The Droughtlanders: An Excerpt
Eli leaned forward in his seat, his heart pounding as he watched the young acrobat near the halfway point along the highest tightrope. He heard the flap of wings first, and then he saw the bird. It was just a little pigeon but it was heading straight for the acrobat, who teetered forward, surprised, as the bird swooped. His balance faltered; he leaned back to correct it and nearly lost his footing again. Eli gasped, unaware until then that he’d been holding his breath. The pigeon disappeared up into the rafters, but just as the acrobat regained his balance another pigeon dive-bombed from above. The acrobat stumbled backward, and then, as the crowd’s gasps lifted into cheers, he fell to the concrete floor far below and landed with a thundering crack.
Seth, Eli’s twin, whistled to someone across the stadium and stuck a triumphant thumbs-up in the air. Eli bet it was Seth’s friend Maury, who trained homing pigeons as a hobby.
Eli couldn’t look away. He gripped the brass rail and stared at where the boy had landed, head first, just out of reach of the circus hands who would’ve caught him had they been allowed to use the safety net. Sometimes Chancellor East allowed the Night Circus several nets, or one big one, or just one small one, or sometimes none at all. He liked that the acrobats never knew just how much peril they’d face before each performance.
“That way, they’re always off guard, and we’re guaranteed a bit of blood sport every now and then.” He’d explained this to Eli once while they watched a pair of circus hands drag another trapeze artist out of the ring after he’d fallen, landing on a crate and busting his leg in two places, the bone jutting out like an evil joke. The boy had screamed something awful as he was dragged out of the ring, and the crowd had stamped their feet with delight until finally he’d passed out. Eli remembered the way the boy’s leg had flopped beneath him so strangely, as if it didn’t belong any more.
“Look.” Chancellor East swept his arm across the sea of Keylanders, whose eyes danced with the adrenalin that came with the excitement and the screams. “This is why I won’t let them attend to the injury first. Other Chancellors might disagree, but I know what my people come to see. This, just as much as the choreography of it all.”
Eli stared at the fallen acrobat as the other performers rushed to his side screaming. There were no nets tonight. Minutes before the show began Chancellor East had confiscated and destroyed them, forcing the Night Circus to perform without any safety measures at all.
“I’m in the mood for a little excitement,” he’d said as the crowd settled in their seats.
And so he’d gotten his wish.
Now the other performers were weeping and moaning behind their masks, but still, not one of them bared their face, and why would they? Keyland Guards lined the perimeter, waiting for even the slightest infraction.
Chancellor East gnawed on his pipe. “You’d think they’d all died, the way they’re carrying on.” He nudged Eli’s father. “That would be convenient, wouldn’t it?”
“Quite, Governor,” Edmund laughed. “But then there’d be the bodies to deal with.”
“Well yes, there’d be that,” Chancellor East said. “Always an issue, isn’t it?”
Below, the Night Circus performers were on their knees, clutching each other and keening around the crushed body of the young acrobat. Eli pulled his eyes off the grotesque scene to have a look at the stands full of Keylanders who’d all risen to their feet for a better look. There was something in their eyes—all of them, even the little children and the prim ladies in their fancy hats—a rapture of sorts. But not his mother. Eli looked behind him to where she sat with her gloved hands covering her mouth and her eyes turned downward, fixed on her lap.
The sound of marching drew Eli’s attention back to the ring, where the Guards were closing in tighter, batons drawn. A girl, Eli could tell by the shape of her, rested her head on the boy’s bloody chest for a moment before lifting his mangled head into her lap. She was wearing a costume matching the boy’s, and had been standing at the base of the ladder, ready to go up just before he’d fallen. The girl pointed up at the Chancellor and screamed. “Why? Why do you—?”
A burly clown clamped a hand over the girl’s mouth and pulled her away as the Guards uniformly squared their stance and raised their batons. The girl kept screaming behind the clown’s firm hand, but she let herself be led away by him and several others wearing costumes like hers.
“They’re such animals. Really, why all the fuss?” Chancellor East leaned his fat belly over the rail. “Get on with the show!” he bellowed.
