Chapter Ten (Tsarina, Scholar, Woodsman, Thief)

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.

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