Rome, Lazio, Italy
Operas were dangerous as it was. Nothing less was to be expected, with a hundred powerful vampires gathered so close together for two long weeks. And during this opera, less than a hundred miles away, two human armies fought one another in a war that had begun four and a half years ago.
But the vampires paid it little mind; William had lived through countless wars himself. He had fought in several, even had occasion to command armies. The human war was not of interest to him; the opera was a rare treat.
There was no talk of cancelling it. No thought was paid to deferring to petty human squabbles. The opera itself had been planned for decades, and the city of Rome was a perfectly safe place to be, even though war was raging in Anzio some fifty kilometres to the south.
William had chosen to attend the opera not just because he was a great admirer of the librettist, but because it afforded him an opportunity to meet with other popular members of high society. He had been isolated in Australia for some eighty years, and he wanted to reacquaint himself with the Europeans with whom he had close ties. No doubt they would be clamoring to meet with him; he held a kingdom that was known to vampires as New Holland . Consisting of approximately forty percent of Australia’s western land mass, it was among the largest held by anybody. Admittedly, its population was far smaller than some cities that were controlled by lesser vampires elsewhere; but he had always been fond of having control over large swathes of land, and there was more than enough food for him there.
He had checked into his hotel the night before the opera began. Such operas were so intricately plotted that many of their stories could not be told in anything less than fifty hours - and this one had been scheduled for seventy-five. The night porter had picked up his luggage - three more-or-less ordinary suitcases and six heavy wooden trunks that were anything but ordinary - and carried them, item by item, into one of the specially-prepared rooms that the hotel kept for the patrons that requested them. There was something about the night porter that intrigued William. The way he kept running his gloved hands through his thick black hair, hesitating before he spoke. William could sense an odd, generalised fear in him. He was disappointed that the hotel still discouraged feeding on its staff; he would have loved to become better acquainted.
Were it not for the opera, William may not have thought any more of the night porter. However, like all of his kind, William was a slave to fashion.
Halfway through the opera’s fifteen-day duration, William knew that it would be remembered for the ages. Its legendary librettist and composer had laid the groundwork for a beautiful tale, with hundreds of disparate elements coming together. The thread that William found himself drawn to was the story of a young vampire, some hundred years of age, who was pursuing the love of a human princess. Romances between vampires and humans were by no means unheard of, but it was a shameful secret of those that participated in it. It was the low-status sort of thing done by a young one who missed his old life, or - worse still - did not care for his reputation. No reputable vampire, especially one of such advanced age as William, would ever debase themself so.
It was revolutionary that such a relationship be included in an opera at all, let alone be a major element of one so prestigious. He eagerly participated in the discussion. The opinions varied. Some thought it was only sensible for a young vampire to bring himself into a powerful human political position and that the princess would be a pawn and discarded; others thought it was scandalous that such a relationship should be shown at all, and predicted it would end in tragedy.
William was a member of the cohort of the oldest vampires still living. In his time he had seen a great many of these performances, and had watched a great many trends in vampire society be born and die. The people in the audience speculating about the significance of the relationship with the princess seemed more excited than scandalised by it. And Vettori, the librettist, had a reputation as a trendsetter: an opera of hers had made the use of personal body doubles widespread amongst respectable vampires. Then, two hundred years later, a second opera had brought the practice into disrepute - a sign of earlier, less unified times. He thought back to his doppelganger, still hidden in a coffin in the basement of an Australian church. He had been caught up in it then, too.
William was coming to suspect that having a human lover would soon be in vogue. He had heard a human lover required a horrific combination of constant attention and patience: keeping one could well become a new display of extravagance. And vampires, who as a rule could afford most creature comforts, loved nothing more than austentatious gestures of luxury.
As he made the short walk back to his hotel, he imagined a rival Queen’s jealous glare if he visited her ten years from now with a human woman on his arm, fawning over him. He imagined how her Dukes and Duchesses would gossip amongst themselves, wondering what could be taking so much of their Queen’s time that she could not afford to win a human’s affections. He thought of how impressive his will, intelligence, and social integration skills would seem by comparison. He smiled as he crossed the threshold into the Albergo di Sole al Pantheon , thinking that the hypothetical Dukes and Duchesses might cede their allegiances to him, all over a human woman. He wondered if he might try to charm one.
In those early morning hours, the hotel front desk was staffed by the same night porter that had moved his luggage. Each time, the porter gave William a polite greeting in his heavily accented Italian. He had never thought it worth any acknowledgement.
