Chatter resounded inside the vast concert hall, like a tide of incomprehensible sound, sometimes ebbing, sometimes rising, more background noise than anything else, yet still loud enough that Lynn had to strain in order to hear the voices of her classmates as they tried to speak to her.
“Sorry, what did you say?” she asked.
“I said, does it pay well, to win a medal at the Olympics? Surely, you must have made a ton of money from it, right?”
Lynn shook her head. “Not so much, no. The competition itself technically didn’t have any money prize, if you discount the silver in the medal itself. The government gave me a reward for my participation, though. I don’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was something about increasing Altera’s prestige on the world stage.”
Olivia squealed in delight, clapping her hands and leaning over the armrest separating the adjoining folding seats the two of them occupied. “Did you meet Prince Louis?”
“Yes, I did.”
Lynn couldn’t help but wonder how Olivia would react if she knew that both the prince and princess of Altera were her childhood friends.
“You did?! Did he… express any interest in you?” Olivia asked in a conspiratorial whisper, wagging her eyebrows subjectively. “What did he say to you?”
Pfft, haha! ‘Express any interest’, huh? How could that be possible? I’m not one of his books. And my name isn’t Nova, either. Though, Louis does have a fiancée, does he not? I think their pairing was decided when they were 2 or 3 years old or something. I wonder if he actually likes her?
“Well,” Lynn said, drawing out the word to give herself time to remember the conversation she’d had with Louis at the time and to come up with a safe and harmless way to recount it to her friend. “He congratulated me for my victory, and I told him finishing second place wasn’t actually a victory, and he told me that from the perspective of most normal citizens, simply participating in the Games would be a victory in and of itself, let alone winning silver.”
“He’s so kind!” Olivia gushed loudly, startling the middle-aged couple sitting in the seats in front of them. “And I hear he’s the greatest genius to be born in Altera for the past century. Do you think that’s true? I think it is. You simply have to look into his eyes, and you’ll drown in the profound intelligence that dwells within their starry depths.”
This is getting weird. I mean, yeah, Louis is pretty smart, but his eyes look completely normal. There aren’t any stars in them, as far as I know.
“Anyway, they’re quite stingy, aren’t they? You make all those efforts, you try so hard, and they only give you a symbolic medal? I mean, I don’t know the current valuation for silver, but it’s not very high, right? You’d think they could be a bit more generous.
Lynn smiled wryly and let out a hollow chuckle. “Few competitions at this level offer monetary rewards, you know. When you’re at this point, you’re doing it for more than just getting rich.”
If Lynn truly found herself needing easy money, she would only have to accept one of the sponsorship deals or endorsements waiting to cash in on her newfound fame – though her parents would forbid this, and her family was rich enough that such a situation would likely never present itself, anyway.
Olivia twisted her lips, clearly unconvinced. She was about to continue debating the point when the lights of the concert hall dimmed gradually.
“Oh, shhhh, looks like it’s starting.”
The babble of voices that had filled the large room slowly died down, and soon, a lone figure appeared and stepped into the single bright spotlight still lighting up the stage.
Wait. That’s not Sloan at all. Unless he’s taken up cross-dressing. And is very good at it. And started playing the violin. Are we in the wrong room?
The questioning whispers Lynn could hear from the audience around her dissuaded her of that notion, though. Everyone here had clearly been expecting something else – someone else. Even Lynn herself, who wasn’t really one for music, had kind of been looking forward to tonight’s performance. Sloan – just one name – was reputed for his prodigious technical skill as a pianist. He was also reputed to be something of an entitled asshole, but that was beside the point.
So why had some unknown woman taken the stage, all of a sudden?
The woman walked until she stood in the very center of the stage and faced the audience. She was carrying a violin case, which looked to be carefully maintained and cared for, but not especially luxurious. The white dress she wore tightly hugged her outstanding figure. Strips of thin, almost transparent cloth were tied to her wrists and ankles, long enough to trail along the floor behind her when she walked. An intricate, asymmetrical butterfly mask, made out of something that resembled silver, covered the upper half of her face, leaving uncovered lips that made one uncontrollably wonder what they might taste like. Long, slightly curly black hair framed her face and carelessly crashed down on her shoulders and back. She was also barefoot, for some reason.
Suffice it to say that, even with that mask hiding her features, this woman was pretty enough to make Lynn question her own sexual orientation.
