I’ve recently completed the second chapter of my first novel Supertsar. All errors–historical and grammatical–are my own.
Chapter 2: Necessary Evils
Eight years into what would prove to be a long and storied reign, Pyotr set out on his Great Embassy. This unprecedented journey across Europe would require hundreds of people, hundreds of thousands of rubles, and an infinite amount of patience for all involved. Many advised him not to go, but he didn’t care. Pyotr would see the world!
Riga, Courland, Berlin. Zaandam, Amsterdam, England. Dresden, Prague, Vienna. The political aim of the undertaking was simple: the strengthening of diplomatic ties to assist in Russia’s struggles with the Turks. But Pyotr’s true mission was of a more personal nature. He wanted to learn. Shipbuilding, science, modern siege works, medicine. Pyotr would experience it all firsthand if he could but escape Russia’s stubborn gravity.
Pyotr would see the world, and this fool of a man was complaining in his ear. He couldn’t recall the old courtier’s name–Shuisky? Shaklovity?–but did not care a whit. And what was he going on about? His fucking tooth?
“Must I oversee all things, from the assemblage of the caravans to the dental health of my boyars?”
As Pyotr hurried about the Kremlin palace–attendants panting, struggling to keep up with the Tsar’s great strides–his bulging eyes took in everything about him, from the arrangement of the fine sables in their crates to the disgruntled looks of those who did not wish to accompany him. They vibrated, Pyotr’s eyes, humming with an anxious life of their own, devouring information, voracious in their perspicacity. No detail went unnoticed, no piece of information unconsidered.
“Preparations continue apace, your grace.” First Commander Francis Lefort, Chief of the Great Embassy, functional alcoholic.
“We can expect a certain amount of unavoidable ceremony during our travels, Franz, but while abroad refer to me simply as Pyotr. Whenever possible I’d like to keep the sycophants at a comfortable distance and the bowing and praying to a minimum.”
Lefort slapped Pyotr on the back and laughed. “Of course, my friend. Outside the realm, you shall be Pyotr Mikhailov the carpenter. Builder of ships, breaker of hearts.”
He grunted acknowledgement, though he didn’t actually hear Lefort’s reply. He rarely sought confirmation of his wishes; as Tsar he made them known and assumed they would be followed.
A nearby servant, attempting to package a large oil painting, tripped over his own feet and fell headfirst through the thick canvas. The result: a burst of laughter from those around him as his face seemed to replace that of the painting’s ursine subject.
Pyotr’s thoughts returned to the imminent journey, and he briefly wondered if he’d ever return.
Two minutes after Pyotr left Moscow, a signal was given, and the Streltsy set their plans in motion.
Since their creation during the reign of Ivan IV, the Streltsy had served as an elite squad of the Tsar’s personal bodyguards. As the decades passed they grew and evolved, assuming the roles of policemen, firemen, carpenters and–most recently–extortionists, embezzlers and murderers. It was the Streltsy that had killed Pyotr’s father’s best friend Artemon Matveev, hurling him upon a sea of spears at the base of the Kremlin’s Red Staircase right before ten-year-old Pyotr’s eyes.
As far as Pyotr was concerned the Streltsy had long since outlived their usefulness. Their latest intransigence would likely prove to be their last.
As the Embassy arrived in Riga, Pyotr slipped away from the inevitable ceremony incognito, disguising himself in simple carpenter’s attire. He busied himself with the gathering of information about the city, measuring the width and depth of moats, scaling and sketching ramparts, noting the fortifications’ strengths and weaknesses, marveling at the modern architectures, coveting the Livonians’ assets, and hating them for their staring. Had they never seen a seven-foot-tall Russian monarch before? No matter. He learned what he could in the guise of curiosity, and was happy to leave the accursed place he would eventually conquer.
They crossed the Dvina where the Duchy of Courland awaited. The Duke, Frederick Casimir, did his utmost to receive this boisterous party, entertaining the hard-drinking Russians with aplomb. At Konigsberg, Elector Frederick III of the House of Hohenzollern greeted the embassy enthusiastically. This Frederick managed the delicate balance of officially acknowledging the Russians’ presence while simultaneously pretending Pyotr was not there. Pyotr learned what he could of artillery and ballistics, and moved on when his Name Day passed without Frederick’s attendance. Pyotr left Konigsberg in a huff, screaming at several ministers, but sent Frederick a gift of jewels in apology for his explosive temper.
