HEART TO HEART CONVERSATION

King of Stranglers, Prince of Conjurers

Knock knock. May I come in? What do you mean it is common practice to knock and not say "knock"? Spoilsport.

Did you really tolerate the apple tart last time? That's good to hear - I did not. I had a really terrible night after that, but it is my own fault, I shouldn't have eaten that much. So nothing for us tonight, I'm on a strict diet. Already too slim, am I not? I can't help - after that feast last time I can barely stomach anything. My upset stomach needs more time to recover. You on the other hand... Ow!

See - my picknick basked contains just bread - the one I made myself - and cheese and a bottle of water. No vine. Just water, mind you. You do not trust me? Try it, it is nothing but water!

Have I told you about Samarkand before? No? Well, then this is the perfect opportunity here and now.

Travelling with that merchant had its benefits, especially after I had proven my skills as magician-guard. They all treated me with great respect, bowing deeply when serving me and I have to admit I absolutely loved being treated like a prince. I did not have much work to do, they cared for me well, I just had my exercise with Chang, which I greatly enjoyed now. It was... well, we even allowed them to watch us, for I was doing the most spectacular exercises - which are good for show but I wouldn't use them in a real fight - and this only heightened their respect and fear for me.

What other people called a strenuous journey was the perfect holiday for me. Yes, holiday. I mean it. Getting up, getting my breakfast served, riding all day, doing some workout, then getting my dinner served, my tent put up, my clothes cleaned, my horses looked for - that was just great.

The merchant cared very well for his employees. We had enough food, and a very fine quality. Bread, cheese, water, milk, even meat and fresh fruits. Do you know how hard it is to get fruits in these desert mountains? And sweets. Candied dates, figs with honey... God, my mouth is watering when I just think of it!

I was growing fast and by begin of summer I was the tallest one on that caravan. I have to admit that average people in that area of the world are smaller than average Europeans. I do not know why, maybe it is their heritage, maybe it is due to malnourishment in their youth. But then, I had suffered hunger and very hard work myself and I did not stay small. I am... a bit over the average height, I guess, but not too tall.

My life so far had not been easy and I had far too often not been able to eat my fill and now I had such rare delicacies! Yes, I did gain weight, but I was growing so fast, it didn't show much. The merchant constantly complained about the strenuous journey while I felt like I was on holiday or on a cure in a health resort. The heat? Yes, that was a problem - but if you have a nice long siesta each day during the greatest heat it is no problem. We got up early and had a five-hours-rest at noon, then went to bed late at night.

But with that easy life another problem resurfaced - I was a man. When we were in a village or a city I saw women. Of course I did not just approach them or behaved badly, no, certainly not, I'd never do that, but... whenever I saw one of the little tents that covered a female my imagination went wild. I guess no woman can ever be so beautiful as I could imagine her. I knew absolutely nothing about them and I couldn't see them - but in my imagination they were... tempting. Living in the same tent as Chang I did not have the necessary minimum of privacy to deal with my urges and I grew restless. Of course my teacher noticed and told me to take care. "You only have one first time and you will remember it for the rest of your life - which hopefully will be many decades from now on. It can be a wonderful memory you will enjoy or it can torment you for the rest of your life. It is your decision, but I warn you, there might be a very high price to pay for a few moments of lust."

As always, he was right. But I was a fifteen year old boy and of course I saw what the other men did. In cities they looked for orphans living in the streets and offered good food as payment for their services, girls and boys alike. At first I turned away in horror, my memory of that dancing boy was too fresh and I recognized the signs of illness and drug-addiction in their faces and bodies. Some of them were even older than I was and I knew without a doubt that without Chang I would have ended up exactly like them. I could not do it to them, I pitied them far too much.

The closer we came to Samarkand, the more other caravans and merchants we met. I tried my "I'm a real magician" attitude with them too and was surprised to find that the more arrogant I was the more they would treat me with respect. Until then I had believed that because I was such a lowly creature I had to humble myself and be grateful not to be beaten and kicked and chased away. But now I learned that it was the other way round: The more I arrogant and haughty I acted, the more they treated me like I really deserved respect. I did not fool myself into believing they really respected me - it was fear. Fear of what a dark magician could do. I did shows, yes, and since I did not take money, Chang - still acting as my humble servant - took care to collect the Money and of course stealing from those who did not give freely, but he would never steal from those who dropped coins in his bowl. I always claimed to be above such earthly pursuits like money and did what I did just for my own amusement.

It worked much better than I had ever thought it would. My shows drew in people and somehow my voice had a new quality to it. I could not really control it then, but my magic show and my music dulled men's wits and made them easier to bargain with. It was the merchant who pointed this out to me one evening when I was his guest again for dinner. I tried to hide my astonishment behind an arrogant smile and took a glass of tea I was offered. Shrugging a little I said to him: "What did you expect from a magician?" He laughed at that and begged my forgiveness for ever doubting me.

He met some of his colleagues and they formed a larger caravan together with their various goods - and me as their protector and good luck charm. I was surprised that we did not encounter robbers, just some thieves, but most of them were easy to expose and once I had shown them I knew what they were doing they gave up and looked for easier prey. And those who fooled even me - well, they deserved what little they could steal. Questionable ethics? No, I do not think so. If I have the right to steal whatever I can I have to accept that if there is a better thief than me he has the right to steal from me, same goes for a situation of stupid carelessness on my side.

One night some of the workers had traded something for kath leaves. You know what kath leaves are? A drug, it makes you feel wide awake and happy, but sometimes it makes you aggressive and it dulls any moral sense. Not that my moral sense was that high, but... well, they asked me politely if I liked to try some. I should have said no, I knew perfectly well what Chang had taught me - stay away from every kind of drugs, be it alcohol or whatever. Everything that might dull my alertness and concentration is too dangerous, it can cost my life. Every weakness can be used against me - and will be used by my enemies. Leave your house and you meet a thousand enemies. I guess that number was metaphorical, he just wanted to tell me that whomever I met could be my archenemy and bound for blood. I should always be on alert and wide awake, never allow myself to be intoxicated or dreamy.

Of course I did not listen to him. The respect everyone was showing me did nothing good to my character and in my haughtiness I saw Chang as an old man who might be right in his teachings for an actual spy and assassin, but I was neither. I was just a trickster, so there would be no need to keep up that rigid discipline. Plus, he could not scold me without revealing his true identity as my teacher instead of my servant. I really fooled myself into believing I had outsmarted him. What a fool I was.

I accepted the leaves and did chew them. The taste is ugly, but the effect was something I did enjoy. Somehow the drug made all of us a bit more sociable, in that it was a bit like alcohol, it dulled everyone's alertness and mistrust and made it easier to interact. The men told me about a place where the most beautiful whores were and how cheap they were. I decided to give it a try for I had decided I would disregard Chang's warning. Being as ugly as I was - and still am - I thought to hell with any moral qualms - if I have any chance to lay somebody, I'll do it. Who knew how many chances I would get in my whole life anyway? I was no girl, so why should I save my virginity for someone? I surely did not think I would ever have any chance to find a wife, a mistress, a lover... so why should I deny myself?

The whores were the same like in every city - poor girls, boys and women, dirty, ill, stinking, most of them drug addicted or alcoholics. And yet I envied them for they were desired by men while I would never be desired by anyone, women and men alike. Envy and the effect from the leaves made me careless enough to stay when the men bargained with one of the cleaner looking girls. She agreed to sleep with all of us - we were six men, if I count myself as a man - and followed us to the camp outside the village.

They took her into a tent and had it their way with her. One after the other. I watched in disgusted fascination, in that I was no different from everyone else. I just stared, most of my feelings numbed by the drug, except my hunger for a woman. Under normal circumstances I would have turned away in disgust, now I was willing to participate.

No boy should lose his virginity like that - participating in some sort of rape - even if the woman had agreed, she was so drugged, I thought she didn't really know what was happening to her, and it surely was some sort of rape. I stopped thinking or feeling anything but that despicable lust, I didn't see or hear anything anymore, I just existed and acted purely on instinct like any animal would do. All I wanted was something my instincts told me I needed, my ability for rational thought was long gone. It was great. I didn't last long, it was over in few moments and I came to my senses again, struggling to catch my breath. The woman beneath me seemed to be unconscious with drugs and I thought, if I had already slept with her, I might as well try to steal a kiss. I had never kissed a human being before, nor had I ever received a kiss and now I would not get a real kiss, just steal one from a whore who was drugged into oblivion. But I wanted it nevertheless. So I took off my mask.

You cannot imagine my horror as her face twisted in terror at the sight of my exposed ugliness only inches away from her face, her mouth opened in a silent scream. Then her eyes rolled backwards until I saw only the white of them in the bluish moonlight. She stopped breathing. I panicked, shook her, begged her to wake up again, promised to marry her and do everything she asked me to if she would just breathe again. But she was dead. She died in my arms of sheer terror at my sight and touch, just as my mother had predicted.

I am not entirely sure what happened next. I guess I just ran for I remember running away through the darkness and getting completely lost. I had no idea where I was, I just ran until I found the edge of town and left, and just fled. I must have stumbled for I remember rolling down a hillside, my head hit something, then everything went black.

My next memory is waking up to find myself lying in my tent, Chang sitting next to me, looking at me so sadly. I cried out and flung myself in his arms, unable to stop my tears, shaking with violent sops, not only tears running from my face but mucus from my nose and salvia from my mouth. I still wonder how Chang could endure holding me in his arms when he had to endure that disgusting sight of me sobbing.

I cried until I passed out again. When I woke I felt nothing. Nothing at all. Can you imagine feeling absolutely nothing? At first I was relieved that the pain was over, but then I found I could not get up. I did not find the strength to get up. I was just lying there staring at the black tent. Chang came in and told me to get dressed, the caravan would move on soon. I did not answer, I found I could not. I was... I felt like I was already buried beneath an invisible weight, and it was far too heavy to move. I felt like I had been buried alive under tons of sand. Chang went outside to saddle the horses, then came back, like the good servant he pretended to be. I was still lying on my back without moving.

"Erik, get dressed!" he said, scuffled out. I stared at the tent pole. He came back and snapped at me annoyed: "Erik! Hurry up, get dressed!" He did not leave me, obviously not trusting me to get up now. I did not move. I couldn't, and I didn't care. He came to me, grabbed my hair and pulled me upright. I did not feel the pain, I felt nothing. I sat there, slumped down, sitting there, staring at my feet. He poked at me with his finger, hitting exactly the nerve-points that were most painful, but I felt nothing. He snapped his fingers before my eyes and I did not flinch or blink.

