Anyway, enjoy! ♥
Title: Under The Big Top
Fandom: Heralds of Valdemar
Genre: Fantasy, Humor
Characters: Morgan Calder, Kitty Namir, Zo Tanner, Dean Tanner, Teshi Lilos, Risa Calder, Companion Harlan
Disclaimer: Valdemar and concepts belong to Mercedes Lackey; original characters and this fic belong to their author.
Summary: Morgan Calder, high wire walker extrordinaire, is bored with the life of a circus-player. Now the boy who's never fallen during an act WILL! And it's all because of an excitable Companion. (A Brothers At Arms side-story.)
UNDER THE BIGTOP
His balance was perfect, as always, and he wasn't even worried about his concentration, despite the crowd that surrounded him in all sides. The tense silence didn't bother him, as he was used to it, and he had learned long ago that the best way to go was to just pretend the other people weren't even there. Forget picturing them in their underwear—that was for amateurs, and he certainly wasn't an amateur.
This is nothing. Now maybe if I was balancing an apple on my head to top it off—
Surprised despite himself, Morgan started at the sound and the spoon he had been holding, balanced on the tip of his nose, fell down to land on the table with a crash, clattering against his plate and bouncing off to come to rest beside his glass.
Dean smirked and plucked the spoon from the tabletop to hand it back to Morgan triumphantly, taking very blatant pleasure in the deflated look on the other boy's face. With a sigh, Morgan snatched the cutlery away and watched as Dean promptly snapped up the handful of coppers that were sitting between them before turning toward Zo.
"You sneezed on purpose!" He accused.
But Zo's eyes rolled havenward in an expression of innocence and he clapped a hand across Morgan's shoulders. "I would never, Morgan! I'm offended you would even suggest something like that!"
Across the table, Dean was still grinning and Kitty was giggling under her breath as Teshi whispered something in the other girl's ear. Morgan eyed them in annoyance, then shook his head.
"I'm going to be broke if this keeps up."
Dean's eyebrows rose. "It's our own fault, you know."
"Of course." He waved a hand, "you know I never bet unless I can win. You were stupid to agree."
"I would have done it," Morgan replied dryly, "if Zo hadn't cheated for you."
"I don't know if I'd call it cheating…" Zo spoke up. "It was more like… creating an advantage for Dean."
"So basically you were cheating?" Teshi asked with a smug look.
Dean sputtered for a moment, his mouth opening and closing silently while Zo grinned in Teshi's direction, Teshi's tongue stuck out from her lips in a silent laugh and Morgan rubbed one of his temples with a knowing glance toward Kitty. Kitty's ears pricked and she smiled at him, the expression enhancing her already feline-characteristics.
That was something that Morgan found oddly compelling about the blonde-haired girl. Though Kitty was a changechild, created by magic to resemble a cat in many ways, the nearly-human features were lovely in a different sort of way, and she possessed a sort of charisma that was normally hard to find in people.
Now, she inspected a pointed nail with sharp eyes and smoothed down an errant lock of hair. "I think next time," she announced, "Zo should leave the room when Dean challenged Morgan."
"What?" Dean and Zo said at once, both of them completely blank.
Kitty laughed, "well the only reason you need Zo to bend the rules for you is because you know Morgan can balance anything, right? I think it's you who's stupid for challenging him in the first place." She finished with; "and if you're stupid enough to bet Morgan with balancing then you deserve to lose your money, right?"
Dean snorted. "That's your opinion."
"And mine." Teshi added, "but that apparently doesn't matter."
For a moment, Kitty's quiet giggles were the only thing that could be heard, and Morgan sighed before turning his eyes to the sky. It was something he had been doing a lot lately—Cloud Gazing, Zo jokingly called it, and he didn't mean to be so absent minded but he just couldn't keep his mind focused as easily anymore.
Because I'm dying of boredom…
How could someone be bored living in a traveling circus? Two of his best friends were trapeze artists, another one was a changeling cat-girl in the side show, and the fourth was a fortune teller. Not to mention Risa, who had taught him everything he knew about balancing.
He spent most of his life on the high wire, in front of crowds, doing amazing tricks without magic of any kind, and entertaining "people of all ages" and somehow he was still inexplicably bored with his life in general.
He momentarily considered taking up sword-swallowing.
Morgan made a 'pfft' noise and shoved away from the table. When one actually seriously thought about learning how to swallow swords, something was wrong—he decided to head back to his tent and the familiar worn sleeping roll and cot for a couple of candlemarks until the show started.
Hopefully sleep would dissuade the slightly-suicidal inklings he was having.
At Dean's voice, he paused. "What?"
