Fidgeting on his padded seat, Alex sat behind the string department audition committee. His father, the conservatory headmaster, sent him to the auditions every year since Alex had become a student—he wanted unveiled reports on who they were admitting. The novelty of listening to hundreds of aspiring musicians had worn off that first year. At least, fourth time around, it was his last audition scoping. Alex would graduate at the end of the school year.
Not that he was dying to have that paper everyone considered so important—the diploma. His family wanted it. They wanted him to boost the ranks of Conseratto’s graduates. As though it needed any help with so many renowned composers and musicians that had attended Conseratto over its four-hundred-and-some-year history. Like any good boy though, Alex did what he was told. What else could he do? Become a farmer, a scientist, a lawyer? Not when his mind operated in notes, scales, chords, and measures. Not when his fingers tapped out Valandin’s Euphoria on his lap while he waited for the torture to begin. The sooner the auditions started, the sooner they would be over.
Close to two hundred fellow students spread across the seats behind Alex in small clusters. The audition committee, all old professors who had been teaching at Conseratto for decades, murmured to each other, making lighthearted predictions of how many students would actually qualify for admission. The administration always allowed a certain number of people to enroll, to keep the budget in check, but not all of the first-years played well enough to last. That’s how Conseratto protected its reputation. Only those who gave music more of themselves than they already had, those who had the stamina to withstand the pressure of the rigorous studies graduated. Still, sometimes it was an amusing experience to check what the new blood sounded like and if there was anyone to compete against. For Alex, that was rarely the case.
Plenty reached Alex’s technique level, but none could match his passion, his understanding of piano, of what it needed. No one felt or heard the music the way Alex did. For years now he had felt like everyone else’s perception of music felt too shallow, that it was merely something to learn to appease their parents or future spouses. He despised those who openly admitted that the only reason they learned to play an instrument was to boost their matchmaking prospects. He never courted any girls because of that common mindset. Of course, he could always court someone outside his musician circles, but those girls were even more difficult to connect to. They simply did not understand what music meant to him.
Because of that, he often came across as haughty. Alex knew that but felt he could do little about it. He couldn’t take his passion for music out of his heart or tone it down to please others. His general awkwardness that surfaced when he was forced to talk to people didn’t help either. It was a lonely life, one he had little hope would ever change.
With a resigned sigh, Alex pushed away the thoughts of being the odd one, the obsessed one, the one with music instead of blood in his veins. He had better brace himself for what was coming. There would be some decent players. There would many much worse.
A long line of young people led by Professor Battín, the string department assistant dean, filed into the auditorium. Rigid and apprehensive, the prospective students took their seats on the front row, clutching folders with sheet music provided by the conservatory. The majority of them sported pale faces, although some had splotches of red from fraying nerves. Alex wondered what it would be like to sit on that first row, about to be judged. He himself never went through an audition. His father simply brought him to Conseratto on the first day of classes.
“Let’s begin.” Prof. Battín sounded like being there was an intolerable chore. “Each of you received a folder with sheet music. The pieces you’re going to play will be well beyond your capabilities, but we don’t expect any of you to perform perfectly because that’s exactly why you’re here—to become better and to hone your mastery. Still, we expect your best performance.”
Alex cast his gaze to the floor. He had been honing his mastery since he was four, and it had been achieved. His fingers did exactly what he wanted, at any speed he commanded. What he had hoped for when he agreed to go to Conseratto was someone who could challenge him, inspire him, take him to new heights. Teach him how to play with even more feeling. He hadn’t found anyone like that yet.
“Lindy Alvon,” Prof. Battín announced.
A petite young woman with thick red braids stepped forward. Even from his seat, Alex could see her fingers trembling as she showed her sheet music to Prof. Battín before placing it onto the stand. Lindy struggled in a couple of places and returned to her seat blushing. Alex leaned back in his seat and crossed his arms on his chest. Mistakes or not, he had seen countless girls like Lindy admitted to Conseratto. More likely than not, she was safe. Whether or not she would graduate remained to be seen.
The audition went on. Closing his eyes, Alex tuned out the monotonous proceedings—there were few significantly bad or good performers thus far.
Prof. Battín called one more lucky contender. “Aryen Redwynn.”
Whispers swept through the room, and Alex’s eyes flew open. He knew that name.
Anyone who kept track of what was happening in the world of music knew it. Miss Redwynn was considered their generation’s violin prodigy. She won every contest she had ever participated in. Rumor also had it that she remembered every piece of music she had ever played. Alex refused to believe all that he’d heard about her. She hailed from one of the most influential families in the country. How many of those competitions did she win because of her father, a future senator?
Dressed in a pair of fitted dark-blue pants and a long white tunic, Miss Redwynn approached Prof. Battín. Skinny and brown-haired, she appeared as nervous as the rest of them. Violin prodigy—right.
And what was going on with her violin? Everyone else brought Marrels, Verdans, and Wolleynans, the best of the best. Hers, plain, brown, and old, looked nothing short of shoddy. Alex chided himself. He should know better than anyone that looks, either the player’s or the instrument’s, mattered little when it came to sound. He must have been more melancholic than usual to pay notice to irrelevant things like that.
