Home > Spinning Silver(12)

Spinning Silver(12)
Author: Naomi Novik

So I came down to dinner and performed my correct company manners, so Magreta would not come in for punishment, and when he had a knight or boyar or occasionally a visiting baron at his table, I kept my eyes modestly downcast and listened to them talk of armies or tax rolls or borders and politics, glimpses into a wider world as far removed from my narrow upstairs rooms as paradise. I would have liked to think I had a chance of moving in that world someday; my stepmother did, smiling with her open hands to greet our guests, making sure that her table and her hospitality suited each one’s pride and deserts, cutting a fine and jeweled figure at my father’s side when we went visiting ourselves, or hosted nobles of greater rank. She gleaned the truth about the state of their holdings from wives and sisters and daughters, and in the evenings my father would listen to her advice and counsel; she had a voice in her husband’s ears. I would have liked to hope for one myself.

But my father’s irritation told me otherwise. I had been a disappointment to him from the beginning, my mother having taken an excessive number of years to produce me, and shortly afterwards miscarrying the overdue son and dying with him. It had required some few years to settle on the best replacement, and though Galina had done her best, even so he still had nothing to work with yet but me and two little boys in the nursery, just when all the men of his cohort, the ones who had helped the old tsar to his throne, had daughters ready to marry, and sons wanting more beauty and grace in a wife than I could offer, or at least more money than my father would offer to compensate for their lack.

When I was younger, and there was still some chance of my growing into real usefulness, he would sometimes ask me sharp questions about books I had read, or demand that I recite him all the names of every noble in Lithvas from the tsar down to the counts in order of their precedence, but lately he had stopped bothering. My last governess now had begun to teach my older brother his letters, and if I had a book to read, it was because I had managed to slip it off the downstairs shelves myself in a rare chance. And when there was no one else at his table to distract him from my silence and my pallid, narrow face, my father frowned at me and tapped his fingers against his cup.

That night there was no guest at the table. The tsar was coming for a visit soon, and no one else had been invited for months leading up to it, to save for the unavoidable expense. My father meant to spend as little as he could, but even so the waste of it made him more dissatisfied with me than usual. Perhaps it brought home more forcibly to his mind that he would get little return on me, although even if I had been beautiful, surely he would never have been one of the lords who spent themselves into debt hosting the tsar, dangling their daughters like bait and making fools of themselves in hope.

The tsar was not going to marry any of them, however beautiful they were; he would marry Princess Vassilia. She was not beautiful any more than I was, but her father was Prince Ulrich, who ruled over three cities, not one, and had ten thousand soldiers and the great salt mine under his hand, so she did not need to be beautiful to become tsarina. The tsar should have married her already, but he evidently preferred to keep his other nobles hoping for a little longer; a dangerous game to play with Ulrich’s pride, but one that gave the tsar an excuse to travel a great deal and spread the expenditure of his lavish court around, instead of offering hospitality himself.

And my father had a marriageable daughter, in theory, and therefore could be imposed upon. So now I was become an expense beyond my value, especially as my father plainly did not even hope for some secondary benefit—that some useful member of the tsar’s court would think of me for a son or cousin somewhere. I was glad to be beneath the notice of the tsar, who was young and handsome and cruel, but I would have liked to be pretty enough or charming enough that at least someone might want to marry me, instead of only taking me as a codicil to whatever begrudging dowry they could wring out of my father. Or even to be sure that anyone would marry me: my only escape from a life spent between narrow walls. My father’s irritation spoke wordlessly of a dismal fate for me.

But as his ring tapped a faint high chiming against the side of his cup, I watched the cool silver of it catching the light, and I forgot that it was driven by impatience. I thought only of snowflakes falling past a lit window, the silence of the start of winter, standing outside in the garden on a day when the leaves were coated in shining clear ice. I even forgot to listen to what he was saying to me, until he said sharply, “Irina, are you attending?”

I had only the refuge of honesty. “Forgive me, Father,” I said. “I have been looking at your ring. Is it magic?”

That had been another of my mother’s disappointments: her magic, of which she’d had none. Her great-grandmother had been raped by a Staryk knight during a midwinter night’s raiding that killed her husband, and the boy she bore afterwards had silver hair and silver eyes and could walk through blizzards and make things cold with a touch. His children had silver hair, too, although not much of his power, and my father had married my mother on the strength of the legend and her pale eyes and a lock of silver hair that waved back from her forehead.

