Original title: Жуть с ружьем (Russian)
Fandom: Vorkosigan Saga
Author: Georgetta jetta_e_rus
Translator: Edik the Ogre edik_lyodoedik
Genre: gen, humor, one-shot
Characters: Miles, Gregor, Ivan (as children)
Summary: Once late at night three boys decided to entertain each other with typical Barrayran-style scary tales.
Many thanks to Coalboy who answered my desperate call for a beta and did an excellent job checking this text.
Translator’s note (boring, you can skip it): All stories told here are Russian children scary tales from the early XX century, adjusted to Barrayran conditions. We decided, that they just grasp the spirit of Barrayr at the beginning of Gregor’s reign. Mind you, they were created in a military and paranoia-saturated society where the children had to face a cruel reality: the adults disappeared at night due to unknown (probably mysterious and supernatural) reasons, and nobody could really protect them.
For example, if you change a “Cetan spy and saboteur” to an “American spy and saboteur”, you’ll have an idea.
Deep in the night Miles was sitting on the Emperor’s bed in plain pajamas and kicked the air. At least such a pose implied more dignity than a position in the big armchair, where a seven year old boy would simply sink. And he definitely needed to look dignified. Surface impression stands not the last in the list of factors helping to draw loyal followers to your side.
“It’s full of both moons, and “stub hour” on top of that, that’s a rare chance! If there are ghosts in the Residence, they will show up today, for sure!”
Miles didn’t believe in ghosts that much, but he was absolutely sure there existed a lot of interesting stuff being hidden from him on some purpose by adults and intended especially for thorough investigation. Besides, there should be a good reason why servants were so happy and told so many scary things about the Imperial Residence, when Miles and his parents moved into the count’s house. Make no fire, raise no smoke, and if you start haunting ghosts in the palace, you should take care to do it properly. Which means, in this time between the last clock strike and midnight which is not enough even for a real hour. Good ambush is a must.
“First of all”, said a mature and reasonable twelve-year-old Gregor, “there are no such thing as ghosts. Lady Cordelia told me that. And second, there must be some evil spirits, waiting for someone to curse. Do you need a curse?”
Ivan, who followed this conversation mostly as an observer, due to the simple fact he could hardly ever manage to stick in a word, only snorted. In his young years he was not eloquent enough to explain that any further curses on Miles would be a waste of time, while Gregor was to some extent protected from the ghostly revenge by his imperial status. Which made only himself left to pick up all the bumps. As usual.
“You can’t say they don’t exist!” Miles sincerely rebelled.”Do you know what they say about your Residence?”
“I know”, Gregor lied quickly.
“What about the stone soldier then?” Miles inquired ironically.
It was a sure-fire move. Gregor didn’t know about the soldier and it was much better to listen to scary tales in good company than to sleep under a boring blanket before the next day lessons. Moreover, the little ones, as Gregor called these two, were taken to the palace only so often, so he had enough time to miss them. He nodded encouragingly.
“When they were building the big gates in front of the Imperial Residence”, Miles began with such a look as if he had been personally supervising the construction, “they made two monuments before them. Stone soldiers, veeery big,” he spread his hands as wide as he could, “up to the hilt. To a-po-te… the-o-size your power, by the way. There were a soldier with the rifle to the left, and a lancer to the right. Servants were strictly ordered to sweep the flagstones, not leaving a single piece of dust or a grass-blade”.
Miles caught his breath. The listeners were following with utmost attention.
“Once a servant was too lazy and forgot. That night there happened a very terrible thunderstorm, and – boom! – a lightning stroke hit the left-hand statue, and the stone soldier was broken into pieces”.
Miles leaned forward and lowered his voice. At least, it was a nice attempt.
“From that day the guards in the palace barracks started to die one by one. After reveille they always found someone lying dead and stone-cold”.
Ivan didn’t bother to hide his shrinking. Miles always preferred to tell spooky stories with Ivan around, as he was very expressive and appreciative audience, good for practicing some new tales at.
“That was because the stone soldier missed his friend”, Miles explained triumphantly. “He was walking around the barracks in the night and peering into the windows. If someone seemed alike to him, he looked into his eyes to make him stone and call to guard the palace with him”.
