Stage Plight

By Jonathon Burgess

 

Hristomarth Rofolio staggered up to a fork in the roadway.

A wyrmling, Breaktooth, collapsed beside him, sending up a little cloud of dust. Before it could pick itself back up the other six crashed into view. Hristomarth considered the weakly flailing reptilian mess and dropped their leashes.

“Let us just lay down,” he wheezed, “and die here together.” He doffed his hat and wiped his brow, removing a layer of caked-on grime that was an offense to propriety and all good order.

The road baked in the midday swelter. It was dry dirt, running through the grassy plains like a scar on an old soldier’s chin. Heat-haze set the air overhead to shimmer, so that the distant horizon melted into a blue-brown blur. Whatever wind blew was so faint it failed to stir the tall grass. It certainly failed to provide any relief.

A road sign sat planted in the fork of the road. Alhambry appeared still quite distant, though Darmx was now just a memory. Of more interest were the handbills nailed all about the sign’s post. They advertised miracle cures, lewd offers, official notices, and the status of varying wanted men.

“Well,” Hristomarth said. “This appears somewhat promising.” A quick investigation verified that local law enforcement had never heard of him—always an important consideration. The other handbills were mostly pedestrian, though one in particular caught his eye.

“Thespians sought,” Hristomarth read. “For the role of a lifetime. Full and generous stipend offered. Artistic souls should inquire with Playwright Provon Quaile in Littern Township, at the Curled Horn Theater.”

Hristomarth drew back in distaste. Acting. Was there any more ignoble profession?

He turned on his heel and held up a finger. “Attend,” he said to the wyrmlings. “An instructional moment is upon us. Even in our bedraggled state we must consider your proper education. Never forget that the world is arrayed against you, that success only follows guile and cunning.”

The wyrmlings followed his gesture, looking wearily at the handbill. Then Breaktooth bit Catchmaw on the head and Greasetrap, the fat green one, tried to eat a rock.

“Upon this advertisement,” continued Hristomarth, “we have an offer of gainful employment—worthy of derision all on its own! But even worse, it seeks those with a calling to the stage, those with poetry in their souls and room enough in their hearts to channel great stories for the enjoyment of the teeming and grubby masses.”

The wyrmlings shared a confused look, except for Splaywing. The little dragon watched him intently. Differently. It seemed intrigued.

“Now the initiate might be tempted to consider our nascent circus a similar endeavor. Not so! Our circus is merely cover, the means by which we separate objects of worth from those who don’t deserve them, either due to inattention or gullibility.

Hristomarth folded his hands behind his back. “It might even be said that our pretense, though still in its infancy, may be the more honest profession. What does the acting troupe leave in its wake? Impossible dreams and emotional upset! At least our victims learn a tangible and valuable—.”

The clatter of wheels on the road cut him short. A close-topped coach approached from one fork in the road. It trundled along, pulled by a large, flightless Phorusci. The driver on the bench seat drew close and hauled on the reins, stopping his conveyance beside Hristomarth.

“Wonders never cease!” boomed the driver, peering down. He was short, stocky and grizzled, dressed in a cheap but colorful outfit. “Can it be? Is it truly Hristomarth Rofolio?”

Dismay and embarrassment washed over Hristomarth. “Wollop Mabram,” he replied, smiling tightly. “You old confidence trickster. May you have all the fortune you deserve, and the thief-takers comfortably at your back.”

Wollop laughed. “My fortunes go well! But what’s this? You appear threatened by a diminutive pack of reptiles. I would offer assistance, but for what might prove an inconvenience on my part.”

“There is no need,” said Hristomarth. “What you see before you are the elementary stages of my new circus.”

Wollop blinked. “Desperation comes to us all,” he said. “But the fruits of success ripen in strange places. Consider my current endeavor; Wollop’s Company of Players!” He gestured expansively at the coach behind him, as well as the trio poking their heads out of a window in its side. A haughty woman and a haughtier man considered Hristomarth with disdain, while a spot-faced youth goggled at the wyrmlings.

Hristomarth’s fake smile faltered. “Players? You lead an acting troupe?”

