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Chapter One - Das Vadanya

Chapter One

Маленький монстр

Russia, 1908

The cold, misty tundra unfurls slowly from beyond the carriage window, and Mishka has trouble taking his eyes off of it. Slowly, but surely, the land emerges, yet the thick fog makes it appear almost otherworldly. Anything could be roaming these hills, any number of monsters from the stories he’d been told as a boy, and he’d wouldn’t think twice about it. He thinks for one second that he spies movement from behind a rock, and shivers.

“Would you like a blanket?” The man across from him, Ivan, looks genuinely concerned. The expression looks strange atop the giant figure on the opposite seat of the carriage. He’s a man who almost seems to be apologizing for his size; he hunches over slightly, trying to appear smaller.

Mishka shakes his head. “No, thank you,” he smiles, not a little bitterly. “I’ll have to get used to the cold sometime.”

“We are much further north than St. Petersburg, it is true. Though even for here this is unseasonably cold.,” Ivan consents, gazing out the window himself.

“It must have been strange, coming back here after being gone so long.”

“Of course,” the bigger man chuckles. “It was a strange feeling. Unnerving, like walking over your own grave. Everything was exactly as I’d left it, but I was very different.”

“How long did you serve?”

“Only three years, thank the Almighty. But I shouldn’t complain, I had a very cushy position thanks to my father. All the glory, but none of the work. Benefit of being a landowner, unfortunately.”

Mishka grits his teeth, but it seems as if Ivan doesn’t notice.

“More importantly,” he continues, “I never told you I was a soldier. How did you know?”

“Just a guess,” Mishka lies through his clenched teeth. “You hold yourself like one.”

“Strong and proud, fighting for one’s king and country?” Ivan smirks a little, and Mishka doesn’t miss the irony.

So he shakes his head. “No. Your eyes keep darting back and forth, as if you’re looking for snipers.”

They both laugh then, as harshly as the wind outside the carriage window.

“Yes,” Ivan muses, his gaze growing distant. “I’ve seen things. The rebellion, for instance. Did you know they’re calling it Bloody Sunday, now? Terrible day, that. Terrible year.”

“Don’t you mean the revolution?” Mishka can only look at Ivan from the corner of his eyes, so that his expression doesn’t give too much away.

But Ivan merely laughs again. “Oh, my friend, you are an idealist, perhaps. But a mistaken one. It is only a revolution if it succeeds.”

Mishka has to bite his lip to keep from speaking out of turn, though something in the inside of his mind is screaming. “That depends on your definition of the word.”

“So there is an academic in there after all,” Ivan smiles. “And here I had thought that you seemed a little dim. Tell me,” he leans forward, “do you intend to disagree with me?”

There’s something in his eyes, behind the wry smile and placid gaze. Just for a split second, something that is begging Mishka to do it, to see what happens. Something off-putting; it makes Mishka’s skin crawl. But then with a blink, it’s gone, only leaving Ivan’s mild smile behind. Mishka should leave well enough alone. Too bad he has no other option.

“I would,” Mishka stumbles slightly. “But something tells me that’s not a good idea.”

“You’re a smart man. You will make a good tutor for Katya.”

Taking a calming breath, Mishka turns to stare off at the misty hills. “Any idea when we’ll reach the manor?” he asks, trying to change the subject.

“From here? It should only be a matter of minutes.” Ivan looks as well, pushing aside the faded curtains with a surprisingly slender hand. “Ah, I think you can see it now.”

And indeed, if he squints, Mishka can begin to make out the outline of a large building through the thick fog, perched at the top of a cliff-face. As they grow closer, the horses seem to gallop faster, sensing that home is near. Slowly, the manor becomes more distinct. It’s an imposing building, more fortress than estate with its rough stone walls. Old houses like this have souls, Mishka is sure, and this one does not want him here. He shivers again, feeling its strange gaze.

“Beautiful, in its own, terrible way, isn’t it?” Ivan smiles with a twinge of nostalgia. Mishka thinks it’s more horrifying than anything, but he nods anyway.

After a few minutes of watching that house grow closer and closer, following their progress with a feline-like gaze, he gets the distinct impression that it sees right through him. But finally, the carriage trundles up to the main gate. Even though the place seems largely deserted, there must be someone watching the entrance, for the large, rot-iron bars raise with a hollow clang after only a few seconds’ delay.

