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.
Alma sat in her chair, tapping her fingers on the seat. The box was comfortable enough, of course, and the Impresario had all but fallen over himself to make sure they had the best, most unobtrusive vantage point possible, but Alma was having trouble calming herself. She remembered Draco and Maria fondly, from that long ago time when they had played a command performance on the occasion of their betrothal ceremony. Jowd hadn’t cared for it, but she had enjoyed the flashy heroics and over-the-top yet simple story of Maria’s doomed love for the Prince of the West. Jowd had compared Maria to a stuffed chicken waddling across the stage, but Alma had privately rather relished the fantasy of being a hero.
She puffed air through her nostrils, irritated all over again at her younger, more naïve self. Heroics, indeed. What would she give not to have to do this? To go home, family in tow, and never leave again? An impossible dream, but one she would pursue as long as she had breath in her body. As the curtain rose and the narrator spoke her famous lines, Alma returned her attention to the show. The tinkling music of the overture, so familiar, wove around the narrator’s sonorous tones.
“The East and West were waging war… Maria, the East’s great heroine, thinks of her love, Draco. Is he safe? Is he waiting…?” As the narrator scurried off the stage to let the next scene start, Alma’s thoughts turned to Jowd. Was he safe? Was he waiting? And could she really trust Cabanela to get through this silly plot?
As Maria strode across the stage (Alma had to admit, that yes, that armor was not the most flattering thing she could have worn, and she did somewhat waddle like a stuffed chicken…) and was overrun by the enemy forces on their chocobos, Alma found herself restless. The timpani rumbled, and Maria began her first aria, but Alma found herself with a sudden need to see Cabanela. She told herself it was to make sure that he was following the plan, and so she ignored the music and stood.
She leaned over to the Impresario and murmured, “I’m going to the dressing room.” He looked at her in alarm and opened his mouth, but she continued, “I’m sure everything is fine; I just want to check.” She looked at Lynne and Missile. Lynne was already starting to fall asleep, but Missile was vibrating in excitement.
“Why are they singing?! I want to sing!” He started to bounce, clearly ready to start barking.
Uh-oh. Alma loved the little dog dearly, but it was clear that asking him to be still and quiet through something like this was too much. “You’d better come with me, Missile. We can’t sing right now.”
“Okay! But will Miss Lynne be all right?” They both turned to look at her. She was snoring very softly and leaning on the long-suffering Impresario’s shoulder. He turned piteous eyes to Alma, who smiled for what seemed the first time in a very long time.
“I’m sure she’ll be fine, and we won’t be long. Come on.” As she and Missile walked out of the boxes and into the main foyer of the building, she noticed his nose wrinkling as he busily sniffed the air.
“It smells like… like seafood! And ink! I’m hungry!” He yapped and danced, begging for food.
“We have to hurry right now, but I’ll get you something soon,” Alma promised. They walked down the stairs and up a small flight to the side that led to the dressing rooms.
Alma spoke softly to the dog at her side, “Could you give us a moment? You can bark if you see anyone coming.”
“Okay, Miss Alma!” Missile sat, plumy tail waving, and fixed his eyes on the stairs. “Just don’t forget me!”
“Of course I won’t,” Alma said fondly, and ruffled his ears. “We’ll never forget our top Pomeranian.”
Missile gave a happy yip. Alma carefully opened the door to see Cabanela adjusting the wrist fastenings on his stage outfit. The little, angry propmistress had evidently managed to hold on to her temper long enough to find a costume that would fit him after all. Alma took a deep breath. Through it all, he was still beautiful. She couldn’t believe that she could still think so, after everything he’d done, but he just was. Even through the gray. Through the new wrinkles. Hooked nose. Everything.
He turned and saw her. Alma wasn’t sure what expression he’d caught on her face, exactly, but she pasted on a smile to hide the pain seeing the sadness in his eyes, the sadness he was trying to hide, brought her. After what he’d said, what he’d done, he had no right to feel sadness. Or did he? Would she ever know what to think, or how to regain some kind of inkling of what he thought about all that happened? They might as well be strangers.
“Well, you still clean up well, I see,” she said, coming closer. She reached up to adjust an errant bow, trying to ignore his startled face, carefully not thinking of the last time he’d touched her and the slap she’d given him then. “May I…? There.” She stepped back, hoping she had managed to stay straight-faced, trying not to blush.
