Read the first few chapters of Taras and Inga's story below!
Life is a mystical and tragic thing.
It is a journey often full of fear, when it ought to be full of hope. It’s fascinating to look back on your life and feel as though most of it was a precursor to the rest of it; to what was always supposed to be. It’s tragic to look with hindsight at the most pivotal crossroads of your life and realize you made the wrong decision, that you could have had so much more happiness. But that would have taken true courage. And true courage is something most people from my homeland lack. It is not their fault. It’s simply the way they are brought up to be. It is because of the Wall. It is what happens when people put up walls to protect themselves and end up hiding behind them—keeping themselves in, rather than the enemy out.
Let me introduce myself. My name is Inga. I do not know what my born surname is, only that it is common. I am not a member of one of the powerful boyar families. I have taken to calling myself Inga Russovna because I am so much a product of my mother country. You see, I was born in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin Wall.
I was born beside it, have lived inside it, and now must escape from it.
I only know about my birth because it was told to me by the first parent I remember: a drunken father. My earliest memories find me at his side as a child.
My father, between mouthfuls of vodka, told me that my mother died because I was born. He remembered that the market booths had been moved from the field across from Red Square to the ice of the Volga River. The ice was only solid enough to hold such weight in the dead of winter; but winter’s heart or no, we Russians are not deterred. We venture out to market in our floor-length winter coats and fur shapkas. We’ve adapted to the icy chill of Muscovy.
On the day I was born, though my mother’s belly was quite swollen, they ventured out to the market. My parents were poor, and so did not have servants to perform such tasks for them. They tarried near the walls of the Kremlin, looking at the wares of the booths. And then the pains came. She birthed me on the very spot. It was quick, once it began, and the blood made a bright stain on the snow. My mother grew a fever and died two days later, without ever having looked upon me. My father always talked of how much blood there was.
“Inga,” he would say, “you were born surrounded by blood.”
So much blood. My blood. My mother’s blood. Blood in the snow.
My father told me this story often—nearly every time I managed to catch his attention. He told it in great detail—the blood, my mother’s screams, my mother’s death, the cold of the winter—as though he wanted me to memorize it, to understand how absolutely her death had been my doing. Of course I was only a child. I did not understand, but the story stuck with me and, to a great extent, defined me.
Little did my father know that not many years hence, there would be more blood on the ground than snow. Perhaps then he would not make such a grand thing of a little blood at childbirth.
I have often wondered about my father. Before my birth and my mother’s death, was he a good husband? Did he always drink? Did he beat my mother as he later hit me? I don’t know. Perhaps the story was not even true. Perhaps he was not even my father. I do not know, nor will I ever.
If I begin to explore questions of this nature too deeply, I will lose myself in an abyss I may never come out of. A wise man once told me that this is what happens to mad men—they lose themselves, and then their sanity, and they never recover.
Regardless, I must assume the story my father told me is true. I do not believe he was lying. I choose to believe that he was a good man once, and that my mother’s death corrupted him. I hated my father for many years for what he did to me. But at that time, I had never known real grief or loneliness. Once I did, I began to see what my father really was: a broken, empty man who did the best he could and always came up short. I wonder if he drank himself to death in the years after I left him, or if he died later in the great bloodbath that was to come. I don’t know, but I cannot judge him for his actions.
Now, near the end of my life, I do not want to imagine the hardships he must have endured. I believe, having endured many of my own, that I understand him better. I understand the pleasing prospect a dark bottle can have. It can seem the only way to dull the unbearable pain of despair in the dark places of the world. Not that I condone it. I am not ready to turn my back on God just yet. But he was. He did, years before I can remember. So, by the time I was old enough to remember, I was already only a shadow to him.
This is my story. The story of a servant girl in a Russian palace and the things I have witnessed. Some of the things I have not seen I have received first hand accounts of, and I include them for the reader’s understanding.
I ask that the reader take in all these pages, reserving judgment until the end. At that time, the reader may take any conclusions he or she wishes from my story, for by then I will be gone. What you, dear reader, do with what you read will be of as little value to me as my tiny life was to the Kremlin.
A fist pounded the table above; six-year-old Inga shuddered, curling into a ball beneath it. She’d been scrambling around on all fours for hours, trying to snatch falling scraps from the tables of the filthy tavern, but few fell. Two large dogs belonging to the tavern owner lay in the corner. When scraps did fall, the dogs were swifter and meaner than Inga, so they ate better than she did.
“You’ll have no more drink until I see some coin,” the tavern keeper’s wife barked. “You owe for two rounds already.”
Hunger gnawed at Inga’s belly so terribly that it ached. Papa acted mean when he drank too much. Now he'd run out of money, which always meant trouble. Minutes went by with Papa glaring at his empty cup, and Inga could stand it no longer. She crawled out from under the table and got to her feet. Her father didn’t notice.
She tapped him on the knee. He didn’t look up at her, so she did it again. She must have tapped him ten times before he moved. When he did, he struck her across the face. Inga flew eight feet across the room and crashed into an empty chair. The pain from the chair was dull compared to the ache in her cheek where he’d backhanded her.
Several of the tavern’s patrons looked up. When they realized what was happening, they turned away, leaving Inga all but alone with her father. Inga gazed up into her father’s eyes. Surprise registered on his stone-planed face, as though he hadn’t realized what he'd done until he caught sight of her on the floor. For a glimmer of an instant, Inga saw pity in his eyes.
She had an oft-lived fantasy that came alive for a moment in her mind. In it, her father’s eyes moistened and he lifted her into his lap, gently holding her against his chest. He apologized for his harshness, and then got her something to eat. Watching her father stare at her now, she wanted that fantasy to come true so much that she could feel the warmth of his embrace against her cold, skinny arms. Her hands and lower lip shook. Surely he would scoop her up at any moment. And then . . . he turned and went back to his drink.
Cold, hungry, and alone, Inga pulled her knees into her chest and cried.
A moment later, her father murmured about getting some more coin. He stood and left the tavern, which Inga thought odd. Most taverns she visited with her father enforced strict rules.
Minutes passed and Papa did not come back. The tavern owner’s wife sneered at Inga, so she crawled under the nearest table to wait for Papa to return.
“You should not have let him leave,” the woman said sharply.
“He said he would return with more coin,” the tavern owner said.
“But he hasn’t yet,” his wife shot back. “If he’s not back in an hour, take it out of his flesh.”
“He’s not here,” the man said. “How will I find him?”
“His little whelp is still here. Take it from her if he doesn’t return—flesh of his flesh.”
Inga didn’t know what they were talking about. As the minutes passed, she grew tired and lay down on the floor. She awakened sometime later at a rude tugging on her ankle. She gasped as something dragged her out from under the table. The dogs grew excited, their booming barks filled her ears.
The tavern owner dragged her across the filthy floor and out the door. Her head thudded against stone as he dragged her down several steps into a dark alley behind the tavern. He dropped Inga in a heap.
