Sucunde danced slowly across the boards backstage, as though floating through water. His body was tranquil, except for the curved, razor-edged short-sword in his left fist. The blade gleamed as it fanned around him like an extension of himself. The painted backdrops depicted a peaceful forest glade, bathed in golden sunlight, etched in such luminous detail that the lamp-lit theater might dissolve away around it. He could almost feel the afternoon summer breeze. He paused and breathed steadily. Beyond the glow of the hanging oil lamps, a shadow moved.
“Enjoying the show, Prima?” he said.
His cousin Prima stepped into the light as he turned towards her. It was still early in the day, with hours yet before greeting the public. She wore simple britches and a soft tunic. She shook her head, her pale hair hanging about her shoulders in a scraggly tangle. “I don’t like to watch men masturbate.”
“Except for your brother, on stage here every night, I guess.”
“You’re lucky he’s not around to hear you say that, stagehand.”
“No, wouldn’t want to anger Bathshire himself, would we now?”
“You’ll never play Bathshire, if that’s what you’re on about again, or any of the other great roles the Sacred Thespians embody within these walls.”
“Neither will you.” He studied her bright eyes. “Would you like to?”
“Is that a real sword? You’d…better put it back, wherever you got it.”
He picked up the scabbard and sheathed the blade. “That would take some doing. I brought it with me from the countryside.”
“Who let you into the city-state with a weapon like that?”
He grinned. “A magician never reveals how he does his tricks. I was hoping you’d happen along and witness me practicing.”
She sighed for patience. “Look, Sucunde, I already told you, I’m not interested.”
“I’m not talking about getting up your skirts. I’m talking about what we both really want.”
She peered closer. “What would you know, anyway, about what I really want?”
He moved towards her, his eyes glittering. “All the glory before the crowds that the Sacred Imperial Mandates won’t give you. Am I wrong?”
“Speaking blasphemy is what you’re doing.”
“I used to run a little theater of my own, you know, back home. To hear it told around here, we spoke fluent blasphemy nightly, to the crowd’s delight.”
“You’re not out in the countryside anymore. It’s high time you stopped pissing all over the management’s generosity. Don’t forget who secured you employment and lodgings here. Have you stopped to consider what would happen to me, if you got caught at you—”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
She huffed and turned away, like he’d known she would. To hear her tell it, you’d think she’d been the one to pull the strings within the Spirelight Empire itself. To have him and his two little siblings relocated here from the ranges. So it had been for many Spirelight pioneer families with ties to those within the city-state, as the conflicts with the indigenous Schomites got worse. To be fair, she had used that distant family connection to get him this high-tier theater job, though his lower-born blood prevented him from making the most of it, and she never let him forget it. In return, he never let her forget which genetics she and her brother Tertza had or hadn’t inherited from which ancestors, according to the priests upon their birth. She’d long since learned to accept her place with graceful dignity…or so she told herself, except whenever Sucunde jabbed at her about it. No matter how angry he made her, he always saw the truth flash through her eyes, of what she was really angry about. Every time, a little more of her facade crumbled, and today, he saw that the time was now.
“What we both want,” he continued, “is more out of the magic that lives in this theater. We’re both good enough to get more out of it. I’ve watched you on stage in the little roles they give you, while they cycle through the same old tired productions. You’d make a better Bathshire than that anemic brother of yours, by far…or better yet, some other leading role, tailored anew to your own gifts.”
She crossed her arms beneath her breasts. “In a play spun by you, I suppose, from that bardic blasphemy you learned from those Schomites you used to live with.”
“Something like that.”
“Are you listening to yourself? Do you want to tempt the wrath of the gods themselves—of Priest King Krathusha himself, after everything that’s—”
“From what I hear, Priest King Krathusha can’t stop shitting himself long enough to get out of bed these days, let alone visit the theater. As for the Spirah Pantheon, they may rule the rest of the city-state…but within the theater, other gods hold sway. This theater especially.” He grinned at how she perked up. “Like you said, I spent time living among Schomites.”
She rolled her eyes. “Let me guess, you’ve become blood-brothers with the bandit-chief Rorkaster himself, or some taller tale.”
