The town of Sovvex was nearly forty thousand souls in total. It was fed by a local river, and sustained by its advantageous location bordering a local forest and a very rich bed of clay deposits. This, combined with its position as a logical stop on a direct route south towards the High Passes—one of many stops—had made it fairly prosperous.
It was a good town, not ravaged by the latest Goblin Lord and spared of major disasters in recent memory. It had no noteworthy residents outside a number of individuals over Level 30, and none of them had particularly outstanding classes or personalities. There wasn’t much crime in the town given its size, and while there were the usual grievances—a longstanding feud between a number of large families in the hundreds who had usurped some of the power of the town—that was about it.
Sovvex was thus incredibly uninteresting and boring in general. But it was notable this day for one reason: an acting troupe had entered the town and occupied the largest inn, after which they’d immediately began advertising a ‘play’.
That alone was enough to brook a lot of interest, not least because these actors weren’t like the usual travelling [Bard] or band of [Tumblers], [Storytellers], or other entertainers that Sovvex was used to. This was a group. They were known as the Players of Celum. And they had come a long way. In fact, a few people had heard of them from relatives or friends living further south, and so more than a few people lined up to buy tickets to see this play tonight.
In fact, Sovvex was fairly abuzz with interest and skepticism alike. The play was going to be outdoors, apparently, to better seat the audience. In fact—one of these Players, a half-Dwarf woman had demanded the [Mayor] to let them rent the town square! Imagine that! But the audacity of this travelling group only fueled interest.
Soon, people were paying for the cheap tickets while others planned to casually stroll by and see what it was like—and maybe buy a ticket. But the barricades the Players of Celum began setting up soon made it clear that they were expecting a large crowd—and anyone not with a ticket would be far too far away to see anything of interest.
So more people bought tickets. And speculated, or relayed rumors. They wondered what this play was. And also, if it was any good. If it wasn’t, these [Actors] had better leave soon, because the people of Sovvex weren’t going to take to being scammed lightly, oh no. So the people who’d bought tickets waited with increasing interest for night to fall. And other people waited to see what the first group would think.
And the Players of Celum sat in the inn they’d rented. And they were concerned. Arguing, even. Jasi Redigal, [Actress] and older sister to Grev Redigal, sat in Bergil’s Belly, a large inn reserved for travellers. Right now, the Players of Celum had invaded it and about twelve of its members sat in a private room, talking loudly and emphatically.
They were speaking hotly, their brows creased with concentration and thought. Jasi drank from her cup—water, nothing stronger—as she listened to a man with a huge scowl on his face stand up, unable to sit still.
“No, damn it! I’m not saying I don’t understand the text! I’m saying that we’re all missing the larger point! It’s unique! Unheard of! What right do we have to—to rewrite them? I can’t stand it any longer!”
He paced around the room, his eyes feverish, running a hand through his hair. The other eleven Players of Celum watched. They were the original crew, the heart of the Players of Celum. But hardly the only members of the troupe. Jasi frowned as she drank from her cup. The man—Pralcem—was a senior [Actor], a former [Huntsman] with a flair for the flamboyant. And the theatrical. He whirled, his voice loud in the room, urgent, seeking answers.
“There is no imitating this art. And it is art! The language, the style—it is a crime, a sin to alter it! We should be putting on the words verbatim, as Erin taught it to us!”
“Come off it, Pralcem. We’ve argued this before. We can’t expect a new audience to appreciate a play with the classic lines, let alone grasp half the nuance!”
An exasperated voice came from the side. Kilkran, the former [Blacksmith] who had a golden voice, bald head, and full beard—when his role didn’t demand he cut it—sighed as he drank from his cup and nibbled at a bit of fish. Pralcem glared at Kilkran and around the room.
“Can’t we? Or is it our inability to deliver the language that’s the reason? Aren’t you ashamed of butchering the original with our version of it?”
The other [Actors] shifted and Jasi frowned as she lowered her mug. She opened her mouth to speak, her tail moving under the chair, but another Player cut in. Jasi was the only Drake in the room, but there were two Gnolls. The only other one currently in the room, Yimur, frowned as he munched on a fish bone.
“That’s what we’re discussing, Pralcem. We’ll hear you out, but make a new argument for rain’s sake. Or else we’re just retreading the same discussion.”
The Gnoll’s voice was rolling and smooth, without the usual growling halts and turns of phrase that were quintessentially Gnollish in nature. The other [Actors] nodded. Pralcem took a breath, collecting himself.
“What I mean is that when you look at the plays—the ones we’ll put on tonight, don’t you think the text is positively sublime? I cannot imagine anyone writing such beauty today—not just in the artistic sense, but the technical! The language is different from our own! It speaks to a vision outside our own. Something that society, modern society, can comprehend, but never reproduce outside of imitation. Do you understand what I mean?”
A few of the [Actors] nodded, Jasi included. One of them raised his hand.
“How do you mean, it can’t be reproduced, only imitated, Pralcem? I’m not getting the point. We have our own [Writers].”
“Yes, but they copy the style. They’ve learned to write like the Bard of Avalon, this William Shakespeare, the creator of these plays. It’s not a natural style of writing—either in dialogue or in the nature of the plays themselves! By our representation of these works, by this Bard, or perhaps, [Bard], we bring the very nature of Shakespeare and his language and story craft into the consciousness. And so people may make something as great. But wherefrom did it originate? In what old culture or—Miss Solstice’s home? Why do they have something so divergent?”
Divergent. The lexicon of the Players of Celum had taken leaps and bounds since they’d taken to their vocation. The other [Actors] frowned. Thoughtfully, one of them, a man with a clean-shaven face and upright posture, spoke. He was very still as he spoke, but that only emphasized each gesture. And he commanded a presence, even among the Players of Celum.
Wesle Salkie, the lead [Actor] of the Players of Celum and one of the two original performers, spoke thoughtfully, and even Pralcem stopped pacing to listen to his thoughts.
“It’s certainly unique. And I do wish we’d asked Erin more about the origin of the plays, but we know enough. It comes from her home, Pralcem. From history.”
“But isn’t that astonishing? We all speak the same language! Every species in the world, yet this is still different!”
“Gnolls have their own language, or so I’m told…”
Chellise, a tall woman and perfect supporting role, began doubtfully, but Yimur shook his head. The Gnoll looked up from carefully dying the fur around his face, giving it menacing streaks of black.
“We have language, but it is more like a half-language, Emme. It would be better to call it a secret tongue, that Gnolls use to warn each other and hold conversations outsiders are not meant to hear. As far as I know, only two groups have a completely different language: Goblins and the people of Drath.”
“I used to think that was so strange.”
Jasi murmured, and saw a few heads nod. Pralcem was too excited to take note of the aside. There was a cough from the side and Rima, dark-skinned, deep-voiced, leaned over with perfect control, striking a posture of intense attention.
“Other species have their own tongue. I’ve seen Drake writing, and it’s not the same as our words. But it’s all based on the same source. You can read Drake script in a week. Fluently. No, I agree. What Pralcem’s talking about is different.”
The man nodded. He reached for a sheaf of papers—proper paper, not parchment—on the table in front of the sitting [Actors] and flourished it.
“Exactly what Rima said. This is different. It feels…different. For all that it’s based on our tongue. Listen to this:”
He read from the page, and Jasi instantly recognized the line as coming from Othello. Act 2, Scene 3. Pralcem declaimed, playing Othello himself, his voice thick with outrage.
“Why, how now, ho! From whence ariseth this? Are we turn’d Turks, and to ourselves do that which heaven hath forbid the Ottomites?”
He paused, looked around, and threw the paper down.
“Even the cadence is different. The language is crafted! Each line falls into a rhythm, a style that we cannot but imitate at this moment. And you’d have us rewrite the script to make it more colloquial?”
He stared around the room. The Players of Celum paused. Some, including Jasi, uncomfortably.
This was the debate that had raged for the last two days on the road. At first it had been only a few discussions, but it had turned into a theoretical argument that had divided the acting troupe. They weren’t concerned about performing the play tonight for the people of Sovvex. They had real priorities. After all, they were [Actors], first of their kind. Or, as Pralcem said, perhaps only heirs to a tradition far older than they could imagine.
Jasi didn’t know. She only knew this: once, she had been a [Washer], a poor Drake girl living in Celum trying to provide for her younger brother, Grev, and herself. She had lived a tough life; she still remembered scrubbing until her scales were torn off her claws and bleeding. But she had worked, saved—and one day, her younger brother, who had turned increasingly towards crime without parents to put him into an apprenticeship or watch him—one day, he’d come running to her, pursued by an angry young woman named Erin Solstice.
An [Innkeeper]. She’d changed Jasi’s life. From [Washer], Jasi had become a barmaid at an inn for a few days, and then her fortunes had truly changed. She’d become an [Actress]. She’d discovered the stage. Or perhaps it had plucked her off the street. She’d turned into someone who walked in front of an audience and delivered lines that would strike the soul if done right. Not some cheap comedy bit or even storytelling.
Acting, real acting, had drawn crowds for months in Celum! It had bit Wesle, a [Guardsman], stolen Kilkran, Pralcem, Rima, and all the others from their jobs. It was an obsession, and a calling. Now, the Players of Celum were on the road, travelling north, earning money by performing at each place they came to. But with their growing ranks came questions. What was acting? Only now were the Players even able to articulate the question.
“What right do we have to change the Bard’s original text? I’ve seen the rewrites, and performed them dozens of times. It lacks the fire. Wesle, you’ve said so yourself! Kilkran, you too!”
The two male [Actors] grudgingly nodded. Pralcem turned.
“Let’s stick to the original text, as Miss Erin recalled it. It’s pure! We can perform it and the crowd will love it! They did in Celum!”
“This isn’t Celum, Pralcem. And Miss Erin might not have delivered us the truest reading of the text. She did write it from memory.”
“She had [Perfect Recall]!”
“But perhaps she listened to an adapted version herself.”
Yimur pointed out, but Pralcem dismissed the suggestion.
“If she did, it was done masterfully. No, just look at the script! It’s not something we can simply—adapt into casual language. In fact, it doesn’t work in casual language! Andel, you’ve said so. So why are we performing the other version?”
He glared around, getting a few nods, but nothing definitive. Jasi turned her head, waiting. She could weigh in, but the real answer came from a short, stout woman. Shorter than anyone else in the room, in fact. Emme, the half-Dwarven woman, was more [Director] than [Actor]. She loved the stage, but few parts called for someone of her height and she’d decided to manage the Players of Celum. And she spoke with authority as she slapped the modernized script in front of her.
“Pralcem, no one’s denying the original, the classic writing of this Shakespeare is brilliant. It has excellent verse, and this iambic thing that Erin taught us about and yes, it is a work by a master! I’d be the first to say so! But it needs to be fixed! You just proved it with your lines!”
She pointed at the paper in Pralcem’s hand accusingly.
“It might sound grand if said properly, but the audience can’t understand it either way! That’s why we rewrite the plays while capturing enough of the magic.”
Pralcem spluttered furiously.
“But the author wrote it one way! How can you say the revised version is better? It cuts lines! Nuance! It’s simplified, and thus, inferior!”
He turned, and Wesle nodded. The [Actor] almost began to stroke at his mustache, a habit from when he’d first met Erin, but he’d shaved off the thin mustache that had earned him the nickname ‘Fuzzylips’ by Erin. She could be cruel.
Still, Jasi would have loved to speak to Erin, to thank her again and again. But they’d had to leave to find more audiences. At least Jasi knew Erin was okay; they’d left some of their members in Celum, and Temile sent them regular updates. Now, Wesle spoke, and Jasi saw he too felt almost the same way as she had when they’d first tasted the joy of acting on the stage. Of being part of something so…grand.
“It’s wrong, Emme. I have to agree with Pralcem. The language is wonderful on its own, in all of Shakespeare’s plays. Rewriting it without being a Level 40 [Writer], at least, is…a crime! No offense, Andel.”
He nodded to a man hunched over in his chair in the corner of the room. The [Writer] didn’t respond, only grunted as his quill darted across the paper he was writing on. Emme sighed loudly, folding her arms. She could be immovable if she wanted.
“Wonderful is good. But do you understand everything you orate, Wesle? Does anyone? Even Erin couldn’t explain what ‘Ottomites’ were, or ‘Turks’. Not fully.”
“It’s clear from the context. Different nations. Cultures—in the context, Othello is clearly raging against the savagery that’s gripped the Ottomites, comparing them to the Turks, possibly a nation of [Barbarians]—”
“That’s an analysis you got from reading the play dozens of times, Pralcem! Are there any ‘Turks’ you know of now? Any nation? Any group?”
Pralcem shook his head grudgingly. Emme nodded. She gestured at the original script, lips pursed.
“We’ve had this argument before. But the fact remains that this Bard of Avalon was a master, but even he can’t write a totally timeless tale.”
“Each play tells a story about the Human condition—”
“Gnollish too, thank you!”
“—the mortal condition—”
Emme slapped the table, hard.
“But it’s still dated, Pralcem! It was a long time ago, I think. And I agree; the original is fantastic. And we should preserve it. But a play should be adaptable to the modern time. Do you think this work is so weak that it would roll over and die if we change the wording, not the spirit?”
She looked around, and the other Players of Celum paused. Jasi gave Emme a nod of support and Wesle had to nod with a sigh.
“That’s a good point. It’s just not as powerful as the original.”
“But it is accessible. We haven’t done away with the original language. Just simplified it. It’s a concession, yes, but this is a gateway to the classic. Without it, the audience becomes lost. More people than not won’t get into the style of Shakespearian prose.”
“I’m told that [Knights] in Terandria use a tongue that sometimes sounds similar to this.”
Rima murmured, comparing the original and the classic side-by-side. She handled the paper carefully, for all that each member of the group had multiple copies each. They could afford it, although the scripts were written small by [Scribes] to save space.
Kilkran just snorted, indicating his opinion of the [Knights] by spitting out a bug that had crawled into his drink.
“If they spoke half as well as the worlds I poorly spew on stage, they’d all be [Poets], not [Knights]. Pralcem had a point. Where did it come from? Or rather, where did Miss Solstice come from?”
The Players fell silent. It was another discussion they’d had often, when they weren’t arguing over the right way to read a line, practicing new plays, or performing. Jasi spoke up at last. Her voice was quiet, dreamy. The other Players looked at her with as much respect as Wesle. She and Wesle were the original [Actors], but more than that, they were the highest-leveled.
“She never told me. I think she might be afraid to let people know. Perhaps she’s a runaway. Or it’s a secret for another reason. Erin might come from some old village in Terandria. One of those places where people can trace their lineage back to before Humans ever settled Izril. Terandria, or another continent, some isolated place lost to time. I could imagine Erin coming from there.”
