The Night Circus

Page 10


“Very well,” Chandresh says. “On with it.” He gestures vaguely at Marco.
“Yes, sir,” Marco says, turning to address the girl. “We have a few preliminary questions before the practical demonstration. Your name, miss?”
“Celia Bowen.”
Marco records this in his notebook.
“And your stage name?” he asks.
“I don’t have a stage name,” Celia says. Marco notes this as well.
“Where have you performed professionally?”
“I have never performed professionally before.”
At this Chandresh moves to interrupt but Mme. Padva stops him.
“Then with whom have you studied?” Marco asks.
“With my father, Hector Bowen,” Celia answers. She pauses for a moment before adding, “Though perhaps he is better known as Prospero the Enchanter.”
Marco drops his pen.
“Prospero the Enchanter?” Chandresh removes his feet from the chair in front of him and leans forward, staring at Celia as though he is seeing a completely different person. “Your father is Prospero the Enchanter?”
“Was,” Celia clarifies. “He … passed last year.”
“I’m sorry for your loss, dear,” Mme. Padva says. “But who, pray tell, is Prospero the Enchanter?”
“Only the greatest illusionist of his generation,” Chandresh says. “Used to book him whenever I could get my hands on him, years ago now. Absolutely brilliant, completely mesmerized every audience. Never seen anyone to match him, never.”
“He would have been pleased to hear that, sir,” Celia says, her eyes briefly glancing over to the shadowed curtains at the side of the stage.
“I told him as much, though I haven’t seen him in ages. Got very drunk with him in a pub some years back and he went on about pushing the boundaries of what theater can be, inventing something more extraordinary. He probably would have loved this entire endeavor. Damned shame.” He sighs heavily, shaking his head. “Well, on with it then,” he says, leaning back in his seat and regarding Celia with a considerable amount of interest.
Marco, pen in hand once more, returns to his list of questions.
“A-are you capable of performing without a stage?”
“Yes,” Celia says.
“Can your illusions be viewed from all angles?”
Celia smiles. “You are looking for someone who can perform in the midst of a crowd?” she asks Chandresh. He nods. “I see,” Celia says. Then, so swiftly she appears not even to move, she picks up her jacket from the stage and flings it out over the seats where, instead of tumbling down, it swoops up, folding into itself. In the blink of an eye folds of silk are glossy black feathers, large beating wings, and it is impossible to pinpoint the moment when it is fully raven and no longer cloth. The raven swoops over the red velvet seats and up into the balcony where it flies in curious circles.
“Impressive,” Mme. Padva says.
“Unless she had him concealed in those gigantic sleeves,” Chandresh mutters. On the stage, Celia crosses closer to Marco.
“May I borrow that for a moment?” she asks him, indicating his notebook. He hesitates before handing it to her. “Thank you,” she says, returning to the center of the stage.
She barely glances at the list of questions in precise handwriting before tossing the notebook straight up into the air where it turns end over end and the blur of fluttering paper becomes a white dove flapping its wings and taking flight in a loop around the theater. The raven caws at it from its perch in the balcony.
“Ha!” Chandresh exclaims, both at the dove and the expression on Marco’s face.
The dove swoops back down to Celia, settling gently on her outstretched hand. She strokes its wings and then releases it back into the air. It lifts up only a few feet above her head before wings are paper once again and it topples quickly down. Celia catches it with one hand and gives it back to Marco, whose complexion is now a few shades paler.
“Thank you,” Celia says with a smile. Marco nods absently, not meeting her eyes, and quickly retreats to his corner.
“Marvelous, simply marvelous,” Chandresh says. “This could work. This could most definitely work.” He rises from his seat and moves down the aisle, stopping to pace thoughtfully in front of the orchestra pit by the footlights.
“There is the matter of costuming her,” Mme. Padva calls toward him from her seat. “I had only considered formal suits. A similar sort of gown might do just as well, I suppose.”