While traveling through Berlin, across North Germany towards Hanover, Pyotr was ambushed. The Electress of Brandenburg and Electress of Hanover–Sophia and Sophia, eager to meet this curious man–had their carriages intercept Pyotr at the town of Koppenbrugge. He could not refuse the determined ladies’ invitation to table, but he was initially nonplussed by their attentions. He’d never before met such dynamic women, and he struggled to find his footing in the conversation. But the passage of time–and a steady flow of alcohol–enabled Pyotr to enjoy the evening. He entertained his hosts with his knowledge of shipbuilding, and impressed everyone present by rolling up a silver tray in his bare, calloused hands. When it was time to depart Pyotr heartily embraced each of the charming women and remarked on the hardness of their ribs, unaware that it was the whalebone in their corsets that he had felt. No one laughed harder than Pyotr himself at his foible, and he left Koppenbrugge in good spirits, lavishing his new friends with gifts of silk and jewels and a dwarf.
He set off down the Rhine for Holland, for Zaandam awaited with the finest ships in Europe, and Pyotr had long desired to see this city with his own eyes. He acquired a small boat to journey ahead of his main retinue and, while exploring the country’s endless canals, was surprised to encounter an old blacksmith friend with whom he had worked in Moscow. He moved himself into the blacksmith’s home, drawn to its unassuming character, but was not idle for long. After buying new tools from a local shop, he found work on the docks from a foreman willing to hire the inquisitive Russian. He nearly drove his peers mad with the sheer amount of questions he posed–What does this do? What is it called? How does it work?–but earned his place amongst them with his hard work and determination to learn everything he could of their craft. In the evenings he drank to excess, but always woke before dawn the following day to join his new friends at the docks.
Though Pyotr traveled in disguise, the idea of a man of his height and conspicuous movements remaining hidden proved absurd. Even those who did not suspect the strange giant’s true origins could not help but stare. People pointed and whispered. Children threw rocks at his head. While sailing the Ij he found himself surrounded by boats swollen with spectators and had to make his way to shore. Even bigger crowds greeted him on land, and he pushed through the throng as best he could, cuffing a few oglers on the head as he passed, cursing. Fences were built around him so that he could peacefully study the mechanics of a nearby dike, but the sheer numbers of onlookers overwhelmed the makeshift barriers and Pyotr was ultimately forced to leave Zaandam for Amsterdam sooner than originally intended.
The unwanted attention continued in Amsterdam, but he was undaunted for here was the greatest port in his world. During his four month stay–when he wasn’t working on ships–Pyotr enjoyed the company of his friend and childhood hero William of Orange, ruler of both Holland and England. William showed him the sights, introduced him to scientists and artists and microscopists, and entertained him with fireworks and mock naval battles. Pyotr explored the city’s many markets and canals on foot, learning, questioning the tradesmen around him and–when possible–hiring as many skilled laborers as possible.
In Leyden a renowned anatomist showed Pyotr a well-preserved corpse, its skin peeled and pinned back to reveal the body’s glistening musculature. Pyotr imagined himself upon the table, his physical being dissected and categorized, meticulously disassembled, bits of him passed around and scrutinized by students. He embedded his mind fully into the scenario, seeing–through his own dead eyes–the cracked ceiling of the laboratory, the inquisitive young faces of the scientists, the thick haze of tobacco smoke permeating the scene. As they picked him apart he wondered: Is this what I am? Is this all we are, a collection of tissues and valves and levers? If I died now would I be remembered merely as a pile of meat and bones? A manic, drunken, disagreeable Russian madman? When a squeamish courtier reeled at the sight of the exposed innards, wrenching the Tsar from his reverie, Pyotr forced him to remove a chunk of the specimen’s muscles with his teeth.
