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A Desperate and Despicable Dwarf: Section Eleven

       Last updated: Friday, April 2, 2004 02:58 EST



    I'm going to backtrack a bit and post the Benvenuti portions of the story which would bring us current with Zulkeh and Shelyid's adventures. I can't post the chapter convering Shelyid's duel with Holdabrand because, um, well...

    It isn't written yet. :)

    So, back to Benny for a few weeks. When we return to Zulkeh and Shelyid, we will discover that in the interim the wizard has gone off on another adventure.

    In order to make Joe's life more complicated -- Joe Buckley, that is -- I'll number these snippets using lower case Roman numerals.


    PART V

    Chapter Two. Hunters, Hagglers, Heretics and Hierophants

    So it was on such a wretched rickshaw that I arrived back at the Vented Spleen.

    I found Hrundig in a corner of the main salle, patiently putting an edge on one of his broad swords. A bit of a fanatic, that man. It wasn't as if he didn't have an armorer who spent half his time sharpening blades—and did, to my artist's eye, a magnificent job. But Hrundig always insisted on putting the final touch to his blades. I asked him why, once, and soon retreated from the barrage of old soldier homilies on the cosmological distinctions between sharp edges, keen edges, razor-sharp edges, and Hrundig edges.

    In response to his pleasant query, I acquainted Hrundig with the events of the afternoon and told him The Roach might call in the future. He, in turn, set down his sword, withdrew from his vest a weighty sealed envelope, and handed it to me.

    "You're moving up in the world," he said; then, with a smirk: "In a manner of speaking."

    I opened the envelope to find a stiff card of the most expensive stock embossed with a heraldic crest. I shall not attempt to describe the crest itself, since it was, from an artistic standpoint, grotesque; and, from the standpoint of its symbolism and significance, could only be deciphered by one brought up from infancy in the bizarre intricacies and foibles of Grotal heraldry. The message contained on the card was straight-forward to the point of brusqueness: I had been summoned to the town house of the Baron de Butin.

    "Hrundig, what is this all about? Who brought it? And who is this Baron?"

    Hrundig shrugged. "I don't know. A messenger brought it. The Baron de Butin is one of the richest men in New Sfinctr. Also, he is accounted a great hunter and, I'm told, a womanizer. His grandfather carved out a virtual empire in the South—vast estates, swarms of serfs, that kind of thing - and the Baron has a full time job disposing of the enormous surpluses these wretches create. He came to me once for some lessons."

    "An affair of honor?"

    "No. I don't believe he engages in dueling. It was just before he went on an expedition to the Rellenos stalking the rare glacier orang—one of the few wild creatures known to employ weapons, as you may already know. He thought that a quick tune up of his swordsmanship was in order."

    "What's he like?"

    Hrundig's bleak face grew bleaker. "Like? What's a viper like? One of the scaliest creatures I've ever met. Cold as death. Arrogant as a mountain. I'd have enjoyed bleeding him." He sighed and set down his sword. "But, of course, that wouldn't do, so I gave him a few pointers on fighting armed orangutans, praised his swordsmanship, and sent him off after pocketing my substantial fee. I will say this much: Unlike many nobles, he doesn't haggle over money and he pays promptly."

    "Did he get the Orang?"

    The master of arms sneered. "Of course. With 100 beaters, 60 hounds, 30 whippers in, 20 drivers, and 10 bearers, it was a sure thing. Truth is, the chilly relleno is one of the world's most timid and inoffensive creatures."

    "What does he want with me?"

    "I imagine he wants his portrait painted. He's the type of man whose sole interest in art would be his own portrait. When are you summoned?"

    "It says I'm to await his lordship's pleasure tomorrow at ten o'clock. Where does he live anyway? There's no return address on this envelope."

    "I should think not! Everybody who is anybody knows where the Baron de Butin lives. He owns that pile at the corner of Stately Drive and Surfeit Boulevard, up in Splendor Square. Don't worry about it. Oscar and the boys will know how to get there."

    "Well, as to that, I'm not so sure they'll be up to it." I told him about their misadventures with the dice players.

    Hrundig smiled. "I'll have to go see this for myself," and he wandered out leaving me to contemplate my appointment with the baron.

    By the next morning Oscar had managed to re-wheel the rickshaw—he would never tell me how—and we set off for Splendor Square. I recognized the baron's town house when we arrived, for, as it happened, Oscar had pointed it out to me on my first day in New Sfinctr.

    The edifice beggared description. All concept of proportion, balance, symmetry, prospect or visual delight was absent—say better, banished in disgrace. Strange and bizarre lines met in unnatural union, weird combinations of materials clashed, a multitude of parapets jutted out at unlikely angles (and why have parapets on a town house?), walls were massive but out of square, doorways were grandiose but not plumb—enough! Imagine civil war captured in stone.

    The huge entrance was framed in gold plated tubes which resembled sewer pipes and surrounded (ah, yes, the homely touch) with razor-edged scraps of rusty metal. The door itself was a single slab of polished bronze, perhaps 10 feet by 4 feet. It opened silently a few moments after I had knocked (hard on the knuckles, that; but I dared not use my cane on the thing). A footman almost as tall as the door looked down at me.

