And then the houseguard behind snuffled at his permanently blocked nostril, and Grigor's fantasies chilled. He'd been a lot of things for money, but he'd not be a fool, not matter how his stomach pained him. The thin chance of getting through the door without a saber in his neck was no chance at all.
Even if it went right, it'd all go wrong. That's why he was here, wasn't he?
"If you'll follow me," said a footman abruptly, "The Baró will see you now in his laboratory."
"His what?" Grigor asked the footman's retreating back.
Apparently a laboratory was every drop of glass and sheaf of bound paper in the world. But as Grigor stepped gingerly around them, he noticed trinkets he didn't generally associate with the noble and curious scholar. Fetishes. Beaded horns. Dried animals tied to wheels. Carved skulls and candles...
A pair of spectacles and wig stirred from behind a stack of books.
"Good good," murmured Baró Aubegone, and the footman stepped out briskly. Grigor was alone with the gentleman, who seemed to be coming awake.
"Begging your pardon," said Grigor.
"Not at all. You're my applicant?" said Baró Aubegone. His lips barely moved when he talked.
"Sir." Was that what you said to a Baró...? But Baró Aubegone was already scratching a note in his book.
"Indulge me, please. Do you see that statuette on the desk there?"
A black-eyed pottery imp leered at Grigor, who had to fight not to take a step back.
"I'd like you to reach out to it. Do not," he said sharply, as though Grigor had leapt into action instead of staring with his mouth open, "touch it."
Grigor raised his hand, shaking a little from hunger, to the level of the thing's jaws. The black eyes stared unblinking.
Grigor tore his eyes from the imp's gaze and watched his fingertips dance just a twitch away from the cracked clay teeth.
"Just as close as you can without touching it."
He bit his lip. He tried to pull every muscle in his arm taut against the shakes and held his fingertips out farther, farther...
"That's fine," said Baró Aubegone, and Grigor snapped his hand away. "And do you know what I've learned just there?"
"My dear man, from this simple experiment I can deduce that you do not have syphillis."
Grigor didn't dare blink.
"Would you like to know how?"
"Sir," said Grigor.
"The idol did not turn--as it would have, I believe, had you been taking quicksilver. I'm sure you can follow my logic from there." He gestured to the seat opposite his. Grigor sat, his hunger howling over all thoughts to the contrary.
"Now, tell me a little about yourself."
"My name is Grigor, sir."
"Eh? Oh, no, sir. When it's legal I'm Grigor Field. Where I'm from..."
"Height and weight?"
"I don't know."
"We'll measure later." Aubegone dipped his pen. "And now, Mister Field, please tell me everything about your curse."
So Grigor did, almost. He told about the moonlit boat ride, and the minute's work with a crowbar at the old woman's door, even about the sack and what went inside. But in this version there was no young lad full of vinegar and no knives flashing under the Groixle Bridge. Toffs didn't understand that sort of thing...even weird ones.
"And when I got back from the pick," said Grigor, "I noticed I felt a bit funny. Lightheaded, like."
"It couldn't be from the excitement?"
"Oh no," said Grigor, holding back his flash of anger. "Not a little thing like that. Never. And everyone hears stories, like, about the people who live on that river..."
"That's a word for it. And on my word, sir, I've had not a bit of luck since that day. Before that day I hadn't gone hungry since I was a lad, but..."
"So the curse manifests as bad fortune."
"I can tell you stories!"
Baró Aubegone blotted his page and flipped to another. "Your application convinced me you're cursed. Anecdote doesn't interest me. I've retained you that I might sift a finer kind of truth through experimentation."
"Oh," said Grigor, who hadn't understood any of that.
"I've studied every kind of curse around the world. Dozens of texts, as many specimens as I could--beast, fowl, human when possible, even one self-proclaimed elf. Everywhere the same condition is reported..." Baró Aubegone's voice took on a wry, strained emphasis. "Bad fortune. Tell me, Grigor. What is bad fortune?"
Grigor was supposed to answer. "When things don't go...right, sir?"
"Such is life. Does bad fortune make things go worse than usual?"
But he was no longer supposed to answer. Aubegone rested his quill tip on his lip and spoke delicately around the feather: "Is it only that more things fail? Or does a curse shift the luck around so that failure comes at more critical junctures? Is it a matter of degree? Do curses affect the unlucky more severely than the lucky...or vice-versa? There are so many riddles inherent in the premise that not a single witch or conjure-man the world over has proposed to answer me. Would you say you were a lucky man before, Mister Field?"
"Not especially, sir."
"I propose then that your luck must be that much worse now. That you are now absolutely exceptionally unlucky. Does this seem fair?"
"I do think so, yeah."
"Hold your hand out."
"Not like that," said Baró Aubegone. "Point your thumb at the ceiling and hold it up near that open window there."
Grigor did, and Baró Aubegone pulled a box out of a drawer. The lid said ROEW DUELLING PAIR.
"Sir," said Grigor, and Baró Aubregone calmly pointed the first pistol at his head and pulled back the cock. Grigor saw the little ball of gauze staring at him, the deadly package nestled in the shadows, the one that was a twitch away from landing far behind his head.
"I've cleaned and oiled both my pistols," said Baró Aubegone. "There's fresh flint in the cock and they're loaded with bullet and powder. They are very, very functional. Try to run and I will shoot you in the head."
"Hold your hand back up. Straighten it, that's a good man." The Baró carefully lifted the other pistol with his off-hand and pointed it at Grigor's hand. "I propose to shoot your hand now, Grigor."
"I will shoot your hand, and if I am successful, which anyone would expect, it will be very painful--you may lose the use of the hand for a month or a lifetime--but you will be paid. Do not interrupt. You will collect such a sum that you will be comfortable for many years so long as you live sensibly. I think we can both agree that this is not so bad a fate for you. Do not interrupt.
"If for whatever reason the next minute goes by and my first pistol has not fired, I will shoot you in the head and kill you instantly. Given this scenario, I think we can agree that the most unfortunate thing that could happen to you would be the failure of the first pistol to fire. Yes?"
"Don't you do that, sir," said Grigor, and from beneath the desk his free hand curled into a fist.
"You wish to debate the principle of the experiment? You'd better not take longer than forty seconds."
"You're not going to shoot me!"
Grigor lifted his free fist and jabbed a finger at the Baró. "I'm not playing about!"
"Then put your hand down."
"I'll put my hand on you!"
"I..." He squeezed his free hand into a fist so tight he felt the bite of each nail.
Go on, Grigor. What are you waiting for?
Baró Aubegone pulled the trigger.
The clink of metal on metal echoed for just a second before it was swallowed up by silence. The first pistol's cock rested, discharged without issue.
Grigor's mouth felt dry as cotton. He shut his wet eyes.
"Fascinating," said Baró Aubegone.
When Grigor looked, after the pair of clunks, both pistols were sitting on the desk and Baró Aubegone was making a note in his book.
"You..." said Grigor.
"Would you like to be paid now?" said Baró Aubegone.
Grigor swallowed the awful stuff in his mouth. "The full amount?"
"For a start. Four golden doves, as I promised." Aubegone reached into the box of duelling pistols and spread four little gold coins on the table. Grigor stared, and then scooped them up.
They were real.
"Would you like to go another round?"
"That's all today, but I've more experiments in the series. I'd put you up for the night. You'll have food and lodging. What do you say?"
"I..." Grigor's mouth opened and shut. Then, joint by joint, he folded to the carpet sobbing like a child.
"I'll have the sheets laundered," said Baró Aubegone.