different’s always a flash

Violet wrung her hands instead of touching her food. “If I had done better with the elephants, Marrionetta could have…she would be…well.” Her face clouded.

Ungulen shook his head at her. “Netta’s her own foisted knot. Don’t hurl yourself in a pit on her account.” He nibbled on boiled, taupe leftovers.

“Well I failed.” Violet crossed her arms definitively. “The elephant show was a bust. I can’t see why you haven’t put me back on the chorus line yet.”

Ungulen shrugged. “That’ll be Drutherstone’s call whenever he gets back. For now, the elephant show is probably as good as it ever was. May’s be better. Certainly different. Different’s always a flash.” Ungulen drained an entire carafe of table coffee. Then he continued, “Why don’t you keep working on it. See what else you can muster?”

Violet flattened out, depressed. “It was bad, wasn’t it? The worst elephant show anyone’s ever seen.”

“I couldn’t say that with a straight face. It’s was just regular like. I know. Let’s compare with our resident expert on all things status quo.”

“No,” said Violet, cramming her face into the abyss of her hands.

“Hargus!” Ungulen boomed.

Hargus jiggled over. “Hmm?”

“Is it your keen estimation, that Violet’s most recent showcase with the elephants was the worst elephant show we’ve ever had?”

The abacus of Goren’s mind skittered around for a few seconds. “No,” he said without emotion. “Why?”

“She says it was crumblier than stale shortbread.”

“No,” said Goren. “Not that bad. Just kind of regular. We’re still in the black, albeit with a few set backs. Don’t know why everyone treating it like such a crisis.”

“There, see?” said Ungulen trying to assure the wilting Violet. “Just keep working on it.”

“Yes,” Goren agreed, “Just do something better next time. What if you tried making it very unique and exciting. Have you tried thinking about it that way?”

Violet raised her eyes to the ceiling and goosed a tremendous smile. She snapped her shoulders square and rose from her breakfast seat.

“Thank you,” she said mechanically. She left the mess. Goren and Ungulen looked at each other for a moment.

Goren rolled his eyes, “Dancers.” He nabbed Violet’s abandoned pastry and rolled himself away.

habeas corpus

Rustia and Mingey arrived far ahead of the rest of the mob. Never ones to miss an opportunity to flaunt their freakish athleticism, Rustia belted the unicycle hard and cast circles around the entire perimeter of The Emerald House. Mingey screamed at the top of her lungs like a haunt of the heath. She smacked the windows panes taunting, “Miss Mary! Miss Mary! Miss Mary!”

As the sisters swung by on a second tour, Mingey kicked the front door and — to their absolute delight — the front door fell completely off its hinges. Ungulen had never sent anybody up to repair it after kicking in down himself a few days earlier.

Inside, Lorelei dropped a candle directly onto his foot. “VLATCH!”

The mob was gathering now in the front yard of The Emerald House. Ungulen strode up, panting. Annoyed with the entire situation, he stuck out his long, bony leg and tripped Rustia and Mingey as they rushed past. Rustia flew off and impacted with the ground like a meteor. Mingey skidded a few dozen yards away and immediately began crying. Rustia, rushed over to her sister and protectively covered her up. They huddled and glared at Ungulen.

But the mob had already taken up the sisters’ battle cry. “Come out, Miss Mary!” they screeched. “Where’s your honest day’s work yesterday!” They threw rocks and dirt clods at the house. Ooze-like mud welted and dripped down the sides of the house. Ungulen was unable to control them.

Presently, Lorelei came out of the front entrance. He was dressed in a silk night robe and he held Marrionetta around the waist in a fashion that almost appeared charming. The shock of his calm silenced the mob.

Marrionetta was aware that she was in the serpent’s grip. He was guiding her out of the house, flaunting her before the angry eyes of her circus brethren who had been chanting her name in a way she didn’t like at all. This night had Visigoth written all over it.

Marrionetta couldn’t help but physically experience Lorelei in their mutual embrace. Their flanks were not quite touching but she could feel his mood change under the slip of the silk robe. He was perfectly at ease, she realized. It confused her. There they were, holding together like perfect housemates in front of a group of 200 who were already throwing rocks. And yet, Lorelei projected nothing but a deep and alarming confidence. Was he in his element? How many angry mobs had he encountered before?

“She’s right here,” Doctor Lorelei said to the circusfolk. “Safe and sound. Prim and proper. How do you feel, Netty? Good tonight?”

Marrionetta swayed with the billowing nighttime air. There was an extended pause.

“Netty?” Lorelei prompted.

Somewhere in the crowd, Violet started softly crying and didn’t know why.

“I will return to work in the morning,” Marrionetta declared and then she drifted back inside of the house. Lorelei bowed to everyone and followed in after her, propping up the front door behind him.

The mob suddenly felt very self-conscious. They each bowed their heads and made their excuses. Just what had they thought was going to happen tonight? People avoided each others’ eyes as they trudged back down the hill. Ungulen found his way to Rustia and Mingey who were still huddled on the ground. Ungulen offered Rustia and hand but she batted him away.

Ungulen made his descent just as Goren was finally arriving to the scene of events.

“What happened?” Goren asked.

Ungulen shuffled his head and snorted forcefully. “Not a dreckerd thing.”

announcements

Ungulen held up an enormous hand to quiet the din. But it was no use. None of the circusfolk would be soothed tonight.

Nearly all 200 employees of the circus were gathered in the big top for a general meeting. They all sat in the warped wooden benches. Goren Hargus dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief at regular intervals, gauging the mood on a moment to moment basis. The meeting was not going according to plan.

“What d’ya mean no cigarettes in the budget!” one of the jugglers yelled and hurled his most recently emptied box of cigarettes at Ungulen. A screed of workers jostled to their feet in agreement “Whot kinda circus is this anyway!”

“There’s been a bit of trouble,” Ungulen continued, “with lamping up the big top tent. It’s pricey and it’s longstanding and it’s got to get done. Now, there was a bit of an incident with a major part–“

“You broke it! I saw yous!” A lever boy screamed, excited that he had something to add. A general sarcastic murmur overtook the entire tent.

“Alright, yes. We broke it. But blame ain’t got two cents in its teeth. We’re working with the monies we’ve got.”

One of the Keurmite brothers — the eldest — suddenly ripped off his head and threw it at Ungulen. On its soaring arc, the head spat at Ungulen and got him squarely in the eye during mid flight. Everyone laughed. Even the head laughed, after it bounced painfully off of a bench and onto the floor.

“It’s her fault! Miss elephants!” Rustia jabbed an enormous finger in Violet’s direction. “If she’d of made a good elephant show, there’d be more money for everyone!” Violet shrank into her seat.

“Enough!” Ungulen screamed with all his goatly powers. Most everyone stuffed up their ears. He was like an alarm bell.

“Now we’re going to move up the major so everyone’s pulling doubles this month,” Ungulen declared.

Now the shift employ were really mad. People started overturning benches. They threw more things at Ungulen besides just their cigarette boxes and their heads.

“Marrionetta will return shortly and–” but Ungulen never got to finish this statement because Mingey hopped up on top of her sister’s shoulders and started chattering.

