They managed to make it to Varash Square just in time to see the tail end of the parade. Even having started several weeks ago, thick crowds still clogged the streets, vying for a chance to watch the theatrics. It hadn’t occurred to Raulin before that point why exactly they walked on stilts, but he nodded his head in appreciation then.
“We missed them. Can we go?” Al asked.
“No, Wizard! We came for the show. So long as they’re not sold out, we’ll be enjoying our evening here, taking in the theater.”
He grumbled something about Kiesh the Black facing Montrime Verald in an epic battle, but followed the group to the tent. It was set in the middle of Varash Square, a rectangular mall that provided a nice vista for all the business people working in the surrounding buildings. The tent, black with gold and red stripes, somehow fit between the scattered oaks and flowering trees that dotted the dried grass.
Raulin paid for four tickets, not cheap at almost four gold. They shuffled past the crowd lingering at the doorway and took four seats in the back so that Telbarisk wouldn’t block anyone’s view. Hard, wooden benches lined the center with no priority seating; nobles mixed with commoners, or else they paid for the private audiences at night.
Quiet music set a mysterious and natural feel as people settled down. The dull roar of the chatter from the audience almost sounded like a waterfall or crashing thunder when juxtaposed against the orchestra that lined the walls of the tent. A string player near the group plucked on an instrument that sounded almost like frogs in a murky pond. Tucked in the corner, a flutist breathed into a wooden pipe, her music the sound of wind through trees.
Heavy drums on either side of the stage started softly, arithmetically, almost cacophonously. Raulin craned his neck to watch the stage as the drums organized themselves, thudding in synchronicity, thumping, booming, then rapidly beating until the lights from the torches were extinguished and silence reigned.
Raulin had to appreciate the craftsmanship of the tent; the seems were so tight that it would have been hard for him to see his hand in front of his face had he not been wearing his mask. There was some nervous laughter and talk for a few moments, until the lights were lit on the stage by petite women dressed as fairies in rags, more akin to moths than butterflies. They scurried in small steps, stopping only to dance around the lanterns until their breaths brought forth the light. Some even hung from twisted perches to light their lanterns. The orchestra cued soft, curious music bringing in a lighter ambiance as the women scurried behind the stage, a multilevel piece that took up the entire width of the tent.
The limelights on the rigging behind them, already hot, were swiveled forward and pivoted in circles and curves, as if looking for someone. And their quarry arrived after a few moments, smoke still clinging to his outstretched arms as he laughed with sinister intent. He was draped in shimmering black from head to toe, his head adorned with a full headdress of black feathers. “My world! My life! My universe!” he proclaimed, his booming voice carrying all the way to the back.
“That’s Kazi,” Raulin whispered to Anla.
“He’s Kanese?” she asked.
“So he says.”
“All is mine!” Kazi boomed again.
“Not so!” a man said, entering from stage left, dressed in the same fashion as Kazithu, but in a glittering white. He ran up a ramp, jumped, and vaulted into the air, flipping twice before landing not too far from his dark twin. The audience responded with hushed awe.
“Brother,” Kazi acknowledged. “I thought you had left for someplace else.”
“Never for long,” the other man said. “What was this you were saying about owning everything?”
Kazithu posed with his legs apart and his arms folded. “As Darkness, I am the most powerful being in the universe, and therefore stake my claim to everything.”
“Hold, brother. While it is true you are the most powerful force there is, it is not fair to say that you should own everything.”
“And why not? I can take whatever I wish.”
“Again, true, but there are some things you cannot take.”
The two faced each other and moved up a ramp farther from the audience as the lights followed them. “Tell me then, brother, what are these things that I cannot take?”
“The things that lurk deeper and darker than you can ever go. In the hearts of men are bright, beautiful things, Darkness. Hope, love, and peace. Those you can never touch.”
Kazithu flared his cape to expose his arms. “I have only but to try! I can taint anything, draw it down, blot out any light. I can destroy you with a thought, Light; tell me why can’t I take those things?”
