"A Miss Burgess to see you, sir," an assistant calls from the open door. "She says not to bother you if you are otherwise occupied."
"Not a bother at all," Mr. Barris says, placing his pencil down and rising from his seat. "Please, send her in."
The assistant moves from the doorway and is replaced by a young woman in a stylish lace-trimmed dress.
"Hello, Ethan," Tara Burgess says. "My apologies for dropping by unannounced."
"No apologies necessary, my dear Tara. You look lovely, as always," Mr. Barris says, kissing her on both cheeks.
"And you haven't aged a day," Tara says, pointedly. His smile wavers and he looks away, moving to close the door behind her.
"What brings you to Vienna?" he asks. "And where is your sister? I so rarely see the two of you apart."
"Lainie is in Dublin, with the circus," Tara says, turning her attention to the contents of the room. "I … I wasn't in the mood so I thought I would do some traveling on my own. Visiting far-flung friends seemed a good place to start. I would have sent a telegram but it was all a bit spontaneous. And I wasn't entirely sure if I would be welcome."
"You are always welcome, Tara," Mr. Barris says. He offers her a seat but she does not notice, drifting through the tables covered in highly detailed models of buildings, stopping here and there to investigate a detail further: the arch of a doorway, the spiral of a staircase.
"It becomes difficult to tell the difference between old friends and business associates in cases like ours, I think," Tara says. "Whether we are the kind of people who make polite conversation to cover shared secrets or something more than that. This one is marvelous," she adds, pausing at a model of an elaborate open column with a clock suspended in the center.
"Thank you," Mr. Barris says. "It's quite far from completion. I need to send the finished plans to Friedrick so he can start construction on the clock. I suspect it will be much more impressive when built to scale."
"Do you have the plans for the circus here?" Tara asks, looking over the diagrams pinned to the walls.
"No, I don't, actually. I left them with Marco in London. I meant to keep copies on file but I must have forgotten."
"Did you forget to keep copies of any of your other plans?" Tara asks, running a finger along the line of cabinets fitted with long thin shelves, each one piled with carefully ordered papers.
"No," Mr. Barris says.
"Do you … do you find that strange?" Tara asks.
"Not particularly," Mr. Barris says. "Do you think it strange?"
"I think a great many things about the circus strange," Tara says, fidgeting with the lace at the cuff of her sleeve.
Mr. Barris sits at his desk, leaning back in his chair.
"Are we going to discuss whatever it is you are here to discuss instead of dancing around it?" he asks. "I was never a particularly good dancer."
"I know for a fact that is not true," Tara says, settling into the chair opposite, though her gaze continues to wander around the room. "But it would be nice to be direct for a change, I sometimes wonder if any of us remember how. Why did you leave London?"
"I suspect I left London for much the same reasons that you and your sister travel so often," Mr. Barris says. "A few too many curious looks and backhanded compliments. I doubt anyone realized that the day my hair stopped thinning was the same as the opening night of the circus, but they did begin to notice after a time. While our Tante Padva might simply be aging well and anything and everything about Chandresh can be written off as eccentric, we are put under a different kind of scrutiny by being somewhat closer to ordinary."
"It is easier for those who can simply disappear into the circus," Tara says, gazing out the window. "Once in a while Lainie suggests that we follow it around ourselves but I think that would only be a temporary solution, we are too mercurial for our own good."
"You could just let it go," Mr. Barris says quietly.
Tara shakes her head.
"How many years until moving cities becomes insufficient? What is the solution beyond that? Changing our names? I … I do not enjoy being forced into such deceptions."
"I don't know," Mr. Barris says.
"There is a great deal more going on than we are privy to, of that I'm quite sure," Tara says with a sigh. "I tried to talk to Chandresh, but it was like we were speaking two different languages. I do not like sitting idly by when something clearly isn't right. I feel … not trapped but something like it, and I don't know what to do about it."
"And you are looking for answers," Mr. Barris says.
"I don't know what I'm looking for," Tara responds, and for a moment her face crumples as though she might burst into tears, but then she composes herself. "Ethan, do you sometimes feel like you are dreaming, all the time?"
