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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Sixteen

       Last updated: Wednesday, July 7, 2004 00:31 EDT



    By the time that Cravan had all four of the new plays in production, most of the free money on Hanson’s Reach had found its way into the coffers of Petey, Byrum, and Keep. The silver-eyed vatch had lured two more victims within the reach of Pausert’s klatha-hooks and had gotten fed twice more, despite Pausert’s feelings of lingering guilt. Then the Petey B took to space again, and Pausert felt that he was finally going to be able to relax for a while.

    Well... from having to look for spies and agents around every corner, at any rate. With more free time on her hands, he suspected that Dame Ethulassia was going to become a bit of a problem.

    As, indeed, she did. But Pausert was able to evade that danger in a generally satisfactory manner. Although, one on occasion, he apparently didn’t extract himself from her company quite quickly and smoothly enough. At least, the captain assumed that it was Goth who teleported a still alive and wriggling jellysnail into his soup.



    They set down again on another agro-world, this time not quite as primitive as the last—which was not, in Pausert’s opinion, an advantage. Tornam was not backward and isolated. It had a real spaceport that saw more than the occasional slow-freighter and desperate trader. There were five other spaceships already on the field when the Petey B set down on it.

    Tornam also had an ISS office.

    Hulik tried to reassure him that it was just a little backwater of a place; and that, even if the agents in charge had even heard of the Venture and its crew, they would hardly look for them snugged into a showboat. They would expect such desperate criminals to be trying to hide, not starring in a play.

    It didn’t help. In truth, the only reason Pausert wasn’t starting at every sound and looking over his shoulder constantly was that, irrational as it was, he had begun to trust the little Silver-eyes. Or, perhaps, he just trusted that the vatch had come to realize that there was great deal more amusement to be had from helping Pausert and his crew than from trying to trip them up at every turn. But he still had the nervous certainty that disaster of some sort was just around the corner, a feeling of a metaphorical storm just below the horizon.



    Yet, when disaster came, it had nothing to do with Pausert and the others. It didn’t even happen in or around the showboat itself.

    It happened when the second lead of Cravan’s company, Ken Kanchen, was in Bevenford, the largest town on the planet. Kanchen took the part of Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, of Horatio in Hamlet—pretty much any male part that required a handsome face, athletic ability, solid if not inspired acting, and the ability to memorize a part in two days,

    He wasn’t even there to do anything that could have conceivably gotten him into trouble. He was running a simple errand, visiting a local bookshop. Unfortunately, he stepped back into the street just at the wrong time. Traffic laws on Tornam were haphazard. Kanchen ended up under a floater, and then in a hospital, with more broken bones than anyone wanted to think about. He was just lucky that he was still alive—and that his handsome face was still untouched.

    Not even Sir Richard could manage to act the part of Tybalt in a full body cast.

    Himbo Petey had Kanchen brought back aboard the Petey B as soon as possible, of course. A ship the size of a showboat usually had a sick-bay as good or better than anything a provincial planet could provide, and the Petey B was no exception to that. Besides, the showboats had a long tradition of taking care of their own—even people not as well-liked as Kanchen was by virtually everyone in the company and crew. The poor man was guaranteed better round-the-clock nursing as well as superior medical care; his problem would not be a lack of care and company, but a surfeit of it.

    But the thespians were without their Second Male Lead. They were stretched so thin now that there was no understudy. Cravan was beside himself.

    “There’s no help for it,” he said at last, after a meeting of the full company determined that there wasn’t anyone able or ready to step into Ken’s shoes. “I’ll have to call for outside auditions. You’ll all have to help me; otherwise we’ll never find someone we can lick into shape in any reasonable period of time.”

    A groan went up. “Dick!” cried Alton. “You’re going to kill us! The last time we had to hold a cattle-call, on Plankelm, I was ready to slit my wrists before it was over!”

