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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Eighteen

       Last updated: Saturday, July 10, 2004 01:03 EDT



    At long last, Pausert relled vatch. And he could tell that this was a vatch that he had relled before. Goth relled it at the same time, and looked up sharply. “Is that our old friend, Captain?”

    A patch of misty black blinked silver-slitted eyes at him. “I believe it is.”

    Hello, Real Thing. Are you going off to be stories for the waking-dreamers now?

    As a matter of fact, we are. He did not ask where the vatch had been. Truth to tell, he wasn’t sure he really wanted to know.


    Are you planning on luring more victims here? he asked cautiously.

    Not now.

    “Time, Goth,” he said, and Goth put away her headphones with a sigh. They looked as if they were plugged into her personal player; they were, and they weren’t, because one of the channels on her personal player was set to scan all the com that was coming from inside the Petey B as relayed from the Venture.

    “Still nothing,” she complained.

    “Cheer up. After this show, we lift—and even if they’ve been reporting to someone in person, they won’t be able to do that anymore.” They now had the third of their plays, the Scottish Play, in production, and Sir Richard had elected to put off beginning rehearsal for the fourth until they were back in space.

    The new man was working out well enough. True to his word, Vonard Kleesp was awake and ready for first rehearsal and he never showed the least bit of unsteadiness from that moment until final curtain. Though, as Vezzarn said with reluctant admiration, “what he drinks in a night would kill five men.” Presumably he’d gotten to that stage of alcoholism where the alcoholic could not function without liquor in his system.

    Besides, Pausert had overheard Cravan saying to Ethulassia one night they only needed him Vonard Kleesp until Ken Kanchen was all healed up.

    “You won’t fire him?” Ethulassia had asked anxiously. “He’s a superb actor, whatever else.” Her voice seemed to get a little dreamy. “Quite a charming and handsome man, too, for that matter. And he doesn’t really drink as much as people think. With my personal intervention...”

    “No, I certainly won’t fire him,” Cravan had replied. “He’ll be useful if Pausert leaves us. He can take those roles; for that matter, he could double and stand-in on just about every male lead we do. But he won’t be indispensable, and when something happens to him, it won’t leave us short.”


    Well, Cravan was right to use that word. Drinking like that, a man’s liver would only last so long and his heart would probably go even sooner. Medics could give you artificial organs, but if you collapsed with heart or liver failure out in space or some backwater world in the middle of nowhere, you might not live to make it to a place where they could install one.

    “Well, little Wisdom,” Pausert said teasingly, “Time to go be a Witch.”

    “Very well, your Majesty,” she mocked him back.

    Oh, good. A story I haven’t seen!

    It was a good thing that Pausert’s time on stage as King Duncan was limited; the vatch was full of questions. Some of them Pausert couldn’t answer, such as the very reasonable question of, if the Witches were so powerful, why didn’t Macbeth keep them around to show him the future all the time? “I don’t know; I guess it’s just the way the story-maker wanted it,” was all he could say. The vatch didn’t seem to mind that he didn’t know, and best of all, it behaved like a mannerly child at a grownup party.

    But as the play hurtled towards its conclusion, he began to get a prickling at the back of his neck. Then Vonard Kleesp appeared at his side, coming from the direction of the dressing rooms.

    “Something’s amiss, I think,” he whispered into Pausert’s ear. “I was just coming out of my dressing room and saw a man I don’t recognize going into yours. I don’t believe he was alone, either. I notified some of the stagehands, but you might want to look into it yourself.”

    Trouble! said the vatch suddenly, and with great glee. This’ll be fun!

    And it vanished.

    Standing backstage as he was, Pausert could hear the vatch’s “fun” as a series of crashes and muffled shouts. Things were falling over—or being knocked over—onto several people who had been, he suspected, trying to sneak around backstage. The vatch had put paid to that particular plan, though. And now, even as the shouts got louder, Pausert saw several burly stagehands converging on the area.

    Fortunately, by that point, the final sword-fight between Macbeth and Macduff was in full swing. You could probably have staged a barfight backstage without anyone in the audience noticing.

    The noises stopped at the point where Macduff killed Macbeth, and the stagehands returned, dusting their hands in satisfaction.

    So did the vatch.

    The altercation had not escaped the notice of Sir Richard, however. As soon as the last of the curtain-calls was over, he came striding backstage with fire in his eye. The first thing his eye lit on was Pausert. “What was the meaning of that ruckus?“ he began, but the chief rigger interrupted him.

