Chapter One : Circus

I’d started to think that my time with the Immortal Circus began three weeks ago, when Mab hired me off the street and took me into her fold. At 6AM this morning, I realized that wasn’t the case. Those first weeks were just training. The real initiation began with the murder of our contortionist, Sabina.

“What sick fuck did this?” Melody whispers, staring at the corpse. Sabina’s body is on the pedestal she uses in the show, and she almost looks like she’s performing. Almost. She’s in her sparkly crimson unitard, her legs tucked behind her ears in a perfect arch, fingers laced under her chin. She’s even smiling, her brown eyes fixed on a point far away.

I’m right beside Mel, hands in my pockets because the desire to wrap a comforting arm around her is too strong, and she’s not the type of girl who wants or needs comfort. We’re both standing in the dust of the center ring, the rest of the troupe quickly filtering in with gasps and screams. Sabina looks perfect, poised, holding a pose for the audience’s applause. Except Sabina’s unitard is usually white, and the long gash across her throat is a second smile leaking its secrets into the ring.

Behind me, someone’s crying. I don’t look back. I don’t look at anyone. I just look at Sabina and wonder what the hell I’ve gotten myself into.

Then there’s another shout, and I look up in time to see Mab storming into the tent, her wild black hair in disarray and the sequins of her midnight-blue dressing gown sparkling in the lights. Once more, I can’t help but think that she looks like an early incarnation of Cher. Her usually-porcelain face is flushed, and when she catches sight of her star contortionist, she stops dead. Her hands clench and unclench at her sides, and after a deep breath she slowly walks forward, stepping over the ring curb and into the spectacle. She goes right up to Sabina and puts a hand on her knee, the lightest touch. I see something flash across her face, the tightening of her eyes, the barest strain of the lips. Then she withdraws her hand and faces us, her company, her minions.

“Which of you found her like this?” she asks. Her voice is deep and smoky—the words of an ex jazz singer—and even though it’s a whisper, it carries to every wall of the tent.

A woman to my right steps forward. She’s about my mother’s age, maybe younger, with aquamarine eyes and fiery red hair that reaches her waist. Her skin is pale as pearls, and even though she’s in a blue bathrobe, she looks like she’s ready to take the stage.

“Penelope?” Mab asks.

“Yes, my lady.” Penelope’s voice is crystal clear—everything about her hints at pinup model, beach babe, even the way she’s holding her robe closed with one hand. “Not five minutes ago. I was making coffee when I noticed the tent lights on. I thought…I thought someone was in practice.”

“And she was…like this?”

“Yes. Exactly so.”

Mab stares at the body, the corners of her mouth barely tilting into a frown.

“I would assume no one knows who did this?” she asks.

No one speaks. No one even breathes. I clench my hands and grit my teeth, waiting for her to fly into a rage. Instead, she puts one hand on Sabina’s head and strokes her short brown hair. Moments pass; the tent has never been this quiet.

“Well then, my loves,” she finally whispers, almost to herself. “It appears we have a murderer in our midst.”

Then, like ash scattering to the wind, Sabina’s body dissolves, collapsing in on itself in a hush of glitter and smoke.

“I guess this doesn’t happen very often,” I say.

Melody turns around from the pie cart and glares at me, then goes back to pouring coffee into her mug. There’s still a great deal of congestion near the grey-and-blue main tent, but over here, next to the forgotten bacon and boxes of cereal, it’s pretty quiet.

“Never,” she says, still facing away.

“Do you think Mab will cancel tonight’s shows?”

Melody chuckles, but when she turns around, there’s absolutely no humor in her brown eyes. “Please, Viktor; Mab doesn’t cancel a show for anything. Ever.”

“Even if someone in the audience is a killer?”

“Especially if.” She looks away, toward the tent. She’s young—maybe only a few years older than me, nineteen or something—but in profile, with her short brown hair and pixie-like features, she looks much, much older. “The show must go on.”

I look back to the chapiteau to see a huddle of men carrying out the contortion pedestal, dust still sparkling off as they move it to the backstage tent.

“Why do you think Mab suspects one of us?” I ask.

“That’s the thing,” comes a different voice. I look back to see Kingston standing there, his obscure-rock-band t-shirt rumpled like he hadn’t taken it off for days. Which, knowing him, definitely isn’t the case. He’s only seventeen, but so far, he seems to be the most put-together of anyone in the troupe. He runs a hand through his messy black hair before taking the coffee cup Melody hands him, as if she’d been awaiting his arrival. His blue eyes are shadowed. The poor kid looked like he hasn’t slept in weeks. “No one here could have done it.”

“Why?”

The two of them exchange a quick glance, and it’s Melody who answers.

“Because it’s in the contract.”

“Right,” I say. “Because people always do what their contracts say they will.”

“In this case,” Kingston says, “yes.”

                                                * * *

                                                   * * *

“Is this what you really want?” Mab asked. Her voice was sincere. We sat in her trailer, candles flickering from skull-and-crystal sconces along the wall. It seemed larger inside, as though stepping through the rickety aluminum door had led to somewhere…else. I could have sworn I heard wolves howling in the distance, even though this was the middle of the day. In Detroit.

