Author: Chris Cook
Tara climbed first into the enclosed carriage, and reached out a hand to help Willow up.
"Are you riding with us?" she asked Lissa, who had walked with them, holding up a large umbrella against the steady rain.
"If you wish, Miss," she said, folding the umbrella after lifting the hood of her thick cloak, "attendants either ride with the noblemen and ladies if they wish, or up front with the driver."
"In the rain?" asked Willow incredulously, reaching out to help Lissa inside, as Tara took her umbrella and stowed it out of the way.
"Thank you Miss," the servant smiled, seating herself on the front seat, opposite where Willow and Tara sat down. "Usually not in the rain, no, but some prefer their privacy. Just between you and me," she added, leaning forward with a slight grin, as if sharing a secret, "some of the noblemen still behave like they're in the olden days, when servants were a caste, and indentured."
"Well, I'm sure we don't need to be alone for a five minute ride to the opera house," Willow said. "Assuming you can restrain yourself," she added in a quiet murmur in Tara's ear, grinning as Tara shot her a scandalised stare, with the corners of her mouth struggling not to smile.
"Have you been to the opera before?" Tara asked Lissa, to cover her reaction, and keep from giving Willow the satisfaction of catching her out in their ongoing flirting game.
"Once Miss," the servant said, "several months ago, a guest I was attending made a visit. But he was in the stalls, so I didn't go in with him. But in the boxes, which is where your seats are tonight, it's normal for servants to stand behind the seats in case they're needed, so," she grinned, "I get to see the show."
"Have you ever seen an opera?" Willow wondered.
"Not properly Miss," Lissa replied, "now and then the Duke's had performers at the Palace and I've heard them sing, but that's all, never a full opera. Even the smaller house down by the university is more than I can afford, just for one night's entertainment. The opera house, which is to say the Royal Opera, which we're going to tonight, is very prestigious, only the nobility and the wealthy go there."
"What about you?" Tara asked Willow.
"Hmm? Oh, no," she said, "opera as an art form hasn't made it to Kurast yet. It's very big in Entsteig, that's where some of the most famous operas were written, but I was just one of the apprentices, so seeing an opera wasn't really within the realm of possibility. Like you said," she said to Lissa, "it's for the wealthy and prestigious. Sorceress apprentices get enough of an allowance to do a little shopping and maybe see a show at a music hall, but opera, nuh-uh."
"It's not a full opera tonight," Lissa offered, "it's the anniversary gala, for the Duke and Duchess. It's held every year sometime during the month of their marriage, usually whenever the opera house can clear its schedule for a night. Jesye, who you met this morning, was with the Duke's party last year, she told me about it - they have all sorts of performers from all over the world, music and song and dance and, well, who knows what. Some of the performers are brought in just for the gala, and otherwise you'd never see them in Westmarch."
"Sounds like it'll be a memorable evening," Willow said.
"When Jesye found out I'd be taking the evening shifts, she made me promise to remember every detail, to tell her later," Lissa smiled. "For a servant, it's a once in a lifetime kind of thing." She paused, then spoke up again.
"Forgive my curiosity, Miss," she said to Tara, "but I wondered, what do Amazons do as performance?"
"That's fine," Tara assured her, "well, dancing is popular - as a pastime it's encouraged for warriors, we dance a bit more," she gave Willow a quick grin, "athletically than what seems to be common here."
"There's stories about Amazons, with dancing," Lissa admitted, "but, they're kind of fanciful."
"There might be a little basis in fact to them," Tara said, "aside from performance for its own sake, there are ritual dances that tell the legends of our gods and our greatest heroes. Some of them... well," she grinned shyly, "our gods and heroes had interesting lives, and the performances don't really leave out the, um, 'fanciful' parts." She was acutely aware of Willow's attention, not to mention her thigh pressed up against her. "There's song as well," she went on, discreetly taking Willow's hand beside her and stroking it, "our earliest stories were passed down as songs. Most of them have been adapted for dancers and actors as well, but we keep the songs as well."
"They're beautiful," Willow added, smiling fondly at Tara. The carriage lurched gently, then set off to the accompaniment of the clatter of hooves on the courtyard cobblestones, and the occasional quiet creak from the suspension.
"There's a place you might both like to visit if you get the time, Miss," Lissa ventured, "the Sanctum, it's a playhouse, where the Duke's Players perform. The cheap spaces are quite reasonable, if you don't mind standing, or there's seats in the galleries if you'd prefer, and the Players are the best in the city. I heard some of them would be performing a scene tonight."
"Do you go there often?" Tara asked.
"Not often, as such," Lissa smiled, "but now and then. The week before you both arrived I saw one of the chapters of Akarat, and it left me awed the whole afternoon."
"Akarat, the Zakarum prophet?" Willow asked.
"Yes Miss. About ten years ago the church commissioned one of the playwrights attached to the Duke's company to write a play about their prophet's life. Only he got enthusiastic, I suppose, and it ended up five plays, the 'chapters'. They're very popular - I'm not a believer, but you don't have to be to enjoy the story. The Players usually have a company performing Akarat during the year, one chapter at a time. The season for the fourth chapter just finished recently, the showing I saw was a dress rehearsal of the fifth. They'll be starting in a couple of weeks."
"What do you think?" Willow asked, giving Tara a sly grin.
"You'd like to see it?" Tara replied.
