There is one thing that Lucien knows, though he knows nothing else here: he cannot let Shuni ascend.
Does Shuni even want to become a Lord? He never expressed interest in anything but getting his own heart back, and the fear of it ending up in someone else’s hands. Sacrificing it now seems—wrong. It’s Shuni’s choice if he wants to become a Lord, of course, but right now, it’s not one made with full consent. In a best case scenario, he’s making it because his powerful ex told him that if he did it, he’d take him back. In a worst case scenario… well, Shuni has already admitted to Lucien that he doesn’t feel anything deeply with his heart out of his chest. Is even capable of deeply wanting to become a Lord? Of deeply wanting anything?
More simply: Shuni’s affair with Lord Peacock didn’t end well the first time, and he deserves better than being manipulated by this asshole.
And it’s utterly clear that Lord Peacock is manipulative. He manipulated Frederik into starting this while planning to stop Frederik carrying it through. He manipulated Shuni to take it up after. Knowing that, even if it fully were Shuni’s choice—why should Lucien trust Peacock’s word that the end wouldn’t come so long as someone other than Frederik took it? Sacrificing anyone at this stage could lead to that abyss. To the future those dreams were hinting at.
Peacock seems just the sort of self-absorbed individual to want the Lords to consist of just him and his obsessed ex, Shuni. Why would anyone else matter when it could be just Peacock and Peacock’s counterpart?
And Lucien thinks of his old key, of what he sacrificed in his dream, of how it had always acted to him as a symbol of survival, of getting through this. How it had never unlocked anything. He doesn’t have it any more. It had been gone when he woke up.
But Shuni still has a key.
Lucien reaches Shuni in three quick steps and grabs his wrist as the knife descends. Shuni snarls a curse, but Lucien doesn’t let it turn into a duel. He twists Shuni’s wrist sharply and forces him to drop the knife, then stops on it when it falls. No good if Peacock or—anyone, really—gets it while he’s busy.
Shuni opens his mouth to snap at him again, to accuse him of betrayal, something, and Lucien kisses him.
It’s a hard kiss, a desperate kiss, a kiss which is as much about trying to communicate his fears and his hopes and his demands as it is about his passion and his concern and his soft, uncertain, not-quite-yet-formed love. It’s fraught, and it’s emotional, and it’s frightening, kissing Shuni right now.
Shuni’s mouth moves, first in words that Lucien can’t translate, and then because Shuni is kissing back, almost stunned.
It’s just as well, because Lucien is pretty sure the next part will hurt. “Sorry,” he whispers into Shuni’s mouth, and he runs a hand over Shuni’s chest, finds the pendant, and snaps it off.
And then he drives his hand with the pendant in it into the stab wounds in Shuni’s chest over where his heart should be, inserts it between Shuni’s ribs, and twists.
Shuni’s chest opens up like a morbid flower, flesh tearing open, ribs gaping, everything inside wet and red. Shuni gasps, arched back over Lucien’s arm, and, oh, the pain must be unbearable, mustn’t it? Lucien tries to work fast, grabbing Shuni’s heart out of his other hand before Shuni can drop it. He needs to work fast, but he tries to go slow enough that he won’t squeeze it, despite his fear and desperation making his muscles tense. It feels so soft, so strange, fragile and wet and fleshy, pumping blood thinly over his fingers.
What way does a heart even go? Lucien only has the faintest idea of which side is forward, which side is up. But this is magic, and the Endless’s gift, and she is here, up there, in the booth, and he has to rely on that. He pushes it into the hole that’s left in that horrible maw, and the heart snaps out of his grasp, shifting around on its own, finding its place.
He barely has time to pull his hand out of the gaping teeth of Shuni’s chest before it snaps closed with a crunch, muscle and flesh reknitting, healing up the wounds that he had taken from Frederik’s knife.
Lucien can’t hold Shuni up any longer and tries to lower him gently to the stage, where Shuni lies gasping, trying to pull himself together. Lucien pets his hair just once with a bloody hand, then scoops up the knife he’d stomped on and rises again.
The knife seems to fit perfectly in his grip. The stage bucks again with another shock of earthquake and Lucien spares a moment to be glad that didn’t happen while he was putting Shuni’s heart back. He spreads his feet, bracing himself more firmly, and lifts the knife, looking across the stage to where Katarin has gone into a crouch to keep herself from falling.
