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A valet assisted me as I descended from the carriage. Right behind me, Logan and Jacob fell into step as we surveyed the scene around us. Dozens of torches lit an expansive lane bedecked in flowers, fountains, and flowing dresses, while a small road led upwards towards an impressive chateau. The ball would not start for another half-hour, but guests were descending upon the Medici's manor like clouds of locusts.
Jacob gave a low whistle. "For a ruined family, this is still pretty impressive."
We nodded in response. The Medici family, the de-facto rulers of parts of Italy for centuries, had experienced a collapse in the last century. Political machinations, bad investments, war, and other factors had led to their downfall. Still, small branches of the family existed, and these continued the mantle of wealth. Around us was evidence enough of that fact.
"They keep up appearances at least." We turned at the sound, glimpsing Di Luca trudging forward. The majority of his bulk was hidden amidst folds of fine orange fabric. I thought he looked like an overgrown orange, but Roman masked balls apparently demanded some color. I had chosen a subtle green accentuated with a hint of grey. My companions were dressed likewise, and on top of each of our foreheads rested a decorated mask, ready to hide our features when the ball commenced.
"Even so," continued Di Luca, "they rely more and more upon their rich friends. Their family is indeed dying out. I would be surprised if it's not gone in the next century or so." Without further comment, the large man shuffled forward, expecting the three of us to follow. We did, our feet carrying us through the throng of party-goers. Like our attires, others were adorned in gaudy and flashy gowns and suits. Some had already lowered their masks, and the effect was disturbing in the torchlight. Monkeys, ghouls, clowns, and vague faces of various emotions leered at us out of the gloom. Each mask was unique and a true work of art.
Many attendees nodded or bowed to Di Luca as he passed, and more than once, our progress was halted as introductions were offered and received.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" A voice cried, loud enough to cut through the many conversations. A servant, bedecked in the Medici livery, stood at the entrance to the manor. "The ball is about to start. If you would like to take your places amid the hall, it would be most helpful."
At the man's words, the crowd began milling inside, and our group was carried along in its wake. Entering the chateau, I was instantly struck by the size. Of course, splendor was nothing new to me. But Di Luca's comments seemed true. Although their prestige was dying, a simple nobility hung about the entire place. Halls were spacious, and only a few, finely selected portraits adorned the walls. In many places, the gilding was reserved and majestic.
As we moved through the building's labyrinth of corridors, the great hall loomed before us. The sketches I had seen of deep underground caverns came to mind, so expansive was the room. A balcony overlooked the space, and a chamber orchestra was tuning, preparing for the dances to come. Small tables, weighed down with delicacies and drinks, surrounded the perimeter of the hall. And milling about the dance floor were scores of party-goers. As we entered the massive room, we each lowered our masks in turn. In one moment, all identity had been discarded within the anonymity of the plaster masks. My own possessed a long, hooked beak that completely belied my own petite nose.
Turning, I glimpsed two hideous faces grinning back at me. I added my own smile to my friends'.
"You know, I haven't been to a ball for nearly a decade," spoke Jacob. "New Orleans would have masked dances around Carnival, but they rarely interested me. Since leaving my family, there wasn't much point in attending social functions of this sort, and after losing Lilly, well, I lost all interest. Maybe I acted too soon; this looks like it'll be marvelous!" I could hear the smile in his tone. That was rare, and Logan and I were pleased to see him happy; a cloud of melancholy rarely left the man.
Di Luca clapped him on the back. "Lad, if ever there was a place to lose yourself, it's Rome. Enjoy yourself tonight, my friends! And forget about your troubles. That is Italy's draw. She pulls you in and cheers you up!" There was already an empty drink in his one hand, and the other was reaching for another glass from a passing attendant. He was losing no time in finding his own merriment.
Suddenly, without fanfare or introduction, the orchestra launched into a lively waltz. Instantly, the dance floor roiled with movement as couples paired off, and others moved to the sides to watch the spectacle. For their part, Logan and Jacob began retreating towards the perimeter. I followed in their wake, but I had resolved to do some dancing that evening. What good was it to be amid beauty if one didn't participate? Di Luca scoffed good-naturally at our retreating forms before bounding, rather surprisingly given his weight, towards an older woman. She had been chatting with several friends, but Di Luca cut her out of the crowd and genteelly escorted her towards the dance floor, their feet already flowing in time with the beat.
As the waltz slowed to a halt, we watched Di Luca direct his dancing partner over towards us. Panting, he reached us. A content smile was spread under his mask, and his cheeks were moist with sweat.
