|Circus World Series
"The Tryouts," "The
Magician's Apprentice," "The Second Law," "Proud Rider," "Dueling
Clowns," "The Quest," and "Priest of the Baraboo."
The opening story of
by Barry B. Longyear
The stranger sat cross-legged on the sand staring at the vent from which the natural fire of the planet Momus illuminated the small wayside depression on the road to Tarzak. His black hood was pulled forward leaving only twin dancing flames reflected from unblinking eyes as evidence of a face. As a light breeze rose from the desert, bringing the heavy smell of sulfur from the fire, a portly figure dressed in gray robe and apron stepped between the rocks into the firelight. He raised his hand and motioned toward a place near the flames.
"The fire is free," answered the black-hooded stranger. The newcomer squatted next to the flames, pulled a wad of dough from his pack and placed it on a rock close to the fire. In moments the sweet smell of cobit bread drove the odor of sulfur from the depression.
"Care you for some cobit, stranger?"
"For half, two movills. No more."
"Two? Why, it would distress me no more to hand out my bread for nothing."
"In which case, I would gladly take all."
The man in gray broke the cobit and handed half to the black-robed stranger who handed back two copper beads. The bargaining hadn't been in earnest; only enough to satisfy custom. Finishing his cobit first, the one in gray tapped himself on his chest. "I am Aarel the mason. Have you news?" Aarel jingled his money pouch. The one in black shook his head. "But, you wear the newsteller's black."
"True, Aarel, but I apprentice only. However, my master will be along directly."
"What fortune! A master newsteller at the fire! Is he known?"
Aarel shrugged. "I am not one to discourage youth. Is this his first news?"
"No, but only small ones until now. His news tonight will play Tarzak, he thinks."
Aarel raised an eyebrow. "Tarzak? I hope his is the enthusiasm of experience rather than youth."
"My very words, Aarel."
They sat in silence watching the flames until two other men, wearing the tan robes of merchants, entered the circle of firelight.
"Ho, Aarel!" called the taller of the two.
"Parak," the mason answered, then, nodding at Parak's companion, "Jum."
Parak pointed at the fire. "It costs nothing, join us," said Aarel.
The merchants squatted close to the flames, each placing wads of cobit dough on the hot rocks. After some social bargaining and exchange, the four travelers sat munching cobit. Parak produced a wine flask, they bargained further, then passed around the flask while Parak pocketed his movills.
"It has been a weary trek from the Deeplands." He cocked his head toward the black-robed stranger and asked Aarel, "Has he news?"
"His master has news he believes will play Tarzak, and he should be here soon."
"Tarzak, eh?" Parak rubbed his hands together in anticipation. "Has the apprentice introduced it?"
At that moment they all turned to see another black hooded figure enter the firelight and gesture toward the flames. "No copper for the flames, newsteller," said Parak. "Are you the master of this apprentice?"
"Yes. I am Boosthit of the Farransetti newstellers."
Boosthit seated himself by the flames and cooked cobit, which, after rapid and impatient bargaining, was quickly gulped by the eager travelers. The master newsteller finished his cobit and brushed the crumbs from his robe. Turning to the travelers, he asked, "Is news to your liking tonight?"
Aarel squinted and tossed his purse in the air and caught it. "I can meet a good price for good news, Boosthit. But, I admit, your name is unfamiliar to me. We get few Farransetti this way."
"I agree," said Parak. "Could you tell us a little about it to enable us to judge the fairness of your price?"
Boosthit held up his hand, palm outward, and shook his head. "The Farransetti do not introduce."
"Why so?" asked Jum.
"We believe small glimpses of the whole are devoid of the grace of logical construction."
Aarel shrugged and held up his palms. "How, then, do we judge the price?"
"What would you pay for excellent news?"
The mason and the two merchants thought deeply.
"Twenty movills," answered Aarel, "but only for excellent news."
"I would pay twenty-five," said Parak. "That is a fair price in Tarzak for excellent."
"I agree," said Jum, "twenty-five."
Aarel wagged a finger at the merchants. "But, friends, we are not in Tarzak. Do we not deserve credit for trudging out here on the road to hear Boosthit's news?"
Parak smiled. "You are a bandit, Aarel. The newsteller has trudged just as far to tell us the news, and we would be on the road in any event."
Aarel shrugged. "Very well, twenty-five movills."
Boosthit nodded. "Hear me then. I will give my news at that price in advance, but no money back."
"But, what if...?"
"I must finish my offer, Aarel. Twenty-five movills apiece in advance, or hold onto your coppers and pay me double that price at the conclusion of my news, if you judge it to be excellent."
