Each piano is like a new stage partner. They may have experience and know the song to play, but they all move differently. The spacing, weight and sound of the keys — so different every time under Mahala’s fingers. Yet, she always played perfectly.
To play well did not mean you were a musical genius. If she had a piece she needed for a performance, she would practice rigorously every day for five hours, until she could do it blindfolded. In less formal performances, she’d even let children blindfold her.
Mahala barely breathed whenever her fingers jumped the octave. It was easy to slip. One wrong note could sour the whole ambiance.
Faster and faster. At this point, muscle memory gave way to her fingers. The right hand blurred in a trill. Left hand — staccato. Pedal kissed on the end of every quaver set. She landed on the final chord and finally let out a breath.
A second breath and she heard the applause.
At that, she slowly got up from her seat. Her bow was as well rehearsed as the piece.
The banquet hall was decorated with giant crystal chandeliers and large green silk banners; the colours of their Lord Protector. The sea of faces were familiar; wealthy philanthropists, successful businessmen and former lords of power. It didn’t matter what noble blood anyone had anymore. All had been rendered equal in Pomolin.
“I want to be just like you, Lady Pomolin,” a sweet-faced girl said from the edge of the stage, a bouquet overwhelming her arms.
Mahala accepted the bouquet, trading it with several wrapped sweets from her pocket. “Aren’t you precious?”
The girl cupped her hands, cradling the sweets like they were gold. Mahala pinched the girl’s cheek — and nearly dropped the bouquet, seeing sharp teeth and a forked tongue.
No, no, no. Not now—
A new voice boomed on stage. “Our Lady of Pomolin, everyone!”
The event organiser Mr Hugonin had joined them, one hand on the girl’s head, the other gesturing to Mahala. A second round of applause followed along with a cascade of flashing lights from the photographers.
“Thank you, milady,” the girl said, candy trapped between a normal tongue and milk teeth.
Mahala remembered her smile, but she could no longer look at the girl. She let Hugonin help her back to her feet but quickly excused her hands to hold the flowers up to her face, feeling her sweat-drenched palms and burning cheeks. It was getting hard to breathe. She could swear the room was heating up by the second.
This wasn’t how I remembered it.
A large gloved hand touched the crook of her arm.
“My lady, this way,” Luck said.
She met with the crowd and shook hands. She had spent all of the previous night memorising names, so she was already a little dizzy. But she kept going with the knowledge Luck wouldn’t let her stumble. He moved faster than she could blink — he would always save her.
The evening stretched on - six o’clock and seven o’clock trawled by at a snail’s pace. She clapped politely through the other performances by distinguished dignitaries.
Despite the winter frost coming, Mahala felt hot, sweating profusely. The banquet hall was getting smaller. Were damp patches coming through her dress? There was no reason for it to be so warm. Everyone smiled with cool skin in their finest fashion. The clothes fused together in her blurring vision. Was that a fur jacket? A satin shirt, or skirt?
Can’t leave now. That’d be rude… Smile, applaud the other performances, and remember to speak to…
“It is always a great honour to see you play, my lady!” Hugonin said between mouthfuls of finger food. There was a brooch where his pocket square should have been — the decorative handkerchief found its way on a woman’s collar instead.
“Thank you for putting together such a beautiful venue,” Mahala said, trying not to blink overmuch. “Are your men still counting the final figures for the funds we raised?”
“The children will have hot showers all winter, I can guarantee that! A special thanks to your generous donation of course.”
“The Lord Protector claims all orphans as his children, and so they are my siblings. It’s only sensible I do what I can.” Mahala’s words came out more wooden than she intended. They were callused on her tongue from every charitable event. Her mind was fuzzy, full of cotton, the final trills, and nothing else.
Luck’s shadow casted over Mahala and Hugonin.
“My lady. You have been called back to the office,” he said curtly. His words were muffled and deep behind his half-mask.
Hugonin took a step back, adjusting his collar as he averted his gaze from Luck. He always cut an imposing figure; impossibly tall, broad shouldered, in a severe black coat with the hood up, leaving his pallid face in shadow.
“Oh my, it must be urgent coming this late,” Hugonin coughed. “Alas, the Lady of Pomolin is needed everywhere.”
“Excuse us,” Luck said.
“G-Goodnight, Mr Hugonin,” Mahala said as Luck pulled her away.
The crowded banquet hall parted like the edge of a storm. No one dared approach Mahala too closely when her homunculus bodyguard was doggedly marching forward. She could feel the warmth from his body next to her yet he carried the scent of frozen air.
“Do I actually have a call?” she whispered.
“No, but I would advise you to have one with a doctor. You look feverish.” His words were a touch tender whenever it was just them.
“You shouldn’t lie, Luck. Besides, I’m fine.”
“Then we are both lying, my lady. Oh, the scandal.”
Mahala laughed a little. “Shush, people can hear us!”
They had stepped outside, and the night was cool on her face. She breathed in fresh crisp air. It was quiet in the parking lot, nowhere near time for the guests to leave. Her motorcar hummed to life while her chauffeur dusted some snow off the windscreen.
Her eyes caught a large poster by the entrance with her face on it. Redstone Homes presents: The Children of Pomolin Charity Gala starring Lady Mahala Pesh. A printed perfect smile stared back at her, decorated with silky black hair, smooth brown skin, golden eyes, rosy lips. She saw her face more on posters and newspapers than in a mirror nowadays.
There was something underneath the poster with her face.
She frowned, and approached it to peel it off, her blood bellowing in her ears.
A giant scaled beast emerged from the poster, with its jaw hanging wide open, showing sharp teeth with a long forked tongue. Behind its singed clothes, she saw an angry red vein curled up on its chest.
New text was spilling out with her. SIGNS OF THE WYRM PLAGUE: large red veins on chest, scaled skin, elliptical pupils, a forked tongue, sharp claws.
She jumped back. The suffocating heat was back in her throat.
The beast’s claws carved jagged lines along the stone. Sharp golden eyes followed her. It screeched — broken glass, fingernails on a chalkboard, an angry animal. “Ghhhh….” The hanging jaw made it hard for it to vocalise. It leered closer. “GHHH….”