The capital city, Artol, of the country Artolia was like many of the large cities of the north; loud, crowded, and an adventure. That is at least how Sekai, the young looking, golden skinned, human pretzel felt as she sat atop one of the wagons as the circus caravan made it’s way into the city. They had been contracted to the capital for the coronation of the new king. Of course, now the heir was missing and there would be no coronation. That did not mean, however, there was not going to be a circus. A contract was a contract after all.
A bearded head poked out and looked up from the inside of the wagon Sekai was seated on. “Sekai are you going to ride into town like that?”
Gracefully Sekai stepped over to the edge of the wagon and looked down at her friend, her beige hair flying off to one side. “Of course Emmie. It’s far to nice a day to be inside and I wish to get a good look at the city.” Emmie was the famed Bearded Lady. One of many other entertainers that traveled with the circus wagons.
Emmie just shook her head, the beads braided into her dark hair and beard making soft clanking sounds. “You just like the attention don’t you. Don’t you get enough performing?”
“It’s not about attention Emmie,” Sekai disagreed with an impish look in her lovely blue eyes. “It’s more like I can get away with it, so I will. Would you like to join me?”
“No, I’d likely end up falling off and into a mud puddle and think what would happen to my dress. Have fun,” and Emmie pulled her head back into the wagon.
There were animals from around the world traveling with the performers. Creatures from the south and the east and even across the ocean to the west. Large and fearsome animals they were, or at least to the city folk. Sekai had spent so many years with the strange beasts. They were more like pets or friends than creatures to be feared. People on the road had been staring at them, but now as they entered the city, people in shops came out and looked at the caravan in wonder. There had likely been rumors of the circus coming, but with the disappearance of their prince many likely did not believe there would be any events.
Sekai and the other performers outside the wagons waved and smiled to the people. The beast masters threw out candied sweets to young children while keeping an eye to make sure people did not get too close to the rolling cages.
“Ringmaster,” Sekai called out to the man sitting on a white horse in the lead of the train. The older man, with a full gray beard looked over at the girl, who’s scarf like outfit flowed in the wind. His eyes followed to where she was pointing and nodded.
It was a large field, with evidence that it was used mostly for tournaments and other such amusements. That was where they would be spending the next several weeks with their tents and wagons. Bringing these poor people, who’s kingdom had been through so much, some joy was the job of the circus performers now and Sekai and her fellow entertainers where going to do their best for these people.
Men, beast, and men that looked a bit beastly were moving all over the grounds as soon as they reached the field. Tents and booths were being put up, cages and wagons were being moved around and over all there was a air of enjoyment from the circus folk. They all
enjoyed their job. Their boss was one of the rare honest ringmasters who cared more about his people then profit. They still made a profit however, and some of the folk said the gods smiled down on him.
Most of the people were helping put up the main tent, the Big Top. Ropes and rods where being manipulated as the silk slowly rose higher and higher into the sky. Before people had finished their afternoon tea the circus would be up and the performers would be getting ready for their opening night. Sekai had one last job once the Big Top was put in position. The Human Pretzel started climbing the main inner pole, with her a large bundle. Finding the flap at the top of the tent she poked out her head like a gopher before getting around the tent silk and climbed to the top of the pole.
The view was always wonderful on top of the main tent. She took a deep breath and looked out onto the city. From this height she could see almost all of it and she could see the different avenues and streets. It was the easiest way for Sekai to learn a city and with her skills, it was not difficult to convince her boss to let her be the one to place the flag on top. With a sigh, she finally took out the package and unfolded the bright colorful flag.
It took only a few moments to connect the flag to the pole and before climbing back down, taking one last look around. Once back on solid ground she walked out of the tent and wandered for a time around the wagons. There was nothing else she had to do but she gave a few people a hand here and there while chatting with them, just to wander off again to another group of people. She continued her wandering until she was no longer among the tents, booths and cages. She didn’t have any plan, though she didn’t wander far from the circus.
As Sekai wandered down the road, she started taking note of the different sounds and smells of this city. Most city folk did not think much of the uncivilized people of the south and normally didn’t talk much to her. This was all to the good for her, she would play the dumb nomad, listen to their conversation and learn more by the ease-dropping then by having a conversation with these folks. On the rare occasion she felt talking would be more polite, she’d dig out the worse accent she could from when she was learning the five main languages of the circus all at once.
* * *
In their week of travel Prince Rivalen and his porter, Reynard, had heard many unusual stories from the countryside. The death of the Artolian King and Queen had made for most of their conversations to be bleak. As the pair rode in silence across the grassy plain Rivalen sat with thoughtful consideration, distractedly brushing deep brown hair from his downcast eyes. He had been invited by the Prince for his coronation as the new Artolian King. The pair had been friends since they were children, often getting into trouble together during state visits in their younger years and often relying on each other for not only advice, but just someone to talk to that understood the pressures and responsibilities of being royalty as they grew older.
