Authors: A. R. Kahler
The Immortal Circus:
By A. R. Kahler
Cirque des Immortels
The Immortal Circus
The Immortal Circus: Act Two
The Immortal Circus: Final Act
The Immortal Circus:
A. R. Kahler
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, organizations, places, events, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Text copyright © 2014 by A. R. Kahler
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced, or stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without express written permission of the publisher.
Published by 47North, Seattle
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I hate how desensitized I've become to dead bodies.
It's not exactly a part of the gig, not really what I thought being the ringmaster for a circus would entail. But hell, Mab never gave me a rule book when she handed me the job. I'm lucky she let me keep my head.
Melody stands beside me. It's 6:00 a.m., and she's in a loose cardigan and penguin-print pajama pants. Despite the sleep in her eyes, there's an alertness to her I'm trying my best to imitate. She stares at the body lying prone in the parking lot like it's a science experiment gone awry, one that might blow up or sprout wings. I stifle a yawn with the back of my hand.
“Another evacuee?” I ask.
Not that there's any need to ask: the answer's an obvious
The bald guy sprawled on the ground can't be older than thirty: no bruises or blood, no obvious reason to croak. He looks like he just dropped dead. Which, seeing as he went against his contract by trying to leave, is precisely what happened.
“One of yours, I assume?” I continue, which is horrible because I'm supposed to be in charge of the show: I should know everyone. But after three weeks of filling Mab's stilettos, I'm no closer to memorizing the troupe than I was my first day on as a cotton-candy seller. Which is to say, not even close. Having shape-shifters on your payroll doesn't make it any easier. It's impossible to tell if this is his “normal” form or if it’s just a look he decided to try out. There are half a dozen piercings in his right ear alone and tattoos curl up and down his body; something in the sinuous black shapes sends a pang of memory through me, one I quickly stifle.
Melody nods, her pixie-length brown hair glinting in the early morning sun. She crosses her arms. She almost looks disappointed with the guy.
“Damian,” she says. “We hired him on a few weeks ago.” She shakes her head. “He taught me the magic of keg stands.”
Despite the situation, I choke out a laugh. There's a slight grin on her face, maybe at the joke, maybe at the memory of doing keg stands with the rest of the Shifters. The mirth doesn't last.
“We're going to have to tell them,” she says. She looks at me; her hazel eyes are serious. She looks much, much older than nineteen. Unlike everyone else in the show, though, that observation is an illusion and not the curse of a centuries-old contract. She'll age while the rest of us stay young and immortal. She'll age
us young and immortal. I grimace at the man on the ground. Theoretically immortal, at least.
“Two bodies in three weeks,” I say.
Two bodies since Mab left me in charge.
“They're not going to be happy.”
She sighs and pokes Damian with her foot.
“They never are anymore,” she mutters. Then she rolls her shoulder back, and the muscles in her tiny forearms bulge to twice their mass. I often forget that she, too, is a shape-shifter, but the trait has come in handy. Her ties to the other Shifters mean I have eyes and ears in the heart of the tent crew and the rest of the troupe. It also means I know full well just how unhappy they are. Apparently, they’re unhappy enough to risk death by trying to leave. At least the idea of a coup hasn't occurred to them.
Mel hunches over and lifts the guy up by his arms. His head flops to the side like a rag doll.
“When are they going to learn,” I say, helping her by grabbing the guy's legs, “that I'm not responsible for any of this?”
“Probably about the same time Mab becomes celibate,” she says.
I chuckle, which feels strange seeing as I'm helping my best friend drag a corpse toward the pitch. The purple-and-black striped tent—the chapiteau—looms against the sunrise like a shadowed beast, like a dark promise of eternal spectacle.
Home sweet home,
I think, and we pass under the dimmed neon sign for the Cirque des Immortels
“Does he have any family?” I ask.
We're out behind the chapiteau, just between the main tent and the smaller dressing tent. Four lines of double-wide trailers—our glorious accommodations—are lined up on one side, and trees flank the other. Back here, we're perfectly hidden from the highway that stretches past the tent's entrance. Back here, in “cast-only-beyond-this-point” territory, there's no risk of a punter stumbling across Damian's body slumped against a crate. The last thing we need is a show patron realizing there's murder behind the scenes.
