After the revolution, a soldier gives Ruta Lato the peacoat that belonged to President Ales Wiatr. It is still spotted with the president’s blood—and her sister Jadzia’s, a testament to the violence that until recently had consumed the small country of Kerna.
Some call Kerna the seven-times kingdom, but despite this impressive title, it goes largely ignored by all save for the most fastidious of cartographers. And why not? Perhaps magic once existed in Kerna, but now it is a place where firebirds are more likely to be seen in museums, stuffed and moldering, than in gardens. What little interest the rest of the world had in the country had died off when the USSR collapsed and the Russians left their tanks and fragmented ideology behind, abandoning Kerna in favor of capitalism.
Ruta herself can hardly blame the world for its apathy. Marzanna, the lady of blood and winter, had been the first queen of Kerna, and her patronage had doomed it to be a nation of ghosts as well as wonders. No one knows this more than Ruta herself; she can almost feel the dead clinging to her lashes and fingertips like snowflakes.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Ruta asks, running her hand across the sleeve of the bloody jacket. She feels as if she had just been presented a dead sparrow by a cat, one now seeking her approval of his grisly prize. Is this a misguided attempt to appease her grief?
“We were talking about putting it in a museum. You know, as a historical artifact. But we decided it should belong to you,” the soldier says with a shrug. He has a chiseled jaw and dark, tousled hair that looks like the feathers of a blackbird. But even if Ruta had been interested in boys, his gift of the peacoat still would have blackened her assessment of his character.
Ruta sighs. They should have washed her sister’s blood off of the coat before giving it to her. “I don’t want it,” she says and tries to thrust the bundle back at the soldier.
“I’m supposed to give it to you,” he says. “Gregory Kruszon himself gave the order.”
Ruta does not care for Kruszon, the face of the revolution, or his orders. But in the end, she takes the coat. Winter has closed its jaws around the country, and warm clothing is scarce; she must take what she can get in Kerna.
She is not too proud for that.
* * *
Ruta goes to live with Dimitri, who is her uncle by the happy accident of friendship rather than blood. But that does not make his house any less warm or his demeanor any less affable. He makes Ruta cups of smoky black tea and serves stack upon stack of buckwheat pancakes stuffed with salmon and fat dollops of sour cream. It is the food of comfort and love.
Ruta is grateful for both. She finds the world severely lacking in those forces as of late.
“How was the funeral?” Dimitri asks. “I wanted to come myself, but you know. . . . The train lines. Most are still in ruins. I heard Wiatr had them blown up to stall Kruszon and your sister when they were marching on the capitol. I was afraid you wouldn’t be able to get here yourself.”
Ruta shrugs. She blows a puff of air into her teacup to cool it, hoping the pause will give her time to assemble her thoughts. “It was a funeral,” she says at last. “It was all very grand. Everyone saluted her and wore their biggest hats and their nicest furs. The eulogy made Jadzia seem like someone from a myth. They’re even going to name a street after her.”
“That’s. . . . That’s good,” Dimitri says. “Jadzia was very loved. And very brave. She deserves it, after all she did for this country.”
“Yes,” Ruta says.
She does not add that her sister abandoned her to become a war hero, and that she will never forgive Jadzia for it.
* * *
Dimitri’s house, welcoming as it is, is also cramped. The only proper room Ruta could sleep in has been colonized by her uncle’s large collection of scholarly texts, and he looks sheepish as he places a pile of bedding in her arms.
“I’ll clean out my office in the next few days, I promise. I hope you don’t mind sleeping in the attic until then,” Dimitri tells her. “There’s a mattress up there, and I’m sure that I can find a bed frame somewhere in town. People are selling off whatever they can’t burn for fuel nowadays.”
“I’m sure I’ll be comfortable,” Ruta says.
The attic is indeed as pleasant and snug as Dimitri claimed, and the doves that have made their home the rafters coo in greeting as Ruta hoists herself up from the trapdoor. But she is too tired to appreciate their songs or the soft, pink light of the setting sun creeping through the gaps in the siding. Ruta collapses onto the straw mattress in the far corner and is asleep within moments.
A rather large part of Ruta hopes she will not wake up.
She is roused in the middle of the night by a string of curses muttered by a man who clearly has just bashed his shin on the miscellaneous flotsam of life Dimitri has accumulated.
Her uncle must have come upstairs to check on her, Ruta thinks, and sits up. No thief would ever bother with the house, not when the thin chickens in the yard and the porch sagging with rot are clearly visible from the roadside.
But when her eyes adjust to the gloom, she sees that the intruder is not Dimitri.
