If Magic Were Wishes
Rilla took a deep breath, trying to hold back her tears.
Above her head, the massive red-and-white tent shuddered in the wind and rain of the unexpected late summer storm. Ropes and canvas flapped noisily, as if the big top itself were objecting to her father’s death.
“He wouldn’t want you to be sad, little one,” said Christoph carefully as he gave Rilla a squeeze with his massive arm.
Rilla looked up at Christoph’s lined face, taking strength from his familiar features. “I know. But it doesn’t help.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
She swallowed hard around the lump that had been stuck in her throat since she’d been told of her father’s death. It was so unfair. It didn’t feel real.
Gathered around her in the big top were Carnival folk—all shapes and sizes, some dressed in their finest performance outfits, others as if they were about to break down the tents.
But they all had their heads tilted upward, tears streaming down their faces.
Everyone had loved their Ringmaster.
Rilla clenched her fist. No one had loved her larger-than-life father more than she had. In her mind, he was limitless, unbeatable.
Certainly not meant to die in a stupid car crash.
Over their heads Missy, one of the Carnival’s high-wire artists, crawled along the rigging toward the top of the massive tent.
The silver of her leotard sparkled under the lights, and her long legs clung to the ropes with an elegance that hid powerful muscles. Every pair of eyes in the tent watched as she completed the tradition that had been started three hundred years before, by the nine original families.
The ashes of almost every member of the Jolly Carnival who’d passed on were contained in one of the two huge round tent poles, built from the original mast of the ship—and subsequent wreck—that brought them to the Americas. They literally held the very essence of the Carnival. And now her bright and brilliant father was another collection of dust in the Carnival tradition.
Rubbing at the hot tears now running freely down her face, Rilla felt her anger flare again. She’d been keeping it at bay, but every so often it burned its way up her throat. She wanted to shout at someone, hit them, cry out at the injustice.
It wasn’t right. Her father shouldn’t be dead. They shouldn’t be here, having his funeral. It was a mistake. She shifted restlessly where she sat, and considered just running away from everything, everyone. At least it might hurt less.
From Rilla’s other side, Christoph’s wife Barb squeezed her hand and leaned a little closer. “Stay strong, Rilla,” she whispered.
Rilla glanced in her direction, taking comfort in the older woman’s graceful features, the grey of her long hair down her back and the beautiful gold-sequined leotard she was wearing in honor of the Ringmaster, Abba.
“I’m trying,” she whispered. Her gaze shifted upward again. “I’m glad it’s Missy up there.”
Missy was Barb’s daughter; they’d grown up together, run riot through the Carnival together, learned about the carnival traditions from Abba together. Rilla was glad the person performing the final ceremony loved her father almost as much as she did.
Looking around the tent from her perch at the top of the wooden audience bleachers, Rilla tried to memorize the faces. Everyone was there, from the newest greenhorn to the oldest showhand, crowded into the massive space. She took a breath. She wasn’t just the Ringmaster’s daughter and heir any more. She was their leader now, the next Jolly to step into the family tradition of Ringmasters.
The weight of the responsibility pushed down on her shoulders, even in the midst of her grief.
From somewhere in the tent, a violin began to play a slow, haunting melody. The tune hit the chorus and she recognized it. She tried to smile, but her face felt frozen.
Christoph’s muscular arm tightened around her shoulders, and she listened silently to the rest of the ABBA song being played in slow time.
The song was a lovely idea, but her father would have hated the slowness. He loved the speed of the tunes by the Swedish band. He’d always said the tents went up faster to the beat of “Mama Mia.” And he’d always preferred the nickname Abba to his full name Abacus.
Christoph glanced down at her. “Come, we should go now.”
He pulled Rilla to her feet, and the crowd parted silently as he led her down the steps. His mustache twitched, and she knew he was trying not to cry at the loss of his long-time friend.
As they walked toward the closest exit in the massive tent, a flash of blue hair caught her eye. A man stood near another side entrance, his expression a strange mix of anger and excitement.
His shock of blue hair stood at attention on his head, a bright contrast to his black shirt and pants. A ripple of unease washed through Rilla. The stranger caught and held her gaze. Then he turned and disappeared out into the storm.
