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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New York City

Episode 8

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Episode 20






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 20

Hostages to Fortune

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Isaac, the Animal Handler
Port Rumsey, New York City

"We need Ginger. Right. Right!" Given an order, Isaac's mind began to work. To get to Ginger in time, he needed a fast horse.

He ducked out of the doctor's tent, took a deep breath of fresh air, and walked briskly toward where Lacey kept her horses corralled. He wanted to run, but there were policemen everywhere. More emerged every minute. Years of being a disreputable outsider in every small town the circus passed through had taught Isaac that policemen were like big cats: either running or freezing in place would provoke an attack. The best plan was to keep moving normally.

As he passed one pair of patrolmen, he overheard, "Find the commissioner's wife and get her out of here."

Make that two fast horses he needed, Isaac thought. Ginger and Mrs. Guirard both needed to be here to keep things from going bad, if it wasn't already too late.

#

Ginger, the Whitefaced Clown
The Sasse Family Zoo, Manhattan

In Ginger's experience, nothing important went smoothly. Mrs. Guirard's zoo visit was going so well that when catastrophe interrupted, it seemed inevitable.

In this case, catastrophe came as they were bidding the Sasse family farewell. It arrived in the form of Isaac and two lathered horses.

"For you and the commissioner's wife," Isaac explained to Ginger, as he slid off his horse. "You got to get back. The police are taking over the port. They ain't going to wave us on our way, 'specially not if they think we got the commissioner's missus. Hope your plan works."

"What?" Papa Sasse exclaimed.

The circusfolk looked to Ginger, shock writ sharply on their faces.

Ginger bit back the curse that tried to rise to his lips. "I thought we had more time. Mrs. Guirard, if I can come up with a way for your husband to change his mind without seeming to back down, do you think you can sweet-talk him into it?"

"Perhaps, but I don't understand," Mrs. Guirard protested. "My husband thinks I'm there. He'd never attack if I were at risk."

"He expected to get you out first, ma'am," Isaac said. "They were looking for you."

Ginger nodded. "Everybody knows how much he cares for you, ma'am. If the sailors know you're visiting Port Rumsey, they won't expect him to attack. They have their guard down. It's the perfect time to attack. I expect that Commissioner Guirard used the circus as a pretext to sneak his men into hiding on the docks last night. Lots of strangers were coming and going."

Mrs. Guirard nodded slowly. "He's always been one to take any opportunity he sees. It's what saved us, after . . . after." She met Ginger's eyes. "If he sees this scheme of yours as a way to get what he wants without risking any of his men, he'll want to try it. Get me to him, and I'll persuade him. But what is your idea? What do you want me to say? Chocolates won't persuade him to back down, no matter how delicious they are."

"I'll figure that out on the way. The rest of you," Ginger looked at Isaac and the other circusfolk, "stay here with the Sasse family. Wait until it's safe to return to the circus."

"I'm not certain that's a good plan," Papa Sasse said slowly. "Do you really think you can make him listen to you now, after he's committed his forces?"

"What other choice do we have?" Ginger asked him. "If Commissioner Guirard is willing to take on the sailors, he won't stop there. He'll strip our circus bare. I don't think keeping quiet will save the zoo anymore, either. Sure as shooting, he'll come for you too."

Mrs. Guirard regained her customary spirit. "You men, always fussing! It won't come to that. I've talked him down from worse." She laughed, a bubbling, infectious laugh that invited them in on the joke. "Not that he thinks I knew what I was doing, of course."

Ginger chose not to think of what "worse" might mean when it described the intentions of a man who left bodies dangling from the lamp posts of his city. Instead, he offered Mrs. Guirard a small, respectful bow. "Of course. We must get you to him as soon as possible."

Isaac held out the reins of the two horses he'd brought. "Here you go."

"Hold up there!" Papa Sasse interrupted. "You're right, Ginger. The way things are going, there's no point anymore in us sitting on our hands and hoping that the commissioner forgets we exist. We've already thrown our lot in with yours. If things don't go according to your plan, could be that a few more men on your side would make a difference."

Ginger knew that he should act appreciative and inspired, to seal the bond between them, but he just felt irritated. These people and their good intentions were slowing him down. He barely managed to keep the irritation off his face as he said, "Could be. I'll always welcome your help, but Mrs. Guirard and I need to go now."

