Home > Spinning Silver(15)

Spinning Silver(15)
Author: Naomi Novik

I went downstairs even so, of course; I had no choice. Magreta was nearly quivering as we went down the stairs. She understood as well as I did what was in the offing, but she did not like to think of troubles before they appeared, so she was dreaming of a good and happy marriage for me, and being the old retired nurse of the mistress of the house instead of mured up in the attic rooms with a neglected daughter. I let her be excited while I wondered if I was about to meet the man himself, and if so, how I could tell whether it was worth infuriating my father by trying to make myself look like a bad bargain. It was an unpleasant scrap of hope to cling to.

But when the door opened, there was no betrothal waiting for me, no one who could even have been the agent of a potential husband; only two Jews, a man and a woman, thin and brown and dark-eyed, and the man was holding a box full of winter. I forgot to think of anything else, to think at all: the necklace blazed cold silver at me out of black velvet, and I was at the window in the garden again with the breath of winter on my cheeks and frost creeping over a windowsill beneath my fingers, yearning at something out of reach.

I almost went towards it with my hands stretched out; I clutched them into my grey wool skirts and curtseyed with an effort, forcing my eyes low for a moment, but when I stood again, I looked again. I still wasn’t thinking; even as my father went and took the necklace from the box I wasn’t thinking, and when he brought it over to me, I looked up at him only in blank surprise: it was all wrong. He couldn’t mean to give such a thing to me. But he gestured with impatience, and after a moment I slowly turned my back, and bent my head to let him put it around my neck.

The room was warm, warmer by far than my narrow rooms upstairs, with a healthy fire crackling. But the metal felt cold against my skin, cold and wonderful, refreshing as putting wet hands on your cheeks on a hot day. I lifted my head and turned, and my father was looking at me. All of them were looking at me, staring. “Ah, Irinushka,” Magreta murmured tenderly. I put my fingers up to brush over the fine links. Even lying on my skin, it still felt cool to the touch, and when I looked at myself in the mirror, in the glass I was not standing in my father’s study. I was in a grove of dark winter trees, under a pale grey sky, and I could almost feel the snow falling onto my skin.

I stayed there for a long timeless moment, breathing in deep sweet cold air that filled my lungs, full of freshly cut pine branches and heavy snow and deep woods wide around me. And then distantly I heard my father promise the Jews that he would give them a thousand pieces in gold, if they would make a crown to be my dowry, so I had been right: he did have a betrothal in mind, and the arrangements were most urgent indeed.

He did not let me keep the necklace, of course. After the Jews left, he beckoned me over, and though he paused a moment, staring at me again, he reached back around my neck and took the necklace off and laid it back into the box. He looked at me afterwards hard, as if he had to remind himself what I really was without it, and then he shook his head and said to me crisply, “The tsar will be here the week after next. Practice your dancing. You will dine with me every night until then. See to her clothes,” he added to Magreta. “She must have three new dresses.”

I curtseyed and went back upstairs with Magreta hovering, like a cloud of anxious birds that go bursting out and fly madly before they settle back into the tree. “I must get some of the maids to help me,” she said, swooping to snatch up her knitting, to have something to close her hands around. “So much to be done! Nothing is ready. Your chest is not half full! And three dresses to be made!”

“Yes,” I said. “You should speak to the housekeeper at once,” and Magreta said, “Yes, yes,” and flew out of the room again and left me alone at last, to sit down by the fire with my own sewing, a white nightgown being elaborated with embroidery for a wedding-bed.

I had met the tsar once before, seven years ago, when his father and brother had just died; my father had come to Koron for the coronation, to do homage to the new tsar or more accurately to the new regent, Archduke Dmitir. I saw Mirnatius first in the church, while the priest was droning through the ceremony, but I didn’t pay him very much attention then; I was so bored that I was nodding on the seat beside Galina in my hot and stiff clothing, until I jerked awake and jumped to my feet when they finally crowned him, with a feeling like being jabbed hard with a needle, a moment even before everyone else was rising so we could acclaim him.

No one else paid very much attention to him afterwards. The great lords dined and talked together at the tsar’s table, paying court to Dmitir, and Mirnatius came out alone into the gardens behind the palace, where I was also playing, of no importance myself. He had a small bow and arrow, and shot squirrels, and when he hit them, he came and looked at their little dead bodies with pleasure. Not in the ordinary way of a boy proud of being a good hunter: he would take hold of the arrows and jiggle them, to make the bodies twitch and jerk if he could, staring down with a wide blank fascination in his eyes.

He caught me staring at him indignantly. I was too young to have learned to be cautious. “Why are you staring so?” he said. “It’s only a little life still left in them. It’s not witchcraft.”

