Half Brother II: I Don't Want to Say 'Ciao'
This chapter has no definite name. Since this novel is structured for later publication, I'd prefer a chapter name. If any of you have suggestions after reading it I'd love that!
Silence. Dead silence.
Ettore thought as much. He wasn’t well loved within the company of his half siblings, after an incident now six years ago that left behind rather petty grudges. Since then, Grandfather took it upon himself to personally educate Ettore in the manners of a noble during a social event. Given, this was the only one to which he was invited since then, there wasn’t much need.
Everyone in the packed room stared at Ettore as he gently guided Grandfather down the stairs and to the floor. By the time they reached the Battaglias, the music restarted and conversation lifted the tension.
Immacolata growled under her breath as she stood beside her husband, Fabrizio. “I wish Pierotto never invited him,” she hissed to him. “I never would have, I just want to know why he invited him.”
Fabrizio grunted. “Pity, perhaps,” he speculated. “This man surely can’t dress up to the formality of the occasion.”
Indeed, Ettore’s humble dress in a linen-lined jerkin and simple black trousers were currently the subject of gossip. His boots needed shining. His jacket was made last year. Where was his cape, signifying his rank in House Battaglia?
“Why won’t they stop looking at me?” Ettore whispered to his grandfather.
Grandfather smiled and shrugged. “If you had come in uniform like I had told you, then perhaps they would be admiring your dress instead of gossiping about it.”
Ettore rolled his eyes.
The Battaglias crossed the ballroom, all with gracious smiles on their faces. Grandfather was embraced with poised, practiced cheek kisses and handshakes. Fine talk began about the speculations, the horse races, how the royalty was doing, what the Pope had just said. Ettore went unnoticed through it all. Either that, or they made it clear they didn’t want to show their faces to him, turning their backs deliberately to is face.
If it were that he had someone to converse with, he wouldn’t mind. Ettore didn’t enjoy any of the Battaglias. Only, no one else at the party liked him, all because of that one time when he entered after breaking in the colt and feeding the chickens. The grudges lasted, like his stench.
But this time, Ettore understood the necessity of cleaning up before a social gathering.
The party continued, and Ettore stayed on the sidelines, observing the dances with boredom and distaste painted across his face. The music swelled and ebbed like the tide as couples skipped to the middle of the room and contributed their left feet to a disaster. No doubt their wine and ale went to their heads. He was never fond of drinking, and now, the scene strengthened the distaste as stale-breathed, swaying men decided the time to humiliate themselves before guests had come.
Ettore stared at the mess of a night, crossing his arms over his chest. He leaned back against one of the many Corinthian pillars, under which Grandfather was seated, tapping his cane to the music.
Grandfather tapped Ettore’s elbow, and the young man looked down. The old lord, with a fun smile on his lips, pointed towards a giggling tribe of girls. “One of them keeps looking at you,” he said in a sing-song tone. “Go say ‘ciao’.”
Ettore stubbornly shook his head. “I don’t want to say ‘ciao’. I’m rather comfortable.”
Grandfather scoffed and shoved him distastefully towards the other side of the room, where the girls, all at the youngest sixteen, giggled excitedly as Ettore stumbled towards them. “I’m rather tired of you standing still like you mean to catch dust!” the old man called back.
Ettore rolled his eyes and strolled to the girls as if he meant it. He put on a fake, strained smile and stood before them, hands behind his back. There were seven girls, each dressed in an elaborate and ornate fashion. The girl that Grandfather had pointed out, about nineteen, coyly smiled and fluttered her fan to hide her face. Her friends giggled behind their hands.
“Ciao a tutti, /hello, all/” he said, nodding. “Are you fond of dancing?”
What was he saying? He was jumping headfirst into the dance floor just by mentioning it.
The girl of attention giggled. Her eyes were deep brown and her finely combed, softly curling hair was the same color. She wore a red dress with a golden floral design emblazoning the front. Indeed, she was pretty, but why was Grandfather pushing him into this? Certainly a man with no assets or money to his name, such as his bitter self, would have to speed so desperately into the arms of marriage. He was content being a bachelor who could go to the front lines without a worrying wife staying behind.
“I don’t dance with strangers, bello /handsome/,” she replied. “Would you mind an introduction?”
I would. I would very much so mind. I am not enjoying this. Ettore took in a deep breath and pasted his smile back on his face. “I am Ettore Ba-” He cut himself off. “Ah, Bartolotti. Ettore Bartolotti.”
The girl slowly nodded. “Are you sure, Signor Bartolotti? You seem hesitant, Battaglia. Your entry was introduction enough.” She giggled again.
How do girls have the capacity to laugh so much? Ettore put a fist to his mouth and let out an awkward cough. “Then with my introduction over with and satisfying…?”
The girl took his stiff arm and tugged him into a dance.
