I had faced men sent to kill me and I had killed in return. Unusual for a girl of my age. But life was different now: Performing riding stunts for an easy-to-please crowd was not the same thing as facing an army.
It was much, much worse.
Before battle, I remembered deadly calm, before every single performance, my guts would wring into knots and put me in danger of falling off the horses.
I closed my eyes and tried to focus on breathing. Ten months. You’d think it would be easier by now.
The horses under my feet stamped eagerly; they were listening to the musicians who sat just to the right of the gate—and they could tell our cue was getting close. My gut shuddered again. It wasn’t even a long act. We were just buying time for the acrobats to change costumes for the finale.
There was a crescendo in the music and then the suck of expectant silence. I felt the horses sink back on their haunches for a beat, and then with the percussion of the drum solo they charged into the circus ring, bringing me with them. I opened my eyes and waved to the crowd in the shadowy reaches behind the torches lighting the arena. The crowd gasped and cheered as we circled the ring at breakneck speed—two dappled horses with a wild-haired girl dressed in leaves and leather standing one foot on each.
After three trips around the ring a second drum joined the first and two big tribesmen dashed into the arena and lifted a huge flaming ring on standards between them. My mounts passed underneath the ring and I leapt through—making much of my safe landing—the crowd clapped. We circled back around and I jumped through the fire again, praying none of my leaves would catch. They had once, three months ago at a performance near Tasielyn. Half-nymph cooked at circus: The town gossips would be delighted if they knew. I pushed the thought aside and jumped through a third time.
I sniffed. Safe. I waved to the crowd, they rewarded me with applause.
The horses thundered on and the tribesmen ran in a tight circle with their ring of fire—the dizzying spin hid that they were making the ring bigger as they ran. They stopped and lowered the burning ring to just two feet off the ground. I looked at the fire and covered my face in mock dismay. My audience got silent—I could almost hear them measuring the height with their eyes as the tribesmen began to raise the ring slowly. By the time the horses and I reached it, the flames licked at four feet—leaving just a narrow gap for us—my grays leapt while I ducked and the three of us cleared the burning loop to cheers.
Our time was up; I waved farewell to the crowd as my eager little showmen galloped out as fast as they could. We slid to a stop in the cramped space between the musicians and the next act and I jumped off.
The horses snorted and shook their manes, clearly proud of themselves. I patted their necks. “Natural show offs.”
“That makes three of you,” my older brother, Ayglos, slid halters onto the horses and smiled at me.
I scoffed and punched his arm. His hair was lighter than mine, but his eyes were darker and he was annoyingly taller. He’d already changed from his scanty, shimmering spear-dancer outfit. Can’t say that I blamed him. He was freshly nineteen, my senior by two years, and I was fairly certain every girl in the circus loved him—as had every girl in the royal court not too long ago. He, of course, had no idea.
“Nice, Zare,” the acrobats clapped me on the back as they hurried past to start the finale.
I grinned. If the lead in was worse, the afterglow of performance was worlds better than the effects of battle.
I helped Ayglos lead the horses out of the tent and away to the little corral set up a short distance from the big tent. The circus was a small town on wheels, dragging its own corrals and tents everywhere it went. Most of the cities surrounding Daisen Bay had tournament or festival grounds outside the city limits; we usually took up the entire grounds and sometimes overflowed into surrounding farms or forest. Gillenwater had one of the few festival grounds with a fence enclosing the property. The fence was wood, painted red, and had no gate, just a giant gap which the road passed through.
Remko, bare muscles glistening, was waiting for us at the corral. “Let me see to the horses.”
Ayglos shook his head. “No need for that anymore, Remko. We’re all the same now.”
Remko growled softly. He’d been the captain of our guard. Now he destroyed things with swords before handing the weapons off to be swallowed by the sword swallower. While most of us didn’t routinely go around armed anymore, Remko still carried a pair of curving daggers hidden in the small of his back. Even when he was performing. I loved this about him.
We led the horses past and Remko contented himself managing the gate.
“Machlah says to tell you that the Circus Master wants to move west tomorrow,” Remko leaned on the fence and watched us rub down the horses. “He plans to go to Magadar—I think he hopes for better crowds there.”
“We had a crowd tonight,” I said.
Ayglos grimaced. “A ragged crowd—The Circus Master must’ve lowered the prices quite a bit to get so many. Times are hard.”
I said nothing and finished grooming my gray. We turned the horses loose and Remko let us out through the gate. Rather than dwell on the probability of actually leaving Daisen Bay, I turned to Ayglos: “Olena, Balleck, and I are going to see the end of the festival in town tonight. You should come with us, Ayglos.”
Ayglos hesitated and I saw Remko’s shoulders stiffen.
I hadn’t told Remko about this plan, before now, and I already knew his objections. I preempted: “Gillenwater is not so close to either Galhara or Hirhel that we need to worry overmuch about being recognized.”
“There is a large garrison in Gillenwater,” replied Remko, “And the Nether Queen’s forges.”
“Then we shall wear disguises.” Problem solved.
Remko looked unconvinced but Ayglos was satisfied. I smirked to myself—doubtless the promise of Olena’s presence made him easier to persuade. “I need to change,” I held up my leafy skirt, “We’re meeting by the entrance.”
“I guess I’ll find us disguises,” Ayglos tipped his head.
I saw Remko frown at him as I turned and headed to our family’s little tent to lose my wild-tree-girl attire and restrain my wild dark hair. Our tent was empty—I lit a lamp and changed clothes hurriedly. Everyone else would be working still—Remko, Ayglos and I were performers, now; our work was done for the night. My parents and my other siblings, Nadine and Namal, would have at least another hour of work after the show finished. I tugged a homespun tunic over my slim trousers and wrapped a leather belt around my waist. I fussed with the sleeves and wrinkled my nose at the shapeless attire. Truthfully, I didn’t mind the circus part of our new life, but I wasn’t hugely fond of the clothes.