"Again!" he demanded. The commanding voice of Kenneth Irons held enough authority that he rarely--if ever--had to raise it to spark obedience. It was Thursday afternoon, and therefore time for Ian's piano lesson, given, as always, in the Great Room, under the scrutiny of nothing less than his own, ever-watchful eye.

The fire, with its constant flame, burned brightly--unchanging despite the season out-of-doors. There was a dampness inherent in the Great Room, a whisper of the dankness of a tomb--or the grandeur of a medieval castle. The fire drove such unpleasantness far into the corners of the room, where it huddled alongside shadows. Truthfully, the room had never been wired even in the way most homeowners would enjoy a room lit; abundant, pristine, bright as a midday summer. It was, instead, a room whose mood never changed. Somber, pseudo-elegant, striking--but never bright. Rather, muted. A room of which Poe would perhaps write, perhaps have imagined for the House of Usher; a room for secrets, a room difficult to place in linear time. A room in which to wait.

A room in which to have a piano lesson, stationed at the ebony Irmler grand which was wheeled in weekly, positioned near the fire, so that along with the polished brass piano lamp, the flames would lend illumination to the player's work, the notes struck on the keyboard rising ever-higher, echoing throughout the enclave, their sound dying away finally among the soft pages of books in the library above.

It was a room perhaps more-suited to the stately tones of an organ, or the bell-like pitch of a chanting choir. But Kenneth Irons did not wish an organ or a chanting choir. He had no use for pious monks or rosary-reciting sisters--and even less for shoeless organists, bellowing and wheezing away in the effort necessary to create such grand sound. No, Kenneth Irons' musical obsession was the string and percussion that married to form the piano. Das klavier. Simple, elegant, smooth to the touch but cool, hard in key and taut of string, its hammers wrapped softly in felt but striking with an exactness, a precision and certainty, a level of commitment that could not be stopped once a key were in play. The ability to make such an instrument, with its sturdy, strong wood sing, to bend it to one's will, was indeed an accomplishment he deemed worth having.

Ian had stopped, mid-phrase, as his hired instructor chid him, quietly but intensely, on the finer points of the particular dynamic in which they were working. Irons noted that when she spoke to the boy, Nottingham failed to use the downcast eyes and bent head he had been taught to universally employ when amongst his superiors, but instead turned his face to hers as though the two were equals--or at the very least, friends. Seeing this, Irons narrowed one eye and held back a scowl. For the moment.

There were several things about this weekly occurrence that failed to meet with Kenneth Irons' approval. He listed them to himself now, in no particular order: the straight, unbowed posture required of the piano student, the lack of gloves--a sensory deprivation which would have made it impossible for young Nottingham to manipulate the keys and invoke proper the fingering and necessary dexterity. The inherent contact with the outside world beyond the Valhalla estate required for the lesson to even take place.

And finally, the teacher herself, Ulaauq Christiansen; winner of countless awards, prizes, and fellowships for her own playing. According to last month's Voice she had only recently returned from a much-feted world tour after turning down positions with several prominent orchestras, and at least three (assumingly unrelated) marriage proposals. But then, according to the Voice, she did not give lessons.

It was contradictory enough to the boy's training that his teacher in any discipline (for Irons thought this a disciple as much as any other in which he commanded the boy be trained) be a woman. Let alone a woman such as Christiansen. Yet the fact remained that she was the best, the embodiment of the physical and creative apex of her craft. And Irons had searched and thoroughly researched (or rather, had directed others to do so) to come to the conclusion that at this point, in addition to the twenty-three teachers Ian Nottingham had been under the tutelage of these past eleven years (each, in their turn, the current best in their field at the time), Christiansen was the next step.

It was a pity and an inconvenience that she was a woman. If she had not been so, he may have been tempted to allow the lessons (as so many of Ian's other lessons did) run without his direct supervision. But, there you had it, she was a woman. And not just any woman, but a Greenlander. A bewitching, petite, darkly beautiful Greenlander whose perfect pale skin rivaled that of the ice on which her people lived.

And he knew, as he often knew such things, that she was dangerous. To the boy, if not to himself. She had already proven herself immensely disciplined, a task-mistress beyond compare, willing to accept nothing less than perfection from her student and her surroundings. In this he could give her his full approval, the only draw back to her presence in his home was that he, himself, was certainly not immune to her considerable packaging. And it was that lack of immunity in his own person that made him particularly wary for the thirteen-year-old Ian. If the simple fact that Christiansen wore her hair down could affect Kenneth Irons on even the smallest level from across the expanse separating them now, it would, without a doubt, be doing possibly irreparable damage to the boy sitting closely beside her on the piano bench; that blue-black fall of hair occasionally grazing Ian's fastidiously untouched shoulder as it had at the previous lesson.

Last week Irons had required--without explanation--that she wear her hair in a bun for lessons. She had complied this week, though not without a cool stubbornness in her eye. It startled him at how little difference that deft wrapping up of her hair produced in the gravity of her appeal.

