The Circus of the Damned (A Deal with a Devil Story)
This title is part of the A Deal with a Devil universe.
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Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.
But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.
Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
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Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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For the best part of three days, Gilbert Blake sat inside the dark, dank pub. The thin, dirty rain that drenched the dark brick walls of the city, its bowels of iron pipes and cramped alleys, and the pub’s wooden sign hadn’t stopped in all that time. The sign was purple—or it looked like it had been once upon a time—and missing so many letters it was impossible to guess what the pub’s name had been. Gilbert hadn’t cared; he’d just entered and stuck around.
The pub was a crammed underground hole without a single window, the atmosphere rank and suffocating. A narrow wooden door opened on steep iron stairs, encrusted with years’ worth of mud and grease. Drunken patrons yelled and drank and lay passed out in corners, after wasting entire paychecks on dice and cards. In the sawdust-covered pit, bloodstained by a hundred fistfights, a fellow was turning the handle of a potbellied instrument that sounded like a choir of skinned cats.
“So, ready to pick a card, mate? My balls are shriveling up over here,” Gilbert scoffed.
His blond hair and beard were a wild mess, and a tumbler of savage homemade vodka sat by his elbow. He was beyond drunk and about to land the hit that would keep him and Emilia fed for a month. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept or eaten, or even gotten up to take a piss, but he was sprawled like a king on his chair, cards in hand and a smirk firmly planted on his lips. A small crowd surrounded him, watching his every move. His opponent was sweating in a ripped shirt and vest, combing his fingers over and over through his long, brown beard.
Gilbert couldn’t remember exactly when they had started that particular game. Could have been a couple of glasses ago, could have been five bottles. Emilia was asleep, nestled in his scarf, dead to the world, her little body curled in a warm, furry ball against his neck, and there was a considerable pile of cash stacked in the middle of the table. Bills and coins, a golden ring, some brightly colored currency from some country he didn’t know, a lone ruby earring, and what looked suspiciously like a gold tooth that had been ripped out of somebody’s jaw.
Gilbert waved a deck of fanned-out cards under the man’s nose. He’d forgotten the fellow’s name, or maybe hadn’t even bothered to ask it. He chugged back the last of his vodka and decided to call him Bristlesprout.
With a suspicious glance and a grunt, Bristlesprout carefully selected a card and yanked it out, slapped it against the table, and covered it with a ham-sized hand while shooting threatening looks all around, as if daring the others to steal it from him.
“Anyone tries to help this wanker, I’m gonna break your fingers,” he warned, looking at the ragtag crowd through bloodshot eyes. The faint of heart took a step back. Everyone else pushed even closer. “I know somebody’s working with him.”
Gilbert smiled and waved his hand over his glass, which swiftly filled back up. Everyone’s eyes were on the glittering pile of coins, though, so only a skinny drunkard rubbed his eyes in disbelief, then went in search of a stiffer drink. He knew better than to call out the tall, muscular man with the seemingly magic powers.
Bristle had his reasons to be suspicious. Gilbert had already materialized in his own hand the cards that the man had hidden in his pocket, his beard, and most notably, the crack of his ass. Oh, he’d given the fellow some breathing room too. No gambler would bet against someone who always won. Winning every time wasn’t the goal, and neither was impressing the bystanders. The goal was coaxing more and more cash out of the pockets of his adversaries, letting them win occasionally to push them to raise the stakes, then making them slowly drop out one by one with swift moves, apparently strokes of blind luck—until he was left with one poor bastard drunk enough and gullible enough to empty his pockets on the table. In this case, his new friend Bristlesprout.
Gilbert had purposefully botched the last two tricks, failing to guess the card that Bristle had creatively hidden in his underpants—it had been the three of spades, and Gilbert would do without that card from now on, thank you very much—and spectacularly embarrassing himself when trying to make a coin disappear in his palm and instead causing a deluge of quarters to fall from his cuff. That one had brought a roar of laughter from the crowd, convincing everyone that the failed magician was by now too drunk for his own good and was just about ready to be plucked like a chicken.
Bristlesprout had fallen for it like a charm. Seeing his chance, he’d pushed all his winnings forward, even producing that golden tooth to add to the considerable pile. Gilbert had made a big scene of rummaging in the pockets of his black leather jacket, sighing and complaining and commiserating his bad luck, looking like he could barely scrape together the amount.
Oh, he could look like a miserable loser when he wanted to. It was a remarkable talent.
“Now, take this.” Gilbert snapped his fingers under the table, and a black crayon materialized out of thin air. Then he handed it to Bristlesprout. “Write something on the card. Or draw, I don’t care. You can turn it over, ’tis not a guessing game this time.”
Shooting him a dark glance, Bristle turned the card over—it was the queen of hearts—and snatched the crayon from Gilbert’s hand. “The fuck you playing at, crook?” He grunted. “I wanna know exactly what stupid trick you’re gonna botch this time. I don’t want no fucking cheating at my table, understand?”
A loud screech came from the pit, attracting everyone’s attention. The disheveled musician was being carried away by the neck by an impressively large man wearing an expensive-looking black suit with a bright-purple band around one arm. The musician’s wooden instrument lay abandoned on the ground. As everyone watched in silence, four other giant men crossed the room, shooting threatening glances at the patrons while surrounding a much shorter, older fellow. This one wore a bright-purple suit and top hat that were rather insulting to the eye.
God damn it. Gilbert followed the man with his gaze, a heavy feeling sinking in his stomach. This was the last thing he needed: Count Reuben himself, owner of the dump and pretty much every other shithole in town. The man controlled a good half of Shadowsea’s less-than-legal activities and was never seen without his personal guard, a cohort of murderers and henchmen whose favorite activity was stomping people to a pulp and tossing them in the river.
Gilbert examined them in mild apprehension as the pub’s staff stumbled over themselves, running around to set out a fancy dining table for Reuben in the bloodstained pit. His guards’ expensive suits were ill fit to their bodies, bulging with muscles, and telltale lumps revealed a knife here, a baton there. Their purple armbands and hatbands now dotted the room.
Gilbert downed his vodka. Damn. He hadn’t planned on having to deal with so many guards. They were already gravitating toward the table—the amount of money strewn over it wouldn’t escape them even in the dark. Hell, they could probably smell it. Oh, Reuben would be pissed that someone was gambling in his den without giving him a cut.
But Gilbert couldn’t leave; he couldn’t give up now. Not after he’d worked so hard, not when he was this close . . .
No. He had to finish this and then just get out. Fast.
He straightened his broad, muscular shoulders and leaned back into the chair with a sharp smile. “Where were we? Oh, right, my friend, our pleasant game. Now, you’re going to mark that card. Anything you want. Then you’re going to hide it, destroy it, dispatch it overseas via carrier pigeon, I don’t fucking care. And I—” He brought his hand to his chest in a theatrical gesture. “—I, the great Gilbert Blake, will bring it back and materialize it in front of your very eyes.”
