[Please read the Instructions before jumping in]
Time seems to slow.
Lucien feels as if he has a choice here. He could run to Shuni himself, trade the box for the knife, and keep it out of Shuni’s hands—he’s not sure why, but he feels as if it’s dangerous for Shuni to have it right now.
Or he could divert them, and deal with the known threat: Frederik. Frederik is chasing Shuni with openly murderous intent, and is gaining on him.
There isn’t time to dwell over the pros and cons of both options. He shoves the box back into Katarin’s hand. “Give this to Shuni!” he says, and spins, tackling Frederik to the stage with a teeth-clattering impact.
They roll around there, fighting hard and fighting dirty. Frederik’s fist slams into the side of Lucien’s head, ripping his wig off and scattering pins. Lucien tries to get a grip on him and slam him back into the stage, pin him down, but Frederik’s flesh seems to slide around his touch like liquid, oozing out of his grasp, then reforming in time to slam the heel of a palm up under Lucien’s chin.
He tastes blood and slams his knee into the main part of Frederik’s surprisingly-malleable body; there’s enough of him still there that he hears the breath go out of Frederik. Lucien’s skirts tangle around his legs, and he gets an idea. The ties of the skirt can be undone with a quick yank, necessary for quick-change scenes, and he does that now, then rolls, trying to tangle Frederik in the length of cloth.
What a sight they must make, he thinks, almost hysterical. Shuni bleeding everywhere, Frederik’s flesh altering with every attempt to harm him, Katarin and Lucien both dressed as Revelle but with Lucien’s costume completely destroyed; he’s essentially just in his drawers and undershirt now, hair a mess, makeup smeared. The majority of the audience must be gone by now, between the attempted murder and the earthquake, but the Lords are still here and—the director? Where is he? He had originally said, when rehearsals were done, that he’d watch the shows, but Lucien doesn’t remember seeing him anywhere, not in the crowd, not in the wings.
It’s as if thinking about him summons him. “Stop,” the director says, firm.
There’s something in the tone that jerks Lucien away from Frederik, and likewise, makes Frederik jolt to attention. He sees that Katarin and Shuni are both staring too, and Shuni is cradling the box as he does, defensive and hunched.
The director is rising from the stage trap, as if this is a dramatic entry into an ongoing performance. He looks as he always does: dressed in black entirely from booted toe to gloved fingertips, from pant cuff to high collar. He has long black hair under a wide black hat that casts so much of his face in shadow that it is impossible to make out features, let alone color.
“Well, you’ve made a mess of things, haven’t you?” the director tells Frederik, laughter in his voice. “But that’s what I thought would happen, honestly.”
Frederik scrambles back from Lucien, and then takes to his knees, bowing low. “My lord! Let me proceed. There are two other sacrifices here. I dedicate it to you: An end and a beginning! Beauty in nothingness, in indecision! I will rise as your counterpart and suck the rest of the Lords dry to power my ascent! I declared the ritual started, and I will not let it stop now! Give me the means to kill them!”
“In indecision,” the director echoes with a sigh, and something is happening to him. The inky color of his clothing, of his hair, even of his shadow, are bleeding away. They drip down to the stage, sloughing off and leaving an oily, iridescent puddle around his feet. What’s underneath is bright and beautiful and strange.
His skin is a blueish green that glitters with all colors of the rainbow, and his hair is a spray of huge, long feathers that falls down to the floor behind him: hair and a cloak and a train all at once. On each feather is an eye that blinks and stares around the room, watching all of them at once, watching the other three Lords above. His face is human, if something so beautiful can possibly be human. Certainly, it’s more human than the obscured faces of the other Lords, but Lucien thinks that is because the concept of what a human finds beautiful is usually a matter of egocentrism. The director’s face is perfectly balanced, with proportions that every one of Lucien’s instincts are telling him are perfect. He is dressed in a suit made entirely of tiny scintillating feathers, close-cut and perfectly tailored.
The world seems to throb as Lord Peacock, the Heartbreaker, throws off his disguise. It hurts to look at him, an erotic ache of desire.
