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I am not pleased with this one, mainly because I think it's obvious where my sympathies lie, but, you know, at least I've finished something. Someday I hope to write something that isn't total crap. Mad props to the Balto-Slavic Glossary, whose words I butchered in order to create the line of Nastrántsy that appears at the end of the piece.

1945. Anna triumphant, and ghosts of the past.

After the news that Nastrántsy troops have reached Berlin, Alisja locks herself in the guest bedroom at her cousin's house and refuses to see anyone. For the first week, she doesn't let anyone in and speaks to Dick and Tasja through the keyhole, when she can manage coherent speech in English; at other times, she lapses into Nastrántsy and the language of her childhood breaks her heart all over again, so that her words fade into sobs.

Alisja fled to England because her mother is British, and because at the time, it looked very much as if Hitler was going to invade Nastrána and, consequently, as if the Prime Minister was going to order the NNF rounded up and jailed for the interim. She still hurts inside when she thinks about it, unreasonable as a sulky child, even though she knows how idiotic this is: Prime Minister Goldshtein is an ardent, ardent Communist, and it would have looked ill both within and without the Party for her to spare her own half-sister.

While Alisja wasn't a combatant, the war has taken everything from her: her country, her youth, her beliefs, the great love of her life.

She's seventeen or eighteen. This evening, in the gardens, she and Roda talk while they watch the fireworks, and they linger long before she bicycles back into Staraja Jarosna to eat dinner at the Princess' house. She could weep for the beauty of it all: how wonderful it is to be alive and young and in love while incredible things happen in Germany, and how much she wants to tell Anna, whom she adores with all her being. Why, the Fascist and the Communist aren't so very far apart after all, at least not the way Roda explained it to her.

"The Nazis are socialists, too, Anja," she tells her sister, bubbling over with the joy of it all. "It's right in the name of their party, you know."

"They want us to think they're socialists," Anna says, not looking up from the article she's reading. "Herr Hitler's ideas are poles apart from Comrade Lenin's." Anna once met Lenin at a Party conference and was so awestruck that she couldn't speak, and the grim, cold beauty of his ideology informs her own political life. "Have you been seeing that worthless-ass little layabout again?"

"Anjasha, I wish you'd meet Roda," Alisja says, only slightly deflated. "He's so smart, and he has such ideas and he understands so much. Why, just this evening, we were talking about politics, and he was talking about the underclasses and how we ought to have a pure Nastrána. You'd like him, I'm sure."

"Frankly," Anna says, putting aside her newspaper and looking Alisja full in the face, "I don't think I would." She is stern and unsmiling. "Number one, there is no such thing as a 'pure' Nastrána. We're the revolving door of Europe. You've seen my mother, of course." Alzbeta, Princess Harlova, is a towering giantess of a woman with features that suggest a Tatar somewhere in the family line. "I'd be hard put to find even the most remote Nastránik who doesn't have a German or a Polish ancestor, or even a Szekely one from farther back."

"But Anna, the purer racial elements are always – "

"Are always, and emphatically, bullcrap, of the kind I have heard from Fascists of various stripes and their apologists. Not only is there no 'pure' Nastrána, there
cannot be and there should not be."

"Since the Revolution, when so many Russians fled here, we have degenerated!" Alisja cries. "We have opened our arms to an alien culture, and it has watered down the purity of our own!" She doesn't quite understand what this means, but she heard a speaker argue it and he made such compelling points that she found herself nodding in agreement.

"We've opened our arms because we are Slavs and so are they and our culture values hospitality. Russian emigré capital has fattened our economy. I can't say I like it – " Anna frowns – "but at least we don't have Germany's unemployment rate."

"But that's exactly what Hitler wants to fix!"

"Alisja, you're a young girl and your political ideas are ill-formed. You don't know what you're talking about. I would be very much surprised if you've read a single Fascist text."

"You were my age when you became a Communist!" She seems to be getting louder. How can Anna not see her passion, not take it for what it is?

"I was, in fact, younger," Anna says. "And the people who introduced me to Marxism were not people who wanted to get into my pants."

Alisja's face heats. "We're in love, Anna!"

"Mm," Anna says. She has cynical ideas about love. "Eat your asparagus before it gets cold."

How absolutely embarrassing, Alisja thinks alone in her room, to be dismissed by the Great Woman as if she's a child or an imbecile.