“I want a better look!” Seth leaned farther over the rail. “Get out of the way!” he yelled down to the performers still keening around the body.
Chancellor East gestured at his sergeant below. The sergeant shouted, and the Guards steadied their shields. The performers rallied one another to stand and back away.
“Roll him over!” Seth hollered. No one moved.
“You heard him!” Chancellor East bellowed. “Turn him over!”
Eli’s stomach rode a wave of pity that peaked with nausea as two circus hands reluctantly stepped forward and rolled the boy’s body.
“Aw yeah, look at that!” Seth laughed as the stands tittered with excitement. There were more oohs and aahs over this than any of the gravity-defying acts of the evening. Eli didn’t understand it. “The whole back of his head is caved in. Look at it, Father!”
Lisette, the twins’ mother, finally stirred. She pulled Seth away from the rail.
“Seth, please.” Her voice shook. “Show some decency. He may be a Droughtlander, but he was still a boy, like you.”
“Yeah right, Maman.” Seth shrugged her off.
Chancellor East frowned. “Lisette—”
Edmund glanced at the Chancellor and then squeezed Lisette’s shoulder. “Now why would you say such a thing, my dear?” he said, cutting the Chancellor off. “What has gotten into you? It’s just a Droughtlander, no better than a rat.”
“Oui. D’accord.” Lisette worried the scarf at her throat as the boy was carried out of the ring, a wake of blood darkening the cement. Edmund raised a disapproving eyebrow.
“English, Lisette. How many times must I remind you?”
“Sorry,” Lisette murmured. “Of course. I was just startled by the blood, that’s all. It’s made me a bit queasy.”
Eli took his mother’s hand. She was trembling, and would not look at him.
“And now, on with the show!” Chancellor East chomped on his pipe and gestured for the Guards to retreat. The performers bowed in his direction and then took their positions to finish the show. The Chancellor settled back in his throne. “Can’t be wasting any more time. The rain is coming early tonight, is it not?”
Edmund looked at his watch. “Scheduled for ten, sir.”
“Well, if I end up getting soaked, I’ll blame you, my friend.” The Chancellor bellowed his tobacco-stink laugh as the stands of Keylanders took their seats and rustled impatiently. As engaging a distraction as the grisly death was, everyone was still mindful of the time. All of the Eastern Key was there, dressed in their finery. No one wanted to get caught in the rain, and because it was scheduled for ten, no one had brought an umbrella.
Lisette pulled her hand away from Eli’s and excused herself as the lights dimmed. “I still feel a little queasy.” She pecked Edmund on the cheek. “I’ll walk through the gardens, get some air. I’ll see you at home.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” Eli asked, eager for a reason to leave that wouldn’t set Seth off on a fit of bullying.
“No,” Lisette said, and then again, more firmly. “No. Thank you, Eli, but no. You stay and enjoy the rest of the circus.”
The spotlights swept back to the centre ring and the circus resumed, but Eli could not sit still, and nor could he watch. For him, the show had been ruined by the boy’s fall. It seemed he was the only one, except for his mother, who could not sit back and enjoy the circus after such an event. Every other Keylander, the entire stadium full of them, was acting as if nothing had happened. Eli just couldn’t do it. Not this time.
“I’m going to catch up to Mother,” Eli said as he slipped past his father’s seat.
How could anyone watch the rest of the circus? Before when there’d been a fall or some other spectacular circus accident, Eli had always been able to stay and enjoy the rest of the show, but something about this night was different. His heart was still pounding, there was a strange ringing in his ears, and he felt nauseous and hot as he stumbled into the corridor behind the Chancellor’s balcony.
