Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 183

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Observations, Background, Context, and Action

Tsar Kirbit was not a man accustomed to being disobeyed, which is not the same thing as saying that he had never been crossed before, nor that he never would be in the future. On the contrary, there were several occasions upon which some first or second son had tried his luck at some first or second task. Naturally, they failed. There were even the odd third sons who came along. They did succeed and while they may have lived happily ever after with their brides in their kingdoms far away, Kirbit made sure that everyone else who remained suffered as a consequence.

That is a lesson that most tales don’t teach. The actions of heroes ripple out beyond their immediate goals and affect people who can’t defend themselves in unforeseen and unexpected ways. Kirbit wanted everyone to know what these ways would be. After that last third son made off with Kirbit’s prize bull, milky white, strong as an elephant, and enchanted besides, the king took his revenge upon his subjects, slow and heavy. “There is nothing I can do,” he explained with regret in his voice. “Without the magic of the bull, there will be more work for you all. The grain will have to be ground for flour by hand and the daylight will shrink more every day and the crops will fail.” And all was as he predicted and all of the townspeople suffered and altogether they decided that they had had more than enough of heroes and third sons.

All of this explains the tower in which the tsar’s daughter, Vasilisa Kirbitievna, resided. It was tall, yes, the way that all towers should be. There was a single high window on its top floor, yes, suggesting a kind of defense that said “impenetrable” or “unassailable,” depending on how the sun hit the stones, worn smooth under wind and weather so as to prevent anyone climbing up it. At its very peak, a glass cupola reflected the sun and gleamed, diamond-like. These were the features of the tower that everyone would have expected, however, and not those that needed any kind of explanation.

No, the fact was that where these were the typical forbidding-tower aspects that one might expect a vicious tyrant like Kirbit to install, a visitor to the town would discover upon closer inspection that there were other, smaller windows perforating the outside of the tower but disguised, so that from a distance they did not even seem to be there. In other words, the interior of the tower would have been filled with light and fresh air. Furthermore, at the base of the tower was a wide doorway. Today, as on most days, the doors were flung wide open, and today, as most days, Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna sat in front of the tower in the shadow of a parasol. There were no guards nearby to protect her and the people of the town gave her a respectable distance, for the consequences of disturbing the princess unbidden were grave indeed.

It was upon this scene that the soldier Bulat came. He crossed the distance between the streets and the tower and all who looked on him felt no awe nor apprehension. Instead, they clutched their tools more firmly, prepared for the eventuality of another hero.

If Bulat noticed their actions, he gave them no sign.

He bowed low, stood straight, and looked the princess in the eye.

“Good day, Vasilisa Kirbitievna! Prince Ivan sends you his greetings.”

If the woman before him noticed his actions, she gave him no sign.

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