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TitleThe Spy Who Loved the Sea
UserNiralahi
RankingWinner
Post Date (Visible)January 2021
Content

THE SPY WHO LOVED THE SEA

By Niralahi Coldwater

 

This play is entirely a work of fiction. Names, places, events, and incidents are either created from the author's imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

 

With thanks to Misericorde Coldwater for her unfailing help, encouragement, and generosity.

 

CAST

 

Phelosh Mellulog

(Played by Farvu Coldwater)

This male mugwump stands tall and slender with a dapper, upright bearing, his ink-stained, callus-tipped hands constantly in motion as he gestures and moves about. A richly ruffled white linen shirt sets off the deep sea-green of his slick, glistening skin, while tight-fitting breeches and high leather boots encase his long legs. Showing signs of human ancestry, his round, faintly protuberant ink-black eyes are offset by a short, flat nose, high cheekbones, and a wide, thin-lipped mouth. A leather case for holding a lyre is strapped at his back, with pockets to hold sheafs of sheet music and play scripts. Around his neck hangs a thin gold chain adorned with a single pearl, engraved with exquisitely detailed sigils of an angelfish and a trident.

 

Minister Serelynth Serole

(Played by Niralahi Coldwater)

Iridescent ice-blue cranial fins arch upward from this female imperial merian's head and are gathered into a tight chignon at the nape of her neck. Clad in a severe, businesslike navy robe, she carries herself with a steely air of authority that makes her seem taller and more imposing than her petite frame would indicate. Shimmering royal-blue scales cover her body, and gently rounded seashell-like ears curl close to her head, contrasting sharply with her strong, angular features. Her piercing silver-flecked eyes gleam like dark pools aglitter with starlight, particularly when stalking an answer to a question or problem, while her full lips are habitually set in a stern, disapproving frown.

 

Azyaiya y'Cafici, Macabre Minister

(Played by Niralahi Coldwater)

Plump, voluptuous curves characterise the figure of this fiendish viscanti woman, constrained into a rounded hourglass shape by a massive iron corset jutting visibly underneath her brilliant carnelian-red satin gown. Her milky-white skin reflects the light in opalescent, oil-slick brushstrokes, contrasting with her luxurious blue-black hair coiffed into a thick, heavy braid. Long, tapering horns sprout from her brow and curl back upon themselves in elegant crimson coils. Dark, manicured eyebrows arch high above brown eyes elaborately rimmed with smoky kohl. She smiles often with lips painted a deep blood-red, matching the colour of the lacquer coating the long, razor-sharp nails on her pale, fleshy hands. In one hand, she carries a wide black lace fan that she frequently uses to gesture or waft about.

 

Bloodletter Iskogu

(Played by Niralahi Coldwater)

This small, lithe illithoid man is draped in a loose, floor-length cloak that flares noiselessly behind him as he moves, occasionally revealing glimpses of well-worn leather trousers underneath. Fashioned from dark grey leather, the cloak almost perfectly blends into the dull, murky grey of his skin, shot through with thick bluish-purple veins and stretched tight over his sunken cheeks and bony eye sockets. His beady red eyes constantly monitor his surroundings with an alertness bordering on paranoia, and his mouth is often twisted into a fanged rictus resembling a snarl. An iron jakari chain is tightly wound in coils around one leather-gloved hand.

 

A city constable

(Played by Niralahi Coldwater)

Despite his amiable expression, this constable conducts himself with a businesslike, conscientious air as he goes about his duties. He is clad in a stiff midnight-blue coat that falls to his thighs, equipped with a high collar and an array of bright brass buttons down the front, as well as fitted blue pants and shiny black boots. In one hand he carries a large wooden truncheon, while a pair of metal handcuffs hangs from his belt.

 

SCENERY

 

Office of the New Celest Minister of Security

This elegant, high-ceilinged office is dominated by a massive desk of pale moonhart wood whose every surface is piled high with papers, scrolls, books, strongboxes, and coffers. The chair behind the desk is deeply cushioned with plush sapphire-blue velvet and ergonomically sculpted for comfort, while the bench in front of the desk is thinly padded and a shade too narrow for comfort. The marble floor is intricately laid with a pattern of white and blue coral tiles, echoing the narrow bars of ocean-blue stained glass forming stripes across the clear windows that overlook the harbour to the Inner Sea. A small silver plaque on the wall reads, "Office of the Minister of Security."

 

Street in New Celest

Ornate fountains carved from opalescent mother-of-pearl stand on either side of this city road passing through the heart of New Celest, the surface of which is covered with a pleasantly thick, comfortable layer of fine gravel in a rainbow of soft pastel hues. A grand archway of blue coral stretches high above, flowing with a waterfall of cool, glittering water. The massive, heavily reinforced city walls that surround New

Celest are in view, as well as the gatehouse and tower that overlook the entrance into the city. Shimmering mist hangs in the air, drifting away from a shrine sitting beside the road, while shallow blue water floods the surroundings.

 

Grand highway from New Celest to Magnagora

Paved with ancient grey stones and solid mortar, this broad highway stretches past the sparkling waters of the Inner Sea, alongside rugged grey mountains, sandy expanses of desert, and finally the sooty, sulfurous landscape of the Blasted Lands. The highway remains remarkably clear of grass or weeds, and any detritus that accumulates upon its

surface is quickly blown clear by the cool winds sweeping down from the mountains. An occasional pilgrim or wandering bard passes by, as well as several cows, many still looking somewhat bleary and sluggish in the early hours of the morning.

 

Street in Magnagora

Within the city of Magnagora, this cobbled street leads past market stalls, residential homes, and sprawling businesses, all of which are darkened with an ever-deepening layer of soot and ash. A gas lamp atop a tall, ornately gilded iron post casts pale, ghostly light along the street, brightening its immediate surroundings but accentuating the shadows beyond. Occasionally, a snivelling beggar or gutter mutt passes by, often wearing identically weary, miserable expressions and uttering similar hungry, desperate whimpers.

 

Room in the Wailing Woman Inn

Clean and comfortable, this small room inside the Wailing Woman Inn is panelled and floored with dark wood polished and waxed to a high sheen. The walls are papered in red-and-gold wallpaper patterned with masks and skulls. A narrow bed with scarlet pillows and covers rests against the far wall beside a nightstand holding a wrought-iron candelabra dripping with wax. Along the opposite wall, a table with a ceramic basin and jug stands below a large oval mirror on the wall, framed in brass engraved with imps and gargoyles.

 

Magnagoran city gardens

A short distance from the street, this garden features heavily manicured plots of grass and flowers that appear particularly striking and improbable within the harsh, smog-ridden urban ambience of Magnagora. Tiny bone-white amaranth blossoms flourish amidst the dark green foliage, emitting with a pallid, corpse-like glow and perfuming the air with a sickly-sweet fragrance. Tables laid with cakes and tea cups have been set up throughout the garden, which is alive with activity as dozens of Magnagorans mingle, wander, chatter, laugh, and gather together in small, conspiratorial knots.

 

Bridge of Torment in Magnagora

Composed almost entirely of the bodies of the dead and dying, this bridge arches high over the harbour leading out to the Sea of Despair. Thick black cords secure the bodies together, allowing the bridge to hold its shape, and jagged stitches crisscross the mouths of each body to keep them shut. Some of the still-living bodies twitch and spasm occasionally, especially if anyone approaches or walks over the bridge, giving this structure an unsettlingly dynamic feel. Pillars of piled bones and interwoven corpses anchor each end of the bridge, holding it steady over the murky, polluted waters that ebb and rise below.

