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Thirteen Years Later
By JASPER KENT
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2011 Jasper Kent
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Chapter One"It must be by his death."
Ryleev spoke quietly, hiding neither his passion nor his distaste for his own words.
"It's not personal; it's what he is, not who he is," he continued. He looked around the room, judging the reactions of the dozen or so men whom he was addressing, reactions with which he must already have been well familiar. "He's the tsar." It was an unnecessary clarification, but it added to the enormity of what Ryleev was suggesting.
Some in the room nodded with hesitant acceptance. Some avoided his gaze. Others faced it, demonstrating by the fact they had the stomach to look their leader in the eye that they also had the stomach for his plan.
Aleksei Ivanovich Danilov was among those who allowed Ryleev's eyes to fix on his. He revealed nothing—years of deceit had taught him how to make his eyes the barrier, not the window to his soul. In his time he had stared into eyes behind which there lay no soul whatsoever, and learned from that too. Ryleev's gaze lingeredmomentarily longer on him, as though he were aware that he would detect nothing, but thenmoved on. Still no one commented on what he had said.
"It's changed him, being tsar—changed his nature," he continued.
"It was the war that did that," said a voice from the back. "We all went to France and saw what liberty really meant. Aleksandr saw it too. Saw what it would mean for him. He was terrified by it."
"He should be terrified by it," said another.
"He will be." This time Aleksei recognized the quiet voice as belonging to Pyotr Grigoryevich Kakhovsky. He had only recently returned to Petersburg, but had quickly become involved with the Society.
Not for the first time, Aleksei noted how much older he himself was than all the others gathered in the room. It was true they all remembered the fall of Paris in 1814, and most could recall Napoleon's occupation of Moscow in 1812, but it would have been their first campaign. By 1812, Aleksei was already a toughened warrior.
"But you raise the problem yourself, Kondraty Fyodorovich," he said, addressing Ryleev. "It's not who he is; it's what he is. We may kill Aleksandr, but the tsar will still live. The serfs will still serve. The censor will still censor. We won't have a duma, we'll just have Tsar Konstantin instead of Tsar Aleksandr—and for all his faults, I know which I'd prefer."
Even as he spoke, Aleksei was glancing around his confederates in the comfortable, decadent salon and wondering which of Aleksandr's failings it was that caused them most offence. They were not serfs themselves—nothing like it. Many had estates upon which hundreds of men were bound in labour. Nor were they aristocrats, for the most part, though there were princes amongst them. They were dressed either as gentlemen or as soldiers, and all sat on the elegant French chairs or leaned against the expensively papered walls with the air of men who fitted into society. What they shared was a simple conviction—almost a sense of embarrassment—that compared with the rest of Europe, Russia was still in the Dark Ages.
"We're lucky that Aleksandr has no children—only brothers to succeed him," said Kakhovsky. Aleksei shot him a questioning look. Kakhovsky smoothed his moustache in a way that hinted at a repressed anger. "I'd have less stomach to kill children," he explained.
"Even the death of Grand Duke Konstantin may be unnecessary," interjected Ryleev. "If we can act quickly enough, we can take power—either with Konstantin as a puppet, or without him. And then we'll free the serfs, and set up the duma, and publish whatever the hell we please."
"Why wait then, for God's sake?" exploded Kakhovsky. "The tsar's had his chance. They all have. We have to act! You think Brutus sat around like this, discussing what would happen after Caesar's death?"
Aleksei suspected that was precisely what Brutus had done, but didn't mention it. It was a bad analogy anyway. "And did it do Brutus any good?" he asked. "Who took power in the end? Augustus was Caesar's nephew. Brutus helped to found a dynasty, not destroy one."
"And there lay Brutus's error," said Ryleev, his manner calming the mood. "It is not 'we' who will be doing the killing. Whoever carries out that task will be a garde perdue; a separate body able to take the blame for what has to be done and allowing those of us who envisage a new order to take power."
"Taking the blame," said Kakhovsky, his wrath now expressed as a growl rather than a roar, "but what about the punishment?"
"To be forever devoured by Satan, like Brutus was?" asked a voice. Aleksei smiled to himself; whatever the politics of this group, it was pleasant—and, in Russia, rare—to be amongst a group of men who would have no trouble understanding the reference to Dante.
Ryleev smiled too, but his expression was enigmatic. "Those who claim power will be magnanimous to those who brought about their rise to power. But in the eyes of the people, the two must be separate."
It was Aleksei who asked the all-important question, though he had already heard rumours as to the answer.
The room quietened. All eyes turned to Ryleev.
"It's too late for this year," he said. "In the next few days, the tsar will be leaving for Taganrog."
