S he’s too good to keep out in the crowd,” Chandresh says. “She simply must have her own tent. We’ll put the seats in a ring or something, keep the audience right in the middle of the action.”
“Yes, sir,” Marco says, fiddling with his notebook, running his fingers over the pages that had been wings only minutes before.
“Whatever is the matter with you?” Chandresh asks. “You’re white as a sheet.” His voice echoes through the empty theater as they stand alone on the stage, Mme. Padva having whisked Miss Bowen off, peppering her with questions about gowns LONDON, APRIL 1886 and hairstyles.
“I am fine, sir,” Marco says.
“You look awful,” Chandresh says, puffing on his cigar. “Go home.”
Marco looks up at him, surprised. “Sir, there is paperwork that needs to be done,” he protests.
“Do it tomorrow, plenty of time for such things. Tante Padva and I will take Miss Bowen back to the house for tea and we can sort out the particulars and paperwork later. Get some rest or have yourself a drink or whatever it is you do.” Chandresh waves a hand at him absently, the smoke from his cigar trailing in LONDON, APRIL 1886 bobbing waves.
“If you insist, sir.”
“I do insist! And get rid of the rest of those fellows in the lobby. No need to see a bunch of suits with capes when we’ve already found something far more interesting. Quite attractive, too, I should think, if one’s predilections run in that direction.”
“Indeed, sir,” Marco says, a blush creeping into his pallor. “Until tomorrow then.” He nods his head in something almost like a bow before turning gracefully on his heel and heading out to the lobby.
“Didn’t take you to be the easily spooked type, Marco,” Chandresh LONDON, APRIL 1886 calls after him, but Marco does not turn.
Marco politely dismisses the illusionists in the lobby, explaining that the position has been filled and thanking them for their time. None of them notice that his hands are shaking, or that he is clutching the pen in his hand so tightly that his knuckles are white. Nor do they notice when it snaps in two within his fist, black ink seeping down his wrist.
After the illusionists have departed, Marco gathers his things, wiping his ink-covered hand on his black coat. He puts on his bowler hat LONDON, APRIL 1886 before he exits the theater.
With every step, he grows more visibly distressed. People move out of his way on the crowded pavement.
When he reaches his flat, Marco drops his bag to the floor, leaning against the door with a heavy sigh.
“What’s wrong?” Isobel asks from a chair next to the empty fireplace. She conceals the length of hair she has been braiding in her pocket, scowling as she knows she will have to rebraid the entire piece because her concentration was broken. It is the part she still has the most difficulty with, the LONDON, APRIL 1886 concentration and focus.
For now, she abandons it and watches Marco as he crosses the room to reach the bookcases lining the wall.
“I know who my opponent is,” Marco says, pulling armfuls of books down from their shelves and spreading them out haphazardly over tables, leaving several in messy piles on the floor. Those remaining on the shelves collapse, a few volumes falling, but Marco does not seem to notice.
“Is it that Japanese woman you were so curious about?” Isobel asks, watching as Marco’s impeccable filing system falls into chaos. The flat has always been kept in LONDON, APRIL 1886 perfect order, and she finds the sudden upheaval disquieting.
“No,” Marco says as he flips through pages. “It’s Prospero’s daughter.”
Isobel picks up a potted violet that has toppled in the wake of the falling books and places it back upon its shelf.
“Prospero?” she asks. “The magician, the one you saw in Paris?”
“I didn’t know he had a daughter,” she says.
“I was unaware of that fact, myself,” Marco says, discarding one book and picking up another. “Chandresh just hired her to be the illusionist for the circus.”
“Really?” Isobel asks. Marco LONDON, APRIL 1886 does not respond. “So she’ll be doing what you said he did, actual magic disguised as stage illusions. Did she do that at the audition?”
“Yes, she did,” Marco says, without looking up from his books.
“She must be very good.”
“She’s too good,” Marco says, pulling another shelf worth of books from their resting places and moving them to the table, the violet an innocent victim once more. “This could be extremely problematic,” he says, almost to himself. A pile of notebooks slips from the table to the floor in a flurry of fluttering pages and LONDON, APRIL 1886 a sound like the wings of birds.
Isobel retrieves the violet again, placing it across the room.
“Does she know who you are?” she asks.
“I do not believe so,” Marco says.
“Does this mean the circus is part of the challenge?” Isobel asks.
Marco stops flipping through pages and looks up at her.
“It must,” he says before he returns his attention to the book. “That’s likely why I was sent to work for Chandresh, so I would already be involved. The circus is the venue.”
