Tragedies make the best ticket sales. Lovelorn youths torn apart, husbands cut down in battle, wives falling from ramparts. If I didn’t so often take part in evenings of drink with the Company’s writers, I would feel concern for their mood and well-being, but we understand each other in our merriment. The writers amongst the Companies work to top each other for the goriest stories, the darkest endings, the deepest loves lost. They write for the sales, not from pathos, and they giggle red-faced in the balcony on opening nights, watching the ticket holders weep over the blood on the stage.
In these productions I am a soldier or a servant, never a lover; that is for the younger girls, fresh-faced with limpid eyes, whose gloves stay clean and whose mailboxes overflow with scented letters and gifts from admirers. I’ve never been one for love letters or dalliances. I prefer my affairs businesslike and to the point, and I’ve always thought the best way to break in a new pair of boots is a good fight.
Of course, as Company management always tells the city guard, we’re discouraged from public fighting, man and woman alike. More correctly, we’re discouraged from being caught; we are more than welcome to drub the stars of other theaters’ stages, if we can. Whatever hurts their crowds and draws ours, and it hurts their crowds indeed for their heartthrob male lead to be bested in the streets by a woman three sheets to the wind, by the grace of my skill alone. Magic never sparked in me, and if it had, I wouldn’t be indentured to a theater company. There are apprenticeships for that.
It’s against the rules for the Companies to sway the crowds magically. Once they’re in the house anything goes, but to get them in seats in the first place? It must be due to any number of banalities, showbills and street criers, engraved invitations to the gated mansions. I don’t know who sets those rules, or even know truly who enforces them, but they are enforced. Maybe the city itself enforces them; all of it is living and breathing around us, I’ve thought many a time, even late at night—especially late at night—when the good honest work people are abed and the rich withdrawn to their hills.
The Companies roamed once, footloose and with fewer rules, but city life has its attraction and one by one they became entrenched here, built larger and larger theaters here, sweated into the stage and wept into the curtains and bled into boots and dancing shoes. Company indentures are coveted and hated; it’s a way out of the gutter or orphanage, and it’s a shackle for the best years of your life. There are those who stay for the love of it, though, even once they are no longer bound, and make a living. There are those who die trying to flee it, felled by the guard, or the managers, or both.
You thought this was a love song, but no love darkens or lightens my heart as the curtain raises upon my cousin’s affair. God help us all, city preserve us, and maybe the Company of the Canted Stage won’t notice.
I catch Adelaide smiling over a lilac-scented letter backstage, her complexion corpse-like under the stage makeup in the dressing room lights. Her final scene is imminent, where the wife who was so vibrant in the first act is already a ghost in the fifth, and her mood is anything but funereal.
“A new admirer?” I ask her, adjusting my coat’s lapels, my sword belts.
“More than an admirer,” she says with a sigh, pressing the letter briefly to her lips before she folds it into a tiny square and tucks it into her bodice. I pick up her lipstick brush and tilt her face to the light.
“How can you have more than an admirer? You never meet anybody. And if you’re going to have more than an admirer, what you need is a patron to buy off your indenture. Is that what you’ve got?”
“No, he’s with the Golden Company.” I stop with the brush against her lips. “Katarina?”
“Adelaide, that’s impossible. You cannot be involved with another Company member, do you want to be ruined? Do you want us to be ruined?”
“I don’t know what it has to do with you. And his indenture is almost over, he says. Just another few years, then he’ll stay on to pay mine off.”
“Don’t know what it—” Nevermind that we’re blood family, that I’ve been her protector our entire lives, that we share living quarters. I set the brush down onto her dressing table with a small, sharp click, take a deep breath. “Who is he?”
“You’re angry, I shan’t tell you.”
“You’re absolutely right I’m angry, and you shall tell me. I won’t let you go to your cue if you don’t.” Her eyes go very wide.
“And now who will ruin us? Be reasonable, cousin, you haven’t much indenture left either. What life will I have, once we’re not on stage together?” She is such a wench. I shake my head, then lean into her mirror to settle my hat and arrange a few curls.
“Do what you want, then, but do please try to have some sense. We’re in competing companies. This can only lead to heartbreak.”
“You just say that because you’ve never been in love,” she says, and then the little witchlight by the stage stairs flicker flashes and she gets up. “Break a leg.”
