This chapter contains non-graphic sexual content.
42nd of the Aster’s Gloom, 2030 D.C.E, Night
Under the calm autumn night, a school guardsman patroled the streets of the Academy’s northern campus. He walked down the middle of the road, avoiding the dim light of the decades old, flickering street lamps. He was hardly visible in the dark, save for the light of his hand-held torch that seemed to sway in rhythm with the swinging of his club, dangling from his hands by a noisy chain loop. His footsteps and a whistling ditty were audible a block away, and alerted would-be hooligans to a presence in the lonely streets.
Hearing him from afar, Salvatrice ducked behind a long hedge and deftly avoided the torchlight. She crouched and carefully followed the man. Overhead a white beam periodically scanned the landscape, brushing over the flat green surface of the hedges, settling for several seconds at a time on the empty space between hedges, and briefly inspecting each garbage can and fire hydrant installed on the street corners.
Salvatrice held on to her cap with one hand, knelt down, and carefully scuttled behind the hedge. On both sides of the street there were long green stretches leading to small parks, benches, kiosks abandoned in the night, and old, distant buildings, their facades like melting faces in the deep dark. There was plenty to hide behind and plenty more to draw away the attention of anybody. She kept hoping the guard would turn a different corner, but he seemed keen on patrolling the exact path she planned to take that night.
Nobody was around that could see her but him. He was the only visible obstacle.
His obstinacy was frustrating given the emptiness of the Academy on that night.
Pallas Messianic Academy had instituted a strict curfew due to recent events. Facilities emptied out at eight o’ clock, on the hour. Streets were to be clear by nine o’ clock. Doors were to be locked by ten. Nearing midnight nobody was allowed on the street save the guards that delivered a swift beating to anyone caught. Curfew was both a blessing and curse. There were no prying eyes, no crowds heading for the bars in town, no drunkards. She felt safe. But she was alone with the guards. They grew more alert.
She could not wait for a better night to escape. She had to get away. It had to be then.
At a distant corner near the chemistry building, the guard’s light hovered over a fence and then trailed up the road. Salvatrice dashed for the fence and ducked behind a metal garbage bin, careful not to upset the chain links in the fence and cause noise. She waited for the guard to wander farther down the road, and then cut toward the building. Though the doors into the building had been locked tight, there was an open-air hallway lined with pillar supports. She hid behind each of them, moving progressively closer to the side of the building and an adjoining road leading out of campus. She closed in on it.
Salvatrice heard a rustling noise and stood with her back tight against the pillar.
There was a waist-tall hedgerow on the edge of the street, a few meters away.
In the space between her pillar and the next she saw a white glow.
She watched as the beam moved into the hallway and up a wall, and heard steps.
Swallowing hard, she pressed tighter and tighter against the wall as if trying to shrink.
Suddenly the beam slashed across the wall.
It repositioned out of the hallway and across the adjacent green.
“Halt! Stop right there you hooligan!”
Harsh and fast steps; the guard took off shouting, probably after someone else.
Salvatrice breathed a deep, troubled sigh. She peered out of the pillar and watched the guard go. Building a mental map of her location, she thought about where the guard would go, and how long it would take him to return to his route if he failed to catch anyone. She was sure this was her best chance to make a final escape for the night.
Feeling a shiver throughout her body as she committed herself, Salvatrice ran out of cover and into the street, heading north toward the edge of the campus grounds. She ran as fast as her legs would allow, and felt a deep fatigue as she rushed into the woods. She saw no other guards and nobody following her. From the edge of the wood she made for the old campgrounds, at the edge of which she hid her personal carriage.
From inside a bush, she pulled a sleek black bicycle, with curled handlebars and thick, sturdy wheels. It was this humble vehicle that would carry her the rest of the way to the town of Palladi, and which was responsible for many of her previous escapades. She arrived rather tired after riding it anywhere; but walking to Palladi would have killed her instead, never mind how late she would have been to any party she dared to attend.
Her health had been relatively stable of late, so she did not fear the thirty minute ride.
There were several paths between the Messianic Academy and the Town of Palladi. Most people took the train. Though it went on a relatively circuitous path through the countryside, its speed meant that it reached the town in a few minutes. Cars usually took the Palladium road that circled from the eastern part of the Academy, avoided the wood entirely and led them on level, well-paved ground to the town. Any reasonable car or even a carriage could arrive at the town in ten to fifteen minutes via the Palladium.
Neither of these routes could be walked, however, at least not without hassle and waste.
Cutting through the Pallas woods was the more direct route, and the only route that was easily accessible under human power, taking a person perhaps two hours on foot, or a half-hour of furious cycling. But the old dirt roads through the wood were imposing, especially in the dark. There was a lot of superstition about them, and the Academy dissuaded guests and students from venturing into the wood. Salvatrice was well acquainted with this route, however. She had pedaled through it many times before, hurtling downhill under the thick forest canopy, her wheels rolling over uneven ground.
