Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
IMPATIENCE FLARED IN IVAN VASILOVICH as he stood on a lower step of the high altar in the Cathedral of the Assumption. The sonorous tones of Makary were ringing in his ears. Below, at the foot of the stairs, chosen boyars waited with the golden tray on which rested the traditional hat of Vladimir Monomach, the shapka, and the richly jeweled and brocaded mantle which would soon adorn his head and body. The need to feel their weight on him made his flesh crawl.
Once he was hatted and robed, once the ancient ceremony was at an end, he would be no longer a helpless boy but ruler of a great territory. His word would be the law, to be obeyed both by surf and boyar. Men would bow their heads to him, and women would make deep curtsies. Ah, God! How often he had dreamed of this moment during all his yesterdays! Now it was upon him and he was perversely eager for it to end.
No, no, he counseled himself. Take pleasure in the present. Hear the ringing tones of Makary. Know the pressure of the boyars’ eyes fixed upon his person. The corners of his lips twitched in amusement. He could look into the minds of each and every one of them, aware that they saw in him a husband for their daughters, imagining that, through him, their families would be brought to the highest power in the land. Greed and ambition ate in them like tumorous growths.
The announcement of the search for a proper wife for Ivan had caused a sensation in Moscow. It had been made by Ivan from his throne following a high mass in this same cathedral a month before. Every boyar, every dyak, saw himself a relative by marriage to the new tsar. Every nubile girl dreamed herself into white lace gown and wedding veil. For the moment, Ivan Vasilovich knew a universal popularity.
After he chose Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev, however—
He would not think of that. It was not enough for now that he was facing the Metropolitan of Moscow and that the old priest was reaching his hands for the ceremonial hat, that it was being lifted and placed firmly on his red head. The weight of the rich mantle already hung from his shoulders.
“I crown thee Tsar of Rus and Autocrat, a Christian David and descendant of all the Grand Dukes—”
The voice droned on. The great cross was lifted before him while at his back garments rustled as the boyars and their womenfolk genuflected. The holy oil touched his brow. Strangely, Ivan felt no different. He was as he had always been. It was a bitter disappointment.
Yet, as he turned to survey the great cathedral, as he heard the rising voices of his people singing the coronation anthem, his heart gave a great lurch. He stood before them proudly, head uplifted, suddenly alert to the respect in their eyes and in their faces. Yes! There was a difference. The furred hat and the mantle and the holy oil lifted him high above them. They knew it. Deep in their hearts every last one of them realized the fact.
He must teach himself to know it, too.
Slowly he paced down the altar steps and along the great runner of red velvet, graciously inclining his head to these people who, from this day on, he was to rule. A little of his old resentments went out of him in this riptide of elation. Even the faces of Yuri Glinski and Alexander Kurbsky peering at him beyond the shoulders of other, older boyars, roused no animosity in him. As tsar he would declare an amnesty within himself, vowing to forgive old scores, old insults. From this day forward, the slate was clean between him and the nobles of this land he was to rule. It would be his coronation gift to them.
Makary came to his bedchamber at sunset while Ivan was sipping chilled wine and relaxing in a loose caftan.
“The ceremony went off very well,” the old man said, resting his hands on his tall crozier just inside the doorway. “Everyone’s quite pleased with you and the manner in which you carried yourself.”
“And surprised,” Ivan commented.
“Perhaps. You seem to have grown up almost overnight. It takes a while for a man’s thinking to adjust, you know.”
Ivan filled a silver goblet and brought it to the archimandrite. “Good. It will help them adjust to the thought of Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev as their tsarina.”
Makary sipped slowly. “That’s what I came to see you about. Are you wise, Ivan, to choose a penniless girl of obscure family and raise her to—”
Ivan made a savage gesture with his hand. “Will you begin my reign by telling me what sort of woman I’m to bed with?”
“You verge on sacrilege, speaking this way to me!”
“No sacrilege is intended,” Ivan growled. “I consider myself too good a Christian to commit such a sin. At the same time, I happen to love this penniless girl of an obscure family. The fact that she’s penniless and unknown are points in her favor, it seems to me.”
“I don’t follow your reasoning.”
