By Beka Gremikova
“Did you just ask me to cut off your head?” Arden stared through the iron bars at the tiger.
“I did.” The cat calmly laid her head on her paws.
“You must be mad!”
“Perhaps.” Her lips curled back in a grin like some overgrown Cheshire Cat.
He shivered. He hoped the dormice wouldn’t start talking to him, too. “Ask someone else!” Arden spread out his arms at the surrounding bustling circus. “Surely you can find a killer clown somewhere.”
The tiger glared. “I can’t ask anyone else for specific reasons, and you are the clown!” She stared pointedly at his sagging costume, large orange shoes, and the axe he held in one hand.
“This is a prop!” Their circus master had a twisted sense of humor and liked to add a touch of the macabre to his venue’s atmosphere.
“It’s still a weapon!”
Arden sighed. What a day. First, he couldn’t find his best friend, Trina, and was certain she must be avoiding him; now a tiger was trying to turn him into a criminal. If it got any worse, Lucinda, the circus’ resident witch, might decide to curse him to practice for her crowd-pleasing curse-casting performance. “Listen—”
He nearly jumped out of his skin as a gnarled hand clamped down on his shoulder. He spun to face Lucinda herself, swathed in a dress of vivid tiger-orange.
“Lucinda,” he burbled before she could say anything, “have you seen Trina anywhere?”
“Trina can wait,” Lucinda snapped, adjusting her pointed witch’s hat. “You need to get your killer-clown-butt in gear and help that tiger.”
“Thank you,” the tiger said, chuffing appreciatively.
Arden straightened, heat rising to his cheeks. “Trina can’t wait! I need to know if she’s mad at me… if…” He trailed off. If one of his many jokes had cut a bit too deeply.
“That doesn’t matter.” Lucinda waved her hand in his face.
His nostrils flared. “It does matter! Trina’s my best friend!”
“You’ll find her later.” Lucinda unlocked the tiger’s cage, and the beast leaped out, its bright pelt rippling.
Arden backed up, bumping into a nearby tent. Its striped flaps fluttered in the wind. Orange streamers flew from its pointed top.
The tigers’ performing ring.
Tiger and witch approached from either side, driving him into the tent and the empty, dusty ring within. If he didn’t comply, would the witch turn him into a bat? Or—horrors—a baboon?
He adjusted his grip on the axe and blew out his lips, heart thumping.
“Just one swing,” the tiger said, sitting before him with her tail curled around her paws.
“Why are you so relaxed?” he snapped. “This isn’t a massage! Why would you even want your head cut off?”
The tiger sighed and exchanged a pained glance with Lucinda. “Arden, haven’t you considered that magic might be involved?”
“I don’t know anything about magic! I’m a killer clown.” He didn’t have time to study magic’s multitude of clauses and rules. And he didn’t really want to hear about people turning into beasts, or getting maimed, or dying…
About all he knew of magic was that curses were usually temporary unless certain conditions weren’t met. Trina complained about that all the time in her job as the circus’ HR manager—apparently Lucinda’s magical curses didn’t always wear off after performances. It made for so much paperwork Arden was surprised trees didn’t go on strike.
“Well, you should become more knowledgeable,” the tiger snapped. “How else are you going to help someone who might be in magical need?”
“You sound like Trina,” Arden said.
The tiger flattened her ears and growled, then leapt to her feet. “Are you going to attack me or not?”
Arden planted his feet and rolled his shoulders. Relax. He shut his eyes, took a deep breath. Cracked his knuckles. Stretched.
“Hey batter batter! Stop taking so long!” Lucinda poked his shoulder. “We’re not at a baseball game!”
The tiger’s tail lashed.
“I’m nervous!” Arden hefted his axe. “Despite my job description, I don’t make a habit of chopping off heads—”
The tiger launched herself at him, snarling.
On instinct, Arden swung, axeblade flashing in the dim light—
He squeezed his eyes shut, and his stomach vaulted at the impact. A high-pitched poof echoed through the ring.
A familiar voice said, “You can open your eyes, Arden. There’s no blood.”
Was that… Trina?
He cautiously opened his eyes. Trina sat in front of him, rubbing her face, tossing her long black hair back over her shoulder. “You—you were the tiger?” Arden stammered.
“Lucinda wanted help practicing a new spell. But she didn’t check to see what the conditions were for it to be temporary.” Trina scowled. “To be temporary, the curse’s subject has to be taller than five foot five and boast long golden hair.” She held up a lock of black hair and glowered at Lucinda, who ducked her head. “And to break the curse any other way,” Trina continued, “You need the person you love most to… well…” She slid her finger across her throat. “You know.”
He nodded, wide-eyed.
“And… even though your jokes hurt sometimes, you’re my best friend. I figured you’re the only clown around who could break my curse.”
Warmth spread through Arden, and his tense shoulders relaxed. “Thanks,” he murmured. “I’m sorry I go too far sometimes.” He reached out to help her up.
“Good thing I’m so nice and will accept your apology.” She took his hand and he tugged her upright. She brushed off her dress. “You still need to learn more about magic, though. Then you’d know I couldn’t tell you I was cursed—that’d make the curse impossible to break! Magic 101.”
Arden smiled sheepishly. “Guess I’ve got some reading to do.” After all, with Lucinda around, there’d probably be lots more cursed creatures. He was going to be a real killer clown.