The ball was near over, and Ettore had suffered at least three public humiliations by two different girls. His feet were sore and his boots felt tight. Per Florentine tradition and Battaglia whim, the night was closed with a rather energetic dance. Grandfather was having the time of his life just bouncing in his seat, tapping his cane to the flouncy beat. Ettore watched from his perch against the same Corinthian column, now sour as a cat thrown into a lake. He watched as his eldest half sibling, Pierotto, guided his dazzling wife to the center of the floor, with Immacolata and Fabrizio two steps behind. The remaining Battaglias came in random sequence.
Angelo, the head of the Florentine guard, stood tall and proud in his formal wear. He waltzed through his rather large family and ushered his own wife to the dance. Ettore knew him the least, as he was usually out training to obtain the position he now had. From what he understood Angelo was honorable for being his father’s son, so that was passable.
Then came Gemma, on her husband’s hand. Against the wishes of Immacolata, Ettore would say Gemma, a regal woman of forty-three, was the most beautiful of the Battaglias, with long, silky brown hair she kept neatly in a beaded net, and gentle but confident black eyes. Her smile was one thing that Ettore ever received from his family. If he had anything to be grateful for to them, all of his thanks would go to Gemma and her compassion.
Next, however, was the lawyer, Luciano, whose fine perfumes and soaps made Ettore want to gag. Given he grew up caring for and riding horses, all perfumes, oils, and whatever else of the sort on God’s good Earth seemed profusely stupid. This man wore many jackets and invested in silk capes, but it was his scowl that people noticed. Perhaps he, too, despised the smell he dwelled in.
Gaetana was a condescending sort of woman with a nose perfect for turning up in front of someone. Calista smiled too much and everyone knew how hollow she was, in character. Fernand planned to convert every being in the room to his new philosophy book, and in turn, drove everyone away. Filippo, finally, simply had no character. Such a blank slate had no assets but his money and position to present while flirting at a ball.
The couples applauded each other at the end of yet another drunken sway, and Pierotto splintered off to stand with Ettore and Grandfather.
“Immacolata made good choices for the draperies, si, Ettore?” He asked with expectant eyes as he carefully sipped a new wine. “Bellissimo!”
Ettore nodded wordlessly, his lips pursed. Why did Pierotto feel obligated to converse with him about draperies?
“How about the women?” Pierotto asked with a smirk. “Many are itching to be army wives.”
Ettore shook his head and planted one of his boots against the column he was leaning on. “I have no plan of making any one of them a military wife,” he remarked. “I am content to be a captain on my own.”
Pierotto nodded subsequently, in a more awkward fashion. “Have you plans for Christmas the day after the morrow?” he inquired.
Ettore shook his head and shrugged. Grandfather spoke up.
“Why, come to think of it, Pier, Ettore will be deployed to France at the beginning of Christmas week. A shame, quite?” He smiled at Ettore.
Pierotto nodded with understanding to Grandfather. “Pure shame.” He faced Ettore again. “We will be seeing both of you at Midnight Mass, though, correct?”
Grandfather affirmed. “We will be there.” It was a second of his normal smile, then the old man frowned and massaged his chest.
Ettore frowned. “Are you all right, Grandfather?” he asked guardedly, crouching before him.
Grandfather grunted slightly and nodded, past his initial confusion. He seemed in pain. “I'm all right, Ettore.” His breathing was short and he grunted again, holding his heart. “I may have had a drink too many.”
Ettore wasn't so sure. He stood to full height again and faced Pierotto. “Apologize to Immacolata for us,” he said, hoisting his grandfather into his feet, “I have to take him home.”
Pierotto frowned. “If Grandfather doesn't feel well, it makes no sense to transfer him. We’ll house him.”
“I'm really all right.”
Ettore shook his head. For some reason, he was worried. Perhaps internally panicking. He was a soldier and he was able to deal with the situation, but the way Grandfather’s face seemed to take sides - one side was his jovial self, while the other corner if his mouth slumped into a tired, unhealthy, uncharacteristic frown - was an ominous warning. He leaned against Ettore and quickly became dead weight on his shoulder.
“Grandfather?” Pierotto’s voice became panicked. “I miei cieli, Ettore, he’s unconscious!”
The eldest dropped his glass and grabbed Grandfather’s other arm. The company created a wave of surprised and concerned chatter as Ettore and Pierotto laid Grandfather on the tile floor.
“Grandfather,” Ettore exclaimed, “wake up!”
The man’s face was numbed and his old, white brow hung over his closed eyes as if he was having a nightmare. Ettore slapped his cheek, but did nothing.
“A doctor?” Pierotto called, prepared to do anything. He appeared ready to jump in a lake if he had to. “Anyone, this man is in danger!”
No one stepped up. They all just watched, frozen in fear.
Ettore, at a loss of ideas, began to quickly massage Grandfather’s heart with the balls of his palms. He hadn't a clue what he was doing, but no one was trying anything otherwise.
He couldn't lose his grandfather.