“Indeed!” Wollop said. “Littern Township is just ahead. The great playwright Provon Quaile has put out the call and we mean to be the first to apply. Once Doriana has taken the stage and the exquisite Vernol has summoned forth his muse, the parts shall be as good as ours. Not to mention the rich spoils brought on by having such a patron. Of this I am certain! But daylight fades. May the Ministers of Fate soften the pain of your next failings, Hristomarth!”

Wollop cracked the reins, driving his carriage forward. Tittering laughter echoed from the window.

Hristomarth bent to retrieve the wyrmlings’s leashes, his eyes never leaving the coach as it rolled away. “A change in plans,” he said. “It occurs to me that a stint upon the stage would do excellently for your confidence before a crowd.”

The wyrmlings shared a wary look among themselves.

* * *

The Curled Horn Theater was at odds with its location. Where Littern Township was small, the theater was expansive. Where the neighboring structures were plain, the theater was ostentatious. Such evidence forced Hristomarth to reconsider his assumptions concerning the financial stability of a playwright’s profession.

The interior proved no less impressive, where wide galleries looked down upon a broad stage lit with expensive Phlogosi lanterns. At its center loomed a figure who could only be Provon Quaile himself: a tall man with long white mustachios that curled past his beardless chin. His immaculately tailored clothing restrained a broad gut that was no stranger to the bountiful sideboard laid out along the eastern wall of the house. There was barely any hint that he listened to the petitioners groveling below the edge of the stage he stood upon—the playwright seemed well-trained in the art of condescension.

“…and our performance of ‘The Fusty Matron’ was hailed across Lodara,” wheedled Wollop. “Truly, there is no need to seek any further for those who can express your stories.” The trio of actors behind him nodded emphatically.

Hristomarth yanked Greasetrap away from the buffet sideboard and guided the wyrmlings across the floor of the house. “Indeed,” he said, upon reaching the gathering. “Their selection would invoke an unwavering finality, such that you would never need hire another troupe. An excellent choice, should penury and failure be your design.” Hristomarth stepped up beside Wollop and doffed his hat in a low bow at the stage. “Hristomarth Rofolio, of Rofolio’s Scaled Circus.”

Provon Quaile lifted an eyebrow in surprise. Doriana and Vernol gasped in outrage. But Wollop was an old hand at this game. “Rofolio!” he laughed. “Famed wherever farmers have left their barn doors unsecured. Whatever are you doing here?”

“I was informed of a new production by an esteemed local playwright.” Hristomarth yanked tightly on the wyrmling’s leashes as Greasetrap tried again for the sideboard. “How could I stay away? For the sake of art, it is good that I came! I must apologize for not arriving sooner. Then you might have been saved the sting of presenting yourself for inevitable failure.”

“Would that you had never found out,” replied Wollop through grinding teeth. “But there is no need for your charity—my troupe is already perfectly placed to master the necessary lines and roles. Might I suggest that you turn those admirable feet, which have propelled you ahead of so many vengeful municipalities, to their prime execution?”

“Attend,” said Hristomarth, replacing his hat. He faced the wyrmlings with an upraised finger. “An instructional moment is upon us. Proper physiology is important when selecting your role in life. Consider Wollop and his grotesquely large overbite, sure to mutilate any prose that must rake itself across his pallet. Last I heard, similar features were found upon Kentirk the Dog Biter.”

“Oho!” growled Wollop, turning to his crew. “Vernol? Did you know that Hristomarth is wanted in six townships for the counterfeiting of livestock? There is also this fascinating rumor concerning the Illuminate Knights—”

“Enough!” boomed Provon Quaile. His roar had both power, range, and poise. It was a voice used to cutting across crowds, to quieting their meager concerns in favor of his own importance. Hristomarth’s retort died in his throat.

“I care not for the vagaries of your circumstances,” continued Quaile. “Actors consistently try to prove themselves through previous accomplishments and backstabbing skullduggery. But the only pertinent qualification is whether they can channel the glory of my work. Rofolio! I take it that your troupe wish to join the theater?”

“Indeed,” replied Hristomarth. “So long as the accompanying generous stiped is still on offer.” The wyrmlings chirped their agreement from around his boots.

“Then there is only one solution,” said Quaile. “We shall have auditions.”

