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So Close

Anna and Mikhail tossed dust and sweat into the air as they sparred, lashing out at each other with gleeful expressions. Stagehands were frozen in place watching the fight in fascination. Their breath caught every time Mikhail’s fist came slightly too close to Anna’s face or as Anna’s foot jabbed at Mikhail’s ribs. They moved with vicious, beautiful intensity. They threw harmless punches with flawless technique.

Anna grinned at Mikhail and swept his feet out from under him, but he rolled as he hit the ground and came back with a kick of his own. She arched her spine back to avoid it and felt the breeze against her chin. Mikhail huffed a laugh and sprang up onto his feet, fists raised. Anna brought herself upright only to duck his incoming blows steadying her feet into a retaliatory stance. At the same moment they span on the spot bringing a leg up into a high, fast kick that made a few spectators shout in alarm. They stopped, feet less than an inch away from the other’s face and held it there. Mikhail’s muscles ached with the effort and his light brown skin itched with dust. Anna’s breath burned in her chest and her auburn hair stuck to the back of her neck. Applause broke out as they relaxed, stretching their limbs and wiping sweat from their foreheads.

     “You’re actually going to hit me one of these days you know,” said Anna tapping her chin “You grazed me.”

     “No, I didn’t, and I won’t,” replied Mikhail, tossing her a towel from a bench. Everyone began to get back to their own jobs, a few patting the performers on the shoulders as they passed. Anna and Mikhail beamed at each other and together they turned to exit the main tent swinging their bags over their shoulders in unison.

The earth outside was damp and covered in many overlapping footprints. Mikhail hissed softly at the chilly morning air as Anna suppressed a shiver. The sky was an unforgiving iron grey, Anna prayed silently that it wouldn’t rain before the carnival opened that night. Tents of varying sizes were still being raised, sprouting like bright, multicoloured mushrooms forming rough thoroughfares between them. Vendors and helpers were hurrying to and fro carrying bags and bundles over their backs.

     “Do you think there will be a big crowd tonight?” asked Anna sponging the back of her neck with the towel.

     “There always is,” said Mikhail “When we enter the ring at least.”

     “Don’t be cocky, there may come a day when people get bored of us.”

     “And what do you suggest? To keep the people entertained,” asked Mikhail and Anna shrugged.

     “Maybe if we really did hit each other, that would certainly get their attention.”

     “You’re right. I’m sure a lot of people would pay to see a grown man get knocked on his arse.” They laughed and Anna pushed Mikhail into a patch of mud.

Her smile faded as the hairs on her arms and neck stood on end, she felt as if something were crawling on her back. She cast her gaze around trying to see through the maze of tent ropes and canvas.

A man was staring at her. He was tall, maybe middle-aged, dark hair hanging lank around his thin face. His gaze made her shiver. She knew the look of men undressing her in their minds, she had to face it every time she entered the spotlight and she was sure the women were doing the same to Mikhail. But this was different. He looked…hungry.

     “Anna?” Mikhail poked her in the shoulder. She glanced at him before looking back but the man had already started walking away through the river of vendors.

     “Who was he?” Anna asked, rubbing the goose bumps on her arms. Mikhail craned his neck to catch the man’s retreating form.

     “New assistant by the looks of it. Francis took on a few from the town.”

     “He’s creepy.” She shivered again.

     “A lot of them are. But you know what to do, if any of them give you trouble you just show them how easy it is for you to break their necks.” He threw his head back in a laugh and Anna could not help but give him a small smile.

***

Anna pulled her brows into a frown of feigned concentration as she and Mikhail once more span and twisted around each other in the centre of the ring. The spotlights were hot on her skin and the crowd gasped, shouted, and cheered with each daring attack. They were both barefoot, in simple cotton trousers that were stained with the reddish sand. Mikhail was shirtless; ‘a treat for the ladies’ Francis always said, and he stood like a goliath over his partner’s smaller stature. Anna’s breasts were bound but Francis always insisted that the rest of her be on display. The men in the crowd had whistled and cat-called as she entered the ring. They wanted to see the pretty lady dance. She had almost laughed aloud at their stunned faces as she dodged and parried.