“What manner of costume do you require?” Celia asks.
“We have a color scheme to work with, dear,” Mme. Padva says. “Or lack thereof, rather. Nothing but black and white. Though on you a full black gown might be a bit too funereal.”
“I see,” says Celia.
Mme. Padva stands and moves down the aisle to where Chandresh is pacing. She whispers something in his ear and he turns to consult with her, taking his eyes off of Celia for a moment.
No one is watching her except Marco as she stands perfectly still on the stage, waiting patiently. And then, very slowly, her gown begins to change.
Starting at the neckline and seeping down like ink, the green silk is turning a murky, midnight black.
Marco gasps. Chandresh and Mme. Padva turn at the sound just in time to witness the creeping black fade into snow-bright white at the bottom of the skirt, until all evidence that the gown was ever green is gone.
“Well, that makes my job much easier,” Mme. Padva says, though she cannot conceal the delight in her eyes. “Though I think perhaps your hair is too light a shade.”
Celia shakes her head and her brown curls deepen in hue to a near black, as glossy and ebony as the wings of her raven.
“Marvelous,” Chandresh says, almost to himself.
Celia simply smiles.
Chandresh leaps up to the stage, taking the small flight of stairs in only two steps. He inspects Celia’s gown from every angle.
“May I?” he asks before carefully touching the fabric of her skirt. Celia nods. The silk is undeniably black and white, the transition between the two a soft fade of grey, distinct fibers visible in the weave.
“What happened to your father, if you don’t mind my prying?” Chandresh asks, his attention still on her gown.
“I do not mind,” Celia says. “One of his tricks did not go entirely as planned.”
“That’s a damned shame,” he says, stepping back. “Miss Bowen, might you be interested in a somewhat unique employment opportunity?”
He snaps his fingers and Marco approaches with his notebook, halting a few paces away from Celia, his stare moving from her gown to her hair and back, spending a considerable amount of time in between.
Before she can respond, a caw echoes through the theater from the raven still perched on the balcony, watching the scene in front of him curiously.
“Just a moment,” Celia says. She lifts her hand in a delicate gesture at the raven. In response it caws again and spreads its large wings, taking flight and swooping toward the stage, gaining speed as it approaches. Descending quickly it dives, flying directly at Celia and not wavering or slowing as it reaches the stage, but approaching at full speed. Chandresh jumps back with a start, almost falling over Marco as the raven crashes into Celia in a flurry of feathers.
And then it is gone. Not a single feather remains and Celia is once again wearing a puffed-sleeve black jacket, already buttoned over her black-and-white gown.
In the front of the orchestra, Mme. Padva claps.
Celia bows, taking the opportunity to retrieve her gloves from the floor.
“She’s perfect,” Chandresh remarks, pulling a cigar from his pocket. “Absolutely perfect.”
“Yes, sir,” says Marco behind him, the notebook in his hand shaking slightly.
THE ILLUSIONISTS WAITING IN THE LOBBY grumble when they are thanked for their time and politely dismissed.
She’s too good to keep out in the crowd,” Chandresh says. “She simply must have her own tent. We’ll put the seats in a ring or something, keep the audience right in the middle of the action.”
“Yes, sir,” Marco says, fiddling with his notebook, running his fingers over the pages that had been wings only minutes before.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” Chandresh asks. “You’re white as a sheet.” His voice echoes through the empty theater as they stand alone on the stage, Mme. Padva having whisked Miss Bowen off, peppering her with questions about gowns and hairstyles.
“I am fine, sir,” Marco says.
“You look awful,” Chandresh says, puffing on his cigar. “Go home.”
Marco looks up at him, surprised. “Sir, there is paperwork that needs to be done,” he protests.
“Do it tomorrow, plenty of time for such things. Tante Padva and I will take Miss Bowen back to the house for tea and we can sort out the particulars and paperwork later. Get some rest or have yourself a drink or whatever it is you do.” Chandresh waves a hand at him absently, the smoke from his cigar trailing in bobbing waves.
