Hidden behind a mask

Co-written by H.


 

Prosperity scowled. She had been staring at the accounts and her books for the last couple of hours, no work done. She was restless but didn’t quite know how to fix it, wanted to be anywhere but here, before ledgers. Tassato was nice enough but it certainly wasn’t familiar enough yet.

By the time early afternoon hit she had thoroughly given up. Her mood was not improved by the figures she had been staring at. The college, like most things, was faring less well than it should be.

She closed everything suddenly. Put her knife in her boot, leaving her sword, bow and cloak behind. Gathering the hastily scrawled note that had been delivered a few days ago, she headed out to make a social call.

The streets were still quiet in the afternoon sun, as she made her way through the streets. The directions she had been given were easy to follow, headed towards the Regarian Walls and the lush orchards and gardens of the eastern city. She turned down a street, narrowly avoiding a street mountebank who jumped out of the way with a wink and a bow, and then found herself at the gilded rose-gold sign to Villa Macieira de Barossa.

She knocked on the heavy wood door and waited. She wasn’t completely sure she would answer. She looked up, at the balcony that overhung the door slightly on the upper floor; the balcony door was open, so there was someone home. She waited before knocking again. No one appeared to be answering, no sounds of movement from inside.

She peered around the side of the residence, to a section of wall covered with trellis and ivy. When doors failed, there was always the wall. Just like back home. ‘Damn it.’ That was going to be a fun climb with her stitches.

She tried the door once more. Nothing. She walked back around the side of the house. She looked at the trellis, counted her blessings that she wasn’t wearing a dress and began to climb. It wasn’t too tricky but it did nothing for the pain in both her arm and her side. ‘Just don’t scream’ she told herself.

She sat on the top of the wall catching her breath deeply. She checked her stitches, so far so good. No bleeding, just some impressive bruises and a few soon-to-be scars. The garden was beautiful. She was half tempted to make a habit of scaling the walls of Tassato more if it meant beautiful views like this. She stopped herself mid-thought; brawls were still acceptable as Prince as she was also a bravo. Scaling walls, not so much.

She lowered herself down carefully amongst the trailing, creeping vines, and found herself surrounded by roses and shaded groves. The Villa extended out in wings around a centre courtyard, a still pool of water and a large and well-tended apple tree shading the middle of the residence and dividing the gardens from the villa. A beautiful mix of nature and stone, that felt very personal, and very private.

Prosperity took in every detail. She didn’t belong here. This wasn’t her garden. She knew the cicisbeo who lived here, but arguably not to this level. Yet she loved gardens. It was so peaceful and quiet, a smaller version of her old one only with a pool. She shook the image from her mind. Trying not to picture herself with Gilly and their brothers in the garden at a very young age.

She walked further into the garden keeping an eye out for the resident, or anyone who would be startled by her presence. She was suddenly aware of how stupid it was walking through someone’s garden but she needed to be around people. She also needed to make sure her friend was okay. Or at least was okay as was possible with all things considered. She recalled back, and no one had mentioned seeing seeing her in over two weeks. “Vitória!” She called up to the house.

On the upper balcony overlooking the pool, a pale figure stepped forward through a curtained doorway, searching for the source of the commotion. Vitória’s expression remained neutral as she looked down and saw her, blinking a few times. “Hello Prosperity.” She rested her hands on the stone balcony. “I had wondered when someone would give up on knocking and find a more direct route. Expected a Barossa, but you are nearly one of us, I suppose.”

Prosperity smiled weakly, “Suppose so. I’m still not completely sure about all that.” She moved closer but still within sight of the balcony.  “Are you going to either come down or invite me up or should I break out the Dawnish poetry? I don’t know about anyone else but I’m worried about you and frankly I could use a friend.”

Vitória straightened up and gestured with one hand to a stairwell that lead to the upper floor. She waited patiently until Prosperity reached her, one arm loosely held across her shoulder where a thick white bandage wrapped around the entirety of her torso and right side, unable to be hidden under her chemise.

Prosperity paused close to her and took a moment to look over Vitória’s injuries, the bruises just visible as they spread up her neck, purple and yellow. The thick pads of gauze just visible under the wrappings, dotted with spots of crimson. “I should have brought cake. And vodka. No wonder we haven’t seen you. What happened?” As she finished talking she made a deliberate effort to pull herself together despite the pain, she made sure she stood up straight and refused to wince when the pain cut through her. Her issues were not important right now.

“The same thing that happened to you. The same thing that happened to Felice.” Vitória calmly turned and welcomed Prosperity inside, leading her to a sitting room that overlooked the garden. Gone was the usual energy, the restlessness. “Can I get you anything? Water, wine, refreshments?”

Prosperity hesitated. “Wine would be delightful. Thank you.” She followed her friend into the room.  For once she paid little attention to the surroundings, her gaze fixed on the cicisbeo. She smiled darkly at herself.  Turns out old habits did die hard.

