by Takiguchi Aiko (滝口アイコ)
Siberian mornings had less substance than Grigoriy was used to. The air in St. Petersburg, admittedly, could be chewed, but Siberia – something about the cold or the quality of light – was thinner in a way Grisha could not quite articulate, should he have anyone to whom he would articulate such thoughts. Morning in Siberia was pale, watered down and water-colored, the atmosphere itself stretched to the point of breaking.
It was also windy, but Grigoriy had found that furs and wool were more effective against the bite of it than he had imagined. It was also possible, he had to grudgingly speculate, that his father had predicted correctly and Grisha’s time here had toughened him up, thickened his blood.
Of course, Grigoriy still spent most of his time indoors, whether in the manor or in carriages. Although the road through the prison grounds was so poor and the gait of this particular carriage was so merciless on his tailbone Grisha considered damning the weather and getting out to walk.
The warden – a big, grizzled man who nonetheless tiptoed around Grigoriy Sentanovich as if the Baron were hovering spectral over his shoulder, although it could be argued that in many ways Grisha’s father was doing just that – sat across from him, clearly uncomfortable with the ride himself. Still, he rallied on in his speech about the prison – the camp, the men and the general caliber of their crimes – nervously segueing into the prison labor in the Sentanovich mines. He had been sniffing around the subject for all five weeks of Grigoriy’s exile. He either wanted more men for less money or fewer men for more – Grigoriy didn’t know which, or care. His apathy was outwardly apparent, particularly if you knew any of the gossip surrounding his arrival here, which he was sure the warden did. This tour was a farce at best. Grigoriy had no interest in seeing the prison; he had not even toured his family’s mines. The warden had invited him here to set his price. Grigoriy would agree to it, and then he could go back to the great empty house, finish off the bottle he started last night and sleep by the fire. Until then he stared out the window of the carriage, grunting when appropriate. He was terribly hung-over.
The men – miserable the lot of them, dirty and ragged and glaring at the carriage – were going about their duties in the camp, blending together in a kaleidoscopic blur of poverty and poor decisions. The road was approaching the stocks. A man hung limp in one, as if left there overnight.
The warden still droning on, Grigoriy blinked and raised his head.
Coincidences did not imply fairy tales. Grisha had told himself this firmly many times since his father decided his behavior at Prince Rodion Petrovich’s birthday party was the last straw. Siberia was huge and unknown, the land where they drew monsters on the map. He had reminded himself of this many times while watching the valets pack his things. It was where society threw out its inconveniences, and there were too many of those lately to keep track. He was not soppy or even concerned, and although he had a great deal at his disposal, he was not silly enough to count hope among any of it.
Grigoriy could not see the face of the man in the stocks, but he was tall. His fingers, mottled red and a dangerous chalky white, were long, elegant.
“Stop the cart,” Grigoriy Sentanovich heard himself say. His voice was rough and unused. Something was swimming in his stomach, a stupid little fish.
“Pardon, my lord?” the warden asked. It was polite, but he obviously did not appreciate being interrupted.
“Stop the cart!” Grisha said, more loudly. He sounded urgent and panicked, even to his own ear, but he could no longer stop himself. “Stop it! Stop it now!”
The warden, all confusion, rapped on the ceiling twice, and Grigoriy stumbled out while the horses were still trotting to a halt. The cold whipped at his coat, shocking like a slap against his naked face, and he tripped over himself in the snow as he climbed up to the platform. Grigoriy lifted the man’s head up, pushed the lank loose hair away from his forehead, and looked.
“Kolya.” It wasn’t relief Grisha felt; it was something grander and odder than that. But, of course, Nicholai Baronov was unconscious and did not reply.
Grigoriy made his way back to the carriage, purpose in his stride. “That man,” he said, gesturing with his head. “Let him out.”
The warden was nonplussed. “My lord. That prisoner is being punished. Surely you don’t want to undermine the law by-”
“Don’t presume to know what I want,” Grigoriy said coldly. “Let him out. And fetch a doctor. He’s ill.”
“My lord.” The warden had clearly had enough of this. Now he was taking a young pup to heel. “This has gone on long enough. You can’t rescue every piece of shit in here, despite your father’s influence. This is a flagrant misuse-”
“I’m not rescuing every piece of shit.” Grigoriy was determined to be patient, although he knew he was glaring. “Only this piece of shit. And it’s not my father’s influence you should be worried about, if you want me to employ more of your prisoners, it’s mine. The peasants work harder and for less and you know it.”
The warden turned an unappealing shade of red and he made gruff, angry noises. “I don’t have the key,” he said finally. “One of the guards does.”
“Then fetch him as well,” Grigoriy said. “With the doctor. Be quick about it. And give me that blanket.”
Twenty minutes later, Grisha, the warden and the guard had manhandled the unconscious man into the carriage. The doctor had been sent ahead to the Sentanovich estate, and the warden, looking murderous but beaten, rapped on the ceiling again to alert the driver. Grigoriy barked at him to hurry.
Nicholai was stretched out on his stomach lengthwise next to him on the plank. His back was combed with thick, long welts, and every jolt and drift of the carriage bobbed him about, gelatinous and useless as fat trimmed from a roast. The fish in Grisha’s stomach was swimming faster now, pushing upstream against rapids. Nicholai’s feet fell off the bench, and Grigoriy pulled him up so his head rested in his lap.
