The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Chapters (Tsarina Scholar Woodsman Thief)

Chapter Thirteen

 

Katrin trudged back home after having at last sorted out the reductio ad absurdam approach of Euclid’s seventh proof. The solution had been obvious once she saw her way to it, but was that not the way with most things? Today, at least, there had been no interruptions by glamoured lordlings demanding that she sing for their revels.

The encounter from the previous day still rankled. There had been a moment, however brief, when she had hoped that it had been her diligence as a scholar that had caught the young man’s attention. That perhaps he had wished to discuss the Euclidian commentary with her. A moment when she admitted to herself, very quietly, that she would have liked to have someone with whom she could converse intelligently about complex ideas. A fellow scholar. A friend.

The moment had passed swiftly, and now she despised herself for it. It was weakness. She needed no one. Especially not a conceited, manipulative, silver-tongued scoundrel such as Ilya Perelkov. She’d noted Cyril in the young man’s company in the cloisters today. She should speak to her brother about his choice of companions. Her father would have expected it of her. Of course, her father would also have expected Cyril to do his chores instead of shirking them.

And their mother would have expected both her children to make peace with one another.

Katrin dropped her gaze, caught short by the thought of how disappointed her mother would have been. She would address her brother. She would apologize for not speaking to him earlier. The truth was, if he didn’t want to live in the cottage anymore, she could not force him to stay, or do his chores, or any of it. With their father’s passing, Cyril was a young man come of age. She must begin treating him like one.

Feeling settled by this new resolve, she entered the stonecote and slipped off her boots, hanging them carefully. Soon it would grow too cold to wander barefoot, even inside the cottage. She walked over to check how the apples were drying. The latest batch was done. Time to slice more and set them to dry as well. She built up the fire, gathered the apples and paring knife, and settled on Mamaly’s side of the hearth.

At quiet moments like this, Katrin could almost imagine her parents were still with her. Mama would be tending her herbs; Tato would be lost in some parchment or other. The fire crackled happily as if it, too, participated in the pleasant daydream. Whatever Katrin had lost, at least she had her memories. Their sweetness, at moments like this, seemed to pervade the very stones of her home. Much had been lost, but so long as she could call this place home, Katrin would be encircled by her parents’ love.

She was quietly singing her mother’s favorite hymn when she heard a knock on the cottage door. Did someone need herbs, perhaps? Or maybe it was one of Cyril’s new friends. There seemed to be no end of them. How did he gather them with such ease?

Setting the tray of apples and the paring knife aside, she opened the door. On the other side stood an old woman. About her feet, where shoes should have been, she wore bundled rags. Her garb was muddied and worn.

Katrin summoned her courtesy and said, “God e’en, Babushka.”

“God e’en,” replied the old crone. Her rheumy eyes were pale, almost as if silvered over.

“How may I serve you?” Katrin asked, trying to recall what was good for sicknesses of the eye. Eyebright, perhaps? She had neglected it until there had been none to harvest.

“Have you some chai for a parched soul?” asked the old woman.

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” The stranger wanted hospitality and not herbs. Katrin knew the duties owed to those seeking food or shelter. “Won’t you please come inside?” she asked politely.

After the old woman had settled by the fire, Katrin commenced with the samovar, filling it with good water, well-drawn. She used her mother’s samovar-tongs to grasp chips of smoldering wood from the fireplace. These, she dropped into the metal tube in the center of the samovar, alternating the coals with kindling and dried pinecones. Heating water, even with this marvelous new invention, was not a fast process, and she began to worry that she might have to entertain the old woman for supper as well as for chai. The old woman had perhaps known this. She was now dozing on Tato’s side of the fire.

The water began to simmer, setting the latch on the samovar a-chittering. Katrin prepared a strong pot of chai and set it atop the samovar’s smoking chimney.

After the tea leaves steeped, Katrin poured cups of chai for herself and her guest, diluting both with additional hot water from the samovar’s low spigot. After this, Katrin awoke her guest from slumber. The old woman stretched and hobbled to the table, a smile spreading over toothless gums. Katrin returned the smile, only a bit perfunctorily, and held the chair out for her guest.

