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The stage door at the opera house was really quite shockingly undermanned, Olivier thought as he stared down the lock. No guards, but still… how to do this quietly, was the question. He could shoot off the lock, but that would leave damage he would feel obligated to pay for. Likewise, using arts. That would likely not only damage the lock, but the entire door. He would be the first to admit that brute strength was not his forte either. He spared a thought to be grateful Mueller wasn’t here. His brute strength would be useful—Olivier vented a wistful sigh at the thought of those muscles—but he would certainly not approve of this particular branch of their field study.

“Here, baby, leeet me take a crack at it,” his companion said in a hoarse whisper. Olivert had met the lanky boy in the back alleys of Alto Street. He’d been wandering around, doing his level best to not look like a tourist; Olivert, an expert at standing out everywhere where he should be inconspicuous, instantly made him for one anyway. When he’d offered his services as a tour guide, rather than the offended rebuff he’d half expected, the boy had eagerly asked for directions and been effusively grateful for Olivert’s help. He couldn’t help but be charmed. They’d struck up an easy friendship; Olivert had gleefully taken the chance to slip away from his classmates and become Olivier again for the first time in what seemed forever. Dear Mueller would fume, of course, but that was for another hour.

It had been a delightful afternoon at the Café Etoile, happily annoying old man Heming as they whiled away the hours with too much coffee and their life stories, such as they were. Olivier had somewhat abbreviated his—he was sure his new friend had done the same. Highlanders were so rare in the Empire; he was sure there was more to Cabanela’s story than just being seized with an urge to wander, but it was certainly a good excuse to go wherever he wanted. Olivier had filed it away. He might someday have use for the same idea.

The idea to go explore the opera house had come from over-caffeinated buzz, their mutual love of music, and a half-articulated, wistful comment from Cabanela that it would be amazing to perform on a stage for hundreds of people, rather than in a deserted part of the highlands for an audience of no one but his horse and the black kites or worse, for a bunch of people that didn’t appreciate his genius in their time. Olivier had perked up immediately. He knew that feeling of wanting an audience. From there, the idea of sneaking into the opera house, even though it was closed for the day, had been a natural leap. And so, here they were, staring down this blasted lock.

For now, he moved away, letting his new friend get to it, and watched over his shoulder as the boy deftly twisted and turned a nail he’d found on the street into the lock’s innards, his long and graceful fingers seeming to dance over the simple mechanism. The lock obligingly twisted apart, like magic, and the backstages of the Heimdallr Opera House lay open before them. Olivier made up his mind to learn that particular skill at the first opportunity.

“Are you suuure you’re OK with this, baby?” Cabanela rolled an eye toward Olivier, who grinned back, perfectly at ease as they padded through the dark towards, presumably, a stage somewhere in the maze.

“Of course I am! And if, while we find ourselves in this haven of music, we also find ourselves victims of passion…?” Olivier fluttered his eyelashes at Cabanela, who only laughed and bumped him with a comradely shoulder.

“Quiiite the temptation, baby, but I think you’ve got someone else on your mind and I’m not one for second choices.”

Olivier blinked, a little taken aback. He supposed he shouldn’t have been surprised to have been read as easily as Cabanela seemed to—he made a mental note not to underestimate his perception again--but it was rare, in his experience, to find someone who saw past his playfulness quite so easily.

“My, my, I’m sure I have no idea to whom you may be referring. I, of course, can only see the paragon of loveliness before me and the memory of all others fades before you, dear Cabanela. But am I to assume that you have someone on your mind?” Olivier cut his eyes to see how that registered. Cabanela swiveled away, ending with a sassy hip bump and a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“Oh, it’s possible, baby. Dooon’t suppose you’ve seen him around? Big man, junior bracer, aaabsolutely ridiculous amount of hair and resolutely unfashionable?”

Olivier shook his head. “I only know one junior bracer in active duty around Heimdallr right now, and although she is a truly lovely and noble lady, as fair to look upon as she is to speak to, she sounds as though she is not the one you seek. But, from what I understand, junior bracers are constantly on the move. Perhaps he’ll come into town soon?”

“Maaaybe.” Cabanela shrugged as if it wasn’t important, but even his feigned smile drooped, just a bit, before he gathered himself in again and dashed onward into the darkness, Olivier in hot pursuit.

“Ah! Here we are at last!” Olivier seized upon the stairs up to the stage with some relief; the backstage areas were so large and complicated he was beginning to worry they had gone the wrong way. “Come, and we shall show the world the truth of love and beauty through our joined song!” He swung up the steps. “Though we may only perform for each other on this abandoned stage, we will shine through the darkness of this too-mundane stage and into the world beyond!”