    "Yes?" The "what business could such a miserable and insignificant blot have with the Baron?" was left unspoken but very much implied.

    "Benvenuti Sfondratti-Piccolomini, artist. I've come in response to a summons from the Baron." Here I proferred my card with flourish and panache. The doorman accepted it with reluctance, looked at it and growled, "Use the trade entrance." He stepped back and the door swept implacably shut.

    Fuming with outrage, I rapped on the bronze—this time with my cane. After a moment the door reopened and there stood Mr. Footman.

    "Hear ye, Sirra!" I barked. "I am yclept Benvenuti Sfondratti-Piccolomini, scion of that famed clan and artiste extraordinaire in my own right. I am not accustomed to being treated in so cavalier a fashion by such a rude and ill favored lout as yourself. Now, make way, for I do not use the trade entrance!"

    The wretched footman opened the door wide. Thinking I'd made my point, I made ready to step through when the extra space was filled with two huge mastiffs. Excellent specimens of the breed. Brawny of sinew, great of girth, sharp of tooth, long of claw. They eyed me with indolent nonchalance. Of course, having known the dogs of General Kutumoff, I was not overly impressed. These miserable creatures were no Fangwulf—no, not even Fangwulf's pups.

    Alas, they would do.

    Eschewing futile debate, I betook myself off in search of the infernal trade entrance, muttering foul phrases on the unrighteousness of aristocratic front doors and the minions who manned them. But I was faithfully following my uncle Giotto's advice on such matters: "Be firm with doormen, but if they call the dogs, retreat. Then pad the fee."

    At length I came upon the designated entry. Impossible to miss, of course. The carts of produce lined up without, the swarm of tradesmen—these alone sufficed to indicate the service entrance. The scraps of garbage carefully smeared on the surrounding walls, the shards of chamber pots lovingly mortared into the lintel—these, I felt, were quite uncalled for.

    I presented myself yet again. Another eight foot footman examined my summons then bade me enter and wait in a crowded antechamber. After some time another wight appeared, dressed in a superior degree of finery and bearing a hauteur that an iceberg would have envied. He announced himself to be Geoffrey, the Baron's butler.

    "Endeavour to follow me," he commanded, implying that this task was barely within my capabilities. "I trust your boots are clean," he added, in a tone which made clear that my boots were not clean, had never been clean, would never be clean—indeed, were beyond cleanliness due to the very fabric of the universe. Without another word he strode off.

    In the long march which followed, I amused myself by examining the interior of the Baron's mansion. The carpets I soon dismissed as beneath scrutiny—thick of pile, plush of color, it goes without saying; but embroidered entirely with abstract and intricate designs the which, in their absurdity, belonged to no geometric system recognizable to man. The tapestries which adorned every inch of every wall, on the other hand, possessed a certain flair. True, the images depicted upon them were, without exception, scenes of men inflicting mayhem upon animals. But, in fairness, the tapestries were notable both in their encyclopedic range (every animal imaginable was portrayed in its death agony) and their scrupulous realism (guts spilled, brains oozing, blood gushing—all this faithfully woven). The predominant color, it goes without saying, was red.

    We eventually arrived at a double set of carved walnut doors depicting the heads of many beasts. Geoffrey knocked softly and, without waiting for a reply, opened them and motioned me to follow.

    "Mister Benvenutti Sfondratti-Piccolomini, artist," he announced to the room, which appeared to be empty. Without another word he turned stiffly and disappeared behind the closing doors. I glanced around me. Clearly this den served as the Baron's trophy room. Actually, the word "den" is inappropriate, inasmuch as it implies a certain coziness which was entirely absent due to the immense size of the room, a grandeur of scale which was required in order to display the multitude of slain creatures of field, meadow, mountain, savannah, steppe, and forest. The heads of almost every known beast of the lands of Joe's Sea and beyond adorned the walls. In the case of the more ferocious types, we were treated to full body mounts: great bears stood 12 feet high, paws outstretched, claws bared, teeth snarling; lions, leopards, tigers stood about in crouching, roaring splendor. And, yes, there in a corner was the fabled Relleno Orangutang—clutching a sword in most menacing manner.

    The Baron, I thought to myself, must alone keep an army of taxidermists employed.

    At that moment a voice emanated from a far corner of the vast room. "Hollah, Sirra! Over here!"

    I walked across acres of wood parquet floor, past numerous display cases, until I confronted the owner of the voice. He had been hidden from my sight behind one of the display cases at the far end, where, apparently, he had been meditating on the figure of some smallish but fierce looking beast.

    "Wolverine!" he barked. "Pound for pound, the most vicious beast alive! Took him with one spear thrust!"

    The Baron de Butin. He was an unimpressive looking man of medium height, perhaps some fifty years old, and somewhat gone to fat. His jowls sagged like one of the many boars he had bagged. The pouches under his eyes and a certain plumpness about his lips bespoke, I fear, a certain weakness of moral fiber. The fierce hunter, needless to say, was clad for the hunt—boots, safari jacket, jodhpurs, the lot, all topped with a veldt hat complete with a leopard skin band and ostrich plume.

