“ARE YOU READY,” the third year girl cried into a rolled up paper that served as a megaphone, “for this fine institution's FIRST. EVER. MAGIC DUEL?”
The sea of girls that had flooded the theater of Melieh’s Academy of Magic screamed, and Bostwick had an eerie premonition of things to come. He had agreed to this ridiculous duel only because he knew he would win, but standing here on stage for the first time, he couldn't shake the feeling that Clarence had something up his sleeve.
“In this corner,” the announcer continued, as if the hastily cobbled-together stage performance was a boxing match, “is Bostwick von Dogsbody, top of the second year class. His goal in life is to become a court magician for one of the royal families of the Empire.”
Bostwick grimaced. Clarence, who had submitted both of their “biographies”, had made him sound like he was some kind of one-track-mind perfectionist who only cared about prestige. Even so, the audience politely applauded him.
“In this corner is Clarence Bellemont, aspiring door-to-door magician and a distant relative to the empress.”
The girls erupted in screams and squeals as Clarence brushed his blond hair off his forehead and waved. The two “opponents” walked to the middle of the stage and shook hands.
“How exactly is this an 'impartial panel of judges'?” Bostwick whispered as the cheers died down.
“It's not my fault,” Clarence said, with the same eager but apologetic expression a golden retriever might have had in a similar situation. “I asked for volunteers and they all just showed up.”
“It looks like our two magicians are exchanging some trash talk,” the announcer said through her paper cone. “Save it for later, boys, we're waiting for a show. Each opponent is allowed the use of a table, a top hat, and any props he can conjure. After the show, you will fill out the cards you received when entering the theater, grading each opponent not only on their magical prowess, but also their stage presence and poise. Magic is, after all, a science and an art. First up is Mr. Dogsbody!”
“Von Dogsbody,” Bostwick grumbled, stepping up to the table. He hated his last name, with or without the “von”, as it blatantly pointed out his servile heritage. No matter what his ancestors were, he was a magician. He just hoped the audience would remember that.
The table before him was bare except for a silk top hat used for their daily magic practice. The first step of any show was to acquire props to manipulate for an entertaining trick, so he reached into the hat, feeling the cloth inside. Concentrating, he conjured, out of thin air, a pocket watch that he had vanished that morning in preparation for the show. He pulled it out by the chain, making sure the audience could see what it was, then swung it gently like a pendulum. When he let go, the chain remained suspended in air, its watch still swinging.
The audience oohed, and Bostwick distinctly heard someone ask if he was really a second year. Technically he was, but he’d done so well in his classes that the professors had allowed him to move up to some third year studies: Advanced Levitation, Avian Conjuring, and Basics in Biological Restoration—which he was going to use to great effect in today's performance. Normally, he would feel that he had an unfair advantage over Clarence, who was struggling with normal second year coursework, but this was a fight for everything he held dear, never mind the fact that Clarence had basically forced him into it.
He undid his blue bowtie—Clarence had rendered all of their uniforms unusable, so they had borrowed some tailcoats and shirts that the Academy had on hand for official magic shows—and hung it in the air next to the table. Finally, he took off his hat and gradually extracted a cardboard box from it. The box almost got stuck, as it had to be large enough for the next part of the trick, but he managed to get it out and placed it on the table.
“So for this trick, we have everything we'll need, in one form or another,” he said, taking the watch in his hand and tossing it up into the air. It spun and changed, so that what he caught was the handle of a long-bladed knife.
“Something steely, something soft…” He grasped the top and bottom ends of the bowtie that still hung in the air and collapsed them down together. As he opened his hands, he changed the tangled cloth tie into a chubby bluebird. Doves were the norm in magic, so he was hoping to get some points for originality.
“…and this box…” He plopped the bluebird inside and shut the lid. “…which will be transformed, not by magic, but fate. It will either become this bird's shield, or its coffin.”
The girls sat forward in morbid fascination. Surely a second year student wouldn't attempt such a dangerous trick.
