Telling Tales 103
Ivan Riles the Tsar
“Of course, I didn’t believe him. Vasilisa not love me? After all we’d said to one another? After all we’d been through? He couldn’t be telling the truth.” Ivan paused in his narration to take a drink of wine, then one of water. All of this talking was leaving him quite dry. “Are you sure that you and your wife aren’t hungry?”
Tsar Pyotr’s face was as red as the juice from the steaks that dripped from the great gray wolf’s mouth. The steaks themselves were long gone. The wolf licked her tongue along each side of her muzzle, the bright pink contrasting sharply to the rough gray of her fur. “There’s no meat left,” he growled in a voice that was as dangerous as the wolf’s teeth.
Ivan looked up and down the table. “No? Well, look at that, you’re quite right. We must have been hungrier than I expected, eh?” he asked the wolf. To the nervous, disarmed guard quaking in the corner, he said, “Why don’t you run to the kitchen and let them know that the feast didn’t go as far as expected and that Their Highnesses are still peckish. And by the way, you’re welcome to let the elite guard know we’re here. If they’re hungry, too. There’s plenty to go around.”
With a glance at his sovereign, the man fled.
“Where was I?” asked Ivan, as much to himself as to the tsar and tsarina. “Well, that’s how I met the wolf, anyway. Wasn’t that why I started this whole story anyway?”
“Where are my daughters?” demanded the tsar. He pounded his fist against the table and didn’t even flinch when the wolf stood up and lowered her head to put her eyes on a level with his. She was really quite, quite large.
Ivan considered and picked his teeth with small piece of wood. “Eleven out of twelve are in their room. I’m afraid I don’t know where Vasilisa’s gone. She wouldn’t tell me.” His expression faded from confidence to sadness. “The thing is, the Sunset King wasn’t lying. She didn’t love me any more. Doesn’t. I gather that she and Juleidah had several conversations that I wasn’t privy to. Not that I blame it on Juleidah, she was only asking why Vasilisa was always waiting to be saved when clearly she was more than capable of doing whatever she wanted. Once she was free, Vasilisa took matters into her own hands. You know,” he added, his sadness still present but tempered with admiration, “she’s so much more than when I met her. I hope you’re as proud of her as you could be, because she couldn’t be a stronger person.”
Tsar Pyotr seethed.
“So the answer to your earlier concern, the one to which I swore, was that your twelve daughters dance the night away every night in the Sunset Kingdom with the twelve sons of that king, to whom, he said, they are all betrothed. Which makes me wonder about my own betrothal, because it hardly seems likely that your daughter should have been promised to more than one man at a time.” As he went on, he threw things on to the table. “Here are the tokens I bring back as proof. My copper boots, wrought by a tiding of gunmetal blue magpies. My steel grass sword. The gold goblet from which the Sunset King drinks.
“But I supposed you’re wondering how I got away, aren’t you?”