The Night Circus

Page 21


Once Celia composes herself she gives him a low, perfect curtsey. She hands him his umbrella, gasping as the rain seizes her the moment the handle passes from her fingers. He hands her the identical umbrella.
“My sincere apologies,” she says, the amusement still sparkling in her eyes.
“I would very much like to speak with you, if you care to join me for a drink,” Marco says. His bowler hat is already dry as he attempts in vain to cover both of them with the open umbrella. The wind whips Celia’s dark curls in wet ropes across her face as she considers him, watching his eyes as the raindrops evaporate from his lashes.
For all the years of wondering, being faced with her opponent is not what she had expected.
She had expected it to be someone she knew. Someone inside the bounds of the circus rather than outside, but still involved.
There are so many questions, so many things she longs to discuss despite her father’s constant nagging about not concerning herself with her opponent. But at the same time, she feels suddenly exposed, aware that he has always known where each of them stood. Known every time he opened a door for her or took notes for Chandresh. Every time he stared at her as he does now, with those disconcertingly bright-green eyes.
Still, it is a tempting invitation.
Perhaps if she was not nearly drowning from the rain, she would accept it.
“Of course you would,” Celia says, returning Marco’s grin with one of her own. “Perhaps another time.”
She opens her own umbrella with some difficulty, and as she swings the canopy of black silk over her head, she and her umbrella vanish, leaving only drops of water falling onto the empty pavement.
Alone in the rain, Marco regards the space where Celia had been standing for some time before he walks away into the night.
The sign says Hall of Mirrors, but when you enter you find it is more than a simple hall.
You are met not with floor-length unadorned planes of mirrored glass, as you half expected, but hundreds of mirrors of varying sizes and shapes, each in a different frame.
As you move past one mirror reflecting your boots, the mirror next to it shows only empty space and the mirrors on the other side. Your scarf is not present in one mirror and then it returns in the next.
Reflected behind you there is a man in a bowler hat, though he appears in some mirrors and not in others. When you turn you cannot locate him in the room, though there are more patrons walking along with you than you had seen within the glass.
The hall leads to a round room, the light within it bright as you enter. It radiates from a tall lamppost that sits in the center, towering black iron with a frosted-glass lamp that looks as though it would be more at home on a city street corner than in a circus tent.
The walls here are completely mirrored, each long mirror placed to align with the striped ceiling visible above and the floor that is painted to match.
As you walk farther into the room it becomes a field of endless streetlamps, the stripes repeating in fractal patterns, over and over and over.
As he continues to walk around the circus, Bailey’s path leads back to the courtyard. He stops briefly to watch the sparkling bonfire and then at a vendor to purchase a bag of chocolates to make up for his mostly uneaten dinner. The chocolates are shaped like mice, with almond ears and licorice tails. He eats two immediately and puts the rest of the bag in the pocket of his coat, hoping they will not melt.
He chooses another direction to leave the courtyard, circling away from the bonfire again.
He passes several tents with interesting signs, but none that he feels compelled to enter just yet, still playing the illusionist’s performance over in his mind. As the path turns, he comes upon a smaller tent, with a lovely elaborate sign:
He can read that bit easily, but the rest is a complex swirl of intricate letters, and Bailey has to walk right up to it to read:
Fates Foretold and Darkest Desires Disclosed
Bailey looks around. For a moment, there is no one else in sight in either direction, and the circus feels eerily similar to the way it had when he snuck through the fence in the middle of the day, as though it is empty save for himself and the things (and people) that are always there.
The ongoing argument about his own future echoes in his ears as he enters the tent.
Bailey finds himself in a room that reminds him of his grandmother’s parlor, only smelling less like lavender. There are seats, but all of them are unoccupied, and a sparkling chandelier captures Bailey’s attention for a moment before he notices the curtain.
It is made up of strings of shiny beads. Bailey has never seen anything like it. It shimmers in the light, and he is not entirely sure whether he should walk through it or wait for some sort of sign or notice. He looks around for an informatively worded sign but finds nothing. He stands, confused, in the empty vestibule, and then a voice calls out from behind the beaded curtain.
“Do come in, please,” the voice says. A woman’s voice, quiet, and sounding as though she is standing right next to him, though Bailey is sure that the voice came from the next room. Hesitantly he puts a hand out to touch the beads, which are smooth and cold, and he finds that his arm slips through them easily, that they part like water or long grass. The beads clatter as the strands hit one another, and the sound that echoes in the dark space sounds like rain.
The room he is in now is much less like his grandmother’s parlor. It is filled with candles, and there is a table in the center, with an empty chair on one side and a lady, dressed in black with a long thin veil over her face, seated on the other. On the table there is a deck of cards and a large glass sphere.
“Have a seat, please, young man,” the lady says, and Bailey walks a few steps to the empty chair and sits down. The chair is surprisingly comfortable, not like the stiff chairs at his grandmother’s, though they do look remarkably similar. It only now strikes Bailey that, other than the red-haired girl, he has never heard any person in the circus speak. The illusionist was silent for her entire performance, though he had not noticed it at the time.
“I am afraid payment is required before we may begin,” she says. Bailey is relieved that he has excess pocket money for the unplanned expense.
“How much is payment?” he asks.
“Whatever you wish to pay for a glimpse of your future,” the fortune-teller says. Bailey stops to consider this for a moment. It is strange, but fair. He pulls what he hopes is a suitable amount from his pocket and puts it on the table, and the woman does not pick the money up but passes her hand over it, and it disappears.
“Now what is it you would like to know?” she asks.
“About my future,” Bailey says. “My grandmother wants me to go to Harvard, but my father wants me to take over the farm.”
“And what do you want?” the fortune-teller asks.
“I don’t know,” Bailey says.