On accepting the cup of chai, the old woman said courteously, “I am in your debt.”

“There is no debt,” replied Katrin. Guilt tugged at her; yes, she was exhibiting good manners, but she’d also been scheming to make sure the old woman departed before the supper hour. Her mother would have reprimanded her selfishness. Perhaps she ought to ask the old woman about her eyes. She might have a clay jar of salve….

But when the babushka looked up to compliment Katrin on the tea, Katrin saw with surprise that she’d been mistaken as to the health of the old woman’s eyes. They were not rheumy but merely so pale as to appear silvered over.

“I shall give you something in return for the tea,” said the old woman. “Would you like a song perhaps?”

Katrin was not at all persuaded that she wanted a song, but restraining her inner porcupine, she said simply, “As you will, babushka.”

“I will sing, and you shall repeat after me,” said the old woman.

She began to sing in a language Katrin did not know. After only a few bars, the old woman paused, saying, “Now let me hear you.”

“Hear me?”

“Yes, child. Sing what you heard me singing.”

Katrin was on the point of saying that she no longer sang for others, but something in the old woman’s gaze stopped her, and instead Katrin heard herself repeating the old woman’s song. When they had done this three more times, the old woman seemed satisfied.

“There. You have it. The song is yours now, to give or to keep as you please.”

“I am in your debt,” said Katrin.

“Nay,” the old woman said sharply. “We are neither of us indebted. You offered tea, and I gifted you a song.” But then a sly smile lit the wizened face. “I wonder, though, have you such a thing as an apple that an old woman might take on her travels?”

Katrin thought of the fresh apples she’d picked this morning. She thought, too, of the older apples she’d picked two weeks ago and not yet dried. She rose and crossed to the barrel of the older apples, going as far as lifting the lid before deciding that, really, it was only an apple, and wouldn’t her mother have expected her to offer the best? She replaced the lid on the older apples.

The old babushka muttered softly to herself as Katrin reached into the newer barrel and chose an apple that gleamed red and gold.

“Here you are, baba moya,” Katrin said.

Hmm …” The old woman took the apple, examining it from all sides. “Hmm … have you none fresher than this?”

Feeling slightly irritated at the request—she had just chosen the best from the barrel—Katrin replied that, yes, the trees outside still had a few apples clinging to them.

“Out of doors,” said the old woman. “Yes. Let us go outside.”

Katrin rose and took down her boots, shoving her feet inside. The warmth was pleasant. Her feet had grown cold during the hour she’d been padding about on the stone floor.

“Let us find you some apples before it grows dark,” said Katrin.

The two wandered the orchard, and in the end Katrin plucked six of the finest and placed them into the eager hands of the old woman.

“Oh,” said Katrin, watching as the old woman tried to stuff the apples into a too-small sack, “I have something better indoors.”

They returned inside the stonecote, and Katrin reached toward the peg on the back of the door where hung several cloth satchels for gathering apples. Katrin would never miss one of these. “Here. Place the apples in this bag. It is sturdy, you see?” Here, Katrin gave a tug on the strap before passing it to the stranger.

“Twice, I am in your debt,” the old crone said softly.

Before Katrin could reply, the old woman lifted a round talisman from the folds of her garment.

“Receive this of me,” said the old woman.

When Katrin hesitated, the old woman said, “Go on, go on.”

It was a talisman of the sort usually worn on a chain, a disk that would lie flat to the chest, with one side exposed and one hidden. The old woman had handed it to her with the tarnished side exposed. It was not the dark, even tarnish of silver. Tin, maybe? Did not the Celtvas wear ornaments of tin?

“Turn it over, child,” murmured the old woman.

On its reverse side, the metal had been folded to secure a rondelle of glass, beneath which lay a tiny realm of beauty.

Oh,” gasped Katrin.

Upon a backdrop of black, colors were overlain. They faded in and out of one another, iridescent, like a hummingbird’s throat or a beetle’s wing. Nor were the black portions unadorned. Pinpricks of light winked on and off as she turned the roundel, creating the illusion of a starry field in miniature.

