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 as infant-rearing duties permit--turns out this whole "creating a new human" thing is rather time-consuming.)

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On Hiatus...Returning Winter/Spring 2014


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Episode 16






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Foreword
Welcome to The Circus of Brass and Bone.

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

Episode 16

The Equestrienne's Worst Fear

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Episode 16

Ginger, the Whitefaced Clown

Police Headquarters, New York City

"I'm requisitioning your horses for the good of the city," the Commissioner said gruffly. "What other animals do you have that are edible or capable of being trained to work?"

Shocked silence swamped the room. Ginger glanced sideways at Lacey Miller, the lady equestrienne. He had observed that in every situation, her first thought was for her horses. They were who she was. What threatened them, threatened her.

A rim of white showed around her eyes as she stared straight ahead. Her hand clenched and unclenched. Ginger wouldn't have been surprised if she pulled a knife and attacked the Commissioner.

If they let the Commissioner take the horses, the circus would be trapped in a city that didn't have much use for them. If they tried to stop him, they would lose more than their horses.

Someone had to untangle this mess. If he were still in the military, Ginger would have dumped it all on the captain's lap and been glad to be rid of it. But here he was, in a company without a captain. Ginger missed the old ringmaster. He had been good at sorting out messes before they threatened his profits, even if his solutions tended to resemble Alexander the Great's answer to the Gordian Knot. He'd always put the profitability of the circus first, the effectiveness of its spies second, and the welfare of its members a distant third.

These thoughts flew through Ginger's mind in the minute of dead silence that followed the Commissioner's demand. No sign of them showed on Ginger's face. Rule Number 11 of being a clown: Your face is a canvas. Keep it blank when you're not using it.

Lacey's hand was straying toward the hoof pick tucked into her waistband.

Ginger reached out and caught it. She looked at him with wide eyes and then blinked down at her hand, as if she had been unaware of its slow drift.

"I'll write up an inventory for you, sir," Ginger told the Commissioner. "We'll be going now. Don't want to take up any more of your valuable time." He ducked his head respectfully, took Lacey's arm in a grip more vicelike than it appeared, and swept them out of the Commissioner's office before she recovered enough to do anything truly unfortunate.

She tried to tug her arm away. "I have to explain," she said. "I have to explain to him why he can't take my horses."

"Later." Ginger continued to tow her along.

She dug in her heels. "You don't understand. He doesn't understand. I have to explain to him." She spoke in the same tone that a hysterical person would use to insist that they were perfectly calm, thankyouverymuch.

"Not now." He leaned in close and kept his voice low. "I'm working on something. You have to stay calm. You're no good to your horses if you don't stay calm."

She focused on him. "They don't like it when their handler is agitated."

"That's right."

Once they were on the stone steps in front of Central Police Headquarters, Ginger stopped and patted his pockets. He painted a look of mild distress across his face. "I dropped something. I'll be right back. Stay here." He met the strong man's eyes as he said the last words, and was rewarded by a fraction of a nod. The strong man understood, and he wouldn't let Lacey do anything foolish.

When Ginger eased open the door, the Commissioner looked up and frowned. "I thought I made myself clear," the Commissioner said. "No special exemptions will be made for you people. Simply by offering to allow you to stay, I'm stretching our resources to the limit."*

Ginger nodded. "Yes, sir. About the circus. . . ." He pulled a pair of tickets from his pocket. "I hope you and your wife might enjoy our performance tonight."

The Commissioner's eyes hardened at the mention of his wife. Perhaps it was a warning, perhaps it was an involuntary response. "The circus will get no special treatment."

"You may find it a pleasant diversion, sir." Ginger waited.

After a moment, the Commissioner swept up the tickets and gave a curt nod of dismissal.

It seemed more ominous that he didn't feel the need to say, "Don't try to leave town." The corpses dangling from the lampposts made that message clear.


#


Ginger didn't need much preparation for his clown act. As the rest of the circus bustled about the docks getting ready for the evening performance, he tackled the next part of the mess.

Three rough-looking sailors were sitting on packing crates watching the circus. Ginger ambled amiably up to them. "Afternoon, gentlemen," he said.

