Thursday, November 25, 2010

Fiction: The Tsarevich by Shelly Li

The sharpening sound of the executioner’s axe sends a shiver through my spine as I kneel here, waiting for noon to arrive.

Wait. We must not begin here, like this.

Before you see my end, you need to understand my beginning. My glorious climb to the top tier of the royal court, before the blocks of the Tsar’s favor shifted, and I came tumbling back down, accompanied by a death sentence.

You see, everything was fine until I stepped my magic show up to the next level.

Perhaps I will start with the night I first met the young Tsarevich. It is less embarrassing this way.

Nicholas is his name.


The violins stop playing, and the music from the rest of the orchestra ceases shortly after.

I draw in a deep breath, checking the thin string hooked to the middle button of my shirt, its other end glued to the back of the bottom card in my deck: the king of clubs. It is time for my performance.

“Where is the magician?” the Tsar calls out, his eyes scanning the length of the dining hall. “Where is Stefan, the great Fake Prince of Magic?” He chuckles at my title.

A smile, one that I no longer feel, spreads over my face, and I jump out of the crowd, stepping under the chandelier hanging from the center of the palace ceiling.

“Good evening, Tsar,” I say, though I am addressing all the guests in the dining hall. Of all shapes and sizes—though most were exceptionally tall, well nourished, unlike the majority of the population—they dripped light, be it diamond necklaces or gold bracelets or pearl earrings.

In the corner of my eye, I see two servant boys carrying out the table that I requested.

I do a three-sixty turn to take in my audience, the bells on my hat jingling. The sounds used to give me a headache, though now they have merely oozed and disappeared into the constant background of words, voiced with great importance though often times meaning nothing.

Most of the people in the dining hall of the Winter Palace, I have known for the last two years. But among the familiar faces, there are always a few new ones, nobles or princes from the north of the country.

Tonight I happen to catch sight of a young boy in the crowd, dressed in a blue and white sailor’s outfit and watching me with intent eyes that make the blue of his fabric seem dim. We have never met, as the boy had spent the last three years traveling abroad with his uncle.

But even so, I can recognize the Tsarevich. The child bears an uncanny resemblance to his mother, the Tsaritsa, who stands next to him.

It’s time to warm up my audience.

I walk over to the ten-year-old boy. “Little Tsarevich,” I say, bowing low so that my hand sweeps the tiled floor. “It is an honor. Are you enjoying yourself tonight?”

The boy grabs onto his mother, saying, “Yes, Magician.”

Grinning, I point to the gold coin hung around his neck. “That’s an interesting necklace,” I tell him. “Do you mind if I take a look?”

The Tsarevich hesitates, looking to his mother.

“Go on, Nicholas,” the Tsaritsa says. Her voice is gentle despite the cruelties that her husband performs outside these palace walls, her smile steady in contrast to the horrors that her eye have laid on. “Stefan is no stranger to our family. He only wants to have a look.”

And so the Tsarevich slides his necklace off his neck and drops it into my outstretched hand. “Be careful,” he warns sternly. The tone is a poor mimic of the Tsar’s.

“Of course.” I roll the coin around my knuckles for a moment, my peripherals examining the people crowding closer to me, curious. Four exact angles can make the trick to look flawless.

Timing, in my performances, is everything.

A corpulent old man shifts a few inches to the left, and the guests behind him move out of his line in order to get a better look.

And just like that, every angle is perfect.

I flex my right hand, my dominant, feeling the elastic cord in my sleeve brush over the bottom of my arm. Attached to the cord, the small suction cup at the edge of my cuff feels in place as well.

“My, this must be very rare,” I say, looking up at Nicholas. “Where did you get this, dear Tsarevich?”

The boy points to the Tsar, watching us at his table in the front of the dining hall. “Papa gave it to me last month,” he says. “After the doctor cured me of my sickness.”

“Then it must be important to you. It would be a shame if you lost it.”

The young Tsarevich nods. “I promised Papa that I would never let it out of my sight.”

“Really, now. Never?”


I raise an eyebrow and, without saying another word, toss the necklace into the air.

A hundred pairs of eyes watch the gold coin tap the lowest light on the ceiling chandelier with a soft ping, then fall back into my hand with a light thump.

The Tsarevich looks like he has something to say to me, but he doesn’t say it, so I proceed.

Flicking both my wrists, I feel the suction cup clasp onto the side of the coin. Perfect. “You mustn’t let it out of your sight now, remember,” I tell the little Tsarevich, waving my hands this way and that to attract more attention.

Sitting with a wine glass in hand, the Tsar sits up in his chair, a curious frown on his face.

I rub my hands together and begin to do a jig, swaying back and forth in front of the Tsarevich, the rest of the room watching in amusement.

And then, with a slight bend of my elbow, the elastic cord recoils, and the necklace zips up my sleeve and disappears.

Eyes widen all around me, and the little Tsarevich lets out a gasp that slightly resembles a whale’s moan.

“Oh, dear,” I call out, spreading my hands and looking around the room. “Help me look around, quick! I think it’s disappeared.”

The Tsar scratches his head as he looks at me from his seat, trying to figure out my trick.

