"Ah, Mr. Gheed!" Farmer Lester greeted his sometime business associate. "Good to see you. How are you this morning?"
"The more important question is, how are you?" replied the trader sympathetically. "I heard about poor Glorianna."
Lester looked annoyed. "She was a poor excuse for a wife and barely adequate as a wench," he complained. "Dying was the only thing she could have done to make herself even more useless."
It was impossible to tell whether or not the shocked expression that played briefly across Gheed's face was sincere. He was a man who wore as many faces as he had customers. Finally, he just shook his head. "It's good to see you coping so well with your recent widowerhood. Did the neighbors at least bring you some good meals?"
If Gheed was being ironic, it was lost on the farmer. "I never should have accepted her as payment for her father's debt to me. I'm far too soft-hearted. I should have insisted on his land."
"Well, I'm sure you'll have that in time too," said Gheed. "Your father-in-law will be wanting some more of what I have here." He kicked one of the eight barrels he had unloaded from his wagon. There was a sloshing sound from within. "Hag's hair weed, fresh to you from the Black Marsh, for the paltry sum of 8000 gold per barrel."
Farmer Lester shot Gheed a harsh look. "That's more than twice your usual price."
"And less than a third of what you'll turn around and sell it for," replied Gheed. "I had to leave Caravan to bring this to you, you know. I've got to cover the business I'm losing."
Lester opened one of the barrels and looked inside at the greenish-yellow vegetation floating in the brackish water. It stank like something left to rot on a riverbank. Invisible to Gheed's and Lester's eyes, Glorianna shuddered at the notion. She was standing near enough to the living men to touch both of them. At least, she would have been able to touch them, if she'd still had a body to touch them with.
"This is mostly water," commented Lester putting the cover back on the barrel to contain the stench.
"For your safety and mine," agreed Gheed. "I don't have to tell you how addictive this stuff is once it dries out. One whiff and you're hooked."
"As you say," replied Lester. "But I'm not paying for swamp water."
"They call this stuff the Hell Weed," commented Mr. Duke, sitting on top of one of the barrels. He shrugged. "Funny. We never touch it down home."
"Why are we out here?" Glorianna asked him as Lester and Gheed haggled over the transaction.
"Well, sugar," said the Duke, "I'm not entirely sure y'all wanna take me up on my offer. I've found that sometimes seein' certain people helps my charges t' focus their Hate."
"Five thousand is as low as I can go," Gheed was insisting.
"I'll give you 3500 per barrel and I'll throw in some Auric amulets for you to take home to your wives and young 'uns."
The Duke of Hatred shook his head. "Look at him. He'd have made a good demon."
"Why, that's preposterous!" sputtered Gheed. "And how many of those damned Auric amulets do you have anyway?"
"I think you'll accept my offer," said Farmer Lester, touching the brim of his straw hat. His voice had taken on that soothing, folksy quality that it always had just before someone got really hurt.
Glorianna knew the tone well and shivered.
"Have you ever met a man more deservin' of your Hate?" asked the Duke. "Back down home, we'd call him a man in need of some killin'."
"You see," Lester was explaining to Gheed. "I know and you know that I'm the only one in the territory who will buy this quantity from you. What will you do if you can't sell it to me?"
"The boy, Wirt," began Gheed.
Lester waved his hand dismissively. "Wirt won't deal in hag's hair weed," said Lester. "Prince Albrecht is willing to overlook many of Wirt's little scams, but this would be far and away over the line, and Wirt knows it. You have to deal with me, my friend."
"Greedy, manipulative," narrated Mr. Duke. "People mean nothin' to him."
"If you have to take these barrels back with you, you run the risk of being stopped by a Ranger patrol. Even if you make it back to Caravan, you'll never get them all the way to Lut Gholein without being discovered," said Lester. "And I know Warriv's been looking for an excuse to kick you out of Caravan for years now. Your only other option is to dump them in the woods somewhere and go home empty-handed. Given that, I think that 2750 per barrel is a more than fair price."
Gheed gave Lester a hard look. "Of course, it would be bad for business if a Ranger patrol came by to check on your welfare in these trying times and found this merchandise on your property."
Lester chuckled warmly. "Never happen, my friend. After Sir Gorash's little tryst with my wife and the subsequent ruling against him, any move against me by him or his men... Well, let's just say it would be viewed with so much suspicion as to be more grief to him than it's worth. However," Lester paused for effect, "I could see him having his men come down pretty hard on a business associate of mine on the mistaken assumption that it might inconvenience me. One can only imagine the loss of business and the indignity of incarceration that such a business associate might be forced to endure if he was caught within Khanduran borders with a large quantity of contraband."
Gheed licked his lips. His throat suddenly parched.
Lester beamed. "Let me do you a big favor and take that nasty business off your hands for 1500 gold per barrel."
"You're a heartless son-of-a-quill-rat," grumbled Gheed, realizing he was cornered. "You know that, don't you?"
"Me? Why I'm the soul of generosity and kindness," said Lester.
The Duke of Hatred clapped his hands and laughed with glee. "An' he really believes that too! Oh, he's just the most precious thing!" His strange accent turned the "I"'s into "ah"'s.
For her part, Glorianna just felt queasy.
"I bet he's the one you Hate the most. Wouldn't y'all just love to wipe that smug smile off his face and replace it with a scream?" suggested Mr. Duke. "Twist that folksy facade right into a tight coil and then wrap it around his neck until his eyes burst? That'd let you rest easier."
Glorianna just shook her head. There was no question that Farmer Lester was the most evil mortal who had ever oozed into her life. He was the most evil mortal who would ever ooze into many people's lives. But spending eternity tormenting a petty, empty, dried up old soul like his would be satisfying for about the first half-hour. "No," said Glorianna. "There's someone else."
The Duke of Hatred was momentarily surprised, and his handsome face showed it. Then he smiled, and there was a glint in his eye like a drop of poison on a piece of candy offered to a child. "An' I'll bet I know who it is. Let's see if I've guessed right."
As they moved on, Lester was saying to Gheed: "Just to show you there's no hard feelings, how about if I gamble for one of your mystery items?"
Gheed sighed. "Let's deal, my friend."
"Well, I must admit, I'm partial to that Holstein-patterned armor...."
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