For a moment, the passage beyond the gate seems to swallow them as they pass under the thick walls. “You’ll have to pardon the old house,” Ivan apologizes when he sees Mishka’s expression. “She was built during a time when attacks came with metal and fire.”

“I’d say that’s still true to this day,” Mishka adds.

But Ivan shakes his head. “No, my friend,” he smiles sadly, though Mishka perceives a little condescension in his gaze as well. “Today, the worst wounds are caused by words and intentions.”

Mishka doesn’t have time to ponder his words, however, for then they emerge into a small, bare courtyard, and he notices for the first time that it has started to rain. It isn’t until he steps out into the downpour, however, that he realizes how sad the courtyard is. The ground under his feet is mostly dirt, now swirling into mud from the rain, and the only bit of color is a failed attempt at a flowerbed, where a few wilted roses remain. At this point they appear to be more thorns than petals.

A stableboy comes up behind him, and Mishka nearly jumps out of his skin.

“Do not mind him,” Ivan shouts through the rain. “He will take your bags to your room.”

Mishka has to force himself to not wrestle the man for his trunk. What if he were to look and see what is inside? But it will look suspicious if he hesitates, so with great mental effort he hands it over, hoping that the stableboy isn’t a sneak or a thief, and that the bag will be delivered safely.

Ivan waves him onward, and the two men climb the worn, stone steps up to the manor proper. When he notices Mishka staring at the snarling wolf-head that serves as the door’s knocker, Ivan chuckles. “A little dramatic, I suppose, but it is the family symbol. What are you to do? We are the Volkovs, after all.”

An optical illusion, his rational mind tells him, of course it is. But all the same, Mishka can’t help thinking that the wolf’s eyes follow him as he passes over the threshold.

The foyer is even darker than it is outside, and only minimally warmer. A few candles flicker wearily in the wall sockets, but this only seems to make the shadows deeper. The rain patters with frantic beats upon the stone walls and roof, surrounding him on all sides. Is that hail? He shutters, reminded all too well of gunshots.

Seeing their bedraggled state, a footman with a blond mop of hair emerges from the gloom to take their coats. Ivan slips right out of his, but Mishka has to do an awkward little dance to figure out how two people take off one coat.

“Thank you, Kapov,” Ivan smiles. The footman nods and disappears again.

“That is Dmitri Kapov, our first footman. Also acting as butler seeing as we are between them at the moment.”

“As we have been for several years,” a new voice rings out, and just as Mishka squints to peer into the darkness, a flash of lightning illuminates the silhouette of a small, slender figure on the plush stairs ahead of them.

“We would not be if we would just promote Kapov formally, Tasha,” Ivan sighs, not missing a beat. Despite his tone, however, Mishka can’t help but notice the tension leaving the large man’s shoulders, the way he stands up a little straighter.

The figure glides down the stairs, and as she does, Mishka can finally make out the proper appearance of the woman. She is petite, though her posture makes her seem taller, and a thin, withdrawn face perches atop her long, slender neck, framed by hair so blonde it almost glows white in the darkness.

“He is too young yet, Vanya,” she shakes her head, eyes all for Ivan, as if she hasn’t even noticed Mishka’s presence. “The other servants will grumble. Ah, but I’m being rude.” Finally, she turns her piercing gaze to Mishka, in such a smooth manner that she must have been watching him out of the corner of her eye this entire time. “You are Mikhail Borozov.”

It is not a question.

“Yes,” he answers her anyway.

“This is the Lady Natalya Valentina Volkovna,” Ivan steps in, “my sister.”

A minuscule smirk finally breaks her stone-like expression. “Older sister,” she corrects before holding out her hand for Mishka, which he takes, but hesitates to kiss.

Ivan’s eyebrows knit together. “By five minutes...” he grumbles.

Looking back and forth between them, Mishka can notice some similarities in appearance. Same white-blonde hair, same shade of icy blue in their eyes. And of course, the same nose that hooks outward ever so slightly.

“So... you are twins?” he asks.

“What an astute inference,” Natalya’s smirk widens. “You will certainly be a worthy tutor for our youngest sister.”

