The Magician's Orphans- Chapter one
Cirque De Lune, 1912
Under the rule of King George V
The timing had to be just right. One second late or one second early, the trick could go horribly wrong. Sophie Derling counted down the seconds in her head, took a deep breath, and turned the cog in the back of the box that Monsieur Mysterioso had climbed into seconds before. The handle turned easily in her hand- it had been well oiled. The small trap-door in the back of the box sprung open and Monsieur Mysterioso stepped through triumphantly, passing discreetly through a door concealed behind the box, and disappearing backstage. Sophie breathed out. The trick had worked. This time.
He had been working on his disappearing act for months now, perfecting it. Sophie knew how easy it was for it to go wrong- he had drilled it into her every rehearsal.
“It’s your responsibility to make sure everything runs like clockwork!” he had hissed, in his threatening, raspy voice, leaning in close so she could spell the spicy tobacco smoke lingering on his toxic breath, “If anything goes wrong, you’re out of here. Understand?”
And Sophie did. She understood that if Monsieur Mysterioso turned her out, she’d be on the streets again, no food, no home, turning to begging for a few coins- before he had taken her in, she had been with a gang of pickpockets, stealing and pinching wherever they could. It had been a rough life. Living here, at the Cirque De Lune, nomatter how harsh Monsieur Mysterioso was, or how hard he made her work, was far, far better than the life she had lead before on the streets of Victorian London.
She was going to try her very best to keep on staying here.
“It worked! I do believe it will be safe to show it off at tonight’s show!” she could hear his voice bellowing from backstage. Sophie- and indeed everyone at the Cirque De Lune, knew how much tonight’s show meant to Monsieur. After all, the Duke and Duchess of Lakewood themselves had reserved tickets. Every act in the circus had been practicing hard ever since they heard about that. Everything had to be perfect.
But for now, practice time was over. Sophie could already smell the spicy, delicious smell of Granna’s hearty meat stew from outside the Big Top, even through the thick canvas. It was supper time now- time for sitting around the campfire with wooden bowls of meaty stew, laughing and chatting with everyone else in the circus as she sat cross-legged in the grass of the circus field, feeling the fire warm her skin as the dark night sky blinked silver stars down from high overhead. Supper time was Sophie's favourite meal of the day- it just felt so heartening to be surrounded by all the people she knew like a family. She could feel the smile growing on her cheeks as she headed outside…
“Hey- Sophie! Wait up!”
Sophie slowed her walk, hanging behind to wait as Katherine, Monsieur’s other orphan assistant, came rushing up to her, tripping over her long skirts. Katherine Rundell had also been taken in by Monsieur to work for him, just like Sophie had been nearly two years ago. But Katherine had been taken in three months earlier, having run away from the london Orphanage she had lived at her whole life. Sophie had had it worse- the workhouse: St James’ Parish. She had been taken there as a baby, her destitute mother having died in childbirth, and finally run away when she was ten. She had been taken in to Cirque De Lune three months later. Two years later, she was now twelve years old, though her workhouse life meant she was small and skinny for her age, with pale skin and strawberry-blonde hair that fell straight as a poker just past her shoulder-blades. The eyes that peered from behind high, sharp cheekbones were deep-green and inquisitive and experienced and street-wise
Katherine, on the other hand, was fourteen, and beautiful. Her skin was like alabaster- Sophie had once read the word in a poetry book and loved the way it felt on her tongue- and she had deep brown eyes with long eye-lashes, and long dark hair that tumbled over her shoulders in large, glossy curls to her waist. She was, of course, Monsieur’s worker, but sometimes liked to go and help Madame Chiffon, the costume mistress of the circus, sewing and tacking and embroidering pretty patterns with ease. She had been doing that this very afternoon, because her arms were full of a sequined dress with a full skirt that glittered just like the stars in the sky overhead that she had clearly been helping to stitch.
“Did it go…?”
Katherine didn’t need to finish. ‘The trick’ hung unspoken in the air, and Sophie nodded. Katherine breathed out, smiling.
“That’s good. He may even be nice to today,” she said, relieved. Both girls knew how rare it was for their Master to be in the mood to be nice. Whenever a trick of his went wrong, it was like living with a raging bull. Recently, the wagon they shared with him had felt like it was vibrating with his anger and frustration.
