The Lungfish Pageant

By Jonathon Burgess

 

Hristomarth Rofolio considered the attractions of suicide.

There was much appeal in ending the numerous pains currently troubling him. No more, the empty hollow in his stomach. No more, the cuts and gouges upon his skin. His embarrassingly unkempt clothing would cease to be a concern. Best of all, the number of days without restful sleep would transmute into a trifling non-essential.

The architects of his misery sat close at hand. Seven small, pudgy dragons swarmed beneath the branches of the sallow tree he hunkered within. They circled the trunk as early morning mists rolled along the nearby road, calling up after him in rumbling trills while their tongues lolled affectionately for his scent. One leaped at the bark in a splay-footed climbing attempt, eyes wide with the effort. Gravity overcame enthusiasm, however, sending the wyrmling tumbling down atop a sibling to start a hissing, snarling ruckus.

Hristomarth returned his attention to the sallow branches. Supple and tough, they would make a good noose. He pulled a particularly long one to hand and grabbed for the broken sword at his belt, when other, more human voices reached his ears.

Seven travelers appeared upon the road. They were men, wearing robes of colored spider-silk and discoursing heatedly. A coterie of wandering philosophers, Hristomarth realized. After the group followed another traveler, of largish stature and more sensible outfit.

“Worthy Reddimak,” said one philosopher in crimson robes, “your argument is excellent, but I must interrupt. This sallow tree appears infested with diminutive reptiles.”

His fellows paused to take in the scene before them.

“So it is!” replied Reddimak, a philosopher in citrine. “Draconic wyrmlings, if my recollections of Loyan’s Bestiary on Spiteful Creatures are correct.”

As one, the wyrmlings quieted. They peered back at the men upon the road, then pointedly returned their attentions to Hristomarth above.

“I recall the same scrolls,” commented an azure philosopher with covetous eyes. “Loyan stated braised wyrmling a delicacy.” He sighed and turned away. “Alas, the Interactionist Mode prevents operation; to avoid negative consequences one must also avoid the good, refraining at all from any decisive action.”

Reddimak rubbed his beard before nodding sharply. “And thus is the Interactionist Mode proven inferior to the Inevitibalist Mode. Observe; a meal of braised wyrmling strikes my fancy. Thus, the potential outcome is now not only desirous, but inevitable as well. Since resisting the Wheel of Karmic Totalities results only in suffering, I must pursue with activity to achieve this end.”

The citrine philosopher stepped off the road, only to be stopped by a compatriot in green. “Hold, Reddimak. The Perceptive Mode forces me to note that there is a man in the branches above. Perhaps the wyrmlings are his?”

Reddimak yanked his sleeve away. “Flummery. The fellow is obviously going to hang himself. As this outcome is clear enough to be noticed, it is inevitable. Thus, any claim to ownership is void. Efficiency demands I proceed as planned. Also, to you in the tree; a reverse lock-knot is considered ideal for short, sharp stresses upon any makeshift rope.”

The coterie of philosophers applauded at this logic, then discussed the point among themselves. Reddimak hunkered low and spread his arms, moving slowly to the closest wyrmling; a clumsy thing with huge, floppy wings.

“Aha!” cried the philosopher, snatching the creature by its tail. “And thus is dinner, and my outlook—”

The little dragon howled in surprise. It curled up and bit Reddimak in the groin. The citrine philosopher yelled, hurling the wyrmling beside its siblings. As one, they rumbled menacingly, small flames flaring from their nostrils.

Reddimak fled back to his companions. They fought amongst each other, then fled as a group down the road. The mists slowly swallowed their hysterical shouts and brightly colored robes.

Hristomarth returned his attentions to the sallow-branches. Suicide was forbidden to an Illuminate, but he was no Illuminate anymore. Any current evidence was circumstantial; the amulet in his satchel was a trinket, the silver sword at his hip broken. Hristomarth pulled a particularly promising branch to hand when he realized that the eighth traveler still remained below.

“Excuse me?” she called. “Do those creatures really belong to you?”

Hristomarth paused. Peering up at him was the stoutest woman that he had ever seen. She stood four cubits tall and appeared capable of breaking a man in half. Yet she was neither ogrish or beautiful, being quite remarkably plain.

“Ahaha,” he laughed frantically. “In the final accounting it is perhaps more appropriate to say that I belong to them.”

She stepped aside as a wyrmling tottered past, murmuring to itself. “All right. But why are you trying to hang yourself?”

Hristomarth threw down his makeshift noose. It landed on a wyrmling, who eyed it speculatively before attempting to eat it.

“Because they are terrible!” he shouted. “They won’t leave me and won’t leave me alone and think I am their mother or some such thing, who tried to kill me, it must be noted. They’ve eaten all the food I had and all the food I could steal and even all the food I could trap, which is a disagreeably disgusting way of acquiring sustenance. I haven’t even two coins to rub together anymore, you claw-footed fiends!” He shook a fist at the wyrmlings below. “And they’re absolutely terrible as prospective pickpockets. They can barely tease a purse from the belt of an unconscious man without waking him!”