Cabanela bounded up behind him, taking the stairs two or even three at a time on his long legs. “Souuunds like a good time, baby, and I’m certainly not complainin’ about it bein’ closed when I wasn’t expectin’ to get in here at all!”

As they barreled onto the darkened stage from the wings, Cabanela came to a stop in the center and whistled, the sound spiraling away from him and into the dark. “Now this is a place to taaake the world by storm. Don’t suppose you know how to get the lights workin’?”

Olivier smile. “Now that, my friend, is the clever part. Heimdallr Opera House is fitted with the finest orbal stage- and spotlights from the Reinhardt factories. All we have to do…” he walked over to a panel in the wall, which had been hidden by a curtain, “…is ever-so-gently press one of these buttons.” With a flashy gesture, he pushed it, the darkened stage and spotlights warming gently to brilliance, illuminating Cabanela’s upturned face.

Laughing, Cabanela twirled from one side of the vast stage to the other, coming to a stop in the center after a perfectly executed leaping twirl and bowing to the empty chairs with a deep flourish. He rose and extended a hand to Olivier. “Caaare to dance, my prince?”

Olivert blinked placidly, hiding his senses gone to full alert. His hand drifted, as if casually, to hover over the holster where he kept his gun. “No prince am I, my dear Cabanela, merely a seeker of love and beauty such as yourself.” Had he made a mistake? Let down his guard too soon? Cabanela was disarming, charismatic, and handsome; of course a person with so many similarities to Olivier himself was hiding secrets. Was one of them the fact that he was some tool of the Emperor’s many enemies? “The only thing I shall ever rule is my lute, and perhaps if I am lucky, some delightful person’s heart.”

“Ah, and heeere I thought you fancied yourself the charming prince, baby, come to sweep me off my feet at last. Well, anyhoot, play your song at least!” Cabanela batted his own lashes at Olivier in mocking merriment. Olivier laughed and let his hand continue to his lute case, so he could swing it around and tune it. He couldn’t relax, just yet, but where the music led he would follow for now.

“Ahh, but if I could become the prince of your heart with my song, oh, let me take my crown….” He teased as he finished tuning to his satisfaction and, of their own accord, his fingers began to strum his old favorite. It was a song he’d seen performed once when he was very young and that he’d listened to on the old record player at his mother’s until she’d threatened to take the record away.

“Brightly shooting stars, leaving trails in the skies
Like a guiding light, they show me the way to your eyes…”

Cabanela listened for a moment, then stepped smoothly into the dance, throwing himself into the movement, energy radiating from every tiny gesture until the whole stage seemed to shine with the light of a thousand suns, not one mere orbal spotlight array. For a moment, Olivier thought he even heard his mother, humming along somewhere in the far past, but realized with a thrill that it was Cabanela himself, having picked up enough of the tune to hum along in harmony. Olivier let himself be taken by the music and the shared trust that, here at least, he and his new friend were joined by one heartbeat and one voice in this moment of transcendence.

The song came to its end, Cabanela taking a final step and sinking to a knee, Olivier strumming the last notes and letting the music resonate into silence. Both were, just a little, breathless, and sat panting for an instant before the moment was broken by clapping from the darkened audience.

“Olivert, that was… truly lovely!” A young woman stepped out of the gloom and into the light, climbing the stairs to the stage and coming to a stop next to Cabanela. The large sword slung across her back caught the light, making her face look all the more delicate next to its size. “I don’t know your friend, but I could certainly watch you both all day!” She offered a hand up to Cabanela where he still knelt, looking as though stricken up at her. He took it and scrambled to his feet, all the grace he’d shown before now absent as he stared at her slightly open-mouthed. He stood, awkward as a newborn colt, and still held her hand as though he needed it for support. Olivier gave him a concerned look and turned to her, fielding the conversation.

“Lady Alma, I certainly was not expecting to be graced by your noble presence as our audience. Did we win your heart, fair lady?”

“Well, you certainly won my attention, I can say that.” Alma turned to Cabanela, smiling gently as she began to draw back her hand. “And you, sir? I know Olivert, of course. But I believe you’re new to the city?”

Cabanela shook himself back from whatever abstracted dazzlement he had been beset by and turned himself to dazzling her instead. He gave her his most elegant bow, kissing her hand in a very passable imitation, Olivert noticed, of court etiquette. Clearly, he’d been observant in his time in Heimdallr. “Cabanela, baby, from the Nord Highlands. Yooou must be the junior bracer Olivier mentioned earlier. Such a shaaame we hadn’t met before.”

“Olivier?” Alma shot Olivert a curious look. “Yes… he and I have known each other for a few years now…”

Olivert winked at her. “And marvelous years they have been, only marred by your resolute and manifest inability to see my charms and let me delicately swoon into your strong arms.”