“Not him, no, but a few guys and gals who are pretty fun. You learn a lot from Schomites, about the rich history of these lands we live on…of the lands on which this city-state is built, of what still dwells beneath our feet, what was here before us and will be here after us. There’s a reason this theater—this temple of stories brought to life by its own kind of priests—was built on this spot. The people who built Trescha didn’t know that…not consciously. And lucky me, here I am, thanks to you. Maybe that’s why I’m offering you this opportunity.”
“What in the eight winds are you talking about?”
“You’d be amazed how much you can explore, without anyone thinking twice about your comings and goings, when you’re a little man like me in an establishment like this. Do you know how deep into the bowels of the city-state this building’s cellars run? If you poke around long enough, deep enough, the secret passageways go down even deeper than the cellars. Even I haven’t ventured as deep as I could…but I’ll tell you this much. There’s something down there. Something asleep, waiting to be awoken, something the priests don’t want us to know about. But I do, and soon, so will you. Something that will make both our dreams come true. Once it does, none of them out there will be able to stop us…because the true god of the theater will once again rule within these walls.”
“So only you know how to find this sleeping devil, and if we go down there and stoke it up, and we sell our souls to it—”
“Not sell our souls. We’ll just need to accept…a symbiotic relationship if you will, the mutually beneficial kind.”
“And it’ll make me the leading lady in productions of blasphemous tales penned by you, I suppose. The crowds will worship us for it like we’ve become gods ourselves, and neither the gods outside these walls nor their enforcers will be able to do a damn thing to stop us, so its ripple effects will leave this place with everyone who just experienced it, out into the rest of Trescha, to spread through the population, causing…who knows what upheaval?”
She drew closer and spoke softer. “You’ve only lived in Trescha for a year or so. I’ve been here since I was four. You have no idea what it’s like…”
“Trapped in a gilded cage?” His voice softened. “I’ve been learning an idea. So are you in or not?”
“You’re just crazier than a drunk spine-rat.” She bit her lip and lowered her eyes, but she’d already taken too long of a pause, shown too much excitement in her gaze.
“Meet me by the third-tier stage-door tonight,” he said, “at two hours past midnight. Where we go from there…You might want to bring along something sharp, in case you feel the need to defend yourself.”
“I’m well-schooled in handling a blade, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“Yes, of course. You’re amazing at stage fighting.”
She rolled her eyes. “As you’re pretty good at those half-asleep sword-dances I guess you learned from the Schomites, or maybe the Lepods. Fine, then. Tonight it is, unless you’re just another fool full of hot air. You’re not the first of those I’ve met within these walls over the years, either.”
“Who within the theater isn’t? I’m full of a lot more than that, and so is this theater, as you’re about to discover.”
The last of the lowest born theater employees had exited this third-tier stage door several hours ago. Now that Klesh slumped dead within the corridor, there’d be no one to interrupt her for the next several minutes, ’til the next patrol wandered by. She peeked out into the empty streets beneath the fattening moon and starless sky, all while trying to make her heart quit hammering. It was at least twenty minutes after two. Where the hell was Sucunde?
A stray noise sent her shrinking back sharply, into the narrow enclosure. She was clad from head to toe in form-fitting black, the only speck of brightness being the glittering clamshell hilt of the rapier that hung from her belt. She’d tied her hair into a single tight, whip-like braid that hung just past her shoulders, after the fashion of women in the Spirelight military and police forces. She’d learned how to braid her hair like that some years ago, when her brother had arranged for a squad of city policemen to visit the theater, to better demonstrate to the performers how to portray military men and women on the stage. How many times had Prima stood on stage in the background so bedecked, holding her shoulders straight, her face blank and imposing? It had made her feel so strong and confident, embodying such a warrior, even though she’d seldom gotten to actually do anything in the fight scenes, other than die on the blade of some other actor painted up to look like a Schomite, before the hero of the story swooped in to save the day.
The longer she waited, the harder it got to maintain such confidence, every time she asked herself, What the hell am I even doing here? Is it too late to back out of what I let my insane bastard cousin talk me into, without getting our entire family executed for blasphemy?
