“It’s good you’re going to Guzdal,” Czarina Marfa said. “Nasty rumors have been leaking out of it. Men disappear without a trace. You should investigate while you’re having fun.” She reclined in her easy chair beside the huge and cold marble fireplace.
Svetlana sat on the other side of the fireplace, facing her aunt. “I can’t investigate Radoslav’s home,” she said stiffly. “I love him. I think he’s going to propose; that’s why he invited me for the Midwinter Fest. I can’t break his trust.”
Marfa rubbed her arms. “It’s getting chilly in here. Light the fire, honey.”
“You’re changing the subject,” Svetlana muttered. She sent a trickle of magic towards the fireplace. The flames sprang to life, illuminating the czarina’s tired face.
“I’m not accusing him of anything.” Marfa stared into the crackling flames. “Duke Radoslav is an honest man, I’m sure. But he’s only been the duke for the past year, since his older brother Konstantin died. And the rumors also imply that Konstantin’s death mightn’t have been an accident.”
“You mean he was killed?” Svetlana jumped up from her bench and started pacing. The flames, reacting to her agitation, leapt erratically. “Radoslav couldn’t have done it. You can’t believe it of him. He was with the army until his brother’s death. He never wanted nor expected to inherit the dukedom.”
“I know, I know. Sit down and calm the flames. Don’t defend your sweetheart; I told you I don’t blame him. But something wicked is brewing in the north. I thought Radoslav might find and fix it, but the rumors continue. Obviously he’s failed.”
“What if he’s in danger, too?” Svetlana’s insides chilled. She leveled the flames with a flick of her wrist and dropped back on the bench.
The czarina grinned without humor. “All the more reasons for you to investigate.”
“Yes. I’ll fix it, Aunt,” Svetlana promised quietly.
“I’m glad you came,” Radoslav said, as the sleigh came to a stop after their long ride through the snow-shrouded forest. His eyes twinkled with laughter. He swept the snow off Svetlana’s parka, and his cold palm glided briefly along her cheek.
She leaned into his hand. Her lips still felt puffy from his kiss, and Radoslav’s ring burned on her finger under the gloves. “Oh, yeah,” she said, beaming.
He winked, grabbed her hand, and tugged her up the majestic stairs to the manor.
The double doors, carved and painted in bright summer motifs, swung open. The dowager duchess, Radoslav’s mother, swept through. A frown contorted her aristocratic features. Her eyes seemed glued to Svetlana’s legs. “You’re wearing pants, Princess! Again? Shame! Every serf can see your legs!” The embroidered hem of the dowager’s sarafan rippled underneath her sable cloak, swirling around her red calfskin boots.
Svetlana glanced down at her own wolf-skin moccasins, a rough hunter’s footwear, and her lips twitched. Of course she wore thick woolen pants for the sleigh ride. She disliked sarafans on principle, but they were especially a nuisance when one engaged in horseplay in the snow.
“Mother!” Radoslav’s voice dropped its warmth. “Princess Svetlana is our guest. She can wear anything she wishes.”
Svetlana’s mouth curved, and she bowed to hide her grin. One must be courteous to one’s future mother-in-law. “I’m sorry, Your Grace,” she murmured. “I’m used to pants. They are best for riding, and as the czarina’s sorceress, I ride often.” She slipped inside.
“Brazen witch,” the duchess hissed, so quietly only Svetlana could hear.
“I’ll see you at dinner, Princess,” Radoslav’s velvety baritone caressed her neck.
Svetlana laughed silently as she ran up the stairs to her room, but once there, she sobered. The town of Guzdal stretched beneath her window. In the early dusk, she could still glimpse the multiple gilded cupolas of the churches, but a spray of small lights began sprinkling the darkening field below the castle.
In the few days she had been here, everything had seemed peaceful, even joyful, but Marfa’s rumors hadn’t sprouted from nothing. Svetlana needed to go exploring and she couldn’t confide her misgivings to Radoslav. She must investigate covertly. Perhaps she should embark on some discreet sightseeing now? She had a few hours, and the town was a good place to start.
She buttoned up her parka again, grabbed her gloves, and climbed on a windowsill. From the skein of her magic, she wove a small, gossamer-thin magical sheet and stepped on it. With a tiny magic light guiding her flight, she sailed out of the window, over the snow-blanketed gardens, and over the castle walls. Her cheeks tingled from the cold air.
When she landed on a deserted street corner, her light still bobbed above her head, casting golden butterflies on the snowflakes [SMB1] floating in the air. Svetlana dismissed the flying sheet and the light with a thought. Anonymous in her common parka and pants, she started down the lane.
