“I don’t like it, William,” muttered Tam Ward, shaking his round head disapprovingly. “I just don’t like it. You can yell and scream at me all you want, but it’ll still be the same. I just don’t like it.” He swung his pudgy arms in a gesture that allowed no objections. Tam was a short, round fellow who made an odd partner for his taller, slimmer companion.
The grass under their feet was brown and beaten into the muddy ground of the field north of Traders Avenue. In contrast, the sky overhead was a merry blue with a few white puffy clouds for variety. The two men were standing next to their wagon, which was one of many that the Grand Players of Baranur owned. It was set up as a house, with waxed paper in the window frames and a door in the back. The yellow paint was peeling off, but that was the least of the show’s worries.
“Are you joking?” asked William Zeneca in his showman’s voice. “This show was a great buy.”
“What do you mean ‘buy’? The owners *gave* it to us, William. They gave it to us, and we inherited their debts. Does that sound like a good idea to you?”
William shrugged. The original owners were fools, convinced that since their best act — a strange creature indeed by all descriptions — had escaped, they would never be able to succeed in life. As far as William was concerned, they were fools. Other shows survived without fantastic beasts. Why not the Grand Players? “It sounds like a way to make quick money.”
“Quick!? William, that means we’ve got to pay off the debts before we can start making money, not after. And besides the debts, there’s the price of running the show, paying the performers. Oh, believe me, William, I wouldn’t be too sure about those fellows once you start making money, even if they’re happy now. They’ll start asking for double, even triple what you’re paying them today.”
“Now calm down, Tam.” William wiped his oddly crooked nose with the back of a bony hand and sighed. The two of them had held this conversation before. “There’s no reason to think that. The Grand Players of Baranur have been around quite awhile, and there’s no reason to suspect –”
“William, none of these performers were with the original show. Not one! All the original performers quit along the road. Who wants to work for a show that’s in debt except a bunch of half-wits? And that’s what we’re working with, William: halfwits. And if you take my advice, you’ll sell the show off for the amount of money we owe, pay back the people we owe it to, and break even.”
William could not understand how Tam had so little faith in him. It was William’s fortune-telling idea that had brought the two together in the first place. Tam had thought him a great genius for cooking up that one. Ever since then, he had refused to believe in William for no apparent reason.
“All right, Tam, will you shut up! Just stop whining. The show’s ours, and that’s that.”
“Well, I still don’t like it –” Tam muttered, and toddled off to pretend that he was making himself useful. William wished he would actually do something. After all, there was plenty that needed to be done. The Grand Players of Baranur were putting on their opening performance that evening, and the entire company was putting in their best efforts to set up the tent that housed their show.
“It’ll fit nearly a hundred audience members,” William thought. “Two Commons apiece — we’ll be able to pay back our debts after seven or eight shows.” He whistled merrily to himself, and set about examining the show’s setup. The poles were already pounded into the ground, and various aerialists and acrobats were arguing over how to stretch the large canvas piece across the tops of them correctly. It amused him how much these people argued. If they spent half as much time working as they did bickering amongst themselves, the tent would be completely ready by now. Maybe the problem was the constant rivalry between the acrobats and the aerialists. The two groups never seemed to stop fighting. To make matters worse, the aerialists and acrobats made up the entire show; all except for Paitr, the strong man, who sat on a crate off to the side, busily painting a large wooden anchor to look like iron. Zeneca chuckled. At least one member of the troupe could not complain about his salary. He was too replaceable.
On the other hand, he was also the only one who kept his mind to himself. Sometimes, William wondered if this was because Paitr lacked a mind to voice. Well, of course he had one. Everyone had a mind. Even foolish, weak strong men.
This field was a good place to attract customers. Drunks and merchants’ guards frequented that part of Dargon, and they were just the sort to pay a couple of Commons to watch cheap trapeze artists and a fake strong man. It would be interesting to see just how many customers did come. William did not doubt that the show would recover. He was simply curious to see how the many people he could draw. It would be quite interesting. Quite –
A hand tapped William lightly on the shoulder, interrupting his thoughts. He turned around and found himself facing a dirty-faced young woman with a wild, frantic look in her eyes.
