I’m Otto of Schlepsig. Ah, you’ve heard the name, I see. Yes, I’m that Otto of Schlepsig. Some other people claim to be, but I’m the real one, by the Two Prophets. I’m the one who was King of Shqiperi. I ruled the Land of the Eagle for five whole days.
No, I wasn’t born blueblooded. By my hope of heaven, I wasn’t. As a matter of fact, I was born in a barn. Truly. Literally. It was either that or make a mess of my parents’ traveling caravan, and my mother — a trouper among troupers — would never have done such a thing.
I could lie to you and make out that Mother and Father were more famous than they really were. Why not? You’d never know the difference. But what’s the point of telling a story if you don’t tell a true story? So ... They were sideshow performers, and that’s the long and short of it. I grew up among more or less trained monkeys and bearded ladies and sea snakes and drunken, down-at-the-heels sorcerers and flea circuses and demons and all the other strange odds and ends that might make a mark want to part with some silver — or, a lot of the places where we played, with some copper.
I daresay it warped me for life. But I’ve had fun.
In the forty-odd years — some of them odder than others — since my mother waddled off to lie down in the hay, I’ve done a lot of things. I’ve been an actor. People still talk about the way I played King Clodweg in The Maiden with Seven Boots. Sometimes they don’t even throw things when they do. I’ve climbed all 287 steps on the way to the top of the Temple of Siwa — and I met another traveler from Schlepsig when I got there . I’ve been an acrobat. I’ve rescued a princess. That she didn’t particularly want to be rescued wasn’t my fault. I’ve served not one but two hitches in the army of the Hassockian Empire. (Whether that says more about how desperate I was or how desperate the Hassocki were, I leave for you to decide.)
And I’ve been King of Shqiperi. That’s what I want to tell you about.
No, I didn’t set out to be a king. Who does, except a crown prince? I was in a third-rate circus rattling around the Nekemte Peninsula in the middle of the Nekemte Wars. First-rate outfits never go down there: not enough money to be made. They stay up in Schlepsig and Albion and Narbonensis and Torino and the more civilized parts of the Dual Monarchy. The second-rate companies had cleared out when they heard dragons shrieking and crossbows being cranked. That left ... outfits like mine, I’m afraid.
Dooger and Cark’s Traveling Emporium of Marvels was just as bad, just as pathetic, just as hopeless as the name would make you guess. The roustabouts drank. When the tent went up, it went up sideways as often as not. The fortune-teller couldn’t have seen a roc falling out of the sky. The sword-swallower coughed. That wasn’t Max of Witte’s fault, but it sure didn’t help his act.
We were in Thasos the night everything got started. Thasos, most of the time, isn’t a bad town. It’s a bigger place, a fancier place, than Dooger and Cark’s miserable little outfit usually gets to play. But, after belonging to the Hassockian Empire for something close to five hundred years, it had changed hands, quite suddenly, in the Nekemte Wars.
Frankly, it looked like a place that had just been sacked. The walls were battered. About every third building had a chunk bitten out of it, and fires had burned here and there. It smelled like a place that had just been sacked, too. Once you get a whiff of the smell of death, you never forget it. Mix it with old smoke and fear, and that’s what a sack smells like.
And Thasos felt like a place that had just been sacked. A lot of the Hassocki pashas and beys had got out of town when their army ran off to the west, but most ordinary Hassocki — tinsmiths and ropemakers and butchers and what have you — hadn’t had the chance to flee. The ones who were left alive sat glumly in their coffeeshops, robes drawn tight around them, turbans perhaps a bit askew, long faces somber. They drank tiny cups of sweet mud and sucked on the mouthpieces to their water pipes and tried to pretend the whole thing never happened.
Meanwhile, the Lokrians in Thasos were out of their minds with joy. Thasos has always been a mostly Lokrian town, even though Lokris lost it all those years ago. Now it was back under the Green Dragon, and men in short skirts and women in long ones danced in the streets. If you’re not a Lokrian, the kind of music they play sounds like skinning a live cat with a dull knife. If you are ... you dance. When they weren’t dancing, they jeered at the surviving Hassocki.
After the sun went down, Lokrian warships in the harbor (junk Schlepsig and Albion didn’t need any more) shot off fireworks. I hoped they were fireworks, anyway.
