Surely we don't want the English seducing our old Muslim adversaries with pretty words and promises of petty glory."

Zubov unleashed a dramatic sigh. "Fine. Catherine said I should listen to your plea, so I suppose I don't have a choice in the matter. She has a soft spot for old friends. It's one of her many charms." He flapped his hands again, ruffles flopping at his wrists, displacing the monkey. The creature landed awkwardly on the floor but scrambled to his feet quickly. "All the rest of you, go!" Zubov barked. "The prince and I require privacy."

The courtiers shuffled past Grisha to get to the door. Grisha straightened his aching back and sucked in the loose folds of his stomach as best he could manage, ignoring the curious stares as the men strode past. Most of them bowed respectfully in his direction, while others gave him a wide berth, as though fearing contamination.

He didn't move until the last of them, the elderly brigadier, shut the heavy door behind him. Only then did Grisha approach Zubov, the scroll with the plans for the mosque still safely tucked against his side. "The plan is visionary in scope. I think it will please the empress."

"Doubtful." Zubov rose to his feet. "I sometimes fear for Catherine's emotional state. The poor dear has grown so flustered. The last thing she needs is your petty distractions."

Grisha wanted to grab Zubov by the throat and knock his front teeth out. But Catherine wouldn't care to see her current favorite enter the boudoir with his pretty face maimed. Instead he forced his features into a serene expression, preparing to play to the boy's ego. "I would not have troubled you with a whim, Platon Alexandrovich."

"I still fail to understand the point of a mosque. You are a conquering hero, Prince. We were at war with these people. You did what needed to be done."

A voice in his head screamed, fueled by the intense adrenaline of battle, the war cry to Allah as the enemy soldiers rushed toward his men, no matter how futile their efforts. Grisha's voice rose, banishing the bloodthirsty battle cries from his memory. "I am here at the empress's behest. She trusts your opinion on this matter."

"Then I suppose I should at least see this foolishness." He extended his hand. "May I?"

Silently, Grisha handed over the scroll.

Zubov clicked his teeth and unrolled the thin goatskin parchment. He scrunched his black eyebrows together but scarcely looked at the design. Instead, he scrutinized the paper, fingering it and frowning. "What is this? Papyrus? Are you planning to construct pyramids?"

Grisha had commissioned an elderly Tatar to choose the architect himself. "I consulted with a cleric familiar with the needs of the people of this faith."

"A Mohammedan! Oh, that's rich."

Grisha struggled to keep his voice even. "Who else would design a mosque?"

"I understand your whims were given free rein in the imperial treasury in the past, but you've been away too long. Besides, I believe our Tatar friends may already have a mosque or two in our Russian heartland. Catherine will no longer countenance such extravagant waste. I don't care what you've gotten past her before."

Melancholy played tricks with his mind. In an instant, Grisha saw Zubov no longer as a silly boy speaking out of place, but as a powerful man who held the empress in his hand.

"Besides, if you're so in love with these people, why not look to the khans for inspiration?" Zubov assumed a grand academic tone that tore at Grisha's already fractured patience. "They would show far less interest in construction and far more cunning in yielding tribute from their vanquished foes."

"The empress is no khan," Grisha said, "but you would do well to show her deference."

Zubov stepped toward Grisha, lips curving downward and a hint of menace darkening his gaze. As though sensing his master's sudden shift in mood, the monkey emitted high-pitched chatter and covered his eyes with spindly fingers.

"I only meant," Grisha added in a louder voice, so any courtiers with an ear to the door could hear, "the empress should decide such matters for herself. I should like to hear her opinion. I came to you only as a courtesy."

"A courtesy?" Zubov laughed, handing the scroll back to Grisha before sitting back down on the chaise longue. He crossed one long leg over the other and pushed the jam closer to his monkey. The creature dipped his pink tongue into the jar. "You flatter yourself, Prince."

Grisha rerolled the delicate parchment. "Perhaps there is a better time to broach this subject?"

Zubov flashed his white teeth in a youthful smile. His name meant "tooth" after all. Grisha found it irritatingly fitting. "I'll let you in on a secret. I don't care one way or another. Let the poor devils fall on their knees to a golden calf for all I care. But your presumption vexes me. You've been away from St. Petersburg nearly two years. Much has changed while you've been in your new Russia. And you return only to strut into my salon with this scheme at the very time our motherland faces serious new threats."

