To my mother, Sally Baxter, for all she has done for me, but especially for showing me the magic of stories.
“I know I have created magic to rival the greatest anyone has ever known. What I do not know is whether the price of the gamble was worth it.”
The unpublished memoirs of Jasper Maske: The Maske of Magic
We didn’t run.
We kept to the shadows as we sneaked through the streets of Imachara. Any noise made us jump – any stranger could later be a witness to turn us into the policiers or the Shadow that pursued us. The Penglass domes threaded throughout the city reflected the full moon, and the cold blue light reminded me all too clearly of what had happened tonight. What I had done.
Don’t think about it. Not now.
Every step hurt my broken arm, wrapped in a makeshift sling. Drystan, the white clown of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic and my fellow fugitive, reached out and clasped my shoulder, careful not to jostle me. We had reached our destination.
“This is where we’ll find the magician?” I asked.
Drystan nodded. The flickering light of the gas lamps tinged the falling mist golden and cast shadows across the old Kymri Theatre. The boarded windows stared like blinded eyes from between the soot-streaked limestone. The columns carved with hundreds of glyphs and stylized demi-gods had once been painted, but only a few chips of teal and orange paint remained.
It was late, but there were still some hardy souls out, hunched against the rain: two men sharing an umbrella, a woman with her hood tight around her face, heels clicking along the cobblestones. I turned my face away.
The wide, impenetrable door before us was re-enforced with swirling tendrils of brass. Drystan hesitated before stepping forward and thumping the heavy lion’s head-knocker.
We waited in silence, our breathing quick, my heartbeat still thundering in my ears. My pack with all my worldly possessions lay heavy on my shoulder. The drizzling rain turned into drops that snaked their way down my spine. Through the door, I heard footsteps. My pulse spiked.
“Someone’s coming,” I whispered to Drystan, who did not have ears as keen as mine.
The key clunked in the lock and one of the brass and oaken doors swung inward. Whoever was behind it remained in shadow.
“Who is it?” a voice asked. “We are closed.”
“Someone you owe a favor, Jasper Maske.” Drystan held up a coin, glinting silver in the light of the streetlamp. “And a séance.”
The door opened further. A tall man emerged from the gloom. He had a pale, somber face flanked by dark hair and silvered temples. An immaculate beard framed his mouth. He held an orange glass globe in one hand, the light dancing against the dips and crevices of his face. He was the very image of a magician, from his shining boots to his neatly arranged cravat.
The magician regarded us for a long moment. “Drystan Hornbeam. It has been a long time.”
He knew Drystan’s full name, which meant he knew who he was – the estranged scion of one of the noblest families behind the throne of Ellada.
Drystan and I made a strange pair. Drystan’s bleached white hair lay plastered to his skull. His pink and white clown’s motley was translucent against his skin, thrown on in haste after his other clothes had been splattered with blood. Remnants of greasepaint smeared his cheeks. I made an even odder sight, in a patched coat over a torn wedding dress from my role in the pantomime of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic, half of its pearls missing. My broken left arm was wrapped in a hasty sling from a strip of the dress and my face bloomed with fresh bruises and cuts.
“And who is your companion?” he asked, turning his attention to me.
“Micah,” I said, holding out my unbroken arm, which he did not take.
He peered at me. He did not ask why a beaten teenager with a boy’s name and voice stood on his threshold in a torn wedding dress.
Drystan rolled the coin along his knuckles.
“Very well, Drystan. Keep your coin,” Maske said. “And come inside.”
“Countless times, I have drawn closed the black curtains against the daylight, clasped hands with believers and cynics alike, and claimed to raise the dead. Some believe I actually bring forth ghosts, and others hold tight to their disbelief. But no matter how cynical, there is always the glimmer of fear in their eyes when the possible supernatural crowds the room with them. When the whispers fill their ears and they feel the brush of an unseen hand. Fear of the darkness, and of what they do not understand. Or perhaps it is not fear, but guilt.
“Is it ghosts that truly haunt us, or the memory of our own mistakes that we wish we could undo?”
The unpublished memoirs of Jasper Maske: The Maske of Magic
The magician stood aside.
Maske turned and walked down the entryway. Loose mosaic tiles slipped beneath my feet as I followed. Dust coated everything like a half-remembered dream. I shivered, the motion triggering a stab of pain in my broken left arm. Was Drystan right to trust this man, with the secrets that followed us?
Drystan’s face revealed nothing. I slid my uninjured hand into his with the lightest of touches. I could not squeeze his hand – my recently dislocated thumbs were back in their rightful place, but every movement still hurt. He gave me a small smile that did not reach his eyes.
The magician pushed open a stained glass door that depicted a scene of one of the Kymri kings drifting to the afterlife on the River Styx, the boat laden with his possessions.
We entered the cavernous room of the theatre, though the magician’s glass globe did little to illuminate the gloom. Dust dulled the once-burgundy seats, and peeling gilt glinted off the columns to either side of the empty stage.
“Do you need medical assistance?” the magician asked, nodding at my sling.
I said no. It didn’t feel broken enough to need setting, and I did not wish to risk doctors. We’d splinted it hastily and if I didn’t move too much, it didn’t hurt.