She felt every shock as she pedaled down the old roads. Muscle memory corrected every hit to the wheels, and she lost little speed and traction to the shocks and holes. Many early escapades had been aborted by a bad fall, but each failure to meet with her beloved Carmela built a frustration and desire that made her next ride much more efficient. Salvatrice now had her downhill ride through the woods down to a science. Her brow broke out in sweat, and her lungs and legs felt raw with the effort, but she maintained 20 km/h and the thick green and brown around her flew by in the dark.
She bowed her head against the handlebars and focused on her pedaling.
It was a stark transition, from thick forest out into a broad green field open on all sides. Ahead and down a gentle slope she saw the distant lights of the town of Palladi, spread out like a wedge driven between a small lake and the broad hilly countryside. Large stretches of terraced town-houses were broken up by the square plots of land belonging to larger, solitary estates, and both were surrounded by small, humble village houses. The Palladium road and the main Pallas train tracks split the town in pieces, and the more affluent neighborhoods boasted cobblestone streets and electric street-lamps.
However, the first several blocks that Salvatrice had to bike through were those closest to the wood, and they were connected by dirt roads with nary a streetlight or power pole in sight. There were lights coming out from the houses that partially lit the street, and on cloudy nights Salvatrice navigated by their dim illumination. She assumed these townies had electricity from somewhere, but in truth she had no idea. She always biked quickly through the outer edges of town and into the denser, richer interior past the train station.
The Sabbadin estate was not on the lakefront, but Salvatrice thought she could see water far downhill over the shoulder of the property. It was a cube-like house with a complicated facade and arch windows, three stories tall. Though the property was flanked by terraced houses, the Sabbadin’s was detached, occupying its own plot of several acres atop a gentle hill. Brick walls separated the Sabbadin’s land from the rest of Palladi, topped with spear tips of black steel that prevented climbing over. An imposing gate barred the way into the pearl-tiled gardens of bright, round rose and lilly bushes leading to the door.
Salvatrice walked her bicycle to the gate, panting heavily for breath. Riding to Palladi always sapped her strength. She had to admit, however, that she felt less drained tonight than on most nights. When her body became particularly rebellious she would become nauseous and dizzy after an activity. Tonight she felt merely exhausted from it.
Having arrived at the Sabbadin’s townhouse, Salvatrice briefly dropped her guard, but she quickly stood on tiptoes and erect when she found someone waiting for her at the gate.
Behind the metal bars, humming a little tune, stood a dowdy-looking maid with a heavy shawl over her apron and dress, and a rather large white cap over her hair. She kept a lazy watch over the estate driveway, frequently turning her back on the road and leaning on the wall or crouching near the flowers or pacing along the front of the town-house.
Salvatrice hid behind the wall at first, but she did not have much time to waste.
And she refused to turn back. Not on this night; not at the peak of her longing.
“Excuse me ma’am, I’m here about your subscription!” Salvatrice murmured, coming as close to the gate as she dared. This was the best she could come with to approach. She did look like a courier or newspaper boy. She at least possessed the hat for the job.
Behind the gate the maid took note of her and her request and stared at her.
Salvatrice’s heart practically stopped for a moment. Then the maid burst out laughing.
“Oh ho ho ho! We’re going to have to work out a better system than this one!”
She raised a delicate hand to her lips. Salvatrice’s mouth hung open.
“Don’t just stand there! Come in, Salva!”
Carmela approached and opened the gate and allowed Salvatrice through the irons.
Covered so heavily in the maid’s clothes, she had seemed a stranger.
But her eyes and face were so radiant on closer inspection that they gave her away.
Salvatrice hid her bicycle from the sight of the gate behind one of the rose bushes.
“I thought something had gone wrong.” Salvatrice said. Carmela’s cheerful demeanor and laugh and the humorously burdensome look of her maid’s clothes brought a great warmth to her heart. She had missed so much being in physical proximity to her lover.
“You underestimate me! I have everything well in hand. All of my servants have today and tomorrow off. No one would mind if I borrowed their clothes and guarded the gate.”
“I suppose it would be unseemly and dangerous for a lady to wait outside her home.”
“Especially wearing the luxurious dress I set aside for tonight. Wait until you see it!”
Both of them giggled with delight. Slowly it dawned on them that they were together.
Together in the flesh; and alone, deliciously alone! No prying eyes to judge them.
For a moment they merely stared at one another, apart by the length of an arm.
Slowly, Carmela spread her arms open, wearing an inviting smile.
Salvatrice practically jumped atop her.
Under the moonless night the two of them tightly embraced.
Arms entwined and with eyes locked together, protected in public by their disguises and the locked gate keeping out the world, they hovered closer with lips parted by warm breaths, and gently kissed. At first their mouths merely touched, but then their lips parted, seized, pulled. Such passion began to build that their hands started to travel.