It was while his prince was deep in thought that Reynard pulled next to Rivalen and politely cleared his throat. “Alen I believe we need to talk before we finish our journey.” Reynard looked very similar to the prince. Both males had the dark hair and the dark color eyes. Had they not been royalty and servant, many would mistake the two for brothers. Rivalen looked at his porter and best friend with curiosity but reined in his mount. Once the pair had stopped moving Reynard continued.
“I’ve heard rumors from other servants. Even as we passed through the border town.” Reynard hesitated as he glanced around the grassy countryside, keeping a wary eye out for any unexpected travelers. “Artolia is in some duress. First the King and Queen and, well, one of the stable hands told me that Prince Nicholai has disappeared also.” The porter’s mouth turned downwards in a slight frown. He seemed worried and concerned over the matter.
Rivalen’s thoughts conflicted with each other as he wondered why Reynard didn’t mention it sooner. It didn’t take long for him to consider it was because the porter wanted conformation of those rumors before telling him. Then his thoughts turned grim. What could possibly happen next in this once fair kingdom? “You have more to say, my friend. This is no time to hesitate.” Rivalen felt that he better then anyone could read the porter. After all they had been friends since his childhood, much like he and Nicholai.
Reynard hesitated for a few moments, as if deliberating what to say to the Prince. “I believe it may be dangerous for you in the Artolian household. Who is to say that their troubles won’t become Iroka’s?” He sighed deeply. “I think, perhaps we should trade places. If the rumors of Prince Nicholai are true, no one will know the difference. Only the Prince would recognize you. If something were to happen, you would be safe.” With the King and Queen gone, none would recognize the Prince. Only Nicholai had seen him regularly and the only other to have seen Rivalen was the Lady Faith. Even Faith may not recognize Rivalen, as they had not seem each other since they were small children catching glimpses of each other when her father visited Iroka on trade routes.
Rivalen frowned. He did not like the idea of hiding, of running away from a problem. What Reynard said had merit though, and he would not discount the plan simply because it left a foul taste in his mouth. “I would rather you did not put yourself in danger on my account, but I also know that it is your job.” Try as he might he could not think of an argument against this plan of Reynard’s.
The porter nodded solemnly. What he was asking the Prince to do was against Rivalen’s nature. However, it was obviously the best course of action. “I understand.” Reynard paused then voiced an idea that might be easier for his prince to accept. “But sir, if we switched places, you would be put in a better position to hear conversations you would not otherwise be privy too.” Stopping he watched as Rivalen carefully considered this new suggestion.
As a servant Rivalen would be allowed to do his own investigations. Not only was Nicholai his friend, but he cared for the safety of the rest of the Ivalec family as well. “I’m not sure. I suppose it might be in everyone’s best interest.” Rivalen admitted slowly. Still, he hated to lie to the royal family, despite the fact they would understand his choice in the end. He hoped they could understand.
Reynard nodded. “The only other option would be for us to return home immediately. It would be too dangerous to stay in Artolia while it is undergoing a crisis with in it’s own castle walls.”
“No,” Rivalen shook his head, fully committed to the idea by now. “That would only prove a weakness not only for Iroka, but for Artolia’s royal family. We can not turn back now. There may be something we could do.”
Reynard unclasped his cloak then and silently handed it over to the prince as he dismounted from his steed. The prince also climbed down from his horse. Both would have to switch their clothing if their ruse was to be successful. Using the horses as a covering, both men tossed their clothing to the other and re-dressed. It was luck that the pair had a similar build, though Rivalen was slightly uncomfortable finding himself in another man’s pants.
After they both dressed, the Prince and his porter mounted again, after a small squabbled about which horse was who’s. Rivalen didn’t mind someone else riding his horse, however his horse had an entirely different idea. After one or two times getting his leg nipped, Reynard decided it was best to let the prince turned porter keep his own horse.
“Will we switch names as well?” Reynard asked curiously, once they were finally one their way through the grasslands once again. Ahead was the forests that surrounded the Artolian capital.
Rivalen considered in silence for a few moments. “No. I have so many siblings no one would remember our names. And if they did, no one would dare correct a prince.” He gave a winsome joking smile. “Just call me Alen, that’ll do.”
“As you wish.” Reynard replied. This trip was going to be interesting, to say the least. Incredibly interesting.
