"The magic requires it," you intoned, when the other players asked us why we couldn't do matinees, like every other act they'd toured with. "We can't perform proper illusions unless it's after dusk, when the world is softer, and souls are kinder."
The reality of the situation was, I worked during the day, and without me, you had no act, but no one needed to know that.
After all, you were the magician, and I was only the beautiful assistant.
We met when you were 24 and I was 19. You'd placed an ad in the newspaper at the magician's college, asking for anyone who was looking to "make money on the side" to help you develop your own illusions.
"I've got the showmanship," you said, when I called you, "and I'm good at sleight-of-hand, but I can't manage to hold an actual illusion for more than a few seconds. All of my skill is in transmutation, enchanting -- the less showy stuff. If you're good with illusions, then we should talk."
"I am," I said, and that was the extent of the interview. When I met you at coffee, you told me, sheepishly, that no one else had answered, so if I wanted the gig, it was mine.
"Fine," I said. "What do you need me to do?"
"What can you do?" you asked. "I want anything you can do."
That was the start of it.
At the beginning, it was fair. The posters all billed us together, and I wasn't your assistant, but the opener. I started every show, warming up the audience -- doing small sleight-of-hand (benefited by actual magic), moving into the more impressive illusions that I could do before handing off the show to you. You had a few tricks of your own, up your sleeve -- turning lead into gold, at the start, making a pigeon into a dove, doing summoning spells, and turning dust into flowers that would rain down on the heads of the audience (and last, if they took them home, for a week before fading and turning back into dust). The gigs were small, but the show itself was good, and we got good billing, good reviews. We went from doing one show every few months to two shows a week, Friday and Saturday nights, at one of the bigger venues in town.
"Brilliant," you said, and it was -- some of the best times of both of our lives. We made enough money that I was able to quit the other jobs I had, pay my bills solely with the revenue earned from selling tickets, my cut of the profits.
Somewhere in there, I fell in love with you.
I told you, because I have never been good at hiding my feelings. "Look, I -- I know it's awkward, but I've got feelings for you, and if you don't return them, that's fine, but I'll need some space and time to process, and I might have to take a few shows off. I have someone else tapped to open for you -- we can say that I've been ill or something, and it'll be fine."
"No," you said, hesitant. "I -- "
You didn't tell me, I have feelings for you, too, which would have sent me over the moon, or I'm sorry, but I don't feel the same way, which would have been painful, but fair -- the right thing to do.
"I need some time to think," you said.
That should have been my warning, but it wasn't.
"Fine," I said, trying to be an adult. "We don't have practice again until Tuesday -- I'll see you then?"
"Yeah," you said. "See you then."
At that practice, that was when you told me, "I think I love you, too."
That's where the trouble started, if I'm being honest.
We started dating, if you could call it that. I still didn't see you very often -- mostly at practices and shows -- but we made an effort to have dinner together, once a week, and you introduced me to people as your girlfriend. Never to your friends, I noticed, but I reasoned that they already knew. To strangers, mainly, ones that we wouldn't see again.
"This is Kirsten," you would say. "My girlfriend. She does the show with me."
She does the show with me eventually fell away to, she opens for me, but while I noticed, I didn't care. It was the truth, wasn't it?
You had the posters changed, then, too -- your name appearing much larger than mine, billing yourself as being an heir of Merlin himself.
"That's not true, is it?" I asked, laughing, when I saw the new design. "You can't possibly be -- there are only a handful of descendants, and none of them have any magical ability."
You shrugged and smiled. It didn't quite reach your eyes. "Tell the people what they want to hear, Kirsten."
I trusted you. You had better showmanship than I did, and the gigs had always been your idea.
"Fine," I said, my smile never faltering. "We can play off it. Who shall we say I'm related to?"
You shrugged. "I don't know that it much matters, for you -- you're not the one they're coming to see."
I stared at you, stunned. "What?"
"I'm the headliner," you said smoothly. "You're the opener. I'm the one that lands us all the good gigs -- I handle all the back end stuff. You know that."
I thought about the people I'd talked to, over the last few months -- the event organizers and the venue heads I'd had to meet with, the different work I'd put in with the stage managers and tech crews. "You handle all the back end stuff?"
