lackluster audience. “And you aren’t to touch any of the—” He stopped. Why was he cautioning a machine?
“Go on,” Sofiya said with a small smile. She seemed to enjoy taunting him with the boy, and Thad didn’t understand that. Inside the Tilt, Antonio Tortelli did a double somersault into the hands of his father.
“Never mind,” Thad muttered.
“Bad boy, bad boy,” Dante interjected.
“I liked it,” the boy piped up. “I’ve never seen a circus before. Does the elephant have a name?”
“Betsy,” Thad replied absently, “though we tell everyone her name is Maharajah.”
“Does she eat clowns?”
Before Thad could reply, Dodd emerged from the Tilt, brandishing his cane. Under the ridiculous top hat he was a handsome man, sandy-haired and brown-eyed, not yet thirty. Young for a ringmaster. He’d managed to grow respectable side whiskers, at least, though they did little to make him look older. He was also a talented tinker and blacksmith who could make basic repairs to automatons and even build simple machines if had the plans, but he wasn’t a clockworker. Lately, Thad had noticed he moved heavier than usual, and when he wasn’t in the ring, he had stopped smiling. His top hat seemed to weigh him down.
“There you are,” he said. The calliope hooted in the background, providing music for the Tortellis. “You said you wanted to talk, and I have time now. Once the flyersare finished, the joeys will come on for a while, though even they won’t get much out of this crowd.”
“It’s less of a crowd,” Thad observed, putting off the inevitable, “and more of a sprinkle.”
Dodd rubbed his face with his free hand. “I know. And frankly, we’re in deep. If we don’t get more people in, we won’t even be able to buy coal to fire up the locomotive and leave town.” He caught sight of Sofiya. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Thad made introductions, though he left the boy out, which naturally meant that Dodd turned to him. “And who’s this strapping young lad, then?”
They had a story ready, that the boy didn’t understand English and that Thad was thinking about taking him on as an apprentice, that Thad preferred to keep his name a—
“His name,” Sofiya put in with a mischievous look at Thad, “is Nikolai.”
“Pleased to meet you, Nikolai.” Dodd shook the boy’s rag-wrapped hand. “You can call me Ringmaster Dodd.”
“Nikolai,” the boy said, as if he were tasting the word.
“Nikolai?” Thad repeated, caught completely off guard.
“That is his name, isn’t it?” Dodd looked a bit puzzled.
“Of course.” Sofiya put her hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Everyone needs a name. Thad and I are looking after him, Ringmaster.”
“Are you?” Dodd said, apparently not sure how to react.
“Nikolai,” the boy said again.
“He’s an automaton,” Thad told him abruptly.
A moment of silence stretched out amid the group. Sofiya stared at Thad, her eyes wide, her mouth an O.
“What?” Thad said. “Was that a secret?”
“I’m not supposed to tell anyone,” Nikolai said softly. “Mr. Havoc would get angry.”
Thad shrugged. “You don’t have to worry about what Mr. Havoc thinks anymore.”
“Oh. That’s true,” said Nikolai.
“Who’s Mr. Havoc?” asked Dodd.
“The clockworker who built Nikolai.”
“Ah.” Dodd nodded. “Does he also build elephants, by chance?”
“Not these days.”
“Now, look—” said Sofiya.
“Pity. Not that we have the money to pay for one. Is Nikolai joining us? Is that why you bought him?”
Thad made a face. “I didn’t buy him.”
“May I have him, then? I’ll take good care of him.”
“No!” Nikolai grabbed Thad’s hand in a tight grip. Thad felt his metal joints through the rags. “You can’t give me away!”
“He seems rather attached to me,” Thad replied, surprised at his own regret.
“That’s incredible workmanship. I had no idea he wasn’t real.” Dodd knelt down again