His son, however, all the nervousness and hesitation now gone from his voice now, points a finger at me and says, “Return my bracelet, thief, or Papa will have you beheaded!”

Blinking in mock shock, I open my mouth to protest, but the Tsarevich intercepts by lunging at me.

The boy barely weighs sixty pounds, but to cause a scene, I fall onto my back and slide across the floor.

The men and women step back, giving us space to wrestle—or rather, the little Tsarevich room to strangle me.

“Give it back to me, Magician!” Nicholas demands, pulling on my coat. “I know you’ve hidden it. Things don’t just disappear.”

The Tsarevich’s words make me take pause. Things don’t just disappear. For an ten-year-old, the boy says this with much conviction.

“Where is it, Stefan?” His hands move to my sleeves, and we move to a first-name basis.

Down my arm the boy searches, until his fingers run across the hidden elastic cord.

The Tsarevich’s eyes widen, and a triumphant grin spreads over his face. He curls the fabric of my sleeves into his little fists, and then he tugs with more strength than an ten-year-old should have.

My sleeves come off, and my new elastic invention pops out in the open for everyone to see. Nicholas’ gold necklace hangs just below my right cuff, still attached to the suction cup.

After a short pause, I hear a soft snicker from the front of the dining hall.

All eyes turn to the Tsar, whose snicker gradually escalates into a wheezing laugh. The forty-year-old ruler looks no older than a boy of twenty-five, a carefree grin covering half his face as he pounds his open hand against the table.

“That is my son,” the Tsar says, chuckling. “My brilliant Nicholas, seeing right through the magician’s tricks. Bravo!”

Feigning embarrassment, I scramble up from the floor, bowing apologies to the Tsarevich, his mother, and the other guests around me. However they don’t seem to mind, laughing at me, fractionally because they are humored, mostly to humor the Tsar.

“Later, you must show me how you performed that trick,” the Tsar says, smiling and shaking his head. “Continue, Stefan. Let’s see what else you have prepared for us tonight.”

And so, with my audience now warmed up, I proceed, pulling out my deck of cards.

Two years ago, when I first moved into the Winter Palace with my father, I felt humiliated to do this kind of work. I am a scientist. I am an educated man. I did not understand why I had to stoop to party tricks to bring a few fleeting laughs to the royal court.

But then the boxes of gold coins and jewelry began to arrive at our door, and I realized why my father had begged the Grand Duke for this job. With the Tsar’s favor came the impossible funds that two penniless scientists needed to continue with their experiments.

Occasionally I receive a new title, more power, more liberties within the palace. But Father never fails to remind me of the last court jester’s fate: lampooned by the Tsar himself, then burned until he was nothing but black ash at the bottom of a furnace.

Do not forget who the Tsar is, my father always says. His whims decide your privilege to live. Beyond our work, everything in the Winter Palace is just a beautiful illusion, waiting to be ripped to pieces with one wrong step.


Father is bent over the side of the table when I return to our room, dipping a copper wire into a beaker of mercury. The chemical battery that we built last month is attached to the other end of the wire.

Keeping my footsteps silent so that I do not ruin his concentration, I walk over and hang my party coat on the rack next to the kitchen counter. Then I remove my deck of cards and the hidden gadgets and set them on the dinner table without making a sound.

The leftover chicken on the table kick starts a series of hungry grumbles in my stomach, and I ease quietly into a chair.

“You’re home late tonight,” my father says as I pick up my silverware. Calm and steady, his voice makes me flinch nevertheless.

A smile, perhaps the easiest one I have had to wear all night, crosses my face as I tear into the chicken. “After the feast, the Tsar practically demanded that I repeat my show tonight,” I tell him between mouthfuls of food. “The man, for the life of him, couldn’t seem to understand how I lifted a card by using a piece of string. Good God, I had to demonstrate the one trick at least five times.”

My father turns from his vials of chemicals covering his table and chuckles at me. “Be careful not to get too complex,” he says. “You know the Tsar’s temper, how quickly it escalates when he cannot figure a problem out. You know the length of his frustrations.”

I nod, remembering the time that the Tsar stuck his sword through a minister’s throat, the cause being the man’s inability to explain the new land reform plan in terms that the Tsar could understand. In the end the Tsaritsa was forced to intervene, tranquilizing the Tsar’s temper by revising the dead minister’s words into a step-by-step overview that even a child could comprehend.

“How is the rotation magnet coming along?” I ask my father, changing the subject.

My father sighs and walks over to the dinner table, pours himself a glass of dry wine. “I have a good measure of mercury, and the wire does a good job of transporting current. But the magnet inside the mercury does not seem to be strong enough to rotate the second copper wire and the magnet it is attached to.”

“Really?” Taking a sip of wine to wash down the chicken in my mouth, I wipe my face and my hands before moving to the table where the mercury beaker is placed. “Does the magnet need to be electrically conductive?”

My father shakes his head. “As soon as it is attached to the battery, the wire should rotate freely.”

I frown and recheck the wire attached to the chemical battery.

