If you knew how dark tomorrow would be, what would you do with today?
“This is the magic circus book that I have been looking for all my life.”―Seanan McGuire, New York Times bestselling author of Every Heart A Doorway
Ringmaster — Rin, to those who know her best — can jump to different moments in time as easily as her wife, Odette, soars from bar to bar on the trapeze. And the circus they lead is a rare home and safe haven for magical misfits and outcasts, known as Sparks.
With the world still reeling from World War I, Rin and her troupe — the Circus of the Fantasticals — travel the midwest, offering a single night of enchantment and respite to all who step into their Big Top.
But threats come at Rin from all sides. The future holds an impending war that the Sparks can see barrelling toward their show and everyone in it. And Rin’s past creeps closer every day, a malevolent shadow she can’t fully escape.
It takes the form of another circus, with tents as black as midnight and a ringmaster who rules over his troupe with a dangerous power. Rin’s circus has something he wants, and he won’t stop until it’s his.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The First Bright Thing by J.R. Dawson, on sale 6/13/23.
The Ringmaster, 1926
The war had been over for many years. Grief had blended into everyday life. So the circuses had returned.
And with those circuses, the Ringmaster had come to be.
She needed to remember this, as she sat in the dark of her caboose, waiting for Odette and Mauve. She needed to remember things were different than they were when she last saw him. Years had passed. She had grown more than her fair share.
She looked at the space between her bed and the wall. She shouldn’t reach down there to what she’d hidden. She didn’t need to; she was strong enough without it. But why did she have to be?
She pulled the small flask out of its hiding place. She unscrewed the cap. But something stopped her from putting it to her lips. She’d promised Odette she’d try.
It would be a release, to let it go down into her brain and stop the electric worry. Rin had one foot in dark memories and one foot in fear about what was to come, and she tried to straddle sanity here in the today.
To just take one swig, just a little bit, she could breathe. It wasn’t the alco- hol that called her, but what the alcohol would give her: peace, and the pain she deserved.
But she screwed the cap back on. She stared soberly at the quilt beneath her, her head pressed against the wall behind. Out the window, the landscape moving, far away from Des Moines and now magically coming for Omaha from the west. She’d flown them to Kearney, then let the train speed along the tracks like it was a normal train, a real train, nothing to see here.
It would be all right.
She was no longer someone he knew. In fact, she had very much hoped he thought her dead and buried. Eternally out of his reach.
The past belonged to the war, to the man who had orchestrated her story, for a time. But she had reclaimed herself, built up defenses of love and beauty, until she felt not quite new, but restored. Like a piece of old furniture, unbroken and with new purpose.
But reclaimed and rebuilt or not, she would still take her circus and she would run. They’d shouted out a John Robinson, and the aftershow on the midway and in the Big Top abruptly ended in a sense of urgent danger. But everything had gone like clockwork, just like they’d practiced in drills, Rin preparing her crew for something she had never really thought would hap- pen. The performers had hurried the few lingering members of the audi- ence out the door. Maynard multiplied and hastily packed up the tents, the midway, the wagons, the sideshow, and shoved it all onto the fourteen train cars linked to the 4–8–2 Mountain engine. Mr. Weathers, the trainmaster, worked with Francis the Fire Starter and Yvanna to heat up the coals and get the train rushing. Once everyone was on board, the train shot forward into the night. Once the wheels were turning and they’d built momentum, Rin had tapped into her Spark, forced herself to concentrate long enough to stiffly move the whole train from Des Moines to the tracks west of Lincoln, rushing east to Omaha.
Then there was only the waiting. The uncertainty of the dark, black space beyond and ahead. Wide Nebraska sky above, dead black fields around them too far from the train’s light to see.
You think you’re so clever. But I was always the clever one. I know you’re afraid.
She shoved her aged body off the bed, still holding the flask and gritting her teeth as she situated her trick leg to walk. Her stiff fingers fumbled around its black metal skin.
She’d promised Odette she wouldn’t. It had been six years.
Odette and Mauve would be on their way to the caboose, making sure everyone else was comfortable and got food in the pie car since they’d had to vamoose before getting any dinner after the performance. They’d be here any minute, to get to work and plan for Omaha. But Rin felt a thousand years removed from them, and a million miles away.
Mauve and Odette had not known the Circus King. They knew him in name, they had seen his posters. They had heard the stories. But they had never looked him in the eye. Rin had not only known him, but she had loved him.
She felt the weight of the black flask in her palm. Sometimes the Ringmas- ter thought she was strong, and sometimes she thought she’d be better off disappearing into nothing.
