The Midnight Land Part I (Sample)

The sun did not rise on the morning of the trial, and neither did Slava’s spirits.

When she looked out the window that morning, all she saw was early-winter snow sifting down onto the courtyard like fine sugar onto cake.  Even the clouds were hidden by it.  She knew that somewhere far to the South— perhaps on the Middle Sea—the sun was shining down on people who were rising and going about their business with joy in their hearts, but here in Krasnograd there was nothing but snow, both outside on the courtyard and inside of Slava’s soul.

Her maids came and dressed her extra-resplendently for the trial.  Masha, the older but shyer of the two of them, was sufficiently emboldened by the occasion to ask her, “Aren’t you glad he’s being judged today, Krasnoslava Tsarinovna?”

“I only wish that it be over quickly,” Slava answered.

“I hope he gets what’s coming to him!” said Manya, the other maid.  She was not quite so shy as Masha, but that was not why she had no fear of speaking her mind in front of Slava.  Most people did not.  “No punishment could be cruel enough!”

“We always think that about other people,” said Slava.

Manya gave her a look that said, “Everyone knows the Empress’s little sister is eccentric,” and went back to braiding the elaborate headdress onto Slava’s head.

Once Slava had been tied, stitched, and braided into her clothing, she was escorted by her guards from her chambers to the Hall of Judgment.  For the first time in many years, the sight of their uniforms made her feel ill.  She wanted to hang back and delay the moment of arrival, but her guards walked her as quickly as she could manage in her heavy gown.  They were so excited by the prospect of the trial that they had a hard time remembering Slava herself.

The Hall of Judgment was packed with people, and therefore hot and close despite the winter air outside.  Slava broke out into a sweat as soon as she entered it.  Only two places were conspicuously empty: the dock for the prisoner, and the raised dais for the Empress’s Wooden Throne.

Slava’s guards pushed through the crush of people spilling out into the aisle they had created with their knouts.  Everyone whispered and tried to kneel as she walked past, but there was no room for them to reach the floor with their knees.  The guards seated her on the edge of the dais, near the foot of the throne.  It was one of the peculiarities of Slava’s position that she spent much of her time sitting on the floor, looking at other people’s feet.  As the Empress’s sister, she was allowed to sit in her presence in the Hall of Judgment, but as the junior sister, she could not sit at the same level, which was why she she spent so much of her time stationed on the edge of the dais.  Well, as much of her time as could be spared from getting dressed and undressed by her maids.  Somehow Slava’s days were always so full of such meaningless tasks that she never seemed to have a moment to herself, even though she did nothing.  Just as she was doing here, perched on her shameful place of honor so that everyone but her could feel as if justice and mercy were being done.  There was a cushion for her there, embroidered with the finest silk from the East by her sister’s own maids.  Only Slava thought this was amusing; everyone else considered it a great honor for her.

When Slava had been settled into place by her guards, there were shouts of “Make way for the prisoner!” and the crowd surged like a stormy sea as half of them tried to rush forward to catch sight of the notorious criminal, and half tried to rush back in fear.  There were shrieks as people got caught in the crush, and more shrieks as the guards restored order with their knouts.  Only once a wide path had been cleared did the doors open, and the guards try to lead the prisoner up to the dock.

As soon as he appeared in the doorway, though, there was such a scream and a rush towards him that his guards slammed the doors shut, and Slava’s guards picked her up under the arms and dragged her across the dais and through a small door to one of the hidden passageways that filled the Krasnograd kremlin, allowing its residents to slip through the walls whenever they wanted to hide from their subjects.

More guards were already waiting for them in the passageway, with a request from the Empress to see Slava as soon as she was extracted safely from the madness that was currently filling the Hall of Judgment.  She was led around dark corners to a candlelit open space, where her sister was sitting on a sofa and waiting for her.  Slava wondered if anyone else thought it was odd for the Empress of all of Zem’ to be sitting in a hidden passageway in her own kremlin, or for there to be a space for her to do so, comfortably furnished with a sofa and silk cushions.  She also wondered how they had gotten the sofa there, and whether it was there all the time or had been brought specially for this occasion, but she knew better than to ask questions like that.  No reason to sink herself even lower in her sister’s opinion than she was already sunk, especially with all the guards looking on.

