All Available Chapters (Working Title: THE TSARITSA’S GIFT)

Chapter One

 

Once there was a girl who dwelt in a small farmhouse on an island. The girl was small, but her fate was not. The island was small, but its reputation was not. As for the farmhouse, it was merely small, though also cozy and beloved. At least this was so, before.

Before and after: these are the lines that divide lives and stories. For Katrin-of-the-not-small-fate and her younger brother Cyril, there were two befores and two afters. First, the loss of their mamushka, and then a second loss, their tato. Mother and Father gone: two befores, two afters, and a world of change.

After, the siblings remained under the same thatched roof on the same small farm with its six hens and its orchard of apple and cherry trees. They stayed together in body, if not in spirit, for Katrin blamed her brother for their father’s death.

The stone wall enclosing orchard and cottage, or stonecote, as their mother had called it, abutted the grounds of a famed abbey on Talisfarne, an island bounded to the west by the Siren Sea and to the north by the Leviathan Sea, sometimes called the Sea of Worms. The abbey sheltered religious brothers and sisters and hosted an abbey school (also famous) where dukes and thanes from the five kingdoms sent their children for a princely education. Katrin and Cyril’s father had tutored at the school before his death.

The siblings might have left the stonecote and taken up residence in the abbey dormitories, for, as children to a tutor, they were entitled to be educated, fed, and housed without cost. Possibly, each hoped the other would move out, but both were stubborn, and neither had. They shared other traits besides stubbornness, of course. They had the same hair color (brown) and eye color (sea-gray), but perhaps most importantly, they shared the same longing to know things.

When Katrin had been four, she had mistakenly believed her name was “Katrin You Never Knew Such A One For Questions.” This was what her mamushka said when introducing her to others, whether to the bee-keep or abbey matron or the magister of the library. Katrin’s little brother Cyril had only a short name: “Cyril Such A Sweet Lad,” and Katrin was especially proud of herself for being able to recite her very long one, which was more than Cyril could do. She had learnt the entire thing by heart, like one of her father’s scholars memorizing a psalm.

When she was five, she learned her mistake.

“That’s not a real name,” said an older girl.

Katrin, offended but also curious, asked her mother for the truth of the matter.

“You are Katrin Halvorsdotter,” said her mamushka.

She was not Katrin You Never Knew Such A One For Questions after all.

However, it remained true that Katrin never tired of questions. Her habit of asking them garnered for her more facts than friends, but this did not dissuade her. At six, she was curious about many things: insects and trees and shrubs and people—but mostly she was curious about magia. This was perfectly understandable for a child growing up with the Siren Sea to the west and the Leviathan Sea to the north. Talisfarne was surrounded by fey creatures with magia in their very bones.

“Is it magia,” Katrin asked her mother one night at bedtime, “when you mix tonics and salves?”

Her mother looked thoughtful before she answered. “I suppose it is a kind of magia. One which the Most High gives to the daughters of Grandmother Yeva.”

Katrin and Cyril knew the stories of Grandmother Yeva and Grandfather Adam.

“Does the tsar forbid Baba Yeva’s sort of magia?” asked Cyril, always interested in what was lawful or unlawful.

“No, my darling,” said their mother, kissing his forehead. “But it is not true magia. The greatest magia of all is love, my dear ones. This, you will learn as you grow older.”

Katrin thought she understood what her mother meant. When shins were bruised, a poultice of Viklond arnica was all very well, but it was not so healing as her mother’s caress. Love was strong magia. Of course it was.

As Katrin grew older, her questions grew as well. Her father encouraged these questions as surely as her mother shook her head over them.

“The abbey sisters in the kitchen are always whispering, ‘Magia multiplies,’” said seven-year-old Katrin. “What does that mean?”

“It is part of an old saying,” replied her father. “Magia multiplieth, magia graceth, magia calleth.”

Katrin cared only about the first part of the saying. “How does it multiply?”

“Come,” said her father, taking her to their apple orchard.

Here, he exchanged the word “magia” for “miracle” and spoke of how a fallen apple rotted, died, and in time, birthed a tree sprung from its seed. “And see how greatly it multiplies?” He pointed to the other trees in the orchard.

This might have been magia, but it wasn’t the kind Katrin wanted to know about.

Katrin wanted to know about the magia that haunted the shores of Talisfarne. She wanted to know about sirens’ magia, or that of the Golden Fish in the story, or of the water worms that trod the deep out toward Viklond.

When she asked her mother or the abbey sisters about fey magia, they said, “Hush, hush.” They said it and they crossed their fingers and some spat over their left shoulder as well. Perhaps, thought Katrin, it was a subject for when she was older, like the begetting of children.

At eight, she turned again to her father. A scholar must surely know a great deal about magia.

If magia was found in the bones of the fey, did it live in her bones as well?

No.

Could she have some for her next birthday?

No.

For her next, next birthday?

Her father had put down his scroll and chucked her under the chin.

“We must obey the law of the tsar,” her father replied, taking her in his arms.

She snuggled close, breathing the scent of sage that seemed always to cling to his clothes. “Why does the tsar hate magia?”

“He does not hate it, nor forbid its use.”

“Then will you barter Brother Anton for the reliquary of magia he wears on a cord? For my name-day gift at the feast of Holy Ekaterina?”

“I cannot. The law forbids it. None may barter or sell or trade in magia.”

“Even when it is enclosed in a reliquary?”

“Even then. This is how we keep the Tsar’s Peace.”

“We keep the Tsar’s Peace by not killing rusalki and water worms,” said Katrin. “That is what Brother Anton says.”

“Yes,” replied her father, “by not killing sirens and worms, but also by not trafficking in their bones—”

“Which is where the magia lives,” said her younger brother Cyril, who had crept closer to hear the conversation.

“Can you see what a small step it would be,” said their father, “from dredging bones out of a siren graveyard to taking the life of a very old creature who has gone there to die?”

“That would be very wicked,” said Cyril.

“It would,” agreed their father.

“Someone who would kill a dying fey for her bones might also kill an old but not-quite-dying fey,” Katrin said slowly.

“Yes, child. So the tsar has forbidden all trade in siren bones or the ribs of water worms or—”

“The skeleton of a golden fish,” concluded Cyril, reciting it by heart.

Katrin frowned. Did this mean that only the very wicked possessed magia? She did not think Brother Anton wicked.

“Could magia bring me a friend?” asked Katrin.

This was the real question. She was old enough now to notice that whereas her brother had many friends, she had none.

“Let your tato get back to his studies,” said their mother. “Come and help me with the elderberry shrub.” In the same way that Katrin never ran out of questions, her mother never ran out of chores.

So Katrin would go and help her brother pluck the lacy flowers from the elderberry bushes, or gather the berries that had ripened, or trim the canes, after asking permission of the elderberry, of course. But while Katrin labored, the questions would gather and gather until, eventually, inevitably, they began to spill forth once more.

“She must join her brother at school,” declared Mamushka.

“I think she must,” agreed Tato. He added brightly, “Perhaps she will find a friend or two, as well.”

“Perhaps,” her mother said, less brightly.

At nine years of age, therefore, Katrin began attending lessons at the abbey school with eight-year-old Cyril. If she did not find friendship, she did find answers to many of her questions. She came to understand that whether it could bring her a friend or not, she was not likely to possess fey magia in her lifetime. No one in her family had passed reliquaries down in the days before the Tsar’s Peace had forbidden the making or buying or selling of these items. And so, at ten, Katrin began to take more interest in her mother’s “magia,” the herb-lore that Baba Yeva had passed to her daughters. She made a friend or two by tending the small injuries of her fellows, but the friendships tended to fade as the injuries improved. Katrin doubled down on her study of herb-craft. Perhaps those cured of greater maladies would be friendly for longer.

But lessons with her mother were cut short when Katrin was eleven and the family was visited by the pustule sickness. Even if Katrin had been better steeped in herb-lore, she was too overcome with fever to be of help. Baba Bogdana came and cared for them. “I am too stubborn to die of the pustule sickness,” declared the old woman. As Katrin’s fever lessened but her mother’s did not, Katrin’s thoughts turned once more to fey magia.

Was that a reliquary ring that Baba Bogdana wore on her gnarled finger? Too weak to rise from bed, Katrin begged the old woman for magia or miracle, whichever would make her mother well again. Katrin’s father recovered from the sickness, as did Cyril. So, too, did Katrin, waking in sound health one night as the abbey bells called for middle-of-night prayers. She padded, weak and slow, from her sleep pallet to watch Baba Bogdana as she hovered over Mamushka. Was the old woman chanting or praying? Invoking magia or beseeching the Most High for a miracle? Katrin, falling asleep at the foot of her parents’ bed, never found out. Her mother departed to Heaven before the bells called for dawn prayers, and Bogdana departed for the road outside the family’s cottage. It was too late to ask of the old herb-wife whether magia or miracle had failed to heal their mother.

By the time she was twelve, Katrin was a solitary creature who no longer asked questions about magia. If magia had failed, of what worth was it? If the miracle had not come, well, perhaps the Most High no longer performed them. Let the philosophers argue about the existence of miracles or the proper applications of magia. Katrin had chores. She had school. She had her mother’s herbal texts to study and herb beds to tend.

As for Katrin’s question about magia and whether it might gain her a friend? The question yawned and stretched, turned itself around three times, and settled for a long nap in an unused corner of her heart. If it stirred, she shushed it as one might a baby brother, lulling it back to sleep. Another three years passed away, and with them, Katrin’s father, too, passed away. Her questions, however, did not. For even those questions afforded the coziest spot by the fire do not sleep forever.

 

 

Chapter Two

Cyril Halvorsson stood at the edge of the Sea of Sirens, staring out at the rock hummock known as the Siren’s Footstool. He picked up a stone, smooth and cool, and turned it over in his palm. It had been a year since his father’s death, in these very waters. A year of blaming himself, a year of regrets. He clutched the stone tightly.

“Run, Cyril! Run for Father Mikhail and Padraig the blacksmith!”

These were the last words his father had spoken to him. The abbey bells had been marking the hour of nine. Cyril had run. But then he’d stopped, ducked behind a gorse bush, and turned to watch. By now, the marauders had made it ashore, a carcass in their stern, its silver scales stained with blood. Cyril felt ill. Was his father being brave or foolhardy? Cyril reached for his dagger. He should help. Should he help? Or should he run? Paralyzed with fear and indecision, he had done neither.

His father had spoken softly, warning the intruders they had broken the Tsar’s Peace. The attackers, siren hunters, had not spoken softly. The argument had grown violent and they had dragged Cyril’s father into the sea and drowned him, abandoning his body as they fled in their agile craft. The bells had chimed ten before Cyril had risen from where he had hidden. He walked into the sea, swam out, and recovered his father’s lifeless body.

That grim day had marked a new course for Cyril’s studies. Before he had pursued ecclesiastical law; after, he shifted his focus to the laws pertaining to magia, its lawful use and its unlawful gathering. Someday he would find those who had murdered his father, and he would see them punished according to the laws codified under the Tsar’s Peace.

Turning the stone in his palm again, once, twice, Cyril threw it into the sea, watching as it cut an arc across the azure sky before vanishing in the waves.

Since his father’s death, Cyril had ventured into the waters of the Sea of Sirens only once, for the race on the chill feast day of Holy Ekaterina. Despite the weather, he had won the swimming contest, as he did always, presenting the prize of a hazelnut torte to Katrin, as was his custom. She had not thanked him. Had not attended the festivities at all. Did she think it was an offense, to compete here, where their father had perished? He had not asked. The siblings no longer spoke.

After that however, he had swum only to the north of the island, in the Leviathan Sea. The water churned more violently to the north, and Cyril had gained strength in the months since. His shoulders had broadened, his chest grown barrel-like. In the sea, it did not matter that one of his legs was shorter than the other, one of his feet smaller. In the sea, none could surpass him.

Cyril had been born a perfect fish, according to his mother. “My little golden fish,” she would call him. He remembered less and less of her each year, but her kiss as she called him her perfect little fish—to this memory he held fast. There had been no tale young Cyril demanded more often than that of the Golden Fish who granted wishes to the poor but worthy.

For a time, Cyril had mistakenly believed his mother meant that he would one day transform into an actual Golden Fish, and he earnestly looked forward to the day when he might grant wishes to the poor but worthy. When he’d told this to his sister Katrin, she had laughed and said that the point of the tale was to be the poor but worthy person rather than the greedy and unworthy person. Cyril had shrugged. He didn’t want to be either person. He wanted to be the one giving wishes away.

A seabird squawked at him, bringing him back to the present. To this fateful place. The sea. The hummock. No, he would not swim here today. He turned from the sea and began the walk back to the abbey. He had to get off the island, away from the memories that haunted him as surely as fey haunted the deeps.

Once, it had been his chief desire to teach here like his father, but now, he was counting the days till he could leave Talisfarne behind. He would start afresh. He had a plan in place, and it was progressing well.

Dukes and lords and wealthy merchants needed someone among their household staff who specialized in Magia Law. Here at school, Cyril had the opportunity to befriend the sons of lords and wealthy merchants whose fathers would require someone like him. Cyril had always excelled as a scholar; lately he had added the arts of rhetoric and diplomacy to his studies. Who knew but that he might someday labor for the tsar himself? The tsar’s city was assuredly where he could discover who had killed his father. All dealers in the forbidden magia trade were drawn irresistibly to the great city of Nyiv. But first he had to get off the island. And to do that, he needed a position in a great household.

And to do that, he reminded himself, marching back to the abbey, he must bolster friendships, make strategic alliances, and, yes, occasionally fawn at the feet of those whose fathers could afford to keep a law scholar amongst their retinue.

Thus far, Cyril had avoided parting from his cottage home and moving into the dormitories, but perhaps it was time to do this. Because he lived at a distance from the other scholars, there were japes and capers he was not a part of, and these sorts of things increased the bonds between school fellows. These very madcap adventures might be what would get his foot in the door with a lordling who could gain him a position.

Perhaps it was time to give up on Katrin, and the hope that she would forgive him. Forgive him? Holy Yosip and Maria! He would settle for her speaking to him once in a while. But perhaps he should move on. Soon enough, he would leave Talisfarne forever. He ought to see Brother Ignatius about transferring the family stonecote and its lands to Katrin. She would like that. Or perhaps she would simply stare at him and say nothing, as was her habit these many months.

He told himself he did not care, tasting the lie of it as he crested the low hill.

 

Chapter Three

 

The Isle of Talisfarne ought, properly, to have been under the governance of nearby Danehelm or nearer Viklond or even not-so-near Celtvas. It lay as close to these lands as to those pertaining to the Tsar. But the rulers of these lands had not wanted such a troublesome island, disturbed as it had been by water fey who would as soon kill you as look at you. The monks of an ascetic Celtvas order had been the only ones willing to call Talisfarne “home.” This had been in the time before the Tsar’s Peace, before it had become unlawful to hunt the water fey haunting Talisfarne’s shores.

In those days, the fey had been tempting trophies. If their bones were ground to dust and worn in reliquaries, they imparted gifts humans desired, such as fortitude against disease, glamours to increase beauty, and the gift of speech that could convince others to do what might be against their best interest. The fey, likewise, were tempted to attack mortals and eat their flesh because of what it imparted: the ability to understand and speak human language. It also imparted cunning and covetousness, and the fey found these attributes … useful.

Because none of the five kingdoms wanted the trouble of protecting the monks of Talisfarne, the island bounced from nationality to nationality for centuries. But then a wise tsaritsa had bargained for the island as part of a marriage settlement for her daughter. The wise tsaritsa, consort of Pyotr the Peaceful, considered herself lucky to get it, even at the price of her daughter’s hand to the churlish Thane of Celtvas. If the daughter begrudged the husband, she had been too practical to begrudge the bride-price paid to her homeland. Siren bones were said to fairly litter the island’s shoreline, could one but gather them without risking becoming a siren’s meal. The wise tsaritsa whispered to her husband how this might be accomplished.

Tsar Pyotr the Peaceful had listened to his wife. Had nodded. Had visited Talisfarne and held council with those watery fey who had gained human speech—not inquiring too carefully as to how this might have happened—and he had enacted the Tsar’s Peace between the denizens of water and those of land. No longer would water fey be hunted by humans. No longer would humans be pursued by silver-scaled fey. It was safe to go in the water.