“But they’re lizards!” cried Vernol. The actor’s face screwed up in outrage. His well-manicured hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. He glared at the wyrmlings like they were a personal insult.

“Darmxian Mountain Dragons,” corrected Hristomarth coolly.

Provon Quaile gestured dismissively at Vernol. “A trifling concern. Wollop! Since you were the initial applicant, your players will go first.”

Wollop bowed low. “Doriana will audition, followed by Vernol. His understudy will remain ignored and unobtrusive.”

Provon nodded agreeably. “This is the proper way of dealing with understudies. Now. Our selection shall be the great Moon Folk play “Xexamere and The Fox of Shal-Zu.” I rest assured that professional players such as yourselves all know it well. Any scene will do. Take a moment for preparation before we begin.”

Wollop eagerly shepherded his troupe over to the musician’s pit and bent their heads together to confer in hushed tones. Hristomarth glared after them to hide his own dismay. Outright competition wasn't a possibility he had foreseen. Worse, he’d never even seen the Fox of Shal-Zu. This would require a carefully considered approach.

Smoke interrupted his ruminations. It was Coalbelly, trying to ignite the leg of a bench. The others sat around him in various positions of boredom and weariness—except for Splaywing, watching intently as the actress Doriana left her cohort to climb onto the stage.

Hristomarth dissuaded Coalbelly with the toe of his boot. “We have inadvertently entered into a competition,” he said. “Not a desirable state, but a common—Splaywing? Pay attention, if you please.”

The little dragon sat still as a statue, focused on the stage like it was the entirety of her world. It haltingly turned its attention back to Hristomarth, but when Wollop’s actor cleared her throat Splaywing stared at her anew. It was studying, Hristomarth realized.

“Taken by the allure of the stage?” he asked.

Splaywing chirped eagerly over its shoulder.

“Best get used to disappointment, then.” He yanked on Greasetrap’s leash, arresting its progress as it crept away towards the sideboard buffet. “Acting is a profession based on figments and imagination—never does it hold up to the hard light of day.”

The little dragon hunkered down, abashed. Then it looked up with a hopeful chirp, snout pointed at the stage.

“The auditions?” Hristomarth rolled his eyes. “Of course not. Attend, my wyrmling. We have entered a contest for a cushy prize; room and board and an excellent source of income while we prepare for the Grand Fair. Any mummery we performed would be a sham—mere pretense. Now. Cunning and guile are our watch-words. As I said, we are in a contest, and you must remember that all contests are simply fights, in the end.”

Breaktooth sat up eagerly.

“Here, then, is the most pertinent lesson of the day: a fair fight is a fool’s fight. So! Where do we aim our attack?”

Hristomarth folded his arms and waited. The wyrmlings looked at him, then at each other, then to Wollop’s group near the musician’s pit. Breaktooth pointed a tentative claw at the stage where Doriana began to monologue.

“Close,” Hristomarth said. “You rightly identify Wollop’s scrofulous gang as the enemy. Can you say it? Say “enemy.”

“Enmy,” tried the wyrmlings, in a chorus of whistling chirps.

“Excellent,” beamed Hristomarth. “But to continue, we do not strike at the enemy directly. We strike where he is most vulnerable. Observe.”

He hoisted their leashes and set off, weaving his way across the house floor towards his target. Provon Quaile had left the stage to take a seat at a bench along the western wall, near bins full of props and racks stuffed with costumed clothing. An iron hoop in particular caught Hristomarth’s eye—it would be perfect for a circus floor act. That was a consideration for later, though. Right now he needed to focus.

The playwright watched the stage with all the intensity of a judge presiding over a trial, doubtlessly weighing the performance of Wollop’s actress against some impossible vision. The ways of such creatives were ever a mystery, though Hristomarth again noted his fine clothes and a physique speaking of many rich meals.

“Sumptuous greetings,” began Hristomarth. “I—”

A sharply upraised hand cut him off. “Your eagerness does you credit,” replied Provon, never shifting his eyes from the stage. “But your timing is ill-placed. Respect the sanctity of the audition! Your crew will have their own chance to excel.”

