Ossip and Lorelei, best of friends

“What a clever boy you are,” Lorelei set his long, tapered hands on each of Ossip’s developing shoulders. Ossip shrugged out from under the doctor’s touch. Still, he beamed into the man’s face. Not even Ungulen had called him clever before.

The truth was that Ossip was a clever boy. He could while away for hours on circuitry, building little models, designing mechanical improvements for circus operations. But a clever boy still has many years to go before he becomes an experienced young man. In the realm of choosing mentors, Ossip had no prior experience.

Ossip was a orphan like all the rest of the lever boys. He had no parents. His place of birth was incidental and far away. He would never return there unless by accident. He was a wayward son of circus life now. Still, he was intelligent and had accrued many lessons of life during his employ at the circus. He knew how to spot a cheat at cards. He knew which of the dancer girls were merely teases and which were genuinely affection and worth picking flowers for. He knew instinctively how to string a series of gears. He knew when and where to hide a tin of meat so none of the acrobats could find it. He fashioned mechanical parts for the circus and, in turns, the circus had fashioned him into one of its mechanical parts. He was like well oiled piece of its machinery, spinning happily, confident with his place in the world. Because of the nestled, uncomplicated nature of his being, he knew not the properties of an interloper. He had no way to measure the hidden dimensions of Lorelei.

Lorelei’s attentions were novel to Ossip. Privileging. He garnered favors, coin, and even the occasional smile from Herr Doktor’s tense jaw. It made some of the other lever boys jealous. Ossip could tell and he knew enough to protect his newfound status with an air of authority. He began posturing himself in much the same way he had seen Lorelei do. Stiff in the back. Unflinching in the gaze. He had learned the power of leaving a word unsaid where an eyebrow’s flick will suffice.

Ossip had been spending more and more time at The Emerald House and he was becoming accustomed to its comfortable interior. It was very messy, he noticed. Ungulen would never allow the barracks to become so unclean. Still, the furniture was nicer here. The snacks the doctor provided were always fresh. There was music occasionally as well. But the biggest draw was Lorelei’s magnificent array of tools. Ossip had only read about some of these gadgets and devices in his worn manuscrips and texts. Ossip never saw, not even for an instant, that he himself was slowly becoming one of Lorelei’s instruments. It was one of the easiest seductions Lorelei had ever orchestrated.

exchange rates

Goren Hargus had seen the silverbacks. He knew they were of southern Germanic origin. Land of cows. He had weighed several examples of the coins in his office on a small but highly accurate scale. They were genuine and very valuable. He had seen too many of them for his liking but prior to his conversation with Ungulen, he hadn’t realized that their distribution might be even more widespread than previously thought.

Foreign currency is like a weed. It can choke out the beautiful flower of a perfectly sound and harmonious economy. The circus economy could be quartered out neatly among booze, cigarettes, gambling debts, and shift hours. The latter two being more weighty than the former but all their relative exchange rates usually remained quite steady. Goren credited himself with this fine tuned modulation of the circus market. He was a controlling stock owner in all four quadrants, after all.

Ungulen’s question about the doctor’s character had spurred Goren to compose a full treatise on how much of this silverback slime might have worked its way into the circus’s lifeblood already. His conservative estimates were well within standards and didn’t threaten too much of anything. But now he had to take the leaving off of seven lever boys into more serious consideration. Ungulen had confirmed in his social way that the missing boys had not left any kind of sentimental trace or reason for their sudden disappearance. So, Goren’s calculations had to be adjusted. Seven lever boys, at a full month’s wages apiece, this strongly indicated that Lorelei had major cash on hand to coax employees away from their duties. The more Goren calculated, the more certain he felt that poaching was afoot.

eyelets in payroll

Goren Hargus cinched his pants up further, constricting his artichoke thighs. On tip toe, he numbered among the skittering creatures — most of them crabs — down by the lake shore.

“Quit yer tight ropin’!” Ungulen threw his head back and brayed with laughter at Goren’s fear of the ooze and general wetness. All around them there was a fleeing pasture of tiny claws. Muck crabs.

