This chapter contains some mild sexual content.
22nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E
Kingdom of Lubon — Palladi Province, Previti Estate
On the outskirts of the royal province of Palladi, a great many hectares of beautiful rural countryside were fenced off by brick wall into the individual estates of a few nobles and nouveau rich. The Previti Estate had grown into the most developed of these clusters. Its walls were like ramparts, and the main gate was an archway leading to a roofed landing. On the night of the 22nd, the gates were open, and through them, past the lobby, one could see into the gardens, where a sensuous torch-lit path led up to the manor house. Guards blocked the approach, and a young woman in a modest black dress and apron ushered young, fashionable couples past the archway after checking them from a list. She was all smiles for every guest that checked in with her, but soon become particularly taken with one new arrival.
A tall, slim, and beautiful stranger, dark-skinned by Lubonin standards but green-eyed, smooth-featured, graceful, brown hair pinned up, stood before the guards at the entrance to the Estate. He dressed in a fine tuxedo suit, with golden cuffs, a visible pocket-watch chain, a black tie, understated but glossy shoes. Like the other guests he had come covered, a peacock-feathered mask covering his delicate nose and the upper half of his face.
He had been dropped off by a taxi around a corner road from the estate, and walked to the gate. No one at the archway could quite tell whether it was a fancy cab or a cheap one.
“Good evening.” He said. He had a pleasant voice. “Sylvano D’Amore.”
Gently and gracefully he lifted the maid’s hand, his fingers travelling along the underside of her arm in the lightest brushing touch until they lifted it by the palm. His lips graced her between knuckle and wrist. Her face flushed — none of the other guests had paid her these attentions.
“Ah, of course. You’re expected.” She said. Her voice developed a light tremble.
She allowed him past the guards, though in reality his name was known to no one. She watched him leave with a delirious expression, almost forgetting the next guests arriving.
Carrying himself with an easy confidence, Sylvano passed through the roofed archway landing, and from there to the ivory-tiled pathway through the gardens. Flanked by shaped hedges and gilded fountains and beds of roses, the young man walked discreetly alongside the throngs of fashionable men and women headed for the estate. Where eyes lingered on him, he received pleasantries, which he softly returned. But he received no greater volume of attention than any other beautiful stranger making a social debut that night. He was not a name that one knew to seek out — no one knew a Sylvano D’Amore. Nobody even knew to ask for it.
He had no friends to whom he owed honors, so he passed people by with a smile and a gentle bow of the head, and he did not pause along the fountains or smell the roses with other idle lords and ladies. At his own pace, he made his way directly to the main villa. His destination, the same as everyone, was the ballroom hall atop the manor house. From the gardens one could see the vast ballroom balcony, a gentle curve along the mansion house facade, framed in silver curtains and shining windows. There was a young lady waiting for his hand inside.
Everywhere he turned he saw masks; animal masks, humanoid masks, plain masks, masks over whole faces, some covering halves, masks with fur, with feathers, with scales.
Perhaps had the right eyes lingered on him, they might have seen through the peacock-feathered mask, and peered right into Sylvano’s regal green eyes. They might have noticed in his gentle lips and features, in the tone of his skin, and in the blunt half-elfin ears, a similarity to a certain Salvatrice Vittoria, one of the Princesses of Lubon. But few of the important nobles and the high bourgeois had ever interacted in any depth with her, or knew much about her status save her age and parentage. She was as outside their thoughts as he was on that night.
As such every vestige of the dual person walking among them was well guarded.
Sylvano was a disguise Salva had dreamed up for some time now; but now, she was him.
And she felt both excitement and trepidation at the prospect.
She had a thought in her mind constantly, as she ambled down the path, past the singles and couples bedecked in finery, taking in the view, that this youth was supposed to be a man. Behind the black pants and coat, the formal shirt and the black tie, the golden cuff links and buttons; behind all the accouterments of the finer class, Sylvano was not Salvatrice.
She could not afford to be seen through him after all this effort.