It is Ales Wiatr.
Wiatr was a large man in life, but in his dark suit and tie, he seems so massive that Ruta believes he could swallow the moon if he were inclined to.
“You’re Jadzia’s sister, aren’t you?” Wiatr said. “The other Lato girl. The living one.”
Ruta squeezes her eyes shut. After this nightmare, she will greet the waking world with a smile; it may be as gray and hopeless as the words in a newspaper, but at least sister-killing madmen cannot appear in her bedroom there.
Ruta opens her eyes, but Wiatr has not vanished.
“Your sister never struck me as a sentimental person, but even I was touched when I saw that locket with your picture in it,” Wiatr continues, as if appearing in the bedrooms of teenage girls is an ordinary part of his daily routine. “Unless, of course, that was a publicity stunt to make her seem more sympathetic. She could be a bit of a cold fish.”
“What do you want?” Ruta says. Discovering what a ghost wants is the first step toward banishing it, is it not? But more than that, she cannot bear to hear Wiatr talk about Jadzia any longer. Every word he speaks about her is blasphemy in Ruta’s mind.
“I don’t want anything,” Wiatr says. “There are better people to haunt than you.”
Ruta bares her teeth, her earlier terror draining like blood from a wound. Wiatr infuriated her in life, and death seems to have only enhanced her natural response to him. “Then why are you here?” she snaps.
“Because I can’t seem to leave,” Wiatr replies.
“Oh,” Ruta says, just to fill the silence that stretches between them like barbed wire.
It is difficult for her to argue with that.
* * *
The next morning, Wiatr is gone and Ruta entertains the hope that he might have been a nightmare. But when she goes downstairs for breakfast, he is sitting at the kitchen table, surrounded by glass jars of pickled cabbage and plates piled high with buttered toast.
Dimitri, who is occupied with frying slices of ham, does not appear to notice their uninvited guest. “Good morning,” he says brightly. He holds a book in one hand and a spatula in the other, which seems to sum up his character perfectly. Ruta has never been able to condense her own heart in such a manner; she has too many broken pieces for that.
“Morning,” Ruta says and sits down at the table, feeling defeated.
There are, of course, two possible explanations for Wiatr’s presence. One is that the stress of the last few months has finally caused Ruta’s mind to collapse and he is a hallucination. The other is that she is being haunted.
The first appeals to her much more, but there is an undeniable reality to Wiatr. She can smell his cigar—tar, tobacco, herbs from across the sea—over the much more pleasant auras of greasy meat and coffee. She knows the scent will cling to her clothes for days if she allows Wiatr to continue smoking, and she hisses, “Put that out. It’s disgusting.”
Dimitri looks up from his book. “Pardon me?” he asks.
“I. . . . Nothing,” Ruta says quickly. “I was just talking to myself.” But she glares at Wiatr until the dead man sighs and stubs the cigar out on the edge on the table. Rura can hear the wood sizzling beneath its tip, but she sees no evidence of the damage it should have caused.
That is more than can be said of Wiatr himself.
* * *
The cold has driven the villagers inside, leaving deer and rabbits the only occupants of the woods along the fringes of the town. It is the most private place Ruta can think of to go, and Wiatr, bound to her by the inexplicable laws of the dead, follows her.
The trees here are the ones Ruta grew up with, and they are as familiar to her as her Dimitri himself. She takes off one woolen glove so that she can caress the slender trunk of a birch, and for a moment, she is happy. This tree was here when Jadzia and Wiatr were still alive, and Ruta imagines it will still be standing when she has gone to her own grave.
“You have a lovely, warm house and you come out here to wander?” Wiatr asks, and Ruta turns to look at him. He mimics being alive, his breath breaking from his lips in frosty plumes. Do all ghosts cling to this world with such tenacity?
“I can’t talk to you with my uncle around without looking insane,” Ruta says. When she cannot bear the sight of him any longer, she raises her head to watch the tin-colored sunlight spilling through the naked branches of her birch.
“It’s a pity that you’re the only one who can see me,” Wiatr says.
“Who else would you talk to?” Ruta asks. “Everyone you knew is dead and the rest of the country hates you.”
“That apparently isn’t stopping me from hanging around,” says Wiatr. “Anyway, I can’t be a proper government-in-exile with no staff.”
“A government-in-exile?” Ruta says. “You were a tyrant. A monster. You took control in an illegal seizure of power—”
“Much like the one that just took place,” Wiatr says smoothly. “What do you think a revolution is, my dear?”
“Don’t call me that,” Ruta says. “You shot my sister in the head. Don’t ever call me that.”
