EDITOR’S NOTE: If you’ve never read any of the stories from the original Clockwork Storybook project, check out this short story from the Clockwork Storybook Archives by Matthew Sturges.
There are rich people and then there are rich people. Baron Johan von Freunden fell decidedly in the latter camp.
His estate, situated on the ancient, tree-lined shores of the Danube north of Amstetten, formed a statistically significant percentage of the surface area of northern Austria. Within its walls were treasures beyond the ken of the cagiest antique dealer, including: a Gutenberg Bible (a rare version containing a foreword by the author and an alternate ending), a Faberge egg which had once hatched a live swan, and an infant pterodactyl preserved alive in amber, to name but a few.
The pride of von Freunden’s collection, however, was his private menagerie, a zoo comprising creatures both otherworldly and mundane kept in vigorously maintained eco-sensitive habitats. Hidden from the world by a magnificent hedge maze, the menagerie was created and expanded over the course of decades to become the focal point of the von Freunden estate, and the claim to fame of its owner, the Baron—in certain closely circumscribed circles, of course.
The menagerie contained its share of panda bears, white tigers and cormorants, to be sure; but in recent decades the Baron had gone out of his way to procure fauna even rarer—a live gargoyle, a breeding pair of yeti, a manticore (with its tail docked, of course), even a Cheshire cat, although if truth be told the cat spent most of its day as an enigmatic smile and yet was far less witty than the Baron had hoped.
Try as he might to be content with his plethora of acquisitions, the Baron could never refuse a rare find; each time he heard a rumor of some fantastical beast to be had, he found himself making a solemn internal vow to procure it. Which is how the Baron found himself in San Cibola, on a sunny day in mid-March, strolling the alleys of the Goblin Market searching for a hedammu.
“Hedammu, man. Are you deaf? It’s a great, twisting, red-eyed sea serpent worshipped by the Hurrians! Thirty feet long from tip to tail! You couldn’t miss it!”
“Don’t think we have that one, sir.”
“Of course you don’t have one! I want you to tell me where I might find one. Idiot!”
The Baron stormed from the tent, which contained mostly mundane livestock, and cast his gaze over the collected breeders, who used the dirt-packed area just south of the main buildings as an impromptu farmer’s market.
“Does anyone here have an hedammu for sale?” he barked in frustration. Dozens of heads turned to gaze at his massive, bearded form. Clad in a charcoal gray business suit, the Baron could not have looked more out of place in the market, which appeared to be more Renaissance Festival than serious business, if you asked the Baron.
“You heard me. Hed-a-mmu!”
“What’s that?” said a young, dirty-faced boy near one of the stalls. “You say you’ve got a head of poo?” General laughter and chortling ensued.
“Excuse me sir,” came a thickly accented voice from the Baron’s left. “I think I have just what you’re looking for.” The Baron turned to find a goblin with thick, hammy legs and a filthy tunic standing next to him.
“Even better, sir,” the goblin said mysteriously.
“Of course,” the Baron said, rolling his eyes. “You’ve got me all lathered up. Whatever might it be?”
“I happen to have, in me stall, sir,” the Goblin said, leaning in and whispering so that his hot cabbage breath engulfed the Baron, “a real, live liongoatsnake.”
“Why, a liongoatsnake, sire. Certainly a cultured gent like yourself has ‘eard of them things?” The Goblin beckoned. “Come on into me tent and I’ll show you ‘im, sire.” Taking the Baron by the scruff of his suit jacket, the Goblin half-carried, half-dragged the Baron into a squalid pink tent.
“Welcome to Urgo’s Fine Beasts,” he said with a flourish. “The liongoatsnake is ‘ere in back.”
Cursing, the Baron followed Urgo to the back of the tent. “You’ve got a very poor selling strategy, sir. I shall report your tactics to the . . .” his voice trailed off. “By God, is that a chimera?”
Urgo motioned toward the creature in question. It was roughly lion-sized, although it sported two normal-sized heads: one with a mane and a feline snout, the other with white fur, horns, and a tiny beard. The creature’s tail bent around its body, and morphed from a mixture of yellow and gray fur into the scaly green of a reptile, ending in the head of a snake.
“If you say so, sir. I’ve been calling it a liongoatsnake. Want to know why?” he leaned in conspiratorially.
The Baron winced. “I’m sure I don’t know. But don’t tell me—I don’t want you to claim I’ve stolen your secret.”
The Goblin nodded. “Wise, sir. Very cagey, you are. I can see you’re going to be a tough nut to crack. How does two hundred sound?”
“You’re telling me you’ve never heard of a chimera, then?” The Baron quickly did the currency exchange in his head. “Two hundred, eh?”
