She was in a sullen mood, as the last leaves fell from the trees around her, as her side ached from the stab wound of the night before and bark itched as it grew amidst Gabrielle’s neat sutures. She should head back home, sobriety approaching, yet still she sat on the Bridge and watched the people pass her by.

She watched a cicisbeo tuck his hand into the muff of his patron, smiling as they walked along the street. He turned his head in at a slight tilt, to better hear the story his Prince patron told. It was subtle, edging closer to him; subliminal, an ‘I am interested in your words; tell me more,’  said entirely in body language.

‘That once was me. I was a good listener.’ Severin had told her, assured her, ‘people want to open up to you, Vitoria’ so it must be true. Yet even despite that assurance, there was the voice in the back of her mind that could not help but pipe up. ‘Was. All in the past now. You quit that life, eh?’

She watched them pass, like the last of the autumn leaves that caught in the wind and blew down the street. She pushed off from the bridge, moving and twining her way along cobbled lanes and market stalls.

They were everywhere, today, in Regario. Cicisbei were easy to pick out, if you knew how to look; one assisting her patron with some fashionable shopping, another seated at a table, fingers caressing the outline of a blade hidden under their cloak, bodyguarding the adjacent table. Still more as she walked, flirting with the bravos, glances and blushes perfectly timed to allure and draw them in, eyes quick to measure wealth through tailoring and garments.

‘This used to be me. This used to be my life.’

She had thought it was the best solution to progress towards marriage, but it cut deeper than she had realized to tear herself, however willingly, from her former profession. ‘Look at them, their feigned intimacy, their flirtations and amours and trysts. Will I never have that again, so easily bestowed?’

She looked longingly at them as they passed, as she carried along the market roads. It might be fake intimacy and false coin, but at least it was a form of intimacy. She had not guessed that, trained so long and so well in the intimate arts for business’ sake, the real thing –unpaid, unfeigned– would frighten her so. I can’t do it… Simply cannot. It was easy, for hire, for coin. How do I feel it for real?

Now there is a face who longs for some company,” a silken voice whispered along her neck when she stopped at the next square, leaned over the stone wall at the canal below.

She didn’t look up at the exquisite mask, gilded with seasonal maple leaves. A flicker of orange at her feet told her that the cicisbeo’s dress would match the mask’s colouring. “The nicest autumn day and all of Regario is out, yet yours is the only face frowning. Why are you upset, my dove?”

Vitoria pressed her palms against the cold stone, stood up straighter, but would not allow her eyes to meet the ladies’. “I long for something.”

“Might I be able to provide it?”

She turned, looked at the beautifully painted and gilded mask; Vitoria pressed a kiss to her own fingertip, softly, slowly, a simple action meant to draw in a patron’s gaze, capture it.

“I could not afford you, Estella Detriti,” and Vitoria brought her finger up to press against the china-painted lips of the mask, “and you could not afford me, and we both would know it for false coin when only real would suffice.”

Vitoria left her then, knowing that her cant was understood amongst any Regarian Cicisbei. ‘I am lost amongst the false coin. I forget what true gold is worth.’

The autumn leaves fluttered, then crunched underfoot. She walked home, to try again and open her heart to the man she loved.

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