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Playing the Role You’re Given

This short story was July 2016’s Short Story of the Month! If you enjoy it, and would like to support more, please consider throwing me a buck here.

This story follows the characters of my novella, Strings, a fairytalesque story of puppets, princes, and political intrigue. This story takes place after the novella is finished, and thus contains some spoilers for the book. You’ll get more out of it if you know the characters anyway!

“No! Marco!” Prince Grey shouted as Black clattered to the edge of the puppet stage. Grey hurried over and pulled him into his arms. “Why? Why did you take such a horrible curse for me? Your endless valor has cut your life short, and it is all my fault!”

The audience was rumbling, a bit upset at the supposed death of the comic relief. The children were a bit older than usual for their crowds, and it was because of this that White had pushed for the first performance of this more serious piece she had been working on. Strings had initially been doubtful, as had the audience, but here in the climax, the children were hanging on every word.

“Truly, only the magic of a first kiss could break this spell, and oh, my dear Marco, I wish I could help! But I have staked my honor as a knight to give mine to Esmeralda…”

“Save him!” a little boy yelled.

“He can’t. He’d lose his knighthood and his love,” the boy’s older sister explained.

“Bo,” said White, entering the scene.

“Esmeralda! I…” Grey started.

White held up a wooden paw. “I heard. Is it so hopeless?”

“I am afraid so…” Grey said.

“Then save him,” White said.

“But our promise!”

“You swore to be my first kiss, not I yours! Now quickly, before it is too late!”

“Esmeralda… I love you so…”

“Bo!”

Grey turned to Black. “My friend, come back to me.” He pressed his head against Black’s.

The crowd burst into cheers as Black began to move once more.

After the coin was collected and the children dispersed, Strings started working to pack everything up. Prince Grey, however, still felt nervous, without an audience or show pending. He pantomimed cleaning himself, tail clicking back and forth. The little cat puppet had never expected to be an actor, and for months since joining Strings, had only really played small, background roles. He had been told that only he could play Bo, the Knight, and so he had done his best, of course. But even the cheers from the children hadn’t convinced him he’d done it right.

His worried thoughts were interrupted as Black snatched his hat.

“No need to be thinkin’ that hard,” Black said. “Not like you’re the bunny or somethin’.”

Prince Grey took his hat back, adjusting it between his ears. “I am sorry, Mister Black, I was simply reviewing the performance.”

“You remembered all your lines, what more could anyone be wantin’ from you?” Black said. “Well, I suppose your kiss left somethin’ to be desired.”

Grey chuckled. “I did the best I could without lips, my friend.”

“See? So don’t be worryin’ about it,” he said. “I never do.”

“And that is why you are such an atrocious actor,” White said. Black bopped her on the head. “Ow, hey!”

“I always look super cool out there,” Black said.

White rubbed her head, turning to Grey. “Anyway, you were overacting, especially in the ballroom scene. For most of the performance I did not believe you were Ser Bo, just Grey reading lines.”

“Ah, well, do I apologize, Miss White…” Grey said.

“You need to inhabit the role. Be your character completely. You need to believe you’re him, and then the audience will believe,” White said with a rare sort of positive energy. There were few things that truly got White happy without reservation. Among that short list was bubble baths, quality teas, and the theatre.

“I suppose I can understand that in concept,” Prince Grey said. “I do see how easily you slip into someone else when you get up there. There is a strong difference. But I have no real idea how you do it.”

“And I have no idea how you fence so well,” White said. “But you can, because you have put in years of practice so that the motions, the feints, the movements, they are partially automatic, correct?”

Grey nodded.

“This is not so different. You just need practice.”

“Just be agreein’ you’ll try or she’ll be lecturin’ you all night,” Black suggested.

“The mutt is hopeless, but Prince Grey, I know you can do this. It took me so many years to get even the most basic performance out of him, but you… you I can work with,” White said. “You are refined and passionate. The finale, when you were crying over Marco, that felt real. You can clearly do it. We just need to get that into the entire show.”

Grey looked down at his paws. He had simply been reminded of his friend, Cherlie, and his grief, and attempted to mimic it. It felt no less fake than anything else he had done. “I… well, alright. I am sure you will be able to help me improve, Miss White. I want to do my part to pay my way here.”

“You don’t owe anything,” Strings said, putting the last of the costumes away in her giant trunk. “Do what you’d like.”

“Ah, but Miss Strings, I do want to help… and I know you do not have much coin to go around. If learning to be a better performer can help that, I would like to continue working at it.”

Strings looked down at the little puppet—her newest, one she still found she ached for, a little, on quiet nights, when thinking of his lot in life. As per usual, there were no good words to express her feelings. So she just nodded, and put the last few things away.

“We’ll start focusing in on individual scenes when we have time,” White said, “but we should first figure out what show we are doing next, and our next location.”

“Ryfe,” Strings said.

“Big city, lots of kids,” Black said. “And it’s been a few years.”

“Is it not still theatre season, though?” White inquired. “Won’t that be everyone’s focus?”

“Should be over around when we get there,” Strings said.

“Then we catch those hanging around a little after with nothin’ to watch?” Black asked. “Bored kids while everythin’ gets packed up?”

Strings nodded.

“It sounds like a workable plan,” White said, nodding. “And I have missed Ryfe. I once performed at the Grand Theatre, you know. It was…”

“You’ve told this story hundreds of times,” Black said.

“Well, Prince Grey hasn’t heard it,” she said, clearly annoyed.

“Actually… you have told it to me before,” Prince Grey said apologetically. “But it did seem very impressive.”

White pretended she was getting some dirt off of her dress, frustrated.

“You were wonderful, on that stage,” Strings said, picking White up and looking into her painted eyes.

“W-well, thank you…” White said, embarrassed.

Strings put her into the trunk. “It’s getting darker,” she said.

“Yes, let us find a place to camp,” Grey said, nodding.

Strings packed up her friends, lifted the giant trunk onto her back, and headed out.

Prince Cherlie, though he rarely went by that title anymore, was worried. He was packing for a trip, the first he had taken since the death of his friend. He hesitated over every garment, attempting to decide if it was appropriate. He had worn black for quite longer than most would require of him, and the colors he was packing felt odd, given his current position.

“Would you prefer I packed for you, ser?” asked his attendant, Arla, frowning at Cherlie’s constant packing and unpacking of his trunk.

“I’ve nearly got it,” Cherlie said.

“If I may, ser, you’ve been working at this task for about an hour,” Arla said. “Perhaps you need a break. I can handle it.”

Cherlie frowned, having lost track of time. “Have I?”

“Yes.” Arla nodded, turning to Cherlie’s wardrobe. “Now, you know I have impeccable taste, so you need not worry. Go take a break, and I will finish. If you’d like, you can make adjustments after a break. Perhaps a snack.”

“A snack,” Cherlie said, unconvinced.

Arla smiled. It was just a job, of course. Arla wasn’t much of the “follower” type if you were to ask him. But he must admit he had become fond of Cherlie over the past few months. He was a bit mopey, but his heart was in the right place. Seeing him so out of sorts by this assignment was something Arla wasn’t much enjoying. “Perhaps some toast and jam? We still have plenty of that wonderful marmalade you enjoy with breakfast from time to time.”

Cherlie sighed, giving in. “I suppose that does sound good… I am a bit out of sorts.”

“Allow me to get someone to bring it,” Arla said, moving to the door.

“No, I’ll just go down there, thanks… the walk will likely help too,” Cherlie said.