“If you insist, sir.”
“I do insist! And get rid of the rest of those fellows in the lobby. No need to see a bunch of suits with capes when we’ve already found something far more interesting. Quite attractive, too, I should think, if one’s predilections run in that direction.”
“Indeed, sir,” Marco says, a blush creeping into his pallor. “Until tomorrow then.” He nods his head in something almost like a bow before turning gracefully on his heel and heading out to the lobby.
“Didn’t take you to be the easily spooked type, Marco,” Chandresh calls after him, but Marco does not turn.
Marco politely dismisses the illusionists in the lobby, explaining that the position has been filled and thanking them for their time. None of them notice that his hands are shaking, or that he is clutching the pen in his hand so tightly that his knuckles are white. Nor do they notice when it snaps in two within his fist, black ink seeping down his wrist.
After the illusionists have departed, Marco gathers his things, wiping his ink-covered hand on his black coat. He puts on his bowler hat before he exits the theater.
With every step, he grows more visibly distressed. People move out of his way on the crowded pavement.
When he reaches his flat, Marco drops his bag to the floor, leaning against the door with a heavy sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Isobel asks from a chair next to the empty fireplace. She conceals the length of hair she has been braiding in her pocket, scowling as she knows she will have to rebraid the entire piece because her concentration was broken. It is the part she still has the most difficulty with, the concentration and focus.
For now, she abandons it and watches Marco as he crosses the room to reach the bookcases lining the wall.
“I know who my opponent is,” Marco says, pulling armfuls of books down from their shelves and spreading them out haphazardly over tables, leaving several in messy piles on the floor. Those remaining on the shelves collapse, a few volumes falling, but Marco does not seem to notice.
“Is it that Japanese woman you were so curious about?” Isobel asks, watching as Marco’s impeccable filing system falls into chaos. The flat has always been kept in perfect order, and she finds the sudden upheaval disquieting.
“No,” Marco says as he flips through pages. “It’s Prospero’s daughter.”
Isobel picks up a potted violet that has toppled in the wake of the falling books and places it back upon its shelf.
“Prospero?” she asks. “The magician, the one you saw in Paris?”
Marco nods.
“I didn’t know he had a daughter,” she says.
“I was unaware of that fact, myself,” Marco says, discarding one book and picking up another. “Chandresh just hired her to be the illusionist for the circus.”
“Really?” Isobel asks. Marco does not respond. “So she’ll be doing what you said he did, actual magic disguised as stage illusions. Did she do that at the audition?”
“Yes, she did,” Marco says, without looking up from his books.
“She must be very good.”
“She’s too good,” Marco says, pulling another shelf worth of books from their resting places and moving them to the table, the violet an innocent victim once more. “This could be extremely problematic,” he says, almost to himself. A pile of notebooks slips from the table to the floor in a flurry of fluttering pages and a sound like the wings of birds.
Isobel retrieves the violet again, placing it across the room.
“Does she know who you are?” she asks.
“I do not believe so,” Marco says.
“Does this mean the circus is part of the challenge?” Isobel asks.
Marco stops flipping through pages and looks up at her.
“It must,” he says before he returns his attention to the book. “That’s likely why I was sent to work for Chandresh, so I would already be involved. The circus is the venue.”
“Is that good?” Isobel asks, but Marco does not answer, lost in the flood of paper and ink again.
With one hand he fidgets with the cloth of the other sleeve. A splatter of black ink stains the white cuff. “She changed the fabric,” he mutters to himself. “How did she change the fabric?”
Isobel moves a pile of abandoned books to the desk, where her Marseilles deck rests. She looks up at Marco, who is now deeply engrossed in a particular volume. She quietly spreads the cards out in a long line across the desk.
Keeping her eyes on Marco, she draws a single card. She flips it over on the desk and looks down to see what her cards have to say about the matter.