Telling Tales 92
Family and Friends
The earth rumbled a second time and the lights on the lake bobbed in response. Ivan heard Natalya say something to the man who rowed her away. “I wish I had a friend here with me,” murmured the prince. “Tor’s soldiers might have made a floating bridge of themselves. Haraka would have caught up with them right away, and Entendtout could have told me where it was safe to walk. Juleidah would have this breeze keep them from departing the shore. But alone, what can I do?”
“But you are not alone,” said a high voice near some splashing below him.
“Who’s there?” asked Ivan. He was not at all certain that “you are not alone” were the words he wanted to hear.
“My cousin gave word to our family of your generosity to her and asked us that we all return the favor should we be in the position to do so.”
Ivan wracked his brain. “Not to damage my own case, but what did I do? And for whom?”
“My cousin found herself ashore on the banks of a river. You could have eaten her or worse, let her suffocate painfully in the air. You threw her back into the water.”
The pieces suddenly fell into place. “Are you a fish?”
“Of course I am! Can’t you see me?”
“As a matter of fact, I can’t.” Ivan did his best to keep the annoyance out of his voice, given that the fish in front of him seemed to be offering aid. Also, as they were in a cave and the tiny lights continued to recede in the distance, the utter blackness around them was more than enough to demonstrate his lack of sight. “I suppose you can?”
“This is my home.” The earth rumbled. “I know every part of it.”
“Is that noise anything to worry about?”
“Yes. So,” began the fish in a conversational vein, “how’ve you been?”
Ivan gritted his teeth and tried to remember the lessons of the soldier. “I’m in a bit of trouble. There are twelve princesses in twelve boats sailing away from me and my life and the lives of my friends depend on me finding out where they go every night.”
“Is that all?” There was more splashing. “Step forward and you’ll be on my back. Your legs will get wet, but it’s best if you sit. I don’t think you have the balance to stay upright while I swim.” Ivan did as the fish suggested, wondering what sort of creature it was that its back was as wide as a horse. “I haven’t followed them recently, but unless they’ve changed their destination, I know exactly where they’re going. Are you the sort that often gets into trouble? My cousin is. She’s always finding herself on the shore of some river or ocean or at the end of a fishing line, then it’s promises, promises, promises. There was this fisherman and his wife, she offered them wishes if they’d throw her back. It didn’t end that well for them, the man’s wife was insatiable in their greed, but no one died and all’s well that ends well, don’t you think? Back in their hovel, back to fishing. You’d think I’d be opposed to fishing, wouldn’t you, but it’s all the circle of life as far as I’m concerned. Sometimes you eat, sometimes you get eaten. There was this one time…”
Ivan was becoming accustomed to loquacious animals.
“Sisters, I hear voices behind us!” called Natalya. “We are being followed!”