E4 – My snowberry

This story was inspired by Red Army Choir’s “Kalinka”. Try to listen to it while reading it. Actually, it would be perfect if you could find a performance of Red Army Choir at The concert in Tchaikovsky Hall in Moscow, 1965 with Yevgeny Belyaev as soloist.

She chose the darkest corner of the room. This may be his home but she will choose the corner. The hood was still on her head, keeping her face in shadows. He entered the room and closed the door. It took some time until he spotted her.

“How did you find me?”
“I am my father’s daughter, I can find innocent soul in hell if I set my mind to it.”
“What will happen now?”
“You will go to the mansion and personally redeem your inefficiency.”
“It wasn’t my inefficiency. I did the best I could.”
“He is still alive. Your best sucks. Take this dagger. They wont trace it to me. Use it to kill him.”
“How will I get to the mansion? You know he is much more careful now. He suspects my country wants him dead.”
“This week some of my family members will come to visit. He will want to make them feel welcomed and make a ball in the honor of their arrival. Your name will be on the list of invitees. Stab him when he comes to your table to drink the wine with you.”
“But, they will see me doing it. I am as good as dead.”
“You are as good as dead either way. Once your king finds out you have been caught, I am sure you will die before Emperor gets to talk to you. Don’t worry though, I will distract the guards. One can always find something to quarrel about with one’s family members. Stab him two times and be sure not to leave the dagger.”
“How do I know this is not a trap? Why are you helping me?”
“If I wanted you dead, you would already be dead. I want him dead but I cannot risk getting caught.”
“Why would you want him dead?”
“If you cannot figure that out for yourself, you will have to live without that information. Don’t bother to escort me out. I remembered the way.”
“But you were blindfolded…”

She already left the room and disappeared in the dark passage. It wasn’t that hard to get out of the house no matter how much they tried to make it look complicated. It sufficed to be focused on the sound of the footsteps they were making while passing through the hallways. Once she got into the underground network of passages, she knew she is safe. No one knew these passages better than she did.

Tomorrow morning, as expected, her brothers and sisters came to visit. They brought a lot of people with them as it was a custom to take personal servants and some of the close friends with to keep you company on the long trip. She was so excited to see them approaching the mansion that she jumped on the horse and rode out to meet them. Wind was touching her face like it did in autumn but this time it was whispering something else.

“red…snowberry…of…mine..”

She shook her head to stop listening to it. Even without the wind she knew something was wrong, she just couldn’t point the finger at it. Her sisters and brothers jumped off their horses at the same time she did. They kissed and hugged like they used to do after some pointless childish quarrel when they were kids. Her sisters even cried the tears of joy. She missed them so much. A little bit of warmth from the south, that was all she needed.

“We brought a little surprise for you.”
“What is it?”
“It is a secret, you will have to be patient and wait for it for a couple of days.”
“You know I am not a patient person, I never was…”
Her sisters interrupted her and together finished her sentence, aping her
“I want it all and I want it now!”
They all burst into laughter.
“I missed you guys so much! Come, race you to the mansion.”

As planned, her husband decided to organize a ball in honor of her siblings’ arrival. She gave directions to her guards how to behave on the ball. Everything was ready. Even the dressmakers managed to finish a gown she wanted to wear on the ball. She preferred a combination of red and black fabric but this time decided to have a dark blue dress. It fits her tan and eyes. Her hair was tied in a high bun with a braid around it. A few locks of hair framed her face. They wanted to put a little tiara on her head too but she refused to wear it.

“I want to dance at the ball without worrying about my tiara falling off.”

The empress straightened her dress before she entered the ballroom. It wasn’t her dress that needed straightening, it was the feeling inside her that needed to disappear. No matter what she did, it was with her ever since she laid her eyes on her siblings, blended with the pure joy of having them beside her.

After all formal speeches ended, the ball began. She danced in her brothers’ arms, laughed with her sisters, teased her nephews and nieces, hugged, kissed, danced, laughed, her heart was filling with that southern warmth. The empress wasn’t even aware how cold a heart can become when left alone in the winter.

Most of the ball, her husband was sitting at the table. He regained his strength and was very sure his feet can handle him dancing but his wife forbid him to dance.

