Lamplight flickered over the table as Jan partitioned out what profits they had made the past few days. After subtracting costs of buying more food, care for the horses, repairs to the wagons, and the requisite contribution to their threadbare emergency fund, not much was left to share around.
Kurt took his handful of coins glumly—but then, the ruddy-faced dwarf did most things glumly, except when he was drunk. And he was drunk quite a bit of the time, having the alcohol capacity for a man twice his size and the thirst of two men that size. The money went into his pouch, as it always did, but Jan knew a good portion of it would disappear into tankards of ale before they left town, and the rest into more tankards when they arrived at the next one. Kurt was his friend as much as his client, and had been ever since the two of them met in a coastal tavern. Both roaring drunk, they’d sworn a partnership to tour Europe’s countrysides, showing off an authentic dwarf to villagers who had never seen the inside of a royal court where dwarves were still in fashion.
Marie counted her share of the pot carefully, dropping each coin one at a time into the small pouch she kept in a pocket of her dress or beneath her bed at night. They would stay there, gradually hoarded, until she had saved up enough to buy a tiny bottle of expensive perfume, or a handful of colorful ribbons—trinkets and scents to enjoy in privacy, letting her feel like the lady she wanted so desperately to be for a short while. Her table-length beard was neatly groomed, but as soon as they had left town, Jan knew the woman would be hard at work with a razor in her wagon. Shaving off the rest of her tangled body hair would give her a day or two of itch-free relief, and still leave enough time to grow enough arm and facial hair for a proper display at the next fair.
Between now and then, she’d also tell Jan just how close to destitution they were this time. At nineteen, she had as good a head for numbers as any man he’d known, far better than Jan himself, and handled the troupe’s account book. Buying her custody from those who had presumably been her parents—Jan preferring to think of it as paying ransom for a hostage—had been one of the best investments he had made in his life. From the perspective of the French peasant girl, life as a traveling oddity was undoubtedly heaven compared to years of imprisonment in the basement of a tiny peasant cottage, and who knew what sort of mistreatment by superstitious village priests attempting to purify whatever demonic curse left her with body hair rivaling the hairiest of mountain men. Furthermore, Jan had never tried to impose himself on her as a less scrupulous manager might have. She was a woman, and minus the hair a quite attractive young woman at that . . . but there was the hair. He’d truly never so much as been tempted, and instead their relationship had become a sort of odd fusion between friend, father-surrogate, and manager.
With his typical taciturn lack of expression, Albrecht swept the meager share of profit in front of him into his own coin pouch, where they bounced and rattled alongside the rest already there. As with Marie, Jan knew those coins would be hoarded until the troupe reached a sufficiently well-populated city, but Albrecht wouldn’t spend his earnings. Instead, he always packed what money he’d collected securely and bring it to a courier office, for delivery to parts unknown. For that matter, Jan didn’t really know much about where Albrecht had come from before the day he’d approached Jan in the wake of a show with inquiries as to a possible job. A few demonstrations of his incredible-approaching-inhuman flexibility had served as an audition, yet aside from a rare habit of emitting bouts of profanity in what Jan was fairly certain was Italian when drunk, none of them had so much of an inkling regarding the soft-spoken contortionist’s past.
Regarding his own, equally lackluster personal earnings—as opposed to the money used communally to keep all of them in business—Jan pondered, as he all too frequently did, how the third son of a prosperous Dutch merchant ended up managing a trio of malformed and outcast human beings as they displayed their aberrant appearances for the amusement or horror of townsfolk and villagers. With two elder brothers between him and ownership of the family firm, he had never considered, nor wanted, a prominent role in the business. At best, his education and natural talent for oratory could have given him a position recruiting new customers or bargaining with suppliers.
Unfortunately for him, he’d been on one of the family ships when a freak North Sea storm sent it to the bottom of the waters. He and a handful of other survivors had clung to assorted wreckage for two days before luckily being rescued by another merchant ship heading the opposite direction. The ship was easily replaceable. Jan, on the other hand, walked away from his near-death experience with an overpowering terror of open waters larger than a river. There was no place in a Dutch shipping firm, son or not, for a man who feared the ocean and could not set foot on a ship with his senses intact. It was live on family charity or find a job on land, and Jan’s pride demanded the latter. He’d come close to signing up as a mercenary soldier, but encountered Kurt in that tavern before taking the martial plunge.