Cabanela stared down at her, still frozen by her unexpected proximity. “My Queen…”
Alma shook her head. “Not now.”
“If you believe all these stories of me, why are you…?” He trailed off in un-Cabanela-like fashion, looking away from her. “Nooo, you’re right, baby. Now’s not the time.”
“Isn’t it almost time for you to go on? Are you sure you have your lines?” Alma picked up the script and waved it at him, letting the tension between them change to mere stage anxiety.
“It’s eeeeasy, baby, I knew it before I came in here,” Cabanela said in his most insouciant tones. He took the script from her, flipped through it, and set it down again. “I’ll be good enough. This is the scene where Draco realizes something’s happened to Maria. Sing, dance, throoooow roses.”
Alma stepped back, letting herself lean against the door. “Well, if you’re ready, I’m sure they’re ready for you. I believe they say break a leg?”
Cabanela grinned. It was a little strained, but it didn’t hide his irrepressible enthusiasm. “Oh, don’t say thaaaat, baby, I have so much leg to break!” He danced through the door and swept into the wings.
Cabanela walked through the darkness, eyes fixed on the entrance to the stage, ignoring the hulks of set detritus looming around him. Chorus members giggled and watched him from the shadows. He gave them a wink, and muffled laughter rose in his wake. As he stood waiting for the cue, a stagehand dashed up to him.
“Draco, you’re on in two. On in two.”
Cabanela nodded. “Thank you, two. Diiiiid you do that little favor I asked, baby?”
The stagehand fidgeted. “Yes, but… Props is going to be real mad if anything happens…”
“Well, now, you can tellll her to send a letter of protest to General Cabanela of Vector iiiiif anything goes bad. But nothing will, baby. Got it all under control!” Cabanela sauntered toward the stage entrance and stepped out into starlight.
He’d done some amateur dramatics in his youth, so it wasn’t as if he was unacquainted with the stage, but this was different than a tiny recital hall or black box theatre. This was opera. This was his moment.
The narrator’s voice echoed all around him. “The forces of the East fell, and Draco’s castle was taken. Prince Ralse, of the West, took his hand by force, but Draco never stopped yearning for Maria…”
Cabanela took a deep breath and prepared to sing. “Amor mio, caro bene…” He was a little unprepared for how his voice seemed to spiral away from him and into the spotlights. It was so bright, and surprisingly hot on stage, but the plan had to be upheld. Despite himself, however, his thoughts turned to Jowd. When would he see that smile again? Far away, yes, but he and Alma would be there soon, he hoped. They’d sworn oaths, eternal bonds of love everlasting, something beyond dreams. That had to mean something, he trusted. Emotions surged, throbbing through his voice. Distantly, he hoped Alma was listening.
“Giurasti un amor, che mai non dovea avere fine per noi…” He had to sing over a sudden lump in his throat as his voice almost faltered. Had love faded away? He had thought that what they had could never fade, but everything was different and painful now. The darkness he had inadvertently brought to his desert King and Queen, dimming their fierce brilliance, had damaged it. It should never have had an end, but whatever had happened in the last thr—five years had changed everything.
“Nei momenti di tristezza,” were the next words, but Cabanela almost botched them, thinking too much about past times. With a force of will, he jerked his concentration back to the song. He had to get through this, no matter how much it resonated. The ancient language of the opera, words dating from before the War of the Magi, was hard to remember and he needed all his attention.
“A voi, mie stelle, penso con infinito ardore…” a little slip of the words, there, but Cabanela meant them with all his heart. He didn’t know enough about what had happened in the five years he’d been gone, but the ringing slap she’d given him on the parapets of Figaro had left bruises on his cheek and heart. It was certainly hard to keep hoping for their bond to be restored following such a thing. Whatever had earned him Alma’s enmity, whatever had happened that he’d abandoned Jowd, was beyond his comprehension. What would she have him do? How could he atone for things he didn’t even know he’d done? “Mi devi dire tu…”
He crested the stairs, ready for the dance section. Maria glided onto stage, being as ghostly as she could in her clanky stage armor, and said, “Just follow my lead,” in a hoarse whisper. Cabanela hmphed. As if he would ever let someone else lead the dance, especially not someone who danced like a stuffed chicken. Taking her hand, he spun her through the steps, executing his own part of the dance with flawless precision. He could see her eyes crinkled in silent concentration and a little humor through her helmet, and almost, he could pretend it was someone else with whom he was dancing.