“As you wish, ser,” Arla said, smiling.

Cherlie headed out of his room, down to the kitchen, and apologetically asked for some toast from the kitchen staff. He took his plate out into the hallway, and up the stairs, and before he knew it, he was once again in front of his friend’s now abandoned room. This was the danger of living here, was it not? Cherlie debated going in, as he often did, but instead just sat down on the ground in front of the door, and ate. The tart sweetness was wonderful on his tongue, but he did not know if it did much to help with his addled thoughts.

Queen Errvente had just finished with her last appointment of the day, and was looking forward to a few moments rest before dinner. She had started reading an engaging romance written by a local author, and was looking forward to getting back to it. She was trying to give herself more time for these things. Only sad outcomes had resulted from a constant push.

Her mind on these matters, she nearly tripped over Cherlie turning the corner towards her own chambers.

“I am so sorry, your Majesty…” Cherlie said, scrambling to his feet.

“It is quite alright,” she said. “Though I am wondering why you are in the hallway.”

“I… was having a snack. And thinking,” Cherlie said.

“About your trip tomorrow?”

Cherlie nodded.

“I have no concerns,” Queen Errvente said, giving a little smile. “I know you can handle it.”

“Yes… I just…” Cherlie looked down at his now-empty plate. “I just do wonder if this is what he would have wanted. If I am doing the right thing.”

“If my son would have wanted anything, it would be for you to follow your own path, as he tried so hard to do,” Queen Errvente said. “If this is not your path, I can make other arrangements.”

“No… no… I stayed to help ensure there would not be a war, and that is still what I want to do,” Cherlie said. “It just… feels like moving on. From him.”

Queen Errvente felt for Cherlie. She had not had much time to grieve. She had a kingdom to run, and had to move on. But if she had the luxury, she would be right there with him, in those same feelings, she knew. She put her hand on his shoulder. “I understand. But I do not think it will ever be easy to do. And I think you know you must.”

“…you’re are right, of course,” Cherlie said.

“Most importantly, you are going on important business. This isn’t for play. But if you just so happen to enjoy yourself a little, hopefully you can forgive yourself for it,” Queen Errvente said, stepping back.

Cherlie smiled softly, and bowed. “Of course, your Majesty.”

“Would you like to go over the specifics once more over dinner?” Queen Errvente asked.

“That would be delightful,” Cherlie said.

“I shall see you then, then,” Queen Errvente said, and took her leave.

Cherlie lingered there, at the door, for a moment, before heading back to his room to see how the packing had gone.

The City-State of Ryfe was starting to shut down as the winter began to come to a close. Its fair weather and fairly neutral status made it the destination for nobles and wealthy from all over for the winter, where they would book the many manors, houses, and spaces to pass the time until things were more habitable back home. During the season, as it were, countless theatre troupes would fill the many halls and show the newest and greatest performances in the Nine Kingdoms. It had been described as a city of endless celebration.

Of course, Strings knew it differently. It was a place where many had to struggle for most of the year, just to make it to the season, and a place where many were needed to run the empty husk of the party when the weather warmed. She’d made a good amount of money there, in her old life. The kind of people who watched the shows she and her friends put on weren’t normally the sort to be found in Ryfe during the season. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to take some of their coin, if she could catch them in transition, like she hoped.

Walking into the city, Strings could tell the feel had already started to shift. Shops were canvassing less for customers, and working on upkeep. There were many people, but a person on the street would get the sense it was much less than usual. Some passersby in carriages stared at Strings and her oversized trunk as she moved. They wondered what such a big woman in such a ragged dress was doing in their vacation town. Strings paid them no mind, moving to a place she remembered where she might set up her puppet stage.

The little lawn she remembered was still there, though there was a fancy wall around it, now, with a lavish, gateless arch as entrance. She headed in, set down her trunk, and let her friends out as she started to set up.

“Even more built up than I remember,” White said as she got out of the the trunk.

“It is quite impressive,” Prince Grey said, getting out as well and looking at the tall buildings. “A different sort of city than Eleen. More… money in all things. At least from what I can see.”

“You’ve never spent a season here, Prince Grey?” White asked, surprised.

“Ah, no, I’m afraid not. Many acquaintances did, but I was normally training. More interested in the fencing tournament that commenced at the end of the season.” Grey clicked his tail, a bit nervously. “Skipping out also greatly lowered my required engagements in incorrect attire.”

White nodded with understanding.

“You weren’t missin’ all that much,” Black said, sniffing around to get the lay of the land. “Just a bunch of stuck up people competein’ to be the most stuck up.”

“There’s plenty of wonderful people here,” White said.

Black just looked to Grey, and then got back to sniffing around.

“I do believe we are less likely to naturally draw a crowd here, though,” Grey said. “Especially with the wall around this nice lawn.”

“We’ll talk to people,” Strings said, locking the sides of the trunk into place as she turned it into the stage.

White nodded, sitting down on the lawn and pantomiming a drink from her little teacup. “I agree. Though one of us should stay here to look after the trunk. Prince Grey, you seem the likely choice, if there are no objections.”

“I’ll do what needs to be done, of course,” Grey said.

White nodded. “Then we’ll do our normal routine on Strings’ shoulders and hopefully word will spread.”

Strings just nodded, finishing moving things around the back of the trunk so nothing was in the way of its use as a stage.

Soon Strings, White, and Black, were back on the street, drawing attention. Strings just stood there, making sure White and Black did not fall, while White played the sweet, innocent straight woman to Black’s loud, silly antics. Heads would turn, and occasionally White would point out they were going to put on a show before dusk. Everything was going fine.

Prince Grey, meanwhile, sat on the top of the stage, waiting. It was boring work, of course, but being a puppet, he had, for better or worse, gotten used to boring downtime. At least he was not in the trunk. He looked over the tall buildings above the walls around the lawn and tried to go over what he was to do in the evening’s performance.

He was just about to give in and practice his fencing stances when someone walked through the arch. He was an older man who was wearing, at Grey’s count, at least three necklaces with various large pendants, all gold. A woman, dressed in very reasonable but fashionable attire, followed him in. He seemed surprised by the stage.

“And what might this be?” he said.

Prince Grey was never sure what to do in these situations. When Strings was around, he could talk fairly freely, as Strings would bluff that she was controlling him should questions arise. Alone, he was unsure what course of action to take. Clearly, he should protect their belongings. But he was unsure at what point moving and talking would become necessary. So he simply sat there, still, and watched.

The man with the many necklaces walked up to the stage itself, looking straight at Grey. It was a bit unsettling. “What a cute little fellow,” he said.

The woman behind him nodded.

“Clearly not made by an expert, very rough, but it has a lot of personality, doesn’t it?” he said.

“Yes, ser,” the woman said.

“I do wonder what all this is doing on my lawn, though,” he said. He started walking around to the back of the stage, where Grey couldn’t keep an eye on him. Grey looked to the woman, instead. She had her hair tied up neatly, but seemed uninterested. “Must be some sort of travelling vagrant,” the man finally said, walking back around.

“Perhaps so, ser,” the woman said.

Staying still was very difficult for Grey, hearing him insult Strings’ good name.

“In any case, this is much too heavy to move. I have no real idea how it got here in the first place,” the man said. “Send some men to clean this up as soon as possible.”

The woman nodded.

That did seem like a potential issue.

“Are we really such a problem, good ser?” Prince Grey said. “We were under the impression this was a public space.”

The man with the many pendants turned, confused. “Who said that?”