The crowd murmured with comments and a few derisive snorts here and there. Gilbert had discovered that his boasting speeches made folks see him as an even bigger loser, rather than impressing them. That was fine by him. He wasn’t there to preserve dignity or gain respect; it was cold, hard cash he was after.
Bristlesprout thought it over for a moment. “All right. But on one condition,” he finally said, his eyes gleaming with glee. “I want your hands flat on the table the entire time. For everyone to see. Just wanna make sure you’re not copying my stuff on another of your shitty cards.”
Gilbert swallowed a mocking grin and carefully schooled his features to give off a hint of fear and nervousness, as if his trick had been spoiled. “But—”
“I’m not finished,” Bristle interrupted. “I want everyone on your side of the table to take a step back. Or three. I don’t want anyone near you, nobody who can slip you a card or write on it for you or some shit. I want the fucking desert around you, you got it?”
“B-but I . . .” Gilbert stammered, looking around to gather sympathy from the spectators, eyes skimming over a dozen purple spots at least. Really, he thought smugly, I should have taken to the stage, wooed crowds in theaters all over the country. It was sheer talent, that’s what it was. “I didn’t say that. Surely, a magician can’t be asked to . . .”
“Well, if you want to back out . . .” Bristlesprout spread his arms to embrace the pile of bills and coins on the table. “Of course, that means the jackpot goes to me. But if that’s what you want . . . I’m going to have to take all this money, then.”
Oh, hell yes. He’d fallen for it so hard that Gilbert could have gotten him to bet his fucking balls, too. Time to make his final move and crush him.
Gilbert swallowed, then looked longingly at the money. Emilia stirred against his neck, sniffling, and her long whiskers tickled his skin. “I guess that’s fine.” Reluctantly, he brought his hands down on the table. “The hands thing, I mean. And the people. Looks like I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Under Bristlesprout’s severe gaze, everyone on Gilbert’s side shuffled back, whispering and pushing and elbowing each other. Only the men in purple didn’t budge, but they didn’t come closer, either. Bristle smiled then, like a cat that’d found an unattended bird’s nest and was sharpening his claws for the buffet of the year. He didn’t deign to respond, and he bent his head and started drawing something on the card with great care, the tip of his tongue poking out from his mouth. When he was done, he proudly lifted the card and turned it left and right to show everyone a crude rendition of a cock and a pair of oversized balls pointed at the mouth of the poor queen of hearts.
“That’s . . . quite the piece of art.” Gilbert was about to slap his own forehead in utter despair for the human race, then remembered himself and left his hands lying on the table. “Now make the card disappear.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Bristlesprout assured him, smug smile still firmly in place.
And he really made an effort. He ripped the card in two, then four. He dug in his pockets and produced a gnarled box of matches and lit one after a couple of attempts. As the stench of sulfur hovered over the table, Bristle carefully selected two card pieces and held them over the flame, watching as they blackened and curled up and finally turned to ash, slowly consumed by the fire. He let the border go with a muffled curse as the flame brushed his fingertips, and the final bits turned to ash on the table. Once that was done, he brushed away the ashes, satisfied, and turned his attention to the other two pieces.
Gilbert saw the moment the idea struck the man. Looking, if possible, even smugger than before, Bristlesprout ripped what was left of the card to minute shreds, then shoved the pieces in his mouth. He grabbed his glass, an inch of cheap rum at the bottom, and tossed it all back, swallowing in one gulp. He made a big show of smacking his lips, then burped loudly and settled back in his chair.
“Can’t wait to see how you’re gonna get that back, magician.” He curled his lips to tongue at his not-very-clean teeth. He dug a thick, dirty knife out of his belt and picked his teeth with it, removing one single shred of spit-soaked card. “There, I’m gonna help you out. You can have this,” he said, flicking the sodden piece at Gilbert.
The wet bit of card stuck to his cheek. People laughed, Bristlesprout louder than anyone.
Something went dark in Gilbert’s mind, as though a shutter was abruptly slammed down. Oh, he was a jolly fellow for the most part, but his temper was a little . . . volatile. People who had known him for a while learned that soon enough, learned to recognize when the thunderstorm was rumbling in and flee. But it had been a long, long time since he’d stuck around long enough for someone to get to know him.
So nobody noticed the dark clouds gathering behind his brow, nobody saw how his shoulders stiffened and his strong arms tensed, how his hands turned to claws where they rested on the table. Only Emilia stirred against his neck, not quite waking up, but her light mouse sleep disturbed nonetheless. That little brown mouse had been his only faithful companion for years and had saved his life more than a few times. She knew him. Even asleep, she could tell he was getting worked up.
“You seem determined to make my life difficult,” Gilbert said, not quite able to contain the cruel curl of his lip. Bristle didn’t even notice. He was already celebrating, busy trying to calculate how much he’d just won and eyeing ladies in the crowd that might have been impressed by his wit. “You had a couple of pretty good ideas there.”
And they really had been good ideas. Any third-rate illusionist would be utterly screwed. Without an accomplice to slip him a card with a copy of the dick Bristlesprout had so artistically drawn, no sleight of hand would bring back the original card, so utterly and disgustingly destroyed.
Of course, things were a hell of a lot different when you were playing against an actual magician.
Very slowly, Gilbert lifted his hand, turning it left and right to show everyone it was empty, fingers spread and sleeve pulled back to reveal his wrist, his forearm. Then he slapped the hand down on the tabletop.
He stared at it and focused. His palm grew warm and, under it, he started to feel a hard, smooth surface, very different from the rough, splintery wooden table. Gilbert felt the surface grow and stretch and, as his eyes bore into the back of his hand, he could almost see it—the queen of hearts growing under his palm, just as he pictured it in his mind, down to the last detail, to the hastily scrawled penis.
Then he abruptly lifted his hand, and everyone around the table shouted.
He leaned peacefully back into his chair, letting the smug grin return to his lips, and nonchalantly lifted his hand to pick away the bit of chewed card stuck to his cheek. With his fingertip, he placed it on the lower-right corner of the newly formed card, where he’d left a tiny bit missing. He liked things done well.
People were leaning close and squabbling over the card, ripping it from one another’s hands, talking and yelling. A toothless man tried to gnaw on the card with his bare gums. The men in purple were exchanging meaningful glances across the room, and Gilbert knew his time was running out. He had to wrap things up and take his leave.
“How’d he do it? Man, how the fuck did he do it?”
“No, I can’t believe it. Lemme touch it. Hey, stop hogging—”
“The fucking devil’s helping him. No other way. The devil himself, I tell you . . .”
The only person perfectly quiet in the midst of all the excitement was Bristlesprout himself. He had gone very pale and was sitting very still, hands limp on the table, looking at the smears of ash with a somewhat-dazed air. He lifted his gaze to the card and, as a tattooed lady waved it around, snatched it from her hand and peered at it closely.
Gilbert leaned forward and sunk both hands into the pile of money. He’d been waiting long enough to tuck in. Let Bristle think about it all he pleased.
