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On the relative importance of hats, horses, and trust among new partners in criminal enterprise

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Amram was careful about getting attached to horses. He wasn’t heartless; he knew what he liked, and once he had a horse he cared for it and would be angry if it were stolen. But he knew the basic truth about animals: they always died. Amram was not interested in borrowing any more heartache than the world was intent on giving him.

He could not say the same about Zelikman, the scrawny Frankish physician who had recently started traveling with him. Very early in their acquaintance, Zelikman had boasted about his emotional invulnerability, how tough he was by virtue of the difficulties he had passed through. Amram was not particularly impressed by this, since it was nothing he had not experienced for himself. He became much less impressed, and indeed started to wonder if this partnership was going to be a functional one at all, when he observed that his new friend threw his supposedly stony heart into every potential outlet he found: his horse, a mortal creature; his sword, which he scrupulously kept sharp, shaving off a little bit more of the blade every time he honed it; his medical kit, full of things that he routinely used up. Perhaps it was his physician’s training. He seemed to see death as something he could bargain with and hold off for a while. To Amram death was an unpredictable and ineluctable force, one that might come for him tomorrow or in thirty years. In his years on the road he had cheated it, sidestepped it, and dealt it out, but he had never started to dare think he would avoid it.

Today, Zelikman was flinging his heart at a hat.

The hat was an absurdity. A sort of rusty persimmon color, it was made of felt; it came to a peak in the center and sloped steeply down to end in points on either side of Zelikman’s head. Zelikman seemed to think that he looked wealthy, or at least like an honest man. Amram thought he looked like the top of a mountain, where the treeline gave out, or perhaps like the unglazed underside of a serving dish.

“Those are not famously ugly objects,” Zelikman said; “and I might infer that in fact you like it, and you have no idea how to say so, and so you fall back on insults. But your insults are more bizarre and feeble than usual! I have found you out!”

“It seems to me that you are very vain,” said Amram, “and at the same time reasonably wise. I see now that you have tricked yourself into believing that because you are wise, your vanity is part of your wisdom. It is not. It is a flaw, and it is an absurd and embarrassing one for a gentleman of the road.”

“You,” said Zelikman, “think that by offering some flattery you can talk me out of the things that I want, even when they are freely available, give me pleasure, and require no sacrifice on your part. I’m keeping the hat.”

At this moment the previous and, in his own opinion, rightful owner of the hat started to object. It had been made in his own household, it shielded him from cold and sun, and he would be sorry to be without it, as he told the two highwaymen who seemed to have gotten distracted from the business of ransacking his goods. He offered these facts with a little tremolo of hope in his voice; they were men of reason, it seemed, and perhaps they could be bargained with.

Zelikman listened to what he had to say and then turned back to Amram. “You see? It is an excellent hat, vouched for by someone who has crossed the steppes in it. I intend to cherish it.”

*

Zelikman was also very attached to his horse, which he called Hillel, right until the day that it was stolen away from him by, as he put it, “filthy craven flesh traders without souls” or, as Amram called them, “professional horse thieves.”

Zelikman wanted to go after the thieves immediately. Unfortunately, this was impossible, given the limitations of time and space, because they did not discover they had been robbed until hours after the fact. They were in the middle of a job when it happened. Amram paid a young man to watch their horses while they were conducting some rather complicated negotiations. The textile shipment they had recently looted (from a certain traveler who had also unwillingly given up his hat) was intended for a particular buyer, who suddenly decided he had changed his mind about what a cartload of silk was worth to him. He had to be coaxed into paying his initially quoted price by means of some deft verbal persuasion and a decorously hinted-at threat of physical persuasion. It was after dark when they left his city house to discover that their horses and the young man who had been entrusted with them were all gone.

They asked every nearby person where they had gone, but no one was forthcoming, except for a woman who said, as if stating the obvious, “That boy with the horses? He’s gone to sell them.”

“There are,” announced Zelikman with something of a quaver in his voice, “no honest people left on the earth.”

“Thank you, Diogenes,” Amram said. Internally he debated whether to point out the irony of Zelikman making this complaint with his pockets full of profit from a stolen load of silk. It might be unwise: his new friend seemed to be showing genuine emotion, something that he had last seen happen a month ago, rather than exhibiting a showy overflow of cynicism, as occurred two or three times per day. Amram was wondering how long this particular tantrum would last, and how long he was willing to stand there watching it before turning their attention to the practical question of what to do now, when Zelikman announced, “We have to leave now to catch up to them.”

Amram waited a moment to give Zelikman a chance to correct himself or clarify that he was joking, but all he did was stare wildly toward the horizon in a random direction.

“There is no way we will ever catch them on foot,” Amram said.

“We’ll hire horses!”

“That’s stupid; we might as well just buy horses.”

“Absolutely not. Hillel needs me, I know he does.”

“You’re not thinking straight.”

