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Hillyard returned at dawn. His evening had been unsatisfying too, and he could only assume he had been without sex for so long that he had built up an idealised image of it which reality couldn't possibly match. He felt exhausted and slightly sick. He experienced none of the old pleasurable feeling of decadence at returning home at first light with stains on his clothes, this time he only felt unwashed and emotionally neglected. For the first time in months he experienced a real pang of longing for Stombal that quite took him by surprise, tempered as it was with anger. Stombal should be here, stopping him from getting into such seedy situations, not lying as a heap of bones in a ruined chapel in Kiskev. The closest feelings he got today like those he'd had with Stombal was how he felt for Kieran. He reminded him of Stombal in so many ways that sometimes it was quite eerie. The same flightiness, the missionary zeal, the complete lack of concern about his own safety, the sudden impulses.
It was hot and stuffy in the wagon. Hillyard picked his way across the floor and dropped a folded note on Adam's chest.
"What's this then?" said Adam, sleepily "A love-note from Vanod?"
"I was handed it by one of the stewards as I left the Palace", said Hillyard "He said it was for you".
"You sound like you had a heavy night", said Adam, unfolding the note.
"I'm going back to being celibate", Hillyard groaned, collapsing onto his bed-roll.
'I WOULD LIKE TO SEE YOU AND THE VANQUISHER AS SOON AS I CAN', the note read 'I'M STAYING AT THE PALACE OF SHELLS, AS A GUEST OF HIS GRAND LORDSHIP'S. MAYBE YOU WOULD CARE TO TAKE TEA WITH ME AT ELEVEN THIS MORNING. PERHAPS YOU COULD ALSO BRING LONTS WITH YOU. I WOULD LIKE TO SEE HIM AGAIN. RESPECTFULLY YOURS, TINTALLY'.
"Tintally", said Kieran "Minister for Justice. He must have managed to escape from Gabriel's regime".
"He's a decent bloke, Tintally", said Hillyard "Not like some of 'em were at the Ministry".
"It's a trap Adam", said Lonts "He's going to lock us up when we get there".
"I doubt it. He doesn't have the means to do that anymore", said Adam, who was trying to shoehorn Lonts into his shorts "Now breathe in, and stop messing me about or we'll be late".
"But why does he want to see me?" Lonts wailed "It's because I stole his knives and his sleeping-draught, I know it".
"The same sleeping-draught you kept giving to me", said Hillyard.
"That was Krik's doing!" said Lonts "He told me to".
"Exactly", said Kieran "Tintally realises that. I doubt after everything that's happened in the City these past two years that Tintally's still concerned about his missing set of kitchen knives!"
"Don't be late coming back", said Hillyard "Remember, we're running away to join the circus this afternoon".
"It's all go isn't it?" said Adam.
The clock struck eleven with a series of irritatingly tinny strokes. Still they sat there, on a padded window-seat with a sea of polished floor in front of them. Adam and Kieran both flanking Lonts, who sat nodding sleepily over his thumb.
"Bloody bad manners I call it", Adam growled "Inviting guests round, and then keeping them sitting in the hall".
"He's probably got held up", said Kieran "Although I hope he's not too long. We don't wanna be late for Cootie on our first day".
"I don't expect he'll say anything even if we are", said Adam "Too keen on turning you into his star-turn".
"Me and ..." Kieran gestured silently at Lonts, who was now engrossed in picking at a scab on his knee.
"Over my dead body", said Adam "That would be exploitation, no other word for it".
A door slid open near them, and a liveried servant indicated for them to walk in. The room beyond was stuffed full of old furniture, and looked more like an antique shop than somewhere to relax over a samovar. The long windows were flung wide open, and the net curtains hung motionless in the dry heat. Noises of the city wafted in, and Kieran suddenly felt a great urge to be back out there amidst the bustle, not sealed in this pharaoh's tomb of a room.
Tintally raised himself with difficult from an armchair. He was dying. That much was obvious, even from a first glance. He had that look about him of the terminally-ill who are in constant pain, a weariness of life and all its tribulations. He coughed repeatedly into a handkerchief, which was already liberally splattered with drops of blood. He greeted Kieran and Adam with great warmth though, and was so pleased to see Lonts that a newcomer on the scene would have thought he was his long-lost son.
"He's grown so much", he exclaimed, his voice was rusty in-between coughs "When I knew him he wasn't much bigger than a bear-cub, and he was so skinny in those days too! You two must be very proud. You've taken care of him so well. I always hoped someone would take him in".
