Fyodor had ruled his tiny eastern kingdom for 50 years. At the age of 70, he abdicated the throne to his eldest son and retired to a sprawling villa in the countryside overlooking the Carpathian Mountains. He had been stern but fair to his subjects, he thought, and had wielded his power to facilitate a prosperity hitherto unmatched in the history of the isolated land. Sometimes, for the good of the dominion, he had no choice but to make examples of those who resisted his sweeping decrees. To Fyodor, the crime of thwarting progress was most egregious and the collectivist-minded landowners who had refused to sell off their fertile acreage to trade-oriented government concerns got what they deserved.
But Fyodor had never directly overseen their fates, only issuing orders to his Imperial Guard to dispense punishments appropriate to their crimes. He had never even set foot inside the ominous slate-grey Justice Fortress that rose menacingly from the forest bordering the capital. Though he had told himself that his faith in the judgment of his dedicated Guard made his presence at the Fortress unnecessary, a part of him knew that if he had ever directly witnessed the treatment of criminals by his overzealous officers, he might have been horrified at what he saw. Once, when taking a late evening ride on his trusty steed through the outskirts of the forest, he had heard inhuman wails and blood-curdling screams emanating from the pitch black oubliette portal at the base of the structure. He dug his spurs into his horse’s flanks and returned to his castle at a brisk gait. Nothing was more distasteful to Fyodor than the prospect of guilt arising from personal responsibility.
But all of this was behind him now and Fyodor had decided to start a garden to occupy his time. He had cleared a large plot at the rear of the villa and planted roses, asters, chrysanthemums, geraniums and foxglove in perfectly symmetrical rows. According to this year’s almanac, the colorful floral array he had lovingly tilled was due to bloom any day now.
Fyodor had had a fitful sleep last night. His reveries had been haunted by strange visions of gnarled plant-bodied creatures with human faces distorted in agony. Not one to invoke superstition, he told himself that the unpleasant night had been caused by nothing more than a bad case of indigestion.
When he awoke, he ate a light breakfast and stepped out back into the cool air of the garden. From a distance, Fyodor could see that there had been visible growth overnight. He got closer to inspect the young plants and let out a gasp of surprise. All of the stems that had broken ground were black and hard to the touch. Rather than rising from the soil in straight vertical trajectories, they were twisted and plagued with ugly knotted tumors. Fyodor picked one from the row of chrysanthemums and took it inside for a closer inspection.
He laid the diseased young plant on the table in the drawing room and went back out for his morning walk.
When he returned to the villa at noon, he was shocked to find that the uprooted plant had flowered in his absence. But rather than displaying the pleasant violet florets typical of the bloom, an anguished human face stared back at him from atop the diseased black stem. Fyodor stumbled back a few feet in shock at what he was seeing. Composing himself, he snatched the disturbing plant from the table and hurled it into the dustbin.
That night, while he slept, the garden erupted in thousands of pain-wracked faces, each a frozen testament to unspeakable horrors suffered years ago by the filial-minded villagers who had been found guilty of treason by Fyodor’s notoriously stern Court of Requital. They shivered in the light evening breeze as their roots broached the surface of the soil and pushed themselves up and out of the ground.
A light tickling on his arm roused Fyodor from his slumber. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of early morning, he saw countless narrow black threads wrapping themselves around his extremities. Slowly, the tendrils crept across his body and contracted, constricting his movement and his breathing. Terrified, Fyodor bellowed for help but his attendants were fast asleep in the outbuildings that formed a ring around the main house. Unable to move his arms which were now pinned to his sides, he began to roll back and forth on his bed. His violent movements caused him to tumble to the marble floor where more of the sinister roots arose from hairline cracks and finished the complete mummification of his body.
Suddenly, Fyodor found himself strapped to an oaken Catherine Wheel in a windowless dungeon. He was no longer beset by the living black root system, but an audience of peasants was watching with rapt attention as a black-hooded beast of a man brandished a spiked club inches from his face. No one spoke, but Fyodor knew that the spectators were those who had suffered similar fates at the hands of the Imperial Guard while he had lounged in his castle with nary a thought about how justice was being dispensed in his name.
A horrifying realization suddenly came to his mind. At the top of his lungs, he shouted a desperate warning to his son that was stopped short by a vicious blow from his torturer’s mace.
The flowers now stand in colorful rows, a perennial testament to the late king who planted them. Though the villa is uninhabited and no one tends the garden, they appear each year in a verdant spontaneous rebirth, patiently awaiting the next regal retiree.