 

Within the ocean

The choppy ocean waters rise and fall in rhythmically flowing waves, often flecked with white foam atop their crests. Strong currents and dangerous undertows surge beneath the surface, providing a threat to any unsuspecting swimmers. The salty, deep-blue waters are rife with seaweed and other aquatic vegetation. Occasionally a bird flies high overhead or a fish arcs out of the water, breaking the otherwise monotonous patterns of the lapping waves.

 

Beach on the Isle of Light

Pristine white sand meets glowing golden sand across this beach located on the southern border of the Isle of Light, the surface as lustrous as silk and as soft as velvet underfoot. Tiny waves of crystal-clear blue water lap at the beach with a steady, soothing rhythm that lulls and calms the senses. Glassy pebbles and pearlescent seashells lie half-buried within the sand, and a small grotto composed of golden coral lies in the distance, inviting further exploration.

 

PROPS

 

Shrine on a New Celest street

This shrine is constructed from pale-red coral into a beautiful grotto with a small, shimmering waterfall that cascades into a small pool of crystal-clear seawater. Colourful sea anemones waft their delicate, translucent tentacles amidst the pool's currents, while small carven figurines lie at the bottom of the pool, left as offerings to the Elder Goddess Carakhan, Sculptor of the Waves.

 

Gas lamp in a Magnagoran street

This ornately gilded iron post is adorned with the spheres of High Magic from the symbol of Malkuth at the base to the image of Kether at the top. Crowning the lamppost, a shuttered gas lantern casts a pale, flickering gas light along the street, its ghostly glow rendering the shadows all the darker and sharper in contrast. A carved gargoyle crouches atop the finial of the lamppost, its bat-like wings spread wide and its face fixed in a wicked, mischievous grin.

 

Crowd at a garden tea party in Magnagora

A small crowd of Magnagoran citizens mills around the garden, dressed festively in colourful silks that swish softly as they meander about. Seemingly out of whimsy, some of the viscanti attendees chose to obscure their features with elaborate masks that reveal only their glittering eyes. The sounds of laughter, gossip, murmurous rumour-mongering, and flirtation fill the air above the clinking of tea cups and plates.

 

SCENE ONE

 

The curtains part with a silken rustle to reveal an elegant office overlooking the harbour to Inner Sea, with a small plaque on the wall that reads "Office of the Minister of Security." A massive moonhart desk stands in the centre, with a plush velvet chair behind it and a narrow bench in front, currently occupied by a slender male mugwump.

 

(Enter PHELOSH)

 

PHELOSH stands just behind the bench, pacing nervously back and forth and biting his lip in visible agitation. Every now and then, his supple, calloused fingers stray to the thin chain around his neck, touching the golden pearl etched with a trident and an angelfish as if seeking reassurance or good luck.

 

As the sound of footsteps echoes behind the door to the office, Phelosh winces slightly and turns toward the window to gaze reverently at the calm sea outside.

 

PHELOSH's hand closes tightly around the pearl at his neck as his lips shape a whispered, devout prayer. "Merciful Carakhan, Sculptor of the Waves, please wash away my fear!"

 

The door to the office opens, and a petite imperial merian strides gracefully inside with a swirl of navy-blue robes, her head held regally high and her eyes coolly taking in her surroundings with a glance.

 

(Enter SERELYNTH)

 

Sit," SERELYNTH says sharply, gesturing to the bench in front of the desk and seating herself in her chair. With slow, measured movements, she steeples her fingers upon the desk and fixes her eyes upon Phelosh Mellulog.

 

PHELOSH hastily returns to the bench and holds out his hands pleadingly toward her. "Lady Minister," he begins apprehensively, "please, I-I never meant for my plays to cause offence, I promise, it was just-"

 

holding up one hand to forestall him, SERELYNTH says, "Phelosh Mellulog. Do you know why you are here today?"

 

PHELOSH swallows, involuntarily flicking his long tongue against the corner of his mouth and wetting his lips with it. "Yes. It's because of my last play, isn't it?"

 

PHELOSH: (taking a deep breath) It was called "The Weight of a Vote," and it was a story--a completely fictional story, I'd like to emphasise--about an entirely fictitious election to raise a new Vernal Ascendant in New Celest, in which I may possibly have depicted large flocks of previously slumbering citizens suddenly awakening to cast their votes in the election for a particular candidate in an extremely suspicious manner, before promptly returning to slumber afterward."

 

PHELOSH: (his voice strengthening) But--and I can't emphasise this enough--it was just a play! It was just a story. I wrote it to be thought-provoking for politically minded viewers, to remind them about the flaws inherent in the election system! That's not a bad thing, is it?

 

PHELOSH: Surely it's not enough to be considered a security risk or to be dragged off to prison...is it?

 

SERELYNTH waits patiently throughout Phelosh's diatribe, never blinking or faltering in her stern frown. Finally, once his voice trails off, she responds crisply, "No, it is not. And you are right, that is one of

several reasons why you are here. What are the other reasons, you might

ask?"

 

Raising her right hand, SERELYNTH begins ticking off her fingers while still speaking in a cold, calculated voice. "There was the play you wrote about a Ministry appointment that was motivated by nepotism and self-interest and how the city credits were almost depleted as a result. There was the one about a family that constantly sought to adopt newcomers without regard for their behaviour or wishes, simply to expand its own numbers, which many saw as a thinly veiled portrayal of a very prominent family in the Basin of Life."

 

SERELYNTH: And then there was the play where you played a buffoonish Grand Duke who boasted that he was the pinnacle of greatness but who, in reality, could barely defend himself in a fight, write or speak in complete sentences, carry out his administrative duties, or cooperate peaceably with allies or citizens.

 

"Four plays, four extremely controversial criticisms of New Celest's leaders, government, and reputation." SERELYNTH's voice, if anything, grows frostier and sharper still. "Furthermore, all four plays won theatrical prestige, which means that anyone who visits the Vesteran World Stage can view your every tiny quibble and thundering denunciation about New Celest."

 

SERELYNTH: (letting out a brief sigh) Perhaps you can see why you, Phelosh Mellulog, might be viewed by the Star Council and the Basin at large as a natural-born troublemaker, a malcontent, hypercritical, irresponsible, a dangerous security risk, and utterly disloyal to New Celest?

 

PHELOSH gulps audibly and begins to nod his head. In mid-nod, however, he catches himself and vigorously shakes his head instead, rising from his seat on the bench in his fervor.

 

PHELOSH: Minister, with all due respect, I completely disagree. I'm not a danger or a security risk to the city at all, and I never will be. I love New Celest! I'd never dream of betraying the city or the Light, and I'd give up my life in a heartbeat to protect our people.

 

PHELOSH makes a sweeping gesture with his arms, almost upsetting a pile of papers on Minister Serelynth Serole's desk. "When I write, I'm not just trying to be a gadfly or a reactionary. I point out the problems and disadvantages of our city so that we can fix them and improve upon them! I want people to walk away from my plays thinking about how justice should look, how leaders should behave."

 

PHELOSH: (sinking back onto the bench) I write, act, and sing so that I can help New Celest, not harm it. You've got to believe me, Minister. I've always been loyal to New Celest, and I always will be.

 

SERELYNTH meets his gaze evenly and replies in a firm voice, "I believe you, Phelosh."

 

PHELOSH: (incredulously) You do?

 

SERELYNTH folds her arms across her chest and leans back in her chair, the corners of her lips curving very slightly in what might almost be a smile. "Phelosh, it doesn't take an expert in theatre to notice the deeply idealistic streak in your writing. In all your plays, you cry for change, but the change that you clearly want to effect is the sort of constructive, positive, and compassionate change that helps your fellow citizens grow and learn."

