Fiction: Bloodline by Nick Greer

Nick Greer lives in Tucson where he’s pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona. We are thrilled to have his piece “Bloodline” in Anamesa Spring 2014:

 

Bloodline

Nick Greer

 

As Nicholas and Vlad’s father told it, their family suffered from a rare disease, an ancient one passed through their bloodline by Caspian princes. These were the type of men who rode bareback on wild stallions and took Circassian peasants to bed as their whims dictated. It was from one of these unions that the disease came into being. A child was born with such brilliant milky skin, blue eyes, and full black hair that the holy man who had overseen the birth declared him sacred and named him Myrtho—god of covenant and guardian of cattle. Unlike the other bastards, who were gladly forgotten and left to quiet lives in the thatched cottages that speckled the hillsides, the sacred boy was invited to live in the castle and, in time, became a prince himself, thus starting the line that would give the Kashcheevs their august name but also their greatest weakness.

“What happened to the mother?” Vlad asked.

“She did not live in the castle.”

“Why not?”

“She was a peasant. That was the way life worked back then. The peasants pledged loyalty to the nobles and in turn they received protection from the harms of the world—neighboring fiefdoms, famine, disease. This was just their world.”

“Did she ever see her son?”

“No,” he said, not without a sense of remorse, “it was not allowed.”

Though their father usually reserved stories about the sacred boy for the holidays—Koljada, Kupala, and, the most cherished, Radonica—if Nicholas and Vlad took their evening medicine without complaint, and asked politely, they might get to hear a story at bedtime. Their favorites were those in which the sacred boy adventured across the country and beyond. His battles with the barbarous Tatars. Seasonal excursions to the south to hunt Caspian tigers. Smoking somniferum in the Ottoman courts. His seduction of the Princess of Vasaria, which bore him his two favorite sons. Of course, they liked to suppose they were these two sons, heirs to a vast combined fortune.

“Are we going to be rulers when we grow up?”

“Of course, Nikolasha. You are descended from boyars, ancient nobles. Vladimir will be czar and you will be czarevich.”

Czarevich?”
“It means you are the little king. You are to be cherished and protected.”

At the time, Vlad understood this tale as his family’s fable, a story told to give meaning to their lives, to make medicine a bit more tolerable, but through life in the city he came to know it as a form of fate, as preordained as the count of hours in a day and the rotation of the earth. Day becomes night and then day again. And who would rebel against the night?

•   •   

Another springtime dawn prepared itself on the other side of the great steppe, but for now the streets were still dark, busy and jubilant with Saturday night’s carousers, a Saturday that seemed to have been going steady since the formal dissolution of the Union that winter.

Vlad walked home from the hospital at a fast clip with his brother’s medicine hidden beneath his peacoat. Since the dissolution, Nicholas had been bedridden and required his medicine twice as often; without it, his skin took on a filmy translucence that eventually broke into flaking and abscesses. When medicine didn’t take, Vlad resorted to a home remedy he learned from his father, one their ancestors had turned to during bad spells. A medley of animal parts—ox marrow, pig’s blood, chicken hearts, lamb offal—plus whatever vegetables were available. Once this stew reduced to a gelatinous stock, they would stir in three hundred and thirty-three poppy seeds, “no more, no less,” their father cautioned. Counting out the seeds was the boys’ responsibility, and Vlad would shoulder Nicholas out of the way for the privilege. In the blurred, uncountable years since arriving in the city, medicine may have been inconsistent and rations meager, but never had both medicine and folk remedy failed them, that is, until now.

The sun inched over the horizon and the city became a quilt of gray buildings, among which only the onion-capped cathedrals stood out. The city wouldn’tthaw into swamp for another month, but those on the streets were dressed for the occasion. Young women in skirts that ended abruptly halfway down their thighs did not bother with hose. Men wore thin red tracksuits that matched their flushed cheeks. Their defiance would have been inspiring were it not for the slight tremors they emitted while waiting for a comrade to pass the flask, and their lips, chapped and, in some cases, bleeding. Vlad passed a movie poster advertising a couple locked in an opulent embrace. He scowled at the pair, a pert American girl and her pale Slavic paramour. This is what we want to see, he thought, a tawdry romance with the West: Romanov and Juliet.

“Hey, you! Bum!” a man with a sparse beard called out. “Stop staring at my girl. Go get your own.” He hissed at Vlad, who was unaware he had been staring. This girl, who hung limply from the man’s arm, must have been at least a decade his junior. She still had the fine body hairs of a child and they glowed yellow in the morning light. While most considered Vlad a beggar of some kind—if they considered him at all—this girl stared with distant empathy. She rotated her arm out, showing off a surprising paleness broken only by a constellation of bruises and cuts, as if to say, me too, me too.