Before she could do more than sit up, he unfastened his leather belt and swung it hard across her face. Inga screamed. A second blow, hard on the heels of the first, snapped her mouth shut. Blow after great whaling blow rained down on her arms, bare legs, stomach, back, and head. The beating went on for what felt like hours. After a while, the tavern owner used not only his belt but his fists, elbows, and boots to beat what her father owed out of her.
This is what life is, Inga thought. To be cold, hungry, and hurting.
Her body became numb to the blows, and Inga shrank into herself. She wished for death. She wished for an end. No one in the world would know or care what happened to her in this alley. Existence was too much to bear, so she longed for the deep quiet of the earth. Perhaps becoming one with the earth would bring her to her mother.
As sweet, relieving darkness closed around the edges of her vision, and hope for the end rose in her heaving chest, a high-pitched voice cut through the commotion. To Inga, it seemed to come from miles away.
“Excuse me, sir. Would you stop?” a voice said. A woman’s voice, though it sounded rough enough not to be afraid of the tavern keeper. “Why are you beating this child?”
“Her father ran out on his bill,” the tavern keeper said, his voice deep and menacing.
Silence met Inga's ears for a time. Without the strike of the leather against her body, the cold began to seep into Inga’s bones. It was more unpleasant than the beating had been. It made her aches and pains, both physical and otherwise, harder to hide from.
The woman’s voice broke the silence again. “What is the amount?”
He gave an amount that Inga couldn’t comprehend. Again, a long silence. She did not understand what was taking so long. Why couldn’t the woman leave and let the man finish her? An hour before, Inga would have reached out to the woman pathetically for help and understanding, but father had abandoned her. She lay like a dead dog in the snow.
“Is she dead?” The woman’s voice sounded businesslike. The man poked Inga in the ribs with his toe. Inga's splintered bones shift under the solid toe of his boot. She groaned.
“Not yet.” He sounded remorseful about that fact.
The woman sighed. “Will you be obliged to desist, sir, if I compensate you for her debt?” The tavern owner gave no answer. The woman clicked her tongue. “Will you stop beating her and allow me to take her away if I pay what her father owes?”
The man grunted. “I suppose. But the amount I told you was not enough. It’s twice that.”
“Of course, of course,” the woman sounded impatient, and the jangling of coins accompanied her words. A few minutes later, the sound of heavy boots crunched away from Inga in the snow.
The woman picked her up, putting Inga over her shoulder as she would a babe after feeding. The ends of shattered ribs ground together, and Inga tried to scream but didn’t have the energy or inclination to force it past her raw throat. She rested her face on the woman's shoulder and opened her eyes, watching the alley grow smaller and smaller.
In the snow outside the tavern door, surrounding the shape of Inga’s curled-up little body, a ring of bright red blood marred the snow. The story her father always told her about her birth rang out in her head like the peal of a bell on a silent morning. Blood. In the snow. Around you. Her father’s words haunted her. She'd been born surrounded by blood, and she left some part of herself in that alley.
She awoke sometime later in a plain, well-kept room. She lay on a hard mattress covered with warm, scratchy blankets. Her wounds had been bandaged. When she tried to sit up, pain shot through her, and a warm hand pushed her back down.
“Do not try to move, child. It will be days before you can get up.”
The voice belonged to the woman who had rescued her in the alley. Inga looked up into a wide, kindly face with sad blue eyes. A scarf covered the woman's hair, though some peeked out near her forehead. It was straw-colored.
“I am called Yehvah. What is your name, little one?”
“Inga, you must rest until you are healed. I’ve brought you inside the Kremlin Wall to be trained as a maid. You’re going to be all right, but you must rest.”
“Where’s Papa?” Inga’s voice was thick with tears.
Yehvah heaved a sigh. “I do not know, Child. You will not likely see him again. You’re going to live with me, now.”
Inga’s tears flowed in earnest and Yehvah knelt beside her bed, stroking her hair and brushing the tears away with gentle fingers. “There, there, Inga. It will all be all right. Try to sleep, now.” Yehvah pulled the blanket up and tucked it under Inga’s chin.
Inga fell into a fitful sleep, taking comfort in the fact that Yehvah had done what father never had.
She awakened briefly to the sound of another woman’s voice, speaking quietly with Yehvah.
“Where did she come from?” the unfamiliar voice asked.
“I found her being beaten by a tavern master in an alley. Her father abandoned her and didn’t pay his bill.”
“Poor dear,” the second voice said with concern.
“Will you sit with her, Anne?” Yehvah asked. “The grand princess is close to the birthing hour. I’m needed. The child is terribly frightened and in pain. I don’t want her to awaken alone.”
“Of course, Yehvah. I’ll stay the night.”
Inga fell back into a troubled sleep, wondering what would become of her.
Aleksey Tarasov stared out the window. A storm brewed, and it was a night for worrying. The grand princess even now groaned in her birth travail. By morning, Grand Prince Vasiliy might have an heir to his throne, or he might be a widower. Lightning lanced across the sky, illuminating the room far more than any number of candles or sconces did. It drew closer with each strike. Despite the vague anxiety it caused, Aleksey couldn’t tear himself from the window. The events of this night, this birth, might be vitally significant in his future.
Another lightning strike lit up the room, and a deafening crack, like breaking stone, shook the floor beneath Aleksey’s feet at the same moment. The entire palace seemed to shudder, and Aleksey’s knees almost gave way. He kept his feet, but staggered back from the window, pushing his dark hair away from his chiseled, angular face.
Since when did lightning make a noise like that?
Running forward again, he gazed out at the sleeping city and the dull stones that made up the Wall. He immediately understood what the noise had been: lightning struck the Kremlin Wall. Huge chunks of it were missing, others tumbling to the ground as he watched. Many of the stones glowed red hot and spread fire where they touched grass or wooden structures below.
Aleksey watched, safe from the cold and the fires, as a knot of servants and soldiers gathered outside. Soon a group of men—soldiers, merchants, and peasants—worked together. They stamped out flames, poured water onto hissing rocks, and glanced nervously at the heavens.
Aleksey’s family had been close to the throne for decades. His father, one of the grand prince’s advisors, summoned him to the palace the moment word spread that the grand princess’s pains had begun.
Aleksey had a little wife who loved the grandeur of court and a strapping eleven-year-old son. He still stood relatively low on the chain, but he possessed a talent for intrigue. He was already doing favors for the right people, planting seeds of rumor with the best gossipers, and finding pathways to those with the greatest influence at court. He intended to get to the grand prince's side sooner rather than later.
“Young Tarasov,” a voice called behind him.
Aleksey turned to see the grand prince’s chief physician in the doorway.
“Where is your father?” the doctor asked.
Aleksey nodded toward the massive oak door leading to the library. He wondered if there were any way the doctor had not heard commotion from the lightning.
The doctor followed Aleksey’s gaze to the door, then nodded.
“I’ll let you tell them all. The grand prince sends word to his loyal boyars. The grand princess is well, and she has a son. Ivan IV, heir to the Russian throne.”
With that, he turned and disappeared back into the royal bedchamber.
