Half Brother IV: The Reading
Ettore didn’t want to be there.
To be inside Grandfather’s house was to remember the years of his life that were relieved of his father and all nine of his half siblings. All the days that he had lived happily were spent in the walls of the massive villa in the wine country in Tuscany, forgetting that he was hated by his family.
What torture it was to have just been with his dear grandfather in his last minutes, and right after, to be forced to walk the grounds with his family.
Immacolata sighed and twirled on the ballroom floor. “Once I inherit this villa,” she said, “I’ll have to make changes.”
Angelo scoffed. “Who says you’re getting the estate?”
She scowled at him. “I happen to be the only one who visited Grandpapa once every other month on a regular basis. I worked to the bone to get into his will!”
Luciano groaned. “You know who funded your frequent travels?”
All of the nine siblings squabbled over who got into the old man’s will, while Ettore was not included. The young man didn’t care. Being ten years younger and the outcast of the family, he was used to it. Besides, he didn’t want to care about the will. He wanted his grandfather back.
He stuffed his hands into his black jacket and strolled across the ballroom. He rubbed his rough stubble and sighed. What would distract him from the thought that Grandfather would never come back?
Before his father’s death, no one could have hated him more. Not even his siblings could begin to despise him like their father did. He did nothing to antagonize him; it was that he was alive, it was that he existed, that their father hated him. He was living proof that the love of his life, the full siblings’ mother, was dead, and that his new wife was not just a nightmare. It was Ettore, son of Lord Neri and his second wife, Lady Clio di Sessa Aurunca, who showed everyone that Celeste Benincasa di Firenze was gone forever.
Ettore sighed out and rammed the back of his head into the finely textured wall of the large, echoing ballroom. It was silent as the grave, besides Angelo’s and Immacolata’s incessant, yet quarantined, squabbling. In his distracted mind, such noise sounded like a murder of crows, laughing hysterically at the thought of a dead man. There was nothing sacred about a solemn hour after the passing of a noble around here, Ettore guessed. He leaned back and slid to sit against the wall as he gazed at the paintings of past owners of the manor.
To put Immacolata’s painting up there with the others, Ettore thought, is to have chronic nightmares.
A servant dressed in black solemnly entered the ballroom, long-faced. It was apparent that this servant had grown quite fond of the old lord, and his passing didn’t just affect Ettore, to his relief. None of the others noticed, too invested in their speculating what was in the will. No one cared enough to turn around and ask what was going to happen next, except for their tired, broken little half brother. The young man shoved himself back on his feet and crossed the distance between them.
“Cassio,” Ettore whispered.
The servant sighed out and shook his head. “Signor di Firenze had given me a home,” he whimpered, voice cracking, “he had given me a life.”
Ettore nodded. “He did the same for me.”
Cassio turned to the young man. “If I don’t overstep myself,” he said slowly, “may I ask why you were raised apart from the rest of the Lord Neri’s children?”
The young man huffed and shook his head. “A story not worth reciting.” He looked back at the humbled Cassio. “Is the will finished?”
The servant nodded and bowed. “It was quite short. It will be read once the Battaglias are prepared.”
Luciano must have had the ears of a fox, because he floated over to the conversation, his aroma wafting in his wake. Ettore could almost see the perfume in wisps off of his jackets.
“He hadn’t called upon me to write it,” he pouted, “and I am basically the only lawyer to call upon in Firenze. Our dearest grandpapa sidestepped me for a Venetian lawyer!”
Fernand, with some new philosophy book tucked under a frilly sleeve, scuttled over. The poor man’s light was half spent and his vision took a dip for the worse, yet he still chose to pretend he knew what philosophy was and he could read it.
“Death is a foreboding time, Luciano, dear brother,” he warned in his frail, bird-like voice, “and perhaps it was easier for our beloved grandfather to bypass a loved one for a stranger when it came to unbiased decisions.”
Luciano rolled his eyes and glared at Fernand, a hand on his heart, offended. “Are you saying I, Luciano Battaglia, am a biased man?”
No answer. Fernand, widening his beady black eyes, retreated into his book and waddled away.
