fbpx

Fiction Fantastic 2024 Winning Story: “The Rose Theater” by Ishika Chakraborty

The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.

You can purchase this story in the 2024 Winners Anthology, Realm of Forgotten Dreams.

“The Rose Theater” by Ishika Chakraborty, South Eugene High School

First Place, High School Level, 2024


The Rose Theater

by Ishika Chakraborty

South Eugene High School

There were four courtyards in the Novani Palace, one for each wing. In the beginning, there had been talk of establishing a fifth at the heart of the royal residence, only to be discouraged at the queen’s request. She claimed to want a greenhouse instead for roses, which was an odd request, considering how she had never even taken clippings for the vases in the east and west wings, let alone planted a single seed in her life.

In the end, the greenhouse was never built, to no one’s surprise. In its place, an open-air theater had been erected, suitable for the warm climate of Novanon and the people’s penchant for astrology. The seats were upholstered in rich red velvet, and the foundations built from the finest mahogany. A singular balcony gilded in gold looked out upon the rest of the theater, intended for the royal family’s viewing pleasure. As a last addition, a retractable glass dome was fashioned for the unlikely event of rain.

Ahren found the theater lovelier than any other room in the palace. Its simplicity was one not found elsewhere, and prying eyes seldom wandered over hundreds of rows of seats in search of the princess.

It was such a shame, then, to have part of her adoration stripped away by the installation of gaudily embellished curtains to frame the stage. No one would ever dare say so, for fear of having their heads chopped off, but it was downright filthy the way the royal family spent money on the most unnecessary of indulgences.

She heard the whispers, every now and then. Talk of revolutions, of impassioned rage amongst the peasants and middle-class. She felt the sharp eyes of every palace servant every time she walked the halls, like pinpricks of acid rain. Her parents might say otherwise, but Ahren was not stupid; she knew half of them were spies, she knew of the botched assassination plans. She knew that it was only a matter of time before she became the target.

She was no stranger to the bitterness and resentment Novanis regarded her with when she was in the presence of her parents, when their attention had been diverted by something frivolous or when their practiced disregard for the betterment of the kingdom felt like a slap in the face. She wasn’t quite sure what they expected her to do about it. Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps they only liked the idea of having someone to blame, a scapegoat for their troubles.

Someone more assertive might have taken the chance and used it to their advantage. But she could not be their savior, for she was too afraid and complacent to do much more than stand with knees locked and eyes pried open, a step back and to the left of her parents, doomed to an eternity on the sidelines in fear of being noticed.

Now, on the first day of the Viridian Festival, sitting alone in the balcony of the theater, she wondered again at the unfairness of it all. Neglectful monarchs and a society on the brink of collapse.

Bloodshed was inevitable. It hovered on the horizon much like the palace held its breath when the king was in one of his moods. Ahren’s hands felt clammy. The stars had begun to show through the open roof, winking down at her. She imagined what they might say if they could speak; would they tell her of peaceful kingdoms and empires beyond the border? Would they murmur secrets of the revolution in her ear, lead her to the most hopeful future for Novanon? Or, if they were cowards, would they warn her of her father’s rage and her mother’s greed for confrontation hot at his heels?

What Novanon had yet to realize was that Ahren liked the king and queen about as much as they did, and often even less on bad days. On bad days, huddled under a mound of the most obscenely embroidered blankets, she trembled with rage, teeth gritted, hands clenched so tight her nails bit at the soft skin of her palms. On bad days, she thought of every bruise, every cut, and wondered what it might be like to rid her people of their horrible rulers once and for all.

She never did anything. Ahren had never been one for action. She was too afraid, too complacent. It was why she could never be the proper martyr Novanon deserved, the face of their rebellion. The bone-deep ache of abandonment and the shadows of physical torment had rendered her a husk of a human, a shell made to hold broken dreams and a statue-like apathy.

She watched the curtains begin to rise. The rest of the theater was empty, devoid of a single soul other than hers. Something about it all seemed wrong, bizarre. The air stood still, eerily silent. Was the first day of the Viridian Festival not cause for celebration? Where were the familiar smells and sounds of joyous hope?

The curtains framed the stage like heavy clouds. Below, illuminated by blinding stage lights, stood two figures. Their postures were awkward, heavy and unsure, like someone had taken control of their limbs and made them stand before a ghost audience.

A shaky exhale, and then another. Each breath misted in the air. Bizarre. It was the middle of summer.

The lights adjusted enough for Ahren to recognize the figures. She did not gasp, did not shout. She remained the phantom spectator she had been born to be. A two-man show was nothing to be surprised about.

Their faces contorted in desperation. She thought they must have seen her, if the horrified anguish in her mother’s eyes was any indication. Ahren said nothing, hands folded neatly in her lap. The empty theater felt larger than any room ever had.