“Break a leg,” I answer, words falling from my lips without a thought. For all my hard thoughts about our indentures, we are with good reason a superstitious lot. Our words have meaning, our promises weight. Luck and unluck are our bread and butter, visiting witches and apothecaries for the charms tucked into our gloves, and fortunes, and poultices against sickness or falling pregnant.
I stand at her dressing table for a few moments, and just before my cue I open the drawer. There is a neat little stack of letters right on top. More letters than I expected, but time is short. I look long enough to find his name. Valentino. I know him, yes. I know him for a rogue, a cad, but never one to write scented love poetry. It is either a cruel ruse or true love, and the fact of the matter is I cannot let either progress.
Adelaide’s happiness does not lend rosy color to the tragedy of her role, there’s a small miracle. While not the star of our stage, she has a following, and favor with management, so long as she doesn’t muck it up with this love business. My own role in this final act is completing the grisly coup and plucking the fallen crown from a pool of blood on the stage before setting it upon the usurper’s brow. Or perhaps he’s the rightful ruler, depending on one’s view of the events which we have laid before the audience.
My fingers slick the blood from the crown and down his cheeks as I withdraw, bow, and sing the first line of the fictional country’s anthem. The rest of the cast lends their voices, returning gradually to the stage, swelling to thunderous chorus. As the curtain falls I see Adelaide’s letter-writer in the front row with an armful of roses, standing to launch them upon the boards. She catches up one of the flowers and kisses its petals when she takes her final bow, smiling for Valentino and him only, though the crowd loves her, roaring ever louder until the lights come up and she comes back onstage again and again.
It is perhaps no surprise that, out after closing night with other cast members and varying acquaintances, I spot Valentino across the bar. He is drinking with Marco, a man I know more than well, and have attended many a gathering with, climbed garden walls with, had friendly duels with. We of the Canted Stage are toasting each other to a production well done, and toasting the next one, rehearsals beginning soon. We have quite the long evening, singing at the piano, emptying bottles, flipping coins in table games. Very late and too early, the barkeep calls time and we trail out into the street. I hear my name once I’m in the night air and I turn to see Adelaide’s fool advancing, Marco uneasy at his elbow.
“I have the honor to inform you, we are cousins now, Katarina,” Valentino says.
“Are we? You should have told me in the bar, then, and I would have drunk to my newest cousin.” When would Adelaide have had the time to elope? I cut my eyes to Marco, who grimly stands his ground and gives no indication this is a falsehood. It seems I either see Marco daily, or not at all for weeks on end. I have never seen him with another lover.
“I didn’t want to interrupt your company’s festivities. I wasn’t so sure they would welcome me with open arms, though I hoped you would.”
He’s smiling like a moonstruck calf and I can only think of my equally moonstruck cousin, her head always in the clouds, dreaming beyond the stage, beyond the city. And I think of her, belly swelled, turned into the streets. No matter how sweet her soprano, there’s no room for babies to be born backstage, raised up in the rafters, swaddled in the costumes, for what could come of this hasty marriage but untimely babies? I am not the virtuoso who could support us both, and I would lose her to the rest of the world, her indenture sold to somebody who could make use of her in servitude.
“Come to my open arms now then, knave, and I should know your truth. Would that my family has grown this day, and I have another cousin as dear as the first.” The credulous bastard, the sickening fool, he takes me at my word and comes empty-handed. Marco, though, sees the knife-glitter of my eyes. He knows me all too well and he’s enough of a swordsman to hold his own. He interposes spark-fast but without drawing a blade to match mine, and my main gauche sheathes itself in his belly instead of the lovelorn lad’s.
“What did you do?” the lover asks dumbly, blood on his face, blood on my fingers.
“The thing I most regret,” I say, snapping a stab at him, except our time is up, curfew called, and the street lights go out as one. My blade finds only glancing purchase. I hear him cry out and then he is away. I curse the day he was born, but the universe does not hear my anger. I could pursue, I could run him down and finish what I’ve started.
Except, I will not let Marco alone to die in the streets like a dog. He’s muttering angrily, and groans when I pull him to his feet, staggering together. He’s a string-cut marionette and I wrestle him over the uneven cobbles to the apothecary all the girls know.
Despite my best efforts at stealth, I am quite drunk and Marco is quite heavy, and the guard stops us not even half-way. “Curfew is past!” one shouts sternly, and then another swings the lantern light upon our gory selves. We have left a trail.
“I’m sorry. I’m taking him to the apothecary by the fountain.”
“What has happened? Who is to blame for this?”
