1636 The Devil’s Opera – Snippet 15

Hans arrived at a table and kicked a bench out from underneath it. “Come on, boy, sit down.” Hans himself dropped to the bench and carefully set his bottle on the table. “Barnabas, everyone, this is Simon. He is a small lad with a big name, and he is my luck. Stopped me from getting set upon by a couple of bully boys from over west of the Big Ditch. I recognized them.”

          Barnabas, a thin man with a narrow face, looked horrified. “Why, that . . . that is unheard of. They are supposed to keep to their side of the moat, and we keep to ours. That’s the way it has always been . . . or at least since the sack.”

Hans was busy scraping the wax from around the stopper and neck of his bottle of spirits. He didn’t look up as he responded. “Maybe so, but just maybe someone over there is just a bit upset that I beat their man in the fights last week. Ah!” He got the stopper out and immediately took a big swig of the gin. He smacked his lips, smiled, and looked over at Simon. “Drink up, boy, even if it is small beer.”

Simon took a sip from his mug. It was as bad as he expected from this place, but he swallowed it anyway. It was wet, and he was thirsty.

“Hans,” Barnabas spoke up. “This is my cousin Karl, from Hannover.” He pointed to a man who would make two of Barnabas. “I think I have told you about him before.”

Simon studied Karl. From what he could tell, even in the dim light, the Hannoverian didn’t really fit in here in The Chain. His beard was a neatly trimmed goatee with prominent mustaches. He wore a fine hat. His clothes, what Simon could see of them, were clean. No, not at all the appearance of the normal patron of this tavern.

“Sure,” Hans said. “I remember you mentioning him. Good to meet you, Karl.” He held his hand out across the table. Karl took it with a toothy grin. Simon could see their hands tense on each other. Karl’s grin disappeared and his jaw set. There was a long moment of silence, then the clinch broke.

“So you are the famous Hans Metzger.” Barnabas’ cousin’s speech was accented. His voice was nasal and harsh. It made Simon want to hunch his shoulders up around his ears.

Hans set the blue bottle back on the table with a clack. “There might be a few people have heard my name, aye, but I would not say I was famous.”

“Oh, but to hear Barnabas say it, you are one of the most renowned men in all Magdeburg.”

“Friend Karl, if you know your cousin at all, you know that he is liable to say most anything once he has had a mug or two of ale.” A bit of the hard note had crept back into Hans’ voice. Simon hunched down a little. He wasn’t sure what was going on here and now, but he was pretty sure he didn’t like it.

“Barnabas would have it that you are a very Samson.” Karl’s tone was more than a bit pugnacious by this point. Simon didn’t understand why. “That you are renowned for your strength.”

Hans took another gulp from his bottle. “Barnabas drinks too much. And I didn’t know that he’d been to church enough to even know who Samson was.” The men around the table laughed.

“But are you that man?” Karl’s head was thrust forward, and he stared at Hans with intent.

Hans sighed. “What do you want? Are you looking for a contest with me on a night when all I wanted was a peaceful drink with my friends?”

Karl said nothing, just continued to stare at Hans.

Another sigh. “Fine. Here and now. Arm wrestling. But you will have to make it worth my while.”

Karl sat back and blinked. Simon blinked along with him.

“Make it worth your while . . . What do you mean?”

Hans pulled two purses out of his coat pocket. They were small and worn, and from the way they lay flat on the table they didn’t have many coins in them. Simon thought they were the purses he took from the men who had attacked him earlier in the evening.

“A wager. If I win, you pay me twice the value what’s in these purses. If I lose, you get the purses.” Karl opened his mouth to object, and Hans held up a finger. “You get the purses, and the knowledge that you beat Hans Metzger, the Samson of Magdeburg.”

Karl sat back for a moment, then nodded his head. “Agreed.”

With that, chairs and stools all around them scraped on the floor. The other men in the room had obviously been listening, and now they moved to where they could see what was going on. In a moment, their table was surrounded by a circle of observers. There was a murmuring sound, as side discussions happened and bets were made.

“You will have to move, boy.” Hans stood and took off his coat. Karl did the same while Hans handed his bottle to Simon. “Hold on to that for me.” Simon took it, but was forced to leave his mug on the table. “Nay, take your mug, too.”

“I can’t.” Simon felt like ash was in his mouth. “I only have one hand.”

“Hummph!” Hans looked at him for a moment, then placed a hand on his shoulder. “Well, we can talk about that later. Meantime, you are still my luck, so stand over there where you can see everything and where I can see you.”

Before he sat down, Hans turned his head toward the counter and bellowed, “Veit!”

The tavern keeper pushed his way through the circle. “What do you want?”

“Hold these.” He handed Veit the purses and Simon’s mug, then grinned at Simon and put his hat on the boy’s head.

Hans took his seat across the table from Karl. The Hannover man plopped his elbow down on the table top and held his forearm up. There was an eager light in his eye. Hans took his time, rolling his shirt sleeve up with slow deliberation, revealing a hairy forearm corded with muscle.

“Otto,” Hans called out as he laid his elbow on the table. “Call the count.”