It was a chilly, damp January evening in Camden. The market stalls were closed and the gutters were redolent with the pungent smell of old cabbage leaves. It doesn't matter what a market sells: after hours, it always smells of cabbage leaves.
Footnote: Justin Melnius regrets that he can offer only one equine vacancy at a time, and since John is quite a young animal and shows every sign of staying for life, another vacancy is not expected for another twenty years or more. However, all applications will be given due consideration.
The streets were still busy however. Though it was a Sunday, people stil thronged the streets. Many of them, like John, were headed toward the courtyard beside Camden Lock where a small circus had almost miraculously sprung up in just a few hours. Filling the open area and the wide alleys to either side with sideshows and with a huge, colourful awning in place of a Big Top, it was eye-candy to the nostalgic and the curious.
John had come because his friends had. His funds wouldn't support another night of drinking - not until the next cheque from his parents arrived. With education grants now a thing of the past (Thank you, Mr Major) being a student in London was no longer quite the party it had been a few short years ago.
Not that John was really a serious student. This was his first year at Queen Mary & Westfield, having just scored enough to enter Physics and Philosophy. He had no interest in either subject, and less aptitude. Only luck had qualified him: that lucky A-Level paper that was only a few points different from the mock-exam of the day before.
John really had no idea what he wanted from life, and university seemed a good way to put the decision off for a few years. His parents were paying and if the lectures were boring beyond belief, at least he was having a lot of fun in the various societies he had signed up with: War-soc, the role-playing club; Adventure-soc, the live role-playing club (Chistlehurst Caves every Sunday - bring your own sword), and Photo-soc where most of the male students drooled over nude women and passed trite comments about how this was Art, and not exploitation as Fem-Soc kept claiming.
When Dave and Stewart and Sasha invited him to come with them to Justin Melnius' Circus of Delights, his first thought had not been one of unadulterated enthusiasm. A circus? In this day and age? He could be playing Carmageddon on the Playstation in Raj's room.
But he was always worried about being left out of the fun, and Dave and Sasha both assured him it was a pretty cool act: this wasn't a children's circus. Under-fifteens were not even allowed in. So he followed them willingly enough, allowed Stewart to pay his ticket (both for the Underground and the circus) and shortly found himself amidst a happily noisy crowd gawping at jugglers and clowns and acrobats.
He was astonished to see several animal acts: a dancing bear and a monkey holding a hat out for the barrel-organ man. Few places tolerated animal acts at all these days and he was pretty sure that those few remaining travelling circuses in England seldom employed more than a few trained dogs and horses, with the RSPCA breathing down their neck to make sure they were well-treated all the time.
He didn't wonder for long, finding himself strangely caught up in the magic of the thing. There was something deliciously spooky aboout it all, despite the laughter and foolishness. While the pageantry was colourful enough, there was an almost Gothic feel to the whole thing: a sinister undertone that excited his senses.
Could it be the Circus Master; a flambouyant character in coat and tails, face white as alabaster? Apparently in his early thirties, he somehow conveyed an impression of dusty age as if he had stepped out of another time. As he loudly welcomed one and all, his words had a dancing mockery to them, as if all this were some joke he alone was privy to.
Or could it be the clowns and tumblers, strangely blank faced behind their lurid makeup? It fitted their act: an almost creepy jerkiness like automata, yet not quite like those ubiquitous Covent Garden "robot" mimes.
The Circus Master clapped his hands. Given the noise of the crowd, it was surprising such a small sound carried, but silence fell immediately. "Ladies!" cried the Master, flourishing cane and top hat. His hair was long and wild; raven black. "Gentlemen! Welcome. May I present to you my humble entertainers; my ragged and motley collection of clowns and cavorters, actors and acrobats. Allow us to fool your senses, beguile your mind, and treat your city-weary souls to a feast of entertainments. And to give you a taste of all that is to follow, please welcome my greatest treasure. I give you... Mirabeau!"
Into a ring of low wooden blocks outlining a sawdust circle rode a woman on a smoke grey horse. It might have been noted that there was something indefinably strange about the horse: a translucency; a tendency for the eyes to slide away from it. Few did notice however, for all eyes were on Mirabeau.
