Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales – Chapter 11

The Unexpected Benefits of Occasional Kindness

“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 from the ground.

“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.

“Maybe you remember the fire? No, I didn’t start it and I’m ashamed that you would have such thoughts about a guest. Your captain and I – a wonderful and attentive man, if I may say – were running toward the fire. Well, we could hear everyone screaming, ‘Fire!’ ‘Fire!’ I simply assumed that there was a fire. Wasn’t there? Well, now, see. There was.

“There we were, running to offer whatever help we can, when I heard another noise, like a damsel in distress. I’m sorry, but if you’ve never heard the sound of a damsel in distress, I can’t exactly repeat it for you, being neither a damsel, nor… Look, you get my point. And in any case, it turns out that it wasn’t a damsel in distress at all, it was a secret door opening. Are you happy now? Now you know what it was that caught my attention and that a damsel in distress sounds rather like a squeaky door. Or maybe that’s just my imagination. I can’t say that I’ve ever heard Vasilisa make that sound. Come to think of it, even when she was held captive by Yumni… Did you not hear that part of our travels? She never really behaved like someone in distress. Very composed, your daughter. You should both be proud.

“So this noise. I run back, and remember at this point I think it’s one of your daughters crying out for help in their room. Don’t they get tired of sharing? Twelve young women in one room? I marvel at their generosity and love between each other. My brothers and I have a much more combative relationship, but then that’s princes, isn’t it? We’re a competitive bunch.

“The door to their room isn’t locked and there’s no guard. At the time I assumed that he must have evacuated them to safety and away from the fire, not even thinking that if that had been the case, who would have made the noise? You know how it is, you’re in a hurry, you’re not thinking clearly. That’s important to the story, that I’m not thinking clearly, because I burst into the room and one of the beds is moving! I sprint over there as fast as I can move and there’s a staircase! Hidden beneath the bed! What must your architect have been thinking! Unless you bought this castle and didn’t build it yourselves? Well, I dove for the staircase and barely managed to squeak my way in as the bed squeaked back above me, making exactly the squeak that I had heard before.

“Now it’s dark and I’m on a staircase and I’m there on completely false pretenses. Here I thought I was going to save a damsel and it was just a bed over a secret passage that needs some oil. But, being the intrepid tsarevitch that I am, betrothed to your eldest daughter and all, I knew that you, my prospective and imminent father-in-law, would want me to take action. Seize the day!

“Did you get something caught in your throat? Guard, give him a good smack on the back, he looks red. No, I’m sure he won’t hold it against you. That’s it! Harder! Feel better now, Your Highness? Then I’ll go on.

“Where was I? Ah yes! Darkness. Stairs. And most peculiarly, the sounds of singing birds. Isn’t that the most curious thing, I thought, and I speak as a man who’s seen his share of curiosities. Unto the breach, dear friends! I went on!

It was as black as pitch in that place and not a glimmer or spark showed above him where the bed had moved back into place. But iff the only direction to go is down, then down I’ll go,” said Ivan.

Fortunately, this was no crudely hewn staircase carved from living rock and worn with thousands of years of millions of feet. These stairs were as straight and regular as those in a new house and laid out by a master mason. With one hand on the wall, and not a dank wall like the dungeon, either, Ivan put one foot in front of the other.

He descended for what seemed like hours. A gentle curve of the wall told him that the stairs turned widdershins. He couldn’t be sure in the dark, but he guessed that he would have less than fifty feet of sight to the front or the back. If he’d been able to see. At length, a light breeze touched his face, by which time he could no longer hear birdsong. He took two steps to his right, but the other wall was no longer there. A third and a fourth step told him that the stairs were widening, for there was still no wall.

It was the spark that finally made him stop. Although he had descended along the left-hand side of the passage, the spark that he glimpsed was far below him and to the right. Frozen where he stood, it seemed to him as though the spark appeared and re-appeared at irregular intervals, shifting up and down, left and right.

Ivan dropped low to the ground so that he could move as quickly as possible without abandoning all caution. The spark was a long way off and he hastened as much as he dared. It was a good deal faster than he had been moving, and yet still it was painfully slow. Eventually, he grew confident enough in the stairs and concerned enough with his speed that he stood up and began to jog through the dark. His footsteps echoed lightly against the stone and he heard a voice say, “Sisters! Wait! Someone comes behind us!” Ivan stopped in place. It was Natalya’s voice, the youngest of the tsarevnas. He had found them.

