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The Night Circus


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"Some more than others," Tara adds.

"True," her sister agrees. "Scent is often underestimated, when it can be the most evocative."

"They are brilliant with atmosphere," Chandresh remarks to Celia as he joins their conversation, switching her empty glass of champagne with a freshly poured replacement. "Both of them, absolutely brilliant."

"The trick is to make it seem as though none of it is purposeful," Lainie whispers. "To make the artificial feel natural."

"To tie all the elements together," Tara finishes.

It seems to Celia that they provide a similar service within the present company. Celia doubts that these gatherings would have continued so long after the circus began without the Burgess sisters' infectious bubbling laughter. They ask the perfect questions to keep the conversation flowing, warding off any lulls.

And Mr. Barris provides an ideal contrast, serious and attentive, keeping the dynamic of the group in balance.

A movement in the hall catches Celia's eye, and while anyone else might have credited a number of candles or mirrors for the reflection, she knows the cause immediately.

She steps out into the hall unnoticed, slipping out of sight into the shadowed library across from the parlor. It is lit only by a panel of stained glass stretching in a glowing sunset along one wall, sending its warm hue cascading over the closest shelves and letting the rest of the room fall into shadow.

"Can I not have one evening to enjoy myself without you following me?" Celia whispers into the darkness.

"I do not think social engagements of this sort are a proper use of your time," her father replies, the sunset light catching part of his face and the front of his shirt in a distorted column of red.

"You do not get to dictate how I spend every moment of my time, Papa."

"You are losing your focus," Hector replies.

"I cannot lose my focus," Celia says. "Between new tents and embellishments, I actively control a significant part of the circus. Which is closed at the moment, if you hadn't noticed. And the better I know these people, the better I can manipulate what they've already done. They created it, after all."

"I suppose that is a valid point," Hector says. Celia suspects he is scowling despite the admission, though it is too dark to tell. "But you'd do well to remember that you have no reason to trust anyone in that room."

"Leave me alone, Papa," Celia says, and sighs.

"Miss Bowen?" a voice says behind her and she turns, surprised to find Chandresh's assistant standing in the doorway, watching her. "Dinner is about to begin, if you would care to join the rest of the guests in the dining room."

"My apologies," Celia says, her eyes darting back to the shadows, but her father has vanished. "I was distracted by the size of the library. I did not think anyone would notice I was missing."

"I am certain that they would," Marco says. "Though I have been distracted by the library, myself, many times."

The charming smile that accompanies the statement catches Celia off guard, as she has rarely seen anything but varying degrees of reserved attentiveness or occasional nervousness on his countenance.

"Thank you for coming to fetch me," she says, hoping that dinner guests talking to themselves while supposedly perusing books without the aid of proper lighting is not an unusual occurrence at la maison Lefèvre.

"They likely suspect you vanished into thin air," Marco responds as they walk through the hall. "I thought perhaps that was not the case."

He holds each door open for her as he escorts her to the dining room.

Celia is seated between Chandresh and Tsukiko.

"This is preferable to spending the evening alone, is it not?" Tsukiko asks, smiling when Celia admits that it is true.

As the courses progress, when she is not distracted by the astounding quality of the food, Celia makes a game of deciphering the relationships between the guests. Reading the way they interact, intuiting the emotions hidden beneath the laughter and conversation, catching the places that gazes linger.

Chandresh's glances at his handsome assistant grow more obvious with each glass of wine, and Celia suspects Mr. Alisdair is well aware of it, though Marco remains a quiet presence at the edge of the room.

It takes her three courses to determine which of the Burgess sisters Mr. Barris favors, but by the time the artfully arranged plates of what appear to be whole pigeons spiced with cinnamon arrive, she is certain, though she cannot tell if Lainie herself knows.

Mme. Padva is called "Tante" by the entire company, though she feels more like a matriarch than merely an aunt. When Celia addresses her as "Madame," everyone turns to look at her in surprise.


"So proper for a circus girl," Mme. Padva says with a gleam in her eye. "We shall have to loosen those corset laces if we intend to keep you as intimate dinner company."


"I expected the corset unlacing would take place after dinner," Celia says mildly, earning a chorus of laughter.

"We shall be keeping Miss Bowen as intimate company regardless of the state of her corset," Chandresh says. "Make a note of that," he adds, waving a hand at Marco.

"Miss Bowen's corset is duly noted, sir," Marco replies, and the laughter bubbles over the table again.

Marco catches Celia's glance with a hint of the smile from earlier before he turns away, fading into the background again almost as easily as her father vanishes into shadows.

The next course arrives and Celia returns to listening and observing, in between trying to figure out if the meat disguised in feather-light pastry and delicate wine sauce is actually lamb or something more exotic.

There is something about Tara's behavior that Celia finds bothersome. Something almost haunted in her expression that comes and goes. One moment she is actively engaged in the conversation, her laugh echoing her sister's, and the next she seems distant, staring through the dripping candles.

It is only when the echoed laugh sounds almost like a sob for a moment that Celia realizes that Tara reminds her of her mother.

The dessert course halts the conversation entirely. Globes of thinly blown sugar sit on each plate and must be broken open in order to access the clouds of cream within.

After the cacophony of shattering sugar, it does not take long for the diners to realize that, though the globes appeared identical, each of them has been presented with an entirely unique flavor.

There is much sharing of spoons. And while some are easily guessed as ginger with peach or curried coconut, others remain delicious mysteries.

Celia's is clearly honey, but with a blend of spices beneath the sweetness that no one is able to place.

After dinner, the conversation continues over coffee and brandy in the parlor, until an hour most of the guests deem extremely late but Tsukiko points out that it is comparatively early for the circus girls.

