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Cortigiana (a vamp life.., p.1
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       Cortigiana (A Vamp Life Prequel), p.1

           Jez Strider
 
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Cortigiana (A Vamp Life Prequel)
Cortigiana

  By Jez Strider

  Copyright 2013 Jez Strider

  In the summer of 1552, I came into this strange, wondrous, and terrifying world. My father, Zacharia Angelis, had acquired his wealth with unparalleled business skills. His transactions, I would later learn, were dubious at best. Theft and gambling were the staples of his profession. That man I did not know, to me he was papa, and the provider of everything I could have dreamed.

  Osana Angelis gave me life. If not for her teachings, that life would have no doubt ended centuries ago. Though she no longer bore the title of cortigiana onesta, she shared her knowledge so that I could survive on my own if the need ever arose.

  Nowhere in the world compared to Venice during that time and never will for me. Strange things lurked beneath the beauty, behind the masks. Vampires. Not the disfigured kind that burst into flames at the sight of the sun. These vampires were much more dangerous because they made you fall in love.

  My story starts at the beginning of the end of life as I knew it.

  ***

  Flowers of red, white, and purple grew wildly around the balcony overlooking the canal. The aroma from the vivid memories intoxicates me still. With poetry book in hand, I sat hidden amongst the lovely petals and vines of my own secret garden. My life was relaxation and child’s play, stories and music.

  “Evelina!” My mother called from the kitchen.

  I dropped the book onto the balcony and, in my rush, kicked it with my bare foot. The tome slipped through the bars and somersaulted into the depths of the water below. An angry gondolier lifted his fist in the air and I ducked down into hiding behind the colorful blooms. Little did I realize, my innocence would soon be swept away as easily as the lost book. Irretrievable. Gone for a longer eternity than I could have ever imagined.

  “Evelina!” This time my mother’s voice sounded less composed and desperate.

  “Coming, Mamma!” I lifted my skirt a little as I ran down the stairs so as not to trip. “I am sorry. I lost track of time. I will practice the harpsichord for an extra hour.” Two men with serious expressions were standing near my mother. She had been crying. The very tip of her only slightly oversized nose glared red to match her cheeks.

  Mother gestured for me to come to her side and I did as I was told. “These men have to borrow some of our things. I am sending you to stay with your aunt for a while.”

  “Tell me what is happening. Father would not approve of this!” I shot the men hateful glares like an arrogant child, though after declining each proposal sent my way, I bordered on becoming an old maid. Most of my friends had been married for years.

  I was led into the kitchen. My mother placed her hands firmly on my shoulders. “Listen to me closely. I was a fool to let you deny marriage for so long. Now I fear for what you may have to do to survive.” She almost broke down again. “I am sorry, Evelina. If I never see you again, know that your father and I loved you.”

  Before I could begin to process what was going on, the men rushed me out of the only home I had ever known. “Mother!” I screamed as the strangers released me to my uncle. When I darted back inside, he wrapped his arms around my waist and dragged me out the front once more. I was kicking and screaming. Mother’s golden hair billowed in the wind as she fell to her knees and reached out in despair.

  ***

  Uncle Luca and Regina lived in a poorer area than I had. We were all sitting around the table as they discussed what to do with me. Never did they ask how I felt or answer any of my questions about what was going on. I eventually stopped asking and stared vacantly as they spoke of me as if I were less than human and more than a nuisance.

  “No one is going to marry her. Her reputation is soiled by the actions of my welching brother and his whore of a wife. Criminals! Liars! Thieves!” Uncle Luca ranted, slamming his fist down on the table only a few inches in front of me, causing me to jump. Luca’s belly hung out, the fat exposed. He looked nothing like my father, except they both had green eyes.

  “The police may come for her yet. It will save us the trouble. Then again…” Aunt Regina paused and stared at me thoughtfully. The best way to describe her would be to compare the woman to a ratty little shrew.

  Emotionally exhausted, I lifted my head to meet her curious gaze. Luca crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair before throwing his feet up on the table, nasty boots and all. My endless tears failed to draw any sympathy.

