Hidden In the Mirror, by Olga Godim
Kuzma burst into the room, just as Maya finished the ballad. The last notes still reverberated in the air. She put the lute aside and smiled in welcome—her husband seldom came into her chambers during the day. Then she noticed his stony expression, his nostrils flaring in barely-suppressed rage, and her smile faded.
“What’s wrong, Kuzma?”
“You need to ask?” he growled. “You slut! I saw you.” He stepped closer, towering over her.
“What?” she whispered. His words stung. Slut was such a dirty epithet. She hadn’t done anything to make her husband so furious, except maybe laughing with the young boyarin Nicolay at the yesterday’s ball. “It was an empty flirtation, just banter,” she said faintly.
“Banter?” he roared, breathing heavily, eyeing her with so much loathing she flinched. “You call it banter? You dancing naked in front of everyone?”
Maya’s lips opened. Naked? Her décolletage was not lower than any other lady’s. If anything, it was the opposite. She didn’t like gowns cut too open. Kuzma hadn’t said anything yesterday, when he escorted her home after the ball. He had seemed in a good mood, even kissed her goodnight before leaving for his club.
Puzzled, she shook her head.
“You, shameless whore. You pretend not to know?” Suddenly, he slapped her so hard she stumbled against the sofa and fell down, banging her elbow.
She gasped, and her hand flew to her stinging cheek. Her eyes watered from the pain. Why did her call her a whore?
“Pack,” he said coldly and stepped back. His lips curled in disdain, and he wiped the palm that had hit her against his breeches, as if he couldn’t stomach touching her. As if she was slime. “Tomorrow morning, I’m sending you to the convent of the Holy Mother. I’ll have nothing more to do with you. You’re not my wife anymore, you despicable, filthy harlot.” He stomped out of the room and slammed the door behind his back.
Maya started shaking. Her husband had gone mad. There was no other explanation. He wanted to send her to the convent of the Holy Mother. She had heard stories about it. Some aristocrats stashed their disobedient or infertile wives there, declaring them unfit. She had only been married for a year. She always obeyed her husband. Granted, she hadn’t gotten pregnant, but there was still time.
She had thought Kuzma loved her. He had certainly wooed her prettily last year, with flowers and presents. Her lovely lute was his gift. Her father was still alive then and he hadn’t forced her to accept Kuzma’s proposal. She wasn’t sure she loved her husband but she liked and respected him and she had thought the regard was mutual. Obviously not.
Still shivering, she touched the lute, seeking comfort. No such luck. The strings sounded forlorn, discordant, as if they pitied her. Slowly she clambered to her feet and glanced in the mirror. Her cheek smarted. Kuzma’s blow didn’t break the skin, but the entire side of his face was pink and swollen. It would be a spectacular bruise. He was a big man, Kuzma, and he had big, heavy hands. He had never hit her before, not like some other husbands. Not before today.
Her lips trembled but she didn’t cry. Instead she tried to parse their short conversation, to insert some sense into the senseless. He called her a whore, but she had never betrayed him, never wanted to. Maybe someone lied to him, spread false gossip about her? But why would he believe so readily? And why would anyone besmirch her? She didn’t have enemies, did she?
“Boyarina.” Her maid Nastya stuck her freckled nose into the room and sidled in. She clucked in disapproval at Maya’s cheek. “Brute,” she said. On her placid round face, the uncustomary hostility looked foreign. “I’ll bring you a raw steak.” She slipped out the door.
Maya rubbed her arms, her insides icy with dread. She should talk to Kuzma again but she was at a loss what to say to him. She couldn’t even defend herself—she didn’t know what he accused her of. What actions of hers could’ve merited his ugly words? Nothing came to mind, but she didn’t want to go to the convent. She hated the idea. She would be forgotten there for the rest of her life, a prisoner for eternity. They might even forbid her to play the lute. With longing, she glanced at the shining instrument. She wouldn’t survive without her music.
