Blood Moon Carnival
originally published in Fiction River: “Alchemy & Steam”
I sat on the swing in my gold birdcage, backstage. Only a sapphire curtain separated me from the chattering audience—another full house by the sound of it. My crimson wings twitched in impatience. I wanted this night to be over.
Two clockwork men stood nearby, their mechanical workings clicked and clacked as they waited for the music cue to wheel me on stage. The Ringmaster wouldn’t trust real men near me. He feared I would entrance them with my voice. It’s not an ability that I’ve ever possessed and even if I did the brass collar around my neck would have prevented the phenomenon.
As if bidden by the thought, the needle embedded in the collar struck. The sharp prick had me tugging on the collar. No matter how hard I pulled the needle still punctured my neck, injecting my nightly dose of the serum that dampened my abilities. Specifically it prevented me from fully transforming and escaping this exhibitionary hell.
I never should have ventured into the world of men. If I’d stayed on my mountain I wouldn’t be trapped in this form—half human, half phoenix. I should have accepted the fact that Aiden had vanished and left it at that. Mother was right. Loving a mortal brought nothing but pain and hardship. If only The Ringmaster would let me die so I could join Aiden in whatever oblivion he had wandered into.
Behind me, Ephyra snarled at something offstage. I turned to see what provoked the tawny Sphinx.
The Ringmaster stepped out of the wings. Tonight he wore a canary yellow jacket with sequined tails and cuffs paired with midnight blue trousers, a tasteful combination compared to some. As always he wore a black satin top hat with his sign embroidered on it in silver and gold: a half moon with the sun emerging from the dark side. His thin moustache made his mouth appear as if he were perpetually frowning. The shadows clung to his shoulders like a cloak. It was a simple, elemental trick, a draining one that could kill a novice. The Ringmaster was certainly no novice, but he usually didn’t waste his power on overt displays.
“No need to show your parlour tricks to us, Sorcerer,” I said, knowing the incorrect label would irk him.
He rapped his gold tipped staff on the bars. The large, black stone in the hilt glowed blue—an ominous sign. “You watch your tongue, birdie. There’s a blood moon tonight. Step one toe out of line and my control may slip.” The Ringmaster parted the curtain. “Blood will fall tonight and it would be a shame if it were yours,” he said before stepping out onto the stage.
I shivered. I couldn’t tell if it was out of fear, or anticipation. Perhaps both.
Ceyleen, the mermaid, poked her head out of her glass tank. Her long blonde hair fanned out around her in the water. “Fia, please don’t antagonize him tonight.”
“I appreciate your concern but I will do what I feel I must.”
“Where his shadow cloak touched my tank the water froze,” Ceyleen shivered. “It’s never done that before. There’s something wrong with him.”
“He’s an alchemist,” Ephyra said. “His mere existence is wrong.”
Ceyleen’s tail twitched. “That’s not what I meant. He—”
To my relief, the band struck up a fanfare, drowning out Ceyleen. Sometimes saying a thing made it real. Humans often forgot that. As a being of the mystical realm, Ceyleen should have known better.
“Welcome, to The Mystica Carnival,” The Ringmaster said with his usual grandiosity. The stage creaked as he walked across it. “Behind this curtain lie wondrous creatures from the furthest reaches of the globe. Each, the only one of its kind in captivity and each, ladies and gentlemen, are eagerly waiting to entertain you.”
The band played an alluring ditty to draw out the suspense. “My advertising dirigible didn’t lie,” he continued. “These aren’t the fraudulent exhibitions other Carnivals have on display. I have gone to great lengths to master the ancient magicks necessary to trap and tame them for your safety.”
Ephyra snorted. “If they knew the lengths necessary they would hang him from the nearest tree.”
I nodded. The Ringmaster’s legion of enspelled human servants collected the exotic substances needed for his serums. When not running his errands, they played in the band. If the public knew that these men were enslaved by unnatural means, Her Majesty’s finest would bust down the door.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “I present…the phoenix!”
The audience gasped in awe as the curtain parted and the clockwork men pushed my birdcage to centre stage. The band switched to a lilting melody that reached a crescendo as the clockwork men opened my cage.
From where I stood, I could see a man in the front row adjust his telescoping monocle to get a better look. The band looked like an automaton set in a store window with their matching black trousers, vests, and top-hats. Though the alchemic symbols painted in red across their alabaster bodies lent a macabre look.
Gas footlights lined the stage, their flames waved in salutation. Stage lights in the catwalk above made the thin red feathers, that grew out of my scalp and trailed down my back, glisten. My corseted dress shone like a sunset frozen in fabric, casting vermillion, amber, and gold prisms, into the crowd. The effect was pure artifice, the Ringmaster’s to be exact.