Shortly after, the sirens, bobbing with their lovely breasts hid below the surface and their lovely eyes cast down so as not to entrap the hearts of men, declared they would move their burial grounds away from the island’s shore where the view of circling water fey might give alarm to human residents. At first the tsar and tsarina had thought this disastrous. The point of the peace treaty had been to make it possible to safely plunder the siren graveyard! All seemed lost. However, though the fey collected the visible bones of their dead mothers and grandmothers, they seemed not to care about any remains sunk out of sight. Whether this was because they had short-lived memories or didn’t care about any relations beyond two generations was never ascertained.

What was certain, however, was that an abundance of old bones remained behind, obscured below silt just along the shore. There were fortunes to be made by those subjects of Pyotr the Peaceful who got to the Isle of Talisfarne early. The buried and barnacled bones of water fey that were scattered along the island’s shore were dug up, ground into dust, and hoarded by those lucky enough to have gotten in while the getting was good. In less than a generation, the shores had been scoured. Family fortunes were made, and most of the time not lost, because exceptionally good health, fairness of appearance, and a silver tongue were useful for keeping fortunes intact.

However, the sharp rise in fortune of so many boded ill for the stability of Tsar Pyotr the Peaceful’s reign. Pyotr the Peaceful had no intention of becoming Pyotr the Ousted. He appended a separate set of laws to the Tsar’s Peace. It became unlawful to transport fey bones, siren or otherwise. It was likewise unlawful to render fey bones into powder, the form in which bones might serve a human without driving them mad, as solid bones would do. It was similarly unlawful to prepare reliquaries—small, decorative containers which prevented direct contact between bone dust and human skin. On pain of death and confiscation of land and title, it became unlawful to engage in any way with the gathering, transporting, preparing, or selling of fey relics.

Using the magia of items one already owned was another thing altogether, of course. The wording of the law, ah, that was the thing. Only the sourcing of magia was outlawed, not its use. The Tsar used magia, when it served his purposes, as it must have often enough. There were church fathers said to use it, hucksters suspected of using it, and even bent-backed old crones who promoted the rumor that magia formed the better part of their cures.

Tsar Pyotr the Peaceful managed to keep his throne. He passed it to his son Vasily the Magnificent, who was not above accepting gifts of reliquaried magia in exchange for advancement at court.

Vasily’s disapproving son, Tsar Yuri the Pious, put an end to that. He also took an interest in the old Celtvas abbey on the Isle of Talisfarne. He removed the Celtvas Thane’s bishop, replacing him with one who spoke good Rusi. In less than a generation, the Celtvas-speaking monks of Talisfarne became speakers of the Rosiyska tongue, or at worst, of Grecchi and Romansk.

Yuri the Pious also established a center for study within the abbey, to nourish and train scholars pursuing the very things for which fey bones had once been sought: the understanding of how to promote health, to produce beauty, and to improve rhetoric. The island’s population doubled as scholars descended, only too happy to have their daily needs met in exchange for long nights combing (or composing) useful texts. A secondary population grew up as well, supporting the needs of the scholars. Soon a school for young scholars was established, and it was at this abbey school that Katrin and Cyril’s father taught, or had taught, prior to his drowning during Katrin’s fifteenth year. Katrin and her brother had thus always lived on the Isle of Talisfarne, only slightly apart from the abbey on the farm inherited from her mother’s side of the family. Katrin had taken for granted the island’s mish-mash of culture and its infrequent snows and its ceaseless rains. It was good country for apples, cherries, sheep, and inquisitive girls.

Today, however, as sixteen-year-old Katrin scratched her head over the proving of Euclid’s fifth proposition, she was beginning to think that girls who had married and begun the birthing of large broods might have been cleverer than she, after all. Would it really be so bad, waking at the side of someone who lived for her smile? Quick-witted, he must be, and no stranger to hard work, and if he were handsome? Well, Katrin wouldn’t complain. Eyes of bright blue, perhaps? All in her family had sea-gray eyes. A change might be nice.

Her gaze fell back to the unproven proposition. It looked as impossible as ever.

“I give up,” she declared.

(She hadn’t.)

“I hate Euclid,” she added.

(She didn’t.)

But it was time for a stretch and something with which to break her fast. And she should probably wake her brother and raise an eyebrow to remind him that his Grecchi wasn’t going to translate itself. But instead, she settled on the hearth’s inglenook, choosing the side that had been Mamushka’s. She did not gaze not at the fire (as Mama would have done) but out the window opposite (as Tato would have done.) At the orchard.

The orchard consisted of three-and-twenty apple trees and two cherries, Tato’s gift to Mama when they had married. The trees had grown and come into fruit before Katrin had turned two. It was hard for her to imagine the snug walled garden as the sheep enclosure it had been previously.

A few tree limbs were visible in the pre-dawn gray of morning. Katrin would have to pick the last of the apples soon. Tomorrow or the next day at the latest. She leaned across to the opposite side of the hearth. To the seat that had been Tato’s, which she had commandeered as an apple-drying station. She picked up one of several dozen apple rings and bit into it.

“Almost,” she murmured, chewing thoughtfully. Too dry and the apple rings chewed like bark. Too wet, though, and the rings would rot during the long, damp winter.

She was just deciding to wake her brother when Cyril treadled into the room on his own.

He didn’t really treadle, of course, but his uneven gait reminded her of the treadle of Mamushka’s spinning wheel: up-down, up-down, up-down. The wheel, like many of Mama’s things, lay untouched. It rested where it always had, beneath the window that overlooked the orchard. It had been a fixture of the house for generations, and was of Celtvas make. It wanted oiling and the leather drive band had slackened and would need to be replaced. After Tato’s death, Katrin had abandoned the wheel. She had only worked it before because she knew it pleased him to watch her spin as her mother had done. Katrin told herself that perhaps she would take it up again, someday, but for now it sat abandoned, too much a reminder of those who were no longer part of her life.

“Is there any chai?” Cyril asked, shuffling into the room.

He asked the same question most mornings. Katrin had long since stopped encouraging him to make it himself. For the better part of a year, the entirety of daily conversation between them had consisted of Cyril asking, “Is there any chai?” and Katrin not answering.

It hadn’t occurred to Katrin that her brother could think of no other way to start a conversation.

It was true that Mama had always prepared the samovar each morning for chai, but it was also true Tato had given the same quarter-hour to feeding the sourdough starter or chopping firewood or pitting dried cherries. Cyril did none of these tasks. Thus Cyril was welcome to make his own chai, if he wanted it so badly. He didn’t, of course.

Most every morning, he left before breaking fast to join the monks and sisters and scholars in the Great Hall where the chai was free and seemingly never-ending. This was rumored to be accomplished through magia, though Katrin doubted it. In any case, Cyril’s habit was to have chai with others and leave the wood-chopping and cherry-pitting and apple-drying to his sister.

For a month or two after Tato’s death, he’d muttered that the Great Hall and study rooms were warmer places to spend their days, so why chop wood? Their meals could be had for nothing at the abbey, so why gather apples? He’d argued and rationalized and avoided the chores Katrin had asked him to do, and eventually she’d stopped asking, and eventually they’d stopped talking. Except for the daily question concerning chai.

When Katrin didn’t answer the question, Cyril treadled to the front door where his cloak and boots awaited him. He shoved his larger foot into his smaller boot and, on discovering the mistake, uttered a curse.

Their father would have lectured Cyril sternly about the use of strong language and letting his yes be yes and his no, no.

“I’ve asked you,” Cyril said to his sister, “to leave my boots be.”

She nearly snapped back that he should hang them up properly, as Tato would have done, but she’d vowed not to speak to Cyril until he started doing chores.

Cyril huffed and grumbled and shrugged into his cloak. His gait looked stiffer than usual as he departed the cottage for tutors or prayers or whatever it was he did these days between sun-up and midnight. Katrin would have to mix up more of the arnica and comfrey salve for him and sneak it into the pot beside his comb and tooth pick. She kept silent on this small kindness, as she did on all things concerning her brother.

After he’d gone, Katrin stared at the door. At the hooks that still held Mama’s furs and boots, Tato’s cloak and boots. Cyril should hang up his own boots, if he didn’t want mice curling up inside one of these nights. The family’s only mouser, Leo, had abandoned the cottage not long after their father’s death. Perhaps Leo, too, blamed Cyril for Tato’s death. Katrin sometimes saw the cat sunning himself outside the abbey kitchens. She didn’t try to make Leo come home. What kind of a home was it now, anyway?

She hadn’t abandoned it for a room in the dormitorium with other scholars, however. What had she in common with them? And besides, the cottage was still dear, even if those who had filled it with love were no more.

A flapping of white wings outside drew her attention. One of their six hens lurched inelegantly from the branch where it roosted by night. If the hens were up, then the day was officially begun. There were apples to bring inside. Wood to chop. And after, lessons with tutors and prayers with everyone, followed by more lessons, followed by a long, dull evening alone in the cottage, where she would think about how things might have been different. About how it might have been if Cyril had drowned and not her father.

She rose, grabbed her boots from the wall hook, and shoved her feet inside. Passing the spinning wheel, she allowed herself to dream once again of a blue-eyed love, gazing on her, enchanted, as she turned fleece into yarn. “Someday,” she murmured before slipping outside to begin chores.

Chapter Four

 

It was three days before sixteen-year-old Ilya Bartholomeyevich Perelkov was supposed to return to school on the Isle of Talisfarne. He stood in the hall waiting for his father Duke Bartholomes to invite him into his offices. Ilya had made a fine summer of it. He’d stayed up late like the midnight sun, with and without “companionship,” and then slept in most mornings. The duke’s estate was far enough outside the boundaries of the tsar’s great city that the bells calling the devout to prayer could barely be heard, unless the wind was blowing the wrong way.

All summer, Ilya had been awaiting an opportunity to speak with his father. Duke Bartholomes had been often away, busy with pressing matters as he managed his vast empire. It was not an empire of land and boyars, like the tsar’s. Bartholomes was a merchant, sourcing and processing and selling the ground bones of fey creatures. That the trade was unlawful did not disturb him, for it was also profitable. Like his fathers before him, Bartholomes controlled trade of this variety of goods within the great city of Nyiv and beyond.

It was a trade Ilya would one day inherit. Outside his father’s office this morning, he was in hopes that the duke had summoned him to say the day had arrived for Ilya to manage some aspect of the family trade instead of returning to school. School had its charms, or course it did, but Ilya was itching for change. For one thing, he was ready to have a purse to call his own, instead of relying on his father for every little pressing bill. The money might come from the same pot, but being paid was better than begging for coin.

Earlier this month, he’d had his first sign that his father saw him as more than a boy. His father had hosted a succession of minor princesses as potential brides for Ilya. Some had been pretty, even. All, wealthy, and all hailing from northerly regions where Ilya knew his father wished to expand the family business. Ilya couldn’t wait—not for the nuptials—but for expanding the trade. For taking part in growing what would one day be his.

He’d been groomed to take over since his third birthday when his father had brought him to these same offices and pointed to two tables. On one rested a peeled branch of birch. On the other, a very large honey cake. Ilya had been asked to choose whether he would prefer to be whipped with the birch or fed the cake.

“Cake,” Ilya had replied, gazing at it eagerly.

“Very well,” Bartholomes had said. And then told him that to avoid the whip and gain the cake, he must stand before his father’s desk all day without making pee-pee.

Ilya had been whipped with the birch.

Similar lessons were offered at monthly intervals and when heraldry drifted across borders to influence the Tsar’s boyars, Bartholomes styled his coat of arms to include motifs of birch and cake. Things continued like this until Ilya was six and old enough to be sent to study under the scholars of Talisfarne. The choice of the abbey school was obvious. The family had been sending their heirs to the school on the fey-haunted island since the day it had opened its doors, and Ilya knew his father’s men plied these waters when supplies ran low.

Ilya’s great, great grandfather had been one of the first of Pyotr the Peaceful’s subjects to make it to Talisfarne and plunder the riches below silt and sand. Those riches had paved the way for greater riches. During the days of Ilya’s great grandfather, however, the siren graveyard had been all but exhausted of bones, and they had begun to look elsewhere for raw material. The old duke had even engaged the services of a water worm who didn’t mind flouting the Tsar’s Peace, slaying the odd siren and bringing her corpse to the duke’s men. Although really, the worm wasn’t breaking the law. There was no prohibition on fey killing fey. But the family made certain to compensate the worm well for these services, beginning a long and complex relationship with the watery leviathan, whom they called Oleksei, since the worm kept hidden the name by which it called itself.

Last year during school, Ilya had learned of Oleksei’s sudden death. Or perhaps it had been two years earlier? He wasn’t certain. What was certain was that there had been hiccups in managing the trade ever since, although the bones of the ancient creature had provided no small amount of raw material. Had this perhaps run out at last? It might explain why his father had been away so frequently. From his mother, Ilya knew the duke had been negotiating with Oleksei’s heir and successor, a juvenile worm whom the duke’s grandfather had sequestered inland before Ilya’s birth.

The juvenile worm was Oleksei’s only surviving hatchling. Worms saw their spawn as competition and often ate all but a single egg, allowing it alone to emerge alive. Oleksei had been very pleased to accept the old duke’s offer to trap the young worm inland. Dwelling inland was not unheard of for a worm. The tsar himself was said to keep a worm in the cataracts beside the palace to stave off invaders seeking to cross the river.

A worm could live inland, but if it remained for too long, it would age out of its chance to metamorphose into a sea-dwelling leviathan. It might grow angry at such captivity. Ilya could feel sympathy with such a plight. If it were true that the worm had eaten two of the duke’s doughtiest swordsmen, well, who wouldn’t be angered by never-ending confinement?

It was said that young worms fought—and ate—their sires, once they underwent metamorphosis. Here, too, Ilya felt a kindred spirit. At least, he understood the impulse to be free of one’s father. Sometimes Ilya thought that was why heirs such as himself were sent off to school—to prevent their slipping poison into their father’s chalice, or a dagger into his ribs.

Like his forebears, Ilya had good reason to fear and hate his father. He’d gone to school with a sense of relief to be out from under the terrible man’s thumb. At their parting, the duke had instructed Ilya to study all the major languages of trade, to learn to speak so as to always win his point, and to practice indignations on other scholars without getting caught or reported.

In his second year at school, Ilya had been caught for cheating on exams and reported for breaking the nose of a fellow scholar. When Ilya’s father was notified by the Dean of Scholars, Ilya had his first lesson as to the long reach of his father’s dreadful arm. Duke Bartholomes sent one of his men to Talisfarne to inflict a whipping which was not to end prior to shed blood and might, at the inflictor’s will, be continued after it. This was in addition to the punishment the school had prescribed. Ilya learned to avoid getting caught. As he grew older, he suspected this was the lesson his father had wished to impart.

At any rate, Ilya had ceased compelling others by means of physical violence. Inflicting violence at school meant increasing the chance he would be reported to abbey authorities and visited by one of his father’s heavies. To avoid these visits, Ilya practiced the fine art of manipulation. He won allegiance where he could, compelled it by blackmail where he could not. By age twelve, he had a network of spies whose loyalty the Tsar would have envied. And he knew how to use the information in ways the Tsar’s spymaster would have applauded.

He thought it wisest to keep this from his father. Or at least to hide it until he had a sound reason for revealing it. Perhaps today was the day. One way or another, he was determined that his father should not return him to school this year. He shifted his feet, causing the ancient fir floorboards to creak. The sound, so familiar, sent a shiver along his spine. He knew that neither birch nor cake awaited him within, today. He knew, but still he trembled.

At last, a servant opened the door and Ilya entered his father’s offices.

“You depart soon I believe?” His father asked the question without looking up from a dispatch he was reading.

“In years past I have done so, my lord.”

“Only another year or two now,” Bartholomes remarked before taking a pinch of snuff.

“It was about that I hoped to speak with you sir. I believe I have learned all that I can at school, and I should like to propose that I remain here so that I might serve you, my lord.”

“No.”

The answer was brief and decided.

“It is only that I think—”

Bartholomes cut his son off with a raised hand. “My answer is no. You will leave school when I say so, and not before.”

Ilya swallowed his frustration. Push harder, and the birch whip might be brought forth. Ilya was fairly certain his father cut and peeled them regularly.

“There’s been trouble with our new procurer.”

“With the leviathan?” asked Ilya, eager for information. It had to be a tricky business, establishing a working relationship with a monster who could eat you in a single bite. Two, at most. He was glad that the onerous task had not fallen on him. The new beast would likely live until Ilya himself had grandchildren. Finding a new worm would become someone else’s problem, which was just fine by Ilya.