Maybe she should run away, she thought wistfully but dismissed the idea. She had no money of her own and no place to go. Her father was dead. She had always been a dutiful daughter and a faithful wife, but suddenly, she didn’t wish to obey Kuzma anymore. He was unjust. She didn’t deserve a cold cell in the convent. She deserved the concerts and the operas, the rides in the park and the merry shops.
The thought of running away persisted. Perhaps she should pretend to be obedient, pack her clothes and jewelry, and sneak away during the trip. She might even steal some of Kuzma’s money. He would never suspect she would try to escape. Of course not. He would expect her to behave like a docile and dignified boyarina. Until today, she would’ve expected it of herself as well, but now, the only question plaguing her was where to go.
She would think of something later, but now, she must make sure her husband wouldn’t interfere with her preparations. Where was he? She cast her searching net over the house. She had always had a gift for finding people and things. If she knew what she was looking for, she could find it. She was forever finding lost jewelry and misplaced silver. When she was a young girl, she once found her nurse’s toddler nephew, lost in the woods a few miles from their manor.
To her relief, Kuzma wasn’t in the house. He had probably left as soon as he delivered his pronouncement about the convent. She sent her searching strands farther out, in a widening spiral over the city, and one of her inquisitive threads twitched. He was to the east of the house, moving towards his club. Good. The longer he stayed away, the more time she would have to get ready.
By the time Nastya returned with a steak, Maya formulated some sort of a plan. She sat immobile, holding the slab of raw meat to her aching cheek, and watched the girl packing her clothing. With every folded blouse and skirt, Maya’s anger rose another notch, until she was smoldering. Even breathing was difficult with so much fury inside her. She had never before understood why young men brawled. She got it now. She wanted to punch something or someone, preferably her thick-headed husband. Even more, she wanted to find out what happened, what prompted his cruel words and merciless decision.
“What could it be?” she muttered in frustration, not realizing she was speaking aloud until Nastya answered.
“Maybe he saw something.”
“What?” Maya snapped. “Have you been eavesdropping at the door again?”
Blushing, Nastya lowered her eyes to the carpet. “Forgiveness, Boyarina.”
“Oh, no matter. What could he possibly have seen? He couldn’t have seen me dancing naked. It never happened. It must be an excuse. Perhaps he has a mistress and wants to get rid of me, but many rich men have mistresses. I knew that when I married, even though I didn’t expect him to tire of me so soon. Anyway, there is no need for a scandal. Sending me to a convent would create a huge scandal.”
For a while, she reasoned aloud in this vein, venting her frustration and going in circles, unable to arrive at any conclusion. Nastya wasn’t any help, so Maya sent the girl on an errand and catalogued her resources. Her jewelry would fetch a good price. She still had all of her quarterly allowance too, but if she hoped to flee and survive, she needed more money.
She pattered downstairs to Kuzma’s study. He usually kept their household money in the top drawer of his desk. Luckily, the money was there, an impressively heavy purse. The quarter had just started, and he always paid the bills in the end of each month. She grinned faintly as she grabbed the purse. This was her household too, so the money belonged to her as much as to him. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be checking the content of the drawer tomorrow morning, before he sent her to the convent. The combined money plus her jewelry should allow her to live modestly for several years.
Her eyes fell on the wall above his desk, where weapons from his army days hung proudly. The smallest dagger, its hilt made of carved amber, tempted her. She reached for it but recoiled in the last moment, clutching her fingers into a fist. No, she shouldn’t. She didn’t know how to use it anyway. The dagger, sharp and deadly like her husband’s hatred, gleamed wickedly beside his old sword. Kuzma would definitely notice its disappearance as soon as he entered the study. She backed away from the weapons and climbed back to her bedroom, to hide the money in her portmanteau.
She was as ready as she could be but she didn’t know what awaited her. Her thoughts swirled erratically, making her head ache. How would she escape tomorrow? Where would she go? Maybe her old nurse would take her in for a while, until she figured out what to do with her life. The cloudy possibilities were terrifying. They tied her stomach in knots. She could run into bandits, and they might rape her. She could run into wolves, and they might eat her. Fighting against a howl of despair, she crossed the room to the window. Her fingers itched for the lute, but Nastya had already packed the instrument.