John was captivated. She was so beautiful! She was unreal! Her figure was a distillation of every adolescent's dreams: full breasted, long legged. Firmly muscled yet slender; every curve a perfection for the male eye and enough to drive any young woman to burning envy. Dark hair glinted electric blue in sparkling highlights, and eyes of an impossible amethyst mauve sparkled with soft challenge. Dressed in flowing veils of silk that drifted in her wake as the pale horse cantered around the ring, she was Grace personified. She rode with no saddle: the horse wore a simple bridle of woven silver thread, with a single scarlet plume mounted on the brow-band. There were no reins, but the horse cantered in a perfect circle, smooth and steady, hooves uncannily quiet upon the thick sawdust.
Mirabeau placed her delicate hands upon the animal's withers, braced her slender arms and rose from that position to a flawless handstand upon the horse's back. She turned like that, legs straight and splayed, then without any apparent effort, arched her back to land standing on the horse's quarters, light as thistledown.
She continued in this way, performing cartwheels and sommersaults, each in a kind of graceful slow-motion, and as she did so, she began to cast aside her silken garments, like an equestrian Dance of the Seven Veils. John found himself self-consciously removing his gloves and unbuttoning his coat, almost welcoming the chill air against a face suddenly burning with feverish heat. He stared at her as if hypnotised, drinking in her image. When the final veil fell, she was dressed only in three small triangles of cloth, marginally covering crotch and nipples and held in place with silken thongs. Possibly this satisfied legal decency: it defied and trampled any other sort. A soft sigh rippled through the crowd. Women stared at her in frank envy. Men felt their souls gravitating towards this elemental female form before them.
The acts followed one by one, but all anyone clearly remembered was Mirabeau. She returned, as magician's assistant to the Circus Master; as a tight-rope ballerina; as a trapeze artist upon a swinging bar mounted on a metal gantry. She made dogs jump through hoops while young men fantasised about obeying her in similar ways. There were clown acts and juggling feats and fire-eaters, but while everyone remembered them, they were all as background shadows to Mirabeau.
When the show ended, it was as if a spell had been broken. The crowd blinked and sighed, breaking up quietly as if dazed. John simply stood where he had stood all along, only gradually aware of the pins and needles in his joints; a protest at having stood stock still for so long.
"Come on," Sasha said to the three boys. She sounded subdued: not at all like her usual robust self. Stewart and Dave turned to follow her, their expressions dull and faintly stupid, like drunkards trying to focus on reality. John heard himself say, "You go on. I'll catch up." Such was their stupor that they didn't ask him why.
He hadn't seen where Mirabeau had vanished to. She had stood in the center of the ring as the final act ended, a spot-lit goddess before her adoring worshippers, and when the lights faded, she had faded with them, leaving an empty ring. The Master was still present though, watching the cowed audience as they departed slowly into the city night. There was a gloating, almost cruel, expression on his palid face. John didn't like it: only the gorgeous image of Mirabeau branded white-hot into his emotions allowed him to approach the gaunt figure, and timidly ask if he might see her.
The Master might easily have sent him packing without sympathy, but he merely responded with almost laughing regret that Mirabeau had retired for the night, and that her privacy must be respected. John pleaded, stumbling clumsily over his words, that he simply must see her. Again he was politely declined. This time, a certain glint in the Master's eyes dissuaded John from trying again and he turned away.
He was scarcely aware of the world around him as he made his way back to his digs. He was mildly surprised to find himself in front of his door when he got back. Instead of undressing, he simply lay down on his bed and turned the light off. The darkness came alive with visions of Mirabeau, and his soul heaved within him.
He'd never felt like this before, about anything. He'd never suspected it was even possible to feel like this. He couldn't easily put words to it. Adoration was a start, although it seemed far too easy a word. Not love: that didn't go nearly far enough. And while she had a figure a supermodel would kill for, not sex either. What he felt went far beyond physical desires. If she had appeared naked before him right then, he would not have presumed to touch her. Crouch at her feet perhaps. Die for her merest whim. He wanted to worship her: make some kind of sacrifice.
