A beautiful woman lay face down on the ground, her head turned to one side, open eyes staring at nothing. Between her back and her right arm rose the lower half of a sword. A man approached, walking as if half asleep. His expression was serious and his eyes, fixed on the sword, neither blinked nor wavered. He began speaking in a quiet voice that slowly gained intensity.
“Though the hilt of this blade be conformed to this hand,” he said, “though the Queen’s red blood stain these fingers, still, O Highness, this deed is not mine, but yours. Wherefore this bloody fate? For the throne? A thousand times would I deny it. Pride alone shall be my crown. And if regency cling to that crown, like some malady that cannot be healed, so must I accept the thorn with the flower, the pit with the peach. Still, O Highness, this deed is not mine, but yours.”
He looked out into the distance, tears streaming down his face. Then he lowered his head then dropped to one knee, hovering over the form of the woman.
“When my pride you besmirched by your heart’s deft swoon, your own grave you attained with garlands to festoon.”
The two audience members began clapping as loudly as they could. Looking up, the man smiled thinly. He reached out a hand to the woman, who clasped it in her own as she let the prop sword slip down to the ground, and they both stood up. Her smile was full and bright. They bowed in unison, holding hands, then bowed again. The clapping continued as the pair trotted off the stage.
“That was wonderful,” said Vistryia. She threw her arms around the man’s neck, pressed her whole face against his cheek, and gave him a smacking kiss.
Millus stood motionless, looking down, and said nothing. Vistryia broke the embrace and skipped to the edge of the proscenium. She poked her head around a wooden plank painted to look like a column and beckoned the two audience members, an old man and a young girl, to come over to her. Her eyes caught the movement of a shadow near the entrance door in the back of the auditorium, but when she looked more carefully, she saw nothing.
She returned her attention to the pair standing up and waved more emphatically, smiling and nodding. Vistryia helped the old man onto the stage, then the two of them together lifted up the girl by her arms, who smiled as they did so.
“Millus,” said Vistryia over her shoulder, “come meet the audience. Say hello.”
Millus had been pacing in a darkened corner of the backstage. Hearing his name, he lifted his head and stared at Vistryia for a moment before walking over to the group, reprising his unconvinced smile.
“Thank you very much for an excellent performance,” said the man from the audience, holding out his hand.
“Yes,” Millus said, taking the man’s hand with a limp grip.
“I had never heard of this story in the Bellavar Cycle,” said the man.
“No, few people know of it,” said Millus. “The author intended the piece to be performed for kings and queens, not for the people here.”
“Ah,” said the man.
Vistryia narrowed her eyes and darted a glance at Millus before turning to the girl and bending down to her.
“And you liked it, too?” she said.
“Oh yes, very much,” said the girl, “Though, I didn’t quite understand everything.”
Millus rolled his eyes. “What a surprise,” he muttered.
The old man took a step behind the girl and put his hands on her shoulders.
“Yes, well, my granddaughter and I really need to be going. Thank you again and good luck to you.”
Before Vistryia had time to say anything, the man nodded politely and turned around, gently ushering the girl in front of him. They hopped off the stage and left through the main entrance. Vistryia watched them leave while Millus returned to his pacing. Once the man and the girl were gone, Vistryia turned to Millus.
“You didn’t have to be rude,” she said. “I know you’re unhappy here, but they don’t need to know.”
“Hm?” said Millus.
“Millus, look at me,” said Vistryia quietly.
He stopped pacing, turned, and looked at the young woman. Her eyes were soft and sad. Millus frowned and walked over to her. He took her hands in his.
“I am sorry, my dear. I have many things on my mind right now. I’m working on a new piece that is… eluding me somehow. And none of these people appreciate what I’m doing here, it’s all so frustrating.”
He let go of her hands and began walking around the stage.
“If Lord Dunsti had not waited until he was about to die of extreme decrepitude to build this auditorium,” he said, “perhaps these backward ignoramuses might not be too stupid to appreciate art.”
Vistryia folded her arms, frowning.
“They’re simple people, Millus. They’ve never visited the capital or even a large city. They don’t know any of the dozens of languages of the Empire. They’re farmers, artisans, and military folk in a frontier garrison town. As long as the Skogs don’t attack and the crops don’t dry out, they’re happy.”
“What a pitiful life,” said Millus, shaking his head.
