And that's when I see him for the first time. The boy. The magician. The thief. The king.
He's facing away from me, on the sidewalk with a small crowd around him. Shirtless, with dirty ripped jeans and bare feet. Crudely painted swirls of ink cover his torso and ripple over his small shoulder blades. His white blonde hair is laced with gel and spiked haphazardly. There's a small chain around his neck.
Despite his bizarre appearance I can't help wonder how old the boy is.
He's just a kid.
The crowd around him applauds lightly. They toss him a few coins and walk away.
He turns around. Right away I notice his eyes, a startlingly light blue. They twinkle mischievously, darting from stranger to stranger as he walks back along the street. "J'ai besoin d'une volontaire!" he calls, unconsciously twirling a deck of cards. "J'ai'n truc magique qui v'étonner n'importe qui!" His bright eyes meet mine and he grins roguishly and steps in front of me. "Toi, mon ami. Prends un carte."
I instinctively step back. "J'ai pas d'argent," I protest.
Our eyes lock. He doesn't blink. "Vas y."
So I take a card. It's a six of clubs.
He splits the deck, takes my card, shuffles. "You speak English, don't you," he says. I nod. He flips the top card; it's a jack of diamonds. "Hold this." I take it. He splits the deck again, puts half in each pocket. Holds out his hand for the jack. He takes it, snaps his fingers and flips it to face me, smiling. Six of clubs.
I laugh. "Très bien," I say.
He's a magician.
I didn't know he was a thief.
And maybe he wasn't a king. Not yet.
I dream about him that night. Shirtless, alone on the street. Black ink flowing across his chest and spiralling around his wrists. Glowing blue eyes.
He thrusts the worn deck of cards at me. "Choissisez une." His voice is high and clear. Powerful.
It's the king of hearts. I say nothing, place it back in the deck. He shuffles, then looks up, spreads the cards. Holds them up near his collarbone, takes a deep breath and throws all of them at me. In my dream they shine like shooting stars, fireworks erupting around me. They flutter like butterflies, like autumn leaves. The world is a blur of red and white.
I feel trapped. Paralyzed. I feel good. I can't breathe. I'm confused. I hate him and I want him. I want him.
I catch one in front of me. The air clears as the cards gradually land haphazardly on the ground. He's smiling at me, eyes flickering. I look down.
King of hearts.
I find him the next morning, sitting on the steps of a cathedral eating an apple. He recognizes me, smiles. "Bon matin," he calls, reaching out a hand.
I grasp his hand and he wraps his left arm around me into an unexpected embrace. I feel paint on his skin. I feel ribs pressed tight against my body. After his hand leaves my shoulder I step back, quickly enough to knock his hand as he pulls it quickly out of the back pocket of my jeans.
I should have known. I'm angry that I didn't realize his intentions. Angry that he would betray me so easily.
A look of panic flashes across his face. He knows I caught him. Knows I'm angry.
He thinks I'm going to hurt him.
I look at him in silence.
"Plus de magie?" I say, finally.
He flinches, then smiles. "Jamais à toi, mon cher," he replies, then runs lightly across the street.
I watch him play the crowd. Charming the women and befriending the children. Bantering with other street urchins and singing cheerfully to the shopkeepers.
I watch him fake his magic, stack the deck. Lie to strangers and steal from the passerby.
Eventually the street is empty and he notices me. "Ça va mon ami?" he says, winking.
I wonder if he's playing me too. If I'm the next victim of his well-honed charm. "You're a liar," I tell him.
He looks away. Starts counting his money. "All magicians are liars."
The ink curls around his lips; I can't tell if he's smiling or not.
"The thing is," he continues, "Not all liars are magicians."
I look at him closely. "And you?"
"Me?" He sounds amused. I'm sure it's a smile now. He twirls a coin around his thumb and flips it into the air. "I'm the best there ever was."
A few days go by before I see him again. Sunday. The sun hasn't yet risen. I'm in the market, watching the shopkeepers prepare for the day.
Then I see his white blonde hair. I watch him from across the courtyard. He's talking animatedly with the keeper of a fruit stand. He points down the street, laughs. As the merchant's gaze follows his hand, he grabs a bag of cherries. They exchange a few more words, then he saunters away, the cherries kept carefully hidden from sight.
I follow him.
As I walk, I become more and more angry. When he stops and I finally catch up, I find myself on an abandoned bridge, overlooking the waking city. And he's different. I realize he's wearing a faded grey shirt, his hair is soft and loose. The ink has been washed off.
He looks so vulnerable.
He ignores me, at first. He eats some cherries, drinks in the sunrise and we sit in silence.
I can hear his heartbeat. It's fast.
"Why'd you steal those cherries?" I ask.
He looks at me, unflinching. Maybe he was waiting for me to say something. I notice his eyes are the same pale blue as the night before.
"Why did you steal my nine of spades?" he counters.
"I never—" I start to say, but he reaches into my pocket, flips his hand and the card is tight between his index and middle finger. He looks at me, raises an eyebrow, a mocking smile playing on his lips. Seems to wait for me to protest, then looks back across the city.
I feel angry. I want him to be imperfect. To admit something, I don't know what.
I switch to French. "Pourquoi n'es-tu pas à la rue aujourd'hui?"
He doesn't seem to notice the change in language. "Je n'travaille pas pendant l'jour du sabbat."
I'm surprised, didn't expect that. "Crois-tu en Dieu?" I ask, genuinely curious.
He puts another cherry in his mouth. "Je crois en moi-même, et ça suffit."
Silence again. He offers me a cherry and I wonder if I'm imagining his hand lingering against mine.
"I'm glad you're here," he says.
The sun starts to rise.
"Me too," I say in a low voice.
He looks lonely, the hollow king of Paris perched on a windswept bridge. The hue of the rising sun turns his skin golden. Translucent. He could be a ghost.
"Are you alive?" I whisper.
He turns his head; his sunlit eyes flicker across my face.
"I'm alive," he replies softly, "are you?"
I want to say yes – maybe no – but he's leaning in towards me and I can't speak. I'm paralyzed. I want to push him away and I want to drink him in. I imagine reaching through his chest, dissolving his body like a mirage; a ghost boy drifting away in the wind.
He's close, too close. I can see faded curves of ink lining his skin, a faint scar on his left cheek. I close my eyes, feel his breath on my skin. I feel myself falling off the bridge and somehow in free fall his lips find mine.
The next day, I can't stop thinking about it. The warmth of his lips and the sweet hint of cherry.
I'm bewildered, though. Boys don't kiss other boys.
I find him on a crowded street near Champs-Elysées. He doesn't stop walking. Doesn't look at me.
"Why did you kiss me?"
"I'm the king of hearts."
I stare at him. "What does that mean?"
He stops walking, looks at me. Small shrug. "I don't know," he says, "it was your dream."
Before I have time to wonder how he knows about that, he reaches for my hand and presses something into my palm. I instinctively glance down; it's a black leather wallet. He gently puts his hand against my face, along my jawbone, and I think fleetingly that he's going to kiss me again. I can see his chest rising and falling rapidly. "Thief." he says roughly, then turns and disappears into the crowd.
I stare after him, stunned. I hear faint cries of, "Voleur! Voleur!" A couple seconds later a hand grabs me by the shoulder and spins me around. I feel like I'm in slow motion; I look down and perceive the black leather clutched in between my fingers but all I can see are his blue changeling eyes. Laughing. Kissing. Tearing me apart.
"Il y avait un autre garçon," I protest, "il me l'a donné." But it's pathetic. The hollow king of Paris is long gone and I'm alone with a hand full of stolen money and a heart that doesn't know whom to trust.