“Yes?” he said.
Her cold blue eyes darted left and right, like those of a deer surrounded by hunters. “Please,” she whispered frantically. “Please, will you hide me?”
“Well what — what –?”
The woman tried to push past him, and he grabbed her by the arm. Who did she think he was, coming into the area of the show, asking him to hide her, and then trying to force her way past him?
“I can’t explain now, just — please! I can talk later, but please — please — my father!” She flung out her free arm, frantically pointing out into the throng of purchasers and sellers who frequented the marketplace.
William let go of her arm at the sight of a tall man on horseback wearing a huge broadsword. He was dressed in a bright red shirt with gold buttons and a flaring gold cape, and was shooting his eyes into the crowd on either side of his horse. The man stood out in the crowd because of his height and elevation, besides the fact that those around him seemed to sense that he was in a hurry and was in a foul mood. William agreed. This was no one to be ignored or brushed off.
“Is that your father?” he asked, terrified that the answer might be in the affirmative.
There was a pause, and it soon became clear that there was no answer, which was even worse.
William turned to see why exactly the young woman was not answering. He was planning to tell her to leave, and in no uncertain terms. Instead, he caught sight of her; she was just disappearing into the wagon that served as his and Tam’s house. He tried to run after her, but a man’s booming voice stopped him.
Cringing in terrified anticipation, Zeneca turned to face the voice. Sure enough, it belonged to the tall man on horseback, presumably the girl’s father. The man was still many yards away, but he had obviously seen the show and had headed towards it. “Me?” Zeneca motioned to himself, and flashed his most charming grin. He had to admit, he had thought the man would take a little longer to arrive.
“Of course you,” the man bellowed. “Who did you think I meant?”
William tried to recover. “Well I –”
“Who was that running into your wagon?”
“Wagon?” He could do no better. This man made him nervous to no end.
“Yes, wagon. The thing right there, behind you. Who was running into it?” By now, the fellow’s horse was towering over William, and he was still shouting..
“Someone was running into it?” Maybe, with luck, the merchant would give up.
“Yes,” the man on horseback shifted impatiently. “Someone just slammed that door.”
“Yes, they did. Didn’t you hear them? Or are you deaf?”
William thought he might be, if the merchant did not stop roaring at him. “Now –”
The man eased his sword in his scabbard. “You’re making me impatient, young man.”
Young man? Really! “Young man? You’re only a few years older than –”
“Who was running into that wagon?”
“Oh, the wagon.” William wiped his nose with his first finger, trying to act casual. “Well, I really don’t know. You see I, well, I only work here.”
“Then I suggest you see who is in the wagon.”
“It’s really none of my –”
“None of your business. Yes, I see. Well,” the man leaned forward confidentially, “if you should happen to meet a young runaway woman, would you mind very much taking her to the guards? I have had an artist send a sketch of her out to most officials in the city, so they can take charge of her. You will be rewarded handsomely.”
“Of course.” Zeneca said, putting on his most sincere face.
“Excuse me, William,” Tam’s voice said behind him. “Paitr wants to know if he should put lard on his anchor to make it more convincing.”
“What is this?!” the tall man roared indignantly.
“Wonderful!”, Zeneca thought. “He knows I lied to him.” He scrambled desperately for a way to cover up. “Of course, Tam. That’s what Mr. Zeneca always has him do.”
“What?” Tam pursed his lips confusedly.
“Mr. Zeneca. Our boss.”
“Oh.” Tam grinned. “Well, I’ll go tell Paitr about the lard.” He headed back towards the fake strong man, whistling a pleasant tune.
“If you’ll excuse me,” William said. “I’m going to get about my work now, if you don’t mind.”
“Please,” the man on the horse said softly. “Please. She is my daughter.” Abruptly, he stiffened his spine, looked Zeneca up and down, and left.
