It is dangerous to travel the northern road with a troubled heart. Just south of Arkesk is a break in the trees, a place where no bird sings and the shadows hang from the branches with strange weight. On this lonely mile, travelers stay close to their companions, they sing loud songs and beat the drum, for if you are lost to your own thoughts, you may find yourself stepping off the path and into the dark woods. And if you continue, ignoring the shouts of your companions, your feet may carry you to the silent streets and abandoned houses of Velisyana, the cursed city.
Weeds and wildflowers crowd the cobblestones. The shops are empty, and the doors have rotted on their hinges, leaving only gaping mouths. The town square is overgrown with brambles and the church roof has long since given way; amid the shattered pews, the great dome lies on its side, collecting rainwater, its gold leaf stripped away by time or some enterprising thief.
You may recognize this quiet as you stand in what was once Suitors’ Square, staring up at the grand facade of a crumbling palace and the little window high above the street, its casement carved with lilies. This is the sound of a heart gone silent. Velisyana is a corpse.
* * *
In days past, the town was known for two things: the quality of its flour—used by every kitchen for nearly a hundred miles—and the beauty of Yeva Luchova, the old Duke’s daughter.
The Duke was not a particular favorite of the King, but he’d grown rich anyway. He’d installed dams and dykes to contain the river so that it no longer flooded his lands, and he’d built the great mill where Velisyana’s flour was ground, commissioning a giant waterwheel with sturdy steel spokes, perfect in its balance.
There is some debate over what Yeva Luchova actually looked like, whether her hair was burnished gold or lustrous black, whether her eyes were blue as sapphires or green as new grass. It is not the particulars of her beauty but the power of it that concerns us, and we need only know that Yeva was lovely from the moment of her birth.
She was so beautiful, in fact, that the midwife attending her mother snatched up the wailing infant and locked herself in a linen closet, begging for just another moment to gaze upon Yeva’s face and refusing to relinquish the baby until the Duke called for an axe to break down the door. The Duke had the midwife whipped, but that didn’t stop several of Yeva’s nursemaids from trying to steal the child away. Finally, her father hired a blind old woman to care for his daughter, and there was peace in his home. Of course, that peace did not last, for Yeva only grew more beautiful as she aged.
No one could make sense of it, for neither the Duke nor his wife were much to look at. There were rumors that Yeva’s mother had found her way into the camp of a Suli traveler, and more jealous sorts liked to whisper that a handsome demon had crept in with the moonlight and tricked his way into her mother’s bed. Most of the townspeople laughed away these stories, for no one could know Yeva’s kindness and think that she was anything but a good and righteous girl. And yet, when Yeva walked down the street, the wind lifting her hair, moving with such grace that her lovely feet barely seemed to touch the cobblestones, it was hard not to wonder. Every year on Yeva’s birthday, under the guise of placing flowers in her braids, the blind nursemaid would check Yeva’s scalp, feeling with trembling fingers for the bumps of new horns.
As Yeva’s beauty grew, so did her father’s pride. When she turned twelve, he had a portrait artist come all the way from Os Alta to paint her surrounded by lilies, and had her image stamped on every bag of flour from his mill. So women in their kitchens came to wear their hair like Yeva, and men from all over Ravka traveled to Velisyana to see if such a creature could be real.
Of course, the artist fell in love with Yeva too. He put dropwort in her milk and got all the way to Arkesk with her before he was apprehended. The Duke found his daughter sleeping soundly in the back of the pony cart, wedged between canvases and jars of pigments. Yeva was quite unharmed and had little memory of the event, though she forever had an aversion to portrait galleries, and the smell of oil paint would always make her drowsy.
By the time Yeva was fifteen, it was no longer safe for her to leave the house. She tried cutting her hair and covering her face in ashes, but this only made her more intriguing to the men who spied her on her daily walk, for when they saw her, their imaginations ran wild. When Yeva stopped to remove a stone from her shoe and unwittingly gave the crowd a glimpse of her perfect ankle, a riot broke out, and her father decided she must be confined to the palace.
She spent her days reading and sewing, walking back and forth through the halls for exercise, always in a veil so as not to distract the servants. Every day, when the clock on the bell tower chimed the noon hour, she appeared at her window to wave at the people gathered in the square below, and to let her suitors come forward to declare their love and beg for her hand. They would sing songs or perform tricks or stage duels to prove their daring—though the duels sometimes got out of hand, and after the second death, the retired army colonel who acted as constable had to put a stop to them.
“Papa,” Yeva said to the Duke. “Why must I be the one to hide?”
The Duke patted her hand. “Enjoy this power, Yeva. For one day you will grow old and no one will notice when you walk down the street.”
Yeva did not think her father had answered her question, but she kissed his cheek and returned to her sewing.
On the morning of her sixteenth birthday, Uri Levkin appeared at the door with his son. He was one of the wealthiest men of the town, second only to the Duke, and had come to barter for a union between Yeva and his boy. But as soon as he stepped into the parlor and saw Yeva sitting by the fire, he declared that he would be the one to marry her.
