Continuing Tales

A Forfeit of Dreams

A Labyrinth Story
by KL Morgan

Part 11 of 15

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A Forfeit of Dreams

Gondolas glided smoothly along the canal, midnight waters rippling with the light from torches linking the banks. The slim crafts deftly weaved through the network of canals, moving together like a flock of water-bound birds. Nighttime sounds surrounded them, echoing off the tall, majestic buildings that flanked their watery roads: a child crying, sleepy chatter, muffled revelry. The whispering waters - and the night - swallowed up the noises with a secretive smile.

The boats were decked in elegant, if simple, trappings. Each had a new coat of fresh white paint, gleaming with moonlit luminescence. The bare sitting slats were softened with pillows of satin and velvet. Cords of twisted white silk trimmed the lithe vessels as they skimmed across murky waters, shining like pearls.

Individuals began, at an irregular pace, to break away from the fleet. They darted down the smaller, unlit canals, gondoliers whistling low and soft so that their charges would step out of their houses. Laughter drifted across the water as richly bedecked parties climbed into their watery chariots.

A single gondola slipped apart from its brothers, driver ducking beneath low-slung bridges. He muttered to himself as he threw his weight against the pole, surly with displeasure. His grumbling grew louder as he neared his destination, until he began to speak aloud, snapping irritably at no one at all.

"Nobles," he grunted. "Run here, fetch this, paint your boat. Do as you're told, don't ask questions." He snorted with disgust, shoving his weight against the pole so violently the canal waters sloshed against the sides of his boat with wet, smacking sounds. He continued regardless, ignoring the upset as his craft bobbed unsteadily along the waterway. "Damn snotty aristocrats."

He was a tiny, gnarled man, hunched and doubled over with bad temper until he looked more like a dwarf than a man. A cap was smashed down upon his head, pulled low until it touched frantically bushy eyebrows. A weathered face of indeterminate age lay beneath it, and eyes with a sly gleam darted every which way as he skillfully guided his flat-bottomed boat.

He paused, carefully pushing the gondola up against the stone ledge lifting the street away from the murky canal. He whistled sharply, impatiently drumming his fingers against his palm. When no response followed, he called a curt "Ho!" and whistled again.

The door opposite him opened, and a servant's face peeked out. She curtsied shyly, drab dress brushing along the cobblestones, then hurried back inside. As he waited, he heard voices within.

"Hurry!" someone hissed. "Before the old bat wakes up!"

Muffled laughter. "Nicole, you can't mean." A pregnant silence. "Nicole! You mean your aunt doesn't know about this?"

He could hear the soft rustle of cloaks being dinned, heard the maid fussing as she fastened ties beneath chins and drew hoods over elaborate hairstyles.

"She wouldn't have liked it," came the mulish reply. "Oh, she would have allowed us - even Aunt would never have refused this invitation - but she would have wept and cajoled and pleaded." The two emerged in the doorway, girlish figures swathed in heavy fabric. "And who wants to endure that sort of trouble?"

"Still." The taller girl lingered, face hidden in the shadow of her hood. "Perhaps a note, or -"

"I left the invitation by her bed," the first girl said, tugging on her friend's arm. "She will find it when she rises, and it will be fine." A manservant (hiding a yawn at the late hour) adroitly sidestepped them both, and then helped the first young woman into the waiting vessel.

The second girl sighed, and then held out an arm for the manservant to hold. "All right," she said, a hint of mischief in her voice. "However, if she becomes furious, you know I will claim you led your poor, helpless cousin astray."

"Hah." Nicole settled into the cushions along with her friend, shaking shining blonde curls free of the heavy hood. "She would believe you, though. She thinks I am the devil," she said airily.

"You should stop tormenting her dog, then," the friend said.

"Nasty little creature," Nicole muttered as the gondola skimmed across the water towards the main canal. "I don't believe it's really a dog - she must have accidentally fed a river rat all these years, and now it's tame."

Her friend laughed, turning a hooded gaze in the direction of the horizon, where the light of the low moon polished the ornate buildings and rippling water with a glimmering sheen.

"It's beautiful," she breathed. "Venice is so beautiful. I cannot imagine why Father went to London."

Lady Nicole smiled, a bit wistfully. "I imagine it is not so beautiful," she said, "when the one you love has left it."

"True," her companion replied lightly. "But one may suppose the same for all the world."

"What do you mean?"

"All things considered, I would rather he stayed in Venice, despite my mother's death. The English court holds its own wonder, but I would have liked to know my mother's city."

They were silent together, listening to the canal waters swirl around them. After a moment, Nicole shook herself free of its hypnotizing spell.

"Well, you will know it now," she said firmly. "And this party is the absolute best way I could have chosen for you!" She squealed with delight. "Can you believe it? "A private gondola! With satin cushions! And with the sumptuary laws resitricting excess of grandeur - only the Prince could manage it. I cannot even imagine what awaits for us at his house," she ended with a deep feeling of satisfaction. She sighed lustily, eyeing their surroundings. "For heaven's sake, Sarah. If you do not take off that hood, I will succumb to the persistent paranoia that you are making faces at me." 

Her companion laughed again, easily throwing back the hood of her cloak. The gondolier -- one eye on his path, the other on his charges -- nearly pitched forward into the canal in surprise.

He knew her.

He had never seen her before in his life; he knew that, as well as the network of canals that snaked through his beloved city. But her knew her. The dark hair that lay in sumptuous curls against her white neck, the proud green eyes set in an oval face - he knew it all, knew the cut of her features as if they were those of a cherished friend. He stared, letting the boat go adrift. She caught his gaze with her own, and within her eyes he spied the same sense of recognition.

He lips, faintly pinked with coral shine, parted softly in wonder. She stared back, and her hands lingered, forgotten, on the edges of her hood.

"I'm Sarah," she said after a moment. She gave him an open smile. "I feel as if I know you."

"Doubt it, my lady," the man mumbled, ducking his head as he returned to his task.

"No, I know you," Sarah insisted calmly. She regarded him with curiosity, head to one side. "What is your name?"

He flushed hotly, struggling to regain his control of the boat. "Don't like my name," he grumbled. "Friends call me Hoggle."

"Hoggle?" Nicole's head peered over her friend's shoulder, blinking in surprise. "That's not a name, that's the last gasp of a dying frog."

"Huh," he grunted significantly. "Shows what you know."

Sarah's smile widened. "Hoggle," she said fondly, as if accustomed to the unorthodox sound. "It's good to see you."

"Thank you then, little man," Nicole called gaily, "for escorting us to the Prince's house forthwith." She made a melodramatic flourish. "Our gratitude is yours."

Sarah's eyes shone with excitement. "I'm not sure I understand," she laughed with good-natured confusion. "I thought princes lived in castles."

"He's not a prince," Hoggle said, eyes on the canal. "Not a real one."

"Venice doesn't have kings," Nicole added. "We have a Doge, may his Venerableness continue until even porridge is too exciting for the old coot."

Hoggle shot her an evil grin. "Your host is his nephew. "The Prince" is his nickname."

"As he is a prince among men!" Nicole proclaimed dramatically. Laughing at herself, she settled deeper into luxurious pillows. "He's lovely, Sarah."

"Is he so grand?"

"Grander than the grandest Duke of Europe. All the women swoon for him," she said, matter-of-factly. "And his house is the jewel of Venice. A small palace, really. The Doge insisted."

"But I'm not looking to capture a prince, authentic or otherwise," Sarah teased, running her hand lightly thought the water and delicately flicking the errant drops at her friend, who squeaked and ducked. "I'm spoken for, remember?"

Nicole smiled slyly. "Lord Brian will be there, also."

"Nicole!" Sarah gasped. "Did you tell him I would be there?"

"No," her cousin returned impishly. "I did not have to - as a son of a great Venetian family, he was invited on his own merits, I'm sure."

"And a member of the same stocking club," Hoggle grumbled behind them. "The Ardent, isn't it?"

Nicole gave him a close look. "You," she said pointedly, "know quite a lot, don't you, little man?"

"Th'name's Hoggle," he replied. "And 'course I know a lot. Part of the job."

Nicole grinned at him. "There is no such thing as a secret in this city, Sarah," she spoke to her friend. "Someone always knows about things - and more than likely it's a gondolier."

"This isn't fair!" Sarah cried, laughing. "I feel as if you two had your own language - stocking clubs? What are those? And why do gondoliers know everything?"

Nicole relaxed against the soft cushions; heedless of her crushed blonde curls. "Stocking clubs," she said with a gleeful smile, "are a tradition among the best and brightest sons of our fair city. Something to amuse themselves with before they have to don a black patrician's robe. Oh, they do everything: stage battles, put on plays, arrange parties. loads of fun. They all have names like The Ardent, or The Patriotic - something wonderfully romantic and idealistic. And you can tell which one they belong to by a badge on their cloak or coat-sleeve or their stocking. The Ardent is the best. Last year, during Carnival, they staged a Turkish invasion! It was amazing!"

"Nearly put the Doge in his grave," Hoggle muttered, still grimly poling along the Grand Canal.

"Ah yes," Nicole agreed, nodding. "They did look awfully authentic for a moment there, did they not?"

