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"I could never have predicted this", said Joby "Back in my own time I mean. That I would be standing here inside some old tub, rubbing talcum powder into an Eskimo's bottom!"
"Why not?" said Lonts, who was lying face down on Joby's bunk.
"What do you mean, why not?" Joby exclaimed "Because it's the sort of thing that just wouldn't have happened to me if I hadn't crossed over that's why".
"You don't know that", Lonts retorted "You might have married an Eskimo".
"Chances would have been pretty slim, Lonts. I doubt I'd ever have gone near the Arctic Circle for one thing, and you didn't get many Eskimo's in my neck of the woods".
"I'd quite like to see where you came from", said Lonts, sitting up when Joby had finished "After all, you've seen Kiskev. Would you take me out and show me everything if we were in your place?"
"I expect so", said Joby, pulling a nappy and pins out of Adam's plumber's bag "I'd take you to a cinema and a supermarket. A few pubs and clubs. And perhaps to the ice-rink so that you should show off and show 'em all how it's done".
"Would women have liked me?"
"They'd have gone potty over you! We'd have had to beat 'em off with sticks. They'd probably be tearing all your clothes off you in public".
"Did they do that to you?"
"But they'd see my penis then and be disappointed", Lonts whispered "Adam got mad when I remarked about it, but it's true".
"I know I make jokes about sizes, but it really isn't important, Lonts. It's what you do with it that counts. And Adam always seems pretty satisfied with you to me".
"But Julian's huge isn't he?"
"Well perhaps he got it to match his ego!" said Joby.
Lonts found this very funny and giggled whilst Joby helped him into his nappy. Lonts then kissed him and climbed into his bunk, still giving the odd giggle when he remembered what Joby had said.
"Do you think Joby'd mind if I swapped places with him tonight?" Hillyard was heard saying, from out in the gangway.
"I don't think he'd be too keen on the idea", Kieran replied.
"I certainly wouldn't", said Joby, opening cabin door.
"Oh I'm just not keen on the thought of bedding down with Ransey and his boyfriend", Hillyard explained.
"It's not as if you've got to get in with 'em", said Joby.
"It's not like Ransey to go bringing friends back", said Kieran "What's your impression of this Etyn character, Jobe?"
"A bit of a prig", Joby shrugged "But he seems harmless enough. Put it this way I can't see you having to barricade your bed, Hillyard. Although the idea of you being at someone's mercy is laughable!"
"It has been known", said Hillyard.
"When?" Joby exclaimed, in disbelief.
"When I was in my teens", said Hillyard "The supervisor at the farm I worked on after leaving the camp took a shine to me. Disgusting old slob. He chased me all round the fruit-packing warehouse".
"Did he catch you?" said Kieran.
"No, he wasn't fit enough. I wore him out before he could do anything", said Hillyard "But I got fired soon after. No prizes for guessing who was behind it!"
"You should've appealed against it", said Joby.
"To who?" said Hillyard "These things happen. Power corrupts".
"Even at warehouse supervisor level", Kieran laughed.
"Especially at warehouse supervisor level", said Joby.
Joby didn't get much rest that night. He slept, but had disturbing dreams that were so vivid they intruded on reality. For some unknown reason he kept hearing a bell ringing in the distance, but when morning came he couldn't decide if he had dreamt it or heard it for real. There were no bells on the boat, and they weren't near land, so it tended to point more to a dream-like origin. But Joby didn't feel entirely sure.
The weather had turned foul the next day, with rain making visibility poor, which meant someone had to be up on deck at all times. The waters were getting more populated than they had known prior to Zilligot Bay, with fishing trawlers at large in the area.
They had breakfast in the galley in two shifts, and Joby found himself eating in the second one, with Adam, Kieran and Julian. Kieran joked that it looked like a time-crosser's convention.
"That's the good thing isn't it?" said Adam "In spite of all our differences of origin, it never feels like a them and us situation. Not in any horrible way at least".
"I sometimes feel alienated from Julian than I do Hillyard or Lonts, or the others", said Joby.
"I suppose this is going to lead into yet another attack on my circumstances of birth", said Julian.
"I'm not attacking", said Joby "Just saying that I can't identify with your origins as much as I can the others".
"But that's silly", said Julian "We were both born into family units, not communes like Hillyard and co were, so how can you say that?"
"There's a world of difference between all our family units that's why", said Kieran "And normally you're such a snob you'd be the first to admit it".
"I find it bizarre that you are both willing to attack me for being a blue-blood", said Julian "But you don't dole out the same treatment to Adam, whom you seem to regard as a saint usually".
"No, I couldn't like him if he was a saint", said Joby "But he's not quite such a blue-blood as you is he?"
"Oh yes he is", said Julian.
