The Big Top plunged into darkness, and the air stilled as a thousand and more eager souls held their breaths. Their electric anticipation was contagious, and only when he was sure Claude wasn't watching did Abacus close his eyes and hold his breath with the assembled crowd.
Every year, for three days and four nights, the cobbled, worn down streets of Nimble City came to life with the arrival of Virgo's Magnificent Big Top Traveling Circus. It was such an event that the people would string pennant banners between the lampposts and line the doors of businesses with festive paper lanterns.
Honest workers and filthy street rats put aside their differences for a little while to share cold drinks on hot afternoons. Excited children put together games in between trips under the big tent and the usually abandoned town of fifteen hundred swelled to accommodate two thousand or more entertainment enthusiasts.
No seat went unfilled in the giant maroon and gold striped tent that night, though. Young and old, the whole town sat in the shadows until a powerful stage light snapped on and a drumroll clattered through the silence. While every night provided unforgettable shows, it was the fourth night that everyone always looked forward to, the night when Virgo himself would take the stage and cast illusions that seemed to have no basis in reality.
Abacus opened his eyes as though to better to see his own memories; memories of a man in a mask who could spin air into fire and turn dangerous tigers into mewling lap cats. Claude said the tricks were nothing but that: tricks, gimmicks, lies, but there was bad blood between Claude and the Ringmaster, and Abacus had never seen magician's wire in any of Virgo's shows. If the act was a fraud, it was a damn good one.
As if in tune to his thoughts, Claude cuffed him over the ear. Abacus faced his boss, shoulders hunched apologetically, but Claude wasn't one for forgiveness. If anything, the round man's scowl deepened and he bared stained teeth.
"I don't pay you to stand around, boy. Get back to work!"
He swung a trolley laden with buckets of feed around and caught the silver sequined leotards and plumed white feather headdresses and tails of the showgirls filing in. They bickered amiably, a product of nerves, and worried at their costumes.
"Good luck, ladies!" he said.
The troupe of woman stopped squabbling and beamed at him. "Thank you, Abby!" they chorused together.
They blew kisses at him and he chuckled, putting his weight against the trolley. Cigarette smoke and laughter mixed in the warm night, and he pushed past his co-workers. Most of them loitered around the tent flap, trading banter while waiting to hear their cue, but they moved aside for him.
"Knock them elephants dead, kid!" one of the strongmen shouted, loud enough for his friends to hear.
"Don't be jealous of the elephants," Abacus said over the barks of laughter. "If you like my act so much, you can stick around and watch."
His response seemed to win the men over because they all howled mightily and one patted him on the back with a bear paw of a hand. It jolted the air out of his lungs, but the smile on his face remained.
"Go get in costume before that prick you call a boss finds you."
Abacus snorted and leaned against the trolley. "Too late for that. Good luck out there!"
He carried on toward a nondescript red and white tent on the far side of the Big Top and his grin dissolved. Handlers moved in and out and around the tent like disturbed ants, shouting commands at each other over the aggrieved trumpeting of an elephant. His chest tightened, but he wheeled the trolley in after a steel-jawed woman. She carried a braided bullwhip in one hand, and when his vision adjusted to the inside of the tent, he knew why. The noise got to him first. It was so angry and shrill, even for an elephant, but then he saw the animal.
She—all the elephants were female—struggled against the chains that kept all four of her feet on the ground. Her handlers had strapped a metal collar around her neck and were laying into the backs of her legs with clubs, screaming at her to lie down. She screamed back, swinging her trunk wildly out of the grasp of a catch pole.
"Enough!" the woman shouted over the din. "Enough, I said!"
The exhausted handlers shuffled away. The elephant panted audibly, but Abacus held his breath. The elephants weren't animals he was trained for. He didn't do anything for them, really, except bring their food in during shows. Of all the things he could have walked in on, he certainly didn't want it to be this.
"Lie down," the woman said.
Her voice was loud, but there was nothing threatening in her tone. Abacus looked at the elephant, silently urging her to obey, but she remained upright, challenge bright in her eyes.
The bullwhip uncurled. "Lie. Down."
Nothing could have enraged the elephant more than the sight of that bullwhip. She flared her ears and snorted aggressively. The woman smiled, unperturbed, stepped closer and the elephant set up a fuss, struggling and trumpeting and swinging her trunk.
"I said lie down!"
Abacus saw the first hit in the way her face twisted, and he turned aside, but the crack of the whip was a shot of thunder. His heart leapt, and though it wasn't his flesh splitting open under the whip, or his screams of agony that filled the tent, he flinched at each stroke until his eyes burned and his fingers ached from gripping at the trolley.
The elephants weren't his business, and he knew not all circus animals were trained equally, but he couldn't make himself leave. Not while the elephant was still suffering, anyway.
Probing softness touched the back of his calf and he twisted around, a gasp on his lips. From between the bars, a small upside-down heart waved at him, and he relaxed. In all the commotion, he had forgotten about the other four elephants. The three adults stood motionless in their cages, either too frightened by the beating of their companion, or too broken to care.
