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       Chernevog, p.3

           C. J. Cherryh
 

  “You don't make love with potions!” “Wizards do in Vojvoda. But then, they're not very good wizards. I tell you, Sasha could set up shop—”

  “My cakes are burning!” she cried, and escaped him to snatch for the spatula.

  “A little dark,” he said, as she turned them. “Oh, they're ruined!” “Wish them unburned.”

  “Wishes don't work like that, you know they don't. Damn!” “That won't help the cakes, either.” “God.” She clenched her fists, bowed her head against them. “Pyetr, don't.”

  He sighed and put his arm about her. “What do you want?”

  “Nothing.”

  “Do you want Sasha to chase the horse back to Vojvoda? Is that the trouble? Will that satisfy you?”

  “I don't want that!” she cried, pushed free of him and got up, her wonderful hair all shining in the firelight—

  “God, 'Veshka—”

  “Don't look at me like that! Don't love me because I want you to! Oh, god, I knew, I knew you weren't safe from me!”

  “Dammit, I know what I want.”

  She went across the kitchen and began taking random things off the shelves.

  ‘‘What are you doing?” he asked, scrambling for his feet. He very well knew what she was doing: it would not be the first time Eveshka had gone out into the woods alone for a day or so, and come back better for it, the god knew, after worrying him sleepless—saying nothing of where she had been or what she had done. But she had never taken off in the dark, in the middle of a quarrel.” 'Veshka, for the god's own sake, ask me what I want. Anything we both agree on, we can't have because you want it? That's crazed! That means we only get what neither of us wants! That's damned stupid, 'Veshka!”

  A piece of bread went into a basket; a handful of fruit. Eveshka stopped and leaned against the table, head bowed.

  “ 'Veshka? Is it something I've done?”

  She straightened her shoulders then, took the things out of the basket, wiped a knuckle across her cheek and wiped the hand on her apron. The basket went back on the shelf.

  He came up behind her and put his arms around her, whispering, “I have exactly what I want.”

  The grease scorched, meanwhile.

  “My cakes!” Eveshka said, “oh, damn, Pyetr, —”

  The cellar-supports shifted, the much-taxed domovoi getting the smell of smoke, perhaps, as Eveshka rescued the overheated griddle and the blackened cakes.

  The house settled, then. Everything seemed to.

  “Babi?” he said, remembering the dvorovoi. “Honeycakes, Babi.”

  Babi did not put in an appearance. Perhaps Babi was waiting for higher bribes. Like vodka.

  So Pyetr went to the door, put his head out and told Sasha there was a good chance of supper. Then he got down the jug.

  Babi appeared not even for that, as happened.

  While the horse was still in the yard. Dammit, a dvorovoi was supposed to like livestock, and take care of things and keep the horse out of the garden, for the god's sake, not have his nose set out of joint.

  But Babi had him for a personal responsibility, two wizards had told Babi so, and quite probably, Pyetr thought, Babi was somewhere out around the hedge feeling jealous, rejected and sorry for himself. Damn, he thought, and went to put the dishes on.

  3

  Supper was quiet, everything was calm, not a stray wish or an ungoverned thought flew across the table, just Pass the cakes, please; more tea, Sasha? Only Babi still seemed to be sulking, put out about the horse in the yard, Sasha surmised distressedly, and neither honeycakes nor vodka would bring him.

  “He'll come around,” Pyetr muttered. “At least by breakfast.”

  So Pyetr and he made up a bit of grain and honey for Volkhi, (hey curried him down, the two of them, by lamplight, and they built a sort of a pen around him at the back of the house, where afternoon sun let wild grasses grow. It was a hasty sort of work, but Sasha wished the posts to stay put—much easier than wishing the horse, to be sure, which had a mind of its own and which could not be wished out of a taste for new spring vegetables for more than a few moments at a time.

  Eveshka came out to help lift the bars into place, and helped wish them to stay. She even brought Volkhi a bit of honey-cake.

