The Theatre was packed, the number of people within it exceeding its rightful capacity. The first floor, in particular, had people sitting in the aisles, sitting along the sides, standing at the back. The crowd was abuzz with excitement and anticipation, all of these individuals gathered to watch Rosalind’s final performance on her tour.
On the second level, where the holders of the more expensive tickets were seated, the emotion was more subdued, but there was still still clearly a sensation of excitement among those seated. Though they came from different backgrounds and classes from those gathered on the first floor, they nonetheless shared in their excitement to watch Rosalind’s last act.
Standing backstage, I took deep breaths to calm myself down. I was a lot more nervous than usual. The regular pre-performance anxiety aside, there was also the matter of the eminent personage that we were scheduled to receive. The sound of the door on the backstage side of the building heralded his arrival. I glanced over at Rosalind, who was looking as she usually did. Elysium had spoken to her in private the previous night, but I didn’t know how much of our suspicions Elysium had shared with Rosalind. Rosalind noticed my staring and smiled, moving over next to me and placing her hand on my head.
“Of course I’m ready. We’ve been rehearsing a lot.”
“Then why the worried face?”
“Because of that person. Did Elysium tell you?”
Her face clouded over.
“…Yes. She told me about what could happen. She told me of your contingencies.”
“And? Which protocol did you go with?”
“…I didn’t like it, but I went with Crescendo.”
“…I see. You realise that Crescendo puts the greatest burden on you?”
“I do. But that’s the option I see having the best ending for all with us, so I’m going with that. Hopefully, all the preparing is for naught, and things don’t come to that.”
As we spoke, I kept an eye on the third floor, waiting to confirm the Emperor’s arrival. I spotted the door open, and the Emperor entered the venue. He was a handsome man, golden hair framing a well-defined, slightly pointed chin. His blue eyes glittered with arrogance, pride accompanying every step he took. Objectively speaking, he certainly fit all the criteria by which men are described as good-looking. But the arrogance he exuded with every movement made me sick. This was a man who thought of himself as above all other creatures – and who had been placed in such a position that his self-evaluation was not necessarily unfounded.
The Emperor was accompanied by a man in armor, a stern-looking man whose eyes swept across the area. He had a sword clipped conspicuously to his side, and he carried himself with an air of practiced vigilance. He seemed to notice my gaze – he turned in my direction and nodded slightly. I returned the gesture and breathed out a small sigh of relief. If the Emperor had such a clearly skilled protector by his side, we didn’t have to worry about him coming to any harm. Of course, that didn’t mean we were safe – if something did happen, we would still likely be implicated in some way. But with this development, we didn’t have to worry about the worst case scenario of the Emperor being murdered on our premises.
Confirming that the Emperor had seated himself, I turned to Rosalind and nodded. Elysium walked up next to us and placed her hand on Rosalind’s shoulder.
“You ready, Ros?”
“Let’s do this, Ely.”
I signalled to one of our helpers backstage – the lights in the the Theatre were snuffed out. Rosalind and Elysium walked onstage, Rosalind’s heeled shoes clacking against the polished wood. The audience applauded at the noise, yelling her name and calling out various embarrassing phrases, but the cheers subsided as the clacking ceased, with Rosalind and Elysium in position.
I took a deep breath and created a large orb of light above her head, illuminating her figure.
“A field of stars,
illuminates the night.
The shadow of doubt,
banished by the light!”
With that, we launched into the routine for Guiding Light, the same song we had used to open our previous concert. Once that song had ended, I illuminated the stage once again, presenting Rosalind, smiling broadly at her audience. She waited for the applause to subside, before addressing the crowd.
“Thank you all for coming to hear me today! As I’m sure you’re aware, today marks the last day of my tour. I’m certain many of you are expecting me to say something about that – and I will. But first, before I speak of the end, I’d like the speak for a while about the beginning.”
“Five years ago, I was in a spot of trouble. Some of you may already know this, but before my performing career began, I was the owner, cook and serving-girl of a tavern. Due to various circumstances, my tavern, the original Serene Ezov, was in danger of closing down – certain articles of legislation made it difficult for us to sell alcohol. I was deeply troubled – the loss of income was, or course, a cause for concern, but the thought of having to close down the tavern that my late parents had left me was far more devastating. For days I pondered what to do, unable to find a solution. I was on the verge of giving up.”
