Market-day in fair Daltembra, on the banks of the fulsome Scaum, was often a choleric affair. It was customary to see some purveyor of goods accosted by a prospective or retrospective customer who took issue with the price or quality of the wonders which were to be, or had been, vended. At times, these disputes came to blows, and more than one debate had been put to a permanent end by the swift application of a poignard more pointed than any argument.
Cugel the Clever, who made it a matter of principle to disdain all such conflicts on his own peregrinations, spun on his heel and made a hasty exit between the awnings of two tents as a dispute between strangers grew increasingly caustic.
“Such folly, each to accuse the other of purloining,” he sighed. “The bane of the merchant class is that they esteem lucre over their personal dignity.” As he mourned the peccadilloes of his fellow Daltembrans, he secured his money pouch – perhaps a shade heavier than it had been in the idle moments preceding the argument – in his belt.
The makeshift alleyway between the tents deposited him in a shadowy corner of the market square, but he noted with increasing dissatisfaction the rising shouts from the direction of the conflict.
Glancing around for some form of occupation which would permit him to blend better with the more placid customers, he spied a covered wagon. Its awning was the tanned flesh of the grennic. The steps leading to it were wood, but cunningly wrought to have the semblance of rough-cut emerald. The sign above the travelling shop simply read “GOOP”.
With a single tap on the wood he summoned the merchant. To his surprise, the wagon belonged to a slender-framed woman, with a cascade of golden tresses falling down her nape to gather around her shoulders. Dwarfed by the heavy wrap that concealed all but her head, she smiled wanly at Cugel, even as he noted a knot of tension in her posture.
Cugel mused that she may have had a maidenly discomfort at being alone with a stranger and sought to put her at ease with gallantry.
“Greetings, fair merchant. I am Cugel, a buyer of some means and renown.” He favoured her with a bow. “I assure you, my interest is only in fair exchange. What goods do you proffer?”
“Paltrow is my name,” said the merchant. “I am a dealer in remedies, tonics for the mind and body, both subtle and gauche.” She gestured to the arch of the wagon. “In my youth, I was a mummer, and some call me Paltrow the Disingenuous for my skill at theatrics, but I assure you that beyond that portal lie restoratives of only the highest quality.”
“And the meaning of GOOP?” asked Cugel, indicating the sign.
“The proprietary remedy of my shop,” smiled Paltrow. “Simply step inside and I will gladly show you all, but you must permit me this: each customer is brought last to the GOOP itself.”
Even if Cugel were not intrigued by the curious nature of her offer, he felt compelled to absent himself from the potentially harsh conditions of the market square, and thus strode forward boldly towards the wagon. “Let us be about it.”
Inside, dim indigo light from an unseen source illuminated a chaotic panoply of items. Philtres and alembics lay scattered and propped amongst knotted weaves of strange design, while crystal structures poked out from behind mummified creatures of unknown provenance.
Paltrow reclined on a cushioned divan, and motioned for Cugel to do likewise on an equivalent furnishing. For the present, he declined, continuing his examination of the goods. At last, he came to a rounded stone, smooth to the touch but with pits and flecks concealed beneath its convex surface. A slight point distinguished one end from the other.
“What is this piece?” he enquired.
“The distillation of the Crystalline Egg is sure to eradicate any distemper of the humors,” avowed Paltrow the Disingenuous, shuffling her oversized gambeson upon her ectomorphic frame.
“Hmm. Much is promised by this wonder tonic!” Cugel exclaimed, weighing the object in his upraised palm. “Might I test its efficacy by way of a sample?”
“Alas,” said Paltrow, shaking her head, “I cannot allow samples, for even a modicum of insertion renders the Egg subject to such pressures as to disqualify it for subsequent users. Like so many things in life, it is an all or nothing proposition.”
Cugel cleft his tongue to the roof of his mouth, and emitted the low whistle that he was wont to sound during stressful arbitrations.
“Am I to buy with no opportunity to gauge the value of the item?”
“I esteem it most highly,” smiled Paltrow. “Surely that is enough.”
With this, she simpered a little at Cugel who, touched by her pulchritude, relented from his indignant tone. “I do not seek to question your judgment. Only to select, from what is most assuredly the finest collection of its kind assembled, those items which best suit my own constitution.”
She clasped his hands. “Such discretion shows only that your principal quality is discernment, something I knew from the moment I observed your aura. Here, let me show you a wonder.”
So saying, Paltrow produced from behind the couch a garment similar to her own. Swiftly, she spun a curious dance around Cugel, ending each flourish with a pass of her hands to knot the cloth. In a matter of moments, Cugel was attired much as she, though Cugel noted that she wore a significantly looser fit.
“The shirt hagrides,” Cugel mused, stretching his arms as best he could to stroke the garment pressed against his flesh.
“Some have said, some have said,” Paltrow nodded sagely, “But this does not account for the quality of person providing their mane. My shirts are knitted by blonde monks, drawing solely from their own head’s growth. Thus, you see, comfort is assured.”
Cugel wrestled at the knots binding his wrists tight, and frowned.
“The product may be refined, but I have reason to suspect our definitions of comfort vary.”
“Ah,” Paltrow smiled beatifically, “But mine is correct.”.
Still merry, she pushed Cugel down upon the divan, where his restricted posture necessitated a fully prone position.
“It is a curious sort of merchant,” averred Cugel, “who seeks to restrain a paying customer from perusing their wares.”
“Customers in these latter days seek experiences and not mere consumables,” said Paltrow. “And I am no merchant, but a wellness consultant.”
“Nonetheless, in clothing me in this garment, I note you have relieved me of my coin purse.”
