People from Karen Joy Fowler to John Crowley to Téa Obreht have been praising The Age of Ice, a debut fantasy novel by J.M. Sidorova. Now, here's your first chance to sample it for yourself. Above is a map, created by the author. And below, we've got an exclusive look at the first dozen pages.
The Age of Ice is coming out July 23, and here's the official synopsis:
The Empress Anna Ioannovna has issued her latest eccentric order: construct a palace out of ice blocks. Inside its walls her slaves build a wedding chamber, a canopy bed on a dais, heavy drapes cascading to the floor—all made of ice. Sealed inside are a disgraced nobleman and a deformed female jester. On the empress’s command—for her entertainment—these two are to be married, the relationship consummated inside this frozen prison. In the morning, guards enter to find them half-dead. Nine months later, two boys are born.
Surrounded by servants and animals, Prince Alexander Velitzyn and his twin brother, Andrei, have an idyllic childhood on the family’s large country estate. But as they approach manhood, stark differences coalesce. Andrei is daring and ambitious; Alexander is tentative and adrift. One frigid winter night on the road between St. Petersburg and Moscow, as he flees his army post, Alexander comes to a horrifying revelation: his body is immune to cold.
J. M. Sidorova’s boldly original and genrebending novel takes readers from the grisly fields of the Napoleonic Wars to the blazing heat of Afghanistan, from the outer reaches of Siberia to the cacophonous streets of nineteenth-century Paris. The adventures of its protagonist, Prince Alexander Velitzyn—on a lifelong quest for the truth behind his strange physiology—will span three continents and two centuries and bring him into contact with an incredible range of real historical figures, from Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, to the licentious Russian empress Elizaveta and Arctic explorer Joseph Billings.
If you can't wait until July 23 to find out more about Sidorova's universe, then there's a brand new short story, which takes place in the same world, coming out tomorrow. You can get "The Colors of Cold" here.
I was born of cold copulation, white-fleshed and waxy like a crust of fat on beef broth left outside in winter. I was born of seed that would have seized with frost if spilled on the newlyweds’ bed. I was born on the twenty-seventh of September because in the month of January my parents had been sealed in a wedding chamber made of ice.
The year was 1740. The place—St. Petersburg, Russia. My country, corseted, wigged, and powdered on top but still darkly savage at heart, was panting and retching after the marathon Peter the Great had forced her to run. My would-be father, Prince Mikhail Velitzyn, scion of a family ancient and stately, had been transformed into a court jester. He had been forced to wear red-and-white-striped stockings and pretend to be a hen—to brood an imaginary clutch in Empress Anna Ioannovna’s menagerie of dwarfs, cripples, freaks, and victims. This was his punishment for an alleged affair with a Catholic noblewoman.
I’ve never met that woman. She may have never existed. The one whose existence is certain was Avdotia Buzheninova, a jester by birthright and a humpback, whose act was to writhe in a mockery of yearning, to clutch her breast and wail that she was lusting for a husband. The empress loved the gag, they say—so much so that it inflamed her head with an idea of a jester wedding.
That winter was brutal, and generous with precipitation, thus permissive of all manner of arctic entertainment: making snowmen and leaving men out in the snow, sharpening blades of axes and ice skates, freezing little birds and little maids in flight. By January, upon the empress’s whimsical orders, a palace was erected out of ice blocks—the purest crystal blue, ripped out of the Neva River’s winter hide and chiseled to diamond perfection by the empress’s slave architects. Inside the palace was a wedding chamber, a canopy bed on a dais, with heavy drapes half drawn, cascading to the floor—all made of ice.
The wedding opened with festivals and masquerades. Dwarfs trumpeted and freaks paraded. A procession followed, and at its head strode the empress herself, dressed as the Queen of Sheba. She danced, quaking her regal fat, perspiring in her sleeveless gown. She led my parents to the wedding chamber, gave them the blessing, and locked them up for the night.
Idle tongues used to say it was for fear of being left forever inside the frosty chamber that my parents fulfilled their connubial duty. But what do they know of ice, those idle tongues? No one but an abused prince and his slave bride know how fingers, skin taut with cold, nail beds bruiseblue, climb into warm recesses of the flesh, hiding from frostbite. How sweat and tears freeze and join with ice, becoming part of the curtain, part of the bed. How flesh shivers, giving its seed up as the last drop of oil for the dying fire in a night that is as long as winter. How dawn glows through the walls of ice, and lights up the cavern, and finds them fused together, clinging to the residual warmth of each other’s blood.