"I make sure we get paid," you said tersely.
You handled the money. You always had.
"Fine," I said, pretending my feelings weren't hurt. "I understand," even though I didn't.
"I knew you would," you said. "Good girl."
We had offers to take the show touring.
I dropped out of the magician's college, at the end of my junior year, and spent all of the savings I had to buy us a van, something reliable we could load props into, sleep in the back of if we needed to.
I took care of all of the details, the day to day stuff, including where we would be performing and where we'd stay, how we'd get from point A to point B.
"You've got a knack for it," you said -- but you didn't pay me fairly.
I saw some of the invoices you sent, how much you were charging per show, and I noticed that I was getting perhaps a quarter of what we were bringing in.
When I brought it up, you told me, calm as ever, that I was overreacting: "You're not considering the overhead -- the costs associated with performing away from home. Things are more expensive because we're on the road. We have to be fair."
"Fair," I said. "Fine."
I believed you, because I loved you -- because you told me you loved me.
When you changed all the billing to remove my name entirely, I protested again.
"I open for you! I do all of the illusory work at the beginning -- I get them warmed up and excited to see real magic. You can't remove me!"
"Audiences aren't responding well to you," you said. "Look -- it's not personal; I just get a lot of questions asking why you're mentioned so prominently when you're pretty clearly my assistant."
"From who, though?"
"From people in the audience, when they come by afterward, to get autographs. Be realistic, Kirsten. When was the last time anyone asked for your autograph?"
Bitterly, I conceded the point.
"I'll come on stage, you can pretend to assist me, and you'll do the actual magic. We'll make it clear that you're an integral part of the act -- we'll have you come on with me in the second half, too."
"Fine," I said. "But only because you're right -- they prefer you."
"Of course, as my assistant..."
I rolled my eyes. I knew what was coming. "I can't take more of a pay cut, or I won't be able to pay my bills. I still have loans I'm trying to pay off, from the program? They won't let me defer them, because I'm not a student, and I am employed..."
"We're not on stage all the time," you said. "And the expenses...you have no idea how much being on the road costs."
"I still want at least a fifth of your gross proceeds," I said. "And I want to see the invoices, to see how much you're charging them."
"Fine," you said. "I'll draw up the invoices tonight."
You didn't, not until I reminded you, a week or so later. "Right -- I'll leave them on the table in your dressing room."
The amounts were lower than I remembered, lower than before, per show -- but I thought it was something to do with the venue; where we were performing that week.
I never thought you would lie to me, use your own magic to modify the invoices, make them say something else.
I loved you.
I never thought you'd lie.
I started advertising for freelance clients. I wasn't as good as you were, at enchanting and the like, but I could still do whatever bits of magic most laypeople needed. There were websites you could sign up on, to connect with non-magical people who needed simple things done. People rated you, and once your ratings were high enough, you began getting steady work. It was demeaning -- those of us providing the services were called terrible names by the 'real' magicians that looked down on us, from their positions with accredited companies that provided the same services -- but it paid well, and it was something I could do when we weren't performing. I dedicated the days to it, and I let you have the nights. Not that you took many of these, any more -- after performing, you told me you were tired. "I'm sorry -- I don't know that I want to get dinner. Forgive me? I'll make it up to you later."
I stopped keeping track of how many meals you owed me, how many dates you'd broken. We were touring. We were both tired. You still loved me -- you told me every time you had to break a date, how much you regretted it. "I love you, I'm sorry, I'll do better..."
I loved you, too. I thought that was enough.
We'd been performing for six years, had built a moderate following, had been by all metrics successful, when you told me that you wanted the change the way we did the act.
"I think it would be better, maybe, if you weren't on stage for the second half." You hesitated for a moment, after saying this, then barreled on: "There's too much focus on you, during the parts that don't involve you. I think..."
I listened, as you told me all the reasons why it had to be you and you alone, up there on that stage.
I didn't believe any of them, but I thought this was my own insecurities, not anything you were doing.
"Fine," I said, after you finished. "Okay, yeah. Fine."
