The Green Wine of Celene
by Joseph Bloch
It was a hot afternoon in the Low Market in the Free City of Greyhawk. The crowds were thick, as were the merchants hawking their wares. The crush of people – human and others alike – ebbed and flowed like some river swollen after a rain storm, with eddies and currents as they slowed past sellers with interesting wares, and avoided places where pickpockets were known to be thick. The smells assailed the senses from all sides; sweat, mixed with perfumes and incenses, the smell of roasting meat, rotting vegetables fallen between stalls, and more besides. The sounds too were cacophonous; the constant hum of conversation, the occasional clink of money changing hands, the ever-present shouts of merchants hawking their wares, and of course, the priest.
The preacher had been exhorting the passersby for nearly an hour, picking out their likely foibles like a carrion bird plucking a delicate morsel, and hurling accusations both specific and general. More often than not, his words struck home, and guilty fingers plucked a few coins to throw into his bowl, which was regularly emptied by his tow-haired assistant, lest it seem like his efforts were too successful. Nothing irritates folk more than being chastised by a priest with more wealth than they have.
He did not see this happening, of course, for the priest was blind, his eyes covered by a strip of gauze, his stooped frame supported by a crooked staff.
It was clear that his preaching was reaching its end for the day, and the nearby silk merchant and seller of savory pies were glad of it. Not only did they have to endure his censorious tones, but passersby tended to pass by all the more quickly to be out of earshot themselves. And that meant fewer customers.
But as he paused in his efforts to bring sinners onto the path of righteousness to wet his throat from the waterskin at his belt, there was another disturbance. The silk merchant suddenly raised a hue and cry, shouting that he had been robbed of a bolt of silk from far-off Xaofeng (although everyone knew it almost certainly came from Ket, as the silk merchant was an inveterate liar about the value of his wares).
The half-elven thief deftly darted to and fro through the crowd, and just as she passed by the blind preacher, his staff thrust out before her ankles as if guided by some unseen hand, sending her sprawling. The bolt of silk tumbled into the dust of the market, but the thief swiftly recovered, shouting a most unholy string of curses at the priest as she darted out of the market without her prize. Within seconds, the whole affair was done, and the silk merchant came running to where the priest stood, seemingly oblivious to what had just happened. Panting with the unaccustomed exertion, the merchant said, “I cannot thank you enough, priest! You have saved me the loss of the most prized of my wares!”
The priest nodded, smiling slightly. “You are most welcome, of course.”
Glancing at the nearly empty bowl, the merchant said, “Please allow me to show my appreciation to you and your holy work, good father.” He dropped several silver nobles into the bowl.
The priest nodded, his face once more serious. “You are generous of course. But… Did I not hear you earlier say that your finest bolt of silk was from far Xaofeng?” His staff gently tapped the rim of the bowl, seemingly by accident, as it had tripped up the would-be thief.
The silk merchant, still wiping the grime from the bolt with his hand, flushed. “Well, yes, yes I did. I, um…”
“Then I am pleased that you were able to recover such a valuable item. Of course, all such material goods are but fleeting, but still wealth flows to those who use it most wisely.” The priest paused ever so briefly. “And of course to those who are most generous with it.”
How well the silk merchant knew that lesson – it had been a central theme of the priest’s exhortations to the crowd that day. The sins of avarice, cupidity, and greed, and how generosity would be rewarded by his god tenfold.
The merchant reluctantly dropped a gold orb into the bowl, which landed with an audible clank. The bolt of silk would easily get him three times that amount, and the priest had won it back for him. Perhaps it was a sign from the gods.
“May the blessings of the Blinding Light be upon you, my son,” the priest said. Then, waving a palsied hand, he called for his servant. “Beldo, come. The heat of the day oppresses, and I find myself in need of rest.” His assistant scooped up the bowl and its coins, and led his master away from the market.
Once out of view, the priest removed his hand from his assistant’s shoulder and plucked the circlet of gauze from his eyes.
“Well, that went well!” he said jocularly. “Let’s find Mira and divvy up the swag. And ye gods, but I need to get out of this damned robe. You’ve no idea how it itches!”
* * *
“So you each know your parts?”
Both the man, who had been the guide for the blind priest, and the half-elf nodded silently. They had been with Milanthedes long enough to know their roles by heart.
“But why bother with the pittance from gulling that silk-merchant, when we’ve got a big score coming?” asked the half-elf. “Don’t we risk getting the Watch involved?”
“No risk of that unless you really do trip, Mel,” Milanthedes said. “You know the blow-off on that gaffle is good. Besides, one must keep in practice. When’s the last time I didn’t have several balls in the air?”
