“They are all like that, the princes that live,” said Pyotr. He took a steaming slice of pie. “They all have too many brothers, and all are eager for the next city, the richer prize. Either they are good judges of men, or they are dead. Go wary of the living ones, synok, because they are dangerous.” Then he gave his full attention to the pastry.
Sasha furrowed his brow, but he let his plate be filled. Their journey had been an endless round of strange stews and hard flat cakes, broken once or twice by their neighbors’ hospitality. The Grand Prince kept a good table, and they all feasted until they could hold no more.
After, the party was given three rooms for their use: chilly and crawling with vermin, but they were too tired to care. Pyotr saw to the settling of the wagons, and of his men for the night, then collapsed on the high bed and surrendered to a dreamless sleep.
“Father,” said Sasha, vibrating with excitement. “The priest says there is a holy man north of Moscow, on Makovets Hill. He has founded a monastery and gathered already eleven disciples. They say he talks with angels. Every day many go to seek his blessing.”
Pyotr grunted. He had been in Moscow a week already, enduring the business of currying favor. His latest effort—only just concluded—had been a visit to the Tatar emissary, the baskak. No man from Sarai, that jewel-box city built by the conquering Horde, would deign to be impressed by the paltry offerings of a northern lord, but Pyotr had doggedly pressed furs upon him. Heaps of fox and ermine, rabbit and sable passed beneath the emissary’s calculating gaze until at last he looked less condescending and thanked Pyotr with every appearance of goodwill. Such furs fetched much gold in the court of the Khan, and further south, among the princes of Byzantium. It was worth it, thought Pyotr. I might be glad one day, to have a friend among the conquerors.
Pyotr was weary and sweating in his gold-threaded finery. But he could not rest, for here was his second son on fire with eagerness, bearing a tale of holy men and miracles.
“There are always holy men,” Pyotr said to Sasha. He knew a sudden longing for quiet and for plain food; the Muscovites were fond of Byzantine cookery, and the resulting collision with Russian ingredients did his stomach no favors. Tonight there was to be more feasting—and more intrigue; he still sought a wife for himself, and a husband for Olga.
“Father,” said Sasha, “I should like to go to this monastery, if I may.”
“Sashka, you cannot cast a stone without hitting a church in this city,” said Pyotr. “Why waste three days’ riding on another?”
Sasha’s lip curled. “In Moscow, priests are in love with their standing. They eat fat meat and preach poverty to the miserable.”
This was true. But Pyotr, though a good lord to his people, lacked an abstract sense of justice. He shrugged. “Your holy man might be the same.”
“Nonetheless, I should like to see. Please, Father.” Sasha, though gray-eyed, had his mother’s jet brows and long lashes. They swept down, oddly delicate against his thin face.
Pyotr considered. Roads were dangerous, but the well-traveled road running north from Moscow was not markedly so. He had no desire to raise a timid son. “Take five men. And two dozen candles—that should ensure your reception.”
A light came into the boy’s face. Pyotr’s mouth tightened. Marina was bone in the unyielding earth, but he had seen her look just that way, when her soul lit her face like firelight.
“Thank you, Father,” the boy said. He dashed out the door and away, lithe as a weasel. Pyotr heard him in the dvor before the palace, calling the men, calling for his horse.
“Marina,” said Pyotr, low, “thank you for my sons.”
THE TRINITY LAVRA HAD been carved out of the wilderness. Though the feet of passing pilgrims had beaten a path through the snowy forest, the trees still pressed close on either side, dwarfing the bell-tower of the plain wooden church. Sasha was reminded of his own village at Lesnaya Zemlya. A sturdy palisade surrounded the monastery, which was composed mostly of small, wooden buildings. The air smelled of smoke and baking bread.
Oleg had ridden with him, the head of his attendants. “We can’t all go in,” said Sasha, reining his horse.
Oleg nodded. The whole party dismounted, bits jingling. “You, and you,” Oleg said. “Watch the road.”
The men chosen settled beside the path, loosened the horses’ girths, and began searching for firewood. The others passed between the two uprights of a narrow unbarred gate. Great trees threw sooty shadows onto the raw wood of the little church.
A slim man ducked out of a doorway, wiping floury hands. He was not very tall, and not very old. His broad nose was set between large, liquid eyes, the green-brown of a forest pool. He wore the coarse robe of a monk, splattered with flour.
Sasha knew him. The monk might have been wearing the rags of a beggar or the robes of a bishop and Sasha would still have known him. The boy dropped to his knees in the snow.
The monk pulled up short. “What brings you here, my son?”
Sasha could barely bring himself to look up. “I would ask your blessing, Batyushka,” he managed.
The monk raised a brow. “You needn’t call me so; I am not ordained. We are all children of God.”
“We brought candles for the altar,” Sasha stammered, still on his knees.
A thin, brown, work-hardened hand thrust itself under Sasha’s elbow and raised him to his feet. The two were nearly of a height, though the boy was broader of shoulder and not yet full-grown, gangly as a colt. “We kneel to God alone here,” said the monk. He studied Sasha’s face a moment. “I am making the altar-bread for services tonight,” he added abruptly. “Come and help me.”
Sasha nodded, wordless, and waved his men off.
The kitchen was rude, and hot from the oven. The flour and water and salt lay to hand, to be mixed, kneaded, and baked in the ashes. The two worked in silence for a time, but it was an easy silence. Peace lay thick on that place. The monk’s questions were so mild that the boy hardly noticed he was being questioned, but, a little clumsy with the unaccustomed task, he rolled out dough and related his history: his father’s rank, his mother’s death, their journey to Moscow.
“And you came here,” the monk finished for him. “What are you seeking, my son?”
Sasha opened his mouth and closed it again. “I—I do not know,” he admitted, shamefaced. “Something.”