"Tell me how things fare in Tyrwen these days, Viktor." Gaston said, "It has been many years since my last visit there."
They all sat together at dinner, with Viktor at the head of the table. Vashti sat to his right, Gaston to his left, and the girls beside them. The abundance of food placed at the table for the rather modest dinner party was a testament to the Konstantine's wealth. After leaving the dinner table, all of it would be first picked over and consumed by the kitchen servants, then thrown away to the hunting dogs.
Viktor took a sip of wine before replying, "I wish that I could say that it has improved. But it has become a hornet's nest of deceit and corruption—even more so than when you left it for the mountains all those years ago. The loyal members of the King's council have either all passed away, or been pushed aside by those who are nothing more than power-starved opportunists, waiting for the slightest show of weakness from him to try and usurp the throne."
"Why has the loyalty to the crown wavered so?" Gaston asked.
"There are many reasons. He has raised taxes on the nobility and villagers alike to finance his extravagant tastes. The villagers are angry that their taxes are being raised when they have so little as it is...but mostly the frustrations stem from the complications involving the shape-shifters."
Tatyana had seemed restless throughout much of the dinner, but at the mention of shape-shifters, her attention was immediately caught and she sat up straight in her chair, "Shape-shifters?" she asked, "Like the ones in your books? They really live in Tyrwen?"
Viktor smiled at her, "Yes, they do. But they are not like they appear in many books. Those were written long ago, before the appearance of shape-shifters changed into what they are today. Now, when they are in their normal form, they do not look any different from you or me."
"Why should the king face opposition because of them?" Gaston asked, "I remember that the Crown had eased much of the peace between us and the shape-Shifters after the expulsion of the Gájes-"At this, he stopped short, casting short glances to Varushka, who was only looking down at her plate seeing somewhat despondent , then to Tatyana whose interest was still piqued.
Viktor too seemed momentarily uncomfortable, "Well, ah...even with the...expulsion, there are many at Court who believe that the shape-shifters are still secretly in liaison with the Gájes in hopes that they may soon overcome the humans and overtake the kingdom."
"But what does any of this have to do with the king?" Vashti asked. "His father was responsible for driving the Sluaghs and Gájes out of the kingdom, why would anyone doubt his son's loyalty to keeping them out now?"
Viktor paused then, looking at his daughters. "Tatyana, if you are finished eating, I would like for you and Varushka to go and wait for us in the library."
While Varushka pushed back her chair and rose to her feet without a word, Tatyana looked dismayed, "What? Oh, no, Papa please!" Tatyana pleaded, "I'm thirteen; I'm not a baby anymore, let me hear!"
"Tatyana, thirteen or no, you are still a child." Vashti said firmly, "This conversation is not one for children's ears."
"Come on, Tati." Varushka said, her voice heavy and weary, "Uncle Gaston wishes us to play for him; we should prepare while they finish their dinner."
Tatyana still seemed annoyed, but at hearing her sister's urging, nonetheless pushed her chair back from the room and followed her out into the hall.
Varushka had started in the direction of the library, where she knew the servants had prepared a fire in the fireplace. She paused though when she sensed that Tatyana was not following her. Looking back, she saw her younger sister crouched down just outside the double doors of the dining room, which she had left cracked rather than shut all the way closed.
"Tati!" she exclaimed, "What do you think you're-"
"Shh!" Tatyana said, cutting her off, "Not so loud, they'll hear you!"
"It isn't lady-like to eavesdrop behind doors like this," she said, her voice dropping her voice to a whisper, "You know Mother and Father wouldn't approve-"
"Just a few minutes..." Tatyana's forehead was clenched into a frown of stubborn determination that Varushka knew wouldn't be worth the effort to try and fight. So she stood there, waiting and casting self-conscious glanced about to make sure one of their parent's more loyal servants wasn't nearby to see them.
Against her will, her own ear began to pick up pieces of the conversation of the adults, "...the King has taken the Lady Malayka as his latest mistress," She heard Viktor announce.
A short silence fell across the table before Gaston said, "The Lady Malayka? The last I heard from court was that Delia Winsole had won a place in the king's latest affections."
"His affections for her have obviously cooled...or perhaps they were encouraged to do so by the Queen."
But Malayka is said to be of Gájes blood, is she not?"
"That is the rumor. The king has given her apartments at the palace, angering many of the more traditional courtiers from the days of his father who remember the harsh restrictions that the old king set upon the Gájes and Shape Shifters."
"With the king's upbringing, how is it that he chose to enter into such a publicly scandalous liaison?" Varushka heard her mother ask.
"He has always had a weakness for beautiful women. There are some who believe that her Gájes blood has given her the power to seduce him by means of some bewitching spell, forcing him to betray all that his father believed in for the kingdom. Others are afraid that if she should fall pregnant and bear a son she would wish to use him to usurp the throne away from the Prince."
"The King will always have the support of the people. Even if Malayka should have such a plan-which I highly doubt- the Royal Army would suppress any rebellion."
"Even if there were a Gájes and Sluagh army behind her and her offspring?"
Gaston gave a light chuckle at that, "Viktor please, all of this is pure nonsense."
"And I suppose you think the Royal Army is a worthy match against witchcraft?" Viktor asked quietly.
"You do not truly believe those ridiculous rumors that the Gájes are an actual threat?"
"You believe I should not?"
"Well surely you must realize that this talk that they have anything to do with the Evil Ones is all myth and fable. Magic has always held a place in the lives of us all, whether we be human, Gájes or Shape- Shifter. We do not need to fear those who are merely different from us."
"It is clear that you have been far away from court for some time, Gaston." Vashti said, "Hulinn is no longer understanding or kind to those who are different."
"Well, perhaps that should change," he said, "In Marmadonne, we have done away with all this suspicion and superstition that does not but create divisions and hostilities between people that should be able to trust and depend upon one another. I see no reason why the same cannot be done in Huilinn."
