The Thirteenth Sword
Rose knew the game was up before Cassandra said a word. There was just something about the way she was leaning in the doorway of the chorus girls’ dressing room, red dress slashed high on her thigh and sweet smoke wrapping her like gauze, with all the predatory nonchalance of a cat who knows the mouse has nowhere to run.
“Rose, darlin’,” Cassandra said, not even looking at her, just the hint of a smile as she studied her perfect nails, “change of plan. We’re doing the Box tonight, and you’re our gal.” Cassandra spread her fingers, arm outstretched, and if claws had popped out Rose would not have been surprised. “Better limber up. Oh, and Colette’s doing the swords herself.”
And she was off into the dark of the backstage corridors, the lingering smoke from her cigarette forming lips that blew a hazy kiss at Rose. It broke apart just before it reached her.
Rose drew in a long breath to steady herself. Cassandra knew. And if Cassandra knew, Colette knew. But how? She’d put it back. No-one had seen her and she’d put it back!
She felt a hand on her shoulder. It was Marlene. “Box trick, hun? With no rehearsal?” There was the whistle of air being sucked through pearly whites, and the hand gave a comforting squeeze. “Better be on your toes.”
And now the Box trick. They hadn’t done the Box in ages. Rose had understudied for Marlene, sure, but she’d never done it live on stage. Marlene was rubber-boned and double-jointed and she’d still ended up getting hurt. The Box might be an illusion but those swords certainly weren’t!
Colette was doing the swords herself. She knew. She knew for sure. Oh, this was bad. This was very, very bad.
The muffled bell rang out for places and Rose’s legs had her halfway into the wings before she knew what she was doing, lining up with all the other girls for the opening number. There was no going back. There was no getting out.
She’d betrayed her friends, and abandoned her sister, and all for nothing, and now she was going to pay for it with her life.
The meeting with the Guild man the previous day had been as bad as she had expected, but then it had all gotten impossibly worse.
There she was, just a young girl, a dancer and a singer, a nobody in a big city and he sat at a desk with his title in brass and wore a Guild badge. It had some motto stitched on it, but she knew it really said, “I can do whatever I like, and don’t you forget it.” She hadn’t been there ten minutes and already she felt like a criminal, statues looming over her like judges and everyone all frowns and hard faces and them in their big chairs and her on a little wicker stool that wobbled as she spoke.
“She ain’t done nothing wrong, sir,” Rose had said, although she knew it for a lie. Bless her heart, she loved her baby sister, but trouble and Lisa just always seemed to hook up. It was never anything serious, and she’d talked Lisa out of a tight spot before, but this one felt different. The Guild man wasn’t buying it. “She just made a mistake is all.”
“She made a mistake, alright.” The man leered, yellow teeth like crooked gravestones. Maybe it could be sorted, the leer said, if she could just be accommodating. She thought again about Lisa, shackled in a filthy Guild cell somewhere beneath her feet, but before she could say anything another man had come in. If the first man was a Guild man this new one was a Guild gentleman, clothes shop-clean and new and hair lawyer-black and oiled neat as you like. He spoke into the first one’s ear, who looked annoyed, like a dog whose bone had been taken away, then he got up and left without a word.
The Guild gentleman – she guessed he probably was a lawyer – had sat himself down with a nod of his head, and laid it all out for Rose. Lisa was in more than just the normal amount of trouble. He smiled coldly as he unfolded a sheet of paper and read allegation after allegation, complete fabrications of course, but all with just enough grain of truth to make it seem credible. Rose’s mind froze in panic, but still phrases like “co-conspirator”, “consorting with known agitators” and “threat to society” got through. When he casually mentioned the hanging tree Rose began to shake.
“Allow me to introduce the beautiful Rose!”
The crowd cheered and whooped as Colette, in a perilously short skirt and smoky stockings, gave a practiced spin with hand outstretched and Rose glided onstage in a yellow spotlight, no trace of her ragged nerves and thundering heartbeat showing through her smile. The grease lamps flared and the cymbals crashed. Rose had quickly changed out of her sky blue can-can outfit into magnificent Arabic silks, gathered at the ankles and wrists, decked all over with concealing red silk scarves. The scarves would come off in a minute as part of the act, of course, to display deep, tantalising slashes in the silk garments – nothing like a glimpse of skin to sell a magic trick to the punters. She acknowledged a few wolf-whistles with a coy cock of her head.
The light dimmed as the drums kicked up an ominous rumble. At a gesture from Colette another spotlight found the Box, being wheeled forward by two more girls.