“Yes, with Alastor Olekseyevich.”

“Alastor?” asked Ilya. “Is that not a Celtvas name?”

“I know not. Perhaps it was the name of his last victim.”

“What sort of trouble is the creature making, sir?”

Ilya’s father exhaled heavily.

“He has made unreasonable requests, which I have denied. He now threatens that when he is released, he will make such a nuisance of himself at sea that the tsar would be forced to rescind the treaty between humans and the water fey.”

“But that would mean—”

“That it would become legal for any peasant to kill fey and harvest the bones. Yes. I am aware.”

Ilya struggled to take in the enormity of the threat posed by this single worm. His future empire could be threatened if the worm—if Alastor—made good on the threat. Small wonder his father was so preoccupied.

“In any event,” continued Bartholomes, “it will not be possible for me to bring you into the trade this year. Until we sort things with Alastor or his successor, you are to remain in school. Learn another language. Study geography.”

“Sir, I speak five languages already—”

“And your grandfather spoke thirteen at your age.”

Ilya was silent. This was most unfair. His grandfather’s father had remarried many times, each new step-mother bringing him a new tongue. Besides, some of those thirteen languages were merely dialects and not entire new tongues. But Ilya knew better than to protest.

“Yes, sir. Of course, sir.”

“Call up a siren and send me the bones, if you’re so eager to be of assistance,” his father muttered dryly.

Ilya smiled at the sarcasm. But then … his father was not given to jest.

Was he serious? Surely not. Everyone knew years of training were required to take on a siren. Ilya could not possibly succeed at such a task.

Bartholomes shuffled through stacks of parchment as if searching for something important. At last he looked up.

“Is there anything else?” he asked his son.

Should he ask his father if he meant it, about the siren? Probably not. His father would laugh at him and call him a child for taking it seriously.

The duke was still staring at him. Ilya licked his lips and turned the subject.

“How do you mean to rectify the situation with Alastor, my lord?”

His father brought the tips of his fingers together. “I fear we might be reduced to eliminating him and starting afresh with some other worm. We’ve built and supplied the cabin already.”

“The cabin, sir?”

Bartholomes frowned. “I suppose you must be ignorant of these matters. By what means would you attempt to overcome and slay a worm?”

“With a sword, I suppose. Or … one of the newer crossbows?”

Bartholomes’s mouth quirked in irritation. “Neither possesses the strength to pierce the hide of a worm. Even a juvenile.”

Now Ilya was puzzled. If they could not be killed with weapons, then how was it to be done? With cannon fire, perhaps?

“Poison,” said his father. “It’s the only way. There are tales of a dozen men succeeding against a very young juvenile, but the body count is always high. The skill required to defend oneself from a leviathan is long in the acquiring. Terrible use of resources to send a dozen trained men after a beast in that way.”

“Indeed, my lord. How, if I may ask, is the poison administered?”

Bartholomes smiled grimly as if recollecting something.

“Your grandfather used to threaten me with using your mother. Blood of tsars in her veins, of course. That’s key.”

Ilya was baffled. How was his mother supposed to defeat a beast that twelve highly trained warriors would quake to face?

“No idea how the beasts can sniff out royal blood,” continued his father. “But they can. They will eat ordinary folk as well, but they prefer royal blood. You poison a young woman of the blood royal, you see, and then leave her as bait for the beast. When the beast finds and eats her, it consumes the poison and dies as well.”

Ilya’s brows rose. He knew his grandfather’s reputation as a heartless codger, but this? Though, perhaps he should not be surprised.

“Is that how you mean to eliminate Alastor,” asked Ilya, “should it become necessary?”

“Let us pray it does not. Your mother’s too old now to pass for a tasty princess. There’s you or your sister. Works better with a young girl than boy, though. Or so I’m told. For all I know, the lore may be the lies of misogynists. Still, best to treat it all as true, just in case it is true.”

Was his father in earnest? It was probably better not to ask….

“But,” continued his father, “I do not mean it to come to that. I have plans within plans. Or perhaps Alastor will be reasonable.”

“We must hope so,” said Ilya. He didn’t want to imagine what an intractable worm might be like. Perhaps going back to school would not be so bad after all.

“Was there anything else?” asked his father.

“No sir. Only … the best of luck with Alastor, my lord.”

“These things require cunning, not luck,” his father said tartly, perusing a fresh stack of parchment.

“Of course, sir.”

“You are dismissed,” his father said abruptly laying hands on the document he had been seeking.

Ilya left the room.

~ ~ ~

Ilya’s final visit to his mother was far less anxiety-producing. In fact, she had called to present him with additional magia. They met in her private chambers where she led him to a cabinet containing curios and several small, locked chests. When he’d been a boy, Ilya had imagined these contained fabulous jewels which his mother might wear for a visit from the tsar and tsaritsa. He was not far wrong; the chests contained his mother’s reliquaries, gifted and inherited. As the wife of Duke Bartholomes, she had never needed to stoop to buying reliquaries. No, her record was clear of such unlawful transactions.

As Ilya stood waiting, his mother undid the locks guarding one of the larger chests. He knew this chest well. Inside were his mother’s most powerful reliquary objects. Power stored in reliquaries was curious. Objects that were powerful for one person might be less so—or more so—for another person. Affinities for certain objects tended to run in families, though, so Ilya knew that whatever she meant to offer him, there was a good chance it would work powerfully for him, as it had for her.

His mother held up two nearly identical golden chains; upon each hung a small filigreed ornament. Both ornament and ornamentation held magia. The ceramic glaze on the filigree was mixed with the ground bones of a magical creature, while the vials contained unalloyed bone dust. His mother set one of the two ornaments on a tray and placed the other back in its cushioned case. In the same manner, she chose four of six rings, one of two snuff boxes, and so on, until seven reliquaries sat out in full display upon the tray.

It was a knight’s ransom.

“Choose two,” said his mother. “Pay attention to which one calls to you.”

Magia calls. It was one of the three tenets.

Magia multiplieth. Magia graceth. Magia calleth.

The tenets were spoken slightly differently in each of the languages Ilya knew, but the meaning was the same everywhere. Magia multiplied wellbeing, gifted grace and beauty, and called to a listener to accede to improbable requests.

“Relations between your father and his new leviathan are uneasy,” his mother said as she regarded the objects. “I wish you to wear additional protection in case … well, these are difficult times. You may have need of more magia to ensure your safety if things do not go as your father plans.”

Ilya knew suddenly that she was trying to tell him that his father might soon face death, in which case Ilya would ascend to the dukedom. He would be at his most vulnerable in his first months as duke.

“Thank you, my lady mother.”

His gratitude was sincere. His father had not bothered to ensure he was any better protected.

“Go on then,” said his mother. “Choose three.”

Had she not said two, only a moment earlier? He looked up to meet her eyes. Though she had always seemed distant, he saw fear there as well as unexpected softness.

“Are you proud of me, mother?”

The words were out of his mouth before he could stop them. He would never have dared to ask this of his father. He wasn’t sure why he wanted the answer from his mother. Weakness. Or vanity, which the monks taught was weakness. Was it, though?

“Of course, my son. Your father and I are very proud of you.”

In the first reply, he heard truth. In the second, he was less certain. He wished, not for the first time, that magia allowed a person to gaze into the mind of another and determine the truth or falsity of what they had said. But it did not.

He fixed his eyes on the objects on the tray and picked up one of the rings.

“Father said I ought to call up and slay a siren,” Ilya said, again without checking the impulse to speak. “I cannot tell if he spoke in earnest or not.”

His mother made a derisive noise in her throat before muttering something contemptuous about “the old ways.”

Ilya placed the ring on one finger. It would not pass over his knuckle, so he tried a smaller finger.

“In your grandfather’s day,” his mother began, “they held that the next heir to the family trade must prove himself capable of collecting magia in its … raw form. By slaying a rusalka.”

“A siren?” Ilya asked, using the term specified in the Tsar’s Peace.

“Yes, a rusalka of the sea,” replied his mother, sticking to the name used in the dialect of her youth.

Ilya flexed the hand on which he’d placed the reliquary ring. He felt nothing, no special “call” or hint of additional power.

“Was Father required to prove himself in this manner?” asked Ilya, slipping the ring from his finger and setting it back on the tray.

“Your grandfather discontinued the custom. Let us pray your father does not mean to revive it,” she said in an undertone, as if fearful of being overheard even though she had already dismissed her ladies and guards.

“How is it to be done?” asked Ilya, examining the objects that remained. “Finding and slaying such a creature?”

“Singing is the best way to call them,” his mother replied. “And it must be a young virgin who sings.”

“Why a virgin?”

His mother shrugged.

“It is in all the tales.” Then she smiled wryly. “As I recollect, you never had time for stories. But it must be a virgin. Also, the greater the skill of the singer, the more effective the call.”

Ilya nodded and picked up another ring, weighing it in his palm.

“But your father cannot have spoken in earnest,” said his mother. “He would have sent you out with the huntsmen if he truly intended to revive the barbaric old ritual. He would have had them train you for a season or more. And, Ilyushka, little though you may like his ways, your father is more refined and not less so than your grandfather. He runs his trade at a distance from anything so coarse as the … acquiring side of the business.”

Ilya nodded, reassured. His father was notoriously cautious, keeping himself always at one remove from what could be proven to break the Tsar’s Peace. He would not so much as travel in the company of one of his merchants when they were in possession of unlawful goods.

“Try that ring,” said his mother, indicating the one resting in his palm. “It was always good to me.” A small smile crossed her face. “You’ll be surprised how much easier it is to get people to do what you want when you’re wearing the right reliquary. Like nothing your magister of rhetoric could ever hope to teach you.”

Ilya did not doubt it. There were aspects of rhetoric and its application where the magister could have learned a thing or two from him.

He tried on the ring. The “call” was not there, however. He grabbed the snuff box. He didn’t snort snuff, so he hoped it wouldn’t call to him. It did not. When he lifted the necklace though, a sort of settled-ness seemed to possess him. As if it wasn’t so outrageous that he should catch and slay a siren—before it could return the favor.

“That’s it,” murmured his mother, evidently noting a change in her son’s demeanor. “Now choose another, and another.”

He picked up a toothpick case, a thimble (because that would be easy to explain), and finally the only remaining ring.

“This ring,” he said, with the same certainty as before. It was remarkable how clear the difference was between the items.

She pressed both a third item—a brooch—and a fourth item—an earring—on her son. He felt a sort of distaste for the fearfulness which drove her to dispense gifts. But he was not a fool. The objects, even if unnecessary, were valuable. Selling but one of them would set him up with a fat purse and all the amusement that it could buy, since he had no choice but to return to the Isle of Talisfarne. Now, at least, he was less likely to grow bored.

 

Chapter Five

 

Diogenes drank his watered kvass and stared gloomily at the few remaining merchants in the taberna. No one, it seemed, was hiring. Despite his seventeen years and scant beard, Diogenes was a good tracker. A superior deliver-of-goods. And an excellent woodsman, never once losing his way. Possibly he was the best woodsman of his age, and he made this assessment while he was solidly sober. Not that Diogenes was given to strong drink; he considered it a waste of good coin, especially now that he was down to only two copper pieces.

The last of his silver, he’d lain out for others to drink yesterday, hoping one of them would know of a wealthy city dweller in need of someone to carry goods or a message through the vast forests to the north or south. He was their man, he’d said again and again, his smile muscles aching from grinning and greeting, grinning and greeting. For three days now, he’d hailed every trader who’d crossed the transom, with nothing to show for it but an empty wallet and an emptier belly.

The alewife was giving him dark looks after having been repeatedly rebuffed in her attempts to convince him to buy or be gone. When her sons, strapping lads, returned this evening, he would probably have to depart. He was in no condition to bash heads, and besides, doing so would earn him a ban on returning, and this taberna was the foremost place to see and be seen by those needing the transportation of goods.

The alewife’s tiny daughter was pulling silly faces at him instead of giving him dark looks. He spared her a smile despite his aching smile muscles. She had an impudent innocence that put him in mind of a younger sister he hadn’t seen in three years and hadn’t realized, until now, he missed. His sister Darya’s habit had been to stick her tongue out at him rather than smile, and Diogenes suspected this little maid stuck her tongue out at brothers and rogues alike. His sister had invented a face she called “the mad stag,” whereby she stuck her thumbs in her ears, waggled her remaining fingers overhead, and rolled her eyes as far back as she was able while her tongue lolled to one side. It never failed to get a laugh out of him. Perhaps he would teach it to the alewife’s daughter.

The alewife, a twig broom in hand, swooped by and swept crossly under his table.

Or perhaps it was time to depart. There were other tabernae where he could find work. Unpleasant work such as standing duty as a night guard or digging furrows into milord’s untilled soil, but starving was even less pleasant than undertaking disagreeable work.

He sipped the last of the watered kvass. Probably it had been foolish to water it down; city water was notoriously unwholesome. Give him an icy stream tripping down from its glacial origins any day. Still, his mother had always insisted her kvass could cure any stomach ills. Hopefully the alewife of this taberna could boast as much. He would know soon enough.

Gazing regretfully at the empty mug, and even more regretfully at the scowling alewife, he rose. It was time to seek work of lesser appeal. Perhaps in a week’s time, he might return here and things would have picked up. Or perhaps not. Winter was coming, a time when most merchants wouldn’t risk transporting goods through the hinterlands, however knowledgeable Diogenes could boast himself concerning those hinterlands.

He rose and pulled one of his last two copper coins from his purse, depositing it on the table for the alewife. She was someone’s mother, after all. He was on the point of departing when he paused, muttered an oath, and pulled the second coin from his purse. This, he set it down on the table beside the first coin. Of what use would a single copper coin be to him? And he had sat at her table all the live-long day.

She observed the coins and her scowl retreated somewhat.

“Come try again next week,” she murmured as he passed her.

Just then a pair of men blustered into the taberna. They looked about the room before heading straight for him. They were finely dressed. As fine as the Tsar’s officers of the watch. Were they the tsar’s officers? Was he under suspicion for something? He’d done nothing. Keeping his eyes down, he attempted to shift past them.

“You there,” cried the taller of the two.

“We want no trouble here,” murmured the alewife.

Diogenes paused, assessing how far he was likely to get if he ran for it.

“We seek the tracker Diogenes,” said the tall man. “A young woodsman who can reputedly find his way through any forest.”

Diogenes drew himself upright, engaging his aching facial muscles in a brief smile. “My good masters,” he said politely, “you have found me. How may I serve you?”

The well-dressed men looked at one another. The shorter of the two spoke.

“Our lord requires a woodsman who can deliver a woman back to her kinsfolk at a distance of many leagues.”

“I see.” Now Diogenes had to prevent himself from smiling. “Well, I am your man, so long as your lord understands that such an undertaking will not come cheaply at this time of year.”

Diogenes listed the things he would require beyond good pay (a horse and cart that might be converted to a sledge with runners; foodstuffs; furs for the lady, and so on.)

“It might not snow,” said the taller man, evidently taking issue with the sledge runners Diogenes wanted.

“I will not undertake the journey if your lord is too miserly to provide runners for sledding,” Diogenes replied, even though he would have, rather than lose the work.

At length a price was agreed upon and the sledge runners promised. Diogenes accompanied the two men to the estate of Duke Bartholomes where he was introduced not to the duke (which was fine by Diogenes) but rather to his horse, his sledge-cart, and the woman he had agreed to transport: the princess Astrid of Viklond.

 

Chapter Six

 

“You smell of beets.”

These were the first words to leave the princess’s lips in the four hours of their journeying together. Diogenes hadn’t minded the silence. It was what he liked best about his trade: the quiet of the woods on a long journey. The longer and quieter, the better. Especially after the lecture he’d received from the duke’s man concerning what fate would befall him if he “dallied” with the princess. It was insulting. He lived by his reputation, and where would that be if he harassed the young women entrusted to his care? Yes, the peace of the woods was most welcome after that harangue. Still, he had been fighting drowsiness these two hours, and conversation would help him to stave off sleep.

“I thank you, highness,” replied Diogenes.

He knew perfectly well she had not meant to compliment him with the remark about beets. But if he were stuck conversing with a spoilt and rude girl, it would be more amusing to pique her anger than to allow himself to take insult.

She took the bait. “It was not spoken as praise,” she murmured.

“Is it not high praise in your country, then? But what is sweeter than a beet, that noble vegetable whose growth is shrouded in mystery until it is plucked forth and its ruby glory revealed?”