“Valentino, of the Golden Company,” I say without hesitation. “We all drank in the same inn, and then he approached us in the street after time was called.”
“I know this Valentino. We shall find him and put him to question.” The guard leans in to me, a little closer. He knows me as well, I see in his face, an audience member surely. “Take your friend to the apothecary and get yourself home. Bear this charm and show it to any who challenge you along the way.”
I lack free hands and he hangs the shield-shaped charm on my coat pocket as I pray to anything listening he will not see the right of it, will not realize I am the one whose blade was rashly drawn. He puts a brief hand on my shoulder before they go along their lawful way, the silent third guard crafting the paper bird which will alert all the city to Valentino’s criminal mien.
The apothecary is unsurprised to see me, unhappy to see me. “What foolishness is this?” she asks even as she tears Marco’s shirt from the wound, her sewing kit already laid out. Perhaps she saw this in her tea leaves, or in the afternoon’s cards.
“My blade was meant for another,” I say with as much dignity as I might muster. “He interposed.”
“It isn’t often Katarina misses her mark,” the apothecary says, reaching for a blue glass bottle. She droppers some of its contents on Marco’s wound as she withdraws my sword, and he groans, but the frown also smoothes from his brow. “He’ll live.”
“As will Valentino,” I mutter before I can stop myself, washing my hands in her basin.
She pauses mid-stitch. “Adelaide?”
“Of course Adelaide. I don’t suppose she’s visited, to ward off bearing a child?” She shakes her head. “Then this marriage mustn’t bear fruit, and I have wasted my chance, unless in their haste the guards do lay him low.”
She hums a scrap of song as she sews. I sneeze once, twice, three times. “Fetch me that box,” she says, and I eerily know the box she means without further instruction, dark, gummy wood, carrying its own spiced scent, carven all over with bones or flowers, I cannot tell which. From it, the apothecary draws a handful of pale dirt, which she packs onto Marco’s wound, then bandages. He relaxes onto the pallet, his breath less labored already, eyes fallen shut upon a healing slumber.
More of the dirt, she places in her pestle with a cone of sugar and grinds them together, putting it into a paper envelope and dripping green wax upon it to seal before handing it to me. “The young lady, when she swallows that, will fall into a swoon unto death for three days. Upon waking, her memories will be indistinct, and whether they return or no is up to those around her. You would not be the first I’ve helped to break an indenture, and I should hardly think the last.”
“Break an indenture,” I repeat, my drink-dulled mind swirling with the frenzy of the last hour. Adelaide might forget him. “Where will she go, if she is thought dead?”
“Wherever she will,” the apothecary says. “It is of no matter to me. Though I do care for payment.”
“Of course.” Of late, I have hardly paid for a drop of my merriment, and lay coin in her hands until she stops me. “You’ll know what to do, once she’s swooned? ”
“I will prepare her, to appearance, for burial. After she’s displayed for the traditional time, she will be transported to the crematoriums on the edge of our city, nearest the Southerly gate. From there, it is simplest to slip through to the lands beyond. With the coffin burned, no suspicion shall fall upon me, or your cousin.”
“I still have my indenture,” I say, stooping to pluck up my sword..
“Perhaps, then, you should leave her to her husband.” I meet the apothecary’s eyes, mismatched in color, until the corner of her mouth lifts slightly, and she shrugs. “I have told you my part. Anything beyond is in your hands. Leave, now. I am tired, and your friend, if he still calls himself such, will be much restored on the morrow.”
I thank her, for what else would I do, even in my state. The basest fool knows to not cross an apothecary or a witch woman, and though I am fortune’s fool, I am still enough in my mind to remember the simplest of rules. The door locks of its own accord behind me, and I sneeze thrice more while descending the stairs, drawing the gaze of another patrolling guard. The charm of passage glints from my pocket still, and I am allowed to go unquestioned, to wander the streets in confusion for another hour before finding my door as though by chance, for such is the sport our fickle city has with us.
Marco will still count me his friend, yes, though time and again I’m not certain I’ve deserved it. Until tonight, the deepest wrong I visited upon him was my own choice to make, and one he was entirely ignorant of. At the same apothecary, no less.
My room smells like a fresh-turned grave when I wake, and I need to consider what I may have done in my cups. That lovestruck ninny shall get us kicked to the streets, or worse, if I don’t push on with this. I can only hope the city’s guards did run Valentino down, on as true a falsehood as ever I’ve told. My guardsman’s charm has already turned to a pile of dust, and I sweep it into my cupped hand, release it to the wind out the window.