"Bet you can't stand on one foot on the chair back and sing "My Lady's Eyes" while you pretend to play the violin! C'mon! What do you say? I'll bet you the four coppers I just won plus the four I was wagering before!"
Morgan groaned and kept walking.
The cup was molded out of clay, a bit lopsided, and had a chip missing from the handle, but it was his favorite and had been for as long as he could remember. So basically, since Risa had taken him into the entertainment troupe and started teaching him the finer tricks of high wire balancing and trick riding.
Now, the mug began to shake, the motion barely visible, and then abruptly vanished from the fold-out table it had been resting on to appear in his hand. Both the disappearing and reappearing were announced with a barely-audible popping sound, and the noise made him grin.
The transporting of objects was a new development, and one he was proud of.
Of course, he wasn't sure exactly how he did it… or even what he should call it. It might have been magic, he supposed, but he'd never seen any magic like that before. And he didn't really care, either—he was just happy to have something different to do, as opposed to just wandering around in the sky.
Morgan returned the cup to the table and sat back on his bed, already rubbing his forehead as a vague headache began to set it; that was the unfortunate side effect of whatever-it-was he was doing with the cup. Or anything else he tried to move, for that matter, though generally the headache wasn't as bad if it was only little things.
He'd tried to move a chair once and regretted it for about three days afterward.
This time he'd just done it with the mug, so he knew his head would only hurt for maybe an hour and then he'd be back to normal. But he intended to sleep off the hangover for now, so he flopped back onto the cot and crossed his arms behind his head, staring at the grey-green canvas of the top of the tent.
How can I be getting tired of the circus life?
Logically, he didn't understand it at all. He had been raised in the circus, and had spent most of his life in the high wire show. Gods, he had practically learned to walk with a wire under his feet, and only after that had he been taught to walk on the ground like a normal person.
Except at the time he hadn't know the definitions of "normal" and "different" and he certainly hadn't considered that his life wasn't anything but average—to him, all there was were the patrons and the shows, and his friends from the other acts, the side-show included. He had been too young to realize that not everyone grew up that way, and only after he had passed the age of ten had he managed to build up the courage to ask Risa about it.
And his adoptive-mother had shrugged and told him he was as normal as everyone else in Valdemar. Now, though, he was fourteen and beginning to wonder about the truth behind that statement.
It wasn't that he didn't like his life.
Of course not. I love my life.
He was starting to wonder if he was missing out on something bigger…
So what am I doing here if I really don't want to be here anymore? Despite the fact that he was currently standing at the edge of the Ring, watching Dean and Zo do their acrobatics—an impressive show of flips, spins, jumps and catches in the air above a net—he just couldn't keep his thoughts on them.
Then again, he had seen their act a thousand times before, so he didn't feel like he was really missing anything. He knew their whole performance off by heart, so he could predict their next respective moves without even trying.
Dean goes left, Zo goes right, they spin inward…
He decided to go visit Kitty.
At least I can't predict what she'll say.
Clad in his performing outfit—a set of hose, dyed a bright yellow color, and a tight-fitting green tunic with the vague outline of a swallow on the right arm in black beadwork—he flitted out of the big top and headed toward the side show, gathering no small amount of odd looks as he went.
What were they staring at? He had to laugh at the expression on their faces, as marks flowed past him, ogling his clothing with a mixture of amazement and amusement. And all the while he could only think that they hadn't seen anything yet.
Of course, while most of them were happily oblivious to the fact that what he was wearing was only part of his costume, he already knew the rest of it; a clay mask with a tail of flaming red firebird feathers was currently resting in the dressing area, waiting for him to don it before his performance began.
Not to mention the balancing pole. His mind added. Not that I need it.
Across the square where they had set up the troupe for the few days they intended to stay, the side show had been put together—a long line of wagons of various sizes, each with one side missing, having been replaced by what looked like thick metal bars but were in fact light faux-wood.
The residents of the cages were a variety of things; an aging Gryphon, Kalkin, who used the time when the side show was open to catch up on his sleep and was snoozing in his cage; a hertasi, Sadah, who whittled away at mending and various other bits of work; two dyheli does, Taifa and Aamas, who chatted cheerfully amongst themselves and the kyree, Orir, who stared back from the bars and enjoyed nothing more than playing the Ferocious Beast and growling at the people who watched him. There were a few others as well, but those seemed to be the most popular stages.
He knew that some of their "oddities"—hertasi, for example, or kyree, were familiar to some people. But for the most part, those types of peoples were common in places far from Valdemar, where most of the marks had never even heard of. "Vales" he thought they were called. Perhaps it was something to do with the Shin'a'in…
I was never good with geography.
