Nasan blew air across her baby’s tummy and giggled as he waved both chubby hands in the air. Boris, known as Borya within the family, had reached the ripe age of seven months. With his father’s honey brown eyes and her dark hair he looked fit to become a sturdy and handsome boy, but she didn’t share that opinion out loud lest she attract the notice of dangerous spirits. In case even the thought could draw unwanted attention, she murmured a short prayer in her son’s ear. His baby scent, floral soap mixed with a hint of milk, filled her nostrils.
But as she released him to sit on the rug, his face crumpled. He grabbed his right cheek with one hand and batted her away with the other. Concerned, she touched his forehead and found it warm and damp. “What’s wrong with him?” she asked his wet nurse, Zhenya. Since birth Borya had been a placid child, not given even to such small outbursts as this.
“He’s teething, Tsarevna.” Zhenya crossed the room and crouched next to the baby. “He didn’t sleep well last night or feed well this morning. No doubt his gums hurt.”
“But he feels hot,” Nasan argued. “He should not feel hot, even if he’s teething. Suppose it’s something else?”
Zhenya patted the baby’s cheek, and he pushed her hand away as well. His outraged howls rose in volume.
A man’s voice cut across the child’s cries. “Time to go, wife of mine,” Daniil said. “It won’t do to arrive late for a royal funeral—especially this one, which will harbor more serpents than chickens. Let’s not offer ourselves as prey.”
Alerted by the edge in his voice, Nasan turned to study him. Resplendent in robes that matched her own, black velvet trimmed in gold, the snow-laden sky of late afternoon behind his head no match for his tawny good looks, he never failed to provoke a shiver of desire.
But her child needed her. She pressed her hand against Borya’s forehead once more. “He’s ill,” she said. “I should stay with him.”
“He’s teething, Tsarevna,” Zhenya repeated. “He will be right as rain by the morning, I promise. Or if not then, as soon as the tooth breaks through.”
“You don’t know that,” Nasan snapped. “Babies get sick even when they’re teething.”
“Besides,” Daniil interjected. “I’m sorry, but we must go. The funeral procession will start within the hour. Unless one of us dies before then, we have no acceptable excuse for staying away. Whether Zhenya’s wrong or right, you’ll be back with Borya soon. Bad enough that we must return after dark and risk assault by villains and robbers. Let us travel there by daylight, at least. Come.”