Caleb Widogast wasn’t a good man, or a strong man, or a smart man, but he was a poor man, and a desperate one at that.
The tent had risen overnight as if by magic — and, indeed, it likely was magic — on the far side of town in a sweetgrass field. It had been up only a day before Caleb stormed the big top, full of ideas and entirely unearned confidence.
Well, the unearned confidence, he had in spade. The ideas? Eh, they’d come. He was always better on the spot, he figured, and what does a carnie need more than an ability to improvise?
It was a show day at The Fletching & Moondrop Traveling Carnival of Curiosities. It was always a show day. Caleb came into the tent the back way, navigating past a pair of identical halfling women in leotards and a lost-looking horse. The air smelled of sun-dried sweetgrass, dung and nearly-burnt sugar. Caleb instinctually tensed his arms around the leather holsters he wore to keep his spellbooks safe as he nodded in what he hoped was a polite fashion to a massive heterochromatic woman sharpening a sword off to the side.
A half-elf woman passed leading an ambling brown bear towards the ring. Caleb’s eyes followed their path to the center of the performance space, where a violet-hued tiefling was in heated discussion with someone just out of view.
“Mr. Tealeaf, I’m supposed to be here today, I just know it!” said a girlish voice. Caleb couldn’t place the accent — not Zemnian, but it could be close. He wandered over behind the risers to listen, entranced by the sound of her voice.
“And I just know how much your mother would delight in sending one of her more … fisticuffs-inclined patrons after me,” said the violet man, who Caleb could now see was dressed in garish ringmaster’s garb. “She’ll have my head — and not the fun kind.”
“Pleeeease, Mr. Tealeaf!” the female voice cried. “Haven’t you ever had a dream? A wish? Just let us try, and I promise, if you hate us, you can send us away and tell us to go fuck ourselves!” There was a brief pause, and then: “Though, that would be really rude, though.”
The man gave a heavy sigh.
“Fine, but be quick with it. Yasha?” he turned upstage, away from Caleb, where the massive woman from earlier had appeared. “This is … number seventy-three, the …” He squinted at his parchment. “'Nicodranas Mamas'?”
“That’s us!” the voice squealed. The man sighed again and handed the parchment off to Yasha. He waved a hand and the lights in the tent dimmed, with only one spotlight cutting through the black to illuminate the center of the ring.
As music came drifting down from somewhere above, Caleb stepped forward toward the front of the risers, and the girl came into view at last.
Standing at center stage was a petite blue tiefling, with short, dark blue hair that curled attractively near her chin. Her horns twisted away from her face in twin loops and were decorated with all manner of shiny things: delicate chains and sparkling jewels and a few wildflowers thrown in for good measure. Even from a distance, Caleb could see her large, expressive eyes and the smattering of dark freckles that danced across her pert nose.
But her smile — that was what made his heart stop. That sweet, wicked smile she flashed just before two duplicates appeared on either side of her, identical to her in every way, right down to her blue frock and frilly socks.
“Shim, sham, I’m a little lamb from Nicodranas; flim, flam, I’m a little lamb from Niii-co-dranas …” she sang, and her duplicates sang with her, popping their hips and swaying their hands to and fro.
But Caleb wasn’t looking at the duplicates, not really. He was looking at her.
It was as though time had stopped the moment he laid eyes on her, winking and flouncing as if she had been born and bred in the spotlight. And maybe she had, he didn’t know — he only knew he had to find out, to learn everything about her, as quickly as possible.
This is … she is … everything I thought I knew just changed, Caleb thought, blinking back stunned tears of joy. For years he had been alone, traveled alone, and remained alone without ever giving companionship a second thought, but this was … she was …
Caleb was aware that time had continued moving around him — she was still singing, so sweetly, and he could feel his heart beating like a hummingbird’s wing inside his chest, but he didn’t dare take a breath. He didn’t dare blink, lest he lose sight of her.
“Wham! Bam! Like a little lamb from Nicodranas! Hot damn! Who’s a little lamb from Nicodranas?” The tiefling gave a little shimmy and a cheeky wink to the ringmaster. “I’m a little miss, praying for a kiss, just a little lamb from Nicodranas …”
If Caleb had been told, later, that she was actually a siren, that she had cast a spell on her with her voice that had caused him to stay rooted to the spot, dumbstruck, entirely beholden to her every whim, he would have believed it. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful — though she was, make no mistake about that — it was that she was entirely uninhibited. She was sweet and saucy and completely herself.
Caleb hadn’t felt like himself in a long, long time.
