Understudies: Casting Call

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Epic Tavern's Beorian Tales

Sarah Burnheart, aging ingenue and untrained fire mage, attends an audition and finds herself part of a cast of characters (including a gladiator, a dhampir, a bard and an aromancer) who together will form an undercover support group for Epic Tavern's adventurers. Espionage, subterfuge and dangerous assignments notwithstanding, it's literally the role of a lifetime!

Beorian Tales-5

The Understudies: Casting Call

Act 1, scene 1: The Cathedral of St. Blodwin

She heard the bells of St. Blodwin’s ring noontime.  She hadn’t been here in over 15 years, not since Justin had made the mistake of thinking she’d been to see him that night, the morning after which he’d been fired from the VFD for failure to protect High Priest Blathers.  Well, she’d been a teenager then.

There were several performers crammed into the sacristy.  It had been designed to hold up to four priests and ten choir boys, but not thirty-odd adults.  She knew two of the acrobats, and one of the bards, and of course all of the other performers.  She caught a few of the youngest ones pointing at her and heard them giggle.  She was no longer an ingenue, true.  What I am, she thought, is a leading lady.

It wasn’t her fault her last boyfriend was sentenced to life imprisonment for embezzling funds from producers.  She’d only helped him because he’d promised her the leading role in the revival of the Big Boulevard musical “Velvita.”  It was a good thing, she reflected, that the dwarven judge had been a fan.  But now she was almost broke, reduced to attending cattle calls for shows that didn’t have a name yet.

Was that Jumpin’ Supplejack Bonecracker over there?  She waved, and he flashed his pearly whites – incisors and all.  She’d forgotten how handsome he was.  The door that led to the Cathedral opened, and a young female dwarf entered, clipboard and pencil in hand.

“Sarah? Sarah Burnheart? You’re up!”  Supplejack winked at her as she followed the person she assumed was the Stage Manager. She showed Sarah to a point at the head of the Cathedral’s center aisle and walked briskly down to where two individuals were sitting.  One was a gypsy orc, her long black hair wound about with beads, and a veil of lace covering her face.  The other was a young human, who somewhere in his family tree had an elven relative, for his ears were slender and pointed.  His complexion was flawless, and gracefulness sat on his shoulders like a mantle.  Sarah detested him on sight.

Sarah breathed in deeply and began her monologue.  No sooner had she begun when the young man stopped her.  “Ah, Miss…Burnheart, you are here because your credentials have been thoroughly checked by Miss Mentos, my assistant, who assures me that you can act, and very well I might add.”  At this, the dwarf nodded her head vigorously, causing her spectacles to slide off her nose.  The orc tapped his shoulder and he bent down, where she whispered in his ear.

“We’re very interested in how well you can improvise.  Convincingly.  My friend here would like you to convince her that you will kill her if she does not tell you where your boyfriend is.”  And he inclined toward the orc, who remained motionless.

Luckily, Sarah was a performer who worked on both her artistic strengths and weaknesses.  She’d interned with Beor’s best Improv Artists.  She smiled broadly.  “May I have a chair, and would your friend honor me by sitting in it?”

“Miss Mentos, if you please?”  The dwarf assistant went back to the sacristy and returned with a chair, holding it by one leg, and carried it down to where the orc was standing.  When both were seated, Sarah asked the gypsy, “Do I have your permission to touch you?”  She nodded.  Sarah gathered her thoughts and quickly created her backstory.  She used her anger at the gypsy’s emotionless demeanor, and veiled face.  And she improvised.

This time, she lost control.  She’d lifted the gypsy by her shoulders one foot off the ground, not hearing the shouts of her audience of two, when she felt her hands get hot.  She threw the orc to the ground and her hands she aimed at the chair, which burst into flames.  She stood there, shaking, watching the young man and his assistant check on their colleague and friend.  But the gypsy shooed them away, turned to Sarah, and applauded.

“If that had not given away your secret, your name would have.  You are untrained in your magic.  Perry, see to it that she is trained.  Or else I will personally see to it that the proper authorities are notified, and her powers negated.  You’re hired,” she said to Sarah, and resumed her place next to Perry.  Miss Mentos gave her a manila envelope filled with papers and told her to be at a tavern in Valridge tomorrow at 9:00 a.m.  “Thank you, Miss Burnheart,” said Miss Mentos, “I loved your performance in ‘The Birth of Boarlesque.’  Supplejack Bonecracker?  You’re next!”

