The Night Circus

Page 4


When they reach the point of the lesson that includes the practical demonstration, he instructs the boy to place the ring on his own hand. He never touches the boy, regardless of the circumstances.
The boy tries in vain to pry the ring from his finger as it dissolves into his skin.
“Bindings are permanent, my boy,” the man in the grey suit says.
“What am I bound to?” the boy asks, frowning at the scar where the ring had been moments before.
“An obligation you already had, and a person you will not meet for some time. The details are not important at this point. This is merely a necessary technicality.”
The boy only nods and does not question further, but that night, when he is alone again and unable to sleep, he spends hours staring at his hand in the moonlight, wondering who the person he is bound to might be.
THOUSANDS OF MILES AWAY, in a crowded theater that thunders with applause for the man onstage, hidden in the shadows formed between disused pieces of scenery backstage, Celia Bowen curls herself into a ball and cries.
Le Bateleur
Just before the boy turns nineteen, the man in the grey suit removes him from the town house without notice, setting him up in a modestly sized flat with a view of the British Museum.
At first he assumes that it is only a temporary matter. There have been, of late, journeys of weeks or even months, to France and Germany and Greece, filled with more studying than sightseeing. But this is not one of those not-quite holidays spent in luxurious hotels.
It is a modest flat with basic furnishings, so similar to his former rooms that he finds it difficult to feel anything resembling homesickness, save for the library, though he still possesses an impressive number of books.
There is a wardrobe full of well-cut but nondescript black suits. Crisp white shirts. A row of custom-fitted bowler hats.
He inquires as to when what is referred to only as his challenge will begin. The man in the grey suit will not say, though the move clearly marks the end of formal lessons.
Instead, he continues his studies independently. He keeps notebooks full of symbols and glyphs, working through his old notes and finding new elements to consider. He carries smaller volumes with him at all times, transcribing them into larger ones once they are filled.
He begins each notebook the same way, with a detailed drawing of a tree inscribed with black ink inside the front cover. From there the black branches stretch onto the subsequent pages, tying together lines that form letters and symbols, each page almost completely covered in ink. All of it, runes and words and glyphs, twisted together and grounded to the initial tree.
There is a forest of such trees, carefully filed on his bookshelves.
He practices the things he has been taught, though it is difficult to gauge the effectiveness of his illusions on his own. He spends a great deal of time regarding reflections in mirrors.
Unscheduled and no longer under lock and key, he takes long walks around the city. The sheer volume of people is nerve-racking, but the joy in being able to leave his flat whenever he chooses outweighs his fear of accidentally bumping into passersby as he attempts to traverse the streets.
He sits in parks and cafés, observing people who pay him little notice as he blends into crowds of young men in interchangeable suits and bowler hats.
One afternoon, he returns to his old town house, thinking perhaps it would not be an imposition to call on his instructor for something as simple as tea, but the building is abandoned, the windows boarded.
As he walks back to his flat, he places a hand on his pocket and realizes that his notebook is missing.
He swears aloud, attracting a glare from a passing woman who steps aside as he stops short on the crowded pavement.
He retraces his steps, growing more anxious with each turn.
A light rain begins to fall, not much more than mist, but several umbrellas spring up amongst the crowd. He pulls the brim of his bowler hat down to better shield his eyes as he searches the dampening pavement for any sign of his notebook.
He stops at a corner beneath the awning of a café, watching the lamps flickering on up and down the street, wondering if he should wait until the crowd thins or the rain lets up. Then he notices that there is a girl standing some paces away, also sheltered beneath the awning, and she is poring over the pages of a notebook that he is quite certain is his own.
She is perhaps eighteen, perhaps a bit younger. Her eyes are light, and her hair is an indeterminate color that cannot seem to decide if it is blond or brown. She wears a dress that would have been quite fashionable two years ago and is damp from the rain.
He steps closer, but she does not notice, she stays completely absorbed in the book. She has even removed one of her gloves to better handle the delicate pages. He can now see that it is, indeed, his own journal, open to a page with a card pasted onto it, printed with winged creatures crawling over a spoked wheel. His handwriting covers the card and the paper around it, incorporating it into solid text.
He watches her expression as she flips through the pages, a mixture of confusion and curiosity.
“I believe you have my book,” he says after a moment. The girl jumps in surprise and nearly drops the notebook but manages to catch it, though in the process her glove flutters to the pavement. He bends down to retrieve it, and when he straightens and offers it to her, she seems surprised to see that he is smiling at her.
“I’m sorry,” she says, accepting her glove and quickly pushing the journal at him. “You dropped it in the park and I was trying to give it back but I lost track of you and then I … I’m sorry.” She stops, flustered.
“That’s quite all right,” he says, relieved to have it back in his possession. “I was afraid it was lost for good, which would have been unfortunate. I owe you my deepest gratitude, Miss … ?”
“Martin,” she supplies, and it sounds like a lie. “Isobel Martin.” A questioning look follows, waiting for his own name.
“Marco,” he says. “Marco Alisdair.” The name tastes strange on his tongue, the opportunities to speak it aloud falling few and far between. He has written this variant of his given name combined with a form of his instructor’s alias so many times that it seems like his own, but adding sound to symbol is a different process entirely.
The ease at which Isobel accepts it makes it feel more real.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Alisdair,” she says.
He should thank her and take his book and go, it is the sensible thing to do. But he is not particularly inclined to return to his empty flat.
“Might I buy you a drink as a token of my thanks, Miss Martin?” he asks, after slipping the notebook into his pocket.
Isobel hesitates, likely knowing better than to accept invitations for drinks from strange men on darkened street corners, but to his surprise, she nods.
