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The Star Thief
They should have known he was a thief. Nikolai Voronov was the devil of the village, the failure son of a good woman who didn’t deserve an evil little beast like him. Only seven years old and Nikolai was a selfish and impish child who tricked, cheated, lied to, and swindled everyone he ever met. Everyone hated him. Nikolai knew it deep in his heart, and he didn’t care. He never cared. The Angels of the High Order surely knew of the darkness that was slathered on his soul, like too many coats of thick black paint over a rough pallet. It was their own fault if they were foolish enough to let him into their palace. They should have known what he would do. They should have known he was a thief.
Now he fled with his prize caressed within the concealing folds of his pocket.
The snow was piled high this winter, and it was cold as it hadn’t been cold for hundreds and hundreds of years. Nikolai had five miles left before he reached home, five long miles of trudging through waist-deep ice while wrapped in only one worn down layer of sheep wool. The world around him was a vast expanse of desolate white, a wasteland of colorless eternity. Even the sky overhead was pregnant with white clouds that yearned to release their swelling burdens of snow. In the four distances, the horizon melted into the snowy grounds so that Nikolai couldn’t tell where the earth ended and the sky began. With one hand he pulled his cloak of sheep wool tighter around himself, and with the other he fingered the prize in his pocket.
It was a Wishing Star that he’d snatched up from the golden floors of the palace of the Angels of the High Order. Nikolai was certain that by now the Angels would have realized what he’d done, and soon someone would come after him. Who would they send, he wondered? The Archangel Michael, maybe? Or perhaps Raphael? Gabriel?
It didn’t matter who they sent. No one could stop Nikolai from making his wish. He had everything planned out, like the conniving little snake that he was. He really was proud of himself. No one else would have had the nerve to steal from the Angels of the High Order. Nikolai believed it to be his greatest accomplishment yet, even if this particular accomplishment came with a purpose.
Three more miles to go. He had finally reached a path that the villagers had shoveled out a bit, for the simple reason that it led to the castle and to market. On the outskirts of the village, the snow was stacked in heaps upon itself on either side of the path. The banks glistened a warning, as if they were towers upon mountains of ice that in any instant would topple over and smother him from sight and memory forever. Nikolai had no fear of an avalanche, though. He had no fear of anything.
The path wound like the sliver of a frozen stream in mild curves through the center of the village. Nikolai was unsurprised to find that not a soul was out today. Of course not. Any sensible person would be inside, wrapped up in as many layers of wool as they could muster. They would be huddled with their family around the fireplace.
Nikolai wasn’t sure of the temperature; he simply knew that it was cold enough to speed a person to their death if they lingered without warmth for too long.
He picked up his pace.
Straight past the tiny scattered homes he went, not for a moment letting his hand stray from his Wishing Star. All around him were decrepit and often lopsided huts of corroding wood or meager stone; each hut seemed to be slowly sinking into itself, crumbling away with the harsh and indiscriminate force of time. Some of the huts had crooked chimneys that spewed black smoke and ash; most didn’t for lack of a fire to create them. Through the thin walls of the homes, Nikolai could hear much coughing or crying or desperate pleas to a higher force. Sometimes he heard all three at once. He ignored them all. The villagers were distant strangers to him and nothing more. Their struggles were like the flakes of ice on his doeskin boots, and eventually the memory of their suffering would melt away and leave nothing to mar his heart. His Wishing Star was not for them.
Half a mile left, and the path would take him no further. Nikolai had to turn off of it and wander back into the scarcely treaded wilderness, over a narrow road buried beneath many feet of snow. The road led away from the village to where his home stood isolated at the foot of a shallow hill. Across this barren and unwalked land the snow plunged deeper than anywhere else. This time he was buried almost to his chin, and the chills which he’d put off for so long took him in a sudden onslaught. His whole body trembled until even his vision was a blur of drab colors, and his teeth clattered against each other like flint being struck for a fire. His thin wool covering was doing him no good now.
Nikolai clutched the Wishing Star tighter. It fluttered in his palm, like a tiny heartbeat. The temptation was great, but he couldn’t use it yet. Not yet.
