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"I don't know what you're pratting about with it for", said Joby "Just chuck it over the side, that's what I say".
They were all crowded into Julian's cabin, whilst Ransey inspected the skull. He was handling it with the large pair of tongs which Kieran normally used when doing the laundry.
"Hang about, I think I've found the source of all the mystery", Ransey reached inside the skull and pulled out a very small round object, no bigger than a button, which had been attached to the inside.
"What is it?" said Adam.
"Some kind of tracking or bugging device", said Ransey, holding it in the palm of his hand "I've come across this type before. They're not very good. Gabriel used them once, for when he used to bug meeting-rooms. We had to stop in the end because when they start winding down they can become a bit of a giveaway, as you and Julian noticed this evening".
"I assume Etyn put it there?" said Adam.
"But how?" said Kieran "I mean, where did he get the skull from, and why put the bug inside it anyway? Why not stick it somewhere less easily detectable, like under the desk or something?"
"Etyn wasn't all there in his mind", said Ransey "Perhaps we should find it reassuring that Tamaz can only find such obvious incompetent loons to do his dirty work for him".
"So we've been tracked all along", said Adam "How wonderful! We go to all this trouble to evade Dalman and his cohorts and they're tracking us! Everyone else knows where we are even if we don't!"
"Dalman isn't in league with Tamaz, you daft rabbit", said Julian "We don't know for certain who's tracking us, or who knows where we are. One thing's for certain, we can't afford to trust anyone from now on".
"We should never have trusted anyone at all", said Joby "It was letting strangers on this boat that's always given us trouble. For all we know Bengo might have brought the skull on-board".
"It wasn't me!" Bengo croaked, clutching a blanket around his shoulders "I'm completely harmless".
"Not completely, I've seen your act", said Julian, dryly.
"It can't have been Bengo", said Adam "All he had when he joined us was a leather jock-strap. He couldn't have hidden the skull in there!"
"Never mind how it got there", said Ransey "The important thing now is we have to get rid of it. I'll do the grand ceremonial of flushing the bug down the bog, and then we can all get some sleep!"
He picked up the skull and carried it out of the room. Julian shooed the others out after him, and then thankfully closed the door.
"I for one am very glad that unsavoury object is no longer in the room", said Finia, climbing into his bunk "Having things like that lying about, it was like being back in Husgalonghi".
"Julian", Toppy tugged at Julian's sleeve "I always thought that skull was weird. It used to watch me when I was in bed, that's what it felt like anyway".
"Really", said Julian, too tired to give him the benefit of a question-mark "Go to bed, Toppy".
"I'm leaving", said Tamaz, stalking one of the corridors at the H.Q. He was not looking his best, being unshaven and none too clean.
"You can't just take off like this", said Rilde, the Minister for City Affairs, an amiable person, and one of the few men on the Ministry team who could talk to Tamaz without wanting to drown him in a bucket of cold water "You're the President now, you have to give everyone notice of where you're going and how long you're going to be gone for".
"Rubbish. Claptrap. Poppycock", said Tamaz, walking hurriedly towards his private apartments "That blonde midget used to take off whenever he damn well felt like it, so I don't see why I shouldn't. You can deputise for me whilst I'm away".
"But where are you going?" said Rilde, imploringly "I have to be able to tell them something at the Council meeting tomorrow".
"I'm flying down to Toondor Lanpin".
"Toondor Lanpin?" Rilde exclaimed "But that's in the middle of nowhere, half the time it's never marked on maps. It's a dingy, nothing sort of place. What one earth do you want to go there for?"
"I have important business down there", said Tamaz, flicking Rilde's lapel playfully.
"Can't someone else do it?"
"I have been leaving it up to others so far, and they have all failed abysmally. I can see no other course but to take matters into my own hands".
"But what is this important business?"
"Nothing you need to concern yourself with", Tamaz patted Rilde's cheeks, none too gently.
"But what about the babies?" said Rilde, with increasing desperation "The little ones? They need their mother!"
"Tell them to behave until I get back", said Tamaz, opening one of the large double doors into his suite "And warn them that if they don't, I may have to eat them on my return!"
Once in his suite Tamaz tore off his clothes and inspected himself in his full-length mirror. Today he had been male, but for his journey he would be female. It was so much easier to get these fools to do as they were told if he was wearing a boned corset and rouge.
