It was my first day playing the role of the stablemaster’s daughter and the man himself was staring at me blankly. I had just explained to him the situation at hand: that he was to instruct me in all the duties expected of a lady in my position and to address me as his child for the duration of my suitor’s stay. He was obviously confused, but he said nothing, a reaction entirely opposite that of daughter, who was now being fitted for gowns and learning which fork to pick up first at dinner. Indeed, she seemed utterly delighted by the prospect.
“Will I get to sleep in your bed?” Nadya asked after a moments shock. Her body began to tremble in excited anticipation.
“Of course.” I replied. “We cannot have the gentlemen believing the daughter of Ivan Kostov sleeps on straw in the stables.” This seemed sufficient to secure her compliance in the matter. It appeared her father would be somewhat more difficult to convince.
“I assure you I will do all you ask with no complaint.” I tried to elicit some response, but the man was stone. I was almost afraid this would be the end of my scheme: a frail, aging man that smelled of horses and straw and who apparently forgot that despite the fact that I was dressed in a similar fashion as he, I was still his mistress and therefore had command over him. I was prepared to tell him so when he slowly shook his head and with a sigh handed me the pitchfork he had been holding.
“I don’t suppose I have much choice, mistress,” he lamented as I took the tool from him.
“No, sir, you do not,” I reminded him. “And if you please, call me your daughter or we fail before we begin.”
After spending above eight hours cleaning stalls, brushing horses, oiling saddles, feeding livestock, and other general duties of a woman in my position, I was more exhausted than I had ever been in my entire life. From the tips of my toes to the roots of my hair my body ached with every breath I took. As I lowered myself into a hot bath, the last I would take for some time, I glanced at my previously polished fingernails and was heartbroken to see them all chipped, cracked, and soiled. I sighed pitifully and leaned my weary head back. I would be sore beyond all reason tomorrow, I knew, but today was perfect. I had spent all day in the dirt like a common serf and had enjoyed every moment. What would my father say to that?
“When Masseur Mensky arrives tomorrow you must wear this orange gown for it is the most unflattering color I own,” I instructed Nadya the night before the scheduled arrival of my experiment, though I tried not to think of him in that manner. My design in having Nadya dress less than impressive was to give the gentleman a chance to glance away from her and perchance see the humble figure I would present standing by. That was the idea, however. I sincerely doubted that particular result as I was convinced that I could have dressed Nadya in rags and he would declare it the best of fashion since my name would come with it. But enough cynicism for the present.
“Anna, are you sure this a wise plan? I admit that I have enjoyed the past two weeks and your bed is very soft, but I believe we may have lost sight of the fact that this man will most likely not appreciate being played with. What is your own opinion to this?” Oh, simple Nadya, how I wish I could be as free as you to express myself so decidedly.
“You may be right and your scruples do you credit, my dear Nadya, but I will not be dissuaded. I am determined to be loved honorably. Is this wrong?”
“No, indeed. It is what we all wish.”
“Then what possible harm may come of it?”
“None worth regretting, I hope.” Do not count on any regrets, it thought, for if the man exerts the effort to prove himself worthy, there can be nothing but good results. And if not, well, than I am vindicated at last, Mensky will marry someone else much to that woman’s misfortune, and I will be left alone by my father. There was no going back now.
“How shall I speak to him at this meeting?”
“Be correct, but say as little as possible. If he enjoys conversation, he will not find it with you, therefore, he must seek it elsewhere.”
“Like my father’s stables? A perfectly reasonable alternative.”
“It will be the only alternative if he prefers the company of females under the age of sixty, which is the average age of the other female staff on this estate.” I prepared to leave my room to Nadya’s keeping when I glimpsed my own reflection in the mirror. The weeks of labor and few baths had turned my hair wispy and tangled, my skin was beginning to brown, and I was still unable to remove all the dirt from underneath my fingernails. Then I looked down at Nadya seated at the same mirror. Her hair was intricately plaited and pinned, her skin had liberal amounts of powder, and she was dressed perfectly for her role in this farce. Yes, we were both ready as far as appearances where concerned.
“Is there something else?” she asked. "Any advice to offer?" I smiled wickedly. Why should this be a somber moment?
"Yes," I finally replied. "Don't forget to enjoy yourself. This is going to be fun."
I first glimpsed Petr Leptoff was is inconsequential as it was mundane. There we all stood in our fineries; my father wearing his regal beaver longcoat despite the high temperature, Nadya corseted until she could scarcely draw breath, and the household servants donned their itchy wool breeches for the occasion. So much to sacrifice in order to make a favorable first impression, and I laughed at the absurdity of it all. Here we gathered, suffering in the heat, and only to impress a man not even high enough to polish the czars boots. Only I, whose future happiness depended on this meeting, remained unmoved. Indeed, I had little hope in the exchange and I only wished to return to my horse, for I had need of a decent ride and the weather had been made for good gallop. Not having to contend with "proper" employments, I was able to practice my riding; an additional benefit to the scheme. Now I was impatient. What could be keeping him? Does he not know who my father is? Woe be the fellow who keeps Ivan Kostov waiting more than five minutes.
Just as I was beginning to think, much to my own amusement and to my father's distress, that my noble suitor would not show after all, he suddenly appeared in all his glory and splendor. The carriage was quite impressive shouted to the world "I am rich, stand aside for me," as was only expected of a man with such high social standing. The horses, like that which they preceded, with coal black with red feathers atop their heads. Red was also the color which trimmed the equipage, as well as the interior I would come to discover. It was indeed large enough to house the entirety of Masseur Mensky's importance with just enough room to spare for a skinny young lady; but only if she had been deprived of nourishment for a week. As the carriage pulled around the front of the house, all the ladies surreptitiously fussed with their hair and the gentleman straightened their posture. All prepared to look their best, except for me. The coachman brought their charges to stop, and as the door was opened I thought with a smirk: "let the games begin."
