Thorn of the Rose

“O Scourge of the Sea! Though long you have stalked me, no more shall you withhold your truth from me…

“…O Scourge of the Sea! I see the curtain has parted, your true form at last revealed to me.”

“O Scourge of the Sea! Though long you have stalked me, no more shall you withhold your truth from me! Won’t you reveal your true form, now at the end of times, so that I may know my savior before I breathe my last?”

Miri’s voice rang out over the gathering. Keelath swallowed, trying to get spit back into his mouth so he could speak without stumbling over his own tongue. At least his dry voice would seem in character, but the stuttering would not.

“Alas, short are our beastly lives, ever moreso now as the mana-storms approach on the horizon. I will grant your request, Fair Remira. Only here at the end of time can we be reunited, as Shen-Bahan foresaw. For Remira, my beauty, I am he, Lurid-cursed but Light-blessed, your once and forever lover…”

The audience leaned forward, catching their collective breath, as Keelath reached for the snake mask on his face. Miri swept closer with a theatrical gasp, giving her costume’s skirts a few flourishes that weren’t in the script, but that their watchers seemed to appreciate anyway.

“Better on the voice,” whispered Miri as she drew into arm’s length. “One would think you had finally started taking the role seriously, Tarineth.”

Keelath’s heart gave a few swift thumps, loud enough he guessed the audience could hear it. He glanced briefly at them, eyes drawing back to where Tyrric was standing on the sidelines. His brother grinned and gave him two thumbs up in approval. Bolstered, but nervous, Keeelath turned back to Miri. He pulled off the mask in one long, practiced movement, as it had been in the script.

He registered shock in Miri’s eyes once she saw his face, but she was professional enough not to break out of character. Keelath struggled to mirror that as she placed her hands on his shoulders, and he bent down so she could kiss him.

“Finally I am to be united with you, Miri,” he said, before their lips met. It wasn’t quite his lines, as it wasn’t quite the right name to use, but Keelath figured it would be close enough for the audience… and it was the right lines as far as his heart was concerned.

For a moment, he was in another world then, with just the two of them. Her lips were warm and soft, and he parted his slightly to receive her.

She kept her mouth firmly closed however, almost clenched. It was a swift kiss, just a touch, and then she stepped away, before the play was fully over. He vaguely heard the troubadour leader, Antem, cursing over the curtain contraption, and a faded azure cloth dropped to hide them, as the mage doing the spell effects made the deck shake like a ship at storm and spritzed water on the audience to mimic the final killing wave of the Turning. The audience was cheering.

Miri yanked away from Keelath once the curtain was down. He reflexively reached out to catch her, thinking the heaving deck had unbalanced her, but she slapped his hands away and began to storm off.

“Wait a moment!” Keelath called after her. “That was — that was nice.” Then, thinking he’d better do it properly, he added, “One of your best performances.”

My best performance?” Her incredulous, acid tone stopped him short, and she turned to face him, glowing golden eyes like fire. “And what about your own?”

Keelath had no idea what was bothering her. “Well, I don’t exactly do this for a living like you do,” he said uncertainly.

“You really thought this was the best way to get me to kiss you?” snapped Miri, blowing past his stuttering excuses. “Trick me by taking the role of the heshti? I should’ve known Tarineth would never be able to do it so well!”

Oh. Damn. “Well, the audience seemed to like it…”

She walked back to him, and he swallowed hard, but her tone had softened. “I know you, Keelath Sunwalker. You’re that nobleman from the Dawnmist manor.”

“Yes!” said Keelath in happy but confused surprise. “You learned my right name!”

“Oh, yes, the noble Sunwalker, though you weren’t anywhere near to being a noble before the Kingslayer War, or so I’ve heard. For all that, you carry yourself like the highest among them.”

“I’m glad you approve,” said Keelath, though despite her suddenly friendly tone, he had a feeling everything was going inexplicably, terribly wrong.

Sure enough, Miri’s sweet smile melted as soon as she got close enough to slap him viciously across the face. “Secrets and lies, that’s what makes the highest of noblemen! You think you can have anything you want out of me just because you are funding me? Well, think again!”

“I-it’s not like that–” Keelath took his stinging face in his hands, feeling intensely embarrassed as the stage crew began to mount the deck around them, snatching glances at them like humans gawking at a quarreling couple. He reached out to stop her. “Please, let me say a few words…”

Miri froze and swung around as his fingers caught in her dress, but she said nothing.

It felt like now or never. He had her attention finally, if maybe not in the best manner. He wasn’t likely to gain it again. “I felt something there,” he stammered, releasing her and smoothing his clothes. “A-a connection. I think we would… well, pair well. I would like to dedicate my–”

Miri seemed to unfreeze as soon as his hands left her, and then she started laughing, halfway through his speech. Keelath’s cheeks burned. “You… you really are serious, aren’t you? I can’t believe… You thought all this was for real? You believed that if Hre’lod, Scourge of the Sea, declared his love for Fair Remira, it was the same as you loving me?”

“Well, no, that would be foolish,” said Keelath, though in his heart and dreams that was exactly how it should have happened.

Miri laughed a little longer, then her mirth morphed back into the viciousness with a shake of her head. “Well, guess what, Clodlath. I don’t love you. I don’t even like you. We were playing a game of pretend, for the children of your little village, and you are thinking like one of those children now. There is nothing between us; there never was and never will be. So if you’ll excuse me, my work is done for the night!”

And she turned and swept off, lifting Remira’s skirts as she descended off the deck. She was graceful and beautiful even when she was furious. Keelath’s thumping heart turned painful. Scooping the snake mask off the deck, he turned, head bowed, to descend the stage on the other side.

As he stepped past the curtain, he was instantly met by a crowd of fans.

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