After the show in New Haven at the Arena we moved our camp into the town, just inside the walls. Boss was worried that the dead would come down from the hills to see what all the cheering was about. Outer wall people are a great way of knowing if the dead are at the walls near a community, because they light up their torches for the wall guards to see, and they come down and take care of them. We camped near the back of a hotel where there was a line of troughs. We watered the horses there and I washed. I like to be clean. So do Raf and May. Alexis is ok and so is Boss unless it’s hot, then they smell. I don’t think Bo or Ben has ever washed. Ever. Boss went off somewhere straight after the show. He takes all the money he makes after a show and he changes it for transferable gold coins. They’re smaller than the local coins and they can be spent in all the communities. They’re made of real gold. There’s four kinds that each have different values.
We were on the road early the following morning. The creature was still naked in the back of the Pole Cart, and Boss fed him the other half of the dog. He had to warm it up though because the dead don’t like to eat rotting food or cooked food. It only ate a few mouthfuls of the dog. It didn’t care much for it. I reckon that if they would eat raw meat instead of having to kill to eat, they wouldn’t be hated as much. But they need to eat living things as the life is leaving them. They don’t give me the heebees like other people get from them. I just dislike them the same way I hate rats and other things that I never want to go near or touch.
We only had a few hours’ sleep that night, and we were packed up and ready to go well before the sun came up. The man at the town gate recognised Boss and asked if he could meet Alexis. They’re meant to examine everything that goes in and out of the gates, but they didn’t look at our stuff at all on the way in or the way out. When we arrived we made May drive the small cart in, and she was still wearing her costume from the show. It worked. On the way out Boss also had a plan with May prepared, but the gate man wanting to meet Alexis made it easy for us to get the King out without raising his attention.
Alexis was polite and the guard was younger. Only about 19 years old. He wanted to hold Alexis’ sword. Alexis is very kind to the people who look up to him like that. He always asks them what their interests are and if they enjoyed the show. He listens to them and asks more questions usually. But this time he didn’t. He just said thank you and we went on our way.
”Ok then, we’re off!” Boss bellowed.
“Where are you heading?” The young guard asked.
“New Rome, then Basin.” Boss answered. And the horses lurched forward.
Ben was the first to ask the question we were all wondering.
“Basin?” He blurted out to Boss.
Basin is the closest town to New Haven geographically. But usually anyone who is going past it would do just that. You don’t have to pass it’s gate on the Empire Road. New Rome, Pan, and Schmidt have gates that go over the top of the Road. Like a roof with guard towers. But the rest of them have gates beside the wall and a short road from the Road to their gate. Basin has a long road from the Empire Road that is about 18 km long, and it goes to the front gate of Basin and stops there. The thing about Basin is that they are extremely suspicious about outsiders and they have a religion that nobody can join unless you’re born into it. So as we leave New Haven on the Empire Road, we can either take a side road north from the northern gate of New Haven that lands us back on the Empire Road past the entrance of New Rome, which would be quicker, or we have to leave from the main gates on New Haven’s West, where the coliseum is, which takes us to New Rome. Boss wouldn’t take the short cut because it would mean having to bribe the Bell again to get the wagons through town to the northern gate. The side roads also aren’t good options because the Rangers don’t patrol them, and the fences aren’t usually in good shape. But they’re a calculated risk to save a lot of time. The Thanatos River hugs the back of Basin, and Alexis said that they have a moat around the front of the community to keep the dead out. Most of the towns have a water ditch directly in front of their town gate so that the dead can’t get in through the gates. But Basin has a huge water-filled ditch all the way around the town that joins to the Thanatos and the water flows past them in all directions. The stupid thing of it all is that, the dead aren’t even worried about water. They don’t need to breathe. But I guess moving water would cause a bit of a problem for the dead.
So we left the main gates of New Haven and headed north west toward New Rome. Boss is well known in New Rome. I don’t like New Rome much. I don’t like the Catholics. I haven’t been to Basin before. Alexis told me last year that they trust Boss in Basin as much as a religious leader. I’ll be interested to see what Basin is like. We didn’t go there on the way to New Haven at the end of last year’s season either. In fact, I don’t know anyone who has been there.