    “Yes, but that cattle-call netted us Trudi,” Cravan countered, “and she’s the best Female Character I’ve seen in—well, longer than I care to think.”

    Pausert glanced over at the plump, middle-aged woman who played Juliet’s Nurse; she shrugged, but smiled.

    “Tornam is more populous than Plankelm,” Trudi commented. “A lot. Double the population in this city alone.”

    “Double the number of clueless idiots who think they can act,” Alton groaned.

    “It could be worse,” Cravan pointed out ruthlessly. “We could be looking for a Juvenile. Then we’d have stage-mothers to contend with.”

    “If you dare inflict that on us, I will slit my wrists!” Alton started clawing at the prop dagger at his waist.

    “Right. I want panels of four,” Cravan continued, ignoring him. “Each one headed by an experienced Lead, which, Miss Hulik, I regret to say does not include you. Alton, Lassia, Trudi, myself, Hembert, Doeen, and Killary. That’s six for initial auditions, with my panel making final judgment. Panel heads, pick your teams—you newcomers, please do not be offended if we don’t select you. We need people who are dedicated thespians who are going to be living with this actor for a very long time, and we all know very well,” here he bestowed a kindly smile and Pausert, Hulik, and Hantis, “that as soon as you can, barring that you decide differently, you are leaving us.”

    Was it that obvious? Pausert sighed. Not that he wanted to be on any blasted panels, listening to people stumble their way through speeches—not after the way that Alton had been carrying on.



    For two days, during which the theater was dark, the panels held non-stop auditions in any little space that would hold a table and four chairs. The pickings were thin, though the applicants were legion—in two days, only three candidates were passed up to Cravan’s panel waiting in the theater. At the end of the two days, however, about the time that the panel-members were beginning to look haggard and despairing, Vonard Kleesp appeared.

    Trudi’s panel passed him on to Cravan after only five minutes of audition. By the time he took his place on the stage in front of Cravan’s panel, rumor had spread through the showboat like wildfire in pure oxygen. Everyone who could get away was trying to get into the theater to see him. Pausert was no exception, though, by the time he got there, Vonard had already gone through two major soliloquies with impressive ease.

    What he saw up on the stage as he squeezed in between Hulik and Vezzarn was a man who, like Cravan, had a very memorable face. It was not, strictly speaking, handsome. The face was too saturnine for that, there was too much of an ironic lift to his eyebrows, and a cynical twist to his lips. But it was memorable, which was what a Second Lead needed. And the man moved like a cat. Just as Pausert got there, he was demonstrating that he even knew how to use a sword properly.

    “Well, Master Vonard,” said Cravan after a moment. “Familiarity with the very plays we are putting on, acting experience, something of a swordsman. You seem almost too good to be true.”

    “Well, Sir Richard, under most circumstances, I would agree with you,” said Vonard, with a lift of his lip that was not quite a sneer. “Except that I come to you laden with some personal baggage, which is the reason why I am here on this backwater dirtball in the first place.”

    “Ah,” Cravan said. “Weaknesses?”

    “Near-fatal ones, I’m afraid. The first, the one that all too many of our profession are prey to—” Here he mimed a man pouring and drinking. “Not to put too fine a point on it, I drink to excess, I’m a very devil when drunk, and I never drink without getting drunk.”

    Cravan leaned forwards over his steepled hands. “And why do you drink?” he all but purred.

    Vonard laughed. “My other weakness, sir, and the one that sent me here, putting all of the distance between us that my pocket could bear, here to drink until what was left in my pocket was gone.”

    “Ah,” Cravan said, leaning back in his chair. “The female of the species?”

    “Deadlier than the male,” agreed Vonard. “Insofar as I was thinking at all, which was not a great deal between the madness and the wine, I had intended to commit slow suicide. Fortunately, both my money and my resolve ran out at the same time.”

    “Surely not just when we arrived?” asked Himbo Petey.

