The stars were diamond-hard. I reached up and plucked one from the sky. It spat white-hot sparks against my fingertips. I placed it in my mouth and scraped my tongue against its burning edges—it rattled against my teeth. I tasted ozone, iron, blood. I bit down. As it broke, it thrummed both its agony and mine. I spat out onto my hand and held out what was in my palm: shards of glass coated in spittle and blood. My tongue was bleeding. The remains of the star glinted in the cruel light of the others.
I let the moment hang in the air. The audience held its breath with me. It was the catalyst of the play, where the lady—me—realizes that grasping the crackling power of the world around her will always cause her unbearable pain. Once I’d given the shock and beauty of the moment just enough time to sink in, the curtains descended. The first act had ended. I let my shoulders curl inward and trudged offstage.
Maria, director and resident sorcerer, waited for me in the wing, which was odd. She usually chatted with the nobly born members of the audience during intermission. She wore her usual smile, but I knew her well enough to spot the tension tugging at her eyes. “We have a bit of a problem,” she said.
I dug out some ground glass stuck between my teeth with my tongue and spat it out onto the floor, along with a mouthful of blood. The pain was as familiar a part of my daily rhythm as sunrise or nightfall. Before more blood had time to well up from my cuts, I said, “What’s wrong?”
“We’ve had to find an understudy for Elias.”
We didn’t have understudies. It was just me and Elias playing the only two characters the kingdom needed to see over and over. The magic that enshrined the theater gained its strength from perfect, cyclical repetition, so Maria couldn’t switch out the actors willy-nilly. We were born and raised in the chambers under the stage. We would be here until we keeled over under Maria’s sorcery-forged “stars” that hovered above the stage.
“Is Elias okay?” I asked.
“He’s had a slight, ah, difficulty.”
Slight difficulties did not prevent Elias and I from performing. A year ago, a crate of enchanted props exploded next to me right before a show, tossing me into the wall and leaving me with four broken bones. Maria took me by the collar of my dress and dragged me out onto the stage. Her magic kept me upright, but it didn’t dispel the agony.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He fell. Tripped on the catwalk, if you can believe it.”
My heart thudded in my chest. How bad a fall was it, to force Maria to find an understudy? “I want to see him.”
“After your performance. I don’t want you distracted beforehand.”
“I can’t just—it will be more distracting if I’m wondering what happened. I’ll be more focused once I’ve seen him for myself. Please.”
She studied me for a long moment, then said, “If you insist.”
I followed her further backstage. The stage crew, ordinarily bustling, now huddled together in small groups, speaking to each other in low, urgent voices. They fell silent as we passed. Maria led me down a set of stairs that transitioned from metal to the same cold bedrock that the lowest halls were chiseled from. We came to a storage room I’d only been in a few times. The door was ajar. I went to open it, but Maria lay a hand on my arm. “Remember your composure,” she warned me.
I nodded. I pushed the door open.
At first Elias looked like he could’ve been sleeping, but then I saw what remained of his skull and knew that wasn’t the case.
I was still for what seemed like several days, although it couldn’t have been for very long. At some point during that blank eternity when I tried to convince myself that he was dead, and tried and failed to understand what that meant, I realized that Maria was talking to me. She and the rest of the world felt curiously distant. I didn’t register most of her words, unable to think through the buzzing in my ears. My hands shook, but stillness blanketed my mind. Whatever emotions I felt were too strong to be named or felt in full; I knew them only as a pounding in my skull and a wrenching sickness in my stomach.
By the time I became capable of hearing Maria properly, she had given up on scolding me for my distraction and had moved on to a clinical recitation of facts. The crew had found the body during my last scene, apparently, and brought it here where it wouldn’t get in the way. She said the cleanup would be extensive. She told me she’d found an understudy from the audience. She told me to come and meet him.
“No,” I said. There was an eerie calm in my voice.
“We have less than twenty minutes until the intermission ends. We don’t have time to dawdle.”
When I was younger, I hated how she would use the word “we” to pretend that this whole endeavor was something that I participated in for any reason other than that I would be struck dead by sorcery if I tried to leave. At this point I’d grown too used to it to complain. “I’ll meet your understudy onstage, then. What do you want me to talk to him about, anyway?”
