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original prologue

the king of the winter

"Enough!"

Isabella came to an abrupt halt and released his hand. She was breathing heavily; her gown's tight bodice and long skirts were designed for elegance, not running.

"Where are you taking me?"

Caleb's only concern had been to escape the milling revellers choking the Piazza; hand in hand, they had careened through the shadows of the narrow back streets. Now he had little idea where they were. The mist had thickened noticeably, adding to his sense of disorientation.

When a heavy-set man appeared out of the murk, Isabella immediately moved closer, perhaps fearing an agent of her husband or a cutthroat with an eye for her jewellery. However, the man hurried past without raising his eyes. Expensively gowned women with snow-white faces and leering gold-toothed harlequins were seemingly not worth a second glance in the quiet back alleys of Venice.

"Well, are you going to answer me, Signor Harlequin?" Isabella demanded once the figure faded back into the fog, "Or are you really a mute?"

Caleb hadn't spoken a word to her all night and saw no need to change the rules of their game now.

The hood of Isabella's cloak had slipped while they'd been running; beads of moisture glistened alongside the strings of pearls artfully worked between her dark curls on gossamer threads of gold. Instead of answering the question, he gently pulled her hood back up.

He let his fingers run across the masque covering her face, unblemished white, save for blood-red lips and the studded lines of semi-precious stones forming arched eyebrows, giving the masque an expression of perpetual faint surprise.

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 keep moving, albeit at a more sedate pace. Isabella resisted for only a moment before gathering up handfuls of her skirts.

"I really do not know why I agreed to this..."

Caleb, however, knew well enough; she was rich, beautiful, and bored. A state of affairs that often led to decadence and debauchery. They were playing a game, nothing more, like cards or dice, just more rewarding. Fortunately, he was fond of games, and rich, beautiful, bored women tended to be the most profitable ones in any town.

The sound of lapping water came from between two towering townhouses, and he directed her towards it. Timeworn steps fringed with moss led down to a backwater canal.

They did not have to linger long before the bow of a gondola emerged from the mist. The boat carried no passengers, and the gondolier steered his vessel alongside the couple.

Caleb held Isabella's hand and helped her aboard before whispering a destination in the gondolier's ear. The man nodded, his face as expressionless as his passengers' masques.

Once settled beside Isabella, she drew closer, her perfume overpowering the ripe scents of the canal. He glanced up at the gondolier, but the man focussed only upon the water and the rolling mist as he pushed the boat back out onto the water.

When he put an arm around Isabella, her cloaked head soon fell to his shoulder. They slipped past the brooding canal-side buildings in silence, the few burning lanterns dimmed and consumed by the mist, their glow reduced to fuzzy refracted halos.

And so, their game continued...

*

 

By the time Caleb had arrived, the Piazza was already packed. 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 as if nature herself disapproved of the frivolous, foolish Venetians and their excesses.

Women wore billowing gowns of silk, satin, velvet and lace. Hair, natural and false, twisted, teased and littered with jewels that occasionally glittered 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 and folklore. Others dressed as beasts; the stylised heads of lions, dragons, wolves, rams and bulls were all visible amongst the revellers.

Man, woman or beast, each face hid behind 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, while others fully covered their faces, only sparkling eyes visible 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. Still, he might as well have saved his money, for he recognised her immediately. Despite the flocks of Venetian ladies in their elaborate disguises, none carried themselves quite like Isabella did. Every gesture constructed with a haughty confident grace, every turn of the head, flick of a wrist, each lingering look conveyed the same message.

I am beautiful. I am desirable. I am perfect. You may not have me...

Caleb, however, knew a body could lie just as easily as a tongue.

Once he found her, he stood transfixed as couples spiralled around him, the only point of stillness in a restless gaudy sea.

The man she danced with wore a tawny half masque lined with golden fur above thin pale lips. 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 sparkled behind his masque, little else did. His every movement was a clumsy, awkward stutter in the shadow of Isabella's grace - a marionette with tangled strings.

The man was not her husband. The Count was out of Venice, and Caleb hoped his young wife intended to enjoy his absence to the fullest.

Waiting for the music to end was exquisite torture. He ached for her. He was so close to finding out if he had been fooling himself these past months, seeing encouragements where there had been none.

Part of him wanted to flee; no harm yet done. He could still turn away. There were strumpets a plenty in Venice; bored wives and lusty daughters abounded. He could take his amusements from easier game, but at that moment, he was besotted with Isabella, and when he found himself so ensnared by a woman, it was impossible to do anything bar pursue his fancy.

Whatever the consequences.

When the music finished and the other dancers politely clapped their appreciation, she noticed the figure in the harlequin suit and grotesque masque staring at her. Or at least admitted to noticing him.

She thanked her partner for the dance with the shallowest of curtseys. The man returned the civility with a deep bow, but the eyes behind the white masque had already moved on to 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 grown tired of, or one that had climbed long and hard upon the ladder of her affections and now deserved reward?

Caleb offered his hand. 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 heat of the man's eyes as his thin lips spat out words instantly lost to the music as they span away from him.

She did not speak a word during the first dance. When the music finished, he half expected to be passed over in favour of another suitor, but she 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 rest of the world.

"You dance well, Signor Harlequin," she said eventually. The masque muffled her voice, but it was familiar enough for his heart to pound faster.