Realizing where this rhythm was leading them, the two abruptly paused.
When their lips drew apart they instead touched their foreheads together.
“I’m so glad to see you.” Salvatrice said, her face warm and flushed.
“It almost feels like a dream. May I have you before the dawn, milady?”
Carmela parted from their embrace and offered her hand instead.
Fingers twined, she and Carmela then proceeded through the path, up to the front door and into the foyer of the Sabbadin’s Palladi estate. The interior of the townhouse was clean and modern. Beneath their feet the floor was composed of polished tiles of a naturally murky off-white color. These tiles also seemed to compose the roof. Around them the smooth walls were painted a rich, dense, and mysterious shade of jet-blue.
Though she had visited some other properties belonging to the Sabbadins before, this was Salvatrice’s first visit to the headquarters, so to speak. It was quite impressive.
Carmela’s foyer was modest and sparsely furnished for the overall size and luxury of the townhouse. There were no enormous chandeliers of gold and silver like those found in the Previte estate, and no gilded doorknobs and hand-rails and busts. On the walls hung paintings of cats and horses in various settings. Freshly-picked flowers rested on resplendent vases boasting futuristic blended colors and geometric shapes. There were a pair of coat-racks that looked like spires with sharp arms, and bench seats like cubes of several subdued shades melted together. Carmela hung her shawl and cap on one of the spires. Salvatrice dispensed with her jacket and paused to admire the surroundings.
When they spoke their voices seemed to slightly echo. There was clearly nobody home.
“So, what do you think?”
Carmela pulled her long, luxurious blond hair free of a bun, and shook her head. Salva wondered whether she was asking about herself or the house. The Princess was quite taken with her lover’s bouncy mane, the subtle waves that curled at the ends, the locks over her ears, the casual but orderly bangs, and the rich yellow-gold color of it all.
“It’s a feast for the eyes.” She replied, more about her lover than her home.
“Why, thank you. My parents are almost never home so I’ve taken some liberties with it. It used to be such a boring place, you know; all bright and showy and flat. I like stark angles and dark colors better. I especially like colors that blend together with different shades, like you see on the vases and the walls. It’s a coloring technique that’s catching on. It’s more modern. There’s more character to it. It’s not cheap, pearly fairy tale crap.”
When she wanted to, Carmela could be quite a cutting personality.
“Such a bourgeois disdain for the whimsical.” Salvatrice chuckled.
“Better to aspire to that than to the fluffery of the royals.” Carmela cheekily replied.
Directly before the women two long sets of staircases curled up toward the next story, and beneath them two hallways led further into the ground floor. Carmela led Salva by the arm with a smile on her face, urging her to get excited for a big surprise that she had for them. Upstairs the hallways were tight compared to the royal palace and the Previte estate — it was after all a town-house — and there were many doors leading to rooms and closets. Salvatrice felt that they were rounding the exterior of the house, and she realized this was so when she saw the lake out of a hallway window. Right across from the glass, Carmela threw open a pair of somber wooden doors into her own bedroom.
This one room could almost make up the space in Salvatrice’s whole apartment. Like the rest of the house, it was furnished to Carmela’s modern tastes. There was a tea table of pentagonal glass that sat atop a cube, and the chairs around it were also cubes. Off on a corner of the room Carmela had a personal piano that had the typical shape, but the chair in front of the instrument was an inverted black step pyramid, chunky and angular.
Her small bed-side dresser was a semi-circular black shape with curved shelves, and her tall clothes chest was a similar object, standing like a strange giant off to one side of the room. Her bed was a rather flat-looking black mattress on a polished wooden frame that emphasized the angles of its corners and seemed almost to hold the mattress aloft without touching it. There were no columns and no awning unlike most grandiose royal beds. Salvatrice hoped it was not some fancy water bed. She heard sex was awful on those.
“Wait right there, I’ll fetch tonight’s first surprise. I hope I got your measurements right.”
Salvatrice could not risk carrying around a fancy dress while she snuck out, so she usually relied on Carmela to acquire something proper for her to wear and to sneak it to her during her escapades. She had found her lover’s sense of her princessly taste to be quite trustworthy, and waited with bated breath to see what she brought today. Carmela disappeared into a door on the side of the room, probably a closet like the one set aside for her at the royal palace. When she returned, the heiress was suddenly well dressed, having shed her costume. She came out in a gown, herding a spire-like rack on wheels, while holding two matching pairs of heels in her fingers, to replace their work shoes.
“Tell me about mine in a moment, but for now, take a look at yours!”
She shoved the rack toward Salvatrice. It came to a stop just in front of her.
“I sprung for something regal but form-fitting for you. What do you think?”