With the help of her personal maid, who even now was covering for her in the Academy as best she could, she had become Sylvano. She had bound her breasts flat, not much of an endeavor, and over time she had practiced a slightly deeper, more ambiguous voice. Her figure came largely flattened already, so the suit fit her slender frame well. She had even worn men’s underwear, and dyed her hair brown for the occasion. Appearance was not a problem.
It was all about attitude; but what was the right attitude expected out of a gentleman?
She put it out of her mind, pushing it deep down. She had a lady to meet for a dance.
Walking through the Previti estate was exhausting. Salvatrice, and in turn Sylvano, were not so delicate, but one of them had to expend a lot of energy to be the other. She had to costume herself, escape the Academy, and make it to the estate. Now she had to cross the gardens. Her constitution had never been too stout, and the preparations and acting took a lot out of her. But she had to be graceful — she could not simply stop and stand wherever.
Thankfully the Previti sisters stationed rabbit-masked maids in white dresses all along the fountains and gazebos with aperitifs and drinks in small glasses atop shimmering platters.
Near a hedge that was cut to the shape of a cavalry knight, one of the pretty rabbits offered her a drink, and Sylvano paused. He approached the woman and accepted the wine glass with an unreserved smile. Standing in the shadow of the green knight, against the red torch-light, gave Salvatrice a chance to rest and catch her breath while chatting up the maid.
“A lovely drink, thank you.” Sylvano said, after one careful sip. “Very full-bodied.”
“Thanks milord. It is a product of our own vineyards. While it is a comparatively young wine, it boasts taste beyond its years, like our fair ladies,” the maid replied. She was well spoken, and had either practiced her lines well, or developed a skillful way with words.
“Will both ladies Previti grace us with their wit and charm this night?” Sylvano asked.
“Yes milord. In fact it is they who planned everything from attendance to the masks to the decorations, and attire,” chirped the maid. “All is a product of their impeccable taste. Certainly they will attend the party — I believe they will even play for us all on the piano.”
Sylvano finished the remainder of the wine in a few delicate sips. He smiled to the lovely maid.
“I would not want to miss it; so I will make my way. I must say it has been a pleasure.”
She bowed to him, while perfectly balancing the food and drink on the platter in her hand.
Sylvano resumed his walk to the estate. The Previti Manor soon loomed over him, a monumental edifice to anyone staring it face to face. Red and gold carpet stretched down close to a hundred steps of staircase that led to the ornate double doors of the manor. Golden light filtered out of the doors and even through the closed curtains on the ground floor windows. Men and women, some alone, some in groups of friends, others coupled hand in hand, climbed the stairs with a casual admiration of the surroundings.
Salvatrice felt her strength waning again every dozen steps. Halfway up, she saw something that invigorated her, and Sylvano conquered the remaining steps in strength.
At the top of the staircase waited Carmela Sabbadin, heiress to the Antioch Fuels fortune.
Sylvano approached and took her hands, and she looked up with sudden recognition.
“I hope you did not wait long.” He said. Carmela saw Salvatrice right away.
“I’ve waited weeks. I can endure a few hours.” She said. She laughed delicately.
“I apologize for all of it.” Sylvano said. They squeezed each other’s hands for a moment.
Carmela was beautiful, always, Salvatrice knew no one in the world whose every aspect she loved as much as she loved Carmela. Her long, golden hair, and the way it curled a little at the ends; her honey-orange eyes and the way she blinked like a cat with a little grin on her face when she was satisfied; the way that she stood just a few centimeters shorter than Salvatrice, and tipped her head just a little to lock eyes; her ears, not as long or as sharp as some, but enough for the tips to peer charmingly out from under her hair; her soft lips with a little dab of red, and the laugh from them that was delicate and a little haughty; the perfect olive tone of her skin, her slender form evenly caressed by the sun. Salvatrice could have basked in her presence all night.