They fight finished and the crowd screamed its approval as the duo swept into bows, coins and confetti were tossed into the ring. Anna beamed catching a candyfloss pink rose thrown by a small girl in the front row. She squeezed Mikhail’s hand as they walked backward into the dark mouth of the ring, waving at the crowd who were still stomping and making as much of an uproar as they could. The canvas fell, muffling the sound and leaving them in shadow. 

     “So,” said Mikhail looking down at her “That went well I thought.”

     “You think?” asked Anna trotting off toward their shared table. They wound their way through groups of performers, shaking and clasping hands with clowns, gymnasts, and one of the dancing dogs. Mikhail collapsed into a chair and groaned as his muscles relaxed.

     “Hey, mighty warrior Mik?” said Anna, nudging him.

     “Yes, my young apprentice?” answered Mikhail, not even opening his eyes.

     “Have you seen my shirt?”

     “What shirt?”

     “The one I was wearing before we went on, the grey one.” He opened one eye lazily.

     “Maybe one of the dancers took it, you’re always borrowing stuff from each other.” Anna frowned and continued to rummage through the mess of items on the table. “Go ask ‘em” Mikhail shut his eye again and refused to move. Anna huffed a loud and irritated sigh, marching off in search of the troop of dancers that had performed at the very beginning of the night. She began to shake with the cold as she moved further and further into the back of the main tent, between massive machinery crates and stacks of props; searching.

     “This is yours?” hissed a voice behind her. Anna jumped and span around. The thin man with dark hair was holding her shirt out to her. She cast her eyes around, but they were both hidden between the crates.

     “Why do you have it?” Anna tried speak boldly, to accuse him, but all that came out was a tremulous whisper.

     “I found it.” He leered and stepped toward her. She tensed but held her ground hoping to strike an impressive figure. He held it out to her again. Anna hesitated, if she could snatch it from him before he could react, then she could run back to the rush of people, to colour, to sound, to watching eyes. She jerked her hand forward and felt his hand close around her wrist. He pulled her close to his chest, he smelt of old sweat and gasoline. She felt his other hand over her mouth, muting her yelp.

     “Come on sweetheart, don’t be like that.” He murmured. She struggled, gagging as she tasted his skin. “Don’t act like this is a surprise, the way you move out there.” She felt his lips move against her ear, shuddering at the sensation. “And the way your skin looks under those lights,” he moaned into her, his hand reaching down into her trousers “I know you like it baby, I see how much you like the attention.” She felt his fingers reaching further, and she jerked making him laugh. She thought of Mikhail and what he had said, ‘show them how easy it is for you to break their necks.’

***

     “Anna?” Mikhail was stood only a few feet away, she lifted her head but didn’t move from her spot, huddled on the sawdust littered ground.

     “Mik.” She was still shaking. His eyes moved from her pale, frightened face to the body of the man beside her. She refused to turn her head, not wanting to look at what she had done. The image had already burned itself into her brain. Eyes wide, staring without seeing, jaw slack, head turned too far to the side. She reached out her hand, pleading. “Mik.”

     “Oh Anna.” He crouched beside her, pulling her up into a hug that made her ribs ache.

     “Mik, he…h-he took my shirt. He was w-waiting f-f-for me. He…”

     “What did he do to you Anna?” Mikhail gripped her shoulders steadying her. She broke, sobbing uncontrollably, shaking her head from side to side.

     “Okay, okay, shhh.” He pulled her in for a hug once more.  “They’re getting everyone together for a final bow, we’ve got to go.”

     “But…but.” She half turned toward the body but couldn’t bring herself to look at it.

     “I’ll deal with it. Go.” She didn’t move. “Go Anna!” She staggered out, back in the general direction of the ring. She wiped her face trying to clear away the tears, breathing deeply, returning a modicum of calm. The sounds of people, her friends, were growing louder and louder until she found herself once more in the hustle and bustle of the carnival, amongst the laughter and joy. She could still feel his neck snapping under her hands.

She was being pulled toward the mouth of the ring, out into the coloured lights and the roar of the crowd. A familiar hand took hers and squeezed it. She looked up at Mikhail, he nodded solemnly before hitching a broad grin onto his face and raising his other arm to wave at the crowd. Anna, feeling as if it cost her all her strength to do so followed suit. They bowed, blew kisses, shook hands. Anna could’ve collapsed at any moment, Mikhail was the only thing holding her up. The little girl that had thrown her the rose was waving ecstatically at her as Anna felt a single tear rolled down her cheek.

