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Gala Night was like an old-style Hollywood film premiere. Elodie the Exhibitionist went out on his customary early evening prowl around the city, rounding up the punters like the Pied Piper. He wore a sleeveless black satin dress which he proceeded to slowly undo the closer he got to the entrance.
"He's at it again!" Joby exclaimed, watching from the box-office window "It's like some disease he's got. This mania for taking his kit off in public".
"It seems to do the trick", said Ransey, as the turnstiles began to rotate with regular satisfying clicks.
Backstage things were fraught. The acts had to line up in order of appearance in the wide sawdust-filled corridor which led to the entrance to the ring, which created some pretty tense situations. Kieran waited with Hillyard and the white stallion. He wore a purple silk robe over his gold satin pants and was increasingly nervous about taking it off, convinced the punters would howl for their money back when they saw his skinny frame.
"Stop worrying", said Hillyard "You're making the horse nervous".
"Where have you been these past two nights Hilly?" said Kieran "You didn't come home".
"I slept in the hay-wagon".
"'Cos I'm a coward", said Hillyard "I was terrified of facing Adam".
"You've got nothing to worry about there. He blames me for everything".
"Haven't you two made it up yet?"
"Of course we have", said Kieran "Anyway he can't say anything, because he's been cuddling up to Julian these past few days".
"I don't know what he sees in him, not when he can have you".
"That's the English upper classes for you. You wouldn't understand, but take it from me they're a funny bloody lot".
"Fucking amateurs!" the foul-mouthed comedian ranted, as he pushed his way to the head of the queue "How can we put on a decent show when we're dealing with fucking amateurs!"
"I didn't know we were putting on a decent show", said Kieran, after the comedian had gone past "Otherwise he wouldn't be in it that's for sure".
Adam had woken late, to find it had already gone dark, and from the noise level outside it was apparent that the show was about to begin. He panicked and jumped off the mattress, leaving Julian to stare after him blearily in the semi-darkness.
"If I miss Patsy's turn it'll be your fault Julian", said Adam, rooting around on the floor for his clothes "You should've woken me".
"I was asleep myself", Julian exclaimed "Anyway I'm not a fucking alarm-clock".
They dressed hurriedly and dived into the back of the Big Top, instantly getting caught up in a troupe of eunuch dancers, all wearing tight-fitting satin corsets and fishnet stockings. Adam was fascinated by the fact that each wore a costume in a different colour, and that Bissy had gone to the trouble of matching colour of costume to the colouring of each eunuch, so a blonde wore blue, a redhead green, and so forth. Not as much thought had gone into getting the sizes right though.
"If he starts dancing in that", one eunuch exclaimed, referring to another one who was looking decidedly overweight in the scarlet outfit "The whole wretched thing will burst, and there'll be red sequins flying everywhere. We'll have to issue the front row with protective clothing".
Further along a conjuror was bewailing the fact that his sparklers kept going out at strategic moments in his act.
"Don't worry old love", said Adam "Julian's been having that problem for years".
"Adam!" Kieran bellowed "I thought you'd forgotten me".
"Forgotten you?" Adam cried "Patsy, how could I?"
"Overslept obviously", said Kieran, glaring at Julian, who loitered in the background.
"Well there's not much else to do when Julian's around".
"You're as wicked with your tongue as he is".
"More so", said Adam "I'll prove it to you later. Don't look so nervous Pats, you'll knock 'em dead".
"It might help if I hadn't heard that the royal party had just arrived", said Kieran "And the rumour is that Vanod's completely pissed already, so I know I can count on at least one heckler tonight".
"Yes, shame you can't arrange for the horse to crap as soon as he opens his mouth", said Adam "It'd be quite symbolic really".
Trixie had the best seat in the house, but was wretchedly unhappy. Vanod had invited his drinking-cronies along, and they were steadily working their way through a crate of wine. Fortunately this occupation was so absorbing that they rarely noticed the acts, which was just as well. Trixie felt the sheer inadequacy of his thirteen years that evening. He couldn't handle Vanod or his friends, and they certainly had no respect for him. In fact they considered him to be an oddity and a bore, and when he was with them he felt himself to be both too.
