Alyona Morozova was three days past her twelfth birthday (and thus considered herself well on the way to the mature age of 13) when her mother, Sofya, announced at breakfast that Alyona was finally ready to become a woman.
“My darling girl,” she said, as Alyona sat at the table, buttering her toast. “I have made arrangements at Madame Volkova's this afternoon.”
At once, Alyona knew what she meant, for every young girl knew there was no finer shop to choose your companion. And the Morozova name was a fine one indeed, having boasted of three champions in their lineage, as well as numerous ranking duelists. Sofya herself was known for winning multiple gold medals before retiring to the countryside to raise her daughter after her husband's most unfortunate, random demise. (And if there were rumors to the contrary, they were quickly dispelled by the widowed Countess, whose grief in her loss did not make her any less lethal in a fight).
Alyona, however, was an unknown quantity. Quiet and bookish, she seemed to boast none of her mother's temper or natural athletic deadliness. Perhaps, it was whispered, this was where the lineage might end. It would be sad, of course, to see such an illustrious family fall by the wayside, but there were plenty of careers a young girl of her background could have – and there was always marriage. It might be nice to see a Morozova marriage that did not end... accidentally.
So it was at half past four when Alyona entered the shop, her mother nervously waiting outside in the carriage and approached Madame Volkova to ask about what was currently available.
“My mother mentioned you might have some suitable companions for me,” Alyona ventured, gazing at Volkova's scarred face.
Volkova's remaining eye blinked at her. “You must be little Alyonka,” she said, peering closely. “I must say, dear, you're exactly what I expected.”
“And that is?”
“A Morozova, of course. You can always see it in the eyes.”
Madame Volkova took her past the line of sleek white scarves, sinuously sliding around their hooks and the collars, red-eyes peering out of the dark linings of coats. They moved further into the dark recesses of the store, and Alyona stared curiously at a muff that shook with fury in its cage until Volkova tapped firmly once on the glass and it went limp. Everywhere, it seemed there were eyes and teeth watching her and waiting. But they were not hers.
She had seen her mother's companion only twice, Veronika, a russet creature wrapped around her mother's shoulders that had tried to bite her when she first touched it. Sofya had shushed the creature and then later, as Alyona lay trembling in her bed, she told her daughter that you must never try to touch someone else's companion. It would not end well, she said. It was why all companions, once their duelist had moved on, were never claimed by another.
The second time she saw it was right before her father tried to rip it from her mother's shoulders in a drunken rage one evening. Fool, she called him, and Alyona shut the door to them both.
They stopped finally in the very back of the store where Madame Volkova lifted a curtain up to reveal a glass case on a shelf behind it. The outside was dusty, and Alyona wiped it off to peek inside.
“Your mother did not want you to settle for of the more... steady companions,” Volkova said, rapping her knuckles on the glass. “It was why she came to me and not Sasha or Radelle. They would have you follow the trends like all the other girls and you are a Morozova. You set them.”
Inside the case, a black lump of fur with yellow eyes gazed balefully out and lunged towards Alyona, its teeth snapping at her. She did not jump back.
“This is Ksenija,” Volkova said. “She has tried to bite off my fingers on eleven separate occasions, will not allow anyone to try her on, and she is horribly dated and unfashionable.”
“She's perfect,” Alyona whispered, as she stroked her fingers along the glass, following the line of sharp white teeth.
Volkova nodded. “Thanks to you, I will be able to start selling hats again.”
After the contract had been signed, the money paid, and Ksenija had gone from a whirling ball of anger into a sullen stillness before falling asleep, Sofya turned to her and said, “We can take her back, you know. If the connection doesn't hold--”
They rode back in silence to the house, snow muffling the sounds outside so that all Alyona could hear was Ksenija's soft growling. It was soothing and she thought it would not be too long before she would be able to fall asleep to it.
Outside the gates, her mother patted her on her hand. “I shall miss you, you know.”
“I know.” Alyona kissed her mother on her cheek, careful of the sleeping weight on her head and her mother's own dozing companion. “I love you.”
Years later, they would write in Sofya Morozova's biography of her multiple medals and wins, of her vicious implacability in dealing with her opponents, and of her disappearance years later in a winter storm, never to be seen again (some believed it to be Father Frost calling his little 'Zima' home).
But the only one who ever saw her mother cry was Alyona, sitting back in the carriage, tears falling on her own cheeks, as the driver would take her and Ksenija to their new home.
For no companion can stand another and no two duelists can live together.