Above it all she sat, like a deity forced to watch its creations tear themselves apart. They moved like marionettes in sharp, aborted movements, each line a plea for help, each laugh a shriek of pain. Whatever—whoever—controlled them showed no mercy, and the pure adrenaline of fear steered them through each act and scene of the play.

It might have been unbearable to watch if it were anyone else. Ahren’s fingers felt cold but she kept them where they were, unable to look away from the gleaming stage and its unwilling stars. When they bowed, she could not clap. How could she? It had been perhaps the most awful rendition of the play she had ever seen.

She made herself stand. Would they call out to her, beg for her aid? What could she even say? Yes, for she feared the sting of her father’s hand? Yes, for she dreaded the cut of her mother’s needles against her arms?

They said nothing. They did not even move, faces frozen in agony.

There was a ringing in Ahren’s ears.

***

The second day of the Viridian Festival was often characterized by the sharing of sweets. Ahren had hoped to be woken by the honey smell of delicate pastries from the kitchens. Instead, she found herself once more in the theater.

She couldn’t remember what had happened after the performance the night before. She must have retired to her rooms, petrified at the idea of her parents stepping off the stage in her direction, hoping for it to have been a dream, a horrible dream she might forget.

The theater looked the same as before. Empty, colder than it should have been, open to the heavens. Rose and gold streaked above her like thick layers of paint on a portraitist’s canvas.

Something told her tonight would be no different.

They appeared on the stage, clad in the garish costumes characteristic of court entertainers, faces no less horrifically confused than before. Ahren found herself unable to remember if she had seen her parents this morning. Had there even been a morning? Had she dreamt it all, the puppet-like show?

She watched the whole thing from beginning to end, tracked the way the king’s sweeping gestures began to slow, eyed the way the queen’s words became more strained. They were not used to performing. They were not used to being anything other than spoiled and cruel. They were not used to being on the receiving end of fear. They were not used to anything other than glee and extravagant pleasures.

They bowed just as night fell. Another dream? Perhaps the last blow to the head had been her last. Perhaps this was only a coma, or a sick form of purgatory before she would meet her end.

She stood and clapped.

***

Ahren thought she understood now.

She had heard stories from the witches and court sorcerers. They spoke in hushed tones of strange happenings in other kingdoms, in places of political unrest or tragic circumstances. Circuits of time, where the proper chronology of reality became corrupted and forced to repeat, over and over, until something changed.

Ahren thought this might be one of those doomed loops. Was it a punishment for her? For her parents? For them all, their indifference, and her passivity?

They moved sluggishly tonight, less fear on their faces and more resignation, their muscles weary from having done the same performance twice already. It was interesting, in a way, how the day would reset but not their bodies.

To change things up, Ahren did not clap this time. Instead waved her handkerchief, the universal sign for an encore.

***

Five more nights passed in succession. After each one, the royal couple seemed more exhausted than ever before. Would it ever end? Ahren had begun to tire of it all, but she would never say so; it would not do to insult fate.

On the eighth night of the Viridian Festival—for she had begun to count them as nights of the festival even if time existed in a vacuum—the performance went past nightfall.

In the past, they bowed as soon as the sky darkened. Now, with weak legs and bags beneath their eyes, they seemed not to have the energy to perform at the rate they had begun.

It was pitiful.

***

The ninth night, her mother’s nose began to bleed halfway through a soliloquy. Ahren was ashamed to admit it gave her a sick sense of satisfaction.

***

Was it her fault?

***

The tenth night, it was clear they were nearing their end. Never had she seen two people look so much like desiccated corpses, yet still be able to move and speak.

There were tears trailing down her father’s face at the end of the first act. A smile spread unbidden across Ahren’s face.

By the end of the performance, she thought they might collapse. Still, they bowed, and she clapped.

***

Traditionally, the eleventh night was the last night of the Viridian Festival. Ahren had a suspicion it would also be the last night of the time loop, the last performance. Would her parents be given a second chance at saving their kingdom, or would they take their last breaths on the stage?

“You know the answer,” the stars hissed to her.

And she did. For hadn’t she wished for this? Hadn’t she hoped for retribution, for revenge? Hadn’t she, in the deepest, darkest parts of her core, wished for their death in the most painfully artistic way? They did not deserve mercy. They deserved everything they had been given.

She saw the light dim in their eyes before the sun had set. Awash in the glow of dusk, the two bodies lay upon the stage, under dimmed stage lights and a warm breeze, for the cold chill of the theater had dissipated.

This was what she had wanted. The loop had never been a product of their actions, but one of her desires.

She thought there might have been blood surrounding the corpses. It was hard to tell from so high up. She felt more powerful than ever before.

The stars were the only witnesses to her laughter.