"The Price of Money" - the 5th novelette of the fantasy novel-cycle "The Songs of Peter Sliadek"

By Henry Lion Oldie

Fantasy, Action & adventure, Historical fiction

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798
15 mins

CHAPTER FIVE: The Price of Money

…According to the 4th decree of the Council of the Elder Founders, every newborn baby within the borders of the free town of Guldenberg, be he a child of a burgomaster or a bastard offspring of a vagabond, is to be given without delay from the treasury a full board free of taxes, sufficient for the unhampered attainment of maturity and for three years in addition. And if the town council is to linger criminally in this matter, the guilty one should be whipped with lashes at the pillory and be made an example of…
From “The Chronicles of Jackobs van Freye”

At the bottom, a dime—
Mine?
Neru Bobovay

Peter’s fingers were aching; his throat was sore as if a prickly hedgehog had nestled in it.
“Play!”
Peter was playing.
“Sing!”
He was singing while Jurgen drank and danced for the second week without a break.
Jurgen was a small, angry man, with a bird-like tuft on the top of his head. Formerly, he was a solicitor of the Henning City Hall; but now, he was a nobody without a name.
Jurgen Maahlib hammered his heels into the floor, pouring the Deaf Hunter into Benedictine (a liqueur effective against a phlegm attack), red Malaga into golden Danzig vodka, mixed all the drinks together, shook them, gurgled, squelched, poured the infernal blend into rich, dark beer with a foamy, white head—and swilled one mug after the other, filling himself with pure crystal madness. Where any other man would fall under a bench, Jurgen jumped on this bench, cocking his hat; where a dockworker, wild in his drunkenness, would groan and fall with his cheek into a bowl of sauerkraut, Jurgen fed the entire tavern with this sauerkraut for free. If someone dared to refuse it, he would have to drink an awful ransom cup, after which the damned drunkard would be reminded with the foulest of curses, but only on the day after.
A peevish grimace stiffened, as if frozen, on the little man’s face. With that grimace, he danced, drank, and fell into a short, uneasy dream, diving out of it to go wild again.
What for? asked the expression on the face of the sober, sick man, hidden behind Jurgen’s stiffened features; thus, an honest citizen, arrested because of wicked calumny, sits behind the bars of the Merry Men Casemate.
But the answer to that question, damn it, was having a good time in quite another tavern and never set its foot into the Magi Star.
Peter leaned against the wall, gulping down raw eggs, one after the other, appeasing his hunger and trying to save, somehow, his tortured throat. The warm Westbalder with cinnamon didn't help him any longer. Of course, he could send Jurgen far away with monks to pray, then get up and leave the tavern forever. He would be silent there, and his fingers would forget the torture of long lute playing.
Alas, upon closer examination, freedom turned out to be a foul deceit; free cheese in a mousetrap. The bitter cold of November waited for him outside of the tavern like an experienced executioner.

You should have stayed in Venice! Peter's inner voice nagged at him insolently in a mocking bel canto. It’s warm there, plenty of food… gondolas are sailing about… Maestro d’Agnolo, a kind soul, has promised you money and a job. You fool!
“I am a fool,” agreed Peter. “An utter fool.” He even choked on an egg, agreeing.
He coughed and coughed and spattered Jurgen all over. But Jurgen didn’t even notice it.

“Come on, play the Swanker!”
This hellish Swanker, the dance and song of the Kerpenes University scholars, was surely composed by His Disgrace, Lucifer, in person. It tormented Peter most of all because it was ordered a hundred times a day. Even the eggs in Peter's stomach started dancing because of it, so damn merry was the song. The lute gurgled, the throat sobbed:

Swanker, swanker, show on off!
Show your dog-like ass to all!
Go to God or to the devil,
And to heaven wink forever!

Jurgen started dancing, knocking at the floor with his heels, to the slang of educated thieves and pugnacious Bachelors of Science who were fitted only for gallows; to the roguish whistling of broadswords, the beloved weapon of seminarians (not counting the Latin); to the lawless gaiety of strings.