Grigoriy sighed. “I have to say,” he murmured, ignoring it when the warden started. “Your powers of persuasion and charm are obviously as effective as ever.”
But for once in his life, Nicholai Baronov had no reply. Grigoriy leaned back and refused to look down as he stroked Kolya’s filthy hair.
It had not been Grisha’s idea to go to the tavern (the Rusty Dog or something, some terrible name) but rather Zhenya’s. Yevgeniy Mustakovich had always had a morbid fascination with the underside of things. You were as likely to find him playing poker with the kitchen staff as in a drawing room. Grigoriy always thought Yevgeniy had an unhealthy streak of romanticism in his blood. It blurred the edges of Zhenya’s vision about such matters; he never noticed he made the servants uncomfortable or that people on the street stopped and stared at his fine furs.
Zhenya had told him beforehand to wear clothes best left for the scrapheap tonight, but even so they both had on far nicer things than usually seen in this part of St. Petersburg. When they walked into the pub, conversation did not stop but it gained a harsher undercurrent, a wary flow. Zhenya, chattering happily about his sister’s latest letter from school, paid no attention. Grigoriy rolled his eyes.
He had come tonight out of boredom and the need to stay away from Count Tzorinsky and his unaccountably affronted wife. Many of Grisha’s actions were dictated by a conflation of avoiding jilted lovers and having nothing better to do. It was, he would be the first to admit, a feather bed sort of life.
They ordered vodka from an unhappy barman and took it to a table in the back, where it turned out to be dreadful. The tavern was dark, almost oppressive, its angles turning inward like a mouth. The streets had been crowded, but the Rusty Dog was not, which made Grigoriy rather curious. It was not as if these people cared about the quality of their vodka.
“Parliament of all things!” Yevgeniy said with a laugh. Grisha only listened because his friend had slapped him on the back.
“The socialists. The, the – what you call them, in the majority, Bolsheviks. They want a Duma for all of Russia! Ridiculous, right?”
“Show me two Russians who can agree on anything,” Grigoriy said. “And I’ll show you two Russians arguing with a third.” But he said it absentmindedly, because he was watching the door.
A group his own age had come in, students perhaps. They were certainly rowdy and ill-kempt enough to be students. The one who shut the door behind the others was laughing, waving at the barkeep who gave him a rare, unpracticed grin. He was a good head taller than his associates, probably even taller than Grigoriy, which was an accomplishment.
“Too true,” Zhenya said. His speech was beginning to slur. The vodka had been cheap, but it was working. “Were you planning on attending Pyotr’s party? Those things can be so dull, but the women! He might be inviting Nellya, and oh, how that girl can dance…”
“Mm.” Grisha was no longer paying attention. The students had made their way over to the bar, where the barkeep gestured to Grisha and the oblivious Zhenya, and now they were giving them sloppily covert glances. Grigoriy lounged back, kicked his heels up on the table and grinned. He had spent many years perfecting the art of being looked at. The tall one was the most brazen. His arms were crossed and the laughter had dropped out of his expression, leaving it coolly appraising. He had high cheekbones and sharp fox eyes.
Eventually the corner of his mouth twitched and he said something to the others, who laughed like it was a sieve for their nerves. In more or less single file, they made their way towards a room in the back and out of sight.
“I like this place,” Yevgneniy said. “The atmosphere. You get a sense of so much going on, don’t you think.”
“Yes,” said Grigoriy. “Let’s come back tomorrow.”
Yevgneniy could not make it the next day, and the barkeep was an ass.
“Why do you want to know?” He was squinting myopically at Grigoriy, cleaning a glass. Grisha could see the abrupt slopes of his musculature through his shirt. Like most pub owners, he must have been able to hold in own in a fight, and with Grigoriy he looked liable to start one. Grigoriy, for his part, was growing exasperated. In other circumstances, he would have saved them both time and anguish and bribed the man, but now he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of confirming his obvious suspicions Grigoriy had money. Grigoriy was obscurely proud of most of his scandals, but heaven forbid slumming around here turned into one of them.
Grigoriy flashed a smile, golden and slippery as butter. “Well, you were telling him about me. It seems only fair.”
The barkeep slammed the glass down, and Grisha did his best not to flinch. “Listen here, you little shit. What Nicholai does with his time is none of your damn business-”
“Nicholai?” Grisha repeated, smirking.
“Nicholai Baronov,” said a voice behind them, which, Grigoriy saw when he turned around, belonged to Nicholai Baronov. It was a good strong voice, dark and round with little sequin flecks of amusement floating through it like the dust motes in the empty tavern. He had just come in and he was removing his gloves, watching Grigoriy with a banker’s look, evaluating without quite shading into anything predatory. But then he smiled at the barkeep, all gaiety, as if shrewdness could never occur to him. “Alexei, you won’t keep any business if you treat all your patrons like this! What’s your name, friend?”
“Gregor,” Grigoriy said. “I work down at the… fish market.”
“The fish market,” Nicholai Baronov said without inflection, but his gaze flickered up to Alexei the ass barkeep for a brief moment. But then he came over and thumped Grigoriy on the back so hard he fell forward a little. “A drink for our new friend on me, Alexei. I’m going to my room for a bit, put some things in order before tonight. Do you need help behind the bar?”
