Maggie Davis/Katherine Deauxville

Masquerade book cover

MASQUERADE

CHAPTER ONE


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As the gondola approached the Cervoni bridge, four figures stepped out of the shadows. For a moment they looked, by the flickering light of their torches, like robbers and cutthroats. Or worse.

Zeika leaned forward in her seat amidships, trying to see. The gondolier was not certain, either. "Attenzione, signorina," he warned. "Do not say anything."

The boat slid closer and they saw the men were young, rather good-looking, their cloaks tossed back to reveal gaudy tunics that were open to the waist, showing bare, muscular flesh down to the navel.

Gregorio snorted. They had already passed through the raucous Ponte di Tette, where Venice’s ladies of the evening sat in the windows of their houses displaying their bosoms — called in the Venetian dialect, "tettes" - for prospective customers. The gondolier was conveying that as far as he was concerned, enough was enough.

The gondola slowly approached the bridge. In the darkness there was expectant movement, a sudden gleam of white teeth, a flurry of hands. Gregorio shouted a challenge or a warning - Zeika’s knowledge of the Venetian dialect was too sketchy to tell. The riffraff on the bridge answered with jeers and catcalls. They had glimpsed Zeika’s silver gown under the long black cloak of the domino; the tall one with stringy blond hair cooed something seductive down to her. The others laughed. Then as one the four men loosened the fronts of their pantalones and dropped them to their knees.

Zeika stared upward, the hood of her black cape falling back, as the gondola glided the few feet to the bridge. All she could think was that she hadn’t had such a view of male nudity in years, and then it had been children - her little brothers. Now, by flaring torchlight, there were four eye-popping displays above her. They were truly impressive. She was too surprised to laugh.

They had seen her face as the hood fell back. She heard their gasps. Then quick, rapturous cries of "Signorina, signorina!" "Delicioso!" "Bellissima!"

The one in the bright-colored harlequin shirt leaned over the parapet to shout in Italian, No price, signorina, angel of my heart! One night of my best love without charge for someone as beautiful as you!

The gondola was at the bridge. In the next moment they slid into inky blackness.

Zeika grabbed the cloak’s hood and pulled it down over her face. The rich appointments of the gondola and what could be seen of her costume had apparently made the four ruffians on the bridge think she was someone older and wealthy, perhaps a Venetian lady seeking the sort of anonymous adventure only carnival could bring. But this encounter did not seem a good omen for an evening that was already full of dangers. The gondolier, Gregorio, had not been amused. The boat had rocked as he lifted the long oar out of the water to brandish it, narrowly missing the bottom of the bridge.

Now, in the dark, they could hear footsteps running above them.

Zeika sat back, hoping they were safe. In the canals the walls of the houses were joined together like the sides of fortresses. It was doubtful a call for help would be heard. Or that anyone would come to their aid if it was.

They glided out from under the bridge and Zeika quickly turned to look back. The young men were still there, trousers lowered and what they offered for sale still very visible. But they seemed to have forgotten it, for they tossed flowers at the gondola, some falling into the boat at Zeika’s feet. The bella signorina was so lovely, they called, that if she came back they would make good an offer of a night of love free of charge. Choose any one of them. Just come back.

Gregorio shook his fist at them. Between strokes of the oar he bent to scoop up roses and sprays of jasmine and throw them overboard, growling that the Venice police were needed to rid the city of this offensive filth, this human manure that accosted young ladies on their travels about the city and subjected them to degenerate views of their naked, polluted flesh. The youths on the bridge continued to catcall until they were out of sight.

Zeika still wanted to laugh. But she knew Gregorio, a gypsy like herself, would take a dim view. Her uncle’s orders were that she was to be treated as a young English lady like her school friends who had invited her to Venice. She was obliged to act the part.

Still, the sight had been unexpected. Even by torchlight one could see the young men wore rouge, and paint on their eyes, and the blond hair was probably a wig. They were ready for anything. Or anyone.

In the depths of the black cloak, Zeika grinned.

Away from the bridge the looming walls of the canal were so close one could almost reach out and touch them. It had been a long trip from her uncle’s shop on the northeast side of the city. Here in the deepest part of the old quarter there were rows of torches put out on the walls for public lighting by the owners of the houses whose noble names were on the faded coats of arms: Orseolo, Foscari, dagli Paglia, Sansovino. Somewhere in the walls they could hear voices, curses, something breaking, then melodious singing. A mandolin tinkled.

Zeika gave silent thanks that her uncle employed Gregorio, who had lived all his life here and knew where he was going. All was so black in these watery tunnels you could almost believe you were drifting over the waters of a fourteenth-century city, and not Venice in the modern age of 1820.

