"I am at a loss, chéri. Have we grown so far apart?”
Avox shivered and caught his breath.
"It was a bold move to ask your belle bichette to kill me, but so, so impersonal," Imago sighed. He drifted in. “I thought you truly loved me.”
Avox listened as the monstrosity came closer, a soft, terrible sound of sliding silk. Cold fingers lifted his chin and brushed over his lips. The ragged wound across his throat whistled as his breath escaped through it. "Did you think she could save you? Why must the young have such follies? All you want is a pretty face, and that dear boy wants a happy ending for his little opera. What a pity I didn’t give you to him instead."
Avox felt himself being lifted into the air like a limp doll. Wild, panicked thoughts ran through his mind and he tried to struggle, to raise his arms, but they only twitched. He fell into a soft, rotting chair, gasping as his head fell forward and his wound’s edges pressed together. His blindfold loosened and slipped into his lap as a cold hand brushed his cheek.
"You’ve hurt me, Avox. But I forgive you," Imago said.
Avox shuddered and willed his body to move as the hand approached his eyes, screaming silently, mouthing the words no no no no over and over again-- and then he could see, as burning light filled his skull. He was seeing and couldn't stop. Imago’s mask-like face was inches from his, its calm smile blankly mocking him-- and then he saw the theatre, its stage illuminated for the first time in centuries as crowds gathered for a performance, possibly the first ever in Il Maledicta's existence. He saw Lavi for the first time, ragged and beautiful-- it had to be her, he somehow knew-- trapped behind the curtain and rehearsing lines and soliloquies that weren't her own.
"I'm afraid I can't attend to you any longer, chéri. I could never resist an opening night. Behave yourself, my darling. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts."
Avox saw a theatre that was going to burn.
Carlie tossed her script aside, taking another break from the joke of a rehearsal. A confused mix of antiquated English and off-key singing floated in from further backstage and out of the connected side stages. On the other side of the theatre's curtain, Chad was halfway through Act One and either seducing the Princess of Trinacria or singing a musical number about himself. It was difficult to tell the two apart, and a half-hearted attempt at leafing through her notes left her as clueless as she'd been an hour ago.
"This is horseshit," Carlie said bitterly to no one.
"And thou who foremost art, wouldst thou call upon meadow-columbines and fennel-fields? Speak, for rosemary wither'd all and remembrance came."
Carlie stared at the angel now next to her, not even sure where to begin. She grabbed her copy of the script, flipped to a page she had dog-eared earlier, and scanned for something in incomprehensible Shakespearean. "Yeah, uh," she started, pausing, "I have literally no idea what any of that was."
The angel's eyes slid hazily around. She didn't offer any response.
"Okay, screw this." Carlie said, oblivious to the angel's consternation. She slammed the script shut and flung the textbook-sized volume to the floor. Breaking script was probably a massive social blunder, but she was past caring about Il Maledicta's inane social conventions. "Can you just like, talk normally for a bit? I am really tired of all this--" She waved her hand, gesturing at the backstage area. "--all of this, okay?"
The angel took a shaky step back. She opened her mouth hesitantly, as though trying to speak, but nothing came out except panicky gasps. Her eyes widened and she looked desperately at Carlie.
"Um, okay. Let's start with the basics," Carlie said, folding her arms and tapping one finger repeatedly against her sleeve. "Do you have... a name?"
The angel looked down nervously. "I-I a-am but the third of three, a humble messenger-"
Carlie interrupted with a groan, tired of listening to enough butchered Shakespearean to give her flashbacks to high school. It was obvious that there was something-- something weirdabout the angel, considering Chad had somehow singled her out of a huge crowd. Carlie had no idea what, though, considering the angel looked just like she did, uncomfortable white robes and fake feathered wings and all.
She was about to give up entirely when the angel whimpered and raised her gown, exposing a reddened pinprick on her ribs.
"Holy shit," Carlie finally said. She started towards the angel, then paused. She wasn’t a stranger to drugs, but she’d avoided anything that came out of a needle. Carlie glanced around, suddenly wary of Chad’s return. She wanted to believe that his talk of impossible mind-control drugs was just made up to intimidate her, but here she was, talking to someone who proved his threat.