"Hey, little one," he whispered, scooping a handful of feed pellets.
She ignored the food when he offered it, choosing instead to clutch at his wrist timidly. Her trunk, warm and soft, clung to him with all the tenacity of a small child's grip, and he knelt beside her cage to pet her fuzzy forehead. She fluttered her ears and moved closer.
"I'm sorry, little one."
The screaming waned to tired grunts, but the whip never stopped. Abacus watched the elephant finally kneel to the ground. Dark wetness streaked down her forehead and trunk, and when the woman whipped at her to stand, he saw glistening patches behind each leg.
"Left foot!" the woman said. The whip snapped; the elephant raised her left foot as high as the chains would allow. "Right foot!" Crack! A tired grunt and the rattle of chains. The same process repeated for the back feet.
She shook her head, flared her ears, and trumpeted loudly. For a second, Abacus was afraid her will had returned, but then he noticed the other elephants copying her. Even the baby elephant shook her head slightly, her dark eyes brimming with fear. Abacus swallowed a hard lump of disgust and pity.
"Now," the woman said, and hers was the voice of the conqueror, of the victorious, sadistic master. "Lie down."
Defeated, the elephant obeyed without a hint of resistance.
The handlers clapped and cheered, like that was the show they had all been waiting for. Abacus felt sick.
"That's how you do it, boys. All these animals need is a strong, persistent hand. Now, get her in costume, she's cost us time!"
He looked away before she turned around, but she still noticed him.
"You there! Get away from that elephant!"
The baby elephant let go of his wrist and shuffled further into her cage. Abacus stood and grabbed the trolley. He tried not to look at the blood-soaked whip.
"I was just feeding her, ma'am."
"The elephants eat after the show. You show these beasts a lick of compassion and they'll never work for you. Out!"
He wanted to tell her that Kashmir didn't beat her tigers and they worked plenty for her, but she twisted him away and pushed him out of the tent.
The ghosts of cigarette smoke and laughter lingered in the air, and a man on stilts crossed in front of him, heading for the Big Top. Music radiated from the giant tent, but the thought of sneaking in to watch didn't appeal to him as much anymore.
The shout came from his left and he turned to see his performance partner stomping toward him with a less than happy look on her face made only more intimidating by the pale strip of flesh that started at her jawline and lanced across the bridge of her nose. He couldn't tell if she was angry because she had been forced to comb the grounds for him, or because she had been forced to comb the grounds for him in full costume—a costume that included a set of thigh high boots she absolutely hated wearing.
Whatever the case, she made her displeasure known. "Where have you been? Do you know how long I've been looking for you? And why aren't you in costume?"
He held up his hands. "Sorry, Kash. I had to give the elephants their food."
"You took your sweet time with it," she said, and grabbed his arm. "The tigers have already been moved. We don't have all night."
The campground sat as far from the Big Top, and as a result, the city, as possible, so that by the time they approached their tent, the only things visible were the lights strung about the Big Top. Crickets chirped in lieu of music, and sweet grass thickened the air. Temper dissolved, she let him go, and he ducked into their shared tent.
When he adjusted to the dark, he found his costume already out on his cot. He rolled his eyes. "Thanks, Kash!"
"I knew you were going to get caught up like you always do," came her dutiful reply.
He dressed as quickly as he could in semi-darkness, pocketing a jar of pomade and a comb before stepping back out. Other than the fact that his boots stopped at the knees, they matched in every other way. They both carried a stock whip on their belts, and they both sported creme yellow jackets with red faux-velvet trim and high crimson collars. The simple design made the outfits cheap; asking for them in such a hideous color made them even cheaper.
He buttoned his jacket up with one hand while Kashmir fixed the cuffs on his other sleeve. She set a stiff pace and though he managed to keep up, he was sweating by the end of it.
Greeting Claude was another reason to sweat. His splotchy face promised a verbal lashing. Kashmir didn't so much as flinch at his approach.
"Where have you two been? It's almost time for us to be on stage and my tiger tamers are where? Cavorting off into the night like they have all the time in the world! And boy! Look at your hair! Fix it before I fix your face!"
"Sorry, sir," Abacus said, digging into his pocket.
He took out the pomade and unscrewed the top, turning his back on Claude's rage. The second half of Claude's troupe—a trio of contortionists—watched silent from the sidelines, sympathy and anger mixed in their eyes. Abacus smiled and winked at Hera, the youngest of the group, while he ran the styling gel through his hair, and she offered a small smile in return.
Cheering and clapping drew their attention and Abacus ran the comb through his hair a couple of times while the voice on the loudspeaker announced them.
"Before the Great Virgo can take the stage, we need to take a short break. In the meantime, our sideshow companions would like to delight you with a wonderful show." A light drum roll started up. "Presenting, S.C Claude, and his Contortionist Three!"
"'And his contortionist three'," Claude muttered under his breath as he walked out. "Like they get their own show. Pah!"