You’re wondering why anybody in his right mind would want to bring a circus into a mess like that. You’ve never met Dooger and Cark, have you? One of them is from the wilder parts of the Dual Monarchy. The other speaks every language under the sun, and all with the same weird accent. If they had any idea what the demon they were doing, they wouldn’t have touched the Traveling Emporium of Marvels with a ten-foot pole. Since they owned it...
Since they owned it, we got to Thasos a bare handful of days after the Lokrian and Plovdivian armies did.
Hassocki wizards should have planted salamanders under the roadbed and in the fields. That would have slowed down the Lokrians and probably the Plovdivians (who are wild men), and would have stopped civilian traffic in its tracks (although only Eliphalet and Zibeon know what Dooger and Cark would have done). It didn’t happen. By then, the Nekemte Wars were going so badly for the Hassocki that they didn’t think about much except running. The only places where they still held out and held on were in the fortress of Edirne, which guarded the approaches to Vyzance, and off in wild Shqiperi, where nobody was trying very hard to push them.
But that’s another story. I hadn’t even thought of the Land of the Eagle yet. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t swear I’d heard of the Land of the Eagle yet. I’d been a lot of places in my time, but nobody in his right mind went to Shqiperi. So I thought then, anyhow.
Our wagons rattled and thumped down that unsalamandered — I hoped — but potholed — I knew — highway to Thasos. I sat next to the roustabout driving mine. In my spangled shirt and tight trousers, I wanted to be seen. I combed my mustaches, trying to make them as splendid as I could.
Behind me, in the wagon, Max of Witte coughed. He’s had a cough for as long as I’ve known him, and we go back a ways. Sometimes I ignore it. Sometimes it starts to drive me crazy. This was one of those times. “Stop that, Max,” I said.
“I’d love to,” he said in his foghorn bass, poking his head out to look around. Max is a lot taller and a little skinnier than people have any business being. His joints show more than your usual fellow’s, too, so watching him is like watching a not very graceful marionette. He coughed again.
“One of these days, you’ll do that while you’re performing,” I warned him.
“Only way I’ll ever make the journals,” he said dolefully. “First person in the history of the world to cut his own throat from the inside out. Something to look forward to.”
“If you say so,” I answered. Max isn’t Max unless he’s complaining about something.
We pitched our tent in a vacant lot not far from the Grand Temple of Thasos. That temple is all Lokrian; it was there for a thousand years before the Hassocki took the city. You could see the two spires piercing the sky whenever you turned your head that way. (The Lokrians, of course, are Zibeonites, and built his spire taller than Eliphalet’s. Being a modern, tolerant man, I pass over in silence the ignorant heretics’ errors.)
The Hassocki had built a fane to their Quadrate God next to the Grand Temple. It gave them a place to worship in Thasos. Other than that, I have to say, it wasn’t a success. The four low domes on its roof aren’t so much of a much compared to those two spires, even if the wrong one was taller. (No, I was going to pass over that in silence, wasn’t I? My apologies, kindly reader.)
I got the feeling the lot hadn’t been vacant very long. Whoever’d cleared the rubble from it had plainly won the contract on lowest bid and made up for that by not clearing a good bit of it. Bricks, broken bottles of arrack (if there’s been any unbroken bottles, the rubble haulers had taken care of those — oh, you bet they had), and roof slates argued a building had lived there not very long ago. Crumpled papers might have come from it, too, or from anywhere else in Thasos. They blew by, now in flurries, now in blizzards.
And we added our own papers, as if Thasos didn’t have enough. We pasted fliers for Dooger and Cark on anything that didn’t have a mouth and ears. There are at least half a dozen languages in the Nekemte Peninsula. Dooger and Cark, being too cheap to have wizards use the law of similarity to reproduce them in every relevant speech, solved the problem by not using any. Probably Cark’s idea; he’s the one who was born speaking no known tongue.
So our fliers showed a pretty girl wearing not very much (have you ever known a circus without one, or more than one, to give the marks something to stare at?) turning cartwheels, a lion and a unicorn on their hind legs like the supporters of the arms of Albion, a two headed man (actually, José-Diego quit a while ago, after he got into an argument with himself), a clown brawling with a well-hung demon, and, soaring above them all, an acrobat doing an obviously death-defying flip.