“You may dance today but u will lay in bed for the next month. This country needs you strong. Your enemies cannot see you having problems breathing while dancing. You will have the opening dance with me, I’ll make sure they play a slow tune, and after that you will be a good host and talk to our guests, apologizing for me being unable to talk to them.”

He obeyed her because he knew how valuable her counsel can be. Two members of her personal guard were following him around and he did his best to keep them busy with flirting with servant girls so they give him some time to breathe. His personal guard was enough to protect him. He was not a good host, he is never mediocre, he was the best host, talking to his guests, having toasts with each of them. The emperor even planned to drink with a representative of that country. He suspects this representative ordered his death two months ago by his country’s orders. They may be snakes but he is cunning.

She was chitchatting to her brothers when her nose caught his scent. She got dizzy. When she felt his hand on her lower back, it was already too late. She turned with a clenched fist, ready to hit him. He anticipated her move, he knew her too well, and grabbed her hand by the wrist.

“I was just about to ask you would you do me the honor and dance with me.”

She saw her sisters’ faces, they were thrilled. So he is this surprise they were talking about. The empress was fighting to set free but he held her tight. The orchestra began to play Kalinka. On the first few tones it all came back to her. He leaned closer to her, she could feel his breath on her neck. His lips were close to her earlobe as he whispered,

“My snowberry, have you been good to him like you were to me?”

He stroked her lower back as he did back then.

“I don’t want this. Stop.”

He ignored her request like he did in the past. The whole ballroom started to dance and sing Kalinka. He spun her faster and faster. Beads of sweat covered his forehead, he breathed heavily but he didn’t stop. He never stopped, not until he was done. With the last tunes of Kalinka he whispered,

“I forgot how good you are, my little snowberry.”

He let go of her to applaud the orchestra. The whole ballroom applauded the orchestra. She didn’t. She was trying to reach the table but there were too many people blocking it. Tears were running down her face as the crowd demanded “More! More! More!” so another Kalinka started. People spun, she was trying to avoid them. So many smiles, so much happiness outside her. So much pain inside, she has to get some fresh air.

First half of the Kalinka was done when the empress finally managed to get in front of the mansion. To a servant girl she ordered,

“A whip, get me a horse and a whip. My horse next to the kitchen, my whip here, get, fast, now, GO!”

Within a minute, a servant girl brought her her whip. Empress took the whip, entered the mansion, staggered the ballroom and saw him singing in front of the orchestra. Tears were still running, she was trying to wipe them off with her left hand palms but it was in vain, the more she wiped, the more tears were running. When he saw her, he stepped down and let the singer continue where he left off. She let him follow her behind the curtain and then she turned with a broad smile. Singer was singing gently “Kaliiiiinka” when her whip cut him on his cheek. He was shocked. Kaliiinka became louder. Her whip hit harder. Kaliiinka became faster, her whip too. He turned his back, trying to escape but her whip got wrapped around his neck. She jerked it back. He fell on his ass. Her foot was on his shoulder before he realized what is going on.

“Stay put!”, she unwrapped the whip from his neck and put her foot back on the floor. He got on his hands and knees, crawling away from her. Kaliiinka, Kaliiinka. Whip tore his shirt. There was blood everywhere. He screamed but no one could hear him. Snowberry hit again and again and again. He lost consciousness but that didn’t stop her. The end of the song didn’t stop her. One thing did though, a voice of her husband out-yelling the ballroom. Everyone went quiet when he yelled

“He dared to attack me in my own home?!”

The empress new her husband is all right. She fled through the passage that led to the kitchen. The servants saw her face stained with blood but no one dared to stop her. Through the kitchen door she got outside and found her horse exactly where she commanded that little servant girl to leave it. The empress jumped on the horse and rode off. She was riding until the wind stopped whispering “red…snowberry…of…mine”. When the sun rose, the whispering stopped. She found herself in front of the stables, handed the horse over to the servant and walked into the mansion. The empress looked like a tired woman, a woman that bore all the worries of the world on her shoulders. She looked like a poor little girl whose only dress got stained with a stain that cannot be removed.

The empress didn’t know (or, rather, she was aware of the possibility it happened that way, but had no strength to think of a way out of this situation), that her dancer from last night crawled back into the ballroom. The emperor saw him and, still angry at the assassination attempt, declared that no one can attack his guest and get away with it.

“The perpetrator will be punished by 20…no…50 whip strokes!”

