Javin Wollstone stood gripping the balustrade of the mezzanine box, shoulders tense, a hundred thoughts flicking through his mind, surveying the thickening crowd of commoners below. Did he load his pistol properly? Were all of the Blue Dragons in their proper positions? Were there any Farthi in the crowd? In the glow of the dim stage lights, it was difficult to see. A dozen low-born faces, a score, a hundred, milling and mingling, two hundred, difficult to remember them all--
A soft hand fell on his forearm, startling him. Bella flinched away. "For heaven's sake, sit down, brother," she said. "If you stand there like a statue, I'll never be able to enjoy the play."
Javin took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, willing his shoulders to relax and his aching hands to release the balustrade. "It's my task to protect you."
Bella laughed. "No one will harm us here. We are surrounded by friends and countrymen, and your men are everywhere. Now, sit."
Javin released his breath and acquiesced, but a line of tension between his shoulder blades still felt like a drawn leaf spring.
Bella giggled and bounced in her chair, allowing her enthusiasm free rein. "Look around! Isn't this wonderful? Isn't it akin to living a dream?"
For the first time since entering the theater box, Javin took a long look at his sister. Living a dream. His dreams of late were no place to live. Nevertheless, he lived them, every night, over and over, with the blast of cannons and the screams of his dying men, the stench of powder and blood and spilled viscera, faces of the enemy, faces of his men, his comrades, twisted, bloody, cleft, shattered, empty of life and courage. Bella did not know. No one knew. No one would ever know the torture of his dreams. He found himself rubbing the patch of numbness on his scalp where a flap had been nearly sliced away by a Farthi blade. Hair covered the scar now, but he could still feel the numb fleshy ridge.
Javin gripped the rail again and spoke slowly, "I enjoy the theater, but not as much as you." He turned back toward the crowd. The building murmur filled the space. "It's all I can do to keep you from going every single night."
Bella's mouth dropped open. "So you're plotting against me?"
"At Father's request, of course."
She sniffed. "I no longer need a nursemaid."
He smiled and spoke to her as if she were still eight years old. "Of course, Sister."
She punched him on the shoulder.
Javin enjoyed teasing her, but their father was quite serious. The Grand General wanted his daughter to be seen by the masses, but not too often. She was so popular with the commoners, it was best to keep her as a rarefied delicacy than a daily staple. Her beauty--not to mention her family name--would make her the object of many a suitor, and perhaps more than a few unwelcome admirers.
Javin surveyed the gallery again. When he had returned to Norgard after the war halted, Bella's endless effervescence had pulled him back from the brink of endless black moods. On the other hand, she distracted him from his task at times like this, when they were most vulnerable.
The two bodyguards standing behind Javin and Bella in their special box on the mezzanine could have been twins in their dark blue woolen uniforms, similar to Javin's own. The mezzanine box was, of course, the best in the playhouse, with a commanding central view of the stage, hanging high above the gallery.
Javin caught a whiff of the unwashed bodies below, all of them warm and moistened from this evening's steady rain. He wrinkled his nose. Why they could not bathe more often, he would never understand.
The building rattled with the crash of thunder and the patter of rain driving against the tile roof above, like phantom applause before the show started.
Bella wore her favorite gown, pink and ivory-sequined, commissioned by their mother just before her death. Bella was beginning to outgrow it now and stretch it in womanly ways, much to Javin's protective consternation.
She favored him with a radiant smile. "I've heard this play is even more wonderful than The King's Three Daughters."
"How do you know that? I understood that this is the first performance."
"You have your spies, and I have mine." She giggled.
"Master Filton has some skill with a quill, I must say. Such a terrible thing to watch a poor old man betrayed by his children in that last one."
"But it all ended well, didn't it."
"The ending was too happy. The king forgave them too easily, after they had stolen his throne and left him to starve in the Red Waste."
"Ah, but we must have a happy ending. Forgiveness is a virtue, Javin. Don't you agree?"
He sighed, noting the other nobles and wealthy merchants ensconced in the other mezzanine boxes. "Of course, you're right."
"We must even forgive our enemies someday."
He took a drink of his wine, saying nothing. She was so innocent. How could she know that he could never forgive the Farthi? Images crowded his mind again: the stench of battle, the thunder of his heartbeat, louder than the cannons, louder than the screams of dying men, the feeling of his bowels turning to water, his hands shaking so badly he could not even hold his pistol steady, the relentless onslaught of men so willing to die for their Prophets. And not just men. He still remembered the way his sword blade had grated between the ribs of a Farthi boy little older than Bella. Why must such pain never be more than half a thought away? He twitched and shook himself to bring his mind back to the moment.
"The best plays," she continued, "always have a happy ending, don't they."
"Yes, of course."
She slapped his arm and said with mock seriousness, "You're not listening to me. You must listen to me, or I'll pinch you."
"If you pinch me, my dear lovely sister, I shall have to tickle you until you can't breathe, and that would simply not be proper behavior for the Grand General's children." He squeezed her hand.
"You know I would. I would embarrass you in front this entire theater."
