We are very proud to have Janine writing for us, and you can see why when you read just some of her reviews.
Janine writes erotic fantasy and paranormal stories and novels – ‘Fantasy’ as in swords-and-sorcery or magical realism, set in others worlds or in this one. Sometimes she puts her own twist on fairy tales and mythology, folklore and traditional ballads.
The best erotic fairytale writer around (Saskia Walker, author of The Harlot)
How one writer can produce story after story to such a very high standard is awesome - she puts other writers to shame. There are not enough superlatives to describe how I felt (Jade: the International Erotic Art and Literature Magazine)
Too Much of WaterToo much of water hast thou,
And therefore I forbid my tears
–Hamlet, Act 4
“Once upon a time there was princess who had a favourite toy: a ball of shining gold …” That’s how the story starts, doesn’t it? It’s nonsense, of course. She wasn’t a princess; she was the daughter of a wealthy boyar. And she didn’t love the ball, which wasn’t a toy—although it was made of gold, or at least gilt. She was given the ball by the Tsar himself, when he rode away west to oversee the war upon the Livonians.
“Take and keep this ball of gold,” he said as he leaned from his saddle at the gate of her father’s house, “as a constant reminder of the troth you’ve plighted me. Let your chastity remain as pure and unsullied as this gold until our wedding day.”
She watched the Tsar ride away with all his retinue and then she returned to her father’s house to wait for him, just as she’d been told. Her name was Anna, but from her earliest days her family had called her Zorya—a nasty pagan name, and who knows what her parents must have been thinking of. If they had stuck to a decent saint’s name perhaps none of the terrible things that followed would have happened.
The golden ball, she swiftly found, was an object of admiration to everyone else but a nuisance to her. Being a betrothal gift from the Tsar, and one laden with such meaning in the giving, it was hardly the sort of thing she could leave in her room for safekeeping. On the other hand it was too big to slip into a purse, and if she put it into an apron pocket it bumped heavily against her with each step. Zorya grudgingly grew used to carrying it about in her two hands, setting it beside her plate at meal times and on her pillow at night when she slept. Its gleam was the first thing she saw in the morning when the shutters were opened, and in the evening the candles that lit her chamber shone still more beautifully in the golden depths of its reflection. No matter how she handled it, no smudge of dirt dulled its shine.
“Oh, my lady,” her maids-in-waiting would sigh; “what a beautiful gift: the Tsar must love you very much.” Or “When you are Tsarina, my lady, you will eat off plates of gold and cut your meat with a golden knife, and this golden ball you will roll to your firstborn son. You must be so impatient, waiting for that day!”
But Zorya only moved her mouth in a troubled smile and did not reply when they spoke like that. She was a contrary girl. It was true that the Tsar had seemed most enchanted by her when they met—but what man would not have been, since she had two thick looped plaits of hair the colour of beaten flax, and large eyes of cool grey, and her lips were as ripe as the cherries in her father’s orchard. As for the Tsar himself, he was hale enough and handsome enough, his thick beard still untouched by white, but she hadn’t warmed to him in the brief moments she’d been in his presence. Ungrateful as only youth can be, it was not enough for her that this was the Tsar of all the Russias courting her. She had balked at his commanding air and stern manner and wished that he was a gentler, humbler man, to put her at her ease. Nor had it escaped her notice that he had had four wives before her, and that every one of those women had ended badly.
One day she wandered, aimless, from out of her father’s house and across the grounds of the estate. It was spring and the young leaves were pale speckles on the birch-twigs. Zorya smiled to see the goose-girl driving her flock out to graze among the last stubble of winter, and the new calves lifting their oozing milky muzzles from the cows” udders. She walked down toward the river, tossing the golden ball idly from hand to hand, but she held it tight as she crossed the plank over the millrace. Then she wound her way among the coppice stools edging the millpond, stooping to look for frog-spawn among the bright new spears of the rushes. The bank was a little steep, but she kept her balance with one hand holding the willow branches.
Willow is a treacherous tree. A narrow stem snapped under her hand and, slipping suddenly, she had to snatch at another trunk to stop herself going down the bank. The golden ball dropped from her fingers and rolled down the slope, bounding into the millpond with a hollow splash.
For a moment Zorya could not believe what had happened. She slithered down to the water’s edge and stared, trying to glimpse a gleam of gold beneath the dark surface. But in a moment even the betraying ripples vanished, and there was nothing to show where the Tsar’s gift had gone. The pond lay like polished malachite, and the willow saplings only sighed.
“No,” said Zorya to herself, pressing her knuckles to her lips. The second “No,” built in her belly then came out as a long moan of pain. She hunched down, unheeding of the wet on her skirts, and dappled her hands in the water; it felt cold as ice and there was nothing but soft mud beneath her questing fingers.
Foolish girl. She didn’t think to call on the saints to help her; she only folded her frozen hands to her bosom, sullying her bodice with mud, and burst into tears, rocking back and forth as she knelt.
“Why are you crying?” said a voice.
Zorya looked up and through her tears saw a man standing before her in the pond. She could only see him from the waist up, and what she could see was naked. Her heart clenched within her and crammed into her throat, but she was too frightened to scream. She felt the last tears roll down her cheeks. “Well?” said he.