It was hard, at first, managing her own household despite Sofya's strict and thorough upbringing. There were new servants to be hired, new wardrobes to be procured, and above all, a new companion to bond with. The servants were the easiest, perhaps because the ones her mother had recommended had a stable, unruffled temperament and would stay respectful of her companion. Most importantly, they kept their distance (and therefore, their appendages).
The wardrobe was a bit harder. Alyona now had to coordinate around her new life, and as such, childish things like gloves made of silk and delicate purses gave way to the more womanly black leather wrist-guards and backup stiletto knives, as sharp and gleaming as Ksenija's teeth. Her dresses now had concealed pockets, her boots hollow heels, and if she carried a bag, the lining had to be easily ripped to be able to access the weapons below.
And of course, her companion, whom she had loved from first sight and who filled her lonely days with the only emotional connection permitted to her. The day Alyona had woken up and realized that Ksenija was laying next to her, and had not tried to scratch or bite her once, was the first happy time she had since leaving her home. Alyona would have hugged her if she wasn't an eminently prudent young woman who wanted to keep her arm intact, and so she settled for a tentative pat, which Ksenija accepted.
She had not gone out in public yet with Ksenija, beyond the initial visit with Volkova, nor did she entertain visitors beyond her tutors and occasionally, a messenger from the government, checking to make sure she had reached the proper benchmarks for her training. So the days passed in a quiet intimacy of just the two of them, and though when she was a child she thought it to be a lonely fate, she grew more convinced that those who were not duelists were lonely. How could they exist without such a bond, she mused. What a terrible burden they must bear.
You would be very proud of me today. Irina told me that my form had improved significantly over the last month. I am now able to perfectly execute the Belyakov Variation, which she says takes the average student four months to master and I have done it in two. She says at this pace, I may soon make my debut at the age of 15, which would be much earlier than any other girl, though she cautioned me to wait to entertain sponsorship offers until I have reached 18. I miss you.
I shall be making my debut next month. I hope that you will attend. I have sent an invitation, but you have not yet responded, so I wonder if you are ill. If so, I hope you feel better and will come to see me. I appreciate the earrings you sent me earlier – they are lovely and I do not think Ksenija will mind them too much. I miss you.
I won my first duel! Miss Hoffmann seemed very intimidating at first, and Melusina was quite a match for my Ksenija, but in the end, they faltered in their execution and that gave me the edge. I'm afraid they will be indisposed for the rest of the season and I did ruin a rather priceless rug, but a number of people said I had given them a splendid showing and I have been invited to several more parties this month. I hope to see you at one of them. I miss you.
If you ever return, know this: the only thing that I'm angry about is that you didn't tell me how much it would hurt to lose you. I miss you.
It was so terribly dull now, Alyona thought, as she returned home from yet another successful duel, Ksenija dozing on her head. Back when she was a little girl, she had heard all sorts of stories about fighters that made it seem to be at once splendid and noble and yet terrible and horrifying. But the reality was far mundane, buried under endless social engagements, sponsorship commitments, and the bureaucracy nightmares of government work. If this was why her mother had left dueling to raise her, Alyona could almost want to succumb to one of the inane proposals given to her on a weekly basis. Almost, she thought, but not quite yet. It wouldn't do to change one cage for another.
She had stepped out of the carriage, gingerly stepping around the curb when she noticed a sodden white mess of... fur? She bent down closer to examine it. Yes, it was a fur scarf of some sort, dirty with rain water and mud, and speckled with droplets of blood. She reached out to touch it with her glove.
Yellow eyes snapped open.
Alyona quickly moved her hand back, but the companion was clearly too weak to do much. She bared her teeth but she could not raise her head to snap at Alyona. And she didn't recognize her from any duels, which meant Alyona had not faced her owner before.
“Well now,” she said as the companion's eyes tracked her movements, “this is a problem. By every right, I should leave you here since to interfere with a companion is a known and grave violation. But you are also badly injured and I suspect if I leave you, you will not survive much longer.”
The companion stilled and looked at her. It was listening to her. “So do I break a long standing rule and possibly get myself in grave trouble or do I walk away and resume the rest of my evening?”
They both knew how she would decide. The main issue, Alyona thought, as she gingerly picked up the creature, wrapping it in her shawl, was how Ksenija would react when she woke up.
Just to be on the safe side, she would wear her face mask.
It had been years since Alyona had completed her education, so she found the next month to be an exciting reminder of those early days, when everything seemed filled with potential.