It’s about 45 km toward New Rome from New Haven we rode past the 18th white, marker-stone when we came across a Ranger. It was the same, fat Catholic one we’d seen on the other side of New Haven. He was smoking a long pipe and sitting on a tree stump. He’s got ginger hair that’s short at the front and longer at the back, and a moustache. He has a funny shape to him. His arms seem to be a little bit too short for his body. Like chicken wings. And he has a pot belly. They aren’t meant to smoke, or drink, or bed women. The Muslims don’t do any of those things. They’re extremely strict. Boss says that the Roman Christian ones are sometimes good, but most the time they do what they like, and spend about half their time in the towns making arrangements to take groups from one place to another, from start to finish, like a ride-along protector, because the payments are better. They don’t usually live on the roads like the Muslims, Paneretian and other Rangers do. This one is shifty. And fat.
“Well, well, well! If it isn’t the famous Mr Parry! Or is it Mr Fentario today? Thought you’d seen the last of me, till next year, didn’t ya?”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Boss said back to the ranger in a dry, suspicious voice.
“You told me that those moozies found a pile of clothed, dead creatures and were burying them.”
“Your point?” Boss asked.
“Weren’t a clothed one among ‘em!” he snarled.
“Did you ask them if there were any clothed ones?”
“Didn’t need to!” the Ranger snarled. He didn’t like being tested. “I saw for myself that they were all savages. Only one skin amongst em, and it smelled too much to be of any use to anyone!”
“I stand by my statement. You should have asked the other Rangers if they knew what happened to their clothes. We left before they burned or buried them, and there were plenty of dressed ones when we left. We all saw them.” Boss said. That was our cue. We all murmured our support, and nodded.
The Ranger should have known better; that the Muslim rangers would never touch one of those creatures, let alone steal from them either. The Muslim’s are honest like that. They call them “unclean” and they just bury or burn them like they said they would. The only change that the Muslims have made to their holy book, the Koran, since it was written was to add at the back that “the dead and all things to do with them are unclean in the eyes of Allah and should be burned”. They don’t always burn them though. If the smoke will attract more dead they’ll bury them. But this one is a Catholic Ranger, and he thinks that everyone is corrupt like he is. His horse is cute though. It’s small and fat.
“So – we’ll start at the beginning, shall we?” the Ranger said in a fat kind of way. “I think some sort of gesture of appreciation is in order for the service I was offering on your way to New Haven, as well as for the protection I’m about to offer you to New Rome.” As he spoke, he tilted his head backward slightly and his eyelids fluttered in a strange way so that his eyes nearly closed as he was speaking. Like he thought he was the most impressive person ever born and too lofty to even speak with us.
Boss had no interest in getting the Ranger worked up, especially since we were heading directly toward the one place, in New Rome, where he may actually have a small amount of clout.
“Sounds perfectly reasonable to me,” Boss said. “After all, I wouldn’t want you thinking that I, Peter Potter, were not a full supporter of the fine work of the Rangers, now, would I?” He put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a few of the coins that the New Haven people spend. It couldn’t have been much. The Ranger looked at it and smirked as he pushed it into his belt bag bag. We rode on together with him riding in front of us.
The sun didn’t come out that day, or the next. We camped with the fat Ranger, and continued on the next morning. May had chicken for us to eat that night. I guessed that Bo or Ben had stolen them from a yard somewhere in New Haven before we left because we still had three in the cage that hung from our wagon. There were also two new chickens hanging from another cage next to them now. One of them laid an egg. May and Raf killed the new chickens the way people from Pan kill anything. It’s strange if you ask me. They face the thing toward the setting sun, they sing a short song in their language, then May holds it out and Raf stands facing her right hand side. Then he takes his rapier, which is the sword they use in Pan, and he swings it so hard it hits the dirt after it’s sliced its head clean off. Then, as the bird’s body is flapping and trying to run about, without its head, Raf and May hug each other, holding the bird between their chests, and they kiss, deeply and passionately. I think they’d pop each other right there on the spot if no one were looking. It’s supposed to take the energy from the dying bird into them. She cooked it with weeds.
