The Night Circus

Page 7


The iron bars are thick and smooth, and Bailey knows without trying that he will not be able to climb over. Besides the fact that there are no good footholds past the first few feet, the top of the fence curls outward in swirls that are something like spikes. They are not overly intimidating, but they are definitely not welcoming.
But the fence was apparently not built with the express purpose of keeping ten-year-old boys out, for while the bars are solid, they are spread almost a foot apart. And Bailey, being somewhat small, can squeeze through comparatively easily.
He does hesitate, just for a moment, but he knows he will hate himself later if he doesn’t at least try, no matter what might happen after.
He had thought it would feel different, the way it had at night, but as he pulls himself through the fence and stands in the passage between the tents, he feels exactly as he had on the outside. If the magic is still there in the daytime, he cannot feel it.
And it seems to be completely abandoned, with no sign of any workers or performers.
It is quieter inside; he cannot hear the birds. The leaves that rustled around his feet on the outside have not followed him past the fence, though there is room enough for the breeze to carry them through the bars.
Bailey wonders which way he should go, and what might count as proof for his dare. There doesn’t seem to be anything to take, only bare ground and the smooth striped sides of tents. The tents look surprisingly old and worn in the light, and he wonders how long the circus has been traveling, and where it goes when it leaves. He thinks there must be a circus train, though there is not one at the nearest station, and as far as he can tell, no one ever sees such a train come or go.
Bailey turns right at the end of the passage, and finds himself in a row of tents, each with a door and a sign advertising its contents. FLIGHTS OF FANCY, reads one; ETHEREAL ENIGMAS, another. Bailey holds his breath as he passes the one marked FEARSOME BEASTS & STRANGE CREATURES, but he hears nothing from inside. He finds nothing to take with him, as he is unwilling to steal a sign, and the only other things out in plain sight are scraps of paper and the occasional smushed piece of popcorn.
The afternoon sun casts long shadows across the tents, stretching over the dry ground. The ground has been painted or powdered white in some areas, black in others. Bailey can see the brown dirt beneath that has been kicked up by so many feet walking over it. He wonders if they repaint it every night as he turns another corner, and because he is looking at the ground, he nearly runs into the girl.
She is standing in the middle of the path between the tents, just standing there as though she is waiting for him. She looks to be about his own age, and she wears what can only be called a costume, as they certainly aren’t normal clothes. White boots with lots of buttons, white stockings, and a white dress made from bits of every fabric imaginable, scraps of lace and silk and cotton all combined into one, with a short white military jacket over it, and white gloves. Every inch from her neck down is covered in white, which makes her red hair exceptionally shocking.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” the red-haired girl says quietly. She does not sound upset or even surprised. Bailey blinks at her a few times before he manages to respond.
“I … uh, I know,” he says, and it sounds to him like the stupidest thing in the world to say, but the girl only looks at him. “I’m sorry?” he adds, which sounds even stupider.
“You should probably leave before anyone else sees you,” the girl says, glancing over her shoulder, but Bailey cannot tell what she is looking for. “Which way did you come in?”
“Back, uh … ” Bailey turns around but cannot tell which way he came, the path turns in on itself and he cannot see any of the signs to know which ones he had passed. “I’m not sure,” he says.
“That’s all right, come with me.” The girl takes his hand in her white-gloved one and pulls him down one of the passageways. She does not say anything more as they walk through the tents, though she makes him stop when they reach a corner and they do not move for almost a minute. When he opens his mouth to ask what they are waiting for she simply holds her finger to her lips to quiet him and then continues walking a few seconds later.
“You can fit through the fence?” the girl asks, and Bailey nods. The girl takes a sharp turn behind one of the tents, down a passageway Bailey had not even noticed, and there is the fence again, and the field outside.
“Go out this way,” the girl says. “You should be fine.”
She helps Bailey squeeze through the bars, which are a bit tighter in this part of the fence. When he is on the other side, he turns around to face her.
“Thank you,” he says. He cannot think of anything else to say.
