Half Brother Chapter I: The Ball
Florence (Firenze), region of Tuscany, Italy
“This party must be better than all of Demetra Auditore’s parties combined!” shrieked Immacolata. She floated across the ballroom as the servants readied the dancing area. The eaves were draped with holly and the hearths were warmly lit. While the maids scrubbed the cherrywood flooring to shine in the light, the Battaglia family filed into the room.
The Battaglias - Pierotto, Gaetana, Calista, Gemma, Fernand, Luciano, Angelo, Filippo, and Immacolata - the sons and daughters of Lord Neri Battaglia di Firenze, were the owners of the manor Elevato. After their father left it in his will to them all, they fully outfitted it to their needs. Immacolata reigned supreme control over the ballroom and all other nooks and crannies for entertainment, and she planned the ball of the century.
“It must be talked about more, anticipated more, loved more!” Immacolata surveyed the work of her servants, who toiled tirelessly. “No one stopped talking about her Michaelmas ball, and I want it over!”
Luciano Battaglia rolled his eyes at his little sister. “Her Michaelmas ball was better than any of yours.”
Immacolata shrieked with anger and stormed over to him, ready to punch his face in. “Clench your teeth, Luciano Battaglia!”
Pierotto stood between them and clutched her shoulders. “Tend to your ball, Imma,” he said calmly, “he’s only trying to get you riled up.” He let go of her and turned to Luciano. “Shut up.”
Pierotto, if any of the Battaglia siblings were, was the most practical of them. He was the heir to the status of Lord of Firenze, after his grandfather. He had to be levelheaded and wise. He bore most of his mother’s traits, such as curly black hair, brown eyes, and a light shade of olive skin. He was the face of House Battaglia and the key to most women’s hearts.
It had been only a month since the passing of Heir Lord Neri Battaglia, and the siblings seemed more or less healed already. They went back to their usual squabbling, always fighting over who got what. The will hadn’t been read off in entirety, excepting the manor. The assets were still confidential.
Nine siblings strolled the halls, seeing it fit for renovation. Their father never pandered to the fashion of the times, and the manor started to seem quite out of style. The draperies were the wrong color for the season. The furniture had been used for a year now. It was preposterous to invite guests into such an unseemly atmosphere of outdatedness. Gaetana, after their father’s final breaths, promptly ordered work to be done on the manor. The work was almost finished, and just in time for Immacolata’s ball.
“Who is on the guest list, dear sister?” Pierotto asked Immacolata as they strolled in the chilled garden. This year, there was no snow in Florence.
Immacolata loved Pierotto the most, as he cared for her welfare and funded her extravagant ways with no argument but a smile and a nod. If she had a party, she turned to him for the financial coverage of it. They were the closest in relationship, reconciling for their fifteen years age difference. “Well,” she started, signifying a long list, “of course Demetra will be coming. I’d love to see her so red-faced. This party will be the toast of the year!” She beamed and bounced her blonde curls.
Pierotto smirked as they continued walking. He held his hands behind his back and chuckled. “Is Demetra Auditore the only guest to this ‘party of the year’?” he asked.
Immacolata scoffed and shook her head. “Of course, the entire House Airaldi, House Casale, the Durante family, and all your friends.” She grinned up at the crisp blue sky. “How I wish it would snow. Not a blizzard’s amount, but just a tip. Enough to manicure the garden.”
Pierotto smiled and walked a little ahead. “You know whom we haven’t invited for a while?” he speculated pensively.
Immacolata but her lip and frowned. “Perhaps Aina Episcopo, my childhood friend.”
The eldest shook his head vigorously. “I’ve had had enough with Aina Episcopo the moment I saw her.”
The woman scoffed and shrugged. “All right, then. Who? Beniamino Sessa? House Ranalli?”
Her blood boiled immediately. “What on earth are you thinking, dear brother?” she exclaimed. “Bring him into our home, shame us in front of our guests? Who would let us forget it?”
Pierotto halted her softly. “No, no, no, Immacolata. Grandfather and Ettore shall come to the ball. I’ve missed them immensely.”
She huffed and rolled her eyes. “Ugh, honestly, Pier, you make me ill.” She remembered who was paying for the night, and she knew better than to antagonize Pierotto now. What he wished, she had to make reality, by his subsidy. After a moment’s hesitance, she groaned. “Fine, if it satisfies you, dear brother.”
Pierotto smiled and kissed her cheek. “You’re gold, Immacolata. I shall fetch them then.”
Immacolata rolled her eyes a second time as he walked back towards the manor. “Don’t lie to Ettore and tell him that he was invited in my name!”
“Please don’t tell me we’re staying the entire night,” pleaded Ettore as he ushered his grandfather out of the carriage. “I can’t stand them at all.”
Grandfather Battaglia chuckled slightly as he wobbled along on his cane. He was a spindly, gnarled man with a web of snow white hair over his shiny head, and his smile was labored under the weight of all his wrinkles. He had a light temperament and a forgiving attitude.
Ettore knew that his father thought that he would find misery in the service of his grandfather, but on the contrary, he felt freer in Grandfather’s house. He preferred it to living with his insufferable half-siblings.
“Stop being so despondent,” Grandfather laughed, hobbling along. “You were invited out of courtesy. So said the invitation.”
Ettore felt his grandfather stuff a piece of paper into his hand. He positioned it to the lamps around him, then gave Grandfather a skeptical look. “Courtesy of Immacolata Battaglia.” He shoved the invitation into his jerkin pocket under his cloak. “That’s impossible. I’m here because I’m the butt of some joke, just watch.”
“Or maybe it is because the Battaglias missed you at your father’s funeral and that they want to see their youngest brother.”