She sighed. “But they are happy when you use your talents to entertain them.”
Millus threw up his arms. “Entertainment? Is that what Lord Dunsti wants me to do here? Is that what you want? My art is not meant to entertain but to instruct and change. It’s meant to shove a looking glass in the face of the Empire and show it for what it is.”
“And what is it, Millus? All these people are Imperial citizens. You and I are Imperial citizens. What is so important that we all need to know?”
Millus stared at her and furrowed his brow.
“That a reckoning is coming,” he said quietly. “Things are not as they should be.”
“But we’re together,” she said.
They looked at each other in silence for a long moment.
“Marry me, Millus.”
He spun around and sighed heavily.
“Vistryia, we will not have this discussion again. Not today, please. We cannot leave now and go to Myranath to perform the ceremony. When things are settled, then, perhaps, we can consider marriage, but right now—”
He turned around to face her but saw only wisps of her hair disappearing through the backstage door. Millus stared at the door for a moment then started to pace again, returning his full attention to his new play.
* * *
That night, Millus spent three hours in his favorite tavern, The Black Swan, brooding over tankards of ale and scribbling in his leather-bound manuscript. He made no progress on his play, but managed to write a love poem to Vistryia that was genuine, if sloppy and sentimental. Enflamed to make amends for their argument and fueled by ale, he returned to the theater shortly before midnight.
The upper two stories of the recently constructed theater building contained a small apartment that the couple shared. He tossed pebbles at their bedroom window until Vistryia appeared, then recited his poem with a theatrical bravado that awoke both her emotions and the neighbor’s ire. He would have finished the thirty-eight-line poem if an incensed man in his nightshirt had not chased Millus into the theater at sword-point. He was saved by Vistryia who ran downstairs to meet them and easily placated the neighbor with her charming personality. Millus and Vistryia had a good laugh before Millus lay down and promptly fell asleep. Vistryia could only sigh as she put out the candles of their private chamber.
* * *
A loud clap of thunder awoke Millus the next morning. The air was heavy and humid, threatening rain. Yawning and scratching his shoulder-length hair, he shuffled his way from the bedroom down to the theater while Vistryia slept. He walked onto the stage, pondering his play, and stared out into the empty auditorium that was only dimly visible from the gray light leaking in through lateral windows. Occasionally lightning flashed and distant thunder rumbled. Suddenly, he detected a shadowy movement in the obscured back rows.
“Your future,” said an unfamiliar, male voice.
A tall figure emerged from the shadows and walked down the center aisle of the auditorium. His face was hidden behind the cowl of a heavy cloak. Evenly paced strides and the sharp clacking sound of hard-soled boots marked his progress. Just before he reached the stage, the man took one final step, then, with a fluidity that perfectly maintained the speed of his forward motion, he silently levitated up to the level of the stage, his next step echoing off the stage floor without breaking the cadence. Millus watched in astonishment as the figure closed the remaining distance between them. He stopped in front of Millus and threw back his cowl.
A head taller than Millus, the man had a thin, gaunt face. His long, black hair was pulled back into a tight pony tail that disappeared into the folds of his cloak. The man’s lips were slightly curled up on one side, giving the impression of a stifled grin or grimace. On the right side of his neck was the unmistakable tattoo of the Magician’s Guild. The dark green irises of his eyes had no pupils, giving the man an otherworldly appearance.
“Good morning, Master Guildsman,” said Millus, mustering all his theatrical talent to avoid betraying the intimidation and anxiety that he felt. “I was not aware that there was a Guildsman in Sinille.”
“I am merely passing through, Millus Harck.” His voice was deep and coarse.
“You know my name.”
“Indeed. I know much about you. For example, I know that you are languishing here in this pitiful excuse for a town and that your unsurpassed abilities for the stage are wallowing in the mud of ignorance and vapidity.”
Millus tried to look the Guildsman in the eyes but could not hold his gaze for more than a moment. He looked instead at the intricate, cryptic design of the Guild tattoo.
“Yes, it’s all temporary,” said Millus with pretended nonchalance. “I am working on a new piece and soon—”
“But you cannot write that piece.”
Millus stared for a moment before composing himself.
“How do you know all this?”
The Guildsman folded his arms behind his back and began to pace casually around Millus, who felt suddenly relieved to be freed from the man’s stare.