Only in the morning did the guards go in, to find them half dead on the ice slab of their wedding bed. Nine months later, two boys were born. My brother Andrei came first, a perfect infant. I found my way out a day later. I was smaller and paler than Andrei, and once I cleared the womb, our poor mother expired. Everyone was certain that a colorless runt like me would not see his first summer. But they were wrong. They knew nothing of ice.
In Corpore Vili, or The Early Phenomena 1740‒69
Empress Anna Ioannovna died a month after we were born, and my father retired from his clown duty and fled the capital for the family estate near Moscow. Peter the Great’s daughter, cheerful Elizaveta, eventually ascended to the throne, while Father married a proper, if unremarkable, noblewoman. Soon Andrei and I had a half sister and another sibling on the way.
The extended Velitzyn clan never let Father forget his ignominy, and the episode was a frequent punch line. Back then, no one was coddled. The age of delicate senses had not yet dawned, nerves had not been discovered. Father helped himself by letting his temper loose. The only concession he ever won was a ban on house jesters and fools, much lamented by the family members. We had to depend on our household pet for entertainment—a brown bear who sat on a chain by day and roamed the grounds as a watch by night, and who would dance for a treat when in the mood. Father was like that bear, I would think years later. Both fearsome, both wearing an indelible weak spot: one a chain-link in his nose; the other, a foolscap, once and forever.
My brother and I were treated to the story of our less than noble origins as soon as we were able to listen. I remember Andrei telling me (we were five or so), “If Anna Ioannovna didn’t die, you’d be a jester!” To which I replied, “We both would’ve been jesters. But if she hadn’t died we would’ve killed her!”
I uttered the murderous verb with the gusto only a child can get away with. Andrei returned a sharp glance. “To avenge our father? So that he would love us?”
It stunned me that this particular reason had been absent from my mind until Andrei brought it up. My reasoning, if you could call it that, went toward a takeover of the throne to found an empire of jesters, freaks, and cripples. I looked at my brother, at his serious face. Was there something important I did not yet understand? “Yes,” I said. “Why else?”
When we were eight, Andrei found a book somewhere in the house, titled La fantesca and written in Italian, which neither of us could read. On the cover was a drawing of a woman unloading a loaf of bread as round as her bosom in front of a man seated at a table. It was but a piece of smutty romance, as I later realized, but Andrei had connected it to the mysterious Catholic lady on whose account our father had been punished. His guess could have been correct—how else could an Italian tickler have wound up in the household of a Russian prince? Andrei, however, took to believing that the woman in the picture was our father’s love. And one day he confessed to me that this Italian woman was his true mother, not the jester Avdotia Buzheninova.
What enraged me wasn’t the fact that Andrei thought only of himself, not both of us, when he redefined his maternal origins. It was that he did not want to have sprung from the terrifying and wondrous Ice Wedding.
That he could denounce it for the mundane womb of some foreigner wench with a loaf ! Dimwit, I shouted at him. Humpback’s son, he shouted back. I hate you!—I hate you better! When nannies and wet nurses came upon us, we were balled up in a fight.
Clearly, though, I hated him less than he hated me. Not a week passed, and I was offering my humblest penitence to my brother. He pardoned me like a gracious king. He needed me to play the game of Czar-Sultan of the Golden Horde and the Great Warrior Ilya of Murom, or fence with oaken swords, or sneak upon the napping household bear, tickle his snout with a sallow-tree branch full of catkins, and run like we stole something when the beast awakened, sneezing.
When we were ten, we built an ice palace. It started as a snow fortress, then we added a wall slit for a window and a roof made of pilfered firewood and fir-tree paws overlaid with snow. The idea was mine. At first the interior of our palace was barely large enough to sit two, but we kept at it, carving and digging snow on the inside, hauling in and packing new snow onto the walls from the outside. When tired of our labors, we huddled inside. Andrei would make a tiny fire and gaze at it, his knees drawn up to his chin. I would wrap my arm around his shoulders. Even in those tender moments I couldn’t help but feel that I had failed to understand something important, that Andrei’s mind inhabited a different space, and, to squelch the feeling, I urged us back to work.