“That’s right! Where is Marrionetta, anyway! On vacation up with mister doctor in The Emerald House while the rest of us toil away for our evening bread! Well I’ll not take it lying down any longer! Rustia and I are going up to knock some sense into that horrid old witch and drag her back down the hill if we have to!”

And with that, Rustia rose and reunited herself with her unicycle, shouldering Mingey all the way. They took off screaming and gesturing towards the The Emerald House. The big top emptied itself as nearly all of the circusfolk followed the sisters up the hill on their warpath. Ungulen made a run for it to try and head off some of the drama. Goren Hargus trudged up the rear, running totals in his mind.

major malfunction

Ungulen’s long, crazy fingers bid the machinery forward. “Easy does it,” he said to no one and everyone at the same time. There were three lever boys up in the big top’s catwalk awaiting instructions. Another was down on the ground with a long rod, helping to support and balance a large object that all of them were working with. Ossip jostled a wheelbarrow which supported a homespun crane that he and Ungulen had designed together. Ossip unhooked the crane’s primary latch. Immediately, the filament reel began unspooling. Ossip’s sinewy arms strained against the pull of the metal threading as it zipped off the line.

At the terminus of this discombobulated machine was a giant light fixture. It was a spotlight that ran on electricity. Cool light instead of the hot oil and mirror combination that the circus had been working with for decades. The spotlight swang malevolently at the end of the line. Ungulen dipped back to give the thing its berth.

“Alright,” he continued to nobody and everybody. “Up as gently as you please, lads.” Ungulen lifted his fingers in feathery waves as Ossip steered the thing skyward. The boy with the pole kept the fixture pointed keenly so it was easier for those in the rafters to receive it.

“I was thinking,” piped up Ossip, “of taking me personal day tomorrow?”

“What?” said Ungulen, gesturing for the fixture to be heightened into the catwalk.

“You said,” Ossip reminded him, “I’s could take a little holiday for meself. On account of the doctor.”

Ungulen paused. His hands dropped. “The doctor?”

But the die had already been cast. All those present misinterpreted Ungulen’s lowering hands as a command regarding the spotlight. Even more unfortunately, each had his own separate bad interpretation of the gesture. The lever boys in the catwalk smacked into each other. The pole holder countermanded his pole into an opposite orientation, knocking over several buckets of sand. But, crucially, it was Ossip who misunderstood most egregiously. He released the crane’s line. The crank spun hotly out of control. The spotlight compacted itself through gravity and surged directly into the ground where it broke into several large, irreparable pieces.

a working nod

Violet practically slid off stage in a pool of her own sweat and exertion. The elephantrinas packed in and shuffled out, guided by a duo of lever boys with coaxing sheaves of spinach. The audience was still applauding and a last-act aperitif was sent out to amuse them: Mingey hoola-hooping atop her unicycling sister.

Violet peeled away parts of her costume as she descended into the big top’s basements. Her wild hair was oiled into a pointed angle that composed itself westerly but changed as she combed her anxious fingers through and through again. The air was cooler down here and it felt good on her skin. One of the Keurmite brothers grabbed her shoulder companionably.

“All done!” he cheered her.

She gave him a working nod and kept moving. All done was right. Her showcase had wrapped. Six viewings in all. And she felt rank about it.

As she proceeded further into the basements, nobody seemed to pay her any mind. The lever boys had their switches and pulleys which needing pulling and switching. The other performers were standing around gossiping, smoking, undressing, chatting up the more attractive locals or groping one another. People who had congratulated her on her first performance hardly noticed her on her way out from the last.

The snub compounded itself as she returned to the communal dressing rooms. She, not being a star in any way, was never afforded a private area or space even while she had been leading the showcase. Violet fell into her chair at her prim little station. She threw the fabrics of her headpiece down and, with a single elegant hand, she shredded the front buttons of her tunic.

A few of the other dancing girls were hooting and applying lipstick onto the face of a nascent acrobat who had somehow found his way into the dressing rooms. One of the hooting girls noticed Violet.

“The tap’s iced tonight if you want some beer,” the girl offered.

That was it. That was the last straw. The show had been shit, Violet felt. Everyone seemed to be saying it without saying it. She bent her head low. She culled her fingers around her sweated, throbbing head. She wanted to scream.

But instead of losing what little cool she had, she composed herself. She rose from the chair and smiled at the other hooting dancers. They smiled back, unwitting and unconcerned by any of Violet’s behavior.

She drank one cold beer after the next that night. Her blood cooled. Her hair dried. Then she tipped over the line of friendly non-sobriety into frenzied drunkenness. In the early hours of the morning, she laboriously stupored back to her cot in the dancers’ barracks. It was a dreamy prelude to a scalding hangover.

a month and a day

Ungulen bent himself through the small doorway and loomed inside the front rooms of The Emerald House.

“What unlawful bloodsport have you enacted on my property?!” screamed Lorelei. He was seated at his desk, clawing magnetized metal strips together, but rose instantaneously and sputtered around Ungulen in anger.

Lorelei gestured forcefully at the felled door. “Pick it up! Pick it up!” He jabbed his fingers at all relevant aspects: the door, the frame, Ungulen, and more.

Ungulen sloped past Lorelei in his starting fits. He approached Marrionetta. Or rather, he approached the fireplace where Marrionetta was crouching and gently rocking herself.

“Netta?” Ungulen sank lowly into his knees in order to see her face. She was covered head to toe in ash. It was in her hair as well. “Netta, you alright there?”

Marrionetta, for the first time days, responded to the sound of her own name. She squinted at Ungulen, recognizing him.

“Hmmm?” was all she said. It came out almost songlike, her mind was so occluded.

“Things seem a bit sideways around here.” Ungulen paused but Marrionetta didn’t say anything. “Have you just been sittin’ up here for a month a day?” He asked. Her face twitched. He could see that she wasn’t sure. Ungulen extended a hand and instinctively Marrionetta reached out for him too. Once attached though, he couldn’t persuade her to crawl out. She remained planted in the fireplace, holding onto him for no discernible reason.

“She’s perfectly alright.” Lorelei spat. “Have one of your toddlers sent up here immediately to fix my door.”

Ungulen, still holding Marrionetta’s hand, peered around The Emerald House very carefully. It was quite filthy. The doctor had all manner of printed material hung up on the walls. Something about this didn’t feel right in Ungulen’s multi-chambered stomach. Not waiting for an explanation, Ungulen cast the fireplace’s grate aside and dragged Marrionetta out of the fireplace and picked her up like a sack.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’s a main attraction of this entertainment establishment and she’s needed at rehearsal. She can come back here on her own time.”

“No!” rasped Marrionetta, suddenly alive and striking like a viper. “Put me down!”

Her strength was feeble but their friendship demanded that he release her. Ungulen stooped her back on her feet. She wobbled around.

“I’ll come down,” she seethed, wiping drool off her face. “When I’m good and ready.”

Ungulen frowned at her. He threw a menacing look at Lorelei which was returned in kind.

“We’ve already had a showcase,” Ungulen addressed himself to his wilted colleague. “We need a major before the rains start.”

Marrionetta knew what this meant. Money was tight. If she didn’t perform, the coffers would go dry, probably even overnight. If the coffers went dry….well. The entire circus might disperse in the pioneering style of Ernt Rauchbaum. She knew, deep in her heart, that she would be fine if this happened. She could always stay here with the crooked doctor or, worst case scenario, go back to dancing in city traps. But as she looked at Ungulen she knew that it would be a wicked, evil blow to Drutherstone after all he’d worked to build and keep here. He wasn’t even here to prevent it. She felt ambivalent.

