The City Theater. A rearing edifice of yellow stone that, when brushed by the sun, seemed to glow almost golden. Construction had begun during the first year of Her Majesty's reign, as the queen had wanted a testament to her support of the intellectual and artistic side of society. It was meant as a symbol that the glory of the kingdom was not merely military or economic, but cultural as well.

That lofty goal had not, perhaps, been achieved, but more often than not the theater was filled with patrons, from the highest of Court Society in their gilded boxes above, there to see and be seen as much as to be entertained, to the common folk of the capital who crowded the pit below. In the past the City Theater had been home to a variety of different performances: stage plays, musical performances, and so on. Upon occasion, it still was, when theater manager Brendan Saint decided that a special production needed a special setting (and his theater's bottom line a special infusion of cash or publicity), but for the most part it had served for the past fifteen years as home to the City Theater Opera Company. It had completely eclipsed the old Valentis Opera House--the best of Court Society, the wealthiest of the growing bourgeoisie, and the most discriminating of the commoners alike came to the City Theater first when the musical drama was their choice for an evening's entertainment.

Needless to say, Saint worked hard to maintain that prestige. He was ruthless, in conjunction with music director Marcelo Terne, in finding the finest talent within the kingdom's borders and making sure it was on his own stage. Like detectives, they kept their eyes and ears open for any hint of a breakthrough to make sure they reigned unchallenged. Three months ago, for example, they'd followed up on persistent rumors that the headliner at a Camden Lane music-hall featured operatic arias as well as the usual popular songs, and that she sung them even better than Maria Bacardi, the City Theater's diva. The rumors were correct, and despite La Bacardi's ardent displeasure, Saint had brought out Miss Amoretta Virgine's contract and she had immediately proven the wisdom of it by performing to rave reviews. Her talent was raw, but it was the extraordinary kind that would only add to the City Theater's luster as it developed. Unless, of course, someone better came along, but Saint somehow thought that was not likely to happen any time soon.

-X X X-

The Crow was late.

That's twice now, Pops thought tetchily. Doesn't he like that new girl?

That wasn't his real name, of course, but old Dominick Perignon never bothered with people's names in his own head. Just like the stage doorman was Pops to most of the people who worked with him, he found the countless characters who worked for and were involved with the opera company easier to keep straight if he gave them his own nicknames.

There was a sharp knock on the door. Pops opened the foot-square window to see who it was; no use letting in would-be lovers, jealous rivals, or the press...well, at least not without enough of a financial settlement to ease an old man's conscience in accordance with their nuisance value. It was just the Crow, though.

"Good evening, Pops," he said quietly and solemnly.

"Good evening, sir." Pops opened the door for him. No bribe here; the Crow was well-enough entitled to use the stage door. He swept off his cloak and handed it to Pops, revealing immaculate black evening-wear, with just a hint of gold embroidery in his waistcoat and a topaz pin glistening from the slightly yellowed lace of his cravat. "You're running late; they're almost ready to start the overture."

The Crow checked an old, silver-cased watch.

"So I am. My preparations took a bit more time than usual."

Ordinarily, Pops considered the Closing-Night Crow to be a normal enough fellow for his sort. He'd always made a big production out of any closing night, though. He'd dress up in his slightly worn finery--the same clothes as on the first closing night Pops had seen him six years ago, in fact--and would carry himself with an almost artificial, put-on dignity. Well, people had their quirks, and getting to see them was one of the pleasures of working at the theater.

"I was beginning to worry if you didn't like the Vir--I mean, Miss Virgine." Must be getting old, Pops thought; I almost called her The Virgin out loud. The nickname came from the soprano's actual name, of course, and from her age--she didn't look a day over eighteen--but even more from her innocent manner. She never played games but simply spoke and acted truthfully in accordance with her own mind. It didn't strike Pops as naive, but as a kind of purity, not of the body (the Virgin had a lover and was no more coy about it than she was about anything else) but of the spirit.

"On the contrary," the Crow answered, either missing or just ignoring the slip, "I find her most enchanting."

-X X X-

Enchanting wasn't the word for it. The man Pops thought of as the Closing-Night Crow found himself positively mesmerized by Amoretta Virgine. There was something about the girl that drew him, pulled at him like a flower drew a bee. Oddly, it was not even her art that compelled him. Yes, her voice was beyond extraordinary, more than making up in an artistic sense for her raw, unpolished acting, but he was pulled by the same feelings whether or not she was on stage or off, her voice lifted in song or speech or fallen silent.

It was not love, the Crow knew. He would not call it that, nor even infatuation. There was a compulsion upon him, a lust that was harsh and fierce and by no means merely sexual. Amoretta's mere existence called out to dark places within him, sang to all his sins with a siren's call. He sat in his orchestra seat, watching with staring eyes, every muscle in his body drawn tight, it seemed, as if his tendons strained almost to the snapping point like the strings of a violin.

The familiar heat built within him, rising, swelling as the performance went on. He was glad to be seated among strangers, for by the first intermission he doubted that he could have engaged in even the most casual of conversations. By the time the curtain raised for the final act, sweat was trickling into his eyes, rolled down his back under his shirt, and he felt the now-familiar surge within his own mind, as his will seemed to divide. Before him he saw the stage, but he also saw, merged and overlain, the twisting streets and high, gabled buildings of the Old Quarter. Street hawkers and prostitutes, artists and patrons, opium-dreamers and ne'er-do-wells and drunkards all crossed to and fro before him, their forms passing ghostlike through those of the performers on the theater stage. He stared with feverish craving at Amoretta, and yet his mind roved, searching, hunting, until...

There.

The orchestra played, strings and brass, woodwinds and percussion blending to support the soaring voices of the singers, and yet bells jangled a discord, jester's bells adorning the high red caps of tiny black devils. Like grinning, clawed shadows the imps crept and swarmed, giggling to the accompaniment of the bells. The low, rumbling voices of massive demons, horned and hoofed and winged, growled a counterpoint, and the tormented sobs of women, their screams stifled in their throats served as harmony. Over it all soared the shining, angelic voice of the soprano, as Amoretta sang her concluding lament, drawing tears from so many of the audience.

The Crow arched his back as a release that was not sexual but was still deliciously, sensually intimate cascaded through him, as women died and the curtain fell. He sagged back in his seat, his body utterly relaxed, all tension gone, and the mocking laughter of a devil screeched in his ears unheard by all around him.

--

NOTE: Brendan Saint's name comes from St. Brendan's, a brand of Irish liqueur. Dom(inick) Perignon, of course, comes from the name of the champagne (and "Pops" from the sound of the cork). Marcelo Terne comes obliquely from Sauterne. Maria Bacardi is taken from, well, Bacardi, as readers of "Life in a Bottle" already know.