With a feeling of intense relief, William waited for the man to leave the field. It did not take long, but it seemed to stretch on for an eternity. “A reward,” William thought. “I really should remember that.”
As soon as the man was gone, Zeneca ran up the rickety wooden steps into the wagon.
“I need your help!” she cried the moment he opened the door.
He was paying her very little attention, now he had gotten his first good look at her. Well, he was paying attention, just not to what she was saying. Facially, she was not unattractive, if a little dirty at the moment. But her figure was perfect. He’d never seen a better pair of hips. Not even on an aerialist! Well, perhaps a little more size up top …
He tried to bring himself back to what he should be thinking about. “All right,” he said. “What’s going on here?”
Shaking nervously, the girl sat down at the small table that rested against one wall. “I’ve run away.”
This was simply too much. “What!? I’ve heard of being direct, but could you please try and be a little clearer?”
“I ran away from home, and he’s looking for me.”
“And you’ve gone off to join the circus? Well not mine! I don’t want that guy after me. I’m not anxious to get my head lopped off by his broadsword. Not that I think he’d go that far, but still, he might get my show shut down for that. Do you want to do that to me?
“Don’t answer that. I don’t care what you want to do. Look, you can stay here for a few bells, until he gets far enough away for you to leave, but after that, as far as I’m concerned, you’re just another face in the crowd.”
“Can I just stay for a few days?”
“Why?” William leaned forward, leaning his hands on the table the table suspiciously.
“It’s hard to explain –”
William started for the door. “If you’d rather leave –” He had no patience for this kind of thing.
“No. No.” The young woman shook her head. “There’s a ship coming into port the day after tomorrow. I’ve booked passage on it, and I wasn’t planning to leave until then, only, father had business out of town, and he wanted me to come with him, down south. I had to leave home right away, or I’d have to go with father and miss the ship.”
“And why are you leaving? On the ship, I mean.”
“My father won’t let me marry.”
How odd. William’s eyebrows rose. “He won’t?”
“Well, he wants me to marry, but not anyone I love. It’s happened three times now. I meet a nice man, well set-up, intelligent, attractive, and father rejects him. I don’t know how long it’s going to take, but I’m going to end it now.”
“If you’re going to stay here,” William decided. “You can work.”
“You can’t –”
“Yes I can, unless you’d rather have me return you. There are rags with the performers. Take a few and start cleaning out the wagons.” He started to leave, then turned back. “And what’s your name?”
“Sera,” he muttered. “Hmmm –” Pursing his lips, he closed the door behind himself.
Opening night had arrived, and Tam was drinking in the Lucky Lady, a tavern in the northwestern part of Dargon. The common room was dimly lit by a large beeswax candle at each table and a couple of even larger ones in wall sconces. The little light provided was obscured by the thick smoke given off by the patrons’ pipes. The smell of the smoke mingled with the fresh scent of second-rate brandy, yet Tam could still vaguely catch the scent of ducks and chickens roasting in the kitchen.
Around Tam’s table sat a group of four roughly-dressed men. The only women in the Lucky Lady were courtesans, and none of the men with Tam could afford the services of such. So they sat and drank, and gambled, hoping to win enough to buy a little more enjoyment that evening. Most went home broke, but that did not stop them from trying again soon.
“And then,” Tam continued, his words barely comprehensible and the smell of one too many drinks reeking on his breath. “Then William landed us with this. We now own the Grand Players of Baranur, one of the cheapest acts *in* Baranur. Still, it’s better than picking pockets, which is what I used to do.”
“You mean,” asked another patron, somewhat less drunk. “You mean you’re part owner of that show over there?” He motioned vaguely toward the west.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Then what are you doing out of the show?”
“I’m in charge of the technical stuff; the performers, the tent, you know. During the show, I’m off.” Tam waved his hand in the air. “William handles them, and also the money. Well, actually, he hires someone to do that, but he takes care of creditors, you know.”
Tam pursed his lips. “I can getcha in behind the scenes.”
