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Verity had seen Lerial and Marsc five times before, across two productions, but both had been in different locations by a different opera company. She knew it well enough that she was on the lookout for deviations, though she’d been somewhat young for the first run, and the second run had been a few years ago now.

The variations among productions were interesting to Verity, in part because they were inevitable, and in part because they said something about the time and place of the production. Music of the sort that Verity had most often played was written in sheet music, without lyrics. There was never any confusion about what a note meant, and it was relatively rare that there was any room for interpretation on the part of the musician. Any little swell or fade was considered a deviation from the score, and it was a tenet, as if in stone, that there should be no difference between performances.

In reality, even for the rigid style of music that Verity had been most heavily trained in, there were always choices to be made. There were norms, of course, stylistic norms and those specific to certain instruments, but there were little things, matters of tempo, articulation, tone, dynamics, and timbral effects where no one could rightly claim that the variation was ‘wrong’.

But for opera, the matter was far more complicated, because there was no agreement on costuming, set design, or the choices of the individual performers, and all of it taken together might dramatically change the meaning.

Lerial and Marsc was nearly two hundred years old, but the costuming wasn’t authentic to the period, at least to Verity’s understanding of historical fashion. Instead, it had been updated, but only so far. The clothes of the first act, when the leads were young, looked like the kind of thing that Verity’s grandmother might have worn, or even her great grandmother, with more wool than cotton, and silhouettes that were decades out of fashion, with puffy fabric around the upper arms and too many darts at the bottom. It was also all oversized and exaggerated, which was usual for the opera, so that people could get a striking image even from a distance.

The characters of Lerial and Marsc were, somewhat unusually, done in similar style to each other. Though there was nothing in particular to suggest it within the text of the opera itself, it was common to have Lerial be highly feminine and Marsc to be highly masculine, almost a boy. This production instead had them be, if not the same, then not differentiated along those lines. Lerial was a bit slow to act, spending her time thinking and dreaming, while Marsc was bold and brash, quick to anger and equally quick to apologize, and Verity could see why they were so often given their feminine and masculine characterizations — but it was nice to see the costuming, at least in the first act, had them both wearing feminine clothing. The previous productions had Marsc in shorts or pants, essentially throughout, still obviously a woman, but … well, there was something that Verity didn’t like about the idea that between two women, there needed to be one that was ‘the man’ in the relationship.

She glanced at Isra. Verity had known that clothes, makeup, and everything else could change a person’s appearance, but she hadn’t realized how dramatic the effect could be. Isra had always been pretty, but in a somewhat distant way, a wild way. Now, Isra could easily have fit in with the society set, at least until she opened her mouth. Part of it was her posture, which was excellent — they had worked on it together, not that she’d needed all that much instruction or change. It made Verity feel something like pride.

And Isra was, of course, beautiful, but Verity had thought that for quite some time. There was something a bit angry about Isra, but it was a pretty kind of anger. Isra frowned in concentration and scowled at her target before firing an arrow, and there was a vibrancy there which Verity couldn’t help but appreciate. Perhaps it was the intensity that drew Verity in, or perhaps it was the coarseness, or maybe it was just the ways they’d become increasingly familiar with each other in the time they’d known each other.

Verity didn’t know whether Isra was even attracted to girls though. She was cagey about it, and Verity didn’t know how to ask her. Certainly Isra had no experience, not that Verity really did either. What Verity was most worried about was that she was projecting her own attraction onto Isra, and that if they did partner, it would only be because of Verity. Then, down the road, Isra would realize that it wasn’t what she was interested in after all.

Verity had gone through most of an aria without paying too much attention, which wasn’t what the opera deserved.

The singing had accompaniment from a relatively small thirty-piece orchestra. When the singing was going on, the bards played low, making as little noise as they could while contributing to the magical effects that were part and parcel of any performance. She listened closely and felt for the magic, which was largely emotional in nature, moving with the shifting of the music. They were strong players, as expected for professional musicians at one of the highest levels of craft in the largest city in the world. Bardic magic wasn’t meant to be the point of the opera, but it was important, because it helped to make the music more captivating.

The others seemed enraptured, as did the audience. Some of that was a component of the bardic music, and some of it was just the art on display. Verity was a bit numb to what bards could do, thanks to both training and near-constant exposure. A group of bards working together in a guild, as this orchestra certainly was, could reduce a person to tears, but that could only happen for Verity if she allowed it.

The first act ended with Lerial and Marsc separated at the end of their childhood, and there was a brief break as the set was transformed for the second act.

“I don’t think I understand,” said Isra. “They’re supposed to be young girls? But they’re clearly adult women.”

“Young girls can’t be trained to sing like that,” said Verity. “And they want the same singers for all four acts. They’ll be adults in the next three acts.”

“Okay,” said Isra. “I’ve been enjoying it.”

“Good,” said Verity. “We can talk later.”

Alfric and Mizuki were carrying on their own parallel conversation, this one about the grapes that had been on the platter, which Mizuki had eaten all of. So far as Verity had been half-listening in, Mizuki was inquiring when and how they would get more grapes, and Alfric was explaining that it would take until intermission, which was in another hour.

