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Thalia Cutler, the stage magician known as the Lady of the Lake, stepped nimbly aside to avoid the singer coming offstage at Keith’s Vaudeville Theater in Philadelphia. A plate spinner had already taken the singer’s place, and onstage the show went smoothly on. Backstage was the usual bustle for an evening performance, invisible to the audience out front, essential to the performers.
“Look alive, sister.” Eulalie the Trader Nightingale, known offstage as Ermentrude Ulrich and as ordinary a Solitaire as Thalia, gave her a cold stare as she bumped her. “Coming through.”
Thalia spoke through clenched teeth. “I’m not your sister, Trudy.” Beneath her costume, she wore a pigeon squeezer, a homemade contraption that held the doves she used in her act. The singer’s clumsiness had driven one of its hidden wires between the bones of Thalia’s corset. It hurt.
“Shut up, Blondie.” The red-haired singer swept past. “Make way for the talent.”
Thalia reminded herself she was a consummate professional. Therefore, she resisted the urge to step on the train of the singer’s gown as she passed. The gown, because it was supposed to belong to a Trader, was the last word in luxury, coral silk with jet beads and egret feathers that matched Trudy’s picture hat. Damaging it wouldn’t accomplish anything, and Thalia knew she was above all that nonsense. Anyway, she had work to do. The Lady of the Lake was next on the bill.
Just offstage, inches out of the audience’s line of sight, David Nutall stood talking to one of the stagehands. Nutall—like Thalia, a white Solitaire—was looking paler than he usually did, his straight black hair and pencil mustache a greater contrast even than usual.
Thalia tried to pick out their conversation. Both spoke in murmurs. Thalia had to come close to hear them.
“No, Horace.” Nutall smiled but his voice was firm. “This time, you’re wrong.”
“Think about it, that’s all I’m saying.” Horace, a black Solitaire whose nose testified that he’d been in many fights, was holding a rope but had his entire attention focused on Nutall. “‘Deeper than did ever plummet sound I’ll drown my book.’ If Shakespeare wasn’t a Trader, how could he write dialogue that fancy? He knew how Traders like that talk because he was one.”
“Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane, does that make Shakespeare a Sylvestri?” asked Nutall.
Horace was offended. “I never said he was Sylvestri. I said he was a Trader. No Solitaire would ever be so fancy, you have to admit.”
“On the contrary. I’ve known some tremendously fancy Solitaires in my day.” Nutall turned to greet Thalia as she took her spot beside him. “There you are.”
“Shakespeare was a Trader?” Thalia murmured.
“No.” Nutall was firm. “He certainly was not. William Shakespeare was a Solitaire.”
“Just like you and me?” Thalia asked.
“Exactly,” said Nutall.
“If you say so. Good evening, Miss Cutler.” Horace, stoic in the face of Nutall’s skepticism, turned his attention firmly back to the plate spinner at work onstage.
The theater was nearly full, the audience happy but not boisterous. The pit orchestra struck up Thalia’s music. Nutall gave her a brilliant smile. “That’s us.”
Together they took the stage. Blinking to focus in the glare of the lights, basking in the attention of the audience, Thalia felt the whole world sharpen around her. Shoulders back, head held high, she took her mark onstage. She did not walk, but glide.
Nutall’s deep voice provided the narrative to the act. “Ladies and gentlemen, Solitaires, Traders, and Sylvestri, I present to you Thalia Cutler, the Lady of the Lake, here to amaze and entertain you.”
Clad in a shining white gown with medieval sleeves, with her fair hair loose over her shoulders, Thalia stood center stage and made doves appear from thin air. Thalia turned cards into coins and changed them back again. She turned a wooden staff into a snake that slithered off into the wings.
The audience was rapt throughout, applauding each trick enthusiastically. The music and the sleight of hand went smoothly.
At the climax of the act, Nutall declaimed, “For her final trick this evening, the Lady of the Lake will defy the incredible danger of the Siege Perilous.” On cue, the curtain behind Thalia swept aside to reveal a simple throne of rough-hewn wood. This was no flimsy stage prop, but a solid chair with arms and a high back, approximately medieval in appearance.
