The Night Circus

Page 8


They find they enjoy resolving other people’s issues via suggestion more than doing all the work themselves. It is more satisfying, they say.
They look similar: both have the same waves of chestnut hair and large, bright hazel eyes that make them appear younger than they actually are, not that either will admit their age or disclose which one of them is older. They wear fashionable gowns that do not match exactly but coordinate beautifully, one complementing the other.
Mme. Padva greets them with the practiced disinterest she reserves for pretty young things, but warms when they enthusiastically compliment her hair and jewels and dress. Mr. Barris finds himself somewhat smitten with both of them, though it might be the wine. He has a fair amount of difficulty understanding their heavy Scottish accents, if they are Scottish at all. He is not entirely sure.
The last guest arrives shortly before dinner, just as the rest of the guests are being seated and the wine is being poured. He is a tall man of indeterminate age with indistinct features. He wears a spotless grey suit with tails and gives his top hat and cane at the door, and a card with the name “Mr. A. H—.” He nods politely at the other guests as he sits, but says nothing.
Chandresh joins them at this point, followed closely by his assistant, Marco, a handsome young man with striking green eyes who quickly attracts the attention of both Burgess sisters.
“I have invited you all here for a reason,” Chandresh says, “as I’m sure you have surmised by now. However, it is a business matter, and I find those to be best discussed on a full stomach, so we shall save the official discourse for after dessert.” He waves vaguely at one of the waiters and as the clock in the hall begins to chime a low, heavy sound that reverberates throughout the house twelve times, the first course is brought out.
The conversation is as pleasant and flowing as the wine over the subsequent courses. The ladies are more talkative than the men. In fact, the man in the grey suit barely says a word. And though few of them have met before, by the time the plats principaux are cleared, an observer would have thought that they had known each other for ages.
When dessert is finished a few minutes before two o’clock in the morning, Chandresh stands and clears his throat.
“If you would all be so kind as to join me in the study for coffee and brandy, we may get down to business,” he says. He nods at Marco, who slips away, rejoining them upstairs in the study with several large notebooks and rolls of paper in hand. Coffees and brandies are poured and the guests settle on various couches and armchairs around the crackling fireplace. After lighting a cigar, Chandresh begins his speech, punctuating it with purposefully placed puffs of smoke.
“Your company has been requested this evening because I have a project I am beginning, an endeavor, you might say. I do believe it is an endeavor that will appeal to all of you, and that you may each, in your unique ways, aid in the planning. Your assistance, which is entirely voluntary, will be both appreciated and well compensated,” he says.
“Stop beating around the bush and tell us what your new game is, Chandresh darling,” Mme. Padva says, swirling her brandy. “Some of us aren’t getting any younger.” One of the Burgess sisters stifles a giggle.
“But of course, Tante Padva.” Chandresh bows in her direction. “My new game, as you so appropriately call it, is a circus.”
“A circus?” says Lainie Burgess with a smile. “How marvelous!”
“Like a carnival?” Mr. Barris asks, sounding mildly confused.
“More than a carnival,” Chandresh says. “More than a circus, really, like no circus anyone has ever seen. Not a single large tent but a multitude of tents, each with a particular exhibition. No elephants or clowns. No, something more refined than that. Nothing commonplace. This will be different, this will be an utterly unique experience, a feast for the senses. Theatrics sans theater, an immersive entertainment. We will destroy the presumptions and preconceived notions of what a circus is and make it something else entirely, something new.” He gestures at Marco who spreads out the rolls of paper on the table, holding down the corners with an assortment of paperweights and oddities (a monkey skull, a butterfly suspended in glass).
The plans are predominantly sketches surrounded by notes. They show only fragments of ideas: a ring of tents, a central promenade. Lists of possible attractions or acts are scrawled down the sides, some crossed out or circled. Fortune-teller. Acrobats. Conjurer. Contortionists. Dancers. Fire artists.
