Chapter 1

Each time she passed the door, with its locks and bars, Vasilisa paused in her pacing, and stood listening, her body poised and still.

Nothing new. Just the sounds of the quiet house beyond.

It felt like her life, these past few days, had consisted entirely of closed, endless circles. Since discovering her body could heal itself within short hours of being injured, she had been unable to concentrate on reading, unable to settle on any pastime or distraction.

Instead, she had walked ceaseless circuits about the room. Her mind, too, whirled through a closed circuit of thoughts, beginning and ending with the unthinkable, for a serf: escape, for herself and her brother, Pyotr. They would flee, away from this place, from this master, and into the most far flung regions of the empire. Syabera, perhaps. Somewhere safely remote, where Prince Konstantin would never find them.

But how? She kept running up against the impasse of its impossibility. How to bend the bars stronger than adamantine that covered the windows? How to break impenetrable doors?

Alternating with those thoughts was the far more insidious, frightening question of what her master had done to her, and possibly to Pyotr, for she had not seen her brother in weeks. She didn’t know whether he was exhibiting the same symptoms or not.

She had tested her newfound ability to heal swiftly several days earlier, by breaking off the leg of a chair that was evidently far flimsier than it looked, since she had barely needed to exert any force at all to splinter the wood. Prying off a sharp sliver, she had used it to slice her forearm, her leg, the back of her hand. Sure enough, they had all healed within the hour.

And so, here she was: trapped and changed, in some profound way that she didn’t pretend to understand.

Still no sound from the other side of the locked and barred doors. She resumed her circuit around the perimeter of the vast, elegantly-appointed room.

Damask draperies, thick-pile carpets and a canopied bed, piled high with mattresses, all served as markers of a luxurious lifestyle that her childhood self, growing up with her extended family in a cramped cottage, would have had difficulty comprehending. And yet, this dull ache of fear, which underlay every moment of her day and night, was more insidious, more wearing, than anything she could remember having experienced as a child. This elegant, luxurious room kept her captive and vulnerable, helpless to do anything except wait for the return of her jailer, a man as elegant, handsome and charming as the room itself. Her handsome prince.

A bitter thought. She had been fooled. Against her better judgment, she had been fooled. When he had penetrated the anonymity of her serfdom, when he had exerted his considerable charm–abetted by his exquisitely golden good looks–she had begun to believe that he was different from his sister, and to accept the fairy-tale he had woven for her.

But like this room, whose charm and elegance drew attention away from its true nature as a prison, she had eventually come to understand the true scope of his mendacity. And it wasn’t just she who had paid the price for her credulity; Pyotr had also suffered for it.

Vasya drew in a slow breath against the suffocating pressure of her own guilt, as she approached the window, with its heavy, inflexible metal bars, installed in front of the leaded panes. The sight of the luminous, indigo sky outside gave her pause. Over the past week, the days had grown noticeably longer, and Vasya chafed at the change. If ever she contrived to find where that monster had imprisoned her brother, and to get him away from this place, the longer days and ever-shortening nights would have to be factored into her plans, making them that much less likely to succeed.

But now, after a long day: twilight. She couldn’t see the sunset from her window, but she could just make out the pale glow of the moon, peeking out between the dark silhouettes of budding branches. Forest ringed the estate.

She lingered briefly, frowning at the luminous, rounded shape as it rose, a slender fingernail away from being full.

It promised to be a bright, clear night. Perfect for running away–except that even leaving aside the bars that covered the doors and windows, her room was over four stories above the sloping gardens, still ragged from winter’s ravages. And she had yet to learn of her brother’s whereabouts–or indeed, whether he still lived at all.

If he didn’t–well then, there wasn’t much point in any of it. If not for her brother’s involvement in this, she would have kept her head down and accepted her fate. She was a serf. Servitude was her lot in life, and growing up as she had, she knew that abuse often came along with it. Her owner had the right to treat her as he would, and she had little choice but to accept it. The prince had taken the abuse to a new level, but it was more of the same kind of thing she had endured, working for his sister through the years.

And yet, though the same rationale applied to her brother, who was no less a serf than she, Vasya wanted better for him. She knew it was wrong. She had no right to expect any such thing for anyone enserfed in the Empire of Rynska. But she did.