To the ball she wore her hair simply, and made up for it with the regal indigo dress she wore, with a long, ornate skirt but a bold bodice cut just above the breast, strapless and sleeveless, bound tight at her back. She wore a pair of matching indigo gloves, with black ribbon, and her mask was an indigo raven, covering half her face as Sylvano’s mask did. Around her neck she wore a gold chain with a purple amethyst that Salvatrice had given to her long ago.
People moved around them, but this was their moment. They didn’t exist anymore.
“My, my, mister,” Carmela sidled up to Sylvano almost nose to nose, “Filling your eyes before your hands,” she started to whisper, “or perhaps your mouth? Will I receive any satisfaction for the feast I’m offering your senses?” She traced a slim index finger down Sylvano’s chest.
“I am not Sylvano D’Amore for nothing.” Salvatrice replied, lips curled in an awkward smile.
Carmela backed a step from her, opening a little paper fan in front of her mouth.
“I hope Sylvano knows the ballroom responsibility of the one in the suit and pants.”
She flapped the paper fan across Salvatrice’s face teasingly, and extended her hand to her. Sylvano choked down the kind of giggle that such a gesture would have drawn from Salvatrice, and instead entwined her fingers through Carmela’s, and escorted her into the mansion.
Every hall of the Previti Estate was brightly lit by faux torches, the flame electric and surrounded in glass. Red and gold were common colors on carpets, banners, curtains. Scented candles added mystique and a decadent feeling to the environment. Hand in hand, Carmela and Sylvano climbed a spiral staircase to the second floor, and made their way to the ballroom the next wing over. Along the halls they found portraits of beast-headed men in suits, bird-headed women in dresses. There were stone busts of beast-headed people with savage expressions, in place of the statues of great artists that would normally decorate such a fine house. All these works of dubious art seemed to stare hungrily at them as they passed.
Male servants in the mansion wore wolf’s masks, while the female servants were all rabbits. They ushered the passing guests toward the massive ballroom. Alongside Carmela and Sylvano strode dozens other people in suits and ornate dresses. Everyone had a mask, but certain peer groups identified themselves quickly and reformed, and soon they moved together in their inseparable cliques and entourages. Sylvano could hear the women giggling at the decor, and a few more delicate among them expressing disgust or discomfort with it.
Enough about the Previti Estate had been rendered exotic and mysterious to satisfy the occasion, and yet enough remained familiar for an upper class youth to feel refined and unchallenged. Perhaps dimming the lights, perhaps earthier colors, perhaps a few aphrodisiacs on the platters, perhaps less sharp dress on the servants, less artifice in the decorations; such things might have added a more lusty and savage touch to this purported masquerade ball. But perhaps the purpose of the masks was never to titillate, to add danger — perhaps like in Salvatrice’s case, they were meant to keep everyone safer than they would be.
The Previti’s ballroom was enormous, containing a small stage offset a dance floor larger than the gymnasium at Salvatrice’s academy, a high roof with a chandelier that was decorated to seem a ghastly floating crown of thorns, bearing several faux torches. There was a gorgeous view of the property through the balcony, and several couples were already taking advantage of it. There were no tables for drinks or food. Servants carried everything. They flawlessly weaved through the guests to present their complimentary morsels. There was not yet any dancing — musicians on violin, flute and piano and were setting up and warming up.
“Come, Sylvano,” Carmela spoke the name teasingly, letting it roll slowly off her tongue, “I must dutifully report to the ladies of the house. I’m sure they’ll love to meet you.”
“Yes, I remember you saying they’re good friends of yours.” Sylvano said.
“I’ve only known them all my life.” Carmela said, giggling. “You could say they are.”
Carmela led Salvatrice now, and she beseeched a wolf-headed man to give them audience with the ladies Previti. Acknowledging Carmela, the man took a very formal tone with her, and treated her as if she too were a lady of the house, whose commands were to be followed. Dutifully he led Carmela and Sylvano through a side room, and into a tea room with several plush couches, a record player, a large radio, and even a television set, surrounding tables where cakes and cookies and tea had been set and sat seemingly untouched.