It really was her...

He 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?" Isabella asked, her tone light and playful as they danced.

Caleb shrugged regretfully and threw his head to one side as he spun the young woman around.

"Alas, a tragedy! You should have been more careful where you left it, Signor Harlequin. Pray tell, how do you intend to entertain and amuse a lady with no tongue in your head? Do you know party tricks, perhaps?"

Caleb nodded.

"With cards and balls and coloured scarves?" she stifled a mock yawn, "I should warn you; I have seen many a man's trick, Signor Harlequin. I am infamously hard to please."

This time Caleb shook his head slowly.

"Coins and trinkets disappear in your hands? Pretty white doves pulled from empty hats? Sweetmeats conjured from behind my ears?"

He met each suggestion with the same slow shake of the head.

"Oh, do tell! How can you possibly entertain a lady with neither tongue for wit nor tricks for amusement?"

Still dancing, Caleb came closer, lowering his face towards hers until the point of his masque's crooked, oversized nose was touching hers. She neither flinched nor pulled away, dark eyes fixed on his from behind her porcelain face.

He lowered his head, so the tip of his masque's nose slid down hers until it found the flesh of her exposed neck. Throwing his arms to either side for balance, he bent his knees and moved lower, all the time keeping in step with the dance. She seemed to shiver 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. Caleb continued the downward movement until it concluded in a deep and elaborate bow, which he held whilst looking up and holding her gaze. She stood above him with her hands upon her hips as multi-hued couples spun around them, a kaleidoscope of colours in the mist. Her masque was as expressionless as ever, but the eyes behind it were laughing.

"You are a scoundrel, Signor Harlequin! You obviously do not know who I am, or you would not treat me so crudely!"

Caleb shrugged 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 shook his head again.

"Of course," she 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?"

Behind the harlequin's leer and protruding tongue, he smiled. She was following where he led far more quickly than he could have hoped.

"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 leant 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 a sea of dancers with unchanging expressions until they found sanctuary beneath the arches of one of the arcades facing the square. Other masqueraded figures were already taking advantage of the conspicuous lack of candles and lanterns. Couples held hands and whispered to each other from behind unmoving lips; propositions were being made, liaisons arranged, and pleasures discussed within the sanctuary of the shadows.

"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..." she said once they'd found a suitably dark spot far enough away from the other couples to ensure they would not be overheard.

"Are you certain you want to play?"

Caleb leant in as close as the tongue, nose and chin of his hideous masque allowed. Her perfume was rich and intoxicating, dulling every other aroma around them, even the rich, moist smell of Venice herself; that mix of water, stone and corruption that flavoured every inch of the city.

Caleb raised his hand and, one by one, extended three fingers.

"Very well." Isabella snapped open a fan, "Just three guesses?

Caleb nodded.

"And if neither of us guesses correctly?"

He wiggled all his fingers.

"We wave goodbye... well, that would be safer for both of us."

Caleb shrugged.

"I shall go first."

He leaned against a column while she glided around him, eyes moving up and down. She paused halfway around her third orbit of the column. The dark jewels behind the white masque 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?"

After a significant pause, he shook his head.

"A pity, he is almost as pretty as I."

She returned to stand before the harlequin, head raised to meet his inspection, hands curled primly together before her waist.

"So, Signor Harlequin, who am I?"

He lent more flamboyantly against the column, crossing one ankle over the other. He first scratched 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 chided, eyes darting back towards the Piazza.

He lifted his index finger heavenward before patting down his suit and producing a small fold of paper from a concealed pocket. He handed it to her with an elaborate bow.

"You are well prepared, I see," she laughed, accepting 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 crumpled the paper and tossed it away before smoothing down the front of her dress.

He threw his hands in the air in mock surprise.

Isabella returned to her pacing, circling the column again as her fan swished 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, he shook his head.

"Oh well," she turned to look out over the crowds, "I really have no need of fabulous gifts to win my affections, although..." she looked back over her shoulder significantly, "...they do always help."

She 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?"

He raised an empty hand, which he held out and waved slowly before the tip of her masque's nose, her eyes following the movement until he clicked his fingers, the snap loud enough to make her blink.

In that instant, another slip of paper appeared for her attention.

"You may be able to produce scraps of paper from thin air, Signor Harlequin, but can you conjure my name?"

She plucked the paper 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 entirely inappropriate arse. Your taste is not improving, Signor Harlequin," she 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 muttered, "despite my husband's renowned temper and jealousy, I have so many suitors! 'tis 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 think money can make up for lack of breeding," she ran a hand lightly across Caleb's chest and down his left arm, "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 lifted his hand and turned it palm upwards, "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 pulled him nearer, close enough for her 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 he curled an arm around her corseted waist and held her fast. She did not resist.

"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 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 and so boorish. Perhaps you are the Viscount Roxford? I understand he is both soldier and rogue..."

Caleb once more shook his head.

"Then you have one final guess, choose carefully, Signor, else I will have to return to the dance and chance my hand with another suitor."

His hand left her ear, and between its fingers, he held a third piece of paper. This one he unfolded himself before holding it up for her to see. Her eyes hovered over the name written there 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 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 unfolded the note.

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 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 the night away 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 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?"

He nodded slowly.

Behind the porcelain white masque, he fancied Isabella was smiling.

"Oh good..."