The sparse light of the world had turned a murky grey by the time that Nikolai nearly collapsed on the front steps of his house. The little hut stood on a platform, barely managing to keep itself from being buried in a tomb of ice. When Nikolai stepped through his front door, childish pride was the only thing that kept him from nodding off as soon as the warmth of a fire engulfed him. His mother stood by the fireplace, stoking absently at the leaping flames while making sure the hems of her skirts didn’t catch the blaze by accident.
Nikolai slammed the door with pointedly brute force to get her attention. His poor mother whirled around so quickly that she nearly twisted her neck, and the stoker in her hand clattered to the floor with a miserable metallic clang. Nikolai cackled as if his very voice rose up in sparks from the ashes of the hearth.
“Nikolai Voronov!” his mother gasped. Her careworn face -- usually so mild and so kindly -- went hard in an instant. “Where have you been, you naughty boy!”
Without a single word, Nikolai carefully removed the Wishing Star from his pocket and grinned. Much to his delight his mother’s face became whiter than the rolling hills of snow outside.
“You impossible little demon!” Even though she was wrapped up in more layers than Nikolai, she began to shudder so violently that Nikolai thought he could feel her vibrations through the creaking wooden floorboards. Her eyes were wider than a doe’s when it was in flight from a pack of hungry wolves. She was terrified of what the Angels would do, Nikolai knew it. He knew it, and he drank up his mother’s fear like an elixir.
“How could you do this to yourself!” she cried. In three bounds she was across the expanse of the one-roomed house, towering in front of her insolent child. Her large, course hands clamped down hard on Nikolai’s thin shoulders. “How could you do this to me? You foolish boy! You selfish, selfish little beast! My Jakov would never do this sort of thing! He’s such a good, good boy. Why can’t you be more like him?” She threw a helpless glance at her eldest son, Jakov Voronov. He lay unconscious in bed, ill with the same horrible fever that had already killed so many in the village. The hands on Nikolai’s shoulders squeezed harder.
The pressure became all too terrible. Nikolai thought his mother would force his arms right out of their sockets, yet he gave no indication of his pain. A haughty grin stretched his lips, chaffed and bleeding from the bitter cold. “I know you hate me, mama,” he said. He tilted his chin and his grin widened. “I know you wish it was me on that bed, sick and dying, instead of Jakov.”
Silence was all that met his accusation. A sudden pang flooded through him, but he pushed it away immediately. He swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke again. “Why don’t you say it, mama? Everyone else has said it. You and Jakov are the only ones who never have. Jakov is too sick. He will never tell it to me. But you can say it. You want to say it. Tell me you hate me.”
His mother said nothing. She only shuddered. So suddenly that even Nikolai was startled, she pushed him away from her and crossed her arms. “You take that star back to the palace straight away. You are going to put it back exactly where you found it, and you are going to get on your knees and beg the Angels for forgiveness.”
Rage surged through Nikolai’s veins like a roaring flood of flames. “No!” he screamed. “It is my star! I will do with it as I please!” His mother reached out a hand to catch his arm, but he brushed it aside as if it was a snake. The disgust on his face hurt her, he could tell -- but all he could think was, “I don’t care. I don’t care.”
He fled back into the icy embrace of the winter outside, only very slightly miffed that his mother did not chase after him. The star remained clutched in his hand, as if it were the last thing keeping him tethered to the earth. Nikolai pressed his back to the closed door behind him, and slid down until he was sitting on the uppermost step. All of his attention became focused on keeping the diamond beads of tears from escaping his eyes. People who didn’t care weren’t supposed to cry.
“If you’re going to punish me,” he muttered to the lone figure hovering over him, “go ahead. I am not going to give back my star.”
“No,” said a calm and quiet voice. “Fear not, sweet child. The star is yours. I dare not take it from you.”
Nikolai raised his head and stared blankly at the towering man clad in a rustling robe of the lightest grey silk. His hood was drawn up, obscuring his eyes from view. But Nikolai could see the man’s delicately chiseled cheekbones and his strong, angled jaw; he could also see the strands of silver hair (real silver, not the tufts of grey often seen on the elderly) that came out in wisps to rest against the man’s cheeks and his neck. His skin was pale, and yet it seemed to glow as if touched by sunlight. It was the Archangel Michael, radiating Heavenly brilliance despite having most of his flawless perfection obscured for Nikolai’s mortal eyes.