The four of them, touring through France and Austria and the Germanies, had been able to eke out a passable living for a time. They migrated from town market to village seasonal fair, and where neither could be found, gave some small inn a night’s entertainment for food and a place to park the wagons overnight. They would have never been rich, but there was enough cash in the hands of curious and bored commoners, or very rarely an idle local nobleman demanding a command display, to keep them fed, clothed, and comfortable.
But war had not been kind to Europe in recent years, and even in the lands not ravaged by armies the belts got tighter and the purses smaller. Jan had heard stories of a genuinely bizarre man—an Italian by the name of Lazarus, whose half-born twin brother hung grotesquely out of his stomach—traveling the cities and courts of Europe to market himself much as Jan marketed their troupe, and to much greater success. If only he’d been born Italian, and in a place to forge a partnership with the Italian Lazarus instead of the German Kurt. The thought faded quickly, though, beneath the ingrained habits of a life’s Calvinist upbringing, and disappeared entirely as Kurt broke the morose silence.
“Where to next, Jan?”
Marie and Albrecht looked over at him as well, and Jan felt the weight of authority bearing on his shoulders once more. He took out the schedule of fairs and festivals they’d accumulated, folding it down to the relevant section of Germany, and spread a map over the tabletop. “It looks like our best odds are heading south, through Rudolstadt, and planning for the big summer fair in Saalfeld, then continuing on towards Nuremburg.”
Albrecht spoke up, laying one long finger on Saalfeld and moving it a hairsbreadth westward. “What about here?”
Jan and the others stared down at the dot labeled “Grantville.” They’d all heard about the amazing town full of people from the distant future. By this point it’d be difficult to find a man in Europe who had not heard the news. Jan had even seen a few of them when the troupe passed through Magdeburg some weeks past. Even in a crowd, the up-timers stood out unless making an effort to blend in. But he’d never considered actually going there.
“Why d’ya want to go to Grantville, Albrecht? They’re all mechanical wizards from the future there. I’ll bet where they come from a dwarf sits on every street corner, a bearded lady stands in every shop window, and all of them down to the babes can tie their own limbs into knots. We’d be nothing special. There’s no money to be made there.”
Kurt was as surly as ever, but Marie looked at the map with a wistful expression. “Do you really think so, Kurt? It might be nice, to see a place where no one looks twice at us. I’d like to spend a few days being normal.”
“And if not, there might be something there we can use, or someone who can use us. It’s not as if our options are increasing, Jan, and there’s more than enough time for us to detour there and still make Saalfeld’s fair.”
He couldn’t argue with Albrecht’s logic, either part. Nor was Albrecht often wrong when he chose to comment. Truthfully, Jan wasn’t the only one who wanted to see something wondrous for a change, rather than being (or selling) the wonder. Grantville it was.
It was incredibly difficult not to stop and gawk as the small caravan made its way down the main street of Grantville, but the trio of horse-drawn wagons was just large enough to make a significant obstruction in the thoroughfare. Seeing as how one of the primary aims of their visit to the town was not drawing close attention to themselves, Jan felt causing a roadblock on their first day there was contraindicated. Albrecht, driving the second vehicle, was undoubtedly of a similar mind. However Kurt felt about the matter, he would be too busy keeping the horse pulling the third wagon on a steady course to rubberneck at his surroundings. What he lacked in muscle power was made up for in volume, and the poor beasts were by this point thoroughly intimidated by the bellowing dwarf, but it was still a task for full-time attention. Marie, inside the wagon Albrecht was driving, could see nothing at all.
The first step was to find a hostelry with enough space to accommodate them. That took a fair bit of time to accomplish, but eventually an inn was located at the perfect confluence of yard space (plenty) and room price (cheap) for the troupe to afford. The somewhat dilapidated condition of said inn, and its distance from the bustle of downtown, were undoubtedly contributors to these facts, but Grantville remained enough of a vibrant economy that the business stayed afloat.
A long-sleeved dress and hooded shawl were Marie’s usual attire on the infrequent occasions she went out in public. Keeping her head down to hide her face meant next to no attention from the innkeeper or any of the other guests, particularly with Kurt to look at instead as Jan rented two middling-quality rooms for a weeklong stay. From there, the three men drifted out separately.