The half-elf nodded silently again. Although the oldest of the three in years, she was the newest to the trade, and still had much to learn.
* * *
“Two hundred gold orbs, as promised,” said the Medegian, flanked by his great-helmed bodyguard, as he plopped a large purse on the table before the nobleman. It landed with a distinct clinking sound, causing more than a few heads to turn in the main room of the Gold Dragon Inn. “And it has been a pleasure doing business with you, Lord Melthwait.”
Lord Melthwait, a young man with intense blue eyes and a head of shiny black hair, had to catch himself from reaching out for the bag too hastily. It would simply not do to let this foreign merchant know just how badly he needed that doubling of his investment.
“Of course, of course, my good Pellinar. And you. It’s not every merchant who is so prompt with his promised payment. And even two days early!”
The Medegian merchant shrugged eloquently in his purple coat with the gold brocade, the line of his mouth straight, his brows ever-so-slightly furrowed. “It is both our good fortune that the ship bearing those beams of deklo wood came in early.”
“Well something troubles you, despite our good fortune. I can read it on your face.”
The Medegian seemed to struggle to recast his face with a modicum of cheer. “Oh, it has nothing to do with our deal, my lord. Simply frustration.”
“Frustration? With what? Out with it man!”
“Well, I’ve an opportunity to bring in five more shiploads of deklo wood, from the same source. My buyer has already said he’s got more than enough demand, and will take them all. But unfortunately another one of my ships was lost to pirates in the Woolly Bay but a week past, and I’ve no cash save the profit I’ve made from this one shipment. It’ll take a while before I see the right side of a thousand orbs any time soon, and the bankers who would extend me credit are in Mentrey, two months’ journey from here. I just hate to be forced to let the opportunity pass by. It’s offensive to my faith in Zilchus, god of merchants, and you know how devout I am.” He said the last with a wry grin and a twinkle in his eye, but all still tinged with regret.
The young lord’s eyes darted to and fro, desperately seeking a way to extend his profit from this proverbial golden goose. The man could be trusted, this was certain; the return of his investment, plus the promised interest, was proof of that. But a thousand orbs? He didn’t have anywhere near the sum himself, and was certain none of his spendthrift friends would, either. Then again, he himself was a wastrel as well, but of course he would never admit that fact to anyone, especially himself.
Then an idea hit him.
“We’ve moneylenders here in Greyhawk, man!” he said. Then, straightening himself and casting an aristocratic bearing, “And I’m not without influence among certain of them, of the better sort, of course. What if I put in a good word about extending you the credit you need? It’d be paid back in, what, two months? With the same rate of return?”
The Medegian looked like a drowning man who had been thrown a line. “You would truly do this for me, my lord?”
“For us, my good Pellinar. For us.”
* * *
It turned out that it took more than just a good word to make the deal happen. Melthwait’s assurances about the trustworthiness of the Medegian merchant were insufficient to crack open the purses of Greyhawk’s moneylenders, much less obtain the needed thousand orbs for less than a full 100% interest. And that would leave no profit for Melthwait!
The inner office of Jaren Phillegger, a moneylender with a reputation as a social climber as well as a skinflint (but a scrupulously honest one), was dark and hot. A single oil lamp lit the place, which was without windows, and had but a single door, made of iron-bound bronzewood. The moneylender was scribbling on parchment himself, for he hated to waste money on scribes when he was perfectly capable himself.
“Now,” he said softly, as if each word cost an iron drab, with a surcharge for speaking loudly, “as to the collateral?”
Melthwait spoke, hesitantly. “I will…” he coughed slightly “…stake a lien against my ancestral manor in the Cairn Hills. That should be worth much more than a thousand gold orbs.” His nervousness was obvious; this was a property that had literally been in his family for seven generations. But the chance to get a thousand gold orbs…
The moneylender looked up slightly, squinting at Lord Melthwait’s face, as if to make sure it was he who spoke. Satisfied that his eyes were not deceiving him, he continued his writing, signed it, handed it to Melthwait to sign, and then brought a great seal from a drawer, stamped the document with an air of finality.
“I will have a strongbox delivered to your rooms at the Gold Dragon within the hour, my lord. And I shall see you on the third day of Patchwall, with either fifteen hundred gold orbs or a set of keys in hand.” He stood unceremoniously, and indicated the door with a wave of his hand. Melthwait noted the slight with distaste. In this room, wealth, not rank, told all.
* * *
With the enormous pressure of the decision finally off of his shoulders, Melthwait went to the Gold Dragon to relax and celebrate his coming good-fortune. He was already a hundred gold orbs richer, and would soon add another five to his total, and all for no work! Well, no work but a signature, but that would soon be taken care of. This business of dealing in high finance was as exciting, in its way, as plaques, but without the risk.