Wow. She’s almost on Nova’s level. I didn’t think I would ever meet someone else like this. Actually, she kinda looks like Nova, doesn’t she? No, wait a minute… Is it just me, or does she really look like Nova?
The mystery woman silently looked at the audience for a few moments , her head turning slowly from left to right to examine all the seats in front of her.
Her head stopped turning when her gaze was roughly aligned with Lynn’s position. It seemed unbelievable that she would notice Lynn in the midst of that audience of several hundred people – and in that darkness – but with her guess as to this woman’s identity fresh in her mind, Lynn couldn’t help but feel like she was looking at her, rather than simply in her general direction.
“Is it really Nova…?” Lynn couldn’t help but mutter, as if asking the question out loud would help her find an answer for it.
And then, the woman raised a finger to her lips, in a shushing gesture. To the audience, it looked like she was asking them to be quiet, and the few whispers left faded into silence. To Lynn, however, this gesture meant something different.
‘Don’t tell anybody it’s me.’
Lynn was stunned, already having convinced herself that the person on the stage was her younger sister.
W–Why is Nova here? Shouldn’t she be working with Mom? And how did she take Sloan’s place? She didn’t beat him up in the dressing room, did she?
Lynn wouldn’t put it past Nova to do such a thing. The girl was remarkably kind toward her friends and family, but Lynn was pretty sure she didn’t give a single toss about anyone else. And while she would indeed care about the inconveniences brought upon herself when breaking the law by assaulting someone, she would also most likely go through with it anyway if she thought she might get away with it.
Most people would not look past Nova’s enchanting appearance, but Lynn had known her for the past 15 years, and she wasn’t blind. She knew that her precious little sister’s beauty hid a pretty twisted and thorny personality underneath.
Well, let’s not immediately think of the worst. It’s entirely possible the swap was peaceful and voluntary for each party. Sloan could have cancelled his performance, and Nova arrived at just the right time. Sounds plausible. Especially with Ryner pulling strings in the background.
Reassured by her own train of thought, a faint smile appeared on her lips, and Lynn settled more comfortably into her seat. She watched as Nova bent down and flicked open the clasps of her violin case. She took the instrument and its bow from inside and stood up again, settling it in the crook of her neck. With a casual push of her foot, the case slid along the ground until it stopped on the edge of the stage, safely out of the way.
Then, she started playing.
The music was pretty good. Lynn wasn’t really such an avid listener that she’d know the intricacies of musical performances and how to judge them like a professional critic, but what Nova produced, while a piece Lynn had never heard before, was definitely music, and it was definitely pleasing to the ears.
But if Nova’s playing was only pretty good, then her dancing was absolutely outstanding. Lynn wasn’t used to seeing violinists actually dance while they played, so perhaps the newness of it was a factor in her appreciation, but most of it was, in all objectivity, Nova’s merit. She moved with feline grace and perfect balance, her movements, no matter how acrobatic, never having the slightest impact on her handling of the violin in her hands. The long strips of cloth tied to her wrists and ankles trailed through the air after her every time she moved, making it look almost like she was floating in water and being borne by the currents, or like she was a fairy flying through the sky. Nova’s beauty was already world-class, even were she to stand still and wear a dirty potato sack in place of clothes, but when she actually made an effort to display herself to the best while wearing a dress that showed off all of her rather impressive curves, she was directly projected onto another, unearthly level. Even Lynn, inured as she was to this beauty by virtue of seeing it bloom into existence over the years, from right next to it, couldn’t help but be mesmerized, so the effect on everyone else here didn’t even need to be mentioned.
For nearly an hour and a half, Nova played and danced seemingly tirelessly, until she finished by somersaulting on the narrow ledge that bordered the front of the stage, landing not a centimeter out of place with the kind of ease that would make one think this was to her as simple as walking on a flat and broad surface.
When the music finally stopped, there were a few short moments of hushed silence before the audience broke out in enthusiastic applause. Lynn joined in without hesitation, a broad grin on her flushed face, feeling almost as proud as if she had done it all herself.
Woah. Is that girl even human? Hahaha.
Still standing on the edge of the stage, Nova was again turned toward Lynn’s position. The lips left unconcealed by the silver mask weren’t smiling at all, as if she didn’t even notice the effusive applause from the audience – which, if Lynn had still had doubts about the musician’s identity, would have pretty conclusively removed them – but Lynn could picture what Nova was thinking.
