by kanatsu (かなつ)
The letter arrived when Father was already dying. The doctor took me aside and said, “I am sorry, Nikolai Yuryevich.”
I felt as if my face had frozen. I stood there, unable to move, unable to speak, as the doctor told me, “A week, maybe two, at best. I can do no more.”
“No. You did everything you could.” I pushed past him and entered the sickroom, where Father was sitting up in bed, his frail, emaciated hands holding a piece of paper. He smiled with mottled lips, as he stretched out a hand to me.
“It is a comfort to have you here, Kolya.” He spoke slowly, as if struggling to shape each word. “But you should return to St. Petersburg, instead of waiting for me to die.”
“Don’t say that, Father,” I choked, taking his hand in my own.
“I heard what Anton Pavlovich said. I have a week.” He sighed. “A week is a long time to an old man. But you are still young.”
“I will stay with you to the end.”
“Stepan Ilyich needs you more than I do, my son. I heard the embassy has left for France already.”
“Prince Gorodin knows of my situation. He told me to join him in Paris when I am ready.”
“He is a good man.” Father sighed again and turned back to the letter in his other hand. He said hesitantly, “A letter came for me today. A letter from an old … friend.”
“Aleksandra Petrovna. We grew up together, you know. When she made her introduction to the court, she was called the most beautiful girl in St. Petersburg.
“I loved her madly. I would have asked her to marry me if she had not eloped with a soldier on her eighteenth birthday.”
I made a noise of disbelief, and he smiled again.
“A romantic story, no? I could scarcely believe it myself when I heard. She left me a letter telling me goodbye. I haven’t heard from her since … until now.” He passed me the letter and motioned for me to read.
It has been so many years since I’ve called you by that name … so many years since we last spoke. Do you still remember me? If you do, you must be imagining the pretty little girl who played hide-and-seek with you in the country orchards … or perhaps the naive young lady who danced with you at her first ball.
I am very much changed now. You would not recognize me, nor I you, even if we could meet again.
The doctor tells me I will not live much longer. A condition of the heart, although I do not fully understand his explanations. I am not afraid to die, Yura, for it will reunite me with him, who passed away so long ago. But I have a son, who has no one else in the world but me to take care of him. What will become of him?
I don’t know who else to turn to. Yura, for my sake, for the sake of the girl you once knew, would you take him as your own? My brother will not speak to me, my parents are long dead and gone — but you, you who once loved me, could you find it in your heart to love him too? Please, Yura, I beg of you.
I looked up from the letter. “But Father, this request is simply ridiculous! To impose on us after all these years –”
Father gazed out the window. “I never could say no to her.”
“When was this letter written? Perhaps we could find her, make other arrangements –”
“The letter came with a note. Sasha died six months ago. The boy is currently staying with the landlady, but she has six children of her own. He’ll be sent to an orphanage if no one comes to claim him.”
“But to adopt a boy you’ve never met or seen … we don’t even know who his father is.”
“Does it matter? He is Sasha’s son.”
“Father, let’s speak of this matter later. Perhaps when you’re better –”
He stopped me with a raised hand. “I’m dying, Kolya. Think of it as my last request to you, to take this boy and bring him up as if he were your brother. As if he too were my son.”
I could only stare at him, aghast.
Ten days later, Father passed away quietly in his sleep. He never once mentioned the letter again, but it remained on the small table next to his bed, always within sight. As I kissed his cold forehead one last time, I saw it waiting there, reminding me of the promise I never gave.
After the funeral, I set out immediately to find the village whence the letter came. It took four days journeying by horse, but the house itself was easy to find once I arrived. I waited in the carriage, while Vanka, my valet, knocked on the door.
“What do you want?” asked a harried-looking woman as she answered the door, with one child on her arm and another pulling at her skirts.
“Are you Agrafena Mikhailovna?”
“Yes,” she said suspiciously. “If it’s about the money, I’ll have it for you in a month when my husband comes home.”
“My name is Ivan Semyonovich, servant to Prince Leonov,” Vanka said with a smile and a bow. “Forgive me for the intrusion, but is it true that the late Countess Solevskaya spent her last days in this house?”
“Better known to you as Aleksandra Petrovna? She was an old friend of the Leonovs, and His Excellency received a letter from her shortly before she passed away.”
“Aleksandra Petrovna! Why yes, she did live here — to think that she was a countess! I always knew she was a lady, with those manners of hers and that way she walked, but a countess! Who would have guessed?”
Vanka nodded impatiently. “The letter mentioned that she had a son …?”
The woman nodded and leaned back behind the door to shout, “Vasya! Vasya!”
I leaned a little closer to the window to catch a better glimpse as the boy walked out, his head bent low as if he were studying the ground.
“Here he is. Vasya, this good man is a messenger from your mama’s friends. See, they’ve come looking for you, just as your mama said.”
The boy nodded, still not lifting his head. I could only see his dark, unruly hair.
Vanka grinned. “His Excellency has agreed to adopt little Vasya, in memory of the late Countess.”
The woman looked relieved. “Oh, thank God! I was at my wits’ end … oh, it’s good of His Excellency, may God bless him!” She nudged the boy forward. “Go on, Vasya, say thank you to the kind man. He’ll be taking you to your new home.”
I could not hear the boy, but he must have mumbled something, for Vanka asked the woman to bring out any belongings and led the boy to my carriage. He helped the boy up into the seat across from mine.
“Hello, Vasya,” I said, after an awkward silence.
He lifted his head and met my eyes with a defiant look. I was startled to see the curious shape of his narrow, slanted eyes, which seemed unusually luminous in his thin face. He corrected me in a quiet voice, “My name is Vassily Aleksandrovich.”
I leaned back in my seat, feeling bemused. “Very well then, Vassily Aleksandrovich. A long name for such a small boy.”
“I’ll be twelve next month,” he replied and looked down again at his knees. I did not know what else to say, so we both waited in silence as Vanka loaded two small bags onto the carriage. I handed him a thin wallet.