Before she made her exit, Maria whispered, “Here’s that thing you asked for instead of the roses. Don’t tell Props I helped you!” She dropped through the trap door as a cleverly placed light flashed off her armor, making it look as though she’d disappeared, leaving only a large pocket watch in her place. Cabanela picked it up and strode up the stairs to the third floor of the set. He drifted towards the edge and held the watch up so the audience could see. As he sang the words, he could feel the eyes on him. Lynne’s. The Impresario’s. The little, angry propmistress’s. Alma’s.
“Ti ringrazio, caro bene. Amor mio, vita mia. Al grave dolor, al buio timore, che il cuore mi turbò…” Dark fears, disturbed hearts, but hope eternal that something could grow anew. He let the watch flash in the light as he finished his aria, “Per sempre ognor, per sempre ognor… qui a me, t’attenderò!”
He threw the watch high, high in the air and deliberately turned so he couldn’t see it fall. He trusted the symbolism was obvious to Alma, if no one else. He would wait forever, do whatever she asked, if it meant they could one day make it right between the three of them. His vow, standing there on the cheesy set, surrounded by light and stared at by hundreds of eyes: he would do whatever it took. The Kingdom of the East might accepting the new times but he would not, not without the people who made him whole.
As the applause arose, a little tentative but warm for all that, he strode down the stairs to his next mark, the waltz scene with Prince Ralse. Memry could be here any moment.
Alma turned away from her place in the wings, where she’d watched, helpless and rapt before the thrill of the moment. “Bravo, Cabanela,” she whispered. She’d utterly forgotten herself as she watched. His voice was untrained, but the faith of the man shone through, glimmering like starlight. Faith in her, faith in Jowd, a light beyond any extinguishing. Somewhere, deep in her battered heart, she began to believe again.
As she turned away, she caught a glimpse of the propmistress gesticulating wildly at a stage hand. Something about her face, twitching just slightly, made Alma nervous. Alma drifted over to hear the whispered conversation.
“Is that the best pocket watch from the scene shop? The one we use for Beyond Time?” the propmistress’s voice was calm, even tranquil.
“Um. Maybe? I think so?” The stage hand shrugged in a casual, even off-hand fashion, an act Alma considered had to be that of a madman.
“The one that I’ve always treated with care because it’s fragile but it looks the best from the stage?” Props’ teeth were bared in something that looked like a smile if one didn’t look too closely.
“Uhhhh… yes…?” He tried a weak smile, which withered in the face of Props’ sudden furious glare.
“The one that I had custom-made in Narshe to have lots of ticking parts and movements so it could be seen keeping time even from the audience?”
“I mean, uh, I guess, sure?” His face had gone white.
“The one that that long-legged madman just threw off a three-story set?!”
The stagehand swallowed. “Umm… well, he, uhh, he said…”
“Where did he get it.” Her voice had gone completely flat in fury. “And what did you do with my brand-new, hand-made silk roses? Threw them in the ocean, I suppose? Gave them to your boyfriend? Maybe a dragon ate them?”
“Uh, um, Maria—Maria has them! I think!”
“Oh, you think! Well, that’s a first!” She must have heard the small noise Alma made as she started to slide away. Her eyes snapped to the side and caught Alma in their fierce gaze.
“Well, I hope you’re happy, your Majesty. Your General Cabanela, or whoever he is, owes me a new pocket watch, and you’d better believe those aren’t cheap. Do you know what I had to do to get that watch? How long I had to wait? I had to order it two years in advance! When I find him, I swear--” Even though Alma would have sworn she couldn’t see the stagehand as he tried to sneak away, Props’ hand reached out and caught his clothes in a grip of iron, knuckles white-clenched in his black shirt. “I’m not done with you yet, young man. You’d better not leave!”
Alma tried to speak but failed. If she stayed there any longer, she’d embarrass herself, so she nodded as gravely as she could and fled. Once she’d retreated to the safety of the dressing room, door closed behind her, she leaned against the wall and laughed until her stomach hurt and tears ran down her cheeks. Cabanela was in for a rough time if Props caught him. Just the memory of the round, indignant face, hair quivering as she whisper-yelled, sent Alma into fresh paroxysms of laughter. It had been too long since she laughed like this. Something in her knew she was just on the verge of hysteria.
