Venice – 1706
Isabella released his hand and abruptly came to a halt. She was breathing heavily; the tight bodice and long heavy skirts of her dress had not been designed for running.
“To which disreputable place are you taking me?”
Caleb’s only concern had been to drag Isabella away from the milling crowds of the Piazza; they had careened through several streets and now that they had come to a rest Caleb realised he had no idea where they actually were. The evening mist that had earlier crept in from the lagoon had thickened noticeably, adding to his sense of disorientation.
When a heavy set man appeared out of the murk Isabella moved closer to Caleb, perhaps fearing it was an agent of her husband’s or a cut throat with an eye for her jewellery. However, the man hurried past without casting them a second glance, as if expensively gowned women with snow white faces and leering gold-toothed harlequins were common sights in these quiet little back alleys.
“Well, are you going to answer me Signor Harlequin?” Isabella demanded once the figure had disappeared back into the fog, “Or are you really a mute after all?”
Caleb hadn’t spoken a word to her all night and he had no intention of changing the rules of their game now. The hood of Isabella’s cape had slipped down while they’d been running; beads of moisture glistened in her dark hair, alongside the strings of pearls that had been artfully worked between her curls on gossamer threads of gold. Instead of answering her question, he pulled the hood gently back over her hair.
He let his fingers run across the masque that covered her face; it was pure unblemished white save for small blood red lips and the studded lines of semi-precious stones that formed perfectly arched eyebrows that, to Caleb’s mind, gave the masque an expression of perpetual faint surprise.
It was said that she was so beautiful that not even the most broken and heartless of men could fail to fall in love with her if she bestowed but a single smile upon them.
What pretty words men give to their lusts, Caleb thought and although part of him wished that such a thing might be true, twenty years following the road had taught him differently.
Well, I shall make you smile for me my pretty and then we shall see…
Caleb mimicked pressing the lips of his own hook-nosed masque together to remind her that this harlequin could not speak, before gently taking her arm and insisting they kept moving, albeit at a more sedate pace. Isabella resisted for only a moment before gathering up handfuls of her skirts and doing as he urged.
“I really do not know why I agreed to this…”
Caleb knew well enough why she had left with him. She was rich, beautiful and bored; a combination which often led to decadence and debauchery. They were playing a game, nothing more, like cards or dice, but far more thrilling. Fortunately he was fond of games and he’d always found rich, beautiful and bored women to be the most profitable game in town.
From between two towering houses came the sound of lapping water and he led her towards it. He was sure no one could be following them through the misty deserted streets, but he glanced back several times anyway as this particular game was a dangerous one. She followed without hesitation or question. Time worn steps fringed with moss led down to a backwater canal.
From the gloom came the sound of a boat creaking gently through the water and moments later the high ornate bow of a gondola emerged from the mist. The boat carried no passengers and the gondolier nodded his acknowledgment at Caleb’s signal, manoeuvring his vessel until it was alongside the strangely dressed couple.
Caleb held Isabella’s hand and helped her aboard before whispering a destination in the gondolier’s ear. The man’s face was as unmoving as his passengers’ masques as he nodded his understanding. He pushed off once Caleb had climbed aboard and settled beside Isabella. She drew close to him, whether for warmth, comfort, protection or desire he could not tell, but the feeling of her so close, her perfume strong upon the damp air, thrilled him beyond care. He glanced up at the gondolier, but the man was solely focussed upon the water and the rolling mists.
Caleb slipped his arm around Isabella’s shoulders and when she made no protest he held her close, her cloaked head soon falling to his shoulder. They slipped silently past the brooding canal-side buildings, the light of the few lanterns that burned were dimmed and consumed by the mist, their glow reduced to fuzzy refracted halos.
“What a hideous thing,” she whispered as she run her gloved fingers across his masque.
The right half was black, the left white; its lips curled back in a grotesque leering grin to reveal teeth painted with gold leaf from between which a garishly pink tongue protruded. Both the nose and chin were monstrously long and crooked; while a spray of black and white feathers fringed the masque. He wore his own hair, dark and long; he hadn’t used a wig since he’d left England half a lifetime ago.
He was dressed in a harlequin’s suit, alternate squares of white silk and black satin; each patch stitched to the next with expensive silver thread. He’d always felt drawn to the harlequin, the figure in a play none of the other participants could see; a man who wasn’t really there at all.
The masque was expensive, but Isabella was right, it was ugly. Only a confident man would choose such a disguise, one who was not claiming to be rich, handsome or powerful; all that he had to offer was displayed in the masque’s carnal knowing leer.
It had been enough for her to notice him.
The piazza had already been packed by the time Caleb had arrived. A thousand candles vainly battled to illuminate the revellers, but against the night and a soft veil of mist that had rolled in from the lagoon, they offered only a wan diffuse light. The mist crept slyly across the square, muting the extravagant colours of the dancers; almost as if nature herself disapproved of the gaudily dressed Venetians.