In truth, he had eaten but few beets from the richly spread table offered before he departed the serving quarters of the duke’s estate. Heavy eating lent drowsiness to long drives. Now that he thought of it, though, if the duke fed his servants from such a table, how wealthy was the man? Should Diogenes have demanded a higher fee?

The girl interrupted his musings. “I do not know all of your words. I speak a little Rosiyska only.”

“A princess, and not to speak the tsar’s tongue?” Diogenes exaggerated his surprise, hoping to goad her into continued speech.

“My grandmother was a princess—”

Diogenes cut her off. “Mine was daughter to a swineherd, I am told. Or perhaps it was goatherd. I do not imagine she smelled sweetly of beets.”

“You interrupted me,” Astrid said, sounding annoyed.

Diogenes grinned. Conversation had been a blood-sport in his family, and he missed the jab and parry.

“Your speech is difficult to parse,” he replied. “I conclude that your father the king was much taken in by whomever he employed to teach you correct speech, princess.”

“My father is not king.”

“Are you certain your mother would approve you spreading such rumors?”

This jab galled her enough to bring color to her pale cheeks.

“I do not mean to say that I am a … a …”

“Bastard?” Diogenes said, supplying the word.

“Yes. I am not that. My grandmother was a princess—”

“I believe we have established that much, as well as that mine was not.”

She snapped, “Hush, will you?”

Diogenes gave her a sidelong glance as if to indicate he would comply. And he would, for just as long as it amused him.

“My grandmother—”

“This again?” muttered Diogenes.

“—was the daughter of a king, but I am not. I am the daughter of a prince. So it is not correct to address me as princess.”

“As you will, Princess.”

At this, the not-a-princess cried out in exasperation and began a rather long speech in the tongue of her kin, or so Diogenes surmised. He recognized a Viklond curse or two.

“You will call me Astrid and not Princess,” she said at last, having evidently run out of bad things to say in the Viklond language.

“Will I, indeed?”

“You … shall,” she said, trying a different verb. “Or you may. Or … you are able to. Perhaps I mistake which word is correct.” She was sufficiently roused that he began to feel badly for toying with her.

“I shall call you Astrid,” he said at last. A smile twitched on the side of his mouth nearest her.

“You mock me,” she said. At that, all of the huff and fight seemed to go out of her.

He considered various apologies before landing on one.

“My mother, God grant her peace, loved nothing more than to warn me that my mocking tongue would be my downfall.”

“Did she speak true?”

“That I am great mocker?”

“No. Not that. Are you fallen down?”

At this Diogenes laughed, a true and hearty laugh. “It depends on who you ask. If you were to ask my grandmother the swineherd’s daughter, I think she would answer that I have done well enough. I am my own man.”

“What would your mother say?”

The girl was perceptive. Did she mean it as a barb?

“My mother is dead,” he replied curtly.

Was he allowing the girl to get to him after all?

“You must be very clever, I think,” said the girl.

“Oh?”

“To find your way through this forested wasteland. I could not do it.”

“This is no wasteland,” said Diogenes. “We would have to journey far north of these lands to reach anything that might be called such. And even there, great beauty is to be found.”

“I have traveled only from the village of my birth to the tsar’s city,” admitted the girl. “That, I have done many times. And I mean to journey to Talisfarne for schooling, if I can persuade my father.”

“What brought you to the tsar’s great city of Nyiv?” Diogenes asked, curious.

“My father wished to marry me to the duke’s son,” she said tartly. Then she seemed to reconsider. “Or perhaps he did not wish it. Perhaps he felt bullied into it. Duke Bartholomes is a dangerous man, they say.”

“And you? Did you wish to marry the duke’s son?”

“I do not care for beets,” she replied.

The two were silent for a count of three and then laughed aloud at the same moment.

“Fortunately for me,” she said, “the duke saw something in me that he could not like for his son. We never even met, the son and I.”

“You would have been very wealthy,” Diogenes said. “I am sorry for your disappointment.”

“I am not disappointed. Wealth does not bring happiness or kindness or anything worth having.”

“Those with empty bellies might beg to disagree,” said Diogenes.

She paused for a moment before saying, “I spoke carelessly. I beg pardon.”

“It is yours before asking,” Diogenes replied politely in Rosiyska fashion.

“I have known hunger,” she said, “but only for a week at most, at winter’s end. It is grievous that some know it daily.”

“A sentiment worthy of a princess,” Diogenes said.

“I am not—”

“A princess. Yes, I know, Princess.” And then, abashedly, he added, “Yes, I know, Astrid. Also? You speak the Rosiyska tongue quite well. Do not sell yourself short on that account.”

As this, Astrid seemed to perk up a bit. She smiled, at any rate.

“Diogenes?”

“Yes, Astrid?”

“I am hungry.” She said it as if with reluctance. “It can wait, if you do not wish to stop.”

“I do not wish to stop,” said Diogenes, “nor need we stop.” He reached for a packet nestled under their seat. “Do you care for cake with dried fruit?”

“Oh, yes! Please,” she added politely. “I wish we had such cakes at home. Perhaps we might save it so that my cook can study how it is made?”

“There will be more of the like at the cottage tonight. It is a common provision.”

“We stop at a cottage? I thought we would sleep in the cart. That was the way of things on my journey here.”

“I am told the duke keeps a cottage from which he can hunt or fish when the mood takes him,” explained Diogenes. “It is off the main road, but his steward gave me careful directions so that we might find it and take our rest in down-filled beds tonight.”

“And you are certain there will be such a cake?”

“Assuredly. It preserves well,” said Diogenes. “That is its principal virtue. We can expect such a cake, and perhaps a honey cake too, along with strips of dried venison, dried fish, and as much knackebrot as you can eat. We are to take stores from the cottage for the remainder of our journey.”

“How odd,” said the girl.

Diogenes frowned. It was a little odd that the merchant should prefer them to deplete his stores at a far-away cottage when his table at home groaned with food.

“There is no accounting for the whims of the wealthy,” Diogenes said with a shrug. And then, because the girl was probably among the wealthy, he added, “Present company excepted, of course.”

The girl laughed in response. Her laugh was at once merry and musical and pleasant, and Diogenes decided that perhaps he had been wrong to goad her, if the reward for kind speech was such laughter.

 

Chapter Seven

 

Cyril walked along the pavers his father had lain with such care. The short path from the cottage to the abbey common road was said by others to be as smooth as the tsar’s road in the great city. It likely was. When it had become plain that Cyril’s right leg would never catch up to his left, Tato had smoothed all of the paths within the cottage’s walled enclosure. Cyril wasn’t sure he’d been done any favors, not really. The rest of the world was rutted and uneven. Still, it had been done out of love, and if Cyril didn’t miss the perfectly flat surfaces when stepping beyond the cottage grounds, he did miss his father’s love.

Cyril knew Katrin blamed him for their father’s death. As she should. He wished the priests of Talisfarne would demand penance as the priests of the lands nearby did. For the tsar’s monks, penance meant simply “repentance,” or the internal turning from what one had done. Elsewhere, it might have involved the reciting of prayers or wearing of hair shirts or flogging oneself. Anything would have been better than this gnawing at the center of Cyril’s soul.

At low moments such as this, he was more than ever grateful for the friendships he’d made in pursuit of his goal to serve a great lord. Friends provided distraction. Distraction kept him from dwelling on the unchangeable past. Yes, he had certainly made friends. Instead of being snubbed, he was now welcomed by name when he joined those who clustered around boyars’ and merchants’ sons. On a few occasions, he’d been invited to join wealthy young fellows when they gathered in secret to drink stolen altar wine or potato vodka.

Today, in fact, he’d received such an invitation. The revelry was to be carried out in broad daylight, no less. When the bells rang for afternoon prayers, he was to join the others down at the inlet leading to the Siren Sea. He had wished to share this bright bit of happiness with Katrin when he’d awoken this morning. Over a steaming cup of chai, perhaps, as they sat together in the stonecote. He might even have told her about signing the farm over to her. But he had been angry about his boots and they had quarreled and there had been no friendly conversation—much less any cheerfully sputtering and hissing samovar.

“Never mind,” he muttered under his breath. School had only been in session a week, which meant he had the rest of the year to fix things with Katrin. Eventually, the moment would be right, and then all would be well between them.

 

Chapter Eight

 

Katrin was minding her own business when it all began. She was very good at minding her own business. Or, as her father had liked to say of himself in scholarly Grecchi, she “had not the surfeit of time to mind anything that wasn’t her business.”

Thus, when the young man approached her in the librarium, she glanced up briefly and then returned to minding her own business. Before her, on a stand, was the text of commentary upon Euclid’s frustrating seventh proof.

“Beauty and intelligence,” murmured the young fellow, addressing her.

She shifted so that her back was to him and re-read the sentence she’d been forcing her way through before the interruption.

“Is the commentary any good?” asked the young man.

“I won’t find out if you continue bothering me,” she said crisply.

When this elicited neither a response nor a departure, she added, “I’m not interested in holding speech with you. I pray you will depart, that I may study.”

Her first response had been rude, but her second was very polite, quite correct. It had been her mother’s great work to guide Katrin from her prickly temper and toward something softer.

It may not come easily, my little porcupine, but if you try, you will succeed, her mother had saidafter confessing she, too, was a porcupine at heart.

The young man, instead of leaving her be, continued to address her.

“I am Ilya Bartholomeyevich Perelkov,” he said. Swiftly he took her hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the air above it in courtier fashion. “And you are Katrin Halvorsdotter, are you not?”

She snatched her hand away, an angry retort on her tongue. But then she thought of her mother and swallowed the retort. Besides, it was possible that the fastest way to send the young lord packing was to hear him out.

“Well? What do you want?”

“A chance to know you better.”

When he smiled, she noted how symmetrical his smile was. And how pleasing his eyes, how noble his nose—

Katrin blinked. His nose? Noble? What was wrong with her? She tried to look away, but failed, as if something were preventing her. Something that told her she needed to stare at those eyes for another moment. What color were they? Summer’s-sky blue?

“Your voice is lovely,” said the young man. “Melodious, one might say.”

His words barely registered as she considered his face. How flawless was his skin. This was a face never visited by the pustule sickness.… She blinked again. And tried to return her attention to Euclid. But first, just one more glance at his eyes? Summer’s-sky blue wasn’t quite right. His eyes were the hue of a robin’s egg. Yes. That was it. How lovely. And how striking, next to his dark, glossy hair.

“I am told you have the loveliest singing voice of anyone on the island,” Ilya said. His own voice was rich. Mellifluous. “I do not wish to keep you from your studies, but I am in want of a singer for a small celebration I’m hosting.”

The request restored Katrin’s presence of mind at once. She no longer performed. Not since her father’s death. She dropped her gaze.

“Pray forgive me,” Katrin said, “but I no longer sing.”

“I sat behind you yestere’en at prayers. I heard you singing.”

Katrin said nothing. Memories gathered fast and thick, filling the silence. She saw her mother’s newly dug grave, her father’s lined face. The signal from Brother Euan to sing. She’d sung as if in a dream. Afterwards, the praise: Your mother would have been so proud. Each compliment a dagger to the heart, a reminder that Mamushka would never again hear her sing. Never again call her my little canariatchka, chucking her under the chin. Brother Euan had expected her to sing at her father’s grave, too. She’d refused.

“You sing very, very well,” Ilya added, interrupting the terrible memories.

She welcomed the interruption. She didn’t want memories anymore than she wanted to sing. She did not sing. She had sworn a vow after her father’s death. His drowning might not have been her fault, but if she had been at the water? Instead of performing at the market that terrible morning? Her tato might have been alive now instead of lying in cold earth. No, she would never sing again. Not for others.

“Well?” said Ilya.

“I no longer perform,” Katrin said softly.

“Why do you not look at me?”

Something prickled along the back of her neck. Why did he want her to look at him?

“I am trying to study,” she said.

“I can pay you handsomely,” he murmured. “Come, let me have a look at your winsome face.”

Without having intended to, she complied and met his eyes. The memories of her parents’ deaths faded. Were Ilya’s eyes more the color of turquoise, after all? As she pondered the question, something fell into place for her. He was using a glamour. His eyes were not the color of a robin’s egg or a summer’s sky. They might be duck-pond green, for all she knew—or cared.

“I’m not interested,” she said, reverting her gaze to the text before her.

“I can pay you in magia,” he said.

He slipped a ring from his finger and placed it on her commentary. She regarded it with curiosity. The ring was assuredly a reliquary, an object filled with a quantity of magia that would never decrease. It was said that, as wearer and reliquary grew accustomed to one another, its influence might increase.

Magia multiplies.

What might she do with such an object? It was the old question, uncurling from slumber: Could magia bring her friendship? To appear more comely, to charm others with her speech—these were surely the remedies for those traits which had left her a solitary creature…. Hadn’t she always envied the ease with which her brother attracted friends? Her jaw clenched. It didn’t matter. Katrin didn’t need anyone. She was fine on her own, content to remain the bristled creature she was. Of what use were friends? Would they bring back her father or mother? No. There was no magia that could do that.

So why did she hesitate? Other questions were stirring. With the ring’s aid, could she perhaps silver her speech, so that those who resisted a bitter remedy might be persuaded to take it after all? Or might she lend such a ring out, accomplishing her cures this way? Nay, that was folly. For who, having tasted its power, would yield the ring back again?

For that matter, who wanted a singer so badly that they would offer a reliquary as payment? Suspicion furrowed her brow. This fool lordling was prepared to break the law to get what he desired. He would jeopardize his safety, and hers, for she would be guilty if she accepted such payment.

But more than all these things, there was the simple fact of Katrin’s vow never to sing for others again. This, she would not break.

“I don’t perform,” she said. “And I want nothing magia can offer.”

The young lordling chuckled softly, as if she were amusing.

“I have all that I need,” she added tersely. “Pray leave me to study.”

The young man exhaled in exasperation. “Then what do you want? Name your price, and I will meet it.”

“Are you soft in the head?” she asked. “I just said I don’t want anything—”

“For yourself, perhaps not. What about for someone else? Your brother, perhaps. The wretched cripple—”

“You lack manners,” she said, sharply. “I have asked you to leave, repeatedly. I will call for the bibliothecary if you do not leave me in peace.”

“Observe me!” Ilya spoke the words with sudden force.

Katrin obeyed the command before she could stop herself. His gaze was fierce, and all the more beautiful for it. It was the gaze of a hawk, noble and piercing.

“I have asked you to do something for me,” he said. “I asked kindly. I offered you an object of great worth. Who are you to deny me?”

His voice pulled at her like a river pulled at the reeds on its bank.

He continued, “I am of the tsar’s blood. To sing for me is an honor. Say you will do it.”

It would be an honor. He was right. Who was she, to say no? Hadn’t it been her father’s dear wish that she sing someday at the tsar’s court?

The young man spoke a third time. “You are the daughter of a tutor and a goatherd—”

She cut him off. “How dare you!”

A flare of power seemed to blossom inside her. It was the power to resist the young man’s magia, and she clung to it. At almost the same moment, there was a sudden thunk as her manuscript slid and struck the floor.

Whatever spell Ilya had woven was broken.

“I am the daughter of a tutor and an herb woman,” she snapped, “neither of whom herded goats. And so what if they had?”

One of the library-keepers was heading their way, having turned toward the sound of a book meeting the stone floor.

She reached for the volume, replaced it on her reading stand, and smoothed the pages that had creased.

Ilya addressed her again. “I spoke proudly—”

“Were I the daughter of beggars, I should not sing for you.”

“Surely there is something—”

“Master Bibliothecary!” Katrin called to the man who was now only one desk away. “This young man—”

“—is now leaving,” Ilya said, finishing the sentence. “Forgive me, magister. I toppled her book, and she was rightly indignant.”

Katrin’s eyes widened at the untruth of it. And then narrowed as she saw the exact moment Ilya’s lie caught the magister, as surely as a net catching trout. Had she looked the same way when he’d employed the Silver Tongue on her? A blank, muzzy gaze as if her common sense had departed? Well, she had managed to resist him in the end. That was what mattered.

Had anyone, she wondered, used silvered speech on her before today? Would she have known? Maybe she wouldn’t have noticed any more than had the magister standing before her.

She didn’t know. All she knew was that it might have gone the other way. She had been compelled by the young man’s glamour, and nearly convinced by his silvered speech. Katrin snatched up her things. Disgusted with herself, disgusted with Ilya, she strode from the library.