No, she reminded herself, she wasn’t as ignorant and sheltered as he thought she was, when she’d caught him practicing his forms…that primitive sword-dance that looked serene in practice, but at full speed would be deadly.
He thinks I’m useless in a scrape, except for stage-fighting.
Sure, there was a lot he didn’t know about her…but she knew even less about him. He loved to reminisce about how he’d lived among Schomite bandits, learning their lore and craft. She’d told him over and over, that wasn’t something to brag about in the city-state of Trescha. Especially not these days. By the gods, their Priest King had been attacked, by a traitorous Police Captain, now at large in the countryside, rumored to be in league with the Bandit Chief Rorkaster. Art students from high-tier families were being arrested left and right, tortured according to rumors, for any hint of their work betraying sympathy for the enemy. And Sucunde still couldn’t get over his mad, jilted pride, over the lot the gods and his birth had dealt him—robbed him of his wild glory days among farmers and bandits, as he saw it.
The door lurched open behind her. She spun, drew her rapier with a sharp chime, and backed out of the corridor into the deserted street.
A voice echoed, “Sorry I’m late. Why so jumpy, cousin?”
She stepped backwards off the sidewalk, her blade still pointed at him. “Klesh,” she cried out, “he’s here!”
Sucunde stepped into the light, clad in the same black stagehand garb as her. “Klesh?”
“That’s right,” said the man who stepped out of the nearby alcove, clad in the plain gray of a patrolman’s uniform. He knocked a bolt into a caster and leveled it. “Look, Sucunde, brother, this doesn’t have to end badly. Just unhitch that illegal blade, set it on the ground, step out into the light, and walk towards me, slowly.”
Sucunde followed instructions and lifted his hands above his head. “Hi, Klesh. Man, ain’t you risen far since we both came from the same place!”
“Don’t make this worse, man. Prima told me everything.”
“I doubt it.”
Sucunde approached Klesh with such an air of polite surrender, that Klesh didn’t even notice him closing the distance ’til it was too late. He slapped Klesh’s wrist, so the cord twanged and the bolt launched. It went right through Klesh’s boot. Klesh opened his mouth to scream, but Sucunde clamped a hand over it, yanked the man close, pulled a small knife from the rear waistband of his trousers, and jerked the edge through Klesh’s throat. He shifted sideways, so the worst of the spray hit the wall of the alcove. Klesh convulsed and gurgled, his windpipe whistling wetly as he fought to draw breath. Sucunde dragged him into the dark passageway, settled him against the wall, and left him there to bleed out.
“You’ll want to put your blade away,” Sucunde told Prima as he retrieved his own sword and fastened it back to his belt. “Unless you mean to try your luck like this prick.” He gave the seeping corpse a little kick.
Prima stood frozen, her rapier still stretched out in front of her. She steadied herself enough to sheathe it. “He…just wanted to help you. Please, Sucunde, your mind’s not right.”
“You’re right about that second part, I guess.”
“That man was your brother in arms, out there, in the countryside. He…”
“Wrong again. Before he was recalled here to street duty, he killed some of my real brothers. Some sisters, too. Did he ever tell you about all the Schomite village women he raped? Little girls, too, hadn’t even sprouted tits, let alone bled.”
“That’s a lie.”
“Is it? Why do you think I quit the outland police force and got into local theater instead? Of course, you don’t see those things in the city-state theater, in all those heroic tales of the International Police taming of the savage frontier.”
“You’ll never get away with this.”
“You mean we’ll never get away with this. You’re an accessory to this murder now.” He leaned sideways and clapped Klesh’s damp, cooling shoulder. “Now you’ve got two choices. You can go running down the street, shouting your pretty little head off, tell the next patrolmen you find, get me arrested, and we’ll see how the Tribunal looks at it when we’re both brought to trial. Or you can stick with me, follow me down to the true heart of this theater…to the kind of knowledge and power that their morality and fables have always tried to scare us away from. They’ve always been more scared of us than they’ve convinced us to be of them. Not just the priests, but the gods, too. If you follow me now, dear cousin, you’ll find out why.”
