A young man miraculously escapes his servitude from the Warlands, a country overwhelmed by genetic engineering and wars. He joins a circus in the seemingly paradise of its adjoining and former enemy of war country, the Peacelands. But this runaway holds mysterious value to his former boss, The Father, who has a plotted an elaborate revenge. The runaway learns the Peacelands is no paradise, and must run again from The Father’s mercenary Hunter, who for a price is determined to bring him back to the Warlands yet may hold the key to his survival.
The Hunter avoided public venues, well-traveled roads, and any place where officers might be present. He didn't want any more incarcerations, DNA tests, or looks of disgust from self-entitled bureaucrats. Running into anyone who would detain him, even if only temporarily, would delay his intended mission. His immediate goal was to track down the circus that had recently entertained the residents of a small Peacelands town near the border. He knew the runaway was a performer in a traveling show called “Circus Magnificent.”
He walked great distances and jumped trains. He studied newspapers with their usual twisted political truths and lovely lies about his country. Circus Magnificent was only one circus among the hundreds that dotted the landscape. So many circuses! Didn’t people have fields to tend? Factory work? Homes to build and maintain? Why the insatiable desire for so much entertainment?
Sitting in empty boxcars, The Hunter had quietly regarded the Peacelands landscape. Roads and railway tracks snaked uninterrupted through the fissures of green valleys connecting each city to the other. To The Hunter, this country’s infrastructure mapped out an orderly system that hummed as diligent as a beehive. Its citizenry was singularly committed to the rule of law and government effectiveness.
Though unfamiliar with vegetation in the region, The Hunter appreciated its abundant greenery. The trees and shrubs concealed him from any Peacelander’s probing gaze. Their dense overhead canopies chased away the lingering fear of bombs falling from the sky as if the thick branches would protect him. Cool rain fell at least once a week, soaking through his clothes, and the moist wind blew colder and colder up in the mountains. As he moved west, land became more and more manicured and urbanized, making it difficult for him to shelter in the woods.
The day he caught up with the Circus Magnificent, he woke to fluffy clouds and gentle breezes, as if the weather applauded him on his way to triumph. The pleasant climate revived him, though he scoffed at the weird notion of imagining weather was encouraging him. He never encountered such silly thoughts in the Warlands. Perhaps he was growing old; the military regarded twenty-four years old as a miraculous age for a soldier. The death rate for fighters during the wars was one in three. He might have known of older soldiers, but none was stupid enough to go after a young runaway into former enemy territory. So, he concentrated on the payoff. The reward for bringing the runaway back to the Warlands would make all this work worthwhile.
After so much effort to find it, The Hunter arrived late for the circus. He had spent most of the day trying to appear “normal.” He purchased a small telescope and dark clothing, including a black long-sleeved shirt, black trousers, and black gloves to conceal his missing forearm and hand. Draping his old cloak over everything, he hoped he didn’t stand out to passing officers. They must not thwart him on this day.
He arrived at the circus grounds as the last orange embers of the evening fell over everything. He watched the rainbow of colors, sounds, and fragrances from the safety of a shadow across from the big tent. The wide yellow casts from streetlights failed to reach him as he waited. Music swept the surrounding air in indistinct medleys he didn’t recognize. Clowns warmed up the convening crowds as merchants sold charms, popcorn, and unnaturally colored drinks. Within the odd odors of an alien land—flowery perfumes, vanilla soap, and leather—he imagined he could sense the other Warlander nearby.
Three crows preened on a nearby tree branch, cawing out to each other in a secret language. Despite their squabbling, The Hunter noted the familiar sacred intelligence in those black eyes. He watched them sweep up in coordinated arcs higher and higher on invisible wind. His mother had told him crows were connected to the afterlife, but he didn’t believe her.
“No discount. Performance has already started,” the Ticketmaster told The Hunter. The ticket taker was dressed up in an elaborate costume for some later performance. His expression revealed that he considered the ticket booth to be beneath his abilities. “You have to pay for the entire show no matter when you get here.”
The Hunter loomed tall over the Ticketmaster, but the man did not bother looking up at him. The Hunter threw his coins down, picked up his ticket, and slipped into the grand tent.
The circus had oversold the show, so The Hunter slipped into to the back corner of the bleachers, his weight making the wood creak beneath his feet. He didn’t expect the runaway could see him this far from the main stage. He was glad to have bought the theater telescope to help see the show from any reasonable distance. Many people in the audience also had small, more fashionable binoculars in their laced or gloved hands. It was odd to see gloves and cloaks in the middle of summer, or was it already autumn? No matter what the weather was like, Peacelanders cherished their good attire.
So close now, so close to his target. The Hunter’s breathing became shallow, and his chest tightened as he fidgeted and shifted his feet. He looked around the tent, its rigging, metal rods, and bolts. The collective amount of labor to put the tent up and down quickly impressed him.
He had to wait through performance after performance. He resolved that only the pretty magician had a magical act that impressed him; she would do well in the Warlands with it. Every other performance appeared to be more feel-good, safer, and duller than the productions he witnessed in the Warlands. No one was seriously injured, and no one was thrown to their death.