“Yes,” I’d said. I remembered the feeling, the nerves that made me shake like a caffeine crash, like I’d been running a thousand miles and hadn’t stopped to breathe. I couldn’t keep my fingers from rattling the pen she’d handed me, its nib tap tap tapping on the ornate ebony desk. “I’m sure.” Even my voice wavered. I couldn’t remember why.

“Well then,” she said, and raised one hand. She snapped her burgundy-manicured fingers and a book floated down from one of the shelves behind her. I held back the gasp. I’d known from the moment I saw her on the street that she wasn’t like everyone else; somehow. As the book settled in front of her and opened to a page covered with names, I knew without doubt I was out of my league. I didn’t care. At the bottom of the list, my name was inking itself into being, scrawled by some ghostly hand in ink as dark as blood. “Let us examine the terms, shall we?” Her finger paused beside my now-completed name.

I don’t remember the rest. I only remember her voice, and the incense, and a feeling that I was signing on for more than just a few months of selling cotton candy. I also remembered her smile.

                                                  * * *

It’s noon, now, and the troupe is already starting to warm up in preparation for tonight’s shows. You’d think that after a murder, there’d be a whole hell of a lot more crying, a bit more fear. But everyone looks calm: Maya’s walking back and forth on her practice tightwire in suede boots, earbuds firmly in place; the three jugglers—still haven’t caught their names—are doing cartwheels and catching whirling clubs. The remaining two contortionists are stretching out on a panel mat in the shade. Even from here, I can tell they’re trying to come up with a new routine.

“I still don’t get it,” I say.

“I’m shocked,” Melody replies.

She and Kingston are facing each other, going over a new magic act for the show—something lighthearted, something that doesn’t involve their usual ‘daggers-through-the-heart’ bit. Kingston’s got a handful of roses in one hand, and on each of Melody’s shoulder perches a white dove.

“Seriously, though,” I say. I lean forward on the wooden crate I’m calling my front row seat. “Why isn’t anyone, I dunno, searching for the killer?”

Kingston flourishes the roses in front of Melody, who studiously ignores the romantic gesture. One of the doves ruffles its wings.

“Because,” he says. “Mab’s on it.”

“But why isn’t she calling the cops? Why is she so certain it’s one of us?”

Melody raises her plastic magic wand and raps Kingston’s knuckles. The flowers explode in a flurry of red petals and sparks. Judging by the eyebrow Kingston raises, I’m not the only one who’s reminded of Sabina.

“We’re called the Immortal Circus for a reason,” Melody says. She sighs and waves her fingers in a lazy circular gesture. The petals on the ground swirl in a gust of wind and then, with a small burst of fire, become a dove that flies up and lands on her finger. Most magicians spend years trying to make their tricks look like real magic. Melody, I quickly learned, has precisely the opposite problem. “So long as we’re under contract, no one and no thing can hurt us.”

“So how was Sabina killed?” I ask.

“That,” she says, lifting the bird to the top of her head, “would be the million-dollar question. Someone’s found a loophole in Mab’s magic. You’re welcome to bring that to her attention, if you’d like.” She flashes me a grin, and even Kingston looks amused at the notion of pissing off our ringleader.

“Aren’t you worried, though? That you’ll be next?”

“If anything,” Mel says, “I’d be more worried about you.”

Something clenches around my heart, that old feeling, the fight or flight. “You think they’ll go after me?”

“No,” she says, looking at Kingston. “I think you’re the only new thing in this troupe for the past, what would you say? Five years?” Kingston shrugs, and Mel turns her gaze back to me. “Awfully suspicious, don’t you think?”

“What? You think I’m the killer? You know I’m not that type.”

Mel laughs. The doves ignite in that instant, flaring up like strobes and disintegrating into ash.

“Honey, this is show business. Nothing here is what it seems.”

                                                  * * *

“This isn’t like any other circus,” Mab said, her fingers idly caressing the handle of a whip coiled on her desk. The book of names and contracts had flown back to the shelf behind her, and now she was staring at me with green eyes as intent as a jaguar. “All of our performers have…eccentricities.”

There was a blur in my mind, a haze that surrounded the exact terms of our agreement, but I didn’t really care. All I knew was, I no longer felt like the world was crashing down around me. In spite of that relief, under her gaze, I felt small.

“What do you mean?” I asked, though I already knew. My mind wrapped around the idea of this place much more easily than it should have. Magic, freaks…it went hand-in-hand.

“I only hire exceptional performers. Like yourself, they were often in a bind. And I,” she said, flourishing her hands, “am a humanitarian at best. I help. In return, they work for me, using their talents to capture the imaginations of our audience.”

“I don’t have any talents,” I said, thinking we should have had this conversation before I signed the contract.

“Oh, love, everyone has a talent. Yours will blossom in time. Trust me.” She smiled at me, and something in her eyes told me that I didn’t have a choice.


CIRQUE DES IMMORTELS:

A new novel from the minds of A. R. KAHLER and DEVYN BURTON.

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