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Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Golden Opportunity

by Thomas R. Grable

“Watch the one with the pea, gentlemen, watch the one with the pea,” the thin man said as his hands moved the walnut shells in lazy figure eights, easy enough for the eye to follow. The shells stopped in their orbits, resting in a line of three. The thin man kept his face carefully free of emotion as the other man confidently pointed to the one on the left.

“That one?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure?”

The blonde man nodded. “Yes, I’m sure. That’s the one.”

The thin man shrugged his narrow shoulders, and turned over the shell, revealing the pea beneath. The blonde man clapped his hands together, and laughed as he raked in his winnings. Twenty copper pieces jingled as they poured into his purse. He smiled widely, his blue eyes twinkling with glee.

“Like taking candy from a baby,” the blonde man laughed. He was then shouldered roughly aside by the fat silk merchant.

“Let’s try it for some real money,” he said, spilling gold and silver coins from his purse. The thin man looked nervous, seeing so much money at stake. He brought out his own purse and, swallowing uneasily, brought out coins to match the wager.

His voice was shaky as he called out his pitch. “W-watch the one with the pea, gentlemen, watch the one with the pea.”

Again, the shells moved in their familiar patterns, then came to rest. It was obvious to all where the pea lay: on the left. The merchant pointed a stubby finger at it.

“That one.”

“Are you sure?”

The fat man snorted derisively. “Yes, I’m sure.”

Hesitantly, the thin man reached out, and slowly turned over the shell. Beneath it was nothing but air.
The merchant couldn’t believe his eyes. “But, b-but that’s impossible. It had to be that one.”

The thin man shrugged, then turned over the shell on the right. Beneath it was the pea. “Sorry, guv, but that’s how it goes,” he said, as he raked in the cash.

The merchant continued to sputter as he watched his money disappear into the man’s purse. The blonde man gave him a reassuring pat on the back. “Sorry, friend. Tough luck. Look, I’ve made some money; why don’t you let a fellow buy you a drink?”

The merchant walked like one condemned to the gallows, his head slumped in defeat and disbelief. The blonde man led him to a local tavern, where they commiserated over the man’s bad luck. Over drinks, introductions were made: Tobias, the blonde man, and Garrett, the silk merchant. From consolation and imprecations to the gods of fortune, the talk turned to matters of finance, and of profitable ventures.

“Why,” said Tobias, “I know of a fellow that has a sure money maker, but for the fact that he hasn’t a wagon or team. He’s got the product and the buyer, but no way to get the one to the other.”

“What product is this?”

Tobias looked about carefully, to make sure that none were listening. In a low whisper, he said, “Dragon dung.”

The merchant blinked in confusion. “Dragon dung?”

Tobias put his finger to his lips. “Ssh. Yes, dragon dung. The greatest fertilizer known to man or Elf, and the only medium in which to grow blue ringed mushrooms.”

“What’s so special about blue ringed mushrooms?”

Tobias shrugged nonchalently. “To you or me, nothing; but to a wizard, they’re worth a thousand times their weight in gold.”

The merchant’s eyes began to blink as he took this all in. “So, the buyer is a wizard?”

Again Tobias shrugged. “In the end, it’s certainly a wizard that will receive it. How many hands it goes through before the wizard gets it, well, who can say?”

Garrett began tapping his teeth as the wheels spun in his mind. “So your friend has the dragon dung, and a buyer, but no means by which to transport it. Further, the buyer himself has another buyer, who may have another, and another before reaching the wizard.”

The blonde man looked on with interest. “So what is your thought on this?”

“How much does your man expect to sell the dung for?”

Tobias looked about again, then said in a hushed voice, “Five hundred in gold, for a hundredweight of dragon dung.”

The merchant began counting on his fingers as his face flushed with the prospect of easy money. “If your friend’s buyer is paying five hundred, he can reasonably expect a thousand or more from his buyer, who can expect two thousand from his, who may then expect four thousand from his. This means that the wizard himself will pay anywhere from five to ten thousand in gold for this rare and precious dung. Perhaps even more!”

A look of realization spread upon the blonde man’s handsome features. “I see where you’re getting at, my friend. Cut out the middle men, and keep the profit for ourselves. Excellent idea.”

