The circus poster was a goner.
Everything in the city turned the color of ash as soon as you looked at it. We had to wash windows daily just to keep the wind from powdering them over. The kid with the metal legs had pasted the poster onto the old church (THE MECHANICAL CIRCUS TRESAULTI scrawled across the top), and it was nothing but paper and ink; it was done for.
(I was sorry to say it. Now that I had the smithworks, I put a stamp on things I made—a knot like the twisted vines that crawled up the buildings here—just to give them life, to set them apart. I knew why you’d want to make something beautiful, even if it couldn’t last.)
But when the circus left a week later, the serious woman stayed behind to take up the post at our bread-oven, and that poster was still up on the old church wall, sharp green and gold, like it had been waiting for her.
“What’s your name?” I asked, the first day.
Crane the magistrate had sent me to make sure she was what she seemed (“And who knows how to keep a fire hot better than you?”), and so I moved scraps of wood and bricks of peat near the oven and watched her sidelong. We worked for three hours in silence before I gave in and asked her name, just to have a little noise.
(No one had asked her, not even Crane—who cared what your name was if you could do the work?)
“They called me Valeria at the circus,” she said, lifted the metal rack out of the oven, carried it across the little bare yard to the water trough.
“I’m Tom,” I said, and she gave me a wary look for a moment before she turned to her work.
You’d never know she had been a dancing girl; she moved like a soldier.
Crane called a meeting to size her up, and everyone filed in to the Hall with their arms crossed, casting dark looks up at the steps.
(We think it used to be a museum. Most of the place is long gone, but the entrance hall is still standing except the blast-hole in the south wall and the top of the stairs—they go up into nothing, but they’re great for holding court. It’s all marble, stairs and floors and walls, ceilings fifty feet high.
My father told me that the first baker had been convicted of treason years back, for trying to defect to Two Oaks country north of us, and Crane had made an example of him in the Hall. You could hear the screams for miles.)
“We’ll be dividing the bread fairly,” Crane said. “One a day for each citizen. Children get half-ration.”
He explained the distribution (armed guard, randomized, no waiting in lines—Crane didn’t like unplanned crowds). His men a few steps below him shouldered their rifles, waiting for outcry.
But we had some order within the walls, which wasn’t the sort of thing people took for granted, and when someone raised a hand it was only, “What if we can’t grow any grain on the flats because of the ash?”
“It will grow,” he said with conviction, like any lawman would who knows what he’s doing. “It will grow, and we will grow, and then the people of Two Oaks will see what a proud city can be!”
All through the crowd there were smiles and even a flash of applause, and I thought we might go another week without war, after all.
I was on watch at the wall when the circus came.
The thing to understand is, when you grow up in a city like this, and you walk behind your father with your first gun dragging in the dirt, and you spend your waking hours scouring the horizon for anything slow enough to shoot, your world coils in on itself. It has to. One day it exhausts you just to walk from one end of the wall to the other; one night the wreckage seems like it’s spreading over the ground like a living thing until you’re living in a space so tight you can’t see above your own shoulders.
I didn’t know it, though, until I saw the red truck come over the horizon, with the banner draped across the front end: MECHANICAL CIRCUS TRESAULTI.
The truck rattled alone across the dust for a long time before the whole caravan came into view, but by then they were too late. Looking at that red truck, its too-bright banner trembling in the wind as it drove across the flats, was the first time I had ever thought about where something had come from, or that there was anywhere it could go.
By the time the string of trucks was in sight, by the time the first tinny song reached the city walls, my old world had already fallen away.
We all knew better than to tell her about what had happened to the first baker. Crane would have killed us for less, and we’d all fought enough over the damn thing before she’d come that we knew not to frighten her off.
Not that she frightened easy. She had an air that would have kept worse people at arm’s reach; not even Crane came around asking to sleep with her.
But she wasn’t a fool, and she must have guessed why we had waited so long for an outsider, and why once a day she shoved dry brown bread into baskets guarded by Crane’s men. She must have had some idea of the knot of politics that had pulled so tight that none of us trusted any of the others enough to let them take a turn sweating beside the open oven.
(These days the world is small, and you fight for every inch.)
I felt sorry for her, at first.
She came down from the circus hill with a bright flowered dress and a long black braid and a body drawn taut as a bow, carrying a burlap sack with rope handles like it was a king’s purse.
That lasted until the first day in front of the oven.
By then her braid was already chopped off, and she wore a sacking shirt and heavy boots to protect her from the heat, and her shoulders went rounder and rounder every hour she spent wrist-deep in the dough.
Her hands went bleeding-red at first, then blister-white, then callus-purple. After three months, the palms of her hands were grey as rocks, and just as rough.
(That was a guess; I’d never touched her.)
I never went back to the smithworks.