"No, I can't say that I do."
"I am finding it difficult to discern between asleep and awake," Tara says, tugging at her lace cuffs again. "I do not like being left in the dark. I am not particularly fond of believing in impossible things."
Mr. Barris takes off his spectacles, wiping the lenses with a handkerchief before he replies, holding them up to the light to check for rogue smudges.
"I have seen a great many things that I might once have considered impossible, or unbelievable. I find I no longer have clearly defined parameters for such matters. I choose to do my work to the best of my own abilities, and leave others to their own."
He pulls open a drawer of the desk and after searching for a moment he takes out a business card that contains only a single name. Even looking at it upside down, Tara can easily discern the A and the H if nothing else. Mr. Barris picks up a pencil and writes a London address beneath the printed name.
"I don't think any of us knew that night precisely what we were getting ourselves into," he says. "If you insist on delving deeper into all of this I think he might be the only one of us that may help, though I cannot guarantee that he will be entirely forthcoming."
He slides the card across the desk to Tara. She regards it carefully before slipping it into her bag, as though she is not entirely sure it is real.
"Thank you, Ethan," she says without looking at him. "I appreciate this, truly."
"You're welcome, my dear," Mr. Barris says. "I … I hope you find what you are looking for."
Tara only nods distractedly, and then they discuss other matters of little import while the clock ticks through the afternoon hours and the light beyond the frosted-glass windows fades considerably. Though he asks her to join him for dinner, she declines politely and leaves alone.
Mr. Barris returns to his drafting table, scratching pencil and ticking clock in harmony once more.
The Magician's Umbrella
PRAGUE, MARCH 1894
The sign upon the gates of Le Cirque des Rêves tonight is a large one, hung with braided ribbon that wraps around the bars just above the lock. The letters are tall enough to be read from some ways off, though people still walk right up to it to read it.
Closed Due to Inclement Weather
it says, in a fancy script surrounded by playfully painted grey clouds. People read the sign, sometimes twice, and then look at the setting sun and the clear violet sky and scratch their heads. They stand around, and some wait to see if the sign will be removed and the circus opened, but there is no one in sight and eventually the small crowd disperses to find alternative activities for their evening.
An hour later it starts, sheets of rain pouring down and wind that ripples across the surface of the striped tents. The sign on the gates dances in the wind, shimmering and wet.
AT THE OTHER END OF THE CIRCUS, at a part of the fence that looks nothing like a gate but opens nonetheless, Celia Bowen steps out from the shadows of darkened tents and into the rain, opening her umbrella with some difficulty. It is a large umbrella, with a heavy curved handle, and once Celia manages to get it open it provides quite good cover against the rain. Though the lower half of her wine-colored gown is quickly soaked to the point where it appears almost black.
She walks without much notice into the city, though there is not much notice to attract in such a downpour. She passes only a handful of other pedestrians on the cobblestone streets, each partially hidden beneath an umbrella.
Eventually Celia stops at a brightly lit café, crowded and lively despite the weather. She adds her umbrella to the collection gathering in the stands by the door.
There are a few unoccupied tables, but the empty chair that catches Celia's eye is one by the fireplace across from Isobel, where she sits with a cup of tea and her nose buried in a book.
Celia has never been entirely certain what to make of the fortune-teller. Though she has an innate distrust of anyone whose occupation involves telling people what they wish to hear. And Isobel sometimes has the same look in her eye Celia often catches in Tsukiko's glances, that she knows more than she lets on.
Though perhaps that is not unusual for someone in the business of telling other people what their future holds.
"May I join you?" Celia asks. Isobel looks up, the surprise clear in her expression, but the surprise is quickly replaced by a bright smile.
"Of course," Isobel says, marking her page before placing her book aside. "I can't believe you ventured out in the weather, I only just missed the start of it earlier and I thought I'd wait it out. I was meant to be meeting someone but I don't think they'll be coming, considering."
"I can't blame them," Celia says, pulling off her damp gloves. She shakes them gently and they dry instantly. "It's rather like walking through a river out there."
"Are you avoiding the inclement-weather party?"
