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I had done all that history demanded

No one saw me leave the private dining room. The absence of witnesses was peculiar. The towering mahogany door, polished to a reflective gloss, was meant to be watched and guarded every hour of the day and night, regardless of whether the dining room was occupied. I gently shut the door behind me, not looking at my reflection. This was the moment I could expect to be arrested.

The velvet-draped hall was empty and unnaturally, deliberately quiet. My boots sank into the heavy carpet. I had resolved that my departing strides would be recognized as forceful and resolute, but in the early morning hours the regular crimson carpeting had been replaced, silencing my footfall. Another set of doors was left open and unguarded at the end of the hallway. I had been rigorously searched when I passed through them earlier, just as I had been searched at every other door in the palace-fortress.

Still no arrest. I admired Dzh.’s craftiness. The midnight dinner had been especially fine, Dzh.’s companionship especially gracious. Cheese pies garnished with raw egg yolks had been followed by broth-filled, pleated dumplings; slow-cooked kidney beans and corn bread; spicy skewered lamb and plum relish; meat stew in a walnut sauce; vegetable pâtés topped with pomegranate seeds; and walnut-enhanced chopped salads. Dzh. poured the wine himself, a full-bodied red from his native province. We spoke of the campaigns we had shared, Dzh. generously recalling my commitment, loyalty, and heroism. The stories were lies. This was what the smile was about. Dzh. knew that I knew they were lies and that I knew he was taking pleasure in my refusal to call them lies at this late hour, after my fate had been determined. Dzh. was smiling at my fragile hope that my fate hadn’t been determined, that this dinner wasn’t like other midnight dinners with which Dzh. had entertained certain former associates. These were dinners that I myself had arranged, followed minutes, hours, or days later by arrests that I was delegated to orchestrate, down to every last fatal detail.

Now I passed through soundless corridors into a ballroom and descended a wide formal staircase. At the bottom of the stairs, I should have been met by a detachment in military dress. I had stationed the honor guard there years ago. They were absent. The lapse was disgraceful, an insult.

I was being punished for the error in thinking that I had once been free to make choices.

Dzh.’s former associates were always arrested according to meticulously appropriate plan: Zin., proud of his military victories, as he addressed a graduating class of cadets; the ostentatiously uxorious Bukh. and his wife Sta., brought to an interrogation room where her testimony against him was read; Pyat., who had submitted a classified report on medical malfeasance, in the hospital, while struggling to recover from an unnecessary, mandated procedure; Kres., at his daughter’s sixteenth birthday party; Kam., at the lakeside summer house he had taken over from the late Nav., whose drowning he had arranged; Tukh., at home with his family; Kaz., at home with his family, Tom., at home with his family; the devoutly loyal Orl., by his best friend, Viz; the ravenous Gam., in the state delicacies store; Yeg., just as he discovered Bak. with his wife Mey., the three of them taken away in the same van; Yezh. on the street; and Ber., Vysh., Shum., and Frun. at cabinet meetings.

This morning’s de-peopling of the halls within the palace-fortress was intended to convey significance. Dzh. had selected this lonely walk for me because it generated the illusion of liberty while being so obviously an illusion. Dzh. knew that I had always prided myself on my freedom of action. I had behaved as if I recognized neither obligations nor fears, as if I were the freest of men. Dzh. wanted me to reflect on my pride. Dzh. was reminding me that I had never been free. I had always been subject to the needs of history. To Dzh.’s needs. Dzh. had set this up to make me think these thoughts.

At some point logic would demand my arrest. Dzh. represented a logical argument taken to its ultimate conclusion—but I continued unmolested down one corridor after another, through banquet halls and past administrative offices and unmanned guard posts and then into the ceremonial hall of mirrors, where I kept my head down. I exited into another corridor. The tread of my boots continued to produce no sound. I looked back. No mark either.

The boots carried me through the grand entrance hall with its gilt furnishings and crystal chandeliers. The hall had welcomed kings, princes, and state ministers. In another time, when we overwhelmed the palace-fortress’s defenders and forced ourselves through the gates, we had gaped at the splendor. Now I observed that after years of rough use, the surface of the marble floors had been restored. This work had been done since midnight. The hall gleamed, as if for a reception. But it was the opposite of a reception. Beyond the hall the main doors and gates to the palace square were swung open, the cold night air beckoning me forward. Here would be a good place to be stopped, if not by an honor guard or by the political police, then, as I left the palace-fortress, by a fusillade.

I was still free and still intact as I entered the great square as unguarded as the palace. The square was a strategically vital military zone, and even the first leader’s mausoleum had been left unprotected. It was our most sacred shrine, the totem from which Dzh. derived his legitimacy. The sharpshooters were gone from the top of the crenellated towers.

Now at least the heels of my boots were audible as they struck the cobblestones. The sounds carried across the square, singing like bullets against the walls of the palace-fortress, just as actual bullets had resonated against them years earlier. The night was lifting, and the cloud cover showed leaden, soggy streaks of gray. I could see my own breath, further evidence that I was still alive.

