Authors: A. R. Kahler
“Hey,” Mel says. I glance over at her. Austin’s gone, walking toward a semi parked at the edge of the lot.
“Morning,” I say. I nod to Austin’s retreating back. “What did he say?”
She shrugs. “Asked if he could ride with one of the other concessionaires, to get the lay of the land, you know. So it looks like I’m riding with you.” Her eyebrow quirks, telling me she saw through that ruse with zero effort.
“Okay.” Another small twist in my heart as I watch him get further away. I don’t remember how it felt to love him, but it sure as hell hurts watching the rift grow between us.
And that’s when I realize—it doesn’t hurt because we used to be in love. Well, that might be part of it. It hurts because he’s the only one in this whole troupe who knew me before I joined the circus. He could be the one person in this world who sees me as a whole person and not just a series of contractual obligations. To him, I’m not a ringmaster or a warmonger—I’m just Vivienne, the girl he fell for in high school and never let go of. He’s the only one who knows that none of this is my doing, that I’m trapped just like the rest of them. And maybe that’s the hardest part of all; he’s the one who was there for me before all of this, and the one who would probably—if I got my shit together—be there for me after.
there’s an after.
Because sometimes, when she doesn’t think I’m watching, I see even Melody looking at me like this is my fault.
“We leave in ten,” she says, snapping from my reverie. “I’ll take the first leg. You get the doughnuts.”
I give my friend a small smile and head back to my bunk to change before the trailer is hitched up. I’m still carrying my food, but the chances of me eating anything today are slim. The acid in my gut from Austin’s departure is making sure of it.
For the first few miles, Mel and I don’t say anything. We’re first in the long caravan of trucks, and the GPS on the dashboard says we still have three hours until our next destination. I don’t know how Mab managed to find and fill shows in these Podunk towns, but our schedule is booked solid for the next ten years. And I have a feeling it stops there because the calendar we use only goes that far.
“So,” Melody finally says over the blaring radio. She takes one hand off the wheel to turn it down, and since she’s holding a coffee with her other hand, she’s driving with one knee.
“So,” I say, keeping silent about her terrifying driving habits.
“How’d it go?”
“Great, obviously. Seeing as he didn’t want to be in the same car as me.”
“This is technically a cab,” she says, “but I understand what you’re getting at.”
“I told him everything. About the war, about Kingston.”
“Well, that was stupid.”
I glare at her, and she shrugs.
“All things considered,” she continues, “I’d say he took it rather well. I mean, he didn’t try to leave or burn you at the stake. So that’s a plus.”
“Yeah, but he also doesn’t want to be around me.”
She glances over at me before looking back to the road. “Can you blame him? I mean, he came all the way here to find you, only to learn that you’ve been seeing some other guy and barely even remember he existed. It’s kind of a lot to take in, even if you don’t consider the magical implications of everything else. You’re lucky the poor guy’s head didn’t explode.”
“There’s still time,” I mutter, and stare out the window.
Melody doesn’t give me much opportunity to ponder.
“The troupe’s unhappy,” she says.
“Tell me something new.”
“No, I mean, they’re
unhappy. I had to talk two jugglers down from burning the prop tent last night. And having Austin here is just making it worse.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well. You told me not to hire on any more Shifters, and a few days later we get a new concessionaire—which, as I’m sure you know, we don’t actually need, seeing as we normally just hire on locals part time. And
let slip that Austin was an old fling of yours. People think you’ve just brought him here because you wanted a fuck buddy.”
“I know,” Melody interrupts. “And I told them that only Mab can hire on new crew members. But I’d keep an eye on Austin, if I were you. The last thing he needs is to get into a bar fight with a Shifter or twelve. I have a funny feeling Mab might have left out his immortality clause, just to keep things interesting for you.”
I press my head against the window and close my eyes.
“Great. So now I have to babysit.”
“Consider it more like being a bodyguard. Except you’re trying to protect your crew from your crew without anybody knowing what you’re doing in case you accidentally piss someone off.”
“It sounds so easy when you put it like that.”
She doesn’t say anything, but she doesn’t turn the radio up, not for another ten miles. When she does finally twist the dial, I feel the things left unsaid swallowed up in the noise. It feels like suffocating.
The ebony necklace is warm against my chest—I never take it off, not since Kingston left it in my care. As I stare out the window and let my thoughts drift, I barely register the tingle that spreads from the dark stone across my sternum. My mind washes away, either the stone’s magic or exhaustion pulling me under the waves in a blur of sunlight.