It was cold when we slept in the tents. Very cold. When we woke up there was a frost on everything. Bo and Ben made a fire and they were smoking with the fat, Catholic Ranger when I woke up. They were all laughing about something. Boss walked past me with another small, dying bird on a stick. He made eye contact with me as we passed one another. Boss has blue eyes. But they change. Sometimes he smiles and only his eyes move. But this wasn’t one of those times. He was clearly anxious about the fat Ranger still being around us while we have the King in the cage on the back of the pole cart. I walked alongside him toward the creature.
“Does that Ranger sound like a Catholic to you?” he asked quietly.
“What do Catholics usually sound like?” I asked. He smiled at me as he subtelly drew back the canvas cover from the cage and he fed the dying bird to the King through the gap.
“Good point,” he answered. I didn’t follow what he meant.
I headed for the fire to get warm. I slept the night with all my clothes on but my feet were still freezing.
Most of the Empire Road is wide enough for two large carriages to ride along side by side. But along the path a mile or so before New Rome the trees that lined the sides of the roads get thicker and thicker until they are like a solid wall. Their trunks have grown into the road and made the road thinner. It meant that if we saw another wagon coming our way we’d have to back up to let them through. Fortunately we were alone on the way into New Rome. As we walked alongside the horses we all got into a rhythm. The beat of our walking, along with the sound that our feet make, as the hoofs of the horses make a clopping beat, all come together to make a sort of combined rhythm. It’s hypnotising at times. And it helps the long walks pass by, as you listen to it for hours, drumming, just beating.
We arrived at New Rome shortly before lunch. As we approached the gates of the community the Ranger took out several lengths of thin rods of wood that joined together to make a long pole from the pack behind his saddle and slotted them into one another to make one long pole. Then he unfurled a flag with the Cross and two trumpets on it, which is the symbol of New Rome. Last year when we were here we exited New Rome through these gates and entered from a northern side entrance via a side road. I didn’t really notice them when we were here last time. But this time, entering through the main gates I was impressed by how grand it was.
The fat Ranger had no idea we had the creature with us, or he would have charged us a bribe to get it into the city. I wonder if the other people in New Rome also hate him. He rode most of the journey alongside May. She knew he was being a creep, but she pretended not to notice. On the most part she just drove the cart and let him talk, but every time there were bumps in the road she’d help the bouncing of the cart along a little bit and give the Ranger a show. Raf smirked occasionally. That Ranger wouldn’t stand a chance against Raf. He may be only a bit bigger than me, but Raf as fast as lightning with his rapier. He’s not jealous of May with other men though. The like that in Pan.
The moat under the gates went about 20 meters along the side of the wall. The water in it stinks. It’s a dark brown colour and full of turds. They get their drinking water from the Thanatos just like everyone else, but they don’t throw their waste off their side of the wall like everyone else does. In New Haven they have a windmill that pumps water out of the Thanatos and sends it past the public toilets and then out to the wastelands. The Romans just send it straight back into the river. Geez, New Rome stinks.
New Rome has no coliseum. They hold regular dog fights all year round with the occasional rooster and wombat thrown in for good measure, but they’re terrified of all things outside of New Rome. Instead of a coliseum they hold what they call mysteries. They’re plays about their God or the life of the pope that was in charge when the Great Ending happened. All their plays are boring. I always have to play the part of whoever dies first. Boss used to make me play the girl parts until May joined us. I prefer to die than play the girl.