The biggest of the sailors grunted an acknowledgment, the oldest raised an eyebrow, and the youngest and friendliest of the three said, "How-do!"

"You like watching the circus set up?" Ginger leaned back against one of the packing crates.*

"Not much else to do," the older sailor said noncommittally.

The big sailor roused enough to grump, "You trying to run us off? 'Cause the last time somebody--"

"No, no," Ginger soothed. "I'm in need of distraction myself, you see. I've watched this a million times." He waved his hand in the direction of the roustabouts hoisting up the king pole for the main tent. "I'm thinking of going to the zoo that my compadre was so fired-up about, but I don't want to go on my own. One man, alone, if those special patrolmen get to feeling their oats. . . ." He manufactured a grimace.

"A zoo?" The young sailor perked up. "We're stuck on this pox-rotted dock, and New York's got a zoo? Think they'd sell me a monkey? I've always wanted a one."

"I'm pretty sure all their monkeys are spoken for," Ginger said hastily.

The young sailor looked downcast for barely a moment before he brightened. "What are we waiting for? Let's go!"

The older sailor put out his hand. "Hold on, young buck." He squinted at Ginger. "What's your angle?"

Ginger intentionally relaxed his body. No tension here, not hiding an ulterior motive, no sirree. "My pal said the zoo owners would be grateful if I put a little business their way, if you know what I mean."

The young sailor nodded, but the older one wasn't so easily convinced. "Why don't you want us to go to your circus instead?"

"I don't figure it's a competition. Besides, whatever the circus takes in goes to keep it running. I won't see hardly any of it." Ginger shrugged. "Take some nice trade goods down with you. The zoo gets customers, you get entertained, and I get a cut. If you like what you see, tell your friends. I'd be happy to guide them there, too."

As Ginger had hoped, the explanation was close enough to the truth to satisfy them. Of course, once one group of sailors knew where the zoo was, there'd be no need for a guide. As long as they believed he hadn't figured that out, they'd think they had one up on him. That tended to put people in a good mood.

The older sailor shrugged. "Fair enough. Trade goods, huh? I've got a few things they might be happy to see."

"Delighted to hear it." Ginger cleared his throat delicately. "You might want to put on clothes more like what the cityfolk are wearing these days."

The young man looked like his pride had been offended, but the big sailor snorted a laugh, and the older one cracked a smile. "We'll take your advice on that."

Drably dressed and following Ginger's example of "how to walk like a landlubber," they made it to the Sasse family zoo unaccosted. The big sailorgrinned when a trousered young woman challenged them at the gate. "Scrappy," he said.

The girl scowled and raised her rifle, which only made the big sailor grin more. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?" she demanded.

Ginger stepped forward, hands raised pacifically. "I'm from the circus. My friends said such wonderful things about your zoo that I just had to visit it myself."

The girl scowled. "Uh-huh."

"Look, I brought sailors!" Ginger said brightly, in the same tone he might have said, Look, I brought flowers! "And trade goods!"

"Oh?" The girl edged a bit closer to the gate.

Ginger tugged the young sailor's bag out of his hands and pulled out a bolt of shining silver cloth. "Hey!" the sailor protested.

Ginger ignored him. "See?"

"Oh, that's pretty," the girl admitted.

"And there's more. Why don't you go get your father? We'll wait right here. We don't want any trouble, just a tour."

After another longing look at the silver cloth, she nodded and trotted away.

Once she was out of sight, the younger sailor hissed, "She was wearing trousers! It ain't proper."

"Practical," the big sailor rumbled. "You've seen sailor females wearing trousers."

"That's different. Proper women don't."

The big sailor grunted. "These days, proper's only good so long as it helps you survive. I reckon she'll survive."

"She looks like she's no better than--"

The big sailor cut him off. "Don't."

"Sure, but--"

The big sailor growled, a low, menacing sound that silenced everyone until the girl returned with her father.

"Here they are, Papa," she said.

"Hello, gentlemen," her father said. "I'm Mr. Sasse, and this is our family zoo. What's this about the circus and sailors and trade goods?"