Here Varushka finally tugged on Tatyana's forearm, and this time her younger sister reluctantly allowed herself to be pulled away. The two of them quietly made their way down the long hallway and entered the library, Tatyana sighing as Varushka shut the door behind them, "Gájes, Gájes; all this talk about these Gájes!" she said, "I've read about them in all of the books I've snuck out of Father's library, I heard the villagers talking of them this morning, and now even Mother and Father seem to think they're something special!"
"Perhaps not special, but dangerous." Varushka said, "You heard what Mother and Father said about them—your interest in such people should be curbed."
"In all the books I've read of them they seem so exciting!" she plopped down heavily in a high backed chair, her face shining with excitement, "Can you imagine? Being able to morph into a completely different person—not even a person, into an animal! To be magical..." She shook her head enviously, "What would you want to be Varushka? If you could be anything else in the world?"
"I wouldn't wish to be anything but what I am now." Varushka answered, trying to ignore the way the lie tasted on her tongue.
"I would want to be a tiger; like the ones I've seen in pictures of Quexia," Tatyana said, referring to the exotic land far away across the Black Sea. "Or maybe even a panther! A beautiful black panther with green eyes!"
Varushka bit back a smile as she handed her the mandolin from its usual place on of the numerous shelves in her father's enormous library. She then walked over to the corner, where her mother's harp rested. Overlaid in pure gold, the instrument had been in Vashti's family for generations. When Varushka stood, its height matched her own. As she sat beside it, it towered a full foot over her own head. She looked up at it with a faint smile, seeing the features of the harp that had become so familiar to her over the years.
The harp was made in the style of the ancient craftsmen, with every detail intricate and ornate. The crown and pillar had been sculpted in the shape of a beautiful woman's head and body, while the bottom pedestal split in two to form two delicate feet. Elegant filigree and fretwork were carved into the harp's neck and shoulder.
Vashti's great grandmother had received the harp as a present from her father. She had passed it on to her daughter on the day of her marriage, who had given it to her daughter, Vashti's mother. Varushka's grandmother had given the harp to Vashti on the day of her wedding to Viktor. Vashti had promised Varushka that the harp would someday be given to her on the day of her own marriage.
Tatyana sat down heavily in the chair near the harp, propping the mandolin up in her lap as she fingered the strings idly. The mandolin had also been in Vashti's family, though she had far more preferred the harp as an instrument (hence the reason, she had passed it on to Varushka and decided that Tatyana would learn to play the mandolin).
Varushka strummed and adjusted a few of the harp's strings in preparation, "What shall we play, do you think?" she asked, "I know Mother would probably like for us to play The Serpent's Mouth—"
"Oh no, Varushka, not that!" Tatyana objected, "You know how hard The Serpent's Mouth is for me to play!"
"That is only because you do not practice enough, Tati." She gently reminded her, "If you would do as Madame Villet bids you then you would not struggle nearly as much."
"It isn't my fault; I just don't take to any of this as easily as you do! I will never be an accomplished mandolinist or lady, or whatever it is that Mother wants me to be."
"Mother only wants you to be your best."
"It's easy for you to say," Tatyana said impatiently, "When you know you're her favorite."
Varushka paused in testing the strings of her harp, "Is that how you really feel, Tati?" she asked, after a short pause. "That Mother loves me more than she loves you?"
"It doesn't bother me." her sister replied, "It's just something I know. Mother's always loved you more, just like Father's always-" she stopped short then, looking up as a brief flash of guilt flickered over her face. "Always..." she murmured, letting her voice trail off.
An uncomfortable silence lingered between them. Tatyana opened and closed her mouth awkwardly, as is searching for the right words to say,
"'Rushka..." she said in a small voice, "I-"
"Tinta." Varushka said, cutting her off briskly, "I think we'll play Tinta for them. You do very well on that one."
"I didn't mean that he doesn't love you—or that Mother doesn't love me, I just said that he...that Mother..."Tatyana scoffed frustratingly, "Now look what I've done!" She muttered to herself. She set aside the mandolin on the chair and went over to where Varushka sat, crouching down before her, "Please don't be angry with me, 'Rushka. Please?"
Varushka didn't speak at first, looking down at her sister in silence.
It wasn't that the words were so shocking to her. It was just that hearing them, actually hearing them said (and by Tatyana of all people) had been more difficult than she expected it to be.
Especially when she knew that they were more than likely true.
"Here," Tatyana shot up to her feet and picked the mandolin back up again, "We can play The Serpent's Mouth. I'll try really hard, okay?"
Varushka gave a small, sad smile. It was like Tatyana to do this; be unapologetically defiant until she did something she knew was wrong. Her attitude would then change, becoming uncharacteristically accommodating and mild, as if by means of apology.
Before she could answer, the door to the library opened, and Gaston and their parents came into the room. Gaston smiled when he saw them, "Now what have we here? Are we going to be fortunate enough to hear the two of you play together tonight?"
"Yes," Tatyana said hastily, "'Rushka and I were just deciding what song we would choose, weren't we?"
"And have you decided yet?" Vashti asked as she sat down in a plush, velvet chair by the fireplace.
"Well, um...we thought...we thought maybe we'd play—"
"Tinta." Varushka interrupted smoothly. Tatyana shot her a quick look of surprise, but she repeated it firmly, "We decided on Tinta. Tati wanted to practice more of The Serpent's Mouth, but Tinta is one of my favorites, so I insisted upon it...didn't I, Tati?"
She looked at her pointedly for a few moments before Tatyana said, "...Yes...I guess you did."
"Very well then," her mother said, "You may begin."
As Tatyana sat down in her chair near the harp, her eyes met with Varushka's. Her lips moved slightly, but Varushka could still discern the words they mouthed in silence;
Varushka only nodded her head and brought her fingers up to the harp, beginning to strum out the opening chords to the song.
