The show was good. Gorbi thought It was maybe the best entertainment since last season’s showdown in the Arena when Meldrav’s Menagerie was beaten soundly by The Adder and his Bully Boys.
“Was it really worth a silver each?” he thought. “Especially since it was our last silver!”
“Surely, the stretchable boy was something you don’t see everyday. What was his name? Mr. Shingle? The strong lady lifted Galdar and Kate completely over her head!” the little gnome had to chuckle to himself remembering the look on their faces as the gargantuan woman easily pressed his two friends in the air. “Saffron and Sage, the dancing girls? Wow, my face still burns red with the memory! And then there was Basrol, the one-armed juggler, he was truly amazing – and those sabers were sharp! It’s surprising he still has an arm to spare. And that finale, with the pyromancer, Klint; it was as if the flames were enslaved and he their master.”
It was an enchanting hour of their lives, to be sure. But now that hour was over and their pockets were completely empty. Gorbi wasn’t sure what he was going to do now. Kate still had her parents to lean on, and perhaps, the gnome thought, he could scrape a little coin from her parents, too. At least Kate’s mother seemed to like him well enough, but he wasn’t too sure about her father. The elf always seemed a little too high and mighty to Gorbachev, and he got the feeling he wasn’t always welcome when he was around.
Galdar was going to be okay, too. He had the church to fall back on, and to some extent, Gorbi could always find food at the temple, but it wasn’t a sound long-term solution. It had been years, but maybe he could look up his old friends in the Salt Daggers. Galdar would hate him for that, but what choice would he have. It was either that or eventually starve.
Gorbi stared down at the last of the suds floating around at the bottom of his mug and the suds just stared back at him, lonely and sad. The crushing weight of his empty pockets made his legs itch. "Why did I let them talk me into this? he thought.
When Shag Solomon’s Traveling Circus came to town last season, the show was an instant hit in Sasserine and sold out every hour. Everyone was talking about it. And at a silver per ticket it wasn’t something Gorbi could easily afford.
So, Gorbi, Galdar and Kate had waited. Waited for the crowds to die down, waited for the chance to maybe win a ticket over at Fishlips, or if all else failed, waited for the price to come down. But it didn’t.
Kate was probably the most excited of the three of them. Somewhere she had dreamt up the notion that the circus had a dragon and if she could only go see the show she would somehow come face to face with this imaginary dragon and they would become fast friends. Drinking buddies, perhaps, thought Gorbi as he sat on the bar stool at the Strumpet, swinging his legs to and fro and giggling into his mug of beer. Maybe his last mug. Ever.
The show was great, but there wasn’t a dragon. Gorbi looked over to Kate who was sitting between he and Galdar at the bar, her red-golden tresses and sparkling green eyes reflecting the crowded tavern’s lantern light. She was laughing with Galdar and her cheeks were extra flushed from the beer she was drinking. Neither the lack of dragon nor the lack of coin in her pockets seemed to bother her. But, that was Kate. Always cheerful. Always seeing the bright side of any situation. Always with her head in the clouds. Gorbi sighed.
Galdar had also been extremely excited about the Circus. Shag Solomon and his traveling show had, purportedly, traveled the world. According to some, they had performed for the Wayward Sons of faraway Sterich and was so well received, Shag was actually knighted by the Marchioness of the Great Western Gate, herself. If you could believe the rumors, some said the Circus had recently been to the Iron Gate where they played a month straight under the patronage of the Iron League and only escaped by disguising themselves as Pale Riders in the service of Wee Jas. Others claimed the Circus had been to the grassy steppes of the Tiger and Wolf nomads, had played in the ruins of Redspan for the Duke 0f Tenh and wowed the womanizing Sultan of Zeif. The stories only fueled Galdar’s obsession with getting out of town to see the world. Gorbi had heard of little else from the young acolyte since Shag’s Circus had come to town.
Finally, just as it was likely the Circus had played itself out, Gorbi relented and the three of them gave up their last silver sails for the tickets. They had met earlier in the afternoon at the Strumpet’s Excuse, the seedy bar where the Circus had played for the past month.
