The Immortal Circus: Act One | Chapter 20 of 34

Author: A.R. Kahler | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 5848 Views | Add a Review

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: SOONER OR LATER

I can bring you somewhere safe,” she said. She offered her hand, and I took it. I don’t remember why I had been in the alley, and I don’t know what had brought me to listen to a strange woman in the middle of Detroit. All I remember is that when she smiled, I believed her. Nothing could have been worse than what lay behind me.

She led me down the street, not saying much. People passed by us with umbrellas and raincoats and didn’t look at us twice, even though we should have looked out of place. They may have been dark shadows moving through the mist and rain. But Mab and I, we were something darker, something hidden in the corners of sight. When I think back, the one thing I remember is the greyness, the melancholy, and the splash of crimson that was Mab’s dress. Then we turned the corner and stepped into another world.

The tent rose above us in the neon-lit park, all blue and wild and vibrant, Cirque des Immortels roaring in acid-green lights. It was color and sound, reds and blues and yellows, tufts of fire and spinning clubs. Music cartwheeled through the crowd that laughed and pointed in the broad avenue leading up to the tent. I stopped, speechless, and watched as giants on stilts trundled past, stared at the woman clothed in only a python standing beside a sign for a freak show. Mab put a hand on my shoulder, but she didn’t make me move. The place smelled of popcorn and cotton candy and something else, something that defied scent. Something that smelled like energy and excitement.

“Welcome,” she said. “Welcome to your new home.”

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There’s a pause after Mab’s declaration. She stands there, staring at the rip in the tent, and none of us dares to breathe. Finally, she turns around and crouches low so she’s at Lilith’s level. Poe prowls around her feet, rubbing against her leather boots. She ignores him.

“Lilith, baby,” she whispers, “Auntie Mab needs you to tell the Shifters to come at once. When you’ve done that, I need you to go into my trailer with Poe and hide until I find you.”

“Hide?” Lilith says, cocking her head to one side like a broken bird.

“Yes, sweetie,” Mab says. She reaches out and pets Lilith’s head. The exchange makes me cringe. “I fear the bad man might be nearby, and we don’t want him finding you.”

She stands as Lilith scampers away, Poe at her heels. She looks at Kingston and me, takes a deep breath, and then hesitates. Mab never hesitates. Mab is assured, confident, powerful. Once more, I feel the end drawing near. In spite of the heat, my skin is covered in goose bumps. I want nothing more than to grab Kingston’s hand for support, but he still looks shell-shocked and worlds away. Besides, I can’t show weakness. Not now. Not in front of Mab.

“Kingston,” she finally says. “It is becoming increasingly clear that someone is trying to destroy us. I fear we may have a spy in our Court.” Am I imagining it, or did her eyes flicker to me? “After teardown, you will go ahead to the next site. Take no one, tell no one. Once there, you will use every enchantment at your disposal to make the ground hallowed. Do I make myself clear?”

Kingston swallows hard and nods.

“Vivienne,” Mab says, turning her serpent’s gaze to me. “I am putting you under surveillance. You will be placed under Penelope’s watch until this situation has been sorted and your name cleared. Yes?”

“I…” I falter under her gaze, but there’s a feeling of indignation in me that flares for just a moment. She’s the one that brought me here. She’s the one who promised I’d be safe. And now I’m the one she suspects is behind all this? “Why?”

Mab takes one slow, dangerous step forward. She is taller than me by only a few inches, but her anger makes her taller.

“Given your past,” she says with a decided twist to the word, “you are a suspect individual.” Her eyes bore into me, and I have the sense she’s seeing something I can’t. Memories seep into my head, the color red on my knees the day she led me here, the feeling of needing to run, to get as far away as fast as I could. I clench my fists. Was I running from myself?

Then she steps aside and begins to walk away and the train of thought derails into nothingness. “Besides,” she says, not even turning back. “Lilith has already told me you were sneaking around last night. If you don’t want to be a suspect, I propose you refrain from suspicious activities.”

The fire in me wants to run after her, wants to grab her arm and demand she tell me what the hell she’s talking about. But before I can make what would probably be the worst — and last — mistake of my life, Kingston puts his hand on my shoulder and the rage dies down.

“Come on,” he whispers. “Let’s get out of here before the Shifters arrive.”

