"Lorenzo! Come look!"
I huffed, jabbing my quill a little too ferociously into the inkwell.
"Wolfgang, I'm begging you to sit—"
"Just look for a second! Quickly!"
The groan of a chair, Da Ponte's measured, gentle stride crossing the room—I could remember those long nights we had worked together, the way he had paced silently across floors that should have creaked, his heavy brow furrowed and his white cuffs splattered with ink—
I was not going to get anything accomplished today.
"Wolfgang, you said a change of scenery would help you return to work. We've been here for an hour and we have nothing to show for it. I'm sure Maestro Salieri—"
"Look! Look, hurry!"
A heavy sigh. "It's the emperor's niece."
"Look at her hat!"
"Yes, it's very nice. Come now, have a seat. Please."
"Where do you think she got it?"
"I'm going to get a snack."
"I'll only be a minute. And when I come back, straight to work! I promise!"
"Wolfgang, there's no time—"
But the door had slammed and the only sound in the room was a long, slow sigh from Da Ponte.
I smirked at my music, scratching a stem onto an eighth note with unnecessary care. After a moment I decided that that was a mistake, but I couldn't bear to mark it out. Instead I elected to draw a careful series of circles on the corner of the page. Within a few moments I was so lost in my doodling that I started at the sudden intrusion of Da Ponte's voice.
"I suppose you're finding this all terribly amusing."
I didn't respond right away: I gently placed my quill on the desk, straightened my music, and smoothed my vest, all the time deciding how to answer. I hadn't spoken to Lorenzo Da Ponte since I had first heard his name linked with Mozart's, years ago now. It had been surprisingly simple to keep our paths from crossing for so long. If ever we had been in the same room, I had kept my silence and refused to acknowledge him. He had never had the opportunity to address me, I hadn't allowed it and he hadn't dared. But now we were alone.
I lifted my chin and frowned down at my former partner before finally answering, "I believe 'distracting' is a much more appropriate word. I fail to find the humor in the situation. Or in your friend's behavior."
"Oh for God's sake, Antonio," Da Ponte snapped, but then he faltered and fell silent.
I smirked as Da Ponte fumbled with his quill, then turned back to his work. "You can be so childish sometimes," he muttered.
"Ah yes, in the future I shall try to conduct myself with all the maturity and poise of your friend Mozart."
"How can you continue to be so angry with me? After all this time! It's not as though the loss of my librettos has hindered your success, now is it? You've seen the effect Figaro had on the Viennese!"
I said nothing, turning back to my work. I lifted the quill and drew another circle on the opposite side of the page.
I drew a perfect cross through the second circle.
"What astounding petulance," Da Ponte hissed. I hear his chair skitter across the floor. A moment later his hand snatched the music out from under my quill, his heavy rings catching the light from the window and making me recoil involuntarily. "You haven't written anything."
"How could I, with all the fuss you two have been making?" I retorted. I tried to retrieve my music, but Da Ponte caught my arm, his long fingers easily encircling my wrist. He held me there for a moment, both of us staring at the other in surprise, before I was able to collect myself and break free. He did not try to keep his grip on me. I threw myself to my feet and strode to the other side of the room, pretending to study the bookshelf, mindful to keep my back to him. I could feel his eyes on me.
"It isn't as though I betrayed you," I heard him say. The stillness in the room seemed to muffle his voice. "You knew how I felt and you told me you were going to find someone else. You were the one who—"
"I didn't mean him," I said, gritting my teeth.
"Why not him? Nonsense."
I still didn't turn around.
"Because to the untrained eye your ridiculous behavior indicates jealousy. And if that's the case—Antonio, he's a good composer, he's a good man, but he's nothing like you. Just because we aren't working together—I mean, a word from you, Antonio—I told you how I felt. How I feel."
"I can't believe you're still talking about this."
Unable to stand any more, I pivoted on my heel, avoiding Da Ponte's gaze as I went back to my desk. I stacked the pages of music and retrieved the quill which had fallen to the floor.
Da Ponte had not moved. "Antonio, please. If it's your pride, if it's the vow you made—"
The door flew open, slamming into the wall with so much force that the portraits rattled. "Anything happen while I was gone?"
At the sound of Mozart's obnoxious voice, my hand slipped and I knocked a single sheet of music off the desk. I watched it drift gently to the ground, lifting my gaze when it landed only to find Da Ponte staring at me, shock written into all his features.
And then I realized what he had seen: it wasn't the sound of the door that had flustered Antonio Salieri.
Oblivious to the tension in the room, Mozart threw himself into his chair and grinned at us. There was a smudge of chocolate at the corner of his mouth. I suppressed a sneer; even children knew to wipe their mouths when they finished eating.
I felt Da Ponte's eyes on me and I realized that, from his point of view, I was staring at Mozart's lips. I spun around and snatched my music from my desk, murmuring some kind of excuse as I hurried toward the door.
It was Da Ponte's voice again.
I had no choice but to pause.
"This is yours," Da Ponte said. "Here."
I turned, guardedly, to see the librettist holding out that traitor page of music. The circles drawn in the corners were clearly visible to Mozart, who was licking his fingers contentedly, swinging one leg so that the red heel of his shoe bounced off the leg of his chair.
I crossed the room again, much slower this time, and plucked the page from Da Ponte's hand. I added it to the pile in my arms, batting at it a few times as though that might smooth the creases. Suddenly Da Ponte was gripping my shoulder.
I couldn't bear to look up, afraid of how I might react if I saw pity in his eyes.
"Good luck with it, my friend," Da Ponte said in Italian, his voice low.
I pulled away and swept out of the room, pausing in the hallway to force my hands to stop shaking and to wait until the blood was not pounding so loudly in my head. It had been so long since I had been that close, so long since— I forced myself to think of something else. I needed to collect myself.
I wished I hadn't lingered when I heard Mozart's voice saying, "He's a funny sort of person, isn't he? Is he always so stiff?"
"I think his work is giving him trouble," Da Ponte answered gently. "He's a good man—if he ever lets you get to know him."
Perfect. Pity from Lorenzo Da Ponte. I hugged my music to my chest and hurried away.