Chuckles erupted around the table. “I’d like to see that,” the other man said. The others nodded in agreement. One snorted.
“Well,” said Tam, scowling at the one who snorted. “As a matter of fact you can all come. All of you.”
“Let’s go!” All four men piled out of the tavern, Tam struggling vainly to get ahead of them.
“And now!” William announced loudly over the crowd that packed his tent. “I would like to introduce to you the finest balancing act in Baranur. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Great Dargonian Tumblers!” The crowd erupted in cheers as twelve scantily-clad men and women rushed in through a gap in the back of the tent, and proceeded to begin a tumbling routine that could be called mediocre at best. But the crowd did not care. They were too full of ale.
“Good,” thought Zeneca. “They’re loving it!” It was all part of the theory that made him buy the show in the first place: cater to the right clientele, and you succeed. These people might not have the most class, standing around in tattered rags and with dirty faces. They might not have the best breeding; at least one small fight had broken out at the back of the tent, but a guard had broken it up before it turned into real trouble. Nonetheless, as long as they paid, the patrons were welcome.
The duke had sent guards to this event. They certainly did not like the show, from the looks on their faces, but they liked disorder less. There would be no trouble tonight.
Whatever the guards thought, William’s theory about the right clientele was true. They would gawk and stare at anything. One man did a forward flip and landed on his back instead of his feet. The patrons laughed hysterically, and William could catch the stench of stale rum and ale. He hoped Tam was enjoying himself. He also hoped the man he had hired to take the money was honest. Well, he ought to be. He cost enough.
The six women stood on their partners’ shoulders. Two of them fell, and the crowd’s reaction was mixed. Some were laughing. Others were gaping at the four who managed to stay on top. Still others — no doubt the ones with a bit less stupidity — were laughing at those who gaped.
Zeneca, on the other hand, was trying not to laugh at the audience.
“Wait just a moment,” said a heavily-built, specially-hired bouncer who was guarding the flaps of the tent. “Who are you?”
“It’s me,” Tam replied, stepping into the light that poured out from the massive tent’s ante-chamber. “Tam.”
“Go right in!” The guard held the tent flap open, and Tam led his confederates through into a small, separate part of the tent that served as a dressing room and staging area for the performers ready to go onstage. Crates and costumes littered the floor, lying in the straw with props and even the tools that had been used to put up the tent. Tam wished he could get it through the performers’ heads that they simply must pick up their tools before beginning rehearsals. Paitr, the strong man, stood ready at another opening in the tent, this one leading into the show. For a moment, Tam wondered if he should have Paitr clean up. “No,” he told himself mentally. “Paitr only used a paintbrush and some paint, and he cleaned that up.”
“Well,” Tam said to the others. “Do you believe me now, Torquil?”
“Of course I do,” he replied softly, then leaned closer. “Is there any chance you might get us in the front for free?”
Tam really did not know if he ought to. “Well –”
“What’s this stuff?” one of the thugs asked, feeling the fake anchor Paitr would use. It glistened with lard.
“It’s a trade secret.” And it was true. There was no point in telling everyone how you did things. Next thing you know, one of these fellows might have told one of his friends, and within the month there would have been no customers. People would be talking of it in the streets. He could just see it now. “Did you hear about that show up off Traders Avenue?” one would ask. “You mean the Grand Players of Baranur? Yeah, I hear they’re fun to watch.” Then the first man would say: “Don’t bother. I hear their strong man lifts a wooden anchor!” “Ha!” the second guy would snort. “Thanks for warning me. I’ll make sure not to go there.” That kind of thing would just go on and on.
There was a chorus of dissatisfaction from the men at Tam’s reply. Well, how much harm could a few people do? “All right,” he said reluctantly. “But you can’t tell anyone.” He took a deep breath. “It’s lard. It makes them look like iron. Now let’s get out of here.”
“Not yet,” Torquil said.
“What do you mean ‘not yet’?”
Torquil turned left and right to look at the others as he talked. “How’d you like to play a little joke, fellas?”