She gave him a flat stare. “I think there’s someone else waiting to carry you away at the moment—I’d have to get into line.”

“Ah, but wait, is that true?” Olivert perked up. “Are they here now? Ah, is it an adoring fan, here to bask in our glory?”

Cabanela struck a pose, letting the spotlight bathe him in radiance, and Olivier joined him. They shot identical beaming smiles at Alma, the light sparkling off blond hair and white coat. Absently, she put a hand to her eyes as if blinded but shot them a smile in return.

“Aidios, there’s two of them,” The sardonic voice rumbled through the seating area, and Mueller strolled down from on high, followed by a larger man that Olivier didn’t recognize.

“If it isn’t my old friend from the Highlands,” the larger man said, smirking at Cabanela. “Looks like you’re getting yourself into a higher class of trouble these days than a bunch of mercenaries trying to push you around. A royal pain, you could say.”

“Jowd!” Alma said, turning to him and beckoning him onto the stage, the ring on her finger winking in the light, “You could have stayed outside. I had it handled. And for goodness’ sake don’t tease the poor man, he’s in enough trouble already just by falling in with Olivert.”

He joined her and slung a casual arm around her shoulders. He was so tall he eclipsed the lights; they backlit and silhouetted the couple like a halo. Cabanela stared at them, his mouth slightly parted. Olivier could see why. Even he could admit they were splendid together.

“Lady Alma, you’ve been holding out on us all. I wasn’t aware such a fine figure of a bracer had joined us in Heimdallr?” Olivier looked him up and down and let the light blush he had learned to summon on command tint his cheeks. “Perhaps you might let me borrow him for a night of wine and bliss?”

She laughed at him and turned to Jowd. “What do you say to that?”

Jowd threw back his head and laughed too. “I say he buys us both dinner and I might consider it a deal!”

She smacked him playfully. “Jowd, please.”

“Well, Alma, don’t ask questions you know you won’t like the answer to.”

“Olivert, please do not try to steal my fiancée when I just got him assigned to Heimdallr.”

Mueller broke in to the banter. “Don’t encourage him, please. Olivert, we’re going back. The instructor is waiting for us.”

“Oh, but Mueller, the night is still so young and so are we, my love! Shall we not savor it with our new friends?” Olivier turned to Cabanela. “What do you say, dear Cabanela? Shall we not celebrate their engagement with toasts and song?”

It was Cabanela’s turn to blink and regather himself. “A beauuutiful couple deserves a party, baby! And if you’re buyin’—”

“Ah—” Alma gave him a regretful look. “I’m truly sorry, but we’re going to have to take you to the Bracer Guild. Breaking into a private business carries a penalty, I’m afraid.”

“Easily dealt with! Let us go there forthwith!” Olivier began to lead the way, confident that if he could stall a little longer, he could escape Mueller again, but Jowd’s heavy hand landed on his back and pushed him back into Mueller’s stalwart chest.

“No, you’re free to go.” Jowd didn’t look happy about saying it, but he met Olivert’s and Mueller’s eyes with resignation. “It’s been made clear we Bracers don’t have the authority to hold you.”

Mueller sighed. “Honestly, it would be better for this idiot to sit overnight and cool his heels, but I have to obey my orders.”

“Wait!” Olivert twisted around, ignoring Mueller’s warning grip on his arm. “Are you saying you are going to arrest Cabanela?”

“I’m afraid so.” Alma nodded unhappily. “Breaking and entering, kidnapping royalty—as a commoner, and a foreigner no less, he gets the full book thrown at him.”

“Royalty? Hey now, man, we were juuust joking about Olivier being Prince Charming,” Cabanela interrupted.

Jowd gave him a flat stare. “Olivier?” he jabbed a thumb over his shoulder at the stricken blond. “This is Olivert Reise Arnor. I’m sure he’s a prince of a fellow, but he’s also the Emperor’s oldest son.”

Cabanela whirled. “That true, baby?”

Olivert chuckled, a little bitterly. “So they say. I’m still not—used to it, if you want to know the truth.”

Cabanela gave him an oddly compassionate look. “Pretending to be someone you’re not is haaard work, baby. Better to just be who you always were and let the world change to suit you, I say.” He turned to Jowd and Alma. “In the meantime, guess I’m aaall yours. Take me away and throw away the key or whatever you Bracers do.” He put out his hands, palms up, to show that he wouldn’t fight.

“Mueller?” Olivert spoke carefully. “A word?”

He drew his old friend and bodyguard aside. “You know he didn’t mean any harm, love. We were just having a good day. Can’t you let him go?”