Women wore billowing gowns of silk, satin, velvet and lace. Hair, real and false, had been twisted, teased and littered with jewels that occasionally glittered bright in the candlelight. The men were no less extravagantly attired, in their suits of many colours and powdered wigs. Some figures might have been of either sex, the shape of their bodies lost beneath the baggy dress of clowns, jesters, fools, characters of myth, history or folklore. Others dressed as beasts; the stylised heads of lions, dragons, wolves, rams and bulls could all be seen amongst the revellers.
Whether dressed as man, woman or beast, each figure wore a masque of elaborate design, carefully made to conceal identities as well as to impress admirers and outshine rivals. Some wore half masques above painted mouths; others full ones that revealed only suggestive eyes behind frozen expressions.
It had taken a sizeable bribe for Isabella’s maid to divulge details of the costume and disguise her mistress intended to wear to the masquerade, but he might as well have saved his money for he’d recognised her immediately. Despite the great flocks of Venetian ladies in their elaborate disguises none carried themselves quite like Isabella did. Every gesture and movement was made with haughty confident grace, every turn of the head, flick of a wrist or lingering look conveyed the same message.
I am beautiful and you may not have me…
Caleb, however, knew a body could lie just as easily as a tongue.
Once he had found her he had stood transfixed as wildly dancing couples spiralled around him; the only point of stillness in a sea of movement and gaudy colour.
The man she’d been dancing with wore a tawny half masque lined with golden fur above a thin unremarkable mouth. His suit was of similar colour, lined with fur along the seams, collars and cuffs; he was one of many who had chosen a lion costume as it was the symbol of Venice. Although her partner’s eyes had sparkled behind his masque, little else did. Next to her graceful movements his body appeared awkward and hasty; a marionette whose strings had become tangled.
Whoever her dancing partner had been it wasn’t her husband. He was out of Venice and Caleb hoped his young wife was intent on enjoying that fact.
Waiting for the music to end had been an exquisite torture, he wanted her so much and now he was so close to finding out if he had been simply fooling himself these past months, seeing encouragements where there had been none. Part of him had wanted to flee, no harm had been done yet and he could still have turned back. There were strumpets a plenty in Venice; bored wives and lusty daughters abounded. It would have been so easy to walk away and take his amusements from easier game, but at that moment he was besotted with Isabella and when he became besotted he found it impossible to walk away; whatever the consequences.
When the music had finished and the other dancers politely clapped their appreciation, she’d seen him, or at least admitted to seeing him. As her fingers slipped from those of her partner’s hand she thanked him for the dance with the shallowest of curtseys. The man returned the civility with a much deeper bow, words forming on his lips, but the eyes behind the white masque had already moved on, examining the newcomer who stood watching her.
She tilted her head a fraction to one side, calculating, wondering, assessing. Perhaps trying to guess who this outlandish harlequin might be; a bold stranger or old lover? A pursuer she had long since grown tired of, or one that had climbed long and hard upon the ladder of her affections and was deserving of reward?
He’d offered her his hand and without hesitation she brushed past the lion man to accept it, silk dressed fingers caressing his as the musicians took up a new tune. Caleb felt the man’s eyes glower balefully at him as his thin lips spat out words that were lost in the music as they danced away from him.
She had not spoken a word during the first dance and when the music finished he had half expected to be passed over in favour of another suitor, but she had held on to his hand and declined a tall well-built man wearing a gold half masque and devil’s horns with a curt shake of her head. So they continued to dance in silence and time became as meaningless as the couples around them.
“You dance well, Signor Harlequin,” she’d said eventually. Her voice was muffled by the masque, but it was familiar enough for his heart to pound a little faster.
It really was her...
He’d lowered his head, slightly and momentarily, in deference to her compliment, but did not answer. His Italian had improved during his time in Venice, but his accent was still strong enough to betray him as an Englishman.
“Has a cat eaten your tongue, perhaps?” she’d mocked, her voice light and playful.
Caleb had shrugged his shoulders regretfully and thrown his head to one side as he spun the young woman round.
“Alas a tragedy! You should have been more careful where you left it Signor Harlequin; I am led to believe cats are very partial to tongue. Pray tell me, how do you intend to entertain and amuse a lady with no tongue in your head? Do you know party tricks perhaps?”
Caleb had nodded again.
“With cards and balls and coloured scarves?” she’d asked, her voice adopting a bored tone, “I warn you I have seen many a man’s tricks Signor Harlequin. I am infamously hard to please.”
This time Caleb had shaken his head slowly from side to side.
“Coins and trinkets disappear in your hands? Pretty white doves pulled from empty hats? Sweetmeats conjured from behind my ears?”
Each suggestion was met with the same slow deliberate shake of the head.
“Oh do tell!” she’d insisted finally, “how can you possibly entertain a lady with neither tongue for wit nor tricks for amusement?”