And so for her brother, she would break the law, become a fugitive and do whatever she had to, to provide him with a chance at a better life. Surely a life of stealth and hiding–and the possibility of freedom–was better than this? Though she had no inkling of his ultimate plans, Vasya had grown convinced that Konstantin had no intention of allowing them to return to their former lives.

Vasilisa resumed her pacing.

When she completed the latest circuit, she paused by the door once again, listening. This time, her ears pricked to the sound of shuffling footsteps, far in the distance, but drawing nearer as she waited. She relaxed slightly. The prince wore boots, and walked with a smooth, confident stride. His footsteps echoed off the marble floors as a series of hard, staccato clicks, not easily confused with the soft-soled shuffle of house serf feet.

The shuffling steps drew closer. Vasya crouched down, watching the outline of the removable panel, cut into the bottom of the door. The footsteps stopped in front of her room, and she heard the familiar sound of someone fumbling with the latch that held the panel shut.

“Hello?” Vasilisa pitched her voice carefully: thin, sweet, vulnerable. Helpless. Which she was. “Please. Help me.”

The fumbling with the latch stopped. Vasilisa swallowed, trying to keep the tiny thread of hope from expanding into something bigger–something out of all proportion with that one, brief pause.

“Please,” she said again, struggling to maintain the sad, piteous tone, when she could feel the tremor of that hope creeping into her throat. Never, in all this past week, had the mysterious attendant–or attendants?–paused in their unwavering routine. Three times a day, the panel opened and a tray slid through, containing food, and a syringe loaded with a viscous serum. In the morning and the evening, the tray was followed by a clean, empty chamber pot. She’d slide the previous, used chamber pot out, followed by the previous meal’s food tray. The panel would close.

Four days ago, she had reached out through the open panel, in an attempt to connect with the person on the other side of the door. She had gotten a nasty slice on her forearm for her troubles–a cut that had been the first indication of her accelerated healing abilities. That attendant had whispered, “Don’t be tryin’ that again, or you’ll be lucky to keep your hands at all.”

And still the prince didn’t come–hadn’t come for well over a week. Heavenly father be praised.

“Help me. I’m begging you,” she said now.

The person on the other side resumed fumbling with the latch, but this time, it sounded hurried. The panel opened, the tray slid through. The panel closed. The footsteps started moving away.

Vasilisa straightened, her eyes widening. “No! Just news–that’s all I want.” The footsteps paused. In her desperation, the words came tumbling out, falling over themselves in their eagerness to persuade. “My brother. He’s locked up somewhere else. In the other wing. I’m desperate. He’s just a boy–fourteen years old. He was sick too–” that was the story the prince had fed them, the story that persuaded Vasya to consent to being separated from her brother. The story that had persuaded her to go into the captivity of this room. It was for her own safety, and for the safety of the others on the estate. The illness could sometimes result in violent outbursts that needed to be contained, he said, by way of explaining the bars on the doors and windows.

“I don’t know if he’s alive or dead. Some information, anything at all, would help me.”

Silence. Then, the shuffle of feet, slowly coming back and stopping in front of the door. Silence once more.

“Please,” she repeated. The desperation was not feigned. Given what that monster had done to her… She closed her eyes, trying not to imagine what kinds of horrors the prince might have visited upon her gentle, silken-haired little brother.

Vasya swallowed. She should have hidden him better, should have protected him.

“The lad in the east wing?”

The gruff question startled her. It had been days since she had heard a voice other than her own.

“Yes. Yes, that’s him. That’s Pyotr.” She couldn’t quite keep the hope, the eagerness, from her tone and she thought, please, don’t let this be another one of the prince’s games.

“He’s fine, at least that I could tell, milady,” the man murmured.

She didn’t recognize the voice. The whisperer who had slashed her arm earlier in the week had spoken with a strong Gyorgan intonation, while this man’s accent had a northern flavor. Arkongelsh region, perhaps.

“I’m new, so I don’t know how he’s been all this time. But they sent me to give him his tray this morning. When I collected it later, I saw that he had eaten and taken his medicine.”

His medicine. Vasilisa glanced at the loaded glass syringe on the tray. She had been emptying hers into the chamber-pot, ever since the Gyorgan had sliced her arm, and she had watched the trickle of blood coagulate in moments, the skin swiftly sealing itself into a tidy, silvery scar.

