THE JADE DRAGON - JASON GALLAGHER
A customer, as promised! Akartis tried not to react, but seeing a customer was like seeing an oasis in the middle of a desert. His bank account was days away from being empty.
Her girth filled the space between the displays, and she wore a white fur around her neck and diamond earrings that glittered in the light from the antique lamps. Her shoes clacked on the unpolished hardwood floors. Imectas was with her. They’d seen each other just a few days ago. Akartis resented the idea that he couldn’t make the sale on his own, but Imectas needed to play his part in this too.
He shuffled his papers together into a neat pile, bills that he didn’t want to look at anyways. The letter threatening
eviction if he didn’t pay the rent was particularly offensive; he put that at the bottom of the stack. He tucked the stack into a book with an embossed leather cover. A gift from Imectas. With any luck, it was going to make the two of them very rich.
He didn’t leave his desk, though. He knew if he were too eager she might not buy. He waited patiently while the woman and Imectas looked around his store. She stopped to ponder an ancient clock, carved in an austere, modernist style that emphasized its geometry. That was a find he was proud of. Still, it hadn’t sold yet, even after a year on the floor. He could feel it mocking him for his choice of career.
After a few minutes, he decided it was time to step in and see if he could get a sale.
“I see you have a good eye for fine antiques. That table and chair come from the court of King Elamas, of Mirania. They’re in excellent condition for being two hundred years old.”
She turned to look at him, her gaze appraising him as if he were an artifact himself. “Yes, it is nice, but nothing unique. Elamas was famous for his interest in fine wooden furniture, his court is known for countless similar sets. I already have a dining table.” She turned to Imectas. “You promised we’d find something valuable here. ‘One of a kind’ you said.”
Everything here is ‘one of a kind,’ Akartis thought, but apparently he was the only one who thought so.
Imectas nodded. “I did, milady, and you will. We’ve hardly scratched the surface of this collection.” He gave no indication that he knew Akartis.
Akartis turned and picked up a small statuette of a jade dragon. The lady was looking the other way and Imectas mouthed “let me do it” behind her back.
Akartis put it back. He resented Imectas’s intrusion but decided to play along. This was his idea after all. He crossed the room to fetch a painting and set it up nearby. “I think you should have a look at this, milady. It’s a real Machtver, one of his mature works.”
It depicted a young couple sharing a picnic in the shade of a bright green maple. The fine brushstrokes captured the exact shading and proportions of the subjects. You could feel the longing in the young man’s eyes and see the girl’s modesty in her smile. This, too, should have been sold by now. It could have paid the rent and two months’ worth of food.
The woman was silent for a moment, her lips drawn in a thin line. “I’ll, admit, I don’t yet have a Machtver in my collection, but that’s because he was hardly the most talented
painter of his time. Still, I’m surprised to see one here. You must have traveled quite far to get it.”
“Milady,” interjected Imectas, “while this is of course a fine work, I know of a number of Machtver works going up for auction in the coming months. If you do want one, you’ll be able to get another one.
“Look at this.” He picked up the jade dragon. “It’s
exquisite. Hand-crafted, from the Umi dynasty, I believe?” He looked at Akartis with a gleam in his eye.
Exquisite, he’d said. Akartis certainly agreed. The marbled jade dragon was crafted with detail, from the individual scales and claws to the fangs and eyes that burned with life. It was poised on an ivory cloud, as if it would take off and fly around the room. He was going to have a hard time seeing it go.
She took the statuette from Imectas, turning it over and examining it from all angles. “It certainly is a step above the other items you showed me. Third-century Umi, you said”
“Yes,” he replied, taking the statuette back from her and returning it to its display. “And certainly one of a kind. Any price that our friend here could name would be much too low to account for its rarity.”
Akartis frowned. He hadn’t thought of a price. It had to be something that would make up for a year of earning next to nothing off this shop.
“Your friend here is right, unfortunately. I journeyed across the sea to find it. I couldn’t let it go for any less than fifty thousand pieces.”
She seemed to think it over, stroking the snow-white fur she had wrapped around her neck. Akartis resisted the urge to fidget. If he didn’t make the sale, he might as well pack up and leave now. He wouldn’t be able to pay the rent.
“Well, I don’t know that I can see it being worth fifty thousand. I’ll offer thirty-five thousand for it, nothing more.”
Imectas nodded behind the woman’s back, and Akartis smiled. “That’s acceptable. it’s yours.”
