Cory and Clarissa turned. ‘Hey Rhys, hurry up!’
Rhys caught up. ‘Hurry up,’ he scoffed. ‘You were the ones who left me.’
‘Well, the fortune teller might have got us next,’ said Clarissa with a laugh, flicking back her long blonde hair. ‘I didn’t want her grabbing at my palms and warning me of danger.’
‘Ridiculous,’ said Rhys. ‘The least you could have done was save me from that.’
‘Never mind that,’ said Cory. ‘We gotta find somewhere to eat. I’m starving!’
They walked together down the busy street. Clarissa gestured at the stalls that littered the streets. ‘We could just get something here.’
‘I want to sit down,’ said Cory.
‘You could have sat down with the fortune teller,’ said Rhys. ‘I got a nice rest out of that.’
‘Right, sure,’ said Cory. ‘Is it bad luck if you tell us what she told you?’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ said Rhys. ‘She told me I was going somewhere dangerous, a trap I couldn’t get out of.’
‘What’s that smell?’ asked Clarissa. The boys stopped and sniffed. Indeed, there was a scent of frying, of herbs and oil and meats.
‘Delicious,’ said Cory. ‘Where’s it coming from?’
They turned into an alley. Here there were no stalls, although the buildings looked very similar to those on the main street—beautifully carved wooden doors, colourfully painted, set in dark stone walls. Only one set of doors was open, and people were streaming out.
A thin man with wispy black hair stood near them. ‘You’re coming to see the show?’ he asked. ‘You’re just in time. This will be our last performance.’
‘We came to eat,’ said Cory.
‘Of course, of course,’ said the man. ‘We serve food as well. Food, and tea, and drinks, and you can watch the greatest acrobats and magicians in the city.’
The three exchanged glances.
‘Come, come,’ said the man, and grasped Rhys’s arm. ‘You don’t want to miss out!’
Rhys pulled his arm from the man’s grip. ‘Ok, ok,’ he said. ‘No need to be pushy about it.’
They went through the doors. They weren’t the first ones there. People sat around tables, nibbling at the dumplings and bowls of noodles, drinking tea and beer. These were all being brought to them by girls in white dresses, wielding large trays of the most delicious smelling food.
‘Come on,’ said Clarissa. ‘We might as well have fun while we eat.’
‘And the food smells great,’ said Cory. He made his way to a table near the front, sat down, and instantly a girl came to with a plate of dumplings. Another girl came to put down cups and glasses and fill them with hot tea and cold beer.
Clarissa and Rhys sat down. Cory motioned at the dumplings, chewing. ‘These are great!’
‘Is this a common thing?’ Rhys asked Clarissa. She was the only one who had travelled to the city before.
‘Yeah, all over,’ said Clarissa. ‘I’ve seen a couple. They aren’t usually that great, but I mean, you get to eat, so…’
They watched as more people filed in, until every seat was filled. Then the curtains parted and the show began. Smoke began to fill the room, as people lit up cigarettes. ‘Disgusting,’ muttered Rhys. ‘I hate cigarette smoke.’
‘You should be used to it by now,’ murmured Clarissa. ‘You’ve been here a week.’
The first act was a juggler, who began with three sticks, then four, then five. As he juggled five, a young girl brought in a lit torch, holding it out to the man. He lit first one, two, three, four, five, until he was now juggling five torches of fire. He caught all five and bowed to the applause.
The second act were three acrobats, although contortionists was probably a better word. They twisted themselves into different positions, lifting each other with their toes and other such tricks.
‘I hear they have to train them from five years old to get them that flexible,’ Clarissa murmured. ‘And that those classes pretty much amount to torture.’
Cory shrugged. ‘What can you do?’
Rhys shifted in his seat. ‘I don’t like this place.’
‘You’ve been saying that ever since you got here,’ Clarissa said. ‘Honestly, if I knew how afraid you were of the unfamiliar.’
‘I don’t mean the city,’ said Rhys. ‘This place. I don’t like this place.’
Clarissa turned and frowned at him as on stage, a man stuck a second sword down his throat. ‘Do you want to go?’
‘We shouldn’t miss all of this,’ said Cory, his eyes still on the sword swallower. ‘It’s fun. And I could do with more of those dumplings.’
As if on cue, a girl started walking about with plates of dumplings on a tray. Cory waved her over.’
‘I’ll be ok,’ said Rhys. ‘I’m sure it’ll end soon, right?’
The next act seemed to be some sort of comedy, although they were using the old tongue, so the three could not understand. ‘Husband and wife having a fight, I think,’ Clarissa muttered. The couple exchanged insults that set the room laughing, and then turned to throwing things at each other. One vase missed the woman and came crashing down on a table in front of the stage. The pieces sprayed.
