Telling Tales 230
The bartender and Bulat pushed past the open door, held open by a child, each with heaping platters of steaming meat. Two children followed with pitchers of thin beer and hot tea. “Plates. Mugs. Hurry up, now,” the bartender instructed her children. With quick, sure movements they set down their burdens and ran back to the kitchen. The door swung on leather hinges. “Knives are on the way,” she told the assembled men. There was a great deal of shoving as everyone made for one seat or another at the long table.
“Where’s he sitting?” asked Dmitri, pointing at the old man.
“I won’t be sitting just yet,” he said with his easy smile. “I’ve got work to do.” His old jacket hung off of his shoulders and around his knees. In spite of the warmth from the comfortable fire, he hadn’t removed it once since arriving the night before. The bartender raised one eyebrow at him, which was apparently enough, for he made his way back to the kitchen as well. The children dodged past him with knives, spoons, and mugs.
“Borscht next!” called the bartender as she followed him.
“I didn’t see his bottle,” said Viktor to Akim.
“The old man’s bottle. In his jacket. I didn’t see it.”
Akim scraped food on to his plate. “That’s because it’s in his jacket.”
Viktor poured beer for the both of them as Sergei clamored for the pitcher. “Don’t be dense. It should weight his jacket down. It didn’t. It doesn’t. He must have put it somewhere.”
“Thanks,” Akim acknowledged the beer and passed the platter to Viktor.
“It comes this way,” snapped Sergei. “Come on, now!”
Akim took his time dishing up his food. “So what? So he hid it somewhere? We don’t know where we slept, do we?”
“He was in that chair over there when I made my way up to my room,” said Viktor.
“What are you whispering about?” grumbled Dmitri.
“Pass the food!” yelled Sergei.
“There’s a platter on your other side!” The bartender’s voice, short and hard, made all of the men think of their mothers and for a fraction of an instant, they froze where they sat. From where she stood again behind the bar, palms planted flat against the wood and face showing all of her impatience, she looked like many of their mothers as well.
“Aaaah ha!” mocked Akim. He passed his own platter in the opposite direction.
“I didn’t see it, did I?” demanded Sergei as he took the plate from the two merchants who kept their own counsel. His face was redder than normal. “You could have said something,” he grumbled at them.
“I did,” responded one of them. His voice was accented, but not in a way that Sergei recognized. He thought no more of it, and instead gave himself a healthy serving of meat and juice.
Viktor was of a mind to keep at Akim about Bulat. Dmitri scowled at him from across the table, wrapped his left arm around his plate, and began to scoop food into his mouth.
“I served with a man who ate like that,” said Bulat as he came back in with a large bowl of red cabbage stew.
“My brother was in the army,” said Dmitri.
“Old man!” called Viktor.
“You owe us a story from last night,” interrupted Yevgeny. “Your company and Prince Ivan were facing a giant and the snake-man, I forget his name…”
“Kou Ke! Can’t any of you remember anything?” asked Dmitri.
Yevgeny only laughed. “That’s the one! So! What happened next?”