First, I’ll invite you to watch a short clip that provided my inspiration and read along!
More for your reading pleasure. In the vein of Stephen King, I imagined this story opening up with a handful of montages to show the world of the Circus of Souls. This is probably my favorite of the three:
Alina held her new mother’s hand like a lifeline. Occasionally, a flexing of muscles would remind her to loosen her grip for fear of cutting of circulation. Her new father struggled to manage conversation while keeping up with the pair. This was far beyond Alina’s level of acceptable conduct. She was heading into the village, and the village meant people.
A lot of people.
A lot of people meant stares.
Alina brushed her cheek without thinking. The reaction was so natural, so rote, she didn’t think of it anymore. She didn’t need to think of it, for her attention was focused like a prism’s light toward the spectacle before her.
The village commons rolled down a shallow hill toward the deep stream that bordered New Hope. The lawn was close-cropped from the dozens of sheep and goats that meandered like ships across its verdant waves. The animals were all congregated at the far end of the fields, closest to the water, for an evening drink and to lie with their herdsmen. The commons were well protected in the best of times, and the water provided a natural fence against predators. That didn’t stop may of the sheep from bleating nervously though. They had good cause.
Alina pulled her mother’s hand as she caught sight of the strange array of bestiary being walked about. The commons closest to the village was filled with people coming out in the twilight hours to see the circus and its wonders. Alina dodged between slack-jawed adults toward her goal. Not one to shy away from a challenge, unless it was those stares, she walked right up to the biggest creature of them all.
“Good evening lass. Would you like to touch it?” The man before her was tall and lean, stripped to the waist and bearing a collage of color across his chest. Bright reds and deep greens laced together in beautiful tattooed patterns that complemented his physique. Baubles of purple and blue dotted his upper arms and gave way to a woven screen of intermixed symbols running down to his wrists. His face, handsome in the fashion of Chebori men, bore a horizontal line of black and blue filigree across his cheeks and nose to indicate his heritage and tribe.
Alina stared for a few moments before nodding in silent assent. If the man was strange, his charge was stranger.
The beast rose up at least twenty feet, easily able to reach into the second story of any of the village’s ancient homes. A soft fur covered it from snout to horse-like tail, but it was significantly more bulky than any horse Alina had ever seen. Its face was closer in appearance to a sheep than anything else she could think of, with a long upper lip licking at the tops of the maple trees bordering New Hope. She ran a hand down a massive foreleg bigger than any tree trunk she’d known. She doubted she could even wrap her arms around it!
The strange man spoke, “Do you know what this is?” Alina shook her head before he continued, “It’s a therium. One of the last wonders of the Garden of the Dawn Children. He came south, all the way across Chebor, and fought with my people in the great wars. He was very brave. Now that we are no longer at war, he just wants to enjoy as much food as he can get. Now he travels with me in the circus.”
Alina’s new father stared hard at the man, but eventually his look gave way to lowered eyes and a nod of respect. Alina knew the man had fought in the war, but on the other side as the Chebori. Everyone here in the Pledge knew that. Alina guessed her own parents had been involved before they set out for the Pledge and a new life.
As she brushed the therium’s leg it continued to graze on tasty leaves far above her little blond head. The looks between the Chebori tribesman and her adopted father made her wonder at the past few years. The memories of her real parents were fading more and more each day. She knew they were seeking a better life, a life of freedom, a life away from the stigmas of Gilead’s old kingdom people and the remnants of life left after a failed war. The journey to the Pledge was a flight toward hope, toward a new life. Yet a flight not without its perils.
Alina brushed her cheek again and a tear trickled down. It was her fault they had been killed. She knew it was her flaw that made others fear her, and her parent’s paid a price for that fear. Thankfully she found a new home with Fionna and Terval. They were good to her, though they didn’t know how to help her with her sorrow. How could they? They couldn’t take this away.
Alina looked up at the Chebori and smiled. “He’s really nice. I like how soft he is. Are they all this soft?”
