Chapter 3c

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The inside of the pub was only slightly nicer than the outside. It still looked worn and dated, but cozy, too. Phineas and Benjamin stopped to greet and introduce me to several people. I’d chosen well—they were regulars here, and seemed quite popular. They escorted me past the big wooden bar and into a seating area with tables. They found a table near the far end of the room, by a wood-paneled wall hung with posters and a few photographs. 

“Best seats in the house, Miss Wright.” Phineas pulled my chair out for me.

I settled into it, looking around. “I see that,” I said, even though I didn’t. What was so great about a table near the back of the room? 

Benjamin entertained me with stories about their law office. They may not have had magic there, but it sounded surprisingly theatrical anyway. Phineas offered me a drink, but I insisted on having only ginger-beer. If I became drunk, I couldn’t possibly follow Delphine back to the theater. I’d either get lost, eaten by alligators, or found by Delphine.

Disasters, all.

I told them stories about being a technomancer. It wasn’t hard—I just took some of my funniest material from my apprentice work and set it in what I imagined a technomancy shop would be like. I had them laughing so hard, I thought they would choke on their beer. 

“You tell the best stories, Miss Wright.” Phineas pounded me on the back, chuckling. I liked it—made me feel like I was one of the boys. 

“You should have been an actress,” Benjamin added. “I can see it in my head when you talk.”

His words made my throat clench and my stomach turn over. But I laughed lightly. “Me? An actress? Now that would be an epic disaster. People would run for the doors.” 

They hotly denied it, but it was time to move the conversation off me. “Speaking of acting…” I paused significantly, looking around. 

They leaned closer, their eyes bright. “Soon. Top of the hour. See how many people are here now?”

Just as I suspected. “So…tell me more. I’ve never been here before, as you know.”

“You’ll love it.” Benjamin took another swig of beer. “Dame Nellie Kettlewick—half the blokes here are in love with her. She couldn’t be better if she were Nadine Fairchild herself.”

I’d give myself three guesses as to who Dame Kettlewick was, and the first two wouldn’t count. “So does she perform here often?”

Phineas sent me a puzzled frown. “She’s been the star here for the past three years. Everyone who is into theater sub rosa knows who she is.”

Three years. She’d been doing this that long? “I must confess, my friend and I only recently heard of her.”

Recently…as in about an hour ago. 

I had heard stories of illegal theaters before—we had been warned of them. They were called “theater sub rosa” or “theater under the rose.” It was a way of saying they were operating without a license. That was a huge infraction. 

Theater was practically a religion in the Empire. It was the top point of the Jewel of Society: a four-point diamond representing the four areas of performing arts—the highest expression of Mercian culture. Opera and Ballet were the two side points, and all were underpinned at the bottom by Music. The Jewel of Society was everything to the Empire—it defined us more than our clothing or military or language or religion.

Because it could shape the thoughts and attitudes of our people and affect our reputation as an empire, Empress Antonia believed the practice of Theater should be strictly regulated, and the Theatrical Guild agreed with her. Theaters that weren’t licensed by the Guild could be shut down and fined. The managers and staff could be arrested. 

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