“Buckets for bread you said,” Ungulen chided. “It was your idea in the first place to restock the mess from the land.”

“Land, precisely.” Goren complained. “I don’t like getting my slippers wet.”

“Then don’t wear your pussing slippers!” Ungulen rattled his bucket at Goren, alighting droplets of murky, unctuous water onto the man’s face. Goren whipped out a ready handkerchief and cleared them away.

“I don’t want to muddy my leathers either.” Goren sighed, “You’re right though.” He took his slippers off and set them aside. He finger-tucked his pant legs in and over themselves to keep them aloft. Then he made his way barefoot through the slime and chased a few crabs around. He pincered one or two into his bucket.

“Ungulen,” Goren said presently. “There’s a matter I’ve been meaning to discuss with you.”

“What’s that.”

“I was reconciling payroll last Sunday to see if there were any opportunities for forestallment.” Finding opportunities for forestallment was one of Goren’s favorite things about reconciling payroll. “But I noticed something peculiar. More than half a dozen of the lever boys have dipped out as recently as last month. Three alone since I last did the totalling.”

Ungulen shrugged. The shift employ were always running off. Working for a circus wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

“I know. I know. At first I thought they were probably just waywards too. But usually when a lad’s about to duck, he tries to collect his wages early. It’s all pleadings ‘Mr. Hargus this and Mr. Hargus that’ for their train tickets home or one last rose for Dahlia. That sort of thing.”

“And none’s collected?”

“None. Not a one. And where’s the sense in absconding if you don’t make a grab for the church funds?”

Ungulen’s ears twitched. That was peculiar. “So what’s yer theory?”

“Well my first idea was perhaps they’re all traveling through the woods together. Some kind of ritualized hubris. You know how the midranged ones can get when they’re spoiling for dancer crush. But then I looked at the boys who were missing. They didn’t really fit together companion like. All disparate, you know?”

Ungulen moved towards understanding. “Popular or unpopular?”

“Un. Very unpopular.” Goren paused. “And no one’s said anything to you about them? I thought maybe you’d have a version of this through the social vines.”

“No,” said Ungulen, straightening himself to his full height. He fixed Goren with the stern attention of a troubled herd animal. The horizontal slits of his pupils burned with millenia’s worth of experience in identifying predators.

Ungulen asked, “Mr. Hargus, what do you think of the doctor lately?”

Goren was momentarily thrown by this apparent change in topic. Then his mental abacus adjusted.

“I’m not sure I like him,” was the accountant’s reply.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 2)

Herr Doktor Sinvarius Lorelei could not control his erection. It nearly punctured a hole through his slacks. Lorelei knew he was working on his magnum opus. But, what’s more, he knew this was only the first of many opuses to come. The Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator was his first great work. Commissioned by a Baron no less. And its manifestation would set him free.

The puppetress had gone back down to her circus kin. At least for the time being. This was just as well. He’d grown tired of her, skulking around, nodding off on the floor, and demanding greater and greater dosages of hormonal injections. Still, he knew he’d need her again in short order. What a find she was. The repeat experiments with her reusable body had been a glorious boon to his work. He had found exciting new techniques through the application of her favorite moods. His observations of her had also answered many lingering questions that had persisted in the margins of his research. Marrionetta was the ultimate test subject for his work concerning the chemical compounds dictating emotionality. His lips twisted into an ugly smile. It made him laugh to think that such an ignorant vagabond like her should be so integral to the final stages of the Hasse-Liebe Reverse Induction Contabulator. She would never know, of course. And even if she did, how could she possibly appreciate her little role in history? Genius he thought to himself, is the ability to transform that which is inconsequential or even vulgar into a work of art. He marveled at how he always seemed to find exactly what he needed exactly when he needed it. He could only conclude that he was a great creator blessed by the Great Creator himself.