Hristomarth quieted, panting. The woman watched him with eyebrows raised.

“I was only traveling with those philosophers for company,” she said. “Now I return to Jocund Township after trading with the Lumberings at Whelmshell Beach. Why don’t you join me? I’m a blacksmith, not a cook, but there should be hoffa cakes. We are also celebrating our pageant!”

Hristomarth rolled from his place among the branches and dropped to the ground with surprising agility. He bowed low, the broken sword shoved through his belt poking out past his satchel. “I would be happy to take advantage of your hospitality,” he said. “I am troupemaster Hristomarth Rofolio, and I haven’t eaten in—”

He toppled as the first wyrmling crashed into his legs. The rest dove on top, trapping him beneath a mass of scales, claws, and tongues.

“Genna Myrmidon,” said the woman, smiling in amusement.

* * *

Hristomarth screamed through his hoffa cake.

The buttery pastry proved an effective gag, easily covering his cry beneath the wyrmlings’ own unhappy caterwauling. They clawed at the bars of the cage, trying to escape even as he shoved the last one inside. It bit down harder, so that he screamed and slammed it against the bars, stunning it. Hristomarth pulled free and Genna Myrmidon shut the door, shaking the cage with a clang.

She snapped a lock into place as Hristomarth pulled the cake from his mouth. “Well,” he said, shaking his again-injured hand. “That should take care of them.”

They stood in the yard of Genna’s smithy. It was a cheerless structure, just like the rest of Jocund Township; all square, gray little buildings roofed with thatch. Decoration was nonexistent. For all Genna’s excitement about a pageant, Hristomarth had seen one concession to any celebration taking place; a pageant wagon in the street before the smithy.

It was monstrous. Six great wooden wheels supported a two-story hemisphere of creamy paper-mache. A stair cut up the back of the hemisphere to its flattened top. Cloud-shaped cutouts dangled over the side, while little mannequins in fool’s motley hung spread-eagled across the wheels. Altogether, Hristomarth supposed it resembled the moon. A mule was harnessed out in front.

“They’re not very happy,” said Genna. “Surely they don’t need to be locked up?”

Hristomarth turned back from the pageant wagon, firm of purpose. “Your sentiment is misplaced, dear woman. Their nature is wholly deceptive! Treat them not as individuals, but a singular mass of scales and talons with an unpleasant reptilian musk. This task should be simplified, since their mother never named the little beasts.” He shook his head. “Let us make the subject academic. If you would loan me the cage, a cart, and directions to the nearest pond?”

Genna stared at him. “How uncharitable! A good leash is what you really want. I’ve got a couple I could rework. But it’s no wonder they’re unruly, if you haven’t named them yet.”

Hristomarth lifted one eyebrow. “Beg pardon?”

“Oh yes,” she replied, nodding. “Children here in Jocund are named within their first moon. It’s important. A person doesn’t know who they are, until they have a name.”

“Really.” Hristomarth rubbed his chin. Beliefs were strange in Darmx region. Yet perhaps temporary nicknames would make the wyrmlings into more individually manageable woes. At least, until he could find another way to get rid of them, since Genna obviously wouldn’t loan him a cart.

No. Ridiculous nonsense. “The idea lacks virtue,” he said. “Monsters must be eliminated. Even the vile Illuminates were correct in that.”

Genna regarded the cage. The wyrmlings quieted down, one of them even pausing as it gnawed the bars to look back at her with large, soulful eyes. “They really don’t seem monstr—”

“What is that great contraption in the street?” interrupted Hristomarth.

“Oh!” said Genna, sufficiently distracted. “That’s the wagon for our annual pageant! It’s mostly wood and paper mache, but I did the ironwork myself.”

Hristomarth gestured with his hoffa cake. “But what does it represent?” he demanded. “Is it...the moon? Why those little mannequins? A single mule cannot possibly pull it along.”

“It’s not supposed to,” agreed Genna.

His rejoinder died as a shockingly gorgeous woman appeared from behind the pageant wagon. She was slim, with such delicate complexion that it could have been the glaze from some dollmaker’s porcelain creation. Five great raven-colored braids fell down past her shoulders like ropes of spun night, sharply contrasting her costume dress of owl-feathers studded with tiny bronze faces. Even her eyes were striking, a shade of sapphire gazing out hungrily at the world.

Hristomarth felt faint. His world shrank to a narrow point. If nothing else on this trip to Jocund Township, at least he had finally seen true beauty. He had to learn her name. No. More than that. He had to impress this woman. Bedazzle her more than any other suitor she might ever know. Dimly, he heard Genna Myrmidon sigh heavily.

“Ruined!” cried the gorgeous woman. “It’s all ruined!”

She stomped aimlessly into the smithy yard, three men chasing after. One wore the taxidermied semblance of a unicorn, the next was short and awkwardly encased in a lacquered lungfish outfit. The third raced before them both, a husky fellow wearing a dress and mounds of costume jewelry.

