Wineskins Archive

February 5, 2014

Book Excerpt: King’s Ransom (Sep-Dec 2004)

Filed under: — @ 1:34 pm and

by Thom Lemmons and Jan Beazely
September – December 2004

Chapter 1

Prologue: Sofia, May 1996

Dobri thought maybe the crush of the crowd would kill him. What a thing that would be: to live through everything I’ve witnessed, only to be trampled to death.

Someone touched his arm, a youngish fellow wearing a dark blue Italian suit and no tie. He was pointing toward the gilt domes of Alexander Nevsky Cathedral. “When his plane lands, they’ll radio ahead, and the bells will start ringing to announce him.”

The young man’s hair was mussed, and Dobri was pretty sure he could smell rakia on his breath. He had probably used Simeon’s imminent arrival as an excuse for an all-day party.

“What if someone tries to stop him?” Dobri said.

“What do you mean?”

Kings RansomPoor young man. You could never guess, could you? “The secret police. You don’t think they want him here, do you?”

The young man laughed. “Look around you, dyado. Even Communists aren’t crazy enough to try anything today. Simeon is bulletproof.”

“Don’t call me ‘grandfather.’ And don’t talk to me like I’m Bai Ganio. I may be from a village, but I know how the world works.”

The young man shrugged, held up his hands in surrender, grinned at Dobri, and sifted back into the crowd.

Dobri had never seen such a solid mass of humanity. Alexander Battenberg Square was an unbroken sea of people from the monument all the way to the Presidential Palace. The plaza around the cathedral was packed shoulder to shoulder. The buildings rose up like reefs out of the human tide, and every window was crammed with faces. Everyone waving, everyone shouting.

All of them waiting.

Dobri wasn’t sure whether they were waiting for the beginning of something or the end of something. He had lived too long, seen too many good things end before their time and too many bad things begin. In his home village, beginnings and endings were easier to know. The sun came up, and you knew it was time to drive the sheep out for grazing. The mornings got warmer, and it was time to start thinking about the spring shearing. The faces were always people you knew; the greetings and farewells marked the familiar boundaries of the days. Life made sense.

But here in Sofia’s tangled streets there was nothing to see but the faces of strangers everywhere, and the tall buildings blocked out the comforting signposts of mountain, tree, and sky. Dobri hated crowds; they made him edgy and shy footed, like a herd of goats when the weather was changing. They reminded him of the old days, the weight of his responsibilities. A crowd could hide trouble from watchful eyes until it was too late. Dobri hoped Simeon had good men around him. He’d need them today.

Dobri wished he could find a way out of this dense uproar. He closed his eyes and imagined he was listening to the breeze sift through the zdravetz blossoming on the hillsides above his village. He clutched the staff he had carved from a good, straight bough of beech. He leaned on it, trying to take some of the strain off his back. It was a long walk, all the way from Bailovo. He wished he could sit somewhere and rest. But in this mob, he might as well be wishing for dew from the moon. Ah, Lord, I’m too old for this. Couldn’t I have just sent someone? I’m a fool, coming all the way here to give Simeon something he probably doesn’t want, surely doesn’t need. How can I ever get close enough to see him, let alone give him the staff or say anything to him? Dobri imitrov, you are a crazy old man, and that’s the whole of it.

But no. It wouldn’t do, and he knew it. Whether this was an ending or a beginning, he had a part to play, and he had to see it through. There was nothing else to be done.

A man near Dobri had a picture of Simeon. He had fastened it to a long pole so he could carry the portrait above the crowd. Dobri had seen the pictures in the newspapers, of course. But still he was struck by the way Simeon reminded him of Tsar Boris. It wasn’t so much his appearance; Simeon’s features were more like his mother’s. It was something about the expression in his eyes, maybe; the way Simeon seemed to look out and see the duty before him. Even in exile, Dobri guessed, Simeon could never forget his country.

When the widowed queen had left with her two young children, Simeon had been barely nine years old. Dobri’s last memory of him framed the frightened face of a child hurrying into the darkness with his mother and sister toward the car that would drive them from Vrana to the station, to the train that would carry them in secrecy out of the country, out of the grasp of the Communists. Looking at the portrait on the pole, Dobri could still see the tender eyes of the child. The years had added layers of complexity; that was certain. But he thought he could still trace the outlines of the child within the man.

An old woman pushed through the crowd toward the portrait on the pole. In one hand she grasped a bunch of roses, and she began brushing them across the image of Simeon, as if in blessing. In a creaky, high voice she sang the first few words of the “Mnogoya Leta”: “Grant, O Lord, many years to Thy servant, the king …” An impromptu choir formed, people with their arms across each other’s shoulders, swaying and singing. Dobri wanted to sing, but instead he scanned the crowd for signs of the Communist secret police. Things were supposed to be different since 1989, but …

Or maybe the young man in the Italian suit was right. Maybe today was a day for joy, not suspicion. Everywhere around Dobri, people were smiling. Not far away, a father had his daughter on his shoulders, bouncing her up and down. The little girl, who looked to be no more than eight or so, held on to her father’s head and screamed with laughter. People were waving bottles of wine, toasting each other and Simeon—and spilling a good deal in the process. It looked like the Feast of Kyril and Methodie in Bailovo, only much bigger. How could that be? These city people couldn’t possibly know each other. But maybe today, because of their anticipation, they thought they did. They knew this one thing they shared, maybe, and that was enough for today.

Under the entrance portico of the Royal Palace—National Art Museum, Dobri corrected himself—there was a man with a worried look. As Dobri watched, the man put a hand to his ear and started speaking, apparently to no one. Nobody around the man seemed to notice, but Dobri knew. He took another, more careful look at his surroundings. There—in the circular drive in front of the National Bank. And there—on the pediment of one of the monuments in the park across the square. More worried men talking to themselves. Quickly Dobri scanned the rooftops around him. No sign of activity.

Maybe it’s nothing. I was trained to see threats before they exist; maybe they won’t come to pass—today, at least. Lord God, may it be so … Dobri crossed himself. Besides, what could he do? He was an old man with long white hair and a beard to match, wearing the homespun cloak and rough breeches of a peasant. He carried nothing but a hand-carved staff. Who was going to listen to him?

Ah, Daria, my dear one. How I wish you could have seen this day with me.

The bells of Alexander Nevsky clanged, and the noise of the crowd, loud before, now grew deafening. In between the huge peals of Nevsky, Dobri could hear the other churches joining in the chorus: Sveta Nedelia, to the east, and the Russian Church, closer to where he stood. And over it all, the cavernous booming of Nevsky. Dobri looked at the church, piled huge and white in the bright day like a confection fashioned by God himself, the gold domes gleaming like crowns in the sunlight. So. Simeon has returned to his native soil at last. But will Bulgaria recognize the gifts he brings? Or will his nation use him up as it did his father?

The group around the portrait on the pole had begun again the “Mnogoya Leta,” redoubled in volume. This time, Dobri crossed himself and joined in.

“Grant, O Lord, many years to Thy servant, the king …”New Wineskins

Thom Lemmons

Jan Beazely

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