When Pyotr learned what he could from the Dutch shipbuilders, he sailed south to England aboard the massive H.M.S. Yorke. The brief voyage was not without drama. Rough seas–combined with Pyotr’s usual stubbornness–almost threw him from the deck on several occasions. In London his education continued. He studied watchmaking, visited factories and hospitals, and spent money freely. He and his inner circle enjoyed the lush accommodations of the writer John Evelyn. They made themselves at home, destroying everything they could. At the end of their stay, no window was left unbroken, no tapestry unmarred, no linen untorn, no chair remained unburnt in the fireplace.
The Embassy made its way to Vienna, home to Leopold I, Archduke of Austria, King of Bohemia, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Viennese court employed formality to the nth degree; every ritual, every ceremony, every interaction executed with the sole purpose of celebrating the nigh divinity of its ruler. A simple meeting between Pyotr and Leopold required endless preparation and discussion among the court’s staff. The Tsar’s impatience foiled all attempts at protocol when he first caught sight of Leopold at the opposite end of a long hallway and bounded towards him. He embraced the Emperor as he would an old friend, seized his arm, and guided the diminutive sovereign to a private alcove. Leopold accepted the breach of protocol in stride, and the two enjoyed a lengthy discussion while attendants from both parties perspired and fidgeted. The meeting was declared a success, though neither leader could detail exactly what was said. Leopold would wonder later at the towering Tsar’s endless energy, nervous tics, and wild mood swings. Pyotr would scarcely remember much about the Emperor himself, beyond the size of his lower lip. A Hapsburg’s chin was as nothing compared to a Hapsburg’s massive, bee-stung kisser.
While Pyotr dined with Leopold, trying not to stare overlong at the bottom half of his complicated face, four regiments of Streltsy–ignoring their orders to report to the Polish frontier–turned instead towards Moscow. This well-armed mass of knotted brows and loud complaints marched to within thirty miles of the city, their demands ranging from the valid to the absurd: They were owed back pay. They missed their wives. They’d had their fill of war. They could no longer follow their false Tsar. Pyotr was the antichrist. Upon his return the Tsar would make everyone shave their heads, convert to Catholicism, smoke tobacco and speak only German. The more they grumbled, the more absurd the accusations became. By the time they arrived at the periphery of New Jerusalem Monastery, they were little more than a raging, unruly mob, easily routed. Pyotr received word of the uprising’s defeat, and shortened the remainder of his journey that he may more quickly return home and attend to the situation himself.
Pyotr returned to Moscow at dawn, ignored his wife Eudoxia’s request for an audience, and focused his attention on the unpleasant task before him.
He was not a sadistic man but circumstances demanded a violent response. Temporary houses were constructed at Preobrazhenskoe that would serve as interrogation centers, their fresh infrastructures designed to torture the maximum amount of people in the most efficient possible manner. Backsides were beaten, bones were broken, skin was burned, and screams were heard well beyond the camp’s periphery. When it came time to dispose of the numerous traitors, Pyotr often wielded the axe himself. Violence held no especial attraction to the tsar, but a hint of a smile could be glimpsed at the edge of his mouth as the heads of his enemies tumbled to the ground. And the Streltsy–that corrupt, overgrown police force that had so traumatized Pyotr as a child–were no more.
“Damned tooth.” Was that boyar complaining again?
Pyotr, recalling a brief lesson in dentistry from his travels, removed pliers from a tool belt and rose from his chair.
The Tolchok were ancient by most measures, older than all other known species in the multiverse. Older than atoms. They existed behind the world, engineering reality at a quantum level, the uncertain subatomic realm their usual substrate.
The Tolchok, a galactic sea of minds, watched Pyotr approach the boyar. Virtually omniscient, they saw not just the Tsar’s physical actions but into his mind as well.
Their observations- forming a hyperdimensional map of countless timelines reaching out in a trillion directions- traced a path forward to eternity. Their wise calculations sought the most peaceful trajectory for the largest amount of living creatures. Their logic could be cold and, at times, cruel.
A pity our tsar must lose his next battle. But our true enemies approach, and their dark intent overshadows any current threat the Swedish madman may provide.
They watched as Pyotr pulled a tooth from the old autocrat. Not the affected molar he sought, but he’d get at the rotten thing once his patient stopped squirming.