In early autumn, when the roadside of the Henning circumferential road was covered with the first false gold of leaves and the sky lied to credulous people, promising eternal azure instead of the endless rain, Jurgen had been yet the most decent burgher. He had obeyed all the laws undeviatingly, even the tedious dress code, which read, “A person who has a fortune of eighty silver marks shall wear a coat of good cloth. A person who has twice as much is to wear an overcoat, in addition. And he who has saved up four times that much shall wear a cloak, but without a fur lining.” Jurgen had a good job and a decent house. He used to drink beer on Sundays and perform matrimonial duties on Fridays. His wife, a nice plump woman, was just entering the fifth month of her pregnancy when an old Gypsy woman murdered her husband in the market.
The Gipsy woman said, “Give me a coin, my precious.”
Jurgen did.
“Give a hair, my precious, I’ll tell you the truth for a second coin,” added the woman.
Jurgen didn’t.
“You are greedy, my precious. A smoked niggard! I’ll tell you the truth all the same. For free. You will go on Christmas on a long journey, by a road trampled by others, but unknown for you. People will pray for you, spit on your tracks, and forget you. And no memory will remain of you on this earth. Remember my word, my precious. For one there will be Christmas, for another—pork gristle. Here, take it. There’s a penny for you to feast before you leave.” The witch threw the first coin under his feet, right into the mud.
Jurgen showed her his finger, but he was late to insult her. That wretch of many colors had disappeared. He stood at the market square, looking at his finger as if it were a treasure. My precious finger. The fingernail was flat and bitten round. The little man with the tuft glanced at it, and his soul as if flew away. “Hey, wait!” he wanted to call; but it was too late. His soul was gone with the wind.

Swanker, we are merry guys!
Lot will fall—a boil will rise!
Squeals of a pig, and a devilish grin,
That is how drunken scholars sing!

In September, Jurgen lived his previous life. He didn’t tell anything to his wife and kept silent in the City Hall. He visited his father to commemorate his mother, the poor soul, who had been buried six years ago in the cemetery of All Saints. People used to call it the Desperate Graveyard.
His father asked why Jurgen looked sad, but he shrugged his shoulders in response. He kept doing so until October; he would walk along the street, and suddenly stop, clench his teeth and shrug his shoulders. His hair would quiver at such moments, but this was apparently because of the wind. He started forgetting his hat, out of absentmindedness: at home, in the city hall, and in the grocery shop.
In October, Jurgen rushed to fortune-tellers, but nothing came of it. There were many fortune-tellers in the city, but all of them were like barking dogs. It was hard to understand them.
One of them said, “The Gypsy lied! Live and be happy!”
But Jurgen was not sure if she had seen it in her cards or blurted it out for no reason.
Another fortune-teller told him, “Beware! The prophetess predicted the truth!”
Was she warning him? Was she intimidating?
The third fortune-teller added, “There's a hex on you, Daddy! Want to remove it?”
Once again, Jurgen was perplexed and became lost in broad daylight. Did she cheat on him for an extra coin? Did she really want to help him?
In the middle of October, he made up his mind and paid for removing spells and warding off hexes. He ordered three very expensive services. Clerics clung to his purse with an iron grip. He spent oodles of money. If there were a year for every coin, he would live as long as Methuselah. Still, he felt uneasy. Fortune-tellers made him sick. He looked like a heretic to clerics, hiding his purse as fast as he could. He wanted to live but couldn't.

Swanker, swanker, eat your bread
Just before you go to bed!
Saints will pray, but you cry out—
To get peace just fight and shout!

In the beginning of November, Jurgen went to a sorcerer. The sorcerer proved to be a serious one; he had a beard and a crooked nose. He boiled a bat in soup with a leek. He took some hair from Jurgen’s head, a nail from his finger (from that very finger which Jurgen had showed to the Gypsy), and a spoonful of shameful fluid. He also ordered Jurgen to spit in the spoon. Jurgen did, because nothing was left to do but spit. The damn sorcerer charged an exorbitant price, as if the famous Merlin went out of his crypt to fleece people.
Three days later, the poor Jurgen received a dozen dolls from the sorcerer, and the thirteenth one for good luck. The sorcerer’s face was blue from hangover. The dolls were all molded roughly. Anyone would laugh at their appearance, but the power of the dolls was immeasurable.
Jurgen was told to distribute the idols to his friends, wife, father, and mother. Upon telling the sorcerer that his mother had died, the sorcerer told him to bury the first doll in her grave. He ordered Jurgen to ask friends, his wife, and his father to execute the figures of false Jurgens. Jurgen’s relatives and friends would have to do anything to destroy them: drown them in boiling water, decapitate, throw into fire, and stab with knives. The sorcerer added that the “murders” must be as cruel and horrific as possible.
“Death will come for Mr. Maahlib on Christmas, and it will see that he died thirteen times already. The poor wretch. We’ll cheat Death. We’ll say, ‘No need to dent your scythe for nothing. Go away.’ And it will let you live!” said the sorcerer.
Jurgen distributed the dolls just as he had been instructed.
All his relatives and friends shrugged their shoulders. His beloved wife nearly had a miscarriage from such a horror.
“No,” insisted Jurgen, “kill them. Or I’ll leave you and go to a monastery.”
His father took a knife; his friends preferred boiled water for execution; and his wife kindled fire in the stove. The sorcerer’s forgery perished. Jurgen invited his friends for a drink, bowed to his father low, and kissed his wife on her cheek so as not to disturb her before delivery.
Two days passed after it. Then the little man began thinking, how could he check whether the sorcerer had lied or had truly prolonged his life? He found only one method to check it. No one would wish such methods even to his foes! From that day on, Jurgen drank heavily—deadly.