Now, that was useless against Ivan. He is not from the Palace Guard, why should he be afraid of a stone statue? Looks like he needs to make it creepier.
“Sometimes you can hear clip-clop in the night. That is the stone soldier walking through the hall and clipping his lance on the flagsto-ones. And if he meets someone, he takes him to be a slack servant, who made the second monument broken, and…” Miles made a due pause and finished as loud as he could.”…TEARS HIS HEART OUT!”
Gregor only winced a little, but Ivan jumped. Miles grinned.
“It’s just a tale”, Gregor said, vaguely realizing that his authority had just been threatened. “Like the ones about the Black Hand”.
“What about the Black Hand?” Ivan inquired.
“About the muties”, Emperor explained and yawned.
“They are all about muties,” Ivan noted reasonably. At his age of seven he was already well acquainted with the genre. But he didn’t hustle Gregor. Under unwritten rules, if you mentioned a tale you had to tell it to the end. There were no way out.
“C’mon, c’mon”, Miles knew these rules too, but he couldn’t help it. “Your turn!”
“It’s for children”, said Gregor, doing his best to put up a barrier of age between himself and his small cousins. “Just for you”.
“Keep to the point”, Miles said firmly.
Gregor sighed. He began this story himself, no one to blame.
“Once there appeared a Black Hand in the city”, he started in a “mysterious” voice. “It lived alone and in the nights it was flying around the city and flew into windows, it could fit into even a very tiny chink. And if someone got up from bed, it choked him to death”, Gregor spread his fingers to look more convincing. “You could hide only by covering your head with a blanket”.
Trying to amuse little ones he was unconsciously carried away by enthusiasm and started to animate the story. With a blanket like a granny’s kerchief on his head, he was so funny that Miles was fighting not to giggle thus spoiling a scary tale.
“There was a boy who made a hole in the blanket and pretended to sleep. When the Black Hand floated from the window, he got up and followed it. The hand flew to the cemetery, faded into smoke, and then the smoke was sucked under the headstone, looking like a giant black tooth without a single sign”.
Here the story acquired a national patriotic tinge, which assigned to it at least some of the formal verisimilitude, much to the teller’s relief.
“The boy went to ImpSec and told everything. Then they carried a laser canon to the cemetery and shot at the black stone. The headstone fell, and they found a long tunnel under it. An ImpSec investigator in an armored jacket went through it to a black cavern where a scary mutant was sleeping deeply, black from top to toe, with thi-is large nails on his fingers. So then the ImpSec officer shot the mutie dead from his nerve disruptor, and the Black Hand was gone forever”.
Gregor paused and illogically added. “So much like this, I guess. ‘Ts a simple tale”.
“It’s a simple tale”, Ivan agreed, “because nobody died. Except for the mutie, but we don’t count him. And no blood”.
“It’s no good to tell you about blood”, Gregor was sincerely offended by this negligence. “You are too young, you’ll start to cry”.
“I won’t!” Ivan got offended too. “I know something you are afraid to tell!”
“Do not”, Gregor said consciously.
“I do! About the iron box. It’s only blood all around”, Ivan thought a little and added with vengeance. “And if you don’t know it, it means Captain Illyan just didn’t tell you!”
And in the overwhelmed silence following this claim, which dangerously discredited ImpSec Chief’s loyalty to his Emperor, Ivan began the tale.
“Once there lived a mother and a son. And the boy did something wrong… doesn’t matter, what”, Ivan added evasively, giving away his great experience in the matter. “And his mother punished him. She went and left him alone at home. “To think about your misbehavior”, he quoted. “He got bored and opened the old wardrobe which his mother forbade him to look into. When he touched the door knob, the commconsole beeped and a voice told from there “Don’t open the wardrobe, boy!” He opened the door and saw the big iron box on the upper shelf, it was painted with beautiful patterns. Then comm came again “Boy, don’t touch the iron box!” Of course, he opened it, and there were different paints and a brush inside. Oh cool, he thought, I will paint something! And the comm told him in the third time: “Boy, don’t take the brush!”
