The Opposite of Popular

The online home of alleged author Victoria Leybourne

2016 Week Thirty-Four: An Excerpt


I started my new job this week. It’s awesome so far but I have met ALL the people and learned ALL the things and I’m tired now so I thought I’d be lazy and share an excerpt from Venetian Masks, the Beauty and the Beast retelling of which there has been so much talk (by me). This is the very first scene (at the moment). Warning: contains meet-cute, dubious taste in masks. I’d love to know what you think!

Book cover - Venetian Masks by Victoria Leybourne. A swirly font for the title and a contrasting one for the author name and subtitle: "a beauty and the beast retelling". There is a watercolour painting of a gold mask decorated with pink flowers in the middle.

Venice, 1752

The shutters on the little window clattered open in a puff of dust and Faustina Casanova leaned out, helping herself to a few lungfuls of night air. Sounds of celebration wafted up from elsewhere in the palazzo and the surrounding San Marco streets but the canal below was still and serene. It would have been a very pleasant view, for someone with time to enjoy it. To Faustina, however, it was a problem. She hadn’t realised quite how high up she was.

Moreover, it really was a very small window. Faustina, who was tall and not particularly narrow, didn’t much care for it, and was drumming her fingernails thoughtfully against the wooden frame as she cast about for alternative options. None presented themselves. The room was not a large one and, being situated on the second floor and towards the unlovely rear of the house, had very little to offer the would-be escapist. The door would have been an obvious choice but she had ruled that out early in the proceedings by locking it between herself and the palazzo’s owner: a large, angry senator who was not at all pleased with her. She had gathered from his remarks, during a brief chase, that he was aware that she had a quantity of his personal property stashed about her person and was eager to reclaim it. By force, if necessary.

Craning her neck, she peered again at the moonlit canal below. She could probably survive the drop, but that didn’t quite seem good enough. She had always been something of a perfectionist where her own survival was concerned.

The hammering on the door was intensifying. She thought she heard something give.

“Open this door!” bellowed Senator Sourosin. “When I get my hands on you, thief, I’m going to rip you into pieces and throw what’s left of you into the canal!”

Faustina raised dark eyebrows, crinkling her forehead behind the satin mask that covered the upper half of her face. “That’s an enticing offer,” she shouted back, “but I think I prefer the door the way it is, if it’s all the same to you.”

Ignoring the response – which, in any case, was more of an incoherent roar than anything intelligible – she looked out of the window again, then contemplated her gown. She hadn’t come dressed for burglary. The original plan for the evening had been to slip unnoticed into the rather splendid Carnevale ball the senator was holding downstairs, help herself to food, drink and perhaps a few dances with anonymous strangers, then slip back out again. For that purpose, this pale blue silk gown, liberated from a dressmakers’ earlier that week, had been perfect. But, as the evening had worn on, she’d happened to spot an unguarded staircase, then an unguarded doorway, an unguarded jewellery box and one thing had led quite naturally to several others.

She heard footsteps and more voices beyond the door, then a couple of very meaningful blows with some hard implement. The wood began to split.

The time for hesitation had passed. Bunching up her ample skirts as best she could in one hand, she scrambled up onto the windowsill. She paused there for a moment, hunched like a gargoyle and contemplating human mortality, then began to haul herself through the window: out and up.

The window frame held tight about her hips, as she had anticipated, but, with concentrated effort, she managed to wriggle through. With both feet now on the windowsill, she reached up and managed to gain purchase on the sill of the window above. Inside, she heard a final, decisive crash and the door disintegrated. It was now or never. Mustering all her strength, she held fast to the upper window, lifting first one foot and then the other on to the decorative stone ridge that arched over the window she had climbed out of. Below, Senator Sourosin thrust a red face out into the night.

“Get back here!” he screamed. It wasn’t much of an invitation.

The shutters of the window above were open. Faustina caught hold of the inside of the window frame then, in a last burst of energy, kicked away her perch on the lower window and threw herself through the new one, landing in an undignified heap on the floor. She had secreted some of the jewellery in the top of her dress – another decision she might have made differently, had she known what the immediate future had had in store for her – and some of it spilled out onto the floor. She scooped it hastily back up before scrambling to her feet.

