The Test Subjects
With Ben sobering up on top of the planks on the pole cart we made our way back into Pan. The town was now completely under the guard of a combination of Pan Patrio, a scattering of the remaining Schmidt soldiers and the Haji army. It was totally clear that the Haji were running the show when we approached. Their leaders were giving out all the commands to the Patrio as well as their own soldiers, while the Patrio commanders stood beside them. Boss was known to every single one of them, however, this was both a blessing and a curse at that exact moment. As far as I could tell from my year and a half travelling with him he was loved by every community he ever toured to for the simple fact that he toured there with entertainment, and he was smart enough to always make it entertainment that suited their culture. However, the moment of truth came when he stood on the home cart drive-seat to tell the guards who he was. The problem was his name. In Haji we perform in their ‘unofficial coliseum’, which they call the Herazmi El’montage. They have another coliseum that’s more like a theatre, but it doesn’t ever host tournaments because they believe that the dead are unclean and nothing unclean is allowed inside the walls of Haji; including us. They hold performances outside in the unofficial arena with acrobats, tumblers and singers and the occasional man on man wrestling and sword fights. When we perform at Herazmi El’montage we can do whatever show we want because it’s outside the walls and Boss introduces himself as ‘Mr Fahaar’s Grand Circus’. Interestingly, as the Haji audience re-enter the gates of home town after the show, they all wash at a long set of troughs that are beside their gates. Only the men ever come to see the shows. In fact, I’ve never even seen a woman from Haji. The outerwall people are also allowed to use these troughs for whatever purpose they like because the Haji are very charitable to them, But after a show they refill the troughs with fresh water and only the Haji are allowed to use it until they’re all safely back inside. Then the outerwall people can also use the water.
In Pan, where they have their arena in the area at the back, closest to the river, Boss introduces himself as ‘Mr Fricnatious’s Circus of Wonderment’. As he stood up to address the gate house soldiers it was obvious that they knew who he was. But it was also instantly obvious that we were in danger because the guard were a combination of Haji and Paneretian soldiers. But, in truly fine form, Boss already had his introduction worked out and he used it in his favour. As we approached the gate the Patrio soldiers jogged up the road to meet us. Boss didn’t stop, because none of them were telling him to. They kind of jogged alongside the wagons until we got within yelling distance of the grand gates of Pan and then Alexis pulled the horses up. The gates of Pan have huge columns that were once logs either side of the entrance. Then there’s a roof that joins them at the top and its edges curl up like a lotus flower. The tiles are red, the pillars are deep blue and all the small details around the other parts are yellow. An important looking Haji soldier was standing in the path, with his arms folded; flanked with about ten others. The sun was completely gone now behind thick, dark grey cloud cover and it was starting to become cold again. Boss stood up and yelled to them, as they watched him in the fire light from the fires that burned in cast iron troughs either side of the gates.
“Greetings my friends! It is me, Mr Fahaar Ficnatious and my Circus of Wonderment! I know that my services here are of no use to yourselves after all that has happened today. However, when I heard the news of the attack I came as fast as I could to offer you my resources in any way they may serve you. My wagons, my artists, if we can serve you, or even entertain your troops tonight, it would be an honour!.”
The Haji soldier walked to the driver’s bench and looked up at Boss. He smiled.
“It is indeed a wonderful thing that you have come, Mr Fahaar! You will be a very welcome guest here tonight! Our army has won a horrible fight, though many were lost. Your performers will be a truly magnificent surprise for our soldiers!”
We were escorted into Pan the same way we’d left only hours earlier. It was surprising to me that the Haji soldiers seemed completely none the wiser that they had jogged straight past us on their way into Pan. But then again, I guessed they had other things on their minds. That, and our painted planks and bunting wasn’t yet up on the wagons. I was standing on the back of the pole cart with May and the brothers as we went back into Pan. We were looking out past the cage that had the creatures in it. We passed the gates into the area where they grow their zucchinis and beans. There were a fair few Haji soldiers watching us as we passed, smiling and occasionally waving at May. But when we got into the housing areas soldiers and civilians were everywhere! They were lining the street and waving at us. Then I got the fright of my life! The brothers began playing their horns behind me and I thought we were about to be attacked by something. May laughed. Ben sat up and looked a little more focussed finally. I’d stashed my trousers with the two saplings in a gap between the poles near the cage. I knew that Ben wouldn’t be likely to go looking for anything near there. He’s a coward. I stood them upright and poured some drinking water on them. Other than one of them being bent at the base, and the wood looking a little worse for wear, they both looked quite healthy still.
Boss turned off the main thoroughfare and headed directly for the arena. The road leading to it is filled with shops of all kinds and is very busy with carts and people.
When we got to the arena I was surprised by how low its walls were. It only looked as tall as a farmhouse from the street level. But the thing about the Pan arena is that it’s dug into the ground by about the same height as it goes up. It’s like a pit that you look down to the bottom of. It’s bottom, where the performances happen, is also close to the waterline of the Thanatos River at the bottom of the pit, so its performance area is always soft and the mud underfoot is always damp. The last time we were here I watched Alexis get covered with mud that sprayed up to his armpits from running about in there. He was the last fight of seven on the program and the other fighters and the dead had been running about in there all night before he got his turn. But also, unlike the other arenas, this one has a completely open side that gives a full view down to the river. It’s seating is made of blue stone, like their streets, and is only a three quarter circle. It smells in there too because of all the dead they kill and the arena is never cleaned out. They wait until the river floods to wash out all the death that goes on in there. It floods about three times a year in winter when the rains come and the river rises. The Panetians call their arena the Su-Chai. It means something like death house in their language. The entrance to the seating and down to the pit all come over the top of the wall, like climbing a stone set of stairs.