“Give this to the woman, with my thanks.”
“Very well, milord.”
There was little conversation on the long journey back.
“I must apologize. I haven’t yet introduced myself. My name is Nikolai Yuryevich Leonov. You may think of me as your new guardian.”
He nodded, still refusing to look up. He tilted his face to the side, as if to avoid my gaze.
“Your mother was once … very close to my father. She asked him, before she died, if he could adopt you after she was gone.” I paused and closed my eyes for a moment. “He too passed away not long after he received her letter. But it was his dying wish that you be brought here and raised as his son.”
Vassily raised his head a little. “Your father … he’s dead too?”
“Oh. I’m very sorry.”
I tried to smile at him, though he had returned to staring at his shoes. “I’m afraid I’m not old enough to be a father to you, but I shall think of you as my own brother. If there is anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask. Father’s estate is now mine, but I have ensured that you’ll be provided for, once you come of age. But I suspect you won’t be thinking of such things for some time yet.”
There was a knock at the door. “Come in,” I called out, and my aunt sailed in, dressed in mourning.
“Ah, Kolya, finally you’re back.” She paused when she saw Vassily, standing quietly by my desk. “So. Is this Aleksandra Petrovna’s son?”
I nodded and turned to the boy. “Vassily Aleksandrovich, this is my aunt, Princess Sofya Andreyevna.”
Vassily bowed. Aunt Sofya held out her arms and embraced the boy tightly. “Oh, the poor darling,” she murmured, her eyes filled with tears. “Let me see your face.” She gently took Vassily’s face in both hands.
“Ah! — those blue eyes. I heard she ran off with a Kirghiz man. But his chin and mouth are all Sasha’s. They said that men fell in love with her for that mouth alone. I was only ten at the time, but even then I could see how she could devastate men with a single smile. I wanted so much to be just like her — before she disappeared.”
I interrupted her reverie. “I’ll have to leave for Paris soon. I’ll be returning to St. Petersburg next week. I trust that you’ll take care of him while I’m gone?”
“Of course,” she said, as she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief.
I began to pace. “You’ll have to arrange for a tutor … and we’ll have to see about some proper clothes. I’ve arranged for him to take my old room. It should suit him nicely.”
“I know what to do, Kolya. Stop worrying, and let me handle things,” she told me with an exasperated smile. “Or have you forgotten who raised you like a son ever since your own mother died?”
“Oh, Aunt Sofya.” We laughed, and I leaned down to take Vassily’s hand. “Well, Vassily Aleksandrovich, I’ll show you to your new room.”
He followed obediently as we led him down the corridor to the rooms in the east wing. “Aunt Sofya, you’ll need to see about getting some new linens for this bed. Now, Vassily Aleksandrovich, what do you think?”
He looked up and studied the room cautiously, gazing at each and every object as if to memorize their shape and color.
“Do you like it?” Aunt Sofya asked.
He nodded and glanced up at her with an odd expression in his eyes, before ducking his head again. He seemed very small in the large, airy room, and I couldn’t help but think that he looked rather lost and alone. “Be kind to him, Aunt Sofya,” I said quietly.
He did not sleep well, that first night. Being a light sleeper, I woke to the faint but distinctive sound of someone sobbing, a sort of gasping cry that was half-muffled by the walls. My rooms were in the east wing, not far from Vassily’s own, so it did not take me long to find him huddled in a heap, his face pressed against his pillow.
I sat on the edge of the bed and touched his shoulder. He was whispering, between each long, shuddering breath, “Mama … Mama!”
“Vasya,” I said, shaking his shoulder. He lifted his head from his wet pillow and looked at me beseechingly, his pale eyes seeming almost ghostly in the moonlight. His cheeks were red and damp.
“I want to go home,” he gasped and clutched at me, pressing his face against my chest. The warmth of his tears trickled through the fabric of my nightshirt. I did not know what else to do but stroke his back and attempt to calm his trembling body.
“Shhh, shhh,” I hushed. “Don’t cry, Vasya.”
His sobs turned into hiccups as he leaned against me. I tucked the tendrils of his hair away from his face and looked down at the boy who was now, for better or for worse, my responsibility. He belonged to me, I realized, watching his breathing quiet down to a gentle rhythm. One of his hands was half-curled against my waist, the other still holding tightly to my shirt, as if afraid that I would disappear.
“I’ll take care of you,” I promised drowsily, leaning back against the wall, as I too fell asleep.
It was a damp, gray morning as Vanka loaded my luggage into the carriage, while I made my goodbyes to the family.
First, Aunt Sofya, who gave me a reassuring smile and kissed me on both cheeks. I reminded her, for perhaps the tenth time, “If there is anything that needs my attention, write to Prince Stepan Ilyich Gorodin at the Russian embassy in Paris. The ambassador will see to it that I receive your letter.”
“I know,” she told me and patted me on the cheek.
Then, my little cousin Katya. “Well, Katyusha, it looks like you are free to terrorize this house while I am gone.” I winked at her.
She stuck her tongue out at me, then asked me curiously, “When will you be back, Kolya?”
“Whenever the tsar calls me back to court, of course.”
Her expression grew solemn. “How far away is Paris?”
“Very, very far away. But not too far away.” I bent down and kissed her forehead.
“Goodbye, Kolya,” she said and curtsied prettily. I smiled and turned to the last person waiting to bid me farewell.
“Goodbye, Vassily Aleksandrovich.” I held out my hand.
His face was averted as usual, not letting me meet his eyes. He took my hand and slowly shook it. “Goodbye,” he said, in his hoarse, nervous voice.
“Aunt Sofya will see to your needs. And you must write to me, if you ever want anything.”
My bags were all loaded, and the carriage was ready to go. I hesitated and tried to think of something more to say. His silence stood between us like a wall, and I could not leave him like that, frozen in his own separate world. I still didn’t know this shy, sullen boy, who was supposed to be my ward and brother, but I did know that he needed me. “Goodbye,” I said again, feeling foolish, and kissed him on the forehead.
