“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.”
– Titus Aurelius the ‘Philosopher King’, Imperator Augustus of the Inner Sea Imperium
“Sister Liza? Sister Liza!” A young, twelve-years-old Konstantin ran into the library, visibly excited as he stretched out the parchment in his hands. “Could you look over what I wrote?”
Standing by the huge windows, the graceful, eighteen-years-old Elizaveta swiveled her gaze towards her little brother. Her long and reddish-brown hair stood in perfect contrast with her silver-embroidered, jade-green dress. Her large emerald eyes and beautiful face however were filled with worry as she beckoned for her brother to come close.
“Haven’t you noticed, Kostya? Look outside.”
Konstantin’s prior excitement died on the spot as he followed her gaze. A large crowd of armed men, at least several hundred, had gathered just outside the manor’s fences. They each wore a blue wool jacket under a white cloak, colors of the Polisian military. Most of them carried the dual arms of a crossbow and a bardiche pollaxe on their backs. It was a unique combination of weapons used by the soldiers of the streltsy.
The young Konstantin swallowed as he felt the tense atmosphere at last. He had been so fixated on preparing a speech for his next debate that he didn’t even notice from his room.
The streltsy, or ‘shooters’ as the term meant, were a semi-professional military force paid and drilled by the individual Principalities. However, they were allowed to ply their own trades during peacetime, while holding special privileges such as the right to bear arms in towns and exemption from taxation by the state. Konstantin was used to seeing them whenever he visited the city. However, he had never seen so many gathered together in one place, except that one time when he followed his father to the training grounds.
Speaking of his father, Konstantin watched as two members of the Apraksin household druzhina opened the iron-barred front gates. His father Radomir marched out, followed by his elder brother Kresimir and a handful of druzhina retainers in full chainmail armor.
Radomir held his head high as he stood just outside the gates. His composure was seemingly imperturbable as he waited for the streltsy leaders to come to him. A group of officers led by a commander bearing the insignia of a colonel approached. Most of them bowed in respect, for Radomir Berislavovich Apraskin was none less than the Grand Prince of the Federated Principalities of Polisia.
From inside the manor’s second-floor library, Konstantin could not hear the conversation at the gates over eighty paces away. He could only watch as the men shouted and gestured, with clear resentment and anger coming from the bared teeth and pointed fingers of the streltsy officers.
“Hey, isn’t that Colonel Nikola?” Konstantin asked. “Why is he siding with those angry men?”
“I’m not really sure,” his sister frowned.
“Do you think the rumors are true? That they’re disgruntled about the fact father pulled them back from the war after the opening battles?”
“It certainly seems that way.”
Konstantin had overheard his father and brother discussing their concerns earlier that week. After the Iskar War began seven months ago, the Polisian Federation and the Inner Sea Imperium had launched a two-pronged invasion of the Kingdom of Iskar. However the Iskarians had put up such a ferocious resistance that the Polisian expedition army, despite winning all three battles so far, had been reduced to less than half its original strength.
“It makes sense for father to pull the devastated battalions back to replenish to reorganize.” Konstantin thought aloud as he remembered the contents of the military treatises he read. “Units depleted by casualties are more of a liability than an asset on the battlefield.”
“But soldiers demand loot.” Elizaveta remarked disapprovingly. “It’s part of their pay. And there’s a rumor in town that claims Father withdrew them just as the bulk of the fighting had finished and only the easy part remained.”
It was wartime after all. There were rumors flying all around the capital. Some were based on the embellished tales of merchants and veterans. While others were spread by political forces either in favor or in opposition. Konstantin even heard a vicious –and clearly false– claim that Polisia only entered the war because the Inner Sea Imperium had paid Radomir a king’s ransom in bribes.
“If the war was easy after that, then Father wouldn’t be spending most of his time with his generals,” Konstantin retorted with a begrudging and somewhat petulant tone. He still remembered nights when his father and brother returned home late, utterly exhausted and famished. For weeks the two of them could hardly spare a moment with the rest of the family, often departing each day before sunrise.
“You know that. I know that. But they don’t know that,” his sister added with a tilt of her head towards those outside. “The streltsy aren’t like the druzhina. Most druzhina can read and write. Many of them have travelled the world in their youth as mercenaries, learning to see and judge with their own eyes. But these men outside? They’re mostly just illiterate peasants — who understand nothing about Father’s responsibilities and see only our wealth and privilege.”
Just as Elizaveta finished explaining, a young and gruff-looking junior officer gripped his bardiche in both of his hands. His fuming face was beet-red with anger… and maybe even intoxication given his slight sway. He raised his axe and charged towards the Grand Prince without any warning.
Radomir didn’t even have time to draw his sword, but the same could not be said for his bodyguards. One of the druzhina stepped forward to put his body between the Grand Prince and the assailant. Another retainer drew his sword in reflex and, in one swift motion, slashed it across the stomach of the unarmored streltsy lieutenant.
For a moment afterwards nobody moved. Only the streltsy who attempted to assault the prince fell to the ground with guts spilling forth from his midsection. But it was clear that what happened only further incensed the soldiers that gathered outside. Many of them now gripped their axes and raised them to chest-height.
“Oh Freyja, have mercy,” Elizaveta muttered at almost a whisper as she covered her mouth with her hands. However even the youthful Konstantin recognized the impending catastrophe.
Blood has been spilled, he thought to himself. There’s no turning back.
The young boy watched as his Father continued trying to appeal to the soldiers’ sense of reason. But there was no reasoning with an angry mob once someone had been killed. The dozen druzhina at the gates gathered in a shield wall to protect their liege. Yet as over a hundred angry streltsy poured through the gates, even the best trained soldiers stood no chance of holding their ground against such overwhelming odds.