“The immaterial world is not distinct from the material world, Master Harck, it is simply different. Most men cannot see how the two are linked and would not care to know if they did. Just like a rock thrown into a pond creates ripples in the water, so do the actions of men create ripples in the world of the Art that is the domain of the Guild and its adepts. The Guild has become aware of you because your actions could… let us say, generate ripples.”
Millus watched the Guildsman slowly turn around.
“It is not in vain that we call our power the Art, for an art is what it is. It is not science.”
The Guildsman reached into his cloak and pulled out a simple, linked necklace. He let the object dangle from his hooked forefinger, swinging back and forth.
“Take this necklace, for example. It is worthless,” he said, then smiled. “Worthless for me. For another man, it is as an open door to a world of untold power and ability. Why? Our best adepts and practitioners cannot say. It is not that they do not know, as such, because knowledge is something for science. They simply cannot work their Art with it. Nor can I.”
He took a step forward and Millus had to restrain an impulse to take a step back.
“But for you,” said the Guildsman, “this necklace can be the solution to your problems.”
The Guildsman extended the necklace to Millus who felt a strange compulsion to hold it. Millus stretched out his hand and the Guildsman dropped the object into his palm. It seemed almost to absorb light rather than reflect it. The Guildsman resumed his pacing around the actor whose attention was transfixed on the necklace.
“With this,” said the Guildsman, his voice louder and more passionate, “the barriers between your craft and the public can be obliterated. Your art can be enhanced and augmented by the Art. The words and the thoughts and the movements that are within you can be unleashed.”
“How does it work?” said Millus.
“It does not work. It generates.”
Millus closed his hand around the object to force it from his view. He looked up at the Guildsman.
“Why do you bring this to me?”
“I told you, it is of no value to us. But why should it be wasted if there is someone who can use it? You, for example.”
“Then you give it to me?”
The Guildsman stopped his pacing and smiled.
“Something that you do not even want.”
Millus narrowed his eyes in suspicion.
“If you decide not to accept it,” said the Guildsman, “you need not keep it. I shall be in Sinille until midday tomorrow. If you wish to return the necklace, simply bring it back to me at the Red River Inn before I leave.”
The Guildsman nodded curtly and turned. He walked to the edge of the stage and levitated down to the ground. Millus, unable to speak, watched him go. Just before the Guildsman reached the door he stopped and swiveled to face Millus.
“I said that you are generating ripples, Millus Harck. Those ripples could become waves. If you wish.”
The Guildsman turned and left the theater.
* * *
The more Millus tried to ignore the necklace, the more he dwelled on it. Yet with great effort, he succeeded in going about his normal activities for the rest of the day without an outer sign of the inner struggle he felt. Even Vistryia, usually keenly attentive to his mood swings and erratic behavior, was only vaguely aware that he was preoccupied. She attributed it to their argument the day before.
As the evening performance approached, Millus’s struggle became more and more intense. He did not trust the Guild, in general, nor the visiting Guildsman, in particular, but he could not deny the power and influence that the Guild and its members possessed. He would be a fool to stand in their way or refuse their patronage, he thought.
Moments before the play began, he poked his head around the edge of the stage wall and looked out at the audience. There was no one, not even a washed-up soldier and his ignorant granddaughter. The auditorium was completely empty. A boiling rage began to fill him. He felt contempt and disgust for the town of Sinille with its idiotic inhabitants. He felt rekindled hatred for the Empire and its stultifying, moralizing emptiness. If they would not come, then they could all burn.
Vistryia came up behind him with a sympathetic frown that he did not see. She rested her hands on his shoulders and nestled her face against the back of his neck.
“Showtime,” she said in a whisper.
Without giving him time to respond, she leapt on stage and began reciting her opening lines with her usual vivacity.
His theatrical instincts were awoken. The show had begun and he would have to appear in a moment. He stood motionless and felt torn from all sides, from Vistryia, from his craft, from his anger, from the Guildsman’s promise. His cue came and he hesitated. A storm of love and hatred battled in his soul and in that moment of perfect frustration, he pulled the necklace over his head and stepped out onto the stage.
He felt no change and yet everything was different. Every word, every movement, every tiny, nuanced gesture was perfect. His performance was inspired and it seemed to flow with natural ease as from some unseen, bubbling source within him. He did not feel controlled by the necklace, nor did he control it. It seemed to him that a purified form of his own creative energy emanated from him. There was some sort of symbiosis between him and the magical object. Millus had never before had any direct encounter with the Art in his entire life, and yet, on that stage, he felt as if he had never been without it.
