Understudy

“My cousin’s a Briar and I think she’s really beautiful, any of you weirdo Unveiled fuckwits got a problem with that?”

A play is never the same twice.

One of the earliest lessons Vitória received from visiting the playhouse was that you can perform the same play day in and day out, and they will always be unique. The moods of the troupe playing the roles, the mood of the audience, would always interact uniquely, play out slightly differently, with each performance.

Stagehand. Supporting Character. Audience. Each night came and went, and she had a different role to play each time. Except for one: the role of the leading lady, taking centre stage in the drama to follow, continued to elude her. She knew she was not required to play it. She knew it would not ever be thrust upon her unless she accepted it. But there was the expectation, the deep-seated desire within Vitória, that wanted to ONE DAY be able to play that role in the drama.

The first night, opening night. The first night had caught her by surprise, unaware. She could only sit, part stunned, part in awe, as Civetta took the lead role with a challenge to the few Unveiled and Highborn in the wayhouse’s common room. She wasn’t familiar with this play, so what else could she do but sit back as the protagonist laid down the challenge with well-honed wit and words. Tonight, she was audience.

The third night. A new Inn, with a new audience. They had barely arrived, just past dusk, when the play began, and she was cast in the role of supporting member of the dramatis personae. This fight scene had one star character, and it was Vitória’s job to distract when needed, watch her cousin’s back, add to the flurry of the action on stage before the hero proclaimed victory and the rest crawled or hobbled off to lick their wounds.

The fourth night. This was a bad audience, a large crowd, an armed playhouse. It had taken all her skill, what wit she had and what charisma she could summon, to steer the conversation away from any topic that would start the play anew. Civetta’s anger was quick to rise, and more than once did Vitória have to grab her hands, nearly sit on her, to keep her in her seat. ‘Not here.’ ‘Not now.’ ‘We can’t take on this many.’ And the worst line of all, ‘What if I was to get hurt? They’ve got knives,’ which left her feeling guilty for saying it, but it worked.

The fifth night. The lack of performance the previous night meant that the show would be bigger and bolder tonight. Tonight, it was in Cive’s eyes, in her stance, in the slight edge that her voice took, when her mask went on and the sun disappeared down the western sky. This was the performance that Vitória would HAVE to take a more central role. This one involved action, much more than before, and while she was competent in a fight, she was not her brother. This performance HURT. She had to check herself very carefully afterwards, that each wound was just a bruise, just swollen, and not a cut. She got lucky.

The seventh night. She was still aching from the last performance, but that was fine. An Actor draws on life experiences, good and bad. Tonight’s role was a speaking one, a third act challenge laid down by a Bishop, a challenge against the antagonist’s lack of Virtue, lack of Loyalty and Pride. Turning the pain of aching muscles and bruises into righteous indignation was easier than she thought. How dare they interrupt, threaten, a Pilgrim’s right to visit the Necropolis? To pay homage to family members interred there, to gaze upon the works of Virtue inspired by the Heroes of the Empire, and all for the sake of lineage? ‘Instead of challenging my inherent Virtue you should be looking at your own, at the Virtue of your brothers and sisters who keep waylaying these Pilgrims, attacking them, encouraging Hatred and Fear instead of the Way and of Virtues!’

She hadn’t expected that to actually work. And as she recovered afterwards, it dawned on her that perhaps this wasn’t the play at all. Perhaps this was only the rehearsal.

Tenth night. Another dramatic performance, another bar fight. But she was familiar with the plot now, and how they wanted the story to end.

“This is my beautiful Briar cousin, hands up who thinks she’s ugly.”

This night, it was the Understudy who threw the first punch.

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E9 2015 – Prompts pt.2

The second half of the prompts from the first event as Vitoria.

Magdalena 

There are some times, when I look at the decisions that I have made, and the situation that I am in now, and think ‘Somewhere… somewhere I went wrong.’

So, I’ve called her every name I can think of, trying to redirect her aggression from others (because what is more dangerous than a winter-cursed bravo, looking for a fight?). That might have been my mistake.

And as my jaw smarts from the last punch, as my lip swells, as blood runs from the corner of my mouth, and Magda’s fingers close around my throat, too strong for me to pry off… and as drawing breath is getting harder to do…. I wonder why I’m still trying to help this effin’ cursed bitch, and where I can get a sword before this gets out of hand.