“Girls- no lagging!” a reedy, sharp voice snapped from behind, and both of them tensed up. They knew without turning who it was- Lord Aspin, the Cirque De Lune’s ringmaster’s assistant. Not even ringmaster- just a helper, and advisor- but the man loved abusing his little bit of power, bossing people around, bullying them, most of all the orphans. He had been strictly against them being allowed to join the circus. It was ironic, because Lord Aspin was not very scary-looking- he was a short man, with a shiny pink head the exact shape of a boiled egg, with a few wisps of dark-grey hair on either side of his scalp, and bright, beady, black eyes that moved quickly up and down, all around him, taking everything in like a little bird. He liked to wear dark but grand clothes- costumes, every one of them, none of them worth more than a few shillings- but they made him look and feel important, and that was a feeling he relished.
Sophie and Katherine sped up a little, now almost trotting across the field to where the campfire blazed at the far end, near the clumps of trees. They always wanted to avoid Lord Aspin whenever they could- but now he had started on them, he wasn’t going to let go of it so easily.
“Stupid, lazy things girls are- why Monsieur Mysterioso ever employed you both beats me,” he hissed, quickly catching them up on his tiny feet, so close behind them they could smell the expensive wine of his breath, “I keep telling him he made a mistake. Stubborn man, he won’t ever listen. Let’s just hope he gets his little magic trick right tonight, or who knows what he might to do you?”
Sophie’s jaw clenched.
“He will get it right. We’ve been perfecting it for months! It can’t fail!”
“Oh, can’t it?” Lord Aspin’s voice sounded threatening, his black eyes gleefully bright, “We’ll just have to see, won’t we, girlies?”
And, with a swish of his dark velvet cloak, he strode away. Sophie could almost imagine the sound of him cackling inside. She shivered.
“That man scares me,” she said, “Do you think he’ll try to...do anything to ruin Monsieur’s act? In real, not just threats? He really does seem keen to get rid of us- and he knows how angry Monsieur would be.”
“Yes, but Lord Aspin and Monsieur like eachother,” Katherine pointed out, “He hates us, but he and Monsieur are friends. He wouldn’t do something like that to a friend. Besides, how could he ruin it? It’s flawless, the disappearing trick, and really quite foolproof.”
“I certainly hope so,” Sophie said, trying to feel reassured. Somehow, she didn’t quite manage it. There was something about Lord Aspin’s bright eyes when he had spoken to them- something that made her feel uncomfortable. What if he really was serious?
The third shout after Sophie in ten minutes, and she was beginning to feel annoyed- all she wanted was to sink into the grass by the campfire and have something to eat, so she could maybe have a rest before tonight’s show. But then she realised who it was, and smiled- she recognised that cheery, boyish voice. She turned to see a boy of thirteen- so a year older than her- and about her height- though, annoyingly, just a few millimetres taller- rushing towards the two of them. He had sandy hair and twinkling green eyes, and a straight nose covered in freckles, and a wide, cheeky grin that only one person Sophie knew in the world had- Jacey, her oldest and dearest friend. She and Jacey went far, far back- he had been in the gang of pickpockets she had joined after her escape from the St James’ Parish, and they had both been taken into the circus, though Jacey by the head stable-keeper, because of his skill with horses. If there was one person she would not mind hailing her on an evening when she just wanted to eat, it was him.
“The Mysterioso in a good mood?” he asked breathlessly, catching up with her and Katherine, “You all ready for tonight’s show?”
“Not really, but do I even have a choice in the matter?” Sophie grinned back at him, “You’re lucky. All you have to do is pet a horse backstage where no one can see you.”
“Hey! I’m equally important as you and Kath in making this show run smoothly. If they didn’t have me, there’d be a riot!”
Sophie raised her eyebrows.
“A riot of horses?”
“Yes! I don’t know where this place would be without me…” He posed, smiling mock-modestly, hands cupped beneath his chin. Sophie shoved him.
“I’ll take your word for it, Jace.”
Finally- finally!- they reached the campfire, where most of the Cirque De Lune was already clustered, drinking meat stew from wooden bowls. Sophie and Jacey sat down nearest to the trees, gratefully receiving their own portions. Usually the mealtimes here were full of chatter, laughter and general socialising, but this evening everyone seemed to be talking in anxious whispers, tense for the show tonight.
