JODELLE LATCHED THE gate of the menagerie closed behind her as Laila marched up toward the tiger enclosure. Radbyrne strode up, brushing along the fencing as he passed, leaving clumps of orange fur on the wire. Laila pet him as he walked by, coarse fur gliding beneath her palm.
“You, there!” A balding man in a cream-colored shirt stood outside the clinic with two overflowing buckets of grain and shoots.
“Yes, sorry,” she said. “I’m James’s friend—”
“When in doubt, check the lion cubs,” he said. “And won’t you please take him with you? He would do well to spend more time in the company of humans rather than animals.”
Laila thanked him and began toward Jodelle.
But Jodelle was no longer behind her; instead she stood at the end of the aisle facing an enclosure. Her face was locked in disbelief with her hands thrust upon her hips, chestnut swirls of hair whispering in the breeze.
Jogging up beside her, Laila followed her gaze into the enclosure. Inside, James rubbed a lion cub’s scruff with one hand as it attempted to gnaw on a bright red rubber ball the size of a human’s head. Right beside him, sitting with her legs pulled beneath her upon a pile of fresh hay sat Vivian, stroking the head of another cub, and staring at Jodelle. Vivian grinned, eyes burning with malice.
“James,” a chorus of artificial giggles erupted from Vivian’s thin lips. “I think Arnold’s using your boots as a chew toy!”
“James!” Jodelle’s shrill voice cracked the air like a bullwhip.
He looked up. “Hey! Come on—” he began, but stopped dead as he caught Jodelle’s horrified expression.
“What the hell is she doing here?” Jodelle demanded.
Vivian’s face became a well-manufactured brand of crestfallen.
Jodelle thrust her arm into the space between them; one delicate finger stabbed at Vivian. Before he could reply, Jodelle whipped around in a blur and fled the menagerie. Laila sighed. Pausing only to give James a look of disappointment, she turned on her heel and followed in Jodelle’s wake. Waves of rage rolled off Jodelle as she stomped across the lawn toward the carriage.
“Since when is he friends with her?” Laila asked, vying to catch up.
“Since she saw us with him yesterday… She’s just trying to steal him away.”
“Who knows,” Jodelle shrugged. “She’s nothing but a deranged drunkard who hates me for no reason.”
“She’s always been like this towards you?”
“Since my first day,” Jodelle snorted. “You’d think he’d have more decency than to hang out with a despicable little twit like her. I thought he was our friend!” She shot one last livid glare in the direction of the menagerie.
BETWEEN THE WEIGHT of the looming exam results, it felt like a vise was seizing Laila’s chest, and the strain was multiplied now that they no longer had class as a time leech. Without a distraction, her brain was left with far too much time to wander in circles over Victoria and the mounting web of lies she was forced to spin to her new friends.
Following the heated incident in the menagerie, there was an hour to spare before dinner, so Laila crossed the lawn toward the pavilion to let Jodelle cool off. In the carriage, she’d waved off her roommates under the guise of needing to take a walk. What she wanted was temporary solitude to reorganize her thoughts. Her anguish seemed to grow in correlation with the miles of unfamiliar distance the tour put between her and Victoria.
Climbing onto the wooden stage of the pavilion, she sank down to her knees. Finally out of the scrutiny of her friends, there was no halting the emotions that rolled in like tidal waves. They washed over her, laced with guilt, remorse, happiness, and additional guilt for feeling happiness. Memories swam before her on the grassy lawn as sunlight trickled through the canopy and danced on the plank fence before her.
What conclusion had Victoria come to over Laila’s sudden disappearance? There was no one there to comfort Victoria as she shed her own tears over the loss of her daughter. It was too much loss for one woman to endure.
Communication was out of the question—any form of contact would drop a trail leading Victoria straight to Marvelle—and was not worth the risk. And returning to Victoria would mean Laila’s fate sealed as a slave beside her mother in the brothel. Marvelle was her last chance at an escape, her last chance at a happy and free life.
“Are you okay?” a voice rung from the distance.
Laila startled at the sound; how silently he had approached, floating in like a ghost. A rock plummeted in the pit of her stomach because he was the very last person she wanted to see right now. She flicked the tears from her cheeks before turning to answer him.
His gunmetal eyes scrutinized her dubiously. He looked torn between offering help and accepting her reply. Eventually, help seemed to win out, because he crossed the distance and sunk onto the side of the stage.
“Then I’d hate to see you upset.”
He offered a brief smile that never extended through his face. His hands pulled his jacket tighter as his eyes met hers for a split second. That’s when she saw it—he was guarding his own secrets.
A liar can sniff out a liar, she thought.
He brought with him an alluring fragrance that lingered in the air. He didn’t smell like laundry detergent (she would know) or cologne, but a unique, natural scent—fresh linen, a summer’s breeze, and a hint of vanilla.
“I could say the same for you,” she said.
His teeth grazed his lower lip as his eyes flitted across the planks of stage between them. “Misery loves company.”
His statement explained why he cared enough to approach her, but would never explain the sudden surge of completeness she felt in his presence.
“Then what’s your story?” she asked.
He turned away, eyeing the fence and the yellow beams of light shining through the cracks between the planks. His eyes tightened, then he said, “Do you ever feel as though you’re walking through life half alive? Not feeling, not seeing, not being.”
“There are days when the whole world seems to be moving, but I’m stuck standing still,” she muttered, mindlessly twisting a black thread of her jacket seam around her finger until it went cold. With some difficulty, she unwound it, letting the life drain back into the appendage.
“I was on my way out,” he said. His eyes flashed to hers and a sensation burned through her, like the ripples on the surface of a previously undisturbed pond.
He nodded toward the sun-drenched fence before them. “Out there. Do you want to come?”
“For what?” She recalled from staring out across the horizon from the laundry tent that there was nothing out that way but forest. Desolate wood just outside the city line stretching on for miles.
He said nothing, and his wide grey cuffs floated down past his knuckles as his fingers grazed the pocket of his black peacoat, and then consciously flitted away. When his gaze returned to hers, it was darker—hollow.
She knew that look. Her insides clenched as she stared into his granite eyes. She wanted to talk to him, to change his mind. But the words never found their way to her lips, lodged forever in her throat. She wiped the last tear trail from her cheek as a rustling in the distance interrupted her thoughts.
“Laila?” Jodelle’s voice sounded from the direction of the barber’s tent, twenty feet away at the edge of the copse. Her eyes halted on the Disappearing Man, narrowing in confusion and then morphing into fear.
Laila turned back to him. “My mother has only ever given me one bit of sound advice,” she said bitterly, “it’s always darkest just before the dawn.”
His eyes remained blank, staring at the thread she hadn’t realized was wrapped once again around her finger.
“Believe me.” She already felt the remorse bubbling inside her as she slid toward the edge of the stage.
Could she do more to help him? Should she? She recalled his violence outside the sideshow—vicious and unrelenting—and James’s warnings rung in her ears. But it wasn’t her fear of him that made her boots meet the crunchy leaves on the grass or his savagery that made her ascend the slope toward Jodelle; it was her loss of faith in herself. She couldn’t even save her own father, how could she save this stranger?
She was only four steps away when his voice jolted the air around her—
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