Rilla frowned. She opened her mouth to question the man’s presence and then closed it again. Her father knew literally thousands of people. He’d been a big, charismatic personality who’d lived his entire life on the circuit.
There could be any number of people she’d never met who could claim a relationship with him.
The blue-haired man might have seemed out of place, but that didn’t mean he shouldn’t be there at her father’s funeral. She was just paranoid—she’d been jumping at shadows lately and it wasn’t helping anyone.
Rilla glanced up at Christoph again and for the first time noticed the grey hair mixed with the black on his head. Her father and Christoph had grown up together, lived their lives together. The big man and his wife Barb had helped Abacus raise Rilla when her mother had left. He was going to feel the gap left by Abacus just as much she did.
A hand pulling on her elbow interrupted Rilla’s thoughts.
“Rilla, there’s a problem.”
“Pardon?” Rilla turned, trying to focus on the scruffy, brown-haired teenager who’d stopped her. She blinked and recognized Joey, one of the younger runners. Around them, people had started talking again and the noise was echoing through the tent.
“There’s a man. He wants…” Joey trailed off as an older man strode past him, straight up to Christoph and Rilla.
He held a black cane in one hand and an old-fashioned bowler hat in the other, and pushed out his white-bearded chin toward Rilla. “My name’s Blago Knight and I demand a meeting of the Nine. I’m here to claim the title of Ringmaster.”
Rilla blinked again. “I’m sorry? What did you say?”
“I’m here to challenge you for the title of Ringmaster. As is my right,” he said again, louder this time. The people standing nearby stopped talking and looked over. A hush settled across the whole room.
“You can’t—” Rilla started to speak, and then remembered all the stories her father had told of the competitions for leadership in the Carnival. Anyone was allowed to contest the title of Ringmaster, as long as they were part of the Carnival in some way.
The world swayed for a second, and Rilla was glad of Christoph’s comforting arm around her. She couldn’t deal with this right now. She just needed a moment to clear her head, time to think without this grief filling her up until she was ready to burst with the agony.
But then anger swirled in its wake. Just who the hell did he think he was?
Her gaze narrowed. “You do realize this is my father’s funeral?” she said, her voice breaking. She cleared her throat and pulled herself together.
She was the Carnival leader now.
“Of course I realize, young lady. But it doesn’t change the fact that I demand to speak to the Nine. You must convene an emergency session.”
“This isn’t the time, Blago. You’ll have to wait.” Christoph’s voice boomed unnaturally loud. Every eye in the crowded tent was now focused on Rilla and the stranger.
A whisper of unease settled across Rilla’s shoulders. Christoph had used this man’s first name casually, almost like he knew him.
“I know the rules as well as anyone, Christoph. I have to announce my intentions to the Nine immediately or it’s too late.” The stranger glared at Rilla. “If you stand in my way, you forfeit your rights to the Ringmaster claim.”
Goosebumps appeared along Rilla’s skin as she stared at the old man in front of her. Bushy eyebrows covered bloodshot eyes, dark and fierce at their center. The lined face was surrounded by a seething mass of white, frizzy hair.
“I’ve never seen you before,” she said, her forehead creased. “Or even heard of you. How could you possibly have a legitimate claim to be the Ringmaster’s heir?”
“I grew up in the Carnival, just like you,” said the stranger. His eyes darkened with some emotion that might have been anger, but it was gone again so quickly, Rilla wasn’t sure.
She took a deep breath, then another. A headache was crashing around inside her skull like a bowling ball on a tennis court. All she wanted to do was curl up on her bed and try to forget the last few days. “Come with me. It’ll be informal but enough to judge whether your claim is valid.”
The stranger grinned, showing off a row of perfect teeth. “‘Course I’m valid. Just ask ol’ Christoph here. He’ll vouch for me.” He nodded toward Christoph, his white hair bobbing wildly with the movement.
Rilla stared, trying to make sense of his words. She looked up at her father’s oldest friend.
Christoph nodded, a slight flush on his face. He’d used the stranger’s first name a moment ago. Of course he knew him.
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It was a long time ago,” Christoph said softly.
Blago made an impatient sound. “The point is that I’m back, and it’s your duty to convene a meeting of the Nine. So let’s get on with it, missy.”
Excerpt From If Magic Were Wishes - The Dark Carnival Series, Book 1
By Trudi Jaye
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