Still, he stretched a grin across his face and waved accordingly. The audience welcomed his troupe with applause, but their enthusiasm swelled when handlers wheeled three large cages into the ring.
"That's right," Claude said through his teeth, his smile unwavering. "This is the show you really came for. Not some third rate magician and her parlor tricks."
Aloud, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming tonight! I hope you enjoy the acts you are about to see!"
Abacus fell back to the tiger cages while Kashmir wandered offstage and the spotlight fell to their contortionist companions, who tumbled into position to the beat of jaunty accordion music. The crowd ooh-ed and aah-ed to watch the contortionist pair combine acrobatics and flexibility in a strange dance across the ring.
Various objects joined the routine. The woman fit herself neatly into a small bucket. The man scrunched into an even smaller box. The crowd cheered when both contortionists zipped themselves into luggage bags.
Kashmir returned, rolling a large circular box ahead of her. She wedged the top off to show the audience it was empty. Skepticism buzzed and Abacus tried not to look bored. Three other nights he had to watch this same trick. He was ready to get back on the road.
While Kashmir walked off stage again, the contortionists unzipped themselves and took account of their numbers. The woman looked stumped. How could they be the Contortionist Three if she was only counting two? She shrugged and motioned for her partner to get into the box. She climbed in after him, and then whistled to grab Claude's attention.
Ever the performer, he placed a hand to chest and drew himself up in mock disbelief. The children in the audience squealed with laughter, though Abacus wasn't sure why. The round man was the least amusing part of the act. Claude marched over, and per silent instruction, put the top on.
"All right, tigers," Abacus said, watching Claude approach with the boxed in contortionists. "Time to do our thing."
He snatched a heavy black tarp from the top of one cage and draped it over the largest of the three cages, cloaking the pacing tiger inside. Kashmir joined his side, and with Claude's help, the three of them lifted the box on top of the cage. Confusion rippled through the crowd, but Abacus relaxed as he helped Kashmir adjust the box. The hard part was over, at least.
Claude produced a handkerchief and mopped at his dripping forehead. "Almost through. Let's finish strong."
The handkerchief disappeared in his sleeve. He faced the audience and amused them with a trivial tale about people sometimes turning into tigers, but that wasn't going to happen tonight, was it, Kashmir?
Kashmir rolled her eyes, and Abacus snickered behind his hand.
"But before we open the gate for the tiger, how about we let our bendy friends out of that box first, hmm, Kashmir?" Claude said.
"Sure thing, boss!" Kashmir shouted. "Just tell me when."
The top of the box shifted and then came off after her line and the woman stood, her painted burgundy lips pulled in a smile. She stepped out of the box and feigned surprise when Hera followed. Hera dropped to her forearms and swung her feet over her head until the backs of her heels settled in front of her grinning face. The crowd gasped and clapped in delight.
"When is our final—" Claude started.
"Did you say 'when'?" Kashmir said, pulling a sliding gate on the side of the cage. There was a clang from inside, a roar, and a spattering of gasps.
"Kashmir, no!" Claude said too late.
Both woman and girl contortionist stared down into the box, hands covering their mouths as they expressed silent horror. They jumped from the top of the cage and scampered off stage just as a huge tiger sprang from the cage and leapt to the ground.
To the audience, it probably looked like the animal had jumped straight out of the box, but in reality, it was just a trick of the eye. The box separated in half on an undetectable seam, and so long as the back half remained in line with the front, it was nearly impossible to discern a gap when staring straight ahead.
"Could it be?" Claude said. "A member of our crew has turned into a tiger! The only way to get him to turn back is if we make him realize what he is. Abacus, our friend is going to need some help from a real tiger."
Abacus nodded and walked up to the front of the cage. "Ready, Ba-Shu?" he whispered. The tiger inside reached out with his paw and patted him on the head.
Howls of laughter and whoops of joy filled the big top as the "contortionist" tiger attempted to perform tricks and poses. Kashmir released the other two tigers to complete the ensemble, and the animals leapt, flew, and balanced to music.
For Abacus, there was no greater joy than watching Kashmir command her tigers. She cracked her whip in the air and all four big cats sat on their haunches, front paws raised. She raised her hand in the shape of a gun and shot at each tiger. Not a word passed from her lips, yet the tigers groaned and played dead obediently. Even the contortionist tiger, who twisted her head left and right in confusion before dropping to the dirt.
The audience cheered and Abacus grinned along with them. Kashmir winked at him and then cracked her whip, rousing the tigers to their feet. A second crack and they each took to a pedestal.
Abacus took a second to wipe the sweat from his eyes and then he hefted a giant plastic hoop out of the dirt. It was the last trick of the night, and the tigers knew it. They tensed at his approach, crouched for the jump. He crossed paths with his furry work companions, changing the position of the hoop for each tiger, and then the act hit a wall at Ba-Shu.
Immediately started from Abacus's POV. Set time period around 1890-91, though obviously the universe is alternate. Added in an elephant scene to get a little more depth in the setting. For a revised first chapter, what do you think? Are scenes that were unclear before clear now?