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Chapter Two

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Dedicated to ktwriter_ for the beautiful cover.


            The big top stood tall by the time I returned, secured by a myriad of ropes, its uppermost flag sailing amongst the clouds themselves. I was late by nobody's watch, but when I ducked under the flapping entrance and went inside, Silver seemed to be of a different opinion.

            She stood in the center of the ring, the trapeze equipment in place and dangling above her head. Pacing back and forth in a small region of the circle, she kept glancing pointedly down at her watch, as if this in itself would hurry me up. When we caught sight of each other, her expression both relaxed and contorted, leaving me wondering what exactly to brace myself for.

            "Corey!" she exclaimed. Her cropped hair was ruffled, the dark locks disheveled by many hours of hand-running since they'd been styled that morning. It had been Silver's signature look for as long as I could remember, and she always managed to carry it off with a sense of edgy elegance that nobody but her could muster. "Jesus, I was wondering if you were even going to show this afternoon."

            "Sorry. I, uh..." I paused, picking my words carefully. "I got caught up."

            "Hmm. Well. You're here now, and I guess that's what matters. We're down for first practice and Rhona's been staring daggers at me for the last half an hour. I felt like screaming at her. It's not like I can magically make you appear out of thin air, is it? I'm a trapeze artist, not a magician."

            My gaze trailed up to the stalls, following the direction of Silver's subtle nod at the mention of Rhona's name. Sure enough, there she was, about halfway up, surrounded by her permanent entourage of the other four performers. The aerial silk girls were the only ones who tended to stick within their private gaggle, isolating themselves from the rest of the circus. Rhona, the lead, was the worst of them all; petite, blonde, and three years younger than Silver, the pair never seemed to stop bickering.

            "But whatever. We've got fifteen minutes of practice time left, and I'm not about to waste it."

            Silver gestured toward the center trapeze, already suspended from the ceiling supports, hanging emptily in the middle of the ring. "Get on center and show me the lead routine."

            I froze, taken aback by the command. It wasn't what I'd been expecting – at least not today. Our group was a trio, composed of a lead and two back-ups. I formed one half of the latter, alongside the third member, Kendra, and it had been that way for years. Not only since my trapeze skills had been deemed performance-ready, but even in my earliest memories: when I was nothing more than an awestruck little girl, enthralled by the fluid movements of the trapeze artists. Over the last three years I'd grown used to the dazzling spotlights and sweaty palms of performance, but never as the lead. At any point in the show, I could always count on the fact that Silver would be in front of us, the back of her head in my line of vision. The alternative was a prospect too daunting.

            It had always been there, of course: the unspoken agreement that one day I'd take over, stepping into Silver's shoes. I'd been on pursuit of the day for years now, hungry for the chance to become what she was. But at that point it had been a distant thought, no clearer than a speck on the horizon. I'd not had the opportunity to thoroughly examine it, to test it out for myself. Now that it was really emerging, it seemed much too soon.

            "What about Kendra?" I asked, searching the ring for the familiar bottle-blonde curls of my partner. "Aren't we going to wait for her, or...?"

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