The second week, Alisja is tired of being by herself and lets Tasja into her room. Tasja, of course, leans on her until she agrees to see Dr. Stone, who says that it's her nerves and that he'll give her something to calm her. Alisja does not take well to sedatives – she remembers her own mother's artificial languidity – but does not have the energy to fight, and lets Tasja do it for her, which just makes her feel worse.

"Only," Tasja says carefully, her too-perfect accent careful to hide the upper-class Nastrántsy of their shared youth, "I shouldn't make it too strong, please, if I were you. Alisj--Alice doesn't do well on them."

"Oh?" Dr. Stone says, listening genially with one ear as he prepares the syringe.

"I'm afraid of turning out like Mum," Alisja says, but she feels as if she's trying to shout underwater. Dr. Stone is already pressing her arm, looking for the vein, and Tasja's eyes are squeezed tight shut; she can't bear blood, or needles, and winces as if she's the one about to be stuck. "She had a problem – "

"It's perfectly safe when used in moderation," Dr. Stone says. "This is only to let you rest, Miss--Harlowe, is it?"

"Harlova," Alisja says, watching the needle puncture her skin. It seems like someone else's skin, and the prick registers in her brain only briefly. "I'm Nastrántsy."

Before Roda, there was the last summer, when there were riots every other week: Fascist against Communist, and both against the more moderate factions. That summer, Anna campaigns vigorously against Frants Plachek, the leader of the Fascist Party of Nastrána, which will later become the NNF. The two fight like rabid dogs, and their entourages with them. "My sister has comrades. They're all equal with her," Alisja says proudly to her friends at boarding school, tossing her head. "Plachek has toadies." That her sister is the first among equals does not occur to her. Anna cannot be other than what she says she is.

In addition to her other duties to Party and people alike, Petr III, Tsar-Imperator of the Four Nastránas, gives Anna plenipotentiary powers that summer. She is empowered to enforce curfews and to disperse, or forbid, gatherings, though Petr will not go so far as to allow her to lock anyone up without trial. (Alisja sulks when Anna enforces the curfew against her and some of her schoolfriends.) In August, the gathering stormclouds finally burst, and the fighting is so fierce that businesses shut up shop for the week, the trains no longer run to Staraja Jarosna, and Alisja's school evacuates the students into the provinces.

Anna is out all that week cleaning up, as she calls it, and finally shows up to dinner on Thursday night with the news that Plachek is dead, which everyone already knew, and that the Fascist threat is over for now, which everyone wants to believe.

"About a hundred Fascists dead," Anna says. She snaps out her napkin with grim satisfaction and lets it fall into her lap.

"Anja," Petr III says, "we are talking about human lives, no matter how repugnant you or I may find their politics."

"Any comrades found guilty of violating Party discipline will, of course, be stripped of their membership," Anna says, rattling it off as if it's something she's memorized by rote and doesn't quite believe.

"And turned over to the law, if they have done something illegal," Petr says. The words seem to cost him great effort.

"That too," Anna says. "Of course, I can't be everywhere, and neither can the comrades I've deputized. Mobs will form, you know, and if there happens to be one lukewarm socialist in the lot then naturally people get it into their heads that it was endorsed by the Party. Comrade Verenov and I, as you know, don't condone this, and we will make it clear to the rank and file."

"Good," Petr says. "See that you do." He fixes her briefly with an uncharacteristically penetrating gaze. "They say that Plachek was shot by a Mauser 1910."

"Oh?" Anna says.

"You own a Mauser, don't you?"

"A lot of people do," Anna says. "It could have been a demobbed serviceman. Anybody, really. We issued quite a lot of 1910s during the war, didn't we?" She frowns, and falls silent, head bent over dinner. Her hands shake. Alisja's heart aches: she must have been up very early, and between directing the Party meeting (for the Communist show must go on) and the cleanup of Staraja Jarosna, she must be very tired. Petr looks at her again but says nothing more.

After dinner, the butterfly rash is bright on Anna's face, and she says to Alisja, "Alisjenka, my heart, will you get me my briefcase, please? I must have left it in Petja's study." And Alisja glows, because this is the first tender word her half-sister has spoken to her in weeks, and because she knows what the rash means and wants to make Anna feel better. She darts into the Tsar-Imperator's study, which is home to Anna half the time and Prince Daniil Koltsov the other half, and finds the severe black case quickly enough.

