Authors: Kathleen E. Woodiwiss
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Man-Woman Relationships, #Love Stories, #Historical, #Nobility, #History, #Europe, #Russia & the Former Soviet Union, #Russia
To my granddaughter,
who makes everyone in the family
Russia, somewhere east of Moscow
August 8, 1620
he lowering sun shimmered through the dusty haze looming in languid stillness above the treetops, tinting the tiny grains of sand with vibrant shades of crimson until the very air seemed aflame. An ominous portent, the reddish aura offered no promise of rain or respite for a parched and thirsty land. Excessive heat and a lengthy drought had scorched the plains and barren steppes, wilting endless areas of grass down to densely matted roots. But here in the mixed wooded region of
, bordered on the north and east by the
and on the south by the
, the thick forests appeared relatively unscathed by the lack of rain. Even so, amid the voluminous clouds of choking dust stirred aloft by the horses’ hooves, the occupants of the coach and its escort of soldiers still suffered the same as they traversed the vast wilderness.
In her full score years of life, the Countess Synnovea Zenkovna had seen a wide variety of faces her homeland could present. They were as unique as the changing seasons. The long, brutal winters could be a test of endurance for even the most hearty. In spring, the thawing ice and snow created deceptively treacherous bogs, which in times past had proven formidable enough to dissuade hordes of marauding Tatars and other invading armies. Summer was a temperamental vixen. Warm, lulling breezes and the gentle patter of rain could placate the soul, but when imbued with dry, scorching temperatures such as those that were presently hampering the land, the season served vengeance on anyone foolish enough to travel beneath its broiling sun, a fact which the Countess Synnovea had morosely considered prior to leaving her home.
The conditions were intolerable for a lengthy trek through
, especially one that had been embarked upon with equal amounts of urgency and reluctance. If not for His Imperial Highness, Tsar Mikhail Romanov, requesting her presence in
ere the week was out and a full dozen mounted guards sent under the direction of Captain Nikolai Nekrasov to serve as her escort, Synnovea would never have ventured upon such an arduous journey until the heat had adequately abated. Given a choice, she would have remained in Nizhni Novgorod, where she’d have continued mourning the recent death of her father. It was useless, of course, for a mere countess to belabor her lack of options when the Tsar of all the
had issued a command. Immediate compliance was the only prudent choice for any loyal subject, but leaving her home had not been the worst of it. His Majesty’s announcement that she would become the ward of his cousin upon her arrival in
had dragged her grieving spirit into a darker gloom.
She was, after all, the only offspring of the late Count Aleksandr Zenkov, and now, much to her chagrin, the recipient of royal attention. The tsar hadn’t elaborated on his purpose for assigning her a guardian. Yet when one took into account her sire’s notable performance as an emissary and the many honors that had been heaped upon him, the favor she was presently receiving was understandable. Still, Synnovea found it difficult to think of herself as a helpless waif in need of protection. She had passed an age when most maidens marry, and now with her parents both dead, she had begun to assume the responsibilities of a mistress of vast holdings. Why in heaven’s name did she need a guardian?
Neither a youngling nor a pauper, yet treated like one,
Synnovea mused morosely. Against her will, a more viable reason for Tsar Mikhail’s dictate came to mind, causing her to cringe inwardly. Her elongated spinsterhood had in all probability influenced his decision, especially if he had become convinced that her father had failed to address that issue satisfactorily before his death. Despite the demands of protocol, Aleksandr Zenkov had refrained from forcing his daughter into marriage, having nurtured a hope that she would someday discover a love the likes of which he had shared with her mother, Eleanora. Though others might have been convinced that he had dragged his heels in procuring a spouse for Synnovea, Aleksandr had nevertheless made provisions for her far beyond the standard for female descendants, securing lands and wealth in her name while gaining guarantees from the tsar that, upon the demise of her sire, none of these assets would be stripped from her.
Much earlier, Aleksandr had confounded tradition by arranging for Synnovea to be tutored by some of the most respected mentors in
as well as abroad. Those who had once wagged their heads while lamenting the count’s lack of a male heir had been taken aback by his zeal to elevate his daughter to a status equal to any son. Then, after the death of her mother some five years ago, Aleksandr had enlisted Synnovea’s assistance in the realm of diplomatic affairs and foreign dignitaries, entrusting her with significant responsibility in those areas, which had ultimately involved her in his extensive travels abroad. Having had an English mother, Synnovea could speak that language as fluently as she could her native Russian, and with a good grasp of French as well, she had been able to pen letters to officials in all three. No son could have done any better.
