Citizens of the Empire
Petka, the cobbler, wants the Queen to see his boots. Can he fulfil his heart's desire?
The twenty brown and black horses of the Empress’s Royal Cavalry, urged roughly forward by their riders, plowed through the snowy confection of trees and rocks on the way to Ursk. For a moment the wind ceased, then muttered again as it shook the trees.
“Fast. Faster,” said the captain, his voice rising in anger. His fur coat made him seem large and dark against the sky. His breath a thick steam in the raw air. “Hurry up back there hurry up.”
He pushed at the peasants from the rear of the line with his horse as they stumbled, fell and scrambled up. Then he rode forward.
“Fast. Faster,” the captain snarled. “The Empress does not wait.”
Jonas Petka, the cobbler from Lurska, felt his chest tighten once again. He stopped for a moment until his head cleared, then continued, feet dragging heavily over the hard ruts of the frozen road.
“What a sorry lot, Captain,” said the lieutenant, who rode at his superior’s flank.
“Yes, they are, Lieutenant, but they do their task well. These people always do. You will learn that. Promise them a bowl of soup, and they will do anything.”
The captain reined his horse to a stop. The line shuffled by three hundred tired and poorly clothed peasants, he had to escort to the crossroads between the lowland villages of Ursk and Litvna. The muscled flanks of his battle-trained horse tensed beneath him, hoofs pawing impatiently at the frozen ground as if waiting for the command to charge.
Four horsemen, led by the young lieutenant, circled the small church, which stood outside Ursk. They banged on the roof with their sword handles until the priest stepped out. For a moment he stood as if dazed, then was squeezed in roughly in among the peasants, dropping his eyeglasses to the snow. One of the horsemen toppled a woman into the snow as she ran back for the priest’s glasses. She raised her head once, and then fell still. A rider poked at her with his sword. When she did not move, he rode away. The lieutenant sat in his saddle, looking down at the body. His face was hard and pale, and then he spurred his horse forward. The people of the lowlands stood silently by their gates, watching the file of strange figures cross the log bridge outside their village. Smoke from the village chimneys smudged the sky.
At a signal, the villagers were shoved and pushed as each tried to find footing in the slippery snow behind the priest. Some had their feet wrapped in rags against the cold, some limped, and others walked steadily ahead as if in a trance.
In a large field by a ruined wall, the group straggled to a stop. The soldiers swore and tried to get the peasants and villagers in a line. Petka found himself next to an old woman; her black shawl covered a warty face.
“I come all the way from the Ul River because they promise me a bowl of soup if I serve my Empress,” she said. “I was hungry. But there is no soup, just black bread.”
“I come all the way from Beloskya by the mountains near the steppes,” said Petka,
“That is far.”
“I was promised soup, too. They made me leave my shop. I am Jonas Petka, cobbler. In winter I make boots, in summer I repair them. I did not want to come. I am a poor man.”
The deep snow spilled over the tops of the boots he had made especially for the journey. If the Empress saw them, perhaps she would ask him to make boots for her. Perhaps. The leather was wet, and his feet were numb.
The soldiers formed a line in front of the villagers. For a moment, the wind caught its breath and then howled once more. Fifty of the Empress’s mounted guards and a black and gold carriage lurched into view. At a nod from the leader of the fifty men, the captain gave an order, and the peasants and villagers cheered.
“Cheer, cheer for your Empress. Cheer, cheer for your Benefactor.”
Hands reached out and bodies squeezed up against the Empress’s mounted guard. Their cheering swelled into the wind.
A fat woman in pink waved and smiled from the carriage. Petka’s chest tightened. He grabbed the arm of the woman next to him.
“Let go,” she said. “Let go. I have to cheer, or the soldiers will come.”
She pulled her arm away. Petka lost his footing, fell and rose. Tiny bits of snow glittered on his face. He rose once again, took a step, and then tumbled forward.
The carriage moved away, and the cheering faded. The captain raised his sword, and the soldiers regrouped the peasants as they continued across the lowlands to the next crossroads of the Empress’s journey.
The wind spat, whirled and began its dance again, sifting snow in a cloud of beautiful and sugary dust to the contours of his body as the lieutenant pulled at Petka’s boots.