Doubtless the sore point of this attraction was aggravating some of the more demanding requests he was making of today's lesson.

"Again!" he repeated, quoting the phrase and measure from which Ian was to start.

Kenneth Irons did not need a copy of the sheet music to know the notations; he did not need a metronome to keep the proper time. He had acquiesced to allow young Nottingham sheet music of his own only after repeated demands from Christiansen; in the past the boy had been allowed a copy only from which to sight read, and then was required to have the piece memorized for future lessons. Yet now, young Ian Nottingham sat, much too close to his female teacher, swathed in page after crisp, comforting page of the score to Beethoven's Piano Concerto Number Two in B Flat Major. And yet he still displayed great, unacceptable hesitance during certain passages.

The boy wanted a mother, Irons knew. Surely he had not been trained to want such. Ian Nottingham's upbringing had left no room for mothers, and at thirteen he should have been far past any such infantile longings for the softness of a mother, the love and affection of mother. The comfort of a maternally nurturing female. He was not.

And it troubled Irons particularly, to the point that he had discussed it with Dr. Immo with a directness he usually reserved for only the most grave conversations. His concern, he had told Immo, was not so much that Ian would see the new teacher as mother, so much as that at thirteen he might come to see her as a version of lover--however innocent, however tentatively, however asexual such a potential crush on her might ultimately be. And lastly, that, were the idea of mother and lover to combine and extrapolate in the boy's head, it would doubtless set the loyalty experimentation back half a decade or more, and ruin Nottingham beyond repair.

Before Irons, in full view, the unlikely subjects of his musings sat, Nottingham's back what-seemed miraculously straightened in the correct posture, his hands bare and nimble at the keys, his head bent with concentration and effort, and not the usual subservience. Christiansen occupied the place next to him on the hard bench. As the boy grew there would soon be a need for separate seating. Perhaps it would be a good idea to hurry that along, the bare arms of the teacher, who had worn a fetching, sleeveless black Prada sheath today seemed to Irons dangerously accessible. He found himself staring at the exposed flesh more than concentrating on the lesson, and on Ian's progress. His mind aimlessly circled the question of whether or not Christiansen were wearing perfume, and if he would need to remind her that the contract she had signed forbade such. At that moment he realized that he had had quite enough.

Irons stood from his chair, dissatisfied, and approached the grand piano, his gait, as always, quiet. Christiansen did not hear him, but Ian missed a key, and Irons knew the boy was aware (as he should always be) of his master's movement.

The young boy's hands rose from their position and ceased playing, frozen (as was their owner), waiting for direction.

"You are dismissed," Irons told the boy, who knew better than to wait for further orders when he was not given them directly.

Nottingham reached for his gloves, pausing nearly imperceptibly for half a moment, distracted by Christiansen, who had bent her head to the task of collecting the sheet music the pair had been using.

The hesitance--however brief--did not go unnoticed by Irons, nor did the quick flash of the boy's dark eyes to his teacher's slender, exposed neck escape his guardian. That was something that would have to be dealt with later.

Irons inhaled to add the threat of, 'now' to his previous command, but found that the inhale was all the impetus young Nottingham, knowing he had been caught, needed to vacate the room.

Irons found himself lost in thought for a moment as Christiansen finished gathering her things to go. She was a distracting presence, and in being such she would lose young Nottingham the better part of a good night to punishment.

Irons bent to retrieve a page that had fallen on the floor, rescuing it from the nearby fire, and found himself glancing carelessly at Christiansen's leg as he straightened out and handed the paper to her. He smiled pleasantly as she took it from him. She returned his expression in kind; neither more nor less enthusiastically.

It had occurred to him in his strategic planning that a possible option for dealing with what he saw as Ian's inevitable development of feelings for this piano instructor would be to claim the woman for himself. Admittedly it was not an altogether unpleasant idea, but neither was Irons convinced that such a step were needed at the moment. However, he saw no reason not to lay a good foundation for what might, necessarily, be to come, so he began a line of inconsequential small talk, the kind designed to make the participants feel intimate and cordial.

"I trust the fire is not too warm for you, Christiansen?"

She had never issued any complaint or opinion outside of things dealing directly with the music lessons. He had never before asked her anything not dealing directly with the music lessons. He addressed her in Danish, the mutual flag under which they had originally crossed paths. They always spoke in Danish, and Nottingham had followed their lead. Irons' Greenlander, after all, was a bit rusty. And the boy was ignorant of it entirely.

"The fire is nothing to me, Mr. Irons," she said, shrugging, her tone noncommittal. "I do not notice it is even there."

"Are you so taken with Ian's playing, then?" he ventured a small joke, meant to charm her.

She smiled in return, a good sign, and then spoke; obviously addressing something she had had on her mind for some time.

"I heard you play, as you know, at the Charity Competition in Nuuk where we met. You were a consummate performer." She tilted her head. "I could praise no one else at the recital more highly. Your interpretation of Chopin's Waltz in C-Sharp Minor was nothing short of divinely inspired. Why do you not teach the boy?"