"I meant no disrespect, Platon Alexandrovich."

"Catherine thought it best I start to make the fiscal decisions. I intend to prove my worth, not throw precious treasure to the wind on your latest fancy. You had Catherine's ear for a long time. I know this must be difficult to hear, but the time for every man to shine comes and goes. It is only now a matter of bowing out with grace."

Despair began to seep through the fragile cracks in Grisha's ego. He wanted nothing more than to retire to bed and bury himself under blankets, taking comfort in hot chocolate, liqueur, and perhaps a warm female body. Better yet, he could call for his horse and force a gallop to Nevsky Monastery. He could grow a long beard and retreat from the world altogether.

Except where would that leave Catherine?

"I have never been asked to leave the empress's side. That is the fate of her young favorites. Her temporary companions."

"Temporary?" Zubov made a mockery of a frown. The monkey crouched at Zubov's foot, nibbling at the toe of his master's boot. "I suppose my position might be temporary. But then again the empress gave me dominion over you."

"I truly doubt that was her intention," Grisha said. "She means for us to work together."

"Why work at all, Prince? At your age most men have fathered many children and look to the darlings for comfort. It must be difficult, having no progeny of your own. Perhaps it explains your meddling."

"I have been called to the empress's side," Grisha told him, gut twisting. "I won't abandon her now."

"I can assure you Catherine's interests are in more than capable hands," Zubov said. "I suggest you find some age- appropriate hobbies. Return to one of the palaces the empress gifted you with. Live your dotage in peace. Give your one good eye a rest." Zubov's gaze shot to Grisha's crotch. "I'm sure your prick could use a rest as well. Godspeed, Prince."


* * *

The little valet waited in the gilded corridor outside of Zubov's apartments, struggling to situate himself in a scarlet-cushioned armchair, Grisha's greatcoat slung over one arm. He tapped his new boots against the parquet floor and stared longingly out the massive windows facing the frozen Neva River.

"The boats won't come until April," Grisha told him, "when the ice finally breaks."

At the sound of Grisha's voice, the boy sprang to attention, landing unsteadily in the unfamiliar boots. Grisha's regular valet had grown worn with age. So he'd left the old man at home with his feet elevated and toasting before a fire. In his place, he'd decided to take this boy around with him during the duration of his stay in St. Petersburg. Though he was but thirteen, Anton seemed willing to please.

Anton draped the greatcoat around Grisha's shoulders. "How did you fare, Your Highness? Did the meeting proceed as you hoped?"

The soft sable lining enveloped Grisha in warmth, yet darkness clung to the edges of his mind. "As you predicted, the place reeked."

Anton snorted. "The monkey is in charge then. Just as I heard. Did Platon Alexandrovich approve of the mosque? Did you encounter any trouble?"

Grisha had taught Anton to ask such questions. He enjoyed discussing political affairs with a nimble, if untrained, mind. Grisha wondered if he might bring Anton with him to a state dinner. Catherine would no doubt think it charming he'd taken a ward. After all, as Zubov had been so quick to point out, Grisha had no children of his own, at least that he knew of.

This evening, however, Grisha desired only solitude and quiet. Even the echo of their boots squeaking on the floor tested his nerves. "I would rather not speak of it," he said shortly.

"I am sorry." Anton had been born a serf and still exuded meekness, as though at any moment his fortunes might reverse and he'd be back tilling a field with the rest of his family.

"No, I am sorry. My head and stomach are in knots."

Grisha gnawed on his red and aching thumbnail. The other favorites he could tolerate. They had known what was expected of them and left quietly when asked, happy with their generous pensions and arranged marriages to comely ladies-in-waiting.

Zubov was different, more like him. Ambitious. Except not like him. Grisha had been many things when he was Zubov's age, but never closed-minded. Catherine was ten years older than Grisha. Even so, to him she would always be that young and vibrant woman who claimed a throne. How could such a woman feel attracted to a shallow boy? He supposed the weight of years on this earth had finally caught up with Catherine, and so Zubov might take advantage and shame her reputation.

"Platon Alexandrovich does not wish to fund the mosque," Grisha said. "I fear he has more sway over the empress than her previous favorites. He seems ready to take on England and Prussia single-handedly. And he believes he speaks for the empress. Someone needs to set affairs back in their proper order."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Tsarina's Legacy by Jennifer Laam. Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Laam. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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