"And gondoliers?" Sarah demanded, eyes sparkling.

Nicole giggled wickedly. "I believe our little friend here should answer that question."

Hoggle glared at her good-naturedly. "We're required to keep all secrets of our passengers," he said gruffly. "Everything we are privy to - betrayals, plots, affairs. Or we're banished from the Brotherhood."

Sarah laughed delightedly. "Venice is like something out of a dream," she said, shaking her head. "Dramatic clubs, secrets, parties in the dead of the night."

"This is the perfect time for a party!" Nicole insisted indignantly. "Of course. The Prince would never do anything inappropriate. Well," she added thoughtfully. "Nothing inappropriate that wasn't expected."

Their gondolier chuckled unexpectedly. "You have the right of him, my Lady," he said.

"Come now, Sarah," Nicole chided gently. "Close your mouth, darling child - or you will look a perfect foreigner, and no one will ever believe your own mother was a Venetian."

Sarah laughed, a little wryly. "I'm not sure being the daughter of a courtesan is anything to boast about."

Nicole stared at her in amazement, tempered with pity. "My dear cousin," she said softly. "I know you have grown up far away from us, in a Puritan court, but. this is Venice. And when your mother was alive, she was one of the most beloved and respected courtesans of the Lion City." She laughed slightly. "My father joked about fighting over her with your own father - even when I was a child. And you are her daughter." Sitting up, she placed a slender white hand over Sarah's own. "We welcome you back home, Sarah - we welcome you back where you belong."


The hall was magnificent. It simply took her breath away - jasper columns rising from a dark floor of stained oak boards, chandeliers filling the air with light and the scent of hot wax, candlelight catching on the scrolls and flowers of gold that graced every edge and corner of the walls. And there were mirrors everywhere - wide, shining planes of reflecting glass that caught at the chaotic, vibrant swathes of color in the room, throwing them back into a melee of celebration.

Sarah stood hesitantly on the edge, fan clutched tightly in her gloved hands and held against the silken material of her dress. She felt admittedly out of place. Nicole had abandoned her - not out of any ill nature, but she had spied friends and rushed to them unthinkingly, and Sarah hadn't wanted to be a nuisance. Not only was she a stranger to everyone here, she looked a foreigner - a paler complexion (though many women boasted skin of the same shade, hers was natural and unaided by paints), and dark hair where the favored shade of Venetians was a golden blonde. Her manner of dress, though elegant and stylish, could not hope to match the stunning array of satin, jewels, and lace she saw around her. Her midnight colors, edged in silver, looked positively plain in comparison. And the elaborate hairstyles on the women, as opposed to her own simple cascade of curls. No. She should have stayed home - she should have never let Nicole talk her into coming -

"Lady Sarah?"

She started, turning toward the polite inquiry. Her eyes met a tall young man dressed in the height of current Venetian fashion: knee breeches of dark wool, pristine white stockings, elegant buckled shoes. His coat, heavily embroidered with gold thread, was open to show the splendor of his silk waistcoat, effusive lace spilling out onto his wrists and at his throat. The tricorn hat that would have completed the outfit was missing, naturally, probably resting somewhere along with his cloak. Soft brown hair fell softly to his shoulders, and dark eyes smiled pleasantly at her.

Sarah shivered, suffering from the same shock of recognition as when she had met Hoggle - somehow, though she had never seen him before in all her life, she knew this man.

"Yes?" she returned, a trifle wary.

His smiled deepened, eyes sparkling at her caution. "You must excuse my rudeness," he said frankly. "My family was sent a miniature of your portrait, and I thought I chanced to recognize you, although we did not expect you in Venice quite yet --"

"Are you." she hesitated. "Lord Brian?"

He shrugged slightly. "I beg pardon for not introducing myself properly - I am afraid we are a little short on propriety in His Highness's court, and I am bred in absolute boorishness. That does not," he hastily amended, "excuse my conduct, of course - what I mean to say is -"

"You are forgiven," Sarah said, laughing slightly. "I assure you, I wasn't offended - just surprised. I hadn't expected to meet you so soon." She blushed a little, dropping her gaze. Her father wanted her to marry this man. He was young, handsome, and of a good family. Of course, she herself was the daughter of a prominent ambassador to England - but Lord Brian's family was recorded in the Golden Book. Marrying him would mean the best possible future she could hope for - and she would get to live in Venice, her mother's city.

Then why did some part of her hesitate?

"His Highness's court?" she asked abruptly, to cover her sudden discomfort.

He chuckled. "The Prince, as we all refer to him - we grew up together, all of us who are now members of the Ardent." He motioned absently with one hand to the stylized design that graced the stocking of his right leg. "He was always the leader of us boys, and whether his direction did more harm than good, it is yet to be seen." He grinned. "He rules us still - he's the prior of our stocking club." He caught himself. "But this must sound all gibberish to you --"

"Not at all," she said smoothly, smiling. "I was just given a lesson by my friend," and she motioned toward her cousin discretely with her closed fan, "the Lady Nicole. She is, after all, a native of Venice," turning back to Brian, "and is well-knowleged in these things."

They smiled at each other, warmly, openly, and Sarah could feel the beginnings of an easy friendship between them. Yes, she liked him - very much.

They chatted easily for a few moments more, and Sarah explained that she had traveled ahead of her father in order to spend more time with her cousin. Lord Brian, apparently, knew Nicole through reputation only. Sarah threw a quick glance at her cousin - who was surrounded by a veritable flock of male admirers. Her fan, a gorgeous piece of tortoise-shell spokes and painted silk, was fluttering rapidly as she cooled herself, then used it to flirt: tapping her own cheek, rapping someone's wrist at an impudent remark. Sarah knew the language of fans, but she had never seen it used so effortlessly (and constantly) as she did now, surrounded by the ladies of Venice. The women around her spoke on a wide range of levels - speaking coquettishly in fact, the movement of their fans contradicting every other word. A handle to the lips was an invitation for a kiss, despite the scathing manner with which the lady mocked her suitor in public. And, no matter how warmly she laughed at the innuendoes around her, a sharp twist of a closed fan was a clear message: Do not be so foolish.

Nicole noticed Sarah's eyes were upon her, and she smiled at her cousin with secret delight. Suddenly, her eyes widened, and with a deliberate gesture, twirled her fan in her left hand.

You are being watched.

Sarah frowned slightly. Still laughing at a joke Lord Brian had just told her, concerning antics of sons of the Council of Ten, she let her eyes roam over the crowd. Yes, she was being watched - she caught more than a few gentlemen giving her quick glances while their ladies looked the other way, and many women were outright assessing her from behind their gorgeous fans. But who would concern Nicole.?

She saw him.

He had draped himself casually over a chair set in one corner, almost rude in his utter comfort. He was surrounded by others - male and female friends grouped around him in other chairs and a bevy of women with yellow and red silk dresses, like wild tulips, at his feet. Their painted faces were upturned adoringly, and he tousled the hair of one with an elegant white hand, the aged lace at his cuff mixing with her fair curls. His coat was unbuttoned, revealing a waistcoat stitched so heavily with silver, it looked stiff and armor-like. Lace again, this time at his pale throat. His hair was an unbelievably faded, frost-blonde, falling in rough locks around his face. Dark eyes a sharp contrast to his fey complexion. 

Shock swept through her, leaving her still and cold. Where the others had been a mere note of recognition, this was a chord. She felt like a bell that had been struck, and she was now inaudibly ringing, from coifed head to slippered toes. It was impossible, and it was inconceivable - but she knew him.

His eyes, she noticed, were strangely mismatched: the unequal pupils made one seem darker than the other, shading the pure, crystalline color. Those eyes laughed at her with dark, wicked delight, his lips curling in a decidedly feral grin.

Come, those eyes beckoned. Come to me. We both know that you want to - and I will welcome you with open arms.

She turned away.

Lord Brian gave her an amused glance, mouth quirking into a grin. "And I see you have met the Prince," he drawled. "I won't be offended it you take a moment to catch your breath - even if you are my intended."

"We aren't engaged yet," she muttered - ignoring the fact that her breath was a little short. "So that is the Doge's nephew?" She raised her head, mouth set stubbornly. "He looks like a lout."

Brian laughed outright in surprised delight. "You would be the first woman of my acquaintance to say so," he said, "but I agree." He shrugged lightly. "He enjoys freedoms the rest of us only dream of. So, he tends to put aside propriety. He is forgiven, because he is Venice's favored son - but the rest of us must conform to what is expected of us."

"Who are those women with him? In the red and yellow dresses."

Brian shot her a sly grin. "Courtesans."

"Courtesans!" Her head whipped around to regard them again, in amazement. "But - I thought the age of courtesans had disappeared with the Inquisition."

"And so it has." Brian shrugged lightly. "But the Lion City still has its wayward children. We no longer counted them among our most valued assets - do you know of Veronica Franco, who was presented to a foreign king by the Doge himself? - but eliminating courtesans from Venice would be like trying to run all the rats out of London." He sneered, and Sarah regarded him somberly.

"Do you dislike them so?" she asked quietly.

He shrugged again. "I understand they are amusing, and it is always fun to have them at such parties, when their presence shocks our revered elders - but no, I do not like them. His Highness. well, he will make friends where he pleases. But the rest of us will strive to have better taste."

