The costume is old; it smells of others' sweat; their dread woven into the fabric. The corset of scarlet velvet, good for disguising small blood spots, doesn’t quite fit. Maestro Montague has promised a new costume, he suggests crimson brocade. He suggests my name should be Ruby. Ungrateful girls have no voice here.
His preference is for short knives; each has a razor-sharp edge. I watch him honing his blades, cleaning their luminous handles because brighter is better for the audience to see.
“Do not move, do not tremble. Look at me, trust me,” he breathes heavily, then sucks deeply from a hip flask.
A construction of clowns plays pretend trumpets, splatting custard pies as they haul a circular board, painted with silver stars, into the ring. I twirl and curtsey as I stand before the stars. Maestro Montague straps me into place. He looks into my eyes tightening the leather, my wrists and ankles throb with the constriction. He gives me a wide smile, his teeth crooked, and stained with tobacco. His spangled mask does not disguise a tremor in his left eyelid, and the drop of sweat forming on his lip.
Rough splinters painted over many times worry my limbs, the haunting shapes of the others before me. He is a silhouette against the dazzling lights. I feel a trickling tear emerge. I cannot wipe it away.
A drum rolls. Air thrusts towards me. A knife slices, vibrating into the board below my left arm. The audience cheer, as another knife lands at my right ear. The drum continues, my heart thuds, I must not move. A knife edge catches velvet fibers. The audience gasps and brays for more. He takes his final knife, cuts a silk ribbon, it flutters mutilated to the floor, and he turns towards me. I feel my muscles tremble, the final thump between my legs, the coldness of the blade threatening my inner thigh.
He removes the straps and takes my hand, I am light-headed, the applause intoxicating. I take a gulp of the fuggy air, acknowledging the deluge of noise.
Pulling me towards him, he kisses me, his fetid breath haunting my cheek. “Ruby you are a natural, we will practice the wheel of death.”
I smile, walking backwards out of the ring. The Ring Master takes my hand, crushing my fingers as he kisses them, he whispers, “take care.”
Maestro Montague pulls his knives out of the deep wounds on the board; he sings a lullaby as he places them with reverence into a velvet-lined box. He caresses the slits, the scars of others. He murmurs names. “Scarlet, Cherry, Magenta. Ruby.”
I hug myself, try to rub the shivers away. The sting of ruby jewels of blood on my skin makes me wince. Doubt gouges as deep as knives, the wheel of death spins. Ungrateful girls leave while they still can.