Note: This was written for the Yu-Gi-Oh! Pairings Contest, for the prompt, "Isis/Mana".
The air was full of the scents of popcorn, candy apples, and fresh sawdust. Mana took deep, appreciative breaths of it as she stood in the crowd that had formed outside the gates. From time to time, she would bounce up on her toes, trying to get a look over the heads of the crowd. If she strained herself to the absolute limits of her ability, she could just manage to see the top of the wrought-iron fence, and beyond that, the very top of a red and gold tent with a flag flying above it. Above that, the beams from several spotlights traced patterns on a few passing clouds. The moon was large, nearly full, and when the last rays of the sun faded, it would give enough light to see by.
Mana all but vibrated with impatience. Her parents had forbidden her to come here tonight. The circus didn't even start until after sundown, and they didn't want her out here alone after dark, even if it was summer and she had no school to go to in the morning. But how could she refuse? The circus had arrived practically out of nowhere - no one had seen it coming, no one had noticed it being set up, no one had heard it advertised. It had simply appeared one misty morning, and shortly after that, playbills had gone up all over town stating that it would remain in town for a month, that it would open its gates every night at sundown, and that admission would be free. How could Mana fight something like that? It was a mystery, and she would have wrestled bears for the chance to learn more about it.
The last sliver of the sun dropped below the horizon. At that same moment, a volley of fireworks went up over the circus, flaring in every color of the rainbow, and the crowd sighed with appreciation - and anticipation. Sure enough, the moment the last of the sparks faded from the sky, the gates swung silently and majestically open. Mana had to move very quickly to avoid being crushed by the suddenly active crowd. They surged through the gates and began spreading out over the circus grounds.
At first, Mana could only let herself be swept up in the current of people. Gradually, though, they began to spread out and give her some breathing room, enough so that she could see her surroundings. She found herself in a maze of small tents, carnival rides, game stalls, and miniature stages, where performers were showing off their particular skills. Interspersed with these were stands where popcorn, cotton candy, caramel apples, and funnel cakes were being handed out to anyone who put out a hand for them. High overhead, a pair of trapeze artists were swinging directly over the crowd, sometimes passing close enough to snatch a hat off someone's head as they passed. A series of interconnecting ropes allowed brightly-costumed tightrope walkers to stroll freely around the complex. Mana watched them in fascination.
If all this is outside, she wondered, then what do they save for inside the tent?
For the main tent, she now realized, was still closed off. Ropes had been strung around it, and burly men in ringmaster's costumes turned away anyone who tried to come close.
"Not yet," they said. "The show isn't starting yet. You'll know when it's time."
There was so much else to see and do that no one really seemed to mind. Mana managed to work her way to the front of a snack cart and take ownership of a funnel cake covered in ice cream and strawberries. Munching happily, she strolled around the fairgrounds, pausing here and there to enjoy a particularly appealing act. Here a knife thrower tossed knives through a forest of balloons, not popping a single one. His assistant tossed silk handkerchiefs into the air for him, and he pinned each one to the wall with perfect precision. On a different stage, a man with muscles like watermelons hoisted two beautiful women above his head, balancing them in the palms of his hands while they struck graceful poses, tossing and catching them as a juggler might toss and catch rubber balls. Mana paused a long time to watch a magician in long purple robes as he turned moonbeams into mice and starlight into streamers. It was easy to forget, under the light of the moon and the flashes of the spotlights, that it had to be just trickery. In a place like this, it was easy to believe in real magic.
She watched the magician until his set was finished, and he stepped off the stage to take a break. Then she wandered off, feeling a little disappointed. There was a part of her that had always wanted to be able to do magic. She went off on a little fantasy that she would come back tomorrow night, and the night after that, and that he would recognize her face in the crowd and bring her up on stage with him...
She didn't realize how much her mind was wandering until she looked around and realized that she had somehow drifted away from the main crowd. This part of the circus was not as brightly lit as the others, and there were no stages or food carts to lend any light. The only thing Mana could see were tents with flags hung in front of them, illustrating what might be found inside. Mana found her gaze drawn to a banner with a pair of luminous blue eyes painted on it.
"Priestess Isis knows all and sees all," Mana read aloud. "Huh. A fortune teller! That could be fun. Maybe she can tell me my future!"
She pushed her way into the tent. The flap opened onto a dark room, lit only by objects that Mana guessed were oil lamps. A pair of braziers on either side of the room smouldered gently, putting out the heavy sweet scent of incense. The floor was scattered with thick satin pillows that gleamed softly in the lamplight. At the center of the room was a low table. Other than that, the room was empty.
"Hello? Priestess Isis?" Mana called. "Is anyone here?"
A curtain at the back of the room was pushed aside, and a woman stepped into the room. She was dressed simply in a flowing white gown that fell to her ankles. A pair of gold bangles ornamented her hair, and a heavy gold necklace hung at her throat. She was also, without question, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. It wasn't just that her individual features were lovely, though they were. It had to do with the graceful way she carried herself, the dreamy surety of the way she moved, the intensity of her gaze. This was a woman of supreme confidence, a quiet self-assurance the likes of which most people could never hope to achieve. It made Mana feel rather small and drab in comparison.
And then the woman smiled, directly at her, as if Mana were a dear friend she had been hoping would show up, and Mana felt herself going warm all over.
"There you are," said the woman - Isis? "I didn't think you'd find your way here quite so soon."
"You knew I was coming?" Mana blurted.
Isis laughed softly. "Of course I did. You read the sign, did you not? I can see the future. I always know when someone is going to visit me. Now, please, sit down and make yourself comfortable."
Mana did as she was told, dropping onto one of the cushions. Isis lowered herself more sedately onto a second one on the other side of the little table.
"Now," said Isis. "What would you like to know?"
Mana's mind was a blank. Had she been asked before she'd stepped into the tent, she could have come up with dozens of questions about the future, but now that she was here, not a single one would come to her.
"What kind of show do they do in the big tent?" she blurted.
Isis laughed. "Not the question I was expecting, but if you really can't wait, I suppose I can answer you."
Mana nodded and scooted closer, the better to hear Isis's answer.
"The highlight of this circus," said Isis seriously, "is our monsters."
Mana frowned a little. "Real monsters? Or just wild animals and stuff? Or people in costumes?"
"They are quite real, I assure you," said Isis, "and they are wonderful and terrible to look upon. I hope you won't miss seeing them."
"You aren't just saying that because you're part of the show, are you?" Mana asked, still dubious. She'd seen some remarkable things tonight, but monsters was pushing the limits of her capacity for belief.
Isis smiled. "I am part of the show, and I am also telling the strictest truth. Our monsters are wonderful, and you won't regret seeing the show."
She sounded so sincere that Mana decided she could relinquish her doubts. She smiled.
"All right, I will!" she said.
Isis looked pleased. "Very good. And now, since you are here, I will look to your future for you."
She took Mana's hands in her own. Her skin was smooth and dry, as if she were the perfectly carved statue of a woman, except that there was warmth in her touch as well. This close, Mana could smell the sweet lotus scent of her perfume, even over the incense. Mana was very aware of how alone and isolated the two of them were, in this dark cozy room. Even the noise of the other circus attractions was dim here.
"I foresee a great adventure in your future," said Isis. "And... a romance. That much is very certain. You will find love very soon."
Mana felt herself blushing again, very aware of Isis's hands curled around her own.
She doesn't mean... Surely she doesn't...
Isis didn't seem to be flirting with her. Her eyes were half-closed, staring off into the shadows of the tent. Her lips were slightly parted, as if she were preparing to say more, but before she could, a gong rang out. Isis came back to herself with a small sigh.
"That's the bell for the start of the show," she said. "You should go. You don't want to miss it."
"Can I walk with you?" Mana asked. "You're in the show, right?"
"I am," said Isis, "but you can't come backstage with me."
"That's all right," said Mana. "I just want you to show me how to get there. I... kind of didn't pay attention to where I was going to get here."
"It isn't hard," said Isis. "Leave the tent and turn left, then left again when you come to the next pathway. That will put you on the main causeway, and you'll be able to see the tent from there. I have to take a different route to get to the back entrance. You understand."
Mana wasn't sure she accepted this explanation, but she nodded. "All right. I'll watch for you in the show, then!"
She got up and slipped out of the tent. The night air felt chilly after being in the warm room for so long. It helped to perk her up and raise her spirits. At least, she thought, she was going to see a good show.
After all, Isis had promised her an adventure.
Isis found herself wishing that she had time for a cup of tea.
It was one of the small ironies of her life: she might be able to see the future with astonishing accuracy, but she still never failed to be surprised by the sound of the gong. Quickly, she extinguished her lamps and braziers, fastened the door to the tent, and hurried out the back exit. She wasn't worried about leaving the tent alone. There was nothing in it that was particularly valuable, and at any rate, she would have known well ahead of time if someone was going to be foolish enough to try to rob her.
I don't know how I'm going to keep my mind on performing tonight.
She hurried through the back streets - the network of narrow paths formed by the backs of the various tents and booths, accessible only to the circus staff or to the extremely determined. There were few other people here to get in her way, only those few others who would be in tonight's performance, and most of those would have already been at the tent. Isis was able to be almost completely alone with her thoughts.