Ungulen arched an tufted eyebrow at her and made his way slowly back down the hill.

all your French crackers

Ungulen swang his knotted knees up the hill. He bristled slightly with annoyance, his thick body fuzz prickling up all over. One of his hooves slicked just a midge in the newly pupating grass. The ooze was beginning to return. Ungulen cursed softly, reflexively, as he knee narrowly escaped a bad cricking.

Of course Marrionetta had been back up in The Emerald House this whole time. It was close to idiotic that this had not occurred to him before. Among all dancers, among all bowed-up, precocious, fussy misses, Marrionetta always sat exactly where she wanted to and when she wanted. The puss.

So while Ungulen had been making time when he could to try and locate her, he hadn’t quite put it together that she was back in her old haunt. It wasn’t until one of the lever boys mentioned her in passing. She had been seen by a few up with “mister doctor.” Much of the staff had all taken to calling that noosepick by that double moniker out of respect. Still, Ungulen didn’t care for him. The drawn up straight. With his turned up nose, his richly slight build. He always seemed to be roiling, just below the surface. About to punch somebody’s lights out thought Ungulen, except he’s a bit of a priss.

Ungulen pounded on the front door of The Emerald House. “Netta? Answer the door.”

Ungulen’s pointy ear flicked. He could detect movement within the domicile. But, after nearly a full minute of patiently waiting, no one answered.

“Netta, I know you’re in there.” He pounded again for emphasis. “And what’s more, we’ve eaten all your French crackers. There’s none left, I tell ya. Now open the door or I’ll start in on your chocolates. I know where’s you got them holed up in the tent.”

Still, no one answered.

Now, it’s worth noting at this point that Ungulen is a very large creature. He is part man, part goat, but all parts workaday groundskeeper. He may never win any chess games but he knows a thing or two about running shifts at a circus. Most wouldn’t perceive this fact but a large part of circus work is being interested in the management of people. And Ungulen, believe it or not, is a very studious people goat-person. So when Ungulen’s had it up to his eyeballs with somebody, things have gone very far indeed.

Willing not to be kept standing on the threshold of The Emerald House, Ungulen felled the door inward with a single punch of his hoof.

What exactly IS The Emerald House?

Drutherstone’s Circus is a legal entity comprising four acres of hilly grasslands that — before it was cleared — was part of a thick, deciduous forest. Further north, the forest is called Herder Wood though it’s difficult to say where the boundary is between the wilderness parts, the village’s complement, and that which spills over into the circus’s backyard. From a topographical perspective, the circus is always going down hill. The highest point is the hill, upon which The Emerald House sits like a star on a solstice tree. From there, the circus slopes down into a valley which contains the crab infested lake. The lake, in turn, contains the lagoon which is always filling up with ooze.

The circus also comprises eleven circus rides (none of them recently inspected), a mess hall, three separate animal enclosures, and over 200 laboring bodies and their necessary barracks and facilities. Many of these workers tend to double up on themselves, performing both their circus tricks and odd jobs, trading their shifts and cigarettes away in exchange for gambling debts and booze. There’s a veritable shadow economy of shift hours and gambling dues, the former usually keeping at pace with the latter in terms of raw, measurable value. Rustia tends to be a controlling hub of these commodities and services. Goren Hargus also controls a substantial share though he would argue, of course, that his is a stabilizing presence and wholly necessary to peaceful operation of the circus’s financial underpinnings.

In terms of the circus’s other material assets, there is — of course — the big top and its attendant basements and galleries. The subterranean elements of the big top were installed by joint effort between Lindsey Drutherstone and Janus Tewditch when the two of them were still partnered up and running things together. Ungulen was the main foreman on that project and acquitted himself well both in terms of works accomplished and identifying competent outsource for the more complicated tasks. They had just been on the cusp of electrifying the main stage when Janus and Lindsey suddenly exploded into a lovers’ quarrel that overtook the circus like ravenous fire on a windy night. Bridges were — literally and figuratively — burned that day. Many of the circus’s employees took sides. This was one of many incidents that has depleted the circus’s staff in the past few decades.

But one place stands above all of this. Its presence precedes the circus, precedes Drutherstone and Janus. It is not clear if it existed even before the clearing of the land to sell it for a commercial bit of property. This is, of course, The Emerald House.

The Emerald House has been on that hill for as long as anyone can remember but all would be hard pressed to say who was living in it prior to the circus moving into town. The carnies all call it “The Emerald House” on account of the locals who named it that most probably because of the deep, seafoam patina of the glass roof tiles. No one knows why the roof of a building should be tiled in glass but there it was all the same. The interior rooms were once upholstered in mesmerizing hues of greens, teals, and gold trim but that’s all been cleared out over the years as occupant after occupant has taken a souvenir to their next dwelling or abode.

Marrionetta lived in The Emerald House for about a year before Lorelei came to town. She kept it clean, if cluttered. She used to walk on the roof tiles in the middle of the day, the scalding heat would send a thrill up her wooden legs.

Carstleman G. Peddant, a refined gentleman walrus

Carstleman G. Peddant could not, for the life of him, understand what he was doing here. He? Imprisoned by a circus? And one so poorly run at that! And so far inland! The entire thing was a travesty and a disgrace. In all his days as a proud gentleman walrus, he could never have imagined such a thing.

The irony was rich in the imaginings department. Whelped and puppied on the Whatiff peninsula, Carstleman had spent all of his young adult life gazing and sliding through the infinite vortex of life’s possibilities as they bubbled and flowed in the freezing, crystal beauty of the subarctic seas. You see, while it may be unknown to those outside the distinguished livery of sea mammals, most warm blooded aquarians are closely in tune with the willowing whims of the Fates. This is especially true of the podding varieties. It’s not so much that the future is known to them. Instead, all the myriad futures reveal themselves distinctly, like underwater currents which are clear to those that swim them even if they may not be able to fully perceive the eventualities of each.

So it was a right bother to Carstleman that he had, somehow, run afoul of a fisherman’s net and wound up here, imprisoned in a circus shed. Carstleman’s enclosure was an awful double bathtub that had been fused together by the combined handiwork of Ungulen and Ossip. The bathtub itself was fine, a mottled brown porcelain that Carstleman rather liked. It’s only that it was cramped, foreign and not his native oceanic homeland. Still, he felt confident that the correct course of action would simply be to make do until he could get his bearings and escape properly. So he slopped around, trying to pass the time.

Suddenly, Carstleman heard a sound. It was enormous trotters. He could tell immediately the sound of a cousin. The enormous footfalls came towards his little shed. His muzzle tingled as he sensed the great flanks of a fellow beast on the other side of the wall. It was Augromme, the zombified elephant. He stank and Carstleman liked it. It reminded him of the carrion piles on Whatiff peninsula.

Augromme began toying with shutters to the shed’s only window. The window was very close to Carstleman’s bathtub. The walrus-gentleman bullied up, fattened his cheeks, and stood his whiskers out to their sturdiest claim.

