Nova was back on her motorcycle, navigating the streets of the capital, relying on her memory of the last time she’d visited the Royal Concert Hall, around 3 years ago.
However, her mind was not focused on the road, nor on the performance she would have to give tonight in front of a large audience.
Rather, they were on Ryner’s last few words, as Nova had been about to leave for the Concert Hall.
‘Louis and Delia also want to see you. You should pass by the palace and say hello, don’t you think? It’s been a while since you guys saw each other.’
Nova hesitated. The prince and princess wanted to see her. That in itself wasn’t anything strange. They were childhood friends, after all. The issue came from the fact that, as the two of them approached adulthood, more and more attention was focused on them. And Nova was perfectly aware that she herself wasn’t exactly someone who faded into the background. If she publicly appeared alongside Delia or – even worse – Louis, her face would be plastered across the media tomorrow, with titles wondering at their relationship.
This would displease Nova greatly.
Let’s not even talk about Mom. She’d go ballistic. Perhaps literally, considering all the weaponry she has access to.
For all her life, Nova had managed to remain in relative obscurity, and she hoped for such a state of affairs to continue. Certainly, she had made some very few public appearances – like for that music competition – but no unaltered, unsanitized records of her appearance floated around the internet for anyone to jack off to. Even social media photos, snapped by random strangers who just wanted to ‘take a pic of the pretty girl they crossed in the street’, a rather common occurrence for her, were deleted by Aaron’s AIs if their algorithms found them to infringe too much upon Nova’s privacy, as they combed the web.
Well, I’ll see which way the wind blows. If I can meet them discreetly, I will. If not, they’ll just have to wait for the next time. There is always instant messaging, anyway.
A few minutes later, Nova reached the Royal Concert Hall. It was a beautiful building, designed in a rather antique style, with tall colonnades and tasteful statuary. The walls were a clean white that contrasted with the brick and mortar buildings around it. It was like a small island of ancient Greece in the middle of a metropolitan ocean.
Nova left her motorcycle in the attached parking lot, checked how much battery remained – a bit more than required for the trip home to Saltwell – then went up the terribly wide stairs to the terribly large gate, a violin case which she’d borrowed from Ryner’s apartment in hand.
Entry to the Concert Hall’s lobby was free, so even though Nova received some strange glances along the way – she’d kept her helmet on, this time, even though it looked a little suspicious – she reached the front desk without issue. Not many people were here, so there wasn’t any waiting line to speak of, and she could talk to a receptionist immediately.
The young woman raised her head from whatever she was working on at her desk. Her brows faintly furrowed when she saw the motorcycle helmet-covered head in front of her, but she still maintained basic courtesy.
“Hello, miss. How may I help you?”
‘Playing tonight,’ Nova’s robotic voice answered. ‘Looking for manager.’
Now, the receptionist’s smile really faltered. Someone who hid her face under a helmet, who spoke with a computer-generated, obviously fake voice… She was probably wondering if the girl in front of her had mistaken the Concert Hall for a bank and was planning a robbery. Maybe that dangerous fellow was an old-fashioned sort, who hid a machine gun in her violin case?
When Nova saw the woman was about to object, she passed Ryner’s letter over to her. She wasn’t quite sure what was written inside, but Ryner obviously believed it was enough to allow her presence here, so she may as well give it a try and see where it’d lead her.
The receptionist dubiously grabbed the envelope, before opening it and removing the letter from inside. A few seconds of reading later, and her eyes flicked back up to Nova.
“You are… Miss Storm?”
“I apologize, but may I request some identification?”
Nova had expected this, so she immediately retrieved the plastified card from of the inner pocket of her jacket. The photo on it was as innocuous and forgettable as Nova had been able to make it – with help from image editing software, even – so it didn’t raise any eyebrows from the receptionist.
She nodded and handed the ID back to Nova. “Please, follow me, Miss Storm.”
The young woman got off her seat and motioned Nova toward a side door, leading the way in front of her. They both walked through a series of hallways until reaching a cozy little study covered in luxuriant dark red carpeting, with a cluster of padded seats surrounding a low table in the middle of the room. Next to the seats stood a globe depicting Edea. Nova figured the thing concealed a few bottles of alcohol for the guest’s enjoyment. Or maybe it really was just a spherical map, left here by someone with peculiar tastes in interior decoration.
The young receptionist ushered Nova inside. “I must ask you to wait a few minutes, Miss Storm. I’m going to call the director now. He’ll be able to respond to any question you may have concerning tonight’s performance.”
Nova nodded, and the receptionist made her exit.
When the door closed quietly behind her, Nova let out a sigh and headed for the seats in the center, removing her motorcycle helmet. She chose a seat next to the camouflaged bar, placing her violin case and helmet on the floor next to it, then leaned to the side to open the globe, lifting the upper hemisphere to reveal a small assemblage of crystal decanters hidden inside the planet’s crust, as she had expected.
I have yet to taste alcohol in this life, now that I think about it.
