Every week, we gather at the magician’s place in the theatre district to play cards. I like to think I’m getting better but every time without fail the magician ends up with my stack of chips. Tonight, it’s just four of us – the magician with his quick fingers, the dragon with surgically implanted horns and pointed ears and the whites of his eyes dyed purple, Marina of the deep voice and sweet smile, and me. Moody, restless me.
“Do you know what tonight is?” the magician asks, dealing another hand. The dragon folds and Marina calls.
“Ghost night,” she says, pulling at a strand of her flaming orange hair. “One night a week the theatres close their doors so the ghosts can put on their shows.”
The magician raises and I’m pretty sure I’ve got a good hand so I call and he deals another round of cards.
“One night a week the theatres close their doors so the ghosts can put on their shows.” he repeats. “Tonight, we should be in the audience.”
“Yes!” the dragon agrees. He climbs over the couch and starts juggling. Marina fingers the necklace she’s wearing.
“Let’s got to the Rosary,” she says breathily. It’s her favourite. She’s been a member of the fan club for years.
I’ve learned enough times to never trust a magician. But what can you do when it’s both your favourite magician and your favourite dragon? Besides, I’m bored of losing. I shrug, bouncing my legs up and down, as the magician takes the rest of my chips and money.
“What the hell,” I breathe smoke out like a prayer. “Let’s go out.”
The Rosary was infamous. Once a shrine, then it was a memorial garden, then a club for magic users then abandoned. Now, it’s the most famous theatre in the White City, even though it has already burned down once. Shows are at midnight every night but the night for ghosts. If you haven’t grown up in the White City, you may not think ghosts are such a big deal but here they’re practically citizens.
By the time I finish my cigarette, the gents are already up and almost out the door, chattering. I like to watch the two of them together, the easy way they switch from rough-housing to patting each other on the back. I light up another smoke.
“You smoke too much,” Marina reminds me as clove-scented smoke curls between us.
“Yes.” I agree, helping her put up her hair and pinning it into place. “I do.”
We walk because we walk everywhere. I can’t ride and smoke. The dragon contact juggles and the magician does tricks for passers-by. I wonder if I’m the only one suddenly feeling like I could crawl out of my skin.
“What kind of ghosts are we walking into?” I pick up a rock and toss it to Marina. She catches it easily and passes it back.
“Depends on the night,” she says, tugging at a lock of her flame-coloured hair. She gives me side-eyes and smiles mysteriously. “Which ones do you want to meet?”
“Oh tell a story!” the magician exclaims. He links his arm through Marina’s and they saunter down the cobblestone street. We’re close to the edge of the quarter and the streets are appropriately quiet.
“Have you learned to breathe fire yet?” I whisper to the dragon, holding up another cigarette. He smiles and I admit I’m a little sweet on him. Must be the purple eyes. I light it up as Marina starts to display her impressive mind for folklore. She even adjusts her glasses before she talks and I laugh, because I think it’s adorable and I’m a little sweet on her too.
“The Rosary is easily the most famous theatre in White City,” she says, her eyes taking on a firelight glow. “It was started by two performers ten years ago. They put in a bid for the Viola memorial property.”
“A whole garden in your memory, Vee!” the magician says seriously. “You should have told us you were famous.”
I ignore him, as I tend to do when I think he’s being ridiculous but don’t have a clever retort.
“They got approval from the city because they wanted to revive one of the most famous legends of the city. The star-crossed love story of the poets Juliette and Wren from the Fourth Age.” Marina’s voice takes on the breathy quality it does when she’s deep in a story. Ahead, we’re about to pass a small shrine for the ghosts.
“It was the most stirring story – two rival celebrities who charmed and wooed the city. Juliette was the most famous professional beauty of her time. An artist, writer, and host – she was a beloved entertainer celebrated for her openness and warmth. Her rival at the time was the mysterious and reclusive Wren. Wren was a temperamental, figure – a poet and dreamer. She would isolate herself for months at a time in the nearby mountains before returning to dazzle the city with her new work. They were like fire and water, a bright sun and dark moon.”
I breathe out smoke, watching its patterns in the air. My spine shivers and I look around for any lights that move curiously, a sure sign that we’re around spirits. We’re so close to the shrine now. The air feels almost heavy.
“No one really knows how it happened, but eventually these rivals turned into lovers. It was a big scandal when someone close to them published letters the lovers had exchanged. It made them even more famous. Juliette responded with her usual grace, but Wren became much more withdrawn – spending less time in the city and more in the wilds that called to her.”
