Telling Tales 9
The Old Liar
“And that’s how I freed the prince,” said the old traveler. His bottle was long since tucked away into his bag, which in turn had vanished under his threadbare overcoat.
The woman behind the bar poured a glass of vodka for the man seated in front of her. She shook the bottle, urging out every last drop. PLUNK. The last drop fell. The last drop of the last bottle and here they were in the middle of a storm with no way to get more and a house full of merchants on their way to the tsar’s court. If the snow continued to fall, and it showed no signs of stopping, the merchants might be stuck for another night, another two or three. It is a well known fact that men who drink too much are excitable, and that excitement can lead to boasting, and boasting to challenges, and violence. The woman knew as well that those men, the ones who fought, could often be persuaded to keep drinking. They moved past anger and to sleep, for vodka has that property that it livens the spirit yet dulls the brain. She knew that those same men, the angry ones, should they have no vodka at all, she knew that they became angry sometimes anyway. And then there was no way to calm them down.
The man on the stool in front of her, attending to the traveler’s story, was one such man. She wondered how she would be able to keep him from his rage once it began, and what the state of her inn would be in its aftermath. Anger, she knew better than her husband, was infectious and traveled from person to person with the speed of thoughts and words.
“I don’t believe you!” said the man, pointing a finger at the traveler. “I served under Tsarevitch Ivan, grandson of Tsar Pyotr, and that never happened to him. He was never a dragon at all. You’re a liar, old man.”
“How many Tsar Pyotrs do you know of?” countered the traveler.
The not-yet-angry man stopped, expecting outrage but not a question. “Well…”
“There’s Tsar Pyotr here, of course, but he has no children as of yet,” began the traveler.
“Tsar Pytor of the kingdom beyond the mountains,” suggested the woman behind the bar.
“Tsar Pyotr who rules by the Caspian Sea,” said another merchant, taking a seat by the not-yet-angry man. And soon there more and more Tsar Pyotrs (or perhaps is “Tsars Pyotr”?) and all the merchants were arguing.
“You see?” interrupted the traveler before the argument could become a fight. “And have you ever known a tsarevitch who was not Prince Ivan?”
That stopped them. Indeed, all princes worth the name were always, ever, Ivan. “Besides,” said the second man, “I know that game, the one where he beat the dragon. My grandfather taught me that game. But if this story is as old as you are,” he went on, raising his own accusing finger, “that Prince Ivan should be tsar himself, and the tsar there is Pyotr.”
The traveler smiled. “Then you are testing me, for we both know that Prince Ivan was the youngest of three brothers, and his eldest brother, Pyotr, now sits on the throne.” The merchants roared with laughter.
The woman behind the bar wiped her relief into the shiny surface of the wood under her hands, for she saw that the traveler might keep these angry men at bay.
“What happened, next, then, old liar?” demanded the first man. “Go on. Make me believe you.”
“Very well. Prince Ivan, as you may expect, was devastated…”