London, 1899: Chandresh is throwing an anniversary party for the circus on Friday the 13th, to honor 13 years of performances. The event is exclusive, and only the performers and some special guests are invited. It is also surprisingly colorful, with different colored lights in each room, and every table covered in a bright tablecloth and colorful flower arrangements. Chandresh makes a speech after dinner, and everyone enjoys his remarks, with the exception of his comments about how no one seems to age, except Widget and Poppet. After the speech there is dancing in the ballroom, and Mr. A.H. stays along the sidelines, except when he meets Herr Thiessen and speaks with him briefly, and when Tsukiko forces him to dance.
Thirteen years have passed since the opening of the circus, and while it is still the venue for the competition between Marco and Celia, it is also a very successful endeavor in its own right. In keeping with Chandresh’s dramatic aesthetic choices, the party’s bright color scheme contrasts with the all black-and-white theme of the circus itself. In his speech, Chandresh notes the lack of aging associated with the circus, but his lighthearted comments strike a deep and painful chord for many of the organizers, who are still mourning the death of Tara Burgess.
As Celia passes by Marco in the hall, he grabs her hand, and they are both taken aback by the shift in the air between them. He tells her she looks beautiful, and she asks to see his real face. He shows it to her alone, and they stand in a corner of the hallway looking at each other as other guests slip past, not noticing them. Marco touches her cheek and kisses her neck when suddenly, Mr. A.H. interrupts them, asking Celia if he can speak with Marco. Celia slips away without even looking at Marco, and Mr. A.H. tells him that he disapproves of their behavior. Marco is furious, as he realizes that Mr. A.H. knows Celia and could have told Marco who his opponent was long before he figured it out himself. Mr. A.H. replies that he didn’t think it was necessary to tell him.
The party gives Marco and Celia a chance to see each other outside of the circus itself, and they take their first opportunity to have a private moment. Marco lets Celia see his real face, making the interaction more intimate and real for them. Mr. A.H. interrupts their private moment in an attempt to reassert his control over Marco, but this backfires, as Marco realizes that Mr. A.H. and Celia have met before. Once again, Marco is frustrated by how little his teacher has told him about the competition.
Marco moves their conversation into the game room, where he asks what Mr. A.H. suddenly wants, after thirteen years of silence. His teacher informs him that he doesn’t really want to speak with him—he only wanted to separate him from Celia. Marco takes the opportunity to ask if he is doing well in the competition; Mr. A.H. responds that Marco’s progress has been sufficient, and that he should keep his distance from Celia. Marco announces that he is in love with Celia, which makes Mr. A.H. visibly sad. He tells Marco that this will make the competition much more difficult for him. Marco asks when it ends, and Mr. A.H. answers that the previous competition lasted thirty-seven years. Marco insists that he is done with the game, but Mr. A.H. tells him that he cannot quit.
Marco notes that Mr. A.H. has not attempted to contact him at all since the opening of the circus—for a teacher and de-facto father figure, Mr. A.H. is neglectful of Marco’s emotional needs. However, Mr. A.H. emphasizes the fact that he is solely interested in the competition itself, and not the wellbeing of his student. When Marco announces his feelings for Celia, Mr. A.H.’s only concern is the outcome of the competition. He reiterates the fact that Marco has no choice but to continue the competition, no matter how long it lasts.
Marco throws a billiard ball at Mr. A.H., who steps out of the way as the ball smashes into a stained glass window. He then walks out of the room, past Isobel who heard the entire conversation, and into the ballroom to find Celia. She is dancing with Herr Thiessen, and Marco pulls her away, kisses her on the lips in front of all of the guests, and releases her back to her dance partner. By the time he walks back out of the room, everyone has forgotten what they saw. Mr. A.H. storms out of the party, and as he leaves the building, Widget and Poppet watch him through the window. Widget notes to Poppet that Mr. A.H. has no shadow.
Mr. A.H.’s quick reflexes in avoiding the flying billiard ball foreshadow a later incident in which the man steps out of the way of a flying weapon, allowing another man to die in his place. What happens next will change the relationship between Celia, Marco, and Isobel in significant ways: Marco and Celia no longer truly consider themselves rivals, as their love for one another is now clear. Meanwhile, Isobel is now fully aware of Marco’s feelings for Celia, and will no longer function as his accomplice.
Concord, MA, 1902: Bailey is back at the circus, and is exploring the Labyrinth with Widget and Poppet. They come to a room that resembles a large metal birdcage, and soon they become stuck and Poppet turns visibly upset. After a great deal of searching, Bailey finds a key hidden under the seat of a swing and uses it to get them out of the cage and the Labyrinth. Poppet is still upset, but the twins have to run off to their next performance, and Bailey cannot inquire further.
Bailey is enjoying another evening with his new friends, when they find themselves in a situation that temporarily reverses their roles: an element of the circus suddenly feels unfamiliar to the twins, and Bailey finds himself in a position to help them escape. The moment passes quickly, but it will be burned into Poppet’s memory as significant.
Bailey enters a new tent to find tables covered in jars and bottles, and when he opens them, each one holds a different scent that evokes a different memory or image in his head: one has the scent of a roaring fire, while another has the ocean and a bright summer’s day at the seashore, and another has a garden path. He picks another bottle, and at first there is no scent, but then he is surprised by the smell of caramel and a bonfire, and then he feels a sharp pain in his chest, the sensation of falling, and the sound of a girl screaming. Scared, he puts the stopper back in the bottle and looks for one more before leaving. This time he opens a box and feels dry desert air, hears laughter and flute music, and then feels a hand on his shoulder that causes him to drop the box in surprise.