“I have never seen such work before,” Katrin said quietly. And then, respectfully, she added, “I am in your debt.”

“Nay, you gave me apples, and this makes us even. Wear it on a chain or cord, do you see?” The old woman pointed to its metal loop.

“I thank you,” Katrin said. She shifted the decorative side to catch the last of the day’s light. How had the old woman come upon such a beautiful object? “Are you certain you will not miss it? Is not its value alone reason to keep it?”

“I have given what I have given,” said the babushka, her mouth drawing tight.

Katrin had offended her. “Of course,” she said, clasping the object in her palm. “I thank you.”

“Have you no bit of cord about you, child?”

Thinking quickly, Katrin untied the narrow red ribbon that bound her hair. She strung the ribbon through the loop, and then she slipped her new necklace over her head where it settled behind her work-apron.

“Good, good,” said the old woman. “Now you wear the beauty of this island about your pretty neck. I shall be on my way.”

They went out the front door, Katrin walking alongside the old crone, intending to set her on the road to the abbey, where she might take a night’s rest.

“The pendant makes us even for the apples and the sack,” the old woman said as they neared the gate. “Unless you count these as separate debts?”

“There is no debt,” Katrin replied politely. And truly, how was an old crone who couldn’t even keep herself in shoe leather going to pay her back? Guilt tugged at Katrin as she dropped her eyes to the woman’s feet.

“Wait,” said Katrin. “Wait here for a moment, Babushka.”

The old woman turned and gave Katrin a toothless smile. “I will do so.”

Katrin dashed back to the cottage to retrieve the boots her mother would never wear again. It would have been selfish to keep them, when the old crone stood so plainly in need. Having snatched the boots and clutched them to her heart, Katrin ran back to the gate. The old woman leaned against it, observing the sky.

“Babushka,” Katrin said politely, “I see that your … shoes … are worn.”

The old crone cackled softly.

“Will you—that is, I would be pleased to offer you these,” said Katrin.

The gift was held out and accepted.

With more grace than Katrin would have expected, the old woman stooped and removed the wraps that had bound her feet. Then she put on the boots.

“A more perfect fit, even a tsaritsa could not ask for,” replied the babushka. Looking up, she said, “Again I am in your debt. I shall give you something else as well.”

“You must not think of it,” Katrin murmured.

The old woman seemed to consider Katrin for a minute before speaking again.

“Come,” she said.

“Come where?” asked Katrin. “I have chores that await—”

“Yes, yes,” said the old woman impatiently. “But you must give me your arm to the road. You will not refuse an old babushka that much?”

Katrin would have preferred to refuse. The old woman hadn’t needed her arm when they wandered among the apple trees, and she would have to walk on her own to wherever she was off to next.

“Do you refuse me, then?” asked the babushka.

“It is only … are you certain you would not like to stay for supper?” Katrin asked. It was what she ought to have offered from the beginning.

“Thrice I am in your debt,” replied the old woman. “A fourth time I will not abide.”

“Very well,” said Katrin. She held out her arm. “Let us go together to the road. I can point you to the abbey where they have food and beds for travelers.”

“Well, well, well,” said the old woman. “We shall see.” And then, as if perceiving some threat, the old woman began to walk more swiftly. “Hurry, child. Hurry.”

Katrin matched her pace to that of the old woman.

“The song I gave you,” said the old crone. “Let me hear it once more, so that I know you have received it from me aright.”

Katrin wasn’t sure she could remember it, but she managed after all, finishing just as they cleared the gate and left the farmstead property behind.

“Good, good,” said the old woman. “You have received my three gifts and I, yours. All is well between us.”

It wasn’t the time to point out that the old woman had forgotten whatever third “gift” she had meant to make to Katrin when they set off arm in arm.

“Perhaps you will forget the song,” continued the old woman, “but me, I think, you will always remember.”

Katrin stood, considering how to respond courteously to the odd remark, but then she saw something that stole her attention from her departing guest.