One sunny winter afternoon we were at work inside our palace when Andrei rose from his knees and walked out. I looked for him through the window: he stood just outside. He looked at our stepmother—pregnant again and bundled comfortably in furs, she promenaded down a path some fifty yards away. Our three-year-old half brother waddled next to her, his arm raised above his head, his little mitten of a hand held fast in hers. They stopped to look at our handiwork; she bent to talk to the three-year-old and pointed at us. Their shadows lay long and blue on the salt-white snow. I joined Andrei outside. Our stepmother started down the path again, away from us and our ice palace, slowly, so her child could keep up. Andrei stared after them. I tugged at his sleeve. “Let’s go!” He ignored me. I pulled again but he yanked his arm free.
Looking at our stepmother’s back and then at my brother’s sharp profile, a revelation washed over me. The something important that existed had given itself freely to Andrei and spared none for me. That’s why I wanted, needed to be with him: as if he were my interpreter, my guide. Without him, I could stray off into a strange and sad land, misunderstanding and misunderstood, unable to grasp why a motherless boy freezes, ceases play, when faced with a tableau of maternal love.
Then the moment of acuity passed. I nudged Andrei’s sleeve again. Without a word, he went back in.
When twilight set in he was making his fire. He blew on coals till he was dizzy, then fed in some dry pine needles, then wood chips, then twigs, then logs. And more logs. I begged him to stop but he would not. My cheeks burned, my forehead ached. Heat and smoke and shrapnel of glowing cinders beat us all the way to the snow walls, and still Andrei tossed more fuel into the fire, and the flames were about to outgrow our chamber.
We fled. Through the window slit the blaze shone like a giant magic lantern, orange through dusky blue; it was beautiful in its doom. Andrei whooped when the roof collapsed, and laughed in shrill, compulsive volleys when the flames hissed, dying under the weight of snow. He still laughed when a manservant ran to us from the mansion with a dispatch for us to go indoors at once, and he went eagerly, circling around the man, poking him in the arm, asking Did you see? and heaping upon the man a story of how he’d burned down the ice palace.
I dragged behind them. I wasn’t angry at Andrei. I was sad.
When we turned twelve, Andrei begged to be sent to the Cadet Corps in St. Petersburg and our father gave his blessing. Twenty-five years of service were mandatory to sons of nobility back then, and those who eschewed it were forced to append a humiliating appellation to their signature—Juvenile—for life. Still, we did not have to start so young. All I knew was that Andrei longed to leave home. The reason? It had to have come from the same place as his impulse to burn down the ice palace. Still, If he goes, I go, I told Father. He did not object.
By the time we were sixteen, I had learned to drift dispassionately along in the regimented life of the Corps, while Andrei was brimming with ambitions. He longed to join the elite Leib Guard, praetorians of the “Third Rome” (as the Russian Empire liked to call herself). He wearied himself with training: throwing cast-iron balls as far as he could or hanging from a crossbar with a weight fastened to his legs in order to stretch himself taller. In this manner he strove and I drifted, each of us coming into manhood and taking the shapes that belied our kinship: my hair darkened, his paled. I bolted, tall and long-armed; he settled on an average height, broad in the shoulders. My features arranged themselves handsomely; his came together in a pleasant but ordinary visage.
On graduation day a pole was installed in the exercise court. High up on the pole, a notch was chipped, the proverbial cut. Chickens came scratching around the pole as we queued up opposite it. When it was his turn, Andrei all but took his heels off the ground to make the cut, but alas. “Too short. Next!” the corporal droned. When stepping away, Andrei kicked at a chicken, drawing snickers from everyone present. He blushed and fled. My turn came next and I stepped in and out fast: I was in a rush to find Andrei. Of course I was tall enough.
I found him at the edge of the grounds; he sat in the grass, wrestling a burr off his stocking. I hovered over him and offered what I thought was the only, the best consolation. “I’d rather go with you than be a Leib Guard.” Picking viciously at the crumbling burr, my brother replied, “You’re stupid. You don’t know what it means to be a Guard.” He struck a chord: indeed the Leib Guard’s appeal did not penetrate me, which could be considered dimness rather than indifference. I felt slighted, yet still I tried: “I mean, because of you and me—not the Guard.”
Andrei sprang from the ground. “Leave me alone!”
He pushed me out of his way and was ambling off when I released my frustration. “You picked the wrong mother,” I said. “Should’ve stuck with Avdotia—would’ve grown tall.”
He spun around, furious.
I said to his face, “Your Italian did you no good.”
He measured me. “Get out of my life.”