"He-- he fucking drugged you. Holy shit."
The angel nodded, blinking back tears.
"Christ, okay. But you can still understand me?"
She nodded again, more hesitantly this time as she wiped her eyes on her oversized sleeve.
"Right, okay. Okay. Calm down, Carlie." Carlie said, ignoring the confused look the angel gave her as paced across the battered floor. She hoped that she came off as being in control, but was painfully aware of how panicked she was. "Okay, we need to get out of here-- stop it,” Carlie began, interrupted as the angel shot a look at her. "Look, I know that you’ve got whatever’s going on, and that you probably can't, like, actually escape. But we’re getting out of here. That douchebag is insane."
The angel moaned. "Doth the holy attendant descend, her curled locks lour'd, her hair about her ears?" She recited, trying to push as much frustration as she could into the forced language. "Doth she taste the mandragora, so that she may live sweet dreams and savor merry delusions?"
"Yeah, uh, I'm just going to assume that means you're upset." Carlie replied. She folded her arms. This wasn’t getting her any further than playing along. At some point they'd be called on-stage and she'd have to improvise and then everything would fall to pieces.
Fake feathers rustled as the angel moved. She bent over to pick up Carlie's script, almost toppling a nearby collection of props in the process with her wing. "Would you fear not to call upon calamity, woe, the sorrow of men," She said, unceremoniously dropping the open tome into Carlie's hands. "Would you let catastrophe raze this consecrated soil?"
Carlie raised an eyebrow. "You think that will help us?"
The angel shrugged. Her wings shed ancient chicken feathers onto the floor.
"Yeah, okay, fair enough," Carlie said, flipping through the pages. The dialogue was as dense as before, but there might be something in the stage directions. There might be something that could work as a distraction-- she'd run and drag the other angel along with, then find somewhere to hide until everything calmed down. Carlie licked her thumb as she skimmed Act One, then Act Two, and with growing desperation Act Three. Something caught her eye and she paused, inspecting the tortuous prose more carefully.
The script landed with a heavy thud as Carlie lost her grip.
"He's going to kill us in the third act," she finally said.
On cue, an actor in a stablehand's costume came backstage from the other side of the curtain. He blinked, frowned, then cleared his throat as he addressed the two. "You're, um, you're both wanted on stage."
The room Sam was in bore the marks of decades of conspiracy. There were battered tables and upholstery from its time as a speakeasy, and baroque ornamentation from when it had served as some nobleman's parlor. Sam could smell the sickly-sweet aroma from when it had been an opium den, and more faintly the scent of loveless sex and cheap cigarettes from when it was the back room of a seedy brothel. While an argument unfolded amongst the gathered followers of the Second Angel, she leaned against a wall and idly listened.
"The play has already started.”
Sam recognized the hushed voice as one of the Italians-- Antonio, who had been the first pledge his allegiance. He continued to speak, and she inattentively listened, picking up bits and pieces that slipped through her conflicting thoughts. She was trying to reconcile the opera now performing, that she now had followers and was considered an angel, and at the back of her mind the thought that there somewhere in the theatre Imago Dei was waiting.
"Of course we have to do something," Antonio said, responding to some comment Sam didn't hear. "But what?"
While the conspirators argued, Sam thought about Lavi, feeling the weight of the folded robe held underneath her arm. Her one-time companion was just as trapped as she was-- she was also an Angel, as appointed by the masses of Il Maledicta. Sam's thumb brushed against the wool's frayed, dirty edges, feeling the memories buried between the woven fibers. Recollections of bitter winter came to her mind, which unexpectedly gave way to the warmth of their momentary embrace, their lips briefly touching as Lavi leaned in--
"No, we can't just interrupt the opera. That grandissima testa di cazzo--" Antonio punctuated the insult by spitting on the floor, "--has an entire armata behind him, and we have what? A dozen among us? We would not even make it to the stage."
--and just as quickly Sam was brought out of her reverie, that fleeting instant of comfort lost.
"Ah, my apologies, angelica ragazza." The bodyguard had noticed her half-stumble. "I should have known better than to use such strong language."
"It's-- it's fine. I'm fine," Sam replied, thinking over how to respond to someone who just stopped short of worshiping the ground she walked on. "Just pretend I'm not here. Keep talking."
