He waits behind the curtain of crimson velvet, listening to the court’s gossip and chatter. At last, silvered trumpets blare — the least subtle of distractions — and he parts the curtain imperceptibly. Across the great ballroom, the Crown Prince and his wife appear in the broad doorway, their golden sashes seeming to glow beneath the gaslight sconces. Arm in arm, they proceed toward the wide curtained dais like pieces gliding on a chessboard of red and white marble. The members of the court — nobles, bureaucrats, officers of the Black Cavalry — having stood from their cushioned chairs, bow and curtsy as the couple passes, sit once the two are seated before the dais. He turns and nods to his four squires, black-clad, porcelain-masked.
The gaslights dim. He counts to ten, then snaps his fingers.
The lights wink out.
Ladies gasp. Men murmur. A handful of officers, he is sure, have gripped the hilts of their ceremonial sabers. He draws a deep breath, letting the tension build. These people are accustomed to power and control, to freedom and quick gratification; they delight in being seen. He makes them wait, blind and bound by invisible laces of courtesy. Most people desire entertainment, Master Dmitros had taught him, or think they do. But I am not training you to be a mindless juggler or acrobat. You will not entertain. You will awe.
They value titles and proper introductions; he does not. They know something of him, or believe they do, and of course most have seen The Knight of Mystery perform before, as recently as midsummer. But tonight’s tableau is new. He simply raises his voice — one of his fifty trained voices, masculine yet high, polite yet sinister — and begins.
“You sleep now, children. Or perhaps your eyes have failed, and neither sunlight nor mirrors will ever hold meaning again. Or perhaps, perhaps your hearts have failed, and your last heartbeat, the last sweet note of life’s anthem, is fading even now in the infinite void.” He steps out from the curtain and, in the darkness, moves to the middle of the dais.
“What do you see?” He tosses a bead of flash powder to one side of the dais, crooks his mouth at the intakes of breath and the hands raised against the burst of blue fire and smoke. Behind him, his squires open the curtain. He tosses a second bead to the other side. He strikes the first pose in which he wishes to be seen — his arms angular, his fingers splayed like claws — and prepares his voice.
“What do you — SEE?” he screams as several red-glassed gaslights around the dais flare to life. He tumbles and spins in the unnatural light, cavorting like a prince of nightmares. The time for thought ends; for the next hour he becomes a living vessel of his art.
He dances and juggles flaming knives that, in the end, take flight as doves. He signs an ancient ballad and plays a harp, plucks three blue roses from the shadows and descends to present them to the Crown Princess as the harp plays on. He conjures a live gray wolf. He lies down in a coffin, nailed shut and set aflame, reappearing minutes later in the chandelier above them. He lingers until they stir in their seats, murmur, lift their fingernails to their lips. As the coffin crumbles, he somersaults to the floor, flowing into an elaborate bow, and grins — not at their applause but at their faces, radiant with childish awe.
* * *
It is midnight when he closes the doors to his suite behind him. He shuts his eyes and leans against the carved panels, shivering from exhaustion and the cooling of his sweat. At the nurse’s footsteps, he looks up.
“Are you well, milord?” she asks. She smoothes her white apron, does not meet his eyes. Even after a handful of years, his costume and reputation unsettle her.
“Yes, Magda. Simply drained.” He nods toward the play of firelight emanating from the door of the sitting parlor. “How is she?”
“The same. Awaiting you, milord. I left a cold supper for you as well.”
“Thank you, Magda. Good night.” He locks the doors behind her and slips silently into the parlor.
His little sister sits in a chair beside a diamond-paned window, a blanket around her narrow shoulders, watching the fall of snow. Beautiful, fragile, and pale.
He takes up the plate of meats and cheeses, kisses her white-gold hair, sits on the tasseled rug beside her. He watches the rhythm of her breathing, the quick closing and opening of her eyelashes, the small treasures of life he has come to value in the absence of others.
“It went splendidly, Niki.” He traces the pattern of the plate rim with one finger. “A standing ovation. A handshake and glowing words from the prince. Of course, the princess still looks at me like I’m a ridiculous talking fox. But no matter. I’m comfortably retained for another year. Shall we stay?”
She does not answer. She has answered no questions, spoken no word for almost six years, since the night when, hidden behind a hanging fur cloak, she watched the murder of their parents. Their throats had been torn out, and black wisps of demonfire trailed from the wounds.
A man trained in the art of illusion, in disguise and sleight of hand, can do much for his patron. He can entertain, of course, as tonight, but he also excels at learning secrets, smuggling, spreading rumors, and theft. In extremis, with the sanction of the Crown Prince, he can kill. But for all his talents, he cannot solve the mystery of his parents’ death or, no matter how he performs or pleads, draw a word or smile from this precious girl.
So he eats and chatters, sings lullabies and holds her hand while the endless snow dances behind the glass.
In the darkness of midwinter, heroes still wait for the spring.