She hadn't been entirely truthful with Mana. Yes, it was true that the fates had decided that this would be the summer when Mana met her first love. What Isis hadn't been willing to say aloud was that the romance was going to concern her. That was an awkward thing to say at a first meeting. There was really no way to tell someone "You're fated to fall in love with me," and not have it come off as a trifle overbearing, to say the least. It was better to let these things happen as they were going to happen. Trying to force Fate along was a waste of effort.
The other thing she hadn't wanted to say was that the relationship was doomed from the start. The circus would leave town at the end of the month, and Isis would have no choice but to go with it. Mana, on the other hand, was still young, and lived with her parents. They would not permit her to simply up and leave to chase after a dream of romance, no matter how wonderful the stories might make running away to join the circus sound.
This wasn't the kind of circus you ran away to join. This was the kind of circus where, if you knew what it was really all about, you probably ran away from it.
Besides, Mana was young and inexperienced. She would be looking for a thrill. Isis was older, more experienced, and less idealistic. She was less interested in excitement and romance, and more interested in finding a stable partner to settle down with. It just wasn't going to work, no matter what either of them did - Fate and common sense agreed on that. It was just that there was no point in discouraging the poor girl right off the bat. Better to let her enjoy the experience now and find out the ending when it happened.
Isis had been through all these thoughts already. She had thought she had known how she was going to handle this situation. The truth was, while she had considered every aspect of how the girl was going to be affected by these events, she hadn't given as much thought to herself. Her mistake had been thinking that because she knew the relationship wasn't going to work out, it meant she wasn't going to care. She'd assumed that she would be unmoved throughout the whole thing - that she would be kind and gracious, and keep the girl happy until it was time to part ways.
It hadn't dawned on her that the attraction would work both ways.
She wasn't sure what she'd been expecting. Someone plain and shy, probably, if Isis was to be her first love. She hadn't expected someone who was both pretty and personable. Even in their brief exchange, she'd gotten the impression of someone who was bold and headstrong, and had more than the usual allotment of mischief. She seemed to smile easily, and she had a quick intellect and lively curiosity. Her questions about the circus performance had proven that much. If she hadn't been both bold and curious, she wouldn't have come to the dark alley where the tents that held more mysterious exhibits were kept. She was an interesting young woman, and in spite of herself, Isis found that she was looking forward to spending more time with her.
I suppose there's no harm in enjoying things while I can, she told herself. Just as long as I don't forget how this is going to end.
The tent was crowded. Mana was impressed in spite of herself - it seemed as though every person in town had come out to see this strange circus, and somehow the tent was still large enough to hold them all. It was enough to make her stare open-mouthed. How could anything possibly be so big and not fall in on itself? What was holding it up? There didn't seem to be any sort of center post supporting the roof, and yet it rose to a graceful peak nonetheless. Mana squelched the urge to climb up and find out, at least for now, and instead concentrated on hunting for a place to sit amid the huge crowd. Most of the best places were taken, but at last she managed to find a place near the center with a reasonably good view.
It seemed to take forever, but at last the seats were filled and the ushers closed the tent flaps. The lights went down, leaving the inside of the tent in nearly complete blackness. The murmur of the crowd became a rumble that was almost overwhelming. Then, with piercing brightness, a single spotlight illuminated a place at the far end of the tent, where a young man had stepped into view. He was dressed as a prince of some bygone era, with a gold crown on his brow and gold bangles on his wrists and ankles. A strange pendant like an upturned pyramid hung against his chest. He raised his hands, drawing everyone's attention to himself.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, his voice seeming to fill the tent, "I bid you welcome, one and all, to the Circus of Monsters!"
As he spoke, the rear flaps of the tent parted behind him, emitting a burst of light and stage smoke, and then...
Monsters. Dozens of small furry creatures with scaly limbs and huge eyes came scrambling in, chasing each other around the ring, piling themselves into heaps or dancing in formation. The crowd cheered and applauded.
Then the lights went down. As they went back up, two men with solemn faces stood opposed to each other beneath two spotlights. They were dressed much like the first man, in flowing white robes and gold jewelry. One held a pair of scales; the other wore a large ankh pendant. With a flourish, both of them summoned out monsters and set them to battling each other, while the audience gasped in amazement. Then two more men joined the fray - one an old man with a grizzled beard, the other a man Mana recognized as the magician she'd seen performing earlier. They summoned monsters of their own, and the fight became a battle royale, with the monsters performing an increasingly complex series of acrobatic maneuvers as they strove to outdo each other.
Suddenly there was another burst of smoke. More spotlights, these tinted gold, beamed down on Isis, who stood with her hands clasped in an attitude of prayer. From behind her rose a beautiful creature, a blue-skinned woman with the wings of a bird. It soared gracefully over the battle, swooping and darting, and the battle stilled as the participants paused to watch her. The spotlights faded, leaving only the flying woman illuminated near the top of the tent. Then the lights went out completely, leaving a breathless silence.
They came on in a burst of searing white light, illuminating a dragon - an actual dragon, all scales and sinew and flaring wings. It roared with a voice that seemed to make the earth shake, and several people in the audience shrieked in fear. But the dragon had its blue eyes fixed on only one person, the man at the opposite end of the tent, who stood watching it calmly. He made a casual gesture with one hand, and the dragon made its stately way across the ring to crouch before him, letting him stroke its neck as if it were gentle as a house cat. He climbed lightly onto its brow, and it reared up on its hind legs with another cry that shook the room, unfurling its wings and brandishing its claws. Then there was another burst of smoke, and the lights went down once more.
The crowd was getting restless now. They murmured in the dark, wondering what was going to spring at them next. Mana was aware of her heart racing. Surely that must have been the end. There could be nothing more impressive than that, could there?
The lights came up slowly this time, showing a stout old man ambling slowly across the ring. He looked so very unimposing, even in his costume, that a few restless souls assumed that the show was over and began getting up to leave. Then the man paused, looked around as if surprised to see that anyone else was there.
Then he raised one hand, casually, as if he was merely about to wave to a passing acquaintance. A fist burst out of the ground, large enough to hold the old man in its palm. He continued walking, apparently oblivious to the fact that a second hand burst up out of the ground just behind him. Then both hands slammed down on the ground, and there was a groaning sound as an immense head and shoulders burst up out of the earth. A golden giant surged up out of the ground, until it was standing with its head nearly touching the roof of the tent. It swung its gigantic fists over the heads of those sitting in the highest bleachers, and people shrieked in fear and ducked out of the way. Its roars were all the more terrifying because they sounded human, only from an immensely larger throat. Mana stared, wide-eyed, and for the moment, a little afraid. There was no way something so immense and so powerful could be controlled.. Any moment now, it was going to go on a rampage and crush them all...
Then there was a flourish of trumpets, playing a stirring fanfare that arrested the attention of everyone in the room. The young man who had announced the show had reappeared, and spotlights were beaming down on him. As he stepped into the ring, he gestured - once, twice, three times - and each time, a spark of light appeared above him, glowing in red, blue, and gold. They grew larger, taking on distinct forms. One was a serpentine dragon with an incredible number of teeth; one a man made of stone; one a golden eagle. And they were huge. When they appeared, the rest of the tent seemed to fade away into mist. The previous monster seemed to fill the tent; these creatures expanded beyond it, filling the sky. The world could not have been big enough to hold them. The audience was silent, rapt, too awed to emit more than a whimper. The other monsters - the golden giant, the winged woman, even the small furry creatures - all clustered around to bow at the feet of these behemoths. Light flared around them, too dazzling to look at, and then...
The lights went out. For a second or two, the circus was plunged into pitch blackness. Then they came slowly on again, revealing only a circus ring, empty of anything but sawdust and a single young man dressed in the raiment of an ancient prince.
"Thank you all for coming to our show this evening," he said. "I hope you have all enjoyed seeing wonders from worlds beyond your own. Please come again another night for another performance."
With that, the rest of the performers - the human performers, sans monsters - came filing out to stand in a row behind him. They bowed solemnly. The audience was too stunned to do more than muster a spattering of applause, but the performers didn't seem to mind. They held their bows for a moment, then filed backstage again. Mana watched them, thinking hard. Then, with her mind made up, she got to her feet and began weaving her way through the crowds that were now making their way dazedly to the exit. Mana was an expert at dodging and weaving her way through crowds of people, ducking beneath and around them, dodging between legs and occasionally jumping from one bench to another in an effort to make headway. She wanted to get out of here as quickly as possible.
Even so, she wasn't going so quickly that she couldn't overhear the conversations that were going on around her. Now that the initial shock was dying down, the people were beginning to talk amongst themselves. Mana listened with increasing amazement. They were using words like "special effects" and "lighting" and "costumes". The very idea filled her with a sort of affronted amazement. How could they say those things? How could they even think them?
Because what they had just seen, Mana was certain, had been real. She couldn't have said exactly how she knew, but her gut was telling her that what she had just seen could not possibly have been an illusion. Nothing she had ever seen or heard of could have created that sensation of awe when the three god-monsters had appeared, that feeling that she was seeing something that was simply too much to fit into her prosaic, everyday world. Besides, Isis had told her they were real. She wanted to believe that had been the truth. Even more, she wanted to know what those things really were.
And her best bet to do that was to find Isis.