I could not help noticing that the remnants of the burr still clung to his left stocking as he stomped off. I stood; wasn’t I like that burr, I thought. I called his name but he kept going.
I hoped that this upset would pass as others had, but Andrei repelled my overtures as days at the Cadets dwindled. They assigned him to the Novgorod Musketeers. I wrote to our father begging him to intercede—to help get Andrei into the Guard. I had no idea whether Father had enough weight to accomplish it. By November, Andrei was back at the home estate in Moscow, while I moved just across the Neva, to the Preobrazhensky Leib Guard barracks, and waited to be sworn in. In December a letter from Father said Andrei was leaving, and not even for Novgorod but much farther away—for Smolensk. “That is the way your brother wants it,” Father wrote.
Meanwhile, the day of my swearing-in ceremony drew near. My mind told me to enjoy myself, but my heart ticked with anxiety: the moment of irreversibility would be fast upon me unless I did something.
So I ran. One night in December I hit the St. Petersburg‒Moscow road as befit a distraught youth: no kibitka, no coachman, no blankets, only my mount, borrowed from my second uncle in St. Petersburg. The loaner horse bolted an hour into the journey, and I was thrown out of the saddle; when I rose to my feet I became aware of the formidable silence of the winter fields. Just a few lights of human habitation twinkled miles ahead of me, the light of the world divided between stars, the moon, and the snow. There was a stillness in the night, a majestic calm of cold that seemed to know that it could overpower any disturbance—rushing hearts and thoughts, scurrying of warm creatures and fluttering of warm molecules.
My horse stopped a few yards away from me, steaming and jerking her hide under the saddle. It was a coat that had startled her—discarded or lost by a traveler. Balled up in snow, it resembled a crouching beast. The horse neighed, fearful—she seemed to understand the peril of the snowy world. I, too, felt a pang of fear—or awe, rather, the kind that freezes one in place. In order to dispel the feeling I took my glove off and picked up a handful of snow. I squeezed my hand into a fist, then opened it, and let the snow fall out of my palm.
The snow I had squeezed didn’t melt. Dry, solid flakes went into my bare palm and dry flakes sifted out, sparkling and twirling as they fell to the ground.
My first thought—after a flash of sheer primal wonderment—was how I’d tell my brother about it. I did not believe my eyes, I’d say, and I did not, or rather believed just enough to make a story out of it, the excitement, the urgency of which would help me close the gap between us. Hokum, he’d challenge me, prove it. We would run out to the yard, and then— I crouched and scooped another handful of snow. This is how I’d prove it. I opened my palm—and beheld the snow melting. It was as if my brother and I had just grown even farther apart.
I felt a wet nudge to the back of my head. My impatient horse. “Teasing me, right? Fooling me,” I said to the snowy fields. I looked forward, then back. Then mounted and rode on toward Moscow. I stopped at the next transit lodge to wait out the night. Come morning I was on the road
Andrei, when I reached home, looked as if he was older than me by a year, not a day. At dinner the footman served him second after Father, while my turn came after our stepmother. Even as I dug into my meat pie, Andrei let his languish on a plate, while he—like an adult—discussed with Father our military prospects against Prussia in what would later be called the Seven Years’ War. This was the first time I heard—or remember hearing of it. Before this moment, my world was too small to hold a war in Europe. Aren’t you supposed to be sworn in soon? they kept asking me.
It is not for another three weeks, I lied.
That day, meanwhile, was right upon me. I spent it restlessly, filling with a mix of self-righteousness and fear. By evening I was overflowing and ready to take my cause to Andrei. “What have I done to you? What offense have I ever given? Why are you mad at me?”
He was packing his chest. “Am not,” he said.
“That time at the Cadets was just a joke, like we’ve always done. You know it!”
He held an embroidered vest at arm’s length and scrutinized it. “You want this one?” He tossed it in my lap.
“It’s new,” I stated, wondering whether it was a gesture of reconciliation.
“Auntie’s gift. I don’t want it. Too showy for me.”
No, it wasn’t a reconciliation. I said, “If it’s about the Guard—”
“I don’t want to be a Guard. They’re nothing but peacocks.” He resumed packing.
I said, “It’s today. The swearing-in. I am missing it.”
He looked up. “Now, that’s stupid.”
And I had hoped to impress him! “You just called them peacocks!”
“Better than nothing. You want to remain a juvenile?”