"It's exactly what I wanted!" Tatyana held the blade up towards the lamplight in her bedroom, her face glowing with excited delight. Viktor sat upon the edge of her bed, looking on as he smiled at his daughter pleasingly.
Before he went on any extended trip, he always allowed Tatyana to tell him a present that she wished for him to bring back for her. One year it had been her mare, another an onyx dragon medallion from the ancient times, and once even a necklace of saber tooth tiger teeth that Viktor had had to seek out and find from a traveling merchant from the Eastern country.
On this trip, she had asked him for what was perhaps, her most daring gift of all; a sword. Vashti's standards and expectations of womanliness had never allowed either of the girls to take up fencing lessons, and even Viktor had supported her in this…until then.
After months of pleading, and cajoling, Tatyana had finally convinced Viktor to bring her back a weapon which she could practice and learn fencing with. What he had brought back for her however, was not the typical sword that boys Tatyana's age usually received and practiced with. The hilt was far lighter and built for her smaller hands. He had requested from the smith that the blade itself not be its typical length, but shortened to accommodate for the even distribution of weight from the sword to the hilt.
Tatyana stood in the middle of the room, holding the sword out. She struck several menacing, defensive poses, swiping it back and forth stealthily.
"You truly like it?" Viktor asked, still smiling at her.
"Oh yes, Papa!" she paused in her posing and came over to him, setting the sword down to come over and throw her arms around his neck in an embrace, "Thank you! I love it so much!"
"I am glad to hear it. It is called Whisper, you know."
"'Called'? You mean it has a name?"
"Of course. All true, proper swords have names. The smithies name them in the forge before they are even sold."
"What is your sword named, Papa?"
"Justice. But my sword was named many, many years ago- long before it was given to me, my father, his father or even his father before him. It has been in our family for close to one hundred years."
"So long..." she murmured, "What will happen to the sword, Papa? Eventually?"
"Eventually? Well typically, a man passes his sword onto his eldest son before he dies, so that it may always be in the hands of a man of their family."
"But we don't have any brothers."
"No. That is correct, you don't."
"So then," she licked her lips tentatively, "Do you think that maybe...someday...I could have Justice?"
Viktor's expression softened, "You?"
"Yes, I- I know now I may be too young for it now, but now that I have Whisper, I can practice and get better. I can learn how to wield it, I know I could. And then it would still be able to remain in the family even if Varushka and I don't have any brothers."
He was quiet for a long moment before asking, "And what do you think your mother would have to say on the matter?"
Tatyana gave a heavy sigh, "Papaaa..." she groaned in frustration.
"You must try and understand, my darling. Your mother's responsibility is to raise you to be a great and glorious lady. You make it very difficult for her to do this in your pursuits of these things that great and glorious ladies simply do not do."
"I can't help it!" she said impatiently, "I've tried—I've tried so hard, but I just can't. I can't make myself like all of the music lessons, the gowns and jewelry, the manners—I can't like any of it no matter what I do! Mother...she doesn't understand the first thing about me. She doesn't accept me for who I am. No one does; not her, not Rose, not Rifka. Sometimes I think they all wish that I could just become a different person...like Varushka."
She didn't notice the way that Viktor's face fell at the mention of her sister as she continued, "Is that how you feel, Papa? Do you wish I were more like her too?"
He sighed, "Oh Tatyana..." he gathered her in his arms, pulling her onto his lap as he hugged her close, "You, are my beautiful, fearless, little girl. From the moment you were born, you've held my heart in your hands—and I love you for exactly who you are."
Tatyana smiled up at him hopefully, "Really?"
"Yes, sweetheart. I would not trade you for one thousand girls that were like your sister."
He had said it to assuage her fears, but at hearing Viktor's final words, the smile faded a little from Tatyana's face. He saw the change and looked at her concernedly, pushing back a piece of her hair, "What is the matter, Tati? Are you alright?"
She didn't speak for several moments, but then finally murmured, "Why don't you like Varushka, Papa?"
His expression flickered from surprise at the question, "What would make you ask a thing like that?" he asked quietly.
"Because you don't," she answered, "I see that you don't. You never bring her back any presents. You never talk to her. You don't even look at her. I can see that you don't like her. Why not?"
He gently shifted her out of his lap. "I think it is time you were in bed now."
But she cut him off, "No, you can't do that! I won't be sent to bed while you deliberately avoid answering me!"
"Tatyana, there are things that you do not know. Things you do not understand-"
"Then tell me those things! Make me understand, Papa!"
"I cannot," Viktor said, his voice grim and serious, "I cannot do that."
"Why?" she demanded, "Just tell me why!"
"Because you cannot have everything you want all the time, Tatyana. You must learn to accept that there will be times that I must simply refuse you what you ask of me." He sighed heavily at the look on her face, "Do not be cross; I've been away for weeks, I did not plan to return home to an angry daughter, and I suspect you did not wish to quarrel with your father either..." he reached out and turned her chin so that she looked at him, "Tatyana?"
She waited a few moments before speaking again, "If I stop being angry, will you do something for me?"
"You know I would."
"Let me and Varushka go to the Harvest Fest in the village."
He frowned, the surprise evident on his face, "What? The Harvest Fest?"
"Yes," she replied, giving a hopeful smile, "You must know about it; the people hold one each year to celebrate the bringing of-"
"I know why they celebrate it," he said, "But I do not know or understand why you would want to go to such a thing."
"Because it seems like fun. Because I've never been before, because we never get to go anywhere or do anything!" She clutched his hand eagerly, "Papa please let us go—please! Mother doesn't understand, but you do, don't you? I wouldn't be any trouble, I promise! Varushka would be with me, and I would mind everything she said. I wouldn't wander alone or stay too late or do anything to get us into-" She stopped short when she saw the look on his face, her own expression falling, "You're not going to let us go either, are you?" she asked. "You're really going to say no."
"It's only for your protection, sweetheart-"
"Protection!" she spat out angrily, "Protection from who? Protection from what? Leave me alone then!" she snapped at him, "Just get out and leave me be!"