As soon as Mana was free of the tent, she turned and ran as fast as she could towards Isis's booth. A quick check, however, revealed that the flaps were fastened shut, and when Mana risked a peek inside, she saw only darkness. Apparently Isis had not elected to come straight from the performance back to her tent. So, where was she now? Mana thought hard. If Isis hadn't come back yet, she was probably still back at the main tent, doing whatever things needed to be done backstage - changing costumes or feeding the monsters or putting them back in their cages. Did monsters need feeding? Mana couldn't imagine how much those three god-monsters must need, as big as they were. Still, she was vaguely aware that performers always had something to do after a show - they didn't just walk offstage and call it a day. So, it followed that Isis was probably still backstage.
That left the question: how was Mana going to get backstage? She rather doubted she'd be able to fight the crowd of people who were probably still trickling out of the tent and clogging up the walkways. Isis had said that there was another route that performers used, but Mana had no idea what that might be. She looked around seeking inspiration.
She found it in the form of one of several tall posts set around the perimeter of the circus grounds. They were about the size of telephone poles, and had rungs going up the side of them, leading to tiny platforms, and from there to the ropes that the tightrope walkers had been using to get around the compound.
No sooner had she noticed it than she darted towards it. There were no tightrope walkers in sight now - presumably they were all taking a break while everyone was watching the show. That meant there was no one to stop Mana from scampering up the rungs and onto one of the platforms. She had always been a nimble climber and had a good head for heights, so it took her only seconds to reach the top. From there, she found she had an excellent view of the better part of the grounds. She could easily see the grand tent at the center, the main entryway off to her right, and a loose spiral of booths and tents, making a shape that looked from above like an immense spider's web. From here, too, she could see that some of the booths had been arranged to form pathways that couldn't be accessed from the outside, but only from the back of one of the booths. Mana smiled as she realized what the truth must be. These, then, were the special route that Isis used. Well, if she could, Mana could, too!
Mana considered the tightrope. From below, it had looked like a very slender thing to try to walk on. From where she stood now, it seemed less imposing - the rope had to be a good two inches thick. If your balance was good and you weren't afraid of heights, it was probably simple enough to walk on. She crouched to grip the rope with one hand. It was surprisingly soft to the touch, and easy to grip. She grabbed on with the other hand and swung herself off the platform.
The world swung beneath her - but not so very far away, maybe about ten or twelve feet below her toes. She swung hand over hand along the rope, feeling as if she were back on the school playground clambering across a set of monkey-bars. Nobody paid her any attention. Anyone who wasn't so dazed by the show under th big top to notice her at all assumed that anyone moving so confidently along a tightrope walker's rope had to be affiliated with the show. She propelled herself along until she came to a hot dog vendor's stall, which had a flat, sturdy metal roof that was just close enough to land on in comfort. Mana dropped lightly down onto it, her sneakered feet barely making a sound. From there, she vaulted down onto the soft sawdust- covered ground. She smiled triumphantly: she had made it in. Now all she had to do was figure out where everyone else was. Breaking into a jog, she began hurrying in the direction of the tent.
As she had surmised, the path took her to a back entrance - nothing as impressive as the way she'd gone in to see the show, just a fold of canvas that had been pinned back far enough that a person only needed to duck a little to get inside. Mana could see the golden glow of lights beyond it, and hear voices and the sound of people moving around. Grateful for the sawdust that muffled her steps, she crept closer to listen in.
"...thinking, scaring them like that?" an irritable voice was asking.
It was answered by a chuckle. "As if he wasn't going to scare them anyway. I hardly ever get to take him off his leash; who am I to stop him if he wants to have a little fun? It isn't as though he hurt anyone."
"Stop badgering Saimun," said a new voice. Mana recognized it as the young man who had acted as ringleader - the one who had summoned the three god-monsters. "If you're going to insist that Exodia only come out on rare occasions, you shouldn't be surprised that it gets restless. For pity's sakes, we summon the gods more often than Exodia - you can't expect something that powerful not to chafe at never being allowed to display its power."
"So what do you suggest?" asked the first voice, sounding a bit sullen.
"I suggest we let Saimun have more say in how often his own monster is summoned. He's the best judge of what it will take to keep that beast happy and under control."
"Hear, hear," said a new voice. "I'll tell you this much, I don't want to be around if that Exodia ever decides to stop being tractable. I say, whatever it takes to keep him happy, that's what we do."
The first voice grumbled something inaudible. Mana shuffled closer. She hadn't heard Isis speak yet, and while the conversation was intriguing, it wasn't helping her learn what she wanted to know. She crept forwards until she was crouching directly beside the door flap, only barely out of sight.
"You worry too much about what they think," said the irritable voice. "We tell them what to do and they do it. That's how it's been for longer than I've been alive. I see no reason to start changing things now. I am in perfect control of all of my monsters; I can make them do whatever I please. I don't approve of this casual way of handling them. Keep letting them make the decisions, and soon they'll be running this circus with us jumping through hoops."
"Maybe that's how you see it, Akhenaden," said the one called Saimun, "but remember, I'm as old as you are, and I can assure you that I've never been fool enough to try to push these monsters when they don't want to be pushed."
"Now is not the time to have arguments," said a calm voice. "We are all tired form our performance, and tempers are likely to flare. It is unwise to let one's temper get the better of one so soon after handling power. There are liable to be consequences."
"Thank you for the lesson, Shada," said Akhenaden, with more than a hint of sarcasm. "If we are done here, I am returning to my tent. Or do I need to ask my monsters' permission to do that as well?"
There was a rustling and the sound of a chair being pushed back. Mana heard footsteps coming towards the exit, and she pressed herself into the deepest shadows she could find, hoping not to be noticed. He was, by the sound of his voice, an old man, so surely his eyesight couldn't be very good. It was night, and the lights of the main walkways were only a dim refracted glow here, so the shadows around her were very dark indeed. As long as she stayed still and quiet, even someone with very keen eyes would have a hard time spotting her even if they were looking for her. She was certain she would be safe, as long as she didn't do anything to draw attention to herself.
To her surprise, she heard the man take a few steps toward the flap in the tent, stop, and turn around again. She let out her breath in a slow relieved sigh, and prepared to retreat into a more secure hiding spot. That had been too close, and she didn't want to make the same mistake a second time.
Clearly, she heard Akhenaden say, "Before I go, is there something you would like me to do about the young woman currently eavesdropping on our conversation?"
Mana's heart seemed to stop. There was no way. He couldn't have. He hadn't even set foot outside the door...
Various voices exclaimed in surprise and dismay. Over all of them, Mana could clearly hear the single feminine voice among all the men saying, "I should have known. This is my fault; I said too much and made her curious."
"Well, let's see if we can catch her before she runs off," said the young man who seemed to be in charge.
Mana did not want to hang around to see if they could catch her. She was going to run off, now, and if they did catch up to her, they were going to do it where she was far away enough that she could plausibly deny being there at all. She got to her feet and prepared to run, already scanning the aisle for any opening she could slip into, any gap where she could crawl out and back onto the main path.
She only made it a few yards before she heard someone say something, calmly, in a language she did not recognize. Suddenly, her feet seemed to way fifty pounds each, and her dash was turned into a trudge, and then stopped altogether as she found herself rooted to the spot. Her whole body had locked up as though she'd been encased in stone. She stood in the darkness, trembling a little, wondering what was going to happen to her now.
There was a brief flare of light behind her as the tent flap was pushed back for a moment, and she heard two sets of footsteps coming up behind her. A moment later, Isis stepped into view, accompanied by the magician she had been watching earlier. Both of them had changed out of their show costumes and were now wearing ordinary street clothing. Somehow, it didn't seem to make much difference. They still had the air about them - something in their eyes and the solemn way they carried themselves - that made them look more like the high priests of some ancient temple than anyone you might bump into at the grocery store. Isis's expression held hints of regret and apology. The magician, by contrast, looked faintly amused.
"So, this is the young lady you were telling me about," he said. He smiled a little. "Well, she looks harmless enough, even if Akhenaden seems to think otherwise. Tell me, young lady, what are you doing here? Don't tell me you got lost; I know there's no easy way to get to this entrance. How did you get here, anyway?"
"I climbed up one of the tightropes," she answered. She didn't seem to be able to lie to this man. "And I jumped onto the roof of a hot dog cart."
He laughed. "Well, Isis. Your friend has courage. Not necessarily sense, but courage."
"Yes, I'm getting that impression," said Isis. She sounded more resigned than amused.
The magician turned back to Mana. "Now, I'm afraid I'm not making the best first impression. My name is Mahaado, and this is my associate, Isis. What's your name?"
"A lovely name," he said. "Now, tell us, Mana, what were you doing here, in this place I'm sure you know you don't belong?"
"I wanted to know more about the monsters," she said. "I saw the show, and everyone was saying that they were just special effects, but Isis told me that they were real..."
Mahado raised an eyebrow. "Someone has been talking out of school, I see. What if I told you that she had to say that, to stay in character? What if we said it was all part of the act?"
Mana shook her head fiercely. "I wouldn't believe you. It isn't true! I don't understand how anyone can believe they aren't real. You can just look at them and tell."
"Special effects can do a lot of things," said Mahaado. "Just look at my stage show, for example. I can make all sorts of things seem to happen."
Mana regarded him thoughtfully. She had been telling herself earlier that of course his show was all smoke and mirrors, and the wonderful things he seemed to make happen were only trickery. Now, though...
"I don't think you're faking it either," she said at last. "If you were faking, then why can't I move?"