“Dearest diva,” wheedled the fat man, bracelets clattering as he wrung his hands together. “Let us be philosophical.”

“Hetman Winge!” said Genna. “I’m back from Whelmshell—”

“Rosilia,” continued the hetman, ignoring her. “All may not be lost, without your muse. Have you considered the fine art of self-motivation?”

“What?” croaked Rosilia, turning violently. “To merely prance about? To act?” She slapped the hetman, knocking free his crown. “I am to channel the very the Spirit of Senselessness! The heart of the Jocund pageant-play!”

The man in the lungfish outfit waddled forward. “Loveliest Rosilia,” he intoned nasally. “Never has there been a more suitable diva. Let me prove it, with a stanza of ninety-seven lines.”

“Doggerel!” interrupted the false unicorn. “Your verse is as stunted as your legs, Turble.”

“I’d be a better muse than you, Iollo!” screamed Turble.

“You perfidious post-aquatic!”

“Untrustworthy ungulate!”

Iollo started forward. Turble ran into Rosilia as he scuttled away, knocking her up against the cage. One of the wyrmlings reacted instinctively, biting down onto her outfit. She yelled, agitating the rest of the little monsters.

Hristomarth saw his chance. He leaped into action, shoving his hoffa cake through the bars atop the wyrmling. It let go the diva's dress, yowling as the others piled atop it to hunt for crumbs. Hristomarth took Rosilia’s hand and pulled her away. Then he adjusted his sword, doffed his battered hat, and knelt before her in a smooth, courtly manner.

“Most radiant lady,” he said, “sumptuous greetings in accordance with all the respect and deference a personage such as yourself should be accustomed. Know that even great Tophe would smile to watch your step upon the earth, which places a certainty of leal servitude from my own lowly self.”

Rosilia stared, bewildered. “Who are you?”

“I,” he said, bowing low, “am Hristo—”

“And what are those stinking things?” she cried, cringing away from the cage.

“They’re dragons!” said Genna. “In a circus. Isn’t that amazing? And this is Hristomarth Rofolio, their troupemaster.”

Hetman Winge peered at him suspiciously. “The man appears a bedraggled reprobate. With a pickpocket’s fingers and a broken sword. You say he runs a circus?”

Hristomarth glowered peevishly. “Of diminished prospect at the moment,” he admitted. “And the wyrmlings are only a momentary infestation.”

“You just need to name them,” added Genna. “And maybe a good stout leash—”

“But pray,” continued Hristomarth to Rosilia, “what issues could trouble such loveliness?”

The diva remembered her distress. “Ruined!” she cried, pulling free from his grasp and throwing her hand across her brow. “An aurochs trampled my muse, and the pageant is about to begin! I am bereft of inspiration. Also, there’s an awful mess.”

“Oh no,” gasped Genna. “Poor Eual.” She paused. “Or was it Hulde, this year?”

“I forget,” replied Rosilia, shrugging.

            Turble looked away innocently. “Someone must have applied burning pitch to the aurochs’ tail,” he said.

“And then Hulde tripped into its path,” added Iollo.

The two snickered to themselves, pausing to glare daggers at each other. After a moment, they included Hristomarth as well.

Hetman Winge wrung his pudgy hands. “Tragic indeed. Funerary rites will be held later; for now the corpse must remain behind a convenient wood shed. The pageant must continue! I am certain that the unquiet spirit shares this sentiment and will hold any rancor until the end.”

Hristomarth raised an eyebrow, distracted despite himself. Angry ghosts were no pleasant matter. “Why is this pageant of such importance?”

The hetman stared. “It is only of the most sincere spiritual significance! I had thought our pageant famed throughout Darmx. Surely you have heard of it?”

Hristomarth made a placating gesture. “In passing, certainly. However, I am a stranger to this region, hailing originally from the Land of Charke.”

“Charke is not so distant.”

“Perhaps to the novice traveler. Distance can be deceptive!”

“Hmph.” The hetman frowned. “You claim to be a showman. Since you may appreciate nuance, I shall elucidate.” His bracelets clattered as he folded his hands behind his back. “Thus and so. It came to pass in a previous age that Godbeast Croth wrought much devastation throughout Darmx. The reason? A mystery. Personally, I suspect excessive inebriation. In any case, many afterwards became dispossessed.

“One such was Obregon Chull, a layabout who performed only the simplest of tasks for the most immediate rewards. His first inclination following Croth’s passing was to nap. Upon finding no suitable place he became despondent. What exists in this world that cannot be laid low? If nothing has permanence beyond the carousing of an ancient monster, how can anything so ephemeral as meaning exist?

“It was the first serious thought Chull had ever experienced. He ceased his wastrel ways, became an ascetic and traveled for many years. Eventually he found his answer. While observing the moonrise from the peak of Mount Wirh, he was subsequently attacked by a dragon.”

“An unfortunately common occurrence,” said Hristomarth.

