This is part 3 of an 11-part series (click here to read the first blog in the series).
His eyes swirled black magic… and Sophie fell right in. Like being sucked into a whirlpool and dragged under. The Circus Master’s demonic expression remained fixed as the spell bound tighter and tighter.
Dmitri bustled to the front of the stage. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we have a volunteer.’ He beckoned with theatrical dynamism. ‘Come on my love. Aren’t you pretty.’ Hand half-hiding his mouth to dramatise the stage whisper. ‘Can see why he picked her!’ Inviting the volunteer forward. ‘Come on my love, leave your bag with a friend and up you pop.’
Sophie friends weren’t present. Lots of faces staring back as her eyes darted around. A smiling, red-haired woman understood and offered to take the bag. Sophie pushed it into her hands and looked back to the stage. The Circus Master had turned to oversee the set-up, but Dmitri was still focused on her.
‘Come on, my love. Don’t be shy. You’re not scared of a few flying knives are you?’ Everybody else found this funny. ‘Get out the way, you lot, give her space to get up here.’
Felt like she was getting drawn through the crowd as it parted before her. Floating along. What had she volunteered for, exactly? Knife-throwing? Obviously she wouldn’t be the one with the apple on her head. Surely? Although what did Dmitri mean about being scared of flying knives? Everyone stared as she flowed past, smiling, clapping, encouraging her forward with pats on the shoulder. Their faces swirling around, expressions glowing, eyes gleaming. Everything glittering… and spinning… and jumping in and out – visually and audibly. Simultaneously hearing the surrounding hubbub and the deafly silence inside herself. Propelled through the throng, everyone’s sweat slicking onto her skin as she brushed past. So much perspiration – a monsoon! Her face soaking wet. The stage was about a meter high, so Dmitri leant down to help her up. His grip was unbelievably strong – could feel the thick muscles in his chunky hand.
‘Hello, my love. What a beautiful jacket!’ He peeled back to run his eyes up her body admiringly. ‘What’s your name, my love?’ Holding out the microphone.
Sophie gulped back a croak, before composing herself. ‘Sophie.’
Dmitri grabbed her hand once more, raising it so their arms formed an arch. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, a big round of applause… for Sophie.’ He turned back to her. ‘Thanks for being so brave, Sophie.’
Pulling the bemused volunteer around as he swung towards the other performers. The Circus Master was gesturing for the giant to manoeuvre the big wheel a few paces to the right. It was clearly one of those wheels the knife-thrower’s assistant gets tied to. A lioness will look good pinned to that. What was Sophie supposed to do? Maybe she’d hand him his knives?
The Circus Master turned, catching the volunteer in his sights. His posture shifted: head dropping, brow sharpening, shoulders angling forward. The body language of a predator, in the moment before moving in… on cornered prey. Sophie’s heart wobbled. Body swaying on melted-plastic knees. He held eye-contact as he advanced… drawing to loom over her. She stared back up at him. Wonder what he looked like under the war-paint? Or was it blood? Or maybe that was his real skin? He raised his hand to pinch a tuft of her feathered jacket between his fingers. He wore a thick, metal ring, inscribed with runes: an ‘M’ and a backwards ‘C’. It looked charred, as if it’d been burned. He nodded his head slowly and leant in. His warm breath smelled like dragon-fire. Only Sophie could hear what he whispered.
He emphasised the statement with his eyes, brushing his finger under her chin as he turned away. Dmitri handed the little bird off to one of the lionesses. The feline acrobat’s big smile glittering under her golden hair. Her hands were absurdly strong, as well. Like being clamped in a vice as she led the dazed volunteer towards the wheel. The lioness had a small tattoo on the top of her perfect buttock. Sophie had noticed it before, but was now close enough to see it clearly. The letters ‘CM’ scalded into her flesh. A brand!
