I left Conda the next morning, after saying goodbye to Lu and promising that I’d look her up if I ever got to Carro. It was a clear cool morning, but there were clouds coming out of the south that promised rain within a few days, the sort of thing you get now and then during the otherwise dry months. Farmers cheer when they see those clouds, and ruinmen groan; me, I just kept walking.
I had a lot of thinking to do, and a lot of time to do it. Further east, when you get into Inyana and Hiyo, the roads along the north shore of the Hiyo River are as busy as anything, but there on the bottom end of Ilanoy it’s mostly forest with a few scattered farms, and here and there a levee on the bank where one of the smaller riverboats will stop if somebody flags it down. I watched more than a few of them heading the same I was, but I didn’t want to spend money if I didn’t have to, so I didn’t flag any of them down. That meant there were nights I spent in taverns in little towns, and nights I spent in barns and farmhouses, and now and then nights where the sun went down and there wasn’t anybody or anything in sight, and I found a place to curl up under a tree and slept there.
One way or another it must have taken me most of two weeks to get to Ensul, which is the first town of any size north of the river as you go upstream from Dooca. That was partly because I had to go almost a day’s walk north to find a ferry across the Wobbish—I think that’s what the river is called; it flows into the Hiyo west of Ensul, where Ilanoy and Inyana come together. It was also because the rain I’d seen coming showed up more than once, and a muddy road’s a lot slower going than a dry one. Still, from there on in it was a nice well-tended road with plenty of travelers on it, and two days later I was in Ensul.
That used to be a much bigger town than it is now; if you have a ruinman’s eyes, you can see where the old streets and buildings used to run long before you get to the town. There used to be a ruinmen’s hall there, years back, but they ran out of ruins and sold the hall for scrap metal before heading elsewhere. Now it’s just another riverside market town, with riverboats at the levee, three or four streets full of shops, and a big open space in back where farmers and crafters and traveling shows set up and sell whatever it is they have to sell.
The way the road comes into Ensul, the marketplace is to your left and a row of taverns to your right. I probably would have headed straight for the nearest tavern, as I’d been on the road since first light and was thinking comfortable thoughts about a meal and a bed, but it was late afternoon, the market was winding down, and through a pause in the noise and talking came a voice I knew. I almost stopped right there in the middle of the street, which would have been a bad idea, since there was an oxcart not too far behind me and I wouldn’t want to risk my life on the common sense of a couple of oxen. Instead, I got over to the side of the street closest to the market, and looked, and there he was.
He was up on a wooden platform, the sort of thing that players and actors use when there aren’t too many of them, and a cloth banner along the front of it yelled GENUINE HERBAL MEDICINE in bright red letters. He had a black coat and a black hat and a bottle of something black and more or less liquid in one hand, but I wouldn’t have mistaken the voice and face and the round glasses like moons in a thousand years of trying. It was Plummer, all right.
So I walked over toward the platform, toward the outer edge of the small crowd he had around him. Of course he spotted me well before I got there. “Here,” he said, “is one who could benefit from the very best of my medicines. A ruinman, mams and misters. The dust on his leathers shows us that he comes straight from some dangerous ruin, where he has been risking his life to keep the rest of us safe from toxic wastes and well supplied with metals. Come up here, sir and mister.”
The crowd made room for me, and I went to the platform and climbed up the three creaking steps onto it, doing my level best not to grin. Plummer checked my pulse and whispered to me, “Pretend to pay me when I ask for money.” Then, in a voice they could probably hear in the taverns across the way: “A slow and heavy pulse. Aching muscles?” I nodded. “Unusual thirst?” I nodded again. “I thought as much,” he said, and rattled off a string of words that probably meant something, though I don’t pretend to know what. He asked some other questions, and I guessed at the right answers, and before he’d finished everyone there, including me, was half convinced that I must be six senamees from death on a slick muddy slope.
Then, of course, he sold me the medicine, and I reached into my pocket and pretended to hand him a coin. He took it, checked it, and pocketed it so convincingly that I just about saw the thing glint in the sunlight. By then, of course, half the people in the crowd had noticed that their muscles were aching and they were pretty thirsty, too, and he got busy answering their questions and selling bottles: this one for tiredness and that one for colds, and this other one if your gums bleed and your teeth get loose. He had at least a dozen different medicines for sale, and by the time he was finished most of the people in the crowd had at least one bottle to take home.
“A profitable day,” he said later on. We were facing each other across a table in one of the taverns, with a big glass of beer on my side of the table and a smaller glass of Tucki whiskey on his. “And that was partly your doing. There’s something about an earnest young ruinman that inspires confidence. And particularly—” He leaned forward, considered me. “An earnest young ruinman who looks rather the worse for wear. I gather the site near Memfis didn’t fulfill your hopes.”