The Burgess sisters and Mr. Barris pore over the sketches, reading each note as Chandresh continues. Mme. Padva smiles but remains seated, sipping her brandy. Mr. A. H— does not move, his expression inscrutable and unchanged.
“It is merely in conceptual stages, and that is why I ask you all here now, for the inception and development. What it needs is style, panache. Ingenuity in its engineering and structure. To be infused with the mesmerizing, and perhaps a touch of mystery. I believe you are the proper group for this undertaking. If any of you disagree, you are welcome to leave but I respectfully request you speak of this to no one. I prefer that these plans be kept undisclosed entirely, at least for now. Very sensitive at this point, after all.” He takes a long draw off his cigar, blowing out the smoke slowly before he concludes. “If we do things properly, it will undoubtedly take on a life of its own.”
There is silence when he finishes. Only the crackle of the fire fills the room for several moments as the guests look from one to the other, each waiting for someone to respond.
“Might I have a pencil?” Mr. Barris asks. Marco hands him one, and Mr. Barris begins drawing, taking the rudimentary sketch of the circus’s layout and developing it into a complex design.
Chandresh’s guests remain there until just before dawn, and when they do finally depart there are three times the number of diagrams and plans and notes than there had been when they arrived, strewn and pinned around the study like maps to an unknown treasure.
The announcement in the paper states that Hector Bowen, better known as Prospero the Enchanter, entertainer and stage magician of great renown, died of heart failure in his home on the fifteenth of March.
It goes on about his work and his legacy for some time. The age listed is erroneous, a detail few readers perceive. A short paragraph at the end of the obituary mentions that he is survived by a daughter of seventeen years of age, a Miss Celia Bowen. This number is more accurate. There is also a notice that though the funeral services will be private, condolences may be sent via the address of one of the local theaters.
The cards and letters are collected, placed in bags, and brought by messenger to the Bowens’ private residence, a town house that is already overflowing with appropriately somber floral arrangements. The scent of lilies is stifling and when Celia can no longer tolerate it, she transforms all of the flowers into roses.
Celia leaves the condolences piled on the dining-room table until they begin to overflow into the lounge. She does not want to deal with them, but she cannot bring herself to toss them away unread.
When she is unable to avoid the matter further, she makes a pot of tea and begins to tackle the mountains of paper. She opens each piece of mail one by one and sorts them into piles.
There are postmarks from around the globe. There are long, earnest letters filled with genuine despair. There are empty well-wishes and hollow praises of her father’s talents. Many of them comment that the senders were unaware that the great Prospero had a daughter. Others remember her fondly, describing a delightful, tiny girl that Celia herself does not recall being. A few include disturbingly worded marriage proposals.
Those in particular Celia crumples into balls, placing the crushed missives on her open palm one by one and concentrating until they burst into flame, leaving nothing but cinders on her hand that she brushes away into nothingness.
“I am already married,” she remarks to the empty air, twisting the ring on her right hand that covers an old, distinctive scar.
Amongst the letters and cards there is a plain grey envelope.
Celia pulls it from the pile, slicing it open with a silver letter opener, ready to throw it on the pile with the rest.
But this envelope, unlike the others, is addressed to her father proper, though the postmark is after his date of death. The card inside is not a note of sympathy nor a condolence for her loss.
It contains no greeting. No signature. The handwritten words across the paper read:
Your move.
and nothing more.
Celia turns the card over but the reverse is blank. Not even a stationer’s imprint marring the surface. There is no return address upon the envelope.
She reads the two words on the grey paper several times.
She cannot tell if the feeling creeping up her spine is excitement or dread.
Abandoning the remaining condolences, Celia takes the card in hand and leaves the room, ascending a winding stair that leads to the upstairs parlor. She pulls a ring of keys from her pocket and impatiently unlocks three separate locks in order to access the room that is drenched in bright afternoon sun.
“What is this about?” Celia says, holding the card out in front of her as she enters.
The figure hovering by the window turns. Where the sunlight hits him he is all but invisible. Part of a shoulder appears to be missing, the top of his head vanishes in a flutter of sun-caught dust. The rest of him is transparent, like a reflection in glass.