As always she had impeccable taste; Salvatrice’s dress was a wine-red, silver-trimmed gown, high-necked and short-sleeved, with a long skirt angled tight against the hips and split at the thighs and a form-fitting bodice that accented the chest — what little of it Salvatrice had to offer the gown, anyway. Her arms, back, hips and shoulders and some of her upper chest was open to the air by angular cuts in the fabric that resembled arrowheads. It gave what was otherwise a simple form-fitting dress a more modern and daring touch. A pair of matching elbow gloves and stockings formed a set with the gown.
However, she could hardly remained stunned with her dress with Carmela in the room.
Her lover was absolutely gorgeous, and Salvatrice could not peel her eyes from her.
Carmela’s own dress was bolder than what she picked for the princess. She had worn a purple and gold gown cut off just over her breasts. Her shoulders and much of her chest were bared by the design. When she turned around the ribbed bodice seemed extra tight around the back to account for Carmela’s endowments in front. A white line with crossed gold laces along its length stretched from between her breasts all the way down to the hem.
Her skirt was like a work of art, a matching purple on gold with layers of sharp, angular twists around sections of smooth fabric, flowing around Carmela’s curves like waves broken on stone. Sections of the dress were diaphanous, made up of sheer black fabric in a pattern of squares, flashing a suggestion of olive skin beneath. There were see-through cuts in the dress like this along her flanks, over her hips, and behind her back.
Like Salva’s dress, Carmela’s had a pair of matching long gloves and stockings. She had a gold choker around her neck that almost reached up to her jaw and down to her collarbones. She had applied a modest layer of cosmetics. Just a touch of powder on her cheeks, a bit of shadow over her eyes and a dab of red on her lips. She had not brushed her hair but after its release from the bun it had already settled into a long, casual look that suited her well.
She was a beauty between the classical and modern.
Salvatrice would’ve called her a princess.
“Absolutely stunning.” Salvatrice replied, standing entranced.
“Mine or yours? You’re staring so intently.” Carmela replied, smiling bashfully.
“Both.” Salvatrice said. Her own dress was lovely; but Carmela was so perfect.
“I’m glad you like it. Come here and let me help you into it!” Carmela said.
“How did you change so quickly?” Salvatrice interjected.
“Oh ho! How did I? Perhaps I was wearing it all along?”
“Oh. So you only applied the cosmetics? You had on two dresses?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps not! Some of it must remain a trade secret.”
Carmela took Salvatrice by the hand again and sat her on one of the geometric chairs. She was practically skipping on her tip-toes with excitement as she descended upon the princess and unbuttoned her vest and shirt and helped pull down her long pants.
Despite her typically coquettish, lusty attitude in private, Carmela was quick and efficient about this endeavor. She stripped Salva, leaving only her bottom undergarments, and then practically swept her into the gown without a moment’s pause. It tied at the back, lacing up just over her buttocks and under her neck with an arrow gap between — without a servant or lover at her back the Princess could never have gotten into the dress.
“You look gorgeous, Salvatrice! Your face is film star material!” Carmela said.
Pulling a wheeled mirror close, Carmela showed Salvatrice her appearance.
She looked at the woman in the mirror and it was not the beauty that she focused on immediately, but the glow of health and comfort that she exuded. In light of everything that had transpired the past few weeks, it was hard for Salva to believe she was staring at her own smiling face in the mirror. She was beautiful, perhaps; but more than that, she was happy. She did not fear an attack, and she did not feel shame or worry about her body or her identity. Tonight she could put her worries aside and simply exist in the world.
It had been so long since Salvatrice had truly experienced comfort. It was healing.
Dressed for an indulgent evening, Salvatrice and Carmela returned downstairs and crossed a hallway under one of the staircases in the foyer. There were many doors at their sides, most of them closed. All were nondescript, unlabeled, inscrutable. Carmela strode confidently past all of them, her head held up high, her heels clicking on the floor.
“Where are we headed?” Salvatrice asked.
Ahead there was one pair of doors that was open and through which shone dim light. Salvatrice thought it was their destination, but Carmela walked right past it as she had every other door. The Princess glanced through the doors and saw a long, table lit by lamps that seemed like black, square kites surrounding small torches. But she had to keep pace with her lover, and crossed the doors too quickly to tell if food was served.
Exacerbating matters, she was unused to walking in heels. Carmela had thankfully picked somewhat low heels, but Salvatrice was nonetheless perpetually behind her lover, who walked gracefully and with her head held up high despite the impediment.
Devoid of servants or any guests but the two of them, the town-house felt cavernous, and there was an eerie atmosphere about the place. Salvatrice felt this most acutely within the long connecting halls lined with closed doors. There were so many rooms and she was tempted to visualize what was behind each locked door. Did the Sabbadins have a few dozen empty rooms in their house? Were some of those doors closets and game rooms and libraries, or just beautifully tiled floors bereft of objects or occupants?
Her own apartment was small but aggressively lived-in. She had to use every corner!