    Vonard laughed. “Of course not. I have been driving produce floaters. The local—thespians”—here his lip curled—”were not inclined to welcome an outsider into their ranks, especially not one who, by this time, had the reputation as an ugly drunk. I was attempting to budget my drinking to allow me to put enough away to get me off this benighted rock. I didn’t even know there was a showboat on-planet until one of my employers told me. I took a two-day leave to get here, hoping I could sign on for anything like an acting job. I didn’t even know about the cattle-call until I walked through the gate.”

    “And can we trust you to stay off the bottle if we take you on?” That was Trudi; Pausert recognized her voice.

    “While I’m working, yes. I have never missed a rehearsal, a gig, or a line because of drink, and I don’t intend to start now. When I am not working, however…” He shrugged. “I can’t promise. Or at least, I can promise only that I will confine myself to quarters so that no one is inconvenienced but me.”

    Pausert watched as the panel—with the additions of Trudi and Petey—put their heads together. It seemed that they spoke together for a very long time, and it if seemed long to him, surely it seemed even longer to Vonard.

    Finally they all sat back in their chairs. “Master Vonard,” said Sir Richard, “pending completion of a three-planet probationary period, I believe you can consider yourself one of us.”

    Vonard bowed, and most of the company, including Pausert, broke into applause. And if there was as much relief as acceptance, well, that was only to be expected.



    Whatever else, Vonard Kleesp’s joining of the thespian troupe solved one problem for Pausert. Ethulassia left off her aggressive flirtation with the captain. The Dame’s enthusiasms in that direction became entirely diverted onto the newcomer in their midst.

    “Sure,” sniffed Goth, after Pausert made it a point to mention it to her. “You don’t stand a chance, Captain. You’re not a romantic alcoholic, drowning his romantic woes in a bottle—and only to be saved by an even greater romance.”

    Pausert was relieved. And decided to say nothing when, the next day, he spotted Goth examining the level of the bottles in the Venture’s liquor cabinet.



    “It’s a day for new crewmates, it seems,” said Vezzarn, when they caught up with him at dinner and told him about the audition. “In addition to the usual run of locals looking for adventure, Himbo Petey just snugged in a new tramp freighter that ran out of luck. Three-man crew, already assigned; a new roustabout who’s doubling as a barker, a wiring tech—and you can bet he’ll be all over the ship—a new cook, and a cargomaster.”

    Goth looked up sharply, and Hulik and Pausert exchanged a glance. Every planet a showboat visited invariably produced a few local people who hired on. But the crew of a tramp freighter supposedly down on their luck…

    That seemed oddly coincidental.

    “I don’t like it,” growled Pul. “Think I’ll go sniff them over.”

    Hantis nodded, and raised an eyebrow at Hulik and Pausert. “It does seem a bit too convenient, doesn’t it?”

    “Very,” said Hulik. “I believe I’ll go do some of my own sniffing.”

    “What do you think?” Pausert asked the girls.

    The Leewit scowled. “Might be coincidence,” she said, very grudgingly. “I suppose ships come up short of fuel and cash pretty often in ports like this.”

    “But you don’t like it,” said Pausert.

    Both the Leewit and Goth shook their heads.

    “Good. That makes it unanimous. So as soon as I rell a certain something—”

    “And in the meantime,” said Goth, looking innocent as a flower, “girls can get awfully hungry when we’re still growing. We’ll just see how good a cook the new one is.” And she and the Leewit strolled off, hand in hand.

    Hulik looked after them with an expression of reluctant admiration. “Ah, to be young and reckless again,” she said.

    “Now Hulik,” said Pausert, daring to reach out and pat the back of her hand. “You were never that young.”

    His theater training was paying off; he managed to duck, just in time.



    “All of them!” growled Pul. “All four of them! I could smell ‘spy’ from yards off. You ought to let me bite them, Hantis.”