Aleksey gazed out the window again. He would tell his family, who waited for word, along with several other powerful families in the library, but he wanted to see where the lightning had struck, first.
The fire had been brought under control, but a large portion of the Kremlin Wall had been destroyed. It needed to be repaired—the grand prince would see to that. The people saw it as too sacred a symbol to be marred in such a way.
This would breed talk, and not the good kind. At the instant the new grand prince's birth, lightning from heaven struck the Kremlin Wall. Did it portend a good omen, or an evil one? Was God saying this child would be a great leader, or that he would bring destruction to his country?
No matter what the future held, Aleksey was determined to be part of it. Mother Russia was his country, and he would see to it that she remained strong.
Squaring his shoulders, he spun on his toe and walked to the library door.
Moscow, August 1532
"Inga! Wake up!” The harsh voice pulled eight-year-old Inga from the comforting darkness of sleep.
“Yes, Yehvah. I will rise.” She pushed herself upright. The sting of cold air touched her back, and she shivered. Suppressing a sigh, she dressed in the warm, albeit frumpy, dress of the kitchen maids. It was only the second week in August, but the cold came early this year. Yehvah said it might only be a cold spell, but this “spell” had gone on for two weeks already and didn’t seem to be going away.
Inga had been six years old when Yehvah rescued her from the tavern owner, or so Yehvah guessed. As no one, including Inga, knew the day of her birth, it was impossible to say for sure. After two years, Inga knew better than to stay in bed for a few extra minutes of warmth. Yehvah could be kind, but she was a hard taskmistress.
Hurrying out from behind her curtain—the thin material that portioned off her sleeping area from the rest of the beds in the sparse room—Inga ran straight into Natalya.
“Ooh, sorry,” Inga whispered. The girls learned quickly the prudence of speaking softly in the morning.
Natalya shook her head. “Not to worry. Help me tie my platok?”
Inga nodded and Natalya turned her back. Inga tied the headscarf over Natalya’s raven-black hair. Natalya had the most beautiful hair Inga had ever seen. Natalya said she preferred Inga’s fair locks, but Inga knew Natalya was aware of her beauty. Without the platok, Natalya’s hair hung in dark cascades over her shoulders like a haunting waterfall.
After Natalya returned the favor of securing Inga’s headscarf, they hurried to their respective washstands and splashed water on their faces. The water, unpleasantly cold, sent her blood hammering through her veins. The nights weren’t cold enough to freeze the water in the basins, but close. Inga paused to catch her breath.
There were many servants’ rooms in the palace. This one held only six beds: those of Yehvah, Inga, Natalya, a mousy young woman named Anne, and two other girls several years older than Inga. Three beds lined each side of the room. Beside each sat a dingy washbasin and chipped pitcher. Curtains of sackcloth hung around the beds for privacy, and hooks on the walls above the beds held extra clothes. Most servants owned only two changes of clothing altogether, and sometimes not even that.
“Inga, come!” Natalya’s voice brought her back to the present, and she quickened her step. Buttoning her frock and slipping her feet into the warm slippers the servants wore, she met Natalya in the hallway. Together they hurried toward the kitchen. They were too young to tell time, but they instinctively knew they were running late. They’d lingered in the servants’ rooms too long since Yehvah awakened them.
The girls arrived on silent feet—one of a servant’s first lessons was to move throughout the palace unnoticed—and found Yehvah speaking to the chief cook, Bogdan.
“I don’t know,” the cook was saying. Bogdan, tall as a horse with huge shoulders and thick arms, had a gruff, impatient air about him. He'd always been kind to Inga.
“Well, I don’t know either,” Yehvah retorted. “All I am saying is her belly is quite round now, and it won’t be much longer until he comes.”
“You are quite sure it is a he?” A smile played at the corners of Bogdan’s mouth.
“We must have faith that God will send what Russia needs.” Yehvah’s face showed a tapestry of calm. “Just because you have never been able to plant the seed of a man in your wife—”
Bogdan noticed the girls and cleared his throat loudly. Yehvah pushed a wisp of hair from her forehead. Yehvah’s hair was so fair, one almost could not see the silver beginning to streak it. It, too, mostly hid under a colorless scarf.
Yehvah turned her head toward the girls. “Begin by cleaning the rooms in the east wing.”
“We do not work in the kitchens today?” Natalya asked.
Yehvah gave them a look that dared them to ask another obvious question, and the two girls curtsied hastily and hurried off. They did not speak until they'd reached the east wing.
The Kremlin included a number of palaces and cathedrals. Eventually, Inga would help clean them all, though she was still learning. As she worked, Inga enjoyed examining the architecture in the main palace—its usual Russian techniques replaced with Italian influences. The rest of the buildings looked no different than those in Novgorod and Vladmir.
Everything remained cold and silent at this hour. A nearly constant draft wafted through, bringing the smells of winter with it. Most people still slept. Bogdan had only just begun the morning meal, after all.
Inga’s heart soared. It promised to be a good day. She found her days brighter and more enjoyable when she and Natalya worked together. Usually, they worked in the kitchens as runners and helpers, but Yehvah trained them in a variety of chores, so they would always be useful.
Today, not only could they work together, but they were to clean the extra rooms in the east wing, which only received dusting once a month. These rooms were less opulent than others in the palace, so they were only used as a last resort.
Inga and Natalya would be the only ones around for most of the day, which meant they could talk and be relaxed as they worked. It would be a welcome respite from their normal, regimented routine.
The grand princess was with child again, and close to giving birth. Inga knew that's what Yehvah and Bogdan were discussing in the kitchen. This would be the second child to join the royal family. Two years had passed since Ivan's birth. With the birth-time so close, everyone—especially Yehvah—was on edge. Inga wished the child would be born already so everyone could relax. She’d voiced her thoughts to Yehvah and gotten a lecture for it.
“That’s blasphemy, Inga,” Yehvah snapped. “This child, should anything happen to his elder brother, God forbid, may be the next leader of Russia. He will be the mouthpiece of God for our country. Only God can decide when he is to be born.” Inga did not complain again, at least not where any of the grown-ups could hear her.
“Inga,” Natalya said as they began their list of chores. “Did you know Anja, Bogdan’s daughter, has taken up with the groom’s son?” She giggled.
Inga giggled too. “What does ‘taken up’ mean?”
“I don’t know,” Natalya conceded, “but I heard Bogdan’s wife found them ‘rolling around’ in the stable. Maybe they were being idle with games rather than seeing to their work.”
Inga wanted to hear more. Bogdan’s wife was known to be a mean sort. “What did Yana do when she found them?”
“Beat the feathers out of them, of course.” Natalya leaned forward to whisper, though they were alone. “The word is neither of them will sit for a week.”
Inga shook her head.
“I suppose it will teach them never to make that ‘rolling around’ mistake again,” she said wisely. “They must learn not to shirk their tasks.” Yehvah said this to them often, and Natalya nodded in solemn agreement.
