"What a worthless load of junk," Julian said aloud to himself as he rummaged through his recent acquisition. The chest had looked promising when he purchased it; it bore all the signs of pricey antiquity, the rusty brass fittings, the ornate lock-work, the deep royal blue color usually reserved only for the treasuries of the wealthy. But if there had ever been anything of value in the box, it was gone now. Julian had been taken.
He was used to such misfortunes, being in the underground antique business. There were always more successes than failures when it came to buys like the blue chest, and so it wasn't really surprising that the box was full of costume jewelry and wilted paper toys. It wasn't surprising, but it was still annoying. The chest had cost him three hundred and fifty pieces of goldquartz, which would have been good if it had been full of real jewelry or old coinage. For a box of kid stuff, though, three hundred and fifty pieces of goldquartz was an absurd sum. Julian's partner wouldn't be happy.
Just that moment, who should arrive through the doorway but Julian's partner himself, Una Ritall.
"What's that there you're hiding?" Una asked.
Julian pulled the chest back out from under the blanket he had thrown over it when he heard Una at the door. "Junk," he confessed.
"A blue chest like that?" Una asked. "And nothing good inside?"
"Just costume jewelry and some toys," Julian answered.
"Not again, Julian. And I should assume it put us out quite a bit of goldquartz, too? Why else would you have been hiding it?"
"It can't be worth what I paid for it, no."
"You know, Julian, that has to be the sixth or seventh time just this month that your judgement has negatively affected our profit margin."
"I know, Una."
"So why is it I keep you on, then?"
"Oh Una, it's not all that bad. What about the broach from last week? That sale alone more than made up for my... mistakes."
"You got lucky with that broach, Julian. I have to warn you, one more bad purchase and I'm going to have to let you go."
"I understand," Julian said sheepishly.
"Why don't you go out take a breath of fresh air?" Una ordered more than suggested.
"Alright then," Julian said. He got his coat from the rack by the door and went to say goodbye, but Una was obviously cross with him and refused to make eye contact.
Julian hadn't been an antique dealer for long. He had started his career trading brestle, which had been very profitable for him. The allure of the black market proved irresistible to a gambling soul like Julians, however, and after he turned his first big profit, on a piece of stolen artwork, he was hooked. The gods had been kind to him at the beginning, so kind in fact that he felt it his destiny to work in the underground forever. The past month had made him reconsider his fate, though, as he had lost most of the money he had been able to save buying and trading goods that turned out later to be almost worthless. Where had his keen eye gone? Where was his luck?
Julian wandered up from his office near the docks along the Jaidourean Bay towards the flea markets where he had found such initial success in finding rare and unrecognized treasures. The flea market's colorful tents welcomed him first, followed by the smell of searing meat and sweets and the faces of the dealers. Many knew him by name and would hold the things they suspected he might pay the most for. Julian made his usual rounds through the market, sorting through boxes of knick-knacks and piles of clothes, but after two or three hours he still hadn't found anything good. Maybe Una was right; maybe he wasn't really a trader at heart. Perhaps brestle was all the excitement that the universe held in store for Julian Knowles.
Just as he was leaving the market, though, he noticed something shining in the sun from beneath one of the many tables. Approaching the stand, one swathed in purple fabric, Julian fixed his eye closer on the bright thing that had grabbed his attention. As he was bending down to remove the clutter from around the mystery object, he was startled by a voice.
"What are you doing?!" shouted the voice.
Julian sprang up and saw the woman who was shouting at him, the deep lines of her face stretching long as she glared at him.
"I'm sorry ma'am, I just saw something here that attracted my attention."
"You have to pay for things here, you filthy dog!"
"I know," Julian said. He sniffed under his arms, and took a look at himself in a broken mirror on the angry old woman's table. He wasn't that filthy.
"What, you got money?" the woman asked disbelievingly.
"Yes, actually, I do," Julian answered.
The same long lines that had been pulled into a sneering grimace reorganized themselves into a smile on the old stand owner's face. "Why didn't you say so?" she asked happily.
Julian certainly respected her money-hungry nature, and so wasn't too put off by her rude introduction.
"I'm sorry I hadn't yet. Listen, what can you tell me about this?" he asked, as he finally pulled the shining object from it's place under the woman's table and set it down. It was a plate, or a serving tray. It was scratched pretty badly and there was a chip missing from the side, but something about it seemed inexplicably attractive nonetheless.
"Well, it's a plate. I think."
"Do you know anything about it?"
"I know you want it, that's obvious. Two hundred," the stand-owner said.
"Two hundred goldquartz?! But it's so scratched!"
"It's worth what someone will pay for it."
"But no one else will give you that much. I'll offer you fifty, but that's as high as I'll go."
"Two hundred. No less."
Julian was ready then and there to walk away without another word, but he couldn't drag himself away from the glowing plate on the table. If he made another bad purchase, it would be the end of his partnership with Una, which meant he'd have no connections to the underground markets. But if he couldn't trust his instinct now, he wasn't ever going to be able to. He decided to pay the exorbitant asking price with his own money, nearly the last he had in the whole world.
"Fine, I'll take it," he said, slamming the money down and then sliding the plate under his belt.
"Very good. Bye now!" the old woman said curtly, and then vanished behind her purple curtains with a little cackle.
Julian walked through the streets with the plate in his hands, rocking it back and forth to catch the rays of sun and send them up into his hopeful eyes. Why did the old piece of metal hold such intrigue for him?
By the time he had come to Una's office, the luster had dulled, and Julian had convinced himself that the plate was probably worthless, and, by proxy, that he was too. At least he'd have something fancy to eat dinner off, if he would ever be able to afford food again. He pressed open the door to the office, hung his coat up, and tossed the tray over into his pile of rejected trinkets.
"What's that?" Una asked when the plate made a loud clanking noise as it hit the floor.
"N... nothing. It's nothing. Just something for me."
"Oh?" Una asked, as he raised his huge form from his tiny chair and ambled over to the plate to pick it up. Inspecting it, he asked, "keeping the good stuff for yourself, are you?"
"Excuse me?" Julian asked.
"What'd you pay for this plate?" Una asked in response.
"Uh... twenty goldquartz?"
"Well, I'm sorry, then. Sorry, Julian."
Julian's stomach turned. "But I paid for it with my own money!"
"Yes, I'm truly sorry," Una said. He then turned to face Julian with wide eyes. "It seems as if you've found a piece of the old King of Halbincoys dinner service. But twenty goldquartz? I don't think that was a fair price."
"Great," Julian said with a sigh. "What's it really worth? Nothing, right?"
"Oh, no, I wouldn't say that. More like, say, two hundred."
"Two hundred goldquartz?" Julian asked, trying to sound surprised. A good trader wasn't supposed to pay full price for anything.
"Two hundred thousand goldquartz, Julian. Two hundred thousand."
Julian was puzzled, and stared at the tray trying to process what Una was saying.
"It's worth two hundred thousand goldquartz? A scratched-up old serving tray?!"
"Indeed, my boy, indeed! When a king scratches a plate, its value increases. You've done it!"
Julian couldn't believe his luck. The commission he'd make of the piece would be enough for him to live off for weeks, months even. His instinct had been right after all.
"Well then," he said. "I'm glad you're happy. But," he added with a self-satisfied chuckle,"I never doubted myself for a second."