“We have called up the regular troops from the barracks to come in and help restore order,” said the Empress with a smile.  Slava’s sister was always smiling whenever the situation called for boldness and good humor, and serious whenever the situation called for seriousness.  A riot in the middle of her Hall of Judgment had not shaken her imperturbable confidence, and now she sat on her sofa and waited with absolute certainty that in a very short time her guards and soldiers would beat everyone into submission and remove them from her presence, and she could get on with her day.

And in fact they only had to wait just long enough for Slava to begin feeling even more awkward and pathetic than usual in the face of her sister’s serene smile, before Boleslav Vlasiyevich, Captain of the Imperial Guard, came up and reported that the situation in the Hall of Judgment had been pacified and that everyone had been dragged out and dumped onto the street outside the kremlin walls.  He advised that the Hall of Judgment be kept empty except for the people involved directly with the trial, and Slava’s sister agreed with a smile that said she had perfect faith in herself and everyone under her.  She rose from her sofa, and the whole party set off to try to enter the Hall of Judgment for the second time.

“The prisoner has already been brought in and chained to the dock, Tsarina,” reported Boleslav Vlasiyevich as they approached the Hall of Judgment.  He flicked his eyes Slava’s way.  “Are you sure you’re up to this, Tsarinovna?” he asked, dropping back half a step to fall level with Slava.  “I know you find this sort of thing distressing.  You are not a woman of fire and steel like your foremothers.  You are made of finer, softer stuff.  Just give the word, and I will give the Empress some suitable excuse, and allow you to retire to your chambers.”  He smiled at her the way he often did, as if there were something between them, some secret that bound them and that required him to be more solicitous of her than other people were.  For the life of her, Slava could not fathom where he had gotten this idea, but it was clear enough that he was convinced of its truth.

“Thank you, but it is not necessary, Boleslav Vlasiyevich,” said Slava, smiling back gratefully.  She meant for the gratitude to be feigned, but hungry as she was for any show of kindness and affection, there was a great deal of real gratitude mixed in with it as well, and she knew her smile was much too bright for the circumstances.  It would be very wrong of her to give Boleslav Vlasiyevich any encouragement, especially as she had no intention of doing anything more than smile.  Although he was certainly not an ill figure of a man…not so large as most of the other guards, but quick and neat, with dark hair, gray eyes, and clever hands…hands that were mostly likely dirty with other people’s blood…and, most unusually for her, she could never tell what he was thinking…although she always felt as if she could be sure that his hands would never be dirty with her blood, even if he did wear a guard’s uniform…well, but she had given up long ago on guessing what men were thinking about her, she had been wrong too many times to be able to trust her judgment on that score…so wrong, so many times…she wrenched her attention back to the sorry matter at hand before she let her thoughts show on her face.  “It is my duty to attend,” she told him instead.  “I must be ready to give the Empress my council, should she require it.”

“As you will, Tsarinovna,” said Boleslav Vlasiyevich, with a slight bow and an almost imperceptible brush of Slava’s arm.  In Slava’s current starving state, it was difficult not to brush his arm back…but that would lead to no good…whatever affection men seemed to feel at first always disappeared quick enough…it would be wonderful, so wonderful, though, to have a man stand up for her for once, take care of her for once, instead of putting her down or running away…little chance of that, though…inasmuch as she could tell such a thing, men always seemed to find Slava disgusting…but they found most other women disgusting, too…but Slava especially…and no wonder…Slava sometimes—well, often—found herself disgusting…and no wonder, given the pathetic thoughts currently running through her head…next she would be sniveling in public…which she did fairly often, it had to be admitted…disgusting, disgusting…perhaps Boleslav Vlasiyevich was right, and she should not attend the trial, as she would do no good, no good at all…

“Then we may begin without delay,” said Slava’s sister, who had not appeared to notice the exchange between Slava and Boleslav Vlasiyevich.  He stepped back to his place by the Empress’s side, and ordered the guards to let them in.  The doors swung open, and Slava’s sister marched through them and straight to her throne, looking neither right nor left.

