Telling Tales 150
“Do you think we ought to pull him back?” asked Dmitri. Doubt shaded his voice and even the bartender Irina recognized his concern, as unfamiliar apparently to Dmitri himself as it sounded to her. The subject of his words, the old storyteller Bulat, was sitting in one of the tall-backed wooden chairs and was leaning rather close in toward the fire. He had held that pose, nearly unmoving, for the past several hours. “Nearly” unmoving because it seemed to her and her husband that, if anything, he was inching ever closer.
“If you can smell his beard burning, feel free to push him over,” she said.
The merchant snorted and rubbed the bristles on his chin. Several days without shaving was transforming his face, and while his moustache was as rich as ever, its magnificence was nevertheless dimming as his cheeks took on a darker and darker color. Dmitri may have been a irascible man, but he was a reasonably successful trader, due in no small part to the fact that he was a reasonably accurate judge of character. Still and all, it didn’t take a genius to observe that something had occurred between these two sometime during the day. He lingered next to the old man and tilted his head down when he saw the traveler’s lips moving slightly.
“Something wrong?” Irina asked.
Dmitri shook his head. “Can’t tell. Seems like a waking dream, so far as I can tell. Staring straight ahead. Not blinking.” He considered. “Could be possessed. Got anything for that?” he joked.
His humor, the bartender thought, was as black as his hair. She didn’t like the thought of possession any more than she did the joke. It was possible – anything was possible – but there were so many other strange things about the old man that it didn’t seem like possession would be the first problem. Instead, she settled on narrowing her eyes in quiet disapproval and gave the counter one more wipe down. “Dinner will be ready within the hour,” she said to change the topic. “I haven’t seen any of your friends yet.”
“If they’re not down, I’ll do my best to eat their share,” laughed the man.
Most people laughing struck Irina as being rather joyful, and in spite of her foul mood, courtesy of Bulat, she noted that Dmitri’s laughter was not the joyous sort. Rather, it kept his same harsh edge. It was a scornful laugh, one that might relish another’s misfortune. Although her opinion of the merchant had begun to turn positive by the end of the evening, she found herself once again disliking him. “I’m sure that would be more entertaining for you than it would for me and my husband.”
The merchant’s mouth curled in what might have been a sneer. “You’re a bit more forward than most innkeepers I’ve met. Usually you lot know how to treat your betters with respect.”
Irina did not lose her composure. She was used to merchants treating her and her husband with disdain. It was expected, that and even worse, particularly if it was a noble who happened to be passing through. Though their inn was not one of the best, it was one of the few spots on this road where someone could choose to rest safely. “It may be that having seen your behavior last evening, I’m less inclined to take you and your company at face value.”
Now it was Dmitri’s turn to narrow his eyes. “My behavior?”
Irina raised a single eyebrow and kept working. “Don’t you remember?”