With that, he draws me away from the tent and leads me toward the pie cart.

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“I always find problems are easier to deal with over coffee,” he says, handing me a mug. I didn’t miss the slight hand-wave over the rim as he passed it over, so I’m more than suspicious as I take a sip. Unlike the last time he magically spiked my drink, this one doesn’t taste like battery acid. I try not to wince as I take a few long gulps, hoping either the caffeine or magical alcohol helps settle my nerves. Neither does.

“What was she talking about?” I finally ask. “What did she mean, given my past?

I watch Kingston as I ask this and can’t help but notice that he’s studiously looking away.

“I don’t know,” he finally says. “It’s your past, after all.” Maybe I’m just getting better at lying or he’s getting worse, but I have no doubt whatsoever that he isn’t telling me the truth.

Up until then, it hadn’t really bothered me that I couldn’t dredge up the details of my past. It was one of those things that just seemed better not to think about: high school, sitting bored in math class, driving lessons, summers at the public pool or playing video games. It was all there, but it was all coated over, hazy almost. And as far as I was concerned, that was probably a good thing. The trouble was, it was all so plain, so generic; there was nothing there that would make someone suspicious of me.

Except for those times when, looking back, I could have sworn there was blood on my jeans the day Mab found me. Blood that wasn’t mine. But even that memory is slippery. Maybe it was just a dream.

I run a hand through my hair and close my eyes. There are worse fates than being put with Penelope for a few days. Much better than a sword through the gut or half-decapitation. At least, that’s what I try to convince myself. Some doubt lingers in the back of my head, though. What if it was me? The deaths happened at night…what if I sleepwalked or was under a spell or something?

A moment later there’s a hand on my arm, and then Kingston’s leaning in. He smells like cologne and coffee, a mix that’s oddly comforting.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I know how unfair Mab can be, but she’s just scared.”

“I’m not the killer,” I say. At least, I don’t think I am. “I almost saw them, last night.”

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I don’t think you’re the killer either.”

I open my eyes and look at him. He’s looking right at me, his face only a few inches away. How many times have we been like this? Half a step away from leaning in and kissing, a second away from doing what my heart’s been begging me to do since I first laid eyes on him. If I wanted to, I could end the streak; I could lean in and kiss him here and now.

“Why not?” I ask.

“Because,” he says. His comforting smile turns wicked. “You’re too much of a wimp to kill anyone.” He taps my nose with one finger and pulls away, hops off the table, and stands, stretching back like a cat. I can feel myself blushing. Another moment lost. I'm hoping it's not some sort of karmic trend.

“I better be off,” he says. “Mab would skin me alive if she knew I was still waiting around.”

He turns to go and then stops, looks back.

“Keep yourself out of trouble,” he says. His face is serious. “I mean it.”

“You too,” I say.

He winks. “Me? Never.”

Then he’s walking away, and I’m left with a cooling cup of coffee and the sense that nothing’s going to get easier to deal with, not anytime soon.

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“How is your practice going?” Penelope asks. We’re once again in her trailer as the rest of the crew does the grunt work. I can see the tent from the window; Mab is out there with a few Shifters. They’re carefully folding up the ripped panel like a flag. It doesn’t touch the ground once.

“What?” I ask, not looking away. There’s a steamer trunk at Mab’s feet, and the two Shifters are gently placing the panel inside of it.

“Your juggling practice. I assume you’ve been training night and day.” She talks as though that’s clearly the only thing I should be concerned about, as though there’s nothing going wrong. Maybe she really does spend all of her time secluded away in her trailer, lost in her own little world. I can’t really blame her for it. Outside, Mab closes the lid and latches it.

I turn my focus back to the computer. Penelope’s at another laptop, figuring out losses and gains and ticket sales. Once more, Mab’s refunding the tickets for tonight’s show and donating to nonprofits so people won’t be too pissed for missing the sold-out performance. And I’m the one sending out the notification emails, each one personally addressed because Mab likes things to have that personal touch.

“Practice? Not good,” I say. “I wasn’t made to juggle.”

Penelope sighs and taps away at her keyboard. She looks tired, like the rest of the troupe, with a light layer of makeup and a faded Cirque des Immortels hoodie. I hate to admit that she makes even that look attractive.