I met his look, shook my head. “It was worth a try.”
“Of course. And your prentice—I trust nothing untoward...”
“Berry? He’s fine—I sent him to work on a dig in Tucki to make some money while I search the archives at Sisnaddi. I figure that’s the last chance I’ve got.”
He considered that. “An interesting coincidence, and possibly a useful one. I’m also headed east, though not quite to Sisnaddi. It also occurs to me that we may have some things to talk about.”
That’s how it happened that we left Ensul the next morning on the road east toward Luwul. I was in good spirits for the first time in longer than I wanted to think about. That was partly because I knew Plummer would be good company on the road, partly because wondering about him spared me from wondering about whether Star’s Reach was ever going to be more than a dream for me, and partly—well, I was no more sure what Plummer had been not-quite-offering me, there on the riverboat just upstream from Altan, than I’d been the morning I went and found him gone, and I wanted to know. Not that I was going to push the issue; I knew Plummer well enough already to be certain that he’d talk about that when he chose to, and not a heartbeat sooner.
So we took the road, or maybe the road took us, and pretty soon it was as if we’d been traveling together since the first time we’d met back there in the ruin in Tucki. He didn’t have much medicine left to sell after Ensul, but a little ways upstream was a little town named Nuber, and he had a friend there—it was another one of his nameless friends—who kept plenty of it stored in bottles down in his cellar. After that, he worked every town we passed.
We still made fairly good time up the north bank of the Hiyo until we got past Nuwabnee, which is right across the river from Luwul and brought back some memories. While we were there, the clouds started coming up out of the south again, and a few days later the rain came following it. It was good and heavy, too, and we ended up finding a ruin with a bit of roof left to it and waiting it out. That’s where we were when Plummer started talking about stories. That’s when he said the thing I wrote back at the beginning of this, about how all stories were scraps of one big story, and I decided he was drunk. Looking back on it, I think he was, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong; it’s occurred to me more than once since then that he may have been so fond of whiskey because he was right.
But the clouds finally cleared away, and on we went. It wasn’t more than a few days after that when we went through a little place called Bellem—not big enough to be a town, really, just a couple of buildings and a levee for the boats—and there on the side of one of the buildings was a big poster. You don’t see those too often, because there aren’t that many trades that have need of them, but this was the exception: it said, in big fancy red and black letters, that the Baraboo Sirk was going to be twenty kloms up the river in Madsen for a couple of days, which happened to be that day and the next.
I laughed, remembering all the times I’d wanted to see a sirk back when I was a boy, and we didn’t have the money. Plummer, though, stopped and considered the poster and said, “Excellent. We’ll have to stop for that.”
I closed my mouth after a moment, and then said, “Friends of yours?”
“Exactly.” He gave me the look I’ve mentioned before, the one that made me think I’d said the right thing or something close to it. Then, without another word, he turned and set off along the road.
We got to Madsen late the next afternoon, which was soon enough for the evening show. I honestly can’t say I remember the town at all, just the big tent off in a big pasture just outside of town, red and white in stripes, with big solar panels on the grass nearby to power the lights and a couple of smaller tents close by. There were oxen grazing not far away, and big bright wagons, red and blue and green, with BARABOO SIRK on them in big gold letters. People were already lining up in front of the tent, and a man in fancy clothes outside the tent was telling everyone all about the show in a voice I bet they heard on the other side of the river. Madsen’s not a big town but there’s a lot of farm country around it, and I don’t imagine there were many people at home for kloms around just then.
I should probably say something about sirks, just in case the only person who ever reads this is from the Neeonjin country or somewhere. A sirk is a show in a tent, or rather a whole bunch of shows one after the other in the same tent, and it’s not like any other show there is. Part of it’s people doing things nobody else can do, like eating fire and lifting big weights and dancing on a rope way up in the air, and part of it’s clowns making fun of everything and everybody, and there’s music and all kinds of other things jumbled in together with it. There are, I think, three of them now, though the Baraboo Sirk is the oldest of them, the only one that’s been around since before the old world ended, and it hasn’t been that long since there was just the one.
So I was almost as excited as I’d been when I was six or seven years old and would have gladly sold my teeth for a ticket. Plummer paid for both our tickets, if he paid anything at all—he said something in a low voice to the woman at the ticket booth, and I wouldn’t be too shocked to find out that the coin he gave her was every bit as real as the one I gave him in Ensul—and then there we were, inside the tent, clattering up the wooden steps to seats where we could see the whole thing.