Father and son took to arguing and then went at each other with their fists. The retired colonel was called upon to settle the dispute, but at his first real glimpse of Yeva, he drew his sword and challenged both of her other suitors. Yeva’s father sent her to her room and called for guards to pull the men apart. In time, free from the spell of Yeva’s beauty, the men returned to their senses. They drank tea together and lowered their heads in shame at their madness.
“You cannot let this go on,” said the colonel. “Every day the crowd in the square grows. You must choose a husband for Yeva and be done with this insanity before the town is torn apart.”
Now, the Duke might have put an end to all of this by simply asking his daughter what she desired. But he enjoyed the attention Yeva received, and it certainly sold a lot of flour. So he devised a plan that suited his greed and his love for spectacle.
It happened that the Duke had many acres of forest that he wished to clear in order to plant more wheat. At noon the next day, he stepped out on the balcony that overlooked Suitors’ Square and waved to the men below. The crowd sighed in disappointment when they saw the Duke instead of Yeva, but their ears perked up when they heard what he had to say.
“It is time for my daughter to marry.” A cheer went up from the crowd. “But only a worthy man may have her. Yeva is delicate and must be kept warm. Eac
h of you will bring a pile of lumber to the fallow field at the edge of the southern wood. At sunrise tomorrow, whoever has the tallest pile will win Yeva as his bride.”
The suitors did not stop to contemplate the strangeness of this task, but bolted off to fetch their axes.
As the Duke shut the balcony doors, Yeva said, “Papa, forgive me, but what way is this to choose a husband? Tomorrow, I will certainly have a lot of firewood, but will I have a good man?”
The Duke patted her hand. “Darling Yeva,” he said. “Do you think I am so foolish or so cruel? Did you not see the Prince standing in the square this past week, waiting patiently each day for a glimpse of you? He has gold enough to hire a thousand men to wield their axes for him. He will win this contest easily and you will live in the capital and wear only silk for the rest of your days. What do you think of that?”
Yeva doubted that her father had answered her question, but she kissed his cheek and told him that he was very wise indeed.
What neither Yeva nor her father knew was that deep in the shadows of the clock tower, Semyon the Ragged was listening. Semyon was a Tidemaker, and though he was powerful, he was poor. This was in the days before the Second Army, when Grisha were welcome in few places and greeted with suspicion everywhere. Semyon made his living traveling from town to town, diverting rivers when there were droughts, keeping rains at bay when the winter storms came too soon, or finding the right places to sink wells. It was simple to Semyon. “Water only wants direction,” he would say on the rare occasion he was asked. “It wants to be told what to do.”
He was usually paid in barley or trade and as soon as he was done with a task the villagers would ask him to move on. It was no kind of life. Semyon longed for a home and a wife. He wanted new boots and a fine coat so that when he walked down the street people would look on him with respect. And as soon as he saw Yeva Luchova, he wanted her too.
Semyon made his way through town to the edge of the southern wood where the suitors were already hacking away at the trees and building their piles of timber. Semyon had no axe and no money to buy one. He was clever and even desperate enough to steal, but he’d seen the Prince loitering beneath Yeva’s window and he thought he understood the Duke’s plan well enough. His heart sank as he watched teams of men building the Prince’s pile while the Prince himself looked on, golden haired and smiling, twirling an ivory-handled axe with an edge that glinted the dull gray of Grisha steel.
Semyon went down to the river to the sorry camp he had made, where he kept his bundle of rags and his few belongings. He sat on the banks and listened to the steady thump and splash of the waterwheel beside the great mill. Around people, Semyon was tongue-tied and sullen, but on the sloping riverbank, amid the soft rustle of reeds, Semyon spoke freely, unburdening his heart to the water, confiding all his secret aspirations. The river laughed at his jokes, listened and murmured assent, roared in shared anger and indignation when he’d been wronged.
But as the sun set and the axes fell silent in the distance, Semyon knew the men would go home with the last of the daylight. The contest was as good as over.
“What am I to do?” he said to the river. “Tomorrow Yeva will have a prince for a husband and I will still have nothing. Always you have done my bidding, but what good are you to me now?”
To his surprise, the river burbled a high sweet sound, almost like a woman singing. It splashed left then right, breaking up against the rocks, frothing and foaming, as if troubled by a storm. Semyon stumbled backward, his boots sinking in the mud as the water rose.
“River, what do you do?” he cried.
The river swelled in a great, curling wave and roared toward him, breaching its banks. Semyon covered his head with his arms, sure he would be drowned, but just as the water was about to strike him, the river split and raced around his shaking body.
Through the woods the river tumbled, tearing ancient trees from the soil, stripping away branches. The river cut a path through the forest under the cover of night, all the way to the fallow field at the edge of the southern wood. There it swirled and eddied, and tree upon tree, branch upon branch, a structure began to take form. All night the river worked, and when the townspeople arrived in the morning, they found Semyon standing beside a massive tower of timber that dwarfed the sad little pile of kindling assembled by the Prince’s men.