Perhaps it would seem less unbelievable if he just believed someone was throwing their voice, Grey thought, and stayed still. He tried to think about how White and Black were likely over-exaggerating themselves to seem harmless and entertaining on the street at that moment. Perhaps he could do something similar. “My name is Prince Grey. A more noble feline you could not find, my good ser. To whom am I speaking?”

The man laughed, and looked at Prince Grey’s unmoving body. “Quite a talent, wherever you are. But perhaps you should come out now.”

“You should tell me your name, first.”

“My name is Duke Trowell. Perhaps you have heard of me, little puppet. I own this lawn.”

“Is that so?” Grey said.

“Yes. Though it was public land until about a year ago, so perhaps you were unaware.”

“We have not been this way in a bit, I will admit. Allow me to apologize for our intrusion. With no gate, we simply thought the area prettied up a bit, you understand.”

“It is why my assistant and I check it from time to time,” Duke Trowell said, nodding.

“Sensible, I suppose, though I do wonder, why not a gate, then?” Grey asked.

“Ruins the aesthetics,” Duke Trowell said. “Now, if you could just show yourself, whoever you are, and get yourself off of my property?”

Prince Grey was unsure what to do. He could not produce a puppeteer. But if he went silent, what would he do to Strings’ things? “Alright, please give her a moment, though. She is a bit occupied at present,” he said, trying to think of a better plan.

Duke Trowell frowned, looking around for the puppeteer.

It was lucky, then, that Strings chose that moment to return. She walked through the archway, White and Black on her shoulders. Her eyes widened for a moment at the sight of Duke Trowell, but her expression soon turned back to normal. Prince Grey quietly offered a prayer of thanks for her timely return.

“You are the puppeteer?” Duke Trowell asked. His assistant looked the large woman over, with disdain at her heavily patched dress and apron evident.

“Yes,” Strings said.

“You’ve gotten a lot more skilled than back in the day. It was like the little cat was talking,” Duke Trowell said.

Strings nodded.

“Do you know this woman, ser?” the assistant woman asked.

“From a long time ago,” Duke Trowell said. “Where are my manners? This is my assistant, Tress. Do you still go by that ridiculous nom de plume?”

“Strings,” Strings said.

“Of course,” Duke Trowell said, chuckling. “Strings. Well, she was in my employ as security a long time ago,” he said to Tress, nodding.

“I see,” Tress said.

“She also stole a great asset from me,” he said.

Tress’ eyes narrowed. “I see.”

White was shaking a little, frustrated at this conversation, but staying quiet.

“She wasn’t an asset,” Strings said.

Duke Trowell chuckled. “Ah, of course, excuse me.” He smiled the smile of someone in charge. “I heard that you performed for the Queen of Errvente.”

Strings nodded. She might have been surprised word had spread, had this not been Duke Trowell. Hearing things is what Duke Trowell did.

“You must really be something these days, if you have grabbed an attention of a royal,” he said.

“Especially if you were dressed like that,” Tress said.

“Who would have known your silly hobby could pay off like that?” he finished, smiling.

Strings just stared him down.

“I take it from the little stage you were planning a performance, here. Perhaps we can arrange something.” Duke Trowell said, walking back over to the stage and Prince Grey. “I’m feeling generous. I shall let your performance go on, if you agree to be my guest at dinner tonight. I’m sure you can agree we have lots to catch up on.”

Prince Grey did not much care for the smirk the man was wearing.

Strings looked to White. White looked back. She was frustrated, being currently unable to do anything. She knew what the sensible move would be here. Given their situation, a likely overwhelmingly expensive meal and perhaps a place to stay for the night was worth the trade of a little information, especially since she could trust Strings not to reveal anything too vital. But she wanted to say no. She really wanted to say no.

But in the end, she couldn’t. Strings was more important. Strings deserved a night of rest, and they could use the coin from the performance they had already been telling people would be here. White gave a slight nod.

“Alright,” Strings said, turning back to Duke Trowell.

“Excellent,” he said, giving that smile once more. “Tress, make the arrangements. What time is the performance?”

“In two hours,” Strings said.

“Alright, then we shall dine at dusk, then. Tress will provide you with directions… but then again, perhaps you do not need them.” And with that, he walked through the arch.

Tress, with an expression that made it clear she did not care for Strings one bit, pulled a card with directions printed on it out of a pocket, and handed it to Strings. “We shall see you tonight. Do not be late. Try to wear something respectable.” And with that, she left.

“I did the best I could to keep him away from our things,” Prince Grey said after the coast was clear. “I was not aware that you knew him, however…”

Strings nodded, leaning down and giving Grey a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome, Miss Strings,” Grey said, embarrassed.

“Enough of that,” White said, clearly annoyed. “We have a show to prepare for, but more importantly, a dinner to prepare for.”

Black sighed. “You really goin’ to force a battleplan on us for a meal?”

“If we aren’t careful, we could be putting many things at risk,” White said. “Not that I expect you to understand the importance of controlling information in these situations.”

Black shrugged. “Whatever. If it makes you happy wastin’ time on playin’ spy, you go right ahead.”

“I do not play spy!” White said, angry.

“There is clearly more to this situation than I am aware. Perhaps someone could explain it to me,” Prince Grey said, hoping to move things away from a yelling match.

“The bunny used to sleep with him,” Black said.

“It was part of my job!” White yelled, livid. “A job I did much better than any of your… your… petty thievery!”

Black just shrugged.

White walked away across the lawn, enraged.

“Well…” Grey said, unsure how to move forward from that.

“Costumes,” Strings said.

“Oh, yes, perhaps we should get dressed so we’re not rushed…” Prince Grey said, relieved, as Strings moved to the trunk.

“Give her time,” Strings said as she started pulling out the little outfits her friends needed for tonight.

Prince Grey nodded.

Duke Trowell’s house was an impressive sight, going up for several stories with intricate carvings in the stonework depicting various figures on the stage. From a distance, it looked like most other buildings in the area, but as you got closer, the details came out, and the vast amount of money involved was suddenly clear. The inside was similar, with everything being very simple, the kind of simple that, upon examination, you realize is a very expensive, high quality simple that does not need to show off.

Strings did not much care for any of it.

Tress equally did not care much for Strings. The idea that someone this scruffy was considered a person of importance from her employer seemed an incredible mistake, and she could not imagine the trouble this was about to cause. Still, she had a job to do.

The two women stared each other down at the door. Finally, Tress spoke. “Please, come in. Dinner will be served momentarily. Shall I take your… trunk?”

Strings walked inside and placed the trunk on the ground.

Tress looked at the trunk and considered her chances of moving it. “I… suppose that is fine. Would you like to change before dinner?”

“No,” Strings said.

“…I insist,” Tress said. “Surely you have a better dress than that.”

Strings just stared at her.

“Well… I suppose that is to be expected for one like yourself. Allow me to see if we have something in your… unique size…” Tress said, turning and exiting the room.

Strings leaned down, and unlatched the trunk.

“We’ll be nearby if you need us,” White said from inside the trunk.

“More important, eat a lot of that expensive food,” Black said. “And try savin’ me a bone, if you can.”

“I will,” Strings said. That made Black very happy.

“Just remember what we talked about,” White said. “Stay to approved things.”

“I’ve prepared a room for you to change in,” Tress said, reappearing. “Please, follow me.”

Strings stood up, and followed.