It was as good as I hoped. We bought hoddogs—I don’t know anywhere they sell those now but sirks; it’s a little loaf of bread slit open the long way, with a sausage plopped down inside—and cups of pink lemonade, and then waited while the lights changed and the ringmaster came out. He had old world clothes on, a big fancy coat and a hat that looked like somebody took a piece of stovepipe, put a brim on it and fancied it up in green and gold, and a voice that covered even more ground than the man outside the tent could manage. He welcomed everyone and called out the first act, and from then on it was one thing after another.
There was a strongman who had the six heaviest men in the place pile onto a table, then hefted the thing onto his back and walked it around the ring. There were a couple of jugglers who tossed cavalry swords back and forth between them so fast you were sure somebody was going to get split open like a hoddog loaf, but never missed a one. There were people who climbed on top of each other into a triangle—four on the ground, three on their shoulders, and so on to one on top—and then did it the other way, with only one on the ground and four up at the top with their arms thrown out at the sides. There was a woman who did rope dancing, and it was way up in the air, without a safety net to catch her if she fell. She didn’t fall, though I don’t know how she managed it. I’m used to high places, being a ruinman, but the thought of trying to walk along that rope, much less dancing out there in the middle, was enough to make my blood run cold.
All the while, of course, there were clowns scampering around. One of them, most of the way through the show, was a ruinman clown. He had a pick that was bigger than he was, and was trying to open up this box that seemed to be half buried in the ground and had all kinds of old world writing on it, but every time he tried to take a swing at it, it moved away from him. Finally, when he was winding up for one more swing, it sneaked up behind him and pushed him over. I laughed so hard I had tears running down my face; the box didn’t say STAR’S REACH on it, but it might as well have.
There was a pause not long after that, while the rope dancer was climbing the ladder, and right then Plummer leaned over to me and whispered, “There was a time when sirks had animal acts. People would make animals do any number of surprising things.”
I gave him a startled look. The first thing that went through my mind was why anybody would want to watch people bullying animals; then I noticed that he was watching me the way he did, waiting to see what I would say; and then I realized what he was trying to say. “Back in the old world,” I whispered back, “didn’t they like to think they could make everything do what people wanted?”
He smiled. It wasn’t just his you-said-the-right-thing look, either; it looked like a door swinging open. “Exactly,” he said. “Exactly.”
Then the rope dancer started out onto the rope, and we were both staring upwards, like everyone else in the tent. That was the big act, and after that things wound up pretty quickly; a few more clowns, someone who could eat fire, and then all the performers and the clowns and all were out in the middle of the ring, bowing, as we roared and clapped and let them know how much fun we had.
Then the lights went down, the performers left, and the audience started filing out. Plummer motioned me to follow him, though, and zigzagged down through the crowds to the edge of the ring. The ringmaster spotted him and came right over, and before long I was being introduced. The man’s name was Ellis, and his voice sounded like anybody else’s when he wasn’t out there being the ringmaster; he and Plummer knew each other from a long time back, or that’s what I gathered, and the outcome of it all was that the two of us got invited back to another, smaller tent back behind the big tent, where everybody in the sirk was having a late meal.
There were about fifty of them all told, from the ringmaster and the rope dancer down to the big burly men who handled the oxcarts and hauled things around. We got introduced and then sat down at the one big plank table with everybody else. They were tired, all of them; there were two shows that day, and two the day before, and the next morning they’d be packing everything up and heading on to the next town they were going to play, a place called Clumbs that was about halfway between Madsen and Naplis; so they were friendly enough but not too talkative. I was fine with that; I was still trying to figure out why Plummer said what he did, and what the door was that had just opened for me, if I wasn’t just imagining it.
I wasn’t. After the meal was over, Plummer and Ellis talked for a bit, while everyone else headed off to the wagons or wherever else they were sleeping that night, which for most of them was a couple of blankets and a straw pallet on the ground right there in the tent where we were sitting. Then Ellis got up, made a tired little gesture that said “Sleep well” better than words could have done, and headed out into the night. Plummer came over, gave me one of his long considering looks, and said, “Are you possibly still up for conversation? There are, I think, some things we should talk about.”
“I’m still awake,” I said. “Here, or—”
“A little more privacy would be useful.” He motioned toward the darkness outside the tent door.
It was a clear cool night, with stars splashed across the sky and the lights of Madsen flickering off one by one not far away. A few quiet sounds came from the circus tents and wagons, and I could hear night birds calling to each other from the banks of the river close by. We walked far enough from the tents that nobody could hear us, and then Plummer motioned: here?
I sat down, and so did he; he pulled out his bottle of whiskey and took a drink from it, then offered it to me, and though I don’t usually like whiskey, I took it and downed a swallow before handing it back. Then, sitting there under the stars, he started to talk.