"And I want to start using some of your enchantments in the latter half of the show," you said. "The one with the creeping vines that you were telling me about -- that you put together for that gardener? I think it'll go well. We can use potted ivy..."
"I can teach you how to do it," I said, and shrugged. "That's fine."
"Actually," you said. "Since you need to be fairly close to the ivy when you're casting, I thought we'd just build a partition, have you backstage, hiding behind it, close to the vines. You can cast it while I engage the audience, pretend to do it..."
"You want to take credit for my work," I said, slowly. "You want me to do the lift, while you get the admiration from the audience."
You hesitated. "That's not how I'd put it," you said. "I think..."
"All right," I said. "Fine. Okay."
"You don't mind?"
I shrugged. "I don't see that I get much of a choice, do I?"
You sighed. "No, I'm afraid not."
You sounded so torn up about it, I was hesitant not to believe you.
I let you take the credit, first with the vines, then with the other parts of the act. Things that had previously been clearly delineated as my magic suddenly became yours. I was relegated to the back of the stage, casting for all I was worth, while you lapped up the approval from the audience.
"Because I have better showmanship," you said. "I'm the one they come out to see, the famed descendant of Merlin."
I wanted to point out that it was only a lie you'd ever put down, but you seemed almost to believe it yourself, by that point, and so I didn't.
I might have stayed with you, unhappy but unsure of where to go, what to do, had I not overheard a conversation between you and one of the tech people, as I was doing a sound check.
It was one of the things you were supposed to do -- the things I was supposed to have been relieved of, along with my cut in pay and my demotion to the woman behind the curtain -- but somehow, over the last few months, you'd been mysteriously harried, unable to do it, so I'd taken over.
It wasn't your mike that I picked up -- you were too clever by half for that.
It was one of the other tech people, who was looped into the same sound system I was, and had left hers on so she could talk to the people behind the scenes.
" -- thought you were with Kirsten," said the stage manager's voice. "I was surprised to see you at that party last night with Tracey."
"Kirsten's just," you said, and you mumbled something I couldn't quite hear. "We have an agreement. She knows what she gets, and because she loves me, she endures it."
"Ah," said the stage manager. "I thought -- "
"I don't love her," you said, bluntly. "But she loves me, and since we do the show together -- it's a way of being close. It's enough for her, always has been. She knows what the score is, though. She knows I'm never going to marry her."
"So Tracey -- " started the stage manager, and I ripped the headset off, afraid to hear more.
I checked the invoices, after that. A simple revealing spell showed what you'd been obscuring -- you never were a very strong magician. While I'd been struggling to pay all of my bills, had seriously considered whether or not I wanted to be on the road with you, I found out that you were earning ten times what I thought you were, per performance.
I thought about confronting you, about bringing all of the unobscured invoices out, yelling at you in front of everyone we performed with -- and then I thought better of it.
I made a few phone calls -- to my parents, to ask if I could come stay with them for a week or two, long enough to find a place back in my home city; to your parents, reminding them that the show we were putting on that night was going to be televised for the first time, and advising them to tune in, and then to the network airing the show, asking them if it was possible to change some of the billing.
"There's going to be a surprise twist, during tomorrow night's show," I said. "A staged duel."
The network executives -- the ones I'd had to talk to, busy as you were with all your other commitments, "overtired" -- loved the idea.
"We've never shown full human transformation on live television before," they gushed. "Do you think you could include something like that? Of course, we understand if it's too difficult..."
"No," I said. "It's not too difficult. I'm sure I can pull it off."
"Fantastic," they said. "We'll update the ads to include a tagline about that."
I might have worried, but I knew you wouldn't watch. You never did care about your own coverage, only the reviews that came afterward, the positive press and the money.
We did our practice run that night. I asked you, afterward, if you wanted to do dinner.
"No," you said. "I'm tired, and..."
"I understand," I said, and feigned disappointment. "Maybe the day after tomorrow?"
"Sure," you said. "Try not to be so sad -- we'll take a break here soon, so we can really spend some quality time together."
"I'd love that," I lied.
"That's my girl," you said.
"Always," I said, even as I knew that had changed.
The night of the show, I wore all black, the way I was supposed to, to better blend in behind the scenery. I didn't dare wear anything else, or you'd know that the game was up.
