CHAPTER 21

"Are you ready?" Mavis asked.

Nick glanced down at his bare feet. "No, I don't think so."

The ringmaster put his hands on Nick's shoulders. "You're going to do just fine, my boy. Just fine."

"How do you know?"

"Because I've seen you practicing. Your heart is in it, that's what matters.

"Magnus, something's going to go wrong, I just know it."

The older man laughed. "There's nothing to worry about. You risk your life all the time. What's so hard about a few minutes of juggling?"

"When you put it like that…"

The ringleader clapped him on the back. "Report to Emelia for makeup, and then make sure Caenis has all of your equipment in order."

"Makeup?" the fire mage cried.

"Yes, to make sure your eyes stand out. Don't question me, I always know best."

Nick found Emelia on the other side of camp, finishing Maura's hair. "You're going on too, kiddo?" he asked.

Maura nodded. "They needed another harlequin, and I know the routine. I've done it before, so…" She shrugged, making Emelia groan as the woman started on the braid again. "Whoops, sorry."

The choreographer gestured at a crate nearby. "Wait there until I'm done with Maura." Nick complied, fiddling with the buttons on his red and gold vest. It left his arms bare, and he was starting to feel a little chilly. Emelia applied Maura's facial makeup, making her appear to be ghostly pale. Heavy black kohl was applied around the girl's eyes, giving her the look of a raccoon. "All right, done."

Maura thanked Emelia politely, gave Nick a quick hug, and then bounded off to begin her pre-show exercises and stretches. Emelia tapped the wooden camp stool with one knuckle. "Sit, and I'll do my best to make you look presentable."

"Should I be insulted by that?" Nick asked.

"By now, you should have realized that everything I say is tinged with biting sarcasm."

The fire mage sank down onto the stool with a groan. Emelia brushed the hair out of his eyes with a finger. "We'll have to do something about your mop in a moment. Now, let's see." She bent over and began to apply some of the dark eyeliner. Nick hissed.

"That burns!"

"Stop squirming and I won't get any more in your eyes."

Nick grumbled but did as he was told. A few minutes later, Emelia stepped back. "Well, that will do, I suppose." She handed Nick a hand mirror. "What do you think?"

Nick raised an eyebrow. "I look like I haven't slept in weeks!"

"From the stage, under the lanterns, it will look better. Trust me, I'm a professional. Now sit still a little longer, and I'll do something about your hair…"

Nick gasped as Emelia shoved him backwards and into a water-filled basin. The choreographer used her fingers to comb out tangles that were probably weeks old. After a few minutes, she pushed him back up and handed him a towel. "Dry off, and try not to get your vest wet. That's silk, you know." Nick obeyed as Emelia got out a set of brushes and combs. The woman began yanking them through Nick's hair, straightening is and pulling it back. "It's at a rather awkward length," she remarked, as though it were Nick's fault that his hair did not grow faster. "It's too long to be out of the way, but too short for me to tie back. You have to be careful that it doesn't get in the way." Nick made a vaguely confirmatory noise, and Emelia continued on with her work. After a brief silence, she finally leaned down. "Nervous?"

"A little bit."

"Well, the audience is small."

"Not stage fright. What if someone recognizes us? Did Mavis really think this through? I mean, technically, my friends and I are wanted criminals."

"I don't think that will be an issue, Nick."

"Why not? We haven't gone that far from Gaheris's keep!"

"Well, I'm pretty sure that between you, the rest of the Seven, and Necro, you probably killed almost anyone who would know about that." There was a pause, and Emelia yanked a tangle of Nick's hair with her bone-toothed comb, making him cry out. "Now stop being a baby."

"Look, all I'm saying is maybe this isn't the best idea, sending me out in front of a big crowd of people."

"Now isn't the time to get cold feet," Emelia muttered, yanking another tangle. "Just shut up and go give the performance of your life. If you look good enough, people may even forget the reward on your head."

"Is this supposed to make me feel any better?"

Emelia laughed and tweaked Nick's ear. "Think of it as my version of a pep talk. All right, you're all set, my little firebrand. Ooh, I like the sound of that." She pushed Nick off the stool. "Break a leg out there, Blazingheart."

"Now, will you please join me in welcoming to the stage the one, the only, the magnificent… Firebrand!" Mavis pirouetted and jumped out of the ring of lantern light.

