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Everyone woke late the following morning with a feeling of foreboding concerning the day ahead. It was a fact that if they didn't earn some money within the next thirty-six hours then the wagon would be impounded by the Pepuaahan authorities and they would be thrown out of the city. This knowledge sparked Adam into one of his frighteningly decisive moods.
"Gimmit swears the State Circus is the place to look for work", he said "So the best we can all do is to go and throw ourselves on the mercy of the manager. If only a couple of us get jobs it'll be a help, as they can support the others".
They asked the elderly nomad in the next pitch to mind their wagon for them and set out across the city. The State Circus had put up in Pepuaah for a few weeks, before planning to go back on tour once the Spring Festival was over at the end of the month. Back in the City the Circus had been a faded, sorry affair, kept going solely by the patronage of schoolchildren. Since beating an expedient retreat from Father Gabriel's regime though it had flourished, taking in every eccentric, freak and misfit that fell into its path. These days it didn't just attract children in its audience, but a very wide variety of adults. Some just wanted light entertainment, others something a little bizarre and/or erotic, and others were after the downright tasteless (and/or erotic). The State Circus now catered for them all, with more compartments and variety than a multi-screen cinema. When it went out on the road it resembled the caravan of some Biblical emperor, stretching back for miles as far as the eye could see.
Cootie, the Manager, could never believe his luck. The box-office sang afternoons and evenings, and he now made it a point never to turn away anyone who came looking for work. A job or a turn could be yielded from even the most unpromising of material. It helped of course that he paid very little, if anything in some cases. Some of the cast and crew were happy just to be afforded protection within the Circus when on the road, others wanted to lose themselves in it from Father Gabriel's attention, others just wanted the shelter that the Circus provided, and food could always be got free from somewhere or someone on the premises. The Circus now in fact acted as a kind of unorthodox Welfare State.
Adam had anticipated a difficult interview. He had even been prepared for all of them to beg on their knees if necessary, but he hadn't bargained for Cootie's shrewd business brain. The man took one look at them and hired them all on the spot. After all, he was never likely to get anything so lucrative as the Vanquisher of Evil AND the Kiskev Survivor in one job-lot again.
Cootie was tall, thin and dapper. He had a deceptively soft voice and genteel manner, which camouflaged a business acumen so sharp it was amazing he didn't cut himself. With his liking for black tail-coats and skull-headed canes he could look like a voodoo witch-doctor, and Adam had to curb a desire to ask if his real name was Doctor Hambone. Cootie said he'd pay them a small amount up-front as a "holding fee", but from then on they wouldn't get paid again until it was proved that they contributed something valuable to the whole operation. In the meantime though he loaned them a piebald pony to pull their wagon.
"They're heading up north after the Spring Festival", said Kieran, as they walked home again afterwards "We could travel along with them until we get within sight of the City. It would give us perfect anonymity from Gabriel".
"Some perfect anonymity Patsy", said Adam "Our friend Cootie intends to exhibit you in his freak show, I swear it".
"I can cope with that", said Kieran "It'll mean we'll be getting somewhere at last, and anyway being an exhibit for the paying public can't be any worse than the exhibit Gabriel made of me at Mundaba Heights".
"And we'll be there to make sure nothing happens to him", said Hillyard, who was leading the piebald pony.
"Well I don't want you being turned into a peepshow, Patsy".
"Peepshow Patsy!" Kieran laughed "That could be my stage name".
"Don't go all moralistic on me Adam", said Kieran "It doesn't suit you".
"You cheeky little bastard, I'm only thinking of you", said Adam "I don't want fat old poofters leering at you in some dingy tent".
"I can cope with it Adam. It's the best cover we're going to get".
"There won't be any cover!" Adam roared "You will be exhibiting yourself in public for crying out loud. Gabriel will be onto you like a shot".
"Maybe, but I'll have better protection than I'd have had if we carried on travelling alone".
"He's got a point there Ad", said Ransey.
"Alright Patsy", said Adam "If you can't think of yourself, then think of Lonts. Cootie is going to want to show him as well".
"He can't make us do anything we don't want to do", said Kieran "We're joining a circus, not going into slavery. We can all take care of Lonts, we've managed so far. No one is going to exploit him, not so long as I can help it anyway".
Back at the Pauper's Pitch the elderly nomad was practically jumping up and down with excitement, so much so that his turban was in danger of unravelling.
