“Come one, come all.” The troupe leader waved her arms, golden bracelets dangling from her wrists. “If you have a talent, let us see it.”

Dane bobbed up and down on his feet, clutching the advertisement. This was perfect! This was so, so perfect! He dropped his voice to a whisper. “Thanks for letting me give it a go, bro.”

“Yeah.” Reisor stood with his hands behind his back, jaw clenched. Scanning the circus tent’s interior. “It should be fine.”

“Relax, man. Our hunter isn’t here.” Dane stuck his thumbs in his belt, focusing on the troupe leader. “If he even exists.”

“Feselea thinks he does.” Reisor lowered his voice. “Though I doubt he would come here.”

“Exactly. No problem.” Dane kicked at the grass. “So, does the circus get your all-clear?”

Reisor gave a sharp nod. “Yeah. Go ahead.”

“Sweet.” Dane handed the ad to Reisor—then sprinted to the stage sitting in the tent’s center. He hopped onto it with a forward flip, feet slamming the wood.

The troupe leader arched an eyebrow. “Are you our next contestant?”

Dane flashed her a confident grin. “I sure am.”

“Very well. Now as you know, we are a traveling circus.” She spread her arms, loose sleeves waving. “We look for volunteers in every city—trying to promote local talent, naturally—but this does not mean we’re employing you.”

“Right.” Dane felt a twinge of irritation. Seriously, they didn’t have to remind him. “So what’s the first trick I have to do?”

“A handstand.”

Easy. Dane flipped onto his hands, “walking” the length of the stage. At the end he forward-flipped onto his feet. A few troupe members were watching, and they clapped.

“Excellent! Well, I suppose that was a bit easy.” The leader put her hands together, lips pursed. “Now your name is…?”

“Dane. Dane Carter.” “Carter” sounded stupid—but it was the last name Reisor had told him to use. So whatever.

“I see. My name is Junine Blossom. Call me June—or Ms. Blossom, if you prefer.”

So now they were taking him seriously. “No problem, June.”

“Now I can see you’re skilled, so we’re just going to move on to the more…difficult tasks.”

That sounded fun. Dane put his hands on his hips, spreading his feet. “Whatever you want.”

“I’d like to see your aerial maneuvers.” June snapped her fingers, and a couple dance members approached carrying a hopping mushroom. Its stem was coiled like a spring, its cap wide and thick. They set it before Dane, and it balanced itself on the wood.

“The hopping mushroom will stick to the wood—so you may proceed.”

Proceed? “What do you want me to do?”

“Whatever you desire. Jump—” she waved carelessly, “—and show us your talent.”

Sweet. Dane front-flipped onto the hopper, tensed his legs—and shot into the air. He triple-flipped, keeping his legs together and his arms crossed. Landing, he bent his legs—then leapt higher and grabbed his feet while flipping.

Applause. Dane landed, bounding off the hopper. This was more fun than he’d expected.

“Wonderful! Simply wonderful.” June was still clapping. “I see you are comfortable in the air.”

“Like a second home.” Dane took a bow, hoping his brother wasn’t watching. Reisor was way too nervous when Dane did stunts. “You got anything challenging?”

“Hm…” June put a finger to her chin, golden bracelets tinkling against each other as they slid down her forearm. “Well I suppose we could see how you work with others.”

Uh-oh. “What do you mean?”

June snapped her fingers again—and two more dancers came by Dane’s side. She pointed up, and Dane craned his neck to see a tightrope and two trapeze swings dangling from the ceiling. “Should you fall, the wood has been treated with tantaran yeast—it will break your descent.”

That explained why the wood felt so soft. Dane tested its weight, bobbing up and down. It creaked, but seemed fine. “Sounds good.”

June rubbed her nose—then waved her finger at the dancers beside Dane. One at a time, they launched off the hopper and caught a trapeze ladder with their legs. Now they were swinging on opposite sides of the tightrope, with Dane in the middle below them.

June cleared her throat. “I would like you to flip back and forth between Russel and Valice. While you’re doing that, I’ll provide further instructions.”

Alright. Easy enough. Dane circled the hopper, wood creaking. When he was at the right angle to bounce into the girl’s arms—she was Valice, right?—he braced himself, legs tense. He spread his hands—then took a running start and flipped onto the hopper. He bounced at an angle, arms extended.