He didn’t wait for her answer, just turned and strode off into the darkness, while the lake of Klesh’s blood pooled around her shoes. Before she knew it, she hurried after Sucunde.
The door swung shut behind Prima, plunging her into pitch blackness, alone with Sucunde. She followed the soft pad of his footsteps. He led her down a narrow, steep flight of wooden stairs. The air grew thicker and mustier, the lower they went. Once they reached the bottom, he lit a lantern. Its glow spilled through thickly swirling dust. Musty old costumes hung from the walls, of gods and devils from a thousand old productions from before either of them were born, now looming in on them like accusing, hollow-eyed sentinels.
Through the glare of the lantern, Sucunde looked back at her, his eyes oddly soft. “I guess you’ve never seen anyone actually die before. I mean other than on stage, with fake blood.”
She swallowed. “You’re acting like that was a stage-murder you just committed.”
“You’re the one who brought Klesh into it.”
“So you’re saying it’s my fault a man’s dead?”
He ran his free hand along a stack of crates against the left wall, feeling his way through the gloom. “Depends on how you look at it, I suppose. If you seriously, genuinely want nothing more out of life than what the gods, the priests, and their enforcers tell you to accept, within their parameters, with the odds stacked against you…then sure, it’s my fault for inviting you into this adventure.”
She edged up closer behind him. “So humanoid lives mean less to you than your mad ambitions.”
“The ones who prefer keeping me in my place, down in the shit with them, when I’d rather carve out my own destiny? Yes.”
She watched him scoot into the tight space. The rapier on her belt felt heavier than ever.
“Just like you should go ahead and draw that blade right now and stab me in the back,” he added, “while I’m down here at a disadvantage. If living on in this gilded cage in the Spirah Empire is worth some greater good you think you’d be serving…Oh, right, I forgot. Actual murder is too foreign to your stage-fighting hand. Ah, here it is!”
He wrenched something wet and rotted away from the wall. A small black space shown between the bricks. He set the lantern on top of some crates, ducked down, and slid himself feet first through the hole in the wall. Prima crouched and peered in after him.
“Are you coming or not? Careful now, there’s a steep drop right after you slide in.” When she reached for the lantern, he said, “No, leave it. We’ll be making our way down through pitch blackness for a little while. You’ll just have to get used to it.”
She lowered herself and scooted her feet through the hole. She slid in easily, until all but her head and shoulders were through. The ground dropped off beneath her feet, so she shot all the way into the darkness, as though yanked forward by some invisible force.
Sucunde’s strong, narrow hands caught her by the waist. “There, steady, I’ve got you.”
He lowered her ’til her feet settled on solid sandstone. She fell against him and clutched at his corded shoulders ’til she found her footing. Once her breathing steadied, she shoved him away.
“Easy there! We have to go carefully. There’ll be light again soon enough.”
He hadn’t been kidding about the steep climb. For the first half of it, she let him hold her hand and lead the way. After that, she got the hang of it, pulled free, and made the rest of the descent on her own. The lower they went, the damper the air tasted. Almost before she realized it, she began to see the faint outlines of their cavernous surroundings. The way widened, ’til she could no longer stretch out her arms and touch both walls. The light from below came in hues of bright yellow, purple, and blue, with traces of crimson and emerald. The walls gave way to craggy, upward-jutting outcroppings of rock, which little by little revealed the rolling, subterranean landscape.
Prima gasped and blinked. It was impossible, yet undeniable: they weren’t underground anymore. Instead, they stood before an expanse of rolling plains and forests, full of furry trees and glistening, pod-speckled bushes. The landscape was as bright as high noon, yet it was a starry night sky that looked down over everything. No, she realized, those weren’t stars, but rather a dangling tangle of little glowing pods, sprouting and falling from vines that crisscrossed the rocky ceiling high above. This was no stage-dressing, but they weren’t outdoors, either. They’d stepped into a world inside the world.
“How does no one up there know about this place?”