“Don’t go,” he said almost inaudibly and touched the cuff of my sleeve.
I could only answer, “I’m sorry,” as I turned to leave.
It would be my last memory of him for the next nine years: Vassily as he lifted his head and watched my carriage leave, his odd-shaped eyes holding an unreadable expression. He stood very straight and still, a steady shadow diminishing into distance as I moved farther and farther away.
Dear Vassily Aleksandrovich,
I hope this letter finds you well. Aunt Sofya tells me that you’ve been diligent at your studies, and I am glad to hear of the progress you have made. If you continue to do well, perhaps I can arrange for your introduction to the court. There are places for young men of uncertain parentage but great talent, and while your father’s name may be unknown, I know that people have not yet forgotten the former Countess Solevskaya.
Today I received the papers approving your adoption. Now you will be known to the world as Vassily Yuryevich Leonov. I know it will be difficult to change your name … but remember, you haven’t lost your mother, only gained a father and a brother.
I am sending you a small volume penned by a certain M. Voltaire, who has gained considerable notoriety here in recent years. It is a short pamphlet titled Candide, and although I hesitate at its scandalous content, I hope that it will help you with your French and trust that you shall not be unduly influenced by its heretical ideas. Sometimes I believe the salons of Paris are too clever for their own good. Discipline is as necessary as liberty in thought.
I expect to hear a summary of your studies in your next letter. Until then, may God watch over you.
Dear Cousin Kolya,
How are you? How is Paris? We’ve been hearing some frightening rumors lately, and Mama is quite worried for you. Anton Pavlovich says that the French are all radicals and atheists. What’s an atheist? It must be something quite horrible, from the way Anton Pavlovich frowns whenever he says it. Poor Kolya, living among such awful people like that. I hope you come home soon.
It’s been nearly five years! Sometimes I’m afraid that I no longer remember your face. Then I ask Vassily Yuryevich, and he draws me a sketch to remind me. Isn’t it strange? Vassily Yuryevich never seems to look at anyone, and yet he remembers their faces perfectly. He drew a portrait of me and one of Mama too. Mama said that she didn’t need to look in a mirror anymore because the portrait came out so well.
Vassily Yuryevich wants you to come home too. He never says anything, but I know. We all miss you.
The recent news from France is frightening. We pray for your safety every night. Does Prince Gorodin intend to stay in Paris much longer? I know that it is a mark of distinction that he has been allowed to serve as ambassador for so long, but it still worries me, Kolya. Nine years is an exile, not an honor. And Katya has turned sixteen this year … she’ll be thinking of marriage soon. Surely you’ll return for her wedding?
I’ve given Vasya the books you sent with your last letter. He is positively fluent in French now and converses with Anton Pavlovich about all sorts of things that I suspect would be incomprehensible to me even if I could follow their rapid chatter. You would be proud of him, if you saw him. Your father would be as well. A perfect gentleman, very much like you if he weren’t so shy.
I’ve just realized, Vasya is nearly the same age that you were when you left for Paris. Tell me, when are you coming home?
The sun was rising as we pulled up in front of the house after a night of traveling without rest. The grooms were roused from a sound sleep to take care of the weary carriage horses. I slipped into the house as quietly as I could, instructing the housekeeper to not disturb my aunt and let her know of my arrival after she awoke. I felt disoriented as I walked up the stairway and turned into the east wing; the outlines of the house had not changed after nine years but it still felt unfamiliar, like a dusty memory from a dream. An unfamiliar portrait hung in an alcove on the landing, and I stood before it for a long moment, wondering whose face it was, until I finally recognized my little cousin Katyusha in the maiden’s face on the wall. Surely she hadn’t grown up so soon. For a moment, I wondered if I had accidentally entered the wrong house.
I had forgotten how long a time nine years could be.
I stopped next to the door that I thought was mine and hesitantly opened the door. I breathed a sigh of relief when I looked inside; here at least, nothing had been changed. The bed, still with the same couverture, and the little washstand with the porcelain jug … the small table where I used to take my breakfast, and the heavy old wardrobe that once belonged to my mother. I relaxed and sat down at the table.
“Get me a change of clothes from my valise,” I told Vanka, who bowed and left the room. I got up to wash my face and hands with the water from the jug, then took off my shirt and cravat, throwing them on the bed.
I felt a gentle tap at my elbow, and a hand guided my arm into a new shirt. It was a relief to feel the crisp, clean fabric against my skin; I hadn’t had a chance to change since stopping in St. Petersburg. “Thank you, Vanka,” I said as I shrugged the shirt on and turned to have it buttoned.
It was not Vanka who was reaching up to fasten my collar.
I knocked aside the stranger’s hands and demanded, “Who are you and what are you doing in my room?”
He was short, with neatly cropped black hair, and his eyes were lowered, almost demurely, to the ground. I noticed first the mouth, with its full, well-formed lips, then the deep blush upon his cheeks. But I did not recognize him until he nervously glanced up and I saw those pale, slanted eyes.
“Vassily Aleksandrovich?” I asked incredulously. He had been such a small boy when I left, but now — I added the years in my head — he was nearly twenty-one.
“It’s Vassily Yuryevich,” he reminded me, turning his face away again. So he had not lost that habit of his after all these years. But his voice was deeper and no longer as soft and hoarse as I remembered it.
He reached up again to continue buttoning my shirt and was nearly finished before I could think of what to say. “But what are you doing here? You should go back to sleep. I was going to wait until the family was awake –”
“They said you would be returning this week. I’ve stayed up every night waiting for your return.” He took a new cravat and began tying it around my neck.
I grasped his chin so he could not look away. “But what are you doing here? I have a valet to wait on me. If you wanted to see me, you only had to come by.”
He did not answer.
