BEAST MASTER'S CIRCUS
By Andre Norton Lyn McConchie
TOR Copyright © 2004 Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-765-30042-7
Laris crouched over the new animal. It was gasping for breath still, but that would not last long. The shock of its injuries and the pain of losing what meant most to it were draining both its strength and will to live. Even as she worked, it gave one final, long, slow breath-and as that was released so was the poor beast's life. She felt tears come to her eyes. She'd tried. She had. But that would buy her nothing from those who employed her.
Nor did it. A moment later a whip sang, the lash burned across her thin shoulders, and she cried out, twisting away.
"Dedran, no! I did my best. I can't work miracles."
She glared up at him. "If your people brought me anything but damaged goods mind-broken by the way they were taken, I might have a chance."
The Circus Master glared down. Dedran was a lean, hard-looking man. His hair was that odd shade of blond that looked almost white but his skin was a weathered brown. He'd fought with the Ishan forces until his planet was destroyed almost five years earlier. What he'd been before that no one knew-although they made guesses which could well have been right.
Dedran had never given anyone the impression he was rigidly honest. The Ishan forces had not cared, their leader had taken the man in to fight, not to attend league meetings. In fact, Dedran had been a criminal already allied with the rising Thieves Guild. He was a clever man with ideas. One of which had been that it was safer to be given a weapon and encouraged to fight against the Xik than to hide without arms and wait to be slaughtered. He'd bided his time, survived the destruction of his world, and made sure of some very portable and valuable loot as he escaped the ruins of his planet.
He'd set up the circus after Ishan. Spent the two years before the war ended sorting out acts and people to work for him. He seemed to have enough money to do it without problems. Within the circus though there were hints that he owned only a part of it-that others had funded the business as a cover. Laris could believe that. The circus had swept her up four years ago. She'd been a starving refugee from one of the worlds cleared by the Xik, or so she believed. She'd been barely twelve, and remembered little of her first years. The years after the loss of her home had been filled with dimly recalled moves: being bundled into a ship and dumped on another world with no more than the clothes she stood up in and her mother, who wept. She thought she might have been four or five then. Another move and another, and her mother was gone. Another and still yet another until at last she was twelve and in a camp with many others, none of whom she knew and most of whom spoke other languages or the one-speech with strange accents. She'd fought first to survive, then to escape, sensing that if she stayed within the camp she would become as hopeless as they.
Laris had a keen intelligence but had learned enough by the time she was alone to hide much of what she knew. She looked younger than her true age and could appear younger still. People were more careless around a child-both with talk and small change.
She'd found part-time employment in a pet shop run by an old man. He wasn't unkind but he expected a full day's work for his credits. Sometimes the work was almost too much for the light-boned, underfed girl but she always managed. She loved the beasts, and when he saw how well they responded to her the owner gave her more responsibility. Then he died and her way of escape appeared closed.
There were other roads open but none that she would willingly take. At twelve she appeared to be only nine or ten, and in any great city there was a market for that. Had she agreed, there were several, including Mercer, the camp boss, who'd have found her employment. Laris was small and appeared fragile. Yet for all that she showed promise of becoming not so much pretty as elegant. Her movements were graceful, her cap of dark hair complemented the dark brown of her eyes, and her skin was a warm, creamy, faintly olive shade. Her manner was self-contained and she unbent to few.
Why bother? Camp after camp had swept away her mother, her memories, and any earlier friends she had made. Now she walked alone but for the one friend she'd kept these past few years. Prauo, whom she cherished and trusted, loved as she'd had none to love for so long.
Dedran was back. "Don't sit there dreaming, you fool. Get that carcass cleaned up, take samples for me, and make sure no one will find it afterward." He turned to leave, then swung back. "Your cat, he'll be well enough to perform tonight?"
Dedran smiled hungrily. "Elsewhere, a climb maybe."
Laris considered. Prauo had been ill from another growth spurt but he was recovering. "So long as the climb isn't too exhausting and he can rest once it's done."
Her employer nodded. "It's a straight job. If you and the cat do it well I may even toss you a half credit or two." He laughed and strolled away, ignoring the look Laris gave him. Even after four years she sometimes wondered how well she'd done to sign on with Dedran's Circus. But she'd had to get out of the camp. With the pet shop owner's death her one obvious avenue of escape had closed.
