Then fell a stillness such as harks appalled
When far-gone dead return upon the world
The Unreturning, Wilfred Owens
From out of the gray morning mist, a spare, weather-beaten figure moved slowly toward the gates of the Wooden City. He passed through the laborers’ quarters, people staring as he limped by. Those that were not too afraid began to follow. He wended his way through the maze of log houses and smoking tenements, pausing occasionally before an old soldier or beggar huddled on the ground and murmuring to him. No one caught the words, but the old and wounded would look up with a moment of recognition before their eyes unfocused into the distance again. The fearful backed away, crossing themselves and whispering the names of saints.
As he neared the spires of the White City some of the crowd fell back. But he walked on through its mud-caked streets teeming with stalls and horses, as well-to-do Muscovites peered down from their windows and wondered. He clearly wasn’t a pilgrim. He wore a long soldier’s jacket, the collar turned high, and an old hat that looked to have been pecked by every bird from there to Yaroslavl.
He stopped. “I seek the Kremlin,” he said, his low voice dragged up from the depths of his chest.
“Ah…that way!” a drunken man flung out a tremulous arm. “Through Basket Town — watch your purse! Then you’ll see St. Basil’s and Red Square.”
With a slow nod he walked on, leaving the White City behind, drawing on more followers. They tramped through the earthy stench of Basket Town, where children caught sight of him and took up the cry, “the devil’s come to Moscow!” Merchants came to their doorways and gaped.
A burly, well-fed man stepped into his path. “Who are you? What do you want here?”
“I am a soldier. I seek an audience with the tsar,” he said tonelessly.
“No one approaches the tsar. He sits on a throne in Heaven by God’s right hand and together they look down and rule us.”
“God does not rule this city, and the tsar’s throne lies in another place. I have come many long versts, and my mission demands I speak with him.”
The man gasped. “Leave fool! You’ll only cause trouble for us and death for yourself.” And then he fled.
An old beggar in a tattered soldier’s coat limped forward. “I’ll show you the way, brother.”
So two ragged men and their ragged followers went on over dung-laden paths and log-paved roads until the spires of St. Basil’s rose through the mist. The bustle increased, as old women hawked their wares along the street — silks and cabbages, icons and onions. But the stranger looked only to his prize — the Spassky Gate, flanked by guards and pikes.
“Now, brother, if you have any fear of God, go no further!” the beggar whispered.
“God is not here, and it is not He who is to be feared,” replied the soldier.
The crowd held back, nervous, as the soldier marched forward, like a moth to the flame. He stopped before the guards, staring blankly at the rooftops covered with snow, the gleaming cupolas spinning like tops. The silence grew, and the guards, usually so brave and contemptuous of those few who approached, shifted nervously. The way he stood, straight, arms at his sides, eyes upon them, as if expecting an invitation to enter.
“What business do you have here, stranger?” one young guard asked.
“I seek an audience with the tsar,” he said.
The young guard laughed, “Begone, and quickly! My captain would already have responded with this.” He waved his spear.
There were gasps, and the crowd shrunk back.
But the soldier was implacable. “I am sent to speak with the great tsar! He will not deny me entrance, for I have fought these fifteen years against our enemies in grueling campaigns, on the western front, on the eastern steppes, in the southern marshes, in the northern wastes. I’ve watched my comrades fall by the hundreds, in single battles or over long months and years. I’ve lain in my own blood at the bottom of a ravine and felt the approach of death like a raven. And I have thought to myself: Who is this man I live and die for? Whose commands have left thousands torn and dead in the mud of foreign lands? Whose very name I bow to and yet never once have I set eyes upon him. Never once heard his voice.”
The soldier’s words swept through the crowd. A few fell to their knees and removed their hats and kerchiefs. Some wept. The guards lowered their spears at the dread implication: had he bought his confidence with his life’s blood?
The captain came forward. “Soldier, we applaud your service and welcome you as a brother. But no man can petition the tsar. If he does not summon you not even the greatest can darken his doorway.”
“Then strike me down and scatter my bones to the winds. For I have no home to return to, and will fight no more battles in the name of the tsar.”