The hetman ignored him. “This sparked an epiphany in Chull. ‘What is the meaning of this life?’ he asked. The answer he found was profoundly simple; there is none. Existence is a senseless parade of ruckus and commotion. Now, such an outlook might prove terminally depressing to the cognition of the common man. But Obregon Chull held this terrible truth at bay until founding Jocund, whereupon he revealed it along with a proving miracle. Specifically, by forcibly de-evolving into the diminutive state of a lungfish and spending his remaining days in a nearby pond. Now every year we celebrate with a pageant; three stops throughout town while the story is sung in verse.”

Rosilia stamped her foot. “And everything is ruined without my muse!”

Turble and Iollo both fell to their knees.

“Great diva, my poetry—”

“No! I have spent years learning the necessary craft!”

Hristomarth shook his head; the tale of Obregon Chull seemed to invite a befuddlement. But the scent of opportunity brought him quickly to his senses. “What is included in this position?” he asked Genna.

The big blacksmith rolled her eyes. “The muse passes the diva her basket of fishing bait, for distribution after each stop.”

“The role is ceremonial,” added Hetman Winge. “Following the pageant, if it please the diva, she is wed to the muse for one year.”

Hristomarth wanted to shout for joy. This was better than he could have hoped for. No need for cunning plans or clever deceptions. No need to woo the diva. All he had to do was secure the ridiculous role.

“Well,” he said as he replaced his hat. “Most illustrative. Such boundless transformative nihilism is certainly celebratory. But perhaps I have a solution to your troubles?”

“Oh?” asked Hetman Winge.

“What?” gasped Turble and Iollo, together.

“Of course! Your diva needs a muse. And it just so happens that I count among my skills those of ‘freelance motivator.’” He clasped Rosilia’s hands again in his own. “Dearest lady. Allow me to offer you a surety of accessing that wonderful artistic wealth that I can so obviously see filling your soul to its very pinnacle, shining out and down upon us mere common mortals like a bonfire upon creeping worms.”

The diva peered down at him, her gaze lingering on his maimed hand. Then she shrugged. “Whatever. Just don’t be late!”

Hristomarth bowed to hide his smile. “I am ever your humble servant.”

“But he can’t!” cried Turble.

“It’s impossible!” agreed Iollo. “He hasn’t ascended through the necessary lesser roles within the pageant!”

Hetman Winge made a cutting gesture. “Rosilia has chosen. Hristomarth! Your position as muse is hereby confirmed. But your wyrmlings must stay locked up. Nothing can disrupt the pageant!”

Hristomarth bowed low. “I had honestly not considered anything else.”

The hetman grunted in approval, then left the smithy yard. Iollo and Turble stomped after him, imploring angrily. Rosilia scowled at the wyrmlings before leaving as well.

Hristomarth felt as if he were on a cloud. “Such loveliness!” he said.

“If you say so,” said Genna.

“Oh come now,” said Hristomarth. “Your horizons may be bound by this unrelentingly provincial township, but I can vouch definitively for her quality.”

“She can’t sing.”

“So? What means that beside her beauty?”

“Hristomarth—”

“No, I owe you thanks for bringing me here. Your ways are quaint, and frankly more than a little bizarre, but I find they agree with me. I especially look forward to the next year.”

“Hristomarth!”

“Yes?”

“Where are your wyrmlings?”

There was an unnatural quiet, in the yard. Hristomarth peered warily back to the cage, only to find it empty, the door hanging ajar. The lock was unfastened and much scratched around the keyhole.

“But how could they have gotten free?” asked Genna, looking about worriedly.

Hristomarth considered. “While I still rate their purse-snatching skills as sub-par, the little monsters have been quite attentive on the subject of teasing a lock.”

* * *

The role of pageant muse involved more labor than Hristomarth had expected.

He heaved again at the crossbeam before him. It resisted, even bending a little until the great wooden enclosure of the Pageant Wagon slid forward another three paces. His grunts mixed with those of Turble and Iollo, each struggling to move the enormous stage from within.

The mule outside was just for show. All motive power came from the pageant members themselves, pushing blindly from the wooden interior of the Pageant Wagon. Three walls supported the flat stage above, with the stair descending to the rear. The floor was open to the street, with light from the noonday sun reflecting in past the wheels. A hatch at the rear and a small trapdoor in the stage above provided exit. Along one wall hung several of the diva’s wicker baskets, mixing fresh bait to the smells of sweat and paper-mache hanging in the air.

"Surely,” grunted Hristomarth, “a more efficient method of propulsion could be devised?”

“Infamous!” cried Iollo. “This is a perfect example of your failings as a muse.” He turned back to face Hristomarth, equine silhouette fierce in the gloom. “I have slaved for years at this work; such toil is only expected of a worthy pageant member!”

Turble grunted in agreement.

The trapdoor above snapped open, flooding the space with sunlight. Rosilia appeared, glaring down through the portal.

“Stop pushing! We’re at the town square already.”

The door snapped shut before Hristomarth could try to flatter the diva. That was easily repaired, however. Grabbing a basket from the wall, he backed to the rear hatch. “Be glad,” he said to Iollo. “Your annual exertions speaks to a hidden truth; you are well suited to menial labor! It is rare that the Ministers of Fate plan so clearly. My destiny, however, lies with the lovely Rosilia.”