Once this machine was completed he would be flush with capital and state protections. No more circuses. No many stiflingly hot squats in the tropics. No more tinned meats and sour grain. The Baron had made these assurances and even though Sinvarius never trusted anyone farther than he could stick his knife through them, the prospectus seemed certain in this particular case and for this particular machine. Politicians the world over would pay handsomely for a device that transforms hate to love and back again. It was the ultimate tool of social control. And he would be a godlike figure, the only one capable of deploying the thing and improving upon it. They’d bring him tubs full of bodies: human, animal, insectoid, whatever he liked. He’d never have to dig another grave or abandon another laboratory midstream ever again. A life of grand experimentation and luxurious accomodation awaited him just on the other side of this swiftly approaching precipice.

Now all he needed to procure were the underripe hearts of 11 happy children. None of the lever boys would do. They were, as a rule, far too old and far too orphaned to have the delicate tissues required to make his sublime vision into a pumping, cranking reality.

the i love you i hate you machine (part 1)

“Aus hass, liebe,” the Baron intoned quietly, stroking a finger over the face of the woman in the daguerreotype. It was his daughter. His frequent worship of her picture had blurred her face away. He regretted doing this but was unable to stop himself. He had not seen or heard from her in many long years.

The Baron tucked his body further into his massive cape. The room was cold. He jangled softly with dominating heirlooms, unable to separate his personhood from his statehead, even this late into the evening. The room was saturated in candlelight and infused with the lingering odor of roasted game.

He set his daughter’s picture back down into its shrine on his imperious receiving table. He turned his attention to a stash of letters, all of them from Doctor Sinvarius Lorelei.

The letters ranged in date, spanning a decade. He thumbed through, paging to the one that contained the schematic. It was done up in graphite and in Lorelei’s horrid handwriting. The doctor’s penmanship was absolutely diseased, especially when he was excited about anything. The man was too enamored of his art form. It made the Baron queasy to think of the small examples he had seen over the years. Fascinating yes, but there is something phantom, folkloric and fearful about watching the slender arm of a dead young lady suddenly spring to life and gesture submissively to her creator. He still wondered sometimes who that arm had belonged to. He never did find out.

He had met Lorelei that spring at a gala. He was one of the soon to be graduates of the imperial university. The student body of the medical school had several annual occasions to rub shoulders with the nobler blood of the empire. It made for good conversation, connections, and occasionally fruitful business partnerships. Many good examples were available for citation. The hospitals, research groups, private miracles of personal doctoring. On the whole it was a societal good.

But the Baron did not fool himself. He knew his patronage of Lorelei was a sin. One that incurred itself over and over again, with every bucket of currency sent out across all four corners of the planet. Each and every crime of mutilation Lorelei might commit abroad was, certainly, on the Baron’s conscious. He had considered many times what would happen if he simply stopped sending Lorelei the money. It wouldn’t absolve him exactly but it would help. However, in that scenario, the Baron would never see the end result of this project he himself had commissioned. Furthermore, it’s not as if Lorelei would or could ever stop his violent craftsmanship, patronage or no patronage. More likely, the doctor would simply go and entrance some other benefactor. In fact, maybe he already had. The Baron laughed wryly to himself. If anyone could serve two masters, it was Sinvarius alright.

He turned his attention back to the frenetically conceived letter. Lorelei had sent it nearly a year ago. It was from somewhere in the tropics. The machine’s design was in a more finished state than the previous installments. But it didn’t mean anything to the Baron. He had no formal education in the sciences. He was bred to be a leader and, as such, had no use for technical knowledge. This would all be delegated to those who served him. So Lorelei’s excited diagramming was for the doctor’s thrill alone. The only thing the Baron could really distinguish was that the machine was slowly becoming a reality. The I love you I hate you machine the Baron thought to himself, aware of its sing song and childish nature. That is how he conceived of the awful thing. He knew once he had the prototype in hand, he would be able to recoup many times what he had spent on it. Those warlike brutes up in the mountain states would kowtow to his small dominion, despite their economic and military superiority. The machine would secure his lineage and protect his people for centuries. But that was not its foremost purpose. The Baron had one idea in his mind. To recapture his daughter’s affection and maybe — just maybe — to see his grandson again.

