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.
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.
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