Hristomarth tapped the battered brim of his hat in mocking salute, then slipped through the hatch. The sullen glares of Iollo and Turble followed him out.

Jocund’s town square was unimpressive. The crowd filling it was even less so. They surrounded the Pageant Wagon at a polite distance, fidgeting children shushed by bored mothers. Only the men seemed excited, elbowing each other and making ribald jests at the stage.

Hristomarth couldn’t blame them. Currently Hetman Winge was prancing about, making some introductory speech. But behind him stood Rosilia. Hristomarth’s breath went short at the sight of her. He would play his part well. When the day was done, her approval would be clear.

Eagerness drove him up the stair, transmuting to joy halfway up as she noticed him. She tensed up in alarm and made small shooing gestures with one hand.

“Not now!” Rosilia hissed.

Hristomarth froze. Right. After. The basket came afterwards. He adjusted his satchel and the broken sword at his belt as he crouched down behind the paper-mache. Rosilia took to the stage, light applause and wolf-whistles coming from the crowd.

The diva started to sing. Her voice echoed out across the square like the cry of a raptor, like waves crashing upon the shore, like... Actually, the diva was somewhat shrill.

“Hristomarth!”

It was Genna Myrmidon, calling up from the bottom of the stair. Resting on the stair beside her was the empty iron cage.

Couldn’t she see he was busy? Hristomarth set the basket aside and scuttled down the stair, careful not to be seen past the top of the wagon. “Worthy Myrmidon,” he said. “Is this the best time? The pageant is underway. Rosilia’s song needs minding.”

Genna glanced past him. “It’s always been more of a warble, really. No one tells her she can’t sing.”

“The verse does seem to be a little...off,” agreed Hristomarth, a ringing ululation echoing down to them.

“She writes it herself,” replied Genna. “But listen! I was following along, watching for the wyrmlings, when I heard a crash. I think they’re in the hetman’s house!”

“Ah.” Hristomarth sat back disdainfully. “Then it would only be prudent for you to go catch the little monsters.”

Genna frowned. “How can you be so callous? They’re only babies. And they’re yours, as well.”

He grimaced. “I am merely afflicted with the little beasts. If they’ve run off, then so much the better. I wish good fortune to whatever fool stumbles across the nuisances.”

“Oh really.” Genna placed her hands on her formidable hips, staring at him intently. “If they’re so much trouble, do you really want them free while you settle down with Rosilia? We can be quick about it!”

The thought gave him pause. Hristomarth could see it now; people running madly about, the buildings of Jocund aflame. Left alone, the wyrmlings would certainly raise chaos. It was also certain who would take the blame.

Still. Hristomarth glanced back up to the stage.

“This part goes for awhile,” said Genna helpfully.

“Fine,” he sighed.

“This way!” said Genna, taking off like a shot.

Hristomarth climbed around the cage after her, swearing in every tongue he knew. The blacksmith plowed through the crowd, heading to a cottage in one corner of the square. Rich but drab, something was obviously amiss; one window was broken and the door hung askew. A great crash sounded within as he reached it, like something being toppled just to hear it shatter. There was an unpleasant reptilian scent on the air.

“The poor things are probably frightened,” stage-whispered Genna.

Hristomarth snorted. He pushed inside, immediately pausing at the devastation he saw. Solid, hand-carved furniture was splintered. Cushions were ripped open. Fine glassware lay shattered upon the floor. Through it all two wyrmlings raced like a reptilian whirlwind, while a third was busily collecting things into a pile in the middle of the floor.

A large leather sack lay atop a nearby table. Hristomarth snatched it up as the pair raced past; the clumsy one constantly tripping over its own wings and the vicious, biting one. He reached for the latter and it snapped at him, forcing Hristomarth back against Genna.

“Fiends!” he snarled.

“Try naming them!” said Genna.

Hristomarth glared at her. “This isn’t the time for—”

But he stopped. He had to get back to the pageant. It couldn’t hurt to try, and he supposed he owed her, a little. The silver amulet buried at the bottom of his satchel, never far from his thoughts, reminded him what such obligations were like.

“Fine,” he said, watching the third wyrmling as it dragged a vase across the floor.

It paused to rest and he grabbed it up by the neck. The wyrmling squawked in surprise, dropping the vase, though it grabbed for the tumbling jar even as Hristomarth lifted it away.

“Catchmaw,” said Hristomarth, stuffing the greedy wyrmling into the sack.

“Oh!” said Genna. “That’s a good—”

The other two wyrmlings rounded the room at that moment, the one in front yowling in distress. It tripped on its own oversized wings, spinning in a somersault that plowed through the pile with a tremendous clattering crash that made Catchmaw wail from inside the sack. The last wyrmling dodged aside, only to ram into a wall face-first.

Hristomarth grabbed the clumsy wyrmling by its tail and considered the floppy, oversized wings. “Splaywing,” he said, shoving it into the sack.

