I rouse you when the torchlights appear beyond the walls at the southern end of the palace grounds. I touch you awake with my heat, and the small, smouldering coals in your bedroom’s fireplace grow to licking flames. You understand the sign and leap from your bed, silently opening your door and scurrying barefoot down the dimly lit corridors and stairways you know so well, entering the great hall a few minutes later with a burlap pack you hid in the library weeks ago, stuffed with clothes stolen from the servants’ quarters.
It is all as we planned.
You toss the pack under a nearby divan whilst noises from afar signal your father’s men have raised the alarm, in anxious tones shouting that the Obshina are come. Wake His Highness. Rouse the family. Bolt the doors.
There is not much time.
Moments. Minutes pass.
Slow shuffling and bellowed imperatives. The waving shadows of candlelight approaching. Your parents are too late. So are your siblings. They fall into the great hall, room, and only then do you see the Obshina guards that follow behind, shoving your family inside slamming the doors.
You stand about, staring at each other like strangers, until your father and your mother, your sisters and your brother are forced to kneel on the hard, cold marble and offer their hands up for binding, resembling not members of the imperial family but supplicating sinners. A guard announces to his comrades that you are not to be touched. You are to live.
Your sisters glare at you as though you have made a pact with the devil, but in truth you have done nothing wrong. You are different, special. You are of use. And these men know it.
The world goes dark as I extinguish the flames. There is shouting, panic, the jangle of moving armour and drawn guns. I tell you to touch me. To trust me. To climb inside me. Which you do, and I anoint you with living fire and swaddle you in light.
You do not burn. You crouch within the hearth, and though the loose nightgown you wear goes up like tinder, peeling from your skin like scorched paper, your arms and legs, hands and feet remain unharmed. I make sure of it. You peer into the flue chamber directly above you, a cavernous black nothing where smoke and flames billow, and you crawl inside it, a fox pup entering her infernal burrow.
The fires I light in the great hall’s hearth dispel the darkness in an instant. The actors on the stage have not changed; only you have exited the scene.
Tucked inside my raging flames, hidden from sight, you do not witness the wretched expressions on the faces of those sent here to murder your family and capture you alive. You do not see the lacquered tables and richly carved chairs kicked over in anger and rage, nor do you mark the delirious hatred etched on the faces of revolutionaries who take their frustrations for your miraculous disappearance out on the Svyat, the Svyatessa and their three children, dragging them by the hair and leading them deeper inside the palace. You are not witness to the intoxicated movements of thugs who linger to slash at priceless canvases whilst continuing their search for you, paintings that have hung in this room for centuries. You do not see how the vases and icons, presented through the ages to your ancestors by the most noble houses of Bratsk, are thoughtlessly trashed, thrown from their pedestals and smashed on the floor. Porcelain busts from the Nur-Dal, crystal plates from Tal’dor, marble-carved snowflakes and peonies from your own province of Volchok. Two thousand years of the culture and friendship shattered beneath the jackboot. You can neither see the insurgent who urinates on the beautiful rugs that deck the marble, nor the drunk goon who smears his own faeces on the hall’s frescoed walls.
When the great hall empties and the voices evaporate into the tomb of the night, I quell the fire once more. It is another of our wordless signs. You climb down the flue and step from the hearth. In my flickering glow you inspect your nakedness, your ghost-white skin free from blistering and scars. Your eyes betray your wonder: only now do you appreciate the otherworldly power of the domovoi. I am the ancestral soul of this home, its burning, beating heart. I carry the spirits and memories of its forebears within my flame for as long as this place stands, to watch over the living and light their way the best I can. That is the way of the domovoi.
You survey the scene coldly and with detachment. I know that look in your eyes. The smashed ornaments and shattered porcelain under your feet symbolise the estrangement you have always felt from the Gatchina palace and its royal occupants. You are more suited to broken things than the wealth and privilege of the Svyat and his family who raised you because you yourself are broken. You were, after all, not born but brought here, eschewed by a necromantic mother ashamed or fearful of the child she had birthed.
My dearest Laika: with that personal history, how could you belong anywhere?
You reach for the pack beneath the divan and begin to dress in purloined clothes. I turn my attention to events elsewhere in the house. From habit, I check your father’s chamber first. From his bedside hearth my vision is limited, but it is enough to see signs of his rude awakening—the crumpled sheets, the pillows scattered on the floor, the curtains that remain undrawn. The Svyatessa’s bedroom is similarly disordered, and from her fireplace I see the door is wide open. It is the same scene in your brother Koza’s room. In Verka’s chamber a trail of clothes testifies to the panic she felt as she rushed to dress herself before being whisked away by palace guards. The perfectly arranged counterpane and the open book on the dressing table suggest your other sister Daisha was still awake when she ran from her room.