Kurt interrogated the innkeeper with regards to the source of Grantville’s best beer, and left for someplace called the Thuringen Gardens, mildly befuddled by the other man’s fascination with his short stature and how quickly it became mundane. With any luck, he wouldn’t get into trouble this time; too much beer broke Kurt’s usual sullen immunity to taunts about his size from strangers, and where a regular-sized drunkard would resort to fists, Kurt had a tendency to go straight for his knives. He’d yet to kill anyone, or be killed, but it was always a constant worry for Jan. Americans were said to be quite fair as civil authorities went, but that simply meant they’d collect evidence before hanging a murderer, dwarf or otherwise.
Albrecht asked for and received directions to the couriers, or “post office,” and set off on his own errands. Where all that money was sent, Jan had no idea. He’d asked once out of curiosity, and been rebuffed in such a vehement and atypical display of emotion that the subject was never broached again.
After checking that Marie was settled in her room, Jan set out trailing the other two, with no specific destination in mind other than sightseeing. At a gentle stroll, he looked here and there at buildings of obvious up-time design and construction, outstanding amidst the sprawl of down-time construction produced by four years of enthusiastic expansion. Polite nods came from up-timers he passed on the street, who seemed to be in a similar proportion to down-time immigrants as their buildings were.
Pausing at one corner to rest his legs, his eye settled on an up-time building across the street, the sign outside proclaiming it to be the Grantville Public Lending Library. Grantville was famous for its weapons, machines, and attitudes, but it had been the printed books brought back from the future that changed the fortunes of kings and princes. Idly, Jan wondered if those same books could change his fortunes as easily.
Inside, the building was brightly lit despite the relative lack of windows, thanks to a series of heatless lamps attached to the ceiling—an up-time mechanical marvel, evidently. Long rows of books on shelves filled the entry room and at least two adjoining chambers, comparable to a bare handful of private collections Jan had seen in his youth, but far beyond anything usually accessible to commoners. Behind a large desk to one side, a woman not much older than Jan himself looked up from her work with a smile.
“Can I help you?”
“Perhaps. Do you have any books about traveling shows? Entertainers and performers, going from one town to the next?”
“Do you mean, like, a circus?”
It took a few moments for Jan to retrieve the word from distantly remembered Latin lessons—great arenas of the ancient Romans, spectacles of bloody “entertainment.” “Something like that, I think.”
“I went to see the circus as a little girl, once. I wanted to go down and climb on the elephants, and almost got sick on cotton candy. What about them were you interested in?”
“Their masters. I’m curious to learn about your up-time showmen, the men who ran these ‘circuses.’ Who was the greatest show master of the world you came from, and how he managed it. That sort of thing.”
The woman pursed her lips in thought. “I couldn’t say for certain who was the greatest circus manager up-time, but I can certainly point you towards someone who thought he was.”
After a short burst of activity at the device on her desk, she rose and headed towards one of the side rooms, gesturing for him to follow. As they walked, he spoke up again. “What were these circuses you had up-time? I know the origin of the word, but you may have used it differently.”
Her reply was a cheerful, somewhat rambling narrative of performers and acrobats, buffoons and trained animals, and strange foods, all together under a structure called the “big top,” recited while the helpful woman found her destination shelf and began running a finger along its contents. A small book proved her goal, triumphantly retrieved and handed across to him—The Life of P.T. Barnum, As Written By Himself.
“Back up-time, they called Barnum and Bailey’s Circus ‘The Greatest Show On Earth.’ If anyone qualifies to be up-time’s greatest showman, P.T. Barnum is probably it. I’m afraid it’s in English, though. No one has expressed interest in translating it. Can you read English?”
Jan matched her smile with one of his own, replying in English. “Enough to get by, I think I can manage. My thanks, Frau . . . ?”
“Calafano. Cecilia Calafano.”
She offered a hand, and Jan shook it in the up-time fashion after spying the ring adorning one finger and quashing his initial impulse to kiss it instead. “Jan Barentsen. A pleasure, Frau Calafano.”