"You had a visitor", he said "A man in livery, bearing gifts. Said he was representing a friend of Joby's. He's left a basket for you. Here".
The basket turned out to contain a cooked chicken, a bottle of port, some fruit and a wheel of cheese. It also came with six embossed invitations, and a note addressed to Joby.
"It's from Lord Trixie", he said, still referring to him by his nickname "He wants us to come to his coming-of-age party tonight. We're all invited. Except Gimmit".
"Why not me?" said Gimmit.
"Probably because they'd have to fumigate the place afterwards if you came", said Joby.
"Will there be food at this party?" said Ransey, who was already breaking off flakes of the cheese.
"I would have said so", said Joby "All parties have grub of some sort. And booze".
"We haven't got anything to wear", said Hillyard "You can bet everyone else is going to be dressed up like a dog's dinner. And there'll be us lot looking like shipwreck victims".
"For God's sake Hillyard, he wouldn't have invited us if he didn't want us there", said Joby "He knows how we're fixed anyway".
"He probably wants us there as free entertainment for his snooty pals", said Kieran.
"You'll have to get used to that won't you?" said Adam, tartly "Think of this as good experience for you".
"Adam, I'm going to swing for you if you don't stop going on about me being an exhibit", said Kieran.
"Oh go to hell Patsy!" Adam cried, and flounced into the wagon.
Adam had been lying on his bunk for some time before he became aware of another presence in the wagon.
"Oh Joby", he said, opening his eyes blearily "It's you".
"Try not to sound so excited about it".
"Sorry old love, but I thought you might be Patsy", Adam sighed "I suppose you think I'm being an over-protective old fool as well".
"No", said Joby "I'm not happy about it either. But I can see his point. Anyway, it might not be that bad. It's not as if he's going to have to strip is it? I expect the public'll just look at him and ask a few questions, you know what was Angel really like? The usual old routine".
"Perhaps", said Adam, reluctantly "So, this new little friend of yours seems very hot on you".
"Don't say it like that".
"Embossed invitations to his party and a picnic hamper, and all for just seeing him home! Looks like love to me".
"Adam! I don't fancy that ... that overweight Pekinese. He's alright, but I don't want him. It wouldn't have bothered me if I'd never clapped eyes on him again".
"I doubt he sees it that way".
"You really enjoy stirring it don't you!" said Joby "Anyway, he knows the situation. That I'm consort to Kieran".
"Not just you sweetcakes, and don't forget that".
"Fat chance of forgetting it when you're around".
"Exactly", said Adam "And does your little friend realise the state of play between you and me as well?"
"I didn't go into all that. He had quite enough to think about to be going on with", said Joby "You don't think he does fancy me do you? I hope I haven't given him the wrong idea. Oh God, I'm glad he didn't just invite me tonight, well I don't think I could have gone. You'll be there anyway".
"No I won't", said Adam.
"But you've got to come Adam!"
"Oh parties aren't my scene anymore. It's no fun being stone-cold sober whilst everyone else is getting rat-arsed around you. And I don't think Lonts should go either, so I'll stay here and keep an eye on him".
"Lonts'll be alright. He coped fine when we went to see Cootie today".
"A party is a different kettle of fish altogether Joby. There'll be a crush of people there. They'll either stare at him as though he's got two heads or letch after him. And he'll probably get too excited and agitated".
"I know, but he's got to get used to it. We're going to be living in a circus as from tomorrow! He's got to learn to be around crowds again. We can manage him between us".
"We've mistakenly thought that before".
"He might enjoy himself you know. Don't you think he's owed some fun too, just like the rest of us?"
That afternoon some members of the Circus came into the centre of the town to rustle up business. Aside from the usual clowns, jugglers and acrobats there was one character whose sole job it was to provoke interest in the show, and who listed his occupation as "Exhibitionist". After taking one horrified look at him Joby called him a freak instead. Elodie, as was his name, had taken so many hormone tablets that his vast purple breasts defied every law of gravity. He wandered the market with them swinging out of his skimpy leather costume like a bizarre form of lethal weapon. He had to do nothing else but walk around half-naked and he could be guaranteed a response. Not always a positive one. In one open-air cafe he was spat upon and angrily scolded by a respectable middle-aged bod in a suit. Worse than that though were the ones like Joby who simply looked horrified.
"How the hell does he rustle up business?" he said "I thought he'd scare people off".
"Gets you going does he?" said Hillyard.
