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Stage Blood by Kat Howard

There was blood on the stage. It dripped from a box into which a woman had been locked. An elegant box, clear glass, so that you could see the woman inside of it. The glass was polished to a shine that almost matched that of the sword that had been thrust through it. She was the queen of the knives, was the woman in the box, and the magician was on stage to woo her.

 

It was a rough wooing.

 

There was blood on the stage. Ian had felt the sword pass through her, part blood and bone and flesh and sinew, but the woman in the box, the woman who, for tonight only, was the queen of the knives, had not flinched or cried out. She smiled still, spotlit and lovely.

 

It was a secret sort of magic Ian did, and only he saw the whole of it. He made the truth appear otherwise than it was, and gave a safe, vicarious thrill to those watching.

 

The audience cheered as the blade went in.

 

There was blood on the stage and applause in his ears, and the sword slid in so easily. Just like magic.

 

There was no blood inside the glass coffin with the woman. Not on the swords that Ian slid through, through the glass and through the woman, and then out again before unlocking the glass coffin in which she lay.

 

There was blood on the stage, blood enough to soak the bottoms of her shoes, and the hem of her dress, and track red in her wake like a murderer’s tide. Blood on the stage, but not on her skin.

 

Except.

 

A smear. Visible just at the edge of her dress when she dipped, low and graceful, to acknowledge the applause. Dried rust red, just above the heart. Just enough magic to leave a mark.

 

And there was blood on Ian’s hands of course. There was always blood on his hands.

 

He took his bow.

 

The curtain fell.

 

 

#

 

*****

Ian kept secrets. Not just the expected secrets of a magician, the ways of disappearances, transformations, and escapes, but true secrets. Secrets with power. Secrets that were just his own.

 

Ian kept secrets, and he made magic with them.

 

Secrets want to be found, so Ian kept his in a room no one ever looked for. It was not the last place people looked. That would imply it was eventually found, and it was not. If you did not know the room existed, your eyes would skip right past its locked door and land on one of the other treasures of the magician’s house, of which there were many. Even the house of a magician is skilled in misdirection.

 

Although the room full of secrets was a room no one ever looked for, Ian kept the door to it locked. He did not believe in taking chances. His secrets, after all, were his own, and there were doors he did not wish to have opened.

 

Some magics were best performed off stage.

 

Removing his secrets felt to Ian like unwinding a thread that was anchored in his heart. They slid and spooled, but there was still a barbed ache at the end. In those moments, he saw again the faces of the women, locked in glass coffins. Not their stage smiles, all gloss and seduction, but their grimaces of pain and terror. The faces of women being divided with swords for the entertainment of a crowd, each blade through the glass another tithe the magic took, applause paid for in blood.

 

Once he had rid himself of them, he set his secrets in small glass caskets. No sleight of hand -—this, of all things, was not an illusion. They were there, glittering and beautiful, and locked away in glass boxes.

 

When he left his secret bloody chamber, Ian’s hands felt clean. The excisions performed, the poisons drained off, Ian locked the door behind him.

*****

 

#

 

A magician’s life is by necessity a secret place, thorned about with misdirections like a wizard’s tower in an old fairy tale. But keys and locks are as Janus-faced and double-edged as secrets and swords. If turned in one direction, they will lock everything carefully away. If turned in the other, they open.

 

And you will bleed when they do.

*****

 

#

 

When Stella thought about it later, she was surprised the door had opened. Though when she thought about it again, later still, she was not surprised at all. The opening seemed inevitable, then.

 

It hadn’t even been a proper door, not really. Just the outline of one on the side of a building, self-generated graffiti, or a faded photonegative. A ghost door, marking a place that didn’t realize any spirit lingered.

 

There was no doorknob, only the image of a lock on rough wood. But Stella set her hand upon it and pushed.

 

Where there had been none before, there now was a door, and a house beyond that door. She stepped across the threshold. The exterior of the building had given no hint as to what lay inside. It was a treasure trove, a wunderkammer, a museum of curiosities. Rich woven carpets covered floors of dark polished wood. Paintings hung on the walls, so close the edges of the frames kissed. Crystal glistered in lit cabinets and the thick gold scent of beeswax hung heavy in the air. It was the sort of place where secret and beautiful things were collected.

 

Sticky wetness clung to her fingers, and Stella looked down to see blood smeared on her right hand. There must have been something sharp on the wood that she hadn’t noticed, something that had cut her when she opened the door, the price paid to enter. She fished tissues out of her bag, and wrapped them around her fingers, then called out, “Hello?”

 

“I was wondering,” the voice came from the floor above, “whether you were planning on introducing yourself.”

 

“You could have said something when I walked in.”

 

“As it is my house, I felt that the prerogative of silence was mine.”

 

Stella looked up at the man standing halfway in shadow, in front of what might have been a door. “I can leave.”

 

“Perhaps you might tell me how you got in, first.”