For a second he sailed through the air—pulse pounding in his temples, Valice hanging on the ladder by her legs, arms reaching for him—

She caught his hands—and they started swinging.

Dane clutched her wrists, gritting his teeth. This was way more terrifying than he’d thought it would be. What if he messed up?

“Good! Now do you know how to flip to Russel?”

He really didn’t. Most of his stunts had been solitary. “I can try!”

“It’s perfectly acceptable if you need instructions. Most dancers—”

“I’m fine!” Dane nodded to Valice, straining to keep his grip. Why were his hands sweaty all of a sudden? “Ready when you are!”

Valice released him. He flipped through the air, butterflies fluttering in his stomach. For a moment he was weightless, somersaulting in space—then Russell snatched his legs, and his stomach lurched with their swing.

He grinned, the world around him turning as he swung. Not bad. “Told you!”

“Your feet nearly kicked me.”

Dane looked up at Russell. The dancer’s jaw was clenched, and his grip felt awkward. “That flip could have been much better.”

“Well done!” June patted one palm in what Dane assumed was a polite clap. “A bit clumsy, however.”

Great. Was he going to be rejected because his group antics were clumsy? “But still cool, right?”

“Certainly. You have stolen the show.”

Of course she was being polite. Dane rolled his eyes—then rubbed his sweaty palms together. “Ready when you are.”

“Very well.”

They swung forward—and Russell released his feet, launching Dane. He sailed weightless, somersaulting through the air. He thrust out his arms—and Valice seized them, grunting as his forearms slid a little in her grip.

“Good! But you need to grab her arms as well!”

That made sense. Otherwise it’d be pretty hard for her to hold on. “Sorry!”

Reisor was probably covering his eyes. This wasn’t as dangerous as people thought—Dane knew how to land from even this high—but it was still on the tricky side of things. Dane really didn’t know what to do. “What’s next?”

June raised her voice. “On your next flip, I want you to grab the tightrope.”

That rope near the roof. Dane had seen it every time he flipped—but grabbing it would be another story. He wasn’t sure if it was even possible. “How?”

“Simple, my dear contestant! Valerie will flip you higher!”

Valerie was swinging harder now. He’d noticed them gaining height with each swing. Still didn’t seem easy. “Are you serious?”

“Never anything else, my dear!”

Great. Dane gritted his teeth, moving his legs to help their swing. “Ready, I think,” he grunted, trying to look behind him. The rope was somewhere up there—

Valice released him. He sailed higher than ever, curling his legs to his chest as butterflies fluttered in his stomach. He could see everything as he flipped—the dancers, June, Reisor—and he spotted the rope. He thrust out his hands—and gasped as his fingers wrapped around the coarse string. His body jerked to a halt, legs flailing. “Got it!”

“Good! Very good!” June whistled, patting her hands together in front of her nose in a weird clap. “Now get on the rope.”

Had any other contestant made it this far? Dane swung back and forth, stomach lurching. He raised his leg—but he couldn’t even touch the rope. “How?”

“Swing yourself harder!”

Yeah, why not. With all the other crazy stuff he was doing… “Gotcha!”

The other dancers watched, eyes wide as Dane swung back and forth. He raised his leg—and hooked it around the rope, grunting. Then he looped his arm around the rope, trying to position himself. At least the rope was thick enough to get his hands around. Could be worse.

“That’s good! Now see if you can stand up!”

He definitely couldn’t. There was absolutely no way. He didn’t even know how to start…

Dane closed his eyes. That kind of talk wasn’t him. If someone else could do it, so could he. It was that simple.

He flipped himself around so his stomach was sitting on the rope. Squeezing the rope between his legs, he straightened himself out. Tightropes were supposed to be easy to walk on, right? He’d balanced on thin branches and logs when crossing streams…how hard could this be?

“If you need to, you can make your way to one of the poles and use that to stand up.”

A tentpole? That would definitely help…Dane tightened his leg muscles, focusing on the pole just a few yards away. Now that he thought about it, the stage was kind of off-center. Maybe they didn’t want the pole getting in the way.

“Are you sure you don’t need any help?”

“I’m fine!” Dane extended one arm, feeling the coarse rope rub against his sweaty palms. The rope wobbled—he flinched—but he kept reaching forward. His muscles bulged as he clutched the rope with his other hand, and he growled—then, ever so slowly, he brought one leg forward.

