Telling Tales 182
You Won’t Like It
Tsar Kirbit’s castle sat astride a hill, surrounded by a low wall. Below the wall was the village, also surrounded by a wall. Beyond that wall was a moat and on this side of the moat were squalid hovels and fertile fields. “Bit of a contradiction at first,” Bulat was saying, “looks impoverished and diseased, but that’s only true of where the people live. Kirbit keeps them so hungry that they’re too weak to rebel, but not so hungry that they feel they’ve got no other choice. Naturally, he doesn’t phrase it in those terms. He doesn’t even tax anyone, so they all feel fortunate to live where they do compared to cousins and uncles who live one or two tsardoms over. They may be in better circumstances in those places, but here each family is master of its own destiny. That’s the line that Kirbit feeds them, at any rate, and the people find it more nourishing than food. No. Everything is very expensive and very scarce, but what really cements his rule is the lottery. Every month, one person gets a feast. They can share if they want, but most people don’t, not past their family. Once a year, one person gets a house inside the wall. Same thing. They can share. Hardly any do. Good way to divide people. Only so much to share, you know?”
Ivan understood and he explained to the soldier about a batch of soup that he and his company had once made for an unpleasant town.
“So you made them share,” the soldier concluded.
“Only way for them to eat.”
“Wonder if it took afterwards,” he said. Outside the crop fields were the herders, angry men and women tending to fat, placid animals. Closer in toward town, angry men and women tilled fields. Angry guards stood at the gates. Angry merchants offered cheap wares for sale. “I haven’t met the Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna, and although she may not be as cruel as her father, there’s no reason to think that she’s any more pleasant than any other person here. Are you sure you want to rescue her?”
Ivan sighed. “It’s what princes do. Either that or take more dancing lessons. I’m not very good at dancing.”
“Okay,” agreed Bulat. “If you’re set, I’m set, just be warned that she might be poor company for us afterwards. Especially since we’ll have to rescue her twice.” He reminded Ivan of Koschey’s threat or curse or whatever it was that the evil sorcerer had arranged.
They stopped at an inn (a great deal like this one, only inside the walls of a town and run by altogether meaner people who would never in their lives offer even meager lodgings in exchange for anything less than coin) where Bulat told Ivan to order all manner of food and to have a feast prepared. “I’ll be going out and coming back, just be sure to give me a wing of whatever I ask for whenever I return.”
“I should go with you,” said Ivan.
“Someone has to order the food and someone has to pay for it,” pointed out the soldier.
Ivan protested. The soldier pointed out their agreement. “I did say you wouldn’t like it. And it’s only going to get worse.” With that warning, he left Ivan to the ordering of the feast and vanished into the crowded streets.