“Vassily Alek — I mean, Vassily Yuryevich,” I began, my tone exasperated.
He interrupted me. “You find it difficult to say as well. I’m not your brother, Nikolai Yuryevich.” With that he bowed and murmured, “Excuse me,” before leaving the room.
“I thought I asked you to treat him as my own brother — as your nephew,” I reproached Aunt Sofya later that morning.
She looked worried and confused. “Why, is something wrong? Has Vasya complained to you?”
“He seems to believe that it is his duty to wait on me. How has he been treated in this house to assume that such behavior is expected of him? What am I to think?”
“But we’ve never … I’ve always made it clear to the servants that he is one of the family, and Katyusha thinks of him as an older brother. No, listen to me, Kolya,” she said, laying a placating hand on my arm, “even if it were not for my late brother’s memory and my own regard for his deceased mother, I would still consider him as dear to me as my own flesh and blood.”
I scowled. “Then why doesn’t he behave according to his station? He’s hovered at my door all morning, bringing me clothes from my valise and carrying in my breakfast. He refuses to let Vanka into the room!”
Aunt Sofya shook her head. “He’s never behaved like that before. Let me speak to him, Kolya, and sort everything out.”
“I would appreciate it, if you could, Aunt Sofya,” I said, calming down. “I didn’t mean to accuse you. It’s just that –”
“I understand. Your father’s last wish … and you’ve been in Paris for so long. But there’s no reason to feel guilty, Kolya. You’ve done everything you could.”
“Thank you,” I said quietly, staring at my hands.
She nodded, before asking hesitantly, “Will you be returning to St. Petersburg?”
“Yes, in about a month. His Excellency will be reporting to the tsar, and I must accompany him.”
“I see.” She paused, passing her hands nervously over the table. “You know that Katyusha is turning sixteen.”
“Indeed. How time flies,” I said with a rueful laugh.
“She’s old enough to make her debut,” my aunt continued, “and I thought perhaps I could prevail on you to –”
“Sponsor her? Of course, Aunt Sofya, how could you ever think otherwise? I’ve already made arrangements for you and Katyusha to join me in St. Petersburg this fall.”
“Thank you, Kolya. What would I do without you?”
“There’s no need for gratitude. It’s only my duty, after all.”
Over the next month, Vassily gradually proceeded to drive me insane. He followed me wherever I went, remaining behind my right elbow so that he was out-of-sight but poised to serve my slightest request. I would sit at my desk while I answered my correspondence, unaware of his presence until I ran out of ink and found a new bottle already placed discreetly next to my pens. If I turned, Vassily would be standing by the window, his hands clasped before him and his head bowed in thought.
When I woke early in the mornings, he would be there in my bedroom, laying out my clothes for the day. Vanka refused to stop him and only told me, laughing, “It’s not my place to tell the young master what to do, milord.”
If I mentioned that I would be riding out that morning, I would find my horse waiting for me in the courtyard, groomed and ready to ride, its reins held in Vassily’s hands. When I returned to the stable, I would find him still there, ready to take the bridle and saddle and groom the horse after its exercise.
Once I even found him dusting off the furniture in my study. I learned later from Vanka that he had chased the maids out of my rooms and laid claim to their cleaning rags.
He didn’t behave in such a fashion to Aunt Sofya or to Katyusha — only to me. I asked him repeatedly to explain himself, but he never answered me.
“Everyone in this house has become simply impossible. No one listens to me anymore,” I complained to Aunt Sofya at dinner. Vassily, instead of eating his meal by my side as I had ordered, was waiting on me personally. The pages only smirked and continued serving the rest of the family, while Vassily stood unobtrusively behind my chair and filled my glass with wine whenever it became empty. He was as quiet as a cat; I would not have noticed his presence if I had not so keenly felt his absence at the table.
“Now, Kolya,” Aunt Sofya said reprovingly, glancing up nervously behind me, where Vassily was undoubtedly standing with his usual demure expression.
“Am I wrong?” I stopped as an arm reached around me to take my plate. I caught his wrist and looked up at him. “Do you find it amusing, Vassily Aleksandrovich, to make a fool out of me in my own house?”
He drew back, with a curious tremble to his mouth. “No, Nikolai Yuryevich, that was not my intention –”
“Then why do you persist in defying me?” I exhaled and tried to speak more gently. “Please, stop this nonsense and take your seat at the table. You are not a servant.”
He seemed about to speak, but instead swiftly turned around and left the dining room, the plate still carefully balanced on his arm.
We left for St. Petersburg that autumn as the leaves were beginning to change color. As soon as we arrived, I was caught up in a swirl of paperwork and appointments. Our townhouse had to be readied for Katyusha’s debut, and I was also obliged to pay visits to Father’s old acquaintances and renew my own contacts in the capital. I had little time to pay attention to the problem of Vassily other than to make arrangements for his introduction to court.
Prince Gorodin had been promoted to privy councillor, and as his personal aide, my own status had risen by association. It had become my hope, even expectation, that I could obtain a position for my ward and thus secure his future — if only St. Petersburg could be convinced to see past Vassily’s illegitimacy. Surely Father would have expected no less for him, I thought as I spent my afternoons and evenings paying calls to the appropriate officials.
We had received an invitation to Prince Gorodin’s ball, and Aunt Sofya and I agreed that Katyusha would attend as well. I assumed that Vassily was to accompany us, but when the evening of the ball arrived, he was still in his afternoon suit.
“Vassily Aleksandrovich! Why aren’t you dressed? We only have an hour left before the carriage comes.”
He looked at me in confusion. “But –”
I didn’t listen to his protests but forced him to stand so I could unbutton his coat. “Vanka, lay out his eveningwear this instant,” I called out.
“Really, Vassily Aleksandrovich, must you be so stubborn?” I sighed and allowed him to continue undressing by himself. “This ball will be as much your introduction to society as it is Katya’s. I plan to introduce you to several of Father’s friends, and if you make a good impression, I’m certain that I’ll be able to arrange for you to take a position as secretary to one of the court officials.”
