The City of Ravensberg, Southern Territory, Present Day
Funny; I could've sworn there were only 30.
Martin Skyblade blinked his slanted eyes against the muted noon sun. He didn't particularly care how many stripes radiated overhead from the center of the tent's canopy. He did care, however, that his right foot was falling asleep from standing statue-still on an unstable perch for what seemed an eternity. Hoping another inconsistent count might divert his attention from the numbing sensation, he started again.
"Sorry,m'dear." Reina lifted her grey-streaked head and smiled apologetically around the two pins she held in her teeth. "I was so absorbed listenin' to your friend, I wasn't payin' attention to what I was doin'."
Carefully, Martin swiveled around on the teetering stool. Kaolin stood behind him with a scroll half unrolled in his hands. The ebony haired elf grinned and shrugged. "Don't blame me if the ladies want to hear the latest from the heralds."
"Of course not," Martin grumbled, as he rubbed his backside. "I'm blaming you for having me skewered."
Kaolin came around to observe Reina's progress with the hem. "Are you through with him yet? We've a rehearsal to get to."
"Now don't figure you can order me around just because you've brought the news, Master Kaolin." Reina said, not looking up. "Since I've lost that nice half-elf fellow that was here, I've been rather shorthanded."
Puzzled, Martin glanced down at the elderly seamstress. "I thought I saw him around last week?"
"Aye, you did. But he didn't show up two days ago and I haven't seen him since. I was always under the impression, Master Martin," she looked at him pointedly, "that half-elves were a dependable sort."
With a deft movement of her wrinkled, limber fingers, she snapped the thread and tied off the knot. "There now, you're all done."
Sighing in relief, Martin stepped down. He heard Reina's very maternal "tsk" and turned around. "What's the matter?"
"You'd better stop getting carved up like a roast or I'll have to add sleeves to hide all them marks." Reina shook her head as she tapped a pinkish scar arching over Martin's right shoulder.
"That one's three months old, Reina." He did his best to sound reassuring. "I haven't been in any scrapes since. You can even ask Kaolin."
"Oh, he's been as good as gold." answered Kaolin drily. "Fool's gold."
Leaning over his friend's arm, Martin caught sight of the "urgent" news written boldly in red. "More news about the Northern Villages?"
Kaolin flipped the scroll onto the worktable. "That's all they've been reporting about lately. I, for one, don't believe there is a 'fortress of unspeakable evil' located on those borders."
"I've heard," said Reina, "that they come and pull people out of their homes at night and no one ever sees them again."
"You'd think these folks would have more sense than to sow panic into people." Kaolin shook his head, "Straight facts are all anyone is asking for."
Martin continued scanning the scroll until he felt his friend's emphatic tug on his arm. "Wait a minute. I'm not finished reading."
The much taller elf seized his shoulders and spun him towards the door. "Yes you are, my friend. We're late."
"Don't forget these." Reina handed Martin the soft-soled boots and bracers that accompanied the acrobat's uniform. "Be kind to an old lady, dear, and take care of things. This is Last Night after all."
After shouldering his gear and weapons, Martin gave the old seamstress a quick kiss on the cheek. "I promise, Reina. You're a treasure."
Outside the stifling confines of the wardrobe tent, the grounds burst with activity. Tonight marked the last performance of Greystone's Amazing Acrobatic Troupe. Affectionately dubbed "Last Night" by the locals, it was their one chance to see their beloved and renowned circus before the performers took their winter holiday break. Villagers booked rooms at the inns just to see the event or even stole places near the outdoor rings. Even before the shops opened, small groups of people dotted the hillside, provisions in tow.
"This isn't good." Kaolin muttered, his curly head shaking in frustration. "We'll never get through this mob. Come on, we'll have to risk the outer crowd."
Skirting along the edge of the smaller tents, Martin did his best to keep up. Being almost a head shorter than his friend, he lost sight of him a couple of times. The fact that Kaolin was taking long strides to make up for lost valuable time did not help either.
A sudden pull on his wrist nearly caused him to stumble and he found himself face to neck with one of the young ladies from the local inn. Her smile was nothing short of predatory.
"Word along the grapevine says you're available. Is it truth or are you spreading rumors?"
