Chapter Four (working title: THE TSARITSA’S GIFT)

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.”


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.

To continue, buy here.