“Salutations and good morning! Please introduce yourself!” But Augromme did not introduce himself. Instead he faithfully unlatched the window and snaked his trunk inside the shed. Now it was Augromme’s turn to take some fascination in the smell of Carstleman. His trunk’s nozzle wafted around, inhaling deeply. Almost in a swoon, his nostrils succumbed to the elaborate mineral recipe of Carstleman’s stewing bathwater. Augromme thrust his trunk into the water and began drinking.

“Now then, stop that!” Carstleman declared. He batted Augromme furiously with the strong bone of his fin. Augromme yelped and retreated. Then he angled a tusk through the shutters and attempted to stab Carstleman in the face.

Carstleman evaded him and began to bellow and roar. Spittle hurtled out of the walrus’s pink, gaping mouth. Augromme roared and hissed back, arching his trunk and beating his ears on either side of the window. The two males maintained in this fashion for some time. After a fortifying rally, Augromme became either bored or fixated on something beyond the shed and wandered away.

“What a strange fellow,” Carstleman thought to himself, hurling a blanket of oily water onto his belly. “I do hope he comes back.”

a milling production, perhaps

Berthauld Fregt had returned with the cavalry. The local police force, themselves a round up of former bandidos who had come to recognize the benefits of a more formalized enshrine of their talents, had roundly given Fregt a sneerful when he first approached them about a so-called “scientist of gross abuses” in their midst. How they asked over morning cervezas, could such a thing escape their attention?

This particular pueblo was a thriving, rattling place full of change. A rivalrous city was emerging from the desert and travelers, natives, and entrepreneurs from all different walks and feints in life were hurrying around town all day and all night to cull some advantage from the wagonloads of cash, crop, and cinder block that were daily alighting in the front vantage of the old mission. The mission’s Padres wept desperately for their former flocks to return but the sheep were scattering into milling, sewing, teamstering, and planting jobs. As the church frayed, the pueblo spread and exported itself like a dandelion’s float. From these ambitious seeds, stems of iron, wood, and splendour made haste into the endless, desert sky.

It was mostly curiosity that coaxed a small segment of the gendarmes to join Fregt at a blown out collide of mortar structures in an easterly part of the territory. This had probably once been a small village, knee deep in some meaningful agricultural production but had long since been wasted down to a nub. The entire acreage had been white washed by the bearing mein of the mid tropic sun. Wisps of plant life and a few bloated cacti peppered the landscape but otherwise, the only things that earned a shadow were the distant mountains and Fregt’s huddle of buildings that slumped even as they approached. A few of the policemen made mental notes that, pending a root canal of irrigation, this land was probably free for the asking. Hard labor was sold cheap back in town so it was possible that this scratch of land was one ink stamp shy of an orchard’s riches; depending on soil composition, that is. If the soil was poor, then perhaps a milling production instead. There was, afterall, some aspect of a road leading out here. Infrastructure is always worth its weight in padre’s gold.

Approaching the abandoned structure, Fregt pulled back an ancient iron door and lead the roguish constabulary inside a stifling series of chambers. To the constables’ amazement, the entire place was furnished. But not just furnished. Well appointed, in fact. Being constables, they had their hands in an overwhelming majority of items imported and sold within the territory limits. It shocked them that such an amalgam of plush chairs, ornate chests, cabinetry and candles had all managed to escape their taxing attentions. Fregt did not pause in the furnished rooms and ushered them further into an interior chamber.

Here is where the stench overtook them, dried out as it was. In the center of a ransacked room was a huge, cylindrical tank capable of holding at least 100 kilos. It had a funnel at the top and a small chute in the posterior. One of the policeman vomited on the spot. The room was covered in thick, dried blood. It was as if the entire floor had been plastered in acrylic red paint. Not an inch of smooth surface at all. Countless animal hides still attached to their long, striped tails stood in a tremendous pile in the far corner of the room. On the wall, there was a long blueprint that mirrored the machine in the center of the room. The blueprint was crooked, falling down by one corner. The schematic traced out a procedure from an obtuse and unwilling alpha to a ghastly and incomprehensible omega. Putting it mildly the machine was not of godly construction. But nor was it practical. It was a thing of pure artistry, possibly without any real purpose at all.

“It would seem, gentlemen,” Fregt said gloomily, “the doctor found ample use for your city’s stray cats.”

cold pursuit

Berthauld Fregt took off his felt hat and placed it, very patiently, down on the bar. He ordered a beer for himself and a double shot of the local moonshine. He breathed deeply.

When the moonshine arrived, he canceled it all down this throat immediately. He ordered one more shot and additionally requested the bill. A shadowy bartender obeyed his requests. The bartender was uninterested in engaging with the husky outsider from town who seemed soaked in a tense attitude.

Fregt had every right to his foul disposition but he also knew he had to keep it to himself. The villainous, slippery and malignant Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei had evaded him once again; maybe even for the dozenth time. Fregt left his third shot alone for the moment and sipped his beer.

Berthauld Fregt had once been a very distinguished policeman. A detective of the highest order. He had been recognized for his swift rise through the ranks of the capital’s police force. He had been a close option for commissioner whenever the commissioner might intend to retire. The only thing separating Fregt from his promotion to captain had been his age. It wouldn’t sit right, he and the commissioner had agreed. Perhaps in a few more years they could touch on the subject again.

That was long, long ago now and Lorelei had been the ruin of it all. Fregt sighed. No, he admitted to himself, it wasn’t Lorelei. It was Fregt who had destroyed his own trajectory by diving headlong into the quixotic mania of the mad scientist. Fregt had bent all of his powers of discovery onto one, mutilating murderer who had long ago left the jurisdiction of his capital.

“He’s bested us,” the commissioner had said. “Leave it alone. There will be more murderers for you to catch, I promise you that, young man.”

Fregt had agreed initially. Plenty of murderers out there in his city, all needing catching and the proceedings of law. But then he would find himself in the imperial library, checking out volume after volume on the medical practice of reanimating flesh. One day he rose from bed in his comfortable, affluent home to find the entire place had been overrun by books on this particular subject. He could barely make a pot of coffee for himself without moving aside some article or scribbled note on how and where one might procure freshly dead corpses or a detailed financial analysis of the money it might take to hole up in a capital shanty town for six to ten months. He spent morning, noon and night reflecting on the smallest details of the Lorelei case from when it had still been active.

It had been over twelve years since Fregt had turned out from his imperial service. The day he ended his formal career, the commissioner had become angry with him. Screamed at him. It was the most intimate the two men had ever been, even after many long years of friendship. Fregt wept with shame on his tram ride back home to his suburban dwelling. But the suitcases had already been packed. The home sold. His housekeeper engaged to a new family. He left one week later and had never returned to the city.

Instead, he had spent over a decade cataloging and chasing Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei throughout the continent and overseas. He moved from miserable outskirt to miserable outskirt in all weather, wherever the doctor suited himself. Fregt’s life consisted of his notebooks, fitting odd jobs to complement his savings, and the tremendous breadth of moonshine that all humanity makes in its meantime. And still, he always remained a few, crucial paces behind the doctor. All Fregt was ever able to discover were the wasted remnants and machineworks of the doctor’s abandoned laboratories.