As we pass the small wooden house on a stone pillar, the magician touches the bells hanging down the side of it. The air seems darker, the streetlights brighter around it. A pile of flowers and other offerings of the day lay around it – tidied by a shrine hand probably. Marina puts the rock we’d been tossing back and forth at the base, the dragon leaves a crystal ball, I leave an unlit cigarette, and the magician rings the bells again.
“To your continued sleep, friends” he says magnanimously, his arms out with a quick bow, but his movements have lost some of their spirited mockery. Even magicians can be superstitious. We leave the shrine and its bright shadows behind.
“The story ends in tragedy. Eventually Wren’s ties to this world were lost all together. She disappeared and Juliette lived out the rest of her days in the White City with the pallor of sorrow about her. Their letters and story are one of the most beloved tales of the city. The main attraction of the Rosary is a retelling of these letters by different performers, as well as the individual works of both Juliette and Wren.”
“You should get a job as a tour guide,” the dragon says absently, having resumed his juggling. “Especially with that spooky voice of yours.”
Marina frowns at him and cleans her glasses. The magician throws his arm around her shoulders and grins widely.
“No no! She’s ours!” he replies. “The finest storyteller we have.”
“There,” I say quietly. Ahead the theatre sits silently, a structure of stone and stain glass windows surrounded by a wrought-iron fence and lush garden. Our movements are quieter suddenly, more aware. The dragon grins wickedly in anticipation. I crush my last cigarette and come up behind Marina. I put one arm around her waist and smile as I feel her lean into me, quickly removing a decorative pin we chose earlier from her hair. The magician whistles as I quickly kiss her cheek and walk up to the gate. My cheeks burn a bit but I won’t give him the satisfaction of responding.
One by one we climb over the fence. I feel a surge of excitement as I look around the garden. It’s a night garden of course, lush blossoms only open and sweet under the moonlight drawing the patrons into the myth of the place. It’s intoxicating.
I’m first to the shadow of the door and let the others prowl around for any diligent workers. On ghost night, most theatre workers like to give the spirits their space but it would spoil the game to be caught now so we’re careful. I ignore their movements as I concentrate on my task, feeling the door lightly with my fingertips.
It’s easy. I imagine it’s what Marina feels like as she starts a new story or the dragon when he prepares himself for another dart in the back, or the magician when he picks up another deck of cards. It’s a flow, the body responding to something that can’t be touched or really named. Whatever it is, it’s instinct and it works. The door clicks op and I pull the pin out, whistling to signal the others. The magician is with me first and he touches my shoulder as praise. I smile.
Once we’re in and the door is shut behind us, we forget to be quiet and giggle like children. The dragon whoops as he bounds down the carpeted entrance hall and even cartwheels into the reception area. The magician is more sedate as he strolls about, looking for the entire world like he owns the place. I help Marina put her hair back up and tenderly put the pin back.
“Why do you think Wren abandoned Juliette?” I ask her.
“I don’t think she did…” Marina says slowly. “I mean, who can say what the right choice is? It seems like she was torn between two worlds, even before they met. Maybe the pain of that was stronger than the pain of giving her lover up. They were opposites. Why couldn’t Juliette have given up the social life that she found so exciting? Would she have shone as brightly in the woods?”
“I prefer happy endings,” I say, searching through my pockets for another cigarette. I stop when I remember I had my last one outside. Marina sighs and smiles. She takes one from her pack and tucks it behind my ear.
“You smoke too much,” she says again before walking away to do her own exploring.
“I know,” I say to the empty hall.
It might seem strange for a lock pick to run around with a group of performers, but I guess my talents are more subtle than the others. Marina is small, but can command a room when she tells a story. She has a roguish charm to her that seems at odds with her delicate exterior. The dragon does things with his body that no sane person would ever do. The magician, like all magicians, wants you to believe he is part of something beyond ordinary life and that he can take you there. Often, he succeeds.
Me, I guess I bridge the worlds. Opening doors, reading the audience, little touches that help keep the illusion from falling apart. My voice is rarely heard but when it is, I know just what to say to tip the scales. I’m envious of brighter talents, but most of the time I’m content to be quiet anyways.
The inside of the building is an ornate affair. Every piece of furniture is decorated, every detail meant to express the decadence available to the patrons. I pause in front of a large staircase that leads to the upper levels. Hanging centered on the wall is a portrait of a young woman, dressed in white and dark hair pulled back and pinned with jewels. Her eyes are sad. Beneath her portrait are roses in varying stages of life. All of them red. Red, red, red.