Their boring plays about the Great Ending aren’t accurate either. In the Great Library at Leyden there are nine Apocalypse books. One is a diary by a man named Mike Anderson. He was in a city when the dead arrived. Then there are the two books of Ministry. They were made by an army to help fight the dead, and they describe a lot of things to help the soldiers kill them. They don’t say whether you have to cut a specific part of their brain or not. So people still argue about that. But they had guns back then, so they were talking about shooting at the head. I’ve never seen a gun. Boss said he has. But the dead heard the pop sounds that the guns made as they’d go straight toward them. So no one has guns now. Getting the right kind of metal is too hard too. That’s described in a book called Jessop. Its in “the Letter of the Founding Father”. They’re all letters from the leaders of the different communities at the time when the first walls were built. They are the letters of Jessop, Leydon, Schmidt, Phoenicia, Mohammed and Bretheren Kaleb. The first three were the letters written by the founders of the towns that they started, and the communities that still have their names. Phoenicia was a town that was lost in the earlier wars between the towns and isn’t there anymore, or no one knows where it was. Some people say that the Thanatos River changed course and it swept Pheonetia away. Mohammed was the guy who started Haji and his letter is a declaration of removal of Haji from all the other communities. The letter of Bretheren Kaleb is a letter from the founders of Basin to all the other communities telling them that they believe that another Great Ending was coming, bigger and worse than the first, and that they want nothing to do with anyone else who doesn’t eat what they eat and do what they do because their god didn’t allow it. All the Apocalipse books are bound and together as a complete history of the time when the dead began to rise. Most of the other communities have a copy of it somewhere.
When we arrived at New Rome we were taken into the town and then into the middle of the community. It’s an open space, paved with stones, where travellers can camp. It’s in the open space so that the travellers can be seen at all times by the locals who are suspicious of outsiders. We drew the wagons into a circle around one of the fire pits. There was another group camped on the other side. A family with four small children. They were merchants and had pots and pans along with all sizes of clay jugs to sell. Boss put his hand on my shoulder. He wanted me to follow him with Alexis and Raf to go and see the Priests in the town. He had the satchel with him, with the clay all inside it, that the creature originally had when we pulled it over the wall. The first place we stopped was a tailor. I own three shirts, two coats, a scarf, two pairs of trousers and one pair of boots. None of them fit me anymore, and most of them have at least one hole somewhere or other. Boss is meant to keep me in clothes and feed me as part of my apprenticeship. I think he was trying to kid May into making costumes for the shows, and new clothes for me, because she’s female. I don’t think she even knows how to sew. But she quickly told him she wasn’t his servant and he didn’t discuss it with her again.
We picked up three new costumes for the mysteries we would perform later. They were all robes, which meant that we were telling bible stories again. “You get to be David against Goliath tonight”, Boss told me as we walked out. I didn’t know that play.
“David dies at the end, huh?” I asked.
“Oh – no – he kills a giant with a pebble, then he grows up to be a king!” Alexis said with a smirk.
“With a pebble?” I asked. They chuckled under their breath. “Christian plays are stupid,” I added.
“Ben is going to be the giant,” Boss added.
“And I get to kill him?” I asked. They laughed. I guess this one may not be so stupid after all.
He also bought me a new pair of trousers, a shirt and a coat that all looked like they had been owned before and mended. We call clothes that have been mended for resale, mendups. These were good mendups because I couldn’t see any obvious signs of mending on the knees or elbows. There’s lots of ways you can make a good mendup. When I thought I was going to have an apprenticeship I originally hoped I would be apprenticed to a tailor. I find it interesting. Mostly what they do is just stitch up the holes and re-sell them. But the better ones are mendups where they take the whole piece of clothing apart, turn it inside out and re-stitch it so that the fresher looking fabric from the inside is now facing the outside so it looks new. These looked like that. The coat was a bit big, but since I’m skinny maybe it wasn’t.
We walked a short distance to the cathedral that sits in front of the Papal Palace. New Rome is crowded. There are too many people living in too small an area, but they won’t expand their walls because they’re afraid of the dead attacking them when they let the wall down to widen it. Catholics always have as many kids as they can. Most families have at least four. And they will all share a single bed. The mother, the father, even the grand parents sometimes. It’s weird. They also don’t bathe often, so the whole town stinks like poop, wet animals and Ben. People stare at us as we walk into the cathedral and Alexis told me to bow at them as they look at us. Raf didn’t know he had to bow either, but we all did anyway.