"I see."

He turned his head, catching her grave expression. "Come," he said, smiling. "Enough of this talking - I would dance with you." He swept a bow, one leg behind the other, offering an outstretched hand. "May I have the honor?"

She simply looked at him for a moment, and then a smile appeared on her face - like the sun breaking through the clouds. A hint of mischief in her eyes, she curtsied and placed her gloved hand in his own.  

The minuet is a precise, exacting dance: every step coinciding with a clear note, each demure curtsey and courtly bow signaled by a fall of music. The dancers move across the floor like trained swans - even the most graceful of men and women have trouble breathing life into the rigid choreography. It is more of an excuse to move while conducting polite conversation than a dance, and every grand lord or lady knows this. So they smile, and flirt with lowered eyelashes, soft voices traveling no farther than themselves as the partners cross each other's paths.

Sarah and Brian danced, together with many others, gliding across the smooth wooden floor within the confines of the dance. They spoke politely as they followed the steps, speaking of his family, or her time in the English court. Eventually their manner relaxed, grew more casual - she laughed openly at his jokes, and he let his hand linger on hers before turning into the next movement.

So it was something of a shock - like dashing into cold water - when an arm suddenly curled around her waist, and a stranger's voice (but she knew it so well, somehow) spoke close to her ear:

"My turn, Brian."

And she found herself whirled away, just after catching a glimpse of her previous partner's scowling face before she was caught up in the minuet again. Stunned, hardly knowing for certain what was going on, she moved too quickly, jumping ahead of the music so she could see who she now danced with.

Pale hair fell roughly around dark, mismatched eyes, and he lifted an eyebrow in amusement at her expression. "Are you enjoying my party, Sarah?"

She glared at him, furious and still confused, angling her head to see that Brian had stalked away in fury. "I was," she said darkly.

He laughed, allowing his hands to brush against her brocaded waist as they passed each other in the dance. She stumbled slightly, eyes wide. She considered leaving the floor - but only for a minute. They had already caused enough of a spectacle as it was. It would be nice putting off becoming gossip fodder at least for a few days.

Besides, she wasn't going to run from him.

"Your Highness honors me with his presence," she said, allowing a faint note of mockery to enter her voice, and was rewarded with his slight frown. "Although I hadn't expected to be introduced to Venice's favorite son quite so soon."

"Protocol is foolish, don't you think?" he asked airily, catching her hand with such possessive abruptness that the skirt of the gown flared behind her, silver thread shining in the candlelight. "It only serves to delay the inevitable."

"Oh," she countered, poisonously sweet, "but it is such a boon when dealing with people we dislike - otherwise our obvious distaste for them" snatching her hand free of his grip as she turned "would be rudely apparent."

"You always did have a way with words," he said wryly to himself.

"Beg pardon?"

"I was simply admiring your passionata," he covered smoothly. "It's wonderful to meet women with such," and his eyes and mouth made the innuendo obvious, "fervor."

Sarah blushed, uncomfortably conscious of the velvet patch, placed by the corner of her eye. "My cousin did insisted," she said gracelessly. "She swore to me it didn't mean anything political - like in the English court. I didn't think there was anything else to it."

The Prince chuckled, raised eyebrow like an upswept owl's wing. "You should be more careful, Sarah. Venetians have a secret language in even the most insignificant of details." She circled him, and his fingertip slid against her cheek as she passed. "Passionata - passion. A mark here," and he pressed two fingers against the dimple of her cheek, "is civetta - a coquette." He laughed, stepping back at her glare. "A message, I assume, which is not to my lady's taste. Here, instead," and - to her astonishment - he lightly tweaked her nose as he made to bow, "which is sfrontata: forwardness. You do have a talent for being blunt, Sarah."

Unbalanced and flustered by his actions, she made to turn into the next movement - but her caught her shoulders, holding her firmly in place. One hand, encased in a grey kid glove, gripped her chin and raised her eyes to his. "Or perhaps," he said quietly, "you should wear the assasina - the most dangerous mark of all." And he bent to brush his lips, softly, against the corner of her mouth.

"Stop!" She stumbled back, one hand against her mouth cheeks burning. The musicians faltered, violin strains dying in astonishment. The other dancers - the entire room - turned in astonishment at her demanding voice.

The Prince, watching her closely, seemed slightly surprised at her reaction. "You are angry with me," he stated plainly - yet with a soft note of wistfulness.

Sarah set her mouth firmly, stepping close so as to speak softly and not be heard. "You send away my intended dance partner," she spoke, low and intense, "and then proceed to flirt shamelessly with me in front of everyone - of course I'm angry!"

He stared down at her, expression aggravatingly free of remorse. "But," he returned softly, as if lost in his own thought, "something is." His strange eyes widened. "You're not afraid of me."

Sarah blinked. "Of course I'm not afraid of you!" she cried. "I will never be afraid of you, Your Highness. You cannot intimidate me," she spoke furiously, still trying to keep her voice low. "I don't care whose nephew you are - we are equals in this court."

He started at her, for a moment longer. "Good," he said forcefully, almost savagely.     

Sarah held his eyes for a moment longer, suddenly less sure of herself. "Good," she echoed, feeling a little foolish at her outburst. "Then we understand each other."

He laughed, low in his throat. Quick as thought, he snatched at her hand and brought it to his mouth, placing a gentle kiss on her palm before she drew it away. "Yes, Sarah," he said, dark eyes on her. "I understand you perfectly."


Mornings in Venice consisted of dressing. That was all - something that had initially shocked Sarah a little. The thought of receiving visitors wasn't even palatable until the hours after noon. And it wasn't as if Nicole and all the other Venetian ladies slept abed all those hours, oh no. All that time was spent dressing.

A week later, however, and Sarah had become accustomed to the alien routine. She now rose out of bed with the sun, along with her cousin, and took the following hours to leisurely tend to herself.

And, of course, to gossip.

She sat on the edge of her bed, brushing out her dark hair as she watched her cousin. They shared a room - Nicole insisted, saying she had always wanted someone to be a sister to - and ever morning Sarah watched in amusement as Nicole lifted strips of meat away from her face, placing the scraps into a bowl by her own beside.

"That's disgusting," she said frankly. "I can't believe you wear that to bed every night. How can you stand it?"

Nicole sniffed, wiping her face with a linen towel. "Everyone knows," she replied loftily, "that veal soaked in milk renders the most delicate of complexions. Not all of us were lucky enough to grow up in a land without any sun."

Sarah laughed. "England has a sun!" she insisted. "The same one that shines over Venice, you goose."

"Huh." Nicole dipped the towel in water, cleaning the last traces of milk from her face. "Wait until you see that "same" sun reflecting off the canal waters. Your pretty porcelain skin will be a passing dream, and you'll be reduced to veal like the rest of us."

Sarah grimaced at the thought. "Never."

Nicole shot her a wicked glance. "Oh? You can say goodbye to anymore attentions from the Prince, then."

Sarah frowned at her, sternly, jerking the brush through her hair. "I don't want to talk about that."  

Wisely, Nicole changed the subject. They chatted together as the maids brought in their separate bathtubs, deep basins that were filled with steaming water scented with myrrh, or mint. They gasped at the heat and flung water at each other as they climbed in, giggling like schoolchildren. After washing, they dressed - Nicole in bright and shining silk, Sarah in deep, rich red. Nicole placed herself in front of the dressing table while Sarah sat herself in a chair nearby, and a maid was sent to fetch a hairdresser. Nicole had been upset that Sarah would not let her hire another for her guest, but Sarah had been uncomfortable at imposing, and at the cost. Consequently, Nicole insisted that Sarah be styled last, so she would be freshest when they ventured out. Each morning Nicole would tend to her hair and makeup as Sarah quietly read a book, waiting for her turn.

Lucien, Nicole's hairdresser, was a fair-haired man with long fingers and an almost magical ability to coax locks into any shape he wished. He was also an artist when it came to applying paints - on the face, throat, even at the breasts if the dress was low enough. And, like every other in his profession, he was a gossip-monger of the highest rank. He had to be, or Nicole (and any other self-respecting Venetian woman) would have dismissed him for someone more interesting.

Walking into their room, a smile suddenly lit up Lucien's face as he spied Sarah curled up with her book. He swallowed it quickly when her eyes rose to his, but couldn't keep a quirk out of his lips.

"And how are you both today?" he asked smoothly, ill-concealed amusement in his voice. "Well, I suppose?"

Sarah returned her gaze to the printed words on the pages before her. "Nicole, " she said mildly, "tell your hairdresser that if he doesn't stop laughing at me, I'm going to throw a pillow at him."

  Nicole twisted were she sat, trying impetuously to see his face. "Lucien? Why are you laughing at Sarah?" she demanded.

"If you hold still, Nicole," he replied, placing his hands on either side of her head. "I will tell you. Stop fussing like a child."

She pouted. "No one tells me anything."

He sighed deeply, taking up a comb and running it through her pale blonde hair. "I am laughing because your cousin is over there, reading her novel as calmly as you please - as if half of Venice wasn't working itself into a state of indignation over the 'presumptuous little chit,' as I believe she is has been dubbed."

