Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part One
Halfcastle Forge was that most curious of border towns. Neither here, nor there, and certainly of no real importance. Not quite in the Endless Plains. Certainly not part of the Haunted Woods. And not on a major trade route. The town, if you could even call it a town, had only one real claim to fame - being on the Demonica River.
Given that the thing winded its way through practically every homestead from its source near Neovia until it became the Batrin River in Neopia Central, even this was a dubious honour at best. Halfcastle was a sleepy old place where nothing ever happened.
It’s those sorts of places, historians have recently discovered, that you have to watch the most.
Now this particular tale of misfortune, it began as all matters of such type do - with a committee. The Halfcastle Forge town council was an unhealthy mixture of newly retired women with little else to fill their time, their brow beaten husbands, irritating thirty somethings who had moved to the town to escape the rat race of Neopia Central, and the obligatory eco warrior. This one was called Marian. She was a Kyrii who smelt faintly of cabbage.
The general chatter about the mess Mrs. Crumbleside had made of her garden, just how awful the selection at the local market's premium coffee section had become, and the well-known and quite scandalous antics of Mr. Frobisher was broken by the banging of the ceremonial hammer. Hector Fastbelly had been the Skeith to bang it, as was his role as leader of the town council. He was a fastidious old yellow creature who by day served as the town’s butcher. He was working well into retirement, mainly due to the fact that both his sons had the good sense to see Halfcastle Forge as the dead end it was and had moved to Neopia Central twelve years ago.
“I bring to order the monthly meeting of the Halfcaslte Forge Town Council for the month of Swimming,” he said. “I have apologies from Reginald Crownby. Apparently Mrs. Crownby has a bad case of Chickaroo.”
Hector’s wife, the formidable battle-axe of a woman named Esther Fastbelly, made a harumph at that. She was a green Elephante well versed in small town ettiquette. When she spoke, it was in the carefully volumed whisper that made sure every single person in the room heard it.
“She’s had Chickaroo at least twenty times now. If he doesn't want a seat on this council he should stand down and let someone else use it.”
“The first order of business is the continued problem with Crokabeks on the statue of Michael Halfcastle,” Hector added once his wife had finished sniping.
There were general mutters at that.
“Terrible creatures,” George Marlin Senior, a Techo approaching eighty, cursed.
“Terrible creatures,” George Marlin Junior, his son, himself a Techo approaching sixty, agreed.
Michael Halfcastle had been the blacksmith who had founded Halfcastle Forge countless centuries ago - a statue to him stood in the town square, and had for a number of years been plagued by a flock of Crokabeks settling atop it. It was generally considered Quite Unseemly by the town council, and as a result it had been deemed A Matter That Must Be Dealt With. A grave designation indeed.
“I believe Thomas has an update for us on that front,” Hector said, gesturing to a middle aged Acara to his left before sitting down.
Thomas Manderly had been a high flying stock broker in the city before moving to the town. His quaint little thatched roof cottage looked out upon the town square. That made the problem with the Crokabeks something of a personal battle.
“I have spoken to the pest control man from Eastbridge,” Thomas said.
There were murmurs of discontent about Eastbridge. No one liked people from the far bigger, far more successful neighbouring town of Eastbridge.
Marian the eco warrior already had her hand up.
“He assures me that no poison will be laid,” Thomas said, waving her concerns away. “But I have his word that the Crokabeks will be relocated to a safe haven within the Haunted Woods. He is due to begin the work on Monday afternoon.”
“Excellent,” Hector said as Thomas sat back down. “I'm sure we all thank Thomas for his hard work on this issue. Now... Let’s see, the next item is the pothole on Sparrowmire Lane.”
Nearly a dozen items came and went, each greeted with either murmurs of dissent or support.
Eventually, Hector stood once more.
“The final item on our agenda is something very exciting,” he said. “As you know, next month is our summer faire - and this year, well, Esther has the details.”
Esther Fastbelly stood with blossoming pride.
“In previous years I’m sure you are aware of the entertainment booked for the faire,” she said. “In years past, we had singers from Brightvale, strange Moltaran fire dancers, and I'm sure everyone remembers the poetry of Barthus the Bard from ten years ago. But we’ve discussed before how in recent years the quality has somewhat... Dipped. The less said about Margaret Effle’s Dancing Warfs the better, I'm sure you agree. But this year, I feel we have outdone ourselves. I was holidaying in Neovia this past month - and I came across a poster for a truly unique and amazing act. I have spoken to the manager, and they have agreed to attend.”
She pulled from her large shopping bag (reusable) a crumpled poster which she smoothed out on the table before holding it up for all to see.
It was a stylised silhouette of a ringmaster, that was clear, with block colours for his tails and a pointy moustache on his face. Around him swirled the unmistakable colours and stripes of a big top tent. Around the edges in fancy curled writing it proclaimed to be a poster for Mr. Aramate’s Wonderous Emporium of the Soul.
There was a hushed silence in the council chamber. It was George Marlin Senior who broke it.
“Are we to understand that you booked... A circus?”
The word came to his lips like poison. The council collectively held their breath.
“Yes,” Esther said proudly. “A very fancy circus, as well.”
“But...” George said. “We don’t have circuses. Not in Halfcastle Forge. Not in over ninety years.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Esther dismissed him. “An old wive’s tale, nothing more. Surely we live in a more enlightened age these days where we don’t believe in such things as curses? Honestly, George, I took you to be a more sensible man. Circuses operate all over Neopia - why, Thomas, you must have seen some in your time in Neopia Central?”
“Oh yes,” Thomas agreed. “Every year a most spectacular circus comes from the Lost Desert and sets up over half of Rydall Park. It truly must be seen to be believed. As must the crowds.”
“There, you see?” Esther said. “Neopia Central has circuses and they don’t suffer from any curses. It’s nonsense.”
“But Old Annie...” George mumbled.
It is dangerous to mumble in the face of a woman such as Esther. George soon learned his lesson when Esther rounded on him.
“Old Annie is half blind, half deaf, and completely mad,” she scolded him. “If you put any stock in things she said you’re the sort of person who would find Eastbridge a lovely place to live. Now of course we must vote on it - but you really have two choices. You vote to live in the present, or vote to live in the past like Old Annie.”
“I spoke to the circus master,” Hector added. “He’s an eccentric character, to be sure. But I saw no hint of malice in his eyes. We have nothing to fear from these circus folk, I assure you. And his fee is most reasonable. It leaves us extra money to spend on things like your cake stall, Janice, or improvements to Sparrowmire's roads.”
Hector, ever the dutiful husband, had pointed the remarks like bullets at several key council members. Janice Goodfoot, head of the town's baking circle. George Marlin Junior, who lived on Sparrowmire Lane along with Dennis Finch and Mary Treefall. He’d just bought them, while Esther ploughed through the rest of the resistance with her iron will.
“A vote then,” Hector said. “All those in favor of the circus, raise their hands.”
“And those against.”
“The motion is passed then,” Hector said as Esther sat down with a victorious smirk. “The circus will perform at the summer faire. Any other business.”
The phrase was there as a challenge. In all the years of all town councils anywhere, there has never been any other business. Not if people wanted to keep their seats.
“Excellent,” Hector said when the obligatory pause had passed. “The next meeting will be on the 28th of next month. I hope you all can attend.”
He bangs the hammer once more to signal the end of the meeting, and gradually they all file out of the town hall into the square.
And with that little meeting, they sealed their fates. There’s nothing quite like a circus, after all.
And there's certainly no one quite like Mr. Aramate.
To be continued…