Fregt downed his third and final shot. He knew what was in store for him for the rest of this month. He’d have to stink it out here in the basin until he gathered some clues as to where Lorelei might have slipped off to next. It would be a lot of ground work and parodying himself at the post office. He replaced his hat, left the bar, and disappeared into the evening.

midnight appointments

Drutherstone’s Circus is lousy with midnight appointments. Lever boys fetch to and fro to visit the newest dancing girls and also the one’s who’ve been around forever. Mingey and Rustia tend to roll off into the countryside to do god only knows what ritual or prank on the local townsfolk — though there haven’t been any complaints in years so perhaps they’ve taken their games and awful fits of laughter deep into the woods. Goren Hargus has a regular tete-a-tete with the pudding bowl in the mess hall. But, of course, he has covered his tracks quite expertly in the ledger so that absolutely nobody’s noticed. Ungulen — though wise to the nocturnal traffic of the circus — usually sleeps through the night.

Violet laughed, sparkling. She refilled her glass and then Ungulen’s with a thick glugg of sour cherry juice. It was breakfast in the mess.

“Yes!” she insisted, “she had them all in tutus!”

“All four?” Ungulen sought to confirm.

“All four. And she made them each do a pas de deux, a solo, and a soliloquy. Each boy had his choice, of course. None of them shared her bed that night. All us girls laughed and laughed.” Violet was still laughing about it and nearly choked on sour cherry juice. Ungulen said nothing and watched her smiling eyes.

It had become their ritual, a gossipy morning breakfast between friends. Ungulen always looked forward to it. He was really taken by her work with the elephants. Not just what showed up on stage but her whole practice at it. It also didn’t hurt that her appearance seemed to rival the melancholy morning itself. She always dressed in smart, grey shift dresses.

Dr. Lorelei entered the mess hall, already weary over the available comestibles. Ungulen, though enjoying Violet’s story, couldn’t help but focus his attention on the doctor. As the man strode into the mess, lever boys and some of the lower-tier performers all appeared to acknowledge him. A few even approached Lorelei and seemed to have short, businesslike conversations with him. Lorelei ended each interaction abruptly but with a transactional nod.

Ossip, one of the older lever boys, partook of one of these exchanges with the doctor and then, straightaways, the boy then made his way over to Ungulen and Violet’s breakfast setting.

“Morning Miss Violet,” Ossip’s address overtook her funny anecdote with breathless hurry. “Ungulen, I might’s need to ask a favor, if you please?”

Ungulen shrugged. Yes?

“I’ve been settin’ up work on the electricals in the big top but I was wondering if I couldn’t take just a day for an errand of me own? Personal like?”

Ungulen frowned. The big top had been running on gas and oil lamps for too long and the electrical set up had been taking too long as well. Delays were constantly in motion.

“Just one day even, sir. Maybe’s like to clear me head? I’ve been just over and over those diagrams sir but they’re rather hard to squidge me brain around.”

Ungulen nodded. He realized then that he probably hadn’t been helping Ossip the way he could have been. Ungulen, while no genius, had a decent handle on most things mechanical. The electrifying of the big top, while a serious priority, had just kept falling further and further down his list as the numerous problems of the circus had reared their smiling heads.

Ossip was a smart boy, Ungulen knew that. He had some notion that Ossip might make a decent replacement for him as the groundskeeper some day. The boy knew the circus like the back of his hand and despite his struggle to electrify the big top, he was actually a decent little handy with most all of the circus equipment.

“Alright, one day,” agreed Ungulen. Ossip’s face lit up and he hopped away.

It’s nearly a holiday!

Lindsey Drutherstone was scuffed and ruffled from his passage through the continent. He had been carried mostly by train. One cargo ship ride had been thrown in as well to get him across the channel. He had been in the bowels of stowage but found it was manageable and certainly exceeded itself in luxury compared with the nuisance grip of a donkey ride between the stations of Louvelle and Gervitz due to the lack of a connecting rail. He hadn’t been able to get the smell of manure and mildew out of his trousers. He planned to buy a new pair once he reached Erbulii, the trading nexus between the continental empires and the desert kingdoms. He’d trade up for something stylish but affordable.

His thoughts about Janus were still a feathered mess. It seemed that each leg of the journey brought a new slant or consideration to the subject. The whole affair had iridescence, illuminating brilliantly or sinking into a dull prosaic depending on the whimsy of angles. He had the superstitious sense that he could invoke clarity if he could only choose the correct side of his train car to fall asleep in. Somehow, this would invite a shrewd awakening, one that knew better than the last one hundred awakenings. This was never the case, though. He wondered idly if he was a dreaming damned to somebody else’s circus?

He slurped through a centennial’s worth of coffee, all the while reciting speeches in his mind for Janus. Insights into his personality, a formal proclamation of love abused, maybe a withering comment or two. But a mainstay of his hashing thoughts, always, was Janus’s imminent death. The focus on dear, dear Janus’s approaching demise kept him personal to Lindsey. Within reach, somehow. Just a man and not malevolent curse conjured for and solely for him. A man as riddled with mistakes as he was with physical illness. Did Janus feel guilty for him leaving, Lindsey still wondered? It seemed unlikely given Janus’s overall chosen style of life and livelihood. Still, this was the Veil. The cliff’s edge. The last of it. Does that sort of thing change people or does it make them act even more as they did in life? Far from contrition, are they moved by desperation to act all themselves and all at once?

Heaving a sigh and resting his head against the vibrating glass window of his train car, Drutherstone turned his attention back to his namesake, his circus. He felt confident that Ungulen would have things under control. Goren Hargus was, of course, useless, except for his expert ability to stretch every last penny to its celestial limit. Marrionetta, thought Lindsey. Hard grief. He knew the circus’s finances were stable, though, as long as she was around. What a find she was. He recalled meeting her — or at least observing her — thrumming around in nightclubs, earning whatever cash the drunk foolery of Dorcett left on the piano. He had stalked her — in the professional sense — for a few days that week. He saw many of her acts and also the eager way she enmeshed herself into gratis plates of fried tubers at a local cafe. The cook there had also noticed that she was something special.

Drutherstone had seated himself next to her — a gesture that was extremely dangerous in retrospect– and asked if she had any references. He had seen that urchin’s glint in her eyes and known she’d be a hard worker if he gave her enough tether of her own to play with. The dreaming damned just couldn’t get enough of her. He suddenly remembered he had been meaning to discuss her act with her. He felt there were some opportunities to heighten things, make it a touch more frightful. She would throw her shoes at him, of course, but she was always listening.

He smiled. Just as well I’m away from all of that for any stretch of time. He couldn’t help himself and started laughing. It’s nearly a holiday!

The lunch cart banged in the outer corridor. Drutherstone signaled the girl and ordered a plain roll.

“On second thought,” he said to the lunch girl, his good mood swelling, “make it two. Do you have any with raisins?”

to the whisker

Lorelei lurched through the door of the Emerald House, tuckered out from his morning burial of the unmissed bodies. His shovel clattered to the floor. He noticed something out of place inside his rooms and hesitated. He stepped towards the opened package on his table.

With care he noted the torn package paper, checked the label, and evaluated the coin line at the top.

“Pet,” he said quietly. “You’ve opened my mail.”

“Mmm,” Marrionetta was half sleeping in a pile on the floor.