He slowly took off his shirt and turned away, with a blush. He clutched the shirt to his bare chest and asked, in a strangled voice, “Would you please leave the room, Nikolai Yuryevich?”
I suddenly realized that he was embarrassed. “Oh! Excuse me.” I left the room quickly.
Vassily shadowed me throughout the ball, keeping to my side as if he were afraid of getting lost in the crowds that circled throughout the glittering rooms. The women were dressed in the latest French fashions — I thought, with a touch of self-satisfaction, that Katyusha would not fail to hold her own in that regard — and eager for the dancing to begin. I excused myself from Aunt Sofya’s side and went to pay my respects to the host, who was discussing politics with his peers.
Stepan Ilyich Gorodin was twenty years my elder, and his colleagues were of a similar age. I felt my comparative youth keenly and did not dare to venture more than a few words in the conversation. It was, however, somewhat reassuring to have Vassily Aleksandrovich by my side, seeming even more ill at ease than I felt.
“Well, if it isn’t Prince Leonov,” said a voice behind me. I turned to find Grigor Ivanovich Mitrovsky grinning at me with the usual sly quirk to his eyebrows. His father, Count Mitrovsky, was there as well and studying Vassily with an open stare.
“It’s been a long time, Grigor Ivanovich,” I said stiffly, with a slight bow.
He snorted. “Nine years. You must find St. Petersburg to be a bore after the excitement of Paris.”
“Not at all. It’s good to be back home,” I said in my most neutral voice.
“Pardon me, but I believe we haven’t been introduced,” said Count Mitrovsky, addressing himself to my ward.
Before I could answer for him, Vassily replied quietly, “My name is Vassily Aleksandrovich Solevsky. His Excellency, Prince Leonov, kindly took me into his household when my mother passed away.”
I tried to hide my surprise at the response. Count Mitrovsky leaned in with narrowed eyes. “Any relation of the late Countess, Aleksandra Petrovna?”
“She was my mother,” he said simply. “I don’t know my father’s name.”
I hastily interrupted, “He was legally adopted into my family several years ago, Count Mitrovsky. He now bears my name: Vassily Yuryevich Leonov.”
“Why not Nikolayevich, while you’re at it,” Grigor murmured, looking amused. I glared at him.
Count Mitrovsky continued to stare at Vassily. “So … Aleksandra Petrovna had a son. Does Count Solevsky know he has a nephew?”
“He does not acknowledge he had a sister, much less a nephew,” I answered curtly.
“Ah, I see.” Count Mitrovsky turned to me with a sharp, knowing smile. “If I were you, Prince Leonov, I would be careful to make sure that your ward does not catch the eye of his uncle. It isn’t wise, these days, to make an enemy of Count Solevsky.”
He bowed and turned back into the crowd. Grigor patted me on the shoulder. “I expect I’ll see you again, Leonov,” he said before he moved on as well.
I stood there frozen, as I watched them go. The drone of the conversation around me filled my ears like an insect buzz, and I felt lightheaded, almost dizzy, as I slowly realized what the Count had just said.
Finally, I reached out and grasped Vassily by the elbow. “Let’s go home,” I said to him and led him out of the ball.
“Sit down,” I told him, gesturing to the chair. He obeyed and watched me with nervous eyes as I began to pace back and forth.
The more I thought back on it, I realized how foolish my plans for Vassily had been. I had forgotten that Count Solevsky had risen to power while I had been away in Paris, and moreover, my own mentor, Prince Gorodin, was one of his close friends. Even if Vassily remained out of sight, Count Mitrovsky was not the only one to have seen him tonight and recognized Aleksandra Petrovna’s face in his. Sooner or later, Vassily’s uncle would hear of the young man with his sister’s mouth and Kirghiz eyes. The Count was notorious for holding grudges — would he arrange to disgrace me so that I wouldn’t be able to return to court again? Or would he ignore the rumors as long as Vassily did not appear in society?
I stopped in my tracks. But what if Count Solevsky decided not to punish his nephew for the mother’s transgressions? What if he chose to take Vassily into his household instead? I closed my eyes. The adoption would be considered void if a blood relative chose to lay claim instead, and no court would back me against the Count.
Would he forgive his sister at last and adopt Vassily himself?
This last possibility seemed the worst of all.
“May I ask what is wrong, Nikolai Yuryevich?” Vassily asked, in a timid voice.
I sighed and sat down in the other chair across from him. I tried to think of how to begin. “You must understand. Your uncle is an important man.”
He nodded and waited for me to continue.
“He was … very angry after your mother brought disgrace on the Solevsky family by running away with a soldier. He never forgave her, and it’s quite possible that he’s still angry with her.”
“Does he hate me?”
“No, I don’t know if he even knows of your existence. Yet.”
“Oh,” Vassily said. “Is that why I’m here with you, instead of my uncle?”
“Yes.” I stood up and started to pace again. “If only you hadn’t given your real name to Count Mitrovsky … why did you say that, anyway? You’re legally a Leonov.”
“But you still call me Vassily Aleksandrovich.”
I sighed and rubbed my forehead. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. It was idiotic of me to believe I could provide a position for you, but Father had asked me to take care of you as if you were my own brother, and I tried my best to honor his request. Believe me, Vassily Alek — I mean, Vassily Yuryevich, I tried my best.”
He stared at his hands. “Is that all I am to you, Nikolai Yuryevich? Your father’s last wish?”
He shook his head. “No, never mind. Then what’s to become of me now?”
“Well, it is clearly impossible for you to enter the court, as long as Count Solevsky is in power.”
Vassily relaxed, looking relieved. “That’s all right. I don’t want to become an official.”
I frowned. “What?”
“I never wanted to enter the court. That was your ambition, not mine.” He looked up at me and smiled. It startled me to realize that it was the first time I was seeing him smile. A perfect curve of a beautiful mouth — I shook my head.