    When you were being spied on, it was always better to keep on doing things that you’d made habitual. The crew of the Venture always got together for breakfast and supper. Everybody knew they’d arrived together, and still intended to leave together if they ever could, so nobody thought anything of the habit. You ate with your friends; nothing mysterious about that. And the noisy mess-tent provided plenty of chatter to cover anything they were talking about.

    Pausert shook his head. “Much as I sympathize, Pul, it’s better to know who your enemies are and have them under your eye. If we get rid of these four, whoever their boss is will only send new agents, and this time we might not spot them.”

    “We ought to find out who their boss is, don’t you think, Captain?” asked Goth.

    He nodded. “Do you think, if we got into the Venture’s control cabin, you might be able to find out if they’re communicating with someone?”

    “Believe so. They’re not real bright—they’re all even on the same shift. Which means I only need to listen when they’re off-shift.”

    “They’ll probably use a code, though.”

    She shrugged. “A code’s a language, too, Captain. We may not have tried it, but I bet the Leewit can use klatha to translate a code.”

    “You think?” asked the Leewit, looking suddenly alert.

    “We haven’t anything to lose by trying,” Pausert agreed.

    “And the Venture’s still our ship,” Vezzarn said, a little aggressively. “We still use our staterooms, don’t we? We’ve a right to get into everything there but the holds. No reason why a couple of us couldn’t be tinkering with the com to see if we can’t get it working, either.”

    It wasn’t as if they weren’t still living in the Venture. After brief forays into the accommodations provided for the unmarried players and workers on the Petey B—which were, essentially, bunkhouses—they’d all decided they wanted their own cabins back. Even if that meant having their sleep interrupted by props heaving and bumping bits and bobs in and out of the holds at all hours.

    “Hmm,” said Pausert. “Vezzarn, how are your scrounging skills?”

    The old spacer grinned. “The best, of course! And I think I know where you’re going. You want me to start scrounging com parts, so it looks like we’re trying to repair on the cheap and slow.”

    “Which will give us a good reason to be in the cabin, and even monitoring chatter if somebody walks in at the wrong time!” said the Leewit with enthusiasm. “Clumping brilliant!”

    Hulik smiled. “He has his moments. And so do I; if our watchers happen to be ISS, I’ll probably know their code anyway.” She sniffed. “This far out, they’re probably still using codes cracked and abandoned a long time ago.”



    The only problem with the plan was that it left everyone but Hantis and Pul with exactly no spare time—and Hantis and Pul were watching the agents in their own ways. Pausert rapidly began to feel like a man holding down three jobs, which, in point of fact, he was. He was an actor, a sideshow operator, and now a com-tinkerer, because it was possible that the agents wouldn’t be using standard channels to talk to their boss.

    The young witches were doing just as much, if not more, but at least they seemed to be buoyed up on the excitement of it all. That was a good thing, because the Leewit in particular was difficult to manage if she began to get in the least bit bored.

    The silvery-eyed little vatch elected at this point to be absent, which was aggravating. Pausert could have used the help, even from a vatch.

    Or maybe, especially from a vatch. That one big vatch Pausert had half-shredded had neatly translocated the ship and everyone in it not once, but twice, when they were caught between the ISS and the pirates. It hadn’t been hugely far, but then, he hadn’t specified where he wanted to be. What were a vatch’s upper limits on teleporting, he wondered? If he found a vatch big enough—or Silver-eyes got big enough—could he torment or talk the vatch into taking them all the way to the Empress?

    On the other hand, would a vatch even understand time and space as Pausert was used to it? He recalled, belatedly, Silver-eyes being intrigued by the notion of linear time—which it apparently considered “silly.” Pausert shuddered to think that even the best-intentioned vatch might teleport them into the distant past or future—or, what might be even worse, into the recent past where they already existed.