"Why's he going there?" asked Kakhovsky.
"We don't know," admitted Ryleev. "He claims it is for the tsaritsa's health, but I find that hard to credit. There are some secrets that even our most well-placed sympathizers are not privy to. But he'll be close to the Crimea and the Black Sea. My guess is he wants to strike a deal with the Turks."
"Not standing by the Greeks, then?" said Kakhovsky. "They're Christians at least."
"They're revolutionaries," explained Ryleev. "If he helped them to throw off the Ottomans—well, what example would that set?"
"One more reason to get rid of him quickly."
Ryleev nodded. "It will happen," he said. "And it will happen next year. We may be thirty-seven years behind the French, but no one will blame us for that. 1826 will go down in history as the year of the Russian Revolution."
* * *
The meeting broke up early and Aleksei headed home. The sun was bright and warm, as befitted a city like Petersburg, and served only as a reminder of how unRussian a place it was. He walked home along the bank of the Yekaterininsky Canal, his path meandering with that of the waterway. He knew that his wife, Marfa Mihailovna, was expecting him not to be late and that the party which she had planned required his presence—if not his active participation—for its success, but even so, he did not walk too briskly. The reason for the party added a certain irony to the discussions that had just been taking place. Today was 30 August; the feast day of Saint Aleksandr Nevsky, and hence Tsar Aleksandr's name day. Many houses in Petersburg would be holding similar soirées.
The meeting of the Northern Society, as it styled itself, had taken place at the home of Prince Obolensky, in the shadow of the golden domes of Saint Nikolai's. Aleksei had been a member for a long time, almost from its foundation in 1816, when it had gone by the name of the Union of Salvation. Many of the members had come to the organization through Freemasonry, having been initiated into lodges in Paris, but Aleksei had little enough stomach for genuine Orthodox ritual, let alone the pseudo-religious twaddle that was practised in the lodges. It had not been a bar to him joining the Union. The name had changed many times since then, but the aspirations had not—they had merely become more focussed. Once, its political aims had been vague; progressive, certainly, but with the intention of having some influence on the reforms which, back then, Aleksandr was still believed to be planning. For many, Aleksei among them, philosophy and literature had been favoured over politics as matters of debate, and discussions of Brutus and Dante and the like had abounded. When the subject matter of the discussions had changed, many had left, but Aleksei had chosen to remain.
"They're the three greatest heroes of Christianity," said Maksim Sergeivich, his voice kept low.
He had said it a long, long time before, but Aleksei could place it precisely. They had both been lying on their stomachs on a hot, dry hillside a little to the west of Smolensk, in August of 1812, just days before the city would be abandoned to the French. Maks had died scarcely a month later. "Maks had died"—expressing it that way made it all so simple. "Aleksei had left Maks to die" was more accurate. "Aleksei had left Maks to be slaughtered" was the phrase that best fitted the facts.
But in Smolensk, neither of them would have dreamed of the eventual manner of Maks' death, nor of its proximity. They had been observing the French lines, Aleksei peering through his spyglass, looking for signs of the advance they knew would soon come. Somehow the conversation had turned to Brutus, Cassius and Judas, the three traitors who, in the ninth circle of Dante's Hell, were each consumed throughout eternity by one of the three faces of a Satan himself encased up to his chest in ice. That any of these three could be a hero of Christianity was patently ridiculous, and yet Aleksei knew Maks would not have made the statement without there being a compelling argument behind it.
"I don't think many theologians would agree with you there," Aleksei had said, looking down and making a brief note of what he could see of the enemy's deployments.
"Really?" said Maks. "Perhaps I'm wrong." Anyone who did not know him might have been convinced.
"Go on then," said Aleksei. "Start with Judas."
"That's the easy one." Maks turned onto his side, instinctively sliding a little way down the hillside to avoid any chance of being seen. "Without Judas, there would have been no arrest at Gethsemane. Without the arrest, no trial. Without the trial, no crucifixion. Without the crucifixion, no resurrection, and without the resurrection, no Christian religion."
"That doesn't quite make him a hero. He didn't act for good reasons."
"His reasons are debatable," Maks explained, characteristically pushing his spectacles up over the bridge of his nose. "The gospel of John even has it that Christ selected him as the betrayer, and that Satan only entered into him after that, which looks like collusion to me. And yet Christ sits up there at the right hand of God, and Judas ends up in Hell."
Aleksei had heard this line from Maks more than once over the years since they'd first met; both recruited by Vadim Fyodorovich to a small band to carry out "special duties." It was Vadim who had sent them out there, and was waiting back in Smolensk for their report, along with Dmitry Fetyukovich, the final member of the group.
"So what about Brutus and Cassius?" pressed Aleksei. "Weren't they dead before Christ was even born?"
