Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Fulcrum: 06 Control

~Chapter Six~




“So what did you think of Teppanov’s performance?”


Zain nodded, slipping a little deeper into the shadows to avoid drawing too much notice as the crowd milled around the foyer.  The gesture was not lost on Jamison, and he chuckled.  “He was good,” Zain replied evenly, flipping a long strand of black hair over his shoulder.


“Which means that you were not impressed in the least,” Jamison said with a slow nod.


“No, it means that he performed very well,” Zain corrected, arching an articulated eyebrow at Jamison’s candid reply.  “Don’t read so much into it.”


“You didn’t feel that it was missing something.”


Zain didn’t remark on that.  Sometimes, Jamison knew him just a little too well.  True enough, Zain did feel that Teppanov’s performance was a bit on the reserved side, but it wasn’t worth mentioning, especially when he knew damn well that he wasn’t paying as close attention as he normally would at one of these functions, but the truth of it was, he couldn’t help feeling a little off-center, which was part of the reason why he was trying to melt into the shadows.  The other part?  He was here to enjoy the music, not to be inundated by people whom he’d never met but wanted something from him.  A long discourse about the first half of the recital wasn’t exactly something that he felt like indulging in, especially when she had yet to take the stage . . .


It was almost enough to irritate him, really.  All day, he’d felt edgy, out of sorts, almost anxious, and he had no idea why that was.  It wasn’t something that he was used to, this kind of foreign sense of upheaval, especially when there was no good reason for it.


“It was a good performance,” Jamison remarked thoughtfully, gnawing on the left side of his bottom lip, though not hard enough to puncture it with his fangs.  It was a habit that tended to make humans a bit nervous, mostly because they all knew that those fangs were very, very sharp.  Zain, given as he was to rarely smiling, had never had an issue with it, but more than once, he’d seen humans back away from Jamison just a little bit.  Lower youkai who possessed them could and did use them when fighting, but the upper youkai who had them wouldn’t demean themselves by doing something as base as biting.  Those ignorant youkai had become the irrational basis for the nonsensical tales of vampires that had grown and evolved over time.


“Are you ready?” Jamison asked, inclining his head toward the concert hall once more and apparently unmindful of Zain’s current preoccupation.  “I guess that the most that can be said for Teppanov’s performance was that it was nice but not one of his better shows.  He had a few technical flaws that made the whole thing seem a little sloppy.  Elementary stuff.  I’m sure that he’ll hear about it his next master class.”


Falling into step behind him, Zain grunted noncommittally.  “Careful. You’re starting to sound more and more like a professor every day,” he pointed out.


Jamison chuckled as Zain slipped back into his seat in the upper balcony that was reserved for the Conservatory’s staff and special guests.  “Well, I suppose it was bound to happen someday,” he said as he sat back down.


Zain didn’t respond as he ignored some very blatant giggling and hushed whispers with the accompanying glances that were meant to be surreptitious but failed miserably.  From his seat well above the general crowd, he couldn’t really make out what they were saying, and to be honest, he didn’t really care, anyway.  He had learned to ignore those kinds of things long ago, though he could recall as a child, asking why people would smile at him and even bow when he passed.  “Because you’re the future tai-youkai,” Brie, his nanny had told him with a gentle laugh and in a tone that was almost teasing, definitely indulgent.


That answer had confused him back then.  Even at that age—what was he?  Maybe two?  Three?—he had known what it meant to be the future tai-youkai.  He supposed that he’d simply taken it for granted at the time.  It hadn’t lingered in his mind for long.


Over the years, those looks had evolved.  In school, he’d received more of the ones that had questioned what made him different from the others, why he was considered to be above them all: jealous glances and harsh words that he only half-heard and summarily ignored.  Over time, as he’d proved himself again and again, those had diminished, only to be replaced by expressions that bespoke a certain level of understanding, admiration, and maybe still a little jealousy.


As he had matured, he’d started to notice more and more of those looks, only this time, they came from women, and whether they were drawn to the power of his position or because they found him attractive, he neither knew nor cared.  Besides, he had yet to meet a woman that he could not ignore.


Is that really so?


Dismissing the subtle challenge in his youkai-blood’s voice, Zain refused to acknowledge it.


If you can just ignore her, then why are you here?


