The Circus of the Damned (A Deal with a Devil Story)
Magician Gilbert Blake has spent his entire life conning drunkards in the seediest pubs in the darkest towns, careful to hide the true depths of his power. But when he spends a little too much time in Shadowsea and the infamous slumlord Count Reuben gets wind of his abilities, hiding within the Circus of the Damned may be Gilbert’s only chance at survival.
But there’s more to the Circus than meets the eye. Every time a performer dies, a new one must take his place, or the entire circus suffers the consequences. And while the handsome ringmaster Jesse isn’t one to coerce unwilling performers into giving up their souls to the devil, a recent death in their ranks makes Gilbert exactly what they need.
Yet the longer Gilbert stays with the Circus, the more danger he seems to bring them. Being with Jesse is more than Gilbert could have hoped for, but as Count Reuben’s men continue to search for Gilbert and the Circus loses another performer, they all face running out of time long before the Devil claims his due.
"[The characters'] journey is gripping from beginning to end." –Publishers Weekly
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For the best part of three days, Gilbert Blake sat inside the dark, dank pub. The thin, dirty rain that drenched the dark brick walls of the city, its bowels of iron pipes and cramped alleys, and the pub’s wooden sign hadn’t stopped in all that time. The sign was purple—or it looked like it had been once upon a time—and missing so many letters it was impossible to guess what the pub’s name had been. Gilbert hadn’t cared; he’d just entered and stuck around.
The pub was a crammed underground hole without a single window, the atmosphere rank and suffocating. A narrow wooden door opened on steep iron stairs, encrusted with years’ worth of mud and grease. Drunken patrons yelled and drank and lay passed out in corners, after wasting entire paychecks on dice and cards. In the sawdust-covered pit, bloodstained by a hundred fistfights, a fellow was turning the handle of a potbellied instrument that sounded like a choir of skinned cats.
“So, ready to pick a card, mate? My balls are shriveling up over here,” Gilbert scoffed.
His blond hair and beard were a wild mess, and a tumbler of savage homemade vodka sat by his elbow. He was beyond drunk and about to land the hit that would keep him and Emilia fed for a month. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept or eaten, or even gotten up to take a piss, but he was sprawled like a king on his chair, cards in hand and a smirk firmly planted on his lips. A small crowd surrounded him, watching his every move. His opponent was sweating in a ripped shirt and vest, combing his fingers over and over through his long, brown beard.
Gilbert couldn’t remember exactly when they had started that particular game. Could have been a couple of glasses ago, could have been five bottles. Emilia was asleep, nestled in his scarf, dead to the world, her little body curled in a warm, furry ball against his neck, and there was a considerable pile of cash stacked in the middle of the table. Bills and coins, a golden ring, some brightly colored currency from some country he didn’t know, a lone ruby earring, and what looked suspiciously like a gold tooth that had been ripped out of somebody’s jaw.
Gilbert waved a deck of fanned-out cards under the man’s nose. He’d forgotten the fellow’s name, or maybe hadn’t even bothered to ask it. He chugged back the last of his vodka and decided to call him Bristlesprout.
With a suspicious glance and a grunt, Bristlesprout carefully selected a card and yanked it out, slapped it against the table, and covered it with a ham-sized hand while shooting threatening looks all around, as if daring the others to steal it from him.
“Anyone tries to help this wanker, I’m gonna break your fingers,” he warned, looking at the ragtag crowd through bloodshot eyes. The faint of heart took a step back. Everyone else pushed even closer. “I know somebody’s working with him.”
Gilbert smiled and waved his hand over his glass, which swiftly filled back up. Everyone’s eyes were on the glittering pile of coins, though, so only a skinny drunkard rubbed his eyes in disbelief, then went in search of a stiffer drink. He knew better than to call out the tall, muscular man with the seemingly magic powers.
