The Night Circus

Page 28


He flips over a card. The king of spades. He taps the surface and the king of spades becomes the king of hearts. He lifts his hand, pulling it back and unfurling his fingers over the card, welcoming her to make the next move.
Celia smiles. She unties the shawl from her shoulders and drapes it over his discarded jacket. Then she stands with her hands clasped behind her back.
The king of hearts flips up, balancing on its edge. It stands there for a moment before slowly and deliberately ripping in half. The two pieces stay standing, separate, for a moment before they fall, the patterned back facing up.
Mimicking Marco’s gesture, Celia taps the card and it snaps back together. She pulls her hand back and the card flips itself over. The queen of diamonds.
Then the entire deck hovers in the air for a moment before collapsing onto the table, cards scattering out over the red felt surface.
“You are better than I am at physical manipulation,” Marco admits.
“I have an advantage,” Celia says. “What my father calls a natural talent. I find it harder not to influence my surroundings, I was constantly breaking things as a child.”
“How much impact can you have on living things?” Marco asks.
“It depends on the thing in question,” Celia says. “Objects are easier. It took me years to master anything animate. And I work much better with my own birds than I could with any old pigeon taken off the street.”
“What could you do to me?”
“I might be able to change your hair, perhaps your voice,” Celia says. “No more than that without your full consent and awareness, and true consent is more difficult to give than you might think. I can’t repair injury. I rarely have much more than a temporary, superficial impact. It is easier with people I’m more familiar with, though it is never particularly easy.”
“What about with yourself?”
In response, Celia goes to the wall and removes a thin Ottoman dagger with a jade hilt from where it hangs with its partner. Holding it in her right hand, she places her left palm down on the billiard table, over the scattered cards. Without hesitating, she plunges the blade into the back of her hand, piercing through skin and flesh and cards and into the felt underneath.
Marco flinches, but says nothing.
Celia pries the dagger up, her hand and the two of spades still impaled on the blade, blood beginning to drip down to her wrist. She holds out her hand and turns it slowly, presenting it with a certain amount of showmanship so that Marco can see that there is no illusion involved.
With her other hand she removes the dagger, the bloodied playing card fluttering down. Then the droplets of blood begin rolling backward, seeping into the gash in her palm which then shrinks and disappears until there is no more than a sharp red line on her skin, and then nothing.
She taps the card and the blood disappears. The rip left by the blade no longer visible. The card is now the two of hearts.
Marco picks up the card and runs his fingers over the mended surface. Then with a subtle turn of his hand, the card vanishes. He leaves it safely tucked within his pocket.
“I am relieved that we were not challenged to a physical fight,” he says. “I think you would have the advantage.”
“My father used to slice open the tips of my fingers one by one until I could heal all ten at once,” Celia says, returning the dagger to its place on the wall. “So much of it is feeling from the inside how everything is supposed to fit, I have not been able to do it with anyone else.”
“I think your lessons were a great deal less academic than mine.”
“I would have preferred more reading.”
“I think it strange we were prepared in drastically different ways for the same challenge,” Marco says. He looks at Celia’s hand again, though now there is clearly nothing amiss, no indication that it was stabbed only moments ago.
“I suspect that is part of the point,” she says. “Two schools of thought pitted against each other, working within the same environment.”
“I confess,” Marco says, “I don’t fully understand the point, even after all this time.”
“Nor do I,” Celia admits. “I suspect calling it a challenge or a game is not entirely accurate. I’ve come to think of it more as a dual exhibition. What else do I get to see on my tour?”
“Would you like to see something in progress?” Marco asks. Knowing that she thinks of the circus as an exhibition comes as a pleasant surprise, as he had stopped considering it antagonistic years ago.
“I would,” Celia says. “Especially if it is the project that Mr. Barris was going on about during dinner.”
“It is indeed.”
Marco escorts her out of the game room through another door, passing briefly through the hall and into the expansive ballroom at the rear of the house, where the moonlight filters in from the glass doors lining the back wall.
OUTSIDE, IN THE SPACE the garden formerly occupied beyond the terrace, the area has been excavated to sit a level deeper, sunken into the earth. At the moment it is mostly an arrangement of packed soil and stacks of stone forming tall but rudimentary walls.
Celia carefully descends the stone steps and Marco follows her. Once at the bottom, the walls create a maze, leaving only a small portion of the garden visible at a time.
“I thought it might be beneficial for Chandresh to have a project to occupy himself with,” Marco explains. “As he so rarely leaves the house these days, renovating the gardens seemed a good place to start. Would you like to see what it will look like when it is complete?”
“I would,” Celia says. “Do you have the plans here?”
In response, Marco lifts one hand and gestures around them.
What had been little more than stacks of rough stone moments before is now set and carved into ornate arches and pathways, covered in crawling vines and speckled with bright, tiny lanterns. Roses hang from curving trellises above them, the night sky visible through the spaces between the blossoms.
Celia puts her hand to her lips to muffle her gasp. The entire scene, from the scent of the roses to the warmth radiating from the lanterns, is astounding. She can hear a fountain bubbling nearby and turns down the now grass-covered path to find it.
Marco follows her as she explores, taking turn after turn through the twisting pathways.
The fountain in the center cascades down a carved stone wall, flowing into a round pond full of koi. Their scales glow in the moonlight, bright splashes of white and orange in the dark water.
Celia puts her hand out, letting the water from the fountain rush over her fingers as she presses against the cold stone below.
“You’re doing this in my mind, aren’t you?” she asks when she hears Marco behind her.
“You’re letting me,” he says.
“I could probably stop it, you know,” Celia says, turning around to face him. He leans against one of the stone archways, watching her.