I passed beneath the arches of the centuries-old clock tower onto the sidewalk of the capital’s main boulevard, which at this hour should have been conducting the traffic of military and police convoys and industrial and food supply trucks getting the city ready for its strictly regulated day. Now, if I wished, I could have danced across the empty road. Surprised sparrows were making some tentative greetings to the coming dawn, unsure if their chirps were sanctioned. Closing the boulevard must have generated enormous logistical problems. Traffic would be backed up over the bridges. Other boulevards would be choked to a standstill. Military movements would be disrupted. Overnight factory shifts would have to be extended. Vital appointments would be missed. Dzh. had gone to an awful lot of trouble.

I was free. I could do more than dance. I could run. I had once been famous for my astounding escapes: from military ambushes, from blazing farmhouses, from prison cells, from explicit doctrinal contradictions. I knew how to disappear into a city. I could easily lose myself in a crowd and cross a heavily patrolled border undetected. I could run wherever I wished.

I knew better than that, even though I had once observed that the nearby buildings occupied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Admiralty were separated by a dark alley. The gap was to the left from where I was standing on the boulevard. I knew the alley led to a series of broken steps descending to the river’s bustling embankment. Small boats with commodious, rumpled tarps and below-deck holds regularly motored the river toward a distant bay’s international waters. But I turned right instead. The secret police headquarters were to the right, situated about five hundred meters from the palace square. The building was a massive edifice from another century that had taken on grim meaning in this one. Passersby looked away from its neobaroque yellow-brick facade.

I approached it in unfaltering, unflinching steps, the only moving thing on the boulevard. The secret police headquarters were meant to be even more impenetrable than the palace-fortress, with continuously manned machine guns placed behind the boulevard-facing windows. The building’s gates were open, unthinkably. I passed through them.

This was simply too extreme. The secret police’s security positions were deserted, the administrative offices unoccupied, the triple-bolted doors left unbolted. The secret police were the beating heart of the state. They guaranteed Dzh.’s personal safety. Dzh. had put himself in jeopardy simply to make a point. He could be a foolish man sometimes, even while exercising his ruthlessness.

Now that I had arrived, certain formalities were to be observed. I knew the procedures. I found the correct ledger in the administrative office, opened it, and wrote my name and identification number on the prescribed page. Prisoners were supposed to be held for interrogation before being sent to an uncontested trial and prison or internal exile or execution. The short-term cells (in which the accused might be left for years) were located in the building’s basement and carved out of cold, permanently wet stone. The windowless, airless cells were often flooded. To reach them, the manacled prisoners would have to descend a dark, twisting stairway, down which they were often made to fall. I didn’t fall now, descending unmanacled and unaccompanied.

Knowing my place in history, I took the revolver in my right hand.

The doors to the cell block were open. The cells themselves were locked but unoccupied. Where was Cha.? What had been done with Khe.? How about Abz.? I continued along the cell block, running my hands against the bars of the cells. The interiors of the cells showed no signs of recent habitation.

At the very end of the corridor, I reached a cell that had been left unlocked. Of course it was unlocked. The cell was lit by only a single overhead bulb, but I could see that there was a bunk, a washstand, a bucket, a small mirror, and a rough wooden table with a few things on it. I entered the cell and pulled the door shut. I noted that the lock to the door didn’t fall into place, but I was here. I had done all that history demanded.

I sat down on the wooden chair at the table. On the table was piled a stack of writing paper alongside a sharpened pencil, standard supplies for the newly arrested. The one item on the desk that wasn’t regular prison issue was the revolver, a Browning with which I was very familiar. It was my own gun, thoughtfully delivered from my home, where it had been locked in a drawer in the desk in my study, one of several sequestered on the premises.

A choice was being offered, between the pencil and the gun, but in fact there was never a choice. I was being punished for the error in thinking that I had once been free to make choices. Knowing my place in history, I took the revolver in my right hand.

As I lifted it, I realized from long experience with the implement that it was lighter than it should have been. I opened the gun. I spun the cylinder a couple of times. The chambers were empty. I lay the gun back on the table. I left the pencil too.

The unloaded gun reminded me of something. The gun reminded me that I myself was Dzh. I rose from the table and carefully pushed the chair back. I didn’t need to look at the mirror. I returned to the cell block, where the cells were still unoccupied. Where was Nugh.? Where was Xel.? I climbed the stairs and passed still-unguarded guard posts and empty, darkened offices. Outside the secret police headquarters, dawn was breaking with yet more gray. The boulevard still carried no traffic, and the air was remarkably fresh, almost as fresh as at my country estate. I strolled down the boulevard, savoring the solidity of the pavement and the power and freedom of an early morning stroll. The palace-fortress remained unguarded, and I walked the unsentried corridors back to my quarters and the private dining room, where at least the dinner plates had been removed.

At his desk, before he picked up the telephone, Dzh. made a list of those responsible for the lax security in the palace, the closing of the boulevard, and the abandonment of the secret police headquarters. The punishments would be swift and severe.