Telling Tales 47
Curiosity Could Kill the Cat
“I’ll tell you where my heart is,” said Koschey the Deathless, “if you can clean my stables by the end of the day. If you can’t, I’ll have to kill you.”
It was a game they played, Koschey as lord and Marya as servant, and in their game, they had each learned one very important thing. Marya learned that Koschey was a liar.
The first day he came home and professed shock at the state of the wardrobe where he had told her his heart lay. It was polished to a high gloss, the individual grains of the wood shining one next to the other in lengthy swirls of light browns and near blacks. “You foolish girl,” he scoffed, “it’s not in the wardrobe!”
The second day he shook his head at the state of his moat, burbling with clean water and clear of the muck that had filled it for so long. The monstrous creatures that lived inside it cavorted with delight, as tame in their joy with Marya as they had ever been as innocent cubs. “You really think I would have kept it in the moat?” he laughed.
Every day he set her an impossible task – clean my stables, remove the dust from every surface in my castle, separate the lentils from the peas – and every day she completed her work. Then she would go to where he said his heart was and clean that as well.
He was not surprised that she asked about his heart. Everyone asked Koschey about his heart. Everyone who knew of him knew his story – perhaps not his childhood, no, not that by and large, but they knew that to hold his heart was to hold his deathlessness, and to hold is to command. What no one expected, what no one ever knew until the moment it happened, is that given time, Koschey would tell them all exactly where it was.
Why? Your guess is as good as mine.
Oh, he tested them all and he tested them all differently. For all I know, he had three times thirty castles, with someone like Marya in every one and a test suited to each. While Marya learned that Koschey was a liar, Koschey learned that Marya had secrets of her own. He didn’t know how the moat became clean, and all of his divining failed to reveal the spell that she had used. He didn’t know how she had cleaned his wardrobe or removed the dust, and all of his scrying failed to turn up a magical token or a horn from some great spirit or another. Each test that in which she succeeded led to a failure on the part of Koschey in which he could not determine her magic.
In those days, Koschey the Deathless had two armies that would fight one another when there was no great power to be destroyed. All of their horses befouled the stables day after day and night after night and it was this impossible task, the stable’s cleaning, to which he set Marya. “I will see how she manages, because I am sure that she will,” he said, and transformed himself into a horsefly to observe.
What he did not know and what he had not learned is that Marya didn’t care about his heart, not one little bit.