“We need you at the baker’s more,” Crane said. “We can get Michael to take over the works for now. She needs someone to help her get started. That oven is a tricky business for a woman alone.”
(It wasn’t true; she had lifted the huge oven grate on her own, and even though her hair was singed down nearly to her ears, she’d never said a word about it. She wore a wet kerchief to keep from catching fire, but that was the only concession to the furnace she’d ever made.)
“Has she asked for me to stay?”
“Of course,” Crane said, as if I’d never seen him lie before.
I shoveled wood and moss into the oven for months, kneeling all day at her feet.
She didn’t like me, that was for sure. But I stayed quiet when I could, and we learned to move around each other without stumbling, and it was better than it could have been. We weren’t fools; better to have me there than two of Crane’s men.
When she kneaded the dough, she’d look absently around the square, watching the people not-quite-watching her, looking through the crumbling walls at the sprouts of grain that were just starting to fight their way up from under the carpet of ash.
“Who’s that?” she’d ask, without really looking at me, and I’d say, “Samuel—he’s a mason, not that you’d know it from the blast holes everywhere,” or, “Marie—she can find a good bullet under fifteen feet of rubble.”
(She never asked about Michael at the smithworks, or when I was going back there. She wasn’t dim.)
She took to looking at the circus poster, which had hardly faded from the day she came; some of the darkest edges had begun to sand off, but it still looked bright even if it wasn’t sharp.
“Do you miss them?”
She looked down at me.
I couldn’t stop the flutter of panic that struck me suddenly, and when I opened my mouth it came out, “Will you go with them when they come back?”
For a moment she didn’t move at all; then she got a funny look on her face, as if the only answer she had was in some other language and there was no translation.
“Oh, no,” she said finally, false and light. “I don’t think that’s very likely.”
I was anxious, all at once. “Why wouldn’t they come back here? There’s only so many cities, they’ll have to make the circuit.”
She looked into the fire. “I can’t go back,” she said. “That life isn’t for me any more.”
I didn’t understand—once a wanderer, always a wanderer—but I didn’t press her. (Why did I want to know? It was Crane’s problem. What would it matter to me if she was staying or going?)
She reached into the open oven for a round loaf of bread. The steam was rising off it even in the sticky morning heat, but she held it in one hand for a moment, thoughtfully, before she dropped it into the basket.
I held the baskets at arm’s length all the way through the yard to meet Crane’s men, kept my arms out even after my hands shook from fatigue; the bread was still so hot that if I let it rest against me, it would have singed me right through the basket and my coat, down to the skin.
The parade came through the town square the day after the poster went up.
I don’t really remember now—it’s a blur of banners and tumblers and sharp-color coats. I remember the strongman with the metal spine, two heads taller than any of the other men, with a cage of brass ribs around him. I remember the silent pair of acrobats, because the woman had one eye missing and she never turned the good one to the crowd. I remember the tumblers moving faster than I could count them; I remember six young women wearing gauzy blue who ended up on the trapeze.
There was no moment where I saw Valeria’s face among the knot of dancing girls, no gesture I made that caught her eye. I feel now as if there should have been one, but I can’t even pretend to have noticed her in the crowd. The first time I ever really saw her was when she walked down the hill, and I looked up at her and thought, Oh, have you made a mistake.
But when I was standing in the city square watching them parade through the town, I couldn’t even catch hold of their faces, I couldn’t catch hold of my breath; it was just a wild cacophony of brightly wretched strangers, and I watched them dancing past me and tried not to die of joy.
It was amazing what a little bread could do.
Samuel the mason starting patching up the holes in the city walls, and Marie surprised us all by knowing how to read a little and holding school for those who wanted to learn. Knowing that bread would come tomorrow, the city slowly began to lift up its head and look around at the future.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when Crane called me to his house and asked me to stay close to her at night as well as while she baked.
“There’s no call for that,” I said. “Who’s threatened her? Everyone’s gotten their equal share.”
“So far,” said Crane, “but what if she should turn on us? What if she’s forming alliances behind our backs? Imagine what would happen if some started getting more bread than others. Our flour supplies aren’t infinite, you know.”
I wondered what she would gain from any of it—there didn’t seem to be anything here she wanted except steady work and a place to sleep. Not that I understood that any better, but whatever she was, she wasn’t a schemer.
(I should have understood what was happening to me already in that little room, but when your world is so small, you don’t see above your shoulders.)
“She might not like having me around,” I said.
“She should be pleased she’s so well-protected,” Crane said, offended, and it wasn’t until then that I realized I’d been her jailor since the beginning, and I was just the last to be told.
A year after the Circus Tresaulti had come and gone, the poster had lost its sharp edges and was just an impression of color through its feathery layer of ash. The wind had peeled the corners off, but the poster was holding on to that door as if it was under orders, as if it had to be ready for the circus that would come back any second to pick up the dancer it had lost.
