Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 227

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Making It Make Sense

The innkeeper kicked the door shut behind him and the snow from his boots spattered all across the floor.

The merchants blinked startled eyes and settled their suddenly racing hearts. “Where’d you come from?” demanded Sergei. His normally pleasant face was soured with the quick fright.

“A man’s got work, doesn’t he? The day doesn’t stop, not even when you’re sitting around the hearth.” The innkeeper’s arms were full with hewn logs and soft bits of dry snow clung to them as much as they did to his boots and pant legs. He stomped his way to the hearth and set down the wood piece by piece, re-filling the nearly empty stone cubby where he kept the fuel. “Maybe, especially not when you’re sitting around the hearth. Fire’s got to eat, too, and someone’s got to make its meal.”

Viktor let his eyes travel around the room. Everyone of them had been equally surprised by the appearance of the innkeeper. Viktor himself, who prided himself on staying aware of his surroundings, hadn’t heard a noise at all from outside, hadn’t heard the door open. The man had simply announced his presence. But if they couldn’t hear him through the thick door, how had he managed to hear them? Unless he’d been waiting, snooping, listening outside the door.

Dmitri had gone back to whatever foul mood possessed him, Sergei was taking a drink and recovering his spirits as he always did, Akim was trying to re-engage Yevgeny in some aspect of the previous conversation, and the other two men (Viktor didn’t know them and hadn’t exchanged two words with them the night before). The innkeeper was still putting in logs. There was something about him that struck Viktor as wrong, but he couldn’t place what it was.

“What’s that?” Viktor said to him. He rose and walked over to the hearth. “What’s that about ‘no such thing as just a story’? Why’d you say that?”

The other merchants had raised their eyes as Viktor rose, but they were less interested in what the innkeeper might have to say and returned to their own company. The two men Viktor didn’t know leaned toward one another and muttered in soft voices, the same as they’d done last night. Foreigners, certainly.

“You want stories to be a way of passing your time.” The innkeeper nodded his head toward the door, indicating the winter that lurked outside. “You think they’re just words. They’re currency, they are. Gold. Silver. These stories are keeping you alive.” Having finally rid his arms of wood, he twisted his shoulder to move the sling on his back around to his side, where another full load of wood awaited his hands.

“We could play cards.”

“And you’d tell stories at the same time. You’d call them lies or boasts or dares or what-have-you, but you’d talk. We always talk. Everyone always talks.”

“I knew a man who didn’t. Or hardly ever.”

“One man disproves a thousand others? No. We both know a man like that, or we heard of him, or someone like him. Your one example doesn’t make all of the rest of what we know untrue.” He placed another log and another log on the growing stack.

“Why don’t you tell us a tale?” said Viktor. He wanted to know what it was about the innkeeper that sat wrong with him.

“And let the fire go out?” He pointed at the logs with his chin.

“If we all take in a load for you? Many hands make light work.”

The innkeeper snorted and Viktor realized what had been bothering him.

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