You are nothing.
The girl in Rin’s red smock, her monotone voice still whispered in Rin’s ears. There you are.
The Circus King thought she was dead; she had abandoned her name on a grave for him to find. Years ago, in a cemetery in Chicago, she had cauter- ized the wounds of everything that had come before. As far as the world was concerned, she was dead. She could let go, start over, try again. And although she’d known it might not protect her forever, it had allowed her to sleep at night.
It had worked for a time, but now he knew—he was wrong, and she was very much alive.
Odette and Mauve stood in the doorway, the vestibule and the dark night behind them. The metal door shut with a loud clang.
Odette spotted the flask. Rin sucked in air. She handed it over. Odette narrowed her eyes.
“I didn’t,” Rin said.
Rin knew Odette believed her. But Odette still walked back outside to the vestibule, and even though Rin couldn’t see her, she knew she was dumping it out onto the passing gravel.
“Rin,” Mauve said again. “Are you ready?”
She had to be ready. One show was done, and they had another show to- morrow night. It was past midnight, which meant they’d get into Omaha soon enough, have a little time to plan and sleep, then they’d get up and start unloading the wagons off the flats. It was usually something full of anticipa- tion and excitement, like a perfect blue-skied day.
Rin looked out the back window, off past the caboose’s end railing, as if she would see him trailing behind them.
“We knew this would happen someday,” Odette said quietly.
“And now it’s happened,” Rin said.
“He doesn’t get to take our joy,” Odette said. “This isn’t his circus. He doesn’t get to scare us.”
“He’s more powerful now,” Rin said. “Why do you say that?” Odette said.
“Because I’m more powerful,” Rin said, looking at Odette. She tried to believe she looked steadfast in the dark, solid and unafraid. “I’m strong enough, even if it’s just enough to outrun him.”
Odette took Rin’s hand, gloves on. Even after all these years, Rin couldn’t let Odette’s bare hands touch her unless Odette was healing her. Because the only thing separating the Circus King’s Spark from Odette’s was good intentions.
“We’re here, together,” Odette said quietly. “You’re not in this alone.”
That made her feel worse. Because she shouldn’t have dragged anyone else into this.
“If he comes,” Rin said, “I’ll handle him. But you two take the circus and run.”
Mauve stroked Rin’s hair. “If you’re not up for our check-in, we can let it go for tonight. Odette and I can handle it.”
“No,” Rin said. “Let’s do it.”
My little starling, you lie. You are terrified. And I know it. I’m coming.
“Come on,” Rin said.
The three of them sat on the bed, next to one another. Odette, the one who kept them alive and together. And Mauve, the financier and their navigator. Ringmaster, trying her hardest at being some kind of leader.
The last two cars doubled as the owners’ living quarters and offices, and this was where the three of them belonged, here in the private caboose. The train was long; flatbeds for the poles and wagons and canvas, sleeper cars for the per- formers, even that pie car was put in when there was extra money last spring. They’d made it all quite comfy, their fourteen-car house on wheels.
There on Odette and Rin’s bed, covered in colorful quilts that told a story of their years together, the three of them sat cross-legged taking deep breaths in and out. Mauve sniffed, clearing out her nose, then stared straight ahead as if a projector had just clicked on behind her eyes. They narrowed like she was searching through an encyclopedia for an entry she needed and couldn’t find.
Her appearance was one of a time traveler; her natural hair was styled in a conglomeration of the current day’s fashion and what she called a “page- boy” from the future. Her finger-curls framed her soft, brown face. Right now Mauve was not smiling, but when she did it was a big smile, with perfect teeth and a contagious laugh. Her cheeks were round and full. She had warm brown eyes, looking out to the world like she’d just gotten here and loved every- thing she saw. She hadn’t just gotten here; she knew how ugly things could get. But she still kept looking at it like there was something worth watching.
Mauve’s Spark was to see all of time like it was a book in front of her. It was so much for one person to hold. Rin sometimes feared Mauve would get lost, remembering the past, present, and future all at once. But perhaps those who are the most liable to float off are those who take the most precautions to tether themselves.
Odette, on the other hand, walked as if she was made of air, but her body was strong and her spirit was sturdy. Rin had learned over time, Odette wasn’t holding on just for Odette’s sake; she was holding on for Rin, too.
Something deep stirred within Rin; a warmth like a campfire in summer. Odette was beautiful. Even in this scary night, full of danger and darkness, Odette’s presence shimmered. She was someone who would keep trying, some- one who wasn’t afraid, someone who knew how to love. She was Rin’s favorite story.