“Carmela, how many servants do you employ? You’ve said a couple names in your letters, but this house seems like it would require a fleet of maids to maintain it.”
“Oh it’s no great number. I have two personal maids, and there’s a small grounds staff on payroll. Cleaning is the only taxing issue, and we try to keep on top of it. When I want to do renovations I hire people for any one job and then they’re gone. Anyone I’ve mentioned by name has most likely gone, I’m afraid; we have turnover each season.”
“Turnover? How odd. I can’t imagine my dear Cannelle leaving me.”
“Ah, well, you have a relationship with her, Salva! My maids are just employees. Those come and go with the times, especially in these particular times. I’ve had women leave here to become teachers or nurses, or to get married. Better than dealing with me, I suppose, and institutional pay is likely better, though the accommodations are worse.”
“To be honest, I never learned how exactly Cannelle is compensated.”
“Well, she works for the Queen.” Carmela said.
Her lover was ignorant of how little that meant; Salvatrice held her tongue then.
“Carmela, without the help, who is going to prepare our evening?”
“Oh my; so that is your worry? You ought to relax. You’re under my care, darling.”
Carmela looked over her shoulder with a wry little smile.
They finally arrived at a pristine white kitchen, fully stocked with luxurious appliances.
One half of the room consisted of sprawling countertops with wall-mounted racks, cupboards and cabinets hovering over. A dozen chefs could have operated comfortably in such a space. In place of wood-fired stoves or grills was a very large electric cooker set, comprising a steel box on legs with a broad flat top and three sets of doors, its burners and ovens white and silver, polished like mirrors. Across the room from this appliance there was a big white box with a locking door. Salvatrice felt a chill coming from it.
“It’s an electric ice box. We had all our old appliances replaced, you see.” Carmela said. She patted her hand on the box like it was a lovable family pet. “These electric ones are so much safer, Salva. You won’t ever be burned trying to fire up an electric oven! And you don’t need to cart heavy ice into the electric box. It has a tank of freezing gas.”
“That doesn’t sound much safer, to be honest.” Salvatrice said, giggling.
Following the countertops and islands to the very end of the kitchen, Carmela opened a nondescript door and bowed, ushering Salvatrice outside. There was a path of stones, lit by a line of covered candles, that led from the back of the house out to a gazebo surrounded by red lily bushes. There was a gentle perfume in the air, perhaps coming from the candles. Under the gazebo Carmela had prepared a round wooden table for two. This was perhaps the only traditional piece of furniture Salvatrice had seen all night.
There was a candle in the middle of the table, but nothing else.
“Wait here a moment Salva. I will be right back!” Carmela said.
She took Salvatrice’s hand and sat her at the table, and quickly departed.
Salvatrice waited calmly, looking around the Sabbadin’s back yard. Such a simple word ill suited the space. There was a green almost the size of a few tennis courts between the townhouse and the rear wall. On a small hill near the edge of the wall an apple tree grew atop a bump in the terrain, with its surface roots like gnarled fingers crawling out of the dirt. There was a wreath strung around it — it was an imitation of the Father-Tree.
There was no sound but that of distant insects and the whispered fuming of the wicks.
Taking a deep breath, Salvatrice felt strangely at peace with the night. She did not feel unsafe or vulnerable. She did not feel watched or pursued. Her heart was so at ease.
Not even the sound of whining wheels behind her could startle the Princess.
Looking over her shoulder, she watched Carmelaa pushing a wheeled cart up to the Gazebo. Atop the cart there was yet another scented, shielded candle, along with a bottle of wine, two glasses, and a plate of snacks. Carmela wheeled the cart closer, and Salvatrice admired the food. There was a vast array of cheeses in a tasting spread on an oak board, surrounded cured meats, tomato slices, honey and figs, a handful of truffles, and caviar on a series of smaller plates suspended from the oak board by various wooden arms. On the label, the wine bottle boasted proudly of its 1975 vintage.
“I may not be learned in haute cuisine, but I can set a tasting platter without a maid.”
Carmela popped the cork on the bottle and served Salvatrice the first glass.
Raising the glass to her lover, Salvatrice took a sip. It was quite strong and rich.
“Does it suit you?”
“It is lovely. Was 1975 a good year?”
“I wouldn’t know! Too far before my time.”
For a moment, it almost stung not to know. Salva thought herself a good student.
She would not allow such concerns to upset her, however, not on this night.
Instead she focused on her lover. It was almost magical, to see her, to watch her move independently, to stare into her honey-colored eyes and realize that she was real, that they were together, that they could touch and talk without pen and paper between. At times it almost felt like the magic of cinema, a puppet or an automaton or a model.
Then she caught a scent, and she felt the warmth as they brushed close or held hands.
Carmela was there. She poured herself a glass and lifted the snack set to the table.
“Take anything you want! You’ve never expressed a preference, so I brought a lot.”