“You’re heartless.”

“You’re witless. Zelikman, this isn’t an argument. We’re not going after them. We don’t even know which way they went.”

“Oh, as for that, they went toward Trebizont,” said the local woman who was, it turned out, still standing there. “Boy’s got people there. There’s a caravan headed that way you could probably go with; it’s leaving tomorrow morning.”

It was not the last time Amram would lose an argument to his friend after being certain he would not, but he would seldom have occasion to see Zelikman look quite so smug.

*

Zelikman lifted Mother-Defiler with considerable effort, pausing once to avoid causing damage to the muscles in his arm, and gingerly settled it onto his shoulder. He turned to his friend with a transparently false grin on his face. “You see? I can handle it.”

“While it’s true that you’re stronger than you look,” Amram stated calmly, “it is nevertheless also true that you have never looked remotely strong.”

“I have no further capacity to feel wounded on the subject of my strength.”

“No, but this is a practical problem. No one is going to believe that the axe is yours. You don’t have the arms to lift it, let alone wield it.”

“I don’t have to wield it; I just need to be associated with it. If I hold it over my shoulder, like so, then my bones can bear the weight.”

“You also don’t look anything like an actual Norseman.”

“According to whom? You’re the only person within a hundred miles of here who has ever traveled that far north. Even in Frankia they were mostly just stories. I have a Norseman’s yellow hair and I have a Norseman’s axe, and I have your good word as to the sound of their language. These are just horse thieves. The world is full of such fools, and I am familiar with them.”

“The world is full of fools, and everyone is familiar with them, because everyone lives in this same foolish world. Therefore they will see at once that you are yet another fool. Horse thieves are canny people; they are used to cons and they will see through you instantaneously.”

“No they won’t.”

“What an astonishing rebuttal.”

“Amram, I am asking you to trust me. There are a handful of things in this world I can do well: close wounds, make deals, and lie. This is well within my capabilities. And I know that I will have you there to cover for me, which means I will be as safe as I have ever been in this dangerous world.”

Amram recognized that he was being played upon, but he could also tell that the argument was reaching an irretrievable state. Zelikman was digging in his heels and marrying himself to an idea of how this caper would go. What’s more, having gone along with the plan this far, he was at a disadvantage to suggest anything else. They needed horses, and they had chased these particular horses for so long that any alternative horses were now too far away. There were four men with the herd, meaning the friends were outnumbered; if they confronted and accused the thieves, they ran too high a risk of being killed. Amram had wanted to simply steal their horses back, but Zelikman had somehow managed to talk him out of this, pointing out that the surrounding country was open and not thickly settled, and they would be easy to track down. Therefore, one of them would need to approach in the guise of a purchaser; and if Amram himself tried to do it, the boy who had carried off Hillel would recognize him. It would have to be Zelikman, and Zelikman couldn’t afford to close the deal simply by offering a fair price, because they didn’t have it. Therefore he would need to be imposing, to impress upon the men the importance of their taking this deal, now, instead of waiting for a better one. And without any information to use as blackmail or any nearby political influence to use as an immediate threat, he would have to impose by the more basic means of seeming strong and quick to anger.

The two of them had worked out the persona that Zelikman was to affect. It was mostly a version of Amram, scaled down to fit Zelikman’s frame: he left home at an early age and became a soldier of fortune, worked for the Vikings and won a battle axe, worked for the emperor’s army at Constantinople and won a reputation for ruthlessness, and made his way east to the Caucasus as a free blade, looking for greater wealth and adventure. He would tell the horse thieves that he had influential friends who would need to buy horses in the future, enough to equip armies, and that he could put their name into some powerful ears, if only they would give him a good and fair deal; and if they would not, he would be swift to anger. On the whole, it was the kind of story that anyone could tell. The only reason anyone would believe it was if Zelikman can live up to it: show them the axe, throw out a few words of Norse and of army-bastardized Byzantine Greek, drop a few names that an insider would recognize. It was unclear whether these horse thieves had sufficient experience to recognize actual worldliness when they saw it, but they certainly had enough to recognize a blatant faker, so the two friends had stuck as close to the facts as they could manage.

Zelikman was, of course, wearing his hat. Amram refrained from comment on this point. He himself was holding Lancet. It was a comically slender weapon even when his friend wielded it; in his own larger hands it looked like a joke, but holding it was preferable to being unarmed.

Amram waited while Zelikman was conducting the deal; he kept an eye on the position of the sun and estimated that about an hour had passed since he sent his friend off to get the horses, and there was no sound yet of his return. He weighed his options. Zelikman would want him to wait, but waiting much longer would mean missing the opportunity to save the caper if it was going badly. If he went in too obviously to intervene, the horse thieves would probably recognize him and the deal would immediately be off. He would have to approach sidelong.