Tress led her up a flight of stairs and opened a door. On the bed in the small guest room was an outfit that reminded her of the uniform she wore during her time of employment with Duke Trowell. “Drab, isn’t it?” Tress said, misinterpreting Strings’ reaction. “But I’m afraid it is the only thing we have in your size, and it is much better than that beat up, patched dress you’re wearing.”

Strings just stared at the outfit, debating whether she should comply.

“Well, I’ll leave you to it, then,” Tress said, leaving the room.

Strings hesitated for a bit longer before starting to take off her dress. She looked at herself in the mirror as she buttoned up the top. The outfit made her look obedient, she decided. Maybe it was better this way, to be someone else when dealing with liars.

“How much nicer you look when you put on some real clothes,” Duke Trowell said as Strings walked into the dining room. The table, a small and intimate one, not the lavish banquet setting most would assume of a man with his money, was set, with a bottle of wine poured into two glasses. “Please, sit down, the food will be here shortly.”

Strings sat down, the chair beneath her giving a little creak.

“Try the wine? It’s not the best vintage, but it’s light and sweet. I think you’ll enjoy it,” Duke Trowell said.

Strings had not had wine in a long, long time. She picked up the glass and took a sip. The taste on her tongue reminded her of when she had a drinking partner. She didn’t much care for the reminder.

“Thoughts?” he asked.

Strings just nodded.

“Good,” he said, smiling across the table.

A woman in cooking attire entered, carrying plates of salad and bread, giving a little bow before exiting.

Black, White, and Grey had to move away from the door as the woman in cooking attire approached, so she would not see them eavesdropping. Once she’d left, however, they were right back at the door frame.

“I thought this was a fancy meal,” Black whispered. “I don’t smell any meat.”

“It’s the salad course,” White hissed. “Now be quiet, I need to listen.”

Prince Grey kept watch on the corridor, paw resting on the hilt of his rapier.

Strings slowly ate the salad, keeping her eyes on Duke Trowell.

Duke Trowell just smiled. “So, you must tell me about how you came to perform for the royals in Errvente. It must be quite a story.”

“I’m a good puppeteer,” Strings said.

“Well, yes, from the little I’ve seen, I would agree,” he said, nodding. He seemed to be expecting more of an explanation. Strings just finished her salad. “Still, it’s not every day a royal without small children requests a puppet show, much less at a funeral.”

“Yes,” Strings said.

Duke Trowell chuckled. “Come now, surely we can have a little bit of pleasant talk before we get down to business?”

“Alright,” Strings said.

“How was the Queen? It’s been awhile since we corresponded.”

“Sad,” Strings said.

“Well, yes, I suppose so. Holding up well, though?”

“Yes,” Strings said.

“Good to hear.”

The puppets listened as this went on for quite some time, before having to hide again as the woman in cooking attire brought in the main course.

“There’s the meat,” Black whispered. He couldn’t wait to chew on the bone Strings was going to bring him. Not that he could really chew, with a painted mouth, but it was still exciting, nonetheless.

White tried to ignore him and listen.

“Did you, by chance, happen to meet a Prince from Arameth, by the name of Cherlie?” Duke Trowell asked.

This was the first difficult question she had been asked. Strings cut off a bit of meat as she considered her answer.

Duke Trowell sighed. “Come now, we’re friends here, right? I’m sure you did.”

That was that, then. “Yes,” Strings said.

“Tell me about him,” he said. It was a subtle shift from polite conversation to command.

“Delicate. Caring. Heart in the right place,” Strings said.

Duke Trowell nodded, swallowing a bit of potato. “Of course. A sweet boy, then.”

“Yes.”

“More wine?” He offered the bottle.

Strings took it and refilled her glass.

“He was very close with the Princess, was he not?”

“Who?” Strings asked, frowning.

“Ah, excuse me. Petal. They were close?”

“Yes…”

“Why is he asking about this?” Prince Grey whispered, taking his eyes off of lookout duty to look to White.

“I’m not sure yet, but I don’t like it,” White whispered.

Duke Trowell took a sip of wine. “Word is he’s been in mourning all this time. Poor boy.” He looked up at Strings with a concerned expression. “How much time did you two spend together?”

“Enough,” Strings said.

“Travel together?”

“No.”

“I see.” He took another bite, smiling softly. “I suppose you have heard about the war brewing between Arameth and Errvente, especially with Errvente holding Cherlie hostage, so to speak.”

Strings just stared at him.

“Do you know of a mine, on the border? I heard Cherlie was there, not long before Petal’s unfortunate death. Just the rambling of drunken soldiers, of course, but many interesting things a lot of them seem to agree on… it’s amazing what you can hear, when you listen.”

“…he’s targeting Prince Cherlie,” White whispered.

“What!” Prince Grey said, barely able to keep his voice down.

“He’s solidifying rumors so he can use them against Cherlie,” White said, paw on her chin, thinking.

“That’s… why would he…” Grey stammered.

“Because that’s what he does,” White said.

“Shall I turn him to ash?” Black asked.

“No,” White said. “But stay here in case Strings needs backup.”

“How am I supposed to be helpin’ if I’m not setting things on fire?” Black teased.

“I trust your best judgment to keep Strings safe,” White said. Black seemed surprised and sobered by the serious response. “Prince Grey, if you would please accompany me.”

“Of course, Miss White, but surely the problem is in there…” Grey said, hurrying after White, who was already moving down the hallway.

“There’s nothing we can do about him directly besides killing him, and that would draw too much attention to Strings. What we need is to remove the arrows from his quiver, so to speak. So we must find them,” White said. “I’m sure he’s moved things around since my time in his employ, but I at least know where to start looking.” White hurried to another set of stairs, and started climbing them.

Prince Grey followed, working to hoist himself up each stair. “I am afraid time may not be on our side… our sizes are a bit of a speed disadvantage…”

“Well, we will simply have to make do,” White said, doing her best to climb as quickly as possible. “It would have been nice if we could have told Strings to attempt to stall the dinner for as long as possible, but what’s done is done.”

They finally reached the top of the stairs, and looked down another hallway full of rooms. White wasted no time walking down, looking for something. Grey followed, unsure exactly what he should be doing.

“The door is gone,” White said, frustrated. “Where was it…”

“A door disappeared?” Grey asked. “How odd.”

“He hid it… oh, of course,” White said, walking to the wall. There was a small hole in the bottom. “Of course, he puts the keyhole low so it’s not seen.”

“Do you know where the key is?”

“Likely on Trowell,” White said. “But I know who will most likely have a spare.”

“The lady assistant, Tress?”

White paused a moment, surprised. “Yes, of course. Good eye, Prince Grey. Let’s see if we can locate her.”

They moved from room to room, listening for people inside. There was silence behind most. The kitchen and servants were downstairs, White assumed, so Tress should be the only other person here.

“I hear scratching on paper,” Prince Grey said as they neared another door.

“Probably her,” White said.

They looked up at the doorknob, far out of their reach.

“I could vault you up there to hopefully work the knob,” Grey said, “But I do believe that would draw a lot of attention to us, the door swinging open with you hanging from it.”

“Anything would besides waiting,” White said, thinking. “But maybe we could use that to our advantage.”

Prince Grey nodded, though he did not know what she could be thinking.

“May I borrow your rapier, Prince Grey?” White asked.

“I… suppose so,” Grey said, drawing and offering it. “Though do take care of it. It is an heirloom.”

White nodded, testing its weight. “Do you think you can climb up on that table with the vase?” she asked.

“I believe so…” Grey said.