This room was a bedroom, mercifully unoccupied. She didn’t stop to admire the decor, preferring instead to make briskly for the servants’ staircase, which she had taken the precaution of locating earlier in the evening. It was a cold, bare-stoned affair, seemingly interminable, and she lamented the wear on a rather fine pair of satin slippers as she raced down it. She readied a palmful of coins as she neared the bottom. These she slipped into the hands of a surprised manservant somewhere in the vicinity of the scullery, pressing a finger to her lips to indicate that his discretion would be appreciated. From there, it was a relatively simple matter of slipping out via the side door and blending into the crowd beyond it.

And when Venice did crowds, it did them properly. Everywhere Faustina looked she saw people: twirling, laughing, dancing people, their lurid costumes seeming to glow even in the grey moonlight. The clothes were overshadowed only by the masks. Every face she saw was artificial. Some were beautiful constructions in silk, lace and feathers, others stark and unadorned. The wearing of masks was permitted in Venice throughout Carnevale and embraced whole-heartedly by the populace. Just about everyone could find some use for anonymity.

Despite the peril from which she had so recently extracted herself, Faustina couldn’t help but smile a little. Carnevale. She had been feeling it all day: the change in the city’s rhythm. Venice overflowed with life and beauty even in her darkest times but she was always at her best during the carnival season. From now until Shrove Tuesday the streets and canals would be flooded with colour and celebration, the people at once concealed and conspicuous in their magnificent disguises. Under these circumstances, no Venetian could pity herself too greatly. Indeed, by the time she had traversed Rio de San Moisè and was approaching St Mark’s Square, Faustina felt almost elated.

She knew now that her disappearance was complete. She couldn’t have stood out here if she’d wanted to. The Square was the beating heart of Venice, the place all the people, colour and intrigue flowed to and ebbed from. Here, the power and splendour of La Serenissima – the Serene Republic of Venice – could be seen in their most concentrated form. To the east, the opulent Basilica pushed domes and spires up into the sky, so rich in gold and jewels liberated from distant lands that it had earned the nickname Chiesa d’Oro: the Church of Gold. It was crowned by a winged lion, the symbol of the republic, picked out in bright relief. To the south of the Basilica, overlooking the smaller Piazetta and the Grand Canal, stood the Doge’s Palace: the seat of power in the city, built of arches upon arches in the fusion of eastern and western styles that made Venice unique.

Though surrounded on all sides by immeasurable beauty and grandeur, the square itself still shone, owing to the vibrant swirl of people who met, talked and did business there. The numerous Carnevale celebrations being held throughout the city had long since spilled out onto the streets and now the square was a riot of human activity.

Faustina was still blissfully soaking up the atmosphere when roughly six-and-a-half feet of this human activity collided with her left shoulder blade. She stumbled, which loosened a bracelet from somewhere in the vicinity of her breasts and sent it spinning across the paving.

“I’m so sorry!” It was a man’s voice, deep and rich and smooth, and it belonged to the figure who now hastened to retrieve the bracelet and hand it back to her. “Here.” He spoke earnestly, which made the fact that he was wearing a mask in the stylised shape of a goat’s head all the more amusing. It began with a relatively understated nosepiece, sticking out just above his upper lip, but quickly became, somewhere in the region of the forehead, something rather less subtle. Two enormous horns spiralled out north of his ears and the eyeholes were deep-set, which no doubt affected his peripheral vision. Despite the collision, Faustina felt herself warming to him.

“Thank you,” she said, flashing him a smile. “And you’re forgiven.” She stopped herself just in time from returning the bracelet to her cleavage – a move probably calculated to cause, at the very least, a certain amount of bemusement – and slipped it on her wrist instead. It comprised two simple strings of white pearls, clasping a tiny but exquisitely-detailed cameo painting of a blood-red rose. A painter herself – when not busy with more nefarious activities – she was particularly impressed by it. Overall, it was quite an attractive piece, and she realised after a moment or two that she had been looking at it rather too long for someone who supposedly owned it. She glanced back up at her new companion, who was looking at her with gently-twinkling eyes. It was quite difficult to tell, under the goat mask, but Faustina had a lifetime’s experience – all twenty-one years of it – of guessing at the handsomeness of faces half-hidden by masks, and his square, set jaw and smooth, full lips suggested that he might also be quite an attractive piece.

“Where were you going in such a hurry?” she asked him.

“I was on my way to meet someone.” He was looking at her so intensely that she was beginning to suspect that he was every bit as impressed by what he was seeing as she was. She doubted that her own, rather plain mask could be the culprit.

She narrowed her eyes a little, turning up the corners of her mouth in a teasing smirk. “Well, you met me.”

“Yes, I suppose I did.”