Oh, that felt good, holding the cold coins and crumpled bills between his fingers. It would keep them fed for a while, him and Emilia. Might even be enough to splurge and buy passage on one of the underground trains toward the coast, to someplace warmer. He would travel in style for once instead of screwing up his spine hobbling along on a goat cart. And it was time to blow this dump of a town. It was burned, now, anyway. Rumors spread fast, and no one else would play against him after tonight.
That was the only downside of the job, really, of working the pubs and gambling holes like he did—one trick and the whole city was useless to him. These folks had very long memories when it came to losing money. That was why his one trick had to be a damn good one: it was the only shot he got, and it had to be worth it.
Truth be told, it usually was, he mused, sweeping coins and rings in his deep pockets, then folding a handful of bills and tucking it in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He brushed his fingers above the seam and it vanished—the pocket was no more, just a smooth patch of lining. A life of sleepless nights on the streets had given him a lot of time and motivation to cultivate his natural talents, especially when his particular gift could earn him a bed and a warm meal. But with this one, he’d really aced it. And now that he’d been spotted by Reuben and his watchdogs, in addition to the big scene he’d made, he wouldn’t be back here for a long, long while. Provided he didn’t end up in the river instead, courtesy of the count’s men. They didn’t appreciate people causing trouble or failing to pay up a cut, let alone at the same time.
As he tucked in for the last handful of coins, a large, burly hand clamped down on his wrist, pinning it to the table.
“How the fuck’d you do it?” Bristlesprout growled, staring at him with bloodshot and vaguely crazed eyes. They had obviously been playing for longer than Gilbert had thought, and most importantly, had been drinking longer than he’d thought, and the man was suffering from the blow.
Gilbert, not so much, not after that last trick. Using magic was like a peaceful daze floating through his veins, which made him happy and sedated. Or in short, high as hell. When using magic for extended periods of time, he tended to forget a lot of things. Once he’d been at it for a week nonstop, until he’d been shaking and nearly incoherent and had passed out on the floor of a brothel. He’d woken up stripped of all his possessions and feeling as though he’d been chewed up and spat out by an elephant. He was no fool; he knew he’d nearly killed himself. He’d been careful, after that.
Or as careful as he could muster, anyway.
“Told you, man. I’m a magician,” he replied, with what could have been a smile but was really just him baring his teeth. He closed his fist and let his wrist grow warmer until it burned so hot that Bristle had to yank his hand back. Gilbert picked up the ruby ring and twirled it in his palm, then made it disappear. He snapped his fingers. (Yeah, maybe he was slightly high on it still. But man, it felt so fucking good.) “And I never reveal my secrets.”
“The fuck you are. The fuck.” The large, disheveled man in front of him was growing agitated, his pallor quickly turning to a violent flush, his eyes glassy with alcohol and anger. Gilbert saw the tension in Bristle’s muscles, saw the way he was puffing out his chest and squaring his shoulders, rearing up for a fight, and he knew how this was going to end. If the sudden quiet and the watchful eyes surrounding them were any indicator, everyone knew. “You’re a cheat, that’s what you are. A fucking, filthy cheat.”
Gilbert cast a quick glance around. Reuben’s men were closing in, faster now that they risked never getting their hands on part of the money if he got away. His chances of getting out of this with minimal fuss were dwindling fast. And Gilbert was fucking angry. He was tired and intoxicated; he’d been working his ass off for three days, and now it would all be ruined because of this big, drunken moron. And damn his bad luck that Shadowsea’s most infamous slumlord just had to be there.
Gilbert was pissed that he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d slept in an actual bed, let alone had clean sheets. Pissed at the fucking rain that never stopped, at the endless stream of suffocating cities that made up his entire life. Pissed that this was all he had to look forward to: cheap tricks and scams in filthy pubs. Pissed because if Reuben’s men beat him to a bloody pulp out back, there would be no one to mourn him save for a little brown mouse—not a friend, not a lover, not even a mother because nobody wanted a cursed son. And he was pissed, most of all, at Bristlesprout’s livid, sweaty face.
Gilbert narrowed his eyes. “If I were you, I’d shut up now.”
The man was too far gone; he probably hadn’t even heard. “A fucking, filthy cheat, that’s it. I’m not falling for that. You fucking wanker. I’m not gonna let you take my money, you goddamn cocksucker, you freak—”
He fell silent with a strangled sound. He brought his hand to his throat, choking loudly as he began to shake. Growing frantic, he clawed at his skin and heaved, lurching forward as if he was going to puke his guts out. Men and women yelled, shoving and climbing over one another to get out of the way. Bristle’s face was nothing short of purple now. He was sweating buckets, rolling his wide, frantic eyes as he stumbled, toppling the table over with a loud crash, coins spilling all over the floor. The confusion increased as people dove in to get their hands on what little money was left, elbowing the livid Bristle as he fell to his knees, hands around his neck. The men in purple hesitated, taken aback, looking at their boss for orders. Out of the corner of his eye, Gilbert glimpsed Reuben standing up, observing the situation.
Through it all, Gilbert remained seated, legs spread and arms folded—straight-backed and perfectly still, like a merciless king—his gray, ice-cold eyes fixed on the man crawling on the floor at his feet. He was clenching his fist, slowly, inch after agonizing inch, observing the effect it was having. Oh, Bristle would be just fine . . . more or less. But he would think twice about insulting a magician in the future.
Something moved against his neck. Emilia was now poking out from his scarf, her delicate nose quivering as she sniffed the air. She caught on to what was happening soon enough and scuttled up to bite Gilbert’s ear, not too hard but sending him a clear message. Just stop, you moron. He should follow her advice, he really should—that mouse was smarter than he was by a long shot; she’d proved it time and time again. But it was too late now. The show was on.
Bristlesprout was on his hands and knees, his purple face turning blue, drooling, heaving, choking as if he was fucking dying, and a couple of people had mustered enough interest to be worried. Others were skirting around the man, still busy collecting money but trying to be a tad more discreet about it. Not that anyone was doing anything about it; they were just hanging around looking at Bristle and poking him in the side with the tip of their boots.
“D’you think he’s dying?”
“His ticker’s given out, I tell you.”
“Bet he drops dead within the minute.”
“Two minutes! Five quids down.”
Old habits die hard. Gilbert understood, but nobody was going to win the bet, he could promise that.
It was time for the grand finale, before folks started losing interest. Gilbert spread his fingers out in a fluid movement and Bristlesprout heaved with a horrifying hurling noise. His neck swelled monstrously, and something way too big and covered in brown feathers emerged from his unnaturally wide mouth with a sickening, sucking noise. The man tensed, every muscle shaking, his neck and face bright red as, with a final push and a gagging sound, a decent-sized hen tumbled from his mouth and onto the floor, covered in drool. The bird shook herself, looking confused and more than a little offended, then ruffled her feathers with disdain and set off to investigate the crumbs under a table.
The silence was nothing short of deafening.
It was only broken by the hen’s disdainful clucking and the sound of Bristlesprout throwing up on the floor, spreading the stench of alcohol and bile in the already-stinking pub. Yet, people were too shocked to even back off. They no longer know where to look between the man, the hen, and the magician still calmly sitting on his cheap throne.