He laughed. "Very sharp. Well, Isis, I don't think we're going to be able to hide anything from this one. She sees through walls almost as well as Akhenaden does."
He made a complicated gesture with one hand, and Mana felt her muscles relax and realized she could move again. She stayed where she was.
"Will you tell me about the monsters now, please?" she asked.
"I will explain it," said Isis. Intercepting a look from Mahaado, she added, "It's only fair. I was the one who sparked her interest in the first place. The least I can do is assuage her curiosity now that I've aroused it."
"Are you sure that's wise?" he asked. "Akhenaden won't like it. Neither will some of the others."
"I got the feeling that Akhenaden doesn't like a lot of things," said Mana.
Isis smiled, finally showing some humor. "You're right, he doesn't. But it's Atem who makes the decisions here, and I think he can be persuaded."
"I'll talk to him, then," said Mahaado. Another look passed between him and Isis, one that made Mana think it wasn't just the disapproval of their peers that was worrying him. Nevertheless, he gave Mana a polite bow and said, "I hope you enjoy the rest of your evening, Miss Mana. Please come and enjoy our show again some evening."
He turned and strode back into the tent, presumably to talk to Atem, leaving Mana alone with Isis. Isis gave her a tentative smile.
"Shall we walk back to my tent?" she asked. "We can go somewhere else if you like, but it will be comfortable and private there. We can have tea."
"What if someone comes in to have their fortune told?" Mana blurted.
Isis's smile became a bit more genuine. "They won't. The fair starts to close down after the main performance is over, so people will be leaving. Even if someone does come by, my living quarters are in the back of the tent. No one will notice you there."
Mana felt mildly flustered at the idea of being invited back to Isis's living quarters, but she tried not to let it show. After all, it was just a cup of tea she was being offered, and an explanation. Of course Isis would want to explain something like this in private.
Still, it was pleasant, walking side-by-side through the dark alleyway. Beyond them, Mana could hear the distant sounds of the circus still going on - laughter, shouting, calliope music, the gentle mutter of popcorn popping - but it all sounded very distant. It might have been coming from a world as the one where the monsters came from, wherever that was. Mana and Isis walked in a world of shadows, where the stars somehow shone even through the ambient glow of the carnival, and the two of them were the only people in sight. Mana found herself watching the way Isis moved. That serene grace she had made a simple stroll down a sawdusty path look like a royal procession. Mana scampered after her and tried not to look too much like a bumbling puppy.
They reached the back of Isis's tent, and Isis lifted the flap open.
"Let me go first and light the lights," she said, and slipped inside. Mana heard the sound of a match being struck, and a slowly increasing glow from within the tent revealed that Isis was lighting lamps. Mana took that as her cue to step inside.
The back of the tent looked very much like the front. The floor was strewn with mismatched rugs in deep jewel tones, and pillows served for furniture. Unlike the ones in the front, these did not look like silk or satin. They were made from a variety of fabrics, and looked soft and well-worn. A hammock hung off to one side, with a curtain that could be drawn around it to give the occupant a bit more privacy. A stand next to the bed held a brush, comb, hand mirror, and a small stack of paperback books. There was a low table in the middle of the room, and a shelf containing an assortment of utilitarian odds and ends. The abundance of fabrics made it look cozy and comfortable, even lush, but the general absence of personal objects made it seem oddly austere was well.
Isis filled a kettle from a jug of water and set it on a little spirit lamp to start heating.
"Please, sit down," she said. "Make yourself at home."
"Do you live here?" Mana blurted. Isis looked at her, and she felt her cheeks warm. "I mean, do you have a home to go to when you're not with the circus? This isn't where you live all the time, right?"
"This is where I live," said Isis simply. "That is the nature of what I do. We move. We can never be in one place for too long."
"That's... kind of sad," said Mana. To never put down roots in any one place, never stay long enough to make friends, have a family...
"It isn't so bad," said Isis. "The circus is my home. Wherever I go, it goes with me. The same group of people always work here, so I have friends to keep me company. I get to see the world and never leave my home. That isn't such a bad thing."
"Maybe," said Mana, but she wasn't entirely convinced.
Isis carried two mugs - which seemed to be as many as she had - over to the little table, setting the less chipped of the two in front of Mana. When the kettle finished boiling, she produced a tin of tea leaves and poured hot water over the strainer with all the gravity of a sacred ritual.
"I'm sorry I have no food to offer," said Isis. She smiled a little. "Usually we order carryout. I could send for something from the food carts, if you like."
"It's fine. I already ate," said Mana. "Please, can you tell me about the monsters now?"
Isis smiled. "So impatient. Very well. Where should I begin..."
"What are they?" Mana asked. "I mean, I know they're monsters, but..."
"They are spirit creatures," said Isis. "They come from another world, adjacent to and occasionally connected to the one we inhabit. My friends and I are... custodians, of a sort. We mind the doorways between this world and their world."
"And that's important?" Mana prompted.
"We think it is," said Isis. "Our two worlds used to be much more closely linked. A long time ago, humans and monsters lived in symbiotic relationships with each other, each one supplying something the other needed. Over time, we've drifted apart, and the monsters have been largely forgotten or dismissed as fairy tales. Because of this, the doors between our two worlds have been slowly closing. If they close entirely, I don't know that they ever can be opened again."
"So I guess that means you couldn't call your monsters anymore," Mana guessed.
Isis shook her head. "It's more than that. The monsters need us to survive. They feed off the energy we release with our emotions. I do not know what would become of them if the doors were closed off, but I am not entirely certain that they could survive without us."
Mana bit her lip, thinking. "So, you said that they give us something, too. Does that mean something bad would happen to us, too?"
"It would," said Isis. "Nothing so dramatic as humanity dying off, I don't think, but something would be lost all the same."
She made a beckoning gesture, and from out of a ripple in the air, the winged woman emerged. Isis smiled at her, and she nestled against Isis's side, resting her head on Isis's shoulder and curling one wing around her. Isis smiled and stroked the woman's hair.
"You see, monsters like Spiria here tend to bond to particular humans and adapt to their particular energies," said Isis. "Strong souls build strong monsters, fierce souls build fierce monsters, gentle souls build gentle monsters. They bond to their partners for life, and help and protect them. Spiria isn't just a pet or a tool to me, she is a good and loyal friend."
"Could I get a monster?" Mana asked, intrigued.
Isis considered, then shook her head. "I'm not sure. Probably not. We've set this circus up to make summoning monsters easy. I'm not sure you could do it on your own - or that it would be wise to do so. You would need to keep your partner secret and safe. It takes time to build trust between a human and a monster. Are you certain of your ability to control something if you summoned something strong and it decided to test its boundaries?"
Mana ducked her head. "Do you think I could? Summon a strong monster, I mean?"
"Of course you could," said Isis, smiling. "Anyone who would do what you did tonight must have a strong soul indeed, and that means you would call forth a strong monster."
"Could I learn how?" asked Mana, brightening. "I mean, here, where it's safe? Could you teach me?"
Isis laughed softly. "Not tonight, and perhaps not ever. It is no easy thing, to summon and direct a monster. You may have noticed that out of all of us here, there are only a handful of us who are able to call them reliably. Besides, what would you do with one if you had one?"
"I hadn't thought of that," said Mana, and giggled. "I guess it would be hard to keep one in my room!"
"Yes, I believe it would," said Isis, smiling. "Though they tend to stay in their own world unless someone calls for them."
"So, why the circus?" Mana asked. "Why not just do it where nobody can see you?"
"There is more than one answer to that," said Isis. "One is that it is many small doorways are more effective for what we're trying to do than one large one - we're aiming for breadth, not depth. That means we have to move around frequently. Second, the monsters require the emotional energy of many people, which means we need an effective way to put them in front of an audience without the audience realizing what they are seeing. A circus seemed like an effective way to accomplish both of these tasks at once."
"But no one believed in the monsters," Mana protested. "I heard them! They were right in front of their faces and still nobody believed what they were saying."
Isis smiled, her expression slightly sad. "Oh, they believed it. They just don't want to admit that they did. They are afraid that if they admit that they saw monsters and were frightened by them, people would think they were insane, or worse, that they are being childish. So instead, they say what they think other people want to hear, without realizing that the people they are talking to believe the same things."
"They should be honest," said Mana firmly.
"It wouldn't be safe for them," said Isis. "The ones who believe most are the ones who are most likely to lash back if they are told something they don't want to hear."
"That's too bad," said Mana, genuinely sad. "They're missing out on a lot. Is there any way to help them?"
"I don't know," said Isis. "All we can do is to show them as much as is safe, and hope that with time and exposure, people begin to come around again."
"Can I help?" asked Mana.
"Not tonight," said Isis. "Tonight, I think you should be getting back home before someone misses you. You have family, don't you?"
Mana nodded reluctantly. "I guess I do need to be getting back."
She sighed and stared into the bottom of her teacup. The tea leaves swirled there, suggesting a future that Mana couldn't read. She sighed. It didn't seem fair. Isis was doing so much for these monsters. It seemed a very thankless job, promoting the welfare of creatures that no one would acknowledge existed. And yet, she'd given over her whole life to that very thing. What a brave and selfless woman she must be, to do such a thing...
"Would you like me to walk you home?" Isis asked, cutting into her thoughts.
"Oh! Yes," said Mana, jolted back to the present. "Thank you very much. I'd like that."
