This category was judged by Laura Vosika.
Enjoy, and keep up the good writing, Sierra and Rachael!
|Cover by Kate Flournoy|
“Announcing the arrival of His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Vladamir Varatin, of Eslos.” The herald’s voice rings out over the chattering assembly, and I stride towards the grand staircase as the prince descends.
“Vlad,” I greet, grinning and gripping his hand in a firm handshake. “Good to see you again.”
He shakes my hand, his look almost mischievous as he gestures to the room. “Feeling claustrophobic yet? Or are you enjoying the crowd?”
I laugh. “Claustrophobic? Me?”
“No, of course not. Have you asked anyone to dance yet? Or just skulked around the refreshment table?” Dropping his arm around my shoulder, he steers me to the left, waving with his other hand to some noble.
I roll my eyes, ducking out from under his arm. “I don’t skulk. I observe. And yes, in fact, I was just dancing with Princess Clumsyfoot.”
“Oh,” Vlad scolds, shaking his head. “That’s not nice, not nice at all. Low, even.”
“It’s nothing personal against her,” I wave my hand, snagging a drink from the table. “Averanda’s sweet, beautiful- and she’ll admit it herself, she can’t dance to save her life.”
“Well not everyone can be as perfect as you, dear NIkolai.” In one smooth move, he takes the drink out of my hands and tips his head back, draining it. “Some of us have a little thing called imperfection.”
“You would know all about that, eh?” I punch his shoulder, picking up another glass and raising it to my mouth before he can take this one too. A flash of red catches the corner of my eye, and I glance over, choking slightly on my drink.
The newcomer holds a violin in her hand, and her bow in her other, standing in the doorway for a moment, her eyes going around the room as if taking it in. She moves towards the musicians stage, slowly at first, then a bit quicker. Gathering her scarlet skirt in one hand, she steps onto the stage, moving behind a stand and raising her violin to her chin.
I’m frozen, spellbound as the first note slides from the strings. The ballroom quiets slightly as the girl continues to play, her music sweeping through the room. Her eyes close as she plays by ear, ignoring the music on her stand, her left hands shifting on the strings while her right holds the bow. After a few more bars, she starts to sway with the music, tilting her head to the side.
I slowly set my glass on the table behind me, feeling the music tug at something deep inside of me, an ache I didn’t even know I had. I can’t take my eyes off of her.
“Nik,” Vlad interrupts, his hand on my shoulder, shaking me. “Snap out of it. It’s pretty but not that pretty.”
I turn my head, blinking at him. “What, are you deaf, man?”
“It’s a violin, but great stars she’s gorgeous,” Vlad says, his voice almost too loud. “You should ask her to dance.”
“No way,” I hit him again. “You want me to just go up and interrupt her?”
“After then,” he shoots, smacking the back of my head. “Or you can just gawk the whole night, eh?”
“I wasn’t gawking,” I shoot back. “I was appreciating her music.”
“Her fa-Music! Sorry!” Vladimir coughs loudly, hitting his chest dramatically. “I choked, excuse me.”
“Get out of here, man,” I shove him away, laughing.
“No! I’m gonna ask if you won’t,” Vlad threatens, grabbing my arm and shoving me forwards a step. “Go on!”
“No!” I hiss. “Not until she’s finished playing, at least.”
“She’s staring at you,” Vlad hisses, his grin widening. “Right now, she’s staring at you.”
I turn my head. She is indeed staring at me, her dark eyes almost stormy as she raises her eyebrows, her painted mouth never moving along with the rest of her face.
I nod politely to her, tearing my eyes away and giving Vlad a shove. “She’s staring at you, imbecile. Because we’re being disruptive while she’s trying to play.”
Snorting, Vlad shakes his head, nodding at her. “The song ended and-” Something close to terror fills his face, and he whips his head around for a minute, dragging me back. “She’s coming this way!”
“Moron,” I hiss, yanking my arm away. “Still going to ask her to dance?”
“No! I didn’t actually think-I messed up her song she’s going to murder me! Did you see her eyes? They were scary!”
“Crown Prince Nikolai,” a soft voice greets, and I turn, running a hand through my hair, to see that the violinist is the one speaking. Her expression is unreadable, and she holds her head up proudly.
