Hoke the Horrible is hard at work, and Margot the Troll nearly trips over someone who is going to change her life.
In Skuleflight Harbor we made a stop at the famous Razbittolli's Restaurant just so Margot could have a look at the infamously ugly Hoke the Horrible, an ogre who was being paid by Kentucky Fried Cockatrice to stand on Razbittolli's corner to offend and discourage diners. Hoke was in his finest form, fat as a tick and dressed in a kilt and a plaid sports jacket (the plaids didn't match) over no shirt. He wore expensive Italian loafers with little tassels on the top, his putty-gray skin gleaming with honey oil to attract a myriad of flies. He had a bullwhip, and leaned on the "Valet Parking Only" sign. The valet occasionally edged forward, only to be sent skittering back when Hoke would crack the whip.
"Okay, that's Ugly," Margot said. "This Hoke is a real professional, I got to hand it to him. The bow tie is a nice touch."
We watched a couple of elves cross the street, capes draped over their arms at eye level, blocking their view of Razbittolli's. As they passed by the store front where we were loitering, one of them complained to the other, "Gods and spirits, I think I'm going to puke! Did you see those shoes?"
Muffling my snicker, I turned to Margot. "Seen enough? Want some dinner?"
"No!" she said, prodding ruefully at her stomach. "You kidding? If I tried to eat again today ... " She shook her greenish scaled head. "Aser, I thought I was ugly to people. But after seeing Hoke, I'm pretty sure I'm not all that ugly, I'm just kinda scary-looking. Hoke is UG-lee, and he's good at it."
"He'd better be, that's his livelihood. He's got a wife and four kids."
"Well, I'm impressed, is all. Let's go get some cool sea air before I pass out."
As we started to walk away, a little gnome stepped in front of us, and stretching up a hand, said, "I see that you admire my handiwork. My card, Madames."
The business card, in a tasteful ochre parchment with gold leaf filigreed lettering read "Gragg Raventell, Image Consultant."
"Hoke's your client?"
"One of my finest projects. As Hoke would tell you, could you bear to speak with him, my services have increased his income by 50 percent and his fame has spread so widely that he is booked solid for the next three years." The gnome put both hands up before him, and made a frame with his thumbs and forefingers. "Ah, magnificent!" he exclaimed to Margot through his frame. "May I ask what line of work you grace?"
"I'm between jobs right now. Used to be a security guard, but I got tired of hanging around in front of warehouses all the time," Margot replied, growing a bit irritable.
"Warehouses? Madame, You are wise not to waste your potential on such mundane fare! I see you in palaces, in exclusive clubs ... "
"You're gonna see me in jail for kicking gnome ass if you don't get out of my way and leave me alone," she growled.
"As you wish, Madame," the gnome smiled, and gave her a deep bow. "Should you need me, I will be there awaiting you."
"Did you see that?" Margot sputtered. "That little turd had the nerve to wink at me!"
"I'm telling you, Margot, you are a good-looking troll. You're the only one who doubts that. I know, 'Shut up, Aser'. You say that to me at least six times a day." We found a roomy bistro with outdoor seating and some wine to settle our stomachs. "I didn't know that about the warehouse job. What kind of work are you looking for?"
"Oh, I'll get some crummy warehouse security job again, get some money saved up again, move on again when the summer comes on. I do that every year."
"But if the work's so boring that you know you won't want to keep the job even before you get the job, why bother?"
"Because that's where the work is for a plain old troll, Shaman. Security is what I know, travel is what I like, security jobs pay for the travel, so that's what I do." She grabbed a passing waiter by the back of the shirt. "Hey, bub, howabout some refills and some breadsticks here?"
Plain old troll. I don't know if Margot's poor self-image was due to her parents' infatuation with human culture or not, but I was right at the end of listening to her self-denigration. "So because you're afraid to try for anything better, you're going to hold yourself prisoner for the rest of your life. Is that it?"
"I'm not afraid. Just realistic."
"Listen, Margot, I'll make you a bet," I said.
"I ain't wagering anything with you, Aser, you're as crooked a gambler as a --"
"No, this is all up front, straight as an arrow, I promise. Would I lie to you?"