"I can't believe the heat in Pepuaah does you any good, Tintally", said Kieran, as the Minister began to sort out crockery "Surely you'd be better off in Marlsblad say, somewhere with cleaner air?"
"Gabriel controls Marlsblad very tightly", said Tintally.
Adam felt unbearably depressed at hearing these words, mourning the loss of the Love Suite, the Massage Centre and the 'Moon and Stars'. Never had he hated Gabriel before as much as he did then.
"Pepuaah was one of the few places still relatively untouched by him", Tintally continued "I came here when I fled the City last year. His Grand Lordship took me in, for which I am extremely grateful. And then to hear that you were still alive! I had given up all hope until then".
"I suppose life as we know it in the City is no more?" said Kieran.
"It's awful", said Tintally, with a deadening simplicity "Many of my colleagues, including Osk, were rounded up and shot during the early days. Since then the killing has just escalated out of all proportion. It is beyond comprehension, beyond understanding. My last memory of the City is of a stench of black cloud rising above it, because many of the bodies are burnt in huge funeral pyres in the streets you see. The ones that he doesn't regard as worthy enough to return as zombies that is. I don't envy you the clearing-up you will have to do".
"That's rather jumping the gun", said Kieran "We haven't got rid of the bastard yet".
He crossed to the window and stared down at the street many floors below. A beggar boy was passing amongst a group of men sitting outside a bar, with his hands held out for money. Each man gave him nothing but insults. The boy was completely unperturbed, and merely moved onto the next one.
"I can't get any understanding of Gabriel at all", said Kieran, after a while "I knew what motivated Angel. Blood-lust basically, and the Devil that controlled him was intent only on destruction".
"And that's what motivates Gabriel", said Tintally, preparing an iced coffee for Adam "He wasn't always mad. At first he was just unorthodox, then eccentric, then ruthless, the megalomania cut in when he became President, coupled with paranoia".
"But now", said Kieran, turning to face him "Now he's even beyond madness isn't he? What was the bloody point of him wanting to rule the world, just so that he could destroy it!"
"Because it wasn't quite the delightful toy he'd fooled himself it was", said Tintally "There's a part of him that will always be the child genius, a spoiled, insecure small boy. When he got the world he found it was just hard work, and it didn't give him the love he wanted from it. So he turned on it. First by trying to cow it into loving him, and when that didn't work, he simply decided to destroy it instead. When I left the City no one had seen Gabriel in weeks. He's sealed himself up in two rooms, and only leaves them to go down into his tunnels. No one knows what's in those tunnels or the layout of them, as the workmen were all killed immediately on completion of the job".
"It all keeps coming back to tunnels", said Kieran "He had a network of tunnels at Mundaba Heights, and I keep dreaming of him in a tunnel. What do tunnels signify to you Tintally?"
"Very little", said Tintally "the City sewage system mainly. But that's only because, with monotonous regularity, inmates at the Assizes Court would try and devise an escape-route through them".
"Is Gabriel human?" said Kieran, suddenly.
"I'm not certain", said Tintally "But he's mortal, and that's all you need to remember".
Kieran returned to the sofa, and sat pensively on his hands.
"How long have you got left Tintally?" he asked, eventually.
"At the most, a few weeks".
"I didn't realise. I'm sorry", Kieran felt shocked.
"It saddens me too", said Tintally "But I try to give it as little thought as possible. I don't want to spend my remaining time counting minutes, watching the hands on the clocks turn. There is still much to enjoy. The world, for all its pain, is still a beautiful place".
"He's a nice guy, like the late President was a nice guy", said Kieran, as he and Adam waited in the foyer whilst Lonts insisted on apologising to Tintally about the stolen knives "But niceness didn't seem to run the world very well, particularly being too nice".
"Don't worry, it's not a problem you're going to have".
"Thank you Adam", said Kieran, dubiously.
"I meant that you do have a ruthless streak when it counts", said Adam, kissing the top of Kieran's head "It was a compliment".
Vanod had appeared in the opposite doorway, wearing a silk robe and carrying a large glass of brandy.
"I heard you were in the building", he continued "Why don't you join me for elevenses? We're all on the same side after all".
"Are we?" said Adam "I thought you rather admired Gabriel?"
"I like some of his ideas", said Vanod "That doesn't mean I want the entire world over-run by zombies, or ruled by a reptile in a black coat".
"A reptile?" said Adam.