“No.” I did not know what I wanted, apart from staying in his good graces. “You being so distant does not help.”
“I am not distant,” Andrei said. “Just different.”
“Go back, maybe they’ll still take you.”
I had a miracle happen to me on the road . . . I almost said it. I wanted to, it was my last trump card. But I bit my tongue. It would win me no appreciation of his, would it?
I refrained, I think, or else a servant boy prevented my confession, a lad who came in with some brown and crumbling chunks of homemade soap for Andrei. The conversation was over. I picked myself up and left the room, blindsided by a thought that came for the first time, never to leave: what if my brother had not been running from home—but from me? Thus ended my childhood, some seven years after Andrei had ended his in the blaze of our ice palace.
Looking back, I know I loved him, and I know there had been sweet, unself-conscious moments in our brotherhood that no ice palace could overshadow: Being five years old and running full speed down the enfilade of sunlit rooms, shouting his name, a special, diminutive version of it that we used between the two of us: Andrewsha-a-a! And seeing him charge from the other, distant end, with a similar battle cry: Alexasha-a-a-a! And then colliding in the middle, laughing so hard that the backs of our heads would start hurting.
Now we were only running away from each other.
I slunk back to the Preobrazhensky. On a bright December day they tied me to a sawhorse, a hand at each end; I could either stand bent over, or kneel. “Barebacked or leave the undershirt on?” the officers asked. I opted to leave the shirt out of it. I stood first, then knelt, waiting for my ten lashes.
My punisher, a subaltern not two years older than me, stroked the knout as if it were a mane of hair and told me, “You’ll be all right. No brass, see? Just leather. And I won’t flick my wrist.”
On the first lash I nearly dislocated my shoulders. The pain was exquisite, despite his not flicking. After the fifth he stopped and dumped a bucket of snow on my back, “Cool it, rookie,” adding into my ear, “Our Lady-Colonel is here. Aren’t you lucky.” The “Lady-Colonel” of course was the empress herself, Elizaveta. My eyes downcast, I saw that her crinoline trembled like a dome of jelly as she approached. I saw the pointy tips of her pumps on a Persian rug laid out in the snow. A gloved, perfumed hand touched my cheek. “He learned his lesson, haven’t you, darling?
Get off your knees, let me pardon you . . . Such a strong one!”
Imagine a youth, bare-trunked, loose-tressed, bound by his wrists, and piquantly raw with pain. Imagine the zestful mix of defiance and gratitude he puts into kneeling before his middle-aged empress. She got her arousal, I got my pardon.
The only peculiar detail . . . I distinctly remember: when my punisher’s mercy landed me with a bucketful of snow on my lacerated back, it brought me no relief whatsoever. No anesthesia, not even a sensation of cold.
For the next four years, each fighting season—that is, spring, summer, and fall—Andrei would go to war with the Prussians. It is a miracle he did not get himself killed during his first one, in 1757, a bloody muddle, the so-called triumph of the Russian guns at Gross-Jagersdorf, and then in 1758 at the Russian defeat at Zorndorf. By 1759 the Russian army had learned its lesson and did quite well at Frankfurt an der Oder, Kunersdorf, then Berlin. I, meanwhile, was busy growing my braid to just the right length, doing drills, or escorting the court in its seasonal migrations from one countryside palace to another. Yes, all we did was guard.
The last time the Preobrazhensky went to war was under Peter the Great. Now, only an occasional detachment, a handful of volunteering hotheads went out on campaign, and usually returned without a single battle.
Winter or summer court residence, there was always a good-size banquet hall where we officers would spend time drinking wine and playing cards. My former punisher-hazer, whom I now knew as Paul Svetogorov, or Paulie, had taken me under his wing and from him I learned the ins and outs of a Guardsman’s life.
A proud owner of Viking looks, soulful tenor, and a mobile brow whose flutter conveyed a range of affects from scrutiny to flirtation, Svetogorov was impossible to ignore. The Guard is the navel of the earth, he would reiterate, the cream of the crop. Andrei, on the other hand, when he would leave the troops billeted in Poland or Livonia and come home for Christmas, would greet me with, How go the peacock’s labors?
How go the footslogger’s travails? I would answer. Each winter homecoming Andrei’s jaw would be set harder, his speech flow slower, his look appear duller. It is hardly surprising that as time went by I was more and more inclined to feel like the navel of the earth rather than a peacock.