When they do begin to say their goodbyes, Celia is embraced no differently than anyone else, and given several invitations to meet for tea while the circus remains in London.

"Thank you," she says to Tsukiko as they leave. "I enjoyed that more than I had expected to."

"The finest of pleasures are always the unexpected ones," Tsukiko replies.





*


MARCO WATCHES FROM THE WINDOW as the guests depart, catching a last glimpse of Celia before she disappears into the night.

He does a round through the parlor and dining room, and then downstairs to the kitchens to make certain everything is in order. The rest of the staff has already departed. He extinguishes the last of the lights before ascending several flights to check on Chandresh.

"Brilliant dinner tonight, don't you think?" Chandresh asks when Marco reaches the suite that comprises the entire fifth story, each room lit by a multitude of Moroccan lanterns that cast fractured shadows over the opulent furniture.

"Indeed, sir," Marco says.

"Nothing on the agenda for tomorrow, though. Or later today, whatever time it is."

"There is the meeting in the afternoon regarding next season's ballet schedule."

"Ah, I had forgotten," Chandresh says. "Cancel that, would you?"

"Of course, sir," Marco says, taking a notebook from his pocket and marking down the request.

"Oh, and order a dozen cases of whatever that brandy was that Ethan brought. Marvelous stuff, that."

Marco nods, adding it to his notes.

"You're not leaving, are you?" Chandresh asks.

"No, sir," Marco says. "I had thought it too late to be going home."

"Home," Chandresh repeats, as though the word sounds foreign. "This is your home as much as that flat you insist on keeping is. More so, even."

"I shall endeavor to remember that, sir," Marco says.

"Miss Bowen is a lovely woman, don't you think?" Chandresh remarks suddenly, turning to gauge the reaction to the question.

Caught by surprise, Marco only manages to stammer something he hopes resembles his standard impartial agreement.

"We must invite her to dinner whenever the circus is in town, so we might get to know her better," Chandresh says pointedly, emphasizing the statement with a satisfied grin.

"Yes, sir," Marco says, struggling to keep his expression impassive. "Will that be all for tonight?"

Chandresh laughs as he waves him away.

Before he retires to his own rooms, a suite three times the size of his flat, Marco quietly returns to the library.

He stands for some time in the spot where he found Celia hours before, scrutinizing the familiar bookshelves and the wall of stained glass.

He cannot guess what she might have been doing.

And he does not notice the eyes staring at him from the shadows.





Rêveurs

1891–1892





Herr Friedrick Thiessen receives the card in the mail, a plain envelope amongst his invoices and business correspondence. The envelope holds no letter or note, simply a card that is black on one side and white on the other. "Le Cirque des Rêves" is printed on the front in silver ink. On the back, handwritten in black ink on white, it reads:



Twenty-nine September

Just outside Dresden, Saxony



Herr Thiessen can barely contain his glee. He makes arrangements with his clients, finishes his clocks in progress in record time, and secures a short-term flat rental in Dresden.

He arrives in Dresden on September 28, and spends the day wandering the outskirts of the city, wondering where the circus might set up. There is no indication of its impending arrival, only a slight electricity in the air, though Herr Thiessen is unsure if anyone, save himself, can sense it. He feels honored at having been given advance notice.

On September 29, he sleeps in, anticipating the late night ahead. When he leaves his flat in the early afternoon to find something to eat, the streets are already buzzing with the news: a strange circus has appeared overnight, just west of the city. A gargantuan thing, with striped tents, they are saying when he reaches the pub. Never seen anything like it. Herr Thiessen stays silent on the matter, enjoying the excitement and curiosity around him.

Shortly before sunset Herr Thiessen heads west, finding the circus easily as there is a large crowd assembled outside already. While he waits with the crowd, he wonders how the circus manages to set up so quickly. He is certain that the field it sits in now, as though it has always been there, had been empty the day before when he walked around the city. The circus has simply materialized. Like magic, he overhears someone remark, and Herr Thiessen has to agree.

When the gates open at last, Herr Friedrick Thiessen feels as though he is returning home after an extended absence.

He spends almost every night there, and during the day he sits in his rented flat or at the pub with a glass of wine and a journal and he writes about it. Pages and pages of observations, recounting his experiences, mostly so he will not forget them but also to capture something of the circus on paper, something he can hold on to.

He occasionally converses about the circus with his fellow pub dwellers. One of these is a man who edits the city paper, and after some persuading and several glasses of wine, he manages to get Friedrick to show him the journal. After a shot or two of bourbon, he convinces Friedrick to allow excerpts of it to be published in the newspaper.

The circus departs Dresden in late October, but the newspaper editor keeps his word.

The article is well received, and followed by another, and then another.

Herr Thiessen continues to write, and over the following months some of the articles are reprinted in other German papers, and eventually they are translated and printed in Sweden and Denmark and France. One article finds its way into a London paper, printed under the title "Nights at the Circus."

It is these articles that make Herr Friedrick Thiessen the unofficial leader, the figurehead, of those most ardent followers of the circus.

Some are introduced to Le Cirque des Rêves through his writing, while others feel an instant connection with him as they read his words, an affinity for this man who experiences the circus as they do, as something wondrous and inimitable.

Some seek him out, and the meetings and dinners that follow herald the formation of a kind of club, a society of lovers of the circus.

The title of rêveurs begins as a joke, but it sticks, secure in its appropriateness.

Herr Thiessen enjoys this immensely, being surrounded by kindred spirits from all over Europe, and occasionally even farther, who will discuss the circus endlessly. He transcribes the stories of other rêveurs to include in his writings. He constructs small keepsake clocks for them depicting their favorite acts or performances. (One of these is a marvel of tiny flying acrobats on ribbons, made for a young woman who spends most of her hours at the circus in that massive tent, staring upward.)



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