Still dancing Caleb pulled her closer, lowering his face towards hers until the point of his masque’s long grotesque nose was touching hers. She had not flinched or pulled away, her dark eyes fixed on his. He moved his head so the tip of the masque’s nose slid across hers until it found the flesh of her exposed neck. He’d thrown his arms to either side for balance and bent his knees as he moved lower, all the time keeping in step with the dance. She seemed to shiver slightly as the cold point of the masque’s deformed nose moved down across her chest and into the warm folds of her cleavage...
With a stifled laugh she’d stepped away and Caleb had continued the downward movement until it concluded in a deep and elaborate bow, which he held whilst looking up and holding her gaze boldly. She stood above him with her hands upon her hips as multi-hued couples whirled around them in a kaleidoscope of colours. Her masque was as expressionless as ever, but her eyes were laughing.
“You are a scoundrel Signor Harlequin!” she’d cried. “You obviously do not know who I am or you would not treat me so crudely!”
Caleb had shrugged apologetically as she returned to his arms, “I will have to find out your name, I am duty bound to report your behaviour to my husband and he will probably have you horribly beaten. He does things like that.”
He’d shaken his head again.
“Of course,” she’d sighed, “the masquerade has no names. One may ask, but one does not need to tell.”
Caleb nodded his agreement.
“Perhaps I can guess your identity?”
Although he’d shrugged nonchalantly his mouth had gone dry for she was following where he led far more easily than he could have hoped for.
“Of course if I am right, you will owe me a reward; a reward which will be… absolutely anything that I desire.”
Caleb made no response.
She lent closer to him, “Do not worry Signor Harlequin, I will only give your name to my husband if you displease me…”
Caleb raised his index finger and pointed at her. “Very well, if you can guess my identity I will owe you a favour... though how you can make a guess when you have no tongue, I cannot possibly imagine.”
Caleb led her through the sea of dancers with their bright vivid costumes and frozen expressions until they found sanctuary beneath the arches of one of the arcades that faced the square where there was a conspicuous lack of candles and lanterns. Other masqueraded figures already clung to the darkest pockets of the night, couples held hands and whispered to each other through unmoving lips; propositions were being made, liaisons arranged and pleasures discussed from behind the safety of darkness and disguise.
“This is a dangerous game Signor Harlequin; I was not joking about my husband. If he knew I was here he would have the arms and legs of every man I danced with broken… and you want to do much more than dance with me I fancy.” She whispered once they’d found a suitably dark spot far enough away from the other couples to ensure they would not be overheard.
“Are you really sure you want to play?”
Caleb leant in as close as his grotesque masque allowed. Her perfume was rich and intoxicating and it had dulled every other aroma carried on the still mist laden air; the stink of humanity that writhed around them, the scent of burning candles, even the rich moist smell of Venice herself; that mix of water, stone and corruption that flavoured every inch of the city.
Caleb had raised his hand and one by one extended three fingers.
“Very well.” She had replied, opening a fan despite the coolness of the autumn air. “Just three little guesses?
Caleb had nodded.
“And if neither of us guesses correctly?”
He’d wiggled all of his fingers.
“We wave goodbye... well, that would be safer for both of us.”
Caleb had shrugged apologetically.
“I shall go first.”
Caleb had nodded his consent and leaned against a column. She walked slowly around him; her eyes appraised him, moving up and down, almost wantonly. She had paused halfway around her third orbit of the column, her eyes never leaving him as she leant back slightly and asked, “Are you Antonio Calleri of Genoa, that scurrilous young man with the pretty blue eyes who has pursued me so diligently this past year?”
Caleb had shaken his head after a long pause.
“Pity,” she’d sighed wistfully, “for he is almost as pretty as I.” She had returned to stand before the harlequin, head raised to meet his inspecting eyes, her hands curled primly together before her waist.
“So Signor Harlequin, who am I?”
Eyes never leaving hers Caleb had crossed his legs and lent more flamboyantly against the column, he’d scratched first his head and then the bent upturned chin of his masque.
“Come Signor Harlequin, I fear I will miss all of my favourite dances,” she’d chided, eyes darting towards the piazza.
He’d lifted his index finger heavenward in apparent inspiration before patting down his costume and producing a small fold of paper from a concealed pocket, which he handed to her with an elaborate bow.
“You are well prepared, I see,” she’d chuckled lightly as she’d accepted the paper.
“Daniela Asconti! That unfortunate creature is as fat as a pregnant sow and fifty if she is a day! I am most certainly not that woman,” she’d discarded the paper dismissively before smoothing down the front of her dress as Caleb threw his hands in the air in mock surprise.
She’d returned to her pacing then, circling the column again her fan moving languidly before her face. “If you could be in pursuit of Daniela Asconti you must be a man of poor taste, but rich purse... the Marquis de Douraine is famed for his love of ladies of unsightly appearance and easy virtues, could you be he maybe?”
Again Caleb had shaken his head.
