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When she told Susanna that she would be leaving next month to visit her kin in the Northern forests, Susanna congratulated her heartily, but then urged her to come to the mountains as well as or instead of her planned journey, painting rapturous pictures of the beauty of the Southern mountains in spring and summer, the joy with which the local princesses would welcome her, and the figure she would cut amongst their sons, who, according to Susanna, were “a thousand times handsomer than these plain and pale-faced Northern milksops, and possessed of more passion than all the men in Krasnograd. Although…your Boleslav Vlasiyevich. He is a fine figure of a man, is he not? Not so big and tall as some, but still very handsome, and his hair is still almost as black as a Southerner’s, even if his skin is pale and his eyes are gray. No wonder your mother has taken him as a lover.”
“She hasn’t!” Dasha blurted out without thinking.
“No? Then she is a fool and my mother is blind, and we both know neither of those things are true. Your father is gone half the year or maybe more, everyone says so, and every woman needs a lover at her side, everyone knows it. Have you taken a lover yet?”
“No,” mumbled Dasha, looking at the floor and feeling herself blush so hotly that she thought her hair might catch fire.
“Well…if you must know,” Susanna giggled, “I have not either. Not properly, you know. I am still waiting for a man whose blood is as hot as mine. But several young men have certainly caught my eye! You must come to our mountains, Dasha, you really must—the men are so handsome there, and they will all lose their heads for your red hair and curls. I’m sure they will even forgive your paleness and—what are those spots on your face?”
“Freckles,” admitted Dasha, still looking down at the floor and blushing.
“Freckles!” Susanna repeated the Zemnian word carefully. “Freckles! I have heard of them, but I have never seen anyone with them before.” She peered closely at Dasha’s face. “I cannot say that I want any for myself. But on you they are not so bad,” she conceded. “They make you look exotic. You will be so exotic when you came down to our mountains, Dasha. All the men will throw themselves at your feet. You will have to—how do you say? I do not remember the Zemnian phrase; something about sticks, I think. Anyway, you will have to fight them off with a sword in each hand.”
Dasha blushed scarlet again and said she thought that sounded very pleasant, although in fact she thought no such thing. Perhaps for someone as bold as Susanna, the idea of having to fight off hordes of hot-blooded mountain men was attractive, but to Dasha it seemed rather terrifying. Although…she allowed herself to drift off in reverie for moment…maybe it would be fun. Other than her training with Boleslav Vlasiyevich, she had spent her whole life with other women. But on the road there would be men—a whole world of men for her to explore. People—such as Susanna—claimed that consorting with men was great fun, the best fun in the world. Perhaps there was something to that.
“And if you come to the mountains, dearest Tsarinovna, we will not be parted,” continued Susanna, oblivious to Dasha’s woolgathering. “My heart breaks at the thought of being separated from you for a whole summer, and just as we have become friends!”
“Yes,” said Dasha, who, while less effusive about it than Susanna, was also dismayed at the thought of leaving behind her new friend. “If only you could come with me!”
“Oh, but Tsarinovna, I could!”
“Would your mother let you go off with a stranger for so long?” asked Dasha doubtfully.
“My mother does not control my coming and going, like that of a girl of three,” said Susanna, tossing her head in a way Dasha wished she could emulate. “Besides, if the request came from your mother, she would not dare to say no,” she added more practically.
“I suppose I could ask my mother,” said Dasha, still rather doubtfully. It occurred to her as she said it that she had never asked her mother to use her influence as Empress on her behalf before, and she didn’t like the idea. “I wouldn’t wish your mother to agree against her will, or resent us for forcing her to agree,” she said.
“She will agree happily,” said Susanna, “or if she does not, she will be too proud to show that she does not like it. And I am almost a woman grown, and my own mistress, anyway. All you need to do is ask your mother.”
Dasha agreed that it was a fine plan, but she decided to begin by approaching Oleg. She wasn’t sure why she was so reluctant to ask her mother, other than it seemed too much like the action of a little girl who had to ask her mother’s permission to go play, and she was no longer a little girl—but she was also not yet quite a woman who could command her own comings and goings, either. Dasha knew that this journey was meant to mark her becoming a woman, even though she would not officially come of age for three more summers, and that she must start to relate to her mother less as a child to a nursemaid, and more as one woman to another, but how to do that was mysterious to her, and so she put off the request until she could speak with her father.