    His voice was the only impressive thing about him: cold, commanding and confident.

    "You the artist?" he queried. Not awaiting my reply, he barked: "Portrait! I want a portrait! Can you do it?"

    "Yes, your lordship. When would you like to start?"

    "Start?" he goggled. "Start now! Don't think I dress up like this all the time, do you?"

    Truth to tell, I did. But I recovered instantly. "But, your lordship, my easel, my pencils, my chalk, my colors, my brushes, most of all, my contract. None of these essentials are present. I had no notion that you wished to commission a portrait immediately."

    "Eh? Then why the devil would I send for you?" He goggled at me again, as if I might be some unknown beast which had as yet escaped his scythe. "You are an artist, are you not?"

    "Yes, your lordship."

    "Well, then! Artists—well, you know, do art! Blast it all! Of course if you are not prepared to undertake the job then I'll get somebody else!"

    I sighed. "Your lordship, speaking for myself, I'm ready to begin at once. There are, however, two items which must be addressed. First, as you know, by law and custom, it is necessary that we execute a contract."

    "Poppycock! You paint and I'll pay. That's all the contract we need. I am a gentleman, Sirra, surely you don't doubt my word?"

    "No, no, of course not. The contract is intended to protect your lordship. Although I am an honorable artist there are some who would attempt to take advantage of their clients."

    "Protect me? Look around, boy, do I look like I need protection from the likes of you?"

    "Of course not, your lordship. It is simply a formality, which, I am sure, your amanuensis could prepare for you in a few minutes. The larger problem is the immediate absence of artist's supplies. May I suggest we resolve the various questions of your pose, costume, background, size of the portrait and such like details, in order that we can concentrate on the actual art work at the next sitting?"

    "Geoffrey! Geoffrey!"

    Instantly, Geoffrey appeared. "Yes, Your Lordship?"

    "Get my secretary—he's probably in the library pretending to work."

    Geoffrey disappeared. In the minutes which followed, I posed the Baron several ways—testing his profile and discussing with him which of his myriad of trophies should be part of the portrait. The Baron, alas, displayed none of the patience which is commonly thought to be characteristic of the cunning huntsman.

    "How long is this portrait going to take?" he demanded.

    "I would expect about a month, your Lordship."

    "Month! Bah, do you take me for a dolt? Any incompetent could daub paint for a month. That's why I sent for you—you've got a name for efficiency. Speed, boy, that's the thing! Alacrity, dispatch! The portrait must be finished within the week! I've a hunt scheduled thereafter."

    "As you wish, Your Lordship. But I must warn you, the sittings may be long and arduous."

    "'Long and arduous'," he sneered. "What meaning do such words have for one as I? I've hunted the world over in the most difficult of conditions, days in steaming jungle, nights camped on mountain ledges in freezing rain. Arduous my ass! Just get it done!"

    At that moment Geoffrey reappeared.

    "Your Lordship, I've brought Master Charles."

    "Charles!" barked the Baron. "Draw up a contract for this artist, Ben, Benv—whatever his name is."

    I turned and beheld a slender wight who, even before the Baron finished speaking, had whipped out a pen and legal pad. Within a few minutes the contract had been drawn and executed. It contained, among other things, a ruinous clause should the work fail to be completed timely. But it also provided for a substantial bonus should the work be completed on time. The Baron de Butin sent Charles off to copy out a final draft while he foraged for some money in the drawers of his desk.

    Soon, my pocket was warmed with several of the Baron's notes and the first sitting was scheduled for early the next morning. I departed the Baron's presence; not, be it said, with sad regrets.




    Hrundig was very understanding when I returned to the Vented Spleen and he agreed to give me the week off. I spent the balance of the day securing the necessary supplies and materials and arranging for their delivery to Splendor Square. This was no small task as the portrait was to be full figure and life size.

    The next morning, Oscar and the lads deposited me at the town house early, and so commenced a week of intense work and surprising developments. The Baron was actually not a bad subject: he was used to the rigors of the field and, except for occasional interruptions, I was able to work with great dispatch.

    There was, however, a drawback: he told hunting stories incessantly. He droned on endlessly about this hunt and that beast. He remembered the most trivial details of each hunt, the weather, time of day, declination of the sun, phase of the moon, hunting companions, number of beaters, wily tactics of the prey and so on. His recital was truly mind numbing. Fortunately he did not expect any response from his audience, just a respectful ear. In a way, his garrulousness was actually a blessing, as it saved me from actually talking to the man, which might well have been worse than listening to his stories.

    On the second or third day, having completed several preliminary sketches and commenced roughing in the actual portrait, we were interrupted by Geoffrey. The butler entered the room and spoke softly in the Baron's ear.

    "Benvenuti, take a break," commanded the Baron. "I need to see a man about some business—it won't take long." This unusual politeness was even accompanied by a smile, rather like a ferret preparing to eat a robin's chick.