Vlad apologized and ducked into a side street that brought him to Sitnij. His way home would take him through more than one homeless colony. These congregations typically announced themselves by the smell of unwashed bodies and kerosene, which kept rubbish lit when newspaper ran out. He turned left up another alley to find a group of čërnyje sharing the warmth of such a trash-can fire. Their shelter was the demolished storefront of what must have once been a pharmacy or a church, judging by the dull green cross that hung from the awning. The addicts watched him with joyless yet knowing eyes as he rushed along. These vagrants had surfaced in large numbers since the dissolution. They must have existed all along to be so prevalent now—indeed this group had the look of longtime sufferers, faces pocked and arms slack like fish on a wire waiting to be smoked—but their presence was still a shock to the newly awakened city. After so much suffering, citizens were ready to be healed, and addicts stood in opposition of such progress.

Two streets beyond was Vlad’s building, a cosmopolitan French imitation turned block housing, and now mostly empty as young people found jobs and started families in new neighborhoods. He climbed the spiral staircase to the fourth floor where he noticed somebody had left candy wrappers on the landing. Even before he squeezed between the plywood cover and the wall, he could hear Nicholas’s labored breathing, shallow and unstable as a tide pool.

“Niko, are you ready for your medicine?”

“V, I thought you’d never return!” His brother was propped up against the metal headboard. Vlad could tell it had taken him some effort to get into this position. “Did you have any trouble with the pharmacists?”

“No trouble this time. That horrible lady wasn’t working tonight.” He pulled the medicine from its hiding place and set it in a metal bowl. After a few yanks he was able to open the kitchen window. With his keys to the hospital’s custodial closet he chiseled ice from the sill and collected the chunks in the bowl, burying the medicine until it was faint and rosy.

“I’ve been a little dizzy today, but there are no flakes.” He pulled an arm from beneath the covers to show off its smoothness. Vlad admired the limb as he would a gemstone. Veins were visible beneath the skin, little alpine rivers that led back to a vast lake with waters so deep they were purple.

“Leave your arm out. This will only take a minute.”

He filled a stockpot with water and while he waited for it to boil, he wheeled the IV from its hiding place in the closet, behind the tattered ermine coat Nicholas hadn’t worn since they first emigrated to the city. When the water boiled, he dropped the butterfly needle in, counted to fifteen, and fished it out with a spoon.

Nicholas squirmed under his shell of blankets.

“But I don’t like the medicine. It tastes bitter!” This was a game they sometimes played, Nicholas acting the petulant child, Vlad impersonating their father’s steady baritone.

“Come now, Nikolasha. If you take your medicine you will live forever.”

They had a laugh and continued the procedure. The needle tracked easily against Nicholas’s prominent veins and soon medicine raced through the catheter. His sallow face bloomed with color and his teeth ceased their chattering. His eyes grew heavy and lidded until he looked like an infant about to open its eyes for the first time and take in the world.

“What about you?” Nicholas asked.

“Don’t worry about me, little king, the broth will be enough for today.”

“Alright then . . .”

They shared the bed and watched whatever movies were on television while daylight threatened to enter through pesky gaps in the shutters. The movie was American and took place somewhere arid. Men rode horses and there were canyons and mesas with impossibly flat tops.

“V?”

“Yes, Niko?”

“Should we move to the West?”

“You’re much too sick to leave your bed, much less the city. Besides, we only know Russian.”

“We know a little English.”

“Just because we watch American movies now doesn’t mean we speak the language.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m a baby. I know more than you think.” He looked away as he said this, and Vlad couldn’t help but laugh.

“Oh ya? Try some.”

“Alright. I’ve been practicing while you’re at work.” He steeled himself and made a fist. “Try that cowboy shit with me, fucker, and you can kiss these goodbye.”

Vlad cackled. “That’s pretty good. What does it mean?”

“Oh, I don’t know!”

They laughed, and though its sound was echoless, needy in a way, Vlad thought it might be enough to carry them to tomorrow.

•   •   

Like so many of the city’s vagabonds, Nicholas and Vlad grew up in a village on the other side of the country. With a population below five hundred and tucked among the ongoing parentheses of the Caucasus Mountains, Arkhyz was passed over by traders and conquerors alike. The town’s only institutional knowledge of the outside was a world map in the central lodge. Nationless and hand drawn, its measurements were exaggerated and inaccurate, depicting the mountains as the only feature of an otherwise flat earth. Arkhyz was a snow globe, the inside protected by the same glass that distorted the view of the outside.