 

Chapter Nine

 

Ilya scowled as he strode along the cloister. What had just happened? How had his beautifully executed plan gone awry? All he’d wanted was a song or two at the water’s edge. To find out if it were true that the voice of a skilled singer might call forth a siren, in case he ever needed to do so. In case he was ever brave enough to make the attempt. Or foolish enough. He thought of his mother’s warnings. Of his father’s habit of making others do any dirty work that needed doing. But then he thought again of how quickly his father had dismissed his readiness to leave school. Slaying and rendering the bones of a siren would prove he was ready.

Instead, it had come to this: he’d barely avoided being reported to a library-keeper for disturbing a maiden at her studies. The keeper would have reported it to the dean, and the dean to Ilya’s father, and—

Ilya shuddered. No. It wouldn’t have come to that. His father’s whipping master had not visited the island in three years. Besides, Ilya would have found some way to persuade the keeper or the dean that they didn’t, after all, need to notify his father.

But as for the rest of it? It was insulting. To be spoken to in such a fashion by a peasant’s daughter? To have been refused? He reached for the reliquary that hung round his neck. Had he not employed the Silver Tongue? Perhaps something was amiss. Was it possible that his mother’s gifts were defective? Surely not. An empire had been built on the quality of such goods. Moreover, Ilya had felt the influence of the ornament he wore. He’d felt the power of his glamour and persuasive speech to capture the orphaned girl. So how had she resisted him? She oughtn’t to have been able to resist. Unless she wore powerful magia herself …

Because of her low-born appearance, he’d dismissed the possibility. But her family lived on the Isle of Talisfarne. Perhaps that little farmhouse was enclosed by a wall to keep thieves out rather than to keep goats in.

But all this aside, how had a girl with mud on the hem of her gown dared to dismiss him? A girl wearing boots that hadn’t been fashionable since before Ilya’s grandmother had worn swaddling clothes? Even without magia, the shrew ought to have been honored to serve him, a duke’s son. Girls of much higher breeding had succumbed quickly to his efforts over the summer. And that was before his mother had gifted him the additional reliquaries he now wore.

It was unfathomable.

It was maddening. Now how was he to discover whether it was possible to call forth a siren from the deep?

He would have to go back to Choirmaster and insist on more names. On the whole of Talisfarne Island, there were surely more than four girls capable of singing on tune.

With Choirmaster, Ilya had used the same ruse: he wanted a performer for a special gathering, and so on. Choirmaster had recommended a woman who served in the kitchens, but she was a mother of six—not a virgin. As for the four young female scholars Choirmaster had recommended, Ilya knew for a fact that three had lain with men. Two had lain with him, for saints’ sake. As the only virgin, Katrin Halvorsdotter had been the only possibility.

He frowned as a question presented itself.

Would the sirens really know? How, pray, were they supposed to divine who had and who had not lain with a man? If the young girls Ilya had slept with could pass themselves off as modest virgins to an entire school, how likely was it that a siren could tell the difference?

He would have someone research the matter. There were books and books on sirens in the library. Sirens, veeli, rusalki—whatever names they were given—Ilya wouldn’t be surprised to hear there was a section of the library devoted to their lore. He must compel someone to research it. Young Vladimir owed Ilya favors. He was clever with books. And there was Nils, another book-clever scholar. And Pavel. Pavel wasn’t exactly book-clever, but Pavel was his cousin and would do anything for Ilya. Yes. Ilya would command them to seek out the truth of the matter. Perhaps his mother had been misinformed and it needn’t be a maiden after all.

But no sooner had he tried to convince himself of this than certain tales recounted by his nurse came back to him. Some of the tales told of benevolent river-dwelling rusalki, but others spoke of water fey who would drown men for defrauding a maiden.

Ilya’s scowl darkened. If a rusalka or siren or veela could divine what had happened in the darkened corners of haylofts and inn rooms, it stood to reason they could tell whether a maiden was a maiden or not.

Ilya exhaled heavily. His family’s empire had been built on the truth of such tales. If his mother said it had to be a virgin who called forth the sirens, then Ilya must find a virgin to sing for him.

Or …

Compel one to sing for him.

Now there was an interesting idea. If that wretched girl hadn’t made him so angry, he would probably have thought of it already. He needed a girl to call up a siren. He didn’t need her to do it willingly. And there were so many ways to force others to do your bidding.

Ilya smiled. He had been worrying over nothing. He’d allowed his peace to be disturbed by a shrew with muck on her dress. Very well. He would have a care in the future and not let it happen again. He had learned something valuable. He had learned that there existed that rare individual who did not believe the world owed them something for nothing. Who did not “want” anything. It had caught him off guard. Next time he encountered such an individual, he would know better than to press the point by continuing to offer honey cake to one who disdained sweetmeats. Next time, he would know to reach for the birch stick instead.

And who knew? It might even be fun.

 

Chapter Ten

 

Morning rain had cleansed the sky over Talisfarne, leaving a balmy September warmth that sometimes visited the island just as the last of the geese flew south. The weather had put the entire school in a holiday mood. It was a pity the blue skies and warmth wouldn’t hold, Cyril mused, strolling to the shore with his wealthy fellows. And the colors this day? The sea that spread before him was tinted as blue-green as the tunic worn by Svyata Maria.

“Come on, Head-in-the-Clouds!”

Upon hearing himself addressed, Cyril pulled his gaze from the horizon. He’d fallen behind the others, a mix of boyars’ sons and heirs to wealthy merchants. Falling behind wasn’t unusual. What was unusual—and welcome—was that the rest of the group had noticed and were encouraging him to catch up.

His plan was working well, but to bring it to pass, he would need to advertise his intention to serve a great household in the tsar’s city of Nyiv. He would be sixteen next summer, and old enough to leave his studies. This was the right group for his declaration. It remained only to determine if this was the right time. Cyril had doubts. The schoolfellow who had invited him to join in had murmured there would be potato vodka to share. Cyril needed his friends sober, if he hoped for them to remember and relay his intentions to their fathers.

Still, it was a perfect opportunity to further those friendships he had been cultivating with such care.

“Just look at the water!” cried one of the younger lads, a boy of twelve.

“Look at it? How about swim in it?” retorted another, already stripping off layers.

A third boy joined the first two, shedding clothes and jumping in the sea. They pummeled the surface, splashing one another and calling one another by all manner of abusive names. Cyril had been called these and much worse, and by some of these same schoolfellows, after sickness had left him with a shortened leg. The name-calling had been cruel, intended to wound, and Cyril had had to learn that abusive names weren’t always meant to hurt.

“Race you, you toad-lickers,” cried one of the boys to the others. He plunged forward before the others could respond.

“I’ve heard you’re fast in the water,” said Pavel, clapping a hand to Cyril’s shoulder.

Cyril smiled but said nothing. He was fast. He could have beaten any of the lads gathering by the shore today.

“Modesty is only pride wearing a veil,” said Nils. He brushed past Cyril, giving him a little shove with an elbow.

The snide remark and shove were calculated to offend, but Cyril did not respond. Nils was habitually rude and only got worse if one paid him heed.

“Come on,” said Vladimir, a young man in the year above Cyril. He raised a glass. “Let’s have a few toasts before the little ones make it back and begin pestering us to share.”

“I’m not sharing the good stuff with them,” said Pavel. He held forth two stone jars. “This holds birch beer, for boys,” he said raising one, “and this other, potato vodka for men.”

A cheer went up among the “men” as the young lordlings spread out along the sand. Some pulled clear glasses set in silver cup holders from pockets while others removed ordinary stoneware cups. Cyril hadn’t thought to bring any sort of cup. Pavel must have noticed this. The lad removed an extra earthenware cup from a pocket before filling it and handing it to Cyril.

“In your debt,” murmured Cyril.

“There is no debt,” Pavel replied politely.

Cyril liked how polite these friends were. He’d always been fond of better manners, and these sons of boyars had been spoon-fed courtesy from their infancy.

The cups, once filled, were raised, and the young men said together, “To the sea and its bounty,” before downing their draughts in a single swallow. Cyril would have preferred to sip his slowly, so as to make it last. He supposed that was very peasant-like of him. Although, he’d seen peasants at the winter market who could tip it back as rapidly as any lord….

He managed to swallow without betraying he wasn’t accustomed to strong drink. When the jar came round for seconds, Cyril noted that Ilya, default leader of the lads, refused. Cyril followed suit.

“Who’s winning the race?” Vladimir asked, shading his eyes to gaze at the swimmers.

“Who cares?” Nils said in a lazy drawl.

“I’ll wager two gold pieces on whomever you think will lose,” Vladimir snapped back.

“I can’t even guess how to parse that sentence,” said Pavel.

Pavel often had trouble parsing Grecchi in class, but Cyril wasn’t sure what was being bet on either: that someone would win or that someone would lose?

“Two gold pieces that Tovelsson loses,” Nils said, drawing the words out slow as a toothless crone.

Was this an affectation? Was it, perhaps, an admired way of speaking at the tsar’s palace? Cyril wasn’t sure. How many other such things would he be ignorant of when he departed for Nyiv? He must study his fellows’ habits with more diligence.

“Anyone else care to join the wager?” asked Vladimir. “You, Ilya? Cyril?”

Cyril shook his head no, half a second after Ilya had done so.

“I’ll wager two gold pieces Tovelsson wins,” Pavel said.

“That’s not fair,” said Nils. “You waited until it was obvious Tovelsson was doing better.”

Pavel shrugged. “I’ll withdraw if you like.”

“I care not,” drawled Nils.

“It’s not over till it’s over,” Cyril chimed in. He thought Tovelsson less likely to win. Jan was stronger and might pull ahead in the last few ells.

“You think Tovelsson will lose?” Vladimir asked Cyril.

Cyril gave a non-committal shrug. He wasn’t about to be baited into wagering coin he didn’t have. Neither were Yeshik or Ilya, Cyril noted. Although they likely did so out of a lack of interest rather than a lack of gold.

In the end, Cyril’s guess proved right and Jan won. Perhaps he ought to have wagered after all. Except for the inconvenient fact that he had nothing with which to wager.

The dripping swimmers swarmed back on shore, shaking their shaggy heads like dogs. When offered the birch beer, they accepted it with as much enthusiasm as if it had been the tsar’s most prized vodka.

“How was the water?” Cyril asked Jan.

“Perfect,” Jan replied. “It could be high summer, it’s so warm and flat.”

Cyril nodded appreciatively. Maybe he would swim today. Not to show off, of course. Well, perhaps to show off just a little …

“I’ll race you to the Siren’s Footstool,” said Yeshik to Cyril. “Come on, let’s show these children how it’s done.”

Without awaiting a reply, Yeshik rose and began stripping layers. Cyril sat, considering it. He would have fewer and fewer opportunities to swim as winter drew on.

“Why the hesitation, Cyril? Nervous you’ll lose?” asked Nils, holding his silver cup holder out to Pavel for a refill.

“I was thinking of swimming, but not of racing,” Cyril replied.

“He’s nervous,” said Nils, smirking. He rolled onto his side, propped himself on one elbow, and tossed back his drink.

You’re nervous,” Yeshik snapped at Nils. Then, turning to Cyril, he grinned, twirling a ring on his forefinger. “You game for a race?”

“He’s unaccustomed to strong drink,” drawled Nils, “and afraid he’ll lose.”

“He doesn’t look afraid to me,” Ilya said quietly.

Cyril shot Ilya a look of gratitude, then second-guessed himself. Were ingratiating smiles a sign of weakness? Refusing to race certainly was.

“Let us race,” agreed Cyril. He set his cloak on the sandy shore and began placing his other items of clothing on top, to keep them clean. Unlike the other lads present, he did not own changes of clothing, unless he counted his father’s garb, which was overlarge.

“To the Footstool and back?” asked Yeshik.

“Of course,” replied Cyril. Despite the vodka, he felt steady on his feet. He was confident he could out-swim Yeshik, and even a little sorry that the friendly fellow might be embarrassed before his peers.

“Care to make it interesting?” asked Nils.

Cyril recognized several things at once. Firstly, that the question was addressed to him. Secondly, that “interesting” meant wagering. And finally, that he could not accept because he had neither silver nor gold.

But would he appear to lack confidence if he refused?

“I’ll wager this ring,” said Yeshik, holding up his forefinger.

Cyril glanced at the ring. Was a reliquary? It might be. At festival races, no reliquaries were permitted. But even without magia-imparted strength, Cyril knew he was the stronger swimmer.

“You should take it off to swim,” Cyril said.

“He’s afraid it holds magia,” Nils said lazily.

“Hush, Nils,” said Ilya.

“I only meant that he will not wish to lose it,” Cyril snapped back.

“It were better for you, Cyril,” continued Nils, “if Yeshik wore it. You could always excuse a loss on its being a charmed ring and thereby an unfair test of your mettle.” He shifted, displacing dirt onto Cyril’s cloak. “Oh dear,” he said, offering no apology.

“Nils!” barked Ilya. “Trade your place for mine.”

With a scowl, Nils rose from where he sat. He kicked additional sand on Cyril’s heap of clothing before making his way to sit in his new place.

Ilya sank beside Cyril’s cloak, brushing the sand away.

“He’s an ass when he drinks,” Ilya said quietly to Cyril.

Cyril nodded and made his way to the shore, more aware than usual of his uneven gait. Yeshik clapped him on the back.

“A piece of gold and my new ring says I beat you,” Yeshik said to Cyril.

“I cannot wager,” Cyril said, intending to speak softly enough that the others wouldn’t hear. “I have not … the means.”

Nils, however, was close enough to have heard.

“He has not the means,” he said, in maudlin imitation of Cyril.

Jan laughed at this. Ilya glared at them both. Tovelsson backhanded Nils’ shoulder. Cyril’s cheeks burned.

“Surely those boots are worth a penny?” Nils drawled, ignoring all of it.

“Their value is six silver coins,” Cyril snapped.

“Oh, well,” said Nils, “six coins of silver. Plainly I know nothing of farm boots. Pray forgive my ignorance in the matter.”

Cyril was too angry to reply politely that pardon was his before asking.

Ilya stood and spoke softly to Cyril.

“You are wise to ignore him. And there is no shame in foregoing a wager.”

Ah, but there was. Cyril burned with the shame of having less, of being lesser than.

Nils now attempted to engage Vladimir and Jan in conversation. “That hovel of his must be worth something,” he said.

“Do you have something to say to me, ser?” demanded Cyril.

Nils looked up at Cyril, who felt suddenly aware of how very unclothed he was, and how much more ridiculous it might make him appear compared to the young lord, draped in his imported Luccan velvets.

“Your property by the abbey,” Nils said softly. “Now that must be worth something. More silver than, say, a ‘fine’ pair of farm boots.”

“Its value, ser, is measured in gold.” Cyril knew he shouldn’t engage, but knowing and acting on what he knew were two different things. Already he was imagining falling on Nils and boxing his ears. The young lord looked soft and weak and the sound of Cyril’s fists landing blows would have a satisfying ring….

“Peace,” said Ilya. “This banter is pointless.”

“What is the proper price for a cottage and farm?” asked Tovelsson. “I am sure I should like to have such a place to retreat too, once I have returned to life at court.”

“A country dacha?” laughed Yeshik. “I’ve had enough of the country for a lifetime, here on this island.”

Tovelsson shrugged. “I should like a little place to tromp about in muddy boots.”

“Add six silver coins for the boots,” murmured Nils.

“Peace, Nils,” snapped Tovelsson. “So, what will it cost me?” he asked Cyril.

“My cottage is not for sale,” Cyril replied, his tone more clipped than he had intended.

“No, no,” replied Tovelsson “I didn’t mean to imply it was. I only meant for the sake of comparison, what I might expect to pay for a little place in the country, with hens and geese and hazelnut trees?”

“My mother’s great grandfather paid fourteen gold Celtvas nobles for it,” replied Cyril. “I have never calculated what that would be in the tsar’s coin.”

“It would be twelve gold double-eagle coins,” replied Vladimir quickly. “Now are we to have a race or are we not?”

“You can always tell the merchant’s sons, can’t you?” drawled Nils.

“Better the son of a wealthy merchant than a craven lord,” snapped Vladimir.

“Friends,” Ilya said, raising a hand, “we are here to enjoy this beautiful day—”

“And Pavel’s vodka!” added Jan.

“There’s vodka?” asked one of the younger lads.

“Not for you,” snapped Pavel.

Ilya had shifted closer to Cyril. “Are you certain of beating him?”

Cyril nodded. There could be no doubt of the outcome. If only he had the means to back this with something of value.