Me. Yours truly, Otto of Schlepsig. Star of ... Dooger and Cark’s, Prophets help me. I lugged a pastepot while Ilona carried fliers. She’s the pretty girl on the poster — a redhead from the Dual Monarchy with a temper like dragon’s breath. “Hurry up!” she snapped at me, as if I were her slave. Well, I’ve heard ideas I liked less.
“You’re carrying paper,” I pointed out. “I’ve got this bloody heavy bucket, and my arms will be as long as a forest ape’s by the time we get this job done.”
Ilona said something in Yagmar, the language she grew up speaking, that should have set the fliers on fire. We’d been using Schlepsigian up till then. It’s my birthspeech, and Ilona knows it because the Dual Monarchy crams it down everybody’s throat in school, like it or not. Almost everybody in the circus business picks up some of it — except Albionese. They think other people ought to speak their language.
Ilona wasn’t in costume. She would have caused a riot if she’d gone out on the street wearing what she almost wore when she performed — and not a friendly kind of riot, either. Hassocki can have harems, but they start pitching fits if they see more of a woman in public than her hands and her face. You figure it out — I’ve given up. And Lokrians, probably because they’ve had the Hassocki next door for so long, are almost as straitlaced.
Costume or not, she still got stares. She’s a damn good-looking woman — I already said that. And she has red hair down to about the small of her back. In a place like Thasos, where just about everybody’s swarthy, she stood out like an honest man in parliament.
A fellow in a skirt and tights said something in Lokrian. Seeing us look blank, he tried again in Hassocki: “You’re ... circus people?”
Hassocki I speak — a lot better than he did, in fact. They beat it into you when you join their army. “Of course not, sir,” I answered politely, adding my best bow. ”We’re in the chicken-giblet business. I can give you a fine bargain on gizzards.”
It didn’t faze him. Nothing much fazes Lokrians — either that or they start pitching fits. He jerked a thumb at Ilona. “Sell me her giblets.”
“What does he say?” she demanded. Without waiting for an answer, she called the Lokrian something that made what she’d said before sound like love poetry. That didn’t faze him, either. He swept off his broad-brimmed straw hat and bowed almost double. She turned her back on him. Considering some Lokrians’ tastes, that might have been ill-advised. But this fellow just sighed and went on his way.
Such is the glamorous, romantic life of a circus performer. Makes you want to run away and join, doesn’t it?
Actually going out and performing is always a relief. You may hate traveling. You may hate shilling (although nobody in his right mind hates Albionese shillings — they’re the soundest money in the world). But if you hate performing, you wouldn’t be out there in the first place.
With the usual jitters, I watched the crowd filter into the tent. If the house is lousy, the owners have an excuse for stiffing the crew. Of course, the owners will try to stiff the crew if the house is full, too — especially if they’re Dooger and Cark — but at least then you know you’re getting screwed.
Things looked pretty good. The portable stands on either side of the ring were filling up. Roustabouts steered Lokrians to one side, Hassocki to the other. Why borrow trouble? You get plenty even when you don’t borrow it.
Hassocki complained they couldn’t see the lions as well as they wanted to. Lokrians complained they couldn’t see the clowns as well as they wanted to. Everybody complained about how much we charged for wine and pistachios. Hassocki aren’t supposed to drink even a drop of wine. That doesn’t stop them, or not very often. They flick out a drop from a cup, as if to say, There, I didn’t drink that one, and then they go on. Sometimes I think they enjoy wine more because they don’t just get drunk — they get to feel guilty, too.
Out swaggered the ringmaster, in an outfit that would have made an Albionese duke at a coronation feel underdressed: top hat, tailcoat, white tie, knee breeches with silver buckles, shining white hose, and patent-leather cambridges with even bigger silver buckles. And Ludovic had a whip — how can you be a ringmaster without a whip? — and he had waxed mustachios just as black and just about as long. Ludovic is a piece of work, all right.
He cracked the whip to draw everybody’s eyes to him. Good thing the locals didn’t decide the war had started up again, that’s all I can tell you. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Dooger and Cark’s Traveling Emporium of Marvels!” he said, first in Lokrian and then in Hassocki. At least I assume the Lokrian was the same as what I could understand.