    Probably not a good idea. He had a vague impression of being told—perhaps on Karres—that if you violated time and space by being two places at the same time, something very bad would happen to you. He made a mental note to ask Goth about it at some point when they weren’t heavily involved in keeping their own skins intact. The captain has come to have a great deal of trust in the girl’s judgment, and no longer undertook any major change in plans without consulting her.

    In the meantime, it was moderately amusing to be watching their watchers.

    “I’m sure they haven’t yet decided if we’re the ones they’re looking for,” Hulik said, on the day that A Midsummer Night’s Dream went into the repertory and they started rotating it with Romeo and Juliet.

    That had made a welcome change for Hulik. She hadn’t nearly the pressure on her as Third Romantic Lead that she had as First Romantic Lead. Helena was an easy part, really. “Mostly confusion and hysteria,” she opined. “And a cat-fight, of course.” There wasn’t a “cat-fight” in the original script, or at least, not the mud-wrestling match that Hulik and Meren Dall were required to perform. The cat-fight was Himbo Petey’s idea. Sir Richard had put it in, but not without a fight of his own.

    But like the extended sword-fights, the public loved it.

    “There’s no fights in this thing, so you are going to have to have something in place of a mêlée!” Himbo had shouted. “I say mud-wrestling, and mud-wrestling it is! Just because your precious Bird—Bart, whatever—didn’t put in mud-wrestling in the first place, that didn’t mean he wouldn’t have if he’d known there was such a thing! I mean! It even fits the script!”

    “And I suppose you want me to put a Blythe gun battle in the Scottish Play?” Sir Richard had shouted back—and had then gone pale with horror at the speculative look on Himbo Petey’s face. “No! Forget I said that! You can have your wretched mud-wrestling, just do not ask me for one more change! Not one!”

    Hulik didn’t mind; she thought it was funny. And Meren was enough of a trooper that she would have mud-wrestled the entire female cast if that was what the part had called for.



    “Why are you so sure they haven’t spotted us?” Pausert asked. There were bits of what appeared to be the com strewn all over the floor in front of the unit, and he was pretending to repair it. Pretending, because the com was working just fine, and the bits were nothing more than the results of Vezzarn’s scrounging, acting as camouflage, while the Leewit listened to chatter on headphones and Goth worked out whether the chatter was coming from inside the Petey B or was just the usual sorts of traffic outside of it.

    “Because they’re spreading themselves too thin,” Hulik said firmly. “And I’ll tell you something else—even if they have our descriptions, or some of us, anyway, that doesn’t mean they’re going to trust those descriptions. I wouldn’t. Because I would know that any smart quarry would have already changed as much about himself as he could.”

    “So they are basically looking at everyone.” Well, that was comforting. “Hmm. So a really smart quarry wouldn’t change himself at all?”

    “Or would do exactly what we’ve done: put ourselves into a position where our appearances change constantly.” She nodded at him. Pausert was still wearing his Mercutio hair because it was perfectly comfortable to wear—quite natural-seeming, really, but a royal pain to take off and put on. Tomorrow the makeup specialist would take off the foxy hair and replace it with Bottom’s unruly haystack, and he’d wear that all day, for the same reason. Rehearsals had just started for play number three, the Scottish Play, and as King Duncan he’d have gray hair that worked for both the part of the King and of the King’s ghost.

    Most of the other actors did the same. Only when they doubled a part, as Alton did with Romeo and the Prince of Verona, did they use true old-fashioned wigs that could be put on and taken off quickly, but were horrible and itchy to wear.

    “Great Patham, we must be driving them mad!” he exclaimed gleefully.

    Hulik nodded. “We couldn’t have picked a better place. Even if they’re looking for two young Karres-witch girls, they can’t be sure that they have the right girls, or even that they should be looking for girls at all. There are dozens of families here with children the right age. The little Wisdoms could be posing as boys, as midgets, or as even as something in the Freak Show.”

    The “little Wisdoms” were freakish enough as it was anyway, he thought. He didn’t say it out loud, though.