“Then take the wager,” Ilya said, fingering a chain that hung from his neck. “It will shut Nils up.” He moved closer. “And between you and me, it will go a long way to improving your standing among these young fools. I’ll stand you for the gold,” said Ilya, undoing a purse tied at his waist.

Cyril could feel it, feel Ilya’s willingness to help. How pleasantly the coins clinked in his friend’s purse. How easy to say yes. How impossible to say no.

But then he heard Nils snickering from behind. The pleasant reverie evanesced. Cyril gave his head a shake, as if to clear water from his ears after swimming.

“I cannot,” he replied. Had he really been considering it? He must not do so.

Ilya’s voice shifted to a whisper. “Surely you do not mean to offer your boots for the wager?”

His friend’s words, taken on their own, might have been an insult, but the tone was honeyed. Or his breath was. Did Ilya wear fragrance? Cyril reached for the small pouch of herbs his sister had given him. Rosemary. For increasing alertness during dull lessons or lengthy homilies. The sharp scent cleared his mind.

“I do not mean to wager,” Cyril said at last.

Ilya’s eyes narrowed. “But there can be no doubt of your winning this race?”

“Of course not,” replied Cyril tersely.

“Then take my gold,” Ilya said. He shook out the contents of his purse: four golden double-eagle coins. “This will match Yeshik’s ring and coin.”

“Are you turned money lender, Bartholomeyevich?” Nils asked with a laugh. “See you charge him interest.”

Cyril was on the point of saying usury was unlawful when Ilya spoke.

“I am no usurer, Nils,” Ilya said coldly. “It is but an exchange.” He turned to Cyril. “What will you offer me in exchange for these coins?”

Cyril recalled his father explaining the alchemy of turning their apple harvest into coins of gold. Quickly, he made calculation. Each tree produced sixty Celtvas pounds by weight, which when dried yielded ten pounds, which could be sold to the abbey for ten silver coins. With three and twenty trees, that meant two hundred thirty silver coins, or three golden coins plus change. He smiled in triumph.

“If I lose, you shall have my apple harvest,” Cyril said.

This time it was more than just Nils who laughed. Even Ilya seemed to be trying not to smirk.

“Along with the cherry harvest,” Cyril added hastily. “Taken together, their value is four golden double-eagles.” Would the cherries make up the difference? He wasn’t sure, but this was no time to display doubt. Besides, he would win the race, and then all of this would be for naught.

“Am I to become a costermonger?” asked Ilya, a smile tugging one side of his face.

Cyril recognized the Anglas word, literally “apple seller.” Several of the lads, however, did not know the word. They repeated it, some mangling the pronunciation, perhaps purposefully, until several were rolling on the shore with laughter.

Ilya, still smiling, turned to Cyril. “How about this. Your stonecote and all that falls within the walls surrounding it. Does that seem fair?”

It was not fair at all. The value of his cottage was thrice that of the coins Ilya held at the ready. But Cyril would look ridiculous, perhaps contemptuous, if he kept haggling, and he needed the respect of these young lordlings.

“I care not,” he said airily.

In his mind, he heard his father’s voice speaking about pride and falls.

“I shall win the race either way,” he added.

Ilya leaned in and spoke softly. “If you like not the terms,” he said, “I will speak to Yeshik. He will listen if I tell him there is to be no wagering.”

Cyril felt a rush of gratitude. But as he met Ilya’s eyes, what he saw was familiar: pity. Something inside him grew cold and hard. He was done being an object of pity.

“Your terms are more than generous,” Cyril said. “Let us clap hands on it.”

Nils released a single barking laugh.

Ilya grimaced slightly. “That is not … the way of these things. Noblemen swear upon the sea and those that dwell therein.”

Cyril’s brows pulled tight. “Is it not blasphemous to swear by the fey?”

Ilya shrugged. “It is the way things are done.”

Cyril knew his father would never have permitted him to bind himself in this manner. But his father was not here. Besides, he would win the race, so what did it matter?

“Come,” said Vladimir, rising to his feet. “Let us do things properly. First, Yeshik must propose the wager—”

“He’s already done that,” said Pavel. “Let’s just get on with it!”

“Nay,” said Vladimir. “Let us behave with dignity.” He turned to Cyril. “Unless Cyril objects?”

Nils snickered and murmured something too soft for Cyril to hear.

“Let us do it properly,” Cyril said loudly.

“Very well. The wager has been set at a piece of gold and Yeshik’s ring to be matched by four pieces of gold.” He turned to Ilya. “Will you accept Cyril’s … how did you call it?”

“The stonecote and all that lies within its walls,” said Ilya.

“Yes,” replied Vladimir. “Will you accept the stonecote et cetera in exchange for four pieces of gold, should Cyril not best Yeshik in the race?”

Ilya turned to face the sea. “May the sea and its creatures gnaw my bones if I do not keep this bond.”

The oath, uttered in such seriousness, struck Cyril as ludicrous. But if he was to make his way among courtiers, he must adopt their habits.

Vladimir turned to Cyril. “Will you accept Ilya’s coins in like exchange?”

Cyril nodded.

“You must swear aloud,” Ilya said forcefully.

As Ilya spoke, Cyril experienced an odd shift within. One moment he had been suppressing the urge to laugh at the pomp of it all, but at Ilya’s prompting, Cyril suddenly recognized the dignity of such an oath. He would do it. Of course he would. Moreover, he would make all his future oaths in like fashion. No matter that his father would have disapproved. His father, Cyril thought with pity, had never known what it was to dwell among courtiers.

Cyril pulled his shoulders back and turned to face the Siren Sea. “May the sea and its creatures gnaw my bones if I do not keep this bond.”

Though the sea was calm, a slight swell crashed onto the shore as he spoke, as if to devour the words. The wave receded, and Cyril felt a slight chill. What if he were to lose the race? But that was foolishness. He was the better swimmer by any estimation. And already he could imagine the respect this victory would garner over the evening meal. Perhaps this would be the very thing to gain him a position with one of these lads’ fathers.

Ilya passed him the gold coins, which Cyril then returned, asking Ilya to hold them while the race was underway.

A few of the younger lads cheered. Yeshik clapped Cyril on the back again.

“Let us race!” Yeshik cried.

The lads advanced to the water’s edge. Gentle waves lapped over Cyril’s feet. The water was not cold, but clouds had begun to move in. When one covered the sun, Cyril shivered, eager to launch himself.

The racers stared straight ahead, awaiting the signal. A white neck cloth was rolled into a tight ball and thrown high into the air. It unfurled almost at once, becoming a length of fabric that rippled like a standard before lazily touching down on the water. The two boys plunged into the sea.

 

Chapter Eleven

Diogenes and Astrid had at long last reached the duke’s cottage, where they would rest for the night. Diogenes set to, securing their belongings against foul weather. The not-princess herself saw to the horse, having explained that she loved such work.

Astrid was much pleasanter company than Diogenes had bargained on. He would never have taken her for someone who knew her way around horses, but she had removed its harness aright and asked for its brush, and Diogenes had surrendered the horse to her care.

He was thus the first inside the cottage. He found a simple clay oil lamp and struck flint against pyrite stone until sparks caught a small piece of straw on fire. This, he used to light the flaxen rope within the lamp. It sputtered to life, casting long shadows in the small cottage. He was finishing the lighting of two additional lamps when the girl came inside, announcing that the horse had been watered and secured for the night.

“This place is like a small storehouse,” said the girl, looking about.

Diogenes, too, had marveled at the rows of small barrels and stone jars that filled two of the walls of the dwelling.

“I suppose that if Lord Bartholomes were caught unawares by snowfall, he could last quite a while here,” said the girl. “Now, which of these barrels has that honey cake you promised? I can make nothing of your Rosiyska alphabet.” As she said this, she drew a finger along the curved lettering that indicated a barrel of dried fish.

“Let me see,” said Diogenes, making his way along one of the shelves.

Oi!” cried the girl.

Diogenes whirled to see what was amiss.

“I think it’s dead,” she said.

“You think what is—” Diogenes broke off as he spied a dead rat near the girl. “Oh. Yes. Very dead.”

“There’s another over here,” she said, pointing.

“And a dead mouse in this corner as well,” said Diogenes, now intently observing the floor.

“How very unpleasant.”

“I’ll take them outside, shall I?”

“Oh, I can do it,” replied the girl. “I can’t read the labels on the food, so you must do that. I shall do … this.”

Diogenes nodded, pleased the girl was not squeamish. Searching a high row, he located a container marked “cake” and lifted it down from the shelf.

On opening it, however, he released a curse and hurriedly replaced the lid.

“What is it?” asked the girl, who was gathering the dead rodents into a linen sack.

“The food inside is spoilt,” said Diogenes. “I shall find another.”

“Spoiled how?”

“Rodent droppings and … and a mouse in an unpleasant state of decay.”

He reached for another barrel marked “cake.” On opening it, however, he found more evidence of visitation by rodents.

“Lord Bartholomes ought to have been more careful choosing whoever was tasked with sealing his stock of food,” remarked Astrid.

“This one looks well enough,” said Diogenes.

He reached inside to remove the cake for further inspection.

“We can eat this,” he said, after undoing its brandy-soaked linen wrap.

“Diogenes …”

He looked up and saw that Astrid’s face had gone pale and worried.

“What is it?” he asked using his knife to slice a large piece from off the cake.

“Do not eat that,” said the girl.

“What do you mean? Why ever not?” He cut a slice for the girl.

“The rats. The mice. Why should they have died in a room full of food?”

Diogenes shrugged. He brought the slice to his mouth.

“No!” Astrid batted the sliced cake, and it fell to the ground.

“Now look what you’ve done,” muttered Diogenes.

“I think the food must be unwholesome. Outside, when I went to … to dispose of the dead creatures, I found several more outside, also dead.”

Diogenes’ stomach rumbled loudly. “It doesn’t look unwholesome,” he said, eyeing the second slice of cake.

“Doubtless the mice and rats thought the same thing.”

Diogenes set the slice down. “It is odd,” he admitted. “Rodents dead inside a cottage stuffed with food?”

“I think we should not eat anything from inside this cottage,” the girl said nervously.

Diogenes exhaled heavily. “Well, there is the rest of the cake in the cart, and I suppose I could catch a fish or two from the lake.”

They exited the dwelling together. Outside, daylight was fast disappearing, and the whine of small insects left the two swatting at real and imagined pests. It was a good hour for fishing, however, and within a few minutes, the two were seated on a rock at the lake’s edge, eating bites of fruited nut cake and seeking a fish to round out their supper.

Because of the darkness of the hour, neither of them recognized the water worm for what it was when it raised its dripping head to stare at them from the lake’s watery depths.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

It wasn’t until Cyril was closing in on the hummock of rock called the Siren’s Footstool that he noticed a third swimmer had joined the race. Each time he twisted his head back for a hasty gulp of air, he caught glimpses of a slender form gaining on Yeshik. The newcomer’s hair was drenched to a nondescript brown, but his arms were slender. One of the younger lads, perhaps? He was fast.

Cyril pushed himself to reach the tiny island hummock first. Once he’d tapped it and turned back for shore, he would have a clear view of the new competitor. Not that he was worried, but it wouldn’t hurt to know who the newcomer was, and to gauge their strengths and weaknesses.

What Cyril saw when he turned back was most unexpected. The new swimmer appeared to be attacking Yeshik. Who would do such a thing? Who would be so foolish this far out in the water? Was it possible Cyril was misreading the situation? He kept his gaze forward when he took his next gulp of air. No, he had not mistaken what was happening. The two swimmers were struggling with one another.

Yeshik surfaced and, eyes wide with panic, called out.

“Help! Cyril!”

Indignation flared through Cyril. He struck out to the pair, determined to give the younger swimmer an admonition he wouldn’t forget. Horseplay was one thing on land, but in the sea? Such behavior could get someone drowned.

Cyril reached the pair in time to hear Yeshik shouting the names of the Holy Mother and several major saints in a Rosiyska dialect used by the great horse-masters of the plains. Never before had he heard Yeshik employ this tongue. It spoke to his friend’s desperation as clearly as did his flailing arms.

And then, with a shock, Cyril realized that the attacker was a girl. She was scantily clad—if she was wearing anything. Why would a girl have shed her clothing in plain view of all the lads on shore—

Recognition struck him. This was no girl; it was a siren. He saw it clearly now in the flash of her teeth, white and deadly. In the translucent webs joining her long, pale fingers.

Yeshik had managed to place the creature in a headlock, but she was thrashing so wildly that Cyril knew the struggle was far from an end.

“You there!” cried Cyril.

He was uncertain what else to add. Was this siren one of those who had eaten man-flesh and gained human speech? A shudder of revulsion passed through him.

“Stop it!” he shouted to the creature. “Leave him be!”

The siren freed herself from the headlock, and Yeshik was once again struggling to keep his head above water.

“Let him go!” Cyril demanded.

The creature paid no heed. Perhaps this wasn’t one of those who’d dined on humans already. Either way, Cyril wasn’t about to let his friend become a siren’s meal.

With a mighty push, he surged ahead and grappled the creature from behind. Yeshik surfaced, gasping as he sought to fill his lungs.

“Go!” Cyril shouted to Yeshik.

Yeshik tried to speak but only succeeded in coughing.

“Go now!” cried Cyril.

“Attack it … to-gether,” Yeshik rasped out.

“You’re in no condition to fight,” shouted Cyril. “Swim back to shore and get help!”

In Yeshik’s momentary hesitation, Cyril was revisited by memories of his own hesitation to follow his doomed father’s orders to seek help. He shoved the dark recollections aside.

“Go for help!” insisted Cyril. “Bring an iron dagger!”

The creatures loved silver and gold and even brass, but they were loathe to touch iron and would flee those who wielded it. Attacks had become so rare since the Tsar’s Peace that few islanders now wore the once-common crosses of iron about their necks. Cyril vowed he would never again swim without one.

His grip on the creature’s arms was lessening. Not because his strength had waned, but because she was so slippery. As slippery as fine silk. He shifted and secured her in front of him, pinning her arms while wrapping his own about her torso. It would have been a compromising position, were she a human girl. Her chest was bare of covering. He felt his cheeks heating. He also noted other involuntary responses to the nearness of her silky, bare flesh. But all responses were abruptly checked when he was thwacked from behind, as if by a battering ram.

He grunted in pain, and she wriggled free. What had struck him? Was there another of the creatures nearby? Cyril twisted before recognizing his mistaken perception. There was only the single creature. She had used her powerful tail to strike him from behind. Now she was circling him, a predator readying itself for the kill. And then, abruptly, she stopped circling and surfaced.

Cyril got his first unimpeded view of this watery maiden of the deeps. He had read of a siren’s blank, pupil-less gaze, but the poets had been wrong about this. She had pupils. They were colored the pale silver of the moon. Or of the sea at dusk. From a distance, perhaps, the color would blend into the whites of her eyes. Up close, however, they were distinguishable. Pale and shining. Compelling. Lovely. A skilled painter might be able to capture those eyes, or a skilled bard to report them aright. As for her lips? Once, Cyril had seen polished red coral adorning the ears of a visiting noblewoman. The siren’s lips were of a far more lustrous shade. She was altogether lovely to behold. Her skin seemed to shine, as if reflecting the light of sun and sea. Cyril’s gaze dropped to the tops of her rounded breasts.

“Mortal!” she cried in a piercing tone.

Cyril recollected himself, and it felt like the moment of waking to discover he’d been dreaming. He had been about to do something incredibly foolish. He averted his gaze from her torso and locked eyes with her instead. Here, too, he felt her power, so he shifted his gaze to the hummock of land beyond her.

With a suddenness that defied anticipation, she lunged for him. Once again he felt her silken curves as she pressed herself to him. He had neither power nor desire to resist her. Her body called to him in ways no human girl’s had ever done. He must join himself to her. He must—

Abruptly she clutched either side of his head. Her grasp was vice-like. She could crush his skull, if she wished to. Did she? Was her face the last thing he would see before death?

He felt her magic entering his mind, piercing his flesh and weaving through him. It came to him that she could “hear” his thoughts—and that he was doomed.

“There are worse ways to go,” she murmured.

“Tell me your magnificent name!” he cried out. It was all he could think of to forestall his death—sirens were said to be proud of their names, surpassingly beautiful in their own tongue.

Abruptly she released him. His entire skull throbbed, but he was not dead.

“Give me yours first, mortal,” said the siren.