Aarel's mouth opened in amazement. "It is an honor to meet a newsteller capable of making such an offer." Parak and Jum nodded in agreement. "We will hold our coppers."
Boosthit arranged his robe, closed his eyes and began. "This news is of Lord Ashly Allenby, special ambassador to Momus from the Ninth Quadrant Federation of Habitable Planets. His mission: one of grave importance to his government, and to the people of the planet Momus. His journey: one of great heroics and high comedy."
"A peculiar opening," said Aarel, "but it captures the attention. The hint of serious events relating to Momus is the true book, am I correct?"
"I agree, Aarel," said Parak, "and what could it be that interests the Federation in Momus? We have no trade for them, and we refuse to serve them. What could Lord Allenby's mission be? Jum?"
"It is the promise of comedy that intrigues me, but, nonetheless, the opening captures the attention. I had heard the Farransetti were experimenting with openings devoid of prayers and tributes, and many think this radical. But, having heard such an opening tonight, I approve."
Boosthit waited a moment, then continued. "On Earth, the ancient parent planet, high within the tall, gleaming spires of the Federation complex, Lord Allenby was called to meet with the Council of Seven.
"'Allenby,' said the council president, 'you are made special ambassador to Momus, with all of the rights and privileges of an ambassador of the first rank.'
"'I am most honored,' replied Allenby. Lord Allenby stood fair tall as he accepted his charge, his pleasant features composed and dignified, his uniform uncluttered and tasteful."
Jum held up a hand. "Boosthit, is that the extent of the hero's description?"
Aarel scratched his chin. "We are used to lengthier descriptions. Is there a reason for this brevity?"
"Perhaps," Parak interrupted, "it is to let us fill in the description ourselves. Would a mistaken image affect the truth of your news, Boosthit?"
Aarel frowned. "That is radical, no doubt." He closed his eyes. "But, I can see an image. Yes, I can see him."
"And I," said Jum.
"And I," said Parak.
Boosthit cleared his throat. "Allenby was confused, since a planet of Momus's stature hardly rates an ambassador of the first rank." Aarel, Parak and Jum nodded.
"This is true," said Parak. "What could the Council of Seven have in mind to make such an appointment?" Aarel and Jum shook their heads.
"Allenby asked the reason for this," continued Boosthit, "and this is the president's answer: 'Momus lies just upon the boundary of the Ninth and Tenth quadrants. In actuality, it is closer to the main population centers of the Tenth than it is to ours. We have learned that the Tenth Quadrant Federation plans to occupy Momus to use as a forward base from which to launch their invasion of the entire Ninth Quadrant.'"
Aarel, Parak and Jum gasped. "But Momus has no defense against a military force," said Parak.
"This is grave indeed," said Aarel.
"But," said Jum, "what, then, could the mission be?"
"Lord Allenby asked this question, also," said Boosthit. "The president told Allenby that his mission was to establish relations between the Ninth Federation and Momus for the purpose of mutual defense against the coming invasion."
"A worthy mission," remarked Aarel. "I think sufficient to motivate the hero. What do you say Parak?"
"It would appear so. Do you agree Jum?"
Jum rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Allenby is only told of the threat. In the actuality, not the telling, is the real threat, and, therefore, sufficient motivation. I shall reserve judgment."
Boosthit waited until it was silent enough to hear the hissing of the flames. "Lord Allenby could not prepare for his mission; there was no time. He had to make all possible speed to Momus to warn us of the threat, which was difficult since there are no regular routes to Momus. A Federation cruiser brought Allenby as far as the Capella system, but had to turn back because of power problems. Stranded on Capella's fifth planet, awaiting passage on a freighter reported to be heading in this direction, Lord Allenby's baggage was stolen, as well as his money and his Federation transportation pass."
Aarel shook his head. "All he could do, then, would be to wait for the return of the Federation cruiser, is this not true?"
"It would appear so," answered Parak. "A sad day for Momus, except there's something wrong. Jum?"
"Indeed there is, Parak. Such news would be pointless and futile. No newsteller, Faransetti or otherwise, would bother with such a tale, much less inflict us with it. Perhaps the hero is made of stern stuff and will complete his mission?"
"But how?" Parak shook his head. "He cannot travel without money or his pass."
Boosthit smiled. "Lord Allenby, not the kind to be defeated by chance circumstance, set himself the task of continuing his journey. At the Federation consulate, he demanded transportation; but the consul, in turn, required verification of Allenby's mission before he would authorize the release of a ship or money. Allenby was furious, since it would take many weeks for verification to come from Earth; but the consul was within his rights and could not be swayed.