And then something absolutely crazy happened. I left my body. Well, at least I thought I did, I know that this is not possible, but I really felt that I was getting up, going away from Chang and sitting down on the other side of the small tent. But my body stayed where it was and I saw it from the outside, I saw my naked body, my legs, arms, torso bruised as if I had been beaten. I knew I did not wear a mask, I was stark naked, but I did not see my face though. Where a face should have been I saw only emptiness, a hole, and it was not even black, it was grey. I did not see my beard and I did not see my brown hair as it really was - a long brown mane, ill-kept - I saw myself having curls down to my shoulders, but in reality it was much longer.

I sat there, feeling nothing, watching Chang dressing my body and covering it with my black mask and the black shawl. I should be scared, but I was not. I saw him frown at my feet which were sore due to my too small shoes - they had been fitting perfectly only two months ago - and start to dress me nevertheless. I watched from outside with indifference, feeling absolutely nothing and not wanting to do anything. I could see my head lolling to the side. Chang slept me and I felt nothing, I barely heard the slap.

Someone was at the "door" of the tent and called out in Russian that they were ready and if we needed help getting our tent packed and stuffed to our pack-horse. Chang did not understand Russian and called out in English that we needed a few moments.

He took out a knife and cut my arm a bit. I did not feel the steel piercing through my skin, but suddenly I was back in my body and moved my head to look at him. He was very worried, I could see that he was on the verge of panic. "For God's sake, Erik, answer me!" he breathed.

"What?" I grunted, annoyed that he had forced me out of my absolutely oblivious and peaceful state of mind.

"Get up, we need to get going," he said. I tried to, but all I could do was pushing myself to my knees, then stayed there. "Erik, what is it?" Chang asked alarmed and I shrugged. I had no idea, but I felt so terribly tired, my body was so heavy, I wanted to lie down again and sleep... sleep and never wake up again. I lacked the strength to do anything at all.

This time another man called us, one who spoke a bit English.

"He's in deep meditation," Chang answered, trying to explain my state staying true to the magician I should be impersonating. "He does that every so often. I do not know the details, but he is not to be disturbed."

Chang had to lead me to my horse and help me into the saddle. I overheard them talking that I had drained the life-force from that woman with my kiss, that I was some sort of ghoul, eating the soul of the living with my death's kiss. A ghoul is a demon who feeds on the living, a ghoul is always bad and can never do something good while a djinn can be good or bad. I heard everything but I could not bring myself to feel anything or to react. I felt nothing, I was in some kind of trance, unable to react and yes, sometimes I felt that I left my body again, stood aside and watch the caravan from afar.

I stayed in this horrible state for about a week, Chang had to nurse me, to dress me, feed me and care for my every need. I did not feel anything and my body seemed to have some extra-brain to function on its own without me. Yes, sometimes I thought I saw it move around without me, sitting somewhere else, watching. Chang had to dress me, undress me, feed me with some kind of puree. He would put a spoon full of it into my mouth. At first I did not close my lips and did not swallow, so it ran out again. Chang soon learned how to place his left hand under my chin so he would give me puree or water with a spoon, then lift my chin to make it run backwards in my mouth until the swallowing reflex set in. And yes, he had to take me outside, he had to untie the waistband of my pants and he had to tell me to relief myself outside of our tent. That was something else - I did not feel the need to go outside, I was like a baby who can't control his body. Far too often my teacher had to degrade himself to clean my soiled clothing.

Yes, I knew all these things, but there was nothing I could do about it. I did not feel shame or anything else - I felt absolutely nothing but the invisible weight that was holding me - as if I was struck in invisible quicksand.

Until one night something funny happened. Chang was asleep and I was sitting next to our bodies, watching us breathing evenly. My body sat up and took a knife and cut its leg. And I was back in my body and felt, for the first time since an eternity it seemed, pain. Not much pain, but I was relieved to feel anything at all. I cut myself again, deliberately, just to feel anything again.

Chang woke up and stared in horror at the blood that was seeping from my wounds.

"Erik, what are you doing?" he asked horrified.

"I returned to my body," I answered, "I want to feel again." The shocked expression on his face was priceless and I chuckled. I guess I was completely mad at that time and only madness caused the hallucinations that I was leaving my body.

From that day on I was able to behave normally again, but there was some strange alien feeling, some alienation from my body. As if not I had killed the girl but she had taken my life from me. Of course I know she was dead, the horror of my attempted kiss had frightened her so much, her heard had stopped beating. My mother had been right, my touch could kill a woman. But not every touch, only a kiss. My kiss of death. I swore to myself never to ask for a kiss or try to kiss again, a woman dying in my arms, this was some horror I would never experience again, no matter how much I longed to try. The price was too high, the price the girl had paid and the price I had paid for her death would forever haunt me in my nightmares.

Being able to feel again was not something I liked. The horror of that night came back every time I tried to sleep. I cried myself to sleep at night and I woke sweat-soaked and shuddering in terror. Chang, who still shared the bedroll with me, usually took me in his arms to give me comfort. "O Erik, my poor Erik, why do you have to repeat every single mistake generations before you made in thousands of years? Why can't you just listen to me?" he sighed.

"I'm so sorry for not listening to you, sir," I whispered into the folds of his shirt, "I swear I will obey you from now on."

"Until next time you feel I am just an old fool and do not know what I say," he grumbled. Had I involuntarily told him about this without being able to remember?

"I'm sorry, sir," I whispered, ashamed.

He sighed again and gently stroked the back of my head and my shoulders. "O Erik, I have been young once and thought in the same way as you do now. I do not give you orders to annoy you but to protect you from harm."

I cannot recall why but I asked him about his first time. Mine had been an absolute horror and diminished my sexual needs to nothing - at least for the moment. They came back much later, but that is another story. I wondered what had happened to him that he had assumed my first time would be terrible as well.

"I traded it for two blades," he answered softly, "My teacher had warned me not to, I would always regret it and feel ashamed, but I did not listen to her."

"Her?"

"My teacher was a woman," he answered, "And I thought she told me that just because she was a woman and had no idea what it would be like for a man. Well... I should have listened to her." We both glanced to the scabbards that lay next to our heads. He nodded. "These blades are hundreds of years old. Opposite to a katana they do not have a name, but they seem to have a soul nevertheless. They are like us, they have no names and no honor, but they do have souls. This one is about five hundred years old and this one is about three hundred years old. They are priceless. Priceless and dangerous."

I stared at the blades. They looked like they had been forged just yesterday, perfect in every detail. "I would gladly trade myself for these blades," I answered softly, "But no one would even give a pebble to have my body. If you wanted me, you could have me anytime and I would never ask anything in return." I meant that "you" in the meaning of "one" or "someone" but obviously he misunderstood.

"Erik, I would never do that to you," he answered seriously, "If I took advantage of you in any way - especially in any sexual way - you would forever lose your faith in me and I would never be able to teach you from that day on. If you ever happen to have a pupil, Erik, never even think of taking advantage of him or her. Your pupil would not deny you, a properly trained pupil never says no, but he or she would never trust you again and your bond would be broken. You would forever lose him or her."

I broke into a hysterical fit of laughter. I could not control myself, there surely was nothing funny, I laughed like a panicked hyena.

Sometimes I wonder how easily my sanity was restored. When we reached Samarkand, I was in full possession of my mental faculties. The nightmares were still there, but I had learned to live with them.

What? No, I think I was sane. Haha. As if that was funny. I've heard that one too often. "As if I was sane now." Haha. Now I am really offended.

Okay, apology accepted. I know most people think I am a madman, just because I am different, in body and soul, like it or not. It is the truth.

Samarkand... you've never been there, have you? It is such a beautiful city.

Samarkand is a very old city on the Silk Road. Even ancient Rome imported silk from China, did you know that? And caravans took it there, thousands and thousands of kilometers since thousands of years. It is old, very old, the oldest part of it is some sort of an ancient oasis. It is beautiful. Really. The architecture, the mosques, the palace, the parks... God, it is a wonder of urban architecture, I loved it. Some people think that Samarkand existed twelve hundred years B.C. Can you imagine that? An archaeologist's paradise.

I was overwhelmed when I saw the Registan in the sunrise, if Chang had not held me back I would have gone there immediately, I was so carried away by its beauty. The Bibi Khanym Mosque, the Gur-i-Amir mausoleum, the Shah-i-Zinda mausoleums... You see, some of these great buildings were partly in ruins, left for the people to plunder in search of bricks for their homes, but nevertheless these buildings were... beautiful. They say that Samarkand even had an observatory in 1420 when in Europe it was the dark age - and they had an observatory, the Ulugh Bek observatory, but it had been destroyed by Moslems who thought this was blasphemy.

Blasphemy - that reminds me of another problem. Again I worked as magician to earn our livelihood, always taking care Chang was as comfortable as possible. I felt guilty for he had been forced to nurse me - a most disgusting duty. Of course people saw me and my magic when I did shows and my reputation was that I was a real magician, maybe even a ghoul or a demon, and as much as they loved to see my tricks and listen to my music - the sums Chang collected each day proved just how much they loved my shows - there were men who hated me. Not necessarily the Imams, not all of them. But there were some who thought I was a threat to the souls of everyone and should be stoned to death.

The merchants on the other hand did not think I was a ghoul or a djinn or a demon. They thought me to be a good magician who protected the innocent merchants from robbers. And I was good for their business, for whenever I had done a show people would be easier to bargain with afterwards. It was really strange, but after one of my shows people were... more open-handed. So when I requested some presents - I really had the audacity to just go to them and tell them I wanted this or that - they generously gave it to me. Usually I requested things I liked to have for my shows, but there were other things too... gemstones. I loved gemstones. I acquired two rings, a brooch plus a necklace and earrings. I adorned myself with these jewels like a woman would do. Please do not ask me why, I just did it and no one ever asked why I did what I did. Everyone accepted that a magician never behaved like a normal man would.

That way I got new clothes. I still preferred black. Wide, black clothes. Black boots. A black kaftan, black Turkish trousers, black boots, a black coat, black scarf to hide my hat and a black mask, additional to the black mask I usually had some sort of veil, not the sort women use, the sort men in the desert use to protect themselves from the dust and the sand. I needed it to stop breathing in sand. I simply had to cover my nose-hole or I would suffocate on sand when the wind became stronger.

It was summer and it was hot, really hot, in Samarkand. Hot and dry like a desert. Spring and autumn would have been more to my liking, but I happened to be there in summer.