Bostwick placed his hand on one side of the box, as if to steady it, and raised the knife in his other hand. In reality, he was casting a continual healing spell on the box’s contents. Healing, more formally called biological restoration, had originally been created to heal wounds after the fact, but it was a common practice for more gifted magicians to use it as a means of preventing injury to a person in a box, who would otherwise be cut in half. Still, it was risky, and took all of his concentration and focus. He took a calming breath, then swung the knife down.
The blade cut neatly through the box, causing an immediate outcry from the audience. What had they expected to happen? True, he could have turned the box to steel at the last second, or vanished it altogether, but he was aiming to win, and cheap substitutions would get him nowhere.
“Don't worry.” He reached into the box and held the bird up on his index finger. Its feathers were only the tiniest bit ruffled. “He's fine.”
The audience erupted in applause, and a few overly sensitive girls wiped away tears, relieved that the bird was still alive. Bostwick knelt down and handed it to one of them with a smile, then moved to the side of the stage. Clarence was up next.
The blond boy walked up to the table, flipped the hat up his arm to his head, and grinned.
“Thank you, thank you,” he said, since the girls had already started to applaud. “I have to admit, this being my first magic show, I am a little nervous.” He pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe his forehead, then continued pulling and pulling an entire row of white handkerchiefs out. He balled these up and flicked them up into the air, revealing that he had joined them all into a single, solid tablecloth, which he set onto the table.
“Well, I feel a little better now, but I think it's still too early to tell. Perhaps a drink will calm my nerves.”
From his top hat he retrieved a steaming cup of tea, which he downed in one gulp. With a gasp, he grabbed his throat, then moved his hands to his lips and conjured fire at the same time. The trick was sloppy and no one was fooled into thinking he had actually breathed fire—no magician to Bostwick's knowledge had even attempted such a thing—but then cried, “That was a little too hot!”
The audience giggled, and Clarence brought another cup out of his hat, this one a clear glass full of greenish liquid. He took a demure sip of this and shivered.
“Pickle juice,” he said, setting it aside onto the table. “No, no, no, Hat. I want water. Just water.”
He pulled out a handful of ice cubes, then dropped them back in.
“Well, now it's just being sarcastic! Fine, if you don't want to cooperate, Hat, then you can't be part of the trick.”
He flipped it over onto his head and got drenched by a downpour of water. He sighed and carefully lifted the hat, revealing a glass of water perched on his soaking wet hair.
“Very nice, Hat, but now I'm afraid I'm not thirsty.” He took the water and placed it between the tea and the pickle juice, so that all three cups lined up.
“Now!” he cried, seizing the edge of the tablecloth. “It’s time for my real trick!” He pulled back on the cloth, and all three cups clattered to the floor.
The audience gasped, and Bostwick winced. He had seen street performers actually pull tablecloths without their contents moving, but he assumed Clarence had tried to do the trick by levitating all three cups at once, which would be a tall feat to ask of any second year student, let alone one with such poor skills.
“First the hat, and now the tablecloth,” Clarence said, scooping up the shattered remains of each cup and putting them back onto the tablecloth. The stage was still soaking with water and pickle juice, but it seemed that Clarence was too preoccupied to notice.
“Ahem… Now for my real trick!”
He grabbed the tablecloth again and yanked it upwards, sending pieces of glass and porcelain over the audience—or so they thought. Instead, the cup pieces had turned into dozens of white rose petals that fluttered down onto the girls in the first row. There were again gasps from the seats, but these ones were of awe. Clarence bowed, and the audience erupted into applause.
Bostwick was both impressed and horrified. Clarence had clearly won. That unfortunately meant that he, himself, had lost—lost the duel, lost all hope. And he would soon lose his dignity. Clarence trotted off stage with a grin that told of a coming doom.
It had all begun so innocently, too.