Maya hugged herself tightly, her severe brown gown as gloomy as her mood, and gazed outside, watching dusk spreading over the city. In the fall, darkness fell early, and the trees had already dropped a load of their leaves. Half-naked branches swayed helplessly, shedding more leaves with every chilly gust of wind. That’s how she felt—defenseless against the wind of her husband’s displeasure. Maybe Nastya was right. Maybe he was so angry because he saw something. Someone. Someone who looked like her. Maybe she could find that person and prove to her husband that she was innocent.
She lit an oil lamp beside the mirror and stared at herself. “Find,” she said and sent her searchers out again, looking for the same image.
Her delicate questing threads didn’t want to leave home. They circled around her, but she pushed them out into the city, nudging them in all directions, seeking her face elsewhere. “Find!”
Reluctantly, they sped outward. After a few minutes, one little feeler twinged. Then another. Then they all coalesced in one place, east of her house, not far from Kuzma’s club, in the theatre district. She just discovered someone who looked like her.
Before she allowed herself time to reconsider, she grabbed her cloak and tiptoed down the servants’ stairs to the back door. She needed to confront this woman, to see what her husband had seen, and she didn’t want to use the front door. The butler might try to stop her.
True darkness hadn’t fallen yet, but the murky twilight, augmented by the fog from the river, enveloped her and muted her steps. Other people hastened around, but she couldn’t see clearly. Only vague shapes, insubstantial and wavering, passed along the sidewalks, the invisible horses’ hooves clattered, and the wheels rattled on the cobblestones. For the first time in her life, she was out alone at night. She should’ve taken Kuzma’s dagger with her.
Fright followed her like a shadow, lapping at her inside, eroding her courage. She should return home. No, she should dodge the big silhouette moving towards her. She ducked into a shallow doorway and almost gagged from the stink of stale urine. The silhouette that scared her so much stomped ahead, indifferent to her terror.
She had never visited this seedy area, with its unlit streets and garbage-choked alleys. A few taverns spilled weak light onto the pavement, but in the thickening fog, she could hardly see her feet. Only the threads of her search provided direction, pulling her forward like a steady current in the roiling sea of her emotions. Her quarry was close. Even if the blasted woman really danced naked, Kuzma shouldn’t have mistaken her for his wife. He should’ve known better.
She almost overshot her target, when her searching terminus tugged at her sideways, into a building. A lamp hung beneath an awning over a narrow back door, dingy with peeling paint. No sign told her what was on the other side of the door. Hopefully it wasn’t a bordello.
Before she chickened out completely, she pulled at the dented doorknob, and the door opened, revealing a long corridor, dim and empty, and a gaunt old man dozing in a chair. Beside him, an equally old and rusty halberd leaned in a corner.
At the squeak of the hinges, he jerked out of his sleep and peered at Maya through his rheumy eyes. He didn’t even try to reach for the halberd, just nodded. “Miss Faina,” he mumbled and slumped back in his chair. “I thought you’ve come already. You’re cutting it awfully late, dear.” His eyes closed.
The ancient doorman wasn’t even mildly surprised. Like her husband, he mistook her for the mysterious Faina. Maya murmured a greeting and slinked past him down the corridor, towards another door marked “Stage.” Music leaked from behind the stage door. It must be a dance hall. Between the stage door and the entrance, several smaller doors spaced evenly to her right. The left-hand wall was unbroken and unadorned. Her searching tug stopped at the second door from the stage. She pushed it open.
Inside, sequined costumes and diaphanous scarves hung on chairs and colorful screens around a dressing room. A woman sat in front of a mirror, brushing her hair, her back to the door. The russet tresses rippled around her shoulders, the same color and length as Maya’s, only Maya’s hair was twisted into a bun. To be sure, she touched the bun at the back of her head, and one of the two reflections in the mirror echoed her gesture.