On his own now, Bailey explores a tent he has not seen before, in which certain scents provoke strong memories and even visceral responses from him. The scent and experience related to the circus, however, is not what he expected, causing him pain and fear. Until this point, the circus had been a completely positive experience, and the association between the comforting smells of the bonfire and the caramel, mixed with the uncomfortable sounds and feelings, are unsettling to Bailey. They are, of course, a sign of what is to come.
Bailey leaves the tent and goes to find Poppet and Widget, but first he comes across another statue-person on a platform. It is a woman with long black hair tied with silver ribbons, wearing a white gown covered in words—love letters, actually. As Bailey watches, Poppet taps him on the shoulder and tells him that this woman is her favorite statue. She is called the Paramour.
The Paramour is a reference to the love between Celia and Marco, which by 1902 is in full force. Their relationship is the backbone of the circus, and later on, another character will describe their magical creations as love letters to one another.
Bailey tells Poppet about the tent with the bottles, which Poppet explains is Widget’s tent. As they wander through the circus again, Bailey notices the spectators wearing all black and white with a single dash of red and asks Poppet about them. She explains that they are rêveurs; Bailey has more questions about them, but they enter a tent that takes his breath away, reminding him of the first snow of winter. Poppet explains that they are in the Ice Garden, and they play hide and seek, though it is nearly impossible to find Poppet in her all-white costume, so he can only chase the fleeting image of her bright red hair.
At this point in time, the rêveurs are omnipresent at the circus, and Bailey is will soon become intimately acquainted with the sense of belonging and family that they provide. For the moment, however, they are just a passing thought as he enters the Ice Garden with Poppet. They take the opportunity to play, like the children they are, despite the fact that Poppet’s visions of the destruction of the circus are growing more intense.
London, 1900: Chandresh is sitting in his study, wondering what is wrong with him. The circus does not need him anymore, after fourteen years, but he cannot start anything new. The circus has begun to bother him, and his thoughts wander to Marco’s office to look at the paperwork. When he pulls out plans for the circus, he notices that all of them have been written over in another handwriting that does not belong to Mr. Barris. He then looks through Marco’s desk, finding a single locked drawer that he eventually pries open with a silver knife. When he opens the drawer, he finds a large, leather-bound notebook filled with symbols and markings that Chandresh doesn’t understand. He also realizes that each page has the name of someone associated with the circus, including his own, and each one also has a lock of hair.
Chandresh has been under a magic spell for the fourteen years the circus has existed, in large part to keep him from noticing the magical elements that truly run the circus. It is the secret magic behind the circus that sent Tara Burgess to London, leading to her death; it seems that questioning these secrets can be dangerous, if not life threatening. Chandresh’s search for answers leads him directly to Marco, his assistant. He is surprised to find that Marco is hiding something in a locked drawer—he has not imagined that Marco had anything to hide from him.
At that moment, Marco appears in the doorway and asks what Chandresh is doing. Chandresh is startled, but composes himself enough to ask about the notebook. Marco explains that it is a book of records for the circus, but Chandresh calls it nonsense and wonders how long he has been keeping it. Marco tells him he is just doing his job, and that he does not appreciate Chandresh going through his things without his permission. Chandresh accuses Marco of keeping secrets, and Marco responds that his boss cannot imagine the number of things that are being kept from him, going back well before the circus was started, and that Chandresh has never been concerned with the details and left them up to Marco in the first place.
Like Mr. A.H., Marco has had to control those around him—not only does he use his secret notebook to ensure the safety of the circus performers and organizers, but he has to keep it all a secret from Chandresh, often erasing his memory. Chandresh has long ago given up much of the control of the circus, but now that he wants to know more about the endeavor he is running, he discovers something he never would have imagined. Marco is honest with his boss, to the point of rudeness, because he knows he can simply erase his memory afterwards.
When Chandresh refers to the books, he looks around and finds that there are no longer any papers or ledgers in the office. He then waves the brandy bottle in Marco’s face and tries to fire him, but Marco makes the bottle disappear and says that he cannot leave and has no choice about it. He then erases Chandresh’s memory of the conversation entirely. When his boss leaves the office, Marco packs up all of his papers and all of his personal items from his room and leaves. But before he does, he brings Chandresh another bottle of brandy. Alone, Chandresh is visited by the ghost of Prospero the Enchanter, an old friend of his, who fills his head with information that he otherwise might have forgotten.
Marco finds himself in a difficult position: he did not choose to be part of the competition, or to come and work for Chandresh, yet he must take extreme measures to keep his position and continue competing against Celia. Thus, when Chandresh tries to fire Marco for his secrets and lies, Marco responds angrily, erases his boss’s memory, and moves all evidence of his magic from Chandresh’s house. Nonetheless, Hector Bowen decides to inform Chandresh of what is happening, in an attempt to gain advantage in the competition.
Meanwhile, Lainie goes to visit Mr. Barris, who has moved his office from London to Vienna, and now to Basel. She asks him what he and Tara talked about when she came to visit him in Vienna before her death, and Mr. Barris is surprised, thinking that Lainie knew. Lainie tells him that just because he could never decide which one he was in love with does not mean that they are interchangeable; Barris replies that he asked Lainie to marry him but she never answered him. But since he asked her after Tara died, Lainie will never know if she was his first choice or not. He tells her that he loves her, and that she and the other organizers are more than family to him.
Lainie is on a mission to find out why her sister died, as she is convinced that there is something going on that she should know about. Her conversation with Mr. Barris demonstrates how close they are: he feels closer to Lainie than to his own family, and is clearly in love with her and would marry her if she said yes. It seems, however, that Lainie is more focused on the death of her sister than romantic entanglements.