When he was younger, Morgan had asked one or two of the side show denizens how they could stand being caged and gawked at, and the reply had been basically the same for all of them; as they weren't caged all the time, they could handle it. And the people who were staring were easily ignored, which is what they all did. Except for Orir, who had a twisted sense of humor but was generally a good person.
Now. The kyree grinned at him, tongue lolling out. :Going to visit Kitty?:
Morgan waved vaguely as an acknowledgement but didn't speak to him. If he had, people would have wondered and the Ferocious Beast image that Orir so loved would be tarnished.
And we wouldn't want that, would we?
He continued down the line until he came to Kitty's cage, where the girl was sprawled on her stomach on the floor, reading an old leather-bound book that she had managed to filch from… where? The Gods only knew.
After a moment of waiting until no one was looking, he reached through the bars and deftly snagged the book from her hands. She yelped, surprised, and tried to snatch it back, but he was already looking at it from beyond the bars of the cage.
The book was titled "Nightblades, a tale of Vanyel Demonsbane" and he recalled having read it himself only a few moons before. Still, he flipped through the pages of hand-written script while Kitty glared at him and muttered under her breath. "I liked this one," he told her, glancing up with a wry grin, "especially how it turns out to be the envoy himself who—"
At that, Kitty's ears snapped back and she uttered a remarkably catlike hiss. "Morgan!" He laughed and held out the book and she grabbed it from him in annoyance, "way to go! I haven't read that far yet!"
Morgan waved a hand, "sorry. I had no idea."
"And I'm a flying horse." She responded, her eyes on the book once more as she skimmed through the pages to find her place, then marked said page and set the novel as far away from him as she could without throwing it out of the cage all together. "What do you want?"
"Just thought I'd drop by and say hello." A shrug, "by the way, your fur is standing up."
"Gee, I wonder why?" Kitty snorted sarcastically, and Morgan's hands clasped behind his head as she began to smooth her hair back down so she didn't look like 'a fluffball with eyes'. "Don't you have a show to put on?"
"In a few minutes." He replied, with a glance toward the sky to check the sun's position and verify his own words.
She sighed and rolled over onto her back, stretching her arms out to her sides and lashing her tail restlessly. He figured she was probably getting bored in the cage… not that he blamed her. It was always after talking with Kitty or one of the other side show-ers that he was happiest to be in the high wire act.
"People keep staring at me." He noted in amusement.
Kitty rolled her eyes. "Well that outfit doesn't leave much to the imagination, you know."
Morgan flushed red and stuck his tongue out at her immaturely before asking; "do you want me to get you anything?"
"Hm?" Gold eyes blinked and she considered, then; "I don't think so, but thanks anyway."
"Sure. You know, when you're done with Nightblades you can borrow my copy of Shadow Stalker if you want."
She smiled, seeming to forgive him with those words. "Okay."
Their mutual love of all the old tales of Herald-Mage Vanyel was only one of many things that he and Kitty had in common, along with their general happiness and love of practical jokes. It all ended up with them being good friends, bordering on a sibling-type relationship despite their physical differences.
"Great." He grinned and lowered his arms, turning to head back to the main tent. "Then I won't tell you that the mage tries to drive him insane and that in the end he has to sing to break her spell and destroy her and her Shadows."
Across the yard, people turned to look in surprise as a remarkably cat-like girl wailed at the top of her lungs –"Mor-gan!"—and said boy, dressed in blinding yellow and green, dashed off while he laughed at her expense.
A pale porcelain face stared back at him from the polished glass mirror, one eye outlined in red and the other in silver sparkles. No mouth, only a bump for a nose, and hair made of flaming red feathers, which trailed down his back and shone in the sunlight, continuing to sparkle even though they hadn't been attached to a firebird in a long time.
"Looks good, Morgan."
He turned, reaching to prop the mask up on the top of his head, and Risa winked at him. She was holding the metal pole that he used for balance.
"You know what you're doing out there today, right?"
"'Course." Morgan scoffed. "A walk straight across with the pole, then one without it, and then five cartwheels from one side to the other."
"And no falling."
Risa ruffled what little of his hair showed underneath the mask and then patted down the few errant feathers that were trying to stick up and handed him the pole before disappearing into the main tent to set up the net.
The net itself was something that he eventually intended to go without—he wasn't quite skilled enough to feel comfortable without it quite yet, though, and Risa wasn't going to push. She hoped he would be able to do it soon, as taking the net away added another bit of danger to the act that the crowds seemed to love, but she wasn't going to risk his safety for coins either.
I'm glad I ended up with Risa…
He'd known a few street kids who hadn't found someone to adopt them at all, or had been adopted by unreputable types. Risa, luckily, was a little bit strange (she was a circus-player after all) but was also a good person. And was also really more of an older sister toward him than a mother.
Thank the Gods.
