Telling Tales 82
The Second Welcome
Not two days later, tsar Pyotr sat waiting in formal audience in an opulent throne at the center of a dais gilded with gold. At his left sat his wife, tsarina Yelena. On either side of them stood six princesses, tsarevna Vasilisa to the immediate right of her father. The tsar was a big man, an old soldier now given to food and drink. Nevertheless, there was strength still visible in his arms and a quick wit shone in his eyes, his hefty stomach and jovial laugh notwithstanding. He and the tsarina wore rich purple, the color reserved for royalty, embroidered with silver and platinum.
The twelve princesses outshone their parents, each one lovelier than the last. Vasilisa barely looked herself as they had all known her in the weeks and months before. She was still herself. She was bigger than her sisters. Months of labor and hard feed and wind and sun had strengthened her and no finery could conceal that. The servants had scrubbed her skin clean of its roughness but they could not wipe the traces of the sun, and she alone was dark. Perhaps as a nod to this fact, the princesses were dressed in clothes from darker to lighter so as to minimize the effect. Vasilisa wore rich red and browns. Yekaterina, the next, browns and yellows. The effect was rather like a forest in autumn, bright and colorful, all the way to the youngest and most beautiful, Natalya, in white and gold, a glowing aspen tree.
Along either side of the court stood the nobility and beyond them their servants. They wore the clothes associated with their rank and due to the solemnity and celebration of the occasion. It was at once joyous, for the return of Vasilisa was, on its own, a wondrous and unexpected event. The tsar would be relieved at knowing her health and safety, but her arrival also meant that the other daughters were once again ready to be courted. Three visiting princes among the court bided their time with barely-concealed stoicism.
“Tsarevitches Ivan, Aleksey, and Arkady,” pronounced the vizier, and the three princes stepped forward, Ivan the largest of the bunch.
“Scrobarnach Armtha,” he said, stumbling a bit at the name. The wild blond girl curtsied, her movements practiced with Vasilisa and her hair momentarily tamed by Entendtout. She wore a simple white dress, shorter than the fashion, just past her knees, belted at the waist, and carried a small shrub like a bouquet.
“Monsieur Entendtout de Carabas et des Chats.” The old man bowed with grace and humility.
“The lady Juleidah.” The pile of skins was draped in flowing silks, a formless and mysteriously exotic figure. She curtsied.
“My lord Gongjue Kou Ke.” The serpent-scaled man wore a fixed porcelain mask across his face and heavy silk robes. Only his hands were visible, and everyone assumed the scales were gloves.
“Tsarevitch Ivan’s honor guard from lands north and south, evidence of his journey and his successes, Ipiktokiyakovik and Haraka.” The hunters wore embroidered leather for the occasion. Ipiktokiyakovik took the darker clothes and Haraka the lighter so that, unlike the princesses, the color of their skin contrasted mightily with the color of their clothes. They bowed with as much elegance as had the young Tor, who had fought courtly manners until Haraka pointed out that it was simply another kind of battle.
“Oh, that,” had said the girl. “I can fight just about every way, I suppose.”
The tsar fixed them with a stare that might have been friendly. But it might not have been.