"I can assure you, you sad cretin, that real women's breasts don't look like that, not unless they're pumped full of silicone anyway. I mean, they don't even move properly, they're sort of rigid. I bet when he lies down they stay upright. If he comes near me I'll slap him".
"Yea, and get us all fired before we've even started work", said Hillyard "You'll have to get used to the likes of him from now on".
Inside another cafe across the street Adam watched Elodie's exploits from the window, whilst the choreographer from the State Circus filled him in on every show he had helped organise. Adam found Bissy to be witty and lively, but sadly also a crashing bore where his job was concerned. In spite of his gregarious nature Bissy was lonely. Much of his life was spent coaching young men and eunuchs into putting together a decent hoofing routine. The job had lost its challenges long ago, and Bissy was starved of stimulating companionship. He latched onto Adam immediately and was delighted to hear he was joining the show.
"Quite what as I dread to think", said Adam "Although perhaps I could do any artwork that's needed".
"Cootie will winkle out your talents love, have no fear on that one", said Bissy "He is a genius for getting the best out of people. That's why the show is so successful. Now when we were in Lixix..."
Bissy was off again on another anecdote. Adam was roused from his torpor a few minutes later by the entrance of a quite extraordinary creature in a purple satin costume, topped and tailed by a powdered bouffant wig and stacked high-heels.
"Is that an exhibitionist too?" said Adam.
"What?" Bissy broke off reluctantly from his anecdote "Oh no that's Starlight. He's a living model. I use them to frame the stage sometimes when my dancers are on".
"Don't the audience find him a bit distracting?"
"If you saw the quality of some of my dancers love, you'd be grateful for the distraction".
"He gets paid to dress up and stand around?"
"He earns his bread believe me. After all, would you want to be seen out in public dressed like that?" Bissy waved at Starlight "Are your feet killing you love?"
"It's not my feet that are the problem", said Starlight "It's the gropers in this town, all wanting to know if I've got anything hidden under my skirts".
"Have you?" said Adam.
Starlight raised up is voluminous satin garments to reveal the customary patch of wrinkled skin, the mark of the eunuch.
"I came in for a quick break before hitting the old treadmill again", he said, smoothing his skirts back down "What a job, eh? Nothing but gropings and catcalls. Who's your new friend Bissy? My, but he's almost as old as you. What do you two boys find to talk about at your age?"
"Premature ejaculation", said Adam, sourly.
"You have a useful wit Adam, I like that", Bissy laughed, after Starlight had humphed away.
"He was rude to me", said Adam "So I thought I'd remind him what he was missing. Anyway, eunuchs bug me sometimes, the way they keep flashing their cunts at every given opportunity".
"They get few other pleasures love", said Bissy "I must admit I do find Starlight rather tiresome at times. You'll have to meet Ully, my other living model. He's much more fun. A real old-time drag queen, cock still intact as well. A born trouper. I wish all our performers were as professional as him. He can take any amount of heckling and give it back in spades, whereas Starlight has a tendency to sulk, which can be rather irritating. Is that a friend of yours out there?"
Adam turned to find Kieran tapping on the glass and grinning. Adam waved him in impatiently, fearful that if someone didn't rescue him soon Bissy was in danger of starting on another anecdote.
"Is that who I think it is?" said Bissy, as Kieran ran round to find the door "Cootie informed me this morning he was joining us".
Kieran galloped into the room, oblivious to the stares he got from everyone else, and kissed Adam as though he hadn't seen him in several weeks.
"I certainly needed that", said Adam, and then apologised to Bissy who gestured that it didn't matter.
"If Cootie decides he wants you to do a spot", said Bissy to Kieran "You'll have to let me advise you".
"We'll see", said Adam.
"It's been nice meeting you loves", Bissy stood up to leave "But sitting here won't get the show on the road. I'd ask you over for supper tonight, but I understand you're supping with royalty".
"Oh they're nothing", said Kieran "In our time Adam was practically aristocracy".
"Patsy is prone to wild exaggeration".
"Not another one who's after you Addy?" said Kieran, after Bissy had left.
"Patsy darling, you know you're the only one for me".
"Huh, if only that were true!"
"Yes, if only", said Adam "Oh lor Patsy, what are we getting ourselves into now?"
"I try not to think about it too much", said Kieran "Like I don't want to think about what we'll find when we get to the City. That's if there's anything left there".