  Regina smirked at me and I didn’t like it. “Evelina, dear. Your mother must have taught you about her… lifestyle before marrying your father.”

  “I do not know what you are talking about.”

  “Avoid being coy with us. You are an adult now, whether or not you behave as such. Surely, your mother taught you dancing, how to walk, or even seduce?” She chose her words carefully.

  It was true. My mother had taught me some unorthodox skills. Her advice had always been to know everything you can. At the time, I hadn’t thought much about the dance moves or the strange books she had me read describing the acts men enjoy most. It seemed like I was preparing for when I would finally be married.

  “I… can dance and know about things, but I am sure this will all be worked out and I can go home soon.” I told them.

  Uncle Luca let out a cackle of a laugh. “They’re gone. No more mamma and papa to coddle their precious child. I bet those men will take them to Poveglia and toss them into a mass grave with victims of the old plague.”

  I shoved my chair back and stood up. “I do not need you. Either of you. I can take care of myself.” Without waiting for a response, my uncle grabbed me by the hair and jerked me back. The sudden pain made me cry out.

  “You will do what we say. Maybe your aunt can doll you up enough to get you into Sanuto’s party.” He shoved me roughly toward the stairs. “Get upstairs. Give her a place to sleep, Regina.”

  Fearful, I did what I was told. My uncle was a horrible man. He was nothing like my father. It was no surprise they never associated with each other. Aunt Regina followed me up the stairs and led me to a tiny room to sleep.

  “Worry not. Do a good job and we shall all be living more comfortably.” She said before leaving me alone.

  I lay down on old covers piled in the floor and hugged my pillow. There wasn’t even a bed. The linens smelled musty, not fresh like they did at home. There were no familiar and comforting sounds. No books. None of my favorite things. Not even the music box my father had brought me when he had returned from one of his long trips. I longed to hear the delicate, soft music. It always helped me sleep.

  Then, I did hear a sound. Not one familiar or reassuring, though. Quietly, I moved toward the window and searched for the source of the grunts and groans. A common prostitute was servicing her client in the alleyway. This was not one of the respected courtesans I had heard so much about, but a poor woman doing what she had to survive. For a moment, I couldn’t turn away from the scene. Was this what would become of me if I failed to impress? If my skills were not of a high standard? I turned away and returned to my meager bedding. No. I would not be reduced to a street whore. If I was going to have to do it, I was going to do it right.

  ***

  The nobleman, Dante Sanuto, often held prestigious parties that rivaled the festivities of the Carnival of Venice. One of these masquerade balls, my Uncle hoped to gain me an invitation to. How he was going to do so, I had no idea. Aunt Regina and I focused on our own tasks.

  My relatives were putting a hefty amount of faith in abilities that I had never used. Regina and I bought the best dress and mask that we could afford. It had taken what little savings they had and I was reminded of this constantly. With a bit of sewing and flourish,
we were able to change the dress into something special. Golden trim, beads, and feathers made it almost pass for an expensively crafted gown. Now we just had to wait for word on the invitation.

  “I did it.” My uncle informed us the day before the party. He walked into the room and slapped the invitation down on the counter.

  Carefully, I picked up the paper and unfolded it. The script was elegant and the paper trimmed in silver. Luca had already broken the seal. The invite was real. I was going to the ball.

  “How did you manage this, Uncle?” I asked in shock, my eyes widening.

  He puffed his chest out proudly, although his gut protruded further. “A few mentions of your mother to the right people. That and Sanuto has a craving for ravishing young virgins. I offered your services to him, free of charge for the first time. You had better impress.”

  I slumped into a nearby chair, shocked, with the elegant invitation still in hand. “I am not sure I can do this.”

  “You damn well better or you will be on the street. We all will. This is our last chance. All our money is gone.” He said.

  The room suddenly grew muggy and stifling so I fanned myself. “You told him I was a virgin?”