"Well, if it's as good as you say," Willow said, giving a nod to Lissa, "you know, I've studied some of the old Zakarum texts, and I always thought it would make a pretty spectacular story. It's all very larger-than-life. Oh," she said with a sudden grin, "there's a whole branch of holy magic specifically related to the Zakarum paladins, so technically it'd be a learning experience. I don't think the Order would mind if I used a little of the money I've got on a couple of modest yet comfortable seats."
"For you and your co-researcher in magic?" Tara smiled. Lissa hid her own grin, then turned her attention to one of the carriage's windows, giving her two charges some measure of privacy.
"Absolutely," Willow insisted lightly, "I learn twice as much when you're around, 'cause I get to see everything through your eyes as well. Plus, you know what they say, a happy student is a good student?" She shifted a little closer to Tara on the seat, and leaned over, brushing her cheek on Tara's shoulder. "You make me a very, very good student." Tara smiled radiantly and put her arm around Willow's shoulders.
"Thank you, love," she murmured, "and of course I'd love to go with you. As if I could ever refuse a night out with you anyway."
The ride took only a few minutes, and then the carriage was slowly edging its way through the crowd of people and coaches in the circular plaza surrounding the opera house. Willow and Tara both leaned close to the window, staring up at the building dominating the whole area, a massive, imposing structure of carved stone, great columns rising four storeys, and between them dozens of windows, all glittering with light from within. The steps and driveway were teeming with guests, each pair or group attended by servants, holding umbrellas and cloaks. A canvas shelter extended from the opera house's front steps, so that the most important of the arrivals, whose carriages were drawing up right in front of the building, could walk the short distance to the interior in dry comfort. Though dusk had faded into evening, the whole plaza was lit bright as day by dozens of oil lamps, aided by a pair of wide bronze fire bowls, like great lighthouse signals, the flames from their supply of oil leaping high into the night, refusing to be dampened by the rain.
Willow and Tara's carriage, along with the others from the Palace, slowly edged across the front of the opera house's steps, stopping in turn to let each group of guests alight. Tryptin and Galt, along with their attendant, were in the carriage just ahead of Willow and Tara, and had just disappeared inside as their carriage pulled up and Lissa quickly disembarked, holding out a hand to both women as they got out. They both took a moment to look around, struck by the scale of the gathering, as their carriage slowly pulled away. Aside from the guests and their coaches, the street before the opera house was teeming with spectators, presumably waiting to see the Duke and Duchess arrive, though there were excited murmurs from the crowd as each carriage drew to a halt and each group of opera-goers made their way inside.
"Which is that other flag?" Willow asked Lissa. Tara peered at the crowd, which was half-obscured in the evening beyond the light of the torches and lamps, noticing many, particularly the children were waving flags. There was the familiar red, with the lion of Duncraig, but many besides those were blue, with a single white stripe and an eagle's head as its crest.
"Kartand, Miss," Lissa explained, "the Duchess's old home. She's very popular with the people, particularly the citizenry, though she's well regarded by the nobility as well. They respect the Duke as a leader and statesman, but the Duchess has a special place in our hearts. The wedding was quite spectacular - I was just a girl then, but I remember being in the crowd and seeing them go past on their way back to the Palace."
"Did that have anything to do with working at the Palace?" Tara asked.
"Well, it might have," Lissa said, "it's an honour, of course, but it runs in the family as well. My mother was a lady-in-waiting back then, though not part of the party that served at the marriage. Now she's the deputy head of the Duke's household staff."
"Really?" Tara mused. "That's pretty high up, isn't it? She must have more influence than half the nobles here."
"It's a well-respected position," Lissa replied with a proud smile, "the head of the staff, Miss Valera Prederst, thinks highly of her, and says she'll ask that my mother replace her when she retires."
Willow listened in, while marvelling at the opera house as they neared the wide double doors. The façade was decorated more elaborately than any building she had ever seen, including the great opera house of Sallna in Entsteig, which was widely regarded as the most prestigious in the world. 'Looks like they'll have to lift their game,' she thought wryly, 'this place is making a good effort at outshining it.' She had just enough time to glance at a couple of the sculpted marble pieces decorating the stairs on either side, which she identified from their plaques as scenes from famous epics - Tal Rasha kneeling before the Archangel Tyrael, and the crowning of Mabus, the first king of Sescheron - before they were through the doors, and she was momentarily dazzled by the light.
The entrance chamber was a vast, wide hall running the full width of the opera house, decorated with rich silks and glittering gilded sculpture, huge paintings of great battles and triumphs in thick frames hanging from the walls, and lit by a dozen chandeliers suspended high above the heads of the guests. No fewer than a hundred people crowded the hall, probably more, each arrayed in dazzling finery, the men in dignified jackets and suits, the women in all manner of dresses, some elaborately archaic, some daringly modern, all exquisitely made. The murmur of dozens of conversations was overlaid by music from a quartet on a small stage between two of the ornate doors leading further into the building.
"Good choice," Tara smiled at Willow, "red seems to be the colour this year."
"I was just guessing," Willow admitted with a grin. Lissa excused herself to pick up a programme and directions to their seats for when the performance was called, and vanished into the crowd after a brief word to the doorman. Tara held out an arm, which Willow took, and they made their way slowly into the crowd, picking up their pace when they spotted Tryptin waving them over.
"Hello again ladies," he said, "I had a word with the doorman and he agreed you should be in the party meeting the Duke, seeing as you weren't with us when we arrived from the caravan. Technically you're the one in line for the meeting," he said to Tara, "but seeing as Miss Willow is your companion you can present her as well."
"Really?" Willow asked. "I don't think I was actually going to see the Duke originally, I'm just a student mage after all."