He nearly flipped over. Dane gasped, clenching his stomach and legs. Sweat trickled down his brow, tracing the lines of his cheek. He’d barely made it a foot.

Doubts crept into his head. What was he doing here? How did he think he was going to do this? It was ridiculous to even try.

No way. Dane shook his head, teeth gritted—and the rope wobbled. That wasn’t him. He would try no matter what. And if he failed—well, so what. He’d try again later.

A smile pulled at his lips. “Do your worst, rope.”

“We really can help, you know!”

They thought he was trapped. But Dane inched forward, reaching slowly ahead with each hand. Sweat glistened on his forearms, and he licked his salty lips. “Not a chance!”

Everyone was probably watching him. Not just the dancers and Reisor, not just June—but the people who were walking in. He’d been the last contestant, and some folks were arriving early for good seating. They were all watching him try this insane stunt.

But he could do it. If he could just make it to that pole…it was a foot away now—

There. The wood was rough, splintery—but he was there. He inched forward a little more, legs tight against the rope. Grunting, he grasped the wood in both hands. He pulled himself toward it, arching his back so he could hug the pole. He probably looked ridiculous.

“Excellent! Quite impressive!” Concern lined June’s voice. “Now could you come down?”

They wanted him down? “Why?”

“The demonstration act will start soon. I’m sorry, Dane—we don’t have enough time.”

“What about being a part of the act?”

“That comes next week! Today is just the auditions and demonstration act!”

Okay. Dane scooted his legs up, sidling up the pole. He set his feet on a row of symmetrical pegs sticking out from the pole—were those supposed to be rungs to climb the pole by?—and expelled a breath. About ready to stand.

“Dane! We need you to come down!”

No way. Dane stood carefully, legs wobbling just a little. “Just hang on a sec!”

“Dane!” Reisor’s voice. Dane craned his neck to see Reisor cupping his hands to his mouth. “Get down now!”

Yeah, right. Like Dane would give up now. “I’m almost ready! I just need to walk on the rope!”

“You pass!” June waved her arms, gold bracelets tinkling. “You’re part of the act! Now come down!”

Dane shook his head. He turned, setting one foot on the rope. Arms wrapped around the pole, he lifted his other leg. Now to just set it down…there. He pushed off from the pole, wobbled—and stuck his arms out for balance.

Some of the audience cheered. Dane caught his breath, noticing the ground was much farther below him than he was used to.

“Dane!” Reisor rubbed his forehead, turning away. He mumbled something.

Dane was probably going to get in trouble. But he didn’t care—this was worth it. He took one trembling step on the rope, testing his weight. He kept his foot down—then took another step. Much harder than balancing on a thin branch…but still doable. He licked his salty lips, arms perfectly straight.

“Dane!” June’s face was tinged red. “Get off my rope immediately or I will disqualify you from next week’s act!”

And time to go. Dane hopped off the rope, catching it with his hands—then, after swinging for a few seconds, heaved his legs over to the pole’s climbing pegs. Probably way easier to get down that way. And faster.

“That’s more like it.”

He twisted his head around to see June nodding in approval. Her arms were crossed, but the way her lips tilted made him wonder if she was biting back a smile. She cleared her throat. “And that will be quite enough. We will be pleased to train you this week, and you’ll perform with us in seven days.”

Assuming Reisor didn’t stop Dane. That would stink. “Sweet.”

But where was Reisor? Dane twisted his head around the other direction, scanning the tent. Reisor was turned away, palm to his forehead. Yeah, it would probably be fine.

Dane climbed his way down, grinning as cheers and whistles erupted. Were people really that impressed that someone from their own town could walk a tightrope?

“Thank you for complying. Your skill is quite impressive.”

“Thanks.” Dane climbed down till he was about ten feet above the ground—then he dropped the rest of the way and rolled. Coming to his feet, he wiped his sweaty palms on his tunic. “So when do you train me?”

“Come in tomorrow.” June pressed her fingers together, nodding. “You could use some refining—but overall, you’re not bad.”

Dane grinned, thumbs in his belt. Not bad at all.

The Flames Chronicles, Book One

The Flames Chronicles, Backstory to Ayphae

The Flames Chronicles, The world of Ayphae

The Flames Chronicles, Book Two

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