“Legend has it,” Colette was announcing, “that the Box was invented in fourteen hundred and three, by Suilaman Beg, Prince of Baban. His favourite concubine, a peerless beauty by the name of Sirr Al-Husn, was accused by her household of the theft of a priceless gemstone.” Had Colette glanced at her just then? She had! She definitely knew! “Al-Husn admitted to stealing, but furiously denied stealing the gem. The Prince devised the Box. With this, he would find out the truth.”
The assistants spun the Box on oiled wheels. More than six feet from top to bottom, the Box was cheap birch panels painted a lurid jade, with geometric arabesques in flour paste that had been tinted to look gold. The front was hinged, and a padlock and chain hung loose.
“A trial by steel!”
Another assistant rolled out an iron rack on wheels, with thirteen identical swords. Colette snatched one up, gave it a respectful swish to let the punters see the heft of the metal. She took up another and rang the blades together just as the cymbals gave another crash, then with a fencer’s poise she plunged both into notches in the side of the Box.
The assistants opened the Box, showing the blades within, their ends jutting out matching notches in the opposite side.
“The Prince would give her lies no place to hide!”
Colette looked over at Rose, right at her this time, and she felt all the colour drain from her face.
The Deal was simple. Rose was no dummy, and she thought the Guild lawyer knew it, but still he made her repeat it a few times. Sometimes, when you have a dog on a leash, you just can’t resist giving it orders.
“I find evidence of smuggled soulstones in the Star Theatre. I find anything that links them to Colette – I mean, Miss du Bois. I bring it to you and you drop the charges against Lisa.” She swallowed nervously. “But what’ll happen to Miss du Bois?”
“You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Or to the theatre?”
“Not your concern.”
“But what if I can’t find anything? What if there’s nothing there?”
The man spread his hands, in a “what can I do?” gesture. “Then you have to deal with the desk sergeant again. I am sure you and he can come to some – accommodation.” He stood up. “You’ll have to be quick, though. While I’ll do what I can, it’s not unknown for paperwork to get mixed up. Before you know it the cells have been emptied and the unfortunates end up chained in the bowels of a Guild mine for the rest of their short lives.” Another cold smile as he dropped a sheaf of paper into a bin. “As far as we’re concerned they just…disappear.”
In theory, the Box illusion was simple, and all that guff about concubines was nonsense. The Box was as old as the hills, yes, but the Arabic frippery was just that. Rose liked her reading, and as far as she could tell it had been invented in mediaeval Denmark by a nameless Jew, who’d been ripped off by the magician he’d designed it for.
Funny the things you remember when you’re terrified, she thought, as she removed the silk scarves and showed off a few harem dance steps.
“Rose is now going to get into the Box, ladies and gentlemen,” Colette cried, “and demonstrate the unique Arabic constitutional feats that enable the truly virtuous, as the legendary Sirr Al-Husn attempted, to escape the inescapable.”
Girl goes in the Box, swords get stabbed through the Box, there’s some signs of life – maybe a hand poked out here or a curtain pulled aside to reveal a smiling face, but more and more swords go in until there’s no way the girl can possibly survive. Sometimes, you let out a little scream for effect. The Box goes quiet and there’s no sign of life. The swords come out and the padlock is undone and the girl emerges whole and unharmed. Cue the applause.
“But I warn you!”
The trick is banal, as most tricks are. A combination of cunningly-designed notches and a very limber girl who can remember the sequence of swords is all that’s needed. Even the final sword, which surely goes through the girl’s breast, because didn’t you just see her face above that notch a second ago, is done with an internal catch and a false bottom, dropping the girl a crucial few inches so that the sword passes over her head.
“Rose’s safety cannot be guaranteed. There is always a chance, no matter how small, that this trick might go wrong, so I ask those with a fragile stomach to leave the theatre, now.”
Once you get past the mechanics you realise it’s all in the performance, and Rose was one of the best.
It was performance that had gotten her into the Star last night after the doors had been locked, spinning the night watchman a lurid tale about two men, too much wine and a misunderstanding and how she needed – really, really needed – to get something she’d left backstage to defuse the entire situation before pistols were drawn over her honour. She had detailed backstories of the minor characters worked out in her head, but it turned out that all she needed to do was ask and the old watchman let her in without even waking up properly. She had felt slightly deflated and madly excited all at the same time.