Viktor's reached out to her, his face tinged with guilt, "Tatyana, you must try and see reason. You don't know people the way that I and your mother do. You do not know dangerous the world can be. I only want to keep you safe from-"
"No you don't. You don't! You just want us to be lonely, miserable prisoners here for the rest of our lives! Get out! Get out of here!" her voice cracked then and she turned away from him.
Viktor lingered where he stood for a few more moments, seeming to be deliberating as to leave or not. Finally, he parted from the room after a murmuring a quiet, "We will speak later."
When the door closed behind him, Tatyana threw herself across her bed, rolling on her stomach and sighing impatiently.
She hated not getting her own way, especially when she couldn't get it from her father, whom she almost always succeeded in getting what she wanted from. And she was even more frustrated when she had tried to ask him about his tense relationship with Varushka.
What was the matter with him? Even though she and Varushka were so vastly different, Tatyana could admit to the fact that her older sister was never anything but completely obedient, sweet-tempered, gracious, and kind. She never caused any trouble. She was accomplished and elegant.
And besides all of that, Varushka was beautiful. Very beautiful.
Although Tatyana had long become accustomed to her sister's looks, there were frequent times when she saw many of the servants (especially the male ones) openly staring at Varushka. More than once had she caught two or three of the kitchen hands peeping in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the dining room at the table where Varushka sat for meals. It wasn't often that she went outside, but on the few occasions that Tatyana did manage to convince her sister to accompany her for a walk or ride, she saw the way that the stable hands completely forget their work as Varushka walked past them. Some removed their hats, openly and unabashedly staring at her in awe. She'd even seen their elderly butler looking sideways at her earlier that evening.
Tatyana rolled onto her belly, hugging one of the pillows on her bed to her chest. She began to chew the inside of her lip distractedly.
Everyone else seemed completely taken with Varushka, whether for her character or her appearance. What then, could there have possibly been about her that their father found fault with?
Vashti sat before the looking glass, slowly and meticulously brushing her hair. She'd dismissed her servants for the evening and undressed herself hours ago. She had wanted to be alone and didn't want to risk the chance of them being underfoot.
Just in case...just in case.
Her eyes went to her bedroom door at every sudden sound that Vashti heard, her pulse momentarily quickening, then slowing when her expectations were disappointed.
She felt foolish for even allowing the thought to enter her mind. Foolish and desperate.
She was still angry for what had happened when he'd first returned, for how he had treated both her and Varushka.
And yet, she still couldn't help herself. She still could not help her hopes.
She was still a wife. She was still a woman. She was still in love.
The knock that came at the door brought forth a shaky, sigh of relief that almost sounded like a sob.
Vashti shot up to her feet and turned around, calling out sharply, "Who is it?"
"It is only me, Vashti...may we talk?"
Her pulse immediately sped up. Viktor.
"Y-yes." she answered, trying to steady her voice, "Come in."
The door opened and Viktor entered the room, shutting it behind him. As their eyes met, Vashti felt the goosebumps rise on her arms and she suddenly felt extremely self-conscious in her light, gauze-like night shift.
Viktor stayed where he was by the door, his hands stiffly clasped behind his back. He looked over her body briefly, seeming uncomfortable. "I am..." he began, then cleared his throat, "I am sorry to come at so late an hour. I was with Tatyana and lost track of the time, I'm afraid."
Vashti resisted the urge to clench her jaw in frustration. She chose instead to dig her fingernails into the upholstery of the chair her hand was poised over, "It is alright." she murmured, feeling even more foolish at the emotions rising up within her.
What sort of Mother envied her own child the attentions of her husband?
The curve of her mouth fell flat as the answer came to her almost as soon as the question had entered her mind;
The sort who had not been touched by her husband in nearly two years.
She reached out her hand to a chair near her dressing table, "Please; sit down."
"Thank you." he said sinking down and sitting on the edge of the chair, his fingers loosely woven together between his knees.
A short silence fell between them. Vashti managed to speak first, "Is something wrong?"
"No. Not at all. Well," he shifted his head a little, "Not entirely. Tatyana is angry that she will be unable to attend the Harvest Fest."
Vashti gave an impatient sigh, "So, she has asked you as well?"
"And you forbade her to go?"
"It was clear to her that she is not permitted to go, yes. She was very upset when I left."
"She is entirely too spoiled," Vashti had originally had no intentions of her youngest daughter even entering the discourse between she and Viktor, but now that the subject had arisen, she felt compelled to raise her concerns with him—even if it did seem like the twentieth time. "Viktor, you must speak to her about her conduct. Tatyana is entirely too headstrong and obstinate. She defies me at every turn, and will listen to none of my instructions."
It was Viktor's turn to sigh wearily, "Vashti, she is only a girl. You must learn to be patient with her."
"I am past the point of my patience! And besides, she only sees and uses patience as a weapon against me to do exactly as she pleases. Varushka is the only person who is able to control her, but I cannot expect her to constantly be the one to ensure her obedience. She may still be a girl, but she will be a woman sooner than you think, Viktor. Such behavior cannot be condoned, nor allowed to remain unchecked. Surely you must see this!"
He nodded, replying quietly, "You're right. I do. And I understand your concern for her future. In fact, that is what I've come to discuss with you."
Vashti couldn't keep the crestfallen disappointment off of her face, "Oh?" she asked softly.
Tatyana. That was why he had darkened the door of her bedroom after so long. Just to speak to her of Tatyana, the child who gave her no end of trouble, and disappointed her at every turn.
After weeks away from home, after scant, informal letters, he had not come to give her comfort, kindness, or love.
Viktor had only come to see her for Tatyana's sake.
Vashti turned back around in her chair towards the mirror, picking back up her brush and pounding at her hair with in swift, rough strokes, "Well?" she asked, her tone sharpened, "What about her future?"
