Read an Excerpt
Dusk at the end of winter, and two men crossed the dooryard of a palace scarred by fire. The dooryard was a snowless waste of water and trampled earth; the men sank to their ankles in the muck. But they were speaking intently, heads close together, and did not heed the wet. Behind them lay a palace full of broken furniture, smoke-stained; the screen-work smashed on the staircases. Before them lay a charred ruin that had been a stable.
“Chelubey disappeared in the confusion,” said the first man bitterly. “We were busy saving our own skins.” A smear of soot blackened his cheek, blood crusted in his beard. Weary hollows, like blue thumbprints, marred the flesh beneath his gray eyes. He was barrel-chested, young, with the fey energy of a man who has driven himself past exhaustion to a surreal and persistent wakefulness. Every eye in the dooryard followed him. He was the Grand Prince of Moscow.
“Our skins, and a little more,” said the other man—a monk—with a touch of grim humor. For, against all hope, the city was mostly intact, and still theirs. The night before, the Grand Prince had come close to being deposed and murdered, though few people knew that. His city had nearly burned to ash; only a miraculous snowstorm had saved them. Everyone knew that. A swath of black gashed the heart of the city, as though the hand of God had fallen in the night, dripping fire from its nails.
“It was not enough,” said the Grand Prince. “We may have saved ourselves, but we made no answer for the treachery.” All that bitter day, the prince had reassuring words for every man who caught his eye, had calm orders for the men wrangling his surviving horses and hauling away the charred beams of the stable. But the monk, who knew him well, could see the exhaustion and the rage just beneath the surface. “I am going out myself, tomorrow, with all that can be spared,” the prince said. “We will find the Tatars and we will kill them.”
“Leave Moscow now, Dmitrii Ivanovich?” asked the monk, with a touch of disquiet.
A night and a day without sleep had done nothing for Dmitrii’s temper. “Are you going to tell me otherwise, Brother Aleksandr?” he asked, in a voice that made his attendants flinch.
“The city cannot do without you,” said the monk. “There are dead to mourn; there are granaries lost, and animals and warehouses. Children cannot eat vengeance, Dmitrii Ivanovich.” The monk had no more slept than the Grand Prince; he could not quite mask the edge in his own voice. His left arm was wrapped in linen where an arrow had gone into the muscle below the shoulder, and been dragged through and out again.
“The Tatars attacked me in my own palace, after I had made them welcome in good faith,” retorted Dmitrii, not troubling to keep the rage from his reply. “They conspired with a usurper, they fired my city. Is all that to go unavenged, Brother?”
The Tatars had not, in fact, fired the city. But Brother Aleksandr did not say so. Let that—mistake—be forgotten; it could not be mended now.
Coldly, the Grand Prince added, “Did not your own sister give birth to a dead child in the chaos? A royal infant dead, a swath of the city in ashes—the people will cry out if there is not justice.”
“No amount of spilled blood will bring back my sister’s child,” said Sasha, sharper than he meant. Clear in his mind was his sister’s tearless mourning, worse than any weeping.
Dmitrii’s hand was on the hilt of his sword. “Will you lecture me now, priest?”
Sasha heard the breach between them, scabbed over but unhealed, in the prince’s voice. “I will not,” said Sasha.
Dmitrii, with effort, let go the twining serpents of his sword-hilt.
“How do you mean to find Chelubey’s Tatars?” Sasha asked, trying for reason. “We have pursued them once already, and rode a fortnight without a glimpse, though that was in deepest winter, when the snow took good tracks.”
“But we found them, then,” said Dmitrii, and his gray eyes narrowed. “Did your younger sister survive the night?”
“Yes,” said Sasha warily. “Burns on her face, and a broken rib, Olga says. But she is alive.”
Now Dmitrii looked troubled. Behind him, one of the men clearing away the wreckage dropped the end of a broken roof-beam, swearing. “I would not have come to you in time, if it weren’t for her,” Sasha said to his cousin’s grim profile. “Her blood saved your throne.”
“The blood of many men saved my throne,” snapped Dmitrii without looking round. “She is a liar, and she made a liar of you, the most upright of men.”