He might well have known the difference: his mother had been a witch, who seduced the tsar after his first tsarina died. Nobody approved of the marriage, of course, and after only a few years she was put to death by flame when she was caught trying to have the first tsarina’s son killed, to make her own son the heir. But now the tsar and the eldest prince had died of fever, and so the witch’s son had become tsar anyway, which, as Magreta used to say, was a lesson to everyone that being a witch was not the same thing as being wise.

I too was not wise at the time, although I had the excuse of being a young girl. Even though he was the tsar, I said, “You’ve already killed them. Why can’t you leave them alone?” Which was not very coherent, but I knew what I meant: I didn’t like him mauling the little bodies around, making them flinch for his pleasure.

His beautiful green eyes narrowed pig-small and angry, and he raised the bow and aimed an arrow at me. I was old enough to understand that was death looking at me. I wanted to run, but instead I simply froze, my whole body stopped in place and my heart with it, and then he laughed and lowered the bow and said mockingly, “All hail the defender of dead squirrels!” and made me a great formal bow like at a wedding before he strolled away. All the rest of that week, whenever I played in the garden, I was sure to come across a dead squirrel—always tucked away somewhere out of the gardeners’ sight, and yet my ball would roll to it, or if I ran to hide and seek with Magreta, I would crouch into a bush only to find one cut open, lying there in wait for me.

I thought of telling on him: I was sure everyone would have believed me, because Mirnatius was so beautiful, and because of his mother. People even whispered about him already. But I told Magreta first, and when she got the whole story out of me, she told me that trouble came to those who made it, as the squirrels should have shown me, and I wasn’t to stir up any more. And then she kept me indoors in our room, spinning yarn all the rest of our visit, except for hasty meals.

We’d never spoken of it since, but I knew Magreta hadn’t forgotten any more than I had. We had gone back to Koron, four years ago, for Archduke Dmitir’s lavish funeral. Mirnatius had commanded the attendance of most of the nobility, presumably to make clear that he no longer had nor required a regent, and he’d made them all swear fealty over again to him personally. We’d been there for two weeks. Magreta kept me very close throughout, and never let me leave my rooms without my veil over my face, even though I wasn’t a woman yet, and she brought me all my meals from the kitchens with her own hands. Mirnatius had stood as chief mourner: he’d been sixteen then, tall and full-grown and even more beautiful, with his black hair and light eyes that looked like jewels shining out of his Tatar-dark skin, and his mouth full of even white teeth, and with the crown and his golden robes he might have been a statue, or a saint. I watched him through the faint haze of my fine veil, until his head turned in my direction, and then I quickly dropped my eyes and made sure I was small and insignificant in the third row of princesses and dukes’ daughters.

But in two weeks’ time, he would come to my father’s house, and there would be no camouflage. My father would not give him three good dinners and take him boar hunting in the dark woods and minimize his expense. Instead he would make an extravagant feasting that would last all three days, with jugglers and magicians and dancers to keep the tsar and his court entertained indoors, and he would give me three new dresses after all, and make an offering of me. It seemed my father did mean to try and catch the tsar for his daughter, with a ring and a necklace and a crown of magic silver to bait his trap.

I looked at my face in the window’s reflection and wondered what my father’s hard eyes had seen, with that necklace around my throat, to make him think it a chance worth taking. I didn’t know. I couldn’t see my own face when I wore it. But I didn’t have the comfort of thinking him a fool.

I was still standing by the window, my hands resting on the cold stone and my sewing abandoned, when Magreta came back to the room still twittering, to press a cup of hot sweet tea into my hands. She had even brought up a thick slice of my favorite poppy-seed cake, which she must have coaxed out of the cook; I did not get such treats every day. A maid was trailing her with a few extra logs for the fire. I let her draw me back to the hearth, grateful for what she was trying to do, and I didn’t tell her that it was all wrong. What I really wanted was the silver necklace, cold around my neck, even though it was bringing my doom; I wanted to put it on and find a long mirror and slip away into a wide dark winter wood.

* * *

It was Saturday night after sundown when I climbed back into Oleg’s sledge. I had put twenty gold pieces more into my grandfather’s vault, and I carried the Staryk’s swollen white purse with me, the leather straining with the weight of the gold. My shoulders tightened as we plunged into the forest, and I wondered with every moment when and if the Staryk would come upon me once more, until somewhere deep in the woods, the sledge began to slow and came to a stop under the dark boughs. I went rabbit-still, looking around for any signs of him, but I didn’t see anything; the horse stamped and snorted her warm breath, and Oleg didn’t slump over, but hung his reins on the footboard.

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