Bristlesprout lay gasping on the floor, glancing up at Gilbert with a dazed, haunted look on his face, suddenly stone-cold sober, like he’d never been so terrified in his life. Which he probably hadn’t. He wasn’t going to cause any more trouble, Gilbert knew. In fact, he was probably going to spend the next month holed up in a room somewhere, consuming vast amounts of alcohol while trying to convince himself none of it had ever happened. Having a chicken crawl out of your throat would do that to a fellow.
Before Gilbert could even think about backing off and possibly out, a burly hand clasped his arm. One of the men in the black suits meaningfully tilted his head, the purple silk on his hat catching the light. He had a mouth of foul, rotten teeth and breath that could knock a donkey over from a mile away, at least. Gilbert would think of him as Skunktongue. And Skunktongue was pointing at a narrow open door near the fighting pit, leading to a dark back room that promised nothing good.
“Count Reuben was very . . . impressed by your show,” the man said, doing nothing to conceal the threat in his voice. “He would like to speak to you in private. Now.”
The hand on Gilbert’s arm may as well have been an iron grip. There was no way to flee, Gilbert realized with a detached calm as he contemplated his options. He had the feeling that once he got back there . . . he wouldn’t be coming out anytime soon.
So he stood up and broke Skunktongue’s nose with a punch.
The room blew up in a matter of instants. Among crashes, shouts, and curses, punches flew, the pent-up energy of the place finally breaking free like a dynamite explosion. Gilbert didn’t waste time thinking and promptly ducked to avoid a chair somebody swung at him, which crashed into the stomach of a gray-haired fellow, sending him diving into the shouting crowd. Underground gambling dens were volatile at the best of times, let alone after a guy had just thrown up a live chicken. This night, the place was nothing short of a fucking barrel of black powder, and Gilbert had lit the match and tossed it right in.
Gilbert couldn’t tell who was lurching at whom or why, so he dove into the crowd, trying to elbow his way toward the exit. Out. Out. Out. It was his only chance to get away from there.
He blocked a blow with his elbow then proceeded to smash the nose of a redheaded, spidery man, who fell back on a table, sending all the drinks piled on it crashing to the ground. Two large, very unhappy Chinese men lifted the redhead with a growl and tossed him into the crowd, bringing down three random fellows, then lurched toward Gilbert.
He ducked fast, and the two men crashed against two women who sported aviator helmets and were busy choking the daylights out of each other. The four toppled with assorted curses, getting in the way of two Purple Men trying to shove their way through the crowd—and just in time to make way for a flying chair that caught Gilbert on the shoulder, throwing him off balance.
Something small and sharp sank into his other shoulder—teeth. Emilia was very much unhappy about the situation and determined to let him know.
“Sorry,” he muttered, landing on his knees and rolling forward to avoid a kick. He sprang up to grab the purple-circled arm already reaching for him. Gilbert held the man in place as he landed three rapid punches to the stomach, then kicked him away to be promptly swallowed by the roaring crowd. In the brief instant when the tangle of bodies parted to absorb the fellow, Gilbert glimpsed Bristlesprout crawling toward a corner of the pub, muttering to himself. For a split second, Gilbert almost felt sorry for him. Then someone punched Gilbert in the face.
Pain exploded in his nose, shooting through his skull. He cupped his hand over it, groaning as his fingers were coated in warm blood. A familiar screech came from the pit. Somebody had lifted up the musician’s discarded instrument and was swinging it around like an oversized club. The tattooed lady, Gilbert saw before she leaped from the pit with a gleeful war cry and smashed the thing on somebody’s head . . .
A giant hand closed around Gilbert’s neck and yanked him around. He found himself face-to-bleeding-face with Skunktongue, who sported even fewer teeth than before, and whose mouth and chin were covered in spit and blood. “Gotcha, magician,” he growled, spraying blood on Gilbert’s face and lifting a fist big enough to crush Gilbert’s skull like an eggshell. “You’re coming with me, now. But first, I’m going to smash all of your— Ow!”
The man dropped him and staggered back, screeching, arms waving frantically. Emilia had leaped right onto Skunktongue’s face, sinking her teeth into his cheek. By the time he understood what was happening and threw a wild punch at his own face, Emilia had gracefully jumped off, swiftly disappearing into the crowd. Skunk destroyed his own nose and collapsed to the ground like a wet rag.
Oh, Emilia was pissed off all right. She’d be fine; it wasn’t her first brawl—she was just annoyed because she’d been woken from her nap. She hated that. She would find him outside. If he made it out at all, he considered darkly, trying to elbow his way toward the steep stairs. The men in purple were being held back by the brawling crowd, but it was also making it hard for him to reach the—
When the bottle smashed over his head, he heard the crash before he even registered the pain. He stumbled, glass shards cascading down his face and gin soaking his hair, stinging like a motherfucker where his scalp must have been cut open. His knees gave out, and he hit the ground, being shoved and jostled as the fight went on around him. The sea of legs and kicking boots swam before his eyes as he was seized by a sudden bout of nausea that spread from his pounding head all the way to his stomach. The glimpses of purple were getting steadily closer—he couldn’t stop now. He dragged himself upright, vaguely aware that passing out on the floor would mean all his ribs would be shattered and quite possibly his skull kicked in, as well.
Man, that wanker had gotten him good. His head was spinning so badly, he could barely keep his balance, let alone use his magic to push his attackers back or cause stuff to drop on their heads, stopping them so he could escape. He wiped his hands over his bloodied eyes to try to see where he was going, wobbling in the general direction of the stairs. But before he could make any progress, a shout rose above the crashing and cursing and yelling: “The magician! Get him! Count Reuben’s orders!”
As if a wave had ripped through the room, the crowd surged up and crashed toward him, carrying unwilling participants in its wake. Gilbert cursed, stuffed his hands in his pockets to grab two handfuls of coins and tossed them in the air, a glittering rain falling over the crowd. It was enough to distract them for the few moments he needed to dive toward the narrow metal stairs.
Skunk’s now very nasal voice shouted, “He’s getting out! Grab him, grab the bastard!”
There was a burly guard at the door, except instead of keeping people out, he was now looking down at Gilbert with the definite intention of keeping him in—standing tall and broad and ridiculously muscular on the top step. Fuck it. Gilbert charged headlong and, as Guardman leaned in to grab him, Gilbert abruptly bent forward, headbutting him right in the groin. The guy folded over on Gilbert’s back, so he wrapped his arms around the guard’s thighs and simply straightened, heaving him up and over his shoulder, dropping him down the stairs. Guardman toppled down the steps with a sequence of curses and meaty thuds, taking down all of Gilbert’s pursuers in the process. That ought to earn him a few moments.
He burst out of the door, boots skidding on slippery cobblestones, and dove into the maze of alleyways before him.