“Oh well,” she’d sighed turning to look out over the crowds, “I really have no need of fabulous gifts to win my affections, though...” she’d looked back over her shoulder significantly, “...they always help.”
She’d turned to face him once more, “Now let me hear your second guess, I trust it will be more flattering than the first. Who am I?” When she’d finally turned back to face him he’d raised an empty hand, which he’d held out and waved slowly before the tip of her nose, her eyes following the movement intently until he’d clicked his fingers with a snap loud enough to make her blink and in that instant another piece of paper had appeared for her attention.
“You may be able to produce scraps of paper from thin air Signor Harlequin, but can your magic conjure my name? Daintily she plucked it from his hand between her thumb and forefinger.
“Angelina Scaratti?” That woman has the manners of a donkey and the dress sense to match! Not to mention an overly large and quite inappropriate arse. Your taste is not improving Signor Harlequin,” once more she’d let the paper fall from her hand and watched it flutter to the pavement on the still night air.
“This is really most difficult,” she’d muttered, “despite my husband’s renowned temper and jealousy I have so many suitors, it is quite tiresome really, I doubt I could possibly work out who you might be in just three little guesses. Still, I will try harder as I do so enjoy a puzzle. You are a good height and build, not one of those vile little merchants who thinks money can make up for a lack of breeding,” she reached out and run her hand lightly across Caleb’s chest and down his left arm, her touch making his skin tingle beneath his tunic, “you have a good build, strong arms, no pampered prince I would say; a soldier perhaps? You move with grace and without hesitation, no callow youth are you Signor Harlequin. Your costume is well made, you must have a good stock of coin to pay for such extravagance, so you are no pauper...” she’d lifted his hand and turned it palm upwards to examine, “not the coarse hands of a labourer, though you would not be here at all if you were, but not so smooth that they have never seen a day’s work, you have spent time outdoors; not at all the hands of a courtier or ambassador. Nails cut neatly, but not buffed and pampered like some dandy; long sensitive fingers, like an artist’s, a musician’s or a... lover’s?”
She’d pulled him nearer, close enough for her large breasts to press against him, her masque almost touching his own as she looked up at him. “Such beautiful eyes, the darkest blue I have ever seen, like a clear winter sky in the mountains...”
She moved to pull away, but Caleb had curled an arm around her corseted waist and held her fast. She had not resisted.
“You are most bold Signor Harlequin; I owe you no favours unless you can guess my name remember?”
Caleb’s free hand slipped inside the hood of her cape, his finger running gently stroking the soft downy ringlets of hair before moving behind her ear and down the side of her neck and back again. She gasped, but her eyes remained locked with Caleb’s.
“You are quite the scoundrel Signor Harlequin; you take liberties! Surely only an Englishman could be so bold, or so boorish. Perhaps you are the Viscount Roxford, I understand he is both soldier and rogue?”
Caleb had once more shaken his head.
“Then you have one final guess, choose it carefully Signor, else I will have to return to the dance and chance my hand with another suitor.”
His hand had left her ear and between his fingers he held a third piece of paper. This one he unfolded himself, before holding it up for her to see. Her eyes had hovered over the name written there for a moment before returning to his, “You are talented after all Signor Harlequin, I am in your service... for this night at least. What favour would you ask of me?”
He’d pressed another note into her hand, his heart pounding with excitement for the chase would soon be done, one way or another.
“How mysterious...” she’d muttered, unfolding the piece of paper.
I ask the honour of spending this night gazing upon the face of the most beautiful woman in Venice.
“That is a dangerous request; my husband is a most jealous man,” she’d pressed the note to her chest and looked up through her masque with large beguiling eyes, “Although in all fairness I have to say he has every reason to be.”
Caleb held her hand and squeezed it into a fist around the paper.
“You could just ask to dance away the night with me, that would be safer, you could ask for a piece of jewellery as a keepsake, that would be more profitable, you could ask for a single kiss here in the darkness, that would be-“
Still gripping her hand he’d pulled her gently towards the nearest exit from the piazza.
“You expect me to go with you? You could be anybody; you could have some dark defilement planned for me once we are away from the crowd?”
The leering harlequin’s masque had nodded slowly.
They had moved out into the Grand Canal, its waters were choppier than the backwater they had emerged from and Isabella’s gloved fingers dug a little tighter into Caleb’s arm. Other gondolas cut through the mist, the gondoliers grunting single syllable acknowledgements to each other as they passed. Other huddled forms, small and distant, were being transported from some place to another. He did not care. They were engaged in other tales than his. He had thoughts only for himself and Isabella... and the pleasures he could take from her.
One part of him yearned to reach their destination and bring this particular game to its conclusion, while another wanted to stay afloat a little longer, for deep down he understood the chase was always sweeter than the kill. It would be glorious he knew, she was a great beauty and the tales of her skills and appetites were many, but afterwards, no matter what, there was always that faint sense of disappointment, that this woman, like all the others before her, would not quite live up to his fantasies, to his dreams, to his desires.