"You're on, bud!" Caenis whispered, and shoved Nick out from behind the rouge curtain. The fire mage quickly regained his composure and strode to the center of the dirt circle. He could only see the vaguest suggestion of the audience, blinded as he was by the lanterns in his eyes. He took a deep breath and drew the three juggling clubs from his belt. Necro and the other musicians, just off to stage left, struck up a tune.

He tossed them end over end in an endless loop. His hours of practice had paid off, as he deftly caught and tossed the clubs. After a few heartbeats he ignited his inner fire, and allowed it to spread to the whirling clubs. The crowd gasped as the clubs burst into brilliant blood red fire.

The musicians began to pick up the pace of their playing, making the music have more swelling and crescendos. Necro winked when he caught Nick's eye, and the fire mage beamed. He sped up to match the tempo of the music. Then, Nick began to trace his feet in patterns across the ground, fire licking around his heels. He bit down on his lower lip and steeled his nerve. Then, he launched into a swaying dance that was drawn straight from one of his sword forms. Then, he tossed the torches up higher and drew Spark and Dancer from his belt, and made them burst to life as well. It was only his limited clairvoyance that allowed him to keep the act going, and even that took all of his concentration and dexterity.

He danced around the dirt circle, juggling the five objects. The audience gasped as he twirled around for his finale. He caught the torches and daggers and grinned at the audience. The shadowy figures applauded, and Nick took a bow. As he exited the stage, Maura and the other harlequins bounded past. The young girl winked at Nick, and the fire mage smiled back. When he got backstage, Anna took his torches and extinguished them, and then embraced him. Nick smiled and gently pushed her away, feeling her skeletal hips through her clothes.

He sat down next to Lucian and Kim and watched as Seithios strode out onto the stage, a heavy dumbbell across his shoulders. The earth crafter grunted and lifted the weight over his head, his muscles straining. "Did that look all right?" Nick murmured to his companions.

Lucian sightless eyes glowered at him. "Oh, I thought you looked like a fool."

Nick patted his friend's shoulder. "Sorry. Uh, Kim?"

"You looked fine. You practiced hard for that."

"Thanks."

Caenis clapped his hand on Nick's shoulder. "All you new guys are doing great. After this, we're celebrating."

They hurried about, carrying props to different points backstage, helping performers change into the costumes they needed, and trying not to be underfoot. Lucian was trying to carry a crate of tiny pyrotechnics, but was stumbling. Nick grabbed the other end of the box. "All right, follow my lead."

They walked the sparklers to the edge of the stage, and then retreated again. "That music," Lucian murmured. "Isn't that Zephyr's cue?"

Nick grinned. "I think it is." He watched as the wind rider dropped from the sky, his fellow acrobats just behind him. A heartbeat before he hit the ground, he rocketed back up into the air, to a series of high wires and trapezes stationed at intervals above the stage. Two company fire mages, who had waited the duration of the show on tiny wooden platforms, lit lanterns just above their heads, directing focus to Zephyr and the other wind riders.

The musicians began playing a fast and excited tune as the flying acrobats zoomed through the ropes and landed precariously on the tiny ropes. The acrobats began to bound across the narrow byways, cartwheeling and somersaulting over each other when they came from opposite directions. Though they were all wind riders, a certain amount of daring was involved. Not only did the players have to keep their balance like any other manipulator, but the shock of a fall could leave them temporarily without use of manipulation.

The audience gasped and cheered as Zephyr flipped over another woman, the one Kita had attacked in the guise of Flayme. "Is it good?" Lucian asked.

"It's magical," Nick replied. "All those forms Trentioc taught Zephyr, he taught the acrobats. They're being used for more than combat, and that's what really matters."

Lucian nodded appreciatively. "It sounds wonderful."

Zephyr cavorted through the air. Even from so far below, Nick could tell he was grinning from ear to ear. This was what the wind rider was born to do. He was a showman, not a fighter. Or at least, he should have been. Circumstances had forced Zephyr to be first a street rat and therefore a thief, and then he had fallen in with the rest of the Seven and been dragged into a tempest of battle and bloodshed. Slowly, the jovial young man's cheerful façade had crumbled as he had seen more death, more loss. But here amongst the Rouge Players Zephyr was as happy as Nick had seen him in months.

The act ended in a startling finale, with all of the acrobats leaping from their ropes to shoot at the ground. At Zephyr's abrupt whistle, they pulled out of their dives and landed gracefully on the packed dirt. The crowd cheered.

