Hello everyone! I am sorry this story was on hiatus for so long, my muse sort of fled. I was really excited to see all of the reviews I got on chapter 9. You guys are really awesome for sticking with this story, true diehards. I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your support. It's people like you who make me want to keep writing and it was rereading this story's reviews that made me inspired to pick it back up again. So thank you. Thank you very much. I hope you will stick with this until the end.
On a more story related note, this chapter is sort of long, I realize, and short on EzioxAlba lovin'. It is coming though, so please be patient. Also, I am aware that I make occasional typo errors, it sort of comes with writing quickly and I apologize. Please bear with me. -_- Yup, that's all. Enjoy and please review!
That night I dreamed, which was rare for me but considering the excitement of that day, I suppose it was hardly unusual. I was running through the market, shoving faceless people out of my way as I fled, my feet moving slowly as if I was waist deep in mud. Behind me I could hear a man's pained bellow, screeching out a name with rhythmic abandon, 'Floriana, Floriana, Floriana!'.
Powerful fingers twined in my hair, yanking me back with a force that brought tears to my eyes. I could hear someone begging, pleading for freedom, and eventually I realized that person was me. Laughter, cold and cruel, was my only answer, and I could feel myself falling further and further into desperation. I clawed and kicked and screamed, panic welling up in my chest as I fought, hopelessly, frantic to get loose.
And then, as abruptly as the panic had come on, it evaporated. I was no longer in the market, but back home, standing outside of my family's tiny but well-tended farm, the sun warming my face and a gentle breeze ruffling my hair. Filled with joy I scampered around the house, anxious to greet my father and brothers. A figure was hunched over, tending some grape vines and I smiled, running up and hugging his powerful back.
'Papa!' I laughed, 'I'm home.' The man turned at my touch and I stiffened, a shiver of excitement travelling like lightning up my spine. It was not my father. Though dressed in a poor farmer's garb, the sensuous planes of Ezio Auditore de Firenze's face were unmistakable, as was his smile.
'Si, piccolina,' he whispered, his voice dark and rough as he brushed a few strands of loose hair behind my ear, 'You are home.' I couldn't look away or breathe as his face slowly neared mine, mischief glinting in his dark eyes as our lips came closer and closer together. 'Alba?' he asked, his voice husky with want.
'Yes?' I squeaked out, unable to think beyond those masculine lips.
'Alba!' he said again, sharper this time, and with a feminine edge. I frowned something was wrong. 'It's time to wake up, sleepy head.'
My eyes snapped open and once again I found myself in Cosima's room, staring up at the spider web crack in the whitewashed ceiling. Once my pulse had slowed a bit, I looked over at Cosima, who had already bathed and was clothed in a beautiful cream colored dress that flattered her full figure. "What's happening?" I asked groggily, sitting up and untangling my limbs from the sheets.
"We are going to mass," explained Cosima with a smile, proceeding to braid her beautiful ebony hair, "It is Sunday morning." I yawned and Cosima laughed, the sound like bells. "Get dressed, Zia wants to leave soon to get good seats. Father Adamo always delivers very… invigorating sermons."
I nodded blearily and pulled off my night gown, rooting around in my bag for my spare clean shift and my church dress. When she saw it, Cosima attempted to keep a kind smile on her face, but I had seen it falter. I sighed. "I know they are rags, but they are the best I have," I said to her, slightly embarrassed that my family's lack of fortune was being put so blatantly on display. Cosima blushed, shamed, and shook her head.
"The heavenly father is blind to such things, his only care is for the good in our hearts. Now dress." I smiled at her and stepped into the green dress. The colors were faded, but it was not nearly as worn as my normal attire. Cosima then helped me with my hair, arranging it up high and securing it with pins. "You have a lovely neck," she said absently as she tucked a few flowers into my corkscrew curls, "It is a shame to keep it hidden, no?"
Looking presentable we made our way downstairs. The rest of the household had gathered there, looking sharp in their Sunday best. Carmina, sneaky devil, had managed to con one of the triplets out of one of their dresses and was garbed in a beautiful rose colored taffeta that accentuated her curves and revealed just enough cleavage to be enticing but still church appropriate. She saw me staring and tossed her hair haughtily before flirting shamelessly with Raniero. It seemed I was to be the only one wearing old clothes.