The second lioness drew up to seize hold of the volunteer’s other hand. Another solid, steely grip. The wheel was positioned towards the back of the stage, right of centre and facing diagonally out towards the crowd. They drew to a halt before it. The lionesses maintained their hand-holds, so Sophie turned on the spot as they swapped positions. She was now facing out… with her back to the wheel. Hang on a second! They don’t put volunteers on the wheel. Professional performers go there – one of the lionesses, surely? Surely!
Their impossibly strong hands dragged Sophie backwards, manoeuvring her onto a step and pressing her against the big, wooden disc. Oh shit! Both arms pulled diagonally up in the air as the lionesses stepped onto a raised platform behind. There were four wooden stakes protruding from the wheel – one for each limb. Sophie was to be suspended in an X-shape. No! Wait! She didn’t agree to this… did she? She struggled to resist, but the lionesses’ manoeuvred her firmly, placing a stake in each hand and closing her fingers to hold on. Oh shit! Maybe she should say something? The shackles clamped around her wrists simultaneously – cold, steel cuffs biting as they locked. Cuffs?! Oh shit, shit, shit! The lionesses moved to position the volunteer’s lower limbs. They were going to splay her open! Sophie clamped her legs together, but Dmitri’s playful voice intervened from across the stage.
‘Sophie, my love… open your legs for the Circus Master. There’s a good girl.’
Amusement tittered through the crowd. Sophie blushed as a lioness prized her open and placed her left foot to stand on the stake. The wheel must’ve been locked in position, because it didn’t move as the manoeuvre was repeated on the right. Manacles emerged from behind the great disc, chains pulling taut as Sophie’s legs were cuffed in place. Holy shit! Four tight metal shackles chaining her to the wheel. This was fucked up! And what about her dress falling down?! One of the lionesses brandished a safety pin in the volunteer’s face, before using it to clip her dress shut. The other feline leapt onto the platform, behind, and positioned a balloon above Sophie’s head. That couldn’t be the target? It was touching her! Could sense the electricity as her hair frizzed up to embrace the rubber. Oh shit, shit, shit!
Although surely he wouldn’t be throwing real knives. This must be a magic trick – an illusion. The wheel was probably designed so a knife flicks out from the wood and bursts the balloon. He must just pretend to throw it – some kind of optical illusion that appears convincing to the audience. Surely? Dmitri was hamming it up in an excitable drum-roll of a voice.
‘And now… ladies and gentlemen… we bring you… Sophie the Brave… and the amazing… the incredible… the magnificent… Circus Master!’
The audience roared as the lionesses paraded around brandishing long, macabre machetes. They were huge! Aren’t throwing knives supposed to be small? Light sliced off the blades as dozens of cameras flashed. From the volunteer’s perspective, the raucous crowd made one vast silhouette, heaving beneath a fire-tinted mist of smoke. The Circus Master seized Sophie’s eyes and held them as he approached. Could see the enamel of his teeth glinting behind the lips. Felt like the wheel had already started to spin, churning the butterflies around inside her belly. But actually it was still. He loomed tall, even with her strung up. Raising his hands to chalice the hourglass of her waist. His touch: powerful, but gentle. Squeezing slightly to mould her shape as he leant in to whisper once more.
‘Don’t move your head, Little Bird. Keep your eyes on me.’
Deep, dark, honey-velvet voice. Sophie was immediately aware she couldn’t move her head. The magic locking her neck rigid. Nor could she take her eyes off the Circus Master – totally transfixed. His wink wasn’t playful – it was slow and sinister. He turned and strode over to where the lionesses waited with his knives… and a large glass of red wine. Dmitri was still hyping it up – goading the baying mob towards feeding frenzy. The Circus Master drank half the glass in one go, letting the wine overflow so it drenched down his white chin.
‘Oh, do you think you should, Master… after last time?’ Dmitri turned to the chortling crowd, running a finger over his throat with a comic roll of the eyes.
