Check out Laura Lam’s Shadowplay, the sequel to Pantomime, available now from Strange Chemistry!
The circus lies behind Micah Grey in dust and ashes.
He and the white clown, Drystan, take refuge with the once-great magician, Jasper Maske. When Maske agrees to teach them his trade, his embittered rival challenges them to a duel which could decide all of their fates.
People also hunt both Micah and the person he was before the circus–the runaway daughter of a noble family. And Micah discovers there is magic and power in the world, far beyond the card tricks and illusions he’s perfecting…
Chapter One: The Magician
“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The unpublished memoirs of Jasper Maske: The Maske of Magic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.”
Chapter Two: The Seancé
“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 he 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.
“Take heed, Child of Man and Woman yet Neither. You must look through the trees to see the play of shadow and light. Do not let the Foresters fell you. The truth of who you are and who others once were shall find you in your dreams and your nightmares.”
The metal Vestige disc I had stolen from the ringmaster’s safe burned in my coat pocket.
Unseen hands tugged my torn dress and snarled hair. A cold fingertip danced across my cheekbone. Spots flashed across my vision. My breath caught. I could not have moved for the world. Maske fell back into his chair, his head falling to his chest as if a puppeteer had cut the strings.
My body tilted. The Vestige disc fell from my pocket onto the floor. Swirling smoke rose and I stared in fear at the face of the Phantom Damselfly. I had seen her countless times by now. On the first night in the haunted tent of R.H. Ragona’s Circus of Magic, when she frightened me half to death. I had seen her every night for weeks in the pantomime of Leander & Iona, where she had played one of the monsters the Prince fought to win his fair lady’s hand – me, for I had played the Princess Iona – and each night, the damselfly had looked over her shoulder at me before she disappeared. She leaned over me now, spreading her transparent dragonfly wings wide. She’s not a ghost, I tried to comfort myself. She’s an ancient Vestige apparition. An illusion. Nothing more.
“The spirits are wise, little Kedi,” she whispered before she disappeared.
I blinked and the blue light faded. The room was lit only by candles. The raps and wailing faded. The disc was still in my coat pocket.
“Thank you for your time and your wisdom, spirits from beyond the veil,” Maske said, as if nothing had happened. “As ever, we are humbled by your wisdom.” He took his hands away, and it felt as though a current of energy had broken.
I rubbed my nose with my good hand, shaking. My eyes fell on the clock on the wall. I thought the séance had only been ten minutes. But unless the clock was wrong, half an hour had passed.
I wanted to leave this place, and as soon as possible.
“Thank you, Maske,” Drystan said. “Enlightening, as ever.”
“Drystan, a moment please,” I said, terse.
Drystan raised an eyebrow, unfazed. How could he be so calm, after all that had happened to us? How was either of us able to function at all? Shock, perhaps. “Of course,” Drystan murmured.
I nearly dragged him back to the empty theatre. I did not like the darkness surrounding us. Anything could be lurking in the corners.
“You were quiet in the séance,” he said. “I almost thought you had fallen asleep. It was all up to me to tell Maske what he wanted to know.”
I shook my head at that. I didn’t remember him uttering a word. What had he said? My head hurt.
“I think it was a mistake to come,” I said.
“Why? Did he scare you with the tapping and that balderdash about tendrils and roots? The woman’s sobs were a nice touch.”
“It was spirits,” I whispered, hating how my voice quavered.
He chuckled. My unbroken arm’s hand tightened into a fist as well as it could with my injured thumb.
“It was all trickery, Micah. None of it was real.”
I shook my head.
Drystan smiled wearily. “He scared the Styx out of me when I saw my first séance as well, Micah. He’s good. But none of it is real. The taps are nothing more than him crackling his toe knuckles, and there’s an apparatus that lifts and shakes the table.”
“What about the blue light of the crystal ball? And the three-toned voice? And the wind?”
