The flames of the kerosene lamps flickered dully behind soot-blackened glass as Friedrich hurried through the backstage corridors. The design of this place was torturous, a diabolical collage of Gothic, Romanesque and Italianate, with no clear plan and no straight pathways that he could discern. He snorted: what could one expect from the architecture of a known anarchist. It was hardly Friedrich's fault that reaching the dressing rooms took forever.

Nevertheless, he picked up his pace. His client was waiting for Mathilde, and Karl had not yet brought her. He did not have time to waste.

Finally Friedrich reached the door of the dressing room, hearing the sound of raised voices from inside. He drew himself up, and barged in.

A crystal wineglass flew past his head and shattered on the doorframe with a crash. Friedrich flinched. He saw Karl, his stage manager, almost topple a candelabra as he ducked out of the way. Across the room, Mathilde Haupt burst into a peal of cruel laughter at their reaction.

Friedrich was livid with indignation. "What is the meaning of this?" he bellowed.

The laughing soprano showed no inclination to explain, so it was left to Karl. "I'm sorry, Herr Director, but she does not agree to come."

"I refuse to be paraded in front of some foreign swine," said Mathilde scornfully. She tossed her head, her long hair falling back over the shoulder of her yellow dress from the opera's final scene.

"That 'swine' is an extremely important English gentleman," replied Friedrich, "and is looking to invest heavily in the opera company. If he wishes to meet with the cast, then you shall meet him."

"I certainly shall not." Mathilde crossed her arms, and gave an ostentatious stamp of her foot.

Friedrich's temper boiled over. "You may think yourself important, just because you sing Eva tonight. But if you do not come now, I will have you sweeping ash from the fireplaces by tomorrow."

"You would not -" began Mathilde, cutting off as she saw the ferocity in his look. She looked down, sullen, and followed Friedrich from the room, allowing herself a defiant sniff as she passed Karl.

They wound back through the lamp-lit corridors - Friedrich trying to ignore the continual barbed exclamations from the prima donna behind him - until they reached the door to the royal box.

Inside, a handsome man sat looking at his pocket-watch. His dark hair was shot with grey, and his tailcoat and white bow tie were impeccably styled and fitted to his slim figure. Beyond him, the great opera house was cavernous and dark, but for a few distant candles.

"I feared you were lost," he said, putting away his watch and standing to give a languorous bow. His German held only the slightest hint of an accent.

Friedrich bowed deeply, and said only, "My apologies, we wished to give the fraulein time to make herself ready to meet you."

"I doubt that took any time at all," was the reply, both a compliment to Mathilde and a rebuke to Friedrich. The gentleman took her hand and bowed again to kiss it.

"Fraulein Haupt, may I introduce Herr Carter of London."

Mathilde made at least some effort to play the simpering coquette. "Did you enjoy the opera, sir?"

"Your performance was captivating," Carter replied, "but as for 'Die Meistersinger', I have seen it before. Have you nothing new, Friedrich?"

The opera director bristled but remained calm. "Die Meistersinger was premiered here, and is still extremely popular, Herr Carter. Another full house this evening, as you saw."

"But it has been playing since January. Tomorrow I travel to Munich to see the premiere of a new Wagner opera. Why does it not play here?"

"This is the new opera about the cursed gold that all men desire?" asked Mathilde. "It hardly seems a natural subject."

"Less plausible than the commonfolk being brought together by the power of song?" returned Carter.

Already Mathilde's arch expression had returned. "I understand that you are in trade, sir," she said, voice brim-full of condescension.

"Herr Carter is a very wealthy merchant," interrupted Friedrich, trying to smooth the matter over. "He has expressed an interest in investing -"

Carter gave Friedrich a look like he might give a buzzing fly. "Yes, I am a merchant," he said to Mathilde, "and a collector of - you might say - curiosities."

"And what do you collect, Herr Carter?"

A flicker of the lamps sent shadows chasing across Carter's face, as his gaze fixed on Mathilde. "Just now, my dear, I collect opera singers. But only for the night."

Friedrich gasped. Mathilde swung a hand to slap Carter, but the blow was checked by his hand on her wrist. She yelped in pain as the tall man's fingers gripped her arm.

"Sir, I must insist," began Friedrich.

"Oh, calm yourself," said Carter, dropping Mathilde's arm. "She doesn't hold a candle to the women I have had, to the women I can have."

Mathilde's face was incensed. She snatched an oil lamp from the table next to her, and looked ready to hurl it at Carter.

Friedrich stepped forward, his own anger burning. "Sir," he said with a steely tone. "You are not welcome here. You must leave my opera house immediately, before I have you thrown out."

Looking at them both, Carter laughed imperiously. "Your opera house? This place is already irrelevant - it is the past, and the future is being built elsewhere."

He stepped closer, towering over Friedrich. "And you would be wise not to threaten me, Herr Director. It would be terrible for an accident to befall this place."

Without another word, Carter strode from the room and into the smoky light of the corridor. Behind him, he could hear a vicious argument flaring to life.