2. Summer: Lights and Shadow

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"Ladies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Currs and skags! Step into the world as you've never seen it! Discover the skills, the mystery, and the magic of R.H. Ragona's Cir- cus of Magic, the best circus in Ellada! There are the fabled felines of Linde and their fearless trainers! Men and women eat fire, stand upon a galloping horse, and contort into knots like rubber! Watch them fly through the air! This is the show you have always been waiting for, so step right up!"

- Barker's cry of R.H. RAGONA'S CIRCUS OF MAGIC

Several hours earlier:

I spent my last few coins to get into the circus, counting the coppers in my palm. I knew it was stupid to do so, but I needed an escape from the real world. I also felt like I owed it to my brother. We had planned to sneak out of the apartments to see the circus when it was next in town or, even better, to see Riley & Batheo's Circus of Curiosities in the hippodrome in Imachara. Even Mother had once considered going when she heard that the Princess Royal had attended a show with the Two Child Queens of Byssia.

But my brother would not be here. Mother and Father would take out my disappearance on him, confining him to his rooms except for his lessons and visits to the courts with Father. He would not climb down scaffolding and come halfway across the city. He liked mischief as much as the next boy, but in the end he was a good sort. Unlike me.

I pushed past the men in bowler hats and the women in shawls to get a good seat near the front. The tent smelled of human sweat, old popping corn, and manure. Tinny music from a large gramophone lent the tent a festive air.

The tent had been constructed on a wide, flat slab of stone topped with sand and sawdust, with one large ring drawn onto the stage with white chalk. Above the audience rose a canopy of faded red and blue canvas, and a rope ladder led to the tightrope and the long, thin swings of the trapeze. Tiny glass globe lights dotted the ceiling like stars. I was surprised – the Vestige artefacts were not cheap and getting rarer each year. But I supposed they were cheaper than a fire in a circus tent.

People trickled in. Grubby little children grinned and pointed at the rings in the center of the stage. Courting and married pairs strolled, the men with their cravats and the ladies in their bonnets and bustles. Hawkers wasted no time and circled and weaved through the rows, calling out their wares.

"Peanuts! Popping corn! Sugar floss!" they cried. Most were young, fairly attractive women wearing skirts short enough to show their ankles. I desperately wanted to try some of the sugar floss that looked like clouds, but it cost nearly as much as the ticket. I settled into my seat, my stomach rumbling.

As I turned to watch the entering people, two Policiers came into the tent, their polished badges gleaming. They took off their helmets and tucked them under their elbows. I twisted toward the ring and slouched lower in my seat, forcing my breath to stay even. I hazarded another glance, my eyes following them as they made their way to the seats only three rows behind me. They were here for their own merriment – perhaps they had just finished a shift, and felt like seeing the circus on their way home. But they might have had my description. I tucked as much of my auburn hair as I could under my cap and pulled it lower over my forehead.

With a pang, I wished my brother was sitting next to me so I could poke him in the ribs with my elbow and share a grin. The large smelly man beside me would not have appreciated it, I was sure.

A man strolled out to the ring and the music faded. He was tall and burly, but had cultivated a paunch that threatened to burst his gold waistcoat. The quintessential ringmaster wore a crimson overcoat, a top hat, and sported a moustache waxed into curled points. He brandished a shiny teak cane.

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