Mueller glared at him. “Maybe you should think a little more before drawing innocents into your little games, my prince. Of course no one’s going to pin blame on you when there’s a scapegoat right there to take the fall.”

Olivert nodded slowly. “But Bracers are supposed to be impartial, aren’t they?”

Mueller looked away. “Perhaps in other countries, they can be. But here… you’ve put them in an impossible situation. By forcing me to get the Guild involved to find you, they’ll have to charge the Imperial family for their services. The Chancellor will want answers where the money’s going. Mira doesn’t come from nowhere, Olivert.”

“Yes, dear Mueller, I think I know that better than most.” Olivert thought for a moment. “But… they didn’t find Olivert Reise Arnor, did they?” He grinned, pure mischief sparking in his eyes.

“What?” Mueller stared at him.

”Bracers! Contrary to the sparkling prince whom you may believe you have captured, I am not the one you seek! I am the wandering minstrel Olivier Lenheim, and I shall stand with my brave and, dare I say, most congenial and charming compatriot from Nord.” Olivier cried, turning back to the Bracers, who had just finished securing Cabanela. He strummed a chord on his lute, and strolled over to stand with them, and linked arms with his new friend. “Have no fears! I’m sure the prince, when he hears about this, will pardon two such like sojourners of love. But if he shall not, I’m sure his retainer, the lifelong companion of his heart and mind, would be so kind as to pay your fee.”

The Bracers’ eyes were bright with appreciation; Mueller’s were flat with irritation. Cabanela’s shoulders were shaking, although his face was turned away. Olivier couldn’t tell if it was laughter or something darker, but he was committed now.

“And so, take us away to the cells where we two shall pass a pleasant evening of music and song for your enjoyment.” He couldn’t reach his lute strings with their arms linked, but he waved it joyfully at them.

Alma shook her head. “Quite the choice we’re offered... Cabanela… it was Cabanela, right? How do you feel about this? We’ll let you two have a moment to decide.”

Cabanela locked eyes with Olivier. “It’s a niiice thing you’re doin’ for me, baby, but you’re an important life to the nation and I’m just a wandering hick from the sticks.”

“Perish the thought,” Olivier said warmly. “Now you’re the one hiding who you are. Let us change the world together, you and I.” He moved closer and dropped his voice to a murmur. “Is this Jowd the one you sought? He matches the description.”

Cabanela nodded. “He and your friend Alma are maaagnificent together, aren’t they? Two stunning people and I’m tooo late.” He nodded his head at Mueller. “I’d say you’ve found that crown, though.”

Olivier chuckled, a little wistfully. “Appearances can be deceiving, dear Cabanela. He plays the good straight man, that’s all. He’s my retainer and my good friend.”

Cabanela shook his head. “If you can’t see it then there’s no helping you…prince. You shooouldn’t let some sort of social stigma hold you back.”

He turned to the others. “Anyhoot, this discussion is done. It’s a niiice gesture, but I’ll take what I’ve earned, and go on my way out of the city when I’ve served myyy time.”

Alma stared at him for a moment, then whispered to Jowd, who chuckled and squeezed her tight, then turned to the others. “Alma has a solution. Cabanela, have you got anywhere to go? A plan?”

“I’m new in Erebonia, baby. Yooou know what I was running from.”

“Why don’t you take the exam to become a junior bracer? Alma has offered to sponsor you.”

“Wh—” Cabanela, never at a loss for words, sputtered. “Why would you do that?”

Alma beamed at him with admiration. “The way you moved on stage? I think you’ll handle yourself just fine when it comes to learning to fight. I bet you’ve picked up some things already. And you already showed that you want to do the right thing. We’re impressed. You could probably even take dancing lessons and audition for the dance troupe here if you wanted to keep the Bracer thing part-time.”

Olivier said, “And what of our current predicament?”

Alma turned to Mueller. “You’re the prince’s bodyguard. You take this… wandering minstrel… and present him to the prince, see if he’ll pardon him and pay our fee for the time.”

Mueller nodded, a rare smile blooming on his face. “Very good. Come…Olivier.”

He took Olivier by the arm; Olivier began to struggle. “But… our party! Wine, women, and song! My love, how can you be so cruel as to keep me from—”

“Oh, for the love of Aidios…” Grumbling, Mueller grabbed Olivier by the collar and stomped up the steps out of the opera house, dragging Olivier behind him. Olivier stared back the trio on stage, still lit by the spotlights.

“Cabanela! We’ll meet again!”

“Cooount on it, baby!” He turned to walk away, raising a hand in a careless wave as Alma and Jowd fell into step with him. As Mueller dragged Olivier into the darkening twilight and back to his duties, Jowd, Alma, and Cabanela headed for the backstage areas and out the back door, leaving the lights to burn.