Salvatrice procured a toothpick and speared a bit of prosciutto and a bit of Parmigiano.
She delicately brought the food between her painted lips and slid the toothpick off.
“A classic pairing, isn’t it?” Carmela asked.
Salvatrice nodded her head silently. It was delicious, practically melting on her tongue.
“You must try the truffles, they cost me quite a pence!” Carmela said.
On their own little bowl were a few rotund chunks of black truffle. Salvatrice delicately picked one and popped it into her mouth. They had a musky scent and tasted of nuts and garlic, quite heavily earthen in texture and flavor. Out of all the delights in Carmela’s platter, Salvatrice was the least fond of the truffle. But it was indeed very expensive.
She tried not to show her distaste on her face, and forced the mushroom down.
“It’s also an aphrodisiac, I’m told.” Carmela said. She turned bedroom eyes on Salva.
Both of them reared back with laughter, and a touch of embarrassment.
Carmela started picking her own snacks, and quickly emptied her glass of wine and poured a second. She began to chat, and Salvatrice listened and interjected, and they carried on like gabbing friends did. There was a lot of casual energy between them and it felt great for Salvatrice to just talk to her. Because of their letter-writing, the two of them had little catching-up to do. It did not feel as if they had been apart for weeks; they could pick up from wherever they desired. Salvatrice felt comfortable speaking with Carmela, without preparation, without formality. They simply glided from topic to topic as they ate.
“Say, how have your clandestine endeavors been?” Carmela said, half-jokingly.
“I’ve been learning to shoot.” Salvatrice casually replied.
“Oh ho! My big strong princess, ready to put a bullet in any who threatens me?”
“I would put a bullet in the wall near them, at least.”
“It is the thought that counts.”
“Not in that situation. We would probably die, Carmela.”
“In that case, you tried, and I admire that.”
Both of them chuckled together.
“What kind of gun do you have?” Carmela asked, sounding fascinated with the subject.
“It’s an old zwitscherer pistol from Nocht.”
“Does it make a dreadful noise when it shoots? How does it feel in your hands?”
“It is very noisy, and it does kick back a little.”
“I’ve never shot a gun. I did a little fencing, but never a fox hunt or any such sport.”
“I participated in a fox hunt once, but I shot nothing then. I never really thought much about guns until recently. I figure I am physically weak, but a pistol evens the odds.”
“And you truly bought one?”
“Yes, but on the sly. I know someone who knows someone.”
“Was this sold to Salvatrice or to Sylvano?”
“Well. I feel some peace of mind knowing you can defend yourself.”
“Let’s not get carried away here.”
Both of them chuckled again.
“At least if some anarchist had run up to us in the Previte estate, you could have shot them point blank.” Carmela said, making a gesture with her fingers like a gun shooting.
“You know, I never asked what happened after I left the dance that night.”
“Nothing much at all. Police came. Launched an investigation, supposedly, but they hardly talked to anyone or held anyone for questioning. It was feeble.” Carmela said.
“Did you stay with the Previte sisters for long?”
“Until dawn. They insisted, for my safety. My father was none too pleased.”
“How are the Previte sisters doing now?” Salvatrice asked.
“They have a new gate. Fancier too. They will be fine. They’re already planning another party. Normally they frequent other person’s homes, but my scheme lit a fire in them.”
“They seemed like delicate girls. I hope the shock does not linger in them.”
Carmela lifted fingers to her lips and giggled.
“Delicate? Those two are animals, Salvatrice. Were you paying attention to them?”
Salvatrice had felt an inkling of that. “I suppose you’re right.”
“They’re a two-girl pack of hyenas. Nothing can keep them from debauchery for long.”
“Well then. Do you know if the police told them anything after what happened?”
“Nothing at all. They are very sour about it.”
Salvatrice supposed if there was no investigation then the Queen might have already been plotting to give the anarchists a false victory even back then. She dimly wondered just how far back and far ahead in time her Mother’s mind was operating. But she pushed those thoughts aside. This was her night with Carmela. To hell with the Queen.
“Given that result, they ultimately took matters into their own hands.” Carmela said.
“In what way?”
“They furnished weapons for their guards. Hired some ex-military types. Now they have round-the-clock security on their premises, and at least one bodyguard. They found a retired lady knight, for propriety’s sake. So they’re doing fine for themselves right now.”
Carmela picked up the spoon from the bowl of caviar and stared idly at it.
“Say, what do you think of the caviar? I sprung for the most expensive bottle.”
“It is rather briny.”
Carmela stared at it.”I suppose price does not always equal quality.”
“Oh no!” Salvatrice quickly replied. “It tastes fine enough. Caviar is just, briny.”
“True. To be honest, I’m not fond of the stuff. I’m not fond of the sea at all lately.”
Salvatrice blinked fast and stared at her.
“Not fond of the sea?”
Carmela nodded. She spoke in a bombastic tone of voice suddenly.