Slava trailed after her and watched her take her seat on the Wooden Throne.  It was a simple thing, hardly more than a chair, and it didn’t seem grand enough for its office whenever Slava’s sister sat in it.  Slava knew she had wanted to decorate it with some jewels and gold, perhaps make it bigger in order to fit her tall frame, but on this one point all her princesses had been unpersuadable.  The throne had been built for Miroslava Praskovyevna herself by her own husband, and spells of protection and power were carved into its wooden frame.  How much of the original chair remained was uncertain, as it had certainly been repaired many times in the intervening centuries, but it was still, somehow, the same chair, the seat of empresses, and for the right occupant, so it was said, a seat of great power despite its unprepossessing appearance.  Unfortunately, Slava’s sister was probably not the right occupant.  Slava turned her eyes and her thoughts to the rest of the room in order to distract herself from such treasonous thoughts.

This time the Hall of Judgment was almost empty.  Pools of blood stood here and there on the floor, from where the guards had had to subdue someone particularly vigorously.  Slava looked away from them.  Her eyes fell on a group of women that was being held back in a corner by guards.  Even before her mind had made the connection, she knew by the pain in her heart that they must be the mothers of previous victims, and she looked away quickly.  Her eyes turned to the prisoner at the dock instead, and then jumped away as if burned.  She made her way to the dais and settled on her cushion with her heart racing painfully and her eyes firmly fixed on the floor.

Her dread of this trial had pressed down on her ever since Manya had come to her two days ago and told her gleefully that “This time they had really got him, this time he had been caught in the act and there was no denying it, this time they had really got him and he was to be tried and sentenced immediately.”

On the day after Midsummer, a young girl’s body, mutilated almost beyond recognition, had been found in a back alley.  There had been a great hue and cry, and some young man with a shifty look in his eyes had been caught near the scene and beaten to death by the enraged crowd that very night.  Slava had lain awake for several nights after that, alternately picturing herself as the little girl and as the young man.  Her only way to find comfort was to remind herself that, however terrible it had been for them, it was over now.

But, while it may have been over for them, it was not over for Krasnograd or for Slava.  The next month another body had been found, and once again the parents’ grief and horror had caused another crowd to gather together and bring some poor fellow to what they called justice, so that they could tell themselves that they had protected Krasnograd from the menace stalking its streets.

Only they hadn’t, and the next month yet another body was discovered.  This time the Krasnograd guards stepped in and closed down that area of the city, rounding up all the likely-looking suspects and locking everyone else in their houses.  Those whom they deemed suspicious were dragged back to the dungeons and questioned.  Those who survived the questioning process were sent off on general principles to do hard labor in distant provinces, and everyone except Slava and the victims’ families breathed a huge sigh of relief and started to forget about it.

The next month it happened again, and the month after that.  Five little girls had been killed, and at least ten or fifteen—Slava tried not to keep too accurate a count, even though she knew that the best thing she could do for them would be to remember them—at least ten or fifteen people had been killed or sentenced to hard labor on suspicion of being involved.  Then this month someone whom everyone claimed was the real culprit had been caught red-handed, and now he was shackled to the dock in front of Slava.

She stared at her knees to avoid looking at him.  She knew that as soon as she did, everything that he was feeling would come pouring unstoppably into her.  Slava could not bear the miasma of thoughtless cruelty that rose off so many people, and she particularly could not bear that she was helpless before its onslaught.  As Boleslav Vlasiyevich had said, she was made of finer, or at least softer, stuff than the rest of her family.  Some dreadful taint from the male line, perhaps.  Certainly few of her foremothers were known for their weakness.  Fire and steel, almost every one of them.  Those who had shown mercy had been the exceptions that proved the rule.  Where Slava had come from, no one could say…Her mother was kind enough, that was true, as well as, it was said, Lyubov the Kind, the great-great-great-grandmother who had ended the practice of slavery in Zem’, but she had never heard or seen anything that had suggested they were anything like Slava, had possessed anything like Slava’s softness…Lyubov must have been a woman of fire and steel, second only to Miroslava Praskovyevna, to bend the princesses to her will and end the slave trade…and Slava’s father had been a steppe warrior, renowned for his fearlessness in battle before he had died a hero’s death…Slava dragged her mind away from her melancholy musings on the past and back to the unpleasant present.

