Face The Music

 Illustration by Claude TC. For more of their work and details on how to commission them, go to  www.gronkcomics.com  or  claudetc.tumblr.com  - click for a bigger version!

Illustration by Claude TC. For more of their work and details on how to commission them, go to www.gronkcomics.com or claudetc.tumblr.com - click for a bigger version!

The door to the office burst open, crashing backwards on its hinges to reveal a man in a crumpled front-of-house suit, red-faced and panting.

“Ms Davison! Ms Davison! Come quickly!”

Julienne, already half out of her chair, laid her quill down. “It’s… Matthias, isn’t it? Whatever is the matter?”

“It’s Beau Paupulo, ma’am. He’s... Making demands. Again.”

Julienne squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, leaning on the desk, and listen. Yes, there it was, just at the edge of hearing - the high-pitched squawking of an oversized peacock. She sighed. “Good grief. What the hell can it be now? And at this time of night? What time is it, anyway?”

“Midnight, miss. The translator says he will only speak to you,” the young man said said, running a hand through his patchy beard. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”

Julienne took a moment to straighten the lapels of her jacket and do the top button of her shirt up, then tugged the whole ensemble down. She walked out of her office and into the corridor, boots clicking on the polished floorboards, Matthias falling into step just beside her.

“What are they even still doing here… Thank goodness this part of the theatre was built to human sizes,” she muttered. “I’m not sure I could cope with him being able to just barge in. Talking of which-”

“I should have knocked, I know,” Matthias said. “You know what he’s like, though.”

The sound of the shrieking was getting louder, punctuated by fragments of beautiful song that died as soon as they were born. They passed out of the wood-panelled areas of the theatre and into the backstage area. A large crowd had gathered by the double-height door that led to the wings of the stage, most of them humans. A couple of large cats crouched nearby, ears flicking as they listened in.

“Alright, let’s get out of the way,” Julienne shouted, causing the few stage-hands nearest to jump and turn around guiltily. People began to drift away as she made her way through and passed into the black-painted area at the side of the stage.

Onstage, filling most of the space with his tail-feathers, was a peacock, tail in a full fan. Most of them were a brilliant gold-and-bronze, some individual feathers longer than the woman’s own body, and they quivered slightly as the bird to which they belonged vented his frustration. Behind her, a painted backdrop of a calm, sun-kissed meadow drifted lazily in the slight breeze that ran through the empty theatre. Julienne ducked under the huge tail-feathers and came to stand at the front of the stage.

“Beau Paupulo. Good day. I hear-”

The peacock lowered his head and shrieked. His body and neck feathers were a brilliant green, in sharp contrast to his glistening tail, and his eyes - small in comparison with rest of him - were bright yellow. He wore a finely embroidered tabard over his upper body that quivered with every movement.

Julienne narrowed her eyes, then turned away. On the other side of the stage, almost hidden by the curtains, stood a short, thin man in a plain robe. She gestured, and he reluctantly came forward.

“Robin, translate, please,” she said, and turned back to the peacock. “Now then. What appears to be the problem?”

With a haughty sniff, the peacock began a series of complicated signs that involved feathers, feet, and even occasional snatches of song. The translator watched for a moment, then began to speak.

“Beau Paupulo would like you to know that it is… unacceptable,” Robin said haltingly.

“Yes,” Julienne said, folding her arms across her chest. “I think I could probably have established that on my own. Anything specific?”

“The orchestra, the support singers, the, er, stagehands… I think it might be everyone, actually.”

Julienne looked around, gaze moving over all the faces near the stage. There were the orchestra, most of them looking as though they would rather be in bed; even the conductor had broken his usually stiff composure. Behind the peacock’s tail, a group of young ladies were sat, their dresses loosened, several of them sharing a rolled-up cigarette.

“Wait,” Julienne said. “How long have you been here, practising?” The peacock began to sign again, but Julienne swept her hand up, cutting him off. “Not you. Bron?”

The conductor of the orchestra grimaced. “Since around nine, ma’am.”

“This evening?”

“Morning. Beau Paupulo is… insistent on it being perfect.”

Julienne rounded on the giant bird. “You’ve been forcing them to practise for over fifteen hours? And on whose authority?”

Paupulo’s head jerked back as though he had been slapped, and Julienne levelled an angry finger at him. “You know what? It clearly wasn’t enough that we furnished your dressing room with the best linens, because apparently your feathers itch if the thread count is below a certain level. It clearly isn’t enough that we pay your ridiculous wages. That we import the finest food for you. That we expanded the corridors on the entire left side of the backstage area to accommodate your tail - no.”