“You’re welcome,” the girl says. “But you should be more careful. You’re not supposed to come in here during the day, it’s trespassing.”
“I know, I’m sorry,” Bailey says. “What does exsanguinated mean?”
The girl smiles.
“It means draining all your blood,” she says. “But they don’t actually do that, I don’t think.”
She turns and starts back down the passageway.
“Wait,” Bailey says, though he doesn’t know what he is asking her to wait for. The girl returns to the fence. She does not respond, just waits to hear what he has to say. “I … I’m supposed to bring something back,” he says, and regrets it instantly. The girl’s brow furrows as she stares at him through the bars.
“Bring something back?” she repeats.
“Yeah,” Bailey says, looking down at his scuffed brown shoes, and at her white boots on the other side of the fence. “It was a dare,” he adds, hoping she will understand.
The girl smiles. She bites her lip for a second and looks thoughtful, and then she pulls off one of her white gloves and hands it to him through the bars. Bailey hesitates.
“It’s okay, take it,” she says. “I have a whole box of them.”
Bailey takes the white glove from her and puts it in his pocket.
“Thank you,” he says again.
“You’re welcome, Bailey,” the girl says, and this time when she turns away he does not say anything, and she disappears behind the corner of a striped tent.
Bailey stands there for a long while before he walks back across the field. There is no one left in the oak tree when he reaches it, only a great deal of acorns on the ground, and the sun is starting to set.
He is halfway home when he realizes he never told the girl his name.
Associates and Conspirators
Midnight Dinners are a tradition at la maison Lefèvre. They were originally concocted by Chandresh on a whim, brought about by a combination of chronic insomnia and keeping theatrical hours, along with an innate dislike of proper dinner-party etiquette. There are places to get a meal after hours, but none of these places particularly suit Chandresh’s tastes.
So he began throwing elaborate, multicourse dinners, with the first course to be served at midnight. Always precisely at midnight, at the moment the grandfather clock in the foyer begins to chime, the first plates are placed on the table. Chandresh feels it adds a sense of ceremony. The earliest Midnight Dinners were small, intimate gatherings of friends and colleagues. Over time they have become more frequent and more extravagant, eventually turning into something of an underground sensation. An invitation to a Midnight Dinner is coveted in certain circles.
They are selective, these dinners. Though occasionally there may be as many as thirty people, there are often as few as five. Twelve to fifteen guests is somewhat standard. The cuisine is exquisite regardless of the number of guests.
Chandresh never provides menus for these events. Some similar dinners, if there were dinners that could be considered similar, might have calligraphed menus on sturdy paper describing each course in great detail, or perhaps just listing an intriguing title or name.
But the Midnight Dinners have an air of nocturnal mystery already, and Chandresh finds that providing no menu, no map of the culinary route, adds to the experience. Dish after dish is brought to the table, some easily identifiable as quail or rabbit or lamb, served on banana leaves or baked in apples or garnished with brandy-soaked cherries. Other courses are more enigmatic, concealed in sweet sauces or spiced soups; unidentifiable meats hidden in pastries and glazes.
Should a diner inquire as to the nature of a particular dish, question the origin of a bite or a seasoning, a flavor she cannot put her finger on (for even those with the most refined of palates can never identify each and every flavor), she will not be met with a satisfying answer.
Chandresh will remark that “the recipes belong to the chefs themselves and I am not one to deny them their privacy.” The curious guest will return to the mysterious plate in front of her, perhaps remarking that, whatever the secrets, the dish is quite impressive, and continuing to wonder where the peculiar flavor might originate as she savors each bite with profound thoughtfulness.
Conversation at these dinners is largely reserved for the time between courses.
In truth, Chandresh prefers not to know all the ingredients, not to understand each technique. He claims such ignorance gives each dish life, makes it more than the sum of its parts.
(“Ah,” remarked one guest when the topic arose. “You prefer not to see the gears of the clock, as to better tell the time.”)