Then, the tent’s chattering became quieter. Random hushing noises flitted around him as the tall and elegant ringmaster reentered the ring. The ringmaster wore a sequined red bolero and patent leather riding boots that stopped short of his knees. He was tall, reminding The Hunter of the unnamed trees murmuring in the breeze outside. The ringmaster announced something in a staccato accent—The Hunter still did not decipher the bitter dialect well. After a lengthy alliterative introduction, a striking red-headed performer took the stage. He wore dark green tights and a white shirt stressed over smooth, accentuated muscles. The Hunter guessed the redhead’s age around his early twenties, though he could have been older. He might have only appeared youthful because he had not ventured outside his idyllic Peacelands existence. He had never dodged the octopuses’ arms of blasts or seen a glob of hostile fire pulverize a fellow soldier next to him. His flawless skin never marched under blistering heat, rifle in hand, across interminable sandy roads, and through every conceivable hazard. That handsome face had never had to step over a severed limb, a leg, or a dead body lying in a twisted pose.
As he tamped down the spiral of resentment, The Hunter admitted to himself that this redhead was a magnificent-looking human being. He was so hard with muscle that he might be able to fight The Hunter for a few minutes if he knew how (probably not). He had already learned of this performer from an early advertisement, and he was impossible to forget once seen. At first, Circus Magnificent playbills focused on this redhead instead of both members of the duo trapeze act. But in the last weeks of his search, he finally got a glimpse of the man whose reward would provide him with money and a working right arm. This “Birdy” (as they called him here) finally began appearing in ads. Birdy hadn’t camouflaged himself, but he looked so different that he might as well have been wearing a disguise. Before, his hair was cut brutally short in The Father’s wanted poster of him. And despite some muscles, his bones had jutted like sticks beneath the thin surface of a cloth. The Father had him painted in all the wrong colors, with everything twisted, garish and unreal. In comparison, the Circus Magnificent featured the runaway smiling beneath perfectly coiffed hair in their advertisements. They dressed him in classical hues, which complimented his dark olive skin tones. In those photos, Birdy was a transformed individual, bursting with vigor. Nobody would suspect he scaled a wall via a cesspool to get here. Nobody would know his original training was akin to a caged animal doing stunts for a voracious crowd, only to be discarded if he died in the arena.
Birdy received a quick introduction from the ringmaster, but he didn’t need it. Before he even took the stage, the audience applauded him with enthusiasm twice as would be suitable for Peacelanders’ manners. As he focused his telescope, the Hunter smiled. He was about to see his windfall.
Then there he was. Birdy, HaHa, or whatever his actual name was, gliding into the brilliance of light, like a demigod emerging from some foreboding forest. Birdy was smaller and imperfect compared to his magnificent redheaded porter. Yet as shouts and cries erupted around him, Birdy surveyed the audience through his bright eyes as if he was their prince and they were his subjects.
The Hunter adjusted his telescope to get a better view of him to understand his popularity. His sense of accomplishment at finally catching up with the runaway was a wonderful indulgence he desired to savor. He could reach up and grab Birdy by his slender neck if he was in the front rows. But go ahead, let this Warlander have his minute of triumph, The Hunter thought. Allow him to entertain them before he succumbed to his fate.
Birdy’s attention wandered from the crowd to his partner above him, and a smile curved his face, a pleasant smile that produced two dimples. The redhead, from ten or more feet above, grinned back with an expression of gentle affection. The runaway then threw his shoulders back, and the thick cloak that had enveloped him fell to the floor. Tiny scales were strewn across his costume’s torso, arms and temples, glittering like little infernos. In the silvery light and unsheathed from the heavy cloak, the young man looked familiar to The Hunter, as if they had passed each other on the street often. He didn’t quite show like a Peacelander and not at all like a Warlander. His face was smooth, his limbs and legs as strong as the lowest branches of a tree, each muscle distinct and well formed. Maybe The Father had taken better care of this one, no beatings, and education maybe.
But The Hunter understood the image was a forgery. This man was only another orphan who knew far too much about death. He was a Warlander who had lost loved ones and had lived amongst jagged ruins that rose from the earth like cracked bones. From the day he was born, to the days soldiers probably tried to apprehend him, and the years that followed, life was nothing more than a struggle for survival. The language of death dictated this orphan’s life, like The Hunter’s. Living meant learning to bear a life despite the never-ending droughts, wars, and evil lords.
The Hunter took the telescope away from his eyes, blinked, then peered through it again.
The redheaded porter did not appear to strain at all in hoisting Birdy up. An aerial apparatus lifted them both twenty, thirty, then forty feet above the ground. With one well-defined arm, his partner could have picked Birdy directly off the floor and hurl him through the tent and into outer space.
Once up high, Birdy rotated in single and double time, accelerating the surrounding air. The Hunter waited for him to miss those outstretched arms and plummet to the hardwood forty feet below them. But at the last instant, his partner would grab him and release him back into the harsh mistress of gravity.