A large group of young men approached at a distance, marching toward the walled enclosure that surrounded her orchard and stonecote.

Cyril.

It had to be Cyril among his friends. Well, if Cyril thought he was inviting this horde for supper, he had another thing coming. Katrin might not be able to stop him from making imprudent friendships, but she could absolutely keep them from ruining her peace and quiet.

“I will say God e’en,” said the old woman. “You shall stay here and not return inside until you speak with your brother.”

Katrin frowned at the imperious request.

Not to mention, how did the babushka know she had a brother?

The old woman leaned forward and kissed Katrin on either cheek, with lips that seemed as soft and fresh as any new babe’s. And then turned, walking away in the direction opposite the road to the abbey. Katrin called after her. “The abbey lies the other way!”

The babushka threw one final look over her shoulder and replied, “This I know,” before continuing on her way. As she walked, she drew under the shade of a stand of firs and seemed to vanish, a trick of the evening light.

Katrin shook her head. And then, hands on her hips, she turned to greet her brother, or forbid entrance to his friends, whichever was called for. She was not feeding a dozen rowdy lads who had already paid for nightly suppers at the abbey school. At the head of the group was the young lordling from the library. Ilya Bartholomeyevich. Katrin glowered. No, none of these lads were getting past her. It was lucky, really, that the old woman had requested an escort to the road. Much easier to turn a group away from outside the enclosure wall than if she’d been inside the cottage when they barged in.

She shifted her gaze from Ilya Bartholomeyevich and descried her brother. Cyril’s hair dripped and his gaze was sullen and fierce. What had her fool brother done now?

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

Cyril hobbled toward shore through the inlet shallows, dripping, his heart pounding with the effort of that strange attack—and his even stranger survival. What was it the siren had said? That he wasn’t the one she was after? Not for me—those had been her words. Well, he was grateful. Glad to be alive. Never in all his years swimming had he encountered a siren. And now he had lived to tell the tale! The race, surely, had been called off. Nor was Cyril in any mood to swim again. Not today. Not with her, still out there somewhere.

Her words were fading now, and he had to concentrate to recall them. There had been something about one of his friends. About someone shining? And marked for death? Cyril shook the water from his ears, wishing he could shake the fearful memories as easily. Yeshik had reached the shore safely, as had he. That was the main thing. Neither of them had been the one “marked for death.” The siren could have easily caught up to Yeshik and slain him. Cyril shuddered with the recollection of the creature’s strength.

“I’m all right,” he called to the others on shore.

No one gave heed to his words. They were only interested in Yeshik. Well, that was fair. Yeshik had been in far more danger than had Cyril. Although, oddly, no one seemed to be speaking to Yeshik of his brush with death.

As Cyril waded through the last few yards of shallows, he saw the other lads lifting Yeshik’s arms. It was a pose of … victory? Surviving such an ordeal was worthy of that, Cyril supposed. He shook the water from his hair.

Yeshik, catching Cyril’s eye, lifted his chin to acknowledge him.

“That was a close one,” Cyril called to Yeshik.

“Not that close,” drawled Nils.

Cyril frowned, uncertain whether it was worth responding to Nils. Perhaps things hadn’t looked so bad from shore. They had been swimming a long way out when it had happened, after all.

“He beat you by ells and ells,” added Nils.

Cyril’s frown deepened. “Well, yes, of course. I told him to swim back—”

Yeshik now flung himself at Cyril, hugging him and thumping his back.

“Well raced, my friend,” said Yeshik. “I can hardly believe I beat you! And you, the victor of how many races, is it?”

“The race was called off, was it not?” Cyril said uncertainly. “After an attack like that? Did you suffer any harm?”

“Me? Suffer harm?” Yeshik looked genuinely puzzled. “I’m fine.”

“But … the siren? The attack?”

Cyril heard Nils making derogatory noises from a few feet away.

Yeshik was no longer smiling. Then, speaking in a lowered voice, he asked, “What are you speaking of?”

“Of her. The siren that attacked you.”

“The … siren?” Yeshik asked uncertainly.

