You got a peek, now you can read the entire first chapter of Supertsar! All errors–grammatical, historical–are my own. Forgive me.
Chapter 1. Sibling Rivalry
Sophia! The Most Orthodox Princess. Regent of Russia these past seven years. If the softness of her cheeks, if the gentle smile gave nothing away, her almond eyes surely betrayed the intelligence beneath them. Sophia Alexeyevich, empress in all but name. Ruler of those that remained. Those who had yet to defect to her meddlesome brother, curse him.
Why should she cede the Regency? Of course Pyotr was old enough to reign, but until recently he’d betrayed no overt interest in the throne. And what skills did he possess? He certainly lacked experience. The experience and wisdom Sophia had utilized as Imperial Highness of All Great and Little Russia. For seven years she’d ruled this land with little trouble. Of course, there was Golitsyn’s latest Crimean debacle, but she could hardly be blamed for her favorite’s shortcomings as a field commander.
She carefully placed the cup of tea by the steaming samovar, keeping her rage deep inside. Rage was an emotion and, surrounded as she always was by a gaggle of courtiers and chatty hangers-on, she dare not show the slightest weakness. The men around her (if one could call them men; Sophia often thought of her fellow Russians as overgrown boys) were dangerous and constantly sought to undermine her authority.
It wasn’t the power she longed to preserve, but the lifestyle. Sequestered in the upper levels of the palace for most of her life, a prisoner of societal expectations as much as the terem itself, Sophia’s psyche—her intellect, her creativity—suffered in the forced solitude. But power had freed her, protected her, liberated her. She knew she would never willingly cede it.
And here was Vasily Golitsyn, kneeling before her, telling her not to worry. “Pyotr has merely fled Preobrazhenskoe at the nervous behest of his advisors. They plan no move against you.”
“Your words are as empty as your head,” Sophia said. “You suggest no motive on his part. That the Naryhskins would not jump at the chance to remove me. You think this is another of my brother’s war games? And what of his request, that Tsykler report to Troitsky with fifty men? I thought you smarter, Vasily.”
Before Golitsyn could protest, Sophia dismissed him. She decided she would speak to her other brother, Ivan. Ivan was a half-wit, but perhaps his counsel might provide some fresh insight where intellect had failed.
Several miles outside of Moscow, at Troitsky Monastery, Pyotr the not-yet-Great considered his options. He had to credit his sister. She’d proven a formidable opponent. But it was time for the charade to end. For Pyotr to assume power, Sophia had to go.
She had already sent him six messengers in six futile attempts at reconciliation. Faithful courtiers, childhood friends, relatives; all had changed sides on arrival. Pyotr had to laugh at the clergymen. If Sophia thought she could appeal to him through religion, she knew him not at all.
He burst into his makeshift war room. He never simply walked into a room, or entered a room, and he certainly never slipped into a room. He arrived. Like the tide. Like a storm front. Cleaving his way through the batch of attendants and advisors, each stride covering an ample chunk of the converted chapel, he slowed only to relieve the buffet of a hearty mug of kvas.
Pyotr Alexeyevich Mikhailov. Brilliant, manic, exophthalmic. Pyotr towered over his fellow Russians in both intellect and stature.
“That we were at Pleschev now, strolling along its muddy banks, a pipe in my mouth, a clever woman at my side.”
In the time it took Pyotr to finish his beer, Menshikov downed a third. “A stout Russian matushka, or a lean German frau?”
“One of each, of course! But their looks matter little, my friend, so long as they are sturdy of heart and keen of mind.” Pyotr wiped the last bits of foam from his mouth on his sleeve and hurled the empty mug over his shoulder. “It is, after all, a woman’s inner strength that is her most lovely—and vexing—quality.”
“And as for your sister… shall we now request a contingent of streltsy depart for Troitsky?”
“Yes.” Pyotr said. “I will pen the summons myself. She must see my sincerity in these actions. And she must not mistake my patience for weakness.”
Sophia made her way to Donskoy Monastery accompanied by five streltsy colonels, a gaggle of attendants, and a mass of armed soldiers. She felt a subtle change in the Moscow streets, a slight shifting of all things a few degrees in an unknown direction. Buildings leaned precariously, the wind blew against her. The air tasted wrong: like salt, like the sea.
The people had changed as well. For every loud bellow of support, behind it a distant cry of You’re no queen!
She quickened her pace as Donskoy’s spires climbed into view.
“She had how many streltsy with her?”
Before Boris Golitsyn could reply, Pyotr continued: “Four colonels? A small army accompanies her to her prayers!”
“Your brother awaits her in Donskoy. The political implications-”
“Ivan will afford her no leverage. He loves us both equally, and possesses neither the political desire nor the intellect to participate in this drama.”
“Our siblings may confound us, and we cannot always guide them. We can but love them and protect them as best we can.”
