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FroM ThE DESK OF :         Christopher Pipkin.
 

The Association of the Tsar’s Holy Protectors 

By Chris Pipkin

Chapter One: In Which a Meeting Takes Place on a Train

     Stepan Finistovich Vorobeychik was sitting on the train with the greatest patience he could muster, pretending not to wonder what would happen when he arrived at St. Petersburg. She would be there, of course, the woman for whom he had given everything, and he would undoubtedly be expected to call upon her. He both wished for and dreaded another meeting, knowing that they had nothing more to say to one another, but also knowing that he would almost certainly make a fool of himself by attempting to speak with Katya. But that was not the reason—not, anyway, the principal reason—he was traveling to the city. 

     He unfolded the letter from the General, and read it over, as if to ground himself again in his actual reasons for traveling to St. Petersburg. “Sir,” it read, 

     “I have been informed of your unique talents by a mutual friend and am anxious to meet you.      Will you be so kind as to call at my residence near Mikhailovsky Palace in a week’s time? The      post I have in mind for you pays a sum of 1,000 rubles in addition to room and board. I thank      you for your consideration, and remain, 

     Your servant, 

     Prince Anatoly Gregorievich Ishmaelov

     General Commander

     Imperial Army, 5th Battalion”

     “One thousand rubles!” Stepan whispered again. No mere soldier’s stipend. He was in a sustained state of amazement that anything he could do might be worth such a sum to anyone. He tried to keep from his mind the vulgar suggestion that such a salary might change Katya’s feelings for him. He at once hoped it would, and hoped, for the sake of his ideal of her, that it could not!

     He was a thin man, of medium height, looking about twenty-five or twenty-six years of age, but his hair (though it showed no signs of receding) was almost completely gray and tended to stand up atop his head despite a liberal application of pomade. His eyes were heavy-lidded, almost effeminate, and this, combined with a habitually direct stare, lent his countenance a kind

of impertinence that was only accented by a slightly hooked nose and full mouth. He had a bad habit of licking his lips when they grew chapped, and they were all the more cracked because of this. Women tended to be repulsed by and attracted to him in equal measure. Rarely, in fact, did he fail to provoke some sort of visceral reaction, positive or negative, which was why Katerina Irinovna’s nonchalant, even-tempered refusal had caused him such confusion. 

     To distract his mind from further obsession over her, he looked out the window. He could not see the city yet, but it was getting dark. A few solitary wooden cottages squatted in the dirty snow of the foothills, their chimneys leaking smoke. He could see into a few windows, but never long enough to make out a scene: a face of an old woman there, a dirty child here. Despite the squalor, there was something oddly picturesque about the whole thing. Something truly “Russian,” though he was not sure why he felt this way. Perhaps it was worth writing about, one day.

     Stepan hoped, impossibly, that by “unique talents,” the General meant his writing. He had published a story once, in a paper that circulated in St. Petersburg. Perhaps the General had been impressed and was looking to become the patron of a promising young artist. This was not commonly done these days, even in the city, and he doubted that anyone would pay him 100 rubles to write, much less 1,000. He had, until now, supplemented the meager allowance he received from his father with occasional clerical work. He was an adept copyist and scrivener, but reading Gogol’s “Cloak” one snowy afternoon had led him to refuse any such full-time position at his father’s firm. Was scrivening the “talent" the General had in mind? For 1,000 rubles, he would consider it. There remained, of course, the matter of…but that was absurd. It was not a talent, so much as a freakish characteristic he had done his best to conceal. Perhaps if he was a traveling gypsy or circus performer he could have profited from it. He failed to see how that could be worth anything to anyone.

     His stomach interrupted his thoughts, and he realized at once that he was very hungry. Prolonging the hunger would be risky; extreme hunger or thirst, he knew, often preceded his occasional seizures. It was early for supper, but he would visit the dining car to see what, if anything, was being served. 

     Stepan Finistovich’s experience of Russian dining cars varied. Most served a watery borscht, or undercooked Wiener schnitzel with a few hard rolls; a few others were lavish, with excellent French, German, and Russian cuisine all day. As he half-stumbled into the car, he was happy to see that this seemed to be one of the better sorts. Unfortunately, there appeared to be passengers seated at all of the tables, and so he was offered a seat next to a mother and daughter, probably German, he thought, but dressed in the best French fashion typical of the wives of big-city bureaucrats and officials. He accepted the seat, despite noting a rather unruly table just next to theirs, overflowing with two men and two women who were talking animatedly in Russian about politics or philosophy, or something of the kind, as if they were in a coffee house.