She had thought it was all over when she heard voices coming from the stage and, creeping through the darkness, watched in horror as Colette and Cassandra, visibly exhausted at two o’clock in the morning, rehearsed one of the riskier prop acts that involved swapping two girls in what looked an impossible fashion. They worked in a tiny pool of candlelight, their weary voices echoing in the deserted theatre. The usual banter the chorus girls enjoyed overhearing between the two was conspicuous by its absence, and the pair said little as they fretted over tiny details in the performance, even snapping at one another from time to time, although this was always followed by some mute, micro-apology that only someone familiar with them could ever have noticed.
Rose waited for another hour, hiding in silence in the rows of seats, before the pair finally reached an unspoken agreement that the act was ready and left arm in arm down the central aisle. The main doors clicked locked behind them in the darkness, street sounds rising and fading away. She stood quickly and headed backstage.
Colette’s office was an on-going exercise in autobiographical art. At least that is what Colette called it. Rose just called it an all-forsaken mess. Stage directions, designs for new shoes, choreography sketches, caricatures of the girls Colette did during rehearsal, milliners’ catalogues and to-do lists so covered the walls that it was not possible to tell if they were painted or bare. The floor was worse, with bills, old posters, running orders (crossed out and re-written a dozen times), invoices (paid, unpaid and final-demand red), prop schematics, seating layouts and diary pages scattered so thick in places that the floor undulated. The edges of tables were hidden behind more scraps pinned to them in overlapping layers, forming a whispering skirt of paper, while books and ledgers piled on top formed impromptu legs for yet more tables, made of whatever had been to hand in the storeroom.
It would take a lifetime to sift through all this junk, and Rose only had a couple of hours at most. She hiked up her skirts, willed her heart to slow down and got to work.
Inside the Box it was as dark as a coffin, and all Rose could smell was her own fear.
She could hear the crowd, of course, and Colette’s patter, only slightly muted by the thin, rough wood. Her hand felt instinctively for the catch that would trigger the false bottom before the final sword thrust, feeling its cool metal against her damp fingers.
The first sword would come right after the word, “concubine.” She had to be ready, she had to listen out and move her hips left just in time, but her heart was beating so loud she was suddenly terrified she would miss it. She stopped breathing.
The soft scuff of footsteps. The faint ring of tempered steel. A heckle and a putdown from Colette got a big laugh from the punters.
“…concubine had lied to him!”
And there it was. She twisted left, the sword punched through the navel notch with deadly force. She felt the smooth steel at her side, and also a new rent in her silks. She hadn’t been quick enough. Or was Colette being too quick? She would know soon enough.
She stuck a hand out a curtained porthole and waved to the unseen crowd. Colette made an amusing remark at her expense, scripted of course, and when Colette’s back was momentarily turned, a move that had to be timed to the second as she couldn’t see out, she stuck up two fingers at her. That one always got a raucous laugh.
But as a bit of stagecraft it was peerless. The punters saw the girl in the Box had spirit. They liked that. They started to side with her against the magician who was sticking her full of swords, while still enjoying the magician’s patter. They started to identify with the feisty girl in the Box. It made the finale all the better for it.
The next swords came in rapid ones and twos. Rose wracked her brain to remember the contortions needed to avoid each one, her free space to move within the Box quickly becoming dangerously limited.
It was all going well. Maybe Colette didn’t know after all.
They glowed like fireflies in the dark cubbyhole, valuable beyond anything Rose had ever seen in her life.
Gnawing on her lip like a child, she took one ever so carefully, turning it over in her hand. The light from it glittered in the glass eyes of the metal dove paperweight on the table. On an impulse she slipped off her glove and felt the stone against her skin, cool and smooth, but with a tingle that made her want to laugh and smile and cry all at once. A genuine soulstone.
And there were so many of them. The cubbyhole was so full they had nearly spilled out when she had opened it. It had been hidden, of course, and well hidden, but the fact that the papers on that part of wall had been re-pinned over and over again had been a subtle clue to its existence.
So many of them.
Surely Colette wouldn’t miss just one?
She could take it to that lawyer, and get Lisa out of jail, and Colette would never know it had been Rose…
…who had betrayed her. The thought made her sick to her stomach.
She glanced around guiltily, saw the dove’s glittering eyes staring at her. It felt like it was judging her. She nearly laughed – her conscience pricked by a paperweight!
“Shut up,” she whispered to the dove, turning it to face away. “What do you know about it all?”
Colette, who had taken in Rose only a few months ago, off the street with nowhere to live and a singing voice that hit all the notes except the right ones and all the dancing ability of a three-legged dog. Who had given her a chance to work hard, train harder, practice till her throat was hoarse and her ankles ached all night long, and earn her own way in the world for the first time in her life. A chance Rose had grabbed with both hands and never looked back. If there was one thing she’d learned at the Star Theatre, it was that the girls stuck together, they watched each others backs.