Act 1, Scene 2: The Old Priest & Rat Tavern, Valridge

When she arrived early the next morning, Sarah noticed several things.  The Tavern was very much alive with traffic, even at this hour.  The Leftover Lair, a small shack next to the main building, had a window open for business, where a gruff-looking woman was selling a variety of morning munchies.  She tried the koppee, which smelled incredible, and a loaf of bread studded with various nuts.Its customers were an odd mix: street beggars, working folk and the occasional knight with their squire.

“The mystery pies sell out quickly,” said a familiar voice behind her.  She nearly spilled her koppee.  She hadn’t heard Supplejack approach – but then no one ever did.  It was one of the quirks of dhampirs that took getting used to. “They’re different every day, made from last night’s leftovers.  Usually they’re spicy, sometimes they’re sweet.  Customers pay what they can for them.”  Jack brushed his brown hair away from his brow. “For some, it’s the only food they get all day.”

“You’re not joking, are you?” said Sarah, who noticed a sadness in his ancient eyes.

“These are very uncertain times we live in, my pretty busker.  People of good will have grown complacent, and the races are in disarray.  The Greater Dark is slowly awakening, and some of the Elder Gods are stirring.” And here the dhampir paused. “No matter the vagaries of history, the number of creatures who worry about when their next meal will be and where to sleep for the night will always be greater than those who map the future. The mapmakers never seem to care about them.  The owner of this tavern does, and that’s a rare and special thing.”

A grand carriage pulled up beside the tavern.  A footman jumped down from the driver’s seat, pulled down a set of stairs and opened the door.  The trio from yesterday’s auditions stepped out, and the carriage was driven towards the back.  The gypsy orc was dressed in hunting leathers, the man called Perry was wearing something nondescript yet unspeakably elegant and wrinkle-free, and Miss Mentos was casually dressed.  She motioned for them to follow, and they entered the Tavern.

A group of what were unquestionably adventurers passed them on the way out.  A huge orc – an assassin, by the numerous daggers he openly carried – gave Sarah a wolf whistle, and a dwarf dressed in priestly vestments pinched her butt as he passed.  His female companion slapped him and said, “Honestly, Gurg!”  “But Katris...” he started, to be rewarded by a second slap. “Don’t you ‘But Katris’ me, you lecherous lout!”

Its interior was plain, with the exception of a wall on which five First Place Trophies (and one Second Place) from the recent Frozen Games gleamed and a banner stating “Grand Heroes of Beor” draped across it.  Sarah couldn’t quite put her finger on why, but this place felt safe and welcoming.  It wasn’t the design, or the décor, or the fact that the doorman – a trolliant, Sarah thought – looked as if he could stop a herd of dire boars, or even the snoring gnome asleep in a half-empty stein.

Miss Mentos gathered together six people from amongst the customers seated at various tables, and led the whole group into the kitchen, where a large man in a chef’s apron was hacking away at what could only be nethercrabs.  They walked into the storeroom, where the gypsy uttered a word and a door appeared.  The room beyond resembled a comfortable drawing room, complete with beautiful artwork, luxuriously comfortable sofas and chairs; bookcases packed full of lore-filled books; and a dining table on which sat a beautiful but empty crystal decanter with a dozen glasses.

“Please, everyone, take a seat at the table.  If you’re thirsty, pour yourself a drink first.”  Perry indicated the empty decanter.  Nobody moved.  The gypsy laughed, and picked up a glass, which instantly changed its shape to that of a wine glass.  She held the decanter, tipped it and poured.  Although the decanter itself still appeared to be empty, it filled her glass with a clear, sky-blue liquid which glowed faintly.

Supplejack gasped.  “That vintage has not been seen since…”

“Since a thousand years ago,” said the gypsy, “but I drank some from the last bottle, which was opened and consumed in celebration of the second closing of the Nethergate by the Ravinger Four’s sacrifices.  For a while they worked for us, but Merrick wanted fame and fortune – and I for one cannot blame him.  He had a child on the way, and this tavern to run.  Please, each of you pour and take a glass.  This enchanted decanter will pour the best drink you have ever had.”

One by one, they filled their glasses.  Beers, wine, even water was represented.  Sarah watched her friend as he poured a wine glass full of a red liquid with an unusually sweet aroma.  He saw her regard, and said, loud enough for all to hear, “My father jokingly called this ‘blood wine’ although it is neither blood nor wine, but the juice of a dozen berries flavored with netherbee honey.” Perry raised his glass.

