"Hey now, hey now, hello all! Adventurous lads and brave young ladies, step inside this very tent and see the mystifying, the delightful, the great and well-travelled Nikola the Mighty! Having returned from his yearlong excursion to the Orient, old, wise Nikola has brought back numerous tricks and treasures to show you for the oh-so-very low price of five cents! That's just five pennies, little boy, if you'll only step on over here..."
The barker was giving Nikola a headache to accompany his aggravated nerves as he waited backstage. He began twisting the chain of his timepiece around his index finger, a habit he'd picked up while counting down to curtains before innumerable performances over the years.
Of course, there had been no yearlong trip to the Orient - no trip of any kind in the past year, really, save the nightly drunken excursion to a nearby ditch - for Nikola had been an utter mess during that time. His story was a typical one. He'd debuted his act two years before and had been utterly brutalized by critics out of the gate for his "muttering, sloppy farce of a magic act." Persistent in the face of criticism, Nikola had found kind crowds increasingly hard to come by until, finally, he'd given up and retired from performance entirely.
He thought back to his final night on stage. "This isn't the last you'll see of me!" he'd shouted at the jeering audience while scooping his deck of cards off of the stage. "Old Nikola has ways, ancient ways, lethal ways, of settling his scores!" Then he'd narrowly dodged a pitcher lobbed at his head and scrambled off the stage, certain that this had, in fact, been the last they would ever see of him.
Left with mountains of debt and a damaged reputation, Nikola had taken to drinking very heavily in the months after that final show. Every day, he woke in the afternoon, wandered to the nearest bar that would allow him in, and begged strangers to buy him drinks. They were surprisingly charitable in most cases. As the days went on, he began to neglect his personal hygiene, his financial troubles, and the remaining long-term relationships he had left. He came to assume that, eventually, he'd go to sleep one night and never wake up, and the idea didn't really sound so bad to him.
But then, one day, an unexpected encounter - or possibly a dream - altered Nikola's course for the better.
The day began as all the others had, with Nikola searching for a friendly pub. While making his way around town, he overheard a passing group of children speaking excitedly about something.
"My mother said he's the best she's ever seen!"
"Tommy Dennis says it's all real, not some phony act like they usually are."
"It is real! I heard it from a man outside the post office. It's in that cane he has - a real magical cane."
Nikola's ears perked up at this. A new act in town? Nikola was so far removed from his dismal career in magic at this point that he didn't even bother feeling sorry for himself anymore. In fact, his interest was genuinely piqued. He resolved to follow the children and see what this "real" magician was doing that was so revolutionary.
After waiting outside the stage for an hour or two, Nikola was treated to a free public performance that far exceeded his wildest expectations. The magician's name was Marco the Magnificent, and in a silver-lined cape and top hat, he performed all manner of dazzling tricks for the delighted crowd. He swallowed fire, conjured birds from thin air, and read the minds of audience members.
Marco was a consummate showman, but even more interestingly, Nikola couldn't understand how he was pulling off his tricks. Despite his own ineptitude as a stage wizard, Nikola had always known the basics of magic performance - palming, distraction, quickness, timing. He knew that wherever the audience was asked to look was as far as possible from where the actual trick was taking place, but when he tried to see through Marco's ruse, he couldn't pick out the moving pieces. It was at once mesmerizing and supremely frustrating. He didn't trouble himself with it for too long, though, for once the show was over, he heard the taverns calling his name with an uncommon urgency.
The rest of the night was something of a blur in Nikola's memory, but he remembered two distinct events from that evening. One was the experience of peering over the rim of his mug to see Marco the Magnificent passing by outside. The other was conducting an embarrassing conversation with a clearly annoyed Marco in a dim alley. How they came to be there, Nikola couldn't recall. All he could remember was his speech growing more incoherent, his gestures becoming more expressive, and his fellow conversant trying to slip away at every brief pause.
And his foot nudging Marco's cane behind a nearby garbage can while its owner was distracted.
He didn't know how the idea had come to him. Maybe, in a fit of pride, he'd decided to try his sleight of hand against the very best. Maybe it was impulsive. But either way, the next morning Nikola woke up cradling the magic cane of Marco the Magnificent. And to his great delight, it was real.
Marco wasn't any kind of showman at all, as it turned out. He'd merely been the owner of a genuine magical stick, curled in such a way that it might pass as an ordinary cane. But it was far from ordinary. Anything Nikola wished it to do, it did. It produced pigeons, wrote in the air, and relayed for him the private thoughts of passersby. It was magic, real magic.
Nikola knew it was a matter of time before Marco realized what had happened, so he ran far away and found lodging for himself in a small village. He worked with the cane every day, testing the limits of its powers and uncovering new secrets within it.
After growing familiar with the cane and devising a rudimentary performance around it, Nikola requested a slot in a travelling circus that was passing through the village. It was to be his grand return. Nikola the Mighty, back from his long trip abroad! People loved tales of redemption, and they loved magic, and now, finally, they would love Nikola.
This was the night of his incredible comeback, and nothing would stand in his way. So why was Nikola so anxious, as he sat behind the stage and listened to the barker? Was it the man he'd glimpsed through the crowd earlier that day? The man in the silver-lined cape and top hat?
Nikola checked his timepiece and took a deep breath. Only a few minutes now.