"Daring disbelief!" The swami's stool begins to rise slowly and smoothly into the air, suspended on clearly visible wires.
"So early in the night for these tests! We have told one fortune only – do you not wish for the show to go on?" The sage looks into the darkness of the audience and towards Cati's general area. Eyes twinkling, he coughs out a little laugh. "Daring lady, your is'lip is showing – and there is simply nothing else that we can reveal – regarding your undergarments." Someone in the audience sniggers.
Ramanuja now turns his attention to Thelonius, who is standing. The sage lifts his chin and looks down his nose at him. "This has all already happened, my brother," he announces grandly. "And these tests . . . I have never before passed. Please listen:"
He smiles sharply with his lips parted, teeth bared. " What searcher seeks the actor on the is'tage and the props behind? Who will see only what is obvious to us all: that the show is indeed a show? The really interesting question is what lies underneath – within – beyond." His eyes flit towards Cati and back to Thelonius.
"Or is it one who can disregard the rowdy lie in his face, who can appreciate the play of maya, our illusory existence, as such? We are but players in roles, and we go where the is'cript-writers of fate – Brahm, Vishnu, and Shiv – dictate.
"Yet, we can see the world with the third eye." He presents his open palm to the audience. He folds his little finger and thumb against it. "Will you see the births, the preservations, and the deaths of the tri-lok with the mind of the three-fold Godhead? Will you adore the worlds within and around you everywhere with the hearts of the divine brides, Saraswati, Lakshmi, and Uma – the ladies of Knowledge, Luck, and Power?" Thrusting his palm forward, he continues. "You are right now thinking of the number three, but how could you not be?" He pauses.
"We know that this is not the right now that tugs at your heart." Ramanuja shuts his mouth tightly and stares silently at Thel for several seconds. Thelonius returns the stare. "You want from us the number 61344225," the swami announces as he withdraws his hand. He smiles again, baring his teeth. In the spotlight, they gleam as brightly as the sequins that line his collar. His countenance suggests the sordid grin of a street dog – or an idiot. "Brother, if you are truly daring, there will be portraits for you to preserve."
He turns his face away from Thel's direction. Ramanuja glares through the darkness hanging over the audience; his gaze passes over Henri and directly to the scarf-wearing woman sitting next to him, Millie. He locks his gaze on her for a moment. Millie slips her hand under Henri's. The bon vivant can feel the smooth flesh on the back of favorite model's hand tense into goosebumps. "It is just as well that the show be short," Ramanuja sighs. The sage's eyes pass from the pair; his gaze searches to the right, passing over the monocled Englishman, over Emma, and to Cati. Watching her, he pronounces, "And these, brother, are your models . . . but:"
His smile dissipates and his eyes roll back into his head. "Mistress, you will die!"
His head falls back and he rocks backward as if struck. "Wait!" he cries. "It is coming now! We have passed through! Ho! What time! What comes next!" He lifts his face dramatically into the stage lighting and his jaw slackens once again. He brings his hands forward and up into the beam of the spotlight. The swami looks as if he is grasping at dust motes. He exhales and coughs a little, then sags at the shoulders and leans forward again. Face ever skyward, Ramanuja's body folds and he tumbles chin-first from his elevated stool. The hard smack of his cheek against the floor echoes in the dark ballroom.
Three stagehands rush towards the fallen swami, followed clumsily by Mags in her heels. "Vikram?" she begs the swami. "Vikram!"
She looks out to the audience. "Is there a doctor? – Call for a doctor!" She kneels closer over Ramanuja's senseless body. "Shit!" Mags lifts his head onto her lap and turns his face towards the audience. "Don't choke!" A string of shiny drool falls from the corner of his mouth and onto her dress.
Of all the elements in this strange scene before him, the one that catches Thel's eye most directly is the mess on Mags' dress. Henri releases Millie's hand – he, too, notices Ramanuja's glimmering drool, and how very opaque it is, like mercury, or a sky brimming with shining stars.
The ballroom lights turn on, and the starlight disappears. Ramanuja coughs. The audience's eyes adjust to the new light.
As he rubs the folded edges of the bill in his hand, Thelonius sees the woman who echoed and amplified his challenge for Ramanuja, the very woman had who guided him into the ballroom. Cati is standing now; her hands are on the seat in front of her, bearing her weight as she leans forward with unabashed curiosity. Henri stands between them, peering at the swami's face. Except for these three, everyone in the audience is still seated.
Through her makeshift veil, Millie looks up to Henri and takes his hand in her own. She pulls the borrowed scarf completely off with her other.
"For God's sake," Mags weeps, "close the curtain!"
(Thelonius and Henri passed spot hidden checks.)