Nodding at whatever Jamison was saying without hearing a word of it, Zain scowled as the upper lights started to dim, but the scowl dissipated as she stepped out onto the stage.


He didn’t notice how he sat up a little straighter, held up two fingers to beg Jamison’s silence.  Gaze fixed on the woman as she crossed the stage, she seemed somehow distant, somehow just out of his reach.  The black dress she wore wasn’t especially fancy: a simple satin gown fitted to her hips and flaring just enough to flow around her as the back of the skirt fell to brush the floor.  There was something entirely vulnerable about her delicate arms, her slender shoulders, exposed as they were since the dress was held up only by the finest of straps, and it seemed to him as though she were trying to hide or dissolve into shadow, but she stopped, turned, her expression giving away nothing as she inclined her head before taking a seat at the baby grand piano.


He could feel the rigidity in her stance as she sat, fingers poised over the keyboard.  Nerves, maybe?  Entirely likely, and the hush that had fallen was almost unnatural.  Her shoulders rose and fell once, ever so slightly, as though she were drawing a deep breath to calm her nerves but didn’t want anyone else to know it.


And then, she began to play.






“These came for you.”


Rising off the chair where she had been running through the song in her head, Kendall flashed a small smile at the usher who stepped into the room behind a lovely crystal vase and two dozen white roses.  “For me?” she asked before she could stop herself.


The usher laughed and set the vase on the table near the chair.  “Yes, my lady.  Have a great performance.”


She stared at the flowers as the young man let himself out of the room once more.  The low hum of the crowds mingling in the foyer of the concert hall drifted in when he opened the door to leave.  Reaching out to take the small white envelope stuck in the midst of the blossoms, Kendall hesitated for a moment, as though she thought that the card could hurt her.



Looking forward to hearing you play again.




She frowned.  Z . . .?


Who . . .?


It’s him, of course!  The Fourth . . . Zain Jericho,’ her youkai-voice chided.  ‘Who else could it possibly be?


Swallowing a sharp gasp, Kendall’s eyes flared wide as the truth of that assessment sank in.  It made sense, didn’t it, and yet, it didn’t; not at all.  Why would he have sent her flowers?  And if it was him, then it meant that he’d found out who she was, as well.  But why on earth would he care . . .?


Sticking the card back into the envelope, she carefully stuck it back into the arrangement.  ‘Looking forward to hearing you play again . . .’ Then that meant he . . . he was here.


Pressing a hand against her stomach as it gave a strange little lurch, Kendall slowly turned to check her appearance in the floor-to-ceiling mirror by the door.  The long black satin gown was quite plain, simply made, designed in elegant but modest lines.  She bit her lip and sighed.  It had taken Mimi nearly an hour to arrange her hair just so, pulled up on top of her head, carefully braided and coiled and twisted and then pinned in place, but her hair was so fine that wispy strands had already managed to slip loose.  Twisting a few of them around her finger, she slowly shook her head.  It would have to do since she was sure that she would only succeed in ruining it completely if she tried to fuss with it now.


There was nothing left to do but wait.


Glancing over at the piano, Kendall considered sitting down and playing through the song once but dismissed the idea about as quickly as it had occurred to her.  She’d spent the vast majority of last night practicing, until she’d managed to play it through three times without any mistakes, and she was superstitious enough to believe that if she played it perfectly right now, she would most certainly mess up during the actual performance.


Still, if there was one good thing to be said for spending so many hours playing the same piece over and over again last night, it was that in doing so, she had managed to push the thought of her father’s impending visit from her mind, as well, and for that alone, she was grateful.  It had kept her from breaking down completely as the fear of the unknown had crept in on her.


“Don’t think about that right now,” she muttered to herself, turning abruptly on her heel and hurrying back over to the chair once more.  Her knees felt strangely weak, wobbly, as though she couldn’t support her own weight any longer, and she sank down with a little sigh.


She’d thought about calling Tucker, but she doubted that he’d tell her a thing, even if he knew.  It struck her once more, just how unfair it all seemed.  Why was she the last person to find out anything, especially when the entire situation impacted her more than anyone?


Stop thinking about that,’ she told herself sternly.  ‘Just stop.’


Easier said than done.