Robin, visibly shaking now, was watching Paupulo’s signs. “Beau Paupulo says this is an outrage… that true art is perfection, and clearly a…” The young man looked at Julienne with wide eyes, and she raised an eyebrow. “…clearly a talentless cloth-eared barbarian such as yourself wouldn’t understand, ma’am, I’m so sorry-”

“Get out,” Julienne said between gritted teeth. “Out. Go! Take your damned feathers and your artisanal seed and your smug, self-centred attitude… go!”

“He, uh, he says he wouldn’t stay a moment longer in this…” Robin tailed off under Julienne’s gaze, and began to back away. The peacock swept past Julienne, walking straight off the front of the stops and flapping his wings in one enormous gust the carried him over the orchestra pit and out into the stalls. He squeezed through the animal door and out into the night, Robin at his heels.

Julienne realised that she was breathing heavily, hands in fists, and she relaxed as she looked around at everyone’s wide eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. “On behalf of the theatre, I’m sorry both that you’re still here and that you had to see that. You’ll be paid overtime for this evening. For now… go home. Get some rest.”

The orchestra began to put their instruments in cases and the chorus girls staggered to their feet, tottering offstage on their too-high heels. Julienne watched them for a moment, then went and sat on the edge of the stage.

Bron finished organising the music on his stand and came over to her. The old conductor was impeccably dressed, as usual, but as Julienne watched him move she could see the telltale winces of aching joints, the lethargy in his movements.

“I didn’t realise how late it had gotten,” she said, and he gave a small shrug.

“It’s not your fault, Jules. The bird had basically run roughshod over everything for the last week. That little scene was coming, like it or not.”

Julienne raised an eyebrow. “That’s surprisingly blunt for you, Bron.”

“I understand Paupulo’s point of view, but that doesn’t stop me from finding the character himself… distasteful,” Bron said. “Changing the subject slightly… we have no act now.”

Julienne sighed.

“And opening night is three nights away.”

“Yes, yes-”

“And Beau Paupulo will undoubtedly be snapped up by a rival playhouse. Ravello’s, perhaps, or Humbert next door.”

“It’ll be Humbert. He’s just finished a run of La Tragedie, I’m sure it won’t be much hassle to put that overstuffed bird onstage for a few nights.” Julienne rubbed her temples, massaging some of the stress away. “Look, Bron, get some sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

The conductor nodded, his bald pate shining in the candlelight that lined the stage. “Do you have something we can put in Paupulo’s place?”

“No.”

“Ah.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “Then perhaps you should get some rest, as well. Sleep on it, Jules, and see what the morning brings.”

Julienne nodded absently, watching as the last few people filed offstage and into the backstage area. In the distance she could hear doors slamming and chattering, most of it excited, echoing off into the night.

On the silent stage, in the darkness of the empty theatre, Julienne put her head in her hands.

 

“Two days, and there are still headlines about it! Have you see this-”

Bron shook his head. “The Times is a rag, Jules, it always has been.” He fished in the pocket of the soft white shirt he wore and brought out a small snuff box, inhaling sharply.

“‘Pressure, Pay and Poor Standards: Paupulo tells all!’” She slammed the news-sheet down on the desk, making their cups of tea rattle. “Ugh.”

“Well, that notwithstanding, we have nothing of worth to fill the gulf left by Paupulo’s departure, and the opening night was supposed to be tomorrow.” Bron closed the snuffbox with a click and raised an eyebrow. “We’re in a spot of bother, I’d say.”

Julienne turned away, staring out the window. The city streets below were filled with bodies, afternoon sun washing over the rich and poor alike, more humans than animals. As far as the eye could see, the city stretched, rooftops interspersed with a forest of chimney-pots. She gently let her forehead come to rest on the thick, cool glass.

“We’ll just have to… start processing refunds.”

“And we can afford that? Come on Jules, you’re not fooling anyone. I know we’re on the brink as it was - otherwise why would you be so keen to keep that peacock in the face of all reason?”

“But she was the best!”

“Only to a given standard of ‘best’. There must be something else, someone else!”

A timid knock sounded at the door.

Julienne motioned Bron to silence and looked around. “Yes?”

It creaked open and a thin face poked around the door, a mop of ginger hair framing eyes that were wide. “Um-”

Julienne’s face darkened. “Robin. Unless you’ve come with an apology from Paupulo, you can go and-”

Bron gave her a look, then turned a smile on the visitor. “Young man, come in. I’m sure you can imagine that we’re a little under the hammer here, but they do say not to shoot the messenger, after all.” He got to his feet, motioning that Robin should sit. “Now then. What can we do for you?”

