An Acquisition

Les Sklaroff

Fieldwork has its occasional rewards...

Across the Stirrow from Garrible Park a diffuse glow to the north and the faint brouhaha of mass derision testified that the week-end match was in progress at Praspafole Stadium. Statistically, the Snoak City team had a very consistent record, never having won on their home ground, and their loyal followers relished their weekend chance to taunt and jeer, vying with each other, within the established code of decency, to shout the choicest insults. These were usually variations on traditional favourites, involving grandmothers and herrings, or poorly-maintained sacks of frogs.

Snoak City's opponents were always grudgingly accorded the respect due to visitors, their tactics meeting with murmurs of approval and sometimes even a smattering of polite applause. On the pitch itself, the bloat, much like an inflated luminous mattress, alternately sailed over the players' heads (unless pulled down by an agile leap) or was briefly bounced on before being caught by a brace of tassels and hurled towards a trap, where the Trappist would yell his defiance and attempt to sound the highbell with one of his three permitted jumps.

As he glided round the perimeter the Troller rarely needed to intervene, except when the bloat went out of bounds or a dispute arose over tassel-clutching. The occasional foul, such as bloat-holding or blocking an opponent's trap could result in temporary suspension, but after a few minutes of raucous humiliation the offender would automatically be lowered again and allowed to resume play from a position behind the mulling line.

The half-time gongs were struck with practiced precision by twenty or so young students from Sparagulan College in their black and gold uniforms, reintroducing a welcome reminder of efficiency into the prevailing atmosphere of disorder, while the teams limped off for medical attention and refreshments.

Within distant earshot of the Stadium, Riadne Trox was about to owe an interest in experimental cooking to her scatty friend's forgetfulness. "I promise I'll make it up to you," Paeony had said, flushed with embarrassment, handing her the obviously hastily-wrapped package. "I'll get us tickets for the Skorpz", she had promised with rash enthusiasm.

"But how…?"

Paeony shrugged, and said airily that her dad knew some of the right people in the music business, although Riadne suspected that some complicated family bargaining would be involved. Riadne had accepted the token birthday gift with good grace, while Paeony explained apologetically that she knew it probably wasn't the height of fashion, but she had recognized the author's name, and the cover smelled delicious. On the cover was an appetizing holo of a bowl of soup, from which the touch of a finger would release tantalizing spicy wafts. In the curling vapour pictured rising from the bowl the words Unusual Soups by Mulcit Frusk rose in a repeating cycle.

To the east of Riadne's apartment in Fountain Square, roughly equidistant from the Stadium, was the house in Yarp Street where a century earlier Frusk's talents had been nurtured. In recognition of his achievements (primarily non-soup related) the house and its contents had been conserved, and were now something of a tourist attraction, but the rest of Yarp Street had changed considerably over the years. Improvements in economic conditions and social welfare had resulted in the once impoverished but lively neighbourhood gradually crystallizing into a glittering corridor displaying high-class designer goods, expensive antiques and flashy attention-seeking artwork. Nearby, the pedestrianized precinct still quaintly known as Gropp's Market maintained a busier but no less affluent ambiance. Amid its lavish profusion of carefully-tended semi-tropical plants and the placrylux tanks in which sudden shoals of gaudy fish shimmered among coral microreefs could be found a select group of restaurants offering opportunities to enjoy finely-crafted exotic food for what to many would once have been an entire month's wage.

At a secluded table in The Cylinder two men sat picking at two of the chef's specialities. The younger, a man in his early twenties with unkempt fair hair, toyed nervously with what looked like a small tangle of coloured threads on a neat cushion of moist green sponge. His impeccably dressed dark-jowled companion and evident host idly prodded his fork into a few variously shaped soft pebbles submerged in a glutinous bluish pool. These minimalist offerings had been constructed with consummate skill by Tedor Safra, a name often spoken in awe among the gastronomic élite. From their indifference to the food, an observer would conclude that the reason these two men were here may have had something to do with the half dozen images that lay on the table between them.

The older man was an emissary from Morton Quanderpyre, an entrepreneur with an extraordinary collection of objets d'art. Quanderpyre had few actual friends, but his conspicuous wealth attracted many sycophants. Despite a painstakingly acquired patina of sophistication, Quanderpyre himself lacked the discernment of a genuine connoisseur. He relied on the opinions of experts, and employed a small team to scour the auction houses, the antique markets and other less public sources on his behalf. In building his collection, the one element that Quanderpyre could safely insist upon without betraying any lack of taste was rarity. From the reports he had received, the young man who now sat uncomfortably across the table from Kirard Swerk, Quanderpyre's knowledgeable representative, was in possession of an item which appeared to be unique, and by Quanderpyre's logic, therefore demanded a place in his collection.