Bostwick was practicing his levitation spells in their dorm room, feeling that he had gotten pretty good at handling heavier objects, when his roommate ran full tilt through the door and crashed into the bunk bed. He stood up, straightened his uniform, pushed his hair out of his face, and said, “Bostwick! You've got to help me! It's a poetry emergency!”
“I don't believe there is such a thing,” Bostwick said, letting the chair he had been levitating float to the ground.
“But there is! See, there's this girl who works at a flower shop across the street, and I'm trying to write a poem for her. The first line is giving me trouble. I tried to write about her eyes, but when I asked a few of the girls about it, they just laughed.”
Bostwick sighed, sat on the chair, and gave his roommate his full attention.
“Ahem,” Clarence began, “Her cheeks are flushed like hyacinths, her eyes were limpet pools—”
“Wait, 'limpet'? L-I-M-P-E-T?”
“Yes. Limpet pools.”
“Are you trying to say 'limpid'?”
“Uh, am I?”
“Limpid means clear. A limpet is a sea creature that lives in tide pools. Any girl who hears you saying that about her would be justified in slapping you.”
“Hmm. I suppose so.”
“Also, hyacinths come in lots of colors, so 'flushing like a hyacinth' could mean turning white or pink or even purple. If your cheeks are purple, it probably means you can't breath.”
“Then I've got nothing. My poem is a complete bust, and she needs it by tomorrow.”
“Needs it? Wait, what exactly is this poem for?”
“The girl at the flower shop is trying to come up with short poem to put on the bouquets she sells, and I offered to help her.”
“So you're supposed to be writing a poem to sell flowers, and you decided to write a poem about how pretty a girl is?”
“Aren't all poems really about pretty girls?” Clarence asked, striking a dramatic pose.
“No, a good ninety-five percent of poems are, in fact, not about pretty girls. Why not just write about pretty flowers. Like Matsui's 'Sunflower' or 'Poppy Red' by Egwu. You could even write her a haiku, since they're short enough to fit on a tag.” He quickly counted on his fingers, then said, “Apple blossoms fall… in flurries on the sidewalk… a springtime snowstorm. Something like that.”
“Bostwick! Did you just write that just now?”
“Well, I wrote it a while ago. I kind of like poetry, so…”
“That's amazing. Mine is pure drivel compared to that. You should enter a contest.”
“It's not that good.”
“Well, do you have others?”
He pulled some papers from his desk drawer and handed them to Clarence, whose eyes flew over the pages.
“These are astounding!” he finally said.
“I think it's more the fact that you've never met someone in real life who writes poetry. They really aren't anything special. You should read some by Aelfreda Ruzicka.”
“You really know your stuff about poetry, don't you, Bostwick? I never knew that about you.”
“Well, it doesn't come up that often in conversation. But I'm glad you liked my poems. I guess I can try to help you write one for the flower shop girl…”
Bostwick quickly produced a few lines in iambic tetrameter about flowers and thought there would be no more to it, but Clarence was an obsessive sort of person who had to accomplish whatever he set his mind too, no matter how much it troubled other people. He was insistent on Bostwick entering a poetry contest and nagged him about it so incessantly that Bostwick finally agreed to go with him to the Imperial Theater, the hub of all artistic activities in the Capital. There were fliers up for all sorts of contests, from singing to sketch comedy, but none of them mentioned poetry. They asked a woman at the ticket counter if there were any such contests happening, and she gave them the sad news.
“I'm afraid most of the winter contests have ended. You'll have to wait until spring.”
Bostwick thanked her anyway and turn to leave, but Clarence grabbed him by the arm.
“You said most contests have ended,” he said to the ticket lady, “meaning that not all of them have?”
“Well, there is still the Imperial Society of the Black Lily. They hold a large competition for spoken poetry every winter, but I'm afraid it's an all-girl club.”
“That's all right,” Clarence said. “Could I still have two forms… for my sisters?”
The ticket lady handed them over and the two magicians headed back to the Academy.