"I made an appearance before I escaped, I am not in a party mood this evening. Besides, I don't like giving up an opportunity to leave the circus for a change of atmosphere, even if it means practically drowning to do so."
"I like to escape once in a while, myself," Isobel says. "Did you make it rain to have a night off?"
"Of course not," Celia says. "Though if that were true I think I overdid it."
Even as she speaks, Celia's rain-soaked gown is drying, the almost-black color returning to a rich wine, though it is not entirely clear whether this is caused by the nearby fire burning merrily or if it is a subtle transformation she is performing herself.
Celia and Isobel chat about the weather and Prague and books, not purposely avoiding the topic of the circus, but keeping the distance from it alive. Remaining for the moment only two women sitting at a table, rather than a fortune-teller and an illusionist, an opportunity they are not frequently presented with.
The door of the café blows open, sending a gust of rain-spiked wind inside that is met with howls of annoyance from the patrons and the clattering of the umbrellas in their stands.
A harried-looking waitress pauses at their table and Celia requests a mint tea. As the waitress departs, Celia casts a long look around the room, scanning the crowd as though she is looking for someone but not finding a point to focus on.
"Is something the matter?" Isobel asks.
"Oh, it's nothing," Celia says. "A hint of feeling that we're being watched, but it is likely just my imagination."
"Maybe someone has recognized you," Isobel suggests.
"I doubt that," Celia says as she looks at the surrounding patrons, not finding a single eye turned in their direction. "People see what they want to see. I'm sure this place has had more than its share of unusual patrons with the circus in town. That makes it easier for us to blend in."
"I am always amazed that no one recognizes me out of context," Isobel says. "I've read for a handful of people in this very room over the past few nights and not one of them has so much as given me a second glance. Perhaps I do not look so mysterious when not surrounded by candles and velvet. Or perhaps they pay more attention to the cards than they do to me."
"Do you have your cards with you?" Celia asks.
Isobel nods. "Would … would you like a reading?" she asks.
"If you do not mind."
"Not once have you ever asked me to read for you."
"I am not usually in the mood to know anything about my future," Celia says. "Tonight I am feeling a tiny bit curious."
Isobel hesitates, glancing around at the clientele, a mostly bohemian crowd sipping absinthe and arguing about art.
"They will not even notice," Celia says. "I promise."
Isobel turns her attention back to Celia, and then she pulls a deck from her bag; not her black-and-white circus cards but her original Marseilles deck, worn and faded.
"Those are lovely," Celia says as Isobel starts to shuffle, watching the shifting blur of cards.
"But there are only seventy-seven of them."
Isobel's hands falter only momentarily, but a single card falls from the deck onto the table. Celia picks it up, briefly glancing at the two cups upon the surface before handing it back to Isobel, who replaces it in the deck and resumes shuffling, the cards falling seamlessly from one hand to the other.
"One of them is … somewhere else," Isobel explains.
Celia does not question her further.
The waitress brings Celia's mint tea, not even glancing at the cards before departing again.
"Did you do that?" Isobel asks.
"I diverted her attention, yes," Celia says after blowing gently on the surface of her steaming tea. It is not exactly what she means, but the invisible veil she has drawn over the table seems too difficult to explain. And the fact that the feeling they are being watched has not faded despite its presence bothers her.
Isobel stops shuffling and places the deck facedown on the table.
Celia cuts the deck in three without waiting for Isobel to instruct her, holding the edges of the cards carefully as she places each pile in a row across the table.
"Which one?" Isobel asks.
Celia regards the three piles of cards thoughtfully while she sips her tea. After a moment she indicates the center pile. Isobel stacks the deck once more, keeping that section of cards on the top.
The cards that she places on the table have no immediate clarity to them. Several cups. The two of swords. La Papessa, the enigmatic Priestess.
Isobel only barely manages to contain her involuntary intake of breath as she lays Le Bateleur over the already placed cards. She covers it with a cough. Celia appears not to notice anything amiss.
"I'm sorry," Isobel says, after staring silently at the cards for a few moments. "Sometimes it takes awhile for me to translate properly."