“Nonsense,” he heard Vasilisa respond. The spark was clear now, larger than before, and more than one, he realized. “It’s only your imagination.”

While they talked, Ivan removed his boots, laced them together, and slung them around his neck. As quietly as could be, he began to run after the light again. The lights, rather, twelve of them carried by the princesses to illumine their way. Each had one and they held them in front of their bodies, which would shield them at this distance from Ivan and make it seem as though they jumped here and there.

“The boats have not yet arrived,” Vasilisa said in the distance. Her voice echoed clearly. Were they in a cavern? Had the stairs opened to the outside? But above there were neither stars nor moon. Ivan increased his pace. In short order, he heard the sound of water splashing, then footsteps in shallows.

One after another, twelve noble masculine voices invited princess after princess aboard, and one at a time, twelve boats pushed off from the shore. Ivan reached the shore in time to make out the silhouettes ahead of him. “This could be a problem,” he murmured. “Here I am, alone in the dark on the banks of an underground lake,” and a rumble from below assured him that he was correct.

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 her 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 again. “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 her 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!”

In the distance, Ivan could hear Vasilisa telling Natalya to be quiet and that there was no one following them and how could there be, all she had to do was look behind them. The friendly fish, meanwhile, kept up her patter although she did lower her voice without Ivan having to ask her. “My uncle,” she whispered, “my uncle used to pick fights with sharks. Always thought he was bigger than he was. It didn’t end well, as you can imagine. Oh, he’s fine, he didn’t get eaten, but he’s shy a couple of fins these days and mostly just swims in circles telling everyone war stories. My aunt says he’s full of eggs and that he lost his fins in a net and he would’ve dived at the first sign of a shark, but he tells a good tale, so nobody tries to make him stop.”

“Is that a light up there?” asked Ivan, who had decided that the best way of dealing with the fish was to “yes” and “uh huh” from time to time. “Beyond the princesses. It almost looks like… dawn.”

“Oh, yes, didn’t I tell you? Once you get far enough along, you’ll reach the Sunset Kingdom. I’m sure I mentioned it. It was when I was explaining about my mother’s mother’s cousin’s cousin, whose been cursed to wrap himself around a magician’s – ”

“How long have we been traveling?” asked Ivan.

“I don’t know about you before we met on the shore, but I’ve been swimming long enough for my brother’s children to have been laid and hatched and – ”

“Do the princesses come down here every night?” asked Ivan.

“Oh, yes. Why, I can remember the first night they arrived, all twelve of them in their white, white dresses, and then they stopped coming for a great deal of time – ”

“That was probably when Vasilisa had been kidnapped and I was trying to bring her back,” Ivan mused. He started up again before the fish could. “But how can that be? I climbed down the steps for two or three hours, and now we’ve been swimming, well, you have, for what seems like hours more, and even if we turned around right now we wouldn’t make it back to the castle by dawn.”

He drew a breath and the fish began speaking into his pause. “Time passes differently down here. Look, they’ve arrived at the dock! Now they’ll disembark, one, two, three, four, and so on, and they’re off to the ball at the Sunset Castle.”

“In their nightgowns?”

“They’re not wearing nightgowns,” said the fish. As she swam closer, between the lanterns and the glowing light, he could see that they were dressed in fancy ball gowns. He could also see that the fish he sat astride was a giant, pale eel with giant milky eyes. He was terribly glad he had met her at first in the dark.

“Can you tell me about the kingdom or the ball? They’re fairies, aren’t they?”

“Fairies do play with time,” the eel agreed. “I’ll leave you here, and safe travels.”

From the safety of the dock, Ivan examined her full size. “If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”

“Just a baby,” she giggled through a mouthful of teeth. “Someday when I’m big I’m going to have a date with a thunder god.”

“Do you have any advice for me?” asked Ivan, feeling that he’d heard too much.

The eel giggled again. “Don’t drink the water!” Then she vanished into the dark depths with only the slightest splash.