No one saw the brilliant performance except Vistryia and himself. Afterwards, she was typically ebullient in her lavish praise and encouragement, but Millus had come to expect that from the hopelessly optimistic woman. He alone knew the truth. He alone saw the true potential of the necklace because he sensed somehow, in the depths of his soul, that a flawless theatrical performance was a mere hint of what he was capable with the aid of the necklace and the Art.
After changing out of his costume and removing his stage make-up, Millus went to the Black Swan with his manuscript, ordered a tankard of ale, and sat down in his usual, quiet corner. The words flowed out of him and onto the pages like lava from an erupting volcano. He neither hesitated nor doubted. He was transcribing a supernatural dictation that, at the same time, sprung from within him. The more he wrote, the more feverous and daring he became. Outside, the humidity and heat that had built up all day exploded in a massive, tempestuous storm. Thunder, lightning, heavy winds and torrential rain raged about the tavern, but Millus did not notice. He did not even notice that the candle at his table had been blown out by wind seeping through the drafty walls of the tavern. He wrote in darkness, illuminated somehow from within.
The play that had eluded him for so long was finished in one uninterrupted burst of creative madness. It was an inspired piece of social criticism, a biting attack against the Empire, and a literary masterpiece. He stumbled home in the waning drizzle of the storm as if drunk, though he had not even sipped his single tankard of ale. Millus arrived to find Vistryia dozing in a chair, her head slumped forward and the weight of her arms pinning a book to her lap. A candle on a nearby table cast the only light in the room as Millus staggered in. Everything was calm and quiet and felt restful after his tumultuous evening. He enjoyed the moment of respite and he smiled at her with genuine happiness for the first time in as long as he could remember.
Then, for a fleeting moment, a wild seizure of derangement came over him. He ceased to feel like a mere man, but a god. The world would be his personal stage and he could direct the lives of others like so many actors. His genius would make history. All things were mere props to be bent under his creative power. Millus’s smile changed. It was no longer joyous and peaceful but contemptuous and deranged. Tomorrow he would perform his new piece for the first time and the world would tremble. He closed the chamber door behind him, waking Vistryia. This time, he did not fall asleep.
* * *
Millus spent the next morning preparing for the premier of his new play. It was a one-man show, which he mentioned in passing to a stunned Vistryia on his way out the door shortly after sunrise. Without bidding her farewell, he slammed the door behind him, and she stared at it for a long time after he left, overcome with surprise and disappointment. She sensed the approach of something terrible, but could not name it, and without knowing why, she began to weep.
The morning air was cool and fresh after the night’s storm and everything in Sinille still dripped from the tremendous downpours. Millus crossed and recrossed the town three times over. He called in favors, talked to acquaintances that he had shunned out of spite or contempt for years, and spoke to everyone and anyone whom he could find. He convinced Lord Dunsti to attend that night, together with a visiting nobleman who was lodging at the Lord’s manor outside of town. He even went to the Garrison and spoke to the highest-ranking military officer he could find in an attempt to persuade any off-duty soldiers to come.
At the end of the hectic morning, Millus made his way to the Black Swan with a ravenous appetite. He was about to enter when the Watchtower Bell began ringing for midday. He stopped suddenly just short of the tavern door and turned to look in the direction of the sound. Halfway down the street he could see a black carriage, hitched and ready to depart, standing outside the Red River Inn. The bell rang again. Millus stared at the carriage as the dark figure of the Guildsman stepped out of the inn. The bell continued to ring. The Guildsman turned to face Millus. They stared at each other. The bell fell silent. The Guildsman mounted into the carriage and Millus went into the tavern.
* * *
A mere handful of those invited showed up that evening and Millus was furious. From backstage he counted only fourteen occupied seats, though among the scant audience was Lord Dunsti and his guest, which was a small consolation. Vistryia did not visit Millus before the performance, but took a seat in the first row. He had not included her in his count.
As the starting time approached, Millus felt none of the anxiety and excitement that he usually experienced before stepping on stage. Instead, he was angry. His requests had gone largely unheeded and the inhabitants of Sinille had yet again demonstrated their unworthiness for his talent. Reaching in to his pocket to take out the necklace, he panicked for a moment when he found it missing. As if in response, he felt a shiver run through him from his neck down his whole back. Millus felt under his tunic and realized that he was still wearing the necklace. He had never taken it off.