Sarah dropped her hands to her lap, book forgotten. "That isn't fair!" she cried. "I was accosted by him!"

"Ah," Lucien said, eyes still on Nicole's coiffure. "So you know what I'm talking about."

"Of course she does," Nicole responded, sounding unbearably smug. "She just doesn't want to discuss it, that's all. One of the more shocking events of the season," she stressed, sounding aggrieved, "and she won't speak to me about it! My own cousin!"

Sarah groaned, letting her head fall back. "This is silly," she pleaded. "Surely it can't be that important; one dance? Lucien, you're exaggerating, aren't you?"

"You left the Prince standing alone on the floor, my lady," Lucien responded. "After he deliberately interrupted yourself and Lord Brian. After he overtly made his interest in you quite clear. And after you scolded him roundly in public --"

"People heard that?"

"We all heard it, Sarah."

"The most popular theory is that you are secret lovers," Lucien continued, ignoring the girls' exchange. "That, or the suspicion that your families are engaged in some sort of covert feud." He grinned at her, heating the tongs. "If you tell me the truth, I could make enough to retire to the country within the next six hours."

"Don't tell him," Nicole demanded. "At least, not until he's done curling my hair."

"This is ridiculous." Sarah said flatly, hands griping each other tightly in her lap, twisting against the patterned brocade. "I have no idea why he was acting that way. I've never met him before in my life. This is silly," she burst out.

"Silly or not," Lucien replied easily, "You have the entire city buzzing with excitement. Carnival ended weeks ago, and my lords and ladies have little to do with themselves." Taking a strand of silk flowers from the dressing table, he tucked them adroitly into the curves and corners of Nicole's elaborate hairstyle. "Perfect," he proclaimed. "Now close your eyes." She did so, and he lightly powdered her face, adding a trace of shine to her lips and a hint of kohl to her eyes. Sarah watched for a minute, bemused.

"It amazes me," she said dryly, "that the people here carry veritable fruit-baskets in their hair, but scorn makeup."

"I still can't believe they outlawed rouge," Nicole replied, eyes still closed, in a tone of deep disgust. "In the wrong light we all look like perfect ghosts." 

"Natural beauty," Lucien said mildly, placing just a hint of scent along Nicole's neck, "is the greatest adornment. Just thank God you are not reduced to dying your hair constantly, like almost every other woman in Venice."

"Bah." Nicole opened her eyes, and seemed to find her reflection pleasing enough. "Now my cousin. If she's to be the talk of the city, we must have her shine."

Sarah shook her head forcefully. "No. I'm not visiting with you today, and I won't be receiving. Not at all."

"You mean you're going to hide here in our room?" Nicole cried.


"But Sarah -"


Nicole looked despondent for a moment, and then sighed with resignation. "I suppose it's just as well. This way, everyone will be asking me about you." She perked up at the thought of being the center of so much attention. "But you must go out, even if just to a coffeehouse. It's almost summer, and then we won't be able to venture outside but rarely - take this time to enjoy yourself. Please?"

Sarah laughed, nodding. "I promise."

She bade goodbye to Nicole an hour or so later, Lucien having left to tend to other charges around the city. Rummaging though the bags she had brought from London, she finally found the volume she was looking for, and slipped it into a small bag. Her hair has twisted under a simple white chignon secured with silver pins, and over this she placed her zendale - a light shawl edged in black lace that hid her profile, covering her to where it knotted becomingly around her waist. With a small amount of money in her purse, she quietly informed the maid where she would be (Nicole's aunt, as usual, was napping in her salon), and stepped into the sunshine.

It was a wonderful place to be. Gondolas, both covered and open, skimmed across the waters of the canals. Shouts could be heard in the distance, and the people she passed on the cobblestone streets laughed and talked amongst themselves. Every now and again she would hear the strains of a violin, or someone singing - a busker earning their trade further down an alley.

She reached the coffeehouse within a few minutes of walking. She had been there before with her cousin, and the host recognized her as she walked in the door. Eyes widening only slightly, he rushed to greet her, asking if she would prefer to sit inside, or dine in the open air.

She loosed the zendale, drawing it down to her shoulders, and immediately the coffeehouse was filled with a quiet murmur of surprise. Looking around, she saw more than a few familiar faces from the party last night - all with expressions of avid curiosity and anticipation. She sighed, and asked to be seated outside. It wasn't quite warm enough yet to be comfortable - but since so few followed her example, she would be left quite alone.

Within minutes she was seated comfortably at a small table, the view looking out onto the Grand Canal. Tucking her slippered feet beneath her chair, she ordered and drew her book from her back, settling back to read with a sense of deep contentment.

She was only able to enjoy a few moments of peace after her coffee and fruit was set in front of her by a waiter, as a depressingly cheerful (and familiar) voice soon interrupted her reverie.

"Good book?"

"I'm not talking to you," she said without looking up. "Go away and ruin someone else's life."

"Now really," he drawled, flinging himself into the opposite chair, the uneven lengths of his fair hair shivering with the sudden movement. "Is that any way to speak to a gentleman who merely wishes to engage in conversation with you?"

"Show me a gentleman, and I will speak to him properly."

Adroitly, he snatched the book out of her hands, ignoring her protests. "If you would look up from your absorbing novel." Carefully, he turned the slim volume over in his leather-gloved hands, opening to a random page. His strange eyes glanced over a few lines, and widened. "My lady reads the Iliad for amusement."

Sarah stood, reclaiming the book with considerably less grace than he had taken it. She sat back in her chair, the line of her jaw tight with annoyance. "Yes. When she is left alone."

He watched her with a grin. "Still angry with me, Sarah?"

She looked at him gravely, book lying forgotten beside her plate. "You ridicule me in public," she said quietly, "and now in private. Are you surprised I wish to be free of you?" She laughed shortly, bringing the cup of coffee to her lips.

"I was not ridiculing you, my lady," he said quietly. "Not then, and not now."

"Oh, and I suppose you do not find my scholarly tendencies to be vastly amusing?" she asked bitterly.

He smiled slightly, leaning one cheek upon a hand. "I prefer the Odyssey, truthfully. A tale of a man who travels for years upon years, striving to reach the one he loves, pitting himself against dangers untold and obstacles beyond imagination - I find it inspiring. Don't you?"

She started, and flushed guiltily at her previous judgment of him. "I'm sorry," she said quietly. "But you didn't strike me as someone who read very much."

Something bleak and unamused flashed behind his eyes. "I am alone with myself often - and I am not the best of company. I would rather read." He seemed to shake himself free of the fleeting disquiet. "But don't tell anyone - reading is something of a lots art, here. You prefer the Iliad?"

She smiled. "It's an amazing story - full of human strength and frailty." She shrugged. "Odysseus was always a trifle too clever for me. Yes, he struggled back to Penelope, but he never seemed really concerned as to whether he would reach her or not." She frowned. "I thought he was uncaring. hard, almost."

The Prince toyed with a knife beside her plate. "Men of his character are often awed by the strength of their own feeling. They have extreme confidence in themselves, you see - and such devotion can often be interpreted as a weakness. So they hide from it, and hide it from others." He smiled at her. "But your own tale has its unconventional heroine. I'm surprised, truth be told, to find you enjoying a book about the wickedest woman in history."

"Because I don't believe it was Helen's fault," she said firmly. "It was just as much Paris' error, stealing another man's wife, or even Aphrodite's - risking everything simply to assuage her own vanity. Why should Helen alone bear the blame for ten years of war?"

He laughed lightly. "Ah, but men cannot help what they do when bespelled by a woman."

Sarah laughed. "Don't be ridiculous."

"I'm not." He glanced up at her, eyes dark. "They said Helen's beauty made the sun seem cold and lifeless, and that her gaze could tear the heart out of a man's chest." He leaned in closer. "What atrocities might he commit," he spoke, voice low, "when faced with such cruel eyes?"     

Sarah shivered at his words, feeling suddenly cold. For a long moment, she simply met his gaze with her own. "Whatever was done," she said quietly, "it was of his own doing - not hers. Never hers."

"Perhaps." He sat back abruptly, and Sarah breathed easier. "But perhaps not." He grinned. "It is a very convenient excuse."

"I would beg to differ." Still feeling a little shaky, she rose to her feet, book and bag firmly in hand. "If you would excuse me," she muttered, not waiting for his response as she turned from him, practically running away.

He watched her go with a smile.


"Ascension Day, Ascension Day," Nicole chanted gleefully, kicking her legs like a small child as Lucien attended to her hair. She squealed in excitement, practically bouncing in her seat. "Better than Christmas!"

Lucien laughed at her silliness. "Yes, yes," he muttered under his breath, concentrating on twisting her curls into an elaborate crown. "Today the Doge will take his yearly bath, everyone will get dead drunk, and you will get your trinkets, silly little girl. If you will only hold still."

Sarah giggled at them both from the bed, where she rubbed scented cream into her hands. She was filled with the exact same excitement as her cousin - she was just more reserved about showing it. Nicole had been full of Ascension Day for the past week, and told her cousin all the details. Every year, during Holy Week, Venice celebrated her victory in fighting Frederic Barbarossa under Pope Alexander III in 1177. In appreciation, the Pope had gifted the Doge ring, saying, "Let posterity remember that the sea is yours by right of conquest, subject to you as a wife to her husband." Since then, on Ascension Day, the Doge and his entire retinue would submerge themselves in the waters of the Adriatic.

