Excerpt: The Firebird’s Tale
On Morenasaday, the Tsesarevich—famous in the Ironlands for never smiling—did so, and caused an instant uproar. Later he would protest in vain that he had not, in fact smiled; smiling involved a given amount of joy, or at least mirth, while what he had actually felt was a certain degree of schadenfreude. The Tsar had blithely ignored this opinion, since it had not suited him to like it.
The Smile had, or so a passing baker had later told his wife, been somewhat more of a faint smirk than a smile, but what could the Naslednik Tsesarevich do? The Heir was young, as forbiddingly handsome as the winter, and he really ought to have been married already. That was what Tsesareviches were for. The only curious thing about it all, the baker had said as his wife had rolled her eyes and wished that her husband was less free with his opinions, was that the Tsesarevich was going to marry a man.
“A man?” said the seamstress’ husband, astonished. She had seen it all from the window of her shop. “A man,” the seamstress confirmed, if wistfully, for the Tsesarevich had been bestride his warg, waist up above the throng, grim and cold. He was tall and golden-haired, his face a perfection as ruthless as the morning’s frost. Her husband had been too surprised to notice the seamstress’ distraction. “But why? Tsesareviches are meant to produce heirs. It is like breeding horses. A male horse and a male horse produce no foals,” he had said, concluding with a firm, “you must have been mistaken.” And to that his wife had shrugged. The ways of the Tsars were as strange to her as the stars were to the rusalka.
“Surely the Tsar was joking,” said the grocer to her wife, confidently. “Tsars marry off their sons and daughters to other important people. It was a joke he made, yes, saying that anyone who could make the Naslednik smile would get to marry him. You’ll see. There’ll be no wedding. Marry a man? Ridiculous. Tsars and Tsesareviches are not like the rest of us commonfolk. They need heirs.” The grocer’s wife had sniffed, and had told her acerbically that if she didn’t help her move the biscuit stock from the backroom there’d be no selling it, not by the evening.
The Tsesarevich had indeed smiled—or, more accurately, smirked—at a man, and was now thoroughly regretting it. He had done this because he had seen the man skilfully lift the Tsar’s purse when the Tsar, having dismounted to inspect the new public fountain up close, had momentarily turned his back on the commonfolk. The sheer audacity of the thief had been, for a moment, a little too amusing, and then it had been too late.
It was now two hours since the morning’s disaster and the Tsesarevich was alone in the Winter Palace’s lavishly luxurious Iastrebov Apartments. The traditional rooms set aside for the Tsesarevich took up an entire wing of the Palace, and were curled around a garden, its pool of gold and silver fish long frozen glassy for winter, the lush grass of summer smothered thickly with powdered snow, the fruit trees stooped and bare. Over the archways that ringed the garden, golden hawks chased their stone prey in a circle of death. Against one such archway, the Tsesarevich sat down, dangling his long legs out over the snow, the black riding boots sinking and crunching down.
With obvious hesitation, and with a final bewildered glance behind him at the unobtrusive Imperial guard, the thief sat as well, though at arm’s length, clearly embarrassed. “Your ah, Imperial Highness—”
“Aleksei,” corrected the Tsesarevich testily. The thief had spoken in the barbarian tongue of the West, in a language with no music. Tsesarevich Aleksei had learned it because he had needed to, but that did not mean that he liked it, nor was he fluent in it. “If we are to be wed you are allowed to use my name.”
The thief winced. “Uh… look. Sir. I don’t. Hell, I don’t know what just happened, but I think there’s been some mistake. Don’t princes marry princesses?”
Aleksei sighed out aloud. So he had thought. “The Tsar has an interesting sense of humour.”
“So… this is a joke?”
“No.” Aleksei frowned at the thief. “You have a name?”
The thief hesitated for a moment, clearly deciding whether or not to lie. At least the man was handsome. He was not as tall as Aleksei—though few men were—but he had nice shoulders, soft dark hair and an easy smile, tentative as it was at present, and he looked intelligent to some degree. The most interesting thing about the thief was his eyes. One was green, and the other was a strange golden brown. “Nazar,” the thief said finally.
“You are from Avalon?”
“Here and there,” Nazar said evasively, embarrassed about his answer. “This is really not a good idea, your… um. Sir. Due to a great number of character flaws, I’m very bad material as a consort, or whatever it is. And uh. I’m as common born as they go. Your warg probably has a better pedigree than I do.”
“It is not about whether it is a good idea,” Aleksei said curtly. “The Tsar said I was to marry whoever could make me smile. So.”
“Really?” Nazar said, blinking. “Is that normal in the Ironlands? Good Gods! Does that mean no one can smile here by accident?”
“Not normal,” Aleksei muttered, but he had no real interest in explaining matters to a stranger, even if the stranger had just been thrust permanently and rudely into Aleksei’s life through no fault of either of them. In a lower voice, he added, “You are a thief.”
Nazar didn’t even bother to deny it. “Is that why you smiled? You saw me?”
“You are very good. Waited until the Tsar was looking at the fountain. Did you pay that drunk beggar to make noise? Don’t worry,” Aleksei snapped, when Nazar looked wary. “You have made the Tsar happy. Doubt he is interested in having your hands cut off.”
“What about you? Forgive me for saying this, but you don’t seem exactly thrilled.”
“You could tell?” Aleksei said caustically.
“All right.” Nazar sighed again. “I have a solution. With your help, I could probably sneak out of here and—”
“So you want to humiliate me twice in a day.” Aleksei narrowed his eyes. “Interesting.”