I’m being driven to the Engine Industry Ball in a carriage so ornate it looks like decoration, not transporation. This ride was not my idea; I was picked up as the clock struck Evening Mark. The clock inside the carriage. It is as ornate as the carriage exterior, and rather more ornate than my simple rose gown. The colour to wear this season, I’d been told.
New Canada is beautiful but it intimidates me. I just arrived onplanet last month for a yearlong residency at the New Canada Arts Centre. My mentor here, Isabel, originally comes from the Terran Canada like myself. I am already overwhelmed with my musical tasks, but I know that Isabel managed to accomplish a tremendous amount here in a little over a year – not only artistically, but also taking part in an incredibly complex set of legal proceedings, foiling a nefarious sabotage plot – and finding a life partner. She’s now the director of the New Toronto Art School. Incredible. I am barely treading water keeping up with my repertoire.
I wonder why Cecilia, New Canada’s star violist and dear friend to Isabel, didn’t come pick me up herself but sent only her carriage. I ask the driver, who says I should wait for a message. Mysterious – and annoying. Then my contact card chimes and her message comes through. Sudden illness, meaning she had to cancel. I feel a sharp pang of disappointment. She has found a violist to take her place, so my performance will go ahead.
Isabel introduced me to Cecilia the day I arrived. I have no idea how the two of them are such great friends. The violist is eccentric and a lot more dramatic than my rather reasonable mentor, but both have offered me guidance and ready friendship. I gather that it is usually harder to make friends on socially restrained New Canada, but I suppose neither Isabel nor Cecilia are typical New Canadians.
I envy Cecilia her ability to communicate with her audience when she is onstage. Compared to hers, my playing is reserved. She promised that she would design a very effective exercise for me to allow me to break out of my shell. “It’ll be a shock and come when you least expect it, Fiona, but it will let your musicality shine,” she’d said.
It’s a shame we didn’t get to that before tonight’s performance. I will be terrified without her up there with me.
I try to reason my nerves away. I am an experienced guitarist and have memorized the program. I just haven’t performed it on this planet yet, nor with this duo partner. Who’s this mysterious new violist, anyway? Whoever it is, they had better be quick-thinking; we won’t even have time to rehearse beforehand.
I am surprised that Isabel’s Partner, Serge, is the one waiting for me when my carriage arrives. He co-runs a company called New Canada Engines – this planet’s most important corporation. I’d thought he would be too busy tonight to socialize much with me, but he seems to take his Partnerly duties toward Isabel seriously.
“Fiona!” He calls, waving me over.
“Hi Serge,” I say, gamely attempting a cheerful and fearless tone. “Cecilia said my new violist would be here to meet me, but you seem to have beat him to it.”
“Actually…” Serge grins. I notice that he is holding a viola case.
“You?!” is all I can manage. He laughs. Isabel had mentioned he played the viola. Beautifully, she’d said. She told me the story of how they fell in love. His viola playing had had a lot to do with it, apparently. But how objective is her assessment? I have my doubts.
“Cecilia only told me that it’s time to try the performance exercise she was telling you about,” he says.
“She mentioned an exercise, yes…” A realization hits me. “She’s not really ill, is she?”
“She’s been known to do things like this before,” he replies, a smile quirking his lips. “When she and Isabel worked together last year….”
“Well, I hope you’ve been practicing daily for Isabel,” I retort, cutting him off. “I don’t know how you play but at least you give a lot of speeches and won’t get stage fright.” I sound too annoyed. “Sorry,” I add mitigatingly.
“Look, I know I’m in a different line of work, and we all know Cecilia is the better performer,” he says. “But this is part of the exercise, I think. I’m definitely not what you’d expect in a duo partner.”
“Definitely not,” I say, trying hard not to sound rude. I hope he can hold his own on that stage; I’ve met too many rich hobbyists who considered themselves artists and were actually dilettantes. But the exercise design here is brilliant and it’s forcing me to be flexible. As mad as I am at Cecilia, I also see exactly why she did this to me.
We take our places and tune. So far, so good. My resolve intensifies. I play the opening chords. When Cecilia and I rehearsed, she was always the one leading, but now I have to assert myself. It turns out that I can do this quite well. Even more surprisingly, Serge plays with an appealing musicality. Not as techically perfect as Cecilia, but he is definitely a competent performer. I briefly wonder why he plays so well, or when he has time to practice if he’s busy co-running an engine company, but push all that out of my mind as I focus and pour everything of myself into the piece.
Cecilia is in the front row, dressed in red. So is Isabel, also dressed in red, but a darker shade. The two of them are whispering and laughing. Cecilia’s own Partner, Brigitte, joins them and begins laughing too. Her own gown is a deep magenta. They stand out in a sea of fasionable rose-coloured gowns and applaud enthusiastically at the end of every piece. I realize that their enthusiam is not only for Serge, whom they know so well, but also for me. They can see my musicality reshaping itself up here on this stage, and I can tell they are proud of us both.
This performance is both wonderful and absurd. I am at a ball, making music on a new planet, and I have been tricked into playing more expressively than I ever have before. The audience seems to be enjoying the performance immensely. And for the first time since I landed on New Canada, I feel truly, completely at ease.
The ornate clock in the hall strikes Midnight Mark.
Serge and I play on. And now Cecilia joins us onstage, improvising counterpoints to our melodies.
The ball continues.
Story © 2019 Clio Em. Image © 2018 Hali Rey.