"Then let us go," said Isis, rising gracefully to her feet. She bent to offer Mana her hand. Mana took it, feeling suddenly shy. Being given an explanation was one thing. She was practically owed one after what she'd done. But being walked home? That was different, and suggested that for whatever reason, Isis actually wanted to spend more time with her.
Or that she was afraid that there would be even more trouble if she left Mana unattended, but Mana chose to look on the positive side.
The circus they stepped out into was far different from the one they'd left. When Isis had led Mana into her tent, the fairgrounds had still been full of light and sound. Now all the lights had been turned off, and all that was left of the people were a few straggling workers doing a bit of last minute cleanup. To some, it might have been a bit spooky, walking through this empty land in the dark. To Isis, it was home. The circus itself might move, but the layout never changed, and she could have found her way from her tent to the main gate with her eyes closed.
Mana's eyes, however, were wide open. It made Isis smile to see her taking in everything with such obvious wonder. She was one who saw things clearly. Small wonder she'd been so outraged to realize that the people around her were denying the evidence of her own eyes. When Mana had seen something that went against everything she'd ever been taught could be real, she'd acknowledged it, embraced it, and went looking for information on it. That spoke of a degree of intelligence and courage that many people didn't have. Not to mention the stunt she'd pulled earlier! Isis couldn't decide if she was brave or simply reckless, but she almost wished she could have seen Mana clambering along on that rope. She must be quite the acrobat, to manage such a feat.
She's like one of Mahaado's magic shows, she thought, amused. Even I am surprised by the things she comes up with.
They walked side by side down the gravel lane that led back into the town. It wasn't much of a town, really - you'd hardly expect a large circus to turn up there. It had one public school, a few shops and a general store, a town hall with a gold dome too grand for its modest size, and a small weedy park with a swing set and sandbox. It was small enough that there were houses right there on Main Street, rather than high-rise office buildings, and the outskirts of it were a jumble of cozy little suburbs, each more or less like the other. Mana fished some coins out of her pocket and gave Isis the treat of a bus ride, something she had not often enjoyed in her lifetime. She watched the people as she rode, half-listening to Mana's chatter as she pointed out sites of interest that flashed by in the windows. It felt so strange to be sitting among ordinary people rather than in the circus ring with them looking down at her. Mana was one of those ordinary people - she had to keep reminding herself of that, because she was having trouble making herself believe it. Surely a girl who took magic at face value did not belong in a town like this.
If only I could take her with me. Wouldn't we both be happier?
But she couldn't convince herself of that. No matter how appealing she found the girl, she couldn't bring herself to even try to coax her away. A personable girl like Mana probably had lots of friends here, and she would miss them if she were to leave. She would miss her family, her home, her peaceful life that did not involve the ever-present risk that someday a monster would take offense to your presence and close its teeth on you. She might enjoy the glitz of the circus life for a while, but eventually, she would come to resent Isis for taking her away from the things she knew, and putting her in a position where she could not go back. Not even true love could overcome that sort of smouldering bitterness.
But I wish this could last a little longer. It's so good to have someone around who can surprise me...
The bus stopped, and Mana tugged Isis towards the door and out onto a tree-lined street. Isis looked around, taking in the sight of trees with swings on their branches, driveways with bicycles lying in them, garages with basketball hoops over their doors. She'd never known a life like this.
"What is it like, living here?" she asked, surprising herself.
Mana looked surprised. "What's it like? I don't know. It's just... life."
"Not to me, it isn't," said Isis.
Mana shrugged, still looking a little confused. "It's not very interesting. I get up. I go to school, I go to cheerleading practice, I go home, I do my homework. On weekends I get pizza with my friends. My parents go to work. It's just like any other life. I'd rather do what you do."
Isis smiled. "It's not as much fun as it seems."
"It means something," said Mana. "It's important."
She looked very serious, standing there half in the shadows of an old tree. Someone had tried, not very successfully, to put a treehouse in it, and there was a tire strung from one branch. All the same, the shadows cast by it were very deep.
"I think I understand," said Isis.
They walked down the sidewalk until they came to one of the smaller houses. Isis walked Mana up to the front path.
"I'd better go around the back," said Mana. "I sneaked out the window. But thanks anyway."
"You're welcome," said Isis.
Mana smiled. "I guess you were right. I did have an adventure today."
"So you did," said Isis. "And did you also find love?"
Even in the thin moonlight, it was clear that Mana was blushing. "Well..."
"It's all right," said Isis. "I knew ahead of time, didn't I?"
"I guess so," said Mana. She was still looking down at her hands. "I just... you're really pretty and brave and good, and I guess I couldn't help it."
"I'm not that good," said Isis. "Or brave. I'm just doing what needs to be done. But thank you." She surprised herself by leaning forward to drop a feather-light kiss on Mana's cheek. "And thank you for livening up my evening. Come back again tomorrow."
"I will!" said Mana, eyes shining. "Goodnight, Isis."
"Goodnight, Mana," said Isis.
Mana waved and ducked into the side yard and out of sight. Isis waited until she was certain that the girl had made it inside without getting caught and incurring the wrath of her parents. Then she turned and began walking back to the circus. It was a long walk, without bus fare to get her back the way she had come, but she didn't mind. She had so much on her mind that she didn't notice the trip at all.
Over the next few days, Mana was a frequent guest at the circus. It was summer now, and that meant she had plenty of free time during the day. She couldn't come out and see the show every night, not without arousing her family's suspicions, but she could come to the gate every day and slip through the bars. The circus crew, by and large, allowed to her to do so. Isis and Mahaado seemed to have spread the word that she was a friend and welcome there, and their word was good enough for nearly everybody. Mana was free to spend her days letting Isis show her around the fairgrounds, introducing her to various friends, letting them teach her whatever she cared to learn. She enjoyed letting the trapeze artists and tightrope walkers walk her through some of the simpler tricks of their trade, and enjoyed it even more when Mahaado allowed her to spend time with him, learning the foundations of magic. He was a good and patient teacher, and Mana soon found herself considering him a good friend as well.
But when she had a choice, she spent her time with Isis. Sometimes Mana peppered her with questions - about the circus, the monsters, about the nature of magic - but most of those were questions that she could just as easily ask Mahaado, and did. Instead, she and Isis swapped stories about their lives. Isis told her about what it was like growing up in the circus - apparently she came from a long line of monster tamers - but Mana got the impression that she was more interested in hearing about life outside the performance circuit. Mana did her best to oblige with amusing stories about things that happened to her at school and funny things her parents had said.
She still couldn't help feeling that Isis's stories were more interesting.
The two of them were strolling around the mostly empty fairgrounds, watching the maintenance crew checking the rides to ensure they would all be functioning properly for the night's performance. One of the vendors had kindly given Mana a hot dog for her lunch, which she was eating with enjoyment, but Isis had abstained, saying that she'd already had a lifetime's worth of everything that the circus served, and that she would wait and eat when the food the others had ordered arrived.
"It isn't something I could always do," Isis was saying. "It's because of the Item I carry." She touched her hand to the gold necklace, and Mana leaned in for a better look. She had never seen Isis not wearing it, but she'd assumed that it was simply part of her costume.
"What is it?" Mana asked.
"An artefact, handed down for thousands of years," said Isis. "I believe it was created by those who originally learned to communicate and cooperate with the monsters, though its exact origins are lost now. There are six more, shared by other members of our group. They all have their own particular abilities, though some are more obvious than others. Mine lets me catch glimpses of the future from time to time. Karim's scale can weigh the nature of anyone he speaks to and let him know if they are good or bad, honest or false. Akhenaden's Eye allows him to see things that normal people can't."
"That's how he saw me through the tent!" said Mana, who felt quite pleased by this realization. It had bothered her to think that she'd done such a poor job hiding that he hadn't even needed to leave the room to know she was there.
"Yes, that's how he knew," Isis agreed. "He has a habit of noticing things, especially the ones you're trying to hide."
As if on cue, Akhenaden came up behind her, his face fixed in its usual sour expression.
"Telling our secrets again, Isis?" he asked.
"Hello, Akhenaden," said Isis calmly. "We were just having a nice chat. Would you care to join us?"
There was nothing but pleasantry in Isis's tone, but Mana got the feeling that she wouldn't be at all displeased if Akhenaden decided to take himself elsewhere. Mana hadn't known any of these people for more than a few weeks, but she had been around long enough to have worked out who spent time together in which combinations. The outside performers - the jugglers, acrobats, contortionists and all, tended to stay with each other, just as the food vendors talked to the other food vendors and the roustabouts talked to the other roustabouts. Among the inner circle, the dynamics were more complicated. Everyone deferred to Atem, some more readily than others. Shada and Karim seemed to be each other's particular friends and were usually seen together. Mahaado got along well with both of them but was just as often seen in Isis's company. Seth didn't appear to like anyone but tolerated Atem's company and even seemed to take a perverse delight in quarreling with him. The old man called Saimun Muran was unfailingly pleasant to all and behaved like everyone's jolly grandfather. As for Akhenaden, he generally took Seth's side any time there was an opportunity to do so, criticized Atem as often as he could get away with it, and showed no signs of wanting to be friends with anybody. Mana wasn't sure that he was a bad person, but he was certainly one of the more obstinately cantankerous ones she'd ever met. She suspected that if he took Isis's offer, it would be Mana who told him to take himself away somewhere.