My cousin sits red-eyed in the kitchen with a pot of coffee on the hob. Fresh beans from the smell of it, and I’m more than a little surprised. I expected her to serve me a cup of ashes, not the brew we both have such a taste for, one of our few shared likings. I remember now, dumping the apothecary’s envelope into our small sugar store before stumbling to my unrestful bed, and I wonder if she’s swallowed it already.
“I need you to help me,” she says when I sit, and just her tone makes me drag my dressing gown closed tighter around me, scrape my hair back into a horsetail.
“I need to write a letter.”
“To whom?” Could it be she did not know the news? If so, could I let her go on dreaming? I sip the scalding black coffee, my stinging lips bringing me to fuller wakefulness.
She sighs, though, and I see she knows a truth. “To my love, of course. He is banished from the city, though I’m unsure what rule he broke. The proclamations don’t say, just that he’s banished.”
“And you’ll get him a letter how?”
“I need you to find him for me.”
“Where will I look for your banished love? Don’t be ridiculous.” A flash from the night before, the creak of leather, my shining blade dipped black in the streetlight. Blood at night never reads red. Did I clean it before I fell into bed? I cannot remember.
“You know how to find people.”
“I have found people in the city. Ask one of your thumb-twiddling friends at the college if you want finding magic worked. I have rehearsal. You have rehearsal.” A production finished simply means another is waiting to begin.
“How far could he have gotten? You’ll be back for rehearsal.”
“The timing is too close. What’s the hour?” We lack a clock, and I’ve woken between bells, of course.
“The earliest you’ve seen in years,” she says, head bent to her task. I see now her letter is mostly written already, and how early must she have woken, in order to make such progress. Early enough to get the coffee, hear the decree. Early enough to drink her witch-sweetened morning draught already. For her own good, I tell myself. For our own good. “You have time. You’ll be back before anybody misses you.”
“And then? What’s in your letter? What hope could you have for your love? If he’s banished, he’s gone, and it’s best you forget him.”
“I can’t forget him,” she says with unusual determination, folding the sheet of paper smartly. “I married him.” So he’d told the truth, blood and thunder. And I hadn’t killed him.
“Well we’ll have it annulled. You can’t be married to a banished man. You’ll get over it.”
“What’s been consummated cannot be annulled,” she said primly, and of course this is when the apothecary’s draught takes hold. How am I to know she has had time to meet this boy, fall in love, be wed and then bed? I could not have known, and I catch her as she wilts from her chair, pale as a made-up ghost from the Company’s production.
Have I killed her, then, in my effort at subterfuge? If she is with child, I don’t know what effect the draught will take. But I must keep to my courage, and send a neighbor to call the apothecary. Here my acting stands me in good stead, for I am just calm enough for just long enough, and dissolve into choking tears not long after.
I lay my trust in that witch woman who has helped more of us than I could comfortably count. Who helped me once before, when I was eager and mistimed, and none know of that shadow in my eyes but her and I. The true spark of magical Other is in her eyes, in her works. I must trust she will care for Adelaide, as she has already cared for Marco, who comes gingerly in the evening to check in on me and assuage my guilt at having almost ended him. He has always been better than I deserved.
He is shocked at the tableau he finds, me weeping but resolved, scrubbing the worn wooden floor where the table overturned, our drinks intermingling with Adelaide’s love letter ink.
“What has happened?” he asks, pulling me to my feet and righting the chair, as I had not yet.
“Adelaide heard of her husband’s banishment and rather than live without him, took a poisoned draught,” I say dully. He was insensate already when the envelope passed to me, I know, and I can trust him, I know, but I have yet to decide the finalities of Adelaide’s exit, and my own. I will be hunted, wanted, a bounty laid upon my head. I haven’t the time or resources to plan soundly, and I need so badly for it to be a sound plan.
“Katarina, no.” Marco looks shaken, pale still from his wound, uncertain of his place in the world. I wonder how close he danced to death’s door and how near he came to kissing the pale lady there. I wonder what dreams were visited upon him.
“I had coffee with her, as she thought to compose a letter, and then over she fell. The apothecary has taken her.”
“We must tell her husband,” he says, and my drink-sodden anger tries again to stir. But it suits my purposes, for this to come into being. If Valentino thinks his lady love dead, perhaps he will end himself, or move on out of accidental reach. She will forget him, if there is no reminder when she wakes, and we will start anew. I can bear this shadow for her.