     His own table companions were indeed German and kept looking at Stepan with suspicion or at least distaste, but they were at least polite enough to make grudging conversation. The mother made it a point to speak to him in (rather poor) French. Her husband (she said with emphasis, as though she needed fear for her own virtue around him) had only just been hired as a diplomatic advisor of some sort and was working at the Imperial Palace in St. Petersburg. The climate was a bit much for her this time of year, but she simply couldn’t bear to be away from him any longer. Her daughter, whose name was Isabel or Isolde, or something of the sort, meanwhile, had insisted on coming along as well—she had a very adventurous spirit. He glanced at her slumping daughter,

who looked down at her half-finished plate of Sauerbraten and up at him with equal disdain. He wondered when his food would arrive. He had ordered a great deal of it while his table companions listened in thinly-veiled disgust. People were usually surprised by how much he ate. 

     The German woman went on, in her guarded way, about her husband’s duties at the Imperial palace as Stepan helped himself to several cups of tea. Meanwhile, to her obvious displeasure, the shouting from the Russian-speaking table behind him was becoming louder. 

     “What, Nikolai Petrovich, can you be so naive?” one roared, in a deep and rough voice.

     “Just so, Arkady Ivanovich!" answered another, which Stepan instantly liked for its youthful quality. "And what you call ‘naive,’ I call merely rational. This puts everyone on equal footing—the lower classes, the aristocracy, the Tsar, the Church. We will all have equal power, equal agency.”

     “But sir,” said one of the women who was with them, “have you not noticed that these gifts are also distributed unevenly? There are far more stories of nobility and churchmen possessing these strange energies than there are peasants. I agree that we must use these energies to protect the less fortunate, but they simply have not been distributed evenly among all people, as you would hope.”

     “Miss Nikolaevna,” the young voice that apparently belonged to Nikolai Petrovich sounded irritable, “I—“

     “—oh-ho! She has you there, ‘Kolya'!” laughed Arkady Ivanovich in his rough baritone. 

Nikolai sounded yet more irritated, perhaps at Arkady’s over-familiar address. “Not at all, ‘Arkasha,’” he grunted. “May I reply? Yes? Thank you. I was going to say, Miss Nikolaevna, that because our news and gossip is so exclusively preoccupied with our own class, we haven’t taken enough of an interest in peasants to notice when one of them manifests energies.”

     “Come now!” came Arkady's coarse laugh once more, “This is more naive still. The aristocracy is besotted with the filthy little pig-lovers in ways that they've never been before. It's all you intellectuals talk about. And even if it wasn't—if someone saw a peasant flying around, or running as fast as a horse, or moving things without his arms, I really don’t think we’d just ignore them. There would be talk.”

     Stepan slowed in eating his newly-arrived beef bourguignon and fish pie to listen more closely. The voice belonging to 'naive' Nikolai was attempting to sound calm: “There certainly will be talk, and there has been talk—a bit, at any rate. Even such a pig as yourself cannot help but admit there have been a few reported cases of underprivileged people with these energies. But the masses naturally want to keep from attracting attention—and can you blame them? Has the Russian peasant any reason to trust us?”

     Miss Nikolaevna's voice—closest to Stepan, low, and lovely—spoke up: “But sir, when our poorer countrymen manifest such energies, it is almost always in the context of a monastery." 

“Yes, that’s so. But, with respect, Miss Nikolaevna, what of it?” demanded Nikolai, the anger now obvious in his high, clear voice.

     “Couldn’t it be," Miss Nikolaevna asked, "that these energies are not natural? What I mean is that they are not mere biology or evolution. I believe they may have other causes.”

     Arkady guffawed. “Yes, Maria, we've all heard the theory by now that God shits power all over Holy Mother Russia so that we can all return to the Church and do miracles on one another. So all the reactionary papers say.”

     “I must disagree with your view, Miss Nikolaevna," said Nikolai. "But Arkady, I would like to know what you believe, since you are apparently forward-thinking enough to dispense with basic etiquette—even when addressing a lady. Let’s hear your brilliant opinion. Come now, out with it.”

Arkady sighed. “I believe,” he said, sounding serious for a moment, “that I would like another drink.” He took a glass and raised it. “And the Tsar, and Holy Mother Russia, and the aristocracy and the Church, and all the stinking peasants can go to the devil together,” he shouted, and drank, slamming his cup down with a violence that made Stepan almost choke on his blini. “Three years ago, my friends,” the older man announced, “I learned that I could not die. Three years ago, I was still, mostly, a good man, Maria Nikolaevna. Not some shit nihilist or socialist or populist or whatever stripe of radical you are, Nikolai, though I'm sure your 'ideology' is one-eighth actual conviction and seven-eighths fashionable coffee-house talk.” He was silent for a moment, perhaps waiting for Nikolai Ivanovich to take the bait. “Anyway, my friends,” he said, finishing another drink as quickly as he poured it, "we have a spy, I think.”

     No sooner had Stepan realized—with a convulsive shiver—that Arkady Ivanovich was speaking about him than he felt a very hard hand take hold of his ear and tug him out of his seat, away from a particularly delicious serving of Rouladen, and into a standing position. The German woman and her daughter had left long ago, but Stepan's meal was only half-finished. He realized at once that his head felt hot and his feet were full of pins and needles, exactly as though some sort of fit were coming on. He could hear his own heartbeat over the others’ exclamations of surprise and protest as the larger man continued to guide him forcefully to their table. He tried to lick his lips, but his tongue felt swollen, dry. He needed water. He wanted to beg to be allowed to finish his meal in peace, and above all to have another glass of tea, but he was taken by a sudden and inexplicable fear that instead of words, a strange noise would come out of his mouth—something like, “Krya-krya!” He knew it was an irrational notion. At least, he hoped it was.