Wesle sighed. He reached for a bit of fish, chomped it down. None of the Players were drinking, and they were eating lightly before the night’s performance. Experience had told them alcohol and overly-heavy foods was a mistake.
Emme was no [Actor], but she was equally sober. She drained her mug of water and filled it from the pitcher; the inn had some kind of cold magic, either in their [Cook] or some spell, so there was ice in the pitcher, a nice treat. She tapped the paper, her voice firm and commanding.
“There’s a place for the original text. But not on first showing. To draw the audience in, they have to understand the context of the play. Remember Wales? We can put on the original text to honor the Bard, but as your [Director], I have to insist we use the rewritten version for the majority of our plays. No more arguments, now.”
She looked at Pralcem and the [Actor] reluctantly subsided. The other Players nodded; the existential debate over the authenticity of the original text had ended, at least for the next few days. Doubtless it would come up again.
“Funny. I never thought my days would be debating the validity of my performance and travelling from town to town.”
Kilkran chuckled at last, and the room laughed with him. Who could have imagined? Jasi nodded, and cast her eyes towards the door. She could hear raucous noise from beyond, but not that of drinkers; someone was declaiming in a loud voice, while others murmured, bickered, and more [Actors] recited their lines.
“How are the new recruits doing, Rima? Do you think we have a second set, or do they need time?”
The [Actress] grimaced, as did Emme.
“Give them a week, Jasi. They’re still a bit raw. Decent—but we’re definitely taking the first play. We can swap out with the second team to see how they do with us—”
“The regulars won’t like it. They earned their spot.”
“Well, let them take the leading roles in the other plays. And it’s just to try them out. No one’s replacing anyone, but they have to be flexible.”
“True. And we’ve some great talent. Shawli’s performance the other night was just superb. She played Elsa phenomenally. If she could just have Jasi’s gravitas…”
“She’s decent. And so is Medel, but he panics. You saw him freeze up playing Othello last week when he flubbed a line? They all need experience.”
“True, but that’s not as bad as actual lack of talent, Kilkran.”
Wesle laughed at the offended bald man’s ire over the lesser [Actors] in their troupe. By now, the Players of Celum were over forty strong. That included two teams of [Actors] to put on multiple plays back-to-back and in case of accidents, people to make dresses and props, people to apply makeup, help set up the stage—and Grev. Jasi hoped he wasn’t causing trouble out there, but she could hear his higher-pitched voice now and then, and he had changed as much as she had with the Players of Celum.
Gone was the culpable young boy who participated in Celum’s crime, leading marks to muggings or stealing coin pouches. Grev was still young and street-wise, but he was Emme’s left hand, managing and assisting the [Actors]. Emme claimed Grev was too weak to qualify for her right-hand status.
The Players of Celum were settling back, and Pralcem had just ordered another round of snacks to tide them over for tonight when they heard a crash and raised voices from the other room. The inner group looked up and Emme groaned.
“What have those idiots done now?”
Yimur perked up his ears. The Gnoll waited, and shook his head.
“A fight. Medel and Kassa are at it again.”
“Again? We should get rid of both!”
Chellise looked disgusted as she half-rose. Emme sighed.
“They earned their place for talent, but I think we might have to be more discerning about attitude.”
“We already accept only the best.”
Jasi pointed out reasonably. Pralcem sniffed.
“And we get more applications than we can deal with already! Attitude is absolutely a qualification! Those two should be out if they start another fight—”
“And how is that fair? They’re talented. And we were all lucky, Pralcem. Moreover, attitude’s not a problem with us? What about when you screamed at Seepurk yesterday?”
The other [Actor] colored, but Emme got up with a sigh.
“Let’s debate this after the performance, please? And we can’t have injuries now! I’ll settle this.”
“No, let me.”
Wesle stood up with one fluid motion. Jasi eyed him; she was halfway out of her seat. The [Actor] nodded to her and she stood—but let him go to the door first. Jasi cracked the door open so the people inside could see Wesle stride out into the inn. The remaining thirty-odd Players looked up as Wesle halted in the doorway. The [Innkeeper] and a [Bouncer] were trying to restrain a Human man and woman from attacking each other, but everyone stopped as Wesle appeared.
He had a presence. More than just his appearance, it was in how Wesle carried himself. How he stood—even how he breathed. And of course, acted. He stopped in the doorway and demanded silence and attention. And because it was a demand, it came. The Players of Celum turned and Wesle snapped.
“Medel! Kassa! Stand down at once! Are you [Actors], or children? The Players have no room for children! Dead gods, we have a play tonight! If you can’t remember that, how can we expect you to remember your lines? Back to your places!”
The words had a reverb in addition to the natural acoustics of the inn. Wesle was, in that moment, the image of a leader. Which he was, but he was also playing the part. It was an odd juxtaposition, but Jasi understood it. Shamefaced, the [Actors] instantly stepped back, apologizing as Wesle went to address the [Innkeeper]. The man was clearly impressed, and even bowed slightly as Wesle tendered apologies on behalf of the Players of Celum.
“Not bad. Was he channeling Othello there?”
“Maybe just a bit of [Watch Captain]. Good! That shut up those two hotheads.”
Indeed, in moments Wesle had returned, and the background noise of the Players of Celum returned as the quieted Medel and Kassa went through their lines. Wesle smiled at Jasi as he came back to his seat with a platter of snacks and she winked back. He slid them onto the table with trained grace.
“[Method Acting], Wesle? Perfecting your [Server]?”
Kilkran’s voice was droll and envious. Wesle looked up and shrugged.
“Just a bit. Practice makes perfect.”
“Dead gods, but I want to hit Level 20. It’s taking far too long!”
Rima grumbled as she forked a piece of hard cheese. Jasi smiled and rolled her eyes.
“Rima, it’s been months since we became [Actors]! You want to hit Level 20 within a year?”
“Why not? You and Wesle did! Five Families, Jasi! I feel like we’re all leveling faster than—than any class in the world! I leveled more recently than I have in the last ten years!”
Rima threw up her hands. The other [Actors] were nodding. Jasi smiled, knowing what she meant.
“Well, it does slow down after Level 20.”
“Says the Level 24 [Actress].“
Wesle observed, amused. Jasi raised one eyebrow.
“Says the Level 26 [Method Actor]. I haven’t gained a class change yet! Nor can I use a Skill that lets me copy someone’s talent!”
“Talent, not Skills. I’m only as graceful as a [Server]. I can’t predict which table needs a refill, let alone dodge fifteen thrown mugs or knives without missing a beat.”
“They can do that?”
“High-level [Servers] can, apparently. I’ve been shadowing a few. But I’m only as good as someone a number of levels below me. Ten levels if I’m familiar with the activity, but fifteen or twenty if it’s something like magic.”
“So you can be a Level 6 [Mage]?”
The former [Guardsman] smiled. He sat back archly and sniffed, reminding Jasi of a certain [Necromancer] that had worked with their company. Languorously, Wesle put his feet up on the table, seemed to feel that was overreaching, and sat up. He spread his hands on the tabletop and tilted his head up ever-so-slightly, adopting a precise, somewhat condescending tone.
“Don’t be so dismissive, Miss Jasi. Observe.”
He flicked his fingers, and eight or so sparks shot across the table. Kilkran, reaching for a bit of cheese, yanked his hand back.
“You can cast magic, Wesle?”
He relaxed, abandoning his imitation and shrugging.
“Only if I work at it. I don’t get new spells, Rima. But it is amazing what insights I get! Yes—insights. There’s part of it I can’t copy unless I’m in-character. Like that [Bladesman] we met? He was high-level enough that I couldn’t form a good impression of him. But I can copy a bit. I think I’m limited based on the ability of the person I copy and my own expertise. Even so—I can do our sword-battles far better than before. I’d even be a better [Guardsman]. See?”
His face grew serious, and Wesle stood with a brisk motion. He drew the sword at his side, a memento from his days in Celum’s City Watch with one smooth motion. Yimur leaned back, waving one paw.
“Keep it sheathed, Wesle.”
“I have control of it. I know swordsmanship. But I’ve learned far more. And I can copy a Level 16 [Bladesman]. I feel—dangerous.”
Wesle’s voice was flat, precise. He traced an arc through the air, doing a quick cut and stopping it in midair. Emme ignored Kilkran swearing at Wesle; she was below the arc of his blade.
The laughter, conversation, and noise in the room came to an abrupt end as one member of the Players who hadn’t spoken until now looked up at last. Andel, the [Writer] who’d been hunched over his work looked up and made a sound. Instantly, Wesle lost his posture and nearly nicked himself sheathing his sword. Jasi sat up and looked at Andel. The [Writer] solemnly blew on the paper he’d been writing on and looked up.
“I’ve done it. It’s finished. My opus—my finest work so far!”
“What? It’s done?”
The [Actors] in the room turned to Andel, and the air grew suddenly excited. The [Writer] sat back, gulping from his mug of ale. He collected the pages, delicately filing them flat against the table, then handed them to Wesle. With great dignity, he sat back and exhaled.
“Yes. Complete. It needs some edits, of course, but it’s good enough to perform. Tomorrow, or tonight if we can get enough [Scribes] to make the copies.”
“Memorize the lines and do them on stage?”
Kilkran didn’t look daunted by the prospect, just doubtful. He preferred to workshop each line until he knew his role by rote. Andel shrugged as Emme, Jasi, and the others crowded around Wesle, demanding to see. Jasi stared at Andel’s messy handwriting.
“How is it, Andel? You’ve written it. How good do you think it is for your finest?”
The half-Dwarf woman, impatient at being unable to see, turned to Andel. The [Writer] pursed his lips.
“As I said, my finest. Not at the Bard’s level, but…yes, my finest. I’ve worked on this for the last four weeks. And leveled eight times in the doing. It may not be the equal to anything else, much less our ever-popular silver-piece productions…”
His tone turned scornful. Jasi looked up with a frown and Emme’s brows crossed. She hesitated, about to reprimand the [Writer], but Pralcem spoke up impatiently.
“Come off it, Andel. The silver-piece productions pay for your masterpieces. You must have more copies, older rewrites, right? Let’s have them over. I want to read!”
Andel nodded. He produced older drafts and the [Actors] took it, scanning the pages and reading fast while he explained what he’d changed. Emme grumbled a bit since there was enough paper to keep all eleven Players reading their own copies.
“You go through paper and ink like it’s water, Andel! It’s not cheap!”
“You fund my writing, and I produce the plays that earn you money, Emme. What do you think? As I said, I’ll have copies made. But I want to workshop it after seeing the reaction of the audience!”
The Players were silent as they read. At last, Kilkran looked up.
“Dead gods, this is titanic! As long as Hamlet! And some of the lines are fiery. What do you call the play, Andel? My copy doesn’t have a title—”
The [Writer] permitted himself a smile, relieved and proud at the same time. Jasi had to agree with Kilkran; it wasn’t yet on the level of Shakespeare, but Andel had outdone himself. She looked up as he nodded to the copy Wesle held.
“The play’s name is Elisial. After the titular heroine and antagonist herself. Elisial du Crenos.”
A noblewoman from Terandria, born into wealth and a supporter of her kingdom and household’s politics. Jasi’s eyes flicked across the script, taking it in. Yes, this was definitely in the vein of Shakespeare. But—topical! She murmured out loud, frowning.
“She’d better not be actually titular. Because I want the role—”
“Dead gods, Jasi! That’s not what the word means!”
“Don’t get snippy with me, Andel! Not everyone can read those dictionaries all day! What’s ‘titular’ mean?”
Kilkran replied absently.
“It means the very thing from which the name derives. The font of the art, so to speak. Say—Drake [General]—”
“Or Gnoll. It’s meant to be an Izrilian [General] so it’s meant for Yimur or another Drake if we induct more members.”
“Temile’s troupe is apparently more than half non-Human. A pity we can’t link up. But we’re moving north and Miss Erin’s door to Invrisil hasn’t arrived yet.”
“Maybe we can link up? Imagine that! All our time travelling and we could have strolled right in—”
Pralcem looked up and nodded around the room. He was excited, but he gestured to the script as he waved it.
“This is exactly what I was talking about. Andel, it’s marvelous! But it’s still a recreation of classic tropes, isn’t it? This is a retelling of the Second Antinium War from the Terandrian perspective!”
The penny dropped. Jasi skimmed ahead and made a soft sound. Pralcem was right! Andel smiled, a bit smugly.
“Of course! The Goblin King’s armies are marching, Lady Elisial’s husband is preparing to ride to war, she finds herself caught between encouraging the war and the horror of it as her lover is called to arms as well—and finds herself on the side of the isolationists who would see Izril burn!”
Rima murmured from the side. Emme waved that off. She was reading slowly, like Jasi. Despite practice, reading in bulk wasn’t something most people did often. She looked up shortly.
“This is Izril. And this is a story, not reality. Andel can adjust it if the crowd turns, but I like it. Thoughts?”
“The parts seem written for us.”
Wesle remarked as he thumbed through the pages. Andel nodded proudly.
“Each to a major role. Why not? I’ve tailored it for an eight-lead cast, with supporting roles if we want to give the second team a chance. It casts four major leads, Lady Elisial being the obvious center, but it lets each lead have a large part. Wesle, Kilkran, you can see I’ve added a stirring fight in the third act—”
“I don’t like it.”
Jasi’s voice cut off Andel’s excited speech. The room turned to Jasi as a whole. Andel looked horrified and outraged, and the other Players were confused—save for Chellise. She was nodding.
“What’s wrong, Jasi? This is excellent! The best Andel’s written thus far!”
The confused expression on Wesle’s face made Jasi smile ruefully. She pointed at the script, turning to Andel.
“Why does Elisial have to be the one in an affair? You’re retreading Othello, Andel. And Frozen. And Pygmalion too, I suppose.”
“So? They’re the classics Miss Solstice taught us! High art!”
Jasi shook her head. She addressed Emme, Rima, and Chellise, the three other females in the room.
“Why is it that females of any species must always be the ones falling in love, or be the manipulator behind the shadows? I’ve pushed my husband to treason before committing suicide, played the cheating vixen—unjustly been accused of having done the same—fallen in love, died for love, and sought it and found it and lost it, all over the plays you’ve written and we’ve put on! When is it my turn to be the center of my own play and not have everything revolve around me falling in love or being betrayed?”
Andel spluttered in outrage. He grabbed for the script in Wesle’s hand, but Kilkran cut him off, his tone smooth and conciliatory. He could sing and bring an argument down just by his oratory Skills and skill.
“That’s unfair, Jasi. This was tailor-made for you to lead! So what if the focus is love? Love, romance—it’s a part of these timeless stories. Besides, if it’s a non-romantic leading lady you want—we have Frozen.”