Miss Redwynn stared with concern at her folder.
“Is something the matter?” Prof. Battín asked, her voice light.
Alex’s skin prickled, and he scooted to the edge of his seat. Could it be?
“Well…” Miss Redwynn looked around as though searching for something. “I think my sheet music slid out of the folder on accident.”
Despite his earlier sour mood, Alex bit his cheek to restrain a smile. No, she had not lost anything.
“Is there nothing in your folder?” Prof. Battín asked.
Miss Redwynn nodded. “It appears so.”
The auditorium exploded with a multitude of cheers and whistles. Eyes wide, Miss Redwynn pressed her violin and bow to her chest.
“Have no fear, Miss Redwynn,” Prof. Battín said from her station. “You’ve only happened to receive the challenge of Trial by Fire.”
Alex hid a smile behind his steepled hands. Trial by Fire! The professors only added an empty folder every few years, and he had never experienced one in person. Miss Redwynn looked downright terrified, as she should have been. Prof. Battín frowned at the students, who quieted down to excited whispers. Her gaze found Alex and softened a notch, then returned to the quivering youth in front of her.
“Trial by Fire is a relatively new… test,” Prof. Battín explained.
“Well, what is it?” Miss Redwynn asked, still clinging to her violin.
“For those who may not know what’s happening,” Prof. Battín addressed the audience again, “Miss Redwynn had the fortune to be randomly picked to complete the Trial by Fire. We have provided no sheet music, and she can’t pick her own. An accompanist will be chosen to play five pieces of different compositions. Three of them should be widely known, two will be more obscure. Miss Redwynn will have a few moments to listen to the pieces offered before joining in. If she doesn’t know the piece, she is free to improvise.”
Prof. Battín looked at Miss Redwynn, whose face took on a greenish hue. “Do you accept?”
Miss Redwynn twisted her bow in her fingers. “What are my choices?”
“If you accept, and succeed, you will become admitted to the second year instead of the first.”
Alex would have paid dearly to only have three years at Conseratto instead of four.
“And if I fail?” Miss Redwynn asked.
“You still get admitted but will have to fulfill additional technique hours. Something everyone here should do if they aspire to think of themselves as musicians.”
Of course, there was a third option, which Miss Redwynn seemed to have realized as well. “What if I refuse to do the trial?”
The professor checked her glasses for dust. “You get a chance to audition at some later date, although I don’t recommend it. You don’t want to be known as the girl who backed out of the Trial by Fire. It’s much better to fail it, trust me. Conseratto isn’t fond of cowards. So, what will it be?”
Miss Redwynn lowered her eyes and chewed on her lower lip.
Alex waited with bated breath for her decision, hoping against his earlier derision she would agree to the trial.
The girl exhaled in one quick huff and declared, “I accept.”
Alex allowed his lungs to breathe again and sat up straighter, uneasy in his own skin from the overwhelming anticipation.
“We need an accompanist,” Prof. Battín said to the rest of the students.
Many hands flew into the air.
“May I?” Eleanor Landen, a second-year piano student, started descending toward the stage before Alex pulled himself together enough to volunteer.
“Yes, Miss Landen. You will do just fine.”
Alex bristled, half from disappointment in himself for not acting faster, half from distaste toward Eleanor. He didn’t know her well, but what he knew made him steer clear of her. Another daughter from an influential family. Edgy, unpredictable, and rather heartless. Alex had no idea how anyone dedicating their life to music could be heartless.
Miss Redwynn approached the grand piano, her bow cutting through the air as though she was wielding a rapier. “Give me a note,” she asked from Eleanor, who gave her an A. Miss Redwynn adjusted the tuning on her violin and nodded for the pianist to proceed.
Eleanor started in the lower octaves and climbed upward in a random sequence, a short warm-up intended for the benefit of their listeners. Alex crushed his fingers in his lap, impatient for the real action to begin.
Miss Redwynn’s shoulders relaxed, and she leaned a fraction toward the piano, listening.
Alex watched her closely. His heart beat faster, predicting without any reason that Aryen Redwynn would be the one to understand him, and Alex ordered the overly hopeful muscle to be quiet. Aryen Redwynn hadn’t played a single meaningful note so far. She might never do so. And yet…
Eleanor started an easy Bettonian polka. Miss Redwynn smoothly joined right in as the introduction ended. Alex sensed the crowd behind him holding their breath, just like he did a moment ago, and smiled.
Eleanor switched to a different melody. This time she chose to start with the last section of Andan’s Laughter in the Snow. It wasn’t a commonly known piece, but Miss Redwynn shifted without even pausing to listen. Maybe it was true that she remembered everything she played. Which begged the question, just how much did she practice to jump from piece to piece like that?
Alex noticed himself slipping off the edge of his seat. Sliding back, he took deep, slow breaths and forced his heart to beat slower even though with every note it threatened to become unhinged.
