The water lapped against the gondola quietly as it slowly made its way deeper into the smaller canals of Venice. It was a warm night, and I was stifling under my mask and veil, but I refused to remove it, lest the gondolier see my face. I was the daughter of one of the most prominent men in Italy. It would be a scandal for me to be seen attending a "commoner's" party. I was also horribly disfigured.
We had reached a canal so narrow there was hardly enough room for the gondola. The dim, flickering light that came from the gondolier's lantern cast mysterious shadows on the grimy walls surrounding us, taking me back, many years before, to London on a foggy night.
I had been a young girl, still in school, when it had happened. I was taking a holiday with my mother to visit some of her relations in her native England. The night was dark and rainy. The lantern that the carriage driver held cast an eerie yellow glow on the fog.
We were nearly to the estate where we were to stay; we were only a few blocks away. The night was rapidly getting colder and the driver had urged the horses on even faster in anticipation of a glass of ale and a warm fire. The night was freezing, and some of the rainwater had frozen on the cobblestones. The horses slipped on a patch of ice, overturning the carriage. The last thing I remembered before the blackness was the sensation of flying through the air.I had awakened several days later in an unfamiliar room with a doctor leaning over me. I recognized a few of the people in the room as my cousins, so I deduced that someone had taken me to the estate. My mother was nowhere to be seen.
A few days later, after the doctor deemed me fit to travel, my father came and took me back to Italy. Without my mother.
I had survived the fall, but I was worse for wear. While I had escaped with my life, I had lost any resemblance of beauty. My nose had been broken, as had my right wrist. My arms and legs had a series of small cuts and bruises. Worse of all by far was my face. I had a long gash running from my eye to my jaw. It had healed, but not well, for there was a nasty scar.
My father had left me in the care of some kindly old ladies so he would not be burdened with raising me. They were nice enough, instructing me on how to be a proper lady, but they took me for a stupid child. I preformed well enough in my studies, meticulously but without passion, but they thought me ignorant. Many times when they thought me out of hearing range or asleep, they would cluck their tongues and comment on my appearance. "It's such a shame," they would say, "She would have been such a pretty girl, if it wasn't for that scar." These words hurt me more than any fall could.
"Signorina, we have arrived." The gondolier's rough voice pulled me from my reverie.
"Si, thank you," I replied in Italian. It wasn't the Venetian dialect that was common, but he could understand.
I slowly stepped off the gondola and onto the thin strip of walkway that lined the canal. I knew the water would barely come up to my knees, but I didn't want to risk getting the hem of my dress wet.
My dress, while extravagant, was not downright ostentatious. It was many layers of blue and green silk, tiers upon tiers of ruffles, and lace spilling out at the plunging neckline and sleeves. My mask was papier-mâché, sparkling in the dim light with hundreds of small precious stones, arranged in intricate patterns. A veil of blue silk covered the remainder of my face, leaving only my eyes to shine through.
I entered through a small doorway and was bowled over by the heat and the stench of many perfumed bodies. Laughter and music filled the air, and filled my heart with a joy that I hadn't felt for many years. The party had no theme; people came as peacocks and other birds of paradise, as historical figures, and as mythical creatures. The room was rainbow of colors.
Champagne and wine flowed freely, loosening up even the most standoffish of citizens. Normally taciturn people turned loud and loquacious.
I made my way across the room, and up into the next floor, where the dancing was. I vowed to forget of my duties, of my reservations, and of the arranged marriage that was soon to come. Tonight, for one night, I would be free. Walking to a nearby pillar, I observed the graceful couples dancing. They looked like figurines atop a music box.
One man in particular caught my eye. He wasn't dressed in much of a costume, just a mask that covered a bit of his face. I watched enviously as he danced with girl after girl, managing to look both elegant and masculine.
I lost sight of the man as he moved through the room. I searched for him frantically with my eyes, not wanting to lose sight of this mysterious person who had enraptured me so. Suddenly I turned, and he was beside me.
"May I have this dance, my queen?" he asked in an odd accent, which took me a few moments to figure out was French.
I looked at him, puzzled as to why he would call me a queen. I then realized that with my extravagant dress and elegant hairstyle that I must have looked like the French queen Marie Antoinette.
