Chapter 18: Networking Two-Step

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Rob hardly had a chance to gape at the Chancellor's hungry smile before an old man's shaky hand reached across from the opposite bench pat the Chancellor's sleeve.

"There, there, good Chancellor," he said, "Let's spare the poor boy your deals and trades, at least for tonight, shall we? Doctor, it's a pleasure to finally meet you. I trust you'll excuse an old man from getting up? I only just sat down, and I'm feeling rather comfortable at the moment. Please, join us; there's room for one more."

Rob hesitated, his eyes still locked on the Chancellor, but after Hans gave him a shove, Rob eased onto the empty seat that had been offered to him.

"Now then, introductions all around," said the old man, although now that Rob was closer, he didn't look that old. His hair was more brown than grey, and though he had his share of wrinkles, his blue eyes were clear, and Rob guessed that he couldn't have been more that fifty-five or sixty. Even by candlelight, however, Rob could see his skin possessed an unhealthy pallor, and his movements seemed labored, all of which added to the weight of his years.

"You know the Chancellor, of course," the man said.

Rob nodded while flipping through a mental catalog of chronic diseases he might be suffering from. Arthritis, perhaps? "Of course."

"And I am the palace librarian," he continued. "Appointed by the King himself, which sounds much less impressive if you know that I am also the King's brother."

Rob blinked. "No, I didn't know that. Your majesty?"

"Ho, ho!" The man laughed kindly as he waved his hands in front of him. "I'm a prince in name only, but you'll never see me on the throne. Please, call me Wilhelm."

"Or your majesty," the Chancellor spoke under his breath.

"Ah, the Chancellor does like his titles," Wilhelm said, winking. "But doctor, I'd be sorry if the next time we met, you didn't call me by name."

"If you call me Rob, or Robert, I'd be honored to call you Wilhelm."

"Done! Chancellor, I like this fellow already. Remind me why you were so suspicious of him?"

The Chancellor muttered something unintelligible.

"No matter," Wilhelm said. "Finally, this fellow to my left is . . . I'm sorry, your name remains new to me. Would you be so kind as to introduce yourself to our doctor?"

Rob had been so busy keeping a wary eye on the Chancellor and attempting to diagnose the librarian that the fourth member of their party had completely failed to register. He was clean shaven and well dressed, his clothes almost sparkling in the dim light as if they were made of plastic instead of fine woolens. The man stood, removing his close-fitting cap to reveal a bald head with a just dash of stubble, and offered his hand for Rob to shake. Rob jumped to his feet to reciprocate and banged his head on the alcove's arched ceiling.

"Ouch. That looked painful," the fellow said, taking Rob's hand in a firm, manly grip. He was lean and at least as tall as Rob, but his bald head seemed a little too big for his body, making the rest of him appear smaller somehow. Rob absently wondered which fairy tale he hailed from. "I'm Lawrence Dixon, a merchant seeking new markets here. You're the doctor I've heard about?"

"Robert Lang. Nice to meet you, Lawrence."

"Call me Dixon. Most people do." Their handshake complete, both men sat down. Dixon returned his cap to his head, while Rob lifted a hand to rub his new sore spot.

Wilhelm beamed at the conclusion of introductions. "All right, then! Dixon, how are you finding our town?"

"Prospects seem fine. I see a number of opportunities." Dixon spoke in a business-like tone as he absently stroked the tuft of hair under his lower lip. "I look forward to making more trips here."

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