Konstantin could feel his legs quake and his jaw tremble as a tidal wave of men and axes fell upon his father’s group. The mutinuous streltsy hacked their way through the druzhina and then brought their bloody axes down upon both Radomir and Kresimir.
“FATHER!” Konstantin cried out as he pressed his palms against the window glass.
But even with all before them fallen the mob of streltsy weren’t satisfied. They gathered around where Konstantin’s father had fallen and their axes continued to plunge to the ground. It wasn’t until one of them raised a severed head that the butchering finally stopped.
Konstantin felt streams of tears running down both cheeks as his jaw shuddered against the window.
How could they!? HOW COULD THEY!?
A minute ago Radomir was alive and breathing. Now, the thirteen-year-old boy stared at the decapitated head of his father, blood still streaming from its severed neck. His father’s ardent gaze and stern demeanor had been replaced by a visage of Radomir’s final moments — a horrifying face twisted by untold pain and suffering.
For a moment the world seemed to fade away as the young man stared at the face of his murdered father. Konstantin pressed his hands and his weight against the windows, as though trying to reach past the glass and across the distance. He wanted to touch those high cheekbones and trimmed beard of his father one last time, as he had often done years ago when he was still a child.
Yet even as his boyish face twisted in agony and he cried, Konstantin knew that he would never again meet his father’s approving gaze. Only the gruesome expression of a severed head remained, a haunting image which would forever imprint itself into his memories.
“KOSTYA!” Konstantin at last heard his sister who had been crying out his name. “THEY’RE DEAD! YOU UNDERSTAND? THEY’RE DEAD!” He heard her desperate voice as her soft palms cupped both of his cheeks and forced him to look at her tear-stricken face.
“We can’t stay here!” She cried out in a pained voice, as though she didn’t want to leave either. “It won’t be long before those soldiers start ransacking this place! We have to leave!”
Konstantin heard his sister cry out as clashing swords resounded behind him. The two of them had been running through the hallway towards the back of the manor, where they could access the secret escape tunnels in the old wing. They had gathered two druzhina and several of the guards with them. But it seemed the mutinuous streltsy had entered from the rear entrance as well.
The twelve-year-old boy swung around just in time to see a druzhina cut down. As the retainer fell aside, Elizaveta drew the druzhina’s arming sword and slashed into the arm of a streltsy who tried to grab her. She then parried an oncoming spear with her blade before cutting down another assailant. Her swordplay was swift and precise. Yet Konstantin also knew from experience that her sister’s weak physique meant that she had little stamina and could not endure lengthy combat.
The guards covering their rear were fighting and dying to buy time. The two men who had been leading the way rushed back past Konstantin to secure his sister’s flanks. But they were outnumbered by the rebel troops with more still coming. One of the guards was then stabbed in the gut. His sword flew through the air before skidding across the marble floor.
It came to a halt just a few paces from Konstantin’s reach.
“Kostya!” Elizaveta cried his name again as steel clashed and sparks flew. Her voice was desperate as it begged for his aid. She was outnumbered and several rebels were trying to circle around her exposed right flank. There were no more guards available to come to her aid.
Konstantin shook. He looked upon the bloodstained sword and trembled in fear. He might have sparred with his tutor and his sister and his father, but he wasn’t ready for this!
It was one thing to face off against an opponent within rules and etiquette. It was another thing entirely to fight against these barbaric brutes, who had just hacked his father and brother until their bodies lay in pieces!
For a brief second Konstantin once again saw the bloodied and tortured visage of his father’s severed head. Surely these rebel soldiers would do the same thing to him! His entire body trembled at the thought of his own life suffering a similar fate, his final moments tormented by agony as his body was hacked into pieces.
And before he knew it, his legs turned and he bolted for his life.
Konstantin heard his sister scream his name one last time and he clutched his chest in pain. He knew that he had just abandoned her to the same fate as his father and brother. He knew that he had just betrayed the one family member whom he owed more than any other… yet even as he knew all of this, his legs wouldn’t stop running.
Konstantin tried to stifle his breathing as he leaned back against the escape tunnel’s wall. He was just a few paces away from the exit, which was hidden between two giant boulders and concealed by the foliage. The boy poked his head through to examine the woods behind the manor, just to be sure the way was clear. He then immediately fell back as he noticed the many wagons parked there, along with several streltsy who gleefully loaded them with loot.
Please nobody saw me. Please nobody saw me! Konstantin prayed as he crawled back in the direction from whence he came. But as a minute passed yet still nobody found the entrance, the young man breathed a sigh of relief.
He turned back around and peeked through the leaves. The wagons were flat-bed cargo carriers. Konstantin doubted the streltsy used them to ride here, especially not when they’d been left in the backwoods!
This whole thing was preplanned! His eyes widened as he realized.
Konstantin could hear the creaking wagon beds as the streltsy loaded these carts with all that they’ve looted. From his vantage point hidden behind thick bushes, he could catch glimpses of soldiers who carried everything from sacks of silverware to paintings and furniture.
“Hey! Look at this! Isn’t this Radomir, His Headlessness?” Konstantin heard a soldier mock.
“Must’ve been painted when he was younger. Whose the pretty girl? A looker and quite the tits! Talk about a rare treat!
That’s my late mother you bastards! Konstantin could only retort in the safety of his own mind.
“That greedy whoreson gets to fuck girls like this while we bleed for him in ditches. And what does he do? He fucking plan to disband and replace us!”