Masquerade of the Reaper

I’m apologizing to Beomund again, whose gentle, patient smile reminds me so much of Antonio that I know he’s the best actor for this role, even if I struggle to not cry when I look at him putting on Antonio’s clothing. The Masquerade is ongoing, and yet it hasn’t started, and the stress of trying to divine the correct time to have the right people in the right place — it’s not going well and oh, look, there goes Gabriel and Cive off on a skirmish, well! I need to have a drink, because fuck everyone.

I’m offering refreshments, though our death guisers have already had some, and checking up on our guests like a mother hen, which is odd because this really should be Adelina’s job, she does it better and with more grace.

When you’re waiting for the Reaper, one should never comment on his punctuality. I’ll think it to myself, instead.

Antonio

I know I have missed so much, within our family; I think I missed you most of all. During all the times when I struggled, when I was afraid, when I felt so cut off from the Way, from the Labyrinth, there was the memory of your shining example, of how things should be done. Surrounded by such unvir– I remembered you teaching me when I was little, and I remember sneaking down to your church, to hear your sermons, to listen to the advice you gave everyone who came to you.

Now I feel like I’ve taken on an insurmountable task, one I have to get done, but don’t know how to do it. And I wish I could ask for your guidance. But the words are stuck in my throat, and I’m apologizing instead, choking over how far away I was, and like that I’m a child again; I’m a small pilgrim and you’re my Priest.

All I can promise is to watch over your congregation, and lead them how you did. You were my Exemplar, and now you’re gone. And I have to prove to the world just how much you helped shape it.

Gifts 

A gift always means more, when one has nothing.

Magnificent folding fans for everyone, and there was much laughter and delight as everyone talked about the language of fans; how to snap them shut in annoyance, flutter them flirtatiously, whack errant cousins over the head with them, etc. It was something to hold in hand, yet it was also a memory of the family all being together.

A birdcage necklace, one she delighted in turning around in her fingers. A highly polished black stone caught in a cage, that glowed with a rainbow sheen as she turned it in her fingers, and found herself clutching when she was getting anxious. Bracelets, two, each one taking pride of place on bare wrists, before all the gems were gently tucked away in a nearly empty jewellery box at the end of the night.

A beautiful diamond hair comb that made her wistful, fingers reaching up to tug hair that was shorn short, only slowly growing back to the lengths that she used to have it. But at least it was not white anymore. Hair would regrow.

A beautiful handmade orange flower, one made to resemble those that she remembered from so long ago. One of their mothers — was it her own?– had had a trailing vine of vibrant orange blooms that came out each midsummer, that overhung the patio and made everything smell light and floral.

Homemade preserves, that carried with their flavour the effort taken to make it. It was the taste of home, and yet not home, at the same time; both new and old.

An intricately carved stone box, that showed the dedication, effort, time and skill that went into each groove, each hollow. The perfect size to hold her rings, only recently replaced at great cost, the first thing she had done upon her return to Tassato.

A gift always means more, when one has nothing.

Banner 

Everyone is asking me if I’m okay, and with each time they ask, I want to scream a little more, a little louder, and my hands grip this banner a little more tightly. Right now, it is my anchor, my unspoken metaphor for the thin grasp on reality I am clinging to. If I was to let go…

Yes, each time I say, ‘I’m fine’ what I am actually saying is ‘No, I am not okay’, and ‘No, my sense of self that I was rebuilding, my life and my profession are slipping away and I’m panicking.’ When I say the words, I am saying ‘I am not okay but I need you to pretend that I am, for 5 minutes, while I put my mask back on…’

I have had many things taken away from me in this life. This banner, I will let go of, when I am ready to let go of it. When I stop lying to you, and when I really am ‘fine.’

Felice 

Normally I’m the one following you, watching with glee as you get into trouble and mining the ensuing drama for plot ideas. This reversal, does it feel as odd to you, as it does to me?

I don’t know whether I need to redouble my efforts to hold myself in. If you’re following me then I can only imagine you’re worried about what I’ll do. I don’t think I’ll do anything. Just, walk, and burn off this energy. Though Lilith did ask for a fight… but why would I go to one without you there?

No. You’re right. You’re right about needing a new mask to hold this persona inside. I can feel the magic in my usual masks, they are family masks, they are loyalty masks. They are masks of action, fuelling the desire to move, to act, to do. That’s not the right face for this play.

Until I can find such a mask, I can rely on you.

Dedication – Adelina 

This is the first time I have ever hesitated before performing a Rite of Dedication, and this makes me feel like an awful Priest.

There is something unspoken here, a subtle shift of the balance of power, that makes me uncomfortable, makes me doubt myself, makes my hand tremble as I reach for my flask.

