He steps awkwardly, birdlike, as if his legs are brittle. His gloved right hand is held close to his chest, clutching the glove’s mate in a foppish attitude. But I know what the glove hides. I know he was born with a withered arm. I know his legs are crooked so he has difficulty riding a horse, never rides with his soldiers or even with the hunt. He is only half a man they say, or rather they whisper, for to say such things of the Grand Duke is death for a serf and banishment from the province for a noble.
I watch him approach, how his eyes slide over the monumental pinkness of the girl from St Petersburg, the girl whose father thinks she must surely be chosen. They flick across the aisle to another girl, a statue veiled in white lace. The statue glares at each of her rivals in turn. What must they have threatened her with that she should be so determined to win the withered claw of this half-man.
He steps another bird step closer, and I can hear my mother’s breathing growing more and more excited. She flings out her arm to show off her brocaded shawl. Her perfume suffocates me. My father bows his head in silence, as if the Grand Duke is the Patriarch. He has stopped before me. My mother throws out her chest in pride, showing off her prize heifer. My father nudges me in the back, so I raise my head. There is a feverish glint in the Grand Duke’s eyes, a hectic flush in his cheek. I smell his sickness above the sweet syrupy scent of my mother’s perfume and the exotic perfume the Grand Duke has doused himself in. I cannot bear to look into those glittering eyes and stare at the tip of his boots. I hear the creak of his brittle bones, the twisted muscles, the utter silence of withheld breath in the room, the shrill reediness of his voice when he says, ‘This one.’
I raise my head in alarm, a gasp of horror springing to my lips. The Grand Duke is tapping his foot, his febrile gaze fixed on the quaking pink taffeta. Relief flows over me, a riotous spring flood, and in its wake, compassion for the one who must drink the poisoned chalice.