The bone trader opened his cloak, revealing to me that there was nothing but a skeleton beneath. Not everything inside was human in nature; his left ribs were parentheses of ivory, and those on the right had been replaced in their entirety by a caribou’s antler. There were copper bones in his legs that had once belonged to machine men, and rosewood vertebrae interspersed throughout his spine.
“Everything that you see here is open to trade, two or more of yours for one of mine.”
“What about your skull?” I asked.
“Not for sale,” he shook his head. “Any of my teeth, certainly.” He opened his mouth widely to reveal rows of jade and opal. “But not the whole thing.”
“Because that would cross the line between salesman and product. The bone trade is an old profession, but it’s certainly not the oldest. Besides, why would you need a different skull? It’s not like anyone can see it.”
“Not yet,” I replied. “But I fear death, and the anonymity that comes with it. I fear my skull being committed to an ossuary, and being made meaningless by those that surround it. I fear my remains being discovered by miners centuries from now, and them never know who I was.”
“Hah! Alright then.” I could see the emptiness behind his laugh. “I cannot help you, but I know someone who can. There’s a tradesman up in the mountains who deals in golden skulls, an interesting fellow. Or fellows, if you prefer. There are several heads involved, but only one set of shoulders. Because he’s the competition, I’ll tell you where to find him, but only in exchange for one bone of my choice.”
“That sounds like a terrible deal,” I was quite familiar with bargains of this sort. “You could just take my skull, and after that, the rest would be yours for the taking.”
“Oh please. If I made a deal like that, nobody would ever do business with me again. Reputation still matters in an industry like this. No, I’ll tell you up front. All I want is your lower jaw.”
“That’s quite a sentence to start with ‘all I want.’”
“It may seem that way now, but once I tell you where to go, you can bargain for a complete skull. All in all, I tend to think that losing a bone that you’re already planning on giving up is a much better deal than me taking one that you still want.”
“Perhaps- if I don’t starve along the way there, that is.”
“Well, if you do,” he grinned. “At least they’ll know it’s your skull by what’s missing.”