 

SERELYNTH: (her smile deepening) Furthermore, your parodies and satires of Celestian individuals and events are perceptive and affectionate, even if they are exaggerated. Your depictions have no malice in them, only a clear and attentive understanding of the subject, which means that you know exactly what their flaws and weaknesses are.

 

Almost like an afterthought, SERELYNTH adds, "I am also quite familiar with your civic records, Phelosh, which have shown you to be a model citizen otherwise. You're invaluable in village revolts, you help answer fellow citizens' questions, and your devotion to Lady Carakhan, one of our divine patrons, is remarkable." She gives a brief nod toward the golden pearl on the thin chain around Phelosh's neck.

 

SERELYNTH continues on smoothly, seemingly oblivious to Phleosh Mellulog's slowly dropping jaw, "I myself quite enjoy your plays. I find them witty and clever, and your acting in them is superb. Although..."

 

PHELOSH: (in a dazed voice) Although?

 

SERELYNTH: I do think the character of Minister Nyrenelenth Nerale was a bit unlikely, don't you agree? Surely it's impossible for her to have never laughed even once in her life. And who ever heard of a woman that tiny, no bigger than a child, making scores of grown men quake in their boots with terror?

 

PHELOSH glances surreptitiously down at his tight-clenched hands still trembling with anxiety and folds his lips tightly to keep from saying a word.

 

SERELYNTH: (leaning forward) Of course, not everyone may see the situation as I do. Many people, both within the city and elsewhere, genuinely believe that you are exactly everything that I said earlier. And because of that, Phelosh Mellulog, I wish to offer you a job.

 

PHELOSH: (his eyes widening) A job? What do you mean, Minister?

 

SERELYNTH pauses for a moment and gives Phelosh Mellulog a long, searching look. "I believe that you could be a significant security asset to the city, rather than a security risk. I want you to serve the Ministry of Security and act as our undercover agent in the city of Magnagora, posing as a disaffected actor who was ostracized, possibly even ousted by his narrow-minded former city because of his subversive opinions and revolutionary plays."

 

PHELOSH gapes for a moment in silence and then attempts to give a weak laugh that sounds completely unconvincing. "Minister, you must be joking with me. There's no way you could be serious right now."

 

SERELYNTH: I am being completely serious--and honest--with you, Phleosh. I choose to believe in your loyalty, as well as your unique talents. Do you accept the mission?

 

Struck speechless, PHELOSH opens and closes his mouth wordlessly several times, before finally blurting out, "Wait-wait a moment. What could I possibly do for you that any of your other secret agents or spies or investigators or whatever can't do already?"

 

SERELYNTH: What you offer--which few other Ministry aides and agents can match--are your impressive acting skills, as well as your dubious reputation as a well-known critic and detractor of New Celest. I have heard rumours that the Minister of Cultural Affairs in Magnagora is quite an admirer of your plays, in fact. I have no doubt that the Magnagorans would believe you, even embrace you, if you arrived on their doorstep claiming you were wronged and seeking acceptance along with a bit of vengeance.

 

Holding her gaze, PHELOSH rises shakily to his feet and breathes deeply, his expressive features visibly troubled. However, his voice is steady as he asks, "What would you want me to do in Magnagora?"

 

Pursing her lips with a somber expression, SERELYNTH begins sorting through the paperwork on her desk until she finds a particular folder stamped in red with the seal of the Ministry, which she discreetly hands to Phelosh Mellulog.

 

SERELYNTH: You will find most of the specifics in that folder. After you are finished reading it, please destroy it or give it to an aide of my ministry to be destroyed.

 

SERELYNTH: (clearing her throat) I believe I can summarise your essential mission as this: Since the 25th of Kiani, 472 CE, the entire Basin of Life has learned of the existence of a magical shield belonging to Magnagora with the destructive power to level towers and destroy entire hosts of angels, colourfully known as the Bulwark of the Damned. As you can imagine, the secrets behind how this Bulwark was created and how it might be disabled would be inestimably valuable to the city of New Celest and closely guarded by the Magnagorans."

 

SERELYNTH: As a matter of fact, we heard that even ordinary Magnagorans were not allowed to hear or learn anything about the Bulwark. Only their ruling council and ministers were even allowed to understand the secrets of the Bulwark of the Damned. Thus, anyone who wishes to learn more about this powerful shield would have to be...

 

PHELOSH: (Completing her sentence in a voice gone dry) A noble or a friend of the nobles.

 

Acknowledging the point with a grave nod of her head, SERELYNTH gives a long, rueful sigh. "Yes. The security surrounding the events surrounding the Bulwark of the Damned is considerable, far more than any skulking spy could possibly penetrate. This is why we need an agent who can infiltrate the society of Magnagora instead and report back to us with any information they can possibly find that might affect the safety and well-being of New Celest."

 

SERELYNTH's gaze turns sympathetic as she pauses and then candidly admits, "What I'm asking from you will take extraordinary courage, determination, and skill with deception, disguise, and dissembling. But if you succeed, we can learn so much about this terrible power protecting their city and avert another disaster caused by the waves of damned souls unleashed by the Bulwark."

 

"I...I see," PHELOSH murmurs, quietly absorbing her words with a troubled expression on his face. He takes a moment to clear his throat, his voice growing contemplative and taking on a speculative note as he muses, "It would take a tremendous actor to put on such a show and fool so many people. Indeed, it would be the opportunity of a lifetime for any actor, even for me."

 

SERELYNTH: (looking up solemnly at Phelosh) Will you accept the mission?

 

PHELOSH's hands unconsciously seek the pearl hanging from the chain around his neck, touching it again as if to seek reassurance or perhaps courage. Several expressions flicker and waver across his face, ranging from uncertainty to stark fear to resolve and, finally, a surprising hint of a smile.

 

PHELOSH: (with a faint, dry chuckle) May Lady Carakhan give me strength.

 

PHELOSH: I accept, as a natural-born troublemaker, a malcontent, hypercritical, irresponsible, and a dangerous security risk who is utterly disloyal to New Celest.

 

At his words, SERELYNTH's expression brightens, and she extends her hand out to him, which he hesitantly shakes. "Excellent. Welcome to government service, Phelosh Mellulog! We shall do everything in our power to help you as much as we can."

 

PHELOSH: (Speaking under his breath in a low, incredulous murmur) I can't believe I'm doing this.

 

SERELYNTH: What was that?

 

PHELOSH: (Raising his voice) I can't begin doing this without a lot more information, Minister. I'll need all the details that you have on the backstory you've created for the character I'll be playing, and your Ministry will have to start spreading rumors about my disgrace and decision to leave Celest for Magnagora as soon as possible. We need to make sure it all happens as naturally and plausibly as possible.

 

Her lips noticeably twitching in response, SERELYNTH turns her face away toward her paperwork. "Very well. The perils of turning an artist into a spy, I suppose."

 

SERELYNTH: Rumours are already being spread by our other agents, but we will escalate those efforts in order to make your supposed defection even more believable. As for the rest, we'll work on preparing you for your departure and entrance into Magnagora, including adding a special note to your citizenship status to reflect the needs of your mission by allowing you to quit New Celest and later rejoin without any issues.

 

SERELYNTH: (Her tone turning businesslike again) We expect that you will remain in Magnagora no longer than four months, unless unusual circumstances arise. By then, I imagine that world events would have escalated to the point that no single person could possibly stop them..."

 

She pauses and then adds, "And that any sane person, even a gifted actor like yourself, would go mad if they had to stay any longer in that pestilent Nil-hole of a city."

 

SERELYNTH: It will take two months to lay the groundwork and finish all the preparations necessary for your mission. Do you believe that you will be ready by then?