It’s not a question of Loyalty here. I know this is the right path for you. It is the reversal of roles that makes me question whether I am a strong enough Priest to lead you. I have always followed you, emulated you as a child, looked up to you, wanted to be as smart, as elegant as you. I don’t know how to guide someone as strong-willed and determined as you.

I think you believe it is just a rite; a drink of liao, a few words spoken, and a mark on one’s soul. I don’t know how to tell you, that the obligation is so much larger for me.

“Adelina. Take my hand, and be my sister.”

E9 2015 – Prompts

First mainline event as Vitória Barossa.

Building Blocks

I know that something’s wrong just by the sheer amount of people in the tent. I don’t know most of them, and no one is telling me what’s going on and I’m not able to push past people to find out.

“Is something wrong, Rodrigo? Is there any more bad news?” Someone asks, I cannot tell who. I remain silent as I fight my way through, slipping through people the minute a gap appears.

“No… news…. For you.” My brother’s rasping voice makes me start; the growl to my left makes me turn to where he sits, glowering, snarling and inwardly fighting with something.

A flash of red behind and I look up to see Nora looking concerned. “Vitória…” She looks as lost as I feel, as I try to approach; I don’t know whether it’s bodies in the way, or how distant his eyes seem with internal struggles, but I can sense the gulf between my brother and I, and feel it hurt my soul.

I turn, looking around for the Reaper present that I had given him an hour or so before. My hands pick up the tray of building blocks that are nearly as old as I am, and my hands hover, turning, trying to pick the right block for the moment. The ring? The rune? His initial? The fox?

I hear a snarl behind and pick one quickly, turning and pushing it into his hand, closing his fist around it with a squeeze. I can only hope he remembers. I can only hope it helps. I watch as he clings to it, then I pull him closer to the light, set the tray in his lap.

“I’m sorry I don’t remember the order you like them in. You’ll have to set it right.” His eyes focus in on it, his hands moving in practised motions, familiar rhythms, moving the pieces around.

I leave him to it, with people I don’t know and some woman doing something with a glowstone lantern, but his hands continue to build and rebuild, and that is something to hold on to. I don’t know what’s wrong, and I think all I’ve done is buy some time. Fighting panic, I look around. I need someone to find Gabrielle, and I need to get more liao.

Brother 

I have done this before, I have done this a hundred times, but this time it is different. This time it is not me drawing the picture with the liao in my soul, I am drawn into the picture. And where one face should be, there are three.

The first. A tall lanky man in robes and red armour, dark and short hair, though his back is turned and he is walking away, a greatsword in hand that looks taller than I would be, drawn to light that casts a shadow on the form he leaves. But in the darkness behind, there is a sense of danger about the Shade, the Beast, that seems to superimpose itself over my brother.

Two where one should be, I cannot separate them. I see my brother; Rodrigo at his forge: focused and determined, creating, building, shaping. I can see the Beast’s frustration, and I know this to be my brother’s curse. It has no interest in this, in these blocks; it rails at them. It is something the Beast cannot understand. It wants only to lash out, to destroy.

The only other thing here is me, and I realize that I have made a terrible mistake. And as it lashes out at me I hear its whispers in my head and its claws digging into my soul. I hear all the things it wants to do if let free, what it would do to family, do to me. I hear it’s name for me, the role I am to perform in this play.

The next thing I know is that I am outside, and I could only be outside if I had fled. Gabrielle is there, holding my shoulders as I cover my eyes, cover my ears, and tell myself that I am not afraid of my brother.

But I am a horrible liar, and the damage is done, and I cannot look upon him for fear that it will not be his face looking back at me.

Mine

I cannot face this yet.

Your hands are so assured; mine tremble. Your fingers are steady as they tie the mask over my arm, securing it better than I could myself. You don’t ask questions which usually means you’ve already worked things out and I don’t know how that is possible because I HAVEN’T WORKED THIS OUT YET AND–

Breathe.

The masks we wear hide who we are, they are the faces we present to the world. I think there’s more symbolism in this act, this fox mask tied to cover the bandage underneath, than I am ready to confront yet.

And I think that I need to take my banner, and my fox mask, and my problem, and I need to run. Because if I stay any longer, this will not be a problem that is mine to confront. I need it to be mine just a little while longer.

Just until I gather my thoughts.

You’ve been there 

For FUCKS sake, Roberto, I don’t think I am asking for a theological debate or anything. I am asking for HELP. You’ve been there, been through this, you’ve had more than 4 HOURS to cope with, come to terms with, whatever the fuck one has to do with… THIS!

