Drooping with exhaustion, too limp to open our mouths for a bit of accommodating conversation, Egon and I are driven to the wedding reception.
“Don’t fret, my dear. You’re a clever girl. You’ll sort it out,” Leo’s breeding takes over his blues. He cups his hands round mine and gives me a stimulating wink.
“One short appearance at the banquet and the parade is over. Who could blame us if we retire in good time to change for our wedding trip? I have a brilliant idea, Irene! Why won’t you take the occasion to drop in at Milan’s and prove him your marriage-defying love? A month isn’t all that long and, in case you really can’t survive, you may always invite him for a flying visit to Venice, possibly accompanied by Bessie to play it safe.
-Discretion is the best part of valour-, used to be my foolish father’s watchword. And had he stuck to these principles he’d still have the ball at his feet. What a lovely foursome we’ll make,” Leo chatters. Evidently Bessie failed to tell him about Milan’s unfeeling behaviour.
‘If only Milan could have understood that marrying Leo I am saving our love!’ I sigh, sorry for me, sorry for Milan and sorry for Leo who married me willy-nilly, being too much of a sissy to fight his way out of the wedlock.
‘Presently, I am losing Beda! Shall I ask the driver to turn round and catch up with him on his way to the airport, disregarding the fact that this move would mean kissing Milan good-bye?’
“Don’t despair, my sweet spouse! It breaks my heart to see you heartbroken for having taking the plunge with me. Believe me, pet, you could have chosen worse. We two will have some fun and games together! As Milan’s wife you’d be bored to death the very moment he’d fail to perform his magic tricks night in, night out. You’d let him fall like a hot potato and the poor boy would never recover from his fall. I’m fairly sure he can accept our marriage if you explain to him right. And you’ll live happily ever after.
“As to Beda, he hardly qualifies as your potential husband. Certainly you’ll agree with me, won’t you? By the way, that boy definitely needs a tighter leash! It is way above my head why he can’t suit himself on the quiet without shouting his love-songs from the rooftops and, especially not, from the choir of a medieval church? Why won’t your minstrel reserve his impressive declarations of love for “The Flaming Heart” wooing you without causing a major scandal? Right?”
“Wrong. Beda quit “The Flaming Heart”. His plane is about to leave for New York. Is it so difficult to understand that he took his right to take leave of me in his own way?”
“Great! That’s the best solution for all concerned. Beda’s unfortunate habit of getting drunk as a fiddler and giving the show away is a genuine time-bomb. I beg you, Irene! To make love to you overtly at our wedding! Don’t you think he went for once too far? Thanks God for an anonymous city where his infatuation with you won’t stick out like a sore thumb! How often he sees you there will depend only on you.
“Here we are! Say “cheese” before going public. Let’s start our common life on the right foot. Well done, my lovely! Here goes the bride!”
We enter the magnificent banquet hall under the sparkling light of the huge crystal chandeliers bringing out the appeal of the well-suited young couple and win the unanimous applause of the cheering crowd. I give a long, affectionate smile to my strikingly perfect husband and take a seat to his right to preside over the reception. I feel at ease in this luxuriant setting, at peace with myself and the world. Toasting Leo with champagne, I begin to see the silver lining of my cloud. Abloom in my extravagant euphoria, I brace myself up for the blissful moment when Milan will hold me once more in his arms. He can’t spurn me! I am his life! Isn’t taking him on my wedding trip, OUR wedding trip, proof enough of my love?
Drunk on my certainty that to get Milan back is only a question of a short time, I put my arms about Leo and kiss him.
“Let’s cut the wedding cake,” he frees himself from my embrace, visibly embarrassed by the overflow of my feelings.
He leads my hand while we cut the cake into neat, regular slices and pass them around. I can’t help being sorry for Egon who upset the apple-cart and will be short of his piece of pie. Contrary to what he had thought there wasn’t enough of me for all, eventually.
“Gnadige Frau is asked on the phone,” the pageboy tells me discreetly and my wild heart starts thudding in my mouth: it’s Milan! To swear me his love!
I push Leo aside and dart forward. Reeling at the very thought of Milan’s husky voice, I stagger to the phone on my neck-breaking high stiletto heels, not giving a damn about the ominous crack of the ripping silk of my wedding dress.
I grab the receiver dying for Milan’s “I love you, babe!”
“You bloody murderess!” Bessie screams with rage and pain, “Milan is dead! Be damned!”
The ear-piece plummets from my hand and thuds against the wall, a clod of earth hitting a coffin.
Cold sweat trickles down my spine. Raging bells are tolling for Milan. Dazzled by the blood-soaked afterglow of the vanishing sun, I collapse backwards.
“Drink it up, Irene!” Leo is pouring brandy down my throat.
“Don’t explain. I listened in. Believe me, Irene, I am sorry. Strangely enough, I had a great sympathy and respect for that foolish boy. I’m taking you home.”
Leo encircles my waist and gives me support, leading me to the champagne-coloured Ferrari the doorman brought in.
Hollow like a rotten tree I sit bolt upright by Leo.
Milan is dead. DEAD! Another four-letter word! A snappish word! I hear the snip of Parsee’s scissors cutting the thread of Milan’s life in two halves. Two halves of one death we have in half-share.
Milan is dead. My loss is too big for words.
Milan is dead. I am free.
I gave my lover away to decipher the riddle: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM IS LOVE.