Percy’s shout cut through the mood of the tango, creating a tension that vibrated like a viola string. The music faded and people turned. Percy stood at the far end of the ballroom, his evening dress immaculate, dark and elegant and complete with a white jabot that frothed and creamed at his throat. His hands were behind his back and he was statue-like, one foot forward, the buckles on his shoes shining. I could see Marguarite with Bacigalupo, virtually in the position they had been as the tango bent her back and Bacigalupo lay over her, vulpine, almost salivating. She pushed at him, her eyes on Percy.
Niccolo’s hand tightened under mine and I wanted to pull him away and say don’t, but I think in my heart I knew it was pointless. He softened his grip and turned to the Direttore who was behind us. ‘Ser Direttore, take Lucia and mind her. She is my heart.’
As he said that my own began to chime as if it were a bell and the wind had tickled it. Niccolo was the wind and yet as I looked into his eyes I could read nothing.
‘Niccolo . . .’ I whispered.
‘De Fleury!’ The ballroom crowd was silent as Percy moved forward, his heels clipping on the black and white marble. There was a swishing sound as he flipped a foil from behind his back and the room was almost sucked dry of air as every guest breathed in.
‘I want it, De Fleury. Give it to me. The foil is mesmered, you have no choice.’
What did that mean, I wondered. It sounded infinitely dangerous.’Percy, please!’ I begged.
‘Lucia, stop.’ Niccolo spoke over his shoulder. ‘All will be well, have no fear.’ But I could see him exchange a glance with the Direttore and then I was moved away, back from that front line. I had no idea who stood near me, all I wanted was the support of the Direttore’s hand at my waist. Looking down, I noticed that my hand was shaking, and further down, as my gown stretched against my leg, the shape of a friend.
There was a sucking sound and Niccolo drew his sword; a sword against a foil, an odd duel, and within seconds the metals sang and played off shining edges and the two antagonists snarled and sledged each other, as their blades sought entry to soft tissue. ‘Mesmered you say,’ Niccolo laughed. ‘Then so is my blade. We’re equal I think . . . brother.’
He slashed forward and shortened the tip of Percy’s foil by a foot. ‘See? You shan’t have the book.’
Percy’s foil changed before our eyes and became a sword, the damascening glinting cruelly. ‘Ah but I shall . . . brother.’ The irony in his tone was as sharp as the blade he held. ‘I was always the better master of the sword.’ He flicked forward and up and caught Niccolo on the arm and in an instant blood dripped on the floor and my heart stopped chiming as I pulled away from the Direttore.
‘Niccolo!’ I screamed as I watched him catch at his arm and with no thought, I dragged up my hem, pulled the stiletto and flicked it as hard as I could at Percy. It caught him in the thigh and he groaned as he pulled it free, dropping it to the floor with a bloody clatter as he pressed hard against the wound.
‘You bitch.’ He growled and stepped across the room, parrying Niccolo blow for blow, the blades singing and sliding in a dance that defied the tango, the Raji, and the Etcetera in its speed and Aine, in its grace! Percy’s eyes fixed me with a hatred incarnate and I stepped back further and further, the Direttore’s arm sliding from me. Suddenly I tripped on a trail of ribbons and I glanced to see what my feet had become tangled with. Vittoria’s unicorn tail stretched across the floor in a knotted mess and it caught me like a fishing net and I felt myself falling as Percy advanced closer, Niccolo pursuing him stroke for bloody stroke.
There was a pain in my back as I fell, I couldn’t see why. But it felt as if Percy had dashed behind and impaled me and then I saw Parthenope’s face as she cried out. ‘That infernal unicorn mask, Vittoria! Look what you have done!’
Of course I knew then. My back had been impaled by the unicorn horn and as the pain gathered like a storm and the edges of my vision began to darken, I saw Percy with his sword at Niccolo’s throat. ‘The book, de Fleury. Give it here.’
‘Don’t, Niccolo.’ The words wouldn’t enunciate and it hurt to breathe. ‘Don’t give it to him, it’s too dangerous.’ That’s what I tried to say, it’s what I said in my head, but in all honesty all that came out was a whisper. I began to slip into a fulsome darkness then and my last sight was the Direttore holding my head, Parthenope and Sarina ripping their gowns and Niccolo pulling the book from his tunic and handing to his brother . . .