“But I’ve spent these past few weeks arranging for your –”
“Yes, you’ve told me,” he said patiently. “You’ve told me many things, many times, Nikolai Yuryevich, but you’ve never asked me what I wanted.”
“Then … then why didn’t you say something?” I asked angrily.
“Because it made you happy,” he said simply.
The very next evening, a stranger approached me at Princess Makarova’s soiree and inquired stiffly, “Do I have the honor of addressing Prince Leonov?”
“That is my name. And you are?”
“My name is Solevsky.” Seeing my eyes widen, he added, “You may be acquainted with my father, Count Kirill Petrovich Solevsky.”
My mouth went dry. “I’m familiar with the name.”
“Indeed. I’ve been hearing certain rumors, Prince Leonov, about your ward … that he is a relative of mine.”
I was not sure how to answer. Should I assent? Should I try to hide the truth? “I –”
“To be more specific, the son of my late aunt, Countess Aleksandra Petrovna. Vassily Aleksandrovich.” He grimaced slightly at the name.
I nodded slowly. He sighed and motioned me to enter a more private room. Once he had closed the door behind him, I asked, “Does the count know that he has a nephew?”
“No. We only heard of Aunt Aleksandra’s death many years after she passed away … and we never heard that she had left a son.” He gave me a pained smile. “We are indebted to you, Prince Leonov.”
I didn’t know what to say in return, so I simply bowed.
“It’s unfortunate that Father is in Moscow at the moment. But he’ll return in a fortnight, and I am sure that he will want to meet with his … long-lost nephew.” Solevsky gave me a sharp glance. “You have no objections, I suppose?”
“No, none.” I hesitated. “May I ask what the Count intends to do about Vassily Aleksandrovich?”
“I don’t know, since I haven’t written to him yet.”
“He is, by law, a Leonov now,” I said, my voise rising.
“Father considers ties of blood to be of utmost importance.”
“So important that he didn’t even know his only sister died in poverty and left an orphaned son?”
“You are distraught, Prince Leonov,” Solevsky said with a sniff. “But I shall choose to ignore the insult. You will be notified when my father returns.” He bowed and left the room.
When I returned, Vassily was waiting at the door to take my coat and hat. The sight exasperated me, as usual, but the memory of the evening’s encounter with Solevsky aggravated me even more. I turned on him and asked, “How long do you plan to continue this charade?”
“How much longer must I indulge you in these whims? I do everything in my power to give you the life of a gentleman, and yet you hurl my generosity back in my face by behaving like a servant.”
He looked away at his feet. I grabbed his chin and forced him to meet my eyes. “Vassily Aleksandrovich! Is this what you want?”
“Yes,” he said quietly.
I abruptly released his chin. “Very well. If that’s what you want, you will move to the servants’ quarters this very instant. You are no longer my ward or brother.”
He nodded mutely.
“You’ll be serving in the stables until further notice.”
He nodded again and left the room. I leaned on a nearby table to calm my breathing and to shake off my sudden anger. Let him see what a servant’s life was really like, and he would soon come to his senses. Perhaps I should have done this sooner.
What would Count Solevsky say if he saw Vassily hover around me like my own personal valet? I smiled rather bitterly at the thought.
I woke early the next morning, with no Vassily to serve my breakfast and lay out my morning suit. Strangely, I was more irked than relieved by his absence, and the sense of irritation gnawed at me all morning. I couldn’t concentrate on my correspondence and instead spent the time pacing back and forth in my study.
Some fresh air would calm me down, I thought, trying to fight down my own impatience. I sent orders to have my horse saddled and readied as I changed into my riding clothes. I hurried outside to the stables, pulling on my gloves and coat as I walked.
I did not expect the scene before me: the stableboys cheering and whistling as one of the grooms punched another in the face.
“Think you’re the master around here? Well, think again,” the attacker growled before throwing himself at his staggering opponent.
I cleared my throat, but no one seemed to notice my presence. I frowned and demanded more loudly, “What on earth is going on here!”
They froze as they saw me. One of the fighters backed away, holding his hands up guiltily, while the other attempted to pick himself up from the ground. I looked more closely and was shocked to realize it was Vassily who had been attacked. His clothes were torn and muddied, and I saw his lip was split and bleeding as he stood up with a wince.
Before I knew what I was doing, I advanced on the groom and struck him. “How dare you lay hands on my ward!”
“You are dismissed from my service,” I said coldly. “Consider yourself grateful. I should have you flogged for striking a gentleman.”
“I … I had no idea, milord! He just arrived yesterday, and I … we didn’t know –”
“It was my mistake, Nikolai Yuryevich. They did not know who I was, and some took offense at the way I spoke,” Vassily interrupted, his hand catching my sleeve. “Please don’t dismiss him on my behalf.” I looked down at his bruised face and felt even more furious at the sight. I shook off his hand.
“I hope you’ve learned your lesson now,” I snapped. “This incident would never have occurred if you behaved according to your station!”
He stared at me for a long moment, then turned — with a slight limp, I noticed — and led my horse to me. “Your horse, Nikolai Yuryevich.” He bowed and held out the reins.
I pressed my lips and snatched the reins from him. I could almost have hit him again myself from anger; his very posture brought my frustration to a boil. “Very well then. From now on, you will address me as ‘Your Excellency.'”
He bowed again. “Yes, Your Excellency.”
I had him wait on me day and night. At first I didn’t intend to be cruel, but his stubbornness provoked me in ways that I couldn’t fully explain, even to myself. The more he obeyed me, the more he defied my control. Some days, I would send him out on errand after errand, leaving him no time to take his meals. I once watched him return in the middle of dinner, still drenched from walking in the early winter snow, and take his place serving me at the table without complaint. At other times, I ordered him to sit up and wait for me in the evenings, then delayed my return until early dawn, hoping with a certain perversity that I would catch him asleep. But I always found him awake and ready at the door, despite his half-closed eyes and slumping shoulders.