Mr. Barris tells her that he doesn’t want to have a conversation about the circus, just like he didn’t want to have it with Tara. Lainie guesses that he knows what’s going on, and Mr. Barris admits that he does, and he would not tell Tara because he cannot break the promise he made. He specifies that he has never lied, he simply has chosen not to say certain things. Lainie asks if Mr. A.H. knows, and Mr. Barris responds that there is little he doesn’t know about. He then adds that he doesn’t mind his situation, moving and hiring new staff every few years. Lainie stays in Switzerland for a few more days to spend time with Mr. Barris before moving on to Constantinople to meet up with the circus.
Once again, Mr. Barris is put in a difficult situation, as he has promised not to reveal what he knows, even though it would put Lainie at ease to find out the truth. He is caught between his love for his friend and his loyalty to Celia and Marco. In addition, because he is in the know, Mr. Barris is less bothered by the situation and does not mind the veil of secrecy that keeps him moving from city to city; for Tara and now Lainie, however, the main concern is simply not knowing what is going on.
Lainie meets with Celia at the Pera Palace Hotel in Constantinople. After some small talk, Lainie launches in with her question, asking if Celia knows why Tara went to the Midland Grand Hotel in London. Celia says that she knows whom Tara went to see, but that she doesn’t know why she went. Lainie explains that Tara didn’t feel right and needed to investigate, but that she made the mistake of asking the wrong questions of the wrong people. Lainie, on the other hand, is asking Celia, whom she knows will not brush away her concerns. Celia explains the basics of the challenge and the function of the circus, but does not name names.
Lainie’s search finally leads to Celia, which works in her favor—unlike Mr. A.H., Celia has nothing to fear and is not interested in keeping secrets from anyone involved in the circus. Celia cannot tell her much about what happened to Tara, but she is forthcoming about the competition and the secrets behind the circus itself. The circus and everyone involved in it are important to Celia, and she is not willing to risk her sense of home and family to keep the competition a secret.
Lainie just listens and sips her tea. Then, as she is about to take another sip of her tea, she lets go of the cup, letting it shatter; Celia immediately puts the pieces back together and pulls the liquid back into the cup, and the people at the tables around them assume the sound was in their imagination. Lainie tells her that she would like Celia to feel like she can tell her anything from this point on. She reminds Celia that everyone in the circus is involved in their competition, and they “are not as easily repaired as teacups.”
This interaction between the two women seems like something of a challenge on Lainie’s part: it seems that she drops her cup on purpose, to see what Celia will do. Performing magic in front of Lainie, without passing it off as sleight of hand like she does in her shows, is an intimate act. Lainie then makes it clear to Celia that she does not want any secrets, and depends on her for information.
Dublin, 1901: After the end of the illusionist’s performance, one man stays behind. Marco asks Celia if she likes the Cloud Maze, which she does, and she asks if Mr. Barris helped him with that. He runs his thumb along the inside of her wrist, and she is overcome with feeling and pulls away before it becomes too much. She asks if he is going to show her some of his magic, since he watched her—she even notes that he was in every audience that evening, and he cannot hide from her in the back row. He tells her that it would be too tempting to reach out and touch her if he sat in the front.
Marco’s desire for Celia is growing more and more intense, and although they cannot touch each other as much as they would like, they express their feelings for each other via their magic. Again, they have had such similar experiences in their youth, focusing entirely on the study of magic, that this is what brings them together. The Cloud Maze, for example, should be Marco’s move in the competition, but is instead a gift to Celia.
Celia steps closer to Marco. He puts his hand around her waist and spins her around to see the fabric walls of the tent turn into paper and words appear on it: Shakespearean sonnets and other romantic poetry. He asks if she likes it, and she can only nod and ask how he comes up with such images. Marco tells her that he imagines what she might like. Celia responds that she doesn’t think he is supposed to imagine how to please his opponent, and Marco responds that he still doesn’t know all the rules of the game, so he has chosen to follow his instincts instead.
When they are in close proximity, Marco can easily manipulate Celia’s reality, allowing them to escape from the circus together, if only momentarily. In this instance, Marco creates for Celia a world made of love poems, which may remind readers of the Paramour statue, whose dress was made of love letters. Celia jokes about the competition, but it is a very real concern for their teachers.
Celia agrees that she has learned very little about the competition, especially when she asks about how a winner will be chosen. She mentions that Hector still pesters her a lot, and Marco notes that he has hardly seen Mr. A.H. in years, but he is still the closest thing to family that Marco has. Celia’s father, on the other hand, regularly tells her what a disappointment she is, though Marco finds it hard to believe that anyone could be disappointed in her.
Celia and Marco share a sense of bewilderment about the competition, as well as feelings of abandonment by their teachers, who are also the paternal influences in their lives. This is another experience that brings them closer together, as they look to the circus and each other for an emotional connection.
Marco asks Celia to explain what happened to Hector, and she explains that he is overambitious and wasn’t able to do what he had planned—he wanted to remove himself from the physical world. When Marco asks how that would be possible, she uses the example of a glass of wine, asking if the wine were poured into a basin of water, or a lake or even the ocean, if it would be gone. It wouldn’t, Marco responds, and Celia tells him that Hector found a way to remove his glass, but he shot for the ocean rather than something smaller and more manageable, and has trouble pulling himself together. Marco asks if this magic can be done properly, and Celia believes that it can be, with a touchstone of some kind, and that that she probably could do it if she had reason to.
As magicians, Celia and Marco can discuss the logistics of Hector Bowen’s magic trick gone wrong, and work out ways to improve on his work. Celia’s explanation shows her deep understanding of magic, and suggests that she may be an even better magician than her father, if only because she is more rational than he is. In addition, their conversation about conducting this kind of magic successfully foreshadows later events, when Celia does have reason to want to remove herself from the physical world.
