Four

Behind the door, four white-haired men, waiting. There is a clock in the corner, an old one, set on counting wrong seconds loudly and without embarrassment.

The minutes crawl past, grubbying their pale stomachs. The strangers shuffle on wooden stools, regard their shoes with improbable interest. Hours peel away and the fire burns low before Artaban clears his throat.

“Brothers,” he says, “I have nothing. No sapphire, no ruby, no pearl of great price. Will you accept me?”

“The stories tell of three,” rumbles Melchior. “We cannot.”

But the room will let four leave, or none. And so they wait.

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