The morning continued, the two girls bantering and talking as they worked. They often passed their days this way, with questions, advice, made-up stories, riddles, and gossip neither of them truly understood. Inga would never admit that to Natalya; she did not want Natalya to think her a simpleton, though she suspected Natalya did not understand half of it either. By unspoken consent, they pretended to be like the older maids in the palace—whispering and weighing in on what happened around them.
When they'd been at the work for some time, they started playing games. They each took a room, and raced to see who could clean the fastest. Even so, cleaning was serious business. Yehvah would be around later to check their work, and she always demanded perfection. Their perfection the first time was better than punishment or asking forgiveness. They raced through a myriad of chores in each room, doing everything as quickly as possible, but with great attention to detail, lest Yehvah be displeased. They each won this game a few times. Inga thought she only won because Natalya let her. Natalya always worked faster at such things. Then they decided to make the game bigger.
They went to the next corridor and each took one side. Inga would take the rooms on the right, Natalya the ones on the left. Rather than go room-by-room, they would see who would get their side done first. Natalya bet her good wool socks that she would finish first. Inga agreed, but only because Natalya did not ask Inga to bet anything of her own. They both knew Natalya would win. Inga enjoyed the competition anyway. It made the day breeze by, despite the frigid air.
Inga raced through her tasks. Her side of the corridor contained several sitting rooms, each with an adjacent bedroom. The beds were large and bare. Each room contained a fireplace, and one corner was tiled so a tub could be dragged in for bathing. Inga’s chores consisted of pulling the covers off the furniture and shaking them out; wiping dust from window sills, fireplace mantels, and anything else not covered; getting rid of cobwebs; and, finally, sweeping the accumulated dust and detritus up off the floor, including anything passing rodents might have left behind.
As she made her way doggedly down the corridor, Inga did not stop to check Natalya's progress—that would take too much time—but they crossed paths more than once. Natalya moved slightly ahead. Inga quickened her pace, hoping to beat Natalya this once. When she reached the second-to-last room on her side, she noticed Natalya getting to the same room on her side. They were neck and neck!
Inga raced through the room, completing it faster than she’d ever done before but still making sure to leave no speck of dust behind. As she headed for the final room, she saw no sign of Natalya; no way to tell whether she cleaned ahead of or behind Inga. Inga threw open the door and practically dove into her final room.
She skidded to a halt.
A young man sat on the sill of the wide window that looked out from the sitting room, reading a book by the bleak light of an overcast sky. His head came up in surprise when she burst in. She met his eyes for an instant without meaning to, then fell into a practiced curtsy, dropping her gaze to the floor. He wasn't a man, for he had no beard. Inga claimed eight winters. He had to be at least six years her senior. And he was a boyar. His fine clothes and the fact that he sat reading a book in the middle of the morning attested to it.
Even had that attestation been lacking, Inga recognized him. His father advised the grand prince. His name was Taras, if she remembered right.
“Forgive me, my lord,” she stammered, “I did not mean to disturb you.”
He said nothing. Utter silence reigned and she did not dare look at him, for that could be death. After a moment, not knowing what else to do, she turned to go.
“Wait.” His voice stopped her in her tracks, as though he’d hooked her around the middle and pulled hard. She could be in great trouble for this; the kind Yehvah’s intervention could not save her from. Taking a deep breath and nearly choking on it, she turned slowly back to him, careful to keep her eyes down this time.
He got up from his perch at the window. He stood much taller than her.
“Am I not supposed to be here?” he asked.
The sudden, deep peal of his voice made her jump. She studied the eastern rug midway between them and tried to think of a safe answer. To not answer could be considered impertinence, but what kind of question was that from a man to a child-maid?
“M-my Lord can do whatever he wishes.”
He startled her again by chuckling.
“Yes, but what I meant. . .” She could see him looking her up and down out of the corner of her eye. “You look like one of the maids in training,” he said. “Are you here to clean this room?”
“I was, my lord.”
“Say no more,” he said. “I will get out of your way.”
He headed for the door. Inga had not had face-to-face encounters with many boyars, but from what she knew of their behavior, this young man was acting strangely. Most boyars practically kicked palace servants out of the way as they walked the corridors. Why was this boy being so . . . kind?
As he came level to where she stood, she plucked up her courage and spoke once more.
“My lord does not have to leave on my account. The room can be tidied later.”
He stopped, and she knew she’d made a mistake. Would he kill her for daring to speak to him again? He stood there silently for a few seconds, looking down at her—it felt like hours to Inga.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw his hand come up, and she was certain he would hit her. It would not be the first time she’d been struck for insubordination.
With the tip of his finger he turned her head and lifted it up toward him. She had to tilt her head all the way back to look up into his face. From so close she saw he did have a beard, the thin and wispy growth of a youth. As fair as the hair on his head, it was hard to see against his pale skin. The slightest smattering of freckles danced across his nose and cheeks, and a smile played at the corners of his mouth.
Though he touched her chin, his face didn't come close enough to make her uncomfortable, and his eyes reminded her of kindness.
“I would not want to get you into trouble.” He winked at her, and then sauntered from the room.
Trembling from head to toe, Inga willed her heart to slow down. She listened to his fading footsteps, feeling worse and worse. Where was he going? Everything meant something in the Imperial Court of Russia. They had not been in public, but maybe that was worse. Yehvah often talked about things happening behind closed doors having greater consequences than those that happened in public. Inga didn't know what Yehvah meant when she said it, but what if this boy got her into trouble?
After his footsteps faded, she counted to one hundred, the highest number she knew. Then she stepped cautiously from the room. Natalya leaned against the opposite wall. Her eyes were wide as saucers. She looked as terrified as Inga felt. Inga poked her head out into the corridor and looked both ways. She feared he might be waiting to pounce on her as soon as she came close. At least it would make more sense than what just happened.
“Is he gone?” she mouthed silently to Natalya.
“Yes,” Natalya said aloud. “I heard the dividing door close.”
Relief filled her chest and her knees gave way. She slid down against the door frame.
Natalya lunged to her side. “Are you well? Did he hurt you?”
“No,” Inga answered when she could get her breath. She relayed all that happened in the room, watching Natalya’s eyebrows rise closer and closer to her hairline as the story continued.
“That is not . . . normal behavior for a boyar,” Natalya mused when Inga finished, “is it?”
“I would not have thought so, but I have never spoken to a boyar before.” She darted a gaze up and down the hall to be certain they were still alone.
“Spoken! Before? Inga! We’re servants. Boyars do not speak to us at all!”
“I know.” Inga made a calming gesture with her hands. “I mean . . . I don’t know. Maybe it was a trick. Do you think he’ll get me into trouble for disturbing him? Do you think he’ll tell Yehvah?”
“Tell me what?”
Both girls sprang to their feet. Yehvah had approached from a side hall, coming around the corner, and neither girl heard her steps. Yehvah had perfected moving on silent feet. She looked equal parts angry and concerned, and Inga fought to suppress a sigh, wondering how much Yehvah heard. Her second sigh today, and it was not yet midday. Not only had both she and Natalya been caught sitting on the floor, but now she was going to have to tell Yehvah “what.”
