Telling Tales 161
When People Don’t Act the Way You Expect
(Except When They Do)
“Where have you been?” Prince Ivan demanded from the back of his horse.
The guard was dumbstruck, but only for a moment. “You know each other?”
The prince alit from the steed. “Do I know him? Do I know him?” he asked as he ran across the stones.
“We know each other,” filled in the prisoner with a sigh, “but it has been some time since we last met.”
Ivan knelt down so that the soldier could look into his face more easily. “What happened to you?”
“This and that,” said the soldier. “Most recently I’ve got myself into a bit of trouble, but it’s under control.”
The guard recovered enough from his surprise to snort in disbelief.
The soldier glanced at the guard. “Truly, Prince Ivan, the situation is not nearly as dire as it appears.”
Now the guard was shocked all over again. “Prince Ivan?”
Ivan waved his hands dismissively. “Not the one you’re thinking of. You’re thinking of the Ivan who fought the giants.”
“No,” said the guard. “Who is that?”
“Then you must be thinking of the Ivan who sought the legendary firebird.”
“The Ivan who met White Polyanin?”
Ivan furrowed his brow. He was running out of other Ivans.
“I was thinking of the Ivan with the flying ship. How many Prince Ivans are there?”
“Oh,” said Prince Ivan. “Um. Several, in fact, and that’s me. With the flying ship, I mean.”
“You have a flying ship?” asked the soldier. He craned his head, but all he could see was the gray mare snorting at the edge of the square.
“It’s a long story,” said Ivan. He tried to wave the guard away. “Speaking of long stories…”
“He’s not allowed to talk about how he got there,” said the guard. His words were facts but his voice was an apology.
“What do you mean, not allowed? Aren’t I a prince? I command you to release him!”
Now the guard’s face carried his regrets.
“Well, what about you? Don’t worry about this man. I won’t let him harm you. Tell me what happened.”
The soldier opened his mouth. No words came out.
“An enchantment!” swore Ivan. The horse snorted. “Wait a moment.” He eyed the guard. “You said my wife would be taken from me. How, exactly?”
The guard cleared his throat. “I don’t know the particulars of the enchantment in question.”
“Perhaps you could tell me the individual behind it?” Ivan’s hand twitched at the hilt of his dagger.
“Koschey the Deathless,” sighed the guard. This was the worst part. He’d heard about it but he’d never had to experience it, the moment when all hope gave out at the great sorcerer’s name. His predecessor warned him about this moment, when all light would die from a rescuer’s eye.
“Koschey the Deathless?” gasped Ivan.
Yes, thought the guard, here it was.
“Ha! Ha ha!” laughed Ivan.
The guard was fairly positive that this was not the light going out of someone’s eyes. There was nothing in Prince Ivan to suggest any kind of despair at all, as a matter of fact. But there he was, walking back to his horse. That was it, the guard realized, this must be a madness of despair. Hysterical laughter.
Quick as thought, Ivan grabbed a bag from the side of the horse and tossed it toward the guard. “Count out fifty silver coins and let’s be on with it. Ha!”
The guard looked at the prisoner, who, if anything didn’t seem nearly as happy as he should. “Ivan,” the man repeated, “no.”