“Not right now, Kolya.” Alexei moved the muscles of his mouth in a way that was ostensibly a smile. “You rest up before your meeti… you rest up.”
Nicholai smiled again. It was a more honest expression that Grigoriy gave him credit for. “Good to meet you, Gregor.”
Grigoriy watched him walk up the stairs, which were gaped like rotting teeth. “So he’s your lodger?”
Alexei grunted, picking up his dishrag again.
“What’s he resting up for?”
“Mind your own fucking business,” Alexei replied. Grigoriy grinned. The logic of this situation was knotted together as poorly and painfully as a thistle bush, but Grisha came from a society that had nothing better to do than untangle other people’s secrets.
He put his feet up on the bar and raised his eyebrows. “I’ll have another one. Courtesy of our friend over there.”
The doctor put something on Nicholai’s back, some greenish salve that stank. Grigoriy has the master bed moved into the east parlor, which had the largest fireplace, and Nicholai was laid out on furs. Grisha was almost comforted by the firelight. It threw a ruddy cast to Nicholai’s skin, which was otherwise waxy and almost transparent, luminescent like candle drippings.
The doctor felt him breathe, tested his reflexes. He looked up at Grigoriy with a pinched face, a country doctor forced to give a powerful patron bad news. “Change the bandages every three hours. Keep him warm. Put fresh water in his footbath at least four times a day so it won’t get cold either.”
“Will he wake up?”
The doctor pursed his mouth. “It’s hard to say, my lord. The frostbite could have been worse. He’ll lose some motor function, but he’ll keep his hands and feet. That’s a blessing.”
“But you’re worried about infection.” Grigoriy crossed his arms. He was aware he was puffing himself up, looming over the little man, and equally and helplessly aware this was one situation intimidation would earn him nothing.
“No, no, not so much,” said the doctor. “That’s one nice thing about the cold. But it’s also a shock to the system, and he’s lost a great deal of blood. It’s touch and go at best. At least we can pray.”
“Get out,” Grisha said. When the doctor had packed himself up and left, he dragged a chair over to the bed and sat down, his back to the fire.
St. Petersburg went through a subtle but surprising rebirth in the spring, cleaning itself up without the apparent influence of anything at all. It may have been due to the rise of the river or just an effect of the new rain, but it was tinted brighter around the edges. Invariably by July it had collapsed into grayer shades again, choked by the sullen heat and stink of the good people who called it home.
Grigoriy spent the worst of the summer (when he did not have a prior or better engagement, of course) at the Rusty Dog. Zhenya accompanied him less and less as the weeks wore on. Grigoriy did not know for certain, but he suspected Yevgeniy was cross with him.
Grisha did not have a specific plan in mind. He was simply a man with a great deal of time on his hands now that the baron had more or less thrown up his own in disgust, and now he was toying with a mystery. He was content to watch Nicholai Baronov and his little parcel of friends. Grigoriy joked with them, cheated outrageously at cards, became a hanger-on of their group if not a confidant, and waited to see what conclusions he could draw about their habits of slipping away to a back room sharply at eleven three times a week and passing each other little ragged pamphlets when they though Grigoriy wasn’t looking.
After three weeks of this, or a little less, Grigoriy sauntered into the pub just before it technically opened for the night. Nicholai Baronov was behind the bar, cleaning glasses. Grigoriy had been told that when his rent was short, as it must often be, he earned his keep by working for Alexei.
Grigoriy put his hands on the bar, rested his weight on them as he looked Nicholai Baronov firmly in the eye. “You’re a socialist.”
Nicholai Baronov blinked for a second then carefully put the pint glass down. “And you’re Baron Sentanovich’s worthless son.”
Grigoriy found himself leaning on the counter for support now, a touch light-headed. He forced out a grin, big and aimless as the sky. “Really now. Worthless?”
Nicholai Baronov pursed the corner of his mouth. “Do you want an honest answer to that?”
“Probably not.” Grigoriy sat down and pointed to the tap. “How’d you find me out, anyway?”
Nicholai Baronov drew Grigoriy’s beer and said, somewhat scathingly. “The fish market?”
“I probably could have thought that out a little better,” Grigoriy conceded. He sat down and rested his chin in his palm, oozing an infected sort of earnestness. “What can I say, you fluster me. You are a socialist though, aren’t you? All in all, I think that’s a bigger secret.”
Nicholai Baronov shrugged. Grisha was finding this disappointingly anti-climactic. He was not exactly expecting Nicholai to faint in panic or swoon into his bed, but it would have been nice if the man reacted to the accusation with anything other than his amused green-glass calm. Nicholai pushed Grigoriy’s beer forward and rested his elbows on the bar. “And if I was?”
Grigoriy leaned forward, just to the point where magnetism would take over if they were more susceptible to such forces, but not beyond. “I want to come to your meetings.”
Nicholai Baronov stepped back, color splashed on his cheeks. “Oh, you do not.”
“I do!” Grigoriy insisted. “I want to see what all this Bolshevik business is all about.”
“We’re a Menshevik faction, actually,” Nicholai Baronov said, somewhat stuffily. “But our ultimate goal is reunification of the party.”
“Fascinating,” said Grigoriy. “And I want to be part of the, the whats-it-is. The revolution.”
