HE cathedral is cavernous and echoing, markedly different from its grand appearance during the daytime service. The few lit candles lining the walls do little to stave off the midnight dark that reaches down from the vaulted heights, though with their flickering they make the murals dance. Saints’ bloodied hands reach out in benediction; angels’ wings glint with living gold.
The priest on duty rustles and sighs, shifting back and forth before settling once again into his murmured prayers. If such an effort, undertaken by many such priests over three long days, were not enough to raise the dead king’s soul to heaven, Viktor is not sure what would.
Whether Mstislav Nikiforov is deserving of heaven, Viktor is no one of any authority to say.
The cypress casket is almost plain, for someone who was anything but in his lifetime. The gold and silver inlay is understated, etched with winding prayers for preservation of the body. It is closed, so the king’s face cannot be seen, but Viktor’s mind overlays his last image of him atop the casket anyway; bloated, feverish, awash in an awful stench.
In the last hours of his life, with an uncanny strength that recalled his former vigor, he had opened his eyes and grasped at Viktor’s wrist. “Vanya,” he’d rasped, reaching out with his other shaking hand, pulling hard on Viktor’s hair and staring at its silver color as if in shock. “Vanya?” he’d repeated, tremulous, while the doctors and servants pretended not to hear.
They were the last words he’d ever spoken. Perhaps Viktor ought to be jealous, or angry, that his reward for days and weeks spent at his husband’s bedside, cleaning his body and cooling his brow, was a plea for someone else entirely. But it’s not as if he hadn’t known.
Viktor’s long hair, carefully tended, had been the envy of the royal court. It’s gone now, shorn in proper mourning, and his head feels light and empty. The flimsy white veil he wears adds barely any weight.
It flutters as he breathes out. His hands, clasped together gently, tighten. He closes his eyes.
Oh blessed one, mother of God, you who were born pure and lived in purity, who dwells eternal in the presence of the divine, I beg you to come to my aid; to grant me steadfastness in the face of uncertainty, to shelter me from harm, to guide me away from sin and darkness. In your great compassion, oh queen of heaven, grant me your light to show the way.
Our life, our sweetness, pray for us sinners; intercede for us with the Almighty God, and ask of Him to grant that his soul, too, be raised into light.
Viktor is rightfully exhausted after all his duties have been done: the vigil over; the body interred; the grand funeral completed, up to and including the part where he flings himself down upon the casket and has to be bodily dragged away. He retires back to his quarters, from which he will soon be evicted, once the coronation happens and he officially takes up the title of prince dowager. For now, he sinks into the chair by his desk, removing his veil and crumpling it up between his hands. They will give him some time in seclusion, ostensibly to mourn; he needn’t go out in public at least until the coronation.
After some time, a quiet knock comes on the door. “Enter,” he calls out, breaking from his stupor.
It’s a maid, bearing a tray of tea and food. She’s not one of his: he doesn’t even recognize her face, though it’s true that over the past weeks he’s paid little attention to the mundane doings of the household staff.
“Your Grace,” she curtsies, “His Highness the Prince Rostislav has requested you eat.”
After three days of fasting, Viktor ought to be more hungry than he is. Despite his lack of appetite, he recognizes the necessity of it, and spares some grateful thought to his brother-in-law—the crown prince, soon to be monarch—for acknowledging Viktor’s presence. “Thank you,” he nods, and allows her to set the food upon the desk in front of him. It’s plain fare, kasha with milk; easily digestible.
There is a teapot, and a teacup, but there is also a small vial sitting beside them. Viktor frowns. He uncaps the vial, and wrinkles his nose; it smells strongly of mint, a flavor Viktor has no great fondness for.
“What is this?” he demands. The maid’s hands tangle with each other.
“Pennyroyal, Your Grace.”
“Pennyroyal,” he repeats, then nearly laughs in disbelief. “I’m not—I’ve never—” he trails off. What he’s never is well known, a favorite subject of courtly gossip both sympathetic and cruel. “At Prince Rostislav’s request,” he says with a twist of his lips.
“Yes, Your Grace,” the maid nearly whispers.
“Well, then,” he says, and downs the whole thing in one go, setting it back on the tray with a severe clack and a grimace. “Is it even worth it for me to eat the rest of this?” His stomach churns, whether from the taste or the anticipation.
She glances up at him, and he swears he can see sympathy in her gaze. “For strength, Your Grace.” You’ll need it, she doesn’t say.
