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Chapter Five - Das Vadanya

Chapter Five

Городо́к Дья́вола

Mishka is having second thoughts about tutoring Katya Volkovna. Well, third, really, if his earlier premonition even counts. Before he arrived at the estate, he had fears of his future pupil being bored or disinterested, among a host of other problems that could arise. He has a university education, if not a full one, but knowing things and teaching them to others are two very different beasts, and he’s never taught anyone anything before.

Alas, as is so often the case with new or nerve-wracking situations, it has only been a few days, and it is already going horribly wrong, only in an entirely different way than he could have possibly anticipated. Katya is not reticent, in fact, when she’s disinterested in a subject, she states it loudly and rudely, and refuses to engage until he moves on to something else.

So far, she has done this same routine with Latin, philosophy, literature, and etiquette. That one was the worst by far. As soon as he even brought up the word she slouched down in her chair as low as was possible, and frowned intensely.

“I’ve had so many tutors, you know,” she complains, slightly muffled by her extreme posture. “Every single one of them has tried to teach me the same things. Sit up straight, Katya. Smile, Katya. Comb your hair!”

“Have you ever thought that maybe they keep trying to teach you these things because you don’t demonstrate that you already know them?” Mishka tries to be patient, but his capacity for such is rapidly wearing thin.

“I would never stoop so low as to do what any of them told me,” she insists.

Mishka doesn’t know what to do. He has to teach the child, but she refuses to learn. If her siblings see that she isn’t learning, they’ll quickly replace him, which is no doubt what happened to all of her previous tutors. He can’t abide by that. This is the one opportunity in his miserable little life that he’ll have to be within a hundred miles of Ivan Volkov, and if one little girl is what ruins it...

Well, he doesn’t even know what he’d do.

“Alright then,” he concedes. “What haven’t you learned yet?”

“Lots of things. I’m only eleven, you know.”

He has to ask for the Lord’s guidance just then to not strangle a child. “Well, why don’t you go find a book that interests you and we’ll look it over together?” Mishka gestures around to the many bookshelves that surround the little corner of the library. It won’t necessarily be a classical education, but for the moment at least, all he wants is to get her to cooperate.

Katya thinks for a second, then scurries off purposefully. Mishka sits back in the hard, wooden chair. Hopefully he’ll have a few seconds of quiet, then clean up all the workbooks so that when—

And she’s already back, struggling under the weight of a very thick book. Unlike most of the tomes in the old collection, this one hasn’t a speck of dust on it, and is significantly more worn. Clearly, it’s seen a lot of use. Katya places it down in front of him with surprising respect—for the book, not him, of course.

Mishka’s brow furrows as he reads the title embossed in faded gold on its cover: “Victor Zapodov’s Primer on General Human Anatomy.”

“I’ve read some of it,” she admits, “but some of the words are too hard.”

This is not a good idea. In no way whatsoever is indulging the peculiar girl’s fascination with such an unusual topic a good idea. He was hired to give her the education of any well-bred noble offspring: literature, music, etiquette, an appreciation for the arts. The sciences are barely fit for most noble sons, save for a general understanding. True, Natalya and Ivan’s views are somewhat progressive, but he doubts that they extend this far.

It is truly a shame. If she had been born in England or across the Atlantic, she might have been encouraged in her curiosity, but Russia is still a hopelessly backwards society in many ways, especially in her traditions.

But, he realizes, learning something is better than nothing at all. So with a sigh, he opens the cover. He himself has little familiarity with anatomy beyond the most rudimentary knowledge, but he’s going to have to try.

Before he can start in, however, Katya snatches the book from him and flips to a particular page. She shoves it in his face, her finger pointing to a specific line. “What’s this word?” she demands.

Mishka nearly jumps at the sudden outburst, but composes himself. She’d have to learn proper manners, but one step at a time, he supposes.

“That’s, uh, ‘tendon.’”

“And what’s it mean?”

“It’s a type of muscle.” Mishka wracks his brain, trying to figure out how to explain such a concept to a child. He points to the diagram of a hand on the opposite page. “They connect the fingers to the palm and down into the wrist, see? That’s what lets you bend them.”

“Oh!” she says suddenly, her face brightening as she jumps up and down in her chair. “Did you know that you can bite through a finger as easily as a carrot? Your brain just won’t let you because it’s your own finger!”

Mishka shrinks back a little. This child really scares him. How can she say things like that while wearing such a bright smile? “I did not know that. Where did you hear it?” he mumbles.

But the girl just shrugs. “In a book somewhere.” Then her eyes snap immediately back to the book. “How about this word?”

