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Chapt. 24: The Circus of Margaid

By Michael Jesse

"You want us to do what??" demanded Thaland indignantly. "I see no reason why we should perform for these creatures. That's demeaning!"

"But don't you understand?" Jack pleaded. "They were talking about selling you right away and then you'd be separated and spread all around Margaid and used as farm animals pulling wagons. At least this way the group would stay together until we can figure out how to escape or talk the captain into taking you back."

Thaland made a disparaging note that reminded Jack of Verdu. "That savien brought us here. He's not going to just take us back. We need to fight our way out of here and escape."

"But where would you go? We're in the middle of a huge city and it's miles to the coast."

"I'm a fast runner and I can defend myself," Thaland said. "And besides, when they brought us here in cages from the ship it didn't take very long."

"We're close to the dock," Jack said, "but that's on a river that winds through the city. You'd have to go pretty far on foot to get outside of the city. You could get to Luvia, I guess. That's a farm area. I could see it from the ship and it's huge, but it's almost completely open fields and hardly any trees. There'd be no place there to hide."

"Then we'd make our way up or down the coast," Thaland insisted.

Jack shrugged. "I don't know. Maybe, I guess. But from what I could see when we were on the ship it looked like nothing but rocks and cliffs on either side of Luvia. But maybe I could find out more about it. There's probably a library or something where they'd have maps and stuff."

"No," Riona said. "We don't want to just escape from this building and still be stranded on this side of the sea. I want to go home. I want my child to be born there, not on the run in some strange land. We need a real escape plan, but in the meantime we should go along with this performance they want from us. Jack can pretend to train us and we'll work on some acrobatics or something that would make a good show."

Thaland piped a disgusted grunt, but Riona flared at him.

"Don't you sass me, young man. Use the brain under those twelve pipes you're so proud of and tell us all what your plan is after you knock down the savien that opens this cage."

Thaland averted his eyes under her glare. "I didn't mean to be disrespectful, Mistress Riona," he said, "it's just that I don't like the idea of performing for the amusement of the saviens, especially after what they did to–"

"To my husband. I assure you, Thaland, my anger exceeds yours. And my shame in performing for their amusement will be considerably greater than yours. But if I can do it, I expect you and your pride can manage to suffer through it as well."

"Yes Mistress Riona," Thaland said quietly. "I'm sorry." Thaland put his horns on the ground and left them there until Riona leaned her face down and kissed the back of his neck.

"Hold your head up straight, child," she said. "We have work to do and I will be depending on you. Weren't you a finalist in the duels last year?"

"Yes ma'am. I went to the regionals and placed second."

"And you're competing again this year I assume?"

"Well I was going to but that doesn't seem very likely now." "Now don't talk that way, Thaland," Riona said firmly. "We're going to get home in time for you to enter that tournament and meantime you need to practice, don't you? You and these other boys — I want you to show those hornless saviens what a duel looks like. That ought to impress them, don't you think?"

Thaland tooted a laugh and nodded. "Yes, ma'am. But then what? How do we get out of here?"

"I don't know yet, but we need time to figure it out and if putting on a few performances for the saviens will keep us together, then that's what we need to do."

The next morning, MacWilde and Procktor came with several guards to move the animals from the holding pen up to the Arena floor. The men gripped their spears, ready to defend themselves.

"Don't worry," Jack said. "They're really tame now."

And indeed it seemed so. Riona had insisted that Thaland and the others keep their emotions under control and not make any aggressive movements or sounds, and now she repeated those instructions. To the other humans, walking alongside Jack, it was just her whistling call, like the near-meaningless sounds of other animals.

"That's good," she was saying. "Show them how tame you are and they'll treat you that way. And when it is time for us to act quickly they will be very much off their guard."

A wire fence had been erected around the stage to keep the animals penned in.

"I hope you're planning to take this down for the performance," MacWilde said. "It ruins the effect."

"I hope so as well," Procktor replied. "However, that will depend on how well you can control these creatures. I must say I'm encouraged so far."

Jack had been so distracted trying to eavesdrop it took him a moment to notice the view from the stage and when he did it took his breath away. He felt like he was standing at home plate in an empty Major League ballpark in the middle of a big city. He stood facing hundreds of empty seats beyond which loomed the north side of the mountain across the river. People were going about their business along the balconies, but a few had already noticed the activity in the arena below and were leaning against the railings trying to get a good look at the creatures.

At a signal from Procktor, workmen cranked open a large awning to block the view. Now all eyes turned to Jack. He held up his flute and nervously played to the ruah, "Okay, everybody, I feel kind of stupid pretending to teach you stuff you already know, so anybody want to start?"

"We'll go first," said Celia, a young female with a flowing blonde mane that she was constantly tending.

