Ahh… I wondered when you would get ‘round to me. You’ve put me in a rather delicate position, you know – asking such pointed questions. You are aware, I am sure, that I have many stories I could tell you, all of them thoroughly researched and quite resistant to disproof. But then I see you have chosen the order of your interviews wisely and so I have no way to know what stories you may have already been given, or if my associates have told you any truth whatever. If, as I suspect, they have been false with you, I beseech you to stay your anger. The life of a traveler is often a lonely one and, for some, a bit of sport with an inquisitor such as yourself can make a dull day seem a bit brighter. Many have suffered tragedy in their tender youths and this has hardened them more than their young souls should be asked to bear. I beg you, show compassion.
Now, many are the rumors attached to those who make their living on the road as we do, and it’s no wonder. The transient nature of the lives we lead tends to attract those who wish to avoid close scrutiny into their affairs. The criminal element, most especially, can do much to conceal their nefarious activities. By taking to the road, the variety of nabobs and scoundrels one may encounter is endless. This casts an unwelcome shadow over all of us who ply the trade.
But rumors, even when rooted in truth, can mislead; and so it is with those of us who traverse the byways of civilization. The fact is, the ruffians and rogues comprise but a small number of our company. It is wise, of course, to guard yourself well in all your dealings with travelers; I’ll not argue against a judicious use of fair sense. It would simply be a grave injustice to a great many good and noble folk who seek nothing more than to turn ill fortune to the good, not only for themselves but also for their fellows, to dye us all in the same tincture. I perform under the trade name ‘The Great Ernesto’ and have sought naught but to bring smiles to unhappy faces since I was drawn to the traveler’s life myself in my own youth. The particulars of my own unhappy childhood are beneath your consideration I assure you; it should suffice to mention that those distressing events prepared me ably for my current noble charge of rescuing those who the Good Pair show me are worthy of my limited efforts.
Take Chastain, for instance. I’ll not reveal stories that are his to tell, but I can tell you that I found him in Chesterton mostly-starved and begging. But rather than in the Merchant’s Quarter where the other beggar-children were begging, Chastain was selling a hard-luck story right in an upscale tavern just outside the baron’s palace. I thought to myself, ‘that’s a clever lad’. Instead of shouting to be heard over dozens of other beggars and clamoring for coppers in the dirt, he was going after deeper pockets with a carefully thought-out plan. He wasn’t getting anywhere with it, but it showed me he had moxie – and smarts. I called him over, promised him a silver scepter if he’d wait till I concluded my business and then talk with me. He did. I bought him a meal while we talked. I told him about the performances we do and how we make our way in the world, that he was a good storyteller and I could use someone with his skills; then I told him he could take the silver I promised him, or he could trade it for a place in my troupe where he’d never miss another meal. Like I said, the kid has smarts.
And Landa, who knew she’d turn out to be such a looker? I mean, she was no older than ten, I think, when we discovered her. It’s really a good thing that I found her a place with us. A girl with looks like that could end up in a situation she might not like, and with her temper she would probably be found dead, if she were found at all. Nelson was starving, but being a farm-lad he showed he has good mechanical and horse-sense, so he keeps me from having to worry about the wagon and the team so I can focus better on the troupe and our performances. That’s worth gold to me. And Miri, we found her about to be killed on account of being believed to be harboring a dark spirit. You’d think those Believers with all the fancy knowledge they got locked up in their cathedrals would recognize someone with The Gift, but not this bunch. But they showed where their true loyalties lay when they sold her to us for the price of twenty scepters. I have no idea what that poor girl went through, and it’s likely as not that I never will. But I make sure she stays safe and in return she has run of the kitchen.
Now, you can say that I’m taking advantage if you want to. It’s okay – I’ve heard it all before. But they get plenty in return for what I ask of them, and as they’re all of age now any one of them can go whenever they’ve a mind to. I’m not holding them against their will. They may have started out as wards or charges, but they’re associates now and I treat them as such. Maybe they can find a better troupemaster elsewhere, and if they do and decide to go, good ol’ Ernie here will wish them luck.