People applauded. They really did. Like I’ve said, we hadn’t played Thasos before. For all the locals knew, we really were marvelous. Unfortunately, they’d find out pretty soon.
“And now,” Ludovic called in a voice that filled the big tent without seeming strained, “I give you the famous Madame Ilona and the unicorn. Madame Ilona, ladies and gentlemen, direct from the court of the Dual Monarchy!”
The only court in the Dual Monarchy Ilona had ever seen was the one that gave her a sentence for vagrancy. Nobody from the royal and imperial court at Vindobon (royal and imperial, mind — not just one) was likely to show up and give us the lie, though, so ... why not?
Out she came, doing flips across the unicorn’s back and cartwheels and somersaults all around the beast. Everybody stared at her. Well, Ilona is worth staring at anywhere she goes. But all she had on was skin-tight emerald satin that covered her from just above those to right around that, and women in Thasos don’t dress that way, not where anybody can see them they don’t.
Hassocki and Lokrians all gaped as if they’d never set eyes on a woman before. The shock value probably made Ilona look even better to them than she would have someplace where people don’t have a stroke when they look at a leg.
Ilona knew what she was doing to them, too. There’s a little — or more than a little — demon in Ilona. In between the tumbling runs, she threw in some wiggles that weren’t gymnastic but sure were entertaining. You never saw such an ... attentive audience in all your born days.
And the unicorn only made it that much more agonizing for the poor, prudish locals. Everybody knows about unicorns and virgins. Now, Ilona may possibly be virgin in her left ear, but I wouldn’t bet more than a hemidemisemilepta even on that. She didn’t try to ride the unicorn, of course. She just did flips on it. The unicorn put up with that. The other? Give me leave to doubt it.
She was good. Not only that, she was riveting. The marks couldn’t take their eyes off her. I’ve seen plenty of acts with amazing talent that nobody wanted to watch. If you’ve got a choice between good and riveting, take riveting every time. You’ll go further.
Our lion-tamer was good. He could get the big cats to do things. ... Well, if their mothers asked them to do some of that stuff, they would have bitten them. But poor Cadogan wasn’t riveting, not even close. He made it all look too easy. Working with lions is supposed to seem dangerous. Curse it, working with lions is dangerous. A lot of trainers end up slightly dead, because one mistake is all you need. The crowd is supposed to sweat when you’re out there. If it doesn’t ... If it doesn’t, you end up playing with an outfit like Dooger and Cark’s Traveling Emporium of Marvels. And Eliphalet and Zibeon have pity on you if you do.
Ilona came out again, this time doing flips on a mammoth’s back. Maybe the mammoth got as many oohs and ahhs as she did — they don’t live anywhere close to Thasos — but maybe it didn’t, too. Clowns tumbled and brawled all around the parading beast. Some of the thumping and pounding that was part of the act probably wasn’t just part of the act, if you know what I mean. Two of the men in whiteface and odd-colored wigs had fallen out over one of the women. When they slugged each other in the stomach and walloped each other with brickbats, they bloody well meant it.
It made the act go over better. There was an edge they wouldn’t have had if they were just going through the motions. People can tell, even marks. As long as one of them didn’t stick a salamander in the other one’s drawers backstage, the show was fine. And they were both troupers. The show mattered to them.
Ludovic reappeared. One of the clowns larruped him with a brickbat, collapsing his topper. The clown scooted away, but not fast enough. The ringmaster’s whip lashed out. It snatched the clown’s green wig right off his head. Under the green wig, he had on a fire-red one. That’s always good for a laugh.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen...” Ludovic speaks more languages than I do, and speaks most of them better than I do. “...Now the amazing, the astounding, the magnificent ... Grand Duke Maximilian of Witte!”
That was Max. I happen to know his father was a brewer. From an early age, Max showed himself much more enthusiastic about drinking ale than about making it — which is, no doubt, part of the reason he was making a poor but not too honest living with Dooger and Cark’s.
Out he came, to more silence than I would have liked. Most places, his tall, thin, shambling frame stuffed into a general’s uniform with twenty pounds of epaulets and medals and cloth-of-gold threadwork and crisscrossing scarlet sashes (also goldtrimmed) and the gaudiest scabbard in the world is good for a belly laugh all by itself. I knew right away what was wrong. In Lokris and the Hassockian Empire, generals really do wear outfits like that. The locals couldn’t see the joke.