Sasha said nothing.
“Ask her,” said Dmitrii, turning. “Ask her how she did it—found the Tatars. It can’t be only sharp eyes; I have dozens of sharp-eyed men. Ask her how she did it, and I will have her rewarded. I do not think any man in Moscow would marry her, but a country boyar might be persuaded. Or enough gold would bribe a convent to take her.” Dmitrii was talking faster and faster, his face uneasy, the words spilling out. “Or she may be sent home in safety—or stay in the terem with her sister. I will see she has enough gold to keep her comfortable. Ask her how she did it, and I will make all straight for her.”
Sasha stared, full of words he could not say. Yesterday she saved your life, slew a wicked magician, set fire to Moscow and then saved it all in a single night. Do you think she will consent to disappear, for the price of a dowry—for any price? Do you know my sister?
But of course, Dmitrii did not. He only knew Vasilii Petrovich, the boy she had pretended to be. They are one and the same. Beneath his bluster Dmitrii must realize that; his unease betrayed him.
A cry from the men around the stable spared Sasha from answering. Dmitrii turned with relief. “Here,” he said, striding over. Sasha trailed, grim-faced, in his wake. A crowd was gathering where two burned roof-beams crossed. “Stand aside—Mother of God, are you sheep at the spring grass? What is it?” The crowd shrank away from the steel in his voice. “Well?” said Dmitrii.
One of the men found his tongue. “There, Gosudar,” he said. He pointed at a gap between two fallen posts, and someone thrust down a torch. An echoing gleam came from below where a shining thing gave back the torchlight. The Grand Prince and his cousin stared, dazzled, doubting.
“Gold?” said Dmitrii. “There?”
“Surely not,” said Sasha. “It would have melted.”
Three men were already hauling aside the timbers that pinned the thing to the earth. A fourth plucked it out and handed it to the Grand Prince.
Gold it was: fine gold, and not melted. It had been forged into heavy links and stiff bars, oddly jointed. The metal had an oily sheen; it threw a shimmer of white and scarlet onto the ring of peering faces and made Sasha uneasy.
Dmitrii held it this way and that, then said, “Ah,” and switched his grip so that he held it by the crownpiece, reins over his wrist. The thing was a bridle. “I have seen this before,” said Dmitrii, eyes alight. An armful of gold was very welcome to a prince whose coffers had been shrunk by bandits and by fire.
“Kasyan Lutovich had it on his mare yesterday,” said Sasha, disliking the reminder of the day before. His eye dwelled with disfavor on the spiked bit. “I would not have blamed her for throwing him.”
“Well, this thing is a forfeit of war,” said Dmitrii. “If only that fine mare herself had not vanished—damn those Tatars for horse-thieves. A hot meal and wine for all you men; well done.” The men cheered raggedly. Dmitrii handed off the bridle to his steward. “Clean it,” the Grand Prince said. “Show it to my wife. It might cheer her. Then see it safely locked away.”
“Is it not strange,” Sasha said warily when the reverent steward had departed, the golden thing in his arms, “that this bridle should have lain in the stable as it burned and yet show no hurt?”
“No,” said Dmitrii, giving his cousin a hard look. “Not odd. Miraculous, coming on the heels of that other miracle: the snowstorm that delivered us. You are to tell anyone who asks exactly that. God spared this golden thing, because he knew our need was great.” The difference between uncanny happenings of the benevolent and the wicked sort was no thicker than rumor, and Dmitrii knew it. “Gold is gold. Now, Brother—” But he fell silent. Sasha had stilled, his head lifted.
“What is that noise?”
A confused murmuring was rising from the city outside: a roar and snap, like water on a rocky shore. Dmitrii frowned. “It sounds like—”
A shout from the gate-guard cut him off.
A little way down the hill of the kremlin, the dusk came earlier, and the shadows fell cold and thick over another palace, smaller and quieter. The fire had not touched it, except for singeing from falling sparks.
