“It’s a scandal, I tell you. Fyodor has gone mad.” Over the plink-plink of psalteries, the chatter of fifty women, the murmurs of servants in corners, and the noise from the courtyard below, Aunt Theodosia’s voice soared like a song. “Marrying a hussy two years older than his own daughter? Then wedding his own girl to his new wife’s former lover? Abominable! Where is his honor?”
“Auntie! How can you?” Maria, tempted to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell, instead gripped the hand of the hated Roxelana, whose fingers returned the favor with equal strength. “Stop squeezing me,” she hissed at her stepmother, who narrowed her eyes and hissed wordlessly back.
But Roxelana, although a general irritant, bore no responsibility for Maria’s present agony. On the contrary, she shared it. Must Auntie announce their predicament to the world? Thanks to her, every woman here knew—now, if she hadn’t before—that Roxelana had lived for years with the man destined to become Maria’s husband tomorrow, only to abandon him for Maria’s father and the respectability he offered.
A hint of sandalwood and cinnamon released into the air as Roxelana shifted in her seat. Among the many perfumes wafting around the room, hers stood out: seductive, elusive, foreign.
Respectability? Roxelana? As if that’s not a contradiction in terms!
Aunt Theodosia was still talking—bellowing, rather, with the blissful unconcern of the hard of hearing. “Twenty-two years old, and him a ripe thirty-seven. What does he want with a lovely nincompoop to warm his bed? After wearing my dearest sister to the bone, bearing and raising his children. Thirteen she gave him. Thirteen. And seven who lived!”
“We know, Auntie. We can count.” This voice, young and sweet, belonged to Maria’s sister Varvara, second of the seven living offspring. She spoke in softer tones than Theodosia.
“Don’t mumble like that, girl,” Theodosia snapped. “Speak up.”
“Hush now.” Varvara raised her voice as commanded. “The whole room can hear you.” She gestured with her right hand. “Including our stepmother.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’m whispering, just as you are,” Theodosia said at top volume. “Stepmother, indeed. Harlot, more like.”
Roxelana hissed again, louder this time, and Varvara pressed her lips together, as if trying not to giggle. In response Theodosia fixed Roxelana with her basilisk glare. “Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”
“You’re being rude, Auntie,” Maria said. Anything to deflect the discussion to another channel, although she agreed with Theodosia. Watching Papa glow like a schoolboy while her stepmother flirted and cooed left her two steps short of disgust. Parents were not supposed to act like that.
As for this new match with her stepmother’s discarded lover, Theodosia was right: Papa had lost his mind. A man nine years older than Maria, and a Tatar—what would they talk about?
“I am not being rude,” Theodosia said, no quieter than before. “I speak the truth, as anyone here can see for herself. And don’t try to convince me that marriage to a man without morals, an outsider, is other than a disgrace. Although he did have enough sense not to marry the hussy.”
“I am your hostess,” Roxelana announced in a voice as piercing as Theodosia’s. “If you have no respect for me, your brother-in-law, or your niece here, please do not let us delay your departure.” The guests drew closer, drawn by the conflict, their faces avid with curiosity.
“He’s a tsarevich, Auntie,” Varvara said in soothing tones. “The son of Bulat Khan. A descendant of Genghis. No doubt Papa thought him a great catch. He raises the standing of our entire lineage.”
Theodosia harrumphed, visibly unimpressed. “I don’t care if he’s the son of St. Andrew. It’s indecent, that’s what it is. Worse than marrying that strumpet.” She jerked her head in Roxelana’s direction, leaving no doubt whom she had in mind.
“That does it,” Roxelana snapped. “Either stop insulting me or leave.”