“You’re stronger than you look,” said Genna.

“I would have to be,” replied Hristomarth, reaching for the last wyrmling.

The little monster reared up and bit him on the hand. Hristomarth yelled, pulling back before it could latch on completely.

“You!” he hissed at the wyrmling, shaking his fist. “And I suppose you want to be called Tyrantclaw, or Foebane, or somesuch violent nonsense?”

To his surprise, the wyrmling bobbed its head excitedly.

“Tough,” he said. “You are Breaktooth.”

The little dragon sagged in disappointment. Hristomarth seized the opportunity to force it into the sack. “There!” he said to Genna. “Now let us return.”

She nodded. “Rosilia is probably almost done by now.”

Panic shot through Hristomarth. He fled, Splaywing, Catchmaw, and Breaktooth yowling unhappily from inside the sack.

They returned to just as Rosilia gave one final warble, eliciting applause from the men in the crowd. Hristomarth flung the sack of wyrmlings back to Genna and mounted the Pageant Wagon stair. He was halfway up when he realized that the basket of fishing bait wasn’t where he left it. Instead, it was clutched in the hooves of Iollo, crouching near the top of the stair. Hristomarth watched in horror as he passed the basket to an impatient Rosilia.

“Outrageous!” Hristomarth croaked as the false unicorn descended. “You had no right to usurp my role within this pageant!”

Iollo eyed him disdainfully. “I dispute the claim. Have you never heard of the Inevitibalist Mode?”

Hetman Winge appeared atop the stair. “Layabouts! Our second stop awaits. Back down below with you both!”

Hristomarth complied with ill grace. His mood only soured at the sight of the three wyrmlings below, delivered back to their cage by the now-missing Genna Myrmidon. They trilled contentedly among themselves, watching him creep back inside the wagon.

As they heaved it along, Hristomarth recovered himself. All was not lost. He was wary now. Watchful. Though the air was made worse by Iollo’s smugness and terrible flatulence that could only have been Turble, he forced himself to laugh.

“Worthy horse-man,” he said. “I apologize for my earlier ire. How can I hold you blameless for what I would have done myself?” Hristomarth waggled a finger. “But don’t think I shall be so lax a second time!”

Iollo gestured flippantly back at him. “You are innately unsuited as a muse. While I am the portrayal of the Benevolent Unicorn itself.”

“This pageant contains unreasonable elements,” growled Hristomarth. “Who ever heard of a benevolent unicorn?”

“Ours is a more spiritual re-enactment.”

The trapdoor above snapped open, blinding them all with sudden daylight. “Idiots!” hissed Rosilia. “We’re here! Stop pushing!”

This was his chance to recover lost ground. “Dearest diva,” began Hristomarth. “Allow me to congratulate you on the finery of your performance so far—”

Rosilia rolled her eyes. “Whatever. Don’t be late this time!”

The trapdoor shut and Hristomarth’s heart sank. He took another basket from the wall and backed for the rear of the wagon, only to pause at Iollo’s smirk. Hristomarth glared at him and lashed out, yanking the horn from his outfit.

“My horn!” cried Iollo.

“There,” replied Hristomarth, tossing it to the ground. “The Perceptive Mode forces me to observe that you are unsuitably attired. Let resolution of this issue keep you occupied.” With a mocking salute, he departed.

This time the wagon rested before a stable. Another crowd of dour townsfolk had gathered, though not as large as the last. The wyrmlings in their cage were thankfully quiet, content for the moment with chewing on the Pageant Wagon through the bars.

Hristomarth hadn’t taken two steps up the stair before Genna appeared again. “They’re in the town stable!” she said, breathless.

“You can’t know that,” said Hristomarth desperately.

“I’ve had plenty of time to look around,” she replied. “This wagon isn’t very quick. Just listen! And look; smoke.”

It was true. Something neighed within the structure, and a thin gray streamer curled out one side.

Hristomarth punched the paper mache beside him. Why was he shackled so to these little monsters? “Does it really matter?” he asked. “Why is the pageant even here? What’s so important about a stable?”

Genna seemed taken aback. “This is where Obregon Chull first met the Benevolent Unicorn and founded Jocund.”

A crash came from the stable, loud enough that several in the crowd glanced back. “Fine,” Hristomarth almost shouted. “Fine!” Dropping the basket he grabbed the leather sack, then leaped from the stair and ran through the crowd. He had to hurry.

The wyrmlings proved easy enough to track. Chubby reptilian paw-prints led through the wide door of the stable, past stalls of snorting, kicking horses, into a small room used for storing tackle and feed. Hristomarth held his breath and peered in through the smoke wafting out from the doorway.

Three more wyrmlings were rampaging about here. One climbed across the stacks of grain towering along one wall, murmuring to itself as they heaved and slid. A second was busily igniting one that had already fallen. The third lay in the middle of the floor like it was dead.

Hristomarth adjusted his satchel and stepped into the room. He snagged the nearest dragon, lying unmoving on the floor. It barely reacted, one beady eye opened at him lazily.