Ginger stepped forward. "I'm from the circus, sir. Some of my colleagues visited you last night, and they said very good things about your menagerie."

"Oh, did they now?"

Ginger smiled and hoped it didn't look pained. "Absolutely. These fine gentlemen are sailors from Port Rumsey. They hoped to tour your zoo, and they brought trade goods to pay for the privilege."

"Huh."

"I'd consider it a favor," Ginger tried.

"Would you now? That's mighty interesting." Mr. Sasse took a long, slow look at Ginger. "Mighty interesting. All right. Rosie, you run and warn the family we've got visitors."

Papa Sasse waited to open the gate until Rosie returned with her taller, bigger brother. Then he waved Ginger and the sailors inside. He led them past the peacock enclosure, where the males strutted and fanned their plumage. He walked them past an alligator pit, which inspired the older sailor to tell a story about seeing a gator down South tear a cow apart in under a minute. And he ushered them over to the monkey cage, where the younger sailor's fumbling attempts to buy a monkey were politely rebuffed.

Ginger noted that a couple of the monkeys didn't seem to be feeling well. Muscle twitches, odd bumps on their limbs. . . . He shivered and looked away.

Rosie Sasse and her brother led the sailors on to the next part of the tour, but Papa Sasse stayed back.

Ginger waited.

"You're here about that runaway circus monkey, aren't you?" Papa Sasse said. "Here to try and take him and Marigold away? I tell you, like I told the other fellow, Rosie's the one you have to convince!"

"Yes and no," Ginger answered. "I don't want Isaac pining away for the monkey he left behind. I don't think he's convinced your zoo will be here in a year. There might be something I can do about that."

Papa Sasse snorted a bitter laugh. "You'll be lucky if you can get your menagerie out of this town intact. You think you can persuade the Commissioner to see us as something better than exotic meat on the hoof?"

Ginger raised his eyebrows and smiled slightly.

"Oh. You do, do you?" Papa Sasse leaned forward. "Tell me more."

"In a minute. First, though, can you explain why Isaac didn't just take his monkey? I don't understand it." Ginger allowed a plaintive note to creep into his voice.

"Ah, that. It comes down to love. It so happens that. . . ."

As they walked through the zoo, Papa Sasse told Ginger the tale of two monkeys in love. When he was finished, Ginger told Papa Sasse the tale of how one powerful man really loved his flighty wife. Though they stayed behind the sailors, Papa Sasse took Ginger along a slightly different route. There was at least one stop on Ginger's tour that he figured the sailors didn't get.

After they strolled past an ornery pair of ostriches, Papa Sasse led Ginger into a small clearing. Birds sang in the trees nearby. Two handmade wooden crosses were planted in the ground. As soon as Ginger realized what he was looking at, he took his hat off to show respect.

"That small cross is for Rosie's littlest sister," Papa Sasse said. "She got real sick after the storm, and she just kept getting weaker and weaker. I risked my life to get a doctor in and everything, but there was nothing the doc could do. He said the storm had pulled bone aether right out of her flesh and hadn't left enough to keep her going. He would have given her a transfusion, but his bone aether was all spoilt." Papa Sasse's tone was so matter-of-fact that it hurt to hear.

"I'm sorry--" Ginger began.

Papa Sasse held up his hand to stop him. "My second-oldest son went out to look for bone aether that was still good. My little girl died a week after he left. My son never came home again, and so I added a cross for him. " He met Ginger's eyes. "My wife lay in her bed and cried for a week. I'd never seen her cry before, you understand? Once she picked herself back up, we sawed off the zoo sign, put up blackout curtains, and set a guard. We haven't lost another baby since. Now you ask me to open the zoo back up. The Commissioner has ignored us so far, but you want to bring him into my home and show him everything that he could take away from us. Why would we do that? We're safe here."

Ginger met Papa Sasse's eyes levelly. "No, you're not. I'm sure the Commissioner knows you're here. Anyway, being ignored isn't going to keep you safe for much longer. You'll need the Commissioner's help to survive. You want him to see you as a unique and precious resource."