Where was I? Ah, yes, the problem with these superstitious men who wanted to get rid of me. Well, I have to admit that with the new game Chang and I started to play I might have earned some really bad reputation. The new game was "if you were an assassin and this man was your victim, how would you kill him?". I did not really kill them for killing for sports was nothing Chang approved of. Our idea was that he would point out someone to me and I should mark him with a piece of chalk. The mark would count as being stabbed or hit with a poisoned shuriken. A harmless game between friends.

Not so harmless, you say? Why, have you ever seen anyone killed with a piece of chalk?

Okay, I admit that during our games we did not only mark these men with chalk, we stole whatever we could get, mostly small things that could be easily hidden but with great value and money.

First our targets were some unsuspecting common men, but we went higher and higher in the challenge level and risk and finally my targets were aristocrats, religious, economical and socially high ranking men. Whenever Chang found the challenge was not high enough he would assume the role of the bodyguard and try to stop me. I do not think I could really have bested him, but he allowed me to win in our game whenever he thought it necessary for my training and made me lose whenever I made serious mistakes. It was fun, and not only that, when we discussed the architecture of the houses we had been roaming, we would discuss what could be done better to give the owner of these buildings advantage over the intruder. It was mostly about alarm devices, secret passageways, hidden trapdoors, hidden weapons and so on. I liked that game for I could prove my superiority over the great architects of the glorious ancient times. They never thought about the obvious task of preserving the lives of the inhabitants of their buildings.

What a pity our dreams of a palace that would defend itself against spies, assassins and invading troops without much trouble for its inhabitants were just dreams. It would have been a glorious palace, combining Chang's knowledge of Japanese architecture, my knowledge of what modern conveniences Europeans liked to have in their houses and the beauty of the oriental architecture we saw each day. All we build back then was a castle in the clouds, but it was the most beautiful palace anyone could ever imagine, even if it existed only in our minds and in form of some sketches on papers we had to burn because we needed to keep our secrets.

The merchant? O yes, I forgot to tell you. He asked me to accompany him on his next trip, but I refused for Chang and I had decided it was time to live independent, just the two of us. But the merchant told me he had bought valuable furs form a merchant who got them from Siberia, he wanted to sell them in Persia and come back from Persia to Nijni Novgorod in Russia. Nijni Novgorod was the most important trade city in Russia, according to the merchant. I did not give it much thought, I just said that maybe I would like to see that city too. A careless comment and I forgot all about it almost the very moment the sound had left my lips.

Chang thought it might be a good idea to move to Russia. We had to keep moving, actually the climate in Samarkand was becoming a bit too hot for our tastes. In both senses. Chang was an expert in fighting and I was not bad myself, but... well, we could only fight so many people. Once they would form a mob we would be more or less helpless. There is a critical number of people and then they are too many to fight and you can't win.

We left like thieves in the night, and that is what we actually were. Thieves and tricksters, but now we were rich thieves and tricksters.

What do you mean I should not be proud of being a thief? Why not? I am one of the best - why wouldn't I be proud?

We left Samarkand in quite a rush in the night. We were actually laughing and enjoying ourselves. Curious just how much my mind was able to block out the horror of the dying woman in my arms.

We did move on. Chang decided it would be better for me to return to Europe since I would be able to make more money there as a magician in a circus. We discussed endlessly and I even told him of the revue theaters - some had nothing but magic shows - and that this might be my chance to get into something I really wanted to do - opera. I was fully aware that with my face I could never have any position where the audience would see me. No musician, no singer. But I could be director or scene builder and with my knowledge of magic I would be able to do the most spectacular stagings of all time. It was another childish dream never to come true, but I refused to acknowledge that. I needed something to keep me going for if I had just accepted I would never be anything but a sideshow-freak I would have killed myself.

We traveled west to Turkmenistan for Chang had decided that we should use the ship to cross the Caspian Sea. I did not like ships, my seasickness, you know, but I still did not dare to say no. I just told him about my seasickness and he just shrugged and said a bit vomiting didn't scare him. No, it did not scare me, but I'd rather avoid it.

Turkmenistan is... well, different again. Every country is different. But when one travels as much as I do, the brain just shuts down and stops remembering everything. It would have been far too much. Turkmenistan is not easy to travel for most of it is the Kharakum Desert, which we could not simply cross. We needed to travel along the roads, always taking care to get enough water and food and of course feed our horses properly.

Again I lived as travelling magician, most of the time earning money with shows, they got better and better. Yes, really. My tricks improved very much for Chang cared to lead the way and I had much time to think and calculate new tricks or improvements on old ones. Of course I preferred to act the "real magician" and not the travelling entertainer. As a real magician I would be treated with respect and fear, as travelling entertainer I was nothing than a gypsy - although I was no gypsy by blood - an outcast. That was not something I liked. A circus freak, not much better than a well-trained monkey. People would watch my tricks, even applaud and pay - although much less than when they thought I was a real magician - and then I had to stay out of their way or they would violently show me my place at the very bottom of society.

Yes, I still had to fear being beaten. I was an adequate fighter then, but there was a critical number of opponents when I knew I was hopelessly outnumbered and any attempt to protect myself from mistreatment like being spat at or slapped or pushed away would only result in more violence. In these occasions Chang could not help me. If we were attacked by a smaller group, I often could fight them on my own, sometimes Chang and I had to fight side by side to protect ourselves, but when we were hopelessly outnumbered all Chang could do was to bring the horses and our belongings away and wait for them to get bored with their game of taunting and let me go. All I could do was enduring the humiliation and leave as soon as they would permit it.

No, I did not tell you these things did happen before, because I hated that. I absolutely hate that memory. But sometimes I was helpless and had to endure patiently for it was all I could do to survive. But the better my tricks got, the less these things happened.

One day in Turkmenistan, don't ask me when or where, we met Mongolian merchants at some sort of fair. It was not really a fair, but close enough. I was doing my show there, in the open for in the hot summer night it was better to be outside. It was early night and dark enough so darkness concealed some of my props. In a tent or on a stage everyone would have assumed I used certain props, outside no one thought that I might have black tools hidden by darkness. Funny.

My show that time started with the beheading trick. That had to come first for I could barely see with my head covered in my cloak. Then the "my-head-grows-back" and after that usually some fire trick like juggling with fire to scare them with the view of my bare face even more. They loved to be scared and the coins fell into Chang's bowl and he needed to empty the bowl into his leather bag every so often.

After I had proven to them that I could make water burn and ropes burn without being consumed by fire - a very simple trick, but they all fell for it - I sang something for them. Yes, I could sing again. I had a rich tenor voice I liked very much. I did not posses my full range at the age of 15 but I could sing again and that was something I loved.

Usually I did another trick then to show that I could even command gravity. No, I did not levitate, levitation tricks need too many assistants and the one who is flying is completely helpless. I wouldn't do that. I just took water, normal water, even drank from it to show it was nothing but water, in a bucket. Yes, a bucket. Like I take this glass right now. Fill it with water. And here I have a piece of paper. You see - nothing but a normal sheet of paper, this one is... O, yes, I removed this from the manager's desk, they mustn't read this one, we can use it. Normal paper as in every office. I put the paper on the glass and turn the glass upside down... Ha! See, not one drop runs from the glass! Of course it is much more impressive with a large bowl or bucket or vase than with a small glass, but I just wanted to demonstrate that it really works. Now you can drink it, I always let my audience drink it to show them that it really is nothing but water.

See? So very simple and quite impressive. I could do it with a barrel if I had someone who could lift it and enough paper.

Absolutely astonishing and really easy. But when you try it - try it in the bathroom until you got the knack.

Yes, I know, I digress again. I did not come here for a magic show. Well...

The mongolians watched my performance and stayed Long, even when everyone else had departed and Chang and I wanted to go to sleep. I was exhausted and had headache - but they were still there. I approached them and asked what they wanted, why they stared at me like that. I had expected them to be frightened but they threw themselfs at my feet and begged for mercy. I was about to laugh, this could only be a joke, but their leader begged for mercy again.

"Stop begging for mercy!" I exclaimed annoyed at their stupid game. "I do not like to be mocked!"

"We would never mock you, o great Erlik," he breathed. My jaw dropped and I had no idea what to say. Did he know my name? How? Chang always called me "sir" when we were not alone. I never told my name.

"Why do you call me Erik?" I asked as I finally was able to talk again.

I do not remember the whole conversation in every detail but what I do remember is that I finally found out that they thought me to be a demon of legend. You see, in mongol myths there is a demon called Erlik who is much the same as the devil in Christian tradition. Erlik is the teacher of sin, but not only that, he's spreading sickness and he is Death himself. He demands sacrifices or he kidnaps people and enslaves them in his underworld. Erlik is a monster with an animal's head and a human body. And seeing my face and my magic tricks they thought I might be Erlik himself or one of his nine sons.

Sometimes I wonder myself. I am certainly no demon, no, I never believed that nonsense. And I never believed that a demon would possess me - that would have been far too easy. It was the demon and not me - yes, that would be easy, but I have to face the awful truth that no one but I myself am responsible for what I do. No god, no devil, no man, no woman, only I myself. My decision, my responsibility. I know that. But if you ever tell that persisting dolt I admitted to this, I'll cut off your ears!

I took advantage of their superstition. I told them if they gave me two of their horses and one of their tents - a yurt - I would not harm them or their families. An easy promise to keep, I would never see them again. But they were so scared they really handed over a yurt, completely with felt to keep it warm, canvas, tent poles, ropes and so on. Plus two of their small but very strong horses, two young mares.

Chang and I laughed at their superstition. We knew I was no demon and would never have harmed them even if they had not "sacrificed" the horses and the yurt. Maybe we had picked their pockets, but that would be all.

A yurt is great, but we spent a lot of time until we figured out how to pitch that kind of tent and how to take it down again. I couldn't ask the Mongolians, could I? A demon of legend asking them how to pitch a tent - they would never believe that!

Now we traveled with two riding horses and three pack horses. As if that had not been enough I acquired another horse.

Yes, I am going to tell, don't fret.

We visited a horse-race. They breed a certain horse-breed in Turkmenistan, the Akhal-Theke. These are riding horses purely bred for endurance, they seemingly are able to gallop for days without tiring. They are bred for long-distance races through the desert, they look rather slim, not as elegant as Arab horses, but they are very good for dressage, jumping, long distance racing - and some of them have a golden coat. They are called "Golden Horses" and yes, in the light of the sun some Akhal Teke horses really look like they were made of pure gold.

Well, enough of that lecture. I'm not trying to sell you a horse, I am telling you a story. Around that horse-race was a fair and yes, entertainers such as I. Only that my show would begin at sunset. Until then I should prepare for the show, tend to my horses, do the laundry or whatever, but then I was a boy and not as disciplined as I should have been. So I went to watch the horse-race and pick a few pockets. A few - meaning I only picked pockets until I could not stuff another purse in my rather large coat-pocket without risking the fabric to rip. I did not hand them over to Chang and start another round of picking pockets.

