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Russia, somewhere east of Moscow
August 8, 1620
The lowering sun shimmered through the dusty haze looming in languid stillness above the treetops, tinting the tiny grains of sand with vibrant shades of crimson until the very air seemed aflame. An ominous portent, the reddish aura offered no promise of rain or respite for a parched and thirsty land. Excessive heat and a lengthy drought had scorched the plains and barren steppes, wilting endless areas of grass down to densely matted roots. But here in the mixed wooded, region of Russia, bordered on the north and east by the Volga River and on the south by the Oka, the thick forests appeared relatively unscathed by the lack of rain. Even so, amid the voluminous clouds of choking dust stirred aloft by the horses' hooves, the occupants of the coach and its escort of soldiers still suffered the same as they traversed the vast wilderness.
In her full score years of life, the Countess Synnovea Zenkovna had seen a wide variety of faces her homeland could present. They were as unique as the changing seasons. The long, brutal winters could be a test of endurance for even the most hearty. In spring, the thawing ice and snow created deceptively treacherous bogs, which in times past had proven formidable enough to dissuade hordes of marauding Tatars and other invading armies. Summer was a temperamental vixen. Warm, lulling breezes and the gentle patter of rain could placate the soul, but when imbued with dry, scorching temperatures such as those that were presently hampering the land, the season served vengeance on anyone foolish enough to travel beneath its broiling sun, a fact which the Countess Synnovea had moroselyconsidered prior to leaving her home.
The conditions were intolerable for a lengthy trek through Russia, especially one that had been embarked upon with equal amounts of urgency and reluctance. If not for His Imperial Highness, Tsar Mikhail Romanov, requesting her presence in Moscow ere the week was out and a full dozen mounted guards sent under the direction of captain Nikolai Nekrasov to serve as her escort, Synnovea would never have ventured upon such an arduous journey until the heat had adequately abated. Given a choice, she would have remained in Nizhni Novgorod, where she'd have continued mourning the recent death of her father. It was useless, of course, for a mere countess to belabor her lack of options when the Tsar of all the Russias had issued a command. Immediate compliance was the only prudent choice for any loyal subject, but leaving her home had not been the worst of it. His Majesty's announcement that she would become the ward of his cousin upon her arrival in Moscow had dragged her grieving spirit into a darker gloom.
She was, after all, the only offspring of the late Count Aleksandr Zenkov, and now, much to her chagrin, the recipient of royal attention. The tsar hadn't elaborated on his purpose for assigning her a guardian. Yet when one took into account her sire's notable performance as an emissary and the many honors that had been heaped upon him, the favor she was presently receiving was understandable. Still, Synnovea found it difficult to think of herself as a helpless waif in need of protection. She had passed an age when most maidens marry, and now with her parents both dead, she had begun to assume the responsibilities of a mistress of vast holdings. Why in heaven's name did she need a guardian?
Neither a youngling nor a pauper, yet treated like one, Synnovea mused morosely. Against her will, a more viable reason for Tsar Mikhail's dictate came to mind, causing her to cringe inwardly. Her elongated spinsterhood had in all probability influenced his decision, especially if he had become convinced that her father had failed to address that issue satisfactorily before his death. Despite the demands of protocol, Aleksandr Zenkov had refrained from forcing his daughter into marriage, having nurtured a hope that she would someday discover a love the likes of which he had shared with her mother, Eleanora. Though others might have been convinced that he had dragged his heels in procuring a spouse for Synnovea, Aleksandr had nevertheless made provisions for her far beyond the standard for female descendants, securing lands and wealth in her name while gaining guarantees from the tsar that, upon the demise of her sire, none of these assets would be stripped from her.
Much earlier, Aleksandr had confounded tradition by arranging for Synnovea to be tutored by some of the most respected mentors in Russia as well as abroad. Those who had once wagged their heads while lamenting the count's lack of a male heir had been taken aback by his zeal to elevate his daughter to a status equal to any son. Then, after the death of her mother some five years ago, Aleksandr had enlisted Synnovea's assistance in the realm of diplomatic affairs and foreign dignitaries, entrusting her with significant responsibility in those areas, which had ultimately involved her in his extensive travels abroad. Having had an English mother, Synnovea could speak that language as fluently as she could her native Russian, and with a good grasp of French as well, she had been ableto pen letters to officials in all three. No son could have done any better.
Yet here she was, being whisked to Moscow like so much chattel belonging to the tsar. And she was loathing every moment of it.
Wearily Synnovea braced an elbow upon the corner armrest and, with a trembling hand, clasped a dampened handkerchief to her brow as she sought to quell another attack of nausea, elicited no doubt by the writhing instrument of torture in which she rode. The wild gyrations of the coach remained unyielding as it swept around curves and jounced over deeply rutted roads. To some degree, the tinkling of harness bells and the jangling of horses' necklets mellowed the din of drumming hooves and a rumbling conveyance, yet Synnovea was convinced that nothing short of the end of the journey would ease the pain throbbing in her temples. Even the late-aftemoon sun seemed puckishly bent on punishing her as it cast its blinding rays into the windows, forcing her to squeeze her eyes tightly shut until the coach passed into the cooler, mottled shade of the lofty trees that flanked the road. When she finally dared open them again, a spotted red haze obscured the interior and the other two occupants of the coach...