Telling Tales 108
A Common Reaction to Some Kinds of Jokes
The tsar’s face was turning a marvelous shade of purple. Ivan was sure that Entendtout or Juleidah or Kou Ke could have come up with a name that did justice not only to the color but also to the way it shifted across his cheeks. “I can tell from your reaction that you’re no more of a fan of such stories and puns than the Sunset King. You should have seen him. You think you’re upset?”
Tsar Pyotr would have yelled. He would have imagined a spell to rend the very flesh from Ivan’s bones. At the very least, he would have had his soldiers run the young man through. The presence of the wolf was enough to council patience. He was certain that she had been growing throughout the prince’s narration. Even seated next to the prince, her head hunkered low, eyes flicking between the food her master ate and at her captive humans, the tsar included, her shoulder seemed as high as the seated prince’s head. “Where is my daughter?” he growled at last.
“Ah, now,” said Ivan with a gulp of wine, “that’s a separate question altogether, and not one I’m inclined to investigate. She didn’t invite me, you see. As much as I do and will always love your daughter, we are no longer betrothed, and as a couple that has recently renounced their vows and holds upon one another, we are taking some time to accustom ourselves to our newly platonic state. I believe your peasants refer to it as ‘taking a break.’ ”
“You have abandoned your duties and responsibilities! I will inform your father at once and he shall disown you or there will be war between our kingdoms.”
Ivan stood and stretched. “You’re welcome to try, but you haven’t even heard the good bit yet. It turns out that the Sunset King loathes puns and plays on words. When your daughter finished her story, he swung to her and said, ‘What?!’ Just like that. ‘What?!’ Hmm, maybe it was more, ‘What!?’ No, I’m nitpicking. The first. Anyway, he said it again and I assumed he was dumbfounded. Then a third time. And a fourth. It turns out that your daughter is no mean enchantress herself and trapped him in a loop in which he hears that story, demands ‘What?!’ and then hears the story again.” The wolf growled at him, Ivan patted her side, and he jumped up on her back. She was as big as a horse. “Clever trick. There’s a way out for him, of course, she told me that there’s always a loophole. Same way there is for you.”
“WHAT?” the tsar demanded.
“Yes! That’s exactly how the Sunset King said it. Well done! And you weren’t even there. Between us we decided that you should have fair warning of how we’d tricked you, me distracting you while she cast the spell. It’s more warning than you ever gave to any of us. Best of luck to you.” With that, the wolf leapt over the table and directly at – no, over – the tsar and his wife and disappeared through the door with a crash.
“Guards!” bellowed the tsar. There was, however, no sign of the guards, who must have fled when the wolf jumped. There was also no sign of the tsarina next to him. There was no food on the table. The door was broken on its hinges and beyond the hall was empty. “Guards! Guards!” It was not just the room and the hall. He was alone in an empty castle that he could never leave. “Vasilisa!”