It was only the prospect of food and drink which lured them all to the Palace of Shells later that evening. Everyone was out of sorts and not in the mood for genteel partying. The day had been too long already, too colourful, too noisy, and they felt drained. After several months of isolation it was difficult to cope with such an onslaught of human life close at hand. Adam and Joby missed the island more than ever.
Their arrival at the Palace did little to alleviate their suffering. A uniformed steward showed them into a washroom first of all, as if implying that they needed disinfecting after walking half-a-mile. The washroom routine was a farce in itself, with yet another liveried attendant filling up basins with warm water and then springing into action with hot towels and scented soap.
"Do you think if we asked them nicely they'd let us have a bath and wash our clothes as well?" said Ransey, sarcastically.
Inside a long, mirrored gallery several people were scattered about on the polished floor, talking earnestly in low voices about nothing in particular. Everyone was dressed expensively but soberly, and the six felt more out of place than ever. Trixie noticed them at once and came over to greet them, looking as though he was ready for bed in a pair of white silk pyjamas.
"I used to wear a pair like that when I was in the Assizes Court, when I was on Suicide Watch", Lonts boomed, causing conversation near him to falter.
"I doubt yours were silk Lonts", said Adam.
Trixie gave them a very nice but very stilted speech about how pleased he was to see them, and to make themselves at home as "we're all very informal here". He then proceeded to do the kind of trick polite hosts have done all through the centuries, and which guests like Adam abhorred. He split them up and found "interesting" people for them to talk to, who usually turned out to be nothing of the kind.
Ransey and Joby escaped from their designated groups pretty soon and made for the buffet table, where they proceeded to deftly sort food into savouries and sweets, and dropped them into paper bags they had brought with them. Kieran was sucked into a group of drunken layabouts who wanted to know all about Angel.
"Is it true he tortured you?" asked one ghoulish creature "At the Loud House I mean. Did he stretch you on a wheel and threaten you with dismemberment?"
"He did not", Kieran snapped "I don't know where you heard such rubbish".
"He beat you though didn't he?" said another, with a sneering lip.
"Nothing I didn't survive. Anyway, it wasn't as bad as it looked. I didn't suffer any broken limbs, and miraculously I've still got all me teeth".
"Did you suffer any permanent injuries?" said a third.
"I get a slight wheezing in me lungs in cold weather. But I don't know whether that's because Angel damaged something when he punched me or because I smoke too much".
"It's all rather disappointing isn't it?" said Sneering Lip "Not exactly the bloodbath we were told about".
"Maybe, but there was plenty of blood shed. Particularly mine".
"What was Angel like as a person?" said the youngest one.
"Just a mixed-up boy", Kieran shrugged "He was different at the end though".
"What happened then?"
"It doesn't matter now", said Kieran, and refused to be pressed into anything further. The final conversation with Angel, coming so soon as it did after the magical falling through space feeling he had shared with him, was his memory and his alone. He hadn't even told Adam and Joby about it, and he certainly wasn't going to tell this lot.
Meanwhile Adam had been trapped by Vanod, who revealed himself during polite conversation to be every bit as unpleasant as Trixie had informed Joby he was. Vanod was tall and dark, and could have been handsome too if it wasn't for the expression on his face, which ranged constantly from angry to self-satisfied. He was ten years older than Trixie, and at the age of twenty-three had bitterly resigned himself to a lifetime of playing second-fiddle. Resigned, but not accepted.
His opinions, which he divulged at great length, bordered on the fascist. He approved strongly of some of Father Gabriel's reforms, for instance such as clearing the City streets of undesirables and no-hopers.
"From what I can gather he's cleared them of most people", said Adam "Living ones anyway".
"He's cleaning up society", said Vanod "So that it can be a worthy place to see out the end of Mankind. You can't argue with that".
"I can actually", said Adam.
"That's good", said Vanod "Keep that battling tone. If the Vanquisher does become President, you will need to keep your own spark to avoid your identity becoming trapped behind his. It's not all cocktail parties being Consort, you know".
"Of course, it must help if you like the person you're being Consort to, and don't despise him like I do a certain person".
"Despise seems pretty strong", said Adam "I can understand His Grand Lordship might get a bit irritating at times, but can't you just ignore him when he's like that? I can't believe he's someone you can hate".
"Oh he is", said Vanod "Don't be taken in by the sit-up-and-beg impressions he does, there is a side to him that is completely different. The side that makes sure he gets what he wants, whatever the cost".
