It was late winter in Northern Rus’, the air sullen with wet that neither rain nor snow. The brilliant February landscape had given way to the dreary gray of March, and the household of Pyotr Vladimirovich were all sniffling from the damp and thin from six weeks’ fasting on black bread and fermented cabbage. But no one was thinking of chilblains or runny noses, or even, wistfully, of porridge and roast meats, for Dunya was to tell a story.
“That’s the Hag,” said a voice in her ear, and Peony all but fell out of the tree in surprise. The palace cat was sitting on a branch above her head, cleaning his whiskers. “And you can be sure that she’s up to no good. You need to watch her.”
Peony stared at the cat. “Did… did you just TALK to me?”
“Well, it certainly wasn’t the pigeon. Stupid things, pigeons.” Basil extended a paw, studied it, then began to clean between his toes. “Name’s Basil, by the way. How do you do?”