Woozies!

Marrionetta woke up in a daze but couldn’t get her bearings. Night had fallen. For a few head turning moments, she couldn’t discern anything through impenetrable black. The sensation made her feel like the billiards of her eyes were rolling weighty around in her head. She had to stop moving and find a point. A star.

Once her center of gravity returned she made a fuller assessment of where she was. Woozies! She thought I must have dropped off right velvetine!

She rose from the ground and brushed dirt off herself. So much for the lavender bath. Crumble and clod clung to her green dress. She felt out some leaves in her hair. She was hungry and her stomach panged. The pang grew larger and seemed to spread throughout her body. She realized that everything ached. Surprising herself, she vomited a babyish amount of stomach fluid onto the ground. She couldn’t see it but it was green, of course. Chlorophyll.

Sick she worried. She always worried when she was sick. A loner’s instinct. Her dressing room, a faithful retreat, was only a few miles away but the distance opened up in her mind like the channel itself.

“Ungulen?” she cried out feebly. The black woods rustled back at her. Then she felt like an imbecile and stamped her foot. The show of force put her off balance and she nearly fell over.

Just like the quiet years she thought. The quiet years were her childhood. Abandoned and orphaned in the woods for an unknowable number of years and seasons. No one to talk to, everything to fear, it was the origin of her acrobatic self-tutelage. A natural and wild apprenticeship totally devoid of self-conscious feeling. In her well furnished adulthood, she had tried to count it all out. To try and figure how many years it must have been. Seven hard winters stood out meaningfully but she couldn’t be sure if she was collapsing a few together, like braiding fingers.

She took a long, impatient breath and prepared herself for the long, long journey home in the dark.

white lace

Rustia’s thighs revved faster and faster like a combustion engine, slamming and pulling up the pedals of her unicycle like they were natural extensions of her feet. Her and Mingey peeled through the thick forestry of Herder Woods along a trail that they themselves had carved through routine exertion.

Mingey scurried along Rustia’s head, back and shoulders like a slender homunculus. She wrapped her legs around Rustia’s neck, hanging down the posterior of the unicycle. Hanging down, she fingered at a cat’s cradle of string which was attached to a weighted system of gears. It was a small contraption that Rustia had designed to augment the power of her physicality with some mechanical advantage.

“Grade!” Rustia commanded. Mingey, extensively trained in the call and response of operating the unicycle, unloosed a dense weight pack. The counterweight gave Rustia a strong vertical off which to hurtle them up the steep grade of a nameless mountain.

Rustia growled like a bear, sweating excitedly as she drove their winged ascent. Presently, she reached the precipice. Their stomachs dropped as they went over the bumpy top and back down the edge again.

“Eeeeeeeiiuyyiiii!” Mingey thrilled.

“Spin down!” Rustia barked and Mingey promptly switched out the weights for the pedal lock. The unicycle’s gear fixed. The wheel spun faster and faster, nearly out of control. Rustia stuck her legs out like balancing antennae. Mingey bobbed and dipped to keep them straightened out.

They screeched down the mountain face, mounting speed like a runaway train. The treading on the wheel started to smoke. They approached the deep ravine at the bottom of the mountain. Faster and faster. Closer and closer Just upon it now! Mingey screamed in terror and covered her eyes as they shot out over the edge.

“Pull!” Rustia roared. Mingey pulled out Marrionetta’s parasol. It was expensive and delicate, covered with white lace and accented with big red roses crafted from silk. They had stolen it from her room when they had noticed her door was broken in.

The parasol popped open. They caught in an abrupt wind tunnel of reverse thrust. After a turbulent ride through negative space, they sailed through the air, laughing and shrieking in delight.

“You see that, Minge!” Rustia gloated, clutching the unicycle tightly in her legs, “I told you it’d work!”

Augromme dreams of jam

Augromme doesn’t think in words but if he did the phrase MAGIC BLANKET would be the reverberating mantra for that particular day. A tiny human, not the bucket bringer — he was much bigger–, had brought him a magic blanket full of sweet, sweet jellies.