Soft murmurs swept through the crowd.
“You are no holy yurodivy,” whispered the captain, “appointed by God to speak before the tsar. You are a common soldier, so,” he sighed, “go on men, send him to meet his fellows. And may someone claim his corpse!”
The guards advanced, averting their eyes and thankful he seemed half-dead already.
“Stop in the name of the tsar!” a high voice called from above.
The guards looked up to the battlements, shielding their eyes against the glare of the morning sun. And there, pointing down at them, was the young tsarevna, Ekaterina Alexandrovna. The guards bowed their heads and awaited her will.
“Send him in at once! I’m coming down!”
With creaking and groaning the gates swung wide under ancient ropes and pulleys. The guards parted to make way for the soldier.
Soon the tsarevna swept up, her Cossack Escort close about her.
The guards, the entire crowd, bowed low, their foreheads touching the earth. But the stranger stood impassively.
“Fool! The tsarevna approaches! Bow!” the captain hissed.
Yet he remained unmoving.
The tsarevna paused, then smiled “No, captain. A man, who has fought for years and shed his blood for his country and watched his comrades die, has a right to stand before me. Brave soldier, your name?”
“My name has left me, as all those I loved are no longer here to say it. But you may call me Ivan.”
“Ivan…” she prompted, searching for his patronymic.
But he only stood, silent, patient.
“In that case, Ivan, please follow me. I’ll bring you before my father. I’m sure he’ll be glad to meet one of his dedicated soldiers.”
So Ivan followed Ekaterina, surrounded by her Cossack Escort, into the Kremlin. She breezed through hallways heavy with icons and tapestries, glories never to be seen by most citizens.
Ivan was not bedazzled by the gleam of gold, and his dark eyes looked right through the puzzled glances of servants and boyars.
“Papa’s tired,” Ekaterina whispered, “from the long work of the wars. He needs someone from among the people who can tell him what is happening in our lands. Whenever I talk to him he says I’m just a child.”
He looked at her, his eyes reflecting nothing in the candlelight.
“Don’t be shy,” she urged him, as they approached the tsar’s receiving chamber. “My papa loves his subjects.”
Two enormous Cossacks bowed to the tsarevna and opened the door, glaring at Ivan. She led him into the room, plush with Astrakahn carpets and shining with icons of gold.
The tsar relaxed upon a gold throne, as a gusli player plucked solemn notes. A crush of boyars ran to intercept them.
But the tsar roused himself. “Let her through! Katya! And who’s this you’ve brought? Another miserable soul you’ve taken pity on?”
“Papa, this is Ivan, one of your brave soldiers! He’s fought for you on the Western front, the eastern steppes, the southern marches, and… somewhere in the north.”
“Indeed?” the tsar said, sitting straighter. “Who’s your commanding officer, soldier?”
“I’ve fought under many, your majesty. Most recently General Oleg White-Hair defending the gates of Saratov.”
“Katya, you remember General Oleg. He always gave you candies.”
“They tasted bitter,” she said, “from the mean look in his eyes.”
“My dear, you don’t become a general by plucking daisies,” the tsar laughed. “So how is he, old white-hair?”
“Dead, your majesty. His skull was split open by a Tatar sword,” Ivan replied.
“Unfortunate. But you kept Saratov, I take it?”
“It stands, your highness, on the bones and blood of my entire regiment.”
“A worthy sacrifice. And those who die fighting for Russia go straight to Heaven.”
“That I have not witnessed, your majesty.”
The tsar snorted. “You are a simple man! And you fought in the East?”
“Yes, under Vorkuta, and before that, Kashkin.”
“Mmm, fine men. They are well?”
“They are dead, your majesty. Kashkin was beheaded by a Livonian giant. Vorkuta drowned in the Dnieper with hundreds of men. Only a handful escaped, I among them.”
“Yes. The cost of war.” the tsar frowned, signaling for the musician to stop. “Would you like some refreshment? French wine, Circassian tea?”
“I haven’t come to sip tea,” Ivan said, to the astonishment of all. “I’m sent here on a mission of dire importance. And my time is short.”