There are over two hundred and fifty fireplaces, stoves, inglenooks, and hearths in the Gatchina, and more than three thousand candles, lanterns and lamps lighting its corridors and hallways. I check them all in the time it takes you to wrap yourself in the heavy, ankle-length duffle coat you thieved and tie beneath your chin the ermine ears of the ushanka hat you stole.
I find your family in the chapel’s basement. They have been stripped to their undergarments, and are standing barefooted on the freezing floor, their foreheads pressed against a whitewashed wall. From my position in the fireplace, it is impossible to make out their faces. Perhaps that is just as well. They have been arranged in order of height, like matryoshka dolls, but they all bear the same restraints that bind their wrists behind their backs. Your sisters’ shoulders quiver and your brother’s fists are clenched so tightly I make out the whites of his knuckles. Your mother and father stand motionless, as though already dead. In the opposite corner four soldiers stand, the insignia of the Obshina sown into the lapels of their thick fur coats, their rifles raised. Four weapons, four bullets–one for each head. A voice issues a monosyllabic command, and the cries of your siblings are drowned by the barking of guns. Through the discharging smoke I see them clearly: rag dolls that had been lives, slumped one on top of the other.
You turn to the hearth in the great hall, searching for me in the flames. The dilation of your pupils and your twitching lips tell me you see what I see, hear what I hear, but that cannot be. A moment later and the glacial expression has returned to your face. With an imperceptible nod of recognition, you gather up the pack beneath the divan and leave the great hall by the access door hidden in a wall panel opposite.
I lose sight of you the moment you squirrel through the hole in the Gatchina’s perimeter wall you made years ago, when as a young girl you’d venture into Zimny Dvor and explore the city the Svyat forbade you from entering. I cannot follow you now. Bound to this house by the living flame, I am its soul and its prisoner.
I close my eyes and pray for you.
When I open them, the chapel basement is empty. Smeared blood on the floor indicates the bodies have been dragged away, to be disposed of whilst darkness still reigns, before word spreads of what has transpired here tonight. I flick between fires and lanterns burning through the complex until my attention rests on a lighted brazier in the western courtyard, where a disused well rises from the ground like a circular turret. They are dumping the corpses here. A pair of naked legs disappears over its lip, followed by a muffled thud as the body hits frozen water twenty meters below. It is the last body to be jettisoned into that terrible hole. A soldier approaches. He is carrying a cylindrical object in one hand that I cannot make out and a torch in the other. It is only when the fuse sputters into life that I understand. Thrown into the well, the dynamite cracks the stillness like drumfire. A mournful groan escapes the shaft and the earth shudders. Below the ground the well is collapsing, burying your family in a landslide of mortar and brick. Light puffs of debris rise into the night, whilst soldiers smoke and mutter amongst themselves before dispersing.
So ends the reign of Affanassi Vasilyevich Neprev. So ends the empire. It is not the conclusion the founders of our remarkable polity could have ever foreseen. Rurik of Nur-Dal, Voron of Tal’dor, Neprev of Volchok. The three greatest Bloods in the history of Bratsk, houses of such inestimable power and influence that their individual might was only surpassed by their amalgamation with one another, ratified by a treatise whose importance in Bratsk’s history has attained a mythical, religious status—the Blood Unity. Almost two thousand years of collective history, ended tonight with four bullets and an explosive charge.
But in truth, the murder of your family is the final movement of a dying symphony whose decay started over three hundred years ago. And the catalogue of events that have led to this butchery are as manifold as they are significant. They are elements in a chain, each crisis or collapse a precondition for the next, without which the present would not be shaped as it is. It was discontent and apathy, not gunpowder and bloodshed, that initially powered the smithy of revolution. Silent grievances, indefensible iniquities, wrongs never righted—these were the hammer strikes that slowly tempered the blade and forged the consciousness of radical change. Affanassi, his father, his father’s father—they played musical chairs whilst they reigned, not realising the melody had stopped years before. And the chain of history strangled them for it.
