Rhiannon made her way across the circus ground, her cloak whispering against the dry grass at her feet. It was the height of summer, and although the sun had set, casting the sky in orange and purple, the humidity hung heavy, curling Rhiannon’s hair. They had been in the town of Ilya for two weeks, but Rhiannon was still adjusting to the unfamiliar length of her new haircut, a souvenir from their show in Luthor. It was so short now that curls bounced against her cheeks and the nape of her neck, tickling her skin like phantom bugs.
The haircut was a good thing, she knew, despite how she’d acquired it. The circus was moving on soon, and in a few days, Rhiannon’s debt to the old man would be paid. She’d slip out that last night, get to the main road. She was hoping to go to Wisterium, or the Redthorn Mountains. Somewhere far away from the capital, out in the middle of nowhere, where no one could recognize her.
Around her, the air crackled with anticipation as the performers readied themselves for the evening performance. Torches lit the path Rhiannon walked, illuminating the way to the big top and casting the outlying tents in mysterious shadows. One had to walk off the path to reach Rhiannon’s, the fortune-telling tent, and to meet those other oddities the old man displayed. In the whole of Carterra, his posters said, you’ve never seen anything so strange!
And strange they were. The woman with spikes through her skin, a man with an elongated neck. The boy who was raised by wolves, quite literally…and Rhiannon, the one who could see death—though this was not her job at the circus.
Rhiannon watched the shadows of the acrobats and trapeze artists dance across the canvas, their shapes oddly distorted, given too-long arms and legs. They became menacing as they swung and flipped and danced wildly across the tent wall. She heard the cacophony of laughter ringing inside and hurried her steps, veering out of the torch light.
Her tent, pitched right beside the big top, was miniscule, with only three chairs and a table draped in gauzy purple fabric that shimmered in the candlelight. Rhiannon passed her reading table and stood before the large three-faced mirror. Behind her, the candle on the table flickered, casting her veiled face in even more shadow. With a steady hand, she raised the veil, examining the face beneath with heavy resignation.
Rhiannon was lovely—her curls, though shorter than they used to be, were thick and dark, the colour of walnut. They framed a fine-boned face with high cheekbones and warm ochre skin. It was her eyes that ruined the picture.
Before, her eyes had been deep brown, flecked with the slightest bit of green, but after…Rhiannon’s eyes glowed like melted bronze, a liquidy gold that gave the illusion that her irises were churning like the sea.
When she was young, after the curse settled in her, her mother told her to always wear the veil, to never look people in the eye. It was her mantra, the words she whispered to her six-year-old as she brushed her hair, fingers catching in the tangles.
“It will protect you,” she would murmur. In the mirror, Rhiannon saw her mother’s glassy-eyed reflection—she stared at a spot just above her head, never looking down into her daughter’s eyes. She could feel her mother’s looming presence now too, like a shadow behind her, the reminder that she must not take off the veil.
But Rhiannon had.
Luthor was a coastal town made of sharp cliffs and rocky beaches. The wind roared at the rock face; the waves beat at the shore in a deafening rhythm that jostled the fishers’ boats. It was a town with old values: family, loyalty, religion. The type of close-knit community that worked together for peace, and joined forces against anything they deemed evil.
It wasn’t a particularly rich town, but it had lots of kids, the old man said. They would get money out of the parents. So, the circus came to town.
The first few nights were a delight—the tumblers and trapeze artists awed the crowd with daring tricks, the clowns made laughter echo through the circus—the torch-lit path up to the big top was filled with people queueing for the tent, waiting impatiently to see the heart of the warmth and joy that the circus was so well-known for.
But, in a tent just off the main path, Rhiannon was readying herself for her act. She was the fortune-teller, soothsayer, and every night she prepared the small, contained hearth in the back of her tent with wet wood and leaves. As the smoke filled the tent, shrouding her in mystery and shadow, her patrons listened to what she divined of their futures.
Smoke and mirrors, the lot of it. The only gift of prophecy Rhiannon had was that of death. It was more a curse than a blessing.
Rhiannon examined herself in the gilded mirror as sweet-smelling smoke filled the tent. This was her nightly ritual, the only time she ever took the veil off—when a face appeared over her shoulder.
It was a young boy. His round face was eager, eyes wide with wonder as he took in the smoke-filled tent, the woman shrouded in a deep purple cloak. In the mirror, their eyes met, and the boy went still.