    As I exited the chamber, Geoffrey ushered in the new visitor. Interesting-looking character! In stature, he was tiny; nonetheless, he exuded an ineffable, swaggering vigor. He had a freckled, pug-nosed faced topped by bright red hair—which, I thought, clashed with his orange-checked pantaloons, which clashed even more horribly with his green-striped jacket, which, in turn, was positively at war with his purple silk shirt. Then, as if to match the sartorial contradictions, his face bore upon it the most out-of-sorts expression—a strange combination of cynical amusement, cockiness, subservience (quite superficial, this latter, I was sure) and irritable temper.

    I assumed him to be some low agent of the Baron's—and certainly a resident of the Flankn. But I'd left the room before either of the men spoke and I knew better than to ask Geoffrey who the fellow was.

    This interruption was one of very few which the Baron permitted, and work progressed rapidly. Whenever he was unavailable, I worked on the beasts with which he had decided to populate the foreground and background of the painting. All in all, despite the unpleasantness of the Baron's company, the commission promised to be quick, easy, and most lucrative.

    Imagine, then, my astonishment and surprise when on the morning of the sixth day I arrived and found the household in disarray. No hustle and bustle at the trade entrance, no chatter amongst the kitchen staff, nothing but grim silence. Geoffrey led me to his small pantry office and closed the door.

    "There is, ah, a problem, Signor Sfondratti-Piccolomini."

    "Indeed? What is that?"

    "His Lordship is unavailable today," came the curt reply.

    I suppressed displeasure. "Perhaps tomorrow, then?" I inquired politely.

    Geoffrey coughed and shook his head.

    "The day after?"

    He coughed again. "No, no, Signor Sfondrati-Piccolomini." Another cough. "I am afraid that His Lordship will not be available until—well, actually, never." Another cough. "The fact of the matter is that His Lordship is dead." His face grew red. "He was throttled last night by a heinous murdering fiend!"

    "Throttled? Where?"

    "Here! Here! In his own very townhouse!"

    "Here?" I stared about. "What about the eight foot footmen, the massive mastiffs, the Baron's own skill with arms. How can this have happened?"

    Geoffrey's expression was sour. "Much good they were against Greyboar! You have heard of him, no doubt—the most notorious strangler in Grotum."

    I sat in stunned silence, the which Geoffrey mistook for reverential respect for the departed.

    "There, now, Signor Sfondrati-Piccolomini, don't take it so hard. His demise was quick—and His Lordship had oft stated his desire to die on his feet." Yet another cough. "True, at the tusks of a charging boar, rather than the thumbs of a chokester."

    Geoffrey's interpretation, of course, was laughable. I had soon come to share Hrundig's assessment of the Baron. I'd have sooner grieved over the death of a scorpion. My momentary silence and distress stemmed rather from other sources.

    The first was the name Greyboar itself, which had at once brought to mind the image of the figurine I had once carved, and, on the following instant, the image of she for whom I had carved it. Time, they say, heals all wounds; but then, as the wise man says, "Anybody named 'they' has got to be an idiot." Wise man, indeed; my heart was awash in loss.

    But the second source of my distress was more immediate. Much, much more immediate.

    "But my portrait! And my fee!" I erupted. "I've not finished—and rather more to the point, I've not been paid. What happens now?"

    Geoffrey stood and, with cold hauteur, said, "As to that, Sirra, I suggest you consult with the estate." With this a whisper of a smile passed his lips. Jumping to my feet, I demanded, "Who is the agent of the estate, and where can he be found?"

    "I believe he in the study this very moment, going through his Lordship's papers. I summoned him right after I sent for the Queen's Constabulary." He sneered. "Not that I expect much from the Constabulary. I doubt the miscreant and his odious little agent will even be arrested."

    A glimmer of recognition arose in my memory—that disreputable-looking little man!

    Thus it was that I spent several hours awaiting the pleasure of the estate agent. Fortunately, I was early. Soon word spread abroad and I was joined by many more people who had claims against the estate. They sat in the crowded antechamber, silent and dour-faced. On each of their many faces sat the worry that somehow they would be done out of their just due by this unknown agent and, equally, that the Baron's household would be closed and they would lose their best account. I heard not a hint, in word or expression, of sympathy or condolence for the man recently burked.

    Eventually Geoffrey ushered me into the trophy room where the estate's agent was working. In a corner stood the unfinished portrait.

    "Benvenuti Sfondratti-Piccolomini, artist," announced Geoffrey. "He has a claim against the estate regarding his Lordship's unfinished portrait."

    I advanced and examined the agent. A grey, grey man, I thought—grey of face, grey of raiment, grey of demeanor, grey of soul.

    "Sirra, I have come to clarify the status of my portrait. As you can see,"—here I indicated the work—"it lacks but a few strokes of the brush and it will be complete."

    The agent looked up from the sheet which he had been plodding through, which I recognized as my contract.

    "The Baron is dead," he announced. Even his voice was grey.

    "I am aware of that. But I just need a few hours to finish the portrait. I assure you that my memory is excellent, and I spent many hours in the Baron's company. The portrait will be quite true to life." A moment's inspiration came to me. "Indeed, it will be a fitting memorial to his Lordship!"

