The most thrilling moments in life are when everything comes together.
The delicious chords when harmony joins melody. The way a scrap of leather, a shaft of light, and a clever player can make a shadow come alive. Or the roar of an audience after a show—when they become a creature with many heads and one heart.
Sefondre, the Aquitans call it—to coalesce. I love that word. Madame Audrinne once used it to describe our performance as she toasted us in the parlor of her plantation. I’ve remembered it ever since.
Will it happen tonight at La Fête des Ombres? The signs are promising. The weather is holding clear—just right for the outdoor stages. Papa’s voice is rich and steady as it floats through our roulotte’s carved scrollwork; he is singing a story song as he drives. Beside him on the bench, Maman keeps perfect time on the thom. Inside, I direct the little shadow play that flickers on the silken scrim that makes up one side of our roulotte. A thick stack of flyers lies next to me, ready to tout tonight’s show. And I’m wearing my best costume—a scarlet wrap with ruffled edges, a red silk shawl draped artfully over the rippled scar on my shoulder, and a striped corset in a nod to Aquitan fashion. My dark hair is swept into a twist, the stray ends patted down with a touch of oil, my eyes smudged with bone black and my lips with lucky red. A compelling picture for the Aquitans in the audience: local color, foreign polish.
Everything is nearly perfect. All except for the ghost of a kitten that won’t stop pouncing on my fantouches.
I don’t know where she came from, or where her body is. The little arvana must have crept into our roulotte when we stopped for a quick meal on the edge of town—tempted by our food, no doubt. Then again, does it matter why or where? There is no shortage of spirits in Chakrana. The more pressing question is, how can I get her to leave?
Being easily distracted is one of the tamest parts of my malheur, and I can’t afford any distractions tonight. Not at La Fête des Ombres.
“Shoo,” I whisper for the third time, fluttering the stack of flyers at her, but she only scampers behind one of my pillows. Spirits usually aren’t so persistent—unless they smell an offering. But I have put away the rice and the incense too—nor am I about to offer her any blood.
At least she isn’t interfering with the play itself. Her little paws, formed of flickering orange flame, pass right through the silk and leather of my fantouches, my shadow puppets. The souls I’ve tucked inside them ignore her better than I do. They dance in the air, between the scrim and the palm-oil lantern, going through their choreography with minimal direction from me.
They know the play by rote. It’s the one we perform every time our roulotte crosses into a village—a traditional folktale about long-lost lovers meeting under the moonlight. A little taste of our skill, a way to drum up an audience as we travel through town. The two lovers are played by jointed leather dolls no larger than my hand and ensouled with the spirits of hummingbirds; the moon is a disk of gold silk stretched over a circle of green bamboo, buoyed up by the spirit of a carpenter bee. But I can’t take my eyes off the kitten’s ghost as she bounds back and forth across the floor of the roulotte.
Thankfully, I’m the only one who can see her; she casts neither light nor shadow to the small audience we’ve already gathered. I catch glimpses of them through the scrollwork: a rambunctious pack of Chakran children, barefoot on the road, a pair of older men walking slowly side by side. A modest group, but there is delight on their faces as they watch the graceful dance of light and dark: the lovers meet and part and meet again, moving in time to the music, and all without stick or string. Just as it says on the flyers. That is what sets us apart from all the other troupes in Chakrana, why some people say the Ros Nai is the best shadow troupe in the country—maybe even the empire.
I grimace as the kitten starts to climb the scrim: the praise might not be so effusive if the audience knew how I controlled my fantouches. Souls and spirits are the realms of monks and their magic, and all the old ways are forbidden ever since La Victoire, when the armée pulled Le Trépas from his bloody altar and imprisoned him in his own dark temple. If they knew what I was doing, I could be thrown in the cell beside him. Though it chafes, Maman’s refrain is the most important line I’ve ever learned: never show, never tell.
We keep our secrets close. There is a latch on both sides of the door to the roulotte, and when we perform on stage, my parents guard the wings. Despite the danger, I can’t afford to stop. When my brother joined the armée, my parents and I had to find a way to keep performing without him—especially after his letters suddenly ceased, along with the money he was sending home each quarter. No one would pay to watch a show with only one puppeteer—not if we were using the traditional methods.
