The Darker Carnival (The Markhat Files)
most of the crowd paid the walking engine no heed.
    Music blared. Half a dozen tents had their own bands set up out front, each trying to out-shout the rest. Barkers barked, exhorting the ambling masses inside their attractions, each bellowed promise of thrills more grandiose than the one before it. Smoke and steam from tiny snack stalls wafted here and there, no two the same, none easily identifiable.
    There was an upright riding wheel in the distance, slowly turning against the night, its seats full of gesticulating riders. Other rides bobbed and turned, whirling this way or that, each rise or fall accompanied by screams and hoots.
    Clowns wandered through it all, capering and gibbering and enduring whatever abuse the crowd felt they’d earned. I suppose spirits were generally high, because I only saw one clown struck in earnest, and only then after he pinched a man’s nose.
    Darla walked on my right and Gertriss on my left. Darla was all smiles. Gertriss was anything but.
    “What do you think, ladies?” I asked.
    “Charming,” said Darla, smiling. “In a sinister, evil fashion, of course.”
    “Not sure yet,” said Gertriss. “We need to split up. See the sideshows.”
    “You’ll attract too much attention, going off alone,” I said.
    “Chauvinist. But you’re probably right.” Gertriss glanced around, focused on a bespectacled young man wearing a bowler hat at least a size too large, and grabbed him by his elbow.
    “What’s your name, brown eyes?” she asked, putting a lot of purr into it.
    He took in the sight of her, and his face went beet red. “Um,” he said. “Er.”
    She smiled and stepped in close. “Breathe now,” she said, slipping her arm around him. “Your name.”
    “Orville,” he said, with the urgency of a drowning man grabbing at dry land. “Orville, um, Watson.”
    Darla had to hide her guffaws behind her hand.
    “That’s a nice name, Orville. My name is Gertriss. This is my uncle Marty,” she said, nodding to me. “He won’t let me see the side-shows by myself, which is mean of him. It would be awfully sweet of you to take me. Will you do that, Orville? Take me to a few side-shows? Keep me safe?”
    I bit back a chortle of my own. Gertriss was carrying enough firepower to take down a charging Troll. In a fight between one of Buttercup’s stuffed toy bears and Orville, I’d be hard pressed not to bet on the toy bear.
    “Are you a young man of manners and comportment, Mr. Watson?” I asked, fixing him in my best Army drill sergeant glare. “Will you treat my niece with utmost respect and flawless consideration?”
    Gertriss put her hand on Orville’s shallow chest. He gobbled out a heartfelt if slightly incoherent promise to keep her safe and unsullied.
    “I suppose it’s all right then,” I said. “Meet back at the gate in two hours. Or else.”
    I made a slicing motion across my throat. Gertriss hauled him off before he could bolt. Darla burst into laughter.
    “Men truly are simple creatures,” I said, as Darla took my arm. “All save me, of course. I was immune to your artful wiles.”
    I picked out a side-show tent and steered us toward it.
    “She’s worried about Evis,” Darla said. Evis is my best friend. Sure he’s a halfdead, a walking abomination if you believe the Church, but he has good taste in beer and enjoys a fine cigar and I never heard a priest say anything that made a lick of sense anyway. Evis is also Gertriss’s best friend, although in a wholly different sense.
    “Why?” I asked. “I thought they were past all that.”
    “So did she. But now she says he’s avoiding her. Cutting dates short. Ducking her altogether, at times.”
    I frowned. The barker saw us approach and waved us ahead. “That doesn’t sound like Evis,” I said.
    “Step right up, folks!” cried the barker, a short fat man in a bright yellow suit and matching orange hat. “Do you dare confront the mystery that is Clara and Clota, the two-headed woman?”
    “I

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