Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(14)

The Bear and the Nightingale(14)
Author: Katherine Arden

The other smiled, without humor. “You have trespassed on what is mine; do you think faith will save you?”

“Gosudar,” the thief stammered, “I did not know—I thought—”

“That such as I do not walk in the places of men? Well, I go where I will.”

“Please,” choked the thief. “Gosudar, I beg—”

“Don’t mewl,” said the stranger, with cool humor. “And I will leave you awhile, to walk free in the sun. However”—the quiet voice dropped lower and the laughter drained out of it like water from a smashed cup—“you are marked, you are mine, and one day I shall touch you again. You will die.” The thief choked out a sobbing breath, then found himself suddenly alone, a stinging like fire in his arm and throat.

Already in the saddle, though no one had seen him mount, the stranger wheeled and sent his horse through the crush. The horse’s groom bowed once and melted into the crowd.

The mare was light and swift and sure. Her rider’s anger quieted as he rode.

“The signs led me here,” said the man to his horse. “Here, to this stinking city, when I should not have left my own lands.” He had been in Moscow a month already, searching, tireless, face after face. “Well, signs are not infallible,” he said. “The witch’s daughter is hidden from me, and her child is long gone. The hour might have passed; the hour might never come.”

The mare slanted an ear back at her rider. His lips firmed. “No,” he said. “Am I so easily defeated?”

The mare went on at a steady canter. The man shook his head. He was not yet beaten; he held the magic trembling in his throat, in the hollow of his hand, ready. His answer lay somewhere in this miserable wooden city, and he would find it.

He turned the mare west, urging her into a long-striding gallop. The coolness among the trees would clear his head. He was not defeated.

Not yet.

 

THE REEK OF MEAD and dogs, dust and humanity, greeted the stranger when he arrived at the Grand Prince’s feast. Ivan’s boyars were big men used to battle, and to carving life out of the land of frost. The stranger was not so large as even the smallest. But no one, not even the bravest—or the drunkest—could meet his eyes, and no one offered him challenge. The stranger took a place at the high table and drank his honey-wine unmolested. The silver embroidery on his kaftan shone in the torchlight. One of the princess’s waiting-women sat beside him, gazing up through her long lashes.

Lent was near and the feasting was raucous. But—It is all the same here, thought the stranger. All these dim, busy faces. Sitting amid the din and the stink, he felt, for the first time—not despair, perhaps, but the beginning of resignation.

It was then that a man walked into the hall with two grown boys. The three took places at the high table. The older man was quite ordinary, his clothes of good quality. His elder son swaggered and the younger walked softly, his glance cool and grave. Perfectly ordinary.

And yet.

The stranger’s gaze shifted. With the three came a curling breath of wind, a wind out of the north. In the space between one breath and the next, the wind told him a tale: of life and death together, of a child born with the failing year.

“The blood holds, brother,” he whispered. “She lives, and I was not mistaken.” His face was triumphant. He returned to the table (though indeed he had never moved), and smiled with sudden delight into the eyes of the woman beside him.

 

PYOTR HAD ALL BUT forgotten the stranger in the market. But when he came that night to the Grand Prince’s table, he was quickly reminded, for the same stranger was sitting among the boyars, beside one of the princess’s waiting-women. She was staring up at him, her painted eyelids trembling like wounded birds.

Pyotr, Sasha, and Kolya found themselves sitting to the left of the lady. Though she was one Kolya himself had been courting, she did not so much as glance in his direction. Furious, the young man neglected eating in favor of glaring (ignored), fingering his belt-knife (likewise), and declaiming to his brother the beauties of a certain merchant’s daughter (which the entranced lady did not hear). Sasha remained as expressionless as possible, as though feigning deafness would make the impious talk go away.

There came a cough from behind. Pyotr looked up from this interesting scene to find a servant at his elbow. “The Grand Prince would speak to you.”

Pyotr frowned and nodded. He had barely seen his erstwhile brother-in-law since that first night. He had talked with innumerable dvoryanye, dispensed his bribes liberally, and had in return been assured that—so long as he paid tribute—he would go unmolested by the tax collectors. Furthermore, he was deep in negotiations for the hand of a modest, decent woman who would tend his household and mother his children. All was proceeding in order. So what could the prince want?

Pyotr made his way along the table, catching the gleam of teeth in the firelight from the dogs at Ivan’s feet. The prince was not slow in coming to the point. “My young nephew, Vladimir Andreevich of Serpukhov, wishes to take your daughter to wife,” he said.

Had the prince informed him that his nephew wished to become a minstrel and wander the streets playing a guzla, Pyotr could not have been more astonished. His eyes flicked sideways to the prince in question, who sat drinking, a few places down the table. Ivan’s nephew was thirteen years old, a boy on the cusp of manhood, loose-limbed and spotty. He was also the grandson of Ivan Kalita, the old Grand Prince. Surely he could aspire to a more exalted match? All the ambitious families at court were pushing their virgin daughters at him, under the blithe assumption that one must eventually stick. Why waste the position on the daughter of a man, even a rich man, of modest lineage, a girl whom the boy had never seen and who moreover lived at a considerable distance from Moscow?

Oh. Pyotr shook off his surprise. Olga came from far away. Ivan would be wary of girls who came armed with tribes of relations; an alliance between great families tended to give the descendants royal ambitions. Young Dmitrii’s claim was not much stronger than his cousin’s, and Vladimir was three years older than the heir. Princes inherited at the Khan’s pleasure. Pyotr’s daughter would have a large dowry, but that was all. Ivan was doing his best to muzzle the Muscovite boyars, to Pyotr’s benefit.

Pyotr was pleased. “Ivan Ivanovich,” he began.

But the prince was not finished. “If you will yield up your daughter to my cousin, I am prepared to give you my own daughter, Anna Ivanovna, in marriage. She is a fine girl, yielding as a dove, and can surely give you more sons.”

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