Cold rain streamed down his face, falling from the gray sky as dawn approached. Gilbert stumbled on the uneven cobblestones, the trash scattered on the ground, and his own feet, following the pools of gaslights from the scattered streetlamps. His only chance was to hide somewhere in the maze of bricks—anywhere would do since after half a dozen blind turns he couldn’t even tell where the fuck he was. He mostly knew his way around this bloody city, but not when this drunk and running this fast, and certainly not when he was too busy listening for his pursuers to look where the hell he was going.
Skunktongue shouted from somewhere behind him, leading the chase. Forget about the back room, they would clobber him to death right here on the street. He had to keep running, as far as his legs would take him. Which, if the darkness creeping at the corner of his vision was any indicator, was probably not very far.
Skidding around a corner and into another alley, Gilbert barely avoided crashing into bins that stank of dead things and found Emilia running up his leg and around his chest and back to cling once again to his scarf. A sting of relief crossed his aching chest—breathing was growing more painful by the minute—but really, he should have known better than to worry. She had always been smarter than him. Her body was cold and soaking wet against his neck, and she was surely going to sulk at him for a week at least. He’d apologize later, provided he survived, which he was cautiously optimistic about. If only he could find a manhole or some stairs to the roofs; if only his head would stop pounding; if only he could focus, use his magic.
He burst out of the alley and almost ran face-first into roaring fire.
Gilbert couldn’t even scream as he felt his eyebrows and beard singe. He threw himself to the side and crashed headlong into someone. They fell together, entwined, landing with a splash in a puddle as someone gurgled a filthy curse and a rain of hard, round objects pelted Gilbert’s head and shoulders. It was . . . They were . . . skulls, he realized with a start. There were bloody skulls falling from the sky. “What the . . .?”
The scorching fire faded suddenly, as if it had been moved away from him, and somebody spoke. “Humphreys, are you all right?”
“I’m jussst fine. If only this bloody moron would get off my arms . . .” another voice replied, coming from somewhere below Gilbert’s nose. A strange hissing sound, like a whoosh of wind twisted and garbled until it resembled words.
Scrabbling blindly, Gilbert leaned against something thick, smooth, and elastic that twitched and shuddered under his hand. He jerked back, blinking as his vision cleared. He felt more . . . things moving beside him, around him, like rubber snakes slithering away.
The person rose up before him, and Gilbert stared dumbly, still sprawled in the mud. It wasn’t a man. It was . . . God, that bottle to the head must have screwed him up worse than he’d thought because he could swear there was a bloody octopus towering above him, wearing a three-piece suit, rumpled and wet but complete with the polished golden chain of a pocket watch. The jacket had four sleeves, a tentacle in each, and two tentacles poked out from each trouser leg, tips pooling elegantly on the ground to keep it—him?—upright. His skin was dark purple, and he looked agitated—if Gilbert correctly read the expression in those big, black slanted eyes. His tentacles twitched nervously as he straightened his suit. Truth be told, had Gilbert been more coherent, he would be pretty agitated too right about now.
“Don’t you have a tongue, sssir? You could at leassst apologize.”
Dear God, that thing can speak. “Yes. I— You’re right. I’m sorry.” He shook his head, and the wave of pulsing pain kind of helped him stop thinking about Squidlet over there and focus on more pressing matters. “Right. I . . . need help. Please. If you could . . .”
He couldn’t speak clearly. His head was spinning. There was rain and blood in his eyes, and Emilia was squeaking too loudly in his ear. A splash of color caught his attention—a bright-red sign painted on a black, wooden wagon parked just behind the creature. It read, Circus of the Damned.
Oh. Oh. It was starting to make a little more sense now.
A man stepped forward, getting down on one knee before him. He wore a red jacket with polished brass buttons, and a tall stovepipe hat sat on his long red hair. He had an air of authority about him. He might be the ringmaster. And maybe the source of the fire that had nearly burned his face off, given that the man was placing three torches in the ground. He was also quite spectacularly handsome.
Gilbert was stunned for a moment as the man leaned forward to peer at him intently. He had sharp features, a smattering of freckles on his nose and cheeks, and he was staring at Gilbert with the most stunning green eyes he’d ever seen. The vodka and the gin bottle might have something to do with it, as well, because he couldn’t recall getting quite so stupid from staring at someone’s face before. Ever. Something felt all fluttery in his chest, and he lost his breath for a moment.
The man’s brow furrowed as he reached forward, and Gilbert was somehow spellbound at the thought of being touched by him, but then Redhead grabbed him by the collar and gave him a good, hard shake, and the moment crumbled, shattered by the violent hammering in his head.
“Ow, ow, fuck. Stop that, my fucking head—”
“Clear up, mate. Are you sick? Do you need assistance?” Redhead asked, not rude, but not so kind, either. The illusion crumbled further. For his enchanting face, this fellow was not so charming after all.
“Just leave him,” said an annoyed female voice as someone came up behind the ringmaster, leaning forward to look at Gilbert.
He tore his eyes away from the handsome man that currently had his hands on Gilbert and saw a tall woman, her striped, sleeveless shirt revealing the most muscular arms he’d ever laid eyes on. She could have snapped his spine like a twig if she fancied it, and probably without breaking a sweat. Reflexively, Gilbert shot her a bright smile. She had a lovely, rounded face, with carefully arranged black curls and a bright-red flower pinned to her hair. And she most definitely did not seem impressed.
She answered his smile with an eye roll. “He’s a drunk, and a sleazy one at that. We have no time to waste with the likes of him. Just leave him on the bloody pavement, and let’s move on.”
“Drunk or not, we’re not about to let a man drown in a puddle in the middle of the street, or”—the ringmaster leaned closer and sniffed, then drew back with a grimace—“in his own vomit, more likely. Mate, how much have you had to drink? You reek like a goddamn distillery.”
No, that’s the gin bottle that was smashed on my head, Gilbert wanted to protest, but his tongue was tangled in his mouth.
“And look. He’s bleeding.” The supposed ringmaster grabbed Gilbert’s nape and unceremoniously tilted his head down. Redhead’s fingers were steady and warm on his skin, which was damp and chill from the rain, and his body reacted to the man’s touch, a heated thrill sizzling in his veins.
A yell and a crash came from far too close, abruptly waking him from his stupor. “That goddamn magician, I swear! Find him!”
Fuck, they were still after him, the relentless bastards. Gilbert had to snap out of it and sort himself out if he didn’t want to end up beaten to a bloody pulp in front of Redhead’s beautiful green eyes.
“Leave it, that’s not going to kill me,” Gilbert muttered, grabbing the stranger’s arm to push his hand off. He nodded toward the alley behind him. “But the gang of angry drunks that’s chasing after me might. Please—” he looked around, then pointed at the black wagon “—hide me in there. I didn’t do anything bad, all right? It’s just a stupid brawl, I swear. Help me, take me with you. I can pay, I . . .”