There was a mutter from the others in the affirmative. He motioned them to come closer, and whispered something as they huddled together. “Hey,” Tam said. “Hey, what are you guys planning?”
Torquil held a finger to his lips. “Shhhhhh.” Then he whispered: “Just a little practical joke. Watch!” He grabbed the torch that sat in a small stand in the floor.
Then, all the men stood aside as the “tumblers” ran past Paitr and out the door towards their wagons. Apparently, they were not performing again that evening.
Paitr knew his cue was coming, so he reached behind himself and picked up the anchor. It was funny, the way he carried it into the main tent, holding it in both hands and leaning it on his shoulders as if it were a difficult feat. Indeed, it *was* quite interesting to see him do this, when you knew it was covered with lard.
There was a chuckle from the other men as Torquil reached out the torch and held it under the end of the anchor that hung over Paitr’s shoulder.
“No,” Tam said. “Don’t do that.”
One of the men motioned for him to be silent. “*No,*” he said more loudly. “*Don’t do that.*” Apparently, this was too much for the man who had told him to be quiet. He stepped away from the other men and struck Tam a hard blow to the side of the head. As he fell into unconsciousness, he could not help but wonder what William would do to him when he came to.
“Thank you all!” William shouted to the crowd as the tumblers ran off through the back exit. “Thank you very much!” The crowd’s cheers shrank to the usual murmur, but he paused for several moments to increase the effect of his words. “And now my friends, I must sadly introduce this evening’s last act. I’m sure you all have to get up early tomorrow,” the crowd roared with laughter, and some fellow in the front row snorted loudly. “Because I’m sure you all have a lot of work to do.” More laughter from the audience. “So without further ado, I present you with Paitr, the strongest man in the world!”
Amidst hoots and cheers from the crowd, the man himself appeared at the back of the tent. The strong man did not appear to notice that one end of the anchor was burning, but the audience laughed hysterically at the sight of this. It was just a very small flame, and even if it did give off a good deal of smoke for its size, it certainly did not provide enough heat for the strong man to feel, given that it was a good arm’s length behind his head. Trying to ignore his audience, Paitr set the “anchor” down on the ground, and by this time, the flame was burning on a section of anchor about as long as his thumb. Seeing this, he screamed loudly.
William, of course, saw none of this. The first thing he saw was when he turned around, only to see Paitr throw the anchor into the side of the tent in terror, as a group of five or six rowdy drunks suddenly appeared through the performers entrance, guffawing. And the crowd was going wild. Until the flame from the anchor began crawling up the canvas. “No!” Zeneca cried, and dashed past the drunks, making for the performers’ section of the tent. Inside, Tam lay unconscious, and, more importantly, the bucket of water kept for such emergencies was empty. Half-witted performers! He remembered specifically that Tam had told them specifically to fill it up.
“Does anyone have water?” William tried to shout to the audience, but it was too late. They were in a state of panic. One man tackled the one behind him, clambered over him, pulled out a long knife, and sliced a hole in the side of the tent. Seeing this new plan, another fellow tried it. Within mere moments, people had cut holes it the tent in several places, and were rushing through them like water through a sieve.
William struggled to hold himself upright as flame consumed one side of the tent, and guards were struggling through the audience towards the drunks, who could not seem to stop laughing in spite of the fact that their malicious practical joke had turned into something that threatened many lives, including their own.
“I’d better get out of here,” William muttered. No one could hear him, but saying something just made him feel better. Quickly, he stepped out through the performers’ section of the tent, bending and picking up Tam on his way out. Of course, the bouncer was no longer guarding the back flaps. “Good thing for him, too. If he was here, I’d bloody kill him!”
At the sound of the terrified crowds, Sera stood up from her cleaning work in William’s wagon, and crept out through the door to see what was the matter. People were running in every direction to get away from the blazing tent, although a few were actually standing outside and laughing at their few comrades still inside. The city guards were trying their hardest to pull these people away. The show seemed to have attracted quite a number of guards, and was gathering many more from Traders Avenue. This was only natural, considering that anyone on that road would see the tent like it was a signal beacon. Guards would come to that kind of thing, usually.