    The agent shook his head and looked again at the contract. "I am sorry, sir. But there's nothing here about completion after the Baron's death, nor about memorials, fitting or otherwise. The contract stipulates only that the work must be finished within seven days."

    I suppressed my exasperation.

    "True. However, the seven days are not yet lapsed. With your permission I can still finish in time."

    Again, he shook his head.

    "Legally speaking, what you propose is quite inappropriate. This is a personal service contract between you and the Baron de Butin. As such, the contract is no longer valid or binding, inasmuch as one of the contracting parties is deceased."

    "But I've not been paid!"

    The shake of the head was now more vigorous. "Quite the contrary! It is clearly stated herein that you were given an advance of some 100 Consortium ducats." He waved the paper with a flourish. "Since the work is incomplete that is all that is due."

    "But that was for supplies and materials." I pointed to the portrait. "Which are there, not in my pocket."

    He smiled unctuously. "There, you see—good news! The estate will be saved the trouble of billing you for the return of the advance."

    I recognized defeat, but made a last sally.

    "Sirra, I am sorely distressed that you, as agent of the estate, are not interested in having the portrait of your late client finished."

    His eyes grew round. Grey eyes, did I mention?

    "Not interested in having it finished?" he demanded. For the first time, a trace of emotion colored his voice. "Don't be ridiculous, my dear man. Of course it must be finished! It is the property of the estate!"

    "But—I don't understand. You just said that the contract is void."

    "Well, naturally it is void," he snapped. "That is to say, the service of personal contract between you and the Baron is void, and, with it, any thought of further payment to you. That has nothing to do, however, with the just claims of the estate upon a piece of scandalously unfinished work." Here he pointed at the portrait. "The painting must therefore be finished, unless you intend to defraud the estate."

    I scratched my head.

    "Let me see if I understand you aright, Sirra: first, the Baron is dead; second, the portrait is unfinished; third, because the portrait was unfinished at the time of the Baron's death I can't be paid; but, fourth, I must complete the portrait, without compensation, otherwise I'll have defrauded the estate which won't pay me for my work."

    The agent looked up at me, an expression of mild surprise on his face. "A very nice precis! Tell me, sirra, have you ever studied the law?" Then, with a glance toward the door, he said, "I believe our business is finished."

    A great wrath began to well up in my breast at such unspeakable impudence. But then, just as a multitude of harsh words fought for room to escape my lips, an idea was born. An idea, may I say, whose impudence matched that of the estate!

    Immediately I assumed the stance and mien of abashed, apologetic, subservience.

    "Well, sir, if things are as they say they are, I suppose I've no choice." Then, thinking too sudden a surrender might arise suspicion, I added a trace of truculence: "You sure you know the law properly?"

    The agent shot to his head, quivering with indignation.

    "Sirra! I say, sirra! I'll have you know that I am a senior partner in the most prestigious legal firm in all of Grotum—Conquest, War, Famine, Pestilence and Grimes."

    He sat down abruptly. "I am Pestilence. Geoffrey Pestilence."

    Subtlety, I now discerned, was unnecessary. I scraped and bowed in the grotesque manner taught me by my uncle Giotto.

    "As you say, sir! Just as you say!" I advanced to the portrait and took it from the easel.

    "I say, man—what are you doing?"

    "Doing, sir? Why, I'm taking the portrait to my studio for finishing." I added some more bowing and scraping—difficult to do, I might add, with a large portrait clutched in own's hands.

    At first, Grimes expressed the absolute impossiblity of allowing the portrait (property of the estate) to leave the premises (also property of the estate). Then, as I described apologetically the vigorous and distracting nature of an artist at his work, he looked doubtful; then, as I shamefacedly confessed my grotesque but unquenchable habit of humming and whistling as I worked, he looked dour; then, as I lauded the mental concentration necessary for a lawyer at his work, he looked grey.

    "Oh, very well!" he exclaimed. "Take the blasted thing. But mind that it is back within the stipulated time, and"—here he scribbled hastily on a small page—"you must sign this receipt, release and hold harmless agreement." He shoved the document across the desk for my signature. I signed it without a glance and hastily made my exit, portrait in hand.

    Just as I reached the door Grimes spoke again: "Remember—no more than twenty-four hours."

    "Oh yes, sir! Most certainly!" I cried. "I can assure you that it is my sole intention to complete the work and return it to the estate. I consider it a matter of professional ethics!"

    Within a few minutes the portrait was loaded in the rickshaw and we were on our way.

    "Where tez, Cap'n?" asked Oscar. "Back ter th'Spleen?"

    "Yes, Oscar, but just for a moment, so I can obtain some supplies. Then I need you to take me to The Sign of the Trough."



    "Guv'nor? The Sign of the Trough?" He eyed me doubtfully, but soon enough the rickshaw was wending its way into the Flankn. It took us over an hour to reach The Trough, after leaving the salle d'armes, what with the portrait riding in the rickshaw and I walking alongside. It was now that I came to appreciate the value of The Roach's introduction, given only the week before. By the time we reached the Trough it was late afternoon. Deep shadows cloaked the many byways and eccentric buildings along our route. The streets of the Flankn began to appear increasingly unfriendly—even Oscar looked anxious.