But tonight, with his thoughts where they were, William couldn’t help but take note of the precise angle at which the night porter was wearing his hat this evening; the place he had rolled his sleeves up to, and the number of times he had folded each sleeve to do it. To a vampire, such aspects of attire were carefully composed, and each button, each fold, and each accessory added meaning to the outfit. If the porter had been a vampire, he would be signalling to a superior that he wished to discuss an allegiance. It was unambiguous. It was absurd; he had never heard of a human stumbling upon a coherent message like that. He wondered what reason another vampire would have to dress him up like this, to tell this message from a human’s point-of-view - and as humans went, this foreigner was as lowly as they came.
So this time, instead of continuing straight up the stairs, he paused at the desk for a moment and returned the young man’s greeting, meeting his brown eyes with a small smile.
William found himself hoping that the night porter himself had meant to signal him, rather than being dressed by another vampire like a doll. As he walked up the stairs to his room, William shook his head. Fashionable or not, it was a silly idea.
The next evening, after the opera, William approached the desk with purpose, despite himself.
“Good evening, sir.” came the porter’s usual greeting in heavily accented Italian. He seemed young; William guessed the short, clean-shaven man was about twenty. There was still that faint anxiety about him, which made him seem older. William wondered if it was just his presence or if he was like this with everyone.
“I would like to receive the daily newspaper.” William said, his Italian spoken slowly and clearly for the porter’s benefit.
“Yes, sir.” He grabbed a piece of paper from the table and began reading from it in his broken, laboured Italian. “Do you prefer the Corriere della Sera or…” He paused, concentrating, his tongue feeling out the words before he said them. “ Il Messaggero ?”
“I will have the Corriere della Sera. ”
“Yes, sir . ” He started writing something down in the hotel’s ledger.
“Where are you from?” William couldn’t help it. There was something odd about this man, and he wanted to find out what.
“Columbus, United States, sir.”
“Would you prefer that we speak English?” He switched to English, his speech fluid, but with an accent the porter couldn’t identify.
“Th-that would be very kind of you, sir. But no need to speak it on my account, sir.” He tripped up a little, the English syllables feeling rusty and strange after not speaking them in what felt like weeks.
“I’m Australian, so I would quite prefer it.”
“Ah. I thought I didn't know your accent. Sir.” He added hastily, remembering his choice of words. Learning Italian had forced him to overthink everything he said, so the English came out roughly. “There will be a newspaper left out the front of your room in a few hours." He forced a smile, making eye contact for just a moment.
As William considered his next course of action, he reached into his pocket with his gloved hand, fished out his coin purse and handed a few coins to the porter. Tipping was a rare custom, but it was not unheard of; and while the amount William gave the porter was generous, it was by no means extravagant. It was enough to buy the porter a modest lunch.
The porter looked at the money, almost confused. He hadn’t been tipped once since he had gotten to Italy. “Thank you, sir.”
William gave him a nod and started up to the stairs, wondering what it was about the porter that had possessed him to behave in such an impulsive manner. Like the rest of his kind, he only touched money - even money he knew was safe - when it was unavoidable. There were small dangers with doing otherwise, and over centuries, the smallest risks needed to be avoided. And yet he had given the night porter a tip. He shook his head, placing his hands in his pockets. It was that opera: not even over, and it was already putting ideas into his head.
Red smiled to himself as he pocketed the coins. After three months in Italy, three months of his new life, he was finally beginning to feel useful, appreciated. He was doing his best to be worthy of the job he had been so lucky to get. Even if it was mostly carrying luggage and arranging newspapers and taxis for people who needed them in the early hours of the morning, it was nice to be appreciated. It was nice to have something to do.
He felt uneasy about speaking to the Australian man in English. Although it had been months, he was still scared of anything that could draw attention - anything that could slip if he got too comfortable. How many Americans would be here, now, with the war going on so close by?
He habitually ran his right hand through his shaggy black hair. After being neglected all this time, his regulation hairstyle was almost unidentifiable. He wondered if he should get a haircut: perhaps an Italian barber’s expert hand might make him look less American.
For the next few evenings, when Red sat at the front desk, the Australian man greeted him politely in English whenever he passed by. Red found himself liking the attention, being acknowledged after feeling invisible for so long. Even though the invisibility was a necessity, he was lonely.
Then the Australian broke his routine: instead of arriving shortly before sunrise, he arrived not long after midnight, and approached the desk after the usual exchange of greetings. He stood about six feet tall, his posture impeccable, making Red think of a boy back home who had attended a prep school out of state. His curly blonde hair, sprinkled with grey, was cropped short. He looked to be about thirty, maybe thirty-five.
Red found himself less nervous than he had been the night he had ordered the newspaper. Perhaps it was because he knew there was no risk of him having to stumble through a conversation in Italian; or perhaps it was the slight rapport they had built.
