“Not a single person in that audience believes for a second that what I do up there is real,” he says, gesturing in the general direction of the stage. “That’s the beauty of it. Have you seen the contraptions these magicians build to accomplish the most mundane feats? They are a bunch of fish covered in feathers trying to convince the public they can fly, and I am simply a bird in their midst. The audience cannot tell the difference beyond knowing that I am better at it.”

“That does not make it any less frivolous an endeavor.”

“These people line up to be mystified,” Hector says. “I can mystify them easier than most. Seems a waste to let the opportunity pass by. Pays better than you might think, as well. Can I get you a drink? There are bottles hidden around here somewhere, though I’m not entirely sure there are glasses.” He attempts to sort through the contents of a table, pushing aside piles of newspapers and a birdless birdcage.

“No, thank you,” the man in the grey suit says, shifting in his chair and resting his hands on the handle of his cane. “I found your performance curious, and the reaction of your audience somewhat perplexing. You were lacking in precision.”

“Can’t be too good if I want them to believe I’m as fake as the rest of them,” Hector says with a laugh. “I thank you for coming and suffering through my show. I’m surprised you even turned up, I was beginning to give up hope. I’ve had that box reserved for you the entire week.”

“I do not often decline invitations. Your letter said you had a proposition for me.”

“I do, indeed!” Hector says, striking his hands together in a single sharp clap. “I was hoping you might be up for a game. It has been far too long since we’ve played. Though first, you must meet my new project.”

“I was under the impression that you had given up on teaching.”

“I had, but this was a singular opportunity I could not resist.” Hector walks over to a door mostly hidden by a long, standing mirror. “Celia, dearest,” he calls into the adjoining room before returning to his chair.

A moment later a small girl appears in the doorway, dressed too nicely for the chaotic shabbiness of the surroundings. All ribbons and lace, perfect as a shop-fresh doll save for a few unruly curls escaping her braids. She hesitates, hovering on the threshold, when she sees that her father is not alone.

“It’s all right, dearest. Come in, come in,” Hector says, beckoning her forward with a wave of his hand. “This is an associate of mine, no need to be shy.”

She takes a few steps closer and executes a perfect curtsey, the lace-trimmed hem of her dress sweeping over the worn floorboards.

“This is my daughter, Celia,” Hector says to the man in the grey suit, placing his hand on the girl’s head. “Celia, this is Alexander.”

“Pleased to meet you,” she says. Her voice is barely more than a whisper, and pitched lower than might be expected from a girl her size.

The man in the grey suit gives her a polite nod.

“I would like you to show this gentleman what you can do,” Hector says. He pulls a silver pocket watch on a long chain from his waistcoat and puts it on the table. “Go ahead.”

The girl’s eyes widen.

“You said I was not to do that in front of anyone,” she says. “You made me promise.”

“This gentleman is not just anyone,” Hector replies with a laugh.

“You said no exceptions,” Celia protests.

Her father’s smile fades. He takes her by the shoulders and looks her sternly in the eye.

“This is a very special case,” he says. “Please show this man what you can do, just like in your lessons.” He pushes her toward the table with the watch.

The girl nods gravely and shifts her attention to the watch, her hands clasped behind her back.

After a moment, the watch begins to rotate slowly, turning in circles on the surface of the table, trailing its chain behind in a spiral.

Then the watch lifts from the table, floating into the air and hovering as though it were suspended in water.

Hector looks to the man in the grey suit for a reaction.

“Impressive,” the man says. “But quite basic.”

Celia’s brow furrows over her dark eyes and the watch shatters, gears spilling out into the air.

“Celia,” her father says.

She blushes at the sharpness of his tone and mumbles an apology. The gears float back to the watch, settling into place until the watch is complete again, hands ticking the seconds forward as though nothing had happened.

“Now that is a bit more impressive,” the man in the grey suit admits. “But she has a temper.”

“She’s young,” Hector says, patting the top of Celia’s head and ignoring her frown. “This is with not even a year of study, by the time she’s grown she will be incomparable.”

“I could take any child off the street and teach them as much. Incomparable is a matter of your personal opinion, and easily disproved.”

“Ha!” Hector exclaims. “Then you are willing to play.”

The man in the grey suit hesitates only a moment before he nods.

“Something a bit more complex than last time, and yes, I may be interested,” he says. “Possibly.”

“Of course it will be more complex!” Hector says. “I have a natural talent to play with. I’m not wagering that for anything simple.”

“Natural talent is a questionable phenomenon. Inclination perhaps, but innate ability is extremely rare.”

“She’s my own child, of course she has innate ability.”

“You admit she has had lessons,” the man in the grey suit says. “How can you be certain?”

“Celia, when did you start your lessons?” Hector asks, without looking at her.

“March,” she answers.

“What year, dearest?” Hector adds.

“This year,” she says, as though this is a particularly stupid question.

“Eight months of lessons,” Hector clarifies. “At barely six years of age. If I recall correctly, you sometimes start your own students a bit younger than that. Celia is clearly more advanced than she would be if she did not have natural ability. She could levitate that watch on her first try.”

The man in the grey suit turns his attention to Celia.

“You broke that by accident, did you not?” he asks, nodding at the watch sitting on the table.

Celia frowns and gives him the tiniest of nods.

“She has remarkable control for one so young,” he remarks to Hector. “But such a temper is always an unfortunate variable. It can lead to impulsive behavior.”

“She’ll either grow out of it or learn to control it. It’s a minor issue.”

The man in the grey suit keeps his eyes on the girl, but addresses Hector when he speaks. To Celia’s ears, the sounds no longer resolve into words, and she frowns as her father’s responses take on the same muddled quality.

“You would wager your own child?”

“She won’t lose,” Hector says. “I suggest you find a student you can tolerate parting with, if you do not already have one to spare.”

“I assume her mother has no opinion on the matter?”

“You assume correctly.”

The man in the grey suit considers the girl for some time before he speaks again, and still, she does not comprehend the words.

“I understand your confidence in her ability, though I encourage you to at least consider the possibility that she could be lost, should the competition not play out in her favor. I will find a player to truly challenge her. Otherwise there is no reason for me to agree to participate. Her victory cannot be guaranteed.”

“That is a risk I am willing to take,” Hector says without even glancing at his daughter. “If you would like to make it official here and now, go right ahead.”

The man in the grey suit looks back at Celia, and when he speaks she understands the words once more.

Вы читаете The Night Circus
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