Telling Tales 155
Dmitri didn’t like the way the bartender was looking at him and he liked even less her finger in his chest, but nor did he feel like he understood what was happening. He had done work last night? He remembered the stories and falling asleep. He’d arisen in his bed in the room he was letting from the couple. He didn’t feel exhausted. His hands… they might be cleaner than he’d expected, but not suspiciously so. Not too suspiciously, anyway.
When he was a boy, his parents told him to keep his sleepwalking to himself. They told him that people might not understand. They told him that if anyone thought he wasn’t in his right mind, that perhaps someone or something else was in his mind. They said that would be dangerous. As a man, he knew they were right. He’d used people’s prejudices and beliefs against them, in fact. He’d made good money in fair trades in which his opposite number gave too much away, or wanted to take advantage of a person they didn’t like. He’d seen the violence that could result. His strategy had always been to be meaner in attitude but fairer in dealings. He wanted respect and fear alike. Fear bred hostility, he knew, but fairness led to respect. If he supplied quality goods, or at least reasonable prices if he couldn’t bring the best material to bear, his customers and vendors understood.
He could have talked away everything the bartender said, everything up until she spoke those three words, “Wash, water, wash,” when his body seemed to have acted of its own accord. Were there other words? Could he be made to do things besides clean? Had other people used him in this manner?
It was the matter of seconds for Dmitri to think all of these things. The bartender held his gaze. Whatever she thought, she gave no sign to him.
“Thank you for your consideration of my predicament,” he finally said. It came out like a growl.
“When did it happen?”
He blinked. “When did what happen?”
She stared at him in with renewed hostility, then she relaxed once more. “Something has been done to you. I wouldn’t care to wager that you did it yourself or that someone else is responsible, but if you can be commanded, it stands to reason that it was in someone’s interest to command you. Were you especially disobedient?” She broke off as her eyes flickered beyond him. “Oh, for heaven’s sake.”
The bartender marched past Dmitri to the fireplace where the old storyteller was leaning even farther in toward the flames than he had before. The woman grabbed his chair and gave it a hard pull. Wood squeaked against wood and the man gave a startled yelp. His hands clutched at the chair as he righted himself.
“Your beard stinks,” she said.
Dmitri watched the old man’s hands pat at the singed hair on his face. The look of alarm faded, or perhaps he simply replaced it with another expression, pleasure or gratitude, something that would mask his fear. Dmitri also marked the bartender’s face, the softening around her eyes that almost immediately vanished. She was a careful one.
“Thank you,” said the man. His voice was jovial and light. If Dmitri hadn’t seen what had happened, the traveler nearly falling face first into the fire, he never would have had any idea that anything had been amiss. “Is there any work I can do to assist you?”
The bartender rapped her knuckles against the mysterious bottle in his jacket. “We still have a bet.”