During his pregnancy his breasts had swelled to quite respectable sizes, but since the birth of his children they had shrunk again, to fried egg size. His little stub of a penis flapped pertly above his vagina. He had stubbornly resisted all offers by eminent surgeons since his inauguration to have it removed. He knew what they were trying to do. Turn him into a fully-fledged woman. Well he wasn't having that, by keeping his penis he was insisting on staying on their level. As matters stood at present he could enjoy the best of both worlds. It gave him an advantage over them, and he wasn't giving that up in a hurry.
He rang for his two valets, and over the next hour they shaved him, washed and curled his hair, applied rouge and lipstick to his face, and then dressed him in black silk stockings, petticoats, and a boned speedwell blue dress with a full skirt. He had lost weight since becoming President, and his crescent-moon cheekbones (his one claim to beauty) were once more highly visible. He relished the feel of the cottons and silks against his skin, and he looked forward to causing havoc on his arrival in Toondor Lanpin. He doubted very much if even Kieran, with his yellow hair and blue eyes, would be any match for him in his all his finery.
He felt he hadn't done enough wooing of the public lately. All that was about to change. He had every confidence that he could still win everyone round, and then he would take great delight in defeating that so-called Vanquisher completely, and bringing him back to the City in chains. It simply wasn't enough to kil Kieran. He realised that now. He had to destroy his image as well. Or one thing was for certain he would never be free of him.
"The waters are getting shallower", said Ransey, hauling up the depth-measure "It's nothing to worry about at the moment, but it could mean a possibility of us running out of river at some point".
Julian stood next to him on the deck and scanned the countryside ahead. For as far as he could see the river wound on interminably, wending its way between two vast areas of squelchy flat marshland. A sky pregnant with clouds pressed down on them.
"Well if we run out of river we'll just have to turn back", said Julian.
"Look, I doubt if we've got enough fuel to get back to Pendor's house, let alone the Village of Stairs", said Ransey.
"Of course we've got plenty of fuel", said Julian "This entire ship is a fuel source. If we run out of wood we'll just have to chop up a few doors or something".
"We can't start chopping up the ship", said Ransey.
"If it comes to that, then we'll have to".
"I think I prefer it when you're being all sour and negative".
"I suppose when I'm being positive I can be rather frightening", said Julian "But some days I do so enjoy being Captain. I know then how a judge must feel when everyone in the court-room stands up when he enters".
"You needn't think we're going to start doing that!"
"You just concentrate on being helmsman. I shall go below and check on the fuel situation with Hillyard. As soon as we start getting low then the saloon door can come off its hinges".
Julian went down into the hold where he found Hillyard sitting sobbing amongst a pile of half-dismembered packing-cases. As soon as he saw Julian he dropped his chopper and flung himself at the other man, weeping into his neck.
"What on earth's the matter with you?" Julian snapped, trying to ease himself from Hillyard's grasp "Flying at me like an hysterical girl! Pull yourself together man!"
"I-I'm sorry", Hillyard wiped his eyes with the back of his hand "It's just ... I've lost Bengo!"
"Lost him? What are you talking about? Have you put him in the furnace by mistake?"
"The one man since Stombal that I thought I could really care for. Properly I mean. All to myself. Not like Kieran or Joby. And he doesn't want me".
"Is that all?"
"What do you mean, is that all?" said Hillyard, angrily "My heart's breaking!"
"I'm sure your heart is made of much stronger stuff, Hillyard".
"But I love him!"
"You've only known him five minutes! Look, I'm not really cut out to be agony uncle, I'll fetch Adam for you. He's much better with the tea and sympathy. Although personally I think you're a fool to get so worked up about someone you've known for such a short time".
"It affects you too!"
"Don't you see? Bengo's fallen in love with Finia!"
"Then you've got absolutely nothing to worry about", said Julian "Finia's got more sense than to get involved with a circus performer".
"He already has", Hillyard cried "They're lovers! I nearly walked in on them in my cabin earlier. I went out again before they could see me. Finia thinks he's wonderful, I heard him saying so. It's so unfair. I was really prepared to make a go of this one. You've gotta sort it out, Julian. It's partly your fault".
"How can it be?"
"Bengo must've heard about you and me".
