Azzie began briskly enough. "I'm afraid we've got a bit of trouble. Our play has been canceled. But let me thank you for all the work you've done. You've all handled your candlesticks extremely well."
Sir Oliver said, "Antonio, what is happening? Are we to get our wishes or not? I have my acceptance speech all ready. We need to begin."
The others piped in with their remonstrances. Azzie silenced them with a gesture.
"I don't know how to tell you this, but the highest possible source has commanded me to strike this production. There'll be no ceremony of the golden candlesticks."
"But what's gone wrong?" Mother Joanna asked.
"It seems we've broken some silly old natural law."
Mother Joanna looked puzzled. "But people break natural laws all the time. What of it?"
"Usually, it doesn't matter at all," Azzie said. "This time, though, I'm afraid we've been caught out. I'm told that my use of the magic horses was overzealous."
"Surely all that can be taken care of later," Sir Oliver said. "For now, we're eager to go on."
"And I am eager to have you do so," Azzie said. "But alas, it cannot be. Aretino will now pass among you and gather up the candlesticks."
Sullenly Aretino walked among them, accepting the candlesticks they reluctantly handed over.
"We're going to have to get out of here," Azzie said. "Venice is doomed. We must leave at once."
"So soon?" said Mother Joanna. "I haven't even started visiting the famous shrines."
"If you don't want this place to be your shrine, you'll do as I say," Azzie said. "You must all follow Aretino. Pietro, do you hear? We must get these people off the islands of Venice!"
"Easier said than done," Aretino grumbled. "But I'll do what I can."
He put the stacked candlesticks in a corner near the altar. "Now what do you want me to do with them?"
Azzie was about to answer when he felt a tug at his sleeve. He looked down. It was Quentin, with Puss beside him.
"Please, sir," said Quentin, "I've learned all my lines to say for this ceremony. Puss and I thought them up together, and we both learned them."
"That's very nice, children," Azzie said.
"Won't we get a chance to say them?" Quentin asked.
"You can tell your lines to me later, when I've gotten you safe away from Venice."
"But sir, that won't be the same thing. We learned them for the ceremony."
Azzie grimaced. "There isn't going to be any ceremony."
"Did one of us do something bad?" Quentin asked.
"No, it's nothing like that," Azzie said.
"Was it a bad play, then?"
"No!" Azzie cried. "It was not a bad play! It was a fine play! All of you were acting just like yourselves, and that's the best acting job possible."
"If it wasn't a bad play," Quentin said, "and we didn't do anything wrong, "why can't we finish it?"
Azzie opened his mouth to speak, but he hesitated. He was remembering himself as a young demon, contemptuous of all authority, willing to pursue his sin and his virtue, his pride and his will, to wherever they would lead him. Well, he had changed a lot since that day. Now a mere woman commanded him, and he obeyed. It was true that Ananke wasn't quite the same as a woman — she was more like a vague but compelling divine principle with breasts. She had always loomed above everything, compelling but remote. But here she was, breaking the precedent that had been set since the beginning of time not to interfere. And who did she pick to be the bearer of her broken precedent? Azzie Elbub.
"My dear child," Azzie said, "to go on with this ceremony could mean the death of us all."
"I guess we all have to die someday, sir," Quentin said. Azzie stared at him, because the lad had the effrontery of a demon and the sangfroid of a saint. Could Azzie do any less?
"All right, kid," he said. "You've talked me into it. Everybody! Pick up your candlesticks and take your places on the stage that has been set up in front of the bar!"
"You're going through with it!" Aretino cried joyfully. "I am very thankful, sir. For what ending would I have had otherwise for the play I intend to write from this material?"
"You've got something to write about now," Azzie said. "Is the orchestra in the pit?"
They were, still cheerful because Aretino had paid them triple their usual wage to hang around waiting for Azzie, and because the city was so flooded that there were no other musical performances planned.
The orchestra struck up a tune. Azzie waved his hand. The ceremony began.