"I would prefer not to," said Akhenaden stiffly. "I did not come here to socialize. I only came to let you know that lunch is waiting in the tent. Though I wonder if you may prefer not to join us, since you've become so fond of the company of outsiders."
"Maybe if you weren't such an old grouch all the time, people would want to hang around you instead," said Mana.
Isis drew in a sharp breath and pressed her lips together in what Mana recognized as a fierce attempt not to laugh. Akhenaden's frown deepened.
"You should learn some manners," he said. "Isis, hanging around with such people isis a bad influence on you. You seem to be forgetting where your first loyalties lie. Perhaps I should send her away for your own good."
"I am capable of deciding with whom I wish to spend time with," said Isis, calmly but firmly. "Thank you very much for your concern. Have you spoken to Mahaado yet?"
"No, but..." Akhenaden began.
"Then I believe I will spare you the burden of finding him," said Isis. "Thank you for your courtesy, Akhenaden."
With that, she turned and swept gracefully off, leaving Mana to trail after her and Akhenaden to stand scowling until he finally walked off in a huff. Mana stuck her tongue out at his departing back.
"What's his problem, anyway?" she asked. "Why is he so grumpy all the time?"
"He has his reasons," said Isis. "You know, I might like to have one of those hot dogs after all. It's been ages since I've thought about having one, and I am not sure lunch in the tent will agree with me today."
"But why?" Mana persisted. "Was he always like that?"
"As long as I've known him," said Isis, "but it's gotten worse in the last few years." She was quiet a moment, and Mana waited expectantly, realizing a story was about to unfold.
"The previous master of this circus was Atem's father," Isis said at last, "and Akhenaden's brother. Seth is Akhenaden's son, and a year or two older than Atem. This circus has long been a family-run affair."
"So Atem is Akhenaden's nephew?" asked Mana, surprised. "Then why does he disagree with him all the time? I mean, they're family, right? They should be on the same side."
"You would think, but it doesn't work that way," said Isis. "You see, it was Atem's father who controlled the three gods before him. Akhenaden hoped to have that honor himself someday, or, failing that, to see it passed on to his son. When Seth was born, you see, no one knew Atem was coming, and Akhenaden hoped that his brother would remain childless. It was a sore disappointment to him when Atem's father decreed that it would be Atem who would inherit control of the circus. It was a reasonable decision, though. The gods are more particular than other monsters, and won't answer the summons of just anyone who calls. They bonded with Atem and respect him, so obviously he should be the one to take responsibility for them."
"That makes sense," said Mana. "So why is Akhenaden so mad at Atem? It's not like he took the gods on purpose. Akhenaden can't blame him for that."
Isis smiled without humor. "He can and he does. At least, he resents his good fortune. And as you may have noticed, Akhenaden believes in a more rigid approach to leadership than the one Atem takes. He resists Atem's leadership, I think, because he hopes one day Atem's control will fail and Akhenaden will be able to step in and take over in his place, or give leadership over to Seth."
"Is that going to happen?" Mana asked, wide-eyed. She couldn't imagine this wonderful circus being led by someone like him. He'd take all the fun out of it.
Isis shook her head. "Unlikely. Atem is a good leader, and everyone here likes him. They won't turn against him no matter what Akhenaden tries, and if Akhenaden pushes too hard, he knows they are likely to turn against him rather than Atem. It's the same with the monsters. They are our partners, not our slaves - pushing them too hard would only result in their rebelling, and no one would dare risk that. No, he will be an irritation at worst, and eventually he will become too aged to continue performing. Then he will retire and be replaced by someone who might be more tractable."
"I don't know why you keep him around," said Mana, "even if he is the old owner's brother."
Isis smiled a little. "He has his good points. He is a very learned and powerful man, and he's made many sacrifices for the good of the circus. Did you realize that he had to give up his original eye to be able to use his magical one? That is not something most people would undertake even if you paid them, and he did it of his own free will."
Mana thought that there were probably a lot of people who would be willing to endure a little pain, or even a lot of pain, to have such power, but she didn't say that aloud. For all she knew, Isis was right, and the man really had done it for the general good. After all, Isis had known the man for much longer than Mana had, so she would know. Still, it was very like Isis, to find something good to say about even someone she plainly did not like.
I'm really going to miss her...
She had been trying very hard not to think about the fact that tonight would be the circus's final performance. Tomorrow it would pack up and move on, and Mana wasn't sure if she would ever see it or anyone in it ever again. It didn't seem fair. Her usual summer amusements were going to look dull compared to her lessons with Mahaado and the time she was spending with the other performers and workers. Her possibly-more-than-a-friendship with Isis was going to come to an end before it ever had a chance to reach its full potential, whatever that was going to be. There wouldn't even be a way to write to her, and something about the magic that powered this circus seemed to prevent any of them from keeping computers or cellular phones. It was very much as if everyone there truly wanted to be able to disappear without a trace at a moment's notice.
I wish it didn't have to be this way...
"You look like you're thinking deep thoughts," said Isis shrewdly.
"Yeah," said Mana.
Isis smiled and gently stroked Mana's hair. "Don't worry. Everything will happen as it is meant to happen. That's what I believe, anyway."
Mana smiled. "And you're usually right. Okay. I'll try not to worry. Now, come on," she said. "Let's go see about those hot dogs."
She caught Isis's hand and began leading her. If today was to be their last afternoon together, she would have to enjoy it to its fullest.
Isis stood in front of the backstage mirror, fiddling with her costume. She was so caught up in what she was doing that she didn't even notice Mahaado coming up behind her until he reached out to put a hand on her shoulder.
"It isn't like you to get stage fright," he said.
She sighed. "It's not that. It's just... Tonight will be the last time we perform here. I want it to be special."
Mahaado smiled, understanding and sympathy in his eyes. "Ah. Mana?"
Isis nodded. "I should have known, shouldn't I? I tried to pretend it wasn't going to have to end, but..."
"I know," he said. "I'm going to miss her, too. She's a fine young woman. This circus is so steeped in the past sometimes. Having her around has been a breath of fresh air."
"You know it's more than that," said Isis.
"I know," he said. "I'm your oldest friend, am I not?"
Isis nodded. It was true. He'd been her friend since before either of them had become performers or monster-summoners. He knew her moods and emotions better than anyone. He, if anyone, would understand what she was going through.
"It will be a fine performance," he said. "Spiria always senses your moods. She will give her all for you tonight, and I will be backing you up."
"Thank you," she said.
"Quiet backstage!" came Atem's voice.
Everyone immediately quieted. No matter what personal feelings they might be harboring, all of them took their duty as performers seriously. When the stage manager said to quiet, you were quiet no matter what.
Through the gap in the curtains, Isis could see the glow of the spotlights suddenly coming on. Atem gathered himself before stepping forward, cuing the stage hands to draw the curtains back and allow him to step into the ring with his usual billow of stage smoke.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said in his commanding voice. "Welcome, one and all..."
He went on from there, delivering with sincerity lines he had uttered hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before. Isis tuned it out, waiting for her moment to go on. To tell the truth, these performances were only very loosely scripted. They had a general set of scenarios to choose from, based on which monsters felt like coming out in the open that night, who had already performed their bit and who was still waiting to go on. Most of it, though, was made up more or less on the spot. On most nights, they tried to finish so that one of the more spectacular monsters was the last to appear, like Exodia or the three gods, but it sometimes happened that the show might end with Isis stepping out to end the show by sending Spiria to soothe the warring monsters with her beauty and grace. Sometimes it might be one of the others. Isis wouldn't know for sure until she saw what the others did or felt the guiding tug of Spiria's presence. That meant that no matter how much she would have liked to let her mind wander, she had to pay attention to what was going on in the ring, or she might miss her cue and throw off the whole production.
Tonight, Karim and Shada elected to go first, putting on their favorite "dueling warriors" routine, as they had on the night of their first performance. This time, however, it was not Spiria who calmed and subdued them. Instead, Seth stepped into the fray, conjuring out a winged blue warrior called Duos, which easily fought both of them to a standstill, much to the excitement of the crowd. Then it was Atem's turn to step in, calling up a monster of his own to engage Duos in a new piece of choreography. Amid the smoke and lights, Seth was able to slip invisibly backstage.
"Was that the best you could do for your final performance?" Akhenaden demanded in a harsh whisper, as his son made his way backstage.
"I did what I was supposed to do," said Seth. He went for a cooler of water bottles and opened a drink for himself. "I didn't make any mistakes."
"You could have summoned something more impressive than Duos," Akhenaden snapped. "What happened to that white dragon of yours?"
"She didn't want to perform," said Seth stiffly. "I can't force her to come out if she doesn't want to."
"Then what about Galestgoras? Does he no longer answer to your will?" asked Akhenaden.
"I chose not to summon him," said Seth. "There is something making the monsters edgy tonight. The powerful ones in particular seem to feel that they need to be holding their strength in reserve. I chose to listen to mine."
"In reserve? Against what?" Akhenaden demanded. "Who do you think is going to challenge us? There is no one here besides ourselves with the power to command spirits as we do. What do they need to save their power for?"
"Shh," said Isis, stepping between them. "The audience will hear you."
Both of them quieted immediately. Neither of them, however, looked as though they appreciated her intervention. Akhenaden in particular was glaring knives at her.
"What do you say, seer?" he asked her. "Are you having visions of disaster? Does your Spiria foretell gloom and doom?"
