Telling Tales 14
A Lesson in Manners
She was, without a doubt, the most beautiful woman either man had ever seen. Midnight black hair flowed like water over her tanned skin. She wore a dress of animal hides of varying colors, silvers and blacks and browns with flashes of reds, greens and blues. Like the patina on the copper snake, the designs seemed to shift across her body.
“Snap out of it,” said Prince Ivan with a slap.
“Oh, yes. Thank you,” said the soldier, rubbing his reddening cheek.
“Your Highness,” said Prince Ivan, and he bowed low to the woman. The soldier followed suit. “Thank you for welcoming us to your home.”
“You must have traveled far,” she said. “We do not have many visitors in the Kingdom of Copper. How is it that you have arrived?”
“We are in search of the tsarevna…” the soldier trailed off. He turned to his companion. “What is your beloved’s name, exactly?”
A dreamy expression came over the prince’s face. “Vasilisa.”
“Yes. The tsarevna Vasilisa has been kidnapped by Koschey the Deathless and on pain of death -”
“Banishment, really,” said the prince.
“Death,” repeated the soldier, “we are sworn to rescue her. We met two…”
“Gentlemen, really,” said the prince.
“Gentlemen,” agreed the soldier, “one with no eyes and one with no legs -”
“And they sent you to us,” said the queen. “They really are the sweetest neighbors.”
“Undoubtedly,” said the soldier, thinking of their teeth.
“Assuredly,” said the prince, thinking of his horse.
The queen thought for a moment, and said, “Koschey the Deathless has never traveled in our lands to my knowledge, nor is he a visitor in my homeland. It is possible that my husband, the King Fisher will know. In the meantime, it is clear that you have traveled far. Allow me to extend our hospitality. We will give you rooms to rest in, clean clothes to sleep in, and food and drink to dine upon.”
“As you say, Majesty,” bowed the Prince.
At that, the Queen’s dress seemed to fall away – or at least two parts of it fell away. Out of the dizzying array of shifting patterns, two shapes emerged, one for Prince Ivan and the other for the soldier. A sleek brown otter, fur still wet and dripping, hopped over to the prince. A bear cub, similarly damp, waddled before the soldier. It was at that moment that the men understood that the Queen’s dress was in no wise made of hides, but of the animals themselves. As for the patterns, what there was was an accident of light and shape, and if they paid close attention, they could hear the sound of rushing water and whistling wind. The fur that they took for hide and the feathers that they took for decoration were not the remains of some animal or another. Birds flocked around the queen and animals seemed to swim across her and the odd flash of silver and red were fish leaping out of the surface of her dress before diving back in and disappearing in its depths.
The otter and the bear galumphed ahead of the men into the palace and veered apart at one set of doors. The soldier and the prince hesitated, then followed their guides in their own separate ways. As it turned out, there was nothing to fear. In short order, they found themselves clean, rested, and full of food, having told their entire adventure to the queen who sat opposite them at a grand table.
“It is my turn, then,” she said. “My name is Ahtna.”