Thus, the trial continued for two more pieces. Each time, Eleanor attempted to throw Miss Redwynn off by coming in at inconvenient places in the melodies, but the young violinist had no trouble following. Alex noticed Miss Redwynn simplifying one passage, however, and had to give her credit for a confident outmaneuvering of her opponent.
Eleanor’s lips spread into a smirk, and Alex wondered if somehow Miss Redwynn and Eleanor knew each other. They had to. Eleanor rarely graced anyone with such unveiled displays of deviousness without having some personal vendetta against them. She did not volunteer to be Miss Redwynn’s accompanist out of curiosity but to ruin her audition. That realization set Alex on edge again, sharp enough to fill him with a desire to stomp over and slam the grand piano lid over Eleanor’s fingers.
Doing that would definitely ruin Miss Redwynn’s audition. As much as he still had lingering reservations about the extent of her talent, he wouldn’t do anything to sabotage her.
Eleanor’s last choice, however, was another easy and well-known piece. People muttered about it from their seats. Still, Miss Redwynn followed Eleanor with perfect clarity of sound and technique until the very end.
The audience started clapping.
Alex leaned onto the back of his seat, disappointed. Miss Redwynn played amiably, but for him there was nothing soul-grabbing in her performance. Nothing that would warrant her the prodigy title. Skilled and confident after all, yes, but nothing more.
Eleanor wrapped up the melody. Miss Redwynn was about to lower her instrument and bow to the audience, but the music continued. Low quarters repeated for several measures. Eleanor decided to continue the challenge past the five pieces.
Alex rose slightly from his seat, ready to call for intervention, but one of the audition committee members said to Eleanor, “Miss Landen, that’s already enough.”
Eyes wide with recognition, Miss Redwynn held up her bow. “Wait.”
Intrigued, Alex sat back down, as did the committee member. The audience grew quiet once more.
Eleanor continued with the monotonous pattern. Soon enough, a single note, two octaves higher than the rest, broke through, and Miss Redwynn shook her head. With a smile, she joined Eleanor’s piano chant.
Alex recognized the melody then. Waterfalls of Twilight by Felip Jannevin, a deep, heart-wrenching tune in A major, a trying piece for any pianist and an absolutely agonizing challenge for violinists. Most of the time, anyone who dared to play it resorted to a simplified version. Eleanor did. What would Miss Redwynn do?
Eyes closed, Miss Redwynn swayed as her bow danced and her fingers caressed the strings. She delved deeper and deeper into the impossible—the full version of Waterfalls of Twilight.
Alex saw what he had despaired to find in anyone but himself, that lifting of all mortal cares that brought one’s soul to the foreground, blurring edges between music and physical objects. He gripped the top of the seat in front of him and stared, unblinking, at the miracle. It had happened at last. He had found a kindred spirit, someone equally possessed by sound and a pressing desire to play every waking moment of one’s life. Playing like that, pulling at everything in his heart, she had to be the same. She had to.
He was not alone.
Reaching the end, Miss Redwynn finished with a whisper of a note and opened her eyes.
In the electrified silence that seized the auditorium, Alex uncurled his fingers from the seat and took a shuddering breath, failing to contain the overflowing triumph within him.
Eleanor rose from her seat in one abrupt motion and clapped. The rest of the audience joined in.
With a fierce blush, Miss Redwynn attempted to flee the stage, but Eleanor apprehended her before she made more than a couple of steps.
“Where are you going?” She laughed, deceptively cheerful. “That was incredible!”
Alex wanted to be there in Eleanor’s place, to wrap his arm around the shoulders of a girl who finally gave him a glimmer of hope. But he had no outward reason to. They didn’t know each other, not yet. From now on though, he would do everything in his power to hear her play again. And to have her play with him.
Grim and determined, Alex entered the teachers’ lounge during the big break. It had been weeks since Miss Redwynn’s audition, yet he was entirely unsuccessful in his attempts to introduce himself. She was admitted, of course, but Alex saw nothing of her, be it their schedules, her social status, or her being taught by the strict Prof. Battín who hadn’t had a student in ten years. Last night, at last, he had decided he was done wasting time. Today he would find out Miss Redwynn’s schedule.
For once, Alex felt like being the headmaster’s son had a benefit. Most teachers knew him, so they just nodded at him or ignored him while he walked toward the board with the schedule grid in the staff lounge. He pulled out a notebook and a pencil from his shoulder bag and scanned the board for the second-year violins. “Scanning” was too generous of a term for the effort it took to decipher a tightly woven grid of tiny cubes with four-letter class abbreviations. One thing was clear though. He had already missed his opportunity to catch Miss Redwynn during her personal practice that day—second-year violinists practiced in the morning. His best bet was to ambush her at Prof. Battín’s classroom before Miss Redwynn’s lesson with her mentor, which was scheduled right after the big break.
Prof. Dreen and Prof. Rolden, both cellists, approached a counter near the schedule board and helped themselves to stacks of clean paper.
“I wonder if Battín will continue giving that Redwynn girl a hard time,” Prof. Dreen said in a quiet voice.
“Good question,” Prof. Rolden replied and began punching holes in his stack of paper.
Alex hid his face deeper in his notebook. He hated eavesdropping, but his curiosity kept his feet in place.