Was the man insane to speak to him like this? “And what is this dire mission?” the tsar asked, like a cat circling a mouse.
“To end the wars.”
This man was more than just a soldier, and had a look in his eyes, a snake on his tongue. The tsar gestured for Ekaterina to come to his side. But she crossed her arms and made the same face her mother did when she held her ground. He ordered the boyars out of the room, and a glance at his guards had them move closer. Then he leaned forward and spoke as if unburdening himself of a secret.
“Would that it were that easy. But we do not fight for our own sake! We fight to avenge this and that dishonor, to honor a pact with another land to avenge their dishonor. It would take entire books to unravel the reasons we fight.”
“Pacts and honor, these are great things… but what of human life? Recall the armies, declare a truce, make reparations. Give the survivors leave to mourn and bury their dead. To live and make good lives for their families.”
The tsar narrowed his eyes. At this rate Ivan would leave the room like Kashkin, his head in a basket. “Declare a truce… I wouldn’t know where to begin, whom to speak with. I’ve tried. Messengers have been sent…and they return to us in a box, sometimes in pieces only this small.” He held up his pinky. “Recalling the armies would be weak and foolish. And it is my enemies who must make reparations to me.”
Ivan’s dark eyes stared into the tsar. “Life is the dearest thing a man has, yet you have us risk all while you sit in splendour and drink tea and guard your power.”
Ekaterina gasped. The Cossacks put their hands to their sword hilts.
“I humored you for my daughter’s sake. No more.”
The tsar gestured to his Cossacks. But when they grabbed Ivan’s arms and pulled him back, his coat swung open and revealed the gaping hole in his chest where his heart should have been, and a shirt stiffened with old blood.
The tsar stood. His Cossacks backed away. Ekaterina covered her mouth, eyes wide.
Ivan spread his arms further, displaying his mortal wound.
“And now you see I am in deadly earnest. Offer yourself as hostage, return with me to World’s End until the wars are stopped, or we will come as a flood through the city. In our many thousands — the dead from all your wars: the Russians, Livonians, Tartars, Circassians… they’re waiting for my return, and for you. You see, I cannot simply take your word — it was you who slaughtered messengers. Yes! I learned it from their own lips when they came to World’s End. In the secret councils of the Kremlin you told them peace and promises could be damned. Then you had their throats slit. And sent them back in pieces.”
“Papa! No! No…?”
Ivan’s voice tolled out. “The dead can no longer sit idly by and watch their comrades slain for pride and greed. Even as we stand here a thousand lives, a thousand worlds of hopes and dreams are ended, crushed needlessly underfoot. How many worlds must you extinguish to widen your empire?”
“This is witchcraft! Magic! If God wanted me to make peace He would speak in visions, portents. Retreat is weakness! I didn’t become Tsar of all the Russias by covering my mouth with a handkerchief and averting my eyes. War is proof of strength. This is the business of being tsar – spilling the blood of thousands to uphold the will of God. I am God’s chosen on earth!”
“We stared into the face of mindless hell and still did our duty. We died like loyal dogs for you. And this is your answer?”
Ekaterina’s eyes shimmered with tears. “Come outside the palace, papa, among the people, as I have, and see the suffering, the tears! We have lost so much!”
The tsar rounded on his daughter. “We have lost nothing! One day this war will end, when we have set the terms, and all the realms bow at our feet! Better to set the entire kingdom aflame, butcher every man, woman and child, than lose.”
Perhaps here for once truth would serve him. “If I were taken as hostage, if I were not here, my generals would not stop the wars, they would fight over who would take my place, and conveniently find it impossible to make peace and bring me back.”
“”Then who is dear enough that you will keep a promise?” Ivan’s dark eyes turned towards the tsar’s daughter.
Ekaterina stepped forward, shaking. “I will go. To save you, to save Russia, I will go with him to World’s End until you have brought peace.”
“No! Take someone else. Take… my chief advisor. Or, his daughter. Yes, take Dragovitch’s daughter.”
“No, papa, she’s my dearest friend!”