The horses captured me. They were so beautiful and so fast, the stallions had a natural urge to show themselves and look good. Surely I did not need another horse, but... well, there was a man who had horses for sell. I asked about the price and was shocked to hear what one horse would be worth. Well, of course there would be some bargaining, but I watched and noticed how much people were willing to pay for his horses. I could not afford that much. But there was a stallion, he was quite young, about four years old, and when I went along the makeshift paddock he followed me like a puppy. I jumped over the fence and stood there and he came to me and rubbed his nose against my stomach, then tugged at my sleeve. I was lost. It was love on first sight.

"You want to buy him?" a gruff voice asked in Russian after I had unknowingly ignored his other attempts to talk to me.

"Yes..." I whispered, caressing his golden forehead almost as if I was under a spell, then I shook my head and tried to control myself and added: "Maybe." Never say you want something, the merchant will ask at least tenfold the price he hopes to receive. Bargaining works best when you pretend not to want anything. Of course he knew I wanted that horse, he had seen how I caressed it, how I had checked its teeth and eyes, ears, stomach, hooves and back. And he had seen how the horse always tried to get my attention and nibble on my coat, leaving it full of greenish slobber.

"He likes you," the man said. As if he had to point that out to me.

I turned round and braced myself for the mistrust I would see in his face when he noticed I wore a mask. He flinched, but did not back off, but he grabbed some sort of talisman and spat at the ground at my feet. I took a sharp breath and tried to hold my temper in check. "Do not sell him today. I need to think about this and let you know tomorrow," I promised.

He must have followed me for I saw him attending to the show I staged in the evening - the one where I even made my mare disappear. All I could think about was that this trick and maybe some other tricks too would look much better with the golden stallion.

We made good money that evening and Chang did not have to steal much for nearly all people gave freely. But then Chang made the mistake of telling me how much he had saved and that it surely would buy the ship passage to Astrakhan.

You already anticipate what I did that night? I stole it. Well, stealing might not be the right term for part of it was mine anyway, I had worked hard to earn it, but then, yes, the other part was his. We never even mentioned about the shares. We earned the money, we spent it to buy what we needed - that's it. It was not like I get 30% and he gets 70% or something like that. And now I stole it in that night, surprising myself that I did not wake Chang despite his alerted sleep. Yes, he could sleep like a cat, with his ears always awake to catch the slightest noise. I learned that myself and yes, it saved my life on numerous occasions.

But I stole the money noiseless. So I was at the paddock at sunrise. It did not take much time and the horse trader arrived. I still had not enough money to buy that horse, but I made him an offer he could not refuse - I caught him with my lasso and offered him to sign the papers that would make me, Erik Ami Hein, the rightful owner of that prized stallion. Yes, they had papers for the Akhal Tekke are valuable race horses so there is a stud book and every horse is branded and can easily be identified. I did not want to risk being caught with a stolen horse. My other horses were just common horses no one would ever care to identify. You see, that Akhal Tekke was... the difference is like a Stradivarius and a common flute. Both are music instruments to make beautiful music if you know how to play them - but everyone can easily afford a flute, but a Stradivarius on the other hand... You see, same with horses.

Well, I was honest enough to pay him. I paid what I could, which was almost everything I had and covered at least half of that stallion's worth.

It was not easy to ride the stallion back to where Chang and I had put up our tent. Until then I had mares and geldings - a stallion is something else altogether. He tried if I would be able to stay in the saddle. He tried not to follow and I had to use the whip more than once to get him going. So I rode him all morning, trying to adjust to him as he tested my abilities as horseman.

When we arrived at the tent at noon we were bathed in sweat and dust and my back and legs hurt so much I could not dismount and fell to the ground inelegantly. Before I had any chance of getting my bearings Chang was on me. I could only hope no one saw us for it was broad daylight. Of course we had put up our tent as far away from the city and other travelers as possible, but one could never know who might see us. Chang did not care. I tried to fight him, but he was a much better fighter than I was, he did not need speed or strength, all he needed was his decades of intensive training and experience.

I remember that he did beat me until I passed out. I woke in our yurt, lying on the ground, blood running from my nose, both eyes swollen, I do not know what did not hurt. The blood running from my mouth came from the tooth I had lost. Three ribs on my left side were broken and I had a severe concussion.

"What did you think you were doing, you irresponsible fool?" he snapped as soon as he knew I was awake.

I tried to answer but my lips were split, bleeding and swollen, I barely managed to let out a groan.

"That money was not for buying a horse, it was for our ship passage to Astrakhan. How do you think we should do that now? We can't steal a ship passage!"

He said many things more but I can't remember for I passed out again.

I woke because I felt water in my mouth. He was feeding me water with a spoon. I had trouble swallowing and was barely conscious as I heard him say: "Erik, you are a bitter disappointment. You stole form ME - from your Sensei. You bring ultimate disgrace on me. You are no longer my pupil!" That last sentence hurt so much, it was worse that everything I had ever experiened, even worse than my parent's rejection.

"I'm sorry..." I whispered, "What can I do?"

"Die."

Just one word. Die. He wanted me to commit suicide to erase the shame. Why I brought disgrace on him and not on me? O, because he was my teacher, he was responsible for everything I did.

He nursed me back to health for three weeks, then asked me what I had decided to do. I didn't answer, I took one of the blades and held it out to him. Then I knelt down and bowed my head, indicating he should behead me. I felt the icy steel at my neck and heard him taking his stance, but I did not try to get away. I was ready to die then, but he lowered his blade and I felt his hand at my neck as he pushed me to the ground, face down so I could hardly breathe.

"I no longer trust you," he hissed, "You are a childish, stupid boy and a disgrace. You do not think, you just act. You are like a toddler and from now on you do exactly as I say when I say. You will not even draw one single breath without my permission. Understood?"

"Yes," I gasped and spit sand and earth that was in my mouth.

When we left the tent I was surprised to see the Akhal Teke stallion there with the other horses. I had guessed Chang might have sold him. "I understand why you are doing this, young fool," he said, "And I would not sell the horse. But you will repay me trice, understood?"

I can barely remember the next month, we were traveling around, I had to do magic shows, I had to burglarise and I had to train the stallion and did not get any reprieve from my exercise. All I remember is being constantly hungry, thirsty and exhausted. Sometimes I fainted from exhaustion, Chang dragged me up somehow and forced me to go on. I completely missed autumn and winter and the day I turned 16.

To my relieve we could afford the ship passage in January, this giving me a few days of much needed rest. After seasickness was over, that is. The first 24 hours on that blasted ship I was at the tail of the ship, bent over the ship's rail, vomiting. And next to me about eight other men with the same problem. We did not get much reprieve, for whenever we were to sit down and hope for a bit of rest one would start retching again and the other's followed.

And then we came to Astrakhan. Nice city with many merchants and people who could afford to enjoy entertainment. Chang told me not to stress the part of the real magician too much. Better keep people wondering if I was a real magician or not, but never say yes or no. We did no longer pretend him to be my servant, now he pretended to be my grandfather. He was 74 and I was 16, so yes, he could very well be my grandfather. My honored ancestor, an old man is like a gem. And again I was more or less a slave, but I never complained. He told me I could always take my Akhal Teke - whom I named Deinos - that is Greek for the Terrible - after one of the man-eating horses of Diomedes of Greek myth. I had forgotten that the mythological horses had been female.

Haha. Yes, I laughed very much when I learned that. But you see - I could not just rename him. You can't re-christen someone and give him a new name. Of course you can give yourself an alias, but that is something you do yourself and are not given. Hmmm? Yes, right, considering his golden coat I should have named him Lampon, that is Greek for the Shining - and he was shining like gold in the bright sunlight and even more so in the light of torches if they were placed correctly.

In Astrakhan I begged Chang to make me his pupil again. He refused. He stayed with me, as he put it, so I could pay back my debt. And I did what I could - I handed over everything I had, my rings, my earrings and the necklace - I had a golden necklace with a pendant in form of a cobra. I gave him everything, without ever asking if I had already paid him back. And he still refused to teach me. He refused, no matter how much I begged, no matter I tried to exercise alone until I fainted from exhaustion and hurt myself more than once. He saw it and ignored me. We had to live together in the tent for we had no other place but I had to sleep on the ground and was not allowed to come to the bed - well, bedroll, that is.

What was mine and what was his - good question. I hnestly do not know. You see, we did not really say this is mine and this is yours. We had what we had andwe used whatever we needed to use. I guess our clothes were ours, Deinos was mine as were my props and the lasso that I started to call "Punjap lasso" after the place where I first learned its use. His weapons were his, but everything else - I guess it was just ours.

When we left Astrakhan tohead north for we wanted to follow the Volga to Nijni Novgorod. You see, Nijni Novgorod had a famous fairground and it was an economic centre and we thought we might make good money there - spend spring, summer and beginning of autumn there and leave before the icy Russian winter would set in. Father Frost is a merciless parent.

I begged Chang to teach me again. We rode side by side, the packhorses following us. My left hand was bandaged - I can't remember why, must have been some accident - and Deinos took advantage to pull the reins from my hands so I could barely hold him back. He wanted to run, he didn't like the walk the other horses needed. We usually traveled in a walk for we did not want to overexercise the packhorses.

Chang sighed and answered: "Only if you give me your most valuable possession in return."

I tried to figure out what he wanted. Certainly not one of my props for I doubted he would ever want a career as magician. Not that he would not be able to - he was clever and had a keen eye, I guess he knew how most of my tricks worked. Since I had given him whatever money or jewelry I had I did not think he could possibly talk of that. The only thing I had left was Deinos - and Deinos was a perfect show horse, he was a limelight hog and loved to be admired. Traveling was just boring to him except when he was in galopp. My heart ached as I thought of giving him away. But was it really Deinos he wanted? Or was it the violin?

Finally I decided to offer what I really considered my most valuable possession. "I'll give you everything," I said, "But it will take much time."

"Time?" he answered, not understanding what I was talking about, "What is it you consider most precious?"

"My knowledge." I was absolutely honest with him and my answer surprised him so much he was speechless for a while, a rather long while. I did not dare push him but I was so anxious, I guess Deinos noticed, tossed his head and the reins were ripped from my hands. As soon as Deinos felt I was no longer holding him back he did what he liked most - run. I had to hold onto the saddle with both hands hoping not to fall. It took me quite a whild to find my balance and take the reins so I could at least steer the stallion.

