The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard. The real story is, the miller’s daughter with her long golden hair wants to catch a lord, a prince, a rich man’s son, so she goes to the moneylender and borrows for a ring and a necklace and decks herself out for the festival. And she’s beautiful enough, so the lord, the prince, the rich man’s son notices her, and dances with her, and tumbles her in a quiet hayloft when the dancing is over, and afterwards he goes home and marries the rich woman his family has picked out for him. Then the miller’s despoiled daughter tells everyone that the moneylender’s in league with the devil, and the village runs him out or maybe even stones him, so at least she gets to keep the jewels for a dowry, and the blacksmith marries her before that firstborn child comes along a little early.
Because that’s what the story’s really about: getting out of paying your debts. That’s not how they tell it, but I knew. My father was a moneylender, you see.
He wasn’t very good at it. If someone didn’t pay him back on time, he never so much as mentioned it to them. Only if our cupboards were really bare, or our shoes were falling off our feet, and my mother spoke quietly with him after I was in bed, then he’d go, unhappy, and knock on a few doors, and make it sound like an apology when he asked for some of what they owed. And if there was money in the house and someone asked to borrow, he hated to say no, even if we didn’t really have enough ourselves. So all his money, most of which had been my mother’s money, her dowry, stayed in other people’s houses. And everyone else liked it that way, even though they knew they ought to be ashamed of themselves, so they told the story often, even or especially when I could hear it.
My mother’s father was a moneylender, too, but he was a very good one. He lived in Vysnia, forty miles away by the pitted old trading road that dragged from village to village like a string full of small dirty knots. Mama often took me on visits, when she could afford a few pennies to pay someone to let us ride along at the back of a peddler’s cart or a sledge, five or six changes along the way. Sometimes we caught glimpses of the other road through the trees, the one that belonged to the Staryk, gleaming like the top of the river in winter when the snow had blown clear. “Don’t look, Miryem,” my mother would tell me, but I always kept watching it out of the corner of my eye, hoping to keep it near, because it meant a quicker journey: whoever was driving the cart would slap the horses and hurry them up until it vanished again.
One time, we heard the hooves behind us as they came off their road, a sound like ice cracking, and the driver beat the horses quick to get the cart behind a tree, and we all huddled there in the well of the wagon among the sacks, my mother’s arm wrapped around my head, holding it down so I couldn’t be tempted to take a look. They rode past us and did not stop. It was a poor peddler’s cart, covered in dull tin pots, and Staryk knights only ever came riding for gold. The hooves went jangling past, and a knife-wind blew over us, so when I sat up the end of my thin braid was frosted white, and all of my mother’s sleeve where it wrapped around me, and our backs. But the frost faded, and as soon as it was gone, the peddler said to my mother, “Well, that’s enough of a rest, isn’t it,” as if he didn’t remember why we had stopped.
“Yes,” my mother said, nodding, as if she didn’t remember either, and he got back up onto the driver’s seat and clucked to the horses and set us going again. I was young enough to remember it afterwards a little, and not old enough to care about the Staryk as much as about the ordinary cold biting through my clothes, and my pinched stomach. I didn’t want to say anything that might make the cart stop again, impatient to get to the city and my grandfather’s house.
My grandmother would always have a new dress for me, plain and dull brown but warm and well-made, and each winter a pair of new leather shoes that didn’t pinch my feet and weren’t patched and cracked around the edges. She would feed me to bursting three times every day, and the last night before we left she would always make cheesecake, her cheesecake, which was baked golden on the outside and thick and white and crumbly inside and tasted just a little bit of apples, and she would make decorations with sweet golden raisins on the top. After I had slowly and lingeringly eaten every last bite of a slice wider than the palm of my hand, they would put me to bed upstairs, in the big cozy bedroom where my mother and her sisters had slept as girls, in the same narrow wooden bed carved with doves. My mother would sit next to her mother by the fireplace, and put her head on her shoulder. They wouldn’t speak, but when I was a little older and didn’t fall asleep right away, I would see in the firelight glow that both of them had a little wet track of tears down their faces.
We could have stayed. There was room in my grandfather’s house, and welcome for us. But we always went home, because we loved my father. He was terrible with money, but he was endlessly warm and gentle, and he tried to make up for his failings: he spent nearly all of every day out in the cold woods hunting for food and firewood, and when he was indoors there was nothing he wouldn’t do to help my mother. No talk of woman’s work in my house, and when we did go hungry, he went hungriest, and snuck food from his plate to ours. When he sat by the fire in the evenings, his hands were always working, whittling some new little toy for me or something for my mother, a decoration on a chair or a wooden spoon.
But winter was always long and bitter, and every year I was old enough to remember was worse than the one before. Our town was unwalled and half nameless; some people said it was called Pakel, for being near the road, and those who didn’t like that, because it reminded them of being near the Staryk road, would shout them down and say it was called Pavys, for being near the river, but no one bothered to put it on a map, so no decision was ever made. When we spoke, we all only called it town. It was welcome to travelers, a third of the way between Vysnia and Minask, and a small river crossed the road running from east to west. Many farmers brought their goods by boat, so our market day was busy. But that was the limit of our importance. No lord concerned himself very much with us, and the tsar in Koron not at all. I could not have told you whom the tax collector worked for until on one visit to my grandfather’s house I learned accidentally that the Duke of Vysnia was angry because the receipts from our town had been creeping steadily down year to year. The cold kept stealing out of the woods earlier and earlier, eating at our crops.