“And where is the blood, little one?” Gregor inquired skeptically.
“Don’t interrupt me”, Ivan waved. “Blood is on the way. So, the boy didn’t listen, took some paper, the paints, the brush and began to paint a war. Boom, plonk, everything blows up, enemies are lying dead and right in the middle there’s a big tank with our flag. And as soon as he painted the tank, it turned its canon, shot, and the boy was blown into pieces! And then all the pieces were sucked into the barrel. Then the Mother came home, and there was nobody there, but the blood was everywhere – on the floor, on the wall, on the ceiling… and even on the curtains!” he added triumphantly to leave no doubts.
The overwhelmed silence was an answer.
“She called ImpSec”, Ivan continued victoriously, “and as soon as the investigator saw the box with paints, he almost froze on it! He said it was Cetagandan makeup, the real thing, where did you get that? The mother cried and told she bought this box in the supermarket to make her son a birthday present. Then they arrested the supermarket’s manager, and he appeared to be a Cetagandan spy and saboteur and had already killed more than thousand kids that way!”
If Ivan intended to impress, he succeeded. Even constantly blithering Miles was silence for a minute, though usually neither command voice nor a good brillberry tart was effective enough to stop his talking.
“You know, Ivan”, he found some composure at last, “it’s nice and stuff, but we were gonna search for ghosts in the Residence instead of chasing Cetan spies in a mall, were we?”
“I don’t feel like looking for your walking statue in the hallways”, Ivan shivered a bit. “First, I don’t wanna be punished instead a mere servant and second…”
“And second, there is no such thing as a living statue”, Gregor finished, as he didn’t want to miss a rare opportunity to put in a word.
“Oh, so you mean?” Miles went dangerously excited. “You mean, the basement was closed without a reason? And nothing is happening there, just a wall reconstruction?”
“The one you would see from here if you could pop out of the window”, despite the young age all three of them were already aware about the force field on the Imperial Residence windows.
“So what is going on there?” Gregor narrowed his eyes. “Great-grandad Dorca’s spirit taking a walk?”
“There is… there is a Bloody Tablecloth!” Miles blurted out. He just came up with the name, and it seemed extremely fitting.
The word was spoken, and it was now his turn to sing like a bird, unfolding the terrifying details.
“Once a guard squad was circling a palace. The soldier asked his corporal why there was light in a basement window and something kind of sparkling. They went down the stairs to have a look. It was dark in the basement hallway, and it was an echo and a black door in the middle of the corridor with a sign “Laundry” in ancient letters on it”.
“Laundry, so what?” Gregor shrugged. “You also have it in the basement, big deal”.
“Just keep listening”, Miles waved dismissively. “Corporal took the weapon off and told the soldier to keep guard beside the door while he checked. And if something suspicious happened, the soldier was to sound the alarm. The corporal went in the door. It screeched and closed by itself after him. At the same moment there came blue light and terrible cry from behind the door, and something fell, and then…” he whispered, “there was silence. After that, when the patrol came and broke in the door, they found nobody in there, only an old tablecloth with a blood stain in the center hanging on a rope. And the corporal was lying dead with a blaster in his hand, his face paper-white and his eyes opened”.
“W-why was he dead?” Ivan whispered simply, staring at his cousin, his eyes opened almost wider than late Corporal’s.
“Nobody knows”, Miles shrugged. “But he saw something so horrible before his death, that it was printed in his pupils, and when the doctor looked in his eyes, he shrieked and fell too. And when they revived the doctor, he couldn’t remember a thing. He forgot how to read and write, and load his weapon, and tie his shoelaces. And he had to learn everything again like a little boy and go all the way through school”.
All three sighed sympathetically. If they disliked to study all day long, one could imagine how awful it was for an adult!
“As for the door, Captain Illyan ordered it to be walled up forever”, Miles appealed to the highest possible authority. “And to circle it with barbed wire, and nobody was ever let inside. Sometimes one could see something glowing and sparkling in the corner through the window. Scientists want to get there, but ImpSec won’t let anyone into a secret zone. And that’s that!” and he offered politically from the low start. “Wanna see it?”
