The Final Burn, as presented by the Ziosti Preparatory Academy of the Sith
Adapted from an original script by Lord Vyerziyut Lirga
Approved by the Ministry of Culture on 7 Ragnost, 1575
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“If you want to put on a theater play, you must first create the universe.”
—Lord Munena, paraphrasing an unknown scientist
5 Synnec, 1575 — Opening Night
There were over two hundred theaters in New Adasta. The total number could be found somewhere on the Ministry of Culture’s holonet site, at the top of a directory that let you search by planet and major city, official review rating, distance, and/or current shows running. If you were someone who was anyone, only about twenty of them mattered. Colloquially known as the Crimson Circuit, they put on the best and most exclusive productions, showcasing the Empire’s greatest performances for an audience of its elite; in three of them, you had to be a Darth or a powerful lord just to get in the door. The course of the Empire had changed more than once within those walls, altered by a well-placed word in a private box, re-charted by a quiet conversation—or assassination—during intermission.
Tonight, the eyes of the Empire were elsewhere.
The city glittered like a geode at planetary dusk, climbing out of the rock face in a cascade of urban center. Its arts district was the beating heart of the Empire, if you heard the right people tell it; the Darth Iravas Memorial Theater was, by that metaphor, a perfectly serviceable capillary off towards the eastern edge. Its main draws were a vaguely affordable ticket price, a large maximum capacity, and proximity to multiple academies known for their arts programs. Two of those turned out the Ministry of Culture’s future rising stars, often slated for carefully-cultivated fame before their aptitudes had been saved to long-term storage. The third was the Ziosti Preparatory Academy of the Sith, renowned as one of Sith Philosophy’s most prized projects and most perennial headaches.
For the next week, its students would be putting on a famous, timeless, decidedly overplayed tragedy—Lord Lirga’s The Final Burn, taught and dissected in every secondary academy’s Basic class. On any other night, it would have faded into the background noise of the city, seen and enjoyed and forgotten, never coming to the attention of anyone important.
The local fire bureau had categorically refused to waive the occupancy limit, citing Ministry of Logistics guidelines.
Even so, the building was just over capacity, owing to a particular Darth and their larger-than-expected number of guests, and they had—in a tone most people reserved for dire threats—made it very clear that pulling people out of their seats would look bad. Weighing the possibility of a fire against the certainty of a displeased Dark Lord, the doorkeepers had come to the conclusion that the private box was in good hands.
The audience inside was higher-class than the Darth Iravas Memorial Theater had seen in decades, with an average rank somewhere firmly between ‘Major’ and ‘Lord of the Sith.’ A lone pair of lieutenants—who had bought tickets before the rumors began—picked their way through the crowd, one gripping the other’s arm like a lifeline, neither quite sure why they hadn’t been bumped. (There was a reason, of course. There always is.) A mixture of up-and-comers and Somebodies circulated in the lobby, expressing loud neutrality or hushed derision—or, even more quietly, true excitement. And if you looked…
“Lord Hexid,” one of the ushers said, a simple metal collar peeking out of the austere lines of his uniform. “The Dark Lord would like to extend an invitation to their private box.”
The zabrak woman turned fully to face him, smiling broadly at the reminder of her new status—and an apprentice would never have gotten into this event, not alone. She spread her hands, aborting at the last instant an attempt to take the usher by the arm, and turned the smile into what had to be a dazzling grin. “And haven’t I said I’m moving up in the galaxy?” she asked, aiming the question at no one in particular. “Do show me the way. I wouldn’t want to get lost, after all.”
Across the large hall, the Ascendancy junior ambassador accepted a glass of champagne from a pink-and-blue whirlwind in dark Sith robes. Zeltron, he realized, over the creeping haze of the man’s pheromones. Interesting. Neither of them noticed the young twi’lek man flagging down a serving droid, himself a newly minted lord in Mysteries; he, however, had definitely noticed the enormous armored zabrak looming faux-congenially towards a pair of colonels.
Little by little, as the audience drifted out of the lobby and towards their seats, an idea threaded its way through the room. Some people would have called it a seed, planted in newly fertile ground, but they were wrong in the way people in power always were—the seeds had been buried a long time ago. The experiment, as so many called it, was over before it had ever begun. It would never have gotten started any other way.
Here is the least-believed secret of theater: opening night has never been the beginning. The moment the curtain rises is the moment things start to end.
Traditionally, the role of the play’s nameless Dark Lord was used as a vehicle for flattery or an incentive for philanthropy, depending on the production and the donors. It was currently popular for their costume to make them look just a bit like Darth Marr, casting him as the symbolic bastion of power and reason—or, to put it less politely, the only sensible person in the room. Even the theater’s propaganda has a sharp edge somewhere.
But this was a school production, and had been a school production before it was ever a political ploy. As far as anyone knew, the all-concealing robes and mask currently shrouded Darth Peritia—the headmaster of the Ziosti Preparatory Academy, and undeniably a person of standing. In all important respects, they did. The truth of the matter was irrelevant; the audience saw him walk onto stage, his aura stoked to the shine of hot iron, a sense of power swelling around him with the high keen of the music. Smoke swirled across the stage, blue hologram-lights glowing in the mist.
A susurrus began. It wasn’t anything like what you really heard in a tomb, when ghosts pressed their fingers in against your mind, but it was far more dramatically appealing. The voices of the cast had been recorded, distorted, overlapped; it was a work of art in itself, with the music beneath never pausing. Each voice went from whispering to singing to begging for their lives or spitting defiance, until finally only one remained: Zibeti, the star around which the play orbited, as glorious as only an incipient supernova could be.
Draped in a mourner’s white robe, her actor thumbed the button on a well-hidden stealth belt. She knew her part, her posture, the presence she was expected to project. She wasn’t worried. She wasn’t scared. Stage fright had never been her flaw.
But she knew what people would see. It was that knowledge, white-hot in rage and grief and brutal understanding, that she grasped as the Dark Lord approached, and it blazed in her like the dying sun she now portrayed. Here I am, then, she thought, head bowed, lips pulled back. Here’s what you came to see.
The hooded, masked figure’s last step rang out like a shot from a slugthrower pistol, less an echo and more a crack of thunder. Zibeti’s actor still didn’t look up, her fingers cool and motionless against the ridged cheek of her champion, but her aura drew itself to burning attention.
“What has happened here?” asked the Dark Lord’s player, the question magnified and distorted by the vocoder in his mask. Even his whispers filled the room.
Slowly, carefully, like someone drawing an ancient blade from its sheath, Zibeti’s actor finally raised her head. Her hood fell back from her face. And the audience saw, at last, what they had known they would see.
Here I am, she thought again. Now watch.