Home > The Bear and the Nightingale(15)

The Bear and the Nightingale(15)
Author: Katherine Arden

Pyotr was startled for the second time, and somewhat less pleased. He had three boys already, among whom he must divide his property, and was in no need of more. Why would the prince waste a virginal daughter on a man of no enormous consequence who wanted only a woman of sense to run his house?

The prince raised an eyebrow. Still Pyotr hesitated.

Well, she was Marina’s niece, a Grand Prince’s daughter, cousin to his own children, and he could not very well ask what was wrong with her. Even if she were diseased, a drunkard, or a harlot, or—well, even so, the benefit of accepting the match would be considerable. “How could I refuse, Ivan Ivanovich?” Pyotr said.

The prince nodded gravely. “A man will come to you tomorrow to negotiate the bridal contract,” he said, turning back to his goblet and his dogs.

Pyotr, dismissed, was left to make his way back to his place at the long table and tell his sons the news. He found Kolya sulking into his cup. The dark-haired stranger had left, and the woman was staring in the direction he had gone, with a look of such terror and agonized longing on her pale face that Pyotr, for all his troubles, found his hand darting almost involuntarily for the sword he was not wearing.

 

 

Pyotr Vladimirovich took his bride’s cold hand, squinted at her small, clenched face, and wondered if he could have been mistaken. It had taken a headlong week to negotiate the details of his marriage (so that it might be celebrated before Lent began). Kolya had spent the interval dallying with half the serving-women in the kremlin, looking for word on his father’s prospective bride. Consensus eluded him. Some said she was pretty. Others said that she had a wart on her chin and only half her teeth. They said that her father kept her locked up, or that she hid in her rooms and never came out. They said she was ill, or mad, or sorrowful, or merely timid, and at last Pyotr decided that whatever the problem was, it was worse than he had feared.

But now, facing his unveiled bride, he wondered. She was very small, about the same age as Kolya, though her demeanor made her seem younger. Her voice was soft and breathless, her manner submissive, her lips pleasingly full. There was nothing in her of Marina, though they had the same grandfather, and for that Pyotr was grateful. A warm chestnut braid framed her round face. Seen up close, there was also a suggestion of tightness about her eyes, as though her face would fall into lines like a closed fist as she got older. She wore a cross that she fingered constantly, and she kept her eyes lowered, even when Pyotr sought to look her in the face. Try as he might, Pyotr could not see anything manifestly wrong with her, except perhaps incipient ill temper. She certainly did not seem drunk, or leprous, or mad. Perhaps the girl was just shy and retiring. Perhaps the prince really did propose this marriage as a mark of favor.

Pyotr touched the sweet outline of his bride’s lips and wished he could believe it.

They feasted in her father’s hall after the wedding. The table groaned under the weight of fish and bread, pie and cheeses. Pyotr’s men shouted and sang and drank his health. The Grand Prince and his family smiled, more or less sincerely, and wished them many children. Kolya and Sasha said little and looked with some resentment at their new stepmother, a cousin scarce older than they.

Pyotr plied his wife with mead and tried to set her at ease. He did his best not to think of Marina, sixteen when he married her, who had stared him full in the face as she said her vows, and laughed and sung and eaten heartily at her wedding feast, tossing him sidewise glances as though daring him to frighten her. Pyotr had taken her to bed half-crazed with desire, and kissed her until defiance turned to passion; they had risen the next morning drunk with languor and shared delight. But this creature did not seem capable of defiance, perhaps not even of passion. She drooped under her headdress, answering his questions in monosyllables and shredding a bit of bread in her fingers. Finally, Pyotr turned away from her, sighing, and let his thoughts race along the winding track through the winter-dark forest, to the snows of Lesnaya Zemlya and the simplicities of hunting and mending, away from this city of smiling enemies and barbed favors.

 

SIX WEEKS LATER, PYOTR and his retinue prepared to take their leave. The days were lengthening, and the snow in the capital had begun to soften. Pyotr and his sons eyed the snow and hastened their preparations. If the ice thinned before they crossed the Volga, they must exchange their sledges for wagons and wait an eternity before the river was passable by raft.

Pyotr was worried for his lands and eager to get back to his hunting and husbandry. He also thought, vaguely, that the clean northern air might calm whatever was frightening his wife. Anna, though quiet and compliant, never stopped gazing around her, wide-eyed, fingering the cross between her breasts. Sometimes she muttered disconcertingly into empty corners. Pyotr had taken her to bed every night since their wedding, more for duty than for pleasure, true, but she had yet to look him in the face. He heard her weeping when she thought he slept.

The party’s numbers had increased significantly with the addition of Anna Ivanovna’s belongings and retinue. Their sledges filled the courtyard, and many of the servants had packhorses on leading reins. Both Pyotr’s sons were mounted. Sasha’s mare picked up one foot, then another, and flung her dark head. Kolya’s horse stood still and Kolya himself drooped in the saddle, bloodshot eyes slitted against the morning sun. Kolya had known great success among the boyars’ sons in Moscow. He’d bested them all at wrestling and many of them at archery; he had drunk nearly all of them under the table; and he had dallied with any number of palace women. He had, in short, enjoyed himself, and he was not relishing the prospect of a long journey, with nothing but hard labor at the end of it.

For his part, Pyotr was satisfied with their expedition. Olga was betrothed to a man—well, boy—of far more consequence than he would have dreamed. He himself had remarried, and if the lady was rather strange, at least she was not promiscuous, or diseased, and she was another Grand Prince’s daughter. So it was with high good humor that Pyotr saw all in readiness for their departure. He looked around for his gray stallion, that they might mount and be gone.

A stranger was standing at his horse’s head: the man from the market, who had also supped in the Grand Prince’s hall. Pyotr had forgotten the stranger in the haste surrounding his wedding, but now there he was, stroking Buran’s nose and looking at the stallion appraisingly. Pyotr waited—not without a certain anticipation—for the stranger to have his hand bitten off, for Buran did not suffer familiarities, but after a moment he realized with astonishment that the horse was standing perfectly still, ears drooping, like a peasant’s old donkey.

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