Yarmila Kseniyevna, the Mistress of Ceremonies, was naming all those involved in the trial.   The women pushed back into the corner, whose grief and blind, thoughtless rage had spread out across the room and was already seeping into Slava’s skin, were indeed the mothers of the previous victims.  A woman standing apart from the others with her arms around a girl of about ten was introduced as the mother of the current victim, and the little girl as the victim herself.

At this Slava peeked up from her knees.  She hadn’t known that the latest little girl had survived.  She and the girl looked at each other, and Slava knew that the girl was terrified of the guards, and of the stern women in their fancy gowns sitting on the dais and staring at her, and of the scary man chained to the dock who had frightened her so badly two days before, and of the angry women in the corner who watched her with such burning resentment, and most of all of her own mother, who had made her life a misery of threats, reproaches, and hysterical, mysterious scenes ever since she had screamed that the strange man was trying to take her away.  The girl was heartily sorry now that she had ever said anything, and wished that this could all be over as soon as possible and that her mother and all these strange people would leave her alone.

After the accusers, Yarmila Kseniyevna named the accused and his crimes.  Slava’s eyes flickered past him as quickly as possible, but not quickly enough to avoid seeing the woman next to him, who was named as his mother.  The mother’s eyes caught Slava’s and held them, and Slava was unable to prevent the other woman’s feelings from flooding into her.  In the space of a breath she knew that the other woman was full of resentment that her child was being forced to undergo this ordeal, and an overwhelming, all-engulfing terror that he would not escape from it unscathed, and a willingness to sacrifice a thousand other mothers’ children in order for her own to remain healthy, alive, and free.  Slava jerked away from her as quickly as she could, but not before she knew that pity for the other woman would torment her for a long time to come.

Various functionaries came up and read statements about the previous murders, the current attempt, the results of the questioning of the prisoner, and every other piece of information they had been able to gather.  Slava looked at these women in their dull gray gowns of the Office of Judgment, or the guards in their bright red and blue uniforms and their jingling chainmail, and all she could sense from them was a suppressed excitement at being part of the trial, and a desire to cause as much harm as possible to the prisoner chained to the dock, now that he was chained to the dock and therefore offered them no threat.  Then the prisoner’s mother stepped forward and spoke in his defense.

She argued, trembling and mixing up her words in her fear of the Empress and her terror for her child, that there was no proof that he had done any of the actual murders, and that when he had grabbed the little girl currently standing across the room from him and tried to drag her away, he was only dragging her out of harm’s way, because her own mother had been paying no attention to her and a large wagon had been bearing down on her.

“LIAR!” screamed the girl’s mother.  “There was no wagon!”

“There was a wagon, gracious Tsarina,” said one of the women in gray gowns.  Slava had heard her speak before, and knew that she was a little sharper than most of the other women her sister had appointed to work in the Office of Judgment, as witnessed by her speaking up now.  Slava couldn’t remember her name, and felt a twinge of guilt over that, but it was quickly overwhelmed by the misery filling the Hall of Judgment.  “All witnesses agree,” said the sharp woman in the dull gray gown.  “There was a wagon, and the girl’s mother did not seem to be aware of it.  Nonetheless…”

“He wanted to…” moaned the girl’s mother, interrupting the woman from the Office of Judgment.  “He wanted to…He deserves to die!  Die!”

“DIE!” screamed the women in the corner, and tried to rush past the guards, who had to add to the pools of the blood on the floor in order to restrain them.

