“Young lady, if you don’t start behaving right this second, I’m going to leave you at the circus and go home without you. Do I make myself clear?”
A tired, sunburned little girl who was about eight or nine replied, “Maybe I want to join the circus. I bet it’s better than being with you.”
“That’s it, missy,” her tired, sunburned mother said. She grabbed her daughter’s hand. “We are going home right now, and I’m sure your father will have a few words to say when we get there.”
“It’s just as well,” Derrick said, as he slung an arm around Maya’s shoulders. “Didn’t she see the signs?” He nodded at the carved wooden signs at the circus’s entrance.
Adults Only after 8 p.m. Wayward children will be fed to clowns.
“That’s not going to help anyone’s coulrophobia,” Maya said with equal amusement.
Derrick could joke, but the pale skin under his copious freckles was brighter red than the girl or her mother, which told Maya that however jovial Derrick was now, she’d get an earful in the morning. ‘Why didn’t you remind me to wear sunscreen?’ he would moan, conveniently forgetting or pretending to forget that she’d tried to get him to put sunscreen on multiple times. Each time he had declined the offer, saying he’d keep to the shade or didn’t like the smell of coconuts.
“When did they start including a circus at the Renaissance faire anyway?” Derrick asked, squinting at the tan canvas faire tents to try to read the signs posted along the rows. It was hopeless, because Derrick also disliked wearing his glasses.
“I think this troupe started out here during the Halloween festival, and management thought they’d be good in summer with different costumes,” Maya said. “They said something in the paper about that.”
“Doesn’t seem very Renaissance-y,” Derrick said.
“Well, a lot of the stuff here isn’t very Renaissance-y,” Maya said. “It’s more like Indeterminate Fantasy Time Period Before the American Revolution. But they can’t fit that in the brochures. Besides, you’re not very Renaissance-y either,” she added, poking his side.
After much cajoling on Maya’s part, he’d deigned to wear a tunic-like shirt that could pass for peasant. And his leather sandals got points for effort. But Maya was pretty sure neither medieval nor Renaissance men nor men of Middle Earth wore board shorts.
Maya, on the other hand, had gone all out. Her corset was one of the main reasons Derrick had agreed to the peasant shirt in the first place. She wore a peasant blouse of her own underneath, but the buttons were completely undone over the top of the corset, and she wasn’t wearing a bra. What the hell—it was hot outside and the corset was binding enough. Her legs got some air too under the flowing skirt.
And she had put on sunscreen.
“You want to go in?” Derrick asked. “There’s still a few rows of vendors we haven’t hit yet.”
“What? You want another fabulous jester hat?” Maya asked.
“I can be your one-man circus, baby,” Derrick said with a grin. “I’m your clown, your juggler, your magician and you can be my flexible acrobat.” He leered at the generous view of her cleavage.
She usually didn’t expose herself like this, preferring to keep everything contained and maintained, but faires were different, like Halloween—one of the few times and places during the year where a lot of skin wasn’t out of the ordinary. She’d seen enough busty ladies this afternoon to feel she’d have been more out of place wearing one of her normal, more conservative outfits.
Anyway, the costume was kind of freeing, and how Derrick looked at her now—and the way that any number of people did a double take as she passed by—made her feel not powerful per se, but desirable.
The feeling didn’t suck.
“I’m not exactly sure where you expect me to be flexible. My corset’s not Victorian regulation, but I can’t really…bend,” Maya said, demonstrating. “But yeah, sure, we can see the circus. I mean, the faire’s going to close soon anyway. You know, I think I read that the circus is supposed to have a human oddities section. I’m not sure how I feel about that.”
“Human oddities? You mean like a freak show?” Derrick asked.
“The article called it ‘human oddities’,” Maya said.
“Politically correct for ‘freak show’. That could be cool. Or not,” Derrick amended, from the plaintive expression Maya shot at him. “Unless my nearsighted eyes deceive me, I think there’s a midway down yonder aisle.”
“A medieval pirate cowboy at a circus,” Maya said. “Saints preserve us, I’m confused.”
“Nothing more multiple-personality than a cosplay venue,” Derrick said. “Midway, milady?”
“Yes, let’s see more impressive feats of noodly-armed strength for dollar-store crap,” Maya replied.
Derrick glared at her, and Maya understood she’d stepped over that arbitrary line between humor and seriously questioning his manhood—a line that shifted on different days, as though Derrick hadn’t known her sarcastic self intimately for the last three years.
Then again, Maya had known about Derrick’s little sensitivities for the same amount of time. She hadn’t figured out when to shut her mouth yet either.