    "Not th'best neighborhood ter be in after dark, Cap'n," he muttered.

    But despite Oscar's apprehensions, we reached the courtyard of The Trough without difficulties. With Oscar's help, I carried the parcel into The Trough and leaned it against the bar. Leuwin, the barkeep, came hurrying up.

    "Sirra Sfondrati-Piccolomini—how nice to see you again! Would you care for some ale?"

    "Not at the moment, Leuwen. Actually, I've come looking for a certain Greyboar. I've been told he is a patron of your fine saloon. I hoped I might find him here."

    The fat barkeep eyed me with great skepticism.

    "Greyboar, did you say? Greyboar. Well, now. Well, now. I believe I've heard the name here and there, but—"

    My eyes were now accustomed to the gloom, and I had been looking about as he spoke.

    "I believe the man I seek is sitting right over there." I pointed to a distant table in the crowded, dark, smoke-filled room.

    "Sirra Benvenuti!" exclaimed Leuwen. "I don't think—that is, I shouldn't—"

    But I insisted, and so Leuwen eventually departed and made his way to the table in question. A lengthy discussion followed between he and the two men at the table—lengthy, in the main, because Leuwen seemed to be babbling—before he finally made his way back and allowed as to how Greyboar would speak to me. He led me over to the table, much as the major-domo of a palace might lead a peasant to the throne.

    As I neared the table, I inspected its two occupants. Briefly, my glance fell upon the smaller of the men. The very much smaller of the men. As I had surmised, he was the very same little man I'd last seen at the Baron's.

    My gaze was then irresistably drawn to the other man. Greyboar, I had no doubt whatever. It was heart-breakingly odd how much he resembled Gwendolyn. The same great size. The same sense of incredible strength of sinew held in check, even in the way the man drank from an alepot. The same dark-hued complexion. The same great hawknose. The same black eyes. The same mass of black, kinky hair—though his was cropped short. Most of all, that same incredible brow.

    Those, the similarities. Differences, of course, were also apparent. Where Gwendolyn's strength had always struck me as feline in their supple grace—frightening, but beautiful—her brother's strength of body was simply terrifying. The great massive shoulders sloped down, without benefit of any discernable neck, from a head like a boulder. I was reminded of nothing so much as talus sloping from a mountain. Where Gwendolyn's arms were large, his were immense, thick and long; where her hands had been large but lovely, his were like shovels. (The man's thumbs, in particular, beggared description!) Where Gwendolyn's nose could be described as aquiline, his could only be called a beak. Where her brow had been fierce but glorious, his was simply implacable.

    At that moment, Greyboar looked up at me, and I saw the real difference. His sister's ebony eyes had been lustrous; black, like the beauty of night. Greyboar's eyes were like a coal-pit; black, like the Void. A great soul had shined from Gwendolyn's eyes. I was not sure, in that moment, whether there was any soul in his; or, being there, that it had not lost its way forever.

    Yet, when he spoke, his voice was courteous. Deep, growling, gravelly. But courteous.

    "May I help you, sirra?" he queried softly.

    I bowed. "Indeed, sirra, such is my very hope." I gestured to an empty chair at their table. "May I?"

    The tiny man with him frowned dubiously, but Greyboar inclined his head with permission. I took my seat.

    "Allow me to introduce myself, gentlemen. I am Benvenuti Sfondratti-Piccolomini, artist. I believe I have the honor of addressing Greyboar and his agent"—here I indicated the strangler's companion and shrugged apologetically—"whose name, alas, is not known to me."

    The small man made to speak, but Greyboar waved him silent. "His name is Ignace," said the strangler softly. "And I'm Greyboar."

    "What d'you want?" demanded Ignace peremptorily. Clearly, graciousness did not number among the midget's virtues.

    "Perhaps you can help me with a problem." Till this moment, I had held the portrait turned away. Now, with a flourish, I turned it to face them. The effect was interesting. Ignace, caught in the midst of swallowing ale, immediately spewed brew all over the table. Greyboar, on the other hand, gazed upon the portrait with no expression whatever; then, with utmost casualness, took a long draught at his alepot.

    "Quite a good portrait of the Baron," he commented mildly, wiping foam from his lips. "Excellent, actually—though I'm no connoisseur of the arts."

    "Connoyser be damned!" shrilled Ignace. The little man jumped up and glared at me.

    "Blackmail," he hissed. "Burke 'im, Greyboar! Burke 'im, I say! He's a filthy blackmailer!"

    Greyboar glanced at his agent languidly. "Burke him? Blackmail? Whatever are you talking about, Ignace?"

    He turned his gaze upon me. Extraordinary, that gaze. Somehow, without a hint of anything in his expression but calm disinterest, those black eyes promised unspeakable pain and suffering, followed by eternal oblivion.

    "Surely this fine gentleman's no blackmailer," he rumbled. "And if he were, so what? What crime have we committed to fear blackmail?"

    The expression on Ignace's face was priceless.