“It isn’t complicated. If Anastasia were a Glinski, the Shuishkys and the Vorontsovs might be offended. If she were a Shuishky—you follow me? Being a nobody, no great family is insulted. I won’t choose a Vorontsov over a Stroganov or an Andreyevitch over a Sheremetief. Oh, there’ll be grumblings, naturally. Nobody can please everyone, no matter what he does. But on the whole the boyars will be satisfied.
“And,” he went on, moving back and forth between his posted bed with its rich brocade valances and curtains to the twin cupboards which held his clothes, “it will give me strangers to place in high positions. No Shuishkys, no Stroganovs, with their eternal ambitions and jealousies, forever scheming behind my back. Instead unknowns, who must look to me for protection from the others. The need will make them loyal.”
The archimandrite savored this thought with his cold wine. His white head nodded at last. “You think deep, I’ll give you that.” His chuckle was a loudness in the silence between them. “Much as I hate to admit it, I begin to think you’ve outgrown your need for my advice. I don’t know whether to be glad or sorry.”
“Be glad for Rus, at least.”
“Why, yes. As to that, I am.”
Ivan smiled. In his way he loved this old man who had always been kind to him. “For yourself, there’s no need to be sorry. I’ll always come to you for suggestions.”
The sharp black eyes darted at him. “And then you’ll do what you want to do, anyhow. Perhaps that’s best. I’m an old man, soon to die. You’re young. Perhaps you’ll live a long time. Who knows? I’d rather have you headstrong and clever than meek and stupid.”
He swung about to leave the room, but turned in the doorway to say, “There will be a gathering of girls from all corners of the land tomorrow in the throne room. You’ll have to be there at the selection.”
“I fully intend to be, to see nothing goes wrong.”
Even in that he was looking ahead, Makary thought as he strode down the palace corridor, crozier thumping the tiles at every step. It was a good thing to see in a young man, especially since the welfare of your own country might depend on that prescience, some day. He was thinking as a Russian now, he realized, not as the Metropolitan of Moscow. Well, he had been a Russian before he had taken his holy vows.
For the past month and more, the prettiest girls in Russia had been gathering—in Novgorod, in Kiev, in Moscow, in Rostov—clad in their richest and their finest gowns, for the judging which would lift one of them to the throne beside their new tsar. They came with hopeful smiles but they departed in tears of dismay and despair, for the judges were prompt and honest, perhaps aware that the hearts of the young break easily because they mend so rapidly. Only the very loveliest were permitted to slip through the sieve of their harsh eyes.
Attention was to be given to physical beauty alone, had been the order. Wealth and family honors were to be ignored, as were personal attributes such as the ability to cook and sew or play the harpsichord. The tsar already had the finest cooks and seamstresses in all Rus, as well as the ablest musicians. What he wanted, people whispered behind their hands, was a woman to take to bed.
All Rus held its breath as the end of January neared. The homelier girls had long since been weeded out. Only beauties remained. Ivan himself would make the final choice, naturally. Would the lucky girl be Vassilissa Glinski? Caterina Sheviref? Alexandra Mikhailof? No one even considered a pretty blonde girl named Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev. In fact, hardly anyone in Moscow had ever heard of her.
Ivan sat his throne in a fever of suspense as the painted doors at the far end of the chamber swung open to admit the thirty girls from whom he would make his final choice. Thus far his plan had worked to absolute perfection. Every boyar family who could manage it was crowded into the throne room. Everywhere he looked there were happy smiles. By selecting his bride he would wipe out many of those smiles; he would make enemies. There were some who would feel slighted no matter what girl he chose.
There was no help for that. He could not marry all of them. And so as he rose to his feet to smile down at the approaching beauties, he counseled himself to put on a brave front and to stop worrying over what was inevitable. Feelings had to be hurt by the very nature of what he did.
He came down the steps slowly. One glance only had he risked giving Anastasia where she stood with downcast eyes, blonde and lovely in a high-crowned kokoshnik and brocade dalmatic. Then he turned his eyes toward the others.
Agreeably surprised, he let himself stare. Even at this early age there was a fully ripened core of sensuality in Ivan Vasilovich. Though he was honestly in love with his little heifer, his Anastasia, he was man enough to admit that it would be no hardship to take any one of these girls into his big poster bed. Alexandra Mikhailof, for instance, tall and regal, with long black hair hanging almost to the back of her knees under her kika headband: what might it be like to draw her on top of him and savor her kisses with all that hair spread out above him, hiding him from the world? Or Olga Trakhanyot, small and plump, with rounded hips swelling out over her court dress: how good might she be at making love? Ivan sighed and continued down the steps, amusedly wondering if Anastasia would appreciate the trend of his thoughts at this moment.