The Councilor of Justice, whose gray gown was decorated with a sash of Imperial red, reminded the Empress that a coil of rope and knives “of a sort that are only used for torture” had been found in the prisoner’s pockets, all covered with old blood.  For a moment Slava was distracted from the horror of the matter at hand by the horror of the thought that knives “of a sort that are used only for torture” even existed.  What, she wondered, had the women who had invented them been thinking as they made them?  How could they walk away from their plans and their forges and return to their husbands and children?  No doubt their husbands had helped them in the forging; what had they been thinking?  Did they think that their wives were the most wonderful women in the world, the beloved mothers of their children?  Possibly.  At any rate, it was very unlikely that they thought they were evil for making those knives.  Probably they thought it was just the way of things, and secretly took pleasure in imagining the use for which the knives had been designed.

“It seems clear enough,” said the Empress, interrupting Slava’s dreadful reverie.  She was no longer smiling, but spoke with a serious dignity perfectly in accord with the current situation.  “We pronounce the prisoner guilty on all charges.”

The mothers of the victims, both dead and alive, cheered, their faces contorted with a bestial hatred that made Slava want to pronounce the same verdict on them, and see how they liked it.  The mothers of dead children, she reflected, unfortunately not for the first time, were normally so broken by their sorrow that they were no more than animals.  She might pity them, but it was the pity one would feel for a wounded bear that was rampaging through a village.  She wondered how many of them had beaten their daughters when they were alive.  Probably most of them.  Probably many of them would have gladly thrown their daughters to the wolves when they had been alive, but now that they were dead, they had so handily been given someone else to blame for their failings.  The mother of the prisoner threw herself on the floor in front of the dais.

“Mercy,” she begged.  “Mother, be merciful.  You have a child of your own.  Be merciful this once, and it will never happen again, I swear it, it will never happen again, it will never…”

“What does my sister say?” asked the Empress, looking at Slava.  “Before I decide on the nature of his sentence, I would hear your opinion.  Is he truly guilty, and will he do it again?”

“Dearest, kindest Krasnoslava Tsarinovna,” sobbed the prisoner’s mother from the floor.  “Everyone knows that the gods have gifted you with that greatest gift of all: the ability to feel the pain in the hearts of others.  I beg you: let your heart feel the pain of mine, and have mercy on my son.  Surely you of all people can be persuaded to have pity on my pain, and…”

“What about mine!” screamed a woman from the corner, and all the other mothers moaned, “and mine!” in chorus.  “My pain is greater than yours, and of less cause. You have only yourself to blame for raising a monster that should be destroyed like a mad dog!”

“No!” cried the prisoner’s mother, and Slava saw how she tried to ignore those terrible words, because she feared they might be true.

“Silence!” ordered the Empress, and the guards restored order to the room once more.  Slava looked at the prisoner.

He had probably been an ordinary-looking man, but it was difficult to tell after the questioning, which had left him badly battered.  For a moment Slava was distracted by the sympathetic gaze of Boleslav Vlasiyevich, who was standing next to the prisoner’s mother, ready to subdue her if necessary.  Slava wondered how much of the prisoner’s current condition was Boleslav Vlasiyevich’s own doing.  Slava’s mother had made him part of her own guard after he, then a young and unknown soldier assigned to protect some distant fourth-sister of the Imperial family, had saved said fourth-sister from an attack by a whole host of bandits, and he was still considered by many to be a great sword and a brave man, but since he had entered her family’s service all he seemed to do was question prisoners, hardly the occupation of a hero…once or twice Slava had heard mutterings from the other guards that something had driven him to take up this line of duty, something dreadful had called him to a dreadful vengeance, but they always fell silent or changed the subject when they realized she was listening…and it had led him to rise in her mother’s favor, so that her last act as Tsarina had been to make him her Captain…what a terrible way to rise through the ranks…you wouldn’t think it to look at him…but he had always been unpredictable, of that everyone who knew him agreed…Slava wondered if he suffered pangs of conscience because of what he did…she had never been down in the kremlin dungeons, where prisoners such as the one before her were kept and questioned, and most of the time she tried to pretend that they didn’t exist, as there was nothing she could do about them and what happened in them.  Emptying and ending the dungeons would be tantamount to destroying Krasnograd and its kremlin at their very foundations, for both were built directly upon them, in every sense of the word.  Sometimes, in the dark of night, Slava thought she could feel them down there, a black evil eating away at her mind and at Krasnograd. As far as she knew, no one had dared curse Krasnograd for a long time, probably since its conquest by her family, but no one would need to, in her opinion, since it carried its own curse inside of it, in the form of those dungeons.  Neither she nor Krasnograd would ever know peace, she would think darkly on those dark nights, until the dungeons had been torn apart, brick from brick and stone from stone, and nothing was left of them but smoke and ash, but that would never happen.  She wished that she did not have to be reminded so horribly of their presence, but that was a selfish thought, and was swept away as soon the prisoner looked back at Slava.  She quickly looked away.  Then, afraid of making too hasty a judgment, she looked back at him.  He had large gray eyes that wanted to swallow her up.