“Yes. I grabbed her and pinned her arms and told you to swim to shore—” Cyril broke off because Yeshik was looking at him as if he were crazy.

“I’m sorry, my friend,” Yeshik said, closing the distance between them to speak more softly. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you … did you think you glimpsed a siren out there?”

Yeshik’s expression told Cyril that his friend remembered none of it.

He will not remember, but you will never forget.” The creature’s last words. Yeshik would not remember. Yeshik would not remember? How was that possible?

“There was a siren,” Cyril said. “Here, look at the marks on your arms where she grappled with you.”

Yeshik looked at his arms with curiosity. There were angry red welts on both of them.

“Your skin looks the same as mine,” Yeshik said, pointing.

Cyril looked down and saw several welts on his arms and torso.

“Perhaps there is some sort of … miasma in the sea today?” said Yeshik.

“No—” began Cyril, but then he broke off. How was he supposed to convince someone whose memory had been stolen from him?

“It’s on your face, too,” said Yeshik. “On both sides. You should get some salve from your sister for that. Isn’t she training to be an herb-wife?”

Cyril raised his hand to touch the side of his face. His skin was tender where the siren had clutched his skull.

“You don’t look well,” said Yeshik. He leaned in. “Listen, I’m sorry about the race. And I’m not keeping your gold. I didn’t expect to win.”

And suddenly it hit Cyril that if the race had not been called off, then he had lost. No one was aware of the struggle with the siren. No one was going to say the race was canceled because there had been an attack. They were all going to treat this as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred. Which meant he had lost the race. He’d lost the wager. Or, rather, he would have done, if Yeshik hadn’t just offered to return the coins.

Cyril wasn’t going to argue over it. If Yeshik had been able to recall what really happened, he would have said that the bet was null and void. But even so … Cyril felt the weight of what he had done—or nearly done—in wagering. Four golden coins was the value of the entire apple and cherry harvest. What had he been thinking? Water rattled in his ear canal. He gave his head a firm shake to the side.

Yeshik was once more being congratulated, others lifting his arms again in recognition of the victory. Cyril stumbled as he walked to retrieve his clothing. He thought he heard Nils snicker, though it was quickly silenced. Cyril glanced up to see Ilya, who did seem to be threatening Nils. Or was Cyril merely imagining this kindness? Were these young men, any of them, his friends? Or did they merely tolerate him?

“Well raced, Cyril,” called Tovelsson. He offered Cyril a tentative smile.

“I thank you,” Cyril responded, unable to think of anything else. A sudden gust blew past, chilling his skin. The sun would be setting soon.

Oi-yai! A cloak!” Yeshik called. “Someone bring this young fish his cloak so that he may warm himself.”

This instigated a flurry of activity as someone grabbed Cyril’s cloak—but not before spilling his carefully folded clothes onto damp sand.

Cyril accepted the cloak mutely along with various slaps on the back and calls of “good race,” and “better luck another time.” He saw what a poor loser he would appear if he opposed the merriment. Pulling his cloak tight about him with one hand, he strode forward and offered his hand to Yeshik as was proper when conceding a race. Yeshik offered a bear hug in return, murmuring again about the gold pieces.

Cyril could not hear the words. “Water in this ear,” he said, giving his head another couple of shakes. Warmed sea water dribbled from one ear, and his hearing on that side was restored.

“Here,” Yeshik said softly. “As I promised.” He grinned, palming four golden double-eagle coins out of view of the others. “Come now,” he murmured. “Take back the gold.”

Before Cyril could protest—not that he had any mind to—Yeshik had passed the four golden coins to him.

Behind them, someone had discovered that the stone jar of vodka was not yet empty. Cups were poured for Yeshik and for Cyril.

“I’ve no stomach for it,” Cyril said, declining his.

He was overwhelmed, both with relief at his miraculous survival but also at the unexpected return of the coins. Perhaps it was just as well to let things rest, without bringing up the siren. After all, they had survived. And Cyril had gained honor among his peers by racing and wagering. And Yeshik had returned the coins discretely. No one else had observed it. If they had, Cyril felt sure that Nils would have been making degrading remarks about it.

