At long last, my historical romance set in Tsarist Russia, “The Prince and the Pretender,” has released!
I’ve already placed a small excerpt from the novel on my website to give you a little taste of this story. But here’s another!
Clip from The Prince and the Pretender, Chapter 5
The Dormition Cathedral was a place of refuge, beauty, and salvation. Its domed towers and peaked arches provided the foundation of its strength and elegance. Elaborate carvings added to its beauty, and within the looming exterior, Xenia found herself surrounded by a forest of holy frescoes and icons. Sweet incense graced her nostrils, and hundreds of candles twinkled in her eyes.
This magnificent cathedral was often the site of coronations and holy installations. Her own father’s coronation had taken place here two years ago, when she was sixteen, and she remembered it well. Perhaps that was why it brought her so much comfort. In any case, she hoped that it would bring about the healing of her heart today.
Within the nave a few monks and nobles loitered, speaking to each other softly. Everyone stood or knelt, for there were no chairs on which to sit. But for the most part, the large open area was empty, and a pleasant silence filled the chamber. She made her way past the monks to the altar, for she was not yet ready to speak to anyone. A few people glanced at her curiously, but today she covered her hair and face within a satin hood, so she would not be easily recognized.
She pulled the hood further over her head as she passed a group of men she knew. They were three boyar princes, ones she did not care a great deal for—their names were Lykov, Tatev, and Golitsyn. They seemed up to no good, as usual, judging by the way they huddled close to each other and whispered. But why would they do that here?
They seemed to be talking to a monk. Even though that explained the boyars’ presence in the cathedral, it nevertheless unsettled Xenia. Eager to push the unusual sight from her mind, she kept walking.
At the altar she knelt and prayed for a time, searching within herself for the words she might say to the patriarch. How much would she tell him? Would she confess that she lied to her father? Or might God be appeased if she admitted the sinful feeling of lust she had allowed to stir within her? Even now, she could not stop imagining the sensation of Pozharsky’s hands upon her …
The voice startled her. In such a holy and quiet place, she did not expect the sharp, ringing voice which suddenly rang about the walls. She turned and looked in a daze at the young man standing close to her. To her surprise, it was the same monk she had just seen speaking with the three princes. The princes, however, had since left the building.
She studied the man curiously, but he only seemed stranger the more she looked at him. For one, he wore the plain robes and hood of a monk, but the face and body within seemed anything but devout. Though of average height, he was somewhat lanky and stood with a funny tilt. His head cocked to the side as if trying to look upon the world at an unusual angle. He had bright blue eyes that seemed to smile, even though his mouth remained a flat line. On his right cheek there was a small wart, just next to his nose. He was clean-shaven, but she glimpsed dark red hair beneath his hood. He was certainly not handsome, but something about him held her gaze, nonetheless.
He looked vaguely familiar; she had seen him around before. If she recalled correctly, he was one of Patriarch Job’s favorite monks. But she could not remember his name, nor much else about him at all. This also seemed strange.
“Forgive me,” he said. His voice had such a quality that even when he spoke softly, it rang throughout her whole body. “I would not intrude upon your prayers, but you looked faint.”
“I am well, thank you.”
She thought she might return to her prayers, but the bold monk stood there and continued to stare at her, his eyes glittering.
“What brings the tsarevna to the Dormition Cathedral on a day like this?”
His tone irritated her in a way she could not explain. He sounded as smug as a cat, and in more control of the situation than he ought to be. Nevertheless, she chose to answer him; poor behavior or not, he prodded her to do what she came here to do, but still feared.
“I came to confess to the patriarch.”
“Ah! Why of course.” He grinned, revealing a shimmering set of teeth. “This way, tsarevna.”
“Where are we going?” She usually confessed in the main church.
“Somewhere more comfortable.”
As Xenia stood and followed the monk from the chancel, a strange feeling stirred in her stomach. Why did this man act with such presumption, though she did not even know his name? Or if she did, she could not remember it.
He led her to a small private sanctuary where she might sit on a bench and wait; then he disappeared, saying he would go and get the patriarch. She thanked God for this small mercy, for normally confessions were made out in the open church. But the monk returned only a few moments later, shaking his head sadly.
“I am sorry, Patriarch Job feels unwell today. I am told he has not left his quarters.”
“Oh no! I should send him refreshment.”
“Don’t trouble yourself, tsarevna, he would not want you to. I think it is an upset stomach, nothing more. He simply cannot see you now.”
“Oh … that is unfortunate.” She stood to go, perhaps too hastily. Eagerness nipped at her heels, for God had given her a chance to escape, it seemed.
But the strange monk swept forward, the movement of his lanky limbs surprisingly fast and smooth. She tensed as his fingers wrapped round her forearm. “Now, tsarevna, I hope you will not give up so quickly. Your face is like an open book: your urgent need to confess is quite apparent.”