He burrowed through all of them in one sitting. Apricot. Blueberry. Raspberry. Peach. A bouquet of colors swam resplendent in his mind. When each jar was thoroughly worked over, he belched a great elephant’s belch. It was rancid with zombie humours and sweet like sugary pickles from the continent. The birds overarching in his thermal column squawked with mania in the odorous plume. One nearly swooned directly into a tree.

Augromme picked up the empty jars with curiosity. He tossed one. It thumped to the ground and then thumped again off a smaller arc. Then it rolled around in the grass and remained still. Augromme reared up, delighted with the jar. He threw a second one. This one didn’t thump. It hit a large stone and broke into a dozen pieces. He waited for something else to happen. Then he forgot about the jars and looked up at the sky.

Violet’s face smoldered in his consciousness. The memory of her small frame and how she conveyed both strength and friendliness. Inside, a sensation emerged for her. It wasn’t a name exactly. More like an emotional designation that demarcated her individuality in the green nebula of his rotten brains. Roughly translating from the private sentiments held by a demented elephant to the Queen’s Standard English, Violet had become Jellybird.

the bridge

Violet made her way to the pasturelands with her rucksack. Instead of her ballet slippers, this time she’d come prepared with cleated boots. One of her dancer friends with a penchant for sport had loaned them to her. If she needed to make a quick get away, she’d be more prepared this time.

She spied Augromme long before he noticed her. He seemed harmless enough in this context. He was walking in slow circles, snuffling at the grass and occasionally lifting his tremendous head skyward to look at the birds. Birds were always attracted to his stewy smells.

She evaluated the brute for a long time. The elephant show needed a real bang next time. The problem was mostly determining if Augromme could be trained or not. She knew he was erratic and hostile but so was Marrionetta and she was the star. Violet had seen Augromme be sweet with the other elephants and they with him. She had seen him tortured by his nightmares, appearing to cry out helplessly about some imagined or timespun injury. She had seen him frolicking in the fields and he had also once attacked her. It was a definite risk to try and include him in the show. That was probably why she hadn’t mentioned the idea to Ungulen who almost certainly would have rejected it.

She also knew how much the poor animal ticketed for when they put him in the box. It was a lot. So the impetus to box him out twice a year would never diminish as long as people like Goren Hargus controlled the purse strings. All day in that tiny enclosure, becoming angry and frustrated, kicking and hissing for his freedom. What if he had hidden talents that could be harnessed? He wouldn’t have to be crammed in the enclosure anymore just to be gawked at for an undignified stretch of hours. Besides, she could really strut something majestic in her next showcase if she pulled this off.

She unpocketed a small woodwind, something crude another circus worker had made and passed around communal. She struck a long, pleasant D note down low on the pipe. Augromme noticed and turned towards the sound. When he noticed she was a person and not a bird, he began a steady trot towards her.

The trot started building and was threatening to become a stampede of one. Violet put the instrument away and took a commanding posture like she had seen Ungulen do. She thrust out her chest and extended a palm-faced arm. “Hold it,” she said.

Augromme responded. He slowed his advance. Then he sat down like a tremendous dog.

“Okay,” said Violet. She pulled out the instrument again and fingered a pleasant major chord in B. Augromme stood up again and started waggling around, snorting and billowing his ears. She rummaged in the rucksack and handed over a large jar of jam.

Augromme immediately scarfed up the jam with his trunk. She played the chord again, still low on the register. She didn’t want to spook him with anything too high and shrill. His trunk piqued up. More? his tiny black eye seemed to inquire. She pulled out another jar which he put away as well.

She played a new chord, something upbeat. To her surprise, Augromme did an intricate series of dance steps. It was sloppy and out of rhythm but she recognized it immediately. It was the bridge of the choreography she had taught the other elephants for the showcase. He had been paying attention after all.

“Interesting,” she said to him. He puffed himself a few times. But then, in a fluid strike, he stole the rucksack and galloped away.