"I...I do not know how to say this to you without simply saying it." Viktor paused, his eyes meeting with hers in the mirror before he continued, "I will be returning to the city in two days time. I do not know how long I will be away, or when I intend to return here. But when I do leave...I will be taking Tatyana with me."
At his last words, Vashti's hands immediately stilled. She turned around in the chair and stared at Viktor, who looked back at her, seeming absolutely calm and serene.
"Tatyana..." she murmured faintly, "What do you mean...taking her? Taking her to live with you? In the city?"
"As you said; she is coming of age. If she is to have a successful, viable future then she must be presented to the court in the formal ceremony like all of the other children in Tyrwen. She must become acclimated to society, introduced to all of the proper families. She cannot have the future she needs while in the country. She must live in the city."
Vashti didn't speak for a long time. She could not speak. The shock was too great.
Tatyana. Viktor wanted to take Tatyana away with him to live in Tyrwen to present her to society. He didn't know how long they would be gone. He didn't say when they would be coming back...he didn't say if they were coming back at all. They would be gone. Possibly forever.
Without her. Without Varushka.
It was at the thought of her eldest daughter that Vashti regained her composure enough to speak, "Why? Why are you doing this?" she asked quietly.
"I have just told you why I am doing this, Vashti. Tatyana must have a proper introduction to society; a life that befits her station. I am only trying to ensure-"
"No." she interrupted him swiftly, and she saw the change come over his face at the tone of her voice. "No, Viktor. Why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to Varushka?"
"Varushka?" he frowned and shook his head, "None of this has anything to do with her."
"How can you say that? How can you look me in the eye and say such a thing, when you know that it has everything to do with her? When Varushka was thirteen, when she was fourteen, fifteen, I heard none of your talk of society and futures! I heard nothing from you at all! And now you sit there and tell me that you intend to-"
"You did not hear me speak of it because it was not possible, Vashti." Viktor cut in this time, his voice frustrated but still level, "I do not know how many times I must explain this to you before you understand. Varushka and Tatyana are different girls; we have no choice but to treat them differently."
"That is not true!" she objected, "We do have a choice! We could take them both to be presented and-"
"That is out of the question. To take Varushka to the court of Tyrwen would be taking a mouse into a snake pit. It would be dangerous for her—it would be dangerous for all of us. I won't take that kind of risk, Vashti."
"What danger could there still be? All of that trouble happened long ago, Viktor. You have been accepted at court by the King and Queen themselves for five years. If there was any danger, don't you believe that you would have been exposed to it already?"
"You have been absent from court for over fifteen years, Vashti! You know nothing of what it is now. If Varushka so much as shows her face in the city, this family would not survive above one month before a disaster befell us. There is no other place for her than here."
"You wish to deprive one Varushka of her future and keep her locked and hidden away in this godforsaken countryside like some kind of vestal, while you carry Tatyana to become the toast of Tyrwen?"
"I have no other choice!" he abruptly stood to his feet, his voice sharp and raised, "Do you hear, Vashti? From the day that she was born I have been given no other choice! She and Tatyana are both my daughters, I am responsible for their safety. But it is not my fault that one requires more precautions to be taken to keep her from harm than the other. I will not meddle with the security of either just so that I may appease your standards of fairness!"
"Have you given no thought to Varushka's feelings? What is she to think, what am I to tell her when Tatyana is introduced to the whole of society and she cannot even leave the manor?"
Viktor was silent for a moment, before answering, "She is an understanding girl. I believe that she will accept whatever explanation that you choose to give her."
"So long as it is not the truth?" Vashti shook her head. Only moments ago she had felt the beginning stirs of desire at the sight of her husband. But now as she looked at him she could feel nothing but hurt and disdain, "Why do you not speak plainly?" she asked quietly, "This has nothing to do with Varushka or Tatyana...it is about me. About us."
He stiffened, "I beg your pardon?"
Vashti steeled herself, uncertain for a moment if she could even say the words, "You are doing this because you still have not forgiven me. You will blame me for what happened to Varushka for the rest of our lives, and this is how you intend to punish us both; by keeping us here forever."
Viktor kept his gaze averted from her, his eyes cast downward to the floor, "If that is truly what you believe," he murmured, "Then I will not try to convince you otherwise."
"Because it is the truth," she said, "Isn't that so, Viktor?"
He did not answer at first, pausing again, "I want to leave with Tatyana within two days, Vashti. Rose must be told so that she may prepare to pack her things. And I would like to tell Tatyana the news myself if you do not mind. As for Varushka, you may-"
"No." Vashti interrupted. As his eyes met with hers in surprise, she raised her chin bravely, "No."
"What do you mean by that?"
"If you must return within two days to Tyrwen, then you may... but you are not taking Tatyana with you. She will stay here with Varushka and I—where she belongs."
Viktor stared at her, briefly stunned into silence, "You cannot be serious." he said incredulously.
"I've never been more serious about anything before in my life. I won't stand by and allow you to move all of us around like pieces on a chessboard any longer. If you want Tatyana to go with you to Tyrwen, then you must also take Varushka and I with you, where Varushka will also be presented before the court."
"Vashti," Victor said quietly, "You will not do this. Tatyana is my daughter."
"Yes. And she is also mine."
"You are not as invested into her future as I am-"
"How dare you!" she snapped, "How dare you say that to me! You, who are never here to witness the pains I take to ensure that she is everything her rank demands that she become! You who have never once attempted to calm her temperament or urge her to be obedient! You who have been no help to me whatsoever!"
"I will not be ordered about with what I can and cannot do with my own-"
"And so I must be ordered about without a word of argument?" she demanded, "Have I become nothing more to you than a servant who raises your children in your absence and can be commanded at your will? Have you forgotten who I am? I am your wife, Viktor!"
"Yes," he said "You are my wife. And I am your husband. I am the final authority in this household, and that means that everyone in it must obey my commands—including you, Vashti."
She shook her head dismayingly, "How? How can you be so cruel?"
