The Night Circus

Page 20


She walks without much notice into the city, though there is not much notice to attract in such a downpour. She passes only a handful of other pedestrians on the cobblestone streets, each partially hidden beneath an umbrella.
Eventually Celia stops at a brightly lit café, crowded and lively despite the weather. She adds her umbrella to the collection gathering in the stands by the door.
There are a few unoccupied tables, but the empty chair that catches Celia’s eye is one by the fireplace across from Isobel, where she sits with a cup of tea and her nose buried in a book.
Celia has never been entirely certain what to make of the fortune-teller. Though she has an innate distrust of anyone whose occupation involves telling people what they wish to hear. And Isobel sometimes has the same look in her eye Celia often catches in Tsukiko’s glances, that she knows more than she lets on.
Though perhaps that is not unusual for someone in the business of telling other people what their future holds.
“May I join you?” Celia asks. Isobel looks up, the surprise clear in her expression, but the surprise is quickly replaced by a bright smile.
“Of course,” Isobel says, marking her page before placing her book aside. “I can’t believe you ventured out in the weather, I only just missed the start of it earlier and I thought I’d wait it out. I was meant to be meeting someone but I don’t think they’ll be coming, considering.”
“I can’t blame them,” Celia says, pulling off her damp gloves. She shakes them gently and they dry instantly. “It’s rather like walking through a river out there.”
“Are you avoiding the inclement-weather party?”
“I made an appearance before I escaped, I am not in a party mood this evening. Besides, I don’t like giving up an opportunity to leave the circus for a change of atmosphere, even if it means practically drowning to do so.”
“I like to escape once in a while, myself,” Isobel says. “Did you make it rain to have a night off?”
“Of course not,” Celia says. “Though if that were true I think I overdid it.”
Even as she speaks, Celia’s rain-soaked gown is drying, the almost-black color returning to a rich wine, though it is not entirely clear whether this is caused by the nearby fire burning merrily or if it is a subtle transformation she is performing herself.
Celia and Isobel chat about the weather and Prague and books, not purposely avoiding the topic of the circus, but keeping the distance from it alive. Remaining for the moment only two women sitting at a table, rather than a fortune-teller and an illusionist, an opportunity they are not frequently presented with.
The door of the café blows open, sending a gust of rain-spiked wind inside that is met with howls of annoyance from the patrons and the clattering of the umbrellas in their stands.
A harried-looking waitress pauses at their table and Celia requests a mint tea. As the waitress departs, Celia casts a long look around the room, scanning the crowd as though she is looking for someone but not finding a point to focus on.
“Is something the matter?” Isobel asks.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” Celia says. “A hint of feeling that we’re being watched, but it is likely just my imagination.”
“Maybe someone has recognized you,” Isobel suggests.
“I doubt that,” Celia says as she looks at the surrounding patrons, not finding a single eye turned in their direction. “People see what they want to see. I’m sure this place has had more than its share of unusual patrons with the circus in town. That makes it easier for us to blend in.”
“I am always amazed that no one recognizes me out of context,” Isobel says. “I’ve read for a handful of people in this very room over the past few nights and not one of them has so much as given me a second glance. Perhaps I do not look so mysterious when not surrounded by candles and velvet. Or perhaps they pay more attention to the cards than they do to me.”
“Do you have your cards with you?” Celia asks.
Isobel nods. “Would … would you like a reading?” she asks.
“If you do not mind.”
“Not once have you ever asked me to read for you.”
“I am not usually in the mood to know anything about my future,” Celia says. “Tonight I am feeling a tiny bit curious.”
Isobel hesitates, glancing around at the clientele, a mostly bohemian crowd sipping absinthe and arguing about art.
“They will not even notice,” Celia says. “I promise.”
Isobel turns her attention back to Celia, and then she pulls a deck from her bag; not her black-and-white circus cards but her original Marseilles deck, worn and faded.
“Those are lovely,” Celia says as Isobel starts to shuffle, watching the shifting blur of cards.
“Thank you.”
“But there are only seventy-seven of them.”
Isobel’s hands falter only momentarily, but a single card falls from the deck onto the table. Celia picks it up, briefly glancing at the two cups upon the surface before handing it back to Isobel, who replaces it in the deck and resumes shuffling, the cards falling seamlessly from one hand to the other.
“One of them is … somewhere else,” Isobel explains.
Celia does not question her further.
The waitress brings Celia’s mint tea, not even glancing at the cards before departing again.
“Did you do that?” Isobel asks.
“I diverted her attention, yes,” Celia says after blowing gently on the surface of her steaming tea. It is not exactly what she means, but the invisible veil she has drawn over the table seems too difficult to explain. And the fact that the feeling they are being watched has not faded despite its presence bothers her.
Isobel stops shuffling and places the deck facedown on the table.
Celia cuts the deck in three without waiting for Isobel to instruct her, holding the edges of the cards carefully as she places each pile in a row across the table.
“Which one?” Isobel asks.
Celia regards the three piles of cards thoughtfully while she sips her tea. After a moment she indicates the center pile. Isobel stacks the deck once more, keeping that section of cards on the top.
The cards that she places on the table have no immediate clarity to them. Several cups. The two of swords. La Papessa, the enigmatic Priestess.
Isobel only barely manages to contain her involuntary intake of breath as she lays Le Bateleur over the already placed cards. She covers it with a cough. Celia appears not to notice anything amiss.
“I’m sorry,” Isobel says, after staring silently at the cards for a few moments. “Sometimes it takes awhile for me to translate properly.”
“Take your time,” Celia says.
Isobel pushes the cards around the table, focusing on one and then another.