And, of course, the whole city celebrated their poetic marriage. Dances were held, contests, feasts, processions, and private parties of all kinds. Market stalls hawking wares from the Far East, Paris, even India and the Americas would line the Piazza. And (Nicole told her with a special excitement) when they returned that night, exhausted and happy, the house would be filled with customary gifts from all their male friends and suitors.

They dressed hurriedly, barely pausing to be coiffed and painted by Lucien, who was clearly annoyed by their impatience. Finally throwing up his hands in defeat, he set the finishing touches in place and then practically stalked out the door.

It was like something out of a dream. They spent several hours simply sitting on the balcony, eating and drinking coffee, waving to friends as they passed by. All the gondolas on the canals were carpeted and hung in rich fabrics. Similarly, banners and tapestries hung from dozens of windows around them, house crests fluttering proudly in the breeze. In the distance they could see the merchant and warships, stationed from San Marco to the Lido, flags unfurled. Beneath them messengers darted to and fro as they delivered the traditional presents to ladies of every station.

Then the bells rang, and the cheering could be heard from far away as the Doge emerged from his palace on his state litter, preceded by fifes and trumpets. Immediately behind him came the ambassadors, grandees, and senators in their solemn robes of black. They boarded a small craft and sailed down the flower-strewn waters of the Grand Canal, followed by the peotte of the noble families, likewise beflagged and begarlanded, with gilded oars and gondoliers in uniforms of rose and sky-blue. Ordinary citizens could follow behind if they wished in crowded crafts, plainer but also festooned with ribbons and pendants. The triumphant procession ended by the lighthouse on the Lido island - where only courtesans and their lovers could go. When the Doge flung a ring into the sea with a few ceremonial words - himself and his retinue following immediately after - the crowds roared, the bells rang, the Venice itself seemed to be singing for joy.

When it was all done, everyone returned in a perfect splendor of velvet trains jeweled fans amidst the flower-carpeted lagoon. Almost shrieking for joy, Nicole grabbed her cousin's hand and made to run through the house and out into the celebration. Laughing, Sarah followed her.

They sped along the streets towards the Piazza, a manservant ducking behind in their footsteps. The square was transformed into a fairyland of glittering crystal lamps, cafés from end to end proffering their chocolate, Cyprus and Samian wines, and delicate, delicious water-ices. There were thousands pouring into the area, all dressed in their finest ribbons and silks and lace. A double row of market stalls were open: the Feria, a marvelous display of commerce and art where Venice paraded the finest she had to offer. Around them fabrics glowed with jewel-like colors in the bright sunshine, glassblowers exhibited their delicately exquisite trade, and the finest goldsmiths and painters plied their wares. It was exhilarating, being a part of the joking, jostling crowd, watching Nicole haggle like a common fishwife over a new fan, taking in the sights and smells and sounds of it all.

In the very midst of it, Nicole suddenly grabbed at her hand. "Remind me," she said sharply, one eye on the stall that displayed the fan she so coveted, "later this afternoon, we should go down to the Grand Canal. There are races being held, and I so want to see them."

They did so shortly, sending the manservant home with all the things they had purchased. They weaved among the thronging crowds, hardly stopping to catch their breath as they raced onward. As it was, the sun was already setting as they reached one of the low bridges that arched over the Canal.

"Oh!" Nicole struck her gloved hands against the rail in frustration. "They've already started!"

"Nicole, this is fine. We can watch the end of it from here." Sarah leaned against the same rail, letting the breeze blow back tendrils of hair that had escaped the braided crown. She could smell the sea, not so far away, and the dark waters of the canals beneath them. 

"But I wanted to be here in the beginning," Nicole sulked. "You would have, too - Brian is racing."


"Of course, he doesn't have a chance against the actual gondoliers. None of them do - the Ardent, I mean. They race every year, and make a bet with the guild that they can beat the professionals. They never can, and every year they hold a feast for each and every gondolier in Venice." She smiled widely. "But you can still throw him a token."

"A what?" Sarah asked, bewildered by this onslaught of information.

"A token." Nicole unpinned several of the flowers from her hair, placing them carefully in the rail. "Like knights and their ladies. You throw it to them as they pass, to signal your affection." Giggling, she tossed one of her silken decorations out into the air. "The fun part is watching them try to catch it!"

Sarah laughed at her, noticing the women around them were doing the same. Most were simply enjoying themselves, ripping ribbons and jewels from their bodices and throwing them carelessly to any racer that caught their eye. A few, however, smiled to those who passed, but kept their tokens carefully at hand, until finally tossing one to their deliberate sweetheart.

She had no flowers in her hair, having been too impatient to wait for Lucien this morning. And her dress lacked the ostentatious ornamentation that Venetian women so favored. That left. She laughed softly, and delicately tugged a glove from one hand. It was a smooth, dark blue, with a rose blossom embroidered within the palm; a seed pearl, shining like an ember, at its heart. Holding it loosely, she rested against the rail and strained to catch a glimpse of Lord Brian.

There he was - poling determinedly down the Canal, grinning good-naturedly at the taunts from the professional gondoliers that passed him with insulting ease. He spied her up on the bridge, and his face lit up with a wide smiling. He waved briefly, and then returned with renewed vigor to his task.

She smiled, watching him, feeling strangely happy. As he neared she leaned farther over the railing, dropping her arm over in anticipation of tossing it into his boat. The glove dangled from her hand -

-- and was abruptly snatched from her grasp.

With a gasp of surprise, Sarah pulled herself up. Peering over the rail, she could see the thief had already passed under the bridge. She whirled, skirts flying, over to the opposite rail, furiously waiting for him to appear again. At the sight of a pale blonde head emerging from the shadows underneath the bridge, she began her tirade:

"Sirrah! That wasn't meant -" She choked on her words as she saw who it was but then began again, doubly angry. "That wasn't meant for you!"

The Prince, dressed in the rough breeches and loose cotton shirt of a true gondolier, laughed. He slipped the glove securely into the cuff of one sleeve without loosing his grip on the pole. "Cruel eyes, Sarah," he called teasingly, as he resumed the race. "You have them."

The day was ruined, as far as Sarah was concerned. Absolutely incensed, she insisted that they return home immediately. Nicole, sensing her dangerous mood, agreed without complaint. They walked back to the house in silence.

When they arrived, however, neither could resist breaking into surprised cries of joy. Their shared bedroom was literally stuffed with bouquets and arrangements of flowers, from exotic blossoms to the sweetest-smelling of wildflowers. And heaped on their separate beds were piled of packages, wrapped in delicate paper of all hues of the rainbow.  

They abandoned the uncomfortable silence completely, greedily throwing themselves on the beds to open their presents. Most were simple trifles - an engraved card, chocolates, a bottle of perfume - sent from all the male friends in their circle. But when all those were unwrapped, Sarah found she had two more packages - and by the cards she knew they were from men whose acquaintance was anything but casual.

"They both sent you presents!" Nicole squealed. "Open them! Open them!" Sarah reached for the largest box, but Nicole snatched it away with a scowl. "Don't you dare," she threatened. "Brian first!"

Sighing, Sarah ripped away the paper from the smaller package. Opening the elegant box, she found a gorgeous pair of pearl-encrusted gloves and a matching collar. It was quite a gift - finding so many pearls of the same size, shape, and color was an understated expression of his family's wealth and influence. It was a fitting present for a fiancée.

Nicole gasped in delight, but Sarah withheld the gifts until she handed over the package from the Prince. While Nicole ooohed and aaahed over the pearls, Sarah unceremoniously ripped open the Prince's gift.

It was a dress. As she drew it from the folds of paper, Sarah felt her eyes widen against her will. It was incredible. It was a square-cut bodice with a high waist - an older style, more traditional than fashion dictated, but with an appropriately long train. It was mainly made from a deep, black velvet, an incredibly soft fabric that seemed to eat up the light. But the front of the bodice, and an ever-widening strip of fabric down the front, was a brocade of deep, emerald-green and gold colors in a leaf-like pattern.

Nicole shrieked. Before Sarah could react, Nicole snatched the dress from her cousin's hands. She stared in open-mouthed amazement.

"Look at this! Look at this!" She laid the dress out on her bedspread, touching it lightly in wonder. "No one has dresses like this anymore because of the sumptuary laws. Every stitch and ribbon is counted, portioned out! No one can have beyond a certain amount. But this." She shook her head. "This is incredible. Look," she said, longing in her voice as she touched the fall of delicate lace that made up the sleeves, "it's cascate. The women of Paris have it, but here in Venice. Only the Doge's nephew could get a dress made with cascate."

Sarah sighed deeply. "It's ridiculous, giving me a dress. What will I do if it doesn't fit me?"

"Oh, it will. I told him the address of our dressmaker."

"You what?!"

"He asked me after a gambling party, one day. You weren't there - you never are."

"Nicole, how could you?"

"Stuff it, Sarah."