“There you go again with your misplaced faith, sweet cousin. They know. The ones who pull our strings sleep better at night, thinking everyone else is too stupid to discover it for ourselves.”
“Do we have to worry about setting off alarms?”
“None that I’ve ever bumbled across. Come on, we’re almost to her.”
Beneath the constellation of glowing pods, they stepped off the sandstone descent, onto a soft meadow overgrown with wild corkscrew flora, then climbed a hill into a cluster of trees. All around, she saw plant life she recognized only faintly from paintings or descriptions in the scrolls, some native to only Valaka or as far as the Ghestru continents, allegedly at least. Through the bushes and furry, hanging moss, there came the scuttles and gibbers of creatures she’d neither seen nor heard of, in the Treschan territories or elsewhere…creatures that moved like frogs or lizards, except with silky fur like cats or rodents, creeping mercurially on insectile legs, the evolutionary products of this world the city-state she called home had shut away from the sun. Once again, her hand slipped towards her rapier.
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Sucunde. “They won’t react to us as a threat unless we present one to them. Besides, I’d rather we save our strength for where we’re going.”
As they continued on, the subterranean forest dropped away. They reached the grassy ridge of a small, bare-earth natural amphitheater. At the center, there arose a smooth, rectangular, monolithic slab, carved from some kind of otherworldly black metal. Atop the slab lay a stone sculpture, of some kind of sleeping reptile. As they descended into the amphitheater, Prima noticed how the smooth stone beneath their feet was etched in labyrinthine lines, all converging around the monolith. The sculpture was wrapped in ropes or vines that glowed like white-hot metal.
“What is that?” she gasped.
“You wouldn’t have heard of her…except in some legends of a demon, one who was subdued and bound by a pair of swordsman mages…long ago, at the birth of Trescha. Some say those swordsmen were students of Bathshire himself, for how else could they ever have managed to subdue her?”
Prima shook her head and backed away. “You’re saying that’s the Demon Telente…”
“Oh, you’ve heard of her! You really are a girl of the theater, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Because few other Spirelights have, even the priests. No, though, she’s not a demon.”
“Then what is she?”
“Something closer to a dragon, really. A spirit of tale and song. Her power still feeds the tales we bring to life in the theater above…except on their terms, not hers. Tonight, we’re going to change that.”
He grinned. “Two sorcerer-swordsmen bound her here. Two shall set her free. That’s often the nature of spirits of tales and songs.”
“But…we’re not sorcerers.”
“Oh, but we are. Haven’t you been listening to what I’ve said, about the spirit of the theater? We’re steeped in that magic, surely as the Priests in their dome at the top of the city-state are steeped in their sorcery. Come now, draw your sword and strike away the first of the cords that bind her. I’ll be right beside you, striking away the rest.”
She ripped out her rapier and pointed it at him. “There, I’ve drawn my sword. One way or the other, this madness of yours stops now!”
“Are you…seriously threatening me?” He tried to sound amused, but she heard the nervousness in his voice. It put steel in her spine.
“I’m sorry.” She stepped towards him, her blade leveled on his chest.
“Prima, this is stupid. You’re a stage-fighter, not a –”
Her sword’s tip poked his chest. “You’re the one who said you needed a fellow swordsman. So your plan’s fucked either way, because I won’t play the role you’ve cast me in.”
“Yeah, you will. Poke me again with your blade and see what happens.”
“If you don’t want me to stop you, you’re just going to have to draw your own blade and kill me.”
“No, I don’t have to do that, either.”
She lunged, thrusting the blade at his heart. He moved one foot behind the other, swaying sideways so the glimmering edge sailed past him. As he recovered his balance, he caught her sword wrist and yanked her forward. She shambled, so her sword’s tip struck the stone sculpture. Sucunde pressed her wrist, so the blade scraped down the stone, right through one of the glowing cords. As the rope hissed away, whatever illuminated it from within seemed to shoot out, at either end, through her sword, up through her entire body. She fell to her knees in a shrieking paroxysm, like the blood in her veins had turned to fire.
“What have you done to me?” she shrieked through clenched teeth.
“Just guided you through the first step. Congratulations, my darling cousin. You’ve done great!”