Sitting placidly in the middle were the Previti Twins, two women identical save for the way they styled their hair. Both had ivory-white skin, blue eyes and flowing black hair, sharp lubonin ears that curled very slightly at the ends. Both of them wore very similar red and gold dresses, modestly covering and yet quite ornate, bedecked with frills, with only a flash of the upper torso through a circular window in the bodice, lined with glittering little gems. One sister had her hair up with a bright red ribbon; the second wore long, tight ringlet curls.
The twins greeted them all at once, and their voices sounded exactly the same.
“Good evening, Lady Caramel!”
Carmela approached each sister, and embraced them a little from her standing position, exchanging kisses on the cheek. Then she returned to the side of her date, taking his arm and waving. Sylvano smiled, a little nervously, and dipped her head in a bow. Salvatrice thought she was the only one who called Carmela that nickname, but she guessed it must have been a common thing among her and familiar girls. The Previti Twins knew her longer than Salva.
“You look divine! You always wore the royal purple better than royalty!”
“And the way your hair curls into little twists at the end, oh, I’m so jealous.”
“It takes us an hour with a maid to get that effect. You’re a golden goddess!”
“Indeed! Indeed! It’s no wonder you were able to charm our good man here.”
“We were wondering when we would meet your handsome stranger!”
“And also whether he would make a good God for this goddess! Indeed!”
They giggled at once, and again there was no distinction between them.
“Oh, he’s perfectly ordinary.” Carmela said, giggling herself. “This is Sylvano D’Amore. He is the son of an architect; though he is more devoted to the study of people than structures.”
Salvatrice played along. She had no plans for a backstory, but of course, one was necessary. “I’m a sociology student. I hope to go into politics someday.” There was a pause between the two clauses, perhaps a clumsy one, but she committed in the end. This was a half-truth, more than an outright lie. The Previti Sisters looked over him with fond, amused expressions.
“You have a captivating voice, Mr. D’amore.” Said the ribbons sister.
“It is wasted on speeches!” laughed the ringlets sister. “You should take to the stage!”
“You can call me Sylvano. Mr. D’amore is so labored out of such pretty lips.” Sylvano said.
Again the twins giggled, covering their mouths delicately with the backs of their hands.
Carmela clung to Salva’s waist. “Aren’t you spreading admiration a little too far, Sylvano?”
“No, no! Don’t let this forceful evil girl quiet you!” Ringlets Previti said.
“Compliment us more please. Don’t leave us begging!” Ribbon Previti said.
“I’m sure Carmela would agree you are both stunning ladies.” Sylvano said.
Salvatrice wondered if Carmela was really jealous, but she was laughing along with them.
She gave Sylvano a look and a smile that said it was all fine. Salvatrice was not the best at picking up social cues, but she was at least capable enough not to panic from them. With that matter silently resolved they sat a table of sweets and tea across from the sisters, who took the time to introduce themselves. They stood momentarily and curtsied.
The young lady with the ringlets went first. “I’m Capricia Previti, younger by a few minutes.”
“And I’m Agostina Previti, older by a few minutes,” added the young lady with the ribbon.
They sat, and donned their masks in front of the couple — half-face masks covered in red and gold dyed feathers with little gold beak noses, like phoenixes.
“Full credit to this idea should really go to our lady Caramel. She cheered us on to do this.”
“Her own parents are so stuffy, otherwise I’m sure she would have done it, right Caramel?”
“Indeed.” Carmela said. “But I don’t think I would have managed such a colorful atmosphere.”
“It really is, isn’t it?” Capricia said. “It really gets the blood flowing. I especially like the masks I chose for the servants. Wolves and rabbits, it gives a sinister kind of atmosphere together, doesn’t it? Makes you think, ‘oh what strange things must go on the Previti house,’ no?”
“I didn’t quite want to imply depredation within our own house in such a way.” Agostina said. “But I allowed my little sister’s fancies to take flight, perturbed as I am by their content.”
