A unicorn tale . . .
Vittoria’s unease grew as West led Annabella off to the dance floor, but the swirl of dancers soon hid them from sight. The dance started slowly, but as the music quickened and the rhythm drove the dancers on, she grinned in spite of herself. She had almost despaired of enjoyment this night, having lost interest in the boy whose family crest had been the inspiration for her costume, but after her aunt’s sarcasm she would rather have died than admit it. Luckily, the unicorn’s horn dampened the enthusiasm of most of the men who would have liked to ask her to dance.
She moved toward the cool air coming in from the loggia, and saw on the tiny patch of manicured lawn, a discarded mask. It was Annabella’s.
When she found them, they were facing each other, Annabella with her eyes closed, West holding his hands suspended a fraction of an inch from her breasts. Annabella’s breathing deepened, and as their lips met his fingertips came to rest, as delicately as butterflies, on her skin. Annabella made a sound, deep in her throat.
Vittoria pushed West in the small of his back and then lost her own balance, knocking the three of them into a heap in the muddy shrubbery, then began beating West with her mask so furiously that she forgot to use its potentially deadly point. Annabella had come to herself groggily, seemingly mystified to find herself in the midst of a muddy battle. West regained his feet, and gripping Vittoria tightly by one arm, struck her twice in the face. There was breathless silence from the two girls.
‘Go indoors and clean yourselves. Invent some story. You will not speak of this to anyone.’
All Vittoria could think to say was ‘I’ll tell my aunt on you’, but this seemed inadequate. Bacigalupo smiled. ‘After tonight, your aunt will have more to concern her than some mud on your dress. Or some blood on your friend’s.‘
Vittoria helped Annabella to the back of the Museo, and led her upstairs to where the ladies’ maids waited to assist their mistresses. Annabella would have to explain herself as best she might. Weeping with shame and anger, Vittoria went in search of Parthenope.
Picking up his cloak at the front of the Museo, Bacigalupo met Sir Percy and Marguerite. Sir Percy’s eyes barely flickered towards the stains on the other man’s clothing. ‘Leaving already? You’ve had your fun, I see.’
‘Do you know, I think I might after all stay. There might be an entertaining scene.’
‘An angry Mama?’ Marguerite looked uncomfortable.
‘It’s the price of pleasure, I’m afraid. No, madame, the scene I expect will come from your companion. Has he tried to use his prize yet?’
‘If you mean the Book of Cantrips missing from the Museo, I certainly don’t have it. Anymore, at any rate. Did Ser de Fleury not mention it? Or let you see it?’
‘You forget I’m a friend of Parthenope’s. She gave you the copy.’
‘You don’t have the Book, and you don’t have the amulet.’
‘What do you hope to gain by telling me this?’
‘Why, to leave you to worry that out, and to take your pretty lady dancing!’ With a dazzling smile, Rodolfo West led Marguerite into the ballroom.
Parthenope tucked her winnings into her reticule as she left the card room, unprepared for the scene that awaited her. Vittoria, disheveled and red-faced, still holding her battered mask, stood before her. Surely even this child could not have danced so enthusiasically as to have muddied her gown, Parthenope thought.
‘Aunt, Annabella has been assaulted by Rodolfo West. And he struck me when I tried to stop him.’
Parthenope was too shocked to realize that what she said then was urged by guilt at her own blindness of the Bacigalupo’s nature. Even Niccolo had warned her.
‘Why in heaven’s name did that fool girl go with him? She probably got exactly what she asked for.’
‘Aine help me. He is the Bacigalupo, isn’t he? I thought that was a fairytale.’
‘So did I, once.’
The wonder and contempt in Vittoria’s face made Parthenope catch her breath. ‘You knew all along what he was and you still allowed my mother to send me here. Are you his procuress? Was it just my good fortune that he took Annabella rather than me? Will you still get your fee?’
As Vittoria threw her ruined mask to the floor in fury, she heard Percy’s raised voice in the doorway. In what seemed only an instant, the social event of the year had become a brawl, as people frantically tried to avoid the fighters and still get a clear view. Her aunt was in tears. Vittoria leaned against a column, brokenhearted and exhausted. In her anger at West, she had forgotten Annabella. Her fears rose to overwhelm her, but she refused to believe her aunt’s heartless words.
She gathered herself to go to Annabella and somehow get them both to safety. Return to Parthenope’s house she would not and could not. She turned to go, but she was crowded on both sides and could not free the ribbons of her stupid unicorn tail from some obstruction. She impatiently yanked them free, and heard a scream.