August 29, 2017

#FirstPage with @AmandaFoody

Sixteen-year-old Sorina has spent most of her life within the smoldering borders of the Gomorrah Festival. Yet even among the many unusual members of the traveling circus-city, Sorina stands apart as the only illusion-worker born in hundreds of years. This rare talent allows her to create illusions that others can see, feel and touch, with personalities all their own. Her creations are her family, and together they make up the cast of the Festival’s Freak Show.

But no matter how lifelike they may seem, her illusions are still just that—illusions, and not truly real. Or so she always believed…until one of them is murdered.

Desperate to protect her family, Sorina must track down the culprit and determine how they killed a person who doesn’t actually exist. Her search for answers leads her to the self-proclaimed gossip-worker Luca, and their investigation sends them through a haze of political turmoil and forbidden romance, and into the most sinister corners of the Festival. But as the killer continues murdering Sorina’s illusions one by one, she must unravel the horrifying truth before all of her loved ones disappear.

Amanda Foody has always considered imagination to be our best attempt at magic. After spending her childhood longing to attend Hogwarts, she now loves to write about immersive settings and characters grappling with insurmountable destinies. She holds a Masters in Accountancy from Villanova University, and a Bachelors of Arts in English Literature from the College of William and Mary. Currently, she works as a tax accountant in Philadelphia, PA, surrounded by her many siblings and many books.

DAUGHTER OF THE BURNING CITY is her first novel. Her second, ACE OF SHADES, will follow in April 2018.

I peek from behind the tattered velvet curtains at the chattering audience, their mouths full of candied pineapple and kettle corn. With their pale faces flushed from excitement and the heat, they look as gullible as dandelions, much like the patrons in the past five cities. The Gomorrah Festival hasn’t been permitted to travel this far north in the Up-Mountains in over three years, and these people look like they’re attending the opera or the theater rather than our traveling carnival of debauchery.
The women wear frilly dresses in burnt golds and oranges, buckled to the point of suffocation, some with rosy-cheeked children bouncing on their laps, others with cleavage as high as their chins. The men have shoulder pads to seem broader, stilted loafers to seem taller and painted silver pocket watches to seem richer.
If buckles, stilts and paint are enough to hoodwink them, then they won’t notice that the eight “freaks” of my freak show are, in fact, only one.
Tonight’s mark, Count Pomp-di-pomp—or is it Count Pomp-von-Pompa?—smokes an expensive pipe in the second row, his mustache gleaming with leftover saffron honey from the pastry he had earlier. He’s sitting too close to the front, which won’t make it easy for Jiafu to steal the count’s ring.
That’s where I come in.
My job is to distract the audience so that Pomp-di-pomp doesn’t notice Jiafu’s shadow-work coaxing the sapphire ring off of his porky finger and dropping it onto the grass below.
A drum and fiddle play an entrancing Down-Mountain tune to quiet the audience’s chatter, and I let the curtain fall, blocking my view. The Gomorrah Festival Freak Show will soon begin.
This is my favorite part of the performance: the anticipation. The drumbeats pound erratically, as if dizzy from drinking several mugs of the Festival’s spiced wine. Everything sticks in this humid air: the aromas of carnival food, the gray smoke that shrouds Gomorrah like a cloak and the jittery intakes of breath from the audience, wondering whether the freak show will prove as gruesome as the sign outside promised:
The Gomorrah Festival Freak Show.
Walk the line between abnormal and monstrous.
From the opposite end of the stage, behind the curtain on stage right, Nicoleta nods at me. I reach for the rope and yank down. The pulley spins and whistles, and the curtain rises.
Nicoleta struts—a very practiced, rigid strut—into the spotlight, her heels clicking and the slit in her gown revealing a lacy violet garter at the curve of her thigh. When I first created her three years ago, she had knee-shaking stage fright, and I needed to control her during the show like a puppet. Now she’s so accustomed to her role that I turn away, unneeded, and tie on my best mask. Rhinestones of varying sizes and shades of red cover it, from the curled edges near my temples to the tip of my nose. I need to dazzle, after all.
“Welcome to the Gomorrah Festival Freak Show,” Nicoleta says.