A man in robes came to see us shortly after we got there and he talked with Boss. He showed the priest the ball from the satchel and the priest nodded. We all followed him into a corridor to the side of the huge church. The buildings were dark, and didn’t have enough windows. We walked through several corridors and rooms until we came to a large open courtyard with gardens and peacocks walking about. There was a fountain there with fresh water coming out of its top and we were told to wait there for a moment. Alexis drank from the fountain. I would never do that in New Rome. It’s a gross place. Boss thought it was funny. We were actually there for quite a while before we were taken to the other side of the courtyard and into the Papal Palace. We walked through a few more corridors and were shown into an office with lots of seats waiting for us. We sat down and waited.
Boss looked calm. I’ve never seen him look nervous. Sometimes his eyes look serious, but never nervous. Alexis is a bit the same. But sometimes he puts his hand on the pommel of his sword. That’s when I know he’s not completely comfortable. He didn’t have any weapons with him this time but I noticed his thumbs were inside his belt. Raf doesn’t take anything too seriously. He smiles a lot and leans on anything close to him in a way that looks confident. I just stand wherever I can so that no one notices me.
The door opened and eleven men in robes walked in. Most were wearing white robes with black shoulder pieces, two were in brown robes, and one of them was wearing a black robe with fancy, purple trimming and a big gold cross around his neck. I wished they’d let us use their tailor for our costumes. Their dresses were amazing. Our show would be a million times fancier if we had their kinds of costumes instead of our mendups.
“Greetings, Mr Fentaro” the one with the black robe and purple sash said to Boss. “My name is Cardinal Marcus Varro and I understand you are wishing to discuss a contract you have in your possession?”
Boss smiled and took the ball out of the satchel. He handed it to one of the priests in white robes, who inspected it carefully, and then handed it to another who did the same. They passed it from one to the next until all of the priests in white robes had seen it. Then they sat it down on the table in front of the two priests in the brown robes. They began flipping through a big, heavy book until they’d found the right page. Then they slid the book to the Cardinal and he took the ball in his hand as he looked between it and the page in front of him.
“Well, this contract seems to be intact and it’s registered to our treasury. The mallet please, brother Dom?” he said, as he turned to one of the white-robed priests. Brother Dom handed the Cardinal a small, silver mallet and the Cardinal began tapping carefully on the top of the ball. After a few taps the ball split into three pieces. I think it was supposed to split into two bits down the middle, but a chunk fell off on the side as well. Boss leaned forward to see what was inside the ball. The Cardinal picked out of the ball three small gold coins, five glass marbles and in the middle of the ball was a small key. I looked at Boss’ eyes and I could see that he was amazed. The coins weren’t the transferable gold that Boss usually buys, they were much smaller. But they would easily buy a few bits and pieces worth having.
The Cardinal looked up at Boss. He looked puzzled. “So… where is it then?” The Cardinal asked. There was a long silence as Boss’ face stayed perfectly still.
“Which one?” Boss asked carefully, and then smirked. He never looks like he’s out of control, but Alexis’ hand moved slowly to his hip again, even though he didn’t have a sword there.
“Well, either of them,” the Cardinal replied, as he furrowed his brow.
“Which one would you like first?’” boss asked, still owning the discussion; although I suspected he had no idea what the Cardinal was talking about.
“You could begin by explaining what happened to the bounty hunter we gave this contract to, and then you can explain where the prisoner is who he was sent after”
Boss thought for only a second, and then drew breath to tell a new kind of story. One he was making up as he told it from the small bits of information that he had gathered since that ball was broken open. “Well… The bounty hunter is a tragic story, I’m afraid.” Boss began. “We encountered him on the road out of New Haven a week ago. He was walking to New Rome from the communities by the sea to present you with the prisoner. He had confined the prisoner to a cage in the wilderness just outside the communities by the sea. Sadly, however, the Empire Road was attacked by the dead in numbers that were unthinkable!” The priests’ eyes all widened and two of them did that thing where they touch their shoulders and forehead. “In fact, your Ranger, the one who brought us in to New Rome, he was one of the three rangers who fended off the dead in a heroic way that allowed us to escape with our lives! Tragically, I’m afraid, the bounty hunter was bitten by the dead. We cared for him until we were certain that he was about to turn and we secured him with a chain around his neck to a tree just outside the road in the wastelands for you to witness if you so desired. As you will realise, both the bounty hunter and the prisoner are now accounted for and in his dying breath the bounty hunter asked me to fulfil this contract with you, redeeming its fifteen hundred Denarius to take to his mother in the communities by the sea.”
