A few paces off knelt another actor in black, a man with greying hair pulled in a neat bun. His fingers were curled around the hilt of a dagger, and his other hand covered his face in what appeared to be a subtle and masculine expression of grief.
Tom Cooke didn’t know what the fuck was going on.
He didn’t even know what language they were speaking, and it was too late to ask now. Besides, he was far more interested in the show that was going on in the audience: wealthy, important folks milling about, whispering and chattering in their cliques, occasionally flitting from box to box like bees touring flowers. A ways across the theatre, a little lower down, he could clearly see an entourage of important-looking toffins gathered round a seated figure swaddled in heavy furs and blankets. He even saw a few faces he recognized from earlier that month, and he tried to keep track of them, commit them to memory.
That, at least, felt useful, though he couldn’t say he was enjoying the evening otherwise.
This whole outing had been Incumbent Alcide Perreault’s idea, but at present, he wasn’t known to be the finest host. He hadn’t been married to Marie a year, and they were already hissing and fussing at each other like stray cats begrudgingly sharing the same alleyway. Half an hour ago, she’d idly pointed out the leading man, a slim Hoxian baritone with a distinctive cast of features, and said some words in his favor; as far as Tom could tell, it’d fired up old Alcide, and Marie still wasn’t hearing the end of it. At this point, she’d cut across him to point out something or other about some Rochester woman, but they were speaking in hushed tones, and Tom caught about every third word.
Some ways behind Perreault, all the way in the back, sat a Judge Nicholas Swindlehurste, though you wouldn’t have known him from a theatrical prop. He must’ve been older than time, and he kept drifting off, his wrinkled hands folded in his lap. Unfortunately, he had the unsettling habit of sleeping with his eyes open, and Tom kept glancing over to see him staring through half-lidded eyes, lips moving slightly as if he were working through his thoughts. Occasionally, a loud noise would rouse him to startled wakefulness, but he’d drop off almost immediately after.
Closest to Tom and Diana were Cassian and Verity Warwick. Cassian was roughly Anatole’s age, a well-respected advocate in Vienda and (evidently) an old friend from Brunnhold. If Tom had harbored any worries about this, Verity soon assuaged them; Cassian couldn’t get a word in edgeways, and had, in fact, begun to look a little ill. So he’d nodded attentively, hummed the requisite toffin laughs at Mrs. Warwick’s juicy bits of gossip, and let Diana lead the way.
That was just as well, because it was the seventh member of their little party that bothered Tom the most. He knew Corwynn, of course – Corinth Wynngate III, as they called him Uptown – but not like this, and he reckoned they hadn’t left off their last meeting on the most normal of terms. He didn’t quite know how to deal with the King’s taxman anymore, not in this context, not with both of them in on Tom’s little secret. Not with both of them in on so many secrets. It was surreal, being here, being who he was now, seeing a familiar face from a different world.
He tried to ignore it, but his mind kept drifting away from Verity’s chatter, drifting toward the towheaded gunman. Nevertheless, he was torn from his reverie by the sound of shuffling and coughs, a whispered apology – he glanced over to see Warwick headed swiftly toward the exit, face slack and pale. Verity stood and began to follow him, but a lingering glance at Diana told Tom he’d missed something important.
When he turned to her, she was tight-lipped, a hand on each knee. Her eyes were on the departing Warwicks; they flicked to Tom’s face, studied it for a tense, wordless moment, and then moved toward the stage. She moved as if to stand, then stopped, sitting on the edge of her seat.
“Er – my dear—” He leaned over and placed a tentative hand on her wrist.
(It felt bizarre and wrong. He wanted to get away.)
“My dear,” he continued, feeling strangely like an actor himself, “are you quite…?”
“I’m fine.” She patted the top of his hand, then slipped her own arm out from underneath it. Though it was clear she tried to keep it in check, her field seemed to balk at the thought of touching his; the perceptive mona, usually so elegant and smooth, avoided his frayed edges as if disgusted by them. She offered him a smile – one smile after another, always that perfect smile – and then folded her hands in her lap.
“Do you want to leave, too?”
Diana glanced down, frowning. “Yes. I’m afraid I’m beginning to feel a bit faint, myself.”
“Well – of course, we can…”
“No!” she replied quickly, reaching out and patting his knee. She might’ve meant for it to be an affectionate gesture, but the way Tom saw it, she looked like a woman touching a big, ugly fly: it was a fast, light motion, as if she were worried that she’d catch something from him. In response, he shifted away from her, and her eyes softened. “No, it’s just – I’m really not feeling well, and I’d like to go home alone. The Warwicks already offered to take me.”
“Oh. Did they? Well, that’s fine, but being honest, I’d like to—” He broke off. A muscle jumped in Diana’s jaw. It wasn’t a look of anger, exactly, but Tom knew it well enough by now; he knew it meant he’d slipped, used some turn of phrase that Anatole wouldn’t have. In a hurry to redeem himself, he went on, “I mean to say – I would hate for you to spend the evening by yourself, Di.”
“Oh, no, my love, I wouldn’t inconvenience you.” Seeming to muster up her courage, she took one of his hands in both of hers. Her fingers felt bony and chill underneath the silk of her gloves. She met Tom’s eye and smiled sadly. “Please, do stay out – enjoy yourself, Anatole. Will you do that for me?”
“But you’ll be leaving for Hesse in—”
He broke off again. Her eyes seemed to say, Exactly. Behind her, a woman’s shape at the entrance of the box waved a plump arm and called, “Diana?”
She pressed his hand and turned, gathering up her skirts as she maneuvered her way past the other seats and up to Verity. The two women hovered there a moment, back-lit so that their faces were unreadable; Verity leaned to whisper something in Diana’s ear, and Diana shook her head brusquely. Then they were gone, leaving him deeply conscious of the empty seats around him.
That left the five of them. Swindlehurste was, as usual, lost in some dream; across the box, Perreault and his wife were still engaged in their squabble. Tom took a deep breath, shooting an uncomfortable glance at the blond galdor a few paces off, and shifted in his seat. Being honest, he didn’t know the etiquette for this shit, no matter how many times Diana had explained it to him; Swindlehurste was dead, the Perreaults were bent on being difficult, and he hated all these toffins, anyway. He was a hair’s breadth from getting up and leaving, but he’d no idea where he’d go. With that bird in the roost, he certainly didn’t want to go home, and none of the usual drinking holes appealed to him.
He drummed his fingers a little agitatedly on the table, then took another sip of brandy. It must’ve gone down the wrong pipe, because he spluttered, throat burning, and had to thump his chest and cough awkwardly.