“Mab’s always like that,” she says. “I should know. Always making rash decisions she can’t get out of later.”

I shrug and go back to emailing Mr. Carson, apologizing to him and his two lovely daughters for having to refund the tickets but promising to donate to St. Jude’s to offset the harm done. Somehow, Mab has more than just his contact details on file. There’s a full paragraph of his family history, his employment status and income, and even a line at the bottom that I hope is a joke. What the customer dreamt of becoming as a child. Mr. Carson, apparently, wanted to be an astronaut. Now he’s the general manager of a local Taco Bell. If she has this much information about her customers, I can’t help but imagine what she has on file for the rest of us. Which makes me wonder…

“That memory you showed me…you said that you were with her before that, before the circus got started?” I ask.

“Indeed,” Penelope says, not looking up from her work. “I was with her for the very first show. It was just her and me on tour, then. I was but a child. The Only Living Fiji Mermaid, she called me.” Penelope looks up at me. “Not exactly the way a girl should grow up, though there was some glamour on the road. When we weren’t at Court, she and I would stand on the busiest boulevards in the biggest cities: London, Paris, Berlin. She would erect a fish tank and set me inside of it. I would wave and smile at the crowds and she would collect the gold.”

“Why did she need gold?” I ask. Mr. Carson’s been sent out, and now I’m staring at a photo of Miss Jessica Meyers, thirty-two, who once wanted to be a ballerina.

“She didn’t,” Penelope says. “It was the attachment she needed. People gave us money because we had inspired something within them, got them dreaming of the impossible. That infused what they paid us. It was, if nothing else, a very crude beginning to the Trade.”

How long has this been going on? But that’s not what I really want to ask her.

“So how long is your contract?” I ask.

She doesn’t answer right away. She looks at me for a long moment, seeming to study whether or not I’m worthy enough for the answer.

“Life,” she finally says, her voice filled with a resolute sadness. The word fills the room.

“But I thought…I thought we couldn’t die? It’s in the contracts.”

“Now you’re finally catching on to the way Mab works.” She looks back down at the computer.

“So…you’re here forever.”

“Perhaps,” she says. “There’s always an exit clause.”

“What is it?” I ask.

“If you’re trying to keep your head down after being accused of murder, my dear, asking about the termination of people’s contracts isn’t the way to go about it.”

I blush and look back to my screen. I start tapping in Miss Meyers’s name, apologizing for the horrible inconvenience, and saying we’ve booked her a ticket for the ballet that’s coming through next month. I can feel Penelope’s eyes still settled on me.

“Besides,” she finally says. She goes back to typing. “What you should really be worried about is your own exit clause. No one wants to run away forever, not really.”

“I don’t know it,” I say. “I don’t remember what I signed, or why I even did it. It must have seemed worth it at the time.”

Another pause.

“You remember nothing at all?” she asks.

“No. But apparently it was enough to make Mab suspect me of killing everyone.” I hadn’t said it aloud before this, but the words spill from my lips and hang in the air like bloodstains. It’s like signing my own death warrant, and I can’t help but wonder if telling this to the gossip queen of the troupe is a terrible mistake.

“Interesting,” she says. She gives me a considering glance. “You don’t strike me as the murderous type.”

“Try telling her that,” I say. I lean back in the chair and try to block out everything swarming around in my head. There’s no way in hell I’ll be able to get a juggling act together for Friday, no way I’ll be able to clear my name even if I do. The only way around it is to find the real killer, which isn’t going to happen with Penelope as my new guardian. And there’s another reason I need to find the killer. I need to make sure it’s not me. I mean, I know I overheard the Summer Court dude talking to someone else. It can’t be me. But a small part of me is saying that stranger things have been happening.

“Mab wouldn’t listen to me,” Penelope says. “You know how she is.” A brief pause. “We all have pasts we wish we could run from, Vivienne. The trouble is, they always manage to catch up with us in the end, no matter the magic attempting to keep it at bay.”

“What are you saying?” I ask. There’s a nervous quake to my heart, like maybe she knows more about me and my history than I do, which, I’m starting to realize, wouldn’t take much.

“I’m just observing,” she says. “As I said, I’ve been with the troupe from the very beginning. I’ve seen numerous performers come and go, their past sins atoned for. But not one of them left happy, I can tell you that.”

