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On the Ancient Debacle at Tergeste

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"It is not a fine figure of a city."

"I'm sorry?" said Amram, unprepared. "Did you speak?"

Zelikman had arrived at Tergeste in a blue mood, and it had slipped rapidly downwards to a black one. Several hours ago they had left their horses in a rented stable and Amram had initially been inclined to attribute his partner's mood to his disunion from his horse. Now Zelikman was scowling, an expression almost as unusual on his face as a smile, and had turned entirely to face Amram, stopping them within a few paces of a farrier's stall.

"It is not a fine figure of a city," he repeated, clearly. "Have your ears stopped up as well as your eyes? It's a dump."

"I take it you're commenting on my judgment of the port," Amram said. "Several hours ago."

"It has taken me this long to come to a full conclusion."

"I can imagine, what with the neglect your study of aesthetics has suffered all these years." Amram began to walk, since one of them must. A confidence trick needed good daylight and a steady hand, not to mention an easy countenance, and his partner was untried at the art of coin-matching. Amram had taught the boy last night how it was done with the assistance of a curious ostler: prime the mark with a game, offer him a tantalizing mark of his own to swindle, then threaten him with the authorities and collect a bribe. Zelikman had watched with grave, studious attention, and when his time had come to practice had drawn himself up with masterful dignity and threatened the ostler with death, dismemberment, and the attention of his personal friend the pope.

Due to an unfortunate encounter with a lord of the steppes some time ago, Amram was currently stitched up longitudinally across the neck, and after their supper Zelikman had salved it. Perhaps that was what had sent Zelikman over the edge of his sulk; the wound was healing, but it looked as though there would be a scar.

"My aesthetics," Zelikman began, and then stopped again, to Amram's wild hope. But Zelikman was not reconsidering his words, merely considering a length of fabric across a mercer's table. It was black and richly worked, and Amram saw the bent of Zelikman's thoughts even as the boy actually reached inside his jacket for his purse. The Lord protect fools and their friends. "How much an ell?"

"Excuse me," Amram said to the mercer, who was still blinking at the sight of a spindle and a giant arguing over a bolt of samite, and dragged Zelikman away by the elbow-- a difficult operation, as Zelikman's head twisted, expressionless, back towards the samite at regular intervals. "I hate to inform of you of the obvious, but that purse represents three months' pay."

"We could, of course, store our wealth indefinitely," Zelikman suggested. "Perhaps if it is left to itself it'll breed."

"If left to itself it will breed trouble," Amram said, and with the jerking up of Zelikman's chin realized he had said, somehow, the single thing that made it a certainty that they would be buying that fabric, and that in all probability Zelikman would hire a brace of tailors working at speed in order to wear it out of the market on every stringy inch of his body.

Amram let out of a huff of air and pushed his partner towards the stall. "Let the balance show that I am the one with a split neck, and you are the one staunching a healthy side with fineries."

Zelikman was preoccupied with mooning, and did not answer.

Amram left his partner haggling down the price with his peculiar inexpertise and headed towards the piazza where the other foreigners crowded and changed money and sought favors. The foreigner in Tergeste suffered horribly under the weight of uncertainty as to whom to bribe, whether the representatives of the Frankish king, the bishop himself, or the Venetians. Amram sought out a pocket of the worst uncertainty and settled himself on a bench. It was only a handful of minutes before a merchant with a poxy face had thrown himself down on the bench as well, and a few more before they were flipping coins, Amram wooing him every now and then with his Italian.

The merchant was more or less an honest man, but with the perspicacity to modify chance with skill whenever Amram took a long, worried look at the basilica. Amram was even a little impressed with the way the merchant thumbed the denari over, the comfortable flip of a man who could palm a coin if need be. In return the merchant found the giant African a surprisingly easy conversationalist, well versed in the ways of a hundred different cities, though not in the ways of Tergeste. The merchant admitted to Amram that to get his sandalwood to Venice he had bribed everyone but the serried soldiers arrayed around the square. "A livre apiece," he said, and Amram sucked his teeth in agreement. It was a shame, he told the merchant, that neither of them had gone into an easy and profitable trade like bureaucracy.