She will leave you. And I will find you.
The cold chill of the love he taught her, replacing the promise of her wife. Rin’s brain wanted to tell her that Odette wasn’t real, the Circus King was real. Odette was too good to be true. The Circus King was too terrible to be a lie.
“Oh,” Mauve said in that voice that swirled New Orleans and the Midwest together. Her childhood, her adulthood. She reached to the side of the bed and grabbed some Cracker Jacks. She stuffed them in her mouth, still staring ahead, as if she were enraptured in a book. “Okay, I see her.”
Every night before a show, Mauve saw someone—“the special guest,” they called them—someone whose life could be changed, if only they could see the right spark of hope or magic. With Mauve’s direction, they would piece together what it was the special guest needed to see, and they would work it into that evening’s show. A week ago, it had been a boy named Henry Dodds. Tonight, it had been a man who Rin hoped had still gotten what he needed, even with the Circus King coming in to mess with her head.
He’d named himself that: the Circus King. He had midnight-black tents, bloodred advertisements, and a crew and cast with Sparks under his control. Bad things happened when the black tents came to a town. Worse things would happen to Windy Van Hooten’s.
Mauve’s eyes flickered, a film reel flipping to the end of a roll. She shook her head and stared now at Rin. Rin stared back. Mauve wasn’t far away, but there was a world between them. Rin gripped the bed quilt with clammy hands. Whatever Mauve said next, they could handle it. They’d handled every- thing before. Together.
“It’s dark,” Mauve said, hoarsely. “It’s bad. It covers her—the guest. There’s a dark over her and her brother, and it spans out to us, and further.” Her eyes went back to the film reel only she could see, and despite the Nebraska heat, Rin shivered. Their review sessions had a pattern. Mauve would spot the glowing person in the town, she would list off facts about their life and what they needed, Rin would propose specs—acts—to weave the person’s thread into different directions, Mauve would look to see if that would work, and Odette would say something about how it was getting late. They’d pick a spec, say goodnight, and crash into sleep.
For Henry Dodds last week, Mauve had pointed out he was alone, he was scared, and his brain had difficulties knowing what was real and not real. They had concocted a plan and then executed it. Henry had needed to re- member why he had loved life before the trenches of war, so Mauve had sung a song about a mother and a child in her set, and the clowns did an extra five minutes. Then when Henry had approached the Ringmaster after the show, the three women had offered medical help from the next century. But the script was unfolding differently tonight.
“There’s something in the future,” Mauve now said, “and it’s big. It doesn’t just touch one person, but all the people I can see.”
Mauve could not see everything, but she could see the dust that attached to her own thread of life, and that power had grown to see the dust on the threads of those she loved. Now, she’d honed her Spark to see their audience, anyone she met, or had met, or would meet. This was a crucial skill when it came to the business of their circus.
But now Mauve looked around the room, as if all the dead of the world surrounded her, her eyes getting larger, her mouth gaping. She was afraid. Rin had never seen Mauve so afraid.
The Circus King was pushed from Rin’s mind, only to be replaced by something heavier. Rin had seen the war. She’d seen the plague. She remem- bered the entire world stopping, going eerily quiet, and even now years later, when she met a stranger with whom she had nothing else in common, they both held the war and the plague in their hands.
Odette gripped Rin’s hand. Rin flickered a look in her direction. Odette’s eyes were glued to the patterns on the quilt. Her mouth was a firm line. She knew, too. Something was different, something was wrong, something was coming.
“And when,” Mauve said, her steady voice carrying on, “I try to look fur- ther, at other special guests, for the rest of the season, just a preliminary list, whatever this is keeps popping up, over and over, from all angles.” Mauve hesitated, and she studied the air like it spoke to her, like she could see a small hole through time. Rin wished she could see it, too. “Then I look at us. I look at this train, all the people sleeping on it, where their threads lead. It all leads to the same place. A terrible dark place.”
“The Circus King?” Rin asked, but Mauve only shook her head.
“I don’t know.”
“We have to go forward to see this dark thing,” Rin said. “We have to know.”
“And why?” Odette said. “There’s no reason to jump anywhere tonight. This dark future can wait until morning at least, I’m sure.”
“I only see it through threads and wisps,” Mauve said. “I agree, if we jump, we can get a clearer picture of what exactly is happening.”
“No,” Odette said, untucking her legs, ready to leave this bed and dispel this dark feeling. “Whatever it is, the circus has weathered the Outside World a thousand times. We’re safe here.”