Irons let his smile stay on his lips, an outward nod to the compliment she had paid him. "As you say, you could praise none more highly--yet, there is yourself, Christiansen." He never called her Uula, though she had out of politeness once directed him to do so. "My interpretation--" he wasn't sure he was going to voice it, but did anyway--it was immaterial to what they were discussing. "Was little more than an extrapolation of a partial performance I once--attended--of Frau Bronte."

"Elizabeth Bronte?" Christiansen nodded her head in slow agreement, reconsidering her memory of the recital in light of this new information. "Yes, I can see that now. You were a great fan of hers?"

"One could say that," he smiled slightly, working ahead in his mind to switch back to their original topic.

She did not press on that front, but instead continued. "I have been curious, in regard to the pieces you've chosen for Ian to work on--the aspects of his craft you wish to see improved." She took a finger and wiped it softly across a page of the score that had escaped from her portfolio, like a lover absent-mindedly caressing her beloved. "I will tell you what you already know. I realize that it may lose me my position, but I see no reason to be anything less than honest with you."

He smirked good-naturedly. How he loved moments of supposed, "truth," though it was often simply "reality" those telling such truths addressed, not some grand and important confession of conscience.

"Your ward will never be Elizabeth Bronte."

Kenneth Irons felt his face begin to fall, his bemused expression wash into a frown. But she was telling him nothing that he did not already, on some level, know. He curtailed his expression before it morphed, and translated it instead into one pleasant and difficult to read.

"He hasn't the talent, though his skill goes far beyond what she was capable of--if her recordings are any indication. He has the skill, Mr. Irons, you've more than seen to that. It is the talent he lacks. What the Spanish call, corazon."

"You are resigning, then?" Irons asked, the question only tangentially related to her comments.

She ignored it for the moment. "An artist must be allowed to feel, to experience, to live. As long as Ian is caged in this house, within the gloves you require he wear, his heart and emotions stunted and turned back in on themselves, any talent he may ever have had, any passion--any corazon--will wither before it ever breaks the surface. With lessons and practice his skill will continue to be refined to the point of perfection, but it will emerge hollow--little more than an ineffectual echo of notes on the page."

She paused, as if to take a moment to gauge whether she dared continue to the end. "He will never play Gnomenreigen to the satisfaction of the listener. He will never understand or realize that the instrument is more than wood and string and ivory--that it is a canvas for the soul. He will remain, as a Greenlander would say, llulissat, iceberg: the bulk of which remains submerged, unseen and unknown. In short, he will never be the artist--the interpreter--Elizabeth Bronte was. He will never be even one-eighth her equal. You have him in a cage, Mr. Irons. An exquisite cage," her eyes shot to the high cathedral ceiling and priceless artwork hanging from the walls, "but a cage, nonetheless."

Irons spoke after a moment, during which he paused to give the illusion of considering her words. "A impassioned speech, Christiansen. You are resigning, then?" He made to turn toward the credenza. "I shall write you a cheque before you go."

She looked at him, gauging, he could see, whether he was dismissing her, or, as his words indicated, asking her to decide of her own free will whether to stay.

"I am not resigning, Mr. Irons. I will see you next week, assuming that we still have an understanding."

"The jet will be there as usual, Christiansen, in Narsarsuaq, waiting for you to board."

Satisfied, she nodded to him and turned to go.

As she walked to the door and toward the front of the house he called after her with one final question. "Why return after what you've shared of your vision of Ian's future?"

She stopped and turned her head over her shoulder. "That is my business," she told him, a slight smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "As Ian is yours."

He responded with a flicker of genuine smile at the corners of his own mouth, and replied. "Next week, do be so kind as to wear a long-sleeved blouse, or I shall have one provided for you."

He didn't wait for her response to his newest addendum to their agreement, he did not watch her exit. Instead, he turned and began up the steps to the library. She had not told him anything he did not already know. Only things he, as of yet, was not willing to accept. He turned to the left, heading toward his extensive collection of sheet music, and the works of Liszt, ready to select Ian's next piece. He found he rather liked the idea of Gnomenreigen.

...the end...

by: Neftzer 2002
Feedback Appreciated!

Warner Bros. owns Witchblade. I imagine you knew that. Obviously if Neftzer owned Witchblade she'd already have started broadcasting season three on the local basic cable station, with a nice set-up/opener straight from off the couch in the basement here at Casa Dante. Even if the whole of the third season had to be acted out with her old Strawberry Shortcake dolls (c'mon--the Purple Pieman was SO Irons!), a Care Bear or two, and a few Hot Wheels her brother left behind when he joined the Marines.

Not that anyone cares, but Gnomenreigen, "dance of the gnomes," by Liszt [Hungary 1811-1886], is notorious for its blistering fingerwork.
Additionally, this piece owes a lot to Jazzmin's Sunday. I thank her for writing that exquisite piece. A link to it can be found at the CONvergence Fan Fic Contest Page at http://bluelady.org/convergence/contests/fanfiction.html

More Neftzer fiction here, and at http://www.royaltoby.com/shack