“Then please do, and when I give the signal, shove the vase to the ground and break it,” White said.

What White was suggesting began to dawn on Grey. “Miss White, I mean no offense, but perhaps I should take your role and hold the blade in this scenario. There’s no need to put yourself at risk, and we both know I am quite skilled.”

“This is personal, and not a task for a fencer,” White said. “And more importantly, we’re running out of time, so if you please.”

“…if you are sure, Miss White,” Grey said, and started to climb up the table. White backed up so she would be behind the door as it opened as Grey got behind the vase, nearly as big as he was.

White took a moment to collect herself. It had been a while. But these things never really leave someone, even after so many years. “Go,” she said.

Grey pushed the vase, and it fell to the ground and shattered loudly.

Grey looked to White. White motioned for him to play dead as she heard someone get up behind the door. Grey was a bit frustrated, but collapsed into a little puppet pile.

Tress opened the door, and looked to the broken vase. “Unbelievable,” she said, before seeing Prince Grey laying there, lifeless. “What in the world…” she said, staring at the puppet. White would have preferred her to walk over to the table, but she was keeping her back against the door as she looked around. White had guessed she was trained, so she was not surprised, but things would be harder.

“Hthhlgmn,” White said, quietly, and felt the rush as she shot up to human size, the rapier joining her as it had with Prince Grey so many times before. She took a breath, holding the rapier in her right paw, and moved around the door, long white dress swishing in the air as she did so.

In the dining room, in the middle of a respite from questioning designed to lower Strings’ guard before more questioning during the dessert, Strings felt a tug of exhaustion welling. What were her friends up to? She did not know. She gripped her fork a little tighter as Duke Trowell talked about nothing in particular.

White grabbed at Tress’ neck as she moved around the corner, but misjudged the height a bit. It was hard to get a feel for these things when you were a little puppet. Tress, momentarily stunned by the wooden arm around her face, ducked and spun to face the large, humanoid puppet, smiling painted face staring at her below two wooden ears.

White raised the rapier to press the point against Tress’ neck, but she moved farther back into her room. By the time White pursued, she had pulled a knife from somewhere on her person.

“Figured you couldn’t just be a pretty face,” White said. “I never get the lucky breaks.”

“I am really unsure what you are, but you really shouldn’t be wearing white. The dress just disappears on you,” Tress said, knife at the ready.

White was attempting to determine was else was hid in her practical dress. “It’s a thematic thing,” she said, “I’m supposed to look innocent and welcoming.”

“Ah, well, I suppose that’s one way to go about it,” Tress said. “What are you, some sort of bunny?”

“Unfortunately,” White said, and then made a sudden dash to the side. Tress moved like she was expecting it, but was unfortunately held back a bit by the desk in her way. White thrust the rapier, grazing Tress’ arm. The puppet immediately dropped the rapier and put both paws on Tress’ wrist, pulling her arm behind her at an awkward angle and holding it there. “But I do what I can,” White finished.

Tress was still, smart enough not to outright struggle when held in such a way that her arm could be easily broken. “Whatever you are, you’re well trained.”

“Your training seems mediocre at best. Who did you study under?”

“Franchella.”

“Ah, she must be slipping in her old age.”

“Perhaps,” Tress said, and then kicked backward into White’s shin. It made a little wooden thunk, and knocked White’s balance out, allowing Tress to spin out of White’s hold and get the knife up to White’s wooden neck. “Perhaps not.”

“Hm, I see,” White said.

“Is this some sort of wooden mask?” Tress asked.

“If you’d prefer to think as such, that’d be very convenient,” White said, attempting to ever so slowly move her paws back against her opponent. Black would be better at this, she knew, but seeing as he had discarded the entire notion of opposable thumbs in these sorts of situations and was also down a flight of stairs, she’d have to make due. She just hoped Prince Grey would realize she was in control of the situation.

Prince Grey, looking in around the door frame, saw White very much in trouble and not in control of the situation. He could see his rapier, large, sitting on the ground. If he could reach it, he could help. He began to crawl, slowly.

“Are you going to kill me?” White asked.

“I’d much prefer to know who you are and why you are here, first,” Tress said.

“I’m sure you would. But would my answer be any surprise? The Duke has so many enemies.”

“I suppose he does, at that, but it’s always good to know who I am dealing with.”

“Do you deal with a lot of people?”

“The only thing that’s important is that I’m dealing with you,” Tress said.

“And what of poor Prince Cherlie, who you are working so hard to blackmail?” White asked.

“Ah, from Arameth, are you?”

White’s paw felt what seemed to be keys against the fabric of Tress’ dress. “Suppose there’s little reason to deny it,” she said, slowly moving her paw to extract them. “He’s doing important work we’d really rather you not disrupt.”

“So sorry about that, but there are other plans in motion, you understand.”

“I’m sure.”

“And I’m sure you’ll continue to get in the way of them if I let you out of here.”

“You know how it is.”

Tress moved to lift the “mask” off of White. Of course, there was no mask. White could feel her trying to hide her confusion.

“Sorry to disappoint,” White said, using the confusion to pull the keys out the rest of the way and wriggle out of her grasp enough to elbow Tress in the gut. She moved quickly as Tress wheezed, grabbing the rapier and moving out the door, closing it. Opening doors along the way, she rushed into another room, tossed the keys under the bed, and then returned to her normal size, hiding beneath it. She should, hopefully, just disappear, as far as Tress was concerned. She should then, of course, busy herself with securing the perimeter, giving White enough time to join back up with Grey and, hopefully, get into the hidden room. Strings might have to leave them there for a short while, but she was not worried.

But Prince Grey was worried, as he was now locked in the office, unnoticed.

It seemed like a bad idea to make himself known, so he found a place to hide, beneath a chair, as Tress exited the room to look for White, closing the door behind her.

“Now what…” Grey said to himself, looking around the office. For a work space, it seemed fairly barren. There were slots on the wall for paperwork, but very few of them were filled. Nothing seemed filed here. He moved, quickly, over under the desk itself, where there was better cover. He then debated seeing what she had been working on. Surely that was part of the plan? He had no real idea when Tress might return. But it seemed particularly foolish to simply wait for rescue or an opportunity without having anything for his efforts, and so he decided to hoist himself up onto the chair and take a look.

On the desk was a collection of invitation cards. Grey had turned down enough of them in his day to recognize them easily. Tress had apparently been in the middle of writing, in fine handwriting, an apologetic rejection of one of these invitations.

It seemed extremely common for someone like Duke Trowell. Surely this wasn’t the sort of “arrow” White was concerned about removing? Prince Grey shifted through the cards, trying to recognize something of worth. None of the names were familiar to him. He hopped onto the desk and then over to the shelves, looking through the papers there. There was a stack of cards like the one Tress had been working on in envelopes, presumably ready to be sent out.

Cherlie’s name was on one of the envelopes.

“I do apologize, my friend, but this may be important,” Grey muttered to Cherlie, wherever he was, as he carefully opened the envelope, trying not to break the seal too obviously. The card was accepting an invitation to attend the final performance of the season at the Grand Theatre in about two days’ time. Prince Grey was about to recheck the address on the envelope when he heard the door opening. He dropped the letter and jumped to the ground, landing with an unfortunate clatter before hurrying back under the desk.

Tress reentered. She was annoyed that her assailant had gotten away, but even more annoyed that her keys seemed to be missing so she could not check the entire building. She had a good feeling what happened to them, but it was important to be thorough in these matters. A proper lady did not do things in halves, but in wholes. There was a chance she dropped them in the scuffle, so it was important to ensure that did not happen before drawing conclusions.