“Worthy Quaile,” Hristomarth tried again. “I am only—”

“If this concerns the stipend, then I will set your mind at ease. The remuneration is indeed significant. But do not clutter your mind with such terrestrial concerns! Focus on a scene and how you can best bring it to life.”

A sharp frown from the playwright froze Hristomarth in place. Had he overstepped? No, it was Doriana, gesticulating wildly up on the stage.

Hristomarth frowned himself. This was not proving the avenue to success that he had hoped. Provon was too proud and certain. Another tactic was needed. Perhaps gambling? Or bribery? There was only one way to find out. Hristomarth assumed a more deferential demeanor.

“My humblest apologies,” he said. “I only meant to ask if you wished to—”

Again, the sharp gesture ended his inquiry. “Ut!” grunted Provon. “I have no attention to spare! This actress speaks well, and her rendition of a Shal-Zu fox is excellent. But she waves her arms around like a mime caught aflame! I must study further. Be off with you!”

The command brooked no defiance. Hristomarth bowed sourly and backed away. Retreat was preferable to outright failure.

The wyrmlings followed obediently after, though Splaywing strained against its leash. The little dragon was still focused on the stage, shaking its head sadly at Doriana’s every wild gesticulation. It paused to peer back at Hristomarth.

“Oh, what do you know?” he muttered. “Come on.”

He guided them back across the theater floor, cursing his fortunes to the Black Vault Below. If only he’d had longer he could have worked his wiles on the old playwright. Or tricked him somehow. A rigged card game, perhaps? It didn’t matter. A different scheme would be needed to undermine Wollop.

Breaktooth chirped and sat back on its haunches. With its snout, it pointed to Wollop’s gang over by the musician’s pit. “Enmy?” trilled the little dragon, staring like a wolf at a flock of sheep.

Perhaps the direct approach might be best. Wollop anxiously watched the stage, while Vernol lazily practiced his lines with the pimple-faced understudy beside him.

The understudy. Ignored by anyone of consequence. Forced to wait for a moment that would never come. That was his opportunity.

Hristomarth yanked Greasetrap away again from the buffet and turned to face the wyrmlings. “Attend,” he said, holding up one finger. “An instructional moment is upon us. At times, an avenue of opportunity will close to you. A weakness will reveal itself as strength. Remember—the world is arrayed against us! In such instances we must adapt. Cunning and guile wax paramount. Come along now. We must shift our aim.”

He crept through the benches towards the musician’s pit, taking note again of the iron hoop against the wall. It would be just perfect for a performance he was considering. Which of the wyrmlings would be best suited to it?

The distraction had its cost. Vernol noticed his approach, sniffing in disdain. “Why have you brought those things here?” he demanded, folding his arms. “Their stench disrupts my sensibilities!”

Splaywing had sat back on its haunches to better regard the actor. Now the little wyrmling hunkered down, ashamed. The other siblings all drew together and hissed. Hristomarth pressed his lips together. “There is no need for rancor,” he lied. “We simply came over to wish you well, in the spirit of thespian affection.”

Wollop whirled. He narrowed his eyes at Hristomarth and raised a threatening finger.

“Enough!” roared Provon Quaile. “Cease your wild gesticulations—your audition is through!”

Wollop froze. Up on the stage Doriana sagged unhappily.

“My turn,” Vernol said with relish. “Out of my way—now you will see how it should be done.” He pushed past with head held high, focusing wholly on submerging himself into the role.

Wollop struggled to split his attention between his player, Provon, and Hristomarth himself. “Just stay out of my way,” he muttered, racing off to speak with the playwright. The understudy was left to face Hristomarth alone.

“Sumptuous greetings,” said Hristomarth brightly, rounding on the pimple-spotted youth. “We had no time for proper introductions before. Who might you be?” All manner of interesting avenues opened to Hristomarth, now. Blackmail would be best and fastest, as usual. Some ghastly secret of Wollop or his players which he could use to force their withdrawal.

The understudy croaked in alarm as the wyrmlings surrounded him. He raised his manuscript, holding it like a shield. Splaywing watched the parchments intently, beady eyes never wavering as the wyrmlings began circling him like wolves around a deer. A minute passed. Then another. On the stage, Vernol struck a dramatic pose and began his monologue. The understudy quavered and made a brief, breathless noise.