* * *
Faith enjoyed her walk back towards the castle through the small worn path. Despite the severity of the situation in Artolia, the day was beautiful. It was pleasantly warm, just at the start of spring with the sun high in the sky and birds chirping in the air.
A loud strange noise suddenly pierced the sky, sounding a lot like Corren, the chef at the castle, getting the air squished out of him by a mallet. The odd sound sent the birds in the trees scattering. It took Faith several moments to recognize the sound as being from an elephant, a strange gray beast not native to the country of Artolia. The thought piqued her curiosity as she turned from the path in the direction of the sound towards the great clearing.
As the clearing came in to view, she could see huge colorful tents, and masses of people scattered everywhere. Faith gave a deep sigh. She had forgotten all about the arrangements for the circus to entertain the guests for Nicholai’s coronation! It was much too late by now to cancel the contract, and though festivities seemed so inappropriate at the current time, Faith decided the town might need something more cheerful to keep up their spirits. Picking up her skirts, she hastened her pace. She would have to see the headmaster to make sure everything would run smoothly. It would be one less thing Serenity had to deal with.
“Settin` up over here boss!”
“Somebody give me a hand with the lions!”
“No no no. Not there, the wagons are all suppose to be back there. I don’t care what he told you.”
Faith huffed to herself, side stepping performers and various creatures. As much as she loved the circus, being in the middle of it was quite confusing! Not to mention if those dancing goats didn’t get out of the vegetable garden, the chef was going to be livid! She had told him time and time again, that the clearing was not a good spot for his gardening.
“Excuse me…?” Faith tried to stop someone as they walked by, but they brush by her so quickly, she doubted they heard her speak at all. She tried again a second time, ending the in the same result. Was everyone so busy that they couldn’t stop for a few moments and give a woman directions? “Great Goddess, You’d have to dance naked with a sword to catch someone’s attention here!” she spoke a bit more loudly than she usually would in public. All she needed was the headmaster not a headache!
A small golden haired woman began laughing as she made her way to Faith. Tapping Faith’s arm lightly, she directed the Lady’s gaze to an open tent. Inside were men, completely in the nude, and just as Faith exclaimed, juggling swords! “Velcomb du da Circus, Pwincez.” Sekai smiled, still not refraining from her amused laughter. She had only returned from her wanderings in the city a short time ago to find this noble wandering around.
“Oh dear!” Faith quickly covered her eyes and turned away from the tent, lightly pulling the girl along side her. She coughed, looking down at Sekai and placed her hands on her hips with a small lit of exasperation. “I am Lady Faith Kirali, not the princess. But since I have your attention, I’d appreciate it if you could help me find the boss of this mess so we may organize just a bit better.” Faith paused turning her fuchsia eyes to the clouds with a heavy sigh. “Heaven forbid Serenity gets an eyeful of that!”
Sekai nodded. She understood Faith perfectly well but her fancy title didn’t interest her. Rolling her shoulders, she smiled at Faith. “Pwincez tis organized! Bwoblem take to Bare-end Osref.” Absently Sekai pulled her leg up over her shoulders, stretching her muscles as she tended to do often. “Enne utter help Sekai ken give?”
“Yes, actually. I can’t seem to find my way around this maze.” The foreign girl was a bit difficult to understand at first, her accent being so thick, but once Faith caught the pattern of how she spoke, it made it a little easier to decipher the thick speech. Faith brushed a few dark emerald strands of hair from her face as the wind picked up.
Several men moved past them, each carrying several boards. They were followed by a pair of clowns who stopped and interrupted the conversation. “Sekai when’s the first act?”
Responding in her native tongue Sekai replied, “An hour before sundown. We want to give the nobles a good show with the painted sky as our finale!” Nodding the clowns left. Sekai looked at Faith again, then nodded. “Ah vill show you.”
* * *
Word had traveled fast and by the time Serenity reached the stables her sweet mare, Lady, was already saddled and waiting for her. It was only a few moments later until the princess had her mare galloping at top speed, the wind whipping her golden locks behind her. Lady was in as much need of a run as Serenity did. It had been several weeks since their last ride.
Once a good ways from the castle, Serenity slowed Lady down to a walk. This was the first time since her parents’ death and Nicholai’s disappearance that she’d been alone while awake. She was so angry with them! Angry at them for all leaving her, and now Faith was doing the same thing by running off on some ridiculous crusade. It was irrational to blame the dead though, and Serenity highly doubted that her brother had wanted to be kidnaped.