The faint light was just enough that Ivan could see the princesses and their escorts walking up the steps but dark enough that he couldn’t make out much more than silhouettes, and they kept their lanterns raised before them. “I suppose it was easier to follow them when it was dark,” Ivan said. The dawn light that crept beyond the top of the hill had the metallic orange cast of an early autumn morning, the sun rising over a forest of changing, colorful leaves. “If time passes differently, perhaps I’ll have to worry about winter before too long.” When Natalya and her escort, a prince, if Ivan was any judge of princes (and he was) reached the summit, she turned and looked back. Ivan froze in place, but if she saw him she gave no sign. The minute she herself was out of sight, he sprinted up the steps, leaving damp footprints in his wake.

The light, he discovered, was neither from the sun nor the moon. Pinpoints of light, as though a thousand stars had descended from the heavens, hung over the forest, bobbing as gently as you please. But the pinpoints were only the source of the light, which bounced and reflected off of the leaves and trunks of trees made from burnished copper, all of which reminded him of Queen Ahtna’s realm. Except that this place was real metal, reflecting light and making it seem bigger and broader, no matter that it was all coming from tiny dots. The princesses and their princes had only just entered the forest, and once again Ivan ran to keep up.

He charged through the forest, but no matter how fast he went now, he could only barely keep the group in front of him in sight. Within the canopy of the trees, the light seemed closer to dusk, and the metal leaves brushing against one another gave off the sounds of soft bells. Ivan imagined that he would appreciate the forest a great deal if he had time to stop and wonder, but it was all he could do to his eyes on the people ahead.

Sooner than he expected, the forest stopped and Ivan nearly bolted into the field beyond. It was the change in light that saved him. As the thick trees cleared, it grew blindingly bright and he had to shield his eyes. A field of silver grass as tall as his waist and as sharp as swords spread out beyond the copper trees. The lights hung in the air as before, but the metal switches rising from the earth made it seem as though it were raining drops of light up and into the air above. He touched a blade of grass and saw the blood well up on his finger before he felt it. It was indeed as sharp as he expected. “How are they getting through it?” The grasses waved in the light breeze and it sounded like a thousand million blades sliding in and out of scabbards.

“They know the path,” sang a voice.

Ivan looked up to see a dark bird, gunmetal blue, sitting on a branch above him. It was the shape of a crow but as big as a hawk and with a decidedly pointed beak. “Ah,” was all he could think of to say at first, and then, “Do you know the path?”

“No,” sang the bird. Then another bird landed nearby. And another. And another. And they looked at him, yellow and red-rimmed black eyes against gunmetal blue, and he thought they looked hungry.

“He looks like he’s got a lot of meat on him,” sang one of the gunmetal birds. Ivan didn’t know why their voices didn’t croak like crows’, or… proclaim, however you’d describe an eagle or a hawk’s call, but they didn’t. They birds talked to one another and evaluated him like a piece of meat, describing him in dulcet tones.

“Not going to be easy,” sang another.

One bird dipped its head down. Ivan wanted to call each one “he” for its masculine shape – what he imagined was a masculine shape – but “she” for its voice. He settled on “it.” One bird dipped its head down and Ivan, not for the first time, considered the fatal silver switch grass to one side of him and the bevy of cruel-looking, heavenly-sounding birds on the other. “Is there are a part of you that you could do easily without?”

“No more than you could do without your eyes or your beak,” he answered without much hope. This answer prompted a great deal of discussion amongst the birds. Five of them alit from the branches to the ground in front of him.

“Stretch your arms out, please, would you? To the sides, not the front,” sang a bird. It might have been the same one, or it might have been a different one. They all looked the same to Ivan and they were all making noise, so it was often difficult to identify which one might be addressing him. Ivan sighed and did as the bird said, hoping that by obeying and showing them respect he would not antagonize them. “Turn around, keep going,” sang a voice. Now Ivan felt decidedly like a piece of meat. He heard them discussing his shoulders, his arms, his legs, one piece of his body after another. “No sudden movements, please,” and then they were landing on him, on his shoulders and arms, four birds with the sound of rustling, ruffling metal. Their talons bit into his jacket and sleeves and he found himself falling into his own clothes as they raised him up in the air. Their wings pushed their air around him like bellows until the ground emerged at his feet once more.

“Heavy,” sang a bird. “Are your feet sturdier than your hands?” sang another.

“I don’t understand.” Ivan was still catching his breath.

“You are too heavy for us to fly across the field and your feet would drag on the grass. Would your feet survive?”

The silver swayed gently, innocent as can be.

“No?”

“We will be indebted,” sang a voice. “A debt for a debt.”