“But then, my close friend Elysium,” she gestured toward Elysium, who nodded in acknowledgement, “came to me with a strange proposition. Many of you will recognise her as my agent, managing my schedule and handling my publicity. It should then come as no surprise that she was the individual who introduced me to my current line of work.”
“It’s been 5 years since then – an amazing 5 years. I never thought that there would be crowds like this – that so many of you would be gathered here today, just to hear me sing. It’s surreal, like I’m dreaming, like I’m about to wake up at any moment to find myself back in my small tavern. But no. I’m not dreaming. This is real. I’m really in the capital, I’m really performing in front of all of you, in the Royal Theatre, no less.”
“Unfortunately, dream or no, it is about to end. This is the last concert on this tour of mine. I’m aware that there has been some speculation about what I plan to do from now on, about whether I will continue to perform. After much reflection, after consulting with Elysium and with the many good women working on my behalf in the branches of the Serene Ezov all across the land, I have reached an answer. And that answer is yes.”
A roar of applause and cheering erupted through the theatre, echoing around the large chamber. The walls shook with the sound. I glanced upward, toward the 3rd floor. The Emperor was clapping as well, though in a more subdued manner than the masses. He had a pleased look on his face, which I took to imply that he was satisfied with Elysium’s singing. Rosalind waited for the cheering to subside before continuing.
“Of course, I won’t be starting another tour immediately. I’ll first return to my home city of Monspiere – I’m starting to feel a little homesick after five years, after all! But once I’ve spent a couple months resting, we’ll announce the plans for my next tour. Until then, you can feel free to drop by Monspiere to listen to me sing. It’s a little out of the way, but I’m sure you’ll do it for me, right?” She winked at the crowd, prompting a wave of shouted affirmatives. “Well then, let’s get back to the concert, shall we? All this reminiscing has made me a little nostalgic, so the next song is going to be the first song I ever sang in public – what Elysium calls my debut song: Amber Birth.”
We moved through the routines for numerous songs, working through the entirety of Rosalind’s repertoire. Between each song, she would speak to the audience, thanking them and filling the time with banter, hyping them up for the next song, while also giving us the chance to rest and catch our breaths. The concert passed in this manner, until at last, we reached the last song.
“Now then, we’re reaching the end of this concert – and with it, the end of my tour. Thank you all for sticking with me throughout this journey! Before we end off, there are several people I’d like to thank, before my next and last song. Gratitude is, I think, one of the greatest virtues we can possess. My journey over the last five years would not have been possible without the constant help and support of these people. The first is, of course, Elysium, my constant friend and companion.”
She turned back to Elysium, who smiled and placed her violin on the ground, walking up to Rosalind and hugging her. The audience, by now familiar with Elysium’s figure, applauded the scene as they watched. However, glancing up, I could see the Emperor glaring at them, a clear shadow of anger on his face. As if he was watching something extremely unpalatable. It was such an ugly expression, I felt an urge to send a blade of light in his direction – but I pushed it down. I would not jeopardise Rosalind’s career for an impulse. Besides, with that warrior next to him, I doubted I would be able to launch any effectual attacks. I turned my attention back to the stage – next was my cue.
“Second, I want to thank Glint – Elysium’s assistant, the man in charge of managing the Serene Ezov – without his efforts, we wouldn’t be able to focus on these concerts. Come on stage, Glint!”
I walked out from my side of the stage and waved at the crowd while smiling, then bowed. Most of the people here had seen my face when they came to the Ezov to buy tickets, so they were aware of my role in the operation. There was some applause, not as much as for the ladies, but then again, that was to be expected. Rosalind mentioned nothing of my handling of the lighting for the concert – we were still endeavouring to keep that a secret. I bowed once again, then stepped back behind the curtains.
“Now, thirdly, I want to thank all of you – whether you’re long-time fans, or whether this is your first time attending my concert, I hope that you’ve all enjoyed yourselves today. I would not be here without your support, and for that, you have my sincere thanks. Of course, that goes for all you people in the Ezov branches around the country, too. I may not be able to see you, but I would like to assure you that when I sing, I sing for all of you as well. Thank you all for your support, and I hope that it will continue as I begin the next stage of my career.”