Striving to correct that state of affairs, Nova picked a glass and served herself a small measure of whiskey. Judging by the color and smell, it was… well, it was a whiskey. Presumably. That was what was written on the label, at least, but Nova didn’t know enough about drinking to know if this particular specimen would have a pleasant taste or knock her out cold after the first sip. Which was good. The doubt and subsequent discovery made it interesting. It wouldn’t do to get wasted right before the performance and embarrass herself, but Nova was old and experienced enough to know that some risks had to be taken in order to live an interesting and fulfilling life.
Also, she was pretty sure she could still play correctly, even while drunk.
Nova’s throat was savoring the pleasant burn of her first mouthfuls when the door opened once again. A dapper old gentleman entered, followed by the receptionist from earlier.
“My apologies for making you wait, Miss…” the old gentleman began. He stopped short of speaking Nova’s name when he noticed her slouching in her seat with her legs stretched out in front of her and a glass in her hand. The distinct smell of alcohol wafting through the room made sure he didn’t think she’d gotten a glass of suspiciously colored juice from somewhere. The man hesitated a little before speaking. “Ah… Miss Storm?”
Nova nodded pleasantly, raising her glass in greeting and taking another sip.
The old man showed a dry smile. “I remember you taking part in a junior musician competition here, perhaps 3 years ago, Miss Storm,” he said, slowly approaching and taking a seat in front of Nova. The receptionist came to stand behind him like a bodyguard and stole glances at Nova’s face she no doubt imagined remained discreet and unnoticed.
Nova was somewhat impressed with the old man’s memory, but she wasn’t quite sure why he brought up the past like this. Was he trying to reminisce about the good old times? If so, he wasn’t talking to the right person. The only reason Nova had taken part in that competition was because Marian had wanted proof that Nova was good enough with the piano to train with another instrument – she didn’t approve of Nova learning new things if she hadn’t mastered the old to a certain extent. That competition had seemed the easiest way to give Marian that proof. Otherwise, Nova wouldn’t have bothered.
She quirked an eyebrow at the old man to urge him to explain himself – she quirked it inwardly, that is; her face didn’t actually move at all and only produced an impassive stare.
“The age limit for that competition was… 13 years old, if I recall correctly?” the man said, squinting, the lines at the corners of his eyes deepening. “So, although I must apologize for the discourtesy of asking a lady her age… How old are you, Miss Storm?”
Nova swapped her glass to her left hand and reached for her bracer with her right.
’16 years old in two months.’
The old gentleman nodded sagely, as if he’d been expecting that answer. He smiled at Nova pleasantly. “Then, I must request that you to put the glass down. Offering alcohol to minors is illegal in this country.”
‘Didn’t offer. I took.’
“Nonetheless. If you please.”
It seemed like a shame to Nova to waste this good whiskey like this – although there wasn’t much of it left in the glass – but she nodded and obeyed, putting it down onto the small table in front of her. She could probably have downed it straight in one go before discarding her glass, to look cool and show how much of a rebel she really was, but not only would it have burned her throat to cinders, that old guy was also very polite; he probably didn’t deserve to have that kind of obnoxious behavior thrown into his face.
“Thank you for the compliment,” the old man said, looking genuinely pleased. “Now…” He removed Nova’s envelope from his pocket. “With this letter, everything is in order for you to perform tonight as replacement for Mr. Sloan. To recapitulate some of the specifics, this will be a solo performance. It will start at 9pm and is scheduled to last approximately 90 minutes. Please, try not go over 100 minutes, or the later schedule will be affected. Do you find this agreeable, Miss Storm?”
Nova nodded. She had enough music archived in her brain to last 90 minutes.
“Perfect. We can discuss the finer details in a minute. For now, I see that you’ve brought your own instrument.” He gestured to the violin case and his lips rose up in a small smile. “It was planned to be a piano performance, but with all these last-minute changes, one more will not worsen things appreciably.”
‘Can’t dance while playing piano.’
Unless you have superhuman strength, I guess…
“Oh, my. So you’re a pianist, a violinist, and a dancer? I am quite impressed. Then I’ll look forward to watching you tonight. Do you perhaps require any more… equipment? Since you were brought in on such short notice, we would not be stingy toward providing you whatever you need to perform to the best of your ability.”
‘Dress. And mask.’
“A mask?” the old gentleman repeated, a surprised look on his face. “Do you wish to hide your face?”
Nova nodded. ‘And name. Anonymous.’
Both the director and the receptionist behind him looked incredulous. “Miss Storm, may I ask why you wish to hide your identity? Surely, you must understand what a great boost to your reputation as a musician playing in our concert hall would be, even as a replacement. Why would you want to discard that chance?”
‘Troublesome. Anonymity, better.’
“Then, why even come play in the first place?” the old gentleman asked, his tone one of casual and polite curiosity that prevented his questions from feeling like a police interrogation.
‘Sister in audience. Playing for her.’
“Ah, I see,” the old man said with a warm smile. “I understand. Then, a mask it is. I’m sure we’ll find one to fit your tastes.”