“I may excuse your thinly veiled attempt to protect your own half-witted brother, but I cannot abide his stubborn refusal to join us.” But Pyotr was not angry with Boris, or Vasily, or even his sister’s treason. It was Sophia’s attempt to draw their own gentle brother into the arena that so infuriated him.
Sophia arrived at the dimly lit chapel and approached her brother as he kneeled before the iconostasis. Viewed from an adequate distance, Ivan appeared as any grown man: tall, broad of shoulders, narrow of hips. Had his brain continued to develop beyond his sixth birthday, had his vertebrae not settled into their current untenable positions, Russia would be his to rule. He smiled and the spell was broken. His grin was a bit too wide, too childlike, for that of a man his age. And while his feeble mind could not fully comprehend the current crisis, Ivan was aware of a tension between his siblings.
It took him three attempts to stand upright, and the result was less than ideal. He struggled to maintain his posture, such as it was; courtiers supported him where his spine failed. Ivan Alekseyevich Romanov: devout, unintelligent, kyphotic.
“Are you mad at Pyotr, sister?” He furrowed his brow as he spoke.
Sophia hugged him and assured him all was well. She knew now this was a mistake, that Ivan would be of no help. She leant down to kiss his forehead and turned to leave. As she made her way out, the candlelight wavered.
You will lose.
Sophia turned and in an instant her world imploded. For this was not the Ivan she grew up with, the Ivan she played with in the gardens, the Ivan who cried at the slightest provocation.
Ivan stood bolt upright, unaided by his aghast courtiers. His normally twisted spine was straight, his face—usually knotted with dull confusion and worry—was serene. The light from the monastery’s many candles seemed to bend toward the chamber’s center, focusing itself onto Ivan. He drew it in, processed it, projected it back out upon his kneeling attendants. His limbs, his jaw, moved with a precision heretofore unseen in his usual physical lexicon; his speech contained words he should not have been able to pronounce, much less comprehend. Our apologies, but in all your iterations, all your incarnations, you must lose to Great Pyotr. Always.
We regret your imminent dismissal. You are a great queen in many realms. But history in your universe must unfold thusly. Farewell, Sophia. We shan’t meet again in this world.
Ivan’s attendants leapt up to assist him as he collapsed to the floor. His body had returned to its familiar inverted architecture, his voice reassuming its usual quavering uncertainty.
But Sophia had turned to leave. By the time she crossed the threshold, she was running.
As Pyotr’s favorite, Aleksandr Menshikov enjoyed certain privileges: the finest wines, the company of the most beautiful of women, and the ear of his tsar and best friend. He approached Pyotr with a relaxed deference. “I’ve just received word of two more defections, most notably that of Patriarch Joachim.”
“Very good! He and I will greet further defections together.”
“Surely the tide has turned.”
“The tide, like the world itself, obeys immutable natural laws. It moves as it must, in a direction that is to our benefit, for our cause is just.”
“If only your sister could see such logic.”
“And what of my dear Sophia?”
“Buturlin has just returned from the Great Russian Road. Your sister approaches, wishing to reconcile-”
“Reconcile?” Pyotr spun around, focusing his bulging eyes on his friend. “Send Joachim. Turn her away at once. Let her return to the Kremlim, where she may reconcile her own fate.”
“I’ve only ever asked one thing of you, Vasily. Just one thing. To assist me. And in assisting me, serve the empire. Can your brother do nothing? Or is he too a traitor?” Sophia posed the questions as much to her lover as to the world. She knew the battle was lost.
“My lady, he merely obeys the wishes of his tsar.” He regretted the words as soon as they were uttered. She needed no reminder of her untenable position. He shut his eyes and lowered his head.
“Tsar…” Sophia stared at Vasily without seeing him.
Would Pyotr have her executed? It was no less than she deserved. She almost welcomed it. Anything—even death—would be better than exile, a return to the soul-crushing boredom of her former life. She cursed her subjects. If they would prefer the rule of a young madman to that of her own steady hand, damn them and all who came after. And if there was any validity to the events of Donskoy, if the voices that spoke through Ivan were real, then even the gods opposed her.
She briefly considered retaliation against the servants who had failed her in these last few weeks. But there was no one left to carry out her wishes. What use in ordering an execution if no one remained to wield the axe?
“No one remains.” Menshikov declared. “Your foes were many, now there are none.”
As Pyotr rode into Moscow, Ivan joined the procession. Streltsy accompanied Pyotr and streltsy moved aside as he made his way forward. The battle was won and Pyotr would take the throne.
“Novodevichy Convent will prove a not unpleasant environment for her to consider her errors and wile away the remainder of her years.”
Menshikov nodded. “The mercy you show your enemies inspires. Your love for Sophia is strong.”
“She was a shrewd and worthy adversary. She is, after all, my sister.”