Pekne lay still, listening to the raised voices coming through the wall of her small sleeping chamber, adjacent to her master’s quarters.
A woman was sobbing, explaining something unintelligible. Her master’s voice cut through the noise, rough yet tender.
“Querida, do not worry. He can’t get you here, shhh, querida, querida, shh, I got you, shh.”
The sobbing seemed to lessen. Curiosity tingled in Pekne’s toes. She longed to go investigate. Who was out there? She had only ever heard her master call his cats that strange word, querida, and he loved no one like he loved his cats, not even Pekne.
The female voice spoke, clearly now. Pekne stiffened, as she thought she recognized the voice. But that couldn’t be…
“If only you could be with me always – but you cannot, I must return to the public eye unaccompanied, for the sake of you and everyone in The Company, you know that. ”
“Avoid him, then! Trust Ilsa, she can tell you where he will be in advance, and you can make sure to not be there.”
“Ah, true my darling, but there is no avoiding his Grand Solstice fete, we are already contracted for at least ten separate performances, it will provide for the entire Company for months. I cannot send my people to his estate and not show my face, it would ruin the Company’s reputation. I could not do that to my players… they deserve better than this cowardice.”
“Querida, you are no coward, hush. You are magnificent, minha leoa. Look at you…”
Pekne blushed to hear such affectionate talk out of her gruff, unyielding instructor. Who knew he had such feelings, let alone for Madame – it must be her, the way she talks… Pekne could scarcely believe it.
Imagining the wealthy and imposing Madame Valeres in the arms of the lion tamer was such an impossible thing. Madame was elegant, graceful, and aloof. Pekne’s master was called Divoch – meaning savage- because of his thick accent, dark skin, and strange ways with beasts. The thought of them together was like imagining the union of sun and moon.
Pekne’s toes were tingling again, now with the anticipation for her first performance in front of real nobles, not just their silly children. She took a deep breath and formed peace within her breast, as her master had taught her, to keep the animals calm. Her little monkey and parrot each rode one of her shoulders when she stepped out to meet theMaster of Beasts.
In the arena she was transformed from timid Pekne into the Dzunglv’ca – the wild girl, the jungle girl – and she undulated in the savage dance that Ilsa, the Company’s best dancer, had spent countless hours training her for. She leapt and twisted, tumbled and both led andmimicked the beasts all around them. Divoch controlled the lionesses with fierce dignity, undaunted and magnificent, the unquestioned leader of this unnatural pride.
It was the finest performance of the night.
Pekne took her bow to a thunderous applause, feeling the heat of the dance and the nervous excitement of the animals at the roar of noise coming from the crowd. She could see Madame in the front row of the arena, seated next to the host, the languid Lord Raknar. Her posture was stiff, but her face beamed with pleasure. Pekne never felt so proud to be a performer in Madame’s legendary Company.
Meanwhile, Divoch wasted no time leading his mighty lionesses away to their temporary enclosure outside. Pekne gave light touches and made soothing sounds to her own creatures, once more upon her shoulders, and turned to follow.
But before he had led them more than a few paces, Lord Raknar raised his voice, and the crowd hastened to dampen their enthusiasm and listen.
“Master of Beasts! ”
Divoch halted, and laid a finger on the forehead of the lionesses on his either side, halting them in turn. He bowed stiffly. “Your lordship?”
Though his mouth seemed to smile, Pekne wondered how the young Lord’s eyes could look still so menacing. He is like the viper…
“You have so done well, I wish to see more!” he exclaimed with dramatic hand gestures.
The audience erupted in agreement at this sentiment.
“Very well, my lord…” Divoch seemed to be searching for more to say. Pekne wondered at his compliancy. The lionesses were haughty, wild beasts, and did not tolerate extra work well, under ideal conditions. Divoch never tolerated such pretensions from other nobles. Pekne glanced back at Madame, and saw her grow pale and thin-lipped.
“Yes, it is well.” Lord gave a toothy smile. “But let’s switch things up, shall we? Let you and the Dzunglv’ca trade places!” Pekne felt her mouth drop open, and she tried to close it. Me perform his part? Master be the Jungle Girl? The thought was absurd, and stupid. It was dusk and the tips of tails were flicking in expectation of their usual prepared meal, not another performance.
The crowd was unnaturally still and Madame looked ghostly in the fading daylight. “Perhaps another time, my lord, even I weary of these beasts…” She cleared her throat, and spoke softly. “Surely we could find entertainment more… suitable for the hour?”
Divoch suddenly straightened and interrupted “No!” He lowered his voice a fraction, and added, “Of course we will perform as our lord wishes, Madame, it is no question.” And he led the lionesses back towards Pekne. She stared at him in disbelief.
He arrived in front of Pekne and held out his hand in command for the monkey to crawl to his own shoulder. The parrot flapped over of it’s own accord.
“But Master… they – the lionesses- they.. I am not -”
He shushed her fearful whispered doubts.
“We’ve no choice, Pekne. Understand? I will be directing as usual, only as Dzunglv’ca – I may look a fool, but I will not endanger you. Remember, my leoas do not respect fear.” He glanced at the platform where Madame sat beside Lord Raknar, expectant. “Be brave, filha.”
She nodded, and he handed her the whip that was his only prop, and took her feathered cape and crown. She swallowed her anxiety and moved center stage, with two lionesses on either side. Her master began the dance again. He did not dance as graceful as her, of course, but he knew the motions. He wasin a strange, wild way, just as powerful as the Dzunglv’ca as he was as the Master. If the Lord had been trying to make a fool of him, he had grossly underestimated Divoch’s versatility.
Pekne tried her best to perform her master’s own moves, the powerful strides and postures, but it was difficult to concentrate with the lord looming just above of her. She felt foolish playing the part of a grown man, at first. But after a few moments, she got caught up in the music, and the heat again, and she could almost believe that she was truly the Master of Beasts, and that the whip she cracked in the air was a conduit of her power.
However she felt, Pekne knew she was only feigning direction to the lionesses – Divoch was in control. They looked only at him for guidance, it was a total farce to believe anyone but he could command them. Their golden eyes glowed in the dimming light, their fur shimmering almost red in the sunset, but Pekne never feared them, for she trusted in Divoch completely.
When she took her second bow that night, she was relieved to see the Lord looked pleased, although Madame seemed paler than ever. He clapped voraciously, saying “Bravo!” with a toothy smile. Pekne breathed deep in relief, and looked to Divoch, waiting for him to lead the lionesses around her out of the arena.
Just as he turned to do so, an immensely loud, single gunshot rang out. In a breath of shock, panic set upon the crowd as they scrambled to determine where the threat originated.Unperturbed, Lord Raknar did not turn to look.
Instead, he grabbed Madame’s hand, holding her in place, forcing her to watch the scene on the arena floor unfold. “You did this, ” he hissed in her ear. “Never forget that.”
Pekne did not see the scramble of the crowd. In fact, she had barely registered the shot when the lionesses reacted to the crowd’s panic. She did not see Divoch’s expression of horror when she fell, or Madame’s tears. From her place on the grassy arena floor, all she could see was golden fur shimmering like copper in the dying light.