Other than the hair style and Maya’s bruised cheek, the faces in the mirror looked identical: the same hazel eyes, the same wide mouths, the same round cheekbones. Side by side, they seemed two copies of the same mold.
The woman yelped and whirled on her stool, staring at Maya. Maya stared back. Then the woman turned back to the mirror, and their eyes met in the glass.
“Who are you?” the woman asked.
“Maya,” Maya said. She couldn’t think of any other answer. “Who are you?”
“Faina.” Faina’s lips twitched suddenly. Her grin flashed, contrasting with Maya’s shocked expression. Her clothing was different too. Unlike Maya’s drab dress, Faina wore a tiny scarlet silk blouse, her midriff bare. The fringe on the blouse swayed above the low waistline of her flouncy skirt, and the beads decorating it chimed faintly.
“So, I have a twin. For once, mommy told the truth,” Faina drawled.
“A twin? Your mother said you had a twin?”
“Didn’t your father tell you?”
“No. He said my mom died at birth.”
“Liar. Mom said he was a stuck-up old stick.”
“He was.” Maya smiled in fond memory. “He died last year, soon after my wedding. Could you… take me to your mother? Our mother. I’d love to meet her, to learn how we got separated.”
“She died when I was fourteen,” Faina said. “I can tell you how we got separated. She was an actress, like me. She got pregnant and forced the guy responsible to marry her. About a year after our birth, she got bored being the lady of the house. She wanted to be on stage again. He would never permit it—he was a boyarin—so she left him, and they divided the children.”
“Oh,” Maya said.
“How did you find me anyway? And what happened to you?” Faina nodded at Maya’s bruised cheek. “A guy?”
“Yes.” Maya sighed and told her sister what had happened this morning. “I wanted to find that dancer, to prove that it wasn’t me. I’ve always had a knack of finding things, hidden things, even when I was a young girl. I just imagined my own face, and my search pulled me towards you.”
“Interesting. I’ve always had a knack for hiding things,” Faina said. Her expressive eyes sparkled. “I bet you wouldn’t be able to find something I’ve hidden.”
“Maybe not.” Maya smiled back. “But you weren’t hiding from me, were you?”
“Would you come with me after your show? I’d like to introduce you to my husband.”
“Sure. He would take one look at me, gasp, and forgive you on the spot.”
Maya’s smile slid off. “He has nothing to forgive me for. It’s him who must beg my forgiveness. He didn’t trust me. He believed the worst of me. He shouldn’t have.”
“Of course.” Faina’s smile disappeared too. Now she sounded cold and distant. “The worst. For a boyarina, dancing for a living would be embarrassing, wouldn’t it?”
“More than embarrassing,” Maya said quietly. “It would destroy us socially. Everyone would turn away in disgust, even our servants.” She noticed the frost in her sister’s eyes and kneeled in front of her, putting her hand on top of Faina’s, squeezing. Even their hands looked the same, the fingers and the nails. It felt weirdly like touching herself.
“Forgive me, Faina.” She caressed her sister’s arm. The delicate fringe adorning Faina’s scanty sleeves weaved around her fingers like a spider web. “I don’t despise you. I’m glad to have met you. I respect you. I respect anyone who earns her living honestly.” She paused, examining her feelings, and knew what she said was the truth. “I just… couldn’t be you. But maybe I could earn my living too. Somehow. I don’t think I can stay with Kuzma after what happened.”
“You’re crazy,” Faina said angrily, although she didn’t attempt to avoid Maya’s caress. “You’re not planning to run away from your rich hubby, are you?”
Maya didn’t reply, taking in her sister’s gaudy clothing and concerned face. Concern for her. She wanted to cry. Nobody had shown any concern for her since her father died.
“Miss Faina,” someone called from outside the door. “Two minutes.”
“Or, dear. I must go. My show is starting. Would you wait for me?”
“Yes,” Maya said. “I’ll wait. Could I watch?”
“From the wings. Come on.” Faina pulled her out of the dressing room towards the stage door.