The audience gawks at her. Like the particular Up-­Mountainers in this city, and unlike any of the other members of my family, Nicoleta has fair skin. Freckles. Pale brown hair draped to her elbows. Skinny wrists and skinnier, child-like legs. Many members of Gomorrah have Up-Mountain heritage, whether obvious or diluted, but these northern city dwellers always expect the enticingly unfamiliar: sensual, audacious and wild.
The audience’s expressions seem to say, Poor, lost girl, what are you doing working at Gomorrah? Where are your parents? Your chaperone? You can’t be more than twenty-two.
“I am Nicoleta, the show’s manager, and I hope you’re enjoying your first Gomorrah Festival in…three years, I hear?”
The audience stiffens; they stop fanning themselves, stop chewing their candied pineapple. I curse under my breath. Nicoleta has a knack—a compulsion, really—for saying the wrong thing. This is the Festival’s first night in Frice, a city-state known—like many others—for its strict religious leaders and disapproval of the Gomorrah lifestyle. Three years ago, a minor rebellion in the Vurundi kingdom ousted the Frician merchants from power there. Despite quickly reclaiming its tyrannous governorships, and despite Gomorrah’s utter lack of involvement, Frice decided to restrict the Festival’s traveling in this region. I can’t have Nicoleta scaring away our few visitors by reminding them that their city officials disapprove of them being here, even at an attraction as innocent as a freak show.
“For those of you with weaker constitutions, I suggest you exit before our opening act,” Nicoleta says. Her tone rises and falls at the proper moments. The theatrics of her performance in our show are the opposite of Nicoleta’s role in our family, which Unu and Du have dubbed “stick in the bum.” Every night, she manages to transform—or, better put, improve—her entire demeanor for the sake of the show, since her own abilities are too unreliable to deserve an act. Some days, she can pull our caravans better than our two horses combined. Others, she needs Tree to open our jars of lychee preserves.
“The sights you are about to witness are shocking, even monstrous,” she continues. A young boy in the front row clings to his mother, pulling at her puffed, apricot sleeves. “Children, cover your eyes. Parents, beware. Because the show is about to begin.”
While the audience leans forward in their seats, I prepare for the upcoming act by picturing the Strings, as I call them. I have almost two hundred Strings, glowing silver, dragging behind me as I walk, like the train of a fraying gown. Only I can see them and, even then, only when I focus. I mentally reach down and pluck out four particular Strings and circle them around my hands until they’re taut. The others remain in a heap on the wooden floor.
“I’d like to introduce you to a man found within the faraway Forest of Ruins,” Nicoleta lies. Backstage, Hawk stops playing the fiddle, and Unu and Du reduce the tempo on their drums. I yank on the Strings to command my puppet.
Thump. Thump.
The audience gasps as the Human Tree stomps onto the stage. His skin is made entirely of bark, and his midsection measures as wide as a hundred-year-old oak trunk. It’s difficult to make out his facial features in the twisted lumps of wood, except for his sunken, beetle-black eyes and emptiness of expression. Leaves droop from the branches jutting out from his shoulders, adding several feet to his already daunting stature. His fingers curl into splintery twigs as he waves hello.
From backstage, my hand waves, as well. If I don’t control Tree, he’ll scream profanity that will make half these fancy ladies faint. If he works himself into a real tantrum, he’ll tear off the bark on his stomach until blood trickles out like sap.
His act begins, which is mostly him stomping around and grunting, and me yanking this way and that on his Strings to make him do so. I crafted him when I was three years old, before I considered the performance potential of my illusions.
The six other illusions wait with me backstage.
Venera, the boneless acrobat more flexible than a dripping egg yolk, brushes rouge on her painted white cheeks at a vanity. She pouts in the mirror and then pushes aside a strand of dark hair from her face. She’s beautiful, especially in her skintight, black-and-purple-striped suit. Every night, the audience practically drools over her…until they watch her body flatten into a puddle or her arms roll up like a croissant.
Beside her, Crown files the fingernails that grow from his body where hair should be. He keeps the nails on his arms and legs smooth, giving him a scaly look, but he doesn’t touch the ones on his hands and head, which are curled, yellow daggers as long as butcher knives. Though Crown was my second illusion, made ten years ago, he appears to be seventy-five. He always smokes a cigar before his performance so his gentle voice will sound as prickly as his skin.