To his ghosts…
Soon enough they arrived at their destination. The building loomed darkly over their little boat, stone stairs falling from an unimposing wooden door to the canal, where water lapped over the lower steps.
Caleb helped Isabella from the gondola, taking care not to release her hand until she had climbed high enough for her feet to be on dry stone. He sprinkled a few coins into the gondolier’s outstretched hand, then a few more for the man’s discretion.
They entered the building and moved silently up the stairs, the old beams creaking slightly beneath their tread. No candles were lit, but enough light, softened and diffused by the mist, filtered through the windows for Caleb to find his way.
After climbing three flights of stairs she followed him into a room at the end of a short unadorned corridor, making not a murmur as he closed the door behind her and locked it with an audible click.
“You fear I will run away Signor Harlequin?” she asked, gliding across the room to the window, “when I am so completely in your spell?”
Caleb followed her, standing at Isabella’s side until her gaze returned from the shifting slivers of mist that curled around the dark waters of the canal. He held up the key between thumb and forefinger, slowing passing his other hand between the key and Isabella’s eyes. When the hand had passed the key was gone.
“It appears I am your prisoner.”
Caleb lit several candles in a simple wrought iron candelabrum. When he was done he turned to find Isabella still looking out of a window at the mist that pressed softly against the glass.
“The chill of the night blends well with the heat of the body, don’t you think?” she asked, undoing the catches and opening the window. She looked back over her shoulder at him before moving to the window on the adjacent wall and opening that too, the candles danced more urgently for a moment. Isabella braced her hands on the window frame and looked down towards the dark narrow alley that ran alongside the house to the Grand Canal.
“Too far to jump…”
Turning to face Caleb she allowed her cape to fall from her shoulders, leaving it crumpled and unwanted upon the floor as she moved towards him, “There appears to be no means of escape for me...”
Her shoulders were bare; the skin smooth and flawless. Caleb was sure it would feel like warm marble. If Michelangelo could have carved a figure from human flesh, then she was what he would have created.
She came to a stop before him, hidden face upturned, pupils wide, their inky depths capturing the flickering candlelight like fireflies trapped in smoke blackened jars.
“You wished to gaze upon my face?” her lips moved beyond her masque, “now there are no eyes to see me but yours Signor...”
Carefully he reached out, undoing the buckles that kept the masque in place; like a priest before some fragile relic, some rare material proof of his faith. For an instant he thought the face would turn out to be somebody else; the maid he had bribed so handsomely to reveal Isabella’s masquerade costume perhaps? Some whimsical trick to be played on yet another foolish suitor whose lust had consumed his good sense.
The unmoving masque slipped away to reveal the living features of the Countess Isabella Medina, the young wife of Count Marco, the closest advisor and confident of the Doge and most influential member of the Grand Council of the Republic of Venice; a man whose power and wealth was outstripped only by his jealousy and temper.
He had seen her before of course, at balls and banquets as he had established himself in Venetian society, the oldest son of an ageing English nobleman, a gentleman undertaking the grand tour before inheriting his father’s estates and the burdens of responsibility; a man partaking of the pleasures and sights of Venice, a man perhaps looking for a young wife to take back to the family mansion in England, but until then a man set on spending money and revelling in the decadence that was Venice.
They were the words that would have reached her ears. He was English, but as for the rest...
They had exchanged pleasantries and small polite conversations that none could query the propriety of, but glances had been exchanged, words were spoken that could have more than one meaning; propositions were discreetly made and quietly rebutted in the movement of a hand or the cast of an eye. Such was the game that was played with the Countess, for it was a game of rich reward and terrible penalties. It was a game that thrilled and scared him in equal measure.
The cool poised demeanour, the set expressions, never one thing nor, quite entirely, the other; the polite smile, the distant eyes. All were gone now, for she had removed not one masque, but two and he looked down upon a face as beautiful and desirable as any he could remember.
If there was a face anywhere in the world that a man could love, surely this must be it?
Well I shall make you smile for me my pretty and then we shall see…
The whole set of her face spoke of a confidence that skirted the edges of arrogance. Rich full mouth, curled into a smile that was both demure and knowing. Lips painted as red as those of the masque that he’d cast aside. Her nose was small, upturned, her nostrils flaring slightly as if she were somehow short of breath. Those dark eyes he had come to know so well, wide and beguiling; the round cast of her face still darkened to the colour of almonds by the Naples sun of her childhood, framed by the jewelled extravagance of her hair, piled atop her head save for a handful of fashionable ringlets that dangled around her ears and forehead.
They stood in silence; the only noise the distant sounds of the city that crept into the room along with the mist. Caleb savoured her beauty and the strange intimacy of examining her so closely, so unguardedly.
“I have granted you your wish Signor Harlequin,” she breathed, finally, “Do you still think me the most beautiful woman in Venice?”
The harlequin’s masque nodded firmly.