Max’s face is one of those long, skinny ones that look sad even when the fellow who’s wearing it is happy and goes downhill from there. He looked out to the audience, to the Lokrians on one side, to the Hassocki on the other. The more he looked, the more lugubrious he got. If not for his other talent, he would have made quite a clown.
He made an extravagant gesture of farewell — so extravagant, he almost fell over. Then he made as if to cut his throat, but stopped halfway with another gesture, one that said that wasn’t good enough. And then, throwing his head back, he swallowed the sword instead.
I’ve seen a lot of sword-swallowers, but Max of Witte is the best I know, or know of. Being so long and lean, he’s got a lot of space between his mouth and vital points south, so he can swallow more blade than anybody I’ve ever seen. He outdid himself this time, too. He was just about ready to swallow the hilt; that’s what it looked like, anyhow. Then he coughed.
That cursed cough is one of the reasons Max performs for Dooger and Cark’s and not a circus really worthy of his talents. And those talents really are formidable. By then, people in both sets of stands were staring and pointing and shouting — and clapping like maniacs, too.
What’s the other reason? Well, I don’t exactly know. Max tells it different ways on different days, depending on whether he’s drunk or sober or on which way the wind is blowing. Most of the time, it involves the wife of a prominent promoter. Sometimes, it’s his mistress. Sometimes, it’s his daughter. Once, it had something to do with the promoter’s dog — but Max was very drunk then.
He coughed again. He’d joked about cutting his throat from the inside out. With that much steel still inside him, it wasn’t a joke any more. He drew out the blade — probably a lot faster than he’d had in mind at first — and brandished it like a professional duelist. He bowed almost double as the crowd went wild.
Then, for good measure, Ilona came out again. She was carrying a long, thin loaf of bread. Max bowed to her, even more deeply than he had to the crowd. He kissed her hand, and kissed his way up her arm. The farther he got, the louder the audience squealed. No, you don’t do those things in public, not in Thasos you don’t.
At last, when the squeals were turning to screams, Ilona clouted him over the head with the loaf of bread, using it like a clown’s brickbat. That seemed to make poor Max remember what he was supposed to be doing. He bowed to her again. She held out the loaf at arm’s length.
And Max sliced it. Flash! Flash! Flash! went the sword. Slice after neat, every slice of bread flew off the loaf, till the blade paused about an inch from Ilona’s hand. More cheers from the crowd — loud ones. There are always your half-smart marks who go, “Oh, but that blade hasn’t got an edge on it anyway.” Oh, but that blade bloody well had.
They cheered him then. He’d earned it, and he got it. He bowed himself almost double again, and had to make a wild grab to keep his hat from falling off. His hat? I haven’t said anything about his hat? Well, what would you say about something so garish, it made the rest of his outfit look normal by comparison? It didn’t glow in the dark, but I’m switched if I know why not. His ears stuck out from under it, too.
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, for your entertainment and amazement, the king of acrobats!” Ludovic bawled. “Ladies and gentlemen, the one, the only, the magnificent ... Otto of Schlepsig!”
I was on. I bounded out there into the center of the ring and bowed every which way at once. I got polite applause. I hadn’t expected anything more — I hadn’t done anything yet, after all. But even that little spatter of handclapping gave me what the drunk gets from his brandy and the opium smoker from his pipe. I was out there. I was in front of people. They saw me. They liked me. I was alive.
I waved again. I bowed again. I ran up to one of the two big poles that supported the tent canopy and hurried up the rope ladder attached to it — big tents are rigged as elaborately as men-of-war. About two-thirds of the way up, there’s a tiny platform. A tightrope stretches from it to the one just like it on the far tent pole.
As soon as I stepped out onto the rope, I heard the gasps. Some came from women’s throats, some from men’s. I teetered, deliberately, just to hear them again and make them louder. “He’s going to fall!” somebody exclaimed in Hassocki.
