Page 24 of The Protege

Hong Kong

Hanoi

Taipei

Phnom Penh

Manila

Jakarta

Bangkok

The furthest afield the RLSO has been while he’s been conductor is Moscow. I suppose that’s what he meant by this tour being impossible for him to refuse, because of the locations. I can see how he would jump at the chance.

Going on tour with the RLSO. Butterflies start to beat in my belly, so I do what I always do when I feel nervous: I practice. I spend the afternoon and well into the evening playing my cello, all the pieces that I know Laszlo is fond of or has performed in the past. Before I know it it’s dark outside and very late.

I eat a few bites of bagel for supper, brush my teeth and get into bed, and then I reach for my phone, trying to decide.

Laszlo.

The tour.

The butterflies are back, stronger than ever, and I don’t know which part is making me more nervous: the thought of going on a long, professional tour or working for Laszlo. I’ve never performed professionally and I’m terrified of screwing up while playing with his prestigious orchestra.

I’m going to be strict with you. More strict than before, because this is more serious than before. This is my work. You’ll be one of my musicians answering to me. Are you prepared for that?

Am I? I don’t know, but I went to Laszlo to ask him to push me to develop my career. I open the messaging app on my phone and with shaking fingers I type, It’s yes

Nothing comes through for several minutes, and then I see, To what?

To both parts, please. I want to be your protégé, and I want to come on the tour

He takes his time replying again, leaving me on read for several minutes. I wait, staring at the screen, anxiety churning through my belly. Then my phone buzzes.

Can you please explain to me why you’re up so late? Your schedule states that you should be asleep by now

My mouth falls open. That’s why he left me on read, to go and check his notebook? No Thank you? No welcome to the orchestra? The ungrateful… I think of all number of indignant replies, that I was thinking carefully about what he was offering me, like he told me to do in the first place. That if he’s going to be so ungracious then he can just shove the tour up his ass. But he did warn me he’d be strict. I take a deep breath and reply, I was practicing Dvorák’s Ninth, Mr. Valmary

Laszlo hasn’t told me to call him Mr. Valmary in private conversations but I like the formality of it and I suspect he will, too. He takes his time yet again, and then replies, Please add the Seventh and Eighth to your practice as well

Yes, Mr. Valmary

Now, go to sleep, we have rehearsals tomorrow and I need you to be rested

Yes, Mr. Valmary

Isabeau?

Yes?

It’s good to have you on board

I’m not letting him get away with just that. This wasn’t just about the tour. On board with what exactly? The tour or being your protégé?

Both. Very much both, sweetheart

My toes curl with pleasure. Sweetheart. How I love it when he calls me that, his endearment only for me since I was eight years old. I put my phone on my bedside table and turn out the light, smiling to myself. Tomorrow I’ll be playing as part of Laszlo’s orchestra again, his proper orchestra, and I feel happier than I have in three years.

Almost as happy as I was before I turned eighteen.

I’ll never be that happy again because back then I was whole-heartedly, uncomplicatedly in love with Laszlo, and nothing makes me as happy as loving Laszlo. He understood me as no one ever has, my thoughtful, handsome and clever guardian. I loved him while he was in control of a vast, musical throng, but I loved him most when it was just the two of us, playing together, living together. Being together.

In the loneliness of the last three years I fell out of love with him. He won’t ever be able to return my feelings. To him I’ll always be that eight-year-old girl he calls sweetheart.

I think of the rehearsal tomorrow and seeing him in his element, strong and commanding and in charge. A warm sensation fizzes through me, and my hand smooths down my belly and into my underwear. Music and Laszlo. Laszlo and music. One almost can’t exist without the other for me. I haven’t touched myself thinking about him since my second year at university, when I made myself stop because the loneliness was unbearable. I find that I’m slick and swollen merely from my text message exchange with him. I wonder if he’s in bed now, thinking about me. If he’s naked between the sheets. I close my eyes and rub my clit, remembering the way he cupped my cheek and murmured, Beautiful. My hand slides down and I slip a finger inside myself, imagining that it’s his finger, exploring gently, enjoying the tight, slick grip of my flesh. I wonder if he’d like touching me there.

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