“Hey,” he asks, hefting the knife, “Would you stop me if I did it?”
Katarin lets out a yell that’s half-despair, half rage, and pulls a pistol out from a holster under Revelle’s skirt. She tries to level it, but it’s hard for her to get a bead with the earth moving under them. “You can’t!” she says. “I don’t want to do it, but the world—the prophecy—”
Lord Peacock is suddenly beside her, a swirl of feathers and colors, and he knocks the pistol out of her hands. “None of that. Let’s see how this plays out, all right? This is fun.”
That’s what Lucien had thought would happen, but it’s nice to see that he’s right, and that he understood her—that Katarin simply won’t seize this opportunity to ascend, even if she can. He laughs a little to himself, and hefts the knife, looking up at Lord Crow’s box.
It’s still impossible to tell if the Lords can hear or see through the strange prisons of their own nature that the box seats have become, but… well, the rib-opener worked, and Shuni healed after, so Lucien has to assume that at least the Endless’s power could go through. And if hers could, Crow’s should be able to as well.
Lucien raises the knife high and does his best to make eye contact with where he assumes Lord Crow must be, seated in his booth, leaning forward to watch with interest. He announces: “Lord Crow, Carrion-Eater. Perhaps you’re lonely. Perhaps, like Lord Peacock the Heartbreaker, you want a counterpart too. You never said. But—” he spins the knife here. All eyes are on him, he’s sure of it, and he loves the attention. “If so? Court me properly. Come to my shows. Be my patron. Let’s get to know each other as I learn what Lord I want to be instead of jumping on the first available opportunity without a plan.”
His voice is echoing in the theatre, would reach the back seats easily. He carries on, caught up in his own monologue. “Honestly, this? This stupid affair? This isn’t enough of an offering to you to warrant my ascent as your counterpart. I didn’t plan this. I didn’t drive this. I’m not interested in some kind of cosmic duology where the world as we know it ends, wild and messy, just so you and I can be the only ones left. That sounds like a nightmare! That sounds like my childhood, frankly—why should I ascend on the back of my trauma, instead of my wants? No, I want a better ritual, one that fits who I want to become when I become him for the rest of eternity. I want this to be mine, and I want to choose to do it myself.”
Then, voice loud, somber, a declaration that cannot be denied, Lucien finishes: “There is no ascent here. The ritual is over.”
The earthquake stops so abruptly that Lucien almost loses his footing in the absence of motion. The three boxes clear, and show their Lords once more, rapt, focused on the stage.
And there is silence.
In that silence, he turns to Katarin and shrugs. “Sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to scare you there. It’s just all about the drama, you know? It’s not a good promise if I can’t back it with a dedication, and I can’t do a dedication without making a scene.” He doesn’t take the time to see her reaction, turning instead to Lord Peacock. “So that’s that. Nobody’s going to do it. The ritual’s over.”
For a moment, Lord Peacock seems inscrutable, emotionless, unmoving: a perfect statue. And then the eyes all over his train blink, off-beat from each other, and Lord Peacock sighs, throwing his hands up in the air. But he’s grinning when he speaks. “What an anticlimax,” he says. “A total disappointment all around. Though I admit you’ve got my attention now.”
Shuni pushes himself up on his hands, lifting his head. “Peacock—” His voice is ragged, pleading.
Lord Peacock’s eyes roll—all of them. “And you? No follow-through. Do something that impresses me in the future, and then we’ll talk.”
He vanishes, and then, as if they had just been waiting for Peacock to leave first, the lords wink out one at a time. First is the Endless, gone as if she had never existed; then the Moonlit Lord, winking out with a fading of her light like moonset. And last, Crow, in a whirl of feathers and the sound of a flock taking off.
It is the three of them, alone.
Lucien bows to the empty seats of the audience.
There is riotous applause as the finale of The Thief King comes to a close. Lucien, playing the titular Thief King, Ransom, bows, then steps aside so his costars may come on.
This play was as variable as all plays are, but was no ritual. Instead, it was fun. He feels more confident with this sort of character now, in his element. He applauds his cast as they come on one by one, but his gaze is scanning the box seats. There are two Lords in attendance today: Lord Peacock, who sometimes deigns to come see a show, and, of course, Lord Crow.