The streets unfolded around her. Under the white trim of snow, the colorful carved gables and window aprons look like soft draperies, stitched together by thick white yarn. She didn’t want to find evil in this pretty town.
In the market square, the delicious aroma of sturgeon pies hit her, and her stomach gurgled in response. Time for a snack. She ducked inside the nearest tavern. Making her way to an empty table, she eavesdropped on the strands of thoughts floating around the smoky room. Any stray notion could be useful in her search. Her magical snoop jumped methodically from head to head, when a serving girl approached her table.
“Mistress, what do you wish for dinner?” The girl’s pale bony face made her hazel eyes look bottomless. Her large hands, red and bloated from too much work, clutched the edges of an old, stained apron. A gray, faded handkerchief concealed her hair.
Not expecting anything, just to be thorough, Svetlana dived into the girl’s mind.
I hate these wealthy parasites! They take what they want and destroy everyone who resists. My brother is dying because of them, but this glittering horsefly doesn’t care.
“Mistress?” the girl prompted with a false little smile. I hate her. I hate them all. I’d poison them all if I dared! her mind screamed. Her loathing quivered like a fetid yellow swamp, threatening and all-consuming.
Svetlana rocked back. “What happened to your brother?”
The girl blanched. “Did I say anything stupid, mistress? I’m sorry.”
“No, you didn’t say anything. I’m a sorceress. I read minds. I heard what you thought. Tell me what happened to your brother.”
The girl’s eyes darkened, but her lips stayed shut.
“Tell me,” Svetlana repeated softly.
The girl unclenched her teeth. “They crippled him.” She gripped her apron harder and lifted her defiant eyes to meet Svetlana’s gaze.
“The castle guards. They tortured him. He can’t walk. His wounds won’t heal.” Her lips trembled, although her eyes remained dry. “What are you going to do? Order them to beat me, too, until I’m a bloodied lump of meat, just like he was.”
“Why would the castle guards do that?” Svetlana had trouble breathing. It couldn’t be Radoslav! It simply couldn’t. He was a good man. Wasn’t he?
The girl pursed her lips again.
“Tell me!” Svetlana bunched her small fists until the nails bit into her palms. Candlelight flared in the large sapphire on her finger. Radoslav’s engagement ring. “I’m the czarina’s sorceress. I serve czarina’s justice. If there is an injustice here, I must correct it,” she said. She was surprised her voice sounded so even; her mouth felt dry and scratchy.
“You can’t bring my brother’s health back.”
“Tell me! Why did the duke order your brother tortured?” This was the source of the ominous rumors, she knew.
“It’s his mother, not the duke,” the girl whispered. Her gaze bore into Svetlana’s. “She’s a smutty old slut. She’d spread her legs for anyone, but she lusted after my brother. He was handsome.” Her voice almost died. “He was her gardener.”
Not Radoslav! Svetlana felt giddy with relief. She could breathe again. She should have known it was the dowager. But did Radoslav know? Had his older brother known? She hugged herself to ward off the approaching horror. “What happened?”
“He rejected her. He told me when he came home that day. We laughed together.” The girl began to cry. There were no tears, just shuddering that wrecked her thin body. “They came for him that night. The next day, they dropped him on my doorstep. What was left of him. They broke his hands and feet. They cut off his balls. Maybe she did herself. They cut off his tongue, so he couldn’t tell.” Every whispered word fell like a blow, accompanied by dry, wretched sobs.
“When?” Svetlana mouthed.
“In the fall.”
“And the duke?”
The girl was still shaking; her answer hiccupping. “I’m … a tavern … wench. The duke doesn’t know … I exist.” She sniffed, trying to compose herself. “I hope.”
Svetlana nodded. Radoslav might not know. It would be better if he didn’t. He doted on his mother. What would happen to him if he learned of her depravity? When he learned?
But Svetlana knew and she couldn’t ignore it. She must restore the balance in this girl’s life and in the kingdom. She had promised Marfa.
“I’ll bring you a sturgeon pie,” the girl said tonelessly. “It’s good.”
“Sturgeon pies will wait.” Svetlana pulled a few coins out of her purse and thrust them in the girl’s hand. “Tell your employer I require your services. Then take me to your brother.”
“Why? You’re nobility. We’re peasants.” The girl bunched her apron in both fists and wouldn’t look up. “Nobles don’t care,” she mouthed.