“It is okay, Stefan,” my father says. “It is late. We will work on it tomorrow morning. Your next performance for the Tsar and his guests is not for another three days, yes?”


After the show that I put on tonight, forcing me to be jumping and dancing around for a full three hours, my feet are feeling tired, my back sore. “Tomorrow, we will work together on this. Perhaps there is something wrong with the force perpendicular to the electric loop in the current of the wire. I can take the circuit apart in the morning and have a look.”

My father smiles, setting a hand on my shoulder. “Why don’t you wash up and go to bed early tonight, hmm?” he says. “It seems that you are always lacking sleep.”

“I’m fine,” I lie, waving his words away. “Go ahead and go to bed. I’ll clean up everything out here.”

My father’s eyes sweep the room, moving from the leftover food on the table to the vials and beakers of chemicals in the lab area.

Finally he speaks. “The gold from the Tsar is coming in less and less each week.”

After a moment I lower my eyes from his gaze. “I know.”

“You are slipping from his favor?”

I know that this question has been on the rim of his mind for a long time now, but I do not know how else to answer except: “I will improve.”

My father nods, and before retiring to the bedroom, he says in that familiar, quiet voice of warning, “Be careful, Stefan.”

And the door shuts with a soft click.

I sit by myself in the dark emptiness for a minute or so, sifting through the events that happened earlier tonight. In my mind, I go through all the moments when the Tsar appeared bored, frustrated. Why is it that I do not pick up on the Tsar’s unenthusiastic behaviors until after the chance to improve has passed?

A sigh escapes from me, as I ease out of my chair and proceed to clean up the work area in the main room. But my thoughts are still wound around my father’s earlier comments.

Can it be? Am I starting to dig my own grave?

The soft knock at the door pulls me back to the present.

Frowning, I walk to the door and flip open the peephole. Who comes to someone’s door at midnight?

I see no one out in the corridor, so I turn around and go back to my clean-up work. All this thinking, scrutinizing the Tsar’s mind, it must be messing with my senses.

I’m in the process of returning the loose magnets back to my father’s box when another knock bleeds through the wooden door.

The knock then escalates into an impatient knocking.

Irritation rubs at me, and I stride back over and yank open the door. “Who in God’s name has the audacity to—”

I pause for a moment when I see no one standing before me—at least, no one at eye level.

“Good evening, Stefan,” the Tsarevich greets me, his voice soft, composed. “I’m sorry if I have woken you.” However the look on the young boy’s face tells me that his words are empty.

Sighing, I step away from the door and wave the boy in. I may be tired and annoyed with myself, but even now I must not forget to mind my manners.

“What can I do for you, dear Tsarevich?” I ask as the Tsarevich takes a seat in the room.

The Tsarevich does not answer at first, but takes a thorough look around the room he has just entered, taking in the velvet red draperies hung around the window, the maple wood floors covered by a large soft rug of vivid colors and images.

I imagine that the boy’s own room is at least two or three times as grand as mine, with servants waiting on him in the shadows.

But young Nicholas makes no comment of my living quarters when he opens his mouth to speak. “Papa would not let me watch, after dinner, when you showed him how you faked all your magic tricks.”

I nod. “Yes, the Tsar likes to learn in private.”

“That’s what he does, then? Learn… tricks?” The boy’s voice almost sounds condescending, and for a moment I have to stop and wonder whether an ten-year-old knows how to patronize.

I brush the Tsarevich’s tone off and answer “Yes” with a patient smile, hoping that the boy will leave soon. But part of me is curious. “Why have you come here so late, Tsarevich?”

Nicholas shrugs. “I, well, I wanted to know where you learned these tricks,” he finally says.

I quickly compose myself so that the boy will not see my surprise. “That is a very intelligent question,” I tell him, taking the chair across the table. In fact, there is a question that, surprisingly, the Tsar has never asked.

But then again, all the Tsar cares for is control—this much I knew from the moment I met the man. As long as he sits firmly on his throne of absolute rule, he only seeks to understand so that he can fully dictate a situation or, in my case, the activities of my performances. Most men are no better.

His son, on the other hand…

“To start,” the Tsarevich’s voice floats back into my thoughts, “you must explain the basis of your assorted gadgets to me. I have been to virtually all the courts of Europe these last three years, Britain and France and even Austria, and I have never laid eyes on these inventions that you displayed today.”

A smile slowly spreads from one end of my mouth to the other. “Are you sure you are only ten years old?” I ask.

Nicholas returns the smile.

Reaching over the table between us, I grab the elastic cord and suction cup that I attached to the inside of my sleeve earlier.

“I came up with this mechanism myself,” I say, flicking the elastic cord. “It must look so simple to you, just an elastic string and a miniature suction cup glued together.”

Nicholas moves near the edge of his seat and takes a closer look. “Well, yes, what is so complicated about this?”

“Timing,” I answer. “Timing is everything.”

I grab a small teacup next to me and attach it to the suction cup. “You see, it all has to do with simple physical rules that the world abides by. Retracting the elastic string so that an object moves swiftly up the arm without bouncing against the sleeve next to the elbow, it is more than technique.”

The Tsarevich frowns. “Then what is it?”

