Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales – Chapter 12

How to Enrage a Sorcerer

“That’s just the wolf’s version,” sneered Dmitri. Everyone in the bar turned to look at the merchant, who, in spite of the levity of the company, had managed to retain his unpleasant demeanor. It should be said that his interruption of the old traveler managed to sour everyone else’s mood as well, as the story had been proceeding pleasantly apace. The fact that the rest of the room was now annoyed seemed to be the only bright spot on his horizon. “You make it sound as though your Sunset King has his own version. Also,” he added, ” ‘Sunset Kingdom’ is a terrible name. It doesn’t sound dangerous at all.”

The old traveler refused to be frustrated by the merchant. “Of course the Sunset King has his own version. How could he not? Are we not each the heroes of our own stories? I heard this tale straight from Ivan himself. You may choose not to believe his words, or not to believe the wolf’s, but I am reporting to you exactly their words as Ivan told me. There may indeed be untruths here, and I may indeed be responsible for propagating them, but if that is the case, I do so in ignorance and good conscience. I am not, after all, telling you how to invest your money, am I? Where is the harm in sharing one another’s company?”

The blustery Sergei burst out, “I can imagine a great deal of harm in sharing the company you describe of prince Ivan’s! They sound like savages, to a one!”

Yevgeny clapped him on the shoulder. “Even the magnificent servant?”

“Perhaps not him,” Sergei allowed. “But I have met hunters in the far north along the lines of that Ipik fellow, however you say his name, and they are dangerous. Vicious!”

To everyone’s surprise, Dmitri snorted his derision. “Ipiktokiyakovik! Aren’t you paying any attention at all? Besides, you’re hardly a safe fellow yourself. I’m sure you’ve cheated your ‘fair share’ of rude hunters in your time.”

“HA!” bellowed Yevgeny. “Our Dmitri made a pun! Innkeeper! Get your oven going! In honor and recognition of sour old Dmitri making a joke, I will contribute the spitted pig I have on my cart. Perhaps a little more food is what he needs to cheer up, hmm? Come on, dour man!” He pulled a reluctant Dmitri to his feet. “Help me. You might as well work for your meal.”

The two men exited, one pulling the other, while the latter was heard to say, “I’m fine working for my meal! It’s everybody else’s meal I don’t want to have to work for!”

The barkeeper looked at her husband with one raised eyebrow. They knew well enough how to communicate in quiet, small gestures so that between them they could talk without alerting a houseful of guests. In this case, it was enough to say that one of them ought to get the fire going in the hearth. It would be hours before the pig was ready to eat, and what else did they have in the larder that could be brought out? The stories and the vodka had done their work and the mood of the room was raucous and mostly pleasant, but it never did to assume that everything would end well. The innkeeper noted his wife’s work at the bar, serving drinks with a slow and steady hand, designed to keep anyone from getting drunker than their friends could care for. He went back to the kitchen, even as the old traveler began the next part of his tale.

* * *

According to the great gray wolf, prince Ivan had amply demonstrated he did not fear death. She also noted that there was a great deal more that could befall someone, especially facing a sorcerer. “And in this case, there are two of them.” Ivan remained suspicious that anything else could draw fear out of him and the wolf had to emphasize that it wasn’t fear that would be the problem. “What if they transform you?”

Ivan replied, rather breezily than was absolutely necessary, “My future father-in-law turned me into a dragon already.”

Beyond them, it looked as though they were losing ground against the castle, which was growing in length faster than the wolf could run. Their perspective on the ball showed them most of the dance again, princes and princesses dancing in broad, twirling circles. “I believe his current plan is to make you frog. You’ll be less threatening, less noticeable, and less likely to have someone strip the skin off of you so that you regain your body.”

“How do you know about that?”

Instead of answering, the wolf said, “Tsar Pyotr will demand proof of where you have been.”

“What about my boots made of copper and brass? And my grass-steel sword?”

“Without a token from this realm of gold, the Sunset Kingdom’s core, he will insist that you have not gained entry to the castle and that you have not fulfilled the spirit of your task. We must gain entry into the castle itself.”

What followed was an extended discussion over the wisdom of gaining a token to satisfy the tsar versus breaking the enchantment should the opportunity present itself. “There is the danger that you would injure the components of the spell,” said the wolf, “by which I mean, your princess and her sisters.”

That was about the only thing the wolf might have said to stop Ivan in his tracks. He hemmed and hawed. “How do we get into the castle, anyway?” he finally asked. Her affirmation that this was an excellent question made him feel remarkably accomplished, although he resented that it was a wolf that was saying nice things to him. Even a talking wolf.

“I’m afraid the castle is enchanted to take advantage of my speed on the ground. The faster I run, the less distance I cover.”