She laughed, tilting her head as she did from time to time, “A man who flatters so easily should not be trusted too greatly, in my experience.”
He lifted a hand to her face, softly drawing his fingers across the smooth soft flesh of her cheek that flushed to the colour of rust at his touch.
“I only granted you your wish of seeing my face Signor; once more you take... liberties.”
Caleb let his fingers fall away, but Isabella caught them with her gloved hand, “I did not say it was unpleasing,” she whispered, raising Caleb’s hand to her mouth and planting the softest of kisses upon his open palm, the merest brush of her lips upon his skin making him shudder ever so slightly, “you have beautiful hands...” her eyes rose above the hand she still held close, “...you may do with them as you wish.”
His hand returned to her face without further encouragement, tracing its outline with his fingers; they moved with slow meandering intent across her cheekbones, forehead, eyebrows, chin, along her nose, the arch of her neck and the soft flesh of her throat as if attempting to measure it’s dimensions, to understand the perfection, to find the signature of God on His creation.
Long ago his fingers had traced another’s face and ever since he had always felt the urge to explore a woman’s features with his fingers before bedding her, he wasn’t even sure why he did it anymore, whether he was looking for similarities or differences, but he felt compelled all the same even though the thrill was just a shadow of that first time, so many long years ago.
Caleb could feel Isabella’s heat warming his touch, stoking his desires. Her eyes were half closed by the time his finger moved lightly around the contours of her mouth. Isabella’s lips parted as she let out a barely audible sound that was no word and she took his finger into her mouth, her teeth gripping it as her tongue darted up and down its length; delicate, sensual and full of the promise of greater pleasures.
She let his finger slide from her mouth, warm and wet, “I wish to be kissed Signor Harlequin,” she murmured, “but your lips look so cold, so lifeless...”
He pulled her towards him, as close as the loops of her skirts would allow; the silk rustling against his legs. He could feel her corset beneath the dress, its whalebone ribs harsh and biting, constricting her breath to sharp, fast little gasps.
One hand rose to the back of her neck as he lowered the harlequin’s face to meet hers, pulling her lips towards the masque’s.
“You wish me to kiss this hideous thing,” she murmured, “to debauch myself so completely?” After a pause and a smile, which were both brief and fleeting, the Countess tilted her head so she could find the harlequin’s cold lips between his grotesque nose and upturned chin. Her kisses were wet and passionate upon the masque’s leering mouth as her arms reached past his shoulders, fingers entwining around the back of his neck. The sound of his own breath echoed inside the masque as his hands sought flesh.
She had given herself to the harlequin’s demands just as Caleb gave himself to his mindless lust and carnality. Her cries were loud and passionate as he took every pleasure he could find from her body, but the sounds were lost in the mist that shrouded the city almost as soon as they escaped the room’s open windows.
He awoke with a start; grey wet sunlight was pushing half-heartedly through the windows. Pity, he thought, he’d always liked the small, quiet hours of the night when the world was at its stillest and a man could take the time and space to think a little.
Isabella still slept with her back towards him. Her intricately coiffured hair had not survived their passion; the precise curls had collapsed into a riotous mess of hair and ornamentation that spread across the pillows. Caleb found he preferred it like that. She still wore the black satin blindfold he had tied around her eyes when she had insisted she needed human lips upon her skin.
She had giggled girlishly when he’d produced the blindfold, delighted that he would continue the game so diligently. Later the giggles had turned to gratified sighs as she’d arched her back and whispered to the ceiling, “Ah, so you do have a tongue after all...”
There had been something arousing and decadent in taking his pleasures while wearing nothing but that disfigured masque; the way she had kissed and touched it, treating it like warm living flesh rather than a mocking parody of it. The way it muffled and distorted his own grunts of pleasure, making them sound alien to his own ears, as if he were listening to some other man make love to the beautiful Countess.
His eyes turned to the floor and the discarded masque. The harlequin leered back at him, black empty holes where his eyes had stared down upon Isabella’s beauty; the thin light of dawn giving it an even greater air of malevolence. It was a face of dark wanton corruption.
Perhaps that was why he had chosen it, why he had been so precise in his instructions to the masque maker. Perhaps it was a face better suited to him than the one he saw in the looking glass. Perhaps it was the face he saw...
His spent lust had washed away the excitement of the chase, but its receding tide had left its mark upon his beach, depositing the jetsam and flotsam that hid in the depths of his soul upon the sand for him to see awhile; to stub with a booted toe and wrinkle his nose at the soft squelching noises they made, of the wet smell of decay and rottenness that fouled the air.
The feeling came strongest in the moment after the pleasure was spent and they clung to each other, both slick with sweat and spent desire. A faint feeling of unease, of wrongness that bordered on disgust; the emptiness of burned out lust, with nothing to fill the void his shuddering, jerking body had just created.
The brackish tang of disappointment.