As she wiped her eyes and straightened, she heard a commotion outside. Grateful for the distraction and worried about Missile, she hurried to the opposite door and wrenched it open. Missile was barking and growling, in a muffled way, around a thick purple tentacle, which he held in a death grip. His tail waved defiantly as the octopus he struggled with attempted to pull away.
“Let me go, you little mutt, I was just trying to—“
Alma locked eyes with the wriggling cephalopod. “You again? Thought we’d seen the last you back on the Lete River.”
“You’ll never see the last of me!” the octopus growled, if such a word could apply to a voice pitched an octave above most people’s normal voice. With a triumphant squirm, it managed to rip its tentacle out of Missile’s mouth as it waved a letter in Alma’s general direction. “I owe you one, so I’m gonna jam up this opera!” With amazing dexterity, it wriggled up a wall tapestry, out of Missile’s eager reach. “You’ll have to catch me, suckers!” As it turned, it shot a blast of ink. Alma had the presence of mind to step back, but Missile was too close. He was instantly covered in the thick black gunk as the octopus disappeared into the vents.
Alma looked ruefully down at the once caramel-colored dog. He was now pitch-black and dripping with ink, although he had apparently managed to shut his eyes during the deluge so at least he hadn’t been completely blinded. He looked mournfully up at her.
“Sorry, Miss Alma! I told you I smelled seafood though!”
Alma almost patted him but thought better of it. Besides looking as though it would stain, the ink itself smelled pretty foul.
“You couldn’t help it, I know, but you’re getting a bath when this is over.”
“A bath?! Oh…”
His ears flattened, but his natural irrepressible nature returned as Alma said, “But right now, we need to get Lynne and stop that octopus!”
The little dog reared up, tail flinging ink as it wagged wildly, and he barked, “Let’s go!” He ran back toward the box entrances, leaving tiny, inky paw-prints as he ran across the red carpets. Alma ran after him, hoping that they would make it in time to stop whatever the purple octopus was plotting, but sparing a hope that the propmistress wouldn’t be upset about this as well.
As they puffed through the doors into the boxes, Alma could see Cabanela and Prince Ralse waltzing onstage along with four other couples; Cabanela looked boredly over the top of Prince Ralse’s head, although Alma noticed he was still leading. Lynne had evidently woken up and was pestering the Impresario.
“Hey, can we eat in this box? I’m starving! Is there chicken? All this singing, there’s gotta be chicken with it, right? Oh, hey Missile… ewwwww. What happened here, buddy?” She looked up at Alma, who opened her mouth to expound just as the music rose in a great crescendo and the survivors of the Eastern armies attacked onstage.
To the backdrop of the ensuing fight and duel between Maria and Prince Ralse, Alma tersely explained the dilemma and what had happened.
The Impresario gasped, “Oh, but how could he? How on earth could an octopus, of the all the ridiculous things, jam up…?” He paled. “Oh no.”
Alma and Lynne looked at him. “What?”
“The—the catwalks above the stage… there’s a lot of heavy counterweights for the curtains above there and…”
Alma’s eye was caught by movement in the dark above the curtains. Sure enough, something was up there.
“We have to stop the opera!” squealed the Impresario, staring fearfully up at the swaying walks.
“We can’t, the plan has to go through,” said Alma, more calmly than she wanted to. Cabanela was standing right under the place with the most swaying and despite herself, she was worrying.
“So we have to get up there!” exclaimed Lynne, standing, ready to dash off, before she faltered. “How, though?”
“Go to the door on the right!” said the Impresario. “Tell the technician I said to push the far-right lever, and please don’t mess with any of the others!”
“Got it.” The three thundered toward the door, unheeding of noise and ignoring the Impresario, who was yelling something at them. Alma looked down at the stage as she hurried, where Cabanela was watching the duel. He looked even more bored than before, and ready to take the sword out of Maria’s hand so he could duel for himself. Alma wished she could figure out a way to warn him, but although his eyes flicked to the box to check the source of the noise, she knew he couldn’t see her.
Missile had run ahead and was barking at the bewildered stagehand manning the set’s various ropes and levers. He was fending off a face full of small, inky dog with one hand and trying to understand what Lynne was blurting out. Alma said, “Far right lever! Push it down!”