“Idleheart,” said Hristomarth, throwing it into the sack.

“Be careful with them,” said Genna, coughing at the smoke. “You don’t want them resenting their new names!”

“The world contains many harsh realities,” grunted Hristomarth. “A lesson; they will take what I give them.”

A jet of flame washed across the room, scorching a pile of leather tackle. The wyrmling responsible hissed in manic pleasure, then reared back for another deep breath. Hristomarth grabbed it by the throat. The wyrmling went pop-eyed.

“Coalbelly,” said Hristomarth. “You little arsonist.”

Idleheart chose that moment to flail about inside the sack. Hristomarth lost his balance, slipping on loose grain and losing his grip on Coalbelly, who unleashed a great gout of flame. Only reflexes honed by many years of adventure saved him, though he still slammed against the floor of the shed, stunned. Hristomarth barely heard Genna’s cry of alarm.

“Look out!”

He blinked up at the collapsing stack of grain-sacks above, being crawled over by the third wyrmling as it muttered to itself. “Mumbletongue,” he said flatly, as they came down.

Eventually Genna pulled him free. Hristomarth gasped for air, only to choke on the smoke. It filled the shed now, though no flames were apparent.

“I can’t tell if the fire’s out,” coughed Genna.

“Nevermind!” wheezed Hristomarth. “I have to get back to the pageant!”

The pile of sacks shifted beside him. Two pairs of chubby claws popped out, causing Genna to gasp in alarm. Mumbletongue came first, going willingly into the leather sack with Idleheart. Coalbelly came next, but fought.

Outside, no one seemed to notice the smoke coming from the stable. Or that most of the animals had fled their stalls. The crowd seemed enthralled by Rosilia’s piercing warble, especially the menfolk. Hristomarth felt a wave of relief. He wasn’t late this time.

As he jogged back over, Rosilia fell silent. Throwing the leather sack back to Genna, Hristomarth mounted the stair, racing up two steps at a time.

But the basket wasn’t where he’d left it. It was at the top of the stair, being handed over to the the town diva by Turble in his lungfish costume.

Hristomarth stared in dismay.

Turble scuttled backwards as Rosilia turned to the crowd. Bumping into Hristomarth, he whirled in surprise.

“You!” roared Hristomarth.

“Ah,” replied Turble, flinching away.

Hetman Winge appeared above them. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “Our last stop awaits! Down below with you both!”

Turble shoved past as Hristomarth sputtered for a response. Growling, he chased after, passing Genna as she locked up the other three wyrmlings. “Only one left!” she stage-whispered as Hristomarth dove inside the wagon.

His quarry was caught beneath the first crossbeam just inside. Up near the front of the wagon stood a glowering Iollo, horn tied poorly back into place.

“There is little cause for indignation!” cried Turble. He heaved his costume from beneath the crossbeam with a sound like a popping cork and whirled to face Hristomarth. “The lady obviously prefers those with the gentle soul of a poet. Beside this fact, your own failings are miniscule!”

“I am the established muse!” roared Hristomarth, dropping a hand to the hilt of his broken blade. “The treachery of you two rubes is unrelenting. Have you no respect for the sanctity of the pageant?”

The trapdoor above them snapped open, Rosilia glowering through. “Will you dolts get moving?” she demanded, before slamming shut the door.

Turble smirked as they bent again to push the wagon. Irate, Hristomarth wished a thousand sour curses upon the diminutive man. The rest of the trip was silent, however, though the stinking air fraught with tension. Turble and Iollo glared at each other as much as they did him.

Finally, Rosilia called for a stop. Hristomarth grabbed the last basket and slipped out the door, glaring at his pageant-mates. Outside, the wagon had parked between a wide pond and a handful of other buildings along the outer wall of town. The pond was warded with a delicate fence, and a crude statue of a fish-man rose from the lily-covered waters. Only a thin crowd stood gathered this time.

“I found him!” gasped Genna Myrmidon.

Hristomarth turned as the big woman strode up to the wagon. She dropped the empty leather sack atop the wyrmlings’ cage and leaned on it for support.

“No!” said Hristomarth, waving her away with his mangled hand. “Twice have I been late before. I won’t miss out again.”

Genna looked at him pleadingly. “There’s only one left. Over at the tannery. Surely it won’t take long?”

Up above, Hetman Winge finished his penultimate speech. A piercing warble echoed out across the pond as Rosilia took the stage.

Hristomarth glanced at the tannery, then at the cage of wyrmlings. They were quiet, busily chewing on the bottom of the sack. Past them spread the waters of the pond.

An idea came to him, accompanied by a malicious sense of relief. A solution to these monsters was finally at hand. “Of course,” he said. “But hurry!”

He drew the broken sword at his belt and jammed it through the handles of the hatch beside him. Let those buffoons try and usurp him now.

Genna beamed. She grabbed for the sack, but Splaywing yanked it away down into the cage. The others immediately rent it apart. 

“Nevermind.” said Hristomarth. “I’ll carry the little monster!”

He stormed off across the street with Genna racing after. “It’s just around back,” she called to him.