“That would be lovely, thank you,” she says.
“Very well,” Marco says. “But there are better cafés than this particular one”—he gestures at the window next to them—“within a reasonable distance, if you don’t mind a damp walk. I’m afraid I don’t have an umbrella with me.”
“I don’t mind,” Isobel says. Marco offers her his arm, which she takes, and they set off down the street in the softly falling rain.
They walk only a block or two and then down a rather narrow alley, and Marco can feel her tense in the darkness, but she relaxes when he stops at a well-lit doorway next to a stained-glass window. He holds the door open for her as they enter a tiny café, one that has quickly become his favorite over the past few months, one of the few places in London where he feels truly at ease.
Candles flicker in glass holders on every available surface, and the walls are painted a rich, bold red. There are only a few patrons scattered about the intimate space and plenty of empty tables. They sit at a small table near the window. Marco waves at the woman behind the bar, who then brings them two glasses of Bordeaux, leaving the bottle on the table next to a small vase holding a yellow rose.
As the rain patters gently against the windows, they converse politely about insubstantial things. Marco volunteers very little information about himself, and Isobel responds in kind.
When he asks if she is hungry she gives a polite non-answer that betrays that she is famished. He catches the attention of the woman behind the bar again, who returns a few minutes later with a platter of cheese and fruit and slices of baguette.
“However did you find a place like this?” Isobel asks.
“Trial and error,” he says. “And a great many glasses of horrible wine.”
Isobel laughs.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “Though at least it worked out well in the end. This place is lovely. It’s like an oasis.”
“An oasis with very good wine,” Marco agrees, tipping his glass toward her.
“It reminds me of France,” Isobel says.
“Are you from France?” he asks.
“No,” Isobel says. “But I lived there for a while.”
“As did I,” Marco says. “Though that was some time ago. And you are correct, this place is very French, I think that’s part of the charm. So many places here don’t bother to be charming.”
“You’re charming,” Isobel says, and immediately blushes, looking like she would pull the words back into her mouth if she could.
“Thank you,” Marco replies, unsure what else to say.
“I’m sorry,” Isobel says, clearly flustered. “I didn’t mean to … ” She begins to trail off, but perhaps emboldened by a glass and a half of wine, she continues. “There are charms in your book,” she says. She looks to him for a reaction but he says nothing and she looks away. “Charms,” she continues to fill the silence. “Talismans, symbols … I don’t know what all of them mean but they are charms, are they not?”
She takes a nervous sip of her wine before daring to look back at him.
Marco chooses his words carefully, wary about the direction the conversation is taking.
“And what does a young lady who once lived in France know of charms and talismans?” he asks.
“Only things I’ve read in books,” she says. “I don’t remember what all of them mean. I only know the astrological symbols and some of the alchemical ones, and I don’t know them particularly well, either.” She pauses, as though she cannot decide whether or not she wants to elaborate, but then she adds, “La Roue de Fortune, the Wheel of Fortune. The card in your book. I know that card. I have a deck, myself.”
While earlier Marco had determined her to be little more than mildly intriguing and fairly pretty, this revelation is something more. He leans into the table, regarding her with considerably increased interest than he had moments before.
“Do you mean you read the tarot, Miss Martin?” he asks.
Isobel nods.
“I do, at least, I try,” she says. “Only for myself, though, which I suppose is not really reading. It’s … it’s just something I picked up a few years ago.”
“Do you have your deck with you?” Marco asks. Isobel nods again. “I would very much like to see it, if you don’t mind,” he adds, when she makes no move to take it from her bag. Isobel glances around the café at the other patrons. Marco gives a dismissive wave. “Don’t worry yourself about them,” he says, “it takes a great deal more than a deck of cards to frighten this lot. But if you would rather not, I understand.”
“No, no, I don’t mind,” Isobel says, picking up her bag and carefully pulling out a deck of cards wrapped in a scrap of black silk. She removes the cards from their covering and places them atop the table.
“May I?” Marco asks as he moves to pick them up.
“By all means,” Isobel answers, surprised.
“Some readers do not like other people touching their cards,” Marco explains, recalling details from his divination lessons as he gently lifts the deck. “And I would not want to be presumptuous.” He turns over the top card, Le Bateleur. The Magician. Marco cannot help but smile at the card before replacing it in the pile.
“Do you read?” Isobel asks him.
“Oh no,” he says. “I am familiar with the cards, but they do not speak to me, not in ways enough to properly read.” He looks up from the cards at Isobel, still not certain what to make of her. “They speak to you, though, do they not?”
“I have never thought of it that way, but I suppose they do,” she says. She sits quietly, watching him flip through the deck. He treats it with the same care she showed with his journal, holding the cards delicately by their edges. When he has looked through the entire deck, he places them back on the table.
“They are very old,” he says. “Much older than you, I would venture to guess. Might I inquire as to how they came into your possession?”
“I found them in a jewelry box in an antiques shop in Paris, years ago,” Isobel says. “The woman there wouldn’t even sell them to me, she just told me to take them away, get them out of her shop. Devil cards, she called them. Cartes du Diable.”
“People are naïve about such things,” Marco says, a phrase oft repeated by his instructor as both admonishment and warning. “And they would rather write them off as evil than attempt to understand them. An unfortunate truth, but a truth nonetheless.”
“What is your notebook for?” Isobel asks. “I don’t mean to pry, I just found it interesting. I hope you will forgive me for looking through it.”
“Well, we are even on that matter, now that you have allowed me to look through your cards,” he says. “But I am afraid it is rather complex, and not the easiest of matters to explain, or believe.”