The merchant rubbed his hands with glee. “So, we give your friend, say, six hundred gold crowns for the dung, and undertake the venture ourselves. We then seek out the wizard himself, and are showered in gold for our troubles. A tenfold profit!”

“I like your thinking, friend,” Tobias smiled.

Garrett went on. “We have merely to determine the name and location of the wizard, and our fortune is assured.”

“Nothing could be simpler,” opined the blonde man. “I’d not thought on the subject before, but for such a large shipment of so rare a commodity, there could be but one wizard: the Crimson Enchanter.”

The merchant’s eyes went wide with shock. “The Crimson Enchanter? His tower is said to be ensorcelled with every manner of deadly magic. Rumor has it that he drinks the blood of virgins each fortnight to maintain his unnaturally protracted life; that he deals with fiends from the lower planes; that he sacrifices children on the altars of strange and forbidden gods. I shudder to think of dealing with such a one.”

Tobias waved a hand in dismissal. “Tut tut, my good man! Such tales are merely the mutterings of fools and cowards. In my travels, I have heard that the Crimson Enchanter fosters such rumors to keep unwanted visitors at bay. Doubtless he enjoys his solitude, so that his researches may not be interrupted. But he will dance a happy jig when presented with a full hundredweight of dragon dung, and will open his coffers to fill our wagon to overflowing with gold and precious jewels.”

The merchant’s eyes were shining in the lamp light, so enraptured with naked greed was he. “Yes, friend Tobias, yes! We must seek out your friend at once!”

“At this hour? But, good friend Garrett, surely it is too late to awaken him. Should we not wait for morning?”
The merchant shook his head resolutely. “No, we must not wait. Your friend may find someone else with wagon and team, and so end our venture before it’s begun. We must strike now, while the iron is hot.”

The blonde man considered for a moment, uncertain, but soon was swayed by Garrett’s logic and fervor. He called for another round of drinks, to fortify them for the undertaking. When the barmaid came, Tobias laughed and pinched her on the bottom, then whispered in her ear, bringing the girl to laugh out loud as she went back to the bar.

“What did you say to her,” asked the merchant in curiousity.

“I told her that I was going to come back and buy the bar, just so that I could have her every night!”

Garrett nearly choked with laughter as he finished his drink. “She’s comely enough, my friend. Perhaps I’ll divorce my wife and buy a barmaid for myself as well!”

The two laughed together, then arose and staggered out into the night to seek out their fortune.

Drunken feet do not travel in straight lines, and the two men made a stumbling route through the city, arriving finally at the merchant’s home. Garrett brusquely dismissed his manservant, and went straight to his rooms, returning with a small but heavy chest.

“Fortunately my wife is visiting her sister,” he noted, “else I’d have had to explain myself.”

Tobias nodded. “Sure the gods have blessed us, friend Garrett.”

Tucking the chest tightly under one arm, Garrett headed out to his stable, with the blonde man close behind. Though drunk, he showed a practiced hand in hitching the team to the wagon, kicking aside the stable boy as the lad groggily tried to help. With the chest secured under his feet, he set out with Tobias to find their supplier.

They drove on with determination through the moonlit streets, coming at last to a small hut on the outskirts of town. Tobias straightened himself and loudly knocked upon the door.

“Open up, Hengest! It’s me, Tobias!”

Garrett put his finger to his lips, drunkenly motioning for Tobias to be more quiet. The door opened a crack, showing a pinched face in the moonlight.

“Tobias? Is that you? What are you doing here at this hour?”

In a stage whisper, Tobias explained. “Hengest, I’ve come to answer your prayers. You know you’ve been wanting a wagon and team so that you can deliver the ‘you-know-what.’ Well, we’re going to do better than that. We’re going to take the… the…” Tobias hesitated to say the words aloud.

“The dragon dung?”

Looking about to reassure himself, Tobias nodded. “Yes, yes, the dragon dung. We’re going to take it off your hands for you.”

Hengest blinked in confusion, then shook his head. “I’m sorry, Tobias, but I can’t do that. I had a deal with my buyer for five hundred in gold. I couldn’t break my word.”

Tobias waved away Hengest’s protests. “No, no, Hengest, it’s not breaking your word, it’s just good business. Garrett here has your five hundred gold crowns, right here, right now, and another hundred to ease your conscience. Now, that’s not so bad, is it?”