The second act featured a split set, with Lerial on the left and Marsc on the right. They were in different parts of the world, and the lighting would focus on one, then the other, or on both when they had duets or there were otherwise events that would transpire across the distance. This was one of the things that the opera was known for, the unconventional staging having left its mark on history, but Verity now saw it as a bit of a gimmick, even if that sense of distance was still affecting. She was happy to see that the costuming was still emphasizing the femininity of both characters, which seemed to be a deliberate choice on the part of the director.

It was during the final aria of the act that Verity saw her mother in the audience.

She had been paying attention to the opera itself, but given their seats, it was hard not to cast a glance at the audience below them, their faces illuminated only by the heavy lights pointed at the stage. She hadn’t been looking for her mother, only watching the people, perhaps out of instinct as a performer, though they always said you shouldn’t focus your attention on the audience.

Her father was nowhere to be seen, but her mother definitely was there, sitting next to a friend Verity recognized.

Verity sat back in her chair, and made sure that she couldn’t see her mother, if her mother was looking up at the boxes for whatever reason. She was going to have to reapply the disguise for the intermission, and she would stay in the private box, just to stay safe.

She could feel the anxiety in the pit of her stomach. It wasn’t a fresh anxiety, it was an old one, the weight of a shirked obligation coming back in full force. All of the old guilt had returned. She shivered slightly, then practiced the same control she’d been exercising since she was little, not allowing the fear and apprehension to show on her face.

“Are you okay?” Isra whispered.

“It’s almost over,” whispered Verity. “We can talk after.”

The aria came to its stunning conclusion, and Verity tried to feel the emotion that the bards were attempting to evoke, that of a longing for home and seeing that your life was on a path you didn’t wish to travel down. It should have been more affecting to Verity given how her circumstances had changed in the years since she’d first heard it, but all she could think about was her mother down there in the audience.

“Thirty minute intermission,” said Alfric, once the applause had died down. “We can either go back to the house for a bit, or we can lounge around here. It’s a great time to use the bathroom.”

“And now there will be more grapes?” asked Mizuki.

“They’ll bring in more food for the platter, yes,” said Alfric. “And if you want to eat something more substantial, we definitely have time for that. It’s not any trouble at all for me to grab a plate from the house.”

“My mother is down there,” said Verity.

“Really?” asked Hannah, peering over the edge.

“Yes,” said Verity. She felt, in her gut, that Hannah shouldn’t be looking, that it was a method of drawing attention to them, but of course her mother couldn’t possibly see into the box where Verity was, and would have no idea who Hannah was.

“We knew this was a possibility,” said Alfric. “I can take you back to my house, or back to Pucklechurch if you prefer. You can put on your disguise too, if you’re worried she’ll see us.”

“She won’t,” said Verity. “I’m too far back, unless I stand up or lean over. I’d prefer she doesn’t see you either, because you’re supposed to be keeping an eye on me, and if she comes up here —”

“I’ll put on my own disguise,” said Alfric. He sat up and reached into his pocket, pulling out a messy blonde wig, which he put on his head. He had a very stern look on his face, and for a moment she was waiting for some kind of magic to happen, but he kept giving her a very serious look, and eventually she broke into laughter.

“Did you seriously bring that ugly wig as a gag?” asked Mizuki, while Verity was still laughing. It had gotten a laugh from everyone, but she apparently found it funniest.

“Yes,” said Alfric. He stuck the wig back into his pocket. “It pays to be prepared.”

Mizuki laughed. “I think the idea of you pocketing a wig so you could make a joke later is funnier than the joke itself.”

“Well, either way,” said Alfric. “I’ll have an actual disguise. We’ll stay up in our box. Verity won’t have to talk to her mother unless she wants to?”

“Why would I want to?” asked Verity.

“Reconciliation?” asked Hannah. “Sorry, were you thinkin’ that you’d just never talk to her again?”

“I — I don’t know,” said Verity. “If she were — if she didn’t matter, if I could live my life without caring about her, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe we could talk, and I could just tell her that I wasn’t having any of it, that I was going to live my life my own way.”

“Like Lerial,” said Isra.

“Like — yes, but not — it’s a fantastical opera, it doesn’t have any grounding,” said Verity. “It’s not the same in real life.”

“I could go down and tell your mom to suck eggs,” said Mizuki. She smiled, and Verity could see that it was a joke meant to lighten the mood, but Alfric had done a much better job.

“We’ll just stay here,” said Verity. “Or I will, the rest of you don’t have to.”

“I’ll stay,” said Isra.

“I’m goin’ to get some food,” said Hannah. “There’s some concessions and wine and things, aren’t there?”

“We can have things brought in, if you prefer,” said Alfric. “I can flag an attendant.”

“Nah, I want to see how the rich and powerful do things, peep some dresses, that sort of thing,” said Hannah. She looked down at the audience. People dressed up for the opera, but this was a normal performance, not a gala or special occasion.

“Er,” said Mizuki. “You’re not worried about, well … you know, not fitting in?” She glanced at Alfric.