Papa Sasse gave him a sharp nod. "We'll follow behind as close as we can. Excuse me. I need to get everybody ready to ride." Without waiting for a response, he strode off to do just that.

Ginger took the reins from Isaac. "Listen to me," he told him. "This is very important. Have they sealed off the port?"

"Yeah, I reckon so."

"How did you get out, then?"

"I rode right past 'em." Isaac gulped. "I thought they were going to shoot me, but I heard one of them order the others to let me go. Said the commissioner told them to let the small fry swim away, and that they'd sweep me up in the net later."

Ginger nodded. "That's what I'd do. Commissioner Guirard controls the city. If people stay, he can pick them up any time he likes. If they flee to the countryside, that means there are fewer mouths for him to feed. It's good for us, too. If they don't care much whether people leave, I'll wager that they didn't bother to block all the entrances either."

#

Ginger, the Whitefaced Clown
Rumsey Port, New York

On any occasion that he found himself in new surroundings, Ginger made a habit of taking long walks at two o'clock in the morning. As he would freely tell any and all official-looking persons, he suffered from terrible insomnia whenever he was sleeping in a new town. Simply terrible.

As a result of the wakefulness that could be achieved by drinking four large glasses of water immediately before bed, he knew of three entrances to the docks that were more alley than street and were, accordingly, more likely to be overlooked.

Ginger and Mrs. Guirard rode to within eyeshot of the first entrance before dismounting and walking their horses into the front parlor of an abandoned boarding house. Hopefully, nobody would think it a likely place to find valuable livestock. Ginger shifted his weight as they walked out of the house, feeling the reassuring press of his bowie knife against the small of his back.

Mrs. Guirard gathered up her skirts and darted into the shadows. Ginger mentally rolled his eyes. He'd found that no matter how tense the situation, a man casually walking into it was much less likely to be shot than a man--or woman--sneaking through the underbrush or climbing over a fence. He walked after Mrs. Guirard at a brisk but not overly hurried pace. He caught her arm before she could attempt to sneak up on the unsuspecting alley. No doubt she would have dashed from shadow to shadow and attempted to hide behind street lights and other entirely inadequate objects.

"No hiding," he said in a quiet voice that avoided the attention-catching sibilance of a whisper. "Pretend that you have every right to be here and that you don't know anything unusual is going on. Stand here, in the sunlight, and look at the ground as if you're searching for something you've lost. Keep your head down. Move a little, but not too much. Let me check the alley."

A flush burned her cheeks, but she nodded. That was good enough for him. He chose a path perpendicular to the alley mouth, one that would allow him to see down the alley while still clearly heading somewhere else.

Two alert-looking special patrolmen stood guard at the other end of the alley. Their attention was on the docks, where they expected any trouble to come from. As soon as he saw them, Ginger averted his gaze. It made no logical sense, but sometimes people really could tell when they were being watched. He did not allow his footsteps to speed up as he passed the alley and circled around to return to Mrs. Guirard's side.

"Not that way," he said shortly. "No--try not to look anxious."

Her face instantly smoothed into a charming smile.

"That might catch too much attention too," he said dryly, "but it's better than looking worried. Come on. It's a bit of a walk to the next possibility."

The next likely-to-be-overlooked entrance couldn't even be dignified by calling it an alley. Years of drunken sailors staggering back to their berths had worn a footpath between two buildings. No patrolmen guarded it. Ginger sauntered down the footpath, knowing that he was heading for trouble. Mrs. Guirard followed him before he could tell her not to.

When they emerged onto the docks, Ginger saw that he'd arrived too late to prevent hostilities. Or perhaps he'd arrived just in time, since Lacey had yet to use the sharp point of the hoof pick dimpling the skin of Commissioner Guirard's throat.

On the city's side of the docks, ranks of regular policemen stood shoulder-to-shoulder with special patrolmen marked by their blue armbands. If he were a gambling man, Ginger would have said that the police force's disciplined and uniformly armed troops, experienced leadership, and sheer numerical advantage made them the odds-on favorite. If Lacey hadn't taken Commissioner Guirard hostage, it seemed likely that they would have already overrun the sailors' defenses.

