The Tsar smiled at me. 'Why don't you go walk in the garden, Ivan?' he said kindly. 'Your father and I will be talking for a while, I expect. You'll find it terribly dull, I can imagine.'
I glanced at Father, who nodded then mouthed: 'Don't talk to anyone.'
Managing to remember my manners, I bowed to the Tsar. 'Thank you very much, Your Majesty.' Then I backed out of his study and followed a Cossack down the corridor and out into the garden.
The garden of Tsarskeo Selo was huge, with colourful flowers in beds that stretched as far as I could see and tall maple trees lining the paths. Fountains spurting jets of glittering water were dotted around, painted blue and gold, to match the famous gates. But once you passed the grandeur of the formal garden, you came to a slightly wilder, less regimental area, designated for the Imperial children. Instead of imported roses and tulips, here were wild flowers and the Empress' favourite lilac trees, along with large oaks and acorns that could be climbed in games of hide and seek. Even further beyond was the lake, with the Children's Island and playhouse. It was here that I wandered, jumping down from a small wall half buried under moss and long grass and following the trees alongside the palace. As I walked, I imagined the children playing there, recalling their last formal photo-shoot that my mother had mounted on the wall at home and how they looked then. I pictured the eldest girl swinging the boy into one of the trees as her sister took a photograph of them to show their mother. I visualised the middle girl making daisy chains, and the little one breaking them. However, I hastily re-imagined that to have her then hug her sister and help her fix it. When I came upon a large oak tree, I settled my back against it, sliding down to sit on the soft bed of grass and closed my eyes to get a better picture of the scene I'd just created.
I was so engrossed in my fantasy that it was only when I heard the running footsteps that I looked up, just in time to see a white shoe pass my nose as it went up the tree.
'What are you doing?' A girl's voice called, making me jump. 'You're in your best dress; Mama will be furious!'
'Oh, don't be such a Governess.' Another voice, younger, came from the branches above me. 'I've climbed trees in white dresses before, you know.'
'Shvibs, don't do this,' a third voice cut into the air; 'We have to look clean for Grandmama coming.'
'She never looks at me, anyway,' the girl in the tree muttered, but only I could hear her. She raised her voice to yell across. 'I'm not going to be long. I just want to look!' There was a rustling of branches and a pair of legs in white stocking with the white shoes I saw going up the tree appeared just above my head. I couldn't see any more of the girl, just the trim of her dress as she made her way across the strongest branch as if it was a broad pavement.
'Look at what?' A fourth voice, one full of laughter joined the others.
'Oh, things,' the girl in the tree said vaguely. 'For instance, I can see the church…I can see a man selling apples in the market in St Petersburg…I can see the Standart and…oh! Is that Grandmama's carriage?' She leant forward and one leg tipped up towards the sky. I smiled in spite of myself; she was making a play of looking out.
'Don't play the fool,' the first voice sighed with exasperation. 'Just come down.'
'And what if I don't want to? The legs twirled and the skirt flared out a little. I was impressed, wondering how long it had taken her to perfect spinning in a tree.
'Shvibs!' The third voice came back, a hint of panic in it this time. 'Please don't!'
'I'm fine,' the girl in the tree said, but the hardness had faded a little. 'Honestly.'
'Just come down,' the first voice repeated. 'And I'll brush your hair again.'
'You've brushed it so much it's a wonder it hasn't fallen out yet,' the girl in the tree retorted, but she made a move to go back along the branch. I saw it coming before she did.
There was a patch of moss on the branch, to the right of where she was standing. As she spun around to go back to the trunk, back to climb down, her foot was going to slide on it. And she'd fall. My feet moved forward before I could think about it, my arms outstretched just in time to catch her as she fell from the tree with a little shriek.
I stumbled backwards a little as she fell against me then I straightened up and set her back on her feet. It was only then that I got a good look at the girl who fell from the tree.