 

His face paling somewhat at the prospect, PHELOSH gulps and touches the pearl at his neck again like a talisman. "Yes. I...I'll be ready."

 

SERELYNTH: (With a slow, understanding nod) Thank you, Phelosh. You may leave and begin your own preparations, if you wish.

 

Responding with a wordless nod of his own, PHELOSH begins to turn around on his heel. In mid-turn, however, he stops, as if remembering himself, and executes a deep, elegant bow in Minister Serelynth Serole's direction.

 

PHELOSH then quietly turns away and opens the door, leaving the office of the Minister of Security with slow, faltering steps amidst the rising sounds of rustling paperwork and scratching pens dictating his fate.

 

(Exit PHELOSH)

(Exit SERELYNTH)

 

As the door clicks shut behind him, the stage darkens and the curtains fall, shrouding the office of the Celestian Ministry of Security from view.

 

SCENE TWO

 

After a few moments, the curtains rise again to show a quiet street winding through New Celest, illuminated by the pale light of dawn. Shimmering veils of mist hang in the air, drifting from a small coral shrine sitting beside the gravel road.

 

PHELOSH kneels contemplatively beside the shrine, his head bowed and his lips moving in whispered prayers. After a moment, he withdraws a small marble figurine from his coat pocket and lays it within the shrine's sacred grotto.

 

In an instant, waves rise forth from the pool at the bottom of the sacred grotto to claim the offering. As the cleansing waters subside, the carved figurine disintegrates into golden motes of essence that swirl brightly and then wink out of existence.

 

PHELOSH: (Keeping his head bowed low) Lady Carakhan, please accept my humble offering once more as a token of my continued devotion. It may be many months before I may be able to pray or make another offering to You, so I can only hope that You will still keep me in Your thoughts until then.

 

PHELOSH: (In a soft murmur) May Your works continue to inspire and strengthen me with their beauty. May You keep me sheltered within Your waves, Lady Sculptor.

 

With a long sigh, PHELOSH slowly straightens and climbs to his feet, shouldering his pack and turning around, although not without a few backward glances toward the coral shrine as he strides off.

 

PHELOSH walks to the New Celest post office, where he quickly sits down and writes two separate letters, one of which he dispatches to Minister Serelynth Serole. After signing and rolling up the second letter, he hesitates a moment before giving it to the postal worker for mailing. "For the Minister of Cultural Affairs in Magnagora," he tells the postal worker.

 

PHELOSH continues onward to the city gates, where he briefly pauses to pat himself down and check his pockets and pack. "Leave no traces of New Celest on you," he recites to himself like a mantra. "No traces of New Celest on you." His last-minute search turns up an embroidered handkerchief in one pocket and an old letter bearing the city's letterhead at the bottom of his pack. When his fingers brush the golden pearl hanging from his neck, though, he pauses.

 

"No," PHELOSH whispers, softly but firmly. "Not this. I can't leave this behind." Wincing and looking about himself once or twice, he gently and reverently slides off the chain, coils it in his hand, and tucks it discreetly into a tiny pocket sewn within his shirt sleeve.

 

With this last precaution taken, PHELOSH takes a long deep breath as he looks up at the gates of New Celest and takes a single step outside.

 

The day shifts gradually from morning to afternoon as Phelosh Mellulog slowly but steadily trudges along the broad highway from New Celest to Magnagora. The landscape around him shifts from the coastline of the Inner Sea to grassy hills and mountains, then to gloomy forests and finally to an arid, barren wasteland as the sun begins setting over the Sea of Despair to the west.

 

As the landscape gradually changes, so does PHELOSH's demeanor, gait, and voice, adjusting by fractional degrees into a persona that appears more jaunty, audacious, and jaded. He disarranges his clothing to look artfully tousled; flexes his brow, cheeks, and lips up and down while practising various rakishly debonair expressions; and hums in high and low tones until he arrives at a deeper, more careless-sounding baritone than his usual warm tenor.

 

Eventually, the metallic spires of Magnagora become visible in the distance, stabbing upward at the sky through a thick black fog that seems to hang stationary over the city. On either side of the massive city gates, the gate towers stand like broken teeth pockmarked and pitted by ancient battles and atmospheric chemical pollution.

 

Just within the gates stands a plump, black-haired viscanti woman gowned in carnelian-red satin, with a massive iron corset jutting prominently beneath. When she catches sight of Phelosh Mellulog, she demurely lowers her lashes and sweeps into a curtsey so low that her nose seems in danger of bumping into the ground.

 

(Enter AZYAIYA)

 

PHELOSH blinks incredulously as he looks upon the city of Magnagora andthe viscanti woman awaiting him, but reflexively composes himself into the character of a disaffected ex-Celestian thespian ousted for his brilliance. Almost instantaneously he turns the incredulous blink into an awed, breathless reaction full of eagerness rather than distaste.

 

PHELOSH: (Composing his face into a smile of genuine pleasure) What a joy to be here! And what a pleasure to see you. Minister Azyaiya y'Cafici, I presume?

 

AZYAIYA: (With a high, trilling laugh) Indeed, you may presume. And of course, you must be the famous Phelosh Mellulog. Please, I would be delighted if you called me Azyaiya.

 

Fanning herself languorously with one hand, AZYAIYA produces the letter that Phelosh Mellulog had written earlier that morning in the other hand. "I was rhapsodically jubilant, though not terribly thunderstruck, I must say, to apprehend your application to metamorphose into a citizen of the resplendent Engine of Transformation. For a considerable duration of time, my fellow Magnagorans and I had apperceived many deplorable rumours about the scandal that you had precipitated in New Celest heretofore in these preceding months."

 

PHELOSH's brow wrinkles bemusedly despite himself before he nods affirmatively. "Yes indeed, Minister Azyaiya y'Caf...no, I mean, Azyaiya...bah, you must forgive me. I'm not accustomed to being on such familiar terms with a lady as charming and beautiful as yourself."

 

As Azyaiya y'Cafici, Macabre Minister flutters and blushes at the compliment, PHELOSH meets her eyes with warm sincerity and continues, "I must beg your indulgence in permitting me to continue calling you Minister Azyaiya for now, I'm afraid. Until such time..." He pauses significantly and lowers his gaze for a moment. "Until such time as we become closer friends someday, perhaps."

 

AZYAIYA breaks out into another trilling, breathless laugh and playfully swats Phelosh Mellulog's arm with her lace fan. "Oh, you flatterer, you! If I had envisioned that you were such a mellifluous poet offstage as well as onstage, I would have endeavoured to acquaint myself with you sooner!"

 

"But alas, before we are at unobstructed liberty to dialogue regarding such congenial diversions as poetry and theatre, we must proceed first with business," AZYAIYA laments with a girlish pout and a disconsolate flutter of her fan. "Of course, after the abhorrent malfeasance to which New Celest has subjected you for merely satirising them in your art, no one could possibly reprehend you for forsaking your city and scrutinising new potentialities for citizenship elsewhere. However, I must inquire, as a matter of correctness, if nothing else: What motivated you to choose Magnagora as your new domicile?"

 

PHELOSH allows his warm, faintly flirtatious smile to drop as he gives an earnest nod and clenches his fists at his sides. "After being rebuked, censured, disowned, disfavoured, and utterly humiliated by everyone in New Celest for my plays, at first I grieved. Then I attempted to placate and appease them, only to be rebuffed and disfavoured even more."

 

Surreptitiously watching Azyaiya y'Cafici's face to gauge her reaction, PHELOSH continues in an impassioned tone, "Finally, I decided to give in to my anger. I chose to fight back. I resolved to oppose them not only with words, but also with actions and with arms."

