Veranna tightened the last rope around the peg at the front corner of her mother’s tent, then tested the peg with her foot. It stayed put, but with the sandiness of the soil, Veranna wondered if perhaps they might find themselves in a collapsing mound of canvas in the middle of the night. She sniffed the tang of salt in the air and brushed wayward curls the constant breeze pushed across her face.
However secure it was, it would have to do. The sky was already burning pink and gold from the setting sun, and the crowds would soon filter into the showgrounds. Veranna gathered her skirts and ran for the ring of wagons. If the patrons here at the seacoast were anything like Mamá remembered, tonight would be a big night for building up her deed. Why Mamá seemed so melancholy about it, Veranna could only guess.
Veranna huddled in the crowded wings with the rest of the dance troupe as the jugglers performed their daring finale, tossing scimitars to one another and catching the spinning blades with breathtaking speed. Neither fire nor blades had managed to elicit any more than applause from tonight’s audience, even at times when crowds in other cities had gasped. Stunts that caused inland women to faint drew chuckles and an occasional jeer from this audience.
One deep breath after another, Veranna fought to steady her nerves. Would Bodini reprimand the company in some way for the crowd’s lackluster response? Was there any way she and the dancers could turn the show around for everyone?
A drum roll, a cymbal crash, and a blare of trumpets sounded, and the jugglers struck their final pose. Veranna bounced on the balls of her feet. Only a polite chatter of applause rippled over the crowd. Surely it sounded louder from onstage.
“I give you, the fabulous Mezzinitas!” Bodini announced, accompanied by another fanfare. The applause faded with alarming speed.
The dance mistress hissed from behind the group. “Go, go! Assemble quickly. There’s nothing more poisonous than too much silence!”
The girls scampered into frantic position. Veranna took her mark, downstage center, and lifted her chin in a painfully broad smile. A stubble-faced man in the front of the crowd yawned. A few quirked small smiles, but not enough.
The music began, and the troupe launched into their steps. The thumping of feet when the girls landed from leaps, the swishing of full skirts, and the flutter of scarves all seemed deafening with no cheering crowd or clapping to mix with them. Finger cymbals rang with thin voices. The musicians played more heartlessly with each passing measure.
This is the longest dance of my life. Veranna pushed harder. Leapt higher. Arched deeper. Grinned brighter. None of it mattered.
Her glanced roved the crowd, desperate for one appreciative face. Sometimes, all it took was one advocate to sway the whole assembly. One coin thrower to start the avalanche. The best she found was one grizzled old man swaying to the music with a vapid “Isn’t that nice” expression on his face.
Her attention snagged on an audience member, far in the rear of the group, a man with his hood pulled low over his face despite the warmth of the southern spring night. His pale, smooth chin called him out as being something other than a swart resident of Thelénalon. A slight buzz of energy stood the fine hairs on Veranna’s neck on end.
The sole of her foot stuck to the stage, and she nearly fell out of her turn.
With an improvised additional hop, she saved the maneuver, but not before both Bodini and the dance mistress caught her eye and scowled a reprimand.
Veranna tore her gaze from the hooded man, performed her final leap, and landed with the planned flourish of arms. The musicians barked out the stinger.
Tepid applause trickled through the audience. While fractionally more enthusiastic than their response to the jugglers, it was still lukewarm at best. What had they done wrong?
Bodini bellowed with his usual bravado. “The dancing delights of the east! You love them, no?”
Veranna and the troupe took their bow, and by the time Veranna had curtsied as the principal dancer, the applause had petered out. No one reached for a coin purse or pouch. A few of the men closest to the showground exits meandered out. Their inclination caught on like a plague.
Bodini maintained a bright façade. “Thank you for joining us. We’ll be here four more nights. Tell your friends, more to see, new acts each night.”
Veranna fixed her gazed on the hooded man, and had she been able to see his eyes, she was certain she would have found him staring directly into her face. But his shrouded expression was flat and inscrutable from such a distance. He lingered longer than those around him, but eventually, he, too, joined the ebbing tide of crowd. His cloak shimmered like the surface of water on a stormy day.
“All right, girls,” the dance mistress called. “Clear the stage. It appears we have some work to do.”
The next morning, Veranna awoke to Mamá straightening rugs and her sleeping palette.
Veranna sat up in bed and stretched. “Do you think Master Bodini will let us go to the port while we’re here?”
Mamá shrugged. “Depends on his mood. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up.”
“Why not?” Veranna stood and shook out her blanket. “Even with last night’s disappointing stage take, he still made plenty of gate money. That should please him.”
“Money is not all he craves,” Mamá said.
Veranna kept her gaze trained on her mother and waited, but Mamá did not elaborate. The woman’s shoulders rounded, and she shuffled about the routine tasks of arranging their tent with an even greater-than-usual amount of sighing.
“If he will let us go, can we go see the ships? And the shore? I’ve never so much as glimpsed the ocean.” Veranna went right ahead and pleaded. “I could get some of my money from the deed and buy you . . . a new gown? Earrings? A necklace?”
“I don’t think Bodini will let you out of his sight.” A tear rolled down Mamá’s cheek.
