She wears a thin wisp of a gown that would likely be considered scandalous in other company, but this gathering is not easily scandalized. It is more a delicate swathe of red silk held in place by a tightly laced corset than a proper dress.
And it is not the relative insubstantiality of her clothing that causes Marco to stare, but the tattoo that snakes across her skin.
At first, it is difficult to discern what it is, the shower of black marks that curls around her shoulder and neck, ending just above her cleavage in the front and disappearing behind the laces of her corset in the back. It is impossible to tell how far beyond that the tattoo travels.
And upon a closer look it can be discerned that the swirl of the tattoo is more than simple black marks. It is a flowing waterfall of alchemical and astrological symbols, ancient marks for planets and elements all emblazoned in black ink upon her fair skin. Mercury. Lead. Antimony. A crescent moon sits at the nape of her neck; an Egyptian ankh near her collarbone. There are other symbols as well: Norse runes, Chinese characters. There are countless tattoos, and yet they meld and flow into one design gracefully adorning her like an elegant, unusual piece of jewelry.
Tsukiko catches Marco staring, and though he does not inquire about it, she says quietly, "It is part of who I was, who I am, and who I will be."
And then she smiles and walks into the dining room, leaving Marco alone in the hall, just as the clock begins chiming midnight and the first course is served.
She slips off her shoes by the doorway and walks barefoot to an area near the piano that is catching the best light from the candelabras and the chandeliers.
At first she simply stands relaxed and calm, while the diners regard her curiously, and then it becomes immediately clear what her style of entertainment is.
Tsukiko is a contortionist.
Traditionally, contortionists are either front bending or back bending, depending on the flexibility of their respective spines, and their tricks and performances are based upon this distinction. Tsukiko, however, is one of the rare contortionists whose flexibility is equal in both directions.
She moves with the grace of a trained ballerina, a detail Mme. Padva notes and mentions in a whisper to the Burgess sisters even before the more impressive feats of agility begin.
"Could you do such things when you were a dancer?" Tara asks her, as Tsukiko pulls a leg up impossibly far over her head.
"I would have had a much busier social calendar if I could," Mme. Padva replies with a shake of her head.
Tsukiko is a consummate performer. She adds the perfect flourishes, holds positions and pauses for the ideal amounts of time. Although she twists her body into unimaginable and painful-looking positions, her beatific smile remains in place.
Her modest audience forgets their conversation and their dinner as they watch.
Lainie remarks to her sister after the fact that she was certain there was music, though there is no sound at all save for the rustle of silk against skin and the crackle from the fireplace.
"This is what I've been talking about," Chandresh says, hitting the table with his fist, suddenly breaking the charmed silence. Tara nearly drops the fork that she has been holding idly in her hand, catching it before it clatters onto her plate of half-eaten vermouth-poached oysters, but Tsukiko continues her graceful motions unfazed, though her smile increases noticeably.
"This?" Mme. Padva asks.
"This!" Chandresh repeats, waving at Tsukiko. "This is the precise flavor that the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant. This is kismet, her coming here tonight. We simply have to have her, I will not accept anything less. Marco, get this lady a chair."
A place is set for Tsukiko; her smile is bemused as she joins them at the table.
The conversation that follows involves more creative coercion than outright job offer, and there are several deviations into the subjects of the ballet, modern fashion, and Japanese mythology.
After five courses and a great deal of wine, Tsukiko allows herself to be persuaded to accept an invitation to perform in a not yet existent circus.
"Well then," Chandresh says. "We are set as far as contortionists go. That's a start."
"Shouldn't there be more than one?" Lainie asks. "An entire tent, like the one for the acrobats?"
"Nonsense," Chandresh replies. "Better to have a single perfect diamond than a sack of flawed stones. We'll make a showcase of her, put her in the courtyard or something."
The matter is considered settled for the moment, and throughout dessert and after-dinner drinks, the only subject discussed is the circus itself.
TSUKIKO LEAVES A CARD providing information as to how to contact her with Marco as she departs, and she soon becomes a fixture at the Circus Dinners, often performing before or after dinner, so as to not distract the guests during the meal.
