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She had a lovely, rounded face, with carefully arranged black curls and a bright-red flower pinned to her hair. And she most definitely did not seem impressed. She answered his smile with an eye roll. We have no time to waste with the likes of him. Mate, how much have you had to drink? You reek like a goddamn distillery. A yell and a crash came from far too close, abruptly waking him from his stupor. Find him! He nodded toward the alley behind him. Help me, take me with you. I can pay, I. The ringmaster, still kneeling; the lady with her strong, tattooed arms folded and a disapproving frown on her face; the octopus man, worrying his pocket watch with a tentacle; and a willow-thin young woman with black hair and a red-sequin costume.

Gilbert shot a frantic glance at the wagon.

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The only thing he cared about was getting inside it, one way or another. And it looked like he would have to convince them all if he wanted that to happen. The flower in her hair trembled as she shook her head. What was the octopus talking about? Who the hell were these people? Were they murderers? They certainly looked the part. Were they wandering around with their wagon searching for victims? Oh, whatever. He was a magician, an actual one, not a sideshow freak.

As soon as his goddamn head stopped pounding. He tried to get up, but his knees refused to comply so he settled for pushing himself to a seat, bracing a hand in the puddle. The shouting was growing louder—they must be on the right track—and there he was, sitting in the pissing rain conversing with a bunch of. Good Lord. Gilbert was growing more frantic by the minute and so was Emilia, wet and pissed off, gnawing at his earlobe.

Just take me with you to the circus. I can work for you, to pay you back, I swear, help me out. She clenched her fists, giving Gilbert a glance that promised he would pay dearly if he tried to fool her. You sure look like one. That is marvelousss.

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All ssset. Prove it? How in the hell was he supposed to do that? Did it look like the time to be playing magic tricks when there was a fucking horde of. The sheer panic might be enough to kick-start his magic into action. The shouting seemed dimmer now, maybe they had taken a wrong turn somewhere, but he could tell they were still in the maze of alleyways, searching for him. They had all vanished, trickled out of his brain as soon as the ringmaster had asked him.

He grunted to himself, looking around in the rain for something, anything, he could— Struck by inspiration, Gilbert scooped up a handful of water from the puddle he was sitting in. He held up his hand, the gray water trembling in his cupped palm. He focused on it, felt the familiar pinpricks burn behind his eyes, and the trembling intensified.

The trembling turned into minute ripples, as if a wave was shifting across the minuscule lake in his palm, never breaking ashore.

Damned & Fancy Series by John Brosnan

Then the water swelled, rising upward in a rounded, gentle shape. The water trembled, fluttered, and finally tore itself free from his palm, molding into a definite shape: a butterfly. Its wings spread as it came to life. The water butterfly flapped its wings and flew upward toward a sky of bruised clouds and thin, gray rain, vanishing. There was a moment of silence as the four strangers stood with their heads tilted back, staring at the sky in something like wonderment.

Gilbert smiled. Something had changed. He was staring at Gilbert as if he actually mattered, a spark of recognition, if not benevolence, in his eyes. Gilbert just nodded, looking him in the eye. It was an odd sort of connection, there on the wet pavement. For an instant, he almost forgot about the others watching, and the other others, still out to get him.

The moment was broken, though, when Humphreys snapped one of his tentacles with a loud, wet smack. Now can we please take him and go? He opened his pocket watch again and cursed. It never has been. There was something about him. Something utterly spellbinding. His body was bristling and itching with the need to run, if he could only make his goddamned legs work.

Or maybe it was something in his eyes. They had become impossibly bright and green, drawing him in, piercing his thoughts like a blade. The circus is short one performer, and we must fill that position at once.

Jesse, his name is Jesse. This is the important part. If you come with us, if you decide to join the circus, the deal is forever. You understand? For the rest of your life. If you never believe anything again in your life, believe this: if you join, you will remain with the circus until the day you die, and beyond that.

Your soul will be damned for all eternity. There is no way out. None at all. Think about that, and give me your answer. But that stuff Jesse had said. It had to be gibberish. But hey, so the man is a little weird. None of them looked very normal, after all. Jesse was also handsome and charming. And if worse came to worst, if they really did try to lock him up in that creepy wagon of theirs, Gilbert could escape in any way he pleased.

As if a scraggy circus could hold him prisoner until his dying day, of all things. And even so , he thought hurriedly as something was smashed to pieces in what sounded like the next alley over. Somewhere dangerously nearby, there was a gunshot.

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Just get me the hell outta here. Humphreys hissed, seeming quite relieved, and his tentacles flailed around a bit. He was still too drunk on relief, alcohol, and magic to feel embarrassed as he was carried, head dangling and arse in the air, to the back of the wagon. The ringmaster opened the black wooden doors just as the voices and footsteps got frighteningly close. The crowd must have turned down the right alley at last. They were no longer running or shouting, but they seemed angry nonetheless. His train of thought was lost when the woman tossed him none too gently into the wagon, and he landed on the wooden floor with an undignified oomph and an indignant squeak from Emilia. That was most definitely not going to help his poor head. The door was slammed shut as he tried to get up, but he only managed to drag himself to the wall and slump against it.

It was pitch-black in there, except for the lines and pinpricks of faint light seeping between the uneven, ruined planks.

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  4. He pressed his cheek to them, splinters scraping his face, and instinctively lifted his hand to pet Emilia, who was vibrating nervously on his shoulder, quickly sniffing around the new environment.