“That isn’t very polite,” he said. He picked up the shovel again and moved towards her. “Honey sweet, I want you to consider this next question very carefully. Did you take any of those coins out of my package? I know how much you like shiny things.”

Marrionetta turned slowly towards him in a slumberous lurch. She spit on his shoe. “No,” she said and closed her eyes again.

Lorelei kicked her in the stomach and shoved the shovel’s edge under her chin.

“Are you quite sure about that? I know precisely how much is set to be in there. To the whisker.”

“I haven’t needed another man’s coin since before you were born you scum mucking, insolent quack.” Marrionetta said. “Only reason’s be I’m still here is those bubbly little goblins you’ve strewn me with.”

He glared down at her, a wrist’s flick away from separating her loud, annoying head from the rest of her more interesting body. He smiled at her.

“Of course,” he said. “Such a prideful little spite. How dare I assume you’d be interested in money. Please,” he reached out a hand to help her sit upright. She accepted.

His stomach gargled. “I don’t know about you but I’m feeling like frogs for lunch.”

coin bucket

The postal service had been through again. Marrionetta could tell. She had been staring out the window of The Emerald House, having a morning drool of lever boy stimulus when she noticed her former friends and fellow circus workers gathering outside the mess hall in recognizable excitement.

That’s not true, she thought. She had never been friends with anyone here at the circus. Just workers dancing elbow to elbow for coin and peanut oil. So it was only her coworkers who were gathered around the mess hall with recognizable excitement. Had she ever had friends? Even before this?

Even if they weren’t really her friends, she noticed each of them and their unique little habits. Ungulen with his enormous striding legs. Goren Hargus rolling around like a cheese wheel. That little dancer girl, Violet, with her clunky elephants. Marrionetta noticed that Violet had a strong pivot to her. Always turning abruptly. Always turning the other cheek, perhaps? There was still no sign of Drutherstone, she noticed. He must still be away on circus business. It occurred to her that he might be angry about what she and Lorelei were doing with the shift employ and the circus guests. Furious, really. She wondered what he might say or do once he found out. Maybe Drutherstone would know how to chase the doctor away. She certainly didn’t know how.

She clawed at an itch inside her nose.

The other performance mastheads cycled through the mess hall to retrieve their packages and letters. Marrionetta was never tempted by the mail. There was never anything for her so she had long ago ceased to be curious. Her endocrine nod was in full swing anyway so very little could tempt her beyond the threshold of her chosen prison.

Through the window, however, she noticed someone clambering up the hill towards The Emerald House. It was a lever boy, one of the older ones. Ossip, maybe? She couldn’t remember all their stupid names. Marrionetta froze when she realized he was heading straight for the house. Panic spun directly up her spine.

Maybe-Ossip knocked on the door of The Emerald House. Marrionetta darted into the fireplace. She wanted desperately for him to go away. She didn’t think Lorelei would murder someone first thing in the morning but she couldn’t put it past him either. She was on a good high and wanted to keep it that way. She couldn’t take another butchering session today. Once he started in, he would never shut up.

The interloper began knocking. Thud. Thud. Thud. “Hullo? Mister Doctor?” Thud. Thud. Thud.

“Fester someone else’s biscuits you shrimping pine needle!” Marrionetta found herself screaming through the door. She coughed after she spoke. Then she wondered how long it had been since she had used her voice.

“Miss Mary?” came the teenaged voice from the other side of the door. “Mister Doctor says I’s should bring this to him on the right by right. Can you take it from me? It’s a bog load.”

Marrionetta realized for the first time all morning that Lorelei wasn’t actually in the house. A few moments puffed by in relative calm. She felt herself breathing. She stood up from the fireplace and answered the door.

Ossip — or whoever he was — definitely found it odd that Marrionetta was covered head to toe with ash and was also drooling down her chin. His eyes showed this to her and she decided not to care. He handed over the extremely heavy package and then box toed his way back down the hill to complete his other circus chores.

Marrionetta worked the cantankerous package inside the house and onto a table. She read the label.

For Swift Delivery To: Herr Doktor Sinvarius Lorelei
At current residence within or adjacent to Drutherstone’s Circus (in entity, LLC, or as such)
Coronet Crown on Gibletson
Empire of Drexx

Do not attempt to return to sender. Do not forward. In the event of package unclaimed in excess of 10 days, package contents to be destroyed as postal agent sees fit.

There was no return address.

A very real threat told her she should leave the package there and climb back inside the fireplace to shore off the rest of her lever boy juice. But she hesitated. Something prickled in the bottom of Marrionetta’s wooden spine. An old feeling. One that had suited her purposes for centuries long before the pull of Lorelei and his infernal, joy-making machines. The feeling was funny, curious, and good. It was mischief. She opened the package.

Inside she found a tin bucket with a lid. She opened the lid to discover that the bucket was full to brimming with silver coins. All of them were stamped with an imperial insignia she could not place.

So, she thought, this is how he affords all that Visigoth veal.

Real Rubies for Marrionetta

Marrionetta sullenly appraised the offerings on the table. A chef’s cherry pick of glistening glands, asymmetric little blobs, bone shards, and organelles.

“Now these are real rubies, wouldn’t you say?” Lorelei ran a hand through Marrionetta’s coarse hair. “It’s rubies you like, wasn’t it?”

She bit her lip and tried to see it his way. He took her hand and ran her fingers over the surface of the choice items. Deep magentas, purples, heightened blues. She felt a shiver up her arm. Even at the slightest touch, she could feel their unique powers carrying through the light bark of her skin and into her chlorophyllic bloodstream. She lightly pinched a cherry red globin. It wept thick yellow tears of some unknown emotion.

“Now,” said Lorelei, “Let’s see what we can arrange just for you, my pet.” He began examining her bodice, trying to find a perfect latch or trap to house some viscera inside of her.

“What will they do to me?” she asked as the mad scientist fingered her underscores.

“We’ll see!” Lorelei whinnied.

She felt a pang of uncertainty. He didn’t know?

“These”

Marrionetta peeked out from the wrought iron gate of the fireplace that separated her from the rest of the room. They were all still there, though. Three dead lever boys, a corpulent man with his circus ticket still clutched in his hand, and a goat that Lorelei had managed to rustle up from some nearby farm. Each had been decapitated, drained of blood, and butchered for their various physical effects.

Lorelei had graduated from humming little tunes to loudly baritoning around The Emerald House. Morning, noon, and night he was like a one man operatic as he skated his different knives through the bodies of his victims, choosing perfect morsels depending on their body types and what he had observed of their respective demeanors during life.

“These,” he pointed to the lever boys with a blade for Marrionetta’s benefit, though it was unclear if she could understand him through the block of her psyche, “are much better fare than what you find in cities. Fresh air. Physical exercise. Chronically underfed which creates near perfect conditioning for anything to do with the bones. Flexible. Growth hormones still swimming around in there. They could probably serve marrow like this in restaurants. But,” he laughed, “there would be a market shortage in no time.”

“Now this one,” Lorelei pivoted to the corpulent man. “Forget the bones. Forget every organ in the book. No good. All fat. But what he is good for…” Lorelei surged open a previously nonexistent pocket in the man’s torso. “The adrenals. A wonderful balance of provocation and soothe. Hungry! Full! Hungry! Full! The controlled oscillation makes them very reliable. Almost as good as a chemical battery.”

