Self-aware. Self conscious. Self induced.

Telling Tales 229

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What Exactly Has Been So Strange?

Yevgeny considered the question for but a moment and answered, “No.”

“No?”

He threw back his head. “No! Let me lay out the facts for you as I see them. We are caught in a snowstorm. It is winter, and snowstorms are fairly common. While this is inconvenient to us all and may keep us from making the money that we’d like to make, I mean, what if we eat our goods? Nevertheless, we our fortunate to have our goods to eat! And that is not a coincidence, because we are all merchants. That was number one. Number two, most of us have been at this inn before. You?”

“No,” said Viktor.

“Well, I’ll tell you, it’s not some magical house owned by Baba Yaga that’s going to pick up on chicken legs and stride across the land with us captive inside. Maybe you haven’t stayed at this one, but you’ve stayed at others. Inns are a dime a dozen. This one is better than some and worse than others. Three, we’re sitting around telling stories. We could be playing cards, but I’m not sure how that would be a great difference. We could go to our rooms, but that would be dull.”

“But where did this Bulat character come from? In the middle of a snowstorm?” interrupted Viktor.

The other man nodded. “I’ll give you that one. His arrival is unlikely – but not impossible! Stranger things happen in real life than they do in stories. I’ve heard of travelers showing up at odd times and I’ve even seen one or two do it before last night. It’s within the realm of my experience is all I’m saying.” He tried to mollify Viktor with a wave of his hands. “Strange, yes, but not unbelievable. And beyond that, what? We ate and drank late into the night. We woke late, now we’re back in the room. The snow has stopped for now and maybe it will start once more. We have three days from here to Tver in this weather. This is normal. What do you think is strange?”

Faced with the list of unsurprising things, Viktor felt suddenly immature next to the older (but not much older) Yevgeny. “I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe you’re right. But look, that Bulat, last night he came in claiming to have a magic bottle. I know, I know, he never said it was magical, but one pull was his forfeiture? You’re going to say that simply makes him a good con man, and that fits with the fact that he’s an impressive storyteller, and to that I say you’re right, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he kept us up all night once again. But then there’s the innkeeper. Look at him! He’s a normal man, but he carried all of this wood in by himself! He didn’t even strain!”

“You can’t discount these rural people.” Yevgeny patted his belly. It was nowhere near the size of Sergei’s, but it was impressive all the same. “They may look like you and me, but where we sit on a cart behind a horse, they lead that horse all day. Besides, you want strange? You’re leaving out the strangest part of all! Dmitri’s being civil!”

“What was that?” roared Dmitri.

Yevgeny pushed Viktor toward him. “Put some beer in the man!” he laughed.

“Quick thinking,” crackled the fire, laughing with sparks and popping water.

“Quiet, you,” said Yevgeny.

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