"Hello, Freia." Martin immediately stepped back to put distance between them. One did not have to be a cleric to understand why Freia was on the prowl. The fact that she was the mistress of the wealthy merchant, Serris Matt, did not bode well for him. He looked for a way out but a solid wall of bustling bodies blocked his escape. "Why would I spread a rumor?"
Freia rolled her painted eyes and closed the gap between them. "Oh, I don't know. To cause trouble, maybe? I can certainly help you do that."
With speed surprising for a human she leaned in and kissed him firmly on the lips. As she ran her hands through his hair, her tapered fingernails carelessly clipped the sensitive pointed tips of his ears. Her cloying perfume almost choked him and she did not give him a chance to breathe. Martin desperately pulled aside to escape before her hands could wander any further or lower. Suddenly his heart sank; he spotted a well dressed man striding right towards them.
"I think I have plenty of trouble without your help," he sighed, grateful for the chance to draw in a breath of fresh air.
"Freia!" Serris bellowed, "What are you doing here in the common area? And with a…oh…"
Martin could feel the human's eyes upon him, examining him like a rare beetle. Over the years he became accustomed to such scrutiny. With his mixed heritages, it was unavoidable. As he smoothed down his tousled hair, he thought it best to provide an answer before Serris kept him here for another lifetime. "Half-elf."
Serris lifted his chin as if he could see better down the bridge of his nose. His attempt to sound pompous gave his voice an annoying nasal quality. "Oh,yes, I see."
Years of self indulgence was evident in the merchant's physique. His belly draped with heavy brocade did little to flatter his frame. Martin almost wanted to laugh aloud; clearly Freia was not with Serris for his physical prowess.
"You'd best stay away from my lady Freia, runt. She's probably too much woman for you to handle!" The merchant drew himself up to his full height and girth.
Looking in the direction of the overly–painted "lady", who was eyeing a group of his fellow acrobats, Martin smirked. "She's too much for anyone, I agree."
"Watch your tongue, whatever- you- are. I have a high rank in this town!" A jewelry laden hand roughly shoved his shoulder for emphasis.
Shadows flickered across Martin's eyes; he reached for his sword without hesitation. Before he could draw the blade, a long arm reached through the crowd, pulling him back into the throng. He collided with a slightly stressed Kaolin.
"Where did you go? I turned around and you weren't there!" Kaolin's voice softened as he noticed the colourful smudges. "I see Freia left her mark. Your left cheek, chin and mouth. Are you alright?"
His fists and jaw tightly clenched, Martin didn't immediately answer. His cheeks were flushed from the degrading encounter. "No." he growled.
"Well, it's like we tell you. For good or for ill, you're going to turn heads wherever you go. At least you didn't have to use your sword this time, right?" Kaolin looked at him, knowingly.
"Only because the idiot pulled rank. If it was a brawl like all the other times, I would've been on equal ground." Before anyone else noticed, Martin hurriedly wiped off the offending makeup.
"Sadly, my friend, those 'idiots' pay our wages. Curse it to high heaven but that is the scourge of all races here. And besides," continued Kaolin, "Greystone had to remove from the tour the towns you brawled in. It would be a terrible thing if we had to stop performing in our own hometown."
"I know." Martin recalled something his mother had once said. "He's just 'one bad apple'."
The pair continued along the causeway, then turned off towards the main tent. The spacious area allowed people to find their way back and forth to the seats and the food tents that started to spring up around the perimeter.
Kaolin's eyes widened slightly. "Hello, what's this?"
A heavy set man and his wife stood in front of the entrance to the main tent. At first, Martin felt a bit anxious, until he noticed the children. Kaolin made a sweeping motion with his arms, inviting the people to come closer.
"Remember." his thoughts sounded almost paternal. "Be charming."
"Thank you, O venerable mentor." Martin genially returned as he dropped down on one knee.
The eager pint sized group crowded around him. Their happy chatter and breathless questions surrounded him like a colorful cocoon. One shy little girl reached up to touch his ears; this time however, he did not mind.
"That's enough children. We have to find our seats, now." Shepherded by the smiling woman, the little ones scampered away. Their farewells were a cacophony of high pitched voices and even as they toddled off, they continued to wave.
Waving in return, Martin climbed to his feet and dusted off his trousers. When he saw the father had remained behind he stopped, uncertain of what to expect.