"No, I wouldn't. Not really. Not often. Listen, I still have some coins to get rid of before I head inland. Let's let that gnome see what he can do. Maybe a little image makeover is what you need. If it doesn't do anything for you, no loss. If a new and improved image does make a difference, then you pay me double when you get your new and improved paycheck."
Image is part imagination, you know. So at least part of what you portray to others is how you're willing to imagine yourself. And I think, a little vice versa -- maybe how you imagine yourself is influenced by how you're portrayed.
Margot was no sooner in the door of Gragg Raventell's salon than he himself came gliding forward, bowing. "Madame, how good of you to visit my humble business. May I assist you in defining your essential image?" He took her hand and led her like a princess to a huge comfy chair. He clapped his hands and a veritable horde of gnomes appeared with clipboards, a glass of wine, some hors d'oeuvres. They swarmed over and around her, taking measurements of arms and legs and brow, "Please stand, Madame. What an excellent height, Madame! Let me hang up your cloak, Madame."
May I ask Madame's favorite color? Red, I think.
Madame's favorite animal? Badgers... I like badgers.
Favorite place? Uh, a tie between Promontory Hot Springs Spa and Cairo.
Cairo? I wondered.
And Madame's favorite weapon?
Spear, longblade damascan.
Tell me a wild story about the 'perfect employment,' Madame. Yes, very interesting! And the 'perfect romance'? Ah, but we all have an idea of the perfect one, even though we may never find it on this earth! What would the perfect lover ask you to talk about on cold winter's evenings?
They were probably the most personable bunch of gnomes I'd ever seen, chattering away at Margot, knocking her off-balance with their barrage of questions.
Raventell slipped away from the crowd and addressed me. "She is a work of art in the making!" He kissed his fingers. "For a very small extra fee, I can offer a placement assistance service for special clients."
"I don't doubt that for a minute. You get your client a nice job, they're going to attribute it to the image stuff, and you get free advertising for just about forever. Sure, just add it to the total."
"May one ask how the honored shaman has come to possess such wealth?" he asked, folding his hands before him humbly.
"A long story, and no, you may not ask. By the way, that is an outstandingly tailored suit you're wearing."
"Thank you Madame! My own image was my first success! Ah, look! We have a proposal for Madame Margot!" He clapped his hands and everyone watched Margot's face as a gnome artist displayed his vision of her new image.
Margot's face slackened with astonishment, and her scales paled from the bronzy-green to a grayish purple. "I got to think about it!" she blurted and darted for the door.
"She will be back," said Raventell. "She cannot resist her own heart."
Back at our rooms at the inn, Margot covered her head with her arms. "Don't want to talk about it," she rumbled, and went to bed. Much of the night I could hear the floorboards of her room creak with her pacing.
The next morning I found a note on our common room table that said: "Got to do it. Back later."
I fiddled about the waterfront for most of the morning, looking at the prices of dried seaweed and deciding which to buy for goiter and fatigue. On about lunchtime I felt a hand grasp my shoulder. "If you make fun, I swear to you I'll pound you to a pulp."
"I promise, Margot. Have I ever?" I turned around slowly.
Margot's simple straight braid had been replaced by a forward arching Mohawk, with a cascading string of gold and garnet beads swinging down past her ears on either side. Subtle makeup gave a rusty sheen to her eyelids, making her orange eyes gleam like a dragon's. The baggy cloak and robe were gone, replaced by a rusty-red cape, an embossed leather halter top, and a slit-sided red skirt with a leather waistband. A gold bracelet glittered on one ankle, wristguards blazed on either arm, and the brass-adorned bluesteel spear she gripped would have turned Death the Reaper green with envy.
She gripped my cloak and robe in both fists and picked me up to look her eye to eye. "I have three interviews for security positions with three different caravans this afternoon, Aser. Tell me honestly, does this lipstick clash with the cape?"
Well, of course she got the best job of the bunch, a big trade train running between Skuleflight Harbor and Littledwarf Ridge on the southern tip of the mountains. She's promised to stop by in the spring to pay me my winnings, and I for one, cannot wait to see the reactions that new image brings to my village marketplace.