  “Well, even if you aren’t, act like it. And I didn’t exactly tell him. I told his people.”

  My aunt was giddy. I stared at her from across the room. “This is it. Our big break. I told you she was a good investment.”

  “Excuse me, please.” I stood abruptly and headed outside for some fresh air. It was embarrassing and demeaning to have my virginity sold. Not even sold, given away for free. Life was not turning out how I expected in the slightest. I had almost convinced myself not to go or to run away when a strange woman walked up to me.

  “Hi.” I said awkwardly when she paused.

  “Hello there. What a lovely girl with that flowing brown hair and those big green eyes. You remind me of myself before age took its toll.” She said with a grin. A few of her teeth were missing.

  Involuntarily, I took a step backward when she reached out to touch my hair. “Thank you?”

  “Do not be alarmed. You will see me often. I work this area. Have for years.” She gave me a pat on the arm. “Take care now.”

  That’s when I recognized her. She was the prostitute I had seen the first night I had stayed with my aunt and uncle. Once more, seeing her motivated me to not end up in the same state. I was meant for better. From all accounts, my mother had been a successful courtesan. I could be, too.

  ***

  The night of the party, Regina helped me with my dress and styled my long hair. She had left me alone to apply make-up. I enhanced my cheeks with red ochre. My uncle had bought some Venetian ceruse from a shifty trader. I examined the container of skin whitener with reluctance before looking back into the mirror. Pale skin was a sign of wealth in those times. Though I wasn’t nearly as tanned as women who worked outdoors, my face was lightly sun-kissed from many days spent reading on the balcony of my family’s home. I loved the warmth of sunlight and the scent of flowers, being surrounded by the life teeming in my little world. That life disappeared, but the memories and longing to return to it did not.

  With a sigh, I placed the white lead powder back on the counter without using it. My eyebrows had been plucked. A face pack had been left on my skin to cleanse and moisturize. That had been enough for me. Beautification was a tiring process. I slipped on the mask, becoming the whore I needed to be, and descended the stairs carefully.

  “She looks lovely, does she not?” My aunt asked.

  “Let us hope her performance is as good as her looks.” Luca responded. “A boat and escort is waiting for you outside.”

  I blinked a few times. “Why?”

  Uncle Luca grabbed me by the arm and pushed me toward the door. “Do not question a blessing. Go and do well, or forget about returning at all.”

  Tears welled up in my eyes and I struggled to keep them at bay as I stepped outside. The night sky was a dusky blue. The boat had two gondoliers and my escort. The man was tall, broad, and had amber eyes that drew me in so deeply that I forgot what I was doing and stared into them. His mask was simple as was his dark attire. I had expected a more elaborate costume, but he wore it amazingly well.

  He extended his hand, but I was still frozen. “Watch your step.”

  When he spoke, I broke eye contact and glanced down to his hand before taking it. As if he predicted my clumsiness, I stumbled and fell against him. “I’m sorry. Are you Mr. Sanuto?”

  The man gave a nearly imperceptible shake of his head before guiding me to sit down. “No.” He said simply.

  I folded my hands in my lap and remembered to sit up straight. “I am Evelina Angelis. It is my pleasure to meet you.” My voice sounded soft and meek, not at all how I pictured myself.

  “Antonio d’Artusio, at your service.” He looked at me once more and I bowed my head shyly. “I am Mr. Sanuto’s personal bodyguard.”

  “Why are you not guarding him?” I asked.

  Antonio laughed quietly. “He wanted me to make sure you arrived safely. Dante knew your mother so he is convinced you must be an equally ravishing beauty.” He lifted my chin and examined my features. “I would have to say you are most beautiful, though you appear inexperienced in this profession.”

  “I…” I drew in a deep breath. “This is my first time.”

  “It shows.”

  The words stung. I had been trying my best to act and look the part of a welcoming companion. “I see. Perhaps I should forgo this venture.” I turned away from what I perceived as a scrutinizing glare.

  He brushed a strand of my hair away. “You cannot, I am afraid. Is this not the life you wanted?”