“They’ll shut it all down, won’t they?” she said to the dove. “The Guild, I mean. Arrest everyone. Just because they can. And I don’t even know if I can trust them about Lisa.”
She had sat there, on the chair in the office, with the single stone glowing in her hand, and thought of Lisa, who would never survive the mines, and the desk sergeant, who knew that no-one got nothing for free.
So she put it back with the others, concealed the cubbyhole once more, turned the stupid dove back to face the chair and left.
Rose screamed, right on cue. The sword hadn’t cut her, of course, but it left a shocked silence in the crowd’s noise into which Colette could throw the ending of her Arabian tale.
“Sirr Al-Husn did not survive the Box,” she said, in a low voice that always had the punters leaning forward in their seats. “When the last sword was drawn out and the door opened she fell forward, into the Prince’s arms, her life-blood running free. With her dying breath she told him she had not stolen the gemstone. Finally, as she passed over Death’s door, he believed her, but why had she confessed to stealing something from him? What had she stolen? The only thing of his she had ever stolen, she said, was his heart.”
When the Guild building opened in the morning, Rose was first in line. The desk sergeant remembered her with a leer, and she sat on the same wicker stool as last time while he thumbed through a leather-bound ledger.
There was a look of dissatisfaction on his face when he closed it with a thud, quickly replaced by a malicious sneer. “Wouldn’t you know it, I fink there’s been a bit of a paperwork mixup. Ain’t got no-one in the cells by that name, luv,” he said, laughing. “Guild never ‘eard of her. Looks like your sister just up and disappeared!”
The thirteenth sword was the last, and Rose heard the ring of its blade as Colette drew it from the iron stand.
The curtain before Rose’s face was pulled aside for the first and last time in the act. She was supposed to put on a pained, fearful expression, but right now that was not stretching her acting abilities at all.
The chest notch was the last one. Stay where she was and the sword would pierce her heart. She touched the metal catch for the thousandth time.
Colette leaned forward, looking Rose in the eye, and that was when she knew for sure.
“Do you know what you did wrong?” Colette whispered, and flicked the curtain closed before Rose could answer.
Her heart raced ahead of the thundering drums of the orchestra. She stabbed at the false-bottom release-
Oh, lord, no!
She couldn’t drop any lower. Her limbs were contorted beyond the point of pain already.
The thirteenth sword was going to kill her. Right through the heart.
She heard the swoosh of the blade.
There would be an uproar! An outcry! Screams and fainting!
It would make for great theatre, and Colette would have avenged her would-be betrayer.
A whisper at the curtain. Colette, so quiet she almost missed it. “You didn’t come to me, darlin’.”
The catch moved in her sweat-slicked fingers, and a strange but familiar glow lit the inside of the Box. The false-bottom opened and Rose fell – and kept falling.
She screamed, but before the scream escaped her lips she hit something solid, but soft, and it knocked the air from her in a gasp.
Cassandra stood over her. Rose was lying on a pile of old canvas under the trapdoor in the stage. From above she heard the crowd gasp as the thirteenth sword was rammed home – into an empty Box.
“How?” she tried to get to her feet, but her arms and legs were quaking and untrustworthy. “There’s no trapdoor in the Box. How can I be here?”
Cassandra held out a hand. “A little something Colette and I have been working on. Stage magic is not the only kind we do around here. C’mon. Trick’s not over yet, hun. You don’t want to miss the finale.”
She led Rose out a sidedoor into a space under the wings, and from there into the side-aisle, where they could see the stage. Colette was removing swords from the Box in a dazzling array of flourishes, tossing each one expertly back onto the iron rack.
Rose swallowed hard. “But, you know about what I did? I thought you were going to – I mean…”
“Y’all got a lot to learn about how it’s done around here. We look out for one another. Should have known that by now. Should have come to us.” She frowned, arms folded. “You’d make a decent sneak thief, though. Gotta give you that. Might need to let you in on some of the real action.” She cocked her head at Rose’s evident confusion, shrugged. “Might need to let you in on the doves, too. Now, pay attention, hun. Trick’s not over.”
Cassandra leaned back against the wall. “You make something disappear, you have to bring it back.”
And as Colette flung open the door to the Box and Lisa stepped out, unharmed and blinking in complete amazement, to thunderous applause, Rose knew the game was only just beginning.