Telling Tales 81
What Tsars Do and Don’t Have to Do
“He’ll have to believe us, since we’ve got a witness,” said Aleksey. The beggar, revealed to be a young man about the age of the three princes once all of the grime had been cleaned from his body and face, was the witness in question, and a more morose man none had ever seen. “And to think, we’d never have stumbled into you, Ivan, if it hadn’t been for that giant turning us in our path.”
The castle rose above the plains before them. “You see that tower there?” Ivan pointed to the uppermost. “That’s where tsarevna Vasilisa used to be kept. I would visit her every fortnight when I was a dragon.” Before Ipiktokiyakovik could answer the question, he added, “I would grasp on to the roof with my talons and lean my head around to the window. At the time I imagined it was rather romantic.” Vasilisa smiled with him, though more distantly.
“It’s a terrible location for a castle,” observed Tor, who went by that name a good deal more with Aleksey, Arkady, and the beggar Alexander, as they stumbled more frequently trying to say, “Scrobarnach Armtha.” Vasilisa attempted to protest, but Tor went on to detail the lack of defensive qualities – no hills, no mountains, no natural elements against to withstand an assault – nor was there even a river to supply water.
“We have deep wells!” snapped Vasilisa. Tor conceded that this was actually very good, as rivers could be polluted or poisoned. Vasilisa turned a pleasant shade of green.
While they went back and forth about the merits of the castle, an argument that seemed to pit the needs of battle against those of the comfort of being a princess, the three princes consulted on their return. “Has the tsar learned any new magic about which you can warn me?” Ivan wanted to know. The two princes agreed that this was a difficult question to answer, but that at least the sorcerer had no end of tasks with which to forestall them.
“What is to stop him from levying impossibility after impossibility?” wondered Arkady. “He is the tsar. everything in these lands are his to command.”
“Perhaps that means we need to leave these lands,” said Aleksey, and although at first Arkady and Ivan were inclined to dismiss the idea, they almost immediately saw its merits. “Although I suppose,” he added, “it doesn’t really solve the problem for the next nine men. There are surely one or two other princes already courting tsarevnas four and five.”
Arkady said, “We have to think of something for the good of all. If we princes don’t stick together, who will?” Ivan pointed to the group of people behind them. “Yes, well, I mean. Someone needs to set an example, that’s all. Princes set examples. That’s what we do.” Ivan let him continue to stammer his way through his explanation, which was trying not to be the apology that it really ought to have been.
“Here comes the honor guard,” interrupted Aleksey.
A phalanx of horsemen rode out toward them, their mail gleaming in the sunlight. Arkady and Aleksey went ahead to meet them, as they were still mounted. “Your friends have never offered to let anyone else ride,” said the pile of dead skins.
“I’m not sure I would have either, a year ago,” said Ivan.
The guard directed the company into two orderly lines with the most disturbing of the group in the middle and the least dangerous of them at the front. “Tsar Pyotr awaits,” said the captain.