***

     “Did you see them?”

     “The police officers?”

     “They found a body.”

     “Who?”

     “One of the assistants Francis hired from the town.”

     “What happened?”

     “Was it murder?”

     “What are we going to do?”

The carnival grounds were full of whispers only two days after that night. Anna felt as if she was receiving an electric shock every time someone mentioned it. She lay awake at night, imagining those blank eyes staring at her out of the shadows of her tent. She had even crawled in with Mikhail, her guardian against all evils, but even he could not stop the thoughts that raced through her mind.

     “Stop, stop, stop!” yelled Francis, waving his showman’s cane this way and that as once again Anna fumbled a step in the dance routine for the night’s performance.

     “What is wrong with you girl?” Francis spat, gesturing at the mess of sand over her clothes, evidence of previous falls. “You drunk or something’?”

     “Hey!” barked Mikhail stepping in front of her, but Francis was unperturbed by his bulk.

     “You can’t perform like this tonight,” said Francis, shaking his head “We have a reputation to maintain.” He reached out a hand to Anna and she flinched, as the memory of another man’s hand reaching for her flashed across her eyes.  Francis pulled back, clearly offended. “If tonight doesn’t go as smoothly as it should, you’re out. I’ll find someone new to make my posters pretty,” and he strode from the tent to meet a short, balding man in a waistcoat that strained around the middle. “Detective Wilson,” said Francis bowing his head.

     “Anna Sokolov and Mikhail Alexeev?” asked the detective, opening a notepad.

     “Yes?” Mikhail stepped forward putting Anna in his shadow.

     “Can I ask you some questions?” he didn’t wait for an answer “Where were you both two days ago?”

     “Here.” They answered in unison, earning a questioning look from the detective.

     “I assume you’re aware that we’re investigating the body found on the grounds here. Did either of you know the deceased?”

     “Saw him around, never spoke to him though,” said Mikhail. Wilson scribbled on his pad, and then raised his eyebrows at Anna. She shook her head.

     “Are you aware that a footprint was on the victim’s trousers Mr Alexeev?” Wilson scuffed the reddish sand, Anna stiffened, her breath catching in her chest. Mikhail raised his eyebrows in a casual manner.

     “No, I wasn’t.”

      “A man’s bare footprint,” said Wilson peering up at Mikhail who shrugged. “The others I have interviewed claim that you two often perform barefoot.”

     “Toughens the skin,” said Mikhail.

     “Hmm.”

     “People take their shoes off all the time,” said Anna in a rush “The shoes they perform in often hurt after a while.” Wilson nodded and continued to make notes.

     “You also wore white cotton garments on the evening in question, I believe.” Neither Anna or Mikhail answered him but crossed their arms in united defence. “The same kind of material that we found snagged on a crate where we believe the attack originally occurred.”

     “A lot of us wear cotton,” said Anna.

     “I see,” replied Wilson, closing his notebook with a snap.

     “Now if you don’t mind detective, we have a performance to prepare for,” and with that Mikhail gripped Anna by the elbow and steered her out of the tent.

***

Anna was late the next day. Police were still crawling all over the carnival, she had seen them interviewing the clowns. If her heart hadn’t seized at the sight of them, she might have found it funny. She had taken a complicated, winding route to avoid them. When she reached the main tent, she pulled the flap back and peered inside.

     “Mik?” He was standing in the centre of the ring dressed in his training gear talking to…

Anna swallowed a gasp as Detective Wilson turned to look at her. His notebook was back in his hand and he was scribbling furiously. The next second he had snapped it shut, walking toward her at a brisk pace. Her heart felt like it was cracking her ribs with each pound. She stood stock still waiting for the detective to seize her wrists and lock them into handcuffs. He was a foot away.

     “Miss Sokolov.” He tipped his hat and swept out of the tent. Anna released the breath she hadn’t realised she was holding. Mikhail was still standing in the middle of the ring, jaw set, poise rigid. She trotted over reaching out to lay a hand on his arm.

     “What was that about?”

     “Nothing,” he muttered kicking at the sand.

     “That wasn’t nothing. What did he want?” Mikhail bit his lip, watching Anna’s face as he thought.

     “He had some questions,” he said finally.

     “Questions?”