He had pursued this woman for months, she had become besottment and had filled his time and soul to such an extent that any other pleasure became a cold, stale tasteless meal in comparison. Be it card or dice, ale or wine, courtesan or harlot, nothing could distract him from the singular pursuit of Isabella Medina. She became his temporary grail, and finding her would bring him, if not immortality, then at least some form of happiness; some release from his endless travels, some peace; something more than he had.
Perhaps something more akin to love, even something more akin to Henrietta.
He turned and slipped an arm over Isabella, warming himself on the soft heat of her back, letting her scents wash over him; perfume, sweat, sex. He buried his face in her hair and felt his lust rise again. As always, he had thought her the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, and that if he could possess her then all the sorrows and loneliness would be washed from him. As it had been before, so it was again. She gave him pleasures aplenty, but it was never enough.
If he pleased her sufficiently she would see him again, but despite her great beauty and her undeniable skills, it would be an exercise in diminishing returns that he would eventually tire of and discard when he next laid eyes on the most beautiful woman in the world or when the call of the endless road, which had for so long been his real mistress, became too strong to resist. Finding no comfort or rest, no peace like other men found in the arms of a woman.
None would know him or understand him, for he never stayed long enough. A wastrel and vagrant, a professional stranger moving from woman to woman for pleasure or profit; like the harlequin, he was a man who was not really there.
Or anywhere at all.
Caleb worked the buttons and fastenings of her clothes nimbly enough, he had more experience in removing a woman’s clothes than putting them back on, but he found the practice rewarding enough; he’d always found it a pleasure to bear witness to the intricacies of female dress. Besides, it would have been all but impossible for Isabella to struggle back in to her clothes unaided. The corsetry and supports, the hoops and padding, the sheer engineering involved in accentuating and refining that which was God given, but man sought to improve.
“You make a passable maid,” Isabella smiled, smoothing out those creases in her dress that were neither intentional nor fashionable with the palms of her hands, “are you equally skilled in the art of the coiffeur?”
Caleb shrugged apologetically.
“Never mind,” Isabella sighed ruefully, moving away to examine her ruined hair in a looking glass above the room’s mantle, “it is a small price to pay for your other skills.”
He watched her glide across the room, apart from a few misplaced curls she was once more the refined lady. In the cold morning air he thought he should feel somewhat foolish, dressed in only his unbuttoned shirt and the harlequin’s masque. However, he found himself becoming quite fond of his hideous masque, it made it easier to conceal all manner of things. He could see why the Venetians, with their decadent pleasure seeking ways, had become so in enamoured by them.
“The morning is still young,” she eventually declared, giving up all hope of shoring up the sagging piles of curls, “I am sure behind hood and masque my poor bedraggled locks will not be noted.”
Caleb placed her cape back over her shoulders, savouring the closeness of her scent and the softness of her dark skin one last time as he fixed the clasp in place.
“I am sorry I cannot stay longer,” she said, looking up at him was large and rather sad eyes, “my husband returns this afternoon...”
Caleb bowed his head in understanding; she needed to offer no explanation. He was surprised she had stayed as long as she had. He’d expected her to depart on the coat tails of the night rather than dally longer in bed for a little slow, gentle pleasuring. Still, he doubted the merchants, boatmen, wharfers and fishermen would pay too much heed to one rich woman sneaking home from another illicit liaison. Such things were hardly uncommon in Venice.
Finally she slid on her long gloves and allowed him to raise her hand to the harlequin’s lips a final time, “You play the game well Signor...”
Isabella moved towards the door, turning back when realising it would still be locked, “I take it I am no longer your prisoner... as much as I might desire to linger in your custody?”
Caleb smiled behind his masque and retrieved the key from his harlequin’s costume. As he slipped it into the lock, her hand gripped his wrist, “My current lover bores me, I have for some little while been seeking a replacement... you have pleased me greatly. I would wish to see you again,” she paused, her dark eyes fluttering almost demurely, “it is only fair that I should warn you that the position has... some risk attached to it.”
Caleb nodded. Her husband would, without doubt, have him killed should he learn of such a liaison; from what he had heard whispered about the Count he suspected it would not be an easy death either. Still, he had crossed that Rubicon last night. Thoughts of disappointments and emptiness were fading rapidly from his mind with the coming of the sun. His desire for her was a fraction less than it had been when her body was an imagined place rather than a real one, but so far it was only a fraction and the possibility of death seemed a remote and insignificant price to pay for such rewards.
“Do you wish such a thing?” she asked.
Caleb nodded without hesitation.
“Then let me see your face...” her hands reached up to remove the harlequin masque, “...Mr Cade.”
“You knew all the time?” he smiled, taking the masque from her hands and casting it aside.
“You believe I am so reckless I would really go off into the night without knowing who I was with?” she tutted, fingers caressing his cheek, her eyes impossibly wide and beautiful, “and you think my maids are so easily bribed they would take your money without asking my permission?”
“It is difficult to find honest servants I hear...”