Arranging to speak to him alone, however, turned out to be more difficult than she had anticipated, as when he was around he was always planning things—well, listening to other people planning things; Dasha soon realized that spending days and days planning things was not one of his favorite things to do, and that now that they had decided where to go, if it had been up to him they would have just set off one morning with nothing but the clothes on their backs and and a pocketful of coin—and when he was free he disappeared. Dasha wanted to ask him where he went to when he wasn’t around, and if he would keep disappearing like that when they were traveling together, but she was too shy. According to the gossip of the maids and guards, though, he went off by himself into the park every day, and no one knew why. So it took two days before circumstances came together in such a way that Dasha felt that the time was right for her to attempt to ask him.
She waited until both her mother and father had gone off on business of their own, and then, guessing by the direction he had gone that her father had gone off into the park, she went out—snuck out, actually, by telling her guards she wanted to go to the stables, and then slipping off into the park on foot, as they were waiting for their horses to be saddled. Dasha had not tried to evade her guards for a good ten years, and had never done so successfully, and was astonished and a little terrified at how easy it was. She had simply thought Don’t see me! and stepped out of the stable, and no one had seen her.
As she hurried to the park she had a hundred visions of the guards coming and catching her and shouting at her, of her mother becoming angry at her for her foolish and inconsiderate behavior, at the guards getting into trouble because of her (that was a painful thought), of harm befalling her because of what she had done—what if today was the day, for the first time in Dasha’s life, when an assassin took it into her head to harm her, or she tripped and fell and broke something and no one was there to help her, or she got lost, or any of the other things that could happen to a girl walking around alone—of harm befalling her and her mother blaming the guards, of Oleg getting angry at her, of Boleslav Vlasiyevich getting angry at her and at her guards—the last was the most likely, and the most scary to think about. Boleslav Vlasiyevich took Dasha’s safety very seriously, and he frightened her a little bit.
Not that he had ever given her cause to fear him; quite the opposite, from the point of view of sense. He had always been kind and attentive towards her, and trained her in fighting and shooting himself, as if she were his own daughter. But he had an intensity to him that Dasha had encountered in few other people, and she had the sense that there was little he would stop at, if he thought it necessary. Her father gave the same impression, and her mother, queerly enough, too, but whenever Dasha was around Boleslav Vlasiyevich, she could see things she would rather not see out of the corner of her eyes, things that, she was sure, he had actually done, even though she couldn’t say what, exactly, those things were. Dasha didn’t think he would ever hurt her, but she had a strong feeling that he would hurt other people for her, which was almost worse. When she thought about it sensibly, she couldn’t actually imagine her mother punishing the guards for Dasha’s willful behavior, but she could easily see Boleslav Vlasiyevich doing so, no matter how unjust that might be, and if her mother forbade it, she guessed that Boleslav Vlasiyevich would find some way of doing it anyway, out of her mother’s sight. At that thought, she almost turned around and ran back to the stables and begged her guards’ pardon then and there, but instead she kept going through the trees, deeper and deeper into the woods.
The park was a strange thing, even to Dasha, who had been visiting it all her life. It was in the middle of the city, bounded by a fence, and a woman could walk around the outside of it in a small part of an afternoon. Dasha had done so once, and counted it as one of the greatest adventure of her young life. So it stood to reason that it would only take a short while to cross, as it must be less than a verst across at its longest point. But once inside it, the city seemed to disappear, so that nothing of its ordinary clamor could be heard, and you could ride around the park all day and not cover all of it. Or so it seemed to Dasha. Once when she had said as much to her mother, her mother had said that was because she was still young and untraveled, and thus was not used to calculating distances or keeping track of where she had been.
“I don’t get lost!” Dasha had protested. “I can’t! I always know which way West is!” It was her one gift that everyone agreed she possessed in abundance, although why and for what purpose, no one could say.
“No matter how well you know your compass points, even a very small park has many hidden corners,” her mother had told her. “You can explore it all day, and not find all of them. But look, my dear: standing up on this tower you can see right across it to the brothers’ sanctuary on the other side.”
Dasha had had to admit that that was true, as they looked over the wall of the tallest tower of the kremlin, and surveyed the entire Northern side of the city. From here it looked as if she could just step over the park, which seemed small and ordinary and had clearly defined borders, and end up back on city streets.