Sarah sat back, amazed. Nicole continued to inspect the dress, brow furrowed in concentration. Finally, she lifted her head. "If you weren't my cousin," she spoke evenly. I'd hate you with the passion of a thousand burning suns."

"For a dress, Nicole?"

"This is not just a dress, Sarah!" Nicole said, obviously impatient with her obtuseness. "This is a statement of intention! One does exert one's influence just to buy some girl a dress!"

"He obviously just did."

"You don't understand!" Nicole crossed her arms, keeping her anger in check. "Sarah," she stated baldly, "he's courting you."

A moment of stunned silence. "No, he's not."

"Yes, he is."

"I don't believe you."

"Sarah!" Nicole grabbed a handful of dark velvet in one hand, brandishing it in her cousin's face. "I know you come from a barbarian court where everyone has gold coming out of their ears, or whatever, but here, we have a budget! We have restricted spending! This," still waving the fabric, "is anything but restricted! The only way I can think that he managed it is by prostituting his sister!"

"He has a sister?"

"NO! But that's beside the point!" Seemingly exhausted by her impassioned outburst, Nicole fell back against her pillows, careful to avoid crushing the dress. "He's making his intentions known," she said wearily. "If you wear this dress, everyone in Venice will know he has claimed you - and you accept that claim."

Sarah stared for a moment, thoughtful, at the innocuous-looking garment. "Then I won't wear it," she said simply.


"No," she said firmly as she packed up the dress. "Don't try to dissuade me."

A knock came on the door, startling both of them. With a frustrated sigh, Nicole bounded off the bed and onto the floor, racing over to open the door. A livered messenger stood there with the maid, both looking a little sheepish.

"He insisted on coming up to see you personally," the maid said softly.

"Fine, fine," Nicole said airily. "What is it you want?"

The messenger simply presented her with an engraved invitation, which she snapped the seal and opened immediately. "We're invited to the feast," she called to her cousin.


"You remember, the one the Ardent holds for the gondoliers every year when they lose the race."

Sarah paused in folding the dress. "All of the Ardent are there?"


"Then I'm not going," she said stubbornly.


"No! I refused to be tossed between the two of them anymore!" She grimaced. "Like a little child's ball. It's humiliating, and I won't be a part of this game."

The messenger cleared his throat, a little hesitantly. "Pardon," he began, "but I was told to give it to you personally for this very reason - your presence is especially requested, Lady Sarah."

Sarah froze in mid-movement. Very carefully, she set the box down on the bed. Very slowly, she turned toward the messenger - and smiled very, very sweetly. "Oh, was it?"

The messenger swallowed. "Yes, my lady."

"And why is that, pray tell?"

The messenger shifted nervously from foot to foot. She was still smiling, but. she looked strangely dangerous, for a smiling woman. Perhaps because she was a smiling woman. "The Prince and Lord Brian are to fight a duel, my lady - at the feast tomorrow night."

"Are they?" She took a slow, measured step toward him, and he flinched. "And what does this have to do with me?"

"Um, uh, I wasn't let known the exact details, my lady." He swallowed again. "But I was given the impression it had everything to do with you."


"Sarah," Nicole spoke mildly, as the messenger began to shake. "You're scaring him."

"Ah." Instantly, her posture relaxed, and she gave him a genuine smile. "Tell his Highness that I am going to attend."

The messenger bowed and left, almost tripping over himself in his eagerness to be gone. Nicole shut the door behind him, and then turned - merely regarding her cousin with an inquiring look.

"I am going to attend," Sarah continued pleasantly, in response to that look, "and I am going to break both their necks."


They arrived at the Prince's house late the next evening. They were shown into the same hall that first momentous party was held in - only now, it had been converted to a feast-room, with long tables laid across the dark boards. They weren't the only nobility present. Amidst the rough joking and rougher manners of the gondoliers, elegant and bejeweled nobles sat and talked easily. This was another thing that had initially surprised Sarah, coming from the turbulent English court: the apparent easiness between classes. In Venice, the boundaries were set, and permanent. You could not rise above your station, either by gaining greater wealth (impossible) or marrying into a higher class (unthinkable). And so, in certain social functions, people from all walks of life could intermingle with the greatest comfort, secure in their place in the world.

Stepping into the great hall, Sarah immediately spotted a familiar face. "Hoggle!" She waved excitedly at the tiny man, whose stuffed mouth broke into a wide grin at her appearance. She wanted to go join him, but had business to attend to.

She grabbed a servant, hiding discretely in the shadows. "Where is the Prince?" she demanded, and he hurriedly pointed in some vague direction. Determined, she strode away.

The direction he had pointed in led to a door, the door led to a hallway, which led to a veritable array of doors. Groaning at her own foolishness, she opened one at random.

It was a library. The shelves rose high above her head, stacked with leather-bound volumes that let the scent of old knowledge into the air. Sarah breathed it in deeply. There had been a library like this at her father's estate in England - she missed it, and the serenity of her time there.


She turned, surprised, to find a stick-thin, wrinkled man with half-moon spectacles glaring at her sternly.

"Do you have any business here, young lady?" he asked disapprovingly.

"Ah. I'm looking for the Prince."

The man's eyebrows shot up, almost hiding in his hairline, at the nickname. "Well, he's not here," he said unpleasantly. "If only I could say the same for you."

Sarah blinked at his rudeness. Then her eyes narrowed. "I know you," she said wearily. "Like I seem to know every other person I meet in this damned city." Sighing with resignation, she held out her hand as if to shake his, like a commoner. "My name is Sarah."

Now it was his turn to be taken aback. He stared at her for a moment, red-rimmed eyes unnervingly sharp as he perused her face. Finally, he gripped her hand with his own. "Chaucer."

She started. "As in..?"

"No, no relation." But he seemed pleased she had made the connection. "Just a silly nickname. I'm a scholar. The - ahem - Prince has been most generous in allowing me to make use of his library in the course of my research."

"What is it you are researching?"

He smiled at her, warming to her frank interest. "Geoffrey Chaucer, as a matter of fact - that's where the nickname comes from. I believe he completed the Cook's Tale, you see, and I am attempting to retrace and discover the missing fragments."

Sarah laughed delightedly. "If you do, I want to read them as soon as possible."

He frowned at her, but it was strangely affectionate. "Young girls shouldn't be reader Chaucer - to be fair," he amended, "I'm not sure who should be reading him - besides decrepit old scholars like myself."

"My mother died when I was born, and my father is ambassador to the English court," Sarah said simply. "I was a lonely child - and my father's library was a friend." She sighed. "But I wish to find the Prince. I need to stop this ridiculous duel."

At that, his eyebrows disappeared entirely beneath his ragged mop of hair. "Well," he said, in completely different tone, "in that case, forgive my utter rudeness. It appears you not only have a brain, but the sense to use it. Let me see if --" He peeked out into the corridor. "My dear friend," he called, "would you escort this young lady to the Prince - or, barring the ability to locate him, to the main hall? I'm sure he'll turn up soon," he spoke aside to Sarah. "He can't resist the chance to strut amidst an audience before performing. Good luck at your endeavor - my friend will show you the way."

Curious, Sarah stepped out of the library. She started, stepping back in surprise at the man before her. He was huge - easily towering to seven or eight feet. And he was heavy with it. Not the soft heaviness of fat and good living, but the massive bulk of sheer power and muscle. He was dressed in plain-fitting, solid black clothing. His hair, the color of autumn leaves, was cut short to feather softly about his face - which was impressive. It was painted a stark white, and then the eyes were ringed heavily with black paint. The mouth was painted a harsh red, and long tusks had been stenciled from his bottom lip to his chin. The end result was a truly shocking sight - as if one were faced with a hulking monster.

Then he smiled, and Sarah couldn't keep herself from smiling back.

"Hello," she said softly. "I'm Sarah."

He nodded wisely, placing one finger on the side of his nose and solemnly winking. Sarah giggled.

"Can you help me?" she asked simply.

He nodded again, this time drawing a ball of twine from his pocket. He held out his hand - large and rough, the skin tanned and nails ragged - and she placed her own in it without thinking. With infinite care, as if she were made of glass, he tied one end of the twine around her ring finger. When that was done, he winked at her - and tossed the ball of string down the corridor, where it rolled serenely across the floor and out of sight.

He clasped his hands before him, innocently, and turned back to her with a large grin. Sarah laughed outright.

"Ariadne and the labyrinth, hmm?" she asked. He waggled his eyebrows at her, and she couldn't help but giggle again. "And I suppose you're the Minotaur?" He held out his large hands with a clear look of "Who, me?" Sarah remembered who they were originally looking for. "No, no." she amended quickly. "I agree with your interpretation of things."

They walked down the dark corridors together, laughing at the shadows. Although he never spoke, he kept her delighted and amused: trying vainly to hide behind tapestries, tiptoeing ahead in an obvious attempt to check for danger, his obviously stealth belying his bulk. They followed the twine faithfully, until at last they emerged into the light of the main hall.

Sarah breathed a deep sigh of relief, turning back to her newfound friend. "Thank you," she said with obvious gratitude.

He feigned to blush, kicking one foot into the floor. Shyly, he twisted his hand - and something appeared in it as if from the very air. Sarah took the offered object, frowning over its rough texture for a moment.