And on and on it goes, Mishka explaining words and Katya telling him all the things she knows about the inner workings of the human body. It’s odd, and unnatural, but her enthusiasm is oddly endearing. So, for now he’ll humor her, but the instant she wants to dissect something is where he will draw the line.

Finally, after he’s sure they’ve spent a millennium in that dense, stuffy library, the afternoon is at least upon them. Katya looks significantly more cheerful as she scampers out the door, threatening to bring a toad to class the next day. Now if only he could get her to be that excited about the things he is actually supposed to be teaching her.

Mishka sits back, pondering through this conundrum. Honestly, he wonders if he shouldn’t just give up the ghost, grab his gun, and shoot Ivan Volkov right here and now. But that’s ridiculous, that won’t do anything. It won’t be a true betrayal until he’s so irreplaceable to this family that they can’t imagine life without him. It won’t hurt the way that Mishka had all those years ago, when all he could do was stare at Vasily’s face as the screams of the dying echoed around him, those lifeless eyes, the pale cheeks splattered with drying, dark blo...

No, don’t think about that now. Don’t go there. Those thoughts will only distract him. Vasily is dead. This is all Mishka can do for him. When Ivan Volkov is gone, his friend’s memory can finally rest.

But the moment has to be right. So, he has to dig in his heels and make himself useful. Then, it can finally all be over.

The room begins to grow a little bit hazy, and so Mishka elects to step out into the hallways to get some air. He forces his thoughts to turn elsewhere, keeping those feelings locked in the library, behind the click of the door sliding into place. Anybody could happen upon him here, so he forces his face into what he thinks must be a placid expression and guides his mind in wandering in a more pleasant direction.

Maybe, he thinks, he should go down to the kitchen and introduce himself to the cook. Kapov or Ms. Steel might be there as well. Mishka is still a servant of the Volkov family, even if a pampered one, and he doesn’t much care for the strange limbo he finds himself in, stuck firmly between the two groups.

He turns his feet in the direction he believes the kitchen to be and resolves to do just that. But he only makes it a handful of steps before something makes him stop. He hears a sound, faint at first, caught in the thick carpets and wallpaper. At first Mishka can’t even tell what it is or where it’s coming from, but as he tip-toes a few steps, it becomes more distinct: the soft, hollow notes of a piano.

For a second he can’t pinpoint its location. It seems to engulf the narrow hallway, everywhere and nowhere at once, but after a minute of straining his ears, it becomes apparent that a small room a few doors down is the source. He doesn’t want to disturb whoever is occupying the space, but something spurs him to take a peek.

Honestly, it shouldn’t have surprised him that as he nudges the door open just a few more inches that he spies the familiar silhouette of Maria at the piano. Her back is to him, but she seems so thoroughly engrossed in her playing that he doubts she would notice him if it wasn’t. Though she occasionally glances down at the sheet music in front of her, Maria mostly keeps her head tilted back, eyes presumably shut. She hums along quietly to the melody.

Her confidence matches her ability, for she plays beautifully, each note melding into the next as smoothly as a record. It’s a slow song, melancholic in an odd sort of way, with a nostalgic twinge.

Mishka finds himself taking a step into the room in order to hear her better, but as he does so, the floor creaks, and the music stops as Maria turns abruptly, jumping a little.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Mishka apologizes immediately, looking downwards. “I just heard the music and wondered who was playing it. I can leave if you’d like.”

She looks embarrassed, and Mishka begins swiveling on his heel to leave when she takes a deep breath. “No, it’s fine,” she says. “I was the one who left the door open.”

“You play very well,” he runs a hand through his hair, feeling somewhat awkward. He didn’t mean to interrupt her, and now she must feel too anxious to play in front of a total stranger.

Maria looks down, her cheeks turning red. “Only a little. I learned mostly to accompany Tasha.”

“Oh, does she sing?”

“No, dances. She was going to be a ballerina, you know,” Maria admits, her eyes still engrossed in the patterns of the carpet.

“I didn’t,” Mishka admits. “What happened, if you don’t mind me asking? Family duty?”

Hesitating, Maria finally glances upwards instead. “That I suppose. But she also had an accident. Her knee.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

Maria shrugs. “It’s alright, I think. It healed as well as it could. And she still dances a little, just not like she used to. And it means that I learned how to play piano.”

Ah, yes. Mishka has almost forgotten how he’s blundered into her playing. He really should just go, and yet he continues to talk anyway. “That song you were playing... it was a lovely tune.”