He had a lecture at nine on Monday morning. Automatically he dressed and washed but couldn't face breakfast. Unseeing, he left the flat and made his way to the Underground station. He tripped several times, once sprawling forwards across the pavement and badly graising his right knee. He scarcely felt it, and acknowledged a passer-by's concerned query with a distracted reassurrance. Finding his way, somehow, aboard a Central Line train running in the correct direction, he found his gaze straying over the Underground map on the carriage window. His eyes follwoed coloured lines along the red of the Central Line, to the black of the Northern Line. Camden Town.
When his train reached the college stop, Mile End Road, he didn't move. He stayed aboard, changing at Bank station and boarding one of the Northern Line's forty-year-old veterans. Oblivious to the screeching of metal on the turns and the rolling, rattling, roaring of semi-antiquated machinery, he watched the stations pass one by one: Moorgate, Old Street, Angel, Kings Cross and Euston. Then the ancient, grimy, glazed-tile surround of Camden. Up in the old, old thirty-person lift as it laboured strenuously toward the light, depositing him finally at street level.
The morning was bright and cold, and filled with the din of London in the weekday rush-hour. Cars hooted and honked, screeching breaks and the familar throbbing purr of London Black Cabs doing brisk business. Double Deckers belched diesel fumes as they challenged other road-users to defy their God-given right of way. Cycle-couriers diced with death as they wove erratically through the traffic chaos. John walked obliviously through all of this, up Camden High Street and across the Grand Union Canal bridge, then along the broad market-lined passage to the Lock.
It all looked so different by day. Nothing destroys magic like a London week-day. Too bright: too harsh: too noisy and dirty. Nevertheless, he found the circus, or the site of it. A trio of young men were shoveling the sawdust into plastic sacks; their movements steady and robotic. other young people, equally blank faced, were picking up props and folding drapes and tarpaulins. There was no sign of Mirabeau. John spotted the Master, observing from one side, occassionally nodding in satisfaction. He looked less intimidating by day, and John approached him.
"Ah!" beamed the Master in seeming pleasure. "The young man of last night, yes? I am so gratified when our humble talents draw such ardent admiration."
"Please," John said, throat dry. "I want... I need to see her. Mirabeau."
"Ah," said the Master again, in tones of understanding. "Captured your young heart has she? Cast chains of adoration about your unprepared soul. Ah." He nodded slowly. "But you must understand, young sir. That's her art! That's what she does! It's a performance, an act, a sham! Mere glittering and glamouring, all dazzling in a spotlight. In a baggy jumper and jeans I assure you she's a much more down-to-earth sight. Human, almost, you might say!" He laughed.
"Can I see her?" begged John. "Just to say how much I enjoyed her... show. Please."
The Master shook his head gently. "I can't. I really can't. I see your soul bared before me, and know your intentions are pure, but where would she be, poor girl, if I were to show every bedazzled young man to her door. Please, sir, ask me no more. Return to your home: take a nice cold shower. Soon you will forget her."
John felt his chance slipping away. The thought of the circus packing and vanishing and him never catching sight of Mirabeau again was more painful than he ever thought to bear. He was astonished at himself for feeling so intense about a woman he knew nothing about. He was aware that he was being irrational, and also aware that he could do nothing about it. He heard himself say, "Then could I join your circus?" Right here: right now: he would abandon his course, his friends, his family, his life.
The Master's eyes narrowed. "Well, now. There's a question. Can you juggle?"
"Can you balance? Throw? Are you good with animals? Can you clown or mime?"
John shook his head mutely.
"You must be able to offer me something. I can hardly take you in out of charity, no matter how you plead."
"I'm strong," John said. "And willing. Don't you need anyone to help you move between performances?" Astonished he heard himself say, "I don't want any money."
"Well now," mused the Master. "Strong and willing, to work without pay? An undeniably attractive offer. Perhaps I may have a place for you. Are you willing to do anything? Anything at all?"
"Anything," stammered John. He hesitated. "Uh, as long as it's... uh, legal."
The Master laughed his rich laugh. "There are no laws against what I have in mind. Not in this day and age. But! I cannot take a chance that you will change your mind when a little honest toil has dampened your enthusiasm. All in my charge must sign a contract. If you are sincere, young sir, then follow me."
