They come for the magic.
Beyond the protection of their city walls, by dark of night, they come and they sit in our dusty tent. We are naught but a circus of rebels and outcasts. But they yearn for the magic, they need it. They long for it in their hearts, to remember a time before magic was outlawed.
From behind a curtain of red velour, my eyes scan the crowd, and my heart pumps violently. My horse snorts and shimmies beneath me. I work my fingers into her mane, twisting the coarse strands around my fingers. The familiar texture settles my nerves. For a person that prefers not to be seen, I spend an awful lot of time in the spotlight.
We go on next, after Koko, who stands in the center of the ring beneath twinkling lights. Her black hair is piled atop her head, and she wears a strapless corset to show the tattoos running in a vine pattern along her arms, collarbone, and neck. A thrumming begins. Only the most perceptive audience members feel it now, the beginning of what’s to come.
Flute music rises through the tent, to the billowy tip-top of it. Koko turns in a circle and begins her dance. Her arms and legs move like a serpent, sinuous, silky. She spins and the tattoos on her left arm slip from her skin, dancing in the air beside her.
The crowd gasps.
More black lines part from her skin and shiver about. They twist and float and undulate. She is surrounded by them, a maelstrom of ink. The atmosphere inside the tent is hot with tension and the beating of hearts. Koko’s magic radiates over the crowd like a dream of lightning and thunder.
Then, as suddenly as it started, it stops. Koko goes from movement to stillness in a moment. She stands there with her tattoos as if they’d never parted from her. Looking at her, at the rightness of them on her skin, it’s hard to believe they could. Eyes blink and mouths open and close, trying to understand what they’ve seen.
Applause is sparse as Koko strides from the ring, but it’s not an insult. The audience is stunned. They’re not used to this sort of thing. My favorite part is watching the eyes of the children, the ones who have never seen magic before. Their eyes are different after.
As Koko passes us, Soraya prances beneath me. She knows our routine too well; we always follow Koko. I place a hand on the mare’s sleek black shoulder. Then I lean forward and close my legs around her. We burst from behind the curtain.
The city dwellers go wild as we loop around the ring at a controlled gallop. I pull Soraya to an abrupt halt in the center and shift my weight back. She rears, pawing the air with her hooves. Gasps fill the tent along with the cloud of dust we’ve kicked up. It coats the back of my throat, thick and tasting of minerals.
Anoki steps onto his platform at the back of the ring. His battered top hat nearly touches a low-hanging string of lights. He is whip thin, a sliver of shadow in a brightly colored vest, and his black eyes glitter as he addresses the audience.
“Residents of Ravi, I present to you a rare treat! You may have heard tale of the Cilemar, wild fire horses of The Corners. But I doubt you have heard of a fire horse that is tamed, let alone one that can perform such amazing feats of strength and agility. Tonight, that is all about to change.” He points to me with both hands and an excess of gusto. “I present to you: Elea and her mare Soraya!”
A round of applause from the audience. With a low bow, Anoki steps down from the platform. I catch a glimpse of his dark, weathered face before he slips away. The lights dim, and a palpable hush settles over the crowd.
I turn Soraya in a slow circle and, as we move, flames spring up from her mane and tail. Someone shrieks and Soraya’s ears twitch toward me as if to say, what’s the fuss about? I reach up and run one arm through the flames, then the other, and lift them both above my head to show that my skin is unmarred. Flashes of vermillion reflect in the eyes of the crowd, and murmurs ripple through the bleachers.
Slipping from Soraya’s back, I walk around to her head and take off her bridle. She never needs a bridle when I ride her, but it adds more drama to the performance if I make a show of taking it off. Right on time, whispers of disbelief echo through the audience. I walk to a post and hang the bridle. Soraya follows me every step of the way.
Then, with a running leap, I land on her back, standing upright. I raise my arms over my head and the audience applauds. At my whispered command, Soraya begins to trot around the ring. Bending my knees slightly to absorb the movement, I balance on her back, arms still raised. Soraya’s muscles ripple beneath the soft suede soles of my boots, which help my feet keep grip.
Another cue and she begins to lope. She moves around the whole ring at first, then begins to spiral inwards, creating a smaller and smaller circle until she is pirouetting on her hind legs. I can pretend it’s just the two of us now as I lose myself in my work. We come to a stop. Three of the other performers run into the ring, each holding a large metal barrel. They set the barrels up on end, all in a row, creating a barricade.
Soraya moves toward the barrels on my signal, putting on a small burst of speed. A moment before her feet leave the ground, I launch into the air, arms stretched out as if aiming for the sky. When I reach the apex of my leap, I curl into a tight ball and flip once, twice. Beneath me, Soraya clears the tall row of barrels. As she lands on the other side, I straighten back out and land on her back. The uproar from the crowd is deafening.
We lope once more around the ring. I drop down into a seated position again and she rears, flaming mane and tail bright. Then, arching her neck proudly, she prances slowly out of the ring. We disappear behind the curtain again. I brush a piece of hair out of my face and release the breath I’d been holding.
Koko is waiting on the other side. The audience is still going wild. “Gorgeous and daring as always,” she says, smile like the sun.
