The final line was sung and the theatre dome was filled with the clear sound of the young man’s tenor. It cut through the silence of the room, forcing hair to rise on the backs of guests’ necks and breath to catch in throats. The orchestra let their final note fade behind the vibrato note, until only the string quartet accompanied the lone young man standing at the centre of the polished stage.
Then the note ended and the spell was broken. Silence fell over the theatre for several heartbeats, then the audience began shrieking with cheers and a thunderous applause. The tenor bowed and grinned, the conductor stood from the orchestra pit, the rest of the performers reappeared from behind the red velvet curtain cutting the stage in two: but the audience, all standing in honour of the opera, were not calling for any who had appeared before them.
One young man split off from the rest of the group and ducked through the boisterous crowd until he reached the foyer of the theatre. It was void of all life save for that of the hosts standing beside the main entrance, but they didn’t even acknowledge his presence as he ghosted over the thick carpeting toward an unobtrusive wooden door tucked behind a smooth cherry wood bar. It was closed, unmarked, but when he tried the worn brass handle he found it wasn’t locked, and gave easily when he pushed.
The door opened to a narrow stone hallway, completely unadorned, with plain walls, heavy chandelier brackets and only a simple runner carpet down the centre. The green room opened nearby, he knew, and after the performers were presented to the audience they would return to wash their faces of lead powder and carmine, shed wigs and costumes, and chat about the success of the night’s performance.
But he wasn’t looking for the green room.
He continued down the hallway and smiled when he saw several vellum posters tacked to the wall. He slowed as he passed and glanced over them. A beautiful woodcut usually of men and women in elaborate gowns and headpieces, with a block letter title at the top, the names of the main performers underneath the image, and there, at the bottom, the name of the fabled creator: all were the most successful plays and poetry readings of the past four years, like The Heart of the Gladiator, Desert Bones Whispering, The City’s Gentleman, and, the most famous of the operas to date, the one he had just witnessed for the sixth night running, Immortal Soul Weeps. But it wasn’t the titles, or the beautifully printed woodcuts of lovers embracing, of men fighting monsters, or the record-breaking performance dates, that caught his eye. It was the name signed at the bottom of each page, hand copied onto each poster that was released throughout the City: Fen of the City.
Elusive and enigmatic: the greatest playwright and poet of this era never showed his face in polite society, never graced the stage with his presence after a performance, he was more of a ghost than a real being to most of the uneducated public, and a mysterious, exotic foreigner to the City’s courts of gossip. Once, after his first sold out performance in the City’s most prestigious theatre in the Exchange—therefore the most prestigious theatre in the entire Nation—for The Heart of the Gladiator, his first play that focussed solely on romance, there was a ball held in his honour in the wealthy quarter, Holy Emperor’s Way. According to the rumour mill, that was the only time he had ever appeared in public—and he had been dressed in thick folds of black velvet and cream lace, with a beaked masquerade mask, in plain black encrusted with pearls, that hid his face from those desperate to meet him.
Fen of the City was a mystery, which only helped his plays gain popularity. Every time his work was performed, the audience expected to see him on stage after the final note had fallen silent.
The man chuckled to himself and rolled his eyes, then continued down the hallway until he reached another plain door. When he tried this one it was locked, so he knocked and leaned against the jamb, a small smirk playing at the corners of his lips.
Several moments of hesitation passed, then he heard a soft voice ask, “Who is it?”
“The reigning prince of agriculture,” he retorted, laughter ringing his voice. “Who do you think it is?”
Another pause. “Seriously.” The voice was flat and lacking amusement, and it only made him snort to stifle his chuckles.
“It’s your brother, Flynn. Open up, you smug hermit.”