One of my earliest memories is of myself and my younger sister at my grandparents’ golden wedding anniversary party. I don’t know how old I was—probably around five. I recall sitting under a table with my sister while the grownups celebrated around us, as well as gold decorations and cake. At the time, the idea that anyone could remain married for fifty years seemed inconceivable. In fact, at five the whole concept of fifty, never mind years, is pretty inconceivable.
Yet it happened. And went on: the marriage continued for another decade or two until my grandfather died at the age of ninety. Nor were my grandparents alone in that. My parents married on this day in 1951 and remained together to the end, almost fifty-five years later.
My brother, too, married on this day a few years ago. It was less than a week after Super Storm Sandy, and Sir Percy and I drove to the ceremony along miles of roads flanked by woods that looked as if a giant had decided to play pick-up sticks with the forest to a hotel with generator power but not much else. It was one of the best weddings I’ve ever attended, because everyone there rejoiced at spending time with family and friends. Some had enjoyed their first showers and hot meals in days. Expectations were low and enjoyment sky-high.
This is not quite the wedding that Maria Kolycheva faces at the beginning of The Vermilion Bird, although for her sake we hope she will succeed in creating that kind of marriage. The fourth Legends novel—which should be available in print and for preorder right around Thanksgiving, with a formal release date in early December—dumps Maria right into a mess created by her own preconceptions and prejudices. Like most women of her time, she has not selected her own husband in the way we do now. Instead her father has picked him out for her, with the goal of advancing the family’s prestige in the Russian court (and, not coincidentally, Daddy’s own future in that court).
The battle lines are drawn at Maria’s bride’s party the day before.
“It’s a scandal, I tell you. Fyodor has gone mad.” Over the plink-plink of psalteries, the chatter of fifty women, the murmurs of servants in corners, and the noise from the courtyard below, Aunt Theodosia’s voice soared like a song. “Marrying a hussy two years older than his own daughter? Then wedding his own girl to his new wife’s former lover? Abominable! Where is his honor?”
“Auntie! How can you?” Maria, tempted to shrink into herself like a tortoise into its shell, instead gripped the hand of the hated Roxelana, whose fingers returned the favor with equal strength. “Stop squeezing me,” she hissed at her stepmother, who narrowed her eyes and hissed wordlessly back.
But Roxelana, although a general irritant, bore no responsibility for Maria’s present agony. On the contrary, she shared it. Must Auntie announce their predicament to the world? Thanks to her, every woman here knew—now, if she hadn’t before—that Roxelana had lived for years with the man destined to become Maria’s husband tomorrow, only to abandon him for Maria’s father and the respectability he offered.
A hint of sandalwood and cinnamon released into the air as Roxelana shifted in her seat. Among the many perfumes wafting around the room, hers stood out: seductive, elusive, foreign.
Respectability? Roxelana? As if that’s not a contradiction in terms!
Aunt Theodosia was still talking—bellowing, rather, with the blissful unconcern of the hard of hearing. “Twenty-two years old, and him a ripe thirty-seven. What does he want with a lovely nincompoop to warm his bed? After wearing my dearest sister to the bone, bearing and raising his children. Thirteen she gave him. Thirteen. And seven who lived!”
“We know, Auntie. We can count.” This voice, young and sweet, belonged to Maria’s sister Varvara, second of the seven living offspring. She spoke in softer tones than Theodosia.
“Don’t mumble like that, girl,” Theodosia snapped. “Speak up.”
“Hush now.” Varvara raised her voice as commanded. “The whole room can hear you.” She gestured with her right hand. “Including our stepmother.”
“Don’t be absurd. I’m whispering, just as you are,” Theodosia said at top volume. “Stepmother, indeed. Harlot, more like.”
Roxelana hissed again, louder this time, and Varvara pressed her lips together, as if trying not to giggle. In response Theodosia fixed Roxelana with her basilisk glare. “Ridiculous. Just ridiculous.”
As you might expect from a novel, events go downhill from there, as Maria struggles to force the world to meet her expectations and the world pushes back. But never fear, the ancestral grandmothers still know what they’re doing, and the forces of good will once more triumph—whatever that means in the context of this particular story.
So mark your calendars, and keep an eye open for book teasers and other promotions as the time approaches. I will be announcing sales of previous books in the series and perhaps a surprise associated with the launch.
And remember, however a marriage starts, it’s how it ends that counts. Maria and her Alexei may have a long road ahead, but they do have a few things going for them—if they can stay alive long enough to figure out what those are.
Images © Five Directions Press and Clipart no. 109357139.