It was just three days later when she returned. The store was covered in half-filled boxes. He’d hoped to be gone by now, but Imectas had never returned and he hadn’t been able to find anyone else to help. Unlike last time, she wasn’t wearing her furs, and she didn’t linger and look at the antiques. She strode straight up to him, her thick legs pushing aside the boxes.
He stopped packing and managed the brightest smile he could. “It’s good to see you again. How can I help you?”
“It’s gone!” she said, looking at him as if she suspected he already knew what she was talking about. “I want my money back.”
“What’s gone?” He felt dread dragging his stomach into his feet. Where was Imectas?
“The dragon! The precious dragon!”
He should have just left. Paid the rent and left. It had been silly to think he might take the antiques along.
She looked around the room as if seeing the boxes for the first time. “I hope you weren’t planning on leaving.”
He wished something, anything, would happen to get him out of this mess. “Actually, I am. And I cannot give you your money back unless you also return the dragon. What happened?” He went back over to his desk, and she followed him.
“I brought it home, and my husband, he loved it. For what it cost, he had to. Thought it was the perfect blend of wealth and taste. We set it up on the mantle in the drawing room, where we usually entertain guests. Now it’s gone, and I can’t imagine what’s happened.”
Akartis swallowed and steeled himself. He was going to have to see this through, even if he didn’t end up liking where things went. He felt like an ass for agreeing to Imectas’s
scheme. “It was a rare find indeed. I was so happy to have found it a deserving home with you. Do you think it was stolen?”
She shook her head, her dangling diamond earrings sparkling with the lamplight. “We employ two guards, one in front and one in back. They were on duty all night, patrolling the yard, and they’re certain nobody entered or left the house.”
Akartis nodded, making sure not to do so too fast or too emphatically. “Could the guards have made a mistake? The dragon is gone, after all.”
She seemed to take this into consideration, staring off into space as if something else was on her mind. “I don’t really want to think it. My husband would have their heads if they found out anyone got in without them knowing.”
“Have you talked at all to the city guard?”
“Oh no.” She waved her hand, as if to brush the thought away. “They’re so clumsy. Having an investigation around the house would be a disaster. Besides, I don’t really believe it was stolen.”
“Oh?” He folded his hands and leaned on his desk, trying to look more amused than afraid. “What do you think happened?”
“I don’t really know. I suspect it was some sort of trick to con a decent, upstanding woman out of her money. I don’t know
if the dragon was real or not, but it’s gone and you’re thirty-five thousand richer. It seems suspicious to me.”
Con a decent, upstanding woman? He knew the price of the dragon was a pittance for this woman, yet he was starving himself and should probably skip dinner again. It was hard for him to hold his frustration in.
“How could I have done anything? You said yourself that nobody went in or out of your house. I couldn’t have stolen it.”
She threw up her arms in exasperation. “I don’t know how you did it! Maybe it was some sort of magic trick--“
“Magic?” he interjected. He gave a forced laugh. “Really now, magic is the stuff of fairy tales!”
She scowled, then picked up the wooden fairy that was on display. He wished she wouldn’t touch it. “What’s this? The next scheme?”
He came out from behind the desk and gently took the fairy from her. “I’m sorry ma’am. There really isn’t anything I can do about it. I have to get back to maintaining the shop now.” He tried to guide her towards the door.
She stood rooted to the spot, glaring at him.
He willed himself not to swallow or make any other signs of unease. “As I said, I can’t help you. If you’d please come back some other time, I have work to do.”
She strode toward the door, her shoes clacking loudly, then turned and pointed a finger at him. “Either you find the dragon, or you return the money I paid for it. My husband will make your life hell if you don’t.”
The truth is: Akartis did know what happened to the jade dragon. He’d found out just the day after the woman had come in to buy it.
It was getting late, and he wanted to spend more time with the curious notebook he’d gotten, so he turned the sign on the door to CLOSED. The notebook was waiting on his desk. It was an unusual find even from the outside. The binding was leather, with all manner of symbols and flourishes embossed on the cover. When you opened it up, there were three pages of instructions. They were in an ancient language that Akartis hadn’t yet chanced to study, but Imectas had explained what they said. After that, it was blank. If you didn’t know better, you’d start to wonder if it was unfinished. But it was that way by design. The blank pages had a miraculous secret within them.
He took out a pen and began to draw. While he’d been haggling over the price of a set of chairs with a customer, it had come to him. A delicate fairy, standing in the shade of a toadstool. It was even more whimsical than the dragon, and he
was sure it would capture the imagination of some rich woman. He could claim it came from overseas, that he’d traveled for months and found it in a faraway country. He smiled, having enjoyed his first decent meal in months thanks to the money from the dragon.
