Benjamin Pepperwhistle and the Fantabulous Circus of Wonders

It was late afternoon, the shadows stretched under the low-hanging sun, when Benjamin reached the circus.

He walked briskly, a fabric bundle holding his meager possessions slung over his shoulder, dangling with every step he took. As he neared the rickety fence surrounding the encampment, he felt his stomach tighten with fear and excitement. Two tall, green poles marked the entrance; Benjamin paused to look at the wooden arch stretching between them, decorated in bright colors. It read, in fancy, flourished letters: The Fantabulous Circus of Wonders. The words were surrounded by bold, red and yellow stripes, and there was a fat, red and white cat painted in a corner, wearing a bowler hat and a monocle.

Benjamin felt a thrill run down his back. Behind the arch, he could see a tall, broad, red and white striped tent taking up most of the lot, adorned by bright festoons. His heart jumped in his chest. It was... majestic. There was no other word for it. It overshadowed the smaller tents and painted wooden caravans scattered behind it to form a messy little village. It was worn and patched in places, the festoons were mangy, and the paint was peeling off the wooden canopy before the entrance—but to Benjamin, it was a palace; the most beautiful tent of the richest king in the world. It was everything he'd dreamed of for so long.

Now, he just had to find his target—and make that dream happen.

He walked around the tent and into the cramped maze of caravans, trying to look confident, like he had every right in the world to be there. He'd arrived late; he'd been hoping to get there before midday, when everyone would be asleep, recovering from the night's show. But now the winding paths between wagons and small tents were bustling with performers busy carrying all sorts of props and items Benjamin didn't recognize. A dwarf passed by with an armful of multicolored, glittery clothes, a purple scarf trailing behind him in the dust; Benjamin turned to ogle, but jumped back when a deafening hoot sounded right next to his ear. An elephant walked leisurely where he'd been standing a moment earlier, apparently unaccompanied, wearing the biggest stovepipe hat Benjamin had ever seen. Benjamin took a step back.

"Hey, watch out!"

He jumped again, whirling around, only to realize he'd almost crashed into the legs of a lady on bright purple stilts. He danced awkwardly around her, mumbling an apology as she grumbled and stalked off in a puff of cigarette smoke. Benjamin paused to catch his breath, wiping his damp forehead, feeling suddenly very much conspicuous; not at all smooth as he'd planned to be. When he looked cautiously around, he saw that more and more faces were turning to look at him, mostly with suspicious expressions. Benjamin felt like a performer who, smack in the middle of the tent with hundreds of people staring at him from their seats, had suddenly forgotten his act.

He stepped back, trying to disappear between two caravans, feeling the weight of all the eyes intent on following his moves. In his ragged cotton shirt, his threadbare vest, and his patched, stained trousers, he was keenly aware of just how dirty and out of place he was among the circus people with their bright, sparkling costumes. All those colors, shifting so fast all around him—it made him feel a little drunk, a little wobbly. He had to find what he'd come looking for, and he didn't even know where to look—the uncertainty rose up again, like a wave.

Shaken, he retreated further between the wagons, backing away through the narrowest, emptiest paths he could find until he could hide behind a worn, low-hanging tent, out of sight. He closed his eyes, trying to shut out the kaleidoscope of colors and movement and accusing eyes, trying to ground himself. He breathed deep and remained frozen, struck by a smell so overwhelming and thrilling that Benjamin felt it slice right through the swirling chaos in his mind, clearing his head so abruptly he nearly lost his balance. It captivated his entire attention in an instant, eclipsing sounds and colors.

He recognized that smell. It was what he'd been looking for.

It was acrid and heavy, slithering up his nose, making his nerves sizzle. It was rounded and rough, weighing on his tongue like an exotic spice and yet, at the same time, sending an excruciatingly familiar thrill through him. It was a scent he knew well—a scent that made him feel alive and brimming with energy which made his muscles tense in anticipation of—something.

Black powder.

Benjamin sniffed the air, trying to pinpoint where the scent was coming from, his anxiety suddenly forgotten. He had to find the source of that smell, and he would be one step closer to completing his shaky, uncertain quest—

A cracking gunshot exploded right behind him, making him jump in delicious surprise. It had been so close that Benjamin could feel the vibration in his bones; it had come from behind the ratty, blue fabric of the tent.