Swanker, we are proud guys,
And the fate is playing dices!
The night’s bright,
Blow out the lights—
Come on, Satan, you invite!

The Magi Star was empty in this late hour. The maidservant, Christa, scraped the floor, which was smeared with tar. She stood on her knees, protruding—alluringly—her splendid buttocks.
Young Pierkeen watched her while sharpening a butcher’s knife on a whetstone. Christa’s buttocks looked like Eden to him; like a blessed hill hidden under the skirts. Pierkeen’s father, the tavern keeper, suffered from an abdominal pain for three years. He rarely went down to the hall from his room, and spent day and night surrounded by smelly potions.
Thus Young Pierkeen was about to become Old Pierkeen quite soon; one of the ten owners that the tavern had already seen. The thing was postponed, however, from one day to the next. The old man was sick but did not hurry to give way to the youngsters. Young Pierkeen was not yet ready to add some arsenic into his beloved father’s chicken broth, though he was pondering it over quite often. The essence of villainy, as usual, revolved around a woman.
The buxom Christa was a foundling. She was brought up by none other than the sick Old Pierkeen for the sake of fulfilling some long-forgotten vow. Now he firmly intended to live up to the great day when he would marry her off to a good man and obtain a fruitful profit in return. That’s why he wouldn’t permit to spoil the beauty by threatening with disinheriting. On the other hand, the marriage of his son to Christa was simply out of the question. So the lad sat like a dog on a chain, feasting only his eyes upon the desired buttocks, and feeling deadly miserable.
Now, for instance, if Jurgen danced the length and breadth of his tavern, Young Pierkeen would not have averted his eyes from such a beautiful sight.
But there were other eyes watching attentively at the dancer. The guest had arrived in the morning. He said that he would stay over. He was a stout, middle-aged man, dressed strictly but expensive. There was only one strange thing about him. The man had an earring in his ear, a golden pendulum on a chain. It didn’t suit the guest’s appearance at all. In addition, if Peter had been more attentive, he would have noticed that the guest drank abreast with Jurgen for the entire evening. But his drunkenness was different.
Jurgen looked like a drunken storm, a drunken blizzard. The guest looked like a drunken mountain or a huge, mossy, drunken cliff. If someone sober were to push such cliff, he would just hurt himself.
The guest sat there silently and swung his expensive pocket watch, Nuremberg Egg, above the table. The watch was swaying on the chain like a pendulum. Tick-tock, tick-tock… And a nervous tic tugged his cheek.

Swanker, swanker, swank about,
Stick your skinny ass around!
Yours or mine,
Herd of swine
Razes pigsty to the ground!