"What is --" She looked up to see that he had disappeared. "Oh," she said involuntarily, crestfallen. She turned back the gift in her hands.

"A pomegranate." He emerged from the shadows as if he were a part of them, stepping casually away from the wall and into the wall. "It's a type of fruit."

"I remember the story," she said wryly. "He enjoys Greek myths, doesn't he?"

"Ludo?" The Prince ran his own fingers over the fruit in mild curiosity. "He has an interest in everything - unfortunately. And the tendency to interfere in affairs that are not his own." Deftly, he took the gift from her gloved hand. "He's forgotten more than most people will ever know."

She sighed, knowing he wouldn't return the strange fruit, and giving it up for lost. "Ludo." She tasted the name. "Who is he?"

"My buffoon."

"Ah." She nodded. Professional buffoons were a staple of any noble household, and the good ones were valued their weight in gold. Though, considering Ludo's immense stature, perhaps not quite so much. "I wanted to talk to you about the duel."

"I see." He leaned comfortably against the wall. "What did you want to say?"

"I want you to put a stop to it."

"It's only play, Sarah - no one will actually get hurt."

"Oh, I know that," she dismissed the notion with a wave of her hand. Play-duels were common among noble youth. "But I know why it's being fought, and I want you to call it off."

"Do you really?" He bent close, breath stirring tendrils of her hair. "Do you really, Sarah?" She drew back, and he smiled. "Even if you do, it's not my affair to call off. I was challenged."

She frowned, chagrinned. "Why would Brian challenge you?"

"Ah, well." Casually, he drew something out from his coat - a dark blue glove with an embroidered rose. "Apparently I have something he wants. or some other nonsense of the sort." He absentmindedly drew the glove through his hands. "I can't think of what he might mean. Can you? Ah ah," he warned, holding the glove away as she darted to snatch at it. "Not unless I get something in return. Perhaps not even then."

She scowled at him, crossing her arms across her chest. "What do you want for it?"

He smiled like a contented cat. "Let me think about it."

She glared at him, opening her mouth to deliver a tart reply, when a voice to her left interrupted.

"I don't mean to intrude," Brian said, coolly, "but I believe his Highness and I have business to attend to." He gave a short, mocking bow. "If my lady doesn't mind."

Glaring at them both, Sarah marched away to take her place at the feast table next to Hoggle, who grinned at her fury. Generally discontent with the universe, she flung herself into a chair beside the sniggering midget, resigned to let events play themselves out.

The two combatants took their places in the hall, at either end of a cleared space. Blunted foils in hand, they raised their weapons in salute.

And it began.

They circled each other warily, foils ready, eyes trained on their opponent's face. Feints, slashes, coupés, all followed in rapid succession as they drew closer to each other. The crowd, mainly the jocular gondoliers, called out encouragement or ribald comments.

They were closer, now, only a few paces apart, foils relaxed at their sides until one committed, attacked. Then they both moved like something out of a dream - foils flashing in the flickering light, quicksilver and deadly.

Brian was breathing heavily, strain showing on his face and sweat on his forehead. "Why?" he asked, voice low.

"Why what?" his opponent replied absently, eyes on Brian's sword.

"Why Sarah?"

The Prince laughed to himself. "That's like asking, why light?" He feinted, pulling back at the last moment, but Brian didn't take the bait. "It simply is."

"She was my intended," Brain continued stubbornly. If he was chagrined at the fact his opponent didn't even look like he was trying very hard, he didn't show it.

A flicker of pity moved in the Prince's eyes. "No," he said gently. "She wasn't."

This time Brian attacked, a flurry of movement the Prince countered, but did not try to overpower. "Fine," Brian replied savagely. "So it wasn't set in stone. But it was understood - so why did you have to go after her?"

The Prince sighed, his mismatched eyes strangely sad. "Nothing I could say could explain it to you, at this point. It is enough to say --" and he abruptly attacked seriously, a startling barrage of sudden movements that left Brian gasping and stretching to counter " - that I am going after her, and you cannot ever hope to stop me." With a final, almost casual flick of his foil, he disarmed Brian. "There. Now we are done."

He turned on his heel, and Brian let himself fall to the floor, chest heaving. The silence in the hall was deafening, but it still wasn't enough to hear the continuance of their quiet exchange. The young lord took a moment to find his voice, and then:


The Prince paused. "Yes?"

Brian raised his sweating face, mouth in a wry grin. "I don't want this to come between us."

The Prince went absolutely still. Without turning, he asked - in a soft, and uncertain voice: "What did you just say?"

Brian laughed, wheezing slightly. "I know it sounds strange. We've never been the best of friends, and I've wanted to deck you more times than I can count. But we grew up together. Believe it or not, I do not wish us to be enemies." He stumbled to his feet, holding one hand outstretched. "So, we shall say. let the best man win?"

With infinite slowness, the Prince turned. Brian had never seen him look like this: eyes wide and face completely open, shock plain on his face. "You. wish us to remain friends," he said slowly.

Brian shrugged. "Yes. Because, all grandstanding aside, I understand the desire to go after Sarah."

The Prince continued to look at him. "I am sorry," he finally said.

Brian's grin faltered. "You don't want the same?"

"No, that's not what I meant. What I mean is. I am sorry. For all that I have done to you," the Prince said simply. He was silent a moment longer. "I wish things had been different."

"I can stand a little roughing-up."

The Prince looked at him again. Slowly, deliberately, he reached up to grasp Brian's hand with his gloved one. "Yes."

They stood like that, arms outstretched to the fullest and hands clasped. Then the room erupted into cheers, and they were surrounded by well-wishers and friends, everyone patting them on the back, shaking them, roaring congratulations or gentle teasing. Amidst the chaos, they smiled at each other.

The only one who did not join the happy fray was a dark-haired girl with a small, contemplative frown. That night, she went home to find a message waiting for her.

If you meet me at the sagra for St. Katharine, the unsigned note read, I will give you back your glove. Wear the dress.


A sagra was a festival celebrating a saint's day - usually held in the parish that was dedicated to that specific saint. Of course, each parish's celebration had to outdo their neighbor's, so a simple feast-day could erupt into quite riotous celebration.

She had found with Nicole's help (without letting her cousin know why, or that she would be leaving the house dressed as she was) the location of the parish that celebrated St. Katharine. She couldn't escape wearing the dress, of course, but an old Carnival mask of simple black satin hid her identity from any casual observers, along with a domino cloak. Perversely, she had refused to put up her hair, and the simple style was a strange contrast to the elaborate gown. She navigated her way easily through the narrow streets, a secretive figure left strictly alone. It was easy to ascertain that she was getting closer - she could hear the music and the shouts of people dancing, and the houses around her were decked in garlands, flags, and tapestries. Forgotten flowers were littered underneath her feet, bruised and crushed by former passer-bys.

She stepped into the square, pausing a moment to adjust to the flurry of noise and motion around her. Tables were set up everywhere she looked, hawking religious icons and cheap ribbons both, some even frying fritters in oil. She purchased one for a few pennies, eating the hot treat out of a napkin as she waded deeper into the square. Makeshift stages were set up, and clowns performed, people wrestled, bets were placed. She was not the only noble person in the crowd - like the previous night at the Prince's hall, a few of the nobility wandered easily among the crowd, and she could see more dancing with the girls of the neighborhood.

He appeared at her side as suddenly as always, simply stepping into the picture. She was licking the oil from her fingertips (gloves deliberately left at home - wondering what he would think of that) when a hand on her arm made her turn.

"The cloak I can understand," the Prince said, dryly, "as I admit, the dress might have caused some unwanted attention. But the mask?" He tried to lift it, but she batted his hand away. "What, are you suddenly scarred by smallpox?"     

"I think it would be obvious," she replied icily.

He hesitated, and gave her a reproving look. "Come now, Sarah." Quick as through, he adroitly pulled away the satin mask, before she could even blink. "I went to all this trouble to get you here," he explained, assuming a patient tone as he brusquely tossed away her disguise. "I would have the pleasure of your pretty face."

 Her hands, held rigidly at her sides, clenched into fists. He was dressed, she realized with mounting rage, in matching colors: black coat and half-cloak, a waistcoat of shining green and gold. It looked splendid on him, appropriately fey and enchanting - but she wanted nothing more than to slap his smiling face.

With s brief shout of frustration, she actually stamped her foot, the childish gesture sending loose tendrils of hair tumbling into her eyes. "I can't believe you!" she hissed. "You swoop in and make an entire mess of my life - I was happy with the way things were! I didn't need you re-arranging things to your taste!"

A sly grin. "But I think I have wonderful taste."

"And then you refuse to admit you've done anything wrong! That you have anything to apologize for!" She took a deep breath, feeling a strange mixture of excitement and frustration bubbling up from some hitherto secret place inside of her. "Every single time! You always do this!"

She paused, catching her breath, and he stared at her with something like amazement. They both disregarded the curious stares of the people around them.

"Sarah," the Prince began after a minute, consideringly, "you've only known me a fortnight."

"I know that," she muttered sulkily. "That doesn't mean I'm not right."