“Why?”

“Because what they were running from — all of them — was something from within. They may have joined to escape incarceration or execution, but their demons never left.”

“I don’t have any demons,” I say. I’m not liking where the conversation turned. Mainly because I’m not convinced anything I say is true.

“Darling, everyone has demons. Yours have just gone quiet.”

“Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe it was part of the contract.”

“Perhaps,” she says. “But where has that gotten you?” She gestures to the room. “You might not know, but Mab does. And it sounds like your demons need reconciliation rather than ignorance.”

I don’t say anything to that. Her words sink down into my bones, binding themselves to memory. She has a point. Whatever I was running from is still there, still haunting my movements. I rub my hands together and try to force out the uncertainty. For the first time since I came here, when I think back to my past, deep inside I feel unclean.

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Mab wasn’t lying when she said I’d be put under Penelope’s custody. I’m not allowed to leave her trailer except to use the Porta-Potty on the edge of the grounds, and even then, Penelope goes outside her trailer to keep an eye on me. It weirds the hell out of me the first time I go to pee and realize she’s timing me, but when I get back to her bunk she acts entirely nonchalant, as if she was just outside enjoying the sunshine. She even opens the trailer door for me and waits a bit before coming in herself. That said, there’s one freedom I want that I’m strictly denied. I’m not allowed to go check in on Melody.

“She’s fine,” Penelope assures me as she boils the electric kettle for afternoon tea. “If anything was amiss, we would know.” She smiles warmly. “Trust me, in a company this small, it’s impossible for the welfare of another to slip through the cracks. Now, English Breakfast or Earl Grey?”

By the time the tent’s been torn down and packed away, I’ve emailed all of the refunded tickets and spent a good chunk of time staring at the Internet, hoping it would entertain me. Any other day, I’d have been overjoyed having an afternoon of sitting in the AC, wasting time online.

Except now, I’m realizing that I can’t really enjoy myself online because all these little things are adding up in ways that make my skin crawl. I don’t know what my email address is. There aren’t any blogs I know I read regularly. I don’t remember my Facebook account or anything else. Did I even have an email address? I take a deep breath and try to stay calm, try not to worry. Maybe I was just too cool to use social networking. Maybe I’d grown distant from all my friends and stopped communicating with them. I try to think back, try to remember chatting with someone — anyone — online, but the memory doesn’t come. I stare at the home screen and try not to have a panic attack. With a calculated slowness, I type my name into the search bar. Hit enter. Nothing comes up. Nothing whatsoever. Somehow, the search is completely, entirely blank. I stare at the white screen and wonder how no one in the world shares my name, how there is no trace of me out there whatsoever. Something about the wrongness of it makes me want to gag, or throw the laptop out the window. My hands are shaking.

When Penelope closes the lid of the laptop, I’m almost relieved to be torn away from the damning screen. I blink a few times and stare up at her. What was I just looking at?

“Time to hit the road,” she says.

By the time we’re in the cab of one of the trucks — just her and me, this time — I can’t even remember what I’d been worrying about.

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We reach the next site at midnight. We’ve driven halfway across the Midwest, down interstates clogged with cars and back roads that seemed more mud than concrete. Now, we’re somewhere in Nebraska, on a plot just off the edge of the highway. As our truck heads down the dirt road toward our site, I catch a glimpse of a farmhouse and a few tractors. We really are in the middle of nowhere this time. How the hell does Mab expect to sell tickets all the way out here? The caravan stops at the edge of the cleared field and Penelope parks. The cars are parked facing the same way, lights still on and many engines still running. There’s a crowd of people assembling in the headlights, a mob of performers silently staring at the dark field.

“What’s going on?” I ask. I reach for the handle but then realize that Penelope isn’t moving. Her knuckles are white on the steering wheel, and in the green light of the dashboard, her face looks even more sallow than this morning. She doesn’t look terribly beautiful now.

“It’s him,” she whispers. “He’s here.”

I look back out, almost ask what she’s talking about. Then I see him.

There’s a man standing in the middle of the cleared plot. His hair is so blond it’s white, his skin is just as pale, and he’s in a sharp grey suit with lines like razors. It’s the man from the show, the man from the Summer Court.

And one of his arms is looped around Kingston’s chest, the tip of a dagger pressed to his throat.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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