Vlad and his brother’s world was at once smaller and more grand. They were reclusive and modest boys, spending most of their time at the cottage, but their father’s stories showed them how marvelous and large the earth could be. Close scrapes with bandits while caravanning across the country. His school days in St. Petersburg. Travels to the gilded cities of the West. He too was named Myrtho, and so his life took on an epic texture the boys wished for themselves. His stories were the telescope around which they huddled, taking turns observing far-off palaces and oceans, all the way to the end of the world.

Their father was the town’s physician and thus took the role of surgeon, apothecary, and whatever else was expected of him. He took special care when he served as midwife, and as such earned the trust of the women. As a rule, the villagers did not trust educated men. They observed a muddled hybrid of folk belief and the orthodoxy of the state, stoked by the vitriol of Mr. Rudometkin, the town’s minister. Their belief emboldened them to speak harshly of the opulence and corruption in the cities up north, though few ventured to the lowlands. To ease this tension, their father was careful to nest his treatments in the traditions he learned by chatting up the wives. He harvested leeches for patients who only accepted bloodletting. When administering the drugs the oblast delivered in bulk shipments twice a year, he crushed the pills and packed the powder into tonics, poultices, and salves. He advocated that patients take doses in accordance with the cycles of the moon or with special potpourris beneath their beds for good luck. He even accepted payment in livestock and jars of flavorless pickles the family ate out of courtesy and curiosity. The boys rarely pried as to why a man of his talents and nobility would condescend to such a level, but when they did, he grew morose and told his boys it was the duty of the blessed to protect their lessers.

“And besides, we always have sin to atone for.”

Their father was careful but he was also prideful. He lectured about the importance of service as if the townsfolk were their vassals.

“Our disease is not the only threat we know. You boys are special and these peasants will be jealous of your smarts and skills so you must, must, do as they do. If they eat sausage but you think it tastes like sand, eat it anyway and don’t say a word. If they think it’s cold outside, but you are comfortable, make sure to shiver and go ‘brrr’ with them. This is how you will keep their trust. Maintain your sang froid.”

“What is a ‘zangfrod’?” Nicholas asked.

Sangfroid. It’s French. It means you should keep your composure.”
It was not difficult to get along with adults, but children could sense their difference, the rarified air they breathed. The town had its bullies, big brutish boys who smelled like the onions and tubers they helped their fathers uproot when not at school.

“Ivan called me a botfly,” Vlad announced. “I want to hurt him.”

“Is that Ilia’s son?”
“Yes. Mr. Grymzin.”

“Ivan only knows what a botfly is because they live in his daddy’s bed. Ignorehim. Mr. Grymzin is a drinker and a farmer. Everybody needs food. We anger him, we anger the whole town.”

“That’s not fair.”

“But it is our birthright. We suffer quietly so others don’t have to. That is what nobles do.”

These dictums lasted Vlad until the bullies grew into adolescents. They still had the minds of children, but the bodies of men, which they wore like new parkas they would need to grow into. Vlad and Nicholas were obvious targets—good at school and incapable of filling out their drawn boyish frames. Though Arkhyz had no alleys to scuttle down, Vlad used the rock outcrops and copses north of town to make cover for their walks to and from school. He led his brother by the hand because Nicholas was afraid, not of Ivan and his goons, but of the tree trunks left from seasonal logging. He was convinced they were rows of teeth.

“But what if the world is one big monster? Wouldn’t the forest be the beard? We should hide.”

“There is no need. If the world is a monster, where are its eyes? It’s no monster if it can’t see you!”

But the world was monstrous, its many eyes set in the skulls of peasants and nobles alike. If he didn’t know it then, he surely knew it now. He had seen the ghosts men make of curtains that catch the wrong breeze. How the shadows of a leafless birch are claws, about to constrict. And maybe if he kept Niko cloistered away from their gaze, safe in his bed, he would stay a boy forever.

•   •   

Vlad leaned his mop against the wall and pressed his face against the clear glass of the refrigerator. The pouches of medicine hung on clips like sleeping bats, protected by a cocoon of wings. He could feel his own pangs rise reflexively within him, but smothered this need with the image of his Niko, eyes jaundiced and skin like candle wax, making the effort to sit up to greet him. The following night he would be off and have no reason to be at the hospital. Should I take an extra to last us, he wondered, gripping the handle.