Jasi ignored his soothing tone and frowned, her tail curling slightly.
“Erin herself told us that’s different. And it’s hardly the same! The sister falls in love like a fool, and the main protagonist is too sucked into her class to be anything but an [Ice Queen]. That’s a story of young women, which I’ll grant you I am, but not of adults. I don’t want love to be out of the play. I just want—look, Hamlet is a story of vengeance. Name one play we have like that with a female lead?”
“Exactly. I wanted to bring this up last time, but I couldn’t. I’d like to see that too.”
Chellise put in softly. Pralcem was frowning; Yimur raised his brows, but began nodding after a moment. Kilkran looked astonished. Rima tapped the script thoughtfully.
“It’s still possible, Jasi. Andel’s play could be adjusted for that. Why not switch Elisial with her husband? Have him be the lead, but her be the [War Lady] riding off to battle? It might—”
The half-strangled shriek came from the [Writer]. Andel’s face was purpling and he looked as though he might pass out. But rage kept him upright. Shaking, he leveled a finger at Jasi.
“How dare you? How dare? I’ve poured my very essence into this play and you say it’s not enough? It’s a female-led play that—she’s a sympathetic villain! I took all of your notes and made a play and you’re still complaining, you scale-covered, greedy—”
Jasi bristled, but Wesle slapped a hand over Andel’s mouth. The [Writer] struggled, but both Wesle and Kilkran held him back. They wrestled him into his seat, and Emme stood up on her chair. She waved a hand, silencing Jasi’s retort.
“Alright, enough, enough! Andel, you’re overreacting. Jasi, maybe this isn’t the time to suggest everything right after Andel’s taken weeks of work?”
The young Drake woman hesitated and nodded. She felt a flicker of embarrassment, began to hide it, and then ducked her head apologetically. Andel’s fury subsided at the genuine look on Jasi’s face.
“That’s true. I’m sorry, Andel. It’s a wonderful play. It’s just—”
She trailed off. Emme looked around.
“It’s excellent. We can all agree on that. And I say, let’s put it on! Not today. We need to set up for tonight’s play. And with that said—is everyone ready? You have the modern scripts and your parts memorized?”
“Please. I’ve done our plays dozens of times. I could perform them now.”
Kilkran rolled his eyes, returning to his seat. Emme eyed him.
“You know all the adjusted lines? Every new bit of dialogue?”
He paused. The [Director] shook her head.
“I’ve thought of tonight’s lineup. We only have room for two plays since we arrived late and we had to get the word out. So—let’s start with the second team. For our opening, The [Knight] and the [Jester], as we agreed. Something to get the crowd in. Then we’ll hit them with…Macbeth?’”
The other Players considered it. Yimur nodded, combing his fur.
“The quintessential. Agreed.”
“No arguments. Let’s go, Andel. You can lie down; you haven’t slept since yesterday. Anyone have the latest version of the scripts? I think my line’s changed—”
“I’ll go see how the other team’s doing. I heard a dreadful delivery back there. Kilkran, come with me. Let’s straighten that out—”
The Players of Celum broke up. The veterans left the room, rejoining the main troupe. Jasi hung back with Emme. The part-Dwarf woman was looking at her meaningfully. Jasi waited until the door was closed to scoot her chair over and address her friend.
“Something has to be done, Emme. I’m fine with putting on plays and acting any part so long as it’s good, I really am. But when all the plays are always focused around males, I feel like it doesn’t reflect reality.”
Emme nodded. Her voice was thoughtful as she rested a hand on her chin. She had no beard, it had to be mentioned. Both males and females with Dwarven ancestry could sometimes grow huge, bushy ones, but Emme had claimed relief at not having one. You could live without a beard, or you could eat hair all your life with your meals. That was her stance.
“You know, Jasi. It’s not quite fair to say you don’t get to play female-led plays. Orica writes just as many plays where there’s a female lead. More than not, actually, since we have The Siege of Liscor and plays involving Erin.”
“I know, I know, Emme. It’s just—”
“She wants a proper play, Miss Emme. Not some ‘decent’ play. Jasi wants to be a legend, and get all the applause like Wesle does after he knocks the audience flat and lays the lot of them with his acting until they’re singing his praises all night.”
A younger voice piped up from behind the two women. Jasi and Emme whirled and Jasi shouted, flushing.
The young boy gave his older sister a wicked, gap-toothed grin. Grev, short, no longer scrawny, but yet to hit his adolescence, was the very image of one of the street-children who ran in their own small gangs. And yet, time had changed him too. Now he was fleshed out, having all the meals he could want, and dressed well. He didn’t steal, but he hadn’t abandoned all his old ways. He must have sidled into the room after the others had left.
“Grev, you incorrigible little bug. How long have you been listening?”
Emme glared fondly at the boy, the only child among the Players of Celum. Everyone else had no children; all the married [Actors] had been left in Celum due to the stresses of the road. But Grev had insisted he’d come with his sister and Jasi wouldn’t have left him behind for anything. Still—they were brother and sister, not mother and son, and Jasi glared at Grev as he took a seat at the table.
“You little snitch. When did I say that?”
“Every time you drink too much and moan about not having a role that can show your inner, amazing self. As if you don’t get enough applause. Your head’s fatter than Miss Agnes’ was—ow!”
Grev ducked an irritable swipe of Jasi’s claws. Emme laughed. She glanced at Jasi and grew serious.
“She might be ambitious, but Jasi has a point, Grev. Unless you disagree?”
“Nope. Not that I was listening in. Good you had the funny play first. Them Sovvex folk—they don’t know what to make of the plays. I was listening to them talk and they think you’re doing something serious, like a retelling of historical events. Make ‘em laugh and then close in and hit them with Macbeth!”
He grinned again. Jasi smiled ruefully, trading looks with Emme. Grev was still young, but he had that world-weariness, that too-early maturity some children got. But he’d translated that into love of the plays. It had bitten him too, even if he liked to watch and not act. Still—Jasi turned to Emme. The [Director] sighed.
“Andel won’t change his script. You know how he is. I’ll talk him into it, but he wants it done his way tomorrow. And he has the right.”
“I know. But can I at least make my point without Kilkran looking at me as if I’m mad?”
The part-Dwarf woman raised her hands. Her eyes flickered, then she smiled.
“Tell you what. Why don’t I send a [Message] off to Temile? Have him ask Miss Erin if she knows anything? He sent us that script of The Shining, after all.”
Jasi brightened at once.
“Brilliant, Emme! Yes, ask! Erin might know something; if she can still think of new plays…she told us she ran out!”
“She’d probably hidden them. She’s crafty, that one. Or she forgot. She’s also as insane as a cracked dog.”
Grev nodded wisely. Jasi couldn’t quite disagree with the sentiment, only the wording. She shook her head.
“The new stuff is an adaptation, apparently. Temile didn’t explain it, but it’s not in the high-language of the Bard. Still, I am eager to put that new play on. Did you see Wesle trying to play the Jack character?”
Both Emme and Grev nodded. Emme shuddered at the memory.
“He’s got work to do, but it’s a horrific act he can put on. Horror—now there’s a new venue! But it’s not ready yet and we have to get all the props and stages done. And yes, Jasi. I know both it and the Psycho play have male leads. I see your point! But let’s focus on the play, shall we?”
The Drake [Actress] nodded. She rose, and Grev snagged all the remaining snacks on the plate, secreting them away into a belt pouch for later. He did that, and would share the food with the children he met in town to town. But he always had a stash. Jasi turned, rubbing at the newer scales on her hands. There were still scars—as Drakes got them—from her time as a [Washer].
“Well then, let’s get to it, shall we? The Players of Celum have a performance to put on for the people of…Sovek? And I don’t intend to keep them wanting.”
That night, the Players of Celum set up on their outdoor stage, watched by a small crowd of their audience. It was still thirty minutes till the performance, but the Players were very busy. The stage crew had set up a proper stage, maneuvering their backdrops into place out of the bags of holding, setting up poles and curtains—but that was only the background.
The [Actors] were in a flurry behind the curtains, putting on their costumes, makeup, rehearsing last-minute lines. Most were cool, including Jasi, who wasn’t on until the shorter first play was done. But the newer [Actors] were nervous. Even so, the most harried person was as always, Emme. She was directing the influx of audience members, ensuring no one was sneaking peeks without paying, and managing a dozen other aspects at once.
“Emme! Emme, we got the [Healer]! She says she won’t charge much if we provide the potions!”
One of the younger [Actors] and Grev hurried over to Emme. The half-Dwarf woman whirled, relieved.
“Excellent. That’s one less thing to worry about. Have her backstage, or to the side of the play so we can call on her if we need to!”
“No fear for the first play. Knock them dead, Medel. No—draw them in. And we’ll knock them dead.”
Pralcem nodded to the lead actor, dressed up in actual armor. Medel obligingly turned his head up and adopted an insufferably, cosmetically arrogant pose. There was laughter from the other [Actors], and the interested audience leaned forwards. More gathered, and as the sun finally dipped below the horizon, [Light] spells sprang forth around the stage. The curtains opened, more people gathered, some buying last-minute tickets.
This was how the play began. The curtains opened, and a young boy stepped out. Grev, dressed in a small suit, bowed to the bemused people. His voice was a shout.
“Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you for coming to see the Players of Celum! You are about to witness a play, an act put on by [Actors]! It is not real, but the stories told are timeless and true! Please do not speak or interrupt the performance! An intermission will be given to speak and move about; until then, please observe and enjoy in silence! Thank you! And now, a performance of The [Knight] and the [Jester], written by Miss Orica of the Players of Celum!”
And the play began. Jasi had seen it a hundred times. Yes, probably at least a hundred by now! Even the newer plays were old hat to the Players of Celum, who performed every night they weren’t travelling. She and the [Actors] not performing took their own seats, watching the nervous first team begin from back stage.
Emme wasn’t so laid back. She watched as the curtains opened and Medel strode out. The [Actor] played his role of a [Knight]. His first comment to the audience set the mood.
“A [Knight] is the epitome of valor and selflessness! Long have I travelled, from Terandria itself, to fulfill my very vows and demonstrate to the heathens of Izril what true courage and honor looks like! Let all who witness my deeds know that I, Sir Velcan the Shining, was the architect of such glories!”
It was a good delivery, done just in the right way, with that imperious head tilt, and even more insufferable arrogance thrown in. There was almost no overdoing the role, and the audience began to hoot at Medel until they remembered Grev’s injunction against silence. But the silver-coin plays were always like that. And this was a comedy.
A modern one too, written by one of the Player’s [Writers]. Not Andel; he wouldn’t stoop to simple comedy, but Emme had chosen well. Kassa burst from behind the stage as Sir Velcan began striding about, haranguing other [Actors] and trying to pursue his quest of self-importance. The first thing the merry [Jester] did, after announcing how Sir Velcan needed to lighten up, was to hit Medel with a pie from across the stage.
The audience, who’d gone along with the acting out of curiosity at first, saw the pie flying. Sir Velcan, in the middle of haranguing an old woman, turned. The pie hit him in the face and Medel performed a perfect pratfall, landing in a crash of armor and an oath. There was dead silence for a microsecond—and then roars of laughter.
Emme clenched one fist as the citizens of Sovvex got the point. It wasn’t hard to get people to understand what a play was. They could have led with Macbeth, but something lighthearted and fun—like a comedy routine of an actual [Jester]—was better. It drew people in; Emme saw more people peering around the entrance to the square and paying for a ticket.
“Farcical. Low-brow. We’re [Actors], not [Fools]!”
Andel was scowling. And the play was indeed a pure comedy, filled with Sir Velcan falling over and making an ass of himself. But it was also uncharitable to say that it was on the level of a few [Tumblers] telling jokes. There was a story here.
The audience didn’t care at first. They laughed and hooted as the [Jester] relentlessly pranked the uptight [Knight]. But what made The [Knight] and the [Jester] so brilliant was that Sir Velcan was still on a quest. There was a plot, albeit simple, and as the play wore on, Kassa, the [Jester], helped Sir Velcan actually accomplish good deeds.
Indeed, there was even a villain, an evil [Bandit Lord], and the audience, despite enjoying every minute of Sir Velcan’s bumbling, cheered when he managed to vanquish a legitimate evil. Still, at his ultimate triumph, the merry [Jester] got one last trick in; she undid his armor and it fall to the ground with a crash, revealing a nearly-naked Sir Velcan in little more than his underclothes.
The audience gasped, laughed, and applauded as Sir Velcan chased the [Jester] offstage. Andel rolled his eyes, but Emme thought it had been a fine performance.
“Kassa and Medel can act. It would be a shame to get rid of them. Stop glowering sour, Andel! This fills the seats. See?”
Emme pointed. The audience was nearly three times as large as it had been. Andel nodded reluctantly as Grev strode out to inform them that the second play of the night, Macbeth, was about to begin. He repeated his warning that this was a play. And both Emme and Andel leaned forwards. Because the real magic was about to begin.
Macbeth. It was a timeless tale, if you knew it. The story was simple even if you didn’t. In short, there were [Witches]. A man destined to be [King]. Treason, guilt, corruption into darkness, and downfall. It was indeed a timeless tale, regardless of species or location. And it was a classic, one taught to the Players of Celum. Now, as the audience cooled off their laughter, the leading cast took to the stage. And they tried to knock Sovvex’s audience off their seats.
This performance started poorly. The opening scene began in time-honored tradition, with thunder, lightning, and three [Witches]. Unfortunately, the spellcaster in charge of the effects fumbled his first spell.
It was meant to be thunder and lightning, but the [Hedge Mage] holding the spell produced something more like thunder combined with a honk and a paltry flash of light. Emme swore.
“That bastard! He has one job!”
“I told you we needed a better [Mage]!”
Andel hissed at Emme. She could only shake her head; [Mages], especially specialized in the illusion school the Players needed, were rare. She’d have loved to replace the man they had, but she could only watch. She was nervous; if this play failed, the Players failed. They had one chance, so she waited, her nails digging into her palms.
The bemused audience watched as three [Witches], one played by Chellise, two by new [Actors], took the stage. They had a hard job; to change the mood from hilarity to interest in this new play.
Chellise did a good job. Her first line wasn’t actual words, but a piercing, cackling, shriek that made the audience jump in their seats. The [Witch]’s laughter rang through Sovvex’s square as Chellise turned. She flicked the magical wand she carried, sending dark spirals of magic across the stage. Emme nodded approvingly. Now the audience saw.
This was a [Witch]. And here was a story. Chellise crowed.
“When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”
From the background, several [Actors] were shouting, clashing metal together. A distant battlefield. Emme had altered the stage directions to set up the battlefield earlier. The audience leaned forwards as the Second Witch turned.
“When the hurly-burly’s done. When the battle’s lost and won.”
