8 Years Later
Andriana adjusted her mask, tightening the ties in the back and sliding it up slightly. She stared at her reflection in the mirror for a long moment.
“It’ll do.” Swiftly, she untied the the ribbon and caught the mask as it slid off her face.
Ioseppa clucked her tongue as the proprietress of the shop they were in smiled a bit more widely than was seemly and took the mask to the counter to wrap up Andriana’s new purchase.
“I think I’ll swing by The Toastillery and pick up the makings of a picnic. Doesn’t a picnic sound grand? The weather has been so splendid lately. I don’t want to waste a minute of it!”
The shopkeeper froze as Ioseppa sighed deeply. Wandering off as an unchaperoned, unmarried woman was highly frowned upon. Wandering off as an unchaperoned, unmarried woman to not-so-subtly meet your lover? Well, frowning wasn’t quite the reaction most people had.
But Andriana had shed society’s expectations of her years ago. Though this wasn’t the life she expected and, quite honestly, if she could go back in time and change things, she certainly would, this wasn’t a life she hated. If anything, she relished in the newfound freedoms she had. Uncle Dom had afforded her the ability, and even encouraged her, to stop living up to the ideals and expectations of society and forge her own path.
She turned toward the door to make her way to her favorite restaurant – really they had the most delicious paninos! – and froze as a great white wolf trotted through the front door.
Though magic had worked its way into humans lives a hundred or so years ago, it was always a shock to see one of magic’s creatures in person. It happened quite often in certain social circles – circles Andriana had avoided for nearly ten years now – after all, vampires, werewolves, witches and wizards, all of them were highly regarded in society. Rumor had it that the Mixologist, one of the strongest wizards to come into power in centuries, could snap his fingers and get anything he wanted. Not magically, of course, but he had that much sway over the wealthy and powerful. No one knew much about him, but he must be old because his mixes of alcohol and magic had been all the rage since before Andriana was born. No one under 20 was supposed to drink them, because of their high magic content. If you were born a halfling, part human and part magical, or if you were born a witch or wizard, you typically came into your power in your late teens. The Mixologist’s cocktails were so powerful, they could alter your or even strip your potential magic. It was the same with newly bitten weres or vampires. Now at 26, Andriana hadn’t had a sip of one of the Mixologist’s cocktails since that fateful night. She’d sworn off all magic, even charms for the perfect hair, steaming her dress, or other harmless things that most people used in their day to day life. She’d forbid Ioseppa or any of the other household staff from using magic in her vicinity or on her belongings. Magic made her weepy. And mad.
Even seeing that wolf started to make Andriana’s blood boil. She narrowed her eyes at the wolf as her lips curled in disgust. While much of society was okay or even partial to magic, Andriana was not. The Italian Committee Against Magic, ICAM, was fighting a war against the supernatural. Andriana had been delighted to obtain an invite to one of their exclusive meetings tonight. Considering how much money she had been donating to their cause, she felt it was long overdue.
The shopkeeper, Andriana couldn’t remember her name, finally spoke. “Ah, Agustin, I presume you’re also in need of a mask for the masquerade?”
At that, Andriana whirled around towards the shopkeeper, though she was loathe to leave the wolf at her back.
“I wasn’t aware your,” Andriana paused with a significant look over her shoulder, “customers included animals.”
The wolf growled lowly, a warning.
Andriana ignored it. After all, she had no fear of being attacked in daylight in public. She almost hoped she would be – that could be used to turn society against the monsters.
The shopkeeper looked stunned.
“Not to worry, I’ll take my business elsewhere. Ioseppa – do find another mask. I’m late for my picnic.” Andriana marched out the door, her head held high, her cloak swirling behind her.
Andriana rolled over, her eyes closed as she took deep breaths, relishing in the feel of the warm sun playing over her skin.
“Well, that was certainly more fun than another day studying finances,” her companion murmured, pleased with himself.
“I certainly hope so,” Andriana laughed, stretching her limbs out.
“That is most indecent, my fair lady,” he said, his voice tainted with hunger.
“Already, Galeazzo?” She cracked one eye open, turning to look at him.
At the mention of the childhood nickname given to her by her brother, she flinched, the ice she felt constantly around her heart thickening another millimeter.