“My lord,” Nicholai Baronov said, pressing down significantly on the phrase as he passed Grigoriy his beer. “You’re what we’re revolting against.”
Grigoriy brushed Nicholai Baronov’s fingers as he took the glass. Nicholai Baronov had unexpectedly graceful hands. He had been a scholar, Grigoriy had found out, before the universities had been shut down in March, and now he had settled for the life of a ruined intellectual. It entered his head that Nicholai Baronov must also be something of an idealist, and he was unaccountably charmed by the notion. “Do you really find me so repulsive?”
Nicholai Baronov turned away, but not before Grigoriy saw the tips of his ears go pink. “You know when the meetings are,” he said gruffly. “Come if you like. I’m sure you have to go to a ball or something you’d find more interesting.”
“Oh, I’m sure I do,” Grigoriy said sunnily before tossing a few notes down and strolling out of the pub. He had not even tasted the beer. It was meant for Nicholai Baronov.
Despite his show of eagerness, Grigoriy did not attend the next meeting. He would claim it simply slipped his mind, but he had been in bed with Zhenya and Nellya, his dancing girl. It worked nicely as an apology for Grisha’s tendency to be distracted or distractible lately. Certainly, the event would have been a good reason to forget something as unpleasant as a crowded tavern full of drunk socialists, but the thought of them lingered in a smoky wisp in the back of Grisha’s mind while he stared at Yevgneniy’s engraved ceiling.
When he finally returned to the Rusty Dog, Nicholai’s friends – even little Ivan with the red nose and longing eyes, who had lent Grigoriy ten rubles when he was short for a drink once, and who Grisha would have thought to pursue if he had not found more interesting game – were wary of him. They did not greet him warmly or clap him on the back. Instead they huddled behind their cards like dogs protective of dropped bones, as they played endless rounds of poker, filling up the time before eleven. Grisha was unfazed when they pointedly did not invite him to join them, ordering drink after drink, which Alexei served him quickly but smugly.
Grigoriy followed them silently when the time came and they all filed back behind the stairs. The room was small, as Grisha had expected, dark and musty too. He found it enervating, tomblike. Could any revolution be successful if it were plotted like this, in secret? Grigoriy had to wonder. Underground cells were too fraught, too romantic; all of one’s energy was taken up with the furtive thrill of the endeavor. Even if they were not schoolboys playing at politics, the surroundings must sap one’s capacity for change. How could one map a new world when stuck in a pantry?
(He would share this thought with Nicholai several months later, who responded, “Of course the people surrounded by rot are going to be the ones planning the revolution, you idiot.” By this time he and Grigoriy were on more familiar terms, and Grigoriy was familiar enough with Marx to know that Nicholai was just broadly paraphrasing.)
They filed around a rickety table and sat down, except for Nicholai Baronov. Grigoriy won twenty rubles from himself ina silent bet – Nicholai was the leader.
Nicholai cleared his throat and nodded at Grigoriy. “Comrades, as you know, we have a guest among us. Grigoriy,” Grisha was mildly surprised Nicholai had given them his real name. “Asked to sit with us tonight. As we voted last time,” Here he looked sternly at Sergei, whose scowl revealed that he had not voted with the majority. “We’ll allow it. We feel we can trust his word he won’t betray us.” And Nicholai Baronov looked at Grigoriy for the first time the entire night, and Grisha felt something odd zing him behind the ear, like the prick of an insect bite, there and gone again.
“Now,” Nicholai said. “Onto the first order of business. We can all agree that the Czar agreeing to create his Duma was a placating measure and a farce at the very best. How can we really have our voice heard?”
But business, as Grigoriy could categorize it, actually consisted mostly of shouting. The main issue seemed to be the state of the party, the legitimacy of the split between Menshiviks and Bolsheviks, whether Trotsky’s brilliance was worth submitting to the shackles of Lenin’s snobbery, whether the party would reorganize strictly under them or under Martov, who would be the better leader, did they need leaders at all, really, no, no, shut up Sergei, that’s just stupid.
Nicholai sat with his arms lightly folded, face smooth with concentration as if he could somehow manage to absorb this stream of rabid words. Occasionally he would nod, or murmur some agreement – mostly with statements about inclusivity, the importance of acceptance and education among the populace. He steered the conversation, but clearly saw his role as one of proctor, not orator. It occurred to Grisha, with a sudden bolt of cold through his midsection, Nicholai Baronov must not find this all completely asinine.
The meeting ended abruptly at one. Otherwise, Grigoriy was fairly sure it would have continued forever. Despite their earlier anger and the spittle, the socialists all shook hands once Nicholai had declared it over, laughing and joking amongst themselves. Grisha noticed Nicholai made no move to stand and so he remained likewise seated until it was just the two of them, slouching indolently in chairs facing each other across the table in the stilled and potent energy of the empty room.
Nicholai plucked the cheap bottle of wine from the center of the table and poured a drink, sliding it over to Grigoriy. “So. Was it worth missing a ball for?”
“There wasn’t a ball tonight,” Grisha said. “But no, it wouldn’t have been.”
Nicholai lifted an eyebrow up, aiming for cynicism but letting through a flicker of surprise. “No?”
“Not at all,” said Grigoriy. “That was… you were there. You saw that.”
“You’re displeased,” Nicholai prompted.