Hawk plays the fiddle in an almost spiritual concentration while what’s left of a chipmunk—dinner—hangs out of her mouth. Her brown wings are tucked under her fuchsia cape, where they will remain until she unfolds them during her act, screeches and flies over the—usually shrieking—audience. Her talons pluck at the fiddle’s strings at an incomparable speed. Her ultimate goal is to challenge the devil himself to a fiddle contest, and she figures by traveling with the world’s most famous festival of depravity, she’s bound to run into him one day.
Blister, the chubby one-year-old, plays with the beads dangling off of Unu and Du’s drum. Rather than focusing on their rhythm, Unu and Du bicker about something, per usual. Du punches Unu with their shared left arm. Unu hisses an unpleasant word loudly, which Blister then tries out for himself, missing the double s sound and saying something resembling a-owl.
Gill snaps at them all to be quiet and then resumes reading his novel. Even wearing a rusted diver’s helmet full of water, he manages to make out the words on the pages. Bubbles seep from the gills on his cheeks as he sighs. As the loner of our family, he generally prefers the quiet company of books to our boisterous, pre-show jitters. He only raises his voice during our games of lucky coins—he holds the family record for the most consecutive wins (twenty-one). I suspect he’s been cheating by allowing Hawk, Unu and Du to forfeit games on purpose in exchange for lighter homework assignments.
“Keep an eye on Blister,” I remind the boys. “Those drums are flammable.”
“Tell Unu to stuff a drumstick up his—” Du glances hesitantly at Gill “—backside.”
“That’s your backside, too, dung-brain,” Unu says.
“It’s an expression,” says Du. “I like its sentiment.”
It would hardly be a classic Gomorrah Festival Freak Show if the audience couldn’t hear my brothers tormenting each other backstage.
“I’ll stick it up both your assholes if you don’t shut it,” I say. They pay me no attention; they know I never follow through with my threats.
“A-owl,” Blister says again.
“Language, Sorina,” Gill groans.
“Shit. Sorry,” I reply, but I’m only mildly chagrined. Blister’s been hearing all our foul mouths since the day he came to be.
One by one, they perform their acts: the Boneless Acrobat; the Fingernail Mace; the Half Girl, Half Hawk; the Fire-Breathing Baby; the Two-Headed Boy; and the Trout Man. The audience roars as Hawk screeches and soars over their seats, cheers at each splash of Gill flipping in and out of his tank like a trained dolphin. They are utterly unaware that the “freaks” are actually my illusions, projected for anyone to see.
The only real freak in Gomorrah is me.
“For the finale,” Nicoleta says, as I hurriedly smooth down my shoulder-length black hair, “a mysterious performer who’s been with Gomorrah since her childhood. She’s the Girl Who Sees Without Eyes, and if you remain in your seats, she’ll reveal wonders you can see, hear, smell and even touch.”
I greet the audience as Unu and Du wheel Gill’s massive glass tank offstage. The hem of my black robes swish across the floor, and a hood drapes over all but my violet-painted lips. Count Pomp-di-pomp murmurs to the plump woman beside him, perhaps his wife. Another person Jiafu will need to sneak around during my act.
The room holds its breath as I remove the hood, only to reveal my mask.
“Take the mask off,” a man shouts from the back.
“Those who see her true face turn to stone,” says Nicoleta. Of course, that’s horseshit. I just hate the screams, same as Tree with his bark skin, Unu and Du with their two heads and Hawk with her wings and claws. As good as we have it in Gomorrah, no one wants to be a freak.
The fiddle and drums fade to silence as I raise my arms.
The tent’s ceiling and grass floor disappear, replaced with colorful galaxies so the crowd seems suspended within the cosmos. The woman beside Count Pomp-di-pomp shrieks and lifts her feet off the endless, black ground and then wipes the sweat from her forehead with her pearl-studded glove.
Nicoleta jabbers a spiel about the wonders of my sight, as if my lack of eyes allows me to see more than everyone else. Between my forehead and cheekbones is flat skin, but I can see just the same as the rest of the world. I’m an illusion-worker, the rarest form of jynx-worker, gifted in mirages real enough to touch, smell, hear and taste. My most intricate illusions are my family and the other members of the freak show: living figments of my imagination.