  I stammered in my response again. “I… did not have the chance to decide what I wanted. Surely, if I had been meant for something different, I would not be here.”

  Antonio nodded. “True. I wish you luck this evening.”

  “Thank you, sir.” I told him sincerely. We fell silent until we arrived at the Grand Canal and the boat stopped at the mansion.

  I was led to the door and escorted inside by the handsome bodyguard. My heart was pounding and I caught him strangely admiring my chest. It was like he could see inside, hear each nervous thump.

  “Calm yourself. You can do this.” He said before pointing toward a man sitting in a large chair at the head of the ballroom. “Be well.”

  When I turned back to thank Antonio for a second time, he was gone. Right to left, I searched, but in the mixture of people and masks I could not find him. I remembered what was at stake and walked confidently toward the man I was to keep company for the duration of the night.

  In his own way, Dante Sanuto was equally as alluring as Antonio had been even though the mask obscured many features. It must have been the confidence he exuded as he watched me cross the room. Magnificent white hair flowed down to his waist. I had never seen any like it before. I wondered if the long locks were a wig and decided they had to be.

  “Master Sanuto.” I curtseyed and bowed my head respectively as I was no equal in his home. “Thank you for the privilege of being your companion this eve.”

  For a long moment, he didn’t say anything, just remained still as he examined my form, tapping his index finger on the arm of his chair. Loud music and dancing filled the room behind us, but we were alone in that moment.

  “Evelina.” He said once before repeating it again more softly. “It is a name fit for royalty.”

  “I am glad it meets your approval, Master.” I told him.

  Exotic blue-white eyes slanted at me from behind the mask. “Did my bodyguard inform you to call me by the title of Master?”

  “No, sir. I… I do not know what compelled me to say it.” I lowered my eyes for fear of having offended him.

  Dante was on his feet and circling me, though I couldn’t recall seeing him stand and move. “You are quite lovely.” He lightly lifted a hand full of my hair and leaned down to inhale
my scent. “What other skills do you possess?”

  I was unsure if he wanted to know normal talents or bedroom skills. “I am quite versed in literature and poetry. For at least an hour each day I practice singing or playing instruments. Well, I did before….” That was where I caught myself. I was telling too much.

  “Before your family was taken from you.” His voice held a strange sadness, as if he understood my pain. I had to look away to hide the tears threatening to fall.

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Let us dance away our cares. You do know how, do you not?” He asked.

  My mother had made sure I had taken dancing lessons and attended parties. None were as fancy as Dante’s ball, though. “La volta, if it pleases you.”

  “La volta, would most certainly please me.” Dante said, leaving my side to speak to the musicians briefly.

  Many balls I’d attended frowned upon the dance I had chosen. People deemed it inappropriate for ladies. Glancing around, I noticed couples necking in corners and more than one exposed breast. The company I was keeping certainly had liberal views on what was proper.

  Dante returned to me and we began performing the dance moves. All was as expected at first, but the music changed a bit later and I found myself held firmly against my partner’s body while his hands explored freely. He gave a tug at my bodice and exposed more flesh than was ladylike. I began to panic. His hand rested on my chest and over my heart. He closed his eyes.

  “So fearful and delicate. You are like a cornered rabbit. Do I scare you this much?”

  “Yes.” I was terrified of a world I knew little about, but exhilarated by it at the same time. Oh, how clueless I was to what I was getting myself into.

  He lowered his hand and entwined his fingers with mine. “Let us get away from the crowds, then. Yes?” I nodded and he led me out of the ballroom, leaving the revelers to enjoy the event without explaining his absence.

  Paintings lined the walls. The ancestors depicted were hauntingly familiar in appearance to Dante. Each person had that same white hair. Piercing blue eyes seemed to follow me as we walked down the hallways. “I like your paintings. Your home is beautiful.”

  We paused in front of a room and Dante unlocked the door with a large key before slipping it back into his pocket. “It is an old tradition. The real test is finding a suitable artist in each generation.”

 
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