“Boy, what are you doing?”

It was the nurse with the name badge that read “A.A. Botkina,” that horrible woman who liked to stalk Vlad as he made his way from emergency to reception to storage. He saw her stumpy legs as two logs of rancid French cheese, covered as they were with cobwebs of varicose veins.

“Cleaning, madam. The orderlies get their fingerprints all over the glass. The doctors complain it’s unsanitary.”

“The last graveyard shift custodian we had was a narik. He worked here for the needles. He took them out of trash bins. One day he went crazy and broke into the pharmacy. He made off with a month’s supply of morphine.”

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Don’t play dumb. You live in Sitnij Market in that disgusting cave of a building. The city is thinking about condemning it.”

“You followed me?” He felt sick, out of body. There is a certain savagery to all people, he hated to acknowledge, but it’s always there, dormant but clever, looking for excuses to gush out.

“I saw you take something last week. You stuffed it in your jacket.”

“That was my pay. I can’t walk around the market with it in my hand, flapping in the wind.”

“Liar. Give me your arm.”

Vlad extended his arm in confusion more than cooperation. Despite the ferocity within, or perhaps as a means to contain it, his body went slack. An animal playing dead. The woman unbuttoned his sleeve and rolled it up to his biceps. Something gleamed in her free hand.

“If you’re clean, then the tests will tell. Blood doesn’t lie.”

•   •   

“Hey you, botfly,” Ivan said, packing a snowball in his gloved hands.

“Oh, hello, Ivan.” Vlad spoke nonchalantly, though there could be only one reason for Ivan to follow them into the woods. It wouldn’t have been difficult to overtake them by cutting through the brush.

“I see you two like to take the scenic route. So you can spend time with your cousins?” He threw the snowball at a dead piece of wood and spiders evacuated en masse.

“There is no good reason.”

“Of course there is a good reason. This is where you do your evil. Out in the woods with spirits.”

“What are you talking about?”

“My daddy says you—your whole family—you’re bad. Lower than shit.”

“If that’s so, then why are we boyars?”

“Ha! I don’t see any castles around.”

“At least we’re not farmers who smell like our cows’ shit.”

Ivan cracked his back by rolling his shoulders and approached them. Vlad sent Nicholas to cover behind a bush.

“At least I don’t suck igla for its juice.”

Vlad moved faster and more precisely than he knew was possible. Smaller than Ivan, he had to jump and wrap himself around the older boy’s shoulders, but after a moment of gnashing, he felt them sink to the ground where he had full range of the boy’s throat and face.

Ivan would be found on his back in a halo of painted snow by the stalwart widow Madam Chesnokov, who had been out in the woods to check her snares. She heaped Ivan into her cart and wheeled him straight to the Kashcheev house, where the family was sitting down to a modest dinner of their stew. Ivan was pale with shock and nearly dead, but Myrtho performed his duty all the same, wrapping everything above the shoulders in styptic and gauze.

Mr. Grymzin got word later that afternoon and arrived, a mess of snow and tears, shouting about beasts and monsters. Somebody told him Ivan had been mauled by a tiger, though those animals hadn’t been seen in years.

“I know what it was,” he howled. “He taunted the wolves. He threw rocks at them and now look what they’ve done.”

Vlad watched the scene with the profound mineral flavor of Ivan’s blood still coruscating and healthful on his tongue. He felt sick, not with disgust for what he had done, but in his stomach, suddenly nauseated with glut. In that moment he understood something his father would not admit. Myrtho was indeed god of the covenant, guardian of cattle. Livestock, the word flushed with new meaning.

•   •   

Vlad could not tell if the flame on the stove was lit. After a minute of fiddling with the knob and holding his hand over the stovetop, he realized the gas had been shut off. His teeth throbbed and his throat tickled, as if a faucet in his head had a drip. The moonlight during the walk home saturated his vision as harshly as the fluorescent lights of the hospital, another place he must never return to, evidence of their disease written clearly in blood. He knew his life, his brother’s life, had again changed for the worse, but there was also a craven part of him that was wildly exhilarated. Within this new danger was a kind of liberation, and his whole body responded to it.

“Am I going to have stock, too?” Nicholas asked.

“No, I have something special for you. You know that pharmacist, the one who normally gives me a hard time for not having the right papers? Well, she stopped working there and her replacement didn’t know how to work the machines and gave me extra supply.”

“Why don’t you take some for yourself then?” Vlad could sense Nicholas was more skeptical than concerned.