‘So? Did you like it?’
# # #
After receiving the congratulations from the concert hall’s manager and refusing his invitation to meet some inconsequential people who apparently wanted to speak with her, Nova left directly. Now that she had played to Lynn’s apparent satisfaction, there was nothing more to do in this place.
Her violin case in hand, Nova walked to the dark parking lot where she’d left her bike, a spring in her step, happy at having made Lynn happy.
When she arrived, however, someone was already sitting on the motorcycle’s seat, waiting for her.
“Hey, Nova,” Lynn said, waving her hand and grinning. “You really put on a nice show, huh? What a show-off! Hahahaha!”
“Surprised? What? Did you think I hadn’t recognized you?”
Nova approached without saying anything and strapped her violin to the motorcycle’s storage cases. Lynn just watched her with a smile, not getting off the bike. Only when the violin was safely secured did Nova reach for her bracer.
“Yeah. I told my friend to give an excuse for my absence, but it’s not going to hold for a long time. I’m going to have to go back soon.”
Nova nodded to show her understanding of Lynn’s situation.
“So? How did you end up playing at the Royal Concert Hall just the day I was supposed to spectate a performance?”
‘Ryner. Other guy cancelled.’
Lynn nodded, pursing her lips. “As expected. Is it fine for you to leave so quickly, though? Don’t you have things to do with the concert hall? Papers to sign or something? Autographs to give?”
“Eeeeh, playing in the country’s greatest concert hall is that simple, huh? Well, that’s fine.” Lynn’s bright smile widened even more. “So? What now? Are you going back to Ryner’s? I assume that’s where you’re staying?”
Nova considered the question for a moment, before wordlessly approaching Lynn and pushing her backward over the seat a little, then swinging her leg up and climbing onto the bike in front of her. Before Lynn could react, Nova retracted the stand and pressed her thumb on the fingerprint scanner in the corner of the dashboard.
Slight vibrations briefly shook the motorcycle’s body as its engine started up, then settled down into silence. The rest of the dashboard lit up to life at the same moment.
“Oooooh! Are you taking me for a ride?” Lynn’s laughter bubbled up through her words like a fountain, and her arms snaked around Nova’s waist. “Let’s go, then! A date in moonlit Altera! How romantic!”
# # #
Up on a nearby rooftop, a tall figure watched the two girls below drive off with reckless speed. They quickly disappeared from sight, but when the man turned to the smartphone he held in his hand, he could watch their position update on his GPS map.
“I didn’t think we’d find that elusive youngest daughter in such a way,” he said. “How surprising.”
“I know,” a youthful voice came into his earpiece. “Ryner and Lynn Storm were both pretty easy, but that Nova Storm was abnormally difficult to track. There is something afoot here. No normal citizen should be this much of a ghost. It’s to the point that there is basically no record of her anywhere.”
“I know. I’ll start following her, then. We can always get back to Lynn Storm afterward. Now that we’ve found her younger sister, let’s not lose her trail.”
“I agree. Be careful of her bodyguards. And Lynn Storm’s, too.”
“I know. Do you have their position?”
“I do. I’ll update you. Keep your phone at hand.”
Without further ado, the tall figure jumped off the rooftop without the slightest hesitation. He fell 5 storeys and landed on the parking lot’s concrete, none the worse for wear.
“I would have looked even cooler if I’d worn a black cape while doing this.”
“Hmm? Is that a reference to something?”
“Batman!” the tall man replied, his tone heavy with fake outrage. “Don’t tell me you don’t know about Batman? How can you be considered a full-fledged crime-fighting vigilante if you don’t even know who Batman is?”
“Oh, yes. Sorry. I remember Batman, now that you mention it. But wait, isn’t Batman’s cape red? Why did you ask for a black one?”
“That’s Superman! It’s a completely different character! Superman has a red cape. Batman has a black cape. How can you not know this?! Even a guy like me knows this, and I spent all my life in a freaking slum!”
A chuckle crackled into the earbud. “Well, there is no Batman or Superman in this world. And even back on Earth, I didn’t have much to do with american comics, so after more than 15 years, I think the lapse in memory is forgivable.”
“You should be ashamed of yourself,” the tall man accused as he started running across the parking lot, fast and lithe as a gust of wind. He jumped onto his own motorcycle. It was a sport model that would blow out of the water the one the two Storm girls had used. He’d catch up to them in no time.