I fight down a smile as I answer, “Science.”


After I finish my demonstrations, the clock has already passed two. If one takes a close look outside the window, one will find the black abyss staring back.

Still the young Tsarevich seems wide-awake, and by now, I do not feel like sleeping either.

“Stefan,” Nicholas says as he walks to the door.

“Yes, dear Tsarevich.”

“I approve of you.”

I smile and open the door. It is not the boy’s approval that I need, unfortunately, but his father’s. However, I do not hesitate to say thank you.

“Hours ago, during your performance, I didn’t think anything of your magic tricks and your jokes. I thought you were just another court jester with a new set of tricks, a new coat of paint on an old title.” Nicholas pauses and then says, “I have more questions for you, but at another time.”

“And I will be happy to address them,” I answer, and wave goodbye at the boy as he slips out the door, footsteps careful and silent.

A strange feeling overtakes me as I watch him make his way down the corridor, edging along in the shadows to avoid the eyes of guards standing in the main hall.

In a few hours’ time, the Tsarevich asked me deeper, more intelligent questions than his father had in two years.

To the Tsar, a box was drawn long ago for him to move inside the lines, where folly such as mathematics and the laws of physics does not and will not ever exist. The only outcome of trying to distort the Tsar’s carefully set lines is a shameful public death.

But in the Tsarevich I see a spark of hope for this dangerous idea called science to grow in Russia.

Perhaps, with a little molding, Nicholas will grow up to finally modernize his country when he ascends the throne.

Soon the boy’s shadow disappears from view, and I step back into my room and shut the door.

It is strange how quickly sleep can overcome you in a quiet empty room.

The residue thoughts about the Tsarevich scatter away, and, yawning, I enter the bedroom and climb into bed.

My eyes close as soon as my head hits the pillow, and I begin to drift into slumber.


“Stefan, did we have a visitor here last night?” my father asks as we eat breakfast the next morning. “I heard multiple voices outside, after I went to bed.”

I rip a piece of bread from the loaf on the table and dip it into the egg yolk on my plate. “Yes, my we did have a visitor,” I answer. Then, after a pause, “Nicolas, the Tsarevich.”

My father’s eyebrows shoot up, and he sets down his silverware. “The Tsar’s young heir, who just returned to the palace?”

I do not need to answer, and my father continues. “What did the Tsarevich want of you?”

“The same thing his father always wants,” I say. “Answers, explanations.”

“The boy is as curious as his father, hmm?”

Shaking my head, I tell him, “The young Tsarevich is curious, yes, but there is so much more to the boy than simple curiosity. The Tsar’s curiosity grows from the desire to control. But Nicholas, he is not the iron-fisted monarch that his father is, but a thinker, an intellectual.”

“He must get it from his mother.”

“Well, it does not matter where the boy inherited the trait,” I say. “Last night, I tried to explain to the Tsarevich the relation between time and velocity at a constant acceleration.”

My father chuckles at me. “The boy is only ten or so,” he says. “Even his father would not understand such reality-stretching concepts.”

“Ahh, but Nicholas catches on fast. And he’s interested, and creative with the things that I teach him.” I let out a deep breath and peer out the window behind me, watching the morning sun climb up over the rolling hills, casting a warm yellow glow over the grounds of the palace. “When he takes the throne, science may have hope again.”

The look on my father’s face is one of disbelief.

“Why not?” I ask. “Modern medicine will no longer be regarded as poisonous magic. The harnessing of electricity will not be seen as a current of death anymore, but something that will generate power and energy for mankind for generations to come.”

My father says nothing in response for a few long moments, as he stares at me, me at him.

And then he picks his fork back up and cuts into the leftover chicken from last night.

Just when I think that he is going to disregard my comment, he lifts his eyes up from his plate again and says, “You are getting ahead of yourself, son. It takes a lifetime to catch a glimpse of the future, yours or someone else’s, and by then time will have already run out.”

His words make my insides cringe, but he does not seem to notice the pained look on my face, for he adds more to his statement. “A few hours spent with the young Tsarevich means nothing. Teaching him is a waste of time as well. By now his father’s values and fears are so ingrained into him that it has become part of his own identity.”

I shake my head. “He is impressionable.”

“And yet he is and will always be the son of the Tsar. You cannot erase ideas imprinted in one’s blood.”

“So what do you want me to do?”

“Nothing,” my father answers as he takes another bite of chicken. “The path we are traveling now will lead us to our destination sooner or later, guided by patience and understanding and, eventually, Russia’s acceptance. Do not divert off the path in search of a shortcut, Stefan.”

I sigh, but there really is not anything I can say but, “Yes, Father.”

My father smiles at me, then rises from the table. “Your main priority is to keep the money flowing, so that we can continue to work on our project. “ He gestures to the half-finished electromagnetic motor sitting on the table across the room. “Leave the politics of our problems to me.”


A couple nights later, when I open the door and find Nicholas standing before me again, I hesitate before letting him in, keeping my father’s words of warning close to mind.

But my father is already in bed, his brain tired from tinkering all day with the magnets on the motor.