“Have you heard?” Prof. Dreen asked his colleague.
Strained, screeching sound of the hole puncher was the sole reply for a while, then Prof. Rolden finally asked, “Heard what?”
“The reason why Miss Redwynn hadn’t been attending for a while and only recently returned? We all wondered whether she just couldn’t take Battín’s methods anymore, Apparently, she had suffered a severe concussion during a fancy party gone wrong.”
A few gears clicked in place in Alex’s head. He couldn’t catch her not because he couldn’t find her, but because she wasn’t at Conseratto at all.
“Ah, that,” Prof. Rolden said in a knowing tone. “I knew that. Broke her favorite violin too, poor child. Yes, I hope Battín’s going to go easier on her for a while. Not that I’m holding my breath for that. You know Battín.”
Alex refused to listen to them any longer. He had already heard all that he needed to know anyway. He had learned why Miss Redwynn was so elusive in the past weeks, but that didn’t make anything better. While he had been pouting, she had been ill and hurting. Once again, he got carried away by his obsession to find someone who shared his passion for music and lost track of what was actually important—being a decent human being.
All but running out of the staff lounge, Alex headed to the common hall. Maybe, if he was incredibly lucky, he would see Miss Redwynn there. Then he wouldn’t have to approach her in a less crowded hallway. People were more likely to gossip if they saw him talking to her anywhere but in the common hall, a dedicated rest area for students where noise, chatter, laughter, and music mixed into an overwhelming cacophony and where talking to absolutely anyone was absolutely normal.
Alex rarely socialized, always wary he would come off as even more odd and unapproachable. He realized not talking probably did not help the issue, but overcoming that awkward fear seemed impossible.
In the common hall, Alex positioned himself at his usual table and hid behind a book he brought with him. Since he played piano every minute he could, Alex didn’t have many other hobbies, but reading kept his mind from melting now and then. The lighter the read, the better, thus it was one of Beck’s mysteries.
Despite his initial resolve to watch the entrance, half an hour later, the book won and drew his attention to its pages. Alex shrugged off his conservatory jacket and draped it over his lap and stuffed his tie into his shoulder bag. If his father showed up and harangued him about the proper attire, then so be it, but Alex doubted the headmaster would venture into the den of student fun. It wasn’t his style or his habit.
Just as he got to the first chase scene, someone took a seat across from him. Alex peeked over the edge of the book and through his long bangs. After weeks and weeks of trying to catch her, Aryen Redwynn sat in front of him, unwrapping a beautiful blue cloth from her food box. Providence had a finicky sense of humor.
Alex turned a page and buried his face in the book. He knew he should say something, that it was his chance to introduce himself, but he was too stupefied to act. And as the minutes stretched on, he grew less and less certain of himself. Why did he ever think she’d want anything to do with him?
Alex did not gather his courage to speak to her that afternoon. She ate her meal and slipped away, leaving Alex to curse himself for his social ineptness. If there was ever a class they needed to teach at Conseratto, socializing skills for obsessed musicians would be it. He’d be in the first row, taking copious notes.
The next time their paths crossed, also in the common hall, several more weeks had passed. Alex was reading again, picking at a meat-stuffed roll when she dropped on a chair across from him.
“That’s a Marrel you’ve got there, isn’t it?” Alex commented when he saw the legendary luthier’s insignia on the case handle.
“Good eye.” She took out an apple from her food box and smelled it.
Alex congratulated himself on that little victory. He said something, she responded. So far so good. Better than usual, in fact.
“Custom?” he continued.
Miss Redwynn shot her instrument an annoyed glare. “You can have it, if you’d like.”
He dropped his gaze back to the book. “Generous, but I have no need for it. I play piano.” Alex mentally kicked himself. What he really should have said was, “This is a great instrument, but I am very sorry for your loss.” But no, he couldn’t even manage something as simple as that.
Miss Redwynn shrugged and bit into her apple.
Still watching her through the mess of his bangs, he could tell she needed comfort. Not being able to talk to people freely, Alex had become quite adept at watching and interpreting them from a distance. Right now, she sat with her shoulders pinched and tense, her right-hand fingers curled around the apple while her left fingers flexed back and forth into a fist. Alex did that when he wanted to play but couldn’t—fidgeted relentlessly like there was no solace in the world.
He stole another glance at her face. Pale and thinner than the last time he had seen her, it carried a host of shadows. Alex could see, almost feel something intangible but nonetheless real reaching down to her heart and holding it tight in its steel claws. Some kind of trouble.
Not just trouble. Grief? Over her instrument? Judging by how she sat with her body angled away from her fancy new violin, that could be it. Even then, Alex couldn’t help wondering if there was something more.
Before he found the courage to tell her that time healed all, Miss Redwynn packed her unfinished meal and left. Berating himself again, Alex gathered his belongings and headed out as well.
Not three steps past the common hall door, Prof. Battín approached him. “Mr. Ravin, how do you do?”
Alex stared at her with open curiosity. What did she want with him? Realizing he should respond, he muttered, “Good afternoon, Prof. Battín. May I help you?”
