Part IV: Incendiary
In an excerpt of his writings, Herr Thiessen ruminates on how there are parts of the circus he has not yet explored. He explains how each time he goes there are places he had not yet discovered.
While Marco sleeps, Celia thinks about how learning his systems might help make the circus independent of her power. She takes the book that contains the circus names as a place to start studying them and leaves his flat. Hector’s ghost is waiting for her just outside and he harangues her for staying the night with Marco. Noticing the notebook, he tells her that she shouldn’t be doing anything with the systems the man in the grey suit and Marco use. When he calls her weak, she tells him that he should let her lose. To this, Hector reveals that a winner isn’t declared, but is the one who survives the challenge. When one contestant can no longer endure the magic they are using, the other becomes the victor. Celia realizes that Hector was willing to sacrifice her life for the sake of the challenge and asks who the previous winner was. Hector tells her it is Tsukiko.
Playing with Fire
Returning to the second person point of view, the narration describes the show in the fire performers’ tent. The showpiece of the tent is a performer who manipulates flame in her hands into various shapes including a book and a boat, shooting stars and birds.
Celia visits Tsukiko’s compartment on the train and asks why she never told her about being the victor of the previous challenge. Tsukiko is evasive but eventually tells her that she promised not to reveal herself unless asked about it directly. Tsukiko tells her that the challenge is larger than Celia believes and everything she does is a move, not just the building of tents. Tsukiko encourages Celia to find a way to separate herself from the circus as anything happening to her at this point would likely destroy the circus. Tsukiko also tells Celia that she will step in if the circus is threatened. When Celia asks about what happened to Tsukiko’s opponent, Tsukiko tells her that she is a pillar of ash in Japan.
Bailey goes to the train depot in the hopes of catching up with the Le Cirque des Rêves before it leaves Massachusetts. There, he meets rêveurs who, after he tells them he’s trying to catch up with Poppet and Widget, invite him to travel with them. Though he hesitates to call himself a rêveur at first, the people he meets insist that he must be because of the clear passion he has for the circus. They invite him to stay with them until they get word of where the circus will be next. The hotel they stay at in Boston is luxurious and the rêveurs treat him to a new charcoal grey suit—with a red rose tucked into the lapel—and dinner at a fancy restaurant. They share stories of the circus and the one of the rêveurs explains who Herr Thiessen is to Bailey. They explain that something about the circus has been different since Herr Thiessen’s death. By the end of dinner they receive a telegram telling them the circus is on the outskirts of New York.
Marco visits Celia’s tent when the circus is in Montreal. Celia is surprised that Marco has come to North America, but he tells her that it’s difficult for her to hide because she travels with a whole circus. He isn’t angry that she took his notebook as he knows it’s safe with her. Marco offers to help when she explains that she wanted to learn his techniques but she refuses. He realizes that she doesn’t trust him. Marco tries to convince her that his love for her is real, unlike what passed between him and Isobel, and that he’s not trying to deceive her. When he tells her that being without her is killing him, she reveals that the challenge is designed to kill one of them. Marco begs her not to leave him, but she tells him that it’s too late for them to be together because there are too many people involved in the circus. She asks him not to come back to Le Cirque des Rêves and vanishes.
Hector calling Celia a “deceitful little slut” when she spends the night with Marco makes an important statement about the way that Hector views his daughter’s romantic life while also pointing toward his gendered notion of sex and sexuality. Hector himself is known as something of a Lothario early in the novel, having used magic to seduce at least one woman, Celia’s mother, though it’s implied that he may have done so with more. By calling her a slut after having spent a single night with Marco, it makes it seem as though she has committed an unforgiveable transgression. While much of his anger is due to the fact that it is Marco, who Hector sees simply as her competitor, that she spent the night with, his use of such gender-coded language meant to shame her for engaging in sex is indicative of a strong gender bias.
When Hector tells Celia that the victor of the challenge is the one who survives to the end, Celia realizes for the first time that her father was willing to let her die for his own hubris. While he has been cruel and spiteful up until this point, this moment represents a pivotal change in their already volatile relationship. Though her father has been cruel to her for her entire life, this moment thrusts his motivations in the stark light of day as she recognizes that he would not only let her die, but was willing to cause her death by entering her into a challenge in the first place. Moreover, he brushes off any accountability for his actions as though they’re of no consequence to further berate her about her relationship with Marco.
When Bailey tells Lorena that he feels like a girl in a fairy tale who attends a ball in “Escapement,” it confirms the foreshadowing from the chapter “Hidden Things,” in which Bailey laments that it’s only girls who are whisked away on adventures in fairy tales and myths. This callback reveals that adventure is achieved by those who take action, not those who sit idly by and wait for it to happen to them and provides a satisfying resolution for part of his emotional arc. Rather than framing the journey between Cambridge and Boston as a simple trip or an inconvenient delay on his way to be with the circus, Bailey leans into the time he spends with the rêveurs, reinforcing the motif of dreams. Bailey’s recognition that he is finally on an adventure filled with interesting, likeminded people creates a tone of excitement and hope around Bailey’s ability to save the circus.
Tsukiko’s true position as the previous victor is revealed during Celia’s conversation with Hector, but Celia is not given the kind of help that she expects to get from her. Because Tsukiko won the previous challenge, she Celia realizes that she is in the unique position to help Celia free herself and Marco from the game. While Tsukiko has been friendly with Celia since the very beginning, Celia is also furious that Tsukiko didn’t say anything about her role. Interestingly, Isobel’s guess that Tsukiko was Marco’s opponent early on in “Stratagem” speaks to how much she stands out as someone potentially magical and singular enough to have been involved in one of the challenges. While Celia does get some limited advice from Tsukiko, she doesn’t get the kinds of answers she hopes for. Rather, Tsukiko makes it clear that she is interested in the outcome of the game for her own reasons because she wants the circus to stay together. Ultimately, she reminds Celia that the challenge has an undeniable impact on the circus.
Celia throws herself into the project of detangling the circus from herself as soon as she finds out the real stakes of the challenge. Though she had planned to do so eventually, having stolen Marco’s notebook for exactly those ends, it’s her conversations with Hector and Tsukiko that help her realize the seriousness of the circus’s situation. Should she fail in the test of endurance her father has forced her into, the circus will likely fall apart just as Tsukiko’s venue did before it. Tsukiko also applies added pressure by telling Celia that she will step in to save the circus if Celia can’t make the circus independent. While what Tsukiko plans to do and exactly the timeline she as to work within are unclear, there is a clear threat implied in her statement.