“What does that mean?” Digdoug asked, although he was afraid he already knew.
The scruffy man looked down at his shoes and shook his head almost violently. “Nothin’,” he said. “Forget it.” Then he stooped over and plucked a battered hat from a tree stump near the spot where he had been sleeping, and mashed it onto his head.
“No, I really want to know—”
“Hey, you know what? It should be me offerin’ you a drink, brother. Here,” the man reached into his coat and produced the brown bottle again. “The best in the ‘vale! That’s my line: sellin’ fine shine. But you can have the rest-a this bottle forrrr free, my friend.”
Digdoug took the offered flask from the man’s outstretched hand. It had a fancy paper label, printed in sepia ink:
TONIC of WILDNESS
“That man is the richest whose
pleasures are the cheapest.”
The liquid it contained was probably about as far removed from King Posbrake’s best cognac as Digdoug now was from His Majesty, but that was fair enough, he supposed. It fit his circumstances. He held up the bottle in a vague toasting gesture.
“Thanks,” he said. “I’ll save it for later. I have some more casting to do.” He tucked the flask into the waistband of his trousers.
The man spread out his arms in a magnanimous pose, blowing out a pungent breath. “You’re welcome, brother. And if you—”
The shout came from the direction of Dove’s vardo. She rounded the corner of someone else’s wagon in a hurry, and was running toward them over the grass. The inebriated man threw her a worried glance, and then turned back to Digdoug with a smile.
“If you find you’ve a taste for it, just look for me. Jefferson ‘Nickel’ Carver, at yer humiliating service.”
“Nickel, get outa here! I told you once!” shouted Dove as she approached.
Nickel made a hat-tipping gesture to Digdoug without actually removing his hat, then turned toward Dove just in time to meet a hail of slaps. He cringed into a defensive hunch and retreated backwards as Dove sent that hat flying off into the grass. “What’d I say?” she yelled. “Huh?”
“It’s all right, Dove. Easy! Easy! B.C.!” said Nickel as he kept trying to step away from her. He stumbled and fell over in the grass. Digdoug cringed to see his head narrowly miss the sandstone base of the water pump.
Only then did she let up with her blows. “Outa here! Now! Out!”
“Yeah, yeah.” On his hands and knees, he retrieved his hat. Then he stood up and stumbled away in a crooked line to nowhere, glancing back only once.
Dove stood next to Digdoug with her hands on her hips, watching until he was gone from sight. “He gave you that?” she finally said, pointing at the brown flask poking out of the Dirtamancer’s waistband. “Did you drink it?”
Digdoug pulled out the bottle and looked at it. “No, I didn’t drink any yet.”
“Good,” nodded Dove. She pointed to the ground. “Pour it out.”
She’d said it almost like an order, but Digdoug certainly didn’t feel compelled to comply. He frowned at her. “Why?”
“‘Cause it’s poison, Digdoug,” Dove said with annoyance, “slow poison. You wanna get blotto, you see the Doc for something. But that stuff’s for rubes. It’s for people who don’t plan on living too much longer, you know what I’m saying?”
Digdoug read the label again, and gave a little head-tilted shrug.
“Pretty sure I’m a rube who doesn’t want to live too much longer,” he said, “so it’s for me.” He tucked the bottle back in his trousers and turned away, looking at the pump.
“You’re not a rube, Digdoug,” Dove stepped around and confronted him, planting her shoes on the wet stones.
“No, I’m a mark,” he said, meeting her eyes.
She didn’t flinch. “What?”
Digdoug waved with his hand in the direction of Nickel’s retreat. “He said I was your ‘mark.’ I’m pretty sure I know what that means.”
When he’d heard Nickel use the word, it made him recall something he’d been told back at Follywood, something he wished he’d remembered before now. Chief Willis always professed that Carnies only looked at everyone else as a potential payout, which did fit with what Dove herself said. She made no bones about intending to be paid; she just made it seem less predatory, less parasitical than Chief Willis had.