 

“There was a door. I opened it.”

*****

 

#

 

Ian invited Stella to join him for dinner, and somewhere in the space between ask and answer, a banquet appeared like magic, laid out with all the splendor of Demeter’s table.

 

Stella hesitated, her head full of winter and pomegranate seeds, of hundred years’ sleeps, and of bargains made unasked.

 

“It is quite safe. This is not that kind of story.”

 

Stella did not ask what kind of story it was. She didn’t trust Ian to tell her, and besides, if she stayed in it, she would learn.

 

And so she stayed and ate and drank as candles guttered, as clocks ticked and chimed an hour that might have been midnight and might have been darker still. Shadows gathered in corners and mirrors held extra reflections that watched as they ate, the magician, and the woman who had opened a door that did not exist.

 

An unseen door that led to a room full of secrets cracked open as well.

 

Throughout the meal, Ian did magic. Close work, and sleight of hand. A perfect red rose plucked from behind Stella’s ear that burst into a bouquet when placed in a wine glass. A rain of coins that became goldfish when they dropped into a pitcher of water. Small things, meant to perform larger enchantments upon their intended audience. The very air around Stella crackled with magic, and she was, indeed, enchanted. But she gave up no secrets to him that night, and it was she who pulled the door closed when she left.

*****

 

#

 

Ian had a great desire for secrets.

*****

 

#

 

In her own home, in familiar sheets, Stella’s dreams were magic-ridden. She dreamt of locked doors and labyrinths, of blood-stained hands and of women floating under water, the surface calm, smoothed over like glass. She dreamt of secrets, and of a room into which she must not go. When she awoke, there was a key in her hand.

*****

 

#

 

The next day, Stella received an envelope in the post. Inside was a ticket to Ian’s next performance. And the next. And the next.

*****

 

#

 

It was different, watching the magic unfold on stage. There was a distance there greater than that from the footlights to a fifth row seat. The illusions were less immediate, and Stella could not feel the air prickle as Ian’s hands moved through it.

 

But even at such distance and calm remove, Stella did not seek to undo the magic in what she watched. She did not look for thin wires or false bottoms in tables, did not watch for mirrors and hides. She found more joy in choosing belief than in attempting to solve the mystery.

 

But then came the final illusion of the night. A woman in a glass coffin, and swords that slid through her.

 

That same sharp electricity in the air that Stella had felt the night before raised the hair on her arms. She looked around, but no one else in the theatre seemed to notice. They gasped and applauded, open-mouthed and greedy.

 

There was blood on the stage.

 

Stella told herself it was nothing. A trick of the light on the stage. Nothing more. It had to be.

 

And when the woman stepped from the glass case, smiling, to take her bow, Stella had almost convinced herself she was right.

 

Except.

 

The woman’s dress had been white at the beginning of the illusion. As the curtain came down, Stella saw that its hem was unevenly soaked in red.

*****

 

#

 

Ian was washing his hands as Stella pushed open the door of his dressing room.

 

“Did you enjoy the performance?” he asked.

 

“I did. Parts of it were very unexpected.”

 

“Magic so often is,” Ian smiled.

 

Stella smiled back, and her hand went to the key that she had slipped into her pocket before coming to the theatre, the key she had awoken holding.

 

 

There was blood, a small dark splotch, on the cuff of Ian’s shirt.

 

Stella’s hand remained where it was, her fingers folded around the key. “Thank you,” she said, “for the tickets.”

 

“I very much hope you will join me for another performance.”

*****

 

 

There were thin red lines on Stella’s skin that night. No blood, and they did not hurt, but they had not been there when she had dressed for the theatre. They were exact, precise, as if made with a scalpel.

 

Or with a sword, one that glinted in the spotlight. Stella pressed her fingers to the thin, red lines again, and the image of a woman in a glass coffin pierced with swords flashed across her thoughts. Not the woman from the performance, but Stella herself. She rubbed her hand on her shirt, just above her heart.

 

Blood smeared on the inside of the fabric.

*****

 

#

 

Inside the magician’s house, a door unlocked itself.

*****

 

#

 

Ian opened the door to the room of his secrets. He sighed as he walked in, a dragon greeting his horde. His gaze lingered on the rows and rows of small glass boxes, each containing a quiet and bloody story. His fingers danced through the rhythm of a vanish.

 

With a snap, one of Ian’s glass caskets shattered, loosing the secret it held back into the room, back into Ian.

 

For an instant, he stood on a stage, sword in hand. He could see the cold sheen of the glass and almost -—almost -—the woman locked so carefully inside it. His secret.

 

The light in the room shuddered, and the collected secrets trembled. Ian felt the tug in his heart as if he were trying to set something new among their number, as if there were something so secret he could not even admit it to himself long enough to lock it away. As if there was a secret that was trying to escape from him.

