"Let no man nor woman say
they crossed me and lived to tell
unless in grave discomfort ever after!"
"What ho! I see Sophia's Island
before me, weighted by the night,
as like an echo as a ghost."
"Might we shed our ghastly fate
and shed with it this war
that we never should have waged?"
What do you most vividly remember about the War of the Houses?
Even as recently as six months ago, some brazen young reporter asked me that question, having taken the time to track me down in my apartment: a ruin crowded with the detritus of a lifetime of false starts. I can't even remember what broadsheet he represented, to be honest.
I was surly and morose after a long day of serving as a tour guide for the type of people I call the Ignorants and the Rudes, and I had begun to take on some of their less savory characteristics. Besides, he was very young; even as a child, Sybel had never been that young. I doubted this one had been alive at the start of the war.
"What do you most vividly remember about the War of the Houses?" he asked me.
You could see dust motes floating in the air behind his head, revealed by the sunlight of the open window. I rarely opened that window anymore. I didn't like what it revealed about my apartment: the worn red carpet, the sequined dresses half-hidden on hangers in a corner, draped over a dumpy old sofa chair; the dozens of paintings I'd rescued from my gallery, none of them worth a thing. I even had two ceremonial swords from Truff knew where-and dozens of picture albums I hadn't had the heart to pull out in years.
The place needed a serious airing out, although to the reporter's credit he didn't so much as wrinkle his nose, even when a plume of dust rose from the impact of his sinewy buttocks meeting the seat of the second sofa chair.
"What do I remember?" I echoed. Truff, his face was smooth and bare of worry, even in that light. Does every innocent share that look? "Why, the opera, of course," I said.
His eyes brightened and widened, and he began scribbling on a useless little pad he had brought with him.
"When we were reporters during the war-especially by the middle of it-we didn't have paper.," I said in a helpful tone. "We had to jot notes on handkerchiefs using our own blood. Usually when the ink ran out."
He looked up, startled, his brown hair sliding down over his even browner eyes, then stared at his pad with an almost guilty expression until I cackled-a sound that startled me more than him-and he realized I was joking.
"Are you upset with me for some reason?" he asked, all semblance of reporter gone. Suddenly he was just a kid, the way Duncan had once been a kid.
I stared at this nascent reporter and sighed, sat back in my chair and said, "No. I'm not upset. I'm old and tired. Can I get you something to drink? Or eat? A friend made me some pastries. I think they're still around here somewhere." I started to look beneath the pillows assembled at my feet.
"No," he said, a little too quickly. "That's all right. I just want to know more about the war, about the opera."
He had lips that would always be full and yet empty of expression or inflection. A serious mouth, without even a hint of an upward or downward curve to reveal whether he was an optimist or pessimist. Because of that alone, he might someday become a good reporter, I thought. Or a good card player.
But now he was sitting there, waiting for my answer and sweating, the sweet young scent of him filling my apartment.
"It was a war," I told him. "A lot of people died. A lot of buildings were destroyed. It was hell-and for what? I don't think anyone knew why after awhile."
He nodded as if he understood. But how could he, really? We'd been reporters during wartime and we didn't even understand it. As my father always said, a reporter is a mirror, not a window, which makes it doubly painful. You don't just let it flow through the glass of your perspective; you stare back at it.
Already a lump was forming in my throat. My apartment looked unbearable. My leg was heavy and inert and aching.
I rarely tell any reporter what I remember-to them I give platitudes, clichés, spirals of brave words that mean nothing. Because it's painful. Because we lost so much during the war. So many people. Tens of thousands, if not more, and in some weeks, many dozens of buildings blown up. Stacks of limbs piled in the street. Spackles of blood against half-crumbled walls.
"No one makes it out." Those were among Samuel Tonsure's last written words, according to what Duncan had uncovered at the fortress-monastery of Zamilon, and it's a good piece of life advice: No one makes it out. Enjoy what you can while you can.
I was tempted to repeat Tonsure's wisdom to the reporter, but I had already begun to feel self-conscious, and irrelevant. Besides, he had a question.
"And what about the opera?"
I smiled and leaned forward, staring into his pretty face and untroubled eyes.
"What I remember about the War," I said, "is that right in the middle of it-near the very epicenter of the conflict, when hundreds of men, women, and children might be blown up or turned to spores in the next week, the creative powers that be in Ambergris decided to stage the most ridiculous folly in the city's entire ridiculous history: an opera."
* * *
And what an amazing enterprise that was, the opera described in advertisements as:
THE ROMANCE OF AMBER & GRIS
Authored by: Anon
Sponsored by: Concerned Citizens
Directed by: Sarah Gallendrace
Staged at: The Trillian Opera House-if still standing
Starring: Various & Sundry Talents-as available
A Wicked "Mutual Satyricon" of Both Parties to the Current Conflict, whilst Containing a "Poignant Love Affair" Stolen Whole from The Distant Past, by way of Subterfuge and Subplot. An Opera-with what Music can be Spared From The War Effort-Overseen by Sarah Gallendrace, the Genius Behind the Production of Voss Bender's Opera "Trillian."
Price of admission negotiable at the door.
In hindsight, no matter what happened, the opera would be the one great success of the war, the only sign that there might still be a city called Ambergris afterwards.
The city at that time-after more than two years of conflict-had begun to tear itself apart, like a beast that hates itself with a passion born of long familiarity. Every night, the deafening thunder of bombardment, the lights in the sky-the purple, red, or green of fungal bombs-the continuous, monotonous noise, so febrile, soaking into the very ground so that even the strange new flocks of crows, come to peck at our dead, became married to it, their cries the perfect mimic of fungal mortar fire. (No one knew whether they were about to duck death or bird shit.) And in the morning: the self-inflicted wounds, buildings sliced in half or crumbled into dust, the great, slashing scars in the earth…
In the weeks before the announcement of the opera-ragged hand-lettered posters nailed to charred posts and crumbling walls-a fear had begun to overcome many of us: a fear that Ambergris, as a place or an idea, could not last, that it might fall for the first time, and fall forever. With the fear came a terror of our own mortality that we had put aside through the first years of the war. With the evidence all around us that the city itself might die, we could no longer ignore thoughts of our own individual fates. Now we all seemed to shine with a clarity that imbued our forms with a figurative kind of light, a light we had not had before. It shone out through our eyes, our mouths, our movements. It made us all noble, I suppose, this fatalism, in a disheveled, unwashed way. (Such a lovely way to put it, but all I saw was grime and dirt and blood and death. The only real beauty lay underground, and it was a deadly beauty. How strange to be caught between such extremes.)
When Hoegbotton & Sons and Frankwrithe & Lewden came together at Borges Bookstore the week before the opera to announce a ceasefire, we all relaxed a little. We all let down our guard. If they could call a ceasefire for an opera, then perhaps they might one day call a ceasefire for more important things.
It had been a hard (not to mention dangerous) two years for Duncan and me, chasing after this or that story. We needed the rest. We needed the comfort. (The opera occurred, I felt later, almost out of the collective consciousness of the city-an impulse toward a remembered harmony Ambergris had never really known. When I heard the rumors of the opera's impending production, I thought of them as horrible lies, intended to make us hope. It never occurred to any of us that one night House Hoegbotton and House Frankwrithe & Lewden would find themselves entangled in a temporary peace, and we would find ourselves in front of the Trillian Opera House.)