Julienne closed her eyes and nodded. “Yes. I apologise. What do you have to say?”

“I’m real sorry, ma’am,” Robin blurted out. “I didn’t want to pass on all the things that Beau Paupulo was saying, but there’s so few people that can speak Bird, and he was paying me, you understand.”

“It’s fine. Really. I’m sorry I snapped at you just now,” Julienne said. She motioned to the tea-set on the table. “Cup of tea?”

“No, thank you. Look, I’ve come with a proposition for you. An apology of sorts.”

“You don’t need to apologise, lad,” Bron said, his eyes almost lost in wrinkles as he smiled. “Only your master.”

“I think I’m apologising because he never will, but… that’s neither here nor there.” Robin spread his fingers and shrugged. “Look, I can’t help but notice that you don’t have a main act yet. I wanted to show you a group that I’ve worked with in the past. They’re not anything you’d have seen in the big theatres, but… well, we all started somewhere, ma’am.”

“Go on.”

“Meet me this evening at the Flying Fox on the river-docks, ma’am, around seven. If you don’t like what you see… well, you’re no worse off, I’d imagine.” Robin gave the ghost of a smile. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work. He thinks I’ve gone to the shops for him.”

Julienne nodded, frowning. “Alright then. Seven, at the docks. Thank you, Robin. You didn’t have to come.”

“I felt like I owed it to you,” the young man said, before bowing his head and leaving.

Julienne exchanged glances with Bron, who shrugged. “Worth a try, I’d say.”

She nodded, then quirked out a smile. “Such a sense of theatre, though. That young man’s been around people like us a bit too much, I reckon.”

“All the best people are like that,” Bron said, smiling back. “More tea?”

 

By the time the sun had set, the docks were bustling with a different kind of crowd. The fishermen and porters had all retired into the drinking houses and the alleyways were filled with a tumultuous mix. Women plying their wares rubbed shoulders with young nobles, giggling arm-in-arm and out for a daring adventure, in turn watched carefully by beggars and thieves. Julienne, Bron at her elbow, weaved her way through the crowd, stepping to the side to let a trio of otterfolk past, and towards the tavern Robin had selected. It was tall, at least three storeys, and the unshuttered windows blazed with light. It was heaving inside.

Robin waited outside wearing a long brown coat, his expression brightening as he saw them. He gestured them into a hollow by the door.

“I’m glad you came,” he said.

“I feel a little overdressed,” Julienne said, plucking at her jacket.

“Eh… it’ll be fine. Just keep your coin-purse close.” Without waiting for them to respond, Robin pushed open the door and went in. Bron gestured, sweeping an arm out for her to go first.

The smell in the inn was a mixture of body odour and sawdust, the tightly-packed patrons moving to the side only grudgingly as Robin led them towards a side table. He slipped a coin to the people sat there and they moved, letting Julienne and Bron sit on the time-polished stools.

“It’s… quaint,” Julienne said, as a woman in a stained dress brought them battered pewter mugs of ale. “You organised this?”

“The table and drinks, yes,” Robin said, taking a sip out of his mug. “Everything else is as you see it. I wanted to make sure you got the full experience.”

Julienne took a gulp of her own drink and looked around. The lower floor was double-height to allow for the many giant animals that thronged the room, and most of the tables had a mix of both humans and animals. In one corner, a large stage was surrounded by candles throwing their light onto a simple red curtain, threadbare in places.

Bron nudged Robin with his shoulder. “So… how did you find yourself in a place like this?”

“I grew up a few streets away,” Robin said, smiling wistfully. “I’d always been good with languages - came from having to unpick arguments between street gangs as a child. So when the opportunity came to work for a wealthy client, well, I took it. Beau Paupulo is a lot of things… most of them I shouldn’t really say. But I’ve always been paid, always been able to provide for my family and myself. And he’s dedicated to his art, you can’t deny that.”

Julienne shook her head. “Dedication can only get you so far,” she said.

“Mm. Well, I spent a lot of time in places like this growing up, and there’s talent here. It’s always annoyed me that someone like Paupulo - who essentially mimics human singing - is favoured by audiences, but this is passed over.” He pointed to the curtain, which was billowing forward. “Look, it’s starting.”