I could see it clearly from the door of the baker’s prison, gleaming in the dark.
(That little house was a prison for me, too; I had been growing loyal to her instead of to the city, and had to be punished for my mistake.)
One day, as I was helping her scrape the flour off the inside of the paper sack, I said, “When you were in the circus, what sort of things did you end up eating?”
“You’re always asking about the circus,” she said, not quite a complaint.
I wouldn’t have had to ask so much if she’d only told me more, but that was unfair, so I said, “It’s more interesting than this place, that’s all.”
She didn’t argue, and after a little pause she said, “I auditioned with a knife-thrower, as his assistant, but they only took me. It was just as well. He’d have slit all their throats, I think, and then he would really have been in trouble.”
Why an armed man should have been the one worrying, she never explained, but I had seen the tumblers tossing one another in the air and the strongman lifting all six dancing girls on his outstretched arms like they were no heavier than a pair of sleeves. I could guess what would happen to anyone who was caught out.
The next day, as she sifted a little dirt into the flour, she said, “Sometimes when Elena jumped from the rigging it looked like she was going to fall, and at the last moment she’d move sideways so fast to the trapeze it was as if the wind had carried her.”
For a moment my heart seized. “I remember that,” I said, catching a memory of the aerialist’s routine as if I was blinking against the sun. “She did that same thing the night I saw the circus—just dropped as if she had wings to carry her!”
Valeria’s face went solemn at that, as if she had betrayed some confidence, and all that day she glanced up the hill as she worked the dough in her hands.
The third day when I looked up at her, waiting, she shook her head silently, made little pockets in the bread so it looked bigger than it was. (I was too crushed by her silence, I didn’t think much of her doing it; I didn’t realize that her worries had begun in earnest.)
Crane stopped by one morning and pulled her aside. His two men stayed near me and shouldered their rifles; I shoveled peat into the furnace and watched her talking with him, too far away for me to hear. Once or twice she nodded, solemnly, and he seemed pleased.
He walked back smiling, and said too calmly, “Good morning, Tom,” and walked back across the square with his two men, disappearing into the streets.
She kept her eyes on her work, but after they had vanished she said, “We’re running out of flour.”
I frowned, tried to steady myself past the first flash of panic. “What does he suggest we do?”
“He told me you’re a traitor,” she said. “That you’ve been stealing from the supplies and selling to Two Oaks. He told me you’re supposed to kill me if I find out. I shouldn’t trust you, he said.”
My blood went cold, and the peat I was holding crumbled in my grip.
“That’s not true,” I said, when I could speak.
She didn’t look up. “I know,” she said. “You want to know about the circus too much to kill me.”
I flushed. (I was still safe enough to be embarrassed. I hadn’t given any thought to what might have happened if she hadn’t told me; if she had believed him.)
We were short of flour and that was a fact, and the grain wasn’t growing fast enough. I was the shortcut in case Crane couldn’t deliver on his promise; Valeria would be next, being a stranger.
“I’m beginning to wish you’d stayed with the circus,” I said. “No offense.”
She looked over at the poster. “The circus was a prison of its own,” she said. “Just because it travels doesn’t mean it can’t be a trap for the people in it.”
That stung more than anything, somehow. She looked down at me; her face seemed stretched thin, as if her whole self was pulling in and away, and she sucked in a breath that sounded like it hurt, and said, “But I don’t really remember. It was a long time ago.”
Her hands were shaking as she turned back to the dough, and I knew she wouldn’t speak another word about the circus—not even for her own sake, but for mine.
Crane wasn’t stupid enough to forbid us to see the circus, but he also didn’t want the temptation to linger, so he went up the hill the morning after the boy with the metal legs put up the poster. When he came down again he announced the circus would be in town for one week only, so if we wanted to see it, we should make our plans.
I was still a smith then, but I was on watch four nights a week, like all the men, and in the end I only saw the circus once.
It was one tent at the top of the hill, tall and wide and cobbled together from a dozen fabrics patched up in wide stripes to look intentional, purple and yellow and red. The strings of lanterns and bare bulbs flickered in tune with a little generator somewhere inside the tent. The whole place smelled of sweat and sour beer and the tang of tree sap from the bleachers under our feet.
I tried to save it up in my memory so I could unroll it later, but when the ringmaster came out and threw her arms wide open and the applause began, it felt as if I had crested a hill I didn’t remember, and I was just beginning a long fall.
I remember things only in glimpses, as if I had been spying—the strongman carrying the red truck right out of the tent, a juggler’s face illuminated as the torches flew at him, the woman acrobat bent backwards and balanced on her partner’s hand, six girls suspended between two trapezes; these were the deep, sharp pictures I could grasp hold of as I fought the sense of falling that I couldn’t understand.
My clock was ticking, and she and I made bread every day knowing that if the grain didn’t ripen, we were next in line to be cut down.