“I never knew you had sisters,” Bostwick said on the way back, marveling at how little he knew about his own roommate despite two whole years together.
“Actually, I'm an only child.”
“Ah…” His pace slowed to a stop as the full implications of that statement sank in. “What?”
“No. I mean, 'what' as in 'What in the world could you possibly be thinking?' The Black Lily Society is all girls. As in all girls. I am not a girl, Clarence.”
“No, but for the sake of your art, you could become one!”
“I actually could not.”
“But you could dress like one. You just need a wig, and I'm sure we can borrow a couple of the girls’ uniforms from school.”
“That's why I got two forms. I wouldn't send you all alone in there. Men have to stick together.”
“Yes. As men.”
“Well, we're only fourteen. I'm sure we can pass as ladies.”
Bostwick simply buried his face in his arms and continued walking, hoping that he might accidentally end up in traffic.
The next morning, Clarence acquired two black dresses and blue underskirts that made up the uniform of third year female students at the Academy.
“If they think we're third years, no one will guess it's us!”
“We'll know it's us, and that's what matters.”
The following day he showed up with a curly blond wig and another with straight, brown hair, offering Bostwick his pick.
The next few days proved delightfully free of any talk about poetry or contests, and Bostwick hoped that Clarence had finally given up on them. At breakfast, however, Clarence crashed into him, covering both their uniforms in tomato soup, grape juice, and, for some reason, ink.
“Sorry!” Clarence said. “I really need to be more careful. By the way, the contest is only three days away…”
Thus began his sabotage of Bostwick's wardrobe. There were many more mysterious spills and an incident involving the conjuration of fire and the singeing of sleeves. The morning of the day of the contest, Bostwick opened his closet to find his clothes simply gone. He turned to his roommate, who was drinking a cup of coffee with the most guilty-looking feigned innocence he had ever seen.
“What did you do with my clothes, Clarence?”
“Maybe it was goblins? You never can tell. I'm sure all your clothes will turn up tomorrow.”
Bostwick said nothing, but unbuttoned his pajama shirt to reveal a black tunic with green piping at the sleeves and collar.
“You… slept in your uniform?” Clarence asked incredulously.
“I suspected a sneak attack, since today is that stupid contest, and decided on a preemptive strike.”
“Very strategic,” Clarence conceded, standing and wandering to the corner of the room where the two dresses hung like hangmen's nooses. He continued pacing, made a show of tripping, then once he had come almost to a complete stop, threw his coffee onto Bostwick's shirt. Bostwick looked down at himself, too annoyed to even bother letting out a sigh.
“Oops!” Clarence said.
“I can't wait until they teach us how to vanish stains, just so I won't have to deal with things like this. Anyway, since it's your fault, I'm borrowing your clothes.”
Before he could make it to the closet, Clarence sprang in front of him, grabbed up all of the clothes, hangers and all, and threw them out the window. Bostwick ran to the window and watched them flutter to the ground, then stared at Clarence, open mouthed. Clarence stared back, then shrugged and said, “Oops?”
“Why 'oops'? Well, it was an accident.”
“It was not.”
“No, I suppose not… But your poetry is really good. Really good, and people ought to hear it, now or never. What if this is the only opportunity you have to be known as a poet?”
“If I have to be known as a female poet, then I'm happy to die in anonymity.”
“Then I have no choice but to get serious,” Clarence said. “You may refuse to concede to my demands, but I refuse to give up. There's no recourse but to settle this like gentlemen. I challenge you, Bostwick von Dogsbody, to a duel!”
“And I refuse.”
“A magic duel!”
“I already… Wait, magic?”
“We each put on a magic show for a panel of impartial judges, and if I win, you agree to participate in the poetry contest.”
“And if I win, you let the matter drop and never mention anything about poetry, contests, or girls ever again.”
“It would be as if we had never heard of the Imperial Society of the Black Lily.”