Despite experiencing it many times, Slava was often surprised by how much evil a single human heart could contain, and this time was no different.  Even after being starved, and beaten, and probably much worse as well, the one-way gate of the prisoner’s mind remained unbroken, allowing nothing but malevolence to pour out and absolutely nothing at all to pour in.  Slava could feel the cold fingers of his cruelty slipping through her skin and prying through her mind and body, searching for the best way to cause her pain.  And worse, she could feel an answering desire for pain rise up in her own heart.  For a moment she, too, wanted to cut others in order to watch them bleed, and feel her own heart race at the sight of the blood.  Her mouth watered for the taste of it, and the tips of her fingers itched, as if long claws were waiting to burst free in order to tear into the hearts of others.  It would be an ecstatic outpouring, a blessed relief.  The desire was as strong as the longing for a lover.

She looked away.   She knew that if he were unchained, he would hurt her without a second thought, because for him she didn’t exist.  He was not a person at all, which meant that other people were not people for him either, and so he could never be trusted with another living being, never, never, because he would always see them only as things.  Things to hurt.  For a moment she had to bite her tongue in order to quell the urge to hurt someone.  Her own pain brought her back to her senses, and she knew that it was all nonsense, that she had been possessed for a moment and that she was not him, not someone who desired the suffering of others.  Not very much, anyway, and not strongly enough to act on it.  So she told herself.

“He cannot be trusted,” she said.  Even though she was no longer looking at him—and he was no longer looking at her, but at the floor—she could feel his eyes following her.  “He must never be allowed to walk freely amongst others again.”

“Then let him die!” cried one of the mothers in the corner.

“Die!” the others wailed.

“He should suffer!” said the mother of the girl who had survived.  “He must suffer for what he has done!”  A desire for a pain that could blot out their own pain rose from the victims’ mothers like a heavy stench, and overwhelmed for a moment the same desire for pain that was coming from the man at the dock.

“Little mother!”  The prisoner’s mother was still on the floor.  “Little mother, have mercy!”

“What mercy did you or your thrice-cursed monster ever have!” screamed one of the mothers in the corner.

“The normal punishment for death is death,” said Slava’s sister serenely.  “And by that reckoning, your son should die many times over.  Most would say that there is no torture we could inflict on him that would be cruel enough.”

“NO!”  Slava’s cry surprised even her.  The hatred of the mothers was suddenly all focused on her.

“You said yourself he was dangerous, sister,” said Slava’s sister.  “We cannot let such a monster walk free amongst us.”

“Send him to the mines,” said Slava.  “We always have need of more men there.  Send him the mines, but do not…you cannot…” Her voice was trembling too much for her to continue.

“NO!” screamed one of the mothers.  “I want to see him burned!”

“Flayed alive!” screamed a second one.

“They only knew it was my Masha because of her dress!” screamed a third.  “I want to see him boiled, or, or drawn and quartered, or…” She fell on the ground and began rolling around and wailing, but Slava couldn’t tell what she was wailing, because the prisoner’s mother was beating her head against the floor and screaming in long, gasping screams.  The guards moved in and used their knouts to silence both women.