“What was that?” asked Hristomarth, straining to hear.

“I’m…L-Lubith.”

“Excellent,” replied Hristomarth with a smile. “Now that we are acquainted, feel free to regale me with all manner of salacious gossip. How is that old rascal Wollop? Does he still turn to itinerant toad-washing when times are lean? Has he, mayhap, accrued any interesting poxes?” Hristomarth gave a wink, the universal sign to show that he could be trusted.

Lubith could not tear his eyes from the wyrmlings. Greasetrap, seeming to realize it wouldn’t be able to slip away to the buffet, chewed experimentally on Lubith’s boots. He yelped and dropped his manuscript, which snatched out of the air and crawled underneath a bench with. Lubith reached hesitantly after the wyrmling, but the others closed ranks, forcing him back. He glanced at Hristomarth for help, making a small breathless squeak.

“Crippling shyness is rarely considered a virtue,” Hristomarth said flatly. He sat down on a bench, patience by now quite drained. At his sharp cough, the wyrmlings paused their circling to copy him, sitting back on their haunches. Intimidation and extortion seemed to come naturally to them—they stared at the understudy like a cat would a mouse. Except for Greasetrap, who began slinking away.

“I am sorry, great worthy,” squeaked the understudy. “But I am deathly afraid of your dragons.”

“These things?” Hristomarth replied, stamping on Greasetrap’s leash. “Oh, they’re harmless!”

Breaktooth reached up with a foreclaw and slowly tore Lubith’s trousers.

Lubith backed away with a yelp, only to freeze and glance worriedly up at the stage. “Could you restrain them? I am happy to converse—no one is interested, except for practice. But I mustn’t make much noise right now. Master Vernol requires absolute concentration for this monologue.”

Hristomarth pounced on the vulnerability. “Whyever for?”

“Well this is the fifth act, fourth scene.” Lubith seemed to relax as he watched the actor. “This is the penultimate speech by the last prince of the Xelenites, where he casts away his slaves, his lover, and his favored mount, all to spite his parents’ decision to give to charity! The scene is inordinately difficult to portray properly—and fraught with all manner of competing emotions. Vernol has practiced it for over a year. How fortunate that the playwright chose the Fox of Shal-Zu for the audition!”

“Positively providential.” Hristomarth glanced up at the stage. “The Ministers of Fate must surely have their hand here. This moment…it is a sensitive one, then?”

“Oh, yes.” Lubith nodded. “Quite easily derailed.”

Blackmail material this was not, but inaction would be downright irresponsible. Hristomarth grabbed Coalbelly and hoisted the wyrmling into his lap. He aimed its maw with one hand and squeezed it in a sharp hug. Reflexive flames coughed out, low and focused, so that they singed Lubith’s boots and blackened his trousers. Lubith leaped back, tripping over a bench and letting out such a piercing shriek that the air itself seemed to shiver.

The theater went silent as a tomb. The wyrmlings slithered quickly behind Hristomarth, who did his best to appear nonchalant. Wollop and Doriana stared in their direction. Provon Quaile pulled at his mustachios. Up on the stage Vernol stood frozen. His expression was caught halfway between bittersweet emotion and sheer surprise. Both quickly gave way to a twisted visage of utter rage.

“Could I please have some quiet on the floor?” he snarled, glaring down at Lubith.

The understudy scrambled back upright, blushing from head to toe. “M-my apologies.”

“Well I’m glad that you’re feeling sorry,” snapped Vernol. “I am certain that will resolve the gravity of the moment. Your apology will surely put me back on the right track now, won’t it?”

Lubith looked away. “No.”

“I’m sorry,” continued Vernol. He bent an ear as if to hear better. “What was that?

“No. The scene is ruined.”

“Exactly correct!” sneered Vernol. “Ruined! You’ve ruined a year of hard effort, you incompetent, pustule-ridden—”

“Enough.” Provon Quaile’s booming command echoed across the theater. He waited until all eyes were upon him before speaking again. “The audition is over. It is obvious that further effort would only lead to inadequate and mis-aimed results.

