The student giggled in her wire prison. Loudly. Quant saw the humour, though really he had only stated it as fact. He allowed his old bones only the briefest chuckle. People had noticed. Heard Steiffa’s giggling. A mob of starers deserting that beargirl laughing after them; they sidled nearer, like a herd of moo’cows questing after greener pastures.
“Ohh – not my adoring fans again!” Steiffa quipped, then fell silent, even as wary Quant shushed her.
“Wuzzid laughin’?” – the townsman herded his three little children in close to the tall cage on its thin table.
Quant stood head and shoulders above the tallest man the town could field, and that fellow wasn’t at the circus this festive night. This dozen enjoying the half-freedom of the town under something less than half-curfew jostled the old healer, curious, peering round him in at silent, sullen, stock-still Steiffa, not quite hidden in her straw.
“Izzid dead, Duddy?”
“Sure id wuz laughin’ – Uh knowz laughin’ when uh hears laughin’ –“
“You’re mistaken, sir,” said Quant, gathering himself, “Only playful rattie chittering, it was. Can you see that?”
“Uhhh…only playsful rattie chitterin’, id wuz…”
“Only like laughing, d’you see?”
“Only…like laughin’ –“
“PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE EXHIBITS,” boomed the man only just taller than the children poking fingers in Steiffa’s cage.
The small girl in front kindly had pushed through a nipped off bit of carrot she munched as a snack. Steiffa had it, rolling over and over in her tiny paws, and nibbling it like it might taste the tastiest of any circus carrot ever.
“Management cautions our guests, at all times, keep one’s limbs and appendages – like one’s fingers, little sir – away from the exhibits, for grievous injury, or loss, of guest limbs, appendages, and-or fingers, likely to result. And that also means you, little lady.”
The sideshow barker had adapted to squinting his big bright eyes in this world outside his forests, far away in Waldran. Quant noted he was strikingly taller than most forestmen. And knowing a little of their ways, reasonably supposed that possibly how he came to his job here: he hadn’t fit in back home.
Steiffa’s fans drifted back to the laughing beargirl, broadly sweeping her long arms at them in welcome and joy.
Quant figured to try, and try though knowing the forest people of Waldran were hardly the easiest to…persuade.
“Seeing as you, sir, hardly have a talkative talking rattie here, this one’s in all frankness not really paying its way. Perhaps you, sir, might think to earn your circus a little silver your circus prob’y otherwise should not see. A capable man, such as yourself, I would suggest, can see this only too well –“
Narrowing his eyes, in no rush the barker came round in front of Steiffa’s table and cage – “A little found silver always a good end t’the night, oh yesss. What, sir, might y’be suggesting then?”
“Well, sir, I have an abiding…fondness for small things, and pretty little ratties among them. And that your rather unpromising talking rattie really isn’t – well, that hardly puts me off, seeing as I’m an old man, also much fond of quieter surroundings. Your quieter little rattie should do me fine –”
“Should do y’fine, indeed. Then, sir, I should say there is but the price for haggling over –“
“But the bit of silver, sir –“
“Bit o’silver, sir…but also for the cage –“
“But I’d not want the cage, sir –“
“But no cage, sir…for you’d carry her home in your suit pocket – Am I right, or am I right, sir? –“
“But – right, sir – Heh heh – and but the bit of silver, as you say, sir – Heh heh –“
“But, sir, for a bit of the King’s head turned sideways, yesss…in my hand, here, sir – and heh heh back at you, sir –“
The barker’s hand proffered before him, Quant figured best not to doubt it. Producing a smooth river pebble from his pocket, kept there because Quant liked smooth river pebbles, quickly he put it in that waiting hand.
The forestman’s eyes widened, darkest brown and deep.
“But not a silver pebble…sir?” – and he advanced fiercely on Quant, put his chin hard in the healer’s waist – “These eyes not only see well in shadows. Did y’think your mind trick should play on me, old man? –“
Half in her straw, Steiffa squeaked a word so extremely impolite that her wire cage would seem a playground to her had Madame heard it.
“Apologies, sir – It was not polite of me to try.”
Quant’s apology apparently sufficient, the barker backed off a step, squinting his eyes again.
“Down on your luck, is it? And wanting a little rattie?”
“Come to see the circus…Yes, I’ve had luckier days. I’m fond, as I’ve said, of…animals –“
“You might try me for apprentice barker. Y’might talk buckets o’silver outta these…guests here – I’d say you should do very nice – if it’s yesss –“
“Nooo,” Quant returned, gently, diplomatically, and gathering himself again, as the idea sparked in him – “But it’s the animals I came for. And I’m shocked…they look…unwell –“
Disregarding the beargirl, clearly and loudly quite well, Quant reasoned this ploy should work in his and little Steiffa’s favour, for of all the many peoples of the world the forest people in Waldran held precious as their own lives the lives of every animal.
It did work. The barker recoiled as if slapped across the face – “You would know how? –“
“I am a healer…in my land –“
“I care for these myself! –“
“The beargirl there –“
“She has her own bed – and proper clothes – her hair brushed out at night –“
“This little rattie –“
“She’s only stubborn – The new ones always are – See, Healer, I do the best I can for mine –“
“I would not suggest you don’t, sir…knowing your kind people –“
“Isn’t easy, y’know. I should ask Medved for more for them – but y’have t’find silver before y’can spend silver –“
“I spoke too harshly, sir –“
“Listen, Healer. You can benefit from the work. Be healer here. Be apprentice barker on his wife’s books – Medved’ll go for that. Healer by my side. And see to all mine here. What say you then? Well?”
“I can benefit from such work. Thanks, sir –“
“And here’s my hand on it – Kurt’s my name –“
“Quant,” said Quant, instantly regretting that he hadn’t thought up an alias. This was a young man’s game.