“I’ll be alright. I get what I need from the stock. We don’t have any more butterfly needles though. Is it alright if I give you a shot?”

“It’s okay.”

Vlad brought his brother the medicine in a large milk bottle. He shook it to make sure it mixed properly and opened the top. To sterilize the needle, he waved it through the flame of a candle, but a butterfly settled on the tip and he had to repeat the process. The injection took quickly, faster than Nicholas must have been used to, because soon afterwards he was half asleep with his eyes rolled back so Vlad could only see the whites of his eyes, now the color of tobacco. We really are čërnyje now, he thought. The medicine collected in various bottles in the fridge was now their stash, something to preserve and worship.

He turned on the television, planning to watch until sleep came, but his body wouldn’t let him. He ground his teeth until he believed them to be completely smooth, facets on a gemstone. He wished they hadn’t squandered their wealth to get to the city, but they had no way of knowing the true worth of their fortune. Their father’s stories of the great city up north were all they knew of the outside world. It made sense that they do anything to get there, and the men who ran the trains were the type who responded only to bribes. Why hadn’t their father warned them about the men that make up any place—cowards, beggars, addicts?

Noon came and went and Nicholas slept on, so Vlad sat cross-legged on the ground and turned the grains in the floor’s hardwood into poppy seeds, counting until there were no more to count. And then he counted them again.

•   •   

“The day has come. There is no time to escape. Vlad, take your brother to the bedroom and hide.”

As soon as he said this, their father began rummaging in the kitchen cupboard, tossing aside pans and knives. When he found what he was looking for, a worn brown parcel, he turned back to his boys, both too afraid to move, and ushered them into the bedroom.

“Here, get under the bed.” He pulled his many coats from the wardrobe, threw them on the ground, and stomped until they looked as dirty as rags. When the boys were situated under the bed, he tucked them in with the coats. “If they look, all they will see is rubbish.” He packed the parcel in Vlad’s shirt pocket. At this, he winked at the boys and strode into the main room as if there were no threat at all.

The knocking at the door seemed to shake the entire house. Nicholas burrowed into Vlad’s comparative largeness until the parcel, wedged between their bodies, felt like a bag of teeth against his chest. Vlad heard his father open the front door to the rioters, welcome them in. When they entered, they made a point of stomping on the hardwood as if it too were something to kill. He covered Nicholas’s ears reflexively when the argument began. The voices were muddled and strained but he could make out most of what ensued.

“What do you want with our town?” Vlad could tell it was Mr. Grymzin, voice tall and shrill.

“I simply want to live a peaceful life with my boys, just like any other man.” His father’s voice, steady.

“Yes, of course, you are like any other man. You and your boys, but no mother. A house without a woman is no house at all.”

“We are a house of bastards. It’s all we have.”

“Ivan was all I had. He should have been saved.”

“His condition . . . I’m sorry, Ilia. He wouldn’t clot. He was beyond saving.”

“And so are you.” The sound of rainwater was inside the house and an untold choir murmured their sacred chants. From the din, his father’s voice rang out confidently.

“I will not harm you.”

Vlad could sense the doubt in the silence that followed, but a voice he knew to be Mr. Rudometkin struck back. “Do not listen to him. He is a liar and a sinner.”

“I may be a sinner, but I have only brought beneficence to your town. Please—”

Their father let out an inhuman howl that coagulated into a weak gurgle, and then the commotion stopped. Nicholas’s tears pooled on Vlad’s chest, creating a kind of wound. Though their father was their god, larger than life, invincible in so many ways, he was dead.

Two sets of boots clomped into the bedroom, the telling odors of soil and garlic trailing.

“Where are the boys?”

“They must have climbed out the window. Look it’s open.”

“I wonder where the doctor keeps that fine coat of his . . .”

“You idiot, are you trying to bring a curse on us? Rudometkin told us not to touch anything. He said we have to burn it all.”

“Fine, fine. Where do they keep the kerosene?”

The footsteps left and returned. One of the men sat on the bed. It winced and bowed with the weight.

“What the hell kind of house doesn’t have kerosene? How do they light their fire at night?”

“Probably don’t need it. Come, I have some at home. We can get the axe too.”

The sound of boots rose and faded until there was only Nicholas’s harsh breathing, muted through the fur and fabric that ensconced them. They ventured out from under the bed, but Vlad would not let his brother see what was in the other room. He rushed ahead to close the door, himself catching a portrait of the scene before burying it forever. His father, impaled on a pickaxe, arms spread but stiff, a butterfly on a pin.

