Telling Tales 198
Revelations of Various, But Mostly Small, Magnitudes
“Water, wash no more, water,” said Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna before the shepherd had finished speaking.
The maid felt herself thrown about as if she were a stringed puppet. Of their own accord, her hands lifted at the shepherd’s words and her feet began to move forward. The princess seemed to have stopped whatever he had begun. Confusion and fear rose in her heart in equal measure but she could not bring herself to speak.
“Well, well,” said the shepherd. “Deathless Koschey does hedge his bets after all, doesn’t he? Smart leadership, subservient and intelligent servants, and a curse besides to make sure that everyone stays exactly where they belong.”
A curse? wondered the maid. Is that what happened to me? She wracked her mind for the words, what it was that they’d said that made her jump so, but for the life of her she could not think of them.
“There may be more to it than that,” said the shepherd-who-was-noble in his quiet and dignified voice. Now that there was no need to mask himself, he seemed to have lost the sour expression that brought down his face. The princess and the talkative shepherd-who-was-not-a-shepherd looked at him to continue. He looked at the maid. Now that she knew he was nobility, she felt as though his gaze had physical weight and she found herself dropping her eyes to the floor. “Have you ever met Koschey in your life?” he asked her.
She shook her head, still unable to speak.
Princess Vasilisa Kirbitievna scoffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. You waited on us both the night that Deathless Koschey brought me here to his palace.”
The maid had nothing to say to this. Not only was it palpably untrue, but the princess was reverting to her brusque self. She had not been an unkind mistress, but nor was she particularly friendly.
“Can you speak?” said the noble man to her.
“Then say something,” said the rude man with a jovial smile. He slipped next to her and nudged her in the side. While she found his behavior uncommonly rough and uncouth before this lord and lady, she knew that he would have fit right in with the lower servants elsewhere in the palace. She was used to men such as him in general, simply not in front of their betters. “It’s okay. They don’t bite.”
“I don’t know how to address him,” she whispered back.
“Ivan,” he said.
“I can’t call him by his Christian name!” she exclaimed, somewhere between a gasp and a hiss.
“Why not? I do!”
Of course, you do! she thought.
“You should be kinder and more comforting,” said the lordly man Ivan, but his remonstrance was neither a command nor a lecture, but a chide as between friends. To her, he went on, “This is Bulat next to you. He is a soldier and my able companion. I am Prince Ivan, Tsar Pyotr’s youngest son.”
“Highness,” the maid said with a shudder as she dropped a quick curtsy. A prince above all! A prince, here to challenge Koschey!
“You were saying something about a curse…” said the princess. The maid could practically hear the impatience in her voice. She wondered if Prince Ivan and the churlish Bulat could also hear it – or rather, how they could not hear it in the princess’s commanding voice.
“Another friend of mine served under Koschey,” Prince Ivan began.
“You never told me that!” interrupted Bulat. “Ow! She pinched me!” he pointed at the maid.
“That’s because you should be quiet and let the prince speak,” lectured Vasilisa Kirbitievna.