“It was pointless!” Grigoriy was surprised to find himself growing angry. He was not a surly drunk and he had made a point never to appear sloppy or inarticulate in front of Nicholai. “All that hot air – it was nothing! Just talk talk talk, stupid boys going around in circles. You think a revolution can come from nothing? From arguing about semantics?”
“Words are important,” Nicholai sounded as patient as ever, but those fox eyes were narrow, those shoulders held together with a marionette’s stiffness. “And I’d think you wouldn’t even want a revolution, Baron Sentanovich.”
“Don’t call me that,” Grigoriy said irritably. “And whether I want it or not is beside the point – you’ll never get your revolution. People are too dumb to revolt. All of this is a fool’s errand, but I still hate to see incompetence anywhere. You’ll never get anything done like this, focusing on the things that don’t matter.” He stood up clumsily, reaching for his coat.
“They’re angry,” Nicholai said. Grigoriy paused and turned around. He was so drunk there was a film growing over his eyes, warping the planes of Nicholai’s face, making the man appear diffuse and ethereal enough to match the new tone in his voice.
Nicholai reached for the bottle. He drank directly from the stem this time, finishing it, his adam’s apple moving in rhythmic, hypnotizing swallows. He looked at Grigoriy, flushed and excited, although Grisha was not sure the latter was the right word. Passionate was better, although he was used to seeing passion in a deliberately different context – the same for flushing. This was less ripe, more sincere. “Hell, I’m angry too. Sometimes it just comes out, like tonight. It’s better just to let them be angry during meetings like this, so we can have more productive meetings other times.”
“And what happens?” Grigoriy said. “During those more productive meetings.”
Nicholai grinned. “Oh, there’s still arguing. But you were right. Tonight we didn’t focus on the big picture. Those nights, we do. Those nights we can change the world.” Nicholai stood up and walked past Grisha to the door. Grigoriy had a small, surreal suspicion he had passed some sort of test.
“But come back, if you want,” Nicholai said. “To tell us why you think the revolution will fail.”
Grigoriy swallowed hard. He had not intended to. “All right.”
Watching Nicholai groan and twitch – the pain had to be terrible, if he could feel it in his sleep, and Grigoriy had to remember to ask the doctor to give him something for it – Grisha knew with a glacial certainty that it would have been better if he had never gone back. Perhaps nothing would have essentially altered, knowing the two of them and the stubborn, destructive trajectory of their lives, but Grigoriy would not be spending these cold days watching Nicholai slowly drift somewhere he could not follow. Guilt, it seemed, was a more effective trap than Nicholai’s stocks had been.
But Grigoriy had been swept up in the indefinable allure of the hopeless, mesmerized perhaps by its authenticity, in a way even condescendingly romantic Zhenya could no longer understand. He came to every meeting he could make, as thirsty for them as a drunk. His father, if he even noticed, must have been grateful Grigoriy was temporarily not stirring up a fuss in court.
“You see,” he found himself explaining to Nicholai one night after the others had left. It had become a tradition of theirs, to linger behind with an extra bottle of vodka and argue. “He doesn’t understand that I’m playing to my strengths.”
Nicholai, the top two buttons of his shirt undone, made a rude sound.
“No!” Grisha insisted. “It’s true. I’ve never been any good at all that… stuff. Land management, finances. Third sons, you know. We’re expected to go into the army. I would have been a very good officer.”
“Oh, I’m sure, one of the czar’s best. Eager, drunk and sloppy,” Nicholai said, but he was joking, in his way. He was leaning forward, a liquid, curious look to his eye. More often than not he reminded Grisha of an animal, a jungle cat from somewhere far away and damp. Grigoriy had a fascination with the exotic he was sure must betray his ignorance. Very few things were interesting upon close inspection. But Nicholai still was, even when he wasn’t catlike at all – just a clerk in shabby clothes who had clearly had too much to drink.
“Something like that,” Grigoriy agreed, raising his glass. “At least I would have been very dashing. But then the influenza that took Mother took Sascha and Semyon too, and Father was stuck with me. He tried his best, but it was much too late to teach me anything.”
Nicholai cocked his head slightly, not with pity, exactly, but with a soberness that intimated something like it. Grigoriy was relieved. He had no use for pity, but there were times he enjoyed curling up in it. “I don’t think it’s that,” Nicholai said quietly. “You learn what you want to learn. You’re one of the quickest people I’ve ever met when you’re interested in something. I think you’re just not interested in what he’s teaching.”
“If you’re going start spouting crap about the movement…” Grigoriy threatened. Nicholai just laughed. “Really,” Grisha sulked. “I’m shallow, but at least I’m not completely inept.” And Nicholai had rolled his eyes and called him bourgeois and Grigoriy had pointed out that bourgeois was a more appropriate term for the middle class, not the aristocracy, and Nicholai had asked how Grigoriy could have known that since he claimed not to have read the copy of Materialism and Empirio-critisicm that Nicholai lent him, and Grisha had quickly changed the subject.
Or another time, after September had curled around the edges of St. Petersburg, when they had moved from the revolutionary headquarters of the back hall closet to Nicholai’s small lodgings because Nicholai had a quote he wanted to show him from one of his huge, interminably dull books. Grigoriy had found a slimmer Pushkin volume wedged in among all that plodding theory and was flipping through it while Nicholai ranted about the proletariat, until Nicholai caught him at it and snatched it out of his hands. “Will you pay attention?”