Then, before Konstantin’s anger could build up yet further, he heard a cry that almost made him forget how to breathe.
“Let go… let go of me you bastards!”
Konstantin had to catch himself before his hand reached out to the exit.
Liza! He thought. She’s alive!
“That’s bastard Sir, to you, Princess!” A deep voice spoke with a harsh laugh. “For your family’s downfall, Prince Mstislav has already promised me a title of nobility! Now tell me, where is your brother? Tell me or I swear a broken arm will be the least of your worries!”
What followed afterwards was the sound of someone spitting.
“Once a bastard, always a bastard.” Elizaveta retorted. “Nobility lies in character, not in titles! It doesn’t matter what rank you have. You’ll always be lowlife scum who’s not even worthy of cleaning chamber pots!”
A resounding ‘smack!’ came just as Elizaveta cried out in pain.
“I won’t ask you again, Princess,” the man cast aside any hint of humored mockery as his voice hardened. “Where. Is. Your. Brother?”
Konstantin could feel himself trembling. His sister knew exactly where the tunnel exit was. It would only take her a gesture to show the rebel officer. Once the exit was revealed there would be no escape for him. The tunnel had only one path and there was nowhere else for him to hide. Even returning to the manor wasn’t an option as the rebel troops were still plundering it.
“You killed my brother, you bastard!” Elizaveta cursed him.
“Your other brother, the cowardly little shit who abandoned you and fled!” The man’s voice spat out in cold contempt. “Why are you even trying to protect him? The brat betrayed you!”
Konstantin felt the pain in his chest grow. He wanted to reveal himself, to at least make amends for what he had done. He could save Liza from further humiliation and torture at the hands of this cruel man — all he had to do was to march out and show himself!
After all, wasn’t he their target? The last male heir of House Apraksin? His sister was just a girl, already promised and betrothed to the scion of an allied house! Surely she was no threat in the grand scheme of things?
However, the young Konstantin wasn’t naive. He knew the fate that awaited him if he showed himself. As much as his thoughts wanted to protect his dear sister, his body simply refused to listen to him.
“He was just scared! He’s still only a child!” Elizaveta declared as though she didn’t even begrudge Konstantin. “A lowlife like you would never understand what it means to have a family!” She said before spitting at her captor again.
More tears streamed down Konstantin’s face as images of his childhood flooded through him. His mother had died early when he was just four, killed by assassins while trying to protect his father. It was sweet Liza who took over the role and cared for him.
While other highborn girls dressed and danced and played among themselves, the nine-years-old Elizaveta had turned herself into her brother’s caretaker. Their father was rarely home thanks to his duties as the Grand Prince. As such it was Liza who raised him more than anyone else.
How could I have betrayed her! Konstantin berated himself. How could I be such a heartless coward!? He stared at his own legs. Move damn it! Move!
But no matter how much he willed himself his legs wouldn’t stop shaking like it was made out of pudding. His limbs felt devoid of strength and his throat refused to cry out. Even his mind couldn’t escape the gruesome sight of his father’s severed head. It was as though his body was no longer his own, and all he could do was tremble against the tunnel’s wall like some worthless slug.
“Very well,” the unseen man’s reply came slow and with cruelty. “Since you won’t show me proper courtesy, don’t blame me if I don’t either. Men, enjoy yourselves. This is your once in a lifetime opportunity to enjoy a true-blooded princess.”
“No… you can’t do this,” a dreadful fear filled Elizaveta’s voice as cold-blooded snickering could be heard from at least a dozen rebels. “No! Don’t touch me! I’m a Princess of the Founding House of Apraksin! You can’t do this!”
Konstantin could hear her sister struggling and kicking against a wagon’s bed. However the men did not relent and soon he heard the sound of fabric tearing. She screamed and yelled for them to stop, but the soldiers only replied with jeers and laughter.
“Don’t touch me! No! STOP! NO!”
Hidden in the tunnel just a few dozen paces away, Konstantin couldn’t do anything except curl up and cover his ears as his sister’s screams slowly turned to sobbing. His tears flowed without end as he heard those monsters violate her with relish, feeling not just helpless to stop the crime before him but also utterly worthless as it was his actions that led to this.
This is my fault… this is *my fault!* He cried to himself.
The young man knew that even if he could reveal himself now, he wouldn’t be able to do anything. The soldiers were too far gone to stop, and there was no way he could fight against them all and win. All he could do was endure her agony by staying, wishing… pleading that she would at least reveal the exit so that they might bring a quick end to her suffering.
But Elizaveta never did. She never betrayed him. Not even when that streltsy officer — whose deep voice Konstantin would never forget — returned to present her one last chance to live.
—— * * * ——
“LIZA!” Konstantin cried out as his consciousness returned to the present. His body had bolted upright in his bed, and the sudden motion left his foggy head dizzy with vertigo. Worse yet, the pulsing pain in his skull felt like someone was banging on the drums of hell.
His hands immediately went up to clench the sides of his head, as though only the pressure of his palms kept his skull from exploding. However, searing agony lit up his right arm as he tried to flex its muscles. His arm had been compressed in a splint and his attempt to bend it ignited a burning pain from within.
“I’m sorry Liza, I’m sorry!” Konstantin keeled over to one side, cradling his head as tears streamed nonstop from his eyes. He could feel the pillow beside him grow wet with water and snot, yet he couldn’t bring himself to stop.
It was hardly the first time that he relived the horrid day from the past, when his sins would come back to haunt him. For at least a dozen minutes Konstantin laid there against the pillow, unable to think of anything except crying and apologizing to the tortured soul of his late sister.