But even if we could, I don’t want to go back to the way things were. There is a thrill in fame. Besides, who would look at me and guess what I could do? I am no tattooed monk, no nécromancien, no power-hungry monster who thinks herself a god. I am just a shadow player. Le Trépas and I are nothing alike.
The three-strike rhythm of Maman’s thom brings me back to the play—this is the part where the lovers lose each other.
“Cross left,” I whisper to one fantouche—or rather, to the soul inside her—and she obeys. She must—I’m the one who gave her life. But the kitten follows, clawing at the trailing silk of her dress. “Go away! Not you,” I add quickly to the soul of the bee; slowly, the moon drifts back to the center of the scrim.
This has gone on long enough. I can’t let the kitten’s antics throw me off. I have to concentrate—not only on this little shadow play, but on tonight’s performance: The Shepherd and the Tiger, on the main stage at La Fête des Ombres. The most important performance of my life, though I’m trying desperately to pretend it’s just another show. There are whole minutes where I have myself convinced. I am a very good actor.
But it comes back—it creeps in, just like my malheur: the knowledge that our performance has to be magnificent. We need sefondre tonight. We must do well—no, better than well. We must be the best.
For just like our sugar and sapphires, shadow plays are prized in the empire. Usually, the rare troupe that can tour must gather quite a sum to make the passage across the Hundred Days Sea. But this year, in honor of the Boy King’s eighteenth birthday, he will be taking a grand tour to Aquitan, and General Legarde will be choosing the best shadow player to send with him. There, in a land of light and luxury, Legarde’s half brother—Le Roi Fou, the Mad Emperor—is enamored of fantouches d’ombres. They say he pays a lead player their weight in gold for a single performance, and that once he smashed his throne for kindling when his favorite troupe ran low on fuel for light.
They also say he bathes in a magic spring, and the water is the only thing that keeps his illness at bay. While gold is tempting, we have that here in Chakrana. What we do not have is a cure for my own malheur—that thing only an emperor might dare name madness. Of all the things that stand in my way, the ghost of a kitten cannot be what stops me.
So I draw out the pin that holds my shawl over my shoulder and prick the pad of my thumb. Blood wells like vermilion ink, and all around me, stacked on their shelves and bound in their burlap bags, my fantouches rustle. Even the lovers shudder—the moon trembles—though they do not stray from their positions by the scrim. They have had their taste of my blood—it’s what binds them to their new skins, what makes them obey. But that doesn’t mean they don’t hunger for more.
The kitten spirit hungers too. At last she turns from her pursuit of the golden moon.
Lowering my hand gently to the stack of flyers, I draw the symbol of life on the top page—a line and a dot, like the sun on the horizon. A path to a new body for a hungry soul. Already others are drifting in through the scrollwork, glowing like embers, drawn by the scarlet liquor of my blood: vana, the littlest spirits—flies or mosquitoes, once. But the kitten is faster. She pounces, and with a flash of light, her arvana disappears into the page.
At last. Later, after the show, I’ll burn the paper to set her free. Then she can fade after three days and find rebirth like any normal soul. For now, I can fold her up and tuck her under a pillow. But the page slips from my fingers.
Usually souls take a moment to adjust to new bodies, but the kitten is not wasting time. The flyer leaps into the air as though caught by a breeze, bounding once more at my fantouches. And this time, in her new, unwieldy paper skin, she blots out half of the show. Frantic, I grab for her, my own shadow falling over the lovers—an arm, impossibly long—before I can snatch the flyer out of the light of the little oil lantern. Then a knock on the front panel of the wagon makes me jump.
“Jetta?” Maman’s voice. Only now do I realize my parents have played the last notes. The show is over. Quickly I crush the flyer in my fist, snuffing the lantern as Maman slides the panel open. She peers into the gloom, but with my fist tightly shut, there is nothing for her to see—not now. Still, her eyes are suspicious. Does she know? “We’re almost there.”
“Yes, Maman,” I say, but she doesn’t close the panel. The paper tickles my palm. “Do you need something?”
She scrutinizes my dress, my face, my hair. Then she casts her eyes to the pile of puppets on the floor beside me, the fantouches set aside for tonight’s performance. They are still bound tight in burlap and silk—the shepherd, the tiger, the herd of sheep. I breathe easier now; those spirits, she knows about. “I need the performance to go well,” she says at last. As if I didn’t know.