"Now hang on, don't blame me. I've never forced you into anything, and if I remember correctly you came onto me last time. A certain little speech you gave me about how Bengo understood your ways, remember?"
"That doesn't matter", said Hillyard "What it boils down to is if I lose Bengo, you lose Finia. I take it you don't want that?"
"Then this is in fact your fault!" Julian exclaimed "I didn't want that half-witted performer on this boat, but you insisted he stayed. You are to blame for this, Hillyard. And if I lose Finia, I'm going to make you my slave, and then you'll wish you'd never been born!"
The weather had turned much warmer by the following day. The clouds disappeared, the sun came out in splendour, and tropical garb was donned once more. In the afternoon everyone but Hillyard (who stayed in the hold with his misery) went up onto the forward deck and embarked on a skittles tournament.
Julian hadn't confronted Finia about Hillyard's claim, but he watched him intently. It would have been obvious to anyone that something had developed between Finia and Bengo. Their eyes kept straying towards one another constantly. Finia, who was back in his pink bikini, couldn't resist grabbing Bengo on several occasions and wrapping him in his whip-thin arms.
"Make a handsome pair don't they?" Kieran whispered to Joby.
For Julian this was the last straw, he grabbed Bengo by the back of his vest, like a bouncer evicting a troublemaker from a nightclub, and marched him forcibly below.
"What's he doing?" Finia shrieked "Adam, do something! He'll hurt Bengo!"
When Adam got down to the saloon he found Bengo cowering in the corner whilst Julian rained down slaps on his head.
"Jules, for pity's sake", Adam tried to pull the older man away.
"I want him off this boat!" Julian yelled "It's Gimmit all over again, and I won't have it!"
Adam managed to hook his arm round Julian's waist and pulled him away.
"Go into your cabin and calm down!" he shouted "This isn't the answer, Jules. I'll come in to see you shortly".
"I don't understand why he's doing this", said Finia, running up to them after Julian had gone "What happens between Bengo and me won't affect the relationship I have with him. He's still my daddy".
"I'll try and talk some sense into him", Adam sighed, pushing a lock of hair out of his eyes "Julian's not the only one who deserves an explanation though".
"I didn't mean to take up with Hillyard, it just happened", said Bengo "I never thought for one moment that he took it seriously".
"That is up to you to sort out", said Adam "I've got enough to do keeping track of my own relationships!"
"You must see that it's unreasonable of you to be so possessive, Jules", said Adam, a few minutes later "Finia is entitled to have relationships. You don't own him".
"He led me to understand he didn't need relationships!" said Julian, standing at the porthole in his cabin "I thought it was only me he wanted".
"His taking a lover doesn't affect what he has with you though. He told me that himself".
"How dare you!"
"How dare I what?"
"Expect me to be all longsuffering about this. Would you be, eh? If it was your little darling who was screwing around!"
"It's different for Lonts and I", said Adam "We're lovers. You and Finia aren't. You can't expect the same hold over someone. Anyway, I have to put up with you taking Lonts whenever you feel like it. But then that's always been the trouble with you, Jules. You take take take all the time, but the rest of us aren't allowed to do the same. Why do you always consider your feelings to be more sacrosanct than anyone else's?"
Julian slapped him round the face. The blow took Adam so by surprise that he fell against the desk.
"How dare you say that to me?" Julian screamed "After what I've had to put up with from you all these years!"
"Well if that's your attitude, you won't have to put up with it any longer", said Adam, emotionally.
He turned to leave, but Julian pulled him back.
"Oh no yo don't", he cried "You don't walk out on me, not after all this".
"You insufferable, arrogant pig", Adam wept.
"Don't call me that!" Julian slapped him again.
Adam pushed him backwards, and Julian fell onto the floor, sending his chair flying as he did so. Adam took advantage of his undignified sprawl to jump on him and pin him to the floor. He then proceeded to slap and pummel any part of his body that he could find.
It took Julian some time but he eventually managed to grab Adam's wrists, catching them both in his hands. He then pushed him back against the floor and sat astride him.
"Quite like old times isn't it, Adam?" he said. He ripped open Adam's shirt, and hooked his finger into one of Adam's nipple-rings "Now if you don't stop struggling I'm going to yank on this very hard".
"Alright, I'll stop", said Adam, quietly.