How many men had she been raped by before she died? How many hours had she been abused before she left this world? Was her mind even sane as she passed on to the afterlife? She had been a brave and courageous woman who sheltered him until the end. How could he ever make up for the fact that it was his betrayal which forever tainted her soul?
Konstantin never even recovered her body for a proper burial. The rebel streltsy took it alongside his father and brother’s spiked heads. Even today he didn’t know where they had been buried. All he could pay was lip service, to cry ‘sorry’ again and again in his bed.
He didn’t know how long it took before his mental state returned to a semblance of normal. His head was still pounding and his skull felt about to burst. His right arm was still inflamed with a constant, pervasive pain. Nevertheless, he could at least think coherent thoughts again and not just an endless stream of apologies.
He reached out to the side before opening his watery gaze. Where was the young maid who always stayed with him at times like this?
Years ago he would have these ‘nightmares’ at least once a week. It wasn’t until after he met Luna when the frequency began to decrease. Even today, he would wake up in hysteria at least once a month, and only Luna’s soft, airy voice could calm him back down as she cradled his head against her chest. Afterwards, once he had imbibed some wine infused with her sleep remedy, he would return to bed and slowly drift back into a dreamless sleep.
But his maid wasn’t here with him today. Why? He pondered.
He couldn’t remember anything he did last night. Everything was black, as though an entire night of his life had simply vanished. Just trying to think about it worsened the headache.
Then, as he thought back to earlier and earlier in the day, he remembered…
Sachka was dead. The Tuchkov family lay gutted. Even his sworn foe Mstislav and the Streltsy had been annihilated.
Was this the outcome that he had sought?
“No!” Konstantin denied it even as he heard his own voice from within. He remembered the oath he had sworn years ago, along with the sensation of blood trickling down both arms and onto his chest from the cuts he had made below his wrists.
“Veles, God of the Underworld, hear my vow! I offer you everything that I have — my inheritance, my name, my body, and my soul. Give me the wisdom to survive my enemies and find them! Give me the strength to dismantle their power and annihilate them! I will do whatever you desire, become whomever you demand, sacrifice whomever you wish, so long as it brings destruction to those responsible for the murder of my family! EVERY SINGLE LAST ONE OF THEM!”
“NO!” Konstantin cried as he slammed his fists into the mattress, only to grimace in pain from the abrupt movement of his right arm. “This is NOT what I wanted!”
Yet, it was exactly what he had asked for.
The entirety of Polisia had been on the march. Sachka and the Tuchkovs were no exception. Yet, even as his childhood friends advanced east into decisive battle, all Konstantin could provide was lip service!
Worse yet — he had busied himself plotting against the Grand Prince, undermining the authority of the campaign’s leader, and lifted not a finger to aid his friend!
“But this is not what I sought for…” Konstantin cried as he tried to convince himself.
In hindsight, and despite Sachka’s warnings, even Konstantin never truly believed that this might be the outcome. The entire Polisian army, twice the numbers of the Eastling invasion, had been annihilated just days after making contact with the enemy!
More memories returned of what happened yesterday. In his outburst upon receiving the disastrous news he had broken his own arm. It was only thanks to Anton’s quick action in restraining him that he did not damage it further. The Captain had called for Luna and helped her make the splint that now stiffened his entire right arm. The two of them then forced him to down the most disgusting medicine he had ever tasted.
After that… after that Konstantin stayed just long enough to tell the other officers. He then retired to his cabin where he began to drown himself in the few bottles of hard liquor he had remaining. When Luna tried to stop him he drove her off and even threw one of her herb jars at her. He could still see the shattered glass just outside the bedroom door, along with the foul stench of his own vomit.
Damn it! DAMN IT! Konstantin cursed as he pulled himself out of bed and swayed as he stood up. His tears continued to trickle from his eyes as he thought of not just his own family but his ‘adoptive’ kin as well. The Tuchkov siblings had never treated him like an outsider. Even their father Vladislav had spent more time teaching him than his own father Radomir.
After all, it had been his elder brother, not Konstantin, who had been groomed to be House Apraksin’s heir.
Using his left arm to brace against the walls for support, Konstantin made his way to the cabin’s main room. Everything was a mess as he had clearly smashed more than one jar last night. The chairs were upturned and even the table had been damaged. There were shards of glass all over the floor, intermixed with dried herbs and splats of half-digested stew from his stomach.
Only a half bottle of grain alcohol was left, and he grabbed it –along with his sheathed sword– before making his way to the door and pushing it aside.
He needed some space. He needed fresh air.
But most of all, he needed to vent the misery, the anger, and the hatred at both the world and himself that were slowly killing him inside.
—— * * * ——
Luna gazed back in the camp’s direction as she felt a tingle run down her spine. Her instincts told her that she should go back. Her mind protested otherwise.
Her shoulder still hurt where Konstantin had hit her with a jar last night. She had run off after that and took shelter in the dining hall where she slept at a table. Unfortunately, the large dining cabin lacked its own hearth once the kitchen fires were no longer in use. The freezing temperature had left her with a runny nose this morning as her body fought off a developing cold.
She wasn’t worried about the illness. She was a Samaran after all. A cold for her kind lasted a half-day at most. But while she didn’t want to be anywhere near Konstantin, she also felt bad about abandoning him.
She had never seen him so aggrieved and distraught and… violent.
Sachka and the Tuchkovs really were like family to him, Luna thought back to that day when the two of them met and embraced each other like brothers. Her thoughts then followed to how Konstantin and Lady Katsiaryna would often bicker like siblings. There was definitely a familiarity in their relationship that Luna had never experienced.
