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Oddities Merchant


Blackguard
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He was a Venetian merchant, or so he claimed.  His hair was thinned and gray, and the wrinkles on his forehead and throat suggested an advanced age.  Behind him stood a large and muscular younger man, bald and with no shirt.  As such, the cart might be a nice stop for ladies with an eye for muscular chests.  He was a dark complected Ottoman, with a sash at his waist and a scimitar at his side,

The cart was self contained with metal doors that could be opened to show the merchandise, or safely locked to protect against burglary.  "Come see and purchase treasures from the fall of Constantinople," the merchant cried.  The Byzantine Empire had fallen to the Turks over 200 years prior.

"Byzantine silk, pearls, and icons never before seen in England," he cried. "These treasure are only for those with the most discriminating tastes and fat purses.  "Gentlemen and ladies only."  A few scrawny children were chased off.

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  • 1 month later...

As he tried to find a distraction from his angst, Duncan noticed the unusual pair and their cart. He had never been to Venice, much less to Constantinople, but the viscount was well-read, and the many sieges the fabled city had endured were a topic of interest. Duncan had seen many unusual wares from the Orient in the ports of the Low Countries, but the only item he had seen that could be even remotely related to Byzantium was the Orthodox cross that Ophelia had bequeathed to Nessia, Cat’s daughter. Kingston would know if these are fake or real, he thought as he approached.

Perhaps, he thought, I will find something curious, maybe even worthwhile. And if it keeps sadness away even for a moment, it will be worth the effort. “May God grant you a good day”, he greeted the prune-like merchant as he got closer. “May I see these treasures you speak of?” Duncan asked as he raised his walking stick to attract the merchant’s attention. “I have neither discriminating taste nor fat purse, but I would be grateful if I am allowed to browse”. The Lowlander’s attire spoke of the contrary on both accounts, of course, but the Scot knew that the ritual of haggling over an item started long before the asking price was announced. Sir Cedric had schooled him in a few tactics. Do not pay asking price, ever, my boy. Do not show undue interest in an item you are set to purchase. Request a price as if you do not care if you buy the bauble or not, and then behave as if you have lost all interest. All of this will save you a pretty penny. The baronet had not become rich by squandering money.

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"And may he grant you a good day as well good sir," the old man replied, his eyes making a quick appraisal of the Scot.  Satisfied that the man was wealthy enough to warrant his time, the merchant continued.

"I am Giovanni Sagredo, cousin to the late Doge of Venice.  I am a collector of antiquities.  I have come to the Three Kingdoms to find fabled pieces and I am here to sell or trade some items in my collection so as to afford Celtic pieces.  I have pieces from Byzantium to sell, including crusader and Turkish items.  But first, who might I have the pleasure of addressing?" 

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If Duncan had known who was who in Continental politics, he would have known that Nicolò Sagredo had been Doge of Venice, and died at the post on August 14, 1676. But his forte was military, not political, so he had no clue. To the viscount, the man did look like he could be Italian at least. If he was an honest merchant, and not a crook, remained to be seen. The Doges of both Venice and Genoa were not famous for their fair deals with foreigners. 

“I am the Viscount de Melville in the Scottish peerage”, the Lowlander said as he nodded to the merchant. “And I used to be a soldier in the Continent, under the French flag”, he added, to deflect attention from his title. In equal circumstances, a merchant will ask more money from a nobleman than from a fellow merchant. The reason? Merchants have much more to lose when they do not make good on the agreed terms than the nobility. Sir Cedric’s lessons had not been forgotten. “So, any military curiosities would be of interest”. Of interest, yes, but that did not mean that Duncan would buy them. There was another type of item that would entice him to make a purchase, though. And I am not going to tell him what.

Which reminds me… I wrote to him as soon as I arrived at Windsor, but I have received no reply yet. Perhaps I should simply drop by?*

 

* Would Sir Cedric’s driver care to reply to that short note?

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"Welcome to my collection my lord," the merchant replied in good but accented English.  It was important to know one's customer.  One could glean much from something as brief as an introduction.  "Let me tell you what I have for you to see today."  His hand slid back a wooden cover on the counter of the cart, revealing a heavy glass pane beneath and a few items to be discussed.