“Yes?” I respond smoothly. “My friend and I were just remarking on your lovely performance, lady...”
“Sophia,” she answers, matching my tone.
I swear if Vlad makes some smart remark to ruin this I will murder him.
I flash her a smile. “Your music is lovely, Lady Sophia.”
“Ah, but it’s not mine,” she corrects, her lips parting in a smile. “It’s the violin’s. A true musician would know this, so I assume you don’t play?”
“Regrettably I do not.” I shake my head. “I love music, but I’m afraid I am completely incapable of producing it.”
What am I waiting for? She's standing in front of me, those dark eyes looking right at me, and we’re carrying on a conversation about music. Why haven’t I asked her to dance yet?
I’m trying to string together the words to do so when she speaks again. “Would you care to dance, Prince Nikolai, or do you already have a line waiting?”
“With you, it would be a pleasure,” I respond. “There is no line.”
Not that I wouldn’t let you cut it if there were.
Taking my left hand in hers, she leads me to the center of the room, sliding her hand over my shoulder.
I slip my other hand on her waist, and the dance begins. Her smile grows the slightest bit as she steps back, then to the side, following the steps of the dance.
“Your dancing is nearly as lovely as your music.” I say softly, raising my arm as she twirls under it. The bottom of her skirt twists around her ankles.
“Not as lovely as the violin, I know that, but when one’s trained under the great Marrelini, you learn it all,” she answers.
“Marrelini?” I echo, surprised. “How did you manage to study under him? Not that you aren’t qualified, of course, but he hardly ever accepts a student.”
“Note hardly,” she almost whispers, her eyes sparkling at this. “There are exceptions.”
“Aye,” I murmur. “You certainly are that.”
“So you’re a lover of music while not a musician,” the girl continues, dropping her eyes down to the floor.
“Aye,” I say again. “I’ve tried. I can hear the music, but it doesn’t come for me.”
We part for a moment, twirling with another couple. I catch sight of Vlad in the corner of my eye, his expression dark. Then Sophia and I are back together again, and my eyes are only on her.
“The music comes for who it wants,” she answers, her fingertips on the palm of my hand as she circles me, her skirt spinning again. “Although it can be persuaded.”
“You seem to have found the key to its heart.” I comment. “It comes beautifully for you.”
“It took me many years, two to even produce something average people would call amazing, but something Marrelini described as ‘the beginning.”
“Have you studied under him for long?”
“Tonight marks my fifth year,” she explains, looking up at me while still somehow keeping her gaze on the ground. “You only get five years, Crown Prince, with the payment at the end.”
The dance ends, and I bow to her, lightly kissing her hand. “It was a pleasure, Lady Sophia. I hope you’ll reserve a dance for me later in the evening?”
“And you,” she returns, her hand still over mine as she pulls me towards the stage, releasing my hand and gathering her skirt again as she climbs on it. The violin sits on her unused chair, and she takes it and the bow again, stepping down and tucking it under her chin. “Any requests, Prince Nikolai?”
I pause for a moment, considering. “Do you know Melody of Home?”
She shakes her head, resting her bow on her violin. “But if you hum a bar or two, I can pick it out and play a version of it.”
“I can try.” I pause for a moment, calling the song to mind. It takes a second for me to find the right tune, but I begin to hum softly, hardly doing the bright tune justice.
Her smile grows again, and she takes it over for me, the trembling of the string filling the room. Eyes shutting again, she sways to the music, fingers dancing over the strings.
My eyes slide shut as well as the music sweeps through me, and it occurs to me that I’ve never heard true music played until tonight. As it picks up a bit, she spins around, the full bottom of her skirt spinning as she twirls through the people, her fingers plucking now.
I glance over to Vlad at the refreshment table, raising my eyebrows and smirking as if to say, “I told you her music was incredible.” Vlad rolls his eyes, his arm around Princess Averanda.
“Was that the song?” Sophia asks, her tone breathless.
I laugh, looking back at her. She’s radiant with the afterglow of the music. “It was perfect.” I respond.
“Then would you care to try?” Holding out the violin, she raises her eyebrows, eyes taunting.
I hold up my hands, shaking my head and laughing. “I’ve told you, I can’t play.”
