The Night Circus

Page 27


But before Marco can react, Celia leaps to her feet from across the table, righting the glass without touching it, a detail only Chandresh has the proper perspective to notice. When she takes her hand away, the glass is filled again, the tablecloth spotless.
“Clumsy, clumsy,” Chandresh mutters, looking at Celia warily before turning away to pick up his conversation with Mr. Barris.
“You could have been a ballerina,” Mme. Padva remarks to Celia. “You are quite good on your feet.”
“I am good off my feet as well,” Celia says, and Mr. Barris nearly knocks over his own glass while Mme. Padva cackles.
For the remainder of the dinner, Celia keeps a watchful eye on Chandresh. He spends most of the time discussing some sort of renovation to the house with Mr. Barris, occasionally repeating himself though Mr. Barris pretends not to notice. Chandresh does not touch his wineglass again, and it is still full when it is cleared at the end of the course.
After dinner, Celia is the last to leave. During the exodus, she misplaces her shawl and refuses to let anyone wait for her while she searches for it, waving them away into the night.
It proves difficult, attempting to locate a length of ivory lace in the singular chaos of la maison Lefèvre. Though she traces her steps through the library and the dining room it is nowhere to be found.
Eventually, Celia abandons her search and returns to the foyer, where Marco is standing by the door with her shawl folded casually over his arm.
“Are you looking for this, Miss Bowen?” he asks.
He moves to place it on her shoulders but the lace disintegrates between his fingers, falling into dust.
When he looks up at her again she is wearing the shawl, tied perfectly, as though it had never been removed.
“Thank you,” Celia says. “Good night.” She breezes by him and out the door before he can respond.
“Miss Bowen?” Marco calls, chasing after her as she descends the front stairs.
“Yes?” Celia responds, turning back as she reaches the pavement.
“I was hoping I could trouble you for that drink we did not have in Prague,” Marco says. He holds her eyes steadily with his while she considers.
The intensity of his gaze is even stronger than it had been when it was focused on the back of her neck, and while Celia can feel the coercion of it, a technique her father was always fond of, there is something genuine as well, something almost like a plea.
It is that, coupled with curiosity, that causes her to nod her consent.
He smiles and turns, walking back inside the house, leaving the door open.
After a moment, she follows. The door swings shut and locks behind her.
Inside, the dining room has been cleared but the dripping candles still burn in the candelabras.
Two glasses of wine sit on the table.
“Where has Chandresh gone to?” Celia asks, picking up one of the glasses and walking to the opposite side of the table from where Marco stands.
“He has retired to the fifth floor,” Marco says, taking the remaining glass for himself. “He had the former servants’ quarters renovated to keep as his private rooms because he enjoys the view. He will not be down until the morning. The rest of the staff has departed, so we have the majority of the house to ourselves.”
“Do you often entertain your own guests after his have gone?” Celia asks.
Celia watches him while she sips her wine. Something about his appearance bothers her, but she cannot identify what, exactly.
“Did Chandresh really insist that all the fire in the circus be white so it would match the color scheme?” she asks after a moment.
“He did indeed,” Marco says. “Told me to contact a chemist or something. I opted to take care of it myself.” He runs his fingers over the candles on the table and the flames shift from warm gold to cool white, tinged with a silvery blue in the center. He runs his fingers back in the other direction, and they return to normal.
“What do you call it?” Marco asks.
Celia does not need to ask what he means.
“Manipulation. I called it magic when I was younger. It took me quite some time to break that habit, though my father never cared for the term. He’d call it enchanting, or forcibly manipulating the universe when he was not in the mood for brevity.”
“Enchanting?” Marco repeats. “I had not thought of it as such before.”
“Nonsense,” Celia says. “It’s precisely what you do. You enchant. You’re clearly good at it. You have so many people in love with you. Isobel. Chandresh. And there must be others.”
“How do you know about Isobel?” Marco asks.
“The company of the circus is fairly large but they all talk about each other,” Celia says. “She seems utterly devoted to someone whom none of us has ever met. I noticed immediately that she pays particular attention to me, I even wondered at one point if she might be my opponent. After you appeared in Prague when she was waiting for someone it was rather simple to figure out the rest. I do not believe anyone else knows. The Murray twins have a theory that she is in love with the dream of someone and not an actual person.”
“The Murray twins sound quite clever,” Marco says. “If I am enchanting in that way it is not always intentional. It was helpful in securing the position with Chandresh, as I had only a single reference and little experience. Though it does not seem to be working quite so effectively on you.”
Celia puts down her glass, still not certain what to make of him. The shifting light from the candles enhances the indistinct quality about his face, so she looks away before she replies, turning her attention to the contents of the mantelpiece.
“My father used to do something similar,” she says. “That pulling, charming seduction. I spent the first several years of my life watching my mother pine for him, steadfastly. Loving and longing far beyond the time when he had lost what little interest in her he ever held. Until one day when I was five years old and she took her own life. When I was old enough to understand, I promised myself I would not suffer so for anyone. It will take a great deal more than that charming smile of yours to seduce me.”
But when she looks back, the charming smile has disappeared.
“I am sorry you lost your mother in such a way,” Marco says.
“It was a long time ago,” Celia says, surprised by the genuine sympathy. “But thank you.”
“Do you remember much about her?” he asks.
“I remember impressions more than actualities. I remember her constant crying. I remember how she looked at me as though I was something to be feared.”