Mavis appeared back on stage, beckoning the other players out to receive their due. Nick hurried out to join the other performers, and gave as courtly a bow as he could manage. The darkened figures beyond the circle of lights applauded and cheered. The neat rows of players quickly disintegrated into a confused mob as they congratulated each other. Maura raced from the crowd and jumped into Nick's arms, giving him a hug. The fire mage swung the harlequin around, smiling broadly. Seithios laughed uproariously and heaved Zephyr up onto his shoulders. Nick and Maura made their way through the press and embraced their companions. Necro and the band abandoned their instruments to enter the crowd, laughing and cheering with the rest.

Mavis and his monkey seemed to rise above it all, an isle of calm in a tumultuous sea. He appeared at Nick's side and grinned. "See, I told you, firebrand. It's all a matter of guts."

"Guts? No, it was practice!"

"And confidence! You had to go out there and believe you could do it!" Little Mavis chattered from the ringleader's shoulder and gave Nick a thumbs-up. Nick held out his arm to the creature, and Little Mavis jumped over to him, perching atop his head.

"So what happens now?" Seithios asked as Zephyr blew kisses into the audience.

"Now," Mavis declared, "we celebrate!"

The atmosphere was infectious. Nick's left hand rested on Anna's hip, while in his right he held a tankard of ale. Seithios and Lexa twirled by, their faces flushed with liquor and good cheer. The musicians were playing again, this time at a very fast pace. People danced and sang, they drank and they made merry, all caught up in the festival atmosphere of a successful performance.

Caenis and Heinrich staggered past, downing mugs of Heinrich's beer. They sang a discordant drinking song, making Anna titter with laughter. Kim was sitting beside Lucian, letting him watch the party through a telepathic link. The shadow mancer murmured something and pointed at the musicians, and Kim obligingly turned her gaze there.

"Want to go say hello?" Nick asked.

"I don't want to sit down!" Anna laughed. She staggered and nearly fell, almost dragging Nick down with her. "All right, maybe just for a moment."

They sat down next to the pair, and Lucian's pale hand came up, gradually finding Nick's face and feeling the contours for a moment. "Oh, hello there."

"Hey yourself. Having a good time?"

"Yes. I forgot how much I enjoyed people watching. Kim, can we look over there now?" The Chosen of Mana smiled and looked over in Nick's direction. "Not so far," Lucian said. "Maybe just put Nick and Anna in the peripheral."

"What, we aren't good enough to look at?" Anna said with mock indignation.

"No, not really."

There was a gleeful cry from somewhere in the crowd of bodies. Nick braced himself as Kita and Maura dove at him. "Come dance with us!" Maura cried as she dragged Nick to his feet. Kita jumped into Nick's arms and her adopted brother spun her around.

"I'll catch up with you later!" Nick called as the girls dragged him away. He struck up a waltz with Kita, though he held the young shape shifter above the ground so that she did not have to worry about the steps. The girl laughed as her older brother swung her around, and Nick couldn't help but laugh too. Kita wrapped her arms around his neck, and the fire mage cried out as she threw off his balance and they collapsed in a heap on the ground.

"He seems happy," Lucian remarked. "And he's laughing. That's good."

Kim glanced at the shadow mancer. "You say that like it hasn't happened before."

"Well, up until lately it hadn't. On our travels, Nick was rather morose. I think he's coming to terms with things. Like I did. Like we all did. It just took him a little longer than it did for us."

Anna took another drink from her flagon. "I'm surprised you're not batty, Kim." The water shifter waved her hand. "Oh, I'm not as drunk as I look, I can still think about things. Yeah, I thought about this one for a while. How do you stay so calm all the time? You should be the craziest out of all of us, but you're not. How do you do it?"

Kim pursed her lips. "Meditation, mostly. There's inner calm at the center of all of our beings, and once I reach that, it's a matter of—"

"Boring. No, how do you really do it?"

The Chosen of Mana folded her arms. "That is how I really do it."

"Maybe two years ago. But not now, not as strong as you are."

Kim's hand closed around the Gold Crown, hidden in her pocket. She opened her senses to feel the flow of mana around her, pulling away from Lucian's consciousness as she did so. The shadow mancer was replaced by a swirling pillar of black energy, and Anna became a raging blue and green storm.

"Anna, I'm telling the truth. My powers may have gotten stronger, but my self-control did too. I am perfectly capable of keeping my emotions in check."

The subtle compulsion in her words drove her companions away from the topic. She ran her finger along the cool metal of the Crown, feeling it hum with life. Her comrades could not know that she had become reliant on the balancing influence of the artifact to keep her emotions and sanity in check. It had become an addiction, and though she knew it was damaging, she couldn't stop even if she tried. Though Crinsharlan was far away, separated from her by countless miles of land and sea, Kim still felt as though she were standing on the fringe of the Flower Forest when she connected with the vitality of the continent.