Now it was over. For two coppers they bought themselves a round of beer after the show. Why not, thought Gorbi. What else was he going to do with his last two coppers.
The Strumpet was full tonight. Dozens of happy patrons, most who had also just watched the show, sat in heavy wooden chairs around the bar’s heavy wooden tables and laughed and shouted with their friends, family and even complete strangers about their favorite daring act by the circus performers.
Gorbi just watched like an outsider looking in. All of these people would go about their lives after this evening. They would all go home tonight. Many of them would eat a great dinner. All of them would leave the Strumpet with their pockets still jingling. All of them except Gorbi.
And then his jaw dropped open.
From behind a red curtain near the back of the bar, stepped none other than Shag Solomon. The man was of average height and build. He was dressed in a ratty military coat with gold and red epaulets and several gold and silver medals pinned to the breast of his jacket. His tall, black leather boots were scuffed and unpolished and the white gloves he wore had turned a dull yellow with age. If that were all there was to see of Gentleman Shag Solomon, he wouldn’t leave much of an impression. It just so happened that few ever even noticed his clothes at all, for it was the rest of him that really caused a stir. Every inch of Shag’s face and neck was covered in a thick pelt of grey hair, and many wondered if the same held true for the rest of him. His ears were large and pointed, but sat near the top of his head like those of a bear. His nose was black and wet like a dog and his long whiskers stuck out from his upper lip like those of a cat. Bestial as his appearance was, his carriage and demeanor defied all of that.
Shag strode through the curtain and into the Strumpet’s common room as if he were a king. One gloved hand rested upon a short, black cane while the other rested, just so, under the lapel of his coat. A monocle upon a golden chain was in place before his right eye while he puffed casually on a long, curved pipe. The din of so many drunken patrons quieted considerably as all eyes were drawn to the magnificent circus master.
“Is that….is that…” Galdar stammered. Gorbi never answered him as all of his attention was drawn to the celebrity in the room.
“Yes, it is, Galdar. And, shut your trap, Gorbi, you look like a land-bound sea bass gasping for air.” Kate replied with a roll of her bright eyes.
“Hey. Show a little respect, girl. That’s Shag…that’s Shag…,” snarled Galdar
“Yea, I know. Shag Solomon.”
“What’s got into you? One of the greatest people to ever walk the planet just walked into the room and you act as if Leprous Lhare from the Shadow Dock just walked in.”
“I’m not happy with him, that’s all,” Kate said with a pout.
Both Galdar and Gorbi looked scandalized. “What? Why?” they said in unison.
Kate frowned. “Well, he didn’t bring his dragon, I spent my last silver on that ticket because I knew he was going to bring his dragon to the show, and he didn’t. So, I’m not very happy.”
Gorbi just shook his head and grinned. “Well, I for one, wish I had thought to bring some parchment and ink with me. I want to get his autograph.”
Shag hadn’t made it very far across the common room before he was surrounded by semi-drunk admirers. Gorbi noticed, however, that despite the modest crowd of people gathering in a knot about him, Shag seemed to be in a deep conversation with a finely dressed young gentleman who was holding a rather large glass of deep red wine. The conversation looked congenial enough, at first, but then Gorbi began to notice a look of what he took to be agitation play across Shag’s furry face. The younger man, whom Gorbi imagined was probably the son of one of the local nobles, began gesturing frantically with his hands, as if pleaded a desperate case.
The pair was too far away and the tavern crowd was just loud enough that Gorbi couldn’t make out any words exchanged between them. He thought about the lip-reading training he got years ago in his stint with the Salt Knives, but wasn’t able to decipher but a few syllables.
He was still concentrating on the lip reading when suddenly Shag Solomon looked his way and held his gaze. Gorbi thought he was mistaken and looked over his shoulder to see who Shag was really looking at, but saw no one in particular. When he turned around, Shag was still looking at him, and smiling in a feline sort of way.
Gorbi was stunned. He pointed at his chest and mouthed the word, “Me?”.