Bristle had his reasons to be suspicious. Gilbert had already materialized in his own hand the cards that the man had hidden in his pocket, his beard, and most notably, the crack of his ass. Oh, he’d given the fellow some breathing room too. No gambler would bet against someone who always won. Winning every time wasn’t the goal, and neither was impressing the bystanders. The goal was coaxing more and more cash out of the pockets of his adversaries, letting them win occasionally to push them to raise the stakes, then making them slowly drop out one by one with swift moves, apparently strokes of blind luck—until he was left with one poor bastard drunk enough and gullible enough to empty his pockets on the table. In this case, his new friend Bristlesprout.
Gilbert had purposefully botched the last two tricks, failing to guess the card that Bristle had creatively hidden in his underpants—it had been the three of spades, and Gilbert would do without that card from now on, thank you very much—and spectacularly embarrassing himself when trying to make a coin disappear in his palm and instead causing a deluge of quarters to fall from his cuff. That one had brought a roar of laughter from the crowd, convincing everyone that the failed magician was by now too drunk for his own good and was just about ready to be plucked like a chicken.
Bristlesprout had fallen for it like a charm. Seeing his chance, he’d pushed all his winnings forward, even producing that golden tooth to add to the considerable pile. Gilbert had made a big scene of rummaging in the pockets of his black leather jacket, sighing and complaining and commiserating his bad luck, looking like he could barely scrape together the amount.
Oh, he could look like a miserable loser when he wanted to. It was a remarkable talent.
“Now, take this.” Gilbert snapped his fingers under the table, and a black crayon materialized out of thin air. Then he handed it to Bristlesprout. “Write something on the card. Or draw, I don’t care. You can turn it over, ’tis not a guessing game this time.”
Shooting him a dark glance, Bristle turned the card over—it was the queen of hearts—and snatched the crayon from Gilbert’s hand. “The fuck you playing at, crook?” He grunted. “I wanna know exactly what stupid trick you’re gonna botch this time. I don’t want no fucking cheating at my table, understand?”
A loud screech came from the pit, attracting everyone’s attention. The disheveled musician was being carried away by the neck by an impressively large man wearing an expensive-looking black suit with a bright-purple band around one arm. The musician’s wooden instrument lay abandoned on the ground. As everyone watched in silence, four other giant men crossed the room, shooting threatening glances at the patrons while surrounding a much shorter, older fellow. This one wore a bright-purple suit and top hat that were rather insulting to the eye.
God damn it. Gilbert followed the man with his gaze, a heavy feeling sinking in his stomach. This was the last thing he needed: Count Reuben himself, owner of the dump and pretty much every other shithole in town. The man controlled a good half of Shadowsea’s less-than-legal activities and was never seen without his personal guard, a cohort of murderers and henchmen whose favorite activity was stomping people to a pulp and tossing them in the river.
Gilbert examined them in mild apprehension as the pub’s staff stumbled over themselves, running around to set out a fancy dining table for Reuben in the bloodstained pit. His guards’ expensive suits were ill fit to their bodies, bulging with muscles, and telltale lumps revealed a knife here, a baton there. Their purple armbands and hatbands now dotted the room.
Gilbert downed his vodka. Damn. He hadn’t planned on having to deal with so many guards. They were already gravitating toward the table—the amount of money strewn over it wouldn’t escape them even in the dark. Hell, they could probably smell it. Oh, Reuben would be pissed that someone was gambling in his den without giving him a cut.
But Gilbert couldn’t leave; he couldn’t give up now. Not after he’d worked so hard, not when he was this close . . .
No. He had to finish this and then just get out. Fast.
He straightened his broad, muscular shoulders and leaned back into the chair with a sharp smile. “Where were we? Oh, right, my friend, our pleasant game. Now, you’re going to mark that card. Anything you want. Then you’re going to hide it, destroy it, dispatch it overseas via carrier pigeon, I don’t fucking care. And I—” He brought his hand to his chest in a theatrical gesture. “—I, the great Gilbert Blake, will bring it back and materialize it in front of your very eyes.”
The crowd murmured with comments and a few derisive snorts here and there. Gilbert had discovered that his boasting speeches made folks see him as an even bigger loser, rather than impressing them. That was fine by him. He wasn’t there to preserve dignity or gain respect; it was cold, hard cash he was after.