Look at her, he thought. She’s there, and all you’ve ever wanted is nearer, clearer … Schiesse, do not mess this up, Widogast.
Caleb had known that, some day, he might fall in love. He hoped he might, anyway. And on the rare occasion he allowed himself to imagine what it might be like, he expected the moment might be something like this.
But this good? he thought, Who could …?
* * * * * * * * *
Jester Lavorre was performing, for fuck’s sake, and that boy would not stop looking at her.
That boy is staring, and I feel a chill, she thought as she sang, her eyes darting back to where he stood half-concealed in shadow. She shivered. What the fuck?
She tried to ignore him, putting everything she had into her audition. When she set out for Trostenwald, knowing the circus would stop there shortly after her arrival, she had a single goal: Get a spot in the show. Once she did that, the whole world would open up to her. No more days spent shut away in Mama’s ivory tower, drawing on the walls, wishing for a friend, she had thought as she packed her bag. No more filling the silence with idle chatter, no more stuffing cotton in my ears to drown out the sound of Mama and her patrons … well, you know. Never again.
She had left in search of a quiet stillness she had never quite known. But when she locked eyes with that boy, something happened.
Jester’s world went still. Suddenly it wasn’t tumbling by in madcap fits and starts, it wasn’t racing ahead of her, unattainable and unknown. And it was quiet.
There had never been a lot of quiet, growing up in a brothel. There had been even less quiet in Jester’s busy mind, where her thoughts ran rings around her head until she was exhausted and dizzy and lonely, so lonely.
He’s still staring, she thought, breaking into the soft-shoe portion of the routine. Is it me he’s looking at? I can’t be sure. But if he is looking at me, should I talk to him later? Or should I play hard-to-get, like Mama would tell me to?
Jester watched, as if outside her own body, as her hands performed the choreography she had painstakingly created all by herself in her bedroom. She was shaking like a leaf.
My hands are trembling, she thought in wonder. She had never felt like this before, so fluttery and anxious. What’s going on?
* * * * * * * * *
The music was building to a crescendo, and Caleb was already mourning the loss of the image of her, dazzling in the spotlight.
For so long, I saw only what lies ahead for me, he thought, shaking his head in disbelief. Find the books, learn the magic, change the past. Now I just see this girl, instead. And it’s … wunderbar. It’s sublime.
I could live forever, in this moment, watching her, if I could stop time, he thought. Then, wryly: Maybe someday I will come back to this very minute and do just that.
The music ended and — big finish! — the girl slid into the splits, waving her hands like fans out at her side, the two duplicates following suit. Yasha, in the corner, gave half-hearted applause.
“Well?” the girl asked, panting. The ringmaster stood and sniffed.
“We’ll be in touch,” he said, gesturing for her to exit the stage.
“But how will you—”
“Darling, a wonderful bit of knowledge to have in show businesses is that of the well-timed exit. Good day, then,” he said, ushering her off. Visibly crestfallen, the girl shook off his touch on her shoulder and made her way out of the ring, bumping into Caleb as she went.
“Oh, sorry!” she whispered as she brushed his arm with hers.
“Ah — I, uh — oh, no, that’s okay, I—” Caleb stuttered, but she was already gone, hastily making her way out of the tent with her head low. “Who is she?” he whispered to himself, breathing in her scent as it faded on the air: honeysuckle and spun sugar.
“Wouldn’t you like to know?” said a voice behind him. Caleb spun around to find the ringmaster, looking equal parts bored and bemused.
“If you’re looking to pay her a call, son, I wouldn’t. Her mother has her tail wrapped so tight around that girl, I’m surprised she can sit down. Much less perform her other … vocational duties,” the ringmaster smirked.
“Tell me her name?” Caleb breathed, forgetting entirely the reason he had come to the circus in the first place. The tiefling shook his head.
“Sorry, kid. I value my life and my balls far too much,” he said. “Is there something else I can do for you?”
Caleb shook the stars from his eyes. Focus, Widogast. Task at hand. You can find her later. Somehow. Some way. You’ll find her.
“I, uh … you are the ringmaster, Mr. Tealeaf, ja?” he asked, fiddling with the wraps around his fingers. The tiefling raised an eyebrow.
“Mollymauk Tealeaf, at your service,” he said, giving Caleb an exaggerated bow. “Love the accent, by the way. Are you here on … business?” Mollymauk gave Caleb a dubious once-over, his eyes stopping at each bedraggled pocket of his dirt-stained coat.
“Nein, I — well, sort of, I’m, ah … I’m looking for a job,” Caleb said.