There was even a part of her that felt a little envious.
The young girl covered her right shoulder with her palm and rolled the joint again. The painful bruise from last night had dulled to only a faint ache. It wasn’t anything to be concerned over and, for the most part, she didn’t blame Konstantin.
However, just because she didn’t begrudge him didn’t mean she wanted to be anywhere near him right now.
That was probably the reason why she came out into the forest looking for herbs to replenish those that Konstantin ruined. But with temperatures plummeting below freezing each night and the first dusting of snow already covering the ground, there was little chance of any delicate herbs persisting until now. In the end, Luna knew that it was just an excuse for her to take a walk, away from a drunk Konstantin and the soldiers who often looked upon her with a desirous gaze.
Luna shook her head to snip off that train of thought. There was no point complaining about the nature of society which she couldn’t change. She looked up and around her to regain her bearing. On top of a gentle incline just a few minutes’ walk away was that posh-looking cabin with soft-lavender paint.
It was Lady Katsiaryna’s residence, which meant Konstantin’s wasn’t that far away. Clearly she had taken a giant loop in her stroll, her subconscious taking her back to where she knew she was needed most.
Luna sighed. Since she was already here, she might as well check up on him.
However, as Luna strode closer and Konstantin’s cabin emerged into view, she noticed that the door had been left ajar. She ran inside and had to hold her breath in the nauseous air that smelled of vomit, but it quickly became apparent that Konstantin was nowhere to be found.
How could he have wandered off? Luna puzzled as she examined the empty bottles. He should be so hungover that he’d barely be able to walk.
It was then when Luna noticed: Konstantin’s sword, which he had left on the table last night, was missing as well.
Her eyes swelled as she imagined just what an armed, unstable, violent, and hungover drunk could do. Worse yet, she knew she didn’t have the physical strength to stop him even if she found him.
Luna rushed over to Katsiaryna’s cabin and knocked on the door in a hurried frenzy. She didn’t stop until the door opened and a disgruntled lady showed her puffy-eyed, sleep-deprived gaze. Her pupils were red and the skin around her eyes were inflamed as well. It was apparent that Katsiaryna had spent last night crying herself to sleep.
“I thought Samarans were supposed to be patient,” Katsiaryna’s gaze narrowed and looked at Luna with an exhausted annoyance. “It’s barely half past daybreak!”
“I’m sorry Your Ladyship,” Luna bowed her head in apology. “I know you don’t wish to be disturbed but… His Lordship is missing. He’d been drinking all last night so I left him be. But when I came back this morning this was no sign of him.”
Katsiaryna’s brows furrowed before she scowled.
“He’s learned what happened…?” Her bright-turquoise eyes teared up a little even as she asked.
Luna nodded solemnly in response. “He talked with Marshal Tuchkov yesterday. I’m so sorry.”
For a second Katsiaryna’s lips trembled as though she wanted to burst out into tears. Then, as she wiped away the fresh droplets in her eyes and steadied herself, she noted:
“You’re right to come see me. Kostya has never been great at keeping his emotions under control. The best he usually manages is to fake something over it…”
Katsiaryna stopped herself as she blinked and stared at Luna for a few seconds. She then exhaled a hefty sigh.
“I’m preaching to the choir aren’t I? Let me grab my gear.”
The young lady stepped back inside, grabbed her belt from the table with her scabbard, crossbow, and buckler all hanging from it.
“How’s Rayna been?” Luna noticed the blanket on the chair and realized that Katsiaryna must have slept at her desk. Meanwhile, her bed was still occupied by that green-haired girl from the other night.
“Stable, but unconscious. I don’t know when she’ll wake up.” Katsiaryna said matter-of-factly as she buckled the belt around her narrow waist. “I gave her a bit of water yesterday but food isn’t an option. If she doesn’t wake up soon she’s going to starve.”
“She still has a few days before we need to worry,” Luna reassured. “The body is more resilient than Your Ladyship might think.”
The young noblewoman then exhaled another fatigued sigh. It was obvious she didn’t catch enough sleep.
“You’re right. Besides, one problem at a time. Let’s go.”
“HAAAAAAHHHH! HAH! HAH! HAAHHHH!”
Luna hurried through the trees before she arrived at the source of the anguished cries. Konstantin was deep in the woods more than kilopace away from camp. His body teetered and swayed from a clearly impaired sense of balance. Meanwhile his left hand grasped his arming sword and swung it wildly.
His attempt to hack down trees and even branches were dismally ineffective. Bad angles plus a poor application of strength from his off-hand often made the supple branches bounce back into him. He had scratches across his arms and cheeks but he didn’t seem to care. His splint-encased right arm clutched an empty bottle which was clearly the culprit of his current frenzy.
After a flurry of slashes that left him short of breath, he looked up into the cloudy skies and yelled without holding back:
“I curse you Veles! I curse all of the gods! You’re all fucking blind! USELESS!”
“Your Lordship!” Luna spoke at last as she drew near. She only stopped when she was just a few paces from him.
“I’ve told you to not call me that!” Konstantin turned towards her with a pointed empty bottle in his splint-held right arm. “I’m Kost–”
A hiccup then interrupted him, followed by a twisted expression of nausea as he bent over and clearly tried to puke.
The only problem was that there was nothing solid remaining in his stomach. Konstantin’s belly growled in apparent protest. He pressed the sword in his left arm against the ground for balance, but the frozen earth was too hard to dig in.
Then, as another convulsion of nausea struck him, the young lord lost his balance and stumbled forward.