"Of course," I said, extending my hand. He took it, and led me into the center of the dance floor.
We dance, much more gracefully than I could have thought my gangly legs capable of. He led me flawlessly, looking more like he was floating than actually dancing. The music slowed, and he pulled me to him. I gazed into his eyes, all thoughts leaving me. It seemed as if we were the only couple in the room. My breathing slowed and my heart skipped a beat.
The music ended all too soon, and I expected him to leave me for another woman. To my surprise, he stayed by my side, preparing for another waltz. I smiled under my veil.
He danced with me for three more dances, before taking my hand and leading me out onto one of the many balconies. No others were around. The moon shined down at us, illuminated his face. He smiled at me, his teeth unnaturally white in light of the moon.
"Your eyes, they are like emeralds in this light," he said, brushing the back of his hand against my veiled cheek. My green eyes were the one thing that my mother passed on to me, and I was proud of them.
I blushed under my veil, "Thank you, signor,"
"Please," he said, taking my hands in his, "Call me Henri."
"Henri," I whispered to myself. I loved the sound of it. "That's a lovely name."
"May I ask yours, mademoiselle?" Henri asked, staring deep into my eyes. It felt as it he was looking into my very soul.
"Call me Elizabeth," I said, blushing under the heat of his gaze.
He looked confused. "That's an English name."
"It was my mother's."
We stayed silent for what seemed like eternities. It wasn't a strained or awkward silence, but we were simply enjoying the beauty of the night, and of Venice. I noticed the warmth of his hands on mine, and the sound of his gentle breath echoing in the still night air. The party was boisterous inside, but being on the balcony felt like being in another world.
Suddenly, surprising me, Henri removed his mask. I was struck by his gray eyes, the color of a stormy sea. He was so handsome. Immediately I felt self-conscious, as if I was not worthy of his presence. He was so beautiful, and I was so ugly.
I turned from him, trying to hide my tears. He put his hand on my shoulder, ever so gently, and spun me to face him. I looked from his straight, proud nose and unblemished face to his long curly hair, and his strong body.
"I—I'm sorry," I said, enraptured by his splendor.
"Don't be," he whispered softly. He moved his hand to caress my face through my veil. I leaned into his touch. His hand moved down my cheek and jaw to the edge of my veil. When he began to remove it, I put my hand over his, stopping him.
"No," I said quietly. I didn't want him to see my face, especially after I saw his exquisiteness.
Henri looked confused for a moment, but merely shrugged. Then, taking me utterly off guard, he kissed me through the silk of my veil. My eyes opened wide for a moment, in shock, but I closed them, and embraced him.
The kiss lingered longer than I expected. I could feel his breath on my face, and the scent of his cologne overtook me, making me feel weak. Finally, he pulled away, staring into my eyes. I was almost disappointed when his lips left. I wanted the kiss to last forever, until we were both old and gray.
I looked over his shoulder, at the horizon. It was getting lighter, as the night was slipping away. One by one the stars winked out, leaving only the lightening sky, moment before dawn.
"I must leave now," I said huskily. It hurt me to have to leave him, as it was possible never see Henri again.
"Will I ever meet you again?" he asked, as if reading my thoughts.
"I don't know." I didn't. Soon I would be back at my father's estate, and Henri would be back in France.
He only shrugged, and kissed me once more. "We will meet. I will search for you."
I nodded, and walked around him. I looked back to find him staring off into the sunrise. The party had died down, and most of the people had left. A few were passed out drunkenly on the floor. I giggled at the sight.
Reflecting over our conversation and kiss, I made my way down the stairs and out into the early morning. My gondola was waiting, with my gondolier asleep inside of it. He woke up as I stepped daintily into the boat.
"How was your party, signorina?" He asked, stifling a yawn.
"It was perfect," I sighed, fully contented. "The perfect masquerade."
A/N: What do you get when you mix a weird book that involves "heaving bosoms" (you know the type I'm talking about) and The Phantom of the Opera sountrack? This story! I wrote it on a whim, and I'm not exactly sure about my Italian (tell me if a got a word wrong), but I rather like this story. Review, please.