Wollop clutched his hands beseechingly. “Worthy playwright—”

“Be assured all aspects of the audition will be weighed appropriately.” Provon turned to face Hristomarth. “Worthy Rofolio! It is now your turn to take the stage.”

Dismay washed over Hristomarth. The outcome of both auditions for Wollop’s troupe were better than he could have dreamed. And the murderous glare the mountebank was now aiming his way was most agreeable. But forcing their withdrawal had been the goal—not actually having to compete! Curse it all to the Black Vault Below. He knew no plays, had memorized no sonnets. There was no way he could take the stage. But who else could? Access to the stipend depended upon it. And more importantly, true victory over Wollop.

He coughed to buy more time. The wyrmlings shared a look among themselves, sensing his uncertainty. Even Greasetrap looked worried, though one eye was still locked on the sideboard.

The bench beside him fell as Splaywing erupted out from beneath. The little wyrmling clambered up with the stolen manuscript clenched in its jaws, staring imploringly up at Hristomarth. Eagerness burned in its beady little eyes.

So be it. Hristomarth held a finger up at the other wyrmlings. “Attend,” he sighed. “An instructional moment is upon us. Occasionally, schemes fail. Plots fall through! Then only one recourse is left to us—desperation. In this, a proper application of studious cunning and opportunistic guile may still turn defeat into victory.”

“Master Rofolio?” asked Provon Quaile.

“Go on,” Hristomarth muttered, shooing Splaywing toward the stage. “Get up there.”

The little dragon gave a muffled trill of excitement. It leaped off the bench, over its siblings, headed for the stage. Hristomarth stood and hauled the rest of the wyrmlings to the center of the theater floor. Behind him, Lubith took the opportunity to flee. Maybe he could still pull this off. In the meantime, he could also pick Wollop’s pockets. Just in case.

Vernol watched the little wyrmling climb awkwardly up, then stalked to the edge of the stage. He faced Provon with both fists clenched knuckle-white, positively livid. “You can’t be serious!” he snapped. “They’re lizards! This is a farce!”

“I have seen excellent performances from those belonging to every class and phyle,” replied Provon, gesturing dismissively. “And fairness is the soul of art. Stand secure in your own accomplishments. Let this other player make their audition!”

Vernol looked like he was about to spit. Instead he glared daggers at Splaywing and stormed off to one side. Down on the floor, Wollop smirked sourly at Hristomarth and pointedly turned to watch the wyrmling fail. Which was both premature and foolish—now his back was to Hristomarth. The mountebank should have known better.

Splaywing crept to the center of the stage and spat out the manuscript. It sat back on its haunches, staring wide-eyed at the audience.

“Anytime you are ready,” said Provon.

Splaywing glanced about, head low. Then it opened its maw to begin a monologue.

Hristomarth had never heard anything like it. Judging by the looks on their faces, neither had Wollop, his players, or Provon Quaile. The diminutive dragon chirped, hissed, trilled, and growled. Occasionally the gibberish included something approximating an actual word. But there was a cadence to it all, with meaning emphasized by tiny forelegs gesticulating just the right amount. Splaywing demonstrated the passion burning in its scaly breast.

Optimism bloomed as Hristomarth listened. His wyrmling seemed to possess a hidden talent. Just as pleasing, Wollop’s purse was easily moved to his own pocket. Things were actually looking up.

Eventually the little dragon’s passion transformed to wistful hope. It changed again, then, to bitter loss. The performance slowly wound down to its end. Splaywing at last laid down upon the stage, its sides heaving. The theater was quiet as a tomb.

“Not bad,” said Provon Quaile, after a time. The supercilious playwright stroked his mustaches thoughtfully. “The portrayal of the Tophic Pilgrim is unusual—my interest is piqued. And it was not badly done at all.”

“Ridiculous!” gasped Wollop. He whirled to face Provon, so that Hristomarth had to quickly hide the blackjack he’d just lifted. “That was pure gibberish! The hooting and bleating of a wild animal!”

“I have seen far worse from those who should be better,” replied Provon, one eyebrow arched. “At least it wasn’t waving its forelegs around like a peasant having a stroke.”