It was late afternoon when I was finally able to find Chang. As usual he had just followed the road and then finally stopped and unsaddled the horses. He waited for me because we could not put up the yurt alone, we needed each other's help. Deinos was happy, he had finally been able to get a nice little workout - and I felt as if I had been put through a meat grinder. Again I fell when I tried to dismount. Deinos turned his head and nibbled on my head, taking off my cap and mask, then nibbled on my hair, leaving the usual slobber. I turned and he nuzzeld my face with this soft velvet nose of his.

Chang took hold of his bridle and led him away to where he had tied the other horses to posts. I got up and whiped the slobber from my hair the best I could. Then I approached Chang and knelt down at his feet, patiently waiting for his answer. He knelt down too so we faced each other. His face grew soft and the look in his eyes was a gentleness I had never associated with him. "Your answer shows great wisdom far beyond your years," he said and I bowed to him, trying not to show my excitement at his praise. When I straitened up and sat back on my heels he continued: "You are forgiven, my son."

My jaw dropped. Son? He had called me son! That was in his culture enough to adopt someone. I wanted to jump and fling my arms around his neck, embrace him, but I did not dare. But I just bowed deeply and answered "Thank you, my father."

After that day I only called him - with all due respect and love - father and he called me either Erik or stupid boy, as always. But I smiled when he did this, I smiled at his reproach and I smiled when he punished me for I loved him and was sure he loved me too.

You cannot imagine how greatful I was for his love and now I understood a child's love for his parent. I was certainly far from being an ideal son - I was rebellious, undisciplined, selfish, lazy and haughty, all that, yes, and far too often I still ignored his guidance far too often for my own good. But I loved him so much, when it came down to it, I would have done everything for him. He was all I had and I had fought 16 years to find someone who loved me - even if he seldom showed much gentleness, I knew he loved me even when he had to punish me. It was just great.

Maybe these were the happiest days in my life, these cold days in Russian spring when we traveled to Nijni Novgorod.

Another occurance opened my heart that time. It was in some small village, I have forgotten its name, after a show. We had enough money to stay in the inn and have the horses in the stable - Deinos did not grow a winter coat like the others and we needed blankets to keep him warm - which was a rare luxury. I had changed from my costume to normal clothing, all in black and a black mask, when a knock at the door startled us. "Go away!" I snapped, not at all interested in a late customer, even if he might be willig to pay.

"Mr. Magician, sir, I need your help," a child's voice came from the door. Chang frowned and opened. I was busy sketching another dream palace for Chang and myself, a mix of European and Oriental style and his lectures about hidden trapdoors, secret passageways, defence systems and so on. Just another one of my dreams - and a good practice.

There was a small boy, about six or seven years old, he was dirty and had no shoes despite the cold. He did not even have rags to cover his feet. When he saw me he clenched his dirts grey-brown cap in his hands and held it like a shield. "Mr. Magician, sir, can you help me?" He must think me a real magician, I thought, and stepped to him. I knew my towering figure clad in black must have been intimidating and he trembled with fear but he did not run.

"What do you want?" I asked.

"Sir, you are the greatest magician in the world, you have the knowledge of centuries. Please help my mama!" The boy begged, crying.

I did not know what to say or to do, glanced helplessly to Chang who just shrugged, indicating he did not know himself. I agreed to see the boy's mother, not knowing if I would be able to help her in any way.

The boy lead us - Chang accompanied us, curious what I might do - to a hole in the ground. The boy ducked down and showed us inside. The hole was about 3 squaremeter large and one and a half in height. I could not stand up and had to crawl. The boy lit a piece of wood and in the light of the makeshift torch I saw a woman lying in the ground. She was dead, partly mummified, and tanks to the bitter coldness in winter the stench was bearable. But I have to admit most people would not have been able to bear it - bu with my experience as grave-robber it was not that bad. What really shocked me that the boy told me they had lived there until his mother had fallen asleep last autumn and did not wake up. He had lived as beggar and returned every night to sleep beside her, hoping she would wake up. The boy did not know she was dead.

knelt before him and looked him in the eyes. "What is your name?" I asked.

"Boris Wassiljewitsch," he answered.

"Boris, your mother is dead. I cannot bring back the dead," I answered.

The boy broke down sobbing in my arms and I looked to Chang for help. I had just turned sixteen, this was far too much for me, but right now I did not have the heart to leave the boy int that hole in the ground with his dead mother. I took him with us, paid the innkeeper to give him a bath and a hot soup - borscht, the Russians favourite cabbage soup. Chang said nothing when I allowed the child to sleep on the floor next to our bed, he even kept silent when I took the boy with us for breakfast and then bought clothes and shoes for him.

Only then the child asked me what I wanted in return for my kindness.

"All I require is that you always respect me, obey without any questions at all and follow all rules to the letter," I told him, then added as an afterthought: "And you have to pay my father the respect he deserves. Worship him for he is a Saint."

Boris did not question this and somehow I became his father. Yes, I admit that I used him much in the same way Ivan had used me as assistant in my magic show. The boy was dutiful, obedient and really thankful, but I could not stand his childish behaviour and far too often raised my hand or the whip against him. I used my mother's technique of punishment, forcing him to beg for the punishment and thank me for that, no matter how unfair I was for I often punished him just for being a child. God, the boy was six years old. Six! And he was affectionate. Chang had much more patience with him and soon was his beloved grandfather, even if they could not talk to each other for Chang did not speak Russian and Boris did not speak English.

When he was asked about his name he now answered "Boris Erikowitsch" - Boris, Erik's son.

The problem was, as eager as he was to please me - he was clumsy and stupid. He never learned something if I told him once, I had to show him at least ten times and I soon found that he would never do any good as apprentice. Chang berated me for being far too hard on that poor boy - yes, to my eternal shame I did beat him for every mistake he made - after all, he was just six.

"I've not been older when I had to earn my bread," I replied angrily. I had so much work to do and the boy was good for nothing, he needed ten hours for something I could do in two. He was stupid and clumsy and never able to really concentrate on a task.

"Erik, he's of average intelligence and dexterity for a boy his age," Chang reasoned, "I appreciate that you did not just left him in that tomb but if you cannot accept that he is just a normal child and treat him accordingly, we better give him away. Don't you see how much you hurt him? This is going to escalate and you're beating him to death, do you realize that?"

The child had only been with us for three weeks and I had to agree with Chang. The boy was not worth the trouble although it pained me to give him away - despite everything the boy looked up to me and even if he saw me prepare my tricks he never ceased to think I was a real magician. Chang took it upon himself to give the child away, he turned him over to an orphanage. These orphanages had a terrible reputation for children would be abused and exploited, but I had to agree that this was better than having me as a surrogate father. I followed them secretly when Chang took the boy to the orphanage. The child still gave his name as "Boris Erikowitsch" and I cried at that humiliation. But Chang was right, I was incapable of becoming a child's guardian.

Hell, I was a child myself! I was sixteen! How could anyone expect me to be a child's guardian? As much as I desired a family, someone I could love, I was not able to deal with disappointment and frustration, I demanded that the boy should function flawlessly, which he couldn't and I learned later than no human being ever functions flawlessly. I did not have that problem with animals. Animals needed to be trained properly and if they misbehaved I knew their owner had done something wrong. Animals are not capable to be bad, they are completely driven by the instinct God had given them - so it is not their fault if they do something wrong. But I could not tolerate mistakes made by a human being who should have the mind to do it right.

Apropos animals - having a stallion and mares is not a good idea. In early spring they were in heat and there was no way to control Deinos. I didn't even try, I didn't dare - he would have killed me. Deinos had set his mind on creating a new mixed breed horse race and there was no way I could convince him not to. Of course I could have him castrated, but this somehow made me feel extremely uneasy, even Chang agreed that a prized stallion like the golden Deinos should not be castrated. So by the time we reached Nijnii Novgorod all three mares were pregnant.

Nijnii Novgorod was even better than I had expected it to be - the fairgrounds were large and it was... it was like a city in the city. I did not have a circus tent and the yurt was far too small for a real performance - especially one that would include Deinos who had already become part of my act, not just as disappearing horse but although in some other stunts. He was always eager to present himself, I guess, he loved the applause as much as I did.

I was sure that at fairgrounds of that size some sort of circus building or vaudeville theatre or something like that would be located and I was right. There was a circus building, it was more or less just one large hall with a stage large enough to do a horse-riding show. Not that I wanted my show to be a horse-riding act but I was tired of doing one trick after the other, I wanted to do a magic-opera. I had the complete plot for "Danse Macabre", including the props I would need, but I would need help. I would need dancers, assistants, musicians. I could not be the one on stage and accompany myself on a music instrument. So I talked to the owner of that circus if he wanted to stage my show. He thought it gruesome and dark, but that would be exactly what the bored high society would appreciate. Better have rich aristocrats in the audience than poor working class people. We agreed one one season.

Which was good, for I had absolutely no idea how to organize a theatre or a circus, how to find and hire people and so on. I knew how to design a show, write the music and build the props - but everything else I had never done and never learned. But there was a man, his name was Abrahamovics, I guess he was of jewish heritage, who knew what to do. I did not like the way he looked at me as if I was a prized exhibition for a museum. He did not care much about me and I did not care about him. It was strictly business - I had an idea for a good show and he needed a good evening show - no entrance for minors, of course.

No, not what you expected! The show was a magic show and not some questionable entertainment! It was... I better describe what it was.

It started with a dancer, a woman, in the spotlight, dancing to the tune of my violin. Then drums would set in and I came in on my stallion, bareback. The effect was always the same - Death himself on a golden horse. We danced together to the melody of the small orchestra that circus had. Whatever delusions I had that time about creating a chimera - magic, opera, ballet - it was nothing but a circus show, but in that it was a good one. The story of that show was about the girl having a nightmare or being visited by Death himself or whatever. It does not matter. Now there was a firework around and the other lights were lit. With all the lights one could see the mirrors. The mirrors were set up in a certain angle so it looked like multiple horses running around seemingly without touching the ground. It was a trick of mirrors and light and it helped much that it was obscured by the smoke of the firework.

Then one mirror after the other would be turned round until there was only one horse and one girl left and the music died down to my violin. Yes, I did play the violin while riding Deinos bareback. Next I did a bit of a levitation act - it was just violin and bowstring, but it never ceased to astonish the audience. You see, if the audience is far away they do not see thin ropes like black colored catgut or violin strings or piano strings, much less fishing lines. When I held up my violin I placed it in a sling of a fishing line and a helper would just pull it up. The violin disappeared into the darkness beneath the roof.

