When the music stopped she opened her eyes and watched the musicians put away their instruments. She rose, brushed the dust off her pants and returned to the main square, determined to find something to eat. Just as she approached a row of vendors, the crowd suddenly parted for a troupe of acrobats. A guy dressed in a sort of jester’s suit, with striped leggings, did a series of hand vaults in her direction. Her heart soared in recognition of his joyful movement, her arms and legs tingling.
In response to her broad smile, he bounded toward her and took a deep bow, then gracefully back-flipped away again. The acrobats turned the corner toward an empty space adjacent to the carving workshop she’d stopped by earlier.
Unable to control the urge to move, Niki loped forward, dropped her pack, cat leapt over a low pylon and threw herself into a forward roll, landing in the midst of the acrobats.
They froze for just a few seconds, and then grinned in appreciation and kinship. A beautiful brown-skinned woman dressed in bright satin languidly bent backward like a stretching cat, and flipped her legs overhead and behind, righting herself, her smile wide.
They shuffled back a little to make space for Niki, and she obliged by running at a nearby stone pier, leaping a couple of meters up the side of it and doing a back flip, planting her feet back where she’d begun. The crowd let out a collective gasp and applauded. Two other acrobats took a turn entertaining the crowd with their antics while the jester guy approached her.
“Welcome stranger,” he said in French, offering her his hand to shake.
“Hi,” she replied, taking it in a warm grip.
“Hey, you’re American!”
“Close. I’m from Vancouver. Canada,” she said.
He turned her hand over, took it between both of his and ran his thumbs over the callouses on her palm, then met her eyes with a question.
She smiled. “Parkour.”
“Ah. Splendid.” He waved his friends over. “I’m Alain.” The woman dressed in turban and baggy pants like a Persian dancer, and another man in yellow tights, jogged toward them, curiosity on their faces. “This is Sabine, and Rocco.”
To Niki’s surprise, Sabine swept her into a warm soft embrace, redolent of vanilla, musk and spice, laughing. “Hello, my friend.”
Rocco also shook her hand.
“I’m Niki. It’s great to meet you all. Do you live here?”
Alain answered for the group. “Not in Petit Bergeron, no, but in Bordeaux. We are here only for the festival.”
“Me too, I guess,” she said, looking around. What a fantastic discovery. She’d stay for the entire festival. It would be a blast.
Just then, a disturbance swept the crowd, and people pressed back with murmurs and cries of delight to allow a fantastical creature to wade through. He was easily ten feet tall. His androgynous face was painted metallic green and brown and purple, partially covered by a carved leather mask sprouting a beak and horns, like a demon, and his leather clothing was painted and embroidered with twigs and leaves. Gauzy fabric trailed down from his arms and legs and wafted on the evening breeze as he waved and gestured to the crowd. The craftsmanship and showmanship was outstanding, and again transported her into a magical carnivalesque world.
Glancing down, she confirmed that he walked on stilts, but his clothing draped to the ground and created the illusion of enormous height.
“Bravo!” she cried, but noted that Sabine and the others were rolling their eyes and smirking.
“Mon Dieu,” murmured Rocco. “Se crâner.”
The stilt-walker paused in front of their group and grinned down at them. “Salut, Alain! Little jokers.”
“Well if it isn’t Jacques, the bean stalk,” Alain snarked. In a mumbled aside to Niki, he said, “His name is really Jean, but he thinks he’s pretty hot.”
Oh, re-ally? She smiled widely and stepped toward Jacques, or Jean, tilting her head back to shout up to him. “Hello there!”
He looked down. “Hello, little one.”
She waved. “D’you think I could try your walking sticks?” She didn’t know the French word for stilts.
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