Yet here she was, being whisked to
like so much chattel belonging to the tsar. And she was loathing every moment of it.
Wearily Synnovea braced an elbow upon the corner armrest and, with a trembling hand, clasped a dampened handkerchief to her brow as she sought to quell another attack of nausea, elicited no doubt by the writhing instrument of torture in which she rode. The wild gyrations of the coach remained unyielding as it swept around curves and jounced over deeply rutted roads. To some degree, the tinkling of harness bells and the jangling of horses’ necklets mellowed the din of drumming hooves and a rumbling conveyance, yet Synnovea was convinced that nothing short of the end of the journey would ease the pain throbbing in her temples. Even the late-afternoon sun seemed puckishly bent on punishing her as it cast its blinding rays into the windows, forcing her to squeeze her eyes tightly shut until the coach passed into the cooler, mottled shade of the lofty trees that flanked the road. When she finally dared open them again, a spotted red haze obscured the interior and the other two occupants of the coach.
“Can it be that you’re distressed, Countess?” Ivan Voronsky inquired with a sardonic smile.
Synnovea blinked several times in an attempt to focus her gaze upon the man who, through no design of her own, had become her traveling companion and temporary protector of sorts. For all of her schooling and travels, it seemed unthinkable that she was destined to be placed under the tutelage of strangers and, toward that end, was being escorted by an individual who she strongly suspected was a Polish sympathizer and a leftover fanatic of Sigismund’s Jesuits. Comments that the self-proclaimed cleric and scholar had made during their enforced proximity had progressively abetted such notions, and although his leanings were nothing that she could positively affirm, Synnovea was nevertheless leery.
“I’m hot, and I’m dirty,” she complained with an exasperated sigh. “This unrelenting pace has left me weary beyond belief. At every station along the way we’ve had to exchange horses because of their exhaustion. When we haven’t been allowed a comparable time to rest throughout the whole of these three days, have I not cause to be distressed?”
On the seat beside her, Ali McCabe shifted restlessly, offering mute testimony to her own fatigue. At the moment, the aging maidservant seemed far more fragile than her threescore two years might normally have indicated, but then, Synnovea was sure her own face evidenced a similar tension.
“Princess Anna urged me to hasten back lest her plans be set awry,” their dour-faced chaperon haughtily informed Synnovea. “Out of respect for her bidding and the behest of His Imperial Highness, we’ve no choice but to obey.”
Annoyed by the man’s Spartan logic, Synnovea whisked slender fingers over a puffed sleeve and promptly wrinkled her fine, straight nose as dust billowed up from the fabric. She had acquired the dark green and black-striped traveling gown in France at the cost of no small sum, and even if she were to find Anna Taraslovna more tolerant of her foreign fashions than Ivan Voronsky had thus far proven himself to be, Synnovea could only conclude that after such a grueling jaunt, the garment’s continued usefulness had been seriously hindered.
Lifting her gaze, Synnovea found herself the recipient of another derisive smirk. She could hardly mistake its import, but then, the man’s contempt was hardly surprising. Soon after establishing his darkly austere presence in the opposite seat, Ivan Voronsky had relentlessly subjected her and her aging Irish maid to rudely critical inspections. Even now, he seemed to wear piety like some accolade of well-deserved honor, and when he looked down his long, thin nose at them, Synnovea had the distinct impression that he had judged them and found them seriously wanting.
“Perhaps you might enlighten us as to your reasons for insisting upon our manner of travel, sir,” she prodded. “Had we journeyed by night as Captain Nekrasov suggested, we might have been able to escape the worst of this heat and perhaps even some of the grime.”
Ivan’s dark eyes chilled significantly. “The night belongs to the devil, Countess, and the tender soul should be wary of treading where demons are wont to wander.”
Synnovea rolled her gaze upward, pleading for heavenly support to enable her to extend some kindly forbearance toward the highly opinionated individual. The fact that they had already suffered through many hellish torments apparently hadn’t even entered into the man’s consideration. “Since you were the one who insisted upon this pattern of flight, sir, I’m sure you understand the benefits far better than we’ve been able to.”
Her thinly veiled barb evoked a slightly more caustic tone as the cleric offered a more reasonable excuse than he had hitherto been inclined to do. “Before I left
, I heard rumors of a band of renegades roaming this territory. Since it’s usually the practice of murderers and thieves to pounce upon their victims in the stealth of darkness, it seemed prudent for us to travel during the daylight hours to escape the possibility of being waylaid.”
“A wise decision indeed,
we manage to endure this sweltering heat,” Synnovea rejoined dryly.