Back and forth before the girls he paced, smiling agreeably, making little comments which caused them to smile or giggle according to their natures. He complimented all of them and begged their indulgence because—try as he might, he said—he could not talk the Metropolitan into allowing him to marry more than one of them. Even the boyars laughed at that remark.
He made certain that they laughed and that they gave him a few sympathetic nods and glances before reaching out for the hand of pretty Anastasia. A gasp went up all around the throne room as she blushed and permitted herself to be pulled forward.
“Who is she?”
“I don’t know. I never saw her before.”
“She must have a name. What is it?”
“A nobody, that’s all she is. A nobody!”
The whispered comments went up and down the room. Ivan heard them but he ignored them as he brought his little heifer before the Metropolitan.
“This is the woman I choose, holy father. Anastasia Zakharin-Yuriev,” he said loudly, thinking, “Now they know, now they know who will rule beside me on my throne!” He swung about, aware that his heart was pounding in quick terror at his own audacity, looking out over their heads.
Her fingers clung tightly to his hand, telling him that she was nervous and afraid. Some of his own unsureness fell from him as she began to tremble. Anastasia looked to him for strength and encouragement. He dared not let her see his lack of confidence. Ivan lifted his chin and straightened.
“Bow to your future tsarina, people of Rus!” he cried.
As one, the women sank to their knees, the men bending from their middles. It was a good sight to see, this obeisance. By it, his people publicly acknowledged not only that his choice of a bride was their choice, but also that, as they had given him their fealty, so they would extend it to his Anastasia.
With her hand resting on his forearm, he came down the throne steps nodding and smiling to his noblemen, hunting evidence of their feelings on their faces. The anger and baffled rage he had expected to find were absent; instead there was only resignation and mild disappointment. Perhaps he started at shadows; it might well be that the boyars were closing ranks behind him, forgetting old animosities as he himself had vowed to forget them. They knew he could select only one wife. At least he had not chosen a Glinski, a Shuishky, or a Mikhailof. So to elevate one family to the throne might have brought on him the vengeance of the others. As he neared the painted doors Ivan became more convinced than ever that his reasoning was sound, for every now and again he caught a whispered comment.
“If he couldn’t take Alexandra, I’m just as pleased he picked that one.”
“Zakharin-Yuriev? Who in heaven’s name are they?”
“Nobodies from up north. Part of the Romanov family.”
“She’s pretty enough, I suppose. I’d have picked our Olga myself, but there’s no accounting for tastes.”
Beside him Anastasia sighed and squeezed his hand.
She did not tremble any longer and her step was firm and sure. She was ready now to be tsarina.
The wedding took place on February 3 in the Cathedral of the Savior. The skies which had draped the city with snow for the past three days were clear and blue. The air was crisp and cold, which the women said was a good augury. Crowds of merchants and their families lined the streets between the cathedral and the palace, waiting for Ivan and his bride to be whisked past them in a closed Kolymaga state sled on which was painted the black double eagle which had been the insignia of Rus since its adoption in 1472.
Ivan considered himself an old hand at public ceremonials by now. His bearing was confident, his demeanor gracious and regal. As he stood beside Anastasia for the wedding ceremony he gave no sign of the inner restlessness which had filled his life for the past few weeks. To himself, Ivan admitted frankly that he was hungry to go to bed with this girl. The Metropolitan might lift his hands in holy horror at such indecent haste to claim the woman as his own, but to Ivan the hours and the days had dragged interminably.
He made his proper responses and listened to the low voice in which Anastasia signified her willingness to be his wife. She was poised and proper at his side, as befitted a future tsarina, with no indication of the hot blood which beat in her veins and which he had been permitted to sample that day in the river copse. And this was as it should be, he told himself. In public, Anastasia must be cold and queenly; in private, with him, she might conduct herself like a drunken harlot. He supposed he ought to be thinking saintly thoughts right about now; a man married only once and matrimony was a sacrament of the Church; yet he could not think of the ceremony itself but only of its aftermath.