Hengest’s face showed his moral dilemma. Garrett, seeing the man waver, opened the chest to reveal the gleam of gold coins in the moonlight. Hengest’s eyes widened, and, hypnotized by the sight, he nodded his assent.

Garrett handed over the chest, and his eyes glittered with greedy delight. “So, where is this dragon dung?”
Still in shock, Hengest led them around the back, where under a straw thatch lay hidden the pungent treasure. Garrett looked on in amazement.

“You had it here, in plain view?”

“Of course,” said Hengest. “To any but a few, it would just look like an ordinary pile of dung, and who would steal that?”

“Ah,” said the merchant in understanding. “Yes, where better to hide it but in plain sight? Very clever, my friend, very clever indeed.”

“There’s a shovel over there,” the man said. “I’m going in to put this money away. Unlike dragon dung, people know gold when they see it.”

With that, he disappeared inside his peasant hut. Tobias led the wagon around back, where Garrett was waiting with shovel in hand. With great care, the fat merchant shoveled the dung into the wagon, making certain not to miss so much as a spoonful. He carefully covered it with the straw thatch, and then climbed into the seat.

“I suppose we can set out in the morning, to go to the Crimson Enchanter,” offered Tobias, but the merchant shook his head.

“No! We must set out now, at this very moment. The longer we delay, the more likely someone will learn of our endeavor and seek to rob us. No, we must go now, while dame Fortune is still showing her favored face.”

The merchant’s eyes were glittering with naked greed as they set out onto the road.

It was the space of but a quarter hour before Tobias complained of a full bladder. “We must stop here for a moment, my friend. Nature calls for me to relieve myself.”

Garrett pulled on the reins, bringing the wagon to a stop. Tobias gingerly dismounted, and hobbled over behind a bush.

As the blonde man was making water, he sighed with relief. “Ah, friend Garrett, soon we’ll have that fortune in our hands. Think of it! Thousands and thousands of gold crowns, all for us, shared between us two. Thousands in gold, thousands in gold…”

Garrett’s eyes narrowed with evil cunning. He slapped the reins and shouted, driving the horses to gallop on, leaving his partner behind. He looked over his shoulder to see Tobias belatedly emerging from the bushes, his trousers held up with one hand while the other waved futilely for the merchant to stop.

Garrett laughed derisively, and drove the wagon on into the night. The gold would be his, all his. He positively salivated at the thought.

After nearly an hour’s walk, the blonde man’s weary feet took him back to town. The tavern was closed, but he gave the door a staccato knock. “Open up, Margold, it’s me,” he whispered.

The door opened, revealing the face of the barmaid. “What took you so long?”

The blonde man swept the woman up in a warm embrace, and then went inside. He went to the table where waited his companions. There was Jeremy, the thin man from the shell game, and Hengest, the peasant, and more importantly, the chest with the merchant’s gold. The blonde man’s constant smile grew wider.
“Margold, mulled wine! I think this calls for a celebration.”

“Ah, Aloycius, you’re too pleased with yourself,” she said as she brought the tankards to the table, but she said it with a coy smile on her face. The blonde man laughed.

“But tonight I was ‘Tobias,’ the poor, swindled partner to the scheming Garrett. Why, do you know that the fat pig left me at the first opportunity? It might almost be worth braving the perils surrounding the Crimson Enchanter, just to see the look on that fool’s face when he finds out he’s been hauling six hundred gold crowns worth of horse dung across the country. If the wizard doesn’t turn him into a toad beforehand, he’ll surely do so after Garrett demands a king’s ransom for a wagonload of manure.”

Raucous laughter erupted from the four, but then the blonde man held up his hand. “My friends, we should observe a moment of silence in memory of Master Garrett. Let us remember him as he was…”

“A right royal bastard,” finished Jeremy, and the four laughed themselves nearly to tears.

“Then another toast,” said Aloycius, “this time to Loki, the Trickster. Let us drink to Him, and rejoice, for in fleecing people like Garrett, we do good in His name.”

His eyes fell upon the chest of gold. “And good for ourselves,” he finished, smiling brightly, and his eyes twinkled with glee.

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