Rhiannon rushed for the veil she’d discarded on the table, knocking over her lantern with a crash, extinguishing the light, but it was too late: a shiver ran through Rhiannon’s body, and suddenly she was at the coast.
Far away, she could smell the cloying scent of her smoke-filled tent, but salty sea air whipped at her face and cloak. She stood on a rock outcropping, the churning waves hundreds of feet below. Rhiannon turned her face inland, looking for the boy. Every ounce of her pleaded that he would not be here, that perhaps she was having a nightmare, but he was.
Rhiannon had spent many days and night in her tent, teaching herself to recognize the features of her victims so she could pinpoint their paths. The boy’s face was still round, his light hair the same length. His death would come in the next few days, then. Weeks, maybe.
In his hands he clutched a kite string. High above them, the beige kite flew through the air, graceful as any sea bird. He grinned as he raced it across the cliff’s edge. Rhiannon pressed a hand to her stomach, hoping to staunch the waves of anxiety churning inside her.
It was no use, of course. The sun was nowhere to be found as clouds rolled across the sea, getting darker by the moment, and the boy was having trouble controlling the kite. He tugged at the string, stepping closer to the edge of the cliff as he tried to claw it back.
Rhiannon watched, entranced, as he took another step, his mouth screwed to the side in concentration. No, Rhiannon wanted to say. Stop.
Rhiannon felt the gust of wind before the boy did—the kite string was ripped from his small hands, and as he leaned forward to catch it, balancing on the tips of his toes, the wind shoved against his back, sending him plummeting for the black water below.
One moment he was there, the next he was not.
Rhiannon turned away.
She blinked into the darkness of her tent, recalling the lantern had fallen over. A headache blossomed at her temples, the familiar after-effect of her visions, but she ignored its aching.
Is the boy still here? She wondered. Will I be able to warn him?
There was a sound like ripping fabric, and a single match flared to life in the heart of the tent. As the lantern was re-lit, light filled the room, illuminating the boy’s pale face. Rhiannon was never sure what happened to the subjects of her visions while she was ensnared in them, but the boy seemed wary of her, now.
“Come in.” The words were a desperate plea, and the boy’s eyes went wide with fear. Rhiannon shook off the disastrous vision, pushing the feeling of foreboding down deep inside her. She smiled sweetly, waving a hand at the boy. “I have much to tell you.”
The boy’s mouth set in a straight line; his small shoulders squared. He couldn’t have been more than twelve, just on the cusp of manhood. Rhiannon wondered whether he would take her advice.
“I have seen something of your future,” she said plainly. She didn’t bother with the far-away voice and mystic hand gestures. She didn’t even bother with putting the veil back on. It was too late now, anyway.
“What have you seen?” The boy’s voice was still high and melodic, it had not yet dropped to that of a man. Maybe he would listen.
“You must not play by the cliff.” Rhiannon warned. The ache in her head intensified. She longed to close her eyes, but the boy looked so confused. “The cliffs are dangerous,” she went on urgently, “If you play by them, you will fall over the side.”
The boy shook his head. “I’m always careful.” His eyes skirted around Rhiannon’s gaze; he looked over her shoulder, into the mirror, where his scared reflection stared back at him three-fold.
A woman’s voice cut through the din of revelers outside the tent. The boy’s—
Thomas’—eyes went wide. “My mother—”
Rhiannon nodded. “I know. Listen carefully, though, yes? Do not play by the cliffs, Thomas.”
The boy nodded, but he would not meet Rhiannon’s eyes. Once was enough. More than enough. He raced from the tent without a second glance, just as his name was called a second time, the sound cutting a wound straight into Rhiannon’s heart.
Three days later, news reached the circus. Thomas had fallen from the cliff.
The old man came and beat her with his staff. Rhiannon was thankful that he had not used the whip. That thankfulness lasted only until he allowed the mob of Luthor folk into the circus ground, where they dragged Rhiannon to the stocks and cut her hair before locking her in the device. They called her names and threw stones that cut her already bruised skin. They screamed at her, screeching that it was Rhiannon’s fault the boy had died. She stayed there for three days.
She felt the weight of her gift grow heavier on her shoulders. They were right. She was not the wind that pushed the boy off the ledge, but she felt like it, in a way. Invisible, powerful… dangerous.