‘Was that supposed to happen?’ Cory asked.
‘I don’t think so,’ said Clarissa. ‘Look, some of them are hurt.’
Girls came to clean up the broken pieces. The people at the table didn’t seem to mind the cuts, they wiped themselves off and kept watching the show.
‘I think I’ll wait for you outside,’ said Rhys, standing up. ‘It’s too stuffy in here.’
‘I thought you said you’d be okay,’ said Cory.
‘I thought so, but—’ He broke off as the next act came on. It was the thin man who had invited them in, now in costume. An elaborate headdress and embroidered robes.
‘The magician,’ murmured Clarissa. ‘Always the last act.’
‘It’s nearly over, Rhys.’
‘I’ll wait for you outside,’ he said, and went over to the door.
‘Don’t you think we should go with him?’ Clarissa asked, looking after Rhys with concern.
‘He’ll be fine,’ said Cory, his eyes on the stage.
The magician was a good one. He declaimed in the old tongue and produced rabbits, held fire in his hands, found coins in his sleeves, in the sleeves of customers and out of thin air. Clarissa was lost figuring out the trick when she hear Rhys’s voice in her ear.
‘Clarissa, I can’t get out.’
She turned. He stood behind, his hand braced on her chair.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The doors are locked. They won’t open them.’ He gestured to the two men standing next to the closed door, almost like guards.
‘And now,’ said the magician, ‘for the finale! We call upon the gods!’
‘We call upon the gods!’ shouted the audience and the servers together.
Cory turned. ‘What the hell?’ Everyone had started chanting in the old tongue, everyone but Clarissa, Cory, and Rhys. Their eyes were fixed on the stage, on the magician, who had raised his hands and was leading the chant. ‘What’s going on?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Clarissa. ‘But I think we should get out of here.’
‘We can’t,’ said Rhys, his voice panicked. ‘I told you, the doors are locked. And there are guards.’
They turned to look as the thin man shouted. Everyone else shouted and stood. Rhys turned pale.
‘Cory,’ said Clarissa urgently, ‘Let’s get up, we need to find a way out.’ She stood and found that Rhys was grasping her arm, putting his weight on her. ‘Cory.’
Cory stood, his square face worried, and tried to help her hold Rhys up. His face was completely white now, his eyes closed, slipping, slipping.
‘The sacrifice,’ said the thin man, in the new tongue, ‘Take up the sacrifice.’
Hands grabbed at Rhys and pulled him away. There were too many to fight, although Cory and Clarissa landed a few blows each.
‘What the fuck!’ Cory tried to follow, but the crowd blocked him. They took him up to the stage and laid him before the magician. The magician held his hands over the still form and began shouting short staccato words, barked out. A gesture, and a white-dressed girl came up with a knife. There was a gasp from Clarissa, a muttered curse from Cory. They pushed through the crowd, bulled through it to the stage—
—but they were too late. Rhys lay in a pool of blood. They couldn’t see where it was coming from.
‘The sacrifice is accepted,’ said the magician. ‘The show is over. Good show, huh?’
Cory pulled himself onto the stage in a fury. ‘You—’ He broke off. The magician had gone. ‘Where’d he go?’ He looked down at Clarissa, now standing alone. She turned slowly around.
‘They just vanished.’
A soft groan pulled their attention back to Rhys. His eyelids flickered and opened. ‘What on Earth?’
‘Rhys!’ Cory knelt down, tried to mop up the blood, find out where the wound was. ‘We thought you were dead.’
‘What happened?’ asked Rhys. ‘Last I remember, I was sitting down for that awful fortune teller, and then—how did I get here?’
‘Sit up,’ said Cory, and helped him to a sitting position. ‘Are you hurt?’
‘I think the blood might be fake,’ said Clarissa, slowly.
‘What?’ asked Rhys, and then started. ‘The fuck? Where’s all this blood from?’
‘We thought it was yours,’ said Clarissa.
‘Isn’t it?’ said Cory. ‘They were holding that knife.’
Rhys ran his hands over his face, his neck, his body. ‘I don’t feel anything,’ he said. ‘Must be fake.’ He stood up. ‘I’m fine, I swear.’
They all looked down at the bloodstains on the stage. Later, much, much, later, Cory and Clarissa would remember these stains, as best they could, and compare it to the stains left by Rhys’s body after the car crash, and they would wonder. But for now, they only thought how odd it was that none of the blood had marked his clothes.
‘I’m starving,’ said Rhys. ‘Shouldn’t we go eat?’
‘Yeah,’ said Clarissa. ‘As long as we don’t have to watch a show.’