A week after Crane visited her, his men began to come back after their bread run and make lazy loops around the square. I kept my head low; whenever I glanced up, Valeria was looking at them like she was just waiting for one of them to get within arm’s reach of the fire.
But if one of them caught her eye, she tilted her head and smiled slightly, as if she was sharing a secret with him, and he’d blink and grin, and I would remember that she had been a performer dressed in veils.
(Maybe this was why I never really remembered her when I thought of the circle of dancers; I could only see her as a soldier.)
One day the farmers came back through the city gates, and as they crossed the square, Marie shot a dark glance at Valeria and shook her head, furious.
For the first time since my childhood, I started looking at the walls.
I had never been outside the city, not even out to the little grain field that stood in the shadow of the Hall. I had done my time as a sentry inside the wall, but all it had ever done was made me suspicious of the horizon (until the circus came).
I had memorized the jagged edges where the Hall had struck; the crater between the gate and the gatehouse where you could keep an animal, if you ever found one; the half-moon behind the smithy from a bomb that had landed just on the other side of the defenses, which saved the buildings near it but had probably been quite something for the smith.
The walls had never seemed a prison until the circus came; but when I realized that our time was up and what Crane might have intended for us, I felt the same knot in my stomach, that need to be away from the city that had grown through every act of the circus, until I was watching the women on the trapeze, too caught up to look away, too frightened to breathe.
It was winter, and I had taken to sleeping on the ground in the front room of the little windowless house. I had never gone farther, though, and when I tapped on her bedroom door and opened it, she was scrambling out of bed fully clothed with a knife in her hand.
(Crane would never have let her near a knife; she must have stolen one out from under me early on. Good for her.)
I said, “I know a way out.”
She was pulling on her boots as soon as she recognized me, and by the time I finished talking, she was ready.
Samuel was a good mason, but slow, and he hadn’t gotten around to patching up the little half-moon behind the smithy. It was too small for either of us, but we were two strong pairs of arms used to the work, and the ashy ground peeled away under our shovels.
We were nearly finished when we heard footsteps thundering through the square toward the bakery furnace. Crane must have gotten tired of waiting for dissent before he began his work.
(I pitied that first baker, years ago.)
The hole wasn’t big enough for me, but it would just fit her if she was strong enough to press through.
I felt like I was falling.
“Go on,” I said.
She looked at me for a moment, but she wasn’t fool enough to think we’d both make it, not now.
“He won’t kill me,” she said. “You should go. I’ll find my way out somehow.”
I shook my head; we knew better.
The cry went up at the baker’s—we had no more time.
“Thank you,” she said, and a moment later she was scrambling through the hole. The footsteps were close enough that the ground under me was shaking.
I dropped to my hands and knees; it was dark, but I could just see her climbing to her feet.
“Will you find the circus again?” I asked, breathless.
I wanted it to be true, I needed it to be, and she must have known, because when she said, “Yes,” it was the sweetest lie I’d ever heard.
She moved like a soldier through the ragged scrub until the dark closed in around her, and she was lost to sight even before Crane’s men reached me.
There was no time wasted with a trial; I had been caught conspiring with an enemy. Crane and his men walked me to the Hall for my punishment. (Blood cleaned easily off the marble.)
“I’m disappointed,” said Crane as we walked. “She never had much promise, but I expected a little more fortitude from you.”
“Or from the grain,” I said through the blood in my mouth.
One of the men cracked the butt of his rifle against my bound hands, just hard enough to snap a bone.
Several people were already waiting in the Hall (the commotion had spread), and they stood in little knots, waiting to see who had crossed Crane. There was some surprise amongst the others when I came in, which was gratifying. Maybe a little doubt could bring down even a magistrate, given enough time; maybe that’s why Crane had decided to act before anyone could question him.
I was left on the landing of the stairs, the better to be seen; Crane walked down a few steps, with his men between us for safety.
When Crane threw his arms wide, I remembered the threadbare circus tent and the silhouette of the ringmaster against the paper lanterns as she called for the circus to begin.
“Tom the Smith,” Crane began, “has been found guilty of conspiring with a traitor to sell flour to Two Oaks. He has betrayed not just myself, but all of you, for his own petty gain.”
The murmurs began. I remembered the sound of the crowd as the trapeze artists came out, one by one, and began to scale the rigging, all the way up to where the trapezes were waiting.
“He must be dealt with,” Crane said.
I remembered the pair of acrobats; he had thrown her into the air and she had come down headfirst—he had caught her an inch above the ground.
I turned around without thinking, took the stairs as fast as I could. Behind me there were shouts, but I was taking the stairs two at a time, up and up into nothing.
If I jumped, I would land outside the city walls. That would be enough; whether or not I lived, I would have been even once outside the gates.
(The aerialists had done the same—you held your breath and jumped as far out as you could, and hoped the wind would carry you.)