When the dancer said the empress whipped him, the emperor realized he shouldn’t had been so reckless to declare a retribution before he knew who the perpetrator was. His own servants told them in what shape they saw empress leave the kitchen so the emperor couldn’t do anything but to accept his own wife will be humiliated by whipping. The guards were ready to take the empress to the dungeons as soon as she enters the mansion. Her husband knew she will get back on her own. He didn’t want to hunt her down like some filthy dog.

The emperor sent her her personal servant as a token of appreciation before he went in to talk to her. The servant brought her some fresh clothes, fresh water and towels. While he was helping her wash her face, he gave her all the necessary information about what happened last night after she fled.

“Everything was done like you commanded. Your personal guard slit the assassin’s throat before he managed to involve you in this. The distinguished guest, as you expected, recognized the dagger as that king’s. He was discrete about it, as you anticipated. Now your husband has an ace up his sleeve. All those political issues we have with that country will be settled over the dinner two weeks from now.”

The empress sent him away. She was ready to receive her husband now. When he entered the cell, she stood up and greeted him.

“You know what I did.”
“Yes, I know my darling.”
“There is only one way to escape it, you know that right?”
“Is there, my dear husband?”
“Yes, you have to tell me why you did it.”
“I assure you it was justified.”
“Nonetheless, I need to know, I need to present the public with your reason before I can pardon you.”
“My reasons are mine and mine alone. You have never seen me lose control like I did last night. The fact I lost the control should be enough for you.”
“Unfortunately, it isn’t. I cannot pardon you without knowing the reason. Tell me the reason please.”
“My reaction to the presence of this person IS my reason.”

The emperor was angry with his wife. He knew there was nothing he could do to make her state her reason. Still, he loved this woman so he did the best he could under these circumstances.

“You wont be whipped publicly, we will do it in the privacy of this cell. I can’t do more than that. You tied my hands honey.”
“Please make sure the whipping unfolds today. The cell is comfortable but I don’t want to linger here longer than I have to.”

She turned her back to him. He left the cell cursing her stubbornness. Few hours later, the dancer, bishop and executioner entered her cell. She hoped her husband will be there but she understood that it was too painful for him to attend the whipping. The fact the dancer was there was especially humiliating. He had fresh cuts on his face and wasn’t as charming as he was at the ball.

She sat on the chair, hugging the back of the chair. They all were courteous enough to stand behind her. At least they gave her that. She unlaced her shirt on her chest and let it fall on the floor behind her. The executioner knelt behind her and apologized for what he will do to her. Then he started. Each stroke of the whip felt like a stroke of dancer’s hand on her lower back last night. She didn’t cry. No more tears for him. It’s been enough. Strokes sang alternating

“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”,  “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”, “my”, “snowberry”,
“my”, “snowberry”

When the whipping was done, they left the cell. She spent the night sleeping on her tummy in her bed. The cuts of the whip were deep and her wounds were attended by mansion’s doctor. The bleeding stopped but the pain was still there. Not on her back. In her heart. Tonight she allowed it to ache but tomorrow she decided to make it stop.

In the morning she got up. She decided not to leave her bedchamber before her wounds heal up. It was impossible to wear anything that covers her back. The wounds kept opening up when the fabric touched them. When she heard the knock on her door, she invited the servant in but started scolding her

“I told you I do not want any visitors. I am not decent, can’t you see?”
“There is a man wanting to see you. He insists to see you. It seems he has some present for you.”
“What man? I do not want to see anyone right now.”
“Yes, I told him that, but he says he wont leave. He says you will want to see what he brought you.”
“Take the gift and bring it in.”

Servant brought in a metal box. The empress took the box and brought it to the window. Under the lid there was a human heart and a pocket watch. The empress recognized the watch without opening it. She put the lid back on and handed the box to her servant.

“Return this to him. Tell him to get rid of what is inside. The dogs might appreciate his gift. Warn him he might get in trouble if somebody connects the content of the box to him. Ask him who he is and why did he do it.”
“Oh, I know who he is, he is a husband of the servant woman that was attacked in your hunting cabin earlier this year.”
“Very well, ask him why he did it and send him off.”

The servant got back with an answer.

“So, what is the answer?”
“I do not understand the answer. All that he said was – Your face got stained.”

 

 

 

 

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