“The familiarity between you and Elias, it’s indispensable to your performance. You can’t exactly manufacture that in a few minutes, but it’s better than…” She kept talking, but I stopped listening. My mind was an empty roar. Elias’s costume was perfectly pressed, but his hair looked like he’d forgotten to comb it that morning.
I was surprised when Maria gave up on getting through to me and left, presumably to tend to whoever she’d dragged into this endless, circular nightmare. It was the first time that I could recall that Maria had ever actually left me alone when I wanted her to. It occurred to me that beyond the theater’s walls, mourning was probably allowed to last longer than a twenty-minute intermission; but here, even that amount was a luxury.
The second act started with the lady’s most famous soliloquy, in which she laments the fact that she still wants to grasp the power that threads through the universe, even though it hurts her every time she tries. When I went back on stage, my limbs followed the right movements and my mouth spoke all the right words, but I saw nothing but Elias’s body. I wanted to withdraw fully into the horror of it, but the acrid smoke-scent that hung over the stage—a byproduct of Maria’s work—kept me alert. My performance wasn’t lackluster. I couldn’t remember how to perform badly anymore. But the soliloquy was sharp and brittle, bringing the lady’s distress to the fore, barely touched by the gentler yearning that usually was its heart.
As I gasped out the last line, I loathed how even this bitter grief, both the lady’s and mine, took on a jewel-bright loveliness under the conjured starlight. Everything was beautiful here, no matter how awful.
Now it was time for the lady to suddenly have her epiphany and dash offstage. I found Maria in the shadows, gripping the shoulder of a young man who had to be the replacement. He had blond hair, nothing like Elias’s, and watery, painfully earnest eyes. He smiled at me hopefully and seemed about to say something, but then Maria leaned down and hissed, “Your cue!”
Panic flashed across his face, but he steeled himself and marched outside. This next scene was just him alone on stage: the palace alchemist puttering about his workshop and wondering aloud about what mystery to research next. I watched him perform for only sixty seconds before saying to Maria, “He’s awful.”
“He’s the most talented actor the kingdom has. We’re lucky he was in the audience tonight.”
“Most talented according to whom?”
“It’s true that here we have somewhat… higher standards, but it’s better than stopping the show entirely.”
“He’s enthusiastic,” I noted. I couldn’t quite wrap my head around someone gladly taking up this task. The role of the alchemist was less painful than that of the lady by a large margin, but later on in the play there was a part where the alchemist grinds up a star in his hands so he can look at it through his magnifying lens. It left Elias’s hands permanently scarred and burned. It wasn’t as if the audience didn’t know it hurt; the nature of this theater was common knowledge. Everyone knew how it told the story of how magic was summoned into the world and how by telling it again and again, night after night, it kept that magic pinned where it was. If we failed to put on a show, then the realm would wither and die as its sorcery left it. And no ritual has power without pain. “Are you planning to keep him?”
The actor sighed melodramatically and slumped down onto his chair, head in his hands. My cue. I pushed my shoulders back and let myself feel the lady’s desperate hope as I dashed onstage.
This was the scene where she tells the alchemist about the star she stole from the sky and how it hurt her. She eventually convinces him to invent a safe way to access the power that the star-stealing was an allegory for: magic. My performance with the understudy lacked the crackling chemistry that Elias and I had perfected, but at least he already knew the lines. Before long we’d reached the last act, in which the lady and the alchemist learn that for magic to stay in the realm, a sacrifice must be made. The lady does the selfless thing, of course, and gives up her life in order to let the kingdom keep its newfound power. Finally, the alchemist turns her corpse into a crystal statue so that she may forever be filled with light. By that point a solid half of the audience was openly sobbing, like usual. I never had the faintest idea why. They already knew how it had to end.
Maria told me it was customary practice at ordinary theaters to emerge after the final curtain to greet the audience’s applause, but we didn’t do that here. She liked to say that it was because we needed no thanks for our duty, but in truth it was due to how long it took for me to recover after the last act. Maria’s sorcery was skilled, and it ensured that each night I spent an average of an hour frozen in place, lungs entombed in crystal and limbs imprisoned in skin of cut diamond. Most of it wore off by the time the crew cleared the stage around me, but several minutes after that I still couldn’t speak. Rubies spilled from my tongue in place of words. That was why, when Maria came to my bedroom and told me her decision, I could do nothing except listen.