Onto the stage came three giant squirrels, ten feet tall tails thin, balancing on strong back legs. White stripes lined their sides and rimmed their eyes, giving them a somewhat ghostly appearance in the candlelight. Each wore a light cotton jacket around their forepaws and upper body with a small flower embroidered shakily onto it. They looked around the room as quiet rippled out, and the one at the front began to sign, squeaking as he did so.

“He’s bidding us welcome,” Robin whispered, leaning in so that both Julienne and Bron could hear. “They’re called the Desert Flowers, that’s the nearest translation, and they’re going to do three songs this evening.”

Without further ado, the lead squirrel turned and gestured to the others, and the three opened their mouths.

A grunting, squeaking sound, barely even music, began to tumble out of the squirrels, and Julienne stared open-mouthed at Robin. The boy grinned at her, then reached under the table and pulled out a pair of what looked like earmuffs, slipping them on his head. She looked around; the animals in the bar were swaying, eyes closed in pleasure, and all the humans were wearing the ear coverings, faces betraying the same exquisite joy.

She looked an Bron as the cacophony from the stage, and he shrugged, then felt around under the table. Sure enough, dangling from small hooks were a pair of the earmuffs, and Julienne examined them. Each one covered the ear completely, looking as though it would block all noise out, but three metal prongs ending in blunt nubs were spaced evenly around it, designed to encapsulate the ear. Tentatively, she put them on, and gasped.

It was as though another singer had started, or maybe three, adding in all the notes and sounds, the harmonies and wordless melodies, that were missing. The music ceased to be a beatless series of noises, but became a complicated layering of rhythm and notes that followed a pattern that was at once logical and unexpected.

Julienne snatched a look at Bron, but he was equally taken, his gaze focused on something that she could never see, mouth slightly open, and she allowed her own eyes to close. The music swelled, surrounding her, woven in a way that sent shivers down her arms and left her nerves tingling.

When the squirrels stopped and bowed, she was on her feet in an instant, aware that everyone around her was also stood. The applause was audible even through the earmuffs, rising as the squirrels bowed again and backed off the stage.

The buzz of conversation in the pub took on a revitalised air around them as Julienne swept the earmuffs off her ears.

“What the hell was that?” She grabbed Robin’s arm, squeezing. “Are they available?”

He grinned and she let go. “The answer to the second question is ‘probably’. Want to meet them?” Before she could even answer he was on his feet, leading them through the crowd and out to the back. Bron followed with a pair of the earmuffs in hand. He exchanged a coin with a large man guarding the back corridor, and then they were through into the quieter backstage area.

He stopped at a large door and knocked. Julienne shook her head.

“You really did think of everything, didn’t you?”

“I hope so,” he replied, and swung the door open.

Inside, the room was large enough that half a dozen animals could have relaxed comfortably. The three squirrels were sat in a semicircle, one of them pouring a jug of something oily into three cups large enough for them to grasp. Julienne sniffed, catching the sharp tang of otterbrew from the cups.

“This is the lady I was telling you about,” Robin said, inclining his head in a short bow for the squirrels. “Miss Julienne, the Desert Flowers.”

“Good evening,” Julienne said, sweeping into a low bow. “I heard your performance out there. It was…”

“Amazing,” Bron said from behind her, and she moved to the side so he could come in. “I’ve been in show-business for over forty years, the last fifteen of those conducting my own orchestra, and I can genuinely say I’ve never heard anything quite like that.”

The squirrel began to sign in the common language used by most in the city. A pleasure to have you here, he signed. My name is Tuk. What can we do for the proprietress of the Theatre Grand?

“Ah, you know a little about me,” Julienne said, then winced when the squirrel leaned over and grabbed a copy of the news-sheet from a low table. “Ah.”

Enough to read between the lines, Tuk said. This thing’s a rag, anyway.

“Told you so,” Bron murmured. Julienne glanced back at him and he gave her a wry smile.

“I’m looking for an act. I’d like to offer you stage time at the Grand, starting tomorrow evening,” she said. “I’ve never heard anything like what I heard out there, and I’ll wager that a goodly proportion of our usual clientele wouldn’t have done either.”

It doesn’t work without the ear coverings, Tuk signed. That’s why we’re here - we only have enough money to get a small number made each time. Can you get them made for the audience?

Bron came to stand next to Julienne, the pair of earmuffs in his hand. “I’ve been fiddling with this one, peeled the leather away from the frame - sorry about that, I’ll make sure it’s fixed - and I think we probably can,” he said. “In fact, the materials are relatively standard. How do they work, exactly?”