The Circus Master led the way through a side alley to a back-street where several vans and small caravans were parked. Though old and clearly having seen better days, they were gaily painted and sported the name of the circus. The Master led the way to the largest of the caravans and opened the door. John hesitated. It was very dark inside. A faint scent of incense drifted on the air. Swallowing, he stepped in.
The interior was lined with draperies of black felt: no light entered save through the open door, and this was cut off when the Master entered after him and pulled the door closed. Sounds of London activity shut off abrubtly. A spicy, exotic scent filled the small room, and flickering oil lamps provided the only light. They reflected redly in the Master's eyes. The strange, young-old man produced a rolled sheet from a dark cabinet and unrolled it on a felt-covered table. The material was pinky-brown, with traces of fur or hair along the edges.
"What is that?" John asked uneasily. "Pig skin?"
The Master laughed in warm amusement. "In this day and age? No, it merely looks like that. My business depends much upon appearence, young sir. The show is everything." In confirmation of this fact, he produced an elaborate quill and wrote swiftly. John assumed it must be some kind of disguised pen, for the nib didn't scratch, and the quill was dipped but once in ink. His eyes came to rest on the writing hand, and a large silver ring it wore. The device was a grinning skull with horns. Similar items could be purchased in great quantity from any of a dozen stalls within a hundred yards of him, but John still found himself uneasy. Only the recurring memory of an exquisite figure, radiant in a spotlight, kept him from trying to escape.
"There now," said the Master, passing parchment and quill to John. "Sign where it says and the deal's done: you'll be in my employ."
John scanned the contract rapidly. He must give six months notice if he wished to leave, but need only say so. Harsh but not overly so. He naively supposed a good many young people must get fanciful ideas about joining a circus: this would doubtless put many off.
"Will I see her?" he asked. "Mirabeau?"
"As a member of the circus?" laughed the Master. "Of a certainty! You'll be working very closely with her. Directly under her even!"
John pressed the nib to the sheet of parchment. He started. The ink, previously black, was now a deep red that faded to brown as it soaked into the page. It was disquieting to say the least. He missed the tiny prickle over his heart, barely more than an itch.
"A small joke. Do forgive my sense of the theatrical," smiled the Master. He watched with satisfaction as John completed his signature. "Excellent. Then we have a deal." He proffered his hand and John cautiously shook it. John's own hands were cold - he'd forgotten to pick up his gloves this morning - but this hand was like ice. He gasped and yanked his hand away. The Circus Master seemed not to notice. Opening the van door and letting in a ray of unexpectedly bright sunlight, he called, "Cynthia!"
A young woman in her early twenties with eyes that were somehow too old for her, appeared and asked dully, "Yes?"
"Take this young stallion and show him what to do, will you?"
Something flickered in her eyes. John didn't like it, whatever it was. She answered in a resigned tone. "Yes, sir." She turned without saying anything to John, and with a questioning glance at the Circus Master, he followed her.
She opened the back of a small Bedford lorry. It was bare inside apart from a large box: John remembered seeing something like it in the magician's act. His pulse quickened: Mirabeau had performed a vanishing act in this box or one like it. He felt a sudden, alarming urge to run up to the box and stroke it reverently.
Cynthia closed the back of the truck. Light came from two small windows, but it was suddenly very gloomy inside. She lifted the lid of the box: it was full of shadow. For no discernable reason, John was suddenly very afraid.
"Take your clothes off, please," Cynthia said in her dead voice.
"Why?" John demanded.
Her mouth twitched. "For your costume," she said.
"All my clothes?"
"You can leave your under-pants on."
Blushing and very nervous, telling himself it was all worth it if he could only see Mirabeau again, he stripped down to his boxer shorts.
Cynthia handed him something. "Put this on." It was a bridle. Fashioned of silver thread, metallic and moon-coloured, it was obviously fashioned for a human to wear. An ornate black plume flew boldly from the brow-band.
John stared. What kind of humilation was this? "No!"
"Put it on." Something entered her voice: a hard, cruel thing of sharp edges that allowed no compromise. His arms jerked forward: his fingers closed spasmodically over the bridle and spread it open.
"No!" he cried out, terrified. His body refused to obey him. Jerkily, the bridle was raised up. He plunged his face into it, pulling the headstall up and over his head. He stood there, feeling completely vulnerable and frightened. Was this some sex thing? What the hell was happening?