"Allenby haunted the spaceport, the consulate and even exporting establishments trying to get transportation, but was unsuccessful until he caught wind of an opening on a freighter for a cargo handler. Selling his uniform and medals, he purchased ordinary clothing and secured able-bodied spacer papers from the Federation consulate. Then he signed on with the Starwind, which was scheduled to pass near Momus on its way to trade with the Tenth Quadrant."
"I think I see his plan," said Aarel. "It is daring, but it is also dishonest."
Parak shook his head. "The mission outweighs the act, Aarel. Besides, the Federation would pay for the stolen lifeboat, would it not?"
"Perhaps. What say you, Jum?"
"I will relent on the motivation; I think it is sufficient."
Boosthit leaned toward the fire, spreading his arms. "As you guessed, Lord Allenby took a lifeboat from the freighter as it passed abreast of Momus, but the range was not ideal. After covering the distance, establishing an orbit for pickup was out of the question. He decided to break atmosphere and go for a hard landing as soon as he arrived. To do otherwise would cost both his life and the mission, as he was low on air.
"He had hoped to assume manual control after achieving flight, in order to put down near a large city, but he lost consciousness before reaching our outer atmosphere. As chance would have it, however, the boat's automatic system put Allenby down near Kuumic on the edge of the Great Desert. He wandered the desert for two days until he chanced to meet Garok the cobit gatherer."
"Hah!" Aarel exclaimed. "I know Garok—the thief."
"I have heard of him," said Parak. "A spirited bargainer, Garok."
"Allenby said to Garok, 'Say, fellow, can you point me in the direction of Tarzak?'" Boosthit smiled and suppressed a chuckle. "Garok tapped his purse and said, 'What is this information worth to you, stranger?'
"Allenby, coming from a rich world where such information is as free as the fire, was very confused. 'You demand payment for such a thing? Absurd!'"
"Garok began walking away, but thinking better of it, came back and explained. 'What I say now, stranger, has no value to me and I let you have it for free. I know where Tarzak lies, and you do not.'
"'So much,' said Allenby, 'could be deduced from my question.'"
"'That's why it is of no value. But, the direction of Tarzak is of value to you, is it not?'
"'Then, it is of value to me.' Again, Garok tapped his purse. Lord Allenby had little left over from the sale of his uniform, and he felt in his pocket for the scraps of paper they use for money."
Aarel grabbed his ribs and laughed until he gasped for air. Parak and Jum shook their heads and chuckled.
"Allenby held out one of the scraps at Garok, who took it and examined it closely. 'What is this?'
"'Money. That's what you wanted, isn't it?'
"Garok handed the scrap back, and said, 'Stranger, how long have you been in the desert? The paper itself might have a value, except for its being covered with ink.' Garok opened his purse and brought forth a single moville. 'This is money, stranger.'
"'Well, then, fellow, where can I get my money converted into yours?" Garok tapped his purse. Allenby was perplexed. "You would charge for that information, too?'
"'Is the information of value?'
"'Yes, but . . .' Garok kept tapping his purse. As he turned to leave, Allenby had one remaining try. 'Tell me, fellow, would you accept something of value in exchange for the information?"
"Garok rubbed his chin, then fingered a fold of Lord Allenby's utility suit. 'This would do.'
"Allenby was outraged. 'Not that! I landed here in a ship's lifeboat. Would that have value to you?' And, Garok was interested. The boat's fuel and supplies were exhausted, and the ship itself was inoperable, but the furnishings were intact as well as were the wiring and other materials. Garok made an offer of one hundred movills, and Allenby accepted."
Aarel snorted. "I said Garok was a thief. I wouldn't have parted with it for less than four hundred. Parak?"
"I was thinking the same thing, although my price would have been higher. Jum, does this make our hero a fool?"
"I think not. The boat had served its purpose and no longer had any value to Lord Allenby. Besides, if I was stuck in Kuumic and didn't know the direction to Tarzak, I might have even taken a lesser amount." Aarel and Parak pondered Jum's remarks, then nodded.
"Garok counted out a hundred movills," continued Boosthit, "and handed them to Allenby. Allenby took two of the coppers and handed them back to Garok. 'Now, can you tell me the way to Tarzak?' Garok pointed the direction and reached into his own purse to pay for Allenby's information concerning the location of the lifeboat.
"'Where is the lifeboat, stranger?' Allenby didn't notice Garok's hand in his purse, and he truthfully pointed the way to the lifeboat. Garok assumed, since no payment was demanded, that the information was worthless. Therefore, he turned in the opposite direction and struck out to find and take possession of his new purchase. It is said that Garok still wanders Momus looking for his lifeboat, and if he maintains his direction, he will eventually find it.""No more, Boosthit!" gasped Aarel. Parak and Jum rolled in the sand laughing. "No more! Let us rest!" . . . .
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