From across the room Shag nodded and then held up three fingers, pointing at Gorbi and his friends.
Galdar saw the exchange and elbowed Kate in the ribs, “Hey! Shag Solomon is pointing at us!” he said, excitedly/
Shag waved his gloved hand, motioning for the three of them to approach.
“Whoa!”, Galdar intoned, “he wants to talk with us! No way!”
Kate turned in her bar stool and regarded the circus master suspiciously. “Um, why would he want to talk to us?”
“I don’t have a clue, Kate, but I intend to find out!” Gorbi said, leaping off his stool, Galdar and Kate following closely as they weaved their way through the crowd.
Gorbi stopped several feet away from the pair as he heard the hairy-faced circus ringleader admonishing the dandy chap in nice clothes. “This delay is unreasonable. If you cannot depart upon the morrow, I will find another to contract with.” Shag’s voice was a deep rumble. Gorbi was amazed at the sense of authority behind it.
The three friends stood back just a pace from the two men, unsure if the invitation also meant they were allowed to hear this apparent argument.
“Mr. Solomon. I can understand your distress,” the gentleman responded nervously, “but the assistance I need is either already employed or require expenses beyond my means.”
“Ridiculous. There must be hundreds within these city walls who would accompany you. Take these three here,” Shag said while waving his hand at Kate, Gorbi and Galdar. “They seem quite capable, I am sure. You there! Might I have a polite word with you?”
“Us, sir?” Gorbi said, nervously, while inching forward.
Shag looked down and spoke kindly, “Are you currently employed or would you happen to be looking for work?”
Gorbi sputtered something unintelligible while Kate stammered, “Sir, are you speaking to us?”
“Yes, of course I am,” Shag said, matter-of-factly, “My companion here requires an armed escort for a short sea voyage. I am sure he would pay you quite handsomely should you agree."
“Armed? Us?” asked Kate.
“Yes, you. I consider myself a good judge of character, uh…miss,,,,?”
“Kate,” said Kate. “You may call me Kate. And this is Galdar and Gorbachev.”
“Gorbi!” corrected Gorbi, “You can call me Gorbi!” he squeaked.
“Good to make your acquaintance, Miss Kate, Galdar and Sir Gorbi. My name is Shag Solomon and this is Derg Moenthal,” said Shag as he gestured toward the dapper young dandy.
“Master Moenthal and I have a business agreement, of sorts and he has contracted with me to make a very important delivery to the far side of Jeklea Bay. But, due to a lack of ‘qualified’ personal, Master Moenthal is still here in Sasserine, along with my very important delivery! And, as you can see, I am a very busy man. I have little patience for ineptitude.”
The dandy, Moenthal, visibly bristled at that last bit.
“Which brings us back round to pasture, as they say in the Ketian Highlands. Would the three of you happen to be available for hire?” Shag asked through a toothy grin.
Gorbi could hear the words but his normally sharp mind did not seem to grasp what was being asked of him. Kate and Galdar stood, equally quiet and dumbfounded.
“Oh, how rude of me,” Shag said while shaking his head. “I forgot to mention the terms. The three of you would be hired on as bodyguards for Master Moenthal, here, and he will pay you twenty gold admirals.”
Gorbi’s mind spun. Twenty gold split three ways would be more coin than he would normally earn in a year. His mind suddenly lurched forward and he was about to say, ’Yes!", when Shag spoke first.
Gorbi’s mind stalled once again as he imagined twenty golden Sasserine coins clattering around in his pocket.
“Isn’t that correct, Master Moenthal?” Shag asked the dandy.
The young man grimaced and then slowly nodded.
“And, if that is not incentive enough, my dear young mercenaries,” Shag continued, “I will match that pay upon your successful return to Sasserine. Its as simple as that. Accompany Moenthal here on a trip across the Bay, make sure his body is safely guarded from all manner evil dolphins and cold breezes, make sure he makes my delivery, then return here and you will each be forty golden coins richer. What do you say? Do we have ourselves a deal?”