He held the staff high over his head. Blue light, from the stone atop his cane, shone out on the crowd, but not toward the stage. I’ve long suspected that the powers he used on the audience compensated for the serum. The serum not only diminished our powers, it diminished our appearance. Simply put, we didn’t have the ethereal glow that mortals expected immortals to possess.
I flirtatiously extended a booted foot out of the cage, then leaned on the iron hands the clockwork men proffered, and made a graceful exit. Once in open space, I stretched my wings, and flapped them a few times. The soft gust they created ruffled skirts, fanned the hen feathers on ladies hats, and nearly blew out a couple of the footlights.
There wasn’t much I could do in this form to entertain an audience. I couldn’t be put through the paces of the normal carnival tricks like Ephyra, or Ceyleen, and while my wings were large enough to carry me aloft, I could only fly a short distance. The Ringmaster couldn’t make flame resistant clothing, yet, so doing fire tricks was out as well. That meant that the only ability I could display was my voice.
The Ringmaster whispered in my ear. “Make it good if you want to live through the night.” As much as I wanted to force his hand, I knew he wouldn’t do it in front of an audience. Besides, there were children in attendance and I didn’t want to harm them.
The clockwork men removed my cage, giving me room to perform. I made a circuit of the stage while I sang, then descended the stairs to walk the aisles. This was the only time I had freedom to walk where I willed, and while I relished the momentary freedom, I despised The Ringmaster even more.
The song of a phoenix was a pure thing, something rarely uttered since the time of making. It was a blessing, not something men could pay ten pence to hear on a Saturday night.
I glared at The Ringmaster. He had a smile on his face, but the reflected gaslight in his dark eyes reminded me that my freedom was only within the limits he established. If I left the theatre, the collar would inject a full vial of serum into my body. While the small daily doses, dampened my powers so I couldn’t transform, a full vial would turn me human. My wings would crumble into dust, and my voice would become hoarse, and feeble. I would rather live without knowing Aiden’s fate, than live without Song and Sky; the two things so elemental to me, that their absence would shatter my soul.
While I sang I did my best not to meet anyone’s gaze. Their lustful stares saw only what they wanted to see—a beautiful half-woman, a dazzling creature to possess, a chance to be young again. None saw the chained creature, the tortured soul.
After the second chorus, I couldn’t take it any longer, I left the stands to join the band in their little corner at stage-left. On my way, one man was so bold as to touch my wings. I slapped his hand away, and folded my wings tight until I was back on stage. The Ringmaster glared at me, I turned my back to him.
A new servant conducted the band tonight. Something about him tickled my memory. He was taller than the others with a lean frame, and his top hat cast a shadow that hid his features better than a mask. I turned so I could get a better look at him out of the corner of my eye. Looking at him directly was too risky. Anything that caught my interest automatically became a bargaining chip that The Ringmaster could use against me.
I quickened the pace of the song. Not only did it force the band to keep up it forced the bandleader to raise his head a fraction. The movement was instinctual. When he brought his hands up to give the new downbeat, his chin lifted as well. The angle allowed enough gaslight to sneak under the brim to reveal his face.
Aiden! What has he done to you?
Like the rest of the servants, his movements were unnaturally fluid, and his eyes completely vacant. If his soul still resided in that body, it was buried so deep that no trace of it showed.
Oh, Aiden. How long have you been here?
I suddenly realized that I’d stopped singing. I quickly took a deep breath and sang a prolonged high note in the hope that everyone would think the pause was for dramatic effect. The Ringmaster wouldn’t buy it, but I had to do something to cover up the lapse. I fell into a deep curtsey before my knees buckled from the weight of the fears that filled my mind. Was the lapse too long? How much did The Ringmaster know? Would we survive the night if he did?
I ventured a glance at The Ringmaster as the crowd gave a standing ovation. He had a wicked smile on his face. I stood and cautiously stepped back, only stopping when I bumped into the proscenium arch. My knees shook, a flash of heat flushed my cheeks, and the room spun as the curtain closed behind me.
“From the deserts of the far east…” The Ringmaster gave Ephyra’s introduction while the band played an Egyptian style tune that swelled like sandstorm. The curtain parted again, and the crowd slowly resumed their seats as wonder overwhelmed their minds when the clockwork men released Ephyra from her cage.
I turned away. It was hard to watch Ephyra perform. Such a noble being shouldn’t be forced to leap across stools and play at riddles. It made me want to weep and I couldn’t do that, not while on stage. The healing abilities of phoenix tears were so desirable the audience would rush the stage for a chance to possess one.