"For a modest fee I have silver Byzantium coins, minted with the image of Emperor Justinian."  Some could be seen beneath the glass.  "I have a rare Templar gold coin, minted in Acre before the fall of the Crusader States.  It would cost you more."

His hand moved on.  "I have a bolt of purple Byzantine silk from the 8th Century..  The color purple was reserved for the Imperial household.  It would not cost you over much."  His eye traveled on.  "I have a woolen surcoat of the Templars with a prominent red cross.  It has some wormholes, as you might expect from something several hundred years old," he explained.

I have a small lead box with templar crosses.  It is locked with a difficult lock to pick.  If you shake the box, you can hear some small metallic object inside.  I have not attempted to break it open.  I think it may house a key or a coin ... or something more intriguing.  The box alone is exotic."

"Here is an icon of Saint Stephen.  The Byzantines created icons to saints and Emperors.  The wealthy adorned the frames with gold and gems."  The painting was a medieval figure of a saint with a halo.  The frame had semi-precious stones.

"I have a solid silver hairbrush with a carving of the walls of Constantinople.  It is said to belong to Empress Theodora.  I am not sure of it, but I am sure of the Theodora Pearl."  The last was a whisper.  "We Venetians came to the aid of the Empress with supplies and the Empress gave this ring to the Venetian Admiral, who was the member of one of the most prominent families in Venice.  It was passed down for generations until I was able to acquire it from a decedent.  This ring, I know to be true, and it is a very rare artifact fit for an Empress."

"I have also the silk turban of Sultan Ibrahim of the Ottomans.  It is a white silk turban with a silver broach and a peacock feather.  It was worn by him as a young man.  It was won on a wager with a Venetian sailor and the Sultan's chamberlain," he explained.

"Have I mentioned something to strike your fancy my lord?"

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This man is good. Not only is his English more than passable, but also, he is showing me things he thinks I might be interested in, like the Templar items after I mentioned I was a soldier. The Italians had thrived on their commercial acumen for centuries. This man was one of a long line of money makers, the Scot was sure. I should play to his expectations, then.

Duncan took his time to look at every item, seeking any details not described by the merchant. He took about the same time with each item, not wanting to betray his interests. Afterwards, he returned to the coins, the lead box, and the Templar surcoat, examining them with even more focused attention.

Are they real? Are they fake? The Lowlander’s brow furrowed. Although the purposes that were forming in his mind would not be damaged much if the items were copies, his personal reputation would suffer if he presented them as real and they were not. The risk one takes when buying antiquities

“Do you think the surcoat would fit me?” the viscount asked, thinking about using it at the masque. “If so, it might be of interest, even with its wormholes”. Interest in that item would be expected of a soldier, and the mention of the wormholes should keep the pricing honest. “The box also arouses my curiosity. It is lead, not silver or gold, and you have not been able to open it. Even so, it may be a nice trinket to display in my study…” the Scot was downplaying the qualities of the items so the Italian would not drive prices up. Duncan did not mention the coins. The Templar gold one would make a good gift for His Grace Buckingham, he surmised, but he wanted to bide his time. Also, there was one other item that offered possibilities, but he didn’t even want to think about it, lest his eyes moved of their own accord, and his interest was betrayed. I am trying to be a good pupil, Sir Cedric.

“Do you have any other Templar-themed curiosities? A great helm, a shield, a morning star, or a flail perhaps?” Authenticity, even if only claimed, was far better for what he had in mind. Besides, with such a helm on, his sad countenance would not scare courtiers away. Without noticing, his mood became less sombre, his face less gaunt. Occupying his thoughts with things other than the death of his wife was helping.
 

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The surcoat was pulled forth so that Duncan might feel it.  "It was to be worn over a coat of mail so it might be loose on you," the merchant explained. It was folded and placed on the top of the counter.  The lead box was pulled forth.  It was nine inches by nine inches and nine inches deep.  A templar cross was emblazoned on each side of the box, and a small cross covered the locking mechanism that appeared jammed.

"I have a Templar battle flag." It was small so as to fit on a lance.  It was black on top and white on the bottom with a red templar cross in the middle.

"No Templar weapons," he confessed, "but I have a sword hilt from English King Richard from the Third Crusade.  It has a lion emblazened.  It will be offered to King Charles first before I sell it to another," he explained.