His frequent presence at Lucien’s shows is to be expected, but never fails to fill Lucien with a sense of pleasure.
After he’s cleaned up and changed back into plain old Lucien, he shakes his head and demurs about getting drinks with the cast. “Sorry, I’ve got an obligation,” he says. “But let’s catch up properly tomorrow, maybe.”
Rude? Perhaps. But it’s one year since that day, and he owes it to his friends.
They meet at the Fox’s Den. Katarin shows up first, sliding in across from him without much preamble. “Saw the show tonight. It was lovely. The finale really pulled things together.”
“Well, full credit to the director for that,” Lucien says. “Kine is much more hands on than that director was. They made notes after every performance to suggest scenes for the next day, to really guide it into a cohesive work night-by-night. Exhausted our poor SM, mind.”
Katarin laughs a little, then busies herself with a sip of her beer as Shuni slides into the booth next to Lucien and steals a kiss. It’s meant to be a quick one, but Lucien’s still running the high of a work complete, and, well, Katarin seems quite busy with her drink, so he makes it longer.
Not that he doesn’t have ample opportunity to kiss Shuni these days, regular lovers as they are. They don’t live together, and see other people, sure, but they’re in each other’s company as often as they are not. It’s perhaps for the best—Shuni’s still experimenting with having a heart in a chest again, how to both protect it from the wrong sorts, and how to make it vulnerable with the right sorts. Keeping Shuni to himself might be satisfying, but not the best thing for Shuni.
They’re both working on doing the best thing for themselves, these days.
When they break apart, Katarin lets out a sound that’s half-laugh, half sigh. “Good to see how well you’re doing,” she says.
“You too,” Shuni says. “Though Lucien says you’ve quit acting.”
“Well, for now, anyway,” she says. “I don’t know that I’d ever be happy in the long run as an actor, even if I’m good at it. But I’ve been writing my own plays, and working as an ASM in the meantime. I don’t want to leave the theatre. I’m just not cut out for the spotlight.”
He waves a hand, dismissing the apologetic note in her voice. “If you’re doing what makes you happy, that’s all that matters. Just a shame we won’t be able to play across from you again.”
Shuni might say that, but none of them have played across from each other since that day. It may be coincidence—an actor has to be cast, after all. The actors don’t decide who they’ll perform with. But they haven’t been trying out for the same shows, and Lucien thinks that perhaps, at least for now, they just don’t want to see each other as competition. They’re working on having partnership instead, despite the attention of certain Lords complicating things.
Lucien wouldn’t take it back for the world.
They finish their drinks, and Katarin heads off, with a promise to give them both copies of her next script and a suggestion that they catch up again in a week. Shuni and Lucien walk home together through the early dawn, the darkness of night just starting to give way to the reds and oranges of the rising sun.
Time to sleep soon. Not yet, though. Not yet.
They pause in front of Lucien’s house, and Lucien gives Shuni a kiss. “Do you want to come up?” he offers.
Shuni laughs. Lucien is still not used to how soft it sounds these days. “I’ll pass, thanks. I know what happens right after a performance ends, and I don’t plan to get in the way of that. But one more kiss.”
A lingering kiss later, Lucien heads up the stairs into his cramped apartment. And there, as Shuni had correctly assumed, is Lord Crow, sitting on Lucien’s bed. Corvids are perched on every available surface, making a ruckus, and his shirt is open already, showing curling feathers instead of hair. He’s eager, then. Excited.
“Good performance tonight,” Crow says, with one of those raw, scraping laughs. “Sorry I couldn’t make yesterday’s, but you know how it is.”
Lucien does. Lord Crow isn’t Lucien’s to command. He’s untameable. But he shows up to more of Lucien’s shows than he misses, and Lucien knows that his offer of a year ago wasn’t rejected.
Lucien grins and goes to him.
When he’d held the knife, he hadn’t known what kind of Lord he’d become even if he went forward with it. Looking back, Lucien doesn’t think that the him of a year ago could have become more than the Lord of Survival, defined by his losses and scrambling to stay on top of things. That could have been some kind of counterpart to the Carrion-Eater, certainly, but he’s not sure it would have been the one he wanted.
He’s doing more than surviving now. He’s thriving.
And he’s excited to see what sort of utter nonsense he’ll have claimed for himself when he’s ready to ascend.
[Head on over to the Author’s Notes/Story Q&A?]