He smiled, lighting up what was visible of his face, and Faustina felt temptation claim her. This was Carnevale, after all, where indiscretions could be as indiscreet as you liked and anonymity made anything possible.

She took a chance. “I suppose you wouldn’t like to meet me again in about five minutes? I know a wonderful little place nearby.” It wasn’t so much “wonderful” as it was “a place where one could dispose of stolen jewellery for a fair price”, but Faustina preferred not to linger over these minor details.

“I’d like that very much.” It really was a spectacular smile.

“And I further suppose,” she went on, “that you wouldn’t like to walk there together?”

“I respectfully disagree,” he said, and he offered her his arm.


6 thoughts on “2016 Week Thirty-Four: An Excerpt

  1. I don’t see any problem with the masks, since some of the mask worn in masked balls and the like can get really weird and crazy sometimes. Plus, it’s your book, and the masks can be as creative as you like.

    The piece as a whole is enjoyable: the descriptions are detailed enough so you can easily picture what’s being described while at the same time not over-doing it on the details, and the writing style and pacing makes it a comfortable read with a pace that keeps you interested while still giving you time to get to know Faustina and her world. If it continues like this all the way through, I think the book will make a great read.

    In case you missed it, you need to fix this part: “drumming her fingernails thoughtfully against the its wooden frame”


    • Oh, I’m secretly very pleased with the mask – I had a lot of fun dreaming up the costumes in this book!

      I’m glad you liked it, and thank you for reading! I’ve fixed the typo now – it’s amazing how they manage to stay hidden until you show your work to other people…


      • You’re welcome. Also, I agree regarding the typos… They’re sneaky little things sometimes! I swear there’s a typo fairy who sprinkles your work with typos after you’re done, just so she can have the pleasure of giggling about it when readers spot them.


  2. I enjoyed this excerpt very much! ^_^ Definitely enjoyed this escape scenes more than the others I read. I was able to follow exactly what was going on without getting confused…(Or it might be the fact I’ve read tons of versions of this scene already! XD )

    I did have two bits that confused me a little. Just a little. One: the coins she gave to the servant – was she carrying coins with her just in case she needed to bribe someone, or did she manage find some of the Senator’s coins and steal from him? (I ask because is she able to afford bribes, or are bribes like a necessary expense of her trade?) Two: “a move probably calculated to cause, at the very least, a certain amount of bemusement” – this sounds like she was thinking about returning the bracelet to her cleavage just to confuse him and then decided against it? Am I getting that right? Or was it that she was doing it subconsciously but then stopped because she realized that it would look weird?

    My overall impression though is that it ended way too soon. Maybe that’s what you were going for 😉 . But if this were a chapter on, I’d say that I’d definitely want more for it to be a satisfying read 🙂

    (IDK if this is an entire chapter or not, but it feels like it’s either two chapters, or it a small part of a much larger chapter. I’m not sure if that even made sense. But anyways, when I’m reading a book, I don’t really care to notice chapter demarcations as much, so I probably wouldn’t even have noticed!)

    But I would kinda hope to get a little bit more of their “Hey Stranger” conversation. XP


    • Yay, I’m glad you liked it! I do feel like this escape is a bit easier to follow – although you’re right, you’ve read so many of them now that you know what to expect!

      In my mind, she was carrying the coins expecting to have to bribe someone, the implication being that this sort of stuff happens to her so often that she always has to be ready. But obviously that needs to be clear from the text and it wasn’t clear to you! I don’t want to labour the point, since that’s just a quick aside, but I might get another opinion or two and maybe just cut that line out if other people are confused, so thank you for pointing it out!

      Re: the second line, would it be clearer if I changed it to “a move probably LIKELY to cause…”? The idea is that she was about to put it back where it came from, then realised that that would be weird (and raise some questions!) so she changed her mind.

      To answer your chapter question, this would probably be where I’d end a chapter on (because of the length, which is ~1800 words, and because after this I change scenes to the two of them in a pub) but it wouldn’t be the whole chapter in the book. So that’s where that exchange ends, but there’s still another scene of them together on this evening before EVENTS HAPPEN. Does that sound okay to you?


      • The coins: Yes, I figured that’s what they were for. I was trying to read as if for the first time, and I think that might have confused me. But this one was a very minor point, really.

        A move calculated: Yes, definitely, the use of “likely” instead of “calculated” makes all the difference!

        In the pub: Yes! I definitely felt like this chapter needed to go on a while longer to include a scene in the pub. I think I would’ve been disappointed if we cut to the next chapter “the next day” for instance.


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