"Now I know you're lying. You, dear brother, are too ... restrained to carry out such a hideous threat. Now, shush! It's starting." The innocence and unbridled joy in her gaze brought a lump into his throat. He laughed with her to make it go away. He was not so innocent as that, not anymore, and he could not bear to tell her that none of this was a game, or a play.
The Red Lily was the finest theater in the city of Norgard. Flicking foot lanterns surrounded the polished rosewood stage. The ceiling arched into polished wooden vaults and thick dark timbers, carved and inlaid in the pre-Cataclysm style with crimson marble in the motif of intertwining red lilies.
Just as Javin scanned the crowd again, the lights in the theater dimmed, and the Master of the Performance strode to center stage. He looked like a firecock in full strut, a dazzling array of reds and oranges and yellows, with a broad-brimmed blood-red hat with a long, white plume.
His rich and sonorous voice echoed into every corner of the theater, drawing a hush over the crowd with a command few generals could muster. "My gentle companions, good evening." He bowed deeply, doffing his hat with perfect aplomb. "Lord Javin and Lady Bella, may I offer the Grand General's family the warmest of welcomes from His Excellency's Men, the finest troupe of actors in all of Ostaala. My sincerest hope is that our vulgar performance tonight can serve to touch your hearts the smallest bit, if you can but lend me your ears." His voice rose, and he made a flowing arc with a sweep of his white plume. "For tonight, my friends, is a tale like no other. Your hearts will weep and sing at the tale of Count Orlo, as he and his trusted band of heroes fend off the Farthi hordes at the Battle of Ramon Pass in the Second Century of War. A familiar tale to be sure, but Master Filton has uncovered new histories, long lost to the world"--the Master of the Performance flourished his plume again--"that will change everything you think you know about the beloved Count Orlo and his 'faithful' servant, Yaago." Boos and hisses came from the audience at Yaago's name. "But wait, my friends, and be patient but a little more. The players are ready, and the windswept crags of Ramon Pass beckon us once again, drawing us back to those fateful days. One man and a small band of heroic fighters are all that stand between the fanatical Farthi host and the gentle hills of our beloved homeland. My friends, the winds are rising, and the crags of Ramon Pass loom above us." Somewhere backstage, the sound of wind rose like a low moan, and the Master bowed and slipped offstage.
A peal of thunder shook the building again, and Javin jumped, instantly tense. Bella clutched his hand. The playgoers stirred at the noise, but the Master's words and voice had done their work. Their gaze fixed upon the tall, brightly armored warrior striding onto center stage. Javin laid his hand over hers and scanned the crowd again. His ears cocked, listening for that particular sound he thought he had heard.
Unfortunately for his task, he enjoyed the plays too, making it difficult sometimes to focus on ensuring his sister's safety. With a gesture, he sent Rulf behind him out the box to make a patrol of the mezzanine level. Rulf ghosted between the heavy curtains with barely a sound. His men were well trained and handpicked, among the best in all of Cusca. He trusted their loyalty and their prowess. Still, he noticed his hand resting on the rounded silvery hilt of his pistol holstered at his hip.
Ornamental weapons so common among nobility often were disregarded as pretty pieces of unserviceable paraphernalia. Not so, Javin's pistol. Its fittings were inlaid with silver and gold, but all of the important parts were fashioned of fine Yarburg steel, from the specially designed barrel to the newest flintlock firing mechanism. Produced by Cusca's finest gunsmith, the weapon was exceeded in beauty and precision only by the Grand General's famous ivory-fitted, twin fighting pistols. The thickest Farthi armor could not stand against a leaden ball as fat as Javin's thumb, as the heathens had discovered not so many months ago before the latest cessation of hostilities.
The performance below swept onward, with "Count Orlo" delivering rousing speeches to his beleaguered men. As a soldier, Javin felt the power of the words as Count Orlo praised the tenets of honor and courage in one breath, and railed against them the next for stealing his brothers-in-arms from him. The imminent betrayal by Yaago, Count Orlo's closest friend and adviser, turned the audience's heart to cold stone, and they booed and hissed the vile Yaago's every presence on stage. Yaago's seething soliloquies spoke of envy for Count Orlo's exalted position and a hatred for all men so profound that he wanted nothing more than to see his compatriots suffer and die, for the sole pleasure of being witness to it. Surely, such a foul creature had never soiled the ranks of humanity before or since.
Count Orlo and his small band of men had, according to Cuscan histories, defended Ramon Pass from fifteen thousand Farthi infantry regulars and two thousand kalad cavalry. Brilliant tactics, counterattacks, and unflinching courage allowed them to hold out for a full month. They were overrun at dawn of the thirtieth day, slaughtered to a man by heathen blades, because Yaago's treachery had allowed a few Farthi assassins to steal into Count Orlo's camp during the night and kill him in his tent while that very morning, a reinforcing army of Cuscans, some ten thousand strong, marched to their aid up the other end of Ramon Pass. The Cuscan army arrived in time to halt the Farthi advance through the pass, but too late to save Orlo and his men. This was one of the tales told in the schoolrooms and at the bedsides of every Cuscan boy and girl.