Across town, the Watchtower Bell struck the evening hour. Millus stepped on stage to tepid applause. His blood boiled as he began. The play was a series of soliloquies recited by the demigod Seph, the mythical son of the woman Rayna and the god Marouneth. The setting was Seph’s prison cell before his execution at the stake for his refusal to bow to the will of his father.
Millus began calmly, the words flowing out of him as naturally as breathing. As soon as he opened his mouth, something changed in the auditorium. The air seemed charged with energy. A heavy tension and anticipation descended on the viewers. They were drawn inextricably to the sounds and movements on the stage and felt almost as if they too were soon to be executed. Millus sensed at once immersed in the role as never before and, at the same time, floating disembodied outside himself as if he were a member of the audience. He could perceive the rapturous attention of the viewers.
The tone intensified as the death of Seph approached. Millus unleashed the demigod’s passionate thoughts, his vitriol against the other gods, his condemnation of feeble humanity. Every moment that passed augmented the tense atmosphere of expectation and apprehension. The mood shifted to fear. The audience was awestruck as Millus raced and stomped from one side of the stage to the other. His voice rose, louder and stronger. Seph began shouting his final accusation, his final rejection of his father’s authority. The audience reached a height of frenzied terror.
Shouting a blasphemous curse, Millus closed his eyes, thrust out his arms, and opened himself wholly to the power that flowed through the necklace. His entire body burst into a blinding conflagration of blue fire. Shrieks and gasps of horror poured out of the audience and Millus’s ears drank them in like water given to a man dying of thirst. The flames continued to encircle him, writhing and twisting over and around themselves like a den of snakes.
Then there was nothing. The flames vanished and Millus along with them. Panting and exhilarated, he rematerialized outside the theater, unharmed. He shouted in triumphant joy. No one had ever experienced anything like that, he thought. He was the greatest actor of all time.
Taking hold of himself, he calmly walked back into the theater where the audience members were beside themselves with excitement and astonishment. They flocked to him and bombarded him with questions. He told them nothing of the necklace, but only suggested that he had always had a latent ability for the Art. Lord Dunsti invited him to visit his manor that very night to celebrate his success and promised he would use all his connections and resources to publicize the staggering brilliance of his play. Millus left with Lord Dunsti and his guest, laughing and bantering together as if they were old friends.
In the front row sat Vistryia, unable to speak and unwilling to move. She could not fathom what she had witnessed. The man who stepped on stage had seemed in every way to be her Millus, but as soon as his first word struck her ears, she was hurled into a chasm of doubt and confusion. When he had disappeared, she thought for a dreadful moment that he was really gone, but when he returned and she heard his familiar voice chatting so happily, she felt almost worse. It felt like he had returned in body, but not in soul. She sat alone in her seat long into the night, lost in thought, before slowly standing up to lock the auditorium door and retire to their empty chamber.
* * *
Millus returned the next morning well after sunrise, exhausted, still drunk, and happier than he had ever felt in his life. Vistryia was not in the apartment when he arrived. She left a note saying that she did not feel well and was going to visit the Garrison doctor. Millus smiled to himself at the thought of Vistryia’s gentle simplicity and then collapsed into bed to sleep until long into the afternoon.
She was sitting on a chair at the foot of their bed watching him when he awoke, her hands folded across her belly. He smiled and propped himself up, looking at her through squinting eyes.
“Good morning,” he said.
She tried to smile, but only succeeded in slightly bending the edges of her mouth.
“What was that last night?” she said in a whisper.
He stood, stretched, and went to the water basin that Vistryia had filled hours earlier. He splashed lukewarm water on his face and dried it with his tunic.
“Didn’t you hear what I was telling everyone afterwards?” he said, turning towards her. “I have an ability with the Art. Nothing much. Not enough to become a Guildsman or anything. Just a sort of connection to it.”
“You never mentioned that before.”
“It’s quite personal, Vistryia,” he said as if speaking to a child. “You understand.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed and took her hands into his. A shiver went through her and she pulled back her hands. He laughed.
“What is it? Are you upset that I stayed out all night? You should be used to that by now after all these months together. I come and go. That’s the life of an artist.”