He knew this would be the last moment they would share as a family, so he kissed Nicholas on the forehead and wrapped him in their father’s ermine coat. Too long, it bunched in tresses at his feet. They climbed out the window and made their way to the forest where the lone sign of human presence was Madam Chesnokov’s snares.

It was only the following morning, far enough away from the village to feel safe, that Vlad inspected the parcel and discovered his father’s inheritance. A fistful of gemstones—amethysts, emeralds, and diamonds—and a portrait of their father in his coat and a garish headdress studded with the gems Vlad now held. Their father posed with his palms open, showing off a richly decorated room— tiger heads mounted on the wall; a throne carved out of dogwood; suits of armor standing on their own as if worn by ghosts, their shields stamped by a coat of arms, a great winged monster brandishing a scimitar that curved like a fang. Sitting cross-legged at his feet were more than a dozen boys, all with the same black hair and blue eyes. In the lower left corner, in a cursive so ornate it was barely legible: Myrtho Dvoinik Kashcheev, the sacred boy, with his estate.

•   •   

As the supply of medicine shrank, Nicholas became more dependent on each shot. It was all they could do to follow their daily routine. Each night Vlad left the house, pretending to put in a shift at the hospital, while instead he stalked Sitnij searching for lost medicine that wouldn’t be missed. He returned at dawn, always without an answer for his brother. Nicholas never asked how much was left. He took his shot quietly, but not without nervousness in his blue eyes. Where have you been? they pleaded. After the shot, Vlad watched television as Nicholas flickered in and out of dreams. In one movie, a boy grows into a man to avenge his slain parents. “I made you, you made me first,” he says to their murderer. Vlad saw this as a Gestalt illusion—a symbiosis so interlocked there is no difference between parasite and host. He didn’t need to watch the end to know the boy would become a murderer, too.

He changed the channel to the news. The tone was excited and novel, as if for the first time their country could write its own story. They fixated on corporate crime and a string of murders. A woman starting her double shift, left to die. Two more, drinkers trying to make their way home through the labyrinth of Sitnij after splitting a bottle of imported rum, found the same way. The newscaster painted a noble picture of their suffering, no matter how insensible the deaths may have been. These were the new comrades, just excited to be able to work and eat and drink any way they saw fit. But were he and Nicholas not the same in that way? What of our choice, he thought as he counted the grains of wood in the floorboards, now a daily habit, one of many.

In the years since leaving Arkhyz he had heard their disease called by many names. The sleepless doctors that attended to them when they first arrived in the city had used nonsense words—thalassemia, porphyria, cytopenia—but not one of them could diagnose the disease, much less cure it. All they did was prescribe their medicine to lessen the pain. The history books provided a clearer explanation: “kings and princes from Carpathia to the Caspian Sea were known to suffer from a choler of the soul unlike any known to the rest of Europe.” There were the senseless epithets—torčok, narik, čërnyj—all of which captured the condition if not the precise ailment. Most incisive were the judgments of children, accusatory and naïve, who needed no more than to cross their index fingers and hiss to show their disgust.

He only understood his sickness in full during Nicholas’s last days. Of course it was dawn, and the light from a growing hole in the ceiling encroached up to the edge of the bed, ready to claim him.

“I wasn’t so young then, back in Arkhyz. I know what’s happening, V.”

“What do you mean?” Even as he said this, he could feel the inevitability of death and all its enlightenment pouring into the room.

“In the forest . . . In the cottage . . .” he nodded off and came back. “They weren’t mad at us, they were scared of us.”

“Those men were evil.”

“No they weren’t. They were simple. They didn’t know how to deal with the pains of the world, not like we do.”

“You’re hallucinating. I must have given you too much.”

“All medicine is poison, if you look at it the right way. Myrtho always said, ‘Suffering for the world is noble. A lord must protect his people.’ But maybe you’ve forgotten that.”

“Why are you calling him that? He is our father, not some man. What are you saying right now?”

“You know. What we are. What everybody thinks we are at least . . .”

“We are boyars.” He said this for his brother’s sake but felt like a fool. There was no room for lords, at least not in the new country. There would be movements for disarmament, privatization, and equality. They would need new maps, ones that depicted the complete earth, spherical and continuous, one hemisphere day, the other night. It was no longer about the nobles and their peasants, fathers and sons, gods and men. Their quaint mythos would keep receding across the steppe, back to the mountains that first borne it. Nicholas hadn’t responded so Vlad shook him and repeated, this time for himself, “We are royals.”

“No, V. We’re monsters.”

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