"You are being hysterical and entirely unreasonable. I will tell you what cruelty is. It would be cruel to take Varushka to court, to expose her to the derision, and contempt that you must know would be heaped upon her!"
"Heaped upon you, you mean!" Vashti retorted.
"What did you say?"
"Why will you not admit the truth? You're ashamed of Varushka. You're ashamed at even the thought of bringing her before the court, it has nothing to do with any danger!"
"Are you saying that I would place my own vanity above her interests?"
The words flew out of Vashti's mouth before she could think better of it and keep them inside, "I am saying that you are being a coward!"
Viktor's eyes widened in fury as a heavy, thick silence fell between them.
Vashti knew that she had gone too far. Viktor was resilient and immune against many slights, but a slight to his honor was not one of them. She knew as she looked into her husband's eyes that she would pay for the venom of her tongue.
And yet...she didn't care. Not at that moment. Not when faced with the prospects of what he was telling her.
She braced herself when she saw him stand to his feet, her fingers digging into the velvet upholstery of her chair.
"I will be leaving in two days," he said. His voice was colder and more detached that Vashti had ever heard him use with her before, "And Tatyana will be leaving with me. That is my final say on the matter."
"I said," he cut her off, his voice sharp as a knife, "That is my final say on the matter. Do you understand, Vashti?" Without even waiting to hear her reply, he turned and left the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
Vashti remained frozen in her seat for a moment, stunned. For a moment, she could not think; all was blurred and grey.
What was she going to do? What was she going to—
Suddenly, her thoughts cleared like the parting of clouds to reveal the sun, snapping her into action.
Leaping to her feet, she rushed over to the rope cord by her bed and tugged on it furiously. When the maid appeared, Vashti was there to meet her at the door, "Go and tell the Count Robespierre that I must see him." she instructed, "Immediately."
"But- but Countess, it is late, the Count will surely be asl-"
"I do not care if he is sleeping!" she said, her voice strained with impatience, "Go and wake him! And tell him it is urgent! Now!"
The maid curtsied and hurried away down the hallway. Vashti shut the door to her bedroom and went over to her armoire to retrieve a dressing gown. She slipped into it and tied it at the waist. Her loosened hair she hastily began to brush back into a braid that would give it some semblance of decency.
She knew that in summoning her husband's best and closest friend to her bed chamber alone, and at such an hour was breaching every code of protocol and gentility that she had been brought up to honor. It could also threaten Gaston's own relations with Viktor. But Vashti could not bring herself to be concerned with any of those things at that moment.
There was no time to waste. She would not stand by and allow Viktor to have his way. She had to do something...
"And you are sure he means to present her before the court?" Gaston asked, his face clouded with concern. He sat in the chair Viktor had occupied only moments ago, looking on while Vashti anxiously paced back and forth across the room, "He truly wants to bring Tatyana out into society, and completely omit Varushka from it forever?"
"I am certain of it." she replied, "No doubt he believes that if Tatyana can be enough of a success at the court, that combined with our family's wealth and name will be enough to sponge Varushka and I out like a stain on a sheet."
"There must be some reason, some explanation for it all."
"I have given you the reason and explanation: he wishes us to be forgotten while he takes Tatyana and carries on with his life as if Varushka's birth had never happened! It is as I told you: he despises her-"
"That is not true-"
"It is," she said dully, "I know it is."
"I cannot believe this of him," he murmured, almost to himself, "Viktor may still carry the pain of what happened, but he would never want to maliciously punish you or Varushka for it."
"Oh Gaston, how can you possibly think otherwise?" she cried, "Why else would he refuse to say when he and Tatyana would be returning? Why else would he forbid us to at least accompany them to the court?"
"Vashti, please. Can you honestly not see for yourself the problem that exists in taking Varushka outside the confines of this estate? Do Viktor that justice at least in trying to understand his hesitation in allowing such a thing."
"Are you taking his side in this?" she asked him incredulously.
"No, of course not. But I would ask that you merely think upon what I say. You know that the men of Tyrwen are notorious for their lechery and lustful passions. The women are even more notorious for their vengeful jealousies and scheming. Is that truly the world that you would want Varushka to enter into with a face like hers? You might try to convince Victor that bringing Tatyana to Tyrwen would be a mistake."
"Gaston, if Varushka stays here forever then what kind of future can I give her? What prospects does she have? She has made no connections. She has no friends but Tatyana. There is no one within miles from here who is her equal to even be considered for marriage."
He shrugged, "Who is to say that she must make such affiliations? You heard Viktor: they are precariously made enough in Tyrwen now. And perhaps Varushka does not wish to be married anyway-"
"She is still a young girl," Vashti said dismissively, "And she is lonely: I see it. She wants to leave the estate, but doesn't dare ask a question to which she knows she will be refused. And as for the rest...she knows nothing of men. She does not know what she wants so far as that is concerned. I refuse to give up hope for her future for Viktor's comfort. Varushka deserves everything. She must have it—she must!" She held out her hands to Gaston imploringly, "Gaston, please! Please help me! I'm afraid of Viktor taking Tatyana; I know if he does, then it is over. Everything will be over!"
"Shh," he said, coming and taking her hands within his and squeezing them, "Calm yourself, Vashti. There is nothing to be afraid of-"
"But there is!" she insisted, "There is! Don't you see? If he takes Tatyana and returns to Tyrwen, then they will never return. He would never confess to it, but that is how it would end, I know it!"
"If you truly believe that he is so set in his purpose, then what makes you think that there is anything I can do?"
"I didn't know where else to turn, who else to trust! You are the only person he would listen to. Gaston, I implore you: you are my last hope for Varushka. If you have ever had any care for her, for me, then please don't allow him to do this!" Her voice trembled and she allowed her head to fall forward and onto his chest as she succumbed to the tears that had been building up in her throat and eyes.