“Yeah!” Several voices said that. They sounded eager — hungry, even. There are always people who want to see the sword-swallower cut his throat, who want to see the acrobat fall down and smash himself to strawberry jam, who want to see the demon get loose, who want to see the lion maul the tamer. It happens everywhere you go. You can’t do a thing about it — and if you could, and you did what you wanted to do, wouldn’t you be just like them? Better not even to think about that.
And better not to think about falling down, too. If it’s in your mind, it’s liable to be in your muscles, too. Actually, though, a tightrope is more forgiving than a slack one. And I wasn’t trying anything new. Only the same old things I’d done ten thousand times in practice. Don’t think. Just do.
Anyone who’s known me for a while will tell you I’m pretty good at not thinking. Ask either of my ex-wives, for instance. Trudi and Jane don’t agree on much, but they wouldn’t argue with that.
So. Leap, right foot forward. Leap, left foot forward. Handstand rolling into a somersault, coming down on my feet. The rope was good and tight. I’d made sure of that beforehand. You don’t trust the roustabouts when it’s your own personal, private, irreplaceable neck. Not more than once, you don’t, assuming you live through the once.
Out to the middle of the tightrope. Bounce up and down once or twice. Listen to them ooh and ahh down below. Listen to them scream when you spring out into nothing but empty air. Then listen to them ooh and ahh again, three times as loud, when you catch the glass trapeze rod. I live for that.
From down below, they can’t see the trapeze at all. Magic kills the reflections. Magic also strengthens it — having it snap from my weight could be downright embarrassing. The first time I hit it in any show always worries me. The wizards Dooger and Cark use have the same sorts of troubles as everybody else in the troupe. One of them drinks. One of them built a bridge that didn’t stand up. One of them ... Well, never mind about him. I don’t let him have anything to do with the trapeze rod, that’s all, and you can take it to the bank.
Once I was on the first trapeze, swinging and twirling from it to the next to the next was easy, in the sense that anything is easy if you’ve practiced it long enough. If I do say so myself — and I do — I showed the locals some moves they wouldn’t have seen anywhere else this side of a forest ape.
My last flip was from the last trapeze to the tightrope. I caught the rope, used my momentum to swing up into another handstand, and went from that back to the upright. Some people would have cut more capers on the rope then. Me, I figured enough was enough. I went across to the far pole, took one bow on the little platform up there, and then came back down to the ground. The hand I got as I descended and when I finished my bows in the center of the ring said I’d gauged it right.
“That was the magnificent Otto of Schlepsig!” Ludovic boomed. I took one more bow. Who wouldn’t feel magnificent with applause washing over him like sweet, pure rain? The ringmaster went on, “And now, Ibrahim the Wise conjures spirits from the vasty deep!”
Ibrahim the Wise is the twit I won’t let near my trapeze rod. He’s a fat little Torinan. His real name is Giuseppe; backstage, we mostly call him Joe. He dresses in robes that look vaguely Hassockian, to go with his alias. He does look wise, or at least impressive, when he wears them, which proves clothes really do make the man.
If only he’d stick to the handful of things he knows how to do, he’d be fine. But he’s one of those mages who never saw a new spell they didn’t like. He half learns them, and trots them out before he’s got them under control. One of these days, he’ll summon up a water elemental and drown us all. Did I tell you he smokes hashish? That doesn’t do anything to make him think he’s less powerful, believe you me it doesn’t.
Today, though, everything went all right. I recognized his spell right away. He’s called up that golden-winged monkey-griffin fairly often — often enough to get the hang of it, anyway. The green smoke that flared when the demon appeared was new, but it wasn’t a bad effect. And the monkey-griffin put on a show, rearing up on its hind legs till it was twice as tall as a man and roaring like a lost soul.
Its tongue was long and green, too — so long that it almost stole the hat from a fat Lokrian in the first row who looked like an olive-oil merchant. The fat man let out a yelp even louder than the monkey-griffin’s roars. His fellow Lokrians were sympathetic. The Hassocki in the other set of stands laughed at him.
To close things out, of course, Ibrahim the allegedly Wise had to demanifest his demon. He did it, to my relief, and even threw in another cloud of smoke, this time red. He bowed. People cheered.
I got a better hand, though. You’d better believe it.