“Difficult,” Isabella agreed, “but not impossible, even though your bribe was very generous.”
“I would have spent every coin I own if it would have bought me this night, ‘tis better to be a pauper who has known such as you, than a rich man who lives in ignorance of beauty.”
She laughed, averting her eyes for a moment, “Your flattery is quite excessive and unnecessary. I do hope you shall continue with it?”
“I have an almost endless supply.”
“Splendid!” She reached up and planted a kiss upon his lips, not hot and passionate, but fleeting and rich with the promise of those yet to come. Eventually her lips edged away a fraction from his as she placed her hand against his bare chest. Her eyes flicked to the locket that hung upon a short chain around his neck. A delicate oval of silver, it was clearly designed for a woman to wear.
“A keepsake from an old lover?” she asked, running a nail along it’s seam, there was a small catch on one side which would open the locket up, but before she could release it Caleb covered her hand with his.
“How mysterious you are,” she smiled, kissing him gently again, “I will have to discover all of your guilty secrets of course.”
“Of course,” he peeled her fingers from the locket, “but not today.”
“My maid will send word when it is safe for us to meet again,”
“You know where to find me?”
“But of course...”
“It would seem we are deceivers both,” he smiled.
“But I am a little more practised perhaps...”
Caleb doubted that very much, for his whole life was built on foundations of deceit, even Cade was not his real name, though he had used it for so long it felt far more comfortable than the one he had been born with.
“Soon...” she said, finally. Caleb smiled as their fingers entwined for a moment, before he turned the key in the lock and she slipped from his grasp. She left the room without a backward glance, leaving behind only the memory of her perfume and the lust that always rose within him when what he wanted was not at hand.
It was strange that doubt and regret rarely troubled him when he was alone. Only when passion was spent and the warmth of a lover’s body kept the night at bay did those particular demons come. There was a time when each conquest had left him elated, thrilled and satisfied to varying degrees. Only as the years passed had those feelings grown weak in the darkness, as if each ejaculation spat out another fraction of his personal store of contentment along with his seed.
Caleb rested his forehead upon the wood of the door, worn smooth by time and countless hands, listening to Isabella’s fading footsteps until they were gone and he could hear only the blood in his ears. Unconsciously he made a fist around the locket and resisted the urge to open it. Instead he thought of Isabella until his senses were consumed by his memories of her; lust and desire stirred inside him, two rapacious snakes waking to warm themselves in the morning sunlight. Soon all memory of doubt would pass and he would be planning pleasures anew. He closed his eyes a moment and wished they would wake quicker, for he drew comfort from their familiarity. He understood the world they made for him, base and crude as it was. Loneliness and longing for something he knew could never be his again were feelings he had no wish to endure.
He furiously played pictures of Isabella behind his closed eyelids; naked and honeyed with sweat, the sound of her hoarse laboured breath, it’s touch upon his skin, the words she used, the way her fingers moved, the roundness of her lips, the long elegant curves of her body, the entertainment he’d taken from her, the thrill of the illicit, of pleasures darkly taken, the power of corruption, the exhilaration of seeing something you wanted and being able to take it. A hundred thoughts and images he summoned; like a sorcerer upon a high tower, using mighty magics to create his world afresh, until the last vestige of doubt slipped away and all that was left were the memories of his amusements and the need for more, of what they would do next time, for when he met Isabella again there would be no doubts, no regrets, no bitter aftertaste to the sweetness. Only perfect pure unsullied pleasure.
He was sure of it...
“She’s a beauty that one,” a voice said from behind him. Caleb made no move to turn around for he knew well enough who it was and he had no care to see him, for it would only remind him how much time had faded both of them.
“She is that,” Caleb eventually replied, “as beautiful a woman as I’ve ever seen.”
“Is she more beautiful even than Henrietta?”
Caleb found his hand had curled around the locket once more, “Perhaps…”
“And what did you see when you made her smile,” the voice asked gently, “did you see anything at all? Did you fall in love with her?”
When Caleb said nothing the voice sighed deep and long, “You cannot keep looking for her forever.”
“I’m not looking for her,” Caleb protested, “I am well aware she is as dead as you are.”
“This isn’t what we agreed to, when we left England all those years ago you know,” the voice replied.
“Was it not?”
“We agreed we would take the opportunity we had been given to experience all that life had to offer, to take the thing she did to you and benefit from it, for both our sakes.”
“And have we not?”
“You have lived a life most men could only dream of, yet it has brought you no contentment. You still yearn for the one thing you cannot have, the one woman you cannot have. You look for her in every beauty you meet and when she isn’t there you fall to melancholy and despair. She is gone and you can never feel the way you felt about her again.”
“Nonsense…” Caleb muttered, “I have forgotten her utterly, ‘tis only you that haunts me.”
“Now you know you never could lie to me.”
Caleb turned abruptly, but found the room was quite empty.
“I do so hate it when you do that…”