Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales – Chapter 10

Treachery, Expected and Otherwise

“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. I guess we owe it a favor!”

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. There wasn’t 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 lovely 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 is 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, remembering how the soldier had led his horse in the winter.

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.

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 bigger than her sisters. Months of labor and hard feed and wind 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 among her sisters 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 new 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 marvelous 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, then,” 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.

“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 was 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 noblemen and merchants 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 do so.

“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.

Aleksey and Arkady looked a pale shade of aghast at the realization that their tokens from the tsar had gone missing, but they could not bring themselves to believe that the loves of their respective lives had been responsible for their removal. “If I may, messieurs,” noted Entendtout, “it is against both custom and propriety for a princess to engage in excessive physical contact with a man who is not husband or blood relative.” At that, the two princes grew quite angry and might have tried violence against Entendtout for the perceived insinuation against their beloveds, save that both Ivan and Kou Ke were there. The old man went on, “And yet, each of the tsarevnas rested their hands upon you, messieurs, for a period of time verging on unbecoming, according to this tenet.”

“Well!” they blustered. “It’s not as though we haven’t been fighting for them!” “We’ve put our lives on the line, time and again!” “We’d die for their honor!”

Entendtout bowed his head lightly and observed, “Yes, I believe that is what they are counting on.” Now it was Ivan’s turn to be moved to outrage, but before he could say a word, Entendtout added, “Monsieur Haraka, would you be so good as to prepare something out of doors that will deflect attention from us? I believe His Highness will otherwise seek audience with you three, at which point – and correct me if I say this poorly – the ‘jig’ will be ‘up.’ ”

“Of. Course,” said Haraka. At once there were shrieks and calls for help from outside.

Tor poked Ipiktokiyakovik in his side. “Told you he could do it between two words. You owe me archery lessons.”

Although to a casual observer it looked as though the band was rushing out to see what was wrong, along with everyone else, the group found themselves somehow wrangled by Entendtout, pushed forward with him in the rear, and all the while blocking Prince Ivan from getting a really good look at whatever it was that Haraka had done.

“Tsarevitch Ivan!” The tsar’s voice pulled Ivan up to a halt. Before he knew it, the hall was empty save for him, Tsar Pyotr, and the tsar’s truly elite guard, all of whom were in better shape than the honor guard who stood about. These ones looked dangerous enough on their own, and that was before they bristled with weapons. And bristle they did. “No, no, I’m sure it’s nothing the guards can’t handle,” he said, pooh-poohing Ivan’s protestations. “This is actually a boon. I wanted to speak with you privately, and this is the perfect opportunity, as there aren’t any witnesses.” To Ivan, it looked like there were about thirty-six witnesses. Bristling witnesses. “It’s the princesses. Well, technically it’s a curse on the princesses. It’s been dead and gone while Vasilisa was missing and I believed to be a thing of the past, but no sooner had she returned than the spell has taken effect once more.” It might have been Ivan’s imagination, but he thought for a moment that the tsar’s eyes fell on the gold filigree leaf and shrouded lightly with disappointment. “At night,” he whispered. “They disappear. Find out where they go, tsarevitch. You have shown yourself to be stalwart and clever. Save my daughters. Free them from this curse, and the next day, I swear to you, you shall wed Vasilisa.”

“Your Highness,” said Ivan by way of agreeing to the deed.

“It’s a trap, of course,” said Kou Ke later, who was most familiar with enchantments.

Entendtout nodded. “Indeed, monsieur.”

“Vasilisa won’t speak to me. She won’t even speak to me! It’s like she’s a different person since we arrived back here.” Kou Ke nodded in sympathy and laid his softly scaled hand on Ivan’s shoulder. “You know, this is a lot like when I was first wooing her. Things in my room began to go missing and the tsar accused me of stealing them – as though I had anywhere to hide them! Still! I attempted to stay awake to determine what was happening and found to my great surprise that I was not able to keep my eyes open. It was not until the last night, the morning before the tsar had sworn he would not stand for it if another item had left from my room, that I managed to secrete a pin into my clothing with which I stabbed myself. Unpleasant, yes, but I stayed awake, and only to discover that it was Vasilisa who crept in through a secret passage to remove the things. I tried to stop her and inadvertently ended up holding her nightgown. There was a bit more with her father, but he couldn’t well execute me for someone else’s theft.”