But then her mother had admitted that sometimes distance and direction could play tricks on you, when leshiye and other creatures of the gods were involved, and that the park was very old and full of prayer trees, and who knew what that meant? It was true that people generally preferred to go around it when crossing the city, instead of through it, even though that made the walk twice as far, and no one went there after dark. And whenever Dasha and her guards went riding in it, which they did almost every day, her guards kept her to the Southern edge of the park, which was crisscrossed with many paths, and stayed away from the Northern side. A few times Dasha had insisted that they take the one broad path that led so invitingly right through the center of the park all the way to the other side, where there was a large gate. They had done so, and nothing untoward had happened to them, but the guards were plainly made uneasy by it, and to be honest, so was Dasha. She had once suggested that they leave the path and go exploring in the groves to either side of it, but her guards had vehemently objected, saying that there were bogs there that would suck her right down into them, and for some reason that had frightened her so much she had never suggested it again. Water frightened Dasha, especially deep, dark water, the kind where you couldn’t see the bottom and that consequently gave rise to so many visions, visions as deep and dark as the water itself, and she didn’t like the idea of sucking bogs right in the middle of Krasnograd at all. Which was silly. Bogs were just a place like any other, and lots of plants and little creatures made their homes in them. But Dasha had always kept strictly to the path after that, and stayed more and more on the Southern side of the park, where the ground was firm and dry.
Today, though, there was no part of the park that was firm and dry. Half-melted snow drifts stood by every path and under every tree, and the paths themselves, while mostly clear of snow, were less paths than pools and streams of melting snow, flowing over the still-frozen ground. Dasha tried to walk along the edge of the path and leap lightly over the puddles, but she soon slipped into the middle of the path and ended up in ankle-deep icy water, and as she struggled out of that she slipped again and fell onto her hands and knees into the snow drift that had forced her into the water in the first place. Everyone would know she had gone into the park as soon as they saw her soaked and muddy clothing—the frozen ground had melted just enough to be covered with a thin layer of slick mud, making the footing twice as treacherous as it would have been had it been frozen through or wholly melted—she thought glumly, and she could already see the fuss her return would cause, wet and cold as she would be. No doubt on top of everything else she was in for a terrible scolding from her maids and tutors, who all lived in constant terror that Dasha would take a chill. Dasha had no desire to take a chill herself, but she had never suffered greatly from sickness, and any chill that had attacked her had always passed on by in a matter of days, leaving her none the worse for the experience, and so her maids’ extreme fear of chills had always seemed excessive, even pointless, to her. But they were unlikely to be swayed by her arguments—despite their claim to respect her above all other women, aside from her mother, and their promises to obey her in everything, they in fact considered themselves in their rights to run Dasha’s life exactly as they saw fit, and ignore everything she told them, even though she was the one who knew herself and had lived her whole life, not them, not anyone else…but that had nothing to do with the task at hand. The task at hand was to find her father, wherever he might be hiding in this park, and ask him about bringing Susanna with them.
A task that, Dasha reflected as she slid along, would probably be best accomplished not by evading her guards and falling into the snow, thereby showing herself to be clumsy as well as foolish and inconsiderate, but that thought had come late, far too late, and since she was here already, she might as well go through with it…and perhaps her father would be impressed, or charmed, or amused, or put into some state that would make him well-disposed towards her. Dasha tried to tell herself that she was doing just the sort of thing that he would do, and it would make him like her more, make him see her as his and not just some girl who took after her mother, but she rather doubted, as she slipped and fell into another snow drift, that she resembled her father at all right now, and even if she did, a little voice whispered to her that fathers didn’t hold with their daughters doing the same things that they themselves would do. Not that she would know, would she, since her father had hardly ever been around her entire life, but he had said, he had said straight to her face that she shouldn’t take him as a model…And she couldn’t find him, either. She had been walking for ages, she must be halfway across the park by now, but she was still stuck in the Eastern side of it and she hadn’t seen any sign of him.
She suddenly came to a fork in the path and recognized where she was once again. She knew from all her riding there that if she turned left she would end up back at the Southern gate, if she went straight, she would end up on the main path that led all the way to the Northern gate, and if she turned right, she would end up in a small grove of prayer trees. She also knew that this turning meant she had not gone very deep into the park at all, even though it felt to her as if she had been walking half the morning.
It’s the mud and the ice, she told herself. It’s making it seem like I’ve been walking for much longer than I have, because it’s such hard going. There’s nothing strange about it at all.
That thought made her feel a little better, but it didn’t tell her which way she should go. She stood there for a moment in indecision. She knew that she should go back, but…she had gone this far, hadn’t she? The path straight ahead would be the most sensible choice, as it would lead her deeper into the park, where she was more likely to find Oleg. The thought of going deeper into the park made her stomach twist queerly, as if with fear.
It’s just the park, she told herself. There’s nothing here that will harm you. But even so, her feet seemed to carry her of their own accord off to the right, to the prayer trees.