"If that is your wish, angelica benedetta," Antonio said.
Sam continued on, plucking at the robe. The soft cadence of the Italians’ muttering soon faded into the background of Il Maledicta’s constant noise: distant hammering, the rattle and creak of ancient wood, bit players going over their paltry lines. She was getting too used to this place. Even its coat of choking dust was starting to look familiar. A flicker of-- not color, but its absence, stark in the painted falseness of Il Maledicta-- at the edge of her vision caught her eye. She turned just as a hidden door whispered shut in the wall.
"What is that?" Sam demanded. The Italians turned, instantly silenced by her voice.
"What was what, angelica?" Antonio ventured.
She pointed to where the door had opened. Only the faintest lines in the dust were visible. “You all saw that.”
A few of the conspirators exchanged glances. "...Saw what, belle ragazza?"
Their faces were blank. The instincts the Entente had drilled into her-- the memories of counter-espionage training, of cold nights in a spartan bunk, of how to kill undetected-- were coming back from the buried-away recesses of her mind. Sam had practiced with the best liars, and these actors were some of the worst. "Cut the shit," she snapped, startling them. She banged her fist on the wall, dislodging a plume of dust. "The door."
Antonio swept her aside, trading worried glances with his co-conspirators. “Angelica, please. We can’t… speak of these things. The macchinista di scena--"
Sam shoved him away, prompting a theatrical gasp. She strode to the door and wedged her fingers in the crack, ignoring the filth packing underneath her fingernails as she flung it open.
A pale face, made even whiter by a cowl of black fabric, stared back at her from a dimly-lit tunnel. For a moment the shapeshifter and the figure were frozen before Sam lashed out and grabbed them by the wrist, her combat training kicking in as the figure struggled to escape.
"Angelica!" Antonio cried, a note of panic she’d never heard before coloring his voice. His unease only strengthened her resolve and she pulled the cowled-- man? woman? Sam couldn’t tell, their body was thin and starved-- into the lamplight. They flinched as though the dim lamps were burning them and wordlessly scrambled for the open door, now painfully visible and out of place.
"I’m sick of this," Sam snapped, twisting the figure’s wrist nearly to its breaking point. They let out a squeak and struggled as Sam pulled them into a combat hold, slamming them against the wall in a cloud of dust and flaking wallpaper. Antonio and his comrades were speechless, some checking their pockets nervously for a script to guide them through this terrible faux pas. Sam plied the pressure, digging her knee into a soft spot-- enhanced interrogation techniques, the Entente had called it, a necessary skill for all espionage operatives. She grimaced and buried those memories.
"I need straight answers. What the hell are you?"
"A-a-a stagehand!" Her victim rasped, voice hoarse from years of disuse. "Please! I have work to--"
"Work? You’ve got work? Let me guess, you have to go pull a curtain somewhere?"
"Angelica, please!" Antonio desperately interrupted.
"Wood," the stagehand whispered miserably, now only struggling feebly. “For the fire.”
Sam's grip loosened and they dove for the sudden opening under her arm. Her training kicked in and without thinking she hauled them back by the collar, unsettling the stagehand’s cowl as blond, ash-stained hair poured out of their hood. "Fire?" Sam prompted.
Tears shone in the stagehand’s eyes. "The final act! The pyre they're burned at! The angels, the real angels!"
"E 'impossibile! That's not how it happens in the play, the real play--"
"There is no real play! There never was!"
The conspirators turned to one another, breaking the awkward, untheatrical silence with hushed whispers.
"Don't you get it? It doesn't matter which performance is real. All that matters is that it's performed," the stagehand continued.
Sam's grip eased as they broke into thick sobs-- they immediately took the opportunity to dart away, slamming the hidden door closed behind them. She turned, surveying the stunned conspirators. "I need you to tell me,” she said slowly and quietly, her unease returning as the rush of adrenaline passed, "What you're going to do to stop this."
The main stage of Il Maledicta was the size of several mansions strung together, a convoluted mass of balconies and sub-platforms stacked like drunken plates, decades of repairs giving them slants and partitions that made the stage appear from the front like a madman’s dollhouse. The bastardized construction had had to be hastily excavated from the markets and brothels that had grown up around it, trinkets and lace-things still draped across obscure corners. Bats flitted through the highest reaches of the stage’s minarets, between flickering lamps that cast half the stage into blinding light and the other into murky shadow as actors darted and clambered from platform to platform.