He trailed off, realizing that the ragtag gang had closed in around him, and everybody was staring. The ringmaster, still kneeling; the lady with her strong, tattooed arms folded and a disapproving frown on her face; the octopus man, worrying his pocket watch with a tentacle; and a willow-thin young woman with black hair and a red-sequin costume. Gilbert shot a frantic glance at the wagon. There was no horse, so Gilbert had no idea how the hell they were moving it, but he didn’t have time to care. The only thing he cared about was getting inside it, one way or another.
And it looked like he would have to convince them all if he wanted that to happen.
“Well, that isss quite convenient,” Squidlet said, snapping the watch shut and slipping it into his pocket. “Jussst what we needed. Let’s grab him and tosss him in the back of the wagon, and we’ll be on our merry way.”
“Yeah, right. We can’t pick up any moron that comes along.” Muscles shot him a reproachful look. The flower in her hair trembled as she shook her head. “This is a circus, Humphreys, not a public hospice.”
“At this point, I would take a bloody murderer along,” Squidlet—or, well, Humphreys—hissed in return, his purple color seeming to darken. Gilbert couldn’t quite distinguish the expressions on his face, but he could detect his temper well enough nonetheless. “We’ve got lesss than half an hour left! I’m this close to breaking into a house and kidnapping sssomeone from their bloody bed if . . .”
Gilbert stared at them. What was the octopus talking about? Who the hell were these people? Kidnapping? Were they murderers? Lunatics? They certainly looked the part. Were they wandering around with their wagon searching for victims?
Oh, whatever. It couldn’t be any worse than being beaten to death by an angry mob. He’d take his chances with the circus. He was a magician, an actual one, not a sideshow freak. He’d get rid of them in a heartbeat. As soon as his goddamn head stopped pounding.
“I’m no murderer,” he protested, interrupting Humphreys. It wasn’t much to be proud of, especially since he wasn’t exactly certain it was true—he may well have killed somebody at some point in his life and hadn’t stuck around long enough to find out—but never mind that.
He tried to get up, but his knees refused to comply so he settled for pushing himself to a seat, bracing a hand in the puddle. The shouting was growing louder—they must be on the right track—and there he was, sitting in the pissing rain conversing with a bunch of . . . rather unusual individuals who were, apparently, deranged criminals, as well.
Gilbert was growing more frantic by the minute and so was Emilia, wet and pissed off, gnawing at his earlobe. “And I can help, I promise you that. I’m a magician! Just take me with you to the circus. I can work for you, to pay you back, I swear, help me out. Please.”
“A magician?” Muscles sounded rather doubtful. She clenched her fists, giving Gilbert a glance that promised he would pay dearly if he tried to fool her. “Why, of course. You sure look like one.”
All right, so he looked more like a thug, dirty and half-drunk, on the verge of passing out on the pavement and drowning in his own vomit, but Humphreys, for one, didn’t seem to care. “See, he’s a magician. That is marvelousss. All ssset. Just grab the man, for heaven’s sssake.”
“Let’s not do anything hasty,” the ringmaster interrupted, glaring at his companions, then turned back to Gilbert. “You. Can you prove what you’re saying, or are you too damn drunk to do that?”
Pinned down by the man’s piercing eyes, Gilbert was breathless for a moment. Prove it? How in the hell was he supposed to do that? Did it look like the time to be playing magic tricks when there was a fucking horde of . . . Oh, for God’s sake. He didn’t have enough time nor functioning brain cells to talk Redhead out of this; it would be easier to show him. The sheer panic might be enough to kick-start his magic into action. The shouting seemed dimmer now, maybe they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but he could tell they were still in the maze of alleyways, searching for him. He wasn’t ready to bet his life on the off chance that they might give up looking now.
He was pretty sure he’d lost his cards and dice, and his head was pounding and stuffed with spider threads. He couldn’t remember any of his usual tricks. They had all vanished, trickled out of his brain as soon as the ringmaster had asked him. Isn’t that perfect . . . He grunted to himself, looking around in the rain for something, anything, he could—
Struck by inspiration, Gilbert scooped up a handful of water from the puddle he was sitting in. He held up his hand, the gray water trembling in his cupped palm. He focused on it, felt the familiar pinpricks burn behind his eyes, and the trembling intensified. The trembling turned into minute ripples, as if a wave was shifting across the minuscule lake in his palm, never breaking ashore. Then the water swelled, rising upward in a rounded, gentle shape.
“That is definitely not natural,” Gilbert heard someone murmur, but he didn’t break his gaze or his concentration. The water trembled, fluttered, and finally tore itself free from his palm, molding into a definite shape: a butterfly. Its wings spread as it came to life. It fluttered above his hand before the ringmaster’s captivated eyes, its translucent, gleaming wings unperturbed by the falling raindrops. It flew in a graceful circle, hovering near the ringmaster’s handsome face, and Gilbert couldn’t help a pang of satisfaction at the small smile that hovered on the man’s lips, the way his green eyes had warmed up. The water butterfly flapped its wings and flew upward toward a sky of bruised clouds and thin, gray rain, vanishing.
There was a moment of silence as the four strangers stood with their heads tilted back, staring at the sky in something like wonderment. Gilbert smiled.
“So, you meant an actual magician.” At last, the ringmaster brought his gaze back to Gilbert. Something had changed. He was staring at Gilbert as if he actually mattered, a spark of recognition, if not benevolence, in his eyes.
Gilbert just nodded, looking him in the eye. It was an odd sort of connection, there on the wet pavement. For an instant, he almost forgot about the others watching, and the other others, still out to get him. The moment was broken, though, when Humphreys snapped one of his tentacles with a loud, wet smack.
“That’s sssplendid. Now can we please take him and go?” He was twitching nervously, his flushed purple tentacles snapping and whipping the air. He opened his pocket watch again and cursed. “Jesse, come on. You’re going to damn us all even more than we already are. The hour is upon us, we’re not going to get another chance.”
“You know the rules,” the ringmaster replied sternly, without a single glance backward. “We only take the willing, and that’s not up for debate. It never has been.” His eyes had gone cold and severe, the lines of his face hardening. “He deserves the same respect you all were granted.”
Very solemnly, he grasped Gilbert’s face with both hands, looking him in the eye. Gilbert’s heart fluttered in his chest, and he was kind of worried Emilia would bite the man, but she had stilled, seeming equally dazed. There was something about him. Something utterly spellbinding. “What—”
“Look at me, magician. And listen closely to what I’m about to say because it is important. This is the most important decision you’ll ever make in your life.”
Gilbert was woozy and scared, and the world was swimming slightly in front of him, fluttering like the water butterfly’s wings. His body was bristling and itching with the need to run, if he could only make his goddamned legs work. But the ringmaster’s touch seemed to placate him, somehow. Or maybe it was something in his eyes. They had become impossibly bright and green, drawing him in, piercing his thoughts like a blade. The man’s words echoed deep in his chest, final like a pact etched in stone, sealed in blood, and he couldn’t have stopped listening even if he’d wanted to.