"He's very young, he might grow out of it. Particularly when he's been hit by the shock of power and responsibility. There are few things that can knock the corners off a man quicker".
"Or it can make him worse. He'll take all the life from me in the end".
"I doubt that somehow. He doesn't strike me as someone who's capable of being too manipulative".
"Perhaps. Being manipulative does require a brain after all".
"You'd better go and sit with Lonts for a while", said Ransey, when he met up with Adam a few minutes later "Hillyard was minding him, but he got distracted".
"By one of the guests or one of the servants?"
"One of the stewards. It must be the uniform".
"And the fact that Hillyard has been living like a monk for the past eighteen months", said Adam "Poor lad. Perhaps a bit of bonking will put some colour back in him. He's been a mere shadow of his former self lately. Has Lonts been alright? I would've checked earlier, but I got distracted by Nosferatu's nephew".
"He's there", Ransey pointed at a sofa towards the back of the room. Lonts was sitting alone on it, staring intently down at his hands, whilst being watched with ill-disguised horror by the men nearest him.
"Why do people have to be so bloody intolerant?" Adam cried "They treat retardness as though it's smallpox".
"It's not his mental state they disapprove of", said Ransey "I distinctly heard the words 'Kiskevian peasant' at one point".
"Bastards. I'll go and sit with him".
Lonts desperately wanted to suck his thumb, but was terrified by the sniggering which broke out whenever he went to do so. He now sat slumped on the sofa and wondered if he was the only one capable of seeing the evil truth of these people.
"Lonts", said Adam, sitting down next to him.
"Adam!" Lonts exclaimed, with relief "I don't like it here Adam. This lot keep staring at me".
"Well you have to remember Lonts, they live such dull lives that they can't help but stare when they see someone interesting".
"This is a boring party", said Lonts.
"Yes it is rather", Adam sighed.
"But I'm alright now you're with me".
"I might have to rescue Patsy soon, he looks as wretched as you".
"Why don't we take him home? They can't make him stay here, can they?"
"Of course not".
"No, because you can get him out. I know you can".
"Would you like something more to drink?" said Trixie, suddenly appearing in front of them.
"Actually old love", said Adam "We're thinking of leaving if it's all the same to you. Lonts is getting a bit tired".
"But you can't leave!" Trixie exclaimed "The party isn't over yet. It's not over until I say so. You can't leave!"
"I wasn't aware we were under house-arrest", said Adam, getting to his feet and dragging Lonts after him "Thank you for inviting us, it's been most ... diverting, but now we have to leave".
"Tut tut", said Vanod "You've broken one of the major rules of etiquette Adam. No one goes home until His Grand Lordship decides he's had enough. Didn't anyone explain that to you?"
Lonts believed that they were never going to leave and began to cry. This irritated a man sitting nearby who put his hands over his ears, as though Lonts was a gross irritation that should never be allowed out in public. Adam was infuriated by this reaction, and would dearly have loved to know how such a person could come to have such a high-minded view of their own importance. In the end though he decided that leaving was by far the more expedient solution. Etiquette or no etiquette.
"Where does a bunch of pissed no-hoper snobs get to believe in their own status so much?"
"Let it go Adam", said Kieran, struggling to keep up with him as they walked back across the town to their wagon "They don't matter. They don't register on the scale of things".
"But did you see that shit near us?" Adam exclaimed "Sitting there with his hands over his ears! What's so funny?"
"I'm not laughing at you", said Kieran "But the jerk with his hands over his ears. Sad, disapproving gits like that always make me laugh. They're the ones that lose out in the end, not us".
"How do you work that one out?"
"Because they'll never be at peace with the world. Not when it constantly lets them down all the time, and constantly fails to live up to their expectations".
"Hm", said Adam "I still wish I'd clouted him. It would have been childish I know, but immensely satisfying all the same".
Back at the wagon they found Gimmit sitting on a pot in the middle of the floor, with his ragged pants around his ankles. The light from the oil-lamp directly overhead highlighted his general state of uncleanliness.
"Do you have to do that in here?" Adam roared "You'll stink the place out for the rest of the night. Why can't you go outside?"
"What?" Gimmit exclaimed "Do you think I'm uncivilised or something!"
"If only our friends at the Palace could see us now", Kieran laughed.
"That's your trouble Adam", said Gimmit "You're getting fancy ideas after mixing with royalty. You'll be using soap next".
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