First, she had learned that Ksenija definitely hated the situation, was angry at her, and would have tried to kill the other companion if she hadn't used her reflexes, honed from years of dueling, to grab her as she leapt off her head. The other companion, for her part, hissed every time she saw Ksenija and had she not been weak from blood loss, would have tried to reciprocate the act of violent murder.
She had also learned the companion's name, after visiting Madame Volkova's, now run by her daughter, Feodora, who had had the good fortune to have both a successful dueling career and pleasant marriage afterwards. When she rang the bell, Feodora had greeted her cheerfully enough. It had helped that the two had never dueled (Alyona suspected Madame Volkova's hand in that).
“I must say, I did not expect you to visit me at my work,” Feodora said, throwing chunks of meat to the new shipment of hats that snapped their teeth eagerly. “I do hope everything is going well with Ksenija. I see that you left her at home. She isn't ill, is she?”
“She's doing well,” Alyona said. “But I need to ask you about a private matter and she...is not entirely agreeable about it.”
“I would not expect her to be agreeable about anything,” Feodora said. “And this private matter is?”
Alyona took a deep breath. “I am calling in my favor for this. I need to find out something discreetly and I'd rather not run it past the magistrates.”
Feodora smiled. “Ah, so it's that kind of private matter. I do so enjoy those.” She went over to the front door of the shop, flipped the sign to closed, and pulled the curtains over the large front window. “Now what can I do for you?”
“I need you to tell me who she is,” Alyona said, reaching into her traveling bag at her side, and opening it up. Feodora peeked inside and whistled.
“Now that's an interesting one,” she said. “I suppose you've never met her before.”
“No, I haven't had the pleasure? Have you?” Alyona snapped the bag shut and ignored the hissing from the bottom of it.
“As a matter of fact,” Feodora said. “She was stolen from here about three years ago.” She went over to her counter and reached below, bringing up a large ledger. She flipped through it, stopping halfway in the book. “Her name is Severine.”
“Severine?” Alyona said, and the bag jostled in response. “She doesn't sound--”
“Like she's from here? She's not. She was a special request for a customer, who asked for a particular type of companion.” Feodora's lips tightened. “Her daughter had already gone through five companions and needed a sixth.”
Alyona cursed, though she did not say it out loud. “Yevgeniya Lisitsyna. I know her.”
“No wonder you didn't recognize her owner. I believe she was on her fourth when you dueled her.” Feodora slammed the book shut. “My mother wouldn't have sold to her again, but Madame Lisitsyna was most insistent and rather litigious about it.”
“But Yevgeniya didn't take possession of Severine?”
“Our shop was broken into the night before. Severine was the only one that went missing.”
“Someone with a grudge against the Lisitsyna family?” Alyona frowned. “That could be anyone.”
“Now you know why we didn't investigate too thoroughly,” Feodora said. “Yevgeniya threw a fit, we refunded their money, and wrote it off as a loss. Where did you find her?”
“Near my estate,” Alyona said. “I don't suppose you want me to return her.”
Feodora shook her head. “There's no point. She's already bonded. And then I'd have to explain to a number of people where I got her, who her new owner might be, and why she was never officially registered.”
“And you would have to talk to Madame Lisitsyna again.”
“Exactly,” Feodora said, placing her hand on Alyona's shoulder. “I wish you luck with this matter.” She flipped the sign back to open on the door and unlocked it. “And don't worry,” she added as Alyona walked out, blinking in the sunshine. “You only used up half of your favor.”
Alyona had no desire to talk to Yevgeniya or her mother which had left that particular avenue of inquiry closed to her. Likewise, she had no desire to publicize her search for this nameless thief, for it seemed to her that like her relationship with Ksenija, this should be kept close to her heart. But she was no detective, and her life was far too busy, filled with duels and parties that months passed without any progress towards finding Severine's fighter.
Severine slept next to her now, having apparently declared at truce with Ksenija at some point unbeknownst to Alyona. This truce extended to not attempting to murder each other on a daily basis (without ruling out injuries of some degree), which Alyona was grateful for, as it allowed her to finally get some sleep. If she felt some guilt for keeping another companion for so long, it faded as the two became comfortable with each other. She was not bonded to her the same way as Ksenija, but there was something familiar about Severine, a sense of wary trust between the two. When Alyona woke up in the morning with Severine wrapped around her neck, she no longer feared her tightening and ending her life.