Gaze shifting around the room while she tried to will away the thoughts that kept whispering in the back of her mind, Kendall blinked as her eyes flicked over the roses, only to return once more.  They were beautiful, perfect, lovely, but still, she couldn’t figure out why the Fourth, of all people, would have gone out of his way to send those to her.  And why did just the simple thought of that particular man set off a strange sort of tension in her that wasn’t entirely bad, just a little disconcerting in a strange sort of way . . .?


A soft knock drew her out of her musings, and she stood up just as Loribeth Tarkington, a flute master student and the assistant stage manager for the evening, poked her head into the room.  “Intermission is almost over,” she said with a bright smile.


“Thank you,” Kendall said, pressing a hand against her stomach as a million butterflies sprang to life inside her.


“Oh, those are gorgeous!  From your father?” Loribeth asked, nodding at the vase of roses.


“Uh, no,” Kendall replied, crossing the floor in a few strides and forcing Loribeth out of the room ahead of her.


“Don’t look so nervous,” Loribeth encouraged, slipping an arm around her shoulders to offer Kendall a quick, reassuring squeeze as they hurried down the long corridor that led to the back of the stage.  “You’re the last person I worry about out there.”


Kendall didn’t respond to that, but she did manage a wan smile.  Loribeth returned the gesture and gave her another chaste hug before hurrying away, leaving Kendall alone just off the stage while the din of the audience as they returned to the concert hall filled her ears.






Glancing at the name printed on the paper taped to the door for the barest of seconds to make sure that it was the one he was looking for, Zain gave the knob a very curt jerk and shoved it open before striding inside.  The startled gasp that greeted him was smothered by high-pitched laughter that stopped as abruptly as his unceremonious entrance.


Ignoring the nagging voice in his head that upbraided him for his marked show of rudeness, Zain narrowed his eyes at the old fox-youkai whose mouth had dropped open when his laughter had been interrupted and who continued to stare at Zain as though the latter had sprouted another head or two in the span of a few moments.  “Leave us,” he stated flatly in a tone that left no room for argument.


Armand, the stupid little man, seemed taken aback by the terseness in Zain’s command, but he nodded and inclined his head as he quickly hurried over to the door that Zain had just stepped away from.  In truth, Zain honestly didn’t trust himself to speak to the so-called professor, and he pushed the door closed right behind him.


“M-My lord,” Kendall stammered, her cheeks blossoming in a very becoming shade of pink as she clasped her hands together and swallowed hard.


“What the hell was that?” Zain demanded, gritting out the question from between clenched teeth when what he really wanted to do was to shout at her instead.  His youkai-voice was trying to remind him that he really didn’t have a thing to be that irritated about.  At the moment, however, Zain was not in the mood to listen.


She blinked a few times, her expression taking on a confused sort of tilt.  “What was . . . what?” she asked, her voice lowering to a near whisper.


Zain shook his head, pinned her with a glower as he waved a hand in the general direction of the door—of the concert hall beyond.  “That performance,” he stated, his tone telling her plainly that she ought to have already realized as much.


She didn’t look like she understood what was so obviously bothering him, though.  “It was . . . was flawless—well, almost . . .”


Snorting indelicately, he crossed his arms over his chest before he gave in to the rising urge to grab her and shake her.  “Technically, maybe,” he allowed.  “It was also completely lifeless and dull.”


Shocked, that’s what she seemed, by the bluntness of his assessment.  “Professor Armand said it was—”


“That idiot trains people to play the same way—identically—so that every single person’s performance is completely devoid of personality, even if it is ‘technically correct’.”


“He’s regarded as a master,” she said, her tone haughtier than the expression on her face that bespoke a level of confusion that had yet to dissipate, an uncertainty that worked better than anything to curb his overall disgust.


“What I heard from you the other night was something worth remembering,” Zain said, continuing to scowl at her, willing her to understand what he was trying to tell her.  “What you did tonight?  If I closed my eyes and listened, I would never have guessed that your performance was done by the same person.  It sounded as clinical as the recordings made to study, not to enjoy.  Do you even know the difference?”


She didn’t look like she did, and she slowly shook her head.  “He said—”


“Forget what he said,” Zain insisted stubbornly, striding over to her, grasping her hand, dragging her over to the piano.  She shot him a questioning glance, and he shook his head, letting go of her long enough to push her down on the stool.  “Play it again,” he commanded, “but this time, just play.  Don’t worry about the technicalities, just like the last time.”


