The Iron Warrior
Page 29

 Julie Kagawa

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:
The ringmaster suddenly stopped his speech, giving me and Kenzie a very exaggerated pout. “Oh, dear, I think we have someone who isn’t entertained,” he stated. “We can’t have that, now, can we? We want everyone to have fun tonight!” He flung out his arms, speaking to his imaginary audience. “What can we do to make the show more entertaining? Ah, I have it! For this first act, I think we need...a volunteer.”
Oh, no. Panic shot through me as the ringmaster turned his head back and forth, as if scanning the audience. “Anyone?” he called, raising a hand. “Come now, it’ll be fun! One brave volunteer is all we need. No reason to be shy.” His eyes traveled down, toward the row where Kenzie and I were sitting. “Nobody? There must be some brave soul willing to step forward.”
“Me,” I rasped, as his gaze finally reached us. “I volunteer. Take me.”
“Ethan, no,” Kenzie whispered, looking at me sharply. I ignored her, holding the gaze of the ringmaster. He blinked at me, then deliberately turned his head to smile at Kenzie.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, as my heart tightened in horror. “I believe we have our volunteer. Let’s all give the young lady a hand!”
“No!” I yanked on the ropes, struggling to free myself, as the clowns closed on Kenzie. “Leave her alone!” I yelled to the ringmaster. “I’ll volunteer. Take me instead!” All of them ignored me, as the clowns cut Kenzie’s restraints, grabbed her by the arms and pulled her into the ring. I yanked harder on the ropes. “Hey!” I called, refusing to give up. “Look at me! I’m talking to you, dammit. I know you can hear me!”
The ringmaster snapped his fingers, and a bright red cloth was suddenly forced into my mouth from behind. “Ladies and gentlemen, please restrain your enthusiasm,” he said calmly, as the clown tied the gag around my neck. “I realize this could be frightening for younger children, but if that is the case, please respect your neighbors and take them outside. We do not want anyone ruining the show now, do we?”
Sickened, I watched them drag Kenzie to a large wooden disk sitting upright in the sand like a giant bull’s-eye, push her back against the surface and fasten her wrists to the leather straps near the top. Grunting, they stepped away, leaving her bound to the center of an enormous target. My heart seized up with the realization.
I moaned and doubled my efforts with the ropes, as a bony creature stepped into the ring, facing Kenzie. It wore a black-and-red vest that showed off its sunken rib cage, and copper throwing knives were strapped everywhere to its skeletal body. Its head was a mummified bird’s skull, empty eye sockets blank and dark as it regarded the girl several yards away.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I need your complete silence for this act,” the ringmaster said in a dramatic voice. “Absolute concentration is necessary for Bull’s Eye Pete not to impale our lovely volunteer through the heart, or worse. We don’t want her to end up like his last assistant, do we?” He laughed, and it made my skin crawl. “Remember, Pete, you’re supposed to hit the bull’s-eye, not the girl’s eye. Make sure you remember the difference.”
The skeletal creature never took its gaze from Kenzie. “Don’t flinch,” I heard it whisper as it drew one of the knives on its belt. “I don’t see very well, anymore.” Slowly, it raised its arm, the knife gleaming between its talons, and my stomach twisted so hard I felt nauseous.
Oh, God, I can’t watch this. I’m so sorry, Kenzie.
Kenzie’s voice cut through the tense silence, making the knife thrower pause. Surprised, the ringmaster turned, a slight frown on his face, as Kenzie looked over at him. “I’ll make you a deal,” she said clearly. “One that will be even more entertaining than what you’re having Bull’s Eye Pete do.”
The knife thrower glared at Kenzie as if offended, but the ringmaster raised his gloved hand, halting him. “A deal, you say?” he repeated. “Well, this is an interesting twist. What are you proposing, young lady?”
My heart pounded. I hated making bargains with faeries, but in this case, if Kenzie came out unharmed, I wouldn’t complain. Making any kind of deal, even one to save your life, was risky, but Kenzie knew that just as well as me. She knew what she was doing.
I trust you, Kenzie, I thought, relieved that I wasn’t watching a creepy knife-throwing faery impale my girlfriend. I know you can handle this. careful.
Kenzie took a deep breath. “Let Ethan do this,” she said, making me start in surprise. “If he can hit the target three times without hitting me, you let us go. If he misses, then we’ll stay and watch the rest of the show, for however long you want us to.”
“Intriguing,” the ringmaster said slowly. “And if you get hit?”
Kenzie shrugged. “Then I get hit. And there will probably be a lot of blood and screaming from me, and a lot of angst and guilt from Ethan. Either way, it’ll be entertaining, right?”
The ringmaster scratched his chin for a moment, thinking, then beamed a smile and whirled, holding out his hands. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he called. “We have a new participant! Please, give a warm welcome to our wonderful volunteer who will take Pete’s place.”
My mind was spinning as the clowns cut me loose, dragged me to my feet and shoved me toward the circle. Yanking out the gag, I stumbled forward, trying to think, to form some sort of plan. I was good at knife fighting, sure; kali taught us how to be proficient with all blades, not just swords. But my knife skills were more defensive, focused on disarming a person trying to stab you, not hurling the blade like a ninja star. Guro didn’t advocate throwing knives, because even if you didn’t miss, you were now weaponless. I’d never thrown a knife at a target before, certainly not at a real person. I didn’t know what Kenzie expected me to do, but my hands were shaking as I stepped into the ring.
The ringmaster loomed over me, grinning from ear to ear. “Ah, here we are,” he announced, clamping steely fingers into my shoulder. “Welcome, young man, welcome! Are you ready to show us what you’ve got?”
No, I thought, my mouth dry. I don’t want to do this. I’m not sure I can throw a set of knives at my girlfriend and not want to kill myself if I hit her. But the ringmaster was giving me no option to back out. “Pete!” he called, and the skeletal thing sidled up, glaring at me with empty eye sockets. The ringmaster didn’t seem to notice. “Give the young man your knives,” he ordered cheerfully, “and let’s start the show!”
Pete grabbed my wrist, yanked my arm up and smacked three copper, slightly curved throwing knives into my palm. They were about six inches long, edged along both sides, and razor sharp. A thin line of blood welled up from where one knife edge parted my skin, but I barely felt it.
In a daze, I let the ringmaster lead me across the circle and stop about thirty feet from where Kenzie was strapped to the giant target. A pair of clowns waited for us as well and silently flanked me as the ringmaster stepped away.
“Whenever you’re ready, my boy,” he said, gesturing at Kenzie. I looked numbly at the knives in my hand, then at Kenzie, facing me across the circle. Okay, I can do this. I just have to hit the target and not her. No big. My stomach twisted, and my hands shook as I picked up one knife with a hollow clink. God, Kenzie, you have way too much faith in me.