I behold a painting of my elder sister, Tanya. It was commissioned last year, before her disappearance from our homes and lives. She is 22 in this portrait and assesses an array of diamonds and rubies, inherited from our grandmother, midnight-black hair pulled into a bun.

Her owl-like eyes convey something wide. They’re so similar to Mother in their width. Tanya dons a sly, dreamlike smile. It’s a smile in its own category, to which I’ve not been privy.

Is she already planning to abscond in this moment, a nightly ghost? Is she rehearsing four words soon to be spoken, words that will echo like the bells of Peter and Paul Cathedral or the fortress cannon?

I’m always Kolya’s sister. Words spoken to Father at breakfast one morning. He’d asked her to keep an eye on some affair or another of mine. I cannot recall what affair precisely. I recall only the sharpness of her tone, the way Father deployed my given name and patronymic, Nikolai Alexandrovich. I am 17, for the record.

Once she said she should love to travel, write something of Tolstoyan proportion, exchange identities with each nation she traversed. She dreamed of champagne in Chicago, conjured a thousand names to try on, Claire, Marie, Kate, Eileen, Viktoria. She even flirted with asinine American appellations like Edna, after the protagonist of The Awakening, a book Mother had devoured prior to her liaison with Mr. Heath, our English tutor.

But Tanya spent hours with me after Mother departed. She called me my old childhood nickname, Kolya. Kolya: a name that held the weight of innocence. She attempted to help me master a Tchaikovsky waltz to please Father, who had been a friend of the late composer. She took me out and about Petersburg after Father’s lectures and we threw bread pellets at diplomats near the Winter Palace and joked about having explosives to alarm undercover Okhrana agents. Tanya could identify them with great ease. She told off-color jokes in English and French, including a few about Father’s pleasures, and even more about the Tsaritsa and Rasputin. Above all, she told me possibility was something I needed to cling to with fervency. To break from the Baroque barracks that was our home. She said I had a dreamer’s mind.

We fought when I mocked Tanya’s garments or made rhymes of her name for a few mere moments of personal joviality. There was no contempt, nothing beyond mere familial strife, so I thought. Just a sharpness in her eyes which faded.

Of course, a few times late at night, she’d steal into my room and survey me with a long and distant glance. She spoke no words at all. I thought it mere distraction, with Father’s insistence that she seek out suitable grooms, put aside senseless notions of life, along with the preponderance of parties before her. Perhaps she wandered about our spaces, distant from the physical facets of life, a specter. Was she contemplating how to sever the links between us? Was she wondering how far from Petersburg she could get? Did she see all of Petersburg and its regimented lives in me? Did she see some version of Father in me?

Why didn’t you speak to me, Tanya? Where are you now? London? Paris?

I survey her eyes. I whisper contrition for what, I cannot say. Perhaps if I whisper contrition she will speak, take those words back. How is she always just my sister? I’m a second-rate pianist, not an oversized figure in one’s mind. Not Father’s. Surely, she’s not tethered to me. Father even said I was imbued with too much sensitivity and a brooding danger. He’s never exalted me as the next head of our family, nor sent me to represent us at functions at the Winter Palace. He’s never likened Tanya to me, or at least I am not cognizant of such things. If anything, he dissects, I should say dissected us with equal precision, a martinet. Tanya’s gait is, I mean, was too lively, I slouch far too much.

Why, Tanya? Why did you abscond?

She glances and smiles from the portrait.

Tell me, Tanya. I love you, Tanya. Tanya, come back. I’ll leave you be, even if it hurts like cracking ice on the Neva.

Her glance seems even wider.