She remains Chandresh's favorite, oft-referenced criterion for what the circus should be.
Herr Friedrick Thiessen receives an unexpected visitor in his Munich workshop, an Englishman by the name of Mr. Ethan Barris. Mr. Barris admits that he has been attempting to track him down for some time after admiring several Thiessen-crafted cuckoo clocks, and was pointed in the right direction by a local shopkeeper.
Mr. Barris inquires as to whether Herr Thiessen would be interested in making a special commissioned piece. Herr Thiessen has a constant stream of custom work and tells Mr. Barris as much, indicating a shelf of variants on the traditional cuckoo clock that range from simple to ornate.
"I'm not certain you understand, Herr Thiessen," Mr. Barris says. "This would be a showcase piece, a curiosity. Your clocks are impressive, but what I am requesting would be something truly outstanding, das Meisterwerk. And money is absolutely no object."
Intrigued now, Herr Thiessen asks for specifications and details. He is given very little. Some constraints as to size (but still rather large), and it is to be painted solely in black and white and shades of grey. Beyond that, the construction and embellishment is up to him. Artistic license, Mr. Barris says. "Dreamlike" is the only descriptive word he uses specifically.
Herr Thiessen agrees, and the men shake hands. Mr. Barris says he will be in touch, and a few days later an envelope is delivered containing an excessive amount of money, a requested date of completion some months away, and an address in London for the completed clock to be shipped to.
It takes the better part of those months for Herr Thiessen to complete the clock. He works on little else, though the sum of money involved makes that arrangement more than manageable. Weeks are spent on the design and mechanics. He hires an assistant to complete some of the basic woodwork, but he takes care of all the details himself. Herr Thiessen loves details, and he loves a challenge. He balances the entire design on that one specific word Mr. Barris used. Dreamlike.
The finished clock is resplendent. At first glance it is simply a clock, a rather large black clock with a white face and a silver pendulum. Well crafted, obviously, with intricately carved woodwork edges and a perfectly painted face, but just a clock.
But that is before it is wound. Before it begins to tick, the pendulum swinging steadily and evenly. Then, then it becomes something else.
The changes are slow. First, the color changes in the face, shifts from white to grey, and then there are clouds that float across it, disappearing when they reach the opposite side.
Meanwhile, bits of the body of the clock expand and contract, like pieces of a puzzle. As though the clock is falling apart, slowly and gracefully.
All of this takes hours.
The face of the clock becomes a darker grey, and then black, with twinkling stars where the numbers had been previously. The body of the clock, which has been methodically turning itself inside out and expanding, is now entirely subtle shades of white and grey. And it is not just pieces, it is figures and objects, perfectly carved flowers and planets and tiny books with actual paper pages that turn. There is a silver dragon that curls around part of the now visible clockwork, a tiny princess in a carved tower who paces in distress, awaiting an absent prince. Teapots that pour into teacups and minuscule curls of steam that rise from them as the seconds tick. Wrapped presents open. Small cats chase small dogs. An entire game of chess is played.
At the center, where a cuckoo bird would live in a more traditional timepiece, is the juggler. Dressed in harlequin style with a grey mask, he juggles shiny silver balls that correspond to each hour. As the clock chimes, another ball joins the rest until at midnight he juggles twelve balls in a complex pattern.
After midnight the clock begins once more to fold in upon itself. The face lightens and the clouds return. The number of juggled balls decreases until the juggler himself vanishes.
By noon it is a clock again, and no longer a dream.
A few weeks after it is shipped, he receives a letter from Mr. Barris, offering his sincere thanks and marveling at the ingenuity of it. "It is perfection," he writes. The letter is accompanied by another exorbitant amount of money, enough for Herr Thiessen to retire comfortably if he wished. He does not, and continues to make his clocks in his Munich workshop.
He thinks no more of it, other than a passing thought of how the clock itself might be doing, and where it might be (though he assumes, incorrectly, that it remains in London), particularly when he is working on a clock that reminds him of the Wunschtraum clock, which was how he referred to it during the more troublesome parts of its construction, uncertain whether or not it was a dream that could be realized.