Outside Rhiannon’s tent in Ilya, the circus was open for business. Despite the mirthful music that promised a good show, the circus was devoid of patrons. Travelling as they did, with caravans and coaches, animals in tow, rumour often travelled faster than they did.
Rumour said that Rhiannon killed a boy back in Luthor.
Although Rhiannon had not actually done the killing, the stain of the crime had sunk into the cracks and crevices of the circus, leeching into the fabric of the tents and blackening the glitz and glitter, staining the very ground the circus was built on.
The old man could feel it settling over his show, his pride and joy, and immediately knew what had caused it. Though blessed with no gifts himself, the old man had a talent for finding those gifts in others and using his cruelty to exploit it. He saw it reflected in Rhiannon’s golden eyes when she was just nine years old, eyes that showed death and that other thing the god of death reigned over: riches.
It was easy to take the girl from her mother. The woman was a sickly thing, practically skin and bones. He found it peculiar that she didn’t say goodbye to her daughter, hardly even looked at her as the old man dragged her away, paying the woman’s miniscule debt in trade for her child.
“She is cursed,” the woman spit. She knelt beside the hearth in the small hut they called a home and prayed to the gods for forgiveness. The old man had set up the circus in the next town over, and caught the girl sneaking in without paying admission the day before. She wore a veil, which he tore from her head as he shook her roughly, demanding payment.
The instant he looked into her eyes he felt a distant shiver: someone had walked over his grave. The little girl went rigid in his arms, her gaze far in the future. He wouldn’t know her gift until her mother confessed it that day, by the hearth. Still, he didn’t ask to hear the details of his death, and Rhiannon was not forthcoming. He put it out of his mind entirely, in fact, until the day he felt the stain of Rhiannon’s curse on his circus and vowed to put a stop to her madness.
Rhiannon sat calmly at her reading table, awaiting her first customer. The smoke filling the tent added intense pressure to the heat of the summer evening, stifling Rhiannon in her thick cloak. The other performers told her it would add mystery to her performance. In reality, all it did was make Rhiannon sticky with sweat.
At some point in her life, she’d become accustomed to the sights and sounds of the circus—the merry music, the chatter of the crowd, even the noise and stench of the lions and bears: all this was familiar to her. Perhaps the most familiar sound was the heavy gait of the old man as he tore across the circus grounds. No matter how loud the circus was, if he came near Rhiannon, chances were her ears would perk up like a cat, all her senses flaring to catch if he was coming for her.
Today was no different, although the deserted circus made it easier for Rhiannon to hear his clomping footsteps, set against the harsh buzz of the cicadas. The tent flaps were shoved aside, parting the thick smoke.
“This is your doing, isn’t it?”
Rhiannon lifted her chin, despite the beating that could come as a result of her stubbornness. “What do you mean?”
The old man flung his arms behind him, out to the empty circus. “You’ve cursed us,” he spit. “No one is coming.”
“That is hardly my fault. I warned the boy, like I told you. He fell.”
“You as good as killed him.” The old man’s hand came up swiftly: he took steps across the small space, inches from Rhiannon. She held in a sigh.
Her hands came up: an outsider would expect her to protect her face from the blow, but she lifted the veil, allowing slightly cooler air to wash over her face. Her eyes were the one weapon she had against him, and she used them whenever she could.
The old man went rigid, his hand stalling in the air as their eyes met across the tent. As he shivered, feeling his death without seeing it, the vision flashed in front of Rhiannon’s eyes. A dark tent, a sword slick with blood, the figure of a familiar, slim man standing in the candlelight. The vision did not draw her in as it had when she was nine. This was but an after image, something she could flash by.
When the vision passed, she saw the old man’s hand was down at his side, fingering the whip at his belt. “Put it back on,” he snarled, wariness in his eyes. “You’ll curse us all.”
Rhiannon let the veil fall over her eyes once more, covering the world in black lace. “As you say.”
The old man’s lip curled at one side; his face contorted with rage. “Be warned, girl.” His words carried the threat, though he stepped back towards the exit. “If your debt wasn’t almost paid, I’d kill you now.”
Rhiannon knew he spoke the truth. One day, probably soon, he would do it. He would kill her, if she didn’t escape first.