“Another time, I’m late.”
“Don’t call me that. You have no right!” She interrupted him as she struggled back into her clothing.
“That’s what I’ve known you as since we were children. You can’t change your name overnight and-”
“My family died overnight, so yes, I can do what I damn well please over night.”
Gale sighed, running a hand through his hair as he sat up with one hand propped behind him as he surveyed the field they were in. It was one of his father’s land, destined one day to become his. Completely deserted, it was their favorite getaway place. A place she had once come to seek solace and quiet from her grief, but now she only came to drown her grief in lust.
“It’s been almost eight years,” he said quietly.
“And until those responsible are brought to justice, it will always feel like it was just yesterday!”
“By ‘brought to justice,’ do you mean dead?” Gale asked resignedly.
She froze, unwilling to answer his question. Perhaps she hadn’t even admitted the answer to herself yet.
“Where are you going?” He asked, trying in vain to change the subject.
“Nowhere. A Meeting.” She answered shortly as she laced up her boots.
“A meeting?” He asked quizzically.
Her eyes remained steadfast on her shoes, doing up the laces as quickly as possible.
“ICAM?” Gale shot to his feet.
She glanced around, as though afraid someone might overhear. Although that was ridiculous, the field they were in was deserted, as it always was, and bordered on nearly 50 acres.
“It’s none of your business,” she said as she got to her feet and dusted herself off. She turned toward him, her arms on her hips – painting a beautifully pertinacious picture.
“It is, you are. You are my business,” he repeated slowly, his hands out in front of him as though he were trying to calm a particularly finicky weremonkey.
“I am not,” she said, her voice tight.
“I love y-”
“Stop!” She interrupted him. “Please, just stop. You don’t know what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying the same thing I’ve been saying for years. I love you and I want to be with you. I want to create a life together, out here,” he pleaded his arms sweeping out to indicate the abundant land they were standing on, “or in the city. I don’t care, Andi.” She flinched again. “I just want you. I want to spend every day trying to make you happy, trying to ease some of your burden. Marry me, Andi.”
At that she jerked as though she’d been slapped and the tears she’d been holding back finally came flooding down her face.
Maybe once upon a time she had loved him. Maybe once, when he’d been her refuge. When he brought her peace when the rest of her world was on fire, grief burning everything she loved to ashes. Once, when the lies the constable had told her and the lies in the papers had been her truth. But now she knew the truth. Now, she knew her family – her parents, her siblings, even her uncle and aunt and their unborn child, hadn’t died in a tragic steamer accident, but rather had been murdered at the hands of a wizard.
“I can’t. I don’t,” her voice cracked. “I don’t love you,” she finally whispered in a ragged voice as she turned away towards her steam pod.
Andriana slipped on her mask and drew her cloak tighter. The mask, a gold wire design that covered her brows to her cheekbone was lovely, though out of season. Peppered with crystals that shone and distorted, she supposed it didn’t matter how out of season it was. Her mother had gotten it for her, intended for her to wear to her first masquerade. But that was nearly ten years ago and she’d never worn it. It was fitting, she’d wear it tonight.
As her steam pod jounced down the cobblestone road, Andriana read and re-read her invitation to tonight’s meeting.
Join us tonight to see what you’ve bestowed upon us with your gifts, what delights you have afforded us. We are so very forward to meeting your acquaintance and welcoming you with open arms our cause.
Please come attired in a mask of your choosing. Though I cannot wait to introduce myself personally, some of our associates prefer anonymity. It is ritual that we all arrive in masks and imperative that we all leave in masks, lest one of those infernal creatures is watching.
She stroked her fingers across raised letters, gold on gold, hard to read without just the right light. Sergio had been the one who reached out to her initially. The one who had told her the truth about her family’s demise. When she hadn’t believed him, he had been the one to tell here where to be and when to overhear the constable’s conversation with her Uncle Dom. They had lied to her. To protect her, certainly. But thanks to Sergio, she knew the truth now.
She had never met him in person as their communication had always been through notes and letters, but finally tonight they would meet.
She bit her lip as she re-read the words on the golden paper. Tonight, she would meet her future.