“Not caring about those people is, in my opinion, the right mindset,” said Alfric. “So long as we’re not unduly rude. We’re leaving Dondrian in not too long, and momentarily being looked down upon by opera-goers seems, to me, not something to worry about.”

“Well,” said Hannah. “I’m not going to make a scene.”

“I’ll come with you,” said Mizuki.

“To keep an eye on me?” asked Hannah, raising an eyebrow.

“Because if I’m with you, maybe I’ll care less about people watching me,” said Mizuki.

“Well, let’s get to it, time is wasting,” said Hannah. “Most people don’t care about others, only themselves, we’ll be fine.”

“Tell them you’re in the Overguard box,” said Alfric. “They’ll comp the food and drink for you.”

Verity waited until they were gone to voice her thoughts. “In my experience, people do look at you, and talk about you. For some of these people, that’s half the point of coming to the opera, especially because there’s an expectation that you’ll be wearing nice clothes.”

“My father hates that,” said Alfric. “Not just because he thinks it has an impact on ticket sales, but also because he wishes that the opera were more for everyone.”

“He’s egalitarian?” asked Verity. She resisted the urge to look over the railing to try to see her mother again.

“The whole family is,” he replied. “Lots of charitable donations, stuff from the dungeons especially. Dad considers it a failure of governance for any person to go hungry, a cause for rebellion if anyone doesn’t have shelter.”

“That’s from something,” said Verity. “The Governance Palimpsest?”

“Maybe,” Alfric shrugged. “But he’s not a radical or anything, just … has some views. I think now more than he used to. We were talking some last night. Inter does well enough, I think.”

“Do people go hungry?” asked Isra.

“Well,” said Alfric. “No, not typically, there are national programs in place and we’ve been making more food than we need for nearly a century. But — do you care about the politics?”

“I don’t know,” said Isra. She looked at Verity. “A bit.”

“There are two major factions,” said Alfric. “The leverists believe that we can achieve the perfect society by introducing proper legislation and creating incentives that people will follow. The culturalists believe that we can achieve the perfect society by having a good culture, and there’s some disagreement about what that actually means, but they’re somewhat united in the idea that more laws will inevitably backfire, or have huge overheads.”

It was, in Verity’s opinion, a very even-handed approach to the topic, perhaps a bit too much so. In practice, the leverists and culturalists clashed on certain specific points which were at least somewhat at odds with that description. The culturalists were often talking about specific laws they wanted abolished, especially those which they thought got in the way of personal liberty, or sometimes, accumulation of wealth. Contrarily, the leverists were often focused on things which weren’t about putting levers in place, but rather, were more about attempting to control the shape of society through other means. There was, at least, broad agreement on the basics of what a good nation would look like, which wasn’t true in previous centuries, at least so far as Verity understood her history.

“Okay,” said Isra. She was frowning in thought.

“The intermission isn’t really the place for a primer on politics,” said Verity. “Traditionally, it’s a time for us to come back from the world of the opera, think about it critically, talk about what we saw, and — well, usually it’s for gossip, if my trips with my mother were anything to go by.”

“I thought it was very nice,” said Isra. “Much more straightforward than I had thought it would be.”

“Did you enjoy the bards?” asked Verity. “Some people have a bad reaction.”

“Mostly because bards work with what’s there,” said Alfric. “Sorry, not to step on your toes.”

“No, it’s a good clarification,” nodded Verity. She was still waiting for Isra’s response.

“I couldn’t tell what I was feeling and what was from them,” she said. “But after a few minutes, I stopped worrying about it. It was nice, I think. There was a depth of feeling, a — a guiding to it?”

Verity nodded.

“And you can do that?” asked Isra.

“Yes,” said Verity. “You’ve felt it a few times, haven’t you? Just taking the edge off of anxiety or fear?”

“Yes,” nodded Isra. “But … it’s not like that, not so … full?”

“For a bard to blast someone with emotional multiplication is considered quite rude,” said Verity. “Even in a tavern setting, where it’s expected there will be a bit of influence from the music, you still wouldn’t go full force. And this wasn’t full force either, the point is to complement the music rather than overwhelm the mind.”

“Can you overwhelm the mind?” asked Isra.

“A bit,” said Verity. “If you weren’t prepared for it — it’s possible, at least for someone who has as much training and experience as I do, to make you stop in your tracks with emotion, so long as I was amplifying something that was already there.”

“I would like to try it some time,” said Isra.

“Really?” asked Verity.

“It’s less fun than it sounds,” said Alfric. “And I don’t think it sounds very fun.”

“You’ve tried it?” asked Verity, raising an eyebrow.

“Grig did it,” said Alfric. “On a dare. I was trying to be a part of the fun.” He shrugged. “Not a great experience, overall, but not one that I wish I didn’t have.”

“Ah,” said Verity. “I should get into my disguise,” said Verity. “Though I suppose I won’t be able to make myself shorter or the dress won’t fit.”

“I like you tall,” said Isra.

Verity smiled at her. A part of her mind was still devoted to looking at their druid and marveling at how pretty she was.

It wasn’t too long before Mizuki and Hannah returned, and Verity thought she detected something uncomfortable from them, but was too polite to ask if they weren’t going to share it on their own.

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Alexander Wales

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