“It’s just some old fat duke and his old fat wife,” Jacey muttered to Sophie, “Anyone would think it was Old King Georgie-porjie himself.”
“Hush your mouth, you little boy, and show some respect,” Madame Chiffon hissed, slapping at his ankles, “This isn’t any old Duke, it’s the Duke of Lakewood, and it would be fantastic for finances if they enjoyed the show! Which is why everyone needs to help out- everyone.”
“Alright, alright, I’m helping too!” Jacey hissed back, rolling his eyes. Sophie hid a smirk.
The sudden noise of a spoon clanging purposefully against a wooden bowl got everyone’s attention, and everyone turned to see Mr De Lune himself the man, the supreme ringmaster, the reason every single one of them was even there. From Madame Chiffon, Tiny Tina the tight-rope walker, Tick and Tock the clowns, Sword-swallowing Luca, Felicia the flying trapeze-fairy, Mistress Augustine the equestrian, the golden tumbler-boys, Sapphire and Amethyst the acrobats to all the hands: the stage and tent hands, the stable-hands, and all the apprentices: Sophie, Katherine, Jacey, Nial the stage-hand apprentice, Delora the tightrope trainee, and Rita, who was Mistress Augustine’s little daughter- everyone’s eyes were on him.
Except Monsieur Mysterioso and Lord Aspin. Where were Monsieur and Lord Aspin?
“Ladies and gentlemen- my dear circus artistes- we have all worked so very hard to be here today,” Mr De Lune began, “I thank you all for all the time and effort you have put into making this circus a success. Tonight, however, time and effort will not be enough. We require perfection.”
The determination in his voice was evident, steeling even Jacey into a humble silence.
“As you all know, we have some extremely important guests here at the Cirque De Lune tonight,” he continued, “And I don’t have to stress how vital it is that this show goes off without a flaw. Do you all understand?”
Nods. Murmured responses.
“Fantastic. Go out into that ring and show them who we are!”
Applause. Cheers. Finally, the laughter and conversation that the meal had been missing before crept gradually back. But Lord Aspin and Monsieur Mysterioso were still absent.
Sophie licked around her bowl and turned to Katherine.
“Should we on check on him? After we spoke to Lord Aspin, I’ve felt…”
She wasn’t sure how she felt, so she let her voice trail off. Uncomfortable? Worried? Threatened? Nervous?
She didn’t need to finish her sentence. Katherine’s anxious expression showed that she felt the same thing, whatever it was. She nodded and stood up, shaking out her legs.
As they headed for the wagon, however, a voice called after them- or more specifically, after Katherine. A thin, feeble voice. Fifteen-year-old Nial, the stage-hand apprentice, had been hopelessly in love with Katherine since she and Sophie had first arrived at the circus, and was always following after her with an irritating look of longing in his wet grey eyes, offering her nosegays of drooping flowers, small bags of sweet-smelling dried flowers, aswell as any amount of other gifts. Katherine hated it. The poor boy was not what could be called handsome- he was very tall and thin and lanky, pale-skinned and long-faced, with a permanent expression like that of a miserable puppy-dog. His pale hair was limp. His voice was whiny. And although she knew he meant well, Katherine’s speed went up at once as soon as she heard him shout her name that evening, so Sophie had to trot to keep up.
“Katherine? Katherine!” Nial called, beginning to get to his feet, “Where are you going?”
“Ignore him,” Katherine hissed urgently, as they neared the wagon, “Keep on going, and don’t show him we’ve heard!”
“It’s sweet how he’s so hopelessly in love with you, I think.”
“It isn’t sweet, it’s pathetic! The stupid boy thinks he could be with me! Like I’d let someone so limp and dull and lanky hold my hand!”
“Don’t be mean, Kath, he can’t help it.”
They had reached the wagon now, and began up the steps, but before they could begin up them, they heard raised voices from within- Monsieur Mysterioso, and Lord Aspin. It was unmistakable. Both girls looked to one-another, and wordlessly slipped round the side of the wagon, pressing their backs up against the rear of the wagon. Whatever was going on inside the wagon, they were sure they needed to hear it- and without being detected.
“...they don’t know. They can’t know! Don’t pressure me, Samuel, they’re just girls.”
Sophie flinched. Monsieur must be talking about them- her and Katherine. She didn’t like how he dismissed them as females- not one bit. But that wasn’t what bothered her- what was it he had said? They didn’t know- about what? Why did Monsieur have a secret with Lord Aspin, of all people?
