Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 194

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Different

“The herdsmen are now making a mockery of us,” complained Vasilisa Kirbitievna’s maid. The princess only eyed her servant and gave no response. The maid held up her pail of milk as proof. “I went to get the last of the goat’s milk for your bath and one of them threw a ring into my pail!”

The princess waved her hand in dismissal. “Leave the milk. I will finish straining it myself.”

“But your bath…”

“I will take care of it. Leave the things here.”

The maid had waited on her share of finicky nobility. Most of them had one quirk or another that needed attention. Drawing a bath of goat milk hardly even counted as extraordinary. Extravagant, yes, absolutely and no question about it, but everyone was convinced that the milk helped clarify the skin and make it practically glow. They claimed that their skin felt softer, too. The maid understood. Her own skin was worn and rough with work, though she kept her hands as clean and spotless as possible. Lords and ladies didn’t like looking at stained hands.

Soft and white and glowing. Whether skin or freshly cleaned linen, those three words suggested newness, the state of being untouched, and precious. Precious because of being untouched for that matter. It wasn’t only the ladies who liked that look. The lords did as well. No one wanted to appear as though they worked. Indeed, they didn’t work, so the milk bath was mostly confirmation of such. No, they ruled, not worked. The maid didn’t begrudge them their baths because ruling was important and someone had to do it. She never considered the fact of her birth as a matter of luck, though she did know she was fortunate to have landed her position, thanks to a good friend of her father’s sister who put in a kind word on her behalf. The fact of her birth was such that her family often supplied staff to Oleg Borodin, who ruled over these parts as a vassal to Deathless Koschey. Another family, even lower-born than hers, would never have had the opportunity to so much as see inside the palace walls. Life changed very slowly for the maid and her family. All was as it had ever been so long as she had ever known and, from what she knew from talking to her mother and her grandmother, as long as they had ever known.

That was true until the arrival of Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna. Not only had she simply appeared one day, everyone was under strict instructions to treat her as though she were a visiting queen. “Koschey himself brought her,” the servants whispered among themselves belowstairs, where the nobility could not hear them. “Did you see him?” “Not I, no.”

Deathless Koschey was a legend in his own lands, never seen, always discussed. It wasn’t the first time the servants had attributed some unearthly arrival to him. That wasn’t what made things different.

The boisterous shepherds? Also no. They were rude men from a rude background and they behaved exactly as she expected they would, rudely.

What was different was Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna herself, who took no slight at the shepherd’s behavior, not on this day nor on any other. Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna, who bathed herself and accepted no help. Vasilisa Kirbitievna, who strained her own milk for her own bath.

That was work. That was something lords and ladies never did. That was something different.

Another servant interrupted the maid’s reverie. “The princess is calling for you.”

She didn’t know how she felt about different.

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