“I’ve paid all the attention worth paying to anything this ridiculous,” Grigoriy said, bored and rather put-out. He sat down on the little chair next to Nicholai’s bed with an elaborate flourish of his coat tails.
Nicholai put the Pushkin away carefully – a little too carefully for someone who had once said literature was frivolous. He turned around, and his posture was tighter than usual. Nicholai was a man at ease with the space he inhabited, a man who spread out. But now his movements were small, precise with anger, maybe. Grisha found himself equal parts bewildered and fascinated; they argued recreationally, but he did not think he had ever seen Nicholai actually angry before.
“You’re the most frustrating man I’ve ever met,” Nicholai Baronov said. “Do you know that? You come here and read my books and listen to us talk and still you just, all you do is mock us. You pretend to be spoiled and stupid when you’re anything but. I keep trying to figure you out and I can’t. Why do you keep coming when you hate what we have to say?”
Watching him, pinned to the chair with the weight of his astonishment, Grigoriy realized at some point the seduction had drained out of their encounters. In any other situation, to reward himself for his patience over the past months, Grigoriy would have risen out of his chair, lithe as an eel, and said something pretty and taken Nicholai to bed. But Nicholai was confused by the same thing that made Grigoriy hesitate, even if the realization why he could never use this man only dawned on him now with the heavy indigo of a St. Petersburg morning. Nicholai believed in something. He was irritatingly hard to read and too honest to be of use to any movement, but he believed in an idea until it became an earthy, earnest faith. Grigoriy grew up in a world made of floating bits of paper, but Nicholai could look at a chapped, dour Russia and see a bold capacity for rebirth. And because of that, inexplicably, perhaps, but profoundly, Grisha owed him the truth.
“I don’t hate it,” he said. “It’s just not going to work, Nicholai. The world won’t ever change like that. People can’t be better than what they are. They’re selfish. They only look out for themselves. That’s the long and short of it.”
It was not anything he had not said before, really. Nothing Nicholai had not refuted with an impassioned speech about economics. But Grigoriy could not meet Nicholai’s eyes when he said it and the words hung soddenly in air.
When he finally gathered the courage to look up, Nicholai no longer seemed angry. His jaw was clenched, but he nodded thoughtfully, almost agreeably, before he took two strides and grabbed Grigoriy by the shirtfront. Grisha squawked indignantly, but Nicholai simply looked at him, his calm now forged in a crucible.
“People are selfish,” he said. “And now it’s my turn.” And he kissed Grigoriy on the mouth.
If Grigoriy had expertise in any arena, this was undoubtedly it. This was a comfort, because Grigoriy’s body smoothly took over on instinct while his mental acuity drained out onto the wooden planks of the floor. His arms wrapped around Nicholai, while they kissed, rough, biting kisses. Nicholai Baronov had a firm touch but charmingly unsteady hands.
“Insane,” Nicholai kept saying. “You’ve been driving me insane.” Although Grisha doubted he meant it in a flattering way, he wasted no time reaching down to cup Nicholai through his trousers. He grinned when Nicholai groaned. Grigoriy curled the fingers of his other hand around Nicholai’s shoulder, burying his face in his neck, breathing in the smell of sweat and mothballs and something sharp that must be Nicholai’s skin.
“Take me to bed?” he said. In later days, he would swear he had not meant it as a question.
Nicholai pulled him over to his cot, interrupted but not delayed as Grigoriy kept trying to unhook his suspenders and undo his pants. They fell on the bed with a rusty thump of the springs, fell on each other with eager hands, swollen mouths. Nicholai kept kissing his neck and Grigoriy laughed like a string of champagne bubbles, wondering how long Nicholai had wanted to do that.
They wrestled out of their clothes. Parts of Nicholai he had speculated about late and alone were revealed to him in breathless patchwork: a lean, broad chest with small nipples, long feet, a furiously red prick curving gently towards his stomach. Grigoriy took it in his hand and the weight of it, the texture, made him close his eyes and moan.
Nicholai laid slack on top of him, making low helpless noises into Grisha’s ear, and Grigoriy drew up his knees on either side of the other man as he stroked. The air became thick, swampy, and Grisha felt Nicholai’s breath like a rope tugging across his neck. His hips bucked as he rutted senseless against Nicholai’s thigh, glutting himself.
Nicholai swelled in his hands and Grigoriy only pulled harder. Nicholai’s trousers were rough against Grigoriy’s cock, but Grisha could not stop himself. This was everything sexual he had trained himself to avoid – awkward, frantic, complicated – and he was awestruck. Grigoriy came, swearing and digging his nails into Nicholai’s arms. Nicholai’s hips stuttered before he came in Grisha’s fist, and Grigoriy kissed his face again and again and again.
Grigoriy dozed in Nicholai’s horrible bed. It was too small for them both unless they lay on their sides, legs tangled together. Grisha had no choice but to wake up when Nicholai extricated himself and climbed out. He watched Nicholai sit down in the little chair, staring out the window at the cramped alley below. His shoulder blades were delicate and awkward and Grigoriy found himself feeling overwhelmingly protective of them.
After a moment he uncurled from the nest of the sheets and went to stand behind Nicholai, sliding a hand across his shoulder down to his back. He murmured, “See anything interesting?” and kissed Nicholai’s neck.
