Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 168

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The Inevitable Conclusion

Behind the headwoman, the two guards could see the young mothers with infants. Behind them grandparents and whoever was sick. Beyond them, protective husbands, brothers, aunts, and mothers. At the edge, even the town’s derelicts staggered about. It was beginning to look as though it was in fact the whole town and not just most of it.

“Can you give us a moment?” asked Bulat. He would have liked to have been more subtle, but the raging wind demanded that he yell. The headwoman frowned. Bulat and his opposite stepped back into the partial shelter of the storehouse’s front. “We have to talk about this.”

“No, we don’t.”

“If you’re arguing for the sake of arguing again…”

“I would never!” declared the guard. He was not very convincing.

“There’s nothing in Koschey’s rules about me stabbing you with a knife,” warned Bulat.

The other man considered this and realized two things. Bulat was right and Bulat had a knife. He had his own, but he was a guard and he’d only ever been a guard. There were whispers about Bulat. That he’d been a soldier. That he’d seen parts of the world no one else had so much as imagined. That he’d died. That he couldn’t die. If there was a story to tell about a man who’d been a soldier, someone had told it about Bulat. Normally Bulat was good company. He always had some story or another. He was as good for stories as he was for arguments, this guard’s personal preference. What he was not good for was braggadocio, which was, as it happens a word that Bulat had taught to the guard. It meant “being boastful.” He also didn’t make idle threats, so far as the guard knew. “What’s your point?” the guard finally asked. Then, with sudden realization, “That’s a pun! Get it?”

“We’re not really set up for this kind of situation,” said Bulat, ignoring his partner’s stab at humor.

The guard’s disappointment was keen and sharp. “We’re set up to make sure everything here is safe,” he sighed.

“That’s what I’m saying,” countered Bulat. “No one around us knows that there’s nothing in storage, just us and the village. We might as well be decoys at the moment. So what’s the harm in letting them come in for safety’s sake?”

“The harm? Nothing goes in or out of the storehouse. That’s what we do.”

“He meant things. Food. Treasure. Whatever he puts in here.”

“I know that’s what he meant, but that’s not what he said,” the guard insisted. He didn’t like being on the winning side of this argument, unlike the previous ones they’d had.

Bulat tried again. “He’s smart, isn’t he? He understands contingencies and changes in plans. Things change. Conditions change. There’s no food, there’s nothing to steal.”

“But are we guarding what’s in the storehouse or are we guarding the entrance to the storehouse?”

He thought long and hard even as the winds grew in strength and the giant cloud filled the sky over their heads. “I’m afraid you’re right. I don’t see any way around it. If we let them in, we’ll be disobeying Koschey.”

“And you know what happens then,” said the guard.

In point of fact, no one knew what happened, only that anyone who disobeyed was never heard from again. “Alright,” Bulat conceded. “You win. But you have to be the one to tell them that we’re not going to let them in.”

“Never fancied you for a coward,” scoffed his partner, who had hoped to be the strong and silent type. “Okay. Here goes.”

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