The Cardinal sat for a moment. He studied Boss, and then looked at the priest in the white robe beside him. He looked back at Boss again and I could see that Boss had clearly managed to guess too many things correctly for the Cardinal to dismiss what he was saying as a lie.
“If it weren’t for the fact that you are so well known here, for your piety, and your respect for our religion, and for all the times that the Mr Fantario mystery plays had been performed here at the May Games, I would almost have a concern that you had taken possession of this contract through ill-gotten gain” said the Cardinal. “That said, your reputation has preceded you, and I am willing, on this occasion, to give you the benefit of the doubt. I also did not issue this contract, and I have no knowledge of why it was issued. The criminal in question is one that the Pope himself had asked for the capture of, with no explanation as to why. However, it will be necessary for you to get the prisoner and bring him here for trial. Then, and only then, can I give you the fifteen hundred Denarius.”
“We can do that, your grace. However, I ask that you please consider the fact that this task will, in fact, become a difficult one in and of itself for me to take on. With all due respects, your Grace, this task will take away from the tour of towns that make up my livelihood. So, I ask for your consideration as I perform this obligation, and that you consider a fair compensation for my time as I bring this criminal to you for trial” Boss said slowly, softly and cautiously. “After all, the bounty hunter, this news, and this contract were all delivered as a free service by myself and my troupe up until this point. I will also take no part of the fifteen hundred Denarius that will be given to his mother when I finish performing my show rout this autumn. However, for me to ensure that the prisoner remains alive for a trial, one would imagine that a speedy return to him is required to ensure he is not freed by his present captors, or cast out to the wastelands once more. When the bounty hunter told us he left him two days ago he was said to be in a healthy state in a cage, in the wastelands. But I every minute we wait here threatens that. The task of delivering the prisoner to you would in fact require me to abandon my current season of performances and head straight to the communities by the sea, where I would then take the prisoner. This of course would also, in turn, require some sort of payment in place of my earnings as a showman.”
There was a deafening silence when Boss stopped talking. Then the priests whispered amongst themselves for a moment. Boss is clever like that. Knowing when to talk, what to say, and how to squeeze every last opportunity out of every situation for maximum effect. He also knows when to be silent. One of the men in brown robes walked out of the room. We stayed in silence while he was gone for a few minutes. Boss’s gaze stayed firmly on his hands. Then he came back into the room a few minutes later with another man. He had a small box with him and the new man handed the priest its key.
“How much would you anticipate your services might cost to recover the prisoner?”
“Well, we were just beginning our season you see. Last year was my lowest takings since I began and I needed to try and recover some of last year’s losses… I guess it would be fair to estimate that I’d need at least… thirty five hundred Denarius to be able to offer such a service… Which I guess transfers into about… 700 Interchangeable Gedle.’
The Cardinal looked at the box’s lid for a moment and then opened it. He counted out a small pile of the thin gold coins. Then he gestured to the priests in the brown robes to also count the money. Once they were sure that it was the right amount of money he dragged it off the table with his hand and into a cloth purse and handed it to Boss.
“This is half. When you return with the prisoner I will give you the remainder of your payment along with the payment for the bounty hunter’s family.”
“Thank you, your grace.” Boss said, as he handed the purse to Alexis. “One last thought. May I ask the name of the prisoner that we are to collect and what he’s guilty of?”
The Cardinal didn’t move for a moment. Then he drew breath in through his nose and spoke slowly and calmly. A little bit too calmly in fact.
“His name is Jordan Towers. His crimes are not ones that you need to concern yourself with. If he is, indeed, as you said, confined already in a cage, then you should be wise and keep him in it. He is a dangerous man. Now – what mystery play do you have for us tonight?”