    “Well, good. I want them as confused as possible; that can only be to our benefit.” He thought of something else. “So, how are they fitting in?”

    It would be very awkward if these people were used to being with a showboat. The tall tales spun about every member of a showboat crew would not distract them too much, and once they got themselves oriented, it wouldn’t be long before they got onto the truth—or figured out that if nothing else, sign-on dates and the identity of the ships welded to the frame would be found in Himbo Petey’s own records.

    “According to Pul, like desert-cats in a swamp. Which argues for them being ISS agents. I would think that the pirates would know better—or would have operatives that spent time on a showboat in the past.”

    “The ISS isn’t stupid—”

    “No, but this far out in the hinterland, what you get are agents that were put out here because they weren’t good enough to be entrusted with truly important postings, or were stupid enough to do something that made it necessary to transfer them where they couldn’t do much harm. If they aren’t ambitious, they’re going to be unhappy because their comfortable paper-pushing existence has been interrupted by a tedious, possibly dangerous job. If they are ambitious, they’re going to be blundering about doing plenty of wrong things, because they don’t know that what they need to be good undercover agents won’t be found in a book.” Hulik sighed. “They get posted out to places like this because at least there’s a smaller chance that they’ll get themselves killed or do something to anger someone important.”

    He hesitated, then asked the question that had been lurking in the back of his mind ever since Hantis told them about the plague. “Hulik, what are the odds, do you think, that someone high up in the ISS is infected by Hantis’ Nanites?”

    She leaned back in her chair, and licked her lips. “You do know how to ask the nasty ones, don’t you? Truth to be told, I think it’s quite likely, odds of up to fifty percent. I’ve thought that ever since that ISS goon overrode your safe-conduct from the Empress.”

    She began ticking things off on her fingers. “Whoever it is knows about Karres witches, believes in them, and wants them. Whoever it is does not have the Empress’ best interests at heart, and does not want whatever information it is that we carry to get to the Empress. Whoever it is knows about Hantis and Pul, and possibly wants them disposed of as well.” She shrugged. “Now, that could cover both someone high up in court circles who has ambitions for becoming Emperor himself or working for someone who does—but it covers someone in the ISS infected by the plague equally well.”

    Pausert’s heart sank; but then he, too, shrugged. “I suppose it doesn’t make much difference at this point, does it?”

    “No. Whoever is behind this is high enough up in ISS circles that if Hantis can’t do anything, we’re on our own for the moment.”

    She looked pensively at a poster on the wall advertising romantic getaways on Beta Caeleen. Goth had been sticking them up to cover the paint-splatters from the first appearance of the little silver-Eyed vatch. It seemed an eternity ago.

    “I used to like being a lone operative,” she said, sounding oddly plaintive. “In fact, I used to like being an operative, period. I must be getting old. It isn’t fun anymore. I find myself wishing I had a lot of people at my back, and that I was doing things using my brain rather than a gun, things with a lower chance of getting me killed. A desk has begun to look a lot more attractive than it used to.”

    Pausert stared at her. “You aren’t actually thinking about settling down, are you?”

    “It has its merits,” she said wistfully. Then she shook her head. “No, not really. You know how it is. Everyone wants what they don’t have, and then, if they get it, half the time they discover they don’t want it after all.”

    Pausert wasn’t fooled. She was thinking about it! He tried to imagine it. Hulik do Eldel, in a little house, behind a desk. Maybe even married, and with children!

    Great Patham! What would any children she raised be like? Worse than young witches, even, probably wreaking havoc on their kindergarten, playing “pirates and hostages” with real Blythe guns, breaking into the crèche offices at night to riffle through the teacher’s desk, looking for blackmail material….

    “It wouldn’t suit you,” he said firmly. “You’d be bored before the first day was over.”

    “You’re probably right,” she replied, still sounding wistful. “Still, with the right set of circumstances, the right job, and the right partner….”

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