Bristlesprout thought it over for a moment. “All right. But on one condition,” he finally said, his eyes gleaming with glee. “I want your hands flat on the table the entire time. For everyone to see. Just wanna make sure you’re not copying my stuff on another of your shitty cards.”
Gilbert swallowed a mocking grin and carefully schooled his features to give off a hint of fear and nervousness, as if his trick had been spoiled. “But—”
“I’m not finished,” Bristle interrupted. “I want everyone on your side of the table to take a step back. Or three. I don’t want anyone near you, nobody who can slip you a card or write on it for you or some shit. I want the fucking desert around you, you got it?”
“B-but I . . .” Gilbert stammered, looking around to gather sympathy from the spectators, eyes skimming over a dozen purple spots at least. Really, he thought smugly, I should have taken to the stage, wooed crowds in theaters all over the country. It was sheer talent, that’s what it was. “I didn’t say that. Surely, a magician can’t be asked to . . .”
“Well, if you want to back out . . .” Bristlesprout spread his arms to embrace the pile of bills and coins on the table. “Of course, that means the jackpot goes to me. But if that’s what you want . . . I’m going to have to take all this money, then.”
Oh, hell yes. He’d fallen for it so hard that Gilbert could have gotten him to bet his fucking balls, too. Time to make his final move and crush him.
Gilbert swallowed, then looked longingly at the money. Emilia stirred against his neck, sniffling, and her long whiskers tickled his skin. “I guess that’s fine.” Reluctantly, he brought his hands down on the table. “The hands thing, I mean. And the people. Looks like I don’t have a choice, do I?”
Under Bristlesprout’s severe gaze, everyone on Gilbert’s side shuffled back, whispering and pushing and elbowing each other. Only the men in purple didn’t budge, but they didn’t come closer, either. Bristle smiled then, like a cat that’d found an unattended bird’s nest and was sharpening his claws for the buffet of the year. He didn’t deign to respond, and he bent his head and started drawing something on the card with great care, the tip of his tongue poking out from his mouth. When he was done, he proudly lifted the card and turned it left and right to show everyone a crude rendition of a cock and a pair of oversized balls pointed at the mouth of the poor queen of hearts.
“That’s . . . quite the piece of art.” Gilbert was about to slap his own forehead in utter despair for the human race, then remembered himself and left his hands lying on the table. “Now make the card disappear.”
“Oh, I intend to,” Bristlesprout assured him, smug smile still firmly in place.
And he really made an effort. He ripped the card in two, then four. He dug in his pockets and produced a gnarled box of matches and lit one after a couple of attempts. As the stench of sulfur hovered over the table, Bristle carefully selected two card pieces and held them over the flame, watching as they blackened and curled up and finally turned to ash, slowly consumed by the fire. He let the border go with a muffled curse as the flame brushed his fingertips, and the final bits turned to ash on the table. Once that was done, he brushed away the ashes, satisfied, and turned his attention to the other two pieces.
Gilbert saw the moment the idea struck the man. Looking, if possible, even smugger than before, Bristlesprout ripped what was left of the card to minute shreds, then shoved the pieces in his mouth. He grabbed his glass, an inch of cheap rum at the bottom, and tossed it all back, swallowing in one gulp. He made a big show of smacking his lips, then burped loudly and settled back in his chair.
“Can’t wait to see how you’re gonna get that back, magician.” He curled his lips to tongue at his not-very-clean teeth. He dug a thick, dirty knife out of his belt and picked his teeth with it, removing one single shred of spit-soaked card. “There, I’m gonna help you out. You can have this,” he said, flicking the sodden piece at Gilbert.
The wet bit of card stuck to his cheek. People laughed, Bristlesprout louder than anyone.
Something went dark in Gilbert’s mind, as though a shutter was abruptly slammed down. Oh, he was a jolly fellow for the most part, but his temper was a little . . . volatile. People who had known him for a while learned that soon enough, learned to recognize when the thunderstorm was rumbling in and flee. But it had been a long, long time since he’d stuck around long enough for someone to get to know him.