And she’d thought it would be such a great day.
A few weeks later, Inga and Natalya stood side by side in one of the palace corridors, fidgeting. The tension in the palace felt palpable, which made it hard to sit still, though Inga knew she must. Natalya looked perfectly serene. She gave Inga a reassuring smile.
Yehvah appeared farther down the corridor. Both girls jumped up eagerly, hoping they could be of some service. Yehvah did not acknowledge them; instead, she hurried by, two older girls in tow. They swept past, and silence covered the corridor again.
Yehvah had been more irritable than usual, no doubt because of the added pressure of preparing for the new baby’s arrival. Besides her work, which always kept her busy, she had to help the doctors, and things were not slowing down.
The grand princess’s pains had begun only hours before. The child—the second heir to the Russian throne—was coming. The grand prince put away his first wife because she could not produce an heir. After he married Elena, months passed and the people despaired, saying the wrath of God rested on the couple because the grand prince cloistered his first wife. People whispered that he'd asked the Church about his decision, and been told if he put away his wife, any child born by his second wife would be evil.
He did it anyway.
Finally, Elena’s belly began to swell. Ivan came. Now, a second child would arrive any moment.
Everyone’s face Inga looked into showed worry. Much could go wrong in a birth, especially a winter birth. Inga would know. Around the city, people flocked to churches, praying that both mother and child would survive. They prayed for a male child. Many children did not survive into adulthood. Two sons would ensure the continuance of the royal line.
Inga wanted so much to help but knew she couldn’t. She was too small to do most of the tasks that needed doing; and if she bothered Yehvah for a job, she would only be in the way.
“What do you think?” she asked Natalya for the hundredth time.
Natalya smiled. “I think it will be fine, Inga. You’ll see. Try to relax; take a deep breath.”
Inga scowled at the floor. She breathed in. It helped a little, until she breathed out again.
“Girls!” Yehvah’s voice cracked like a whip through the corridor. Both girls instantly jumped to their feet. “I need your help. Natalya, we need more sheets. Go and get an armload from the supply closet near our chambers—as many as you can carry.”
Natalya’s “Yes, Yehvah” was lost as Yehvah turned to give Inga her instructions.
“Inga, I need ice.”
“Yes. Go to the kitchen and get a bucket from Bogdan. Use the biggest one you can carry and go to the icehouse. It’s far out on the grounds. Can you make it?”
“Good. Get as much as you can and hurry back. Bring everything to the anteroom,” she included Natalya in the statement. Then she strode from the room. Without stopping, she barked over her shoulder, “Run girls!”
With a glance at Natalya’s wide eyes, Inga spun on her toe and bolted for the kitchens. No wonder Natalya looked shocked. Inga was sure her own face mirrored the expression. The anteroom? It lay directly outside the grand prince’s private chambers. Maids, especially those as young as Inga, were never let anywhere near there. It frightened Inga.
She ran as fast as her short legs could take her. She pushed her legs so hard that, when she finally reached the kitchen, she couldn’t stop. The usual layer of beeswax Bogdan used to grease the spits and metal swing-arms covered the floor. The roaring fire made it glossy and ice-slick. Inga slid right past Bogdan. He didn’t notice.
“Bogdan,” she called as she slid out the opposite door. She grabbed the doorframe and slid back in.
“Yuri, keep that spit turning! The grand prince doesn’t like his boar too well done! Yes, what is it, Inga?” Bogdan’s hands never stopped moving as he spoke. He spun in a constant dance of work. Once the new prince arrived, if everything went as well as the country prayed it did, there would be much to celebrate. Russians could not celebrate without food.
“Yehvah sent me to get ice. Do you have a bucket I can borrow?”
Bogdan’s hands didn’t stop. He stared at her, eyebrows knitted down. “She sent you? To the ice house?”
“Yes. I think it’s for the grand princess. She said to be quick.”
“Well,” Bogdan looked around, “perhaps I could send . . .” But all his kitchen helpers were busy.
“Oh, please, Bogdan,” Inga pleaded, “let me do it. I’m going crazy with nothing to do. I know I’m little, but I can handle one of the smaller buckets. I’ll be fine.”
Bogdan looked perplexed. After a moment, he nodded and retrieved a small bucket from a cupboard in a far corner of the kitchen. The size of a large mixing bowl, it was made of wood. Inga swiped it from Bogdan and bounded for the door.
She went to the servants’ entrance near their quarters. From a short hook, she took a thick, wolf-skin wrap and slipped her softly shod feet into outdoor clogs. Then she hurried out the door and across the courtyard toward the ice
Taras Demidov sighed heavily and retraced his footsteps yet again. The short, three-pace line he’d been walking for the last hour had worn through the snow and turned into a brown streak through the grass. He ought to stop. The grounds keeper had a short-temper when it came to his gardens, especially with the children. Not that Taras considered himself a child, but most did not think him old enough to be called a man yet.
Taras claimed fourteen winters. His father was Russian, a close advisor of the grand prince. His mother had English blood. His parents met when his father traveled to London as the grand prince’s envoy to King Henry. They met, married, and now owned estates in both Russia and the England. Taras spent most of his life in England. He missed his family's country estate there terribly.
Surprisingly, his mother's wishes had brought them back to Russia, only six months before. She’d told Taras there was trouble, because the King of England had taken a mistress. Taras did not know the details of the scandal. Only that his parents opposed the match, and then suddenly fled to Russia. Seeing his confusion, his mother had smiled and patted his arm.
“You’ll understand better when you’re older, my son.”
Taras thought his parents truly left for his sake, though they never said it. Often, they would sit discussing events in England, and would become quiet and look at him in a strange way. When he told Mother he wanted to go home, she said they did not know when it would be safe to return to England, so he ought to get used to it here. Taras sighed and began pacing the small course again.
None of the children here were his age. Some came close, but enough years divided them to make him lonely. Those younger were young enough that he considered them children, and the older ones thought him a child, so he spent his afternoons in solitude. Now, with the royal baby on the way, people ran around like madmen before a coming storm, and they paid even less attention to him than usual.
Voices came to him from around the corner. Three boys played nearby, hitting rocks with sticks. He recognized them; they were three years his junior, the sons of boyars. They often invited him to play, but their games couldn’t hold his interest for long. He stepped behind the massive trunk of a nearby tree until they passed.
A movement off to his right caught his attention, and he turned toward it. A little servant girl scurried across the courtyard. She carried a small bucket in her hands. He recognized her as the girl he’d met in the east wing a few weeks back.
She trudged away from the closer buildings—a strange thing for a young maid to do. He tried to remember what lay out the way she was headed. The tannery, the icehouse, a few outlying sheds and horse-shelters only used in summer, and acres of land. He shrugged, already bored with thinking of her. No doubt she was on some all-important errand for the grand prince.
Taras sat down, resting his back against the tree trunk. Five men holding hands would not have been able to reach around its girth. He picked at his shirt, his solid winter boots. Then he picked up a stick and idly drew figures in the frozen dirt.
