Irina stared out the window of the library. Down the hill from the Big House she could see the forest she’d missed all winter long. In the early summer breeze, the birch and pine trees waited for her. Dusk bathed them with a golden glow, long shadows hinting at secrets within those woods. She would visit the forest in the morning, when Illarion would be less likely to fret. Her twin worried over her, and God knew the forest wasn’t always safe.
The lake glittered in the last bits of light. Irina smiled when she spotted one of the farmworkers on the shore stripping down to bathe. If she were in a bathhouse she wouldn’t give her spying a second thought, but for some reason watching the man take off his shirt and boots preparatory to slipping into the water seemed rude.
She didn’t feel too guilty, though. Illarion might chide her for spying, but the man was a beautiful specimen.
Perfect golden curls fell over his forehead. His profile formed the substance of a young girl’s dreams, with a long straight nose and noble forehead. His skin appeared smooth, unblemished by pockmarks or spots, and his short beard was neatly trimmed. Unbuttoning his trousers took all his concentration. He caught his lower lip between his teeth as he struggled with the buttons one handed. Then he won the battle, rose, and let his trousers fall to the ground. He waded in a few steps and dove boldly into the chilly waters.
It wasn’t until the man surfaced and began to swim awkwardly that she realized he had only one arm. His left arm–the side that had been facing away from her–was gone. It looked as if that shoulder was still bandaged. Odd if he’d lost that arm in the Patriotic War or pursuit of the French afterward; most soldiers had returned two years ago. But she understood now why he’d chosen the lake over the bathhouse. Some veterans preferred to hide their wounds, as if it was a shameful thing to have been injured.
“What are you doing?” Illarion asked from the doorway.
Like Irina, Illarion had dark hair and fair skin. Her twin was taller, though, and his time in the cavalry had filled his blue-gray eyes with hardness. He rarely smiled any longer, his quiet demeanor now closer to brooding. He came and leaned over her to gaze out the window at the dusk-filled trees. “Looking for Mother?”
Ah, he hated that she did so. Illarion didn’t want to admit their mother was in that forest. Unlike Father, he’d never believed Mother would return…but he didn’t want to admit the truth, either. “I was looking at the lake,” Irina told him. “I saw a peasant swimming down there.”
“You were spying on him?” Illarion peered down at the lake, where the bather had just emerged from the water. “Ah, Evgeny Petrovich. I should have known. He’s not a peasant.”
“Was he wounded in the war?” she asked, since Illarion seemed to know the man. They were the same age, or near it, she guessed.
Illarion shook his head. “No. Leave it alone.”
And that was all he would say on the subject.
The morning’s light coaxed Irina out of her bed early. She threw open her windows to better hear the birds in the trees. The nightingales sang already, calling her out to the forest. Irina didn’t wake her elderly maid, Varvara, but dressed quickly by herself in a high-waisted gown of white cambric a year or two out of fashion. She braided her hair neatly, coiled it about her head, and settled a headscarf over it so she wouldn’t offend any of the peasants. This wasn’t St. Petersburg.
Then she collected her sketchpad and charcoals and headed outdoors. An empty bowl lay on the doorstep, a sign that the dacha’s cook still sought the approval of the domovoi. A smile on her lips, Irina picked up the bowl and set it inside on a table. Most residents of St. Petersburg would scoff at the old custom. They had little patience for old superstitions there. They wanted to be modern, like the countries to the west, and so had turned their back on old ways.
Irina wasn’t sure that was wise. There was magic still in the woods and lakes, magic in the night air, and she carried a bit of magic herself.
She walked down the pathway toward the lake, her slippers crunching on the gravel. The lake’s water was still. It didn’t call to her, not the way the trees did, so she skirted the lake and walked straight into the forest.
The trees knew her name. She walked along the main path, touching the trunk of each tree as she passed. It was gratifying that they remembered from one summer to the next. They whispered more, greetings and pleasantries, but she never could understand much beyond her name. She wondered if no one else heard them, but never asked for fear that others would think her mad. She’d only ever asked Illarion, and he’d flatly said no.
But she believed. She chose to believe.
At the end of the path stood a large bay laurel tree, the only one in this forest.
Irina laid down her sketchpad and threw her arms about the tree, breathing in the scent of the sun-warmed leaves and the bark. The branches rattled, moving toward her almost imperceptibly. She could feel it, though. She felt her mother’s arms come about her, guarding her from danger. She stayed there for some time, at ease now after so many months away. “I’ve missed you, Mother.”
The leaves rattled in response, their sharp edges clattering together like tiny swords.
