“If you’re not gonna stay here,” Dove had said to him, “then there’s something I should give you before you go.”
Digdoug followed her back to her vardo. At her insistence, he reluctantly climbed up the little steps and ducked inside. The shutters were open, letting in some daylight, but Dove kept the curtains drawn. It smelled close and musty. There was barely room in here for two people to stand.
She stooped and reached beneath the small bunk where he had first woken up as a barbarian. From under the mattress she pulled out a little teakwood box, and unlocked it with a tiny steel key from her hatband.
The lid blocked his view of the contents, but she took out one small silver object that he recognized immediately. She closed the box and locked it, replacing it beneath her mattress.
“This is pretty dear to me,” Dove said, standing and holding the ring out in the palm of her hand. “But I bet it means even more to you. So take it.”
Numbly, Digdoug plucked King Posbrake’s signet ring from her hand and examined the insignia: six little squares in two rows of three, the center-top one depressed downward. It was Homekey’s seal, carved in intaglio.
“He...gave you this?” he asked, shaking his head.
“To show it to anyone who tried to stop me from dragging you through the portal,” said Dove, nodding slowly. “To show them I was on a Royal mission. I was gonna bring it back to him right after I got you fixed up, but, uhm...you know.”
Digdoug held it up and stared at it. The finger this ring belonged on...didn’t exist anymore. He couldn’t fathom it. The distinctly stylized but orderly pattern of six little squares in this ring was all that remained of Posbrake’s extraordinary mind. Not the city, not the side he’d built... Erfworld had lost something grand. The world had lost a Ruler who could have changed things for good.
“It isn’t fair,” he whispered.
“Nothing’s fair,” said Dove. It had the sound of a rote, reflexive response. Maybe it was a Carnymancer axiom or something.
Digdoug stared at the ring for a few seconds longer, then closed his hand around it. He lacked a pouch or a pocket in his trousers. Feeling sheepish, he placed the ring on his right ring finger, and turned away toward the door without a word.
“You’re gonna find that out, out there, Digdoug,” said Dove.
He stopped and looked back at her. “What d’you mean?”
“I mean it’s tough. All over,” she said. “You’ll...probably do okay as a Dirtamancer, but you won’t like ‘em.” She shook her head at him, slowly, knowingly. “You really won’t. You’d be better off stayin’ around here.”
“I won’t like what?”
“The other Dirtamancers,” she said, making a face. “They’re creeps.”
Digdoug frowned. “That’s what people say about Carnymancers.”
“Carnies are all right,” said Dove. “We take care of our own. You know, unless you’re completely hopeless. The Dirtamancers here ain’t like that.” She shrugged. “You’ll see, I guess. You don’t trust me, and I can’t make you, so you’ll have to go find out for yourself. Good luck, hon. I wish you well.”
He stepped away from her and put his hand on the doorknob, but he did not turn it. Instead, he rubbed the tip of his thumb over the ring’s metal edge, sensing the composition of pure silver alloyed with eight percent copper. The King really was gone. A part of Digdoug's mind kept trying to recall his orders, thinking that he should be getting home. His every instinct was to be Loyal. But to whom? Digdoug belonged to nobody now.
Before long, the sun would set. Did he ever want to see it rise again? How was he supposed to live now? What would be the purpose of it? “Why would I stay here, Dove?” he said with his face to the door. “Why would you even think I’d do that? I’m not a Carny.”
“It’s a big tent,” said Dove. “We got losers of all kinds around here.”
He blew air out of his nose. “Thanks.”
She stepped up behind him. He was ready to turn the doorknob and leave if she touched him again, but she didn’t. “I’m teasin’. But it’s true. D’you know how I make most of my upkeep, Digdoug?”
He kept his face to the door. “Hiring out, I guess.”
“Huh! Please. Nobody hires Carnies. The gig with Homekey was like...Titanic luck or something. Work like that never comes along! And still I blew it, disband me.”
He could feel her breath on his neck, but she kept apart from him. “Then how?” he asked, as she obviously wanted him to.
“I manage people. I find gigs for casters, and I take a cut. Oh sure, I do shows sometimes. Run a card table sometimes, loan out the hat... But mostly, I hustle. A lot of us do that,” she said. “Usually it’s on a per-gig basis. But you know Doc Sassafras? He’s signed up with me long-term. He never hasta worry about his upkeep. I find him work, or I get his potions and scrolls sold to buyers. I could hustle for you, too. You wouldn’t ever need to worry.”
He took in a deep breath and let it out slowly, still touching and sensing the signet ring on his finger. “You’d find me work?”
“I could find you a lot of Dirtamancy work, Digdoug.”
“And I’d get paid?”
“Yeah. Of course you would. You wouldn’t ever need to—”
“Like Charlie?” he said, finally turning around to face her. She looked taken aback. “Like that? Just do some good, honest work for you like Charlie did? And you’d take your cut?”
She shook her head. “Hey I’m not responsible for what other deals Charlescomm made in that battle. I told you, I’m mad as a Marbit about it.”
Digdoug scowled. “You knew what he was like.”
“Yeah.” Dove looked him in the eyes. “I blew it; I said that. I shouldn’t-a trusted him. But I also know what you’re like. And you wouldn’t screw over my client like that. So if I’m not gonna find work for Charlie any more, then I sure could use your help makin’ up the difference.”
“Right,” he said skeptically. “You’re not going to work for Charlie any more?”
She looked away, considering. A bitter look crossed her face. “Not unless I have to,” she said.
He pressed his lips together tightly, considering her. Everything he knew about what had happened to his side came from Dove’s own mouth. He wanted to believe her. And simultaneously, he wanted to blame her for everything, slam the door of her vardo, and never see her again.