“Maybe.” She sounded uncertain, piquing Alex’s curiosity even further.
“I am at your disposal,” he promised.
“If I pair you up with a student for personal practice for a while, would you terribly object? I know you prefer to play by yourself, but I think you’re the only one who can help that student.”
“That depends on the problem. And the student,” Alex admitted. If said student was Aryen Redwynn, the answer, of course, would be a resounding, “Yes, please!”
She gave him a long look. “It’s Aryen Redwynn. She is having some difficulty playing after her old, cherished instrument broke. I’m sure you understand how that feels.”
Alex’s initial excitement dissipated. He knew indeed what it felt like to stumble onto something that froze every note in one’s soul. His grandfather’s death did that to him twelve years ago. Alex and his grandfather were quite close, excellent friends. Alex was only ten years old when his grandfather died, and death had scared him somewhat awful with its finality. For a few months, he clung to his family members, afraid to play, to waste a moment in case anyone else suddenly died and left him. It took many outings to the symphony for his mother to reignite his desire to play. It also took many promises that hearing him play made his family happier because they knew he was happier at the piano.
Alex emerged from the glance into his past. “That’s not good.”
Prof. Battín shook her head. “Not good at all. Aryen is so fragile right now. It seems that there’s a lot happening in her life. She desperately needs to play but can’t or won’t. I think you could inspire her to allow music to come back into her life. Would you at least think about it?”
Alex nodded. “Let me know when and what you want me to do.”
“Thank you.” The stern professor walked away with a great deal of relief on her face.
A few days later, Prof. Battín found him again while he was practicing during a canceled class. “I have a task for you though,” she said with punctuated meaning in her voice.
Alex stopped playing and tossed his bangs to the side. Finally looking at her, he found that she wasn’t alone, and his heart skipped a beat.
“Aryen, this is Alexander Ravin, a fourth-year piano student and the headmaster’s son.” Prof. Battín introduced him to the girl that had been arresting his thoughts for the past months through reasons that had nothing to do with romantic infatuation.
Biting her lower lip and clutching the handle of her violin case with both hands, Aryen gave him a quick bow.
“At your service.” Alex bowed back, half-serious, half-playful. “And I know who you are, Miss Redwynn. Everybody knows the face of the Providence-gifted violinist.” He clenched his teeth hard. He sounded nothing like himself—confident and even bold. Where did that come from?
“Nice to meet you,” Miss Redwynn muttered.
Technically speaking, they had already met, so he just nodded in response.
“What can I do for you, Prof. Battín?” Alex asked and hammered out a series of rapid four-note chords. Too hard. Too anxious. He needed to play softer. On all fronts.
“I’m going to combine Aryen’s personal practice with yours for the next little while. I’ll work out all the details with your teacher. There’s no need to learn anything together. Meet in your scheduled room and practice as normal.”
“Fine with me.” Alex launched into another lengthy passage of menacing chords and stifled a grin that threatened to break out from the dubious look Miss Redwynn stole at her teacher.
“Excellent. I’ll leave you to it. Aryen, go to your usual classes later.” Prof. Battín left the room, leaving Miss Redwynn staring at her teacher’s back with her mouth open.
Having achieved his goal of being introduced to her, Alex suddenly found himself completely unprepared for what would come next. In fact, what should come next? Do they start talking about everything music meant to both of them?
No. Not that.
Prof. Battín wanted them to practice together, not talk. Well, maybe talk, but at the moment it seemed like neither of them knew what to do with the other—Miss Redwynn stood still in her spot, hugging herself with one arm, eyes full of uncertainty.
Alex felt that he actually needed to keep his mouth shut and just play for her. He could see it in her eyes that something in her life was missing and she longed for it to return. Maybe he could give her some comfort through music.
Alex picked up a bottle of water and took a few deep swigs. After that he immediately began another piece, one with an insane tempo and dynamic range. His fingers felt stiff with her in the room. There was no way he could pretend Aryen Redwynn wasn’t there, so he closed his eyes and let the music take over everything. Even though he had played that particular piece hundreds of times, with her in the room, it sounded different. Not too fast but urgent, and not overreaching. Searching.
He stole another look at the troubled violinist. She climbed onto the windowsill and hugged her knees. He found new pleasure in playing, but she wasn’t listening. Alex could keep anyone’s attention with his music, and that was why Prof. Battín wanted them to practice together.
But no matter. He would not give up after one little failure. He knew how to persevere. Aryen Redwynn would listen to him one day.
One day she would come back to music.
“Good morning, Mr. Ravin,” she greeted him at the beginning of their next practice.
“I’d prefer it if you called me Alex, Miss Redwynn.” Alex surprised himself again with his outspoken behavior.
She smiled at him. “Only if you won’t call me Miss Redwynn. Aryen is fine.”
Alex grinned back. Talking to her came easier than he had anticipated. Maybe with conversing, like with a musical instrument, he simply needed to practice. “Deal. Ready to play?”
Her smile faded as she shook her head.
Alex ignored the initial rise of disappointment. “Remember, your teacher said we don’t have to learn anything specific together. You can just follow me. Or I’ll follow you, play whatever you like.”