She knew too much to be able to trust anything the prince did. If the substance he insisted they inject had changed her enough to promote accelerated healing, then she could only wonder at what else it had changed in her.

Even now, she glanced at her scar and the familiar question slipped into her mind: what kind of devil’s work is this? She had discarded such superstition years ago, but nothing she had read in the fields of science and medicine could explain such swift healing.

She heard the man outside the door shuffle his feet, perhaps in response to her long silence.

“They warned me you’d try to get me to talk to you. They said I should plug my ears.”

She let out a wry laugh. “Am I so impossible to resist?”

“Master’s instructions, they said.” A pause. “And I guess they were right. Your voice…”

“What about my voice?” she asked wearily, when it seemed he was not going to continue.

“It… gets into me,” he said, after a pause, as if he were struggling to find the right words. “It–it’s in my brain, in my blood.” A silence. “I don’t know that I’ll forget your voice, milady. Ever. It makes me want to see you, to talk to you. I’d open the door if I had the key.”

Vasilisa frowned. What a strange thing to say. Her voice was perfectly normal–no-one had ever before remarked upon it.

Then, as the rest of what he said sunk in, she brushed the thought aside. He’d open the door…? “You’d help me?” She couldn’t believe her luck. “You’d defy the prince–”

“I’d do anything for you, milady.” He sounded strangely fervent. “Just to see you.”

If it were a trap, she’d willingly take the risk. So the prince would punish her–what could he do to her that he hadn’t done already? Kill her, perhaps? She shrugged.

“Are you able to get the key? For my room and for Pyotr’s?”

“I’ll look into it, milady. I’ll find out what I can.”

“You must be careful–no-one can suspect.”

“Yes, yes, of course.” A pause. “I will bring your breakfast tomorrow, milady–and with it, whatever news I can discover.”

“May God bless you–what’s your name?”

“Boris Mikhailovich.”

“May God bless you, Boris Mikhailovich. Be safe in your mission. My brother and I are depending on you.”

“I will not fail you, milady.” The fervid intensity of his tone seemed strange to Vasilisa, but she wasn’t about to question it.

“I will wait for you. Till tomorrow, then.”

As his shambling footsteps faded into the distance, Vasilisa reached for the tray he had left, only to find that her hands were shaking. Glancing down at herself, she realized it wasn’t just her hands. Her entire body was trembling.

This was what hope did. She closed her eyes and drew in slow, deep breaths, as she tried to steady herself. She already knew it would be a long, difficult night, wracked with anxiety, and, far worse, with the faint promise of a safe future, far away from this place, for herself and her beloved Pyotr.

* * * * *

Sleep evaded her.

After days of sketching the same endless circles–pacing through the same room and cycling through the same thoughts, the closed circuit had been broken and a new series of possibilities had emerged.

The best and most insidiously enticing of them was never far from her mind: if Boris could get the keys, there was the possibility that she and Pyotr would just be able to walk out of this house. Simple as that.

They’d have to be stealthy–there were others of the prince’s serfs in the house whom they’d have to avoid. But still, if they were able to get away, what kind of distance would they manage to put between themselves and this place, before the master returned?

She lay awake, her mind compulsively working through one scenario after another, beginning with Boris getting caught and her hope being snuffed out, just like that. Or perhaps he would let her out, while Prince Konstantin watched, a smile painted across the perfection of his disturbingly handsome face. She’d creep from the room, and her hope would turn to horror as she realized it was a trap. A third scenario, in which she arrived at Pyotr’s room to find him barely alive–or worse, no longer living–and she fell to weeping by his side, no longer caring if she escaped or not.

And so the variations continued to play out, until finally she fell into a restless, exhausted sleep.

She dreamed of her childhood. Her grandmother’s face, peering down at the cluster of cowering children–Vasya and her cousins–hollow cheeks and knobby features deeply shadowed in the winter lamplight.

“Be good, little children,” the old woman hissed. “Don’t make a peep, or Baba Yaga will hear and she’ll take you away with her forever.”

Vasya and her cousins nodded solemnly, suitably cowed by the threat of Baba Yaga, the evil witch, who travelled on a flying mortar. She lived in a house with tall chicken legs that walked about the countryside, collecting up children, who were never heard from again. Baba Yaga would eat the children for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Then, for dessert, she’d save the sweetest, tiniest, most succulent little babies–or at least, that’s what Vasya’s cousin claimed.