I’ve never met another illusion-worker—only read about them—but as far as I know, I am the only one born without eyes who relies on my jynx-work to see. No doctor or medicine man can explain how this works. Maybe I don’t see like everyone else does—it’s not as if I could test that out—but I see, color and all, and I’m not one to question things I don’t really need answers for.
I throw all of my energy into this performance, so much that my Strings are fully visible to me and tangle at my feet. I avoid moving around onstage, in case I trip. Normally, the Strings aren’t solid, but when I’m commanding this much power? My ankle just might catch, and I’ll topple into the front row.
Fabricated constellations whirl past, and the audience grips the edges of their seats. The planets orbit the room as if the tent marks the center of the universe and that universe is performing for us, its revolutions a celestial dance and me, the musician.
During my ten-minute act of shooting stars, crescent moons and burning suns, I’m too consumed by the exertion of my performance to notice if Jiafu stole Count Pomp-di-pomp’s ring. The illusion dissipates, and I lower my hands. I stare around the tent with exhilaration, and my chest heaves up and down beneath my thick robes. I was marvelous.
The audience claps. Count Pomp-di-pomp’s sapphire no longer glistens on his finger. Which means Jiafu managed to steal it undetected.
The seven other illusions join me for our final bows and farewell to the audience. Tired, I struggle to maintain control of the two more problematic illusions, Tree and Blister. One slip, and Tree could trample the audience under his clubbed feet. Or Blister could hiccup and set the tent on fire. Again.
Jiafu lurks in the back of the tent and picks his teeth with a steel comb. I avoid his gaze so the audience doesn’t turn to where I’m looking. His body is cloaked in shadow, barely visible against the black and red stripes of the tent, except for the whites of his eyes and the light reflecting off his comb. With his scarred face and patched-up clothes, he looks like a beast who just crawled out of the kennel.
The illusions exit stage left, except for me and Gill, whom I wheel in his tank to stage right. I rarely see him without his diver’s helmet, which he wears whenever outside of his tank. His chin-length black hair is suspended in the water, and his skin prunes all over, even his silver-toned face, like a piece of rotten fruit. His smile for the audience disappears the moment we’re out of sight.
“Why was Jiafu here?” he demands.
I smile and tilt my head to the side. “Who?”
Before he can answer, I slip around him backstage. I don’t feel like listening to any of his lectures tonight. I know Gill means well, but we’ve argued about Jiafu before, and we’re both more stubborn than mules and keep kicking up the same dirt. Neither of us will change our minds.
Venera is seated at her vanity, scanning her makeup collection and slathering a glittery lotion across her brown skin. As per her daily ritual, she’ll wash off her stage powder and reapply a new look for the Downhill parties later tonight. Hawk bickers with Unu and Du about which game they’ll play—chess or lucky coins. Blister reaches for his favorite top from his cauldron cradle while Crown leans forward in his chair to help him. Besides Gill, only Tree is absent—he prefers to stay outdoors when we’re not performing.
I’ve barely reached my own vanity when Nicoleta corners me.
“Why do you keep working for Jiafu?” she asks. Between her and Gill scolding me and everyone else bickering with each other, my only moments of peace are on stage. “He isn’t trust—”
“You all know why I work for him. Or am I the only one who cares about Kahina?” I tear off my mask and toss it on the vanity. The money I earn working for Jiafu goes to medicine for Kahina and her snaking sickness, a malady she’s battled for an impressive five years. Although Villiam, the owner of the Gomorrah Festival, adopted me as a young child, it was Kahina the fortune-worker who raised me. It was Kahina who taught me to play lucky coins, to love nature, to embrace being a misfit.
And while Kahina didn’t exactly raise my illusions, they love her as much as I do. She visits often with gifts of sweets and handmade knits.
Nicoleta sighs and fiddles with the ruby hairpin tucked behind her ear. “I know why, but there are safer ways to earn money, Sorina. I just don’t want Jiafu to start expecting things from you, to keep you working for him even when Kahina…gets better.”
I ignore the hesitation in her words. Kahina will improve. If the snaking sickness intended to claim her, it would have slithered its way into her heart years ago.
“Jiafu adores me,” I say. “And he’s terrified of me.”
“The way every man should see you,” Venera chimes in from beside me as she applies her signature black lipstick. I covertly hold up a hand, and she high-fives me behind my back. At least Venera is always on my side.
“Jiafu knows I’m not one of his cronies,” I tell Nicoleta.