“Likewise. Checking books out requires Grantville residency, if you plan on staying. Otherwise, you’re welcome to stay and read until closing hours, and I can set it aside for you to continue tomorrow.”
Accepting of the terms, Jan took his prize and settled down at the nearest table, opening the slightly battered tome.
“Few men in civil life have had a career more crowded . . .”
When the librarian returned to close up for the night, it took three tries to break him free of the book. She took it away gently, adding it to the top of a small pile dominated by a book depicting a man wrapped in chains.
On the third day of their visit, Jan convinced the rest of the troupe to come with him. The library failed to impress anyone else to the same degree, thanks to assorted individual degrees of shyness, impassivity, or hangover. It was not the volume of books Jan had brought them to see, but one in particular, sitting somewhat forlornly on its shelf where he had left it after reading and from which he retrieved. Later, he would discuss the tricks of the illusionist Houdini with Albrecht, but this was for all of them to share.
“Albrecht suggested we come to Grantville in hope it would have something we could use, and he was right. This is the history of an up-time pioneer of entertainers, a master showman. He took what was ordinary, and made his fortune by convincing people it was extraordinary. He sold stories as much as he did shows, and succeeded so well that his business bore his name a hundred years after he died.”
Finding a table with enough chairs for everyone, Jan opened to the story of General Tom Thumb and began to read, doing his best to translate.
06 May, 1635
Jan wiped his palms on his trousers, looking over the small crowd of townsfolk gathered in the darkened tent. There were more of them than a first showing usually drew when he set up shop at a new faire, but not a great deal more. If this didn’t pan out like he was counting on, the extra money the troupe had spent preparing for their “new look” could leave them all in somewhat dire straits. There was, however, only one way to find out for sure.
Standing on the elevated lectern, he lit the lamps next to him, illuminating him with light and drawing the eyes of the crowd to where he stood at the front of the tent with hanging curtains on either side. “Good sirs, gentle ladies, welcome to the first showing of Barentsen’s Fantastic Display of Living Wonders! I am Jan Barentsen, and today you shall feast your eyes upon sights you have never dreamed of, amazing human oddities of unusual appearances and origins! When you tell stories to your grandchildren, many years from now, the tale they will clamor for most will be the day that you paid to see what you are about to witness.”
So far, not bad. No one was leaving, and no one looked incredibly bored.
“Thus, without further hesitation, the first of the three fantastic spectacles I bring today to your town. There was once a mine, from which men worked long to dig coal from the earth. Their foreman was tall and strong, and led his crew with skill. Yet one day, disaster struck! A support gave way, and the tunnel began to collapse. As the miners fled to safety, their brave foreman stepped forth and took the weight of the tunnel upon his own back, bearing the world on his shoulder as did the Titan of mythic Greece. Only when the last of his crew had fled did he allow them to pull him free as well, and by then that immense weight had left its mark, crushing him down to half his size. So thus a mighty giant did fall, and thus to you I bring today . . . Atlas, The Shrunken Titan!”
With a tug, he hauled back on a rope, pulling the leftmost curtain aside. On his now-revealed platform, Kurt posed with dramatic exaggeration, flexing his biceps at the audience. His tight, colorful shirt and breeches were well-stuffed to resemble bulging muscles, and when he knelt to lift the cloth-over-wood “boulder” above his head, several sets of breath drew in from the audience. Jan gave Kurt a few more seconds to show off, then raised his hand again for attention.
“Before this next tale, the faint of heart amongst those gathered here should be warned to steel themselves. Many miles from here, in distant France, a young bride with impending child and her husband did go for a comforting walk in the forest near their home. To their misfortune, it was the husband who fell and injured himself, senseless and helpless. His wife called for help, but drew at first not men, only the attention of ravenous beasts, a pack of savage wolves! About the couple they prowled, drawing ever closer, and it was surely the fate of both to be devoured where they lay. Salvation came as huntsmen appeared, hearing the lady’s cries of distress to drive the fell beasts away. Yet, the terror she had known never left her, and the experience forever marked her. Months later, the couple’s child was born . . . but woe! for what came forth was half man, and half beast, covered in fur and bearing sharp fangs no human child could possess. See now, as she has grown, the one and only Wolf-Lady!”