    “He didn’t have nothing to do with it, boss,” the rigger said. “We caught those three new guys trying to sneak into the dressing rooms. Kleesp gave us the warning.”

    “Sneak!” Sir Richard snorted. “That didn’t sound like sneaking to me!”

    One of the lighting techs sniggered. “They had some bad luck, boss,” the old man told Sir Richard gleefully. “Bad luck and lots of it, and if I find out what they was smoking before they got here, I’m buyin’ a pound. Swore up and down that the props and stuff was getting thrown at ‘em and jumpin on ‘em. That’s what most of the noise was.”

    “Huh.” Sir Richard lost most of his wrath. “And the rest of the noise?”

    “Oh,” said the chief rigger, attempting to look innocent and failing utterly, “that was them falling down a lot while we was helping ‘em find their way out.”

    “Helping who find their way out?” Himbo Petey asked, having arrived with the rest of the cast. The rigger helpfully explained, while the techs snickered.

    “Trying to get into the dressing rooms, hmm?” asked Petey, his jaw tightening. “Which dressing rooms?”

    “Well,” the rigger said, with a shake of his head. "I almost feel sorry for 'em. Normally fans try to get to the leading lady's room, and thieves too. These guys were such losers they were trying his.” He pointed at Pausert.

    Cravan blinked. “Have you got something in there you're not telling us about, Pausert?"

    Pausert shook his head. “Not that I can think of.” He’d have to think quickly here and just hope the girls could adlib along with whatever story he came up with.



    “Unless...” He rubbed his jaw. “Well, someone might have been prepared to pay someone to take my older niece back to her stepfather. There's a pretty large family estate involved and nothing much Dani or anyone can do about it until she's of age to sign the documents. Tregger—that’s her stepfather—would undoubtedly like to have her back under his eye. I'm the girls’ guardian—and I have the papers to prove it. But if I had an accident... then they'd go back to Tregger. Ask the girls how they'd like that."

    "Please don't let the Captain get hurt," said the Leewit, sniffing. "Tregger's mean. He used to beat us. And momma. She died and the Captain took us away."

    "Huh," said Goth. "The Captain'd have dealt with them just like he did with the last one."

    It was a superb piece of acting.

    “What did these guys tell you?” growled Petey to the riggers.

    “Some cock-and-bull story about being friends from way back, and wanting to give the new show-folk a surprise,” the rigger said. “We didn’t buy it. You don't need a pry-bar for that. Or a cosh and forcecuffs. That was why they fell down a lot on the way out.”

    Petey turned to Goth and the Leewit, who were wide-eyed. “Just for the record, do you and your sister know any of the new people? Any sausage sellers from way back?”

    They both shook their heads vigorously. “Only people I’m friends with outside of the company and my uncle’s crew are the fellows in Clown Alley,” the Leewit said, in a very small voice.

    Goth shook her head. “Don’t even know what the new guys look like, sir.”

    “I don't tolerate people interfering with my thespians!” said Cravan stormily

    “You get no argument from me, Sir Richard. They're working members of the Petey B's company. We look after own, girls.” Petey’s face was flushed. He looked to the techs. “You can identify them, of course?”

    “Huh. We marked ‘em good,” said the rigger with satisfaction. “Uh, that is, they got marked pretty good falling down a lot.”

    Petey reached inside the huge sleeve of his doublet, and pulled out a wrist-com. He tapped out a sequence, and spoke into it. “Hey, rube! Backstage. Theater.”

    The thespians all seemed to know what was coming, for they cleared back against the walls and scrims. Dame Ethulassia grabbed Pausert’s elbow and pulled him back along with the rest, while some of the others did the same for Hulik, Goth, and the Leewit.

    Suddenly there was a thunder of running feet, and backstage became very, very crowded as the biggest, meanest-looking, and strongest members of the circus converged on Cravan and Petey. If Goth’s and the Leewit’s eyes had been big before, they were dinner-plate size now.

    Himbo Petey spoke to them in a very low, very angry voice, explaining what had just happened. An animal growl arose from several of the throats, and postures went rather beyond “tense.”

    “These boys will help you identify them,” he finished, gesturing to the riggers and the techs. “I want them off the ship, off the grounds, bag and baggage. Keep ‘em off. And spread the word: we’re lifting early. I want us derigged, packed up, and gone. We’ve got most of the loose money on this planet anyway.”