Marrionetta felt sick listening to both the butchering in process and the lecture. She lifted her eyes out of the fireplace and looked across the room at Lorelei’s office area. She noticed, maybe for the first time, that he had put something new on the wall. It was in a language she could’t read but recognized immediately. It was Visigoth language. It was German.

“The goats,” he carried on feverishly, “are mostly just for synthesizing tissue. Connectivity and all that. You can sterilize practically anything in boiling goat’s urine.”

The German schematic on the wall made an impression on Marrionetta. It overwhelmed her with fear and she looked away. Then she looked back again. She wasn’t sure she was reading it correctly. The schematic mapped out a crazy machine. She could tell it was enormous compared with the other things he had been making. But that wasn’t what disturbed her. The human figures in the middle drew her attention. There in the center were ten, childlike figures, each with a circle around where their hearts would be.

one ticket per dreamer

Violet was sweating. She coated the palms of her hands in finely ground barley meal, praying that she wouldn’t drop her conducting baton — a simple but elegant piece of glass that Ungulen had presented her with at breakfast that morning. The morning of opening night.

“A fairy’s wand, you see that? Made me think of you” he’d smiled at her. “Now go drum up some cash. I’m sick of eating nothing but gruel and Netta’s leftover sardine tins. Wherever the cock’s head she’s got to these days.”

Violet’s stomach sure was churning now. Backstage, her and her elephantarinas were all flowered and powdered up, the entr’actes ahead of them were steadily whipping the crowd into a frenzy. The Keurmite brothers juggled their heads to and fro, pulling faces in mid-air and hurling brotherly insults at one another. Mingey and Rustia torqued a furious sugar plum that you could really sink your teeth into. A strongman swallowed a sword or two, and a very ornery walrus rolled himself through the dirt, roared a stinking belch of clamshells at the crowd, after which he was muzzled again and dragged off stage in a ferocious display of his fat, wattling strength. The crowd was kiting with laughter.

At last, the introductions were being made for Violet and her elephantarinas. She took this last opportunity to gaze out at the audience.

It was a mixture this time, very typical for a showcase not featuring Marrionetta. There were some goat-herding villagers, a smattering of townspeople, and a modest pie slice of the dreaming damned.

You could always pick the dreaming damned out of the crowd by their lustrous, vacant eyes. They arrived at the circus through psychological currents, trapped in nightmares, visions, or other strange liminal experiences. As each arrived, they paid their fare — a moment they would never recall upon waking — to Ungulen or whoever the ticket taker happened to be that night. It was always a sheaf of indigo paper, hazy with linen blending, bordered in silver lief. If the circus performers did their jobs correctly, the dreaming damned would be impressed, frightened, entranced or generally ensnared. These ones tended to return and the repeat patronage was the largest potential source of revenue for the circus, especially as it was strung up on its hind legs in the financial ruin of the Empire’s recent downturn. Unfortunately, circuses were somewhat out of fashion in the modern era and the steady stream of psychologically tormented tourism had narrowed to just a trickle in this day and age. Still, the generous exchange rate for a dreamer’s ticket was the main income source that the circus counted on. One ticket per dreamer.

The french horns sounded. The curtain went up. Violet commanded herself to her full height and smiled a dancer’s smile. Confident and invitational. Welcome, she seemed to say, to my magnificent showcase.

The Physical Differences Between Mingey and Rustia

Rustia and Mingey are fraternal twins. Since birth, they have always looked and behaved quite differently from one another. As they were born into a scratch of hard life that escaped any sort of institutional attention no one in their small, brutish village could understand how two children of the same womb could be so different from one another. The villagers came to fear them or at least be wary in their presence. As a result, Rustia and Mingey themselves came to understand that they were freaks of nature. Their childhood games, which they played together by themselves, always sublimated their sisterly sense that they had a curdling effect on the world.

Mingey has always been darker than Rustia. With hair like fertile earth and a slender frame, Mingey bruises easily. By contrast, Rustia has always been fairer, hungry, and large, with thick, pasta-like hair and irises so icy blue that her eyes resemble peeled onions. Rustia was considered ugly well before the indomitable putsch of her sexual maturation. Only by contrast could Mingey be considered beautiful.

But prior to birth, when they were still just fetuses inside the tight nestle of their mother, Rustia was violent with Mingey. Rustia had a tendency to kick in the womb. Her wild activity spurred their placenta to dilate, delivering more and more sustenance, all of which Rustia would claim first by virtue of her ravenous insatiability. Mingey’s earliest life — unmarked by memory– was instead chaptered out on her skin with many porous bruises that gently leaked aminos and blood into their mutual coil. Mingey would quiver with malnutrition, growing colder inside the maternal furnace. She would be underweight and nervous all her life.

Rustia’s mouth quickened almost overnight and she frequently snapped around to exercise its meaning. She bit Mingey on more than one occasion. Rustia hungered for the world; to feel and to see, to be liberated from the confines of her mother and the choking, weakening thing that was her sister. It seems certain she would have eaten Mingey had it not been for a sudden, induced birth day.

All of this was, technically, unknowable as it occurred behind the opaque walls of flesh and predated the twins’ abilities to self-differentiate. However, the emotional reality of it strengthened their bond once they breached into the world together, as sisters. The year of gestating predation created a breed of intimacy between them that would not be possible otherwise, even if its nature was unspeakable .

In adulthood, the sisters joined Drutherstone’s Circus in search of a better material life. It paid off. Perhaps not handsomely but well enough. Rustia grinds their unicycle while Mingey curls herself around her sister’s shoulders. They have always been this way.

one more trick

“When’d all the tap dancing!? She’s gone and spoiled it now.”Mingey yammed her face at both Violet and the elephants.

“She’s a show off” Rustia assured her fretting sister. “We’ll be back to showcasing in a switch’s whip if this is all Miss Dancey has to show for herself.”

Violet continued to mind and conduct the elephants in their showsteps, carefully sounding along to the shanty on the gramophone. Mingey and Rustia sat sprawled in the dying grass on the other side of the pen, chewing on blood oranges and aiming the rinds at Violet’s hair. The twins’ unicyle slowly rode itself around them in a creaking circle. It was a family heirloom and, therefore, haunted with a mind of its own.

“Mister Doctor,” Rustia continued, “told me he’s very fond of you, sissy.”

Mingey squealed and brought a childish hand to her cheek, adding a needless flourish on her compliment.

Rustia continued, “next time he’s around, ask him for earrings and see what he does.”

The elephants were self conscious under the weight of Violet’s stricken mood. She was irritated by the sisters but also in state of disquiet over her upcoming showcase. Was the elephant act interesting? Had she over promised? She had spent too many hours training her friendly beasts to have any more perspective on it than they had.

Maybe, she thought, she would add one more trick.

the piggies come close

Marrionetta watched as Lorelei roped the struggling lever boy into the chair. His mouth was gagged with waxed cloth which muffled his screams. Lorelei pulled the boy’s hair, setting his neck backwards and dripped a sedative up his nose. Soon, the boy slipped into shallow breaths of unwanted sleep.