She'd despaired; then Mercer, the camp boss, had come to her smiling and she'd cringed. It meant no good for someone when the boss of the camp grinned so cheerfully. But, incredibly, it had meant good for her. He'd towered over her, smirking down.
"You Laris? The one who's good with animals?" She'd nodded. Mercer nodded back. "You don't look like much. Maybe that's an advantage. Come with me." She followed, hiding the inward sneer at his pretense of not knowing her. He'd remembered her well enough last year when he'd wanted her to accept work in a city place. He'd thought she looked like a lot then, a lot of credits. Now what did he have in mind?
He'd taken her to Dedran. Both men had eyed her coldly. "This! You reckon this miserable thing'll be any use to me?"
Mercer nodded. "She's been working in old man Plaistrin's shop the last year. He told me once she was real good with the beasts. He was considering a contract. Reckon he'd a done it if'n he hadn't died." Laris felt her heart jump. So near to escape and the old fool had to go and die. But what was she doing here, another job with animals?
Dedran snorted. "All right. I'll test her. If she passes I'll take her on." He smiled viciously. "Five-year bond and you get the bond money. I suppose she's yours to bond?"
Mercer looked at her and Laris understood. In the camp there was always talk; some escaped it in various ways, and sometimes they returned to see friends or family. From them and their tales she had learned all she could about conditions of freedom. What it meant to be bonded. If she were ever in that position she must know what she would receive and what she could legally ask for. Here and now she could speak out. Deny that Mercer had the right to give a bond for her. Dedran would walk away and once she was back in the camp, she'd pay. But if she agreed she might have hope. She'd be out of the camp, employed even if she was under bond. After five years she could leave with an honorably canceled contract saying she'd had a good job these past five years. Or she might be able to stay, with a new contract and good pay if she'd proved her worth.
Better yet, under bond she must be decently fed. Given respectable clothing. A bond-servant could not be summarily judged or too badly beaten. There were always those who'd use too clear evidence of abuse against the abuser. None of these things were hers in the camp; she'd be better off bonded.
She'd looked up innocently. "Yes, Honored Sir, the Noble Mercer can sell me if'n he wishes. I work hard an' I'm good with the beasts."
"You'll sign the bond?"
"I'll sign," Laris agreed. And she had. In front of an overstuffed pompous official, whom she guessed was collecting his share of the money. He'd attested that she appeared to be sixteen. Laris knew that for a lie, but she had to be sixteen for the bond so she signed where she was told and agreed when she was asked, that yes, she was sixteen years old.
After that she went with the two men to a building. She could feel her nerves tightening as they approached the door. It was possible that the talk of animals had been a trick. That Mercer had sold her for another purpose. But the smell as they entered reassured her, as did the animal sounds which rose in the rank air. Mercer led them to a cage at the back. He gestured at the inhabitant.
"Lereyne tigerbat. The brute's gone into a decline and I paid high. Get in there and rouse it, make it eat."
Laris sucked in a silent breath and bit down on a grin. The tigerbat had a very nasty reputation on its home world which was quite justified. Tigerbat swarms had stripped humans to the bone in minutes, even through reinforced clothing. In swarm, the beasts had no fear and would continue the attack despite heavy losses. Lereyne settlers had almost wiped them out over three generations and now they were seldom seen, although the stories remained.
But somewhere along the line, she didn't quite recall where or when, she'd learned to read. Old Plaistrin had owned quite a library on other-world beasts. He'd loved to talk too, and he'd been both fond of his merchandise and knowledgeable. She'd read and listened, soaked up everything she could. She knew something about the tigerbats. She glanced around. The two men shifted to block her path and she snorted.
"I'm not trying to run. I want a brush."
Dedran looked blank. "A brush? What kind of brush?"
"A grooming brush," Laris snapped. She saw one tossed on the top of another cage and reached. Dedran allowed it. With the brush secured she turned back and looked at the door.
"Am I supposed to walk through plasteel bars or something?"