Some harmonic in her voice must have resonated with him, as he disengaged from dog and treasure hunter and jumped backward to throw the lever. Nothing happened.
“Uh, now what?” said, Lynne. “Did anyone hear the rest of what that Impresario was trying to say?”
“Um, if you need to get up to the catwalks, I just unlocked them for you,” said the stagehand with a hesitant glance at the door. “Just go back out, around the balcony, and to the door on the other side.”
Lynne threw an “Oh! Thank you!” at the stagehand, who blinked besottedly at her and patted Missile in an absent-minded sort of way before realizing he’d covered his hands with ink. He wiped them on his pants, leaving yet more stains, and watched them run the other direction.
As they pounded around the balcony, Lynne gestured wordlessly above. The view was a little more clear—sure enough, the octopus was struggling with a huge weight. If it fell, it would absolutely crush whoever was underneath it. Alma put on speed, fighting panic with every step.
As they crashed through the other door and ran into the catwalks, giant rats scattered and squeaked. A few attempted to attack, but Missile ran ahead, clearing them away with barks and growls. He dashed up to the octopus and happily chomped a flailing tentacle.
“Oh, what? You again?! Stop messing with me!” He wriggled all his legs madly, coming perilously close to flinging Missile over the side, but Lynne leaped forward and caught him.
“Hey! Nobody throws my dog around, you giant purple weirdo!” she said, oblivious to the fact that she was now smeared with ink as well.
“Weirdo? Don’t call the great Ultros a weirdo! How about I throw you around, then?” retorted the octopus. Faster than seemed possible for a normally-aquatic animal, it vaulted over their heads and used the momentum to knock them all off the catwalks onto the stage. Ultros barely had enough time to laugh smugly before it realized that Missile’s death grip on its tentacle had pulled it off the walk as well. They all plummeted toward the stage.
Alma landed hard at Cabanela’s feet, Lynne and Missile and octopus falling in a confused, barking, yelling, inky tangle behind her. Ink was now everywhere, smeared across the stage and half the costumes. The music stopped dead and a vast, growing silence seemed to pool before the babble of the crowd started up.
The Impresario rushed onto the stage. “Oh, this is a disaster! Our heroes are flattened,” he gestured to Ralse and Maria, who had been knocked out of the spotlight, “and the duel is left unfinished. Who will win Draco’s hand?”
Before anyone else could answer, Missile jumped up, barking. “Oh, do we get to sing now? I wanna sing!” He began to yap ferociously, high-pitched and excited as only Missile could get.
“A dog? A dog can’t win the duel!” protested the Impresario.
Cabanela stepped forward. “I don't see why not, baby, buuut how about we just say I claim my own hand?”
“Ugh, you don’t know how to match the flow of the story at all! At least let her try for it,” Ultros pointed at the surprised Alma with a tentacle. “Don’t you know how these kinds of stories go? Just for that I’m gonna take you out first!”
Cabanela pointed a finger and lightning blasted from the sky, zapping the octopus and knocking it back, surprising an ear-splitting screech from the purple cephalopod. “I think I know how this story goes juuuuust fine,” he said as he extended a hand to help Alma up.
“Well, they certainly don’t normally include this,” said Alma, taking his hand and allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. “But we can certainly have a fight against a monster if you like.”
Ultros screamed defiantly and charged. The Impresario shrugged. “Well, in that case… MUSIC!”
As the timpani rumbled and the trumpets blared, Ultros raced toward Lynne, the only one still not on her feet, but Missile jumped in his way, snarling. For the third time, he got a big bite of octopus flesh. Ultros recoiled, spraying ink all over again, this time managing to catch the Impresario and Ralse in its radius. The octopus pivoted, intending to go after someone else, but a blast of lightning scorched it from the front and Alma attacked in a blinding flurry of blades. Lynne had managed to get on her feet and was also advancing on the octopus, knife at the ready.
“H-hey! I’m octopus royalty, you know. You can’t treat me like this!” It retreated, and Missile managed to get another bite in. “Yeeeeouch! Stop that! Seafood’s not on the menu! I’m supposed to be eating you, not the other way around!” It ran away from the fighters, toward Maria, who raised an armored foot and kicked at him. “Ugh! So not worth this. I’m out, but next time…!” Ultros flung itself off the stage and wriggled at high speed down the aisle. Opera patrons shuffled to the side, letting him flee. As he reached the double doors leading outside, he turned and posed. Some enterprising stage technician obligingly shone a spotlight on him. “NEXT TIME you won’t be so lucky. Adios!”