The Circus Master downed the rest of his wine. Obviously it couldn’t be real wine… and he wouldn’t really be throwing knives, anyway. Surely? He handed the glass to one of the lionesses, whilst the other assisted in removing his jacket. Sophie noticed both lionesses were branded. The Circus Master’s strong, hard, lean body was slick with perspiration. Layers of interlocking muscle chiselling a perfect symmetry of shaded grooves across his torso. The pronounced diagonals running above his haunches arrowed to point below the waistline. Could see the outline of his dick snaking below tight leather. Sophie’s lust swooned into the confusing swirl of emotions… inside and out. One of the lionesses slunk over and slipped behind the wheel. A mechanical clunk as something unlocked.
Dmitri adopted a hushed tone. ‘Silence please, ladies and gentlemen. The Circus Master needs silence to concentrate… especially when he’s drunk this much.’
A few gurgles of laughter, but fading quickly. As the silence rose, the tension rode on top. Dmitri scurried over to take up position just behind his boss. The lioness displayed the machete for the crowd, before handing it to the Circus Master with ceremonious aplomb. He was a long way away. Surely it would be impossible to consistently hit a moving balloon from there. He couldn’t really be throwing it. It must be a trick. Sophie was lost in his eyes again. He made a swish with his finger and the whole world started to spin. Everything swinging down and around… head-over-heels. His magic so powerful! Although actually that was the wheel rotating. Made her feel woozy, turning her stomach. Could hear the blood pumping inside her head. The alcohol swilling in her belly.
A throbbing drum-roll began to echo through the atmosphere. All focus centred on the sinister figure of the Circus Master, with everything swirling around him. As if the whole world was a spinning top and he was the point it spun on. Everything else: a fuzzy blur, but his muscular outline: razor-sharp… like the knife in his hand. He juggled it in the air, catching it with thumb and forefinger pinching around the tip, vertical blade pointing down. He raised his arm to throw.
Sophie’s body twitched, but the machete slipped out of the back of his hand and spun up in the air behind. Dmitri shimmied a neat-sidestep as the weapon sliced through the space he’d previously occupied, piercing the wooden stage to stand on its point – glimmering as it quivered. The drum-roll subsided, but Sophie’s heart continued to hammer. The Circus Master turned to fire angry eyes at his sidekick. Dmitri raised his hands, apologetically, and moved a few metres to the left.
The lioness presented her owner with another knife and the drum-roll began once more. Sophie gripped hold of the stakes to stretch her shaking body taut. Still couldn’t move her head, or take her eyes off the Circus Master – it was physically impossible. He juggled his knife again, but as he poised to throw, it wobbled out of his hand, in the same way as before. Dmitri dodged as the blade buried itself where he’d just been standing. Waving his hands dismissively to reassure the crowd.
‘Couple of bad knives, by the look of it. He only needs one good one. This is it, ladies and gentlemen… Silence, please.’
Everyone was stone-silent anyway. The drum-roll restarted. Sophie had gotten used to the rhythm of the rotation, head swinging around and around. Mind both numb and focused. This time he kept hold of the handle. Seemed to be moving in slow motion as he drew back… and then his whole body swinging as he slung the blade. The knife hurtled out of his hand and spun off at completely the wrong angle. Soaring high over the fence and out of the arena… flying off into the festival. Holy fuck! That could’ve hit anyone… totally at random! That can’t possibly have just happened! An excited murmur buzzed through the crowd as everyone said exactly the same thing to the person standing next to them. Was that part of the plan? It must’ve been… surely? But how could it possibly be?
‘Don’t worry ladies and gentlemen.’ Dmitri reassured. ‘We’ll make sure the Circus Master gets his knife back, wherever it might’ve landed.’ He pantomimed a shrug. ‘Just a bad set of knives, I guess.’
The wheel decelerated and stopped turning. The bewildering blitz of dizziness hitting as soon as she was physically still. Eyes rolling with mouth agape. The Circus Master was pacing as he glugged another glass, bloody wine spilling down his ghoulish chin.
