Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(12)

The Bear and the Nightingale(12)
Author: Katherine Arden

Ivan was unimpressed. “Plenty of time for that; he is only thirteen.”

Aleksei shook his head. “They have a princess of Litva in mind—the duke’s second daughter. Remember, Vladimir is also a grandson of Ivan Kalita, and he is older than your Dmitrii. Well-married and full-grown he would have a better claim to Moscow than your own son, should you die untimely.”

Ivan grew pale with anger. “They dare not. I am the Grand Prince and Dmitrii is my son.”

“And so?” said Aleksei, unmoved. “The Khan heeds the claims of princes only as long as they suit his ends. The strongest prince gets the patent; that is how the Horde assures peace in its territories.”

Ivan reflected. “What then?”

“See Vladimir wed to another woman,” said Aleksei at once. “Not a princess, but not one so lowborn as to cause insult. If she is beautiful, the boy is young enough to swallow it.”

Ivan reflected, sipping his wine and biting his fingers.

“Pyotr Vladimirovich is lord of rich lands,” he said at last. “His daughter is my own niece and she will have a great dowry. She cannot fail to be a beauty. My sister was very beautiful, and her mother charmed my father into marriage, though she came to Moscow a beggar.”

Aleksei’s eyes sparked. He tugged his brown beard. “Yes,” he said. “I had heard that Pyotr Vladimirovich was in Moscow in search of a wife for himself as well.”

“Yes,” said Ivan. “He surprised everyone. It is seven years since my sister died. No one thought he would marry again.”

“Well, then,” said Aleksei. “If he is looking for a wife, what if you gave him your daughter?”

Ivan put down his cup in some surprise.

“Anna will be well hidden in the northern woods,” Aleksei continued. “And will Vladimir Andreevich dare refuse Pyotr’s daughter then? A girl so closely connected to the throne? It would be an insult to you.”

Ivan frowned. “Anna wants, most particularly, to go to a convent.”

Aleksei shrugged. “And so? Pyotr Vladimirovich is not a cruel man. She will be happy enough. Think of your son, Ivan Ivanovich.”

 

A DEMON SAT SEWING in the corner, and she was the only one who saw. Anna Ivanovna clutched at the cross between her breasts. Eyes shut, she whispered, “Go away, go away, please go away.”

She opened her eyes. The demon was still there, but now two of her women were staring at her. Everyone else was looking with studied interest at the sewing in their laps. Anna tried not to let her eyes dart again to the corner, but she couldn’t help it. The demon sat on its stool, oblivious. Anna shuddered. The heavy linen shirt lay on her lap like a dead thing. She thrust her hands into its sleek folds to hide her trembling.

A serving-woman slipped into the room. Anna hastily took up her needle and was surprised when the worn bast shoes stopped in front of her. “Anna Ivanovna, you are summoned to your father.”

Anna stared. Her father had not summoned her for the better part of a year. She sat a moment bewildered, then jumped to her feet. Swiftly she changed her plain sarafan to one of crimson and ocher, drawing it over her grimy skin, trying to ignore the stink of her long chestnut braid.

The Rus’ liked to be clean. In winter, scarce a week went by when her half sisters did not visit the bathhouses, but there was a little potbellied devil in there that grinned at them through the steam. Anna tried to point him out, but her sisters saw nothing. At first they took it for her imagination, later for foolishness, and at last just looked at her sideways and didn’t say anything at all. So Anna had learned not to mention the eyes in the bathhouse, just as she never mentioned the bald creature sewing in the corner. But she would look sometimes; she couldn’t help it, and she never went to the bathhouse unless her stepmother dragged or shamed her into it.

Anna unraveled and replaited her greasy hair and touched the cross over her breast. She was the most devout of all her sisters. Everyone said so. What they didn’t know was that in church there were only the unearthly faces of the icons. No demons haunted her there, and she’d have lived in a church if she could, shielded by incense and painted eyes.

The oven was hot in her stepmother’s workroom, and the Grand Prince stood beside it, sweating in winter finery. He wore his usual acerbic expression, though his eyes sparkled. His wife sat beside the fire, her thin plait straggling out from beneath her high headdress. Her needles lay forgotten in her lap. Anna halted a few paces away and bent her head. Husband and wife looked her over in silence. Finally her father spoke to her stepmother:

“Glory of God, woman,” he said, sounding annoyed. “Can you not get the girl to bathe? She looks as though she’s been living with pigs.”

“It doesn’t matter,” her mother replied, “if she is already promised.”

Anna had been staring at her toes like a well-bred maiden, but now her head shot up. “Promised?” she whispered, hating the way her voice rose and squeaked.

“You are to be married,” her father said. “To Pyotr Vladimirovich, one of those northern boyars. He is a rich man, and he will be kind to you.”

“Married? But I thought—I hoped—I meant to go to a convent. I would—I would pray for your soul, Father. I wish that above all things.” Anna twisted her hands together.

“Nonsense,” said Ivan, brisk. “You will like having sons, and Pyotr Vladimirovich is a good man. A convent is a cold place for a girl.”

Cold? No, a convent was safe. Safe, blessed, a respite from her madness. Since she could remember, Anna had wanted to take vows. Now her skin blanched in terror; she flung herself forward and caught her father’s feet. “No, Father!” she cried. “No please! I don’t want to marry.”

Ivan picked her up, not unkindly, and set her on her feet. “Enough of that,” he said. “I have decided, and it is for the best. You will be well dowered, of course, and you will make me strong grandsons.”

Anna was small and scrawny, and her stepmother’s expression indicated doubt on that score.

“But—please,” whispered Anna. “What is he like?”

“Ask your women,” said Ivan indulgently. “I’m sure they’ll have rumors. Wife, see that her things are in order, and for God’s sake make her bathe before the wedding.”

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