The curtain slid aside at his pull, behind which Marie sat demurely in her usual chair on the small stage. They had paid a carpenter to build the wooden cage surrounding her, including the false rear wall—the other three sides as solid as any true cage would be. For the new show, they had trimmed and shaped her facial hair and beard into a close approximation of a lupine visage, shorted the sleeves of her dress to reveal the tangled hair of her forearms, and glued small pointed bits to the ends of her fingernails.
“Do not fear, for despite her terrible appearance, she is as meek and proper as any could be. Yet be wary, for when the moon hangs full and high in the night, it is the bestial portion of her soul that rises strong within.”
On cue, Marie reached forward to grip the bars of her cage with fake claws, baring her teeth in a sort of grimace and giving the crowd what Jan thought was a rather lackluster growl. Evidently they disagreed, though. Quite a few closest to the front went slightly pale and pulled back into the safety of the group, even after she settled back calmly into her seat.
This time, the assembled townsfolk turned back to him with some reluctance, occasionally sneaking sidelong or outright glances at Kurt and Marie on their platforms. “And finally, to you from the far distant lands of the exotic Mughal Empire, a tale of heathen magic and the infinite mercies of God. In far-away temples, sorcerers toy with power no man should carry, transgressing in heresy as their dark spells warp exotic beasts and animals into semblances of Man’s blessed form. Yet by being given Man’s body, they now share in both Man’s sin and his grace, and the luckiest of them find solace. Here, today, is one such would-be man, an animal freed of its evil creators and taught as a child ignorant yet innocent. Here, today, is The Human Serpent!”
For his new look, Albrecht had found a skin dye that darkened his flesh to the brown of a Mughal. Lying on his belly as the curtain revealed him, he slid forward to the edge before rising up on his knees. From there, he bent backwards, curling into a chest stand and staring at the hushed audience from between his now-spread legs. His eyes narrowed, he waved his outstretched tongue at the watchers with a hiss, flipped his legs over his head, and slowly rose to his feet without using his arms for balance.
This was the riskiest of the troupe’s new looks. For some reactionaries, the story they’d concocted might be enough to justify charges of peddling witchcraft, and Jan eyed his onlookers with no small amount of anxiety. No one seemed angry, though, at best shocked and mostly fascinated by Albrecht’s sinuous movements back and forth.
One by one, Jan pulled on his second set of ropes, sliding the curtains between each “wonder” and the audience closed, then clapped a final time to draw eyes. “Wonders I promised, and wonders you have seen! Let them stick forever in your memory, and should there be charity in your hearts to aid the care and comfort of these benighted souls, you may leave coins in the bowl by the exit. We will remain until the end of the faire. Tell your friends, your families, of what you have seen today and let them experience such sights for themselves. Good day, and thank you!”
The generous heap of money going into his cash-box was an excellent promise for the future, Jan decided. Overall, they had taken in nearly twice as many visitors—and twice as much profit—as a fair this size usually produced. Even after the expenses for the new displays and costumes, there had still been a great deal more than usual for the four of them to split. The tensest moment had been late in the second day, when the pastor of the town church and his assistant came to view the show and linger afterwards. But when Jan and Albrecht explained the truth of Albrecht’s flexibility, the latter reading a few lines of Scripture to prove his humanity, the churchmen went away satisfied.
A beggar caught his eye as he neared the edge of the market square, and Jan paused to toss a coin into the legless man’s bowl. Almost too fast to follow, the beggar flipped his bowl into the opposite hand and snatched the flying coin out of midair for deposit, all without spilling a single pfennig. Amused and impressed, Jan tossed another coin towards the bowl, and the crippled man repeated his trick in reverse. Jan started to turn away, but stopped as an idea struck him, and he looked back at the beggar with closer scrutiny. Both stumps ended just above the knee, yet those brawny arms, shriveled by slow malnutrition as they were, could only have belonged to a sailor even if the tattoos had not given it away. Flashbacks of the shipwreck fluttered in the back of Jan’s mind, but he quashed them brutally. Stepping closer, he met the man’s suspicious glower with his friendliest smile. “What is your name, friend?”
Balancing on his hips and pulling the bowl of coins protectively close, he replied somewhat grudgingly. “Jacob.”
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Jacob. My name is Jan, and I might have a job offer to make you. Have you ever considered learning how to juggle?”