“If Captain Illyan doesn’t let anybody in, how can we ever…” Gregor shook his head wistfully.
That was apparently a “big” prank. The type after which neither Lady Cordelia nor Lord Aral would protect him from the justified outrage of ImpSec. More like the opposite, even. And he was going to be in charge, as the eldest. Gregor got used from the very childhood that “Emperor”, “Lord Regent” and “Lady Regent-Consort” are mere words for official purposes in any celebrations and boring social events, while the one being punished for detected pranks is just Gregor himself. It’s only half-bad if his foster father was going to punish him – the worst he could do is to admonish him or to spank quickly. It was his foster mother’s educational conversations he was afraid of. On the other hand, an angry statue is not exactly a piece of cake either, but you can cross it, quite unlike angry parents. There are some things even twelve-year-olds shouldn’t be ashamed to be scared of.
“Let’s begin with something easier. And closer. It was you to first talk about a stub hour, Miles? It’s only half an hour left”.
The Barrayaran natural day, divided into 26 and a little more hours, left a short “stub” time before midnight. In all legends, superstitions and rumors known to the boys, it was just the time the supernatural picked to sally into the human world and color their boring life a bit.
“If it’s half an hour”, Miles agreed reluctantly, “then it ought to be here, we won’t manage to go far. Do I get it right, that nobody is afraid of the stone soldier in the hallways?” he slitted his eyes.
“I’m not afraid”, Ivan said immediately.
“And I’ll make the soldier go away”, Gregor claimed unexpectedly. “I’m the Emperor here. If I order him “backwards march!”, he’ll obey and leave!”
Miles gave him a measuring and skeptical look. Of course, he was hardly up to Gregor’s shoulder himself, but he suspected one needs to be a bit more formidable than a teenager in pajamas to scare off a statue.
“You don’t have what-d’you-call it, insignia!” he admitted regretfully. “And you had not been born yet, when the statue was carved. How is the stone soldier supposed to know you’re the real Emperor and not making it up?” He thought for a short while. “If only there were a real adult Emperor to order him… with a scepter and a sword.”
“Where are you gonna get another Emperor?” Gregor sulked, being painfully touchy about the threats to his status.
“In a portrait!” Miles had an inspiration. “You have loads of them hanging in the Residence – all different ones! We need to go to an Emperor’s portrait and ask respectfully… No, not like that! We need to burn a death offering and ask the spirit to come!” he even jumped while sitting, excited by his own idea. “Nobody has been able to get the statue out of the Residence, but us!”
And he quickly attended to setting the mission up.
“Here, take this cookie plate. We are going to burn an offering right on it. And scissors. Where do you have ‘em, Gregor? In the bathroom? C’mon, get it here”.
Gregor automatically took the plate from Miles’s hands and even wiped off the crumbs, but then cleared his mind.
“You seem to command too much, Miles. You’d better fetch it yourself”.
“I’m not supposed to fetch anything, I’m your Master of the… of the Re-something… just like that old guy with the wand who always looks after everybody to stand where they’re supposed to during events, the music to play on time and your throne to stay on its spot!” Miles found his ground. “Ivan, than you fetch it. Now we are going to cut Gregor’s hair”.
“Why mine?” Gregor made a last attempt to resist.
“Don’t be so greedy, it was your idea after all!” Miles answered both convincingly and automatically.
“Miles, are you sure it was mine?”
“Whose else?” Ivan expressed his surprise, looking out of the bathroom door with a toothbrush and scissors in his hands. “Besides, Dorca is your great-grandfather, not… oh”.
Being more quick-witted, Miles giggled, and Ivan had to finally apply such a boring thing as Vor genealogy to himself.
“C’mon, Ivan, cut his hair!”, the self-proclaimed Master of Revels encouraged his cousin. “Don’t be so greedy. You know what happens to greedy boys? Once a boy went to the cemetery in the night to ask the dead about the treasures…”
“And so?..” inquired Ivan and Gregor simultaneously.
