Two days after his meeting with the disembodied director, Sir Hugo, paradise was a poor description of the feelings Aidan had for The Masque. There was nowhere else in the world, In or Out-Shift, that he would rather be. Gone were the speculations of his life before. The uncomfortable sense of “wrongness” at his own existence and the suspicion of some darker plot had fled, leaving him just as content as any of the other company members.
None of this was surprising, considering how wonderful a place his studio was. Peter had suggested that he do as he pleased in it for a while, painting and creating as inspiration struck. Now the old itch of artistry was returning in leaps and bounds to Aidan’s fingers and he felt such a perfect sense of ease when he worked that it was a good thing anyone went out of their way to visit him, or else he might never have seen another soul.
Of course, his door wasn’t exactly being knocked down by hordes of visitors. The dancer, Alexandre, checked in on him now and then, and sometimes he brought along a lovely young singer named Giselle. She was perhaps barely out of her teens—a delicate oriental lily. You would never expect that frail body to hold such an operatic power-house of a voice, but her pure coloratura soprano often echoed through the halls and rooms backstage. When she came to Aidan’s studio she sang softer songs, saying nothing pleased her more than perfect art, and music was the fuel for such endeavors. Indeed, he found he worked harder and faster when she sang for him and that the effortless familiarity of every brush stroke was doubled.
However, there was one thing that threatened to draw Aidan from his comfortable nest. The violinist—the dark-haired woman whose eyes still haunted his thoughts—often practiced on stage. Sometimes she was accompanied, presumably by the elderly pianist, but sometimes it was only she, drawing a chilling tune from the strings of her instrument. Aidan would pause in what he was doing and listen, imagining the courage to join her on stage, to speak to her. But each time he finally talked himself into it, she had finished and was gone.
Peter, though slightly more polite since Aidan’s interview with Sir Hugo, remained aloof. Giselle had a concert happening at the end of the week and, though he had no part in it, the fool was busying himself in other’s people’s involvement. He dogged the steps of the musicians as they went from practice rooms to the orchestra pit, criticizing them in the most unflattering terms and reminding them of any and every little thing he could. He gave Giselle just as much trouble, pleading with her to stay out of Aidan’s studio. He threatened all sorts of illness and calamities from the fumes of paint and other tools, completely ignoring her gentle reminders that she was dead and could hardly be worse off than that.
In the final days leading up to the concert, Aidan began work on his first real commission. He felt—and everyone who saw them agreed—that the pieces he had been working on to tempt back his former gifts were gaining in quality. And so when the voice of the director came floating into his studio one day, Aidan was not surprised.
“Our play in two months is a comic tragedy,” Sir Hugo explained. Aidan looked all around the studio, but as usual it was no use trying to find him. “I would like you,” he went on with a measure of amusement at Aidan’s constant turning about, “to paint several different backdrops for us. You will be given the script and meet with its author so that you may produce a product exact in its representation of each corresponding scene’s atmosphere and intention. I realize two months is a very short amount of time for one so newly added to our company, but I have a great deal of faith in you, Mr. Lawrence. Your talent is prodigious, and you are more than capable of meeting our expectations.”
“Thank you, sir,” Aidan said, rather embarrassed.
“Don’t. In this place, all praise is already earned and well-merited, not driven by flattery or baser intentions. You are possessed of a great talent, as are Giselle, Alexandre, Peter, and every other member of this company, down to the scene-shifters and seam-makers. Never thank us. Never thank anyone for what is simply fact and due entirely to your own abilities.”
Aidan wasn’t sure he understood, but he nodded. “Yes, sir, I won’t.”
The voice was satisfied. “More and more I am glad to have sent Peter for you. You represent a distinct improvement over our last master artist.”
Aidan didn’t ask why his predecessor had been so unsatisfactory, and Sir Hugo left the subject in favor of reminding him to away the playwright and commence work on the backdrops immediately thereafter. But as it turned out, there wasn’t much waiting to be done. Hardly an hour had gone by before there was a knock on the studio’s side door and a tall, dark-skinned man in a tan suit entered, carrying a thick binder. His head was close-shaven and his shoulders were broad, set upon the tips of a strong back. He seemed so grim, so serious and rigid that Aidan began to feel awkward and small in his baggy, paint-stained clothes.
“Hello,” he stammered, extending a skeleton hand. “I’m Aidan Lawrence. The…ah…well, I guess you know who I am.”
“Yes,” the man replied. He did not take the hand. Instead, he handed him the binder and took a seat on one of the large tubes of paper that were ranging about the studio. He watched unblinkingly as Aidan thumbed through the manuscript.
The play was bitter. Aidan could think of no better word to describe it as he read about the cynical, disillusioned lives of it characters and the unfortunate, if extremely ironic, situations they were forced into. It certainly possessed many comedic elements, but it was the sort of humor that was bound to leave the audience feeling uncomfortable. The only person to receive anything remotely resembling a happy ending was a giddy madman.
However, the language and construction of the script was beyond brilliant in its sheer philosophical depth, and Aidan had no trouble with meaning the compliments he paid to its author after a good while of losing himself in its pages.
“It’s great,” he said, trying to hand the binder back. “Very intriguing, and–”
“I know,” the man interrupted.
“…right, of course,” Aidan winced, remembering too late Sir Hugo’s policy on praise. The man lifted the binder from Aidan’s hands and began to dog-ear several pages, explaining as he did that they corresponded to scenes where a backdrop would be needed. He went over each of these scenes while they sat together and made sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Aidan grasped his meanings and desires. His unerring gaze cut deeply into the back of Aidan’s skull, burning understanding there.
Finally, when they had reached the last scene to be discussed, he climbed down off the paper and moved that penetrating stare from Aidan’s skull down to the tips of his shoes. “You want to watch out for Eastling and Eve,” he said.
The playwright frowned and dropped the binder onto the sink’s edge. “Don’t get in trouble that you don’t need. That’s what happened to the last scene-painter.”
“I thought he just left.”
A wry smile wrinkled his face. “Yeah. That was the story they used to feed us on the plantation.”
He left, and a small seed of fear began to bloom somewhere under Aidan’s ribs. Half-heartedly, he looked at the scenes the playwright had selected, trying to put the man’s sinister implications from his mind. A graveyard, an asylum, a field, a city street, and the same field at night. This was almost too much to think of painting in only two months, especially given that each scene must be painted in giant scale on enormous, limp canvas. But Sir Hugo had warned him. He believed Aidan was up to it, and Aidan did not want to disappoint—not so soon. Or at all, really. He put aside his doubts, burying the fear-sprout beneath them in a dark corner of his mind.
(TCOS will return next Monday evening! In the meantime, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls!)