“Yes, well, I …” She stared at the place on her arm where he held her, very distracted by his grip. He did not hold her tightly, but his hand was firm, nonetheless. “It is important that I speak to Patriarch Job. He is my spiritual guide.”
“He can absolve you of the sin later. But perhaps you should confess it now. I will gladly stand as witness. Whatever is on your mind, you should profess it to God immediately, before the next Holy Communion. If you are unworthy when you receive the Body and the Blood of the Lord, His gifts will turn to fire within you.”
Xenia feared that this strange man was right, even though he continued to speak in a tone that annoyed her, as if everything he said amused him. She had already kept this secret within her heart for two years, like poison. Then somehow, she had worked up the courage today to confront God with her guilt. If she left now, she might never find the will to return. Her sin would remain deep within, rotting her soul to the core.
“Who are you?” she asked wearily. “What is your name?”
“My name?” A spark flared in his deep blue eyes as he smiled. “You may call me Dmitri.”
“Dmitri …” Xenia searched her memory. “I have seen you with Patriarch Job before, if I recall correctly … and during some moments of import.”
He bowed his head, but his lingering smile was far from humble. “It is true that Patriarch Job favors me, and has shown me great kindness. I copy books for him, and sometimes offer him advice. I hope that if you trust him, you will also trust me to—”
“Very well,” she snapped, before she could change her mind. “You may stand witness.”
Trembling, she knelt down before the Holy Table. Upon this lay an open Gospel Book, cloth of golden thread, and a depiction of Jesus Christ upon the crucifix. The strong scent of frankincense wafted up her nose and nearly choked her as she inhaled. She settled her robes about her, pushed back her headdress, and let loose her tears.
Tears were a sign of devotion to God—or at least they were supposed to be. Why did she feel that her tears today were crude and selfish? They collected upon her lips, bitter and salty. She reached up and touched the feet of Christ with her right hand, then blessed the Gospel Book next to it.
“Remember,” said the monk, “confess every sin, fully and separately. Hold nothing back.”
“I will,” said Xenia, and then her body rocked with the weight of her promise. “Oh God, my Savior Jesus Christ, I am a sinful soul. I confess to you all of my evil actions, words, or thoughts, made from my baptism even unto this present day. I …” She was surprised to feel more tears spilling hotly down her cheeks. Did she weep for her sins, or for herself? “I have been sly, mischievous, and deceptive. Two years ago I lied to my father about the behavior of one Prince Pozharsky. I did this to protect the prince, which does not justify my behavior—in fact this makes my sin greater. I lied to my father, the tsar, for a man of low birth; and I lied for myself, who had impure feelings about the prince.”
She sensed the monk stir as he stood in the shadows next to her; she did her best to ignore him as she forged onwards.
“Dear God, forgive me, for instead of coming to you sooner with my sin, I continued to harbor my impure thoughts for Pozharsky. I have since thought of him many times, in a lustful manner. At night I have … I have …” Her cheeks felt as if they were on fire as she blushed, and she was all too aware of the strange monk who stood by, listening. But she must remain humble, she knew, and not let such material concerns get in the way of her confession to God. “At night I have touched myself, in a pleasurable manner, many times, all while thinking of the prince Pozharsky. And I wrongfully excused my deviance with the notion that I would never see Pozharsky again, and that he would remain in my mind as no more than a dream. Yet now I am told he has returned to the Kremlin …”
The sound of laughter cut her confession short.
All the breath left her body as she realized the monk Dmitri was laughing at her. She was so mortified that for a long while, she could not even speak, only listen in shock to the horrible sounds of his laughter.
“Oh, I am sorry, Xenia. Please … please … do continue.” It sounded as if he was trying to control his laughter, but then it burst forth again, worse than before. She saw his face now, for his hood had fallen backwards; his cheek were rosy with merriment.
She stood up, trembling with fury. She felt as if she might explode with anger, but her voice came out of her as a weak, breathless whisper. “How … dare … you.”
“Oh my … I am sorry. I truly do not mean to insult you. But …” He shook with another fit of giggles. “I suppose I am insulting you, nonetheless. I did not know what to expect when I brought you in here, but I could not ignore the opportunity—I was all too curious to hear the confessions of the mysterious Tsarevna Godunova. And I must say, you have surprised me thoroughly. Truly, Xenia—are your lustful dreams the worst of your concerns?”
“Opportunity? Curious?!” Wrath spread through her like none she had known before. Energy filled her limbs and her fingertips itched to claw out his eyes. She rushed towards him, stopping only inches away from him; her own voice shrieking from her throat reminded of her mother’s. “You bastard! I’ll see you defrocked!”
He just stared at her levelly. A twinkle remained in his eyes, though they were calmer now, steady as they peered into hers. “Go ahead, Xenia; I was not planning on copying books much longer, anyway. After all, I would not mind losing my frock right now. Perhaps your lustful spirit is contagious.”