Capricia gave Agostina a look, and the latter opened up a paper fan over her face.
“Agostina was in charge of boring things, like invitations and drinks, that take care of themselves.” Capricia said, her tone taking a hint of viciousness.
“One of your dear rabbits allowed me in despite the list.” Sylvano said. “I hope that will not be a black mark upon her character. I understand that you crafted a guest list and my attendance was a little last minute.” He looked at Carmela, who also covered her face with her paper fan.
“Oh you’re so considerate Sylvano.” Agostina said. “I knew when I created a guest list that it would be a little troublesome for our servants to keep it. So many fashionable people yearn for a chance to attend truly high class parties, it is the same way whenever any of us hosts anything. But we also know our servants are cautious enough to keep any riff-raff out. If someone charms one of our rabbits, surely they will charm us as well. You have proven it.”
Sylvano tried not to flush in the face. That might have been seen as a little too delicate for him.
“Hands off.” Carmela said. All the girls shared another synchronized bout of laughter.
“She’s very forceful Sylvano! You see this? We don’t blame you if you allow her reign over you!”
It was becoming increasingly difficult not to flush or wither under this sort of attention.
Thankfully the subject changed. Carmela and the twins started catching up on things, and Sylvano sort of faded into the background, an accessory to the conversation, offering nods and smiles, blowing the steam from Carmela’s tea for her, and listening to the women.
The Previti Twins were heiresses of a monumental shipping and trading dynasty founded on the ashes of old national industries, once belonging to coastal lords who fell from grace during the ascension of Queen Vittoria. It was a time of tumult, and many lords were destroyed for their opposition or opportunism — their positions were occupied by nouveau rich and petites-bourgeois, whose own opportunism was rewarded, forming a new class of nobility that was born not out of blue blood, but out of gold and silver bullion, and the favor of the Queen.
But the Previti family was dissatisfied with current events. Who wouldn’t be? There was a war on the horizon. Four days after the fact, the papers acknowledged the invasion of the Socialist Dominances of Solstice by the Nocht Federation. Swift victories were reported, and the strength of Nocht touted to all, but only the journalists took the news energetically. For most, it just added to their troubles. Almost the first thing touched upon after the sisters explained their positions to Sylvano, was a slight change in their fortunes.
“It’s been a little hard on father lately. A month ago we stopped being able to trade with the Ayvartans, and now with the Royal Navy refitting, there is low priority on helping us expand our shipping capacity and our fleet’s ability to sail farther out to Helvetia or northern Nocht.” Agostina explained. “And that is the most significant limit on our fortunes at the moment. More ships, bigger facilities; at the present we’re maxed out on profit-making if we can’t access the commerce on Ayvarta. It’s closer by, and they had a lot of product we wanted.”
“They were also communists, so this was bound to happen.” Capricia said, shrugging.
“Communists with abundant, cheap food and ore and fuel.” Agostina said sternly.
“Well, it is out of our hands, really.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice really did not know much about the communists, or even what they stood for. It was a problem she hoped to correct soon. As a student it drove her mad to feel such a hole in her pool of knowledge — particularly now that her country and its allies went to war with them. Ignorance was inexcusable.
So, in the absence of knowledge, she played Sylvano as a noncommittal party.
“I suppose it is. How has your papa been affected by the news, Caramel?” Agostina asked.
“So far, nothing’s really different. Far as I know, demand for fuel is growing but our fuel plants in Ricca have been more than able to meet it. Papa and I don’t talk much.” She replied.
“I’m sure the war will drive demand up. At least someone’s getting something out of it!” Capricia said, accompanied by a delicate laugh. Agostina seemed to cringe, and Carmela did not reply. Salvatrice found the statement rather sinister. Capricia did not seem to notice.
“On a lighter note, now that we’ve all got going; Carmela, dear, I don’t mean to impose, but I’ve been dying to know how you two met.” Agostina said. “In the most respectful of ways, this came as a surprise to me! I did not expect you to have a paramour so suddenly.”