He waved the half-elven serving wench over and ordered a bottle of the green wine of Celene, asking if she had seen aught of Pellinar, the Medegian dealer in timber.
“Yes, m’lord. He left but an hour ago, with his bodyguard carrying a large iron box. He said he had to make it to the River Quarter before the tide went out.” She left to get the bottle.
Smiling with the certain knowledge that he was smarted than everyone else in Greyhawk, and quite possible for several leagues beyond its walls, Melthwait proceeded to savor the wine he had ordered.
He had only gotten through a single glass when his reverie was interrupted by an unwelcome visitor, with sandy blond hair and a beard of several days’ growth, who sat himself down at Melthwait’s table without so much as an introduction. He was about to upbraid the impudent fellow, but he spoke before the petty lord could get the first word out.
“You have just been swindled,” he said.
“What do you mean, swindled? And what do you mean, sitting here and addressing your betters without so much as a by-your-leave? Why, I ought to…”
“I represent the Thieves’ Guild in this matter. Now shut up.”
Melthwait gulped at the brazen admission. But of course, in the city, the Thieves’ Guild was a nearly-respectable institution, whose guildmaster held a seat on the Directing Oligarchy. There were rumors that the mayor himself was once high in the ranks of the guild. The thief signaled for the wench to bring him a glass, poured himself a cup of the lord’s wine, and continued.
“It is a crime to practice thievery within the city without the guild receiving a tithe of the proceeds. We’ve been following the activities of your merchant, whose real name is Milanthedes, by the way, and you, for several months. We just missed him at the docks with your loot. He’ll be well on his way to Hardby by now, or Leukish, or Stoink, or any of a hundred other places.”
The blood drained from Melthwait’s face. “My manor! My home! I need to see that moneylender right away…”
“Sit down. What do you expect tight old Phillegger to do? Laugh off the thousand orbs he loaned you, and tear up the lien on your house?”
Melthwait started to moan softly.
The thief raised a hand. “The Guild has their own ways of handling this sort of thing. An assassin will be hired, and your gold will be confiscated for our coffers. Hiring assassins is not a cheap endeavor, no matter how necessary it might be.”
“But what about me? That’s not fair!” the young lord nearly screeched. “You didn’t even steal that money from me yourselves!”
The thief shrugged. “We simply cannot allow this sort of freelance work to go on in the city unpunished. Milanthedes also stepped on the toes of the Beggars’ Union. A lesson must be taught.”
Melthwait’s mind raced. “Surely there’s something I could do. Ummm…”
“What if I hired an assassin for you? Yes!” He suddenly realized he was speaking entirely too loudly, and lowered his voice conspiratorially. “What if I did the dirty work for the guild? To show my friendship to your guild.”
The thief considered this.
Melthwait babbled on. “I mean, honor would be satisfied, your lesson would be taught, and it wouldn’t cost you a drab. And I would get my money back and save my home. Please, help me!”
The thief looked at him impassively. “Well, it’s not, strictly speaking, the proper procedure. I could be demoted if word ever got out.”
“I can pay you! A hundred gold orbs, right now, in cash! Just please, let me do this favor for the guild. Allow me to take up the burden. I insist, as a friend of your fine fraternity!”
The thief considered this, as well. As Melthwait sweated, the thief finally gave a short, crisp nod.
“Very well. But you’ll have to give me assurances that you’ve hired a true member of the Assassin’s Guild, and not some freelancer you found on the cheap.”
That gave Melthwait pause. He didn’t know any assassins, or how to get hold of one, freelance or not. “Um, well, you see, I…” he stammered.
Just then the serving wench returned to the table with a new bottle of the Celenese green, despite the fact that the existing bottle was still half full. “Pardon me, good sirs, but I couldn’t help but overhear you. I think I might be able to help.” She then flashed a complex sign to the thief with her fingers, which he returned. Obviously some sort of sign of recognition.
“The Silent Guild is everywhere indeed,” the thief chuckled. “I’ll leave you two to conclude your business, then, just as soon as…” he raised one eyebrow expectantly.
Melthwait nodded eagerly, and counted out five small purses, each of which contained twenty gold orbs. The thief took his hush-money and left the inn.
“Now, my lord,” the half-elf wench began. “You should know that my fee is a hundred orbs, up-front…”
Lord Melthwait began to moan softly again, but he had to get back his thousand orbs, no matter what it took.
* * *
A day later, as the tide rolled out, a small fleet of barges and galleys unlashed their moorings and began their journeys, some upriver, and some down. On one of the slow barges headed down the Selintan, three glasses, filled with the green wine of Celene, were raised in a toast to Lord Melthwait, who had made the journey possible.