Jurgen lost his balance and clung to the edge of the table. He doubled up, coughing. The watch swung next to his nose, measuring time. Somebody, hidden behind the face of the angry reveler, screamed in pain and fear.
“Want to drink?” asked Jurgen.
The guest poured out his jug into two mugs, without saying a word.
“A toast to what?” asked Jurgen.
“To time,” swung the pendulum.
Peter caught himself swinging too, out of weariness. He wanted to sleep very much. His fingers were burning. The hedgehog of pain in his throat was snorting and running to and fro.
Luckily, Jurgen Maahlib forgot about the exhausted Peter Sliadek. Now, he bent over his mug, but lingered to take a sip.
“To time? Well, that’s a fine reason. Talk to me, Stranger. I haven’t talked with anyone properly for a long time. If time is money, give me a penny. You won’t be any worse for it. You are rich. Give Jurgen the Beggar a penny, and I’ll tell you my fortune. My fortune is simple and short. I know all about it.”
“I know it, too. You have been crying about it all day long.”
“Crying? I don’t remember. It seems to me I kept silent for more than a week. Talk to me, aye? Tell me a story with a happy end. I badly need it to be happy. Or else, I’ll present myself with a rope, soap, and a good hook, before Christmas.”
“A story?” The pendulum measured another moment or two. “All right. I’ll give you a whole purse rather than a penny… One friend of mine, Oswald was his name, was once thinking about a rope, too. It was long ago, but ropes haven’t changed since; they still intertwine into a noose easily. And snow is still beating in your face if you go astray…”

****

…A snowstorm sneaked in stealthily by hollows, by snow-clad coppices. It had waited for a long time in the ambush and suddenly spit in Oswald’s face with prickles of ice; it howled malevolently from behind a hill, waving its snowy paws, penetrated under Oswald’s fur coat, into his boots, and finally behind his collar. It became pitch black. Oswald wanted to curse but managed only to cough. The pious snowstorm beat his curse back into his throat. All he could do was pull his hat down over his ears, wrap himself tightly up in his coat, and bridle his horse. He hoped that the smart animal wouldn’t turn away from the road. Luckily, it was two miles to Leiden. He could make it! What devil gave the idea…
It would seem that the named devil was loafing about in the neighborhood that very moment and managed to overhear Oswald’s thoughts. Confirming the malicious reputation of the hellish progeny, a wolf's howl was heard out of the hazy whirlwind, and deadly universal anguish froze in it. The jade reared, giving up its melancholy at once. The wind caught up the desperate neighing, tearing it apart; the ground turned head over heels and slapped Oswald severely on his back. Something fell on him from above.
“A wolf!” The horror burned his soul. But the fangs were reluctant to clutch at his throat, and in fact, the wolf wasn’t showing any signs of life. Oswald blinked to clear his eyes, and saw it was his own sack. He pushed it away, cursed, and got up to his feet, groaning. His big body, with some excess fat, was aching all over, while the villainous snowstorm bullied its victim, tickling his ribs with its cold knife.
The jade vanished. Only the mocking beat of its hooves faded in the depths of the blizzard. To Oswald, in his despair, this sound reminded of the whore of Babylon galloping on the beast full of blasphemous names.
Snow snakes swarmed under his feet as the blizzard raged around. Oswald couldn't understand if he was still on the road or the damned jade had managed to turn aside. The wind! he thought. While Oswald rode, the wind blew (no, it ranted and raved like mad) from the right. And the Kurtz road near Leiden was up straight. If only the wind hadn’t changed its direction!
Blessed Virgin, save me and show Thy mercy! Put me on the right path! thought Oswald. The blizzard was whipping him, but he turned slowly until he found the right position. He stood there a little, convincing himself he hadn’t been mistaken, and started forward, putting his sack on his right shoulder to protect the utterly frozen ear.
