The Night Circus

Page 19


“Primarily, I wanted to be certain about your awareness of the game,” Marco says. “I could make you forget this entire conversation, you know.”
“Oh, there is no need for such precaution,” Mr. Barris says with a vehement shake of his head. “I assure you, I am capable of remaining neutral. I am not fond of taking sides. I will assist either you or Miss Bowen as much or as little as you would each prefer and I shall reveal nothing to the other that you or she tell me in confidence. I will not say a word to anyone else about the matter. You can trust me.”
Marco rights a toppling pile of boxes while he considers the matter.
“All right,” he says. “Though I must admit, Mr. Barris, I am surprised at how accepting you are of all this.”
Mr. Barris chuckles in response.
“I admit that of the lot of us, I seem the least likely,” he says. “The world is a more interesting place than I had ever imagined when I came to that first Midnight Dinner. Is that because Miss Bowen can animate a solid wooden creature on a carousel or because you could manipulate my memory, or because the circus itself pushed the boundaries of what I dreamed was possible, even before I entertained the thought of actual magic? I cannot say. But I would not trade it for anything.”
“And you will keep my identity from Miss Bowen?”
“I shall not tell her,” Mr. Barris says. “You have my word.”
“In that case,” Marco says, “I would appreciate your assistance with something.”
WHEN THE LETTER ARRIVES, Mr. Barris fears for a moment that Miss Bowen will be upset with the turn of events, or inquire as to who her opponent is, as she will have easily figured out that he is now aware of that fact himself.
But when he opens the envelope, the enclosed note reads only: May I make additions to it?
He writes back to inform her that it has been specifically designed to be manipulated by either side, so she may add whatever she wishes.
CELIA WALKS THROUGH a hallway full of snow, sparkling flakes of it catching in her hair and clinging to the hem of her gown. She holds out her hand, smiling as the crystals dissolve over her skin.
The hall is lined with doors, and she chooses the one at the very end, trailing a melting breath of snow behind her as she walks into a room where she must duck to avoid colliding with the cascade of books suspended from the ceiling, pages tumbling open in frozen waves.
She reaches a hand out to brush over the paper, the entire room swaying gently as the motion passes from page to page.
It takes her quite a while to locate another door, hidden in a shadowed corner, and she laughs when her boots sink into the powder-soft sand that fills the room beyond.
Celia stands on a shimmering white desert with a sparkling night sky stretching in every direction. The sense of space is so vast that she must put her hand out in front of her to find the wall hidden in the stars and it is still a surprise when her fingers hit the solid surface.
She feels her way around the star-speckled walls, searching the perimeter for another way out.
“This is abhorrent,” her father’s voice says, though she cannot see him in the dim light. “You are meant to be working separately, not in this … this debauched juxtaposition. I have warned you about collaborating, it is not the proper way to exhibit your skills.”
Celia sighs.
“I think it’s quite clever,” she says. “What better way to compete than within the same tent? And you cannot rightfully call it a collaboration. How can I collaborate with someone whose identity I don’t even know?”
She only catches a glimpse of his face as he glares at her and then she turns away, returning her attention to the wall.
“Which is superior, then?” she asks. “A room full of trees or a room filled with sand? Do you even know which ones are mine? This is getting tiring, Papa. My opponent clearly possesses comparable skills. How will you ever determine a winner?”
“That is not your concern,” her father’s voice hisses, closer to her ear than she would like. “You are a disappointment, I expected better from you. You need to do more.”
“Doing more is exhausting,” Celia protests. “I can only control so much.”
“It’s not enough,” her father says.
“When will it be enough?” Celia asks, but there is no reply, and she stands alone amongst the stars.
She sinks to the ground, picking up a handful of pearl-white sand and letting it fall slowly through her fingers.
ALONE IN HIS FLAT, Marco constructs tiny rooms from scraps of paper. Hallways and doors crafted from pages of books and bits of blueprints, pieces of wallpaper and fragments of letters.
He composes chambers that lead into others that Celia has created. Stairs that wind around her halls.
Leaving spaces open for her to respond.
The Ticking of the Clock
The office is large but looks smaller than it is due to the volume of its contents. While a great deal of its walls are composed of frosted glass, most of it is obscured by cabinets and shelves. The drafting table by the windows is all but hidden in the meticulously ordered chaos of papers and diagrams and blueprints. The bespectacled man seated behind it is almost invisible, blending in with his surroundings. The sound of his pencil scratching against paper is as methodical and precise as the ticking of the clock in the corner.
There is a knock on the frosted-glass door and the scratching pencil halts, though the ticking clock pays no heed.
“A Miss Burgess to see you, sir,” an assistant calls from the open door. “She says not to bother you if you are otherwise occupied.”
“Not a bother at all,” Mr. Barris says, placing his pencil down and rising from his seat. “Please, send her in.”
The assistant moves from the doorway and is replaced by a young woman in a stylish lace-trimmed dress.
“Hello, Ethan,” Tara Burgess says. “My apologies for dropping by unannounced.”
“No apologies necessary, my dear Tara. You look lovely, as always,” Mr. Barris says, kissing her on both cheeks.
“And you haven’t aged a day,” Tara says, pointedly. His smile wavers and he looks away, moving to close the door behind her.
“What brings you to Vienna?” he asks. “And where is your sister? I so rarely see the two of you apart.”
“Lainie is in Dublin, with the circus,” Tara says, turning her attention to the contents of the room. “I … I wasn’t in the mood so I thought I would do some traveling on my own. Visiting far-flung friends seemed a good place to start. I would have sent a telegram but it was all a bit spontaneous. And I wasn’t entirely sure if I would be welcome.”