“Will you punish me then, O Great One?” Nikolai asked. His voice was completely lacking in fear or concern of any kind.
Michael chuckled. The sound of it washed over Nikolai as if the Angel’s very laughter were peace and joy made the cleansing waters of a babbling brook. Calm fell over Nikolai like a warm fleece blanket, and filled him with glowing warmth.
“My dear child,” Michael began in his whispery voice, “of course I will not punish you. You are young yet. You know not what you do. And the Angels of the High Order, we know everything.”
“You knew I took your star?”
Michael’s smile was at once warm and solemn. “Yes, we knew, of course we knew. And we know of your intentions to use it.” Suddenly the Angel’s voice became desperately sad. Nikolai’s calm was shattered and replaced by the Angel’s depthless misery. “Sweet one,” Michael pleaded, “will you not reconsider your plan? Would you be so cruel in your devising?”
Nikolai’s icy heart was thawed by the bitter anguish of Michael’s voice, and his resolve threatened to waver. But no. He couldn’t change his mind now. He had come this far. His hand tightened around the Wishing Star. It’s light warmth and rhythmic flutter was a reassurance to him, and he knew what he had to do.
“I am truly sorry, Great One,” Nikolai said as he stood up. “I only do what I must. I came back to make sure that mama really does love Jakov so much more than me. She does. And I must make my wish now.”
Michael shook his head. “Foolish boy. Your mother does not hate you as you so want to believe. But she will loathe your cold heart once she learns what you mean to do.”
“Maybe,” answered Nikolai. He hung his head, and his voice became quiet. “I know.” He straightened up and descended the last two steps of his home, once again plunging into the consuming sea of snow. Nikolai paused once he was practically buried in the snowy earth, and suddenly he was grinning. “It’s fitting though, isn’t it?”
The High Angel tilted his head to one side. “What is fitting, child?”
Nikolai clutched the Wishing Star to his chest and closed his eyes. “I will be selfish to the very last.” As Michael shook his head slowly and sadly from side to side, Nikolai exhaled as forcefully as he could. He opened his eyes, and watched in satisfaction as the warm steam of his breath curled up and away into the darkening skies. “You know,” he said, beginning to smile, “Jakov used to tell me that your breath was like your soul, and if it went up to the sky it meant you would go to Heaven, to dwell forever amidst the sunrise and sunset with the Lord of Life.”
Michael smiled beneath his hood. “Jakov is incredibly good and wise beyond his years.”
Nikolai simply nodded and began his second trek through the endless fields of deathly white. The murmur of his all-too-selfish wish caught on the silver strands of wind, and fluttered around the Archangel Michael like a triumphantly laughing child. Nikolai vanished into the night. Michael heard the devilish boy’s pleased little whisper as it reached across the frozen valley and drifted past his ear: “Forgive me, mama. I have won.”
* * * *
It had been many months since the Silver Death, when a great blanket of snow had iced over the land and gripped the villagers in an illness so cold that hardly any had survived it. If fact, of all who had fallen ill with the Silver Death, there was only one left alive: a twelve-year-old boy by the name of Jakov Voronov. The villagers, despite their loss, were delighted at the news of his recovery. Everyone loved Jakov. He was a very kind and very smart boy who helped the women with their mending and gathering as much as he helped the men with their forging and farming -- he was the complete and utter polar opposite of his detestable little brother. The villagers almost forgave the Angels of the High Order for allowing such a plague to overtake them, just because little Jakov Voronov had been let to live.
Jakov’s mother wasn’t as forgiving. She was ecstatic that her eldest son had survived, of course. But it almost seemed as if it were at the expense of her youngest. Nikolai had not returned home since he’d stolen the Wishing Star. His mother took to staying up through the nights, sitting by the hut’s singular window and trying to see past the grey shadows of evening in case Nikolai was wandering around out there. He could be lost or hurt, and no one would ever know. What if he’d been frozen to death? What if some horrible animal with teeth like razors had found its way to him? Nikolai was a tricky little beast, but he was only a little boy. At seven years old, Nikolai would not be able to sway a starving wolf, or even an arctic fox.