Irina settled at the tree’s base, arranging her skirts carefully to keep them from the dew. She told her mother of everything that had happened since she’d gone back to the city the previous fall, a boring recitation. The last few years had been spent watching her aunts’ and cousins’ children, doing needlework, and sketching trees and birds in the capital’s parks. Irina no longer attended balls or picnics, no longer joined others boating on the Neva River. She did not attend the theater or the opera. All of that had ended for her the year she was twenty, back before the war. In many ways she didn’t miss it. In the six years since, she’d learned to get by without any of the frivolities her cousins and nieces enjoyed. She was moderately content, even if no one believed that.
She expected that someday Illarion would dutifully marry, and she would help raise his children. She could live without a husband of her own. She could even live without children of her own. Her first husband had made her life unpleasant, but she had enough left of her dowry to live on, ensuring that she never had to put up with another one. And Illarion wouldn’t cast her out. As long as her brother lived, she would have a roof over her head.
She spent most of that morning at her mother’s side, telling her mother of the family’s news and sketching the trees that waited all about her. But after a time she returned to the house to eat, and then headed out to her aviary. That was her project, the thing that kept her busy all summer, kept her from fretting. It gave her a purpose beyond watching her cousins’ children.
The aviary stood at one end of the Summer Cottage. Constructed decades ago, it had been a fancy of the dacha’s previous owner who’d thought himself a gentleman scientist. Illarion knew how she loved the place and a few years ago had ordered everything repaired and painted. She planted new trees and shrubs inside each summer, each in its own pot or planter. One of the farmworkers usually worked in the aviary in the winter while the family was gone, keeping fires lit in the hopes of keeping her plantings alive, although most didn’t survive the cold.
The Summer Cottage and the aviary were part of her dowry–her place–even if she didn’t have the money to maintain them. Fortunately, she’d brought away from her marriage a great deal of jewelry. She had bracelets and earrings and necklaces a plenty, one for each time Ivan beat her. He’d always returned with half-hearted apologies and jewels, as if stones and gold would make up for his actions. Even though she never wore them, she’d refused to give any back when she’d left Ivan. Those glittering stones could finance a life here at the dacha.
Her father didn’t approve of the idea, though. He didn’t feel the speculation of society with his every step, not as she did. It seemed she would never outlive the scandal Ivan had made of her. Irina was tired of fighting the lies of a man long dead. The dacha was her safe haven, her place away from the curious eyes of gossips.
She stopped on the stone steps outside the door of the aviary, staring up at the dome.
Had she just seen a bird?
No matter its name, the stately aviary had never before held birds.
It was modeled after the aviary at the Pavlosk Palace outside St. Petersburg, with marble columns on either side of the door and a triangular pediment topping the façade. It was even painted yellow, but there the similarity ended. Instead of being a wing of a palace, the aviary was a free-standing building, almost square, with a glass dome in the center. As Irina watched through the glass of the dome, she did see the flutter of wings inside.
She cautiously pushed the door open and stepped over the threshold. It smelled warm and earthy there, the trees and shrubs thriving in their giant planters. She heard the delicate songs of nightingales and the chittering of starlings. Birds darted from tree to tree, calling merrily, chasing one another. The trees whispered of happiness; they were glad of the company of the birds. Irina walked out from under the narrow balcony about the door, and the door closed behind her.
A sparrow dropped down to the floor and cocked its head, peering at her with one dark eye. Irina cautiously settled on a stone bench to one side of the entry doors. She opened out her sketchpad so she could draw the little bird. Another sparrow somewhere in the aviary called to it and it hopped about as if to hear that voice better, then turned back to face her again. Irina lifted one of her charcoal pencils and began drawing.
Amazingly, the little bird stayed put while the sketch took shape under her fingers. She smudged the edges of the feathers with the side of one finger, and turned to drawing that dark clever eye. She left a small glint in the corner, hoping she’d captured the bird’s shrewdness. “I wish I had some bread for you,” she told it softly. “You’re being very good.”
She compared the sketch to the bird again, made a few final smudges with the edge of her thumb, and then set it aside. “Thank you,” she told the bird.
It bobbed almost as if it understood and flew up into the trees. Sighing, Irina leaned her back against the planter behind her and closed her eyes. She listened to the birds singing in the trees, smelled the earth in the planters, and tried to follow the whispering of the trees. Their words were indistinct, but they did remember her from last summer. They said her name, over and over, and…something else.
Irina opened her eyes. They weren’t speaking of the bird she’d just drawn. They were speaking of a person, telling her she wasn’t in the aviary alone. She rose slowly, peering about the vegetation-filled room. “Who’s there?”
One bird call sounded and all the birds fell silent. The blond man from the lake stepped from behind a potted orange tree. His white workman’s tunic had an empty left sleeve, neatly pinned up. “Please don’t worry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
For a moment Irina couldn’t breathe. She wasn’t frightened of him, merely…amazed. He was even more handsome face to face. She could see his lips from this angle, and even obscured by his neatly-cut beard and mustache, they were finely sculpted, like a Greek statue’s. It seemed unfair that a man should be so beautiful.