With another shake of her head, she turned away and went to the window.
Alex started a quiet, unobtrusive melody. “Why don’t you want to play?” He almost asked why she didn’t want to play with him, but, thankfully, redirected his words at the very last moment.
She issued a heavy sigh. “I can’t.”
Alex kept playing. “Why?”
She whipped around. Alex readied himself for an angry glare, but she eyed her violin, still closed in its case.
“I just can’t.” Her words were barely louder than a whisper. Biting her lower lip, Aryen clasped her hands together in front of her chest and fidgeted with her fingers, desperation filling her eyes.
Alex tried again. “Just pick it up and play. You look like you want to.”
She pursed her lips and turned back to the window.
Worried he had pushed too hard, Alex played on without saying another word.
The next day, Aryen sparred with rapiers against Eleanor Landen in Conseratto hallways, damaging some property and infuriating the fencing teacher. Alex was right when he assumed the two of them knew each other. Apparently, their acquaintanceship ran deep enough for the otherwise reserved Aryen to lash out and cause a scene with Eleanor. Alex wished he had seen it—he was in music history class at the time. Maybe if he did, he could have found out a little more about why Aryen refused to play.
As it was, talking to her in his father’s office immediately after the fight would have to suffice. He had no doubt she would be there, waiting to be reprimanded.
“Sorry, Alex, but I’m afraid your father is currently unavailable.” The secretary beamed a bright smile at him when he walked in.
He didn’t come to talk to his father but had no desire to correct her. “No matter. I’ll talk to him at home.”
He went over to Aryen sitting on a chair in the far corner and leaned closer to study a cut on her lower jaw. “That’s going to leave a scar.”
Aryen’s hand flew to her face and dropped the moment it touched the cut.
“What’s it going to be, you think?” Alex wondered out loud. “A slap on the wrist or a suspension?”
She shrugged although she knew probably as well as he did that the consequences of her quarrel with Eleanor would be severe. He wanted to ask her why she appeared so indifferent about it, but there was a change in her that prevented him from speaking. Her shoulders remained as tense as ever, but her expression had softened. Maybe quarreling with Eleanor and, from what Alex gathered, winning the fight resolved some issue that gnawed at her. Maybe she would even play again.
Still, Alex expected her to say something. When she didn’t, he shook his head and went away. He needed to be patient and to be an unconditional friend. If she didn’t want to share, she didn’t have to share.
In the end, Aryen got off with a month’s worth of suspension and community service.
Even though she couldn’t come to the conservatory, Alex mustered the courage to go to her house and play for her there. He still worried that something stayed wrong, that she needed more help to crawl out of whatever darkness prevented her from playing.
He was right. Aryen continued being distracted and restless. She paced, she sighed, she nibbled on her thumb, and she refused to play.
During one such practice, Alex stopped playing and cleared his throat, wondering if she would hear him.
To his surprise, she turned to face him right away. “What?”
“You’re not listening,” he said, blowing a strand of his long bangs away from his face.
Her cheeks grew reddish-pink in an adorable manner. “I’m sorry.”
“You haven’t been listening. I’ve been coming for almost two weeks now, but you’re not here.” Alex looked at her across the shiny black surface of the grand piano. What could he possibly do to pull her out of her silent misery?
“Whatever it is you’re thinking about, put it aside, and tell me the first composition that comes to mind.” He wasn’t certain why he had said that, but what was there to lose anyway?
Aryen considered his suggestion for a long moment. “Antuan Demmen’s Delighted. Have you ever heard it?”
He had indeed and knew it well, conveniently enough.
Alex motioned for her to come closer. When she did, he pointed to a chair nestled in the corner between the wall and a tall bookcase next to the piano. “Stop thinking and just listen.”
She nodded and took a seat.
Alex gave Delighted his best attempt, but only a few measures into the composition, she started fidgeting on her seat.
He dropped his hands away from the keyboard. “This is not what you need to hear.”
Aryen shrugged, apologetic.
What did he need to play for her? Alex drummed his fingers against the piano’s top edge. What if he went a slightly different route, played things she didn’t like? That was bound to at least evoke some strong emotions in her. “What is your least favorite song?”
Aryen blinked in surprise. “You mean most favorite?”
He grinned, pleased with her reaction. “You heard me right.”
She eyed him with suspicion. “34th Sonata by Mian.”
Alex wrinkled his nose in disappointment. “Really?” He loved the 34th.
She wrapped her hands around her knees and rocked back and forth as she explained, “I know a lot of people think it’s beautiful with its sweet, low range and a tempo that goes from smooth-flowing waters to trying rapids. But I had practiced it so many times for one of the competitions, I wasn’t even happy when I won.”
Wasn’t even happy when she won? Alex swallowed a snarky remark, worried she would not understand that he would be only teasing her.
“Ah, a competition piece,” he said instead. “No matter. Ready?”