And as a subject of the royal court, I do not have the right to deny the Tsarevich entry into my room anyway.

“When is your next performance, Stefan?” Nicholas asks, turning to me as I close the door, after checking outside to see if the Tsarevich was followed.

Not a soul stands in the corridor, and as I squint into the spiraling darkness, I see that, tonight, even the palace guards are not patrolling the main hall.

“I’m schedule for the day after tomorrow,” I answer the boy, then continue with a question of my own. “What brings you here again, dear Tsarevich?”

Nicholas shrugs, plopping down on the chair next to the table scattered with magnets, assorted wires, and screws.

His hand brushes over the large central magnet, wires and secondary magnets and all.

I flinch as he lifts up the half-finished motor, and I reach out to take it from him. “You don’t want to touch this, Tsarevich,” I say as I set the large magnet and its attachments back on the table. The cold clammy fist, formed in my stomach, slowly unclenches.

“What is it?” Nicholas asks, pointing to the central magnet, almost the size of his outstretched hand.

A two-word answer suffices. “My project.” There is no need to tell him that I have worked on perfecting this motor for two full months now, many nights without sleep, some nights with three of four hours of rest. There is no need to tell him where exactly the motor is going, that an invention like this will never survive in the Tsar’s regime.

And this afternoon, it was finished. The motor works, and the satisfaction of watching it perform what it was meant to perform… it stands unmatched.

“Project?” Nicholas echoes, eyes brightening as he takes a closer look at the materials on the table before him. “What kind of project? Is it for your magic show?”

I let out a chuckle as I think about the potential consequences of unveiling the homopolar motor to the entire royal court and, even better, attempting to explain the inner workings of the electricity-harnessing device to the Tsar.

“No, it is not for a show,” I reply, and pause, carefully studying the ten-year-old boy. I remember my father’s words from a few nights ago, warning me not to meddle in affairs that are not my concern.

But what harm can come out of educating a curious boy?

After a long exhale, I motion for Nicholas to scoot over so that I can handle the motor. A weave of copper wires and two small magnets sandwiching the central one, the motor is still missing a top and a storage unit for the alkaline, now sitting in a vial in liquid form. However I can still explain the basics of this device—the theoretical basics, anyway.

“This is my own invention, what I call a homopolar motor,” I begin. “To understand how it works, you must first become familiar with a few, ahh, laws of the universe.”

“Yes, the last time I visited, you told me one.”

“Indeed I did,” I reply. “Falling from the same distance, all objects, no matter their mass, will hit the earth at the same time.”

Nicholas nods. “Because a strange pulls them equally. Gravity… from the core of the earth.”

“Gravity is constant, yes. Now…” I pause and think for a moment before continuing. “Here, allow me to show you something,” I finally say.

Nicholas moves closer to me as I pick up two small magnets from the work desk, one in each hand. They are leftover parts, meant to be scrapped tomorrow.

“Take one,” I say, handing the boy a magnet.

Nicholas spins the metal disk around in his little hand, his eyebrows stitched into a frown. “What is this strange object, Stefan?”

“It is a gift, Tsarevich, from me to you.”

He looks up at me, and an easy smile crosses his face. “If this is a gift indeed,” he said, and pauses, “then we are now friends. You may call me Nicholas—in private, of course.”

I shake my head. “But you do not even know what I have just given you, do you?”

“That does not make this any less of a gift,” Nicholas insists. “Now educate me.”

I hold up the magnet in my own hand. “Hold the disk loosely, but do not move it—it is a magnet, as the Austrians call it.”

The Tsarevich obeys as I move my own magnet closer, closer.

“Are you holding it loosely?” I ask.


I moved the magnet forward one more inch before I feel the magnet’s force pull the disk right out from the Tsarevich’s fingers.

The boy’s eyes widen. He opens his mouth to speak, but no words come out.

I smile at the shock on his face, those lips struggling to formulate questions.

I pull the two magnets apart, then push them back together again.

“Okay…” I hand the two attached disks to him. “Separate the two.”

He does as I ask.

“Turn one of the magnets around, then try to make the two stick together again.”

Nicholas tried and retried for almost two minutes, shoving the two disks together. But the moment the magnets manage to touch, and the boy relinquishes his force, the two fly apart again, and Nicholas has to retrieve them and start again.

“This… this is evil, Stefan,” the Tsarevich finally says, tossing the magnets back onto the table.

My blood runs cold at the word. Evil, synonymous to magic. The utterance of the word, to the Tsar at least, leads only to death.

“What is the meaning of this? Why does it not stick, like before?”

Nicholas is not his father, I tell myself before opening my mouth to speak. The boy will listen to reason. “Let me explain,” I say with a smile, again picking up the two magnetic pieces.

“You probably don’t know this—and with the doors of Russia so tightly closed, let’s face it, neither does anyone else—but this little disk right here…” I hold up the magnet so that its top face reflects the light from the candles on the windowsill. “It can surround itself with an extremely powerful wall called a magnetic field…”


I take a drink of my ale, then another. The bubbling liquid stings my throat as it goes down, but I have learned that the smile on my face seems less forced when I have a little alcohol in me to blur reality’s edges.