“Are you able to assist me with something during your off hours?” The Australian asked.
“That should be no problem, sir.” Red replied. He had heard it was quite common for guests to request errands - deliveries, shopping trips, that sort of thing. Many of his colleagues had told him that they were often more lucrative than a full day’s wage; and he was not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially given his circumstances.
“Are you able to be at my room at eight o’clock tomorrow evening?”
Red nodded. He could easily find someone to trade shifts with. “Of course, sir.”
“Excellent.” The man paused, and held out his hand for Red to shake. “My name is Ryan. William Ryan.”
“Carlo Rossi.” Red lied, shaking the man’s hand. You couldn’t be too careful.
The next afternoon, as Red made the long yet familiar walk to the Albergo del Sole al Pantheon , he paid special attention to the sights that surrounded him. This city was old - far older than his native Columbus. He reflected, not for the first time, how strange and fortunate he was in all this; that despite the magnitude of his sin, he could make a living in one of the world’s greatest cities. And now one of the patrons had expressed an interest in giving him additional work in his time off. Red hoped it was the start of a long-term arrangement: he didn’t know when he might be discovered, might have to run again. He needed to save as much money as he could.
When he reached the hotel, he took a moment to appreciate his surroundings: he was in an ordinary piazza that contained the Pantheon, an ancient temple with a Grecian pointed roof and thick columns, and a grand fountain with an obelisk coming out of the top of it. He often reflected on the wonders of the city - wonders he knew he had not yet seen the tiniest fraction of. He was grateful that Hitler’s armies would not defend Rome, lest the ancient buildings be destroyed in battle*. If the Americans reached it, the German army would withdraw, offer no resistance, and allow them to take full possession of it. He was glad, not just that he was unlikely to see battle if he stayed here, but that even Hitler himself agreed that the piazza and the ancient building it contained were too beautiful to risk their destruction. It was a strange thing to have in common with the leader of the armies that wanted him dead.
The hotel itself was small: an unassuming, earthy orange building opposite the Pantheon. When he had started working there, they had told him that it, too, was hundreds of years old. He entered the small lobby. The building was lit with soft light, the smell of roses in the air. Behind the front desk sat Adelina, the concierge: a young woman with long, brown hair swept back into a ponytail. He gave her a nod and a small wave. She knew he was working on a special project for a guest.
Red climbed the stairs and approached William’s room. He hesitated at the door for a moment, nervous for a reason he couldn’t quite place. He gathered his courage and knocked, and a few moments later, William opened the door. He was not dressed in a suit this evening; he instead wore navy blue pants with suspenders, and a perfectly pressed white shirt that was just a little bit tighter than it should have been. He wore simple black shoes and thin white gloves.
“Good evening, Mister Rossi. Please, come in.”
Red sharply moved his gaze to William’s deep blue eyes.
“Yes, of course, sir.”
William shook his head as he closed the door behind them. “Please, call me William.”
Red smiled, sitting in the chair to which William gestured. “Of course, sir.” He noticed a thick, black curtain over the far wall where the window must have been. Many rooms had them; some guests were sensitive to being woken up early by the sunrise and specially requested them. He didn’t understand it himself; before he started working nights, he had always woken up with the sun.
The room was appointed with deep red wallpaper, and fine wooden furniture: a four-poster bed, a dressing table, a wardrobe, a wooden chair at a writing desk, and the upholstered chairs they were sitting in with a small coffee table. There were neat piles of paper and pots of ink on the desk, along with a lidless wooden box containing sticks of coloured wax. Finally, the far corner contained half a dozen heavy wooden trunks that Red had neatly stacked into two piles two weeks earlier when William had checked in.
“Can I provide you with anything? Water? Coffee?”
“That won’t be necessary, sir.”
“You need not call me ‘sir’, Mister Rossi.” William paused for a moment. “I was planning on getting coffee for myself. It will be no trouble.”
“Oh, in that case, coffee would be nice, s-” He stopped himself. “William.” Calling a hotel guest, let alone one that was giving him extra employment, by his first name felt out of the ordinary; but he was already coming to suspect that this was not an ordinary man. The excessive tip, his origin in a faraway country, and now his apparent disdain for formality, despite seeming to be old money... Red wondered what other strange habits he might have.
William picked up the phone and spoke in fine Italian. The blonde, blue-eyed man didn’t look Italian by any means, but he spoke it fluidly. Red wondered how an Australian could be so proficient; no doubt he’d had an expensive education.
“Now, I am sure you wish to know what I require of you.” William said kindly, sitting in the chair opposite Red.