“You are always welcome, Tara,” Mr. Barris says. He offers her a seat but she does not notice, drifting through the tables covered in highly detailed models of buildings, stopping here and there to investigate a detail further: the arch of a doorway, the spiral of a staircase.
“It becomes difficult to tell the difference between old friends and business associates in cases like ours, I think,” Tara says. “Whether we are the kind of people who make polite conversation to cover shared secrets or something more than that. This one is marvelous,” she adds, pausing at a model of an elaborate open column with a clock suspended in the center.
“Thank you,” Mr. Barris says. “It’s quite far from completion. I need to send the finished plans to Friedrick so he can start construction on the clock. I suspect it will be much more impressive when built to scale.”
“Do you have the plans for the circus here?” Tara asks, looking over the diagrams pinned to the walls.
“No, I don’t, actually. I left them with Marco in London. I meant to keep copies on file but I must have forgotten.”
“Did you forget to keep copies of any of your other plans?” Tara asks, running a finger along the line of cabinets fitted with long thin shelves, each one piled with carefully ordered papers.
“No,” Mr. Barris says.
“Do you … do you find that strange?” Tara asks.
“Not particularly,” Mr. Barris says. “Do you think it strange?”
“I think a great many things about the circus strange,” Tara says, fidgeting with the lace at the cuff of her sleeve.
Mr. Barris sits at his desk, leaning back in his chair.
“Are we going to discuss whatever it is you are here to discuss instead of dancing around it?” he asks. “I was never a particularly good dancer.”
“I know for a fact that is not true,” Tara says, settling into the chair opposite, though her gaze continues to wander around the room. “But it would be nice to be direct for a change, I sometimes wonder if any of us remember how. Why did you leave London?”
“I suspect I left London for much the same reasons that you and your sister travel so often,” Mr. Barris says. “A few too many curious looks and backhanded compliments. I doubt anyone realized that the day my hair stopped thinning was the same as the opening night of the circus, but they did begin to notice after a time. While our Tante Padva might simply be aging well and anything and everything about Chandresh can be written off as eccentric, we are put under a different kind of scrutiny by being somewhat closer to ordinary.”
“It is easier for those who can simply disappear into the circus,” Tara says, gazing out the window. “Once in a while Lainie suggests that we follow it around ourselves but I think that would only be a temporary solution, we are too mercurial for our own good.”
“You could just let it go,” Mr. Barris says quietly.
Tara shakes her head.
“How many years until moving cities becomes insufficient? What is the solution beyond that? Changing our names? I … I do not enjoy being forced into such deceptions.”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Barris says.
“There is a great deal more going on than we are privy to, of that I’m quite sure,” Tara says with a sigh. “I tried to talk to Chandresh, but it was like we were speaking two different languages. I do not like sitting idly by when something clearly isn’t right. I feel … not trapped but something like it, and I don’t know what to do about it.”
“And you are looking for answers,” Mr. Barris says.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for,” Tara responds, and for a moment her face crumples as though she might burst into tears, but then she composes herself. “Ethan, do you sometimes feel like you are dreaming, all the time?”
“No, I can’t say that I do.”
“I am finding it difficult to discern between asleep and awake,” Tara says, tugging at her lace cuffs again. “I do not like being left in the dark. I am not particularly fond of believing in impossible things.”
Mr. Barris takes off his spectacles, wiping the lenses with a handkerchief before he replies, holding them up to the light to check for rogue smudges.
“I have seen a great many things that I might once have considered impossible, or unbelievable. I find I no longer have clearly defined parameters for such matters. I choose to do my work to the best of my own abilities, and leave others to their own.”
He pulls open a drawer of the desk and after searching for a moment he takes out a business card that contains only a single name. Even looking at it upside down, Tara can easily discern the A and the H if nothing else. Mr. Barris picks up a pencil and writes a London address beneath the printed name.
“I don’t think any of us knew that night precisely what we were getting ourselves into,” he says. “If you insist on delving deeper into all of this I think he might be the only one of us that may help, though I cannot guarantee that he will be entirely forthcoming.”
He slides the card across the desk to Tara. She regards it carefully before slipping it into her bag, as though she is not entirely sure it is real.
“Thank you, Ethan,” she says without looking at him. “I appreciate this, truly.”
“You’re welcome, my dear,” Mr. Barris says. “I … I hope you find what you are looking for.”
Tara only nods distractedly, and then they discuss other matters of little import while the clock ticks through the afternoon hours and the light beyond the frosted-glass windows fades considerably. Though he asks her to join him for dinner, she declines politely and leaves alone.
Mr. Barris returns to his drafting table, scratching pencil and ticking clock in harmony once more.
The Magician’s Umbrella
The sign upon the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves tonight is a large one, hung with braided ribbon that wraps around the bars just above the lock. The letters are tall enough to be read from some ways off, though people still walk right up to it to read it.
Closed Due to Inclement Weather
it says, in a fancy script surrounded by playfully painted grey clouds. People read the sign, sometimes twice, and then look at the setting sun and the clear violet sky and scratch their heads. They stand around, and some wait to see if the sign will be removed and the circus opened, but there is no one in sight and eventually the small crowd disperses to find alternative activities for their evening.
An hour later it starts, sheets of rain pouring down and wind that ripples across the surface of the striped tents. The sign on the gates dances in the wind, shimmering and wet.
AT THE OTHER END OF THE CIRCUS, at a part of the fence that looks nothing like a gate but opens nonetheless, Celia Bowen steps out from the shadows of darkened tents and into the rain, opening her umbrella with some difficulty. It is a large umbrella, with a heavy curved handle, and once Celia manages to get it open it provides quite good cover against the rain. Though the lower half of her wine-colored gown is quickly soaked to the point where it appears almost black.