To make a cabaret; retrofittings; nostalgia, overwork, and other wonderful things; a pseudo-apartment; the general public; the fifth hat, or, why we put up with you
Being Master of Ceremonies, Fulbert discovered extremely quickly, did not just mean being Master of Ceremonies. It also meant being director, artistic director, organizer, publicity agent, stage manager, and everything else under the sun. Not to put too fine a point on it, he was the only one in the entire place who knew how to organize anything at all. About half of the kingdom's subjects could take instructions and back him up relatively decently (the other half was generally off having shoving matches or parties or whatever they did when they were supposed to be actually helping Fulbert so as to avoid his having yet another panic attack), but all of them seemed to have inherited the Emperor's complete dysfunction when it came to being able to think things through and get everyone together in an orderly and well-planned manner. How they had managed to get the stage and everything else up Fulbert didn't know, and it never occurred to him that perhaps they actually were capable of getting things done on their own by using methods which were just not his own preferred techniques. But in any case, he was in charge of them now, and getting them all together to rehearse the show several times a day was always extremely panic- and migraine-inducing in an exciting and exhilarating fashion. Always. Every single time. It was a good thing he'd been doing other people's work for them since approximately age six. His nerves were worn down to their ends, but at least they were getting somewhere.
Ohh, yes, they were. The Emperor had, for once, actually kept up his bit of the work with the retrofittings, and he was designing a whole bunch of other dolls who apparently specialized in circus arts. An aging and ducklike fildeferiste showed up, followed by a few pyromaniacs in aviator caps. A girl in red and a woman in white stood unanimated in the corner of the workshop, apparently waiting for the cabaret before they got their turn at living. A singer wearing what appeared to be a combination lampshade and wine-bottle outfit appeared. Jasper and Joren built and dominated a teeterboard as if they'd been using it all their lives. Everyone else developed a sudden aptitude for trampoline walls, diabolo, dancing, general acrobatics, or some combination of the four.
And then there was Tamantha, who'd been a trapeze artist - or, rather, not trapeze but something called duplex which was virtually indistinguishable from a trapeze to everyone else but which she insisted was completely different - all along. She was something... different.
Everyone knew that she and the Emperor had something going together. At least, everyone suspected beyond any reasonable doubt. Fulbert... resented her.
It wasn't, despite a few of the boys' constant teasing, that he was gay - hell, for all practical intents and purposes he was pretty much asexual. It wasn't that the Emperor was gay, either - he had never been campy so much as... Victorian. Foppish. Rock-star-y. Always acting as if he was already a celebrity, even before he had actually become one. And even if either of them - both of them - had been, it probably wouldn't have made any difference. They had never actually really been that close; it just felt like they had been, in hindsight.
No, it wasn't that he resented Tamantha that way. She was just the final nail in the coffin of the more casual, one-on-one bachelor days. Fulbert was pretty sure that the Emperor didn't see him as anything but a servant now. Not that, once he got over the nostalgia and stopped walking around with a head full of angst, being servant to a differently sane emperor in the most amazingly salvaged place he had ever seen was such an awfully bad thing.
There were a couple precariously balanced shipping containers toward the back of the junkyard - or maybe the front, depending on whether you were pointing toward the port or the old city - which were the Emperor's living quarters now. Fulbert had never seen them, though he suspected they were quite nice. The rest of them had to put up with some rather... surrealistic living arrangements.
It had been the guitarist's idea, to begin, to furnish the towers of scaffolding with curtains, overstuffed leather chairs, chandeliers, and other discarded pieces of home life which, quite frankly, looked as though they belonged more in a museum than in a home. At any rate, he had begun the project one day, pottering around with the mildly disapproving look he had on most of the time when he wasn't playing guitar, and everyone else had let him do his thing. It was understood that this was a privilege the guitarist had. After all, he had been here first. The fact that he had been here first after the Emperor and Fulbert was ignored, or maybe actually forgotten, by everyone including the martial skeleton himself. He still didn't have a voice - that was one piece of retrofitting which the Emperor had either forgotten or decided against. The fact that he, the guitarist, was best friends at least with the singer was either extremely ironic or supremely fitting.
But, in any case, after a few weeks of his redecoration, the junkyard now had what could be said to be a house. Or an apartment. Or living quarters. Or something. It was a very strange arrangement, the center tower being topped off by a structure which looked like a giant chair wreathed by a spray of skeletal sticks, but it was certainly very tin-kingdom-y, very Victorian (there was even a gramophone stand complete with working gramophone), and very street on the other side of the fence was visible from anything above the first story, chainlink not being able to contain the whole un-building-regulations-regulated structure, and what was perhaps more important, the street could see the towers too. And the neatly stacked, un-spray-painted shipping containers (all graffiti except Emperor-approved disguised political messages had been scraped off) where no cranes had moved them, and the people moving around on and behind them and practicing their acrobatics. People in the street stopped to look up and stare.
