A Bitter Magic

A Bitter Magic

by Roderick Townley


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A deliciously quirky tale of secrets, magic, and illusions.
Everything is in place: the packed theater, the Amazing Thummel, and, center stage, the magician's mysterious assistant. Some have called her the most beautiful woman in Europe.

Then, in a swirl of light, she vanishes!

An astounding illusion, but she never reappears. All that remains are a bloodstained white scarf and her daughter, Cisley, who lives in a glass castle and walks her pet lobster each morning by the sea.

Enter Cole, a rambunctious boy from town and Cisley's first true friend. Together they hunt for clues to her mother's disappearance. They puzzle over broken mirrors, ever-shifting labyrinths, a closet full of whispering ball gowns, and a fatal quest for a pure black rose.

Roderic Townley spins a deliciously spooky tale of one girl's journey to discover what's real and what is simply an illusion.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780449816493
Publisher: Random House Children's Books
Publication date: 11/10/2015
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)
Lexile: 500L (what's this?)
Age Range: 9 - 12 Years

About the Author

RODERICK TOWNLEY has taught in Chile on a Fulbright Fellowship, worked in New York as a journalist, and now writes from his home in Kansas. His books have received many stars and accolades including Book Sense 76 Picks and BBYA selections. You can read more about Roderick Townley and his books at rodericktownley.com.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Her eyes had that special glint they get when she's about to do something she shouldn't. I've learned to be careful with Mother. Not argue. Just be careful.

It was her idea to put me in the audience—way up in the balcony—instead of backstage, where I could be useful. My only problem is sitting still in this dress with the ridiculous ribbons that tickle my neck. Does she think I'm still a little girl?

Look at those fancy ladies down there, and the stiff-backed men beside them with medals on their chests and wax on their curled mustaches. They have no idea what goes into a show like ours.

We don't want them to, of course.

The sea starts moving. Waves of evening gowns rise. Applause surges through the hall.

"Cisley!" Miss Porlock hisses. "Stand up! He's coming!"


My tutor nods meaningfully at the box seats. After a moment, the great man himself—the archduke—ducks his head and steps in, a severely thin person with thick eyebrows. Beside him stand two armed attendants and a woman in an enormous gown. I can guess what they're thinking: Amuse us, peasants.

The audience subsides into their seats, lights dim, and Uncle Asa bounds to center stage. I have to admit he looks snappy with his slicked-back hair, pointy beard, and toothpick-thin mustache. He bows and makes his little speech. It's his show after all: the Amazing Thummel, Illusionist, & Co.

Mother and I are the & Co.

Then comes the part I can never understand, as many times as I've seen it. It kind of drives me crazy. The theater goes dark, and tiny points of light float out over the audience. Mother once told me they were "elementals," whatever that means. Now hundreds drift through the hall, glimmering dimly. Even the know-it-alls let out an "Aah," as if a swarm of fairies has filtered among them.

Onstage, a single spotlight comes up, and there stands Mother, looking— Well, a German newspaper once called Marina Thummel the most beautiful woman in Europe. I couldn't tell you; I've seen her in too many ugly moods. But just now, in her ice-blue gown, she looks out over the audience with that secret not-quite smile of hers that makes grown men squirm. It's true. I've seen it happen.

I glance down at my hands, struck again by the awful truth: I'll never have that effect on anyone.

Mother holds open a beaded purse. She makes a gesture to the floating lights, and they begin circling toward her, then around her. Finally they enter the purse, which she snaps shut with a triumphant smile. Her look says, "Wouldn't you like to know how I did that!"

The audience breaks out of its trance to applaud wildly. I applaud, too. Proud and embarrassed. You'd be, too, if it was your mother up there.

The trick is her secret. She won't tell anyone, including Uncle Asa, how she does it. "Magic," she snapped at him during one of their spats, "is not a recipe. It's a talent. One you'll never have."

Next comes the part I'm usually in; but Mother said tonight she'd let Benny, the stagehand's young son, fill in.

"But he's only eight!"

"Cisley, dear," she cooed. She was staring into the vanity mirror, applying mascara at the corners of her eyes. "You were eight when you started."

It's true. But I was good at it. Luckily, this particular trick is simple: just stand there with your arms out, and rise into the air.

Sure enough, up he goes, a foolish little boy floating a dozen feet over the stage.

It makes me wince to see Benny grinning and flapping his arms as if he's done some great thing. In fact, of course, he's done nothing at all. Never left the ground. Uncle Asa's mirrors do everything, tilting his image upward, swerving him from side to side, and setting him down again.