The part of the story that Marina didn’t tell was the story of the theatre itself. How two lovers, Devon and Renée started it as a tribute to the star-crossed love story of Juliette and Wren, naming it after Juliette’s favourite flower. How they were celebrated as visionaries, how their bond became as infamous as that of the women who inspired them. How, tragically, Renée died in a fire that consumed the theatre five years ago. How Devon rebuilt it and still carried on their dream and how dozens of other performers had tried to fill the hole that had been left behind both on stage and supposedly, in Devon’s heart. How’s that for a love story? If we had to pick any of the famous ghosts to meet this night, I would have picked Renée.
I search through my pockets for something to give her but finding nothing but a lighter and my wallet, I take the silver bracelet off my hand and leave it in the pile of roses, murmuring a prayer for the dead. For Juliette, for Wren, and for Renée.
The dragon comes up beside and nods approvingly, leaving a small shiny crystal on the pile.
“She was beautiful,” he says softly. I nod in agreement.
My hands are feeling twitchy again and I contemplate going back outside for Marina’s gift of a cigarette, but something catches my eye. To my left are the doors to the main stage and behind them. I feel something moving.
It fills me silently in a rush, a need to see what’s in there. The dragon grabs my hand but I pull away and rush towards the doors. They’re locked and I pull frantically.
“Vee, what the hell?” he asks, coming up behind me. “Calm down.”
“Why are you making so much noise?” Marina says, reappearing.
“Door,” I say shortly. She blinks and hands me the pin from her hair. I get to work on the lock, ignoring them both. My hands feel hot and it takes me a few tries to get the lock. When it clicks, I feel a surge of adrenaline and shove it open. A chattering and hushing sound surrounds us as if we’re in the middle of an excited, anticipating audience.
“What the hell is that?” the dragon hisses.
“Ghosts,” Marina replies softly, looking around. She points to the stage suddenly. Slumped in a chair sits the magician, the spotlight illuminating him from above. Hovering around him are three, dancing lights.
“Oh shit,” I whisper. The dragon runs down the aisle and jumps the stage. He’s shaking the magician’s shoulder roughly by the time Marina and I are there.
“One night every turn of the moon, the theatre is dark so that the ghosts can tell their stories,” a voice whispers by my ear.
Marina’s eyes go blank and she stumbles. Her limbs fly out at odd angles and she raises her head in shaking, jerky motions. Her mouth opens and the voice speaks again.
“Tonight is the night for the stories of the dead,” she says in her spookiest voice, except it’s not her at all and I feel a little ill. She tilts her head oddly toward the dragon, who is trying to hoist the magician onto his shoulder.
“You,” the specter speaking through Marina intones,” are trespassing.”
The lights go on and the audience erupts in applause. The dragon yelps as the magician suddenly stands up and spins on one foot.
“Tonight!” he exclaims in a voice that is too giggly, too high to be him. “We receive the audience of the living. Welcome, welcome kin.”
He waves his arms, his movements at times too limp and others too fast as if whatever’s inside him is still fitting itself into his skin. He stumbles around the stage in a ghastly imitation of his normal saunter. Marina giggles shrilly and the dragon growls. I feel nauseous.
“Now then, brave souls that wish to hear our stories, will you sit, will you sit?” the magician sings. He waves his hand and sways from the momentum of overextending his reach. He stumbles and sways upright laughing seemingly uncontrollably. Marina toddles to his side and together they perform a ghastly, swaying dance.
Something surrounds my stomach and I’m pulled backwards, landing hard on my rear in one of the plush audience chairs. The dragon is slammed into the seat beside me. We meet each other’s eyes but what the hell can we say? We’re drawn back to the stage when Marina starts clapping wildly.
“Wonderful!” She exhales her breath in jubilation. “Thank you, thank you all.”
She opens her arms.
“Now, it is our pleasure to welcome to the stage the delightful and darling, the ever so dangerous dame of decadence – our very own Miss V!” Marina announces. One of the lights falls to the stage in swirl and flash and I can’t believe it but there is a woman standing in its place.
“Oh shit,” the dragon says.
The woman is an oddly appealing shade of purple from her skin to her ruffled silks to the large wooden and paper fans she opens to conceal her body from us. Marina and the magician retire to the wings, applauding and blowing kisses, their gestures a sincere and ghoulish display of affection.
The woman considers us with a smile and a wink and a sway of her hips. Her eyes are hidden behind a mask.
“I’m sure you’ve heard,” she says, tossing her hair toward us. “of the red rose and the white?”
She starts to shimmy up and down the length of her body, her arms and fans swaying provocatively.