Above the chair was a rope-and-pulley rig that held a sword suspended, point down, over the wooden throne. The pit orchestra played a little waltz while Nutall paid out the rope to bring the sword down to demonstrate how sharp it was. He sliced an apple with it, then hauled it back to its menacing position. He produced a candle, which he set in a wrought-iron stand. It was placed so that, once lit, the flame would touch the rope.
Thalia, with due ceremony, took her place upon the throne. Nutall took up the manacles that dangled from chains welded to the arms of the throne. He called for a volunteer from the audience to witness that the cuffs were made of genuine steel and that the chains were just as solidly made. When the volunteer went back to the audience, Nutall closed the manacles on Thalia’s wrists, trapping her in the chair. He placed the key—the only key—in his waistcoat pocket and walked away.
Thalia sat tall and did her best to look queenly and brave—but not too stupid to realize her danger—while she let the audience take in her plight.
Nutall stepped to the candle stand and produced a box of lucifer matches. “Ladies and gentlemen, please give the Lady of the Lake your undivided attention.”
The orchestra fell silent, save for a snare drumroll. Overhead, the sword gleamed in the stage lights. Thalia could sense the audience’s anticipation. She could smell the apple Nutall had sliced in half. When Nutall struck a match to light the candle, Thalia could smell the sulfur of its flame and then the scent of burning hemp as the candle flame licked the rope.
Nutall raised his hands and the inner curtain closed, concealing Thalia from the audience. The drumroll continued.
The moment the curtain hid Thalia from the audience, she set to work. The handcuff key hidden in her left sleeve dropped into her hand, and with a twist and a tug, she freed herself from the manacle on her right wrist.
Thalia could have picked the locks, but it was far more efficient simply to lie about the number of keys. She used her free right hand to release the catch that held the seat of the throne in place. With the faintest of clicks, the seat dropped from beneath her like a trapdoor, clearing the way to the open trapdoor in the stage below. All that remained was to unlock the manacle on her left wrist, bundle up her skirts, and drop through both openings at once to hide beneath the stage.
With the key in her right hand, Thalia worked to unlock the remaining manacle, keenly aware of the dwindling seconds she had before the rope, treated to burn slowly, would part at last.
Something inside the lock jammed. Thalia worked in vain. She was stuck.
Thalia took a wild look around. The sword was directly overhead, but not for much longer. On the other side of the curtain, the audience waited, attention rapt on the candle burning through the rope. The drumroll still sounded.
Thalia could smell greasepaint and her own sweat. Her entire focus was on the last chance she had: to slip her hand through the locked cuff.
It never occurred to Thalia to call for help. This was her profession, her birthright. The show simply must go on.
Thalia dropped through the trapdoor in the throne as far as the length of chain allowed. The links of the chain kept the seat from snapping back into place as it was meant to. That alone would certainly ruin the trick. When the sword dropped, it would strike her, but perhaps not fatally.
The numbness in Thalia’s left wrist had turned to fire. Stubborn to the end, angry with herself for failure, Thalia was still twisting the key in the jammed lock, while straining to pull her hand through the cuff despite the impossibly tight fit.
Thalia’s arms, her whole body, went from numbness to pins and needles everywhere. She looked up, ready for the sword, angrily resigned to pay the price for her clumsiness with the jammed cuff. But Thalia could not see her left hand. She saw something white, something she didn’t understand. It could not be what it seemed, white feathers forming a shape like the tip of a bird’s wing. Before she could make sense of what she saw, Thalia fell at last, free of the cuff.
The chain, free of Thalia’s weight, was rigged to slide to the outside of the throne. It slithered upward out of sight. The trapdoor in the throne clicked shut as Thalia fell into blind darkness beneath the stage. The numbness held her. She couldn’t see, but she could hear.
The sound the crowd made, the collective gasp of horror and delight, told Thalia the candle had done its work at last.
The rope parted.
Copyright © 2020 by Caroline Stevermer