So nobody noticed the dark clouds gathering behind his brow, nobody saw how his shoulders stiffened and his strong arms tensed, how his hands turned to claws where they rested on the table. Only Emilia stirred against his neck, not quite waking up, but her light mouse sleep disturbed nonetheless. That little brown mouse had been his only faithful companion for years and had saved his life more than a few times. She knew him. Even asleep, she could tell he was getting worked up.
“You seem determined to make my life difficult,” Gilbert said, not quite able to contain the cruel curl of his lip. Bristle didn’t even notice. He was already celebrating, busy trying to calculate how much he’d just won and eyeing ladies in the crowd that might have been impressed by his wit. “You had a couple of pretty good ideas there.”
And they really had been good ideas. Any third-rate illusionist would be utterly screwed. Without an accomplice to slip him a card with a copy of the dick Bristlesprout had so artistically drawn, no sleight of hand would bring back the original card, so utterly and disgustingly destroyed.
Of course, things were a hell of a lot different when you were playing against an actual magician.
Very slowly, Gilbert lifted his hand, turning it left and right to show everyone it was empty, fingers spread and sleeve pulled back to reveal his wrist, his forearm. Then he slapped the hand down on the tabletop.
He stared at it and focused. His palm grew warm and, under it, he started to feel a hard, smooth surface, very different from the rough, splintery wooden table. Gilbert felt the surface grow and stretch and, as his eyes bore into the back of his hand, he could almost see it—the queen of hearts growing under his palm, just as he pictured it in his mind, down to the last detail, to the hastily scrawled penis.
Then he abruptly lifted his hand, and everyone around the table shouted.
He leaned peacefully back into his chair, letting the smug grin return to his lips, and nonchalantly lifted his hand to pick away the bit of chewed card stuck to his cheek. With his fingertip, he placed it on the lower-right corner of the newly formed card, where he’d left a tiny bit missing. He liked things done well.
People were leaning close and squabbling over the card, ripping it from one another’s hands, talking and yelling. A toothless man tried to gnaw on the card with his bare gums. The men in purple were exchanging meaningful glances across the room, and Gilbert knew his time was running out. He had to wrap things up and take his leave.
“How’d he do it? Man, how the fuck did he do it?”
“No, I can’t believe it. Lemme touch it. Hey, stop hogging—”
“The fucking devil’s helping him. No other way. The devil himself, I tell you . . .”
The only person perfectly quiet in the midst of all the excitement was Bristlesprout himself. He had gone very pale and was sitting very still, hands limp on the table, looking at the smears of ash with a somewhat-dazed air. He lifted his gaze to the card and, as a tattooed lady waved it around, snatched it from her hand and peered at it closely.
Gilbert leaned forward and sunk both hands into the pile of money. He’d been waiting long enough to tuck in. Let Bristle think about it all he pleased.
Oh, that felt good, holding the cold coins and crumpled bills between his fingers. It would keep them fed for a while, him and Emilia. Might even be enough to splurge and buy passage on one of the underground trains toward the coast, to someplace warmer. He would travel in style for once instead of screwing up his spine hobbling along on a goat cart. And it was time to blow this dump of a town. It was burned, now, anyway. Rumors spread fast, and no one else would play against him after tonight.
That was the only downside of the job, really, of working the pubs and gambling holes like he did—one trick and the whole city was useless to him. These folks had very long memories when it came to losing money. That was why his one trick had to be a damn good one: it was the only shot he got, and it had to be worth it.
Truth be told, it usually was, he mused, sweeping coins and rings in his deep pockets, then folding a handful of bills and tucking it in the inside pocket of his leather jacket. He brushed his fingers above the seam and it vanished—the pocket was no more, just a smooth patch of lining. A life of sleepless nights on the streets had given him a lot of time and motivation to cultivate his natural talents, especially when his particular gift could earn him a bed and a warm meal. But with this one, he’d really aced it. And now that he’d been spotted by Reuben and his watchdogs, in addition to the big scene he’d made, he wouldn’t be back here for a long, long while. Provided he didn’t end up in the river instead, courtesy of the count’s men. They didn’t appreciate people causing trouble or failing to pay up a cut, let alone at the same time.