Tucking it back under her chin, Sophia uses her bow hand to pluck the strings, creating a riff of sorts, the same notes over and over. Half way through her third bar, she spins the bow in her fingers, dragging it across the strings in a long note. Her fingers shift, and the same note changes keys, almost piercing.
Have you ever heard a violin cry? It’s the most haunting sound you can imagine.
The notes drip from her bow like tears, and I can do nothing but stare at her. She’s incredible. Unbelievable. I applaud when she’s finished. Movement out of the corner of my eye draws my attention. Vlad approaches, his smirk half forced, half annoyed.
“Got up the guts to do it then?” He asks, clapping me on the shoulder.
“Can't imagine what you're referring to,” I respond coolly. “Lady Sophia, this is Crown Prince Vladamir of Eslos. Vlad, the lady Sophia.”
“I remember you,” she says, her voice friendly as she softens her notes to almost inaudible. “You were the one attempting to hide earlier.”
“From the lady Averanda,” he says quickly, gesturing to where she is. “And yet you can’t avoid someone forever, eh?”
Sophia gives a nod, her eyes flickering towards me. I clear my throat, asking pointedly, “Was there something you wished to speak with me about, Vlad?”
Looking back at me, Vlad snorts softly, shaking his head and turning. “No, enjoy the music,” he throws over his shoulder, disappearing in the crowd without another word.
I turn back to Sophia, shaking my head. “Don't mind him, he's just… Well he's Vlad.”
“I'm not,” she says simply, flashing me a small smile. “He can't hear the music.”
“Not at all.” I snort. “He'd barely admit your playing was ‘pretty’ earlier.”
“If you truly appreciate it, Prince Nikolai,” she begins, lowering her violin, “then you’re special. You have befriended the music in some way.”
I’m not sure what to say to this. She speaks of the music as if it’s a living thing, something who chooses who it befriends. I’m not sure I agree, though the concept fascinates me.
Sophia fascinates me.
I must have hesitated too long, because she speaks again. “You don’t think that music chooses people?” She asks, her voice curious as she mounts the stage again, setting her violin down on a stand.
“I think there are some people with a unique ability to hear the music in the air. The sounds of everyday life line up for them, and they can pick out patterns and songs in the ordinary sounds. And some people,” I gesture to her and her violin. “Can take those song-sounds they hear, and spin them into music. But they’re only sounds and a gifted ear to hear them.”
Her smile is almost amused, and Sophia walks to the edge of the stage, looking down at me. “And that, Prince Nikolai, is why you’re the listener and I’m the musician.”
I smile. “And I’m happy to leave it at that.”
“Prince Nikolai,” a servant clears his throat, and I turn, arching a questioning eyebrow at him.
“Yes, what is it?”
“The king has requested your presence, your highness.”
“Thank you. Tell him I’ll be over in a moment.” I sigh, nodding and turning back to Sophia. “Well, duty calls.”
“Aye, it does, as the music does,” she almost teases, her eyes sparkling. “I hope to see you again sometime, Prince Nikolai?”
“I look forward to it.” My smile is genuine. “Would you ever consider a position here? Royal musician?”
“Perhaps,” she says, interest sliding into her voice. “Since my term with my teacher is up. Isn’t there another who’s better than I that you could choose?”
“I have heard no one better than you in all my days.” I respond, sketching a bow in her direction. “Would you return, say, tomorrow? Early afternoon?”
“I’ll be there,” she answers, fingers around her violin again. “Enjoy your night, Prince Nikolai.”
“And you, yours.” Reluctantly, I turn and make my way to my father, the faint strings of violin music trailing after me.
A soft, mournful song.
“So your entertainment left and now you’re moping around the room,” Vlad calls, hitting me with his shoulder. “Eh?”
“I don’t mope, Vlad.” I roll my eyes, allowing them to wander over the room again. Sophia left early, while I was speaking with my father. I can only hope she’s alright, that nothing happened to have made her leave so suddenly. A beautiful girl like her, on her own as far as I could tell…
“Nik, Nik,” Vlad repeats, shaking my shoulder. ”Quit tuning out, you’re zoning.”
“I am not.” I frown. “I heard everything you said.”
“What did I last say?” Vlad challenges, snorting softly.