Svetlana could hardly hear her. “I care,” she said. “What is your name?”
“And your brother’s name?”
“Thank you. Go talk to the innkeeper, Gripa.”
Gripa scurried towards the kitchen. She caught up with Svetlana at the door and they trudged through the narrow, twisting streets, chocked with snow. Silence stretched between them, icily brittle, and the northern wind whistled testily. Soft snowflakes of the morning turned hard and prickly, biting their exposed faces.
Gripa’s small house, chilly and dark, reeked of urine and human excrement. The girl lit a candle, revealing one long, cheerless room, partitioned by a gray homespun curtain. On the other side of the curtain, someone breathed laboriously. “Wait here, mistress.” She vanished behind the curtain, taking her candle with her.
Svetlana swallowed, trying not to inhale too deeply. She tossed up a magic light, illuminating a cramped kitchen. An unlit oven, a cupboard, and a wooden table with two stools crowded together. Lavender bunches hung from the low ceiling beams but couldn’t banish the stench of a sickbed. Svetlana heard Gripa whisper but couldn’t distinguish the words.
When a couple minutes later Gripa beckoned, her face seemed more harassed than before.
Svetlana stepped behind the curtain. A sick man lay on a cot, covered by a thin quilted blanket. His eyes were closed. A faint stink of human waste and inflamed flesh lingered about him, combined with a pungent smell of medicinal herbs and a musky male odor. His sallow cheeks sunk beneath his beard, and his hair, flaccid and greasy, clung to his skull.
“Hello, Efrem.” Svetlana perched on the edge of his cot. “I’m a sorceress. I’ll try to help you but I must know what happened. May I read your thoughts?”
Efrem nodded. His eyes opened into slits above purple semi-circles of flabby skin. His cheekbones jutted out. Outside, the angry wind thumped against the closed shutters.
Gingerly, Svetlana put her hand on Efrem’s brow. His pasty skin felt clammy. She sensed his badly knitted, aching bones, sensed the wounds on his thighs and chest, inflicted when chunks of meat had been torn off by giant, red-hot iron tweezers. Even months later, these wounds wouldn’t heal properly. She gritted her teeth, braced herself, and delved deeper.
Close contact provided more minutiae details than she ever wanted to know. At her mind-nudge, Efrem’s sluggish brain exploded with his terrifying experience in the dungeons.
Moaning softly, he turned his head to the wall, as if trying to escape the faces of his torturers. But he couldn’t shut off the ghastly recollections. They blazed, surrounding the old duchess with an aura of malevolence. The woman applied her knives and hot irons with skill and relish. She smiled triumphantly in his vision, and the young gardener screamed. The wind outside echoed his agony, thudding at the shutters.
“Stop it!” Gripa batted Svetlana’s hand aside. “You’re hurting him.”
Efrem’s warped hand with twisted fingers shot out from under the blanket. Gently, he pushed away his sister’s hand. And then, finally, he met Svetlana’s gaze.
She has to pay! I wasn’t the first! He flung his thoughts at Svetlana, his angular, gaunt face taut with concentration.
“She’ll pay,” Svetlana responded. “I promise. Don’t shout in my head, Efrem.”
A grin of embarrassment flitted across Efrem’s haggard features.
“I’m not a healer,” Svetlana said. “Is there a good healer in Guzdal?”
“There is,” Gripa said. “But we don’t have the money.”
Inarticulate little mewls of protest emerged out of Efrem’s moving lips. I don’t need a healer. Kill me, sorceress. Without my balls, I’m no good to anyone and a burden to my sister.
“I don’t have balls,” Svetlana countered. “You think I’m no good to anyone?”
The wind outside howled in mockery. Gripa clamped a hand over her mouth.
Efrem glared, his eyes turning bitter. You don’t understand. I’m a neuter.
“You’re a gardener,” Svetlana said quietly. “No healer can re-grow your balls or your tongue. But you’ll walk again. You’ll plant new gardens.”
“He was a good gardener,” Gripa whispered.
“I’ll give you some money.” Svetlana pulled out her bulging purse, Marfa’s gift. The tiny rubies decorating the purse glittered militantly, incongruous in this gray room of suffering. “This should be enough to pay a healer and support you both until Efrem recovers.”
Gripa stepped back, hiding her hands behind her.
“Your brother needs it,” Svetlana persisted.
Efrem turned his head back to the wall.
His sister shook her head. “We don’t need your charity.”
“Please, Gripa. It’s not charity. It’s justice. Terrible injustice has been done to you both. I can punish the guilty but I can’t heal. And your brother requires healing. Pick up the purse.”
