One evening just after midsummer, the Duke’s thespian troupe performed a new play titled The Dragon Displayed—a dramatization of Mara’s conquest of Terrojos. The aged Duke, his family, and courtiers walked in a solemn group down the Processional from the Palace gates to the Duke’s Theatre to attend. This in itself was a remarkable event, for Dafythe hadn’t gone out to his theatre in many years. While he continued to patronize the troupe, as he’d done since the theatre was first built more than sixty years ago, he rarely saw them unless they were invited to the Palace for private performances. But tonight was a special occasion. The Duke’s presence had been particularly requested, and Dafythe graciously accepted the invitation. Like everyone else in Pendaunzel and the Palace, he was curious to see the play.
The Duke’s box had been refurbished in anticipation of his acceptance. New blue velvet curtains were held back by golden ropes. The crest of the Northlands over the box—a hartshead, not Dafythe’s lions nor Mara’s dragon—was freshly gilded, as was all the ivy-vine trim. The chairs in the front row, with their high-backs like little thrones, were likewise freshly varnished and the cushions new. A row of less impressive chairs stood behind these royal seats and a bench ran along the back wall, though it was nearly impossible to see the play from this position. The Duke’s box hung above the far right side of the proscenium; from its left end, it was possible to look down into the wing beyond the stage and see thespers changing their costumes and waiting for their cues while backstage hands rushed about to perform mysterious theatrical business with innumerable ropes.
While most of the courtiers who accompanied Dafythe into the city had taken their own boxes for the play, Ambris, Laurel, Mara, Kat, Geoffrey, and those heralds whose good behavior warranted a special treat were permitted to sit with the Duke. The theatre was already crowded when Dafythe and his family arrived. Attendants sternly policed the forward benches immediately around the stage; these were the cheap seats, and the theatre management was determined to have no rowdiness among the commoners tonight. Some excited murmurs and cries of “God bless his Grace!” could be heard as the Duke took the middle seat at the front of the box. The murmurs continued until Mara appeared, then the entire audience rose and cheered.
Mara stepped up to the rail to wave and bow her head in modest recognition of Pendanzel’s enthusiasm for her. Walking down the Processional with Geoffrey at her elbow and three or four young boys in tabards arrayed on either side, it had been easy for her to imagine that this was how she would make public appearances when she was Duke and Geoffrey her consort—except, of course, her own heralds would be girls. When these cheering people were her own subjects, she would receive their accolades in this same way. How far away that day might be, she couldn’t guess. Dafythe was very old, but his health remained good. Mara had kept a close eye on her father since she’d employed the Dragonseye against him; several weeks had passed and she saw no sign of his relenting or of his growing ill so that he was no longer able to stand in her away. While this might mean that the gemstone held no real power, she was nevertheless relieved that Dafythe had come to no harm through her.
As the applause subsided, she took her accustomed seat at her father’s right. Ambris and Laurel sat to the Duke’s left, and Kat was on Mara’s other side. While a coolness had grown between the two Princes since Kat had carried tales to Dafythe, both were too eager to see this performance about their own adventures to feel uncomfortable seated so close to each other. The heralds, Rafenshighte, and the other members of the Council took their seats behind. Andemyon stood at the rail beside Laurel so that he could see the stage.
Little lads and maids in short tunics scrambled up on ropes to put out the lamps dangling above the rows of benches. The crowded theatre lay in darkness and the rushlights placed along the foot of the stage glowed all the brighter for it. The play was about to begin. A hush of expectation fell over the audience, but Mara could still hear some excited whispers in the dark.
The story of The Dragon Displayed was set entirely in the marches, represented on stage by canvases painted with rocky red mountains. A castle cleft between two peaks was meant to be Ojos des Mantegnas though, as Kat whispered to Mara, it looked nothing like it. Tall wooden walls, painted in dappled gray to look like stone, stood in the foreground to represent the fortress of Dennefort. These were drawn backstage by burly hands once the armies of the Northlands marched.
The woman who played Prince Kat was pretty and petite, and she seemed weighted down by her relatively light, tin stage armor. Mara had seen enough performances by the troupe to know that this woman usually played romantic roles. Frederik was also played by one of the usual lovers and looked no more like a true soldier than the stage-Kat did. The two enacted a tragic love story against the backdrop of the war. The thesper who took the role of Prince Mara was the woman who normally acted as the troupe’s jester. Mara’s first thought that this was meant to be a joke and she wondered why her father’s troupe meant to insult her, but as the play progressed, she realized that they had made a good choice. The jester’s athletic skill as a tumbler gave her the energy to carry off the part. Her tin armor didn’t weigh her down; she wore it as naturally as Mara wore her own battle gear. And no other woman in the troupe would have been so convincing as she leapt about the stage in battle and cut down the innumerable Spanish soldiers that came at her from all sides. She also performed surprisingly well in the dramatic role—as valiant and princely as Mara herself could wish, without a hint of burlesque.
The Dragon Displayed was a rousing pageant about the Northland’s new heroes, but it wasn’t the truth. Some parts of the true story no one but Mara and her closest friends knew. Other parts had been discretely altered to avoid giving offense to the Duke’s family. Frederik’s ancestry was never mentioned, even though Prince Denys featured heavily in the story. While the Bright Prince never actually appeared onstage, his presence was felt as vividly as any character who did; his name was spoken so often, and his sword, displayed prominently on Dennefort’s wall, had its part to play in several scenes. The stage-Mara approved her cousin’s love-affair with the Marchion. In a scene that was nothing like their quarrel by the campfire the night before the first battle, the fictitious Mara and Kat planned a wedding as part of their victory celebrations. Gone, too, was Kat’s rage of grief at Spainfort. Frederik’s death occurred offstage.