Hector still visits Celia, though he lacks solidity and it bothers him. Celia notes that he might have been more tangible if he had done the magic differently, but she muses that she doesn’t think she would want to be stuck in a tree forever. Marco responds that it would depend on the tree, looking around at the tree that Celia has turned a deep red and intensifying the color until Celia has to close her eyes. When she opens them, they are on the deck of a ship made of books, in the middle of the ocean.
Celia’s comment about being stuck in a tree is another reference to the Merlin story, in which the magician’s lover traps him within an oak tree, which gives him immortality. Many of the characters in the novel disagree about whether or not they would enjoy being immortal, or confined to a single space, yet that is exactly what will happen to Celia and Marco.
Celia looks down at the fingers of Marco’s right hand, and he reveals the scar on his finger from the ring Mr. A.H. placed there when Marco was fourteen, with an inscription he doesn’t remember. Celia tells him it is esse quam videri, the Bowen family motto, meaning “to be, rather than to seem.” She notes the irony of the motto in light of Hector’s botched magic trick, and shows Marco her ring with the same inscription. She then moves the ring to show her matching scar.
Celia and Marco’s rings were meant to pit them against one another, yet they now seem more like wedding rings, reflecting their romantic bond. Celia also notes the irony of the family motto in light of Hector’s attempts “to seem”—passing off magic as simple illusion, and removing himself from the mortal world—rather than “to be.”
Marco asks Celia if Mr. A.H. gave the ring and scar to her, and she says yes, when she was only six years old. Celia had never before met anyone who could perform real magic like her father, though the two men were very different. Mr. A.H. told her she was an angel. Marco tells her that is an understatement, and places his hand on hers. The wind picks up, and Marco holds on to Celia to keep her steady. She calls him Mr. Illusionist, and he asks her to call him by his name. She does, and he tries to kiss her, but she turns away, and he can only whisper her name into her ear.
The use of names in this scene is significant, as both Celia and Marco use names to create a greater level of intimacy. Mr. A.H.’s use of a term of endearment for young Celia reveals his (perhaps surprising) human side, while Marco’s use of the same word expresses his love for her. She acknowledges his magical abilities by calling him Mr. Illusionist, but he would rather just be Marco with her in this moment.
The two hold on to each other as the wind and waves die down around them. Celia apologizes for not letting Marco kiss her, telling him that she has spent her life trying to keep control of herself, but she loses that control with him, and it frightens her. Marco doesn’t want her to be frightened, but she means that she is scared of how much she likes the feeling. She is tempted to lose herself with him, but knows that she shouldn’t. Marco asks her to run away with him, but Celia reminds him that they can’t do that. Marco insists that they can do anything when they are together, but Celia specifies that they can only do anything within the confines of the circus.
In contrast to Marco’s impulsivity with regards to their relationship, Celia is careful not to lose herself, and not to lose her concentration. She does not question her feelings for him, or his commitment to her—at least for the moment—but she recognizes the limitations of their relationship and the possible repercussions of rebelling against their teachers. In a way, they are already trapped within the circus.
Marco doesn’t understand, so Celia asks him to imagine them leaving the circus and the competition and starting over. Marco closes his eyes and focuses on all of the minute details involved in leaving. When he does, however, his scar burns with a pain that causes him to collapse on the floor of the circus tent, as the paper ship vanishes. Celia takes his hand and tells him that she has already attempted to imagine it, the night of the anniversary party: she thought she would ask Marco to run away with her, and when she really thought about it, she was in so much pain that she could hardly stand up.
Celia recognizes the severe limitations of their freedom because she has already attempted to rebel, and faced the consequences. As powerful as their magic is, they are no match for the binding spell that Mr. A.H. placed on them. In this moment, they can only indulge in their feelings for one another within the narrow confines of the circus and the competition, until they come up with a way to escape unharmed.
Marco smiles through the pain, delighted that Celia wanted to run away with him. He laughs, noting that he did not imagine his kiss would be quite so effective. He is still in pain, however, and Celia says that Hector told her it’s best that they don’t concern themselves with one another, and admits that he might be right. Marco says that he cannot stop thinking about her, and Celia agrees with him. She feels him all around her, especially in the Ice Garden.
In the midst of the painful realization that they cannot be together except as rivals in the competition, Marco is able to find a bright side: he is happy to hear that his feelings for Celia are reciprocated. Again, Celia attempts to be rational, suggesting that they take her father’s advice, but they agree that it is nearly impossible.
Marco asks what is stopping them from being together, and Celia reminds him that there are many people tangled up in their competition, and she worries that their relationship will make her lose her concentration. Marco tells her that she needs a power source, like he has with the bonfire, rather than constantly controlling the circus on her own. It must be exhausting, he tells her. They stay near each other without touching, and share stories of their lives. When he leaves, Marco hands her his card with his address in London, noting that he is no longer staying with Chandresh. He tells her that he will not let her go, no matter who wins the competition, and then he kisses the ring on her finger.
Celia’s comment that there are many people involved in the competition brings to mind her conversation with Lainie Burgess, who specifically reminded Celia of her responsibility to everyone else in the circus. In contrast to their self-centered teachers, both Celia and Marco are deeply connected to the people around them, and do not want to hurt them. Their extreme restraint is clear in the fact that they choose not to touch one another again, despite their intense desire to do so.
Concord, MA, 1902: Bailey is having trouble herding his sheep in the field when he hears a voice behind him. Poppet snuck out of the circus to come and speak to him. He is struck by how out of place she looks, even in her non-circus clothes: wild and loose red hair, ruffled skirt, and dainty and impractical boots. He asks her if what she has to say can wait until that night, at the circus, and she tells him that she wants to give him time to think about it.