The merchant recounted three full trades down to the last soldo before Zelikman appeared, a black shadow among the brightly dressed tradesmen. He was carrying the whole bolt of cloth over his arm, and the merchant saw Amram's expression and raised an eyebrow.

"He outbid me on the cloth," Amram said, pushing his coin to the merchant's pile. "That one would argue a camel into an early grave."

The merchant lifted an eyebrow. "Fair's fair," he said, but he gave Zelikman a hungry look as he ambled their way. "You know, another man might take the opportunity to lighten his purse, under the circumstances."

Amram lifted an eyebrow. "Are you such a man?" he said, and then, reluctantly, "I suppose we could match coins."

The merchant's look of delight was a comfort and a warmth to Amram's heart.

Zelikman let the merchant wave him over, paying the same attention to Amram as he did to the hitching post behind the bench. The cloth he took a full minute to arrange, minutely twitching and adjusting it so that no corner of it lay in the dust or the pigeon leavings. The merchant explained the game and Zelikman made his own show of reluctance, but it was clear to anyone with eyes to see it that Zelikman was indeed a gambling man. They began to play. The merchant kept his coin heads-up, as they had arranged, and Amram sailed Zelikman into a shoal of losses. Zelikman lost steadily, without inflection, his brows coming closer and closer together.

Of necessity any string of losses must be punctuated with a few wins for verisimilitude, and perhaps it was Amram's mistake in allowing too many of them to fall in a row, but no more than a few denari before Zelikman's cue the merchant took it upon himself to say, with bald glee, "You are doing well enough to frighten me."

"The vagaries of luck are indeed frightening," said Zelikman, but he sounded pleased, which was quite an art since he also sounded, as always, like the sour effluence of a barbarian grandmother.

"Let's have a wager with some bite to it." The merchant jerked a thumb at the cloth. "That, for example."

Zelikman hesitated, and frowned, and bit his lip, and then, because he was an infant and an idiot and because they had been traveling together for no more than half a year, he made an unforgivable error. He half-turned to look at Amram. Amram would never know whether it was a look of despair, or reproach, or of permission; he only knew that the merchant saw it.

The merchant cried a warning, but Amram was already standing, one hand on the hilt of his axe. Zelikman was only a moment behind him. He had taken the time to retrieve the cloth and some twenty denari of his losses while the merchant bellowed, and now he looked again with a helpless amusement to Amram. Amram jerked his thumb and they began to run, hard, towards a gap in the soldiery. They were not going to make it. With an effort Amram drew level with his partner and twisted his hands in the cloth.

Zelikman pulled back. "Thief!"

"Trust me," Amram said, his throat too well-used for further conversation, and Zelikman's fingers loosened and Amram came into possession of the cloth, which felt as fabled as the cloak of many colors in his hands. As a good son of Dan he tore it in half. The guards, running to close the gap, were barely a handsbreadth away and it was no trouble to throw the cloth full in their visors. He did not stay to watch the tangle and collapse. It was Zelikman's hand on his elbow now, and he was being yanked around a corner, where the daylight stopped for laundry and overhanging roofs, and then around another.

But the pursuit was still thundering close, and there were desperate measures to be taken. Amram was squinting for a route up the roofs when he noticed that Zelikman was gone from his side. Across the street a shadow flickered, and then let out a real moan, a sound of suffering both sincere and sentimental. There was the slithering sound of cloth falling, and then Zelikman was at his elbow again, and the false trail laid.

The merchant had not bribed the soldiers, and so they did not chase far.

"The trouble is," Zelikman said, over their cups in the evening, "we are a memorable pair."

A hundred replies sprang to Amram's lips, beginning with yes, a man and a peacock and ending with a visitation upon all the fathers and sons of Zelikman's line, but he did not say any of them. He drank his beer, and said, "Next time, steal the cloth."

"Next time," Zelikman said, "I'm buying a hat."