    I laughed. "Too many for Ignace to count, I venture to say." I smiled pleasantly at the agent. "But you may rest easy, Ignace. You may have, but I most surely did not, mistake the meaning of Greyboar's words. Where you heard 'what crime have we committed', I heard the important words: 'to fear blackmail.'"

    I transferred my smile to the strangler. "I dare say you're not troubled by blackmailers often. And certainly not for long."

    Greyboar chose that moment to crack his knuckles. For a moment, I thought the inn was collapsing.

    "No," he said. "Not often. And not for long."

    I decided not to press my luck any further, despite the strangler's seeming pleasantness. So, with no further ado, I launched into a recitation of my history with the Baron de Butin, concluding with the most unsatisfactory results of my meeting with the estate's agent.

    "You see, then, my dilemma," I concluded. "The estate won't pay me for my work because it's unfinished. Even were I to finish it, I would not be paid, since the agent says that since the contract is one of personal service to the Baron it is made mute and void by the Baron's untimely demise. Yet—here insult is added to injury—I must finish it because it's the property of the estate and to leave it unfinished would diminish its worth and, therefore, deplete the estate of a valuable asset."

    Greyboar took another draught from his alepot. "Yes, yes, quite a dilemma. Tricky people, lawyers."

    I waved my hand airily. "Oh, 'tis not the legal dilemma that concerns me. Indeed, I've no doubt that there's no legal dilemma at all. Lawyers, as you say, are tricky folk. I doubt me not that my legal position is hopeless. No, no, Greyboar. It's the other aspect of the question that concerns me. The world being what it is, artists are accustomed to injury. But insult—ah, now, there's the rub. That's the real dilemma. The ethical dilemma, you might call it—perhaps even the philosophical dilemma."

    A strange light gleamed for a moment in the strangler's eyes. Ignace sputtered.

    "Here now!" exclaimed the midget. "Here now! Let's have no talk—"

    "Philosophical, you say?" interrupted Greyboar. "How so?"

    "Well, how am I to reconcile the hopelessness of my legal situation with the stern moral necessity of not allowing such insolent impudence to pass unrebuked."

    "How indeed?" mused the strangler.

    In the minutes which followed, I explained how. And, in direct proportion as amusement mounted in Greyboar's expression, indignation mounted in Ignace's.

    "Not a chance!" he cried when I was finished with my proposal. "Not a chance! Greyboar, tell this lunatic to begone!"

    Greyboar now began laughing, if the term "laughter" can be applied to a rumbling earthquake. Ignace glowered at him, then at me.

    "See what you've done?" he shrilled.

    Greyboar patted him on the shoulder. "Relax, Ignace. I'll tell you what. Let's put the question before the ancients."

    Ignace jumped up and shouted, "O'Doul! Flannery! Come over here! We need sage advice and wise counsel!"

    Without missing a heartbeat, two old gaffers at the other end of the great room, perched in their prestigious stools at the old trough, immediately upended their mugs, smacked their lips and shuffled over to the table. Coincident with their arrival, Leuwin appeared bearing new pots of ale (such, I later learned, being the immemorial custom of The Trough whenever requests for adjudication by the ancients were made; the beer for the wise men was on the house).

    Ignace began at once, sketching the situation as he saw it. To my surprise, despite the little agent's quite evident displeasure at my proposal, he presented the case quite fairly and even-handedly. When he was finished, I found it only necessary to add a few minor clarifications of my position.

    "Very interesting case," muttered O'Doul. "Reminds me of the time Hammerhand Hobbs throttled that gov'nr while he was engaged with one of the girls o'r to Madame Henley's House of the Purple Lamp. The lady o' the evening wanted he should pay her on account as how he'd robbed 'er of rightful wages for an unaccomplished labor o' unspeakable debauchery, whilst Hammerhand claimed he owed not a farthing inasmuch as the girl hadn't actually had the chance to perform the act o' grave moral depravity, inasmuch as Hammerhand had burked the old guv'nor before 'e'd even got it up, though he allowed as how iffen he'd done the terminal deed after the guv'nor 'ad managed—doubtful though that latter event might be in any case, in light o' the guv'nor advanced years and state of inebriation at the time—that 'e'd 'ave owed her recompense—"

    "Oh, stop blitherin' on," interrupted Flannery, "the situation's no way comparable at all! The gentleman 'ere's not claiming Greyboar owes him no money on account o' no financial loss. Indeed, 'e's most graciously conceded right from the start that 'e 'as not the least claim on th'infamous strangler's purse on account o' th'desp'rate villain's recent act o' callous murther 'n' mayhem—"

    "What murder? What mayhem?" demanded Ignace. "We haven't admitted to any part of such crime!"

    The two oldsters peered at him owlishly for a moment. The snorts which followed were the product of long lifetimes snorting at callow striplings seeking to fool their elders.

    "D'y'ever hear sech foolishness?" demanded O'Doul.

    "The two o' yers choked th'Baron last night," pronounced Flannery. "I know it, 'e knows it, th'gentleman knows it, y'knows it yerself, th'dogs in th' alleys knows it, th'babes in th'woods knows it, th'man in th'moon knows it, th'tooth fairy knows it, th'owl an' the pussycat knows it, th'Queen knows it, th'constables knows it, ever'body knows it."

