“WAKE up, Marco. Wake up,” someone was saying over and over again.
I fought my way up through layers of sleep, part of me wanting to respond to the urgent voice, but the part of me that didn’t want to do so won the battle and once again I succumbed to sleep.
“Come on, babe, this isn’t like you.”
“Go away,” I heard myself saying, “and leave me alone, I wanta sleep some more.”
“Marco d’Argenzio, get your ass out of that bed right now, or I’ll take steps. You’re attending a birthday party for your children in a couple of hours.”
“You attend it,” I said, “I’m gonna stay here in bed.”
“Okay, babe, you asked for it.”
There was blessed silence for a time; then something cold and liquid hit me in the face, and I sat bolt upright, shaking the water out of my face and hair.
“What the fuck are you doing?” I said.
“Taking steps, just like I promised.”
“I was gonna get up.”
“In this lifetime?” he said.
“In a bit.”
“No, you weren’t. You made that quite clear. What’s the matter with you, anyhow? You’ve always been an early riser, and not only that, you usually wake up and hop out of bed ready for the day.”
“Everybody’s allowed to backslide once in a while, aren’t they?” I said.
“Backslide, yes, but this was more like a landslide.”
“That should be allowed too.”
“Maybe, but not on your sons’ birthday. The triplets are three today, and we’ve got a party to attend.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Here, drink this, maybe it’ll get your juices flowing.”
A cup of steaming coffee was placed in my hand. “Crawl back into this bed for a few minutes, and I’ll get both of our juices flowing.”
“No time for that right now. What’s the matter with you, anyway? Are you sick?”
I had a flashback to the night before. “Oh, shit, now I remember.”
“Remember what?” he said.
“You went to sleep last night, but I tossed and turned for a bit. More than a bit—quite a long time, actually.”
“Really,” Dani said, suddenly very serious, “that’s totally out of character for you.”
“Yeah. Anyway, I got up, pulled on a robe, went to the den, and had a couple of snifters of brandy.”
“I crawled back in bed and slept like a baby,” I said.
“More like a comatose baby. Are you sure you had only a couple of snifters?” he said.
“Geez, I wasn’t really counting, so I don’t know.”
“Marco,” Dani said, “we’ve been together nearly fifteen years, and this is totally out of character for you. Is something wrong?”
“I don’t think so. I couldn’t sleep, so I had too much brandy.”
“Well, the two of us did polish off a fair amount of wine last night. Maybe the brandy finished you off.”
“Yeah, I think it did.”
“Anyhow, get into the bathroom and take that coffee with you.”
“Yes, Sir,” I said as I snapped to and saluted.
I went into the bathroom, took a sip of coffee, and stepped under a cold spray of water. Somewhat revived by that, I changed the temperature to warm, finished showering, and shaved. After I got dressed, I followed the smell of food into the kitchen, where Lucia, our live-in nanny, had all three boys in their high chairs and was supervising their breakfast.
“Something smells good,” I said.
“I decided to cook this morning,” Dani said. “Our usual bagels or cereal won’t be enough to offset all the sweet stuff we’ll probably be eating later.”
“The coffee helped, but I need something solid.”
I kissed Marcus, Bernardo, and Giovanni in turn, then settled myself in a chair at one end of the table. “Good morning, Lucia,” I said.
“Good morning, Conte Marco.”
“Are we back to that again? I don’t feel like conte anything, especially this morning, and just because my uncle and his two children went over a cliff in the mountains doesn’t change that fact.”
“I’m sorry, Cousin Marco,” she said.
“That’s much better.”
We weren’t actually cousins—given that she was descended from one of my numerous half-brothers, Lucia was actually my great-niece, many times removed. My father’s operatives had discovered a small group of his long-lost descendants living in a remote village in Sicily, and Lucia was from that village. She wanted to go to college, but her rather old-fashioned parents hadn’t wanted her to live in a dormitory, so she came to live with us and act as a nanny for the boys.
Lucia, having finished feeding the boys, lifted them out of their chairs, placed them on the floor, and shooed them to their bedroom. Dani placed a plate in front of me along with a glass of orange juice.
“Alone at last,” I said.
“Enjoy it while you can.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Want to tell me what kept you up last night?”
“As I may have told you over dinner, I had a pretty rotten day at the hospital.”
“Yeah, I remember,” he said, “but you’ve had rotten days before.”
“Then I had to sit in on a Council session.”
“So?” he said.
“There were a lot of very long discussions.”
“Babe, they don’t just discuss things, they talk them to death. They talk about a topic until they’ve driven it into the ground, run a stake through its heart, and decapitated it.”
“Surely it can’t be that bad,” he said
“Believe me, it is. I don’t know how Father stands it, and he’s been sitting in those meetings longer than I care to think about.”
“What were they talking about?” he said.
“The main subject on the agenda last night revolved around whether or not to issue more residency visas to foreigners.”
“That doesn’t sound too complicated,” he said.
“One would think. Of the twelve members of the Council, about a third think the more people we have living and working here in the Duchy the better, another third see new residents as taking jobs and food away from existing residents, and the rest of them either don’t care or would prefer to maintain the status quo just because it is the status quo.”
“So, what happened?” he said. “Did they make a decision?”
“Are you kidding? After an hour of circular discussions and positing the same arguments over and over again, they finally agreed to table the proposal until a later meeting.”