He folded his hands behind his head and flopped back onto the bed, smiling at the ceiling.
“I’ll make it up to you. This new play is our ticket out of this dunghill. Tonight, after the performance, we’ll go celebrate at the Swan. Just you and me and Baron Plonnopour with his wife Hahlie. Lord Dunsti said he could get them to come tonight. You’ll love her like your own sister, she’s —”
“Millus, I’m pregnant.”
The silence was profound. Neither spoke for minutes. Finally, Millus raised himself slowly and hunched forward, his elbows on his knees. He buried his hands in his face for a moment, then lifted his head.
“Are you sure?” he asked in a cold tone.
“Midwife Laras confirmed it. She’s never wrong.”
“Well, maybe this time!” he yelled.
Vistryia’s eyes filled with tears.
“Am I even the father?” he said, his face twisted in disgust. “How do I know what you’ve been doing behind my back?”
Vistryia began to bawl. Millus stood and began pacing around the bed.
“All right, stop that, now, stop it.”
She silenced her voice but continued heaving in pitiful sobs.
“Isn’t there a way to get rid of it? Can’t you visit someone who can take care of the problem?”
She stared at him in dismay.
“How could you…”
“I’m just thinking,” he said angrily. “This couldn’t have happened at a worse time.”
Then something changed in Millus. He became calm and untroubled. He thought of all the beautiful women at Lord Dunsti’s manor the night before and recalled all the propositions and flirtations that he had reluctantly refused. He thought of going to Leesos, the capital of the Province. His entire future was open before him, fame, riches, women, power. He would not jeopardize all that for a simple townsgirl and a bastard child.
Millus strode to the door.
“I need to think about this,” he said and slammed the door behind him.
When he returned, shortly before the evening’s performance, Vistryia was gone.
* * *
Every seat in the auditorium was full that evening for the second performance, with people standing in the back and all along the walls. Just like the night before, Millus created an almost tangible energy and seized hold of the viewers as if they were under a spell. The second performance was as brilliant and inspired as the first and yet somehow unique and new. The amazing conflagration at the play’s climax drew screams of shock and terror from the new viewers, but also shouts of joy from those who had been there the night before. Afterwards, Millus had to tear himself away from the crowd that clamored to speak with him or merely see him up close.
Lord Dunsti fulfilled his promise and soon the incredible one-man show was known in Leesos and throughout the entire Province. Millus increased the price of tickets fourfold and within a week was able to hire an entire staff to manage the upkeep of the theater, which he and Vistryia used to take care of themselves. He replaced Vistryia in other ways through revolving invitations to various young noblewoman for extended lodgings in the theater’s apartment. Scandal heaped upon scandal and yet no one wished to disturb the delicate genius of the artist.
Every night he repeated the play, and every night the auditorium was full. Many saw it multiple times, while others came from all over the Province or even further away to see the spectacle. He became lavishly rich and spent the money equally lavishly on parties, ale, and women. The small apartment above the theater proved to be far too modest to contain the debauchery that followed his performances. Lord Dunsti’s manor became the nightly epicenter of hedonist revelries. He and Lady Dunsti, past their prime and desperate to seem sophisticated and progressive, were all too happy to oblige.
One night, tired of his exhausting social life, Millus went back to the Swan in disguise so that he could have one evening of peace and quiet. He ordered an ale and sat in his usual, quiet corner, where he wrote a new play. It was more profound and more subtle than the first play, without the startling finale. It demonstrated that his repertoire would have depth and diversity. Millus Harck would not let himself become a temporary phenomenon that the world could soon forget.
He premiered the new play a week later after much publicity and anticipation. It was a wild success. Those who cried out in shock and horror at the moment of conflagration in the first play, wept in sorrow at the heartbreaking tale of Yillon, another character out of mythology, whose lover abandoned him. Millus began performing both plays every day and yet never became exhausted. The very exercise of the Art regenerated his strength.
Despite his profligate lifestyle, he was still able to save enough money to invest in a new theater in Leesos. Lord Dunsti also helped with the finances and by the Autumnal Equinox, Millus was set up in the bustling city. He never felt more alive in his life. A third and a fourth play bubbled out of his imagination like cool water from a spring. His success was astounding, his fame was Empire-wide, and his future was assured.
And then it ended.