"When I was a kid," replied Maks, though Aleksei questioned—would always question—whether he wasn't still a kid, "I used to marvel at the coincidence that the establishment of the Roman Empire and the birth of Christ were separated by less than thirty years; the political foundation of the Western world and its religious foundation, at the same instant in historical terms. What an age to have been alive! But, of course, it was no coincidence. Rome conquered Europe and delivered both its politics and its religion. OK—Christianity was lucky to be one of the several Roman religions to gain ascendancy, but it wasn't luck that got it spread across the empire. That was military might. And there wouldn't have been a Roman Empire if Brutus and Cassius hadn't tried to prevent there being one."
"So again, they're heroes, but not by their own intent," said Aleksei.
"Dupes, really. We know Christ's plan was to die. Maybe Caesar decided it was best to go out on a high note and engineered things the way he wanted them. For both, death made them greater than they had been in life."
"For Christ, perhaps, but Caesar's death was pretty final."
"Julius Caesar's was, but Caesars have been doing well enough out of it ever since; and kaisers, and tsars."
"Maybe," said Aleksei, "although you can't put the spread of Christianity down just to the Romans. Christianity goes beyond Europe, which they never did."
"Carried by the British Empire to the north of America and by the Spanish to the south. It's still the same mechanism."
"And what about the Russians? The Roman Empire never got this far."
But Maks never answered. He had crawled forward once more to examine the French camp, and had seen something which Aleksei had not. "My God," he said. "They're moving."
* * *
The canal disappeared beneath Nevsky Prospekt, under a bridge far wider than it was long. Aleksei turned off the embankment and onto the city's wide thoroughfare, heading westward into the setting sun. Ahead of him the yellow plaster walls of the Admiralty marked the end of the Prospekt, and behind him—several versts behind him—the Nevsky Monastery stood at its beginning. Maks came to his mind less often these days, but was still a frequent visitor. Maks would have been at that meeting tonight, Aleksei was certain—had he lived. He would have been a founder member of the Union of Salvation and would have stuck with it through thick and thin. Some even said he'd have been in charge today, instead of Ryleev. He'd certainly have better understood the implications of what they were planning. Ryleev was just a poet playing at politics.
But Maks had not lived long enough to join with the rest of them in the occupation of Paris in 1814, though he had probably seen the city earlier. The reason Aleksei was so sure Maks would have been a member of the Northern Society was the same one that had condemned him to death in 1812: he was a French spy. The irony of that particular recollection of him—the discussion of Judas and Brutus and Cassius—was that his execution had been carried out by a man who had taken on the name of Christ's betrayer, albeit in its Russian form—Iuda.
But Iuda too had died, a few months after Maks, and the eleven monstrous creatures that had accompanied him—voordalaki, who drank the blood of Russians and French alike—had perished also. Iuda himself had been no vampire, but he had been in good company with them. Whatever it was that had driven him to inflict suffering on his fellow man was something more perverse than the mere need for blood, but just as despicable. He was dead though, long dead, and his name was no longer of any interest to Aleksei. He turned off the wide avenue and into Great Konyushennaya Street, where his apartments stood. He could see the light from the tall first-floor windows, and the sound of voices already spilled from within.
He climbed the stairs up from the street and entered his home of almost twenty years, dismissing thoughts of the name Iuda from his mind and turning to a different name which, today at least, was of more concern to him. That name was Vasiliy.
It took Aleksei more than a moment to recognize either his drawing room or his wife. Both had undergone a transformation that was evidently intended to please the evening's guests. On consideration, Aleksei preferred what Marfa had done with herself to what she had done with the room. Usually their home was tidy and simple, its comfortable size and central location being expression enough of the degree of wealth required to maintain it. Today, however, it seemed everything they owned was on show. The best crockery and cutlery covered every available flat surface, far more than was needed for the number of guests expected. The only exception was the harpsichord, which neither he nor Marfa would ever dare sully with such clutter.
Marfa herself had opted for simplicity, and a beautiful simplicity at that. She wore a cream satin dress, decorated with only a few tasteful blue ribbons. Her hair was up, adorned with a silver tiara. She was going to be forty in a month's time, but few would suppose it. The fact that she was a little plumper than when he had first known her only served to hide any wrinkles she might have developed. Her hair was still the same dark chestnut it had always been, and few other than her maid and Aleksei himself would have guessed at the efforts she made to keep it so.
He bent forward to kiss her on the cheek and she stepped away from the woman she had been speaking with—whom Aleksei did not recognize—to talk to her husband.
Excerpted from Thirteen Years Later by JASPER KENT Copyright © 2011 by Jasper Kent. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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