Julian let go and leaned back, pushing his hair back off his face.
"I do enjoy these little nostalgia trips of ours", he said "Although you must be losing your touch. You would never have let me subdue you that quickly in the old days".
"I didn't have nipple-rings then", said Adam, breathlessly.
"No, they're useful", Julian suddenly looked sheepish "I'm sorry I hit you, although God knows it makes a change that it's not me on the receiving end for once. But I really couldn't have you saying you were leaving me. Condemning me once more to a life of greyness without you".
"Your life would be a lot easier without me".
"Hm. Do you know I had everyone telling me that when you got sent down? They all said forget him, he's a peculiar boy, too strange for words, you'll never be happy with him. Now he's safely behind bars forget about him. And like a fool I listened to those prize pygmies. Christ, I would give everything to undo my spineless behaviour of those days. To have told those idiots where to get off. But one thing I've learnt is that I'm determined never to lose those I love again".
"Such as Finia?"
"I can't lose him, Adam. Anymore than I could lose you. If I could lock him up in a cage, I would. What does he want that cretinous acrobat for?"
Julian got to his feet and reached for a cheroot.
"He's never going to leave you", said Adam, standing behind him "He's devoted to you. You must believe me. You must".
"I-I'll try", Julian lit his cheroot with shaking hands "It's not easy".
"Poor Jules", Adam began to cry softly and he leaned his head on Julian's shoulders "My poor insecure boy. What I said earlier ... it was just anger talking. I would never leave you again. I need you. I always have".
Julian put the cheroot into an ash-tray and then slid his arms round Adam's waist.
"You don't know what that means to me to hear you say that", Julian whispered "It makes my whole useless life worthwhile. For so long I'd been convinced my mother had been right".
"About what?" said Adam, softly "Tell me".
"She once said to me ..." Julian's voice cracked painfully "S-She was upset, I know it's hard to believe. It was the only time I ever saw her get emotional about anything! I was seven. S-She told me if she'd had her way I would never have existed. That she'd have had me aborted. Flushed down a lavatory bowl at a private clinic, was how she described it".
"Oh hell", said Adam, tearfully "I knew she was cold, I didn't know she was monstrous! W-Why ...?"
"Why did she hate me, you mean? Because she didn't see why she'd had to have more than one child, more than one son. I was in the way. Inconvenient, although God knows I can't ever remember her allowing herself to be inconvenienced for my sake!"
"The old bitch".
"You think you had trouble because your mother was a hopeless drunk", said Julian "But at least she never despised you".
"Mother didn't despise anyone, that's the sad thing", said Adam "She wasn't capable of hate or contempt. If she had been she might have survived my father with something a bit more effective than a bottle of vodka! Oh Jules I wish ..."
"I'd told you fifty years ago?" Julian smiled, ruefully "I wish I had too, now. But I was too ashamed. When one's own mother thinks you don't cut the mustard it's a hard cross to bear".
"We all carry so much hurt around with us".
"The point is, she was right. I know I'm worthless", said Julian "I always have known it. Deep down. Convinced always that no one woould ever love me out of choice, so I had to bully them into it. And the only two people who have ever loved me in my entire life have been you and Finia. And just then, I stood a good chance of losing you both".
"Never, never, never", said Adam, firmly "And I'm pretty certain I can speak for Finia too".
The door opened and Finia walked in. His expression was decidedly stony.
"Have you calmed down now?" he barked at Julian.
"What in God's name do you want that ridiculous creature for?" said Julian.
"Take no notice of him, Finia", said Adam "He'll put up with Bengo. Rather that than lose you".
"He still hasn't answered my question", said Julian.
"I'm only human", Finia shrugged "Sometimes I need a lover just like everyone else, and it's been a long time since Gimmit".
"You have appalling taste", Julian snapped.
"Nonsense", said Adam "Bengo is extremely toothsome. Anyone with a good appreciation of the male form would be taken by him".
"I don't mind you letting off steam", Finia said to Julian "But don't knock Bengo around. I want you to apologise to him".
"Hell will freeze over first", said Julian.
"Well at least be civilised to him, for my sake. You know I'm not going to leave you after all these years".
"Too right you're not!" Julian exclaimed "I didn't take you out of the brothel just so that you could carry on playing the tart with every gormless-looking weasel that comes your way".