Eli hesitated there, turning back for one last glance at the ring. The performers were barely lurching through their routines now, their usual grace ripped away by fresh, raw grief. And the boy’s blood centre stage, with bloody footprints coming and going from it as the performers were forced to pass through it. And Seth—Eli couldn’t bear to even look at him. He’d been bored all evening but now practically hummed with anticipation, his knee bouncing as he waited for another disaster, the chances of which were good now that the performers were disabled by shock and sadness. He’d had something to do with it, Eli was sure. The thumbs-up, the whistle. Seth was always looking for trouble, and manufacturing it where there was none. Almost sixteen years of being Seth’s twin, and Eli could not have felt any more disconnected to another human being. Eli turned and rushed down the stairs and out into the night, hungry for air that wasn’t metallic with the aftertaste of tragedy.
later, his head a little clearer, Eli decided not to try to catch up to his mother and instead headed home via the outer ring road so that he could sneak a peak at the Night Circus camp. It was set up just outside the Key walls, and Eli had always loved its brightly painted caravans and enormous Clydesdales with their sleek coats and manes braided with ribbons. Sometimes he’d watch the Droughtlanders practising, juggling flaming batons, balancing on each other’s shoulders—the one on top, always the littlest, leaping from one human pyramid to another—or the tightrope walkers practically dancing on the taut line they’d set up between the two largest caravans. It was like watching a fairy tale come to life, seductive and buoyant. That was what he needed to get the haunting images of the boy’s crushed skull and the bloody footprints out of his mind, a little colour and a lot of whimsy. Eli spied on the camp each time the Night Circus came to the Eastern Key. There was something about the bustling compound that thrilled him, and terrified him at the same time, mind you. He always kept a safe distance to avoid any sicks and he never let anyone see him, not from the circus or from the Key. How could he explain his interest to Edmund? And what would the performers think if they saw the Chief Regent’s son gawking at them as if he cared?
Eli was still trying to shake the horrific images out of his head when he was surprised by the sight of his mother hurrying ahead of him, her long coat flapping, shoes clacking on the cobblestones. What was she doing on the outer ring road when she’d said she was going home through the gardens? Had she just changed her mind? Or had she lied? Either way, Eli was curious to know where she was headed with such purpose after having left the stadium such a shaky mess.
Eli slipped into the shadows and decided to follow her. He stayed about a block back and trailed her all the way to one of the barred slits in the wall used to monitor the Key’s perimeter. This one was beside the service gate, the one the Night Circus had used to bring in their equipment earlier that day. The ground was still muddy from the foul antibacterial rinse each member of the circus and every animal and all items that entered into the Key were doused with before being allowed to come in. Eli’s head hurt. It always did when he came anywhere near the rinse.
He squeezed his eyes shut, trying to ease the pain. There it was again—the fall, the bloody footprints, the girl screaming up at them. Eli opened his eyes. The pain had worsened but the horrors were gone for the moment, replaced by the shocking sight of his mother speaking to someone through the bars. What was going on? There was only filth and disease on the other side! Lisette was crying, more so than he’d ever seen her cry before. The old woman she was speaking to had her mask pulled down, revealing her sun-weathered face and dry, cracked lips. She was crying too. Eli watched, horrified, as his mother, the wife of the Chancellor’s Chief Regent, embraced the filthy Droughtlander awkwardly through the bars.
“Maman!” Eli screamed. “Get away from her!”
Lisette spun on her heels, surprised. She gulped back a sob and waved him away. “Stay back, Eli!”
Eli stopped in his tracks, not sure what to do. Pull her away? Call for help? Run? Lisette said a few more words to the old woman, and then kissed her on both cheeks before retreating. Kissed her! As she walked slowly toward him, Eli glanced at the alarm on the wall by the gate. Should he pull it? If he did, the Keyland Guard would come and deal with his mother’s severe and confusing violation. Perhaps it would be best left to them, considering Eli had no idea what to do.
Lisette wiped her eyes. “Are you spying on me?”
Had she gone mad? Eli reached for the alarm. He should pull it, right now, without another thought. It was law, after all. But there came the other thought. This was his mother.
“Eli?” Her eyes were locked on his hand, hovering at the alarm pull.
“And so what if I am? What are you doing with a filthy old Droughtland cow?”
“Don’t be rude, Eli.”
Rude? She’s talking about his manners when she’s violating law?
“If I pull this, you go in front of the Star Chamber.”