We sat on the beach, watching the waves pull in and out, warm water lapping against the sand that twined through our toes. The sun was setting over the lake, everything shattering with light and color, like a
fiery disco ball slowly disintegrating into foam. Kingston sat beside me, one arm across my shoulders, the other propping him up on the blanket.
“What do you think about when you dream of the future?” he asked. There was wistfulness in his voice, tinged by the barest hint of regret. Like dreaming of the future wasn’t something he let himself do.
“You mean like flying cars?” I said. I didn’t want to admit that I’d even considered a future together, a future outside of the show and the murders and the crazy. The idea was too difficult to hold on to; I had the feeling that if I stared at it too long, it would disappear like fog in the sun.
“I mean like you and me. Once our terms are done.”
I chuckled even as my heart flipped.
He can’t know you’ve daydreamed this. It will only hurt more when it doesn’t happen.
“I dunno. That’s a long ways off. Don’t you have a few hundred more years?”
He shrugged, and I nuzzled in closer, inhaling the heavy scent of his scuffed leather jacket.
“Just means we have more time to make it perfect,” he said. “Build the dream mansion, decide on our kids’ names…”
“Kids?” I said, pushing away and looking at him. He was smiling, but there was something in his brown eyes that told me he wasn’t joking. “I’m not having kids.” And, sure enough, there was a flicker of disappointment in his expression, immediately masked with a performer’s skill.
I shuddered. “The world’s overpopulated, we’re giving our kids a wasteland, being in labor sucks…which reason do you want?”
“We wouldn’t have to stay here, you know. We could go somewhere else.”
“What do you mean?”
“There are places set aside for people like us, those who were in service to the Fey. Lands of eternal sunlight and wine and song. It’s in the contract.”
“I never read that.”
He chuckled. “You didn’t read most of your contract, so that’s not saying much. It’s under the subsection labeled Retirement.”
I settled against him once more.
“So, you’re saying, what? We retire and move to
faerieland and have a litter of children?”
“I’ll even throw in a castle,” he murmured. “With a moat and a turret. Anything for you.”
I grinned and said nothing, just let the idea of this new future take root in my heart. The sun was barely a fingernail on the horizon, a glint of gold against the oncoming dark. Kingston kissed me on the top of my head. He whispered something into my hair, something that sounded like “I love you.”
A ray of glittering sun
light shifted. Light undulated.
In a stream of
shimmering gold, the sunlight swam through the air toward us. Only it wasn’t sunlight: it was Zal, Kingston’s familiar. The feathered serpent coiled in the air in front of us, sparks raining off it like dust. Kingston held out his hand and the familiar wrapped around his forearm, melding into flesh, gold bleeding into black ink.
“You have to be careful,” he said as the familiar resumed its usual shape as a tattoo. Goose bumps raced over my skin as the final golden feather melded into his flesh. Those words were a crack in the memory, and suddenly I realized that that’s precisely what this was—a memory, an illusion. I stared at the Quetzalcoatl tattoo as it stared at me. “They’re coming.” And it wasn’t Kingston speaking, but the tattoo, its lips moving to reveal teeth sharp as razors.
“Who?” I asked.
“The end,” Zal replied.
I jerk awake at the sound of a car horn, my heart leaping into my chest as the truck stops with a jolt and Melody screams,
But we’re not in a wreck. We’re stopped at a gas station in some half-formed highway town, and Mel’s giving me her best shit-eating grin.
“Morning, sunshine,” she says. “Your turn to drive.”
“You think you’re
funny,” I say. My hand is on my chest, my heart racing faster than the music on the radio.
“Most of the time,” she says. “I’m going to piss. You need anything from inside?”
I shake my head and lean back against the seat. When she’s gone, I take a deep breath and try to remember the daydream. I can’t summon anything beyond the sound of waves and the scent of Kingston’s cologne. That, and fear.
I slide from the cab to stretch while Melody fills the gas tank using one of the fleet credit cards. The sky is clear and the countryside stretches to eternity on all sides; the only buildings at this exit are the gas station and a diner on the opposite side of the road. Besides our caravan, the place is a ghost town. It feels like stepping onto the set of a horror movie, one rife with chainsaw-wielding serial killers and murderous crows. The gas-station door opens and Lilith skips out, holding a bag of cookies in one tiny hand. She grins at me as she passes by, and I realize that stepping into a horror movie would actually be a little less terrifying than the truth of my life. At least you can run away from chainsaws.
I shake the thought from my head and go in to grab something to drink, my mind already idly devising the best possible coffee and creamer combination. The door opens again and Austin steps out. He pauses midstride.