These were the original lines, uncut, unaltered. Some of the play had been changed, but Andel, who’d been forced to rewrite some of the dialogue, hadn’t touched the truly excellent parts. Emme watched. The first scene went well! And then—
One of the [Actors] playing the Second Witch tripped on her robes on her way off-stage. Emme clapped her hands to her hair as the [Witch] fell. The audience blinked, and the hilarity from the first play resurfaced. Was this a comedy?
“Damn, damn, damn, those idiots—”
Laughter from the front. Emme was pacing back and forth. There was a pause, and then the sounds of fighting grew louder. Someone blew a trumpet, and King Duncan, the ill-fated [King], strode out with his retinue, amid the sounds of fighting. The audience watched as he turned, the victorious winner of a bloody battle.
The people in the crowd watched, patient, taking in the background. King Duncan learned of the battle and the heroism of a ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Banquo’. Emme watched faces, anxious. People were frowning, trying to understand why they needed the story.
“I told you. Humor first means they’re not taking it seriously. We should have led with My Fair Lady or—”
“Shut up Andel, or I’ll feed you your script! Watch!”
Next came the [Witches] again. The audience laughed as they reappeared, and were then disappointed when none of them fell. Emme was cursing inside. But just when it seemed like the audience might lose interest, when some were shifting, muttering in confusion, the [Witches] turned, having chanted a spell. Emme looked stage right.
Macbeth, played by Wesle himself, strode on stage. And suddenly, there was silence.
Wesle had heard the laughter in the audience. No doubt he’d sensed the mood, realized the crowd was losing interest. So he had changed his usual entrance. He came onto stage bloody, his cheek cut deep, his armor red with blood. He was breathing hard, sheathing his sword.
And he was a [General]. In every line and pore, from the way he stood, to the way he surveyed the audience as he paused a moment, accompanied by his friend, Banquo. He drank a healing potion and the wound on his cheek healed as the audience watched; the bottle had already been uncorked, already halfway to his lips as he entered the stage.
It was like Wesle had strode off an actual battlefield. Emme held her breath. Because if Kilkran could play a decent King Duncan, if he could emote, and make the character feel alive, it was Wesle and Jasi who had reached another level. They had the Skills and levels—no, the experience to make their characters breathe.
Wesle—Macbeth, exhaled slowly, as he tossed the healing potion aside. He touched at the blood on his armor, on his gauntlets, and slowly turned to Banquo. He paused, and the audience stared at him. Wesle commanded silence, just as he had in the inn, but his focus was even deeper here. The [General] spoke shortly, his words still tinged with exhaustion.
“So foul and fair a day I have not seen.”
And with that line, he brought the audience back. They stopped murmuring. They resumed focus. Now they were curious. Now they listened.
This was Macbeth. The [Witches] promised Macbeth he was destined to be a [King], his friend Banquo that his children would be [Kings]. It was a tale Emme knew by heart. But even now, seeing it brought to life, was far different than reading a script.
The Players of Celum put on Macbeth. It was a sight to see, one that would have left even Erin Solstice speechless—had she been in the audience. Because it would have been different from the play the young woman from Earth knew! She had taught Wesle and Jasi and the original cast how to play Macbeth in Celum. And she had deemed their acting good, as good as, better than the plays she’d seen in the local theatre, or a high school play.
But the Players had advanced so far from that mark. Now, when they played Macbeth, there were actual props, armor, clothing, blood—and a full cast. They had a stage, background sets—even the scripts were different! As Pralcem had observed, the new scripts the Players of Celum used were revised, modern versions of the Shakespearian original.
The Players had cut lines and dialogue mercilessly, butchered the original to create something that read half like the play it was, half like reality. It gave the [Actors]’ deliverances an odd, enticing quality. The audience grew still, listening.
Here was something new. They watched as Macbeth listened to the [Witches], then found their prophecy coming true. He knelt before his [King], and naked ambition shone in his eyes.
It wasn’t a hard story to follow, although the nuance could be tricky. The [Actors] were telling a story and the people of Sovvex weren’t prepared to listen to a full plot. Even so, the Players had drawn them in.
It was Wesle who sold the performance, though. And he didn’t act like he had in Erin’s inn, playing a role and reciting lines like a puppet on stage for enjoyment or dismay. He became Macbeth.
Here was a man. A mortal man, a [General] who was named a [Lord] for his valor and deeds in combat. And one who was prophesied to become a [King]. Emme watched, her mind detached from the immediate nature of the play, on the lookout for mistakes, problems. She watched as Jasi, playing Lady Macbeth, came on stage.
Jasi, cold as ice, full of naked ambition like venom. Enticing her husband to commit treason, to kill his [King]. At first, Wesle was a sympathetic lead. Ambitious, but hesitant, aware of the horror of his crime. He hesitated as he clutched at a dagger unseen. But he did kill Duncan, returning with bloodied, shaking hands. He became a [King].
And then he became a monster.
That was the genius of it. Wesle was first the [General], then the reluctant [Traitor]. And then the [King]. It was a quick transformation; the play was only two hours after all, but Wesle somehow still managed to make Macbeth sink, shedding his virtues one by one, rather than transform in one motion. When he coldly lied, when he murdered men and ordered more killed, the audience grew silent. There was something dark growing in Macbeth. But more was yet to come.
The turning point was in Act 3. Up until then, Macbeth had played the role of traitor, assuming command after killing his sovereign ruler off-screen. It was a powerful scene, and the following scenes, full of lies and intrigue, were gripping to the audience. But in Act 3, the performance on the stage grew heated.
For reasons the Players of Celum hadn’t understood and Erin hadn’t explained, the original works of the Bard of Avalon had had very little on-stage death. There were some fight scenes, but most death came off-stage, like the death of the [King], Duncan. In their initial plays, Erin had stuck to the script, having a few thrilling mock-battles, but nothing more. The [Actors] had first improvised with dulled swords and their own knowledge of combat—Celum’s own City Watch could fake a rollicking fight, including Wesle himself.
But now…they’d made it real. And even improvised.
Act 3, Scene 3. The murder of Banquo and his son, Fleance. Macbeth had ordered three killers, including Yimur, to kill his once-friend Banquo and his son. The audience might have expected the battle to come offstage, but the script called for an on-stage battle. In Erin’s inn, it might have been a short duel to shake up the stage. Now?
Yimur, Pralcem, and Kilkran, changing costumes for the role, advanced on Banquo and Fleance. The [Lord] and his son turned, and Yimur attacked.
The first slash was so quick the audience didn’t see it. The former [Guardsman] slashed at the [Actor] playing Banquo and his friends attacked his son, Fleance. True to their natures, they fought back. All five [Actors] knew how to handle a blade. The audience blinked. Suddenly, there was violence on stage! They leaned forwards, entranced.
But this wasn’t a thrilling sword-fight like Sir Velcan the Shining versus the [Bandit Lord]. No. Yimur locked blades with Banquo, snarling. He took a deep cut along one leg, staggered. Banquo drew his sword back, crowing, and Yimur slashed. His sword came up—
And he lopped off Banquo’s hand. The [Lord] stared as his hand and the sword clattered to the ground. And the audience froze. Because that hadn’t been a false hand.
You couldn’t imitate it. The hand fell to the ground with a wet thump, the sword falling with it. Banquo bit off a scream and scrambled for the blade. Yimur, faltering, advanced. Banquo reached for the blade, falling, as blood, real blood, poured from the stump of his hand.
The [Lord] collapsed, trying to fend off the other three [Assassins] as his son fled. He backed away, bleeding, as a sword wound cut him across the leg. Blood sprayed across the stage. He fell, retreating, behind a curtain, and one of the [Assassins] leapt forwards, thrust his blade home. The audience didn’t see the end.
Now there was silence. The audience stared at the hand as the curtains swept back so the stagehands could clean the blood and hand. But they were shaken. Some were white-faced. And then—Emme heard a voice.
“That was a real cut! That was actual blood! The man’s lost his hand!”
Someone—two figures in the audience stood up abruptly. Emme recognized them from their gear. Adventurers. They were pointing at the stage. One of them, a woman, shouted in alarm. The audience turned, staring. The adventurers might have forced their way towards the stage, but at that moment, Grev came out. He raised his hands and shouted.
“This is a play, ladies and gentlemen. All events are fictional!”
The adventurers paused uncertainly. The hand had been real! But then the [Actor] playing Banquo showed his face briefly. He waved two hands and the audience gasped.
“But I saw and heard—that’s the best illusion I ever—”
Emme grinned, hearing the astonished woman’s voice. The two adventurers sat down slowly. Grev gave a bow.
“All fictional, good people of Sovvex! And now we’ll have a short intermission! We’ll take a fifteen minute break, ladies and gentlemen, and then the play will resume! Feel free to walk about and talk—but not for too long! Be in your seats when the play resumes!”
Grev waved his hands at Emme urgently as the audience got up. The sudden swordfight and blood had driven home the scene, which was excellent! Grev waving wasn’t. Something was wrong. She stood up and hurried around backstage.
She wasn’t worried about the actor playing Banquo. He was fine and he hadn’t lost a limb. Oh, the hand had been real! It had been flesh and blood and it would even smell—but it would vanish after less than five minutes. Yimur had sliced it off with a Skill.
[Fake Dismemberment]. Also, a lot of the blood had been fake. In time, Emme had every hope that they’d be able to run through one of the [Actors] on stage with some kind of Skill.
But not all the blood was fake. The swordfight had been real. As it was, the [Actors] had taken real wounds, some of them serious. The [Director] sped behind stage; the [Healer] they’d hired was tending to one of the cursing [Actors].
It was Yimur. He’d taken a cut from Banquo in the fight. And it was he who was ironically hurt. He clutched at one leg, cursing.
“You alright, Yimur? What’s wrong? Can’t he heal the wound?”
“Damn blade went in too far. Even dulled, they’re too sharp! I think it cut some muscle. I’m out for a bit.”
Yimur was panting. The Gnoll stared up at the [Healer] as she inspected the cut. She shook her head at Emme.
“I told your [Actors] to halt. Dead gods, those were real swords!”
“It’s meant to be real. Why can’t Yimur just use a potion?”
Emme had a feeling she knew. The [Healer] shook her head.
“The muscle’s cut. The healing potion will mend most of it, but I need to make sure it bridges the muscle or your friend won’t heal it right. Hold still, I’m finding the severed parts—Miss Emme? You’ll need to pour the potion. I’ll have my hands full.”
She was reaching into the cut, feeling for the two severed parts of—someone thrust a gag of cloth into Yimur’s mouth and the Gnoll bit. Emme grabbed the potion they had prepared and opened it. She nodded and the [Healer] reached for two bloody parts.
She pulled them together and the Gnoll snarled into the gag. Emme poured, her hands barely shaking. The healing potion fell as the [Healer] connected the severed cord amid the blood. And the potion began to heal the cut, closing flesh—the woman yanked her hands out of the cut as Yimur whimpered.
“Dead gods. Are you alright, Yimur?”
“Fine. But we’re talking about our fight scenes!”
The Gnoll was panting. Emme nodded, patting him on the shoulder. The [Healer] warned her.
“He’ll still be hurting. He needs to stay off the leg!”
Indeed, the pain had taken a toll on the Gnoll. Emme bit her lip.
“The next play we don’t need to do the real blood. We’ll just stick to the hand-chop. Hang in there, Yimur. We need you to play the rest of your parts! [The Play Must Go On].”
The Gnoll blinked. The haze of pain faded from his eyes, and he seemed to perk up. He stood up instantly. The [Healer] gasped.
“He’ll be fine until the play ends. Yimur, stay off the leg. You can still hurt yourself worse. I’ll tell the cast to move stage left to let you walk on and off with minimal effort—”
Emme gave rapid instructions as the audience milled about. She hurried back to her observation spot as the intermission ended.
Act 3, Scene 4.
Yimur came back on stage as Macbeth, Wesle, performed his role. He was colder now. He greeted Yimur, the First Murderer, asking about the grisly deed.
The original script didn’t call for it, but Emme had rapidly altered the script to let Yimur rest. So Wesle grabbed the [Assassin], Yimur, after learning that Banquo’s son had escaped.
And strangled him on the stage. The Gnoll choked, gasping, and Wesle bent over him, throttling him. It was real. Too real. In the audience, some of the people had to look away. Others half-rose, but remembered the fight scene had been fake. Even so. As Wesle rose and turned, there was a distant, cold look in his eyes. He dragged Yimur off-stage and returned.
Silence. The play went on, Macbeth turning and wearing a face of a polite, even merry [King]. He acted at acting so well. And now people were staring at Macbeth and seeing a monster. Until the ghost of Banquo appeared and Macbeth was confronted by his demons and guilt. They watched him, torn between loving and hating and…
It was real. Real, until you listened to the slightly odd, archaic language. Real until you pinched yourself and remembered these people were on stage. There was a painted backdrop, curtains hanging from wooden poles. You could look around and see the audience, mesmerized, taste the lukewarm mead you’d forgotten to drink.
But if you looked at Wesle, on stage, you saw a monster. And a man. A man turning into a monster.
Onwards. Emme had no more disasters to attend to. The [Witches], who had been laughed at in the first act, returned, performing dark rituals and revealing Macbeth’s true fate. No one laughed at them now. There was a horror to them that the humor of the first act actually heightened.
It wasn’t a perfect play. Emme had seen better. She was making notes on her parchment as she watched, not spellbound like everyone watching for the first time. She envied them; the Players of Celum had vastly improved since Liscor and if she had seen this—
Well, she might not have applied to be the [Director] of the acting troupe. Because this was polished. Again, not perfect; the [Witches] lacked magical effects since their [Hedge Mage] was well and truly useless at grand illusions. They had a cauldron and color liquid that gave off noxious odors, but nothing more.
Wesle was their star, but even he stumbled a bit in Act 4; Emme put it down to the poor rewrite Andel had done. It still needed to flow perfectly with contemporary dialogue.
The audience watched as Macbeth turned to the murder of families. Until he was cornered by Macduff, played by Pralcem. He died, and a head was carried back on stage. The play ended there, with a new [King] chosen, promising a new era after the downfall of the evil [King] Macbeth. The curtains closed.
The play was done. Yet the audience sat there, waiting, staring. They were so spellbound they didn’t applaud at first, when the curtains opened and the cast stood there. Even after the [Actors] bowed, there was a pregnant pause. Then they gave a standing ovation.
The wild cheering made Emme smile. The audience nearly flooded the stage, kept back by the stagehands, demanding questions. What was that? Another play! Emme hurried forwards, letting the [Actors] shake hands. Grev appeared with a basket, producing little bits of stiff paper to sign. The audience had to buy the paper, not the signatures.