Melody gives herself a little shake as her muscles twist back to their normal size.
“Not that I know of,” she says. “At least, he never spoke of it.” She sighs and sits down on the crate beside him, looking longingly at the pie cart. “I'm sure you could find out in his contract.”
I sit down beside her and follow her gaze. The pie cart is a small kitchen trailer bedecked in Tibetan prayer flags and freshly painted with roses and wildflowers. The chefs are already in to start their morning shift, and the sound of pop music drifts over along with the scent of fresh muffins and coffee.
“You know I don't have access to the contracts,” I say. Unconsciously, my eyes flicker over to the bunk trailers, to the door that once led to Mab's otherworldly office.
“I know. If only Mab weren't such a coldhearted bitch.”
I snort. “Understatement of the year.”
We fall silent, and I tap my foot to the faint music from the pie cart. I wish I could say I'm calm, but my heart is beating double-time to the music. People are already stirring from their bunks; near my own trailer, my bunk neighbor Arietta steps out with her yoga mat under an arm and a sleepy smile on her face, like she greets every early day with a hug and a kiss. Damn aerialists and their weird healthy habits. A few Shifters from the furthest trailer emerge to sit on deck chairs and smoke or pick up beer bottles from the night before. Soon, one of them is going to look over and see their comrade slumped beside us. Soon, I'm going to have to tell them that I've failed yet again.
“I miss him,” Melody whispers. There's more pain in her voice than I'm used to hearing, and it makes a similar ache clench my heart. “This would be so much easier if he was around.”
“I miss him, too,” I say. There's no need to ask who she's talking about.
Just thinking his name sends a torrent of conflicting emotions running through me, but they all course with the same underlying pain.
It's the first time she's voiced the sentiment, the first time either of us has tried to bridge the gap that the last month ripped open. Suddenly, the air between us feels raw and tender, like a callous torn from a trapeze artist's palm. Kingston was Melody's best friend—she grew up in the circus, and he had always been her mentor. And he had been my boyfriend, at least until Oberon slit Kingston's throat in a cell in the Summer Court. After, of course, Kingston admitted magick-ing my emotions for him. I don't know what I think about him anymore. It's not something I really let myself dwell on. There are bigger worries to sort out.
“We're going to be fine,” I continue, because for some reason I feel like I should be the one comforting her. I mean, I
responsible for her well-being. Not just because I'm ringmaster, but because she's a friend. My only friend. And after all the shit she's gone through because of me in the last month, I owe her more than anyone. I take a deep breath and try to find some assurance in my own words. “Even without him, we're going to be okay. I promise.”
She glances down to Damian’s corpse.
“I know,” she says. “We don't really have a choice.”
I can tell she's thinking precisely what I'm thinking: without Mab or Kingston, this show is a sinking ship. And both of us are doomed to go down with the vessel.
“No fucking way,” Heath says.
The Shifter guy stands in front of us, staring down at Damian's corpse with a cigarette limp at the corner of his mouth. His hair and beard are dark curly brown, and his stocky frame and flannel shirt make him look like a mountain man. If mountain men wore thick “Where's Waldo?” glasses.
“Did you know he was thinking of dodging?” Melody asks. She looks at Heath like he's an equal, even though he's at least twice her age—give or take a hundred years.
“No clue,” Heath says. “Though I'm not surprised. He's been bitching about his terms for a while now.”
Heath is one of the few Shifters who's continued to speak to me, even though the instances are few and far between. I'm pretty certain he—like a few of the original crew—know I'm not really in charge of the contracts that bind them here, and he's one of the even fewer who doesn't blame me for the current mess we're in. But that doesn't mean he treats me like a friend; right now he only addresses Melody. Essentially, he doesn't acknowledge my existence.
Melody sighs heavily.
“This has to stop,” she says. “I can't hire on any new performers, not without the book of contracts. Besides, it’s not like Shifters are easy to find out here in”—she glances over at me—“where the hell are we again?”
“Missoula,” I say. Heath looks at me like he hadn't actually realized I was there, then looks back to Mel.
“Missoula,” she continues. “There aren't many shape-shifters in Missoula.”
“My mom's from Missoula,” Heath says, intentionally ignoring the point.