"My friends, allow me the great honor of introducing you to the most graceful, best woman in attendance tonight." The lady in question beamed at us, fanning herself with a dainty hand. Her hair was streaked with grey and plated into a simply braid, but the way she carried herself lent truth to her dancing partner's compliments. Di Luca continued. "Viscount Logan Harling, Nathaniel Fletcher, and Jacob Douglas, it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to Madame Alexandra Klein. She is the wife of an esteemed ambassador to Rome."
Logan bowed in perfect form, kissing her hand. "Oh?" he spoke politely. "And what fair country do you hail from, my lady? Rome is truly blessed to receive such a prize, and your home is sorely slighted by your absence"
She chuckled, her voice high and airy. "Why, dear me! What a charmer we have!" There was no malice in her voice, and we all became instantly enchanted. "Sirs, my family and I came to Rome from the Kingdom of Riktenburg. My husband has served the king for decades now, and our posting here was a reward for his loyal work." Pride for her family's accomplishments flashed in the lady's eyes, and although a mask covered most of her face, I could tell it radiated pleasure.
"Now, now. Is someone spreading exaggerated rumors about me again?" A kindly man, with a limp in his step, hobbled up and gave Alexandra a delicate peck on the cheek.
"Marcellus, you old rogue! How are you?" Di Luca cried dramatically, his face flushed but happy.
He bowed in return. "I have no idea what elicited that scurrilous commentary on my character sir, but you best be careful. I wouldn't want to cause embarrassment by thrashing you, despite my dragging leg!" The two roared, obviously old friends. The newcomer turned to us. "Now, I see that my wife has collected some fine company for the evening. I do not believe I have been given the pleasure." Names were traded all around. As it turned out, Alexandra was not lying. Her husband, the Honorable Ambassador Marcellus Klein, had indeed served the King of Riktenburg for a substantial length of time. As the orchestra's music swirled around us, Di Luca regaled the group with tales of the man's gallantry and diplomatic affinity. To all this, Marcellus humbly denied all and refused to add any embellishments to the tales. I adored the couple. Drawing Alexandra aside, I begged apology for my ignorance and asked to hear more about her native land.
"Oh, darling," she cooed maternally. "Don't fret. Riktenburg is a country of many things, but not size. In all of Germany, she is loved for her pure forests and loving people. To his subjects, King Martin is practically regarded as a saint nowadays." Her eyes grew misty. "Rome is . . . Rome is nice, but it is not home."
"And how long has it been? Since your last homecoming, that is."
She paused in thought. "It must be nearly three years now. There is no time for vacations. Marcellus works with everyone in this city. He has meetings and dealings at the Vatican, with the various government departments, and all the business
leaders of Rome as well. We've never a moment to spare. Once in a while, we receive visitors from Riktenburg. Our niece is here now for instance." Her eyes briefly scanned the hall, searching. However, she quickly gave up and returned her gaze to me. "You must meet her tonight, although I'm not sure where she's wandered off. The girl is a marvelous dancer; no doubt she's plying that trade somewhere.
"I would be honored to make her acquaintance. I had—" Di Luca bounded up, interrupting me.
"Quick, lad! Another dance is about to begin. I won't have you wasting the moment on someone already claimed, however magnificent she may be." With a wink towards Alexandra and a shove towards me, he separated us.
The orchestra was indeed launching into another tune. Thankfully, it was a Vivaldi work I was well familiar with. Unfortunately I was standing alone and awkwardly, most dancers already paired for the movement.
A flickering of motion caught my eye. I turned and began looking full into the eyes of beauty.
She stood there, a hand extended to tap my shoulder. Her other arm waited patiently by her side, and the folds of her blue gown rippled towards the floor like a rivulet. A mask, the color of impenetrable charcoal, hid all but her eyes. Yet, the green in those eyes smiled at me.
"Forgive my boldness, sir," she spoke, "but it seems neither of us have a partner, and to waste a Vivaldi piece is nearly a crime where I come from."
"By all means, my lady. May I have this dance?" My opposite curtsied perfectly and held out her hand towards me. I grasped it and led her onto the floor. As we walked, my feet moved into time with the piece, directing my companion. For her part, she was masterful. The chords circled around us, and within my chest, I could feel every vibration from the orchestra. Their music soared through us, and the dance took my breath away.
From that first moment, a warm affection for the nameless girl took hold of me. The affection was not romantic, far from it. While she was absolutely beautiful and demanded utter respect, I did not feel the least bit attracted as a lover. Instead, I felt an intense and inexplicable desire to guard and protect her from all harm. It was almost as if a fraternal instinct overtook me at that exact moment. Crazy I know, but those were my feelings. As we whirled about, I found myself wondering who this woman was and if she elicited devotion in all men.
As the Vivaldi work faded into a quiet resolution, our own pace slowed. As the music stopped, the two of us locked eyes. "My lady, you are the most talented dancer I have ever had the pleasure to meet."
She blushed, even under her mask. "Thank you, sir. You're most kind."