Isis frowned a little, taking the question seriously.
"She is anxious," said Isis slowly, "but it may be that she is only picking up on my own emotional state."
Akhenaden glared at his son. "There, you see? The woman has the right of it. Your monsters have no more power than you have strength of will. If your will is weak, then they will not be of any use to you. That is why you have always been a follower and not a leader. If you had any real strength, the gods would have listened to you!"
"That is enough," said Shada, setting a hand on Akhenaden's shoulder. "I think you are in no fit state to perform tonight. It would be dangerous for you to attempt to summon a spirit when you are not in control of yourself."
"I am perfectly in control of myself," said Akhenaden flatly. "Some people here may have lost their focus and begun yearning for the outside world..." He looked icicles in Isis's direction. "...but my resolve is as firm as ever. And I will prove it!"
With that, he turned and strode towards the curtains, preparing to make his entrance.
"Should we stop him?" Karim asked worriedly.
"He has been doing this longer than any of us," said Shada. "He should know his own strength by now." But his voice lacked confidence, and his eyes were shadowed.
Akhenaden appeared in the ring just as Atem was finishing his performance. Atem, gracious as ever, prepared to make way for him and his monsters. Akhenaden gave him an imperious look, raised his hand, and... waited. A flash of surprise and irritation crossed his features. He gestured again, more forcefully this time. Again, nothing happened. Isis saw Atem's lips move, his concern clear even at a distance. She guessed that Atem must be giving Akhenaden some sort of instructions, trying to get him to back down before the show could be ruined. There were cases like this, from time to time - moments when a performer was too tired, too emotional, too distracted to summon anything properly. When that happened, they would fall back on more traditional performances to give them a graceful way to get out of the ring before the performance could be derailed.
But today, it seemed, Akhenaden was having none of it. He shouted again, raising both his hands and bringing them down in an insistent gesture.
The result was immediate and unmistakable. Isis felt the lurch of it as the balance of powers around her shifted, and next to her, the other men gasped as they felt the shock as well. At that same moment, there was a sound like an immense piece of cloth being torn, and a monster stepped into the ring. It was human in shape, a hugely muscled warrior with dull bronze armor and shaggy reddish hair. Isis had seen it before: Akhenaden's particular partner, Gadius. What she hadn't seen before was its expression of pure rage. It bellowed and raised its mighty fists in the air, and Akhenaden backed away, looking stricken. He tried frantically to bring the creature back under control, but Gadius was no longer listening to him. It swatted Akhenaden aside, leaving him to lie stunned against the railings of the ring. The people in the stands screamed as they realized that this creature was no longer answering to anyone's commands. They fled in panic, stumbling over each other, fighting each other in their haste to get out of the tent. Isis heard the shrieks of fear turn to cries of pain as people were trampled or thrown over the edges of the stands.
Without bothering to consult, everyone who had been backstage came rushing out into the ring.
"What have we got to work with?" Mahaado shouted.
"I'm still fresh," said Isis. "You?"
He nodded. "I can manage."
"I can't," said Karim.
"Nor I," said Shada. "We've already spent our strength for tonight."
Isis grimaced but did not object. Summoning monsters for any length of time drained a person's own strength. To continue to push even after that strength was spent could have disastrous consequences. Atem's own father had died after he had overextended himself that way. The white dragon that Seth was so fond of had once been a human girl who had given so much of herself that she had actually been absorbed into it and become one with it. In the past, other men had been driven mad or left in catatonic states. If Gadius was on a rampage like this, it was possible that Akhenaden had already pushed himself to the brink. If that was the case, the monster might just go on destroying everything in its path until Akhenaden died. The only way to save his life, and probably the lives of many of these people, would be to send Gadius back as soon as possible.
"Atem, will the gods answer you?" Isis asked.
Atem shook his head, tight-lipped. "I shouldn't. They're offended by him. If I call them now, they might come only to destroy him."
"And I don't dare call Exodia for the same reason," said Saimun. "Not after what Akhenaden's been saying about him.
"I can help," said Seth. "Summoning Duos didn't take too much out of me. I still have strength left."
"Then it's down to us three," said Isis, looking at Mahaado and Seth, who nodded.
The three of them paused just out of reach of Gadius and called forth their monsters: Mahaado's Illusion Magician, Seth's Blue-Eyes White Dragon, Isis's Spiria. Immediately, Gadius turned on them all with menace in its eyes.
"I'll cover you," said Seth, vaulting onto the back of his dragon. "Mahaado, see if you can revive my father. Isis, try to help these people get out safely. When you two are done, come back here and help me distract this thing."
Isis nodded and hurried for the stands, letting Spiria follow her. Helping people get out was a tall order, but she had to do what she could. Out of the corner of her eye, she was aware of Mahaado hurrying to Akhenaden's side and trying to wake him while the Illusionist protected the two of them from attack. Satisfied that her friends were safe, if only for the moment, Isis turned her attention to guiding the escaping audience to safety. While she vaulted up and down the tiers of benches, searching for people who had been injured in the first mad rush and doing what she could to calm and guide them, Spiria flitted around, carrying children to safety and creating alternate exits. There was only one way out of the tent, but she simply ripped holes in the canvas and uprooted benches to turn them into impromptu chutes. Soon she had a whole procession of panicked people tumbling out her newly-made passages to safety.
Isis had been doing this for what was probably only several seconds, but which felt like an eternity, when she realized she wasn't alone. Mana was not among those who had run away when the panic started. Now she was busy helping Spiria, grabbing people and pointing them to the escape routes.
"You shouldn't be here!" Isis shouted at her. "It's too dangerous!"
"I want to help!" Mana shouted back. "I'm not leaving until I know you're safe."
Whatever Isis was going to say next was cut off as Gadius, sensing that he was not going to be able to counter the white dragon's immense strength, gathered itself up and made a tremendous leap. It landed just shy of Isis and made a grab for her. Isis didn't even think - she just raised a hand and beckoned for Spiria, and in a flash, the winged woman made a dive and snatched her up off her feet.
"Go, Spiria!" she urged, and she felt her partner's wings pump in response. She hadn't needed to say anything - the monster was responding to her own desire to get away, to get somewhere safe. Isis, dangling in Spiria's grip, twisted to see Mana racing towards one of the holes in the tent and diving through it. Satisfied that Mana would be safe, Isis turned her attention to Gadius, who was pursuing her and Spiria at a run.
Of course it is. Akhenaden is still angry at me for spending so much time with an "outsider", so Gadius is angry at me too.
Still, at least it was chasing her now, and not innocent bystanders. She could work with that. Spiria may not have been as powerful as the gods or Exodia or even the Blue-Eyes White Dragon, but she was fast and agile, and Gadius wasn't. She could outmaneuver it and keep it busy while Mahaado and Seth regrouped.
The two of them dove through the side of the tent, not bothering with niceties like using the official entrance. Gadius charged behind them, crushing its way through the stands and leaving them in ruins. Isis saw a shape moving swiftly across the fairgrounds and frowned.
Mana... What is she doing? That isn't the way to the exit...
That was all she had time to think about. Gadius was coming up behind her with surprising speed, crashing recklessly through the fairgrounds, overturning carts and demolishing rides as it passed. Isis realized that leading it on a wild chase was not a good idea, not if they wanted any circus left by the time they were done with all this. She was forced to keep doubling back, guiding Spiria in circles as she tried to keep Gadius in more or less one place. She wished Mahaado and Seth would hurry and catch up to her. Spiria was not the strongest of monsters, and already she was growing tired of supporting Isis's weight in the air as well as her own. If only it was safe to let her land, but then she would never have the speed to outrun Gadius.
She struggled to muster the energy that would keep herself and Spiria aloft just a little longer. It wasn't enough. Gadius's hand lashed out and clipped Spiria's wing. Spiria gave a shriek of pain and dismay, and the strength of Isis's faltering connection to her snapped. Then Isis was falling, tumbling through the air with no hope of anything catching her. She had a sudden flash of the whole circus below her, as if she were hovering in midair and had time to take in every small detail: the main tent, now rather dented, the rides, the smaller tents, the food carts, a swath of darkness where Gadius had crushed his way through everything, and the delicate spiderweb tracery of the high wires.
The wires were really very close, she realized. And someone was sitting on one of them.
Then everything snapped back to normal speed, and Isis was falling. Just as she plummeted past the wire, something caught at her dress. She thought for an instant that Gadius had managed to grab her. Then she felt her plummet turn into a swing, and she looked up to see Mana looking down at her with a triumphant gleam in her eyes. She had managed to climb up on the rope and perch there, waiting for Isis to come near, and then managed to swing out and grab her, flipping over as she did so, so that she was now hanging by her knees while she clung to Isis with both hands.
"Mana!" she exclaimed. "What are you... How did you...?"
Before she had time to work out what she was trying to ask, there was a rush of wind, and the Blue-Eyes White Dragon swooped past her. Help had come at last, forcing Gadius to turn its attention elsewhere. Isis gave a sigh of relief as she heard the sound of battle moving away from her.
"Can you get down?" Mana asked. "I mean, before I drop you? Because I don't know how long I can hold on."
Isis looked down. She seemed to be dangling above the roof of the carousel, which fortunately wasn't in motion at the moment.
"I can make it," she said.