“I do not remember my parents,” Marco says. “I have no memories before the orphanage that I was plucked out of because I met some unspecified criteria. I was made to read a great deal, I traveled and studied and was generally groomed to play some sort of clandestine game. I’ve been doing so, along with accounting and bookkeeping and whatever else Chandresh requests of me, for most of my life.”
“Why are you being so honest with me?” Celia asks.
“Because it is refreshing to be truly honest with someone for a change,” Marco says. “And I suspect you would know if I lied to you outright. I hope I can expect the same from you.”
Celia considers this a moment before she nods.
“You remind me a bit of my father,” she says.
“How so?” Marco asks.
“The way you manipulate perception. I was never particularly good at that myself, I’m better with tangible things. You don’t have to do that with me, by the way,” she adds, finally realizing what disconcerts her about his appearance.
“Do what?” Marco asks.
“Look like that. It’s very good, but I can tell it’s not entirely genuine. It must be terribly annoying to keep it up constantly.”
Marco frowns, but then, very slowly, his face begins to change. The goatee fades and disappears. The chiseled features become softer and younger. His striking green eyes fade to a green-tinged grey.
The false face had been handsome, yes, but consciously so. As though he was too aware of his own attractiveness, something Celia found distinctly unappealing.
And there was something else, a hollowness that was likely the result of the illusion, an impression that he was not entirely present in the room.
But now, now there is a different person standing next to her, much more present, as if a barrier has been removed between them. He feels closer, though the distance between them has not changed, and his face is quite handsome, still.
The intensity of his stare increases with these eyes; looking at him now she can see deeper, without being distracted by the color.
Celia can feel the heat rising up her neck and manages to control it enough that the flush is not noticeable in the candlelight.
And then she realizes why there is something familiar there as well.
“I’ve seen you like this before,” she says, placing his true countenance in a location in her memory. “You’ve watched my show like that.”
“Do you remember all of your audiences?” Marco asks.
“Not all of them,” Celia says. “But I remember the people who look at me the way you do.”
“What way might that be?”
“As though they cannot decide if they are afraid of me or they want to kiss me.”
“I am not afraid of you,” Marco says.
They stare at each other in silence for a while, the candles flickering around them.
“It seems a great deal of effort for a rather subtle difference,” Celia says.
“It has its advantages.”
“I think you look better without it,” Celia says. Marco looks so surprised that she adds, “I said I would be honest, didn’t I?”
“You flatter me, Miss Bowen,” he says. “How many times have you been to this house?”
“At least a dozen,” Celia says.
“And yet, you have never had a tour.”
“I have never been offered one.”
“Chandresh does not believe in them. He prefers to let the house remain an enigma. If the guests do not know where the boundaries are, it gives the impression that the house itself goes on forever. It used to be two buildings, so it can be somewhat disorienting.”
“I did not know that,” Celia says.
“Two adjoining town houses, one a mirror of the other. He bought both and had them renovated into a single dwelling, with a number of enhancements. I do not believe we have the time for the full tour, but I could show you a few of the more obscure rooms, if you would like.”
“I would,” Celia says, placing her empty wineglass on the table next to his own. “Do you often give forbidden tours of your employer’s house?”
“Only once, and that was because Mr. Barris was quite persistent.”
FROM THE DINING ROOM, they cross under the shadow of the elephant-headed statue in the hall, passing into the library and stopping at the stained-glass sunset that stretches the height of one wall.
“This is the game room,” Marco says, pushing the glass and letting it swing open into the next room.
“How appropriate.”
Gaming is more theme than function for the room. There are several chessboards with missing pieces, and pieces without boards of their own lined up on windowsills and bookshelves. Dartboards without darts hang alongside backgammon games suspended in mid-play.
The billiard table in the center is covered in bloodred felt.
A selection of weaponry lines one wall, arranged in pairs. Sabres and pistols and fencing foils, each twinned with another, prepared for dozens of potential duels.
“Chandresh has a fondness for antique armament,” Marco explains as Celia regards them. “There are pieces in other rooms but this is the majority of the collection.”
He watches her closely as she walks around the room. She appears to be attempting not to smile as she looks over the gaming elements artfully arranged around them.
“You smile as though you have a secret,” he says.
“I have a lot of secrets,” Celia says, glancing at him over her shoulder before turning back to the wall. “When did you know I was your opponent?”
“I did not know until your audition. You were a mystery for years before that. And I’m certain you noticed that you caught me by surprise.” He pauses before adding, “I cannot say that it has truly been an advantage. How long have you known?”
“I knew in the rain in Prague, and you know perfectly well that was when I knew,” Celia says. “You could have let me go with an umbrella to puzzle over, but instead you chased me down. Why?”
“I wanted it back,” Marco says. “I’m quite fond of that umbrella. And I had grown weary of hiding from you.”
“I once suspected anyone and everyone,” Celia says. “Though I did think it was more likely someone in the circus proper. I should have known it was you.”
“And why is that?” Marco asks.
“Because you pretend to be less than you are,” she says. “That much is clear as day. I will admit, I never thought to charm my umbrella.”
“I have lived most of my life in London,” Marco says. “As soon as I learned to charm objects, it was one of the first things I did.”
He removes his jacket and tosses it over one of the leather chairs in the corner. He takes a deck of playing cards off of a shelf, unsure if she will be willing to humor him but too curious not to try.
“Do you want to play cards?” Celia asks.
“Not exactly,” Marco answers as he shuffles. When he is satisfied, he places the deck on the billiard table.