The Clockwork Circus

Chapter 1    An Unwelcome Student

Frederick’s heart started again. He gasped painfully, then stared up into the arrogant, icy blue eyes of Vassily Harnchev. This wasn’t the first time Frederick had died, but the longest Vassily left him dead yet.

“You should thank me, builder.” He slapped Frederick’s cheek. “One of these days, I may walk away and leave you to rot.”

“Thank you, Sar Harnchev.” Frederick rasped the words out past the raging anger he carefully kept hidden. The first time they played out this farce, Frederick had died three times before his gratitude met Vassily’s standard for groveling.

“Don’t be late for class, builder.” Vassily stood and walked away.

Frederick’s watch buzzed once on his wrist. Five minutes to recover, another five to get to the Academy and be in his seat before Professeur sauntered in to take attendance.

He lay on the hard cobbles, people walking past him without turning their heads. From this angle the grey buildings loomed over him, seeming about to fall. Frederick half wished they would and put him out of this misery.

“Why do you let him do that?” Katerin crouched beside Frederick and put her hand on his chest sending warmth through to his battered heart. It beat more regularly, and he could breathe normally. Her brow wrinkled. He hadn’t decided if it was worry or disappointment.

“Why do you keep showing up to help me?” Frederick took Katerin’s offered hand, and she pulled him to his feet.

“Let’s say, I’m not a fan of the Harnchev family.” She frowned, her deep brown eyes clouded before she shook her head and let go of his hand. “You need to move if you’re going to keep to your schedule.”

“You know about my schedule?” Frederick’s heart banged in his chest for a different reason.

“How long have I been stopping to help you?” She patted the same cheek Vassily slapped and hastened away.

Frederick had followed her one time to watch her enter Michealla Aetheric Finishing School, the girl’s version of the Academy, on the far side of the huge green space which formed the center of Lexburg. He once got lost in the band of forest walling one half of the park from the other.

The punishment for missing the first class was severe—ten soft lashes and then he had to run laps of the campus until he collapsed.

Today, like every other one since his punishment, Frederick arrived in plenty of time.

Vassily stood with his cronies at the main entrance to the Dimitriac Academy of Aetheric Excellence. The architecture reflected the bombastic name, looking like a cross between fortress and summer palace., Frederick went around to the back, where, Vassily informed him on his first day, servants and builders entered.

The halls held the lower rung students scurrying furtively to get to their seats before the higher ranked ones came to punish any they thought moved too slow for the honour of the Academy. Some of them sent hostile glances toward Frederick, calculating if they had time for a little torture of their own before they were required to be seated.

Frederick smiled and nodded at them, refusing to bend the rules about walking in the halls. They snarled back at him, but fearful of their own status, left him alone.

Frederick slipped into his seat, the first, as usual, befitting his place as the pariah of the academy.

Horselli came in soon after and came to sit behind him.

“I set my watch by the time you arrive.” He never looked at Frederick when he spoke, but he couldn’t resist the need to have someone to speak to. If it weren’t for Frederick, it would be Horselli’s heart stopping and starting at Vassily’s will. Or perhaps not. Horselli, however weak he might be, was aetheric, unlike Frederick.

“I will endeavour to maintain my punctuality for your sake.” Frederick pulled out his books and carefully arranged them for the rest of the students to accidentally knock from his desk. It kept them, if not happy, at least content they’d put him in place.

The morning ritual proceeded with his notes collecting the proper number of footprints and rips.

Professeur marched in and rapped the desk with his stick.

“Roll call.”

Frederick stood and looked down. 

“Frederick LeSille, present.” 

He sat immediately and kept his eyes on his desk while the rest of the class stood, clapping their heels together and announcing their presence and importance.

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