    "Can't be proved!" cried Ignace. The moment after he spoke, he cringed.

    Wisely, it seemed. A large crowd had gathered about the table, numerous ancients foremost among them. As one man, this entire body began a most ferocious hissing.

    "Prove it?" demanded one of the elders. Pale outrage splotched with livid spots of fury marked his cheeks. "Prove it?"

    "What's proof got t'do with it?" demanded Flannery. "What d'ye think this is, y'little mangy cur, some kind 'o court of law?" Flannery tottered to his feet, waving his alepot about. "This is not a court o' law, y'little guttersnipe! This 'ere is th'ancient an' venerable Bar 'o Troughly Justice!"

    Ignace tried to make himself invisible.

    Flannery resumed his seat. By now, it seemed, my case had assumed grand proportions, for another half-dozen ancient drew up chairs and positioned themselves about the table. Within moments all were deep in discussion and dispute regarding the matter of compensation due in such circumstances. Each party quoted chapter and verse—not from lawbooks, but from the prior experience of "true and proper Troughmen," as that experience had been codified in the collective memory of the elders of The Trough. Needless to say, much of the dispute revolved around the reliability or lack thereof of the respective memories of the various elderly disputants.

    I resigned myself to a long evening. Then, to my surprise, the strangler settled the question.

    "I'll do it," he announced.

    Silence fell upon the table. Disapproving silence. Very disapproving silence.

    "The ancients haven't rendered decision yet!" protested Ignace.

    "We most certainly 'aven't!" exclaimed these latter worthies, in one voice.

    "I don't care," replied Greyboar. "I've decided I agree with Benvenuti and I'll do as he asks."

    He rummaged in his pocket. "Of course, I mean no disrespect to the ancients, and I'll naturally make recompense for lost ale." He drew forth a fistful of coins, which, given the size of his fist, made a small treasure. Ignace squawked, but the ancients were mollified. Moments later, the old men were tottering back to the old trough, hollering for alepots. Only the original three of us were left at the table.

    Greyboar cleared his throat. "I do have one condition, Benvenuti."

    "Name it."

    To my astonishment, the strangler blushed. "Well, it's—it's personal. There's a lady, you see—"

    Ignace rolled his eyes. Greyboar stammered into silence.

    "You'd like her portrait painted," I stated. Greyboar nodded. Shyly, if it can be believed.

    "I should be delighted," I said. I forestalled Ignace's protest with a gesture. "Fear not, doughty agent! I shall be glad to perform this service entirely free of charge."

    At these words, Ignace relaxed and took another draft of ale. Then, for the first time that night, he grinned.

    "Actually, it's kind of funny. I'd love to see the expression on that fancy lawyer's face when you turn in the portrait!"

    "Speaking of which," I said, "haste is now necessary."

    With Leuwen's kind assistance, I soon obtained a small alcove on the second floor of The Trough in which to work. The lighting was poor, but sufficient. It took but three hours to finish the painting, which was quick work given the necessity of re-doing the entirety of the Baron's face as well as the special addition. Greyboar, to my surprise, stayed to the very end, even though his own part as a model required him for but a few minutes. Even Ignace stayed.

    "Always a pleasure to watch a professional at his work," he explained.

    When I was finished, the two of them examined the portrait intently.

    "You're good," announced Greyboar.

    "Good?" demanded Ignace. "He's bloody great! The portrait's perfect! Perfect, I tell you. I know—I was—uh, I have it on good authority."

    I began packing away my supplies. "Sirra Greyboar, I thank you for your gracious assistance. I shall need tomorrow morning to render up the portrait to the estate. Beginning in the afternoon, however—or anytime thereafter at your convenience—I shall be available to do a portrait of your lady. I can do it here, if you wish. But, if I might make the suggestion, it would go better at my studio in the Vented Spleen. The lighting is much superior."

    Greyboar coughed and looked away. Ignace grinned.

    "Bit of a problem, that," chuckled the little agent maliciously. "Fact of the matter is, Greyboar hasn't the faintest idea where the lady is, where she's gone to, nor when—if ever—she'll be back."

    I raised my hands. "You needn't say more, Ignace. Indeed, please don't. The lady's whereabouts are none of my business."

    "They're none of Greyboar's business either," cackled Ignace. "Fact is, she's not his lady. Fact is she's—"

    Greyboar stared at the wall stonily.

    "—pure and simple crazy."

    I shrugged. "As I said, the matter's none of my affair. But I repeat, Sirra Greyboar: I shall be delighted to paint the lady's portrait, whenever and wherever the occasion should come to pass."

    "Don't hold your breath," giggled Ignace.

    Greyboar bestowed upon the little man a glare which should, by rights, have withered him on the spot. But Ignace seemed totally unfazed.

    "Oh, come on, big guy!" The agent beamed from ear to ear. "You've just got to learn to be philosophical about these things."

    Greyboar stalked from the room. Momentarily, his huge shoulders filled the doorway, then he was gone. Ignace collapsed in convulsive laughter. Bizarre sense of humor, I thought.

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