* * *
Millus stepped on stage one night in early spring. The new auditorium in Leesos was full with excited viewers as every night. He opened his mouth to begin, but no words came. He could not even utter any articulate sound, but only wheeze a raspy choke. The audience, accustomed to Millus’s radically unorthodox plays, waited patiently. Panic rose in the man’s chest. He dug within himself to try to connect with the power of the necklace, to activate it, to do anything, but the thing was unresponsive. He could only feel its cold grasp around his neck.
Millus tried vainly for a few moments to simply perform as he always had before the necklace, but he quickly realized that he did not even have his text memorized. Wearing the necklace, the words had simply emanated from him, but no longer. He ran offstage and exited the theater from a back door.
To the surprise and disappointment of everyone, Millus announced the next day that all performances of all his plays would be canceled for the next three weeks due to a sudden and serious illness. He shut himself up in his apartment for days, seeing no one, and weighed his options. After much thinking and no change in the necklace, he decided to perform one of his pieces in a normal way and without the aid of the Art.
He sat down with his old, leather-bound manuscript the next night to read his works and begin preparing one of them. When he opened it, Millus nearly cried out in terror. Nothing in the manuscript was written in any discernable language. Page after page was covered with arcane symbols, runes, or even strange scrawls like scratching claws. He had no recollection of writing any of it, and he could not decipher a single word. The manuscript suddenly seemed vile and detestable. He locked the thing away in a chest and spent the rest of the night drinking himself into forgetful oblivion.
The following afternoon, Millus procured a blank manuscript and began writing a new play. It was a study of betrayal and the downfall of a king whose own son usurped his father’s rightful throne. Millus, desperate and furious, poured his heart into the piece and wrote like a man possessed. All the rage and disappointment he felt about the unwanted dormancy of his necklace and his suddenly uncertain future drove him forward and found expression under his rabid quill.
The night of the premier arrived and the auditorium was full. Secrecy and intrigue made the new piece almost more anticipated than his previous plays at the height of his success. No one knew about the necklace and its impotency. From the perspective of the audience, Millus had taken his short hiatus only to return with something even more spectacular than before.
Millus stepped onto stage amidst roaring applause. His heart pounded as he began. In all his years on the stage, he was never prouder of a performance. Every bit of talent he had was harnessed into the lines that expressed the true, unadulterated state of his soul. In the figure of the king, he poured out his hate and derision onto the figure of the son, imagining all the while that he could somehow attack the treacherous Art itself through his natural skill. It was a performance that in any other context, in any other corner of the Empire, would have been awe-inspiring.
When it was over, the audience was silent. There was no applause, there were no cheers, there were no cries of joy or horror. The people simply left, one by one, murmuring and glancing over their shoulders towards the stage as they went. Millus knew why. The viewers had not been touched by the Art. Though the thought never would have occurred to them, they had come not for a play, but for an experience of the supernatural. Millus had been giving them that, but if he could no longer do it, then the people would no longer come.
Millus was able to endure only one more such performance the next night, before cracking in despair and desolation. The second night was worse. Word had quickly spread the next day of the sudden change in his performance. The audience was wary the second night, and they were all the more disappointed for it. Heckling and jeering began even before the piece was finished. Millus ignored it as best he could, but there was no spark of inspiration left in him. He left Leesos that very night and returned to Sinille in the early morning hours.
For two months, he wallowed in his old apartment above the dusty, defunct theater that had been the source of such joy, both worldly and otherworldly. Visitors came to seek him out, especially Lord Dunsti who was furious and demanded that Millus reimburse him for his share in the Leesos theater investment. Millus gave them pitiful excuses for more time, fed them empty promises, or simply refused to see them altogether. Every day he held the necklace and agonized over it. He could not accept that it would never regain its power.
One day a letter arrived that had been originally delivered to his address in Leesos. It was from Vistryia. For two days Millus let it sit, unopened. He was as terrified as he was curious. Finally, he opened it. It had been dated from more than two weeks ago.
I have been following the recent events of your life very carefully. It was almost impossible not to. Everything you did was discussed by everyone. You are maybe the most famous man in the Empire. Now everything has changed again. That’s what I’ve heard. To be honest, I greeted the news with joy. Whatever evil came upon you, whatever spell possessed you, it must now be gone. Let us return to the way things were. I do not pretend to understand, but I know how you were and I am ready to start over.