They didn't even need to put posters up. But they did anyway - Eli, apparently a budding graphic designer, was commissioned and painted something large and fancy in red which the motley crowd then engulfed, processed, spat out several more copies of, and went off to paste on the fence outside. They came back several hours later, exhausted from being stopped on the street every time they took a step by people who wanted to know what they were doing and when their circus came to town. Fulbert got a glimpse of one of the posters before it was whisked off. There were only six words on the poster, in a nice font with bracketty decorations. Le Royaume de Tôle: Cabaret Urbain. The Tin Kingdom: An Urban Cabaret.
Which is exactly what they were. It was impressive.
And then opening night arrived.
Everyone noticed the junkyard.
More than half of everyone came in.
The gates of the junkyard, long rusted shut, had been oiled and hammered and scraped into submission, and they creaked open at 9:00 PM on the dot. Fulbert watched from the top of the center tower as the public streamed in, and gnawed his nonexistent fingernails, and hoped that an hour and a half of sleep in the last three days would be enough to get him through the show without passing out, and idly wondered why two of the shipping containers, across the junkyard from each other, had smoke coming out of them, and decided that it was either the pyromaniacs - excuse him, fire dancers - rehearsing or some kind of electrical short on the rather imposing amps the guitarist had insisted on, and either way wasn't something he could afford to worry about. Even if he had been able to afford to worry about it, he wouldn't have been able to get to either crate. There were too many people in the way.
Too many people, and this was just opening night. How much publicity had they had? Too much, apparently.
He took a deep breath, ran over his speech of welcome and rules in his head - begin shortly, exits, flash photography, social networks... okay - and squeezed his way past several people down the walkway to the middle of the audience, and took a deep breath, and began the show.
Everybody was surprised by the projections. Nobody knew who had done them, and nobody was willing to admit to having set them up. Fulbert was not surprised. He was blown away.
Because he had checked the whole junkyard beforehand, for possible suspicious objects/technical accidents-waiting-to-happen, and there were no projectors. None. He knew what they looked like - big clunky things, and they had to be bigger the farther away from the screen they were, in order to be high-powered enough to produce that level of brightness. No, there were no projectors. There was only an Emperor who was apparently a magician now too.
But whatever happened, the show had to go on. It became more and more improvised the farther they went on, as the Emperor was only there in the capacity of I-never-ever-rehearsed-with-you-but-I've-still-got-license-to-interfere-and-tell-you-all-to-do-things-as-much-as-I-want, but hell, with only two weeks to set up, it had largely been improv all along.
And it all played out. The dancers danced; the tumblers tumbled; the tightrope walker walked; the troupe of pyromaniacs set everything except the audience on fire; the girl in red found a man in silver who was either a magically transformed audience member or a doll nobody had ever seen before, and did a series of unclassifiable acrobatics with him; the teeterboard duo - well, he wasn't going to discuss them; the ice queen knocked out everyone with a display of hula hooping which went beyond extreme; Tamantha did her thing high above the stage. Everything worked out, well, not perfectly, but pretty darn well.
The audience liked it. The audience loved it. This desensitized, media-saturated populace loved it. The curtain call went on for several minutes. They took something like three or four bows. Fulbert had wanted to be an actor when he was little, and he finally, finally understood what the rush of adrenaline when more than two hundred people were clapping for you actually felt like. It was like being high, except better. He couldn't feel his feet touching the ground.
And then there was the Emperor in front of him, choking him in a red-and-white hug, shouting over his shoulder in order to be heard, "You are the most amazing person ever!" And in his voice Fulbert heard just an echo of the young man who could get astronomically excited over a plastic bag of groceries, still in there somewhere.
"Your Majesty? Fulbert mumbled into both of their cravats. "Um, thank you, but... I can't breathe?"
The Emperor loosened his grip a bit, and held him out at arm's length instead. "I formally appoint you Prime Minister, Fulbert. My second-in-command forever."
It was a demonstration of supreme self-control over sleep deprivation and adrenaline that Fulbert didn't break down and start bawling then and there. He managed with only a bit of moist-eyedness, and a "Thank you, Your Majesty. Thank you very much."
"Of course, you'll need another hat," the Emperor said. "I'll make you one."
And around them, the applause went on and on.