Word passed around Ilya: the circus had come to town. But this was accompanied by other, more dangerous rumours. People murmured to each other in back-alleys and dark corners: the fortune-teller was a murderer; the circus was ruined…the old man was getting frail in his old age. This rumour had been around since the troupe had visited Luthor, and it was this that inspired Rhiannon’s escape.
In the quiet hours just before dawn, two days after the old man’s threat, Rhiannon snuck from her tent, cloak wrapped carefully around her to conceal the pack she carried. It was full of the things she treasured: a photo of her long-deceased father, her mother’s silver brush, clothes and some money she had stashed away. The veil was over her face as usual.
No one heard her footsteps as she crept across the circus ground. It was a different kind of deserted: the world was quiet, the torches unlit. No one would be coming to visit the circus at this time.
In the days leading up to her escape, Rhiannon expected to be nervous when the time came. The anxious feeling of a new experience had hollowed in her gut the night before, but as she rose and gathered her things, disappearing across the field, all she felt was a sense of bitter-sweet freedom. There was a cost to things like this, and the gods always ensured their debts were paid. The dagger at her waist felt heavy.
Fleeing into the woods of Ilya that would lead her to the main road, Rhiannon looked back at the field of dark tents. She could just see hers from the edge of the woods. If she had ripped down the tent, or set it alight, it might be like she’d never come to the circus at all.
In the heart of the circus, the biggest tent was reserved for the ringmaster. He slept on a bed of luxurious furs; his tent extravagantly furnished with silver accents and exotic designs. The old man lay sleeping among these furs, one hand curled around a whiskey bottle. His snores masked the steps of the intruder as he slipped secretly into the ringmaster’s tent. A well-burned candle sat by the bed, illuminating the old man’s face, casting shadows across the cruel lines and showing the depth of his wrinkles. The intruder’s sword was already out, the tip glinting in the dim light.
The intruder raised his weapon, expertly slicing the old man’s throat. He was dead before the first drop of blood hit the carpet.
The sword, slick with blood, was sheathed as the intruder ransacked the tent, stuffing money and valuables into this pack. Anything that could be sold for a price, spirited away. The intruder would be rich.
Before he left, he leaned close to the old man’s bedside. The candlelight illuminated his face, revealing features that were sharp and young, dark eyes and shoulder-length hair tied with a cord of leather. With a serpent’s smile, he blew out the candle.
Rhiannon waited by the road, wary of the two horses tied to a post nearby. They were chestnut and palomino, each monstrous, towering above her. She’d never been a fan of horses. She watched as they grazed, heads to the grass, ears flattened by the wind. The night was inky black, and Rhiannon stared into it, trying to ignore the shadows of the forest. She dreaded what might be lurking there—she’d heard stories of Fae, but it was those creatures that preyed on the Fae, those that the Fae were scared to speak of…those frightened her.
If she could just get through the next few moments, put some distance between herself and the circus, she would be fine. Maybe she would never be scared of anything ever again.
There was a crack in the forest to her left—Rhiannon whirled around, heart racing, one hand ready on the dagger at her waist—but it was just Jonah.
Rhiannon relaxed, though her hand did not move from her belt. It was almost time, then. “Is it done?” she asked in the darkness.
A lantern flared to life. There was a dark smile on Jonah’s face, though it didn’t reach his eyes. They were black as ink, and empty as a well. She knew from the first time they’d met that he liked pain and death, relished it, even.
He stalked towards her, setting the lantern on a nearby rock. “He’s dead,” he confirmed. “Would you like to see the proof? I’ve got the old man’s treasure here.” He patted the sack. “Or maybe you’d rather see the blood?” His hand settled on the sword at his side, but Rhiannon did not want to see.
“If he’s truly dead, let’s go.” Though she turned her body towards the horses, she knew what was coming. Icy dread chilled her veins.
“I think you’re forgetting something.” Jonah’s hand slammed into the tree behind Rhiannon as he crowded her, pressing her against the bark. She turned her face away as his breath curled against her cheek. She held her breath, torn between two views: watching the scene from the road, and here at the tree, the dagger heavy and hot in her hand.
Jonah ripped the veil from her face, his other hand reaching for the folds of her cloak. As their eyes met, he stilled.
Before the vision could flash through Rhiannon’s mind for a second time, she blinked it away and drew the dagger, using all her strength to sink it into his gut.
