After the collapse of civilization, the show goes on....
(A post-apocalyptic steampunk story about a circus traveling through the collapse of civilization. New episodes on Mondays.)

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Boston

Episode 1

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Episode 4


Seppanen Town

Episode 5

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Episode 7


New York City

Episode 8

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Episode 10

Episode 11

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Episode 14

Episode 15

Episode 16

Episode 17

Episode 18

Episode 19






Foreword

If you're a little rusty on The Circus of Brass and Bone, here's where to start:
The beginning of it all - Episode 1
The beginning of the New York storyline - Episode 8
or
The latest episodes, beginning with Episode 17! (But read The Story So Far first.)

Now settle back and enjoy the circus. It's the end of civilization, but the show...must go on.

Episode 19

A Winning Argument

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Ginger the Whitefaced Clown

The Sasse Family Zoo, Manhattan

Massive jaws clamped shut around the flailing body. The victim's blood spurted, staining rows of serrated teeth. One gulp and only shreds of silver skin remained.

Mrs. Guirard applauded. "Oh, fabulous! Do it again!"

At the sound of her voice, the alligator jackknifed around to face them. Mrs. Guirard squeaked and seized Papa Sasse's arm.

Papa Sasse grinned. "There, there, little lady." He pulled another flopping fish out of his bucket and tossed it into the alligator pit, with gratifyingly gory results.

So far, the tour of the zoo was a rousing success. Every animal had displayed itself to advantage. Mrs. Guirard had been appropriately charmed, awed, impressed, and shocked. She clutched a lovely fan made from peacock feathers, which Papa Sasse had given her as a souvenir. To his own surprise, Ginger found himself genuinely enjoying the visit. It took effort to keep his mind on the business at hand.

"This way to our aviary," Papa Sasse said. He guided them up the path to a large barn whose roof glittered in the sun. Tar and shingles had been replaced by thick panes of glass set in a cast-iron framework. Ginger squinted at it. He suspected Papa Sasse of saving the best for last.

Ginger followed Papa Sasse into the barn and stepped forward through the seasons into summer. The panes of glass arched overhead, letting in the winter sunlight but keeping out the cold. In the corners, four furnaces radiated a tropical heat. Potted trees towered above their little group, the green of the leaves a shocking sight in the dead of winter. Birdsong cascaded over them. Golden orioles, parrots, blue buntings, cockatiels, yellow-headed blackbirds, and a rainbow of finches swirled through the aviary. "Oh!" gasped Mrs. Guirard. She fluttered the peacock fan excitedly as Papa Sasse led them through the aviary.

When Mrs. Guirard passed one of the potted trees, a parrot perched on a branch cocked its head and said, "Pretty lady! Pretty lady!"

A faint tinge of pink stained Mrs. Guirard's cheeks. "How charming!" she exclaimed.

How clever, Ginger thought. A thin chain stretched from a cuff on the parrot's leg to the branch it perched on, making sure that if they walked by that particular tree, the parrot would be on display for Mrs. Guirard, and vice versa. Also, the parrot had cocked its head and studied Mrs. Guirard's brand-new peacock fan before it uttered its compliment. Ginger wasn't an animal wrangler, but he'd seen enough of their trade to recognize a trained response.

"This way, please." Papa Sasse ushered them toward a courtyard in the center of the aviary, where a marble fountain burbled a merry counterpoint to the birdsong.

The strong man, the roustabouts, and Isaac the animal handler moved to sit on wrought-iron benches at the edge of the courtyard, making themselves as unobtrusive as possible.

Ginger and Mrs. Guirard sat on benches beside the fountain. Ginger leaned back for a few moments, enjoying the warmth, the sun on his face, and the birdsong. Rule Number 15 of being a clown: Enjoy life. How else can you know what will move your audience?

A chattering sound near at hand made him sit upright. A small monkey tugged at the hem of Mrs. Guirard's skirt. It wore a diaper, because the Sasses were taking no chances.

"What a darling creature," Mrs. Guirard said, extending her hand to the monkey. It climbed up onto her palm and wrapped its arms around her wrist, staring up at her with large, trusting eyes. She lifted it up. It curled up in her lap and began to play with its tail, now and then reaching out to pat her hand.

The time was perfect. Ginger made a little hand signal. Papa Sasse nodded.