“Two lovers, a dapper and a lady, hearts entwined as surely as the sea and sand,” the dancer begins, eyes wide and her body shuddering with sheer delight. The invisible audience around us erupts into roaring applause.
“Why is she purple?” I whisper to the dragon. His sneer and eyes tell me to shut up. Fine.
“The people so loved them that their need for them grew and grew. They needed them to share their dreams of poetry and romance on stage, to be their new symbols of love and desire,” she tells us as she sways to the ground. Whistles fill the air while she expertly slips off one violet heel and then rises.
“Perfection is in the eye of the beholder, but one must be more than what the eyes cast upon us believe.”
Her other heel and one glove fall next, all as she moves slowly, hips rising and falling like waves on the ocean. I lick my very dry lips. She makes her way to the edge of the stage with a dancing step and closes one fan.
“What do you do when you are a reflection? What do you do when all you are is skin deep? Two lovers, a dapper and a lady. But which is which and where are they now?”
She tosses her under corset into the dragon’s lap and turns her hollow eyes on me.
“Even so,” she says, touching the tip of her fan to my chin. “The rules still exist, even if no one remembers them, even if the seats are full of ghosts.”
The chattering chairs around us erupt in applause. The dragon rocks back and forth in his chair, struggling to escape. The ghost dancer slaps my cheek with her fan lightly and I turn my attention back to her.
“Those that don’t respect the dead owe them a boon,” she tells me seriously.
“Anything,” I whisper. “Anything to get us the hell out of here. We’re sorry, please forgive us. It was just a game.”
The dragon nods, yelling his agreement and struggling to pull himself out of his chair. She gestures and we both get slammed back against our seats.
“The stage still needs a rose,” the dancer says. “A proper lady to share the stage and see what has been hiding in plain sight.” She uses a fan to cover one half of her face.
“Two lovers, one in the world of light and one in the world of darkness. Not a part of our brethren but living only the endless twilight of the stage. Come to theatre and pay them your tribute, lest we dead decide to collect the punishment for transgressing against the rules of the theatre.”
She pauses mid-sway to clench her first and a pair of thorny black vines crawl up from the shadows and wrap around our necks, squeezing tight. The thorns pierce my skin. Panic seizes me and I start to kick and struggle in my chair.
With a flick of her wrist, she’s holding a scarlet envelope. As my neck is being crushed by a vine I’m sure doesn’t exist but still feels like it’s killing me, she steps down from the stage and gently places the envelope in my lap. Then, as sweetly as if we were lovers, she kisses me cheek and my skin burns where her lips touched them.
“Tonight is the night for the stories of the dead,” she whispers lovingly, her breath chill and smelling like wild violets. “And you are now our creature.”
The vine pulls and I nod. She holds up three fingers.
“Weave magic into your name, every day before the mirror say it like a magic spell ,” she says, lowering a finger. “Say it with meaning and say it with power. Captivate me with your name the next time we meet.”
The vine pulls again and again I nod.
“Hide your heart in a charm and never let it be seen. Sew it into an old dress or hide it under a seat but never let the living dead of the theater have it or you will never leave.”
A lowered finger, a pull, and a nod. Tears form in my eyes.
“And finally,” she says softly, brushing away a tear with her last finger and touching my chest where my heart should be, “be brave, lionheart, and respect the rules of the dead. We will guide you through this endless night.”
With a wiggling bow that displays her assets generously, she shimmers back into a hovering, purple-tinged light. The vines dissipate into black smoke and the dragon slumps into his chair. We’re both gasping and coughing. The envelope falls from my lap to the floor. The dragon and I stare at each other, then back at the stage. We’re still sitting there when Marina and the magician finally wander over to us, shaking their heads and asking what’s happening.
“We shouldn’t fuck with ghosts,” is all I can think to say. Everything else seems like it’s sealed into my heart right beneath where she touched me.
When we leave the theatre, I try to leave the envelope but the kiss mark on my cheek burns wickedly and my heart clenches when I turn away from it so I shove it in my pocket. The walk home we are silent as death but we huddle close together as we walk. Even the magician is quiet and his eyes are distant. He holds Marina’s hand as she clings to me and I cling to the dragon.
When I’m safe in my bedroom, a fresh pack of cigarettes half gone and Marina sleeping, I turn the envelope over and stare at the black lip print on the back. Hands shaking, I rip it open and watch as a ticket falls into my lap. I light another smoke and drag deep before holding it up.
A single ticket. For tomorrow night’s show.
My cheek burns.