Dedran's look halted Mercer even as he snarled and drew back his fist. "No, I want to see this. If she's as good as she thinks she is I want her in one piece."
He swung the door open and his eyes were amused. "In you go, Gracious Lady. You leave once that brute has eaten-you or its food, I don't much care which."
Laris ignored him, stepping quietly toward the huddled animal. It whimpered quietly in its sleep. Tigerbats were swarm animals. To keep one alone was to watch it die of loneliness, something Dedran appeared to be unaware of. Moving slowly and quietly Laris swept the brush down the matted fur. She worked gently, untangling the long pelt, grooming until the tigerbat lifted its head to stare at her. Then she took up a piece of the meat. The tigerbat opened its mouth, revealing the massive fangs within. But the feeling it gave off to her was one of pleasure. One had come to relieve its solitary state. One who groomed the matted fur as a swarm member should.
As the men waited she fed the animal until it had eaten enough. She knew she must not overfeed one which had not eaten well in too long. She returned to the grooming while the tigerbat lay there blinking blissfully. When she stood it moved to cling to the bars, wings furled over its narrow shoulders. Yellow eyes watched her hopefully.
She patted it. "Don't worry. I'll be back, I think." Dedran nodded at her before turning to Mercer. He counted out credits into the camp boss's eager palm.
The camp boss hurried away, leaving Dedran to look at Laris. "You know animals, it seems. What else do you know?"
"I can read an' write," Laris told him, watching his surprise. "I work hard. And I can keep my mouth shut an' my eyes an' ears open."
Dedran grinned briefly, a mere twist of his thin lips. "Then you may do well here. What do you read?"
"Books about animals. So's I can learn more about them."
He nodded thoughtfully. "I've got no objections to that. Do your work and when it's done you can access the library."
Dedran had been as good as his word. In the last four years Laris had read freely, more freely than her master had known. There were ways to earn a credit or two as the circus traveled. And ways on-planet to untraceably access information once one had those credits. With the war over, Dedran had purchased an old cargo ship, packed his beasts and staff within, and upped ship. Laris guessed he had other reasons beyond the claimed one of bringing entertainment to the human-settled planets. Sometimes they stopped so briefly they could manage only a handful of sold-out shows. Clearly they could have stayed at a profit, but they moved on. At other times they played to half- or quarter-filled houses and must have lost money, but they remained several weeks. It wasn't a large circus. There were some thirty beasts, many which were no bigger than a Terran dog. In fact, they had two of those who did an act with two Trastorian carra. Later the carra did a clown act with their trainer and the dogs often joined that as well.
Dedran saw to it that mostly the animals were decently fed, housed, and well-treated. On her own initiative Laris had taught herself and the carra a trapeze act. Dedran had been pleased with that and her hard work, so he rarely struck her. He wasn't as kind to the forty or so people who worked for him. Often they left when and as they could, and were quickly replaced. Some seemed merely to vanish with no prior word of their intent to depart.
Laris had swiftly seen that some of those who left were the ones who talked too much, who nosed into Dedran's business. But not always. Once they began to travel there were frequently people who'd do anything to escape their world. Dedran would take them on, for a trip to the next. By that time they had to have worked out a dangerous act to perform. On the new world they would be expected to appear twice a day. Most took too many risks and died or were crippled. They would be left behind when the circus moved on.
But it was good business. The crowds came to watch someone die. Dedran took them on without pay until they had proved themselves. There were always two or three on the ship working hard between planets to earn a place. Over four years many of his staff had come and gone. Some others left because they would not bow to Dedran's blows. Laris had no option in that, so she remained. But the blows weren't that regular, and the food was good, the provided clothing respectable. The girl had grown and filled out. Still others came and went and she made no real friends. Laris knew only one other who'd been there longer than she. That one approached her now.
"Did we lose it?" His foot stirred the stiffening body.
Her voice was steady. "Of course. It was too damaged to survive."
"Yes. A pity. We needed it."
Neither said more but both understood that the damage mentioned had not been that to body alone.
Excerpted from BEAST MASTER'S CIRCUS by Andre Norton Lyn McConchie Copyright © 2004 by Andre Norton and Lyn McConchie. Excerpted by permission.
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