“And worth every penny,” the goat’s head snapped. The Baron leapt back.
“It speaks?” said the Baron, flushing.
“Never bloody shuts up, to be honest. Now, one-sixty is as low as I can go, just to put that out there. I had ‘im for one-fifty, and his food and such already cost me eleven. But you’d be robbing me, sir.”
“The chimera is one of the ancient beasts, my filthy friend. Part lion, part goat and part snake, not unlike this interesting specimen here. Are you telling me, sir, in all honesty that you are unaware of the historical origins of the chimera?”
“I believe this one’s from somewhere outside Liverpool, sir. Comes from a good family, ‘e does.”
“I was speaking of its mythology.”
“Well, he’s had all his shots if that’s what you’re asking.”
The Baron shuddered with anger. He knew he shouldn’t be talking up the beast, which its owner was clearly desperate to be rid of, but he couldn’t help himself. “The chimera, my good man, was a vicious beast that terrorized the ancient Lyceans with its fierce jaws and breath of flame. It was slain by the hero Bellerophon, who was given leave by Athena to ride the winged horse Pegasus against the creature.”
“You don’t say,” said Urgo. “Did you know all that?” he asked the Chimera.
“Bellerophon was a…what do you call it? A confirmed bachelor?” said the lion’s head. “That Pegasus was such a chick ride. Oooh, a flying horse! How precious!”
“A bit hostile, don’t you think?” said the Baron to Urgo.
“Hey,” said the snake’s head. “A Pegasus killed my brother. I think you might be a little hostile yourself, if it happened to you.”
Urgo shook his head slowly. He leaned in to the Baron, taking the man’s shoulder in his iron grip to keep him from backing away from the stench. “Had a hard life, ‘e has. You’ve got to give him a bit of a break.”
“But,” said the Baron, “how do I know it’s real?”
Urgo looked back and forth between the Baron and the chimera, a look of infinite confusion on his face. “Real, sir? It’s standing right over there, ennit?”
“What I mean is, how do I know it’s a real chimera, and not just some leftover pieces of animals cobbled together by some hack wizard?”
Urgo threw up his hands. “I dunno, sire. I always thought that’s exactly what it was.”
“So you purchased this animal with no idea of what it was, where it came from, or whether it was an actual beast. Is that correct?”
“I suppose so,” said Urgo. “You don’t have to make me feel bad about it.”
“Okay, okay,” said the snake’s head. “I’m a chimera. You got me! Are you happy now? Sheesh.”
Urgo shrugged. “Well, there’s that settled then. Now will that be for pet or meat?”
Baron von Freunden’s stare was as blank as Urgo’s for a moment. “Excuse me?”
“You want him as is, or would you like me to slaughter and dress him? No extra charge.”
“My good man, are suggesting that I ingest this most sought-after of fantastic beasts?”
“I’m sure that’s none of my business, sir.”
“A rare and ancient mythological creature, and you’ll make him into schnitzel! I’ve never heard of such madness.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t go that way. I’d roast him, meself. But that’s just me. Now, we do a hippogryph bratwurst that’s just to die for.”
The Baron was dumbstruck.
“I wasn’t paying attention,” said the goat. “Are we a pet or are we meat?”
“I think pet,” hissed the lion.
“It’s a chimiracle!” the snake said. The goat only groaned.
“Tell you what,” said Urgo. “I’ll do a hundred, but you’ve got to skin and dress him yourself. That’s my final offer.”
“Oh, please,” said the Baron, making up his mind. “That’s not even a real chimera.”
“Why, sure he is. He just said he was.”
“My good man, if you for an instant have the audacity to believe that I will rid you of that abomination, regardless of what it claims to be, then you must believe me an even greater fool than yourself!”
“Tell you what. You give me seventy right now, and I’ll even throw in his food dish.”
The Baron fumed.
“Come on, you’re robbing me blind,” cried Urgo. “I’ll have to transact all me further business without me eyesight!”
“Never!” said the Baron. With that, he turned and stormed out of the tent.
After a bit, Urgo asked the beast, “So, are you really one o’them chimera thingummies?”
The lion looked up from its trough, a bit of scrap meat clinging to its whiskers. “Don’t be ridiculous.” It chewed thoughtfully. “There’s no such thing.”
“They’re chimerical,” chimed in the goat.
“Oh,” said the snake. “Bad pun! Bad pun!”
“I don’t get it,” said Urgo.
Later, Urgo got hungry and, deciding he was never going to unload the liongoatsnake, he slaughtered it in the back of the tent and roasted it for dinner, as he’d suggested to the Baron. He couldn’t see what the Baron had made such a fuss about—the thing tasted bloody awful.