     “Leave the poor man alone,” cried the woman—apparently Maria Nikolaevna, and the only one of the two women who had spoken—“of course he is listening. Everyone in the dining car has been listening. We are speaking too loudly.”

     Stepan was at a loss, was even trembling! He could feel a familiar chill take hold of him and willed himself not to have a fit. He licked his lips again, and, to his surprise, managed a muttered apology that ran something like, “…meant no offense, did not hear anything of consequence, taken up in my own thoughts, you see…”

     “Quiet, man,” said Arkady, firmly. “Where are you coming from? Going to? And why?”

The others, uncomfortable though they were at Arkady Ivanovich’s manner, nevertheless did not intercede for Stepan. The unfortunate man realized he had better explain that he was harmless, pitiable even—certainly not a spy. “I am traveling to St. Petersburg, from V—,” he managed to choke out. “You see, I received this letter…” Before he knew it, and against his own better judgment, he was holding the document out. 

     To his dismay, Arkady snatched the paper from him, took one look at it, and began to laugh. The others gathered around to see what was so funny.

     Poor Stepan Finistovich was completely out of sorts now. Not only had this group of politic-talking thugs taken his letter, but now they were laughing at him. He mustered all the bravado he could and reached out for the document, managing, if not a command, at least a plea: “Give me back my letter! I…need it, you see. Important invitation and everything…”

     “Just a moment, just a moment!” said Arkady Ivanovich again, swatting Stepan away like a fly. This close, Stepan could see that Arkady was in fact very young, perhaps younger even than himself, despite a full, black beard, like a priest’s, and a few scars. “You listened to our conversation—it seems only right to allow us to spy on you in return. Look, friends,” he laughed, hitting the letter, “the very same one!”

     One by one, the others broke into laughter, or at least relieved smiles, except for Maria Nikolaevna's companion, who Stepan could now see was of the same slight build and height as she was, her face was mostly concealed by a shawl and hat. 

     Stepan was at a loss; humiliated again, it seemed. With the realization came a heat in his face, and to his surprise, a loss of temper. He would stand up to them. Enough was enough. “Well, what the devil is so funny, anyhow?" he demanded.

     Arkady Ivanovich now laughed so heartily that the two or three other passengers still in the dining car who were not of their party scowled and began to gather their things. "Just look," he said, grinning and producing a wrinkled copy of the same letter from his breast pocket. "One-thousand rubles. All of us here are on the same errand as you, young ‘Styopa.’ We all possess these ‘unique gifts,’ or so says the esteemed General."

     And before Stepan Finistovich could protest that he didn’t like to be called ‘Styopa,’ and that he had no powers, or energies, or gifts, or whatever one was supposed to call them, the others were clapping him on the back, shaking his hand, and kissing his cheeks in welcome. 

     "Well, I hardly...that is...I mean..." but Stepan Finistovich could think of nothing worthwhile to say, especially when suddenly, and perhaps for the first time in his short life, he was among friends.

     Which made him all the more bewildered, minutes later, to realize that suddenly, and perhaps for the fifth or sixth time in his short life, he had transformed into some sort of very large bird.

     “Krya-krya!” he said to the others, who were by now quite speechless.

1.

     A note on Russian names: Throughout this novel, 19th Century Russian naming conventions are observed. Every

     character has a given first name (Stepan, in this case), followed by a patronymic (father’s name plus the suffix -vich or

     -vna), followed by the surname or family name. In formal situations, it is polite to speak to someone using their first

     name plus their patronymic (“Stepan Finistovich”). Among closer acquaintances and relations, one might use only the

     first name or even a diminutive version or nickname (in Stepan Finistovich’s case, “Styopa”). In other contexts,

     addressing someone by only their first name or by the nickname would be rude.

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The Association of the Tsar's Holy Protectors is a work in progress--part 19th-Century philosophical Russian novel, part superhero story, part train murder mystery. Although its author has a pretty clear idea of where the novel (or at least the train) is going, he'd love to hear what you enjoyed or would like to see more of. Feel free to reach out to him at pipkinwriting@gmail.com. At the very least, he'd be happy to let you know when this novel is available for purchase.

Chris Pipkin feels at times as though he is composed entirely of spare parts--at least mentally. He lives in the Southeastern United States with his wife and four smallish children, where he holds an academic job and produces a podcast. Most recently, you can find his flash piece "Ghost Food" published in Flash Fiction Magazine, and his articles (mostly about medieval monsters) published in an assortment of scholarly journals. If you like what you read, feel free to go here to support one of his projects, or shoot him an email at pipkinwriting@gmail.com.

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