It wasn’t like his arms were actually noodle-like. In fact, under the painfully pale skin and dense constellation of tannish freckles, Derrick had a good set of limbs on him. He was a little slender, but he kept himself fit with running and strength training, almost obsessively so, as though he needed to make up for what he considered embarrassingly red hair and a fair, spotty complexion. He viewed the things that endeared him to Maya as things that made the rest of the world not take him seriously enough.
Maya usually had to bite her tongue against pointing out that there were several attributes—presently airing themselves out over her corset, in fact—that made the rest of the world not take her seriously all the time either, and he didn’t hear her being all snippy about it.
They walked through the gates of the circus with a noticeable gap between them, approaching the big top tent that would hold the circus ring. A sign at the entrance informed them that there was Chaos in the Ring at 8. Adults Over 18 Only.
Maya glimpsed a carousel on the other side of the midway, halfway around the big top. But before she could suggest it, something better caught her eye.
“Oh, hey, a fortune teller,” Maya said.
“Come on. You don’t believe in that shit, do you?” Derrick asked, apparently still irritable from her previous comment.
“Of course not,” Maya said. “That’s the fun of it.”
“It’s a waste of money,” Derrick said.
“Fine. It’ll be a waste of my money, then,” Maya said. “What did we come here for if not to get massively sunburned, eat too many fried things and spend too much of our hard-earned cash until we hate ourselves in the morning?”
“Fair enough,” Derrick said.
They ducked into the small tent.
It checked all the typical fortune-teller boxes. Three dainty chairs surrounded a small round table standing in the grass, and a crystal ball rested on a pedestal in the center. The backdrop was a side table covered in a crimson gypsy cloth, accented with flickering candles and incense, but also giant geodes and wooden effigies. The incense had insinuated its sandalwood scent into the fabric draping every economical bit of furniture as well as the canvas tent around them. Strings of beads and fabric banners dipped down from the tent ceiling above, making the ceiling glitter like some kind of whimsical night sky that city folk like Maya and Derrick couldn’t begin to imagine.
In front of the crystal ball, on the customers’ side of the table, read yet another sign— Unfettered Fortunes, $10.
“I can’t believe you’re going to spend money on this,” Derrick said. He sprawled in one of the chairs. He wasn’t big, but the delicate wooden legs still looked like they might snap under his weight.
Maya sat down more gingerly. “Remember, Derrick,” she whispered at him, “this is supposed to be fun.”
“Whatever,” Derrick said.
Maya rolled her eyes and pulled a ten out of her tie-dye cloth bag. She set the bill on the table in front of the fortune teller’s chair.
“Is the incense supposed to drug us into becoming more gullible, or—?” Derrick began.
A man slipped into the tent from the back.
“Good evening,” he said. He slid the ten off the table and tucked it into the leather bag that hung from the bohemian belt looped over his loose, cream-colored, cotton trousers. Beaded talismans dangled off the bag and the belt, but he wore neither shirt nor shoes. However, there was a metal medallion around his neck, a dark brass ring in one ear and a curling brass band around his right upper arm. Every piece of his outfit could have been lovely and androgynous on another body, but they only served to enhance his unobtrusive but undeniable masculinity.
“I thought fortune tellers were women,” Maya said. The admittedly low filter on her tongue had short-circuited from the sight of his bare, tanned chest. Nothing wrong with enjoying what she saw…except when it made her sound like an idiot.
“Sexism hurts everyone,” the man said with the subtlest of smiles curving his lips. “Shall we begin?”
He held his hands out, palms up on the table.
“Oh,” Maya said. “I thought, with the crystal ball…”
“Yes, it’s very pretty, isn’t it?” the fortune teller replied. This time his smile was less subtle. “Most of these accoutrements are for show.”
Unlike the overly affected Shakespearean English most of the faire cast used, Maya couldn’t quite trace the fortune teller’s accent. But it wasn’t American either.
“Isn’t letting your customers in on the tricks of the trade a big psychic no-no?” Derrick asked.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, young man,” the fortune teller said. “My customers already know most of the tricks of the trade. I sell the mystique because they like knowing some of those tricks. They expect them. It gives them comfort. The real trick is showing them a little and keeping the most important secrets to yourself.”
He curled his fingers, beckoning Maya to give him her hands, and she did so. The warmth of his fingers caused little sparks of pleasure at the contact. Maya tried not to shift in her seat or let Derrick know that she was turned on.
She didn’t usually get mad when Derrick’s eyes strayed toward some girl’s ass or breasts, but he tended to get touchier when she noticed another man—at least one who wasn’t a celebrity safely trapped in a television screen. Derrick never quite understood that even though men tended to appreciate the visual more than women, it didn’t mean women couldn’t like a view—or that certain feelings sometimes came unbidden with the brush of skin and amazing eyes staring directly into hers.