"But don't be too good yet," Riona said quietly. "Remember, girls, just show them enough to make an impression."

Celia and the others began to whistle a silly nursery rhyme that made no sense to Jack even though he understood the words. It reminded him of the songs girls from his own world chanted as they played jump rope. And this song had the same purpose — to keep a rhythm for a game. Jack had seen ruah girls perform a gymnastics-like tumbling routine in which they leaped over one another's rolling bodies. But this time they only did a few steps and jumps in unison. When they stopped, Procktor applauded.

"Quite excellent," he said, almost seeming excited himself. "That is just the type of thing. Do you think they're able to learn a more involved routine, young man?"

Jack nodded with a grin. "You bet, Mr. Procktor. I just need, uh, a week or so to work with them."

"Oh, I'm afraid we can't wait that long, my boy. We must seize the moment and take advantage of the intense curiosity of the investing public. The first exhibition will be in three days. Do whatever you can in that time. And then, if interest remains keen as I suspect it shall, more performances will follow and you will have time to continue your training. Eventually, you will need to teach them to perform useful tasks as well — pulling carts and so on. They will be sold eventually when ticket sales decline, but don't worry about that for now."

Jack wasn't sure how he felt about all of this. It was important for the ruah to stay together and not be sold, so the more performances they could give the better. But that would only delay MacWilde from going back to get Laura.

For the next two days Jack pretended to work with the ruah as they practiced their routines. He found a ball about the size of the one they used for hornball and four of the male ruah knocked it back and forth high in the air with a crack of their horns that sounded like a baseball player hitting a home run. The girls slowly added complexity to their acrobatic routine and were soon jumping over each other to the rhythm of the song.

And then there were the duels. Thaland took immense pride in preparing three other males in the formal steps of the duels, insisting that they do everything properly as if they were being judged in the competition.

Because of her advanced pregnancy, Riona was not participating in any of the physical activities but was planning to contribute some music, whistling a pretty melody about running in the rain with the one you love. It was supposed to be a happy song, but now it seemed sad.

"That was really beautiful," Jack said when she'd finished. "That reminded me of what Irenia played that time with her husband's horns."

"Actually, that was one of the songs she plays," Riona said, weeping. "I wish I could do that now — play my husband's horns. That's what widows are supposed to do."

"Riona, there's . . . there's something I should probably tell you. I didn't before because I thought it would hurt you, but maybe I was wrong."

"About what? What didn't you tell me?"

"Um, about Verdu's horns. They're here in the Arena, up in a room MacWilde is using."

Riona's eyes widened and she whistled a shrill of surprise and happiness. "They are? Oh thank the Mother. Jack, I have to see them. I have to touch them. I have to play them. Just once. If I could just play them one time."

Jack hurried upstairs and found MacWilde fretting over financial paperwork, no longer looking much like the independent adventurer he seemed at one time to be. Seeing Jack he dropped the papers and rubbed his eyes.

"Let me offer you a word of advice," MacWilde said before Jack could open his mouth. "Never roll dice in a gambling house and never borrow money in Margaid. You may think you understand the game, but they've always got it rigged."

"Um, I'll remember that," Jack said, "but right now I need to ask you som–"

"Take this innocent looking piece of paper for example," MacWilde went on, selecting one from his stack. "Do you know what this is?"

"No sir, but I–"

"It is a legal document informing me that while I remain the official owner of my ship and my animals, that these items have been placed under the temporary custody of Capital Ventures Ltd pending payment of my debt."

"Um, that's too bad," Jack said. "Could I–"

"Yet all of these papers here are bills. This one is a bill for the space the animals are occupying at the Arena, which is owned by Capital Ventures. And this one is an invoice for the Arena guards who are watching the animals. This one seeks a deposit for the night of the first show, and this little pink one tells me I am required to have insurance against the possibility that my animals might eat members of the audience during the show."

"They're vegetarians, but–"

"I don't know how I'm going to get out of this mess but by god I will." MacWilde seemed to recover to his old self and was soon smiling. "Sorry to bore you with all that business talk. What were you trying to ask me?"

Jack pointed at Verdu's horns hanging on the wall. "I need to borrow those. It's really important."

MacWilde was intrigued but wary. "These are valuable, Jack. We can't afford to damage them in some acrobatic stunt."

"They'll be safe. You can hold them yourself the whole time, and I promise you will be amazed."

A bit reluctantly, MacWilde got up and lifted the heavy rack of horns from the wall and carried them carefully down the stairs alongside Jack.

When they arrived Riona stifled a sob and watched intently as MacWilde carried Verdu's horns up to her. Jack helped MacWilde lower them to rest on top of one of the wooden platforms they were using in the performance. The platform was about three feet high, just the right height for Riona.

"Just hold them steady here," Jack said. "and watch what she does."

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