As he disappeared through the doors leading outside, applause, cheers, and whistles rose from the audience.
“What a show!”
“Draco and Maria has never been like this before!”
“And here I thought opera was going to be boring!”
“Now just a darn minute!” the voice boomed from on high, cutting off the applause. “Only one person will claim Draco’s hand and that person is ME!” The lights dimmed yet again, and the spotlight swung back to Cabanela, still dressed in his pristine costume. A green-haired woman jumped down from somewhere above and grabbed him. He obligingly allowed her to hold him fast.
The Impresario, in his element at last despite being covered in foul-smelling octopus ink, declaimed “What? Memry, the roving gambler, here?”
“That’s right, music man, I’m a woman of my word.” She attempted to leap away with Cabanela, but as she was about a foot and half shorter, leverage worked against her. Helpfully, Cabanela kicked his legs, adding the extra momentum so she could swing away.
The Impresario turned wide, shocked eyes to the audience. “What a twist! Draco thought he was going to become, uh, the owner of a dog and leave the world of court intrigue behind, but he has been claimed instead by the roving gambler, Memry! Who knows what lies in store! Join us after the intermission for Act 2, folks!”
Chapter 6: Intermission
The curtains closed; the audience shuffled, stretched, and made their ways out to the lobby for drinks, restroom breaks, and schmoozing. The propmistress stomped onto stage. “Cast meeting. NOW.”
In the wings, as shame-faced stage crew and cast gathered around her, she gazed at the chaos and sighed. Half the cast was covered in ink, elaborate costumes and the props they carried smeared in the viscous slurry. The pocket watch Cabanela had pilfered was in pieces, gears and springs laid out on a table with reverent care. The hanger where Draco’s costume normally resided lay next to it, conspicuously empty.
“You.” She pointed to the unlucky stagehand who had helped Cabanela earlier. “Mops and buckets, now. We got the carpets pulled up before the audience got out to the foyer, no thanks to you—” her gaze swung to the Impresario, who shrugged sheepishly. “But there is still ink all over the stage and the sets. Go clean it off, right now.” The stagehand sped away, thankful to be spared her further wrath.
“All right. Who, might I ask, left the reception unmanned and let an octopus into the opera house? I mean, a dog was bad enough, but an octopus? Really?” The Impresario opened his mouth, but she held up a hand, pinched her nose, and sighed. “Wait. There’s no time for that now, but don’t think we won’t talk about that later. We have a lot of work to do to get ready for Act 2. I don’t even—how on earth are we going to do an Act 2?” She pointed at the Impresario, who cringed. “We have no Draco, since YOU dismissed his understudy for the evening. I’m not even supposed to be the stage manager for this production, you know. YOU are! And you’re sitting there sucking up to the royalty while I have to take care of everything back here? Useless. The only person who’s earned his pay tonight is McCaw. Great work with the spotlight, McCaw.”
She shook herself, re-centering her thoughts. “OK. Act 2. The entire thing will have to be improvised. Someone, go get the Maestro. Ralse, go get cleaned up. Maria, don’t think I don’t know that you helped that maniac, but at least you managed to stay out of the ink, so now you, the Impresario, the Maestro, and I are going to come up with Act 2.” Her glare fixed on the broken pocket watch. “And after this is all over, I’m going to go draft a letter to this ‘General Cabanela of Vector.’ He’s going to pay for this. Everyone else, reset props, change costumes, and if you have free time, go help with the clean up efforts. We’re on in 20 minutes. This show will go on.” She clapped her hands, and the cast and crew scattered, united with the sole purpose known to galvanize theatre people: the entertainment of their audience.
Ten minutes later, as Maria, the Maestro, the Impresario, and Props finalized their plan for an Act 2 minus Draco, the man himself shuffled in, waving a wine bottle and staggering.
“Heyyyy everyone! Shoooo sorryyy to have been gone for so long, babes. l just needed a little vacayshunn—jusht a little break, haha. Did I (hic) mish the first aaact?”
The ensuing shriek broke a wine glass in the lobby and scattered all the homing pigeons from the roof. It was weeks before someone could catch one so she could write her letter, but a propmistress’s memory is long and she doesn’t forgive.