     “My…um…movements on the day it happened.” Anna couldn’t breathe. She gaped like a fish out of water. This was so much worse, so much worse. It was like their performances, no one ever expected Anna to be anything but some delicate maiden that Mikhail would have to capture. But Mikhail with his broad soldiers and hard stare, it was easy to believe that he was a fighter. She had even heard some call him a brute. Her eyes burned.

     “No,” she took a step away “No, no, no.”

     “Anna.” Mikhail held out his hands to placate her. “Anna it’s fine-”

     “No!” She shouted. Mikhail winced and held a finger to his lips. She lowered her voice to a whisper. “It is not fine Mikhail. They suspect you, don’t they? They think you did it but it wasn’t!”

     “Anna enough.” His voice was stern but Anna could see the shine in his eyes.

     “It was me,” she hissed as Mikhail shook his head. He pulled her in close, one large hand stroking her hair. They stood there for what could have been hours, days. Anna could have let the world go by if Mikhail kept holding her.

     “They found fingerprints Anna.” She stiffened “That’s why he was here. He wanted me to give them my fingerprints.” She tried to pull away but he held her tighter.

     “What did you say?” Her voice was so quiet that Mikhail took a moment to figure out what she had said.

 

     “I told him he needed a warrant if he wanted them.”

     “But then…who’s fingerprints are they?” Mikhail shrugged.

     “That’s just it. They could be mine, yours, someone who just happened to touch something back there.” Anna tried to speak again but Mikhail cut her off. “Anna there could be a million reasons as to why our fingerprints are there.” He brushed a tear from Anna’s face with his thumb.

     “C’mon. Let’s practise.”

***

Anna swept swirls and circles in the sand as she moved around Mikhail, he reached for her but she always slipped out of his grasp. The audience were silently mesmerised as the two of them moved like liquid to the mournful sound of a lone cello. She was a nymph, an entrancing spirit, and he, the lonesome prince that longed to be with her. A tale told many times before, yet the audience were always heartbroken by the same old tragedy. Anna was almost convinced by the sorrowful expression on Mikhail’s face as he spun to face her once more, he stepped forward as she stepped back and then again in reverse. He was quite the actor, they both were, she even brought tears to her eyes as they glided around the ring. His form smooth and steady as stone, hers like silk drawn across glass. Mikhail always met her, always held her gaze as they moved together, not a step out of place. The music was building, the watching crowd leaning forward to watch the finale. Mikhail, the desperate prince, finally seized hold of his prize pulling her close to his chest. Anna felt the air whoosh from her lungs as she hit his hard torso. She was once again among the dimly lit crates, the scent of old sweat and gasoline filling her nostrils. Mikhail’s grip slackened and she went limp as a ragdoll, her expression blank, head lolling back to stare at the group of figures that had just entered the tent. The lanterns made the silver buttons on their uniforms gleam, as they filed in, the short, balding detective at their head.

Yet it was not the seemingly lifeless body of Anna that they watched, but the now weeping figure of Mikhail that held her. The music ended, the crowd broke into applause, and the uniforms started forward. But before Mikhail had even noticed their presence Anna had risen from his arms and was walking toward them, arms held out before her. The dance was over. She couldn’t let Mikhail, her guardian, her partner, take this fall for her. She would confess.

Though she had told herself that she wouldn’t, for risk of breaking her heart, she turned back to look at Mikhail as Orpheus once looked back at Eurydice before losing her forever. In that one, mournful, fateful look, she knew what he meant to do.

     “No!” he barked. The audience fell silent finally taking notice of the police that had just entered. He stood panting in the dazzling spotlight glaring at Detective Wilson. His ice blue eyes found hers. She shook her head ever so slightly as he gave a sharp nod. Then he ran.

     “After him now!” yelled Wilson, charging across the ring, a stream of uniforms behind him. Anna called after Mikhail but her voice was lost in the confused roar of the crowd.

***

The little room was bare but for the table and the two chairs on either side. Anna shivered, rubbing at the goose-bumps on her arms. There was no chance to change out of her carnival outfit. Surrounded by the dancers; her friend Ida holding her tightly, she had simply stood backstage, waiting for something to happen. Squawks and shouts had come from the mouth of the tent as officers stormed back in.

     “We want to talk you.” They seized her by the arms, practically dragging her across the sand. Next thing she knew they were tossing her in the back of a police carriage. They know. She peered out through the mesh window as the carriage began to trundle forward. The rest of the carnival watched her go, mouths hanging open.