But Willis also said they used code words like “sucker,” “rube,” and “meal ticket” for their targets, and “mark” was one of those. He couldn’t remember exactly what they all meant. He thought maybe a rube was somebody stupid or gullible, a sucker was somebody you took advantage of, and a mark was someone you were working on taking advantage of—someone who wasn’t your sucker yet, because they hadn’t yet taken your bait.
For a moment, Dove stared at him, reading his eyes. Some of the irritation left her face. Her expression softened. “Yeah, it means you’re under my protection. And these grifters better cool it. Nickel should know better than to try and sell you a bottle of that horse whiz of his...”
“He gave it to me,” said Digdoug.
“Whatever,” said Dove, waving her hand dismissively. “That’s how it works. Did you get the pump fixed?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding past her shoulder at it. “What’s next?” He intended to do whatever else was on her list, and then get out of the Carnyvale. Maybe he’d find somebody else to talk to. Maybe he’d just take the TONIC of WILDNESS and go into the woods to drink deliberately. All he knew was he wanted to get free of Dove. Whatever she was playing for, whatever she ultimately wanted from him, he had no intention of giving it to her.
She turned around and grabbed the pump handle, lifting and pulling down on it a few times. Clear, cold water flowed from the nozzle. She cupped some in her hands and took a drink. “That’s nice,” she said. “That’s real nice work, hon. Thank you.”
“It wasn’t anything,” he said, looking away up the road. “What do you want next?”
“What, are you in a hurry now?”
“Yes,” he said, not looking at her. “I’m leaving. And don’t give me any more money. I won’t pay you back if you do.”
She looked at him for a long moment. Her tongue made a circle in her cheek. “N’okay. In that case, I only have one other thing for you to do. C’mon.”
Dove’s “garden” was pathetic. All she’d done was park her vardo over a patch of wild onions, and attempt to plant a few vegetables beside them. But she was no Florist, and the “crop” might have been good for one meal every twenty-five days or so. She bent over and yanked up a full harvest in the form of half a dozen thumb-sized carrots and parsnips, plus a handful of tiny onions. On her single vine, one of the five small tomatoes looked passably ripe, so she plucked it.
“So what can you do with it?” she asked.
“Dunno.” He knelt down and felt the soil. Sandy and poor, like everywhere else. The root vegetables were handling it, but the tomato plant was hating its miserable life.
“I could do some fertilizing, but it wouldn’t last. Double the yield for maybe forty turns,” he said.
“Can you do anything permanent?”
He gave her a cold look. “Nothing’s permanent. That’s kind of the lesson I'm learning today.”
Her grayish poker face betrayed nothing.
“I’ll improve the soil in this patch,” said Digdoug, turning back to the sad little collection of plants and placing his palms to the ground. “That’ll do more long-term good.” He began to cast.
After he’d been working for a while, Dove suddenly said, “Digdoug, whatever happened, I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
He was sensing the acidity around the tomato plant’s roots, and did not reply. He wasn’t a Florist, either, but he knew this soil was low in carbon and high in acid.
“I’d tell you it broke my heart, too. But I guess you wouldn’t believe me.”
He managed to shake his head as he kept muttering to the ground. He had just pulverized a portion of the sand into clay, and he was now casting to convert that clay into limestone, a juice-intensive process.
He’d heard her, but it didn’t make any difference, anyway. He worked his mind through the ground, going over his progress. For the final piece of spellwork, he converted the surrounding grass (weeds, in this context) into charcoal and added a thin layer of that carbon at the depth where he guessed it would do the most good. Then he stood up and dusted off his hands on his trousers.
“So who did?” he said to Dove in a flat, challenging tone.
Her mouth went pinched. “I can guess,” she said. “But I don’t wanna shoot my mouth off. We should talk to some people about it.” She gestured with the vegetable bunch in her hand. “Let’s find a stew.”
“Charlie ain’t a mystery,” Abner said. “Charlie will tell you anything you want, including what happened to Homekey. You just hafta pay him for it.”