The Metropolitan was smiling down at them as they knelt, and Anastasia was shaking his arm. Overhead, the brazen bells were pealing out the news to all Moscow. The tsar was one with his tsarina. In the distance, there was a sound of cheering and the thunderous roar of the great Tsarpushka cannon.
Ivan rose to his feet. Off to one side pages were coming with leathern sacks filled with silver coins. They would walk behind the bridal sleigh and scatter the grivnas among the people all the way from the cathedral to the Kremlin gates. It was an old custom, this largesse to the poor and needy. Wisely, Ivan had seen to it that the boyars made their contributions before he picked his bride.
On the front steps of the cathedral Ivan snatched off his jeweled shapka and waved it overhead. A delighted roar burst from the families of the city merchants and from the flat-faced Tatar traders who crowded about to share in the merrymaking. A group of powerful men, who called themselves Cossacks, joined in the chorus, yelling delightedly. They were from the steppe lands to the south, and wore fur garments and their heads were shaved except for a single scalp-lock Ivan felt Anastasia press his wrist.
“You know how to make yourself popular with the common people, Ivan,” she whispered, and with that put her palm to her lips and blew them all a kiss.
Ivan chuckled delightedly, “First kiss to Russia, second to me,” he roared, sweeping her up into his arms and kissing her hungrily before them all, to the hysterical enjoyment of the crowd and the scandalized amazement of the archimandrites. With a hand at the small of her back he hurried her down the steps and into the closed sledge.
The feasting and the merrymaking would go on for days. Boars and cows together with geese and ducks and any number of other fowl were being roasted whole on spits at scores of street corners. Great tuns of mead were tapped. Already drunken men were staggering about. A thousand voices began to bellow out the ancient “Ivan, the son of the Prince” as the sledge picked up speed.
“Will they always love us so?” wondered Anastasia, glancing out the grilled window at the crowds lining the avenues.
“Who cares whether the people love me, just so long as you do,” Ivan laughed and caught her in a bear hug. His kisses searched her lips and cheeks and eyes until she panted laughingly for him to give her room to breathe.
“You’re like a wild man, Ivan!” she scolded, trying to fend of the hands which sought entrance under her cloth-of-gold coat. “Not now—not here in public—”
“The sled hides us well enough,” he grumbled.
“You looked so regal back there in the church, I certainly never thought—Ivan! You’ll have me stripped here if you—”
“Just enough so I can kiss you,” he whispered.
“Well, if you insist,” she surrendered as his hands parted the rich kozhukh. Her breath caught in her throat as her soft palm stroked the back of his neck. After a moment her eyes closed and her mouth fell open.
“Little heifer,” he breathed, kissing hungrily. “If it weren’t for the fact that we have to attend the feast in celebration of our wedding I’d give you no peace until—”
Her small hand covered his lips. He took the opportunity to kiss her fingers and forearm up into her furred sleeve. She began laughing, then threw herself on him, fingers tickling his ribs. His peals of immoderate laughter shook the sledge and resounded along the streets, making the common people grin in sympathetic understanding. Their Ivan was not so much a tsar on this day of days as he was a human being.
The thought made Ivan Vasilovich almost one of them.
A candle guttered in the bedchamber, throwing a pallid light upon the huge wooden bedstead where Ivan lay beside his bride. The sound of merrymaking came up through the windows and the walls, where ten thousand Moscovites were drinking and carousing.
The tsar lifted to an elbow, listening. With an impatient hand he threw back the quiltings and moved to the closed door leading to the outer hall. His hands lifted a huge key from a velvet case lying on a hand-painted cupboard shelf. Inserting it into the big iron lock, he turned it gently.
He turned and looked at Anastasia with a grin.
“Now that the formalities are over and the palace household has put us to bed, publicly and with the proper ceremonies, we can enjoy ourselves. I’ve locked them all out. We won’t be bothered the rest of the night.”
Anastasia giggled and sat up. She wore a hand-sewn nightgown of imported English wool, marked with the double eagle of Rus, a gift from her uncle. Under it she had retained her linen drawers and under-tunic so that as she slipped from the bed she seemed almost shapeless.