When Kieran entered the ring on the white stallion, the audience erupted into cheers, and Trixie wished they felt the same spontaneity for him. But he hadn't done anything, except be top of the class in camp. He hadn't cowed the vampires at the Winter Palace with his presence alone, or gone ten rounds with Angel. He longed for the chance to prove himself, to prove that he could have done the same if he'd only been given the chance.
"How did it go?" said Ransey, when Joby returned to the box-office.
"He was good", said Joby "He didn't fall off, and the horse didn't do anything he shouldn't have. The punters seemed pleased to see him. Except he's already started the 'I am not worthy' bit. Says he doesn't deserve such adulation, as he should be in the City fighting Gabriel, not riding a horse round a circus ring".
"Can't have that", said Ransey "We'll have to get a few jars inside him later".
"Had many late arrivals while I've been out?"
"No, only some bod claiming he wants his money back", said Ransey "Told me the show went from 'cataclysmic to worse', and we didn't deserve to stay in business another week".
"It's not over yet", said Joby "What didn't he like?"
"Everything. Said we were pandering to sick weirdo's".
"He wants to get out more", said Joby "The only thing that makes me feel sick about this show is what the contortionist gets up to".
There was a loud hammering on the glass partition of the kiosk window, and a heavily-veiled figure was discovered standing there.
"I wish to see whoever is in charge", he said, in a voice that was deep and rich.
"Any complaints or requests for auditions go through me, and I pass them onto Cootie", said Ransey, in a bored voice.
"I wish to see him", the man repeated impatiently "I have an offer he can't refuse. You would be wise to let me see him".
"Alright", Ransey held up his hands in surrender "Cootie can sort you out. I hope for your sake it's something good".
Vanod pushed his way around backstage, searching for his prey. Normally he would have been aggrieved that no one paid him his due deference, but this time it worked to his advantage, as it meant his progress wasn't impeded in any way. The stench backstage made him want to vomit. All of the animals, from the elephants to the horses to the snow-dogs, had had a go at shitting in the sawdust, and everyone else seemed oblivious to it.
The troupe of eunuch dancers had shed their satin costumes immediately on leaving the ring, and were now grimacing in horror at the red marks cut into their flesh by the boned corsets. Vanod had always hated the sight of eunuchs, considering them to be freaks, and secretly thought that Gabriel had the right policy on how to deal with them. He hated their brashness, their blatant flaunting of their missing parts. A coloured eunuch in a gold corset came up to him and patted his cheek in passing.
"Hey, not bad!" the eunuch cried "Save some of it for me".
"Abomination!" Vanod screamed. The gold eunuch gave a lion-like growl and the rest of the troupe fell about laughing.
Vanod grew even more frantic to locate his victim. He stumbled into one of the dressing-rooms and found Ully, the other living model, in the process of changing his sex. He had slipped into his padded bra, and was at that moment dipping his lipstick in brandy.
"Not before I've got me wig on, please love", Ully cried.
"I'm looking for a young boy", Vanod stammered.
"I suppose I'd better refrain from making the obvious answer", Ully sighed "Anyone in particular?"
"The Kiskev Survivor".
"Lonts? What do you want him for?" said Ully, suspiciously.
"That's no concern of yours".
"Then I can't help you", Ully stood up and began to wriggle himself into his white silk gown "Do you think this sets my legs off to their best advantage?"
Vanod finally located Lonts leaning over the rails of the dog-pen. He was giggling at the way their feathery tails sashayed in the air as they walked. Vanod grabbed the boy's elbow and twisted it roughly until Lonts yelped in pain.
"A word of friendly advice", he said, the as the boy squealed helplessly "If I was you I'd make tracks pretty sharpish. Your lovely friends are going to have you put away. Shut in a rubber room, where you'll have to wear a special jacket which ties up at the back. One that has very long sleeves".