Gaston's arms encircled her form and held her gently. Vashti almost felt a wave of relief at their warmth; it had been so long, so very long since anyone had held her, comforted her like this. Her relief was dampened by the reality that after so long, it still was not her husband who brought her the solace- that the solace would probably never come from her husband again.
"He will not abandon you and Varushka here," Gaston murmured in her ear, "I will not allow that to happen. You have my word upon it..."
"It must be excitin' havin' the Count Robespierre here, Mistress." Rifka said as she pulled the comb through Varushka's hair that same evening.
Varushka blinked, roused out of her deep, inner thoughts, "What? Oh, yes. It's very nice."
"He travels to so many foreign places, he must have so many stories to tell you."
She smiled faintly, "The stories are mostly for Tatyana, I think. Tonight he spoke of the caverns in Zulag, and she could hardly contain her excitement. She loves to hear of such things. I think she tries to imagine herself in his place sometimes. Mother doesn't like it. She says his stories put ideas into our heads that ladies shouldn't have."
"Well there's no harm in dreamin', is there? And the young Mistress is so spirited and lively; she's got to be lettin' it out somehow. She's not like you."
Varushka frowned faintly, "What do you mean?"
"Oh, I meant no harm in it, Miss," Rifka assured her, "Only that your sister isn't as acceptin' of her position and duty as you are. You know better than to be wishin' after such things."
Varushka was quiet for a long moment, staring blindly at her reflection in the mirror, "Yes." she murmured, "I suppose I do."
"Will you be needin' anythin' else tonight, Mistress?" Rifka asked as she placed the comb and brush back on the table before the looking glass.
Varushka shook her head as she stood up, "No, thank you, Rifka. You can go now. Good night."
"Good night, Mistress." She gave a short curtsey, then left the room, quietly shutting the door behind her.
Varushka removed her velvet robe so that she was only left clad in her thin, gauzy shift. After blowing out the candles in the room, she climbed between the already folded back comforters of her bed, sighing at the pocket warmth that had been made by the hot brick Rifka had placed between the folds. She pulled the cords that held the curtains back on either side of the bed, blanketing herself in total darkness. Laying out on her back, she looked up into the darkness of the ceiling made by the canopy of her bed. She couldn't get Rifka's words out of her head though.
That night when Gaston had been talking to them about Zulag, Tatyana had sat on the floor near his feet, clinging excitedly to his every word, nearly pouncing on him with every new question that she asked. Varushka had sat beside Vashti, listening in silence with a calm and composed demeanor. Inwardly however, she had found herself filled with the strangest feeling of excitement and fascination.
She found herself wanting to see the amethyst caverns that he talked about. The water there, he said, shimmered from the dust of the precious stones, but was sweeter to the taste than ordinary water. Varushka had wanted to taste it herself so badly. She wanted to see the view that he described from the tops of the mountains, where he said one felt as though they towered about the earth itself, standing among the clouds and mists of the sky. When he showed them the rare, beautiful diamond that he and his band of diggers had found, it had been all she could do to stay planted in her seat and not leap up to join Tatyana at his side to gaze at the beautiful stone. Instead, Varushka had remained where she was, looking down into her lap so that no one could see the wistful longing in her eyes.
She knew that she would never be able to be an explorer. She knew that she would never be able to travel to all of the wonderful places that Gaston spoke of. She even knew that it was likely that she would never leave the countryside that she had lived in for so long. But despite all of this, Varushka still could not help but envy Gaston for the life that he had.
There was a whole new, exciting world outside the boundaries of her parents' estate..and for all Varushka knew, she would never see it.
Rifka had been right. Varushka wasn't like Tatyana. She could be told that she would never step foot off of the Konstantine's property, and be willing to accept it for the rest of her life. She would do what was expected of her. She would obey.
Varushka curled onto her side, tucking her legs up so that she lay in a fetal position. She was just beginning to enter the throes of sleep, when she heard a sound, like the soft opening of a door.
Sitting up in bed, Varushka called out, "Who's there? Rifka, is that you?" She paused, listening to the silence that followed.
"Hello?" She gave a short sigh, wondering if she had imagined the whole thing.
Suddenly, one of the canopy curtains was thrown back and a figure lunged onto her bed with a familiar voice crying out, "Boo!"
Varushka started and gave a sharp cry of surprise, then sighed in partial relief and partial frustration as her younger sister laughed, "Tati! What on earth do you think you're doing?" She reached over to her bedside table and fumbled around for the candlestick and match.
"Surprising you," Tatyana replied, "I had to wait until I was sure Rifka was gone, and I didn't want her to see me."
Varushka's back was turned away from her as she focused upon lighting the candle, "Why ever not? You know that by now, she's used to you coming in here at all hours of the-" she paused then as he turned around, getting a good look at her sister in the candle's light.
Tatyana climbed off the bed and took a step or two back. She grinned from ear to ear as she held up her arms and turned around in a circle, "Well? What d'you think of me?" she asked.
Instead of being dressed for bed, Tatyana was wearing a plain, brown dress that reminded Varushka of the ones that the regularly kitchen maids wore. She could tell that it belonged to a servant or commoner of some kind; the hem was worn and ripped in several places, the cloth was faded and stained, and no decent woman of nobility would have worn a dress that exposed her ankles in such a way. On Tatyana's feet were a pair of what looked like old clogs that had been trekked through mud and who knew what else.
To the person that did not know her true identity, Tatyana might have passed for an ordinary girl from the village and not the daughter of one of the wealthiest noblemen of the land.
"'Rushka," Tatyana called her name, "Tell me what you think!"
Varushka stared at her sister in total shock, "What..." she murmured, "What is this, Tati?"
"It's my disguise for the Harvest Fest tomorrow night, of course!" she answered, spinning around again, "Don't I look the part of a convincing farm girl?"
The answer was yes, but Varushka didn't respond to the question, "The Harvest Fest? What do you mean your 'disguise'? You- you can't mean to say that you intend to go."
