God commanded the man:
“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden…”
“…but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil…”
“…for if you eat from it, you will surely die.”
Pale white hands dance delicately against the ivory keys, fluttering gently along its length, fingers in motion with such precision and melody it seems unfeasible that human hands could produce such beauty. A subtle crescendo here, a flamboyant glissando there – such contrast and grace that it seems to have enraptured all that listened. As the left hand becomes a harmonic progression, the right eases to a gentle series of major arpeggios and soft trills, as if at ease. The piano lulls to a gentle mezzo piano, and the pipe organ, perched midway above the stairs coming from the grand ballroom, takes the spotlight.
Rich, powerful music fills the ballroom, the lower octaves of the organ bellowing out with the boisterous sounds of a well-rehearsed plein-jeu. The small but fierce passage ends with a typical plagal cadence, remotely uncertain in its execution. It was simultaneously grand, but almost inscrutable – the sound was intended to be animalistic, but as to which animal, I could not tell.
The piano responds with timidity, an uncertain series of chords at having being so startled. After a few subtle phrases, the confident self re-emerged, reinvigorated at the prospect of a challenger, especially one as strong as the “monster that never breathes.” The piano breaks into a steady stride, culminating in an impetuous sforzando.
The organ asserts its dominance, roaring its challenge as its player shifts her shoulders slightly, moving them imperiously, if not pretentiously, in time with the music. Emotive, but unnecessary, the hallmark of any true performer. I chuckle slightly under my breath. What one could tell by just observing another performing their art.
Truly poetry in motion.
It was beautiful, but simultaneously, I could not help but to consider among the music’s merits the player’s character.
As the music fades to a gentle, conciliatory finish, the two young ladies at the helm of each instrument step from their corresponding platforms, and curtsy politely to what had been a responsive audience.
After a momentary silence, rapturous applause fills the room. I clap softly, politely but with restraint, as not to mirror the crowd’s mindless enthusiasm. I did not consider myself a connoisseur of music, but I could always appreciate the Rose Sisters’ music, if not their respective personas.
I scan the room to estimate the number of people. Sixteen round tables; each seating fourteen people. 224 approximately. Meanwhile, the two women resume their seats.
A new person steps up to the stage, none other than my own agent, the enigmatic figure known only as Miss Green. For as long as I could remember, she had been a mentoring, an almost motherly figure since the birth of the organization that I worked for, the Praxis Pragmata.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, a brief intermission. There will be canapés and drinks, presented by our cast of wonderful serving staff.”
She gestures grandly to a multitude of tuxedoed men and corseted women, little more than servants of the Praxis. A polite and quiet round of applause echoes through the room, and women and men leave their seats, chatting excitedly.
I quickly leave my own seat and drag myself to a quieter corner, to process my thoughts better. I stand there, aimlessly for a few minutes, half-heartedly memorizing my speech, before I notice a waiter advancing towards me with obvious intent.
“Champagne, sir?” He leans forward and beckons slightly with a serving plate filled with glasses of yellow, bubbly liquid.
I glance towards the waiter. Champagne? Did I really seem that pompous?
“Zinfandel,” I say, turning my attentions to reciting the speech I was about to deliver. I wait for a second as the waiter trots off in the opposite direction.
But it is not long before I am once again interrupted, this time by someone even more unpleasant than the waiter. A tall, wiry man sidles alongside me, cradling in his oversized hands a crystal glass of sickly sweet alcohol.
“Naïve little fools, aren’t they?” Rubin York says, his voice thick with an acquired and posh English accent, emanating from just over my shoulder. I turn, cautiously, and watch him sipping pompously from his glass of champagne. “ They are like little automatons…little toy soldiers marching around in their smart outfits. So servile and slavish…so inferior.”
He chuckles, lightly. Rolls the words around in his tongue, appreciating the alliteration with little or no concern for the others around him. Lazily, languidly he descends into a strange state where his eyes become out of focus.
Then he notices me again.
“Ah…Lucian. How nice to see you. Seeing as Matthias is unlikely to even produce a work by the end of the night, you’re in strong running to be the Princeps. But lets not forget my latest project.” He puffed out his chest haughtily, arrogance in his tone. “Although, after that performance by the Rose sisters, you’ve got some strong contenders.”