The hubbub didn’t die down for nearly an hour after the play had ended. And indeed, the news took the town of Sovvex by storm. You had to see it! In fact, anyone who’d waited to see it was a fool! Those who had seen the play were too excited to sleep, trying to describe the art of the theatre to their friends.
It was something they had never seen. Beyond something new. It was acting, given life by magic and Skill and craft. Emme liked to think that even Erin would have been impressed to see how far the Players had come. It still wasn’t the white-hot lines that burned sometimes within the confines of her skull, but it was closer. They were all pursuing a dream, a vision. The Players had brought it here. And the people of Soxxev or whatever this place was loved them for it.
The Players stayed another day. They had to; they might have been mobbed if they’d tried to leave without doing an all-day set. This time the first team, Jasi, Wesle, and so on, let the second-stringers, the newer [Actors] perform. But the original [Actors] refused to take themselves off the stage too long; they did Andel’s new play and discussed it directly afterwards as they were replaced by the second-team, having had their rest, to do Frozen.
“I have to admit it, Elisial isn’t half-bad. It’s not perfect, but it does feel like Andel’s taken parts of all our classics. A bit of Othello, Hamlet—I still don’t like that Lady Elisial has to be so—so blind as to turn traitor like that, but the audience comes around to her side.”
Jasi was talking, relaxing and fanning herself after having performed in the open sun. The audience outside was filling the plaza, and Emme was having to exchange all the copper and silver coins into gold. Kilkran nodded, mopping at his bald head.
“It has some rough patches, but it can be improved! I felt Act 2 was weakest, myself—”
The Players discussed in between doing repeat performances and the rest of their lineup throughout the day. It was practically a holiday in Sovvex. Not just that; Emme was also accepting tryouts for people to join the Players. As night fell and the exhausted [Actors] begged off performing for sleep and dinner, Emme entertained the crowd with free auditions, putting would-be [Actors] in their roles and letting them try out to join the Players.
Many people wanted to, but few could up and walk away at a moment’s notice. Those that could—failed. The Players had a limited amount of new [Actors] they were willing to take on, so they were accepting only the best in raw talent. Or, conversely, people with classes that complimented the support crew.
That was the case this time. Emme found an older man, in his forties, who expressed an interest in joining their troupe. He was a [Carpenter], and a better fit than the last [Woodworker] that Emme had been forced to fire. For a chance to watch and maybe act in the plays, the man was willing to abandon a fairly lucrative business and join the Players.
And so he did, and quickly too. Because after a full day of plays where the [Actors] ran through most of their best hits—the ‘Solstice’ classics that she’d taught to them, not the ones their [Writers] had come up with—they departed.
On the third day, the [Mayor] of Sovvex herself tried to get them to stay, offering a fairly lucrative incentive. Emme weighed it, but decided in the end it was better to keep moving. The Players might well stay in each town, milking their success, but Emme knew that the Players thrived on new audiences, new places, success.
And she smelled far greener pastures ahead. Her dream was to have the Players perform for nobility. Because that was where they’d get more money, enough to maybe let them build…
But that was all for Sovvex. The Players of Celum left, in wagons, waving at the people begging them to stay another day, relaxing, some arguing about the new play Andel had written, others just resting their voices and bodies after so much hard work. They took to the road, heading north. Sovvex fell behind them.
That was a town. The next day, the Players of Celum performed in a village. Among their audience were repeats who’d actually followed them down the road. Was it noteworthy, an event for the ages? No. Neither Sovvex nor the village was. Save for Yimur’s injury and Andel finishing his script, it had been unremarkable to the [Actors].
This is what they did every week. It was routine, but exciting, addictive. Emme counted the coins they brought in. Even Erin Solstice’ inn couldn’t match the Players of Celum—even on one of her magical days! Okay, maybe then, but only then. But it was a routine they’d kept up for months now, on the road. Earning money, leveling. Growing. They were used to it, and still enamored by this new life.
After three days, the Players arrived in Invrisil.
“We’re here! Dead gods, I never thought I’d come this far north!”
Rima hung off the wagon, staring as the Players lined up at one of the gates to Invrisil, the City of Adventurers. They were in a short queue at the gates, but the city lay in front of them. And it was vast. Sprawling!
Famous. Even Kilkran’s enormous ego looked intimidated by the city, which dwarfed Celum, Liscor, or any other city that they’d come to before this. Invrisil was one of the true cities of Izril, a trading hub. And it was where Emme was convinced they’d find an even larger stage to perform upon.
Even so, the [Guards] at the gates hadn’t heard of the Players of Celum. They asked questions, using truth stones to get answers from Emme and Wesle. When they heard the group was a band of performers, one of the [Guards] laughed.
“Actors? Hah, what’s that? Similar to [Tumblers]? [Bards]? Well, whatever it is, good luck. This is Invrisil. Every inn and tavern has something special! We’ve got [Musicians] performing—you’ll find a spot, but you won’t be alone. Lady Reinhart encourages the arts and they come! Invrisil’s second only to First Landing for that.”
He waved them through proudly. Pralcem looked indignant, but Wesle only gave the [Guard] a relaxed smile. Confident enough to be humble. Some of the [Actors] liked to put on airs or perform like their characters, but Wesle, and to an extent Jasi, and some of the other veterans, had began to simply embody different personalities.
“We’ve had competition, sir. But we’ve done fairly well for ourselves, even near Invrisil. Can you point us to a decent inn by any chance? We’re hoping to perform tonight.”
His air made the [Guardsman] size Wesle and the Players up a second time. He pointed them towards a nearby inn, and Jasi thought she’d see him in a seat that night.
“Did you hear that? [Bards] and performers? We might not attract the same attention with so many competing entertainments!”
Kilkran waved a lazy hand.
“Relax, Rima. We’ll blow them away. We’ve done it so far! Even with that [Court Bard], remember? Have a little faith.”
The Players nodded. They weren’t overconfident—well, some of them were—most—but it was well-deserved. They’d had full houses or full squares or pastures each time they’d performed. Jasi wasn’t as sure as Kilkran, but her nerves weren’t overbearing.
“Let’s find that inn. Then we’ll begin preparing for tonight! I want some of you to see what we can get around the city.”
Emme began barking orders at the Players of Celum. She was directing everyone—except for Jasi, Grev, Wesle, and the original circle. Kilkran agreed to go exploring with Andel, but Jasi slipped off the wagon as it rolled through the streets. She didn’t want to wait while the wagons navigated the city; it wasn’t exactly at traffic jam owing to the organized way the wagons were given their own space to navigate, but she wanted to explore.
“Emme, I’m taking off with Rima! We want to check out the city and do some shopping, maybe!”
The half-Dwarf [Director] looked exasperated, but she nodded.
“Fine! But find us in…an hour! Don’t you all wander off! Meet us at the Landlocked Cove—the inn. If we’re not there, I’ll leave someone to tell you where to go!”
There were perks to being the first [Actors], the leadership of the Players. Rima and Jasi strolled along, taking in the multitude of shops, the vast city. Wesle had already left, towed away by Pralcem, and Grev had disappeared as soon as they’d come through the gates. Jasi couldn’t help but worry, but Rima was too excited.
“Don’t worry about Grev, Jasi. He can take care of himself.”
“He shouldn’t go alone. He needs friends, Rima! Sometimes I wish we had more children with us.”
“Well, we’re definitely stopping in Invrisil for a while. He can find himself some. And maybe Emme will convince a family to join us. But it’s Invrisil, Jasi! Stop worrying about your younger brother! Look at these buildings! They’re so tall! I never imagined they could be this high!”
Rima gawked upwards at some buildings, a precursor to skyscrapers. Jasi stared upwards as well, then realized they were attracting amused looks. She put a hand to her coin pouch, remembering Grev’s lessons in how not to be pickpocketed.
“Don’t stare, Rima. Let’s explore. And keep a hand on your coin pouch!”
They were hardly poor these days. In fact, Jasi had enough money banked with Emme to pay for any of the jewelry she passed by. Not magical artifacts, but the Players had deep coffers stored in the bag of holding under lock and key that Emme watched like a hawk.
Jasi’s first stop with Rima was in a shop with glass-tinted windows selling all kinds of curios. She exclaimed over the shelves and bins full of goods as Rima looked at art pieces from other continents.
“Ooh! Look! Scale balm, this far north? How much is it?”
The Drake exclaimed, spotting a familiar label in Drake script. The [Shopkeeper] hurried over, smiling, seeing new visitors to Invrisil. Jasi looked astonished; the woman was Human, after all!
“Do you have that many Drakes customers, Miss?”
The [Shopkeeper] laughed merrily.
“There are a few Drakes here. But you’d be just as likely to find Lizardfolk since they don’t go south of Liscor. Still, Invrisil’s the last major city going south. And we get trade from all over! It pays to have some balms along with the other things I sell. I specialize in perfumes, oils for the hair and skin—or scales! This is a lovely balm; I’m told it really refreshes the scales. Only eleven silver for the tin, but if you buy two…”
Rima was staring at a number of wooden whistles, expertly carved by Garuda in Chandrar, apparently. Each one made a unique, shrieking sound and she took two to buy, digging out some gold. She found Jasi negotiating the sale of the scale balm—and a small palette of paints you could apply on scales.
Drakes didn’t use the same formula Humans did. Scales were smoother, and held powder more poorly than skin. They didn’t need foundation and blush and concealers, but they had to change how they decorated their scales, neck spines, and so on. Jasi was delighted to find an entire range of accent colors she could use to color her scales. They were powerful shades, and she showed it to Rima.
“I might swap this out for the greasepaint, Rima. Greasepaint is cheap, but this is good. And maybe a perfume, if I can fit it in my budget. Excuse me, how much is this?”
She conferred with the [Shopkeeper], who was only too delighted to make the sale. The perfume was too pricey—two whole gold pieces. Jasi still bought it, but she remarked to Rima that there was no way she’d be able to fit it into her arsenal. She paid wholesale for all but the perfume, not haggling for the palette or scale balm, but getting a few silver off for the perfume.
Rima was more canny, arguing hard to get a silver and four copper off her whistles. They left the shop, and Jasi handed the perfume to Rima. It had a dreamy scent, almost wild as well, like some flower blooming in a wilderness. That’s what Rima thought.
“It smells amazing, Jasi. Can’t you add it to your supplies? And lend me some?”
The Drake [Actress] shook her head ruefully.
“I wish I could haggle the price down, but it’s set at market value. So if I bargain well or get ripped off, it’s still worth the same. Let me check anyways. [Performance Supplies]!”
She touched the palette and it glowed for a moment. Rima watched, envious, as a passing group of girls headed for the shop stared with curiosity. Jasi closed her eyes and frowned.
“Looks like it’s…one gold and three silver. Huh, that [Shopkeeper] didn’t know it’s worth. The palette’s added to my supplies! And the scale balm…”
The tin glowed as well when she put her claws on it. But when Jasi came to the perfume, she only shook her head.
“Two gold and three silver. If I add it, I’ll have to get rid of more of my makeup. I’ll just have to use this bottle. Or improve my Skill. But look!”
She flicked a claw, and produced a copy of the exact same tin of scale balm. Inside the shop, the [Shopkeeper]’s eyes bulged. Jasi just smiled, and Rima sighed.
[Performance Supplies: 5 Gold]. If Wesle had a number of Skills, his best being [Method Acting], Jasi had two good Skills. Neither was as powerful as Wesle’s, but this one Rima would have happily taken a sword to the leg for. It did exactly what it sounded like. With the Skill, Jasi could summon exactly five gold pieces’ worth of supplies before a performance.
“Jasi, do you think I could get that Skill? I’d love to have it.”
Rima looked sideways at the Drake. Jasi shrugged, peering at other shops, her tail wagging with excitement as she took the perfume and slipped it into her bag of holding.
“I don’t know how rare it is, Rima. But just wait until Level 20! Myself, I hope this Skill upgrades, like some of them do. Can you imagine that? If it gets to something like fifty gold, I’ll hire an [Alchemist] to make me a potion I can use for each play! Or even a scroll! I haven’t tried that, only makeup and dresses.”
“Leave the tailoring to our [Tailor] or the poor woman will be out of work, Jasi. There are better things to be had. Like your scale balm! Or the paints!”
The two [Actresses] lingered for over an hour in Invrisil, just wandering the streets. It was a far cry from Celum; practically anything you might want was available in the shops, and there was an entire industry designed to cater to visitors. Unlike Liscor or Celum, there were restaurants, guided tours of parts of the city—and yes, entertainment in every form! The two might have wandered forever, but Grev found them.
“Jasi, there you are! Emme’s pitching a fit! She says you need to check in!”
“Oh! We forgot!”
Jasi turned, embarrassed, and Rima started. They’d wandered far from their entry point, and now they were completely lost. But Grev had found them with uncanny accuracy. The young boy grinned at them.
“Lucky you have me, then? Don’t worry! I marked you with my [Waypoint] Skill, Jasi. And the inn! We go…this way!”
Grev winked at Rima and impishly darted across the street. He was low-level, since he was a child, but he was a [Street Rat] and put his few Skills to good use. Jasi and Rima followed.
“It’s huge out there, Jasi! Streets and streets—I went for an hour one way and I still couldn’t tell if I was nearing the edge of the city!”
“You shouldn’t have gone alone, Grev! Remember what I said?”
Her younger brother rolled his eyes at his sister’s concern. Grev was as taken with Invrisil as they were, but his experience was far different.
“I’m safer than I would be with someone minding me, Jasi! And I’ve got a good idea of the city. There’s gangs, alright. But they’re keeping low. The City Watch isn’t as poor as Celum’s was, but there’s at least one big group. Probably more. You want me to find out more?”
“No! If you get into trouble, I’ll thump you, you little brat!”
“You’re too slow. And you won’t thump anyone for fear of ruining your fancy claws for the stage!”
Grev darted out of Jasi’s reach. Rima laughed, and the group returned to the inn in high spirits. The Players had set up in the inn they’d come to while they took stock. Emme was grumbling about finding a good spot to perform in, preferably the same place where they’d sleep, but she’d already paid the [Innkeeper] to let them put their things in a room for a few hours.
“We should have sent someone to scout ahead and find the best spot! I’m not setting up everything twice, Jasi, and location is key! Where have you been? Wesle found someone!”
She pointed at Wesle and a man dressed in colorful clothing, a lute slung over his back to Jasi. The Drake walked over and Wesle stood up.
“Jasi! Meet Mister Desirel. I was checking out the city and we crossed paths.”
The Human man blinked at Jasi, but she was used to the reaction. She smiled, held out a claw to shake. He clasped her hand gingerly, but she didn’t scratch him with her nails.
“Delighted. I’m Jasi, a fellow [Actor] in the Players of Celum. How do you do?”