But her looks were all the magic she had, and I had not even so much as that, only plain brown hair, and my father’s brown eyes, and I shivered like anyone else in the cold. Yet when I looked at my father’s ring, I felt snow falling. My father paused, and looked down at it on his own hand. It was a little small for him. He was wearing it above the knuckle of his index finger, on his right hand, and his thumb rubbed the surface. He had been touching it all through the meal, absently. After a moment he said, “Unusual craftsmanship, that is all,” with the final tone that meant we were not to discuss the matter further. So he had not known that it was magic, did not know any power it had, and did not care for anyone else to know more than he did.

I said nothing more and lowered my eyes and paid careful attention the rest of the meal as he told me flatly what was expected of me during the tsar’s visit—which was nothing. He did not want the expense of buying me several new gowns. So I was to be a little sick and stay upstairs and out of the way, and Galina would have three new gowns instead. He said nothing else about the ring, and also did not mention my earlier distraction.

I was glad to stay out of the tsar’s way, but three new gowns would have been more useful for me than for Galina, if my father had meant to begin offering me around anytime soon. That night I put my candle on the windowsill and watched the snowflakes falling through the candlelight while Magreta brushed my hair; carefully clearing the tangles from the bottom up with the silver comb and brush that she always kept on her in the purse tied at her waist; then there would be seventeen strokes from the roots for good measure, one for every year it had been growing. She tended my hair like a garden, and it rewarded her attention; by now it was longer than I was tall, and I could sit by the window while she brushed the ends from her chair near the fire. “Magra,” I asked, “did my father love my mother?”

She was so surprised she stopped brushing. I knew she had served my mother before I was born, but I had never asked about her before. It had never occurred to me to ask. I had been so young when she died that I only thought of her as of an ancestor a long time gone. My father had told me about her in precise and accurate terms, enough that I understood she had been a failure. He had not made me want to know more.

Magreta said, “Why yes, dushenka, of course he did,” and while she would have said so even if it wasn’t true, she hadn’t hesitated first, which meant she at least believed her own words. “He married her with no dowry, didn’t he?” she added, though, and then it was my turn to look around and be surprised. He had never told me that. It was almost unimaginable.

“He doesn’t speak of her as though he’d loved her,” I said, incautious in my own turn.

Magreta did hesitate then before she said, “Well, there is your stepmama to think of.”

I did not really need Magreta to tell me that love had caught my father like an unwilling fish, and that having slipped the hook, he had been glad to forget he had ever been on it in the first place. Certainly my stepmother had only come with a fat dowry of gold coins, a heavy chest bigger than I was, which now rested deep in the treasury under the house. My father had not been caught a second time. And likely he had been all the more disappointed in my mother, if she’d had enough magic to enchant him into stupidity but not for anything more.

I dreamed of the ring that night, only it was worn by a woman with a silver lock falling from her forehead—a lock that matched the ring on her hand. Her face wouldn’t come clear in the dream, but she turned away from me and walked through a forest of white and silver trees. I woke thinking not of my mother, but of the ring; I wanted a chance to touch it, to hold it.

Magreta normally kept me well out of my father’s way, but every day she took me down to a corner of the gardens for walking exercise, even in cold weather. That morning I took the turning into the older part of the gardens, away from the house; there was a neglected chapel still there, half buried beneath leafless vines, the grey wood rotting a little, carved points like thorns poking out through the dusting snow on the roof. Magreta stayed below and twittered worry at me, but I climbed the creaking steps up into the empty belfry so I could look out the round window over the garden wall and see into the great courtyard where my father daily drilled his men.

That was a duty he never neglected. He was no longer a young man, but he had been born a boyar and not a duke, and many years ago he had killed three knights in a single day’s battle and broken the walls of Vysnia for the tsar’s father, for the right to make the city his own. He still oversaw the training of his own knights, and took sturdy boys from farmers and made them men-at-arms in the city. Even two archdukes and a prince had deigned to send him their sons to foster, because they knew he would send them back well trained.

I thought perhaps he would have taken the ring off for drill; if so, it might be in his study somewhere, on his desk. I was already making plans. Magreta wouldn’t let me go in there, but I could coax her to step into the library next door to it, and lose her between bookshelves; I might go in and put my hand on it for just a moment.

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