He gets the distinct impression she’s making fun of him, but he feels the joke goes deeper than he really knows.

“Ah, but you must be very tired from the journey,” she continues after seeing the somewhat gormless expression his face has taken on. “I’m hosting a little soiree this evening, to celebrate the start of a new season, and many of the attendants will be curious about the new tutor. You will attend, won’t you? So, you should rest until then.”

It seems to him that he hasn’t actually been given any choice in the matter, but Mishka doesn’t believe he could have gotten a word in edgewise if he’d tried.

“My maid will show you to your room. Ms. Steel?”

A tall woman in black emerges from the gloom between the gas lamps. Mishka wonders if she’s been there the entire time.

Natalya doesn’t even look back to check if she’s there before she begins relaying instructions. “Ada, please take Monsieur Borozov to his new room.”

“Of course, Madame,” the maid curtsies before turning to Mishka. “Follow me, please.”

She begins to lead him up the stairs, but he only makes it to the first landing before Natalya calls out to him. “Oh, and Monsieur Borozov...” he almost doesn’t turn at all, never having been referred to with a title before. “One last thing,” she continues once he finally does notice. “Lunch will be served in the dining room in one hour. If it’s not too much of an imposition for you, the rest of the family would love to make your acquaintance.”

What happened to him resting up? Internally he sighs, but he looks back down to Natalya and Ivan and nods. “I’ll be there.”

The maid, Ms. Steel, turns and waits for him at the top of the stairs, and he hurries after her, his footsteps surprisingly muffled by the thick carpet.

She leads him down the dark hallway in silence, and Mishka almost gets lost in the hum of the gas lamps before she breaks it. “I’m sure the Lady will tell you, but you should know that both the north wing and the cellar are off-limits.”

“May I ask why?” His voice comes out quieter than he intends. The walls are very thick.

“The house is old,” she explains. “And with so few people here to maintain it, certain areas have fallen into disrepair. Or so I’ve been told...”

Mishka doesn’t miss that final, ominous note, but he doesn’t quite know how to respond to it, so the two fall back into silence. “Excuse me,” he says finally, changing the subject. “Miss. You’re not Russian, are you?”

“No, I am not.”

“English, maybe?”

“Yes, was it that obvious?”

“I just mostly figured from the name. Also, you speak Russian very well, but you have a slight accent.” He runs a hand through his hair, hoping he isn’t being too out of line.

She makes a small noise at the back of her throat. “No one’s told me that so far...” But before she can say anything else they stop in front of a narrow door. “Here are your quarters. You may roam the house and grounds as you see fit, excepting the aforementioned areas. The day-to-day dining room is located to the right, just off the foyer, but in the future, we can bring your meals to your rooms if you’d like.”

It is very strange to have the maid looking downwards, avoiding eye-contact with him. He’s certainly not a noble. In fact, if this maid knew who he really is...

“Oh, one more thing, Monsieur Borozov,” she says as he opens the door. He turns back to her, only to see that for the first time since he’s met her, she’s staring straight at him with her bright, green eyes. “These walls have eyes, and none of them mean you any good. Watch you step, if you would.”

She knows who he is. Mishka’s heart rises to his throat as the rest of his body turns to ice. She much have opened his trunk, that’s the only explanation. It’s irrational, he knows, but to his suddenly panicked mind, her words can only be read as a threat.

“Thank... you...” he manages weakly as she curtsies and turns. Mishka watches her fade from sight down the hallway, and as soon as she’s gone, bolts into the room. Where is it? Where is his trunk? His quarters are a whole suite of rooms, but after a panicked second, he stumbles into the bedroom, and there it rests, right next to the bed.

He tears the lid open and... nothing’s been touched. His clothes are folded exactly as he packed them, and his book on Greek Philosophers is still right where he put it at the top. While his chest begins to loosen, Mishka reaches down to the bottom of the box. He has one more thing he needs to check before he can be confident that his identity is safe.

Cold metal reaches his fingers, and he pulls the pistol from the depths of the trunk. It’s a gun that’s seen heavy use, its surface dull and faded. But it will do its intended job. When the time comes, Mishka is certain that it will kill Ivan Volkov.

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