The carnival rolled into the fields at dusk, its spirited music carried into town by the wind. Every window had been open, desperate for the night chill and we listened to the swell of the whistle and drums as they arrived, far from sleep. There had been no wind before it came.
In the morning, the field was crowded with show tents. It was a tangle of brilliant stripes and pennants, painted wagons, clapping flags, a wild thing that had crept up out of the woods while we slept. I watched it out of the corner of my eye while I wandered through my morning chores.
Terea ran up the hill to meet it just as soon as she could. Ardin and Sida and Kol and Demi paraded in a tight knot, straight to the center. Rhinda and Nolke swung by my house and I waved them on ahead. I dragged my feet up the hill an hour later.
“You look tired,” a clown said, painted from head to waist in blue paint. His face was drawn in an absurd white smile. The glittering chain in his hands rattled as the lion he held turned its head.
“It’s the heat,” I said. I watched the animal, lithe and yellow, sprawled on the ground. I was always tired in the summer, when the still, burning air chased sleep away.
The clown nodded, and I walked deeper into the tangle.
The carnival scared Tarea. She jumped back from the wild animals on their leashes. She covered her eyes rather than watch the sword swallowers. She chewed her own nails off when the jugglers lit their batons on fire.
The carnival bored Sida. But she laughed at Tarea.
I watched in silence, arms crossed over my chest.
“Be careful where you lose yourself,” one of the strongmen said, shouldering past me. I narrowed my eyes and stared at his back until he lifted Ardin over his head to show off.
Ardin laughed at everything. The carnival entertained him and spun him mindlessly through the day. Nolke followed him, a little less enthralled, a little more curious.
Kol ate every sweet thing he could find and spent every coin in his pockets.
The bearded lady smiled at me kindly as I bought an roll slathered in icing. “It’s hard,” she murmured, so low at first I wasn’t sure she was speaking to me. “To be a girl in love with something she’s never seen.” She winked at me. I stared at her dumbly, one sticky finger in my mouth.
One of the knife-throwers taught Rhinda how to roll coins along her knuckles. Another taught her how to hide a blade up her sleeve. And another showed her how to finger a penny whistle.
They taught Demi how to spit fire. She shocked herself the first time, with the heat and the light and the closeness. Then she spat too and shocked her teachers until they were all laughing.
They told my fortune.
A week later, when they packed themselves back into their wagons, I followed them, never knowing the exact moment I understood.