It was only a little bowl. When Scanthan had first brushed some of the caked soil of Whissit Fields from its interior, what he thought chiefly remarkable was the fact that it had survived intact a century or more of agriculture and the laying of irrigation pipes. At home, later, when the bowl had been carefully washed and dabbed dry, he brushed back his fair hair and stared in dumbfounded amazement at what he had unearthed. The bowl was thin, and fitted comfortably in one hand. He supposed it was made of some kind of light-weight ceramic. Externally it was a matt dark grey, but its inner surface was coated with an iridescent material which gave the impression of being in constant motion. It was like looking down from a great height at the illuminated surface of a small concave sea. Scanthan knew he'd seen nothing like it before, and had no clue as to its age or origin. He printed out several images, then wrapped the bowl with great care in one of his best shirts, and put it in a drawer.

Since his boyhood Whissit Fields had been a favourite rambling area. For most of the year, apart from the few derelict farmhouses and the annual Maze construction, there was hardly any sign of human activity, and consequently an abundance of wildlife. He had notebooks from his younger days filled with observations of insects, birds and plants. It was an eye trained to notice the unusual coupled with the oblique angle of late-afternoon sunlight that led him to spot his exceptional find. As far as he knew, the area was public property, but there was bound to be some official regulation about removing accidentally found objects.

It was difficult to contain his excitement, but he was determined to try to find out what it was before even thinking of telling anyone else. Pocketing the images, he first tried Snoak City Museum, where he spent two instructive but ultimately unhelpful hours examining their dated collection of utensils. There were plenty of bowls, but none to match his discovery, even in the pictorial index to undisplayed items. The next obvious step would be to consult the archives at Central, where during the week he worked in the hydroponics facility. He could do that tomorrow. Meanwhile, driven by impatience, he decided to show the images to a few reputable antique dealers, each of whom displayed considerable interest, but asked for more information than he was able or willing to provide. One of them startled him by asking, "Aren't you the Trox boy?" He turned out to be the father of a girl who had been in his sister Riadne's class at school, and Scanthan felt obliged to stay and chat for a while, but emerged none the wiser.

He had hardly stepped through his front door when Scanthan received a call from a very unexpected source. "Kirard Swerk," the man announced from behind a richly polished desk. "I am calling on behalf of Morton Quanderpyre." As the words sank in, Scanthan stared at his e-screen suspiciously, then noticed the unmistakable 'QI' shield of 'Quanderpyre Investments' emblazoned on the wall behind the caller. "You are familiar with Gropp's Market?" asked Swerk. "Yes," said Scanthan, puzzled by the question. "Mr Quanderpyre has instructed me to invite you to dine this evening at the Cylinder at 8 o'clock. Please bring with you the images we understand you have. I have been authorised to discuss with you the value of the object in question with a view to a possible purchase. Is that acceptable?" Scanthan realised he had been naïve in parading the bowl around the dealers, who would have their own trade network and client lists. He judiciously refrained from asking how he had been traced. The prospect of selling it to such a celebrated collector was undoubtedly tempting. He tried not to sound too excited. "I suppose so, I mean, yes, of course. I'll be there."

As he examined the images Kirard Swerk conducted a subvocal monologue, just audible to Scanthan as a series of intermittent hums and clicks, and a kind of constricted braying. Eventually he looked up with a satisfied smile. "Well, young man, subject of course to inspection of the actual object, and the signing of a few papers, I think your financial position could well be about to improve." Scanthan, who had been neatly disentangling the threads on his plate and re-arranging them into something resembling a stormy seascape, abruptly lowered his fork. "That sounds… very interesting," he said guardedly, but his curiosity prompted the question he could no longer repress. "Then I suppose you must know what it is?"

"I could tell you what I think it is," said Swerk, "but I would prefer to examine the actual object in order to be absolutely sure." He handed Scanthan a business card with a first floor address in Quanderpyre Tower, then reached into a pocket and produced a thin tube with a cap at one end. "This is a fast-setting protective foam, with which I would like you to coat the object before bringing it to my office tomorrow morning. I will be there from 7 o'clock onwards, so you can still be in time for work." Swerk raised an eyebrow. "Acceptable?"

"Acceptable," agreed Scanthan, with a grin. Swerk discreetly thumbed the table sensor, whose soft chime signalled payment for Safra's uneaten delicacies.

Guided by the book by Mulcit Frusk, Riadne had been experimenting, at first cautiously, and then with increasing enthusiasm. She had tried different combinations of vegetables, tested both fresh and dried herbs, supplemented the protein content with fish, meat or cheese, acquired a colourful variety of spices, and added other ingredients, such as fruit, nuts, wine and cream. Within a couple of months she grew confident enough to judge whether a previously untested combination was likely to be successful, and had invented and refined several recipes which she thought Frusk himself would have enjoyed. Paeony, whose palate had been trained by years of eating out with her parents, had been brave enough to act as a taster, and Riadne knew she could rely on her honest opinion.

On their return from the Skorpz concert (for which Paeony had miraculously obtained tickets, even though everyone knew they had sold out well in advance) the girls were again seated, in a state of slightly deafened excitement, at Riadne's kitchen table. Alongside a shallow basket of freshly baked bread were set two bowls of soup which exuded hints of the most temptingly exotic flavours mingled recognizably with wild mushrooms and garlic. As their two spoons descended, each liquid surface dimpled briefly with the reverberation from the Stadium gongs, but Riadne and Paeony were too intent on eating to notice.