“Last you told me to stop tuning out.” I shoot back. His scowl darkens his face, and he steps back.
“Well now I’m telling you to go find your little music girl,” he spits. “Go find her if that’s all who you want.”
“Why?” I snap back. “Jealous?”
“That you’re madly in love with a girl who came in here and played the violin? Whose face isn’t even real? Right.” Shaking his head, Vlad turns away, walking off towards Averanda.”
I stare after him for a moment. How dare he!
I don’t remember shoving my way through the crowd, but I must, because my hand is on his shoulder and I’m yanking him around. “You take that back.”
“Why? Take what back? The fact that she was so made up you don’t even know what her real face looks like?” He snaps, shoving my hand away.
“What do you have against her?” I shove him back a step. “You’re allowed to snap over a well meant jest at Averanda, but then you turn around and call Sophia fake? Her music is beautiful, you just can’t hear it.”
“Get out of here,” he growls, fighting to keep his voice in check. “I don’t want to get into a fist fight in the middle of a ball, Nik.”
“If there’s a fight tonight, you’ll be the one to have started it.” I spit at him.
Shaking his head, Vlad pushes my hand off, storming off into the crowd. My fist clenches, but this time I let him go.
I stroll through the halls the next morning, idly running a hand through my hair. I didn’t mention a specific time to meet Sophia, but now I almost wish I had. She could come at any time during the “early afternoon,” and I’m starting to get jumpy. It doesn’t help that I haven’t seen or spoken to Vlad since we nearly fought last night. Not that I want to.
Not until he takes back his insults towards Sophia.
“Prince Nikolai,” Sophia greets from behind me, her footsteps quick.
I turn smoothly, offering her a smile. I might not have recognized her at a glance, she looks… different this morning. She no longer wears all the flashy makeup from last night, though it’s done nothing to change the fact that she’s still the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.
See? Vlad was wrong. She’s not fake.
“Good morning, m’lady.” I offer her my arm, and she slips her hand around it, the corners of her mouth pulling upwards in a smile. “You’re early.”
“Did we set an exact time?” She asks, her tone implying that she knows the answer.
“No.” I smile down at her. “You look beautiful this morning.”
“Contrary to last night? Or are you simply saying that and you preferred how I looked last night?”
“No!” I shake my head quickly. “You looked beautiful then, and you look just as beautiful now.”
Smile widening the slightest bit, Sophia nods to me. “Thank you, Prince Nikolai. And did you have to form a line last night to dance with others?”
“I managed.” I tell her. “I looked for you, but you left early. I hope all is well?”
“Of course,” she hurries to assure, nodding. “I played a last song and then took my leave for someone else to play.”
“None of them compared to you.”
A small laugh comes from her, and she nudges me, raising her eyebrows. “I doubt that.”
I shrug, grinning. “It’s the truth.” I can feel the corners of my mouth pulling down into a frown, remembering Vlad’s words. “Even if some people are too deaf to hear it.”
“Do not be dissuaded by those who don’t appreciate music, Nikolai. It’s not their fault.
I tip my head in acknowledgement, shoving Vlad from my thoughts. It’s too lovely a morning to dwell on his words.
Unfortunately the morning sours as he walks into my line of sight. His eyes flicker to Sophia, but there’s no recognition as he stops, dipping into a half bow. “I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure,” he says mildly, glancing at me. I grit my teeth, clenching my fists to avoid punching him right in his smug face.
A short, breathless laugh escapes Sophia, and she ducks her head, letting her long hair slip in front of her face. “Lady Sophia, the violinist,” she sighs, still chuckling. Vlad’s face goes from pleasant to blank as he stares at her, eyes squinting.
“Oh…” He says slowly, nodding at the same pace.
I’m glaring daggers at him, but he hasn’t looked at me since his poorly disguised insult a moment ago. “I’ve asked Lady Sophia here to consider the position of Royal Musician,” I tell him pointedly. “Her music last night showed her to far surpass the previous one. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Vlad mutters, scowling darkly at me.
“Not everyone loves music as you and I do,” Sophia says quietly, her finger brushing against my arm.
I pat her hand, arching an eyebrow at Vlad as if to say, “Ready to apologize yet?” He rolls his eyes, brushing past me and stalking down the hall.
I scowl, shaking my head. “I’m so sorry.” I tell Sophia softly. “I don’t know what he has against you. His behaviour is… he’s not usually like this.”
“It’s quite alright. Although I do have a request before I consider working at the pala ce,” she answers, lifting her head up and letting her straight, sleek hair fall back.
“What is it?” I ask, looking down into her sparkling eyes.
“You have to hear the music in the place it sounds best,” she says, almost a whisper. “In the place where I can best play it.”
I break into a smile. “It would be an honor.”
I follow Sophia through the forest, softly humming the song she played last night. It swirls around and around in my head, looping and winding around my thoughts, brightening the colors of the scene around me. The sun beats down on us, though the trees shield us from its full fury, and birds chirp their respective songs, lending themselves to the melody swelling inside of me.
I glance at Sophia, my heart skipping a beat or three. It's a beautiful morning, and I’m here with a beautiful girl, in a beautiful forest bubbling with music.
I’ve never been happier.
I might even, if I’m being honest with myself, admit the truth.
I’m falling for this girl. And I’m falling hard.
“Here,” she tells me, stopping in front of a cave opening. “This is the beginning of it. Are you scared of the dark?” A teasing smile pulls at her mouth, and she watches me.
“Not a bit,” I smile back. “Lead on.”
Slipping inside, she slips her hand into mine, pulling me through the first tunnel and turning a corner. “Have you ever seen a stone amphitheater before, Nikolai?”
I shake my head. “No, never.”
“It’s the most beautiful place you could ever go to hear music,” she sighs, the light around her growing as we near another opening.
“I look forward to it.” I hold my free hand up to shield my eyes, the light blinding even though we’ve spent only a few minutes in the tunnels.
Sophia stops in the entrance of the amphitheater, blocking the view with herself as she steps around me. “And you’re not going to pass out? From the music?”
“I hope not.” I respond, laughing slightly. Slipping her hand to my arm, she steps back, pulling me with her as she reveals the stone amphitheater.
My breath catches. “It is beautiful,” I murmur, gazing around.
Her fingers are around her violin again, and she raises it, drawing out the first note. Just as quickly, it fades, and she drags it across again, changing up the notes into a haunting pattern.
I’m frozen, spellbound. I can’t move, breathe, speak, as the aching inside stirs again. It swells in time with the music, tearing at my heart even as the music fills in the holes.
Her grey dress falls above her knees, spinning just as the red one did as she twists from side to side, her head tilting back again.
I understand now why she asked if I would pass out. I might yet.
A tear slides down my cheek, and I swallow past the rock in my throat. I’m so empty. The music is filling me, and I never want her to stop playing.
But she does. Her bowing becomes slower, more soft, and she's obviously finishing the song as tears run down her own face.
No, don't stop. My heart begs her, though I can't find the breath to voice my plea aloud. The music is receding and the chasm it's opened inside of me is threatening to swallow me whole.
The music fades slowly, barely even there now.
The music fades, and I fade with it.
I’m lost in a swirling fog of grey.
Sophia’s words twist their way through the mist to me. A whisper, a breath, a plea. “I’m sorry, Crown Prince. The payment was due.”
I can’t quite process her words. They dance around me, and I’m too empty to care. The last notes of the song drift to me, the mournful sound of the violin twining around me and pulling tight. I’d cry if I had the tears.
Then suddenly the notes stop, cut off with a screech. In the absence of the music, I dimly hear scuffling, shouts, a loud splintering sound.
Then fire races through me, and I am hurled back into the amphitheater. Someone is screaming, and someone else is yelling, and the harsh sounds tear at me. My hands fumble to cover my ears, and I lurch forwards, choking.
I can’t breath, can’t hear, can’t get enough air. Someone help. Someone help me.
Someone grips my shoulder and Vlad shakes me, his voice rough. Reaching up, he pulls my hands off of my ears, shaking me again.
I blink at him. “Vlad?” I croak, my voice hoarse.
“Yeah, you ok?” He waves his hand in front of my face, forehead furrowed.
No. No I’m not.
“What’d you do?” I manage instead. My eyes flicker over the scene in front of me, and I rub my hands over my face, tangling my fingers in my hair. Sophia kneels on the ground, cradling the broken pieces of a violin, crying. Her long hair which used to be perfectly in place now hangs in her face, the back messed up from her gripping it.
“I broke the blasted violin,” Vlad mutters, scowling deeply.
Broke it. He broke the violin.
I nod slowly, extending my hand. It’s shaking. My hand is shaking, I’m shaking, even my voice is shaking. “Help me up?”
Pulling me to my feet, Vlad turns away from Sophia, shaking my shoulder. “You sure you’re ok?”
“Yeah,” I mumble, breathing deeply. “Yeah, I’m alright.”
“You sure?” His hand moves to my head, and he peers at me, ducking his head slightly to get on eye level. “You seem zoned.”
I blink a couple times, running a hand through my hair and letting it drop. “Just… Shaken.”
“You broke it,” Sophia sobs, stumbling to her feet, her fingers wrapped around the neck of the violin, one of the only solid pieces left. “You broke it and ruined it!’
Vlad scowls deeply, stepping back behind me. “You deal with it,” he mutters to me. “You were the one who fell into it.”
I stare at her, my eyes narrowed as I try to see what captured me last night and again this morning. Whatever is was, it’s gone, vanished. All I feel is pity for this beautiful girl. The echoes of her last song come back to me. It was so sad, so achingly lonely.
I’m sorry, Crown Prince. The payment was due…
I take a step forward, and she backs up three, feeling behind her for the wall.
“Marrelini?” I ask softly. Her nod is barely there, and her eyes fill with tears again as she ducks her head.
I watch her, the emptiness, though much smaller, still gnawing at me. It’s a reminder, and one I will carry with me until I die.
“When?” I ask her, my voice dropping. “When do you have to have the payment?”
“To-” She freezes as the wooden violin crumbles to dust in her hand. Yanking her arm back, she grabs her hand, tilting her head back and gasping out a breath, as if waiting for something.
The broken pieces on the ground crumble as well, the wind carrying them away. My eyes stay on Sophia. “I didn’t fade,” she whispers, staring at her hand. “I didn’t fade away. I’m not going to fade…”
I shake my head slowly. “You’re free.”
“I was...supposed to fade,” she says slowly, her forehead wrinkled. “Why didn’t I?”
I glance at Vlad, though my words are still directed to Sophia. “If Marrelini gave you the violin, then Vlad destroyed his hold on you when he broke it.”
She breathes something, someone in a language I can’t understand, her head against the wall. “Thank you,” she whispers, not moving.
I turn towards Vlad, gripping his arm. “Thank you.” I tell him softly. “If you hadn’t come...”
He nods, a small smile on his face. “We’re friends, Nik.” Stepping back, he reaches out, rubbing his hand over my hair. I crack a small smile. “But I think we can all agree which friend is the more handsome, eh?”
I laugh and weakly hit his arm. “Sure.”
Sophia’s hand is on my shoulder, but her touch is hesitant, completely different from at the palace this morning. “I’m...sorry,” she says, taking a deep breath, her eyes still down.
I shake my head. “You wanted to live. I don’t fault you for that.”
“But…” She breaks off half way, choking slightly and wrapping her arms around me.
I freeze up for half a second, then gently slide one arm around her, patting her shoulder. Burying her face against me, Sophia’s arms tighten, and she doesn’t lift her head up.
I hold her for a moment, then gently pull away. “Do you know where you’re going to go?”
She shakes her head, taking a deep breath and scrubbing her face with her sleeve.
I nod slowly. “Will you still play?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve spent the past five years learning. I can’t give that up.”
I nod, my tone serious. “Find a violin. One with new songs inside of it. I’ll pay the bill.”
This time her head snaps up, and she shakes it quickly, reaching up and brushing the hair that went in her face away. “You don’t have to pay for it, you didn’t break it.”
I laugh slightly at the expression on Vlad’s face. “I want to. Let me help you start over. Please.”
“Then...thank you. Although I can’t accept the position at the palace, though I’m not sure it’s still open to me.”
I hesitate, then shake my head. “I’m sorry.”
“Farewell, Crown Princes,” she says, nodding to both of us.
“Farewell.” I say softly. Sophia turns, slipping her hand to her shoulder and starting off down the tunnel.