Grey could hear her moving closer to the desk and debated his options. He did not have his rapier, so most of his combat abilities were greatly reduced. However, Tress did leave the door open. He could make a run for it.

Tress bent down to check under the desk for her keys and came face to face with a still-debating Prince Grey.

For a moment, neither party knew what to do.

“Ah, excuse me, Miss,” Grey said, taking off his hat for a little bow. “I was just leaving.”

Tress’ eyes narrowed.

Grey took off at a run, as fast as his little wooden legs would take him. He heard a thunk of something striking the door frame behind him as he rounded it. He hurried for the stairs, but before he got there, he was grabbed, and picked up. It was a very uncomfortable feeling, being picked up by someone else.

“Well, I do say that’s uncalled for, Miss,” Prince Grey said, deciding not to struggle and risk being gripped with more force.

“I believe it was uncalled for for a… puppet to sneak into my office and, I assume, break a vase,” Tress said. “You’re lucky my knife missed you and I am currently feeling generous, but given you are the second odd thing made of wood I have encountered today, I believe I do have some questions.”

“I am clearly at your mercy, Miss Tress, if I recall?”

White, from down the hall, overhearing talking, was fuming as she peeked out to view the scene. She could either leave Prince Grey and still complete her objective, or she could attempt a rescue and extract themselves from the situation, and lose that opportunity. She knew what the old her would do. But things were different now, for better or worse.

White went back for the rapier. The keys would have to be left behind under the bed. They were too big to carry while making a quick escape. And then she was out into the hallway.

“Who are you working for?” Tress asked Grey.

Grey thought that a somewhat odd first question, given that he was a living puppet, but so it went. “Simply for myself, Miss Tress. A nobleman working towards noble pursuits.”

“Very noble of you to break into my office, ser.”

“At my stature, I unfortunately do not have a lot of options,” Grey said.

“I can imagine,” Tress said. “However, it does not change the fact that you were spying on me, little cat.”

“I suppose it doesn’t,” Grey said.

Tress smiled. “Extracting information from you is going to lead to some… unique challenges. I am looking forward to it.”

Prince Grey didn’t care for that idea much.

Tress turned to return to her office, Grey in hand. As she did, a shout rang out. “Lthxnmgn!” White cried, and blew bubbles up into Tress’ face. Grey got caught in the blast, which was a bit disorienting. Seeing as his eyes were painted on, however, it wasn’t near as much of a problem as for Tress, who stifled a cry of pain as she took one hand off of Grey to try to wipe her stinging eyes.

“Prince Grey, here!” White called, and threw the rapier upward with as much force as she could manage.

“My thanks, Miss White,” Grey said as he grabbed the hilt and immediately jabbed it into Tress’s hand. She cursed as she dropped Grey, flailing into a wall with a thump in surprise.

Meanwhile, Black was bored, and wished Strings could just walk over and give him the bone he saw set aside for him. But instead she was stalling, for some reason, as she slowly, achingly slowly, ate her dessert. It crossed Black’s mind that Strings might know something was going on that he didn’t. But he couldn’t just leave Strings alone to figure it out, could he? So he waited.

At least, until the loud thud from upstairs, loud enough for even Strings and Duke Trowell to hear, sounded upstairs.

“What was that?” Duke Trowell wondered aloud.

Strings said nothing.

Black was unsure of the right move until he saw White and Grey almost falling down the stairs in a run.

“In the trunk now!” White hissed as she ran.

“Just leavin’ Strings?” Black said, falling into line behind them.

“That is a good point, Miss White,” Grey said as they headed down the other flight of stairs.

“She has deniability if we let her get herself out. Duke Trowell is not a nice man, as you may have guessed,” White said.

“All the more reason to be helpin’ her!” Black said.

“Just get in the trunk!” White said, frustrated. She didn’t want to leave Strings without aid either, but she didn’t know any other options at the moment. They’d already revealed more about their nature to the worst possible person to reveal it to.

“S-ser!” Tress said, eyes still red and stinging as she entered the dining room.

“We’re still having dessert,” Duke Trowell said, obviously annoyed.

“There’s been a situation that needs your attention,” she said.

Duke Trowell sighed. “You will have to excuse me. I will return as soon as possible,” he said, standing. He walked over to Tress, giving her an annoyed look. Tress knew she was going to have a lot of trouble explaining all this. She closed the door as they left.

Strings knew she needed to leave. Something was up. She stood, and walked to the door.

It was locked.

She tried the other door she had not used. It was also locked.

She debated her next action for a moment. In the end she figured whatever her friends had done that had upset things that much had already burned anything like a bridge she had here.

She braced herself against the door. It had not looked that thick. It was made for beauty, not security, surely. She pressed with all her weight, putting her collective strength into the door itself. Sweat beaded on her forehead. Finally, there was a crack as the wood of the door frame gave against the pressure, just enough for Strings to wiggle the door open.

With that, as quietly as she could manage, Strings hurried into the room she had changed in, grabbed her clothes, and then headed to the front door.

“Everyone here?” she said as she picked up the trunk.

“Yes, we’re fine, Miss Strings,” Grey said from the trunk.

“A lot to discuss,” White said, still sounding a bit frustrated with how south everything went.

Strings, hearing something upstairs, got the trunk on her back and hurried out the door.

“So you mucked it all up then,” Black said.

After getting far enough outside of the city that they felt safe, and setting up a fire for tea, White had attempted to explain what had happened. Black was not impressed.

“My part of the plan went perfectly,” White said, taking a sip from her little teacup. “Everything went fine until our foolish kitten went rogue.”

Prince Grey found himself having to swallow a hiss. “You were at risk, so I attempted a rescue, as anyone would have.”

“I was in no danger at all,” White said, not looking to Grey.

“She had a knife to your throat!”

“What could she have done, chip my paint?”

The hiss escaped this time. Prince Grey turned, frustrated. “Please excuse me for a moment, I believe I need some air.” He walked off to the edge of the firelight.

Strings watched him for a moment, then turned to look at her cooling cup of tea.

“I expected more from him,” White said softly, looking similarly at her little teacup.

“I was expectin’ more from you,” Black said.

“Yes, I’m sure I continue to be a nuisance to you,” White said. “Costing you that all-important bone.”

Black stuck his paws into the pockets of his shorts. “When we first got stuck like this, I wasn’t trustin’ you at all. Constantly went off on my own. Took me forever to recognize how good you were.”

“That’s because you’re a stubborn mutt,” White said, looking away.

“Yeah. And me bein’ stubborn, not trustin’ you, that’s worth a few cuttin’ words. But all he did was worry about you and want to help.”

White just sat there.

“You should apologize,” Strings said.

White set her teacup down, and stood. “Fine.” She headed towards Grey.

“Hello, Miss White,” Grey said as he heard her approach.

“Hello, Prince Grey,” White said, moving to stand beside him.

“I have decided I am not sorry,” he said, still looking into the distance. “I have made poor decisions before, and this one has caused me to feel no remorse. I took action as I needed to. But perhaps this just proves I am a foolish kitten.”

“Perhaps,” White said.

“I know you are not some helpless damsel, Miss White. But that doesn’t mean I will let you get hurt because I did not help.”

White hesitated for a moment. “Perhaps you do not understand that I took your rapier to keep you out of danger.”

Grey turned to look at her, surprised.