“I'm just saying, we can't have people trying to jump ship. I know morale is low, but disposing of bodies doesn't exactly improve anything.”
I suppress a shudder at the thought of the last body—that of an aerialist named Dessa from the Dominican Republic—we had to dispose of. We set up a pyre on the edge of the pitch, and the Shifters set her ablaze—all of them turned into some form of tiny fire dragon. It was surreal, seeing her shrouded body burst into flame while a dozen mythical monsters watched on in silence.
Surreal, but the stench was something I'll never forget.
Just summoning that image makes the scent of burning fill my nostrils. But then I realize it's not the smell of burning flesh—it's the sharp tang of brimstone. My hand snaps out and clenches Melody's thigh but I don't look at her. The stench has already become a hum, the hum a tremor, and as the vision crashes through my mind the only thought I can manage is,
The tent before me burns; great chunks of canvas peel away like crisping flesh, floating up in the heat waves to vanish in an orange and sulfur sky. The trailers at my left topple and smolder, the pie cart inverted and crushed like a tin can. The only sound is the roar of flames. The only movement is fluttering canvas and writhing light.
I step forward, and my foot catches on a shadow sprawled on the ground. No, not a shadow, a body. The clothes have burned away and its flesh is dark as ash. But even then, I know the shape, the curves and slight frame. The body is Melody's.
I gasp and step back, crashing into another mound of charred bodies. The moment I touch them, they burst into ash and flutter away in a cloud of cinder and smoke.
“They will all burn,” she says sadly.
I turn around, slowly, my heart flooding fire in my chest.
The girl standing in front of me is so familiar it makes my breath catch, yet she flickers there like a ghost. Her white dress and pink coat billow in the breeze. Her brown hair falls in curls down her face; one tiny hand holds a ragged brown teddy bear.
“Claire,” I whisper. The word catches in my throat.
“You have to stop them,” my sister responds.
“You're dead,” I whisper in return. The moment I say it, red blooms across her chest, a crimson rose that spreads from a dozen different knifepoints. My knees buckle with guilt. Apologies lodge in my stomach.
Dead, because of me.
Dead, because I stabbed her.
To save her. From this.
She nods and steps forward, avoiding Melody's smoking corpse. She reaches one hand toward me. I take it. It feels like grasping smoke and silk.
“I'm safe,” she says, as though that's any consolation. “But you aren't.” She turns her head to the smoldering trees, to the shapes just now appearing between the trunks. Burning shapes. Smoking shadows twisted from Hell and nightmare.
I look back to Claire, but it's no longer my sister holding my hand. It's a creature made of ash and charcoal, a demon with eyes that burn with flame and teeth that glint obsidian. I try to jerk my hand away, but its grip is strong. It smiles as fire wraps up my arm.
“Run, run, as fast as you can,” the demon sings, and I know that voice. That voice has haunted my dreams ever since the Summer Prince Oberos attacked our show and I learned what my powers really were.
“Kassia,” I gasp.
She smiles. Fissures crack at the edge of her lips, red light streaming out like blood. Fire twines through my skin as her other arm goes to my shoulder, sending more heat through my bones. I feel my veins dry and crack, and I gasp as smoke curls from my lips. Her hand clenches tighter.
“You can't escape me, Oracle,” she purrs against my ear. “Your end is coming. Once and for all.”
Fire consumes. I scream.
And then, the pain and the vision are gone. It takes a moment to understand where I am, what just happened. I'm collapsed in the dirt just beyond Damian's corpse, Melody and Heath kneeling at my side.
“What's wrong with her?” I hear him ask, his voice filtering as though through water.
“Just stress,” Melody says. She helps me up to sitting.
My head clears slowly, but my limbs shake like I've come off a week-long bender. “Pull yourself together,” Melody whispers in my ear. I want to glare at her, but there's a coldness seeping through my veins as I realize we aren't alone in the lot. A few other performers have come over, and they're all looking at me—their ringmaster, the goddamned pillar of strength—with skepticism in their eyes.
I shake my head and take a deep, staggering breath, once more wishing for Kingston's touch. His magic was the only thing that cut through the pain and eased the visions into submission. Well, one of two things, but his magic was far preferable. Having a witch around was handy for many reasons; without him here, there's no one to help curb the pain. More importantly, there is no one to help me—or anyone else—forget.