Up to this point, Bailey and Poppet have only had contact within the circus, and he is therefore confused and unsettled to see her in the context of his home life. He is participating in the monotonous chores of life on the farm, while Poppet’s impractical look reminds him of the otherworldliness of the circus.
Poppet tells him that he is supposed to go with them, and that she knows this “for certain.” Bailey is confused—he wants to know why him, and what he would do, without any special talents like she and Widget have. He doesn’t think he belongs in the circus. Poppet disagrees, though she doesn’t know why yet. She only knows that he belongs with them. Bailey says that he wants to but can’t leave, thinking that it would either solve the argument about his future between his father and grandmother, or it would make it much worse.
Poppet has finally realized the important role that Bailey plays in her visions, and thus in the survival of the circus, which is why she is making such an urgent request. Bailey’s worldview is still so small, however, that he is mainly concerned about how his family would react to this decision. Poppet already sees him as part of the circus family, however, which provides a deeper connection.
Poppet explains that if Bailey doesn’t go with them, the circus will never be back; there will be no circus without him. She gestures to the sky and says that she only knows that for there to be a circus in the future, he must be there. And that the destruction of the circus is already beginning, even though he cannot see it from the outside. She can see it, though, just like Bailey would be able to recognize that one of his sheep was sick, even when Poppet wouldn’t notice. She can tell something is wrong, though she doesn’t know what it is.
Poppet gestures to the sky in reference to her visions, some of which come to her from the stars. While they are still somewhat vague, Poppet intuitively recognizes their importance, just as Bailey would intuitively know how to care for a sick animal on the farm. She also knows how much Bailey loves the circus, and calls on him to play a role in its survival by becoming part of the circus family.
Poppet reminds Bailey of the time they were in the birdcage room of the Labyrinth and couldn’t get out—she has never been stuck in the Labyrinth before, and is usually able to focus and feel the exit, but couldn’t that time. Bailey asked what he could do about it, and Poppet reminds him that he was the one who found the key and got them out. She asks if he is happy there at the farm, and if he has ever wanted anyone to come and take him away.
Bailey believes that he is not special—that is, he has no supernatural or magical powers like the circus performers do—but Poppet makes it clear to him that he has the power to save them. She reminds Bailey of the simple heroism of finding a way out of the Labyrinth as proof that he is special.
Bailey is surprised that his unhappiness at home is so obvious, and he asks if Widget read that on him. Poppet says no, but he sent along a bottle for Bailey, similar to the ones from his tent. Bailey opens it and is immediately transported to the oak tree: he can smell the acorns, feel the roughness of the bark, and even hear the squirrels. Poppet tells him that Widget wanted Bailey to be able to keep his tree with him, if he chose to go with them. He asks how long he has to decide, and Poppet tells him that they are leaving that night, after the circus closes.
Not only does the circus need Bailey to survive, but Bailey needs the circus, as well. He is unsatisfied with his life on the farm, yet has not envisioned a way to escape a future that will be planned out for him by either his father or his grandmother. And Widget’s gift to Bailey means that if he leaves with the circus, he can bring with him the good feelings associated with his memories of the oak tree.
Poppet tells Bailey to arrive before dawn, and he says that he has to think about it. Poppet asks one last favor: if he chooses not to come with them, she doesn’t want him to come to the circus at all that night, leaving this as their last goodbye. She kisses him on the lips, and he realizes that he would follow her anywhere. She leaves, and he turns to see that his sheep have herded themselves through the gate without his help.
Bailey knows that he would prefer to join the circus family, but has not yet recognized that he is free to make that decision. Poppet hopes to convince Bailey by appealing to their mutual attraction to one another, as well. When she kisses him, he realizes his feelings for her, which helps him make his decision.
London, 1901: When the circus arrives in London, Celia wants to go to see Marco immediately, but instead goes to the Midland Grand Hotel. She waits in the lobby for more than an hour before she is approached by the man in the grey suit, Mr. A.H. She speaks to him briefly, he nods, and she curtseys and leaves.
Now that she and Marco are aware of their feelings for one another, Celia is on a mission to end the competition. This is her objective in speaking with Mr. A.H., though she will not be aware of the true consequences of her actions until much later.
It is Halloween at the circus in London, and the atmosphere is particularly festive, with patrons donning masks handed out by the ticket booth. Isobel is in her tent when Marco comes through the beaded curtain. He has come to tell her that he is in love with Celia, which Isobel has come to expect, because she has read it in her tarot cards for years. After he tells her, Isobel asks him to draw a single card and he does, drawing La Papessa.
Although Isobel already knows about Marco’s feelings for Celia, she has been unwilling to accept the reality of the situation. When she hears it directly from Marco, however, she cannot ignore the fact that he does not love her, and that her role in the circus is unnecessary at this point.
After Marco leaves, Isobel reaches under her table and takes out a hatbox made from black silk and tied with one black and one white ribbon. She unties the carefully knotted ribbons slowly, pulls the lid off, and pulls out an old black bowler hat. The hat is tied with more ribbons, and is sitting on top of a single tarot card with a folded white handkerchief between them. She thinks about the spell she cast, and how it was only a precaution to guard against the unpredictability of the situation. She has no idea whether or not the spell has done any good; in fact, she says to the hat, “I don’t think you’re having any effect at all,” voicing her doubts out loud.
Unbeknownst to both Marco and Celia, Isobel has secretly cast a spell to help keep the circus in balance. She foresaw the danger involved in the competition, and wanted to protect the circus, which had become like a family to her. She notes that she doubts her spell has had any effect, but she will soon find out that it was indeed keeping balance within the circus; when she undoes the spell, she will put in motion a series of events that will mark the downfall of the circus.