“I am—” Cyril broke off. He had been about to do it. “No one special,” he concluded.

“No one special,” she repeated. She made a thrumming sort of noise deep in her throat. “You are wise to withhold your true name. Names have power. But you are also wrong, Cyril Halvorsson of Talisfarne. You are not ‘no one special.’ You were not before I marked you, nor will you be in the future, neither.”

She had employed so many negatives that he couldn’t be sure he understood her. Perhaps the use of negatives was common in her speech?

“You know my name,” was all that he said in reply, however.

“I took it from you,” she said with a careless shrug. “But I shall not take your life. You are not for me.”

If the statement was meant to be reassuring, it was not.

A gentle swell of the sea nudged them both sideways such that Cyril now caught sight of Yeshik and the shore. He remembered suddenly what he had been doing. And what hung in the balance if he lost the race.

“I must go!”

The siren smiled, revealing sharp teeth, a deadly smile. She clutched his wrist. Cyril felt the impossibility of loosening her grip.

She fixed her eyes on his and spoke in an imperious tone. “Someday, you shall bring me the one who shines with the bones of my granddam.”

“The one who … shines?” asked Cyril.

“He is marked for death.”

With that, she released Cyril’s hand, turned, and fluked, her silver tail splashing a shower of dazzling brightness so that Cyril felt he’d been sprinkled with the shards of fallen stars.

He shook his head as if to clear it and then turned to catch up to Yeshik. As he swam, he seemed to hear the siren’s voice calling through the briny depths: Your companion will not remember me, but you, I think, will never forget me.

 

Chapter Thirteen

 

Katrin trudged back home after having at last sorted out the reductio ad absurdam approach of Euclid’s seventh proof. The solution had been obvious once she saw her way to it, but was that not the way with most things? Today, at least, there had been no interruptions by glamoured lordlings demanding that she sing for their revels.

The encounter from the previous day still rankled. There had been a moment, however brief, when she had hoped that it had been her diligence as a scholar that had caught the young man’s attention. That perhaps he had wished to discuss the Euclidian commentary with her. A moment when she admitted to herself, very quietly, that she would have liked to have someone with whom she could converse intelligently about complex ideas. A fellow scholar. A friend.

The moment had passed swiftly, and now she despised herself for it. It was weakness. She needed no one. Especially not a conceited, manipulative, silver-tongued scoundrel such as Ilya Perelkov. She’d noted Cyril in the young man’s company in the cloisters today. She should speak to her brother about his choice of companions. Her father would have expected it of her. Of course, her father would also have expected Cyril to do his chores instead of shirking them.

And their mother would have expected both her children to make peace with one another.

Katrin dropped her gaze, caught short by the thought of how disappointed her mother would have been. She would address her brother. She would apologize for not speaking to him earlier. The truth was, if he didn’t want to live in the cottage anymore, she could not force him to stay, or do his chores, or any of it. With their father’s passing, Cyril was a young man come of age. She must begin treating him like one.

Feeling settled by this new resolve, she entered the stonecote and slipped off her boots, hanging them carefully. Soon it would grow too cold to wander barefoot, even inside the cottage. She walked over to check how the apples were drying. The latest batch was done. Time to slice more and set them to dry as well. She built up the fire, gathered the apples and paring knife, and settled on Mamaly’s side of the hearth.

At quiet moments like this, Katrin could almost imagine her parents were still with her. Mama would be tending her herbs; Tato would be lost in some parchment or other. The fire crackled happily as if it, too, participated in the pleasant daydream. Whatever Katrin had lost, at least she had her memories. Their sweetness, at moments like this, seemed to pervade the very stones of her home. Much had been lost, but so long as she could call this place home, Katrin would be encircled by her parents’ love.

She was quietly singing her mother’s favorite hymn when she heard a knock on the cottage door. Did someone need herbs, perhaps? Or maybe it was one of Cyril’s new friends. There seemed to be no end of them. How did he gather them with such ease?

Setting the tray of apples and the paring knife aside, she opened the door. On the other side stood an old woman. About her feet, where shoes should have been, she wore bundled rags. Her garb was muddied and worn.

Katrin summoned her courtesy and said, “God e’en, Babushka.”

“God e’en,” replied the old crone. Her rheumy eyes were pale, almost as if silvered over.

“How may I serve you?” Katrin asked, trying to recall what was good for sicknesses of the eye. Eyebright, perhaps? She had neglected it until there had been none to harvest.

“Have you some chai for a parched soul?” asked the old woman.

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” The stranger wanted hospitality and not herbs. Katrin knew the duties owed to those seeking food or shelter. “Won’t you please come inside?” she asked politely.

After the old woman had settled by the fire, Katrin commenced with the samovar, filling it with good water, well-drawn. She used her mother’s samovar-tongs to grasp chips of smoldering wood from the fireplace. These, she dropped into the metal tube in the center of the samovar, alternating the coals with kindling and dried pinecones. Heating water, even with this marvelous new invention, was not a fast process, and she began to worry that she might have to entertain the old woman for supper as well as for chai. The old woman had perhaps known this. She was now dozing on Tato’s side of the fire.

The water began to simmer, setting the latch on the samovar a-chittering. Katrin prepared a strong pot of chai and set it atop the samovar’s smoking chimney.

After the tea leaves steeped, Katrin poured cups of chai for herself and her guest, diluting both with additional hot water from the samovar’s low spigot. After this, Katrin awoke her guest from slumber. The old woman stretched and hobbled to the table, a smile spreading over toothless gums. Katrin returned the smile, only a bit perfunctorily, and held the chair out for her guest.

On accepting the cup of chai, the old woman said courteously, “I am in your debt.”

“There is no debt,” replied Katrin. Guilt tugged at her; yes, she was exhibiting good manners, but she’d also been scheming to make sure the old woman departed before the supper hour. Her mother would have reprimanded her selfishness. Perhaps she ought to ask the old woman about her eyes. She might have a clay jar of salve….

But when the babushka looked up to compliment Katrin on the tea, Katrin saw with surprise that she’d been mistaken as to the health of the old woman’s eyes. They were not rheumy but merely so pale as to appear silvered over.

“I shall give you something in return for the tea,” said the old woman. “Would you like a song perhaps?”

Katrin was not at all persuaded that she wanted a song, but restraining her inner porcupine, she said simply, “As you will, babushka.”

“I will sing, and you shall repeat after me,” said the old woman.

She began to sing in a language Katrin did not know. After only a few bars, the old woman paused, saying, “Now let me hear you.”

“Hear me?”

“Yes, child. Sing what you heard me singing.”

Katrin was on the point of saying that she no longer sang for others, but something in the old woman’s gaze stopped her, and instead Katrin heard herself repeating the old woman’s song. When they had done this three more times, the old woman seemed satisfied.

“There. You have it. The song is yours now, to give or to keep as you please.”

“I am in your debt,” said Katrin.

“Nay,” the old woman said sharply. “We are neither of us indebted. You offered tea, and I gifted you a song.” But then a sly smile lit the wizened face. “I wonder, though, have you such a thing as an apple that an old woman might take on her travels?”

Katrin thought of the fresh apples she’d picked this morning. She thought, too, of the older apples she’d picked two weeks ago and not yet dried. She rose and crossed to the barrel of the older apples, going as far as lifting the lid before deciding that, really, it was only an apple, and wouldn’t her mother have expected her to offer the best? She replaced the lid on the older apples.

The old babushka muttered softly to herself as Katrin reached into the newer barrel and chose an apple that gleamed red and gold.

“Here you are, baba moya,” Katrin said.

Hmm …” The old woman took the apple, examining it from all sides. “Hmm … have you none fresher than this?”

Feeling slightly irritated at the request—she had just chosen the best from the barrel—Katrin replied that, yes, the trees outside still had a few apples clinging to them.

“Out of doors,” said the old woman. “Yes. Let us go outside.”

Katrin rose and took down her boots, shoving her feet inside. The warmth was pleasant. Her feet had grown cold during the hour she’d been padding about on the stone floor.

“Let us find you some apples before it grows dark,” said Katrin.

The two wandered the orchard, and in the end Katrin plucked six of the finest and placed them into the eager hands of the old woman.

“Oh,” said Katrin, watching as the old woman tried to stuff the apples into a too-small sack, “I have something better indoors.”

They returned inside the stonecote, and Katrin reached toward the peg on the back of the door where hung several cloth satchels for gathering apples. Katrin would never miss one of these. “Here. Place the apples in this bag. It is sturdy, you see?” Here, Katrin gave a tug on the strap before passing it to the stranger.

“Twice, I am in your debt,” the old crone said softly.

Before Katrin could reply, the old woman lifted a round talisman from the folds of her garment.

“Receive this of me,” said the old woman.

When Katrin hesitated, the old woman said, “Go on, go on.”

It was a talisman of the sort usually worn on a chain, a disk that would lie flat to the chest, with one side exposed and one hidden. The old woman had handed it to her with the tarnished side exposed. It was not the dark, even tarnish of silver. Tin, maybe? Did not the Celtvas wear ornaments of tin?

“Turn it over, child,” murmured the old woman.

On its reverse side, the metal had been folded to secure a rondelle of glass, beneath which lay a tiny realm of beauty.

Oh,” gasped Katrin.

Upon a backdrop of black, colors were overlain. They faded in and out of one another, iridescent, like a hummingbird’s throat or a beetle’s wing. Nor were the black portions unadorned. Pinpricks of light winked on and off as she turned the roundel, creating the illusion of a starry field in miniature.

“I have never seen such work before,” Katrin said quietly. And then, respectfully, she added, “I am in your debt.”

“Nay, you gave me apples, and this makes us even. Wear it on a chain or cord, do you see?” The old woman pointed to its metal loop.

“I thank you,” Katrin said. She shifted the decorative side to catch the last of the day’s light. How had the old woman come upon such a beautiful object? “Are you certain you will not miss it? Is not its value alone reason to keep it?”

“I have given what I have given,” said the babushka, her mouth drawing tight.

Katrin had offended her. “Of course,” she said, clasping the object in her palm. “I thank you.”

“Have you no bit of cord about you, child?”

Thinking quickly, Katrin untied the narrow red ribbon that bound her hair. She strung the ribbon through the loop, and then she slipped her new necklace over her head where it settled behind her work-apron.

“Good, good,” said the old woman. “Now you wear the beauty of this island about your pretty neck. I shall be on my way.”

They went out the front door, Katrin walking alongside the old crone, intending to set her on the road to the abbey, where she might take a night’s rest.

“The pendant makes us even for the apples and the sack,” the old woman said as they neared the gate. “Unless you count these as separate debts?”

“There is no debt,” Katrin replied politely. And truly, how was an old crone who couldn’t even keep herself in shoe leather going to pay her back? Guilt tugged at Katrin as she dropped her eyes to the woman’s feet.

“Wait,” said Katrin. “Wait here for a moment, Babushka.”

The old woman turned and gave Katrin a toothless smile. “I will do so.”

Katrin dashed back to the cottage to retrieve the boots her mother would never wear again. It would have been selfish to keep them, when the old crone stood so plainly in need. Having snatched the boots and clutched them to her heart, Katrin ran back to the gate. The old woman leaned against it, observing the sky.

“Babushka,” Katrin said politely, “I see that your … shoes … are worn.”

The old crone cackled softly.

“Will you—that is, I would be pleased to offer you these,” said Katrin.

The gift was held out and accepted.

With more grace than Katrin would have expected, the old woman stooped and removed the wraps that had bound her feet. Then she put on the boots.

“A more perfect fit, even a tsaritsa could not ask for,” replied the babushka. Looking up, she said, “Again I am in your debt. I shall give you something else as well.”

“You must not think of it,” Katrin murmured.

The old woman seemed to consider Katrin for a minute before speaking again.

“Come,” she said.

“Come where?” asked Katrin. “I have chores that await—”

“Yes, yes,” said the old woman impatiently. “But you must give me your arm to the road. You will not refuse an old babushka that much?”

Katrin would have preferred to refuse. The old woman hadn’t needed her arm when they wandered among the apple trees, and she would have to walk on her own to wherever she was off to next.

“Do you refuse me, then?” asked the babushka.

“It is only … are you certain you would not like to stay for supper?” Katrin asked. It was what she ought to have offered from the beginning.

“Thrice I am in your debt,” replied the old woman. “A fourth time I will not abide.”

“Very well,” said Katrin. She held out her arm. “Let us go together to the road. I can point you to the abbey where they have food and beds for travelers.”

“Well, well, well,” said the old woman. “We shall see.” And then, as if perceiving some threat, the old woman began to walk more swiftly. “Hurry, child. Hurry.”

Katrin matched her pace to that of the old woman.

“The song I gave you,” said the old crone. “Let me hear it once more, so that I know you have received it from me aright.”

Katrin wasn’t sure she could remember it, but she managed after all, finishing just as they cleared the gate and left the farmstead property behind.

“Good, good,” said the old woman. “You have received my three gifts and I, yours. All is well between us.”

It wasn’t the time to point out that the old woman had forgotten whatever third “gift” she had meant to make to Katrin when they set off arm in arm.

“Perhaps you will forget the song,” continued the old woman, “but me, I think, you will always remember.”

Katrin stood, considering how to respond courteously to the odd remark, but then she saw something that stole her attention from her departing guest.

A large group of young men approached at a distance, marching toward the walled enclosure that surrounded her orchard and stonecote.

Cyril.

It had to be Cyril among his friends. Well, if Cyril thought he was inviting this horde for supper, he had another thing coming. Katrin might not be able to stop him from making imprudent friendships, but she could absolutely keep them from ruining her peace and quiet.

“I will say God e’en,” said the old woman. “You shall stay here and not return inside until you speak with your brother.”

Katrin frowned at the imperious request.

Not to mention, how did the babushka know she had a brother?

The old woman leaned forward and kissed Katrin on either cheek, with lips that seemed as soft and fresh as any new babe’s. And then turned, walking away in the direction opposite the road to the abbey. Katrin called after her. “The abbey lies the other way!”

The babushka threw one final look over her shoulder and replied, “This I know,” before continuing on her way. As she walked, she drew under the shade of a stand of firs and seemed to vanish, a trick of the evening light.

Katrin shook her head. And then, hands on her hips, she turned to greet her brother, or forbid entrance to his friends, whichever was called for. She was not feeding a dozen rowdy lads who had already paid for nightly suppers at the abbey school. At the head of the group was the young lordling from the library. Ilya Bartholomeyevich. Katrin glowered. No, none of these lads were getting past her. It was lucky, really, that the old woman had requested an escort to the road. Much easier to turn a group away from outside the enclosure wall than if she’d been inside the cottage when they barged in.

She shifted her gaze from Ilya Bartholomeyevich and descried her brother. Cyril’s hair dripped and his gaze was sullen and fierce. What had her fool brother done now?

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Cyril hobbled toward shore through the inlet shallows, dripping, his heart pounding with the effort of that strange attack—and his even stranger survival. What was it the siren had said? That he wasn’t the one she was after? Not for me—those had been her words. Well, he was grateful. Glad to be alive. Never in all his years swimming had he encountered a siren. And now he had lived to tell the tale! The race, surely, had been called off. Nor was Cyril in any mood to swim again. Not today. Not with her, still out there somewhere.

Her words were fading now, and he had to concentrate to recall them. There had been something about one of his friends. About someone shining? And marked for death? Cyril shook the water from his ears, wishing he could shake the fearful memories as easily. Yeshik had reached the shore safely, as had he. That was the main thing. Neither of them had been the one “marked for death.” The siren could have easily caught up to Yeshik and slain him. Cyril shuddered with the recollection of the creature’s strength.

“I’m all right,” he called to the others on shore.

No one gave heed to his words. They were only interested in Yeshik. Well, that was fair. Yeshik had been in far more danger than had Cyril. Although, oddly, no one seemed to be speaking to Yeshik of his brush with death.

As Cyril waded through the last few yards of shallows, he saw the other lads lifting Yeshik’s arms. It was a pose of … victory? Surviving such an ordeal was worthy of that, Cyril supposed. He shook the water from his hair.

Yeshik, catching Cyril’s eye, lifted his chin to acknowledge him.

“That was a close one,” Cyril called to Yeshik.

“Not that close,” drawled Nils.

Cyril frowned, uncertain whether it was worth responding to Nils. Perhaps things hadn’t looked so bad from shore. They had been swimming a long way out when it had happened, after all.

“He beat you by ells and ells,” added Nils.