Looking out from one of the dining hall’s balconies, I see the gibbous moon playing hide-and-seek with me through the trees lining the paved path leading up to the front doors of the palace. The Tsar’s guards march up and down the wide road, each of them organized in uniform lines.

I let out a sigh as a warm autumn breeze blows through, sweeping a few strands of loose hair into my eyes.

Shaking my hair back into place, I polish off the last of my ale in one big drink.

Through the rim of the glass, I notice a woman striding toward me in a dress that ends at her ankles. Her arms are sleeved—as is customary—through there is a revealing opening at her center that highlights the curve where her breasts meet.

“Tsarista, good evening.” I set my empty glass down on balcony’s stone railing and bow before her.

Smiling at me, she bears an understanding that has no need for words, as words just as often confuse ideas as convey them. Long ago I realized that she is capable of anything. Capable, even of standing behind a man and ruling a country by whispering in his ear.

The Tsarista, logically, should stir more fear than her husband. Luckily the human race is not a logical one.

“My son is fascinated with you,” she finally says, turning to me. Her crystal eyes flash and spark like dying blue flames.

“I’m honored that he is even the least bit interested in my toys.”

There is no change in the Tsarista’s expression, but that absence of reaction feels more uncomfortable to me as we sit here on the balcony, the voices of the others scattered loosely in the background like forgotten marbles on the floor.

“The Tsar may think that your inventions are mere toys, props for your performances… but please, let us not bring the lies of the court into our conversation.”

“I now see where the Tsarevich inherited his straightforward mannerisms.”

The Tsarista slowly brushes her hand over the stone railing, over the thousands of twinkling lamps lighting up the city below. “There is a world outside Russia, a beautiful, modernizing world that is growing like the desire of a hungry organism. I am not ignorant. The greatest evil one will can ever commit is ignorance.”

“We are in agreement.”

“This evil is rivaled only, perhaps, by the encouragement of ignorance, its tolerance and fostering.”

She does not bother to turn and meet my gaze, nor does she need to. “Do not ask me to explain or elaborate,” she says, her voice pure and gentle like red satin, making me suffer more shame than I ever have. “If you do not understand, then you are not the man, the scientist, that I held you to be.”

I lower my head, saying nothing.

And so the Tsarista words my thoughts for me. “You’re afraid,” she says.

“Only a fool is not, if he walked in my shoes, or did what I have to do to survive.”

“And what is it that you’re afraid of? That the Tsar will take your life?”

“I have more burdens than my own life.” I push tears from pooling out of my eyes and look up, and forgetting for a moment that we are not equals, forgetting my role and her role in this unconcluded Winter Palace play, I tell her, “My life is worth nothing.”

“Neither are those of the millions of peasants in the Russian Empire—or so I’m told. But there is one thing, one thing that makes a common man into a great one, something even virtuous enough to dilute the encouragement of ignorance.”

With a soft scoff, I say, “If you do not tell me, a hundred years from now, I will be in the same exact state of puzzlement and curiosity.”

The Tsarista smiles. “Self-sacrifice, my dear Stefan,” she replies. “Self-sacrifice. Sacrifice of ego, of responsibility, of civilization and expectations.”

Silence follows, encircling the two of us in a vortex that reflects all attempts at forming and articulating words, that which mutilates a perfect idea.

Finally I swallow the thought, and our eyes meet. The intensity of her stare sends a slight chill up my spine, but I make no mention of that. “A simple and yet original answer. How rare.”

“I could sit here and lecture you about courage, bravery, and heroism, perhaps even dabble a bit in destiny, if you wish,” the Tsarista says. “But when one look at himself closely in the mirror, he will see a coward. If not a coward, then a fool. Every man, every woman, is one or the other.” Her last words float out softly in a whisper.

And before I can find the right reply, she rises from her seat like a strand of smoke rises from the end of a flame, and she walks toward the open double doors separating the balcony and the dining hall. But it is more than a dining hall, than a throne room and greeting hall and bedrooms and courtyards. It is an alien world of silk dresses and glittering jewels and endless wine in shimmering glasses, where rubies stud the walls and children skip and run with bright eyes of life, not knowing of those their age who slave day and night in the fields and the sides of the road, robbed even of the capacity to dream of life behind the palace walls.

Sticking my hand in the left pocket of my coat, I fish through the pulleys, springs, sticky tacks, until my fingers curl around a heavy rectangle of a battery, about the size of my palm. The attached copper wires brush across my skin. A disk magnet, thicker and a little longer than the battery, weighs down the bottom-lining of my pocket.

I take out the entirety of the homopolar motor, staring. The Tsarista’s words seemed to reconstruct something inside of me, a desire that I put to rest long ago.

Here, as the fool magician of the royal Russian court, for a few moments I will hold the attention of powerful individuals.

And I want to teach them. I want to teach, as I have been able to teach the young Tsarevich.

But again, my father’s words hit me with the force of a ocean wave:

Beyond our work, everything in the Winter Palace is just a beautiful illusion, waiting to be ripped to pieces with one wrong step.