Isobel thinks about how Marco told Mr. A.H. that everything he has done in the circus was for Celia, and how Isobel has been helping him, keeping them balanced. She pulls the ribbons apart angrily. The card—the angel of Temperance—and the handkerchief—embroidered with the initials C.N.B—both fall to the ground. As she reaches down to pick them up, she is startled by the sound of Poppet Murray screaming.
Faced with the undeniable knowledge that Marco does not love her, Isobel finally expresses her anger, reversing her balancing spell and changing the future of the circus in ways that she could not have imagined. Almost immediately, the world outside of Isobel’s tent begins to unravel, signaled by Poppet’s scream of horror.
Concord, MA, 1902: Poppet and Widget stand anxiously at the circus gates as the clock chimes three o’clock in the morning. Poppet worries that Bailey was upset that she asked him not to come to the circus if he wasn’t planning on leaving with them, but she wanted to make sure that he knew how important it was to them. She also tells Widget that she kissed him, but he already knows, and tells her that she didn’t hide it very well. Poppet asks Widget if he talked to Celia, and he says he told Celia that Bailey was supposed to come with them and she said she wouldn’t do anything to prevent it.
Poppet has done everything she can to convince Bailey to join them in the circus, and now they can only wait to see if he shows up. In addition, the fact that Widget can tell that Poppet kissed Bailey is important—it is on Poppet’s mind, revealing that she genuinely reciprocates Bailey’s romantic feelings for her. While the kiss helped Bailey decide to join the circus to be near Poppet, she does not know that yet, and is scared of rejection.
Poppet asks if Widget remembers riding the Stargazer with her and Bailey when she saw something bright but couldn’t tell what it was. Widget remembers, and Poppet tells him that it was the courtyard of the circus, burning and hot. And then Bailey was there, in her vision. She thinks this vision of hers is going to happen very soon. Widget considers kidnapping Bailey, hitting with something heavy and dragging him to the circus and onto the train before he regains consciousness. Poppet doesn’t like that idea and tells her brother that they have done what they were supposed to do and can only wait for Bailey now.
Poppet’s visions have become increasingly clear to her, and she is sure that the apocalyptic images she envisioned are not far off. She needs Bailey to save them, yet unlike Widget, she does not want to simply kidnap him and force him to join them. It is important to her, and later on to Celia, for Bailey to make his own choice, and to choose to become the one to save the circus. This sense of agency will make his connection to the circus that much stronger.
London, 1901: This Halloween is cold, forcing patrons to wear heavy coats and scarves. Chandresh is at the circus this evening, donning a mask and paying full admission, slipping into the crowd unnoticed. Mr. A.H. is also in attendance for the first time ever, and he does not wear a mask. Chandresh follows him closely, though he somehow loses him in the crowd a few times. He is not aware that he is also being followed, and Marco has disguised his looks enough that his boss would not recognize him even if he were to see him up close. Still, he keeps his distance, though Chandresh is interested in nothing but the man in the grey suit.
The fact that it is Halloween night means that the series of events that will transpire—many of which are horrific and bloody—will mainly go unnoticed by the circus attendees, who are prepared for just about anything. It is also important to note that both Chandresh and his assistant, Marco, are wearing masks, but Mr. A.H. is not. He has nothing to fear, despite the fact that Chandresh seems to have malicious intentions.
Mr. A.H. seems to be enjoying himself at the circus. He visits the fortune-teller, who attempts to tell his future. He also watches the illusionist perform, tours the Hall of Mirrors, rides the Carousel, and strolls through the Ice Garden. Chandresh follows him through the entire night, and Marco follows Chandresh, slipping away for a moment to take care of some business. Mr. A.H. stops to talk to someone, and Chandresh stops to watch him. Time nearly stands still as Chandresh hears a voice telling him that the man in the grey suit is just a figment of his imagination.
Although Mr. A.H. considers it nothing more than a venue for his competition with Hector Bowen, he almost seems to recognize and appreciate the wonders of the circus outside of that context. Chandresh, on the other hand, has only one objective with this visit: the ghost of Hector Bowen has been filling his head with ideas in an attempt to gain advantage in the competition. Even now, he is whispering in Chandresh’s ear.
Across the circus, an acrobat nearly misses her partner and crashes to the ground, the bonfire sputters and blows a puff of black smoke, and Poppet’s kitten falls on its back with a howl. In her performance, Celia suddenly feels faint and needs assistance from the audience to stay on her feet. Marco crumples as if he has been punched in the stomach. Chandresh pulls out his silver knife from his pocket and throws it through the air, aiming straight at Mr. A.H., who moves at the last second, almost imperceptibly. The knife lodges itself in the chest of Herr Friedrick Thiessen, whom Mr. A.H. has been talking to, piercing his heart. Mr. A.H. catches Thiessen while Chandresh stares at his hand, confused, and wanders off. The next morning, he has no memory of even attending the circus.
This is the moment in which the tenuous circus finally loses its balance, and corresponds to the moment that Isobel reverses her protective spell out of anger at Marco. While she did not believe her spell was having any effect, she and the other members of the circus family will realize—too late, of course—how essential her charm really was. Propelled by forces beyond his control, Chandresh attempts to kill Mr. A.H., but ends up killing Friedrick Thiessen, and innocent man whose death will mark the beginning of the end for the circus.
Mr. A.H. lowers Thiessen to the ground, whispering in his ear the whole time and then closing his eyes. The patrons around them only notice that Poppet and Widget have stopped performing and then Poppet begins to scream as Herr Thiessen’s blood begins to pool underneath her boots. Mr. A.H. then pulls the knife from the man’s chest, stands up, and walks away, silently handing Marco the bloody knife as he passes him.