He was so bored.
“Taras!” a voice shouted.
Taras flinched at the sound of his name. Two young men, four or five years older than he, approached.
“Taras, we’re going to play a trick. Want to come?” The speaker was Yuri. A decent boy, he'd been kind to Taras since his arrival in the Kremlin. Taras liked him. Yuri’s companion was a different matter.
Taras could not abide Sergei. Where Yuri had light hair and blue eyes, Sergei was dark haired and brown eyed, his face perpetually screwed up into a sneer. He had a nasty temperament, and a flare for causing pain, especially to younger children and small animals. Yuri was good-natured for the most part, but Sergei always picked fights. Yuri had been welcoming to Taras, but Sergei bullied him.
“I don’t know. Who are you playing the trick on?”
“The younger boys,” Yuri waved his hands excitedly as he explained. “There is a little maid girl carrying ice up to the kitchen. We want to throw snowballs at her, but she is younger than we are. We’d get in trouble. We’re going to tell the younger boys she’s a wild fox. They’ll throw the snowballs, and we can stand by and watch.”
Taras frowned. “How old is this girl?”
“I don’t know. Maybe seven or eight.”
Sergei snickered. Taras smiled, rubbing the back of his neck. “I don’t know. If she doesn’t know it’s coming, she could get hurt. The snow is slick near the kitchen.”
“Oh, come now, Taras,” Sergei cut in. “Enough of your English nobility. A few snowballs never hurt anyone.”
Taras didn’t answer.
“Look, you don’t have to come if you don’t want. We saw you sitting here and thought we’d invite you to have some fun with us. If you’d rather be alone than have some harmless laughs, suit yourself.” He swung his hips pompously as he turned and strutted away.
Yuri looked disappointed, but after a moment he followed Sergei toward the kitchen.
Taras sighed. His father would be cross if he found out Taras was involved in this, but the way Yuri told it, no one would find out. The three of them would be hidden. Besides, Sergei was right. What harm could a few snowballs do anyway?
“Wait,” Taras jumped to his feet. “I’m coming.”
Twenty minutes later, Taras, Yuri, and Sergei had secreted themselves behind the south wall of the stables. They’d told the younger boys that a hungry fox was headed toward the smells of the kitchen, and if they pelted it with snowballs, it would chase its tail in circles and fall down. The younger boys had laughed heartily and began packing snowballs as fast as they could.
Sergei scaled a nearby tree and shielded his eyes as he scanned the ground for the servant girl. After a moment, he shimmied back down.
“She’s coming!” His whisper was hoarse with excitement. The three of them took positions in the snow, and Sergei signaled the younger boys with one hand.
Taras grinned in anticipation. He thought of the little girl falling down, laughing, throwing snowballs back at them. She might get upset and run and tell Yehvah, which would mean all the boys would have to scatter. Taras had only been in the palace a few weeks, but Yehvah’s temper and her protectiveness were notorious.
As soon as Taras spotted the little girl coming around the bend, his fantasy of playful fun dissolved. This was a mistake. The girl wore outdoor clogs, but only a simple wrap covered her arms. She had not dressed for outdoor play as the boys had. Behind her, she dragged a small bucket full of ice. Sweat beaded on her forehead, and it looked as though it took every ounce of her strength to pull it along through the snow. She was still far from the kitchens, and every slow, painful step brought her mere inches closer.
“We shouldn’t be doing this.” Taras got to his feet to yell at the younger boys to let her pass. Before he could speak, a crushing weight landed on his back. One moment he could see the girl in front of him; the next, he found himself face down in the snow.
“Don’t spoil the fun, Taras,” Sergei whispered from atop his back.
“Yeah, what’s wrong?” Yuri chimed in.
“We. . .we shouldn’t.” Taras struggled to get out from under Sergei’s bulk. He was already too late. The sound of taunting shouts and triumphant voices announced the ambush had been sprung. Taras craned his neck to see, as Yuri and Sergei laughed.
The snowballs came in a barrage that hit the girl full in the face, chest, arms, legs, back of the head, and every other part of her body. She dropped the bucket of ice and it spilled into the snow. Her wrap fell from her arms, and she collapsed off the man-made path and into a patch of deep, undisturbed powder. The snow stood so deep that she disappeared completely, and the pelting stopped momentarily.
Taras pushed Sergei off him, but did not move to stop it. What could he do now? He felt only disgust and wanted no more to do with this. He wanted to see her sit up before he left, to make sure she was all right.
After a moment, her head popped up from the hole her body had left in the snow. She held her hand to her forehead, looking dazed. Taras’s eyes narrowed. What oozed out from between her fingers? She tried to stand, but the pelting started again and she sat down hard.
Before Taras could think what to do, a powerful hand grabbed the back of his collar, choking him, and swung him violently around in the opposite direction. He found himself face-to-face with Nikolai Petrov. Taras’s breath caught. Nikolai was a formidable man, having proved himself many times in battle. Not tall, but strong, his piercing, deep-set blue eyes blazed with anger.
A dark-haired man Taras didn’t recognize held both Yuri and Sergei by their collars up against the barn.
“What is going on, here?” Nikolai thundered.
“The younger boys are throwing snowballs at that poor servant girl,” Sergei offered, his eyes wider than Taras had ever seen
“And why is that?”
“I—we don’t know. We were about to go stop them.” Sergei tried to dip his head obsequiously, but the dark-haired man had him pinned. It made Sergei look like a cooing pigeon.
Nikolai shifted his gaze from Sergei and Yuri back to Taras. He looked like they'd tried to convince him the grand prince had run off to become a juggler. Taras got the feeling Nikolai knew exactly what had happened.
“Come,” Nikolai said. “We will find out.”
Without another word, he dragged Taras from behind the barn and toward the scene of the battle. Taras could hear the other man coming behind them, Yuri and Sergei in tow.
Nikolai walked directly into the space between the girl and her tormentors. As soon as he did, the snowballs stopped flying and fell to the ground in droves. Nikolai’s hawkish eyes ran over the group of young boys. He settled on one, Boris, who was the ringleader of the group. Nikolai crooked a finger and Boris walked forward.
“What is going on here?” Nikolai’s voice was not harsh, but Boris jumped anyway.
“We are throwing snowballs at the maid-girl.”
Boris glanced toward Sergei and his mouth settled into a firm line. Then he glanced up at Nikolai, and it was obvious which one he feared more.
“They told us to,” he said, pointing at Yuri, Sergei, and Taras.
Nikolai glanced over at the girl in the snow. Taras followed his gaze. The girl did not look dazed anymore. She'd wrapped her shivering arms around her knees and stared at her clogs. Ugly welts had popped up on her head and arms and tear-streaked face, and the left side of her hair was matted with frozen blood.
“The girl is bleeding,” Nikolai addressed Boris again. “Mere snowballs don’t do that.”
Boris’s eyes stayed on the snow in front of him. “They . . . told us she was a fox. We thought we would kill it to impress everyone. We put rocks in the snowballs. We wanted to knock it out. We didn’t know it was a girl. Honest.”