“I’m certain you could. If you resisted at all it would not work as well, and it can be blocked almost entirely. And of course, proximity is key for the immersion.”
“You cannot do this with the circus,” Celia says.
Marco shrugs his shoulders.
“There is too much distance, unfortunately,” he says. “It is one of my specialties, yet there is little opportunity to use it. I am not adept at creating this type of illusion to be viewed by more than one person at a time.”
“It’s amazing,” Celia says, watching the koi swimming at her feet. “I could never manage something so intricate, even though they call me the illusionist. You’d wear that title better than I.”
“I suppose ‘The Beautiful Woman Who Can Manipulate the World with Her Mind’ is too unwieldy.”
“I don’t think that would fit on the sign outside my tent.”
His laugh is low and warm and Celia turns away to hide her smile, keeping her attention on the swirling water.
“There is no use for one of my specialties, as well,” she says. “I am very good at manipulating fabric, but it seems so unnecessary given what Madame Padva can do.” She twirls in her gown, the silver catching the light so she glows as brightly as the lanterns.
“I think she’s a witch,” Marco says. “And I mean that in the most complimentary manner.”
“I think she would take that as a compliment, indeed,” Celia says. “You are seeing all this as well, exactly as I see it?”
“More or less,” Marco says. “The nuances are richer the closer I am to the viewer.”
Celia circles to the opposite side of the pond, nearer to where he stands. She examines the carvings on the stone and the vines twining around them, but her gaze keeps returning to Marco. Any attempt at subtlety is ruined when he repeatedly catches her eyes with his own. Looking away again becomes more difficult each time.
“It was clever of you to use the bonfire as a stimulus,” she says, trying to keep her attention on a tiny glowing lantern.
“I’m not surprised you figured that out,” Marco says. “I had to come up with some way of staying connected since I am not able to travel with the circus. The lighting seemed a perfect opportunity to establish a lasting hold. I didn’t want you to have too much control, after all.”
“It had repercussions,” Celia says.
“What do you mean?”
“Let’s just say there is more that is remarkable about the Murray twins than their hair.”
“And you’re not going to tell me what that is, are you?” Marco asks.
“A lady cannot reveal all of her secrets,” Celia says. She pulls a rose down from a hanging branch, closing her eyes as she inhales the scent, the petals velvet soft against her skin. The sensory details of the illusion are so luscious, it is almost dizzying. “Who thought to sink the garden?” she asks.
“Chandresh. It’s inspired by another room in the house, I can show you that one if you’d like.”
Celia nods and they retrace their steps through the garden. She stays closer to him as they walk, close enough to touch though he keeps his hands clasped behind his back. When they reach the terrace, Celia glances back at the garden, where the roses and lanterns have reverted to dirt and stone.
INSIDE, MARCO LEADS CELIA across the ballroom. He stops at the far wall and slides one of the dark-wood panels open to reveal a curving stairway spiraling downward.
“Is it a dungeon?” Celia asks as they descend.
“Not precisely,” Marco says. When they reach the gilded door at the end of the stairs, he opens it for her. “Mind your step.”
The room is small but the ceiling is high, a golden chandelier draped with crystals suspended in the center. The rounded walls and ceiling are painted a deep, vibrant blue and ornamented with stars.
A path wraps around the edge of the room like a ledge, though the majority of the floor is sunken and filled with large cushions covered in a rainbow of embellished silk.
“Chandresh claims it is modeled after a room belonging to a courtesan in Bombay,” Marco says. “I find it marvelous for reading, myself.”
Celia laughs and a curl of her hair falls across her cheek.
Marco tentatively moves to brush it off her face, but before his fingers reach her, she pushes herself off the ledge, her silver gown a billowing cloud as she falls onto the pile of jewel-toned cushions.
He watches her for a moment before copying her action himself, sinking into the center of the room alongside her.
They lie staring up at the chandelier, the light reflecting over the crystals turning it into the night sky without need of any illusion.
“How often are you able to visit the circus?” Celia asks.
“Not as often as I’d like. Whenever it is near London, of course. I try to reach it elsewhere in Europe if I can escape from Chandresh for sufficient periods of time. I sometimes feel like I have one foot on both sides. I am intimately familiar with so much of it, and yet it is always surprising.”
“Which is your favorite tent?”
“Truthfully? Yours.”
“Why?” she asks, turning to look at him.
“It appeals to my personal taste, I suppose. You do in public things I have been taught in secret. Perhaps I appreciate it on a different level than most. I also very much enjoy the Labyrinth. I had been unsure whether or not you would be willing to collaborate on it.”
“I got quite the lecture about that particular collaboration,” Celia says. “My father called it debauched juxtaposition, he must have worked for days to come up with a worthy insult. He sees something tawdry in the combining of skills, I have never understood why. I adore the Labyrinth, I have had far too much fun adding rooms. I particularly love that hallway you made where it snows, so you can see the footprints left by other people navigating their way around.”
“I had not thought of it in such a lascivious manner before,” Marco says. “I look forward to visiting it again with that in mind. Though I had been under the impression that your father was not in the position to be commenting on such matters.”
“He’s not dead,” Celia says, turning back to the ceiling. “It is rather difficult to explain.”
Marco decides against asking her to try, returning to the subject of the circus instead.
“Which tent is your favorite?” he asks.
“The Ice Garden,” Celia answers, without even pausing to consider.
“Why is that?” Marco asks.
“Because of the way it feels,” she says. “It’s like walking into a dream. As though it is someplace else entirely and not simply another tent. Perhaps I am just fond of snow. However did you come up with it?”