Telling Tales 106
That’s a Good One
If Ivan had any feeling about Vasilisa’s threat beyond shock, it was the very mild (and distant) satisfaction that the Sunset King was equally nonplussed. “What?” demanded the sovereign before recovering his composure. “Princess, your jest is in poor taste.”
Vasilisa did not turn her face from Ivan’s but her words were for the Sunset King alone. “You forget, Highness, that under my enchantment I must tell the truth. Here it is. I do not love Prince Ivan as a wife loves a husband. I will kill him.”
The comfort that Ivan drew from Vasilisa’s clarification of love (or lack of love) was offset by the insistence of his murder. Clearly, however, the man in the chair was not comforted at all. “I knew she was enchanted!” said Ivan. If he was going to die, he could at least die being right about something important. For some reason, that small battle felt like the mildest of vindications.
“Your father and I do not wish you to kill anyone,” said the King. His voice growled and grumbled and the wood in the room, every surface from walls to floor to table to chairs, seemed to vibrate with its force. “I will not have my son married to a murderess.”
The princess arched one eyebrow. Normally, Ivan would have been more wary of the look, seeing as it was still directed toward him. However, since the princess was still talking to the King, he wasn’t sure what her intent was. “There is more than one solution to that problem.”
The Sunset King laid one enormous hand on Vasilisa’s arm as he said, “There are always many solutions, but among our many options, there are always better and worse choices.”
Ivan saw Vasilisa stiffen and shiver at the King’s touch as though possessed of a sudden chill, although the air in the banquet hall was pleasant and comfortable. Her eyes, though still directed toward Ivan, lost their focus. Her mouth twitched, trying to speak but unable to open. Her throat convulsed with trapped words. The words of the wolf rang in his ears. “Excuse me,” he started.
“Not now,” snapped the King.
“Where is the heart of Koschey the Deathless?”
The King dropped both hands to the table and directed all of his attention and displeasure toward Ivan, which, it turned out, were considerable. “What did you say?” His face was turning a dangerous shade of red.
“Ah. Well. I was just wondering, you know, simple question I thought really, if you happened to know where the heart of Koschey the Deathless was. Ahem.” Ivan wasn’t sure why he found the man’s stare so disconcerting but the truth was he did. “So. Do you? Know, I mean?”
The Sunset King looked around the room, a measured and painstaking examination of nooks and crannies that only he could see. “Someone told you to say that. Who was it?”
Ivan cleared his throat. “I already know, you know. Bit of a quiz, really. Or a joke. Maybe not even a very good one, now that I think about it.”
The King’s eye sockets seemed to grow blacker and deeper. “Your gifts are neither with lying nor with telling jokes.” He followed Ivan’s nervous eyes. “The wolf?” The mounted head sat as unmoving as ever. “Curious. Tell me, Prince Ivan, speaking of jokes, have you heard the one about the prince who walked into a bar? It pierced his chest and his heart and killed him dead.”
“Ah, no. That’s a new one,” said Ivan.
“I know a good joke,” said Vasilisa.