“I can’t. I can only share it with you, ’til we’ve both finished the work you’ve started.”
His sword sang from its scabbard. He spun away from her and slashed another glowing rope. As the two ends slithered away, the light from within shot through his blade, into his whole body. She saw him stagger, his teeth clenched to the breaking point. A new level of horror filled her, beholding the full extent of what she must look like now. He glowed all over like a lump of burning coal, the veins bulging in his face, neck and hands, ready to explode.
He splayed his feet wide. His wild grin looked all the more horrible beneath his bulging, bloodshot eyes. “There’s only one way to make this stop, Prima. We have to make our limbs move and cut the ropes away. Once she’s free, we will be too.”
Prima had to force her neck to move through the blaze, just to look down at herself, at the blade still in her hand. She heard a whistling chop. She looked up and saw that Sucunde had already lashed away two more of the ropes.
“Time’s a-wasting, Prima dear! It won’t work if we don’t both do our share. If I cut too many more of them than you…she might not let you go.”
Maybe I should try to kill him one last time. She lurched to her feet. It won’t work if one of us is dead, right? Instead, she found herself stumbling forward, across the dais of black metal, towards the sculpture. She lifted her blade, which felt heavier by the second. She let it drop, slicing the nearest rope away. More of the poison, electric light blasted through her. It hurt worse than before, so she was sure she’d die from it…yet now, it also energized her, so she flung herself into it. Wild laughter echoed through her ears as she went to work. At first, she thought it was Sucunde laughing. No, she realized, it was her.
Her strength gave out and she collapsed to her knees. Her skull throbbed so powerfully that it took her a while to notice that the blazing agony had subsided. It was much darker now, because she and Sucunde had sliced away the last of the glowing ropes. Through the gloom, she noticed that he’d also collapsed to his knees. His chin sagged against his chest. He slumped utterly still, like he’d died sitting up.
Then he lifted his head, lurched to his feet, panted and shouted, “Prima, darling! That was fun!”
She looked back and forth, between him and the statue which sat there as stony as ever…still motionless, still just…a statue. This was what she’d played his game of pain for, what Klesh had died for. All just one of his games.
She lunged at him. “You delusional son of a bitch!”
“Hey, hang on a second, we’re still—”
She stabbed at him. Only a reflexive pivot carried him out of the way, so she missed his chest. Her tip punctured the bicep of his sword-arm. He howled as the blade slipped from his grip and clattered on the stone between them. He stooped and reached for it, but his fingers weren’t working right thanks to the gash in his arm, so they fumbled uselessly against the grip. She stabbed again. This time, he flung himself clear and snatched up the sword in his other hand.
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” he shouted.
“Wrong with me? Look around, you maniac!”
She swung and thrust at him, over and over. He scrambled up and retreated, deflecting her chiming strikes. He now wielded his blade in his left hand, which wasn’t his sword hand. The faster he moved, the faster his other arm bled. As she closed in, he realized just how big a mistake he’d made, dismissing her as a mere stage-fighter. In her leisure time, she’d kept in touch with some of those policewomen who’d taught her how to play one on stage. The ones she’d made friends with had given her lessons. Maybe she hadn’t fought Schomite bandits out in the Schogmire Ranges like Sucunde had, but she’d already managed to stab him in the arm. The asshole hadn’t seen that one coming, had he? The more he bled, the more he retreated before her stabbing, slashing blade. Even wounded, though, he wasn’t one to go down easily. The breath went out of her as she sucked in her gut, barely evading a frenzied counterstroke that would have spilled her entrails all over the black metal dais.
You’re learning well, one of those swordswomen had once told her. Learning this strength and discipline is good for you, in any walk of life such as the gods have seen fit for you. But don’t try this at home. You’re a fine stage actress. It’s not your job to be a professional tough bitch in real life, nor is there shame in that.
Professional or not, here she was in a real sword fight, against a seasoned swordsman who’d already murdered someone before her eyes earlier tonight, and now that she’d started that fight, there was nothing she could do but match him blade to blade, for as long as she could last.
