Telling Tales 89
Friendship is the Devil’s Bargain
“Don’t mind her,” said Ivan through a mouthful of food as he threw a roasted goose toward the wolf.
“You’re not saying she’s tame!” gasped the tsarina Yelena.
The wolf growled at the word. “Tame?” repeated Ivan. “Not at all. But she does have a highly refined sense of her priorities. For example, as long as the two of us are eating, she feels relatively comfortable. But if a guard were to try and sneak in through that door back there, she’d be a little less calm.”
“Please, sir,” begged the guard at the back of the room from beneath the gray wolf. Her jaws spanned his throat – not so much to hurt him as to warn him.
“But that’s nothing, really,” Ivan went on as though the guard had said nothing, as though the guard couldn’t feel the saliva of the panting wolf dripping on his neck. “This one time, when I was traveling with your daughter, we met the most marvelous squirrel. It knew all sorts of things, you’d scarcely believe it.”
Tsar Pyotr recovered his composure. By this I really mean his wrath, but he masked his fury at Ivan’s reappearance as fury at Ivan’s delay in finding his daughters. “Where have you been? You swore a solemn oath to me to find where my daughters disappear to at night, and then you vanish! In the meantime, without your supervision and control, your pack of brigands has attacked my castle and my people. You’re part of their nefarious plot, or they gulled your simple mind into believing they were harmless. Either way, for rebellion or for stupidity, I should have you put to death. Unless you can tell me, right here and right now, what has happened to my daughters!”
“Please, sir,” came a strangled voice from the back of the room.
Ivan waved at a chair at the end of the table closest to him. “Why don’t you have a seat?” To the wolf he said, “Would you mind letting that man up? There’s only one chair, and manners insist that that chair be used by the tsarina.” At his words, the tsar stopped himself from sitting, scowled even further, and waved his wife toward the seat. “His Highness will need a place to sit, and that guard is just the man to bring him a chair. At least, I assume so. Sir? Are you amenable?”
“Oh, yes please, I would be ever so honored,” came the guard’s voice.
“You might want to leave your weapons on the floor, otherwise she’s liable to mistake a sudden move for something – what’s the word?” Ivan looked at the tsar in all innocence. “Nefarious. Yes.” Without looking, he speared a steak and threw it in the air behind him. The wolf’s jaws closed with a SNAP and red juices dripped from her mouth and on to the guard. “Quick now,” urged Ivan, and quick as thought, the guard was on his feet, belt and sword on the ground, hustling a large, throne-like wooden chair as well as he could toward the tsar. “You’re a good man, I can tell.”
“Wizardry or witchcraft,” swore the tsar. “That’s no ordinary wolf.”
“If that’s the case it’s not my doing,” said Ivan as the wolf padded over to sit next to him. She fixed her eyes upon the tsar and tsarina, one a bright blue, the other a bright yellow, each one a more distressing color than the other.
“A devil’s bargain, then.”
“If by devil’s bargain you mean friendship, then yes. Let me tell you how I met her.”