“Hey,” he says. He doesn’t meet my eye. Immediately, I feel guilt twisting around in my gut as Melody’s words filter through my memory.
He came all the way here to find you…you barely even remember he existed.
“Hey,” I say. “How’s the ride?”
He shrugs. “Okay. Yvette’s been briefing me on the finer points of cotton-candy construction, so that’s super exciting.”
I grin. Oddly enough, it’s not as forced as I thought it would be.
“Listen,” I say. “Could we maybe talk later? I realize I was a little harsh last night. You showing up out of nowhere was kind of a shock.”
He looks at me, then, and I can’t tell if he wants to smile or tell me to fuck off.
“Shock seems to be on the menu, today,” he says. “But yeah. I’d like that.” He looks to the trucks, which are starting to rev back to life. “Better get going. I’ll see you later.”
I nod and watch him go, feeling memories shift and bubble. Somewhere, deep down, I know I still love him. I know he’s still the one I wanted to grow old with. The more he’s around, the more I feel that connection trying to re-form, like a shattered bone that’s slowly stitching itself together, cell by miniscule cell. The slight bounce to his gait, the way his lip twitched into a smile, hell, even the way my body seems to instinctively lean toward him—they’re all pieces in a dance I know by heart but can’t find the rhythm to. He is a part of my past. Somehow, my body knows it. If only my heart could follow suit. But even as I watch him leave, I can’t summon that desire.
All I can remember is Kingston’s cologne and the way he looked the moment before he died for me.
I nearly yelp when I slide into the driver’s side of the cab. Because it’s not just Melody sitting in there. Lilith’s wedged in the middle, the bag of cookies open in her lap and a dusting of crumbs forming a crop circle around her.
“I wanted to ride in the big truck,” she says. I don’t close the door behind me. I look past Lilith’s ringlets and give Mel a questioning glance. She just shrugs, as if to say
you’re in charge,
and goes back to skimming through her MP3 player.
“O…kay,” I say, because there’s really no way I can force her out. The rest of the trucks are already pulling onto the highway, and Lilith’s not really someone I want to insult. I also don’t think I could convince someone to take her if I tried—I’ve no doubt whoever I asked would delight in watching me suffer.
Keep your friends close.
“Just try not to get crumbs everywhere.”
She nods sagely and brushes the crumbs off her navy-blue dress.
The first twenty minutes of the drive are in silence except for the sound of music and the crunching of Lilith eating her cookies and getting crumbs everywhere but her dress. I glance over to see Mel with her cheek pressed against the window in a very unattractive smear, a snore escaping her open mouth. In that moment, I’d give anything for a camera.
“Do you remember my promise?” Lilith asks. Even though it’s barely above a whisper, her words cut through the music. My skin grows cold. I say nothing and pray she’s just talking about the crumbs.
“It was so long ago, but I hope you remember. I promised to make her suffer, if you defied me. I promised to tear your sister limb from limb.”
I nearly pull the truck over to the curb. But I don’t. My knuckles go white on the steering wheel, and I stare straight ahead, refusing to look at her, terrified that I’ll see the demon cracking out from beneath her skin. Of course I remember Lilith’s promise, from before I even joined the show—her promise to destroy my sister, to make her suffer if I didn’t join Kassia’s fight.
“What are you talking about?” I say, because for some reason, admitting that I remember it—that I have nightmares about it—would make it more real.
“Your end is coming, Oracle. It is coming sooner than you think. All this time, I have given you the opportunity to join me. We could have been royalty, you and I. We both burn. We both live for the blood of our victims. And yet you have done nothing but deny me. For that, I will make you suffer. And since you have taken your sister away from me, and your magician is sacrificed, I will be forced to take your lover.”
Anger burns, and somewhere, deep down, a new sensation bubbles: the need to protect Austin in the way I know he tried to protect Claire and me. Like everything else surrounding him, my instinct is reflexive, knee-jerk, and the emotions the reaction should stem from are absent. But I know one thing: I’m not going to let her hurt him. He’s already gotten in deep enough because of me.
“Leave him out of this.”
“It’s too late, Oracle,” she says. “If you wanted to keep them safe, you would have joined me long ago. Now, I will make you watch him suffer. I could have been merciful. No more. You have brought his death upon yourself.”
“Lilith, I swear to God if you hurt him—”
She laughs again. “God will not save you. No god will. It’s just you and me, Oracle. You and me and my friends.”
I glance at her, then. She’s still her normal creepy-as-sin-little-girl self, a cookie held forgotten in both hands like a squirrel. Her head is cocked toward me, her green eyes intent.