Raniero saw me and cast me a coy wink. He looked stunning, almost too stunning. It was odd to me that a man could be that physically beautiful, but clothed as he was in a fitted shirt and pants, he was undeniably gorgeous. I returned his wink with a deep scowl, sticking my tongue out at him before Cosima accosted me, looping her arm through mine and leading me down stairs.
After locking up the Restaurante we made our way as one giant unit toward the nearest church, the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. I had to fight to keep my jaw from hanging open as I entered the house of god. Never had I been exposed to anything so lush, so beautiful, so dazzling.
After passing through the Basilica's triumphal arch we entered the main hall of the house of worship. The ceiling was impossibly high, supported by Athenian columns carved from the finest of green marble. Arching windows illuminated hundreds of small, jewel toned murals decorated the walls and ceiling, each expertly painted scene depicting a story from the bible. Interspersed between the columns were mosaics made from thousands of tiny gem chips and gold, illustrating Christ's life from birth to rebirth in wondrous detail. Everything else was sheathed in so much gold leaf that it made my eyes go wide and my palms sweat.
Back home we attended church in our village's small chapel, which at any given time could only fit twenty five people so whether you went to mass in the morning, afternoon, or evening was chosen by lot. The Basilica easily fit three hundred people in the main area, and another one hundred and fifty along the sides, and as the flock appeared faithful I had no doubt every seat would be full.
We strode down the center aisle, our pace subconsciously matching the music of the organ pipes as we went, giving me a chance to study the marble floor. Even that was inlaid with exotic patterns, the dark stone carving lovely scars into the white like ink on parchment. The scent of incense cloyed in the air and got stronger as we moved forward. By the time Bernardetta was satisfied and picked a pew my eyes were watering from the strength of the smell.
We were as far up as was allowed. The first few pews were reserved for the families of noble blood, but the Bianchetti's, as the wealthy owners of a successful restaurante, did command some respect socially. We slid into the glossy hardwood pew, the surface stained dark, and sank into the lush, midnight blue velvet cushions that ran the length of the bottom of the pew. I sighed, the benches we had at home were rough hewn and possessed no backs, I could get used to the luxury the Basilica provided.
As we waited for mass to begin, I found myself looking around, hoping to catch a glimpse of Ezio. Several gentlemen caught my stare, and some even matched it with an interested smile, but in the end my search was fruitless and my gaze dropped to my hands. Eventually Father Adamo took to the pulpit and the church grew silent.
The sermon was well written although nothing special, but Adamo's voice was rich and deep and he spoke with such passion it was difficult to look away. His hands moved in large sweeping gestures as he preached, and his face grew redder and redder with the intensity of his emotion and belief. It was hard not to see that this was a man who truly was with god. At one point his arm waving got so wild he knocked over a couple of candles. I felt Cosima stiffen beside me, but he was so caught up in the splendor of his speech he hardly noticed, not bothering to stop even when two vicars hurried forward to put out the flames.
At the end of the service we received communion, immediately after the nobles so the bread and wine that we ended up receiving was of wonderful quality and I enjoyed it more than simply the joy of being close to the creator. Was that wrong? Probably, but I was unlikely to taste bread that soft and wonderful ever again. Father Adamo greeted Bernardetta as she passed, a gesture made, I suspected, as much out of kindness as out of politics.
When he caught sight of my face, however, he went as white as a sheet, his lips thinning into a taut line. Bernardetta stepped in quickly to introduce me. "Signorina Alba de Luca, she is here with her sister, Carmina, who is engaged to wed my eldest." The priest recovered.
"Signorina de Luca, welcome to the house of god. You must forgive me, you're face resembles… one I did not think I would see again, no matter how lengthy my life." His smile was genuine, but his words chilled me. Cosima saw my distress and squeezed my hand comfortingly as Father Adamo once again addressed Bernardetta. "I do hope you will allow me the honor of marrying your son. You and your family are such valued members of the congregation, and I am proud to say that I have married every baby I've baptized."
Bernardetta laughed. "Well I would hate to be the cause of the only stain on your record Padre. If my son is to marry, it will be at your hands, in this church." The priest smiled, mollified, and we headed out, back to the restaurant, to observe our day of rest.
"Alba," said Cosima cautiously, "You mustn't feel obligated, but would you like to help me this afternoon?" I frowned at her as we walked, our strides matching, our arms linked.