“Paramour? Oh Agi, you’re romanticizing things too much.” Carmela said gently.
Sylvano looked between Carmela and Agostina with a somewhat helpless expression.
“Perhaps, but forgive me, I assume your father doesn’t approve.” Agostina said.
“He never approves of anyone!” Capricia replied. “He doesn’t even want us around.”
“Oh, come now Capri, he’s never said that at all.” Carmela replied.
“He doesn’t have to say it to mean it.” Capricia replied, wielding her own paper fan now.
Carmela sighed. “We just met at a little party one day, didn’t we Sylvano?”
“Indeed.” Sylvano replied. Salvatrice’s mind raced to flesh out the details in a way the twins would readily accept. She figured out quickly to play to their sense of dramatic grandeur. “I was there accompanying my father, who had done some work for Antioch Fuels. It was a small celebration in honor of a new facility. We saw each other from across the floor of the plant. I remember it like it was yesterday — we locked eyes, drinks in hand, distracted from the adult’s conversations. We kept each other company while our the company men and women entertained one another, and there was just something special. We both knew it then.”
Both sisters clapped their hands together and beamed. “Simply marvelous!”
“He remembers it far better than I. I just remember a boring company party.” Carmela said, clinging again to Sylvano’s side. She looked at him with curious amusement.
“I figured that it must have been related to your company in some way.” Agostina said.
“To think you’d meet someone under forty years like that. Or did you just age well, Sylvano?”
Sylvano smiled. “I’m afraid the men of my family don’t age gracefully. Enjoy while you can.”
The Previti sisters burst out laughing, and had to raise their hands to their mouths.
Carmela quirked an eyebrow and gazed quizzically at her suitor. She shook her head.
“After that we decided to keep in touch, and then to deepen that touch.” Carmela said.
“Of course.” Capri smiled back. “I assume a lot of furtive letter-writing followed.”
“You’re so well acquainted with courtship. Hiding anything from me?” Carmela said.
She looked at them like a viper, as though she’d found a flash of neck to bite.
“Oh dear, have I spoken out of turn?” Capri said, wearing an expression of contrived shock.
“Nothing so dramatic I’m afraid. She is simply very well read in romance.” Agostina replied.
“No, do not cover for me sister. I have a suitor to whom I send letters.” Capricia said, her voice taking a haughty tone. “It is true! Carmela read me, I’m afraid. I have been unveiled to all.”
There was a moment of awkward silence as Capricia puffed herself up before them.
“You might think him a suitor, but his own self-concept is up for debate.” Agostina said.
Both sisters eyed one another with evil intentions, then turned the other cheek at once.
Sylvano stayed quiet and tried to purge himself of expression. More than a conversation it almost seemed like a competition between everyone, humorous as it appeared. Salvatrice did not know whether it was lighthearted or not. She supposed this was the kind of thing long-time girl friends got up to. With the few friends she had made at the academy the topics were always books, and the conversation always slow and quiet. This was all quite new.
Thankfully she had a good sense with words to improvise her way through it.
After a half hour more of talking, they exhausted topics both soft and heavy. Then the Previti Sisters stood from the tea room couches and announced it was time they made their appearance. Carmela offered each of them a hug and a kiss on the cheek again, while Sylvano bowed to the two of them. Thus the couple left the room first, and rejoined the guests in the ballroom, before the Previti sisters entered from the stage door, behind the musicians. There was a round of applause in the room for the two hostesses, to which they bowed.
“Thank you! We hope you have been enjoying the refreshments.” Agostina said.
“But of course, you did not come here to drink, but to dance!” Capri added. “Gather up your courage, men, and seek the hand of a lady for the ball! Come on, you did not dress up to drink in a corner! Couple with another mysterious stranger. You’ve nothing to lose!”
“Our hands will of course be available as well.” Agostina said, winking coquettishly.