At that, several birds flew away into the forest of copper trees and several more flew to the ground where they waddled into the grass, having no fear themselves of the blades. The sound of shrieking metal drew Ivan’s eyes back to the forest. A badger covered in bronze tufts of fur was ripping the bark off of a tree in sheets with iron claws. A large blacksmith spider of pitted metal dropped down from a platinum web as three gunmetal birds staggered out of the field, beaks filled with blades of grass. It wasn’t until a bird sang, “Excuse me” that Ivan looked down and saw that his legs were covered with more spiders draping his legs in platinum silk.

Quick as thought, the badger bent the bark over his feet and the spiders wove in the silver grass at the ground and before he knew it, Ivan was wearing tall copper boots that peeled a light patina like an aspen.

Ivan looked down as the birds lifted him up again so that the spiders and badger could lay in the soles. “If you don’t mind my asking,” he said with some hesitation, wondering why now of all times he was asking the question, “you seem to be going to a great deal of trouble on my behalf…”

One of the gunmetal birds in the tree sang back to him, “You saved our uncle when his wing was broken. You raised him to a branch where he could wait for assistance from our family. We exchange the debt to you with one to the badgers and spiders, who work on our behalf on your behalf.”

A second bird laughed and it sounded like shop bells announcing a customer. “Pay him no mind. This is not all and always about debt and owing. Sometimes it is about nothing more than dancing.” Ivan wasn’t sure what the bird meant by “dancing,” as all he could see and hear was a great deal of work.

“You are related to the animals that were wounded by the giant? Or near the giant, at any rate? I saved a hawk, a trout, and a wolf.”

“Who do you think taught us to dance?” sang a bird.

Given that the question made no sense on its face, Ivan could not begin to see how to answer. Before he could pursue any further information, however, the birds as dropped him back to the ground, the badger and spiders gave his tall boots experimental taps and tied off loose threads. The boots looked like peeling copper and felt like supple leather. Even the patina-ed edges had been curled back to remove any sharp edges.

“You should make haste, for we have lost you a great deal of time.”

“Wait!” came the song, and a stag cantered forward and bowed its antlered head. Resting across the prongs was a remarkable looking sword. Its handle was polished copper wood. Its hilt was smooth bronze bark. Its blade was a line of the silver switch grass woven together by platinum spider silk. “For your travels,” finished the bird. “And now. Hasten ahead. The boots will protect you from the worst of the grass, but be sure to keep your hands high.”

Ivan thanked them all profusely and ran into the field. Metal blades sang across his boots and it was all he could do to not be lulled into the thought that it was but simple music. When he glanced down, however, he saw the some of the taller grasses that reached beyond his boots were slowly and steadily shredding his pants. “Which will be a problem for practicality and modesty alike,” he thought. He couldn’t be sure how long the animals had kept him waiting, but however long it was, he would not have survived the run on his own. If he hadn’t walked so far with the soldier, he wasn’t sure he would have been able to keep a reasonable pace, either, but his travels and travails had strengthened his arms and lungs as well as his legs.

At long last, after what felt like hours of running, he reached the end of the silver field. He had seen the end long before he had reached it, a golden wall rising inexorably higher and higher as he grew closer. Strong as he was, he quailed at the thought of trying to get over it. He could see no door and time must be running short. “What will happen to me if I am still here when the princesses leave?”

“You should not be so arrogant as to think that the world will vanish around you,” growled a voice. “There is more to life than you and your concerns.”

Ivan looked to the side where the gray wolf lay. At this point, he felt her arrival had only been a matter of time, so he was not surprised to see her waiting there in the fading light of the afternoon. “Are you going to help me next?”

“Indeed I am, and for more reasons than you know,” the wolf answered. She stood up and stretched and shook her body all over from her head to the tip of her tail. It seemed to Ivan that she had grown much larger in that brief moment. At least, he hadn’t remembered her being the size of a horse when he had held her head tightly to keep her from biting Vasilisa in her pain. “Climb upon my back.”

As though she were a horse without a saddle, Ivan pulled himself up, doing his best not to yank at her fur. Her jaws had been impressive back in the forest. Now they were more than twice that size. He glanced down at her side. “Do I need to worry about your wounds? Have they healed enough?”