  “I'm sorry about the cabbages,” Pyetr whispered to her in Sasha's hearing, across a fence-rail; and Eveshka whispered back, leaning to take Pyetr's kiss on the lips:

  “Hush, it's all right, I don't care about that; nothing is your fault.”

  Another kiss. After that Pyetr ended up on the other side of the rail and the two of them went walking arm in arm around the corner of the house.

  Probably, Sasha thought, they did not need a house guest to turn up in the front room any time soon.

  So he shrugged his coat back on, the night being somewhat cold since he had stopped hefting rails about, and lingered to test the posts they had set, figuring that Pyetr and Eveshka would not linger long in the kitchen.

  Eveshka had been sixteen when she had died: she had been a sixteen-year-old ghost for better than a hundred years before she had gained her life back and gone on with living it. Sometimes it seemed to him she was still sixteen when someone crossed her—and, god, Sasha thought, resting his arms on the rail, if she caught him thinking that, best he find a bed somewhere in the deep woods tonight, perhaps for several nights.

  She had had all those years of Uulamets' personal teaching and all those years of being both a wizard and a ghost... but she had spent so long as a rusalka and so comparatively few years dealing with the simple pain of burning a finger on a pot handle, or dealing with a husband who sometimes, being Pyetr, did things not even a wizard could predict—

  (Say what you want, Pyetr would remind them both cheerfully: just speak it out loud, it's only fair: tell me what you want me to do and let me decide, is that so hard?)

  Sometimes, for Eveshka, it truly was. Sometimes it seemed the hardest thing in the world for her.

  And then, just when everything seemed possible and they had everything in the world they ought to want—Pyetr's best friend had to do a stupid thing like this, and bring this poor horse into the question.

  The horse was looking at him quite warily as it might, now that they were alone with only a rail between them. One misgiving equine eye shone under a black thatch of bangs. Its nostrils worked as if it could smell something unnatural about the place and the night and about him.

  Poor fellow, Sasha thought: one night in a snug stable, by the well-cared-for look of him, and the next bolting through a woods full of dangers of very terrible sort.

  “ Volkhi?” he said gently, ducked under the rail and held out a hand to the horse—not cheating, this time, simply letting the horse make up its mind about his character. A few steps closer. “There's a lad. Come on. I'm a Mend of Pyetr's. I'm really not a bad sort. See, not a wish one way or the other.”

  Volkhi eyed him a moment more, then stretched out his neck and breathed the air about him.

  “Don't be afraid, there's a good fellow.”

  The horse investigated his fingers, carefully. Sasha felt warm breath on his hand, and the touch of a soft, interested nose, while the lamplight showed their mingled breaths like fog.

  A wizard once a stableboy could be a great fool for something like this, could ask himself how he had ever gotten along without such feelings—a warm and friendly creature snuffling his ringers on a nippish night and nosing his face and his coat, looking for possible apples.

  For a moment, defending his cap from the search, he was no wizard at all, only his uncle's stableboy, who had found his only true fellowship in his charges, in the black and white stable cat and old Missy and the various horses that had come and gone with the rich young men of the town. Pyetr had seemed only one of that wild crowd in those days—once upon a time and only, it seemed now, yesterday: The Cockerel's stable came back so vividly for a moment Sasha wondered just for whom he had really wished up a horse in the first place; or how he could
be so warmly drawn back to days he wanted to forget.

  But he had been a great deal safer then, he had been so very good in those days about not wanting things of people—not wanting things at all, except where it concerned his four-footed charges. He had never been sure he was doing it, for one thing: they had never accused him for his small sorcery, second; and he had never felt guilty about loving them, nor been reluctant, whenever he had gotten on his uncle's bad side, to come to the stable to lean on a comfortable warm shoulder and pour out his troubles to a patient friend like old Missy, that he could miss so much of a sudden—

  He was that boy again, tonight, the town jinx, that no one wanted around, he had made a mess of things again and Eveshka had every right to be put out with him, on top of which, he had just come recklessly close to wanting Missy here for himself— knowing very well that she was Andrei the carter's horse, and that Andrei Andreyevitch in no wise deserved to be robbed by some selfish, self-pitying young wizard.