He approached the field carefully. There was open space on all sides, so he couldn’t easily hide; but if he came from behind the horses, and did it carefully so they wouldn’t get frightened, then they might provide sufficient cover. He knew there were about twenty horses, and four men. At least one would be speaking with Zelikman; the others might be with them, or keeping an eye on the herd, or doing some other chore. Amram trod softly, moving mostly when the horses were making some noise that could cover up his approach, and made his way carefully through the herd, listening for human voices. It sounded like Zelikman was talking to one man. There was no obvious sign of where the others were, which was cause for concern; more concerning was the fact that it sounded as though Zelikman was acquitting himself horribly.

“Your prices are beyond human comprehension!” he yelled, his voice getting high. “I should be generous to offer you half of such a sum, but I will be magnanimous and call it three quarters—”

The horse thief had his arms crossed in front of his chest and seemed entirely unmoved. “No deal.”

“If you refuse to bargain I shall have no choice but to leave—”

The thief laughed. “Fine! I have buyers waiting for these horses. Your business won’t be missed, you dissembler.”

Zelikman yelled. “Your brutishness equals your ignorance. You wouldn’t know the truth if it bit you on the ass. Your father was a—”

But what the man’s father had been was not to be discovered today, because as he said this Zelikman gestured with his right arm, letting go off the butt end of his axe handle, and Mother-Defiler overbalanced itself and fell head-first behind him, the blade clanging on the ground alarmingly close to his feet. Zelikman yelled and leapt forward to avoid being cut by the axe, looking every inch like a skinny and frightened would-be conman. The thief laughed, showing off an ugly set of teeth.

“You wanted us to think you were a Viking? I would wager that you’re not even blond—”

The thief reached out toward Zelikman’s head and grabbed his lanky yellow hair as if to tear it off and reveal a wig, and he grunted with a mild surprise when the hair did not yield. He did, however, get a hold of the red felt hat, which he snatched and looked at with some interest as Zelikman was scrambling away with a wild look in his eyes.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Amram muttered, and he was about to intervene when he suddenly became aware of the location of the second man. The answer to that puzzle turned out to be very simple: he was staring at Amram from twenty feet away and opening his mouth to cry out for his friend.

“Don’t even think you can threaten me,” Amram said. He gestured menacingly with Lancet.

In short order this sequence of things happened:

The second man advanced toward Amram, who cut him on the cheek with the odd and bobbling end of Lancet, and the man yelled.

The first man, who had been moving threateningly toward Zelikman, looked up to see what was happening.

Zelikman, seizing on this moment of distraction, shoved the hat onto the man’s head and down over his eyes and ran, his feet slipping out from underneath him, toward the horses. Despite the fact that he seemed to be in a blind panic, Zelikman found and mounted Hillel in short order and called out to Amram’s horse Porphyrogene, who regarded him with a skepticism that Amram could identify with. “Here girl!” Zelikman was calling. “Come on!”

Amram was sorely tempted to correct him, but in the circumstances, it seemed more dangerous to seem out of agreement with his friend than to let him behave ridiculously. Amram waved the sword at each of the horse thieves in turn and told them, gravely, “You can keep the hat.”

*

Miles away, Zelikman said, almost sounding as if he were speaking against his will, “You didn’t have to tell them they could have my hat.”

“I feel,” said Amram, “that the hat is not the very first thing we need to discuss about how you did back there.”

Zelikman looked a little sheepish. “I ought to apologize. I thought I had some skill at subterfuge. They started to see through me and my nerves went to hell.”

“Yes,” said Amram, “they did.”

“I’m going to try to do better.”

Amram had a choice, he knew. He could declare the partnership a failure right now. He could tell Zelikman to go back west and beg, borrow or steal his own livelihood instead of interfering with Amram's. But he already knew that he would not do this. He said, instead, “I have a hunch you will find another hat. But you have to be better than this, immediately. Not just try. Otherwise I’d be better off alone.”

Zelikman clearly wanted to say something to that, and he came close to doing so, furrowing his brow and opening his mouth but not quite arriving at the step where he would have needed to vocalize some sound. If he wanted to plead his case, he was resisting the temptation.

They had gone for some distance when Zelikman said thoughtfully, “Did it really look like the unglazed underside of a serving dish?”

“Uncannily so. Perhaps next time you can find one that looks like a turnip.”

“Ha! I can do you one better and find a hat that resembles a cabbage, and you’ll be sorry you spoke so ill of the last one.”

“Truly there is nothing on which you could more profitably spend your attention, except for everything else I can possibly imagine.”

“You continue to underestimate my capabilities. I could search simultaneously for a spite-hat and one that I genuinely like.”

“I doubt that I could tell the difference.”

“I know, your taste is so uneducated! I have a great deal left to teach you. This is why it’s important for you to keep me around.”

“Truly your condescension flatters me.”

This was as much of a reconciliation as they managed that day; but it was, for the time being, as much of one as they needed.