What a dev-v… God forgive me! he was reflecting as he walked. What a malevolent adviser gave Heer van Schelfen and Heer Yongey the idea to send their attorney for inspection of the monastery lands? What can you see there at winter, I’m asking you? The ground was frozen solid. Dry straw stuck out from underneath the snow here and there. Sure, there was a large plot. The clerics didn’t lie. That meant next autumn they would be able to return the loan with interest. The clerics had an urge to build something on the eve of Christmas. They needed a loan. So they turned to Schelfen & Yongey. Loan for the monks, profit for the bankers. The bosses promised, of course, a low-interest loan for the sake of God, for the sake of His passions for us, sinners. It’s just that Yongey will strangle himself for an extra coin and van Schelfen will strangle anyone with his own hands for a brass farthing. Go on, Oswald dear! Jolt in the saddle. Freeze for nothing! For three days, fill your belly with the monastery lentil soup instead of your beloved roasted bacon… And they’ll surely demand him to pay back for the horse, too!
Of course, it was not out of the love for pure art that Oswald van der Groot had jolted in the saddle, frozen on the way, and choked on the lentil while dreaming about bacon. But he had quite forgotten about his salary while forcing his way through the blizzard and recalling his trials and tribulations. Being occupied with this important, and no doubt, absorbing job, the poor man nearly hit on a big, dark, bristling…
Devil!
No! A tree. How could there be a tree on the road?
He was lost.
Panic struck like a gong. Oswald rushed back, falling into the embrace of a full-grown fir. His sack got caught on a branch overgrown with needles. Snow crunched under his feet, the trees dived out of the darkness in tens, in hundreds, and blocked his way as if teasing him. And furthermore, an echo carried from afar, on the verge of hearing the familiar howl of a wolf pack.
In spite of the cold, the wayfarer was sweating. His legs went weak and he leaned his back against the nearest tree. It protected him from the wind, which was blowing now into his back; besides, the blizzard began to abate. Now it was easier to see, not having to squint his eyes till they ached, to protect them from the biting snow pellets. Oswald’s heart began throbbing.
A light—real light or his imagination? No, there was warm, live, and twinkling light visible through the snowstorm. And another one! And another…
He made it! He made it, for all that! Here was Leiden at no distance!
His weariness disappeared. The forest was now giving way obediently. The saving lights looked closer. Oswald’s feet found the way, miraculously avoiding ruts hidden under the snow. A trampled road lay open before him. Suburbs were sleeping silently at the roadsides. The blizzard faded behind him, having let its prey out with regret. And the wolves ceased their burial service for the lost soul. He was almost home.
Almost…
The cunning devil had endeavored here, too. “Almost home” turned into “not home at all” the moment Oswald noticed the absence of his native city gates. The city wall was also missing. There weren’t guards, though it was explainable. What would you guard, without a wall or gates? Was it the Hague? He had been in the Hague thrice, and this small town resembled the beautiful Hague just as Oswald himself resembled Saint Sebastian.
Delft? Unlikely. And there were no more cities in the neighborhood, only villages. While here the houses were made of stone, many of them were two-storied, with steeple roofs, which resembled the hats of greedy leprechauns.
Oswald’s steps were sounding resonantly on the cobble-paved streets, quiet, deserted, and surprisingly clean. Even the snow was neatly swept. One may go further and fare worse, thought the attorney reasonably. I’ll spend the night here, find out the best way to Leiden, and in the morning…
He climbed up the porch of the nearest house and resolutely took the door hammer.