To Mara, the most interesting part was the recreation of her vision of the Sonnedragon. An image of a fiery red dragon appeared, flapping its wings above the wounded warrior-prince as she lay alone on the stage. This incredible effect was achieved with mirrors, cheesecloth, and firelight shining through an orange glass. Mara had glimpsed these items backstage before the show had started. The words this dragon spoke were not quite the words Mara herself had heard, but then she’d never repeated them accurately to even her closest confidants.
The play ended with the surrender of the Terrojos governor. The stage-Mara gave a speech of thanks to the Highest Lord for sending her the Sonnedragon to guide her. Good fortune was foretold for her future reign.
“Was it very strange to see yourself portrayed on stage?” Dafythe asked his daughter and niece after the last scene had concluded. “I hope it didn’t distress you too much, Kat, seeing the death of poor Frederik again.”
“No, Uncle. I was afraid it might, but it was so different from what really happened to us, it was like watching something else happening to other people. They weren’t us at all. I ought to have felt more, shouldn’t I? As if I were seeing Frederik fall again. But that wasn’t him.” The thesper who had played Frederik was at that moment standing on the stage with the other members of the troupe, taking his bows.
“It’s the way they tell the story in Pendaunzel, Prince Katheryne,” said Geoffrey from his seat immediately behind Kat’s. “The tale as it will be told for generations after we’ve gone. Who can say that it isn’t more suitable than the truth?”
“I’m not sure that I didn’t like this story more than my own, even if it wasn’t true,” Kat answered. “What about you, Mara? Do you prefer your own story to this one?”
“I prefer what’s true,” Mara answered, but she was thinking how odd it was. This play was her story. She’d seen everything that had happened to her in the marches played out again here tonight on stage, but none of it was the same. Most of the facts remained, but the truth behind them had altered in strange and subtle ways. Did the difference lie in who was telling the tale? A different story might be told by each of us who were there, Mara realized. Kat’s story will not be the same as mine, nor will Taumie’s nor Bel’s, nor Alyx’s even though she was at my side for most of the war. None of us have all the pieces of the tale. I have more than most, but not everything. The common soldiers in my army will speak of their part in the battles we led. Khrystophania will have another tale entirely to pass on to her children. And the people of the Northlands who weren’t there to see will remember it this way. We will be remembered as great and valiant heroes, and not as mere women. Do they think of us as heroes now?
She gazed down at the crowd, who were rising from their seats and shuffling toward the open doors at the back of the theatre. Many paused to gaze up at the Duke’s box with wide-eyed expressions. Yes, they were heroes to the folk of Pendaunzel. At three and thirty, she had already slipped from the living Prince into legend.
“Ought we go down to congratulate the thespers on their performance?” asked Ambris.
“I believe they are expecting it,” said Dafythe. “You and Kat must certainly go and praise the thespers who played you, Mara. That is simple courtesy.”
Mara consented and the group in the Duke’s box prepared to leave. Andemyon had remained perched on the arm of Laurel’s chair throughout the performance. The two were still talking about the dragon and how the trick had been done. Some of the less-favored boys had fallen asleep on the bench at the back of the box, and courtiers gently shook them to wake them.
A private stair led down from the corridor behind the boxes to the wing on the right side of the stage. The stage-manager was waiting below to welcome the Duke and his party, and offered to escort them to the dressing-rooms. The thespers were half out of their costumes—wigs cast off and tin armor discarded, but still in shirts and hose. They had all expected or at least hoped that the Princes would favor them with a visit, but the appearance of the Duke took them by surprise. The meeting took on the air of a formal presentation in spite of their informal attire. The thespers gracefully bowed low and expressed themselves to be honored by Dafythe’s compliments. Kat said a few kind words to the couple who had played Frederik and herself, but made no critical remarks about the truth behind the tale. Mara was more fulsome about her counterpart’s performance. Everyone spoke highly of the dragon.
“We were most impressed—it was almost like a magical spell,” said Laurel. The stage-manager assured her that there was no magic involved. “Can’t we go and see how it works?”
The stage manager bowed low. “It would be the greatest pleasure to grant your request, My Lady, but we humble thespians have our secrets that we must guard.”
“That’s all right,” Laurel responded. “Andemyon was once a thesper, and I traveled with a company too when I was young. We won’t give away secrets.”
Laurel indicated the herald at her side. “His mother was a famous thesper, head of my uncle Lord Redmantyl’s troupe.”
“Mother’s troupe had a dragon made of cloth that they worked with long sticks,” Andemyon offered. “It fought with St. George.”
One of the thespers laughed at this. “You hope to trade one secret for another, lad?”
The boy blushed, and Dafythe came to his defense. “Surely you can make this one exception? The Lady Laurel has given you her word, and I give you my own that she and Andemyon are to be trusted.”
After this, the stage-manager would have permitted the entire group to view the apparatus behind the dragon’s appearance if Dafythe had wished it. A backstage hand was summoned and asked to escort the lady and herald across the stage to the other wing.
As they walked away, Mara heard one thesper whisper to another, “So that’s the one, is it? The pretty, fair-headed lad?”
“Yes, that’s him,” came the reply. “They say he’s the Duke’s Cat.”
Mara had heard this same phrase around the court lately—and even among the excited murmurs in the theatre tonight—but she’d assumed that they were referring to her cousin Kat. Now, she realized that they meant Andemyon, although she didn’t understand why.
Dafythe hadn’t overheard this exchange, but she could see that Ambris had. Drawing closer to her brother, Mara gripped his arm and asked, “What do they mean?”
“Not here,” Ambris replied in an undertone. “I’ll tell you all I know about it when we are home.”