All Moscow roiled with rumors, with sobs, curses, arguments, questions, and yet here a fragile order reigned. The lamps were lit; servants gathered what could be spared for the comfort of the impoverished. The horses drowsed in their stable; tidy columns of smoke rose from the chimneys of bakehouse and cookhouse, brewhouse, and the palace itself.
The author of this order was a single woman. She sat in her workroom, upright, impeccable, starkly pale. Sweeping lines of strain framed her mouth, though she was not yet thirty. The dark streaks beneath her eyes rivaled Dmitrii’s. She had gone into the bathhouse the night before and delivered her third child, dead. In that same hour, her firstborn had been stolen, and nearly lost in the horrors of the night.
But despite all that, Olga Vladimirova would not rest. There was too much to be done. A steady stream of people came to her, where she sat by the workroom oven: steward and cook, carpenter, baker, and washerwoman. Each one was dispatched with an assignment and some words of thanks.
A pause came between petitioners, and Olga slumped back in her chair, arms wrapped around her belly, where her unborn child had been. She had dismissed her other women hours ago; they were higher in the terem, sleeping off the shocks of the night. But one person would not go.
“You ought to go to bed, Olya. The household can manage without you until morning.” The speaker was a girl, sitting stiff and watchful on a bench beside the oven. She and the proud Princess of Serpukhov both had long black hair, the plaits wrist-thick, and an elusive similarity of feature. But the princess was delicate, where the girl was tall and long-fingered, her wide eyes arresting in the rough-hewn angles of her face.
“You should indeed,” said another woman, backing into the room bearing bread and cabbage stew. It was Lent; they could not eat fat meat. This woman looked as weary as the other two. Her plait was yellow, just touched with silver, and her eyes were wide and light and clever. “The house is safe for the night. Eat this, both of you.” She began briskly ladling out soup. “And then go to bed.”
Olga said, slow with exhaustion, “This house is safe. But what of the city? Do you think Dmitrii Ivanovich or his poor fool of a wife are sending servants out with bread to feed the children that this night has orphaned?”
The girl sitting on the oven-bench paled, and her teeth sank into her lower lip. She said, “I am sure Dmitrii Ivanovich is making clever plans to take vengeance on the Tatars, and the impoverished will just have to wait. But that does not mean—”
A shriek from above cut her off, and then the sound of hurrying footsteps. All three women glared at the door with identical expressions. What now?
The nurse burst into the room, quivering. Two waiting-women panted in her wake. “Masha,” the nurse gasped. “Masha—she is missing.”
Olga was instantly on her feet. Masha—Marya—was her only daughter, the one who had been stolen from her bed just the night before. “Call in the men,” Olga snapped.
But the younger girl tilted her head, as though she were listening. “No,” said the girl. Every head in the room whipped round. The waiting-women and the nurse exchanged dark glances. “She’s gone outside.”
“Then that—” Olga began, but the other interrupted, “I know where she is. Let me go and get her.”
Olga gave the younger girl a long look, which she returned steadily. The day before, Olga would have said that she’d never trust her mad sister with one of her children.
“Where?” Olga asked.
“Very well,” said Olga. “But, Vasya, bring Masha back before the lamps are lit. And if she is not there, tell me at once.”
The girl nodded, looking rueful, and got to her feet. Only when she moved could one see that she was favoring one side. She had a broken rib.
Vasilisa Petrovna found Marya where she’d expected, curled up asleep in the straw of a bay stallion’s stall. The stall door was open, though the stallion was not tied. Vasya entered, but did not wake the child. Instead she leaned against the great horse’s shoulder, pressing her cheek to the silky skin.
The bay stallion put his head around and nosed irrepressibly at her pockets. She smiled, her first real smile of that long day, drew a crust of bread from her sleeve and fed it to him.
“Olga will not rest,” she said. “She puts us all to shame.”
You have not rested either, returned the horse, blowing warm air onto her face.
Vasya, flinching, pushed him away; his hot breath pained the burns on her scalp and cheek. “I do not deserve to rest,” she said. “I caused the fire; I must make what amends I can.”
No, said Solovey, and stamped. The Zhar Ptitsa caused the fire, although you should have listened to me before setting her loose. She was maddened with imprisonment.