“… There you go with some more fish soup, Heer van der Groot! With nutmeg, with cloves!”
To reject the culinary temptations from Frau van Hemehart’s hands was impossible, even for a fasting monk. Oswald was melting in the hot cloud of hospitality and homely comfort that his hosts had surrounded their guest with from the very first moment.
Clara van Hemehart was a plump, ruddy, chubby, pudgy woman; she wore a home bonnet and a vast dress with ruffles. She bustled about, hurrying to bring the next dish to the table. Her husband, Moritz van Hemehart, the owner of a felting manufactory, was at first mostly silent, tactfully giving the frozen wayfarer the possibility to feed and warm himself. Oswald’s fur coat, boots, and the wide-brimmed hat were already drying near the fireplace (not too close to the fire, so as not to spoil the leather and the fur with excess heat), and Oswald himself was working hard at the table for the sake of his own belly. Hot wine with cinnamon; wheat rolls filled with hard, peppery cheese; a goose-liver pudding, beer soup, and— a miracle, God’s miracle!—the adored bacon, with a crispy crust, roasted on a grill! Indeed, the kind people should be rewarded in Heaven for their hospitality. Some would be afraid to open the door to a foreigner at night. Some would even turn their dogs loose, too!
Oswald expressed the last considerations aloud immediately.
The van Hemehart couple, after looking at each other, listened to his stumbling gratitude in surprise.
“It’s immediately obvious that you are not a local, Heer van der Groot.” Numerous wrinkles on the long, horse-like face of the host formed a gentle, understanding smile.
“Oswald. For you, just Oswald,” the guest hurried to put in.
Meager and straight, like an old tree clinging stubbornly to its life, Moritz van Hemehart leaned against the high back of his armchair. He nodded, sipped from his goblet, and invited the guest to follow his example.
“In our Guldenberg, dearest Oswald, such atrocities are not accepted. To deprive someone of hospitality, to drive some poor fellow away… to send dogs at him! If a man is knocking at the door, it means he needs help. And the duty of every honest Christian is to help his fellow man. Am I right?”
“Of course you are, my good Heer van Hemehart!”
The good-natured owner waved his hand. “Moritz, just Moritz!”
“But, my dear Moritz, people that knock at the door are not always good and pious ones. What if there were a brigand in my place? A robber? A desperate vagabond?”
Only after he had finished his tirade did Oswald understand that the hosts had just told him what town he was in. Guldenberg. It was odd—very odd. The town was situated near Leiden (or else, how would he have wandered to it?), yet he, the attorney of the banker house of Schelfen & Yongey, had never heard of this place!
“Our life is quiet, and we all know each other,” the host answered. “It is not worth trying to steal from us. A bad fellow will find himself in full view in a moment. And as for foreigners… I can’t recall foreign people making mischief in Guldenberg. Clara, maybe you do?”
The hostess pursed her lips intently and raised her eyes up, as if hoping to see the answer on the whitewashed ceiling.
“No, Moritz. I don’t remember. Such things don’t happen here, Heer…”
“Oswald. I beg you, just Oswald!”
“No, Oswald. This doesn’t happen.”
“Is it far from here to Leiden?”
The host pondered a little, puffing away at his pipe that he just lit up.
“Leiden, Leiden… I haven’t been in your Leiden myself, to tell the truth, but the informed gentlemen would say—” Moritz pronounced the words “the informed gentlemen” with appetite, smacking his lips, as if recalling something useful and necessary, “—that you can get there on foot in about twenty-four hours if you leave early. On horseback, you’ll be there at supper. But you better stay here in Guldenberg for a while; you have seen what blizzards there are now! You can get lost, freeze, God forbid. When the weather gets right, you’ll ride off safe and sound.”
“I’m afraid to abuse your hospitality.”
“But you won’t disturb us at all! We are a stay-at-home couple, Clara and I; we rarely have guests, and it’s so nice to talk with a new person sometimes. But if you insist, you may move to the inn later on.”
The conversation flowed lazily and warmly, like triple threads of knitting. They spoke of health, weather, prices on wool and cloth, leather and hemp, honey and oats, customs, loans, and interests. Essentially, it was a usual conversation of two prosperous burghers passing an evening over a goblet of wine. Clara didn’t participate in the conversation, but she was listening attentively, as if she had long, keen ears, like those of mountain elves.
Having noticed the hostess’s interest, Oswald reminded himself once again not to be too candid. He wanted to maintain kindness and all that, but Schelfen &Yongey used to punish tattlers without mercy. Heer van der Groot noted something else because, due to his profession, he was an observant man. Each time the conversation would touch the subject of prices, Moritz’s face became concentrated and a bit blank, as if he performed some arithmetic in his mind, converting the stakes in guldens, ducats, or florins into some other currency.
Maybe he was an ignoramus in commerce? Not likely. It was absurd for a man who had his own, albeit small, business to be confused about prices. And when Oswald told them about his voyages to the Hague, Henning, Rotterdam, or Utrecht, the hosts listened to him with delight, hanging eagerly on his words. It was as if the conversation were not about neighboring places but about wonderful countries over the sea, where bears walked along the streets, children were born with beards, and drunkards drank a bucket-sized goblet in one gulp.
Then again, Moritz had told him they mainly stayed at home.
The moon behind the window poked its horns through the glass decorated with tracery. The conversation began to fade gradually. Oswald felt sleepy—the result of the hard road, the nourishing supper, and the wine.
“Clara set a bed for you on the second floor,” the host said, guessing Oswald’s thoughts.
Oswald got up awkwardly from the table and bowed. “Thank you from all my heart. God will reward you in Heaven for your hospitality. While I can’t suggest anything but meaningless money… Take it…”
He began to untie the purse hanging on his belt.
“Shame on you! Wouldn’t you help a tired wayfarer, were you in our place? For free, without expecting any profit?”
This was what Oswald strongly doubted. Shame was gnawing at him, and still more did he want to repay the kind family. The ties of his purse were wet and swollen and didn’t want to get untied.
“I insist! If you reject, I’ll be offended.”
“Well, if you insist…” Moritz appeared close to him. He stretched out his weightless hand, which resembled the branch of a winter maple, and extracted a pair of coins from behind the guest’s ear, with the dexterity of a street juggler. Silver glinted dimly in the shimmering of the candles. “We’re even.”
Smart, one must admit! He saw that his guest was stubborn, so he turned it into a joke. Smiling in response, Oswald followed Clara, laughing, to the second floor.


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