She cringed with the first chords of the sonata, and Alex grew more certain it was the right thing to play. Even if she didn’t love it, he did. And there were quite a few times when he had changed someone’s mind about a piece by his performance. He knew how to make the piano truly sing, placed just the right accents, put his soul in every note. He always managed to keep the sound pure, voluminous, and unrestrained, even if it needed to be quiet. At some point in the past, Aryen picked Mian’s 34th as her competition piece, and Alex was determined to have her fall in love with it again.
Soon enough, she abandoned her seat and took to pacing, entering a different kind of restlessness, one where music finally penetrated her shell and made her breathe and hurt with a desire to play.
As the composition reached its most dynamic passage, Aryen rushed to the piano and pressed her ear and hands to its side. Alex almost stood from the bench, dying to see her expression, but that would interrupt the music that finally moved Aryen’s soul. He could not interrupt it, even if all he wanted to do was smile at her.
When Alex wrapped up the sonata, Aryen commanded, “Keep playing,” and he eagerly obliged her by playing several more strong pieces. Eventually though, he had to stop and return to the conservatory for the rest of his classes.
Aryen chewed on her lower lip as she watched him gather his things, and Alex forced himself to appear neutral. Something long forgotten might have awakened in her, but he would not bring it up until she mentioned it first.
“There is a charity concert organized by Conseratto next week.” He rummaged in his bag and handed her an envelope containing two tickets and a note from Prof. Battín urging her to come to the concert. “I will be playing, of course. The headmaster’s son cannot escape his fate. I’m sure my father wouldn’t mind if you came out of your exile for the occasion.” Aryen took the tickets, two squares printed with gold ink on maroon paper, with much caution, as though she had anticipated that the moment her fingers touched the tickets, a daring idea would bud in Alex’s mind.
“Will you come?” he asked, begging everything in the universe for her to say yes.
She gave him a long look before saying, “I’ll come.”
Accompanied by her personal guard, a tall, usually inconspicuous man, Aryen entered Conseratto’s largest auditorium. Alex saw her immediately from his post near the stage through the multitude of students, their families, teachers, and other attendees—local music lovers, reporters, younger musicians hoping to attend the conservatory one day, and, of course, donors. Alex quite despised most everyone who donated to Conseratto’s causes. Those people always acted like they knew more about music and what good music was than anyone else, even if they themselves could barely play two chords together.
He shook off his irritated thoughts and hurried to Aryen. Luck would have his father already approaching her. His old man could ruin Alex’s precarious plan before he even had a chance to present it to her.
“Miss Redwynn. Aren’t you suspended?” his father asked, smiling and waving at Conseratto’s guests. He sounded far from pleased though—a tone Alex knew all too well from when he was a child. A tone which he also learned to ignore and redirect.
“The Drennens are here,” Alex said, aiming to focus his father’s attention on their largest donors. “They’re rather excited for Miss Redwynn’s performance.”
His eyes darted to Aryen, so far oblivious to the real meaning of what he had just said.
His father’s smile faded. “Did someone tell them she’s not performing tonight?”
Struggling to keep himself from jumping on the spot, Alex brushed a piece of non-existent lint off his immaculate black jacket. “Check the program.”
With a frown, his father yanked a program out of his breast pocket.
Aryen’s eyes widened, and she almost tore her own program when she checked it.
Alex steadied himself for the oncoming double storm.
“When did this happen?” his father demanded in a shrill whisper when he finally saw that Alex had a partner listed next to his name.
Alex shrugged. “We didn’t want to get anyone’s hopes up without being absolutely certain Miss Redwynn would be able to play her best for this concert. I ordered the new programs through a rush order this morning. Good thing we don’t give them out with the tickets like some think we should.”
His father glared at Aryen who turned rather pale. “Is this true? You are performing tonight?”
She stared at Alex again, her mouth hanging slightly open.
Behind his father, Alex mouthed, “Say yes. Say yes.”
Understanding sparkled in her eyes and, straightening up, she smiled, finally showing him the socialite everyone else claimed she was. “Ready to dazzle.”
Alex was about to breathe in relief when his father turned back to him. “You’re my son, but I’ll expel you both if this backfires. Is that clear?”
Again, Alex remained outside the reach of his father’s temper. “Absolutely.”
After his father had stalked away, Aryen stepped closer and whispered with scorching vehemence, “What have you done?”
Alex chose to apply the same tactic to her that he used on his father—feign composure and complete nonchalance. “Didn’t you need to perform some community service as part of your penance for the sparring match?”
Aryen groaned. “Putting aside that we haven’t practiced anything together, I don’t have my violin with me. And I’m not even dressed to perform!”
Alex looked up and down her simple black gown that was accentuated by a cascading necklace of silver chains threaded with tiny pearls. “I don’t know what ‘dressed to perform’ means to you, but I think you look quite lovely.” The compliment came with a significant effort. He had no sisters and never spent time around any other young women, so he immediately worried that she might misunderstand him. Although Aryen was probably used to people complimenting her left and right, and he worried too much. “And I have your violin. Your aunt was rather obliging and gave it to me this afternoon.”
She pressed her hands to her cheeks. “Whose idea was this? Yours or my teacher’s?”