What is left of Hector Bowen reads the note and laughs delightedly.
The Contortionist’s Tattoo
Approximately once a month there are not-quite regularly scheduled Midnight Dinners that are most often referred to by the guests as Circus Dinners. They are a nocturnal amalgam of social event and business meeting.
Mme. Padva is always in attendance, and one or both Burgess sisters are a staple. Mr. Barris joins them as often as his schedule will allow, as he travels quite a bit and is not as flexible as he would prefer.
Mr. A. H— appears rarely. Tara remarks that they seem to have more productive post-dinner meetings when he is there, though he offers only occasional suggestions as to how the circus itself should be regulated.
On this particular evening, only the ladies are present.
“Where is our Mr. Barris this evening?” Mme. Padva inquires after the Burgess sisters arrive on their own, since he commonly accompanies them.
“He’s in Germany,” Lainie and Tara chorus in perfect unison, making Chandresh laugh as he hands them their glasses of wine.
“He’s tracking down a clockmaker,” Lainie continues solo. “Something about commissioning a piece for the circus, he was quite enthused about it before he left.”
Tonight’s dinner has no scheduled entertainment, not even the standard piano accompaniment, but entertainment arrives unannounced at the door nonetheless.
She gives her name as Tsukiko, though she does not clarify if it is her first or last name.
She is small, but not tiny. Long midnight-black hair is artfully knotted in elaborate braids upon her head. She wears a dark coat that is too large for her, but she carries herself in such a way that it seems to hang like a cloak and the effect is rather elegant.
Marco leaves her in the foyer, waiting patiently beneath the looming gold elephant-headed statue, while he attempts to explain the situation to Chandresh, which of course results in the entire dinner company filing out into the hall to see what the fuss is about.
“What brings you here at this hour?” Chandresh asks, perplexed. Stranger things have happened at la maison Lefèvre than unexpected entertainment, and the pianist does sometimes send a replacement when she is unavailable for a dinner.
“I have always been nocturnal” is Tsukiko’s only response, and she does not elaborate as to what twists of fate brought her to this spot at this time, but the smile that accompanies her cryptic sentiment is warm and contagious. The Burgess sisters beg Chandresh to let her stay.
“We are about to sit down to dinner,” Chandresh says with a frown, “but you are welcome to join us in the dining room, to do … whatever it is you do.”
Tsukiko bows, and the smile appears again.
While the rest of them file into the dining room, Marco takes her coat, hesitating when he sees what lies beneath it.
She wears a thin wisp of a gown that would likely be considered scandalous in other company, but this gathering is not easily scandalized. It is more a delicate swathe of red silk held in place by a tightly laced corset than a proper dress.
And it is not the relative insubstantiality of her clothing that causes Marco to stare, but the tattoo that snakes across her skin.
At first, it is difficult to discern what it is, the shower of black marks that curls around her shoulder and neck, ending just above her cleavage in the front and disappearing behind the laces of her corset in the back. It is impossible to tell how far beyond that the tattoo travels.
And upon a closer look it can be discerned that the swirl of the tattoo is more than simple black marks. It is a flowing waterfall of alchemical and astrological symbols, ancient marks for planets and elements all emblazoned in black ink upon her fair skin. Mercury. Lead. Antimony. A crescent moon sits at the nape of her neck; an Egyptian ankh near her collarbone. There are other symbols as well: Norse runes, Chinese characters. There are countless tattoos, and yet they meld and flow into one design gracefully adorning her like an elegant, unusual piece of jewelry.
Tsukiko catches Marco staring, and though he does not inquire about it, she says quietly, “It is part of who I was, who I am, and who I will be.”
And then she smiles and walks into the dining room, leaving Marco alone in the hall, just as the clock begins chiming midnight and the first course is served.
She slips off her shoes by the doorway and walks barefoot to an area near the piano that is catching the best light from the candelabras and the chandeliers.