They walked down from the stage, and the musicians started to play. Around the room what looked to Salvatrice like hundreds of guests began to form couples for the dance. Salvatrice took Carmela’s hand, and with one arm around her waist, led her to the dance floor. Music played; the piano reigned over the other instruments, and the player was very skilled. He started slowly, and his violin and flute followed him loyally, but the tempo gradually rose as if with the emotion of the couples on the floor. But Salvatrice did not try anything daring. She was not even thinking much of her feet, and the movement on the ballroom was perfunctory.
It was not a dance to them. It was not technical. It was a chance to be together — to share in each other’s space, to be physical, to touch, to move in orbit. It was a standing bed. Fingers bit down on flesh like the teeth that longed to; eyes locked together like the lips that could not. A hand squeezed a hip or outer thigh, and the owner felt tempted to grip elsewhere.
Dancing only made Salvatrice feel suspended in the air. She felt as though in a freefall with her beloved, the gentle turns, the steps, all the traversal was a backdrop to the timeless space they shared. She made only one contrived dance move. When she sensed the artists were about to close one melody and transition, Salvatrice twirled Carmela and pulled her suddenly close, holding her tight. They held the pose, sharing in each other’s warm, agitated breath. There were no accolades for the twist, no spotlight on the lovers. They were still alone in their microcosm, in the middle of a hundred others perhaps thinking with the same restrained lust.
“I was about to beg you for something like that.” Carmela whispered.
Salvatrice smiled. Normally it was Carmela who took the lead. But, appearances, and all.
One performance melded into the next, until the music became an accompaniment to the gasping of their breath. Chandelier light played across flesh glistening with sweat. Salvatrice and Carmela held fast to one another. Gradually their lips brushed, their hands crept to where desired, and piecemeal their desires played out, across three dances, four, through centimeters of cloth, across exposed neck, over glossy lipstick, moistening hair, and glittering masks.
Carmela stopped first — she squeezed Salvatrice suddenly close, so she felt a bump against her bound breasts. She whispered, “Allow me a moment and a drink to recover.”
“Of course.” Sylvano said. Salvatrice restored his composure immediately.
For the first time since they met that night the couple broke. Carmela met with the Previti sisters again, who, from the impeccable state of their clothing and hair, seemed to have had lesser fortunes than Carmela on this night. Sylvano picked up a pair of wine glasses from a wolf across the room, and brought them back, weaving through the crowd in the middle of a song’s climax. When the two reunited minutes later, they proposed a toast, drank peacefully, and made small talk with the twins on the variety of dresses among the ladies — most of the men looked rather homogeneous and went uncommented on.
“Well, it’s about time we took the stage again.” Agostina said.
“You needn’t remain, Carmela — why not lead dear Sylvano on a little tour. You’re probably bored of our playing already, you’ve heard it so much.” Capricia winked at her.
The Previti Sisters took their leave, and in that instant Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand and led her out of the ballroom. She did not object or ask, she simply followed, through the hall straddling the ballroom, to a corner room. Carmela opened a door, and ushered her into a little gallery. Couches encircled a series of display stands, holding models of the Previti company’s famous vessels. Salvatrice barely got a glimpse at them, when Carmela pushed her against the wall, and kissed her. She pulled away, and Salvatrice felt her leg, the knee coming between Salvatrice’s thighs. Her heart was racing, and her breath choppy.
“What if we became just a little lost here, in the backrooms of the Previti Estate, just for a bit? Perhaps we drank too much. Perhaps in exactly 58 minutes, the sisters and their servants might pay heed and come look for us, and find us in an ordinary state here?”
Carmela pulled Salvatrice close to her, faces a millimeter away, brushing lips, exchanging sweet breaths. She wrapped her hands around Salva’s shoulders and nape.
“What do you say, Sylvano D’Amore?” She had a hungry-looking grin on her face.
Salvatrice inched forward, seizing Carmela’s lips into her own.
It was an arduous kiss, sucking, tasting. Salva’s hands traveled down Carmela’s breasts, pressing firmly, and slid down to her waist to her skirt. Carmela seized Salva’s groin.