"Allow me to offer refreshments," he said. A plain-faced young woman in an old gray dress emerged from behind a row of potted rose trees. She carried a silver tray with a plate of Mrs. Nave's finest chocolates and three glasses of cold pomegranate shrub.*

When performing a juggling routine, Ginger avoided watching the path of any one ball, the better to track the gestalt. In the same way, he now fastened his gaze on a point above and slightly to the left of the four men he'd asked to be Mrs. Guirard's escort. As he observed them, he slid his hand to his pocket and the weapon he'd concealed there. His plan to have Tonya show her face in controlled surroundings could misfire badly. If it worked, however, it would give him four tough men--well, three tough men and Isaac--whom he knew were innocent of the attack on her. He had to start somewhere.

None of them gave a second look to the young woman bringing the refreshments. Tonya set the tray on the wrought-iron table in front of Mrs. Guirard, curtsied awkwardly, and retreated. Ginger relaxed. These men, at least, were cleared.

Mrs. Guirard gasped. "It can't be!" Her hand darted out and seized one of the chocolates. She brought it to her mouth and sank her teeth into it. Her eyes half-closed. A blissful expression spread across her face. "Oh, it is!" The chocolate disappeared in short order, and she leaned forward and took another one. "However you managed it, these are wonderful!"

Papa Sasse bowed. "Glad you think so, ma'am. You might wonder how we acquired the cacao beans for your chocolates and the pomegranate syrup for your drink. Well, we got them from sailors, in trade for entry to the zoo! If more sailors visit us, we will use some of their trade goods to offer an even wider selection of refreshments. The rest, we will sell in the city."

"In trade," Mrs. Guirard said, as if she were trying out how the words tasted on her tongue. "How marvelous." She looked around her at the tropical forest and the birds darting through the trees. "And to think that my husband so carefully explained to me that there was no way he could peacefully persuade the sailors to give up their cargo."

"We've been setting aside a portion to pay the trading tax, ma'am," Papa Sasse said. "We thought maybe half? These are difficult times. We all have to make sacrifices and pull together. We wouldn't want your husband to think we were trying to skip out on our responsibility."

"Trading tax," she mused.

"If the zoo remains open--" his voice faltered, and he paused to compose himself, "--it would be a regular payment."

"I wonder what other diversions the sailors would enjoy?" Mrs. Guirard said, half to herself.

"All the city can offer, I imagine," Ginger cut in smoothly. "Life aboard ship becomes extremely tedious. Given the right incentive, I'm certain that a trade could be arranged. Why, they might even agree to a trading schedule that ensures a regular flow of needed goods. In return, of course, New York would need to provide the diversions and civilized comforts that are sorely lacking at sea."

Mrs. Guirard's lips curved up and her dark eyes sparkled. "What a delightful notion."

#

Isaac the Animal Handler

The Sasse Family Zoo, Manhattan

Isaac didn't pay much heed to the fancy aviary or to Mrs. Guirard's reaction, although he reckoned that a lot of careful thought had gone into creating both. He'd only come along to the zoo to visit Mr. Ben. Saving the circus by charming the commissioner's wife was all well and good, but it wasn't really Isaac's job. His monkey was.

So when Ginger made his excuses and motioned at Isaac to come along with him, Isaac bounded out of his seat like a dog who'd scented sausage nearby. He knew it wasn't polite to look so eager to leave, but he couldn't help himself. He kept quiet, though, at least until they were outside the building.

"Can I go see--"

"There's something I'd like your opinion on first," Ginger interrupted.

"What do you need me for? Mr. Sasse knows his business. He don't need my help."

"Good thing it's not for him, I suppose." As Ginger spoke, Rosie Sasse walked up the path to join them.

"What's this about, then?" Isaac demanded. "If you brought me here just to yammer at me until I change my mind--!"

"No, no," Ginger reassured him. "Rosie knows a lot about handling animals, since she grew up in a zoo. She's particularly good at training, um," he paused, "birds! She asked me if she could join the circus, but she's worried about her safety. She heard about the monster attack on High Bridge. As you've seen, I'm making arrangements for the Sasse family to be under the protection of the commissioner. What do you think would be safest for her?"

"Uh, we'd have been dead if the monsters attacked us earlier, or if the elephant wasn't around," Isaac said awkwardly. He wondered why Rosie wanted his opinion. They didn't exactly see eye-to-eye. "It ain't what most folks would call safe out there. Circus folk got to roam, but she ain't got circus in her blood, not yet. I guess she should stay here. She's got family. Family's important. And if the commissioner's looking out for them special, I don't figure she could be any safer." Isaac had seen Ginger's "arrangements" often enough that he didn't question whether they'd work. He thought of the corpses left dangling from lampposts. "Nobody in their right mind's going to do anything to piss him off." He flushed. "Begging your pardon for my language, miss."

She nodded.

"I think you're right," Ginger said. "So the situation with your monkey and the zoo is settled, then?"