Mana let go with one hand, so that Isis's feet swung down first, and then released the other hand as well. Isis dropped several feet, slid down the sloping roof of the carousel, caught herself on the edging, and managed to slide back down to the ground without doing more than bruising herself a little. Mana followed shortly afterwards.
"I can't believe I just did that," said Mana, a little shakily. She rubbed at the backs of her knees, which had been abraded by the rope. "If you had fallen just a little further away..."
"What were you doing up there?" Isis asked. She looked back over her shoulder. Mahaado had arrived, and he and Seth were busily corralling Gadius back towards the main tent. The monster seemed to be running out of energy now. With no more innocent bystanders around, the Blue-Eyes was able to get a clear shot at it, and Gadius was fading fast under the barrage. Even as Isis watched, the creature faded out of sight and disappeared.
"I wanted to help," said Mana. "I thought maybe I could be a distraction. Or at least be there to grab you if you fell - and you did!"
Isis smiled a little. "Perhaps you have some touch of the foretelling gift yourself." Then, more quietly, she said, "You saved my life."
Mana's smile and voice were shaky. "I wanted to do something special for you on our last night together."
Isis held her arms open, and Mana flung herself into them. They stood there for a long while, clinging to each other while they waited for their adrenaline shakes to fade. Then they stayed just a little longer, just to take comfort in each other's company.
It was Isis who finally stepped back.
"We should go back," she said. "I need to see how Akhenaden is doing."
"What happened back there, anyway?" Mana asked. "Is he okay?"
"That's what I need to find out," said Isis.
They stumbled their way back to the tent, both of them tired and aching, both of them stumbling over the wreckage left in the monster's wake. When they came to the main tent, they found Shada and Karim waiting for them.
"How is he?" Isis asked.
"He is... recovering," said Shada.
"Losing control of his monster hit him with a lot of backlash," Karim elaborated. "Saimun thinks he can help him pull himself together again, but... he'll never be what he used to be. It will probably never be safe for him to try summoning a monster again."
Isis lowered her head. "Poor man. I should have realized something like this would happen. I shouldn't have goaded him the way I did."
"It would have happened sooner or later," said Shada gravely. "He was a bitter man."
Mahaado stepped out from the remains of the tent.
"We're going to have our hands full, cleaning up this mess," he said.
Mana looked around. "Your circus is pretty wrecked..."
Isis had a sinking feeling. "It's more than that. As soon as those people calm down, they're going to start looking around here again, trying to find someone to blame for it. We need to be gone, and we need to do it as soon as possible. Now. We need to leave before the officials get involved."
"You can do that?" asked Mana, her expression stunned. "Just... pack up and leave, all at once?"
"It isn't easy," said Mahaado grimly, "but it can be done. If I have to, I can pull us all into a fold of the monster world. We'll come out on the other side in a few weeks, after we've had a chance to rest and put our things back together. I've done it before, when Atem's father died. We'll be all right."
"But..." said Mana, looking lost.
Isis reached out to take her hand. "I'm sorry, Mana. You knew this was coming. Maybe not this exact event, but you knew I'd have to leave someday."
"You can't stay here?" Mana asked.
Isis shook her head. "We're down a member. My friends need me more than ever. I can't just abandon them."
"I'll miss you," said Mana in a small voice.
"I'll miss you too," said Isis. "I wish... well, it doesn't matter what I wish. But I am very glad to have met you. I've enjoyed our time together."
Mana blinked back tears. "Can I stay? At least as long as it takes for you to do... whatever you're going to do?"
"You can stay," said Mahaado gently. "It will take a little time for me to get organized."
"I'll stay, then," said Mana.
So for the next hour, she stayed by Isis's side, as Mahaado walked around the perimeter of the circus, putting his spells in order, and the others buzzed around the main tent trying to take care of Akhenaden. Isis and Mana spoke very little to each other, but they held each other's hands the whole time, as though clinging to each other could somehow delay the inevitable.
"All right," said Mahaado at last, coming up to the two of them. He looked exhausted, worn out by the exertions of the night. "That's everything. It's time to go."
Mana swallowed hard. "I guess this is goodbye, then."
"It is," said Isis.
"Will I ever see you again?" Mana asked. "You can see the future, right? You would know if we'll see each other again?"
"I haven't had any visions that would tell me if we will or not," said Isis. She forced a smile she didn't feel. "Perhaps it is better this way. We can still hope."
Mana nodded, saying nothing. Isis began leading her gently towards the gate. Mana came unwillingly, stiff and clumsy as Isis had never seen her before, as if her whole body was tense with the effort of not bursting into tears or turning and running back into the heart of the circus and refusing to leave. Isis couldn't blame her. She hadn't wanted a goodbye at all, but she truly hadn't wanted it all to end like this.
When they reached the gate, Isis guided her gently through it, but stopped before she passed beneath the arch herself.
"Now that you're out, don't step in again," she warned. "I'm not sure what would happen to you if you were to be caught in the edge of the spell."
"I'll be careful," Mana promised.
Isis gave a shaky laugh. "I know you. You're never careful. Dear Mana, I will be happy to think of you and imagine all the trouble you must be getting into without me. I hope you will remember me, too."
"I will," Mana promised. "I'll never forget you."
She kissed Isis then. It was a first kiss, with all the clumsiness and shyness that came with such things, and it ended quickly as self-consciousness took over. It was nearly enough to make Isis forget her promises and step through the gate, but somehow she held on to her resolve.
"Time to go now," she said. "Goodbye, Mana. May fate be kind to you."
Then the magic rose around her in sunset colors of rose and violet. Isis thought she heard Mana call out to her, thought she saw through the haze the shape of a girl running towards her, but the magic had already taken hold by then, and Isis had become no more a part of the world than a dream.
A few seconds later, there was nothing left of the circus but some sawdust in the grass.
The air was still and hot, and smelled of freshly-mown grass. Mana lay on her back beneath an old sycamore tree, one whose patterns of smooth white wood and flaking bark mimicked the patterns of dappled sunlight and shadow its leaves cast on the earth.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a face peering over the fence nearby.
"Hey, Mana," said the girl. She was one of the neighborhood kids, a girl Mana had known since childhood. They were one year apart, and had spent most of their lives playing together at recess or in their respective backyards. A friend.
"We were all going to the mall today," the girl continued. "Jessie's brother is giving us a lift. Do you want to come?"
"Thanks, but I'm really not up for it," said Mana. She forced a smile. "Anyway, my parents are mad at me right now. They'd never let me go."
A small lie, but one that her friend would believe. Actually her parents had been worrying about her lately, sensing that their usually spirited daughter had something troubling her. They seemed to have formed the impression that she was moping over a boy, and she'd let them go on thinking it. It was close enough to the truth that she didn't feel too awfully bad about it. Her parents would probably be pleased if she started asking them if she could drive to the mall in the big city with her friends. They'd see it as a sign that she was coming around.
Maybe she should go. Maybe if she did, she could begin to convince herself that there had never been any magical circus, that she'd never studied under the tutelage of a magician, never seen a monster, never walked a tightrope, and never fallen in love. Maybe if she could pretend it was a dream, she could forget about it. She ought to try to forget it, and have a normal happy life. It was what Isis probably wanted for her.
"Aw, that's too bad," said her friend, but something in her tone of voice suggested that she wasn't as disappointed as all that. Mana did the mental math: Jessie's brother was cute and single and had a car, and if Mana wasn't around, there would be less competition for his attention. Mana supposed that she ought to feel a little miffed about this, but the most she could muster was a general sense that she hoped everyone would have fun without her.
Once she was alone again, she settled back onto the grass and went back to watching the leaf shadows. She wished she had a car of her own. For a moment, she imagined it: packing up her things, throwing them in the backseat, and going off to find the circus. But how would she ever find it? Where would she even start looking?
But I will find it. There has to be a way! And she was going to find it. One thing she knew for certain: the circus was important. They were down a member. They were going to need all the help they could get, and there was nothing she wanted more in the world than to find them and help them, even if it meant leaving everything else behind.
As if in answer to her thoughts, the branches of the tree above her began to rustle in a sudden wind. At the same time, Mana felt some inner tug, a sort of ache low in her throat, as if she were about to cry, except that it stayed centered in her chest and never touched her eyes. There was a sense of something being pulled out of her, and suddenly there was a girl standing beside her - one who looked very much like a blue-eyed, blonde-haired reflection of herself. She seemed to be casually floating a few inches above the ground. Mana stared at her, feeling her pulse start to race.
"Are you... a monster spirit?" she asked.
The girl giggled and nodded. Mana slowly started to smile.
"Do you know the way to the circus?" she asked. "Some of your friends are already there."
The girl nodded again Mana's smile widened further.
"Can you take me there?" she asked, bouncing on her toes with eagerness.
The spirit thought for a long moment, while Mana held her breath. At last, she nodded. She held up her wand and used it to describe a circle in the air. Immediately, a glowing portal opened there, glowing with the blues and pinks of a sunset. Mana started for it, then stopped.
"If I go through here," she asked, "will I be able to get back?"
The spirit shrugged and held up her hands, indicating that she had no idea - maybe yes, maybe no. Mana weighed her options, but only for a moment. Isis would have said, whatever happened, it was fate. Mana's philosophy was that there was nothing good gained without risk.
"Let's go, then," she said.
With that, she took her new friend's free hand, and together, they passed through the door and let it close behind them.