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

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.

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