  Missy. For rides in the woods, no less—himself and Pyetr out and about together, the way he had dreamed of it being when the three of them had settled here on this riverside.

  God, he thought. The cat, too, why not? The house needs a cat. Why not the whole stable, fool?

  That was how helplessly unreasonable he was being, longing for ordinary, common things a wizard could never, ever have, and, like a fool, thinking he needed something all his own to love. So things were more complicated in the house than a callow fifteen-year-old had once thought they would be. A man loved his wife. It did not mean he stopped being a friend. A wife took time, especially Eveshka, who had her own difficulties, not least because he was, dammit, too often under Eveshka's feet, in Eveshka's house, with Pyetr the one who ended up with a burned supper and an angry wife and Babi not speaking to any of them.

  Maybe it was time that he did think what else he could do, such as, perhaps, talk to Pyetr about building another house, over on the hill.

  A damned, lonely, solitary little house, without even Babi for company in the evenings.

  Maybe he knew he ought to, in all justice. Maybe that was why he was all but shivering of a sudden, despite a good coat and a night none so cold, and why he had a growing lump in his throat, and why he decided he had best get himself inside immediately, away from horses and all such temptations, to read and think a good long while by himself without wishing anything at all.

  The front door opened and shut. Pyetr lifted his head from the pillow, and Eveshka whispered, “He's perfectly all right.”

  There were other small, reassuring sounds, the domovoi settling again in the cellar, Sasha walking about in the kitchen, a log going on the fire, which sent up a small flurry of sparks on their side of the hearth.

  But Pyetr heard the sound of the bench pulled back in the kitchen and thought distressedly that Sasha was at that damned book again, scribbling and studying.

  “That's no life for a boy,” he said, “reading all day and writing all night.”

  Eveshka said nothing. He had only her shoulder.

  “He's eighteen,” Pyetr said. “He's not going to find everything he needs in that damned book, Eveshka.”

  “He made a mistake,” she said. “He's trying to find out why.”

  “A mistake. The boy wants a horse. Why shouldn't he?”

  ‘‘A wizard shouldn't.”

  “God.”

  “It's very serious.”

  ‘‘Can you help him?”

  She shook her head, motion against the pillow. “It's his business. His question. He has to answer it.”

  Eveshka's father had given more than a book to the lad. Eveshka's father, when he died, the black god take him, had worked some sudden spell or another and magicked everything he knew into the boy's head, things a boy could have lived quite happily without, things far, far more than reading and writing.

  No real memory of things, Sasha insisted. Nothing I can't deal with, Sasha said.

  The double-damned, unprincipled old scoundrel.

  “It's not natural,” Pyetr said. “It's not natural, 'Veshka.”

  But she seemed to be asleep. At least she offered no conversation. So he lay there thinking about his own misspent years in Vojvoda, not regretting many of them, except the quality of the company.

  Maybe he would sail down to Kiev after all. Maybe he would finally sail down to Kiev of the golden roofs, with Sasha in tow, just himself and the boy-Shop around a little. Find a tavern. Do something thoroughly reprehensible. Or at least mildly riotous.

  If he dared leave Eveshka.

  He could not, not that long: Eveshka was far too prone to melancholy. The god knew she slipped too readily toward that state of mind.

  So, hell, they would take Eveshka along—show her the golden roofs, the rocs and the crocodiles and the palaces, which everything he had ever heard assured him were abundant in Kiev.

  Not forgetting the elephants.

  It would do the boy a world of good. Do good for Eveshka too. Show her how ordinary folk lived, show her that people could live together, more of them in one place than she could ever imagine.

  Wish the boy up a tsarevna, she could, one of the Great Tsar's nieces or such.

  No. A pretty beggar girl, who would be ever so glad to fly off to the deep woods and live like a tsarevna for the rest of her life—

  A girl who would, wise as wizards, keep her wishes modest.