“I must confess that helping your friend was simply an excuse for a bit of revenge I could not otherwise justify,” she said. “It was not my plan to kill her, preferably, but if it came to that, I did not want blood on your paws for my bit of spiteful meddling.”

“What was done to you?” Grey asked.

“Nothing, truthfully. But I was compelled by my employment at the time to do nothing as he did awful things to undeserving people, and got away with them again and again. It didn’t bother me at the time. It was a job. I had a role to play. But seeing him again…” White searched for the right words. She did not find them. “I am getting weak, I suppose.”

“It is never weak to want to help,” Grey said.

“I suppose you are right. I apologize for mocking your attempts to do so.”

“Thank you, Miss White. Consider the matter closed.”

“Ultimately, though, I have missed my chance to make him fail, for once, and who knows exactly what Duke Trowell has in store for your friend.”

Prince Grey swished his tail, pleased with himself. “Actually, Miss White, we may have another chance.”

“You’re acting like you’ve never been to the theatre before,” said Arla, watching Cherlie nervously inspect himself in the mirror. “You understand everyone will not be looking at you, yes? And you are looking quite handsome regardless.”

“Well, thank you, Arla…” Cherlie said, embarrassed. “But this is a bit more than a show, you understand.”

“Yes, yes, your mission,” Arla said, standing from where he had been lounging. “But looking good is always a show of power, and ser, you are looking good.”

“I highly doubt the Duke will think I have any power no matter how I look.”

“You may not convince him, no. But if you look like you have power, act like it…” Arla shrugged. “Making him doubt, even a little, that may be what you need to get the upper hand. It’s a kind of intimidation that doesn’t use threats, yes?”

“You may be right…” Cherlie said. He thought about this for a moment. How could he project power? His eyes moved to his attendant, someone he considered a friend, at least a little. It was obvious, looking at Arla, that his previous job was not like this. The scars were proof enough of that. But he still managed to carry himself like someone who’d been in castles and mansions his whole life. He projected power. “Perhaps you should come with me,” Cherlie said before really thinking about what that would mean.

Arla laughed, and then frowned as he saw Cherlie’s expression. “You’re serious.”

“A person with power would have a bodyguard, yes? You look tough, but you clean up well. You would be perfect.”

“You already have bodyguards, ser. Take one of the soldiers.”

“Seeing as I am in asylum, would a soldier not be read as a babysitter instead?” Cherlie asked.

Arla sighed, unable to dispute that. “You’re sure, then? That you want to drag someone like me along on this little date?”

Cherlie nodded. “If… that’s okay with you.”

“I don’t know if that’s the sort of response of someone in power,” Arla said. “Even if I come, you have to do this, you know?”

“Yes, right…” Cherlie said, gathering himself. “Your presence is required. Let’s find you an outfit to borrow and get you ready.”

Arla nodded. “More like it.” He turned to head to the door. “You know, ser, I took this job to get away from all that shady dealing. Be more respectable or something.”

Cherlie smiled, knowing he no longer had to go alone. There was a confidence instilled from that, at least. “My friend, what could be more respectable than the theatre?”

The Grand Theatre was a sight to behold. Huge columns covered in metal that gleamed in the setting sun surrounded the entrance lit by hanging lamps. Carriage after carriage was dropping off more and more people dressed in their finest, prepared to see the last show of the season, a performance of the classic “The Cursed Daughter of the Sun.” Attendants, dressed better than most, were at the door, checking invitations and ushering people into the massive lobby that, with its impressive chandelier and expensive tile floor, had many times been used as a ballroom all on its own.

Cherlie found the sight a bit intimidating, to say the least, as his carriage approached the entrance. He looked over to Arla, sitting across from him. He’d trimmed his beard down and fixed his hair back in quite the stylish look. He wore the borrowed finery like someone who always dressed this way. Cherlie was, in many ways, a bit jealous of the ease of his companion.

“So… what happens when we get to the front of this line…” Cherlie said, mostly out of a nervous need to break the silence.

“I get out of the carriage, offer you a hand down to the ground, and you take my arm and we walk in,” Arla said.

Cherlie was unsure how to take that. “Well…”

Arla chuckled. “How am I supposed to know? You should know the protocol of this stuff better than me, Mister Prince.”

“Please don’t call me that,” Cherlie said. “But, yes, I suppose it isn’t that complicated. You follow right behind and I need to take charge.”

“Right,” Arla said. “I’ll be right there, so just do your thing.”

The carriage stopped where everyone was unloading. Cherlie took a breath, and got out. The crowd felt a bit suffocating, but he remembered what he was here to do, the importance of it, and did his best to act like he belonged as he showed his invitation and headed towards their seats.

“When’s the meeting?” Arla asked as they sat down.

“Beginning of the second act,” Cherlie said.

“Oh, so I’m going to miss all the dramatic stuff,” Arla said.

“Surely you know the story, though.”

Arla shook his head.

“Oh… well, it is very good, just… over-performed, perhaps,” Cherlie said, feeling silly to assume his companion had been to the theatre as much as even his meager attendance. “I shall have to take you again sometime so you can see the full show.”

Arla chuckled. “You will, will you?”

“If… you would like that?”

Arla just shook his head, smiling and taking in the stage before him.

Cherlie felt he was clearly even worse at this sort of thing than he had originally feared.

The show began. The actor playing Farah lit up the stage with a presence Cherlie had rarely seen in the role. Perhaps this was why so many flocked to Ryfe, and the Grand Theatre specifically, for such performances.

At the first intermission, people started to move around them. Cherlie looked over to Arla. “Is it living up to your expectations?” he asked.

“It is indeed a spectacle,” Arla said, nodding. “Farah’s got moxie, I’ll give her that.”

“The way she stands up to those keeping her from her birthright is indeed impressive,” Cherlie said. “Going against everything, everyone…”

“A lot like you are,” Arla said.

“Not at all…” Cherlie said, looking down at his boots. “I’m just… trying to help.”

“Sure,” Arla said. “We should probably try to get going. There’s going to be crowds to push through.”

“Right…” Cherlie said, bringing himself back to the task at hand. “Let’s go.”

They began to move through the crowds of chatting theatregoers, attempting to work their way towards the doors backstage, where the meeting was supposed to occur.

Not long after they started, though, Arla tapped Cherlie on the shoulder. Cherlie looked back, and Arla tipped his head to one side. Following the direction, Cherlie saw a figure. The person was wearing a huge, heavy cloak that covered basically all body features, much like the cloak Glimm wears in the third act of the show.

“Following us,” Arla said softly. “That the guy you’re supposed to meet?”

“I highly doubt it,” Cherlie said, and kept moving.

The figure kept moving behind them. Many people were looking at the oddly dressed person as it pushed through the crowd.

“Didn’t really want to actually bodyguard…” Arla mumbled.

“We could run for it?” Cherlie suggested.

“Let’s get backstage, and jump him if he follows us,” Arla suggested.

“…okay,” Cherlie said.

They hurried through the door, which, as Cherlie had been told, was unlocked. Arla motioned for Cherlie to give the door some space, and set himself up, ready.

The door opened.

Cherlie held his breath.

Arla tackled the hooded figure as it entered the door.

The figure hit the ground with an odd clatter, as opposed to the thump a body would normally make. Arla was very confused.

“Nice to see you too, my friend…” came a voice from the hood, sounding a bit worn from the tackle. “Cherlie, would you mind telling him to get off of us?”

