Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(9)

The Bear and the Nightingale(9)
Author: Katherine Arden

Behind them Olga and Vasilisa stood alone in the dooryard, listening to the bells on the wagons until they were swallowed up by the morning.


TWO WEEKS AFTER SETTING OUT, with plenty of delay but no disaster, Pyotr and his sons passed the outer rings of Moscow, that seething, jumped-up trading post on a hill beside the Moskva River. They smelled the city long before they saw it, hazed as it was with the smoke of ten thousand fires, and then the brilliant domes—green and scarlet and cobalt—showed dimly through the vapor. At last they saw the city itself, lusty and squalid, like a fair woman with feet caked in filth. The high golden towers rose proudly above the desperate poor, and the gold-fretted icons watched, inscrutable, while princes and farmers’ wives came to kiss their stiff faces and pray.

The streets were all snowy mud, churned by innumerable feet. Beggars, their noses winter-blackened, clutched at the boys’ stirrups. Kolya kicked them off, but Sasha clasped their grimy hands. The red winter sun was tilting west when at last they came, weary and mud-splattered, to a massive wooden gate, bound in bronze and topped with towers. A dozen spearmen watched the road, with archers on the wall.

They looked coldly at Pyotr, his sledges and his sons, but Pyotr passed their captain a jar of good mead, and instantly the hard faces softened. Pyotr bowed, first to the captain and then to his men, and the guards waved them through in a chorus of compliments.

The kremlin was a town in itself: palaces, huts, stables, smithies, and countless half-built churches. Though the original walls had been built with a double thickness of oak, the years had rotted the timber to matchwood. Marina’s half brother, the Grand Prince Ivan Ivanovich, had commissioned their replacement with walls more massive still. The air reeked of the clay that had been caked on the timber, meager protection against fire. Everywhere carpenters called back and forth, shaking sawdust from their beards. Servants, priests, boyars, guardsmen, and merchants milled about, bickering. Tatars riding fine horses rubbed shoulders with Russian merchants directing laden sledges. Each broke out shouting at the other on the slightest pretext. Kolya gawked at the crush, masking nervousness with a high head. His horse jerked at its rider’s touch on the reins.

Pyotr had been to Moscow before. A few peremptory words unearthed stabling for their horses and a place for their wagons. “See to the horses,” he said to Oleg, the steadiest of his men. “Do not leave them.” There were idle servants on all sides, narrow-eyed merchants, and boyars in barbaric finery. A horse would disappear in an instant and be forever lost. Oleg nodded, and one rough fingertip grazed the hilt of his long knife.

They had sent word of their coming. Their messenger met them outside the stable. “You are summoned, my lord,” he said to Pyotr. “The Grand Prince is at table, and greets his brother from the north.”

The road from Lesnaya Zemlya had been long; Pyotr was grimed, bruised, cold, and weary. “Very well,” he said curtly. “We are coming. Leave that.” The last was to Sasha, who was digging balled-up ice out of his horse’s hoof.

They splashed frigid water on their grimy faces, drew on kaftans of thick wool and hats of shining sable, and laid aside their swords. The fortress-town was a warren of churches and wooden palaces, the ground churned to muck, the air smarting with smoke. Pyotr followed the messenger with a quick step. Behind him Sasha gazed narrow-eyed at the gilded domes and painted towers. Kolya was scarcely less circumspect, though he stared more at the fine horses and the weapons of the men who rode them.

They came to a double door of oak that opened onto a hall packed full of men and crawling with dogs. The great tables groaned with good things. On the far end of the hall, on a high carven seat, sat a man with bright hair, eating slices off the joint that lay dripping before him.

Ivan II was styled Ivan Krasnii, or Ivan the Fair. He was no longer young—perhaps thirty. His elder brother Semyon had ruled before him, but Semyon and his issue had all died of plague in one bitter summer.

The Grand Prince of Moscow was indeed very fair. His hair gleamed like palest honey. Women swarmed around this prince’s golden beauty. He was also a skilled hunter and a master of hounds and horses. His table creaked under a great roast boar, crusted with herbs.

Pyotr’s sons swallowed. They were all hungry after two weeks on the wintry road.

Pyotr strode across the vast hall, his sons behind. The prince did not look up from his dinner, though calculating or merely curious stares assailed them from all sides. A fireplace large enough to roast an ox burned behind the prince’s dais, throwing Ivan’s face into shadow and gilding the faces of guests. Pyotr and his sons came before the dais, halted, and bowed.

Ivan speared a gobbet of pork with the tip of his knife. Blood stained his yellow beard. “Pyotr Vladimirovich, is it not?” he said slowly, chewing. His shadowed gaze swept them from hat to boots. “The one that married my half sister?” He took a swallow of honey-wine and added, “May she rest in peace.”

“Yes, Ivan Ivanovich,” said Pyotr.

“Well met, brother,” said the prince. He tossed a bone to the cur beneath his chair. “What brings you so far?”

“I wished to present you my sons, gosudar,” said Pyotr. “Your nephews. They are men soon to wed. And if God wills, I desire also to find a woman of my own, so my youngest children need no longer go motherless.”

“A worthy aim,” said Ivan. “Are these your sons?” His gaze flicked out to the boys behind Pyotr.

“Yes—Nikolai Petrovich, my eldest, and my second son, Aleksandr.” Kolya and Sasha stepped forward.

The Grand Prince gave them the same sweeping look he’d given Pyotr. His glance lingered on Sasha. The boy had the merest scrapings of a beard and the jutting bones of a boy half-grown. But he was light on his feet and the gray eyes did not waver.

“We are well met, kinsmen,” said Ivan, not taking his eyes off Pyotr’s younger son. “You, boy—you are like your mother.” Sasha, taken aback, bowed and said nothing. There was a moment’s silence. Then, louder, Ivan added, “Pyotr Vladimirovich, you are welcome in my house, and at my table, until your business is done.”

The prince inclined his head abruptly and returned to his roast. Dismissed, the three were left to take three hastily cleared places at the high table. Kolya needed no encouragement; hot juices were still running down the roast pig’s sides. The pie oozed with cheese and dried mushrooms. The round guest-loaf lay in the middle of the table, beside the prince’s good gray salt. Kolya fell to at once, but Sasha paused. “Such a look the Grand Prince gave me, Father,” he said. “As though he knew my thoughts better than I do.”

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