“Why shouldn’t I pull it?” Eli’s stomach knotted. His mother’s fate, her life even, rested with his decision. Eli had never wielded so much power in all his life. It was overwhelming, and foreign; he didn’t have a clue what to do with it. Except give it back somehow, give it away, so it wasn’t his problem.
Lisette broke her stare. “Come, mon fils. Let’s go home.” She rearranged her cloak and started walking. Eli stared at her, stunned, and then ran to catch up with her at the corner.
“Aren’t you going to explain? Aren’t you going to report that you touched a Droughtlander? I saw you, Maman! You kissed her!”
“You don’t know what you saw. Not really.” Lisette stopped. “I came to tell her of the boy. She was close to him.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Eli, would you really report me? Do you think you have it in you to put your mother in front of the Star Chamber?”
Eli hesitated. This sounded like a trick question, like when his father posed such challenges with only one answer in mind he was willing to hear.
“I… I don’t know.”
Lisette touched his arm. “I don’t think you are that kind of person,” she whispered.
Her hand. The hand that had touched a Droughtlander was now touching him! He yanked his arm away and scrubbed at it furiously with his shirt.
“Maybe you’re wrong! Maybe I am!”
Lisette started walking again. Eli followed her, still astonished at what had just happened. They passed another alarm, and Eli paused before it to see if his mother would notice. She didn’t even look back. He felt the cool pull beneath his fingers and tested the give, tugging just enough to feel it catch. Any more and the alarm would sound, setting off an unknown chain reaction that would catapult his life, and his family, into an unforeseen darkness. That’s not what he wanted. He loved his mother, as strange as she was acting; he loved her, and furthermore, he trusted her. He hoped. Eli carefully released the pull, dropped his hand, and backed away. He might love her, but he was angry with her, too. Very angry.
Eli followed her all the way home, his rage and confusion growing with each step. She ignored him, walking with her chin up, her arms swinging casually. They passed three more alarms, and at each one Eli slowed, baiting her, waiting for her to beg him not to pull it. There was no reason why he shouldn’t summon the Guard. She could be bringing Droughtland sick right into their home. They could all die!
By the time they reached their gate, Eli could only hope she knew what she was doing. His mother was right. He wasn’t the kind of person to turn her in, and at that moment, he hated himself for it.
“I won’t report you. Not right now anyway,” he announced as he held the gate open for her. He tried to muster a stern tone. “But I insist that you be doused before I will allow you inside the house.”
Lisette reached to touch him again.
“Don’t you touch me! I mean it!” He scooted out of the way. “I won’t let you inside until you’re doused!”
“The need for such measures is greatly exaggerated, mon fils.” Lisette climbed the front steps. Eli wrenched a lantern stand out of the ground and blocked her way.
“I can’t let you inside, Maman! You might be infected. That woman was outside the walls, she wouldn’t have been doused!”
“Eli, stop.” Lisette grabbed the end of the lantern stand and moved it effortlessly out of her way. Eli could not believe his lack of will. He really, truly was the mama’s boy Seth loved to claim he was. Seth would impale their mother before letting her in, but not Eli. Once a coward, always a coward.
“I know more about these matters than you, Eli.”
“How? What do you know about it?”
“That woman was a cook in my house when I was a child. We have stayed in touch.”
“That doesn’t mean she’s safe! That doesn’t mean anything at all!”
Inside, the hall light went on. The new maid opened the front door. Eli locked eyes on his mother and shook his head, silently imploring her not to go inside. Lisette winked. She pulled off her cloak, handed it to the maid, and stepped inside.
“Are you coming in, Master Eli?” the young maid inquired after waiting an awkwardly long time at the open door, the cool air raising goosebumps on her slender arms. Eli wanted to say no. He wanted to tell the girl, a new and timid addition to the house staff, to evacuate the rest of the servants and run for her life. Instead, he stabbed the lantern stand back in the ground and went inside, praying that his mother knew what she was doing.
Excerpted from The Droughtlanders by Carrie Mac. Copyright © 2006 by Carrie Mac. Excerpted by permission of Puffin Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.