“I. . . .” Wiatr bursts out laughing. The sound is as foreboding as the church bells that originally announced his death.
“What?” Ruta asks. “What’s so funny?”
Wiatr struggles to recover himself and wipes an imaginary tear from his eye. “I didn’t kill your sister,” he says. “Kruszon did.”
* * *
President Kruszon, newly appointed by the emergency government on the grounds that he served their revolution faithfully, appears on Dimitri’s creaking porch a week after Wiatr’s outrageous declaration.
The pistol that rides against his hip is much smaller than the machine gun he carried in the old world that contained both Wiatr and Jadzia. But to Ruta, his new suit is more alarming than either the pistol or the armed guards hovering behind him. It means he is here on state business, and she has had enough of that for a lifetime.
“I think that it’s time you and I had a conversation,” Kruszon says, and Ruta escorts him wordlessly inside her uncle’s cluttered little house.
Dimitri turns pale as Kruszon passes, but Ruta is accustomed to being in the presence of gods and monsters. Jadzia was not afraid of Kruszon, and she refuses to be either; she will wear her surname as courage, just as she wears Wiatr’s coat. Though privately, she thinks the jacket might be to blame for anchoring the dead tyrant to her.
But a coat is a coat, and Dimitri has no money.
“I’d like to speak to Ruta privately,” Kruszon tells Ruta’s uncle. He removes his leather gloves, and one of the guards steps forward to take them.
“And here he always billed himself as a man of the people, not a bourgeois monster like me,” Wiatr says, smirking. The land of the dead he seems to half-occupy leeches the color from his skin more and more each day, and Ruta wonders how long he will retain even the sepia tones he is composed of now.
However afraid he may be of the new president, Ruta’s uncle opens his mouth to protest against leaving the room, but Ruta speaks before he can.
“It’s all right,” she says to Dimitri. “I want to talk to him.”
* * *
“You killed my sister,” Ruta announces once she and Kruszon are seated.
She expects the new president to react with outrage or dismiss the charge altogether. But Kruszon only finishes lighting his cigarette and waves it as a magician might wave his wand. Indeed, he looks like a man bent on rearranging the universe.
“We needed a martyr,” Kruszon says without shame. “It wasn’t personal, Comrade Lato. I liked Jadzia. She was a good soldier.”
Ruta places her shaking hands on the table to steady them, but there is nothing to be done about the industrial wheeze of her breath as she struggles to speak. If Wiatr has told her the truth about Kruszon and Jadzia, what other truths can he impart onto her like terrible gifts?
“Is that all she was to you?” asks Ruta. “A soldier?”
“We were all soldiers,” Kruszon says. “Anyway, you misunderstand your sister. She loved you, yes. But she wanted to die. If I hadn’t granted her wish, she would have taken her own life inside a year. I can almost guarantee it. She took everything she did to heart, and those are wounds time will not heal.”
“You don’t know that,” Ruta says.
“I do, Comrade Lato. I don’t know how you found out what happened, but I assure you, you’ll be compensated for your loss,” Kruszon says. “We’ll give you a pension for Jadzia’s service. And your uncle tells me you’re bright. It would be no hardship to pay for you to go to university.”
Ruta can hardly believe what Kruszon is saying. “You’re asking me to trade my sister’s life for university?”
“Your sister is already dead,” Kruszon tells her. “You’re trading nothing. As I said, I’m offering you some compensation for your . . . emotional distress.”
Ruta wants to turn him down. She wants to tell him that she cannot be bought with pensions or consolation prizes dipped in blood. She wants to strike him and drive him from her adopted home.
But Wiatr speaks before she can banish Kruszon. “Take it,” he says. “He’ll probably devise some accident for you if you don’t, and money is the most powerful thing in the world. Well, money and books. Get an education and don’t let your uncle starve.” He shrugs his broad shoulders. “If you really hate Kruszon so much, there will eventually be an opportunity to kill him. If you cooperate now, he won’t have any reason to see you as a threat in the future.”
These are devious suggestions, and Ruta has never thought of herself as a devious person. But even through the righteous haze of her anger, what Wiatr says makes perfect sense.
Why die because of Kruszon like her sister?
Ruta purses her lips, which are cracked from the cold. Money will buy more firewood, she reminds herself, and she will no longer bleed for want of warmth. “A lifelong pension,” she says. “A university education—and a flat in the city. And you’ll reinstate Dimitri at the university, too.”
“Wiatr expelled him from his teaching post?” Kruszon says.
Wiatr flinches, his glasses riding up on the bridge of his nose. “Sorry about that,” he says. “If I’d known I would be haunting his house, I would have been a little less . . . hasty about firing him.”