Papa Sasse's bushy beard bristled indignantly. "And why is that, pray tell?"

"Is anybody in your household sick?" Ginger asked. "Irritable? Over-energetic? Given to muscle twitches and spasms?"

"One of the cousins," Papa Sasse said slowly. "His muscles spasm so much he can't hardly move. He complains of terrible pain in his joints. He stays abed most of the day. My wife has muscle problems herself. It started in her right hand, but it's spread up past her elbow now. She still manages. I think it's a lingering ailment caused by that aether storm. Half my zoo animals have it, too. Their appetite is healthy, though. That's a good sign in a sick animal. It means they'll recover on their own, given time." His eyes pleaded with Ginger not to contradict him.

"No. It isn't. And they won't," Ginger said, with a brutality that was its own sort of kindness. "Did you hear about the battle on High Bridge?"

"One of the women we barter eggs to had some ridiculous story about monsters and an Indian war elephant. Without the newspapers, nobody knows what's really going on. The craziest rumors get started." Papa Sasse shrugged, but his eyes remained worried.

"The story was true. When our circus was crossing High Bridge, monsters that used to be deer attacked us."

"Used to be--? I don't understand."

"The aether sickness drove them mad with hunger and changed them into monsters. Their bodies warped until they were almost impossible to kill. It was like the Grey Steel Regiment during the war. You remember that."

Papa Sasse was shaking his head. "No. It can't be."

"I'm sorry."

"You're wrong. My wife isn't like that. She isn't a monster. She just has a little nervous problem with her arm. That's all. It will go away on its own."

"It might," Ginger allowed. He was no doctor. For all he knew, it might be true. "But there are worse cases. In the next few weeks, they'll get hungrier. From what I remember during the war, they'll be super-strong. And they'll be able to jump really high."

"I can cage the sick animals separately from the healthy ones. I have a deep pit I'd planned on using for a pair of elephants. And there's plenty of extra fencing--strong enough to withstand a bull gorilla, so it ought to do." Papa Sasse managed a smile. "Never get rid of anything that might be of use, that's what I say."

"Might want to use some of that fencing to reinforce the wall around your zoo," Ginger suggested.

Papa Sasse's smile wavered and vanished. "Yes. Right. Against those poor souls who are so much worse off than we." It sounded like a prayer.

"You need all the help you can get to protect your family," Ginger pressed. He hated himself a little for the next thing he said, but he didn't allow that to affect his tone or expression. "You don't want to add more crosses." He gestured to the children's graveyard with a sweep of his arm.

"No," Papa Sasse said hoarsely. "No. What's your plan?"

Ginger took his arm. "The sailors should be finishing their tour soon, right? Take all the trade goods they offer. Save them for me."

"All right." Papa Sasse stumbled into motion.

"I noticed that a few of your monkeys suffer from the aether sickness. Might you let us take them? Our doctor needs subjects to study."

Papa Sasse fixed his eyes on Ginger. "You think there could be a cure?"

"Everything is cured eventually," Ginger assured him. He didn't add that death cured all ills.

They found everyone by the gate: the sailors, Rosie, Rosie's brother, and what must have been the whole Sasse clan. A tall, rawboned woman surveyed glass jars of spices with all the delight of a kitten in a yarn basket. The other females oohed and aahed over the bolt of silver fabric. Children held up glass beads and cats-eye marbles to see the sun shine through them. An older gent blissfully inhaled the aroma from an open tobacco pouch.

"Remember," Ginger said, "keep all the trade goods in one place for now. Don't use them or barter them away."

Papa Sasse huffed a laugh. "That may be trickier than I thought!"

As the two of them approached, the tall woman waved her hand in welcome. Her arm shook slightly with palsy, though it was nothing Ginger would have noticed if he hadn't known to look for it. This was Mama Sasse, then.

"They have cinnamon!" she told Papa Sasse happily. "I'll be able to make your favorite apple pie the way it's meant to be." She laughed. "I may have to have one of the girls roll out the pie dough, though, if this arm of mine doesn't behave!"

Love and fear flashed across Papa Sasse's face. Ginger looked away.