“Because they are stronger than you.”
Kazi scoffed. “Stronger than the most powerful being in existence? I tire of your boasting. I offer a bet: If you can best me three times and show me I am wrong, I will never interfere with humans again. However, if I can best you those three times, I will blot you out as I should have long ago.”
“A fair bet, brother, since I know I will win. Let us begin.”
The lights were shuttered close and the audience applauded lightly. As they died down, the limes were half-opened and appeared blue as they focused closer to the audience on a father and mother kneeling beside the bed of their daughter. An older Zayine priest in green robes and his apprentice were nearby, all posed mid-action.
“Here we have an already bleak situation, brother,” Light said from the dark part of the stage. “That little girl will die if she doesn’t receive her medicine soon.”
“Then all I need to do is sit back and wait.”
The five actors moved to some unseen cue, the little girl coughing loudly as her parents coddled her. “There’s nothing more that can be done,” the priest said to his apprentice. “I am out of the ingredients to make what she needs.”
“What if I collected them?” the young man asked.
“It’s dangerous. You must cross woods infested with savage beasts and climb high mountains.”
“I’ll do it, for her,” he said to everyone before walking out of the blue light.
“Madness,” Kazithu said. “Why risk yourself for someone you don’t even know?”
“Because he believes his goddess tells him to. He has faith that She will help him in his endeavors to save the child.”
“It is not guaranteed, though!”
“It is not. But that is the nature of faith.”
The apprentice set off on his journey, which is to say he explored every height and every purchase the stage had to offer. He jumped from one tiny plank to another again and again. He deftly climbed a wall with minuscule handholds. He fell one from the top of a “mountain” once, only to twist several times in the air and catch himself on a ring just above the ground, barely missing several of the lit lanterns. The audience sighed in relief, a few even clapping briefly.
And finally, after perhaps five minutes of acrobats, the apprentice reached the apex and began to pluck the flowers needed for the girl’s medicine. “This is unfair,” Kazithu said from the shadows. “How is it that a mortal could survive such a trial?”
“Faith brings its own kind of strength, brother,” Light said.
“Pah! This is trickery. I cannot allow you to win!”
The music turned ominous, drums booming and strings screaming in minor keys. The apprentice looked up and the lights turned to a hideous flying beast roaring as it flew to him. An orchestra member stood nearby, running his fingers down long strings to make a screeching noise for the monster. Stagehands dressed in all black operated the giant puppet, one on the wings, another opening the mouth, and two moving the creature across the stage.
The great beast bore down on the apprentice, who had only a sword as protection. He held it in front of him, more as feeble shield than to engage, and ducked his head in prayer. “It is my turn,” Light said, and a thin limelight was projected onto the sword. It glowed, holding mysterious power as the apprentice lifted the sword above his head and struck the beast on its head. It made a hideous screech as it fell from the sky. The audience clapped enthusiastically.
The apprentice put his sword away and began climbing back down in an exaggerated fashion while the stage was reset. He ran in place, then moved to the room with the family. “Blessed, I have brought you the flowers you need,” he said, holding them out to the priest.
“Wonderful! And not a moment too soon.” He traveled to a pot hanging over a fire and tossed the petals into the boiling water. He dipped a bowl in and brought it to the lips of the girl, now wheezing with difficulty. She drank, and a few moments later she sat up. Her parents hugged her and the lights went out.
The audience cheered and applauded. “What do you think?” Raulin asked Anla.
“Oh, this is wonderful,” she said, still clapping herself.
When the clapping died down, Kazi grabbed a hanging lantern and pulled it to his face. “Brother, you cheated somehow.”
“Nay, brother,” Light said, moving his face close to his own flame. “I warned you about the power faith has. Now, behold love and its splendor.”
The music turned sweeter, with a vibratic solo supplied by a violinist who sat casually on the edge of the stage. The limes focused on a man and woman holding a pose on one leg without so much as a wobble, the light pink until they finally moved.