To the Ravinger Four, the Saviors of Beor” declaimed Miss Mentos.

And to the ones who fight, unseen and unknown,” chanted Perry.

 “’Gainst the Nether, together or alone!” finished the gypsy.

“Introductions are in order, I think.” The man they knew as Perry stood up.  “My name is Periwinkle Johnson, but I would much prefer it if you would address me as Perry, or Mr. Perry.”

One of the group, a muscular young human male, chuckled.  “Didn’t think you’d like to be called Winkle, or Mr. Johnson neither.  Be laughed right outta the Arena you would.”

The demi-human ignored him. “I’m head of the Protection Against Nether Agents, Crimes, Exploits and Aggressive Activities division of the Makers Guild.  PANACEA, for short.  I’m also the late Lycacia Ravinger’s Uncle, on her mother’s side.  Which makes me the Great-Uncle of the owner of this tavern.”

As he sat down, the dwarf stood up.  “I’m Algebria Mentos, and once you sign those papers I handed to you yesterday, you’ll be working for my two friends here.  I’m Perry’s assistant.  Once things start happening, you’ll report and answer directly to me.  Thorgrin, one of the Ravinger Four, was my father, although I was born after his death.  My mother gave me her last name, as protection from the agents of the Nether.”

“Forgive me for not standing,” yawned the orc gypsy, “but I’m tired today. I’m a lot older than I look.  One day, I might tell you my real name.  For now, call me Granny Ginny.  I might help you out sometimes, or even join you once in a great while.  Or I might not.  But when I’m with you, either in body or spirit, it means you’re headed for big trouble and I call the shots. Got it?”

“I don’ take no orders from me wife, an’ as sure as skippylooms are effin’ cute, I don’ aim ta’ take orders from a lady orc!” stammered an old man covered in grease-stained clothes.  No sooner had he said it when his chair legs snapped off, sending his butt to crash against the floor at the same time his chin hit the table, causing a full set of dentures to fly out the side of his mouth.

“This old dog’s going to learn some new manners,” said Ginny. “Now, Perry, that wine has made me hungry, and before we get to this crew’s life stories, let’s go upstairs and eat.  Lunch is on me, folks!”  She prodded the unconscious old man with her foot and said, “We’ll bring you back some leftovers, huh?”

Act 2, Scene 1: PANACEA secret meeting room, 1 hour later

After a quick meal that was mostly eaten in silence, the group returned to their places around the table.  The old man, who revealed himself as Kwan Dooley, grumbled as he munched on stale bread soaked in direboar stew.  The young muscleman at the opposite end of the table began.

“Name’s Fafhrd DeVenn.  Nights I work as a ‘fall guy’ Gladiator in the underground Tasuil Beor Arena. I can beat the shite out of almost anyone, but the guys in charge pay me not to win.  I’m the one the new meat has to beat to make a name for themselves. An’ they get paid not to kill me.  Days I teach the street kids how to fight.”  Fafhrd looked around the table. “I teach ‘em for free, in memory of my brother.  He was like you, Mr. Perry.  Slender, and too handsome for his own good.  Sorry if I came off as a jerk.  What happened to him…not even a necro could have raised him.”  He sat down and buried his face in his hands.

“I’m Dave LaPlaid, Bard, at your service,” said a middle-aged man in a voice deeper than deep. “I can play any instrument, mundane or magical.  You haven’t heard of me because, well, how many popular songs are written for a basso profundo?  I’m also a member of the Order of the Blade,” as he tapped the epee hanging at his side.

A young female dwarf stood up, and as she did so, a will o’the wisp flew out of her mass of curly red hair and settled on her shoulder. “Amy Omore Earthsoul.  I work with animals for stage and circus – although I prefer the term ‘animal friend’ to ‘animal trainer.’  I grew up with a Druid family, so I have that learning as well.”

Next to stand was an elegant, immaculate and well-dressed female orc.  “My name is Talisa Del Kellov.  I work for the Crown, as a junior undersecretary to the Dwarven Ambassador. I am schooled in the art of diplomacy, which is comprised of many skills: acting, perception, and persuasion among them.  I also practice the art of aromancy – a new field in which I am pioneering.  And, Mr. LaPlaid, I am a member of the Orders of both the Hidden & the Spoken Blade.”

Dave smiled. So, he thought, there is a fifth Order.  “The Spoken Blade?” asked Perry. “I’ve not heard of that Order.”

“It’s a standing joke among us,” explained Talisa, “That we’re the quiet ones.” And she sat back down.