Nicholai started a bit, giving Grigoriy an almost guilty sort of look. He looked back down out the window. “It’s hard to say.”
Grigoriy bend over long enough to pick up his shirt – he was cold and the floor was dirty – before draping himself over Nicholai. “When can I see you again?” It was an absurd question. Grigoriy would see him again after the next meeting, clearly. But that was the sort of mood he was in: ridiculous, obvious, giddy.
“About that,” Nicholai paused to unwrap Grigoriy’s arms from around him, tugging him closer so they faced each other directly. Nicholai’s expression was helpless, apologetic and Grisha could feel his own fall. “I’m sorry… I don’t think this should happen again.”
“Oh,” said Grigoriy. Inside him things tumbled and shifted. Diamonds had to be cut before becoming polished and brutal. “Oh,” he said again, standing up.
Nicholai craned upward but did not rise out of his chair. He did not even bother to cover himself, and somehow Grigoriy felt the most injured by that. “I am sorry. But you have to understand, even if you don’t agree with us, we’re serious about this movement and you’re… you’re not.”
Grigoriy almost laughed at that. He began gathering his clothing, slipping it on. “No. I’m not. That’s very true.”
“My comrades count on me.” Nicholai’s mouth worked, and Grigoriy felt a flash of venom that Nicholai Baronov was trying in his way to be kind. “I can’t…”
“I’m a distraction,” Grigoriy said, dressing. “And you can’t afford any. I understand. It was only a bit of fun, anyway.” Nicholai had been a distraction for him as well, but that was the entire point.
Nicholai’s brows were knit together in distress as Grigoriy put on his coat and smoothed his hair, but he apparently had nothing else to say. Grigoriy met his gaze coolly, refusing to look away and give Nicholai quarter.
As he turned to go, however, he felt a sudden splash of doubt. Grigoriy was not inexperienced with reluctant lovers. Not that Nicholai was playing the coquette, but this tragic little reluctance could be eroded if treated with skill and the show of respect. Within his muff, he removed one of his rings, gold and emerald but otherwise of no real value to Grigoriy, and placed it soundlessly on a table wobbling by the door. He would wait on this, give time for his absence to sour in Nicholai’s mind and then Grigoriy would come back and casually inquire if Nicholai had seen his ring. It would be a simple matter from there of working his way back into Nicholai’s esteem.
“Goodbye,” he said, with as much stiffness and pain he could muster and marched out the door. Outside he began to whistle as he made his way somewhere he could flag a carriage, feeling quite cheerful.
He planned to wait a month at the very least, but in October the strikes took the option away.
Strikes were nothing new in St. Petersburg since January, but when they grew widespread and some tentative, exploratory rioting began, Baron Sentanovich whisked Grigoriy and the household staff to their country estate. Grigoriy had gone without question or protest, in fact with great relief. He had assumed the peasants were responsible – riffraff and urchins, troublemakers of an ungainly sort. The police or the army or something would take care of it and they would be home within the week.
It only occurred to him while drifting off to sleep one night, that Nicholai and his friends could be considered the most ungainly sort of troublemakers.
The next day after breakfast Grigoriy took the family carriage without asking and rode back to St. Petersburg as fast as he could keep bribing the driver.
The city was quiet. When protests were not scheduled or spontaneously breaking out, much of the citizenry of St. Petersburg had nothing to do but sit at home and wait while tension built and life shut down. The streets were littered with paper – some propaganda posters, but mostly food wrappers and cigarette stubs. Someone from a high window spat on Grigoriy as he made his way on foot to the Rusty Dog.
The door was locked. Grisha knocked, and when that received no response he crescendoed into pounding, beating against the door until he heard something snap in his knuckles and he bruised his fist. He kept shouting. “Alexei! Dammit, Alexei, it’s me! Open up! Open the fucking door!”
After who knows how long of this, he heard the elaborate, mechanical sound of locks being undone and the door slivered open just enough that Grigoriy saw the crown of Alexei’s bald head. Before he could say anything Grisha shouldered his way into the pub. A few lamps flickered in the corner, but the Rusty Dog was empty. “Where are they? Where is he? Is he here?”
Alexei stood in front of the door, his arms crossed. “I could never tell whether you were just stubborn or incredibly stupid.”
Grigoriy approached him with even, deliberate steps. “Where is he?”
“He’s gone,” Alexei spat out.
“Where? Is he, is he out? Is he in hiding?”
Alexei chuckled, an angry, unhappy sound. “Hiding. Oh yes, he’s in hiding. You can’t be any harder to find than in Siberia, so I guess that’s hiding.”
Grigoriy stopped. For a moment he could not even coordinate the muscles around his mouth and then when he could, all that came out was, “What?”
“After you ran off, they got a lot more involved in the strikes,” said Alexei. “Even when you were here, really. They’d hold meetings on days you weren’t around about organizing down at the lumberyard and the railroad. Didn’t know that, did you?”
Grisha did not respond. Alexei continued. “The whole group of them got involved in a brawl with a police at the stationhouse. They ran back here and the police found them in their meeting room. The others were released after a few days in the cells, but they figured Nicholai was the leader and they trumped up a few robbery charges too.”
“Robbery?” Grigoriy repeated, his voice distant and divorced from reality like an echo.