Meanwhile, out back of the tent, several more guards were talking with — or interrogating — a small group of ruffians who seemed to be torn between laughing and cringing. Another seemed to be asking William questions, while yet another was bent over the prostrate form of Tam Ward, trying to get him to come to.
“Just stay that way, Tam,” Sera thought. “If you don’t, you’ll get questioned, too.” She liked Tam. He had struck her as a very nice man when she met him earlier. Of course that was only for a few moments when she was cleaning the performers’ wagons, and he had seemed to be more interested in talking to the aerialists than to her. Still, he was polite enough. Even if he had not been, Sera would not have wished interrogation by the guards on anyone.
As for the tent, she calmly went back inside, closed the door, bent over, and began scrubbing the floor again. It was William Zeneca’s problem, not hers.
“I just don’t understand how it happened, Tam,” William sighed, leaning against his and Tam’s wagon. It was the next morning, a few menes after dawn, and the sacks under his eyes told the tale of a sleepless night. He could still strongly smell the charred remains of the tent on the fresh breeze that blew over he and Tam — and over anyone else who happened to be about on that morning. That particular fact might have made William think great philosophical thoughts, if he were that kind of person. Well, he was not that kind of person, and he had other worries at the moment. “I just don’t see how it could have — Tam?”
Tam looked drowsily up from where his eyes were fixed on the ground next to their wagon. “Huh?”
“Tam, tell me your story again, from the beginning.”
“Well, William, it’s like I said. Those guys snuck past the guard. Then they just ran in and punched me out. I don’t know what happened after that.”
“In the name of all the gods!” William stamped his foot on the ground. After all the questioning last night, the guards had concluded that the only ones to blame were the babbling drunks. That would keep the duke’s men off him. “And now, what do we do? What about our creditors?” That was his main concern. Without a tent, how was the show to continue operating? They certainly could not afford to buy a new one!
A hand tapped William on the shoulder, and he swiveled around. “What!?” he cried, and the young aerialist who stood there jumped a few inches.
“The rest of the troupe,” she said shakily. Then she seemed to compose herself somewhat. “The rest of the troupe elected me to come tell you –”
She picked up a little more nerve, straightened more. “They said to come say, ‘we quit’.”
William was sure he had misheard her. “What? Why?”
By now, she had a lot of nerve, and was angry. “After last night, we wouldn’t even consider working for a bumbling fool like you.” She leaned forward, into his face, and spoke very slowly. “*We* *quit*.” Without another word, she turned her back to him and walked off towards Traders Avenue, following her comrades, who were already nearly at the road, carrying small bundles of their personal effects at their sides. Paitr was the last to go, moping sullenly away from the show. William shook his fist at the man in anger. “You can’t fire! I quit you!” The former strong man let out a loud, deep laugh and went on his way.
“Great,” William said. “Now we lost our workers *and* our tent.”
“What now, William?” Tam asked. “Do we reform?”
“You mean get jobs?”
“Yeah. I was figuring, we’ve both got pretty good backs. I figure, you could teach me to work on a farm.”
“Tam, are you feeling all right?”
William sat down on the wagon wheel. “Well, I mean, getting jobs, Tam. Do you know what that means?”
“Tam, it means *work*!” William bent his head over and dug his nails into his head.
Zeneca had a better idea. “Suppose you teach me how to pick pockets?”
“Yeah,” Tam said. “Yeah, I guess I could.”
“Wait!” William pointed to their wagon. “I’ve got a better idea.”
Tam leaned forward suspiciously. “Yeah?”
William jerked his head to the interior of the wagon, where Sera still slept. “What do you suppose the reward is for taking that girl back to her father?”
“I don’t know, she seems pretty nice, and from what you told me, which isn’t very much, I’d hate to send her back to him.”
That was not what William had in mind at all. “No! I’ve got a way to make everyone happy, except her father.”