Gripa eyed the purse with desperation. “They’ll say I stole it.”
“Touch the purse. I’ll put a spell on you, so nobody would doubt your ownership.”
Gripa took a deep breath and finally, cautiously approached the bed. As soon as she was close enough, Svetlana grabbed the girl’s hand, roughened from work, and guided it to the purse. At the same time, she pulled magical threads out of her core. She wove them into a complex wrap of magic that bound Gripa with the purse and every coin in it. Nobody could accuse her of stealing them now.
“What if anyone asks?” Gripa’s eyes were full of wonder.
“Say that you had a rich aunt in the capital, and she passed away.”
“Thank you.” Gripa’s lips trembled. Before Svetlana realized what she was up to, the girl dropped to her knees, kissing Svetlana’s hands fervently. Tears stained her eyes. “Thanks you, mistress!”
“Don’t!” Svetlana jerked her hands away. “Don’t tell anyone about my visit.” She went to the door but halted in front of it, listening. The wind caterwauled outside, and the door rattled under its fury. She couldn’t walk to the castle in such weather and flying through a snowstorm would be suicidal. She’d better build herself a gate.
She pulled her magical threads out again, weaving a multicolored tapestry in the doorway. Her imaginary shuttle scuttled across the warps of space, wefts lining the inside of the door frame. The aged wooden planks of the door shimmered like a foggy jelly, and the door dissolved into the interior of her opulent chamber in the castle.
Svetlana stopped her weaving and sighed with weariness. Weaving magical gates always siphoned off power. Her skein of magic was much smaller now. She glanced back at the siblings. They watched her in awe. She waved and stepped across the magical portal.
The gate blinked off behind her back, but the wind continued its bawling outside her window. The malachite clock on the mantel tick-tacked steadily. Drat! She was late for dinner.
Hurriedly, she put on her best sarafan, adorned with tiny pearls, draped a white mohair shawl around her shoulders, and slipped out the door. Her braid bumped at her back, as she pattered down the stairs. Her thoughts swirled around the young brother and sister. Perhaps later, when Efrem healed completely, she could provide him with speech magic. Such a spell should employ a sound-producing device, a whistle of some sort, infused with magic. Efrem could wear it on a string around his neck. Had anyone ever attempted such a spell before? She began weaving magical strands in her mind, searching for the best configurations to form human words. A few funny sounds trilled and rasped around her, bouncing off the walls.
Then she remembered the duchess and wrenched her mind from the happy effervescence of new magic. Radoslav’s ring on her finger sparkled in silent derision. It was the dowager’s fault, Svetlana thought angrily. The woman was a monster. She had destroyed the young gardener because he hadn’t submitted to her whim. Simultaneously, she had annihilated any chance of Svetlana and Radoslav ever becoming a family.
Svetlana bit her lip to stifle a sob. Did Radolsav know, she wondered again? Could she marry him anyway? The candlelight in the ornate bronze sconces swayed in rhythm with her pounding heart.
She inhaled sharply. No! She couldn’t become the duchess’s daughter-in-law. The very idea chafed like a bad spell. Svetlana clenched her small fists around the handfuls of shawl. She had promised Efrem to punish his tormentor. She would keep her promise. She inhaled deeply, squared her shoulders, and entered the dining room.
“Svetlana.” Radoslav smiled. “Have you had a nice nap? Please, sit with me.”
“Thank you.” Svetlana dropped on the soft cushions. Radoslav’s welcoming smile pierced her heart. It hurt to see him so happy. It hurt so much her poor heart must be bleeding. She hated being the one who shattered his happiness, but what choice did she have?
She wove a visual in her mind: his mother, rough stones of a dungeon, iron bars, knives and blood, and Efrem’s face, twisted in agony. Forgive me, sweetheart, she whispered inwardly and sent the prompt into his head, fishing for matching memories.
Radoslav frowned in bewilderment. He couldn’t guess the source of such foul thoughts. They didn’t have a reference in his mind. She dug deeper and caught a whispered question. Just one word. “Mother?” Then Radoslav s[SMB2] hook his head, and the false memories disintegrated. He didn’t know! Lightheaded with relief, Svetlana breathed easier.
She nodded at Radoslav’s mother across the table. “Good eve, Your Grace.”
“Princess.” The dowager looked displeased. “You’re late. We keep strict times here.”
“Mother!” Radoslav growled. He lifted his goblet at Svetlana. “For you, my Princess.”