He smiled back at her, lifting the colored marks on each cheek. “They are all this soft, though many are scared from battle and from fighting among each other. But that’s the way of things. Sometimes we find ourselves out of sorts with those around us, and sometimes others hurt us. It’s not always intentional. Sometimes it just happens. But even through the scars, there is a touch of grace and gentleness. Isn’t that right?”
Alina nodded and squeezed Fionna’s hand. She smiled down at Alina, probably relieved to see her happy for once. There had been so many reasons for Alina to be sad.
The Chebori continued in his clipped tongue, “I must stay here with my friend, but you should see some of the other animals here. My tribesmen will be happy to let you see any of them up close. But I think you should go to the green tent.” He smiled up at Terval and Fionna. “You’ll find something there that is just for you.”
Alina said thank you and her parent’s followed suit. Her parents. Alina was still getting used to thinking that way.
They saw the peak of a green tent at the far end of the commons and made their way toward it. They passed by several other specimens of Chebori fauna, including a juvenile creature called a pangoling that was the size of a small wagon, a pair of fire birds in a rolling cage, a golden kestrel perched atop of a raised pike, no less than three of the great pronghorned mounts of the Chebori outriders, and a brace of silk water serpents each easily twice the length of Alina sprawled out and stretching her arms. She watched each in a moment of amazement, ignoring the stray looks from the villagers who moved out of her way ever so slightly. Fionna said nothing and simply looked down. Terval looked angry but was resigned to the reality of their life with Alina.
Finally they reached the green tent. The coloring was too vivid to describe in words. It was like liquid light was trapped in the fabric and shimmered through the weave, changing from deep verdant hues to the softest of colors to match newborn grass. Little motes of light appeared to race along the piping and arced toward the pinnacle, a carved figurehead of a woman dancing below a double moon.
Alina knew immediately who this tent was for. This was the tent of a magus.
A young woman stepped out. She wore a black velvet gown that, Alina was sure, was at least as soft to the touch as the therium had been. Its texture absorbed light and bent it in ways that mesmerized Alina. Small stones were sewn into the bodice and a thin trace of silver wove through the sleeves and hems. The dress wasn’t the only thing that caught Alina’s attention.
The magus has a shock of bright red hair, like metal on fire, that lay piled up atop her head. The contrast of colors was so sharp that it felt like artifice. The twilight rays of the twin suns reflected off of her hair and cast an aura, surely not due to natural effect alone. Like one of the Dawn Children themselves, her minor halo framed a well-proportioned face with high cheeks and a curvature that said she enjoyed a few treats when she could. Beautiful and real.
That wasn’t what made the magus beautiful to Alina though. It was the mark.
A deep wine stain ran down the left side of the magus’ face. Starting just below her eye, it reach all the way down to her bodice. Rather than cover it over with her hair, it was as if she wanted everyone to see the mark. Alina knew this was no tattoo, no painting, but part of who the magus was. She didn’t just show it, she practically flaunted it before the crowd. A crowd that didn’t turn away, but stared in awe at the beautiful woman performing before them.
No one said anything as she began to weave words into magic. Bright images of paradise birds and multi-colored fish, of battle charges and single combat, began to take shape in the air over the spectators’ heads. She sang the words to make the images move, and told a tale of wonder and myth, parts of which were known to all of Tryon’s followers, and others they had not yet heard in this fashion. The crowd grew as she added more and more effects into her visual storytelling. When people whispered, it was to wonder if the sounds were real or imagined? Was this all illusion, or had she conjured up the ghosts of ancient heroes?
Alina saw through all of it. What she saw was special.
The villagers weren’t staring at the magus for her mark. They were absorbed in the story. They didn’t shy away from her in fear. They didn’t accuse her of having the Crimson, of being a pestilence and curse-bearer. They didn’t threaten to drive her away before she infected others, or claim that was the mark Tryon gave to those who failed him.
Alina saw someone just like her. Someone who bore the same imperfection. Someone who chose not to hide it, but to live past it.
She squeezed Fionna’s hand and leaned in, nestling her head against her new mother’s hip. She looked up and smiled, then looked back at the magus, who smiled right back.
Alina saw someone just like her.