“Then why didn’t you grab it?” demanded Hristomarth.

She caught up beside him just as he reached the tannery. A weathered wooden fence led to the rear of the building, a small gate allowing entrance. The stench in the air was almost eye-watering. “Because it is really...” She trailed off.

Hristomarth barged through the gate and stopped in his tracks.

“Because it’s really gross,” finished Genna.

The yard was filthy, caught between the rear of the tannery and Jocund’s outer wall. Racks stood everywhere, covered with hides. Most drained into traps that hadn’t been emptied in months.

A lone wyrmling was attempting to rectify this. It hunkered before the nearest trap, drinking the mouldering fat as if it were sweetest nectar. Slobbering, sucking sounds echoed about the yard in a vile song of purest gluttony. The little monster finished and looked up at Hristomarth with a happy belch.

The smell hit Hristomarth like a physical force. He staggered and Genna gagged. The wyrmling merely went for another trap. Hristomarth had never seen such a dire promise of ruination in all his years of travel. He grabbed up the creature, holding it at arm’s length.

“Greasetrap,” he said, apalled. “Your name is Greasetrap. You awful thing.”

The wyrmling licked its jaws happily.

Applause echoed back from the street. Hristomarth rounded on Genna, panicking. “She’s not singing anymore.”

“Of course not,” she replied with watering eyes. “It’s the denouement.”

Hristomarth panicked. He shoved the wyrmling under one arm and raced out to the street, past the crowd to the pageant wagon. The hatch at its rear was shaking, still locked by his sword jammed through the handle. Beside it, the wyrmlings were picking at the lock of the cage. Hristomarth ignored all that, leaping onto the stair, up to where he’d left the basket. It was still there. He grabbed it in his free hand and climbed to Rosilia, who glared down at him with arms folded tightly.

“You’re late!” she cried. “The denouement is ruined!”

“Beauteous diva—,” tried Hristomarth.

“No! It’s ruined!”

“Surely the crowd—”

“Shameful,” said Hetman Winge, appearing beside the diva. “Look upon their disconsolate faces.”

Hristomarth followed the gesture. The crowd seemed bored, though a small child shook his head sadly.

“Never has there been a worse pageant muse,” added Winge.

“And this smelly thing!” shouted Rosila, grabbing Greasetrap away from Hristomarth. “These were supposed to be locked up!”

“They are!” refuted Hristomarth. “I was just about to throw them all in the pond—”

Something brushed against Hristomarth’s boot. It was Mumbletongue, tottering past. The rest of the wyrmlings followed, spreading out to inspect the top of the Pageant Wagon. Catchmaw pounced on a shining stud that had fallen from Rosilia’s dress. Coalbelly attempted to ignite the paper-mache.

“They picked the lock again,” called Genna from down below.

Rosilia shook the wyrmling, screaming in frustrated rage.

Hristomarth held up a hand. There had to be a way to fix this. “It really isn’t that bad—”

“Fire!” came a shout from the crowd. “The old stable is on fire!”

A deep, troubled rumbling echoed across the top of the wagon. Hristomarth glanced back at Greasetrap. The wyrmling looked ill.

Hristomarth stared. “Ah. I wouldn’t...”

“The fire’s spreading!” shouted Hetman Winge.

“It’s like you did all this on purpose!” screeched Rosilia. She shook Greasetrap wildly, causing another gastrointestinal retort. The wyrmling flailed, its eyes popping wide. Rosilia looked at it in irritation. “What is wrong with this thing?”

Greasetrap vomited up a gallon of liquid fat.

* * *

Hristomarth Rofolio peered out from the branches of the sallow tree. The wyrmlings did as well from the branches beside him, watchful for angry villagers.

“Hello!”

The cry came from below. Hristomarth peered down to see Genna Myrmidon standing beside the trunk. She wore traveling clothes, with a rucksack hoisted over one shoulder and a bundle of coiled leather in her free hand.

“Oh,” he replied. “How are you?”

Genna looked away for a moment. “I’ve been banished.”

“The townsfolk are still upset, then?” He glanced back to the column of black smoke rising on the horizon.

“They put away the pitchforks to fight the fires.” Genna shook out the coil of bundled leather, revealing seven well-crafted leashes. “I made this for you.”

Hristomarth considered it. “My thanks?”

She gave him a wry look. “You’re going to need them.”

He glanced at the wyrmlings. They ignored him, glaring at the leash as if it were a snake. A sudden, sinking realization struck Hristomarth.

“I’m never going to get away from them,” he moaned. “I should have followed the Interactionist Mode from the start.”

Genna made an apologetic shrug. “The Ministers of Fate might plan something else...?”

Hristomarth did not respond.

The big woman hoisted her sack. “I should be going.”

Eventually he gestured farewell, though his heart wasn’t in it. His heart wasn’t in much of anything. After all this time, after going through so much, he was completely, and utterly defeated.

Hristomarth broke down sobbing. The wyrmlings leaped to console him by biting, slobbering, and clawing affectionately.