“I am well, and thank you for asking,” she said, and in fact there was no sign of the cauterized cut on her side. Her fur was as full and thick on one side as the other. Ivan checked both flanks, in case he had forgotten which one was originally hurt. “Clasp with your legs and grab hold of my ruff. That will provide you the best purchase.”

He would have asked “For what?” except that no sooner had she felt the pressure than she had leapt straight toward the wall, moving as quickly through the air as the flying ship. The claws on her footpads clicked against the hard surface. That was the only thing that matched Ivan’s expectations. “Where did it come from?” In front of them was a magnificent golden palace. Bejeweled spires adorned crenelated battlements (that seemed, to Ivan’s eyes, to be entirely decorative to begin with). Polished and gleaming doors stood atop a wide staircase.

“There is no time to waste. The tiding orchestrated your boots better than I could have expected, but it means that we are playing catch-up nevertheless.” Ivan understood the individual words but he was used to things not making sense. He made to dismount, ready to enter the palace, but the wolf stopped him. “I will take us to the far side.”

“I have to know what they are doing by order of the tsar! Where they are and what they do, he demands full accounting.”

The wolf snorted. “He already knows, but to sate your curiosity I will explain as we run. Hold on.” Ivan gripped with both hands as she exploded in movement around the side of palace. “Every night, the twelve princesses descend here to these lands where they dance with twelve princes.”

“The giant eel said that this is the land of Fairy.”

“If she said so, she is mistaken, although I suppose it is an understandable one as time does not move at the same rate in either as it does above and below. They will dance the night away here, this place’s night, and return by dawn to your world.”

“Dancing?” He thought about what the birds had said and considered the sword at his side. “Is that all?”

The wolf panted, “No. Their father is killing them.”

Behind them, there was no sign of either the silver field or the copper forest, only the gently sloping golden hill that fell and then rose to block the horizon. Ivan couldn’t decide if he should inquire about the immediate, the changeable landscape, or the very soon, the tsar killing the princesses. “He’s doing what?” he finally asked.

Under the wolf’s feet, the ground sped by, soft plants growing from hard soil. “There are ways to increase one’s span of years. You might trade your heart for another to keep it safe.”

Her words sank into Ivan’s head. He found it difficult to imagine the thing that she was suggesting. “Like Koschey. We always thought it was Koschey who stole princess Vasilisa away but it was her father all the time? Or are you saying her father is Koschey the Deathless?” Everything that Ivan knew, everything that he believed he knew and understood, shattered in that moment.

“No, he’s not,” said the wolf, and the world made sense again.

“But – ”

“Tsar Pyotr is the tsar Pyotr, no more and no less, but the Sunset King is another matter altogether. He learned his secrets and magic from Koschey and Baba Yaga, two of the harsher teachers one could wish for, and he tricked from them that which he could not learn.”

“What – ”

“Look beyond in the windows on the side of the palace.” Ivan did, and through the grand, tall glass he saw the bright lights of a ball, couples dancing around and around, even as the sun sank and the moon ascended. “Twelve princesses from your land and twelve princes from this one. Their nightly dance funnels their lives into the talismans that the kings consume. This is one of the secrets of Koschey the Deathless. I am grateful that you spared my life and healed my wounds and that is the first reason I am helping you here in the Sunset Kingdom.” Next to them the palace crept by, seeming to grow in length with her every step while above them the Moon sped into the sky as if hours were passing in minutes. “I am no friend to the Sunset King and therefore not to his friend and ally, Tsar Pyotr. If we may help one another, we may succeed twice over. I know your duty is to your word and to fulfill the letter of your promise to the tsar. I know that your honor is to remove Vasilisa from the thrall of her father. I submit to you, however, that your original plan is lacking.”

“How do you know my plan is lacking? How do you even know what my plan is?”

“I have described the conditions and the likely solution is that you will take Vasilisa away. While that will save her and her sisters alike from this enchantment, it will leave her eleven siblings captive and I believe, now that you are clear on that, that you will not abandon them either. Your honor must be to assist them all, not only your beloved.

She went on. “You have noticed, I hope, that Vasilisa is different now that she was before?” She interrupted before he could assent. “The tsar’s sorcery draws them all in, and while she fights as best she can, there is little beyond speaking the occasional word that she can do. Her power is not equal to his. Are you prepared for drastic measures to save her and her sisters, and in so doing, the twelve princes here?”

Ivan set his jaw and aimed for inspiring confidence. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

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