“But I just—”


“Do it.”


She stared back at him for a minute, the confusion still lingering in her lending her eyes a certain brightness.  For a moment, she looked like she might well argue with him.  Maybe she realized that he was dead serious.  Maybe she was curious as to what, exactly, he was trying to tell her.  Whatever the reason, she lifted her hands, turned her head back to stare at the piano, then she closed her eyes and started to play.


Stuffing his hands into his pockets, Zain frowned as he watched her.  The beginning was just as stiff and lifeless as her performance had been, but as she played, she seemed to remember what he’d said to her about not over-thinking it, about just playing the piece.


It began slowly, almost cautiously, like a flower breaking through the soil in the springtime as her emotion flowed from her fingers into the piano to evoke something altogether different.  Like before, the sense of her grew steadily as she seemed to forget the things around her—maybe that she even had any kind of audience, at all.  The emotion was different from the first time she’d played for him, and that was all right, too.  It was enough that he felt an instant surge of relief, that the cookie-cutter performance that she’d just given might well be a fluke, after all.


But why did it bother him so damn much . . .?


It would be easy to tell himself that he simply hated the idea of someone with her innate talent being told by anyone, master or not, that she needed to conform to someone else’s irresponsible opinion of ‘perfect’, and he might even believe himself, at least for a little while.  That wasn’t it, though, was it?  Unlike many musicians, her piano possessed a voice, and it was as unforgettable as the woman herself.  It was that voice that had been silenced at some point between the first time he’d heard her and tonight, and that was what had goaded him out of his seat in the concert hall and into this room, and if he had his way, it was a voice that she would never, ever silence again . . .


There was a strange sort of melancholy that he could sense, though, a level of misplaced sadness that he could sense despite the paradox that it created within the framework of the given music.  It made no more sense than she did, yet all of it somehow felt familiar to him, too . . .


She finished to perfect silence, her fingers still lingering on the keyboard, and she sighed softly—a sound that was not meant for him to hear.  The small smile that quirked her lips was also not meant for him.  Still, the expression made him want to smile, too.


She let her head fall back as she slowly opened her eyes to gaze at the ceiling.  Slowly, she rolled her head slightly, locking those blue eyes with his, and the secretive little smile did not falter.  “Thank you,” she said, her voice barely audible.


Zain blinked and shook his head slightly, just enough to tell her that he wasn’t sure why she was thanking him, at all.


She uttered a husky little laugh.  “I’ve been practicing for tonight,” she said simply, shoulders bobbing as she sat up straighter and sighed, “but it feels like this is the first time I’ve played all week.”  She laughed again, the sound stronger, more of a normal show of amusement.  “I almost forgot how much I love it . . .” Trailing off as she continued to stare at him, her smile suddenly disappeared as her cheeks pinked up once more.  “I-I mean, playing piano, that is,” she blurted.


Zain chuckled.  “You shouldn’t ever forget,” he told her.


Blinking a few times, she seemed almost surprised, but then, she smiled again.  “Thank you for the flowers.  They’re beautiful.”


“You’re welcome.  I’m glad you like them.”


She nodded as she slowly rose to her feet once more, as the gentle scent of her came to him: of summer sun and grass, drying in a warm breeze . . . clean and simple . . .


She laughed again, gnawing on her lower lip in a rather nervous sort of way.  “You’re missing the rest of the recital,” she pointed out.  Did she hear the hint of reluctance in her tone?  Somehow, he doubted that she did.


“Ah . . . So I am.”  He inclined his head to her, then started to turn to go, but as he reached for the door knob, he stopped.  “You wouldn’t happen to be hungry, would you?”


For a split second, he thought that she was going to decline, but then she smiled again—a true, genuine smile, albeit a little on the nervous side.  “I . . . I am,” she ventured, her gaze skittering away to light on the floor off to the left, but that smile widened just a bit.


He waited for her while she carefully retrieved the flowers and held the door for her.  She paused long enough to cast him another timid smile, and he shut off the light before offering her his elbow and escorting her out of the concert hall.


 <<<05: Obsession

07: Moonlight >>>



All the characters in The Fulcrum belong to me.
Any similarities to any person, alive or dead, real or implied, are coincidental.



posted by Sueric at 12:14 am  

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