"Get in the box."
"Please!" he sobbed. "I... I made a mistake! I'm sorry! I don't want to do this."
Cynthia spoke again in that voice of ice and steel. Her whole body shuddered as she said it, as if the voice were a knife driven through her. "Get in the box."
Puppet-like, with the same, jerky movement he had seen in the other young people working for the circus, he stumbled towards the box. Horror rose in him as he looked within and saw nothing but blackness below the rim. His hands grasped the edge. One leg lifted over, then the other. He was standing in the box, on a hard surface he couldn't see. A sharp chill invaded his lower legs and feet. "Please..!"
Sobbing, he did so. Cynthia reached over him and closed the lid with brutal slowness, and he couldn't move a muscle to stop her.
He knew a moment of agonised dread and then the Universe blinked and stared at him.
He screamed in mortal terror. Galaxies stared at him pitilessly; nebulae cast accusing glares. Freezing blackness rushed at him and assailed him. The onslaught made him throw up violently. He voided his bowels and emptied his bladder. He screamed and screamed until his throat was too ravaged to do more than croak. He felt like an ant beneath a magnifying glass held to the sun by callous child. He could feel that point of focus upon him, within him. Irresistible force seized him and turned him, stroking the silver bridle he still wore as if reading something there. Then it began to change him.
It should have hurt: it should have been a thousand agonies. He threw his head back in horror and felt it arching forward from his body on a neck suddenly longer and sleeker. His chest barrelled out as if it were about to explode. A scream left his lips and returned to his ears as a shockingly familiar sound. He neighed again as mane and tail streamed from his body, whipping about in the storm of force assailing him. His hands clenched into fists, nails errupting into horny growth. Arms became powerful legs. His whole form expanded as if exploding: it felt like he _was_ exploding. Even as the transformation ended he felt as if he was full of fire and wind. Strength dizzied him, and he only slowly realised that the strength was his own. He drew a shuddering breath and felt huge lungs inflate his massive chest.
Query: he didn't understand. What had happened; was happening? Confusion wracked him and he whinnied shrilly and fought the only way he could. Hooves lashed. Wood splintered. Almost falling, he lunged to his feet and shook himself free of pieces of painted timber. Breath chuffed from flaring nostrils. Eyes rolled whitely.
I'm a horse!!!
The sheer impossibility of it staggered him. His powerful quarters hit the van wall and rocked the vehicle. He neighed again in outrage. His head whipped around, seeking something to attack: to seek revenge for this nightmare! Cynthia was gone: the van contained only him. He reared, and hit his head on the ceiling, which rocked him back a bit. Squealing, he kicked with his forelegs at the roll-up door, extracting a shrill protest from the metal slats. He kicked again, and again, suceeding in tearing the door from its tracks. He burst through it, leaping to the street. Now he had space! He reared, raking the air in fury and shrilling a stallion scream that turned heads a thousand yards away.
His hooves returned to earth with a shock as his mind registered what his eyes were seeing. She was standing in front of him. Amethyst eyes regarded him cooly, holding him as slim hands rose to grip the silver bridle. He felt the wildness and anger drain out of him, swallowed by those e yes. He dropped his head and whinnied softly: a noise of confusion and upset. He shuddered as Her hands carressed his sleekly muscular neck.
But I'm a horse!! he thought, as he nuzzled her arm. He tried to hold on to his anger and fear, but somehow, the thought didn't carry the same urgency it had. He stood still while She clipped a lead rope to the bridle.
This isn't what I meant! he nickered as she led him to a small horse trailer and tied his lead to a ring in its side. He couldn't, somehow, put any convincing outrage into the thought.
He heaved a deep, gusty sigh and dropped his head, submitting to the inevitable as She placed a bucket of water before him.
The callow youth watched the huge smoke-grey stallion lower its muzzle to the bucket and drink. Inevitably though, his gaze turned hungrily toward Mirabeau. "Will I see her?" he whispered.
"In good time," smiled the Circus Master. "When we have agreed a few things. I require complete obedience."
"I'm obedient!" insisted the youth, almost puppy-like in his eagerness. "I can practically sit up and beg!"
"Well, in that case, why don't you come into my van and sign your contract?"