The girls of the Academy had overwhelmingly voted for Clarence, and Bostwick agreed with their decision. Clarence had put on a surprising and innovative performance, the kind of entertaining tricks that door-to-door and stage magicians used as their bread and butter. Bostwick was happy to have faced off against him as a rival.
Of course, none that made cross-dressing any easier.
“How do we look?” Clarence asked as they stared at themselves in their bedroom mirror.
“Like boys in dresses.” Bostwick glowered at the mirror as Clarence plopped a mass of long, brown hair onto his head. “And wigs.”
“Well, it's as good as it's going to get. We had better head out, or we'll be late.”
“We wouldn't want that,” he said without emotion.
They snuck out of the dormitory through the window, over the roof, and down a ladder they had discovered last year during another one of Clarence's cockamamie schemes. It was hard for them to get used to climbing around in skirts, but Bostwick absolutely refused to be seen within the Academy walls in a dress. The Imperial Theater was mercifully close, though Bostwick still walked with his face towards the ground, hoping the bangs of his wig would obscure his identity. When they made it to the theater, Clarence sashayed up to the ticket counter, looking the very same lady in the eye who had originally told them of the accursed contest.
“We're contestants,” he said in a slight falsetto.
“Names?” the lady asked.
“I'm Eliza Bellemont, and this is Lily Gilder.”
The woman waved them through into the lobby and Bostwick raised his face just enough to give Clarence an incredulous look.
“Lily Gilder? Seriously? That's the best you could do?”
“It just sort of came to me.”
“How come you have a real name?”
“Because I decided to take on the persona of my own imaginary sister.”
Bostwick couldn't even think of a response to something so ridiculous, but soon forgot their conversation as they entered the main theater. Aside from the grand ornamentation on every surface and the sheer immensity of the stage itself, they were struck by the fact that the room was absolutely packed with women, from little girls in frilly dress to elderly dowagers dripping in shawls and pearls, and every age and affect in between. For the first time in his life, Bostwick felt actual terror, sure that his disguise wouldn't fool even the youngest of them, but Clarence steered him to the stage anyway, where a group of contestants were lining up.
“Names?” a woman with her hair up in tight braids asked them.
Clarence repeated their nom-de-plums, and they were told to stand backstage until they were called to recite their poems. They would be the forty-second and forty-third contestants.
“Well, this is it,” Bostwick said, listening as girl after girl recited poems of varying lengths. “My last day alive. I wonder if it's possible to actually vanish oneself with magic. I'm sure it would be risky to any bystanders, but probably worth it. Well, do you want to be the first to end it or should I?” Clarence didn't reply, and was in fact staring at the stage floor with wide eyes. “Clarence? Has it finally hit you?”
“R-Recite?” he whispered, as if saying it too loudly might be dangerous.
“Don't worry. They said we can have a copy up with us on stage if we want… Why? Did you forget to bring one with you?”
“I didn't even write a poem. I've never written a poem!”
“What? But you're the one who wanted to enter this stupid—”
“I wanted you to enter. I just came along to provided moral support.”
“And it never occurred to you that entering the contest meant that you, too, would have to recite a poem?” Clarence shook his head slowly. It was the first time Bostwick had ever seen him look worried.
“I guess I was just doing things without thinking.”
“Isn't that what you always do?”
He nodded despondently. “In poetry and magic. To be perfectly honest, I'm actually surprised I won our duel.”
“Your performance was better, that's all there was to it.”
“But it didn't work. I tried really hard, but I still messed up the final trick.”
“The thing with the tablecloth?”
“I was trying to pull the cloth out from under the cups without them moving, but it didn't work, so that's why I ad-libbed and turned the pieces into flowers… well, flower petals. Even that part wasn't exactly what I wanted.”
“Well, you couldn't be expected to levitate all three cups at once.”
“So the tablecloth couldn't knock them down.”
Clarence stared into the distance for a moment, then smacked his forehead.
“That's brilliant! Why didn't I think of that?”