However, something was wrong in the play now. Javin sat up in his seat. What was this? A lone Farthi messenger stealing into Count Orlo's tent in the dead of night? Carrying a sack? What was in the sack? Count Orlo took the sack from the Farthi, looked inside, gasped, and cast it away from him. The sack was stained with blood. Yaago crept forward from his place in the shadows and looked into the bag.
"Oh, my lord!" Yaago gasped. "It is Orman's head!"
The audience gasped.
"Aye, my son! They have killed my youngest son! How did his head come to be here?"
The stoic Farthi spoke with their detestable accent, "If you give us this pass, my lord Count, we will allow the rest of your sons and daughters to live. They will be given safe passage, never to be harmed by Farthi hands. After we have taken all of Cusca, your family will survive, and your name will live on."
Count Orlo reeled. "How can this come to pass? How could you have done this to my poor boy?"
The Farthi messenger hissed like a snake. "Farthi blades lurk in every shadow. In your cities, in your towns, in your homes, in your very beds! And our blades will not rest until all infidels have been scourged from the face of the world!"
The audience seethed. Every gaze fixed to the stage.
"Our offer is simple," the Farthi continued. "Give us this pass, and your family will live. If you choose to fight, then after we have slaughtered you and your men, taken this pass, and swept across Cuscan lands, after we have sacked your cities, stolen your gold and silver and iron and put every living man to the sword, we will perform upon your sons and daughters horrors that would make the cruelest torturer avert his eyes."
Count Orlo stared at the Farthi, mouth agape, his face twisted with emotion. Yaago studied his master for a long moment, then lunged forward and spitted the Farthi with a wickedly barbed spear. The audience roared with surprise and approval. The Farthi suffered a long, lingering death as Yaago savaged him first with the spear, then with his sword. The audience roared with lust for blood and justice. His arm weary from the strokes, Yaago staggered to the front the stage and raised his voice in soliloquy.
"I have long hated everything my master stands for. Justice, freedom, truth. Why? Because my master loves them, of course. I need no other cause to hate. Am I jealous of his exalted position? Nay. I would not wear his boots for all the salt in the Mines of Simourne. My place is in the shadows, aye, where my best work comes to fruit. Aye, hatred belongs in the shadows, but all my sweet odium stands as nothing against my hatred for this vile sack of meat." He gestured toward the sprawled corpse. "Shall I stand here whilst one such as this cuts the heads from children and feeds upon their flesh? Shall I stand here whilst one such as this seeds the wombs of my lord's daughters with his vile pustulence? This wrack, this lump, this boil! Shall I stand here whilst one such as this seeks to turn my lord into a mewling coward? Nay, I say! It is by my hand alone that Orlo shall be reduced! By the Sun, no other! He has been my plaything far too long to relinquish him to one such as this!"
Weeping and gnashing his teeth, Count Orlo broke the soliloquy. "Oh, my son, my son! How could they have slain my boy! A child of eight summers! Alas, alas, my daughters! The Farthi mustn't have them! Never! Never will the Farthi touch my daughters! Never will my sons feel a blade until they hold one in their own hands. Yaago! Attend me."
"What, how now, my lord?"
"Listen upon me, for my heart can only speak this once. We must give the Farthi this pass, this worthless saddle of barren rock that has soaked far too much Cuscan blood. This pox, this useless clod that holds not one speck of worth of my boy's blood! We must retreat, and let the Farthi come!"
"My lord, what's this? You cannot!"
Orlo wept with bitterness, and the audience fell as silent as a tomb. Every word resonated on the air, as clear and rich as a chorus of battle horns. "Nay, I say! We must! We must retreat. Call the captains. They're abed now, but wake them! Wake them all and sound the retreat!"
The entire theater gasped as Yaago thrust his sword through the distraught hero's body. "No, my lord. We cannot."
Orlo fell back, gurgling and clutching.
Yaago watched him slowly expire. "And so a hero dies, and a hero you will remain, my lord, laid low by a filthy heathen assassin. I have given you a better death than you would have given yourself. With cowardice in heart and deed, you would have fallen under Farthi blades tomorrow and been denied at the gates to the Halls of Valor. The Holy Sons will not abide cowardice. But now, your courage still intact, you can meet us all there tomorrow, still a hero. For tomorrow, we will fight, mayhap to die, but fight we will, and none shall know that you were ready to betray us with your final breath."
Javin's eye caught a flutter behind him. He turned to see Rulf resuming his post two paces behind them, just inside the curtain. A shiver slithered up his neck like a snake made of ice. A bloodied blade in Rulf's hand, long, serrated, and wickedly curved in the white-gloved fist as it flashed toward him. Javin threw himself toward Bella, both to dodge and to protect her, hand on his pistol butt, pulling it free, but his movement only saved his life, not his shoulder. Pain tore through his arm and shoulder as the blade sank into his back, its serrated edge cutting deep into the bone of his shoulder blade. Bella's scream tore through the cavernous interior.
The other guard, Gusdan, leaped forward and drove his boot into the side of Javin's skull. His head snapped forward and his forehead cracked against the wooden balustrade of the theater box. He slumped forward and through an exploding starry mist watched his sister's flailing legs disappear behind the curtain. A small sound rattled from his throat, and all went black.