“I find it a bit sad,” Maria is slowly losing the tension in her shoulders. Maybe she doesn’t mind him here after all. “But somehow, I think it reminds me that even though a lot of things in this world are sad, they don’t always have to be.”

Mishka is somewhat impressed. “That’s a lot to gather from just piano.”

She tilts her head, confused, before she begins to giggle. “Oh, it has lyrics,” Maria ducks her head in embarrassment. “It was originally written as an aria, but I don’t have anyone to sing it for me, so I just play it to myself. Here.” she slides over on the bench, and beckons him to join her.

He pauses. This seems almost too familiar of her. More like friends than servant and master. But this is what he wants, isn’t it? To get close to her? And besides, no one’s around to see. The thought briefly crosses his mind that perhaps this is a trap, to catch him out on his Marxist ideals. But looking at her lovely, innocent face and pretty clothes, in this large house, surrounded by nice things, he doubts she even knows who Marx is.

And so, Mishka sits, though conscious to leave an inch between them, as she points to the yellowed piece of sheet music. Admittedly, he’s never been able to parse the strange, complicated way in which music is notated, but he at least knows enough to pick out where the words are. Then he actually tries to read them and his heart sinks.

“I don’t know Italian,” he glances over at her sheepishly.

She meets his gaze conspiratorially. “I... I don’t either. I barely know French as it is. One year when we were visiting St. Petersburg I asked an opera singer to translate it for me.”

“So? What does it say?”

“Well,” she says, “it sounds much better when it’s played. Please remember I am no singer.”

Maria sells herself short. She’s not amazing by any means, and the Russian lyrics don’t line up perfectly with the Italian, so she stumbles a little, but now Mishka can see what she meant. This song is very sad. From what he can gather, it’s supposed to be sung by a woman who’s been forced to marry her lover’s murderer, and she’s caught between his desire for her to live a long life and her own desire for revenge.

Maria becomes distracted from trying to both sing and play and so plunks out a few sour notes. “Ah,” she sighs. “Usually the ending is the best part.”

“I think it sounded alright,” he shrugs. “What opera is it from?”

Immediately, Maria’s face grows downcast. “I don’t know,” she mumbles. “I’ve been trying to track it down for years but I can never find it.”

“You were right, though,” he says. “To be forced to marry someone like that. I’d want revenge too.”

“That’s true,” she looks upward, pondering, “but I think I like it more for the tender moments, like when she says that it’s better she had a love in the first place, even if he was taken from her.”

The two both fall silent, each considering the song. But this time it’s a comfortable silence, familiar almost. For the first time since he’s arrived here at the manor, Mishka feels his gut unclench, just a little.

But the feeling doesn’t last. Out of the corner of his eye, Mishka thinks he sees a shadow pass by the doorway. Perhaps he’s being too familiar with the girl. With dancing there’s plausible deniability, but if someone were to find them like this...

He clears his throat, and stands. “Thank you for sharing, Mademoiselle. I’d best let you get back to your practice.”

Maria’s face falls a little, and she looks back down at the piano. “Oh, yes, of course,” she mutters, but before he can leave the room, she speaks again. “Thank you,” she seems surprised by the volume of her own voice. “I don’t often get to talk about music. It was... nice.”

Taking a shallow bow, Mishka hopes she doesn’t see the crimson of his cheeks as he spins around and quickly exits.

He has a hard time preventing himself from sprinting out of the room. Who is it? Who was watching them? Ivan? Natalya? Katya had just left a short while ago, perhaps she is still skulking around. But as he glances back and forth down the dimly-lit expanse Mishka realizes that there's no one there. The hallway is empty, save for the hiss of the lamps and Mishka’s ragged breath. Maybe he just imagined he saw someone.

“I’m impressed,” says a voice from directly behind him, and Mishka panics, only to turn on his heel and come face to face with Ms. Steel. “If I don’t want to be seen, most people don’t see me. Are you on edge about something, Monsieur Borozov?”

Her hawkish gaze pierces directly through him, and Mishka squirms, wishing desperately that he had not followed her. That earlier thought, that she suspected something about him, comes back in full force. But he straightens his shoulders and breathes deeply. Even if she has suspicions, there’s nothing she can prove and no way to discern his true intentions on her own. “I’ve only been here a few days,” he deflects. “Just getting used to the place.”

“And are you having any concerns about the manor or the... people therein?”

“Why do you ask?”

“No particular reason. I’d just like to make sure that you’re comfortable here. We’ve seen a lot of tutors come and go, and I’d absolutely hate to lose another.”