In the meantime more girls game, each had a stick in her hand. The sticks were marked and I would throw knifes. Not really, of course. I was in full gallop bareback on Deinos, the music was... designed to heighten the anxiety of the audience and it caused Deinos to buckle and kick and toss his head, he would even rear up. I guess he thought it was his show and I was just some sort of prop. I really loved that bastard, he was so very much like myself - absolutely self-centered, haughty, ungovernable and impatient. But he was a show-horse and loved the show, I never had any better show-horse. My skill with the bo-shuriken were lacking, throwing knifes were even harder to handle. The girls were dancing with the sticks before their bodies and Abrahamovics announced that a mistake by one millimeter would kill the girl. It was not that difficult - the "knifes" were in the sticks and the girls just had to release the spring and the knife would snap out. So - I pretended to throw the knife when in reality I slipped the knife back in my pocket, at the same moment the girl I had been aiming at released the spring and to the audience it looked like I was incredibly skilled.

After that I would grab the girl and take her a few rounds on Deinos with me, the music swelling dramatically, I would even jump through a burning hoop - a very very large hoop - with her in my arms. Yes, I am still proud of that because that was a real skill and something not many horsemen would achieve. The sole purpose of that stunt was to show that neither Deinos nor I nor the girl were tied to any sort of ropes, because now she would "faint" in my arms and I rode to the middle of the circus ring, secretly attaching some sort of fishhook to her corset. And then we had the second levitation number with her "flying" into the air. The other girls would dance around Deinos an me - this was a much needed chance to catch my breath - and then the girl "floating" in the air would be covered with black silk. It was not silk but tissue paper. A fanfare - the silk burst into flames with a "foosh" and a skeleton would fall to the ground. The skeleton was much larger than the girl but no one ever noticed. And no one ever noticed that I had covered the bones with rubber so they would not break when they fell onto the stage. To the people it was just a skeleton and while the usual screams came I rode to center stage and took off my mask, revealing my face. That caused even more screams than the girl being "killed" before their eyes.

The show was, all in, about half an hour, more or less, and we had only two rehearsals. But the ballet dancers, the musicians and the stage hands were professionals, they were really good, we went into the show after only two rehearsals.

The night before the first show and the day were a horror. I was so nervous, I just wanted to run away and if Chang hadn't talked me out of it I would have taken Deinos and fled. The first show was not flawless, but I somehow survived without suffering the humiliation of failing completely.

There were slight changes in the show during the time we did it, but the main part was always the same. It was one grand show a day and I got invitations from many rich people to entertain them with music and magic on private parties. So I did the circus show plus one private show each day and Chang and I could afford to live in an inn, not a noble hotel, but a cozy inn. We lived in one room together, bath and toilet outside of course, but it was a nice room with two separate beds, a table and two chairs.

At the first of my private shows I took Chang with me as my assistant because I wanted to do the knife-throwing trick with the stick. After that Chang would assist me with some minor work I could have done myself but it was easier with him doing it so I could concentrate on telling stories or playing music while he prepared the next trick. After the show they offered me something to drink. It was a glass with water - or so I thought. Yes, a quarter of a litre. It tasted like water and I drank it. Which turned out to be a mistake for it was not water, it was vodka. You see, "water" is "voda" in Russian and "ka" is just a diminuitive - so if you are offered "a little water" by a Russian, say njet. Just say njet.

Soon I felt it's effect, I was becoming more and more talkative and entertaining them with jokes and so on over dinner - I guess it was good, but I can't really remember how we got out of the house and back to the inn for I had even more vodka later. I remember being sick in the street and I am aware that Chang had some trouble getting me up the next day in time for the show. Doing a full magic show suffering a terrible hangover was not easy. I do not remember much but I somehow steered my way through the show that evening, I just remember that I was sick as soon as I had left the stage and would not be seen by the audience. The fire hoop? Yes, we did that, but the hoop was not raised but stayed down so Deinos would not jump, just walk through. I would never have survived a jump.

Not being forced to travel allowed me to spend much more time with my training. Chang refused to be my sparring partner, he claimed, I was ready for a true challenge. It was easy to get into trouble, I just had to walk a dark sidestreet at night and wait for someone to attack me. You see, usually a teacher would tell his pupils to stand in a circle and one of them would be in the middle. Then all would attack the one in the middle. Since he had only me, we had to improvise.

What? If I killed just for practice? Sure. I made sure they were all dead, or did you think I wanted anyone to go to the police? No, I do not think this was bad. You see, I disguised myself as a woman, my face hidden by darkness and a veiled hat, and when some men attacked I killed them. I think I made the world a better place by doing them in - really. They were scum, trying to rob or rape a helpless girl. They did not deserve to live. But that was not why I did it at all - I was not a policeman or a judge or a hangman. I did it for my training, simple as that. I looked for trouble and a fight just to practice my skills. Not uncommon and I never attacked anyone, so honest people were perfectly save.

No, of course I did not do that every night, silly! That would have brought too much attention to my little practice.

It was one of the bright nights in summer when Chang asked me to try armed men with fighting skills. I stared at him - how would I ever find ten armed men who would not just run away so I would get a real challenge? He knew that a group of soldiers on holiday were in the city, a bit too close to where we lived at that time, and they would drink and assault women each night. I just had to wait for them. No firearms, of course, for firearms belonged to the army, but they had knifes and knew how to use them and yes, they knew how to use them and had no qualms to spill blood.

They already had their victim when I found them. Chang was somewhere hidden in the shadows. So I had to change my plan - I took off my hat and the women's cloak and sneaked closer until I was about three meters away from them. "What are you doing?" I threw my voice right between them and they were confused who might be speaking. "Let the girl go!" I demanded, this time revealing myself. No, Deinos was not there - he would have given me away for there was only one horse like him in Nijnii Novgorod.

They let go of the girl who just fled in panic and faced me. I against a group of armed men. This certainly was a challenge for all of them were stronger than me, my advantage was my agility and my skills - and the use of weapons they did not know. I took a deep breath and concentrated like Chang had taught me to and suddenly something happened. Not in reality, only in my mind, but to me it was nevertheless real.

Time seemed to slow down and everything except my opponents became dark. All noises stopped except their heavy breathing. I think I could even hear their heartbeat - or was it mine? I felt - it is difficult to describe. I was not afraid, I was not even excited, I watched them and within split-seconds knew my strategy and how I would kill them. I took in their stance and knew they would die at my hands now. Or, if I underestimated them, I would die tonight. But I was no longer afraid of death, all I felt was an extraordinary calmness and serenity. Their attack was so slowly I almost laughed. Then I moved, felt my muscles and tendons, my bones and joints, I was still in that blissful serenity as the first one fell under my lasso. I had no time to retrieve it and pulled out both blades I had hidden in their scabbards at my back. Their steel seemed to have a blue gleam, especially the younger blade, as I drew blood. The fight seemed to last forever and I did not even care, but in reality it was over in a matter of seconds.

I came to myself, breathing heavily, when the last one fell.

I was calm and composed when I made my way back to our inn, making a large detour to go to the river Volga and wash off the blood from my clothes and my body. Only then did I notice that I had a cut in my face, it had nearly split my upper lip. And yes, other cuts too, but I did not feel them. I just cleaned up and got home. Chang was already there. He sat on the floor in the middle of the room, a candle burning on the floor before him. I got down on my knees and bowed to him, my face touching the wooden boards of the floor.

"I am no longer your teacher," he said and I was shocked. Hadn't I done well? I had done all I could - was that so wrong? What had I done wrong? He must have noticed my sudden panic for he went on: "There is nothing more I can teach you. You possess all the knowledge you need."

"But I am not good enough..." I cut in.

He silenced me with a gesture: "There is no difference between master and pupil. A master is a beginner who never gave up, who never stopped in his pursuit, who always followed his way. You are no master yet, but with enough time and practice you will become one. You will know, you will feel it in your heart." He bowed to me, this time his forehead touched the ground. Then he got up and said calmly: "Goodby, my son."

I was on my feet and between him and the door before I could think. "No! You are going nowhere!" I exclaimed horrified. I knew what he was doing - he was doing the same as Angelica! I had seen the signs, I had seen him becoming weaker and slower, losing weight, but I had refused to accept the truth. I had repressed that thought for it was too painful.

"Erik, I am old. The day will come when you will understand," he answered, "I do not want to become a burden."

"And I won't let you leave," I replied, as calmly as I could.

"I must leave," he insisted.

"Over my cold dead body!" I challenged and took my stance without any weapons for I would have to fight him without causing any injury. Well, bruises did not count. That moment I knew I would rather die than watching him leave. In fact, I was ready to die. I do not know how long we stood there, glaring at each other, and then he backed off, put down his bag and sat on his bed. I asked why he had not even tried to fight me.

"You would have won," was his simple answer, "Why fight when you already know you have lost?"

"Father, I am your son now, am I not? I will help you, you are just a bit ill and with enough care..."

"No, I am old," he answered, "But you have to promise me something: Never give up."

The same words Karl had used, the same promise. Never give up. Of course Karl had said these in German: "Gib niemals auf" and Chang said it in English. Of course I promised and that night I slept in his bed just to make sure he would not just sneak out of the room when I was asleep. I knew his stealth.

While I doubled my efforts to earn money - I did two shows now and all of them were sold out weeks before they would happen - and one private show each day. I knew we would need money for we had to stay in Nijni Novgorod even for the long and cold Russian winter. The inn was not luxurious but it was comfortable enough and I paid the innkeeper extra to get better food for Chang. He was right, he was in no condition to travel again. The show would not be running in winter - in winter the hall would be too cold, the ground frozen, it would be impossible. So I had to earn enough to pay for our stay until spring, I hoped Chang would be better then, but if it was old age I guess I should have been lucky to have him around.

It was a hard time. The first show was like the one I described, only of course I varied the tricks because I wanted people to visit more than one show, the second one was even more gruesome. I included more firework, darker music, more "killing" tricks - in fact I "killed" all my assistants with various methods in that late night show and made them reappear unharmed at the end of the show - and of course I had Deinos. The costumes changed, they were far too revealing - even mine. I exposed my horrible corpse-like body for the gawking audience. I stripped down do the waist and wore nothing but slim-fitting black trousers and a black silk cape that would flow behind me when I rode Deinos in full gallop. Everyone would see me nearly naked, except for my trousers and riding boots. These shows were sold out to the last ticket too, despite the fact that Abrahamovics demanded trice the entrance fee as for the other show.

It was more or less a fair agreement with Abrahamovics. It was his hall and my show, so after deducing the fee for the dancers, stagehands and other helpers and the cost for materials we divided the profit 1:1. I think this was fair for he was the one to do the background work, the management, hired the workers and musicians and dancers, did the advertisements and so on. What I got for private shows was mine but if he placed me in another job I paid him provisions.