The door of the little room banged open making Anna jump. Detective Wilson, anger radiating off him, strode in sat down heavily in the chair opposite her and crossed his arms.

     “So.” Anna said nothing. “So,” he repeated. A flash of annoyance made Anna frown slightly, if he was going to charge her he could get on with it. Detective Wilson leaned forward. “You know where he is, don’t you?”

She blinked. So, he’d slipped through their fingers, which meant…

     “No, I don’t.” BANG! Wilson had slammed his fist into the table making her jump again.  

     “Don’t lie!” he shouted, jumping to his feet. “I’ve asked around and you two are practically joined at the hip, you and he are best friends…some say more than that.”

     “That’s not true!”

     “You deny being his best friend?”

     “No, I…that’s true but we’re not…we never…” Wilson began to pace.

     “I don’t care what you want to fool yourself with, but I need to know where he is.” Anna’s vision blurred with tears as she shook her head, forcing herself to speak.

     “I don’t know where he is.” Her voice was a whisper and Wilson banged the table gain.

     “You’re lying!”

     “No!”

     “Yes, you are! Stop trying to protect him, the man’s a murderer!” Anna shot to her feet, taller than Wilson, glaring down at him.

     “He is not!” she spat.

     “Tell that to the family of the man he murdered.” It was if the breath had frozen solid in her chest.

     “He had a family?”

     “Parents,” Wilson lowered himself back into his chair “a brother. Do you want to tell me the truth now?” Something frantic and panicked seemed trapped in her throat. Lips trembling, she gaped like a fish. Shaking his head in disgust Wilson made to leave.

     “It was me.”

     “I beg your pardon?”

     “It was me,” repeated Anna in barely more than a whisper. “I did it. Not Mik.” They stared at each other. Then, with a small sigh, he left closing the door behind him. 

 

***

Ida thrust a newspaper into Anna’s face as she lay curled on her bed. She had to blink her eyes several times to bring them into focus. Sleep seemed impossible, instead Anna had merely stared at the tent wall. All she could see was Mikhail, running from the police, being captured, thrown in a cell. She had laid on her bed and cried until she felt drained.

     “Look!” Ida said, shaking the paper in her face. Taking hold of it gingerly as if it were diseased, she smoothed it out to see the headline.

CIRCUS PERFORMER EVADES CAPTURE

Anna stared at the printed letters, her tired brain processing the words one by one.

     “A circus indeed,” muttered Ida in an annoyed tone.

      “Evades capture?” Anna jumped up. “They didn’t get him?” Ida snorted.

     “Looks like your man has a few tricks up his sleeve, huh?”

     “He’s not…” She frowned at Ida, who raised her eyebrows. Ida had always teased her about Mikhail, sent her knowing looks after every show. Before she knew it, Anna was standing at the entrance to her tent, pulling aside the material. She half expected to see Mikhail there, arms wide to embrace her a wide and that infectious grin on his face.

     “Hey!” Ida grabbed her arm, holding her fast but Anna yanked herself free.

     “He’s out there Ida!” she pointed out at the horizon. “He’s out there somewhere! What if he needs me?!”

     “I know Anna,” she said, face full of pity. “But you can’t help him now. What he did…” Anna shook her head violently.

     “Don’t! Just don’t! It’s not true! It’s just…It’s not true!” She sank to the floor, curling in on herself as if in pain. “And you don’t know. You don’t know a damn thing!” She screeched, balled up, eyes squeezed so tightly shut that bright light flashed against the black.

 

     “C’mon,” she felt Ida’s hand slide softly over her, lifting her slowly and leading her gently out toward the main tent “Francis wants to talk to us.” The carnival seemed to move at double speed, blurring around her. The next thing Anna knew she was sat watching Francis pace up and down in the sand.

     “Last night was a disaster.” He fiddled with the rounded head of his cane, glaring at it as if it had done him some unforgivable wrong. Everyone nodded, murmuring in agreement and shooting nervous looks Anna’s way. Francis raised his hands for silence, pouting like he was the victim in all this. “However, every other performance was sensational! Our profits have gone up thirty percent!” Anna curled her hands into fists, leaving little crescents in her palms. Most rolled their eyes at Francis when his back was turned, but simply glossing over Mikhail like this? Wonderful, brave, generous Mikhail. Mikhail that had made this show what it was, Anna alongside him.