And the year I turned sixteen, the Staryk came, too, during what should have been the last week of autumn, before the late barley was all the way in. They had always come raiding for gold, once in a while; people told stories of half-remembered glimpses, and the dead they left behind. But over the last seven years, as the winters worsened, they had grown more rapacious. There were still a few leaves clinging to the trees when they rode off their road and onto ours, and they went only ten miles past our village to the rich monastery down the road, and there they killed a dozen of the monks and stole the golden candlesticks, and the golden cup, and all the icons painted in gilt, and carried away that golden treasure to whatever kingdom lay at the end of their own road.
The ground froze solid that night with their passing, and every day after that a sharp steady wind blew out of the forest carrying whirls of stinging snow. Our own little house stood apart and at the very end of town, without other walls nearby to share in breaking the wind, and we grew ever more thin and hungry and shivering. My father kept making his excuses, avoiding the work he couldn’t bear to do. But even when my mother finally pressed him and he tried, he only came back with a scant handful of coins, and said in apology for them, “It’s a bad winter. A hard winter for everyone,” when I didn’t believe they’d even bothered to make him that much of an excuse. I walked through town the next day to take our loaf to the baker, and I heard women who owed us money talking of the feasts they planned to cook, the treats they would buy in the market. It was coming on midwinter. They all wanted to have something good on the table; something special for the festival, their festival.
So they had sent my father away empty-handed, and their lights shone out on the snow and the smell of roasting meat slipped out of the cracks while I walked slowly back to the baker, to give him a worn penny in return for a coarse half-burned loaf that hadn’t been the loaf I’d made at all. He’d given a good loaf to one of his other customers, and kept a ruined one for us. At home my mother was making thin cabbage soup and scrounging together used cooking oil to light the lamp for the third night of our own celebration, coughing as she worked: another deep chill had rolled in from the woods, and it crept through every crack and eave of our run-down little house. We only had the flames lit for a few minutes before a gust of it came in and blew them out, and my father said, “Well, perhaps that means it’s time for bed,” instead of relighting them, because we were almost out of oil.
By the eighth day, my mother was too tired from coughing to get out of bed at all. “She’ll be all right soon,” my father said, avoiding my eyes. “This cold will break soon. It’s been so long already.” He was whittling candles out of wood, little narrow sticks to burn, because we’d used the last drops of oil the night before. There wasn’t going to be any miracle of light in our house.
He went out to scrounge under the snow for some more firewood. Our box was getting low, too. “Miryem,” my mother said, hoarsely, after he left. I took her a cup of weak tea with a scraping of honey, all I had to comfort her. She sipped a little and lay back on the pillows and said, “When the winter breaks, I want you to go to my father’s house. He’ll take you to my father’s house.”
The last time we had visited my grandfather, one night my mother’s sisters had come to dinner with their husbands and their children. They all wore dresses made of thick wool, and they left fur cloaks in the entryway, and had gold rings on their hands, and gold bracelets. They laughed and sang and the whole room was warm, though it had been deep in winter, and we ate fresh bread and roast chicken and hot golden soup full of flavor and salt, steam rising into my face. When my mother spoke, I inhaled all the warmth of that memory with her words, and longed for it with my cold hands curled into painful knots. I thought of going there to stay, a beggar girl, leaving my father alone and my mother’s gold forever in our neighbors’ houses.
I pressed my lips together hard, and then I kissed her forehead and told her to rest, and after she fell fitfully asleep, I went to the box next to the fireplace where my father kept his big ledger-book. I took it out and I took his worn pen out of its holder, and I mixed ink out of the ashes in the fireplace and I made a list. A moneylender’s daughter, even a bad moneylender’s daughter, learns her numbers. I wrote and figured and wrote and figured, interest and time broken up by all the little haphazard scattered payments. My father had every one carefully written down, as scrupulous with all of them as no one else ever was with him. And when I had my list finished, I took all the knitting out of my bag, put my shawl on, and went out into the cold morning.
I went to every house that owed us, and I banged on their doors. It was early, very early, still dark, because my mother’s coughing had woken us in the night. Everyone was still at home. So the men opened the doors and stared at me in surprise, and I looked them in their faces and said, cold and hard, “I’ve come to settle your account.”
They tried to put me off, of course; some of them laughed at me. Oleg, the carter with his big hands, closed them into fists and put them on his hips and stared at me while his small squirrelish wife kept her head down over the fire, darting eyes towards me. Kajus, who had borrowed two gold pieces the year before I was born, and did a good custom in the krupnik he brewed in the big copper kettles he’d bought with the money, smiled at me and asked me to come inside and warm myself up, have a hot drink. I refused. I didn’t want to be warmed. I stood on their doorsteps, and I brought out my list, and I told them how much they had borrowed, and what little they had paid, and how much interest they owed besides.
Copyright © 2018 by Naomi Novik. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.