By Justin Stanchfield & Mikal Trimm
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
Rook had told him, over and again, “There’s always someone out there smarter than you. Smarter, more cunning, more willing to pay the price.”
“What price?” Galen, all of twenty seasons, felt he knew everything. This odd man wanted an apprentice, though, and the ancient, feeble collective that was the Mercantile Guild held little attraction for Galen.
“Any price. If you can imagine it, someone will pay it.”
He stared at Rook, cataloguing deficits – fat, bald, short-winded, lacking in even the most basic elements of hygiene – and wondered again if he wanted to spend the next several years in this man’s company.
All for the sake of becoming a glorified trader.
“I can imagine much, sir. I dream of sacks of coins too heavy to carry, gems too large to mount. One needs only the right merchandise and a smooth tongue to extol its virtues.”
“Oh, that’s it, is it? Fine. Then tell me this.” Rook pulled a flask from his robes. The glass, ill-blown, held a milky fluid. Rook held it to the light of the smoke-smeared lantern and twirled it between his fingers. Vague glimmers of color sparkled in the liquid. “What price would you pay for a flask of spit?”
“What?” The light caused the colors in the flask to dance, slowly, to the rhythm of the flickering flame. “I’d pay nothing! There is no value there! Who would buy spittle?”
“Oh, good sir, there are many who would buy this.”
“Do you sell to fools and idiots, then?”
Rook stood, his body shaking with the sudden movement, rolls of fat moving like the tide. He thrust his face forward, sweat shining in the lantern’s glow.
“No, sir, indeed I do not. Fools and idiots do not deserve the goods I hold. This…” Again he swirled the contents of the flask, making the faint colors within glow brighter. “This is the bile of a dying goddess. She lay bleeding in an abandoned orchard when I found her, struck down by her own children. There was little I could do save sit beside her and listen to her curses as she succumbed to her wounds. Before she died, she bid me take of her humours and capture the last sparks of her spirit, so that she might at least exact revenge upon her merciless brood.
“This vial contains her final curse, spat into the glass with her dying breath. It is potent, my good sir, more potent than a thousand poisons, and it could be yours… for the right price.”
Rook’s head moved about snake-like and the bottle sparkled in the light. Galen heard himself ask the price, as green as any tourist in some dust-caked bazaar. Yet still, mesmerized, he asked. And the answer came, hissed out from thick lips, a snake’s voice.
“Oh, what should the price be? A finger, perhaps?”
Yes, yes, that would be fair…
“Or a hand, now that I think of it. We are talking about the power over life and death here, am I right?”
A hand, I could lose a hand, since the trade is in my favor…
“Yes, I think a hand would do nicely.” Rook pulled a well-sharpened hatchet from his belt, raised it above his head, and –
“No!” In the space of a heartbeat, the fog in Galen’s head lifted, and he snatched his hand from the table before the hatchet could fall. “I will not pay that price!”
“Ah.” Rook smiled, laid the hatchet on the table, and shifted his bulk back into the shadows. “Then you know your limits. This is a good thing. I will take you on as my apprentice.
“But understand, there are others in this world who have no limits. It is to these we sell. It is for them we exist. What is your name?”
“My name is S–”
With deceptive speed, Rook’s hand covered the young man’s mouth, squeezing his lips between two fleshy fingers.
“Not your true name, fool! Names carry power! You should know that by now!”
Galen shook off Rook’s hand. “I would not tell you my true name to save your life, sir. I am giving you the name I wish to use, nothing more.”
“And that name is?” Rook smiled again, a wide toothy grin that seemed almost genuine.
“I wish to be called Silence.”
Rook bowed, though whether in acknowledgement or simply to hide a patronizing smile, Galen could not be sure. “Oh, that is good, my boy. Very good indeed.”
Deep in his mind, Galen wondered what Rook’s true name might be, and how much he would have to pay for that particular gem. Out loud, he said nothing, but waited stoically for the old man to continue.
“You may store your belongings under the stairs. Your room is by the kitchen. I expect you to perform certain menial tasks there while you stay with me. Oh, and by the way, Mr. Silence…”
Galen waited, no longer wondering if he’d chosen the right mentor.
“What price would you pay for the goddess’ blood? I have that as well, you know…”
Though Galen tried to hide it, he knew Rook noticed the hunger in his eyes. Galen turned away quickly, but he heard the old man laughing all the way up the stairs to his bedroom.
The complete version of “The Merchant Of Loss” appears in Black Gate 13.