The shorter woman went to a sideboard, gathering a bottle and uncorking it. She followed Prosperity to the window bench, passing her a goblet and pouring the white.

There was a moment’s silence as Prosperity opened the window to let the breeze in, and Vitória sat across from her. It was difficult to tell, at a glance. Was her subdued nature due to injuries? To grief? What was there to be said in such circumstances?

She turned to Vitória, “I told you my city would take away those you care about.” Vitória’s green eyes flicked up to Prosperity’s, startled at the thought of diving into such a topic. And people thought she was blunt. She studied her with a momentary glance before she looked away as Prosperity continued. “It’s like staring into the face of death every time I walk down those streets. I can’t stand it. If I have one more person tell me while I’m crying over losing yet another friend that ‘it’s okay because we are helping so many more people’, I’ll..” she made a noise halfway between exhausted and angry. She had barely realised her voice had risen. She took a deep breath, but before she could speak–

“Don’t.”

Prosperity scowled a moment before being deeply interested in what movements Vitória was making.

Vitória poured herself a small measure of wine, whet her lips. Her eyes stared at the cup, before they met Prosperity’s gaze. The voice, calm, serene, the smile on her lips, did not match the expression of her eyes; empty, lacking soul or spark. “We all know… what is at stake. If we were afraid of the cost, we would not go to Anvil.” She took another sip of the wine, all nonchalance and grace, like such a simple statement was all that needed to be said, or could be said, or all that Prosperity needed to hear.

“If that’s the case why are you refusing to go outside. It’s been two weeks. You can’t stay in here forever.” Her words weren’t as heated as before but her summer side was starting to show. She was scared and angry. That combination never went well.

Vitória only stared at her, placid as a merrow and content to let her make whatever assumptions she liked.

“Sorry. I’m just worried. I haven’t seen anyone close to me in as long. You are the first Barossa. I had all my work sent here. The college is rebuilt but it’s fucked.” She shook her head, “Not relevant. I didn’t think I would be so bad at this. I’m mostly refusing to either break or ask how you are. It’s the most ridiculous question. Look at us.”

She slowly drank some of her wine, if for no other reason than to shut herself up. She knew what to do to fix it and who could help but at this point in time it wasn’t possible. She was always terrible company during war and after funerals. It was always so close to home, like it had been burnt into her mind.

The briar shrugged her good side blithely, tucked her feet up and stretched them out between the changeling and herself on the window bench. “Is asking the question what you need, in order to begin your healing?”

There was something, a flicker out of the corner of Prosperity’s eye, and she turned to see their reflections in a mirror across the room. Vitória’s reflection was masked, staring straight at her; the persona shifted: a Lover, a Bishop, always providing what the patron or pilgrim wanted, needed. In this place, and on Vitória’s terms, she would always have the upper hand; any attempts to reach out to the briar, would be turned around on her.

Prosperity stared at Vitória, after a moment her face broke into a grin, “I have better idea!” She stood up and walked over to her friends wardrobe and pulled out a dress, holding it towards Vitória. “Come on, get dressed, I have a plan.”

A quick crease in her brow betrayed the invisible mask she wore, as if the carefully cultured calm threatened to shatter around her. “Is this the kind of plan that ends in a bar fight? Because you would be on your own, in my present condition.” She stood, approached the dress and cast a critical eye over it. “Not that one.” She pointed to a silver robe, and went to a dresser to fetch a teal chemise. She paused, tapped her fingers on the top of the dresser, and looked long and hard at Prosperity, before she opened a document box on a nearby writing desk, riffling through and pulling out a solid iron key on a bright ribbon.

“Here, take this.”

Prosperity looked at her, as she closed the wardrobe, “Not all my plans end in a bar fight, only most of them. What is it?”

“Just take it. If you’re so determined to get in to my house then you might as well come in the front door.”

Prosperity grinned, took the key.  “Are you going to make me go out and come back in the front door now?”

There was the faintest hint of a smile that alighted on Vitória’s lips, before it was gone. With a sharp intake of breath she removed her chemise, looking paler again, pained by the movement as she nearly doubled over on herself. “Fucking Abyss and all the Druj therein… Why are you making me go out?”

She hugged her lightly, carefully helping her into the new fine lawn shirt and making no comment on the snaking veins that spread out from the bandages wrapped around her chest. “I’m making you go out because I know the best restaurant in Tassato and we have a reservation in half an hour, now come on!”

There was a faint petulant whimper from the briar, before she slid on an over-robe gingerly. “As you wish. But you’re buying.” She looped her arm through Prosperity’s, leaning slightly against her. “For I have not forgotten that threat about Dawnish Poetry.”

“That threat will always stand and I wouldn’t invite you out if I wasn’t intending on buying, that would be impolite.” She grinned at Vitória, “So I should lock up right?’’

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