“Very well. Wait here,” the magician said, handing Drystan the glass globe. “I won’t be long. I’ll let you stay depending on what the spirits say.” He gave Drystan a look I couldn’t read before he navigated his way backstage in darkness.
Drystan and I waited, the glass globe flickering orange. The theatre was freezing, and I shivered beneath my damp coat. My voice caught before I could speak.
“Why are we asking him for a séance?” I asked. “We need him to harbor us, not spook us.”
“Maske has been retired from magic for fifteen years, but he still performs séances. Trust me on this. It’s nothing to do with what the spirits say. It’s a test. It’s about him evaluating us rather than some conversation with the dead.”
I bit the inside of my cheek. I did not like trusting the somber-faced man, but I knew no one else in Imachara who would harbor us.
Any other words I wanted to say shriveled in my mouth. Drystan stared into the darkness like a haunted man. I knew what vision he must be remembering.
I tried not to think about what had happened, though it hovered at the edge of my mind. I could not think about the blood and the scattered pearls of my dress for the circus’s pantomime, the way Aenea looked like a crumpled, broken doll after the ringmaster had thrown her across the room, her eyes unseeing, and the impossible, terrible thing I did to drive away those who chased us through the city… If I started thinking about it, I would never be able to stop.
The glass globe illuminated the mosaics on the wall above the darkened lamp sconces. They depicted scenes from the myth of the island of Kymri. The humans that appeared part-animal were Chimaera, creatures who may or may not have ever existed. The Holy Couple of the Sun Lord and the Moon Lady shone overhead, watching over their creations.
“It is ready,” Maske said, coming back onto the stage.
We entered a smaller room, lit by several candles, the flames sputtering from their wicks. A table covered in thick, black lace topped with a crystal ball was the only furniture aside from a large spirit cabinet in the corner, a sort of portable closet for mediums to use in séances. A threadbare Arrasian rug lay on the floor, and oil portraits of long-dead monarchs hung on the walls, their faces disapproving.
“Sit,” the magician commanded.
I perched on the hard seat. The Vestige metal base of the crystal ball shone like oil mixed in water.
“Now, hold hands,” Maske said. I kept my arm in the sling, resting my elbow on the table. Drystan put his hand, damp from the rain, gingerly into mine, and I clasped the magician’s cold, dry one.
“We call upon you, O spirits,” the magician said. “We call upon you through the veil to answer our questions of the past and the future.” His deep voice echoed in the room.
I heard nothing. I peeked at Drystan, but his eyes were closed. Then I heard it.
I held my breath.
Tap, tap, tap.
“Good evening, spirits,” Maske said. “I thank you for joining us this evening and honoring us with your presence and wisdom.”
Tap. Tap, tap.
This was how the magician was going to prove that spirits existed from beyond the grave? I frowned, and the magician caught me.
“We have an unbeliever among us tonight, oh, spirits,” he said.
I fought down a surge of fear. I did not know if I was an unbeliever, with the things I had seen, but I did not believe
was actually communing with the dead. But if there were spirits in the room tonight, I did not wish to anger them, either.
The table beneath us shook. I nearly snatched my hands away, breaking the circle, injured arm and thumbs or no. It wobbled and then rose several inches from the ground, but the Vestige crystal ball did not shift. My heartbeat thundered in my throat.
The table lowered. More taps sounded, as if from dozens of hands. Whispers rose, the words unintelligible. A woman sobbed in heartbreak before a wind, which ruffled my hair, drowned her cries. It reminded me far too much of the haunted tent of the circus, where I had first seen a ghost that was not a ghost.
“Oh spirits, please tell me about my guests. Where have they come from, and where shall they go? Are they friends or are they enemies?” Maske’s face transformed. His wide eyes gazed into the crystal ball, and in the candlelight they looked like pools of darkness. Shapes flitted in the depths of the crystal. Drystan squeezed my hand gently, mindful of my thumbs, and I was grateful for the small comfort.
“Tragedy has struck you tonight,” Maske said. “You must turn over a new leaf, and hope the old leaves you shed do not follow in the wind.”
It would not take a psychic to deduce that tragedy had befallen us. I had fresh rope burns around my wrists.
“Your lives have intertwined together, but shall they strengthen into roots that run deep? It is too soon to say.”
Drystan looked to me, and I glanced away.
“Your future is murky,” the magician continued. He frowned into the crystal ball, as if surprised by what he saw there, his voice shifting into a deep, resonating timber. “But the spirits show me visions. I see a girl, no, a woman, in a wine-red dress. Her child is ill, eaten from the inside. I see figures on a stage, playing their parts, the audience applauding as magic surrounds them. I see great feathered wings flapping against the night sky. A demon with green skin drips blood onto a white floor. A man checks his pocket watch, and I hear a clock ticking, counting the time.”
The crystal ball on the table brightened to a piercing light in the purest shade of blue – the blue of Penglass. I squeezed my eyes shut, terrified that the light would harm me. When the light cleared and I dared to open my eyes, Jasper Maske’s face was lingering close to my own. He stood over the crystal ball, the blue light casting his face in unearthly shadow. When he spoke, it was in a voice entirely unlike his own, and echoed as though three people spoke at once.