She added just a bit of refinement to her voice, and met the man’s gaze directly for a second. Charming—Desirel blinked, and then smiled, more genuinely.
“A pleasure, Miss Jasi? My name is Desirel, I am a humble [Bard]. Allow me to welcome you to Invrisil!”
Behind him, Grev rolled his eyes and made a rude and lewd gesture. Jasi stared at him for a second and Grev disappeared. Wesle motioned and all three sat down. He’d ordered an ale for Desirel—milk and a juice for himself and Jasi.
“We’re competing with a lot of other entertainment, apparently, Jasi.”
“I saw as much on my walk. But the city is massive. Surely we’ll find enough people for all of us?”
The [Bard] chuckled as he reached for his cup.
“That’s what I thought, Miss Jasi, Mister Wesle. But it can be difficult! So you’re the Players of Celum? Not a bad name, and you’ve come at a good time. Still, you’ll need a bit more flash than this to make a proper living.”
He gestured towards Emme and the others. Wesle raised his eyebrows.
“Music! Magic! Costumes! You have some, don’t you?”
“Oh, we have costumes. But we’re not doing…entertainment. We’re [Actors], Mister Desirel. We perform stories.”
The [Bard] wrinkled his nose as Wesle tried to explain.
“Oh? Close to [Performers], then. Well, I daresay you can find good work with the nobility. They always want some saga about them written, and there’s steady work if you’ve a decent group.”
“We’re [Actors], not [Performers], Mister Desirel. There is a difference.”
Jasi’s voice was polite, but insistent. The [Bard] hesitated.
“Even so, I’d say you need to temper your expectations. Your Dwarf friend was asking about getting into the biggest inns? Good luck! Even Gold-rank adventurers have to compete for our best spots. We’ve several Level 30 plus [Innkeepers] in the city. A few almost as good as that one near First Landing. And their inns—oh, fabulous. But as I said, even adventurers can’t just pay their way in. Named Adventurers and the biggest [Merchants] can—in fact, Ellia Arcsinger herself is staying in the city! But again performing in her inn would mean you’ve reached the top.”
“And there is a top?”
The [Bard] grimaced.
“We have a Level 40 [Troubadour] in the city, among others. You think you can compete? It’s hard to play your best music and watch her steal your entire audience. They don’t come back, or if they do, they don’t pay as much after seeing her perform.”
He glowered, all too ready to grumble about the problem with competing with people nearly twice your level to the two [Actors]. Jasi met Wesle’s eyes; she didn’t feel too worried, and he clearly felt the same. The Players had something no [Bard] could match. She excused herself after a few minutes to speak with Emme.
“There’s a lot of competition, Emme.”
“Well, I’ll see if I can watch this [Troubadour] and see what we’re up against. But listen, Jasi! Remember how I sent a [Message] a few days back to Erin? She replied!”
“Really? What did she say?”
Jasi bent over the table as Emme pulled out a piece of parchment she’d gotten from the Mage’s Guild. The [Director] relayed Erin’s words.
“She says…she doesn’t have any. None that she can think of. She says she watched parts of something called The Children’s Hour, but she can’t use her Skill to recall the parts she didn’t watch.”
“What? Can she at least transcribe all that she remembers? Maybe we can get Andel to use it. Although he’s got his head shoved so far up his behind that he’ll soon be nothing but ass.”
Dismayed, Jasi looked at the tight handwriting. Emme shook her head. She was still excited, though.
“Temile is going to get her to try. But see here? This is what she told him when he asked her your question. She says—why not just change one of the current plays? Like Juliet and Romeo. Put Juliet in Romeo’s place and alter the lines.”
Jasi looked up.
“But that’s not the same. Romeo is different than Juliet. Erin doesn’t get how the roles work.”
“Right. So that’s why I thought—let’s rewrite the scripts. Dead gods, we do it already! Let’s create a female role out of the male ones, so they’re believable and true to the performance!”
The Drake looked up, meeting Emme’s eyes. She hesitated, then smiled. That was more like it.
“Of course! But—Andel will never go for it.”
Emme looked innocent.
“Who said anything about Andel? He’s too busy over his masterpiece, anyways. Let’s just think about which play you’d like to adapt. If you had a preference?”
Jasi didn’t have to think.
Emme raised her brows.
“Really? You want the traitor’s role?”
“I’ve seen Wesle do it. That’s the role I want to play, only as Lady Macbeth, serving my [King]—or [Queen]! And I want different lines, Emme. I’m not strangling anyone on stage. But I could knife someone.”
The Dwarf woman paused. But then she smiled. She turned and called across the inn and the Players still present.
A woman looked up. She had been helping write [Messages] back to the Mage’s Guild, but now she stood up and hurried over. She had ink-stained fingers, spectacles, and so many piece of parchment that she needed a clipboard to hold it all. She rushed over. The second [Writer] for the Players of Celum who did the ‘silver-coin’ plays, which were simpler, involved modern events, and drew in crowds, nodded to Jasi, then Emme.
“Something you want, Emme? Miss Jasi?”
“Yes. Put aside all your projects for now, Orica. We want you to rewrite Macbeth.”
The [Writer] looked wary.
“Isn’t that Andel’s territory, Emme?”
She was a former [Scribe], unlike Andel, who had been a [Potter] until the written word had called him to produce his first play. Jasi liked Orica more, for all she lacked Andel’s pure creativity at time. Orica worked fast and accommodated a lot more than the touchy Andel.
Emme shook her head.
“Not this time. You see, Andel’s busy with his new work, but Jasi and I think you’d be better than he is. Because we want to rewrite parts of Macbeth. Not to change the language, but the characters. Jasi wants to play Lady Macbeth, and we want you to alter her dialogue. Tweak her performance to match…well, a female character. Change others too! Can you do that?”
Orica’s eyes lit up. She sat down, putting her magical quill and clipboard on the table. She thumbed through it, finding an empty piece of parchment.
“I can do that. You know, I’ve always thought how odd it was that none of Shakespeare’s works had female warriors in them. None at all! It must have been a cultural thing. But—I can certainly try to adapt the play!”
“Not too much. Just make it believable. Add in a few details that change the play!”
Jasi bent over the table, speaking eagerly. Orica was already jotting notes down.
“Of course, Miss Jasi. It’s just nuance. A lot of the lines work fine as they are, but I could completely see a scene where the [Witches] first greet Lady Macbeth as their own. Sister! Yes—”
“Pralcem will flip his lid when he hears about this.”
Grev appeared from the side, chewing on some dried jerky. He grinned as the three women turned. Jasi scowled at him.
“Stop bothering us, Grev! And don’t you dare tell Pralcem or anyone else until we’re ready—”
A figure burst into the inn before Grev could reply. Pralcem himself, breathless, desperate, turned as the Players looked up. He scrambled for words, then shouted.
“Wesle! Jasi! All of you with weapons, come quick! They got Andel and Kilkran when they were out shopping!”
The Players shot to their feet. Wesle jumped out of his seat where he and the [Bard] were sitting. He rushed towards the door. Emme grabbed for Jasi.
“No, wait! Let Wesle and the men—”
“Damn the men! Let go, Emme! Let me see!”
In her seat, Orica sat up and began scribbling fast as Jasi tore away from Emme. She charged out the door, after Wesle. She only had a belt dagger, but she’d lived in the poorer parts of Celum. And the Players were her family.
She found Kilkran and Andel surrounded by a crowd—and the City Watch. They were already on the scene and a [Healer] was tending to the two men. Andel had a bloody nose, Kilkran had taken a blow along the head. He was babbling to Wesle when Jasi arrived, panting.
“They jumped us! Just attacked us on the street, as we were shopping! Four of them! I thought this was a safe city! But they attacked us—ran off before the [Guards] could even get them!”
“[Thugs]. They must have sensed the gold your friends were carrying, sir. There’s a new group in the city. They must have been behind it.”
The [Guardsman] addressed Wesle. The [Actor] drew him aside and Jasi followed. She heard the two speaking.
“—former Watch myself. How normal is this?”
The other [Guardsman] hesitated, but Wesle had a hand on his shoulder and he was copying the former [Watch Captain] of Celum. The [Guardsman] straightened, looking abashed.
“Honestly? Rare, sir—Mister Salkis. Attacks in the open don’t happen in Invrisil, not like this! But as I said, there’s this new gang and your friends must have been carrying enough gold to warrant it.”
“Those idiots probably had forty gold between them. Kilkran and Andel spend big.”
Jasi groaned. The [Guardsman] nodded. And his expression read ‘idiots’ as he glanced at the two sitting and being tended to. He turned to Wesle.
“We’ll investigate it and try to get that money back, Mister Salkis. But frankly, with the amount of gold your two friends were carrying and how they looked—they were easy targets. And the [Thugs] are no doubt in hiding.”
Wesle ground his teeth together.
“Can’t anything be done?”
The [Guardsman] shrugged helplessly.
“The City Watch keeps crime under control. But there are always high-level experts. You know how it is.”
“I do indeed. Thank you, officer. And if you find the gold, we’d all be much relieved.”
He turned back to Jasi and shook his head. She walked with him as they returned to Kilkran and Andel. The [Healer] pronounced them both fine, even Kilkran, although she warned him to lie down. The two [Actors] let Pralcem and some others escort them to the inn. Jasi glared around.
“Some welcome to Invrisil! Kilkran’s an idiot, but still! A mugging in the open? Isn’t this Magnolia Reinhart’s land? I thought she was the most powerful [Lady] in Invrisil! She has estates in Celum!”
“She’s one of them. But speaking as a [Guardsman], I know how the Watch feels. We’re not exactly the highest-level, most of us. And our opponents can be very high-level. Stopping rogue adventurers is a nightmare. Come on, we’ll ask Desirel about it.”
Wesle shook his head. The [Bard] was sympathetic, but he explained to Jasi and Wesle what they already knew.
“It’s not safe in all parts of Invrisil. I don’t know what your friends were thinking. Well, they were on the main streets, but even so! You don’t flash lots of gold in some parts of the city. But it is safe. Generally.”
“What about Lady Reinhart? Doesn’t she handle crime like this?”
Desirel shook his head.
“Nominally. Invrisil does pay some of its taxes to her, but Lady Reinhart prefers to let the Watch do its job. She’s hands-off, which means we get bad crime now and then, but it’s quite safe in Invrisil comparatively! Trust me, I’ve been to other large cities in Izril like Gaunt, and gangs have so much power the Watch won’t clash with them for fear of getting wiped out.”
He shook his head as Wesle traded a glance with Jasi. Gangs weren’t big the further south you got. But organized crime was something they’d heard was worse in the north. This was a surprise.
“Here, it’s just incidents. The [Thief]’s probably part of a new gang that moved in. They’re kicking up a fuss; putting out [Thieves] and even robbing folk on the street! The Watch is trying to get them, but the gang’ll probably abandon anyone who gets caught and leave in a few days.”
“Damn, damn, damn. What were you boneheads thinking? We’re doubling the watch on the vault! No—I’ll move it to the Merchant’s Guild and deposit some more with them tomorrow! For now, no one goes out with lots of money, or if they do, they get an escort!”
Emme cursed out both Kilkran, Andel, and the [Thugs] in general. Jasi nodded, watching the two battered men slump over in their seats. Kilkran put a hand to his head where he’d applied some ice.
“Demons take those [Thugs]! How am I supposed to perform tonight? My head still smarts, even with the potion! Anyone know who they were? Will they be found?”
“No clue. And the Watch wasn’t optimistic. You’re not performing tonight either, Kilkran. We can’t have you passing out on stage.”
The man looked up, aghast. Jasi saw him try to stand up and half a dozen hands pull him back down and felt someone tug at her arm.
“Jasi! I know who got them.”
Grev was looking up at her seriously. He motioned her over and Jasi dragged Wesle over as Emme laid down her directorial law. Grev turned to the two.
“Greenblade’s Boys. That’s the group that got Kilkran and Andel.”
“Grev! How do you know that?”
The boy looked scornfully at the two adults.
“How can’t I? Everyone’s buzzing about the attack, so I stepped out and asked some of the kids I met. I’m a [Street Rat], aren’t I? I’ve got my ear to the ground and a Skill that lets me find out that much. The other kids, they say the Greenblades’re new. Just like that [Bard] said. They’ll be gone soon, but they’re flash, not builders. Better tell Emme to leave them alone; they’d be bad news to cross.”
Wesle looked confused. Jasi had heard Grev enough times. She just sighed as Grev turned and nodded knowingly.
“Sure. Flash is gangs or people on the bad side of the law who run in, get what they can, and run out. [Bandits] are all flash; they don’t stick around. Builders and other groups though, they’re different. Like rats.”
“What do they do?”
The young boy rolled his eyes, as if Wesle was the fool.
“Builders build. They give back to what they take so the take’s bigger and they protect clients. Like the Brothers. Rats’re just never noticed. They don’t like attention, so they strike rarely. Oh, and there’s viners too. That’s when a gang gets as big as the Watch and fights anyone who tries to uproot ‘em. Like the Sisters. Back in Celum, we had some of the viners and builders, but both the Brothers and Sisters got wiped out in that bad job with Miss Erin’s inn.”
Wesle blinked. The [Actor] turned to Jasi.
“You know, I actually understood some of that. I should try to study a [Thief]. That would be a useful person to imitate.”
“And get your head bashed in? We have one already. Grev, thanks for finding that out. Can the Watch use the information?”
“Not unless they’ve got good [Informants]. And they won’t help much anyways. These Greenblades don’t want to stay, which is why they’re hitting hard. They’ll get out soon, before they attract big trouble.”
“Well, I don’t want you getting into trouble, Grev. Stay with the Players.”
The [Street Rat] snorted, digging a pinkie in one ear.
“No fear, Jasi! I’m not getting anyone into trouble! If anything, you all need me. Kilkran and Andel were idiots for walking about with that much gold in their pockets and not watching where they went! I’ll show you where to go next time so as not to get jumped. Probably.”
When Jasi and Wesle relayed that to Emme, she just shook her head. But it was true that Grev had that element to him most of the Players lacked. They’d all been upstanding citizens, aside from Rima. And she’d only been arrested as a [Thief] once. They consulted with her and Grev as Emme, Wesle, and Jasi all discussed the issue.
“Do we need to hire [Bodyguards] or something?”
“We’re nearly forty strong as it is. If we have the coin, we can. They’d help keep order and prevent trouble in the audience.”
“If we can reliably pull a huge crowd in tonight, I’ll add them to my list of prospects. We’ve had adventurers and former [Mercenaries] in our audience! Fine, I’ll take care of it.”
“The important thing is just not getting into trouble. When Grev says this gang is gone, we’ll all be resting easier. Sounds like they’re just temporary. Just a bit of bad luck, everyone. That’s all.”