I peeked at Aiden. His deathly pallor and sunken eye sockets loosed the tear that Ephyra’s shame brought to the surface. I caught it with my finger out of habit. The drop sat obediently on my nail, waiting to be put to use. I looked at the drop and then at Aiden.
Would it work?
Phoenix tears had healing properties, which sadly didn’t work on most alchemical compositions. However, whatever had been done to Aiden, and the other servants, wasn’t alchemy alone, something else was at work. Without knowing the specifics of the process, there was no way to be sure if it would restore him or not.
There was one way to find out.
I checked to make sure The Ringmaster wasn’t looking. He had Ephyra walking upright. I might have been mistaken but it looked like Ephyra gave an encouraging nod while she hopped from one hind leg to the other. I raised an eyebrow and waited for confirmation. Ephyra’s answer was a double pirouette. The Ringmaster threw his arms wide and addressed the stupefied crowd.
Not being one to look a gift sphinx in the mouth, I flicked the drop at Aiden. It landed on his cheek, directly in the centre of a symbol, where it sank into his skin and vanished. I chewed my lip, waiting for any sign of change.
The crowd roared. I looked to see what feat Ephyra performed to earn such praise but it was too late, the moment gone. When I turned back to check Aiden’s progress he still conducted the band with the same vacancy, but the symbol on which the drop landed had disappeared and the skin in that spot had regained its colour. It wasn’t the change I’d hoped for but it was something. Now I just needed to figure out how to amplify the effect without sobbing like a wretch.
The song ended and the band stopped playing. The Ringmaster and the audience were so engrossed by Ephyra’s extended performance that they didn’t notice. They cheered and applauded until the floorboards shook.
While I worked the problem out in my mind the spot of colour on Aiden’s cheek widened. How could the teardrop still be at work? It was baffling.
I looked to The Ringmaster. His full attention was devoted to a young father in the front row. Ephyra growled at the man in question. He waved a stack of money at The Ringmaster while his daughter threw a tantrum. The child wanted to ride Ephyra like a pony. The Ringmaster must be exerting a lot of power on the crowd to keep them from panicking. Then I saw that the moon symbol on his top hat glowed more brilliantly.
The symbols painted on the servants tied whatever potion or serum he used to his power, which was derived from the sun. That’s why he was so edgy during lunar eclipses. There was less sunlight reflecting off the moon to fuel his power. He felt weak and because of that he overcompensated with the shadow cloak and other enchantments.
My tear had broken that tie, and because so much of The Ringmaster’s attention was focused on pacifying the audience, thanks to Ephyra, he hadn’t reasserted his control on the band. If I could continue to keep The Ringmaster’s focus elsewhere, the tie could continue to unravel on its own.
I pushed away from the proscenium and joined Ephyra centre stage. I knelt down and pretended to pet her. Ephyra pretended to like it.
“I’m afraid I must beg your help a bit longer,” I whispered.
Before she could answer the spoiled little girl chose that moment to run onto the stage and grabbed Ephyra’s tail. Ephyra snarled and swiped her claws at the girl. The crowd panicked. Women screamed and everyone except for the girl’s father tried to beat their neighbour to the door. I shielded the girl until the father could grab her off the stage.
The Ringmaster stomped across the stage in fury. “You will pay for that!” He yelled as he thrust his cane forward. A wide beam of light shot out of the stone and struck Ephyra in the breast, knocking her backward.
Indecision glued me to the spot. Should I help Ephyra or go to Aiden instead? I owed her a great debt for her help but now was the perfect opportunity to get Aiden out. Perhaps I set the girl off by petting Ephyra?
I looked at Aiden, the color had returned to his face and he stared at his unmoving hands in confusion. I looked at Ephyra, she was still, and vulnerable. I needed to save them both if I could.
I ran to the footlight, ripped a swath of fabric from my skirt, and used the flame to set it alight in the palm of my hand. Truth be told, I could barely feel its heat. It would take a much larger blaze to damage phoenix flesh.
I took a deep breath and blew on the flame, hard. A bar of flame shot out of my hand and leapt across the stage, landing on The Ringmaster’s jacket where it quickly spread. Within seconds the entire back of his jacket was aflame. The ringmaster summoned the shadow cloak again, which instantly suffocated the flames. He spun around and charged over.
Oh, no! I can’t let him see Aiden.
I blew again on the flame. The second bar struck the beam that shot out from the black stone, delaying it enough for me to dive out of its path.
“You’ve been seeking death all night,” The Ringmaster growled. “Why so shy now?”