Aunt Sofya berated me, “Kolya, you’re behaving like a child! How can you be such a tyrant? Your father would be ashamed if he saw you now.”
I stiffened. “Vassily Aleksandrovich is my ward and responsibility. I am disciplining him so that he will see the error of his ways.”
“He’s twenty-one years old!”
“If he insists on acting like a servant, then I will treat him like a servant.” I refused to continue the conversation, and she could find no opportunity for further reproaches as the household was turned upside down in the excitement of my cousin’s debut. In the confusion, I retreated to my rooms and tried not to think about Vassily.
My acquaintances at court made casual mention of Count Solevsky’s return, and the thought of what it would mean for me — for Vassily — kept me on edge more than ever. Grigor inquired once after my ward, in his sly drawl of a voice, and I nearly threw my glove in his face. I stopped attending functions and soirées; my irritation gave me a constant headache. Vassily, who had not yet stopped his attendance on me, bore the brunt of my bad temper with a patience that made me feel guilty.
“Why do you do this? Why do you let me say such things to you?” I asked him once, after I had lashed out at him yet again for failing to do as I asked. He had drawn my bath with lukewarm water, instead of the steaming temperature I preferred, and I had ordered him to refill the tub. He carried in his last bucket of hot water, and his face was flushed from exertion.
He paused to wipe his forehead before answering. “Your Excellency was born to command others. It’s my pleasure to obey.”
He didn’t reply, but approached me to unbutton my shirt, and I automatically held out my arms to let him undress me. I had only intended for him to draw my bath, but once again he so swiftly stepped into the role of my valet that I almost forgot that it was not Vanka but Vassily — until I noticed the way his fingers lingered awkwardly over my shoulders. I caught his wrists. He did not meet my eyes but I could hear his breath quicken.
He turned away, blushing even more.
“You haven’t finished, have you?”
“No, Your Excellency.” His voice was barely a whisper.
I hid a smile and finished undressing by myself before entering the tub. He flinched as I passed him and kept his face carefully averted, but didn’t move from the spot. His flustered expression seemed like a challenge — how far would he go? “The sponge, Vassily Aleksandrovich.”
He jumped. “What?”
“It’s customary for the valet to scrub his master’s back. Since you seemed to have appropriated the position.” I tossed him the sponge.
He swallowed and kneeled by the tub. I waited, with as much nonchalance as I could muster, holding my breath in curiosity. Would he concede defeat at last?
In silence, he placed a hand on my shoulder to push me forward and started scrubbing clumsily at my back. I sighed wearily at his obedience. It was yet another match lost in this ridiculous game of wills.
“Your Excellency?” He continued washing my back with the coarse sponge, then with his bare hands, his smooth palms splashing water against my back. Exasperated, I stood up in the tub and turned to look down at him.
He was on his knees, his hands still in the hot, soapy water. He gazed at me with a strange expression, and his mouth was open as if to speak. To my surprise and horror, the sight aroused me. I sat down in the tub abruptly and splashed water all over Vassily and the floor.
“That’s enough. You may go.” I said as curtly as I could, gripping the edges of the tub.
“I told you to go.”
He left, his shirt sleeves still dripping. I watched him go, silencing the part of myself that inexplicably wanted to call him back, to see if he would come.
The letter from Count Solevsky arrived sooner than I had expected. I immediately recognized the seal on the envelope and ripped it open with shaking hands. The contents were terse and to the point: the Count wished to meet with his nephew the following afternoon. I dropped the letter in the fireplace and watched the paper curl up and burn.
Finally, I sent for Vassily.
“I’ve just heard from your uncle. It seems he wishes to meet with you.”
“Yes. His Excellency, Count Solevsky.” The words felt sour in my mouth.
“Tomorrow? Why so soon?”
“Perhaps your uncle is eager to meet his long-lost nephew. Perhaps he hopes to make amends for neglecting your mother. Perhaps he plans to take you away from here as soon as possible and bring you back to your proper family! I don’t know! Why are you asking me?” I slammed a fist down on my desk.
He flinched. “Take me away … from here?”
I said sarcastically, “I hear that the Count Solevsky takes his family matters very seriously.”
“But … he can’t, you adopted me –”
“Your uncle can easily arrange for the adoption to be declared void, given that he has the more legitimate claim.”
“He can’t,” Vassily repeated again, looking stunned.
“Yes, he can and most undoubtedly will, after he hears how his nephew has been no better than a servant boy to the Leonovs for the past several months,” I snapped.
“Please, Your Excellency –”
“Stop calling me that! Don’t you understand? You must never call me that again!”
He knelt down and desperately clutched at my knees. “Please, Nikolai Yuryevich. I don’t want to leave, I can’t.”
I tried to pull him back up. “Must you always be so stubborn? Besides, I have no say in this matter.”
“Please, Kolya. I’ll … I’ll stop disgracing myself, I’ll enter the court, I’ll be the brother you wanted me to be. Just don’t make me leave you.”
My throat tightened. “You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I’ll do anything,” he said hoarsely. “Anything.”
He looked up at me then, with his lips parted — just as I remembered them from before — and my heartbeat began to pulse uncontrollably. I leaned back against the desk to steady myself, but I could already feel the heaviness in my groin. I clenched my teeth. I needed to think … but I couldn’t think.
“There are some things that you can’t do, Vassily Aleksandrovich. Not for me, not for anybody.”
He leaned against my thigh, his hands caressing my calves. “For you, anything,” he said with a sob in his voice.
I looked down at his dark head resting against my leg, and I felt unbearably hot at the imprint of his face and hands. “Unbutton my breeches,” I said, sounding strangely calm despite my confusion.
He lifted his head. “What?”
“You said you’d do anything. Don’t make me repeat myself!” I snapped, more out of nervousness than anger.