She bowed deeply. The audience began shouting, clapping and cheering, screaming affirmation. After holding her bowing position for some time, Rosalind reached up and wiped a tear away from her eye.
“Now then, to end off today’s concert, I’m going to finish with a song that many of you know, one of my personal favorites: Bound Rose. Please listen closely.”
Rosalind never got to sing that song. The moment she spoke the song’s title, a large bang was heard – the door on the third floor was flung open forcefully, and a figure dressed completely in black dashed out, lunging toward the Emperor with a knife in hand.
Why?! Why now?!
I cursed inwardly. We were so close to the end. Just one more song, and this would have ended without incident. Now, there was no hope of that.
I could only watch in frustration as the armored man next to the Emperor reached out and caught the arm of the would-be assailant, twisting it and disarming the attacker. The attacker let out a scream as they were forced to their knees. Hearing this, some members of the audience began to look up, confused and curious. The Emperor then stepped to the cloaked, hooded assailant and smashed his fist into their face, sending them flying back toward the open door. Then, with a commanding voice, he loudly proclaimed.
“Fool. I am the Emperor of the Mercynth Empire. Know your place, insect.”
His voice reverberated through the hall that was designed to carry sound.
“The Emperor? His Imperial Majesty is here?”
Murmurs of that sort began to run across the gathered audience. I glanced up to the 3rd floor again. The Emperor was looking at Elysium with rage. Then his eyes turned to Rosalind, and his mouth twisted into a cruel smile, like that of a victor looking down on his spoils. In other words, he reacted exactly as Elysium and I had predicted. The Emperor left his seat and stormed out of the theatre, picking up the unmoving assailant by the collar as he did. If he was going to do what we suspected he would, then we didn’t have much time.
I glanced over to Elysium and shared a nod, then Elysium turned to Rosalind. Rosalind met Elysium’s eyes. A moment of silence passed between them, then Rosalind nodded slightly. She turned back to her audience and cleared her throat.
“It seems the secret is out. Yes, the Emperor was here in attendance today. We had intended to keep his attendance a secret, for security reasons, but that is no longer possible. An attempt has been made on his life.”
More murmurs. Several gasps of shock were heard. People began to converse, urgently, anxiously. Rosalind smiled and spoke again.
“So it seems that our concert will have to be brought to an early end. I would have preferred to at least sing you one last song before leaving, but alas, it seems that will not be possible. For everyone who signed up for the handshake session, as well: I’m sorry, but it seems I won’t be able to attend it. Once again, I thank you for all your support, and I hope that I will one day be able to sing for you again.”
Bootsteps signalled the arrival of the Imperial Guard, who stormed on from backstage, swords drawn. Their appearance stunned the audience into silence. They surrounded us, four soldiers for myself, two for Rosalind, and ten for Elysium. All of them had weapons drawn and ready. One of them, wearing a sash across their torso – presumably the captain – addressed us.
“You are hereby under arrest for the suspected crime of conspiring against His Imperial Majesty. Do not resist, or we shall strike to kill.”
His voice, loud as it was, carried through the hall. The gathered audience continued to murmur, their conversation renewed by the accusation that had been levelled against us.
I glanced at the soldiers and evaluated them. They were well-trained, but nowhere near as skilled as Alpha. If I were to fight them, I would likely win, even if all four of them fought me at once. As for Elysium, ten men of such calibre were unlikely to even qualify as an opponent. Rosalind was the unknown, but she also had the fewest men apprehending her – and Rosalind had also received training at Elysium’s hands, so she should have been able to deal with them easily. In other words, if we so desired, breaking out of this encirclement would have been easier.
But that was not the plan. Resisting arrest here would spell the ruin for all three of us – we would live out our lives as criminals. The Ezov branches would be implicated. We wanted to avoid them. And so we complied. I obediently put my hands behind my back, allowing myself to be bound with rope. Rosalind and Elysium did the same. Once we were bound, the soldiers began to lead us off the stage. However, as she walked, Rosalind sang out a single note, starting softly, and growing in intensity until it filled the hall to the exclusion of all other sounds – a crescendo.