     “In fact, the other night we had a very special guest.” He paused for effect. When there were no gasps of delight he continued. “A countess, one that resides in the local town, was in attendance at our show the other night. I’m proud to say that she was blown away by my-” he coughed “our show. And she has invited us all to…” he pulls a letter from his pocket, unfolding it dramatically. The handwriting was loopy and elegant, a scarlet seal shone like a blood drop on the bottom. “Her annual masquerade ball!”

Everybody burst into excited giggles and whispers. Anna twisted her lips into a half a smile as Ida shot her a thrilled grin. Mikhail would have loved a ball. A chance to don his best suit and dance with any pretty thing that caught his eye and shot him a coy smirk in return. Her chest gave a painful pang.

     “Isn’t this great? A party!” squealed Ida. Anna shrugged, patting her hand and bobbing her head slightly; it was all she could manage.

     “Tell me all about it, okay?”

     “You’re not going?” asked Ida, face falling. Anna began to shake her head but Francis’ loud voice stopped her.

     “Oh yes you are.” He pointed one nicotine stained finger threateningly at Anna. “You are going to turn up, you’re going to smile and you are going to dance, the whole thing.”

     “But-”

     “No arguments.” He glared at her. Gritting her teeth she glared back. She stood up, hopped over the few benches in front of her people leaning away to make room. The world seemed to shrink to a tiny circle in front of her. No sooner had she made it outside when a hand span her around. Francis’ grip was tight, his face red and spitting as he spoke. “You will go. You are still my star and I still hold your contract.” Anna growled at him but he only twisted his hand. A very different scene flashed in front of her.

Darkness. Arms around her, one hand sliding into her trousers. Hand over her mouth so she couldn’t call for help, pulling down the fabric. She moved on instinct sending Francis stumbling back. There was a pounding in her ears and her skin prickled.

“That’s my girl,” said Francis, an unpleasant smile on his face “There’s that fire.”

     “Francis I-”

     “Look girl, I own you. You don’t do as I say and I’ll have you thrown in jail with that killer for breach of contract.” She winced at the words. Francis was already walking away. “Wear the blue dress,” he called over his shoulder.

***

     “Ah, Miss Sokolov.” Detective Wilson turned to face her as Anna entered her tent.

     “Did you just walk in here?” She stared at him, incredulous “You can’t do that.”

 

     “Why? Do you have something to hide Miss Sokolov?” Tears began to blur the tent around her, but she set her mouth into a hard line.

 

     “Don’t. Don’t try and turn this on me. You’re the one in the wrong here.” The corner of his mouth twitched as he bobbed his head.

 

     “I have a couple of questions for you, if you wouldn’t mind?” He gestured to her bed. Still glaring at him she walked to it but didn’t sit.

 

     “Did you not get enough information with your little interrogation before?” His laugh was short and mirthless. The little notepad he was flipping seemed especially loud in the quiet tent. “I told you everything I know. I even gave you the real culprit.” Once again, he smiled at her eyes full of condescension.

 

     “Yes, you did didn’t you.” It was like he was talking to a child that had misbehaved, or a confused elderly person. She was half expecting him to pat her on the head.

 

      “Has Mikhail Alexeev made contact with you in any way?” Was he asking a genuine question? Yesterday he was convinced Anna knew where Mik was, but he was looking at her with actual curiosity in his eyes.

 

     “Er…no. No, I’ve heard nothing.” It was slightly unnerving, this sudden change in questioning. Anna felt fabric beneath her, she had sunk onto the bed without realising.

 

      “Do you know if he has contacted anyone else here at the carnival?” She shook her head. For a moment there was silence but for the scratching of Wilson’s pen. “If you hear anything please contact-”

 

     “Wait what?” Wilson raised his eyebrows innocently at her.

 

     “Miss Sokolov?”

 

     “That’s it? And you believe me?”

 

     “Why shouldn’t I believe you Miss Sokolov?” They stared at each other for a few seconds, her eyes narrowed in suspicion, his wide, a small smile playing on his lips. It was as if he had completely forgotten their previous interrogation.

 

Finally, she whispered a soft “No.”

 

     “Well then.” Detective Wilson gave a little bow and walked out of the tent. Ida, who had come bounding up, gaped as she watched him go.