“It will, Maman,” is all I say.
She looks about to say more, but then Papa’s voice floats in, gently chiding. “Meliss, stop distracting her.”
Maman bits her lip, but she nods, the lines around her eyes deepening as she gives me one last look. “It’s almost time for the flyers. Get ready.”
At last she shuts the panel, but inside I curse. Where had the hour gone? I push the crumpled flyer under a pillow to deal with later. Then I gather the lovers and the moon, tucking them into their little burlap sacks. Had they even performed the ending? Quickly I press my eye against the scrollwork and curse again, this time aloud. No wonder Maman was worried. We have lost what little audience we’d gathered.
No matter. They aren’t the ones we need. At least that’s what I tell myself, though any performer knows that the bigger the audience, the better the show.
Pushing the thought from my head, I pull the lever that closes the wooden shutters over the scrim. At least now there is nothing left to distract me. Taking one last look in the mirror, I pin my scarf back over my scarred shoulder as I run through tonight’s play in my head. I can’t afford to get it wrong. It is another old tale—the swineherd and the tiger—but I’ve rewritten it just for the festival. New words flowing over familiar notes.
In my version, the swineherd has become a shepherd to honor General Legarde—the Shepherd of Chakrana, they call him since La Victoire, though we do not have sheep in our country. I hope my sheep fantouches look convincing. Still, the leader of the rebellion is the Tiger, so the story hasn’t changed much. But a slip of the tongue would humiliate us—lucky it is Papa who sings the story songs. He never slips. I’m told they mock swineherds in Aquitan, calling them simpletons. I don’t know why. Pigs are very clever. Back in Lak Na—our home during the rainy season, when the fields were green and the roads too rutted to travel—not a week went by but some brassy old sow escaped her pen to wallow in the cool mud of the paddies and gorge on black crabs.
The memory brings a smile to my lips—my brother and I, splashing and shouting through the pale green rice to chase pigs away from our own dinner. But my humor fades quickly. Akra is gone. And I’ll never see Lak Na again either—at least, not if tonight goes well.
“Jetta!” A knock on the front panel, and Papa’s voice. “It’s time!”
Turning from the mirror, I gather up the flyers. We don’t usually use them—so few Chakrans can read, at least in the villages. But this is Luda. This is La Fête.
This is the most important show of my life.
I pin my lips into my best smile and open the back door of the roulotte. The ruddy light of sunset floods in, warm on my skin. We have passed right through town. Fallow fields unroll before me on either side of the road. Half the year, they hold rice; I can still see the earthen walls that regulate the river water. But now it looks as though someone planted bullets in the dusty earth, and up sprang an encampment d’armée.
Waxed canvas tents march across the field in neat rows, bounded by a picket lined with horses—those great foreign beasts, all muscle and fire. Soldiers walk briskly to and fro, most of them Chakran, except for the officers. A pang hits me—the last time I saw my brother, he was wearing a uniform like these men do. I blink away the emotion, raising my eyes to try to drain away the threatening tears. Then I see it, in the center of the encampment: the red wolf flag flying over the general’s tent. Legarde is here.
My heart quickens, and I search for a glimpse of him. I’ve seen him before—on the posters that commemorate La Victoire, of course, but also years ago, here in Luda, from very far away. He was surrounded by a cadre of soldiers, watching the show on the main stage. That was before we were good enough to perform there. This year, we have top billing.
This year, Legarde will see us.
The stages are just past the encampment, between the armée and the river. It’s time for me to collect our audience. Making sure my shawl is still in place, I step out onto the little platform at the back of the roulotte, pulling my shoulders back and tilting my face to the light. Then I cock my knee so it slips from the ruffles of my sarong; might as well do all I can to catch the soldiers’ eyes.
“Messieurs!” My voice is pitched to carry; it floats over the camp. Soldiers look up at the sound. They stare; I smile. And there it is—that intoxicating thrill of having an audience in the palm of your hand. “Tonight, on the main stage, come and see the greatest troupe in Chakrana, the Ros Nai!”
I toss a fistful of flyers like confetti. For a moment, they flutter, buoyed by the warm breeze. Then an explosion rips the air in two.