He does not hear from Mr. Barris beyond that single letter.
LONDON, APRIL 1886
There is an unprecedented gathering of illusionists in the lobby of the theater. A gaggle of pristine suits and strategically placed silk handkerchiefs. Some have trunks and capes, others carry birdcages or silver-topped canes. They do not speak to each other as they wait to be called in, one at a time, referenced not by name (given or stage) but by a number written on a small slip of paper given to them upon arrival. Instead of chitchatting or gossiping or sharing tricks of the trade, they shift in their seats and cast rather conspicuous glances at the girl.
A few mistook her for an assistant when they arrived, but she sits waiting in her chair with her own numbered slip of paper (23).
She has no trunk, no cape, no birdcage or cane. She is dressed in a deep-green gown with a black puffed-sleeve jacket buttoned over it. A pile of brown curls is pinned neatly upon her head under a tiny and feathered but otherwise unremarkable black hat. Her face maintains a semblance of girlishness, in the length of her eyelashes and the slight pout of her lips, despite the fact that she is clearly too old to be properly called a girl. But it is difficult to discern her age and no one dares inquire. The others think of her as the girl regardless, and refer to her as such when they discuss the affair after the fact. She acknowledges no one despite the barely concealed glances and occasional outright stare.
One by one, each illusionist's number is called by a man with a list and a notebook who escorts them through a gilded door on the side of the lobby, and, one by one, each returns to the lobby and exits the theater. Some last only minutes, while others remain in the theater for quite some time. Those with higher numbers shift impatiently in their seats as they wait for the man with the notebook to reappear and politely call out the number on their respective slips of paper.
The last illusionist to enter the gilded door (a rotund fellow with a top hat and flashy cape) returns to the lobby rather quickly and visibly agitated, flouncing through the exit back onto the street, letting the theater doors slam shut behind him. The sound is still echoing through the lobby when the man with the notebook reappears, nods absently at the room, and clears his throat.
"Number twenty-three," Marco says, checking the number on his list.
All the eyes in the room turn as the girl rises from her seat and steps forward.
Marco watches her approach, confused at first but then the confusion is replaced by something else entirely.
He could tell from across the room that she was lovely, but when she is near enough to look him in the eyes the loveliness - the shape of her face, the contrast of her hair against her skin - evolves into something more.
She is radiant. For a moment, while they look at each other, he cannot remember what he is meant to be doing, or why she is handing him a piece of paper with the number twenty-three written on it in his own handwriting.
"This way, please," he manages to say as he takes her number and holds the door open for her. She bobs the slightest of curtseys in acknowledgment and the lobby is abuzz with whispers before the door has fully closed behind them.
THE THEATER IS MASSIVE AND ORNATE, with rows upon rows of plush red velvet seats. Orchestra, mezzanine, and balcony spreading out from the empty stage in a cascade of crimson. It is empty save for two people seated approximately ten rows back from the stage. Chandresh Christophe Lefèvre sits with his feet propped up on the seat in front of him. Mme. Ana Padva sits on his right, pulling a watch from her bag while she stifles a yawn.
Marco emerges from the wing of the stage with the girl in the green dress trailing close behind him. He gestures for her to move to the center of the stage, unable to take his eyes from her as he announces her to the mostly empty theater.
"Number twenty-three," he says, before descending a small set of stairs near the proscenium and hovering by the edge of the front row, pen poised over his open notebook.
Mme. Padva looks up and smiles, tucking her watch back into her bag.
"What's this, then?" Chandresh asks, not directing the question at anyone in particular. The girl does not respond.
"This is number twenty-three," Marco repeats, checking his notes to make certain the number is accurate.
"We're auditioning illusionists, my dear girl," Chandresh says, rather loudly, his voice echoing through the cavernous space. "Magicians, conjurers, etcetera. No need for lovely assistants at this time."
"I am an illusionist, sir," the girl says. Her voice is calm and low. "I am here for your auditions."
"I see," Chandresh says, frowning as he looks the girl over slowly from head to toe. She stands perfectly still in the center of the stage, patiently, as though she has expected such a reaction.