The other Carnies at the table nodded in agreement, while eating their stew (or examining their empty bowl).
“Stews” were a popular activity in the Carnyvale. Depending on the type of food, eating extra rations would reduce a unit’s upkeep by a substantial amount. A good solid meal in addition to your popped rations generally meant cutting your next turn’s upkeep in half, for barbarian and sided units alike. And prepared meals gave you more upkeep relief than just eating raw forage or produce.
So Carnies gathered at long wooden tables by a few community cauldrons, where a permanent, ever-changing soup was always bubbling. The price for a bowl was new ingredients, plus extra Shmuckers to the cauldron’s owner if your offering was too paltry. Anyone who brought meat to the soup could have a bowl for the next three turns, but few managed that. Dove’s vegetables had been enough for two bowls, which she insisted did not obligate Digdoug to do anything else for her.
“If you want,” said Abner, “I could find out the price.” Abner Washboard was Dove’s friend, an enormous, powerfully built man with a mustache that looked like it might require its own separate upkeep. (If so, it was retaining plenty of stew for itself.) He wore a kerchief around his neck, and a shirt that was cut to show off his bulging muscles.
“Or I could,” said Dove. “I got some questions he’d better answer for free if he ever wants me to find him any more gigs.”
“Nah don’t waste yer money on that,” said Bugs Lifer, a grizzled-looking little man in a squashed cap. He put his elbows on the table and leaned forward to look at Digdoug. “Nuttin’s a mystery, if Charlescomm was involved. The answer’s always the same.”
“Which is what?” said Digdoug cautiously. He had finished the salty, peppery broth and was still looking for a way to exit the scene. But somehow he hadn’t left yet. With Dove’s prodding, he’d gotten involved, told them all his story. Now he at least wanted to hear what they had to say about it.
“Charlie got paaaaid,” he said, grinning as Abner and the woman to his left—an attractive performer named Monica Sobriquet—chimed in to say it with him.
“The way I figure,” said Bugs, leaning back on his bench, “first he got paid by Homekey by fulfillin’ the contract, right? Then by Delkey for fulfillin’ their contract. Then maybe again by Delkey if they flew in and rescued the Prince, maybe they drew up a new contract real quick. Then they prob’ly croaked yer King fer the bounty, and got paid again.”
“Paid four times for the same battle,” said Abner, looking down at the table in wonder.
“That’s very Cholly,” said Monica.
“Ain’t it, though?” said Bugs.
Digdoug shook his head. “How? Homekey was strong on the ground. And they couldn’t have critted him from the air. His Majesty had that spell on him.” He turned and threw an accusatory look at Dove. “Didn’t he?”
She narrowed her eyes. “Yeah. He did. You know he did. You said yourself you saw arrows bouncin’ offa him.” It was strange how her way of speaking changed when she was around other Carnies.
“Dove...I don’t know what I saw,” said Digdoug, “or what to believe. I mean, if Delkey knew about you cooking the books for us...”
“Then it was because-a Charlescomm!” she said. “Not me!”
Digdoug frowned. “How?”
“Spell security,” said Bugs, nodding knowingly. “Charlie does that, too. If you pay him.”
“Yeah,” said Dove, pointing to Bugs. “He does.”
“But he knew you were working for us,” said Digdoug. “So you’re saying he sold you out, too.”
“Yeah,” said Dove. “That is what I’m sayin’. That’s why I wanna talk to him. If he ever expects me to work for him again...”
“What? Why would you even consider it?!” Digdoug surprised himself with the shout. “If that’s true! Why would you ever work for somebody like that?”
There was a long, uncomfortable silence at the table. Monica put her spoon into her empty bowl and rubbed the nail on her index finger. “Cholly’s real good to Carnies, mistah,” she said.
“I ain’t happy about it, Digdoug,” said Dove, the corners of her mouth turning down, “but if Delkey paid him, then they paid him. That’s all there is to it.”
Monica nodded. “He just gots-a get paid, is all.”