Baba Yaga aside, Vasya’s grandmother alone seemed terror enough. Tall, thin and knotted as a hollow old tree whose branches remained bare and bleak even in midsummer, the old woman moved with a creaky inexorability that made her all the more frightening to the cluster of grandchildren she regularly terrorized with harsh words and beatings.

There were other things to worry about as well, like the water rusalka that lived in the pond near one of the fields Vasya’s family farmed. They said that more than one of the villagers had been lost to the creature’s seductive song. Vasya had always believed that she would be able to resist–after all, what could be so compelling about a song, no matter how lovely?

And then, one day, as she and her cousin Nadezhda, who at eight, was two years her senior, were walking back from delivering lunch to the menfolk, she heard it. Nadezhda, who always began singing loudly as soon as they entered the haunted wood, began singing even more loudly. Her voice was far from sweet, and her sense of pitch was the most imaginative thing about her. She sang an old lullaby,

“One day soon
You’ll be a warrior
Bayushki bayu
You’ll ride off on your proud stallion
I will cry for you.
You’ll protect us
From the Vilnyets
Bayuskhi bayu
I’ll give you a holy ikon
For to guard you too.”
 

It helped, but only a little, because still, there was the other singing underneath it. It was sad, but so beautiful that it made Vasya feel warm and tingly inside. Surely, if she just paused a moment and listened, it would carry her away to a safe, beautiful place, where her grandmother would never smack her with the wooden spoon or pull her about by the ear or pinch her because she had spilled precious flour or over-carded the wool.

But Nadezhda pulled her along, ever rushing, and singing loudly to drown out the water rusalka’s song… except that she lost her grip on Vasya’s hand. Vasya’s steps slowed, even as her cousin’s momentum kept her moving forward. As Nadezhda broke away, the sound of her voice faltered, and the rusalka’s signing flooded Vasya’s ears, suffusing her body in moments. Before she even realized what she was doing, she had started towards the pond.

Nadezhda resumed singing, more loudly than ever,

“Sleep my child, my lovely baby
Bayushki bayu
I will tell you tales of
Fairies, gods and princes too.
Songs of heroes,
Songs of sadness
Bayushki bayu
While you slumber, I will guard you
Bayushki bayu.”
 

She kept repeating the same refrain in her loud, unmelodious singsong voice as she threw herself at Vasya, knocking her against the trunk of a tree, then seized her wrist and dragged her back to the path, while Vasya struggled furiously and tried to pull free.

But her cousin wouldn’t let go–she continued singing, even though by now, the sound of the rusalka’s song throbbed through Vasya’s blood, whispering to her soul, telling her she had to follow the voice, the ethereal music, wherever it might lead. But still her cousin dragged her along, until finally, they stepped out of the dappled forest and into the bright sunshine of the fields. The song cut off abruptly, as if a thick door had been closed, silencing it.

But Vasilisa never forgot that sound, and even all these years later, it haunted her restless dreams.

She woke to the lingering, ethereal touch of the rusalka’s voice, teasing the edge of her consciousness, with sunlight streaming across her bed, and the sound of someone fumbling at the latch.

She rolled out of bed and walked over to the door. “Is it you?” she murmured. “Is it Boris Mikhailovich?”

“Yes milady. It is I–and I have found out where they hide the keys. Be ready for me tonight. I will give your brother the same message, if he is near enough to the door to hear it.”

* * * * *

How much had he lost? What had been destroyed?

Konstantin slowed his horse as he drew close to the turn off from the road. He had deliberately made it look like a peasant property–unobtrusive, ill-maintained and poor. A barely noticeable path, and certainly not one that the few people coming along this remote route would conclude led to anywhere of interest. The rare, curious traveller who chose to follow the trail would, in turn, come upon a dilapidated shack, inhabited by a hostile peasant who would run him off, brandishing a standard-issue rifle from the time of Aleksander I, and hurling fluent admonishments never to return, interspersed with a colorful assortment of curses.

Or he would have, until recently.

Frowning, Konstantin scoured the left side of the road, until he finally spotted the gap that marked the path. Recent storms had brought down branches and twigs, which hadn’t been cleared. With the retreat of the snows and the budding of spring, it looked even more overgrown and ill-kempt.