“I used to love it, but lately, I’ve had it with the ocean. It is a dreadful place!”
“Dreadful?” Salvatrice feigned being taken aback, playing along.
“Dreadful! Full of fish and salt, eternally battering against the soil! Just dreadful!”
“Oh my; will I never see you in one of those daring two-piece swimsuits then?”
Salvatrice made her own bedroom eyes at her lover, who laughed mischievously.
Carmela responded in kind, giving her own lewd stare and bending a little too forward.
Her gown’s low chest cut was not quite meant for the maneuver.
“Ah, but remember the lakeside, Salvatrice Vittoria! Lakes are not the sea at all. We can meet in the lake for a freshwater rendezvous — I can wear whatever you desire then.”
“Interesting proposition, but I must say, I think the beach is more romantic!”
“Romantic? How so?” Carmela drew back from her lewd pose, crossing her arms.
“Lakes are enclosed and private, while a beach is open and free. You are unbound at the beach, while you are hidden around the lake. It is bolder to kiss on the beach.”
“That is quite a bold mentality. Too bold for this country, I’m afraid!”
Carmela covered her mouth to delicately stifle a laugh. Salvatrice had a dark chuckle.
“Ah.” Carmela sighed fondly and stared sidelong at the caviar. “My father is obsessed with drawing fuel from the sea, Salvatrice. I’ve heard so much about the ocean lately that I would never want to see it. All of his letters, his phone calls, any time we briefly meet, it is always the ocean this year. Papa sincerely believes there are massive fuel deposits off-shore. He has this plan for a man-made island to drill them up from.” Carmela said.
“Can he do it? What would you even use to make a false island?” Salvatrice asked.
“I am not sure. He has rambled about it before, but my mind has been elsewhere.”
“Does he intend to do this in a time of war? Surely the sea will become dangerous.”
Salvatrice recalled that during the Unification War, Frank and Nocht submarines destroyed each other’s ships indiscriminately at sea to support the land war. Elven vessels were caught in the crossfire, and inspired national outrage. Whether Ayvarta had a fleet of submarines, Salvatrice did not know. She had to assume they did, and that they would use them in a similar fashion. Carmela’s father could well be in danger.
“Papa will not be dissuaded. He believes the Regia Marina will support him.”
“What would you do in his stead?”
She was curious; Carmela often talked of the company as if it was a problem outside of her hands. But she was the heiress to Antioch Fuels. It would someday be hers to run.
“I would probably sell the damned company. It is such a pain.” Carmela said bluntly.
Salvatrice was taken by surprise. That was the last answer she expected.
“Truly. One less obstacle between you and me. I’d definitely give up the sea for you.”
Carmela beamed with a radiant passion. She really did love her. It was evident in her voice, in her expression. She was so visibly happy to be here and to be with her.
Salvatrice turned bashful in response. She partially averted her eyes.
“You shouldn’t. You need something more than me.” She said suddenly.
“Oh, come now Salva. I do not at all. I would be happy just being with you.”
“Carmela, I am plotting to do something very dangerous.” Salvatrice confessed.
She expected Carmela to balk at this, but the heiress took it in stride, smiling fondly.
“Are you going to cross-dress and sneak out at night for a homosexual tryst?”
That quip forced a chuckle out of Salvatrice, much as she wanted to avoid laughing.
When she next spoke her expression was slightly smiling but her words were bitter.
“I’m headed down an ugly road, Carmela. When I went to the palace, my mother essentially conscripted me into helping her draw out the anarchists in Palladi. I don’t want to play the part of the bait for her schemes. I want to do something under my own power. Whether or not I want to fight them, there will be people targeting me for who I am. And whether or not I consent, my mother is willing to use me against them. So I decided to make the first move. I’ve acquired some personnel and I am hatching a plot.”
“Will you tell me what it is?” Carmela asked.
Salvatrice knew the question was coming but it still hit like a hammer to the chest.
“I don’t want you to be endangered on my account.” She said.
“What if I told you I do not care about that danger?”
“I am still compelled to protect you from it.”
“You’re being thick-headed too.”
Carmela smiled again at her.
She reached out over the table and brushed Salvatrice’s cheek with her hand.
“I love you, Salvatrice. I was living a shell of a life until you came into it. I was such a cold person, so removed from everyone. I had few friends and no desire to love. Until I meet the lonely girl overlooked by everyone; until that girl noticed me and I her.”
Salvatrice raised a hand to Carmela’s and felt the smoothness of her glove on her skin.
“I realized that I was not meant to lead a sham life until I could become the wealth of some powdered-up nobleman. I found the doors to a new world of love thrown open.”
Across the table her lover raised a finger to her lips and urged quiet.