The desserts are always astonishing. Confections deliriously executed in chocolate and butterscotch, berries bursting with creams and liqueurs. Cakes layered to impossible heights, pastries lighter than air. Figs that drip with honey, sugar blown into curls and flowers. Often diners remark that they are too pretty, too impressive to eat, but they always find a way to manage.
Chandresh never reveals the identity of his chefs. One rumor supposes that he has culinary geniuses from around the world kidnapped and imprisoned in his kitchens, where they are forced by questionable means to cater to his every whim. Another implies that the food is not cooked on the premises and instead is imported from the best restaurants in London, paid extra to stay open for the late hour. This rumor often results in debates on methods of keeping hot food hot and cold food cold, which never come to any satisfying conclusions and tend to make the debaters rather hungry.
Regardless of its origin, the food is always delectable. The decor in the dining room (or rooms, depending on the size of the event) is as extraordinary as it is in the rest of the house, in sumptuous reds and golds with art and artifacts from across the globe displayed on every available surface. Everything is lit with glowing chandeliers and copious candles, so that the light is not bright but deep and warm and bubbling.
There is often entertainment of some sort or another: dancers, conjurers, exotic musicians. The more intimate gatherings are typically accompanied by Chandresh’s personal pianist, a beautiful young woman who plays continuously throughout the entire evening and never speaks a word to anyone.
They are dinner parties like any other, though the ambiance and the late hour makes them something else, something unusual and curious. Chandresh has an inherent flair for the unusual and curious; he understands the power of atmosphere.
On this particular night, the Midnight Dinner is a comparatively intimate one, with only five invited guests. And tonight’s dinner is not merely a social gathering.
The first to arrive (after the pianist, already playing) is Mme. Ana Padva, a retired Romanian prima ballerina who had been dear friends with Chandresh’s mother. He called her Tante Padva as a child, and continues to do so to this day. She is a stately woman, the grace of a dancer still visible through her advanced age, along with her impeccable sense of style. Her sense of style is the primary reason she is invited this evening. She is a fiend for aesthetics with an eye for fashion that is both unique and coveted, and provides her with a sizable income since her retirement from the ballet.
The woman is a magician with clothing, the papers say. A miracle worker. Mme. Padva dismisses these comments, though she does joke that with enough silk and an industrial-strength corset she could make Chandresh himself pass for the most fashionable of ladies.
On this evening, Mme. Padva wears a dress of black silk, hand embroidered with intricate patterns of cherry blossoms, something like a kimono reincarnated as a gown. Her silver hair is piled atop her head and held in place with a small jeweled black cage. A choker of perfectly cut scarlet rubies circles her neck, putting forth a vague impression of her throat having been slit. The overall effect is slightly morbid and incredibly elegant.
Mr. Ethan W. Barris is an engineer and architect of some renown, and the second of the guests to arrive. He looks as though he has wandered into the wrong building and would be more at home in an office or a bank with his timid manner and silver spectacles, his hair carefully combed to disguise the fact that it is beginning to thin. He met Chandresh only once before, at a symposium on ancient Greek architecture. The dinner invitation came as a surprise; Mr. Barris is not the type of man who receives invitations to unusual late-night social functions, or usual social functions for that matter, but he deemed it too impolite to decline. Besides, he has long desired a peek inside the Lefèvre town house, which is something of a legend amongst his colleagues who work in interior design.
Within moments of his arrival, he finds himself with a glass of sparkling wine in hand, exchanging pleasantries with a former prima ballerina. He decides then that he rather enjoys unusual late-night social functions, and should endeavor to attend them more frequently.
The Burgess sisters arrive together. Tara and Lainie do a little bit of everything. Sometimes dancers, sometimes actresses. Once they were librarians, but that is a subject they will only discuss if heavily intoxicated. They have, of late, made something of a business of consulting. On any matter. They offer advice on subjects ranging from relationships and finance to travel and shoes. Their secret (which they will also discuss if properly intoxicated) is their highly developed skill of observation. They see every detail, notice the tiniest nuances. And if ever Tara were to miss something, Lainie would catch her oversight (and vice versa).