"Doing what may I ask?" Cosima smiled at me.
"Every Sunday I go down to the poor quarter and serve soup, bread and cheese to the less fortunate," she said earnestly, her sapphire eyes going misty as she relived the past. "It feels like I'm able to make a difference in my own small way. And I only use scraps for the soup and the leftover bread so Zia doesn't mind." I stared at her wide-eyed and couldn't stop the warm laugh that bubbled forth. Cosima looked hurt. "What's so funny?" I wiped a tear of mirth from my face, her reproachful expression causing the laughter to die out in my chest.
"Cosima! Dear, sweet, kind-hearted Cosima, don't take offense," I said quickly as her gaze narrowed at me in suspicion, "I think it's wonderful that you do this service, truly I do. I simply find myself amused to be in the presence of a saint. I keep asking myself if you can be any more perfect, and you keep exceeding my wildest hopes."
Cosima blushed, the gentle pink hue staining her alabaster skin. "Alba, you flatter me!" she protested with undoubtedly genuine modesty. I grinned. Cosima was a lovely change of pace from my sister. I was about to tease her a bit more when a voice cut into our conversation.
I looked up surprised. We were already back in front of the Restaurante and a figure which had been lounging against the wall stood and moved to greet us. I kept my face blank in order to hide the disappointment I felt when Signore da Vinci approached us. So he had been the one that had promised a visit. Merda.
"Signore," I greeted him, returning his stiff bow with a small curtsy. "Have you met Signorina Martello?" His light blue gaze flicked briefly to Cosima's face and then back to mine with an intensity that nearly bowled me over.
"We are acquainted," he said brusquely, "But I did not come to share meaningless pleasantries, even with women of exceptional beauty." Cosima and I were not swayed by his comment.
"Then what is your purpose in coming here, Signore da Vinci?" asked Cosima with an edge of worry, her grip on my arm tightening.
"Simply put," he said, his penetrating stare once again boring holes in my eyes, "I cannot seem to get you out of my head, Signorina Alba." Cosima gasped. I stared at him, my skin exploding with volcanic color.
"I beg your pardon?" I spluttered, gripping Cosima for support. This man was clearly insane and I began to wonder if we should yell inside the Restaurante for help.
"I want you…" he repeated, his gaze never faltering as he licked his lips and took a step towards me. I wanted to scream and took three quick steps away, fighting the desire to flee. "… to be my model." Abruptly the world snapped back into perspective and I could feel Cosima relax even as my own muscles unclenched. As shocked as I was, my mouth had no filter.
"Why?" I asked incredulously, watching his face with utter bafflement. A small, secretive smile quirked his lips, making him appear far younger than he was.
"You have sparked my muse, Signorina de Luca, and it will only be satisfied when I have painted you to my heart's content. Will you agree to sit for me?" His voice was like velvet, drawing me in and coercing my agreement. I fought the urge tooth and nail.
"I am afraid that will not be possible, Signore," I said with overmuch solemnity. Leonardo frowned, clearly unused to being denied.
"Why not?" he said with a sharp impatience like a petulant child.
"I have agreed to assist Signorina Martello feed the hungry," I said, unable to keep the triumphant glint from my gaze. Cosima ruined my plan.
"Oh, no! But you must sit for Signore da Vinci! What an opportunity! His work is unparalleled. You can join me next week, but surely you will not pass up this chance?" Her eyes were excited and innocent, void of duplicity. It was hard to be annoyed with a face like that.
"I can pay you in coin if that would expedite your acquiescence," offered Leonardo. I flushed.
"Signore! It is the Sabbath!" Ezio's friend or not, there was no way I was going to lose god's favor by working that day. Leonardo rolled his eyes.
"Fine, I won't pay you. Better for me anyway, now shall we go?" He held out his arm pointedly for me to take and Cosima smiled her encouragement.
"I'll let Zia know. You shall tell me all about it when you get home, yes?" she asked, her voice excited. I sighed in defeat, extricating myself from her arm but stubbornly refusing to take Leonardo's.
"Yes." Leonardo was quick to claim his victory and grabbed my wrist.
"Bene! Come along then!" And off we went, Leonardo dragging me bodily through the crowds of Roma. I sighed. Could I never catch a break?