Part 2: The Ringmaster's Rage

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**So sorry for being a day late posting this! I was moving all day yesterday and by the time I remembered, it was past midnight anyway. I hope you enjoy part 2 of The Snake Charm.**

Bil was on edge the next few days. Whatever Linden had stolen, the ringmaster now knew it was gone. Jive and Drystan took special care to act as if they knew nothing, but Drystan watched as he always did, and noted who gave Bil side-eye glances when he was in one of his moods. Who muttered darkly to a neighbor? Who wanted change? Whenever anyone caught him looking too closely, Drystan made his eyes vibrate in their sockets and pulled funny faces until they laughed and glanced away.

The tedium of circus life passed—breakfast in front of the cook tent, morning practice, lunch, dress rehearsal, chores, and the few precious hours of freedom before they dressed and prepared for the evening performance. Attendance was still poor, growing sparser, but they'd be moving on for Imachara soon enough. Cowl was always a thin crowd.

During that precious window of freedom one afternoon, Drystan went down to the beach before he needed to go back to the clown alley and smudge his face in greasepaint and pull on his pale motley. He whittled a piece of driftwood absent-mindedly in his hands, letting his mind drift. Sometimes he needed to be away on his own, where he could be himself, not the genial, sardonic white clown of the circus. Remember who he had been, what he had done, how it had tempered him into this new person he still didn't quite recognize.

He was staring at the waves when Bil Ragona sat down next to him, setting his ever-present cane to one side. Drystan didn't acknowledge his presence at first, concentrating on splitting a curl of wood with the edge of the knife. It hovered on the metal before falling into the sand.

"Something's been stolen from me," Bil said, without preamble.

Drystan paused in his carving. "Has it, now?" Drystan kept his voice bland. "That's a shame. I'm sure it'll turn up." Drystan wondered if Bil thought he had stolen it. Whatever it was. Not good if so, considering how he'd tried to stay beneath notice. Just another one of the clowns. Another curl of wood fell to the sand.

"I think you know who has it," Bil said. His face was ruddy above his full black beard. He wore his ringmaster's vest, unbuttoned to show the white undershirt straining over the small paunch he cultivated. Bil took a cigarette from its case, tapping it lightly against his knuckle. He lit it, tobacco smoke mixing with the smell of salt and sand.

"Afraid I don't know much about anything stolen," Drystan said, his voice even, but his heartbeat quickened, echoing in his throat.

"Ah, Drystan, you know everything that goes on in these parts. I've been watching you, y'see, this past year. You don't say much, and when you do it's usually some cutting barb or something—get right under the skin of whoever's needling you, without having to give up a word about yourself. Made me curious, see."

Drystan twisted the knife to bore a hole for the eye of his driftwood, strands of blonde hair dyed white falling into his eyes.

"I did some digging. It was easy in the end. Saw you playing poker with the other clowns. You were counting cards, better than anyone I'd ever seen. I'm a gambling man myself, see, though Frit asked me to give it up a few years ago." He scowled at that. And Drystan knew that, though he may not gamble, buying Vestige from the black market held the same thrill of excitement for him. Might buy something worth a fortune, sell it on, and buy the next bit of Vestige instead of investing it back into his precarious circus.

"I remembered the rumours," Bil continued, "of a cardsharp from a noble background, partnering up with an old blacklisted magician. I followed the breadcrumbs, Drystan Hornbeam."

Drystan's knife slipped. A droplet of blood fell onto the sand to join the wooden slivers. He wondered if he made a run for it if Bil would take him down. His finger stung, and he fought the urge to stick the wound in his mouth and suck like a child. He wanted to say something sarcastic, something cutting, deflect the light of attention Bil turned on him. But for once, he was speechless.

"Now, I must admit, I was a little surprised to find out the son of one of the most powerful families in Ellada was hiding in my circus as a clown, let me tell you. At first, I thought I'd stumbled across a little gold mine if there was a finder's fee for you."

Drystan found his voice. "There's not." His family didn't want anything to do with them. They'd rather pretend he didn't exist.

"I found that out. Pity." Bil picked up his cane, rolling it between his hands before resting his chin on the carved ram's head, the horns outlined in silver. Its emerald eye glinted at the white clown. "So here's the deal, straight and simple. You were a cardsharp and a magician, and I know the sorts of people you must have hung around with in those casinos. You got yourself some nimble fingers, right enough, that I don't doubt for a second. I reckon you can get back what Linden stole from me, no bother. I reckon you might even know where he's hidden it already, since it sure as hell ain't in his quarters."

"And in return?"

"In return, you get a nice lump of money for your troubles and I don't tell your family where you are, just for the fun of it."

The threat hovered between them before it caught on the wind.

Another drop of blood welled on Drystan's finger. He succumbed and put his finger in his mouth, the iron tang of blood filling his taste buds. Bil waited.

Drystan took his finger away. The bleeding had slowed, almost stopped.

"What does it look like?" he asked. "And why do you need it back so badly?"

Bil told him.

Drystan understood.

**Thanks for reading! Please remember to vote. The Snake Charm and other Vestigial Tales, plus the first two books in the Micah Grey series, are up on Amazon if you fancy reading ahead. Happy Tuesday!**

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