Telling Tales 195
It Wasn’t Me
She made her way down from the princess’s quarters, through the kitchen, beyond the yard and the walls, through the town, and down to the fields. “Different,” she repeated to herself. Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna was unlike any lady the maid had ever served.
“You’re back,” called the thicker of the two herdsmen. His voice was at once both jovial and mocking, though not unkind. “Did you tell on us?”
“We’re not children and this isn’t a game,” she scolded him as though he were but a boy and not a grown man. His companion, the less rough one, kept his mouth shut as he nearly always did. It wasn’t unusual for such men to be silent, but there was an attentiveness to this one’s glance that gave her pause. She pointed at the burlier man. Not burly in particular, but more so than the other. “My lady demands to see you.”
“Me?” The shepherd was all innocence.
“That is what I said.”
“But it was his idea!” He pointed at his companion who scowled but did not deny the accusation.
The maid threw her hands up in frustration. How was it possible that her mistress could have anticipated the men’s response? “Then you are both to accompany me,” she said, mimicking her lady’s words exactly as the princess had drilled them with her.
“I told you she wouldn’t be amused,” said the first shepherd to the quiet second, sounding a great deal like an older brother. “I said, I told you, I said that she wouldn’t find it funny. That milk is for her bath, I said, they’re going to have strain it a second time now on account of you. That’s extra work. Do you like extra work? I never hear you talking about when we have to do another go-round with the sheep or the shears or the cleaning or the cooking on the trail, and yet somehow you get it into your head that other people are going to enjoy some extra time.”
He would have gone on, but the maid interrupted. “It’s worse than that, sirrah. The lady herself strained the milk.”
The shepherd was aghast. He stopped in the street to stare at his fellow. “The lady herself. The lady. Herself. That does it. That tears it, my man. This time it’s one joke too far and now we’re both for it. You remember what happened the last time you brought a lady down to our level.”
The maid blanched at the thought. “You’ve done this before?”
The shepherd threw one hand against his own chest, eyes wide. “I? I? I? Not I, good maid, never I. My companion, however, is too mirthful by half, too full of cheery ideas and jests. Why, look at him!”
She glanced the second shepherd’s way. He favored her with a smile that was more sour than mirthful.
The first shepherd sighed, a deep, heartfelt sound. “It’s my curse to be drawn in with those of dubious humor. There was this goatherd I knew..”
He talked the maid’s ear off all the way from the edge of town back to the princess’s quarters and all the time the second shepherd kept silent. She could not have been more surprised when Vasilisa Kirbitievna greeted them at her own door. “Good day, Bulat the Brave. Good day, Ivan. How have you come here?” And to her maid, she said, “Tell the staff that Deathless Koschey arrives tonight.”