M U R D E R I N T H E K R E M L I N
Peter the First, Tsar of all the Russias, sat on a golden stool in his palace quarters, with a Kalmuk slave kneeling before him. The slave held a rare melon, the gift of the Shah of Persia. Discarded rinds littered the jewel-toned Turkish rug. His Majesty did not care a great deal for melons, but they had their uses. With deep concentration and increasing skill he was establishing that it was possible to spit a seed ten feet, twelve feeteven, incredibly, as far as the toy fort of solid gold set up beneath the window. And this with two front teeth missing!
As the final seed pinged against a golden tower, Peter gave a whoop of triumph. “Ivan, did you see that? I hit it! I told you I would! Here, you can take this stuff away now.” He gave the kneeling slave a good-natured kick, toppling him backward. The slave, grinning broadly, picked himself up and began to collect the rinds.
Peter got up and went across the room to his brother. Ivan was reading, as usual. The beautifully illuminated, hand-lettered “Lives of the Saints” lay open on his knee; he was hunched over it, painfully tracing each word with his finger, murmuring them aloud in a slow dull monotone.
Peter laid a hand on his shoulder and shook him impatiently. “Did you hear me, Ivan Alexeyevich? I told you I could spit as far as the window, and I’ve done it. Right square on the top of the Scottish barbican Uncle Ivan gave me. I’ve never done that well before.”
Ivan’s watery, half-blind eyes turned to him. He smiled his gentle, foolish smile. “That is good, little brother. ‘And St. Paul came to EphEphesus’ ” His gaze went back to the book. The mechanical murmuring broke out again.
With a shrug, Peter left him. The slave had gone now. The two boys were alone in the great silk-draped chamber. The young tsar wandered over to the window, scuffling impatiently in his velvet slippers, his long, fur-bordered robe trailing the floor.
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