Afterwards, we did what people do afterwards: we unwound. And while we unwound, we kept a wary eye on Dooger and Cark as they counted the take. If they said we didn’t bring in much, they’d be setting us up to cheat us. Like I said, it wasn’t anything they hadn’t done before.
We were all a little more nervous than usual this time. If we squawked, they were liable to sack the noisy ones and leave us stuck in Thasos. With the Nekemte Wars still sputtering behind us, with soldiers and brigands and pirates prowling the routes back to civilization, this wasn’t really a place where we wanted to get stuck.
And the real pisser is, Dooger and Cark are rich. They don’t worry about where their next copper’s coming from. Screwing the people who work for them is like a game, as far as they’re concerned. Or maybe they’ve been doing it so long, they can’t not do it.
There are always signs. When they start muttering and sighing and shaking their heads, when they look like a coal wagon just ran over poor old Aunt Griselda, that’s the time to start worrying for real.
When they didn’t start doing any of that stuff, we all breathed easier. When Cark actually smiled, we broke out the arrack and the slivovitz and the schnapps and the genever and the cognac and the water of life. Joe — excuse me, Ibrahim the Wise — got a pipe going and probably doesn’t remember any of the next three days.
Dooger? Dooger didn’t smile. But that didn’t bother us, because Dooger never smiles. Never. I don’t want him to, either. I’m not ready for the world to end.
I washed off most of my makeup. I left a little on, so people would know I’m a performer. That always impresses local girls, or some of them, anyhow. A bottle of arrack came by. I took a swig and passed it on.
“Pretty good show,” somebody said. Eliphalet’s holy whiskers! That was Max. He’s usually as cheerful as the Hassockian Atabeg’s strangler. He must have been pleased — either that or he’d sucked in some smoke from Joe’s pipe.
Trying to make the moment stretch, I said, “You did a nice job playing up the gloom when the people didn’t laugh at your getup.”
“Oh. Thanks.” Max looked surprised. He also looked ridiculous. He still had on his Grand High Supreme Exalted Marshal’s tunic, and under it his skinny, hairy legs stuck out from drafty drawers that needed mending. “Most of the marks, they’re too dumb to laugh at funny. Give ’em something pathetic and they’ll laugh themselves sick.”
“Isn’t that the truth?” I said, and told him my thought about the ghouls in the crowd.
Max gravely considered it. Max considers everything gravely. At last, he gave me a nod. “Well, I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong,” he said. “Some of those people, after I swallow the sword, they want to see it come out my — ” A bottle of slivovitz interrupted him. After a show, a bottle of slivovitz will interrupt almost anybody. He gulped and sent it my way.
After he gulped, he coughed. This time, I didn’t fret about him. For one thing, he didn’t have a foot and a half of honed steel down his throat. For another, a good slug of slivovitz will make anybody cough.
Ilona let out a screech like a cat with its tail in a pencil sharpener. A moment later, I heard running feet. One of the locals must have been peeking into the wagon while she changed. Her window scraped open. What sounded like a bottle shattered on the ground — or possibly on the local’s head. The window slammed shut. Ilona said something in Yagmar that had to mean, That’ll teach him!
Ludovic brought in a copy of the Thasos Chronicle, the journal for foreigners in town. It’s written in Narbonese, not because more foreigners in Thasos know Narbonese but because Narbonensis used to have closer ties to the Hassockian Empire than any of the other great powers did. Now that Thasos belongs to Lokris (unless Plovdiv takes it away), who knows how long the arrangement — or the journal — will last?
“Any news about the show?” three people asked at the same time. A natural question — and a dumb one. I don’t care how fast the law of similarity lets you turn out copies. A scribe wouldn’t have had time to write his piece, get back to the office or send it by crystal ball, and get it to the wizards. Not only that, the news-sellers wouldn’t have had time to get it on the street. Magic is one thing. Miracles are something else altogether.
The ringmaster shook his beefy head. “I was looking for war news, for when we leave town. It’s still sputtering to the north and west. The Hassocki aren’t giving up there.” He paused and turned to an inside page. “And it says Essad Pasha and the Shqipetari have asked the Hassockian Empire to send them Prince Halim Eddin to be their new king.” He paused again. “There’s a picture of the prince, copied by crystal from the original portrait in Vyzance.” He held out the journal so we could all see.
It was my face.