She flinched as he stepped towards her, her heart leaping in her chest. But he stopped, his smirk growing with amusement. He remained there a moment, seeming to enjoy her discomfort, then his face became grave again.
“Fun and games aside, Xenia—wake up. Do you feel guilty about deceiving your father? You shouldn’t. Have you any idea of how much he has lied to you?”
This offended her on so many levels, she did not even know which one to address first. “My sin is my own to deal with, and is not relative to the sins of others—”
“You’re the tsarevna!” Dmitri’s rang loudly throughout the chamber, reverberating through her bones. “Of course it’s relative.”
She opened her mouth to protest, but only ended up flapping her jaws uselessly. “But … but …”
Dmitri sighed. “I suppose I should not say it’s impossible to rule well as a tsar and maintain God’s absolute principles—I think I could do that myself. But you are the daughter of Tsar Boris. You have little option left to you other than deception, if you wish to come out from his shadow and cast any light upon the world.”
This man had gone too far. At first, he was a mischievous monk with reckless behavior. But now he insulted the tsar himself. Her mouth felt dry. This man was treacherous, blatantly so, and he did not seem afraid of her at all. In fact, the more she seemed to squirm, the brighter the twinkle in his eyes. What was she to do? This man was dangerous; she sensed it now as if a dog barked a warning in the distance. “You think … you could rule … yourself,” she echoed.
His smile faltered.
She searched her mind for everything she knew about the monk who had claimed that one day, he would rule as tsar. He had been the one to spark all the rumors about the survival of Tsarevich Dmitri. But she knew little else. What had his name been? Who had informed on him to Tsar Boris? Supposedly the monk had been sent away; but what if somehow he returned, or never left in the first place?
He must have seen the wheels turning in her head, for suddenly he assumed an expression of supplication and said, “I suppose I have let my mouth run ahead of me. I should be more wary; lesser men have been expelled from the Kremlin for such treacherous talk, haven’t they?”
She struggled to breathe as his eyes searched hers. When he stepped closer, she stopped breathing altogether.
He stared down at her, so close that she smelled the smoky scent of frankincense wafting off of him. His voice was soft when he continued speaking. “A shame, though. I meant only to appeal to your reason. Strange that to question Tsar Boris’s legitimacy equals treachery; it seems almost as if he has something to hide, doesn’t it? Hm.”
Xenia forced a swallow down her throat, wishing that he would move away from her so that she did not have back away and appear cowardly. The longer she stared at him, the deeper she saw into the facade of his expression; underneath his ever-lingering smirk, she sensed a fear in him, tart in the air as he stared her down. She could see the vein in his neck thumping rapidly with his pulse; she heard a slight tremor in his voice when he next spoke.
“I may not be your spiritual guide, Xenia, but I hope that you will consider what I have said, nonetheless. You are not so cruel as your mother and father, I suspect. So stop fawning over lowly princes and start watching what is going on around you.”
At last he drew away and made for the door, leaving her breathless.
“Thank you for an enlightening morning, Xenia. Until next time.”
With that he left the sanctuary, sweeping into the main part of the church.
For a moment, she stood petrified. This man should be arrested. She sensed it. How should she go about it? Did it matter? The longer she stood here wondering what to do, the more time she gave him to flee.
Finally, she hurried out, running through the church, not caring who watched. She rushed outside, her robes billowing all around her, and called out to the first streltsy soldier she came upon. She indulged a delightful fantasy of the soldier shooting off his harquebus and blowing a hole in Dmitri’s belly.
But when she tried to explain why Dmitri should be arrested, she floundered. “There was a man—he listened to my confession. He tricked me. He …”
The streltsy just stared at her, dumbfounded.
“He claimed to be Dmitri!” she blurted.
The streltsy blinked. “Dmitri who?”
She shook her head angrily. “That is, his name was Dmitri … I suppose he didn’t really say that he was … oh, damn it!” Xenia stomped her foot with anger.
She knew that the monk deserved to be arrested for how he had humiliated her and spoken against the tsar; but perhaps this was not the right way to go about it. She sensed there was more to this man than treacherous boasts. But did she really believe him guilty of claiming to be Tsarevich Dmitri? He had not really done so. In the end, she felt he had only been toying with her, whoever he was. Right now, the worst thing she could accuse him of was listening to her embarrassing confession under false pretenses, which was something not easily proven. She imagined trying to explain it all to someone; would this monk be cruel enough to break the holy seal of confession if she accused him of something? Probably not, but the thought still terrified her.
“Never mind,” she said at last, feeling as if her whole body deflated as she walked away from the cathedral.
The strange fellow had gotten the best of her this time, perhaps. The rascally monk thought he would get away with saying whatever he wanted to the tsarevna. But he had underestimated her. She would not just send a streltsy bumbling after him. She would take this matter to Tsar Boris himself.