There was a silver wine ewer on a small serving-table beside the bed, and a silver tray holding sweet-cakes covered with a cloth. She began to nibble on a cake, pouring wine into the twin goblets placed before the ewer, well aware that Ivan was approaching, eyes feverishly bright. Tossing of the napkin, she lifted the tray and held it up between them.
Ivan said, “I can always eat, little heifer.”
Her blonde eyebrows lifted. “But these are so tasty, Ivan.”
Then he saw her mischievous eyes and understood she teased him. He gave a shout and banded her with his arms, lifting her off her feet, swinging her as he danced around the room. Her attempts to shush him, telling him the servants might be crouched outside the door to hear what went on, only spurred his wild cavortings. Not until her nightgown began to slide down her upper arms did she realize that his fingers had been busily engaged in undoing its buttons.
“Ivan!” she cried, pretending to be scandalized.
He set her upon her feet long enough to slide the nightgown from her body. Now she was clad from shoulders to ankles in linen under-tunic and long, frilly drawers. Once more he snatched her up, holding her with his left arm about her middle while the fingers of his right caught the thin chemisette and ripped it to her navel.
“You’re terrible,” she told him, but she made no attempt to hide the firm young breasts that came pushing nakedly between the torn halves of her undergarment. An instant later she gasped as he began to kiss them.
Anastasia wriggled, beginning to know the sensuous delights of marriage for the first time. As her white breasts hardened, a slow fire flooded into her loins, making her tremble and cling more firmly to her redheaded husband. Her hands pressed his cheeks, holding his lips to their devotions. And then suddenly she grew aware of cold air on her backside and realized that Ivan was sliding her pantalettes down and over her ankles.
“Ohhhh,” she gasped. “Oh my goodness!”
Ivan lifted and threw her through the air. Wildly flailing her arms and with legs kicking, she landed on top of the thick quilts and blankets of the big poster bed. Now she saw that Ivan had retained his grip on her drawers and that they fluttered from his hands like flags flapping in the wind as they came off her legs. She lay staring at him, the breath half knocked out of her, too startled to think what a seductive picture she made with her nakedness sprawled so wantonly on the coverlets.
He was tossing his clothes as he had tossed her, hurling his nightcap over the corner of a washstand, his brocaded sleeping robe over a high-backed chair. Naked, he came to her, grinning as she squealed and rose to hands and knees, trying to slide of the other side. His hand caught an ankle and dragged her back and under him. As his lips touched her warm breasts and belly, she gave a wild, excited cry.
In the middle of that wail of delight he took her. He was a creature of titanic energies, of extraordinary strength, and for a breathless instant Anastasia thought she had been seized by a black purga, one of those wild north winds which sweep the steppes of Rus every year from the headwaters of the Volga to the Caspian Sea. She was bounced this way and that, lifted into the air, then hugged and rolled over and over until the bed moved out from under her and she fell to the floor with this redheaded bear of a husband beneath her.
“You’re simply awful,” she panted, staring down at his flushed face.
“And you love it.”
She giggled and moved her hips, slowly at first and then faster and faster until she knew suddenly that for all his heavy muscles and boundless energy, it was she who ruled here in the bedroom. Sensualist, was he? Loved his bed romps, did he? Well! She rather liked them herself, and anything he liked she might like twice as much.
Moments later her triumphant laughter lifted through the shadows.
She insisted that she wash the broken shreds of rush and straw from his back before he returned to bed. With a cloth dipped in a small wooden tub she sloshed his flesh while he howled with the shock of the cold water. Then she made him stand before the fire in the great stone hearth and dry himself off.
“You treat me like a child,” he grumbled.
“If I do, you’re a naughty child, Ivan Vasilovich. Getting yourself all straw down your back. You ought to be ashamed of yourself.”
She was like a mother to him, she thought, remembering that his own mother had died when he was eleven years old and that he’d had no affection, no cheerful scoldings such as only a mother can give a man and make him like it. She knew intuitively that he enjoyed being fussed over. As she sipped the chilled wine in the silver goblet, standing naked beside the bed, she regarded him with fond eyes.
