The opera house towered over Khada’s head like trees. He counted four balconies stacked on top of each other. Gold leaves curved around the two large pillars to the side of him and the Ionian goddess herself smiled down from above. One of the actors pointed to her. “It’s heaven,” they murmured.
He craned his head farther back. Maybe he could catch an upside down view of the large red curtains behind him. Instead, he lost his footing, and fell backwards with a loud thud. A few stagehands laughed and helped him to his feet.
“Vertigo, eh?” one asked. He brushed pieces of snow from Khada’s jacket. It had just snowed that morning and was still fresh.
“I haven’t seen anything this beautiful since I was a child,” he said.
“Don’t get used to it. They don’t all look this good.”
Khada remembered his father’s study. As a child, sliding his fingers along each of the paintings The textures like burnt petals. The paintings might have crumbled beneath his hands if he lingered for too long.
“They’re precious,” his father scolded. “There is nothing in this world more beautiful.”
This stage was more beautiful than any painting he’d ever seen. His father had never been wrong until now. Even when he told him becoming a stagehand was pointless. He’d believed him but applied for the job anyway. Zhyun’s shows had always moved him to tears. He wanted to move others to tears.
Violet, one of the actresses, coughed from across the stage and buried her hands in her coat. He recognized her from a show he’d seen a few months before. “It’s so cold for October. Even inside,” she said.
Khada listened to the pulse of her accent. Demacian, maybe. He wasn’t studied in the language so he couldn’t be sure. A few men drifted around her, like the Freljord glaciers he’d seen in picture books.
“It’s bad luck. Snow in October,” a man near her whispered.
She laughed. “No such thing as bad luck.”
He was still staring at her. She smiled at him and waved. Outside, in the snow, she might have been beautiful. He might have given up all of his possessions for her. But in the opera house, under the stage lights, the lines on her face ate into her skin. Her collarbone was too thin, too noticeable.
“You’re judging people again,” his mother would have said.
“Yes, but how can anyone compare to this?” he thought.
Violet was suddenly standing next to him. “Are you an actor?” she asked.
“No, I’m just a stagehand,” he answered.
“You look like a famous actor. Nir Jhin. He was in some of Zhyun’s shows when the troupe first started. I never got to meet him. He died a few months before I joined.”
Khada’s father was in front of him again. Two suitcases next to the sofa. His mother in the background packing food for him: a loaf of bread, two apples, wedge of cheese. A half-finished easel near the window. Outside, blue hills. Swallow of birds. The stone path like watching eyes.
“How will you make art working behind a stage?” he’d asked.
“I need a break from painting.”
“If you stop now you’ll never start again.”
The men around Violet glared at him. Most of them were actors. He’d admired them on the posters around town. And now they were jealous of him. A boy from the country. Violet placed her hand on his shoulder. “Would you like to practice lines with me? You look so much like him.”
Four red gashes flickered on her chest like wings. He didn’t know if he was going mad. He closed his eyes and imagined her in an art museum. A portrait at the end of a long hallway. No, a statue, her arms broken off like the famous Ionian sculptures. He always thought the missing parts were the most beautiful.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
He blinked hard. The gashes were gone. “Sorry, the lights are a bit bright.”
His mother in the kitchen tending to his siblings, telling to play by himself. Always a troublemaker, always disappointing your father with your crude thoughts.
He forgot about her now. He had work to do.
“Let’s practice your lines.” Khada said. “Sometimes I dream about being a performer.”
She clapped her hands together. “I can show you! You already have the right features.”
“But let me draw you first.”
“You’re an artist too? No one’s ever drawn me before,” she said.
“Yes, my father taught me everything I know. But only landscapes and still lifes. I’d like to branch out.”
She sighed. “I know how you feel. When I was an understudy for this show I felt so overshadowed. I worked so hard.”
Khada grabbed a pencil from his jacket. For a brief moment, his hand brushed up against the pocket knife he kept for whittling small animals and slicing food. “I’d love to help make you famous.”
She reached for his hand. He took it and everything was music.