Jonah’s eyes went wide. He gasped, his strength failing him as he fell forward, catching himself on the tree. Rhiannon slipped out from under his arm as the coppery tang of blood filled the air. He turned his head, the beginnings of a curse on his blood-flecked lips, but as he turned to grab at her, he fell backwards. His eyes dragged away from the canopy above his head, landing on Rhiannon, hate-filled and angry. She breathed deeply as the adrenaline surged through her; every buzz of the cicadas, every chomp of the horses munching their grass: every sound had the delicate hairs on her arms standing up. Even the stars looked brighter.
Rhiannon leaned over Jonah. His breath came slower now; it was almost the end. The veil gone, she leaned over him to look in his eyes, seeing his confusion, but also that hunger, the underlying glint of savagery that lingered in his soul.
Rhiannon had seen it the day they met, the day she learned it was her or him.
She was weak, failing fast as she hung in the stocks for another scorching day. Her lips were beginning to crack, too dry without water, her scalp itched from the sun. The scratches and bruises weren’t healing well in the heat: flies landed on her every now and then to taste her blood. For the first day, she shook them off. Now she didn’t bother; her back ached from standing hunched, and her legs threatened to buckle. But she stood steady, waiting for the old man to come and collect her.
He’ll be back soon, she told herself. But of course, she wasn’t sure.
That was when Jonah had come to her. She didn’t learn his name until he came to her after dark, appearing in her tent the night after she’d been released. A pair of dark, dusty boots appeared before her.
“Do you want some help?” he asked her, his voice a mockery of kindness.
She’d nodded, unable to speak. Any words she tried would end up as a whimper of pain. They’d taken her veil, so it was a surprise when a hand gripped her shorn hair, tilting her neck in a painful arch. The man stooped down to look in her eyes.
His were dark as night, and in the split second before the vision came to her, she saw the evil that lurked in him, hidden behind a veil similar to her own.
As the vision gripped her, Rhiannon saw a fork in the path before her. She had never seen two versions of the future before, but it seemed the gods had smiled on her, for once in her miserable life, and decided to allow her a choice.
She stood by a roadside, disoriented. The pressing heat had gone, a cool breeze kissed her face as it whisked by. It was pitch black, but not far ahead, Rhiannon watched as a light flared to life in the forest. Nearby, a sign told her to head north for Ilya, or west for Luthor.
“Is it done?” she heard herself ask. The pair exchanged words, but Rhiannon was focused on her other self. This other Rhiannon’s hair was short, cut close to her head, but she did not look older. This would be soon. She watched as the man that stood before her in Luthor, the one with the dark eyes, came menacingly towards her, too close. He pressed her to the tree she stood against, and then with a sharp smack, knocked her to the ground.
Rhiannon did not care to watch the rest, and turned away, covering her ears. When it was over, the man with the dark eyes left the injured Rhiannon by the roadside, beaten, bloody, and dying. He took a pack with him as he made for the horses, riding down the road and out of sight. Rhiannon watched as she died, alone, unable to even see the stars.
Her death was the first path. Jonah’s was the second.
The second time she watched the exchange, Rhiannon paid attention. She heard them speak of the old man, heard this new man say he was dead. He’d killed him. An idea nagged at the back of Rhiannon’s mind, but she focused as the man stepped out of the woods. This time, though, Rhiannon watched herself stand straight and steady, a hand on her dagger. When the man came too close, Rhiannon sheathed her knife in his gut, pulling it out in one smooth motion.
Both of these paths flashed in front of her eyes in seconds. As she came back around, with the man’s dark eyes before her, his hand still holding her hair, she knew which path she would choose. She offered the man, both her saviour and her enemy, a small, pleading smile. “Please, help me.”
Rhiannon waited until the light left Jonah’s eyes before taking the sack he carried. She took his stolen goods, his dagger and sword, and his cloak, for good measure. When she’d cleaned her dagger on the grass at the roadside, she looked up at the stars.
The gods had decided to show her two paths that day in Luthor: she could either die, alone and afraid, or gather her courage and survive.
Rhiannon had never been outside the circus in the eleven years she’d travelled with it. They went where the old man wanted, when he wanted. She had the vaguest notion of what the continent looked like, but beyond that…Rhiannon had nowhere to go.
Still, she heaved herself into the saddle of the palomino, taking the reins of the other horse, and nudged it into a clop. The night was warm, and Rhiannon relished the breeze on her uncovered face as she started away from the circus that once held her life hostage.
She did not look back.