The squirrel looked at Robin, paws flicking through signs far faster than either Julienne or Bron could follow, but Robin began to translate.

“He says that in each pair is a piece of metal that stretches from one ear to the other. I don’t really know how it works - the squirrels brought it here with them from up north somewhere - but apparently when they sing there are notes that we can’t hear. Ones that are too high-pitched. The metal in this makes the sound go into our heads rather than our ears, which means we can hear it.”

“As simple as that? Hm,” Bron said, nodding.

“But, the cost,” Julienne said. She frowned, shaking her head. “I can’t guarantee that we have that much money to hand. And at such short notice…”

The room fell silent as she tailed off. Julienne took a deep breath. “Well-”

“I’ll buy them,” Bron said, cutting her off.

Julienne turned to him. “What?”

“I said, I’ll buy them. On behalf of the theatre. Oh, I’m going to want the money back, you can bet your last copper on that, but… Julienne, you’ve paid me well for a great many years. This music needs to be heard, and I’m prepared to be a stubborn old fool over this.” He put a hand on Julienne’s shoulder and smiled. “Take this, Jules, for all our years of friendship.”

She held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded and turned back to Tuk. “Can you be at the theatre tomorrow morning to sign a contract, and onstage tomorrow evening?”

The squirrels looked at each other, then nodded in unison.

Julienne looked around at each of their faces - Robin’s full of hope, Bron’s urging eyes, Tuk’s inscrutable expression - and bowed her head.

“Thank you, each of you.”

 

The theatre hummed with conversation, every row packed. Julienne peeked out from behind the edge of the house curtain, her gaze roaming from the heaving stalls to the boxes, each one filled with far more people than they strictly should. Towards the back, under the circle, the broader rows were packed with animals of all sorts, hundreds of yellow eyes that flashed and flickered in the semidarkness. She began to turn away, then paused.

At the front of the animal seating area, two spaces were unfilled - right in the centre.

“I hope this works,” Bron said from behind her. She started and turned to find him dressed in his smartest suit jacket. In one white-gloved hand he held a slim baton, and his grey hair was neatly combed.

“Me too,” Julienne replied, coming to stand next to him. “I plan to make an announcement at the beginning, about the earmuffs. Though we left a note on every chair, and there are large signs all over the front-of-house area…”

Bron smiled gently. “If the public can find a way to miss something like that, they will.”

“Thank you,” Julienne said, laying a hand on his arm. “I owe… we, this theatre, owe you a great deal.”

He nodded. “Let’s make good on it.” He squeezed her hand and moved away, going down the steps that led to the orchestra pit.

Movement on the other side of the stage drew Julienne’s gaze, and she looked over. In the darkness behind the drawn curtain, the Desert Flowers had taken the stage. They were wearing the same jackets, eyes shining brightly in the dimness, but she could see that they had taken the time to plait ribbons around their tails. Small brooches winked on their lapels, flowers picked out in shiny metal.

It sounds full out there, Tuk signed.

“It is. You ready for this?”

Can’t deny that we’re a little nervous. There’s a few more people out there than can fit in the Flying Fox, the Squirrel signed, then cocked his head. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained.

“That’s right. Besides, there’s-”

A shriek cut through her words, drowning them out, and Julienne hunched her shoulders.

“Paupulo.”

She rushed back over to the curtains and twitched them to one side, pressing her eye up to the gap. At the back, the doors had been flung open to reveal the brilliant iridescence of Beau Paupulo. The peacock was looking around haughtily, pushing past anyone that got in his way as he walked down towards the empty seats. At his side walked a man in a red suit holding a cane. Behind them trailed a worried-looking Robin.

“Humbert next to him. I knew it.”

Tuk tapped her on the shoulder. Who’s that?

“Owns the theatre across the square. He’s… well, he never approved of me opening this place, and doesn’t hesitate to let it be know.” She shook her head. “He was quoted extensively in that article from the Times.”

Didn’t read it. The giant squirrel winked at Julienne. It’ll be fine. We’re ready when you are.

She nodded, took a deep breath, then stepped out from behind the curtain. The heavy fabric drifted closed behind her, and she looked round at the audience as they fell quiet.

“Good evening,” she began. The candles at the front of the stage, hooded so as to throw the light up onto the performers, filled her vision, but the audience were beyond the brilliance, eyes fixed on her.

“We have something special this evening,” Julienne said. “Something that I’m honoured to bring before you-”

Paupulo’s squawk echoed across the theatre, several people turning to see what the commotion was. The peacock was sat vigorously signing, the red-suited Humbert quietly laughing beside him.