Fuck, Lucien thinks, feverishly. That’s why one of the booths was reserved. One of the Lords has been in this theatre the entire time.
Shuni makes a noise of pain.
“Indecision,” Lord Peacock repeats. “Really, Fred, you’re pathetic. I hope you know that. You don’t know who you are, but you still don’t want to be anyone but yourself. This is why you never even managed to get a starring role. Imagine,” he asides, to the three Lords who appear to be locked in their box seats above, “a shapeshifter ending up as someone’s understudy.”
They do not respond, if they’re even able to.
“My lord?” Frederik sounds devastated.
Lord Peacock smiles, pleased. “I just needed an actor to get things started,” he explains. “But I never wanted it to be you who would ascend. Imagine! The ego of that assumption.”
Frederik gasps for air, clawing at his chest. Lucien is afraid to move. The stage is bucking and rocking now, and he can barely stay upright. The air feels thick. There are four Lords here, and he understands now why that is the so-called legal limit. It feels as if he is coming apart under the force of it.
Still, Frederik is turning purple, seizing, dragging his hands along the ground now. “What are you doing to him?” Katarin demands, and Lucien is impressed she can speak.
“Him? Oh, heart attack,” Lord Peacock says dismissively. “I don’t need him anymore, and I don’t want to risk him somehow succeeding. Once the ritual’s started, anyone can do it, if they make an appropriate sacrifice. But an eternity with Fred? Yikes. End can have him.”
“But then,” Lucien says, and he’s surprised to hear his own voice come out in this airless space that’s forming around them, “why get this started at all?”
Frederik lies still.
Peacock smiles, and it is beautiful, radiant. “Fred was right about one thing. It’s lonely at the top.” And then he turns, holding out his hands to Shuni, a silent plea. “Take me back, darling? Any man who’d take his own heart out after our love affair turns sour is the man for me. You deserve this. Get rid of that thing for good, and use its power to rise up.”
“But,” Shuni says, soft, emotionless.
“Don’t hesitate, don’t worry,” Peacock pleads. “Those dreams were dreams of the Lord that Fred would have become; whatever Lord you’ll be won’t be the one that he would have been. The Lords will be fine, the world will be fine! And even if it isn’t fine for all of them—who cares? We’ll be fine. We’ll be together again, forever, a perfect duo. Do it for me, my love?”
Lucien looks at Shuni, and Shuni looks back at Lucien. Shuni has the knife, and he has his heart.
Lucien abruptly understands that there are several ways this can go, right now. Shuni could ascend, and permanently put on a costume that is more than just a costume, begin to play a role that is more than just a role. Lucien is not so convinced that the end won’t happen if Shuni is the one to do it rather than Frederik. Shuni’s desperate and empty too, just like the world in their dreams. What would the counterpart be for the Heartbreaker? Shuni is already heartless. What kind of Lord would he be?
There’s Katarin to consider too. She could also ascend, if she gets there first, makes a sacrifice before Shuni has committed himself to it. Yet—she’s already said she’s not interested. She wanted to stop the ritual before it caused destruction, but Frederik is dead now—what will she do? Will she kill Shuni? Will she try to preempt him, despite not wanting to become a Lord? Will she do nothing, and see what Shuni or Lucien does?
Those are two possible outcomes. And seeing which of them happens… all it would take is for Lucien to do nothing.
But Lucien, too, can act. He can interfere. Can ascend. Can become a Lord. It would just require a sacrifice of his humanity.
Shuni breaks eye contact. “I’m sorry,” he whispers, guilty. He’s going to betray Lucien and do this, and Lucien thinks that Shuni, too, isn’t sure that he won’t bring about the destruction of the other Lords with it.
Lucien makes a decision.
[Please leave your suggestion for Lucien in the comments. What does he decide?
It can be among the list of things he thought about, or something else YOU think of
(but remember Katarin & Shuni might try their own things, if not addressed)
Turn in lasts until NOON EST on NOV 1 to give everyone a time to weigh in.
The conclusion will go up after that.]