"Here's your chance," Tryptin grinned, "the Duke doesn't deal directly with the running of his Palace the way the Baron did at Kingsport, but I imagine he'll have been notified that you're studying with his mage, and probably your name would have come up while he was being briefed on the trouble to the south. I've found it never hurts to put a face to a name."
"Even a happily-married man won't forget your face in a hurry," Tara put in, smiling as Willow blushed. "How should I introduce us?" she asked Tryptin. "Um, our relationship, I mean..."
"'Companion' or 'partner'," Tryptin suggested, "the Duke's reputation is for broad-mindedness so long as it doesn't cause any harm to his realm. See there?" He pointed through the crowd, and Willow and Tara glanced at the man he was indicating, a tall, bearded man in robes much like Solaris and his crew had worn, only very much more expensive. Another man, fairer-skinned but similarly dressed, was by his side, and there were definite suggestions of intimacy in the way the pair stood close and spoke quietly to each other.
"Several traders from Aranoch have settled here and become very wealthy, and relations between men aren't uncommon there. Few people here speak out against it. As for women, the Duchess's niece, something of an adventuress I'm told, is reputed to pursue the more beautiful of the daughters of the nobility on the occasions she's in the city, and I don't believe there's ever been any strong complaint on that score."
"How do you find out all this stuff?" Willow asked.
"It's my job," he shrugged. "When the Amazon Nation chooses its allies, it looks to the nature of people first, and their strength of arms second. A small, reliable ally is far more valuable than a powerful one who dislikes our ways. I must say I'm pleased with what I'm finding here, a stable alliance with Westmarch could be a great benefit to us."
"How are the negotiations going?" Tara asked. "I have kind of been out of the loop, what with one thing or another."
"Well, regretful though your difficult journey was," Tryptin said, "the circumstances leading to it have had some useful results. Joining our caravan with the Duncraig one was a stroke of luck in itself, and we made some good progress while we were on the road, but when we had to defend ourselves it did create a bond that otherwise would have taken some time to foster. The ambassadors aren't military men by profession, of course, but even so they're not oblivious to the effect of fighting side by side with others, in a common cause. After the ambush, they began to see us somewhat as partners, and the value of that in a negotiation can't be underestimated. In fact we've already achieved much of what we set out to do - our formal trading ties with the Dukedom are all but complete, and already I've got most of our emissaries pursuing their own projects in and around the city, on a purely mercantile basis. The diplomatic arrangements will take a little longer, but I think we and the Duke's people are developing a strong understanding of each other, and that's really what we're after. I'm considering a couple of excursions to settlements a few days' outside the city - safe territory - just to see what we might learn, and perhaps get a couple more agreements with the local governors and lords. Or trading contracts, you never know what might turn up."
"You'll be in line for a promotion when you get home," Tara observed, "on your first mission too."
"Well, I don't know if I'd go that far," Tryptin said with a bashful smile, "but definitely I've got nothing to complain about. I'll let you know if we decide to travel, of course, and you're welcome to come along - probably nowhere more than five days each way from the city. But I don't expect any of the lords we meet will be expecting a warrior, so if you'd rather stay here...?"
"I think I will," Tara said, "thank you, though."
"Did your attendant talk to the doorman?"
"I think so... yes, she did," Tara replied.
"She'll have been told you'll meet the Duke then," Tryptin nodded, "I imagine she'll be along to collect you for the line in a moment."
"Hey," Willow murmured, as Tryptin was momentarily distracted by a conversation going on beside them.
"What?" Tara asked.
"You're gorgeous," Willow said, squeezing her hand.
"I love you," Tara smiled, "and you are without a doubt the most beautiful woman here. Or anywhere," she added with a wink. Willow gave her a dazzling smile, but before they could talk more the quartet played a loud fanfare and the crowd fell relatively silent.
"This way Miss," Lissa said quietly, appearing behind Willow and Tara as if by magic. "Miss Willow, you should stand on Miss Tara's right side, half a step back, and come forward when she introduces you. Miss Tara, you just stand in line with the others." She led them towards the main doors, where a small queue of notable guests was assembling, with attendants fussing around them like tugboats.
"Do I curtsey, or what?" Willow asked in a whisper, as the level of conversation in the hall dropped.
"You can both bow," Lissa whispered, "just a little, not a low bow. Shake the Duke's hand if he offers - some of the ladies might kiss his hand, but you needn't, being a warrior and a mage. The Duchess will be with the Duke, the same applies to her."
"Thanks," Tara whispered as they reached their place in the line, and Lissa stepped back among the other attendants. There was a moment's pause, as everyone stood still, expectantly, then a pair of Palace guards came through the doors and took station on either side of them, resplendent in polished breastplates, with coloured sashes and feathered crests on their helmets. The line of nobility drew to attention as a group approached the door, then a cheer rose as the Duke stepped into the light of the hall, lifted a hand, and waved.
He was a tall middle-aged man, with a slight spread about his midsection but, for his age and station, a fairly lean figure, certainly no indication that he had left his active lifestyle behind in his youth. His hair, just beginning to turn grey, was closely-cut, and the hairline had begun to recede just enough to reveal a faint scar just above his left temple. His expression was cheerful, the man obviously looking forward to nothing more pressing than a night of entertainment, but there was still the suggestion of a keen intelligence beneath the jovial smile. He wore an immaculately tailored suit, with a sash over his chest bearing his coat of arms and a series of small bronze medallions. At his waist was a sword, its sheath and grip muted brown, unobtrusive among all the finery, yet to Tara's eyes a serviceable weapon, rather than purely ceremonial.