He felt the surge of rage once more, as the horse carefully picked its way along the trail. This same anger had propelled him through the past week, from the moment he had arrived here, ready to work, and found the place not merely emptied, but deserted, half his work destroyed, the remainder in disarray.

The shack was a façade. Deep below the dirt of the forest clearing, he had constructed a stone enclave. His laboratory–or rather, what had once been his laboratory, until about two weeks ago. At that time, the dungeon cages had been opened, the creatures released into the forest, the place half-destroyed. There were some indications that Bogdanovich—the soldier who pretended to be of rough, peasant stock, and kept guard with his old, standard-issue rifle—had been overpowered and possibly killed, but of the body there was no trace. Dammit.

How much had he lost? What had been destroyed? The questions nagged at him, a running undercurrent to his every thought and action since he had made the discovery.

Konstantin had come alone, just as he always did, which meant there was no-one to send off with a demand for assistance.

So, instead of beginning his reckoning of the damages, he had been forced to turn his horse around and ride into Saint Pyotrsbern himself, changing at every station, pushing the animals to their limits, while the evidence at the scene of the crime grew stale. The sooner he sent word, the sooner Feodor Denisovich would be on his way–and the sooner the serf would be able to track and punish the cowardly knave who had done this to Konstantin’s laboratory. Once that was accomplished, Konstantin would set Denisovich to the task of rounding up the escaped creatures themselves, and returning them to the safety of the laboratory.

After sending the note, to be delivered with the utmost haste, Konstantin had spent further days in the city, making arrangements for Denisovich’s passage, obtaining travel papers for his time in Rynska, and in all, ensuring that everything was lined up so that not a moment would be wasted in securing the serf’s return.

And now, finally, back to his laboratory, to begin the cleanup and assess the extent of the damage.

How much work had been lost? He had kept years of notes and information stored here. The gnawing fear that he might have lost it all–all his precious research–had nearly driven him to distraction as he made the necessary arrangements. But he had also known that the inventorying of losses would keep–he needed Denisovich’s expertise and he needed it soon, because the trails the tracker could follow would be growing colder with each passing day.

He emerged from the trail into the small clearing, with the ugly little shack at its centre. His frown grew darker still as he saw a horse tethered to the side of the shack. As Konstantin dismounted, a man emerged from the hut–a man who was not Bogdanovich. This was one of the attendants from the estate, a serf whose name escaped him, but who most assuredly should not be here at all.

“I thought I told you not to come to this place, except in an emergency.”

“Yes my prince. Yes. But this is an emergency, Master.” The reply was accompanied by much bowing and obsequious rubbing of hands.

Konstantin shook his head, tempted to horsewhip the man. It would be a nice outlet for his rage. But it would also delay the inventory. Had he lost it all? How far had he been set back from bringing his dream, his obsession, to fruition?

“It will have to wait,” he said. He had already begun formulating the ways in which he would make whoever was responsible for this pay–possibly for however long it took him to recover the work that he had lost in this debacle.

He tethered his horse to the other side of the hut and started towards the entrance.

“But Master, wait. The new man we brought in to help with the latest two at the manor has been taken, my prince.”

Konstantin stopped and slowly turned to face the man. “What?”

“Taken by the witch woman, I mean. I told him to plug his ears up when he took her the meals, but he didn’t. I followed him, and watched. He stood outside her door, talking with her. I had my own ears plugged, so I didn’t hear what was said, but you told us that if…” He trailed off his expression uncertain.

Konstantin closed his eyes briefly. This was too soon. He hadn’t meant to test the rusalka-distilled wiles on anyone, yet. And now, with his laboratory in shambles, his work possibly in ruins, the timing couldn’t be worse. But it had happened. And, without careful monitoring, it was a situation that could escalate beyond containment. He couldn’t afford a repetition of what had happened here.

But he also couldn’t keep living with this uncertainty.

He started pacing the clearing, swearing harshly and fluently, as the serf darted uncertain, increasingly uneasy, glances in his direction.

Finally, letting out a growl, he swung back to the man. “Go back. Keep an eye on the situation. I must do a few things here, and then I will follow.”

“Yes, master. Right away.” The man scurried to his horse. Konstantin was already striding back to the shack. He’d give himself an hour, he had decided. That would be enough to make a start. Once the situation at the estate had been contained, he’d be able to come back and make a more thorough assessment. It was a compromise he would have to live with.

Continue to Chapter 2.

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