Their heads withdrew for just a second, tongues tip to tip, basking in each other’s glow.
The walls brightened, and they became framed by light; there was an entirely different glow.
There were screams and a massive roaring of flame.
Over their shoulders the lovers watched the fireball erupting from afar.
Salvatrice and Carmela stood transfixed by the light.
A massive bomb, it had to be; and it had to have gone off right in the archway entrance.
“Messiah defend us.” Carmela whispered. Salvatrice seized her arm, and pulled her out the door. They hurried down the hallway and saw people rushing out of the ballroom.
There were guards coming up the stairs, pushing their way through the panicking crowd, but they looked utterly bewildered and helpless, pistols out but nothing and no one to shoot, and no direction in the screaming horde. Ladies tripped over their skirts trying to run, and men minutes ago dancing with them now left them behind in their rush to save themselves. Maids and servants were pushed out of the way and huddled in corners and locked themselves in rooms, in fear of both the crowd and the destruction visited upon the estate.
Salvatrice clung close to Carmela, and the two of them shoving and waded through the crowd against all instinct. They didn’t see the hostesses among the escaping masses.
They finally forced their way through to the double doors into the ballroom. Inside they found the place littered with broken glass and discarded food stuffs, smears of cake, platters flung against the nearest surface in the rush. They could see the fires from the balcony windows, but not the archway gate — it was gone. A massive hole had been blown in the wall. Carmela found the Previti sisters hiding behind the piano and she and Sylvano joined them. Agostina and Capricia were on the verge of tears, and shaking as though in a freezing shower. Sylvano wrapped his coat over the two of them as best as he could arrange.
Guards entered the ballroom, gasping for breath, bent down and supporting themselves by their knees. Pistols in hand, they scanned the room though nothing relevant could be there.
“What is happening?” Sylvano asked. “We heard an explosion.”
“There was an explosion! It was at the gate! It was enormous!” Agostina said.
“Messiah protect us, could it be an attack? Like the massacre in Ikrea?” Capricia said.
“Shut up!” Agostina shouted, pushing Capricia against the wall. “Don’t say that!”
Sylvano and Carmela broke them apart. They looked about to swing at one another.
They huddled behind the piano while the guards rushed out to the balcony’s balustrade and hid behind it for cover. Brandishing their pistols they peered frequently over the edge.
Frightful minutes passed without another sign; no explosions, no gunfire.
There would be no massacre that night. It would not turn out like Ikrea. This bomb was not followed by a masked throng armed to the teeth and out for blood. It was only followed by enough silence for everyone to shrink back in fear of themselves and others.
But Sylvano knew that the Blackshirts would appear soon nonetheless.
“Carmela, I can’t stay any longer.” Sylvano whispered. “Blackshirts.”
Carmela looked him in the eyes. She was momentarily stunned, and a few tears drew from her eyes. But she wiped them off with her glove. She understood. This was not a night out with Sylvano D’Amore, an ordinary gentleman who could come and go as he pleased, talk to whoever he wanted, talk however he wanted, and stay by her side. Salvatrice Vittoria could do none of those things, not freely, not without consequence. She had to run from prying eyes to do anything. They shared on quick, final kiss, for anything more involved would’ve forced Salvatrice to stay; and Sylvano stood, and leaving his coat behind he started to leave.
“Where is he going?” Capricia asked.
“He needs to see things for himself. He wants us to stay here, where it’s safe.” Carmela said.
“How gallant.” Agostina said. Salvatrice could not tell whether it was sincere or sarcasm.
Outside the fire was brilliant, and the force of the bomb had put out many of the garden torches. Salvatrice joined the throng of people the servants were escorting out through the side gates onto the adjacent properties. The Blackshirts were not yet on the scene, but Salvatrice hurried nonetheless to escape whatever cordon they might set. Her mother could not know. The Queen would not harm her — but she would make life impossible to live. More impossible than it already was. She had already done so to one Princess and surely in that pragmatic regal mind there was space to punish the other for an indiscretion such as this.