Ruta wishes Wiatr was physical enough to slap, but now is not the time to berate him for past cruelties. “Yes,” she says, her gaze never leaving Kruszon’s. “He taught literature.”
“Surely we can find a place for him at the university again,” says Kruszon, one corner of his mouth rising in a subtle smile. He stands and extends his hand toward Ruta to seal the bargain. “Are we agreed then?”
“Yes,” Ruta says. “We’re agreed.”
* * *
Ruta surrenders a little more of her bodily territory to Wiatr each day. They divide the life that had once been exclusively hers in two, as if she has penned a silent treaty between them.
They share kisses with strangers in the local bar, cups of coffee, and wool scarves. Ruta even allows Wiatr the decadent pleasures of chocolate and cigarettes every second Tuesday.
“You’re different,” Dimitri says to her one spring day when Wiatr is wearing her skin as she often wears his bloody coat. “You didn’t use to smoke.”
“I didn’t use to be a lot of things,” Wiatr says, working Ruta’s mouth like an instrument. Then he closes it around the filter of his cigarette.
Dimitri knows better than to question the whims and shifting temperaments of a teenager. If he is uncomfortable with how low Ruta’s voice sounds, he does not say so. Dimitri gives her a tight smile before shuffling back into the kitchen.
Ruta senses that he is glad to be away from her.
* * *
Ruta goes to university the next fall, her place secured by her promise to President Kruszon. Ruta’s silence also procures her a flat, cramped but far superior to the mice-infested dorms her fellow students live in.
Her classes are not challenging, and the faces of her professors blur together until she cannot say exactly which of the dusty academics teaches each subject. Ruta writes lines from Homer on her arms in Greek while one professor or another imparts nationalistic rhetoric to the blackboard.
Wiatr now has a distaste for said rhetoric and washes the Greek off their skin, his lip curled.
“Are you five? Don’t draw on yourself,” he mutters, lathering their arm in a fine layer of soap.
“You’re one of those conservative old men, aren’t you? The ones who think tattoos will attract demons,” Ruta says sharply.
“Tattoos represent a certain amount of commitment. This is just juvenile,” Wiatr says. He seems insulted by Ruta’s comment, though she does not know whether it is being called old man or conservative that offends him.
A month into her education, Ruta stops going to class, save for the days when there is an exam. She commits herself to Homeric poetry in the sense that she will now be buried with it running up the length of her left arm.
She brandishes the tattoo for Wiatr when the artist removes his needle from the skin, and he rolls his eyes. “At least it’s good poetry,” he says. “Lost is my homecoming. I think you and I understand that sentiment more than most.”
“You disapprove of what I’m doing with my time,” says Ruta. “But how else am I supposed to spend it?”
“I don’t know why you’re being so negative about all of this,” Wiatr says. “I had a wonderful time at university in spite of the dull classes.”
“You started a revolution when you were at university,” Ruta reminds him.
Wiatr grins at her. “Exactly.”
* * *
Ruta wishes she could summon the same political fervor that consumed her sister, but it is not as easy to be a martyr for the cause as Jadzia made it look.
Tonight, Ruta is distracted by a girl named Alexandra and the feel of her breasts pressing against her arm as they weave through the crowded bar down the road from the university. She likes Alexandra, who laughs easily and finds Ruta’s obsession with poetry endearing rather than strange.
“I think you may be in love,” Wiatr whispers.
Ruta stays silent, though she is willing to consider it a possibility. And love is, by far, more interesting than politics.
But it is politics they have come to hear about tonight. Ruta and Alexandra introduce themselves to their fellow students, who greet Ruta with wary awe. Being a revolutionary, they assume, must be a genetic disease.
“I thought things would change,” a girl named Anna says. “You know, when Kruszon deposed Wiatr. He promised to give us back our liberties—but I don’t see them.” She pulls out one empty pocket for emphasis, as if freedom could be folded down to fit in such a space.
“Wiatr was a capitalist pig,” Nicholas says, pausing so that Ruta knows this is a preface to his real thoughts on the subject. “Wiatr was a capitalist pig,” he repeats, “but at least under him, there was bread.”
In a murky corner of the pub, Ruta hears Wiatr bring his fleshy hands together. “Bravo,” he says. How Ruta is able to hear him above the dozen other conversations taking place in the bar defies all reason, but then again, so does Wiatr himself.
“We’re not praising him as a human being of course,” Anna says quickly to Ruta, belatedly realizing that Nicholas’s comment might be offensive to the memory of Jadzia. But Ruta can no longer remember the smell of Jadzia or the exact pitch of her voice.