“Could you jump again?”

“Hold on,” she said, and Ivan thought she might have chuckled. He barely had time to throw his arms around the wolf’s neck when she leapt from the ground and flew through the air. “A good idea, tsarevitch.” They had gained great proximity to the castle, but now it fled from them at an even faster rate. “I will have to jump many times. Do not let go, no matter what you hear or see.”

Ivan thought that his title “tsarevitch” usually sounded quite noble, but that he had a few aunts and one grandmother from whom the word always made him sound young and immature. The wolf was like them, especially one elderly aunt in particular. He wasn’t able to continue this thought as the ground fell away beneath them. The rising moon grew close and he heard the princes inside exclaim at the sight of them. The wolf jumped again and they were by the windows, their panes seeming to lift into the sky and the princesses oohed. A third jump and glass shattered around them and Ivan heard Vasilisa say his name as she looked from below.

She raised her hands in supplication. He let go of the wolf.

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, dark polished walnut gleaming with 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 whom 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!

“Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. You’re going to say that I’m a horrible man. You’re going to say that I’m killing my own children, my beloved boys, and that in the process I’m killing the daughters of your Tsar Pyotr, including the life of your beloved Vasilisa. Oh, yes, I’ve heard all of the accusations. It’s easy to criticize from the sidelines. It’s easy to point fingers and say, ‘if you’d only done this or that.’ I have advisors, you wouldn’t believe the things they say to get me to make some decision or another. As if one decision – ONE! – could make the difference in their lives or the lives of their servants. And it’s never enough, either, I’ll tell you that much. Make that decision one day, next thing you know your advisors have another crisis. Of course, a decision favoring one side always gets someone else up in arms. I swear, if I couldn’t have all of them dancing themselves to death in red-hot iron shoes, it wouldn’t even be worth it to be ruler.

“The fact of the matter is, I’m the one that’s dying. Those royal children up there dancing, you think it’s part of some enormous enchantment? Where on earth could you have heard an idea as palpably ridiculous as that? Think about it. What would the mechanism be? I’ve heard of immortality spells, who hasn’t? The most infamous involves bathing in the blood of virgins. Pretty sure that’s where all of those silly vampire legends come from. Doesn’t even work, anyway, so I hear. Anyway, immortality is for the healthy. Those spells only work when the body is sound, not like mine. You can’t see it, but I’m riddled with disease. I used to have your build, you know, but once the sickness got a hold of me, it started feeding on me from the inside out. It’s getting bigger, which makes me seem bigger, but the truth of the matter is that there’s less of me than ever. Immortality? Hah.

“You think you know what’s going on here. Let me guess. Your theory is that Vasilisa is enchanted. Her sisters are enchanted. Tsar Pyotr is an evil sorcerer. No. No. No. The reason Vasilisa has been acting more distantly with you – of course, I know she’s been acting more distantly with you, don’t be absurd, everyone knows – is because she doesn’t love you. I take it back. That’s probably not entirely fair. She loves and admires you, but not in the way that you want her to. All of your courage and determination to bring her back from the lands beyond oceans, beyond the thrice tenth kingdoms, those things have solidified in her what can only be called an undying amity and respect. However, the more she has grown to know you, the less she has grown to love you in the romantic sense. Her so-called enchantment is nothing more than a desire for distance without hurting you. Her sisters? Hah. What woman in her right mind would love those fools Arkady and Aleksey? They can barely tie their own doublets. Their father? He takes his daughters’ side and attempts to keep you from them. Why? Because, while he is, like you, ridiculously bound to his word, he is a good father and loves his daughters more than you.

“I have news for you, young prince. The world does not revolve around the things that you want.”

* * *

“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. Wasn’t that why I started this whole story?”

“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 doesn’t love me any more. 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 stronger.”

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?”

* * *

“I don’t expect you to take my word without proof,” pronounced the Sunset King. “I know the kinds of things that you’ve been through. Wait here and I’ll return with more than you’ll want, I expect.”

A noise behind Ivan caused him to look over, but he saw nothing and by the time he returned his gaze to the chair with the Sunset King, the other man was gone. Ivan investigated the chair and the floor beneath the chair and the wall too far away from the chair in case there were any hidden panels. Eventually he concluded that if any secret entrance hidden there was beyond his ability to discover. “Not that finding hidden things has been my specialty. Lengthy quests have really been where my strengths have lay.”

“Why didn’t you listen to me?” said the wolf. Ivan spun around, but nowhere around him could he see where the wolf might be. “Up here.”

Above him and halfway down one long wall, the mounted head of a gray wolf had turned to look at him. “What happened to you? Are you dead?” Ivan gaped up at the head, which definitely, absolutely, lacked the rest of its body. “I will wreck vengeance upon the Sunset King, no matter what he says about Vasilisa after this!”