“And how are we to do that, with him banished?” I ask in mock disgust.
“I know there is no love between you, but it is the right thing. Write the letter and I shall conjure it into a bird which will find him.” His spark is not so major as to have drawn the attention of the masters or the stage; his spark, which he speaks of infrequently, displays even less. Marco is lucky to have doting parents who are happy to house and feed and clothe his life of leisure, giving him a comfortable income to draw upon. He once offered to buy my indenture, and I believe that was the first time we fought a duel.
I go for more paper, more ink, thinking all the while about how much truth to tell Marco and when. I cannot complete my task alone, but to add more conspirators now feels like a miscue. To rely upon Valentino feels as though it would render the rest of these goings-on moot, as though I could have saved my coin and heartbreak and just let the young lovers carry on after all. Perhaps I was mistaken, to start down this path, but I am unused to doubting myself and must now stay the course.
Marco sees my hesitation and places his hand on mine. “You aren’t alone,” he says, meaning to comfort me, and my unaccustomed and unwelcomed tears start anew. I furiously begin to write. I tell Valentino she is dead. I tell him not to come. Marco reads over my shoulder and clears his throat nervously.
“What is the matter?” I ask, impatient, as I shove the paper at him. My penmanship is sorely lacking.
“You cannot find it in you to offer words of comfort?” he asks.
He waves the page until the ink dries, and takes it to the window before he whispers the words to it which cause the transformation into a dove with inkblot eyes. It rustles its paper wings a moment and then bears its sorrowful words skyward.
“And it will find him?” I ask. “Even if you don’t know where he is?”
“They always do.” Marco remains pensively at the window a moment. I believe he is actually bashful about his spark. “You’ve made her arrangements then?”
“The apothecary I took you to last night,” I say again. “And it’s likely they’ll lay her out in the theater. Good luck we just ended production.” I utter a wry laugh.
“Stop. You couldn’t have known.”
I shake my head. “I can’t believe that.”
“You are eternally hard on yourself.”
“Please, leave me for now. Though will you attend—”
“Upon my honor, I would not miss it.” And he leaves me to my brooding thoughts, my dark planning. I’ve scant money laid aside. I’ve no destination in mind. But by the time I am prostrate with exhaustion, I think I see the way to go forward.
At dawn, the hairdresser from the Company comes and does me up properly. I am not typically corseted and in layered skirts, but for Adelaide’s funeral performance I do exactly this. We have a long and musical ceremony, very much to her taste, and though it is short notice the audience is full of our regular patronage, and fans who have bestowed little gifts upon her in the past, and people from our neighborhood. I remain in the seats long after most mourners depart, looking at the candles, the flowers piled high.
Uncounted hours pass and I come to realize Marco sits beside me, almost touching me but not quite. “I’ll show you home,” he says.
“Thank you.” I take his arm; it seems impossible to be exhausted by sitting all day, but grief and worry will wear you down as surely as pacing the stage.
We walk in silence through the streets unchallenged, though surely curfew looms, and emboldened by this I detour to my favorite fountain and offer it one of my few remaining coins, for luck in all future endeavors. At my door Marco thinks to leave me, but I lead him up the stairs and pull the pins from my hair and his eyes widen. He had not thought we would ever travel that road again, though his hope is not so well hidden as he’d like to think.
“Katarina, I think—”
I hold up a hand. “I need to ask a favor of you that I shrink from, as you have already paid a blood price for my rashness, but have no other I count so close as a friend.”
“You may not say so once I explain the matter to you.” He simply goes to put coffee on.
I lay it all before him. My mood and my motive, my solution to leave with Adelaide once the draught releases her from its deathlike slumber. My hope that it will have rinsed her husband from her mind. He listens gravely, and when I have done, he nods once. “There is much to be done.”
“I only dreamed I’d hear such words from you,” I say, relief buoying my spirit. I cannot speak to my actions, had he refused.
“Sometimes, Katarina, dreams do come true. Some of the less bloody plays you’ve sung have held such a lesson.” He pauses. “You will not tell Valentino?”
“I will not,” I say.
“Is that not unfair?”
“Perhaps if she were older, and he less clandestine, my feeling would be different.”
“Is that the case, and not your stage rivalries?”
“He is hardly adequate rival to my talent,” I say with a sniff.
