Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 228

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Anything Seem Strange to You?

“I’ve got nothing to say. Nothing you’d be interested in.” The second statement seemed to back off from the first, as though the innkeeper realized he’d gone too far and become too familiar. He shrugged the fabric sling back around behind him. “I’ve got to chop more wood.” He stomped his feet once more. The fire hissed and spat where the flakes landed too close and then the innkeeper marched out of the room.

Viktor watched him go. Unlike Dmitri, he didn’t wear his emotions on his face. Dmitri would have narrowed his eyes and twisted his lips under his bushy mustache. Viktor kept his face blank. They all had different tricks for getting the best deal when striking bargains and most of them brought those tricks into their daily lives. Viktor liked to be a blank slate. Depending on how he played things, his opposite might think he was dealing with a genius or a simpleton. Viktor liked to keep them guessing. He didn’t like to be the one guessing, though, not at all.

With one foot, he nudged the stack of wood. Naturally, it didn’t move. He reached out to the top piece and lifted it. With one hand it was difficult, though he knew it would be easy with two. It was a large stone hearth and the firewood that the innkeeper had brought in were similarly large.

“What are you looking at over here?”

For the second time in just a few minutes, Viktor jumped. Yevgeny stood behind him, peering past him, to see what it was that his fellow was so busy exploring. With a bit of effort, Viktor reigned in his expression. “How heavy do you think this is?”

“It’s a piece of wood. Heavy, I expect.” Yevgeny looked back and forth between the wood, the fire, and Viktor. “What of it?”

“Pick it up,” Viktor invited.

“Why?”

“Humor me.”

Yevgeny gave a shrug and walked around to pick up the log. “Okay.” He set it down. “Fascinating. Now my hands are cold.” He spread his fingers before the fire to warm them.

“How many of those do you think you could hold?”

The other merchant thought he understood the game now. He considered the stack of lumber and what Viktor must be thinking. His ego demanded that he err on the side of showing his strength, but his wisdom cautioned that he best make sure he could prove his claim, should it come to that. He knew Viktor liked to gamble as much as the rest of them. He rubbed his chin, scratchy with two days’ growth of beard. “Don’t know. Maybe to here?” He slid his hand, knife-like, to a point about three rows down. He considered again. “Give or take. Probably take. At least the snow is dry, the wood’s not wet.”

“No,” agreed Viktor. With his foot, he indicated a line about six rows below where Yevgeny had gestured. “See that snow?”

Yevgeny nodded.

“That’s wood that our innkeeper has just brought in. That’s the old stuff from this morning. The rest of it’s new. More than twice as much as you say you can do.”

Yevgeny blinked. “That’s not possible. I know! You’re having me on! He carries most of it on his back!”

“He does,” Viktor admitted. “But he’s got a lot in his arms.” He leaned against the hearth, then back away at once when the fire danced in his direction. He glanced around the room once more, inviting Yevgeny to do the same. “Anything seem strange to you about this place? These days?”

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