Her older sister never saw her go to university or get her tattoo, or watched her possibly fall in love with Alexandra.
Jadzia forfeited her place in Ruta’s world when she joined up with Kruszon.
“Nicholas is right,” Ruta says with a shrug. “As it is, Wiatr didn’t kill my sister. Kruszon did.”
She enjoys the stunned silence that follows.
* * *
Ruta grows more substantial, day by day, word by word, inch by inch. She allows herself the normally male pleasure of occupying more space in the world, spreading her legs on the subway to accommodate her newly acquired bulk, and she revels in it.
They revel in it, she and her ghost alike.
This is all part of the conquest.
“You can’t take on a government when a good breeze will blow you away,” Wiatr says. It occurs to Ruta that in fairy tales, food is always the tool the monster employs in his seduction of the heroine. But she and Wiatr are long past their original courtship. After all, she’s known him longer now than anyone save Dimitri.
It is her uncle who looks haunted by her nowadays, just as she is haunted by her sister’s false killer.
“Come home,” Dimitri begs Ruta one day. The café he found her in is anonymous enough that she does not attract a crowd. But there are ink stains running along the ridges of her palms, damning evidence that she has been speaking her mind again.
“Home?” Ruta asks. “To what?”
“This isn’t safe,” Dimitri says, leaning in. “Kruszon will only tolerate so much. Jadzia’s memory protects you, but for how much longer? It wouldn’t be difficult to say you’ve gone mad with grief and have you imprisoned for your own safety.”
“Grief is like a knife,” says Wiatr. His tomb-stale breath grazes the back of Ruta’s neck. “You can either cut yourself on it or use it.”
Ruta does not think he employed her mouth to dispense this bit of grim wisdom to Dimitri, but she can hardly tell these days when he is speaking to her and when he is speaking through her. Either way, it doesn’t matter. Sooner or later, they both echo each other’s splendid and terrible ideas.
“I’m not mad,” Ruta says. “You don’t think so, and neither do the people of this country.”
“They’ll never join you,” Dimitri cautions. “They don’t want to live through another revolution.”
“Do we ration such things now? Are we allowed only one in our lifetimes?” Ruta says, laughing. “I give this new movement credibility. I tell them my sister died for nothing, and they believe it because they love her—and love me for my loss.”
“Sometimes,” Dimitri says, “you sound like Wiatr.”
“Maybe he was right,” says Ruta. “About certain things, anyway.”
* * *
The age of thirty creeps up on Ruta. She has come to measure the passage of time not with coffee spoons but with broken glass and speeches, with the corpses of friends who litter her palace of memory like dead butterflies. Ruta’s shared bones feel a thousand years older than they did on the day Jadzia died, but she has always known what she was getting into.
“Your sister,” Kruszon says when at last Ruta lowers the barrel of her gun to his forehead on the final day of her revolution, “would be disappointed.”
“My sister is dead,” Ruta replies. “She doesn’t get to have an opinion anymore. You made sure of that.”
“Is that all this is, then?” Kruszon asks. “Revenge for stealing something you loved?” He looks up at her, his eyes bright with righteous tears. Ruta wants to strike the sermon from his mouth with the barrel of the pistol.
“You always did think you knew best,” Wiatr says through Ruta, but she bats him away like an unwanted thought before he can speak again.
She imagines that Jadzia was defiant in her last moments, just as the president is now. She must have thrown her head back like a wolf and howled in rage when she realized she was to be sacrificed.
But Ruta is tired, and Ruta does not want to be like her sister.
“You’ve changed,” Kruszon muses with the false wisdom of the damned. Death, Ruta has come to learn, does not enhance one’s perception. Wiatr, for his cleverness, has not become enlightened in the years they have known one another. And if Kruszon decides to haunt some child Ruta herself robbed of a sister to complete the circle, she doubts he will either.
“Unlike you, Kruszon,” Ruta says, “I made peace with my ghosts. I adapted. That alone makes me more powerful than you.”
She pulls the trigger.
As she watches Kruszon’s body slump onto the carpet, Ruta thinks that revolution will always be a snake swallowing its own tail in the country of ghosts.
Marian Rosarum is a fairy tale author and poet who divides her time between Colorado and Miami. She is accompanied on her journeys by her familiar, a black cat named Colonel Brandon, and the many fictional characters populating her imagination. Her work has previously appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Ideomancer, Mirror Dance, and Abyss and Apex. She can be found blogging at marianrosarum.com and on Twitter @marianrosarum.