Telling Tales 105
Not the Hoped-For Demonstration
From where he stood underneath the mounted wolf’s head, with a mounted stag’s head on one side and a boar on the other, Ivan stood more than halfway down the table. The Sunset King’s voice spun him around and for a moment he did not know where to look. The monarch was not at the head of the table where he had sat before, close to where Ivan stood now. Instead, he was at the other head of the table, once again distant from the prince. Behind him stood Vasilisa.
“Now, then,” rumbled the man, “why don’t we begin with the simplest pieces. Vasilisa, are you in love with Prince Ivan?”
Even in her new finery and looking every bit the part of the princess, Ivan couldn’t shake the feeling that Vasilisa was, in fact, only playing the part. The dress covered her arms and concealed her otherwise obvious physical strength. Unlike her sisters’ dresses, all variously light shades to set off their lovely, alabaster skin, Vasilisa’s was dark so as to make her tanned face and hands seem lighter than they were. Ruffles and pleats were designed to minimize the muscles on her arms and neck. Her hair was a magnificent cascade that tried to make her neck look smaller and thinner and the dress train seemed to have been made to slow her down and make her appear more stately. She wore it well and she was indeed beautiful, but Ivan felt that she had been more beautiful with her sleeves gone, arms bare (though he never would have admitted this out loud, not even to the three hunter-warriors of the crew, and especially not to the princes Arkady and Aleksey), and her hair a windswept tangle. Everything about this dress was marvelous, but it did not match the person that Ivan knew Vasilisa to be. It had to be a costume and nothing more.
Vasilisa focused her gaze upon Ivan. “I do not,” she said.
Ivan swallowed the feeling of betrayal that swelled up in his chest and made his head swim. “I am sorry to hear that, princess, but in the current circumstances your love for me is not the issue. Your father has tasked me with finding where you disappear every night and although I have not sworn it to him, your safety is of utmost importance to me. I will make sure you are safe, even at the cost of my own life. If I survive, then I will renounce our betrothal to your father and mother and you will be free to marry the eldest son of the Sunset King, to whom I understand you are also betrothed.” He did not have much. In fact, Ivan had nothing more than honesty and honor on his side. He hoped – at least, he wanted to hope – that Vasilisa would recognize the nobility of his actions, and that if that would not cause her to change her mind, that at least it would cause her heartache, a fraction of what he felt at her words, to know that he would remain true to her. “Wait!” he suddenly realized. He turned his gaze to the Sunset King. “You said she was under no enchantment! How can you prove that? How can you possibly prove that Vasilisa speaks of her own accord? How do I know that this is not one more trick?”
Before the King could speak, the princess said in the same cool voice. “He can’t. He doesn’t need to. You won’t need proof. I am going to kill you.”