So. All was well.

And yet, it might have been otherwise. Putting aside the siren encounter, Cyril had allowed himself to be goaded into a mad gamble with his home. What if Yeshik had not been in such a jolly mood? What if Yeshik had kept the coins? Cyril would have owed Ilya and lost the only thing of value he held in the world. It had been a moment of madness, and he thanked all the Svyatykh that Yeshik had seen fit to act mercifully. Did his friend, perhaps, retain some impulse of indebtedness for having been rescued? Cyril supposed that he would never know the truth of it.

He reached down to shake off the sand that clung to his breeches and shirt. To dress, he had set his cloak back down, and he observed that Ilya picked it up, giving it a good shake to loosen the wet sand. Another kindness.

Ilya held the cloak out and spoke. “It is a good thing that you took this from your home this morning.” An oddly somber look played on his features. “And your winter boots,” Ilya added, looking at Cyril’s feet as he shoved them into the sheepskin boots.

Cyril was on the point of asking how he could have brought anything else, since he had only the one cloak and one pair of boots, but someone interrupted, calling for Ilya.

Walking alongside Ilya, Cyril stumbled on the uneven ground. Ilya did not offer to steady him. Was this meant to preserve Cyril’s dignity, or was it simple inattention? They reached the others, who were now finishing the last of the vodka.

“Here,” Cyril said quietly, holding out the four gold coins to Ilya. “Thank you for the loan of the coin. You saved my dignity. I shall not forget it.”

Ilya looked puzzled.

Cyril leaned in closer and murmured, “Yeshik renounced his winnings, but the coins are yours, of course. I am returning them now to you.”

Ilya frowned at the coins. “I cannot accept them.”

“Just take them,” said Cyril.

“We swore an oath,” Ilya said.

“Aye,” said Cyril, “but I release you. I have no use for gold.”

Ilya looked troubled. “Cyril, you cannot release me from our oath, nor yourself. Do you not understand?”

“Understand what?”

“Have you never sworn such an oath before?” asked Ilya.

Cyril shrugged. “No. It is our island custom to clasp hands to forge an agreement.”

“Yes, yes. Of course. As you offered to do with me,” Ilya said, frowning. “You have no idea how sorry I am, friend. But the oath we swore is of another sort altogether. It is inviolable. I would much rather have your gold than your hovel, but … there it is. The sea has our vow.” He shrugged as if in apology.

Cyril tore his eyes from his friend’s calm face and gazed at the sea as despair seized him.

What had he done?

Could it be true? Had he sworn an inviolable oath? How did such a thing work? Could it be undone, somehow? But no, inviolable meant … inviolable. Unless Ilya was lying? But why would he lie? Or was he, perhaps, wrong? Yes. Cyril must research this “oath to the sea.” Would the abbey brothers know where to point him? Surely they would.

But even if the oath did not exist, or did not exist in any legally binding way, what might it mean if Ilya refused to violate it?

“Here,” Ilya said. He closed Cyril’s hand over the coins in his palm. “You will need these in the days to come. Truly, I am sorry about your … your property.”

“You mean my hovel,” Cyril said bitterly.

As he spoke, his stomach lurched. He clutched at it.

Nils, observing this, drawled something about the peasants and strong drink.

Svyatykh and Apostoly! What a fool he had been.

But surely … surely there was some way around this oath?

“Ilya,” he called.

Ilya turned to him. “Are you unwell?”

“What do you think?” snapped Cyril. Then he closed his eyes and took a breath. “Forgive me.”

Ilya neglected to offer the rote response.

“Only,” began Cyril, “surely you cannot mean there is no way for us to undo this oath. You do not want my property, nor do I want this gold. Can we not come to an accommodation?”

Ilya’s visage grew stern. “I have no wish to become a meal for the sea. Did you give no heed to the words we spoke?”

“Yes, yes. But it was only … was it not a jest? Surely such an oath is meaningless.”