And yet she knew things would have to change, for she remembered her mother's words of caution and Severine's owner must still live, if Severine herself was breathing. And such an opportunity arose at the start of the next dueling season, when a young man introduced himself to her and asked if he could paint her portrait. Alyona started to refuse at first. She had always valued her privacy and had spurned such offers, even as her counterparts lounged on chairs, idly petting their companions, and inviting their friends to lavish viewing parties in the Royal Gallery.
There was one of her mother, there, young and imperious, posing next to Veronika who stared equally fierce towards the artist. Sofya had not held invited anyone to see it, but she had never denied its existence. After her separation from her mother, Alyona used to visit it, finding comfort in their cold stares. She knew what lay behind them and it had never scared her.
“All right,” she said. “I will allow you to paint me.”
“You will not regret–”
“But I have a few conditions.”
When Alyona Morozova casually announced her painting at the end of what had proven a very dull evening indeed (only one duel featuring unexceptional contestants and it ended in a draw), there was a general murmur of surprise through the gathered crowd. She was considered to be both an excellent duelist and a thoroughly uninteresting person, so they wondered, what sort of portrait could she possibly have painted?
“It was a shame,” Agnessa Kholodova said later to her younger sister Nadezhda, “that you missed the viewing party. Why, that little fool Yevgeniya had fainted right on the spot when she saw the portrait. And to think that quiet Alyona had been hiding two companions this whole time! Well, it was to be expected from a Morozova after all. I expect the rest of this season to be very entertaining.”
“Do you think, perhaps, I might be able to have two someday?” whispered Nadezdha, eyes filled with hope as she eagerly clutched her sister's hand.
Agnessa laughed. “We'll see how you do with the first one.”
It had been almost three weeks and Alyona had still not had the visitor she had been hoping for. She been besieged with invitations to all manners of parties, reporters seeking interviews, and far too many proposals that she had no intention of ever accepting. Perhaps, she might let Ksenija have a go at some of the more ardent ones.
There had been a few challenges as well. Those, of course, were a delight, especially against the traditionalists whose look of dismay as Severine dismantled their defenses and Ksenija finished them off was almost too delicious. It was not quite happiness for Alyona, but there was a certain amount of joy to be had in it.
Yevgeniya had not been heard from. Alyona had the public explanation that she had taken to the countryside for her health and that her mother was at her side. A sudden illness, it was reported, and how tragic to strike at the height of her career.
“Nonsense,” said Feodora. “I know for a fact that the government was investigating her family for illegal importing of rare goods, reckless endangerment of companions, and insufficient documentation for her weapons. And everyone knows she was middle tier at best.”
Feodora had stopped by at one point, shaking her head at the clamor outside.
“Honestly, you brought it on yourself, Alyonka,” she said, accepting the teacup from her host and setting it on the table. At her side, Yesfir twitched a little, deep in sleep. “Your mother would be so proud.”
“My mother would tell me I was reckless,” Alyona replied. “I've broken one of the major rules. It's all I can do to reassure the inspectors that I will be able to control the situation.”
“I did see Vadim looking rather harried lately.”
“Do apologize to him for me. Hopefully, a new scandal will arise and all this mess will die down.”
Feodora picked up her teacup and sipped it. “Oh, I wouldn't count on it,” she said, giving Alyona a sly look. “I expect you to keep us entertained for some time to come.”
At midnight, Alyona heard a soft clatter downstairs. She had just laid down to bed and Ksenija and Severine were sleeping soundly, after a whirlwind battle of fur and teeth that thankfully resolved itself in nothing more than a few idle tufts of hair tumbling to the ground. Careful not to wake them, she crept downstairs, stiletto at her side.
She could see light seeping through from the closed door of her study. She smoothed her hair back, pocketed the stiletto in her sheath, and opened the door.
“I hoped it might be you,” Alyona said to the young woman sitting on her divan. She could see the woman's hand clutched around her own knife. There was a thrill suddenly in her heart that reminded her of when she first met Ksenija. She could have died that day, but all she could think was, finally.
I've found you.
The woman said nothing. Her boots were muddy, there were cuts on her face, and her eyes were red, from exhaustion or crying, Alyona didn't know. But she sat straight up and never took her stare away from Alyona as she sat down across from her.
“What happens next will be your decision,” Alyona said gently.
Somewhere above her, two companions slept next to each other. For now, they were peaceful. There might be days where they might try to kill each other. There might even be a day where one succeeded. And then again, it might never come to pass.
For no companion can stand another and no two duelists can live together.
Alyona no longer believed the first rule.
The woman leaned forward. Her hand still clenched the knife.
It could be a duel.
But it could also be something far more dangerous.
And Alyona had never backed down from anything.