Telling Tales 73
“Aleksey! Arkady! It’s me, Ivan!”
The two noble men on horseback stared suspiciously at the vagabond before them. The seven companions stared likewise, but different sets of emotions entirely. “Ivan…” said one.
“We know a lot of Ivans,” said the other.
Ivan laughed. “How many Ivans sat with you swapping stories in an inn before venturing into the castle of Tsar Pyotr? How many of the Ivans in that inn brought you to your rooms when you were too drunk to stand?” The two men looked at one another, uncertainty growing in their eyes. “How many Ivans know that when you, Aleksey, were a young boy, you snuck into your father’s -”
“It’s Ivan! Ivan has returned to us!” said the one who must have been Aleksey in a sudden rush of words. “Oh, come, Arkady, it has to be him.” He alit from his horse and Arkady did likewise. “But where have you been, brother? You vanished, what, two years ago? Then you reappeared and left on some wild quest to rescue the missing tsarevna Now here you are with this band of…” His voice trailed off as the pile of skins that was Juleidah shifted and stood up.
Arkady’s face might have blanched.
Ivan proceeded ahead as though Aleksey had not stopped talking. “It is true that we have traveled for many months, but can it for so long and can she have changed so much that you no longer recognize the tsarevna Vasilisa?”
At that, Vasilisa stepped forward. Her hair was longer, and though Juleidah arranged it in a thick braid, time had done its damage. Her skin was no longer fair, pale, and soft. Muscles defined her arms. She wore no sleeves and her skin was brown with the sun. Her leggings could not have been less royal, as much for the fact that they were leggings as for the cut and make, the softest leather that Ipiktokiyakovik could fashion. Her face was leaner, the cheeks, nose, and chin more pronounced. Her eyes were the same, but Ivan did not expect Aleksey and Arkady to see her eyes.
“Ehm,” said Arkady with some hesitation.
“Oh, be still you silly boys,” snapped Vasilisa.
“That’s her,” said Aleksey.
“It sure sounds like her,” Arkady.
“You wouldn’t have heard it so often if you hadn’t been sniffing around my sisters.”
The wild girl giggled.
“Don’t misunderstand, your highness,” stammered Aleksey, “no one could be happier than the two of us that you and Prince Ivan have returned!”
“Why would that be?” asked the man with the dark, dark brown skin.
“How is it that everyone speaks Russian?” asked Aleksey.
Arkady said, “Because, because… The tsar, her father, will not allow any of her sisters to marry except in order of age. Vasilisa is the eldest. Aleksey loves Yekaterina, the second, and I love Liliya, the third.”
“Why are you not there with them now?” asked the man again.
“The tsar has burdened us with tasks unending!” complained Aleksey.
“Tasks unachievable!” said Arkady. “We no sooner complete one with our very lives than he demands another!”
“Each more death-defying than the last!” wailed Aleksey. “We thought you were bandits, you see.”
“Not that you would have been our task, but it would have been satisfying to have achieved one last thing before we died.”
“I suppose you have to slay the giant,” sighed Ivan.
They shook their heads. “Tsar Pyotr does not even know about the beast. He is concerned with the town ahead. If we can’t get them to show kindness, he’ll have our heads.”