We spoke about it often enough, you and I. At night, when the palace slept, you came to me and sat before my lambent warmth, your arms and legs crossed like an ascetic, listening to the information I’d gathered that day, that week, as I eavesdropped on your father’s military briefings and political assemblies. A domovoi has its uses, after all. I fleshed out your limited knowledge of the Obshina, what they wanted, and how your family—indeed, how the entire empire that stood behind it—were incompatible with their vision of the future. Each year that passed their presence in Volchok grew, their influence spread, their recruitment increased. They grew roots across the province like a banyan tree, roots that ran so deep they wrapped around folk’s hearts and cooled their loyalty to the empire. I told you about Volost, the spirit of revolution that had already engulfed parts of Tal’dor in the west and Nur-Dal in the east, and how it was Volchok’s turn now. I tried to complete the puzzle of the world your own mind had begun to piece together, one that your parents never believed you had the capacity to fathom and so never encouraged you to try.
You were interested in the history of Bratsk, the origins of the empire, and the signing of the Blood Unity on the symbolic banks of the Tsukino river, whose three tributaries run through the three provinces. I told you why it was that Blood Neprev became the imperial house and not Blood Rurik or Voron, and why the protracted war in the south of Bratsk had everything to do with it.
But most of all, you wanted to know about your real family, your race, and why it was that a necromantic girl had ended up living with people whose forefathers had ruthlessly sought the outright destruction of her kind. Your eyes lit up when I told you tales about the Nekromika, that fabled Order whose zealous service to the empire was matched only by the depth of its eventual betrayal.
You inquired about your mother too, though I could never say much, for I had never seen her. And once you accepted I was ignorant of her identity and whereabouts, you simply stopped asking.
A girl of few words. No doubt the loneliness you experienced here, and the subtle, polite ways in which even your stepsiblings excluded you encouraged your reclusiveness, but I do not believe they created it. You are solitary by nature, which is why, when you discovered the presence of a domovoi in the fires of the Gatchina, I fell in love with you. An albino child with supernatural talents and the soul of a house with pyrotechnic proclivities. We found solace in each other’s freakery.
Now that you are gone, I feel the loss profoundly. I can no longer see or hear you. The limitation of my omnipotence afflicts me. I do not know whether you are safe or in danger, free or captured. And so, to distract myself, I comfort myself with the imaginary.
I see barricades. Night patrols. I see the city in frozen suspension, where folk hide behind the doors of lamplit houses, too tired and hungry from years of war to know or care that a putsch is underway in the palace tonight. I imagine braziers burning by checkpoints, stray dogs fighting with homeless drifters for bones or scraps of food tossed from windows and buried by the freshly fallen snow. Soldiers, their hands and hearts brutalised by conflict and the cold, stand by their posts awaiting news of the Svyat’s death and the destruction of a Blood their own families once fought and died for. This is what passes for progress. It is the way of things when the few live well whilst the many starve. The self-defeating disparities, the intoxicating addiction of bitterness, historical resentment. The madness of crowds. This is not the first time our world has cracked, but perhaps it will be the last.
I imagine your figure skirting the perimeter of the night, negotiating lamp less side streets, keeping your body close to the walls of houses located on the outskirts of the city. To all extents you look like a suitably dressed scullery maid on her way to work the tables and kitchens at one of the few taverns still eking out a living in the capital, but you do not turn west towards the centre. Always only east, towards one of the city gates and out into the night. How you get past the soldiers, the checkpoints, the bloodhounds and swords I do not know, but I believe in your cunning, in your will to survive. It comes as naturally to you as breathing.
I speculate further. There, where the city limits are swallowed by the arctic tundra, you stand on the Great Eastern Turnpike which snakes towards the Sealing Sea and hugs the coast for the next three hundred miles, until eventually it divides, one road leading onwards, the other heading south, penetrating the desolate interior of northern Volchok. I imagine you as a stowaway, hidden in a battered grain cart and shivering under a frost-layered tarpaulin, as the driver whips his anaemic horse onwards. I see you walking amongst refugees whose numbers swell with each passing day, driven to distraction by famine and sickness. You do not look at or converse with anyone, too afraid that you will be recognised, not as the adopted daughter of the Svyat but, with your red eyes and bleached, pigmentless skin, as a necromancer.
If I allow my imagination to flower, I see you leaving the Great Eastern Turnpike behind you, heading south through fields and thick forests knee deep in snow. The going is hard and treacherous, for the days of Volchok’s winter are as dark as its nights. You feed on whatever you can until, two weeks later, you reach the Monastery of the Blooded Three near the remote village of Ipatiev, an area still loyal to the Svyat and his imperial rule. There, for the time being, you will be safe.
That is your objective, Laika. And may the divine Neruna guide you to it.