Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 162



Favors for Koschey from Two Generous Men

The guard had never been more confused in his life. The children were starting to creep forward again, though they were more curious about the rider than the prisoner, as they’d heard the title “prince” being batted around. The guard didn’t know this, however, and was not about to let the children abuse Bulat in front of Prince Ivan. Furthermore, he was having trouble believing that the prince wasn’t properly devastated by the news that Koschey the Deathless himself was behind it all. Even the village was depressed by that! And on top of that, as if it weren’t enough, the prisoner Bulat, who’d been appropriately depressed before, was now trying to say that Ivan shouldn’t rescue him at all.

No, this was counter to the way the world was supposed to run and it was no great surprise that the guard was having a difficult time with it.

“Who’s in charge here?” asked Prince Ivan. “Me or him?”

The guard cleared his throat. The bag of silver coins in his hands felt very, very heavy. “Technically, sir, I am. No offense. I mean, there’s the mayor. And you’re a prince. Of course, you are. But when it comes to prisoners, I am. My job is very clear on that point. Everyone knows it.”

“Then count out fifty silver coins.”

“I said, don’t do it,” warned the soldier.

“This is a new situation for me,” confessed the guard. “How about I count out fifty coins very slowly but don’t take them? The two of you can come to some sort of agreement.” He’d once stood over an incredibly violent man who shook the stocks and rattled his chains with such ferocity that the children wouldn’t come within spitting distance of him. No one was likely to have considered freeing that man. If he was so violent as a prisoner, what on earth would he have been like unbound? But this man Bulat, could he possibly turn violent only once freed? It was not a situation that the guard had imagined before. Outward appearances did not follow inner lives by any means, but this was so unexpected he found himself reaching for the simplest of truths. The prince and the soldier were already in conversation, so the guard stepped to the side and began to count coins. One. Two. Three. Four.

Meanwhile, Ivan squatted before the soldier. “What’s this all about, then?”

“I can’t let you lose Vasilisa,” the man said.

“But I don’t have her.” Ivan blinked his eyes in surprise.

Now it was the soldier’s turn to be shocked. “How can that be?”

Ivan laughed, then sighed. “I see, of course. We haven’t seen each other in a great deal of time and a great deal has happened. Let me simply say for now that I am unmarried and I am seeking Princess Vasilisa who is held captive by Koschey the Deathless. Who better to help me than yourself?”

The soldier put all of these words in order with all of the things he already knew. His eyes narrowed. “This is sounding rather familiar.”

“I thought it might.”

“That doesn’t solve the problem of having Koschey come after her once we’ve saved her. Assuming we do save her.”

“There will be nothing for him to do and no one to save unless we act first. Think of the favor we’re doing the old sorcerer, keeping his mind and body active.”

“It would be generous of us,” the soldier agreed.

“Excellent!” declared the prince. “Guard? Free this man.”

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