At his side, the Duchess was almost taller than her husband, with long blond hair left loose over her shoulders, clad in a dress not unlike Willow's, though sky blue, and with a more conservative cut, especially the back. She was not much younger than the Duke, but she had aged very well, and Tara had no trouble imagining the patriotic young men of the city admiring her for more than her character. Her figure was fit and elegant, and when she and her husband stepped forward to the first of the guests they would be greeting, she moved with considerable grace.
Seeing it would take a moment or two for the couple to make their way along the line to her, Tara glanced back to offer Willow a smile, catching her hand, then studied the Duke's entourage briefly. Behind the Duke, just to one side, was a man in an unassuming grey suit whose eyes never stopped moving, flickering across the faces of everyone nearby. 'Bodyguard, certainly,' Tara thought to herself. There was nothing remarkable about the man, but he had a certain air about him that Tara recognised from being around the veteran warriors at home, the sense that whatever was going on around him, he was aware of all of it, and would never be caught by surprise. There was also a servant by the Duke's side, quietly informing him who he was meeting when necessary, and a pair of guards behind the group.
On the other side, trailing behind the Duchess, was a younger woman who Tara immediately picked as the niece Tryptin had mentioned. The family resemblance between the two was obvious, despite perhaps twenty years separating them, but where the Duchess's beauty was refined, elegant and courtly, those same features were arranged slightly differently on her niece, giving her an impulsive, openly seductive look that, judging by her demeanour and wardrobe, she didn't regret one bit. Her attire was strikingly different from any other in the hall - she wore tight leather pants with boots rising half-way up her shins, and a loose red shirt with the top few buttons provocatively undone, displaying an admirable cleavage which she was obviously and justifiably proud of. Her hair was unbound, like her aunt's, though less immaculately straight, a little more untidy, which actually suited her well. Tryptin's description of her, 'an adventuress', was well-earned, at least on first impressions.
"Don't get any ideas," Tara whispered over her shoulder with a grin.
"I'm getting ideas all right," came Willow's quiet reply, "first clothes shop I see, I'm buying you a pair of those trousers." Tara chuckled softly, though at the same time she was very touched that Willow's first thought was of her, even in the face of such a brazenly attractive woman.
"Lady Tara, Amazon," the Duke's servant murmured, just on the edge of Tara's hearing range, and the man himself met her gaze and extended a hand to her. Tara took it, bowing gently at the same time.
"Well met," the Duke said as she straightened.
"Well met sir," Tara replied, turning side-on to allow Willow to come forward. "My partner, Willow of the Zann Esu." The Duke nodded as if in recognition, evidently remembering hearing of her in one of his briefings, and held out his hand.
"My wife, Lady Marindi," the Duke said after Willow had bowed and shook his hand. He stepped aside to make way for his wife, who curtseyed regally to Willow and Tara's bows. That done, the royal couple moved on to the next guest.
"Partner, Lady?" the Duchess's niece asked lightly, following in their wake.
"I'm spoken for," Tara said politely, with the easy-going smile on the woman's face comforting her that the situation wasn't going to turn uncomfortable.
"Damn," she said without rancour. She gave Willow a glance, and raised an eyebrow. "Damn on both counts. Ah well, enjoy the night, I'm sure you will." With a knowing smile she drifted away after the Duke and Duchess. Tara let out a breath and turned back to Willow, who was blushing and grinning at once.
"What?" Tara said, smiling despite herself.
"When you say 'my partner', or 'I'm spoken for'," she replied, "I get all... do you think a quick kiss is okay?"
"I doubt anyone would mind," Tara said, stepping closer to Willow, "particularly with Miss Wild over there hitting on everyone in sight." She shared a brief, fairly chaste kiss with Willow, and was afterwards unable to banish the grin from her face, at how exciting a brief, chaste kiss could be.
"Well, to be fair," Willow said, looking over Tara's shoulder, "she's not hitting on everyone... she's being quite discriminating, actually, though admittedly incredibly forward. Hey," she grinned, "it's nice to know we're hot enough for royalty, huh?"
"I never had any doubts of that for you," Tara replied with a smile.
A few moments later, once the Duke had seen all the guests who were there to be seen, the opera house's staff rang small hand bells, signalling the opening of the opera hall for the evening's performance. The majority of the guests crowded their way through the several main doors leading to the stalls, but Lissa led Willow and Tara to the far end of the entrance hall, up a stairway to a corridor leading to the private boxes on that side of the building. From their vantage point half-way along the opera hall's left wall, the box angled towards the front, they had an excellent view of the stage and quite a lot of the hall besides, which was filling rapidly as people took their seats. The décor was, if anything, even more extravagant than the entrance hall, with the gilded columns and decorated wall panels overshadowed by a marvellously detailed relief on the ceiling, depicting gods and angels, the entire panoply of heaven, with a huge circular fixture in the centre of the ceiling studded with mirrored decorations, representing the Crystal Arch, supporting a massive chandelier lit with hundreds of thick candles.
Visible on the opposite wall, and presumably mirrored directly above Willow and Tara's box, more expansive galleries hosted entire parties of guests, but the lower level's boxes were quite compact, cosy even, and there were only two seats. These, though, were nearly adequate for two people each, to accommodate all manner of expansive dresses if necessary, and when Willow discovered that the armrests between the seats could be lifted up and out of the way she insisted that Lissa take her seat, rather than stand at the back of the box. With the armrest out of the way there was still enough room for Lissa to set the programme on the seat between herself and Willow, who nestled comfortably up beside Tara with an arm around her waist.