The polished rose-quartz façade of Quanderpyre Tower soared arrogantly skywards, gleaming translucently in the early morning sunlight. Despite having been described unkindly in the architectural press as "a confectioner's nightmare" and "stiff-fingered ostentation", it remained as impervious to the elements as its eponymous owner was to adverse criticism. Above his head a looped news report displayed local sporting highlights. At this angle it was difficult to catch more than a few words of the swiftly-sliding captions. "Snoak Bloaters maintain… fumble… briefly inspired clutch… pathetic… valiant… dead herrings…" As Scanthan entered the building a clearly well-primed receptionist came forward to greet him and personally escorted him to Swerk's office.

"Ah, Mr Trox, welcome, welcome!" Both Swerk and his magnificently lustrous desk beamed expensively as Scanthan, bearing the precious trophy in his leather shoulder-bag, was waved to a seat. "And now, if I might inspect your find?" Scanthan removed from his bag an amorphous ball and handed it to Swerk, who with practiced care picked off the hardened protective foam until the bowl was revealed. From a pocket Swerk produced a black velvet cloth, on which he set the bowl, and proceeded to inspect it with the aid of a quietly humming device linked to a small screen, on which appeared magnified images under various wavelengths, along with detailed chemical analysis, graphs and shifting columns of figures which slowly stabilized. As at their previous meeting, Scanthan again noticed Swerk's habit of tuneless singing while he concentrated, and was speculating idly whether it was an unconscious response to the sound made by his analytical instrument, when both sounds abruptly ceased, and Swerk sat back in his chair, clasped his hands together, and expelled a pent breath, staring hard at the bowl. "I have no doubt whatsoever that the object you have found is the legendary wine-cup of Relf."

Scanthan was nonplussed. "Legendary, you say?"

"Oh indeed," said Swerk. "The earliest known mention is in the ancient Book of Toel, assembled from surviving fragments. Scholars as eminent as Simeon Thark concluded long ago that the cup was most probably a fiction invented to embellish Relf's reputation as an enlightened ruler able to command the services of outstanding craftsmen. From your images I was quite prepared to accept that what you had found was no more than an excellent forgery - an imaginative re-creation from the original description by a skilful enthusiast. Such is the work entailed that even a copy of this quality would have considerable value, but my analysis convinces me that however improbable, this is the genuine article, almost four thousand years old. Whoever made this - and the legend attributes it to the artificer Rahoon - was using techniques that even today would require exceptional ability to perfect. Assuming you are willing to part with it, Mr Quanderpyre is prepared to offer a substantial sum." Taking the younger man's silence as an invitation, he named a figure which Scanthan thought sounded preposterously large; a truly life-changing amount. Swerk placed an index finger on a desk button Scanthan had not noticed. A drawer glided open, and Swerk withdrew a sheaf of papers, smiling benevolently at Scanthan's bemused reaction to the morning's revelations.

Scanthan emerged blinking into the flush of the morning. The city was beginning to stir. In contrast his thoughts seemed to have unexpectedly blurred into a curious state of euphoric indecision. He took a few steps in the direction of Central, and then suddenly realised he had missed breakfast. The canteen at work held no appeal, but he was quite close to Fountain Square where his sister Riadne lived, and he had a sudden impulse to pay her a visit. Some weeks ago, working late at the lab, he had been obliged to decline her impromptu invitation to come round for some home-made soup, and had been feeling a little guilty about not being in contact with her since. Soup for breakfast? An interesting idea, though Riadne might find it strange. He smiled wickedly. Should he tease her by offering to pay? Somehow, on this particular morning, he was feeling overwhelmingly magnanimous.

"Scan, what a surprise!" She gave him a hug. "What on earth are you doing here at this hour? Come in! Can I get you something? Why are you looking smug?"

"Hello, sis. Can you spare a few minutes? I've got something to show you," He paused, sniffing the air. A delicious aroma was drifting from the kitchen. From his leather shoulder-bag he carefully removed, with an air of great satisfaction, what appeared to be a ball of solidified foam.

In the annals of sporting history the following week-end's Bloat match against Vux was destined to be long remembered for a number of reasons. It was an unusually hard-fought game, and what happened to the Trappist is not likely to be seen again this side of Welverday. The Troller, normally beyond suspicion, had never before been disqualified. Some say there is a fine distinction between an enthusiastic ploy and actual sabotage, but it was the first time that the use of detachable tassels had been attempted. And what gave rise to the final deafening roar of the Praspafole Stadium crowd was not so much the unexpected spectacular explosion of the bloat, as the realisation that their local team, Snoak City, albeit by default, had at last, improbably, on home ground, won a match.

© L.J. Sklaroff 2013 All Rights Reserved

Date and time of last update 16:52 Thu 07 Mar 2013
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