What followed was a stunning duet by the two as they danced across the stage. They entwined and broke apart, pulling each other in and pushing each other away again and again. He lifted her high and she collapsed into his arms, the two retracting into a tender embrace as they curled together for a few moments. She ran up the ramps and, in a dangerous move that caused gasps from the audience, she dove fifteen feet into his waiting arms.
A man entered in, dressed in blue like the woman, and grabbed her from behind. She turned, fear and anguish written upon her face, as she tried to reach out to her lover. He lifted his hand, but didn’t fight, finally collapsing in grief on the stage. A man entered from his side, dressed in the same red as the grieving lover, and forced him to stand. He spun him around and stood by his side as a woman dressed in purple Belifornian robes and a veiled woman in white entered.
The man bowed his head and slumped his shoulders, standing as groom in a wedding he didn’t want. The priestess began the sermon, then stopped after a few lines. She turned to the audience in thought and some recognized her as the girl who had survived the terrible illness in the first act. She turned back, cupped the man’s chin, and lifted his head. “Go to her,” she said and he didn’t hesitate to run to his lover, who waited for him on some high ledge of the stage. He climbed to her and they embraced, kissing until the lights darkened.
Raulin noticed that Al applauded enthusiastically, as well as much of the audience. After the ovation waned, Kazithu appeared behind a lamp, this time spending only a few moments before moving on to the next. “That was hardly fair, brother. It happened far too quickly for me to interfere. And what of the priestess?”
“Neither you nor I interfered. It was a fair observation; we are not created to meddle with humans. And the priestess survived her childhood illness with faith, and in turn gave love back to the man. I warned you that these things were strong. They also grow.”
“How am I to fight against you if you infest and infect my peace?” Kazi snarled.
“There will always be darkness where there is light.”
A green light shone on a scene with two groups of men posing angrily on opposite sides. Fists were raised in threatening gestures, weapons were being drawn, and all faces were set in rictuses of rage. Some, though, held other men back, pleading with them. The light turned white and one man in red yelled, “If that’s what you want, then war it is!”
“No, sir!” said a man at his side. “Think of peace!”
“How can I think of peace when they won’t return the prince!”
“We don’t know where he is!” said a man in blue opposite him. “And how can you accuse us of stealing your prince when you won’t return our princess!”
“Gentleman, please,” a priest in yellow said before dashing between the two groups. “Let’s sit and think things through.”
“I’m done thinking!” the man in the red said. “It’s war! I will send my army in the morning.”
“Agreed!” said the man in blue. “We meet at dawn!”
The limes blacked out and several smaller lights were lit across the back of the stage, larger lanterns of bright yellows and pinks. The drums started again, thundering a rhythm while brass horns and carnyxes played deep, blatting notes. The sounds of metal clanking could be heard on the stage before the limes were turned on to the war party.
The Cyurinin priest from the play’s previous day was replaced by one robed in red. “Gentlemen, both sides have declared war. Skethik blesses this battle. May He find a victor in the just.”
He left and the two kings marched forward. Without a word, they began fighting as men all around joined in. The flaps to the creveirs’ tent were lifted halfway and real light entered in as the armies spilled into the audience. People gasped and moved out of the way as men pummeled each other with swords, maces, and hammers. The soldiers flipped and spun around each other, using the stage and every surface possible to launch high powered, lightning fast attacks.
Suddenly, the fighters froze in unison. “And what will you do now, brother?” Kazithu teased, stepping onto a ledge with full light from a lime. “Seems they will kill themselves and I need not do a thing.”
“For them, I will do nothing,” Light said, equally lit. “Our test has to do with others.”
“Yes. And we must give them a choice. This will be equal between us; no interfering, no tricks, no pushing. All we will do is give our position and see what happens.”
“You know I am the better at convincing.”
