Etta swallowed again, feeling Henry’s gaze bore into the side of her head.
“Well,” she began, “I grew up with my mother in New York City some time past, ah, now.”
The tsar raised his glass to Henry. “For your own protection, I’m sure. A wise choice, my friend. There are times I wish I had done it myself. But continue, child.”
“I’m not sure there’s anything else all that interesting,” Etta said, then added, “beyond the obvious, I mean. I’ve recently begun to travel. I do play the violin, too.”
“A fine pursuit!”
“The tsar is a great lover of music,” Henry explained, visibly relaxing. “You should know, Your Imperial Majesty, that Henrietta has quite undersold herself. She’s exceedingly talented and has won numerous international competitions for her skill.”
Etta turned toward him, her heart in an absolute riot—because, for a minute, he’d sounded like he was bragging about her.
To the last tsar of Russia.
“Brilliant,” the tsar said. “You’ll play for me, won’t you?”
“I—yes—what?” Etta blinked.
“She’s got Tchaikovsky in her repertoire,” Henry continued.
“I do, but—”
“The violin concerto, no doubt,” the tsar said, crossing the room in several quick strides. He retrieved a small case from where it was tucked beneath the piano.
That looks like—
A violin case.
“Oh,” Etta said, feeling rather stupid. “You meant right now.”
The tsar’s smile fell somewhat as he set the case down on his desk. “I shouldn’t have presumed you’d feel comfortable—”
“No, I’m happy to,” she said. The usual tingle of stage fright was gone, swept off by an overpowering sense of longing—for the instrument, for the music. Weeks had passed since the concert at the Met, and Etta hadn’t gone longer than two days without playing since she was five years old. The anticipation hit her like a drug, and she was shaking with it.
“Wonderful. It will send us to dinner on a pleasing note. Henry, you’ll accompany her, won’t you?”
Henry stood, too, ignoring Etta’s look of surprise. Accompany her—the violin concerto was generally played with a full orchestra, but there was, of course, a reduction for a simple violin and piano duet. Sure enough, Henry was moving toward the piano, trailed by the tsar. He took a seat at its bench.
“Perhaps just the first movement,” he suggested. “Unless you’d prefer the second?”
“Yes—I mean, of course. The first movement is fine.” Etta realized that she was still standing by the tsar’s desk, stunned and trembling with nerves, and quickly moved to join them. She accepted the violin, taking a moment to simply feel the slight weight of it in her hands, to let her palm run down the graceful neck, along the striped grain of the wood.
There was a single moment when she debated the propriety of taking off her gloves, but went for it regardless, needing to feel the instrument against her fingertips. She tossed the long lengths of silk over the back of the nearest chair. If the tsar was scandalized, he didn’t show it, merely wetting his mustache as he took another deep sip of his drink.
Henry pushed back his sleeves, giving himself more freedom of movement. Etta wondered if he was truly planning to play without any sheet music, and felt a swell of admiration despite herself.
“When you’re ready,” he said.
She drew the instrument up, tucking it beneath her chin. She’d played this piece any number of times, the last of which being the competition in Moscow; Alice had never favored it all that much, despite its dominance in their world, and loved to repeat an early review of the concerto that claimed to play it was to “beat the violin black-and-blue.” She only hoped she remembered it well enough to do it justice, and not humiliate herself in front of her…in front of her father again, like she had at the Met concert.
Her left shoulder stung with the effort of keeping the instrument up, but Etta pushed past the strain, forced her hands to stop shaking, and drew the bow against the strings. She nodded to Henry, who made his gentle entrance into the piece on the piano, launching them into the music.
And that was how Etta found herself playing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in the early twentieth century for Tsar Nicholas II.
The piece wasn’t just hard, it was devilishly difficult, to the point that Etta wondered if Henry hadn’t suggested it because of Tchaikovsky’s obvious ties to Russia, but because he wanted to showcase her skills in the flashiest way possible.
But from the first note, it was like learning to breathe again—the simple relief of hearing the music, using that part of her mind and heart. The tactile presence of the violin swept her away as she began, gliding into the gorgeous framework Henry established, announcing the piece’s main theme.
The first movement of the concerto built and built, adding a theme, repeating the main theme, creating variations that grew more athletic. The runs became faster, reaching an amazing cadenza that made Etta’s heart feel like it would burst from the joy of it.
Her eyes flicked over to Henry, watching his own eyes slide shut, as if imagining each phrase as he carved it out on the keys. An expression of pure, unself-conscious joy.
This is where it came from, she thought in wonder. I inherited it.
And that was what she would still have, now that she had altered the course of her life. No concerts, or competitions, or debuts—simple joy. And, much like seeing how Henry had nudged the timeline to reveal its secrets, it wasn’t bad; it was different. It was a new, sweeter future to match the world’s.