"I have the gold circlet of Baldwin IV the Leper King of Jerusalem, and the signet ring of his sister Sibylla, who was Queen afterward.," he offered.  "These were looted in the fall of the city and sold to Venetian traders years later."  

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Satisfied that the Templar surcoat would fit him, as the expected girth would be mostly compensated by his 5’ 11” height, he decided to make the purchase, although he tried to give no outward sign of his decision. The templar lance flag was of no interest to him, as he was not inclined to attend the masque carrying a lance, so he moved his head from side to side when it was offered. “No, thank you, master Sagredo”, he said amiably. Too bad he carries no Templar weapons. Perhaps Lord Kingston could help me secure one on loan from the castle… His face did show his disappointment.

“Relics of past royalty are too rich for me. I wish you the best of luck finding them new owners, though. Several Dukes and Earls are attending court in Windsor this season, and the King or one of them might be interested.” A pensive pause. Then, he turned back to the lead box, with the intention of picking it up and examining it more closely, especially the lock mechanism, the hinges, if any, and the bottom. Duncan wanted to examine it for signs of recent construction as well as signs of attempts to pry it open. There would probably be none, but one never new. If allowed, he would also shake it lightly, trying to identify the object inside by the sound it made.

“What else can you tell me about this box, master Sagredo?”

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The lead box looked old, but it was unclear whether it might be 400 years old.  The hinges seemed to be on the inside.  The locking mechanism had jammed by some sharp instrument in the past.  It likely had broken the mechanism.  There were a number of scratches to the exterior, as if it had not been handled gently.  When lightly shaken, it was clear that there was something metallic inside.  If it was a key or coin, it was a large one.

The merchant had sized up Duncan and his interest.  "A Templar surcoat could be replicated for five pounds, but an original, dating back perhaps 500 years is a relic.  I should think 100 pounds is fair.  The gold coin is one of a kind.  As it is made of gold rather than cloth, it is more valuable.  I would say 200.  And the box is a mystery.  What is inside could be quite rare, or not.  Because the lock is not functional, I think only 150 is a fair price.  If you take all three, I will sell them for 400," he offered quietly. 

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Four hundred pounds can see a gentleman live comfortably for a year. These might be relics, but it is far too much money to sink in something that will not produce a profit. Another of Sir Cedric’s sayings, if you buy everything you can, you will have to sell something you do not want to. Duncan could afford all three items at the asking price and his lifestyle would not suffer, but that did not mean he should purchase them. Hmm… what to do…

It was true that the surcoat could be replicated for much less... perhaps that is what I will do. It will save me almost one hundred pounds. The coin and the box were a different matter. Even if the coin was a fake, the Lowlander considered it as an investment. The box, on the other hand, was a gamble. The viscount had gambled on his future in the past, and was likely to do it again in the future, but should he do it at that point in time? Lady Luck was a fickle mistress. Tempting Fate too often led to serious disappointment.

His brow furrowed. He could bide his time and sleep on it a few days, but what if when he returned the box had already been bought? It was a gamble, either way. God! I know gambling is frowned upon by pious people, but this could mean so much… there was a fight inside him between prudence and possibility. His expression showed some of it, and his expression could be construed as the result of financial calculations, not philosophical ones.  I leave it in the hands of Providence, he decided.

“I would be extremely irresponsible if I purchased all three items at those prices”, he said at last. “But I offer two hundred and fifty for the coin and the box. As you say, the contents of the box are a mystery. If it is a piece of lead, it will be the most expensive piece of lead in the world. I am willing to take a risk, but not a two-hundred-pound risk”. His thinking was that two hundred and fifty pounds was the limit of what he was willing to spend. If his offer was not accepted, he would buy only one item, most probably the coin.

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"Done," the Venetian replied.  He had expected the counter given that Scots were said to be thrifty.  "Shall we close the transaction here, or do you orefer to do so more privately?"  It was uncommon for anyone to carry about 275 pounds to a carnival.  Such a transaction might be best done privately.

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Two hundred and seventy-five pounds was a bit more than what the Lowlander would have liked, but he considered it money well-invested… if the risk on the contents of the box paid off, that was. The coin, on the other hand… It will make a good douceur for not having kept in contact all this time.

“Perhaps we could meet at the castle later to settle accounts? I do not carry that sum on me. Also, how would you prefer payment? Gold guineas, sterling, or a note to my goldsmith?”

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