“He says it certainly is ‘special’,” Humbert said, deep voice rolling out over the audience. “Especially tawdry. Like this place.”

A rumble of laughter ran through the audience, and Julienne put her hands out to draw their attention back. “You will have found on your seats this evening ear covering. During the performance, you will need to wear these for a full appreciation of the music.”

“A performance so bad that the owner is asking us to stop up our ears,” Humbert shouted, punctuating it with a sardonic laugh. Paupulo gestured, and Humbert nodded. “Perhaps next the proprietor will suggest that this is better enjoyed from the Theatre Royal, just across the square from here…”

Laughter began to well up now, filling the theatre, and Julienne felt her face reddening. She clapped her hands for attention, shouting over the disturbance. “It’s a pleasure to see Mr Humbert here, and that he’s brought his star with him, even paid to be here - perhaps they’ve come for a few lessons.”

It was weak, but then one of the trombone players let out a sad noise, redoubling the laughter in the theatre. Bron turned and winked at her.

Paupulo began to sign, but Julienne summoned her strength, putting everything into her shout. “Without further ado: The Desert Flowers!

The curtain swept to the side to reveal the squirrels.

Tuk nodded his head, tail flicking, then began to beat out the rhythm on the stage with his back paws. With a swaying motion, the squirrels began to sing.

The effect was instantaneous. The animals at the back of the room, not needing the earmuffs, fell silent along with those closest who were wearing them. In the middle, Humbert was on his feet, shouting.

“What is this? Farmyard grunts? This is an insult to everything that makes- ack!”

In one smooth movement, Paupulo turned and slammed him back into his seat, jamming a pair of the earmuffs onto the man’s head with his beak. Then the peacock turned, folded his wings in front of him, and stared at the stage.

Silence rippled out, as though a rock dropped into a still lake, and the theatre fell quiet but for the singing, and the sounds of the last few patrons putting their earmuffs on. Julienne closed her eyes and allowed the music to surround her.

It was different to how it had sounded in the inn, more rounded, more complex. It had rhythms that wound around each other, reciprocated and repeated; harmonies that were strange but somehow right, and emotion that she would have sworn could only come from sung words.

The squirrels finished, letting the final notes echo through the theatre, and stepped back.

At the back, in the middle, Beau Paupulo stood, and Julienne braced herself for the storm. He brought his wings out wide, then began to clap them together. The sound, feathery but loud, was picked up by the humans, by the animals that could clap, a roaring, surging vortex of adulation that gathered momentum as people began to rise to their feet, stamping.

Next to Paupulo, almost hidden by the peacock’s bulk, Julienne saw Humbert scowling, red-faced, and she laughed.

 

It was over an hour before the last people filed out of the theatre. The crowd that had surrounded the stage, wanting to speak to the Desert Flowers, had kept Julienne from being anywhere near them for most of that time, and when she was finally able to get close she extended a hand.

“Thank you,” she said, as Tuk took her hand in his paw. “That was… phenomenal.”

No, thank you, he said. We could never have hoped to find such an audience on the docks.

“You’ll have no trouble finding an audience after that. Each night will be busier than the last,” she said, grinning.

Tuk bared his teeth in a grin, and they turned to go offstage.

“Wait!”

Julienne turned back to see Robin running down the aisle towards them, the metallic shimmer of Beau Paupulo behind him. “Robin? What is it?”

The young man came to a stop and gestured to the peacock. “Beau Paupulo would like to extend his warmest congratulations,” he said to Tuk. Julienne looked askance at Paupulo, but he was nodding his head vigorously. He signed for Robin, feathers snapping.

“He wishes to apologise to you as well, Ma’am, although I perhaps won’t directly translate what he’s apologising for.” Robin smiled. “Suffice to say that there is an apology in there, albeit somewhat… backhanded.”

Julienne looked up at Paupulo and inclined her head, but he had already engaged the squirrels in conversation.

“What’re they saying?”

“No idea,” Robin said. “Neither one’s signing. Paupulo was talking about wanting to join them, though, assuming they could find a theatre willing to take him as well.

She walked a few paces away with Robin and put a hand on his shoulder.

“We owe this as much to you as anyone else. Young man, thank you. And if you ever find yourself without a client, know that we would be honoured to have you on the staff.”

He smiled through a blush. “Thank you, ma’am.”

They turned to watch the peacock and the squirrels as they began to sing to each other, nothing that any of them recognised, filling the theatre with a their unique sound.