*Drystan fan art by Laya.*
"Find any retired aerialist and ask them what they miss the most. It is not the money, or the travel, the costumes, or even the show itself. It is the thrill of flying that they miss. The loss of flight is what haunts them until the end of their days."
from THE MEMOIRS OF THE SPARROW,
Aerialist Diane Albright
For a moment, I was weightless, and time almost stopped. My stomach dropped. It was like every other jump I had taken. I grabbed the smooth wooden bar of the trapeze and swooshed through the air. I let out a laugh so loud I knew they could hear it below. It felt so much like ﬂying.
I used my momentum and swung back and forth across the top of the tent. I saw the girl, Aenea, on the platform, and so I swung the trapeze hard enough that I could land on the other. I jumped from the trapeze and crouched on the small wooden square. Aenea's mouth opened from across the rope.
"Come on, you," she called, nervous. "Come down from there."
"You climb down ﬁrst," I said. "And I'll follow. I want to go down the ladder on your side."
"Are you mad?" she called. "It's one thing to swing around on a trapeze, but you've not the training to balance on a tightrope!"
"Who said anything about balancing?" I hooked my ankles and hands around the rope and worked my way slowly across. After travelling a third of the way, I let my legs drop. The girl screamed and the circus workers below cried out. I continued to work my way across using only my hands. The rope burned my palms and my shoulders protested.
"Start climbing down," I said when I was closer to her. She gave me an inscrutable look and climbed down the rope ladder.
I made it onto the wooden platform and stood up. People below clapped and cheered, and I bowed before climbing down to the ground. My face was burning crim- son. What had come over me?
Mr Ragona did not look amused. "Well, that sure was stupid," he said.
"Perhaps, sir," I said.
Mr Ragona turned to the aerialists. "Could he be trained?"
"Easily," the man Arik said. Aenea hesitated, but nodded. "Yes."
He stroked his chin, shrewd. "Where are your parents?" he asked.
"Dead," I lied.
The ringmaster narrowed his eyes, considering. "All right. You can stay, for a time. But you'll have to earn your way up. You won't be going near a trapeze again for quite some time." He waved to his workers.
"Come on, get to your tasks."
As I followed the crowd out, I clasped my hands together to stop them from shaking.
The workers had made a giant bonﬁre on the beach. I stood in line by the clowns, unsure what exactly I was waiting for. The white clown looked over at me, his pale eyes unreadable.
"You have no idea what you're getting yourself into," the white clown said. The other clowns looked at him in disgust, clearly annoyed that he was speaking to an out- sider, and a new one at that. His voice was educated.
"You could have let me be outside of the tent," I pointed out. "It wouldn't have occurred to me to walk in and try to join."
"That would not have been as fun. Worked in your favor, in any case."
"So it seems. Did you know what you were getting into, when you joined?" I asked.
"Not in the least."
He seemed serious and nothing like the carefree, bum- bling clown I had so recently seen on stage. Now that he was not dragging me by the collar, I could see what he looked like. Up close, he was less ghostly. His thick white makeup had cracked about his eyes and mouth, the rouge and lip color garish. His hair was not naturally white – golden blonde roots sprung from his skull. The clown was younger than I thought. Twenty-two, twenty- four at the oldest.
"I'm Micah Grey," I said, holding out my hand.
He took my hand carefully, barely touching it, his ﬁngers cold. "Drystan." He did not give his surname.
I prepared to introduce myself to the other clowns, but they turned toward the front of the queue. I had been snubbed.
The ghost of a smirk played around the edges of Drystan's mouth. The line inched forward and I took a step. The smell of chicken and vegetable soup reached us and my stomach clenched in hunger.
"Where did you learn to be a clown?" I asked, and winced at how clunky and awkward the words sounded.
He lifted an eyebrow at me. He had not expected me to continue the conversation. "I've always been a clown. A little funny, a little strange."
Drystan stared at me solemnly and then he grinned so wide that it looked like his face was about to split in two. His bulging blue eyes showed the whites, almost ready to pop from his head, and they vibrated in their sockets. I felt a strong urge to back away, and then run.
He relaxed into a good-natured grin and slapped me on the shoulder. The other clowns had turned to sneer at me. "You reacted better than the last new member," he said. "Your eyes only went as big as saucers. The other one screamed and ran straight away and didn't talk to me for a week. Maybe you'll last a bit longer than him." I laughed, relieved. I was tempted to ask what happened to "the other one," but I was smarter than to rise to that bait.
"There's no point in queuing," the white clown said. "The cook won't give you any food."
My stomach clenched in another hunger pang. "Why not?"
"You have to last the night, ﬁrst. You'd be surprised how many say they wish to join just for the free meal. You'll get breakfast."
I swallowed and turned away from him, and I made sure to sit on the opposite side of the bonﬁre. The ﬂames would part and I would catch glimpses of Drystan, his whiteness tinged orange and pink from the ﬂames, laughing with his motley fellows.
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