"Jules! That's enough!" said Adam.
"He doesn't bother me, Adam", Finia sighed "I've been insulted by experts in my time".
"That doesn't excuse him", said Adam "I honestly thought I'd talked some sense into him just now, but he's still behaving as outrageously as ever".
"If he wants me to be his daddy he has to put up with a bit of discipline now and again", Julian began.
Finia stalled him by standing on tiptoe and kissing him on the cheek.
"I suppose you're still going to insist on seeing that creature?" said Julian, half-chastened.
"Bit hard not to round here", said Finia, flippantly.
"You know what I mean".
"You'll have to wait and see won't you!"
Finia laughed gaily and left the room.
"Little harlot", Julian mumbled "Thinks he's got me round his little finger".
"He has", said Adam.
"If he was anyone else I'd beat the arse off him".
"I certainly wouldn't advise that!" said Adam "Now you'll grown-up about this Jules, won't you? Won't you?"
"I'll try", Julian snarled.
"That's very magnanimous of you".
Great excitement occurred the following morning when a scattering of sheep were found grazing on the marshes. This could only mean that civilisation of some sort was near, however small. As the Indigo chugged further up the ever-widening river she suddenly found herself to not be the sole vessel. Other tugboats appeared, plus a couple of small fishing-boats. Up ahead in the far distance the outline of an iron bridge could be seen spanning the river. Houses and other buildings began to appear, first randomly and then in large groups.
"Whatever we're coming into is quite some size", said Ransey, standing at the wheel.
"A lot of these buildings are derelict though", said Joby, pointing at the jagged empty windows of one large dwelling.
"Inevitable", said Kieran "The world's population shrinks more and more everyday".
The Indigo chugged under the bridge and into the dirty, congested waters of what appeared to be an industrial town that had seen better and more populated days. More derelict buildings lined the waterfront, and those that were still in use looked rather seedy and rundown.
"I hope the natives are friendly", said Adam, apprehensively.
"I'm glad the sun's out", said Joby "I'd hate to see this place in the rain".
"We might be seeing the rough-end", said Kieran "Perhaps it's nicer further on".
"Better find out where we are first", said Ransey.
He steered them close to a fishing-trawler, which had two men on the main deck fiddling about with the pulley which dispensed the net. He spoke to one of them, whilst Joby took the wheel, and then returned to the helm.
"Did he seem friendly?" asked Adam.
"Yeah, helps that the Indigo is such a scruffy, careworn old thing", said Ransey "Makes us one of the plebs, if you see what I mean".
"So where are we then?" said Joby.
"Some town called Toondor Lanpin", said Ransey.
"Never heard of it", said Joby.
"I've only heard it mentioned a couple of times", said Kieran "It's a real scrag-end of a place. Grew up along this part of the river. Survives on its wits, which isn't saying much at times".
"So do we know exactly where we are now then?" said Julian.
"Yes, but it's not much comfort", said Kieran "Toondor Lanpin's on the Fiwangee River, from what I remember being told. It's the only town for miles, and I mean MILES. We'd better put in here to restock, as we're several weeks from the next settlement".
"I'll find somewhere further up", said Ransey.
The waterfront got more colourful as they went on. The edges of the river were heavily populated with wooden huts on stilts, often with their own jetties attached. Many of these were derelict too, a poignant reminder of when the whole area must have teamed with life. Of both sexes.
No one raised any objection when they dropped anchor at the jetty of one derelict waterfront hut. In fact the locals they did see appeared to be very friendly, with good spirits completely at odds with their seedy surroundings. Some recognised Kieran and were effusive in their welcomes. Others gave no sign at all that they knew him, but were still very friendly. It was almost as if as soon as the Indigo dropped anchor, they were accepted as part of the local scene. Many men came along with gifts, such as large bunches of bananas, bottles of rum or rice wine, and folded papers containing hashish.
"What a lovely crowd of people", said Adam "I think they'd have done that even if Patsy hadn't been who he is".
"Was", Kieran corrected "I haven't been the President for years".
"I really think it's the Indigo that's done it", said Ransey, proudly "I doubt we'd have got the same reaction if we had some swish masted brig or an immaculate cruiser. But the Indigo means we're one of them. I think we're going to be alright here somehow".
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