As he tucked in for the last handful of coins, a large, burly hand clamped down on his wrist, pinning it to the table.
“How the fuck’d you do it?” Bristlesprout growled, staring at him with bloodshot and vaguely crazed eyes. They had obviously been playing for longer than Gilbert had thought, and most importantly, had been drinking longer than he’d thought, and the man was suffering from the blow.
Gilbert, not so much, not after that last trick. Using magic was like a peaceful daze floating through his veins, which made him happy and sedated. Or in short, high as hell. When using magic for extended periods of time, he tended to forget a lot of things. Once he’d been at it for a week nonstop, until he’d been shaking and nearly incoherent and had passed out on the floor of a brothel. He’d woken up stripped of all his possessions and feeling as though he’d been chewed up and spat out by an elephant. He was no fool; he knew he’d nearly killed himself. He’d been careful, after that.
Or as careful as he could muster, anyway.
“Told you, man. I’m a magician,” he replied, with what could have been a smile but was really just him baring his teeth. He closed his fist and let his wrist grow warmer until it burned so hot that Bristle had to yank his hand back. Gilbert picked up the ruby ring and twirled it in his palm, then made it disappear. He snapped his fingers. (Yeah, maybe he was slightly high on it still. But man, it felt so fucking good.) “And I never reveal my secrets.”
“The fuck you are. The fuck.” The large, disheveled man in front of him was growing agitated, his pallor quickly turning to a violent flush, his eyes glassy with alcohol and anger. Gilbert saw the tension in Bristle’s muscles, saw the way he was puffing out his chest and squaring his shoulders, rearing up for a fight, and he knew how this was going to end. If the sudden quiet and the watchful eyes surrounding them were any indicator, everyone knew. “You’re a cheat, that’s what you are. A fucking, filthy cheat.”
Gilbert cast a quick glance around. Reuben’s men were closing in, faster now that they risked never getting their hands on part of the money if he got away. His chances of getting out of this with minimal fuss were dwindling fast. And Gilbert was fucking angry. He was tired and intoxicated; he’d been working his ass off for three days, and now it would all be ruined because of this big, drunken moron. And damn his bad luck that Shadowsea’s most infamous slumlord just had to be there.
Gilbert was pissed that he couldn’t even remember the last time he’d slept in an actual bed, let alone had clean sheets. Pissed at the fucking rain that never stopped, at the endless stream of suffocating cities that made up his entire life. Pissed that this was all he had to look forward to: cheap tricks and scams in filthy pubs. Pissed because if Reuben’s men beat him to a bloody pulp out back, there would be no one to mourn him save for a little brown mouse—not a friend, not a lover, not even a mother because nobody wanted a cursed son. And he was pissed, most of all, at Bristlesprout’s livid, sweaty face.
Gilbert narrowed his eyes. “If I were you, I’d shut up now.”
The man was too far gone; he probably hadn’t even heard. “A fucking, filthy cheat, that’s it. I’m not falling for that. You fucking wanker. I’m not gonna let you take my money, you goddamn cocksucker, you freak—”
He fell silent with a strangled sound. He brought his hand to his throat, choking loudly as he began to shake. Growing frantic, he clawed at his skin and heaved, lurching forward as if he was going to puke his guts out. Men and women yelled, shoving and climbing over one another to get out of the way. Bristle’s face was nothing short of purple now. He was sweating buckets, rolling his wide, frantic eyes as he stumbled, toppling the table over with a loud crash, coins spilling all over the floor. The confusion increased as people dove in to get their hands on what little money was left, elbowing the livid Bristle as he fell to his knees, hands around his neck. The men in purple hesitated, taken aback, looking at their boss for orders. Out of the corner of his eye, Gilbert glimpsed Reuben standing up, observing the situation.
Through it all, Gilbert remained seated, legs spread and arms folded—straight-backed and perfectly still, like a merciless king—his gray, ice-cold eyes fixed on the man crawling on the floor at his feet. He was clenching his fist, slowly, inch after agonizing inch, observing the effect it was having. Oh, Bristle would be just fine . . . more or less. But he would think twice about insulting a magician in the future.