 

Visibly moved by Phelosh Mellulog's words, AZYAIYA grimaces with sympathetic disgust and twists her features in an expression of scornful contempt at his descriptions of New Celest, before listening to his words of resolve with eyes wide and lips parted in rapt attention.

 

"So, I chose to leave, and to make a new home in the one city that has always thwarted the Celestians and warred against them," PHELOSH concludes harshly, "so that I too can make war upon them and make them suffer for what they did to me."

 

PHELOSH pauses a moment, his slender chest rising and falling rapidly as if with unrestrained emotion, before at last appearing to regain his self-possession.

 

"So, that is why I am here," PHELOSH declares. Taking a deep breath, he offers a wry smile to Azyaiya y'Cafici and bows slightly at the waist. "Although the reputation of Magnagora as a rich artistic and cultural centre of its own hardly hurts, either."

 

Very nearly breaking into applause, AZYAIYA flashes a joyous smile at

Phelosh Mellulog and lets out a long, satisfied sigh. "Indeed, indeed. Well, I am thoroughly convinced of your sincerity, Lord Phelosh, and thoroughly impressed by your fervour. In a word, you have won me over completely, and were it up to my adjudication, I would enthusiastically induct you into the ranks of Magnagoran citizens this very minute. There is no doubt in my mind that your voice and your talents would symphonise most melodiously here and further aggrandise our stupendous Engine of Transformation."

 

"Unfortunately, to my great woe," AZYAIYA intones with ponderous overtones, "that decision is not solely up to me. Your application for citizenship will have to be considered at the highest levels, for there are those who will conjecture you to be an extremely controversial candidate, simply because you were so recently a loyal Celestian, for all that they maltreated you so dreadfully and drove you away. The process, I fear, may take several months, and there may not be much that you can do but wait until it is done."

 

PHELOSH: Ah, I feared as much, Minister Azyaiya. If you promise to do your best on my behalf, then I will promise to cooperate as much as I can and spend my time productively by learning as much as I can about what I hope shall become my new home.

 

"Oh, but of course! I shall do everything that I can for your sake, Lord Phelosh!" AZYAIYA exclaims, clapping her plump hands together. "I promise I shall not scruple at anything, even poisoning someone's tea, to bring you into the fold." Oblivious to the look of horror that briefly flickers across Phelosh Mellulog's eyes, she adds blithely, "Until then, have you established any arrangements for lodgings? I do believe my family's estate may be in possession of an unclaimed guest room..."

 

PHELOSH: (A shade hastily) No, no, that won't be necessary. I've already reserved a room at the...Wailing Woman Inn, I believe it's called? I'll be happy to stay there until the citizenship procedures wrap up.

 

"Ah, wonderful!" AZYAIYA purrs, laying her hand on Phelosh Mellulog's arm and smiling up at him. "Alas, normally I would be delighted to escort you there myself, since you are new to the city and its topography is certain to be enigmatic and recondite for you, but regretfully other duties beckon me at this time. However, I'm sure that my most trusted aide, Iskogu, will be more than happy to guide you. Iskogu!" she calls, clapping her hands sharply.

 

AZYAIYA: Iskogu, be a dear and show this kind gentleman, Lord Phelosh Mellulog to his lodgings at the Wailing Woman Inn, would you, please? And please accommodate any questions or requests he might have!

 

"Adieu, my darlings!" AZYAIYA trills cheerily, waving goodbye and performing another deep, floor-sweeping curtsey threatens to coat the hems of her gown with the ever-present soot and ash endemic to the streets of Magnagora, before sashaying away out of view.

 

(Exit AZYAIYA)

(Enter ISKOGU)

 

There is a faint tremor in the air and a shifting of the shadows behind Phelosh Mellulog, and then suddenly a grey-cloaked illithoid with a jakari chain wrapped around his fist steps into view from what had hitherto appeared to be a dark and empty street corner.

 

ISKOGU opens his mouth to reveal the rows of spiny, razor-sharp teeth glinting within as he performs a low bow, the branching purple veins in his ashen skin pulsating with an eerie, erratic rhythm.

 

ISKOGU turns to give Phelosh Mellulog a cold stare, the purplish veins upon his forehead visibly throbbing and his beady red eyes narrowing in suspicion.

 

PHELOSH barely manages to repress a shudder as he meets Bloodletter Iskogu's chillingly predatory gaze, but keeps his voice steady as he asks, "Shall we head toward the Wailing Woman Inn now?"

 

Instead of answering, ISKOGU takes a single stride toward Phelosh Mellulog and flicks aside the front of his cloak, revealing a thin, shirtless chest with a fleshy maw on his sternum. As Phelosh gapes in frozen fear, an inner worm snakes out of his sternum toward the mugwump and twists this way and that, tasting the psionic emanations around him.

 

Finally, the inner worm retracts into ISKOGU's sternum again with a muffled hissing noise, causing Phelosh Mellulog to slump in visible relief.

 

ISKOGU: I sense deceit from you. Deceit, and fear, and treachery.

 

Gathering himself and wiping the fear from his face, PHELOSH straightens haughtily in a show of righteous indignation. "Well, of course I'm a

little afraid! This is the first time I've ever seen an illithoid in my life, let alone an illithoid openly using that...that inner worm...thing."

 

PHELOSH: As for the deceit, well, I'm an actor. Acting on a stage is basically lying to entertain an audience, so when I'm onstage I'm practically obligated to deceive people. I don't know what you mean about the treachery, but maybe you're sensing how I feel about New Celest betraying my trust and humiliating me into leaving.

 

"Maybe," ISKOGU concedes. "But maybe not. I can sense that your words do not match your psionic patterns. And therefore you cannot be trusted."

 

With an indifferent stare, PHELOSH shrugs nonchalantly as he slowly blinks one eye and then the other. "Well, if you don't trust me, shouldn't you be telling Minister Azyaiya instead of me? And until you do, shouldn't you be showing me to the inn like she said?"

 

ISKOGU bares his razor-sharp teeth again in a rictus of a smile and gives an ironic little bow. "Of course," he hisses, flourishing his arm. "Right this way...sir."

 

(Exit PHELOSH)

(Exit ISKOGU)

 

A choking billow of dismal brownish haze drifts across the stage as Phelosh Mellulog and Bloodletter Iskogu walk down the street, keeping a distrustful distance between them as they disappear from view into the evening darkness descending across Magnagora.

 

SCENE THREE

 

 

When the choking brown haze finally dissipates, the urban landscape of the Magnagoran street has been replaced with the more tranquil scene of a small, comfortable room inside the Wailing Woman Inn. Furnished with a narrow bed and a table with an oval mirror above it, the room appears well cared for but hardly lived in.

 

(Enter PHELOSH)

 

Sitting on the edge of the bed, PHELOSH has leaned forward and buried his head in his hands, as if attempting to block out the sight and sound of the world around him. After a moment, a faint groan issues from him, followed by a series of shudders that ripple through his body in quick succession.

 

PHELOSH: (Muffled by his hands) I shouldn't be here. I really should not be here. I should never have come here in the first place. Why did I agree to come here?

 

PHELOSH slowly pulls his hands away from his face, revealing an expression of exhausted misery in his dull eyes and downturned mouth. Tiredly rubbing his forehead, he mumbles softly, "It's been three months, but it feels like an eternity. I wish I could go home."

 

PHELOSH takes a deep breath and looks as though he immediately regrets it, wrinkling his nose in disgust and making a face. "I hate it here so much. I hate everything about it here: the place, the people, the food, even the smells. Every breath I take of the air feels toxic and filthy. And the parties they take me to, the rituals, the hovels, the poor mutts on the streets..."