Jakov, too, was in the crushing grip of anxiety. He had this sick feeling that Nikolai wasn’t ever going to come home. If Jakov had ever been afraid of anything in his young, brave life, it was the thought of losing his baby brother forever. The villagers, on the other hand, almost seemed to silently rejoice at Nikolai’s disappearance. “Two blessings at once!” they cried to each other. But in the Voronov home, Jakov and his mother were dressed in the dark grey and black of mourning.
It was on a clear, cool night during the warm breath of spring that Nikolai Voronov knocked on his mother’s door. On this night his mother had fallen asleep by the window, and the small candle had flickered to nothing but a glow; the knock on the door was so light that his mother’s sleeping mind took it to be the scurrying of a mouse and nothing more. Instead, Jakov was the one to throw open the door.
Before his astonished eyes stood a tiny figure clad in silver and white, looking as solemn as he looked princely. The figure’s black-as-midnight hair fell around his face in a baby’s soft curls and tickled at the pale, silvery skin of rounded little cheeks. He was garbed in the silks and fine cloths that only kings and princes of faraway countries wore, and yet somehow it also looked as though he doubled as the most renowned of highway men. Nikolai looked so much like a Cherub Child of one of the Great Angels that Jakov almost didn’t recognize him. But there was a certain shimmer in the child’s eyes that could only be found in the eyes of a conniving fox, and so Jakov knew without a doubt that he was looking upon the face of his brother.
“Nikolai,” he gasped.
Nikolai’s eyes narrowed for a brief second, but he gave no other reaction. “Jakov,” he said. He shifted a sack which hung over his shoulder, drawing Jakov’s attention to it for the first time. The sack seemed a duller shade of silver than anything else on Nikolai’s person, and yet it put forth a glow that rivaled the radiance of the moon. “I’m to give you a gift before I leave,” said Nikolai. He swung the sack around and began to open it, but Jakov reached out and caught his wrist.
“What do you mean leave? Where are you going, Nikolai?”
Nikolai did not look up. He seemed at once to be both pained and fiercely annoyed at his brother’s touch, but he refused to meet Jakov’s desperate eyes. “The Great Angels would not let me have my wish in peace,” Nikolai answered. His voice was quiet and almost accusing. From behind him came a low chuckle, the sound of which made Jakov start back.
Behind Nikolai stood a figure towering ten feet high at least, with wings of transparent gold folded neatly behind him. The figure wore silk robes of rustling grey, though in the darkness of nighttime the robes could just have easily been pitch black. The Archangel Michael looked like one of Lady Death’s Soul Reapers standing there.
Nikolai’s brow twisted when Michael laughed, and his little lips puckered in frustration.
“I used my Wishing Star to force a bargain with Lady Death,” Nikolai murmured. He rummaged around in the glowing sack while Jakov gaped at him with eyes widened in horror. Still, Nikolai did not look up. “It was selfish of me,” he admitted. “I didn’t care about anybody else. I only wanted you to live, and I knew it would hurt mother if I…if I sold my soul for you. But I didn’t care. I only wanted you to be healthy again, Jakov.”
Little pearls of light seemed to glimmer on Nikolai’s pale cheeks. With a wave of anguish, Jakov realized that the pearls of light were tears. He wanted to scoop his baby brother into his arms and bring him into the warmth of the fire, because Nikolai looked like a walking statue of ice, and he looked lonely and sad. He wanted to wrap him up in all the blankets in the house and feed him as many bowls of soup as his seven-year-old stomach could handle, and then let him sleep on the home’s single bed with cushions piled high around his tiny silver body. Jakov didn’t want to believe that Nikolai had died so that he could live.
Nikolai laughed. It sounded like the chiming of polished silver bells, the kind of which could only be found hanging from the pillars of light in the palace of the Angels of the High Order. Nikolai laughed and laughed, and he also cried.
“You were the only one who was nice to me, Jakov. You were nice and you were never afraid of me.”
Jakov wanted to reach for his brother, but something in Michael’s continued silence stopped him. He glared at the Archangel and took a step towards Nikolai. “You’re going to take him away, aren’t you? I won’t let you!”