Once everyone was seated and the house staff had turned down the oil lamps, leaving the chandelier and stage lamps the only source of light, a man walked to the centre of the stage and gave a speech, introducing himself as the master of ceremonies, and the conductor in the orchestra pit before the stage, who stood and bowed on cue, and briefly wished the Duke and Duchess well on their anniversary, wished goodwill to the other guests as well, and promised no effort had been spared on the night's performance. With a bow to acknowledge the polite round of applause, he left the stage, and the great scarlet curtain shuddered and lifted.
The stage was decorated with shimmering curtains of white silk, framing a choir of women in plain white dresses, with silver thread wound into their hair that glittered as they sang. Their song was as ethereal and dazzling as their garb and surroundings, a soaring sequence of verses in old Imperial, first only a few voices, then more with each verse, until the whole choir was singing as one, almost a single voice. The applause when at last they reached a crescendo and the curtain dropped was sustained and enthusiastic.
"Traditional prelude from Khanduras," Willow noted, reading the programme, "representing the creation of the world of the stage, as a pale mirror of the true creation of all things. I've heard of that," she added, closing the programme, "there's a denomination of the Zakarum church in Khanduras who believe the Power That Is sang the world into being, and as each lesser power was created it joined the song."
When next the curtain lifted the silken clouds were gone, replaced by an amphitheatre of stone columns and blocks, painted so well they looked real, though they must have been wood. For the first time the orchestra struck up, drums dominating the melody, with strings supporting them. A troupe of black-skinned dancers dressed in tight, brightly-coloured fabrics wrapped around their torsos and trailing behind them appeared, their bodies moving as it powered by the drums, twirling and leaping in time to the rhythm. Two of them broke away from their groups, a bare-chested man in an emerald green loincloth and a woman with long black hair, wearing a single swathe of white cloth, starting around her neck, crossing over her chest, then around and down her back, circling her hips and then trailing loose around her legs as she danced. It wasn't obvious how her clothing was supporting itself, and with the energy with which she danced with her partner, spinning, leaping, stamping her feet and undulating her body, she seemed in constant danger of shedding her meagre covering altogether. The man kept his side of the dance equally eye-catching, every motion emphasising the sculpted shapes of his muscles and the powerful ease with which he moved. The mood they created was entirely appropriate to the music and the troupe's dance, which was primal, fierce, full of unashamed vitality and celebration.
"Quite stimulating, isn't it?" Tara murmured into Willow's ear. "In a tasteful way, of course."
"Mmm, tasteful," Willow whispered. Tara laughed quietly, kissed the top of her head, and went back to watching the dancers on stage.
The next act was another choir, this one mixed men and women, singing a purely musical piece with no lyrics. They appeared in front of the lowered curtain, keeping the audience enthralled with their harmonies. By the end of their song, when they left with a bow and the curtain was raised, the stage had been redressed again, as a jungle temple complete with vines snaking over the stonework, and a dozen unlit candles in brackets on the columns. A single fire bowl was burning in the middle of the stage, casting shuddering shadows over the exotic scene.
A single performer appeared from offstage, and a brief murmur from the audience signalled their interest. She was a cat woman, tall and athletic, with strong, curvy thighs and biceps. Her outfit consisted mainly of leather straps joined by shining gold buckles, winding about her limbs and body, strapped across the generous curves of her four breasts, around her thin waist, and between her legs, covering just enough for decency's sake. Tara glanced back along the boxes on the far wall, and chuckled to herself.
"What?" Willow whispered. Tara pointed up at the gallery where the Duke and his party were sitting, and Willow too stifled a chuckle at seeing the Duchess's niece leaning forward, her attention firmly fixed on the elegant figure on the stage.
"I wonder if the royal party gets to meet the artists after the show," Tara mused.
"Maybe," Willow murmured, "you know, according to the Order libraries, cat tribes tend to have a pretty casual sexual structure. If they decide they like someone, that's all the reason they need... maybe I won't be the only one getting lucky tonight?" She realised with a start that her whisper had become a little louder than she'd intended, and glanced quickly at Lissa, but she seemed absorbed in the programme.
"Well, good luck to her," Tara said, as Willow settled back into her arms, "but there's only one sexy lady I'm thinking about." She stroked her fingers up and down Willow's arm lazily.
"Uh-huh," Willow sighed, "and who might that be?" Tara chuckled to herself quietly.
"I think you know perfectly well who she might be," she replied in a whisper, "but I'll give you a clue: she's going to get very, very lucky tonight... not to mention into the small hours of the morning."
They both giggled quietly, then returned their attention to the stage as the cat woman bowed to a round of applause - a warrior's bow, from the waist and martial. She flexed her right hand and the black coil held there unfurled into a long, slender whip that she swung idly back and forth, building up speed in the tip as it circled her body. With her other hand she reached behind herself and from one of the straps around her drew an exotic weapon, like a dagger except that the blade split twice along its length, so that the weapon had three points, each aimed in a different direction, like a lethal star. All the blades were oiled, and glistened darkly.