"He's part-man, part-snake, part-salamander, didn't you know?" said Vanod, staggering slightly as he walked over to them "Or at least that's the current most popular rumour doing the rounds. And from what I've heard of some of his habits, it's one I'm prepared to give more credence to than most".
"Adam!" Lonts shouted, running over from Tintally's doorway "He's forgiven me! He's forgiven me for taking his knives. I explained it was all Krik's fault, and he said none of it matters now. He was really kind. I'm forgiven!"
"I knew he would", said Adam "You didn't believe me did you?"
"Oh", said Vanod, backing away as though Lonts was highly contagious "I didn't realise you had him with you".
"Dear dear", said Adam "I take it elevenses are off then?"
"What are you giggling about Patsy?" said Adam, as they all stopped at a doughnut stall in the street "You keep sniggering into the back of your hand".
"I'm not laughing at you", said Kieran "It's the 'love me love my loony boy' bit".
"And what's wrong with that?"
"Nothing at all. I think it makes you very loveable".
"Oh good", said Adam, handing him a sugared doughnut "That means I don't have to shove this up your nose after all. It seems that bigotry is one human characteristic that's never gone away".
"Most human characteristics never go away", said Kieran "It's just in some eras they get more disguised by civilised behaviour".
"Easy for you to accept it", said Adam "There speaks someone who's probably never suffered at the hands of a bigot".
"You reckon?" said Kieran "I don't know if you've ever noticed Addy, but I'm Irish. People didn't know you were gay unless you told them or made it obvious in some way, whereas I only had to open me mouth for them to know that I was a 'thick paddy'".
"I'm sorry. I know it sounds funny but I do forget", said Adam "To me you're just Patsy".
"I'll remind you of that next time you and Joby start cracking the Irish jokes".
"What did Tintally mean when he said he only had a few weeks left?" said Lonts "Is he going on somewhere?"
"In a way", said Adam.
"He's not going back to Gabriel is he?"
"No. He's moving on that's all. Like we'll be doing".
They walked slowly back to the wagon, picking at the doughnuts in the blistering heat. Back home Hillyard was taking a bath in front of the wagon, in a tin tub that he'd hired from the manager of the Pauper's Pitch. Ransey was gossiping with the turbaned nomad in the next pitch, and Joby was sulkily scraping potatoes.
"Where's the lovely Gimmit?" said Adam.
"Under a stone somewhere I expect", said Hillyard "I take it he's coming with us this afternoon?"
"I don't know", Adam shrugged "Does it matter? He hasn't been any trouble recently, apart from his uncouth habits, and none of us are exactly refined are we?"
"It's best to keep him on side", said Kieran, disappearing into the wagon "Where we can keep an eye on him".
"What culinary delights do you have in store for lunch Joby?" said Adam.
"Fried spuds and bacon", said Joby, sourly "If you don't like it you can cook your own".
"I never said a word, you grumpy little devil. What's the matter with you?"
"He's jealous", said Hillyard "'Cos Lonts got to go the Palace with you instead of him".
"Only because Tintally specifically asked to see him. Lonts did lodge with him for a while".
"And I had to apologise about the knives", said Lonts "I'm sure Tintally wasn't deliberately ignoring you Joby".
"It's not him I was bothered about".
"The thing is", said Joby, as they moved the wagon across the town later that afternoon "It was always the three of us. We crossed over together, and it's been that way ever since".
"Well nothing's changed as far as I can see", said Ransey "I think you're reading far too much into everything".
Hillyard was leading the piebald pony, who was pulling the wagon. Everyone else walked alongside, whilst Joby and Ransey brought up at the rear.
"Things have changed", said Joby "Lonts is part of us for good now".
"You are being daft if you're going to feel threatened by Lonts!" Ransey exclaimed "Whatever happens it's not going to change things between the three of you".
"I expect you think I'm being pathetic. Depending on them so much. You're always so ... so ..."
"Self-sufficient I suppose".
"Case of having to be", said Ransey "It weren't through choice".
"Oh God, that's sad", said Joby "I used to be lonely, in the old life. I wouldn't wish it on anyone. Do we embarrass you? When we're all getting carried away I mean?"
"Only a little in the early days. I don't think it even registers now. It's surprising what you learn to accept when you live with it day-in and day-out. Like when Lonts is being at his most bizarre, I don't even think about it now".
"I know what you mean", Joby sighed "Well we're moving into our natural habitat at long last. A circus!"
They passed through an archway built onto the side of an ancient church, which had miraculously been kept intact. Beyond it was an area of rough grazing land which had been temporarily commandeered by the State Circus. They had found their new home.
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