Svetlana grabbed her goblet too, saluting her hosts with a tremulous smile. The venison stew on her plate smelled heavenly. She dug into it. She always felt ravenous after working magic. As she ate, she cast another of her mind lures into the duchess’s head. She must be absolutely certain of the woman’s guilt.
The same image Radoslav had dismissed so effortlessly stuck in the duchess’s mind. Memories unfolded. Blood, knives, faces. So many faces! Efrem had been right: he hadn’t been the only victim. The woman reveled in the pain inflicted by her hands. When Svetlana glimpsed Konstantin’s face, distorted by the empty, bloody eye sockets, she blanched. The spoon dropped out of her nerveless fingers. The duchess’s own son!
The dowager smiled complacently and licked her lips. “Wonderful venison, isn’t it, Radoslav?” Her carving knife glinted.
“Yes, mother,” her son agreed absently. He glanced at Svetlana, then at his mother, and dug into his food as if his life depended on it.
Svetlana sipped her cider, hiding her eyes behind the silver goblet. Her doubts had vanished. The duchess would pay for her cruelty. But maybe she could postpone the execution for one more day, grant herself one more day of joy with Radoslav?
No, she couldn’t! She owed it to Marfa and Efrem, to the memory of the late Duke Konstantin. Had he learned of his mother’s iniquity? Had he confronted her, precipitating his own torture and death? If so, even a tiny delay might put Radoslav in danger.
Fighting a lump in her throat, Svetlana gathered her magic, weaving it tightly around the duchess, cloaking her body in the punishing spell. The magical web, invisible to mundane eyes, clung to the older woman’s skin like a wet chemise, shining repulsively.
After dinner, when the duchess mounted the stairs to her bedchamber, her sarafan’s folds would entangle her feet. She would stumble and plunge over the rail. She would land fully paralyzed, with her spine severed and her vocal cords fried. No more walking or talking for the torturer masquerading as a beautiful woman. The same fate she had dished out to Efrem and the others would befall the dowager duchess of Guzdal. And nobody would be sorry but her son.
Svetlana felt sick. Never in her life had she used her magic for so much suffering. Coldness seeped through her. The spell hadn’t sprung yet but it was already erasing color and light inside her soul. Her mentor had once said that magic always extracted heavy price, but she hadn’t believed the old man until today.
“Princess?” Radoslav’s baritone intruded on her brooding. “You look pale. Are you well?”
“A touch of dizziness,” Svetlana murmured. She needed to eat, needed to replenish the magic she had sunk into the brutal spell but she couldn’t. She felt queasy. Was she as sadistic as the duchess? Did she have the right to be the judge and the executioner? The czarina trusted her, but did she trust herself? Her heart beat like a frightened rabbit, and cold sweat formed on her brow. She shivered and hugged herself. Should she remove the spell? But what other punishment would fit the crime?
“Do you need a maid to help you to your room?” the duchess asked solicitously.
Still in the woman’s head, Svetlana heard the real thoughts. She is sickly. Good. As soon as she gives birth to Radoslav’s son, we’ll get rid of her. He seems infatuated now, but he’ll soon tire of the witch. Good riddance. The dowager smiled sweetly.
Svetlana climbed out of the toxic pit of the duchess’s mind. She had seen enough. “No, thank you,” she said stonily. “I’m fine.” She gulped her cider and released the spell.
It settled on its subject, enmeshing the older woman’s feet and encircling her neck and waist. Oblivious, the duchess kept on chewing.
After dinner, Svetlana retired to her bedroom. She pulled off Radoslav’s ring, put it on the mantel, and turned the pretty blue gem to face the wall. She couldn’t bear watching it twinkle in the firelight. Then she burrowed under the fur blankets and waited, listening to the wind howling behind her shuttered window.
The fire in the hearth died out. The wind continued its incessant laments, mourning her crumbling love. Despite the heavy blankets, she felt numb, frozen like an ice sculpture. She couldn’t even cry.
Her head ached, but she kept on her solitary vigil until the spell sprung around midnight. Her punishment had been delivered. The lump of ice that was her heart burst into a hundred icy shards; each one cutting like a knife, leaving ugly scars. A moan of agony escaped her pursed lips, and her tears started at last.
She left Guzdal the next day, before the sun broke over the horizon. The snow was falling again, the downy flakes danced in the light breeze. Radoslav stared at her from an upper window. He looked sad and exhausted. Svetlana knew that his scars, like hers, were invisible but real, and they hurt just as much.