Kwan Dooley stood up, wiped the juices on his chin off on his already stained shirt, and introduced himself.  “Kwan Dooley, Seller o’ Goor-may Rat Kwee-zeen.”

Granny Ginny laughed. “You expect us to think that’s your real name and occupation?  Don’t mistake me for a fool, sir.  If you want to work with us, you must first trust us.  If you can’t put aside your hatred for anyone non-human, leave now. It’s misplaced, your hatred. You would not have gotten this far if we didn’t think you could overcome it.”

Kwan pushed his chair back and headed for the door.  A dagger zipped past his head, barely nicking his ear as it buried itself in the exit door.  “You know, of course, that I would have killed you before you ever put a hand on the doorknob.”

Kwan’s hands had balled into fists.  Everyone stood up, ready to intervene, when Kwan bent over double in peals of laughter.  He straightened – all pretense of aged infirmity gone, so he appeared to have gained a full three inches in height, walked back to his seat, and bowed to Ginny.  Her left eyebrow arched upwards.

“I was simply testing you, madame, to see if you would actually do it.”  He removed his white hairpiece, revealing a shaved head.  “Orcs are bloodthirsty by nature, or so I have been led to believe.” He then peeled off a face mask, and 40 years peeled off with it. “When my parents were slaughtered while traveling, it was reported by the authorities that the murders had been done by a band of non-humans.”

“I know who you are.  Tell them,” replied the gypsy.

“My name is Memnos Ignatius Eladden, heir to the Eladden Trading Company fortune.”

Sarah had read about his parents’ tragedy.  But – hadn’t the whole family…?

“But you’re supposed to be dead!” she blurted out, and watched a sly smile take shape on his face.

“Yes. But the attackers had missed me – I’d been thrown clear of the carriage when it overturned, so I ran and hid from them.  When I returned home, I was told by my father’s butler that it had been my Uncle Genghis’ plan to take over the company.  I decided to go along with the reports of my death, and I became another nameless, homeless child, stealing things for the Thieves Guild during the day and hustling at night, until I was taken into the home of one of my evening customers - a prominent actor - where he taught me his craft.”

Memnos poured himself a drink from the enchanted decanter.  The glass became a shot glass, and its contents were redolent with a powerful minty aroma.  He downed it and continued, “I wanted to become rich again.  Living 10 years on the streets, I learned that the most profitable thing to sell isn’t a thing you can steal, or touch, or taste.  It’s knowledge and information: something you can see or hear. And the best way to see or hear anything is if people don’t know that you’re there.  And so, I created Kwan Dooley and became invisible.  And very, very rich.”

Sarah told her story next, and when she mentioned the shows she had become well-known for, there was a smattering of applause – mostly from Miss Mentos.  She told them of how she’d first found out about her fire powers, inherited from a thrice-great grandmother.  When she mentioned that she had never been trained, Granny Ginny vigorously assured the others that she would receive strict instructions in control.  Finally, it was Supplejack’s turn.

“Perhaps you’ve heard of me?  In my current incarnation I’m known as Jumpin’ Supplejack Bonecracker, acrobat, street performer and contortionist.  I’m also over 1,000 years old. I saw the fruit from which Ginny’s vintage wine was made and witnessed its extinction at the hands of the angry netherkin.  I saw the madness of the Eldest God strike them down.”  Jack smiled his seductive smile, and waited for that statement to sink in.

“Bullshit,” said Kwan.

“What a crock,” laughed Fafhrd.

“I’m a dhampir.  We’re not immortal, but we can live a very, very long time.”

“I still don’t believe you,” said Dave.

And suddenly Jack disappeared.  Sarah knew that he could do that. She’d seen him do it before, usually to avoid a fight, or to escape from an angry wife or husband or both.  But it was still amazing.

“Where’d he go?” asked Talisa.  Jack’s laughter was heard.  “There!” she pointed.

“No,” stated Amy. She looked around the room once, then once more. “He’s still in his chair, I think.”  At that remark, Jack reappeared, exactly where she’d indicated he was.

“What magic is this?” said Fafhrd.

“It’s not magic.  He’s bending light somehow, but not magically,” Amy answered.

“Right you are.  You have second sight, I see.  That should come in handy.”  Jack raised his glass.  “If any of you have questions about dhampirs, I’d be happy to answer them at this meeting’s end.  Or you could ask Granny, or my dear friend Sarah.  By the way, I work for myself – usually. But I think that’s about to change.”

