Home > Spinning Silver(14)

Spinning Silver(14)
Author: Naomi Novik

“I couldn’t sell them all.”

“Yes, you could,” I said. That, I was sure of: now that the duke had a ring of fairy silver, every wealthy man and woman in the city needed a ring just like it, right away.

He frowned over the coins, stirring them with his fingers, and sighed. “I’ll make a necklace, and see what we can get.”

“You really don’t think you can sell ten rings?” I said, surprised, wondering if I were wrong after all.

“I want to make a necklace,” he said, which didn’t seem very sensible to me, but perhaps he thought it would show his work off and make a name for him. I didn’t really mind as long as I could pay off my Staryk once more, and buy myself some time.

“And it has to be done before Shabbos,” I added.

He groaned. “Why must you ask for impossibilities!”

“Do those look possible, to you?” I said, pointing at the coins, and he couldn’t really argue with that.

I had to sit with him while he worked, and manage the people who came to the stall wanting other things from him; he didn’t want to talk to anyone and be interrupted. Most of the ones who came were busy and irritated servants, some of them expecting goods to be finished; they snapped and glared, wanting me to cower, but I met their bluster and said coolly, “Surely you can see what Master Isaac is working on. I’m sure your mistress or your master wouldn’t wish you to interrupt a patron I cannot name, but who would purchase such a piece,” and I waved to send their eyes over to the worktable, where the full sunlight shone on the silver beneath his hands. Its cold gleam silenced them; they stood staring a little while and then went away, without trying to argue again.

Isaac kept working without a pause until the sun’s rays finally vanished, and began again the next morning at dawn. I noticed that he tried to save a few of the coins aside, while he worked, as though he wanted to keep them to remember. I thought of asking him for one to keep myself; but there was no use. At noon he sighed and took the last of the ones he’d saved and melted it down, and strung a last bit of silver lace upon the design. “It’s done,” he said, afterwards, and picked it up in his hands: the silver hung over his broad palms like icicles, and we stood looking at it silently together for a while.

“Will you send word to the duke?” I asked.

He shook his head, and took out a box from under his table: square and made of carved wood lined with black velvet, and he laid the necklace carefully inside. “No,” he said. “For this, I will go to him. Do you want to come?”

We went together to the gates of our quarter, and walked into the streets of the city. I had never gone through this part of town on foot before. The houses nearest the walls were mean and low, run-down; but Isaac led me to the wider streets, past an enormous church of grey stone with windows like jewelry themselves, and finally to the enormous mansions of the nobles. I couldn’t help staring at the iron fences wrought into lions and writhing dragons, and the walls covered with vining fruits and flowers sculpted out of stone. I wanted to be proud, to remember I was my grandfather’s daughter, with gold in the bank, but I was glad not to be alone when we went up the wide stone steps swept clear of snow.

Isaac spoke to one of the servants. We were taken to a small room to wait. No one offered us anything to drink, or a place to sit, and a manservant stood looking at us with disapproval. I was almost grateful, though: the irritation made me feel less small and less tempted to gawk. Finally the servant who had come to the market last time came in and demanded to know our business. Isaac brought out the box and showed him the necklace; he stared down at it, and then said shortly, “Very well,” and went away again. Half an hour later he reappeared, and ordered us to follow him. We were led up the back stairs and then emerged into a hall more sumptuous than anything I had ever seen, the walls hung with tapestries in bright colors and the floor laid with a beautifully patterned rug.

It silenced our feet and led us into a sitting room even more luxurious, where a man in rich clothes and a golden chain sat in an enormous chair covered in velvet at a writing table. I saw the ring of fairy silver on the first finger of his hand. He didn’t look down at it, but I noticed he thumbed it around now and again, as though he wanted to make sure it hadn’t vanished from his hand. “All right, let’s see it,” he said, putting down his pen.

“Your Grace.” Isaac bowed and showed him the necklace.

The duke stared into the box. His face didn’t change, but he stirred the necklace gently on its bed with one finger, just barely moving the delicate looped lacelike strands of it. He finally drew a breath and let it out again through his nose. “And how much do you ask for it?”

“Your Grace, I cannot sell it for less than a hundred and fifty.”

“Absurd,” the duke growled. I had a struggle to keep from biting my lip, myself: it was outrageous.

“Otherwise I must melt it down and make it into rings,” Isaac said, spreading his hands apologetically. That was rather clever bargaining: of course the duke would rather no one else had a ring like his.