As he started to sketch the outline of the fairy, he did have to admit to himself that he felt at least a little guilty. It wasn’t necessarily that the dragon was a fake; after all, he hadn’t modeled it after any particular artifact. Still, it wasn’t from the Umi dynasty either, as Imectas had told her.
Where was Imectas anyways? He said he’d come in today to collect his share of the earnings. Akartis wanted that meeting to be over as quickly as possible. Try as he might, he still couldn’t let go of their past, even to get himself out of poverty.
He finished shaping the wings, then started outlining the toadstool. Thirty-five thousand was a lot, more than enough to live off for a year if you were frugal. But, he’d have to split it with Imectas, so really it was seventeen and a half thousand. Still very good. It felt fantastic to pay off all that back rent. He was supposed to jump ship and get out now, but it was going to take time to pack up all the inventory anyways. If he could sell this new creation for another thirty thousand in the meantime, they’d really be set.
He chided himself. The inventory was what got him into this situation in the first place. He’d spent all his savings acquiring it and opening the store, then keeping himself alive for a year while none of it sold. But while his stomach was full, he loved every minute of it.
He took out a set of paints and the finest brush he owned. The fairy would need color to truly bring her to life. He dipped his brush in the pitcher of water he kept on his desk, then swirled it around in the peach-colored paint. Yes, on a certain level it was wrong to have taken the money for the dragon. But there was no way she’d know. The best thing he could do for his conscience was not to repeat the mistake. But the money…
When he finished, he put his brush down and admired the small fairy taking shade under the toadstool. He’d finally found a good use for his artistic talents. He was certain she would sell.
She was something to be proud of, but it wasn’t the painting he was after. He ripped the page out of the notebook and took out a copper bowl he kept under his desk. He laid the page in it, with the painting facing him. Then he took a knife and made a small cut on his thumb. He winced. If it weren’t for the money, he’d never have gotten himself to do that. He squeezed out several drops of blood, scattering them over the
drawing. Then, he lit a candle with his desk lamp, and used that to light the page on fire. It burned bright, releasing an unnatural cloud of pure white smoke that hid the entire bowl. And when the smoke dissipated, there was the fairy. Beautiful carved wood, with paint that was just faded enough to make her look old and valuable. If he said she was by the right artist, maybe Vermesh, or Nucram, she’d sell for plenty. He picked her up and admired her. Yes, this notebook would be his ticket. He’d never have to worry about the rent again.
He turned to look up at the wall. There was an ornate clock carved from granite mounted there. It was his first creation using the notebook, and he’d decided not to sell it. He was proud that it was his own work. He felt so pleased that he could kiss Imectas for giving him the book. Idly, he wondered where Imectas was.
Then, as he was still admiring it, the clock faded, first becoming translucent, then transparent, then disappearing entirely.
It was two weeks ago that Akartis learned about the notebook.
Imectas had sent him a letter to let him know about the upcoming estate auction he would be leading. It actually came as
a bit of a surprise. Akartis had told Imectas many times about his love for the past and its artifacts, but Imectas had never mentioned being an auctioneer. Of course, at the time, he hadn’t been an antiquities dealer either. When they’d met, he’d been staying in town while the ship he worked on was moored at the port. It appeared he’d finally given up the sea.
It took a whole day to travel to the auction, which Akartis could afford to do since business had been non-existent. Plus, the letter promised a one-of-a-kind artifact that was sure to make him rich. Able to pay the rentwould have been reason enough to go.
Seeing Imectas again, though, that was going to be tough. Three months they’d spent together, three months that Akartis would remember for the rest of his life. And then he’d disappeared. At first, he’d assumed Imectas had simply gone back to sea. Akartis had the name of the ship he was working on and went down to the port when news came that the ship had returned. Imectas wasn’t there. Akartis felt abandoned.
That was three years ago.
The mansion certainly looked as though it could house some valuable artifacts. In the entrance, a chandelier with strings of diamonds sent sparkling rainbows splashing over the walls and floors. Two staircases with ornately carved banisters wrapped
around the foyer, leading up to a balcony, and the walls were decorated with exquisite paintings that must not have been for sale that day.
The auction was in the drawing room. Akartis looked around but didn’t see Imectas. Rather than get lost searching for him, Akartis decided to sit down and wait with the other attendees. Their clothes told him they clearly had more money than he did to spend on these things. He wondered if there was really any point to having come.