"I don't believe you", Lonts wept.
"Oh it's true. And what's worse, they'll pump you full of pills again. Big pills, little pills, red pills, orange pills, even black pills. You won't know where you are or who you are by the time they've finished with you. If I was you Lonts, I'd make a run for it now. Nobody really wants you along. Everybody feels you should have died in the fire, along with the others. The only good Kiskevian is a dead one you see, because you were all barking mad and the world's well rid of you. And you've stayed on too long, time for you to go ... peasant!"
Adam had been alerted by one of the acrobats that his wagon was being ransacked, and the most horrific noises were coming from inside it. He pelted across the camp and threw himself into the wagon to find that it was snowing, or certainly that's what it looked like at first. Lonts was standing in the middle of the wagon, stark-naked, and slashing at all the pillows with Hillyard's hunting-knife. Feathers whirled around him like a blizzard.
"What the hell are you doing Lonts? Stop it at once!"
"You promised, Adam", Lonts cried. The sight could almost have been comical, standing as he was with his mouth screwed up like a gargoyle and white feathers stuck in his dark hair "You promised me. You said I would never get sent away again. You said I could stay with you forever".
"Yes it has. You lied to me!" Lonts screamed and stamped his foot, causing the whole wagon to shake.
"I did not lie to you. I am going to keep you with me forever, even when you behave atrociously like this. Now stop that at once", Adam gave him a firm smack on his buttocks which seemed to bring Lonts to his senses "How am I going to explain this mess to the others?"
"I'm sorry Adam", Lonts mumbled, and jammed his thumb in his mouth.
"Sorry? It's a bit late for sorry", said Adam "What's brought all this on for crying out loud?"
"Vanod came backstage and told me you were going to have me locked away and fed loads of pills".
"Vanod told you that? And you believed him?"
"What should I have done then?"
"You should've come straight to me that's what you should've done. Not had me tried and convicted before I could say a single word".
"Was he lying then?"
"Yes Lonts he was lying", said Adam, as patiently as he could "Now let's get this mess cleaned up before any of the others sees it".
"What's happened here?" said Hillyard, appearing in the wagon. He was closely followed by Gimmit, who was looking remarkably clean after having spent his entire act immersed in a water-tank.
"I was beginning to think you'd moved out", said Adam "Or were you just hiding from me?"
"What's happened here?" Hillyard repeated.
"Lonts got the wrong end of the stick about something that's all. He's promised to clear it all up, haven't you Lonts?"
Lonts nodded, and began to pick up the feathers one at a time.
"It's all ruined", said Hillyard, holding up his decimated pillow "Fucking brilliant".
"Oh stop complaining Hillyard", Adam's voice trailed off when he unearthed Lonts's clothes. These too had been attacked with the knife "That is just marvellous Lonts. Now you haven't got anything to wear!"
"They were too small for me anyway", Lonts shrugged.
Joby was terrified. He had met Trixie backstage and taken him somewhere private so that they could talk. Now, as they sat next to each other on a straw bale behind the patch where the horses were penned, it was plainly obvious that His Grand Lordship was in a funny mood. He had brought along a bottle of rum with him, none of which he offered to Joby, and was getting drunk and excitable. Joby realised too late that he was embroiled in a situation he couldn't cope with. Some women had played such games with him in this way in the past, and he always found the tricks and subtleties beyond him.
"You should go steady on that", he said nervously, as Trixie took another swig from the bottle "You're not used to it".
"Then it's time I learned", said Trixie "I bet you had to".
"You said you wanted to talk to me. I thought you needed help on something".
"You can say that again", Trixie exclaimed "Look at me! How can I govern my people when I know nothing about life, when I've been cocooned from it all these years".
"You're only thirteen".
"Don't patronise me Joby".
"I wasn't. I just meant, not many people do know much when they're thirteen".
"I am thirteen-years-old and still a virgin, did you know that?"
"So? I was a virgin when I was thirteen. It's not cause for comment".
"Do you like me?"
"I'm not sure at the moment", said Joby.
