Alma stalked into the opera house, still somewhat perplexed as to what they were doing here. The plan was good, for all of that. Have Cabanela sing Draco’s role until Memry came for him, then follow them back to the airship and coerce the wandering gambler into a ride. Fine. From what Cabanela had said, she had some things to discuss with this Memry in any case. It was just—Cabanela was taking so much glee in this plan. She still had trouble with his story. Did he even deserve glee? And yet, part of her wanted to believe in him, let this ridiculous stunt be the one that rescued Jowd and returned her family to its rightful place.
Alma looked around a bit disdainfully. She had to admit the place was grand to a person of certain taste; rich red tapestries lined the walls and plush carpets overlaid the floors, while questionably tasteful music played from distant musicians. It was certainly no Figaro, but what was? The Impresario greeted them, anxiously speaking a hundred words a minute about what a foolhardy plan this was and how he could absolutely not afford to lose his job but needs must as they say and Draco must be kept safe at all costs and Cabanela did, after all, look so very like—Alma tuned him out and turned her attention elsewhere.
Lynne and Missile were staring around, acting like complete tourists. She supposed Missile had an excuse—he was a dog, after all, and had spent his entire life on the Veldt, but did Lynne really need to stare so ostentatiously around and speak so obnoxiously loudly about her surroundings? Surely she wasn’t quite so incredulous as she sounded. It took Alma a moment to realize that Lynne was being a little too obvious about her vocal awe in order to provide Cabanela with a distraction so he could slip unobtrusively into the backstage areas. In typical Cabanela fashion, however, he was ignoring it, merely eyeing Lynne with a lofty eyebrow. He listened halfheartedly to the Impresario’s exhortations and pleas as he strode on long legs toward the dressing rooms. At the foot of the stairs, he swung around with a flourish that ended with a finger pressed to the Impresario’s stunned face.
“Nooowww, baby, I’ve already heard all of this before, so why don’t you just let me get on with it? I toooold you, I’ve heard Draco and Maria at least a couple of times, and I’ve got a goooood memory, you know.” He turned with a flippant toss of his scarf, humming the first lines of what Alma vaguely remembered as Draco’s main aria from the first scene. He danced up the stairs, only to be stopped at the top by a hand to the chest and a ferocious scowl.
The lady awaiting their group stared up at him through stubbornly lowered eyebrows. Even though she was at the top of the landing, and Cabanela was a step lower, he still towered above her. She was short and plump, and her fierce glare was somewhat marred by the fact that her glasses kept sliding down her nose. Her hair puffed away from her face, giving her a bit of the aspect of a small, round, fluffy flower of some sort.
“I’m sorry,” she stared him up and down with a withering glance that said she was anything but, then continued with reluctance, “sir, but patrons are not allowed in the dressing rooms. I’m sure the Impresario can show you to your seat, as he appears to be fulfilling the duties of usher today.”
“Now, now, we talked about this!” the Impresario puffed, trying and singularly failing to look magisterial and in control. “You remember, this is our Draco substitute for tonight!”
She looked Cabanela up and down again. “You’re joking, I hope?”
“No, no, no! Look at him, he looks just like him!”
“I suppose, somewhat, in the face…” she pursed her lips. “He is also, however, at least a head and half taller than Draco and rather slenderer.” Cabanela looked gratified; Alma sighed. The woman continued, ”I don’t even think we have trousers with legs that long, and I certainly don’t have the time to make alterations. No, this really won’t do.” She turned away dismissively. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to make sure Draco’s actual understudy is prepared and then make sure all the props are in place.” She started to hurry away, muttering something about roses, but Cabanela’s hand snaked out and caught her by the wrist. His other hand waved at Alma behind his back, in a gesture she remembered from other times had meant, “play along.”
“You know, baby, this is reeeal important to us,” he crooned at the woman he held in a gentle yet immobile grasp, “and we geeeet that you’re just doin’ your job, but you’ve got to give a little here.”
“I have to do nothing of the sort—” she began, but Cabanela cut in with smooth charm.
“Now, this is the Queeen of Figaro, don’t you know, and she’s not likely to be as leeeenient as I am, baby.” His hand waved at Alma, “Do something!” Alma bit back an unqueenlike snort.
The woman slid suspicious eyes to Alma. “She isn’t—” Alma watched her eyes widen. “Um. Your Majesty.”
Now that she thought back, Alma thought she remembered the short, round figure bustling around the court when the opera had played their command performance there several years ago.
“Lovely to see you again, Propmistress. I do beg your pardon—I believe no one has introduced us?” Alma put on her most regal tones. She had almost forgotten how much fun it was to go anywhere with Cabanela when he was in this mood. It could almost make her forget—but, no, nothing could make her do that. She blanked her face to hide the sudden anger and looked attentively at the startled woman.
“Ah, um, well, everyone just calls me Props anyway, your Majesty,” she said. Her voice strengthened as she began to regain her composure. “My real name’s not terribly important around here.” She folded her arms, attempting to look belligerent, but merely succeeding in looking like an anxious dandelion.
“Ah, I see,” Alma mentally shrugged. Time to be queenly, she supposed. “Well, er, Props, I’m sorry we are putting you to so much trouble, but this really is very important. You’ll, of course, have the gratitude of Figaro if you can accommodate us.”
“And I’m sure you can guess what you’ll have if you don’t!” chimed in Lynne, cheerfully. Missile, as if to emphasize, added a happy bark, his tail wagging.
The propmistress’s eyes slid from one face to the other and finally settled reluctantly on Cabanela’s. “Fine. Fine! But, I swear, if you so much as touch one single thing you shouldn’t be messing with…”
Cabanela grinned. “But of cooooourse, my dear lady! Please, lead on.” He swept into a courtly bow, then followed her into the dressing rooms. Before the door could close behind him, he turned back to mouth something at Alma that looked like, “Thanks, baby.” A moment later, his high tenor rang out as he warmed up, “Laaaa… laaaa…. Do, ti, la, sooool… Draaaa—aaaa—cooooo…”
Alma sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose. For now, whatever strange game Cabanela was playing, she would go along. Jowd was waiting for her, somewhere in Vector, and if this was the way to get there, well. So be it. At least one thing hadn’t changed in all these years. Cabanela could still sing.
Lynne shot a glance at Alma. “Should I stay here and guard him?” She looked down at Missile. “Wanna stand watch with me, boy?”
Missile barked and danced, tail wagging. “Sure, Miss Lynne!”
Alma shook her head. “No, I don’t think he’s going anywhere.” She turned to the Impresario. “Do we have seats somewhere that we could watch this?”
“O-oh! Of course, your Majesty! I shall show you to my personal box!” He led them through the same door through which Cabanela had disappeared.
Behind them, unseen, a letter floated to the floor. An irritated voice, pitched high and grating, rang out through the lobby. “Oh, come on! Aren’t you going to read it?!” No one heard, and the sulky shadow was left to scuttle away and continue to plot.