 

     “What was that about?” Still sat on the bed, feeling like she was stuck there, she turned her head to Ida.

 

     “I have absolutely no idea.”

 

***

 

Every surface of the ballroom seemed to shimmer and gleam. Blazing gold, pearl and ivory dripped from the twisting candelabras above and the elegant gowns of the women on the dance floor. Anna felt her mouth open slightly as she gazed, wide-eyed at the beauty of it all. Surveying the dancefloor like a battlefield from up on the ballroom balcony, she scanned the crowd. There were masks of every shape. Feline, vulpine, avian, reptilian, some were impish devils or porcelain angels each with a pair of dark eyes gleaming behind them.

Anna adjusted her own mask, an elegant owl in dark feathers, and fingered the material of her dress. She was acutely aware that amongst all the gilded statues, every surface covered in gold-leaf, her dress of deep midnight blue stood out a mile. It was as if there was a spotlight trained on her every move, though no one appeared to be looking at her. The rest of her party had abandoned her as soon as they’d gotten through the door. She’d spotted Ida a couple of times, a glass of champagne in her hand and a group of enchanted young men following her.

The countess had been a frail old woman that looked ready to collapse under the weight of layers of lace and jewellery. Anna doubted that this ancient thing had made it all the way to the carnival and back.

Though waiters in uniforms of even more gold offered her platters of tiny sandwiches, bite-size quiches, and glasses of champagne she couldn’t bring herself to eat or drink. She felt like fine porcelain, every smile leaving cracks, every laugh a blow to her chest leaving gaping holes in her façade.

If only Mikhail were there with his huge, steady presence, his soft, reassuring voice. If she had Mikhail she could walk through the room naked and hold her head up high. Closing her eyes, she pictured him there in a matching tailcoat and mask, hand on hers. She took a deep breath and made her way down the curving staircase as the band began a new song.

People giggled and whispered as she wandered amongst the crowd. Her heart gave a slight pang as she noticed that nearly all were couples, except the waiters and waitresses balancing trays of champagne and hors d'oeuvres precariously over their heads.

The sky outside was black and speckled with stars. She leant against the window and closed her eyes again, but the image of Mikhail in chains thrust itself to the forefront of her mind. That image had haunted her all day, each time her throat ached and she knew if she wasn’t careful she would start crying again. She tried to steady her breathing and wrapped her arms around herself. Wherever he was, she hoped he was warm. Mikhail could never stand the cold.

     “Excuse me miss, may I have the next dance?” She sighed. Many men had asked for a dance or two that evening. They had wanted to dance with the wild lady from the carnival and had been horrified when she’d wanted to lead. Hitching another smile onto her face she graciously nodded her head.  

     “Yes, of course.”

Anna felt a hand at her back and turned to be swept into the arms of a new partner. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and Anna could feel strong muscle beneath the night blue tailcoat. She blinked up at him, and a familiar smile made her heart stutter in her chest.

 

     “Mi-”

 

     “Hush. Careful little bird,” whispered Mikhail. Half his face was hidden under a black velvet mask with delicate silver metalwork curling around the left eye like ivy. His coat was studded with tiny silver constellations that matched the patterns on her own. He must’ve snuck back into the carnival to make sure he had a matching outfit. The lights burned low, as the sound of a lone piano began to play. Mikhail pulled her close, as he had done a thousand times before, and they began to dance. But this wasn’t like those times dancing in the ring, there were no fancy twists or flares. This was no performance, they danced only for themselves.

 

     “What are you doing here?” asked Anna, her eyes drinking in the sight of him, here, with her.

 

     “I wanted to dance with you.” said Mikhail still smiling at her softly.

     “You’ve danced with me hundreds of times,” she murmured. He gave a low chuckle and swept her into a dip that made her gasp.

 

     “Not like this though,” he pulled her back to him “I think I like this better.”

     “They’ll catch you.” She glanced at the dancing couples around her, any one of them could overhear and give Mikhail away.

 

     “Maybe so, but I think it’s worth the risk,” he replied. She wanted to scream at him, to yell at him to run, escape. Instead she could only shake her head in disbelief.

     “No, it’s not Mik, it’s definitely not worth the risk.” He pressed his forehead to hers and closed his eyes behind his mask.