"What? No, I didn't say--"

"Because I'm absolutely certain that Commissioner Guirard will extend his special protection to the zoo, once his wife has a word with him. Like you said, you can't get safer than that, can you?"

"No, but--"

"And your main concern is for the safety of your monkey, right?"

"Yes, but the circus needs--"

"Oh, don't worry about us. The zoo has traded us a couple of other monkeys that should make an interesting addition to our menagerie, though they'll have to be kept separately."

"Separately?" Isaac asked. Then he shook his head, pushing away the distraction. "Wait, I didn't agree that--"

"You said it was safer here." Ginger leaned forward, his eyes merciless. "You said it was important to stay with family--loved ones. Your monkey's got a sweetheart, and your monkey's sweetheart has a family, and they're all safer here, so by your own logic, your monkey should stay in the zoo. You'll see him again. You understand how important it is for sweethearts to stay together, don't you?"

Unaccountably, Isaac found himself thinking of Pamela the aerialist and the way the purple ribbons in her hair bounced as she walked. He flushed. "Yes, but--"

"No buts. You've persuaded me. It's the best thing for the circus, and it's the best thing for the monkeys. Go say your goodbyes. Then take those new monkeys back to the circus."

Isaac opened his mouth . . . and closed it again. He couldn't really argue because it was all his own opinions. That was the worst part.

"Good," Ginger said briskly. "I have to get back to Mrs. Guirard. Rosie will help you get the new monkeys ready to take back to the zoo. Mr. Sasse said he had an old cage we could use that's plenty strong enough. Once you get back, let Doc Panjandrum see the new monkeys before you do anything else."

Isaac waited until Ginger was out of sight before he dared look at Rosie Sasse. To his surprise, she didn't gloat. "We'll take good care of Mr. Ben," she said.

He nodded. Her sympathy reassured him and made him feel worse at the same time. After an awkward silence, she set off towards the monkey enclosure. He trailed along behind her with his emotions all in a tangle. When they reached the monkeys, she drew back far enough to be out of earshot unless he shouted.

And so he found himself saying goodbye to his monkey without ever making the decision to leave him behind.

When Mr. Ben saw Isaac, the monkey strolled over to sit beside him. Isaac crouched to talk to him. He told him that it was safer in the zoo right now. The monkey played with Isaac's bootlaces. Isaac explained that the circus would have to go on without him. The monkey hopped onto Isaac's back and draped his arms around his neck in a loose hug. Isaac said he'd miss him. The monkey ran his fingers through Isaac's hair, grooming him. Isaac said it was for the best. The monkey snaked his paw into Isaac's shirt pocket, stole the dried apple slices that Isaac kept there for treats, and bolted away with his prize.

"I'll visit," Isaac promised Mr. Ben's retreating back. "I will. Somehow." He stayed crouched for another couple of minutes, watching Mr. Ben and the other monkeys. When he straightened and walked over to where Rosie waited, he felt a painful sort of lightness.

"I'll take special care of him." Rosie's eyes were serious. "I promise."

Isaac nodded. "I know. Thank you." He added, "I'll take real good care of your monkeys, too."

Rosie looked away, like something about his promise pained her. "Come on. Papa loaded the monkeys into their cage before you arrived. The wagon is waiting by the gate. We moved it out of the way for the tour, but as soon as you'd passed by, we moved it back. One of my brothers will go fetch the wagon and the donkey back tomorrow. You can keep the cage. You'll need it." Judiciously, she continued, "Whenever he handled these monkeys, Papa wore the really heavy gloves and kept my brother standing by with a musket. You might want to do the same when you unload them."

"You make it sound like they're baboons or something," Isaac said, following her.

"Or something," she agreed.

Isaac let the conversation lapse into silence until they reached the main gate. An old cage sat on a wagon in front of the gate. At Isaac and Rosie's approach, the donkey hitched to the wagon brayed loudly.

Rosie buffeted the animal on the shoulder affectionately. "Quiet down, you! It's risky enough sending meat on the hoof out there without you announcing it to everyone."


The donkey gave her an evil glare, quite as if it understood exactly what she'd called it.

Isaac turned his attention to his new charges. The cage holding them was old but strong, with bars nearly twice as thick as the ones at the circus, and it seemed in good repair. He couldn't say as much for the monkeys. Two of them twitched in the corner, one chattered and jerked ferociously on the bars, and a fourth kept picking at its arm. "They look sick."

Rosie gave him an odd look. "The sick ones are what Ginger wanted. That's why we're giving you a separate cage for them."