There is big news. You have a son. I know he is something that you do not even want, but I hope that with time—
Millus stopped reading. The words struck him like a blow to the stomach. Without finishing the letter, he grabbed his cloak, threw a few necessary items into a satchel, and ran out into the street. He sprinted to the Black Swan and burst in, raving that he would pay any man five times the price for his horse. One of the patrons quickly agreed and within minutes Millus galloped out of Sinille for the five-hour journey to the outskirts of Myranath and the small farm of Vistryia’s family.
Sometime after midnight, the horse became exhausted and refused to go on. Millus dismounted and abandoned the animal, trudging ahead on foot along the darkened road. Everything that had seemed so burdensome to him before, everything that he had felt were obstacles to his happiness and success, suddenly appeared as they truly were, the only things that mattered to him. There would be time to make amends, he thought, reassuring himself. They could start over. He had a son. He was a father. There was still hope. He arrived before the sun rose and collapsed, exhausted and unconscious, onto the steps of a small farmhouse porch where he had met Vistryia years ago.
* * *
Millus was awoken by a kick in the face.
“Get up, you,” said a gruff voice.
He rolled over onto his back, barely able to discern the blow from the rest of the aches and pains that covered his overwrought body. It took Millus a moment to focus his gaze and recognize who had struck him. Standing above him on the porch with his arms crossed was Vistryia’s brother, a stern man whom he had only met once briefly, but about whom Vistryia had spoken often.
“Where is Vistryia?” said Millus hobbling to his feet.
The brother squinted as he examined Millus, trying to place him but not being able to remember if he had ever seen him before.
“Who’s asking? What are you doing here?”
“I’m an old friend of Vistryia’s. I was on my way to Myranath, but was overcome in the night by a terrible exhaustion. I do apologize for my appearance and arriving here in such a state. I was only hoping to visit with her briefly before I continue on my way.”
Satisfied that Millus posed no direct threat, the man let his expression soften, only to become crestfallen and mournful.
“She’s dead,” he said in a trembling voice. “I helped bury her myself with our father. She got some kind of disease. It was very sudden.”
“When?” said Millus, his voice barely a whisper.
“Eleven days ago.”
“And what of the child?”
“They said the child had the disease, too, so it went with a doctor to be treated.”
“A doctor?” said Millus, confused.
“Yes. Big tall man with all green eyes.”
Millus stared at the man in dismay. Hope abandoned him like the blood that drained from his face. His legs buckled and he collapsed to the ground.
* * *
After being given a small meal by the brother, Millus walked back to Sinille. His legs moved mechanically as he made his way, not caring about anything. He was certain that he would never meet his son, and he was certain that the heinous necklace would never again channel the Art for him. Halfway back, he exploded in a fit of rage and ripped the hateful thing off his neck. He hurled it into the forest and felt not at all better for it. The damage was done. It could not be repaired.
Millus arrived in Sinille after sunset. He should have been hungry, but was not. He should have felt exhausted, but felt nothing. Stumbling into the theater, he hauled himself onto the stage and lay face down for a long time, open eyes staring at nothing, lost in a pit of despair.
It was sometime in the middle of the night when he awoke again. Words ran through his head. He heard the words of Vistryia, then the words of his doting admirers, and then finally his own words. Some of the lines from his play had returned to him. He began reciting them unthinkingly, every word a bitter self-recrimination and stab of self-loathing. The well of emptiness in his soul was suddenly filled, but not with anything good or beautiful. He felt glutted with unmitigated hatred.
Rising to his feet, he staggered to the backstage, ceaselessly reciting his accursed text. He floundered around scenery pieces and props, knocking things over, tripping and falling to the ground. The words kept coming and his voice kept gaining strength. He stood and continued his erratic stumbling back onto the stage. His recitation approached its final lines. Seph was cursing the gods and Millus made those words his own. A power returned to him from some unknown source. He stopped, swaying on wobbly legs, in the middle of the stage, his voice rising and rising.
Finally, he arrived at the end. There was only one more thing to say. Millus drew a deep breath, uttered the blasphemous oath in a terrifying scream, and burst into flames. They were bright orange flames and they did not stop burning until there was nothing left to feed them.
“A performance that shall be remembered by future generations,” said a voice. In the back of the darkened auditorium, a solitary man with green eyes applauded.