“Peace, Jakov,” Nikolai whispered. His small hand extended and came to rest on his older brother’s chest. His touch seared through Jakov’s skin like burning ice. Chills spread through his body as if his very blood were made of rivers of melted snow. His heart grew cold and heavy. “The Angels of the High Order spoke their judgment,” Nikolai explained. “They too made a bargain with Lady Death. She gets to flaunt the stars on the floors of her Palace of Evening; in return, she was to return my soul. But do you believe it, Jakov? I’ve been cheated at my own game, and the Great Angels have made me the Wish Master!” Nikolai’s voice had risen to an angry pitch, and his brows were low and dark over his stormy eyes. “They want me to steal away every once in awhile to the Palace of Evening and nab a star from Lady Death’s pitch floors. I am to knock it down to earth so that some lucky fool may make a wish on it. The nerve! They’ve tricked Lady Death and they’ve tricked me! My soul was to linger forever with the Lord of Life, and instead I am to be a professional thief!”
Again came Michael’s low laughter, nothing but the whisper of a shadow in the darkness of the night. “Yes,” mused the Archangel. “Nikolai the Star Thief. Remarkably fitting in the end, I think.”
Nikolai cast a bitter glance over his shoulder, but said nothing. Finally, he pulled his hand away from Jakov’s chest and continued to rummage around in the sack. At length he produced from the sack a silver-white light that had no source of illumination but itself. It shimmered like a ball of gleaming fire in Nikolai’s palm, fluttering and pulsating as though it were a living thing.
Jakov’s eyes widened in wonder. “A Wishing Star,” he breathed.
Nikolai’s answering smile was stiff. “Yes. My last gift to you, brother.”
Jakov did not reach out to take the star. He made no indication that he wanted it. He only stared at it sadly, as if it bore the news of some impending ill fortune. His gaze lingered despairingly on the star a moment more, and then his eyes began a slow trek up to Nikolai’s face. “So,” said Jakov, “you are really to be the Wish Master?”
Nikolai nodded, returning to his former air of heavy solemnity.
Jakov’s voice became a whisper. “Will we never see you again?”
For the first time that night, Nikolai met his brother’s gaze. And then he grinned. “You will see me,” he promised. “Just look to the skies; I am the shadow on the floors of the Palace of Evening; I am every Wishing Star that falls from the vanity of Lady Death’s eyes; I am the silent specter that lurks through the Lady’s lonely halls, Nikolai the Star Thief!” He threw up his hands and laughed, filling the valley and the village with music so sweet that the flowers, trees, and every blade of grass bent towards him to listen. When his laughter stopped, a hollow silence filled the disappointed land, leaving it hungry for more of the glorious chiming of silver bells. “I must go. Lady Death is impatient for her starlight. And then, tomorrow night, I must spirit one away.”
A whirlwind of sweetly fragrant air seemed to spring up from the earth itself, but it was really the heavenly breath of the Archangel Michael. It filled the world in front of Jakov’s eyes, enveloping Nikolai in a bubble of spiraling air. The Archangel faded from sight. The sweet whirlwind bore Nikolai away to the unreachable realms of the Palace of Evening, where Lady Death resided on her desolate throne. As he had said, a shadow did indeed slip across the floors of her palace.
Suddenly, a pinprick of light spilled through the emptiness of the charcoal sky. Another diamond of silvery light popped into existence, followed by more and more and more until thousands of fiery dots spanned the sky for miles in every direction. Jakov very nearly twisted his neck trying to look round at all of them. Laughter rang sweet through the heavens as suddenly one of the beautiful stars lost its place in the sky. It cut through the impassable borders between the kingdoms of the Lord of Life and Lady Death, and tore through the sky like a torch of white fire spiraling into chaos. With a sense of both peace and wonder, Jakov realized that it was the Wishing Star that he’d forgotten to take from Nikolai’s hand. Nikolai had sent it down to him from his new dwellings in the realms above.
“Nikolai the Star Thief,” whispered Jakov. He smiled and rushed back into the house. “Mama!” he cried. “Mama! Look what our Nikolai has done!”