Marrionetta bobbed. Her head was bobbing. Her legs her bobbing. She couldn’t keep all her parts from moving around. She had become unsyncopated. Her appendages had been taken apart and put back together so many times, she was having trouble unifying. Her gaze shifted around the sleeping lever boy, seeing him and unseeing him, both together.

Lorelei offered Marrionetta one of his smaller knives. “The honors?”

Marrionetta vaguely shook her head. She believed strongly that she didn’t know what he meant even though she knew exactly what he was asking her to do.

“Joy? Mania? Which ones are your favorites again? Everybody’s different.”

Marrionetta wrinkled her brow. She didn’t exactly care about the health or wellbeing of any of the lever boys at the circus. They annoyed her, frankly. They had awkward, developing voices of boy-men, unkempt clothing, incomplete information, and they frequently broke her things and ruined her costumes. She didn’t know this one’s name, the one in the chair. He didn’t even really seem familiar.

“The high is more intense when it’s human to human. The piggies come close but this is going to be real fun.” Lorelei shimmered the knife over the young boy’s flesh, waiting for Marrionetta to state a preference.

She looked at other parts of the room. Was this really The Emerald House? How long had she been staying up here? She felt a well of uncertainty yawn open in the air around her. She felt herself pulled into it. There was a dull roar in her ears and a freezing ocean seemed to swell through her bloodstream. She felt lightheaded. Then, a moment later, she snapped back to the stinging presence of her Visigoth friend championing violence over their small kidnap.

“I don’t want anymore today?” she tried.

Lorelei shrugged, “Suit yourself.” He slit the boy’s throat. Marrionetta grabbed at her face, sniffled and crawled back into the fireplace.

her elaborate fussiness

Ungulen knocked loudly on the door with the yellow triangle.

“Ay, Netty! Sleeping out wigtails, are we? Upsies or I’m giving ninth shift your breakfast tins.” There was no answer. He knocked louder.

“Netta! Cut your diva butter bunchin’ and open the door.” He waited a few moments. Then he rolled his eyes and, in one momentous arc of his powerful leg, he popped the door cleanly off its hinges and into Marrionetta’s dressing room.

“Sorry but you’re being a real puss today.” Ungulen stepped in over the fallen door.

To his complete surprise, Marrionetta was not inside. Ungulen looked around the room carefully. Nothing seemed particularly out of place. At least, by Marrionetta’s standards nothing looked out of place. Her rooms — which were wherever she chose to take up residence on the fairgrounds at any given moment– were always a total bother to Ungulen’s sense of orderliness and proportion. How could such a small, wood cut woman live in such an unnecessary state of clutter? Her elaborate fussiness never ceased to annoy him. Then again, she was the star and he, the humble groundskeeper. What did he know?

Still, it was odd her not being there. Come to think of it, he hadn’t really seen much of her on the fairgrounds for weeks. Because their next big act was a showcase for Violet and the elephants, Marrionetta hadn’t been required at any rehearsals in some time. He thought he saw her traipsing around on the hill a few evenings ago but now he wasn’t so sure.

Something wasn’t right.

Ernt Rauchebaum’s quivering fingers

“Six cartridges, ten batteries, three stones of solder, and this.” Ernt Rauchebaum carefully extracted a silkbound package from the inside of his jacket.

Doctor Lorelei examined each of the items. He weighed them in his hands, aware that Ernt had both the technical and economic know-how to short him on almost anything. He took his time appraising.

Ernt sat awkwardly in the stiff back chair. He couldn’t help but watch Marrionetta — the star dancer he knew quite well — rummaging around in the fireplace, covering herself in black ash. “Everything alright, Miss Mary?”

Marrionetta reacted to the sound of her name but couldn’t manage to conduct her attention outside the confines of the fireplace.

After a length of time Lorelei said, “These appear to be in order. Let’s see the beauty.” He slid the silk wrapped item towards himself. Out of the delicate fabric, he unspooled a huge and superb knife. The handle was carved stone. The blade a magnificently light alloy. The weight differential made it as agile as a dragonfly.

He sliced the air in a deft gesture, causing Ernt to wince backwards. Lorelei’s lip curled to one side, taking pleasure in Ernt’s fright. Lorelei pulled a bundle of silverbacks from his boot.

“I’m satisfied,” he said, depositing the payment into Ernt’s quivering fingers. Ernt’s track marks showed him back out the door again. Back to Belfast. Probably.

Whatever happened to Ernt Rauchebaum?

Rustia and Mingey zipped around the inner perimeter of the big top on their unicycle. Rustia’s rippling calves radiated heat and speed on the pedals as her sister coolly affected languid pose after languid pose atop her sister’s shoulders. Lever boys and jugglers milled around, setting cranks askew and liberating weighted pins from gravity.

“That’s all?” Ungulen questioned Violet. “Usually an elephant show needs far more space than what you’re squaring out.”

“No no,” Violet said. “I’ve scaled things down. It’s artful this time.”

Ungulen exchanged a glance with Goren Hargus.

“Miss,” Ungulen bowed slightly to Violet, “the showcases are meant to turn in some coin.”

“Coin, yes.” Hargus agreed. “You like eating, don’t you, Violet?”

Violet smiled at the two men. “It’s going to be the talk of the town. I’ve taught the elephants a lot of new tricks. It’s very interesting.”

Ungulen squinted at Violet. She stuck her chin out. “Drutherstone entrusted it to me and it’s not like Ernt Rauchebaum ever came back.” she said.

“Whatever happened to Ernt, anyway?” Hargus said.

“Belfast, I think?” said Violet.

Ungulen shrugged agreeably. “Alright then. But if we don’t make any money, you’re back on the chorus line.”

Violet saluted, military style. Ungulen sniffed at her. She was funny, once you got to know her.

The twins, Mingey and Rustia suddenly sliced down the diameter of the circus ring like unicycling shrapnel. The three conversationalists were cast in separate, panicked directions.

“Get a bell!” shouted Ungulen after the crazy sisters. They cackled and zoomed out of the tent.

Marrionetta and Lorelei get serious

By now, Lorelei was in the nightly habit of disassembling his puppetress paramour. She more than tolerated it as the results were always rather interesting. In addition to creating tiny ballerinas from her fingers, a fantastic kicking bicycle out of her arms and legs, he had even created a feeterfly from her darling tootsies in combination with a family of gigantic moths he’d hand raised in a small terrarium and then harvested for their wings.

“Make them dance again,” Marrionetta unpegged all her fingers on her left hand and poured them into Lorelei’s workspace. He scowled at her. Marrionetta weaved around his workspace like a drunken whirligig on a tradewind ship. Lorelei attached the fingers to the wires and flicked the switched for her amusement. Then he continued working on something different.

The fingers rose but more haltingly this time. They swayed. One fell over as if to snooze off a bad hangover. Marrionetta hit Lorelei in the head.

“KURST! What?!” he screamed at her.

“They’re lazy as daytime witches!” she whined “What’s wrong with my jewelry box dolls?”

Lorelei heaved a sigh. He examined the device. He poked the plug of tissue in the cylinder. It cracked from dryness. “Fresh out of juice,” he said and returned to screw driving a panel.

Marrionetta looked very closely at the dried out mass of tissue. “How do we get more?”

Lorelei perked up at this question and turned a grinning, frenzied expression towards her.

“Yes. It’s time for more, isn’t it?”