His. All his. He came up with the mad scheme and actually didn’t say a word to Prof. Battín, although he did enlist Aryen’s aunt’s help in procuring her instrument.
“What does it matter now? You have to play or we’re both burned toast.” Alex hooked his arm through Aryen’s and, with his best smile directed at Conseratto’s guests, guided her to the exit out of the auditorium.
Backstage, surrounded by ropes, curtains, scents of wood, dust, and velvet, and a host of performers, Alex watched Aryen hug her violin case and nibble on the side of her thumb as they listened to other students warm up.
The concert had begun.
Alex started catching whispers.
“The Redwynn girl is going to perform with Alex Ravin.”
“How did she end up playing with him? He never plays with anybody.”
“They must be courting each other.”
He didn’t quite know whether he should laugh or glare at that one. Courting? He hadn’t once thought about that. From what he heard, Aryen had suitors galore. He wanted her around him for a completely different reason, but the others would never understand.
Drawing a breath through her nose, Aryen pressed her forehead to the violin case.
“Don’t jitter,” Alex said. “You’ll do fine.”
“I haven’t practiced for months,” she complained.
“You haven’t unlearned how to play in those months.”
She set her violin on the closest chair and grasped its back. “What are we playing?”
“Waterfalls Of Twilight.” Alex held his breath as he waited for her reaction.
Aryen scrunched her eyes shut. “Why? You want me to hate it after tonight?”
“I don’t want you to hate it. It’s the piece you played for your audition, and I want to hear you play it again.”
He took a step closer, ready to hold her if she decided to run. Jumpy as she was, he wouldn’t put it past her.
She opened her eyes. “You were at the audition?”
With a resigned sigh, Aryen flipped the case open and took out her Marrel violin.
His heart swelled with triumph. She was finally going to play again. She was going to play with him.
“Waterfalls of Twilight then.” She tightened her bow and pressed the violin under her chin to check the tuning.
She played through a few measures and froze, her expression stunned.
“Is everything alright?” Alex asked, barely restraining the rest of the questions that pooled at the tip of his tongue. He knew exactly how she was feeling in that moment—electricity coursing through her fingers after weeks of not playing, feeling alive and wholesome. He had been there before.
Aryen looked at her Marrel like she was seeing it for the first time. She pulled out a small polishing cloth from the case and gave it a quick rub, then admired it with warmth in her eyes.
Alex hated to interrupt the moment, but the quartet scheduled to perform right before them had returned backstage. “It’s our turn,” he said. “And you’ll be fine.”
Aryen grinned. “I know.”
On stage, Alex took a seat at a marvelous white grand piano and looked at Aryen, hoping she would look back at him. When she did, he took a deep breath and subtly gestured with his hand that she should do the same. Aryen filled her lungs with air, and they exhaled together.
Alex began playing. She was right. They had never played together, but he was ready and willing to bend in any direction for her, blend his vision with hers, be one when they weaved the music together. He had only ever dreamed of having a friend, another musician by his side who valued playing more than living. Now that he finally found that someone who understood what was happening within his mind and soul, he would do anything to support Aryen, grateful for the lifeline she threw him. For all the holes she had filled in his existence.
When the tempo slowed down a bit, Aryen stole a quick glance at him. Having memorized their piece, the difficult version, of course, Alex watched her from the beginning, his hands flying over the keys like they did not need him at all. A corner of his mouth lifted in a happy smile, and he flashed her a challenging look before diving into a finger-twisting series of arpeggios. Would she play along?
Bow singing in her hands, Aryen narrowed her eyes at him. Challenge accepted.
Alex’s heart accelerated to painful from all the excitement and joy their playing brought him. Aryen’s violin soared, and he went along with it, falling in love with piano and music all over again. Aryen commandeered all of his attention with the piercing notes flying from under her bow, and all he could do was listen and remember to exist.
When only a few measures remained, he noticed that she was looking at him again, a hint of panic in her expression. With an odd mix of embarrassment and profound lack of caring about botching his part, Alex realized he had stopped playing. But for her sake, he needed to pull himself together, so he blinked and forced his fingers to move just in time to wrap up the last few notes together.
Breathing hard, she lowered her violin and turned to Alex, who had already risen from the piano.
The auditorium, dead silent until then, roared in deafening applause.
Aryen rushed to meet him and threw her arms around his shoulders, spreading warmth and glee through his body. He never had any sisters, but in that moment, he had imagined that being an older, perhaps a bit heroic brother felt exactly like that.
“You distracted me. That’s why I dropped off for a few measures,” he explained. “I’ll need to hear you play it again. It’s been a while since the music carried me away. Thank you.” Tears glistening in the corners of her eyes, Aryen laughed. “Thank you!”
Still holding her, Alex chuckled as he realized that people would only talk more about the two of them courting each other. Well, let them talk. A few gossips meant nothing. His life had finally found meaning. He wasn’t odd, and he wasn’t insane. And, at least for now, he was no longer alone.
©2019 Ava S Quill
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be perceived as real.
All rights reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced in any form without written permission from the author, except as permitted by U.S. copyright law. For more information contact: email@example.com
Cover design by Varvara Jones.