Mr. A.H.’s reaction to his attempted murder and the death of Thiessen is fairly cold and impassive. This begs the question of whether Mr. A.H. stepped out of the way of Chandresh’s knife out of luck, or if he meant for Chandresh to murder an innocent man. Either way, Mr. A.H. wants nothing to do with the aftermath of the crime, and promptly leaves.
Concord, MA, 1902: Bailey is preparing to leave, and he stops at the oak tree to look through his box of treasures, though the only thing he wants to bring with him is Poppet’s white glove. He collects his life savings, packs a change of clothes, and waits for his family to fall asleep. He then creeps through the house and finds some paper to write a note to his parents. He explains why he is leaving, not mentioning the argument over Harvard and the farm. He thinks about the time his mother told him that she wished happiness and adventure for him, and thinks that this would definitely count as an adventure.
Despite his surprise at Poppet’s request, there was never really any doubt in Bailey’s mind about joining the circus. It had provided him with a sense of family and belonging that was somehow inaccessible back at home on the farm. He is taking the advice that his grandmother and even his mother have given him, and going out in search of happiness and adventure, which the farm could not provide him.
Bailey is startled by his sister’s voice asking him what he’s doing—she’s in the doorway in her nightgown, watching him. He asks her to make sure his parents read the note he wrote, and she asks if he is running away. When he tells her that he is, she tells him to go back to bed. He tells her that she wouldn’t understand anyway. Unlike his sister, staying at home will not make Bailey happy: she will be content with this life, but he is not. He finishes by asking her to marry someone who will take care of the sheep for him. He expects someone to come after him as he walks away from the house, but he is on his own. As he reaches the oak tree, it is later than he expected it to be, and as he looks out at the field, the circus is gone.
Although much of their struggle can be attributed to simple sibling rivalry, Bailey’s relationship with his sister lacks the spirit of love and companionship that he sees in Poppet and Widget. Bailey and his sister are two very different people, and he outlines those differences clearly, explaining why he simply cannot remain at home on the farm for the rest of his life. It is his sister’s destiny, and not his, to remain in one place forever. His hopes for an exciting adventure are dashed, however, when he finds the circus gone.
London, 1901: As Mr. A.H. walks out of the crowd and towards the gates of the circus, he is met by Hector Bowen, and he tells Hector that the venue is too exposed for the competition, and it is getting out of hand. Hector replies that it is fun this way, and asks if he didn’t use enough of his concealment after taking control of the venue. Mr. A.H. responds that he controls nothing, though it was his idea for the circus to travel from city to city unannounced, to protect and benefit the players. Hector tells him that the circus’s movement only keeps them apart, and if they were together from the start, Celia would have won already.
As a man lies dying only a few hundred yards away, Hector Bowen and Mr. A.H. discuss the progress of the competition, showing absolutely no compassion for other human beings. At the very least, Mr. A.H. expresses some concern for the way in which events have played out, while Hector seems to enjoy the chaos and is even less concerned about the casualties of the competition.
Mr. A.H. notes incredulously that perhaps Hector hasn’t noticed that Marco and Celia are in love, and that it only would have happened sooner if they were in the same place. Hector tells him he should have been a matchmaker, but that he has trained his player better than that. But it was Celia who invited Mr. A.H. to the circus, he notes as he watches a distraught Marco follow Chandresh through the crowd. Hector says that he told Mr. A.H. to choose a player whom he could lose, because he often becomes too attached to his students. Mr. A.H. responds by asking him how many of his students have chosen to forfeit the game themselves—seven? He wonders if Celia will be the eighth.
Hector seems to be ignoring the signs that Marco and Celia are falling in love and beginning to rebel against their teachers and the idea of the competition itself. Their single-minded focus on their own rivalry—which seems to have lasted more than one lifetime, given the number of competitions they reference, and the length of time each competition could last—makes them overlook the dangers to their students and innocent bystanders. As they discuss the strength of their players, Marco and Celia are grieving Thiessen’s death.
Hector says that it will not happen again, because she will win, because “she is a stronger player” than Marco is. But Mr. A.H. amplifies the sounds coming from near Thiessen, so that Hector can hear Celia sobbing over the man’s corpse. He asks if that sounds like a strong player, noting that someone dear to her has just died, and if she has not already begun to break, this could put her over the edge. Hector only responds that the competition isn’t over yet, and he vanishes. Mr. A.H. stops to watch the clock in the courtyard before leaving the circus for the night.
What both Hector and Mr. A.H. do not understand about Celia is that her strength lies in her love and compassion for others, which Mr. A.H. mistakes for weakness. The death of Herr Thiessen is damaging to her emotionally, but she will develop an even stronger resolve to rebel against the restrictions of the competition and find a way to escape with Marco.
Later that evening, Marco is in his flat, which is full of furniture that Chandresh has abandoned and so many books that there is nowhere to hold all of them. There is a Thiessen clock on the mantel, with tiny books whose pages actually turn. Marco is at his desk going through papers and books, taking notes and making calculations, going back and forth between his books and his notes, writing and re-writing. Suddenly, he is startled by the door: the locks open on their own and the door swings open, causing Marco to spill ink all over his papers.
Marco’s whole world is made up of pieces of the circus, especially after he removed all of his paperwork from his office in Chandresh’s house to better maintain his secret magical work. The clock on his wall is a reminder of how essential Thiessen has been to the circus, and to the lives of everyone associated with it. His death is the first sign that there is something wrong at the circus.
Celia is in the doorway looking disheveled, her gown covered in blood. She comes in and the door shuts and locks itself behind her, and Marco asks her what happened and if she is all right. She responds that no, she is not all right, making the bottle of ink shatter and spray all over him. She tells him that she tried to heal Herr Thiessen, that she hoped because she had known him so well, it would be like putting a clock back together, but she couldn’t do it. She begins to sob, and Marco rushes to hold her, telling her that he is sorry, over and over.