 

PHELOSH: (With a long sigh) It's been all I could do to avoid becoming a citizen of this accursed city while I try to ferret out information about the Bulwark of the Damned! To dodge interviews from the ruling council and the Ministry of Education and find reasons not to sign any of their forms, all while that silly Azyaiya woman exerts her influence to "help" me...

 

Pushing himself off the bed, PHELOSH takes a kneeling position on the floor and fishes out from within a tiny pocket inside his sleeve a familiar chain hung with a golden pearl, engraved with the symbols of a trident and an angelfish. He reverently cradles the pearl in uplifted hands and closes his eyes.

 

PHELOSH: I call to You, Lady Carakhan, Sculptor of the Waves, from this place of iniquity and horror, to wash me pure with Your waters. Mistress of the waves, the tides, and the abyssal deeps, hear now my prayer and grant me Your blessing. Praise be to You, now and always.

 

The faintest of breezes sweeps through the room, lightly rustling the drapes on the small window and bringing with it the subtlest salt tang of the sea that freshens the air and enlivens the senses with the scents of brine and seaweed.

 

PHELOSH's eyes brighten with a glimmer of unexpected hope, a glimmer that does not fade even after the breeze has passed by and the tang of the sea has faded away into memory.

 

PHELOSH: (In a hushed gasp) Lady Carakhan?

 

A sudden smile breaking across his face like dawn over the ocean, PHELOSH tucks the pearl on its chain into its accustomed concealed pocket and leaps to his feet with newfound energy, striding up to the mirror with renewed purpose and smoothing the ruffles on his shirt.

 

Flicking his long tongue out of his mouth and licking the corners of his lips, PHELOSH examines his reflection and murmurs to himself like a mantra, "It'll be all right. All you have to do is stay in character. You're an angry former citizen of New Celest, a bard and playwright who desires nothing more than to sing and orate about the deaths of all Celestians, and a willing ally of Magnagora and its agenda. Just remember that and stay in character."

 

A series of knocks sounds at the door, and PHELOSH freezes in place for a moment, before relaxing and pasting on a delighted smile. "Minister Azyaiya, is that you?" he calls out loudly.

 

(Enter AZYAIYA)

 

From the other sound of the door, AZYAIYA's voice rings out in a breathy, tremulous soprano. "But of course, Lord Phelosh! The commencement of the tea party at the city gardens is nigh! And really, how many times must I tell you to call me Azyaiya?"

 

PHELOSH straightens the collar of his shirt and walks over to open the door, swinging it wide and bowing low with an elegant flourish. "At least one more time, Minister Azyaiya. At least one more time."

 

"Oh, what an incorrigible gentleman you are!" AZYAIYA giggles, a splotchy blush blossoming across her opalescent complexion. She brushes her cheek self-consciously with well-manicured, razor-like nails of blood-red, her brown eyes dancing with captivation.

 

Her manicured brows drawing together in amusement, AZYAIYA exclaims ebulliently, "But we mustn't dally here, or we'll be late for the tea party!" With great familiarity, she links her arm through Phelosh's and all but hauls him through the door into the cobbled streets of Magnagora in her urgency.

 

In passing, as they both hasten along the streets past hunched beggars, bony gutter mutts, and masked viscanti nobles, AZYAIYA remarks, "Oh, Lord Phelosh, did you hear that the forms for your military background went missing yet again? It must be the fourth or fifth time that some part of your citizenship application was stolen or lost! It's enough for me to postulate some degree of subversiveness or sabotage! Isn't it dreadful?"

 

PHELOSH arranges his features into a proper expression of dismay and disappointment, though a flicker of relief passes briefly through his eyes. "Really? Again? How much longer will this process have to take, I wonder? But ah, here we are at the gardens!"

 

Secluded from the street, a neatly manicured and cultivated garden spreads out before them, already filled with laughing and chattering Magnagorans mingling together and admiring the white amaranth blossoms. Several citizens look up at their arrival and gaily greet both Azyaiya y'Cafici and Phelosh Mellulog, beckoning them to join the party.

 

Squaring his shoulders, PHELOSH strides forward into the thick of the tea party, where he is quickly surrounded by curiosity seekers and admirers full of questions and gossip. "Will you sing for us?" "Are you writing another play?" "How goes the citizenship process?" several voices ask him in chorus.

 

PHELOSH answers or fends off every question with as much grace and aplomb as he can muster, never showing a sign of strain or impatience. He begins engaging different groups and individuals alike in convivial conversation, gossiping, making contacts, encouraging, admiring, and, above all, listening alertly as his interlocutors hold court.

 

When a chatty party-goer idly asks how PHELOSH has been spending his days, he mentions spending time in the city library and shows an interest in Magnagoran history, guiding the conversation toward recent memorable historical events.

 

Around PHELOSH, the conversations gradually shift to recounting and reminiscing about the dramatic fall of Magnagora's former guilds and the establishment of new ones, which he encourages with gentle nudges and comments: "Do tell me more! Where might I read more about these things? I do enjoy firsthand accounts of great historical events."

 

"I was there the night that the towers fell and we fought the Cogs in the Smog..." "A host of angels descended on the city and slew the Necromentate!" "Damned souls flew free from the Necropolis..." "Cracks in the ground, did you say?"

 

"We uncovered the foundations of an ancient project..." "Dark rituals..." "A dire price to pay..." "...records kept in the office of the history professor at the College of Necromantic & Tainted Research..."

 

Upon hearing the last statement, PHELOSH lets out a long breath and falls still, his eyes widening very slightly and a glimmer of hope flashing across his eyes.

 

Politely excusing himself from his current conversation, PHELOSH makes his way unobtrusively to the edges of the garden, pauses to take stock of his surroundings, and then furtively sneaks away from the party.

 

(Exit AZYAIYA)

(Enter ISKOGU)

 

"History professor at the College. I think I remember where their office is," PHELOSH whispers to himself as he steals out of the garden party and moves quietly but briskly along the street, trying to contain his excitement and avoid drawing attention to himself.

 

Unbeknownst to Phelosh Mellulog, however, ISKOGU had been skulking in the shadows just outside the garden. Scouting the area with suspicious red eyes, he quickly spots the mugwump surreptitiously stealing away and emits a frightening, ravenous-sounding hiss.

 

Moving far more skilfully than the mugwump, ISKOGU stealthily shadows him through the city's streets toward the College. "What is he doing now?" he whispers sibilantly to himself, effortlessly tracking Phelosh Mellulog's progress. "I knew he could not be trusted."

 

ISKOGU skitters silently from gas lamp to gas lamp until he sees Phelosh Mellulog abruptly duck into a narrow alley. Turning the corner himself, Iskogu comes face to face with the massive stone edifice of the College of Tainted & Necromantic Research just as Phelosh discreetly follows a student through the front gates and into the building.

 

Lithely leaping into a handspring, ISKOGU vaults over the front gates and scales the walls with a spider's agility until he reaches the rooftop of the College, ignoring the stunned gazes of students around him. He balances on the rooftop edges and peers into windows until at last he spots Phelosh Mellulog inside an empty office, pulling a desk drawer open.

 

As Bloodletter Iskogu hangs outside the window, PHELOSH rifles through folders and binders until he finds a particular set of documents that makes his ink-black eyes widen triumphantly. In only a few moments, the mugwump reads through vast swaths of information, his tongue flicking toward the pages as if to capture and devour every word.

 

PHELOSH: This is it! Eyewitness accounts of how they raised the Bulwark of the Damned! Surely this will be enough to help Minister Serelynth.