Ship-side, the sailors formed a ragged brigade armed with everything from crowbars and knives to muskets and rifles. They scowled fiercely at the policemen, as if they could be outfaced like bullies picking a barroom fight. Those still aboard ship must be scrambling to prepare for battle. Despite the menacing scowls of the sailors on the docks, the real threat came from the ships behind them.

Ship cannon boosted by aether catalyst could strike deep into the heart of the city. Shatter bombs would unfurl into a lethal ivory mist of bone aether darts. And although their use was banned by every maritime accord, some of these ships might even have fire aether splashers, which burned unstoppably through ship hulls and human flesh alike. Of course, that was if the aether armament onboard the ships still worked. It might, if the ships were at sea when the murderous storm struck. Or it might not. Anyone who used aether-powered devices took their own life in their hands. Ginger shuddered as he remembered the horrific accidents they'd seen when they first docked in Boston.

Lacey and her hostage stood midway between the ships and the main road to the port, near the circus tents. The open space between the two forces gave Lacey an empty arena. She might have been a ringmaster at the center of his ring, if she weren't so obviously failing to control the situation. Commissioner Guirard's weapon lay at his feet. She had a hoof pick to his throat. And she still didn't look like she was in command.

A hoof pick made a poor weapon, so Lacey hadn't planned this ahead of time. Something had pushed her to this state. It was pretty easy to guess what. Commissioner Guirard must have seen the circus, given an order--and Lacey overheard it. Now she held a weapon to the throat that had issued that order.

"I won't let you take them!" she yelled. "My horses are my life! All I want is to be left in peace. Why does nobody understand that?!"

Ginger winced inwardly. That was not the sound of a person who could be reasoned into lowering her weapon. Experienced policemen would hear the same pushed-past-the-breaking-point desperation in her voice that he did. Indeed, when he looked for the officer in charge, he spotted Commissioner Guirard's deputy standing beside a man holding a sharpshooter's rifle. The sharpshooter had a calm, distant look on his face.

Ginger wracked his wits. He needed a distraction to buy time. It must be something that they wouldn't perceive as a threat. He couldn't afford to make this mess worse. He needed something unexpected but nonthreatening, something that would make them lower their guard. He needed, he realized, to make them laugh. He had just begun to concoct a plan when an indignant voice shouted, "Halt or I'll shoot!"

The policemen tensed, readying themselves for action. The sailors surged forward and then stopped when they realized that nobody was threatening them. Lacey's hand jerked. A thin ribbon of blood unspooled down Commissioner Guirard's throat.

It was in this delicate moment that the Sasse family and company made their entrance. The source of the shouting turned out to be a storklike young special patrolman guarding the alley the Sasse family emerged from. "Stop right there!" he ordered again. His Adam's apple bobbed convulsively as he swallowed.

Papa Sasse looked determined. Mama Sasse looked embarrassed at being so easily caught. The rest of the Sasse family wore expressions that were elaborations on the theme--and indeed, they had brought almost their whole family, from children barely old enough to be trusted to point their guns in the right direction, to oldsters who had avoided fighting in the War Between the States because they were already considered too elderly. Even Miss Anderson, the aether-sick cousin, had roused herself to join them. She'd been abed when Ginger visited the zoo, but he recognized her by the signs of her sickness. Her body shook like a leaf in a high gale, and thin strands of saliva dripped untended down her chin.

For once, Ginger thought wryly, it would have been nice if the circus members hadn't made a grand entrance. Alas, they had all trailed along behind the Sasse family. Their reactions to being caught varied. Isaac's eyes were wide and scared. The strong man's dark face was as impassive as a lifetime of hard experiences could make it. The roustabouts wore surly expressions, like they'd just been given a nasty job of work. Madame Tonya Wershow looked meek and scared, as if she were a Sasse family member dragged along against her will. She'd even thought to move closer to the family, separating herself from the rest of the circusfolk. Ginger approved. Under the circumstances, she was doing everything she could to avoid drawing further attention to herself. Nobody should be looking at her, except--

Except one person among the small cluster of performers that had gathered by the circus tents. At the edge of the group, Rajesh stared at Madame Wershow as if he'd seen a ghost. Taken by surprise, the Indian mahout's unguarded expression was as good as a confession. Ginger took it as such. In order for them all to live long enough for him to pass sentence on the guilty party, however, Ginger had to do something that went very much against his nature.

