Telling Tales 101
A Banquet, Not a Dance
The floor that Ivan landed on was not the dance floor with twelve couples whirling around together in complicated patterns. One moment he was holding on to the wolf’s neck, her thick hair between his fingers, then he saw Vasilisa below him, beckoning to him. He had no choice but to answer her and so he let go. Had he not spent so much time on the flying boat, which rocked and flowed as surely as any boat on the water, he might have felt more uncertain in the air. He stumbled a bit when his feet hit the ground, but when he righted himself, silver grass sword already in his hand, he saw that the ballroom was gone.
So were the dancers and so was the wolf.
Ivan stood in a banquet hall. On one side was the table, polished walnut gleaming with darker and lighter grains. A hundred chairs lined it left and right with two chairs each at its ends. Upon the walls, looking down upon the table, were the heads of every beast imaginable, and of many beasts Ivan had never imagined, stuffed and mounted upon heraldric plates. Beneath them, more polished wood, cherry, giving the room a warm and airy feel even as its length and breadth emphasized his isolation.
There were no doors.
Ivan raced along the perimeter of the room. There was a time limit. No matter how much more slowly time passed here in the Sunset Kingdom, he still had to escape this place, find a token, and return to Tsar Pyotr’s court by his own sunrise.
“Or what?” asked a voice, and Ivan realized he had been speaking out loud. At the far end of the table sat a broad, heavy man who might have been corpulent save for the fact that he was obviously as strong as he was large. “What are the consequences? You’ll die? Haven’t you considered that you could simply die right here? Or if you never left this place and chose to live here happily ever after, what hold would this Tsar Pyotr have over you?”
“I made a vow,” began Ivan.
The big man snorted. “You’re one of those. No reasoning with you, then.”
Ivan considered. The man had appeared from nowhere and sat as far from where Ivan stood as was possible in the room. “Reasoning about what? I’ll have you know that I am betrothed to the princess Vasilisa. There is more here than a simple vow.” In truth, he thought, this whole thing had grown quite out of hand. According to their plan, he was supposed to have spirited Vasilisa away from her father at once so that he could not ensorcel her once again. Was the tsar faster than they had expected? Had Vasilisa changed her mind?
“Women are notoriously fickle,” said the man in a way that left Ivan to wonder if he was responding his statement about being betrothed or his thought about Vasilisa changing her mind. “I take it you’re Ivan?”
Ivan stopped himself from saying “At your service,” which he not only would not mean but for which he did not want to be held accountable, either. “I am. And who do I have the honor of addressing?”
The man raised one eyebrow in surprise. It was completely different than how Vasilisa did it. “My boy! I am the Sunset King.”