“I believe he could if he could figure out how to play it,” muttered Arkady. He and Aleksey were most anxious that Ivan succeed in determining where the princesses had gone since they were now sure that Entendtout was correct that Yekaterina and Liliya had taken their tokens, and they were equally sure that Tsar Pyotr would have them executed for their loss.

“Here is my question,” said Aleksey. “Are the princesses as evil as the sorcerer, or is he manipulating them as well?”

Juliedah leaned forward. Aleksey and Arkady leaned back. “The princess Vasilisa has become more remote as we have come closer and closer to the castle. She expressed to me more than once on our travels in the flying ship her dismay that you, Ivan, had to return her to her father, although she thought too much of you to attempt to dissuade you and have you be other than what you are.”

“Other than what I am?” asked Ivan, confused.

“You have a flying ship?” asked Arkady.

“You never mentioned that,” said Aleksey.

“True to yourself,” said Juleidah. “She knew that your word is important to you, and counted on you returning her to her father and taking her away again at once.”

“That is exactly what we had discussed. Perhaps we could fly the ship to the uppermost tower to facilitate the escape – except that it is hardly the quietest of transports.”

“You have a flying ship?” repeated Arkady.

Tor poked him in the side with something very sharp. “You’ve seen a giant. Why is a flying ship so remarkable?”

“I’m bleeding!” said Arkady.

Entendtout stepped forward. “I have been listening to everything that everyone in the palace has said about the princesses, but if they do, indeed, disappear, no one is aware of this fact save the tsar himself. No castle can keep secrets so well that someone would not give something away. We should assume that the tsar is acting alone, or perhaps in concert with his wife, the tsarina. If so, the plan is long set, as they have no need to orchestrate its details.”

Ipiktokiyakovik nodded. “It is a hunt. We must discover the nature of the prey and how it moves. We already know that it hunts us back.”

“We will not have much time,” said Ivan. “The tsar will grow impatient.”

“Then we will begin tonight,” resolved Kou Ke.

The elite guards stood outside the various rooms of Ivan’s company, “To make sure you are well and safe,” the tsar had whispered to Ivan earlier, “for I fear that whatever happens to my daughters might come for you.”

The bramble-headed Tor scoffed. “He wants to make sure we can’t help you is all. Do you at least have permission to walk the halls?”

“I do, but the captain of the guard will accompany me,” said Ivan.

“Is it commanded that our windows must be shut?” asked Kou Ke in his soft voice. “If not, then our comrade Scrobarnach Armtha could manufacture her own guard. Eight of them, climbing on the battlements, could enter our rooms and take our places. An additional eight will stand guard with the palace guard. Should the tsar plan malice, we would, in fact, be protected. Should one check our beds for a sleeping figure, there would, in fact, be a figure there. In the meantime, we may escape from our rooms by the windows in order to assist Ivan.”

Ipiktokiyakovik looked from the window of the hallway to the ground. “It’s a long fall, should we lose our grip.”

Kou Ke nodded his agreement. “If I may proffer the services of yet another of our company, our comrade Juleidah’s command of dry winds may buoy us up should we lose our grip and cushion our bodies should we fall. As a further precaution, noble hunter with your sharp eyes, you could shoot an arrow lashed with rope to provide for steady handholds.”

“A most clever collection of suggestions,” agreed Haraka. “By such means, Ivan, you might enter into the princesses’ rooms from the outside after dark has fallen.”

“How will I know when they have fallen asleep?”

