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14 July, 1925. Circus has been touring since the start of April and has been in Edinburgh for a week.

July meant rain or sun, and the week had been spotty. The week had also been spent outside Edinburgh, in an area of green that some called a field but Hank called the worst landscape he ever had to set a tent upon. Indeed, most of the roustabouts had agreed with him, swearing so much and so vociferously that the youngest performers had to be ushered away to tour the city while the work was done.

It was the first time the Brooks Spectacular had gone out of England. Isabel, who now found herself responding to two versions of her name and billed as Isabella, was fascinated by the crooked architecture and the towering castles. They toured as much as they dared, at least until the three terrors, and John in particular, attempted to break into a tomb and got everyone in trouble.

The week was doubly interesting due to the amount of times Isabel heard mention of a birthday. Her birthday was today, in fact—a thing she had never cared about or noticed in the years before now. Birthdays were a measure of age, and not so extraordinary as to warrant a day of delights. After all, it was not so special and unique to have a birthday, if you managed to be born.

So Isabel was of a certain opinion about her birthday and it was that the 14th of July couldn’t possibly be any more exciting now than it had been thirteen years before, except that she had friends (friends!) who might keep acknowledging that she had a birthday. That didn’t seem like something to be too excited about.

She had learned over the last year that waking at the earliest crack of dawn was not something many people did. Wandering around alone had little appeal; even the roustabouts weren’t awake. There were days when she would sneak into the cages and see the animals, but she found it more rewarding to sneak into the cages when in the company of a friend.

Isabel’s company in her train car, which was hitched to Mister Hank’s, was Lulu, a four-eyed black kitten. She was soft and pliable and sound asleep on Isabel’s feet, not even stirring when Isabel wiggled her toes. Isabel knew cats; there were ten on the island, one of them colored much like Lulu. She liked it when they purred, and Lulu was purring in her sleep as Isabel petted her delicately along her spine.

Lulu had been with her since Isabel was given her own car. Mister Hank’s wife, Rita, didn’t like Lulu’s eyes, and to be sure they were not ordinary; even Isabel found herself feeling somewhat uneasy when Lulu stared at her. But having been with her for so long now, she didn’t mind. Rita didn’t seem to like very many things, and Isabel was still one of them.

It was early and the sun was out, rising enough to burn off the clouds. Outside the train car, its door open, were mostly the sounds of roustabouts working on assembling the buildings taken down for the night, and a few wayward animals. Across the way, Isabel could see a few people taking advantage of the good weather and hanging out their laundry, but for the most part, the property was quieter than usual.

Her birthday, and she was sure it was her birthday because she had a calendar on her wall, seemed to have arrived without fanfare.

Mister Hank knocked on the wall of the train car, just beside the door, and stooped his head in. The sound woke Lulu up, and she lifted her head and stared at the intruder, then went back to sleep.

“Good morning, Miss Birthday Girl,” Hank said, smiling his charming smile.

“Good morning,” she repeated back to him, smiling brightly and picking Lulu up. The kitten flopped lazily over Isabel’s arms, now even more boneless from sleep.

“Come to the big tent,” Hank said, making no further move to enter the car. Isabella swung her legs off the side of her bed and brushed her toes against the rug on the floor.

“Now?” she asked, debating for only a moment the choice of words.

“Yes, now.”

“What is…” She trailed off, her syntax twisting into a thousand knots.

“It’s a surprise,” Hank said, cutting her off. It was easier to relieve the burden than to endure her struggling for words.

“A surprise?”

“So I can’t tell you yet. Put a pretty dress on and hurry.”

Isabel nodded slowly, and when she got up to rifle through her trunk, Hank left.

Thinking all of her dresses were pretty kept Isabel from leaving her car as quickly as she could have done, but she tucked Lulu under her arm and raced barefoot across the damp grass, cutting through encampments as she went. There didn’t seem to be many people out, and no one said anything to her until she skipped through the open tent flaps and stopped dead in the entryway.

Most of the circus was crowded quite close to the door. A large cake covered in sparkling flames (they were nothing like the candles she knew!) occupied a prop table someone must have stolen from Bradley. Behind the cake was Hank. Everyone was wearing funny hats.

All at once, the group shouted, “Happy birthday!”

Lulu, shocked by the noise, struggled for a moment to get away. Isabel, meanwhile, was beside herself, and nearly bounded into the table to give Mister Hank a hug.

“For I?” she gasped.

“For you!” Hank agreed, letting her plough into his midriff, the kitten pressed between them. She meowed quietly.

“For me,” Victoria whispered. She was standing just off to the side, leaning heavily on her cane.

“It is yours birthday?” Isabel asked, looking at her.

“No, no, darling. You’re supposed to say—”

“Not on her birthday,” Hank interrupted. Victoria closed her mouth and looked reproachfully at Hank, but said nothing else.

“Thirteen’s important, you know,” John interrupted. “I lost it at thirteen.”

“Damn straight you did,” Ed muttered. John kicked him in the arm.

“What?” Isabel asked.

“Never you mind,” Hank snapped. He was glaring malevolently at John, who immediately shrunk back into the crowd.

The crowd slowly enclosed the table and Isabel, at which point someone shouted something about singing, and just as Isabel opened her mouth to do what they asked, the rest of the group began to sing, instead. A happy birthday song. She tried to remember the words, but her excitement turned her hearing to buzzing, and she was too busy trying to keep Lulu from running away. She would ask Ian how to sing it later.
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