"What is it?" Mama Sasse asked, in an altered tone. "What's wrong?"

"Not now," Papa Sasse told her. His words sounded choked. He cleared his throat. "I'll tell you later. What do we have here?"

Mama Sasse gave him a sharp look, but she went along. "These boys brought a choice of things to pay their way. The younger girls fancy that silver cloth, and I admit it would be terribly becoming on Rosie, but I think spices are a better investment, and--hey!" She pointed a steady finger at the old man with the tobacco pouch. "Don't think I didn't see you inching that toward your pocket. Put it back in the pile! We don't have an agreement yet."

Ginger circled around the trade goods. Could it be--yes! He pounced, pulling out a brown paper bag with Chocolate hand-printed on the outside. He allowed himself a triumphant grin. "I'll take this," he said.

"I beg your--" Mama Sasse began.

Papa Sasse rested his hand on her arm. She gave him a quizzical look. "Later," he repeated.


#


By the time Ginger returned to Rumsey Port, circus tents billowed in the breeze. Talkers strutted in front of their pitches, practicing the spiels that would lure marks into giving up their hard-earned coin--or, in this case, food. Posters announced the wonders and marvels to be found within the tents. A pair of ostriches strutted along the dock, ostensibly being "exercised," but really serving as a walking advertisement for the menagerie. A handful of costumed circus folk roamed nearby. Now and then, as if on the spur of the moment, they did rolls or flips, to the assembling crowd's delight.

Judging by the size of the gathering, word had spread that there was something new in town. The ticket wagon blocked the main road entering the port, and the line of customers stretched up the street and around the corner. As Ginger approached, the wizened old ticket taker ended an argument with a customer by leaning out of his window and pointing to a hand-lettered sign pinned up between a poster advertising Madam Miller, The Fabulous Lady Equestrienne Who Defies the Fiery Rings of Death! and another that boasted of The Conjoined Murray Sisters, a Medical Miracle Alive Only By God's Grace! In large letters, the handwritten sign admonished, "No Cash Money! No Ration Coupons! Barter ONLY!" followed by a list of suggested barter items. Even the man brandishing a handful of useless paper currency must not have been surprised; after a heated back-and-forth with the ticket taker, he shrugged and reached into his coat to produce a jar of peaches.

Ginger made a mental note to have someone keep watch for the Commissioner and his wife, so that they could be kept away from the ticket wagon. Many of the cityfolk had begun comparing trade goods while they waited, and the line was beginning to resemble a black market.

Although--Ginger glimpsed a familiar face--it might already be too late. The Commissioner's aide wasn't wearing his police blues, but Ginger recognized him by his reddened face. This time the red was caused by the cold instead of the exertion of chasing down the Commissioner's wife, but the effect was distinctive. The Commissioner already had tickets. Had he sent Mr. Akrill here to spy?

Then Mr. Akrill sneaked a look around him, opened his coat, and revealed a small jar of molasses to the old woman standing next to him. Not very long on common sense, Ginger mused. If Mr. Akrill wasn't the police spy, then he should have expected that someone else in the crowd was. Ginger shook his head sadly. Rule Number 10 of being a clown: Know who your audience is.

After waiting long enough to allow Mr. Akrill to finish his illegal black market transaction and long enough again to let the man relax, Ginger sauntered up to him. "Sir!" he said, as if seeing him for the first time. "Whatever are you doing waiting in line? There's no need for this! Come along with me. Here, this ticket is yours." He placed a ticket in Mr. Akrill's palm and closed his fingers around it.

"Er, well, I don't want any special favors," Mr. Akrill protested feebly. "I'm not an important man like the Commissioner, you see, and I don't want anyone thinking--"

"Ah!" Ginger threw his arm over the man's shoulders and guided him away from the rest of the crowd. "I was hoping you could do a small favor for me--for the Commissioner, really," he amended hastily, when the aide began to look stubborn.

(To be continued in Episode 17: A Small Favor)



Acknowledgments

This episode is brought to you by the generous donations of Peter Akrill, Alice Marks, Tracy LaChance, and Ben Cragg.

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

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


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