Imectas entered from a door on the left, and the auction began. The first several objects were certainly unique finds, but they didn’t really interest Akartis. Imectas looked like a completely different person standing up there, his hair slicked back and shining, all trace of a beard gone, dressed in a suit. A complete makeover from the rugged sailor he’d first fallen for, but still handsome, all the same. A feeling of longing mixed with his memories of abandonment.
A painting was produced next. It depicted a king, looking victorious after battle, sword raised to the sky. The brushwork was so detailed Akartis could have been fooled into thinking he were looking at an actual person. He felt compelled and found himself bidding even though he had no money to do so.
The others felt as compelled as he did. The price rose and rose, until it was higher than the three months’ rent he was past due on. He bid anyways, and yet there were still two more bids from and elderly lady and a young man in uniform. Eventually, the price passed the point where his conscience awoke. He gave in, and the man in uniform took the painting with him.
When all the items had been sold, Akartis waited for the others to leave, then walked up to see Imectas. The auctioneer was packing things away but stopped and smiled when he saw Akartis. “You should be glad those two outbid you, you know. I couldn’t believe you didn’t stop yourself earlier. It was a fine painting, wasn’t it?”
Akartis knew he couldn’t afford to buy such priceless art, but it still stung to hear it from someone else. “You said that you had something for me. Everything’s been sold.”
“Not everything. I promise you, I didn’t invite you out here for nothing.” Imectas looked around to make sure the room was empty. “Take a look at this.”
He reached into one of his bags and pulled out the notebook. “I found this in the deceased’s collection. His heirs must not have known what it was, otherwise they wouldn’t have
thought of selling it. I know it looks like nothing special, but let me show you what it does.”
Imectas did a demonstration right there on the floor. Akartis was surprised to see Imectas cut himself, and even more surprised to see him light a fire in the middle of a mansion. But there it was. Before there had been a drawing of a swan, now there was a beautiful crystal swan sitting in its place.
Akartis was speechless.
“Look, I guess you can see this as a sort of peace offering. I screwed up, I know I did. I should have told you I had to leave, but we were having such a good time that I couldn’t bear to say it. I’m actually finding it hard to believe you even came out here at all. So, I’m giving this to you. Think of what you can do with it! I couldn’t just let it get auctioned away.”
Akartis took the notebook from Imectas, brushing his hand over the embossed leather cover. Unbelievable. Priceless. “I can’t take this from you.”
Imectas laughed. “No? Well, how about this? I heard you got an antiques shop started while I was gone. You’re a great artist, last I remembered. You make something great with this, and I’ll find you a customer.”
Akartis picked up the crystal swan. “Well, none of the other damn antiques I’ve collected have sold. But this? I think this could sell for quite a bit.”
Imectas took the swan back from him and tucked it into his bag. “Then here’s an idea for you.”
That was when they hatched the plan to dupe the woman with the jade dragon.
He finally tracked Imectas to an inn on the other side of town. For a long time, he stood outside the door of Imectas’s room, breathing deep, trying to figure out what he was going to say. He held the notebook in his right hand with a grip so tight it should have snapped the book in half.
When he’d finally gotten up the courage, he knocked.
It turned out Imectas was there. He opened the door, an enormous grin on his face even though Akartis’s expression should have made it clear he was not in a good mood. “Well, what do you think? Are you enjoying the money?”
Akartis wanted to scream, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to do so in the hall. “May I come in?”
Imectas stood aside and waved him in. The room was awfully dark, lit by one small window, and the floor was unfinished. Dull yellow paint was chipping off the walls.
“I can’t keep the money. She came back in. The dragon’s gone. It disappeared.”
The smile on Imectas’s face died. “You were supposed to skip town before the lady found out! What happened?”
Akartis tossed the book onto the small dining table and sat down. “You didn’t tell me the damn thing was going to disappear!” He sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Look, I know I was supposed to skip town. I was trying to get all the antiques packed up by myself. You never came back in like you said you would.”
Imectas sat down too. “I got tied up with another business venture. I was planning to find you afterward. Look, just tell me what happened, and we’ll figure out what to do.”
Akartis explained everything that happened. All the energy he’d had that day was spent trying to keep himself under control when she’d come in to confront him. He felt exhausted and was scared he wouldn’t be able to hold his tears in.
When he’d finished, Imectas thought for a moment. “How well do you think you can do create a replica?”
“What? Are you joking?”
“Well we can’t give the money back! Look at this place, it’s the cheapest thing I could get. You already paid your rent with the money, and this business venture didn’t pan out. I’ve
got debts to pay too. If you make another one, I can get her to come back in.”