“Although I may be of assistance in that regard, I cannot hear everything all the time,” said Entendtout with a bow. “By which I mean, although I can hear any one thing, I cannot hear all things at once. If I am listening for the princesses, I may not help with the guards or the tsar.”

The first night went according to plan, and was nonetheless a resounding failure. Ivan and the captain walked the corridors of the castle. Ivan made sure to check in on each of his company, including the two princes, so that the captain would see them there in their rooms. When he reached Entendtout’s room last, just before midnight, the old man said, “It is late, Highness,” by which he meant not the hour, but that the princesses had already disappeared, for he could no longer hear the slightest noise from their room.

On the second night, Ivan and the captain stopped by at eleven, and Entendtout said, “It is not so late tonight.” Ivan took the captain to check on the princesses, but by the time the two men reached the room, they had vanished.

“We know when they leave, we have a plan to gain access to their room. How do we address the presence of the captain?” asked Ivan.

Kou Ke considered. “Perhaps our beggar friend Alexander, whom the tsar has required stay in the stables, could be of some assistance.”

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 the tsar’s 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. She told him absolutely everything.

When the elite guard threw open the doors to their rooms, one after another, they found no sign of Ivan’s company. They fell upon the standing members of the Brushwood Army only to grasp at thin, dry sticks that caught fire at once, setting seventeen small fires going in seventeen parts of the castle. Only the princes Arkady and Aleksey remained, bewildered as to the disappearance of Ivan’s friends. The only sign the comapny left was a trail of unconscious bodies leading into the dungeon, where the door to Alexander’s cell had been bashed open. The beggar, too, was gone.

“Worse things have happened than escaped warriors,” mused the tsar. “The fact of the matter is they are gone. The troublesome tsarevitch Ivan has also disappeared, and even if he has discovered whence my daughters have vanished, he will not return from that place. Without his friends, he is helpless. The soldier is long gone. Ivan is alone. Things will return to the way that they should be, my daughters and me free of these prying, sniveling men.”

With that, he sent Arkady and Aleksey to slay the giant, a task each of the three men assumed was a death sentence. Nevertheless, they each smiled politely, wished each other the best, and the two princes promised to rid the land of the giant or die trying. “Godspeed,” said Tsar Pyotr to them as they left, but he did not say where he wished God would speed them to. Arkady and Aleksey had a pretty good idea.

The minute their horses cantered away from the castle, the sorcerer began preparations should Ivan’s company return. He assumed that the servant Entendtout had heard Vasilisa telling him about their abilities, and although he wasn’t sure how they had escaped, he believed the old man must have alerted the others. For that reason he wrote instructions to his men, and made sure that they executed his will in silence. Indeed, all conversation in the castle stopped altogether. The only sounds were of people working. There was no laughter and there were no tears.

Against the best shot in the world, Ipiktokiyakovik, the tsar wrought an enchantment that would prevent any missile from reaching his person, whether arrow or stone or bullet.

Against the Brushwood Army, he prepared boiling oil, pitch, and torches aplenty.

The fiery desert winds would do little against oil and pitch and only fan the flames of a burning wooden army. It was certainly she, that Juleidah-pile-of-skins who had set the blaze at the kitchen. In case she tried anything in the castle, he had water standing by. He would plan for another enchantment to fight her own, but he first to finish his initial spell.

The fastest man was another matter, but with speed comes carelessness, so the tsar ordered tripwires and traps to be laid outside the grounds, high and low in places obvious and hidden to capture anyone who would try and dash in.

The serpent man was nothing. Very smart, perhaps, but Vasilisa had seen him do nothing other than express his hunger and thirst and demonstrate a marked talent for planning.

The beggar? “A beggar, nothing more,” Vasilisa had said.

For three days the tsar planned and prepared, his elite guard at the ready, his daughters safe.

He was, therefore, quite surprised to enter his hall for dinner, his wife Yelena walking with her placid hand on his arm, to discover a ragged tsarevitch Ivan and a large gray wolf devouring all of the food on the table.

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