Rima agreed. Jasi relaxed a bit. She was prepared to discuss the night’s performance when Yimur burst into the inn. He stormed up to the Players.
“Raskghar take them! This is a disaster!”
Emme shouted as she stood up. Yimur wasn’t hurt, and neither was Medel. But both were shaking with fury. Yimur pointed, his furry finger quivering with outrage.
“Emme! Everyone! I was looking for a place to perform, seeing other entertainers. But Medel found—there’s another group in Invrisil! Acting! Performing our plays!”
The room turned into a chaos of shouting. Emme slammed on the table for silence.
“Yimur, say it from the beginning! Explain everything!”
The news, when Yimur got it out, was simple. Jasi sat back in her chair, head spinning.
“There’s another group of [Actors]? Here? Already?”
“They’ve been here nearly twenty days! And they’re doing our shows! They’re calling themselves—get this—the Men of Invrisil. That—that’s not even intelligent! Men? What about Gnolls? Females of any species?”
Medel’s face was red as he gulped down water and slammed the mug down. An angry and uneasy murmur swept through the Players. Chellise looked around, confused and upset.
“How is this possible? Did Miss Erin tell someone else how to do the plays? Is the door to Liscor here already?”
“No, no. It’s quite obvious, Chellise. Someone must have seen one of our plays and copied it. It’s not hard. Miss Erin had the same problem with her food, remember?”
Jasi’s head hurt. She hadn’t expected it, but she should have expected it. The other Players looked astonished.
“But they can’t do that! We do the plays!”
“What’s stopping them? What’s wrong is that they’re stealing our plays.”
Yimur growled. His fur was standing up. Jasi looked at him.
“You’re sure? They’re not just doing the plays Erin showed?”
“They have our dialogue! Our alterations! I watched them do Othello—poorly! But they’re not calling him ‘the Moor’. He’s supposed to be a Stitch-Man, just like Andel rewrote it!”
“Those bastards! How did they do it? No—did they steal my scripts?”
Andel shouted. He looked around, and his eyes narrowed.
“Or is there a spy in our ranks?”
Emme slapped Andel on the back of the head so hard his nose started bleeding. She had to stand on a chair to do it. She looked around, glaring.
“No one’s accusing anyone of theft! Think, Andel! They don’t need spies. One of the [Actors] we let go could have taken our scripts! Or maybe we dropped some, we have so many! Or they could have just copied the play after watching! It could have been anytime we were on the road. Even when we were starting out in Celum!”
The Players fell silent. Jasi felt angry, hurt. Betrayed. On one hand, she knew that being an [Actor] wasn’t reserved for the Players alone. But—but she’d started it! She’d made the plays better, worked on them! How could someone just steal what her group had worked so hard on?
Wesle raised his head at last. He had been silent, but now he looked directly at Yimur.
“How good are they, Yimur?”
The Gnoll hesitated. It was Medel who replied, angrily.
“As shit as the new ones on their first week! But they’ve got most of the lines down; someone’s definitely been taking notes. Worse, they’ve got extra stuff.”
“Extras? Like what?”
“Music, for one. There’s a [Harpist], some [Drummers] for the battle scenes, and they’ve got a [Fencer] who can do fancy fights. But it’s overdrawn—they do the fight scenes as if that’s the most important part, and the music takes away from the reading.”
“Unacceptable. I’m going over there. They can’t get away with this! How many are there? Let’s all go and—”
Pralcem was heading for the door. Emme dragged him back by his waistband. She snapped at the other angry [Actors].
“Oh no! We’re not starting a fight! The Watch won’t be on our side. Get back, Pralcem! Let me think.”
She paced back and forth as the Players watched, anxious, murmuring angrily. Jasi knew what Emme was about to say as the [Director] turned. There was only one thing she could say.
“Let’s show them, then. If they want to play at acting, we’ll show them acting. We don’t fight. We just prove that we’re good. We’re here—”
“But they’ve been here twenty days! Apparently they were a huge hit the first two weeks!”
Yimur groaned into his paws. Jasi saw Grev slipping out of the inn. She nearly raised her voice, but she let him go. Emme’s face fell.
“Big enough that I think at least ten thousand people have seen them. Probably more. They were huge, Emme. And they’re rich. There are eighty of them and they’re putting on performances day and night! They’ve rented a warehouse—they’re performing from there.”
There was dead silence. And then an oath. Emme grabbed a chair and smashed it on the ground. The [Innkeeper], a former [Sailor], took one look as the Dwarf screamed curses and retreated back into the kitchen.
“They stole our thunder! It’s ours! All our plays—this should be illegal!”
One of the [Actors], Kassa, had tears in her eyes. Rima was looking around.
“They can’t have done them all. Can they?”
She looked at Yimur. He hesitated, and Jasi stood up.
“I think Grev’s going to find out. Let’s wait for his report.”
He wasn’t long in returning. The boy returned to the inn, looking uncharacteristically worried. Jasi turned to him.
“How many plays do they have, Grev?”
“Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth—all of ‘em! They’ve got every play we’ve ever done, even the silver-coin ones!”
The Players stared. Andel sat down hard in a chair.
“All? Even my adaptations?”
“They must have been paying to have someone listen and copy us.”
Wesle murmured. The Players looked at each other. Pralcem stood up.
“Now can we kill them?”
Even Emme looked like she wanted to agree. But Jasi shook her head. She waved a claw for everyone’s attention. And when she spoke, it wasn’t in Wesle’s commanding voice. She didn’t have the same air. She just spoke from the heart. But there was an authority of her own there.
“No. Listen. I know everyone’s furious. I am too. What that other group’s doing is wrong. But we can’t fight them. There’s no law against what they did. I wish there were, but there isn’t.”
“There are laws against stealing ideas among the guilds! If they were [Blacksmiths] stealing an invention, they could be blacklisted!”
Kilkran growled. Jasi nodded.
“True. But there’s no Actor’s Guild. And we have to face facts. Even if we take them down, we need to build our reputation in Invrisil. So we need to perform. Tonight!”
“How? They have all our plays! Even if we do them better, we won’t draw a crowd of people who’ve never seen an act.”
“Then we show them what makes us different, Medel. Listen. There’s one play we have that they don’t! Elisial!”
The Players looked up. They turned to Andel, then to Jasi. Pralcem looked hopeful—then resigned.
“We performed it three days ago, though!”
“Even if they’ve seen it, they won’t have Andel’s updated version. And—Yimur, how good are these [Actors]? Can they memorize a script in three days?”
The Gnoll bared his teeth.
“That lot? I saw their best. And they’re lazy. They fumble lines, they don’t have any presence—no. I think they wouldn’t be able to copy Elisial already.”
“Then that’s our opening. Unless anyone disagrees?”
No one did. But people were sitting up in their chairs, nodding. Emme looked up. She stared around, and then clenched a fist.
“That’s right. That’s right! We can’t give up. We just have to prove we’re real [Actors]. Elisial it is. Grev! Medel! Everyone! Get the word out! Jasi, you’re lead. Everyone else, with me! Stagehands, we need to find a big spot, sell tickets, and put together a play by nightfall! This has to blow the other troupe out of the water, you understand? It has to be a success. Now move out! This is going to be the best play we put out or I’ll feed you all to Eater Goats!”
The play, the play! Invrisil glowed as evening fell. The vast city full of millions of souls was sprawling, filled with entertainment! But one group, the Players of Celum, had entered the city. And while they were not the first [Actors] who’d come to Invrisil, they were the originals, the best. Accept no substitutes!
And indeed, there was groundswell. There was a wave, ready to be ridden. More than a few people had heard of the [Actors] heading north. They’d seen the Men of Invrisil, but tonight, the [Actors] hit the streets hard. Grev, the stagehands, Emme herself, began spreading word that caught fire on the [Gossip] networks, that lit up the rumor mill.
“These ‘Men of Invrisil’ are fakes! They’re copycats who stole the real performances by the Players of Celum! You want to see good acting? Come see Elisial, a new play put on tonight! Go to Sedia Street—the warehouse. Seats are only six copper! There’s fancy seats. Two silver!”
One of the Players was a [Promoter], able to turn his [Town Crier] class into an even more persuasive class. And the jabs at the Men of Invrisil took to Invrisil like fire. There was, to Emme’s great disgust, a large audience of fans of the plays already, and news of a second troupe made them excited.
“Not second! The original! Tell Davion to shout that! Tell him to find people who liked the plays—get them here! And—and get some [Laborers], Grev! We need help setting up seats, and the stage!”
The warehouse Emme had rented was a flurry of activity. [Actors] were rehearsing lines; they had to get the new script down much sooner than Emme wanted! Jasi herself was standing, rehearsing lines amid the key actors. She turned to Andel—she was already reciting memorized lines rather than reading from script.
“Andel, my line here—is it—‘I would I had known thee sooner’, or ‘I would that I had known thee sooner?’ How deep is Lady Elisial here? Is she disillusioned yet, or am I reading too deeply into her character?”
Andel hurried over.
“That’s right! In fact, she’s already contemplating…”
Another pair of [Actors] were rehearsing to the side. Pralcem threw up his hands as Rami grabbed a blade.
“No, no! That’s the wrong version! I’ve rewritten your lines! Get me a new script!”
The [Writer] stormed over. Emme saw him snatch the pages that Pralcem was using. He screamed for a [Scribe]. Emme would have helped, but she was racing out of the warehouse.
Food! They needed food for the people! That was a huge source of income! The first two places Emme rushed into, a tavern and a pub, told her flat out they couldn’t provide for that many people and weren’t interested in trying. The third, a restaurant, was better. The owner, who was also a [Cook] who made food that was cheap and plentiful, brightened when he heard Emme out.
“[Actors], huh? I’ve seen a pair of those plays. Good stuff! Bit hard to follow, but it’s entertaining! I can give you…free drinks and dinner for a space and a cut of the profits? Or let’s say I share everything I take tonight, thirty-seventy? After covering the cost of my ingredients! That’s a generous deal.”
She stared at him. That was the worst deal she’d ever taken. But Emme, after hesitating for a moment, accepted.
“The ingredients come out of your share. But—forty-sixty!”
“Thirty-seventy and I’ll take the cost of the ingredients. It’s a lot of effort!”
“You’ll make it back. Forty-sixty or I’ll find someone else!”
The owner happily accepted. Emme cursed the lost gold, but she had food, a place to perform—she ran, panting, and nearly collided with a furious [Actor].
Not one of the Players. The man was shouting at Kilkran with a group of his friends. He was pointing at their warehouse and the line already gathering.
“How dare you! We’re the originals! This is slander! You copycats come into our city, spreading lies?”
“Where’d you learn your plays from, huh? We got them from the source!”
Kilkran was bellowing, being restrained by Yimur and Pralcem. The [Actor] sneered.
“Our [Writers] came up with them of course—”
Yimur and Pralcem howled. They might have gone for the larger group of [Actors], but Emme shoved her way forwards.
“Enough! There will be no fighting! You—you thieves! If you want to claim we’re stealing your work, recite us some of ‘your’ plays be heart! Go on! I know you do Hamlet—give us a soliloquy!”
Heads were turning. Emme smiled coldly.
“A speech! Come on! Act 3, Scene 1! Hamlet’s speech! I’ll give you the prompt! Claudius and Polonius hide, and Hamlet enters the stage! And—go!”
She clapped her hands and looked at the [Actor]. The man spluttered.
“You can’t just demand—that’s our play—if you want to see it performed, visit our theatre! I perform Othello! I’ll do his lines—”
He struck his chest importantly. Emme sneered at him. She bellowed over him.
“Real [Actors] know their lines by heart! And we perform every play! Kilkran! Hamlet’s speech!”
Instantly, the former [Smith] strutted out onto the street. In front of the crowd, he turned. And his golden voice was somber. Haunted.
“To be, or not to be? That is the question—whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the stingers and arrows of outrageous fortune. Or—”
Emme cut him off.
The Gnoll turned and immediately took up Kilkran’s lines. He took a different view of Hamlet, making the speech angrier. But his intonation was no less than Kilkran’s. Halfway, Emme pointed and Pralcem took up the end, a Hamlet beaten by fate.
The three [Actors]’s performances made the crowd stare, then cheer. The Men of Invrisil looked uneasy and backed away as people turned to them, demanding they do the same. They couldn’t, and beat a fast retreat. Emme waved her hands, standing on her toes for attention.
“Spread the word! The real [Actors] are in Invrisil!”
“Real? Well, I must see this.”
A man with green hair remarked to a passing fellow in a suit. The [Butler], who was busy eating a sandwich, paused and looked up. They both drifted into line. And Emme grinned.
“You were born to be a Gnoll, Emme. That smile’s worthy of one.”
Yimur gave her an admiring look. Emme bared her teeth wider.
“Let’s just make sure this play proves my point.”
“No fear of that. I might be out of it—my head’s spinning—but it will be fine.”
Kilkran leaned against Pralcem. Emme let the big man lean on her as she ordered both Yimur and Pralcem back to practice. She helped Kilkran into the warehouse.
“What makes you say that, Kilkran? Easy—let’s let you lie down. I’ll have someone help you to the inn—”
“And miss the show? Never. I just need to sit—”
The man sank down with a groan. He looked up at Emme.
“It will be fine, Emme. Believe me. After all. Jasi’s leading. Just let her take them, and she’ll never let them go.”
Emme paused. And then she nodded. She took a deep breath, looking around the theatre.
“Let’s just hope so.”
That night, the Players of Celum put on Elisial. And Jasi played Lady Elisial herself. The role was meant for her. An adopted child, a Drake who’d become a [Noblewoman] in Terandria who was caught between loyalty to her kingdom and her people fighting the Goblin King a continent away? Pralcem played her husband, Wesle, her lover. The stage was set for her.
And it all depended on Jasi. The [Actress] didn’t see Emme charging around backstage, the other members of the cast hurrying to set up, worrying over their lines, panicking, performing miracles. She just put on her makeup, adorning her scales with her magical supplies. She got into the dress, checked herself, and read her lines.
She didn’t have them all perfect. But she had [Eidetic Memory], a Skill that let her visualize the script and words moments after reading them. But there was a difference between that and knowing the lines.
Her world was one of sharp focus, and almost dreamlike distance at the same time. Jasi was concentrating so hard on each line, rehearsing with the rest of the cast, perfecting how Elisial felt, how she’d act, going over steps in her head, she barely noticed when it was time for the play. She had no room for fear. She fed it into concentration.
Even so, when she peeked out the curtain and saw the hund—no, thousands of people looking down at her, up at her, from the makeshift stands, her heart skipped a beat. This was perhaps the largest crowd she’d performed in front of. As Grev stumbled out onto the stage to give the address, the Players looked at Jasi.