I pat Soraya’s neck and scratch along her mane. The horse turns and regards me with one huge brown eye, her lip twitching in appreciation. “I almost missed the landing on our jump,” I say with a shrug.
“You always say that.” Koko grins. “But you never miss the landing. Or anything else. When will you learn to take a compliment?”
I return her smile, if mine can even be called that next to her vibrant one. “Possibly never.” I slide off Soraya and lead her to the back of the staging area, where I’ve left my leather jacket on a barrel. Inside the tent it is warm, but outside will carry a bite. We still have a few weeks of winter left before spring takes over. Glancing back at Koko, I say, “I’d better get Soraya some water.”
“I’ll come with you.”
We head through a series of tents connected by hallways and labyrinthine passages. Past the key master warming up for his act, hundreds of keys swirling through the air around him, past the shapeshifter who is shifting from human to wolf, to owl, to bear, and back again. Past animals and trunks of sparkling outfits and props, past clusters of rooms with bed rolls and bookshelves and whispering cauldrons. When we finally step out into the cold night, a glance behind shows only one rectangular tent, pale gray with emerald stripes and a fraction as large as the space within.
A hint of snow tinges the air, as well as smoke from somewhere along the row of merchants set up outside the towering wall that surrounds Ravi. The Midnight Market, as we call it. There’s one outside each of the seven Sun cities, a group of merchants brave enough to travel and trade outside the walls. Brave enough to face the storms of wild magic and the strange creatures that resulted from the Shaman Wars. There are many merchants, but only one circus.
I lead Soraya to a small trough of water. She plunges her nose down into it, splashing and slurping and spraying me with icy drops which I dodge a moment too late. Her mane and tail have returned to a dull gray now that the flames are gone. I stroke her neck and rest my cheek against her shoulder. She smells faintly of sweat. My eyes wander up to the velvety purple sky, lit with a milky wash of stars, the glow of the moon, and the burning orb of the sun. They hang together in the sky, harmonious and balanced. The sky doesn’t know that the Sun and Moon Tribes fell away from each other long ago.
Footsteps announce someone, and Soraya jerks her head toward the sound. Two someones. A quick glance tells me they are Sun boys. Brown sugar skin, golden hair, blue eyes. Same as just about all the Sun citizens.
“Are you performers?” asks the one on the left. He is taller than his friend, but otherwise they are almost indistinguishable.
“Why yes, we are,” Koko says with a small bow.
“Are those tattoos?” says the other boy.
I roll my eyes and turn back to Soraya. They’ve quickly forgotten all about me, if they ever really noticed me to begin with, which is definitely my preference. Koko gets all the attention from boys our age. We have the same cinnamon skin and black hair, but she’s a tad taller, a lot curvier, and I can’t even begin to match her general luminosity. But it works out fine. I’d rather stick to our group of travelers and not get involved with these city dwellers. They don’t know anything about us, not really. We’re like rare butterflies in their eyes. Spectacles and freaks.
I am even more different than the rest, which is why I keep my head down and stay as far away from the Sun citizens as I can. I hold too many secrets to have friends. Other than Koko. And Soraya.
The tone of Koko’s voice pierces my thoughts. I notice first that it’s gone up several octaves, and second that she’s no longer smiling. Koko is always smiling.
One of the Sun boys, the tall one, has his hand on her shoulder and is standing so close that their torsos are practically touching. He says something low I can’t make out. Koko’s eyes widen, and the other boy comes up behind her and brushes a hand along her thigh.
Calmly, I pull a dagger from the sheaths inside each boot and step up behind the tall boy, who is closest. And gently, I reach around and press one of the daggers to his throat. He doesn’t even realize I’m there until the metal kisses his skin. Being unnoticeable has its benefits.
“It seems you’ve offended my friend,” I say softly.
The tall one stiffens and his friend takes a menacing step toward me, which he regrets the moment he steps up against my second dagger. I’ve positioned it in a sensitive area substantially lower than the one I’m holding to his friend. Koko steps to the side, out of reach.
“Do you really think you can take both of us?” The short one asks. Rather brave considering the slightest movement could get him impaled in an awkward place.
I lock eyes with him, unsmiling. “Yes.”
He goes white as the moon and breaks eye contact, stepping backwards off the point of my knife.
“Keep moving,” Koko snaps when he pauses and looks at his friend.
Once he’s almost to the market, I remove my blade and shove the other boy away from me. He runs several feet before turning and yelling, “Moon witches!”
He trips as he does, and Koko and I burst into laughter. The Sun boy keeps running.
“I don’t know why you even attempt communicating with those numb brains,” I groan after the laughter dies.
“Boys or everyone?” Koko teases.
I slide my daggers back into my boots and shrug.
She opens her mouth to respond, but a commotion in the Midnight Market interrupts. Have the boys reported us? They won’t have much luck with this crowd. Our group of travelers stick up for each other and they’re hardly going to listen to a couple of Sun citizens.
But then someone yells, “Polara!”
Koko’s eyes whip to mine and we exchange a panicked look. Law enforcers? Outside the city walls, that can mean only one thing.
We’re getting raided.