The Prince hurled his ivory-handled axe away in anger, and the Duke was most distressed. He could not break a promise made so publicly, but he could not bear the thought of his daughter married to such an unnatural creature as Semyon. He forced himself to smile and thump Semyon on his narrow back. “What fine work you’ve done!” he declared. “I’m sure you will be just as successful at the second task!”
Semyon frowned. “But—”
“Surely you did not think I would set only one task for Yeva’s hand? I’m certain you can agree, my daughter is worth more than that!”
All the townspeople and the eager suitors concurred—especially the Prince, whose pride was still smarting. Semyon did not want anyone to think he priced Yeva so low. He swallowed his protest and nodded.
“Very good! Then listen closely. A girl like Yeva must be able to behold her own lovely face. High in the Petrazoi lives Baba Anezka, the maker of mirrors. Whoever returns with a piece of her handiwork will have my daughter as his bride.”
The suitors scattered in all directions while the Prince called orders to his men.
When her father had returned to the palace and Yeva heard what he had done, she said, “Papa, forgive me, but what way is this to find a husband? Soon I will have a fine mirror, but will I have a good man?”
“Darling Yeva,” said the Duke. “When will you learn to trust in your father’s wisdom? The Prince has Ravka’s fastest horses and only he can afford such a mirror. He will win this contest easily and then you will wear a jeweled crown and eat cherries in winter. What do you think of that?”
Yeva wondered if her father had simply misheard her question, but she kissed his cheek and told him she was very fond of cherries indeed.
Semyon went down to the river and put his head in his hands. “What am I to do?” he said miserably. “I have no horse nor have I money to trade with the mountain witch. You helped me before, but what good are you now, river?”
Then Semyon gasped as the river once more breached its banks and grabbed hold of his ankle. It dragged him into its depths as he sputtered and gasped.
“River,” cried Semyon, “what do you do?”
The river burbled its reply, dunking him deep, then buoying him to the surface and carrying him safely along. It bore him south through lakes and creeks and rapids, west through tributaries and streams, mile after mile, until finally they came to the north-facing slopes of the Petrazoi, and Semyon understood the river’s intent.
“Faster, river, faster!” he commanded as it carried him up the mountainside, and soon enough, he arrived soaked but triumphant at the entrance to the witch’s cave.
“You have been a loyal friend, and so I think I must name you,” Semyon said to the river as he tried to wring the water from his ragged coat. “I will call you Little Knife because of the way you flash silver in the sunlight and because you are my fierce defender.”
Then he knocked on the witch’s door. “I have come for a mirror!” he shouted. Baba Anezka opened the door, her teeth straight and sharp, her eyes golden and unblinking. Only then did Semyon remember he had no coin with which to pay. But before the ancient Fabrikator could shut the door in his face, the river splashed its way through, eddying around Baba Anezka’s feet and then back out again.
Baba Anezka greeted the river with a bow, and with Semyon on her heels, followed the river over a high ridge and through a path hidden between two flat rocks. As they squeezed through, they found themselves at the edge of a shallow valley, its floor all gray gravel, barren and unwelcoming as the rest of the Petrazoi. But at its center lay a pool, nearly perfect in its roundness, its surface smooth as highl
y polished glass, reflecting the sky so purely that it looked as if one could step into it and fall straight through the clouds.
The witch smiled, showing all her sharp teeth. “Now this is a mirror,” she said, “and seems a fair trade.”
They returned to the cave, and when Baba Anezka handed Semyon one of her finest mirrors, he laughed in his joy.
“That gift is for the river,” she said.
“It belongs to Little Knife, and Little Knife does as I ask. Besides, what could a river want with a mirror?”
“That is a question for the river,” replied Baba Anezka.
But Semyon ignored her. He called out for Little Knife and once more the river grabbed his ankle and they went rushing down the mountainside together. When they roared past the Prince’s caravan trudging up the path, the soldiers turned to look, but only saw a great wave and a white curl of foam.
Once they arrived in Velisyana, Semyon put on his least threadbare tunic, combed his hair, and did his best to polish his boots. When he checked his reflection in the mirror, he was surprised at the sullen face and inky eyes that stared back at him. He’d always thought himself quite handsome, and the river had never told him differently.
“There is something wrong with this mirror, Little Knife,” he said. “But this is what the Duke demanded and so Yeva shall have it for her wall.”
When the Duke looked out his window and saw Semyon striding across Suitors’ Square with a mirror in his hands, he reeled back in shock.
“See what you have done with your foolish tasks?” said the retired colonel, who had come to await the contest’s outcome with the Duke. “You should have given me Yeva’s hand when you had the chance. Now she will be married to that outcast and no one will want to sit at your table. You must find a way to be rid of him.”
But the Duke was not so sure. A Prince would make a fine son-in-law, but Semyon must have great power to accomplish such extraordinary tasks, and the Duke wondered if he might make use of such magic.