With a sudden burst of movement she lifted the whip above her head and cracked it twice, in front and behind her, startling the crowd. With their full attention, she flicked her other wrist, sending the multi-bladed weapon spinning flat across the stage, through the flames from the fire bowl. The fire caught the oil on the blades, and then as the burning weapon spun away it pulled up in its flight, curved over and darted back towards its owner, who casually caught it behind her back and flipped it out again, this time towards one of the columns. It skimmed side-on past the column, lighting the candle - which had presumably had its wick soaked in oil from the ease with which it lit - before again curving around in flight behind the column. The moment the candle was lit the woman lashed out her whip, cracking the tip right on the newborn flame, snuffing it out with perfect precision as she caught her flying weapon again.
Within the space of a minute she had similarly lit and extinguished every one of the dozen candles in a similar manner, flinging her blade and whipping each flickering flame back out of existence as it flared. All the while she was swaying and strutting around the stage, and the longer she went on the more complex her motions became, until her skill with her weaponry was being combined with a truly athletic performance as a dancer. To gasps from the audience she backflipped, cartwheeled, spun over in mid air, all the while continuing to catch and release the flying blade, and striking out each flame with perfect timing. Now and then she tossed her whip into the air, freeing both hands as both her weapons flew, performing handstands and somersaults, and once blowing a kiss to the crowd, before reaching out almost casually to catch and strike with her whip, and flick her blade once again on a new arc. Her finale, which drew a chorus of gasps and thunderous applause, was to catch her whip in both hands, stretching it taut above her head, and pluck the spinning blade out of the air with her tail.
Willow and Tara, along with Lissa and most of the rest of the audience, rose to their feet to applaud, and the cat woman smiled broadly, revealing an impressive set of feline teeth, and bowed deeply and graciously. The curtain fell behind her, and she stayed for a moment, acknowledging the applause and gathering a few of the flowers that were tossed onto the stage for her, on either side where the stalls came close enough. A few hopeful admirers tossed flowers towards the centre of the stage, but they tended to fall short into the orchestra pit. Willow giggled at seeing a trombone player catch a rose in the horn of his instrument, and pointed him out to Tara.
When the cat woman finally took her last bow and departed, the master of ceremonies announced a brief interval, while the next set was prepared. Lissa departed to bring drinks for Willow and Tara, and at their insistence something for herself, leaving the pair alone in their box. Most of the other guests in the boxes, balconies and the stalls below remained in their seats, though some got up, either to fetch refreshments or simply to stretch their legs.
"Quite a night," Tara mused, cuddling Willow who took the opportunity to stretch her legs out across the seats and lie back against her.
"And it's not over yet," she replied, lazily stroking Tara's arm around her waist.
"That was quite a performance the cat lady put on."
"It was, wasn't it?" Willow agreed. "I remember reading somewhere that their warriors usually fight with whips, I guess it's no wonder they've gotten good at it. Javelins too, if I recall... I don't think I remember reading anything about flying blades, but you never know. In a lot of places they're not very trusted by humans, so they keep to themselves. There's probably a lot about them no-one knows."
"Like how she made her blade fly like that," Tara said, audibly impressed.
"I've seen weapons like that," Willow said, "not exactly the same, but similar, usually polished wood, carved in a special shape so that they glide, like an eagle's wing. There's tribes up and down the Argentek river that use them in various forms, they can throw them and they glide in a circle. I've never heard of a weapon that can change direction that sharply, though."
"It was almost like she was controlling it the whole time," Tara observed.
"She might have been," Willow said, "I'm sure it was mostly pure skill, but I wouldn't be surprised if there was a little magic involved. A lot of the non-human races have higher proportions of magical ability than humans do. That's one theory, anyway, though it's never been proven."
"Well, it's tricky to measure," Willow explained with a vague wave of her hand, "for a start, cat people are the most human-friendly of the non-human races, and even they're pretty wary of humans in general. As opposed to a one-on-one basis," she added, "with individual people they're sometimes quite forthcoming, but on an official basis they tend to keep their distance. The histories say that a lot of work went into gaining the trust of the Kehjistan tribes before the Order could form proper ties with them, as a society. And aside from that, there's some people who think that a lot of humans, maybe all of us, have some magical ability, but either they never know to try to use it, or it's something that no-one's learned to use yet."
"Are there magics no-one's learned?" Tara asked.
"Could be," Willow said, "I mean, by definition no-one knows, but... well, take magnetics. There's a whole branch of magic that works by interaction with magnetic fields, and before people discovered them and started having a good look at how they worked, no-one knew they could be used for anything but picking up bits of iron."
"So it's anyone's guess what might come next?"
"Pretty much," Willow agreed, "it's an exciting time to be a mage." She giggled. "I just imagined that being on a recruitment poster. Be a mage! See the world! Set fire to bits of it... Seriously though, I'd bet real money that there's going to be some big breakthroughs in the next few years. Everything's been moving faster since the Reckoning - before that, it was all about the threat of the Prime Evils hanging over our heads, and even if you were a mage dedicated to research and theory, you spent a lot of time working purely with battle magic. Now the Prime Evils are gone, and we know we've got the power to handle it if one of the Lessers, or something else in the demon hierarchy, starts causing trouble... a lot of mages are starting to experiment with other fields, besides just making bigger and better fireballs."
Lissa returned with glasses of wine, which they sipped gently, though it turned out not to be very strong. Soon after the hall was full again, and the master of ceremonies announced the resumption of the performance with a preview of an opera being developed, which he said would begin in full in several weeks' time.