Her head went white. For a moment, the fear of failure overwhelmed her. As Grev spoke, and the first [Actor] walked out on stage, Jasi felt the pressure beating down on her. If she failed—
But then it was her line. And fear left her. Jasi strode out onto the stage. She turned her head, as the magical [Light] spells conjured flashed across her scales. She gleamed in the limelight, poised, her eyes flickering across the audience, pausing on a face. They were a blur. And sharp. She turned her head and delivered the first line.
“If you fear my scales, sir, you’d do best to look beyond them. For my heart lies in Terandria, my home. I have never trodden nor dream of Izril’s shores.”
And from behind the stage, Emme sighed in relief. Because if Wesle had been the [General] and then a [King] from head to sole, here now stood a [Lady]. Someone sighed as Jasi swept across the stage to confront the [Lord] who’d maligned her. She was beautiful, dignified—and she shone with that same intangible, invisible light that Wesle had. It drew the audience to silence.
The play began in earnest. It wasn’t perfect. Andel had work to do, and Emme winced at every fumbled line, every slight pause. But it was true what she’d claimed. The Players of Celum, even performing a new script, even rushed, were far better than the Men of Invrisil. The audience, some new to plays, others experienced with the version they’d been shown, were spellbound.
It was Wesle, Pralcem, Rima—then Jasi, Chellise—Medel, all of the Player’s best. But this time Jasi was the one who shone. And as the play continued, as the audience became more enraptured, the brighter she grew.
“She’s doing it! Andel, look at her!”
Jasi seemed to grow more animated, more real, as if the rest of the world were turning grey around her. No; she didn’t take away from the world, she enhanced it. She was using her Skill.
[Audience Charge]. Their attention on her was revitalizing. As Jasi performed, the eyes, the anticipation, all of it became energy. And she drew it in, revitalizing herself, adding it to her stockpiles, performing at her best. Beyond it.
Even the best of the Players would grow tired after multiple acts in a play. Even with stamina potions. The nervous energy a low-quality stamina potion would give you wasn’t the same as being at your best. But Jasi didn’t need a potion.
She drew her energy from the audience and slew them in their seats. Emme could see slack jaws, people comparing what they’d seen to an actual [Actor], who didn’t fumble, who made speaking the lines of the play natural—or heightened, as the scene called. Acting wasn’t recital. Anyone could read a line. You elevated what you were given or you strove to match it, never less.
Jasi remembered the play only in pieces. In the depths of her concentration, she felt herself staring at the audience, as if she were distracted. But really, it was the teensiest part of her that had time to even look at them. The rest was so consumed in her role that her memory only picked up pieces of that night.
Gaping faces. A man dressed like a [Butler], staring up at Jasi, a pair of Runners sitting agape, an adventuring team filled with two Nagas pointing up at her. A [Mage] with green hair, a Centauress Runner open-mouthed, practically dancing her hooves on the ground with excitement.
Flashes. In the end, Jasi lay, bleeding, alone, propped up on rubble torn from a failed plot. Her hubris and shattered ideals lay around her, the bodies of her failures. Jasi looked up. She spoke a line, and searched for something more. The life left her and she collapsed. The curtains swept close.
And the audience went wild. It was like a lot of performances. Except…not. Jasi looked up, panting, after she’d taken the curtain call and bowed repeatedly. The cast surrounded her, patting her on the shoulder, sagging against each other with relief. Jasi looked at Emme.
“Okay, I admit it. Andel wrote a decent play. I still want to play someone not motivated solely by love.”
The [Director] had tears in her eyes. She looked out at the audience demanding to see the cast, talking about how different it was from what they’d seen! And she shook her head.
“Jasi, after tonight, I’ll pay for a new play myself!”
That night, the Players of Celum celebrated hard. They’d done one performance, but Elisial had been huge. And it had put them on the map. They were staying in the inn, but hardly out of company. Aside from their own group, the inn was practically heaving with people who wanted to buy them drinks—and talk to them about acting.
“We’re [Actors]. I’m not sure what you’ve seen, but the Players of Celum are the best in—in the world! Or have you seen better?”
Kilkran was happily drunk, speaking to a man, possibly a [Merchant] who had bought everyone a round, twice. The man shook his head.
“I thought I had! But the Men of Invrisil don’t have your…presence! Dead gods, when I heard the speech that fellow, Wesle, gave? I could have been listening to a [Lord] rallying me to war! And I would have gone!”
The man emphasized his words, slapping the table, making his stomach wobble in reply. Kilkran nodded.
“Oh, Wesle’s one of our finest. As is Miss Jasi, there.”
“I can see that.”
The [Merchant] turned. Jasi was at the heart of a throng of admirers, male and female. It was the star effect in Celum, multiplied ten times. Wesle and Pralcem were similarly besieged, having played leading roles. It was something they’d grown used to, but not this much. Jasi felt overwhelmed, invigorated, still on an acting high. She could see Emme speaking with another [Merchant], looking excited. Jasi didn’t spot Grev, but she was sure he was about, crowing with pride.
Of course, that was when the door burst open and the thirty or so men with swords and a sash of green tied around the hilts strode into the inn. Everyone froze, and Yimur appeared at the stairwell. He bellowed, not seeing the [Thugs], but pursuing a short girl holding a huge chest. The locked chest with their gold
“[Thief]! Get her!”
He leapt down the steps, chasing the girl—and froze as the Greenblades, the gang of men, formed ranks. The [Actors] and guests in the inn stared as a man with a long, curved hatchet of all things, stepped forwards. He had scars on his arms, but he was fairly well-dressed. And he had an educated tone that belied the way he swung the hatchet.
“It’s a robbery, ladies and gentlemen. Don’t worry, we won’t trouble you long. But if anyone calls the Watch, blood will be shed. My people don’t want to linger in Invrisil overlong. You—girl. Drop that.”
The female [Thief] had stopped. She stared at the Greenblades—in horror. She dropped the casket and it hit the ground with a thump. The girl fled, leaping towards the back of the inn as the [Thug Boss] advanced. He eyed the chest, but stopped as Yimur reached for it. The Gnoll [Actor] froze as the man with the hatchet raised it.
“Ah. I meant what I said. That must be something valuable, right? Well, we’ll have that. And everything else. People, your coin pouches! And bags of holding! Don’t hold out or we’ll have to take your hand with the money!”
The guests and [Actors] looked at each other. Jasi was frozen, in a knot of people. She could see some people in the inn hesitating. But most were petrified with fear. She looked towards Emme as the [Thug Boss] pointed.
“Your gold. Now.”
Emme met Jasi’s eyes as Wesle looked around. All of the Players shared a thought. That was all their money! If they lost that, they’d be destitute. There was some in the Merchant’s Guild, but—
But the [Thugs] had weapons. Jasi bit her lip. Then Wesle pushed himself back from his table. He stood, and bellowed.
“Players of Celum, to arms! Just like Macduff!”
For a second, the forty-odd [Actors] stared. So did the [Thugs]. But then they realized what he wanted. With a roar, they surged to their feet. Anyone with a weapon—and a good dozen had prop blades or actual weapons—drew them. They held themselves as if they were going into a fight scene.
The Greenblades backed up a step, caught-off-guard by the sudden display of arms. The [Thug Boss] had tensed. He seemed about to retreat, moving swiftly backwards towards the door—but then his eyes narrowed. He stared at Wesle, then at the other [Actors].
“It’s just an act. My intuition Skill isn’t rating any of them as good.”
Jasi’s heart sank. The Greenblades were hesitant, but their leader wasn’t. He regained his composure and pointed his hatchet. At Wesle.
“Except for you. Drop the blade, fellow. Let’s do this civilly or I’ll have to paint the tables with your guts.”
Wesle hesitated. He was holding his sword, angling the tip towards the [Thug Boss]. He was channeling the [Bladesman]. His voice, when he spoke, was flat and precise.
“Kill me, and the Watch will hunt you until your grave. Unless it’s here. How certain are you, sir?”
Jasi looked around. She had only her belt knife and the other [Actors] were tense! What could she do? Charm them? Bluff? The [Thug Boss] only had eyes for Wesle. He didn’t reply. But he was raising his hatchet. And Jasi knew, from his posture, the way he moved, that he was going to attack—
“Alright, alright, enough, thank you! I was going to make another entrance, but I suppose I can’t if there’s no one to apply to.”
A bright, cheerful voice rang out in the inn. The [Thugs], the [Actors], everyone turned. And a man appeared in a flash of light from the side. He was holding a wand and aiming it at the [Thug Boss].
His hair was bright green, and his robes were blue, but decorated with magical symbols and illustrations of monsters woven into the fabric. He looked like the very image of a [Mage]—if Jasi were trying to play one on stage. He wore a charming, confident smile.
“Gentlemen, these are the Players of Celum! And you’d be doing a crime against art if you were to rob or kill them! I object! Back away, please, and you’ll have space to run.”
The man with the hatchet hesitated. He stared at the [Mage], flicking his hatchet up and down. Preparing to throw? He licked his lips.
The [Mage] moved faster than anyone could see. His wand flicked up and shot a stream of magical darts across the room. The green projectiles left tracers of light, but they’d struck before Jasi or the [Thugs] or anyone else had registered the spell.
Anyone but the [Thug Boss], that was. He cried out, staggering back, clutching at his chest. He’d blocked two of the darts with the hatchet; the rest had cut deep into his chest.
One of the Greenblades called out. Their leader tried to croak something, but he dropped, bleeding. His gang stared at him. Then one of them grabbed a potion, smashed it on his chest and they fled.
The [Mage] grinned as the [Thugs] fell back. They rushed out the door, not willing to try him. He kept his wand raised, then flicked it and made it vanish.
“Dead gods! Dead gods!”
Emme was breathing hard. She rushed over to the chest with their money and grabbed it. The room burst into a babble of relief, and Jasi turned. The man with the green hair was bowing, accepting thanks, but as soon as he saw her looking his way he stepped towards her.
“Apologies for the quick spellcasting. But I’ve learned my lesson about making speeches. I do hope I haven’t ruined your moment, sir?”
He bowed slightly to Wesle as the [Actor] came over. Wesle laughed shakily in relief.
“I believe you saved my life, Mister Magus.”
“Please! After seeing such art on stage, I could do no less. It’s an honor to meet you. Mister Wesle, isn’t it? And you. Miss Jasi.”
He bowed as Jasi held out a hand. She stared at him, then caught herself.
“You have the advantage of me, sir. Who am I thanking?”
The man’s eyes sparkled with genuine delight. He swept a grand bow.
“Eltistiman Verdue, at your service. [Magician], lover of the dramatic—and hopeful [Actor], for your consideration.”
The [Actors] stared at him. Eltistiman looked up from his bow, meeting Jasi’s eyes. Emme squeaked.
“You? You want to join us?”
“After seeing your performance, how could I not? I can assure you, good Players of Celum, I am nothing but an asset. I can cast illusions, I’m proficient with a number of other spells—and I’m fairly good at fighting.”
Eltistiman stood up, gesturing at himself. The [Magician] was indeed resplendent, but he caught himself as he looked at Jasi. And he saw the same thing that had grabbed her staring out of the man’s eyes.
“I—I’d love to have a chance to do what you do. And I’m not the only one! But if I’ve earned any goodwill, might I have the honor of requesting an audition?”
He looked hopefully at her. Jasi paused. But then she shook her head. Eltistiman’s face fell, but Wesle, with impeccable timing, put a hand on his shoulder.
“Friend, with a flair like that, you don’t need an audition.”
Eltistiman Verdue blinked. And then he looked around and beamed. And then the Players of Celum had really, truly, come to Invrisil.
The Greenblades were on the run. The Watch was hot on their heels and their members were scattering towards bolt holes. The [Thug Boss], a man who was fast with a hatchet and dangerous, nicknamed…well, it didn’t really matter. In the casting of life, he only had a bit part, at least in this scene.
And here was someone else’s star moment. The [Thug Boss] was racing for a safe house when something tripped him up and he went flying. His two companions shouted, and the [Thug Boss], hitting the ground, scrambling up, heard shouts—cries of pain—then silence. He whirled, grabbing for his axe—
And Sacra kicked him in the face. The [Thug Boss] was tough, and still went for his weapon, but someone else booted him forwards. Into a wall. The man decided not to go for the weapon after that. He raised his hands.
Reynold the [Butler] adjusted his uniform as he stepped smartly over to the fallen [Thug Boss]. He nodded to Sacra, and she checked the two [Thugs] he’d downed.
“I thought we were looking at these [Actors] you mentioned. The good ones, Reynold. I’ve seen the other group.”
The [Maid], sometimes adventurer, and spy stared at Reynold. The [Combat Butler] shrugged apologetically.
“Hazards of our job, Miss Sacra. Let’s not linger long.”
The [Thug Boss] recognized the iconic uniforms of the two employees of Magnolia Reinhart. He raised his hands as Sacra drew up her foot. She was wearing boots, which didn’t fit the rest of her maid outfit.
“You can’t touch me! Magnolia Reinhart is hands-off with Invrisil! Everyone knows that! I haven’t killed anyone!”
The two servants looked at each other, amused. Reynold cleared his throat and addressed the man on the ground.
“Yes, sir. That is what people say. Although I’ve never heard Lady Reinhart say as much to my face, have you, Sacra?”
She looked down at the [Thug Boss]. Reynold adjusted his collar.
“It is true that Lady Reinhart has a no-hands policy when it comes to business in Invrisil. Which is why she has instructed us to kick you until you’re unable to move and let the Watch capture you. Don’t worry, I imagine you’ll be out of prison soon enough. Perhaps with some inconvenience, sir. But you see, it could be worse.”
The man shrank back as Sacra and Reynold stepped to flank him. The [Butler] bent.
“Yes, sir. You see, we give the Watch a friendly bit of help now and then. If there are troublemakers in Invrisil. They’ll find you quite unhappy. But without broken legs. Believe me, sir. If we met again, I’d hate for you to break your legs.”
Sacra gave up and just kicked the man’s head into the wall. He slumped over and Reynold winced.
“A bit excessive.”
“He’s alive. Let’s let the Watch catch him. Now, about those [Actors]?”
“Oh, yes. They’re totally unlike the other troupe. I happened to see them as I was taking my break, and it was the most incredible thing…Lady Reinhart may want to see them! But come, let’s see if we can find them.”
And that was that. The [Thug Boss] lay on the ground. The Players celebrated their new member. Jasi toasted with Wesle and Grev, and they laughed. Something new was coming, and they were bringing it. Or something old. Either way—once the stage had you, it never let go.
It was probably an addiction or something.
[Actress Level 25!]
[Conditions Met: Actress → Lead Actress Class!]
[Skill – Perfect Imitation obtained!]
[Skill – Refinement by Accolade obtained!]