Something moved against his neck. Emilia was now poking out from his scarf, her delicate nose quivering as she sniffed the air. She caught on to what was happening soon enough and scuttled up to bite Gilbert’s ear, not too hard but sending him a clear message. Just stop, you moron. He should follow her advice, he really should—that mouse was smarter than he was by a long shot; she’d proved it time and time again. But it was too late now. The show was on.
Bristlesprout was on his hands and knees, his purple face turning blue, drooling, heaving, choking as if he was fucking dying, and a couple of people had mustered enough interest to be worried. Others were skirting around the man, still busy collecting money but trying to be a tad more discreet about it. Not that anyone was doing anything about it; they were just hanging around looking at Bristle and poking him in the side with the tip of their boots.
“D’you think he’s dying?”
“His ticker’s given out, I tell you.”
“Bet he drops dead within the minute.”
“Two minutes! Five quids down.”
Old habits die hard. Gilbert understood, but nobody was going to win the bet, he could promise that.
It was time for the grand finale, before folks started losing interest. Gilbert spread his fingers out in a fluid movement and Bristlesprout heaved with a horrifying hurling noise. His neck swelled monstrously, and something way too big and covered in brown feathers emerged from his unnaturally wide mouth with a sickening, sucking noise. The man tensed, every muscle shaking, his neck and face bright red as, with a final push and a gagging sound, a decent-sized hen tumbled from his mouth and onto the floor, covered in drool. The bird shook herself, looking confused and more than a little offended, then ruffled her feathers with disdain and set off to investigate the crumbs under a table.
The silence was nothing short of deafening.
It was only broken by the hen’s disdainful clucking and the sound of Bristlesprout throwing up on the floor, spreading the stench of alcohol and bile in the already-stinking pub. Yet, people were too shocked to even back off. They no longer know where to look between the man, the hen, and the magician still calmly sitting on his cheap throne.
Bristlesprout lay gasping on the floor, glancing up at Gilbert with a dazed, haunted look on his face, suddenly stone-cold sober, like he’d never been so terrified in his life. Which he probably hadn’t. He wasn’t going to cause any more trouble, Gilbert knew. In fact, he was probably going to spend the next month holed up in a room somewhere, consuming vast amounts of alcohol while trying to convince himself none of it had ever happened. Having a chicken crawl out of your throat would do that to a fellow.
Before Gilbert could even think about backing off and possibly out, a burly hand clasped his arm. One of the men in the black suits meaningfully tilted his head, the purple silk on his hat catching the light. He had a mouth of foul, rotten teeth and breath that could knock a donkey over from a mile away, at least. Gilbert would think of him as Skunktongue. And Skunktongue was pointing at a narrow open door near the fighting pit, leading to a dark back room that promised nothing good.
“Count Reuben was very . . . impressed by your show,” the man said, doing nothing to conceal the threat in his voice. “He would like to speak to you in private. Now.”
The hand on Gilbert’s arm may as well have been an iron grip. There was no way to flee, Gilbert realized with a detached calm as he contemplated his options. He had the feeling that once he got back there . . . he wouldn’t be coming out anytime soon.
So he stood up and broke Skunktongue’s nose with a punch.
The room blew up in a matter of instants. Among crashes, shouts, and curses, punches flew, the pent-up energy of the place finally breaking free like a dynamite explosion. Gilbert didn’t waste time thinking and promptly ducked to avoid a chair somebody swung at him, which crashed into the stomach of a gray-haired fellow, sending him diving into the shouting crowd. Underground gambling dens were volatile at the best of times, let alone after a guy had just thrown up a live chicken. This night, the place was nothing short of a fucking barrel of black powder, and Gilbert had lit the match and tossed it right in.
Gilbert couldn’t tell who was lurching at whom or why, so he dove into the crowd, trying to elbow his way toward the exit. Out. Out. Out. It was his only chance to get away from there.
He blocked a blow with his elbow then proceeded to smash the nose of a redheaded, spidery man, who fell back on a table, sending all the drinks piled on it crashing to the ground. Two large, very unhappy Chinese men lifted the redhead with a growl and tossed him into the crowd, bringing down three random fellows, then lurched toward Gilbert.