“Consider it a woman’s prerogative.” I sassed as I flapped my wings and pushed off the stage. I rose high enough to position myself between him and Aiden. I prayed he wouldn’t notice.
“You’ve loused up everything,” The Ringmaster said. “Do you know how long it took to put this menagerie together? I refuse to live a forgettable life and I’m not going to let you ruin it!”
“Your mother should have taught you never to interfere in the affairs of immortals!” I shrieked.
“Servants, I command you to—”
I sang at the top of my lungs, drowning out The Ringmaster’s command. I looked at the band; they stood ready but did no more, each frozen in an awkward position. Some didn’t even make it fully out of their seats.
Aiden was now free from the waist up. The Ringmaster bellowed as he unleashed another blast of energy from the stone. I braced myself but it sailed past me and struck Aiden square in the chest, throwing him into the drums. Cymbals crashed as he fell off the stage.
I filled my lungs with as much air as they could hold and released it in one mighty breath while creating a gust with my wings. The combined force sent a wild inferno roaring across the stage.
Flames covered every inch of The Ringmaster’s body and most of the stage and grand stand. The Ringmaster tried to snuff the flames with his shadow cloak, but it was no use. He reached a shaking hand forward and tried to use the stone to summon some means of salvation—quite possibly Ceyleen’s tank backstage.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Ephyra limp through the flames, not caring if she got burned in the process. The majestic sphinx swatted his hand with her paw, leaving bloody troughs in his hand, causing him to release the cane.
My wings provided the bellows to fortify the flames. It didn’t take long for the heat to intensify. Ephyra and I watched him writhe and shriek as the fire turned him into a white-hot ember. The stage smouldered beneath him but didn’t alight until his body stilled and the fire consumed his final breath.
The air in the theatre had become too hot and thin for me to remain flying. I fell to my knees and took as large a breath as the fire would allow.
With great effort I crawled to Aiden and untangled him from the instruments. I dragged him over to the stage where I could examine his wounds more easily. The fire burned across all of the seats in the theatre and licked its way up the support columns to the rafters.
I propped up Aiden’s head in my lap. “Be still, my darling. Everything will be all right.”
My hands shook as I unbuttoned his vest and pushed it aside. Over his heart was another symbol, this one much larger than the others. Blue light from The Ringmaster’s blast pulsated along winding tendrils that grew from the symbol like a noxious vine. It gobbled the life and colour that I fought so hard to restore. I bid forth tears but the unnatural wound continued to spread.
“Stay with me. I’ll figure out a way to reverse it.”
“Get them out of here.” Aiden turned his head away to cough. When he turned back a thin stream of blood trickled down his chin. “Use the cane to command them.”
I didn’t have to ask whom he meant. I reached across him and took up the Ringmaster’s cane and commanded. “Get the out of the building and take Ceyleen with you!” The servants immediately went to work. It took four of them to push Ceyleen’s tank out the back. Ephyra limped over to my side.
When I looked down at Aiden. He wasn’t breathing anymore. “No!” I shook his body; even beat upon his chest and all for naught. The tendrils completely covered his chest and wound up his neck.
“Aiden, come back. Please come back.”
This couldn’t happen! How could fate be so cruel? We’ve only just found each other! I raised the cane. Its vast power coursed through me, eager to do the impossible but Ephyra knocked it out of my hand. “If you love him, let him go,” she said.
“He wants to be with me. I know it!” I shouted.
“He would be a shell with no soul.” Ephyra put a consoling paw on my shoulder. “You cannot save him but there are others you can. Let that be your memorial.”
My head drooped. She was right. No matter what I did I wouldn’t hear his laugh again or see that mischievous spark. I took up the cane and released a measure of power in a bright blue blast that turned our collars to dust. With a wave of my hand the flames parted. I gathered Aiden’s body in my arms and together, Ephyra and I left.
Ephyra and I stood on a rocky beach and watched Ceyleen disappear into the waves with the cane, which was destined for a deep trench. Nearby, an Egyptian reed boat with twelve oarsmen and Anubis himself at the tiller waited to ferry Ephyra home.
“Are you sure you won’t join me?” Ephyra asked.
“I’m certain.” I gazed at the cloudy sky. “There is somewhere else I need to be.”
Ephyra nodded and boarded the boat. I turned away and walked to Ceyleen’s empty tank where the band stood. I walked down the line of them, depositing a tear on their cheeks as I passed. With that completed I stretched my wings wide and took to the air.
A stray sunbeam glinted off of my wings. That glint became a glow, and the glow became sparks that cascaded off my transfigured form. Instead of chasing the dawn in the joy of rebirth, with flames trailing behind me I turned east to serenade the blood moon with the song of my mourning heart.