My apologies for the long delay! Life got in the way, and a major distraction was the release of my third novel, Renegade. The next few posts will be about life on the road, as they resume their journey back towards the Garden of Umako, and I’ll get the next major story finished ASAP – I hope without another interruption! ~~Steph
Nomusa smiled at Sipho and accepted the hand he offered to assist her in reaching one of the tiered plank benches set up in front of the stage. It would be easy to forget that Sipho’s elder sister and her husband were with them for propriety’s sake, easy to simply enjoy the show in the company of her betrothed. What opportunity was there for anything improper, in the midst of the fair?
The greater part of the fairgrounds was dominated by the cattle market, with other livestock in smaller satellite zones around it; there were any number of places to buy food and drink, much of it not available the rest of the year, and countless sorts of games and market stalls. Less entertaining was the job market, where those seeking employment and those seeking employees found each other.
This corner of the fairgrounds had been staked out by a travelling show. A rope strung between spindly poles marked out the area. One canvas stall sold shiny trinkets that certainly couldn’t be the gem-studded silver and gold they looked like; another sold candy in colourful boxes. Sipho had bought her a box of the candy, to her delight; she’d seen his sister watching, her expression affectionate and indulgent. A puppet stage had been set up, but with the main show about to begin, it was quiet as they passed. There was also a black tent, of something that looked softer and thinner than canvas, rippling in the breeze; around the top of it a long narrow banner had been fastened so it draped in lazy arcs, with open palms and mystic symbols all along it. There hadn’t been time before the show, but she hoped she could stop there afterwards.
“The stage is built right into the wagon,” Sipho said. “I watched them set it up. They fold the side down and put supports under it, and then they fold out the wings that extend past the length of the wagon and put supports under them so it’s twice as long. And then there’s canvas on frames that they just swing out and pin in place to make the backdrop for the rest of the stage. And the benches all come apart, too, they were on another wagon, a flat one.”
“I suppose if you travel all the time, it would get very dull, if setting things up and taking them down was too complicated,” Nomusa reflected. “And I’m sure they have better things to do. Did you see any of the performers?”
“I’m not sure who’s a performer and who might be just hired help,” he confessed. “There were women doing as much work as the men. Some of them were pretty light-skinned, northerners.”
They were on a major road leading to the Valley of Umako, so foreigners weren’t an uncommon sight. They didn’t tend to linger to talk, though, or tell the locals about their homelands.
On the roof of the wagon, a trio of men in bright motley settled themselves. One had drums, one had a complicated-looking pipe, and one had a stringed instrument with a long neck. They played a brief lively bit of music that ended with a sort of fanfare.
Through a doorway in the painted canvas backdrop, a man stepped onto the stage. He was dressed all in black, so conservative that it was rather dramatic in itself, especially against his dark skin and silvering hair.
“Gentles all, I welcome you to our show.” His voice boomed over the sounds of the rest of the market. “We have for you performances to suit all tastes. Laughter, excitement, danger, wonder, and beauty, all brought here purely for your enjoyment.”
Nomusa watched in delight as he did things with solid rings that made them link into each other, cut a rope into small pieces and made it reappear whole, and produced an apparently endless flow of copper coins from a hollow wooden cylinder. Common sense told her it must be trickery of some sort, since real magic was the domain of the gods and the spirit creatures they made, but she couldn’t figure out at all how it was done, and it would have been very easy to believe it was real.
Then he introduced someone with a foreign-sounding name.
The new performer was a woman. She was neither particularly tall nor particularly short, but she was quite slender, lean of hip and small of breast. Her costume made it all very clear, since it was only a black dress with a flared skirt that ended at mid-thigh, exposing a shocking amount of bare leg. The neck was high, but it had no sleeves at all. A wide belt, bright with colour and sequins, drew the whole thing in close to her torso. Interestingly, her long hair, drawn back in a simple tail, was striped tawny and walnut—that had to be dyed, right?
She had a rope of multiple braided colours, and on each end was a glass ball, one green and one orange-red, with long ribbons trailing from them. While the musicians played, she demonstrated an astonishing repertoire of tricks she could make those balls do, all of it with smooth fluid motions that made Nomusa think of a dance, the glass flashing in the sunlight and the ribbons making the designs she wove more visible.
She caught both balls neatly, swept the audience a bow, and left the stage.
Nomusa drank it all in.
A woman with dark skin had six small dogs that were remarkably clever; the dogs had dense curly coats, and Nomusa decided that they were clipped in different designs and must be dyed to achieve vivid colours that were normally found only on birds and flowers. The dogs did many tricks, and one of them kept running around behind its mistress and doing things on its own, preparing for the next trick, even apparently giving signals to the others to do things, but always sitting innocently still whenever its mistress actually turned to look at it.
A trio did a satirical version of a recent political situation, two kings quarrelling over which owned an island in the middle of the river. One woman was the island, dressed in grassy green with a low neckline. A heavy deeper green bodice laced tightly over it to enhanced her curves, and her short layered flounced skirt of sandy-brown showed off her legs. Many watery blue-green scarves trailing from under her skirt and from her arms. The costume of the male made his shoulders look very broad and his waist trim, and was all bold stripes in contrasting colours, something one kingdom was known for. The other king was being played by a woman, though the costume made no effort to pretend the shape beneath was anything but feminine. They argued over the island woman, in terms that degenerated rapidly from lordly long words and reasoning into the pouting of a couple of children each certain they deserved all the candy. Nomusa and Sipho weren’t alone in finding it hilarious.
The showmaster, in dramatic terms, described the next trio as coming from thousands of miles away, their origins in a culture that would allow neither man nor woman to be considered a citizen until they had demonstrated their fighting prowess and their lack of fear.
The trio in question demonstrated, with a few unfortunate melons and lengths of lightweight fabric, that their weapons had real sharp edges. Nomusa saw no opportunity for them to switch to dulled safer weapons before they faced off against each other, two on one. One was a tall blonde woman, curvy and strong, in so little chain-mail and leather that it would never have stopped a weapon and barely stopped the eye; she had a short straight sword. A sandy-haired man, in similarly little, with a short curved sword, was clearly on her side. Against them was a man shorter and slimmer than either, wearing somewhat more, with a peculiar triangular blade in each hand on a strange sideways handle. Nomusa found that she was biting her knuckle in apprehension, so close did they come to injury over and over.
(chapter continued next post!)