The young men on the bridge were still in her mind. She tried to remember what the word for them was in the Romany language, and could not think of it. Not that the idea was impossible - that is, Gypsy men offering themselves to gadjo women. Some of her tribe, of which her father was a leader, boasted there was nothing the Hobsons would not do for money. She had heard him say that, many times. Usually just before beating her for being stubborn, and difficult to train.

Thinking of it, she sighed. Her rebellious nature had not kept her from being in Venice now to do what her father — and all the Hobsons who had sold their treasures and invested their precious money, including her grandmother — had prepared her to do.

It had not been her desire to be sent to an English girls’ school, her father had thought of that. It was his plan to make his oldest girl, Zuleika, not just another clever gypsy pickpocket, lifting wallets and gold watches at English country fairs, but the schoolmate and friend of young heiresses. The goal? To pass for a lady, daughter of a wellborn family, and be a prime asset to the family business of burglaries and jewel thefts. It didn’t matter that Zeika wept, and vowed that she would never, never go away to a fancy gadje school. As he beat her, like a good gypsy father, Miko swore that by God, he would see to it that she would!

Behind her, Gregorio called out that they were entering open water. In the Grand Canal the wind was strong, and the waves choppy. Zeika put her feet on the rail at the bottom of the gondola, and gripped the arms of the chair. She was discovering she was not fond of travel by boat or being out on the lagoon in one, especially at night. Venetians, she had observed in the day and a half she’d been there, jumped in and out of their rickety boats like fleas, none of them apparently worried about falling into waters that were as murky as English farmer’s drainage ditch.

As the gondola bounced across the main waterway she tried not to think about the possibility of drowning in Venice on a cold March evening during Carnival, and tried to concentrate on their destination, the palaces lining the Grand Canal. It was plain why Venice was called the Queen of the Sea: the churches and palazzos built level at the water’s edge seemed to rise straight up out of the waters of the lagoon. The guidebook that her friend Audrey had gven her said that the city had been settled on some small islands in the Dark Ages by people fleeing the mainland of Italy to escape invading barbarians. The refugees, safe in the shallow Venetian lagoon, built houses and eventually mansions on dirt fill and pilings driven into the sand, making the place into a great city.

The night vista of Venice was that of hundreds, thousands of lights placed on every available building. Gondolas with bobbing lanterns at the prow looked, against the reflecting waters, like handfuls of scattered diamonds. Noble Venetian families sponsored fireworks; there had been some just the night before as her friends were returning from a rout at the Ca d’Oro. The brilliant rockets over the black lagoon had only added to Venice’s air of somewhat treacherous unreality.

Gregorio rowed the boat into a large wave. "They were nothing, those canal rats back there," he called. "You don’t want to think about them. Think about this evening, what your uncle wants you to do. This job."

Zeika shook the water out of her cloak and settled back in the chair. Ahead of her, Venice sparkled in the night. This scheme of her family’s had spoiled her holiday; she’d hardly had time to see Audrey and the rest.

She had come by ship from Dover to Genoa, and then by coach to Venice. But her arrival had been late, almost two weeks after Audrey had opened her villa on the Grand Canal. Her friend Isabel Penrose had joined Audrey not long after. Now Pamela Shay — dear Pamela, the warm, wonderful friend a gypsy girl like Zeika never dreamed she would have - had arrived this past week. Audrey had been right, bless her, there had been adventures, but Zeika knew she would never catch up. It looked as though the best part of their Venetian holiday was going to pass her by.

At first she had hoped it would all be as Audrey Graystone had promised. The guidebook had pointed out that although Venice would never again see the years of its greatness, the Napoleonic wars were over, and Europe was making the city a famous playground. Even the exotic cities of the Far East could not match the Queen of the Sea for gambling, horse racing at the Lido, concerts and the theater, the crowds of entertainers that thronged the streets. At the great masquerade balls that continued through the night and into the day, kings and commoners alike were equal - and unrecognized.

"Dear Zeika," Lady Audrey had written, "it will be a holiday one can never have in England, no matter how grand our own dear country’s attractions. Venice at carnival time offers unrivaled adventure - if you can believe such a thing for four former schoolmates from Miss Greenaway’s Select Seminary For Young Ladies! (Of course we are the ones who were found out and punished for putting salt in the sugar bowls at the vicar’s high tea. And the affair of the dead mouse that some how found its way into Miss Greenaway’s reticule — the less said about that the better!!) Of course, we are too old now at the advanced ages of twenty two and twenty three (with one of us, alas, already married and widowed, poor dear)for such adventuresome things. But since I have opened the Graystone villa and am now overseeing, through my agents in the city, its cleaning and refurbishing, I can only say — let us try!!!! What a wonderful thing it will be, to have all of us together after so many years - has it been as much as three — perhaps four?!