Ettore, with his arms crossed over his chest, scoffed and looked back to the corridor that led to Grandfather’s chamber. After the funeral, the villa had been closed off until this day, where no one but the Battaglias and the waning servants remained in the household. There was no singing, no joyful work. As he remembered his childhood days, Grandfather himself put on humble dances and balls in the large halls for the servants and himself. The workers were always in good spirits. They were forever fed well, treated like family, and welcomed with a smile. Ettore wondered, as a small boy, if it was magic that kept the servants as happy as they were, but Mama Rosa, the chief of the kitchens, had told him that the guardian angels always sang joyful songs to them.
It was silent.
The Battaglias were rounded up by a solemn Pierotto, who seemed to be the only other one grieving, though Gaetana tried her best to cry bitterly and dab her eyes with her outer sleeve. Filippo, as always, appeared prepared to fall asleep. Gemma watched her hands - which were folded regally before her - in a perhaps compassionate fashion.
“Oh, our poor, poor Grandfather!” Gaetana wailed. “How dreadful a death!”
Once they came to the chamber in which the will was to be read, she seemed recovered and healed. The siblings separated within the room and awaited the lawyer to enter. Ettore stood by the high window and wished to disappear into the drapery. He wished to be gone forever.
Minutes went by of the grown adults squabbling more before a tall Venetian entered the chamber with one piece of paper in hand. His black hair was grown long and swept his neck in a soft curl, where his rather small and humble ruffle collar began. His jerkin was simple red and embroidered with a thin gold, and he wore trousers and boots. All in all, he was not a pretentious sort, and Ettore thought him perhaps tolerable as he walked in without pomp and grandeur. He had quiet and attentive eyes and a shy sweep of a mustache on a thin lip.
“Ciao a tutti,” he greeted in a gentle voice. “You must be the last relatives of Signor Achille Battaglia, Lord of Tuscany?”
Pierotto was about to answer when the door swung open again in a sweep of pure conceit. Into the room charged a large, bear-like man, with a finely trimmed black and white beard. Now this man was dressed in pompous finery, with a gold-lined black cape draping from his right shoulder.
“This would be the last of us,” announced the newcomer. “I am the late Signor Battaglia’s second son.”
Uncle Gaspare. Ettore’s face contorted in hatred.
Uncle Gaspare was Father’s close second in his long list of enemies. He was a retired soldier of high ranks and currently worked in service of the army. He was merciless and tortured Ettore in his days of training. He had deprecated every achievement and had kept every opportunity just out of reach.
The lawyer nodded and motioned humbly for Uncle Gaspare to sit.
Luciano seemed to despise the humble lawyer, at least, with his poison gaze. His long pointed nose flared and his eyes widened at the sight of this man. The lawyer hadn’t noticed him as he opened the will, which was surprisingly short for a man who had assets and position. He waited for Immacolata to stop threatening Angelo before he invited all of them to sit.
Pierotto frowned slightly with confusion at the will as he and Ettore sat together warily across from Gemma. “It’s so short,” he remarked to his little brother. “I wonder if Grandfather had the time to finish it.”
Ettore shrugged. “It looks finished,” he said quietly. “Look at the parchment.”
The two were silent again.
The lawyer took in a gentle breath and read off the page:
“To My Dear Relatives,
There is no exception. Ettore Battaglia inherits everything, from the villa to my rank of Lord of Tuscany. He has earned it all.”
With an awkward pause, the lawyer rolled up the parchment again.
Had Ettore heard correctly? It seemed time slowed down, or, at least, everyone was frozen to their seats, failing to react. Ettore was affected by such a pause in time. His heart stopped in his chest.
It took the young man’s standing up for the room to erupt in chaos.
Besides Gemma and Pierotto, the room was full of immature cries of protest and argument.
“How dare Grandpapa leave me out of the will! Nonno deserved to die, having us live in such humiliation! Ettore deserves none! I will wring your head off your shoulders, Venetian!”
Ettore did his best to hide in the shadows, but Uncle Gaspare caught sight of him. The large man growled like the bear he resembled and snatched him by the shoulder.
“You are nothing, Ettore,” he seethed. “You are nothing and will never be anything. Don’t get too comfortable.”
Ettore, eyes wide from the shock of the whole scene, shook his head. “Take it from me, by all means, Uncle,” he breathed.
A man of his rank, of his living experience, could never be the Lord of Tuscany. He could never own a villa such as Grandfather’s. How did Grandfather believe he could govern a region? He could barely wrangle a wild horse.
Uncle Gaspare’s mammoth fingers dug into his shoulder before he threw him to the tile floor. Ettore didn’t try to fight. He only wanted to disappear.