“Konstantin,” Luna rushed up to help him. However he tripped almost immediately and her thin arms failed to stop his body from toppling into her. She fell beneath him and winched in pain as her back hit the pebbled ground. She could also smell the pungent odor of alcohol as he collapsed right on top of her chest.
For a second Luna’s body trembled as an old memory wracked her thoughts. Her first encounter with Imperial soldiers in the woods of Iskar had been just like this. The bearded trooper had stunk of alcohol and tried to rape her on the forest floor. She had followed her late mother’s advice and kneed him in the groin before scrambling away to run.
“NO!” She gave a frightful scream as she reacted on reflex.
“OHHHHHH.” An excruciating groan emerged from Konstantin. Her knee had rammed between his legs in the present, and Konstantin’s head tilted back as both of his hands went down to his manhood.
…It only made him look more like he was trying to have his way with her.
“Luna!” The young girl heard Lady Katsiaryna cry out from a few dozen paces out. They had split up to search for Konstantin. However it was clear that his cries had also drawn the Lady to this spot.
“What in Hel’s fury are you doing!” Katsiaryna shouted in anger before she ran over. The young noblewoman yanked Konstantin off Luna by the collar of his jacket. She then slapped him in the face with such force that he collapsed back onto the ground in the opposite direction.
“Luna, are you alright?” The Lady turned her concerned gaze towards the prone girl.
“Yes. Give me a second.” Luna groaned in pain. “I fell on top of some rocks and… my back…”
Katsiaryna grasped Luna’s hand and pulled the other girl up. She then swiveled the smaller girl around and looked under the wool cloak.
“No bleeding. Probably just some bad bruising,” the fuming noblewoman said before she spun Luna again until they were face to face. “Defend yourself properly will you!? Even a good, hard slap works wonders.” She then turned to look at Konstantin who was still clutching his groin as he rolled sideways on the ground. “When men are like this the only language they understand… is violence…”
Katsiaryna’s voice trailed off as she finally realized that her presumptions had been entirely wrong.
“I shouldn’t have kneed him,” Luna explained as she clasped her hands before her mouth. “He stumbled and I had tried to help him. It was an accident but I just… reacted.”
“Give me a break!” Konstantin groaned as he continued to lay on the ground in pain. “I may have a reputation as a womanizer. But I’d never force myself on anyone!”
“I’m really sorry,” Luna blurted out, uncertain of what to do. None of her medicine was applicable for such a private injury.
Katsiaryna meanwhile closed her eyes and exhaled a deep sigh. She took a moment to calm down before turning to the smaller girl.
“Pain is cathartic when they’re in the dumps. Don’t worry too much about it. Besides,” she then helped Luna as together they each grasped one of Konstantin’s arms and helped stand him back up. “It knocked some sense back into you didn’t it, Kostya? Seriously — women, alcohol, where in Veles’ name did you learn all these awful habits!? You weren’t like this years ago!”
“You have no idea what I had to live through after the Streltsy Revolt.” Konstantin answered with a contemptuous snort. “Do you think that I could have simply lived like you? Go where I want to go? Take only the jobs that I agree with!?” He shot back at Katsiaryna’s time as a mercenary.
The young lady’s temple twitched as she pulled her supporting arm away. It was only thanks to Luna and a nearby tree that Konstantin grasped onto which kept him standing.
“Your Ladyship,” Luna appealed as Katsiaryna stared daggers at her childhood friend and once-betrothed. “He doesn’t mean that. He’s just–”
“Shut up!” Konstantin cut the servant girl off as he pushed her away and stood leaning against the tree by himself. “What do you know about how I feel right now!?”
However his words irritated Katsiaryna far more as she slammed his shoulders against the tree trunk:
“I lost a father, two uncles, four brothers, and seven cousins in the recent battle! Don’t complain to me about YOUR FEELINGS!”
“You have no idea what I lost…” Konstantin hiccuped again as his head drooped to stare at the ground.
However, this only made Katsiaryna more angry as her pitch steadily rose:
“Is that why you’re drunk and angry? That you lost your chance to take revenge now that your family’s murderers are dead by Eastling hands? Tell me the truth Kostya — Are you building this army for Polisia’s sake, or your own need for revenge!?”
“I’ve told you, told everyone a thousand times!” Konstantin retorted.
“Yes. But I know YOU! You deceive others as readily as the trickster god Veles! I still remember how you’d invent a new cover story whenever we got into trouble as kids!” Katsiaryna scowled as she took a step back and crossed her arms. “And worse yet — when Rayna challenged us the other night, you would have been totally fine if Drazhan had to be sacrificed to calm the situation, wouldn’t you!?”
Luna’s eyes swelled as she looked between Katsiaryna and Konstantin. She had always thought that she was good at reading Konstantin’s true intentions. But she never even had an inkling of suspicion.
In hindsight, Luna had been so absorbed by the duel at the time that she didn’t even pay attention to him.
“How–?” Konstantin was so caught off-guard that he didn’t even try to deny it.
“I may not be much into politics, but I’ve led a team into combat. I know how it works!” The fuming noblewoman explained. “Drazhan was being killed right in front of you. Yet you still tried to hold me back from intervening. Since when have you ever placed honor and tradition before pragmatism!?”
“It wasn’t just that,” Konstantin begrudgingly added. “I also didn’t want to see you risk your life against–”
“That’s not your decision to make!” Katsiaryna cut him off before she stopped herself for a brief pause but continued to glare at him.