  Sasha pulled the lamp a little closer on the kitchen table, going over the page again which, as best he remembered, ought to record his wish for the horse—which he did very well recall, but he had not even written the matter down, nor made any entry at all for that day, that was the puzzling thing. One hardly wrote down every little thing one did: even in the quiet of the woods there were days one got busy and let records slip a day or two, but he did not remember what could have gotten in the way that day, or why he had forgotten it entirely—when he recalled now how it had upset him at the time.

  The day they had first fired up the bathhouse—and all of them had been wondering about banniks...

  But they had felt nothing banniklike since but the slight spookiness a dark bathhouse might have: a whole (if slightly twisted) roof was not an invariable guarantee of banniks, by all he knew. Uulamets' book recollected a shy, slightly daft old creature that had sometimes provided visions—but it had hardly been a happy Bath-thing: Uulamets' bannik had deserted the place after Eveshka had died, Uulamets pursuing it relentlessly for foreknowledge— About his hopes of raising the dead. Not a happy creature, not a happy parting, and, Sasha had thought from long before they had put the roof cap on, certainly nothing he really wanted to provoke to anger. It surely must have been glad, as Pyetr had said, to find some more cheerful establishment to haunt, say, down in Kiev—if (and this was the most substantial of his fears) repairing the bathhouse had not by some law of magic called it back against its will. He recalled he had thought about that possibility, that day.

  They had talked about Kiev. He had gotten quite light-headed from the heat—had been quite, quite giddy when he had thought about the horse. They had had to go outside.

  God, he thought, what was I thinking then? About banniks? Or was it remembering the bathhouse at uncle Fedya's that made me think of the horse?

  Vojvoda. Pyetr and Volkhi and the butter churn-He rested his eyes against his hands, elbows on the table, thinking himself: Or was I worrying about Pyetr? Was I afraid he'd go off to Kiev and leave us and not come back once he saw the gold and the crocodiles and all? Or was I thinking about him and 'Veshka—because I'm afraid I am messing things up with them? Maybe I really should build that house on the hill over there.

  But if I'm not right here with them when they argue, to say, 'Veshka, don't wish at him—then who's going to say it? He won't always know until it gets really plain—and she does it, damn it, she doesn't mean to, but she does it all the time.

  But maybe my not wanting to leave the house is a wish too, and maybe that's why things are
happening that shouldn't, maybe that's what's putting things out of joint.

  God, why am I so confused?

  Uulamets' teaching said, uncompromisingly: Write down everything you don't understand, —fool.

  He certainly had enough to write tonight, about Missy and the black and white cat, along with, the god forgive him, shapeless, resentful, thoroughly dangerous thoughts about his aunt and uncle...

  He squeezed his eyes shut a moment, got a breath and concentrated deliberately on writing a simple reminder to himself: Unwish nothing. Start from where you stand and trust only to specifics—with a shivery thought toward all the peace they had here, balanced on Eveshka's resolve to forget all too many grim things, his, to grow up without foolish mistakes; and Pyetr's, to be patient with two wizards trying their best to keep their wizardry and their hearts out of trouble.

  For most of three years he had found one excuse and the other not to rebuild the old bathhouse, for fear of banniks—for fear of one showing them the will-be and might-be in the life they had chosen here, so long as Eveshka was still so fragile and it was still uncertain whether wizards could really live with each other at all. But Pyetr had kept after the matter till it had begun to seem silly and inconvenient not to have it. So one particularly frozen, icy day he had given in.

  But what was I afraid of? he asked himself, pen in hand. What specifically was I afraid of learning?

  Of seeing myself alone? Or Pyetr changed?

  Eveshka wanted Pyetr to herself, of course a new wife would— but 'Veshka was not just any wife, Pyetr had a right to his friends, too, damned if he should build any small, lonely house up on the hill and live in it in exile.

  He had a right to have something to love him.

  Was that why I wanted the horse?

  Everything was perfect, Eveshka said.

  At least Eveshka was happy...

  Or at least—we got along.

  Dammit.

  He did not understand his own temper. He did not understand why he had a lump in his throat, but he intended to have no patience with it. He rested his elbow on the table, his chin against his hand, and kept writing, merciless to himself and his notions: Having a heart is no protection against selfishness in that heart-mine or hers.

 
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