The two women, as if on cue, creep behind Rubin with the aim of surprising him.
“Speak of the devil,” Rubin says, grinning, turning around to face the two.
“Rubin, you’re just so perceptive,” the first twin croons, wrapping her long cream white fingers around his shoulders. “We can never get the jump on you.”
“All we want is to surprise you just once,” the other says, pouting petulantly.
“Now, now ladies, I was just talking to Lucian over here about what a great performance you just had.”
I was in a cynical mood, yes. But even normally, I was simply “not up” for such shallow social interaction. I had to concentrate on the task at hand, and that definitely meant not letting Rubin get inside my head.
“Rubin, if you’re here for small talk, I have neither the time or interest in it.” I say, rather bluntly. I turn away from all three of them, hearing parting whispers of ‘halfborn’ and ‘peasant’. I retreat to one of the sizeable bathrooms that line the ballroom, taking great care to close the door firmly behind me.
Slowly, I pull a palm card from my blazer pocket, memorizing each scripted, phony line. I hated it, but it had to be done. As I pull the second one, my fingers latch onto another object.
I pull out a portrait of my mother. Rubin was right; she was an atheist. But I feel no shame. Why should I? I smile a little at the picture, noticing that she shares my eyes. I had told very few people about it; it was somewhat of a dirty secret.
Suddenly, I feel as if I am being watched. I sneak a slow, clandestine glance over my shoulder and jump slightly as I notice that a waiter has soundlessly entered the bathroom.
I whip the photo back into my pocket, and turn to face the waiter furiously. His face turns a lighter shade almost instantly.
“Why in the blazing heavens are you doing here? Did you not think to knock before you entered? What are you doing being a waiter if you cannot wait for a person to come out of a toilet, you fool?”
The waiter manages a meek smile, but I am already fuming. “Pardon, Mr. Lamperouge. But I thought you might want your Zinfandel.”
“But in the bathroom? Are you out of your mind?” I roar into his face. He turns a deathly pallor.
I breathe heavily, and then adjust my tie with shaking hands. “But where are my manners?” He seems shocked at my sudden change in demeanor. “Well then, thank you for the Zinfandel.” I smile grimly, and he returns it with some uncertainty. He looks positively mortified.
“And thank you for your years of service. But you are no longer of any use to us. Now, if you would go pack your things, as I can imagine that by tomorrow you shall be officially unemployed.”
“Sir, please!” he begs, pleadingly, after an unbelieving pause. I stare at him for a second longer before deciding that I no longer appreciate his presence.
“Go.” I state simply, turning away from the man. I hear the shuffling of resigned footsteps, and the slamming of the bathroom door, before my shoulders slump from the overload of tension. I let out a sigh, feeling the burden of too many days of continuous work pile upon me at once. Lord knows how many hours of preparation, how many sleepless nights, I had put into my paintings, and into this one speech.
What for, you might ask? Why, to be the Princeps, of course. The Princeps, you see, earns ten times more than any other member of the Praxis, and considering that technically there were five members of Praxis (when there was really four since the Rose Sisters were nigh inseparable) you would think that competition would not be such a large issue. However, in the last few years, Matthias Wiltshire, the resident sculptor, had been dominant in the Auction, having secured profit margins unparalleled by any of the other artisan, including myself.
I did not dislike him for this; it was not in my nature to be jealous. Rather, I found that Matthias, other than Miss Green, was the only half decent person in the Praxis. That was because the rest, namely Rubin and the Sisters, happened to be elitist, obsequious sycophants.
Matthias was truly a freak of nature, with his “God-blessed” ability of extreme savantism. If you were to give him a block of wood and a chisel, he could make a perfect, to scale replica of Michelangelo’s “David” without breaking a sweat. Unfortunately, more often than not he had no inclination to do anything other than sleep. It was as if he was suspended within a pool of ennui.
But I had to get back to the ball. The intermission was a mere twenty minutes, and I was to make my speech immediately after Miss Green had made hers. I quickly splash my face with cold water and adjust my tie as I walk out.
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