Telling Tales 83
A Good General Knows the Battlefield
“We are delighted that you have returned our daughter to us,” began the tsar.
“Do you suppose he means himself and his wife, or is he using the Royal We?” whispered Ipiktokiyakovik under his breath. No one could hear him, not even Haraka, who, as fellow “honor guard,” stood close by. No one could have heard, except for Entendtout.
Meanwhile, Tor was whispering about how she would dance her way to victory in the coming Court Wars, and Haraka whispered that no one here looked like they exercised, save perhaps the royal guards who lined the room, and even they had drawn a light duty. Each of the three kept up a steady, stealthy monologue that began as simple observation and grew increasingly absurd. Their goal was to make Entendtout laugh. They’d seen him smile, but he was always so buttoned up and proper so they invented a game that only he could hear. One of the great things about Entendtout is that he’d never give them way, either.
“…present you with these tokens,” the tsar was droning on as the three princes knelt in front of the dais. The tsarina rose to pin the tokens to the men’s doublets and the courtiers briefly roused themselves from the dull heat and the dull ceremony.
The princes stood up and more talking happened, then more talking, then the vizier got going, and all the while Tor, Haraka, and Ipiktokiyakovik whispered almost silently into the air and Entendtout never so much as moved a muscle. “It is very difficult to conceive a plan when our quarry can hear every word,” said Haraka in the aftermath of what had amounted to most of a day of standing around and looking proper. At least there was food now.
Tor looked every inch a lady as she took a delicate bite of something unpleasant and sophisticated. “A good general knows the battlefield,” she had said, and as long as she told herself that was the case, she could accomplish anything. A young Russian duke tried to engage her and Juleidah in conversation, assuming that the latter was an aunt or a grandmother, a guardian of the young blond girl, as they behaved in a similar courtly style (for it was Juleidah who had taught Tor everything), but he grew frightened when Juleidah spoke of the punishments of overeager men in her lands.
Several nobility encircled Kou Ke, hoping to learn more about his land and his likely wealth. Entendtout made his way from one member or grouping of the company to another, and it was Entendtout who pulled Ivan aside as the festivities reached their peak. “Now, Entendtout?” protested Ivan. The old servant had stepped in at the moment Vasilisa seemed about to approach him, the first time all night they would have had a chance to speak – the first time in days!
“Oui, monsieur,” and he directed Ivan while making it seem that Ivan was the one who was in charge. “What would the tsar say, monsieur, if his tokens to you were to go missing?”
Ivan looked down in alarm, but the gold filigree leaf was still affixed to his breast. “Nothing good. Oh, now, why did you drag me away? The princesses are leaving!” He made to call out to Vasilisa but once again Entendtout stopped him while seeming not to.
“Their Highnesses tsarevitch Aleksey and tsarevitch Arkady have lost theirs already, monsieur, and I believe it was their princesses, Yekaterina and Liliya, who were the responsible parties.”
“Do you mean – Vasilisa…”
The twelve princesses were already gone.