“The mines,” repeated Slava.

“Why should he have mercy when he gave his victims none?” asked Slava’s sister.  She was smiling again, with the mixture of curiosity and condescension that she normally directed towards Slava.  For a moment Slava was overwhelmed with the hopelessness of making others act as people, not savage dogs.  The desperate need to save him, and the desperate desire to be elsewhere, anywhere else, and not have to cause all these people so much pain, tore in two opposite directions, like wild horses, so that it seemed as if they might tear her in half…If only she could run away from this dreadful place, run away and take him with her, so that he would be safe too—

“Because we are not him!”  Slava’s voice broke, and the words came out as much more of a shriek than she would have liked.  “He…he did what he did because, because he thought that it is acceptable to kill certain people in order to make himself feel better, and if you kill him, it will be because you think it is acceptable to kill certain people in order to make yourself feel better.  The thinking is the same.  The actions are the same.  You will, you will…it will be the same…”

“But we must put a stop to people like him, and we cannot do that by being soft,” said Slava’s sister, interrupting Slava before she could finish putting voice to her inchoate thoughts.  Her voice was full of the same brick-like certainty that surrounded the man at the dock.

“How can you…how can you…” How can you be so horrible was what Slava wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out, partly because she knew they would do no good, and partly because she knew they would cause her sister pain.  Slava’s sister prided herself, unjustly, on the mercy and justness of her reign, and any just criticism Slava made of it would hurt both of them more than Slava could stand.  Slava would have to find some other way of pleading her case.  Some way that would work, because her sister and all her retinue were only soft where they needed to be strong.  Where they needed to be gentle and yielding they were plated in cast iron.  Once again Slava was overwhelmed by the hopelessness of her own task, and the apparent justness of her sister’s words.  It would be so easy for Slava to give up, and everyone would say it was the right thing to do.  In defending the heartless criminal before her, she was wasting her strength on a cause that would be better not to defend.  She should leave him to be burned alive or boiled in oil—no, boiling was only for traitors, that wouldn’t happen to him—or broken on the wheel, and once the inhuman screams of agony were over, she and everyone else in Krasnograd could congratulate themselves on a job well done and lie easier at night.  Well, everyone else in Krasnograd would.  She looked at the floor, in order not to see the others in the Hall of Judgment and all their pain, and gathered her thoughts.

“It has been done before,” Slava said, instead of what she was really thinking.  That argument, at least, would weigh heavily with her sister, who also prided herself on her connection with Empresses of the past.  “Criminals such as him have been sent to the mines before.”

“Really?” said Slava’s sister, looking at her with a look that was equal parts curiosity, self-satisfaction, and doubt in Slava’s abilities.  “When?  Since you have been spending all your time reading scrolls these past few months instead of assisting me at my duties, I’m sure you have the answer at your fingertips.  What is it you’re doing with them again?”

“Studying the invasions of the Hordes,” said Slava, resisting the desire to point out that she was doing so only in snatches, when her sister had not filled up her days with tasks that were even more meaningless than pouring over old scrolls.  “But I have also read accounts of mercy such as what I believe is due here,” she said instead.  “For example, under the reign of our grandmother, Vladislava Svetoslavovna, there was a case similar to this one two years before the last attempted invasion by the Hordes.  The man responsible was found guilty, but instead of being killed, he was sent to the mines, at the request of our mother, to atone for his crimes by being of use to the realm.”

“But that must have been…Oh, some time ago…” said Slava’s sister, waving her hand dismissively.

“Forty-seven years ago,” said Slava.  “Before either of us was born.  Our mother was still barely out of her girlhood at the time.  But even then she showed the mercy that was the character of her reign…” Slava stopped, seeing the pained expression that crossed her sister’s face.

“Our mother is too kind,” said Slava’s sister, waving her hand dismissively again.  “It is her one flaw.  Her character was always more suited to the sanctuary than to the throne.  She is better off where she is.”