"Well of course I mean to go, I told you I did, didn't I?" Tatyana said good naturedly, "Don't look so worried," she reached down and picked up a small bundle on the ground and tossed it on the bed, "I brought one for you too!"
"You what?" Varushka opened the bundle, even further shocked to see another similar dress and clog shoes inside that looked to be in her size, "Where did you get these things?"
"I bribed Hilda in the kitchen to let me borrow them." she replied breezily, "I gave her the brooch that Mother gave me for my birthday last year- you know, the one I hated. I gave it to her and made her promise to tell no one that I asked for them or why I wanted them."
Varushka leaned back on the bed, "Oh Tati..." she moaned under her breath.
She scolded herself for not having the foresight to properly deal with the Harvest Fest situation before allowing Tatyana to act on her own. She should have known that when her younger sister wanted something, she pursued it relentlessly until she achieved her goal, whether she had the permission to do so or not.
Now there would be more for her to do to get them out of this mess. She would have to hide the clothes in her bedroom until an opportunity should come for her to secretly return them back to Hilda, then ask for the brooch back. Such a valuable trinket wasn't likely to be one that any servant would be likely to wish to be parted from. Hilda may have sold it for the money already for all she knew. Varushka would also have to somehow figure out how to convince the girl to maintain her discretion—a task that wasn't always easy to do among servants that were not personally loyal. But something nonetheless had to be done to stop all of this. If word traveled to their mother of what Tatyana had done there would be consequence—serious ones.
Then there was the matter of Tatyana herself, which Varushka knew would prove the ultimate obstacle to overcome. She didn't know how she was going to manage to convince her sister to abandon her purpose. She had a will of iron, and was stubborn to boot, and Varushka knew that if she had gone this far in pursuing this venture, it would be extremely difficult to convince her to walk away from it now.
"'Rushka?" Tatyana called her name, looking at her concernedly, "Are you alright? Do you not like your dress? What's the matter?"
Varushka took a deep breath and lowered her hands away from her face. She looked Tatyana clear in the eye, speaking a steady, calm voice, "Tati, listen. I know that it's very difficult being here sometimes. I know that you want excitement and adventure in your life. I know you want to be happy..." she slowly shook her head, "But this is not the way. This is a folly that will only end in-"
"Not you too!" Tatyana burst out angrily, "You were supposed to understand!"
"I do!" Varushka assured her, "Tati, I do understand-"
"If you did, then you would go with me! You wouldn't treat me just like everyone else does!"
"Please, only listen to me. I know how much you wanted to go, but you must accept the fact that-"
"Accept what?" Tatyana demanded, "That you and I are being held here like some criminals in a jail? That Mama and Papa want nothing more for us than to wither away and die here without seeing anything beyond the gates of this house?"
"We are not criminals, it is not like that-"
"It is! I know it is, and I'll tell you what else I know: something is wrong, 'Rushka. I don't know whether it's you or me, but I know that something is wrong with one of us that everyone here but us knows about. Have you honestly never wondered why Mama loves you more than she loves me, why Papa always give me everything I want but won't even give you a kiss? None of this has ever seemed strange to you?"
Varushka was quiet for a moment, trying not to betray the emotions that her sister's last words had upon her. She had to ignore the disturbing thoughts that they brought to her mind, and focus upon the task at hand: she had to calm Tatyana down. She had to make sure her sister wouldn't do anything impulsive.
"We can speak to Mother and Father if you want," she said, "We can ask them about going away somewhere for a while; to visit Uncle Gaston, to the house in the city. I will defend you, Tati, I promise. I will ask that you be given more freedom. Only please," she took her hand, squeezing it tight, "Please don't do this. You're angry and upset; don't do something irrational out of that anger."
Tatyana yanked her hand out of Varushka's standing up to her feet, "If you want to sit here and accept their lies and secrets for the rest of your life, then you can," she said evenly, "But I'm not going to take it anymore, Varushka. Do you hear me? I'm not going to wait for someone else to change my life anymore. I'm going to do it myself, and the first thing I'm going to do is go to that Harvest Fest tomorrow night—with or without you." She turned on her heel and swiftly made for the door, her hair whipping behind her like a black sheet.
Varushka vaulted off the bed and hurried after her, "Wait! Tati wait!" she managed to catch her just as Tatyana had opened the door. Varushka used her fists to shut it again with a firm thud, her eyes meeting with Tatyana's again as she repeated quietly, "...Wait." She sighed. "Is there nothing, truly nothing I can say or do to change your mind about this?"
"No." Tatyana said, "I'm going."
"Very well..." she took a deep breath before announcing, "Then I'm going with you."
"I'm going to the Harvest Fest with you."
"You mean you're not going to tell Mother or Father?"
Tatyana stared at her for a long moment, clearly surprised, "You...you're serious?"
"I can't sit here while you're out there wondering if you're alright. I can't let you go alone. If this is really what you're set on doing, then I have to make sure you'll be safe."
Tatyana's scowl from moments ago completely melted away, being replaced with a smile as bright as sunshine, "Thank you!" she exclaimed, "Thank you, thank you, thank you Rushka!" she threw her arms around Varushka, embracing her tightly, "I knew I could count on you, I knew it!"
"Listen; listen to me," Varushka said as she pulled back, "We must be careful, Tati. If Mama or Father were to find out about this-"
"They won't, I promise I won't say a word to Rose or anybody-"
"See that you keep that promise. We cannot allow anyone to recognize us. Take nothing with you that will identify you as nobility. I know that you want to enjoy the festival but if we stay too long then we are sure to be missed here; we can stay no later than midnight. Is that understood?"
Tatyana paused for a moment, then slowly nodded, grinning again, "Understood." She laughed again, "Oh, this is going to be such an adventure! Tell me 'Rushka: aren't you even the least bit excited?"
Varushka smiled gently, remembering her thoughts from earlier. "Yes," she murmured, "I suppose I am."