“We don’t have time to train someone up properly,” she said, leaning against the door. “So he’ll have to do. You can help him adjust.”
Did he volunteer, or will it be a surprise when he can’t go past the threshold anymore? I wanted to ask, but couldn’t.
“Good night,” she said.
The first thing I did upon waking was go to my closet and run my hands through the embroidered silks and satins. Then I pulled a dress from the wardrobe and tore it apart with my hands. I went seam by seam. I didn’t cry. I started from the decorated collar and moved down. I took each crystal sewn into the bodice and placed them next to the lamp so they caught the light. I watched the glinting crystals as I worked. It wasn’t angry work or even sad work. I wasn’t sure I was feeling anything at all. Once I had reduced that dress to a pile of scraps and thread, I moved to the next, and to the next, and to the next. Finally I piled the remains of the clothes into the wardrobe and latched it shut, letting it be a coffin for the silken scraps.
That was when Maria came into the room. “You didn’t come to breakfast,” she said, setting down a tray piled high with food.
I didn’t speak to her. I methodically threw the food onto the ground. I poured the coffee out onto the carpet. She watched me silently, then left and came back with another tray. By the time she returned, whatever unknown force motivated me to engage in such mechanical destruction had ceased. I ate.
It was strange. I’d thought I no longer had that kind of destruction in me anymore. When I was a teenager, when I’d just barely grown out of the unknowing love of childhood and realized what Maria was doing to me, I would tear apart my costumes. I knew, even then, that it wouldn’t change anything, but I had to try. I had to. Destruction was a mode of survival. And then that, too, had slipped away from me when I wasn’t looking.
Elias’s replacement was named Sebastian. Over the next year, our acting sharpened to perfection, but the disruption to the cycle still showed in the state of the theater. The sorcery that mortared its foundations wavered. The pipes rusted. The stone began to crumble. But Maria hired stonemasons and metal-magicians to reinforce it and the theater became strong again.
“I didn’t know it would be this hard,” Sebastian said. I didn’t know what to say to that, so I just finished bandaging one hand and moved to the other. He and I were hunched in the shadows that puddled beside a stack of prop crates, out of sight of Maria or the stage crew. I was taking care of the burns on his hands.
In the early days of our acquaintance, I’d refused to speak to him any more than was absolutely necessary, resentful of his attempt to replace Elias and his blithe willingness to embrace the life I’d do almost anything to escape. I watched Sebastian’s slow awakening to the true horror of his new role, and his subsequent escape attempts, in silence. But Elias’s absence was an open wound; it was lonely and frightening to be without allies in a place like this. And when Sebastian’s escapes failed again and again, he knew he needed an ally as well. Eventually something akin to friendship grew between us. By now I’d learned that he had a fondness for sweets, that he’d wanted to be an actor since his sixteenth birthday, and that he desperately wanted my approval.
“Have you ever thought about just not performing?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. My lungs spasmed. I bent over coughing until a ruby the size of my thumbnail dropped out of my mouth and onto the lap of my dress, leaving a small smear of blood. I wiped my mouth on my sleeve. “Sorry. Yeah. I’ve thought about it. But we’re wrapped up in the ritual now. Stopping the play would kill us.”
We sat there in silence as the lights from the rest of the theater shut off one by one and the darkness settled into place around us. An awful exhaustion hung over him. He hadn’t yet found in himself whatever it was in me that made me keep going. It was because I hated seeing him like that that I said what I said next, even though I was certain it was doomed to fail.
“If you stop a ritual it destroys everything they’re tied to, the ritual-doers included,” I said, “but you can modify them. I’ve wondered if it’s possible to keep modifying it until it breaks, without immediately vaporizing anything.”
“Well—yes, but this play’s been cycling over and over for about a thousand years now. Even the smallest change would be dangerous.”
“More dangerous than this?” He held up his bandaged hands.