Akartis didn’t even know if he could remember the details well enough. He prayed this woman didn’t have a great memory. “What are we going to tell her?”
Imectas ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t know. I’ll come up with something. Just get the dragon made, okay?”
Akartis collected the notebook and started for the door. Imectas grabbed his arm and planted a kiss on his lips. Even though he was angry, Akartis’s heart still fluttered.
“We’ll get through this, okay. Get the dragon made, and I’ll bring her back tomorrow. I’ll stop by in the morning so we can get our story straight.” He gave Akartis another kiss, then showed him out the door.
The next day, the store was still in disarray, half-packed boxes strewn all across the floor. Recreating the jade dragon had taken much longer than the first time as he’d had to wrack his brain to remember all of the details. He’d been waiting behind his desk, empty except for the notebook, his lamp, the fairy, and the new jade dragon.
Imectas brought the woman in. He was talking animatedly, but she wasn’t responding. Her sour frown seemed etched in stone. She came right up to the desk and picked up the dragon.
“Where did you get this?”
Imectas swallowed and thought through the story they’d rehearsed this morning. “After you came in, I went to see the guard. I’m sorry, I know you didn’t want to involve them. It turns out they’d caught a thief wanted for several burglaries that day. He had this on him. I paid them for it so I could return it to you.”
She turned it over in her hand, examining it closely. He watched her eyes, but he couldn’t read anything in her expression.
“You see, milady?” Imectas said. “Just as I promised. It’s been recovered. Will that put your mind at ease?”
“But how can I be sure this is the correct one? How do I know it isn’t just a clever forgery?”
Imectas laughed. “I think you’re worrying too much. This man would have to be awfully skilled to forge such detail.”
She pointed at the fairy. “That was not here when I bought this dragon. I can only assume he made it, since it hasn’t been long enough for some other ‘overseas trip.’”
Akartis had had enough. He wasn’t going to be able to live with himself through another con. “Milady, please let me show you something.”
He reached under his desk and pulled out the bowl and knife, then lit a candle from the lamp. She watched with disinterest as he opened the notebook to a page with another jade dragon already painted on it. Behind her, Imectas was shaking his head vigorously, but Akartis ignored him.
“This is the truth of where the dragon comes from, and I think you’ll find it quite compelling.”
He tore the painting of the jade dragon out of the notebook and laid it in the bowl. Then, he pricked his thumb and sprinkled the blood on the page.
A small gasp escaped the woman’s lips.
“I know this doesn’t really fit the sensibilities of a fine woman such as yourself, but please bear with me.”
He took the candle and touched the flame to the edge of the paper. It burned, releasing curls of white smoke that filled the bowl and hid the page from view. When the smoke dissipated, there was another jade dragon statuette.
“Now,” he said, picking up the new dragon, “the magic doesn’t last forever, as you’ve already seen. Still, I think
such an artifact is really priceless, and more than worth the trouble we’ve caused you.”
He closed the notebook and pushed it towards the woman. “Is this worth the thirty-five thousand you gave me?”
She picked it up and flipped through the pages. “What does this material in the front say?”
“It merely describes the process by which the magic works, which I showed you, and states the transitory nature of the magic. You’ll see there are at least fifty blank pages remaining for you to work with.”
“And what about when those pages are used up?”
He grinned. He could see he’d caught her attention. “Ah, that’s the mystery of it. I was very lucky to chance upon this book, but I don’t have any idea how it works. You’ll have to ask someone else to find out how to get more.
“Will this settle your dispute with me?”
She tried to hide her excitement over the book with a frown, but Akartis could read it in her eyes. “I suppose so. Only if it includes these two dragons and that fairy. And I think your packing up this shop is a good idea.”
He nodded. “Of course.” He gave her a small box to carry the items in. She left without another word; her eyes were fixed on the notebook the entire time.
Imectas stared after her, not saying a word.
“I’m sorry, I had to. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself.” He waited for Imectas to respond. “We got to keep the money.”
Imectas blinked, as if coming out of a daze. “Yes, we did.” He sighed and brushed his hand through his hair. “It’s really tough to see that thing go. It could have made us rich.”
Akartis came out from behind the desk and took Imectas’s hand. “We’ll find some other way to get rich. Preferably guilt-free. Come on, help me finish packing up these boxes. Let’s get out of this place.”
Jason Gallagher lives in central New Jersey where he writes and teaches piano. He lives with his partner, a dog, and a cat, and does his absolute best to avoid going out in the cold, which is, unfortunately, unavoidable. He loves finding out what his muse has in store for him when he opens a new text document and is excited to share these discoveries with you too.