Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 163

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One Too Many Coincidences

The guard couldn’t believe that he was hearing these two men say what they appeared to be saying. “You’re going to flaunt this action to Koschey?” was what he wanted to say, but it came out, “But… but… you’re… Koschey!”

Ivan patted the guard on the arm. “There, there,” he said.

“If we’re going to do this and tempt fate once and for all, perhaps you could speed up the unlocking part?” suggested the prisoner.

With shaking hands, the guard counted out the last of the fifty silver coins, leaving them in a sloppy pile next to some rotten vegetables. He pulled out the key for the stocks and set about opening the locks. “Bulat, you are free.” These words were yet another requirement.

The prince took in the scene as Bulat raised himself up, his body stiff and awkward. He looked at the untended coins, at the flummoxed guard, and his companion the soldier. “No need to worry about the silver?”

“No one would steal from Koschey.”

“You’ve never freed someone before, I take it.”

“First time for everything,” chimed in Bulat.

The guard agreed. “Nor do I expect to do so again. I admire your bravery, Prince Ivan, but what you are doing is nothing short of madness.”

*     *     *

“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” demanded Sergei. “You’re telling me that in the story you know about Bulat the Brave, Prince Ivan, that Prince Ivan in that story that you heard, he had a flying ship.”

Dmitri glowered. “It was a joke, is all! In the story I know, Ivan buys Bulat’s freedom and the story moves on. But why would he do that? And with the lot of you sitting around, it’s not as if I can leave a thread like that lying. It’s bad enough I’m stuck with your company for another night. I thought it would be funny to tie the old liar’s words in, nothing more.” There was nothing about Dmitri’s words or demeanor that suggested he was trying to tell a joke, but the other merchants were not put off. They knew his ways.

Sergei was not going to let the matter drop and all too soon he and Dmitri were yelling at each as though a month’s profits were at stake. Yevgeny let them go. They’d wear themselves out soon enough in the short term, but they could end up at each other’s throats all evening. That wouldn’t make for a pleasant night at all. To the handful of other men, he said, “I’ll tell you how Bulat ended up in the stocks in the first place, though I should say, in case Sergei overhears and decides to get picky again, that I don’t know that these stories are one and the same. I know how a man dealing with Koschey ended up imprisoned. The way I heard it, Bulat was the name of the fellow, but it’s just as possible there are many Bulats, the same way there are many Ivans. Agreed?”

They did.

*     *     *

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