“And so… He left the scissors at home and he couldn’t cut some hair. He pulled out a hair - you know how painful it is! Then he took a lock of dog’s fur and burnt it. And then the ghost rose above the grave, and spoke to him “You’re going to learn what happens with greedy ones!” And he laughed with ghostly laughter, very scary, and pointed with his finger. The boy looked around – and saw a large black dog running across the cemetery towards him, with its eyes like fires and its teeth like this! He fainted, and when they found him in the morning, his hair was grey and he was bald like a ball!”
Nor for a very long time the young Emperor’s brain was occupied with the question how exactly they managed to decipher the victim’s hair color judging by the bald head. Even if these curses were not compatible, Gregor chose not to risk and to have his hair lopped.
They went to search for the right portrait with all necessary equipment: the plate, a box of chemical matches “Young Scout”, a decorative sachet disassembled to twigs, and a lock of hair in Ivan’s fist.
If not for the library, this story would have been doomed to end much earlier and in much more prosaic way – when the three young mediums had tried to brush past the guard at the door of the Emperor’s suite of rooms. The most frightening sight for them to encounter would have become undoubtedly the first-to-rush-there Sergeant Bothari’s face. But Gregor was lucky to quickly remember about the portrait above the fireplace in his library study.
The scene was most mysterious. They were unanimous in the decision not to turn on the light: first, it was against the rules, and, second, as soon as the window were lighted, the adults would show up to send Gregor and his guests into beds and boredom. The vaguely distinguishable portrait – Gregor assured them it was Dorca the Just, and the other two didn’t exactly feel like getting closer and having a look – was staring at them solemnly from the wall, its frame gleaming in the dim light. Ominous black shadows of tree branches were scratching against the windows, the full moon was giving silver light, and Miles secretly hoped a bat or at least a crow would fly beside the window.
To be honest, Gregor didn’t remember precisely if it was Dorca’s portrait or someone else’s, but he was absolutely sure they wouldn’t hang a man-on-the-street’s image in the Emperor’s library. So it was high time to have started. And have finished. The sooner the better, to have an honest right to boast afterwards, sitting in his comfortably familiar bedroom with the blanket wrapped around his body.
“Oh, Great Emperor,” Gregor started as ceremonially as he could, as over period of time having reviewed all historical holovids he had ever seen, “I, you descendant and rightful heir, am burning a Death Offering before you and ask you to appear and lend us your help in this hour of trial. I mean, we ask”, he bluntly broke the match and dropped it onto the plate, and then waved his flat hand above to make it burn.
A flame leaped up. The little ones jerked back. The fire made the shadows move on the walls, and it became apparent someone was hiding in the darkness.
“What a stench”, whispered Ivan and stepped closer to his cousin. “So what?”
Miles squinted at him and answered also in lower voice.
“So, he should speak. The lips on the portrait will move, his eyes will flash, he will hit the table with his wand and say…”
The words, that the layer of the oil paint on the canvas was to say, remained unspoken, because at this very moment there went a “boom!” like from copper cymbals behind their backs, the buzzer howled and something hissed shrilly.
Ivan cried out first. A naive young man, who had been listening to stories about black choking hand, walking sculptures and cemeteries the whole evening, couldn’t be blamed for taking them all too personally. Judging from the desperate howl, the hissing monster from the dark was already searching for him – for them all! – with his clawed paws, and one could not hesitate for even a second. All three of them rushed out of the study, nearly making a lump in the doorway.
Only then, flying down the corridor, they heard a distant knock at the door. But it scared the hell out of Gregor, who was extremely happy to see his guards, Bothari in his own person, and even both adult Vorkosigans together with the ImpSec chief.
Behind the escapers’ backs, the old long-case clock was striking midnight, and fire extinguishers were busy showering the trash burning on the plate.
That night Gregor, Miles and Ivan couldn’t fall asleep for a long time, at least not before they were humiliatingly given warm milk to drink, the security platoon on duty searched all the corners of the rooms, and Lady Cordelia had a short, but comprehensive conversation with them. But in the future this experience resulted in the completely new character in their scary tales: the fearsome figure of Fire Safety Inspector, who meticulously tore off the ears of all naughty children trying to make fire on the table.