“Girls who you thoughtlessly employed, not giving a mere thought to what they could do. They could ruin us, Jim!”
Katherine’s eyes widened, and Sophie rolled her eyes. Of course, it was the fact that Monsieur Mysterioso’s name was merely Jim Peaks that interested Katherine, not the fact that there was something fishy going on between the two men. Katherine was a huge fan of gossip- though Sophie had figured out the fake name thing ages ago.
“I needed them. This trick needs to be pulled off without delay- or all our careful planning would go to waste.”
“Well, it had better. There’s someone who won’t appreciate it if something goes wrong Jim, and you know full well who.”
Sophie shivered. From the way Lord Aspin merely mentioned this person made her feel cold. Who was he talking about? Who could possibly scare Monsieur?
The voices had dropped in volume now, so they couldn’t be heard through the wagon walls. Sophie signalled to Katherine, and they slipped out from their hiding place- but they had forgotten about Niall. He was stood right infront of the wagon, looking baffled- and as soon as he saw Katherine, he rushed at her, saying very loudly, “Oh, thank god you’re safe, I was so scared you’d-”
Katherine pushed his hands away, holding a finger warningly to her lips, telling him to be quiet. Niall frowned in confusion.
“What’s going on? Why are you telling me to be quiet- anyone would think- ow!”
Katherine had pinched the skin on his arm making him squeal.
“What was that for?”
“Shut it and follow us!” Sophie hissed, grabbing Niall’s long- and unpleasantly sweaty- arm, and pulling him into the shrubbery behind the wagon.
“You stupid boy. You almost gave us away!” Katherine hissed, and the tone of his beloved Katherine’s voice made Niall blush apologetically.
“I say, I am sorry-”
“There’s no time to be sorry. Just get back to the others, and don’t tell anyone you saw us here. Got it?”
Niall nodded, gave an awkward salute, and loped back across the field on his gangly legs. Sophie grinned in the dark of the bushes, though leaves and branches scratched her face and tangled in her hair.
“Maybe him being besotted by you will have some benefits.”
“As if. The idiot almost gave us away!” Katherine said crossly, “Anyway, forget the silly boy. Think about what we just overheard, Sophie!”
“Well...I can’t make any sense of it. We know Monsieur has a secret with Lord Aspin, and he thinks we know about it.”
“That’s rot. We didn’t even know he had a secret!”
“Exactly! So how could he think we knew?”
“Maybe...maybe we know, but we don’t know that we know?” Sophie suggested, tucking a strand of strawberry-blonde hair behind her right ear as she always did when she was thinking, “Like...we saw something...or overheard something...that was part of their secret. And they thought we understood it. But we didn’t.”
“And now we’re in danger.”
Sophie frowned, looking up sharply.
“Why would you say that?”
“Think about it. They were arguing over us ruining some sort of plan of theirs. Monsieur seems to be grossly underestimating us, but Lord Aspin clearly thinks we are endangering whatever his stupid plan is. Think about what he said to us earlier! What’s to stop him from…”
“From trying to get rid of us?” Sophie whispered, going pale. Katherine nodded gravely. Sophie immediately began to twiddle with her hair, as was her habit when she was panicking.
“But how could he do that? He can’t kill us…”
“Not kill, Sophie. Just...disappear.”
The tone of her voice alerted Sophie from her panicked cluelessness, and her eyes widened.
“Kath! The disappearing machine! What if he tries to make us disappear, instead of Monsieur?”
“My thoughts exactly, Soph.”
“But how...what...what can we do to stop him, then?”
“That’s what I’m worrying about. The thing is...Sophie, I don’t think there is a way. That trick has been worked on for months and months. There’s no way it could not go to plan. So if what they planned was for us to disappear...there is no way we can stop it from happening.”
“They can’t really make us vanish into thin air. We all know the trick is bogus. All magic tricks are. We won’t just...vanish off the face of the earth. There’s probably some compartment we’ll be dropped into, beneath the stage.”
“But what if he doesn’t let us out?”
They both fell silent, contemplating their fate in the shrubbery. It is a very scary thing when one knows- or thinks that they know- that in a few hours, they will no longer be. But for Sophie Derling and Katherine Rundell, it seemed that was what was going to happen.