Taras felt sick. They might have seriously injured her. And he'd been party to it.
“You should have stopped when you saw she was not a fox.” His voice became harsher as he spoke. “You ought to know better than to torment one of the grand prince’s own kitchen maids. I will speak to each of your parents about this tonight.”
The color drained from each of the boys’ faces. Nikolai dismissed them, turning toward the three older boys. The younger boys melted silently away toward the palace.
Taras could not meet Nikolai's scathing gaze. “Whose idea was this?”
When no one answered, Taras whispered, “We all participated.”
“That’s not true! It was his idea. He’s a bad English boy. He wanted to get us into trouble—”
“Sergei, enough!” Nikolai growled, and Sergei’s gaze hit the snow again. After a moment’s contemplation, Nikolai turned to the dark-haired man. “Take these two to my chambers. I will find their parents and meet you there.” The man dragged Sergei and Yuri away, and Taras felt the uncomfortable pressure of being the sole object of Nikolai’s stern gaze.
“Look at me, boy.” With great effort, Taras did. “You have not been here long, and your father is in great favor with the grand prince, so I will spare you. This time. Trouble here will not be tolerated. Is that understood?” Taras nodded, trying to swallow the lump in his throat.
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry,” he said. Nikolai’s eyebrows jumped. Taras didn’t know why an apology would surprise him. His gaze bored into Taras.
“I have been around long enough to know only Sergei could concoct such a scheme. I know he’s older than you, but he’s trouble. You would do well to steer clear of him.”
“Off with you.” Nikolai nodded his head toward the stables.
“Could I apologize to the maid?”
Nikolai’s eyebrows rose almost to his blond hairline. He glanced over his shoulder to where the little girl remained seated. “I don’t think that is a good idea. She is not apt to want much attention right now. The best apology you can give her is to leave her alone. Or perhaps, if Sergei tries to torture her again, to keep him from it. Now, off with you.”
Taras turned to obey with some vexation. His mother was devoutly religious, and he'd been raised to make amends. As he headed back the way he'd come, he dared a glance at the little maid. She no longer stared at her shoes, but at him. Red rimmed her eyes and frozen tears speckled her cheeks. The look she gave him made his chest hurt so much he couldn't breathe. Not knowing what else to do, Taras turned and ran toward the stables.
He didn’t want anyone to see him cry.
Nicholas Demidov arrived at his rooms, exhausted. He’d hoped Mary would be asleep by now. He should have known better. She sat beside the fire, reading. Her dark hair gleamed in the firelight, and he smiled in spite of himself. His wife’s presence always soothed him.
“Finally,” she said, though she did not look up from her book. “If I did not know you better, I’d think you were keeping a mistress.” Mirth tinged her voice, but when she closed her book and turned to look at him, the smirk faded quickly. “Nicholas, what is it?”
She rose, but he motioned her back down, coming to sit by her. “I’ve come from arguing with the grand prince.”
Her face changed from concern to alarm. “Arguing? With the grand prince? Nicholas, I thought that meant death.”
“Can be death, my dear,” he corrected. "It isn’t always.” He glanced back toward the darkness of the room, where his son slept. “How is Taras doing?”
Mary glanced toward Taras’s room and then to Nicholas, stammering, “He’s fine, I think. Nicholas, what’s going on?”
Nicholas sighed. He wished there were some way he could keep this from her. It would be disheartening news, to say the least. “Mary, he knows. The grand prince has . . . found out.”
Her face became utterly still. “About me?”
She stared, her face a mask of calm. She seemed to be trying to control her breathing. Nicholas waited. She knew to what he referred, of course.
“And?” She still did not look away from the fire.
“And . . . Vasily and I are close, Mary. I hoped after all we’ve been through the last few months, this wouldn’t be such . . . an issue with him.”
“It is, though?”
Nicholas studied his wife. He wanted so much to comfort her. He knew she liked Moscow and the Kremlin. Taras was adjusting well, too.
“I think we must leave, Mary. For your sake. And for Taras’s.” Her shoulders slumped. He reached over and wrapped his arms around her. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for you . . . and for our son. If you want to be angry with me for a while, I’ll understand.”
Silence hung between them for a time. She lifted her hand to caress his arm before pulling back so she could look at him. Her eyes were not sad, but determined.
“Take comfort, husband,” she said, sounding confident, though Nicholas recognized it as a ruse, purely for his benefit. “Taras doesn’t like it here. He’s lonely much of the time. I think he will be happy to return home.”
Nicholas gazed into his wife’s face. She consoled him, though she must be heartbroken at this news. He couldn’t even leave it at that. The woman was a saint, and yet he had to drive the stake in further. He put his hands on her shoulders.
“Mary, we cannot go home yet. It isn’t safe in England.”
“Then where, Nicholas? Our home is in England, and you are Russian. We have nowhere else to go. How will we live?”
He stroked her shoulder, keeping his voice gentle. “Remember when I told you I had relatives in France?”
“We don’t know anything about them,” she objected. “You said you’d never met them.”
“I said I’d never met my uncle or his wife. I met my cousin and he seemed a decent sort of fellow.”
“Mary.” She stared down at his chest, rather than in his eyes. “I know this isn’t ideal. Nothing is these days. They are our relatives, and propriety demands they take us in. So, we will impose on them for a while, out of necessity.”
After a few moments, she nodded. “What will you tell Vasily?”
“Nothing of the truth. There is an expedition heading north. I will tell the grand prince my family wants to see the country. We will slip away at the first chance and head east. I want Taras to see Anechka before we make for France. I think it best if we simply disappear.”
“The grand prince will see that as treason. This is your homeland, and you would never be welcome in it again. Is that what you want?”
“Shh. We do not want to wake Taras.”
She checked herself.
“Nicholas,” she whispered, “I don’t want that for you.”
“Neither do I, but it’s what must be done.” Mary turned away from him. “I know this is difficult, Mary. I know you hate moving around so much and—”
“No, Nicholas, it isn’t that. I will go anywhere you are, and certainly anywhere necessary to protect Taras. It’s. . .”
“What?” he pressed.
“I don’t want you to resent me for this. It’s my fault we have to leave. Again.”
He shook his head. “I could never resent you, my love. This is my home country, but when I married you, my loyalty to country took second place to my marriage vows. I will be true to this loyalty now.” He brought her hand to his chest and placed it over his heart. Her eyes filled with tears, and he embraced her again. Her soft, dark hair glinted in the firelight as he stroked it. “It will all work out.”
He tried to convince himself of that as much as her.
Days later, Taras once again paced in the snow.
Something felt wrong. For the last three days, his parents had acted strangely . . . distant and falsely cheerful. He didn’t know what was going on, and his parents wouldn’t tell him. Taras loved them both, but they still treated him like a child. They’d been downright secretive all week, and now Mother was late coming home.
Taras suspected his father had a falling out with the grand prince or someone else at court, or . . . or something. Taras didn’t know what, but he knew life at the Russian court could be dangerous. His parents were in trouble; he was sure of it.
