The curtains were closed. The sound of the audience’s chatter resounded in Nicholas’s mind, synchronizing with the beat of his blood pounding through his ears. He knew they were talking about him, speculating on just how this show was going to be superior to all the others. That was how it had been advertised, after all: the grandest, most astounding act that would ever be performed by the young magician.
Beads of sweat trickled down his face, and he felt sick to his stomach. On no occasion had nerves proved to be a problem for him—until now. He had put on shows for the wealthiest families in London, not to mention all kinds of royalties, including King Edward VII. Uneasiness was a new experience for him and one he wished he could escape from.
He drew back one of the velvet drapes just enough so he could peek out at the theater beyond. Arranged in a vast semicircle were the seats, each and every one of them occupied by a member of high society. A gigantic, dimly lit chandelier hung from the ceiling, illuminating the floral pattern of the carpet that was spread across the entirety of the floor. The sense of anticipation that preceded any of his shows was heaviest tonight and evident on the faces of the spectators.
Men were dressed in formal evening-wear, and the hems of the women’s gowns elegantly spilled onto the floor. Familiar locals were interspersed with strangers that Nicholas had never seen before—people who had traveled to London just to see his performance. It was clear that this show was the place to see and be seen, and someone who could certainly not go unnoticed that night was the king himself, sitting conspicuously in one of the balconies along the auditorium’s wall. Next to him was Alexandra, his wife and the queen, her extravagant jewels glistening and binoculars raised up to her eyes.
“If you can see them, they can see you,” said a gruff voice from behind him.
Nicholas started and whirled around to face Percival, the wiry old man who produced his shows. He was dressed for the event in a black dress coat with an immaculate white bowtie. One of his gloved hands loosely held his walking stick, which Nicholas knew that, despite the man’s age, Percival did not need and used only for aesthetic reasons.
“Sorry,” muttered Nicholas, yanking the curtain closed. He felt as if he were a child being scolded for his misbehavior.
Percival grumbled incoherently and dragged over a nearby stool, one of the props for the performance. He gestured for Nicholas to take a seat, which the young magician gratefully did.
“You look pale, boy,” Percival remarked, sounding concerned. “And a bit green, at that.”
Nicholas took a deep breath and removed his top hat, clutching it anxiously in his hands. “I don’t think I can do it.”
Percival’s eyebrows shot up, causing him to adjust his monocle—which was merely a round piece of glass—to prevent it from falling. In truth, he had no problems with his vision, but he believed that wearing a monocle would make him look more urbane. Nicholas often mocked him about his fake eyeglass, and every time he did so the old man huffily responded that sophistication was a necessity for him, as he was the producer of the most esteemed performances in England.
“What do you mean?” Percival cried. “Do you dare say that you will cancel this show when it has been appearing in the paper for months now and many people say that it will be the highlight of the new decade? Perhaps even the new century? Are you going to call this show off when the king is out there in the audience, waiting and wondering why it hasn’t started yet?”
Nicholas shrugged. “Couldn’t we just postpone it to a different date?”
The old man cackled humorlessly. “And dismiss all these people who have already gathered here? What a disaster that would be! Under no circumstance will this show be delayed! You are Nicholas Galvan, for God’s sake, the seventeen year-old magician who has the entire country waiting with bated breath to see what he will do next!”
Crossing his arms, Nicholas grudgingly realized that his producer was speaking the truth. It would look foolish to put a stop to the show that would supposedly be one of the first significant events of the twentieth century.
“But… should I really show them that it exists?” he asked quietly.
The noise on the other side of the curtains was growing louder—a sign that the crowd was beginning to get restless. The show should have started already, thought Nicholas, feeling even tenser. He involuntarily pictured a clock in his mind, ticking off each passing second.
“I believe,” said Percival, reaching out a hand to help the magician up and towing the stool back to the side of the stage, “that it has been kept a secret for far too long.”
With that, the old man left, and all the lights promptly went out. The auditorium was immersed in darkness, leaving women gasping and shrieking in alarm. After this initial surprise, the crowd hushed in expectancy, and a silence that was almost deafening filled the air.
Nicholas searched his mind for some way that he could escape the finale. He found it was inevitable unless he wanted the show to be anticlimactic. With frustration, he realized that he had gotten himself into this situation. If he hadn’t asked for this performance to be publicized as flamboyantly as it had, he could have ended with a simple yet crowd-pleasing trick. Until just a few minutes ago, however, that was not what he’d wanted.
