The sun rose once more on another wretched day. Once again I am meant to parade myself in front of one of father’s eligible young men and pretend that to be in his very presence was the single most wonderful experience of my life. But the truth of the matter was that even though I didn’t yet know his name, I knew he would be like all the others that came before him. He would be properly dressed, correct in his opinions, honorable to my father; he would flatter me obsequiously, and he utterly stupid. None of them ever appreciated my intelligent wit, my desire to be heard and respected as a learned mind, or my excellent seat on a horse. Much to my father’s regret, I tested them time and again, giving them my most shocking opinions on marriage, women’s rights, and the general state of the country. And every time they went away with a pitying look at my father and a promise that no man would ever take me as a bride. And my dear father, lord of all he saw, keeper of the house and master of the universe, Ivan Kostov, respected, revered, feared, and one of the last great families of Russia, would sigh and give me a frown while I smiled in triumph. For I always believed above all things that no man really ever loved a woman who wasn’t stupid, and therefore no man shall near me.
I glanced at myself in my mirror before preparing for the duel of words. Perhaps I was too cruel to them, but if they really wanted to marry me they would love me for my tenacity. It was true I was a great beauty according to the standard ideals: my hair was perfect blackness, my skin creamy white, and my eyes cerulean blue. But it was nothing but decoration for the soul within. I had been tempted to leave my hair unbrushed and skin dirty, but it think I would prefer my father living at present. My gown was correct and in fashion and of a color that was not important but it suited me. I was indeed the perfect vision of loveliness. I turned away to leave before I gagged and was met by my lady. She looked me up and down, nodded her assent that my figure was pleasing, and allowed me to meet my next victim.
“What is this one called? Not that it matters. I’m sure he will be like all the others,” I asked as I was escorted to the drawing room.
“I wouldn’t be throwing this one away, mistress. He’s the son of your father’s only friend that doesn’t know you. Tuke is the name.”
I walked in the room with my head high and readied myself. My father gave me pleading look as I entered. Oh, dear sir, what joy is there in life for me but to make sport of my suitors? There was the young man, elegantly dressed, hair oiled, face clean. Perfect, I am swooning already.
“Daughter, may I present Leonard Tuke.” My father stepped aside and whispered some threat having to do with spinsterhood in my ear but I confess I did not hear it. I curtsied, he bowed as was proper and expected, and he made some comment about my beauty which I am sure was rehearsed.
“I understand that your father has an excellent gray stallion?” I began, and I almost lost all composure when the young man choked on his confusion. I went on, amused. “I admit I have been desperate to find an animal that would do my brown jumper justice. Tell me, sir, how does he do over fences? Is he correct in body?”
“Miss Kostova, I hardly know how to answer,” my eager gentleman said. “This is not a proper subject for ladies.” That was directed at my very red father.
“I apologize if you are uncomfortable. Let us talk of other things…” I smiled, a little devilishly I admit. “What is your opinion on the rights of women? Do you not feel they should have a voice in government? For my part, I have not heard half so many intelligent things come out of the governor’s mouth as I have from the ladies of my circle.”
“I believe that a lady with an opinion is a dangerous thing, Miss Kostova. Their minds are infected like a disease and their fragile bodies cannot handle the strain. A woman who reads will fall into mischief and it will lead to her ruin. Leave the thinking to us gentlemen and be safe at home.” Just the response I would expect and I laughed in spite of myself. My father was duly horrified and my suitor pleased with himself. Obviously he had imparted some great wisdom upon me and I should be honored.
“Do you realize how many dangers there are at home, sir? You could fall down the stairs, burn your hand pouring tea, a spark from the fire could set your dress aflame, not to mention murderous servants lurking around the shadows. No, sir, I prefer to sail upon the sea or ride through the forest at full gallop. A woman would be mad indeed to leave all the fun to you men. And if you think a woman with an opinion ‘dangerous’ then consider your life threatened for I can talk all day.” If only I could convince the man, what was his name? I quite forgot; to remain still long enough for me to capture his expression on canvas, but it was not to be. The poor gentleman’s sensibilities had been insulted to the point of devastation and he would not stay another moment. I was satisfied the meeting was over and so prepared to leave the room, but my father would have none of it.
“Are you determined to be single all your days? You are determined to see this estate pass into ruin under the management of that damn nephew of mine.”
“I will not marry a man who will not love me. Every man you have brought to me wants a title, a name, the estate, and do not care about the package as long as it is pleasing to the eye. I don’t want to be sold off to satisfy your longing for a male heir. If any of these men saw me in another circumstance they would not look twice at me.”
“You are my last child, Ryanna. Your brothers are dead, your sister has only daughters, and she is past the age of bearing children. What choice do you have?”
“None. I am a woman. We have no choice but to marry and produce sons to placate their fathers.” My father sighed and I saw his shoulders drop. He shook his head resigned and to my surprise, took me in his arms.
“My dearest child, you are the most beautiful girl in all creation. I cannot bear to see you shrivel away unhappy. I do not want to die before I see you married. Please…” Ah, guilt, my father’s last desperate attempt to touch my heart. “There must be some way we can both be satisfied?”
I had an idea. It could be complicated, but if it worked as it should, my father would see me married and I would be persuaded to be in love. It depended on whether a man could truly find me and love me for my mind, soul, and heart.
“There is one more eligible bachelor that has not been tainted by your appalling behavior. He is your last chance. I beg you not to disappoint me again.”
“I will marry this man if you agree to my proposition, Father.”
He startled and leaned toward me to receive my every word. I hoped he would agree for I knew it would be difficult to convince him.
“With your permission, I will take the place of a servant in this house. She will be me, and I will be her. If this man finds me, talks to me, loves me for who I am without the name, then I will marry him.”
My father protested, which was to be expected, but then after much arguing, he assented, which was unexpected, but welcomed.
“If this is the only solution, then so be it,” he said before leaving me to my thoughts.
Nadya was the stablemaster’s daughter. She was my age, twenty-one, but her years cleaning manure and hard labor had left her hair brittle, her skin course, and her features a little too brown for propriety’s sake. But she was perfect for the role. She was sweet natured and I could direct her to act as I saw fit for whatever situation we encountered. My father agreed to my choice but only because he liked his stableman. His opinion of the girl herself was less than favorable, but he was persuaded to overlook her faults and groom her as his daughter. Though I genuinely admired Nadya and loved to hear her idle gossip, secretly my desire to be near the horses and ride without constraint was the chief reason for my choosing her. Selfish, I know, but also to my purpose. The handsome monsieur would have to look past my smell as well as my station to fall in love with me. Was I being overly cruel to my father? Perhaps, but it was not his life we were planning. Had I not a right to determine my own destiny? I thought so, too.
The following is an account of what transpired as a result of my brilliant plan. I cannot vouch for any events that took place outside of my presence, but will try to give as accurate description of them as I can and to the best of my knowledge.