Drystan pulled back from me, peering into my face. “Blue light? Wind? What are you talking about?”
He had not seen it, nor had he heard what Maske said. I crossed my good arm over my stomach, feeling sick. It was like the Clockwork Woman. And the Phantom Damselfly.
“Micah? What is it? Are you alright?”
“Nothing,” I said, and just like that, I was lying again, though lies had brought me so much grief. “It’s nothing. But I don’t think we should stay here. Are you sure there’s nobody else we could stay with? Anywhere else we could go? Anywhere at all?”
Drystan did not believe me, but he let it pass. “We don’t even know if he’ll let us stay,” Drystan said, his voice low. “But I still mean to ask him. Like I said, we can trust him, and there are not many in Imachara I would. Especially now. This is the safest place.”
I knew no one in Imachara I could trust.
Drystan looked so tired. I rested my head on his shoulder. His world had collapsed around him just as thoroughly as mine. All of my muscles shook, and I clenched my teeth hard so they would not rattle.
“Alright,” I whispered. “I’ll stay if the magician lets us. At least for a few days.”
“Thank you, Micah.” And he pulled away.
“Thank you for the séance, Maske, and for seeing us,” Drystan said when we re-entered the room. Maske gave me a small smile, and though it did not put me at ease, he was not so frightening in the bright gaslight, when he did not speak with the voice of spirits.
I tried to pretend that it had all been from a lack of sleep and from the stress and terror of the night. But I knew, deep down, the séance had not been normal. My fingernails dug half-moons into the skin of my palm.
“Apologies, young… man,” he said, the hint of an inflection on the last word. I did not acknowledge whether he was correct or incorrect. “I do realize my séances can be unsettling.”
“I wasn’t unsettled,” I denied, rather unconvincingly.
“Of course not,” he said. He steepled his fingers together. His face was calm. I wondered what he had decided about us from the séance.
“Now, why have an old friend and his companion appeared on my doorstep in the middle of the night, in quite the state of disarray, demanding a séance? I know you were fond of them, Drystan, but it is rather an imposition.” A faint smile curled about his lips.
He had not been to bed when we had knocked, despite the late hour. His eyes held the puffy look of a man who did not sleep, contrasting against his crisp suit and neat hair.
“We need a place to stay for a time. A place with someone who does not ask questions,” Drystan replied.
Maske’s lips tightened. “Fallen into a speck of trouble, have you, Drystan?”
“You could say that.”
Maske folded his arms, formless thoughts flitting behind his eyes.
Drystan’s half-dried hair stuck up around his head in a blonde corona. “You once offered anything you could provide to me, Jasper. A life debt. I am collecting on the favor.”
He held up his hand. “I did, yes. But I do believe that I am entitled to know why. It does not take a mind reader to see how much you need my help.” His eyes flicked over to my battered face and my broken arm. I studied the lace of the tablecloth, noting a small burn in the fabric.
“It is a long tale for another time,” Drystan said.
Maske stared at Drystan for a long moment. “Very well,” he said, brisk. “I’ll ready the loft for you. You can move to other bedrooms later on if you like, though most of them have mildew.”
Drystan smiled, relieved. “The loft will be fine. My old room.”
Maske poured three glasses of whisky, not asking us what we wanted. I put my hand over my mouth, fighting the urge to retch. The ringmaster had stunk of whisky. I would never be able to drink it again.
“Is something the matter, Micah of-no-last-name?” he asked me, his voice cool.
I shook my head, the smell of the whisky and fear still in my nostrils. Maske cocked his head and turned away. Drystan understood and took my glass, downing first his, and then mine.
I wished that Maske had refused to keep us, so that I did not have to stay here. I knew I did not have to, and that Drystan might even come with me if I stood and walked out. But this was the only safe place in the city that Drystan knew.
We had nowhere else to go but this old theatre, with the somber man who raised ghosts.
Shadowplay © Laura Lam, 2014