Chapter the Eighth (Gift of the Tsaritsa)

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 said, after 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.

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