Marco looks at me long enough I think everything has fallen to ruin, and I will be left again to find my own way. He has been a friend to many, regardless of Company, but then he nods again. “Just so. Continue as you are, then, in mourning. I will see about garments for you and your awakened cousin, and supplies. My family has a stable of horses hardly ridden.”
“You’d never allow me to pay your indenture, my dear friend, but now I have the opportunity to buy your freedom all the same. Be happy, Katarina.” He smiles. “What remains is for Adelaide to wake upon cue, and for you to keep your courage quiet, so none notice a change in your demeanor and draw suspicion.”
“We are actors, Marco,” I say with a wry laugh. “Cues and subterfuge are our blood and breath.”
“Then dare I say this will be the performance of your lives.” He leaves, and I set to mourning and waiting, returning the theater’s vigil, saying nothing of the plan. Many mourners visit, and I recognize most, if not all.
It is on the second day that a manager of the Company sits down next to me. If Marco’s spark is a barely lit match, the manager’s spark is a smoke-reeking bonefire, and it’s hard to keep composure when they are this close under normal circumstances, when I am not engaged in conspiracy to desert. As it is, my soul feels as though it will simply leave my body. After we sit in silence time enough for one of the earliest-lit candles to burn out, they say in a voice like crushed velvet, “The Company wishes to extend its sympathies.”
“I am grateful for it,” I say quietly, very aware of my suddenly dry lips, of my breathing against the corset’s constricture.
“Though it has come to our attention that she had dalliances with a member of another Company.” There is no change in tone, but my heart beats faster all the same. I did not rehearse my answers for such an occasion; it seemed best for my words to be natural.
“I knew on the night of his banishment,” I say, not an entire lie nor an entire truth.
More silence, more candle wax running down the sides of holders. I cannot see how Adelaide could be alive; she hasn’t breath enough to fog a knife’s blade, and though that is the apothecary’s artifice, I am uneasy even without the manager seated beside me. “She had seven years of her indenture remaining,” the manager says as though there is a ledger before them, columns filled, rows ticked off.
“She did,” I say.
“And you have…”
“Three years,” I say. I know not the purpose of this exercise. Never has the company released anybody early from their indenture; my breath catches a moment, and I wonder if they will add Adelaide’s remaining time to mine, as punishment for her transgression.
“Perhaps it is time to give you a lead,” the manager says instead, and I am shocked enough that I turn to face them briefly. I regret the impulse, for though they are well-dressed and neat in their appearance, there is something about the lines of their face, their eyes, that are not normal and are difficult to bear. I’ve heard whispers that it is the lot of every person with a powerful spark, and whether these whispers are the truth of it or not, there is a distinct feeling that comes from being close to a person such as this, and gazing upon them. I lack not for courage, none would ever accuse me of such, but I feel soft and unblooded when I look this manager in the face however briefly.
“Thank you,” I murmur, turned forward again, concentrating on the flickering flames about Adelaide’s bower. It is the expected response, and the proper one. My heart would have leapt at such an opportunity only three days previous, but now, with Adelaide’s marriage in secret, her deathlike slumber, I feel leaden, dull-brained. Popular leads are oft able to pay their indentures early. Popular leads are able to keep better rooms, travel in privileged circles, are afforded many possibilities. I was content to be a reliable second fiddle for my time with the Company of the Canted Stage, one of the best at combat, stage or otherwise, while Adelaide was the imminent darling.
“We will remain closed and crepe-draped an extra tenday, to mourn our loss and yours. We will delay rehearsals. Your cousin’s popularity was noted among management.”
“Thank you,” I say again. I have always kept my own counsel, but in that moment of unwelcome fear, of the wrong wishes answered, I wish Marco was by my side. He has walked me home each night of this vigil, but he has taken care not to vex me with his hovering.
The manager stands, straightens their gloves and then their cuffs with slight, precise movements. “The first pages will be brought to your rooms tonight,” they say with a nod, which I return. It seems best not to thank them more than thrice, and I watch as they approach the stage and Adelaide’s coffin, remove the blossom from their lapel, and gently place it amongst the bouquet already folded in her grasp. Were I not a product of the stage, it would have been difficult to keep my composure, keep my breathing natural, but the Company has spent most of my life schooling me in deceit. It is enough to make me wonder, sometimes, who I truly am. It sends me to my cups, and to duels in the street, and to bed with people who ought to have been kept at an arm’s length, or held in better regard than a hasty boot-knocking after time is called but before curfew snuffs the streetlights.