Wollop bit back his reply, glancing sharply at Doriana. The actress looked away with a cough. Realization dawned over Hristomarth. They’d won. Splaywing’s passion had put her ahead of the flaws in Wollop’s players. They had actually won. Quickly though, he had to think. What would be the best way to parade this accomplishment in front of Wollop?

“The very Ministers of Fate must have woven this day,” said Provon. “Never have I seen such excellent portrayals as the auditions on display. Now I shall rate them. Wollop Mabram?”

Wollop forced his sour grimace into a smile. “Yes, great worthy?”

“Your Doriana performs well, though her gesticulations are of the most irritating sort. Vernol was clearly the superior. If we average the two, I must rate your troop as above average.”

Wollop frowned like he had bitten an under-ripe persimmon. “Only above average?”

Provon Quaile gestured dismissively. “Be not ashamed! The theater is a difficult business.” He looked to Hristomarth. “Worthy Rofolio? Your dragon is possessed of true talent.”

Hristomarth stood up straighter. “I have always known this,” he replied.

“Indeed,” he replied with a nod. “If she practices, her skills could eclipse even Vernol’s, some day.”

Hristomarth’s smug triumph dissipated like spring mist on a warm morning. “What?”

“I suggest a period as an understudy,” continued Provon. “The passion is there. Alas, the language barrier is considerable. Wollop’s players shall have a place in my new production.”

The wyrmlings looked to Hristomarth, mirroring his confusion. “But, what about that outburst?” he asked. “Vernol’s indelicacy is sure to repeat, providing certain offense to the delicate sensibilities of the common theater-goer.”

Provon Quaile waved dismissively. “True actors are often prickly by nature, their spirits coiled like tightly-wound springs. Such passion often overflows its boundaries. I have often said that the fires of perfection are quenched in the tears of trauma.”

“Ha!” cried Vernol. He stalked across the stage from the curtains, to loom over Splaywing where the little wyrmling lay demoralized. “Ha!” he cried again, jabbing a finger for emphasis.

Hristomarth sighed. The wyrmlings sunk down, similarly dejected. Oh well. Parading victory before Wollop would have been fine, but it wasn’t like he’d even really wanted the job. The duty was sure to have been onerous, anyway—prancing around on a stage for a bunch of toothless rubes. At least he had the purse lifted from Wollop. And the blackjack was surprisingly well-made.

“Ha!” cried Vernol again.

The actor’s outthrust finger stabbed Splaywing in the side of the head. Too far. It whipped itself about to glare at Vernol, who paused. But his wariness came too late. Splaywing latched onto the actor’s hand, trapping it in her toothy maw all the way up to the wrist. Vernol screamed and shook the wyrmling about as he tried to free himself.

Wollop and Doriana shouted aloud in alarm. Lubith gave another fearful shriek from across the theater. The other wyrmlings took these cries as calls to act. They yanked their leashes from Hristomarth’s grip and charged. Jitterclaw and Catchmaw bit at Doriana’s ankles, while Breaktooth clambered atop a bench to fling himself at Wollop’s face. Coalbelly blew overexcited gouts of fiery breath into the air, forcing them both to trip over Idleheart in the middle of the floor.

“Stop!” cried Provon Quaile. He looked in alarm to the closest wyrmling, but it was only Greasetrap, racing with single-minded focus for the sideboard buffet on the far side of the theater. “Cease this obstreperous brawling! Accept loss with magnanimity!”

Hristomarth knocked the playwright across the back of the head with the blackjack, dropping him into an unconscious heap.

“Attend!” he cried, holding his blackjack up at the wyrmlings. “An instructional moment is upon us—to the Black Vault Below with guile and cunning! Take everything that’s not nailed down! Catchmaw? Go through his pockets! Jitterclaw? Go get that iron hoop! We run for the hills to the east. They seem like an excellent place to lose the town Vigilant. Don’t you agree, Wollop?”

“Mmrgglgl!” cried Wollop, trying desperately to pull the snarling Breaktooth off his face.

With satisfaction, Hristomarth bent to rifle through Provon Quaile’s pockets. While acting still hadn’t risen much in his estimation, he did have to admit that there were other ways to enjoy the theater.