Written for Chocolate Box 2018. The title is from a fragment of Sappho.
"What should I sing first?" Eugénie asked. "The Rossini?" The first part of the lesson was for warming up her voice and running through vocal exercises as Louise directed; then they moved on to singing arias or ensembles, which was more purely enjoyable for both of them.
"I want to start with the Mozart duet," Louise said, picking up the score of La Clemenza di Tito. "Do you like Vitellia?"
Eugénie smiled. "I like her ambition," she said. "Though not her love for Titus, who cares nothing for her. And it's a pity she had to act through such an irresolute conspirator as Sesto! You can tell that if she had been able to strike the blow herself, Titus wouldn't have survived the opera."
"Yet I pity Sesto, torn between his love for Vitellia and his affection for his friend the emperor."
"He should have been either a loyal friend or a determined assassin," Eugénie declared with sparkling eyes. "His vacillation is what displeases me. But Vitellia, at least, is a fine part! Well, let's begin."
Louise opened the score and set it on the piano. Since Louise had asked Eugénie to learn the part of the would-be empress Vitellia, as suiting her voice better, Louise took the part of Vitellia's besotted admirer Sesto. She played the first bars of introduction, took a breath, and sang in Italian: "Command me as it pleases you, guide my actions; you are my destiny, I will do everything, everything for you!"
Eugénie took a good breath, expanding her diaphragm, and came in as Vitellia. Her eyes flashed, her expression was proud and imperious, as she demanded that Sesto carry out the plan to assassinate the emperor that very day. She was magnificent.
Louise as Sesto promised to obey, but pleaded for one sweet glance in return. Then came the section where the two characters sang together: their voices in harmony, but their thoughts and hearts very far from united.
The women turned toward each other and took a breath together. The two of them were fixed on each other, breathing together at each phrase, their voice entwined in harmony. They were perfectly attuned, swelling to forte or dropping to piano exactly together. Louise could not help noticing how Eugénie's breast rose and fell with her breathing, how her lips moved with each word, how the pulse beat in her throat. Louise's fingers stumbled and she played a wrong note in the accompaniment. Without breaking character, Eugénie gave her a haughty look, arching her dark eyebrows. It only enchanted Louise more. In that moment, like Sesto, she could easily promise to do anything Eugénie wished, if only Eugénie would deign to command her.
Too quickly, the piece ended. Louise played the last few bars of the accompaniment. She could feel that her cheeks were slightly flushed, and she stared fixedly at the music for a moment to regain her composure, though in truth the notes blurred before her eyes.
"How was that, my teacher?" Eugénie asked lightly.
Louise swallowed. "Good," she said. "Very good. You were well in character, and you paid careful attention to the dynamics, which is very important in a piece like this. The only thing I would mention is that you were a little too angular and spiky on those large leaps." She pointed to the place in the music. Eugénie came to stand close behind her to look over her shoulder, which did not help Louise's composure. "Try to take those transitions more smoothly."
"I sang it that way to show Vitellia's anger," Eugénie replied.
"I understand - and you conveyed it well in the rest of the piece. But I think you will show her power better if you sing it more smoothly and with more control. Vitellia is perfectly confident in herself - that's how I interpret her. Do you disagree?"
"No," Eugénie said thoughtfully, "I think you're right."
"Then try that part again." Louise turned so that she could watch and listen closely to Eugénie - her duty as Eugénie's teacher, but also a sweet torment - and Eugénie picked up her sheet music to sing the passage again.
It was not long afterwards that Louise began to have dreams of Eugénie. They were not unpleasant; quite the reverse. Eugénie's hands, so confident on the piano keys, spanned Louise's waist, her fingers spread as if she would play Louise like an instrument. And then her hands moved upward, sliding across the smooth fabric in a way that made Louise's breath quicken - or down, stroking possessively over her skirts. Or Eugénie stood behind her, so close that her dark ringlets fell over Louise's shoulder to mingle with Louise's own blonde locks. She sang softly, intimately in Louise's ear, her voice sliding smoothly through complicated runs and roulades, and Louise shivered when Eugénie's breath stirred her hair. She could feel the expansion of Eugénie's chest against her back every time she drew a breath.
Flashes of these dreams came back to Louise during her lessons when Eugénie took a deep breath to sing, or when Eugénie's long fingers rested on the keyboard, and Louise had to fight against distraction.
In the dreams, Louise could never see Eugénie's face. She could not imagine what Eugénie would look like in an amorous mood, her eyes shining with desire.
Eugénie liked her, she was certain. Still more, she trusted Louise to guide her musical education, to bring out her talents to the full and lead her to the glorious heights she dreamed of. Eugénie was like a comet, a phoenix, brilliant and bright - wholly unlike anyone else. It was for Louise to give her the instruction and technique she needed, so that Eugénie would be free to follow whatever path she chose. Surely, it was only foolish to think of anything else.
"Yes, Lindoro shall be mine! I have sworn it, I will triumph." Eugénie's voice could handle the flexibility of a Rossini aria as easily as Vitellia's more serious tone. She was singing the part of the quick-witted Rosina, who escaped from an unhappy household to find happiness with her lover. Louise, accompanying her on the piano, watched her carefully, matching her pauses and tempo to Eugénie's.
Louise was wearing a light lace shawl over her shoulders, and more than once she caught Eugénie glancing at it. "Do you like the shawl?" Louise asked lightly, once the lesson was done. Oh, what a question! She should not be hinting for compliments from Eugénie.
"I do," Eugénie answered with her usual forthrightness. "But it pleases me better when you don't wear it, because your neck and shoulders are very beautiful."
Louise felt herself blush. Before she could think better of it, her fingers went to the loose knot holding the shawl closed, and she tugged - Suddenly it gave way and the shawl slipped to the floor, despite her attempt to catch it.
How Eugénie was looking at her! "Command me to do something - anything," Louise said unsteadily.
Eugénie drew in a breath as if she were about to sing an aria. "Then let me kiss you."
"Yes," Louise faltered. "Oh, yes."
Eugénie came forward - it was only a few steps - and dropped to a seat on the piano bench beside Louise. They were so close that their skirts rustled from brushing together. Not trusting her foolish tongue not to stammer if she spoke, Louise reached out to catch Eugénie's shoulder. And then Eugénie leaned towards her, and her mouth pressed against Louise's mouth, warm and eager.
They could not seem to stop kissing; as soon as they paused for breath, one or the other would lean forward and capture her mouth again. At last they drew apart, and Louise sighed.
"I thought I would like that," Eugénie said somewhat breathlessly.
"But Eugénie," Louise said reluctantly, "your parents-"
"My parents!" Eugénie echoed, with a shade of bitterness. "They have long since given up any wish - or any right - to guide my actions. There is nothing in this house I value, save for music and you."
"Music, and me - you will have both of those, Eugénie, as long as you wish!"
Eugénie wrapped her arm around Louise's waist and stood, lifting her to her feet. For a moment Louise's feet almost left the floor, and she caught hold of Eugénie's shoulders to steady herself. She was dizzy, feeling herself held up by Eugénie's strength. If Eugénie wished, she could probably lift her bodily and carry her off, Louise thought, and she laughed softly. Eugénie kissed her again, and they were distracted for some moments more.
"How careless we were!" Louise said, putting a hand to her flushed cheek. "Anyone could have come in."
"Then next time we will lock the door," Eugénie said. "It is fortunate that Monsieur and Madame Danglars care not at all what I do, or how long I take at my music lessons."