For a moment the three of them stood in silence. Then, after Katsiaryna backed away, closed her eyes, and took a few deep, calming breaths, she continued:
“That night had me thinking: if you were so willing to forfeit Drazhan to clear one obstacle, then what else are you willing to sacrifice to reach your goals? Will you throw away the hundreds that you’ve gathered here if it meant taking the head of your family’s murderer? Will you ignore the Eastlings if it meant destroying the House of Dolgorukov? Because I think –if you had to pick between Polisia and your own revenge– the latter is what you’ll always choose!”
“I’ve never even spoken of Mstislav in our battalions’ planning!” Konstantin tried to defend himself.
However this time, it was apparent to Luna that he was just trying to deflect Katsiaryna’s accusations.
“No. But I’ve seen how you react every time the Grand Prince is mentioned, or even whenever you hear the word ‘streltsy’. Your hatred for them runs deep into your bones. Deep enough that you would do anything to exact vengeance. Am I wrong?” She challenged him.
“The blood oath you swore before Father Mikhail to put Polisia’s troubles first — was that a lie as well?” Luna muttered in disbelief, feeled betrayed as she thought back to that day over a month ago when they’d been ambushed by assassins on the road. She had been too distracted in its aftermath as she tried to calm Mikhail’s young apprentices. She had never even considered that it might just be an act for Konstantin to persuade the others.
Perhaps it should have been obvious. Konstantin had been so willing to sabotage and undermine the Grand Prince’s position at every opportunity. He even faked his own death and burned down his own estate while Mstislav marched out to face the Eastlings. It was only her desire to see Father Mikhail and Konstantin work together that blinded her to this reality.
Meanwhile, Luna saw that Konstantin’s arms were shaking as his hands tightened into fists. This was no side-effect of his drunken stupor. The young lord bared his teeth towards the two girls as his countenance contorted with torment and anguish.
“Of course I hate them!” He abandoned all pretense and spat about. “Do you have any clue what it felt to live through that revolt!? What it was like to watch your father and brother’s heads severed and spiked!? To listen as your own sister was raped and murdered within earshot!? I may be a Prince but I am not a rock! Even a rock would feel warm after you drenched it in your own family’s blood!”
Every sense of betrayal left Luna’s thoughts as a profound feeling of sympathy overwhelmed over her thoughts. All those nights when he awoke screaming his sister’s name, when Luna held Konstantin’s head in her bosom while he cried nonstop. The nightmares may have lessened over the years but they never left. The burdens of his past never ceased to torment him.
“And…” Konstantin’s voice shook as the tears continued to pour nonstop from his emerald gaze. “Do you know what I did then, when my family needed me most? I abandoned my own sister! I ran away! I was even more fucking useless than the last few days!”
For a brief second every thought in Luna’s head came to a screeching halt. Konstantin’s last remark simply didn’t fit into her existing assumptions. Her thoughts then turned before she realized: neither the loss of his childhood friends nor his missed chance at revenge was the real reason for this emotional upheaval.
No, it was more complicated than that. It was his sense of helplessness, of never doing the right thing to save those he truly loved.
However, Lady Katsiaryna did not catch this as she continued to glare at him. A glimpse of sympathy and sadness had entered the bright-turquoise gaze that stayed fixated on her once-betrothed. Nevertheless, her teeth remained gritted as she looked upon him with contempt and exasperation.
“Yes, I know that your family was murdered most cruelly during the Streltsy Revolt. Yes, I know you’ve had a hard life, and it’s not fair to me to preach to you from atop a moral pedestal.” Katsiaryna had tried to keep calm at first. Yet, as she strode forward and pressed him against the tree trunk once again, her tone escalated as her impromptu rant continued.
“But you can’t just treat those who follow you like they’re pawns in your grand scheme! You can’t just deceive and sacrifice them as you please! It is not the path of a true leader, and it is certainly not worthy of a Prince! Continue this and I swear you will have nobody standing behind you! My family certainly did not choose to support you at a time like this out of petty revenge!”
Konstantin flinched while Luna realized that this was no mere warning. Konstantin’s forces were built around a core of officers from the Tuchkov household druzhina. If Katsiaryna denounced him and withdrew her family’s backing, then they would without a doubt abandon him.
“That’s not–” The young nobleman tried to retort, but he could hardly get a word in before Katsiaryna shouted angrily over him.
“YES, I KNOW how the game of politics is played! I know that you cannot simply uphold ideals!” She yelled at him even as fresh tears emerged into her eyes. “Lie if you must. Cheat if you must. But at least do it for the right reasons! For a purpose worthy of the people who support you! Your father and my grandfather had a vision for Polisia, and you know exactly what it is! Don’t spit upon your own parents’ graves by undermining everything they worked for!”
Katsiaryna sent him one last disgusted glare as she finished, before she spun on her heels and stormed off. Meanwhile Konstantin’s eyes trembled as he slid down the tree trunk until his rear hit the ground. The lady’s final remarks had knocked the air out of him more effectively than even the strongest gut punch.
For several minutes there was only silence as the young lord sat and his maid watched. Then, as a previously damaged branch broked and fell to the ground…
“Everything is falling apart around me.” Konstantin reflected with a groan.
“No, you broke them.” Luna commented flatly as she looked at one of the branches.
Konstantin groaned again in response.
“You’re killing me, Luna.”
Then, before she even had time to retort, he added:
“Don’t. Say. Anything. Just don’t.”
It took over an hour for Luna to help Konstantin back to his cabin. The young nobleman still walked with an odd gait, likely an aftereffect of his kneed groin. He looked through his belongings in the bedroom before grabbing a dusty booklet buried deep in a trunk. Meanwhile Luna tried to keep her queasy stomach in check as she grabbed a bucket and mop to begin cleaning up the mess he made.