You came to meet me in my dressing room.
"Hey," you started. "I was thinking -- I want to include a special guest this week. There's a woman -- one of the gifted students from the local magician's college here in the city, a woman named Tracey Atkins. She's a big fan of our act, and she wants to be the one that you pretend to turn into a dove, during the finale. I think it could be a good element -- you know, the magician transforms and then immediately returns the beautiful young woman to her natural state, and she can help out during the flower fall scene right before intermission."
"Fine," I said, and I forced myself to smile. "That'll be fine."
"I knew you'd understand," you said, smiling back. "That's my girl."
I couldn't help but think, as you walked out, that once upon a time, you would have at least told me I love you.
I didn't dwell on it.
I finished my preparations, and when the call came, I was already in place on stage.
I let the first half of the show go off without a hitch. Tracey participated -- I could feel the thread of her magic, running underneath mine, as we transformed the dust in the air of the theater into live flowers.
After the intermission, I began letting tricks fail. You would wave your hands and say you were ready to play with fire, to shape it and bend it to your will, only for the audience to laugh uproariously as you were instead drenched by the water you'd summoned falling over your head, instead. The flowers that you tried to "summon" wilted as soon as you touched them, and the vine trick you'd had me perfect, the one you'd had multiple people ask you for the magic behind, failed -- the vines waggling themselves away from where you pointed them, growing anywhere but where they were supposed to, almost seeming to admonish you, shaking their ends slowly as you told them what to do.
You plowed on through anyway, ignoring all of the tricks going wrong -- the vanishing lady who refused to vanish (usually an audience member, but tonight you used Tracey -- and I subdued her own magic enough to keep her from turning invisible), the golden ball that refused to follow your commands but instead sat, stubbornly, upon the stage, until you told it to stay put and prepared to move onto the next trick, at which point it rolled merrily away from you, following the opposite of all of your instructions.
"It seems someone has cursed me tonight," you told the audience, apologetic. You glared back at where I was supposed to be standing. "Perhaps..."
I transported myself out onto the stage, just as I'd alerted the stage manager I would, switched on the mike the techs had given me after I'd informed them of the changes to the act -- changes that you didn't know about, because you always left the double-checking to me. "Perhaps it's because you've been lying to the audience, Edward."
You tried. To your credit, you tried.
"Ladies and gentlemen," you started. "This is my lovely assistant, Kirsten -- "
"I'm not your assistant, Edward," I said pleasantly. "Why don't you tell them who I really am?"
"My lovely assistant," you continued. "Kirsten Pe -- "
"Your partner," I said, smiling at the audience. "And the true heir of Merlin."
Silence fell, across the room. I could see the audience members stirring in their seats, wondering what was happening. Across the stage, Tracey mouthed, what's going on? at you.
"Tell me, Edward," I said, casually directing the golden ball that had refused to behave for you, running it through the tricks it was supposed to have done. "If you are the true heir of Merlin, what's the secret to all your tricks?"
You licked your lips nervously. "Well," you said. "That's not something I usually share with the audience -- "
"The technicalities, no," I said, and smiled at everyone. "But the details don't matter. People want to know, for instance, how it is that you manage to do -- this!"
I did my fire summoning trick, forcing it to bend to my will, creating huge fiery pinwheels that burned in the darkness above our heads. The lighting tech, who I'd warned ahead of time, dimmed the lights and let me do it.
"I -- " you started.
You tried to summon your own fire, then, but I subverted your magic just as easily as I'd subverted Tracey's. You never were a very good magician, after all. It had taken me six years to learn that, but I finally had, and now that I knew, I wasn't going to save you. I'd do what I could to thwart you, hurt your reputation, just as you'd tried to hurt mine.
You were never a very good magician, and you hadn't done any actual magic in well over a year. All the tricks in the show were mine, done with my magic, while you waved your hands and pretended to concentrate on the magic, to actually do it.
I'd been practicing, hadn't I? Every day, twice a day, for six years -- and there was all the magic I did in my spare time, the little pieces of enchantment and trickery I did for people who had no talent of their own. I'd discovered how deep my own ran, how shallow yours was -- and I wasn't about to let you succeed.