The mass of cavorting players seemed to Kim a raging fire, the many streams and currents of mana dizzying and mesmerizing. She stared into the crowd, and finally picked out Nick's blood-red aura, following him with her mana sight.

She remembered fondly the days when Nick's aura had blazed scarlet and gold, and her best friend's face had been unclouded by the doubts and melancholies that plagued him. With an effort of will, she switched back to her normal sight and found Nick in the crowd once again. He was smiling, twirling Maura in a circle. Kim couldn't help but smile as she watched.

Perhaps there would come a day when she could dance and smile again. Even Nick was learning to recover from the scars of his past, it seemed. Kim might have been better at hiding her personal misgivings than some of her friends, but it had come time to heal old wounds.

Nick turned his face up to the misting rain, letting it bead on his brow. Evara sneezed underneath him, bending her neck to keep the water out of her eyes. "Why aren't you as miserable as I am?" she complained. "You're a fire mage. You're supposed to hate rain!"

"It feels good," Nick replied. "Come on, don't deny it. The coolness of it on your skin, the scent in the air, the light breeze. How could you not like it?"

"I'll catch a cold in this. At least you have your cloak to keep you dry."

"Quit your whining and enjoy it."

"I can't enjoy hypothermia, stupid."

"I think you're just a hypochondriac."

"It's no good insulting me with words I don't know. It just doesn't have the same sting." The unicorn sneezed again. "Heads up, Grimsbjorn's headed this way."

Nick glanced at the sullen man, tramping along behind them. His stride was lengthening so that he could catch up to the unicorn and her rider. "What does he want?" Nick hissed.

"I don't know, but an eagle says it's not good."

"In the first place, I don't have an eagle to bet, and neither do you. And second off, even if you did, what would a unicorn do with money?"

Grimsbjorn nodded as he drew even with them and slowed his pace. Nick and Evara stared at the lord for several minutes as he silently walked beside them. Aside from an occasional sideways glance, he barely registered their presence.

After an uncomfortably long time, Grimsbjorn pointed up at a dark shape against the clouds. "Do you see that hawk? I envy it."

Evara snorted. "Why envy a bird when you could envy a unicorn?"

"Unicorns can't fly," Grimsbjorn replied evenly. "Ever since I was a boy, I envied wind riders. They could just soar above the world; see all the problems from a distance. Even atop the tallest tower in Ginúnford, I could not rival them. And the birds make it seems so effortless. There are times I regret that the wolf was my sigil, I would have much preferred a falcon."

Nick and Evara glanced at each other. "Gods, he's talking," Nick murmured.

Grimsbjorn scowled. "What has my silence accomplished? You probably thought me no better than my nephew's monsters. And in some regards, indeed, I was not. But I am a man, same as you, fire mage. And like you, I grow tired of this seemingly endless war." He brushed some of his unruly, matted dark hair from his haunted eyes. "I am no longer a young man, Nicotorex. I have seen my god fall before my eyes, the men I believed in turn their backs on the world and all its inhabitants. My children are gone, fire mage. All I want is to see my son and daughter again, and to start to atone for the sins of my past."

"You have plenty of sins, Grimsbjorn."

"You think I don't know that?" the shadow mancer snapped. "Of course I know what I've done wrong! I've known for far too long! But I can't do anything about it while we're always fighting!" He clenched his fists and shook his head. "The fall of Rinshonan, the death of Rescalo, the deaths of my sister and brother-in-law, all the deaths that have occurred from that are my fault. It was my greed, my lust for power. All it got me was more war. More pain. More suffering.

"I've made plenty of mistakes, Nicotorex. And I'm probably going to be confined to the worst hell the gods can find for me. But I want to make a difference with what time I have left." Grimsbjorn turned and looked Nick in the eye, holding his gaze. "You seem to be fighting to end this war, to bring an end to this bloodshed once and for all. So long as that remains your goal, you may count me as an ally, Nicotorex."

And with that, the lord of Ginúnford turned on his heel and strode away. For a moment, Nick saw not the broken and forsaken creature Grimsbjorn had become, but the powerful, egotistical and proud man he had once fought against so desperately, the man who had plunged a continent into civil war for the sake of his own ambition. The man who fought desperately for his ideals. The man who was more similar to Nick than the fire mage cared to admit.