She watched as Konstantin sat down on a step outside the cabin door and left it open for venting. He opened the booklet to read, only to stop on the first page.
His gaze then looked towards the clouds as he breathed out a deep sigh.
“I really have lost my way, haven’t I?” Konstantin spoke as though talking to himself.
Curious, Luna stepped up to look over his shoulder and saw that the page was blank except for a single inscription. It was also not written in Polisian, but Arcadian:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
“What is that?” Luna asked. She had never seen him with that booklet before.
“It’s one of Father’s journals. He left in it his rough plans for government reform, his ideas on how to modernize Polisia into a first-rate state.”
Konstantin then leafed through its pages. Apart from its first page, Luna saw that it was completely crammed with lists, diagrams, and other writing. To claim they were ‘rough plans’ seemed a gross understatement.
“And the inscription?” She inquired.
“His favorite quote from Reflections, that book from Imperator Aurelius which I told you about the other day, the one on Katya’s desk. You could even say this line is the Tuchkov family motto.” Konstantin then gave a wry, half-chuckle before he shook his head at himself. “What a way to be reminded that my father also shared similar values.”
He tried to raise his right arm and yelped ‘Ow!’ He dropped it and used his left hand to scratch his head instead.
“I’m sorry.” Konstantin apologized. “I shouldn’t have deceived Father Mikhail. I know he’s very close to you, and by lying to him I lied to you as well.”
Exhaling a sigh of her own, Luna leaned the mop against a wall before she walked over to sit besides him.
“I’m not the one harmed by your lies. You didn’t have to swear an oath to bring me along,” she admitted. “Besides, it’s not as though I don’t understand — I’ve seen how your nightmares haunt you, how your past’s chains bind you.”
“We are all prisoners of our own history,” Konstantin agreed. “Yet, we must escape those chains if we are to build a better future, for our own sake if not others.”
“Who is that from?” Luna wondered aloud.
“I just made it up.”
Luna fell silent for a moment. Konstantin had been quoting others’ insights so much that she had completely disregarded the possibility of it being his own.
“Still,” she returned to the previous topic. “Shouldn’t you apologize to Father Mikhail, instead of me?”
“I’m afraid if I tell him, he’ll never trust me again,” Konstantin worried.
You may be right about that. Luna thought.
“The thing is — I hadn’t even wanted to deceive someone who was clearly important to you,” Konstantin scratched his hair again. “It’s just that… I’ve grown so used to showing people what I want them to see, a version of myself to give them the impression that I need. It felt so natural at the time, to swear to the Gods that I would do the right thing. I didn’t even realize then, that what I promised may be in conflict with what I really want.”
“In other words,” Luna translated straight. “You’re a pathological liar, even to yourself.”
For a moment Konstant stared back as though he wanted to retort. Then, as he sighed and slumped his shoulders, he admitted:
“I think you might be right.”
Luna smiled a little. After all, admittance is always the first step to change.
“If you can promise me you’ll change, and promise Lady Katsiaryna the same, then I won’t say anything to Father Mikhail or the others this time.”
“Even though I clearly break my vows?” He asked.
“You’ve never broken your promises to me,” Luna refuted, thinking back to the day when they first met.
Konstantin’s green eyes met her gaze and gave a wry smile.
“You’re making it harder on me every day.” He muttered as he placed a hand on her lap.
Luna could feel her entire face burning up as she remembered just what their ‘official’ relationship in front of others was.
“That’s not at all what you should say at a moment like this,” she retorted.
“You’re right,” Konstantin replied. “And I promise, I’ll do my best to stop deceiving the people who follow me. At the very least, I’ll stop using people for a purpose they did not sign on for. I’ll put aside my vendetta for the Dolgorukovs and focus on what’s truly at stake… though,” he sighed and scowled inwardly, “it might already be too late.”
“I think Lady Katsiaryna will give you another chance,” Luna reflected. “As long as you can look past your obsession for revenge.”
For a moment Konstantin gave no reply. He only frowned with crossed eyes as though he was arguing with himself.
“I think I’d be lying if I claimed that I could ever truly put it aside,” he answered. “There’s no way I could ever forget what had happened, nor could I ever let it go. But… Katya is right. Revenge won’t help the country. It won’t make my father proud. It certainly won’t heal my sister’s soul.”
Luna nodded in firm agreement as she took his hand between her palms.
“You can’t change the past. You can’t change how your sister died after you ran off. But you can make her sacrifice mean something by using your life well, by achieving something that she could be proud of.”
Konstantin met her eye-to-eye again as his lips formed a real smile at last.
“I hope you’ll always remind me of that in the future. Just do it without taking it out on my crotch next time.”
“I’ll try as long as you don’t fall on me,” Luna replied with a sheepish smile.
“Sheesh, a servant threatening her master, what has the world come to,” Konstantin spoke in mockery and even rolled his eyes. However the faint, amused smile he wore exposed what he really thought. “Though, now that we’ve spent a morning over how my priorities need fixing, I also came to realize… there’s something else important which I should be more considerate of.”
Her master then took a brief pause, as his soft emerald gaze stared into her with a quizzical look.
“What is it that you want, Luna?” Konstantin asked before quickly appending. “And I don’t mean shelter, food, and security. I hope we’re past such basics by now.”
For a moment Luna froze with her mouth slightly ajar. Even her thoughts and her fading smile came to a sudden halt.
What do I want? The question echoed again in her mind.
And in response it found only silence.Author's Comment
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