They’d decided the family would go on an expedition to the north, to see the countryside, his father said. Not that Taras had any choice. He cared no more about going than about staying, but it was an odd thing for his parents to do. Father's presence was required here at court, mother had made friends, and winter's heart was upon them. The previous night, he’d confronted his mother, but she avoided his questions.
“Taras,” she finally said, “stop asking me. It will be explained to you soon enough. For now, we know what’s best, and you must trust us.”
He hadn't pressed her further. She'd gone out today—he didn’t know where—and should have been back hours ago. Normally he wouldn’t have worried, but coupled with his parents’ strange behavior, it troubled him. Mother rarely ran late. She left early, and snow had fallen all morning.
When the snow quit, Taras paced in front of his apartments. Father was in a meeting with the grand prince, so Taras could not even tell him his fears. He tried to alert others. They told him to stop worrying. No doubt she'd been caught in the snow, or distracted by other duties, and would return soon.
They spoke logic, but Taras could not shake the dark feeling, as though someone drew a feather lightly down his spine. He shivered; that sensation always came when something was amiss.
Then he saw it: a tall dark figure moving toward him from across the palace grounds. He could not hear the figure until it got closer due to the fresh powder. By the time he could hear the whisper of the newcomer kicking up snow as he ran, Taras could also see it was a man. He wore a long brown coat and a square fur shapka on his head that covered his ears against the cold. Whatever news this man brought, Taras knew it would not be good.
Taras ran out to meet him. The snow had reached thigh-depth, so he didn’t get far. The man slowed as he approached. Suddenly Taras recognized him. Nikolai. The same man who'd lectured him about the snowball incident. He looked at Taras, then the building behind him.
“Where is your father, boy?”
“In a meeting with the grand prince,” Taras replied.
Nikolai looked perplexed. He glanced back the way he'd come, then at the building behind Taras, as though unsure of what to do. He glowered, undecided between the two horizons for several minutes, until Taras could stand it no longer. “Please, tell me your news. Is something wrong?”
Nikolai glanced cursorily down at Taras, then once again gazed back the way he'd come.
“Is it my mother?”
Nikolai’s head snapped back to look at Taras, surprise written on his face. Taras stared at him levelly, terrified of the answer. Nikolai leaned forward and put his hands on Taras’s shoulders. They felt solid and strong.
“Why do you ask that?”
“She left early and should have been back already. She’s never late.”
“Do you know where your mother went today?”
“She left before I woke.”
Nikolai sighed, head dropping to study the snow between them for a moment. Then he peered into Taras’s eyes. “Send a courier to your father, Taras, and then come with me. There’s been an accident.”
Two days later, Taras stood beside his father at the cemetery. No one came to the funeral, which puzzled him. Mother had been well liked here. Taras had no answers and endless questions. Why did God take his mother from him?
A tear escaped down his cheek, freezing midway in the frigid air. He sniffed. Father stood solemnly next to him. He did not know if Father pretended to be strong or if he truly had no tears. He wished Father would cry. Taras would find comfort in his father’s sadness.
A sledge accident. No one knew where she’d gone that day. Even Father hadn't known she'd planned to go out. At the accident site, the falling snow covered the tracks the sledge made that morning, obscuring which direction she'd come from.
It must have hit some invisible obstacle—an unseen rock, or perhaps a dead animal. The sledge flipped over. One of the horses broke a leg and had to be killed. Mother was thrown out and the sledge rolled. One of the metal runners went right over her. When Taras went to see her, thick cloths covered her torso. Blood oozed through them from her chest and belly below.
She never regained consciousness. Taras and his father could not say goodbye. She died alone in the snow.
Taras drew in a shuddering, ragged breath. “What will we do now, Father?”
Nicholas turned dull, lifeless blue eyes on his son. “We will go with the expedition when it leaves tomorrow.”
Taras did not know what reply he’d expected, but that was not it. “You still want to go with the expedition? To see the North country? Why?”
Nicholas turned to stare at the headstone. Mary Demidovna. Beloved of father and son, followed by her birth and death dates. She'd married father at seventeen, and Taras was born to her at eighteen. She'd only claimed thirty-two winters.
“I think, Taras,” his father said at last, “it is more important than ever for us to leave Moscow. We need to get away, clear our minds, try to heal.”
The pain in Taras’s chest came so violently, he found it difficult to breathe. Mother was not two hours in the ground, and Father talked about healing and moving on. How could he even suggest it? For the first time in his life, Taras resented his father.
“Mother is . . . dead. How . . . how can you. . . abandon—?”
“Taras!” Nicholas turned toward his son so abruptly, Taras thought his father would strike him. He did not. Instead, he stood there, fists clenched at his sides. Taras kept his eyes on his father’s knees. He knew his father must be grieving too, but Taras’s anger eclipsed reason.
After a few moments, a stifled sob came from his father and Taras looked up. There were still no tears, but his father’s face crumpled, and guilt flooded in. So, Father was simply being strong for him. Taras began to cry in earnest, and with the sobs came shivering he couldn’t control. When Nicholas regained his composure, he put his hand on Taras’s shoulder.
“You must trust me, Son. We must go. Make sure you are packed. The expedition leaves tomorrow.” Nicholas turned to his wife’s grave and touched the headstone softly. “You are right,” he spoke so softly, Taras didn't know whether his father spoke to him or the gravestone. “I never thought I would leave the woman I loved behind.”
“Then why are you,” Taras spat. He was being unfair to his father, but didn’t care. His father turned to look at him, his hand still on his wife’s headstone.
“I have no other choices, Taras,” he said. “But I’ve no doubt that, when the time is right, she will come and find me. And we will be together again.” Nicholas bent and kissed the top of the headstone. Taras thought a tear ran down his father’s cheek, but when Nicholas turned to his son, his face was dry once more. “Say goodbye to your mother, Taras, and then go pack.”
Long after the sound of his father’s boots crunching in the snow faded, Taras stood staring at his mother’s grave.
Something happened here. Something went terribly wrong—something he was not being told about. He fell to his knees in the snow. This must be the result of something much more sinister than a sledge accident. Taras didn’t think he could count on his father to explain things, and he didn’t know who else could. The adults at court did not think he could understand their world. Perhaps he couldn’t. But some day he would.
He was already packed, so he knelt in the snow for hours, crying for his mother. Twilight fell and darkness closed in around him. He needed to get back or Father would be angry. Following his father’s example, he kissed his mother’s gravestone. Another thing he knew with certainty: he would not return. The expedition would return to Moscow in a few weeks, but Taras somehow knew he would not be coming back to his mother’s grave.
“Dosvidaniya, Mother. I’ll find out what happened to you. I promise.”
Pulling himself away from the grave felt like pulling a chunk of flesh from his chest. He wondered if his father felt the same thing. Father had loved mother, so the answer was yes.
Some part of him died in the snow with his mother that day, but he still did as father had done hours before—despite the pain, he walked toward his rooms with his chest out, his shoulders back, and his head high, trying not to shiver.