“One is free, of course, to believe as one likes,” Ilya said warily, “but for myself, I should sooner expose myself to a deadly pox than break such an oath. Cyril, we called on the sea to gnaw our bones if we tried to undo what was agreed on.”

“We merely agreed to exchange your gold for my property. Why may the transaction not be reversed?”

Ilya looked at him as if he were a child. “Because we swore on the sea. We invoked the magia of its creatures to bind our actions. Surely you can see that such an oath must not be violated.”

“And if I had won the race?” demanded Cyril. “What then?”

“Our oath was contingent on your losing,” explained Ilya. “We agreed on the exchange ‘should Cyril not best Yeshik in the race.’ If you had won …” He shrugged before continuing. “Then the transaction between us would never have taken place. I should have retained my gold, and you, your property, and the sea’s magia should not have bound us.”

“That is ludicrous!” exclaimed Cyril.

Ilya frowned. “Are you not a scholar of laws concerning magia? Ah—but I had forgotten. The abbey brothers frown upon oath-taking. You must read more deeply if you are to master your subject.”

Cyril felt the insult hidden within the suggestion. He had made a cursory study of binding agreements falling under ecclesiastical and civil law, but it had not occurred to him to hunt for texts concerning “binding oaths invoking the fey.” Well, he would study the subject now. However little the abbey magisters might approve of such oaths, Cyril would insist. He would ask of every bibliothecary in the librarium. He would learn every point of law relative to such oaths, and he would discover if anyone’s bones had, in point of fact, been gnawed in consequence of breaking such an oath.

But there was the problem again: if Ilya feared the consequences and refused to yield, then the finer points meant nothing. Cyril had no power to defy a duke’s son. Moreover, even if he should regain his property by legal means, what would be the cost, quite apart from the gnawing of anyone’s bones? Ilya and his fellows would see Cyril as going back on his word. They would despise him for agreeing and then fighting to have the agreement undone.

Cyril felt the depth of his folly. The oath trapped him as surely as the siren’s grip had done. Even if he abandoned this group of lordlings and sought to ingratiate himself with a new group of lads, word would spread as to his character: oath-breaker, they would name him. Double-tongued. Unsteady, untrustworthy. He felt as if already, his bones were being gnawed upon, his future surrendered.

Cyril closed his eyes to still his mind. He had not surrendered his future. Not yet. Neither would he jeopardize it. None should name him an oath-breaker. For now, he would behave as though resigned to his circumstances. It was the only way open to him: make the best of the terrible situation, for now. Later, privately, he might inquire if Ilya would be open to an alternative arrangement.

What he would not do was endanger his future.

As he brooded miserably on these things, he fell a few paces behind the rest of the lads. He would have liked to part from them altogether, but there was only one path back to the abbey and from there to his home. Hopefully they would all make for the dormitorium or librarium and not for the stonecote. He must consider what to remove from it, now, before Ilya took possession.

He must pack up his father’s books, certainly, and his parents’ wedding bands. Did he know where to find them? Katrin would know.

Katrin—Oi yai oi! A new thought struck him like a blow.

He had just stolen from Katrin the means to make her livelihood. He had stripped her of shelter, of home, and of her carefully tended herb garden.

What was he to say to her? How to explain what had happened? She must not hear it from a stranger—that much was clear. He must think of a way to put things. Was there some way to make the news less awful?

Suddenly it became urgent to reach her ahead of anyone else. As he attempted to pass the other lads, however, two clapped arms around his shoulders, and held him fast. They were speaking of the race again, speaking of him and not to him.

Nils’s voice rose above the general din.

“Shall we have a look at Ilya’s new estate?” he said mockingly.

Cyril felt his cheeks flushing with anger. He shrugged free of the boys at his sides. They seemed not to notice. The walk felt interminable, the longest in Cyril’s life. How was he to tell Katrin? What would she say? What would she do? He would tell her that he planned to seek every means of appeal, but that for now, she must harden herself and accept it. She must act as Holy Boetsiy of the Consolation. They must both. What choice had they?

Once more, he turned his thoughts to the items he might gather. The books. His bedding. His father’s ax, perhaps? And pitchfork and shovel? He should not like to have his property restored to him only to find the lads had destroyed the useful implements….

