The old woman’s eyes twinkled.
“Ah, you have noticed the watch...you have the eye, yes you do! This watch, it is a treasure beyond imagining. I would not part with it, but times are hard, yes. My poor husband, lost to the war, my children fatherless and hungry. What is a poor woman to do? Even our dearest possessions must be sacrificed, for what good are keepsakes to the starving or the dead?
“No, kind sir, let us not talk about cost, not yet. It would be meaningless to speak of price before you understand what you hold. It is a pretty thing; yes it is, see the engraving on the case? And do you recognize the maker’s mark? The movement is the work of the Master of Fieschertal. Twenty years alone in his workshop the shadow of the Strahlhorn; just thirteen watches constructed; each one the finest timepiece the world had ever seen, surpassing even the Master’s own prior work. This...this is the thirteenth and most prized of the watches, the culmination of a life of solitary genius.
“But if this watch, merely for its construction and beauty, would be a bargain at twice what I assure you will be my modest asking price, for its history it is worth a thousand times what I ask. It was this watch that Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen, carried into battle against the ghosts of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Beelzebub, as he rescued Marie Antoinette and defended the honor of Germany against the depredations of the National Assembly. It was this watch that Baron Munchausen pressed into the hands of Louis-Charles, Dauphin of France, when Marie Antoinette presented the child for the Baron’s blessing.
“And when the Dauphin and his mother were taken to Temple Prison during the Revolution, it was this watch that purchased his freedom. Knowing that the boy was doomed as soon as his father died and the Dauphin became the King, his mother produced the watch, which she had secreted about her person – I need not go into indelicate detail as to where – and offered it to her jailers if they would substitute another boy for Louis-Charles.
“Oh, can you imagine the horror...the greedy and lustful eyes of the guards as they beheld such a priceless treasure in the hands of such a beautiful lady. Yet even the brutish revolutionaries, whose fortunes were tied to the destruction of all that was refined and civilized in France, were struck by the craftsmanship of the watch and the nobility of the Queen. They acceded to her offer, substituted a peasant child for the young King, and transported Louis-Charles out of the prison into the hands of royalist sympathizers.
“The young king lived the rest of his life in exile, under a new name, but never forgot the watch that had saved his head. He eventually became a clockmaker, driven by his memory of the finest timepiece ever to exist, next to the celestial clockwork of God’s heavenly spheres.
“The watch itself passed from hand to hand, bartered, bought, stolen, always moving as if it recognized the ignoble hands into which it had fallen, and refused to settle until it had found its way to one worthy to keep it. It was this watch that Tsar Nicholas the Second wore on that evil night in July, when the Bolsheviks came for the Emperor and his family in the cellar. Some say that the watch cost Asaf Jah the Seventh his rule over the Princely State of Hyderabad, when India invaded for the sole purpose of obtaining it.
“Now it is in my hands, but I am simply another who must pass it along without truly possessing it. It is the token of a hero and a king, and it is said that it will grant its true owner the qualities of true nobility. Is that not a thing worth having? Is it not worth everything one possesses?
“So, my fine young man, what say you? Will you purchase this treasure, and seize your destiny?”
* * *
Forrest reappeared by my side from out of the crowd, took the watch out of my hand and gave it back to the old woman.
“He’s not interested,” he said, leading me away into the press and shuffle of bodies that filled the paths of the fair.
I struggled to stay close to him. The country fair extended beyond sight in every direction, colorful tents and cheap stalls packed side-by-side along dirt paths, as a teeming crowd jostled its way from one vendor to the next. The merchants shouted at us as we passed, spinning legends and tall tales about their wares.
The vast majority of the crowd was made up of the background extras of the dream world, blurry, ill-defined figures who only took on form and feature when I focused on them for any length of time. The faces shifting around us leered and laughed, pouted and grinned.
Not all of them were human, though; or at least, entirely human. I had bumped into one man with a nest of writhing snakes in place of his left arm, which spat at me as I drew back. Another woman had miniature police car on her shoulders in place of a head, lights flashing and sirens blaring. Others were entirely alien, gelatinous blobs mingling with weird animal hybrids. They all wore outfits appropriate to the period – even the blobs, who were oozily wrapped in Renaissance finery, with ill-defined protuberances in place of arms, legs and head.
There were also dreamers, more of them than I’d seen in one place before. I constantly jostled against them, and the bizarre not-quite-déjà-vu sensation of touching sleepwalkers sharpened my disorientation in the chaos of the marketplace.
The woman who offered me the watch had been mostly normal, except for the slightly bluish cast to her skin. I was miffed that the captain had interrupted her spiel; a watch that worked in this world could have been very useful. “I just wanted to ask the price,” I said.
Forrest said something, which I lost in the noise.
“I said, she told you the price. Everything you have. I told you, it’s dangerous to want things.”
I thought darkly about what I wanted to happen to Forrest. “She didn’t have her facts right, anyway,” I muttered.
“You’re going to need to let go of concepts like true and false. One becomes the other quickly here.”
[Go to Chapter 11.3]
[Go to Chapter 11.3]