“As you can see, I have several large trunks.” He gestured behind himself. “When I first arrived, they were stacked in two piles. Unfortunately, this is not the most practical arrangement if I want to use the things inside. I believe this room is sufficiently large to allow for all six trunks to be accessible, though it may require relocating some of the other furniture. I will also require you to purchase a seventh trunk, so that I may reorganise them.”
Red nodded. He had been expecting something along those lines, but was relieved all the same to hear it was a manageable task: manual labour was something he could do. The shopping trip would be harder, but he’d figure it out. “I can move the furniture right now. I can start looking for a new trunk tomorrow, if that’s alright by you?”
“There is no rush, though you are welcome to work through the night if that suits you.”
“Oh. Well, in that case, I might make a start on it now, and maybe come back tomorrow after lunch and finish up.”
William shook his head. “You may only be here after eight o’clock.”
Red nodded again. He had gotten used to Europeans - particularly Europeans rich enough to stay in nice hotels during the war. Working only nights barely even registered as odd at this point. “Sure, I can do that.”
There was a knock at the door. William answered it and was handed a tray with two steaming cups of black coffee. Their heady smell quickly filled the air. William placed the tray on the coffee table. He picked up his cup, cupping it in his hands, smelled it, and blew at the steam. Red smiled, took his, and sipped it. It was heavy and thick, with an earthy taste to it. It was very different to the thin, watery brews he had become accustomed to since the war began.
“Thank you, sir.” Red murmured.
“You are doing me a service. It is only fair that I provide you with some small comforts.”
Red nodded, trying to hide his surprise at being treated this way by an employer. There was a brief pause as he tried to work out where he should direct his attention. He looked at William, but was worried about staring. After glancing around the room again, he settled on staring at his drink.
William broke the silence. “What is Columbus like?” He asked, placing his drink back on the table. Red shrugged, taking another sip of the first good cup of coffee he had had in months.
“It’s nice. Very different from Rome.”
“Did you live there all of your life?”
He nodded. “Never lived anywhere else, until I came here. My mother moved there when she was very young.” Red paused to take another sip of the coffee. “What about you, if you don’t mind me asking? Have you always been in Australia, sir?”
“I was born there, though my parents were Irish.” He said, the lie practised. He picked his cup back up, and blew at the now diminished steam. “What brought you here?”
Red hesitated. He didn’t have a good explanation at hand. He had told others that he had been travelling, looking for his grandparents, and had become stuck when the war began. He had a feeling William wouldn’t believe him. William seemed to notice his hesitation, and gave him a kind smile.
“No need to answer. We all have secrets.”
Red nodded, relieved. “Thank you, sir.”
“Is there anything else you wish to know about me, or the work you are to do?”
He thought about it for a moment. Was there anything? Really? “No. Thank you, sir.”
“Excellent. Well, then, I suppose it is time we agreed on a price.”
“Well, I haven’t haggled for work before.” Red sat back in his chair, just in time to conceal the jerk of stiffening shoulders. He realised he couldn’t have been more obvious if he tried. He leaned forward to put his coffee cup down, suddenly self-conscious and fidgety.
William leaned forward, too. “I am not here to take advantage of you, Mister Rossi. Do you have a figure in mind?” He said with a small chuckle. He held his hand out to brush against the back of Red’s for just a moment in a comforting gesture.
Red hesitated again. Italians were very affectionate. Maybe Australians were, too. He didn’t want to draw attention to how odd it was to him, and especially not to the fact it had sent goosebumps up his forearm. He glanced up to meet William’s eyes, but immediately grew self-conscious and looked back to where his cup sat on the table. Red could feel his cheeks grow warm. He wondered what was coming over him.
“Er... The hotel is paying me one hundred and fifty lire each week, so...would three lire an hour be acceptable to you?”
“That will be fine.” William said immediately. “How long do you suppose it will take?”
“At least an hour, maybe two for the moving.” He shrugged. “I’ll have it done as soon as possible, sir.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” He smiled. “Thank you for your help.”
“Thank you for hiring me, sir.” He drank the last dregs of his coffee. “I can start right now, if that works for you.”
“That would be excellent. I have an appointment I must see to, and I expect to be gone for a while. If I have not returned when you are finished, please lock the door behind you.”
“I will, sir.”
Once left to his own devices, Red moved the writing desk, wardrobe, chairs, and coffee table to one end of the room. It made everything look far more crowded, but it meant that there was room for the existing trunks to be laid out, side-by-side, against the far wall, with room to spare for the seventh one that William had asked for. All in all, this took him only ninety minutes. When William had not returned half an hour after that, Red headed home. He didn’t want to overstay his welcome.
On some level though, he felt a little disappointed.