"Your Da had a title", said Kieran "Adam's didn't".
"Maybe not, but his Mother did", said Julian "And that blows your little theories into a cocked hat doesn't it? I hate to disillusion you, but Adam is quite as absurdly aristocratic as I am".
"Ah but I have a streak of hard-headed vulgar nouveau riche running through me", said Adam "From my Father's side. We're not as pottily in-bred as your lot were".
"It must account for why you're always constantly trying to downgrade yourself", said Julian "Your sneaking affection for the peasant classes. Half the time I'm surprised you don't deliberately drop your aitches!"
"And why Adam doesn't go around thinking he's God's gift", said Joby "Unlike you".
"Aren't I then?" Julian smiled.
"Humour him boys", said Adam "And be grateful it's not one of your own!"
"Perhaps Joby could enlighten me once and for all", said Julian "What exactly is so awful about being an aristocratic? And let's have a bit of honesty, such as is it just resentment of privilege? Envy perhaps?"
"I don't think anyone should regard themselves as superior just because of who their family is, or where they live", said Joby "And I think there's something wrong with a system which lets some people have money and privilege just because, as you often put it, an accident of birth".
"But how else would you do it?" said Julian "The only way round that would be to have everybody born into communes, like in this time. Or force everyone to give everything they own to charity when they die. And that's hardly fair either. A lot of people strive to provide for the next generation, so why should they give it all away?"
"I always thought kids were only loaned to parents though", said Joby "Your parents give you a home, food and warmth. Hopefully. And then you go out and make your own way in the world. And that's how it should be".
"But what if your parents try to ensure you have the best possible start?" said Julian.
"What, by giving you a poxy title and sending you to an exclusive school?" said Joby "I don't call that the best possible start. I call that an unfair advantage".
"This is a very silly argument", said Adam "In the age we're in now it makes no odds as to what class one was born into. Julian could have been heir to the throne, but no one's going to know that now are they? Or much less care".
"It doesn't stop him thinking he's God's gift", said Joby.
"Only in your own eyes", said Adam "It is you who has the hang-up about Julian. Treat him with total contempt if it'll make you feel better".
"I thought he always did", said Julian, dryly.
Few people could remember what the original name of the Village of Stairs had been, because it had been known by that appellation since long before the Massacre. Situated two day's sailing north of Zilligot Bay, it was a characterful place. It got its nickname from the fact that it had been built on the side of a steep hill, and was a maze of dark alleys and steep stairways.
Being further north it was slightly more cosmopolitan than Zilligot Bay, with a greater influx of passing trade, and very little of the sleepy atmosphere. Its climate was a lot more rainy, but with the same intense heat. It was the closest known port to the Equator.
Adam went ashore with Kieran and Joby. Kieran hid his distinctive long yellow hair under his hat, although it was a forlorn hope that the Indigo, anchored in the harbour, would not be recognised by anyone. They decided to do most of their exploring at lunchtime, when most of the natives would be asleep out of the heat of the day.
"It reminds me of Edinburgh", said Kieran, standing halfway up one of the many narrow stairways "These little dark alleys are very like the wynds".
"And the stairs are like something out of an Escher drawing", said Adam "I hope Julian decrees we can stay here for a few days. I'd like to explore it fully. Perhaps do a little sketching. I seem to have got remarkably little done on this trip so far".
"Let's have a beer", said Joby, looking wistfully at the cool shade of a bar nearby.
They deposited themselves under an awning, and ordered two beers and a an iced coffee.
"Well isn't this nice!" said Adam, once the drinks had been brought out "Us three out on a date again. Quite like old times. I specifically arranged for us to be alone like this. I wanted to talk to you. I have something to say".
"You're dying", said Kieran, abruptly.
"I should've realised I couldn't keep much from someone so hopelessly psychic as you!" said Adam.
"Joby and me have guessed for some time", said Kieran.
"Couldn't very well help it", said Joby "Not when you keep dropping hints about not wanting to look ahead six months".
"Well I obviously needn't have worried", said Adam, tartly "It's always the same with you two isn't it? I have devastating news to break, and you take it so calmly. Like that time at the Winter Palace when I had to break it to you that the time-cusps had been sealed off and we were marooned in this era. I was expecting scenes of high emotion, and instead you two treat it as a mild inconvenience, as though the starter-motor had gone on your car!"
"You know that's not the case", said Kieran, quietly "We're shit-scared, both of us".
"What do you think it's like for me?" Adam exclaimed "At least you will still be able to see each other, hear your voices, feel one another. I'm being banished into the outer darkness. Oblivion. And it's the last thing I want. You two are both like Julian. You expect me to feel sorry for you for having to soldier on and it's me who's having to give everything up!"