The curtain lifted, and the stage was a desert wasteland, stark and intimidating. The floor was covered in a painted cloth with sand strewn over it, creating a very realistic effect, and above it rose the remains of a temple, huge sandstone blocks and broken statues leaning over in partial ruin. A real stream flowed over one of the blocks, in a channel carved into it, trickling down its slanted side into a pool in the shadow of a great stone jackal's head, the remnant of some colossal statue, lying on its side in the sand. The backdrop was painted with fierce red clouds, as if war was raging in the heavens, and parts of it were slightly transparent, lit from behind by flickering flames that gave the impression of lightning rumbling through the heavy cloudbanks. Broken spears, smashed shields and shattered swords decorated the stage. The orchestra began a slow build, drums and strings quietly coming to life and rising almost imperceptibly, drawing the audience forward on their seats.
Red light flooded from a gap in the fallen stone blocks, silhouetting a figure standing in the doorway they created. He took a single step forward at the same time as hidden lamps in the ruins flared to life, revealing him. The audience gasped in shock, and with good reason. He was tall, broad-shouldered, clad in bronze armour than shone several shades darker than it should have, almost blood-red, decorated with savage patterns and symbols. A cloak flowed around him, black and glistening as if wet, and in one jagged gauntlet he held a great morningstar, with cruel barbs decorating its heavy, angular head. His skin was painted, metallic red to match his armour, and from his brow rose a pair of bone-white horns, the band holding them on concealed by his long, oily black hair. Behind him, mounted on a banner pole on his back, a tattered pennant fluttered in the breeze, scarlet marked with an inverted pentagram that looked as if it had been burned into the fabric, and decorated with dozens of tiny bones sewn into the edges.
Tara felt Willow recoil in shock, and tightened her hold protectively. It lasted only a moment, then she relaxed and glanced at Tara with a sheepish smile.
"Sorry," she whispered.
"Are you okay?" Tara whispered back, as the hellish figure walked slowly to the edge of the stage.
"Yeah," Willow grinned bashfully, "just, I guess once you've seen a pure demon up close... bad memories lurking around, that's all."
"You're sure?" Tara asked gently.
"I'm fine," Willow reassured her, "it was just the surprise. And hey, it's a pretty good costume," she added, the lively tone returning to her voice. Tara smiled and gave her a quick kiss.
"You make me feel safe," Willow whispered, gazing into her eyes, then she settled back in her arms and they watched the show.
"He's the Lord of Destruction," Willow explained quietly, as the terrible warrior began to sing in a deep, martial voice, in the Imperial tongue. "They must be doing an opera of the Sin Wars. He's saying how his army has been beaten down by the Horadric mages, but no mortal can defeat him. He's challenging Tal Rasha, the leader of the Horadrim, to fight him."
The Lord of Destruction's aria went on for some time, during which he strode around the ruined temple, shouting defiance and brandishing his morningstar. The effect of his elaborate costume, and the singer's deep, thundering voice filling the hall, accompanied by drums and strings, with horns punctuating his raging, was quite striking. At last he strode to the very front of the stage, bellowing his song into the audience, as if challenging them directly. His presence was so riveting that no-one noticed the second figure at the back of the stage, standing atop the ruins of the temple, until he began to sing, cutting off his adversary's voice in mid-note.
"Tal Rasha?" Tara asked quietly, and Willow nodded. He too was an impressive figure, clothed in grey robes with stark gold patterns on the edges, hood thrown back to reveal strong features and long blond hair, a glimmering white staff in one hand with a golden sunburst head. He sang a short rebuttal to his opponent's defiance, then the curtain fell just as he began to descend from his vantage point, gripping his staff firmly. The audience rose up in appreciation, and the Duke in particular looked notably impressed by the spectacle.
"Did Tal Rasha win?" Tara asked, in the pause before the next act begun.
"Yes, in the end," Willow said, "he defeated Baal, but with his dying breath Baal cast a spell to break the Soulstone that was going to imprison his spirit. Tal Rasha used a fragment of the stone to capture Baal momentarily, and drove it into his own chest to imprison Baal's spirit inside himself. He had the other Horadrim magically bind him to a monolith inside one of the great tombs, and then seal it completely. He fought Baal in his soul constantly for centuries, until the Reckoning when the other Prime Evils finally killed him and set Baal free."
"That's a hell of a sacrifice to make," Tara observed soberly.
"Tal Rasha had fought the campaign against Baal for his whole adult life," Willow said quietly, "he'd seen what the army of destruction did first hand... I guess he thought it was worth it, to put an end to it all."
"I remember you pointing out his statue on the Parliament building," Tara murmured. Willow nodded.
"He's revered as the greatest mage ever," she said. "If ever a person single-handedly saved the world, it was him."
The performance resumed with a troupe of acrobats, flipping and twirling through the air on ropes and trapezes, then another song, and then a short scene from the Akarat play Lissa had mentioned, in which the prophet's brother gave his life to defend him from assassins, while Akarat himself lay in a coma after a battle. Then came a gymnast, a slim woman who, with the aid of a mage standing discretely at the side of the stage, performed a complex dance while tiny sparkling stars trailed from her hands and feet. Finally a full choir performed with the accompaniment of the whole orchestra, in a great swell of music that filled the hall completely, and lifted the whole audience with it as it surged towards its climax.
"They'll clear the seats out of the stalls for a dance now," Lissa said, once the applause had died away and the guests had begun to leave their seats and make their way outside. "It's not a formal part of the evening, so you needn't stay if you'd rather go back to the Palace. Your carriage can be ready in a few moments whenever you decide to leave."
"Shall we dance?" Willow asked, holding out her arm to Tara.
