The vampire trout’s voice was surprisingly good. Such was the initial thought of the Sacred Judge as he stood among his stacks of books, his phoenix on his right shoulder, his dragon on his left. Bill, the vampire trout, warbled his way through Monsieur Daisy’s Ninth Aria, taking particular care to emphasize the high notes in the second movement. The Sacred Judge nodded slightly in approval. It was a common mistake for performers to not give enough energy to those lofty notes.
As he reached the crescendo, Bill lifted his scaled wings high, dramatically flapping them in time with his voice. His gills vibrated, his eyes bulged, his fins quivered. Then, with a final outburst of emotion, he belted out the last note. His wings dropped back to his sides, his voice faded and the room grew quiet save for the fading echoes of the aria.
After a couple of deep breaths, Bill slowly raised his eyes to the Sacred Judge. The phoenix sputtered fire from its beak, agitated and restless. The dragon, however, seemed content and pleased. No hint of emotion marred the Sacred Judge’s heavily lined face.
Finally, he opened his mouth slightly and whispered a single word:
Bill the vampire trout bowed deeply. “Thank you, your eminence.” He quickly left the room so as not to offend with his continued presence.
A shadow stirred from the corner of the room. There was the rustling of papers as book shifted to make room for the bulky body of the Chamberlin.
“His voice was better than expected,” a low reply answered.
“My thoughts exactly.”
“He will need new clothes.”
“You have money?” The low voice rose slightly, betraying heightened interest.
The Sacred Judge shrugged, eliciting a squawk from the phoenix. “I have some resources, yes.”
“And here I was going accustomed to starving.”
“That is fortunate, for your starving will continue until we accomplish what we have set out to do.”
“You hoard your riches.” The voice of the Chamberlin was part accusatory, part wounded.
“I secure our future,” the Sacred Judge retorted. “We have priorities.”
“My stomach is a priority.”
“Your stomach can be removed.” His tone ended the argument.
Bill the vampire trout looked in awe at the splendor of the Paper Castle. He traced the fine creases and folds that gave the castle texture. His gaze lingered on the twisted strips that formed the archway high overhead. He felt his cold, sluggish blood quicken at the beauty before him and he hesitated before passing through the archway, reluctant to leave such exquisite craftsmanship.
Directed by a Centurion of the Leaf, he soon found himself in the Great Hall, its name was an embarrassing understatement. Cavernous and imposing, the Great Hall could hold a thousand moneyed souls and still have room for their servants, assistants and slaves in the back. Bill stood on the stage, centered in body, if not in mind, and looked out over the soon to be filled seats. He couldn’t see the back rows. The balconies loomed above him on three sides. Only behind him was free of seats and soon, judging eyes and ears.
The director of the performance, a Leaf Cutter known simply as the Royal Conductor, cleared his throat, bringing Bill’s attention back to the rehearsal.
“Apologies,” Bill croaked. “This is somewhat overwhelming.”
“Understandable,” the Royal Conductor replied, his antennae flicking, “but focus. We have much to do.”
Bill nodded, feeling the spittle in his mouth evaporate. He quickly gulped from the glass of water on a small table at his side and nodded to the Leaf Cutter. He opened his mouth and began the rehearsal.
He realized his mouth was hanging open and quickly closed it. He was in a small dressing room behind the stage. After rehearsal, he was escorted to this closet of a room to prepare while the sequined and coifed guests of the Garnet Princess were led into the Great Hall. Waiting for him in the dressing room was a new suit and a letter from the Sacred Judge. The suit was pressed and smelled of soap. The letter was short and to the point. He was to change his performance slightly. Near the end of the aria, he was instructed to dive into the fourth movement of Prisbauch’s Concerto #84, a powerful and technically challenging piece that required a difficult modulation of the vocal cords.
His scaly skin was colder than usual. On the one fin, he wasn’t sure he could even adequately sing such an infamous number, especially without practice. On the other, if he pulled it off, it would be a performance remembered for ages. If he succeeded, he would never want for a meal or bed again. If he failed, he would never have a full stomach for the rest of his days.
But to ignore the Sacred Judge’s instructions was an even greater risk. Assuming he could escape the Castle without being caught, where would he go? He would be hunted relentlessly and fileted alive. To disobey was certain death. To fail would be humiliation and possibly banishment but he would still be alive. But to succeed? His gills puffed out at the thought. To succeed would mean the rest of his days were assured.
The lights were bright and hot. His skin quickly dried out, despite his soaking beforehand. He forced himself to ignore the scratchiness of the new vest the Sacred Judge had sent. The fabric was hard and starched, rubbing against his scales in the most unpleasant way. He could hear the shuffling of the audience past the glare of the lights. He gazed at the orchestra pit, attempting to ignore the eyes on him.
With a gesture from the Royal Conductor, the orchestra began. The first notes brought Bill’s attention into focus and he began to sing. He closed his eyes and let the aria take him away. Swept away by the beauty of the arrangement, he opened his throat, expanded his lungs and sang with abandon. His voice echoed around the Great Hall. The crowd was silent. With his eyes closed, he forgot about the judging eyes and critical ears. His heart soared with the music. His spirit lifted with the notes. He was one with the aria.
The performance reached the point where he either kept to the aria or switch to the concerto. Without a thought, he switched. The orchestra faltered for a moment at the unexpected change but, to the credit of the Royal Conductor, quickly adapted. Prisbauch’s 84th was well-known enough. Bill let his vocal cords relax for a moment in preparation for the finale, then launched into it with all his energy. At the back of his concentration, he heard faint yelling but it could not penetrate his focus. He trilled his cords in time with the sweeping notes, letting his voice oscillate between extremes as he pitched his voice further and further out over the crowd. The gasps of the crowd was drowned out by his own voice. Even when the music stopped, he continued through to the conclusion, feeling his vocal cords vibrate like never before. This, this would be his finest performance, a performance that would be forever remembered.
He hit the final notes and staggered back, spent but filled. That’s when he heard the screams. He opened his eyes. Above him and to the right, in the royal balcony, was chaos. He watched as glittering shards of glass fell to the crowd below. No, not glass, Bill realized with a sinking heart, garnet. The princess. He saw movement to his left and saw Centurions rush at him. The realization of what had happened hit him almost as hard as the spears of the Centurions. As he fell, he watched as more of the shattered princess fell from the balcony.
“He did have a much better voice than expected,” the Chamberlin said from the shadows far to the back of the Great Hall.
The Sacred Judge nodded in agreement. “Quite.”
(This story started as a writing exercise. The first image was the inspiration. Originally from Jugend magazine in 1900, I found it in a wonderful book called "Wonderbook" by Jeff Vandermeer that I highly recommend for any writer or creative person. It's amazing.)