The wolf barked a laugh. “For someone who takes the honor of his word so seriously, you are very generous with your oaths. I would recommend that you consider more fully your statements before throwing the weight of your conviction behind them. In this instance, however, you need not worry. This head is not mine and my body remains my own. I have merely borrowed it for the sake conversing with you. It has taken me some time to track you down.”

Ivan explained what had happened, how Vasilisa had waved at him, how he had leapt off, how he found himself here and talking with the Sunset King. “She has been more distant, increasingly so, the closer we returned to her home,” he confessed. “I had hoped it was simply her mood and that she would feel better once we had left again from her father’s realm.”

“If you had heeded my words and not let go, no matter what you saw, you would not now be in this predicament. As for the Sunset King, I have no doubt that his words contain some degree of truth, but it is equally certain that he is filled with lies.”

Ivan was torn. On the one hand, Vasilisa herself had told him that her father had turned him into the dragon. On the other, she had grown more distant. Then again, why should he trust a talking wolf? Except that the talking squirrel had been helpful. But one talking animal doesn’t mean that all talking animals are friendly and maybe the wolf had her own motivations. Besides which, the Sunset King had described so many things so perfectly.

The wolf growled. “A test, if you are reluctant, you foolish man. After the Sunset King has given you his evidence, nearly all of which I expect will be at least true enough, ask him where Koschey the Deathless keeps his heart. Ask him, and bear witness to the results yourself.”

The wolf head stopped moving and immediately seemed as unremarkable as all of the rest of the heads in the room – indeed, much less remarkable than many of them.

“Well,” said the Sunset King, “if you’re ready to take your hand from the mouth of that wolf head, we can begin.”

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 statelier. 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, 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.”

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 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.

 

* * *

Although Amelia loved her mother Florence very much, no one knew how to take the joy out of a game the way that she did. There was always some kind of limit – duration (“You’ve only got twenty minutes, honey!”), area (“Don’t leave the yard, now!”), or companions (“You know that Stephen has to look his best today, so don’t go trying to get him to come over!”). Amelia’s father said it wasn’t mean and that neither he nor his wife were trying to squelch their daughter’s life, but Amelia was no fool and she knew better.

Every day was a battle of wits between Amelia and her mother. If she could get outside before her mother knew where she was or what she was doing, then Florence couldn’t very well impose the latest arbitrary rule. Sometimes that meant trying to wake up before her mother or to escape from her bedroom window or leaving the house under another guise, a promise to do work, for example, that Amelia would do, and then simply not return so as to be able to play. “Amy,” her father said, for he shortened all their names, “there’s a lot of work for all of us. It’ll be easier on you and your mother if you’d just do as she says.”

Amelia was not the kind of girl who was going to “just do” as anyone said. She wanted reasons. Explanations. Rationalizations. Precedents. She argued her case with the skill of a lawyer and refused to leave any angle of discussion or disagreement uncovered. “Fly,” said her father to her mother, for that was his pet name for her, “why don’t you just let the girl enjoy the day? It’s beautiful, there’s sun…”

For her part, Florence protested that she loved fun and she loved for her daughter to have fun and she didn’t understand why she was always the villain in this story. She would describe all of the things that Amelia had recently done – today, yesterday, the day before yesterday, earlier in the week, over last weekend, and last week and last month. She made a good case, because her list was exhaustive. Amelia couldn’t deny any of the statements. If she were a lawyer, her mother was an accountant, adding up her daughter’s time in minute detail.

Both of them were equally frustrated with Amelia’s father, who refused to take sides with any consistency. Instead, he would argue both cases, pointing out this Monday why Amelia ought to listen to her mother because they had several guests coming over for dinner that night. The following Tuesday, though, he told Florence, “Amy was very good at dinner. Why don’t we let her go over to Stephen’s for the afternoon?” He masqueraded as an independent arbiter.

The game was up as far as Amelia was concerned the day she discovered her mother’s ledger. Tucked behind an open book of recipes on the counter in the kitchen was a lined notebook with horizontal and vertical marks dividing every page into even squares. One column read dates. The next days of the week. Then, chronologically through the day, every activity that Amelia had done, complete with the minute that she began and the second that she finished.

The confrontation that night was epic. Amelia knew that her mother was trying to stop her from crossing some magical threshold of enjoyment. Her mother accused Amelia of violating her trust.

“She can’t help it,” soothed her father. “It’s how she was brought up herself, with attention to detail. There’s nothing to it. Fly times when you’re having fun.”

* * *

The tsar’s face was bore a resemblance to the purple of an eggplant. 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 the beast had been growing throughout the prince’s narration. Even seated next to the prince, her head hung 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. 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. 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!”

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