"But we can't help being scared", Joby protested, tearfully "We're nothing without you. And it's a case of one of us down, two to go".
"Joby and me have made a decision", said Kieran, gulping back his own tears "We didn't want to say anything until we heard it from your own lips, but now we have ... we're coming with you".
"Am I hearing you correctly?" said Adam, appalled.
"We came into this world with you", said Joby "We're leaving it with you".
"Joby, I'm talking about death here, not another time-slip!" said Adam.
"It's much the same thing, technically", said Kieran "And we don't want you to be out there alone".
"Now listen to me", said Adam, angrily "Your crackpot ideas have never ceased to amaze me, but this one surpasses all that have gone before. You two are eighteen years younger than me. You have both got an awful lot of living left to do before you chuck in the towel. I won't hear of this idiotic silliness. You'll still have each other for heaven's sake!"
"For the time being", said Joby "Until the next one goes, and then one of us has to be here alone. We don't want that".
"So we've decided ... well you know what we've decided", said Kieran.
"Suicide", said Adam "And exactly how do you square that with your Catholic conscience, Patsy? Haven't you lectured us enough times about how suicide is the number one offence in the Lord's eyes? That no one but He has the right to take a life".
"He's the God of Love, He'll understand", Kieran mumbled.
"I doubt it!" said Adam "What supreme arrogance you display, Patsy. I think being Vanquisher has gone to your head. You think you can make up your own rules as you go along. Well you can't. If there is a God and He's as you've always believed Him to be, He's not going to make an exception for you. You'll burn in Hell, and so will Joby".
"Now you're teasing us", said Kieran.
"Too bloody right I am!" said Adam "When did you cook this little scheme up?"
"We've talked about it on and off for some time", said Joby.
"I'm going to burn anyway!" Kieran suddenly blurted out "It's a sin to set up false idols, and that's what I've been all these years, to all these people. A false idol. I shouldn't have gone along with it. I should've ignored them all".
"You couldn't have", said Adam "They wouldn't have let you. They wanted an icon, and they chose you. There was nothing you could have done. Now please, no more talk about double suicides. You two have a long way left to go. You're not even forty yet. You're still younger than I was when I crossed over! Think of all that could happen to you by the time you reach my age".
"We don't want it", said Kieran "We're tired. Neither of us wants to move forward any further".
"Oh it's just a touch of mid-life crisis come a little early that's all", said Adam.
"I wish we could go back", said Joby "Do it all over again. Even the shitty bits".
"It doesn't work that way I'm afraid", said Adam, sadly "I notice they do rooms here. Let's hire one for the afternoon, shall we? I think we need to let it all hang out for a little while".
They were walking back through the bar downstairs afterwards when a newspaper lying on one of the tables caught Kieran's eye. The headline read "THE PRESIDENT'S CONDITION SAID TO BE CRITICAL".
"Gorth's not ill is he?" said Adam, leaning over his shoulder.
"He don't look too good", said Joby.
The recent photograph on the front showed Gorth looking gaunt and unshaven.
"'The Ministry have taken the unprecedented step of refusing to deny that the President is critically ill'", Kieran read out loud "'At an engagement in the City last Thursday he looked tired and frail. Since then he has not been seen in public, and insiders at the Headquarters have so far refused to deny that there is any cause for alarm. This worrying news comes after a time of great personal stress for the President. A fortnight ago the Ministry took the extraordinary step of voting unanimously to refuse to bail out the President's Consort, Tamaz, financially. Tamaz has recently been issued with a huge demand for back payment of income tax'".
"I bet Tamaz is making Gorth's life a misery over that then", said Joby.
"'An insider said the President is feeling considerably run-down physically, but will be undergoing a full medical check-up at the weekend'", Kieran continued "Oh God, I don't like the sound of any of that!"
"If anything happens to Gorth ...", said Adam "He hasn't nominated you as his successor as he, Pats?"
"No, he knows better than to do that", said Kieran "I hope he's nominated someone though. Otherwise it'll go to Tamaz by default".
"You're kidding!" said Joby.
"I'm not", said Kieran "It's in the constitution. If the president doesn't officially name a successor, it goes to his consort. Either to take over the job himself, or to act as regent until a replacement can be found. Didn't either of you two know that? It was part of your oath when you became my consorts!"
"Oh we didn't pay too much attention to all that claptrap did we, Jobe?" said Adam.
"You're hopeless", said Kieran, in disbelief.
"The whole day was a blur", said Joby "All I can remember is you saying you could have clapped in the Assizes if my complaining got on your nerves".
"Pity I didn't!" said Kieran.
"I can't imagine attempted murder is part of the consort's accepted duties either", said Adam.
"You think Tamaz might be trying to kill him?" said Joby.
"It would be entirely in character", said Adam.
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