Telling Tales 74
“They seem to have run out of food,” explained Entendtout. “It is difficult to say, monsieur, if that fact will make the task ahead more difficult or not.”
“Hunger does not make one rational,” said Kou Ke. “Just the opposite. I know.”
Haraka passed Kou Ke a leg from the deer that sat over the fire and everyone discreetly looked away as he engulfed it whole, in a single bite, skin, hoof, and all.
“Does he always eat like that?” whispered a paler Arkady to the wild girl.
“He’s going slow to be polite. He doesn’t like it when people stare.”
Arkady was not positive, but he thought that the small girl might have giggled when she turned away.
“This town is famed for its cruelty?” asked the piles of skins that was Juleidah.
Ivan held back a smile. His company seemed to be going out of their way to alarm the two princes. “Cruelty is a needlessly harsh word. They are unkind, more or less, to anyone and everyone, though less to their other citizens. The place is called Chalm, it is legendary for its singlemindedness.”
“It is pronounced Chelm,” said Vasilisa.
“Chelm is a sister city,” corrected Ivan. “They are stupid. Chalm is unkind. Haven’t you heard any stories about them?” He proceeded to explain to the rest of the group how a man bought a fish at the market and took it home to have it fresh for his dinner, but he kept it in his coat. As the fish began to suffocate in the air, it thrashed about and struck the man in the face, so he took it to the magistrate to accuse it of assault. The fish was found guilty and the magistrate sentenced it to death by drowning, so the man took the fish and threw it in the river. “No, wait, that is Chelm,” laughed Ivan, “now you’ve got me all confused! In Chelm, they once let a man’s house burn to the ground because…”
Vasilisa was no longer listening to his story, however. She was fretting about Ivan, who had never corrected her before. “It is nothing,” she told herself. “I am anxious about seeing my father and my sisters again. That is the problem. Ivan loves me and I love him and once we have returned and he has completed his tasks honorably, then we may be married and live together in peace and harmony and rule a kingdom together in justice and wisdom.” She told herself that and said it over and over, hoping that she would come to believe it. What puzzled her no end was how much more she liked Ivan now that she knew him better and how much more she admired him. This was not odd in and of itself, but the fact was, the more she liked and admired him, the less she loved him.
“Tell me this,” Ivan was saying in the light of the fire. Vasilisa looked around and saw that night had fallen even as she had told herself, over and over, that all would be well. “Can your army do things other than fight? Because now that we have taken stock of our gifts and our resources, I imagine that I have an idea. My friend the soldier once told me of a time when he was starving and came upon a town not unlike Chalm, Almeirim, he said, and convinced them to feed him.”
“I have diamonds in my pocket,” offered Arkady, whom everyone seemed to be ignoring.
“This is what we shall do,” said Ivan.