The man smiled, extended a large, calloused hand. "Good luck, acrobat."
Stunned by his good wishes, Martin returned the handshake. "Th-thank you, sir. Enjoy the show."
He watched the family head through the crowd. "So, there is hope."
"There always is." Kaolin grinned, putting his arm around his friend's shoulders as they entered the tent.
The cool shade of the main tent loomed over them, their footsteps muffled by the sand. Kaolin pointed to the warm up area set off to the side of the tent's rings.
"Limber up." he suggested. "I know you'll feel better after that."
Martin ran his hand over the smooth wood of the warm-up bar, calmed by the solid comfort it offered. Carefully, he removed the freshly repaired tunic and laid it on the bar along with the bracers. He changed into the softer boots, securing them with the flat, button closures that ran along the lower leg of his trousers.
Tension bled away as he worked his muscles. By the time he stretched out his quadriceps, he felt balanced and ready to perform.
"So we're short-staffed." complained Kaolin. "Reina and Bren both without help. But Bren's half-elf fellow was a drifter, so that doesn't surprise me. If you pull a stunt like that I'll hunt you down for the rest of my days. You'll get me fired."
"It's hard for me to disappear when you know where I live." Martin countered, not looking up from the bar.
"True." Kaolin took a seat on a nearby barrel. "What do you and Cyndia have planned for the break?"
"Well, there's still time to plan something, I suppose?"
"No, I mean absolutely nothing. We're not together anymore. I'm surprised you don't know." Martin remarked flatly,
remembering Freia's words. "All the towns-women do."
"Hm." Kaolin mused. "Then they're slowing down; gossip usually travels faster than that. I thought the two of you were getting along so well."
Seemingly unbothered by the turn of events in his social life, Martin headed towards the center ring. A long, white, narrow platform led to a pair of fabric panels suspended from the rigging. "So did I." he said, "But according to her I wasn't spending enough time on the courting during the summer."
"Summer? As in the time when you were on tour for six months?" asked Kaolin following him to the ring.
"You did tell her we tour, right? Especially in summer?"
"Then, what part of "Cross Country Tour" did she not understand?" Kaolin threw up his hands, exasperated.
"I guess none of it. " Martin replied as he started to climb up the lengths of fabric. "She said something about writing love letters, sonnets and all. But, I overheard her talking with some friends and she started to sound more like a…a…What is it that you always call them?"
Kaolin smirked. "An attention grabbing, center-ring hungry, emotionally needy fruit bat?"
"That's it." Martin was halfway to the top when he felt a firm tug on the cloth; Kaolin motioned for him to descend. Wrapping the fabric around his arm and the crook of his leg, he slid down horizontally until he was eye level with his friend.
"What's really bothering you?" Kaolin jabbed his finger into Martin's chest. "You've stopped courting girls before and I've never seen you make a mistake. Now, all of a sudden, I've heard you slipped, nearly came down on your head. You, of all people. And you're practicing way past close down time, more nights than usual. I'm afraid I'm going to find you in here dead from overwork. Come on, little brother, what is it?"
"I didn't know I was so easy to read."
Kaolin couldn't help but laugh; his trademark grin lit up his slanted, emerald eyes. He punched the half elf's shoulder and the force moved him like a pendulum.
"Martin, you are without a doubt, the worst liar I know. Hiding things just doesn't come naturally to you. If anyone was to interrogate you, they'd be done in seconds."
"That's what happens when you have a father who can read your thoughts." Martin slapped the side of his friend's head as he swung back towards him. "You grow up with the curse of being honest."
While Kaolin awaited his answer, Martin unwrapped himself from the cloth and dropped to the platform. Frustrated, he pushed errant bangs away from his eyes; he knew his thoughts were clouding his performance, causing him to make mistakes.
He took a deep breath and confessed, "Ever since the heralds started bringing in the news about the North, I can't shake this awful feeling something's followed us here."
"All that nonsense? You know the heralds can exaggerate. It's probably just skirmishes between villages."
"What if it isn't, Kaolin? I just talked to my parents this morning. It's been so long since I've heard them this happy. Their village sounds like a haven."
"It's not going to be like that. Your parents are too far away to be affected by this. You know the troupe protects its own. You can't be touched my friend; you're too well protected."