And I had to care for Chang. My horses were in the inn's stable and taken care off. All I had to do was to care for Chang, whose health deteriorated quickly. At the end of summer I had to nurse him. It was so painful to see that strong man suddenly depending on my help to get up from bed. He needed my help to wash, even after the innkeeper brought a wooden washtub to our room. We had the best room in the house, it was called "suite" and it had a bedroom with nothing but two narrow beds and a livingroom with a table, chairs and a wood-burning stove. In that livingroom I could heat the water so he did not have to wash with cold water. I wanted him to be comfortable and he liked to keep himself clean.

There was a mirror which I had to use to shave. My face was not good if covered with a facial grey beard that irritated my skin further and caused even more pimples and itching and it was better to shave. Yes, with 16 I still had too many problems with my skin, even if I was now able to keep myself clean and had quite high hygienic standards for one of the travelling people.

It was a sad summer. I received much praise from the audience, they loved my magic show, they loved it so much in fact, some of them came several times, bringing their friends with them. But I could not enjoy the applause, I could not enjoy the long days and the bright nights, I could not enjoy the beautiful city - and Nijnii Novgorod is really worth visiting - for all I could think of was Chang. I realized how little time with him I had left and how much I still had to learn so I asked him to tell me of his master, his past, his knowledge.

I was sixteen and had to earn our livelihood and nurse the dying man who had become my father by heart. It was not easy and every time I left to go to work I was afraid I might come home to find him dead. But I had to work - how else could I pay the rent for the room, the food and all the little things we needed like hot water and paper? All I could do was to make him comfortable and help him preserve his dignity as far as possible when he needed my help to use the chamber pot or to wash.

And then at the begin of autumn the dreaded moment came. It had been one of those terrible nights were I had not slept at all for he was in so much pain and was sick, I feared he might die now. But sunrise came, noon came and he was still alive. I wanted to send a message to Abrahamovics to cancel the shows that day for I wanted to stay with Chang. I knew this was going to be the end, we had hours together, certainly less than a week. But he would have none of it, I had to go and do the show.

"I am dying, not you!" he scolded me, "You have to build up a live and you are on the best way to do so. Go, do your show! Off with you!"

I was crying when I arrived at the hall, everyone noticed that I was not concentrating on what I was doing, just going through the movements mechanically and I did not even wait for the last applause, I turned Deinos and almost flew back to the inn.

Chang was breathing softly when I entered the room. With a sigh of relief I sank to my knees beside his bed. He turned his head and smiled at me. Then he asked me to help him sit up and which way was East. He wanted to bow to his Tenno, his emperor, who is thought to be the descendant of their goddess Amaterasu. He did bow slightly and thanked me as I eased him back to his pillows.

"Erik, never give up. Go on. Go on, Erik, and never stop," he said and died. Just like that.

I do not know if he heard my desperate shriek: "You cannot die! I love you, father, I love you! You cannot die!"

The rest of the night is just in a blur in my mind. I remember crying all night, maybe I even slept a bit, for I woke shortly before noon because of a knock at the door. I opened and the horrified scream of the maidservant told me that I must have taken off my mask without even realizing. She ran. I slumped down on the floor without even realizing that I had left the door open.

Soon the innkeeper arrived. He too let out a scream but I lacked the strength to be angry. I merely sighed. He said something, I guess he was telling me to pack and to leave. I turned my head and looked up at him. "I will stay," I answered, "As long as I decide to. If you ever bother me again, you are a dead man." I do not know why but he backed away and left me alone.

Mechanically I got dressed and went to fetch Deinos who carried me to the hall, he was happy that we would have fun again. He knew the way and was eager to perform or I would never have arrived there. Abrahamovics was shocked at my unkept appearance and the way I swayed on my feet.

"Are you ill?" he asked worriedly. He was not afraid of me, he knew I was just a trickster and not a real magician, he knew too much of my tricks.

"My father died last night," I answered, my voice low as if it came directly from a grave.

"My deepest condolences," he answered, "Are you able to perform or do we have to cancel?"

"I will go on," I answered, remembering Chang's last words to me. I must not give up because I was alone again. I must go on.

"Are you sure?" he asked, "You look horrible."

"I always do," I answered humorlessly, "Let's get it over with."

I do not know why but that show was one of the best I had ever done. I even included my lasso - of course I told them before that I would - without doing any harm. I have to admire the brave girl who acted as my target with the lasso - I could easily have killed her. It was a magnificent show.

If Abrahamovics hadn't stopped me I would have gone home without changing into my streetclothes and mask. "You can't be seen in the streets half-naked," he reasoned as he grabbed my arm just in time to hold me back. I nodded, feeling empty, tired, dead. I felt I was leaving my body that felt so alien to me then that I had to cut myself to stay in control. I cut myself on my breast, leaving small and precise cuts.

I do not know when I came back to the inn, using the back-entrance to avoid meeting anyone. Maybe I did push someone out of my way, I do not know. I hurried up to my room, hoping against hope to find Chang breathing. He looked to peaceful in his bed, as if he was sleeping. I held my breath and waited for him to breathe again. When he did not, I picked him um, took his favourite weapon, the poisoned bo-shuriken, and put it in his pocket. Then I wrapped him in a white linen and carried him to the stable. There I took a pickaxe and a shovel and tied Chang's body to one of the pack-horses. I lead the horse out of the city and found a secret spot near the road to the East, there I lied him into the grave that would forever remain unmarked, bowed one last time to him and covered it with earth. Afterwards I tried my best to cover it so no one would ever find him. He was lying with his head to the East, to Edo, where his Tenno lived.

The next day I packed my belongings and left the inn, much to the innkeepers relief. Abrahamovics was surprised to find me backstage with all my belongings packed and horses saddled. I told him I needed a place to stay if he wanted me to do the shows and not move on right now. He agreed to find me some acceptable hotel until after the show. I guess he was scared that all the customers who already had tickets for the shows the two wees to come would demand their money back - when I had already gotten my share.

He kept his word, he found me a hotel. It was not a house with a very good reputation, it was one of those hotels where people could stay for a night and would not be asked if the girl at their side was really their wife or the boy was really their son. They had a bar, the room was kept in gold and red velvet, trying to make it look like it was a very noble bar. They even had a piano. I do not know how many nights I spend there, playing the piano, ignoring the customers who liked my music and invited me to have a drink. I guess I should have asked a salary for providing entertainment all night long, but I was not able to ask for that. All I wanted was to get drunk each night, drink until the pain stopped, the pain of returning to my room alone and knowing Chang was dead. I needed to be drunk to be able to sleep. And then I slept late until some worker Abrahamovics had hired, came to wake me up and get me to do my show. I refused private shows then, it just did not make sense to me to earn more - for what? For myself? Why should I?

It was Abrahamovics, surely afraid about the quality of his shows, who finally asked me to drink less. He even invited me to dine with him, just to make sure I would not drink alcohol that night. He was a cultivated and well-educated man and I agreed just because I hoped it would somehow ease the pain from the loss of my father. Of course I knew he did not care for me, he was just worried about bad business - I was his star, he needed me alive and well.

But when I left after our dinner and he asked me not to drink that night he said: "It is hard to be orphaned at such a young age. How old are you really? Not the story for the audience that you are centuries old. I noticed that you are still growing quite fast, I see it in your costume and the new riding boots you required. You are a child."

"I'm going to be 17 in winter," I answered. It was the truth. 17 felt so very old to me. That time I thought 17 was close to 20 and 20 close to 100. I felt at least like 170 - and did not know why I was still alive. I did not want to live any longer, I just wanted to lie down and be left alone to die in peace. But I could not break my promise to Chang, I had to go on, if I liked it or not.

"That's young for your skills. I am sorry for your loss, Erik. But what would your father say if he saw you becoming a drunkard? Do you think he would approve? I saw him when he visited one of your shows," Abrahamovics went on and my head jerked up, I had not known that Chang actually came to see my shows. "He told me he was so very proud of you, you were worth serving kings and emperors."

I broke down sobbing like a baby. It was just too much for me to bear. Somehow he took me back to the hotel and made sure I was safe in my room before he left me. I heard Chang's stern rebuke in my mind that I needed to stay awake and alert all the time, that I should not give up, that I should go on. I was ashamed of myself that I had forgotten and promised silently not to disappoint him. I had no idea what I would be doing or where I might go in the future, but I knew for sure that I would not just lie down and die.

When I went through his belongings I found all the gems and rings I had given him or thought I had lost. He had kept them for me as he had kept all his weapons for me. I even found a painting he had done. It was just an ink drawing. It showed a ghost rising from a hill and floating over a small child. I knew that in his religion - he believed in some kind of syncretism of Shinto and Buddism, both religions are way out of my understanding - I do not even understand my own religion. But in his religion the soul of the ancestors could become a kami and a kami is a... a ghost, a spirit, who can be good or bad and who can protect someone. I guess he wanted to tell me that if he became a kami he would always be there for me.

I knew they sometimes lit incense sticks to honor their ancestors. I did what was equivalent in my religion - lightening a candle in a church. I did not care much that it was a Russian-Orthodox church and not a Catholic. I had seen so many religions that all that mattered to me was that it was Christian.

Autumn came and I went on in my life, doing what I had to do to survive and enjoying the pleasure of staying in one place for now I had time to read. I discovered the world of imagination in my head, that I could escape the cruelty of my life for a few hours if I just lay on my bed and read books. I loved books about science - all science. You can say that studying became a cherished hobby - which seemed natural to me, I was in an age where boys might go to university to study. Without any graduation from any school I knew I had no chance to be admitted to any university, but this did not matter. Books were much better for I could read them in my room, alone, undisturbed by people who wanted to be entertained and if I did not give them what they wanted they would entertain them with mocking me.

It is ridiculous, but the very same people who sat cheering in my magic shows and came back trice or even more often demanded I would not be allowed to enter church at Sunday, not be allowed to visit a concert or a ballet. I was in no mood to fight then, I turned my back on them and went back to my books and my solitude.

It was then that I decided to go back to Germany. Now I surely was good enough to become a magician in one of the resident circuses. No more travelling around the world, settle down, have a nice room, a piano and many books. One show a day, nothing more. I felt so old, it was my dream to retire - of course I knew I could not afford that right now, but one show a day would not be such a bad thing. Yes, I was seventeen and wanted to retire for I felt my energy was spent and I did not want to fight for much. I did not have any high-flying dreams, my dream was a nice room - not even a flat, I was quite modest that time - and many books and to be left in peace. That might be acquired in one of the large resident circuses in Germany.