“You can join the circus. You can hide in our wagon and come with us, if that’s what you would like. The circus is short one performer, and we must fill that position at once.” There was a loud click, and a hissing sound, probably Humphreys with his watch. But it was so difficult to focus on anything other than the ringmaster’s voice. Jesse, his name is Jesse . . . “But— Hey. Listen. This is the important part. If you come with us, if you decide to join the circus, the deal is forever. You understand? Forever. Once you’re in, you can never get out. Ever. For the rest of your life.” He paused, letting his words sink in. “I need to know that you understand and accept this. If you never believe anything again in your life, believe this: if you join, you will remain with the circus until the day you die, and beyond that . . . Your soul will be damned for all eternity. There is no way out. None at all. Think about that, and give me your answer.”
“Oh, for God’s sssake.” Humphreys griped from somewhere nearby.
Gilbert was still confused, fuzzy, and between the head wound, Jesse’s captivating green eyes, just how close his mouth was, and that strange scent of fuel and smoke and fire, he didn’t know what to blame. But that stuff Jesse had said . . . It had to be gibberish. It didn’t make any sense. But hey, so the man is a little weird. None of them looked very normal, after all. Jesse was also handsome and charming. And if worse came to worst, if they really did try to lock him up in that creepy wagon of theirs, Gilbert could escape in any way he pleased. As if a scraggy circus could hold him prisoner until his dying day, of all things.
And even so, he thought hurriedly as something was smashed to pieces in what sounded like the next alley over. Fuck. Yeah, he’d be more than willing to spend the rest of his life with tentacled creatures juggling whole damn skeletons if it meant not dying right now.
“I’ll take the tentacles,” he blurted, clutching the ringmaster’s hand, the contact enough to ignite his blood. Jesse’s eyebrows shot up, and Gilbert realized that it might not have made as much sense out loud as it had inside his head. Somewhere dangerously nearby, there was a gunshot. “Yes. I’m saying yes, it’s a deal. I’m all yours, for life, whatever you want. Just get me the hell outta here.”
Jesse exchanged meaningful glances with Humphreys, Muscles, and Sparkles. Humphreys hissed, seeming quite relieved, and his tentacles flailed around a bit. Gilbert couldn’t disagree. The pressure in Gilbert’s chest eased, and he sighed. He wasn’t even perturbed when his hands met one of the skulls before a quick tentacle yanked the thing away from him.
“Oh, fine,” Muscles sighed, and Gilbert was grabbed by two strong arms and slung over her shoulder as if he weighed nothing. He was still too drunk on relief, alcohol, and magic to feel embarrassed as he was carried, head dangling and arse in the air, to the back of the wagon. The ringmaster opened the black wooden doors just as the voices and footsteps got frighteningly close. The crowd must have turned down the right alley at last. They were no longer running or shouting, but they seemed angry nonetheless.
His train of thought was lost when the woman tossed him none too gently into the wagon, and he landed on the wooden floor with an undignified oomph and an indignant squeak from Emilia. That was most definitely not going to help his poor head. The door was slammed shut as he tried to get up, but he only managed to drag himself to the wall and slump against it. It was pitch-black in there, except for the lines and pinpricks of faint light seeping between the uneven, ruined planks. He pressed his cheek to them, splinters scraping his face, and instinctively lifted his hand to pet Emilia, who was vibrating nervously on his shoulder, quickly sniffing around the new environment. She was wet and cold, but she leaned into his touch, turning her tiny head under his fingers.
“Sorry, Emi,” he murmured, scratching behind her ears. It was kind of ridiculous how many times he’d refrained from plunging headlong into outright suicidal endeavors, how many days he’d kept on living merely so he wouldn’t leave Emilia alone in this hostile world. Her sharp teeth had made him wise up more times than he could count, and her reproachful black gaze had often been more eloquent than any in-depth conversation about the meaning of life. He surely owed her better than a romp in the pouring rain. He couldn’t really provide her with a warm and comfortable home or an endless supply of cheese, but there were a few things he could have granted her, if he’d made a bit more of an effort. Such as avoiding pub brawls, for instance.
He silently promised himself he would do better next time, even as his vision began to blur. He pressed his eye to a small hole in the wall, trying to see what was going on outside. He was hoping this wasn’t just an elaborate prank before the circus fellows handed him over to the murderous mob.
He glimpsed dozens of moving legs as too many people streamed into the alley. The first words he heard, in a deep, nasal now-familiar voice were, “Hey, you stupid freaks. You seen some guy with a rat on his shoulder?”
“Why, good sssir, I can’t ssseem to remember ssseeing . . .”
“I’m not talking to you, you slimy . . . whatever the fuck you are,” Skunk replied, without even bothering to hide his disgust. “You, with the hat and ridiculous coat. You look like you’re the boss around here. You better tell me where the rat man went right this fucking second or you won’t like what happens to your . . . pet and your whores.”
Gilbert sighed with relief. That was a good enough guarantee that the circus people might not feel so inclined to do the man any favors.
There was a moment of icy-cold silence, then a sharp, smacking sound followed by a yowl. It could have been, say, a cane hitting someone in the face.
“Constance, if you please,” the ringmaster said, perfectly polite, as if he were sitting around in a gentlemen’s club smoking cigars and discussing the weather. “Would you be so kind as to handle these sorry fellows, if it’s not inconvenient?”
“Why, it would be a pleasure.” Muscles—Constance—seemed entirely too gleeful as she stepped forward. Her broad back obstructed the view from Gilbert’s peephole. He was too tired to move to another, so he just leaned his forehead against the wood and closed his eyes.
The screaming began, accompanied by crashes and smacks and loud thuds, as the wagon wobbled slightly, as if someone had hopped on board.
“That ought to teach them something about manners,” Jesse said, his voice coming from somewhere above Gilbert’s head now. “Let’s move along, shall we?”
Something splintered and cracked, quite possibly against a human body, and one of the men outside shrieked like a strangled chicken.
“What, passing out already, my dove?” Constance commented. “So soon?”
With a rumble and a loud hiss, the wagon started hobbling along, slowly, creaking and jumping on the cobblestones, shaking Gilbert around like a rag doll. Gilbert exhaled as the tightness in his chest fully eased, and he let himself be lulled by the sharp jolts of the wagon and the terrified screams they were leaving behind. It looked like he’d survive, after all.
Then he slumped further against the rough wooden wall, sliding down into darkness.
When Gilbert woke up, the world was still and quiet. He blinked, trying to get his bearings. The dim light sliced through his head like a hacksaw, and he shut his eyes, groaning. He pressed the heel of his hand to his forehead, in the exact spot where he could feel his blood pulsing under the skin. But the worst pain was at the back of his head, a dull, constant thumping, like a very large hammer hitting again and again. Gilbert rolled to the side, curling in on himself, and whispered a stream of curses that would have been enough to damn him to Hell, if that ship hadn’t sailed quite a few years before. Too late he realized that he had no idea if he was alone in . . . wherever he was and waited for someone to reproach him.
But no voice spoke up. As the hammering in his skull faded slightly and he started considering a second attempt at opening his eyes, he tried to focus on why he had no idea where he was—or how he’d ended up there, for that matter.