Trixie moved up so close to him that he practically pushed him off the bale.
"What would you do if I was Kieran, if it was Kieran sitting here like this now, as I am?" said Trixie.
"And then you would kiss him wouldn't you?"
"What's brought all this on?"
"I've wanted to kiss you since the moment I first saw you".
"Has Vanod upset you?"
"Vanod!" Trixie spat "He's never once tried to kiss me, you know that? Not once".
"Then take it up with him", Joby rose to leave "Not me".
Trixie pounced on Joby and felled him to the ground, like a cheetah attacking a gazelle. Joby found himself pinned to the grass by an overweight boy breathing alcohol fumes into his face. Trixie was now fumbling at Joby's trousers.
"Pack it in will you!" Joby cried.
"I don't want to".
"Kiss me or I'll bite your penis".
"Your foreplay technique leaves a lot to be desired", Joby tried to lever him off but found him impossible to shift.
"Kiss me!" Trixie screamed "I want to be kissed. What's wrong with me? Why won't you kiss me? Why won't anyone kiss me?"
"Perhaps I should take you to see Lonts", Joby tried to laugh "He's always wanting people to kiss him".
"And I bet no one ever does", said Trixie "Do you?"
"You can kiss him but not me?"
"He doesn't frighten me like you do".
"Joby", Trixie stroked his face and started to slur, out of a combination of drunkenness and exhaustion "I don't want to frighten you. Why do I frighten you?"
"Because I don't think you know what you're doing".
"I don't suppose Lonts does either".
"No, but he's more controllable. I can just tell Adam if he gets beyond a joke and he'll sort him out, but you ... you're the Grand Lord of Pepuaah".
Trixie rolled off him and sat sobbing on the grass. The rum bottle lolled at his feet, spitting out dregs of the alcoholic fluid.
"Please don't get upset", said Joby "I remember what it' like. You've just got to be patient that's all".
"Vanod hates me", His Grand Lordship mumbled into his hands.
"You shouldn't put up with him you know".
Trixie turned to face Joby. His face was so saturated with tears that his skin looked raw.
"Joby", he whispered "I'd like you to replace him. You'd be a perfect consort for me. We could be friends, have fun together. And I know you wouldn't hurt me. I know you'd never hurt a friend, you're not like that".
Joby was suddenly presented with a mental image of himself bonking Amy up against a tree, and the subsequent hurt that Kieran had carried around inside him for so long. At times like this he couldn't stand remembering it. More though nowadays for the hurt he had caused Kieran than any emotion brought on at the memory of Amy's naked breasts.
"I'll walk you back to the Palace", he said, quietly.
"You haven't answered me", Trixie wailed.
"You know I can't", Joby replied "I'm Kieran's consort. That's the way of it and the way I want it to be. Oh for God's sake, what is the matter with everyone? Adam with Julian, Kieran with Hillyard, and now you and me. I wish everyone'd calm down!"
"You don't want me then?" Trixie's bottom lip trembled.
"It's not that".
"Don't bother to explain", Trixie cried, as he ran off "Don't bother to explain at all!"
"Look at it. It won't bite you".
Cootie wasn't so sure about that. He stared at the photograph which lay face-down on his desk. He felt that he couldn't turn it over for all the money in the world.
"It's quite harmless I assure you, or don't you trust me?"
"I don't know you", Cootie stammered, his normal sang-froid having deserted him for once.
Outside his wagon the hustle and bustle sounds of the evening were dying down, and all that could be heard now were sundry noises from the animals, and the odd mumbled voice as someone passed by. It was stiflingly hot inside the wagon, and Cootie mopped himself feverishly with his handkerchief. Opposite him his visitor was slowly divesting himself of his various scarves and veils. He emerged as a man in his thirties, quite chubby, and with a curious look of bogus superiority on his face, as though fully aware that he had been someone of importance once and he wouldn't forget that fact, even if everybody else did.