Each drop, each fall averted, The Hunter joined the hundreds of hearts skipping with him in the audience. The runaway’s movements were free of hesitation or caution. Birdy lunged with the fearlessness of a Warlander or, better, an Islander like his mother. The duo was so familiar with each other’s actions in every turn and twist. They possessed a strange kind of masculine sensuality. And when he wasn’t in flight, this runaway hung in impossible stretches. He dangled like an ancient religious saint, dancing upside down, using the redhead’s hands as solid floors. He beamed from the wall of some temple devoted to him, his skin sequins shining like a painting made of stained glass.
At the thought of islands and temples, The Hunter shut his eyes and breathed in memory of long-ago incense. He thought of her face, his mother, pious and sad. At one time, his mother stood as engaging and mesmerizing as a blazing wildfire like this performer. She was fearless as an Islander, not only as a Warlander subject. Tall, ethnically distinct, she wrote and worshipped in her own language. But at the end of her life, she was nothing more than a mere trickle of a flat candle; her liveliness smothered. Going back to the Warlands would do that to this runaway, too.
The Hunter shook her out of his thoughts. The memory had soured his mood, and he no longer wanted to watch this pair. Instead, he watched the stage light permeate through the audience. How it washed out their raised faces, altering hair and fabrics into something pale and space-like. They were all the same type, well-dressed and serious—people who had never been lonely, afraid or devastated by grief.
By the time The Hunter had returned his gaze to the stage, the duo trapeze act had finished their show. They were lifting their arms and waving to the audience. Birdy and the redhead balanced on the trapeze like a pair of birds perched on a swing. Each smiled wide as if they were sure, oh-so-sure, that they together were the best thing in entertainment. The clapping and cheering audience was standing in ovation. Through the wooden planks under his boots, he could feel the vibrant thrum of their appreciation. He too clapped his “hands” together, not sure he was applauding for real or pretending to be an ordinary audience member.
Bouquets littered the stage, far below them—beautiful flowers in groups of vivid hues. The Hunter wondered how much these bundles cost to each fan for this momentary toss of affection. He wondered if his fellow countryman thought the same thing when he looked down at those petals.
The Hunter concluded this Birdy was both talented and clever. This Warlands runaway had the Peacelands world eating out of his rough hands. The Hunter thought it would be hard to outthink this enemy who could do something so extraordinary. The important thing was to find his weakness. If he did this right, he’d get his reward and his hunter skills would be in demand for life.
The Hunter stopped clapping and looked back through his telescope. Birdy was still smiling, still waving. Then abruptly, his outstretched arm dropped, looking like a crow’s wing closing and snapping shut. With a corona of light shining around his hair, the runaway looked straight at The Hunter. Impossible from this distance, The Hunter thought as he almost dropped his telescope. But yes, he was glaring straight at him. He imagined Birdy had his own telescope inside his eyes, clicking and whirling until the stern face of a hunter was in focus. Through the circle of his scope, The Hunter watched the young man’s eyebrows grow heavy with the awareness of the traitor within the audience. Birdy’s sparkling face fixed frozen for a long instant, and then he lifted his head, the surrounding muscle tightening around his jaw. With eyes never departing from his fellow Warlander, Birdy shook his head. Only an infinitesimal move.
It was a dare! It was a threat! That delicate performer, a dancer in the air only moments earlier, was now revealed as something much more malignant. His piercing gaze warned that his authentic form was not a circus prince but a Warlands murderer. In one quick motion, The Hunter slammed his binoculars shut and walked out of the tent.
Back at his camp, The Hunter risked a small fire. He stood, his palms warming in the tiny flame, wondering whether he had dreamed everything. No, he was the dullest, the most rational member of his family and fellow soldiers; he didn’t just think up insane situations. But, what if it was true what he saw, and the runaway knew about him. With this, The Hunter lost the element of surprise, but it made him understand how valuable he was. To have eyes that could see distances like that was an unnatural human-made gift. What a fool he had been. But he had had to learn more about this runaway, his weaknesses, what would make the journey with him back to the Warlands as quick as possible.
The Hunter heard the whirring of something circling the wind like a little tornado, followed by the loud cracking sound of something splitting wood. A dagger stabbed an inch above his scalp, pinning his hat and part of his locs to the tree. The Hunter couldn’t move for a second. Then, with heart thundering and blood surging through his temples, he tore his cut hair free and spun around. He gripped and pointed his revolver in the direction from which someone had thrust the knife toward him.
First, the only thing visible to The Hunter was a pair of golden eyes behind thick and scattered dark leaves and branches. Those eyes reminded him of bees. They reminded him of honey protected by sharp stingers.
Then, a face revealed itself, unsaturated in the faint light. Birdy still had those tiny gilt mirrors scattered throughout his cheeks and temples. The Hunter heard his mellifluous voice. Words delivered into the surrounding air like syrup, run-on words with languid lilts rippling in a pool: the beautiful Warlands accent.
“How’d such an inept hunter get this far in the Peacelands?”