“Is that good?” Isobel asks, but Marco does not answer, lost in the LONDON, APRIL 1886 flood of paper and ink again.
With one hand he fidgets with the cloth of the other sleeve. A splatter of black ink stains the white cuff. “She changed the fabric,” he mutters to himself. “How did she change the fabric?”
Isobel moves a pile of abandoned books to the desk, where her Marseilles deck rests. She looks up at Marco, who is now deeply engrossed in a particular volume. She quietly spreads the cards out in a long line across the desk.
Keeping her eyes on Marco, she draws a single card. She flips it over on LONDON, APRIL 1886 the desk and looks down to see what her cards have to say about the matter.
A man stands between two women, a cherub with bow and arrow hovering over their heads. L’Amoureux . The Lovers.
“Is she pretty?” Isobel asks.
Marco does not answer.
She pulls another card from the line and lays it atop the first. La Maison Dieu .
She frowns at the picture of the crumbling tower and the falling figure. She returns both cards to the deck, pushing it back into an orderly stack.
“Is she stronger than you?” Isobel asks.
Again Marco LONDON, APRIL 1886 fails to answer, flipping through the pages of a notebook.
For years, he has felt reasonably well prepared. Practicing with Isobel has proved an advantage, enabling him to improve aspects of his illusions to the point where even with her familiarity she cannot always discern what is real.
But faced with his opponent, his feelings about the challenge have suddenly changed, replaced by nerves and confusion.
He had half expected he would simply know what to do when the time came.
And he had entertained the thought that the time might never come, that the promise of the game LONDON, APRIL 1886 was something to motivate his studies and nothing more.
“So the competition will begin when the circus opens, then?” Isobel asks him. He had almost forgotten she was there.
“I suppose that would be logical,” Marco says. “I don’t understand how we are meant to compete when the circus is going to travel, and I must remain in London. I shall have to do everything remotely.”
“I could go,” Isobel says.
“What?” Marco asks, looking up at her again.
“You said the circus still needs a fortune-teller, didn’t you? I could read my cards. I haven’t read LONDON, APRIL 1886 for anyone but myself, but I am getting better at it. I could write you letters when the circus is away. It would give me someplace to go, if you’re not supposed to have me here while you play your game.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” Marco says, though he cannot articulate why. He had never considered the possibility of involving Isobel in his life outside the bounds of the flat. He had been keeping her separate from Chandresh and the circus, both to have something of his own and because it seemed LONDON, APRIL 1886 appropriate, especially given his instructor’s vague advice about the matter.
“Please,” Isobel says. “This way I can help you.”
Marco hesitates, glancing down at his books. His thoughts remain preoccupied with the image of the girl from the theater.
“It will help you be closer to the circus,” Isobel continues, “and it will give me something to do for the duration of your challenge. When it’s done I can come back to London.”
“I’m not even certain how the challenge is going to work,” Marco says.
“But you’re certain that I can’t stay LONDON, APRIL 1886 here during it?” she asks.
Marco sighs. They have discussed it before, not in any great detail, but enough to establish that when the game began, she would have to leave.
“I am already so busy working for Chandresh, and I will need to focus on the competition without … distraction,” he says, using his instructor’s choice of word, from an order disguised as a suggestion. He is not certain which option bothers him more: involving Isobel in the game or relinquishing the one relationship in his life that has not been dictated for him.
“This way I wouldn’t be LONDON, APRIL 1886 a distraction, I’d be helping,” Isobel says. “And if you’re not supposed to have help, well, I’d only be writing you letters, what’s wrong with that? It seems like a perfect solution to me.”
“I could arrange for you to meet with Chandresh,” Marco suggests.
“You could … convince him to hire me, couldn’t you?” Isobel asks. “If he needs convincing?”
Marco nods, still not entirely certain about the idea but almost desperate for some kind of strategy. A tactic to use in dealing with his newly revealed opponent.
He turns her name over and over LONDON, APRIL 1886 in his mind.
“What is Prospero’s daughter named?” Isobel asks, as though she can tell what he is thinking.
“Bowen,” Marco says. “Her name is Celia Bowen.”
“It’s a pretty name,” Isobel says. “Is something wrong with your hand?”
Marco looks down, surprised to find that he has been holding his right hand in his left, unconsciously stroking the empty space where a ring was once burned into his skin.
“No,” he says, picking up a notebook to occupy his hands. “It’s nothing.”
Isobel seems satisfied with the response, lifting a pile of fallen LONDON, APRIL 1886 books from the floor and stacking them on the desk.
Marco is relieved that she does not have the skill to pull the memory of the ring from his mind.