“Magician, hurry!” urges one of the servant boys, perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age. He steps across the threshold of the balcony, shattering through my wall of thoughts. “Performance time has come.”

Sighing, I drop the motor back into my pocket, grab my glass of ale and stand up. It takes all of my will to step back into the dining hall. Give me hell, give me a simple torture, anything but this gnawing, tearing dismemberment of the soul.

My eyes taking a sweep of the hall, all I see is ignorance. Ignorance, in its most refined, polished form. The Tsarista’s words come back to me.

There is one thing, one thing that makes a common man into a great one, something even virtuous enough to dilute the encouragement of ignorance.

But can I afford self-sacrifice? I must survive, so that I can continue with my science.

And shall I survive by adapting to my surroundings like an animal? Or shall I adjust my surroundings to suit myself, as man has done for centuries?


Laughter and remnant comments echo off the walls of the dining hall. The children inch up close, doing their best to see through my tricks. The boys are dressed in army uniforms, clearly tailored to match those of their fathers. The girls wear flowing dresses of red and purple and airy blue, with matching bows and clips and bracelets and necklaces. However it is their eyes that give away how important they are, and how they know this and use this power.

Behind them their parents stand making conversation with one another, one eye involved in chatting or watching my performance or tracking their children. The other eye, of course, is studying the expressions of the Tsar.

I’m lying if I pretend that I am not doing the same.

“Show us another, another!” the children demand after I make a bag of gold coins float over their heads. The hour before, I arranged to thread a thin string through a coin glued to the side of the fabric bag. The string sits on the edge of a chandelier lamp now, one end in the bag, the other wrapped gently around my forefinger, acting like a pulley. Before the dinner, I even adjusted the lighting so that the string will not be visible to those standing below, and then I marked out its location on the dining room floor.

Flicking my wrist, the string unravels from my finger, disappearing against a three-dimensional lacquer of glittering light.

As I turn, my peripherals catch the expression on the Tsar’s face. Sitting with the Tsarist on his left and the young Nicholas on his right, a ringed hand resting loosely around a gold cup, the Russian ruler picks at the rim of his plate without even looking at me.

Once in a while he will raise his head to see that I am still performing, but his eyes do not seem as attentive as they once were. He looks preoccupied tonight, everyone can see the worry on his face. Or perhaps the look on his face is one of boredom.

It is my job to whisk away his worry, to never, ever bore the Tsar.

And it seems as if I am failing. I am slipping from favor indeed.

Again I feel the homopolar motor pressed against my side, heavy like a stone boulder.

By now I am down to my last couple of tricks, and I know that I cannot end the performance like this. The dead air around me is deafening, as pairs and pairs of eyes fixate on me, waiting.

When I make eye contact with the Tsarista, she stares back at me but gives away nothing. I expect as much.

Nicolai, on the other hand, his gaze has not left me for a moment, urging me to continue. He and his father, they are so much alike, I realize as I examine them side-by-side.

“I have one last act,” I raise my voice. At the beginning my voice quavers, cutting off in the silence before reaching the back of the hall. “It is not a trick or a game, however.”

The Tsar frowns.

“Allow me to unveil something, a personal invention of mine and mine alone.” I stress the last two words so that they ring clear. If events go awry, I must secure my father’s safety, his virtue and good name.

And with that, I motion for the servants to bring forth a table.

Every nerve under my skin is begging to burst open and explode, but in defiance, my hands are steady as ever as they set the contents of the motor on the table. Battery, wires, magnets, all arranged and put together.

The Tsar shifts in his seat.

At this point, the only presence I feel in the room is he and I.

“Blow out the lamps,” I order, my voice even.

No one makes a motion to stop these events, and so the servants do as I tell them.

Darkness wraps the room like a tight embrace, pressing me on all sides. Warm and comfortable, the absence of light destroys the meaning of rubies and diamonds and other jewels, and for a moment, every beating heart in the room is an equal to its neighbor.

My fingers curl around the central magnet and adjust it toward the battery. Even in the pitch black, I recognize every groove and notch of the battery, the hairs of the copper wires.

“My Tsar, my Tsarista, dear Tsarevich, and the rest of the esteemed royal court… may I present to you the homopolar motor.”

I align the magnet and the battery, and the copper wires begin to rotate. Slowly at first, dim and soft, then faster and faster like a pair of angry, coiling lashes. An orange, glowing orb spins to take form on the table, tall as a newborn but brighter than any lamp of any size in the palace.

Using the bright light emitted from the motor, I take in the look of pure shock on the Tsar’s face. His hand is gripping his cup so tightly that I can see the white of his knuckles.

From all around, people begin to find their voices, each one voicing questions louder than the one previous.

“What, dear God, is this?”

“It looks like some type of container of fire.”

“It’s magic!”

I keep a smile pressed to my lips, and softly I reply, “It is electricity. An electric current. With this, one day man will harness mass amounts of energy.”

Whispers snake around the hall in the dark, and as they talk amongst themselves, I continue to stare at the motor before me. Simple, but beautiful, as all things should be.

Through the ocean of fragmented words, the Tsar’s voice cuts across like a knife. “Turn on the lights.”

