4. The Trapeze (Part 2)

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*Fan art by Laya.*

No one else spoke to me. They milled and divided themselves into groups. The workers, with their grubby faces and much-patched clothing, congregated on the edge of the circle of firelight. The men were mainly in their thirties to forties, and beginning to redden in the face from their nightly drink. They did not even glance in my direction.

The performers, besides the clowns, also kept to themselves. The fire-eaters appeared to be quite friendly with the jugglers, lounging close to the fire and speaking with their mouths full. Everyone held rough mugs of beer, drawn from the large barrel by the food. The acrobats talked to each other in their native tongue so fast I could not tell where sentences began or ended. The male animal trainer had a particularly tame otter wrapped around his neck, the little whiskered face asleep beneath the man's chin as he spoke to the female trainer.

I assumed the woman with the snake twined around her neck was the snake woman from the tent. She said hello to the trainer, but kept her distance so the snake would not be too curious about the otter. She wandered over to two other young, pretty women. I knew immediately that they were the women from the other tent. One was impossibly blonde, and the other had hair of deepest black, both elaborately styled. They looked as alike as sisters. They were smiling and jostling each other. Many of the men stopped and flirted with them, and the women flirted in return, throwing their heads back and laughing, obviously well-aware of the effect they had on the men.

The freaks formed another small nucleus near the clowns. The four-legged woman and the giant man chatted. The leopard lady read a book in the light of the fire, and Poussin the chicken man napped against a log. The bull- man, Tauro, sat with them, but focused only on his food.

I was startled when the two aerialists sat down beside me. They had changed from their costumes and were both clad in loose shirts tucked into trousers. The girl, Aenea, still looked quite feminine despite the male garb. The fire outlined her features and made her glow.

The man called Arik looked much older than he had on stage. His handsome, tanned face was lined, and he moved a little stiffly. His smile was warm, as was his hand when I clasped it in greeting.

"Arik," he said.

Aenea also took my hand in a strong grip. Her hands were rough and calloused. "Aenea."

"Micah." Following her lead, I did not give my last name. It was refreshing; surnames meant so much in my past.

"Here, I stole this for you," she said, passing me a roll filled with cheese and apple.

"Thank you," I said, taking it from her.

"Where did you learn to climb like that?" Aenea asked. Her voice had a working-class accent.

"Here and there." I took a bite.

Aenea rolled her eyes. "Nice try, but you'll not get away with vagueness. You have the strength and balance, and you barely hesitated at all before you jumped, even though you were well over sixty feet off the ground."

I swallowed. "I climb a lot. And I have taken dance lessons since I was very young."

"What sort of dance? What did you climb?" Aenea asked, undeterred as a dog with a bit of rawhide. Arik smiled, obviously amused by her interrogation.

"I did different types of dance." I could not very well say ballet and court dancing. "I climb scaffolding. And trees," I added.

"Ah, rich boy," Aenea said, nodding, and I winced at my blunder. The only trees in the cities were in parks clustered in the rich sections of town, and the poor could never afford to travel into the countryside or other islands.

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