“Half brother,” Ettore shot. “They don’t let me forget that I’m the son of Clio di Sessa Aurunca, the mistake of House Neri. I’m nothing but a mistake to them.”
Grandfather sighed and placed a bony hand on his youngest grandson’s shoulder. “Let me remind you that you were not a mistake. Lady Celeste’s death took a toll on us all, but your father needed someone - a woman - to tend to the household servants. There was nothing wrong in his marriage to your mother, and you were never a mistake. Not to me.” He smiled slightly. “I mean, I wouldn’t live past my seventieth year if those siblings were watching over me. Here I am,” he chuckled, “out and about, because I have a wonderful caretaker for a grandson!”
Ettore didn’t believe it, but he smiled weakly as he ushered his grandfather out of the snow and towards the refuge of House Battaglia.
The man was twenty, ten years younger than Immacolata, the youngest of the full siblings. He was generally a handsome man, with deep brown eyes and a deep Florentine complexion, chestnut brown hair cut short and close to his head, and a tall and sinewy stature. He was the only one of them who had learned fully how to ride and fence, the only one of them who had joined the Italian army. Indeed, he was successful, but it seemed that no one cared about his achievements, caring more about his family life.
He was raised solely by his grandfather, after his mother died in childbirth with him, and his father cared none for him. If it weren’t for Grandfather Battaglia, Ettore would have been cast out on the streets or put in an orphanage. It was Grandfather Battaglia who visited the small boy in his sleeping cell with food, stories, and medicine, if need be. When he was eight, his father simply put Ettore’s life in his grandfather’s hands. He couldn’t remember being happier, being thrust into someone’s disposal. Of course, he earned some of his keep, by caring for his aging grandfather, helping the servants, and putting up with his sword fighting, horse riding, and Latin lessons.
It was the best way to live.
Only when he saw his half brother, Pierotto, standing at the main door, did his mood change. His hands balled into fists under his black cloak. Out of all of his half siblings, he remembered Pierotto being the worst. He mocked him, beat him, and fought with him. There were no redeeming values to him, and yet, here he was, greeting them as if the past never happened and Ettore was an old friend of his. What was wrong with him?
“Grandfather,” greeted Pierotto warmly at the main door, a bright smile on his lean face. “I’m elated to see the journey here had done you no ill.” He shook Grandfather’s hand and his deep eyes rested on Ettore, whose already dark figure was shadowed by the night and the candlelight. His smile dimmed only slightly. “Ettore,” he began, now serious, “I’m glad you came.”
Ettore stifled a scoff and nodded. “Apologies for our late arrival,” he said, hoping Pierotto wasn’t expecting lighter, informal conversation as he doffed the hood of his heavy cloak, “if we had heard sooner-”
“Yes, yes,” Pierotto cut him off with a grimace. “I’m afraid your invitation was sent a little late.”
Ettore took a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, and I had thought, perhaps, on purpose.”
Pierotto squinted at him. “Given I funded this event and personally supervised the invitations, would you tell me why you came to that conclusion, to my face?”
Grandfather chuckled nervously and forced a tight cough, trying to get their attention. “We’re glad to be here,” he stated happily.
Neither of the brothers cared to listen and stiffly drew closer.
“Care to give me a reason I’m here in the first place?” growled Ettore.
“Care to explain your crass tone with me?” hissed Pierotto.
The soldier was half ready to hold his oldest brother in a painful necklock as he drew closer to his face. “I have nothing to explain to you,” he said slowly. “What joke was Immacolata playing by fetching us?”
“No joke,” replied Pierotto. “I wanted to visit with you, to familiarize with you, and yet, I see now that Immacolata was right.” He cocked his head. “Your presence is a disgrace, and I was wrong.”
Grandfather smelled the tensity rising and he stood between the half brothers. “Why, it’s getting cold and my usher must get me inside before I catch a virus.” He grinned brightly to Pierotto and dragged Ettore into the mansion by the elbow. Once they were out of earshot, Grandfather turned, and his smile was miles away. He shook his head chidingly at Ettore, but said nothing, as they gave their weather overcoats to the servants.
“Sorry,” Ettore mumbled, smoothing down his linen-lined jerkin.
“Don’t say sorry, don’t say sorry,” Grandfather grumbled, hobbling along. “Just bite your teeth down on your tongue if it keeps you from a fight with the rest of them.”
I can’t promise anything with these people, he thought, but he squared his shoulders, took a deep breath, put on a bright face, and trudged behind his grandfather into the ballroom.
“Give me the invitation,” requested Grandfather. It was that kind of ball that the cryer announced the names of all the guests, and Ettore felt like whatever joke that was to be played on him was coming very, very soon. Nevertheless, as they neared the wing of stairs that led to the rich, golden room, he pulled the invitation - now slightly crumbled - out of his jerkin pocket and handed it to his grandfather.
Their entrance was a large doorway closed off by deep red velvet curtains, and from it, music carried. No doubt they were dancing already. As Ettore noticed Pierotto walked slowly behind them, having their same destination, he knew that they were the last guests to arrive.
The cryer, dressed ridiculously in bright purple jackets and a tall hat with at least ten peacock feathers protruding from it, waddled over to Grandfather and took the invitation.
“Anything to declare, Signors Battaglia?” asked the cryer.
Ettore resisted the urge to laugh. “Are you comfortable?”
The cryer answered him with an exhausted shake of the head as he led them to the curtained off room.
“Announcing the arrival of Signor Achille Battaglia di Firenze, Lord of Tuscany, and his grandson, Signor Ettore Battaglia di Firenze e Sessa, House Clio Neri.”