Memry shoved Cabanela into the airship cabin, muttering the entire time about “tall people” and “spoiling her exit.” Cabanela still wasn’t sure she had ever once actually looked at him during her capture, but he waited until she had closed the door behind her, still muttering about “getting out while the getting was good.”
He beat on the door a few times for form’s sake, but when he was sure she wasn’t coming right back, hurried on long legs to the open entrance to the engines. He lifted up Alma, then Lynne, who held a squirming, but mostly dry Missile, and struck a pose.
“Tooold you this would work.”
Alma and Lynne looked at each other, then sighed in unison. Both were a mess. Lynne was covered in ink, and Alma’s hair had completely come down in the panic of running from one side of the opera house to another in less than four minutes. Cabanela, of course, was pristine.
“So, where’s this Memry?” said Lynne, as she let Missile down so he could sniff around the small room, and brushed futilely at her clothes.
“Right here, my love!” sang Memry, “Did you get lonely so soon?” She slid into the door but halted in her tracks at the sight of Alma and Lynne as Missile started to yap happily.
“Who’s this?” she turned and looked Cabanela in the eyes for the first time. “Wh—you’re not Draco! What are you doing here?!”
“So you had a little cruuush on my double, eh baby?”
“Oh, no, we’re not talking about this,” said Memry, backing out of the room.
“Wait!” said Lynne. “We need your help to get to Vector.”
Memry’s eyes darted to Cabanela. He rearranged his face to look as pleading as a Cabanela can look.
“Um. Well, let’s talk in my cabin, I guess.” She turned, but then turned back and pointed to Lynne, then Missile. “But—you two stay here. You stink!”
Missile whimpered, “Does that mean we have to take a bath now?”
Lynne looked around. “Uh, I don’t think there are bathing facilities on this thing... are there?”
Memry shook her head. “Nope. Just be grateful I’m not throwing you off. You and your weird talking dog will just have to wait until I decide what to do with you.”
Alma nodded. “Just stay here, then.” She started to follow Memry and Cabanela, but caught Lynne’s glance before she left the room. “Odd girl.”
“I agree,” said Lynne.
“Me, too,” Missile agreed.
Alma hurried after the other two, tucking her hair back into some semblance of order as she went. So much rode on convincing this strange woman to take them to the Empire, and she wanted to at least look as royal as she could under the circumstances.
Memry ushered them into a small room on the port side of the ship. “All right, Cabanela, we’ve been friends for a long time, but I’ve been hearing some stories about what you and the Empire are getting up to. Not sure I want to get involved.”
Alma slid a glance at Cabanela, but he merely shrugged. “Those stories aren’t about me, baby, but I can assuuuure you that the Empire and I are no longer affiliated.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” Memry said, affecting carelessness. “I still don’t want to get involved, and you know, I don’t even like Draco that much, so you know, we can just forget this ever happened and—"
Alma leaned forward, eyes sharp. “Can you at least tell me where my daughter is?”
“I’m sorry, who are you?” Memry said. “I don’t know anything about your daughter, lady.”
Alma said, “Don’t play games with me, or I swear this gamble will be your last. My daughter, the princess Kamila of Figaro. Cabanela told me he entrusted her to you five years ago. Where is she?”
Memry scrunched her face. “Kamila, Kamila… Cabanela, help me out here. What’s she talking about?”
Cabanela smiled, savoring what was about to happen. “She meeeeans the girl I called Amelie, baby. Remember her?”
“O-oohhhhh…” Memry looked deeply uncomfortable. Her eyes slid away from theirs. “So, um, she was the princess then? Of Figaro?”
“Yes, and as the Queen of Figaro I demand you tell me where you left her,” Alma snapped, beginning to lose her temper.
“W-well, it wasn’t my fault, you understand, and if I’d known she was the princess, I would have been much more careful, and, um... I’mnottotallysure.”
“Whaaaaat?” Cabanela recoiled as if he’d been struck by one of his own bolts. “What happened? I told you to take her to Thamasa!”
“I’m not really a babysitter, you know!” Memry retorted. “We got to the general area of the town, and we fought about something, and then she ran away! And I couldn’t find her, and I couldn’t get in touch with you, so…”
Alma’s face was frozen stiff, numb and cold as stone, but she managed to speak. “You lost my daughter. My seven-year-old daughter. Did she at least have her tools with her?”
