Dismissed, Anna trudged back to her sewing, biting back sobs. Married! Not to retreat, but to be the mistress of a lord’s domain; not to be safe in a convent, but to live as some lord’s breeding sow. And the northern boyars were lusty men, the serving-girls said, who dressed in skins and had hundreds of children. They were rough and warlike and—some liked to say—spurned Christ and worshiped the devil.
Anna pulled her pretty sarafan off over her head, shivering. If her sinful imagination conjured demons in the relative security of Moscow, what would it be like alone on the estate of a wild lord? The northern forests were haunted, the women said, and the winter lasted eight months in twelve. It did not bear thinking of. When the girl sat down again to her sewing, her hands trembled so that she could not set her stitches straight, and for all her efforts, the linen was blotched with silent tears.
Pyotr Vladimirovich, unaware that his future had been agreed upon between the Grand Prince and the Metropolitan of Moscow, rose early the next morning and went to the market in Moscow’s main square. His mouth tasted of old mushrooms, and his head throbbed with talk and drink. And—foolish old man to let the boy run wild—his son wished to turn monk. Pyotr had high hopes for Sasha. The boy was cooler-headed and cleverer than his older brother, better with horses, defter with weapons. Pyotr could imagine no greater waste than to have him disappear into a hovel, to cultivate a garden to the glory of God.
Well, he consoled himself. Fifteen is very young. Sasha would come round. Piety was one thing, quite another to give up family and inheritance for deprivation and a cold bed.
The din of many voices penetrated his reverie. Pyotr shook himself. The cold air reeked of horses and fires, soot and honey-wine. Men with mugs dangling from their belts proclaimed the virtues of the latter beside their sticky barrels. The pasty-sellers were out with their steaming trays, and the sellers of cloth and gems, wax and rare wood, honey and copper, worked bronze and golden trinkets jostled for room. Their voices thundered up to fright the morning sun.
And Moscow has only a little market, Pyotr thought.
Sarai was the seat of the Khan. It was there the great merchants went, to sell marvels to a court jaded by three hundred years of plunder. Even the markets further south, in Vladimir, or west, in Novgorod, were bigger than the one in Moscow. But merchants still trickled north from Byzantium and further east, tempted by the prices their wares fetched among the barbarians—and tempted even more by the prices the princes paid in Tsargrad for furs from the north.
Pyotr could not go home empty-handed. Olga’s gift was easy enough; he bought her a headdress of pearl-strewn silk, to glow against her dark hair. For his three sons he bought daggers, short but heavy, with inlaid hilts. However, try as he might, he could find nothing to give Vasilisa. She was not a girl for trinkets, for beads or headdresses. But he could not very well give her a dagger. Frowning, Pyotr persevered, and was testing the heft of gold brooches when he caught sight of a strange man.
Pyotr could not have said, exactly, what about this man was strange, except that he had a sort of—stillness, striking amid the bustle. His clothes were fit for a prince, his boots richly embroidered. A knife hung at his belt, white gems sparkling at the hilt. His black curls were uncovered, odd for any man, and more so as it was white winter—brilliant sky and snow groaning underfoot. He was clean-shaven—something all but unheard-of among the Rus’—and Pyotr, from a distance, could not tell if he was old or young.
Pyotr realized he was staring, and turned away. But he was curious. The jewel-merchant said confidingly:
“You are curious about that man? You are not alone. He comes sometimes, to the market, but no one knows who his people are.”
Pyotr was skeptical. The merchant smirked. “Truly, gospodin. He is never seen in church, and the bishop wants him stoned for idolatry. But he is rich, and he always brings the most marvelous things to trade. So the prince keeps the Church quiet, and the man comes and goes away again. Perhaps he is a devil.” This was tossed off, half-laughing, but then the merchant frowned. “Never once have I seen him in the springtime. Always, always he comes in winter, at the turning of the year.”
Pyotr grunted. He himself was quite open to the possibility of devils, but he was not convinced that they would stroll about markets—summer or winter—dressed in princely raiment. He shook his head, indicated a bracelet, and said, “This is rotten stuff; already the silver is green round the edges.” The merchant protested, and the two settled to chaffering in earnest, forgetting all about the black-haired stranger.
THE STRANGER IN QUESTION halted before a market-stall, not more than ten paces from where Pyotr stood. He ran thin fingers over a heap of silk brocade. His hands alone could tell him the quality of the wares; he paid only cursory attention to the cloth before him. His pale eyes flicked here and there, about the crowded market.
The cloth-seller watched the stranger with a sort of obsequious wariness. The merchants knew him; a few thought he was one of them. He had brought marvels to Moscow before: weapons from Byzantium, porcelain light as morning air. The merchants remembered. But this time the stranger had another purpose; else he’d never have come south. He did not like cities, and it was a risk to cross the Volga.
The flashing colors and voluptuous weight of the fabric suddenly seemed tedious, and after a moment, the stranger abandoned the cloth and strode across the square. His horse stood on the south side, chewing wisps of hay. A rheumy old man stood at her head, pale and thin and oddly insubstantial, though the white mare was magnificent as a rearing mountain, and her harness was tooled and chased with silver. Men stared at her with admiration as they passed. She flicked her ears like a coquette, drawing a faint smile from her rider.
But suddenly a big man with cracked fingernails appeared out of the crowd and snatched the horse’s rein. Her rider’s face darkened. Though his pace did not quicken—there was no need—a cold wind rippled across the square. Men snatched for hats and loosened garments. The would-be thief flung himself into the mare’s saddle and dug in his heels.
But the mare did not move. Neither did her groom, oddly enough; he neither shouted nor raised a hand. He merely watched, an unreadable look in his sunken eyes.
The thief lashed the mare’s shoulder. She did not stir a hoof, only swished her tail. The thief hesitated a bewildered instant, and then it was too late. The mare’s rider strode up and wrenched him out of the saddle. The thief might have screamed, but found his throat frozen. Gasping, he groped for the wooden cross at his throat.