Paltrow smiled thinly. “Thus proving my expertise: you have lost weight already.”
Paltrow freely turned her back, her earlier skittishness forgotten. “Now, what else can I show you?”
Cugel, whom circumstances had often conspired to restrain in ropes of all kinds, knew of techniques to slip his bonds. He sought only scant moments to draw the alchemist’s eye away from him as he did so. “Those items at the back,” he gestured with his chin, “what is their mechanism?”
Paltrow shuffled to the rear of the wagon, stopping just before a small curtain, to hold aloft a stoppered jar.
“An apt question indeed! Behold this potive!” Extending the jar in a white hand, she uncorked it. A haze of amber vapors poured lazily from its lip. “But a few deep inhalations will render the recipient free of all troubling dreams and concerning thoughts. Some say that it makes of the frequent partaker a lack-wit, but I say no-one of sense could ever question such a remedy.”
She moved athwart Cugel’s couch. “This product I am more than willing to let you indulge in, so as to ensure nothing that has transpired concerns you.”
Cugel had made use of the time to free his hands from the knots. Nonetheless, unsure of what other capacities Paltrow could draw upon, he kept them concealed beneath the garment.
Paltrow sat beside him, brandishing the jar. She was careful to keep her own face far from the spout. “Now, to your sample,” she said.
“Hold a moment!” exclaimed Cugel. “A question, if I may.”
“What purpose knowledge,” averred Paltrow, “if you are only to forget it?”
Cugel shrugged, as best he could beneath the heavy gambeson, conspiring to keep his face tilted away from the fumes. “The same might be said of all learning.”
“True enough,” conceded Paltrow. “Ask, then.”
“Oftentimes merchants tend towards the effulgent, rarely do I meet one of your surprising lissomness,” murmured Cugel. As he spoke, commanding Paltrow’s attention, his hands deftly wended unseen towards a delicate limb. “How do you manage it, amongst what must be a trying lifestyle?”
“My own health is maintained by an extract of berries from the Acai Bush, thrice boiled in the tonic of the Sloane Park Fountain,” spake Paltrow. “A less potent philtre than that which you will now ingest, but not without its impact.”
“Yet I detect some slight withering of your hands,” said Cugel.
Her eyes wide with shock, Paltrow glanced downwards at her slender fingers, taking her eyes from her detainee.
At that, Cugel sprang forth, gripped the healer’s wrist tightly and wrenched it sideways, shattering the jar upon the ground.
“My jar!” wailed the false apothecary. “In accordance with ancient custom, in damaging it you have forfeited sums to me equivalent to its value. I must emphatically state that it is worth much more than the meager coin you possess.”
“Enough of such blandishments!” declaimed Cugel. “You have injured my liberty and made free with my person. For this, there can be but one redress. Reveal to me the secret of the GOOP.”
“I cannot abide stress,” whined Paltrow. “The very makeup of my nature abhors it most violently! Cease your remonstrance, and I will show you all.”
With little more exchanged between them, Cugel marched Paltrow to the rear of the wagon. “Cast aside the curtain,” he intoned.
Sparing him only a hate-filled glance, Paltrow pulled the curtain back with a single violent gesticulation. Beyond lay a bath-sized vessel, rounded, and inlaid into the floor of the wagon. Within roiled a prismatic liquid, bubbling sporadically and spurting gouts of colorful radiance up, only to splash back on its sloshing surface.
“So you see,” said Paltrow. “The GOOP.”
“What is its function?”
“Observe.” The pseudophysician snatched a pair of plain brown sandals from a nearby bin and cast them into the scintillating mire. With a ripple, they disappeared below the surface.
“Some form of solvent?” inquired Cugel.
“Patience,” counseled his interlocutor.
A moment later the liquid smoked and ejected a strange set of slippers, pointed and curled at their tasseled end, with a sole made of some elastic material.
“Thus do I secure the wonders of my shop. I theorize that it is a juncture of some kind, a portal to some unimaginably distant aeon, which operates on the mercantilist principle of like-for-like exchange.”
Cugel, though keeping a watchful eye on the slender saleswoman, took some moments to observe the GOOP. “Has anything living emerged from the cauldron?”
“At times,” said Paltrow nervously. “At times. But as with all things, it is dependent on what is cast forth.”
“Of course,” said Cugel, placing both hands on her shoulders. “Only reagents of the highest quality.”
Sometime later, Cugel flicked the reins and spurred his fiacre onwards along the westward trail out of Daltembra, along the banks of the fulsome Scaum. Approaching him on the road, in a state of consternation, were two itinerants, one shuffling with a marked limp. They hailed him.
“Well met,” cried Cugel. “I charge you though, keep back from the dobbin which pulls my cart. The beast is newly acquired, and I am yet to gauge its temperament.”
“A most remarkable creature,” said one of the travelers. “What is it?”
Cugel smiled. “I acquired it myself from a distant land. It is the only one of its kind kind I know. It pleases me to call it a gwynath. I am Cugel, a trader in salubrious remedies and restorative wonders.”
“Then this is the GOOP cart, as I surmised!” cried the limping traveler. “Take us to the mountebank called Paltrow at once! I seek urgent restitution for the pains I have suffered through the use of her Fundamental Steamer!”
“Alas,” mourned Cugel. “She has departed to pursue her studies closer to their ineffable source. I have only recently acquired the business.”
“Then our quarrel is with you,” said the burlier of the travelers, producing a scramasax from a concealed scabbard. “If you have assumed the assets of the business, it falls upon you to make redress.”
Cugel assayed the pair and smiled. “There is no need for such inhospitable demonstrations. If you will join me in the rear of the wagon, I am sure we can resolve any disputes once and for all.”