He had thought he was ready. Now he knew he’d been mistaken.
Deciding that it was too late to change his mind, he smoothed out his coat, threw on his top hat, and walked to the single beam of light that had appeared at the center of the stage. The curtains began to open, revealing the now hushed members of the audience. Nicholas focused on the many eager faces before him, the blindingly bright light… anything but the finale. He couldn’t bear to think of what was coming.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, spreading out his arms in a welcoming gesture, “allow me to introduce myself.” His voice boomed in the auditorium, sounding strange to him. “I am Nicholas Quincy Galvan, master of magic, keeper of mystical secrets. What you are about to witness is the greatest act that man will ever know of.”
Murmurs surged throughout the crowd like waves. Nicholas took a few steps forward, his shoes clicking against the wooden stage and echoing off the walls of the theater. The beam of light followed him as he moved, as did the widened eyes of every spectator.
“It is my deepest regret that misfortune has fallen upon every one of you,” he continued, “for everything that you will see tonight is completely and utterly real.”
A collective gasp emanated from the audience. He halted at the very edge of the stage, and with a flourish of his hand, the theater was abruptly basked in light. “For my first act, I will need a volunteer.”
Several hands shot up. It seemed that everyone wanted to be a part of the show that possibly even generations to come would talk about. Nicholas scanned the crowd, and his eyes fell upon an unfamiliar redhead, radiant and grinning.
“How about the lovely girl in the green dress?” he said, gesturing for her.
She seemed to glide across the auditorium, not paying any attention to the envious glares other young women who had raised their hands were giving her. A second beam of light followed her as she skipped up the steps and joined the magician on the stage.
“What is your name?” Nicholas asked while hauling out a tripod from one of the wings. On top of it was a misshapen bundle of canvas.
“Scarlet,” she responded, staring questioningly at the equipment. Her eyes were the color of emeralds, and her voice reminded Nicholas of the tinkling of wind chimes.
The magician set the tripod on the middle of the stage and tugged the canvas away, revealing a bulky camera. “Well, Scarlet, you are the epitome of beauty, and I don’t think your prettiness should go to waste. Would you allow me to take a photograph of you?”
She gave him an astonishingly white grin and faced the camera so naturally that it seemed as if it were something she was born to do. There was a sudden flash of light, and the picture was taken. With a nod of her head, Scarlet bid Nicholas farewell and began to stride toward the steps.
“Wait,” he said quickly, motioning for her to come back.
Scarlet turned around, her eyebrows furrowed. She gasped along with the audience as she saw the photograph Nicholas had just taken materialize in his outstretched hand.
“For you, as a remembrance of tonight,” he said, presenting her with the photo.
“Thank you,” she said, dazed, her voice drowned out by the wild cheers of the crowd.
In his next act, Nicholas called a man to the stage and asked him to pick from a deck of seemingly normal cards. When the man inspected the card he chose, however, he was shocked to find that the face of his wife had replaced that of the queen of hearts. After that, the young magician made a flower grow from a pile of dirt in his hands, and later he fished inside of his top hat for an orb of light, which then floated over the heads of the members of the audience. He sat on his stool and levitated; he hid himself behind a wing of the stage and then walked through the front door of the auditorium in a mere second. Everything he did had the spectators in awe. He had even managed to forget about it.
But then it was time.
All the lights flickered out again, save the dramatic beam that shone on center stage. The audience that had been applauding, shouting, and laughing throughout the show suddenly grew serious. The only thing Nicholas could hear was the sound of his own breathing, deep and gradual as he tried to calm himself.
It was too late to stop now. The crowd wanted a finale, so they would get the grandest finale of all. He would be the most famous magician in history, and no one in the future would be able to outdo him. Percival was right—the fact that it was real needed to be revealed.
“And now, my friends,” Nicholas said, trying to keep from sounding as nervous as he felt, “is the moment you have all been waiting for.”
He stripped off his coat and threw it carelessly onto the ground. Rolling back his shoulders, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath—
And vanished from sight.
The chandelier became illuminated once again. The shrill screams of women filled the auditorium. Men leaped to their feet in disbelief.
“Impossible!” somebody cried.
“It can’t be!”
A tall man with a handlebar mustache sprinted up to the stage, taking the stairs two at a time. He kneeled down next to the magician’s coat and examined it frantically, checking each of the many pockets. He extracted a small, crinkled piece of parchment and read what was written in scrawled handwriting:
Image: Vuoto by giorgio raffaelli