We were going disguised as pilgrims, and it was a larger group than Quill or my father had originally intended because Ayglos would not be left behind. Dressed in the plainest homespun I could find in our possessions, we had packs and pious looks to reinforce the pilgrim air. My mother, a beautiful dark-haired nymph, had produced one of the precious holy books we’d salvaged from our burnt castle and given it to Namal to carry. When we stopped, we were to behave as pilgrims and spend time reading from the holy book. Pilgrims didn’t tend to travel armed, but we would. My father opened one of the doctor’s trunks and dug some knives and short swords out from the folds of blankets and clothes, then my brothers set about arming themselves.
Before I could partake, Remko pulled me aside. “Little Zare, take these.”
My eyes grew big as clams when I saw what was in Remko’s hands. His beautiful curving daggers.
“This is Shiharr,” he placed the weapon in my hand. “This is Azzad,” he set its mate in my other hand, tips facing out. “The pommels are flint. You can make a fire from their sparks.”
I stared at the daggers. Fine engraving swirled over the blades—on Shiharr it looked like eddies of water, and on Azzad like curls of fire—and there was a touch of gold inlaid where the blades met the hilt. The hilts were wrapped in leather—well used but still strong and soft. I had admired them since I was small. “You can’t give me these,” I looked up at Remko.
The captain of the guard smiled and touched my cheek. “I can. Treat them well, and they will keep you safe, fed, and warm, when I cannot.”
I curled my fingers around the grips sliced the air with the blades—testing their weight and feel. They were glorious. Far easier to wield than the sword I had used during the siege of Galhara. Remko handed me their scabbards and I sheathed them. Then he helped me belt them on. They were not quite as invisible on my back as they were on Remko’s, but I grabbed a vest from the trunk and that hid them well enough. I grasped the captain’s hands, “Thank you.”
Remko squeezed my hands and then turned and climbed out of Boitumelo’s wagon.
Mother and my sister, Nadine, went through a packing checklist one last time as we faux pilgrims sat in the wagon. Quill was getting impatient, but in the presence of the queen said nothing.
Nadine furrowed her brow while she double checked our packs. She and I looked every inch sisters. Our matching olive skin, dark hair and brown eyes declared on no uncertain terms shared blood—though she was four years my elder. She was also displeased about being left behind. Skilled with every art except getting into trouble, she was the unlucky royal child stuck preserving the family name. However, she was still an excellent accomplice, and caught my eye to make sure I saw her tuck extra cheese and bread into my pack.
“I believe you’re ready,” declared my mother, handing the last pack to Namal. Worry creased her forehead. “Be careful.”
We stood in the swaying wagon and one by one took our leave. Both Mother and Nadine crushed me with embraces. “Stay safe,” whispered Mother.
“Come back and tell me everything,” whispered Nadine.
I squeezed her hand. She could count on that.
Out in the open air the sun was shining, but we put our hoods up and hunched our shoulders. We had to walk on the side of the road against the flow of the circus caravan, and did not want to be recognized or questioned by our friends. I thought of the handsome fire spinner, Balleck, and wanted to cry since I couldn’t even find him and tell him I would be back. I wondered if he would be angry about being left behind without a word.
Quill had a crutch under his good arm, which was mercifully opposite his bad leg, and he set us a slug’s pace. Slow, methodical, and the moment you stopped paying attention you realized it was a faster pace than you thought. We had almost reached the end of the caravan when we heard the thunder of horsemen moving fast. I craned my neck to see around the last covered wagon. On the road behind the caravan the pointed helms of fifty or sixty light cavalry flashed in the sun. Doubtless a detachment from the garrison at Gillenwater. They bore down on the circus caravan with no hint of stopping.
There was a breath in which we all stared, not understanding. Then someone started yelling for the wagons to clear the road. There wasn’t time, of course, but the wagons at the back lurched left and right while the news traveled up the line with smaller results at each step.
Ayglos grabbed my arm and pulled me along as he, Namal and Quill dove into the underbrush by the side of the road. It was hard going with packs, but we crawled through the bracken until we were a stone’s throw away in a ditch.