"Dear me, in our rush to catch the music, I forgot to introduce myself. My sincere apologies, miss. My name is Nathaniel Fletcher of Her Majesty's England." I bowed gracefully, maintaining eye contact throughout the entire movement.
"It is good to make your acquaintance Mr. Fletcher. My name is Mercedes Klein of the Kingdom of Riktenburg."
A slight gasp escaped my lips causing her to start. "My lady, I have only just finished speaking with your lovely family. My friend was kind enough to introduce me to your aunt and uncle; they were simply wonderful. They mentioned your dancing prowess, and I can see now that those stories are more than true."
"My aunt certainly does like to chat about me, doesn't she?" The girl huffed good-naturedly. "At least, in this instance, I lived up to whatever glowing reputation she spread about me."
I waved a chiding finger. "More than lived up to that reputation, I'd say. Come, Miss Klein—"
"Call me Mercedes, please."
"Very well. Mercedes. Let's find that family of yours."
We strolled, arm in arm, through the roiling throng of masks, color, and excitement. The music had begun once more, and around us, couples danced to the lively piece. Eventually, we came to the end of the great hall. Our group, accompanied by the Kleins, had moved towards an open set of doors. A chilly spring breeze flowed in from the expansive courtyard, and our friends were deep in conversation as Mercedes and I arrived.
Marcellus clapped his hands. "Ah, you've met Mercedes then!"
I chuckled. "I have. Your niece is a most charming woman, and her dancing is everything you said it would be."
"Splendid! You've no idea how proud she makes her family."
"Uncle, please." Mercedes looked at him, mock severity clouding her face.
He clutched his chest. "You wound me, my girl! All an old man wants is the chance to see his descendents flourish, and what do I get? Rebuked!" The lovely banter had everyone laughing.
"Nathaniel, I was talking of our home earlier. You ought to visit sometime. Many of the lasses of Riktenburg dance like our Mercedes. It's another bit of national pride we maintain," said Alexandra, patting my arm.
"My lady, I would love to see your country someday. It sounds simply marvelous. Perhaps on our return to England, we may arrange travel through Germany."
"A wonderful idea," she cooed. "Marcellus' brother would be more than happy to arrange a stay for you."
"Oh yes! We don't get foreign company often, and I would love to show you my country!" Mercedes beamed.
"That would be most fun. I haven't been to Germany before, but that's not from lack of desire. Our tutor even forced us to learn German. Perhaps we may finally gain some use from it. If I can speak for the group, we'd be most excited to accept your offer." I smiled in return.
Di Luca returned then from a brief excursion. He was holding another glass, and his face was redder than ever. "You've come back then?" He cried to us, much too loudly. He turned. "And you must be the most delightful Mercedes." The large man introduced himself and then turned back towards Logan. "I was just mentioning to Marcellus your recent troubles. Tell them, my boy, tell them!"
I chuckled at Di Luca's obvious overindulgence and waited for my friend to answer. When he didn't, I glanced over at Logan. His mouth was ajar. His hands fidgeted at his sides, and his eyes remained unblinking on Mercedes. She hadn't noticed yet, I was certain it would be embarrassing when she did. I kicked him discreetly as Jacob answered Di Luca.
"In America, we like our adventure well enough, but I think I've been put to shame by these two trouble-makers."
The others laughed. A recovering Logan looked over at me. His face was pinched and his eyes glassy. I shrugged in return. We'd discuss it later, I was sure. The others didn't seem to notice.
Di Luca turned to Marcellus again, and his speech was still slurred. "There hasn't been a moment of peace for these gentlemen, I tell you! But, who am I to whine about their troubles?" He slapped me on the shoulder. "Let's let them tell it."
All eyes turned to me. To be honest, I was a bit uncomfortable doting on about the affair. All told, we had been the butt of the whole ordeal. Forced to flee through the night, our bags stolen and rifled through — it wasn't a story I was proud to tell. But we were among friends, and there was no real harm.
It spooled out quickly. "So, we finally arrived in Rome. Dumas himself might have written a novel about us: the three companions strutting off the train into a new city. And then, all of a sudden, we glimpsed those blasted bowler hats once more! Another three ruffians were wandering the station looking for something. Nothing nefarious by itself, but they each wore those distinct black bowlers with the silver diamond medallion. So we ran for it again!"
"Into my waiting arms!" Di Luca guffawed. We laughed for a moment with him. Then, all of a sudden, we realized that the Kleins were silent. Marcellus' glass had frozen, the cognac nearly to his lips but now forgotten. Mercedes wrung her hands.
"What?" I said at last.
Alexandra's eyes swelled. "It's the Faith. You're being chased by the Faith!"
Back to The Faith: Book I of the Uprising Trilogy book
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