We pulled the wagons up in the large court area near the entrance to the Su-Chai arena. When we were here last time there were all kinds of food vendors coming and going, with tents, wagons and merchant tables everywhere. They don’t charge the food Vanders to set up or operate in this arena at all. So it’s a free for all amongst them, and they serve everybody as they sit watching the shows the whole way through. They can also be incredibly disruptive to the performance because they don’t stop selling or sprinkling at any point. But now there was just men coming and going with horses standing at the entrance all tied to the hitching posts. The soldiers all came over to help May down first, and then, obligingly, offered to help us down too. May loves attention like that and it was the first time since Raf was killed that I saw her smile. The seating in the Su-Chai arena was being used as bedding for the Haji army, and their kits were all laid out on them. The whole structure is made from bluestone blocks. It was about three hours before sundown and Boss knew that they would want to see something spectacular! The Muslims were particularly keen to see us kill some of the dead that they hadcaptured in the battle, because this wasn’t a Muslim town and they seemed to have an ‘anything goes’ air of excitement about them when they’re not in Haji. We got our stuff out of the wagons and went down near the far side of the pit; half way between the river and the arena. May was cooking weeds and spices in a stew with eel from the river. I like eel. But the weeds she was cooking were weeds she had bought in the market. BOUGHT! With money! This time we were treated to a combination of yellow woodsorrel flowers, which have a lemon taste, but otherwise come from clover, with the chicken meat they didn’t feed the creatures yesterday, eel, and mallow leaves. I hate mallow leaves now.
I always prefer to watch than to get caught up in the activity when I’m not completely sure what’s required of me. I’ve always been that way. I suppose it was because my dad was so quiet and I had to watch him so closely to work out what I needed to do to look after him when I was still there. But this time I was glad for it. Boss was standing at the back of the performance area as a senior looking Haji soldier walked down the staircase toward where the pit was. He stopped half way down and was met by a senior looking member of the Patrio. They both had gold and silver badges on their chests. They stopped right in front of me and didn’t seem to notice me at all. They greeted one another with a head gesture and just began speaking. The Patrio officer did most of the talking, and begun with a hushed voice.
“I’ve had their wagons moved to the front. They had two dead creatures on the back of the larger wagon.”
“What would he have them for?” The Haji soldier said with surprise, leaning away from the Patrio.
“He’s a circus presenter. He probably shows them off to the other communities for a fee. One of them was wearing the straps and rings that Jessop puts on them, but the other was wearing clothes from the seaside communities.” They paused for a moment and looked down at Boss, talking to one of the men who was organising the performances for that night. My mind was racing, and I almost considered interrupting them to explain that the two creatures Boss had were to be slain by Alexis that night. But I knew they’d never believe it because of the way the dead are usually brought into the arenas. Most of the people that live in the communities are fearful people. They have been born and raised to be afraid of the land outside their communities and the dead are exactly what they’ve been taught to be afraid of. So when they bring them into their arenas they do it in cages, with specially trained guards that carry sticks, and they have set out routes to bring them into the town through at specific times so that no one could possibly ever come into contact with a single creature. I knew that Boss was about to find himself in deep trouble for having two creatures in a flimsy wooden cage on the back of the wagon. But as far as I was concerned I was more worried about my two saplings than the creatures. I knew Boss would always be able to find more wagons, and that nothing we had in them was all that important to us. But I wanted those plants.
“After the show tonight when the men have been entertained take him and his whole outfit to the wagons and send them out,” the Haji soldier said thoughtfully. “They can be the ones to make the test for us.” I had no idea what that meant. Perhaps the test was the performance we were about to give? But in any respect, I would see my plants again, Boss would get his wagons back and we would be on our way once again.
I went straight down to Boss when the soldier had left and told him what I’d heard. He agreed with me that it was stupid of us to have brought the two creatures into the city without telling anyone. But still, he was happy with the sound of getting the wagons back and being sent on our way.
As night fell and the torches were being lit at the tops of the coliseum and around the edges of the pit. Boss and Alexis were in deep discussion. I was practicing my juggling. I was using Raf’s sand bag juggling balls that he gave me as a loan to practice with just before he was killed. I didn’t want May to see, but I wanted to use them anyway. Then Boss called us over.
“Tonight we’re the only talent here. So, Elijah, I want you to begin while Passalus and Acmon play for you.” He turned to the brothers. “Do you two have anything old that you can play? Something that isn’t from either community. Something fast though.” Then he paused for a moment. “I’ve had their soldiers round up some creatures for Alexis to fight as the last act. May, do you think I could be your base for some of the easier lifts that you and Raf were performing? I know that we haven’t done them before, and I understand what I’m asking of you, but I need to level with you all now and tell you something. It turns out that the Haji found the two creatures we had in the cage on the back of the wagon and they’re going to escort us from here to the gate as soon as the show is over. So, I guess, it’s important that we do a good show to lessen the blow as best we can tonight. I have a feeling they’ll at least give us back the wagons and horses, but it might be a bit rough between the end of Alexis’ act and leaving Pan. So please don’t resist, follow my lead, do the best show you can and know that everything is going to be alright. Now… I know that you may not have everything you need for tonight… but we can’t go out of the arena now to get things from the wagons because they aren’t there out the front, and we need to play dumb. So – whatever you have with you now is what you’ll be performing with.”