Reign of Beasts (Creature Court) - By Tansy Rayner Roberts

PART I

The First Saturnalia

1

They called me Boy back then. The spruikers, the stagehands, the tumblers, the columbines, the songbirds, the masks. Even the other lambs of the crew, the ones who were younger than me. If I had a real name, it was long forgotten.

Madalena called me Baby. That wasn’t my real name either, but it made me feel special. I would sit on her dressing table, swinging my legs, while she painted her face with cosmetick and told me stories of the old days, of the Pearls Beyond Price, of the songs they used to sing. I’d stay with her for hours, the only one who wanted to listen, the only one who didn’t whisper behind her back about how she was pushing forty now and maybe it was time for a new stellar to take her place. I didn’t care about any of that cack.

Oyster wasn’t much of a town. What do you expect from a place called Oyster? It was shellfish, shellfish and more shellfish. Folks came from all over to buy crab and mussels and, oh aye, oysters from our pier. Most families in Oyster had a boat, or crewed a boat, or were waiting for a place on a boat. The rest of them shucked the oysters or worked the market. The whole town smelled of salted shell.

Then there was the Mermaid. She was an old musette, peeling paint and shabby curtains, but she was ours, and she was famous, even more famous than the shellfish, to the right kind of people. They came from all over to see the show, though only in oyster season.

We were the lambs from the Mermaid. We didn’t have to go to school, not even in summer when the musette was closed because the oysters went bad too fast for us to pull decent audiences. Every young cove and demme in town wanted to be us. We didn’t stink of fish. Just cosmetick grease.

Only the luckiest lambs in town got a chance to join the troupe. The stagemaster took on one or two every season, and half the time they wouldn’t make it through — they’d rip a costume or drop a piece of scenery or prove to be no good at the tumbling and gurning between acts. The failures would be booted out swift as you like, out of there, back to the life of boats and markets and shellfish that was all Oyster had to offer them.

I was seven years old when I heard the name ‘Aufleur’ for the first time. It was the month of Fortuna, nearly winter, when the oysters are their sweetest and meatiest. I’d been sent out to fetch supper for the stagemaster and when I got back, Madalena was having one of her turns. I could hear the screams from the street.

As soon as I stepped backstage, I was seized by a mob of columbines, all spindly arms and fluffy tulle, but surprisingly strong.

‘Here he is!’

‘It’s the Boy!’

‘Where have you been?’ barked the stagemaster. ‘Get up there, lamb, she listens to you. Talk some sense into the daft old haddock.’

I was pushed and shoved up the rickety steps to the stellar dressing room. It stank of gin and lime. Madalena had turned to her favourite activity in dark times — destroying one of her costumes. This was, I happened to know, her least favourite frock, with a murex fringe that made her look like a reading couch. She ripped it with savage glee, her false fingernails breaking off under the strain.

‘Raddled, am I?’ she screamed as I closed the door. ‘Past my prime?’

‘Did they say that?’ I asked in a low voice.

‘Might as well have! They want Adriane to play the Angel at Saturnalia. That’s my role! The stellar role. They’re raising her up to replace me!’

I’d heard rumours, of course. Whispers in the props room and the ticket booth. Madalena had too many years under her jewelled brassiere for anyone who knew how to count, and everyone knew that Adriane had been in and out of the stagemaster’s office at odd hours, emerging with her hair all messed up and her knickers showing.

Aye, I knew what that meant, too. I was seven, not stupid.

No one had said to my face that Madalena’s star was falling; they wouldn’t, knowing she was the closest I had to a mam. I still heard the whispers. I wasn’t going to be the one to break Madalena’s heart, so I lied to her, bare-faced lie after lie,

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