Alisja wishes to God she could turn this off, whether "this" is the drug or her memory, but lying sedated in the guest bed, she is powerless to stop it; she chokes and the tears run hot down her cheeks. The medication must be toying with her sense of proportion; she feels huge, as if her feet are dangling off the edge of the bed. Her heart is racing, but her mind is calm, logical, orderly: this is what came first, and this is what comes next, and she must review it all. It's an exercise in futility. She can change nothing. She does not know when or how she came to understand, or if she ever really did.

Anna rarely buys new things, and she has complained about the clasps on her briefcase for so long that Alisja has never really believed her. They must be on their last legs, because they give way as soon as Alisja lifts the case, and papers spill all over the desk and the carpet. Alisja ducks down to pick them up, put them in some kind of order, trying not to look, though the details of Anna's life fascinate her. Ever since she first knew her half-sister, she has wanted to be with her always, wanted no separation. She sorts and stacks as best she can, and as she's picking up the last batch of papers, her eye runs idly over the topmost sheet.

It's a list of names, which is dull enough reading, but this is not a Party roster or the names of some subcommittee. Alisja recognizes these names: they belong to Fascists. She doesn't want to see what comes next, does not trust herself, and yet her eyes are drawn inexorably. Perhaps fate itself draws them.

The first five or six names are bracketed, and Anna's large, bold left-handed script has written, "To die," next to the bracket. Next to it, another hand has written, "I concur – I.V.", and a few sets of initials are marked next to it.

She can't have actually written that. Alisja doesn't read Cyrillic very well; she can speak Nastrántsy but isn't good at reading it, and her family speaks English at home because her mother has never mastered Nastrántsy and relies on the girls if they are out shopping. Perhaps she's totally misunderstood the word, or it has another, obscure meaning. Anna is ferocious with the enemies of the people, of course, but she wouldn't hurt anyone. Alisja has met Comrade Verenov, too; he's always nice to her, and they joke together, though she's always sent out of the room when they get down to business. They can't mean that. They're not bad people.

Anna carries guns everywhere. One is not enough. There's probably one in the bottom of this briefcase; Alisja knows there are more in her car, and the hunting rifles at home, and probably a couple in subtle, well-tailored pockets under her skirt. But those are for protection, Alisja thinks, and Anna gets overzealous because of what happened in the war (a subject which is never discussed in front of Alisja and her full sister and brother). They're not just to attack people for no reason.

Anna is waiting for her briefcase. Alisja shoves the papers in the bottom, careful not to touch the pistol she's sure is hidden there, and brings it to her, both hands holding it shut gingerly. "I think you might want a new one soon," she says. Let Anna think the wince is only for fear of dropping it.

"Thank you, my dearest," Anna says.

Later, Alisja will convince herself that she did not read what she read.

"It doesn't have another meaning, does it," Alisja says slowly. Her lips seem to be frozen.

"What doesn't?" Tasja says, setting the tray on the bedside table.

"Imret'," Alisja says. "It can only mean to die." She can speak Nastrántsy without tears now, though her voice sounds dull and hollow to her. She feels dull and hollow inside.

Tasja gives her a strange look. "Yes. Why do you ask?"

"I remembered something," Alisja says. "From...a long time ago." She feels her throat close again and sputters when the tears sting her eyes.

Tasja's soft, warm hand flattens gently against her forehead. "There's no need for you to go back over it and get worked up. Try to get some sleep."

"I haven't been doing much else for the past few weeks," Alisja says, snorting bitterly, and although she hates herself for crying like a tetchy little girl, the tears come anyway.

"I'll call Dr. Stone and tell him not to come tomorrow, that you're feeling better." Tasja gives her a tremulous smile. "Do you think you might be able to eat with us? We've been listening to the news on the wireless, and Anna gave a speech in English; it's a translation of one she gave in Nastrántsy not long ago."

Alisja gives a soft cry and sinks back against the pillows. She heard Anna's voice every day on the radio when she was still in Nastrána, and longs to hear it again in person, and never wants to hear it again under any circumstances.

"Maybe next week, then," Tasja says. "It's been very rough, but you may be able to go home soon."

"I think I'd rather stay in Britain."

"Do you want me to bring the wireless up?"

No, Alisja thinks, but her voice betrays her. "Yes."

The streets of Staraja Jarosna are wrecked; the buildings stand like crooked, uneven teeth in the snow, a normal shop functioning as usual next to a bombed-out husk. It is evening, and Alisja hurries to get home before the curfew. Of her siblings, half and full, only Anna and Evka are readily accessible to her: Anna is the Prime Minister, and Evka is the Tsarina. The joke is that the Harlovs have all the power of Nastrána tied up between the lot of them, and it's only half a joke. Alisja stops in at Anna's apartment, only to find the lights off and the windows empty; it looks dead somehow. She turns to go down the stairs and nearly runs into her half-sister, who is making her way up.