The mare wandered as she wanted, her mistress lost in thought, though not so lost as to allow Lady to stop and munch on any bushes. The princess tried to tell herself that there were advantages of her family being gone. She would not be married off quickly. Serenity had no delusions of finding love. Only peasants were allowed the privilege of marrying for love. What she would have now is a choice. She would be able to decide who she would marry and it would be her, not her husband, and not her family that would dictate the direction of the relationship. She was still too young to be crowed but she could block, delay and fool the court until such time as she had the crown. No lord old enough to be her grandfather or abusive youth would be her consort, and before the vows where exchanged she would have enough documents written and signed so no one would be able to contest her rule. If she did things right she’d not even need to marry for ten years or more.
She was getting ahead of herself of course. Serenity knew she had to consolidate her power first. Those so called cousins of hers that where trickling into the palace would have to be kept busy. She couldn’t let any of them be messing things up for her. They would try, Serenity had not doubt of that, but she had to make sure she was one step ahead of them.
Then there was the damn prince from Iroka. Serenity doubted she’d be lucky enough to have one of the older married princes coming. The princess shook her head, no the most likely scenario was one of the King’s grandsons. Serenity didn’t even know the names of all the princes, the Iroka royal family bred like rabbits. It was politically sound for King Lornen to try and instill one of his own blood on the thrown. There was no way Serenity was going to let herself be used, let alone allow Artolia to become a puppet state. Serenity was positive the Iroka prince would be much more dangerous then any lord or lady within the kingdom. She would have to insure that her nobles realized this too. None of them would want to be replace and be treated as second class citizens.
Serenity’s path led in the direction of the tournament field. From there many lovely paths where open to her, including a road leading into the heart of the city. What she saw out in that direction was not the empty fields that she was expecting but colorful canvases and people milling about. Reining her horse in she stopped and looked at the chaos beyond her. She could faintly here the murmur of dozens of voices, some of those being from the animals themselves. Baron Osref had made arrangements for a circus as part of the festivities for Nicholai’s coronation, but with her brother missing there was no need. The princess had reservations about getting closer to the circus, they where known to have many strange wild dangerous animals. She was curious about the situation though and considered the fact that as long as she didn’t go into the maze of tents and booths she would be fine. It wouldn’t take long for someone to notice her and then she could get some answers. With that decided she rode down the hill and out the side gate of the lesser palace wall that surrounded the property around the castle.
* * *
“This place is disgusting! Just look at the filth that is just freely walking around the streets. And is that a chicken?! There are farm animals all over the place! Detestable!” Lady Victoria spat out viciously as she rode high on her midnight black mare. Her long sun golden locks fell loose at her back over a rose colored riding cloak. Her dress was low cut, inappropriately showing off creamy skin for such a long ride across the country. Accompanying her were several servants, her personal favorites riding at the front with her.
Lady Marielle rode at her left sporting much more subdued clothing, that in Victoria’s opinion was shamefully close to the typical dress of peasants. The mousy girl was no where near the kind of statues Victoria preferred to associate with, however she had a few special talents that had become useful in recent years.
To the right was Kadir, another awful creature that Victoria would have delightfully done without if provided with better company. Kadir had also proven useful with the skills of a sage and spy.
Marielle nodded quickly in agreement with the ‘Miss’. “You are so right, Miss. At home they would never let such dirty people walk the streets like this. Once you have the crown you-”
“Marielle!” Victoria practically growled out. She then laughed lightly as if to brush the comment away as just nonsensical chatter. “Oh, Marielle darling don’t be silly.” Victoria guided her horse closer to Marielle’s and muttered low under her breath. “Unless you want to be shipped back home in a wagon, do not mention such things in public. Would you like to be tried for treason against the crown?” Rolling her eyes in exasperation Victoria led her horse ahead.
Her nose curled up in disgust as she caught whiff of something unpleasant. “What is that ungodly smell?” Tilting her head back to get a better look, she gazed far down the Artol city streets to a large grassy clearing that seemed to be teaming with people, and worse yet, animals! Hoards of nasty smelly animals! Artolia’s capital had quite literally become a circus! Farther yet Victoria could see a platinum blonde mane riding a white horse. The royal seal was quite evident on the horse’s dressing. Her eyes narrowed as she recognized the young Princess Serenity. “Amazing! Out riding carefree as a child when her country is near ruins.”
A loud trumpeting sound startled Victoria as one of the large gray elephants that were chained nearby the circus tents sounded it’s trunk. Her eyes narrowed as her gaze went from the beasts to Serenity and back to the beasts again. “You know,” she commented with a light tone, “it would be terrible if something had happened during this time of turmoil. I mean, if one of those beasts were to get loose and someone killed – it would be terrible!” A smile crept across her face. “Perhaps we should have a word with the circus folk and voice our concerns.”
Victoria dug her heels in to the horses side and trotted off towards the circus tents.