Bailey arrives at the circus to find it closed. Weatherworn and smelling of something burning, the circus is nothing like it was before. When he makes it over the fence, he finds everything within completely still. The only person he encounters is Tsukiko, who is waiting by the unlit cauldron that normally holds the bonfire. When Bailey asks where Poppet is, Tsukiko tells him that she’s indisposed. He continues to pepper her with questions as she brings him to a tent to speak with someone else.
Marco lands hard on the ground after being transported by Isobel to the circus. Tsukiko appears from the shadows and reveals to him that she was also the man in the grey suit’s former student. She tells Marco that her competitor, Hinata, took her own life to end their competition and that Celia is planning to do the same. Almost immediately afterward, she mentions the story of the wizard in the tree as they come across the bonfire. Marco puts together that Tsukiko means to bind him to the bonfire to lock him away and end the challenge. Just then, Celia comes upon Marco and Tsukiko. She asks what they’re doing and Tsukiko explains that she cannot bear to watch the circus fade away, so she is stepping in. Frantic, Celia runs to them and throws herself into Marco’s arms. She whispers for him to trust her as pain rips through his body and they disappear. There is an explosion and the circus catches fire. It dies down quickly, but the bonfire has died out and Tsukiko waits by the cauldron.
Celia breaks apart and is suddenly enveloped in nothingness. Celia starts to pull herself back together and focuses on the stage of her tent. When she materializes there, everything around her is transparent. She moves through the circus fluidly to find that everything is still and transparent. She can feel traces of Marco everywhere but can’t find him. Marco floats between reality and non-reality for longer than Celia but eventually coalesces in the Ice Garden. When Celia finds Marco, the first thing they say to one another is a declaration of love. They embrace for a long time before Celia explains that she used her father’s technique to remove them from the physical world. Unlike her father, however, Celia used the circus as a touchstone, so they can hold themselves together. Realizing that Celia is the only thing holding the circus together, Marco asks what will happen to them if the circus collapses, but Celia doesn’t know. She tells him that it needs a caretaker.
Bailey enters the tent with the paper menagerie where he meets Marco for the first time. Marco vacillates between looking solid and being transparent, depending on the angle. Marco tells Bailey what happened earlier that night while leading him to the Wishing Tree tent. They cut through the acrobat tent and see the circus performers frozen mid-party. Bailey stops when he sees Poppet and Widget. Marco hastens Bailey through to where Celia is waiting for them. Celia explains Poppet’s vision and how it relates to Bailey. They ask if Bailey will take over the circus so it doesn’t fall apart. When he tells them that he’s not special, Celia tells him that he is simply in the right place at the right time to change the fate of the circus. He thinks for a long moment but knows his answer already. He agrees to do it. As an added measure, Marco uses a ring to bind Bailey to the circus.
The Second Lighting of the Bonfire
Bailey gathers the supplies Marco and Celia tell him to find in Celia’s rooms, including the Temperance card and Hector’s pocket watch. He removes Poppet and Widget’s pages from the notebook and adds his own name. With his supplies in hand, he makes his way to the bonfire. He follows the steps Celia gave him to create a charm from the supplies and he throws it into the cauldron. On an impulse, he adds the contents of his own pockets to the charm. He lights a candle with Tsukiko’s lighter and thinks hard about how badly he wants this charm to work as he throws it into the cauldron. He feels a heaviness in his chest and the cauldron sparks to life.
“Incendiary” establishes Tsukiko as a calculating, manipulative person as she tries to step in to end the challenge and save the circus. Tsukiko’s admission that she trained Isobel to use the trick that brought Marco to the circus and her offer to bind Marco to the bonfire to end the challenge reveal her to be shrewd and powerful. Tsukiko’s motivation, which is murky throughout the course of the novel, is finally revealed as a desire to save the circus that she has grown attached to. Tsukiko’s tragic past as the last challenge’s victor positions her as someone uniquely capable of understanding the pain Marco and Celia stand to experience as the winner. Tsukiko’s may be manipulative, but her heartbreak over Hinata’s death is genuine. Tsukiko presents her story of heartbreak alongside the story of the wizard in the tree to influence Marco to sacrifice himself for Celia because she is the greater loss to the circus.
The theme of autonomy comes into play as Bailey contemplates taking over the circus. Celia refuses to accept Bailey’s initial answer because she wants to make sure he is making the decision of his own free will. Though she is barely holding on to the circus, Celia refuses to accept Bailey’s first answer because she fears that he isn’t fully aware of the consequences of the choice he has in front of him. While Celia does not doubt that he cares about the circus, she also knows the kind of responsibility transferring it to him would saddle him with because she has been burdened by it for nearly two decades. Similarly, Marco remarks on Bailey’s young age with trepidation. Because Celia and Marco were both robbed of their choice in being involved in the circus, they are particularly sensitive to the importance of a person’s autonomy.
Celia subverting the challenge by rendering them both incapable of playing in it at the is the ultimate revenge she can exact on her father and the best possible outcome for either herself or Marco. Importantly, Celia destroys both of their physical forms at the exact same time, so there’s no way to argue that either of them outlasted the other. In an act of poetic justice, Celia uses an improved version of the magic that rendered her father an ineffectual ghost to secure her freedom and Marco’s. Similarly, she is finally able to be with Marco in a meaningful way, nullifying the challenge and her father’s wishes as a factor in their lives. The result is bittersweet as the two can be together for the rest of time so long as the circus exists.
Bailey adding the contents of his pocket to the bonfire signifies his commitment to the circus as an integral part of his future. The charm that Celia has him make is notable for the elements it draws together, tying objects of significance to the circus by putting them in the bonfire: Herr Thiessen’s scarf, the Temperance card, playing cards that Celia and Marco used in the game room. Each of these objects represents important people or ideas that makes the circus special. Significantly, Bailey departs from Celia’s instructions by adding parts of himself to Celia’s recipe, fully committing himself to being part of the circus forevermore. Bailey uses his most precious items—the silver ticket Poppet gave him, the rose that he got from one of the rêveurs, the bottle containing the memory of his oak tree, and Poppet’s glove—to forge a new fire, and make himself irrevocably part of it.
The decision Celia makes to remove herself and Marco from the physical world finalizes their love story and reveals Celia’s skill and resourcefulness. Faced with the prospect of losing Marco forever, Celia chooses to risk their lives and the entire circus in order to save him. Celia stretches her power near to breaking in order to keep the circus and she and Marco together, revealing she never ceases to feel responsible for everyone around her. Celia and Marco’s experience after becoming non-physical shows the beauty and possibility in embracing liminality. When they find one another again, their joy is tangible even though their existence is not. Once Bailey takes over the circus, Marco and Celia become linked to it forever, making their love the metaphorical heart of the circus for the rest of its existence.