This conversation between Celia and Marco reflects a number of earlier incidents, in which Celia has noticed, or been warned, that while she can use her magic to fix inanimate objects, she cannot bring human beings back to life. And her reference to clocks is a reminder of how easily she fixed Thiessen’s broken clock when they first met, and how she is frustrated by the limitations of her magic.
Marco tells Celia that something threw everything off balance, but he does not know what it was. Celia tells him that it was Isobel and the charm she put over the circus. Celia could feel it, though she didn’t think it was doing much of anything. She just doesn’t know why Isobel chose to stop it. Marco tells her that he finally admitted to Isobel that he loves Celia. He should have done it a long time ago, but he chose that night, and he thought that she took it well, but apparently she did not.
Like Isobel, Celia did not recognize the power of the magical charm keeping the circus in balance, nor did she recognize the power of Isobel’s anger. Once again, the competition between Marco and Celia has an intricate web of repercussions, and involves nearly everyone associated with the circus.
He doesn’t know why Mr. A.H. was at the circus, but Celia tells Marco that she invited him because she wanted a verdict. She wanted him to declare a winner and finish the competition so that they could be together. She wonders how Chandresh knew he would be there, and Marco doesn’t know the answer to that. Chandresh insisted that Marco not accompany him, so Marco followed Chandresh instead and only lost track of him for a few moments to visit Isobel. He was hoping to keep Chandresh from hurting himself, but he never imagined that Chandresh would hurt someone else.
The death of Friedrick Thiessen is the result of a series of converging events and choices, including Celia’s desire to resolve the competition, Marco’s decision to inform Isobel of his love for Celia, and Hector Bowen’s plan to use Chandresh to take revenge on his old rival Mr. A.H. And while both Celia and Marco will blame themselves in some way for his death, there is no way that either could see it coming.
Celia looks around at Marco’s work and asks him what it is. The books are full of symbols and notes, and in the middle is Marco’s notebook with a tree drawn inside. He tells her that it is how he works, how he has bound everyone in the circus. He has placed another copy of this notebook in the bonfire at the circus as a safeguard, though he has made adjustments to the one on his desk. He says that he wishes he had included Herr Thiessen in his notebook, though he never considered it before. Celia assures him that if it had not been Thiessen, it would have been someone else, and that there is no way to protect everyone.
Marco has been poring over his magical notebook for a way to reverse the course of events, or to reinstate Isobel’s magical charm, but Celia is the voice of reason in this moment, noting that neither of them have the power to protect everyone around them. Again, they have been forced into a competition without their consent, and only now recognize the amount of responsibility that comes with the competition.
Marco tells her he is sorry for her loss, that he didn’t know Thiessen as well as she did, but he admired his work. Celia tells him that Thiessen showed her the circus in a way she hadn’t seen it before, and that they had corresponded for years. Marco tells her that he would have written her too, but he couldn’t put his feelings into words, that they would never have been enough. But Celia responds that he built her dreams instead, while she has built him tents that he doesn’t often get to see. She is surrounded by so much of him, and he rarely gets to enjoy her. This is what her father would call working from the outside, and he would hate it, she notes. Marco tells her that he would definitely hate the next room, then.
Celia and Friedrick Thiessen developed a special, possibly even slightly romantic, relationship, and his death means that Marco is the only significant romantic interest in Celia’s life. Celia and Marco discuss their desire to spend more time together, and use their magic in a way that brings them closer. Again, they do not conceive of their magic as a way to compete against one another, which is antithetical to the way their teachers have set up the competition.
Marco leads Celia into the adjoining room, which he has filled with models of tents made from newsprint, fabric, bits of paper, and held together with black, white, and red string. There is a tiny model of the cauldron in the middle, complete with a flame, and a web of string hanging from the ceiling, as well. She notes that it is very old magic he is using, and he tells her that it’s the only kind he knows, though he doubts that it was ever meant for this particular purpose.
Marco shows Celia exactly how he weaves his magic, through an intricate model of the circus that he manipulates. Unlike Celia, whose magic comes from within and is intuitive for her, Marco has learned his magic from books, and treats it almost like a science.
Celia finds the tent where she performs, and sees that it is made of pages of Shakespearean sonnets. She finishes her tour and leaves the room, closing the door behind her and thanking Marco for showing her. Marco tells her that he presumes Hector would not approve, and she tells him that she doesn’t care what her father thinks anymore. Marco offers to speak with Mr. A.H., to see if he can provide a verdict, or maybe consider the death of Herr Thiessen a disqualification.
Once again, Marco uses love poetry as part of the structure for Celia’s tent, recalling the time he manipulated Celia’s perception to create a world made of the pages of sonnets and love poems for her. When Marco jokes about Hector Bowen’s reaction to the room, Celia responds rebelliously, reasserting her resolve not to follow her father’s orders.
Celia asks Marco to stop talking about the competition. She says that she is tired of trying to hold things together and control the uncontrollable and denying herself what she wants. She can no longer resist him, and they begin to kiss and undress each other, and Marco pulls her down on the floor with him. They make love on the floor, making the entire room tremble with their shared energy. Marco falls asleep, and when he wakes up, Celia is gone. It is dawn, and she has left her ring on the mantel, which he slips onto his pinky finger. He only notices later that she has taken his notebook, the safeguard for the circus.
Celia decides that she no longer wants to talk about the competition, and instead focus on her feelings for Marco, without holding herself back as she has done in the past. They finally allow themselves to become physically intimate with one another, but Celia cannot allow herself to relax and stay with Marco while he sleeps, because she is determined to find a way to remove the two of them from the competition for good.