“Listen: I love you and I trust you Salvatrice. I respect your decision. But I want to be part of your life. Queen be damned, Antioch Fuels be damned. Please. I do not ask that you bring me to wherever your journey takes you. But at least allow me to do something. So I can feel that I was at your side when you needed me. Even if it is only in banknotes.”
Her hand trailed down Salvatrice’s cheek, shoulder, and to her arm.
She held Salvatrice’s opposite hand quite tightly, a gentle smile on her face.
“I want to support you. You can decide how. Just let me do this.”
Salvatrice nodded her head. “I will consider it.”
“No; tell me you will do it. Please. Anything at all.”
Salvatrice felt the anxiety and tension of the previous moment washing away.
She felt a little coy toward her lover once more. Carmela’s gentle demeanor helped.
“Does it count if I just say, ‘let me be by your side tonight’?” Salvatrice cheekily said.
“No, because I was planning on doing that.” Carmela replied.
“Then I will have you write a bank note. Would you accept that?”
“Finally, something I am good at. Perhaps we can retire to my room, where I left my bank-book, and we can talk about this note of yours, and a proposition of my own.”
Carmela took her own turn to be coy.
Salvatrice did not have to ponder whether to accept.
Leaving the food out for the birds and the stoats, Salvatrice and Carmela quickly retreated to Carmela’s bedroom. They locked the doors to the outside, and shuffled barefoot through the house, back the way they came, holding up their skirts and heels and snatching glances at each other between bouts of girlish giggling. It was like a race.
Carmela easily beat Salvatrice to the bedroom. The Princess offered no competition.
“Go lie down. I’ll climb atop in a moment.” Carmela said. She winked.
Salvatrice felt a delightful little shiver down her back.
She supposed taking the lead was the prize for her little victory.
There was a conspiratorial air about them, and the thought of what they both wanted to do caused them some mild embarrassment. It was not the first time they had been intimate, though it was the first time they had this much liberty to do what they pleased. They had kissed and touched in many places, but never in a bed in a bedroom that was theirs and would be theirs for as long as they desired it. Much of this was new to them.
Salvatrice sat on the edge of Carmela’s bed, while her lover poured wine into their cups, taken in from outside. She felt the bed under her, firm and plush and comfortable. It was thankfully not a water bed. She shuddered to think of how that would have held up to them. She jumped up and down a little, and reached behind her back for the gown’s laces.
“Have a drink first.” Carmela said, offering a cup.
Salvatrice had already had a few cups of wine, but the alcohol did not quite pull on her brain just yet, so she happily obliged her lover. She took the cup, and as if to make Carmela certain of her intent, she drank all of it in one continuous sip. With a grin on her face, Carmela raised her cup, swirled the wine inside it, and emptied it in one draught.
Taken in by the moment, she hurled the cup over her shoulder.
It shattered on a wall and startled both of them.
“Oh no!” Salvatrice laughed. There was glass all over the top of the dresser.
Hurtling forward without comment, Carmela pounced on Salvatrice. She drove the princess onto the bed, her hips between the heiress’ legs, and leaned over. A heated breath that smelled of grapes wafted over Salva’s face as Carmela loomed over her.
“Are you comfortable?” Carmela asked.
“What do you want to do?”
“Can I touch down there too? Would you be okay with that?”
Salvatrice felt a brief moment of concern.
“You already know that I’m different–”
“And you know that I’m fine with it, Salvatrice.”
She cut her off so fast that all her worries evaporated.
In fact, her desire to be touched flared in response.
“Then It’s all yours.” Salvatrice smiled.
Her grip immediately tightened.
Carmela descended and hungrily seized Salva’s lips into her own, pulling and sucking.
Salvatrice’s hands struggled with the laces at her back, giving in completely to the passion. Carmela’s own hands traveled over her shoulders, under her arms, and over her chest, squeezing into her palms what pliable flesh Salvatrice had to offer. Once she had her handful, she withdrew abruptly from Salvatrice’s face. Her hands went behind her own back. Down came half her gown; Salvatrice pulled off the top of her own.
“Stay the morning with me.” Carmela said, coming back down atop Salvatrice.
Now the princess’ own hands were free to explore. She lifted Carmela’s skirt.
She had not intended to stay so long. She had wanted to disappear before dawn.
As her hands gripped Carmela’s flesh, as their lips joined and split, as their bodies pressed together and their dresses fell away, Salvatrice knew she could not leave.
It was so intense, so comforting, so emotional. She felt like she was becoming one flesh with Carmela, like all of her burdens, all of her passions, all of her worries and injuries and sins, all of it was being passed between beings, diluted, ameliorated. She had never felt so safe, so free. Carmela accepted her so fully and powerfully, accepted every part of her without hesitation. This, too, had to be part of her healing, she decided. She would regret every second she did not spend on this bed with this incredible woman. Especially if everything after this went wrong. She wanted– no, she needed this so badly now.
“I will stay to noon.” Salvatrice moaned, before Carmela’s lips silenced her anew.