“Yes, actually. You might hurt the audience, not just us.”
Sebastian, ordinarily all waver and tremble, was suddenly hard-edged. “Don’t you think they’d deserve it?”
“You used to be in that audience. You used to come every night.” I hadn’t quite forgiven him for that.
“We should bend the script,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard me. “Bend it until it breaks.”
“Maria won’t let you.”
“She can’t stop me.”
I didn’t want him to find out how wrong he was, but I knew I couldn’t sway him.
I was tense, waiting for Sebastian to enact whatever disastrous plan he had devised, but most of the play went by without him abandoning the script. It was only after the lady’s death that he made his move.
The alchemist was weeping over the body. It was time for him to cry out, “But I will make it so that she’ll always hold the light.”
But he said nothing at all. He didn’t turn the lady’s corpse to crystal. The audience muttered to each other in discontent as the curtains closed.
Maria waited for us. A swarm of artificial stars hovered around her shoulders, spitting sparks. They gilded her with a sickly glow. “Sebastian, would you like to hear what just happened downstairs?”
“Why do I feel like you’re going to tell me anyway?”
“The staircase in the east wing collapsed! It’ll take weeks to repair the damage. You seem to have forgotten what is necessary to uphold this fine old establishment. Still. Better late than never, as they say.”
She flicked her hand. Her stars hummed, high-pitched and grating, like a thousand fingers on a thousand wineglasses, and dove at Sebastian. He cried out. The air filled with curls of smoke and a sickening smell. They charred through his costume and burrowed into his skin. She flicked her hand again and they darted back into the air, readying for a second strike.
There was a thick glass pipe the length of my arm by my feet, a discarded prop for the alchemist’s equipment. I picked it up and swung wildly at the stars. I hit one, two, three, and sent them careening against the wall, where they smashed and fell to the ground, lifeless. The glass flared molten where it struck them. I hit two more before the pipe began to melt in my hands. Maria was occupied by guiding the last star in pelting Sebastian, who was in too much pain to fight back. Without thinking, I snatched the star from the air with my hand.
I might have screamed—it was hard to be sure. The burning filled my whole world. It hurt more than any of the stars Maria had ever made for the play. It batted at the cage of my fingers, which were still somehow clenched around it, too paralyzed by pain to even flinch open. Desperate, on instinct, I did the same thing I’d done with every other star I’d held. I put it in my mouth and bit down.
At first: fire. But then blissful coolness, sweet enough to overshadow the familiar sting of the shards cutting into my flesh.
I breathed out, shuddering. Maria frowned faintly as she watched me swirl the shattered piece of the star around my mouth. I glanced at Sebastian. He’d fallen to the floor, eyes squeezed shut.
I spat the shards in Maria’s face.
They weren’t moving fast enough to cut her, but she recoiled as they battered against her cheek and fell down onto her dress. They left bloody smears.
I spat a mouthful of blood at her feet. She didn’t move to stop me as I went to Sebastian and helped him to his feet. With him leaning on me, we staggered down the hall and away from her.
“I’m sorry,” he said to me suddenly.
“When I was sixteen, I came to see the play. It was… you and… him… you were… so bright. I loved it. I kept coming back. I never got tired of it. It was why I wanted to be an actor. I was so excited when Maria asked me to do this. I’m sorry.”
I’d thought I would have more anger in me, when we finally had this conversation, but I couldn’t find any. I sighed. “You never did anything to hurt me. You just watched. It’s—this place turns everything pretty. It’s—fine.”
“I’m not dumb enough to think that’s an excuse for applauding.”
“I don’t know. Maybe it is. Figuring that out, that’s your business, Sebastian, not mine.”
He didn’t seem to be expecting that answer.
I woke to halls coated in dust. I stooped down and traced a finger through the white dust layered over the floor, then winced. My hands were injured. Ordinarily Maria’s magic cleaned and mended our wounds to a minimal degree by the time of our next performance, but she hadn’t extended us that courtesy today.
The walls were slowly sloughing apart without sufficient agony to serve as mortar. I was sure Maria would have the damage repaired by noon, but I felt grim delight despite that. I still thought Sebastian had acted rashly, but a sense of inevitability had settled over me. He had broken the script; I had spat star-glass at Maria. We had set our course, for better or for worse.