I don’t have to best him. I just have to outlast him. The way he’s bleeding, he’ll run out of strength soon.
That was true, but while they fought and he bled, something else weird was happening out of the corners of her eye. The sliced ropes had stopped glowing, yet that same white-hot glare was still present, getting stronger than ever. As Sucunde danced away from Prima, she realized what was happening. Where his blood had spilled, it had flowed into the cracks and grooves of the black metal beneath their feet. It caught fire and flowed straight to the foot of the statue, climbing the base.
The statue was moving…sometimes in the shape of a woman, sometimes as a massive serpent, more often somehow both and neither, all at once. All the while, it moved like a solid creature, yet also flowed like liquid from form to form. It spilled off the base, came up behind Sucunde and swallowed him whole, then came straight at Prima and swallowed her.
For a moment, all was oblivion, then she felt herself catch fire again…except this time, it didn’t scorch her. No, now she was the fire.
Will you have this? said the crackle of flames. Will you be this?
“Yes!” she screamed.
With that, the fire she’d become exploded through the belly of the beast that had swallowed her. By the time it had consumed the beast, it had consumed her consciousness as well…all but the pure sensation of rolling outward in every direction…free.
Prima woke up in bed. A servant came in, saw that she was awake, and instantly turned and ran back out.
Moments later, her brother Tertza came in, looking thinner and paler than she’d ever seen him. “Oh, thank the gods, you’re awake!”
“No thanks to one god I can think of,” she muttered.
“You don’t remember the fire?”
“I guess not. It started somewhere in the lower cellars. We managed to put it out, but…” He shook his head. “The damage was extensive, and all the troubles have set us back on repairs by nearly a month. We found you down near the cellars. Sucunde got you out, but…he injured his arm pretty badly somehow.”
She blinked at her brother. “Sucunde…Is he…?”
“He’s alive. He’s mostly recovered by now.” There was a strange sheen in Tertza’s eyes.
“How long have I been out?” said Prima.
“Nearly a month. You both suffered a lot of smoke inhalation. The doctors all said you should be fine physically, but…something they couldn’t place had hold of you, kept you delirious. I was starting to worry…not only for the well-being of a sister, but that we may have lost the star of our next production.”
He shook his head. “My dear, you’ve missed so much.”
She sat up so swiftly that her head swam. “What’s happened?”
Tertza’s face ran pale. “There’s no easy way to tell you this, so I’ll just tell you. Trescha is under occupation. That turncoat renegade Captain Severen Gris. Somehow he and a band of Schomite outlaws…They broke into the High Temple. Captain Gris and his rabble have seized control of Trescha. With all that followed, I feared none of us would live to reopen—”
She put a hand to her head. “Tertza, slow down! I just finally came to my senses, you’re telling me we’re under occupation, and you’re still talking about re-opening?”
Tertza gulped. “You don’t understand. Our…General Gris now, he’s visited the theater personally. He’s allocated city funds to our restoration. We’ll be reopening far earlier than expected.”
Tertza still didn’t look very excited. “Our city-state’s new spiritual leadership has…very different ideas, about what’s permissible within the arts, in the eyes of the gods. Prima, I don’t know how else to say this. It’s time to keep this theater fresh, to explore untrodden lore, and…our cousin Sucunde’s scroll-scribblings have come to my attention, as well as the General’s, and…His skill could take some meeting with his natural ability, but we’ll workshop it out in time for our new production. Get used to the idea, Prima. You’re to be our new leading lady in The Tale of the Rise and Fall and Resurrection of the Dragon God Telente.”
This story previously appeared in Cirsova Magazine of Thrilling Adventure and Daring Suspense: Fall Special #1 / 2020.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Matt Spencer is the author of seven novels, two collections, and numerous novellas and short stories. He’s been a journalist, New Orleans restaurant cook, factory worker, radio DJ, and a no-good ramblin’ bum. He’s also a song lyricist, playwright, actor, and martial artist. He currently lives in Vermont. Check him out online at Musings of a Mad Bard, on Twitter @MattSpencerFSFH, and on Facebook at Books by Matt Spencer.