“We aren’t,” Mauve said. “I think we need to go see what it is, because right now no one looks safe from it.”
Odette looked as if she’d been hooked to the back of a slow-moving acci- dent and couldn’t escape. She met Rin’s eyes, like this was the last time they’d see each other on this side of the carnage. Her entire body was rigid. She clearly didn’t want to go.
And Rin had the sinking feeling that the threat of the Circus King, all- encompassing just minutes before, would be preferable to whatever the next few moments would bring.
Rin looked away from Odette and back to Mauve. Some people, when us- ing their Spark, would get exhausted. But others, like Mauve, were invigo- rated. And Rin saw that energy in Mauve’s eyes now, like she could stay up all night, like she would stay up for days on end if that was what it took. Mauve wasn’t going to let this go. And that’s why they got along so well, because Rin wasn’t going to let it go, either.
“All right,” Rin said, tonight’s tiebreaker. It was two to one.
So now they would go. Odette the healer, Mauve the seer, and Rin the jumper. Never alone. Always together.
The three of them had always been enough.
This was not the first time they’d jumped, not by a long shot. Over the years, they had jumped to keep the circus safe and to help the people who came to their circus.
Whenever someone wanted to join the Windy Van Hooten traveling show, Rin would ask, if they could change one thing about their life, would they still want to join the circus? And if there was anything they could do to help that someone, they would do it.
Just one rule to time jumping: no jumping before 1918. The past held a graveyard in Chicago, where Rin had left her name for the Circus King to find. It also held the beginning of the Spark, which they didn’t understand but had all agreed was a gift they wouldn’t jeopardize.
Rin quietly took a bracelet out of her pocket. She pulled the hemp string tight around her wrist. There was a sliver of hand-carved driftwood attached that read not today. She took a deep breath.
The reality they were about to enter was just a rough draft; it was not her home. It was not reality. Not yet. And anything to come could be changed.
They stood there for a moment, and Rin thought they must look like a me- nagerie of oddities. The Ringmaster with her freckles and her red velvet coat, Odette with her thin sparkling leotard and blond bob and glitter, and Mauve with her favorite shawl and her eyes already searching the map to where they must disappear.
The three were a Fibonacci sequence in a Renaissance painting, the coven of hags as the curtain rises on the Scottish play. They were three silly women in a world much bigger than they.
Playing as if you’re important.
Odette rubbed Rin’s hand softly. “It will be okay,” she said quietly.
“Trust us,” Odette had told Rin a long time ago, had told her a year ago, had told her weeks ago, days ago. “Trust yourself.”
But right now, the future waited. And the future was much larger than her, or Odette, or Mauve, or all three stitched together.
Rin’s mind had to be clear. She had to follow the words Mauve whispered as Mauve touched Rin’s shoulder: “To a beach, deep in the years after a night of glass.”
Rin’s vision peered through the shadows and walls, the light and the car- pet. She saw time like a tunnel and threads and she tried to follow those threads. Supposedly, the makings of time and fate looked different to each person, and sometimes even the same person would see it differently at dif- ferent times.
To Mauve it looked like an invisible book settled between breaths of air, where Mauve could search the pages and scan for the moments and images she sought. Sometimes, though, she’d say it was more like a thousand films playing in one cinema, images overlapping incomprehensively. To Rin, it was usually like standing in the midst of music, seeing and hearing the whole orchestra ahead of and behind her. All made of light and colors.
And tonight, through the tunnel her Spark let her open in time, she could see the beach Mauve mentioned. She could see it glowing at the end of a long trail about twenty years out.
Twenty years! Usually anything they worked with was so small, little glimpses of the future. But this felt bigger than anything any of them were used to. She couldn’t show hesitation. She had to stay focused. And as she fo- cused, the tunnel and the light visible at its end turned into a string. It reached out like a rope through time, through the cracks and creases of moments she had not yet known. In her mind, Rin grabbed on to it. And she readied herself to jump.
“Got it,” Rin said.
Mauve and Odette held on to her shoulders. She breathed out. Her body felt charged, so full of life. She jumped, letting go of gravity.
She snapped her head forward. She saw the train disappear. She saw a tun- nel of fireworks, moments, the backstage of reality. She gave a shout, a battle cry, but it got caught in the wind as they flew. And they really did fly.
The Ringmaster, Odette, and Mauve soared through time.
Copyright © 2023 from J.R. Dawson
Pre-order The First Bright Thing Here: