A/N: This chapter has been tweaked a good bit.
My fingers glided over the keys, poured like oil over glass, and the sound filled my ears, erasing all thoughts. Dimming yellow light cast faint reflections across glossy mahogany. The lit candle sat atop the piano, nestled in its twisting wrought iron holder, and I glanced at it briefly as I continued to play. Candle wax dripped, pressed against itself and slid down slowly, languidly, until stagnant.
I was alone in the room, alone in my thoughts, and it was the happiest I'd been in days. A smooth melody reverberated throughout the room, calling unto dark shadows where the candlelight couldn't reach, and I could feel it in my bones.
Any minute now, I thought, drawing my lips into a slight frown as my attention turned to the piano again. I looked down as I played, suddenly worried that I would lose my place in the song. Any minute now and he'll come.
There were sounds coming downstairs. Murmurs, laughing, and the occasionally cheering. Every now and then I could hear the signature baritone of my dad's voice, and then I would only play harder, trying to drown it out.
The light flickered and I paused, fingers hovered above ivory as I stared at the candle's waning flame. It sputtered, as if a breeze had caught it, then steadied again. And so I continued playing.
My thumb held down a key too long and the note prolonged, punctuated Dad's arrival. I turned on the piano bench and looked to the door, where he stood, straight and proud. Light from the stairwell behind him shone through, ate into the dark haven I'd created for myself with a bright, clinical whiteness that was as artificial as his smile.
"You should come downstairs, Lillian," he said. Fingers gripped at the door's brass knob, brushed over it with a certain impatience. "Everyone downstairs can hear your playing. They know you're here."
My hands dropped to my sides and I began to fidget with the trim of my dress. Meeting his gaze, I stopped slouching, corrected my posture. "I don't think anything will change if I go down there."
"I'm not asking you to make business deals, sweetie." The smile faded; he shifted his weight from foot to foot. "This isn't for me, it's for you. You need to make friends if you're going to live here."
"It wasn't my choice," I found myself mumbling.
He took a few steps into the room, shaking his head slowly. "It's tradition." Candlelight caught his features as he drew nearer, edged at the grim set of his lips. "Tradition is incredibly important in a city like this. I know you're not used to the way things work here, but you can't act like a fish out of water. It'll look like I never taught you anything."
The thought alone almost made me laugh; I bit it back. "But you didn't."
"Don't be silly, Lillian."
He sighed and slipped his hands into the pockets of his well-tailored slacks. "This is the perfect opportunity for you to make friends before you start school," he said, his tone light and level. "Take advantage of it. I've told you before, Aaron and Dimitri have children your age. They're downstairs now. Come down and try to get to know them."
My fingers instinctively fell over a few keys, played a chord. "I'll be down in a few minutes."
His hand reached for the piano cover, fingers skittering over wood like a snake down a tree. "Our guests are looking for you now." He slammed the cover shut and I flinched, hands in my lap as he turned to me, smiling again. "If you wish to play, come out and entertain them with the grand."
After blowing out the candle, I followed him downstairs, stopping off in the bathroom to fix my hair and dress, and once in the foyer, amidst the throng of strangers, Dad gently tapped a spoon against his wine glass and stood before his most treasured possession -- the Mason & Hamlin grand piano. He'd even had the lighting of the room orchestrated to emphasize its detailed craftsmanship and flawless oak finish.
The only problem was, he didn't play piano. So, whenever he wanted to show it off, that meant --
"If I could have everyone's attention for a moment, I'd like to formally introduce you all to my dear daughter, Lillian," he said, a seemingly earnest grin claiming his features again. His eyes softened in the warmth of company, drank it all in, and he put a hand to my shoulder, squeezing lightly. "She's going to play a piece for us. Aren't you, sweetie?"
Automatically, I felt the corners of my mouth lift upward into a tight smile and I nodded, hoping to convey the eagerness that I most definitely didn't feel. I allowed my eyes to just briefly graze over the group of people standing before me. More than two dozen, but less than three. All dressed in a similar fashion, similarly styled, and of a similar age. All cut from the same mold.
"You never told us she was so cute, Ryan," a woman in a strapless gown with her hair in an up-do said, beaming cartoonishly. Dad said something to her in reply, something that didn't reach my ears, and then gave a mirthful chuckle and ushered me to the piano bench.
I lifted the cover deftly, trying to mask my nervousness as I sat down, smoothing my dress behind me. White pleated fabric streamed from a high empire waist that didn't do much to magnify the little cleavage I had. It was sleeveless, despite the time of year, because according to Dad, sleeves would've looked too frumpy. The skirt came a few inches past my knees, edged in a thick trim that weight down the light material.
What song, what song? Did these people know music? Were they expecting Debussy or Beethoven? Was there a wrong song to play? Was there a right one?
Fur Elise was the first thing that came to mind. Simple, but not too simple. Well-known enough, but not overexposed.
"Go ahead." Dad nudged me, and I realized I'd been staring at the piano for a good twenty seconds. I gave a thin laugh, smiled again as I managed a sitting curtsy to the waiting crowd, and began to play.
Less than five minutes later, I found myself at the long table set up with drink and hors d'oeuvres, leftover nerves and adrenaline still pumping through my veins like that aftermath of an unwanted sugar rush. I ladled myself a half-glass of seltzer and skimmed over the display of food. There was nothing of substance, of course. Just delicate, fancy little finger foods that served as conversation pieces more than anything.
I glanced around for Dad and saw him at the bay window, talking with the woman in the strapless gown from before. I'd never met her. A part of me wanted to approach him, but I knew what he'd say. He wanted me to mingle with all these people, and by the end of the party, be friends with them. It was how he operated and he expected the same from me. Tradition.
Something touched my waist and I whirled around abruptly, nearly dropping my glass.
"I'm sorry there, dear. Didn't mean to startle you," an older man said, short, with a girl standing beside him. She looked to be about my age, and had rich red hair complemented by a black velvet headband.
I quickly smiled and shook my head. "No, that was my fault. I wasn't paying attention," I mumbled quickly, looking from him to the girl.
"That was wonderful playing earlier," he said as he craned his head to look past me and at the hors d'oevures. He glanced at me momentarily. "Very nice indeed. I'm assuming it's more than a hobby for you."
"I'm starting at the Welstrum Conservatory on Monday."
He picked up a glistening white saucer from the stack. "I had a feeling you'd say that."
"Oh, really?" My eyes instinctively went to the girl and he turned around, as if suddenly remembering she was there.
"Oh, no, my Felicia doesn't attend," he said quickly, with a chuckle. "But Aaron's boy does. He's here, isn't he?" He began to peer around the room as he absently forked a canapé onto his plate.
"He couldn't make it," the girl -- Felicia? -- said with a sigh. Her dress was simple; black with a deep violet, structured silhouette, and a belted waist the accentuated her curves. She held the wine glass in her hands like they were made for each other, fingers spidered over thin crystal with a possessive yet delicate touch. It was a natural grace; not a learned one. "Nice to meet you, Lillian." She extended her hand. Her fingernails were lacquered a shining violet. They matched her dress. "I'm Felicia Prentiss, and this is my father."
"I was just about to do that," her father said, beaming sheepishly and I set down my drink and shook both of their hands. "I'll leave you two alone now," Mr. Prentiss said, with a strange wiggling of his eyebrows as he and his overfilled saucer made their escape. I watched him leave, my fingers knitting into each other.
"I like your dress," Felicia said, her eyes combing over the fabric.
"Thanks," I mumbled after a strange pause.
A few other people gathered around the table and we stepped out of the way to give them more room.
"I don't go to Welstrum, but I do go to Hawthorne," she said, then took a sip of her drink.
Hawthorne Veritus Prep was the school I'd be attending soon. My eyebrows shot up. "You do?"
Her lips curved in a friendly way and she motioned towards the sofas and chairs. "Let's sit down. My feet hate these shoes."
Complying, I followed after and sat a comfortable distance from her on the leather couch Dad had purchased last week. I watched as Felicia's gaze bounced from target to target. The walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the carpet. "You have a really nice apartment," she said finally, crossing her legs. "Where did you live before?"
"In Ohio," I said, brushing dark bangs out of my eyes. "With my mom."
"Did you move here in order to attend Hawthorne?"
"Something like that."
"Well, it's kind of a big deal." Her posture was perfect; she held the wine glass daintily, even though it was empty. "This is the first time since '52 that all four families are attending at the same time."
I couldn't keep the bewilderment from my face. "Four families?" I echoed.
Her brow furrowed, prettily, and she sat forward a bit. "You don't know about that?" I felt a shadow pass over me and her gaze directed upwards. "Ethan, she doesn't even know about us," she said instantly, and I turned around to see who she was talking to.
It was a boy, our age. He wore a gray suit and had short black hair that caught light from the chandelier. He regarded me momentarily, dark eyes narrowing, and then looked to Felicia.
"It's not okay." There was a whine to her voice -- a childish note that it held now. "The least we can do is educate her. Sit with us." It wasn't a request.
The boy said nothing and rounded the couch, sat on the chair kitty-corner from us.
"I'm Lillian," I spoke up, fixing on a smile.
He gave me a bored look. "I know."
"You'll have to excuse him, he hasn't slept in a week," Felicia said flatly as she set down her glass. Ethan watched, expression blank, and absently adjusted his tie with one hand.
"It's fine," I replied, running my fingers through my hair. Then I remembered what Dad had said about doing that in public and stopped.
"Hawthorne was founded by four men," Felicia began, turning to me again, "with the last names Prentiss, Sammet, Yardling, and Mazur." She watched me, as if waiting to see everything click. I was still a bit lost. "I'm a Prentiss, Ethan's a Sammet, Virgil's a Yardling, and you're a Mazur."
I debated whether or not to tell her I had no clue who Virgil was. Instead, I gave an understanding nod.
"I'm surprised your dad never told you about that," she said, a wistful edge to her tone. "He seems like the type that would."
I gave a shrug. I'd only been here for a week, so maybe he just hadn't gotten around to it. Besides, it wasn't really a big deal, right? How could a last name really matter that much?
Ethan got up, suddenly, and Felicia reached for his arm as he past by.
"Where are you going?" she asked, fingertips pressing into wool.
"To get something to drink."
She grabbed her glass and handed it to him. "Please?" He grunted in return and she turned to me. "Do you want anything, Lillian?"
Ethan left, glass in hand, and Felicia and I continued our conversation.
The party ended a little over two hours later, and I'd started to clean up when Dad told me to stop and leave it for the staff. I went upstairs with lead to my gait; I was tired. Under normal circumstances I usually wasn't so shy, but I was still getting used to hanging around people of this... caliber. Everything was so formal and first impressions were everything.
With a sigh, I pushed open the door at the end of the hall and slipped inside. Moonlight poured in through the window freely, unobstructed by any curtains, blinds, or drapes and pooled over gleaming wood. My fingers brushed against the matchbook that rested on the piano top and I lit the candle. The wick was short, just a vestige of its former self. These candles didn't last long, but I still used them because they were the kind that Mom loved. Using them felt like I still had a piece of her.
The flame started weakly, flitting and quivering, but soon grew strong. The scant light it produced was enough.
I sat at the bench with a sigh and pushed the key cover up. The movement revealed something lying against the stretch of white and black. A flower. I picked it up carefully and let it rest on my outstretched palm, then walked to the window, where the full moon burned and illuminated as if it were the sun.
It was small with three large petals of puffy yellow. There was no stem; it had been cut off just at the base. I turned it in my hands, uselessly, as if something would happen. Nothing did. I could feel my brow knit and a curiosity seeped through my veins.
I went back to the piano and glanced at the keys again, opened and closed the cover twice more before standing up and inspecting the top, where the candle sat. There was nothing. I wasn't sure what I'd been expecting. My attention fell to the flower again and I carefully set it a few inches from the candle, then sat down and began to play.