    Before Pausert could blink, they were gone. Petey looked around, his eyes lighting on the little witches. “We take care of our own,” he said again, reassuring them in a surprisingly gentle voice. They nodded, though their eyes were still enormous. “Good. Miss Hulik? Would you and the rest of your crew take them to their cabins on your old ship? And when you get there, close and dog down the airlock. Don’t come out until we’re out of orbit. Girls, don’t bother to change out of your costumes until you’re in your own cabins; just bring them back at rehearsal tomorrow.”

    “Yessir,” they said in chorus.

    Cravan looked around as well. “You heard the Showmaster,” he said firmly. “Break and stow, we’re lifting early. Quicktime!”

    Pausert joined the girls, and they all started to move away. Cravan shot a look at them.

    “Quicktime, Mister Pausert!” he barked.

    They ran.



    “Are we in trouble?” asked Goth quietly, when the lock had been secured. “With the show, I mean.”

    “Oh no,” Hulik replied. “No, not at all. However, your would-be kidnappers are.”

    “You think they were going to kidnap us?” the Leewit asked, looking more interested than frightened.

    Hulik shrugged. “It’s what I would do, if I were the kind of wretched scum that they are,” she replied. “Kidnap you, and use you to get the rest of us without a fight. That is, if I hadn’t bothered to look into the reports of the last lot of ISS agents who tried to take us.”

    “Do you think we should tell Himbo Petey what’s really going on?” Pausert asked, feeling guilty again.

    “No!” said Hulik and Hantis at once, and very vehemently.

    They exchanged a look, and Hulik elaborated. “Look, Captain, Petey has a perfectly good explanation for what those men were going to do. Those men can claim to be ISS until they’re blue in the face, and it won’t do them any good, because you and the little Wisdoms would have convinced me. And I know the truth.”

    Goth blushed a little. The Leewit looked so innocent that it seemed as if a halo might descend on her head at any moment. Pausert rubbed his jaw. “Well, yes,” he said. “But they weren’t—“

    “If you can explain to me how planning to kidnap two children and use them to get their friends and guardians to surrender, possibly torturing one or both girls to make us frantic to do what they asked is any different, I’d like to hear it.” There was more than a touch of frost in Hantis’ voice.

    “Anyway, it’s all done with now,” said Hulik. She turned to Pausert. “You know, we might as well go open all the com channels and find out what’s going on.”

    “That sounds like a good idea.”

    What was going on was a lot of frantic work, apparently. When Petey said quicktime, he meant it. All of the decorations, the bunting and banners and synthasilk sheathing, were already stowed away, and the full breakdown was, impossible though it seemed, half over. Goth put the viewscreen on channel-flick, so they could see what every camera that was broadcasting was showing.

    “Look!” said Goth, suddenly, freezing the view.

    The remaining three “new men” were being ungently escorted to the other side of the showboat’s gates, with some of their escorts carrying what must have been everything the three men owned. Once they were tossed beyond the perimeter, their belongings were unceremoniously dumped—a fair amount of it on them. There was no sound on this particular camera, but it was obvious from the gesticulations that there was a lot of angry shouting going on. But the escort-party wasn’t moving, and those who hadn’t been carrying baggage were handing out clubs to those who had been.

    The three men seemed to come to their senses. Sullenly, they shut up and began loading themselves with their baggage; then, dragged it out of the camera’s view.

    “What about their ship?” the Leewit asked. “I mean, Petey’s still got their ship! Won’t the law come after him for that?”

    Goth unexpectedly grinned. “Nope. I’m the one that worked our contracts, remember? There’s a clause in there that says that if any of us break the Code of Conduct, Petey can throw all of us off and take our ship. Bet that’s in their contract, too. And I betcha Petey’s transmitting the contracts to the police right this minute. If they want the law after us, they’ll have to break cover—and remember, they got no proof that we’re anything but what we say we are, so I betcha the law won’t move until they can prove they’re ISS, and then it’ll be too late.”

    “But what if we break the Code?” Pausert asked, now more worried than ever.

    Goth rolled her eyes. “Oh please, Captain! It’s all heavy stuff! Murder or attempted murder, theft or attempted theft, kidnap or attempted kidnap. That kind of thing. Believe me, I looked at it, hard. Petey’ll call it ‘attempted kidnapping,’ and the local law’ll probably agree.”

    "It's a bit rough on three incompetents," said Pausert. "The Empire's Judges don't look kindly on the kidnapping of minors."

    “I don’t know if it is that harsh,” Hulik said, grimly . “ISS agents can be cashiered to the hinterlands for other reasons than just sheer incompetence. And it would take a certain sort of mind to think that kidnapping and torturing a little girl is a good way to get a job done.”

    “You should have let me bite them,” growled Pul from the floor.

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