“What sort of job?”
“Any job,” Caleb said. “I am in need of work. I, ah, have many talents.”
A second eyebrow rose to Mollymauk’s hairline. A dark amusement flashed in his eyes.
“Such as?” he asked. Caleb flushed scarlet.
“I’m, uh, very good at magic,” he said, and with a snap of his fingers produced a flame in his palm. Mollymauk tutted his tongue.
“Already have a magician or two, I’m afraid,” he said, and made to push past Caleb.
“Wait!” Caleb raised a hand to stop him. “I have great party tricks. I can remember everything that has ever happened to me. I can count cards. I am a middling pick-pocket —”
“Listen, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but it simply isn’t an act,” Mollymauk said sympathetically, clapping him on the shoulder.
“— And I have a very talented cat!”
Caleb snapped his fingers, practically in the ringmaster’s face, and at once a lithe Bengal cat appeared on his shoulder. Mollymauk jumped. The cat leapt gracefully from Caleb’s shoulder and landed at his feet, rubbing against them and purring.
“His name is Frumpkin, and he can do … well, he can do a great many things,” Caleb said. “He does not require food or drink, and he will do whatever I tell him.”
Frumpkin bristled, looking up to Caleb with a plaintive “Mow?”
“Well, within reason,” Caleb assured the cat. Mollymauk blinked.
“And this cat … you say he can do tricks?” he asked, scratching his head behind one violet horn. Caleb snapped his fingers in response, and Frumpkin appeared on Mollymauk’s head, where he promptly began to lick his own nethers. “Ah, for fuck’s sake!”
Mollymauk waved his hand about his head, causing Frumpkin to hiss. Caleb snapped again and the cat re-appeared on his shoulder.
“He can also sit, stay, fetch, roll over, shake, and juggle,” Caleb said, patting Frumpkin on the head. “Good cat.” Caleb looked to Mollymauk, who had paled to a lovely shade of lavender. “What, your cat can’t do that?”
Mollymauk shook his head slowly, and began to smile.
“I hate cats,” he replied, then grinned. “But that cat? That cat, I like. That cat, I can employ. Oh, think of the fun we’ll have! We can send him onto the tightrope, in the air with the acrobats, into the laps of unsuspecting audience members ….” Mollymauk gave a booming, belly laugh. “You know, I always thought there could be room for another pussy at Moondrop. Name your rate, kid.”
A thrill ran through Caleb, his eyes blazing. He raised three fingers in the air.
“Three rules,” he said. “Eins, I alone work with Frumpkin; he listens to me and no one else."
"Well, we'll have to clean you up a bit before your big debut, but —"
"Zwei, you pay the cat. One silver a day. I work for free," Caleb continued. Mollymauk crossed his arms over his chest, looking impressed. “I will work night and day, and you won’t even have to pay me. But,” Caleb added, “then there is rule number drei: for each month that we work, you will give me one hint about that girl.”
“A … hint?” Mollymauk said slowly. Caleb nodded.
“Ja, a clue. One clue a month.”
“So, let me see if I’m understanding you correctly,” the tiefling said, beginning to pace around Caleb. “You’ll work, for free — sorry, save for the single silver I pay your cat — doing whatever I like: cleaning, hauling, scooping elephant shit?”
“You can shoot me out of a cannon for all you like,” Caleb replied. “Bitte, Mr. Tealeaf. I … just want to know more about her. To be … closer to her, somehow.”
Mollymauk stared at him for a moment, then began to laugh, tossing his head of deep violet curls back as he did so. When he came up for air, he wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. Caleb stood, awkwardly, heart in his throat, waiting. Finally, the tiefling smiled, and stuck out a hand.
“You have a deal, mister …?”
“Widogast. Caleb Widogast.”
“Caleb,” the tiefing repeated, trying the name on for size. He shook Caleb’s hand with both of his own. “Call me Molly. Welcome to the circus. Go see Yasha, she’ll get you orientated.”
Caleb nodded breathlessly and made to leave, but Molly placed a hand on his shoulder.
“Oh, and Mr. Widogast? Here’s your first clue.” The violet tiefling leaned in close, so that Caleb could feel his breath against his ear.
“She likes blue.”
With a hoot of laughter, Molly slapped him on the back and went off, singing a little ditty to himself and cackling. Caleb flushed sheepishly, watching over his shoulder as Molly disappeared into the depths of the tent. Then he smiled, wide and unabashed.
Caleb Widogast wasn’t a good man, or a strong man, or a smart man. But for this girl?
For this girl, he wanted to try.