My voice is raising because yours is; I take a quick look out the door and there’s Nora and I wish I knew her better to be able to couch this in anything more polite than a hand gesture and a look that says ‘NOT. NOW.’

“WELL IS IT A PROBLEM OR ISN’T IT??” Your voice snaps me back and cuts through everything else. Is it a problem or isn’t it.

“I DON’T KNOW!” Because I don’t think it’s a problem for those I love. But, others?

“THEN FIND OUT!”

“FINE! I WILL!” And I storm out, because if I’m in that tent any longer I’ll probably swing at you, Robbie.

But I feel better. Thanks for helping.

Drama 

I cannot stop smiling at the dramacrawl, at my family, at the scenes and songs and laughter that has surrounded us tonight; For a moment I cannot believe that I am finally home, that we all came back from Reikos alive, and that this bar has good drinks and I have a full purse.

I turn to laugh at Tino’s conversation on masks and mud and there’s the flashing steel of a blade an inch from his throat. “You calling me a briar?” The Marcher asks.

And I can’t move. Frozen like the depths of winter, I can’t tear my eyes away from the steel edge of the blade that is nearly caressing Tino’s neck. There’s only about 6 inches that blade would have to move, and it would be pointed at the right target—my neck.

All I can see is the blade, but I know Cive’s the first on her feet from Tino’s other side and that hers is the next blade drawn. The Marcher turns to his side, to Serena, on the opposite side of the table that was full of laughter a few seconds ago, an age ago. His voice sounds clearer; I can only suppose it’s the settling of this tense silence over the family. “This is where you draw your sword and point it at her.”

“That’s not how it works.” Her voice matches the ice in my blood, and carries with it the promise of something darker. It carries with it the fact that this man has just underestimated what this family will do to protect their own. Then the blade is moved, the challenge thrown down, the family taking leave of the Nissed Pewt to finish this outside.

And I am still frozen, still sitting and staring at a now empty table. I don’t know where to look, until my eyes meet Serena’s. Like floodgates in spring, my face is falling and my eyes are wet and I can’t stop it, my mask can’t stop it, and she’s there to hold me and hug me, until we both must go stand with family and see this comedy-turned-drama to its conclusion.

End scene.

Leash (or What you are in the dark) 

It’s dark and clear and cold. I pull my shawl up and cover my head in the futile attempt to further hide my face from those around me until I can find a new mask to hide these conflicting emotions.

I know we are headed back to the League camp, and I lead in an anxious bid to return to safe ground, but a familiar tune catches my ear, echoes and remnants of lyrics from the morning stopping me in my tracks. I turn, and cannot breathe while the sight and sound overwhelms and my heart skips a beat.

It has been so long since I have seen a leash of Foxes. My leash of Foxes. And though this isn’t a battlefield, we have just come from a fight.

It is Civetta that takes my breath away, as she burns with restrained fury, resplendent in her mask, blood dripping from her nose. It is her voice that binds us together, her anger held in that drives us onwards. And the Camorra joins their voices to hers as we walk. Foxes don’t usually walk alone.

She looks at me, and without forethought I’m asking for her hand with mine, outstretched, and as she takes it and squeezes it tight, the leash is around me, encircling me as we walk. For tonight, for the first time in years, I am not alone. Thought you, my lord, that I had no kin?

Espelho

I’m stumbling over my words and it’s frustrating me to no end.  I look at your calmer, questioning, unflustered gaze and it’s making it worse. Heart beat is rising. My knees are shaking. Time to run.

You don’t need me to explain Loyalty to you. I know you can look around this family and see it in every single Fox. Or is this a test? Is this to force me to put into words what is going through my head, when ALL I want to do is put what is in my head and heart into ACTION.

I’m sorry, Cousin. Today, I don’t have words for Loyalty. I have to go.

Pride

I am learning more about you each minute I spend in your company. You are making me question everything I knew about Pride, as you search out your own answers with, let’s be honest, not as much help on my part as you think I’m giving.

I was intrigued by you, before. Then afraid. Nothing can convince me that I was not justified in my fears, but there you went, destroying them under the most… well, it takes something special to surprise a cicisbeo. I think you handled the situation with more dignity, understanding and grace than I could have ever hoped, and it left me…

Proud.

You can’t shake my Loyalty dedication, but damn if you have not made me consider things I never would have before, and in doing so, solved problems I wasn’t yet ready to face, was still deciding whether they were problems.

There’s another debt to be repaid.