Nicoleta purses her lips. “What if Jiafu gets caught by Up-Mountain officials?” Nicoleta is an ardent supporter of what-ifs. “He could take you down with him.”
“Could you stop? You’re giving me anxiety,” Venera and I say together.
Of all my illusions, Venera and I are the most alike. I made her to be the perfect best friend for me—fashion-savvy, fun and stop-and-stare gorgeous. The younger-looking illusions—Hawk, Unu and Du and Blister—are like my younger siblings. Crown: my grandfather. Gill: the voice of authority. Nicoleta: the bossy older sister. And Tree is…Tree.
I hunt through my various masks—all small, covering only the eye area—and select a simple one with matte sequins, a satin interior and a spider design on the top right corner. I never venture into public without a mask, where Up-Mountain children can gape while their parents call me monstrous, or an abomination, or any other colorful choice of word. I have no eyebrows, no eyes, not even indents where eyes should be. When I was younger, I tried to cast an illusion of these features, but something about the cold emptiness in my fake eyes looked even more unsettling than my normal appearance—nor could I maintain the image for more than a few minutes. Though I made peace with my face years ago, I don’t have the thickest skin—it only takes a single whisper or sickened stare to reopen old wounds.
But I have nice lips, I remind myself. I line them in blood-red lipstick, which pairs devilishly with my dark mask. My skin is fair, my straight hair so black it’s almost blue, like the people who live in the Eastern Kingdoms of the Down-Mountains. I don’t remember my home before Gomorrah, but Villiam has told me stories about how he adopted me in one of those kingdoms, and Kahina has made a point to introduce me to foods from my homeland, like sugar-coated tanghulu that a vendor sells near Skull Gate. But none of us discuss my past often; otherwise we might dwell on what my fate could have been, had Villiam not found me, an eyeless slave girl. Sometimes I wish I remembered. But when I speak to others in Gomorrah with stories like mine, I feel relieved that I don’t.
“Tonight is meant for fun,” Venera says. “Save your bickering for another time.”
She’s right. Tonight we’re all attending a show at the Menagerie, a rare, expensive treat we indulge in whenever we save enough for the tickets. The Menagerie is Gomorrah’s gaudiest, most exciting and most overpriced attraction.
Blister darts out from behind me and holds up his hand. I give him a high five. Afterward, he moves on to Venera. He does this after every show.
“Are you ready to see some tigers and dragons?” Venera asks him.
He roars in affirmation, and Venera laughs and pinches his cheek.
Crown appears in the doorway with Unu, Du and Gill—who looks rather sour—behind him. They are changed out of their costumes.
Unu and Du rub their hands together. “The cherries are on you, Sorina,” Unu says.
I lost the last game of lucky coins. “Only one bag for you guys, though.”
“But there are two of us,” Du complains.
“You’ve only got one stomach.”
“You’d hardly know that from the way they eat,” Gill mutters. He jokingly flicks Unu on his ear. Flicking is his way of showing affection.
“We should leave now, or we’ll be late,” Nicoleta says. As if anything in Gomorrah starts on schedule, or our family is ever on time.
We march out of our tent into the dense smoke of Gomorrah and head north, toward the games neighborhood. It’s a bit of a detour, but the food in that neighborhood is better than anywhere else—sticky buns that melt on your tongue, nuts dipped in honey like beetles preserved within amber, saltwater taffy you can buy by the yard. Plus, most of us can’t resist wasting a few of our coins on a game or two. Unu and Du get a kick out of having people guess their weight with their two heads. Crown has a special gift for ring toss. Nicoleta, when she’s feeling up to it, can make the bell chime when she smashes the airbag with the hammer.
My family does not go anywhere quietly. Tree’s steps thunder as if we’re walking with a crowd of one hundred rather than nine. Hawk squabbles with Unu and Du, who keep rubbing her feathers against the grain. Venera and I walk, arms linked and chatting about the yogurt face masks we might try tonight. The paths of Gomorrah are narrow and winding, sometimes only wide enough between tents for a single person to slip through. But we don’t care about stopping traffic. The residents let me pass because I’m the proprietor’s daughter, an association that brings me an uncomfortable amount of notoriety and weighty expectations. The visitors nearly lunge out of our way after one look at Unu and Du’s heads, Crown’s curling yellow scalp of nails or Tree.
