1636: The Chronicles of Dr. Gribbleflotz – Snippet 07
“And how much were the books you were drooling over?”
Phillip sighed. “Four gulden.”
“You could always try betting on the shooting contests,” Christoph suggested. “Last year our team was four to one to finish ahead of the Goldsmith’s. That would’ve given you enough to buy two of those books.”
“They finished behind the Goldsmith’s guild last year,” Phillip pointed out.
“Right, but this year things are going to be different,” Frederik said.
Phillip shook his head. “The new gunpowder isn’t enough to guarantee our team will beat the goldsmith’s guild.”
“But if they do, think of the payout. Come on, I want to see what odds the bookmakers are offering.”
Christoph was willing, so Phillip made it unanimous. After all, they were just going to check the odds. He didn’t have to lay a wager.
Phillip studied the bookmaker’s odds board and was happy to see that he wasn’t going to be asked to risk his hard earned money. Beside him, his companions weren’t quite so happy.
“Five to four? What kind of odds are those?” Frederik complained. “Last year you were offering four to one for the assay office to beat the Goldsmith’s guild.”
The bookmaker gave the Frederik an enigmatic smile. “That was last year.”
Frederik continued grumbling as he handed over some coins and received a betting slip in return. Christoph followed suit, then both of them turned to look enquiringly at Phillip.
He shook his head. “It’s not worth it. Even if I bet all my money I wouldn’t win enough to buy one of those books.”
Lucas Ehinger, ever the professional bookmaker, smiled at Phillip. “Perhaps I could interest you in a wager on the Schützenkönig? The odds are very attractive.”
Phillip shook his head. “No thanks.” The competition for the Schützenkönig required that shooters take turns shooting at a bird on a pole. There were prizes for the shooter who shot off a wing, a leg, and the head, but the big prize — being crowned Schützenkönig — went to whoever shot the last piece of the bird off the wooden pole on which it was mounted. That might sound like a test of accuracy, but no single shot was going to sever a limb or head, and it could take more than forty hits to reduce the bird to the point there was none of it left on the pole. As each competitor was allowed only one shot per turn at the shooting line, the shot that finally destroyed the bird, and it was a real bird, not a wooden or stuffed dummy, could come at any time. It was, as far as Phillip was concerned, more a matter of luck than ability, and the almost flat thirty to one odds the bookmaker was offering on the thirty approved competitors suggested he agreed.
“If you’re not going to bet we might as well see if we can get a good spot to watch the shooting,” Frederik said.
Christoph agreed and they set off. They hadn’t gone far before Frederik started muttering about the snake in the grass who’d shortened the odds so much by betting heavily on the assay team to beat the Goldsmith’s. Christoph joined in, making suggestions of who he thought might have been responsible. Phillip’s contributions were half-hearted. Phillip wasn’t particularly angry at the people who had shortened the odds. In fact, he was somewhat fond of them. However, he was glad neither Christoph nor Frederik had thought to wonder how a third year apprentice, who wasn’t paid a wage, happened to have nearly two gulden. Phillip might not like to risk his money by gambling, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t prepared to sell information to people who did.
The crowds had returned to the range ahead of them, and Phillip and his friends were forced to stand near the back of the crowd as the three-man teams competing in the inter-guild competition marched with all due pomp and ceremony onto the range. There was a delay while the team captains introduced their teams to the referees, and then the referees broke up into two groups. A group of three walked the hundred yards down range to where the target stood while the rest of them took their places at the shooting line.
Phillip could barely make out the circle of painted wood in the distance. Beside it was the referees’ hut, where the three scorers would shelter when a competitor was firing. He knew from the practice shots he’d been permitted to take with one of the hand crafted wheel-lock target rifles the assay office owned that the competitors would be aiming at something little bigger than a pinhead above the foresight of their rifles. How anybody could hit such a small target he couldn’t understand. Certainly he’d missed it with all ten shots Bartholomäus had allowed him.
Over the course of the competition each shooter would take five shots from a standing position. If he hit the target a referee would wave a flag across the target. Another would plug the hole the bullet made with a wooden peg and write an identifying number beside the peg. The third referee kept a record of who was shooting and where their shots went.
At the shooting line, when a shooter scored a hit a referee would present him with a small flag. The successful shooter would then walk over to another referee, who would record the hit. The flags would then be placed somewhere prominent so the spectators could see who was winning. The maximum score a team could get was fifteen hits, but that almost never happened. Any ties would be decided based on which team had their hits closest to the bull’s eye.
“You were lucky,” Otto Hofbauer of the Goldsmith’s guild said as he begrudgingly shook Ulrich’s hand.
Ulrich’s smile was bright enough to blind a man as he accepted Otto’s acknowledgment of defeat. “Luck had nothing to do with it. It was our team’s superior shooting that beat your team.”
“And a special production run of gunpowder,” Otto muttered.
Ulrich allowed his smile to drop down to a mere grin. “Sour grapes, Otto. All we did was buy the best gunpowder Georg could make.”
“Gunpowder that Georg refused to sell to anyone else.”
“Of course he refused to sell to anyone else. He made it using super pure saltpetre and sulphur we supplied him with just for our order.”
“It gave you an unfair advantage.”
Ulrich’s smile blossomed again in the face of Otto’s disgruntled expression. “But I’m sure Georg offered to make you a special batch of powder if you could provide him with the ingredients.”
“He did,” Otto said.
“There you are then. You have only yourselves to blame for not taking Georg up on his offer.”
Otto gave Ulrich a sour look. “We did take him up on his offer. Unfortunately, the powder Georg made from our ingredients wasn’t as good as yours.”
“Oh dear, that means your ingredients can’t have been as pure as ours.” Ulrich put on his best fake sympathetic face. “That doesn’t say much for the quality of your training. The training we provide is so good we were able to leave the task of purifying the ingredients to a mere third year apprentice.”
Otto snarled a response before storming off, leaving Ulrich almost purring.
“That wasn’t very nice,” his wife told him.
“But it felt so good.” He glanced down at his wife. “We finally beat the Goldsmith’s guild, and not by just a few points. We beat them by the biggest margin there has even been between us.”
“And all because a third year apprentice thought he could make better gunpowder using pure ingredients,” Magdalena said.
Ulrich shook his head. “Georg has always known that the purer the ingredients the better the powder.”
“So why doesn’t he always use purer ingredients?”
“Because it’s not that easy to make purer ingredients, and the small improvement in performance doesn’t usually justify the extra costs.”
“Except when it means the assay office can beat the Goldsmith’s guild?”
Ulrich felt the heat rising and knew he was blushing. “Except when it means we can beat the Goldsmith’s guild,” he agreed.
Magdalena was about to say something more when Georg Böcklin and his wife intercepted them. While his wife distracted Magdalena, Georg pulled Ulrich to one side. “Someone has inquired about getting some of the special powder I made for you. Can you give me a price to supply me with the high purity saltpetre and sulphur?”