“Where are you getting this silver from?” the duke demanded. “It’s not ordinary stuff.” Isaac hesitated, and then looked at me. The duke followed his eyes. “Well?”

I curtseyed, as deeply as I could manage and still get myself back up. “I was given it by—one of the Staryk, my lord. He wants it changed for gold.”

I feared whether he would believe me. His eyes rested on me like weights, but he didn’t say nonsense, or call me a liar. He looked at the necklace again and grunted. “And you would like to do it through my purse, I see. How much more of this silver will there be?”

I had been worrying about that, whether the Staryk would bring even more silver next time, and what I would do with it if he did: the first time six, the second time sixty; how would I get six hundred pieces of gold? I swallowed. “Maybe—maybe much more.”

“Hm,” the duke said, and studied the necklace again. Then he put his hand to one side and took up a bell and rang it; the servant reappeared in the doorway. “Go tell Irina I want her,” he said, and the man bowed. We waited a handful of minutes, not very long, and then a girl came to the door. She was near my age, slim and demure in a plain grey woolen gown, modestly high-necked, with a fine grey silken veil trailing back over her head. Her chaperone came after her, an older woman scowling at me and especially at Isaac.

Irina curtseyed, without raising her downcast eyes. The duke stood up and took the necklace over to her, and put it around her neck. Then he stepped back, three paces, and stopped there to look at her. She wasn’t especially pretty, I would have said, only ordinary, except her hair was long and thick and lustrous; but it didn’t really matter with the necklace on her. It was hard even to glance away from her, with winter clasped around her throat and the silver gleam catching in her veil and in her dark eyes as she looked at herself in the mirror on the wall there.

“Ah, Irinushka,” the chaperone murmured, approvingly.

The duke nodded. He didn’t look away from her as he said, “Well, jeweler, you are in luck. You may have a hundred gold coins for your necklace, and the next thing you make will be a crown fit for a queen, to be my daughter’s dowry: and you will have ten times a hundred gold for it when I see it on her brow.”

* * *

“His Grace wants you, milady,” the maid said, and even gave me a curtsey, more than the senior servants usually did; milady to them was my stepmother. She herself was a message, in her neat grey dress: she was one of the upper maids who was allowed to polish furniture, not one of the lowly peasant scullery-girls who scrubbed the floors and tended the fires; those were the ones who made up my room. There was nothing very valuable in it for them to damage.

“Quickly, quickly,” Magreta said, dropping her own sewing, and she bustled me up and touched the braid wound around my head that she had put in two days ago; I could feel her wishing she had time to do it over again, but then she shook her head and just made me take off my apron, and brushed my shoes and the bottoms of my skirts. I stood still and let her do it while I considered my vanishing-few options.

Of course there was only one reason my father would summon me during the day to his study, a thing he had never done, when he would see me at dinner that night anyway: someone wanted to marry me after all, and the matter was well advanced. Either there was a dowry already promised, or at least a serious negotiation under way; I was sure of it, even though there hadn’t been so much as a whisper of such a thing when I’d dined with him last.

The haste of it made excellent sense: if he couldn’t avoid the expense of the tsar’s visit, at least he would save the separate expense of my wedding, and more besides; it would serve his consequence and his purse both to make the tsar and his court guests at his daughter’s wedding. They would have to toast me and my husband, and they would have to give gifts whose value would undoubtedly be factored into the dowry under discussion.

But I couldn’t imagine there would be anything for me to like in the marriage. Of course I would have liked to be mistress of my own home, secure from all those dismal alternatives I saw ahead of me, but not in this hurried haste and so clearly for the sake of my father’s convenience. A man who’d marry me like this wasn’t marrying me at all; he was making a bargain for a girl-shaped lump of clay he meant to use at his convenience, and he wouldn’t need to value me highly when my father made it so clear that he didn’t. My best hope would be someone of low rank, a rich ambitious boyar who owed my father fealty, and who was willing to take the duke’s daughter at a bargain price to make himself a high man within the duchy; then I would at least have been worth that much to him. But I couldn’t think of any candidates. After seven years of bad winters, my father’s boyars were spending more time thinking of their lean purses than of their standing in the court. None of them were likely to want an expensive wife.

Anyway, such a man would be very little use. More likely, my father had found a nobleman who couldn’t get a young wife of equal rank otherwise: someone distasteful enough that at least some fathers would hesitate before handing over their daughters. A cruel man perhaps, who would be all the more eager for a girl with a parent who would not object very much to whatever might happen to her.

   
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