Perfect, another one of Mamá’s bouts of melancholy. How many days, weeks, months would this one last? The tent around Veranna suddenly began to feel claustrophobic. “Mamá, what’s going on?”
Mamá wiped her eyes and waved it off. “It’s nothing. I just don’t feel well today. Now stop being a pest and get some wash water.”
Veranna gladly accepted any reason to make an exit. She rose from bed and threw a dressing gown over her chemise. Just as she reached the tent flap, however, a shadow darkened the exit. She stepped back.
“Master Bodini,” Veranna said. “Here to see my mother?”
The caravan master ducked into the tent. He extended a parcel wrapped in linen. He licked his lips and smiled. “To deliver your costume for tonight. You try it on, I see if it needs seamstress.”
“A new . . . costume? What’s wrong with what we have?” Veranna glanced back and forth between her mother and the caravan master.
“Don’t be pert, Veranna,” Mamá said. “Stop wasting Master Bodini’s time and try it.”
After taking the bundle behind the changing screen, Veranna unwrapped it while her mother and Master Bodini exchanged meaningless pleasantries. Their words did not even register in her mind when she lifted the skirt to her new costume from the top of the pile. The fabric flowed like cream over her fingers, but rather than the tiered design she was accustomed to wearing, the skirt gathered at a jeweled waistband, slit to the belt on both sides, and was completely sheer. Beneath the skirt, she found a tiny undergarment studded with glittering embellishments that matched the skirt’s belt. Instead of a blouse, she found only a couple of triangles of satin that shimmered plum at some angles, midnight blue at others. Each panel was smaller than her palm, but covered with sparkling prisms and connected with a few satin strings to tie around her back and behind her neck. Her hands trembled.
She knew how she looked in this array.
“I . . .I . . . might there be some pieces missing?” Veranna managed to say through a suddenly-parched mouth.
Bodini laughed, boisterous and feral, to Veranna’s ear. “No, is all there. I checked myself. This is special costume for seacoast.”
Veranna’s back broke out in a sweat. She could not stand in front of Master Bodini in so little. Her mother. An entire crowd!
The conversation between the adults had dropped off into silence.
“Veranna, dear, do you need my help dressing?” Mamá called, her tone a peculiar mixture of sweetness and threat.
“No, Mamá.” Veranna exchanged her much more substantial pantaloons for the jeweled undergarment that hugged close to her flesh. Its satiny interior caressed her skin. But the garment’s beauty was dark and impure.
She settled the skirt on her hips, and then traded her dressing gown and chemise for the jeweled top. She also found blue-gemmed earrings, which she clipped to her earlobes. Paralysis seized her limbs.
“All ready, then?” Bodini said. “I know you will be vision. Come. Show us.”
Veranna looked down at her bare stomach and the curve of her waist above the jeweled belt. Her caramel skin glowed in contrast to the translucent cream skirt. “I’m not sure . . .”
“You do not need to be sure.” Bodini’s tone had lost its smile. “You show me now or there’s no time to fix if wrong.”
Veranna fussed for a moment with her top and skirt, but found there was no way to bring them closer together or force them to cover more of her skin. She took a shuddering breath and stepped from behind the screen.
Mamá clapped a hand over her mouth. Bodini’s bearded face cocked crooked into an open-mouthed grin. His eyes crawled over Veranna from toes to scalp and back down again.
Bodini and Mamá blurted at the same time.
“You can’t be serious.”
Veranna’s chest constricted. “Is this really . . . appropriate for public?”
To Veranna’s profound surprise, Mamá wheeled on Master Bodini. “I may have given birth to her forty years ago, but she’s no more an adult than those teenagers you have on stage with her. You bought ten more of these tramp-suits?”
Bodini folded his arms. “You know nothing. Tramp-suit. Is royal ensemble in some places. North Deklia for instance.” He oiled his way over to Veranna, took her hand, and kissed it. The stiff bristles of his graying moustache pricked Veranna’s hand. “Men hide away delicacies like you in secluded gardens—too succulent for just any eyes. Our patrons here are sailors—they see much around whole world. But you must be rarer beauty than anything they know if we want them to come. And to pay.”
“This skirts perilously close to breaking our arrangement.” Mamá fumed. “Look at you, you filthy pig. You put her in this, not for the audience, but to feed the fire in your—”
The back of Bodini’s free hand cracked across Mamá’s face. She spun and dropped to the floor with a muffled cry.
Veranna lunged forward, but Bondini’s heavy hand landed on her shoulder, and his grip conveyed, without ambiguity, his opinion of her place.
“You make bold demands for someone of your reputation.” He sneered at Veranna’s mother. “This is gratitude I get for giving all these years before I require what is mine? Do not make me remind you what you both deserve.”
Veranna covered her mouth with her fingers and stifled her own outburst. Instead, she whispered, “Mamá, what is he talking about?”
Mamá hung her head and turned away from Veranna. “She will dance.”
“In this?” Bodini gestured to Veranna’s torso.
Veranna’s flesh crawled. When would he release her bare shoulder?
“That is right choice, old woman,” Bodini said. He turned an appreciative smile back to Veranna. “You will be captivating, little sweet.” Finally, he withdrew his hand and backed from the tent, but not without shooting a final scowl toward Mamá.