Cyril’s frown deepened. “Well, yes, of course. I told him to swim back—”

Yeshik now flung himself at Cyril, hugging him and thumping his back.

“Well raced, my friend,” said Yeshik. “I can hardly believe I beat you! And you, the victor of how many races, is it?”

“The race was called off, was it not?” Cyril said uncertainly. “After an attack like that? Did you suffer any harm?”

“Me? Suffer harm?” Yeshik looked genuinely puzzled. “I’m fine.”

“But … the siren? The attack?”

Cyril heard Nils making derogatory noises from a few feet away.

Yeshik was no longer smiling. Then, speaking in a lowered voice, he asked, “What are you speaking of?”

“Of her. The siren that attacked you.”

“The … siren?” Yeshik asked uncertainly.

“Yes. I grabbed her and pinned her arms and told you to swim to shore—” Cyril broke off because Yeshik was looking at him as if he were crazy.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Yeshik said, closing the distance between them to speak more softly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you … did you think you glimpsed a siren out there?”

Yeshik’s expression told Cyril that his friend remembered none of it.

He will not remember, but you will never forget.” The creature’s last words. Yeshik would not remember. Yeshik would not remember? How was that possible?

“There was a siren,” Cyril said. “Here, look at the marks on your arms where she grappled with you.”

Yeshik looked at his arms with curiosity. There were angry red welts on both of them.

“Your skin looks the same as mine,” Yeshik said, pointing.

Cyril looked down and saw several welts on his arms and torso.

“Perhaps there is some sort of … miasma in the sea today?” said Yeshik.

“No—” began Cyril, but then he broke off. How was he supposed to convince someone whose memory had been stolen from him?

“It’s on your face, too,” said Yeshik. “On both sides. You should get some salve from your sister for that. Isn’t she training to be an herb-wife?”

Cyril raised his hand to touch the side of his face. His skin was tender where the siren had clutched his skull.

“You don’t look well,” said Yeshik. He leaned in. “Listen, I’m sorry about the race. And I’m not keeping your gold. I didn’t expect to win.”

And suddenly it hit Cyril that if the race had not been called off, then he had lost. No one was aware of the struggle with the siren. No one was going to say the race was canceled because there had been an attack. They were all going to treat this as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Which meant he had lost the race. He’d lost the wager. Or, rather, he would have done, if Yeshik hadn’t just offered to return the coins.

Cyril wasn’t going to argue over it. If Yeshik had been able to recall what really happened, he would have said that the bet was null and void. But even so … Cyril felt the weight of what he had done—or nearly done—in wagering. Four golden coins was the value of the entire apple and cherry harvest. What had he been thinking? Water rattled in his ear canal. He gave his head a firm shake to the side.

Yeshik was once more being congratulated, others lifting his arms again in recognition of the victory. Cyril stumbled as he walked to retrieve his clothing. He thought he heard Nils snicker, though it was quickly silenced. Cyril glanced up to see Ilya, who did seem to be threatening Nils. Or was Cyril merely imagining this kindness? Were these young men, any of them, his friends? Or did they merely tolerate him?

“Well raced, Cyril,” called Tovelsson. He offered Cyril a tentative smile.

“I thank you,” Cyril responded, unable to think of anything else. A sudden gust blew past, chilling his skin. The sun would be setting soon.

Oi-yai! A cloak!” Yeshik called. “Someone bring this young fish his cloak so that he may warm himself.”

This instigated a flurry of activity as someone grabbed Cyril’s cloak—but not before spilling his carefully folded clothes onto damp sand.

Cyril accepted the cloak mutely along with various slaps on the back and calls of “good race,” and “better luck another time.” He saw what a poor loser he would appear if he opposed the merriment. Pulling his cloak tight about him with one hand, he strode forward and offered his hand to Yeshik as was proper when conceding a race. Yeshik offered a bear hug in return, murmuring again about the gold pieces.

Cyril could not hear the words. “Water in this ear,” he said, giving his head another couple of shakes. Warmed sea water dribbled from one ear, and his hearing on that side was restored.

“Here,” Yeshik said softly. “As I promised.” He grinned, palming four golden double-eagle coins out of view of the others. “Come now,” he murmured. “Take back the gold.”

Before Cyril could protest—not that he had any mind to—Yeshik had passed the four golden coins to him.

Behind them, someone had discovered that the stone jar of vodka was not yet empty. Cups were poured for Yeshik and for Cyril.

“I’ve no stomach for it,” Cyril said, declining his.

He was overwhelmed, both with relief at his miraculous survival but also at the unexpected return of the coins. Perhaps it was just as well to let things rest, without bringing up the siren. After all, they had survived. And Cyril had gained honor among his peers by racing and wagering. And Yeshik had returned the coins discretely. No one else had observed it. If they had, Cyril felt sure that Nils would have been making degrading remarks about it.

So. All was well.

And yet, it might have been otherwise. Putting aside the siren encounter, Cyril had allowed himself to be goaded into a mad gamble with his home. What if Yeshik had not been in such a jolly mood? What if Yeshik had kept the coins? Cyril would have owed Ilya and lost the only thing of value he held in the world. It had been a moment of madness, and he thanked all the Svyatykh that Yeshik had seen fit to act mercifully. Did his friend, perhaps, retain some impulse of indebtedness for having been rescued? Cyril supposed that he would never know the truth of it.

He reached down to shake off the sand that clung to his breeches and shirt. To dress, he had set his cloak back down, and he observed that Ilya picked it up, giving it a good shake to loosen the wet sand. Another kindness.

Ilya held the cloak out and spoke. “It is a good thing that you took this from your home this morning.” An oddly somber look played on his features. “And your winter boots,” Ilya added, looking at Cyril’s feet as he shoved them into the sheepskin boots.

Cyril was on the point of asking how he could have brought anything else, since he had only the one cloak and one pair of boots, but someone interrupted, calling for Ilya.

Walking alongside Ilya, Cyril stumbled on the uneven ground. Ilya did not offer to steady him. Was this meant to preserve Cyril’s dignity, or was it simple inattention? They reached the others, who were now finishing the last of the vodka.

“Here,” Cyril said quietly, holding out the four gold coins to Ilya. “Thank you for the loan of the coin. You saved my dignity. I shall not forget it.”

Ilya looked puzzled.

Cyril leaned in closer and murmured, “Yeshik renounced his winnings, but the coins are yours, of course. I am returning them now to you.”

Ilya frowned at the coins. “I cannot accept them.”

“Just take them,” said Cyril.

“We swore an oath,” Ilya said.

“Aye,” said Cyril, “but I release you. I have no use for gold.”

Ilya looked troubled. “Cyril, you cannot release me from our oath, nor yourself. Do you not understand?”

“Understand what?”

“Have you never sworn such an oath before?” asked Ilya.

Cyril shrugged. “No. It is our island custom to clasp hands to forge an agreement.”

“Yes, yes. Of course. As you offered to do with me,” Ilya said, frowning. “You have no idea how sorry I am, friend. But the oath we swore is of another sort altogether. It is inviolable. I would much rather have your gold than your hovel, but … there it is. The sea has our vow.” He shrugged as if in apology.

Cyril tore his eyes from his friend’s calm face and gazed at the sea as despair seized him.

What had he done?

Could it be true? Had he sworn an inviolable oath? How did such a thing work? Could it be undone, somehow? But no, inviolable meant … inviolable. Unless Ilya was lying? But why would he lie? Or was he, perhaps, wrong? Yes. Cyril must research this “oath to the sea.” Would the abbey brothers know where to point him? Surely they would.

But even if the oath did not exist, or did not exist in any legally binding way, what might it mean if Ilya refused to violate it?

“Here,” Ilya said. He closed Cyril’s hand over the coins in his palm. “You will need these in the days to come. Truly, I am sorry about your … your property.”

“You mean my hovel,” Cyril said bitterly.

As he spoke, his stomach lurched. He clutched at it.

Nils, observing this, drawled something about the peasants and strong drink.

Svyatykh and Apostoly! What a fool he had been.

But surely … surely there was some way around this oath?

“Ilya,” he called.

Ilya turned to him. “Are you unwell?”

“What do you think?” snapped Cyril. Then he closed his eyes and took a breath. “Forgive me.”

Ilya neglected to offer the rote response.

“Only,” began Cyril, “surely you cannot mean there is no way for us to undo this oath. You do not want my property, nor do I want this gold. Can we not come to an accommodation?”

Ilya’s visage grew stern. “I have no wish to become a meal for the sea. Did you give no heed to the words we spoke?”

“Yes, yes. But it was only … was it not a jest? Surely such an oath is meaningless.”

“One is free, of course, to believe as one likes,” Ilya said warily, “but for myself, I should sooner expose myself to a deadly pox than break such an oath. Cyril, we called on the sea to gnaw our bones if we tried to undo what was agreed on.”

“We merely agreed to exchange your gold for my property. Why may the transaction not be reversed?”

Ilya looked at him as if he were a child. “Because we swore on the sea. We invoked the magia of its creatures to bind our actions. Surely you can see that such an oath must not be violated.”

“And if I had won the race?” demanded Cyril. “What then?”

“Our oath was contingent on your losing,” explained Ilya. “We agreed on the exchange ‘should Cyril not best Yeshik in the race.’ If you had won …” He shrugged before continuing. “Then the transaction between us would never have taken place. I should have retained my gold, and you, your property, and the sea’s magia should not have bound us.”

“That is ludicrous!” exclaimed Cyril.

Ilya frowned. “Are you not a scholar of laws concerning magia? Ah—but I had forgotten. The abbey brothers frown upon oath-taking. You must read more deeply if you are to master your subject.”

Cyril felt the insult hidden within the suggestion. He had made a cursory study of binding agreements falling under ecclesiastical and civil law, but it had not occurred to him to hunt for texts concerning “binding oaths invoking the fey.” Well, he would study the subject now. However little the abbey magisters might approve of such oaths, Cyril would insist. He would ask of every bibliothecary in the librarium. He would learn every point of law relative to such oaths, and he would discover if anyone’s bones had, in point of fact, been gnawed in consequence of breaking such an oath.

But there was the problem again: if Ilya feared the consequences and refused to yield, then the finer points meant nothing. Cyril had no power to defy a duke’s son. Moreover, even if he should regain his property by legal means, what would be the cost, quite apart from the gnawing of anyone’s bones? Ilya and his fellows would see Cyril as going back on his word. They would despise him for agreeing and then fighting to have the agreement undone.

Cyril felt the depth of his folly. The oath trapped him as surely as the siren’s grip had done. Even if he abandoned this group of lordlings and sought to ingratiate himself with a new group of lads, word would spread as to his character: oath-breaker, they would name him. Double-tongued. Unsteady, untrustworthy. He felt as if already, his bones were being gnawed upon, his future surrendered.

Cyril closed his eyes to still his mind. He had not surrendered his future. Not yet. Neither would he jeopardize it. None should name him an oath-breaker. For now, he would behave as though resigned to his circumstances. It was the only way open to him: make the best of the terrible situation, for now. Later, privately, he might inquire if Ilya would be open to an alternative arrangement.

What he would not do was endanger his future.

As he brooded miserably on these things, he fell a few paces behind the rest of the lads. He would have liked to part from them altogether, but there was only one path back to the abbey and from there to his home. Hopefully they would all make for the dormitorium or librarium and not for the stonecote. He must consider what to remove from it, now, before Ilya took possession.

He must pack up his father’s books, certainly, and his parents’ wedding bands. Did he know where to find them? Katrin would know.

Katrin—Oi yai oi! A new thought struck him like a blow.

He had just stolen from Katrin the means to make her livelihood. He had stripped her of shelter, of home, and of her carefully tended herb garden.

What was he to say to her? How to explain what had happened? She must not hear it from a stranger—that much was clear. He must think of a way to put things. Was there some way to make the news less awful?

Suddenly it became urgent to reach her ahead of anyone else. As he attempted to pass the other lads, however, two clapped arms around his shoulders, and held him fast. They were speaking of the race again, speaking of him and not to him.

Nils’s voice rose above the general din.

“Shall we have a look at Ilya’s new estate?” he said mockingly.

Cyril felt his cheeks flushing with anger. He shrugged free of the boys at his sides. They seemed not to notice. The walk felt interminable, the longest in Cyril’s life. How was he to tell Katrin? What would she say? What would she do? He would tell her that he planned to seek every means of appeal, but that for now, she must harden herself and accept it. She must act as Holy Boetsiy of the Consolation. They must both. What choice had they?

Once more, he turned his thoughts to the items he might gather. The books. His bedding. His father’s ax, perhaps? And pitchfork and shovel? He should not like to have his property restored to him only to find the lads had destroyed the useful implements….

Ilya was now laughing at something Nils was saying.

Somehow the group had already left the abbey behind and were continuing on the road leading to the stonecote. Cyril could see the wall that enclosed his orchard, his house, and his front garden.

“Ilya,” Cyril called.

Ilya turned.

“Wait for me,” Cyril said, increasing his rolling gait. He needed information.

Ilya waited.

“The oath,” said Cyril. “To what did it pertain? You said you had no interest in farming apples, did you not?”

Ilya’s brow was untroubled as he replied. “Like it or not, it’s mine now. All that lies within the wall. Those were the terms of the exchange.”

“But you don’t want the orchard, do you?”

Ilya gave a noncommittal shrug.

“May I not keep it, then?” asked Cyril.

A few of the other lads had slowed to listen in. Cyril wished they would not.

“It is not mine to dispose of,” Ilya said. He spoke as a magister explaining something to an un-apt pupil. “The oath binds each of us. The moment that you lost the race, the four gold coins became yours—well, yours to deliver to Yeshik—and your property and all that is within the walls became mine. We are each of us bound.” He smiled sadly. “If you had won the race, well …”

“Yes, yes. Then the oath would not have been binding,” Cyril said, exasperation coloring his tone.

“You sound like a bunch of old merchants haggling a contract,” drawled Nils.

“This is my life and livelihood,” Cyril said angrily. For two copper pennies, he would have punched Nils’s smirking face. Nay, he would’ve done it gratis.

“Come now,” said Nils. “What of possible value lies inside those walls?”

“His sister,” called one of the other youths.

“Leave my sister out of this,” Cyril said.

“If your sister is inside the property walls,” began Vladimir, looking worried.

“My sister is not chattel!”

“These are complex matters, my friend,” Vladimir said uncomfortably. “The Tsar’s law becomes tangled with the intent of the oath. As an unmarried daughter, your sister has scant legal status. Will the magia of the oath take such intricacies into consideration?” He shrugged. “Who can say?”

“Until it is too late,” Nils chimed in, “and the sea creatures claim their due.” He grabbed Vladimir’s arm and pretended to gnaw it.

Cyril blanched, suddenly uncertain. He knew only a little of laws concerning the status of unmarried women. Katrin was an unmarried daughter, true, but surely that did not mean she was “chattel”?

Cyril turned to Ilya, trying to temper the panic in his voice. “You cannot mean that everything within the walls is yours. Not my sister. She is a freeman’s daughter. You cannot own her.”

Ilya looked troubled now as well. “I had no thought of acquiring a new mouth to feed. Vladimir, you are a studious fellow. You must go to the library keeper and ask him for laws concerning this sort of … situation.”

“You cannot … you must not …” Cyril broke off. There was nothing for it but to run ahead and warn his sister to clear the property before the rest of them arrived and tried to argue she belonged to Ilya. Ilya might behave honorably, but could Cyril say the same for all the rest? For Nils?

He dashed forward. Almost at once, though, Jan and Tovelsson were at his side, laughing and jostling one another. Before he knew what had happened, Cyril was on his back looking up at a sky flaring pink with evening.

“Are you hurt?” asked Jan.

“Help him up,” suggested Tovelsson.

Together, the two righted Cyril. The rest of the group gathered round asking if he were well, if anything hurt.

“It is nothing,” Cyril said bitterly. It was his longest-held habit: admit no injury that might draw attention to his limbs.

“It was my fault,” Jan said cheerfully. “I took a misstep and pushed into Cyril.”

“Are you certain all is well?” asked Tovelsson.

“All is well,” replied Cyril, dusting himself off. He would rather have shouted that all was not well, that nothing was well, that they could all go to the devil’s wife.

“Even so,” said Jan, “I beg your pardon, Cyril.”

“It is yours before asking,” Cyril replied automatically.

And then he saw her. Katrin. Her hands on her hips. Looking angry as a wasp but blessedly, thanks be to all the holy saints, outside the pale of the enclosure.

To continue, buy here.