The Third Angel-- my name is Lavi Lannon, she thought, desperately trying to resist the seeping identity being forced into her-- saw the ramshackle construction for what it truly was-- a palatial estate richer than anything she could dream of, a place where dignitaries and emissaries met and changed history, a place where a choir of angels graced the world below with their miracles. Her vision became cloudy when she tried to look outside of the stage, but the she knew she was being watched. She could feel their eyes weighing down on her.
This was where she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.
"Psst," one of the other actors said, cutting through the tense silence. "Your line?"
The First Angel looked down at the wrinkled piece of paper pasted to the hollow tome clamped in her hands. She licked her lips. "Um. By my faith, fair maid! Dost--" she squinted at the paper. "Dost thou forsaketh thine gold-damask'd heart, when villains try thine devoted virtue? Will thou permit, uh…"
A sweaty smudge had erased most of the next line.
"Will, um. Will thou permit them to, uh, take… away… all your stuff? Like… that you need?"
The plastered smiles of the actors’ faces were growing more strained by the second. Sweat left dark tracks through their ashen makeup as they tried to cover for the First Angel's repeated blunders, hastily skipping through the scene. For a moment, it seemed that the play would fall apart right then.
"Peace, gathered folk, for thine fire-new stamp of honor is scarce current. Let thine irons cool, and thine mettle be tempered," the Prince interrupted, striding out from the thick darkness of the stage's shadow. In an instant, the performance was back on track.
"Truly, come hither has the pearl that pleased man's eye, the base fruit of his burning lust," he added, maliciously smiling at his captive angel as he moved to the center of the stage.
The Third Angel wished she could scowl-- or do anything besides play her part and forcefully recite her lines. "Truly, 'tis thus," she said, her tone far more benign than she wanted.
"O, what fortune we are bless'd with, to be graced by this heavenly choir," the Prince said. "Such holy attendants, mark'd by wings of feathered glory, have descended down to grace us, for not but thine own majesty to prove." With a flourish, he gestured to the First Angel, prompting a flurry of motion as actors repositioned around her.
A limp woman's corpse waited at the base of the pedestal the First Angel stood upon. The First Angel could tell she had died recently. The wound on her breast was still fresh, and blood seeped through her dress. Had he done this? she thought, looking at the smiling, contented Prince. He must have.
"For not but thine own majesty to prove," he repeated. An array of spotlights focused on the First Angel, casting deep, dramatic shadows that flickered with every anxious twitch.
The First Angel swallowed noisily as a second passed, and then another. Slowly she raised her hands and willed the dead woman back to life.
A fly landed on the corpse’s lip, and then took off. Nothing happened.
"Shit, shit, shit," she said under her breath, striking a more dramatic pose. She squeezed her eyes shut and waved her hands again.
The fly landed on the Angel's forehead. She almost vomited.
“For not but thine own majesty to prove!" The Prince repeated, more loudly. The audience were leaning forward in their seats eagerly, those furthest back standing on each others’ shoulders and hanging from fixtures. The First Angel felt their gaze crawling over her like an ocean of ants, painfully aware of the corpse’s stubborn lifelessness.
Trembling, the Third Angel raised her arms. Sparks of ethereal light, almost invisible under the glare of the spotlight, danced at her fingertips.
High, high above the stage in his palatial seat, Imago Dei watched the play with detached interest. A chipped and filthy wineglass spun slowly between his pale fingers as he reclined in the rotten skeleton of a dead king’s throne. His other hand traced slow circles on the balcony lip.
"Marvelous,” he said softly. "A feast, after all these years of waiting."
Distant screams filtered through the dust-clogged air. Imago examined his glass.
"Perhaps I shall reward them," he mused, his mask-like face smiling blankly. "I hadn’t expected such a dedicated performance. Truly a delight."
The mask’s single eye gazed sightlessly out over the audience to the mere smudge of light that marked the stage. Tiny figures danced back and forth like fleas over a flame.
"Don’t disappoint me now, my darlings."
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