“Oh, yeah, and she took off with at least a week’s worth of food too,” Memry said dismissively. “We were right near Thamasa. I checked in about six months later, asked around about Amelie, but no one knew anything. Now that I know ‘Amelie’ was Kamila, that makes way more sense, you know.”
Alma gritted her teeth. “So you absconded with the Princess of Figaro on the request of noted Imperial emissary-turned-traitor Cabanela, lost her, forgot about trying to find her, and now you’re trying to abscond with Cabanela himself? Of all the self-centered…” She took a deep a breath, and attempted to recenter.
Memry leaned over to Cabanela, and said in what she probably thought was a whisper, “Hey, uh, is this your ex? That’s rough, buddy.”
Cabanela returned in urbane tones, “I’m suuuure the Queen of Figaro could be persuaded to overlook your crimes if you’ll take me to Vector, then her to Thamasa.” He turned to Alma. “Would thaaat be acceptable?”
“Oh, no. I’m not letting you out of my sight again.” Alma put her head in her hands. “At least we know where Jowd is. We go to Vector.”
“Hey, stop talking as if it’s all decided!” Memry protested. Cabanela and Alma swung identical flint-hard gazes to her and stared without speaking. She fidgeted, then threw up her hands. “All right, all right, welcome to the Ladybird. My life is a chip in your pile.”
Several hours later, after a stop in Jidoor to bathe and send Draco’s costume back to the opera by courier, the Ladybird set off for Vector. As they crossed the endless black sea and the lights of Vector began to stream through the sky, Cabanela came to find Alma, who was standing on deck.
“Not long now, baby.”
Alma turned away. “And yet, too long.” She sighed. “The plan was good. You performed well, both on stage and off.” There was a long silence punctuated only by the low moan of the engines and the sound of the waves far below. “I’m holding you to the promise you made to me on that stage.” She turned to go belowdecks. “And, for now, I’ll wait for you.”
Cabanela was left alone to stare out at the darkness, punctuated by small, glimmering stars that shone all the brighter as he held to the fact that Jowd, and Vector, too, were waiting.
Chapter 8: EPILOGUE 1-SOME WEEKS LATER
Cabanela stood to attention before his emperor. Sith shook a sheaf of letters at him.
“Egads, man, what did you do to this woman at the Opera House near Jidoor? She sounds quite crazed in her zeal for repayment, General! Says here you owe her a watch, and really quite an enormous amount of money for cleaning. Something about octopus ink?”
“Noooo idea,” said Cabanela, inspecting his nails. “Never seen the woman, and I’ve been riiiiight here in Vector for months.”
“Well, you should write to her and let her know she’s got the wrong fellow, my good man.”
“Why boooother? Just throw them out.”
Sith shrugged and handed them to a manservant. “Well, if you insist, my dear fellow, but I do hope she stops writing soon.”
Chapter 9: EPILOGUE 2-A YEAR LATER
“Sir, you have another letter from that woman at the Opera House. Actually, you have quite a few here, sir.” The monstrous figure dropped the letters at Cabanela’s feet, then stepped back to his place at the apparatus he normally operated at Cabanela’s command.
“Thiiiiis is a waste of my time,” sighed the jester. “Remind me to blast that place off the map later, maaan.” He smiled a cold, cruel smile. “Light of Judgment. Nothing like it.”
Props smiled as the new, young owner of the Opera House said, “Raise a glass, everyone! A toast to our Propmistress and may she have a long and happy retirement!”
At the party, Props mingled, saying goodbye to all the crew and musicians she’d worked with for so long. The new owner came to speak privately to her as she began to prepare to leave.
“Excuse me, but I have a gift for you,” the owner said, handing her a small wrapped package. “The new Queen of Figaro delivered it just this morning, with her parents’ compliments.” She leaned in, “Just between you and me, she repaired it herself, and she also made an enormous donation. Said it was repayment for an old debt?”
Props opened the package to reveal a pocket watch, neatly repaired and engraved,
“Thank you for waiting.
With my compliments,
Cabanela, Knight of Figaro.”
And that's a wrap! I hope you enjoyed this soap opera (or at least, it will be a soap opera once Lynne gets hold of Missile). Thanks for reading!