Her voice has lost its accusatory tone entirely. Ms. Steel simply has her head tilted slightly to the side, with one eyebrow raised. Come to think of it, this entire time, Mishka just assumed she might be a threat. After all, the very first day he was here, she did threaten him while taking him to his room. But there’s something about the look in her eyes, like she still suspects him of some wrong-doing, but maybe, just maybe, she might not be completely innocent herself. Maybe, that day, that wasn’t a threat at all. Perhaps it was instead a warning.

Still, Mishka can’t be sure of her trustworthiness by one small conversation. “That depends,” he finally replies to her original question, hoping her response will give him just a little bit more.

“Oh?” Touche.

“On whether...” he doesn’t know if he should, but an enemy of an enemy is a friend, after all. “Perhaps you... maybe have some... advice to give, on how to, umm, circumvent the pitfalls one might... fall... into.”

Where is he even going with this? Despite his floundering, for the first time since he’s met her, he can see the statuary exterior of her face crack. Very briefly, a flash of relief crosses her features, and the corner of her lip pokes up just a small amount. “Shall we discuss your concerns in the servant’s quarters? The Mistress doesn’t particularly appreciate when the help ‘gossips.’”

He nods, and Ms. Steel gestures for him to follow her. In truth, Mishka doesn’t quite know what to make of this development. He’s spent the last couple of days avoiding the maid like the plague, convinced she has seen right through him. Now he’s got confirmation of that, and yet it seems that she isn’t going to get him tossed out? In fact, she may possibly have some sort of agenda as well?

Ms. Steel stops at a plain door at the end of the hall and gestures him inside. Immediately, he pauses. After the dark interiors and fanciful architecture of the main house, the servants’ quarters look downright normal. A few small, dusty windows cast pale light down on a broad, wood table, which has no polished surfaces or ornate carvings whatsoever, just a simple, smooth top with rounded edges. Looking at this room, with its plaster walls and stone floors, makes Mishka realize that he’s been a little homesick for his small room in the city.

“Feel free to take a seat,” Ms. Steel says, and remembering the circumstances which led him to this room, Mishka obeys. “Do you speak English?” she asks, and he shrugs.

“Just small amount,” he admits, struggling a little.

She frowns a bit. “But you can understand what I’m saying, right?” Ms. Steel switches to her native tongue, to which Mishka nods. He took some English back at university and understanding is much easier than speaking.

The Maid sighs. “It’ll have to do. None of the Volkovs know English, they’ve all learned the bastard frog tongue instead.”

Mishka tilts his head. “Frogs do... the speaking?” He must sound like such an idiot.

“No, no... French,” she stutters. “It’s a British... saying... never mind. Regardless, there’ll be no one to eavesdrop on us if we speak in English, which will make this whole thing much safer.”

Mishka nods in agreement. “Cannot be too cautious.”

She sits across from him, but for a while neither say anything, both locked in the standoff of who talks first.

“Tell me, Ms. Steel,” Mishka breaks the silence. “How am I to know this is not ploy, that you are not... eh, spying for them?”

“Ada, please,” she shakes her head slowly. “And I suppose there’s no way to be sure, really. Even if our loyalties lie not with the Volkovs, there’s no way to know if our own agendas are even aligned.”

“Then just say it,” he gazes at her intensely. “Why are you here?”

She leans backwards. “It’s not that simple. Telling the wrong person could compromise my chances of success.”

“It is same case with me.”

“Well, one of us has to go first,” she retorts. “I got here first, so I have more time sunk in. It’s only fair that you go.”

Mishka laughs, shaking his head. He was worried that she might be someone not to touch, like a trained bodyguard, or even secret police. But really, it seems more and more that she might be just like him, a free agent looking for revenge. Whatever her goal is, it looks like she might need his help. What other reason would she have for compromising herself like this in the first place? If he thinks about it, he might need hers as well.

“Alright,” he says. “But on two rules. Adin, you will also tell me your purpose here. Dva, you do the talking to anyone about what I tell and I will kill you.”

“I’d not dream of it,” Ada crosses herself and shakes her head bitterly.

Mishka takes a deep breath. This is an incredible risk, and beyond that, he has never uttered a word of this to a single soul. Not ever. But in order to succeed, he might need her. It’s a calculated risk, and he’s willing to take his chances. The only thing he has to lose, after all, is his life.

“I do not know if you would remember it, but three years ago there was a revolution. They are calling it ‘Bloody Sunday’ now. You see,” he pauses, willing the words out one by one. “I was there. I saw everything.”

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