Husband, yes. Baby, yes. Little boy with a hand in the cookie jar, yes. All these things he was to her. Some deep vein inside him desperately needed this maternal preoccupation with his welfare. To find mother as well as wife in Anastasia was something Ivan would not understand as yet; she herself only saw a faint glimmer of the truth with a flash of intuitive knowledge; the sureness of her wisdom was to come in later years. At the moment she suspected his hunger for mothering, yet to make certain that he did not overlook the fact that she could be mistress also, she put down the wine goblet and began to coil her long blonde hair around and around her head.
Thrusting her feet into red leather scarpines, she came across the rush-strewn floor, walking with swaying hips and with her elbows out before her while her hands went on pushing the heavy yellow hair back and forth on her shapely skull as if it had grown too heavy for her throat to carry.
Ivan was not accustomed to seeing a naked woman walk around his bedroom. He stared with bulging eyes. She came right up to him, standing so close the rigid nipples of her jutting breasts touched his chest.
“Well, husband? Do you like your wife?”
He nodded dumbly, hypnotized by the feverish brightness of her blue eyes, by the swollen fullness of her pouting lips.
“Is that all you can do, shake your head?”
He touched his lips with his tongue. “Can’t you talk?”
He understood now she teased him and began to grin lopsidedly. His hands lifted to her body. He began to stroke her very gently and tenderly, until he felt her trembling and breathing heavily. Then he lowered her to the thick white fur of an Arctic bear which served as a hearthstone rug. With the fire flames turning their skin red, he knew her a second time. A better time, he thought as her fingernails sank deep into his upper arms, clinging to him frantically, ecstasy shaking her white body convulsively, again and again.
Ivan Vasilovich was a happy man.
“I’m too happy,” he complained to Anastasia, walking with her in the snowy gardens south of the palace. It was evening and the candles and oil-boats were being lighted over all the city. “I can’t be angry at Yuri Glinski and Alexander Kurbsky any longer.”
Her glance was sly. “Oh, you mean about what happened at Ostruka when you took Marina Radinefski there.”
Ivan felt uncomfortable. It was true that Anastasia never said anything about that week-end episode of his, except to admit graciously that since it happened before they met she could hardly object to it; yet whenever the subject was mentioned she looked at him with her cool blue stare and discomfort itched at his throat and down his spine.
“Not about that,” he lied with an airy wave of a hand; and then, because he could not really tell her an untruth, he added, “Oh, maybe a little bit. But actually because Kurbsky puts on airs, as does Yuri Glinski who fancies himself an in dispensable man.”
He brooded over that, chin sunk on his chest as he paced, biting at his lip. “No man is indispensable, little heifer. Not even me. Yet I do what I can to help Rus. Yuri Glinski helps only himself.”
“Can’t you punish him?”
He made a wry face. “Not yet, not yet. I don’t have enough power.” His face contorted with anger until it seemed almost ugly to the woman at his side. “Power! There’s the keystone to the arch of rulership, my pet. Give a man enough power and there isn’t anything he can’t do.”
“Sometimes a man can steal that which will never be given away,” she murmured, staring up at the darkening sky, feeling the wind grow colder with the setting of the sun.
His eyes were sharp. “Ah? Steal, you say.”
“In a manner of speaking. If you were to become a hero to the people, the people themselves would put power into your hands.”
He started in surprise. “The people?”
“Why, yes. The boyars are only human beings. They derive their power from the people who serve them, just as you do. If you could turn the people away from the boyars to you— Do you follow my thoughts?”
He pondered them, head bent and red brows drawn together above his thin, high nose. “A popular hero is a war hero,” he muttered. “I’m no soldier though I know how to wield a sword.”
Anastasia smiled secretly, pressing against him, touching his firm lips with trembling fingertips. “When the tsar lets himself be seen in armor and with a sword in his hand at the head of his troops, who will remember what generals carry out his orders? To be sure, the war must be a popular one.”
He thought back to the night this woman had come to Moscow with him, and his forgotten conversation with the Metropolitan, Makary. “A holy war, Anastasia. A war against the pagan Tatars who live in Kazan and in Sibir beyond the Urals.”
“Mmmm,” she murmured. “It will do as well as any.”
He kissed her and from the looseness of her lips and her hurried breathing, he knew she wanted him to take her up to their big bedchamber. Ivan chuckled deep in his throat. There was no woman like his Anastasia. She could tum from politics to prurience in the blinking of an eyelid. His arm hugged her as he brought her in step with him toward the garden gate.