 

PHELOSH drops the papers back into the drawer and falls to his knees, pressing his hands together in prayer and raising his voice in a soft song.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) This day I offer my praise to You, Lady Carakhan, as Your waves carry me to victory at last. I thank You for Your mercy and benevolence. With love and devotion I praise and honour You, forever and always.

 

Overcome with rage and hatred, ISKOGU flings one end of his jakari chain right through the office's window directly at Phelosh Mellulog. The window shatters with a spectacular shower of broken glass, and the startled mugwump has just enough time to look up before the barbs on the chain hook deeply into his clothing and skin.

 

Snarling with satisfaction as his chain tightens about his prey, ISKOGU swiftly leaps off the roof and lands on the ground in a spinning crouch, while wrenching powerfully on his end of the jakari chain.

 

PHELOSH lets out a scream of pain and terror as, snarled within the illithoid's remorseless chain, he is yanked bodily through the smashed window and crashes to the ground amidst a flurry of glassy splinters at a livid Bloodletter Iskogu's feet.

 

"I knew you could not be trusted," ISKOGU hisses furiously, the veins beneath his skin throbbing a vivid purple and his eyes blazing ruby-red. "I knew Minister Azyaiya was wrong to help you. I knew all along that you were up to no good, no matter what you said or how much you smiled at everyone."

 

Writhing in his chains and trying to pull away, PHELOSH gasps frantically, "Iskogu, look, I don't know what you saw, but it isn't what you think! There's a perfectly good explanation for everything, if you'd just let me out of this chain!"

 

"You. Are. A. Spy," ISKOGU intones harshly, each word punctuated by the gnashing of spiny, razor-sharp teeth. "You were stealing secrets from Magnagora. That's what I saw. And nothing you say could convince me otherwise, you treacherous scum."

 

ISKOGU expertly trusses Phelosh Mellulog's body in more lengths of jakari chain and grins mirthlessly to hear the mugwump cry out in agony as more barbs slice into his skin. Then he turns on his heel and strides confidently away from the College, dragging Phelosh behind him.

 

The stage darkens to blackness amidst the sounds of chains clinking, footsteps thudding away into the distance, and the quiet moans of anguish from the Phelosh Mellulog as his chain-entangled body thumps and rolls hopelessly after his captor toward what will surely be an unpleasant fate.

 

SCENE FOUR

 

In time, these sounds fade gradually into silence, leaving the stage momentarily in complete stillness--a stillness that is abruptly broken by the sound of a powerful, resounding punch and an agonised groan, followed by the hiss of an indrawn breath and, incongruously enough, the sound of a hoarse but still melodic voice singing a hymn.

 

Pale-grey rays of pre-dawn light slowly brighten the stage, revealing a public square in Magnagora where the ensnared Phelosh Mellulog has been lashed to a gas lamp. Even in the dim illumination, his face and body are quite visibly mangled with bruises, lacerations, and other painful-looking wounds.

 

Despite his wounds, some of which still bleed continuously down the side of his face and arms, PHELOSH's expression remains peculiarly serene, even beatific, his eyes closed and his mouth open to sing.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) Though hardships buffet me like a storm, though my sorrows like ocean billows roll...

 

PHELOSH: (singing) My Lady's waves guide my heart safe to shore and protect the ship that is my soul.

 

Soft sparkles glint faintly in the air as he sings the simple, sweet refrain in a still-strong, sonorous tenor, his fingers reflexively moving as if to deftly pluck the strings of a lyre.

 

ISKOGU gives a low, furious hiss and the sternal mouth on his chest stretches outward menacingly as he draws his fist back for another punch. "Stop. Singing. Your. Nil-damned. Hymns! Tell me what I want to know!"

 

PHELOSH gasps and coughs as the punch lands against his jaw, before spewing up a mouthful of blood and spitting out a tooth. Hanging loosely in his bonds, he breathes hard for a moment and then wheezes, "The average aerial speed of a laden postal pelican is about six metres per second, given a letter weight of one kilogram or less. There, now you know."

 

Gnashing his fangs in frustration, ISKOGU pulls a wicked, claw-like blade from a side sheath and points it at Phelosh Mellulog, only to pause suddenly and cock his head in puzzlement. "Really? How do you even know that?"

 

PHELOSH winks knowingly in response, only to burst into a scream when the annoyed illithoid sinks the claw-like blade into his shoulder. "Sweet Celestia, why does that hurt so much! Please, please stop. Please make it stop..."

 

ISKOGU: (In a poisonously sweet tone) You know how you can make it stop, you spying scum. What documents did you steal? Where are you hiding them?

 

PHELOSH: (singing) Though the reefs of calamity lurk beneath, though we sail through winds we cannot control, my Lady's waters still carry me far and cradle the ship that is my soul.

 

Ignoring the outburst of song, ISKOGU hisses, "All I found when I searched your body...and believe me when I say I searched it thoroughly---was this. Was it important to you, perhaps?" He holds up a golden pearl dangling from a thin chain, its shimmering nacreous surface seeming even brighter against his ashen-grey skin.

 

PHELOSH 's eyes widen and a broken, horrified moan escapes his lips as Bloodletter Iskogu mimes dropping the pearl down a sewer grate. Bowing his head, he whispers, "I didn't steal anything. I speed-read the documents I needed and committed them all to memory. They're all in my head, and you won't be able to get them out without killing me outright."

 

ISKOGU: (Looking vexed but also vaguely impressed) You memorised them all? But you only looked at the documents for a few minutes!

 

PHELOSH rears his head back up and manages, despite everything, to arch his eyebrow in a look of arrogant hauteur. "I've been an actor for fifteen years, Iskogu, and I was good enough to fool everyone in Magnagora that didn't have a disgusting chest worm sniffing my thoughts. I've had to memorise entire plays, books, and operas in an hour and perform them that very night! I'm not some amateur that needs to write notes or scribble things on my hand. Those few documents were nothing, nothing at all."

 

PHELOSH: Now, considering you don't seem to be getting anywhere with your questions, let me ask one of my own: Why were you sending out all those bats earlier? What was that for?"

 

ISKOGU's immediate response is to stab the mugwump's other shoulder with his knife, eliciting a shrill whimper from Phelosh Mellulog as a trickle of blood pours down his arm. His second response is to sigh, "Criminals like you shouldn't ask questions. You don't even deserve to hear me sing a hymn to Nifilhema or the like. But if you really must know..."

 

ISKOGU: I sent the bats with letters to the Iron Council, telling them what I found out about you. Now it is up to them to decide on your execution.

 

PHELOSH: (Sagging despondently in his bonds) So...all this since then was just you passing the time until you heard back?

 

"Well, I did wish to know what information you were specifically hoping to bring back to your masters in New Celest," ISKOGU admits. "But yes, it was also so that I could enjoy myself. And I have."

 

ISKOGU pauses briefly to twist the blade still lodged in Phelosh Mellulog's shoulder and chuckles heartily to himself at the resulting shriek. "Very much so."

 

Just then, a group of officers from the Magnagoran constabulary march into view together, formally clad in midnight-blue uniforms and ostentatiously equipped with manacles, shackles, and restraining poles. The lead constable nods greetings to Bloodletter Iskogu and flourishes an official order of execution, stamped and sealed by the Iron Council.

 

ISKOGU turns to examine the order of execution and gives a sigh, while his sternal mouth idly extends toward the constables. "Very well. It seems my fun is over, and so is your life, spy scum," he announces, pulling his blade out of Phelosh Mellulog's shoulder and stalking off. "I'll enjoy watching your head roll."