“Hey!” But she didn’t chase him. She’d get another sack and come back tomorrow.

woods

Marrionetta slicked away the grime and the ash. Her lavender oil made her feel calm and she toweled off. She checked the mirror again in her dressing room. She looked splintered and harried but clean at least. She put on her clogs and a green dress. She still couldn’t find her parasol.

If this had been the past, she would have raged through the dormitories of the subterranean circus rooms until she found somebody who knew what had happened to the parasol. She felt certain the it had been stolen as it was very beautiful and, as she had noticed earlier, her door had been broken in at some point. But she was too tired to become angry. She almost thought she might cry again. Did the circus folk really hate her that much? That they would steal from her? Instead of bowing to self pity, she abruptly hurried herself out the door and away from the circus property, snapping and creaking the whole way. 

The walk to the woods was more challenging than she remembered. She felt winded as she approached the tree line. Her physicality was so diminished. The disuse of her energies was only the beginning though. Being taken apart and put back together over a dozen times was an exertion she had never known before. And the steady ebb of her endocrine implants was turning into a very strong desire to re-up. She insisted to herself that she could go longer though. She didn’t need Lorelei. She didn’t need these ungrateful circus chesires. She’d struck it out on her own for centuries before any of them. She had beat back every villain and torn down countless shimsham walls that stood between her and hot plates of oily, garlicky pâtes.

She picked her way through the humid woods. There were no frogs today. She wondered if Lorelei hadn’t eaten them all. When she arrived at her favorite grove of trees, she sat down and caught her breath on a log. It occurred to her — not for the first time — that the log might be a distant cousin of hers. She couldn’t actually tell trees apart. This always made her feel a little ashamed. She put the thought of arboreal roots out of her mind. 

Just a quick jump and I’m up she thought. She readied herself to applique across the trees branches, to suspend herself in midair for some mid afternoon acrobatics. Just her and the trees. Just like always. 

Instead, Marrionetta slowly slid sideways and onto the ground. She fell into an exhausted slumber. 

homesick

Marrionetta could feel the drain. The endocrine infusions Doctor Lorelei had traced her with were emptying of their petit vitalities and her overall mood sagged with them.

Upon returning to her dressing room down in the basement of the big top, Marrionetta took notice that her door had been busted off its hinges at least once while she was away. The door had been fixed. She could tell by the shiny new hinges. Ungulen must have come looking for her before he found her up at The Emerald House.

She entered her room with the intention of settling in immediately and getting back to dancing. Instead though, she slumped onto a plush sette and did not get up for a long while.

It was the morning after the circus mob had demanded her return to performing. It made her feel stitched. One the one hand, it was interesting to see just how essential she was to the rooming and boarding of hundreds of other individuals who, by all accounts, hated her. On the other hand, what pigratting business was it of theirs what she did with her time? Perhaps if they all took the care and patience to perfect their own excellence, the whole operation wouldn’t be so entirely reliant upon her.

Moaning, she picked up her head and layed it back down on the pillows in a new angle. It smelled a bit musty. She wanted to feel that this sette was far more comfortable and superior to sleeping on the floor of The Emerald House or crouching inside of the cold, angular recess of the fireplace. But she couldn’t pretend. Those harsher accomodations were paired with the rush of unending, scientifically modulated joy that the doctor had infused her with over and over again. Here, in her proper, familiar home she felt nauseated and exhausted. Her whole body was fatigued and her thoughts wrapped tighter and tighter around bad memories both from her earliest times in Finland and most recently up with the doctor. The future did not seem terribly bright either. She knew that in a few days time a rancid, choking suppression would overtake her as the nodes and bobules she’d been surfeited with all ran out of juice simultaneously.

Instinctively, she began crying.

Presently, though she felt it was time to do something else. She wiped her eyes in an accusatory fashion against herself. She needed to get into the woods. She found her clogs but could not locate her parasol. That’s when she finally caught herself in the mirror of her vanity. It wasn’t good. No good at all. She needed an oil bath.

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.”