I went to breakfast. Sebastian was walking and talking, which I thought a small miracle. I was confident the audience wouldn’t notice his wounds. They never seemed to notice any suffering too ugly for them to dig their fingers into. Maria smiled at me and asked me to pass the butter dish. I did.
That night, the lady did not put the stolen star into her mouth but into her pocket. It smoldered against the cloth, but didn’t catch fire. I plucked another from the sky, then another, then another, then carried them to the alchemist intact and unbroken by my teeth. Then I took up the hammer on his work bench and smashed them into fragments of glass and quartz. He gathered up the pieces with a strip of satin I tore from my dress, preventing him from burning himself. And this time, when she learned that someone would have to die for magic to stay in the world, the lady wept and screamed as she died. She never smiled. Her corpse lay dull and without luster under the stage lights as the curtain closed.
I tensed for a fight when we went backstage, but Maria just said, “You realize what will happen if you keep doing this?”
Sebastian said, “We’ll be free of this.”
I said, “I don’t care if the theater collapses.”
“Those things will be a symptom of it, yes, but magic is already draining out of the world. I know you’ve never seen the world beyond these walls, but Sebastian, do you really want to see your home withered and dead?”
“I mean, yes,” he said. “After this? Yes. I do. Why not.”
She opened her mouth to respond, but I spoke first. “No stars?”
She looked taken aback. “Excuse me?”
“You don’t have your stars with you. Why not?”
“It may be an unfamiliar concept to you, my dear, but I was hoping to reason with you. More is at stake here than your comfort. If you’re selfish enough not to recognize that—”
“You can’t make them powerful enough to hurt anymore, can you,” I said. There’s a peculiar joy that lives beyond the point of no return. “Your sorcery’s withering too.”
“If you don’t—”
“What are you going to say? What are you going to threaten us with? There’s no amount of pain that we won’t eventually learn to stomach. What are you going to do, kill us?”
She didn’t answer.
If tonight was the last night I performed, I was not going to be beautiful. I ripped off the tiny rubies and amethysts sewn into my dress and took the golden pins from my hair. I dragged my fine clothes through the dust in the halls until I looked like a wraith or a memory. I put on lip rouge without thinking, then scrubbed it off so fiercely that my skin felt raw.
The lady stole the stars from the sky and tucked them into the folds of her dress, then gave the alchemist a pair of gloves, serviceable and dull, to handle them safely. Something effortless and graceful flowed invisibly back and both between Sebastian and I. We reacted to each other’s movements almost before they happened. We had been stitched together by the play’s repetitions, and when I felt the cycle’s magic wavering, I knew Sebastian felt it too.
As they always did, the lady and the alchemist learned that someone would have to die.
“Someone always dies,” I said. I spoke without rhyme or adornment. I hoped the audience thought my words ugly. “But I don’t think it will be me.”
It was more of a sigh than a snap, the final breaking. I was ready when the metal and stone that held up the stage gave way beneath us. Fear did not touch me. The splintering building and my unscathed body, we made a new circle together, lightning-swift, etching a new truth into the heart of the land.
The sound of cracking split the air—people screamed—we were in freefall through darkness. I saw Sebastian, crushed stardust trailing behind him, and reached out—
I was surprised when I woke up and even more surprised to find that I was unhurt, save some shallow cuts here and there. I was nested in rubble and snapped wood and still cloaked in chalky dust. Carefully, I stood. I looked up. There was something wrong with the ceiling. It was domed and impossibly far away, an infinity of air swimming between me and it. It was broken, too: light poured out of what looked like tiny pinpricks gouged into its surface. I couldn’t see the walls.
And then I realized there were no walls or ceiling at all.
I heard footsteps. Sebastian was stumbling towards me, cloth wrapped around a gash in his arm. “You made it out,” he said.
“Did anyone else?”
“Not all, though,” I said.
“No. Not all.”
I tried to decide whether I was glad or not, but I couldn’t. “What do we do now?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Anything?”
© 2021 Shaoni C. White