Ivan shook his head. “She is not dear to the tsar.”
The tsarevitch moved to Ivan’s side. “I’ll go. I trust you father. For me you will stop the wars.”
She put her hand on Ivan’s arm and he walked her to the door while the tsar and his Cossacks stood frozen. As she left, she looked back and smiled at him, her face now dim and indistinct to his eyes.
Wary negotiations slowly untangled terms, territories shifted, but the tsar signed treaties, withdrew his scattered forces.
Soldiers returned home from the Eastern front; cities in the West opened their gates unmolested; trade resumed in the south, as far as spice-laden Samarkand.
At the same time, he called in fierce and powerful shamans from the Siberian forests. Once his daughter was back he’d ward all his lands against approach by the dead, and resume his attacks when they were least expected.
But his daughter did not return.
The tsar stalked the parapets, muttering. His staff and guards seemed to know the deal he had made, the deal with the dead, the deal of a weak man. How? he wondered, when he’d had all witnesses put to death?
Then one night as he slept he struggled for breath, and felt a weight upon his chest. He opened his eyes and saw his daughter standing by his bedside.
“Katya! You’re back!”
“Not yet — World’s End is so far away, such a long and frightful journey and I have only your love to guide me. Once you honor your promise though, I’ll be back.”
“But, I did, child. It’s all done. For you.” Reaching for her he felt only cold mist.
“But you called for the shamans. To undo it all. You must send them away. It’s your only chance Papa.”
“They are my only chance to still win.”
“You don’t need to win now!”
“You don’t understand the ways of power child.”
She faded away.
The tsar dwindled. He felt sure everyone, his chief advisor especially, was watching him. He was seen, indistinctly, roaming Red Square by the light of the moon, gesturing, speaking to statues, trailed at a cautious distance by his Cossacks.
Another night, again the pressure on his chest. Greater this time. Katya hovered nearby but he could barely make out her pale form.
“Papa, if you don’t send them away, you will not be safe,” she whispered.
“The shamans are my safety.”
She shook her head and was gone.
Staff grew more fearful of him. They glanced at him out of the corners of their eyes, trembling, wondering if a kikimora was haunting him. But Dragovitch now looked at him with a little smile.
When the tsar looked in the mirror he wondered when it had gone so dim.
Another night, and the weight upon his chest was so great he cried out. His daughter, barely a mist, was again by his bedside. “Will you not, for me, send the shamans away?”
“You don’t understand child!’ He gasped through the pain. “They’ll ward the lands, protect us from the dead!”
“If you do not war again, you have no need of their protection. This is my last time, Papa. If you don’t send them away, I will not return.”
The tsar shook his head and struggled for breath. “Return I say! And I will not war again once the realms are mine.”
Pale tears gleamed faintly on her cheeks and she disappeared into the darkness.
And then in a wind rushing as from a great distance came Ivan, and his voice rang like a leaden, far-off bell. “It is no fulfillment to give with one hand what you take with the other.” He reached out for the tsar. “Now you have lost everything.”
Neither the tsar’s commands for assistance, nor later his screams and pleas into the empty air, brought any response from his guards.
Next morning, when they found him, stiff, eyes huge, his hands clutching his throat, Dragovitch had the shamans take him with them back to Siberia. And in the frozen tundra, in the grey of late winter, the shamans buried the tsar of all the Russias, with a stake through his heart, and they salted his grave.
And as Spring returned, Ekaterina, daughter of all the Russias, walked in through Spassky Gate. Quiet. Pale. Living.
“Emissary” © Joshua Grasso, first published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, on November 20, 2022
Joshua Grasso is a professor of English at East Central University in Oklahoma, where he teaches classes in everything from Beowulf to Batman. In his academic persona, he has published numerous articles on 18th century novels, Gothic literature, science fiction and fantasy, and comics. But when academia gets him down, he enjoys writing fiction stories that have appeared in publications such as Daily Science Fiction, Metaphorosis, Allegory, Penumbra SF, and Tales to Terrify.
Illustration by Fran Eisemann, photo stock public domain