 

(Exit ISKOGU)

(Enter CONSTABLE)

 

Stricken with shock, PHELOSH slumps bonelessly as the constables impassively unwrap the jakari chain around him, fasten manacles to his wrists and ankles, and clasp a metal band around his neck, attached by long silken ropes to the restraining poles held by each constable.

 

CONSTABLE: Good morning, sir. Don't you worry, you're in good hands. Please stand up, and we'll be on our way to the gallows.

 

PHELOSH turns a wretched stare at the city constable. "I really wasn't expecting to die," he mumbles. Then a sudden look of panic crosses his face. "That nasty little worm-chested thief! He walked off with my pearl! My pearl!"

 

As Phelosh Mellulog begins to thrash futilely in his manacles, CONSTABLE simply shakes his head and motions the other constables forward. "Me, if I knew I was being beheaded in half an hour, I'd be thinking about my last breakfast, maybe drafting out some fine last words. Not flailing about like this lad, screaming my head off about some jewel thief or the like."

 

PHELOSH: (Lifting his face and raising his voice to the heavens) Lady Carakhan! Please! I have not forsaken You! I beg You, please do not forget me!

 

Heedless of his increasingly despondent pleas, CONSTABLE and his cohorts stolidly lift the mugwump to his feet and stolidly march him onward by means of the restraining roles and poles through the streets, unmoved by the occasional outcry of a Magnagoran citizen who recognises Phelosh and reacts with disbelief, betrayal, or both.

 

With a grunt of "Hold him steady, mates!", CONSTABLE leads Phelosh Mellulog toward the Bridge of Torment, a structure so horrific that even the mugwump falls silent as he unwillingly approaches it.

 

Arching over the harbour to the Sea of Despair, the Bridge of Torment forms a long expanse wrought from the pale bodies of the dead and dying, the latter of which still occasionally writhe and twitch in anguish, particularly as the group of constables and their prisoner start walking across.

 

By now, however, dawn has begun breaking over the horizon, which now glows radiantly with burnished shades of orange and red while the feathery clouds streaking the sky are tinted a soft, misty violet, while the normally oily, viscous waters now glimmer as though overlaid with a net of gold.

 

Tears slowly fill PHELOSH's eyes and a soft, rapturous smile curves his lips as he gazes with awestruck wonder at the beauty of the sea, deeply moved by the sight. "If I have to die today," he whispers, "at least the last thing I see will be this beautiful sight."

 

To the surprise of the constables around him, PHELOSH clears his throat and bursts once more into heartfelt song with his gaze fixed upon the sea, his voice no longer feeble and hoarse from pleading and screaming but now pure, resonant, vibrant, and soaring from crystalline tenor notes to a mellow, thrilling baritone.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) How wondrous You are, Lady Sculptor, You who shaped each wave in perfect symmetry, You who painted the fishes and corals until the jewels of the earth envy them their colours. How wondrous You are, shining and radiant in sparkling foam and shimmering pearl.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) Praise be to You, Lady Carakhan, who brought light to the shining shallows of the sea, who wrought the wonders of the deeps, whose waves rise and flow from tempest to tranquility. Praise be to You from all the creatures that move upon the earth and within the sea.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) Save me, Lady Sculptor, for all Your waves and billows have swept over me. I have sunk into the fathomless depths where there is no light to see by; I have foundered in deep waters where the flood will drown me.

 

PHELOSH: (singing) Lady Carakhan, who stills the raging of the sea, who wields the trident to protect and purify, hear my song and save me from iniquity, so that I shall perish not. Let me rejoice always in the beauty of Your works; let me sing of You forever from the shores of the sea.

 

A sudden gust of wind blows across the Bridge of Torment, causing the rickety structure to sway dangerously from side to side and bringing a scent of salt-tinged freshness and cleanliness that cuts through the foul, reeking stench of dead fish and rotting seaweed hanging over the harbour.

 

CONSTABLE: Bloody Nil, what was that?

 

PHELOSH holds his breath as he waits for more, looking from side by side as he and the constables regain their balance and slowly walk further along the Bridge. "Lady Carakhan?" he whispers hopefully.

 

Nothing else happens, however, and the wind dies down to apparent stillness, prompting PHELOSH to hang his head forlornly as he and his retinue of constables reach the apex of the bridge.

 

"This way, please, sir," CONSTABLE sternly admonishes the mugwump. "Some of us have to get on with our lives, you know!"

 

Out of nowhere, the waters in the harbour swell upward at an alarming rate and an immense wave rises out of the sea. Unlike the oily, polluted waters of the Sea of Despair, the waters of this wave shimmer a luminous, crystal-clear blue flecked with golden pinpoints of light and fills the foul, malodorous air with the clean, bracing scent of brine, salt, and algae.

 

Topped with sparkling white foam, the wave surges toward the Bridge of Torment, mounting in size and gathering speed until it rears up ten times as tall as an adult igasho as it approaches the shore. Curiously, the huge, cresting wave appears to halt in place at the moment when it reaches the critical height before breaking, as though restrained by an unseen hand.

 

Appearing equally frozen in place, CONSTABLE and his cohorts stare up at the magnificent wave in abject awe at this manifest display of the power of the sea, while the flame of conviction burns bright and ardent in Phelosh Mellulog's wide, hopeful eyes.

 

Then, the wave crashes down upon the Bridge of Torment in a thunderous, raging torrent of swift-moving water that almost drowns out the half-ecstatic, half-terrified cry from Phelosh Mellulog as well as the terrified screams of the constables as the restraining poles are swiftly ripped out of their bloody palms.

 

Almost immediately, another towering wave gushes over the harbour in a violent deluge, followed by another wave even larger than the last. The onslaught submerges the constables, who sink beneath the water's surface with hardly a struggle, and the very bridge threatens to tip over to one side as the huge waves collide repeatedly against it.

 

(Exit CONSTABLE)

 

PHELOSH barely has time to react before the roaring waves gush toward him and bodily hoist his body over the railing of the bridge. He lands with a resounding splash into the churning waters and quickly sinks below the surface, weighed down by his manacles and chains.

 

Below the surface of the water, shifting sands and rocks from the ocean floor stir up around him, while swirling currents immediately tug Phelosh this way and that, carrying his unresisting body along a swiftly-flowing undertow that sweeps him away from the harbour with irresistible force.

 

With astounding accuracy, four large, sharp-edged rocks come hurtling toward him and perfectly snap the chains connecting the manacles around his ankles and wrists. More rocks slice and tear through the silken cords attached to the band around his neck, freeing him from the last of his bonds.

 

PHELOSH lets out a sigh of relief that emerges as a stream of bubbles rising from his mouth through the water as he gratefully tests his limbs and begins kicking out his legs in a smooth swimming stroke.

 

PHELOSH propels himself through the increasingly calm, gentle currents, occasionally diving deep or spinning through the water in a spiralling corkscrew motion simply for the joy of swimming freely, before he finally reaches a region of almost motionless water and pops his head up above the surface.

 

Before him lie the glorious white-and-gold beaches of the Isle of Light, beckoning him back into the safety and sanctity of the Inner Sea.

 

PHELOSH wearily swims through the shallows and wades ashore along the edge of the beach, his clothing torn and sodden as it clings to his limbs. He smiles brilliantly as he finally stands on dry land and breathes in huge lungfuls of fresh, clean air, looking content for the first time since he departed from New Celest.

 

PHELOSH: (Clasping his hands in heartfelt prayer) Thank You for saving me, Lady Carakhan. Thank You for bringing me home.

 

Something small and round rolls along the sand and bumps against his foot as he stands there in contemplation. Bending over to look, Phelosh lets out a soft gasp and cradles it reverently in his hand: a smooth golden pearl, still shining and freshly gleaned from the sea.