Cherlie’s eyes widened. “I…”

White climbed out from under the cloak, brushing dust off of her little dress. “I am glad that you’ve at least got yourself protection, Prince Cherlie. It seems a bit foolish to be here, honestly.”

“…what is going on,” Arla said, staring at White.

“It… it should be fine, Arla…” Cherlie said, still a bit stunned.

The figure stood, and pulled back the hood of the cloak to reveal a wooden cat head. “It’s been a while, my friend. Sorry to give you a scare, but we couldn’t think of another way to make contact with you,” Grey said.

“P… Grey…” Cherlie said.

Prince Grey was caught off guard as Cherlie rushed over and pulled his wooden frame into a hug. “Y-yes… it has been too long… but such is fate, I suppose…”

“You’re doing well? You’re still doing well?” Cherlie asked.

“As well as someone made of wood can do, I suppose. Are you alright?”

“I… it’s been difficult adjusting… but I think so,” Cherlie said.

Prince Grey nodded.

“This is all very sweet, but we do not have much time until your meeting and we have a lot to go over,” White said from the ground. Grey picked her up and she looked to Cherlie. “I can’t imagine why you are agreeing to talk to Duke Trowell in the first place, but it isn’t going to go well.”

“You are… Cherlie, these appear to be living puppets…” Arla said, still trying to wrap his head around things.

“I will attempt to explain later, my friend, but White is correct, we don’t have a lot of time,” Cherlie said, and turned back to White. “I am attempting to gather information. Queen Errvente is hoping that knowing who is on our side and who is leaning where will help us win enough support to ensure fighting never occurs through a sort of social intimidation. So of course, we go to the man with the information.”

“I suppose that makes some level of sense, but he’s likely going to attempt to blackmail you using the death of Prince Petal,” White said, crossing her arms. “And I will simply be honest that it would not be hard to gather information to pin this at least partially on you, so I believe he can back up his words.”

“If you’re at a disadvantage, perhaps it would be best to just call this off,” Arla suggested.

“Unfortunately, he can do damage with his information either way, I’m afraid,” Prince Grey said. “But Miss White has a plan, if you are open to it.”

Cherlie nodded.

“I was going about this all wrong the other day,” White said. “Had my place in this all wrong. To properly embarrass him, we need to beat him, and to do that, you need to blackmail him back. So, let’s go over some of the people he has had a hand in having assassinated, that you can bring up. I figured one target you could reasonably know and one he’d have no idea how you knew would be best. The first gives your threat legitimacy, like you are doing this yourself and aren’t a pawn, and the second makes the threat actually threatening. So, let’s…”

“Wait, you… I have to blackmail Duke Trowell?” Cherlie said.

White nodded.

Cherlie had done his best to be confident about a simple negotiation for exchange of information, and that was a big enough stretch. To go on the offensive? Well, he had heard about the Duke before, certainly. It seemed impossible. “I’m… not sure I’m capable of that.”

“Ser, you trust these creatures?” Arla asked.

“With my life,” he said without hesitation.

“Then I’d go along with this,” Arla said. “This isn’t much different than what we talked about, about projecting power. If you trust what this… bunny is saying, you then simply have something to lend that power weight, if it comes to that.”

“Well… alright…” Cherlie said.

“You can do this, my friend. Just like you did at the camp before,” Grey said.

Cherlie nodded.

White quickly started to run him through a lot of background information about two people that Cherlie did not even recognize. One seemed to be a church official, and the other a businessman who used to live in Arameth. White kept asking Cherlie to repeat what she was saying back to her. It was a bit stressful.

“Likely going to be late if we don’t move now,” Arla said.

“That will have to do, then,” White said. “We’ll be going back to hiding, and you will probably not see us again if all goes well, but we will be around if you need us. Scream or something.”

Cherlie nodded.

“It was… good to see you again,” Grey said.

Cherlie looked into the cat’s painted eyes. “Yes… I… can we not meet up after this?”

“Not safe at the moment,” White said. “You will have trouble if the Duke associates us with you currently. We… have already had an encounter with him.”

“Alright…” Cherlie said. “I hope I can do this…”

“You can,” Arla said.

“You know your role. Just inhabit it, be that person, just for an hour,” White said.

Cherlie closed his eyes, and imagined who that person would be, who could do these things he had to do. What would that person do? What would he be brave enough for?

Cherlie opened his eyes. He turned to Arla, and leaned in, and kissed him.

Arla was a bit surprised at this, to say the least.

“For luck,” Cherlie said.

“Of course,” Arla said, chuckling.

Cherlie turned, and planted his lips against Grey’s painted mouth.

Grey was also a bit taken aback by this.

“Also for luck,” Cherlie said.

“O-of course, my friend,” Grey said.

“Let’s get this over with.” Cherlie said, and started heading further backstage.

Arla grinned at Grey and White. “Nice meeting you two whatever you are,” he said, and followed behind.

Grey stood there, watching them disappear around a corner.

“Hey, snap out of it, we need to hide,” White said.

“Right, yes, of course…” Grey said, putting the cloak back up over his head and hiding White back underneath it.

Strings was back in the uniform she had taken off with at Duke Trowell’s house. Most of the workers, cleaning up now that the season was done, were wearing similar outfits. Much like as when they were setting up for the final performance, nobody noticed as Strings entered the Grand Theatre. Moving with purpose, like she was on a proper mission with proper reason to be there, she headed backstage to the room where they kept costumes and props. Most of that storage had taken place the night before, and nobody was about to stop her.

“Thank goodness,” White said, wriggling out from under a pile of discarded costume pieces. “I was about to die of boredom.”

“Well, it was your idea, Miss White,” Prince Grey said, climbing out as well.

Strings moved over to the two little puppets, sweeping them into her arms and giving a soft hug. “I’m glad you’re alright,” she said.

“I’m glad you’re alright as well,” White said, embarrassed by the affection. “I’m sorry you had to sleep on the street…” Strings set them back down on the ground. “Thank you for going along with my plan.”

Strings shook her head, indicating it was no problem. She began emptying a container of garbage. White shuddered as she realized where she was going. She hoped Strings would not mind her constant demands to clean her dress after this.

Once her friends were in the garbage, ready to be smuggled out, Strings headed for the exit.

White, trying to take her mind off of her unfortunate unsanitary situation, focused on Prince Grey. He still seemed lost in thought, as he had been since they had hid once again in the prop room. “I am sure he did fine,” White said. “I gave him more than enough information to prove he should not be messed with.”

“Ah, yes? Yes, I’m sure you did. Thank you, Miss White,” Grey said, snapping back a bit from his emotional haze.

“As we had discussed, it wasn’t entirely altruistic on my part. I hope the Duke is feeling worried and paranoid. It would be a nice change of pace.”

“Yes,” Grey said. “It… it was nice to see him again,” he found himself adding. “Cherlie, I mean.”

White nodded.

“It was… much too short of an encounter.” The tone of his voice betrayed his attempts to hide the empty place he felt inside himself.

“We were lucky our paths crossed again at all,” White said, doing her best to stay steady in the swaying waste can to keep her dress from making as little contact as she could manage. “We did what we could, played our parts, and now we’ll move on and stay safe.”

Prince Grey nodded. “Yes… yes, I suppose we will.”

Strings headed out of the theatre, towards where she had stashed her trunk, a much more comfortable stage for them to act on.

Thank you very much for reading my story! If you liked it, please share it with your friends and stuff. That would mean a lot to me. There’s plenty more stories and things coming, so I hope to entertain you again soon!

Published inShort Stories