Though when he had been younger she'd had to lay down the law on a relatively regular basis, as he'd had a tendency to toe the line. The entire problem stemmed from his friendship with Kitty and their shared mischievousness, and had only been compacted when Dean and Zo had joined the troupe.
Luckily, Teshi was there now to keep them all semi-balanced.
"Morgan?" Risa's head poked back into the room, interrupting his reverie. "It's time."
"Right." Morgan stood and grasped the pole, fitting the mask back onto his face and pushing aside the tent flap to step into the spotlight that was already focused on where he would emerge.
The ringmaster started into his usual "Morgan Calder, the high wire master" speech, but he blocked him out. He'd heard it enough times that the novelty had worn off and he headed toward the ladders, where Dean was waiting to haul the pole up to the top platform.
That was something he hadn't figured out how to do quite yet—he was amazingly coordinated, but he still needed two hands to climb the ladder. Dean, on the other hand, simply grabbed it and scuttled up the rungs with ease to drop it at the top and skim back down and out of the way with a mock bow in Morgan's direction.
On the other side of the ring, Zo scrambled up to the second platform, waiting to take the pole from him when he reached the opposite side of the wire.
About that time, the ringmaster's speech ended and Morgan started up the ladder. It only took him a few seconds to reach the top, and once he was there he picked up his balancing pole and squared his shoulders, then raised his hands above his head and turned a bit in each direction to acknowledge the applause from the crowd around him.
Below him, Dean was leaning against the ladder. He would help to take the wire down once Morgan's act was finished. Zo was across from him, still. Risa was with the ringmaster, and now he spotted Kitty near the entrance of the tent. She was wearing a hood, but one of her ears was poking out.
It's a good thing she's in the shadows. He thought with amusement.
"Ladies and Gentlemen!"
Morgan tilted his head to the side, stretching his neck muscles when Risa began speaking, having been given the floor by the ringmaster himself—now, the crowd fell silent to listen to her, and the silence bordered on eerie for a room with so many people in it.
Again, he didn't listen to much of the speech, since it was pretty much the same as the one that had been given when he first entered the main tent. But he knew when the crowd began cheering once more she was finished, and lowered his arms to begin what was a now familiar act.
The first cross was just for show, so he did it relatively quickly. Halfway across, he tipped himself to the side to give the impression that he might be losing his balance—and the crowd gasped, then sighed in relief when he "regained" his center and finished the walk without any other problems.
Zo was laughing when he reached him and handed the pole over, and he raised an eyebrow behind the finely-crafted mask before turning back around and starting across for the second pass, this time without the aid of the pole.
A few feet from the other side, something in the corner of his eye caught his attention.
A flash of white and silver, entering the tent from the opening where Kitty was standing.
Morgan turned his head, pausing on the wire with one foot slightly in front of the other and his arms held out. The feline-girl stared with wide eyes at the horse-like being as it brushed past her, eyes bright with curiosity as it surveyed the crowd before fixing the crystal orbs—
:It's you!: The mindvoice was male, excited, and reverberated in Morgan's head. :You're the one I was looking for!:
Starting, Morgan's feet slipped and his arms pin wheeled.
Behind him, Zo gasped along with the marks as he lost his balance and plummeted toward the ground, only to land in the net with a thump. A few feet away, just outside the ring, the Companion winced visibly.
Gasping for breath against the adrenaline that was roaring through his veins, Morgan floundered in the net, ripping the mask off and crawling for the edge. He felt sick, and at the same time he felt more alive than he had ever felt before. That feeling wore off quickly, though, and he collapsed a foot from the edge of the mesh of rope, closing his eyes with a groan.
He could hear Risa start to run toward him, and Zo frantically coming down the ladder, and then the bell-like sound of hoof beats and both of them stopped in their tracks.
Something snuffled his hair, and he cracked his eyes open to see the Companion craning his neck and poking at him worriedly. Groaning, he shoved it away and it backed up a step when he fell very ungracefully from the net and landed on the ground in a tangle of legs and feathers which had been ripped from the mask upon his unscheduled fall.
Was it laughing?
Silence had descended on the crowd once more, and Morgan could hear his own breath and heartbeat, which was still racing at what had to be a million beats a minute. The Companion regarded him with amusement for a moment and then stepped forward once more.
Sapphire, so deep you could drown in it…
:I Choose you, Morgan. I am Harlan, and I Choose you.: The traditional and welcoming words were magical—and then the spell was broken when he added sheepishly; :um, sorry about the making you plummet fifty feet from the roof thing.:
Morgan blinked, and as his friends and adopted family came out of their trance and raced toward him, the crowd began to cheer despite his failure as a "high wire master"—and he knew his life would never be the same again.
And he certainly wouldn't be bored anymore, either.