Reign of Beasts (Creature Court) - By Tansy Rayner Roberts Page 0,1

about how the Mermaid was nothing without her, no one would buy a ticket without her there, how she looked better than Adriane anyhow, and audiences liked a demme with meat on her bones.

Hard work for a seven year old, but I’d been born and bred to the stage, and there are no better liars than mummers or masks. I’d been around the crew long enough to know the book by heart.

Madalena let me soothe her with my borrowed words, this time.

A few days later, when the stagemaster announced to the cast that Adriane would play the Angel, Madalena bit her lip so hard it almost bled. We all braced ourselves for a new bout of screaming, but she said nothing, just bowed her head and let it come.

There was no bigger audience than the Saturnalia crowd. We always put on a special show from the Ides of Saturnalis through to early Venturis, because the house would come from as far away as Aufleur, the city to the north, and Bazeppe, far south. Some of them were brightly dressed Lords and Ladies, making a kind of pilgrimage to our town to eat our oysters fresh with creamy mayonnaise. They were still licking their fingers and dropping the shells as they paraded into the Mermaid.

It was the same show every year: saints and angel, harlequinade, pantomime with saucy songs, and cabaret of monsters. I always figured the last one was why the stagemaster was ever on the lookout for more lambs, because it was us who performed it, done up in animal costumes and pretending to be fierce. It was a game, like everything else about Saturnalia: a festival of topsy-turvy. I sometimes think that was why Madalena gave in on the Angel role. She must have feared people might see her as another Saturnalia joke — the ageing dame pretending to be an ingenue.

It was the Kalends of Saturnalis and I was in the streets with Kip and Benny, pasting up the broadsheets for the show, when his Lordship came upon us. He was beautiful. No other word for it. I’ll never forget how beautiful he was. His face was soft like a demme’s, and he had long hair all hung about his shoulders. He wore a high top hat like the fancy toffs who’d pay three silver ducs to see the show from a private box, even though everyone knew the view from the dress circle was better. He had a long coat, and wore a chain at his throat. I couldn’t figure if he was a theatrical or a genuine toff, and was so busy trying to work it out that I stared at him too long and Kip elbowed me in the side.

‘Are you young seigneurs from the theatre?’ he asked, and we preened, all three of us, to hear him saying ‘theatre’ about our lowly musette.

‘Aye, sir,’ said Benny, and Kip nodded along. I kept staring.

He smiled, and no matter how highborn he sounded, I knew in that moment he was an actor. Just another mask looking to sell a performance.

‘Is it a good show, your Saturnalia revue?’ he asked next.

Kip and Benny fell over themselves to get out the usual patter: ‘You won’t see anything like this in your big city, squire; folks come from all over to see it; don’t you know our columbines were trained by the Duchessa of Bazeppe herself; don’t you know our cabaret of monsters act has been stolen by every musette north of here …’

He tired of the gabble eventually, and turned to me. His eyes were deep like coloured glass, all green and blue and maybe yellow if I looked hard enough. ‘What do you say?’ he asked.

‘There isn’t better,’ I said, my voice coming out clearer than I’d expected.

The Lord smiled. ‘Excellent to hear. You had best introduce me to your stagemaster, then. I wish to arrange a private show.’

The day after the Kalends is ill luck for a first performance. The columbines complained, shrill gulls that they were. The masks weren’t much happier, but they knew better than to make a flap about it. Adriane wasn’t feeling safe enough in her Angel costume to make a fuss, and Madalena stayed quiet for once. No shrieking; she just watched the rest of them hop about.

The stagemaster quelled all complaint with one short speech. ‘This mad toff has forked over enough shine to see the ceiling refurbished twice over. There’ll be spare for a meat dish a day

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