"Oh, Anja," she says. "I was looking for you."

"I was at the office," Anna says. She always is, these days. The bluish circles show large under her eyes, and she looks tired and older than she really is. (She must be over forty, Alisja realizes with a shock.)

"I thought you might be." Alisja is at a loss for words. The NNF has been banned, and driven underground, and she turns the Fascist newspaper out tirelessly on the little mimeograph in the hospital basement. She can't believe that Anna doesn't know about this, hasn't found out; it may be only a matter of time before the Red Tigress roars. And yet, all of this is in Anna's hands: she could make peace with Hitler, stop this nightmare. His Highness Tsar-Imperator Filipp II would have to ratify it, of course, but he grew up with the older Harlovs, and he will sign whatever Anna puts before him. Alisja swallows her bitterness, and says, "I was surprised to see the lights off. Is Lev Moiseyevich not at home?"

"I sent him away," Anna says, and there's a twitch in her lips, a tremor in her voice. "Herr Hitler would be a fool not to strike at the capital." She has read intelligence, then, or seen the German literature:
Fascists of Nastrána! The hour of liberation is at hand!

Where can he have gone? Certainly not to Germany. Poland is no safe place for a Jew, either. Anna would have sent him over the Montenegrin border to seek shelter with the Yugoslav partisans – that, too, is perilous for a man past sixty – or straight into the bowels of Russia herself. "Where?" Alisja says.

"Away. I know whose side you're on."

"Anna, don't let's argue." Oh, what Alisja wouldn't give to be a little child again, to sit at Anna's knee again and to believe her half-sister knows everything. "I wanted to see if you were all right."
Because I do love you, Alisja thinks, I do love you more than anything in the world, and I wish you loved me the way you used to, because I haven't changed. "I wanted to know if you were all right."

"I'm fine. You won't be if you don't get in before the curfew. You can't stay here; I'm headed back to the office."

"I was only stopping by. The house isn't far off." The house is shared with several other girls, most of them nurses, as Alisja herself is. A couple of them are also Fascists, and the other four are Communists, which is familiar and unnerving territory to Alisja.

"Glad of it." Anna unlocks the door, and as she steps in and Alisja heads down the stairs, she says, "Alisjenka?"

Alisja's heart skips a beat. "Yes?"

"I think you'll find the mimeograph in the basement is no longer at your disposal.
Some of your co-workers are patriots."

"All right," Dick says in the fourth week, "look at this rationally, won't you? You ballsed up, but a lot of people did. You're no Mosley. You didn't keep the Fascist banner flying after the BUF was dissolved. You're not a bad person, Alice, you've just made a mistake, and..." His words seem to run backwards in her head; maybe it's the drug, maybe she's just tired. "She's your sister," he ends, returning to coherent speech, at least as Alisja's ears can decode it, "and she loves you."

"No, she doesn't," Alisja says, and the lump rises in her throat, as if it will block off all air forever. She half-wishes it would. "She loathes me."

"That's not true," Tasja says, patting Alisja's feet. "She's asked after you since she's been here. She's only staying up the road at Lady Bennett's. We'll go and see her, if you like."

"I don't," Alisja says, and she feels terrible. The last thing she wants is to disappoint gentle Tasja, whom she knows loves her and who only wants to effect a reconciliation. The thought of seeing Anna, though, makes her stomach ache, and she swallows back the bile; she does not have the courage to face that terrible, implacable calm, to be dismissed like a child or a minor Party functionary. "I'm sorry, Tass. I can't."

"She's not well enough," Dick says, and he understands half of it, and not nearly enough.

"Never mind," Tasja says. "When I see her next, I'll tell her you're ill."

When they've left, Alisja turns on the wireless, and as luck would have it, she hears that best-loved and most feared of all voices. Sakash, Anna says, zhem nashega dosadnaga mostnala veliko lash ze rodzina Koltsova. There is polite laughter at the Shakespearian reference, and Alisja thinks she might vomit, but when she leans over the basin, nothing happens. She turns off the wireless and closes her eyes, pressing her head against the pillow.

She hears, for the first time, the demagogue's scream in her sister's voice.
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Wang Xi-feng

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