Mr. Aramate's Wonderous Emporium of the Soul: Part Three
Old Annie ate her supper in front of the Neovision set every evening. One of her granddaughters came round to make it for her, that night it was Valerie. She was a good, dutiful girl in her mid-twenties. Once Annie had finished her meal Valerie cleaned the dishes and then said goodnight. The younger Cybunny kissed the elder lightly on the forehead and then was away into the night.
Annie was at that age where everything was a matter of routine. She had an hour more of neovision and then turned the set off, standing with difficulty and groping for her stick. Slowly, she made her way to the foot of her stairs. Her children had long ago suggested she move to a bungalow when her knees first began to fail. But Annie was a matriarch. One stern look had put them all in their place and the matter had never been raised again. Annie had been born in that house and as far as she was concerned she would die in it.
Still, the stairs were a trial. She had to take them slowly, one at a time. It was a small flight but it still took Annie the best part of ten minutes to make it to the top. There, she made a trip to the upstairs bathroom before heading to her bedroom. There, she got changed into her nightclothes and sat staring at the mirror on her vanity for a while.
She struggled to sleep. She always had, ever since the night of the circus. She'd long since forgotten the sound of her brother’s voice, and even his face was a hazy memory. But there was one thing from that night that came back to her every time she closed her eyes. It was the ringmaster - the man who ran the circus. He had been a Lutari, brown in colour. But his clothes had been red lined with gold. A black top hat covered his hair, and a black moustache that had been waxed into points sat atop his lip.
He wore a smile. That night, during the show, it had seemed a smile of joy and entertainment. But every night since, Annie had looked back and the smile had twisted into something sinister. She couldn't remember anything about the other acts. Even the name of the circus escaped her - though she thought it was something ostentatious like it had just come out of Brightvale. There was only the face, but that was enough. A monster that lurked in the back of Annie mind.
Peter was probably right, she thought. The circus wouldn't be the same one. It couldn’t be. Even so, the thought of another big top in Halfcastle Forge chilled her to the bone. After a long while she shook herself to her senses and climbed into bed. Her old bones wouldn't let her lie awake half the night like she used to. She was asleep within half an hour.
Had she stayed awake, she would have seen them. A procession of carriages came into town from the Haunted Woods road. About twenty of them, they were laden with trunks and canvases and above all, people. Burning torches sat on the top of each one, lighting the way to the county field. They rode in fast and wide, the Whinnies pulling the carriages hardly needing to be told the direction.
They came to a rest plum in the middle of the county field, spreading out in a rough circle. From the first carriage, a figure climbed down and surveyed the scene, taking in a deep breath of air.
The brown Lutari fiddled with his waxed moustache as he smiled.
“It’s good to be back.”***
Hector Fastbelly heard of the arrival the following morning. His wife, Esther, had been the one to tell him, as she was the one to tell him most things. It wasn’t long until Esther found anything out - entire spy networks in far off kingdoms would crumble in comparison to Esther Fastbelly’s ability to find the latest gossip.
The pair closed the shop that morning to travel out to the county field and welcome their new guests. Esther stared critically at the sign above the butchers shop while Hector locked the door, just as she always did. The lack of the ‘& Sons’ at the end of Fastbelly’s had always annoyed her. She'd cried many nights when her two sons had moved to Neopia Central. They rarely spoke now, the odd Neomail and visits on the Day of Giving. Anyone would think they wanted people to gossip.
The pair made their way out to the county field. It was a gloriously sunny morning, and the sight of the big top that loomed on the horizon as they approached reflected the light like a beacon.
The circus had arrived, alright. Though in truth, it was more of a carnival. The attractions had spilled out of the big top and covered most of the field. There were fortune tellers, carnival games like a coconut shy and a test your strength game, a hall of mirrors and a haunted house ride. There were jugglers and clowns. People breathing fire and gymnasts practicing their acts. There were clowns and magicians. Exotic Petpets that neither of them recognised, bearded ladies and strongmen. Giants and small people, mimics and mimes. Anything the Fastbelly’s could imagine, they could see. Above the entrance to the field, the circus folk had erected a sign - ‘Mr. Aramate’s Wonderous Emporium of the Soul’. The writing was all cursive and elaborate and - most importantly for Esther - high class. This all looked expensive. And they had been the ones to book it.
They found the titular Aramate inside the big top, directing the assembly of the seating.
“Ah!” he said in a wonderfully ostentatious accent that was either put on or vastly exaggerated. “Ze wonderful ‘Ector Fastbelly! You ‘ave my sanks, Mister Fastbelly - zis place, it iz truly a wonder in itself - zere is no finer place for our little zircoos to ply our trade.”
“I'm glad it meets with your approval,” Hector said. “Though I must say, normally the act we book takes up the south end of the field, leaving the rest open to stalls for local produce makers. I couldn't help but notice that you appear to have spread over most of the...”
Esther had politely but quite firmly wrapped her arm in Hector’s and squeezed it to silence him.
“Now, now, Hector, I'm sure the baking circle can be persuaded that this year can be an exception,” she said. “And once they see the splendor of all this, I'm sure any objection they might have had will simply melt away.”
What she meant to say, of course, is that she would spend the entire day in turn smoothing things over with and shouting down any dissenters, depending on what was required. Esther was not about to allow the likes of Janice Goodfoot rain on her parade. Everyone knew that the woman had once holidayed to Krawk Island, and you don't hold polite conversation with such people.
“Ah, and zis must be zee delectable Madame Fastbelly!” Aramate said, taking Esther’s hand and kissing it in a mock bow. “Truly, a beauty of your kind ‘as never been seen zis side of Altador.”
Esther felt herself blush.
“Oh, my dear Mr. Aramate, you are simply too much!” Esther said shrilly. “A pleasure to meet you. Simply a pleasure!”
Hector cleared his throat in the manner of a man who does not much like other men kissing his wife's hand.
“We have a small hotel in town, if your people are needing accommodation,” he said.
“No need, my dear ‘Ector,” Aramate answered. “My people, we travel wiz everysing we require - including a place to sleep. But I sank you for your kindness, sir. We will be ready for tomorrow night, I promise you zat!”
“Jolly good!” Hector said. “I must say I never expected anything on this scale when I booked you in Neovia.”
“I agree,” Esther chimed in. “Are you quite sure we are paying you enough?”
Hector shot her a look that plainly said that was a foolish question. The last thing they needed to be doing was paying the man more. Hector Fastbelly did not get where he was by being liberal with spending.
“I can assure you, madame, zee payment will be more zan enough.” Aramate said.
“Well,” Hector said, eager to get away in case the man changed his mind. “We can see you are quite busy, Mr. Aramate. We’ll leave you to your preparations. Good day to you - and see you tomorrow evening.”
The pair of them left Aramate and made their way out of the big top, grinning like children who had just been handed the keys to a sweet shop.
Once they were gone, Aramate turned back to the stands and the workers who were setting them up. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a small Cybunny poking his head round the flap that led backstage.
“You!” Aramate shouted. “How many times! You stay out of sight!”
The Cybunny was only tall enough to be around 6, but his face looked a lot older. As soon as he heard Aramate’s voice, his head darted back behind the flap as if he had never been there.
“It was risky,” a Grarrl strongman said as he carried some boxes past. “Coming back here. And bringing them.”
“It ‘as been long enough,” Aramate said dismissively. “No one ‘ere remembers us. Let alone them. Besides, we need new recruits, do we not?”
The Grarrl had no answer to that. He knew the truth as much as his master. He moved off to dump his boxes, but Aramate kept his eyes on the tent flap. He would need to keep an eye on that Cybunny.
To be continued…