I stay sober, that final night in my rooms. I do not invite Marco upstairs. I read the pages the writers bring me, the warrior queen they have written me. She is bold and breathtaking, and everything I may have wanted. I can imagine the voice I would use, the weight of the crown upon my head, the ringing swords. I can envision the lights on me in a way they have never been before, the audience watching and listening as they have never before. The stage is a ritual and an exercise in exhilaration, and I love it even as I struggle against my bindings. I am loyal to the Company, even as I fear crossing it. I allow myself this, to think of this possible future, star of the stage even as I am, not a beauty but bold all the same, not charismatic but canny. Commanding. The applause, the flowers, the letters from admirers.
And then the lights go down, and I am in my rooms again, alone, unlauded. The guard passing on the empty safe street, the city waiting with bated breath, watching, cupping us all in its palms. I open my hand and let the pages drift to rest on the table with barely a whisper. I have gone too far down this other path to change my direction. I can save Adelaide or I can keep the stage, I cannot have both. I expected to be filled with tension, pacing into all hours of the night. I expected to finish the wine bottle that I keep on the top shelf, weeping over what might have been, now that I am without witnesses. I do neither. I sit in the darkness and I think about the faces of my parents and Adelaide’s, which she does not remember. We will not even be able to bring their ashes, and when I rouse myself to dress, I kiss my fingers and press them to each of the four boxes on our mantle-piece, bathed in the morning’s first golden light.
It is a rough wagon which comes to bear Adelaide away to her funeral pyre, splinters pricking me as I sit beside the driver in my habitual attire. The aged nag plods through the streets slow enough that I fear Adelaide might wake in the market and I begin to fear we have been followed, though am unsure if the dark shadow is on my heart or in my vision. Each time I turn, I see no one untoward and no one I know, though the sparks amongst Company management would be enough to burn the city, if the city did not hold its own. Cobble by cobble we reach the crematorium, and the coffin is carried inside not a moment too soon.
I pry the lid loose as she begins to stir, and a frown mars Adelaide’s serene brow as she looks up at me from her satin pillow. “Cousin, where…?”
“Adelaide, there is no time now, we are in dire circumstances. Come, lean on my arm, and I will take you to our freedom.”
“Our freedom?” she asks, but she sits up, yawning prettily and stretching as flower petals fall from her dress and her hair, and I help her step from her coffin. Perhaps it is for the best she is still caught gently in the cobwebs of just-left dreams, so I needn’t explain to her our strange surroundings, the coffin, the smell of ashes and rendered fat.
From outside I hear a cautious whistle, Marco’s signal, and I answer it. Our escape is secured, and we need only make our hasty way to it. I urge Adelaide, excruciatingly sleep-slowed, out through the dooryard and to the perilously open street. A shocked cry, and I turn.
Valentino is there, hooded and worry-pale, an apothecary’s vial falling from his fingers and breaking, hissing, on the stones. He has eyes for only Adelaide, pushing me aside to take her up into his arms. He looks to me only when he hears the ring of my sword clearing its sheath. “Please, Katarina,” Adelaide says faintly. The potion’s spell is already broken and her memories unchanged.
We stand a moment transfixed, and Valentino turns his back to me, lifting his wife into the bright-painted covered wooden wagon Marco has brought for us. I make effort to gather my senses; haste is all I can consider at this late hour, and Adelaide’s safety is Valentino’s wish as well. I can duel him another day.
Marco clucks to the horses and our wagon winds south. We will find a way to survive, even if we must turn to banditry on the highways and form a merry band of outlaws in the forest. Perhaps we’ll found a new Company and ply our trade in the little towns we’ve heard of but never seen. When we pass through the gate, I feel a great relief, and a great sadness, as though the city itself has also wished for my good fortune, even as the guard will surely follow in pursuit once they catch wind of my flight, and the Company will surely place a bounty upon my head.
You thought this was a love story, and as the curtain falls upon this final city scene, it is revealed that you had the right of it.
|Jennifer R. Donohue grew up at the Jersey Shore and now lives in central New York with her husband and her Doberman. She is a Codexian and an Associate member of the SFWA, with work appearing in Escape Pod, Apex, The Future Fire, and elsewhere. Her cyberpunk novella series, Run With the Hunted, is available on most digital platforms. She tweets @AuthorizedMusin.|