"You must come, dearest Zeika, and join us in Venice! Does your mind not fill with visions of delightful pastimes? Sweet friend, you were our most courageous and daring; you will have to provide us with some of the same spirit when we present our invitations at Count Dante’s Palazzo Bottini for the famous masquerade ball! They say only the most dangerous people in all of England and Europe are invited, as for instance Lord Byron, who loves Venice for its many opportunities to be wicked.

"Zuleika, tell your aged auntie that she must permit you to leave her side for this stay with your friends who love you dearly. Explain that she must relax her strict rules of decorum, for your affectionate friends cannot have a fortnight of Carnival in Venice without you!"

It was signed Audrey, Lady Graystone.

There was no aged aunt, of course, that was a fiction Zeika had kept up all through school. And although she wasn’t interested in the daring adventures Audrey hinted at - her own life had enough by some standards - she longed for the company of her friends. She had never forgotten the stolen hours after midnight at school, sitting up drinking tea and solemnly talking of the future, and the men they hoped to fall in love with and marry. She’d always hoped somehow to regain that closeness, but it looked as though this holiday in Venice was not going to be that way. Her father and the thieving tribe of Hobsons had seen to that.

There was an armada of gondolas in front of the Palazzo Bottini. and the competition so great to discharge passengers that a small riot had broken out. As Gregorio steered toward the entrance Zeika saw Count Dante’s servants take to the palazzo’s own boats to try to impose order. The passengers, all elaborately costumed and masked, were nearly as quarrelsome as their servants: they hung over the sides of their vessels, shouted curses at the other guests, poked them with canes and even swords, and urged their gondoliers to try to ram them. No one in Venice wanted to miss Count Dante’s masquerade, for it was the most important event of the year.

A gondola glided alongside and a huge footman in the red and yellow Bottini livery gestured to them. Muttering under his breath, Gregorio steered between two boats.

There would be only a few brief minutes at the landing. Zeika pulled the heavy black domino from her shoulders and folded it and stuck it under her chair. The light of the lanterns swinging on the gondolas around them caught her silver costume with it’s beads and glittering paillettes and turned it into shimmering fire.

There had been long arguments among the Hobsons about Zeika’s dress. Whether it was best to try for something hard to remember, like a simple black robe and mask, or a costume so typical of Venice at carnivale that it would blend into everything.

In the end, a certain vanity prevailed. Call it Gypsy pride, Miko had said. A lot of money was spent at one of the best costumers in London for a garment with a huge farthingale in the style of the last days of the Venetian Republic - a glimmering confection with panniered skirts to conjure up the legendary Enchantress of the Crescent Moon. Her dark hair had been lightly powdered and dressed in imitation of the antique wigs of some twenty three years ago, curls adorned with silver ornaments, and topped by a circlet with standing crescent with equally fake diamonds. With all this Zeika wore a black patch in the shape of a heart at the corner of her lips, and a silver-gilt mask that covered her nose and eyes.

There was no doubt about it, the costume was a success. When she discarded her cloak there was a stir in the gondolas around them, followed by a murmur of appreciation that could be heard even above all the mayhem.

It was going to be the devil getting out of the boat, but the cage-like farthingale had a purpose. She stood, bracing herself with her hand on the back of the passenger’s chair as Gregorio moved the gondola up to the landing at the Palazzo Bottini. Crowds of torch-bearing servants rushed about to assist guests in cumbersome disguises. Someone dressed as a lobster with huge stuffed red satin claws lost his balance and very nearly fell back into his gondola; only split-second efforts by his gondolier and two footmen saved him.

Zekia lifted her heavy skirts and stared doubtfully at the strip of water, but Gregorio secured the big oar in the stern and appeared beside her to help. With her free hand she dug in one of the pockets hidden in the farthingale, and brought out a long chain such as Venice boatmen wore, with the gold medallion of Saint Mark, patron saint of the city, attached. As two Bottini footmen reached to help her, she handed it to her uncle’s gondolier.

"I had to keep my fingers from stiffening up," she explained.

"I didn’t feel a thing." He broke into an admiring grin as he slipped the chain over his head. "Very good - from around my own neck, too!" Then he boosted her up out of the gondola and into the servants’ hands. "Good luck, bellissima signorina," he whispered.

She was going to need it.

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