Stepan Mensky did present a fine figure of a man even I had to concede that he was indeed quite handsome. He was tall, lean, dark-haired and smiling. His eyes were ebony pools glistening with laughter and ease. He declared himself pleased with the house and the extensive grounds and commenced with the introductions to my father and whom he presumed was myself.
"Masseur Mensky, I would like to present to you my daughter, Ryanna Akilinovich Kostova." Well done father, not a hint of hesitation. I was pleased with his performance. But his was nothing compared to Nadya's. She curtsied perfectly and extended her hand in invitation just as I had taught her that nobles do. The gentlemen smiled, clutched the outstretched hand, and bowed elegantly over it.
"It is with the greatest of pleasure that I declare I am honored to finally meet you, Miss Kostova. Tales of your beauty fall far short of the reality. I am enchanted," and then he kissed her hand most tenderly and without regard to decorum. My father was slightly taken aback, but he did not protest and I tried not to laugh. They were words well spoken, but he probably read them in a book somewhere. And that is assuming he read anything besides racing forms, if he could read all. He continued to walk down the line of servants, my father introducing each one as they went, and I trembled as they drew closer to me. Vaguely I noticed a man falling behind, but I paid him no more attention beyond acknowledging his presence.
Finally, after much anticipation, my father, Nadya, Masseur Mensky, and his companion stood before me and the stablemaster. I could feel the whole lot of them holding their breaths and wait. Would he say anything to me? Would even look at me?
"Masseur Mensky, this is my stable master, Mr. Popov. He will see to all your horses during your stay. You will not find a better man to trust them to."
"Excellent," his voice was pleasing, to be sure. Very melodious the man's can be so. "They should give you no trouble; very well mannered. But I do expect them to shine every morning. I will inspect the myself to ensure they are groomed to my satisfaction. A dirty horse is a reflection on his master, and I will not be judged wanting. The hooves should be polished and will need trimming within the next week. And do not neglect the manes and tails; I want to be able to run my fingers through them at a moments notice. Not a tangle or burr, do you understand? Oh, and do have them exercised twice a day, but not too strenuously; I do not want them worked into a froth. Is all this perfectly clear, my good man?" Was he serious? Could be this ridiculous? Should I discount him now, or blame this behavior on the long journey and allow him to redeem himself?
Before I could decide, and indeed a before my father could even introduce me, Mensky had turned to go into the house without so much as a glance in my direction. To my father's credit, he said nothing nor betrayed any indication that the young man had made a potentially fatal error. Nadya's eyes fell on mine briefly, but she too stayed in character and quickly followed the pair inside.
I was horrified, humiliated, and my pride was irrevocably wounded. How could he love a servant if he would not even look at me?
"Hello," came a voice beside me. I was startled to say the least. The servants have begun to disperse, save for my pretend father keeping a wary eye behind me, and I had not noticed that I was not alone in my reverie. I turned and found the voice belonged to the companion I had barely gave two thoughts to only minutes ago. It was a young man, perhaps Mensky's age, but I was always a poor judge, a little shorter and a lot less handsome the aforementioned. His hair was longer than was in style and relatively unkempt. The color was brown, as is always desirable, but of course not exactly the right shade. His nose was too large, his lips too thin, and his dress less expensive as to be considered common. In short, he was plain. Only his eyes, though not brown, were noteworthy. Not a brighter blue could be found in nature as was those eyes.
Did he say something? I become distracted once again. He was looking at me quizzically, expectantly. Features relaxed and he stuck out his rough calloused hand; a hand of a working man.
"I am Stepan's oldest friend, Petr Leptoff." In response I swept and elegant curtsy, admonished myself for the slip as I could sense his confusion, and quickly recovered by grasping his hand in mine and saying:
"Surely not the oldest. You don't look a day over eight-and-twenty." To my amazement, he laughed.
"I meant we've known each other since childhood. Neither of us have had a single friend half so long."
"Yes, I know what you meant." Do think I was stupid? Or was he? Did he really not understand it was a joke? He frowned and drop my hand. I hardly cared with this Leptoff character thought; I was watching my intended disappear through the front door. It took several seconds for me to realize that his friend was still there and talking to me.
"What?" I asked irritably.
"My have the pleasure of your name, miss? "
"Nadya, my daughter's name is Nadya, young man," Popov had broken in with, was it amusement mixed with a touch of annoyance? I have yet to master his moods.
"My pleasure," he bowed clumsily. I had a terrible notion that I was going to have to entertain him when he was thankfully called to join the others in the house. He quickly bade me goodbye and scampered off in that direction. Yes, I said scampered, and I stand by my description.
"What was the meaning of that?" I asked my temporary 'father' when the man was out of earshot. "He is not important; why does it matter if he knows who I am?"
"He must hold some importance being the masseur’s best friend," the old man said cryptically. "Don't you agree?"
I was about to protest when I suddenly realized, much to my astonishment, that he was right. Mr., Leptoff was it? Was the closest to Mensky I could ever hope to get as things stood at present. He could very well be my window into the man's soul. My questions as to his character, views, deeds could be answered without raising suspicion. I may have use for the presumptuous, and comical, Mr. Leptoff after all.