“Very well,” he says with a nod.

“He made me not hear right,” Celia whispers when her father turns to her.

“I know, dearest, and it wasn’t very polite,” Hector says as he guides her closer to the chair, where the man scrutinizes her with eyes that are almost as light and grey as his suit.

“Have you always been able to do such things?” he asks her, looking back at the watch again.

Celia nods.

“My … my momma said I was the devil’s child,” she says quietly.

The man in the grey suit leans forward and whispers something in her ear, too low for her father to overhear. A small smile brightens her face.

“Hold out your right hand,” he says, leaning back in his chair. Celia immediately puts out her hand, palm up, unsure of what to expect. But the man in the grey suit does not place anything in her open palm. Instead, he turns her hand over and removes a silver ring from his pinkie. He slides it onto her ring finger, though it is too loose for her slim fingers, keeping his other hand around her wrist.

She is opening her mouth to state the obvious fact that the ring, though very pretty, does not fit, when she realizes that it is shrinking on her hand.

Her momentary glee at the adjustment is crushed by the pain that follows as the ring continues to close around her finger, the metal burning into her skin. She tries to pull away but the man in the grey suit keeps his hand firmly around her wrist.

The ring thins and fades, leaving only a bright red scar around Celia’s finger.

The man in the grey suit releases her wrist and she steps back, retreating into a corner and staring at her hand.

“Good girl,” her father says.

“I will require some time to prepare a player of my own,” the man in the grey suit says.

“Of course,” Hector says. “Take all the time you need.” He pulls a gold band from his own hand and puts it on the table. “For when you find yours.”

“You prefer not to do the honors yourself?”

“I trust you.”

The man in the grey suit nods and pulls a handkerchief from his coat, picking up the ring without touching it and placing it in his pocket.

“I do hope you are not doing this because my player won the last challenge.”

“Of course not,” Hector says. “I am doing this because I have a player that can beat anyone you choose to put against her, and because times have changed enough to make it interesting. Besides, I believe the overall record leans in my favor.”

The man in the grey suit does not contest this point, he only watches Celia with the same scrutinizing gaze. She attempts to step out of his line of sight but the room is too small.

“I suppose you already have a venue in mind?” he asks.

“Not precisely,” Hector says. “I thought it might be more fun to leave a bit of leeway as far as venue is concerned. An element of surprise, if you will. I am acquainted with a theatrical producer here in London who should be game for staging the unusual. I shall drop a few hints when the time comes, and I am certain he will come up with something appropriate. Better to have it on neutral ground, though I thought you might appreciate starting things on your side of the pond.”

“This gentleman’s name?”

“Lefevre. Chandresh Christophe Lefevre. They say he’s the illegitimate son of an Indian prince or something like that. Mother was some tramp of a ballerina. I have his card somewhere in this mess. You’ll like him, he’s quite forward-thinking. Wealthy, eccentric. A bit obsessive, somewhat unpredictable, but I suppose that is part and parcel of having an artistic temperament.” The pile of papers on a nearby desk shifts and shuffles until a single business card finds its way to the surface and sails across the room. Hector catches it in his hand and reads it before handing it to the man in the grey suit. “He throws wonderful parties.”

The man in the grey suit puts it in his pocket without so much as glancing at it.

“I have not heard of him,” he says. “And I am not fond of public settings for such matters. I will take it under consideration.”

“Nonsense, the public setting is half the fun! It brings in so many restrictions, so many challenging parameters to work around.”

The man in the grey suit considers this for a moment before he nods.

“Do we have a disclosure clause? It would be fair, given my awareness of your choice of player.”

“Let’s have no clauses at all beyond the basic rules of interference and see what happens,” Hector says. “I want to push boundaries with this one. No time limits, either. I’ll even give you first move.”

“Very well. We have an agreement. I shall be in touch.” The man in the grey suit stands, brushing invisible dust from his sleeve. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Miss Celia.”

Celia bobs another perfect curtsey, all the while regarding him with wary eyes.

The man in the grey suit tips his hat to Prospero and slips out the door and then out of the theater, moving like a shadow onto the busy street.

* * *

IN HIS DRESSING ROOM, Hector Bowen chuckles to himself while his daughter stands quietly in a corner, looking at the scar on her hand. The pain fades as quickly as the ring itself, but the raw red mark remains.

Hector takes the silver pocket watch from the table, comparing the time to the clock on the wall. He winds the watch slowly, regarding the hands intently as they swirl around the face.

“Celia,” he says without looking up at her, “why do we wind our watch?”

“Because everything requires energy,” she recites obediently, eyes still focused on her hand. “We must put effort and energy into anything we wish to change.”

“Very good.” He shakes the watch gently and replaces it in his pocket.

“Why did you call that man Alexander?” Celia asks.

“That’s a silly question.”

“It’s not his name.”

“Now, how might you know that?” Hector asks his daughter, lifting her chin to face him and weighing the look in her dark eyes with his own.

Celia stares back at him, unsure how to explain. She plays over in her mind the impression of the man in his grey suit with his pale eyes and harsh features, trying to figure out why the name does not fit on him properly.

“It’s not a real name,” she says. “Not one that he’s carried with him always. It’s one he wears like his hat. So he can take it off if he wants. Like Prospero is for you.”

“You are even more clever than I could have hoped,” Hector says, not bothering to refute or confirm her musings about his colleague’s nomenclature. He takes his top hat from its stand and puts it on her head, where it slides down and obscures her questioning eyes in a cage of black silk.

Shades of Grey


The building is as grey as the pavement below and the sky above, appearing as impermanent as the clouds, as though it could vanish into the air without notice. Nondescript grey stone renders it indistinguishable from the surrounding buildings save for a tarnished sign hanging by the door. Even the headmistress inside is clad in a deep charcoal.

Yet the man in the grey suit looks out of place.

The cut of his suit is too sharp. The handle of his cane too well polished beneath his pristine gloves.

He gives his name but the headmistress forgets it almost instantly and is too embarrassed to ask him to repeat it. Later, when he signs the required paperwork, his signature is completely illegible, and that particular form is lost within weeks of being filed.

Вы читаете The Night Circus
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