Miss Porlock shoots me a look. For those who don't know her, that look can seem fierce—forehead bulging and mouth turned down—but it's simply the face God gave her. Dear, clumsy Miss Porlock, a danger at any tea party, but kind. She's a relative, I'm told, a distant cousin or something.

"I like it when you do it," Miss P. whispers, and pats my knee.

The show goes on, and I wonder again why Mother wanted me out front. "Something special," she said, with a white-gloved finger to her lips and her eyes bright as emeralds. "Don't say anything to your uncle."

I have that grumbly feeling in my stomach again. I always get it when I'm nervous, which is a good part of the time, now that I think of it. I glance over at Miss Porlock and am surprised to see her gnawing her lip. Then I hear an undertone coming from her and realize she's muttering. She does that when she gets emotional. It's kind of embarrassing.

"You can tell me," I whisper during the disappearing-cabinet act. "What's going on?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

I just keep looking at her.

"I don't know; they didn't tell me."

"But you know something."

"It's something to do with the last trick."

"The new one."

She nods. "After which I'm supposed to give you something."

I shoot her my stare. "Give it to me now."

"I mustn't."

"Why not?"

But Miss Porlock has turned away. She knows perfectly well I'm staring at her. You can tell by the indifferent way she tosses her curls and gazes at nothing in particular.

Uncle Asa swoops back onstage. "For our final act," he calls out, "we are proud to present an illusion never before attempted, one that's extremely dangerous!"

He scans the audience, then turns his head to the royal box. "Tonight, for the first time, we dare perform it in honor of His Excellency, the archduke, and his lovely consort."

His Excellency nods solemnly. The lovely consort raises one brow.

I'm used to knowing what happens next. I'm not used to being kept in the dark. I don't like it at all. Miss P. is muttering again.

The music swells. Mother appears in a pool of light.

In flowing silks and with a white silk scarf around her shoulders, she stands perfectly still at the front of the stage, which has been built out into the audience. Behind her is a panel of black glass.

The crowd hushes.

The scarf begins to ripple, although there is no breeze. Then the little floating lights appear, swarms of them. She lifts her chin and stares into the distance.

I lean forward.

Slowly, the tiny lights orbit Mother. Soon I notice there are fewer lights than before. And less of my mother! Parts of her dress, her arms, her hair, are just not there!

More lights disappear. More of my mother disappears.

She's dissolving in front of my eyes!

The audience begins to realize what is happening. Ladies peer through opera glasses. The archduke, in his box across the way, gets abruptly to his feet.

The last points of light blink out. The place where Mother stood is bare. That's not quite true. Her white scarf flutters down and drapes itself on the edge of the stage.

An ovation erupts and continues for minutes. Asa returns, bows deeply, blows a kiss to the cheering audience, then turns, his arm extended toward the wing, welcoming his sister onstage.

His arm remains extended, but she does not appear. "Marina," he calls above the tumult of the crowd, "come out! They want to see you!"

No Marina.

Miss Porlock and I glance at each other.

"What's happening?" I mouth.

No answer. She gazes at the stage with a strange intensity.

The applause dies down, but Mother continues not to appear. "I think my beautiful assistant is playing with us," Asa says with a laugh. "Come now, Marina dear. Your audience awaits!"

No Marina Thummel. Murmurs ripple through the crowd. The archduke speaks to one of his aides, who nods and hurries off.

Abruptly, the stage curtain jerks closed. A moment later, I hear a loud crash, like glass breaking. I'm out of my seat and running, with portly Miss Porlock huffing along behind. I know my brain isn't working right, because the same crazy words keep churning inside me: Mother! My mother has evaporated!

Chapter Two

Backstage is in chaos. Asa flashes by, barking orders to the stagehand, Benny's father, who stands there fingering the strap of his overalls.

"Speak, man! You were right there, working the curtain!" When the fellow doesn't answer, Asa strikes him across the shoulders with his silver-tipped cane.

He hits him again just as two officers arrive. They look at each other, uncertain whether to intervene. A moment later, they're joined by one of the archduke's guards—a more decisive type—who grabs the cane out of my uncle's hand. No one pays attention to me. I hurry past, heading for the dressing rooms.

Nothing out of the ordinary there—Mother's feathered dressing gown and gold-heeled slippers flung about as usual, her creams and lotions strewn on the vanity, a white rose on the side table.

I can feel her, very close, very present. And very absent.

At first, I don't notice the envelope, then recognize the careless handwriting:

For Asa—Private

I hold the envelope up. Turn it over. There's her seal, the black wax impressed with a rose within a circle. The scent of perfume leaks from within.