We approach our favorite vendor of licorice-dipped cherries—Gomorrah’s signature treat—and Unu and Du steer us aside.
“How many bags am I buying?” I ask.
Each of them shouts how many they want.
“I’m not buying fourteen bags.” I hold up my flimsy coin purse. “You guys are milking me dry.”
Crown fishes in his pocket for change before Du stops him. “You can’t help her. She lost. Rules are rules.”
Lucky coins is a sacred game in my family.
I curse under my breath and thrust my entire savings—one week’s worth, since I can’t save anything more than a few days—into the vendor’s hands. His eyes light up as he hands us a full quarter of his stock.
Afterward, with our teeth sticky from black licorice and our lips stained red from cherry juice, we head toward the Menagerie singing one of Gomorrah’s folk songs.
Wicked, wicked to the core. The city will burn forevermore.
Or mostly singing. Unu and Du shriek to drown out Hawk, who, as always, is trying to show off her vocal range and make everyone else sound bad.
The Menagerie’s spires tower into the smoke that covers the Festival like an endless expanse of storm clouds. Its tent is so black it appears like a hole, seeping the color away from its surroundings. Pink, red and violet streamers—Gomorrah’s colors—ripple in the breeze at its peak.
The line outside snakes around the tent, and we grab a place at the end. Because the Menagerie is such a popular attraction, stands for kettle corn, palm readers and charms salesmen clutter its perimeter.
“Care for some coins?” a man asks Hawk. He bites the coin, and his teeth clack against the bronze. She turns her back to him, a pro at dealing with persistent vendors, but he continues, “Solid. Good quality. I have the Handmaiden, the Red Jester, the Harbinger—”
“We have enough coins,” Nicoleta tells him. We all know the coins sold in this part of the Festival attract more tourists than actual players. The gambling neighborhood sells the characters of real and rare value.
Perhaps it is the stern edge in Nicoleta’s voice, or perhaps the vendor knows a lost cause when he sees one, but he doesn’t pester us again, even though we remain next to his stand for several more minutes. He moves on to the Up-Mountain patrons behind us, who marvel at the thin coins and ask the vendor how to play.
“It’s your face,” Hawk tells Nicoleta. “He can see the lack of fun and warmth in your eyes.”
“I resent that,” she says.
Unu and Du tug on the sleeve of my night cloak. “Will you buy us some spiced wine?” Du whispers eagerly, his hazel eyes sparkling in the white torchlight. Unu, on the other hand, stares at their feet.
“You’re eleven,” I say.
“That’s an arbitrary number you made up.”
“Arbitrary is a big word for you.”
Du gives me one of his classic Du expressions. He leans his head back and scrunches his entire face together like he’s eaten a whole mouthful of sour-cherry drops. He uses this to feign being insulted.
Normally, I might say yes, but the spiced wine in this area of Gomorrah is highly potent—meant to get guests drunk and happy to spend. “Sorry, kiddo.” I pinch his cheek. “I’m too responsible a sister for that.”
The Menagerie tent opens three minutes later, and the queue of guests shuffles inside at an excruciatingly slow pace past the ticket booth. The entrance is a hallway lit by iron lampposts on either side so that our shadows stripe across the grass floor. In between the lamps stand taxidermied animals from the Down-Mountains. We pass an Eberian snow tiger, its pelt winter-white and its stripes hooked and curled at the points. A chimera hunches to our left, its goat and lion heads frozen in midhowl.
“You’re the goat for sure,” Du whispers to Unu.
There’s a leopard dragon, a few falcons and exotic birds, and one panda—all previous performers at the Menagerie. As a child, Villiam took me to the shows to watch the panda, who now watches us with vacant eyes.
The Up-Mountain guests point and gawk at the creatures we’ve seen a hundred times. They chatter incessantly and fan themselves, occasionally turning around to sneak peeks at us. I hear a woman say we must be in some kind of costumes. Hawk hugs her arms and her wings close to herself. Gill flicks her on the shoulder, and she manages a smile.
We have all learned—or tried to learn—to ignore the comments that follow us.
We enter the main part of the Menagerie, a huge open room with a circus ring, several trapezes and a collection of balls and hoops. My family slides into benches toward the back—we can never afford front row. The air smells of stale manure and kettle corn.