“I thought you… Then your actual trick was just to pull…? Clarence, that's not even magic.”
“But it would have been so great!”
“But if you didn't know how to do something like that, why would you have tried it in the first place?”
Clarence shrugged. He really did do everything without thinking. Still, Bostwick was impressed that he'd covered so well. Even if Clarence's original idea had been completely idiotic, Bostwick couldn't fault him for how the trick had ended up. Grace under pressure was just as much a part of being a magician as proper planning was.
“Okay,” Bostwick said, as the forty-first girl was called onto stage. “Just… say you're not feeling well. Go sit in the audience, and as soon as I finish, we can leave.”
“But I can't ask you to shoulder this alone. That wouldn't be fair.”
“Well, I could always drop out, too.”
“No! We've already come this far. People are going to hear your poems, Bostwick. Everyone assumes that you only care about becoming a court magician and nothing else, just because you're good at magic. This is your chance to prove you have the soul of a poet as well as a great magician.”
Bostwick could have said a lot of things, like pointing out that, hopefully, no one would recognize him, or that liking poetry isn't the same thing as having 'the soul of a poet', but he couldn't bring himself to say anything. He had assumed that Clarence had been running around half-cocked as usual, when really this whole stupid, embarrassing, humiliating scheme had been meant for Bostwick's benefit. And though Clarence had clearly not thought ahead far enough to prepare his own poem, he was going to stick by Bostwick to the bitter end.
“Eliza Bellemont?” the lady with the braids said.
“Clarence, you don't have to…”
“No,” he said, straightening his wig, “men have to stick together.”
With that, he flounced to the center of the stage.
It was all Clarence’s own fault, Bostwick thought. He had submitted the entrance forms, he had borrowed the dresses, and he had won the duel. Still, he hadn't done it out of malice or even caprice. It was all to help a friend. Well, he was better at showmanship than Bostwick was. Surely, he would be all right. Right?
“I'm Eliza Bellemont,” Clarence said in his falsetto. “And m-my poem is… Her Eyes were L-Lipid Pools.”
“Limpid Pools,” Bostwick said, walking out onto stage. “Her Eyes were Limpid Pools. A Collaboration.”
Clarence stared at him for a moment, then smiled and made a fist.
“Like men!” he whispered.
“It's too late for that,” Bostwick said, then as loudly as he could, began the poem.
“Her eyes were limped pools, I thought,
when first she crossed my sight,
but I was wrong, for clearly they
were no more clear than night.
And though she simpered sweetly,
her laugh was full of myrrh,
no mirth knew she in all her days
and sweetness sought not her.”
Bostwick paused, considering if they should just end it there or not, but Clarence seized the opportunity to continue.
“Her cheeks were flushed like hyacinths,
her hair was lily gilt,
but her heart was dead and blackened…”
He turned imploringly to Bostwick, who cried, “Like the poisonous ink she spilt!”
He bowed before Clarence could add any more lines and the audience applauded. Clarence curtsied, and the two boys walked of stage.
The other contestants said they really liked the poem, and could be heard discussing how it attacked shallow perceptions of beauty, satirized a famous journalist, or pointed out the speaker’s battle with her own psyche.
“What exactly was our poem about?” Clarence asked, as Bostwick pulled him by the arm through one of the backstage exits.
“It wasn't about anything, Clarence. It didn't make any sense at all.”
“Hmm, I guess it didn't, really. But it sounded good, didn't it?”
Once they were out in the cold night air, Bostwick finally felt free. He knew he had lost something in this ordeal. Self-respect? Dignity? His willingness to talk about poetry with other people? Surely all of those things. But as he and Clarence made it safely back into their dorm room, ripping off their wigs and vowing never to mention the night's occurrence to any human being, ever, he felt like he had gained something, too. He understood something that he hadn't before. Whether it was something about showmanship or friendship, he couldn't say, and frankly, he didn't care. He pulled on his coffee stained pajamas and climbed into bed, supremely happy to be a boy.