Near to another week passed before my delivery arrived. I was in the library when Tiago entered and announced, “Viola Romano and Antonello Giordano for you, Don.”
I looked up sharply to see faces that were once as familiar as my own, but now I hardly recognized. Had they changed so much in so short a time, or was I seeing them with different eyes? Viola stared in amazement around the library and I remembered how much she loved to read. I’d last seen her in the remains of my home, surrounded by torn book remnants and glass.
Antonello was staring directly at me. He had always been difficult for me to read; we’d never been close. Tiago remained in the doorway, looking them both over. I wondered idly how much experience he’d had with anyone outside of the nobility and made a mental note.
I waited for them to speak before realizing they were doing the same to me. I cleared my throat. “I hope the journey wasn’t too arduous.”
Viola shook her head. “No, it was fine.” She stood awkwardly, unsure of what more to say, and then held out a canvas-tied bundle. I stepped forward and took it from her with thanks and turned to set it on my study table.
“Do you want to sit?” I asked them.
Antonello glanced at Viola. “I don’t know that we can stay long,” he said carefully.
“A short sit, then.” I gestured at the chairs and they sat hesitantly. “Tiago, would you fetch refreshment for our guests, please?” The boy bowed and disappeared.
“Lineage?” Viola asked, referencing my reading materials.
“Yes,” I answered, moving them out of the way and closing my notebook. “It can get complex and a perceived slight can have incredible ramifications.” I gave a tense smile. I didn’t realize how strange it would be to see someone from home.
“Ramifications like what?” Antonello asked.
“Like feuds, or duels, or financial recompense,” I told him. “Just like home, but larger.”
He nodded slowly. “It would seem everything is larger here.”
“Ant,” Viola said in a warning tone.
“You’re nobility, then?” he asked.
“Yes, I am.”
“But how long have you known?” he clarified.
“My father told me on my fifth birthday.”
“And all this is yours?” he gestured around vaguely.
I hesitated. How much should I tell them? “No,” I explained. “All of this belongs to the Contessa De Santis. It’s her manor, her collection.”
“So where is your manor?”
“Why are you so angry, Antonello?” I asked.
He shrugged heavy shoulders. “I’m not angry.”
“You look angry. That’s how you looked before you punched the side of my head, anyway.”
He laughed humorlessly. “You were rich this whole time, twenty years, and you pretended to be poor… why?”
“I wasn’t pretending. My inheritance didn’t belong to me until my majority a few years ago. And after that, I had no need of it until things were in motion here.”
“’Things in motion’ – what does that mean?” His done had darkened from its neutral calm to an unsteady frustration.
I sighed and looked apologetically at Viola. She wasn’t looking at me. “Antonello, listen—”
“My mother died,” he said.
I stared at him, words falling unsaid from my lips.
“She was sick, remember? She was sick and in pain and I couldn’t help her. You knew that. Everyone knew that. The medicine that could have helped was expensive, and she didn’t want to take money from my children, food from their mouths.” He pulled a hand from his pocket and pointed at the empty chair. “How much is that worth? The cushion looks expensive.” He placed his hands flat on the table. “You could have bought medicine for her, even anonymously to keep your secret. I wonder if you even thought once to do that, Pietro.”
He stood and leaned forward on his hands. “Or is it ‘Don’ that I call you?” He looked at Viola. “I don’t want to stay here.” He put his hands back in his pockets and walked out of the library.
“I had hoped leaving the island would help his temper,” Viola said softly. “He is an ass, but he right.” When I didn’t answer, she continued, “You have to understand, Pietro,” she hesitated and I nodded reassuringly. “We could never have imagined this when you wrote to me.”
“It wasn’t my intention to shock you,” I said. “I wasn’t thinking.”
“How did all this happen?”
I shook my head.
“Can you not say?” she pleaded. I took the hand she offered.
“My father was not my father,” I said at last. I felt her hand tense, but she didn’t reclaim it. “In all ways but birth, he was, and we shared everything except blood.” I took a deep breath. I’d never had the chance to tell anyone, though I’d imagined it a thousand-thousand times. Somehow, it was much harder than I thought it might be.
“Shortly after my birth, my mother died of infection. Very shortly after that, two wet-nurses were poisoned in an attempt to claim my life as well. It nearly worked, but when I recovered, my mother’s best friend, Tiziano Moretti, was tasked by my birth father with my safety in whatever manner he thought best. It was his choice to take me to our island and raise me as his own.”
“Why now?” Viola asked. “When your father, Tiziano, was murdered – what did that mean?”
“It meant that the secret of my location had been discovered. Knowledge of where I was prompted my enemies to attempt my life so they could use me as leverage against my birth father.”
“But they failed,” she pointed out. “You lived.”
I nodded sadly. “That was what I thought. That is the plan we expected,” I explained. “But it seems my enemies instead attempted a coup. They found me, and so the plan was to kill both me and my birth father. In one part they succeeded.”
“Oh, Pietro, I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you.” I squeezed her hand. “It is hard to mourn a father I never knew,” I pointed out, “especially when the one who raised me was so much larger than life.” I smiled and she copied it and nodded.
“But you’ve come now to take his place?” she asked.
“Yes. And to do that, I have a lot of learning to do.” I indicated my studies. “Tiziano trained me in all manner of things, I learned every day from him, but our secrecy kept him from gathering resources, and he knew things would change anyway. He taught me how to know what I needed to know instead.”
“’Don’ is a placement title,” she pointed out inquiringly.
“That’s true,” I agreed.
“Will you not tell me your true name, then? When you’ve already told me so much?”
I stared at her for a long moment. We had shared a kiss a lifetime ago. I had once thought our friendship was unbreakable, and seeing how far I had pushed myself from her made my chest tight. I missed what we’d once had.
I spoke to our clasped hands, “You know, I asked Tiziano if I could purchase the medicine. He asked madam Giordano on my behalf and she told him she didn’t want it. She told him it probably wouldn’t work anyway, it was rare to work, truly, and she wanted to remember her grandchildren with lucidity in her final years. She was always sweet to me.”
I met Viola’s eyes. “Responsibility means spreading praise and accepting castigation. So long as you do what you know to be right, the criticism is only words. Eventually the loudest voice of disapproval would find someone else to reprimand. I wish I could offer Antonello comfort, but he’ll find peace with his children.”
She smiled at me. “You speak differently now.”
“It’s this place. Surrounded by all this, how could I not?”
She laughed and I stood, pulling her upright with me. I dropped her hand and stepped away to bow formally.
“Viola Nicoletta Eleonora Romano, it has been a pleasure to be your friend. And thank you for my gift.” I nodded at the delivery on the table. “I will have a servant pack food and make sure you’re both properly roomed with a good patron a few hours from here.”
“All right, Pietro,” she agreed. A note of sadness tinged her words. I knew we both were thinking it was the last time we’d speak, at least for many years.
“But before I go?” she appealed.
I straightened my shoulders and raised my chin the way I’d been mercilessly trained to do. “The royal Principe, Pietro Leonardo Ambrogio Giuseppe Dario Ricci, King-to-be.” She was staring at me, wide-eyed and warring with fear and dozen other emotions at once. I took her unresisting hand and kissed it. “Goodbye, Viola. Always be well.”
April 20, 2021