He ducked fast, and the two men crashed against two women who sported aviator helmets and were busy choking the daylights out of each other. The four toppled with assorted curses, getting in the way of two Purple Men trying to shove their way through the crowd—and just in time to make way for a flying chair that caught Gilbert on the shoulder, throwing him off balance.
Something small and sharp sank into his other shoulder—teeth. Emilia was very much unhappy about the situation and determined to let him know.
“Sorry,” he muttered, landing on his knees and rolling forward to avoid a kick. He sprang up to grab the purple-circled arm already reaching for him. Gilbert held the man in place as he landed three rapid punches to the stomach, then kicked him away to be promptly swallowed by the roaring crowd. In the brief instant when the tangle of bodies parted to absorb the fellow, Gilbert glimpsed Bristlesprout crawling toward a corner of the pub, muttering to himself. For a split second, Gilbert almost felt sorry for him. Then someone punched Gilbert in the face.
Pain exploded in his nose, shooting through his skull. He cupped his hand over it, groaning as his fingers were coated in warm blood. A familiar screech came from the pit. Somebody had lifted up the musician’s discarded instrument and was swinging it around like an oversized club. The tattooed lady, Gilbert saw before she leaped from the pit with a gleeful war cry and smashed the thing on somebody’s head . . .
A giant hand closed around Gilbert’s neck and yanked him around. He found himself face-to-bleeding-face with Skunktongue, who sported even fewer teeth than before, and whose mouth and chin were covered in spit and blood. “Gotcha, magician,” he growled, spraying blood on Gilbert’s face and lifting a fist big enough to crush Gilbert’s skull like an eggshell. “You’re coming with me, now. But first, I’m going to smash all of your— Ow!”
The man dropped him and staggered back, screeching, arms waving frantically. Emilia had leaped right onto Skunktongue’s face, sinking her teeth into his cheek. By the time he understood what was happening and threw a wild punch at his own face, Emilia had gracefully jumped off, swiftly disappearing into the crowd. Skunk destroyed his own nose and collapsed to the ground like a wet rag.
Oh, Emilia was pissed off all right. She’d be fine; it wasn’t her first brawl—she was just annoyed because she’d been woken from her nap. She hated that. She would find him outside. If he made it out at all, he considered darkly, trying to elbow his way toward the steep stairs. The men in purple were being held back by the brawling crowd, but it was also making it hard for him to reach the—
When the bottle smashed over his head, he heard the crash before he even registered the pain. He stumbled, glass shards cascading down his face and gin soaking his hair, stinging like a motherfucker where his scalp must have been cut open. His knees gave out, and he hit the ground, being shoved and jostled as the fight went on around him. The sea of legs and kicking boots swam before his eyes as he was seized by a sudden bout of nausea that spread from his pounding head all the way to his stomach. The glimpses of purple were getting steadily closer—he couldn’t stop now. He dragged himself upright, vaguely aware that passing out on the floor would mean all his ribs would be shattered and quite possibly his skull kicked in, as well.
Man, that wanker had gotten him good. His head was spinning so badly, he could barely keep his balance, let alone use his magic to push his attackers back or cause stuff to drop on their heads, stopping them so he could escape. He wiped his hands over his bloodied eyes to try to see where he was going, wobbling in the general direction of the stairs. But before he could make any progress, a shout rose above the crashing and cursing and yelling: “The magician! Get him! Count Reuben’s orders!”
As if a wave had ripped through the room, the crowd surged up and crashed toward him, carrying unwilling participants in its wake. Gilbert cursed, stuffed his hands in his pockets to grab two handfuls of coins and tossed them in the air, a glittering rain falling over the crowd. It was enough to distract them for the few moments he needed to dive toward the narrow metal stairs.
Skunk’s now very nasal voice shouted, “He’s getting out! Grab him, grab the bastard!”
There was a burly guard at the door, except instead of keeping people out, he was now looking down at Gilbert with the definite intention of keeping him in—standin