Everything’s a show, Digdoug. What did that really mean?
He raised up his hand and looked at the ring. Had King Posbrake really given her his signet, or did she steal it? Or maybe it was a copy; she could have passed it to a Dittomancer or a Dollamancer in the Magic Kingdom while he slept. Or maybe Charlie pulled it from Posbrake’s body and gave it to her as a souvenir of an inside job well done...
“Would you work against him?” he asked her, quietly.
Her brown eyes widened. “What’d’ya mean?”
“If he destroyed Homekey,” said the Dirtamancer, his voice low and serious, “then I guess I want to destroy him back.”
He weighed this brand new idea in his head: to find out what really happened to his side, and then make whoever did it pay. Maybe that was Dove, or Prince Creen, or King Minus, but probably it was Charlie. He nodded to himself. It was a purpose. It felt right “Will you help me?”
Dove closed her eyes and sighed through her nose, her shoulders slumping. She shook her head sadly. “Digdoug. Hon... You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Yes I do.”
“No. You don’t,” she said, her brow furrowing. “You have literally no idea. No army is gonna take down Charlie. No side could. Look, I appreciate the idea of gettin’ back at someone, okay? But no. You just don’t even know.”
Digdoug squared his jaw and nodded at her. “So you won’t help.”
“No, I won’t ‘help!’ That’s not help!” She tilted her head. “C’mon. You don’t make an enemy outa him, trust me. He never loses.”
He studied her face, but he never could tell what he was seeing there. How much was Stagemancy, and how much did she really mean? Everything? Anything? All he knew for certain was that he was going to have to start somewhere else.
“Thank you for the ring, Dove,” he said. He reached behind and opened the door, pivoting and stepping out into the afternoon sunshine. “Goodbye.”
“Don’t do it, Digdoug. I’m serious,” she said behind him, as he descended the steps into the grass. “He’ll end you faster than that bottle of Skidreau’s would.” He didn’t look back.
“At least be careful! Digdoug, keep your mouth shut! Okay?”
He stepped around someone else’s vardo and out onto the wagon-rutted main road. Dove didn’t shout anything else to him, and she didn’t follow.
The warm, organic air was filled with the musical voices of Carnies calling out their shows and wares. Two men in suspenders were juggling knives back and forth across his path. He smiled and walked right between them. It seemed like the thing to do.
Unlike in Portal Park, there were painted signs all over the Carnyvale, advertising “patent” potions for sale, games of chance, and whatever entertainment “FERAL BEASTS of TERROR,” “ASTONISHING PHYSICAL FEATS” and “FORBIDDEN DESIRES” might imply. Pitchmen called out to him as he passed along, but he managed to shrug and plead poverty to all of them.
As he entered the shade of the forest at the edge of the Carnyvale, though, he heard a man speak to him. Unlike the frantic barking of the showmen, this voice was serene.
“There is a man who has lost everything.”
Digdoug turned his head. A fair-skinned man in a black cape was sitting on a stump by the roadside, with his head crowned in an enormous red turban. He looked Digdoug in the eye. “He should have his fortune told.”
Digdoug smiled awkwardly. “I don’t have any money, sorry.”
“You will,” the man smiled back, raising an eyebrow. The fellow’s raiment was ridiculously showy, but his manner was almost shy. He did not rise from the tree stump. “You could pay me back someday, Dirtamancer. Or I could make you a trade.”
“I don’t have anything to trade, either,” said Digdoug, frowning slightly. “How did you know I’m a Dirtamancer?”
The man looked straight up, where the bulge of his great red turban overhung his eyes. It was brocaded in gold thread with glass “gems,” and an enormous white feather poked out of the top. He ducked his head very slightly and pointed at the headwear, by way of an answer.
“I see,” said Digdoug. “Well...I don’t think so. I mean, I just paid off one debt. And I need to see about my upkeep tomorrow. Do you know where the Dirtamancers gather?”
“The Magnificent Carniac knows many things!” said the man, suddenly raising his voice. “Let me see your palm, sir.”
Digdoug shrugged, and held out his left hand.
“Other one!” said Carniac. “Dominant hand. Thank you,” he said, as Digdoug proffered his right.
Carniac traced over the lines on Digdoug’s palm with his thumb. “Hm. Yes. Your first turn as a barbarian, is it not?”
“That’s right. My side just—”
“Your side just fell,” said the man. “To foul treachery. A mercenary. A double cross. Brother against brother. Very grim, yes. But your King knew all along. This was his story, not yours, you see. And he knew his play was a tragedy. Don’t lose hope, free Dirtamancer. Your story begins now. You seek revenge?"
Digdoug blinked. "Yes."
"That is good," nodded the man. "But first, seek your path. This is a nice ring...”
Digdoug was amazed at how much Carniac could tell about him from his palm. But at the mention of the ring, he pulled his hand away. “I won’t trade it, if that’s what you’re after,” he said.
Carniac nodded thoughtfully. “That was a Ruler’s ring,” he said.
“Yes. It was.”
Carniac nodded his head once, closing his eyes with a kind of grave finality. “It will be again.”
Digdoug raised an eyebrow. “Um...what?”
“Your fortune is told. Dirtamancers live in the south, at the Dirtamansion.” He pointed up the road. “It’s underground. You have to dig to get in. I’ll take that bottle for payment.”
“Sorry? Oh.” Digdoug took the bottle of tonic out from his waistband. He looked at it, then shrugged and held it out to the man. “You sure?” he said. “Someone told me this stuff was cheap poison.”
“It may be cheap,” said Carniac, taking the flask gratefully, “but I suppose it’s worth a fortune.”
END OF PART ONE