“They found a ring in his room,” Alexei said with cruel, accusing eyes. “Nicer than anything he could have bought with a clerk’s salary.”
The enormity of that rang gonglike through Grigoriy’s head, and Alexei just went on, “After my Vadim passed, Nicholai was like a son to me. Of course I knew what they were doing back there, but I let them. I let them. I knew you were trouble from the minute you came in with that friend of yours. Get out of my pub and never come back here again.”
“That won’t be a problem,” Grigoriy mumbled. He lurched out of the Rusty Dog and back out into the early morning, a new day dawning in a city afraid to see it come.
“The problem,” Grisha told Yevgeniy two weeks later, gesticulating so hard with his glass brandy sloshed over the sides. “Is it’s all… it’s all useless.”
“What’s that?” Zhenya said politely. He seemed less interested in listening to Grigoriy than keeping their voices down in Count Virisnokav’s quiet little parlor. Grisha was obliquely aware they were receiving subtle, scandalized glances from the tables around them, but blast the cardgame, Grigoriy was sure he was onto something profound.
“Useless!” he repeated. He had known it for a long time, but he found it particularly grating these days that Yevgeniy was so exceptionally stupid. “All of it. S’all… how dumb do you have to be? Things don’t get better. They just… get exiled. To a prison camp. Try organizing one of them, will you!”
“Yes,” Yevigeniy said slowly. He put his hand on Grigoriy’s thigh and squeezed, warmly as much as suggestively, giving him a smile. “It’s stuffy in here, don’t you agree? We could continue having this conversation in private.”
The alcohol so far had not turned his stomach, but this might. Grisha pried off Zhenya’s hand. “Private would be even stuffier.”
An interesting flicker of emotions crossed Zhenya’s face – the rise and ruination of an idea. He stood up and straightened his waistcoat. “I see,” he said. He continued, stiffly, formally, as if drawing a letter of resignation. “I’ll go off alone then. And I rescind my invitation to lunch with you tomorrow. It seems something else has… has quite come up.”
“Fine,” said Grigoriy. The brandy was amber as it reflected the light. He could feel it closing in around him, sticky and solid. He was safe and trapped. “Fine!” he called out, startling several cardplayers, as Yevigeniy had long since left the room.
Four days later, at Prince Petrovich’s ball, Grigoriy’s administrations to the young princess were so blatant her fiancé had no choice but to issue a challenge, and Baron Sentanovich had Grisha packed and on his way to Siberia the next morning.
Grigoriy wondered if Nicholai dreamed like this, whether he was aware at all or if he could hear. It had been a day and a night, and the doctor had come by again to force a thin broth down Nicholai’s throat and change the salve on his back. No infection yet. The boy was lucky, he had been told. Grigoriy grunted.
He had not been shaved today and he shooed the boy away when he came in to dress him. However, Grigoriy dimly prided himself on eating, when he had been presented with food. Wasting away at Nicholai’s bedside would have been too maudlin for either of their tastes. One of the few things they had ever agreed upon was a dislike for awkward literary tropes. Nicholai’s eyelashes were very dark against his cheek, and Grigoriy’s vision occasionally narrowed to focus solely on them, willing them to move.
He leaned back in his armchair, rubbing his hand across his cheek with a supple rasping sound. He stared off into the fire and said, unexpectedly, his voice rough and loud in their corner of the large room, “You always were so stubborn. How did you get in trouble, anyway? I bet you mouthed off to a guard. There are some times you have to keep your head down and just do what you’re told. Even I know that.”
Grigoriy sighed and shifted around, wincing when his legs turned out to be sore. He looked down at Nicholai, robbed of posture and passion and dignity, as fragile now as part of Grisha had always wanted him to be.
“The thing is,” he continued more quietly. “If you hadn’t done whatever it is you did, you might have heard the news. It might have made its way even out here by now. Witte and Obolenskii did what you were always talking about. They forced the Czar’s hand. There’s going to be a Duma now, a real Duma, for all of Russia, with political parties and everything. Everyone is going to get a say now. Everything’s changed. You were right it could change. It’s gotten better.”
Grisha took Nicholai’s hand. It was limp, but warmed by the fire. “You could see for yourself,” he said. “If you woke up.”
Shortly afterwards, Grigoriy fell asleep in the chair for a few hours. The crackling hiss of burning logs invaded his dreams. He woke up with an insistent pain in his neck and reached up to rub it, groaning. He glanced down. And Nicholai’s eyes were small, bruised slits, but they were undeniably open. His hand was flexing feebly around Grisha’s.
Grisha’s other arm dropped as if weighted. His whole body in fact felt cemented to the earth but in a manner that made him acutely aware that it had immediate contact with the air. The first thing Grigoriy had noticed about Siberia was the horizon. “You’re awake,” he said, quite stupidly.
It took him a moment, but Nicholai said, voice raw, “Is this a feather bed?”
“You can be damned sure it is,” Grigoriy said. “And if you say anything about luxuries being unnecessary and unfair to the masses, I’m dumping you back out into the cold. Do you have any idea how much work it took to drag that thing in here?”
In the coming months, when he was recovering and they were on one of the countless itinerations of this conversation, Nicholai would counter by asking if Grigoriy had lifted one finger to move the bed himself. But now, he simply smiled, weakly but with such overwhelming purity of feeling it made Grisha think of the tenacious, pale green growth of spring.