I am quite over the dramas of the moment. I am sick and tired of my heart flipping back and forth like a fish on the hook every time the door opens. I am seeking out Parthenope and Sarina because when we are together the three of us, we have many laughs and besides I want their advice on my gown. My dressmaker has completed it and it is divine. I was a little concerned that the white wouldn’t become me, but as my hair is chestnut coloured and my maid has streaked it with lemon juice to provide highlights, I am confident that this at least, I can pull off. As to the confidence of having de Fleury as my partner and having Blakeney stalking him like a hunter stalks deer . . . well that is a whole other thing.
As I tried to write today, I mused on the adventures between myself, Sarina and Parthenope and I resolved to put them in a ‘penny dreadful’ for my publisher, changing the names of course. Just to see if he (oh yes, he is a he) would publish it. And on that small aside, I do get most annoyed that business can be so restrictively in the hands of men. Thank Aine that Parthenope was brave enough to set up her Bo Press.
I sent her a tiny story the other day called The Masked Ball and she has bound it and placed it in a purpose made box with a tiny adornment of a real gold mask. I am to see the finished piece anon.
‘Parthenope!’ Sarina picked up the box carefully and slid the tiny book out. ‘It’s wonderful.’ She looked at Parthenope and smiled, her face a picture of joy. She, like me, was more than proud that Parthenope could hold her own in the cut and thrust of the art world. Even more so, because Parthenope did it without a patron. She was her own man so to speak! ‘Is it Lucia’s little story?’ She flipped the pages, ‘Oh I see it is. Such an enigmatic ending.’
I laughed bitterly. ‘Oh la, dear Sarina. Maybe not so enigmatic after all.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well,’ I took the cut glass goblet of wine that Parthenope poured for me. ‘I have a feeling crawling in my belly about our own ball, ladies.’
‘What exactly?’ Parthenope took a sip of the white wine that had only just taken on in the Venichese salons.
‘It’s the Others.’ I looked at them and noticed how fixated they had become on the contents of their goblets. ‘Aine but you two look guilty of something! Well let me tell you, since I have decided to attend this ball on the arm of Ser de Fleury and he is Other, my stomach has done nothing but dance itself into a knot bigger than the one that occurred when they danced Mr.Beveridge’s Maggott in Trevallyn last year, remember?’
Two heads, one nutmeg brown and one almost black with startlingly artistic white streaks at the temples, nodded.
‘Percy is not himself, Ser de Fleury pops in and out of my chamber like he can pass through walls . . . I am permanently agog I tell you!’
They sat silent.
Well?’ I demanded. ‘What have you to say?’
Ah!’ Parthenope sighed and thrust a hand through her amazing tresses and smoothed the cranberry of her silk day gown. She wore it open and underneath had affected men’s breeches. She loved to shock society. ‘It is like this, you see,’ she looked at Sarina and Sarina still stared at her wine. ‘My escort is also Other and there is something awry with him as well.’
‘You say? Who do you mean?’
‘Bacigalupo. You know him as Rodolfo West.’
‘Really?’ My voice rose an incredulous couple of octaves. ‘Rodolfo is Other?’
‘Yes,’ broke in Sarina. ‘And he is a friend of Hugh’s and Hugh is behaving most oddly as well. I am afraid for our young protégées more than anyone. They are so naïve and with all these Others floating around and what I know to be obviously hidden agendas, we must protect them.’ She took a giant swallow of her wine, almost draining the goblet.
‘Sarina, what are you talking about?’ Parthenope nudged her. ‘You obviously have more worries for the night than how the girls will behave. Tell us.’
Sarina looked at us and by now my stomach was filled with acid and bile for I felt a circle tightening around the three of us. A circle of men who could strangle us if the noose became too tight. There they were in my imagination: Bacigalupo, Percy, Niccolo . . . even Hugh.
And it seemed to me that there was nothing we could do to break free . . .