"I think we shall," she replied with a smile, taking the offered arm and following Lissa down to the entrance hall, where they waited for the opera hall to be opened again. Most of the guests returned to the floor, where the Duke and Duchess began the first dance, quickly joined by dozens of other couples. Willow laid her head against Tara's shoulder as they danced slowly, holding each other close.
"Look over there," Tara said, in an amused tone. Willow followed Tara's gaze over her shoulder, to see the Duchess's niece dancing, intimately close, with the cat woman who had performed earlier.
"Heh," she chuckled, "looks like she rarely misses out on something she wants." She looked adoringly at Tara. "Must have been a rare disappointment to her not to sweep you off your feet when she saw you."
"Or you," Tara replied, "I doubt it though. If she's as experienced as Tryptin said, she's probably good at spotting when she hasn't got a chance. I'm a one-woman Amazon... and that one woman is you." She leaned close and tasted Willow's lips in a kiss that lasted a decidedly long time, especially considering they were in the middle of a crowded dance floor.
"You wanna head back to the Palace?" Willow offered.
"Yeah," Tara agreed, "I think we can dance better in private."
"Now then," Tara purred as she closed the bedroom door behind herself and Willow, "may I have the pleasure of sliding you out of that gorgeous dress?"
"You don't even have to ask," Willow said giddily, turning in Tara's embrace and kissing her. "Mmm, wow... and not before time either, the longer I see the luscious sexiness that is you in that outfit... I was worried I was going to start drooling in the carriage."
"Don't worry," Tara smiled, kissing Willow again and steering her over to the bed, "I'm sure Lissa didn't notice you vividly imagining tearing my dress off and making love to me right then and there."
"How did you know that's what I was imagining?" Willow grinned, sitting down.
"It's what I was imagining," Tara replied, crouching down in front of her and removing her sandals.
"We're bad, bad girls," Willow laughed, leaning back on her arms.
"But now we're thinking of making love in a carriage, rather than a wagon," Tara pointed out, "we're moving up in the world." She straightened up and gently kicked off her boots, while Willow slowly stood and reached behind her neck to undo the straps holding her dress up. With a sigh and a delicious wriggle of her hips it slid down around her ankles, leaving Tara staring at her, totally nude.
"Now just remember how I was cuddling up against you all night," Willow teased, "and not wearing anything but a dash of perfume under my dress."
"I had a fairly good idea anyway," Tara murmured, putting her arms around Willow's waist and drawing her close.
"Oh, you did?"
"Either that, or you had magic underwear that doesn't show up at all under a skin-tight dress like that... knowing you, I figured it was the former."
"You know me so well," Willow grinned.
"Care to unlace me?" Tara offered.
"Would I?" Willow asked incredulously. "Goddess baby, I've hardly thought of anything else since I saw you in this dress."
"Not all at once," Tara said as Willow's hands went to work on the laces at the front of her dress, "I've got a treat for you."
"You are a treat for me," Willow chuckled to herself, finishing undoing the laces and sliding her hands over Tara's body as the dress slipped from her shoulders and crumpled to the floor, leaving her clad only in her black bustier and wispy black silk underwear.
"Go get your pipes," Tara murmured.
"Play me a dance," she purred. Willow grinned and quickly rummaged through her satchels, while Tara picked up the two dresses and laid them out of the way over the top of the chest of drawers. Willow returned with her set of pipes, and Tara sat her down on the bed and stood in front of her.
"Play?" she invited.
"What kind of dance?" Willow asked.
"You play, I'll dance," Tara smiled, "any kind you want."
With a playful grin Willow raised the pipes to her lips and began to play a simple melody, letting Tara ease into the rhythm. She watched entranced as her lover swayed in front of her, gently back and forth like a reed in the ocean. As Willow added more notes, more complexity to her melody, so Tara danced more for her, spinning around, raising her arms above her head, always staying to the rhythm, as if Willow were playing her like a snake-charmer.
Fixing her with a seductive stare, still swaying to the music, Tara began undoing the laces on her bustier, letting it fall looser and looser until it opened and her breasts spilled lavishly out of their confinement. She pulled the last laces free and let the bustier fall behind her, and Willow began to find it difficult to concentrate hard enough to play the pipes, watching Tara sway back and forth, running her hands up and down her front, cupping her breasts and letting them fall free.
Rallying her scattered thoughts, Willow began to change her melody, playing a stronger, faster rhythm, remembering the dancers they had seen earlier. Tara recognised the music too, and began working in the same kinds of moves they had used, fast twirls, stamping her feet for emphasis, making her whole body shudder. Willow's breathing became erratic, and she absently dropped the pipes, but still Tara danced, her motions providing all the rhythm either of them needed to hear the drums thundering in their minds. Willow's hands flattened against her thighs, fingers pressing into her skin, as she unconsciously shifted to the edge of the bed, spreading her legs for balance. Tara came closer, dancing right in front of her, inches away from her wide, lustful eyes. Her motions suggested a rising crescendo, coming faster, more frantic, and Willow found herself caught up in it, breathing quickly, desperate to see the final moment of the dance. In one quick motion Tara leaned down between Willow's spread thighs and pressed her tongue firmly against her sex, licking up over her clit, her mound, her stomach as she fell back on the bed in delight, her cleavage, up her neck and beneath her chin. Quick as a flash she was straddling Willow, and then they were still, motionless and breathless, Willow lying back, Tara above her, less than an inch separating their faces, Tara's heaving breaths teasing Willow's lips.
"Want?" Tara panted.
"Want," Willow replied at once.