 

     “I disagree. I disagree quite strongly,” they slowed to a stop in the centre of the room letting the colours and sound continue spinning around them “It is always worth the risk to see you.” She bit her lip as they began to turn slowly on the spot once more.

 

     “Mik,” she breathed. Another chuckle as he tipped face up to his.

     “You knew. Everyone knew Anna. I’ve felt this way…” he sighed “This can’t come as a surprise.” As soon as he said it she knew he was right. It was the same for her too. Still…

     “They know you’re here don’t they?” He didn’t answer stepping away into an extension “They’re on their way.” It wasn’t a question; Mikhail had stopped running. She squeezed his fingers and stepped closer, his breath tickling her ear. She remembered the long treks with the carnival between towns. Her and the rest of the performers stumbling through thick black mud that clung to the skin and made her clammy and tired. Mikhail would always sing the entire way, the same songs over and over again. Sometimes she would sing with him, sometimes she would yell at him to shut his trap. She remembered the look on his face when he found her, curled on the ground staring into unseeing eyes. Being pulled to her feet and him tugging her close. As they revolved she leaned against his chest, listening to the steady beat of his heart.

     “Anna…” She could see tears in his eyes and hear the strain in his voice. “Just…one last time. That’s all I wanted. To dance with you, one last time.”

     “Mikhail…I…”

 

     “You don’t have to say it little bird.” He leaned down till they were almost nose to nose, she could feel his breath on her lips. “I’ve known for a long time.” She closed her eyes as his lips brushed hers. The music faded away, the bright lights dimmed, the room stilled. All she could feel, smell, taste, was Mikhail. Time stopped to watch them.

Anna felt Mikhail being yanked away from her.

     “Mikhail Alexeev you are under arrest for the murder of one Richard Dawkins and resisting arrest. You do not have to say anything…” Detective Wilson was standing beside two uniformed officers that were dragging Mikhail away from her. She reached out, but he shook his head warningly. Everyone had turned to stare at the scene, gasping and muttering as one of the officers drew a pair of handcuffs from his belt.

     “Mikhail-”

 

     “Anna don’t,” said Mikhail, wincing as the officers pulled his arms behind him. She reached for him again and once more he shook his head. Wilson was watching her carefully, face impassive.

     “I killed him,” said Anna stepping forward, arms held out. “I told you before, it was me.”

 

     “No!” shouted Mikhail and he began to struggle against the officer’s grip. Wilson’s eyes darted around at crowd, all of whom were watching with fascination. After a few seconds he seemed to come to a decision, approaching Anna.

 

     “Are you sure about this Miss Sokolov?” he said, his voice low, serious. “A little thing like you? A killer?” He raised his eyebrows at her.

     “He tried to force himself on me, so I snapped his neck and hid the body.” She forced herself not to blink or tremble as she looked Wilson directly in the eye. His shoulders slumped ever so slightly.

     “Anna, no!” Mikhail’s voice broke as he yelled at her, his voice echoing through the silent ballroom. “She’s lying! It’s not true, I did it! I did it! She’s lying, please!” It took one look and the damn broke. Tears began to flow freely down her face. Stupidly she thought My make-up will be ruined. Mikhail continued to struggle. She could not tell if it was anger, sorrow, or pleading on his face, she only knew that she was really going to miss him. “Anna.” His voice was hoarse and she smiled as cold metal wrapped around her wrists.

     “Anna Sokolov you are under arrest for the murder of-”

 

     “NO!” Mikhail began to struggle in earnest against the two officers who were holding him. “ANNA!” She choked back a sob as the buzzing in the room grew louder and louder, many looking at Anna like she was diseased. Wilson’s head swivelled between her and Mikhail who was still fighting tooth and nail to get loose. But he had no choice. He gave Anna a gentle nudge. She hung her head, unable to look at Mikhail a second longer, but she couldn’t block out his normally gentle voice screaming her name between deep, harsh, breaths.

     “C’mon lass,” said Wilson and they began to make their way through the crowd. Ida watched tearfully from her little collection of admirers. She bit her lip as Mikhail screamed.

     “I love him you know?” she mumbled to Wilson tasting salt on her tongue.

     “I know lass, and I think it’s fair to say that he loves you too.”

     “Yes,” said Anna “Yes, he does.”

The End

Listen to the song that inspired this story: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Y0-Rz6x3k 

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