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!
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.