Telling Tales 87
Seeming Successes and the Problem of Smart Sorcerers
Tsar Pyotr was predictably impatient with Ivan after the first night and predictably furious after the second. “One more chance, tsarevitch, one more chance to save my daughters is all you get!”
“That’s nothing compared to how angry he’s going to be,” giggled Tor.
The fire that night began in behind the kitchen, driven by a dry biting wind that swept up from deserts beyond dreaming that bit and ate at the pile of wood and kindling until it caught fire. It was the beggar Alexander who sounded the alarm and ran with tsarevitches Aleksey and Arkady to find Ivan and the captain. They all careened downstairs to fight the blaze, still clad in their finery. Nobly, the two princes used their best doublets to try and smother the flames while Alexander continued to call more and more people. The elite guard, disciplined to the end, stood watch next to one enchanted soldier apiece, refusing to move, sworn as they were to protect Ivan’s company. Finally, in the small hours of the night, the wind and the fire died down (the first before the second, if anyone was paying attention) and the castle was saved. The tsar himself commended Aleksey and Arkady on their bravery, yet they nevertheless apologized, for their tokens, they swore, had still been attached to their doublets and were now destroyed in the fire. The beggar Alexander held out his hand with thin silver and bronze wires, all he had been able to sift from the really only rather small wreckage. In his room, Haraka wiped the sweat from his brow after his run to the jeweler in some thrice tenth kingdom.
The tsar’s smile was as insincere and bitter as Tor had hoped, made no more pleasant by the discovery that once again, the princesses were gone. And not only them. There was no sign of Ivan anywhere in the castle.
You see, as the captain and Ivan had run downstairs, Ivan’s place had been taken by one of the Underbrush Army. While the enchanted soldier looked nothing at all like Ivan, he wore a set of Ivan’s clothes, he ran at the back, and then dashed directly into the fire, where his body was consumed by the flames. Everyone at the fire saw him run in. Selflessly. Foolishly. Fatally.
“He’s not dead,” the tsar growled at the captain. “Check on the princesses.” Indeed, the door to their room was open. Their twelve beds lay empty. Twelve sets of sheets were thrown back. All of their clothes hung in their twelve closets. The tsar shut the door, gave the captain a look that promised worse to come in the near future, and demanded that he investigate the source of the fire at once. Ivan’s company was to be kept to their rooms.
“On suspicion of the murder of tsarevitch Ivan,” said the captain to each in turn as he shut the door on them. Even the beggar Alexander, however, who was locked up in the dungeon proper, didn’t think the captain believed his words any more than anyone else did.
What was true was that the next morning, the princesses were back in their beds, safe as ever. “No, Father, Ivan did not set foot in our room,” said Vasilisa to Tsar Pyotr. “At least, not as far as I know.”
“Is that so? Well, then. Tell me about your company of travelers. What is so special about them?”
And Vasilisa told him.