‘The Circus Master needs to focus.’ Dmitri explained.
Probably was real wine. Why wouldn’t it be? He’d just chucked a real knife into a crowded festival! Who was this man? Who were these people? Perhaps they weren’t even official festival performers. Maybe they just turned up in a caravan and set their show up. The fear clutched around Sophie’s throat. The lather of sweat on her skin flushing cold. The murmuring buzz of the crowd subsiding as the Circus Master resumed his position and gestured for the rotation to restart. Sophie was spinning again… around and around.
‘Silence, ladies and gentlemen. For the Circus Master…’
The drum-roll rising to shudder the atmosphere once more. Oh my god! This must really be it, now! And he really was going to throw the knives. Whoever this man (or demon) was, Sophie’s life was entirely in his hands. His eyes burned with supreme confidence. Pinching the tip of the blade, he flicked his wrist to send it spinning up in the air above. As it came down, he took a step forward and swept his hand through it, catching and throwing in the same instant. Sophie’s whole body frozen. Eyes wide as the dazzling metal whirled towards her. A splintering thunk as the knife buried itself in the wheel less than 5cm from her left ear. The metal glimmering in her peripheral vision. Holy fuck! He definitely threw that! Was that a miss?!
The lioness side-stepped behind the Circus Master’s back. As he turned to face her she tossed a machete into the air. He swung his body around to catch and fling in the same way as before. The blade thudding into the wheel less than 5cm from Sophie’s right ear. The two weapons framing her vision, trembling from the force of their recent impacts. As her head swept low, her heart nearly spilled out of her mouth. The Circus Master had circled around to collect the final knife. Pinching the tip with arm lowered, so it dangled down by his thigh. He swaggered forward to sling it underarm, a nonchalant snip of the wrist, his head casually turning away the moment the weapon left his hand. Sophie’s face and the machete spun towards one another. She was directly upright at the moment the balloon exploded. The blade skewering into the wheel only centimetres from the top of her head.
The crowd erupted in uproarious applause. Dmitri leaping up at down and whirling his arms to pump up the volume. The Circus Master raised his hand in a grandiose gesture of reserved triumph, munificently accepting the acclamation of the masses. Light flashed and spliced off the surrounding knives, shaping a perfect triangle around Sophie’s face. Felt as if her head were locked inside a sharp, metal box. The turn of the wheel was slowing… grinding to a dizzying halt.
The Circus Master strode towards her. Sophie had stopped moving, but the world still span around him like a crazed kaleidoscope. She could see her own reflection spinning in his dark pupils… descending into the black-hole below. He ducked to take something from the floor – waving a cutting of Sophie’s hair in her face, before purposefully placing it in his pocket. His powerful hands closed around her waist and all the tension flooded out of her body, sloshing over the stage. Warm relief radiating to replace it. The lionesses un-chained the volunteer’s limbs and she fell forward onto him. A splash of sweat as her cheek slapped against his chest and his arms consumed her. Could hear the deep, measured thump of his heart throbbing directly into her ear. They held the embrace for a few long moments.
Her legs had gone limp, so they dragged along as he turned to present her to the audience. Knees wobbling as he set her on the stage. Raising her hand in the air to make a triumphant arch with his own. The crowd applauded merrily, whooping and barking in celebration. The blinding glare of camera’s flashing. Sophie’s sweaty body shining on centre stage. But she felt exhaustion rather than triumph. She just wanted the Circus Master to sweep her up and carry her back-stage. But instead he led her towards some stairs at the front corner of the set.
Twirling her around to look into her and looming down to plant a heavy kiss on her cheek. Honey-velvet voice whispering in her ear, before he sent her down the steps into the baying crowd. People congratulating her with back-slaps, smiling faces leaning in to commend her performance. Some were saying things to her, but she could only focus on the words the Circus Master had left ringing in her ears. ‘Fly to me later, Little Bird.’