 

Ian breathed deeply -—once, twice, three times -—and the secrets settled back on their shelves. The room rested once again on its foundations, his secret held safe.

 

For now.

*****

 

#

 

Pain. A hot knife of it, right above her heart. Piercing between her ribs, and through her. Stella gasped and stumbled, her knees hitting the floor hard enough to bruise.

 

She clutched at the pain, and there was blood everywhere, bright sticky red, soaking her shirt and coating her fingers, and behind the pain the sound of a lock clicking, the glare of the spotlight, and crimson splashed across the polished wood of the stage, the scent of copper and beeswax clotting in her throat.

 

The claustrophobic sensation of a body locked in glass.

 

And then it was gone.

 

Her skin was unbroken. But the lines, the thin red lines, were there again, darker than the night before and the echo of distant applause rang in her ears.

 

Stella’s hands shook as she washed her blood from them.

*****

 

#

 

Ian felt a hesitation in the performance that night, as if the sword in his hand had lost its edge as he thrust it through the glass coffin, through the woman lying in it. He thought, perhaps, he might have seen her smile falter, felt her hand tremble in his as they took their bows.

 

Nothing had gone wrong, of course. Never that. But everything felt off. He had had to work for his magic. And while he was on stage, Ian looked, and looked, and looked again at the empty fifth row seat where Stella had sat the night before, wishing he had magic that would conjure her.

*****

 

#

 

There are two sides to a coin. Whether tucked into a pocket or vanished into the air, there is always the possibility that it will turn at any time.

 

There are also two sides to a key. Less obvious than the sides of a coin, perhaps, but still there. One side to close, to lock away.

 

One side to open.

*****

 

#

 

This time, when Stella opened the door to the magician’s house, she used her key, the one she had dreamt, and she was not at all surprised when it slid into the lock. But when the tumblers turned and the door unlatched, the front door, ghosted onto the wall, was not the only one that opened.

 

It is in the nature of secrets to reveal themselves.

 

And once that second door opened, that door in the place where no one ever looked, it was as if it desired being seen, craved Stella’s presence. She saw the open door, and could not look away from it. Nothing else in that treasure trove of a house attracted her. No illusion now, no sleight of hand to distract.

 

She began the long walk up the stairs.

 

Had Stella glanced behind her, she would have seen her footsteps fill with blood.

*****

 

#

 

It was the magic that chose the women. Ian’s magic. Ian didn’t question how it worked—- even he sometimes left the smoke and mirrors in place -—but he knew that it did.

 

Except that night, it didn’t.

 

There was no glittering and spangled woman ready to step into a glass coffin. The audience filed into their seats, clocks counted down seconds until the curtain would go up, but the key piece of the final illusion was missing.

 

His heart beat hard in his chest, and a feeling like the ache of a barb gripped him. Far away, a door had opened. A door had opened, and all his secrets were being revealed.

 

He thought of Stella.

 

The curtain went up. The show would go on.

*****

 

#

 

Stella stood, surrounded by Ian’s secrets, and she felt a sword slide through her.

*****

 

#

 

Strange, perhaps, to thrust a sword into an empty coffin of glass, but magic had been made of things far stranger. And though the glass was empty, Ian felt flesh, blood, bone, part beneath his hands, felt the magic that even he could not see.

 

The magic knew all his secrets.

*****

 

#

 

The magic had secrets of its own.

*****

 

#

 

The audience, unsure of what they were watching, held silent.

 

The next sword, and then the next.

*****

 

#

 

Stella slipped on her own bloody footprint as she half-ran half-fell down the stairs of the magician’s house, still clutching her key in her hand. She had seen them, in the small glass boxes. The glittering, lovely women who had once been locked in a larger glass box on a stage.

 

Locked away. Made secret.

 

Then a stabbing in her heart, and everything disappeared.

*****

 

#

 

The audience gasped, then cheered.

*****

 

#

 

When she opened her eyes, Stella was inside of a glass box, bright lights shining on her, pinned in place by the swords that ran through the glass and through her body.

 

She could see Ian, and there was a sword in his hand.

 

In her hand was still a key.

 

Stella could see no lock, but still, she shifted the key so that it was between her finger and thumb, and pushed it forward. She felt the resistance as it caught. She thought of a secret room, full of glass boxes.

 

Stella turned the key.

*****

 

#

 

There was blood on the stage.

 

Blood, and shattered glass, and fallen swords, and a woman, who bowed low in front of the cheering crowd, the crowd who was not sure at all what it had seen, but knew it for magic. Stella held the bow until the curtain shut, then walked off the stage and out of the theatre.

 

She walked until she came to a room full of secrets, in the one place no one ever looked. She unlocked the door. Inside, the magician waited, held in a glass box, blood stained red on his hands.

 

“That’s the thing about secrets,” Stella said. “They turn both ways.”

 

She locked the door behind her.

Location

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P.O. Box 190106 Burton, Michigan 48519

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