Ilya was now laughing at something Nils was saying.

Somehow the group had already left the abbey behind and were continuing on the road leading to the stonecote. Cyril could see the wall that enclosed his orchard, his house, and his front garden.

“Ilya,” Cyril called.

Ilya turned.

“Wait for me,” Cyril said, increasing his rolling gait. He needed information.

Ilya waited.

“The oath,” said Cyril. “To what did it pertain? You said you had no interest in farming apples, did you not?”

Ilya’s brow was untroubled as he replied. “Like it or not, it’s mine now. All that lies within the wall. Those were the terms of the exchange.”

“But you don’t want the orchard, do you?”

Ilya gave a noncommittal shrug.

“May I not keep it, then?” asked Cyril.

A few of the other lads had slowed to listen in. Cyril wished they would not.

“It is not mine to dispose of,” Ilya said. He spoke as a magister explaining something to an un-apt pupil. “The oath binds each of us. The moment that you lost the race, the four gold coins became yours—well, yours to deliver to Yeshik—and your property and all that is within the walls became mine. We are each of us bound.” He smiled sadly. “If you had won the race, well …”

“Yes, yes. Then the oath would not have been binding,” Cyril said, exasperation coloring his tone.

“You sound like a bunch of old merchants haggling a contract,” drawled Nils.

“This is my life and livelihood,” Cyril said angrily. For two copper pennies, he would have punched Nils’s smirking face. Nay, he would’ve done it gratis.

“Come now,” said Nils. “What of possible value lies inside those walls?”

“His sister,” called one of the other youths.

“Leave my sister out of this,” Cyril said.

“If your sister is inside the property walls,” began Vladimir, looking worried.

“My sister is not chattel!”

“These are complex matters, my friend,” Vladimir said uncomfortably. “The Tsar’s law becomes tangled with the intent of the oath. As an unmarried daughter, your sister has scant legal status. Will the magia of the oath take such intricacies into consideration?” He shrugged. “Who can say?”

“Until it is too late,” Nils chimed in, “and the sea creatures claim their due.” He grabbed Vladimir’s arm and pretended to gnaw it.

Cyril blanched, suddenly uncertain. He knew only a little of laws concerning the status of unmarried women. Katrin was an unmarried daughter, true, but surely that did not mean she was “chattel”?

Cyril turned to Ilya, trying to temper the panic in his voice. “You cannot mean that everything within the walls is yours. Not my sister. She is a freeman’s daughter. You cannot own her.”

Ilya looked troubled now as well. “I had no thought of acquiring a new mouth to feed. Vladimir, you are a studious fellow. You must go to the library keeper and ask him for laws concerning this sort of … situation.”

“You cannot … you must not …” Cyril broke off. There was nothing for it but to run ahead and warn his sister to clear the property before the rest of them arrived and tried to argue she belonged to Ilya. Ilya might behave honorably, but could Cyril say the same for all the rest? For Nils?

He dashed forward. Almost at once, though, Jan and Tovelsson were at his side, laughing and jostling one another. Before he knew what had happened, Cyril was on his back looking up at a sky flaring pink with evening.

“Are you hurt?” asked Jan.

“Help him up,” suggested Tovelsson.

Together, the two righted Cyril. The rest of the group gathered round asking if he were well, if anything hurt.

“It is nothing,” Cyril said bitterly. It was his longest-held habit: admit no injury that might draw attention to his limbs.

“It was my fault,” Jan said cheerfully. “I took a misstep and pushed into Cyril.”

“Are you certain all is well?” asked Tovelsson.

“All is well,” replied Cyril, dusting himself off. He would rather have shouted that all was not well, that nothing was well, that they could all go to the devil’s wife.

“Even so,” said Jan, “I beg your pardon, Cyril.”

“It is yours before asking,” Cyril replied automatically.

And then he saw her. Katrin. Her hands on her hips. Looking angry as a wasp but blessedly, thanks be to all the holy saints, outside the pale of the enclosure.

To continue, buy here.