The kasha turns out to be useless, since he’s barely halfway through before nausea begins to roil through his gut. Wordlessly, the maid fetches him an empty chamber pot just in time for him to regurgitate the undigested porridge. Pain seizes through his stomach, clawlike, and he curls into himself before abruptly falling into another round of heaving.
It’s an interminable length of time that he sits there, vomiting up bile and air and the taste of mint. The pain settles down into dull cramps before violently intensifying again, so much so that he cries out involuntarily, clutching at his belly. Tears that never came for his dead husband streak down his cheeks.
When he has gone for some five minutes without retching, the maid sets down the fouled pot and holds the teacup to his lips. “Drink, Your Grace,” she commands, so he does, gulping down the liquid and grimacing as his stomach protests. He clenches his jaw against the renewed urge to vomit, breathing deeply, eyes closed.
“You might be more comfortable lying down,” she offers, and he peels his eyes open to glare at this woman who has gone ahead and fed him poison. He doesn’t doubt it was on Rostislav’s orders indeed, nor does he truly believe that it’s meant to kill him—there are easier ways to do that—but he still feels inordinately resentful. Still, he staggers over to the bed, shaking off her wordless offer of assistance as he sheds layers from his sweaty, clammy skin.
He shivers, and seizes, and dreams: the maid’s face replaced by his mother’s, her hands replaced by his husband’s. The dead king holds him with rotting fingers and croons love songs into his ear. Jealous Ivan Gorchakov reaches into his womb and pulls, cruel and deliberate, and from out of him drags only the bloodless silk of his mourning veil, which settles over his body, over his mouth and nose, choking him. The dandies of the court, faceless and formless, gather round his bed and whisper and titter.
Viktor dreams for days, and on the fourth morning, he wakes: exhausted, hungry, filthy.
Prince Rostislav is sitting by his bedside. Viktor instinctively clutches the bed coverings closer.
“We are brothers, are we not?” Rostislav says, “There is no impropriety.”
“My lord,” Viktor responds, his voice rough and dry as a crow’s, and does not let go of the sheets.
Rostislav sighs and resettles himself, sitting back and crossing one leg over the other. “I am sorry,” he says, and even manages a good approximation of apologetic. “It was an unfortunate necessity.”
As is usual, Viktor bites back his reply— yes, a true necessity for the barren prince, who might otherwise have replicated the wonder of a miraculous conception— and merely nods. “Of course, my lord.”
The slightest downward twitch of his lips betrays Rostislav’s discontentment. “I think,” he says, “That you would be more at ease away from the court for some time. Don’t you?”
Viktor’s hand clenches; he relaxes it swiftly. Away from the court could mean his natal family’s holdings, or instead the sort of nunnery intended to keep young nobles chaste and demure; some time could mean a few months, or instead forever. “If it is as you wish, your majesty.”
“I’m not crowned yet,” Rostislav corrects him. “You’ll stay for the coronation. After, I’ve arranged for your travel to St. Stepan’s Convent.”
St. Stepan’s? Not the Monastery of Our Lady, a day’s ride out from the city, where most people of his status might go; or even the Convent of the Annunciation, further afield but with no less exalted guests. Viktor’s not even sure where St. Stepan’s is.
“It’s small,” Rostislav acknowledges, “Quiet. Two weeks’ journey, to the southwest.”
“I see,” Viktor says. A place where he will be relegated for a long time, then; or indeed a very short one, when even some mishap along the way will be scarcely noted. He wonders if his natal family objected. Unlikely. They’ve fallen out of favor, the moreso in light of his personal failings.
“It isn’t permanent, if you would wish to return someday.”
Rostislav nods, taking a long moment to regard Viktor. He has sharp, brilliantly green eyes: unusual, for a Nikiforov, and the subject of many rumors regarding his actual parentage that likely will do little to stabilize his transition into power. “Well then, brother,” he says at last, “Rest.”
He rises to leave, but before he reaches the door he turns, looks at Viktor appraisingly. “If I were not married, I would have taken you for my own,” he says, as if that were something Viktor would want.
“An infertile omega?” Viktor cringes immediately; he ought not to give into such impulses. He ought to have learned not to speak his mind.
Rostislav shakes his head, laughing quietly. “I think you and I both know you were not the infertile one in your marriage,” he says, “God rest his soul, my brother never did appreciate what he had,” and sweeps out the door like a king.
It’s not that Mstislav had been cruel.