He was fairly sure he should have known that, even with how out of sorts he had been the night before.
With a deep breath, he hauled himself to a seat on the edge of the bed and opened his eyes. His head protested vigorously, but it wasn’t that bad—he’d woken up in far worse conditions. Nothing would ever beat the brutal homemade chili grappa an old Italian had offered him once. That had nearly blinded him, he was sure of it.
Blinking, he distracted himself from his memories of excesses past by examining his surroundings. He was in a small room, long and narrow, with reddish wooden walls and an arched wooden roof. The furniture was sparse—cabinets and a table and the narrow bed he sat on, all pushed up against the walls. They seemed bolted in place. Emilia sat on the table, busying herself with something he couldn’t quite see. She seemed perfectly fine and at ease, and that truly did wonders to calm his nerves. She would know if he’d stuck himself in some ridiculously dangerous situation. If she was untroubled, then he could relax too.
The walls were almost entirely covered in faded quilts and mirrors and assorted paraphernalia. It was all covered in dust. A bright-red glittered cape hung in the corner, along with an absurdly tall, black stovepipe hat. Gilbert snorted, shaking his head at the garment. It looked as if its owner had been in a circus or some—
So, his current situation was not so much ridiculously dangerous as just plain ridiculous.
He groaned, fighting the instinct to flop back down on the bed, and rubbed his face with both hands. He was beginning to remember. He’d joined the bloody circus, of all things, to escape from a . . . What was it? Right. From the bloodthirsty mob that had been chasing him. And he’d signed on for the rest of his life.
Yeah, right. I am so out of here.
Gilbert glanced around, spotted his boots neatly placed by the foot of the bed, and got to work putting them on and lacing them tightly. He got up, patting his knees, and grabbed his jacket, which was hanging from a hook between the glittery red cape and what looked like an ancient morning coat.
He brushed his fingers against his jacket’s inner lining, which slit open under his touch, and rummaged in the secret pocket. Cards, crumbs, a—was that a tooth?—and a good amount of money. They hadn’t even robbed him. He thought about it for a moment, then left a few crumpled bills on the dresser. Since he wasn’t going to honor his promise and work for them, this was better than nothing. His fingers left traces in the dust coating the dresser, and he wiped his hand on his trousers.
He leaned over and patted his shoulder, and Emilia obediently scuttled on, carrying a piece of cookie with her and settling comfortably in his scarf. Gilbert tried the door. It was unlocked, so he slowly pushed it open, squinting as he walked down three creaking wooden steps.
There wasn’t much sunlight to speak of. The day was hopelessly gray, the dull sky cloaked with clouds, turning what little light that filtered through cold and heavy like lead. He guessed it was probably around midday—luckily everyone seemed to be still asleep. He’d be able to slip out unnoticed.
He hopped off the steps and started walking, looking around for the way out as he buttoned his coat against the chilly, murky air. His wagon was at the edge of a small encampment. A handful of wooden wagons, their once-bright colors faded, were scattered on a field of dry grass. There were gnarled, dead trees all around, and lanterns hanging from a messy net of cables like a sagging spiderweb. A black iron fence ran a few yards to his right, so Gilbert started following it. It was too high and too sharp to climb over, but it would lead him to a gate, sooner or later. He could see a forest of skeletal trees on the other side and wondered how far they could have possibly gotten from civilization the night before. Couldn’t be that far. Or at least he hoped so, since he’d have to make it back there on foot. He had to find a city, find a station, hop on the first train, and get the hell away.
A shiver crawled down his back, and Gilbert cringed, tugging on his scarf. Emilia’s warm little body pressed against his neck was comforting, but he would be much happier once he was away from this place. There was something odd in the air—a dead chill that seeped into his bones and made him an unbearable kind of cold, made him want to leg it as far as possible, as quick as possible. He wasn’t sure what he expected from a circus, but it wasn’t this silent parade of ruined, faded wagons. He’d expected color, lights, music, and dancing performers. This was eerie.
He’d just glimpsed the gate—a hole in the iron fence with a crude wooden sign hanging over it—when he heard the whispers. He glanced around quickly, trying to determine where the voices were coming from so he could run in the opposite direction. But there was no one there, certainly not anyone close enough for him to hear them whisper. There was only a small, black, windowless wagon at the very edge of the encampment. Strange. He had come from there, and he swore he hadn’t seen any—
His eyes burned. He blinked. It was getting hard to see; his vision growing blurry. The grass, the fence—it all grew unfocused. There was just the black wagon, clear and bright like a gas lamp in the night, a fixed spot as the world began to melt around it.
“What the . . .?”
He rubbed his eyes, squinting. The whispering was growing louder, murmurs echoing in his ears. Three, four, too many voices to count and that were now louder than screams. He brought his hands to his ears, but the sound wasn’t fading. It was coming from somewhere inside his head. When he blinked again, he thought he saw someone—a tall, dark figure, fluttering, on the verge of melting into the mist itself. Gilbert’s eyes watered when he tried to focus. He couldn’t see, but it seemed like it was smiling.
And then it all was gone. The voices, the water in his eyes, the person. Gilbert blinked, slowly bringing his hands down. It all looked perfectly normal now: no mist, no swirling. Just a rickety black wagon that looked about to crumble at the first gust of wind.
There were other sounds, though—rustling, creaking. A door being shut. Damn. The circus was beginning to wake up after a late night, and his chances of getting out of there unseen were dwindling fast. Time to stop with the sightseeing.
He jogged to the exit and turned to cast a glance at the sign once he was on the other side. It was black, old, and scraped, and it read in flourished red letters: Circus of the Damned.
How lovely. Well, at least he wouldn’t have to stick around to find out exactly why the troupe had picked such a cheerful name. By the time they went looking for him, he would be long gone.
What a shame, though. He wouldn’t have minded seeing the handsome ringmaster again. He may have been a raving lunatic, but he was an attractive one, nonetheless. When he’d knelt before Gilbert in the rain, looking at him with those green eyes, so, so close . . . close enough that, for a moment, Gilbert had foolishly thought the man would kiss him.
Ah, it was too late to do anything about it, anyway. He had to forget about it. He jogged down the dirt road, in the damp mist past the dead trees, heading as far from that damned circus as he could get.
*STARRED REVIEW* [M]agnificent.... The romance between Gilbert and Jesse is erotic, touching, and believable, and the rest of the circus is drawn with a deft touch that elevates it above the clichés of its subgenre. There are no easy answers for these characters, and their journey is gripping from beginning to end.
[W]hat truly stuck with me was the worldbuilding. The descriptions, the trains and the circus wagons, the whole magical-slash-steampunk ambience... I felt very much immersed in the story, which is the greatest compliment I can pay a writer.
..it didn't take long to pull me in. I absolutely loved this book and will definitely be reading the rest.
[A] really excellent read...completely captivated me.... Loved the concept, the flawed characters, even the super sexy devil. More please!
[B]y far one of the most remarkable novels of the year. I cannot rate it high enough or praise it loudly enough.[A] must read....