“Happy family night,” Venera says, and we raise our bags of licorice cherries in a sort of cheers.
For the next few minutes, I am caught up in the excitement of the Menagerie. I live for the anticipation of a good show. My legs twitch. I constantly change my sitting position. I eat too many of my snacks before the show even begins, and my stomach cramps from all the sugar. The others chatter to themselves about the last time we visited the Menagerie, when an acrobat broke his leg. Gill murmurs to Nicoleta—the only one who really listens to him—about the boring novel he’s reading.
Then I notice the noise outside. Shouts. Running. It grows louder, loud enough that many in the audience turn around, as if to see the commotion through the red-, pink- and purple-striped tent walls.
“Does that sound rather panicked to you?” Gill asks to my right. “Like something’s wrong?”
“I’m sure nothing’s wrong,” I say. Shouts and strange noises are business as usual in Gomorrah. Probably some drunkards passing through.
“But doesn’t it sound like something is?”
I listen closer. There are shouts. Feet running. Maybe…maybe the sound of horses, as well. I can’t be certain, but it does seem like more than a few drunkards. As the proprietor’s daughter, destined to one day become proprietor myself, I should inspect the commotion. But it’s family night. At the Menagerie. I don’t want to give up my seat. I’m sure it’s nothing important, and if it is, Villiam will take care of it anyway.
A man in a black tuxedo with a red undershirt strides into the center of the circus ring. He clears his throat, and the audience quiets. “I apologize, but the ten o’clock Menagerie show has been canceled. Tickets can be fully refunded at the booths at the north and south entrances. Please exit in an orderly fashion through the way you entered. We hope you enjoy the rest of your time at the Gomorrah Festival.”
The noise of the crowd immediately grows into an uproar. Among the shouts and complaints, Unu and Du’s and Hawk’s are some of the loudest.
“That’s rubbish,” Du sulks. “Our show is never canceled.”
“It’s probably from whatever is happening outside,” Gill says. “It mustn’t be anything good.”
“You’re right,” Nicoleta says. She stands. “We should leave now. Before the rush.”
Most of the audience remains in their seats, as if sitting around long enough will bring the manager back and force him to start the show. But the manager nearly sprinted out of the circus ring, so I doubt anyone will return. Clearly whatever is happening is important.
I grab my bag of licorice cherries and try not to let the true extent of my disappointment show. This is the Menagerie. What sort of pandemonium does it take to shut down Gomorrah’s biggest attraction?
“We better hurry if we don’t want to stand in line for the rest of the night waiting for our money back,” Nicoleta tells us.
We gather our few belongings and file out of the stands. The audience crowds in the hallway, and the eight of us link arms—Nicoleta carries Blister—to avoid losing each other. Once we approach the exit, the commotion grows louder.
“What’s going on?” Hawk asks. “Tree, can you see anything?”
Tree doesn’t answer. He swats at a fly buzzing around his leaves.
“It’s officials,” the man in front of us says.
“Officials? Like Frician city officials?” I ask, confused. “What are they doing at the Festival?” They allowed us to come to Frice. Have they changed their minds? Will they force us to leave? It wouldn’t be the first time a city-state has rescinded an invitation after gazing at Gomorrah’s intimidating burning skyline up close. It looks like Hell itself has shown up on their doorsteps.
“Causing trouble,” Gill says, always stating the obvious. Anything involving Up-Mountain officials means trouble.
We’ll have to cut our plans short—the Menagerie, the fireworks show, all of it. Officials love to target jynx-workers, and even if I’m the only true one among us, our appearances will make us stand out. I could joke about how it has something to do with us being abominations to their god. But the joke is less funny here, considering all the blood that has been spilled for thousands of years in the name of that same god in this city alone, not to mention in the rest of the world.
No, it isn’t much of a joke at all.
“Straight home,” Nicoleta says. “Does everyone hear?”
“Yes,” we chorus. No one argues with Nicoleta when there’s a crisis.
We step into the smoky night air, right in the middle of the clearing that was once filled with vendors, fortune-workers and laughing guests. Now, everyone is running. White-coated Frician officials on horseback charge dangerously close to the Gomorrah merchants packing up their stands. The officials brandish clubs and holler at passersby. Several brandish swords and crossbows.
Gomorrah is chaos.

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