The horsemen reached the caravan and barreled down the middle, spooking the wagon horses as they blew past. When they came to the wagons that still hogged the whole road they split and galloped on the narrow shoulders. As they went, horsemen broke pace and stopped at various points along the caravan. Dread covered the circus folk. Even the animals shied and bobbled uneasily in their traces. The horsemen finished arraying themselves up and down the caravan and one rider with a green plume rode back down the caravan shouting, “Where is the Circus Master?”
“I am here!” came an indignant bellow from one of the center wagons. The Circus Master stepped out of the covered cart and stood on the driver’s seat. I could see his pointed, manicured beard wagging even from our ditch. His voice seemed far too powerful to possibly come from his small person. He was a short man, once an acrobat of epic skill, who now had a potbelly tacked awkwardly onto his slight frame.
Green Plume, presumably the captain, rode to the Circus Master’s wagon and looked up at the aging acrobat standing in the driver’s seat. “Circus Master! You may have heard of the cowardly attack in the city last night.”
“I heard there was a fire and a lot of hullaballoo,” said the Circus Master. “Was it an attack? How dreadful.”
Green Plume continued, “Some rebels burned the Queen’s Forges and then fled into the night. Did they try to take refuge in your caravan?”
“I should think not!” the Circus Master scoffed. “We are performers and entertainers, not doctors or soldiers. We do not meddle.”
“All the same,” replied Green Plume, his voice hard, “We would like to be sure. We are going to search your caravan.”
Cool silence spread between the captain and the Circus Master. There was doubtless a hard way and an easy way to be searched, and what the Circus Master had to hide would probably be more easily found if he chose the hard way. “Of course, Captain, but I must object to this indignity,” said the Circus Master gravely.
“Your people perform wrapped in naught but leaves,” retorted Green Plume. “Your dignity doesn’t have a long drop to the ground.”
The Circus Master gave a little bow, “We are at your service, Captain, but you will find nothing here. You are welcome to look. You may even start with my own wagon.”
Green Plume barked some orders and the soldiers began upending the caravan. Some of them jumped off their horses and entered covered wagons and tossed out anything they liked while startled circus folk scrambled out of their way. Others speared the hay in the hay cart or rode among the people on foot demanding to see their faces.
We lay in our ditch and watched in horror. I remembered how easily Quill had recognized my father. Would any of these soldiers know the Galhirim if they saw one?
I heard a shriek, and leapt to my feet. Ayglos and Namal grabbed me and yanked me back to the ground. “That was Nadine!” I hissed.
“No, it wasn’t,” Namal hissed back.
“That was Olena,” Ayglos’s teeth were clenched.
“Steady,” Quill’s voice settled over us like a hand on a horse’s poll. “Stay put.”
There was more shouting and a commotion further up the caravan. We all shifted in our ditch. Straining to see and hear what terrible thing was going on.
“Stay. Put,” growled Quill again, half soothing, half warning.
All at once the soldiers dropped what they were doing and regrouped. The unmounted men remounted, formed up, and charged back through the disheveled caravan. Back toward Gillenwater. I scrambled free from my brothers’ grasp and started back toward the caravan.
I heard Quill say, “Let her go.” A moment later I burst from the underbrush onto the road. The acrobats, jugglers, the sword swallower, and the magician were all in the street picking up the pieces of their ransacked lives and putting them back into wagons. I heard crying somewhere. Clothes, bits of magic tricks, rings and batons were strewn over the road like bodies on a battlefield…I made my way through the chaos looking for my family and for the fire spinners.
“Zare!” Balleck saw me first. He jumped off the wagon he’d been loading and ran to me. Before I could say anything he pulled me into a tight hug.
“Balleck! What happened?” I demanded. “Is everyone alright?”
Balleck held me at arm’s length and looked me over, “l am so glad they didn’t find you.”
“Balleck,” I grabbed his forearms and sought his eyes, my heart hammering as fear threatened to melt my knees, “Who did they find?”