“Even Miroslava Praskovyevna, our esteemed foremother and the founder of our rule, showed mercy from time to time,” said Slava desperately.  Until that moment she would have laughed if anyone had said such a thing in front of her, but as soon as she said it, she knew that it was, in fact, true.  Who would have thought that the words “mercy” and “Miroslava Praskovyevna” would ever be uttered in the same sentence…

“Would that have been before she beheaded the entire Krasnorechivaya family with her own hands, or after?” asked Slava’s sister with a little laugh, interrupting her thoughts.  “Perhaps while she was subjugating every city along the Krasna with fire and sword?  Or perhaps when she broke the backs of the steppe queens’ armies and took their territory as her own?”

“She let Ruslan Anastasiyevich live,” said Slava.  “The Krasnorechiviye’s youngest son.  And in the third year of her reign, when the dispute between the Stepnaya family and the Malokrasnovy broke out…”

“Meaningless trivia,” said Slava’s sister, with a third dismissive wave of her hand.  “Dead facts about dead women.  This is why you were not meant to be Tsarina, Slava: you don’t understand what’s important.  You think that because the scrolls say Miroslava Praskovyevna was once merciful, we should be, too.  Sometimes I think our mother was wrong to take a Stepnoy for her second husband: you got all the Stepnaya wildness without any of their courage.  If only your father had had a little more of your fearfulness, he might still be alive.  As it is you only cower and beg for favors from others, caring for nothing but your selfish pleasure.  The gods must be wise, for they made me, who does not flinch away from the responsibilities of ruling, eldest, and you, who can think of nothing but yourself, youngest.  It is well you have no need to trouble yourself with the cares of governance, Slava, for your thoughts are too petty, all caught up in your own selfish concerns.”

Slava’s sister paused for a moment to savor the pleasure of insulting Slava before the assembled crowd.  Of late she had taken to needling Slava especially hard about her father, probably because she resented the fact that Slava’s father had been a far greater prince than her own had been—Vladislava’s father had been a mere Zapadnokrasnov, with more money than either might or magic to his name, while Slava’s father had been the son of a great princess, and heir to a long line of feared warriors—and perhaps also because she wanted to remind everyone that Slava had a strong claim to the Stepnaya lands, even as she had no claim at all the throne itself—or so the Empress would like to think.

“But since you seem to care so much, I will do as you ask.”  Slava’s sister turned to the others in the room.  “Let it be known that the prisoner’s sentence has been changed from death to exile to the mines, in honor of my sister’s recent birthday.”

“NO!” screamed the mothers of the victims and the mother of the prisoner simultaneously.  The guards brought out their knouts again, but that failed to quell them.  “He must die!” screamed the victims’ mothers.

“He will die there!” screamed the prisoner’s mother.  She was, Slava knew, most likely correct.  The mercy Slava had bought for her son was unlikely to be long-lived, for the mines and the road crews to which prisoners were sent were said to be worse than the dungeons of Krasnograd, and most of that horror was the creation of the prisoners themselves.  But it was the only mercy Slava could find.

“I have spoken.”  Slava’s sister rose from her throne.  She seemed to be smiling slightly at the chaos she had caused.  Her guards surrounded her and escorted her off the dais, across the room, and through the door.  Everyone knelt silently as she walked past.

Slava’s guards helped her to her feet and began leading her to the doors.  The prisoner’s mother watched as she went past, full of reproach but too overwhelmed by sobs to voice it.  The prisoner glanced at her for a moment.  His look made her want to shrink away as she would from a viper that had somehow found its way to her feet, although vipers at least had bright, innocent eyes.  The victims’ mothers glared at her, all their hatred focused for the moment on her, and spat or whispered threats as she walked by.

Slava followed her guards through the kremlin halls back to her rooms.  She felt as if her ears were ringing, even though they were not.  Anger and misery had filled the Hall of Judgment as deafeningly as if dozens of drummers had all been in there, each trying to out-drum the other.  Each person in the room had been so sure that her pain was the one that should cease, and that everyone else’s pain should be increased in order to drown out her own, and somehow the only person who was left unable to breathe was Slava.

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