"Excuse me!" Ginger said, stepping forward with his empty hands spread wide.

Everyone stared at him.

"This is all a terrible misunderstanding," he babbled, as he approached Lacey and her hostage. "Nobody needs to do anything unfortunate." He waved his hand toward the ranks of armed policemen. "A very natural reaction to your wife going missing, Commissioner," he said, blithely papering over the timing of Commissioner Guirard's offensive and what Ginger knew to be his true motives. Ginger phrased his next sentence carefully, emphasizing the words he wanted to linger in Commissioner Guirard's mind. "Now that your wife is here and unharmed, as you can see, you decide what happens next."

Your wife can see what happens next.

Men who loved their wives wanted to appear worthy in their eyes. Ginger gambled everything on that simple truth. Loving husbands didn't want to be seen as despots willing to slaughter everyone who opposed them. They wanted to protect their wives' delicate sensibilities, assuming that they believed their wives had such things.

"Lacey, set down the hoof pick," Ginger continued, switching targets. "There's no need for that now. Let's not do anything rash before the commissioner has had a chance to talk to his wife. Let him go."

"If I let him go, there's nothing to stop him from taking whatever he wants. The only leverage we have is what we hold. If I let him go, we have nothing."

She'd stopped shouting. She sounded calm and she made a logical argument, but her eyes were wide and staring. He might have talked her back from the ledge, Ginger thought, but she was still on the rooftop.

"The commissioner is a man of the law," Ginger told her, feeling his way toward an argument that might work. "I am certain that we can trust him to abide by any agreement he makes, particularly with his own men as witnesses."

Lacey scowled at him, but she eased the hoof pick away from Commissioner Guirard's neck. Just a fraction, just enough that the point no longer dimpled his skin, but enough to give Ginger hope. After all, he didn't particularly care what Commissioner Guirard agreed to, or whether he planned to honor that agreement. Ginger's aim was to keep Commissioner Guirard unharmed--mostly unharmed, he amended--until Mrs. Guirard could bring gentler methods of persuasion to bear on her husband.

"Sir," Ginger said, "surely you wish to speak with your wife and reassure yourself as to her well-being! I understand how much you must have feared for her safety, once you realized she was missing. This is all an unfortunate misunderstanding. Lacey was also in fear when she seized you." Ginger continued talking, painting a picture of fragile, terrified womanhood, as he eased toward the not-at-all-fragile and increasingly angry-looking woman holding Commissioner Guirard hostage. "You know how impetuous women can be when their protective instincts are aroused. I'm sure she realizes that it was a terrible mistake. If you reassure her, Lacey will put down the hoof pick. Perhaps if you give her assurances that her horses will remain untouched and that the circus can depart your jurisdiction as soon as--"

Commissioner Guirard and Lacey both responded angrily and at the same time, their sentences stepping on top of each other.

"You can't--" "I will not--" "--trust a man who--" "--bend to a threat simply--" "--hangs his own civilians!" "--to protect myself!"

Lacey jammed her weapon back against Commissioner Guirard's throat with such force that a fresh trickle of blood ran down his neck. Commissioner Guirard's face was red with rage and his hands were fisted tight by his legs. They both glared at Ginger. The air thickened with the promise of violence. Ginger saw Commissioner Guirard's right hand twitch, beginning to signal his troops.

Ginger had gambled everything . . . and he'd lost. Soon, the silence would shatter. Nothing he could do would change what was about to happen.

That knowledge felt like freedom. Because it would make no difference, he broke the final and most important rule of how to be a clown, Rule Number 20: Look only at what you wish to draw attention to, because your audience's eyes will follow yours. For those in a more dangerous line of work, that translated to, "If you don't want your enemy to see what is precious to you, ignore it."

Ginger looked at the circus. He looked at the patched tents and the bravely gaudy circus wagons, at the painted canvas posters with their cheerfully outrageous lies. He looked at the men and women who put everything they had into making those lies real. With hand-sewn sequins and endless practice, they transformed cheap canvas tents into an enchanted wonderland, if only for the length of a show. He feared not all of them would survive what was coming.

(To be continued in Episode 21: The Killing Ground.)



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 Alice Marks and Pablo Virgo for Barbara Hobbes.

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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