Supplejack looked at Perry, then Ginny, and lastly Miss Mentos.  “Isn’t that right?”

Act 3, Scene 1: PANACEA secret meeting room

“Have you all read the documents that you were provided with yesterday?  If you have not, I suggest you do so now,” said Perry as he stood, “Miss Mentos will provide you with a pen, and we three will witness your signatures.  Each of you will…”

“Just a minute, please,” asked Amy, “may I ask a question?”  Perry nodded.  “As I understand this contract, this is a lifetime commitment.  At no point can we terminate this contract.  Why did you make an exception for the Ravinger Four?”

“I’ll answer that,” said Ginny. “At the time, that rule was not in place.  PANACEA was only a few decades old.  No one had ever asked before.  We thought the salary and benefits were sufficient.  We had not foreseen Lycacia Ravinger’s pregnancy, and her decision to keep the child.  Our tardiness in offering her and her husband an additional stipend for the child is to blame for their departure.”

Amy shrugged.  “All right.  Let’s see…we cannot talk about our work with anyone.  We are guaranteed to be paid monthly, or weekly, as we so choose, until we die.  We are welcome to question you regarding our assignments, but once one begins, we perform our duties, as proscribed by you, without question or hesitation of any kind…”

“What if,” interrupted Talisa, “a situation arises that impacts the assignment, but a spilt-second decision is necessary – when there is no time to contact Miss Mentos?”

“You or your party’s leader is trusted to make that decision, bearing in mind that the achievement of your assignment’s ultimate goal is of paramount importance,” responded Ginny.

“I wasn’t finished,” said Amy, tapping her right foot in annoyance.  Talisa ignored her.  Amy continued, “Will anyone else be aware of our work?”

“The only time others will be made aware of your work is if you fail one of your assignments.  There is no rising in the ranks, no higher position for you to aspire to, no fame except amongst ourselves. Like the adventurers in this tavern, you will face danger every day, explore unknown places, experience wonders and terrors, and possibly save one or one thousand lives with a single action.  Unlike them, you will not be working in the public eye.  Your actions will support their quests, or vice-versa, but for you there will be no fame.”

“Like understudies, or stagehands” said Sarah, “We’ll work behind the scenes.”

“Miss Burnheart,” Perry exclaimed, “I like the way you phrased that.  In fact, that will be the name of our new group of agents: The Understudies.  What do you think, Algebria?”

“Works for me,” she replied.

“This, then, is our permanent meeting room? If so, we should call it The Green Room,” suggested Memnos.

“Done!” declaimed Perry.

His compliment was nice, thought Sarah.  I don’t hate him anymore, but I still don’t like him.  She signed her contract and watched as Miss Mentos collected the rest from the others.  A lifetime gig, she thought – isn’t that what every actor wants? And the script will be changing every time.  This was her new family, and they were quite a cast of characters.

She started to talk with Jack and Fafhrd when Miss Mentos clapped her hands.  Perry and Ginny had somehow left the room.

“Everyone, I suggest you go upstairs and have dinner.  It’s already paid for, courtesy of Memnos…who has asked me to tell you to always call him ‘Kwan’ when outside of this room.  Come back here at moonrise for your first assignments.”

Act 3, scene 2: Temple of CRAPPERS, The Beginning Place (1 hour later)

“Well, Bob, what do you think?  Did I choose them wisely this time?”

Call me Dad, you impudent demi-god, and maybe I’ll tell you.”

“I’ll go ask Mom.”

Don’t bother her.  She’s asleep next to her vegetable cart on the side of the road between Slainte and Millston.  You know how she is when she wakes up.”

“Blah, blah, blah. Then answer my question, Dad!”

Bob considered it.  Being who he was, he could see past and present, but ever since free will had come into the picture, his vision of the future was mostly obscured.

I like them. They’re interesting.  Will they end up like that quartet? – I don’t know.”

“Thanks, Bob, that’s really not helpful,” said Bob’s son.

I’ll tell you this: if you want the best outcome, make that actress the Leader.”

“You old perv,” said Perry, “I will not put in a good word for you, she’s several millennia too young for you. Why Sarah?”

I’ve gone back through time to watch her. To borrow one of your phrases,” said Bob, the Eldest God, “Sarah doesn’t take shit from anyone!”

They stood together and laughed, watching the universe expand.

Submitted: September 17, 2021

© Copyright 2022 Catfish Waterdancer. All rights reserved.

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