He slowly reached up, nervously sliding his hands against the waistline of my breeches before he found the first button. I looked at him, as he undid one, then two — he leaned his face close to my groin in his concentration. I could feel the warmth of his breath against my arousal. I loosened my cravat and gripped the edge of the desk.
He pulled down my open breeches, his hands brushing against my inner thighs — I inadvertently started at the touch of his fingers against my bare skin. He glanced up at me, and I clutched at his head, my fingers tangling in his hair.
He leaned in, his own hands cool against my heated skin, and kissed my swollen erection. I swallowed and pressed convulsively against his full red lips until they opened to let me in. His tongue felt moist and slick and hot — I dug my fingers into his scalp. I thrust again and again into his wet, waiting mouth, trying not to moan as I came.
He jerked back, coughing, and I slid down to the floor, limp and exhausted, my clothes still undone. He was still kneeling, his hands on his knees as he wiped his face awkwardly on his sleeve. I reached up and touched his flushed cheek, and tried to decipher the desperate expression in his strange, slanted eyes.
“Vasya,” I said, breaking the silence.
He gasped and covered his cheeks, saying over and over, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” as he tried to stand up and run away. I caught him by the elbow and forced him down again in my lap, wrapping an arm around his waist and trapping him between my knees, his back against my chest. He squirmed, trying to escape, but I only tightened my hold and ran my fingers down to his breeches, where I could grip his own arousal through the cloth.
He shook his head but fell back against me, his own legs opening at my touch. I massaged his erection, then unbuttoned his breeches to grip it more firmly. He moaned and shifted back in my lap, the cloth of his breeches chafing against my still bare thighs. With my other hand, I unbuttoned his shirt and pulled it open, nipping his ear, his neck, his shoulder. He shuddered in my arms.
“I won’t let you go,” I murmured, kissing his temple.
He gave a strangled cry and thrust up into my hand as he came. He sagged against me, and I embraced him, running my hand over the soft skin of his chest. His eyes were closed.
I buttoned up his clothes and my own, then carried him discreetly to my bed in the next room. I closed the door and spent the night awake in front of the fireplace, unable to fall asleep.
The next day, I watched from my window as the carriage left for Count Solevsky’s townhouse. For nearly an hour afterwards, I did nothing but stare into space, before I forced myself to pay attention to my correspondence. It came as a relief to see the invitation from Count Mitrovsky on my desk — I disliked his parties but it was well-known that he had a fondness for wine and had well-stocked cellars.
I left immediately for the ball, before I could see the carriage return empty.
I was still intoxicated when I returned that night, dizzy and unsteady on my feet. My head had already begun to pound. I reached out in the dim light for support and stumbled, but someone caught me before I fell.
“Your Excellency,” a voice murmured in my ear as thin arms attempted to hold me up.
“Let me go. I can stand.” I lurched forward and collapsed on the sofa with a sigh. A hand nudged at me to turn over, and I squinted up at Vassily’s worried face.
“Vasya,” I said in surprise. “You’re here.”
“Yes, Your Excellency.” He perched himself by my feet and began unlacing my boots.
I watched him in silence, too tired to protest. The soft pressure of his fingers felt unaccountably warm against my feet as they took off my boots carefully, as if handling glass. I wanted to tell him my feet were not so fragile, but my tongue felt too heavy in my mouth to manage proper speech. I could only murmur, “Vasya,” as he drew the leggings down my calves, his palms moist against my bare skin.
His touch was gentle. I couldn’t understand it. I couldn’t understand him … I never did.
“Vasya,” I managed to say again, louder this time. He glanced at me, his eyes narrowed in a strange expression. Was he smiling? I could not tell. I tried to sit up on the chaise to see him properly. “You … came back.”
He looked away. He lowered himself to his knees on the floor by the couch and pressed his cheek against the arch of my foot. It felt soft, so soft … his fingers gripping my ankle tightly, almost convulsively. “Yes, Your Excellency,” he whispered, and I could feel the tickle of his breath as he turned to kiss the soles of my feet, one after another, reverence in his lips. The tender fullness of his mouth, the shiver of arousal running up my legs, the sudden darkness of his cheeks — was he blushing?
“Yes, Your Excellency,” he repeated and kissed my feet again and again.
It was well past noon when I awoke, stiff-necked from sleeping on the sofa. My headache had not subsided. I sat up and stared at my hands for a long moment, wondering whether the memory of that early morning encounter was only a dream. I sighed and buried my head in a nearby cushion.
The door opened, and Vassily crept in quietly, startling when he saw me awake. “Shall I get you something to eat, Your Excellency?”
I stared at his mouth — a fascinating sight. “How did your meeting with your uncle go?”
He licked his lips nervously; I followed the tip of his tongue around his mouth. “It went well. I made it clear that I would stay. Here.” He frowned and added, with a touch of defiance, “With you.”
I stood up. “Come here.”
He obeyed. I grasped him by the shoulders and leaned down to kiss him. His mouth opened in shock, and I pushed deeper, my mouth and tongue pressing against his — a possessive motion. My hands tightened on his shoulders as he yielded and wrapped his arms around my waist.
I broke the kiss and touched his cheek, which was still flushed and warm. His eyes were closed; I watched them drift slowly open, those pupils dilated wide, the lashes accentuating the slant of his eyes. He met my gaze with a heavy-lidded glance.
“I thought you might not come back. After what I did. After everything I did,” I said, twining my hand in his to bring it up for a kiss.
“Even if you sent me away, I would have returned,” he answered quietly.
“Are you going to persist in pretending to be my servant?”
He nodded solemnly, drawing his hand away.
“Why? Why me?”
“Because,” he whispered, “this is the only way that you will see me. Not your ward or your adopted brother or your duty to your father’s dying words, but me.”
“That’s not –”
He cut me off with a shake of his head. “It makes me happy.”
I sighed. “Very well then, Vassily Aleksandrovich.”
He looked up at me, that mouth curving in a devastating smile. “No, Your Excellency. Call me Vasya.”