She laughs in response, but in a friendly way, and it makes Bailey feel more at ease, as though he is just talking to a regular person and not someone mysterious or magical.
“That’s fine,” she says. “We can see what the cards have to say about the matter.”
The fortune-teller picks up the deck and shuffles, shifting the cards from one hand to the other. They fold over and under each other in waves. Then she spreads them across the table in one fluid motion, forming an arc of identical black-and-white-patterned card backs. “Choose a single card,” she says. “Take your time. This will be your card, the one that will represent you.”
Bailey looks at the arc of cards and frowns. They all look the same. Slivers of pattern, some wider than the others, some not quite as evenly lined up as the rest. He looks back and forth from end to end and then one of them catches his eye. It is more hidden than the rest, almost completely covered by the card above it. Only the edge is visible. He reaches out for it but hesitates just before his hand reaches it.
“I can touch it?” he asks. He feels the same as when he was first allowed to set the table with the nicest dishes, as though he really shouldn’t be allowed to touch such things, mixed with an acute fear of breaking something.
But the fortune-teller nods, and Bailey puts a finger on the card and pulls it away from its compatriots so it sits separately on the table.
“You may turn it over,” the fortune-teller says, and Bailey flips the card.
On the other side it is not like the black-and-red playing cards he is used to, with hearts and clubs and spades and diamonds. Instead it is a picture, inked in black and white and shades of grey.
The illustration is of a knight on horseback, like a knight from a fairy tale. His horse is white and his armor is grey, there are dark clouds in the background. The horse is mid-gallop, the knight leaning forward in the saddle, with sword drawn as though he is on his way to a great battle of some sort. Bailey stares at the card, wondering where the knight is going and what the card is supposed to mean. Cavalier d’Épées it reads in fancy script at the bottom of the card.
“This is supposed to be me?” Bailey asks. The woman smiles as she pushes the arc of cards back into a neat pile.
“It is meant to represent you, in your reading,” she says. “It could mean movement or travel. The cards do not always mean the same things every time, they change with each person.”
“That must make them hard to read,” Bailey says.
The woman laughs again.
“Sometimes,” she says. “Shall we give it a try anyway?” Bailey nods and she shuffles the cards again, over and under, and then divides them into three piles and places them in front of him, above the card with the knight. “Pick which pile you are most drawn to,” she says. Bailey studies the piles of cards. One is less neat, another larger than the other two. His eyes keep going back to the pile on the right.
“This one,” he says, and though it is mostly a guess, it feels like the proper choice. The fortune-teller nods and stacks the three piles of cards back into one deck, leaving Bailey’s chosen cards on top. She flips them over, one at a time, laying them faceup in an elaborate pattern across the table, some overlapping and others in rows, until there are about a dozen cards laid out. They are black-and-white pictures, much like the knight, some simpler, some more complicated. Many show people in various settings, and a few have animals, while some of them have cups or coins, and there are more swords. Their reflections catch and stretch in the crystal sphere that sits alongside.
For a few moments the fortune-teller looks at the cards, and Bailey wonders if she is waiting for them to tell her something. And he thinks she is smiling, but trying to hide it just a bit.
“This is interesting,” the fortune-teller says. She touches one card, a lady in flowing robes holding a set of scales, and another that Bailey cannot see as well but looks like a crumbling castle.
“What’s interesting?” Bailey asks, still confused about the process. He knows no ladies in blindfolds, has been to no crumbling castles. He’s not even sure there are any castles in New England.
“You have a journey ahead of you,” the fortune-teller says. “There’s a lot of movement. A great deal of responsibility.” She pushes one card, turns another around, and furrows her brow a bit, though Bailey still thinks she looks like she is trying to hide a smile. It is becoming easier to see her expression through her veil as his eyes adjust to the candlelight. “You are part of a chain of events, though you may not see how your actions will affect the outcome at the time.”
“I’m going to do something important, but I have to go somewhere first?” Bailey asks. He had not expected fortune-telling to be so vague. The journey part does seem to favor his grandmother’s side, though, even if Cambridge is not very far.
The fortune-teller does not immediately respond. Instead she flips over another card. This time she does not hide her smile.
“You’re looking for Poppet,” she says.
“What’s a poppet?” he asks. The fortune-teller does not answer, and instead looks up from her cards and regards him quizzically. Bailey feels her taking in his entire appearance, or more than that, with her eyes moving over his face from his scarf to his hat. He shifts in his chair.
“Is your name Bailey?” she asks. The color drains from Bailey’s cheeks and all the apprehension and nervousness he had felt earlier returns instantly. He has to swallow before he can make himself answer, in barely more than a whisper.
“Yes?” he says. It sounds like a question, as though he is not entirely sure that it is indeed his name. The fortune-teller smiles at him, a bright smile that makes him realize she is not nearly as old as he had previously thought. Perhaps only a few years older than he is.
“Interesting,” she says. He wishes she would choose a different word. “We have a mutual acquaintance, Bailey.” She looks back down at the cards on the table. “You are here this evening looking for her, I believe. Though I do appreciate that you’ve chosen to visit my tent as well.”
Bailey blinks at her, trying to take in everything she’s said, and wondering how on earth she knows the real reason he is at the circus when he has told no one about it and hardly even admits it to himself.
“You know the red-haired girl?” he says, unable to fully believe that this is, indeed, what the fortune-teller means. But she nods.
“I have known her, and her brother, all their lives,” she says. “She is a very special girl, with very lovely hair.”
“Is … is she here still?” Bailey asks. “I only met her once, the last time the circus was here.”
“She is here,” the fortune-teller says. She pushes the cards around on the table a bit more, touching one and then another, though Bailey is no longer paying attention to which card is which. “You will see her again, Bailey. There’s no doubt about that.”