Abrahamovics was not happy when I told him I would leave before the winter. He had hoped I might stay for another season.

It was in the middle of autumn and I was nearly done packing, thinking of how I could travel alone with all these things and the horses. I certainly could not do it alone, but I might be able to pay for a baggage wagon and go by train. That would require some very uncomfortable discussion with the men working at the railway station but it would be better than not being able to travel at all or leaving my belongings and horses behind.

It was only one week more before I would leave Nijnii Novgorod forever, when Abrahamovics came to me after one of the most gruesome shows I had ever done. I was experimenting with false blood then to make the decapitation-trick a bit more... alive. And of course I had added the false blood to all of my assistants whom I would "kill" and bring back from the dead.

"Erik, there is a man, who..." he started.

"No! I told you I am no longer interested in private shows! Send him away!" I snapped.

"But he..."

"NO!" I yelled, "How many times do I have to tell you that no means no?"

The man obviously had not waited where he was told to wait for he came to the backstage where I was busy cleaning Deinos with a soft cloth and silently cursing my idea with the false blood. It was not too easy to remove from his coat, real blood would have been easier. Next time it would be a pig's blood.

"Good evening, sir," he greeted me in a heavily accented Russian. I merely grunted and turned my back on him. "Don't be angry with your impresario, he tried to send me away." I still did not respond, hoping he would leave me alone. I was not really there you see - my thoughts were already in Germany and my hope to find Karl again. There are only so many large circuses and surely not many clowns with a pugs. "Sir, maybe you would hear my offer," that man continued.

I lost my patience and turned on him. I was still half naked, my cloak swirling behind me and fake blood was sprayed on my face and torso. When I stepped up on him, narrowing my eyes, baring my teeth like a snarling wolf he did not back away, I could see he was sweating and gulping, even trembling, but he did not back away, not even when I was mere inches from his face - if I had had a nose, our noses might have touched.

"So, you want to offer me something? Really? Are you ready to die if I do not like your offer?" I snarled.

"I doubt you would really do that," he answered, his voice shaking, but still he stood his ground, he was pale, his dark skin almost grey. He had raven black hair and jade green eyes, an unusual combination, and he was taller than me, not much, but he was. He was a beautiful man, looking like one of the great statues and immediately I envied him, especially because I saw my reflection in the stage-mirrors that had been turned.

"You think so?" I smiled and took a few steps back, no longer able to endure being so close to him, "It's your funeral. Get it over with."

"I've been sent to deliver a message from the Shah of Persia," he said and now it was my turn to nearly faint. This was a joke, wasn't it? Why should a king even know I existed, much less try to contact me?

"He grants you an audience," the man said in a rich baritone voice.

"And why do you think I would grant him an audience?" I snapped, still convinced this man was just playing a prank on me.

He reached into his pocket and handed me a document. It might be forgery, it was a bit too richly decorated, but then - what did I know of Persian documents? I studied him. He was the most beautiful man I had ever seen - dark skin, raven black hair and beard, and jade green eyes. The color of his eyes was unusual but that made it even more beautiful. He was slim but well-muscled. He was a young man.

He was uneasy at my haughtiness that I would refuse to grant a king an audience with me - as if I was someone far higher in social status than a king. Little did he know that I believed he was just playing a prank on me. I thought he was just a bored rich man who had decided to fool me. And he was rich - that much I saw from his exquisite clothing, the ring and the golden pocket watch. When he realized I was still waiting for an answer he said uneasily: "The Shah of Persia demands your presence at his court to see if the stories the merchants told are true - that there is a magician who can defy nature itself."

I still could not believe that I was good enough to attract the attention of a king and I doubted that anyone would spread the tale of my show to Persia. Why would they? It was just a magic show, a very good one, but nothing more. "So he wants me to travel more than 3000 kilometers for just one show?" I snapped, "Why would I do that?"

"He offers a generous fee and sends this as goodwill gesture," he reached in his pocket and handed me a heavy golden necklace with a beautifully crafted amulet with red ruby and diamonds. That was more valuable than everything I owned then.

"If that is just a small token, a goodwill gesture, I expect a truly royal recompense for my trouble, if I would agree."

"It is not just about one show," the man with the green eyes answered, "If you prove the stories right - and after seeing your show tonight I think you will even surpass them - you will he hired to entertain the royal family regularly."

"And if I do not want to be a court jester?" I replied, not sure if I wanted this job. The position of a court jester is not one I had ever thought about in my life before. But Chang's words rang in my head, that I was worthy to serve a king, that I was better off if I was in a seemingly unimportant position than in a very high ranking. If this was not a prank but real it might be my chance to come out of the gutter, to stop traveling, to have a place to stay and build up some sort of life - as far as it would be possible for someone such as I.

He spread his hands and let out a shuddering breath. "The Shah would be very disappointed in me."

He did not need to say more - if this was true and not just a cruel joke he would face severe punishment for his failure to fetch me. There was one thought that made it all attractive for me. He had said "the royal family" - that indicated a family with children. I would not do gruesome shows like now, I would be able to cover myself and entertain them with funny things, the clown magic I liked. At least for the children. And if they liked me - who knows what chances would open to me? A court jester usually is able to tell the king things no one else ever dares to say - and can become something more. It might be a first step towards a life far above the life of a traveling street entertainer.

I cocked my head and smiled at him. "If you lie to me it is your head I will take as recompense," I said in a cheerful voice, "So tell me - what is it the Shah is offering me?"

"He wants you to become an entertainer for the royal family," he answered, "And if he likes what you are doing, there is no limit for what you might become in the future."

I told him I had to think about his offer. It was tempting and it might be the only chance I would ever get in my life. Better a court jester than a circus freak, isn't it? At least it would be far better paid, less work and a comfortable life. So why not? It wasn't as if I had any better plans for my future. But I kept him waiting, knowing if I said yes too easily he would not value me.

I kept my promise to Abrahamovics and did all the shows I had promised. After the last show there was some sort of farewell-party for the group would break up. The only one who was not invited was I. That hurt, it hurt terribly, I had been the one to design the show, I had been the star, without me there would have been no magic show. This showed me exactly where my position in their society was - at the very bottom. I guess they would rather have invited Deinos than me. I was deeply hurt and in my first rage I thought about going there and spoiling their fun, but then I decided I would not do that. I would not subject myself to the humiliation and pain they would inflict upon me. It wasn't worth that. I felt so old again, so very old and weary.

As always the Persian was waiting for me at my hotel. "I am still waiting for an answer," he said.

"I've been told winter is beautiful in Persia," I answered with an indifferent shrug that cost me so much strength. I wanted to throw myself on my bed, bury my face in the pillow and cry, but I would not, I was no longer a child. I looked at the bluish steel of the blades and whispered: "Father, I hope this is what you wanted me to do."


The deformed man leaned back against the wall, tears falling from his eyes. The pain of that memory was still all to present and he could not deny himself what little comfort he got from crying.

He kept silent for a while, then leaned forward and reached out to his patient listener as the beautiful white horse turned his head to look at the deformed man who sat on a straw bale. He lifted his hand to gently caress the velvet grey nose of the gelding who in turn came closer and nuzzled the man's cheek, pushing his head off from his head. "O Cesar," Erik laughed, "You are such a good friend, you always manage to make me laugh." Erik started to caress Cesar's grey nose and white forehead with both hands as the horse pushed his nose into Erik's breast. They had done this often and understood the meaning of each other's gestures.

"I kept you up all night and we did not even have time for a nice ride," Erik said, "But next time I will not talk, we will just enjoy a ride in the summer night in the Bois. You like that, don't you? Yes, I agree, it is no life just staying in the cellars of the Opera house. Sometimes we two need to venture outside, enjoy the wind in our faces and running through the fresh grass - next time, my friend, I promise. Now, who wants a healthy brush?" He reached for the brush and started to brush the white coat while the horse turned his head and nibbled at Erik's sleeve as if he wanted to return the favour. Erik smiled happily and Cesar gave a pleased purr-like snort.

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This is a very long chapter, I know. But I honestly could not find any point where I could stop writing. So, if someone would take the time to write a detailed review: Since there is a limit how many words you can use in a review, I suggest that you write the first review when logged in and then continue in a second review while logged out, just give me your name so I do not get confused which review was written by whom. But of course if you can stuff all you want to say in just one review, I'll be very happy about that too.

You remember Leroux's book where Erik tells the Daroga he kissed Christine: "Yes, she was waiting for me...waiting for me erect and alive, a real, living bride...as she hoped to be saved...And, when I...came forward, more timid than...a little child, she did not run away...no, no...she stayed...she waited for me...I even believe...daroga...that she put out her forehead...a little...oh, not much...just a little... like a living bride...And...and...I...kissed her!... I!...I!...I!...And she did not die!...Oh, how good it is, daroga, to kiss somebody on the forehead!..." Well, here is the explanation: Erik truly thinks that a woman might die from terror at the mere touch of his lips. Poor Erik, he does not know that the real cause for the whore's death in my story would be the drugs and the stress from her work - Erik just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, but with the warning of his mother that his touch could give a woman a heart attack he thinks it is his fault.

Erik is so traumatized by that shock that he mentally falls apart to a level where he thinks he leaves his body. Of course he does not really do it, it is a hallucination trauma victims sometimes report - they have the feeling that they leave their body while the body and not oneself is abused. It can happen in every situation unendurable to a person.

The Japanese blades - just for those who are in those things, I indicated that it is a Masamune and a Muramasa blade. Ask wikipedia ;-)

Writing the route Erik could have taken was a bit like a game - which road is old enough so he could have taken it? If you ever have a chance to visit Samarkand - do so. They re-build the observatory and the mosques which were nothing but ruins when Erik saw them. ;-)

Akhal Teke - the golden horses. They do exist and are still bred even in Europe. Wonderful horses, but nothing for beginners.

Nijnii Novgorod was more important than Moscow that time - it was the commercial center in the years around 1850. In Nijnii Novgorod there are still large fairgrounds.

If you want to know what Erik's magic show might have been like - combine a classic ballet with a David Copperfield show and the dancing horses of Appassionata, then you get a good impression. Again, all tricks I describe do work - although I did not do them myself. I know the theory but lack practice.

Surprise! Did anyone suspect whom Erik was talking to? To be perfectly honest - I happen to talk to talk to animals like my pug or the horse I am usually riding in the riding school.

Despite the rather unusually long chapter I hope to receive many reviews. This story was only to cover Erik's childhood. I think I might write about his time in Persia as well, but I'm not sure, right now I am lacking ideas. Maybe I get the inspiration - like always - from your review?