Telling Tales 113
“I know this story!” interrupted Sergei. “It’s those same boys! Nikolai and Sasha? I never heard their names, but it makes sense, doesn’t it, losing things the way he did? And cursed by Koschey? Well, that explains it all! It explains just about everything! How about I take over from here?” Sergei’s eyes were small and bright, showing a more generous mix of spirit and sleep than did Yevgeny’s, for example. Dmitri, for his part, snored gently into his arms where they cradled his head on the bar.
Yevgeny roused himself from his dropping head. “Why should you take over here? What’s gotten into you? Why can’t you simply let the story go on? The man,” and Yevgeny waved in the general direction of where he last remembered the old traveler to be, “obviously knows his business. Let him talk.”
The bartender looked at her husband and he gave her a small gesture, with which she evidently agreed.
“Let him talk?” said Sergei with great enthusiasm. “He’s dragging! The man needs a break!”
“We all need a break. Perhaps it’s time for us all to go to bed,” countered his friend.
“And leave these bottles open and unfinished?” scoffed Sergei. Just then, the bartender slid a low, wide glass into his hand. He nodded his thanks and swallowed the contents in one quick gulp. “Are you not a Russian?”
Yevgeny took no insult at the slurred slight. “My nationality does not depend on my stamina. I am Russian by my mother and my father, which is the same reason I am more clever and patient than you, my friend.”
“I’ve made more money than you in a go, you know.”
“And you’ve lost more as well, and that more often than not. If you took more care and more time – ”
“Time!” yelled Sergei, and Dmitri stirred but slept on. “We’re running out of time! It’s nearly dawn!”
“And what happens at dawn?”
“We go our separate ways! What happens to the stories then, eh? Can’t answer that, can you? This is a fellowship! This is an opportunity? You would that we defer our dreams? That we leave stories untold? What is our duty? Bah! Coward. Bartender!” He waved his empty glass at her.
“I’ll make you a bet,” the bartender said. The two merchants tried to raise their eyebrows in the manner of the described tsarevna Vasilisa. They were not very successful. “Lay your heads down on the bar for one full minute, no talking, eyes shut, and the next round for you two is on the house.”
The merchants laughed joyously at the unexpected largesse and lay their heads down. Within twenty-five seconds, they were both snoring and much less quietly than Dmitri. The innkeeper caught his wife’s attention and pointed at the table where the old traveler also slept, his head rolling back against his high-backed chair.
Together, the couple went to the back door in the kitchen and looked out on to the dawn’s light. “Today will be a hard day with no sleep,” he said.
“Better a hard day than a poor one,” she said.
“So long as there is time to ourselves,” he added, and they leaned into one another, shoulder to shoulder, hands on each other’s backs, looking into the gray-white of the morning snow storm.
“Not that there will be today,” she laughed. “We should rest while we can.”
“You first,” he insisted. She did not fight as he lay her down. His hands ran across her back, across the scars that made her flesh feel like bark. “Sleep well,” he said.