I have to see it, but her seal warns me off. Not my business.

But couldn't I just peek? Break the seal? Who would notice, with everything else going on? This is a terrible time to be honest.

Just give it to Uncle Asa, like a good girl.

Returning up front, I'm shocked to find one of the officers holding up Marina's silk scarf and questioning my uncle. The conversation is not friendly.

The scarf, I see now, has small splotches of red near the bottom edge. Impossible not to think of blood.

"It's no secret," the officer says, his eyebrows slanting inward to make room for his frown, "that you and your sister have been less than"—he searches for the word—"amicable, if you take my point."

"What is your point?" Asa draws himself up to his haughtiest height. His mustache twitches.

I think I'll wait on giving him the letter.

Heading off on my own again, I check the storage room, even the boiler room in the basement. The watchman by the stage door is no help. Swears he's seen nobody.

Pain catches at my side, as if I've been running. Stop breathing so fast! Standing in the semi-dark, I remember the sound of breaking glass after the curtain was yanked shut. Yes! I run to the front of the stage, and there it is: a tall mirror on a flexible stand. The glass lies in shards, like black ice, over the floor. I bend and pick up one of the pieces.


Stupid me! I suck on my finger.

Maybe that's how blood got on the scarf?

Here's something odd. The glass is black. I hold it before my face, but it doesn't reflect. What good is a mirror that doesn't reflect?

I want to tell Uncle Asa about this, and the letter. I find him by himself, his face furrowed, and slip the envelope into his hand. "I found this in her dressing room," I whisper. He stares at the letter, then moves away to open it. Turns it over and back again and reads it another time. Then folds the paper and tucks it in his pocket.

An officer approaches, then a second. More questions. Uncle Asa turns brusquely away, but the first officer grabs his arm. Asa wrenches free.

"I'll have to ask you to come with us," says the officer.

"I don't have to answer your idiotic questions!"

There is almost a scuffle. Finally, Asa stops resisting, and the officers push him down the hall.

I feel bad. Hey, that's my uncle!

No one notices the piece of paper on the floor. I seize it, unfold it, read it twice, then again, trying to tease some sense out of it:

Dear Brother—

Your lies have kept me here too long. Now that I've wormed the truth out of you, let's see how well you do without me. I'll be watching.

I offer a parting gift, since I know how much you want what I have. Here's how to get it. Inhale the scent of a pure black rose. But it must be purest black—blackness itself. Do this, and your search will be over.

It's signed with her usual slapdash, almost illegible Marina.

I'm confused. You want what I have? What does she have that he wants?


But if it's so easy to get—just the scent of a rose—wouldn't Uncle Asa already be brimming with Marina's magic?

Wait! What's happening? As I stare, the last letters of Mother's signature fade away. Then the rest of her name. Her note is erasing itself backward! Now only "Dear Brother" remains.

I know Mother can do tricks like this. I've seen her. But she's not here to do them!

I need to talk to Asa. I run to the back and catch up with the officers out on the street. They're opening a carriage door and setting the step beneath it. One of them holds my uncle firmly by the arm.

"Uncle Asa!" I call out.

He turns and sees me. "Go away!"

The officer gives him a shove and he steps in. The door bangs shut, and the carriage lurches ahead, leaving me alone in the street.

Chapter Three

"That reminds me," murmurs someone behind me. I whirl around. It's Miss Porlock, holding a small envelope. Her eyes are strangely excited. "I forgot to give you this. Your mother—"

I snatch it from her hand and tear it open. The familiar rose scent suffuses the blue notepaper. The message is brief:

The Arethusa. 11 o'clock. Tell no one.

I glance at Miss P.

Her eyes hold a question.

I walk away, reading the note over and over, but old Porlock stays with me.

"What is it? You must tell me! I care about her, too."

"What," I whisper, "is an Arethusa?"

"It's a ship. One of the ships down at the dock."

I hesitate, then hand her the note. Miss Porlock scans it greedily. Her eyes harden.

"She wants you to go there," she hisses (her version of a whisper). "It seems she's finally noticed your existence."

"What do you mean?"

"She wants you to meet her and go away with her!"

"Do you think so?" Not possible, I'm thinking.

"What else could it mean?"

I feel myself trembling. I am not a trembler. Ask anybody.

I don't want to finish the thought, but it finishes itself. Mother and Asa have been feuding. Even the public knows about it. Several times, she called him a fake, and of course, she was right. He may say she's his "beautiful assistant," but it's Mother who gives whatever real magic the performances have. He's the showman, but she's the draw.

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