“I lost my golden ball in the water,” she whispered. Her fingers twitched but she couldn’t cross herself, despite being in no doubt as to whom she was speaking. This was a Vodyanoi: a water spirit. She’d heard that they could appear in human form, though more often they looked like sunken logs or moss-draped toads of monstrous size. This one wore the guise of a young man, and his long wet hair hung about his face and shoulders like drips of tar. His lithe body was pale, almost greenish in hue, each muscle visible under the wet shine on his hairless skin. He was very handsome. She wasn’t fooled: the Vodyanoi are evil, and delight in drowning the unwary.
“Aren’t you a little old to weep over lost toys?” he asked, his thin lips crooked in a smile. “It’s not a toy.” She wondered if she could jump to her feet and dash away among the willows, but she was fairly certain he would catch her with a single lunge.
“It was a betrothal gift from Ivan Vasilyevich, Tsar of all the Russias.” It was the symbol of her faithfulness to him, and his public trust in her; to fail to treasure it would be counted an unforgivable insult. “He will have me buried alive for betraying him.”
“Then I’ll fetch the ball back for you.” His black brows were wickedly arched, as proud as Satan’s, and his smile was dagger-edged. “For a price, of course.”
“What price?” The breath seemed to have deserted her lungs.
His smile broadened. “An hour in your arms.”
Zorya drew herself up, straightening her back. Acid found its way into her voice at last: “Then I might as well leave the ball where it is. If I’m not a virgin on my wedding night, the Tsar will kill me anyway.”
The Vodyanoi seemed to find her ire engaging. “In that case, I will take my fee only after your nuptials,” he suggested.
And Zorya was stuck then. If she didn’t agree to his proposal she knew she would surely die, but if she did agree then he would likely betray her. At the very best it would be an act of treason and adultery which might buy her only a day or so’s life. She wrung her hands and searched his face for some sign of goodwill, but found no comfort in his sardonic expression.
“Very well,” she said at last—because even one more day seemed infinitely precious.
The Vodyanoi bowed his head and slid beneath the water’s surface, his disappearance leaving a single slow ripple. Zorya took the chance to retreat up the bank a pace or two and crouch among the willow stems, wrapping one arm about the stoutest. The trees could not shield her, but she meant to cling on with all her strength if he tried to drag her into the pond upon his return.
He didn’t take long. First the green water bulged, and then it broke around the peaks of his dark head and his pale shoulders. He lifted his face from the pool and smiled, showing her his outstretched hands cupped about the golden orb. Then he waded out of the pool, each step revealing more of his body. She feared at first that he would be naked, but there seemed to be something heavy wrapped about his lower half. As he mounted the bank, streaming water, she saw that it was a leathern sheet, secured by a knot of thong and all slick with water and algae, hanging low from his hips and so long that it brushed the tops of his feet. With every step his left leg flashed pale through the gap in the wrapped hide. He ascended the bank and then knelt down so that his face was on a level with hers.
“What’s your name, Daughter of Eve?”
His eyes were gold, she realised—not the pure gold of her gilded ball but dark and flecked like those of a frog, and quite beautiful. Somehow thrown into confusion by this—was she not a foolish girl as well as a wilful one?—she answered “Zorya,” without thinking to lie. If she’d spoken a good saint’s name perhaps, even then, it might have protected her; but as it was she was quite helpless. She didn’t even recoil when he reached out a finger and drew it down the line of her throat, leaving a line of chill damp that made her shiver, before tracing a spiral upon the top of her breastbone just above the lip of her bodice. She couldn’t wrench herself away, only drop her eyes before his impertinent gaze.
“You’re quite comely.”
“So they say,” she answered through her teeth. A cold bead of water found its way from his fingertip into the cleft of her breasts, where it trickled down the slope of her warm flesh like a secret caress.
“And beloved of the Tsar. Such good fortune.”
She clenched her jaw.
“Are you thankful?”
“Beyond words,” she said in strangled voice.
The Vodyanoi smiled. “Here you are, Zorya,” he murmured, pressing the ball into her free hand. Then he leaned forward and brushed his lips to hers, speculatively. His mouth was cold on her warm one, and her face grew even warmer as she flushed with shame. He chuckled at that. “Soon, my love.” Not, she thought, if she could help it. After all, her marriage would take place in Moscow, far away from this little millpond. How would a Vodyanoi find her at that distance? She would be safe from him, surely?
And yet despite her cold calculation she burned and squirmed inside.
Then he rose and left her, walking back down into the pool, his leather kilt dragging behind him, and she watched him go through the bars of her lashes: his narrow hips, his broader shoulders, his bare and muscular back, the slick of his hair as black and smooth as silt deposited after a flood. Those things burned themselves onto her mind’s eye.
Then she took herself and her ball off back to the safety of her father’s house. She dried and polished the Tsar’s gift, and was relieved to find that it had taken no dint from being dropped. Only, now there was a smudge upon it that would not clean off: a tiny patch no bigger than a thumbprint, and luckily no more noticeable. She wrapped the ball in a silken cloth and did not let it slip from her grasp again.
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