Empress Elizaveta was very fond of the military in general and of the manliness of her bodyguard in particular. In St. Petersburg, she lodged the whole first grenadier battalion (to which I belonged) on Millionnaya Street, in a large three-story building just across a canal from her Winter Palace. Officers on the top floor, subalterns and soldiers below. Life was a frolic in that house, a jolly good time.
We weren’t just Her Majesty’s security, we accentuated her, we were the choirboys to the performance that was her life. On Christmas morning we were encouraged to barge into the imperial boudoir with celebratory shouts. At Easter Eve we lined up in a pious backdrop to the church service and the procession outdoors that followed (having secretly wagered on which one of us would get to trade kisses with the empress—a customary accompaniment to the “Christ is risen”—“Truly risen” exchange).
Svetogorov would twitch his brow and say, “Know, pal Alexis, when to go and when to come, and you’ll go far.”
What he referred to, I assumed, was the fact that our all-night vigils of wine and card games at the court would sometimes invite a different kind of performance. It took place in a roomy tent, which the empress had ordered to be pitched right inside the grand hall of the Winter Palace.
The night I entered that tent—my first and last time—the darkness was impenetrable, and when several hands put a blindfold around my eyes, I gathered that I was supposed to play a game of catch. Once my eyes were covered, candles were lit. Laughing, the ladies told me no peeking, and that I would only be let go if I caught the empress herself. I was inebriated, and the dancing lights did marvels for my weakened sense of balance. I tripped and fell, hot wax splattered onto my blindfold, and when I tried to sit up, it felt as though a great multitude of lively bundles of fabric resisted me. At length I captured one bundle and tore my blindfold off.
“Prince Velitzyn,” they chirped, “you are breaking the rules!” and blew out their candles. As a child I had always imagined that ladies’ dresses were cavernous on the inside, not unlike a church cupola, and in the center of it, their mysterious legs hung lonely and cold. But once I applied myself—in that tent—to finding the said cupola, the task was more like unraveling an onion. Only with difficulty did I find flesh among cloth, and as I exploratively sent my hand up to the apex, my catch shrieked, “Stop it!” I withdrew, apologizing. My blindfold was reinstated. I fumbled on, somewhat less able to enjoy myself amid their nimbleness and laughter.
I did not so much bump into the empress as was goaded to do so, and I held on to her for balance; even so, we both fell onto some cushions. Her laughter was conveyed to my ears over the shaking terrain of her bosom. She finished with a sigh and leaned on me. I captured her plump hand on my face and planted a respectful kiss; her rings smelled of metal and shed skin trapped in gemstone mountings, and they abraded my lips when she pulled the hand away. A palm, presumably hers, alighted on top of my blindfold, and a hand authoritatively unbuttoned my breeches, located my loins, and proceeded to inspect their state. I quivered, then yielded as she plied, cooing out mysterious clipped phrases such as Apraksiya, silly thing, has thought up three trunks of nonsense. Then, suddenly, she pulled her busy hand out and now used it to remove the blindfold and palpate my forehead. “Daddy dearest,” she remarked, “this can’t be right.” She studied my face. “My prince, are you well?”
I pulled my knees up and said yes, but her motherly face remained concerned, even frightened. “Look at you—white as canvas, cold as ice. Go, daddy dear, go and get a good sleep. No more drinking for you. Go!”
I got on my feet, buttoned up, and went. She said, “Oh, and send praporshik Svetogorov to me, will you?”
When I approached the table, Svetogorov slammed a joker onto a fan of cards. I said, “Paul? Your turn.” He smirked while half a dozen others scrutinized me. A few of them chaffed me, and I could hardly contain my double embarrassment: I had been groped by the august lady and then—for whatever reason—failed to satisfy her.
“Gentlemen—not a word!” Svetogorov intervened. “Let him be.” He poured me a shot, which I refused, then, once on his feet, he put his hand over my shoulders, encouraging me to walk with him. “No big deal, no big deal,” he consoled, looking into my face. “The first pancake always comes out botched, that’s all.”
“What pancake?” I protested.
“The pancake,” he affirmed with significance and gave my shoulder a squeeze. “Sleep it off.” With that he cocked his chest—“Watch me”—and dived into the tent. I was seventeen then, he was almost twenty. The empress was nearing fifty. In the autumn of that same year she fainted in the middle of the road, walking from her church to her apartments. She fell into her own crinoline, I remember, and it caved in around her like a sinkhole. A bad sign.