Telling Tales 156
“See anything interesting?” Dmitri grumbled at the old man.
The traveler had put away the evidence of his alarm, but he still heard laughter from the crackling flames. “There’s always something interesting.” He combed his fingers through the crispy ends of his beard and the smell of burnt hair invaded his nose. “A bit too interesting in some cases,” he confessed with a forced laugh. He watched the sour merchant seat himself at the wide table as the bartender disappeared into the kitchen. “They’re cooking in the back?” A pleasant aroma of roasting meat fought with the stronger, more immediate smell.
He could tell that Dmitri would once again be a tough nut to crack. It seemed the man approached all of life’s challenges with the same face. He hadn’t heard the words that the merchant and Irina had exchanged, but the spirit in the fire had explained the situation in vague terms, hopping from hearth to hearth with malicious delight to keep track of the unfolding drama. Not that he could explain any of that to Dmitri. “I must determine the best way to make my apologies to our host for my last story,” he began. He hoped a sort of confession might work.
“She’s come after me, I’ll have you know. What did I do?” Dmitri demanded. “You make her angry and I bear the results?”
“I’ll do what I can to soothe her.”
“Don’t do me any favors.”
The kitchen door opened and a girl made her way into the room. The two men eyed the interloper, one with ill humor, the other with curiosity. Without sparing them a glance, she went behind the bar where only the top half of her head was visible beyond the wood. “I suppose I should continue with Ivan’s story?”
Dmitri snorted. “How do you keep all of those foreign names straight? You repeated the one often enough, the sharp eyes fellow, I had it last night but I’ve lost it again.”
“I-pik-tok-i-ya-ko-vik. There are more complicated names.”
“Not to my ears.”
“There are people who struggle even with Vasilisa,” the old man said.
“That’s ridiculous! Vasilisa is a good, solid Russian name.”
“But if you’re not Russian it might seem more challenging.”
“If you’re not Russian, you can go -” The old man waved him a silent warning with a nod toward the girl. Dmitri scowled. “She’s heard it all before.”
“Just because she’s heard it doesn’t mean you have to say it.” The girl disappeared back through the door into the kitchen, leaving it ajar. “You could say it now?”
The merchant glared.
They sat in a less-than-companionable silence. Dmitri glowered and the old man fiddled with his old coat. “How’d you end up out here, anyway?” asked Dmitri. “We’re not near much of anything.”
“Of all the tales I know, that must be one of the least interesting. I don’t think I could even liven it up with lies,” laughed the traveler.
The kitchen door pushed open. “Bulat!” said the bartender. “I’ve got some heavy lifting. And don’t give me any line about a bad back or sore knees.”
“Bulat?” asked Dmitri, eyes narrowing.
The old man smiled as he rose. “An old name. A man I used to be when I was younger and sprier.”
He left the room.
Dmitri contemplated the fire, wondered what the man had seen there. The sound of footsteps on the stairs announced the arrival of Yevgeny, Sergei, and the others. “So there,” Dmitri said before they could so much as say hello, “you fellows know about Bulat the Brave?”