"I challenge you," I said, "to a duel."
"I..." you said.
"There's no backing out without losing honor," I said. "We won't duel to kill. We'll duel to impress. The audience will act as our judges. We get one trick each. The one who gets the most applause wins. Shall we?"
"Yes," you said, your face suddenly grim.
"The challenger traditionally goes first," I said, "but I'll give you a chance to defend yourself."
I stepped back, into the shadows.
"Ladies and gentlemen," you said. "Our final trick -- we, um, transform a willing audience member into a dove and back. I shall perform that for you, now."
Transformation had once been your strong suit, but that had been six years before, and you'd never actually tried to turn anyone into a dove. It had always been illusion, and you'd let me handle it.
I watched, interested, wondering what you would do.
"On the count of three," you said. "One, two..."
I felt the spark, saw what you were trying to do.
I thought about snuffing it out, the way I'd snuffed the others, decided not to.
There was a banging sound, and then --
Tracey stood upon the stage, her hair streaked with white, but otherwise unchanged.
There was no applause.
I stepped forward again, waved my hand and returned her hair to its rightful color.
"May I have a volunteer from the audience, please?" I asked, my voice pleasant. "Preferably someone who is not afraid of flying -- yes, fine, the gentleman in the third row, wearing the blue suit. Stand, please."
The stranger stood.
"Now -- what's your name?" I asked, casting a spell that would amplify his voice.
"Jack," he said. "Jack Voss."
"Hello Jack," I said. "I'm going to turn you into a bird and have you fly around the auditorium three times before landing back in your seat, at which point I'll change you back, unharmed. What kind of bird would you like to be?"
"A bluebird," he said, awkwardly. "They're my wife's favorite."
"A bluebird," I said. "Fine."
"Don't you need him to come to the stage?" asked Tracey. "You need proximity..."
"No," I said calmly, and waving my hands, I turned my volunteer into a bluebird.
There was no noise. As with all good magic, it was silent and instantaneous. My volunteer was standing, and then, suddenly, he was not -- and there was a bluebird flying around the auditorium.
He flew three times, and I turned him back, all without a sound.
Silence, for a moment, and then --
"I -- thank you," said Jack Voss. "I've never -- that was one of the best moments of my life."
They gave me a standing ovation. You left the stage, somewhere in there, and that was it.
They gave me the full fee, what they were going to pay to you.
"It doesn't feel right to pay him," said the woman who had organized everything. "Not when it turns out that you've been doing all of the magic. I doubt he's been paying you fairly, since he's said he was thinking about removing you from the show entirely, since you weren't pulling your own weight..."
It was a check for over two hundred thousand, more than what you owed me in back pay.
"If you decide you want to tour again..."
"I might," I said, quietly. "Tonight was supposed to be our last show. I'll let you know."
If things had been different -- if I hadn't humiliated you, exposed you for a fraud, if I'd been quiet and accepted the modified invoices and unfair wages as a harsh life lesson, maybe there would have been something to salvage, between you and I. Perhaps you could have apologized to me; perhaps we could have made it right.
I didn't hear from you, after that show was over. I knew our relationship, professional and otherwise, was done, and I didn't need further acknowledgment of that.
Tracey was the one to reach out to me.
"He's told me all about you," came the email. "About how you manipulated him, how you set him up for failure..."
I sent her proof of the modified invoices, an accounting of what work I had done, the contract you'd made me sign, midway through our fifth year, stipulating that I would do all the magic while you handled the 'showmanship'.
I didn't hear from her after that, either.
I still tour, today. I do performances a few times a year.
The rest of the time, I work on magic -- developing solutions for unique problems. I have my own firm now, despite the lack of degree. I was able to turn the publicity from that event into a well-paying job, working for myself and solving problems, the way I enjoyed.
I'm asked, sometimes, what became of you, and I have to admit that I don't know. Articles pop up, every now and then, on the internet -- asking what became of the "rising star" of a magician, Edward Pierce, but they turn up no leads.
When people do not ask about you, they ask about whether I can be happy, living the life I do, not performing all the time. "Don't you miss it? Is this really enough?"
I just smile, when they ask.
I think it obvious.