". . . Oh." It was true, Ginger had said to take the monkeys to see the doctor first. Adding sick animals to the circus didn't make much sense to Isaac, but he had no desire to get into another brain-twisting argument with Ginger. "All right then. Ginger usually knows what he's doing."

#

Isaac the Animal Handler

Port Rumsey, New York City

Back on the docks, Isaac quickly spotted the circus tent whose painted canvas walls advertised, "The Great Doctor Panjandrum and His Amazing Panacea That Cures All Ills!"

"Doc?" Isaac asked, pulling back the tent flap.

A scene from hell greeted him. Doc Janzen stooped over a table mounded with offal and gobbets of flesh. Gore splattered his apron. A stack of disjointed limbs rose beside him. Shining metal torture instruments gleamed on a bench nearby. Aether lamps burned brightly inside the perimeter of the tent, adding ghastly illumination to what should have been dark and secret.

Isaac's gut rebelled. He dropped the flap and staggered around the side of the tent. Strings of sour vomit splattered on the dirt. Once he'd mastered himself, he returned.

Doc Janzen looked up, scowling. Light glittered off his blood-speckled glasses. "You again. Close that flap. You'll let the flies in."

Isaac stayed in the doorway, holding the tent flap open and breathing shallowly through his mouth. He gulped. "Can't breathe. The smell--"

"What?" Doc Janzen sniffed the air. "I suppose. You get used to it after a while. Why are you here, then, if not to watch me work?"

"Ginger said I should see you about the new monkeys?" Isaac blurted. "They're sick?"

"Hm, yes." Doc Janzen removed his glasses, absentmindedly rubbed them on his filthy apron, and then frowned when that only moved the smears around. "You have a strong cage for them?"

"Sure."

"How strong?"

"Strong enough for a bull gorilla, I guess," Isaac said.

Doc Janzen nodded. "That should do it. Never let them out of the cage unless you've got them on a collar with a pole to keep them away. An elephant pole." He thought for a minute. "They might not eat fruits and vegetables. They'll need lots of meat."

"Monkeys don't eat meat!" Isaac protested. "Oh, a few grasshoppers or a lizard now and then, but not lots of meat."

"These ones will," Doc Janzen said grimly. "Plan for what you'd need to feed one of the big cats."

"I know how to take care of monkeys," Isaac said. "What you're telling me doesn't make any kind of sense!"

"You don't know how to take care of these monkeys." Doc Janzen sighed. Suddenly, he looked like a very tired man instead of a demon out of hell. "They've got the aether sickness. Ginger arranged for us to take them because I need test subjects."

"What?" Isaac said. "You're not going to dissect them, are you?" His horror must have shown on his face, because Doc Janzen frowned.

"Certainly not," he said sharply.

Isaac exhaled, relieved.

Doc Janzen took away that relief by adding, "They must be alive to study the progression of the disease." He walked to the tent opening, stared at the monkeys for a moment, and then pointed to the one plucking at its arm. "I'll start with that one."

"Start what?" Isaac demanded.

Doc Janzen raised his eyebrows. "Amputation, of course. This one appears to be primarily affected in one limb, which makes him an excellent candidate." He lifted a wicked-looking saw. "Tie him to the table, if you would. Make sure the straps are tight. I have neither chloroform nor laudanum to spare."

"Wait! I promised--" Isaac began, when another interruption saved the monkey, if only temporarily.

The snake charmer ran up and seized his arm. "Isaac!" she exclaimed, out of breath. "Where are Ginger and the others?"

"Why?" Isaac asked.

"Something strange is going on. I was sunbathing with my snakes when I saw two special patrolmen crawl out from behind the bags of horse fodder. Strangers, not the men that have been poking around all afternoon. I went looking for Ginger, since he's been dealing with the commissioner. While I was looking, I saw at least a dozen other special patrolmen coming out of hiding. I don't think it'll be safe here for much longer. Ginger needs to know. Maybe he can do something."

"Um, he's not here," Isaac said numbly, as he struggled to figure out what he should do.

The snake charmer huffed in exasperation. "So go find him! Fast!"

(To be continued in Episode 20: Hostages to Fortune .)



If you enjoyed this episode of The Circus of Brass and Bone, consider telling a friend or posting about it! New episodes will be posted weekly on Monday until we reach the end. Ebook and print editions (including story extras and a bonus novelette!) will be available to purchase before Christmas.

Acknowledgments

This episode is brought to you by the generous donations of Paul Fischer and John Nickerson.

The Circus of Brass and Bone is written and recorded by Abra Staffin-Wiebe. My main website is at www.aswiebe.com.

Music is courtesy of Vermillion Lies. Go to their website at vermillionlies.com to hear more.


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