"But, I don't see how…"
"It's been twenty years, Martin. The Decree has probably been forgotten. No one has any reason to track you down, unless you gave them one. And when I last checked with Greystone, that last matter was taken care of."
Embarrassed, Martin looked away and rubbed the back of his neck. "He shouldn't have concerned himself with that."
"Well he did, so don't get worked up over it. He obviously thinks you're worth keeping around and I agree with him. Besides," added Kaolin, "how many half-elves would be friends with an elf with a potentially dangerous ability?"
"Ones that have no sense of self-preservation." Martin chuckled. "Maybe I ought to be like those nobles who come in here with their guards and envoys. Have an entourage. What do you think?"
"I think you're a good act but you're not that well paid," retorted Kaolin. "And if you are earning more than I am, I need to talk to Greystone about my seniority. Now move. Concentrate on keeping the transitions smooth. I've noticed you're looking like a human at the gallows on the move towards the end."
Once he was three quarters away up the fabric, Martin though down to Kaolin. "Ready."
For the next two minutes, Martin climbed, slid, spun and tumbled. The widths of scarlet fabric were his wings, his ladder and his lifeline. To him, this was freedom: total, unbridled joy. Nothing else mattered, just the open air and the adrenaline rush coursing through him. He couldn't help but smile; the exhilaration of defying gravity was a call too strong to ignore. As he swung out over the ring, he turned to look up at the opening of the tent where a patch of sky winked through.
He couldn't fly but at least he could soar for a little while.
"Time." Kaolin thought up to him.
Angling his body and re-wrapping the fabric, Martin let the silks cradle him like a hammock; there was no point heading back down to the ground if he needed to correct anything. "Well?"
Kaolin didn't bother to hide his elation. "Brilliant! Now, do it once more. I'll get those cobwebs out of your head even if I have to be relentless."
"So that's your solution, wise one? I'll be clear headed, but half dead by tonight?" Martin called down aloud.
Kaolin shrugged. "I didn't say it was perfect."
Scarlet and orange cascades lit up the ebon sky as the fireworks signaled the opening for Last Night. Not one empty seat was to be found in the Main Tent. The raucous crowds drew to a hush as the ringmaster, dressed in scarlet and gold, made his way to the center ring.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, children, elders. Welcome to Last Night! Prepare to be dazzled, astonished and amazed!"
Sulphur yellow smoke engulfed the tall man and he disappeared right under the noses of the children in the front row. That was only the beginning.
Graceful figures enrobed in flowing ribbons pirouetted and leapt in the air. Jugglers stunned the crowd with their feats of precision and speed. Scot, the aerialist, performed his act on the tightrope as though he was meant to live in the stratosphere.
Soon, Martin took his place in the ring on the aerial silks. About a third of the way into the routine, he moved into a crucifix position and paused before heading into a downward tumble along the fabric. As he turned upside down to begin, movement caught his attention. Three heavily armed men stood just off to one side of the ring in an area that was restricted. Clad entirely in black, they were invisible to the crowd but not to his sharp elfin eyes.
"Kaolin," he "called" out urgently.
Kaolin's concerned thoughts shot back to him. "What's wrong?"
"Three men, to your left. They're armed and heading towards the exit." Trying to appear as if nothing was amiss, Martin endeavored to keep an even speed to his descent.
"What are you talking about? What three men?" Kaolin sounded confused and even more concerned.
Martin's thoughts became more insistent. "Can't you see them? They're…"
As was intended, he stopped midway down the fabric, still upside down. He glanced over to the edge of the ring again; there was only empty space. "They're gone."
"Curse it, Martin, concentrate! I don't want to be scooping your brains out of the sand!"
The sting of Kaolin's reprimand ringing in his head, Martin flipped right side up and ascended. The odd occurrence was quickly blocked from his mind as he looped the cloth around his arms and legs. He slid into splits, arched his back and abruptly closed his eyes to avoid searching for any more strange figures lurking in the dark.
The routine flowed effortlessly to its conclusion and the crowd did not hesitate to show their enthusiasm. But even as he took his bows, Martin couldn't help but glance over towards the tent's entrance. He was dead certain of what he saw.
Whoever they were, I hope they don't come back .