"A fortnight," he emphasized, not seeming to have heard her, "and already you distrust me completely." He sighed deeply, bringing one hand to his forehead and closing his eyes, as if against some intangible pain. "We are strangers to each other, and still you fight me." His pale, poetic profile suddenly gained a decidedly uncomplimentary peevish aspect, and he glared at her from beneath lowered lashes. "You are the most difficult woman I have ever met."

She crossed her arms defiantly. "You provoke me," she said pointedly. "Stealing my glove, sending me inappropriate gifts, that silly duel." She hugged herself even tighter. "Besides," she said quietly. "I know you."

He went very still. "No, you don't."

"Oh, I know we've only had each other acquaintance for a few weeks," she went on, "but - I don't know. You seem very familiar to me, somehow. As if we had spent years together."

He dropped his hand to his side. His stance was suddenly very open, losing the imperious air that so marked him apart from the crowd - but he was still somehow alien, somehow sharply defined against the blur of their humanity. "Even if that were true, Sarah," he said simply, looking her full in the face, "You still don't know me."

She blinked at his quiet intensity, ducking her gaze away. She hunched her shoulders, feeling awkward. "I came for my glove."

"What will you give me for it?"

She gave a loud sigh of exasperation. "I already wore your dress, and met you all the way out here. What more do you want of me?"

He looked thoughtful for a moment. "A dance."

"A dance?" She threw a glance to where the center of the plaza, where revelers were doing just that to a makeshift orchestra of violins. She turning back, she gave the Prince a wary look. "That's all?"

"That's all." He smiled slightly, eyes never leaving her. "I've always loved dancing with you."

She continued to scrutinize his face carefully, but he only held out his gloved hand. After another moment of consideration, she placed her naked palm in his own - to the sudden outburst of applause from onlookers. Realizing they'd been providing amusement to all these strangers for the last quarter of an hour, Sarah's face flamed red. 

"Another time," she said, obviously embarrassed, backing away as if to retreat into the anonymity of the crowd. He placed a gloved hand on her wrist, gentle but firm.

"I'm afraid I must insist," he said mildly. "Who knows when I'd next be able to attract your attention?"

She shot him a dark look. "You never had any trouble before."

He grinned mischievously. "You wouldn't believe how it thrills my heart to hear that, lady."

Sarah tried to tug free, pleading in her dark green eyes. "Please. perhaps some other time."

"Sarah." He turned over her wrist, exposing the delicate tracery of veins there. He lightly ran his fingers over the soft, vulnerable skin. "One dance."

She shivered, but he didn't look up. She licked suddenly dry lips. "Alright," she said softly. "One dance."

He smiled. He gently encased her hand in both of his, leading her over to the other dancers, who watched them both with ill-concealed amusement. The Prince drew Sarah to him, placing one hand on her waist and taking up her hand in the other. Quietly, she placed her left hand on his shoulder, casting her eyes about those who surrounded them. Men with their hair falling loose about their shoulders and girls in bright sleeveless bodices all grinned at her, whispering in their partners' ears. She flushed under their curious gazes, fair skin coloring.

"Do you know how to dance the furlana?" the Prince asked, voice soft.

"I'll learn," she replied grimly, trying to ignore those inquisitive looks.

He laughed low in his throat. "That's my girl."

The impromptu orchestra, also watching from the corner of the square, looked at each other and shrugged. With one fluid movement they set bows to strings - and the dance began.

The furlana is a fast, sweeping dance, as different from the stiff, practiced dances of the court as one can get. It is hugely popular among the lower - and the upper - classes, as it attempts to embody the true Italian ideal: love, and flirtation.

Sarah danced well. At first she did it out of defiance - following the Prince's strong lead so she wouldn't trip and make a fool of herself, watching other girls out of the corner of her eyes so she would do as well. She copied the way they held their hands, the turn of their hips, the tilt of their heads. After a while, however, the music infected her - quickening her blood and her steps alike with sharp arpeggios and plaintive cries. The world spun around her: dazzling fabrics and laughing faces flashed by her eyes, the singing of the violins and the chatter of the crowd filling her ears, and the weight of her own heavy skirts was the only thing that seemed to anchor her within the circle of the Prince's arms. Unconsciously, she began to mimic the same coy, teasing looks the other girls threw to their partners, glancing up at the Prince through her dark hair, brushing up against him as they passed. His strange eyes widened, and there was a faint stumble in his step - slight reaction in any other man, but she knew it to be evidence of his complete surprise. The laughter practically spilled out of her, and at last, she danced for the joy of it.

The music ended abruptly. The dancers stopped, exchanging friendly kisses and curtsies. Breathing fast, Sarah smiled openly up at her Prince, who was watching her with dark intensity.

"What?" Her smiled faded uncertainly. "Is something wrong?"

He swept her up in his arms without warning, crushing her to his chest. He held her so tight she could barely breathe, and she gasped at the suddenness of it.

After a long moment his hold loosened. He drew back slowly, cheek resting against her own. He rested his forehead against hers. "Thank you," he said, rough-cut hair tickling her face. He stepped away, drawing the errant glove out of her coat and pressing it into her hand. "Go," he spoke, voice hoarse. "Go on home."

She stepped backward, a little awkwardly, and was about to turn away when she hesitated, and turned back.

"Will you walk me there?" she asked simply.

He shook his head, laughing a little shakily. "No," he said. "I don't think I will." He gave her a slow smile, regaining his composure. "But don't think that I will forget the invitation."

She looked at him for a moment, and then, wordlessly, returned the smile.

Sarah returned home on her own, well before Nicole was finished with her outings. She slipped out of her dress and into a less incriminating garment, curling up in the small, sunlit study. She had a book ready, of course - but more often than not, the novel lay listlessly in her lap as she frowned in contemplation, hand resting on her chin - lost in thought.

Nicole burst in a few hours later, carrying the scent of alien perfumes and tobacco with her. Breathless, she dropped onto the footstool in front of her cousin, collapsing in a pool of flowered silk and roughened satin.

"Listen," she commanded. "Hear me out, please - that's all I ask. Just hear me out."

Eyebrows raised in surprise, Sarah nodded her agreement.

"Alright." Drawing a deep breath, Nicole began. "It will officially be summer in only a few days - less than a week. Aunt has no summerhouse, and with my father traveling we cannot use his. You know what that means - we will have to stay in Venice. And it will be boring, Sarah," Nicole implored. Moved by her own passion, she stretched out to place a gloved hand lightly on her cousin's arm. "It will be absolutely awful. No one stays in Venice over the summer - the heat is unbearable in August and the canals raise a stink that won't leave your hair for days." Her eyes widened at the sheer horror of it. "Everyone goes to their summerhouses in the country - those who cannot must lock themselves up in their homes and go masked if they venture to the Piazza, for fear of the shame of being seen. It's terrible."

"It does sound rather unbearable," Sarah admitted, "but what else can we do?"

Nicole drew another steadying breath, letting it out with a whoosh. "I was at Gabrielle's gambling party today - as you should have been, by the by --"

"I wasn't invited!"

"Oh, just because Gabrielle hates the attentions the Prince pays to you. When she heard he had stolen one of your gloves, she nearly snapped her fan in two." Nicole giggled wickedly. "But no one would have thought ill had you come. Probably would have been more exciting, with the two of you -" Sarah grinned at her chatter, and Nicole snapped her mouth shut. "Anyhow. A message was left for me by the Prince himself." Nicole grinned with unholy glee. "Gabrielle nearly spit blood! Ahem. As I was saying."


Nicole hesitated. "He has invited all of us - you, myself, Aunt, even her damn dog - to spend the summer with him. In his house in the country." Suddenly she was gripping both of her cousin's hands, words tumbling heedlessly out of her mouth. "Please, Sarah! I know you despise him, I know the two of you are constantly at odds, and that you hate the gossip that follows you both, but please! I will die if forced to stay here in Venice! I will throw myself into the canal with all my jewelry sewn into my petticoats and sink like a stone. Please, Sarah, I will do anything if you agree to go! I will buy you a new fan! Ten new fans! I'll teach you how to dance the furlana and steal the souls of men everywhere! I will kiss my Aunts godforsaken tame rat every single day, if you say yes. Please, please say yes."

Sarah was silent for a moment, gazing studiously into her cousin's face.

"Sarah!" Nicole wailed.


Nicole's mouth fell open in shock. "What did you say?!" she shrieked.

Sarah colored slightly, squirming where she sat. "I said, yes."

"Sarah," her cousin warned, grip on her cousin's hands tightening, "don't trifle with me. I'm apt to become violent.

"Fine, then" Sarah said, a little waspishly. She wrenched her hands free and picked up her book. "I take it back."

"Don't you dare!" Nicole ripped the book from her grasp. "Say it again. Swear you're serious."

Sarah crossed her arms, slightly vexed. "Yes! I swear!"

Nicole stared at her. Her eyes rolled back into her head, whites showing, and she slowly toppled off the footstool and fell to the floor with a thud.

"Nicole!" startled, Sarah leapt from her chair, rushing to kneel at her cousin's side. "Are you alright?"

Nicole, lying tangled in her own skirts, fluttered her eyes open. "I'm fine," she said dreamily. "I'm just dying from happiness."

A Forfeit of Dreams

A Labyrinth Story
by KL Morgan

Part 11 of 15

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