Telling Tales 22
Truth and Stories
“And that’s how you died, I suppose you mean,” sneered the not-yet-angry man.
His neighbor laughed. “The old liar never said he was the soldier, Dmitri! You’re taking this all too literally. It’s a story, pure and simple.”
“It is a story, that is true,” agreed the traveler, seated on the stool by the door, where the wind could still be heard blowing and gusting, “but stories are rarely pure and they are never simple. They are living creatures in their own right. They travel from person to person, and we repeat them or they inspire new stories. Stories are promiscuous and joyous. They are hedonists and they have no shame. It is only we, the ones who carry them around like a disease, who are sometimes full of fear and dread and guilt at their contents. And because they are so contagious and suspect,” he nodded at the first man, “you are right to be suspicious.”
“Ha! You see!” proclaimed Dmitri to his friend. “He takes my side!”
“Except that your side is against his side,” the other merchant pointed out. To the traveler, he said, “You are against yourself?”
The old man smiled a tired smile and said, “I am not on this man’s side, nor am I on my side. I am on the side of the truth.”
“Is the truth so rushed?” asked the woman behind the bar. “Think of all that you didn’t tell us! The other queens’ stories – I can’t remember their names, they were so foreign to my ears.”
“Nuviya and Natanh,” offered the old man.
The woman nodded her thanks. “Yes, them. Then there were the flying squirrels -”
“Flying frogs. They were poisonous.”
“Yes, and the zombies and witches and the dragons.”
The old man shrugged. “I am tired and weary and it could be that I am forgetting the details, but it could also be that the truth has its rules and that stories have other ones. Those things happened , but they were adventures that happened in spite of our search for tsarevna Vasilisa, not because of it.”
“So you could tell those stories just as well,” queried a third merchant, broad of shoulder, broad of belly, red of cheek and nose, leaning against the bar.
“Of course I could,” said the man. “As surely as you could say what happened to you yesterday in your travels.”
The second merchant raised an eyebrow. “You’re saying that you are the soldier in your stories?”
“That’s it, exactly,” said Dmitri, “that’s what I was complaining about! It couldn’t be him, because that man is dead, and that makes you a liar!”
“I may be a liar,” admitted the man, “but it is true that these things happened and it is true that I died, but it was quick and relatively painless. I scarcely knew what had hit me.”
“Pah!” spat the third merchant. “It’s all lies, anyway, no matter what you say.”
The traveler inclined his head. “I will bet you the bottle in my coat against a case of the vodka you have in the stables that I can tell any of the stories we have discussed thus far.”
How did he know this man had vodka? wondered the innkeeper, from where he wiped a table clean. More of the men were gathering around the bar.
The other merchants roared with approving laughter and the portly red man scowled his agreement.
“The Silver Queen!” shouted the woman behind the bar. “Tell her story, if you know it.”
“As you wish,” said the traveler.