“No shit. Anyway, you know Father expects me to stand in for him while he’s on his honeymoon, and I have no doubt that he expects me to do so on a permanent basis when he decides that it’s time for him to retire from the scene. Knowing that, I lay in bed last night picturing endless decades of interminable meetings…. It was a very depressing thought, and, unlike counting sheep, it was not an inducement to sleep.”
That made him laugh.
“Babe,” I said, “it isn’t funny.”
“Of course it is, Marco, and self-pity doesn’t become you. In fact, it’s not even like you, so snap out of it.”
“No question about it, it just ain’t you. Besides which, you’ve got a full plate today. Your father, who just happens to be il Duca d’Aragoni, is throwing a birthday bash for his three youngest grandchildren.”
“Dani,” I said, “in a little over twenty-four-hundred years, my father has sired several hundred children, who have in turn produced thousands of descendants of their own. Three more aren’t that big of a deal to him.”
“You’d never know that to hear him tell it. Besides, the triplets are the sons of his youngest son.”
“Youngest for now… but not for long. Remember, he and Angelina are getting married in June.”
“True, but they may not be able to have children right away. Don’t forget the five-year gap between active phases.”
That was true. Father and his long-lived direct male descendants, myself included, might well represent the next step in human evolution, but Mother Nature gives and Mother Nature takes away. In simple terms, we only have normal fertility for about six months every five years. Angelina, we had determined, represented the female side of that next step, in that she only became fertile in a similar timeframe.
“Yeah,” I said, “and time will tell.”
“In any case, the boys will get a kick out of it.”
“Speaking of the boys,” I said, “are you ever gonna give some serious thought to having offspring of your own?”
“Babe, we’ve had this conversation countless times. My brothers are breeding like rabbits, so the Rosati name isn’t gonna die out any time soon. Besides which, I just don’t feel that particular urge. As far as I’m concerned, the triplets are as much mine as they are yours.”
“No argument there. Tell me again when we’re expected in the park?”
The complex of buildings in which we lived were adjacent to il Castello d’Aragoni and were collectively referred to as il Castello, even though they were several hundred years newer than the medieval castle nearby, which tourists paid a modest fee to tour. The castle complex sat in several acres of parkland and was in turn surrounded by walls, with the city of Aragoni spread out beyond the walls on all sides.
“The party starts at eleven, followed by a picnic-style lunch.”
“Have you checked the weather?” I said.
“It may be spring, but the mean elevation of the plateau of Aragoni is four thousand feet, so it’ll be a bit cool.”
“I was thinking about rain, fool.”
“Oh, that. There’s a twenty percent chance of rain.”
At the appointed time, Dani and I (with Lucia’s help) gathered up the tribe and carefully strapped a harness around each boy’s upper body before we headed for the elevator. We were each carrying one of the boys, but when we got to the main entrance of our building, we secured leashes to their harnesses and allowed them to walk on their own, subject to the restraints of the leash each of us held. Our building, one of three identical multi-story structures, dated back a couple of hundred years. In addition to apartments, the three buildings housed the administrative offices of the Aragoni Group and all of its many subsidiaries. They stood side by side, somewhat to the rear of il Castello d’Aragoni, the medieval castle—which was why the group of buildings comprising the castle complex were collectively referred to as il Castello. My father lived in a fourth and somewhat smaller building behind the three. The particular area of the park we were heading for was about a hundred yards from our building and contained a playground area for kids. When we arrived, there were already a dozen or more rug rats on the swings and slides and other equipment, so we unhooked the leashes and allowed the boys to join the fun, monitored closely by Lucia.
As we stood watching the boys play, I looked around the park. Dani and I had lived in Aragoni for more than four years and we still knew very few people—mostly because we were away two, sometimes more, weekends every month. We spent a weekend every month at my grandmother’s villa in Tuscany, visiting with her and my mother. Another weekend was devoted to a visit to Conti, where I, in my capacity as il Conte di Conti, had duties and obligations. Once in a while my grandmother came to Conti for the weekend when we were there, which spared us the obligation of a trip to Tuscany. I was startled out of my reverie by a familiar voice.
“You look lost in thought, Squirt.”
“Hey, Gert,” I said. “You’re absolutely right—I was totally lost in thought.”
Gertrude McClanahan had been persuaded at the time of the triplets’ birth to leave semi-retirement in Boston and take the job of head nurse at the hospital in Aragoni where I worked. She had begun calling me “Squirt” during my residency at Mass General some years before.
“Deep thoughts?” she said.
“Hardly that. I was just reflecting on the fact that after four years, Dani and I still don’t know very many people here.”
“How could you?” she said. “You’re gone so much, and when you’re here you’re tied up with the kids. Kids do that to you, you know.”
“There speaks the voice of experience.”
“Damn straight. Been there, done that, as the young folks say.”
I spotted a familiar couple coming toward us and said, “Here comes the instigator of all this merriment with his bride-to-be.”
“They make a nice couple,” Gert said.
“You don’t think the Duke is too old for her?” Dani said, joining the conversation.
“For the man to be twenty or so years older isn’t always a bad thing,” she said.
Gert, if only you knew. I wonder how you’d feel if you knew my father’s true age?
“You think?” Dani said.
“Yes, I do,” she said.