Viktor was chosen for two reasons. The first, because he was a beautiful young man, with light hair and light eyes, a pleasing natural scent, and a certain practiced grace to his movements. The second, to convince his influential uncle to support the king’s latest eastward expansion. He’d been naive and sheltered, only a year out from his first season, and a good decade younger than Mstislav himself. His four omega siblings—all older than both himself and his one alpha sister, the great hope of the family—had each given their spouses children within a single year.
The wedding had been timed perfectly, so that he’d fallen into heat nearly as soon as they had retired to the king’s quarters. Mstislav had been attentive, that time and all the others: never leaving him to suffer alone; always stroking his hair, his nape, his flanks through the inevitable pain of coupling; ensuring he ate and drank. Whatever sense of shame Viktor felt during the ordeal was wholly internal, the rational part of his mind that cringed even as he presented himself and begged like a whore.
It had been vastly superior to his first, which was accompanied by a celebration for his family and days of shivering self-loathing for himself, staring at the ceiling and trying not to think of sin.
(How terribly unfair, he had thought at the time, that they should all suffer Eve’s punishment, and in doing so be tempted further to depravity.)
So Mstislav had done his husbandly duties, and kept Viktor in comfort besides, year after year. And year after year, Viktor had left his heat without a pregnancy to show for it; and when he was not in season, Mstislav had little enough to do with him. But he was not expected to, by Viktor or anyone else.
The weeks-long journey ought to give him plenty of time to reflect, but Viktor’s mind is blank as the miles roll along. His carriage is small but comfortable enough. His guards are professional and remote. He has little to bring with him. So few of his possessions were his own, after all.
The sky is grey and the air is unseasonably cold as they draw closer to the convent, like a foreshadowing of the long winter that lies ahead. He twitches aside the curtain of the carriage, just enough to see through the small window to the rolling hills and fallow fields beyond, not yet sown with winter wheat. A few stooped figures pick their way through the gleanings. Viktor watches them until the carriage turns the bend and they fall out of sight. He closes the curtain again, and sits back, body numb and mind empty.
The convent itself, when at last they reach it, is a drab grey structure that hardly stands out against the drab grey sky; better fortified than the ones closer to the capital, and Viktor is reminded of their relative proximity to the southern border and its barbarian hordes. As it is, they roll uncontested through the open doors of the gatehouse. Viktor’s guard helps him out of the carriage, and he steps out onto packed grey earth. Before him stands an older man, a beta by his scent—likely the ordained abbot of the place—with long brown hair and a drab grey habit.
The man smiles, widely, and bows his head in a nod between equals. “Prince Viktor,” the man says, “I am Celestino Cialdini, and I am pleased to welcome you home. God willing, your journey was not too taxing?”
Home. The reality of it at last slams into Viktor like a winter storm. He feels brittle and cold, but remembers himself and shakes his head. “My thanks,” he replies, and is surprised to find his voice hoarse and halting, “The journey was well. I am honored to be invited into your community.”
Celestino nods, and his smile acquires a softer edge. “You are still grieving, of course. I hope that you can be comforted that this is a place of contemplation and peace, and that you may take what time you need.” He turns to the foremost of Viktor’s guard. “Welcome to you as well; though I cannot allow you into the cloister itself, we have guest quarters that I hope will suffice before you return to the capital. As for you, Viktor, we have a room set aside for you and what things you may have. In a moment one of the brothers will lead you there.”
Viktor follows the summoned brother—a quiet young man, halfway to scowling—wordlessly through the halls, and barely sees the few people whom they pass. The convent is indeed fairly small: they reach his cell quickly. It is a small room with a bed just large enough for a single person; a single set of drawers, containing those grey robes and miscellaneous necessary items; a table with an unlit lamp; a window that lets in the grey sunlight.
The brother leaves him with a nod, stating only, “I will come fetch you for the evening prayer, if you so wish.”
When he has gone, Viktor takes the few steps required to reach the window, and looks out. The view is towards the interior of the cloister, where a tall, wide tree reaches high above the colonnade’s arches. Its leaves flutter in the wind, a few breaking off to drift down gently to the ground. Sections of neatly tended garden, green and bright, fill the space around it. Around the covered walkway paces a single robed figure, hurried steps belying his circular route. To Viktor’s right, the church itself rises above the rest of the buildings; before him, the sun has begun to droop lower in the sky.
Maybe Rostislav is right. Maybe what he needs is a small, quiet place, as bare and grey as his spirit.
Oh holy virgin, god-bearer, in your infinite mercy, grant me hope.