“You carry a great many burdens with you. A heavy heart. Things you’ve lost. But you are moving toward change and discovery. There are outside influences that are propelling you forward.”
Celia’s expression reveals nothing. She looks at the cards and occasionally up at Isobel, attentive yet guarded.
“You’re … not fighting, that’s not really the right word for it, but there’s a conflict with something unseen, something shadowed that’s hidden from you.”
Celia only smiles.
Isobel places another card on the table.
“But it will be revealed soon,” she says.
This catches Celia’s attention.
“How soon?”
“The cards do not make for the clearest of timelines, but it is very close. Almost immediate, I would think.”
Isobel pulls another card. The two of cups again.
“There’s emotion,” she says. “Deep emotion but you are only on the shore of it, still near the surface, while it is waiting to pull you under.”
“Interesting,” Celia remarks.
“It’s nothing that I can clearly see as good or bad, but it is … intense.” Isobel pushes the cards around a bit, Le Bateleur and La Papessa surrounded by fire-tinged wands and watery cups. The crackle of the fire next to them mingles with the rain pattering against the windows. “It almost contradicts itself,” she says after a moment. “It’s as if there is love and loss at the same time, together in a kind of beautiful pain.”
“Well, that sounds like something to look forward to,” Celia says drily, and Isobel smiles, glancing up from the cards but finding little to read in Celia’s expression.
“I’m sorry I cannot be more clear,” she says. “If anything comes to me later I will let you know, sometimes I need to ruminate on the cards before I can make any real sense of them. These are … not unclear, precisely, but they are complex, which makes for a great deal of possibilities to consider.”
“No need for apologies. I cannot say I’m terribly surprised. And thank you, I very much appreciate the insight.”
Celia changes the subject then, though the cards remain on the table and Isobel does not move to put them away. They discuss less substantial matters until Celia insists that she should be getting back to the circus.
“Do wait until the rain lets up, at least,” Isobel protests.
“I have monopolized enough of your time already, and the rain is only rain. I hope the someone you were waiting for turns up.”
“I am doubtful about that, but thank you. And thank you for keeping me company.”
“It was my pleasure,” Celia says, rising from the table as she replaces her gloves. She navigates the crowded café with ease, pulling a dark-handled umbrella from the stand by the door and giving Isobel a parting wave before bracing herself for the walk back to the circus in the pouring rain.
Isobel pushes the tangled path of the cards on the table around a bit.
She did not lie, exactly. She finds it near impossible to lie about the cards.
But the competition is clear, so much so that everything else is tied to it, past and future.
At the same time, it seems to be more of a reading for the circus as a whole than for Celia in particular, but it is so emotional that it overwhelms the details. Isobel piles the cards and shuffles them back into the deck. Le Bateleur floats to the top as she shuffles, and she frowns at the card before glancing around the café. While there are a few scattered bowler hats amongst the patrons, there is no sign of the one she is looking for.
She shuffles until the Magician is buried deep within the deck and then she puts her cards away and returns to her book to wait out the rain alone.
OUTSIDE, THE RAIN IS HEAVY and the street is dark and almost completely deserted, glowing windows dotting the streets. It is not as cold as Celia had expected, despite the chilling wind.
She cannot read the tarot well herself, there are always too many possibilities, too many meanings. But once Isobel pointed out specific elements, she could see the complicated emotion, the impending revelation. She is unsure what to make of it, though despite her skepticism, she hopes it means she will finally be certain who her opponent is.
She remains distracted as she walks, considering the cards, but she slowly realizes that she is rather warm. At least as warm if not warmer than she had been sitting near the fire with Isobel. More than that, her clothes are still dry. Her jacket, her gloves, even the hem of her gown. There is not a single drop of rain upon her although it continues to pour, the wind causing the rain to fall in several directions beyond the standard gravitational pattern. Drops splatter upward from pond-like puddles and blow in sideways but Celia does not feel any of them. Even her boots are not the slightest bit damp.
Celia stops walking as she reaches the open square, halting next to the towering astronomical clock where carved apostles are making their scheduled hourly appearance despite the weather.
She stands still in the downpour. The rain falls so thickly around her that she can hardly see more than a few paces ahead but she remains both warm and dry. She holds her hand out in front of her, beyond the cover of the umbrella, and regards it carefully but not a single drop of rain falls upon it. Those that come close suddenly change direction before hitting her glove, bouncing off as though she is surrounded by something invisible and impermeable.
It is around this time that Celia becomes certain that the umbrella she is holding is not her own.
“Excuse me, Miss Bowen,” a voice calls to her, lifted over the din of the rain and carried down the street. A voice she recognizes even before she turns to find Marco standing behind her, completely drenched in rain, droplets cascading from the brim of his bowler hat. In his hand he holds a closed black umbrella identical to the one she carries.
“I believe you have my umbrella,” he says, almost out of breath but wearing a grin that has too much wolf in it to be properly sheepish.
Celia stares up at him in surprise. At first she wonders what on earth Chandresh’s assistant is doing in Prague, as she has never seen him outside of London. Then comes the question of how he could possess such an umbrella.
As she stares at him, confused, the pieces of the puzzle begin to shift together. She remembers every encounter she has ever had with the man now standing before her in the rain, recalling the distress he had exhibited at her audition, the years of glances and comments she had read as no more than coy flirtation.
And the constant impression as though he is not really there, blending so well into the background that she would occasionally forget he was in the room.
Before, she thought it was the sign of a very good assistant, never accounting for how deceptive such an appearance might be.
She suddenly feels rather stupid for not once considering the possibility that this could be her opponent.
And then Celia begins to laugh, a buoyant giggle that harmonizes with the din of the rain. Marco’s grin wavers as he watches her, blinking water from his eyes.