"Good grief", Cootie slumped back in his chair "Manada! I always wondered what had happened to you. I went to see a concert of yours back in '93. In the City. Those were the days when it was difficult to get a venue big enough and grand enough for you. And then you disappeared. I heard you had a drug problem".
"All cleared up now", said Manda, crisply "I now do a weekly spot at the Quipignon Casino".
"That's our next stop".
"I know, that's why I took the trouble to come and see you. I didn't want you by-passing us. I wanted to make sure you'd think it was worth your while to come out and see us".
"What made you get mixed up in all this?" said Cootie, gesturing at the photograph.
"Put it down to an interest in the absurdities of life. I wasn't the only one after her corpse believe me".
"I don't know why you want to bother with it", said Cootie "It can't be financial reasons. I'd offer you a singing-spot like a shot. You had the kind of voice that could melt the stoniest of hearts. The best ballad-singer I've ever heard".
Manada inclined his head graciously. He knew the compliment was deserved.
"Look Manada", said Cootie "As I said, with your talent you don't need to bother with peddling monstrosities like this. If I booked you this place would be packed out with punters coming just to hear you sing".
"Thank you, but my touring days are numbered. I'm lazy now. I always was really. I like to be amongst people I know, in my own home. It was the stress and the constant adulation that drove me onto drugs in the first place".
"You were in a bad way. Everybody in the biz was very worried about you. It's wonderful to see you looking so well".
"About this", Manada tapped a long polished nail on the back of the photograph "If you exhibit this you will make more money than having me, the Vanquisher and the Kiskev Survivor all in one show".
"Oh yes, and the punters would be dead! Not good for business that Manada", Cootie got up and poured brandy into two glasses.
"There are ways round that problem. I mean, how do you think I managed to reconstruct her face?"
"But why put it back as it was? Why not make her beautiful, or just look like an ordinary woman?" said Cootie "I could certainly exhibit her then. A genuine real woman. I know the punters get rather tired of seeing eunuchs or hermathrodites exhibited under that title".
"A real woman would not help the Vanquisher to defeat Gabriel", said Manada, taking a sip at his brandy "And I know that's where you're all heading eventually. In fact, I would say you're not going to manage it at all without my creation. I don't know if you know much about ancient mythology, but Perseus defeated the Krakon simply by showing it the Gorgon's head. With her on his side, Cootie, the Vanquisher will be invincible. And we will have our world back".
"It's too big a risk", said Cootie.
"Not if everyone is aware of the facts and the dangers. You can even make money on the side in the meantime by exhibiting her in your freak show".
"How?" Cootie exclaimed.
"The same way I painstakingly reconstructed her face. I used mirrors. Her reflection is harmless you see. Or you can keep her masked if you wish, and the punters can pay just to ogle her breasts, or whatever else they had in mind".
"Is she as dangerous as she was before?"
"Oh yes. I tried her out on various animals in our neighbourhood. All turned to stone within minutes of seeing her. Cootie, you must be slipping! I thought you could tell a good deal from a mile away. Think of the erotic content. Her magnificent breasts and body, plus the element of extreme danger, it's an irresistible combination. Think of all the stories and poems that have been written about her over the years. If you take me up on this Cootie, you'll have the biggest box-office draw in history sitting on your hands".
"B-But", said Cootie, awkwardly "I haven't got the security for such an exhibit. I have to be completely sure the public will be safe. It'd only take one fatal slip and I would be ruined".
"You're getting soft Cootie. All business is a risk, but some risks pay back in dividends".
"Where is she now?"
"In the basement of my house at Quipignon. When you arrive there I can give you a private showing if you wish. In the meantime, take a look at the photograph".
"You look first".
Manada shrugged and picked it up. He coyly held it close to his chest like a playing-card, and then raised it up and stared at it directly for several seconds. He then placed it back on the table. Cootie sighed and braced himself. He reached out for the photograph and turned it over slowly. He caught a brief glimpse of the image imposed on it, and then hastily turned it over again.
"I hope you'll agree with me now", said Manada "She is the best weapon the Vanquisher will ever have. With her on his side he cannot lose".
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