It is an invisible order to shut off the homopolar motor, which I obey immediately.

Strangely the fear inside me is nowhere to be found. I feel hollow as light floods back into the dining hall, annoyingly weak in comparison to the glow of the motor. Even as I turn to meet the Tsar’s gaze, and see the layers of rage in front of terror in front of utter confusion on his face… regret cannot touch me.

“What is this, Stefan?” the Tsar says, a tone of steel.

“This is a breakthrough,” I answer without feeling the weight of my words. “This motor will be replicated and altered and expanded and be used to conduct electricity throughout Europe.”

A second look at the Tsar’s face tells me that no explanation will make him understand.

“Is this magic?” The Tsar looks to his wife, who sits and says nothing.

He then turns to me and repeats the question. “Is this black magic?”

Collectively the people beside me shift a step back, as if my blood is already pooling over the floor, inching toward them.

“It is science,” I answer quietly. “It is the most perfect language of them all. It is dictated by the laws of the world, laws that surpass you and I, embracing the most powerful of men and the purest of children.”

The Tsar scoffs and lowers his head.

As he sits, refusing to meet my gaze, I turn to find Nicholas sitting with his eyes barely peeking over the long dining table. The eyes of the young boy are widening with realization as he looks at me, then at his father, then back at me.

The Tsar raises a hand, and the guards on either side of the table stir to life.

“Seize him,” he says.

The guards stride forth in three quick steps and twist my arms behind my back.

Their pressure makes my ankles buckle, and I find myself kneeling.

“No, Papa, you mustn’t!” Nicholas jumps out of his seat and scrambles forward, all the while shouting justifications. “You have him mistaken. Stefan is not practicing magic, he isn’t! He is innocent.”

But before the boy can reach me, a servant grabs Nicholas by his arms and firmly holds him back.

The Tsarista does nothing, says nothing.

“You know the consequences of practicing black magic,” the Tsar says, seeming to address the entire court. And then he focuses on me. “You, of all people…”

He shakes his head and says to me, “Is there anything you wish to say to me? Stefan, I am afraid that, after tonight, we will not speak again. You will not ever speak again.”

The words are supposed to scare me, I know, and yet I am not moved.

But I do have something to say. “If you say this is black magic, then so be it. None of my protests can change your mind.” My eyes travel the room, examining the expressions of those around me. “But I alone am responsible for this creation. A fair ruler would punish only the one at fault and leave the innocent in peace.”

The Tsar does not refute my statement and, despite Nicholas’ tearful protests, casts down the order that seals my fate. “Lock him in a cell. Tomorrow, he is to be executed at noon.”


Father does not come to see my head resting on a wooden tree stump, my hands tied behind my back, my knees pressed hard to the execution stage. The floorboards feel like they’re on fire beneath me.

Kneeling here while the glaring sun inched to the highest point in the sky, I wonder where Father is right now. Probably packing his bags and escaping the city, the country. He is cursing me, disappointed in the reckless idiocy of his only child.

At least the motor will make it to the rest of Europe.

From behind, the executioner sharpens his sword on a block of stone, once in a while taking a drink of vodka and then spitting the liquid over the blade. The sound makes my skin tingle. Over and over he scrapes the sword against stone, keeping a perfect metronome as noon approaches.

As I listen, I take a look at the peasants gathered below to watch the execution. Different clothes, different words, a different atmosphere, but the expressions on their faces all just the same as the expressions I am accustomed to facing in the Winter Palace.

And then the steady sound of metal to stone ceases.

“The time has arrived,” the announcer speaks.

I hear the executioner’s heavy feet edging toward me, can feel the cold of a phantom blade on the nape of my neck.

Meanwhile the announcer continues to address the crowd below the stage. “Today, Stefan the Court Magician is to die for the use of black magic, for attempting to bewitch the Tsar and the royal court.”

My eyes close, and my ears tune out.

What is to become of this country in the next hundred years?

What does it take to wake a country from a deep, ignorant dream?

When I open my eyes again, a figure appears before me. Blurry at first between a layer of my tears, but as I blink repeatedly, the boy’s face focuses into view.

He is not wearing any outfit that distinguishes him as the royal Tsarevich. And at the moment, he is not looking at me as the announcer goes on about the crimes of black magic, including its history and its consequences.

In his hands the Tsarevich holds the two magnets that I gave him, his face scrunched in concentration as he attempts to squeeze two positive ends together.

Looking not too far from Nicholas, I see the Tsarista standing behind the crowd of people, also dressed in commoner’s clothes. Her eyes do not leave mine as she looks at me without a smile or an apologetic indication. But as I stare at her, her at me, a surge of power begins to flow into my blood. The strength warms every cold sensation in my body.

“Do you have any last words?” the voice invades me.

I look back to Nicholas, who by now has lifted his gaze. He gives me an encouraging smile, one to which I reply, “It is not easy for power in defense of morals and virtues to triumph over power on behalf of tyranny and oppression. It takes power of the heart to make it so.”

Nicholas seems to understand, and he reaches out and wraps his fingers around his mother’s.

The Empire will be in good hands.

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