To her amazement, Maya liked her twin’s dancing. Its sensuality appealed to her, and the music was beautiful, played by a skilled middle-aged fiddler, but she didn’t like the audience, exclusively male and unabashedly raucous. She huddled in the dark wings, afraid to attract attention. No wonder Kuzma was revolted. Seeing his wife here, whirling and gliding in front of all these drooling males, must’ve been a blow. Still, he shouldn’t have believed it was her, even though the face of the dancer gyrating on stage was hers.
She clamped a hand to her mouth. What if some of those men were Kuzma’s friends? They might recognize her too. Dear God, she couldn’t show her face in society anymore. She reeled from conflicting emotions: her sister’s irresistible allure, Kuzma’s betrayal, the resentment at her father for lying to her, the fear for the future. When Faina found her after her multiple curtain calls, grinning hugely, Maya was dizzy and numb. Her temples throbbed.
Faina took one look and whisked her sister back to the dressing room. “Sit down.” She poured her a glass of wine. “Drink. I’ll change, and then we’ll go back to my rooms and talk.”
Maya sipped the cheap fruity wine, her jitters subsiding, but she still felt unreal, floating in suspense. Wherever she turned, a wrong decision shimmered. She allowed her sister to bundle her into a hired cab and obediently trudged after Faina up the stairs of her shabby hotel. When Faina unlocked her room on the third floor, Maya collapsed into a faded armchair and watched her twin fussing around, content to make no decisions at all. Strangely, Faina didn’t seem to be preparing for bed. She was packing.
Maya shook herself out of her stupor. “What are you doing? It’s the middle of the night.”
“Finally.” Faina abandoned her activities and perched on the arm of Maya’s chair. “I thought you’ve lost your ability to speak. Are you all right? Hungry? Thirsty? Sleepy?”
“I don’t know. I want to know what to do. Why are you packing? Are you leaving me?”
“Oh, honey. Tonight was my last day. My engagement here is over. My next contract starts in a month. I’ll be dancing in Wentice down the river. I performed there once—a beautiful city. I thought I’d just travel there and spend a couple weeks like a lazy boyarina, doing nothing. I booked a cabin on the ship that sails downriver in the morning. But I’ll go with you on my way to the port and say hello to your husband. I wouldn’t leave you in the lurch.”
“I want to go with you,” Maya said. Of all the contradictory urges whizzing in her head, this one was clear. “I want to know you. Could I travel with you, at least for a while?” She saw Faina pursing her lips and hurried to explain. “I won’t be a burden. I have money, my full allowance for the next quarter and some more.” She blushed. “I stole our household money for the next quarter. It belongs to me as much as to Kuzma. And I have my jewels. And many expensive gowns. It’s all packed already. Please. We’ll just say goodbye to Kuzma, get my luggage, and leave. Could we? Would there be a place aboard the ship for me?”
“What if your husband wants you to stay?”
A cold fist squeezed Maya’s heart. She finally knew what she wanted. “He’ll have to prove it. I don’t want to stay now.”
“What will happen when your money runs out? I can support both of us for some time, but…”
“No. You shouldn’t support me. I’ll figure something out. Maybe I can earn a living too, like you do? I can play a lute. Everyone says I’m good at it. And I can find things and people. Maybe I could do it for a fee?”
“Maybe,” Faina said. “I’m not sure you know how hard it could be.”
“I’ll learn,” Maya said. “If you can do it, I can do it too. Nobody will call me a whore again. And I want my sister. He would never accept you, a dancer, for his sister-in-law.”
“You know, I want to whip this guy,” Faina said viciously. “He needs a lesson.”
“Let’s teach him a lesson then.”
Faina finished her packing, and then they napped for a few hours, nestling in each other’s arms. It felt so natural, Maya never wanted to let go.
In the morning, Faina’s hired coach stopped at Maya’s front door on its way to the harbor. The butler, seeing Maya coming in from the street, paled.
“Boyarina?” he murmured. “You went out so early?” Then he gasped, gaping at the door.
Satisfied at his reaction, Maya glanced back. Resplendent in her bright crimson dress, Faina swept in.