“Yes. But I am confident that peace will win in the end, so much so that I will bet everything on their choice.”
“Everything? But it is a draw if you lose.”
“I know. Again, I am confident.”
In the middle of the stage, above the melee but below Light and Darkness, were the two lovers from the second act, suddenly lit by the lights. They were on their knees, holding each other tightly in fear. “My dears,” Light said and they looked up. “I am sorry to say that you must make a choice.”
“What choice?” the man asked.
“You can continue to love each other,” Kazi said. Both he and Light hung from rings, changing positions to move closer or farther away from the two. “Make a home, grow a family, be happy.”
“Or, you can stop the war,” Light said.
“War? What war do you speak of?”
“Prince, princess, your fathers and your countries fight each other as we speak, shedding blood and destroying lives. They do this because each thinks the other stole you and refuses to return you.”
“They don’t know we ran away?” the woman said.
“No. And only you two can change that.”
“If we return, we will be separated. We will be forced to marry other people,” the man said.
“I cannot tell you that you will find happiness with the outcome.”
“But, if we don’t, our families and our people will die.”
“I love you,” the man said, stroking her hair.
“And I love you,” she said, holding his face.
“But what is our love without those to share it with?” The man sighed and turned to Light. “We will go.”
“Think!” Kazi said, pleading. “You two can live out your days in happiness! All you need to do is nothing.”
“But we won’t be happy knowing we caused such devastation.” He stood and helped his lover to do so. “We must go.”
“Pah!” Kazithu said, folding his arms and turning away.
They scrambled down from their ledge and ran to the center of the stage, hands clasped together. “Stop!” they yelled.
The soldiers unfroze, taking a few more swings before they turned to the lovers.
“Stop!” they yelled again. “We weren’t kidnapped. We left together.”
“Together?” the blue king said.
“We love each other, father,” the princess said. “We don’t want to marry any one else. We want each other and that is all.”
“Never!” he said. “I won’t allow it.”
“This is what you want?” the red king said, turning to his son.
“Truly, father,” he said.
“But our alliance to the neighboring kingdom is vital…”
“If that is what you wish, father, than I will return home and marry whomever. But know that my heart will always belong to her.”
The two kings sighed and shook their heads, then turned to each other. They said nothing for a few moments, before the red king spoke. “We should at least call off the battle, if nothing else. I am open to speak of other options.”
The blue king cleared his throat. “I was, perhaps, too hasty when I said ‘never’.”
The grasped hands and froze. “No!” Kazithu yelled. “How could I lose?”
“Brother, I told you that faith, love, and peace are greater things than darkness.”
“This wasn’t fair! A rematch!”
“Someday, perhaps. For now, let the humans live with their faith, their love, and their peace. And let them find those things in the darkness and the light.”
The lights shuttered close and the orchestra switched to a soft melody. The flaps were opened as the audience stood in ovation. The actors bowed and moved behind the stage, starting with the extras and ending with Kazithu and the actor that played Light. Even Al stood, clapping with such enthusiasm Raulin thought his hands would be bruised.
“What did you think?” Raulin asked as the audience began to file out of the tent.
“Wonderful,” Tel said. “This was a great treat.”
“I loved it,” Anla said.
“Wizard? You didn’t seem interested before.”
“Well…Amandorlam doesn’t like creveirs. They’re untrained heathen wizards. They don’t go to school, they just train wizards themselves. But, it seems like they did a great job. I really loved the stories.”
“I’m glad it was money well spent, then. I need to go speak with Kazi. If you three could wait outside the tent, I promise we’ll get dinner afterwards somewhere nicer.”
“What’s on the menu?” Anla asked. “Are we moving on to Sonder?”
“Well, we should, but maybe we could ask an expert in the field of a certain country.” He looked to Al. “Would you mind finding us a good Br’vani restaurant tonight?”
“Yes!” he said. “I know just the place!”
“Great. Give me a half-hour or so and I’ll return.”