“Nice place you have here, sis,” she remarked, giving the marble floor and the antique side tables an approving once-over. She bent to smell the roses, arranged in a tasteful bouquet beneath the mirror.
“There are two trunks and a portmanteau in my chambers,” Maya told the butler. “Please, direct someone to take them to the coach outside.”
“Yes, Boyarina,” he said, his eyes bulging, following Faina’s progress around the room.
“Is Master Kuzma home?”
“Yes, Boyarina. In his study.”
“Fine. Carry on.” Maya caught Faina biting her lips but ignored her sister for the moment. Bracing for the upcoming confrontation, she opened the study door.
He sprawled in his huge wingchair, an empty bottle of vodka beside him.
“Ah, wife,” he grated and grimaced, as if the word tasted bitter. “Ready to depart for the convent?” His eyes were bloodshot. He probably didn’t sleep at all that night, but his every word was clipped. He didn’t sound drunk. He didn’t seem to have noticed she was out all night either. “Don’t even think about pleading with me. Nothing will change my mind. You sicken me.”
“I’m not going to plead with you,” Maya said quietly. She held the door ajar. If she had had any doubts about her chosen actions, they dissolved at his icy words and the coldness in his eyes. “I’m leaving, but not for the convent. I just came to say goodbye and introduce you to someone. I found your… naked dancer.” She turned and gestured her sister in.
Faina swung the door wide open and sank into a deep curtsy. “Greetings, Boyarin. Your wife told me you’ve been impressed by my dancing. Thank you.” Her every syllable dripped honey. She straightened beside Maya, smiling.
They had arranged their hair the same way this morning. Only their dresses were different. Kuzma stared. His mouth opened, but nothing came out. In disbelief, he switched his gaze from one face to another, back and forth like a pendulum.
Maya copied her sister’s insouciant smile. “I just discovered that I have a twin sister. We’re going away together. It’s a long story. If you ever want to know, you can find me, and I’ll tell you.”
She waited a few beats, but he stayed silent. Only his bewildered eyes moved between their faces, probably looking for differences but not finding any. Except for her bruise.
“Well, that’s that, then. Farewell, husband.” She whirled and marched out the door. She didn’t look back but she knew Faina was one step behind.
“Everything is stored as you ordered, Boyarina,” the butler said to her shoulder blades.
“Thank you.” Holding her head high, Maya climbed into the coach and settled beside Faina. She slammed the door shut.
“Should we go?” Faina asked. She wasn’t smiling anymore.
Maya wasn’t either. “Yes, let’s go. Tell the coachman.”
Faina rapped on the wall. The coach started rolling, when Kuzma appeared on the front step, looking demented, his hair in complete disarray, one foot in a house slipper, another bare. “Wait!” he yelled. “Damn it, wait!”
“Just drive,” Maya squeezed through her clenched teeth. “He didn’t even say he was sorry.” She kept her anguish from bursting out but only barely. Somewhere deep inside, she had still held a tiny hope, but not anymore. Her hands shook as she pressed them both to her mouth. Her throat contracted, blocking her breathing.
“Go!” Faina yelled, and the coach jerked forward, bumping on the cobblestones. Whatever else Kuzma might’ve said was lost on the breeze off the river.
Faina hugged Maya tightly. “We’ll manage, sis. Whatever happens, we’ll manage.”
Maya nodded. She might be able to talk soon but not yet. Tears trickled slowly down her cheeks. Only after they boarded the ship and the crew cast off, she relaxed a little. She stood at the starboard side of the railing and gazed at the retreating city.
“Will you hide me?” Maya asked her sister. “I don’t want him to find me. Ever.”
“Yes,” Faina whispered.
Olga is a freelance writer and journalist from Vancouver, Canada. Her short stories have been published in multiple internet and print magazines. Her fantasy novels, Almost Adept, and Eagle En Garde were released in 2014 by Champagne/Burst. In 2015, Eagle En Garde won an EPIC eBook Award in the Fantasy category.
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Tags: affairs, family, identity, mistakes, Olga Godim, relationships