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The Last Carnival

By: N.J. Gomez

By N.J. Gomez Published 5 months ago 15 min read
1

March 26th, 1797

“Claudia shut the window! This chilly night air will be our death,” claimed Lady Helena.

“I already had Senora,” said young Claudia.

“Oh, Claudia please. If that were true, I would not be trying to warm myself by the fire, would I?”

“Yes Senora,” Claudia mumbled as she pressed the large golden frames of the master bedroom window shut. Claudia leaned against the window, marveling at the streets filling with people below. Men were forcing themselves into corsets and feathers adorned jeweled masks of velvet and soft wood. It was indeed still frigid in Venice, as chilled mountain air ventured down from the Alps into the main streets of the city. Despite the cold, Claudia knew that the streets would be overwhelmed with nobility and peasantry alike, mingling as equals. A small smile danced upon her lips.

“Claudia! Will I have to fix my hair also?” Lady Helena stated sharply causing Claudia to startle.

She hurried to her mistress’s side. “There will be time for enjoyment. Do not overindulge ,Claudia, I will need you later. Are you listening Claudia?”

“Si Senora,” Claudia began to pull her Lady’s unruly yellow curls back to be pinned. It was pearls and rubies today instead of her Ladyship’s casual simple gold clips. Tonight, was the last night of Carnival, after all. Claudia assessed each jewel as she carefully placed them into her mistress’s hair. She was not born to such luxury, nor would she see it again. At least that was what she considered when she slipped a ruby pin into her apron. Suddenly, the heavy double doors at the opposite end of the room jolted open, making Claudia jump back, and Lady Helena roll her eyes.

“Cara mia, the guests have been spotted on the canal. They are arriving and of course the Zoranzo family will be the first boat docked,” scoffed Lord Benzon di San Vidal. He insisted on adjusting the already set silver buttons adorning his jacket. The ridiculous puffed sleeves did nothing to steady Claudia’s now pounding heart.

“Augustin be civil. Lady Isabella is a great ally. Your last squabble with her husband cost us dearly. With the French at our doorstep, everything must go well tonight.” Lady Helena got up from the vanity, walked over to Lord Augustin and gently placed her hands over his. “Stop fidgeting,” Lady Helena said as she adjusted his collar.

“I don’t think you understand Helena,” he looked at her gravely as he held her hands still between his. “Doge Ludovico will be here.” Claudia watched Lady Helena’s face pale, noticeable even with the excess of rouge applied. She would think her Lord and Lady would be excited to receive the Doge considering he allowed for the Carnival to be held at their Palazzo this year. This all, despite the rising tensions between the Pope and the Republic of Venice. The Doge had said that a spectacle such as the Carnival only served the carnal needs of men. But for tonight, there was hope that the chaos of Carnival would bring about calm in more formal delegations.

Their voices dropped to harsh whispers before Lord Augustin kissed Lady Helena’s cheek, took her arm and began to escort her into the Grand Hall. They walked the painted halls, where the aromas of spiced meats and warmed cakes swept all around them. There was tension there also, and the excitement of the last night of unbridled freedom before Lent. They approached the broad marble staircase leading down towards the receiving balcony.

“Follow Claudia. Stay alert. And most importantly….” Lady Helena held Lord Augustin’s arm and stopped to face Claudia, causing her to stop abruptly near her mistress’s face. “Place my ruby pin back where you found it,” she spoke in a dangerous quiet. The kind laced with the promise of retribution.

Claudia’s eye grew wide “But Sen..n..ora… I did not....”

“If you lie to your mistress again, you will be gifted to the vagrants of the Carnival in the late hours of the night. They need something to appease their primitive appetites. You would cover the fare for safe passage in the streets quite aptly.” Augustin stated flatly. He did not look in her direction as he spoke.

Claudia would not speak. She only bowed her head and folded her hands in front of her. Hoping, naively, that she they would not address her further. She counted the roses on her skirt in her head, as she slowly let out a breath. What saved her, was the approach of the Lord’s head servant. Gustavo’s heavy steps summoned their attention to the base of the staircase.

“My Lord and Lady, the Zoranzo family has docked, the food is prepared, and the entertainment is in place at your command.” Gustavo bowed low, ever the stoic servant. His leather heels perfectly polished, and a simple brown mask rested on the bridge his very pointed nose.

“It begins,” Lord Augustin breathed out.

“It begins,” Lady Helena smiled excitedly at her husband. The Lady of the house was forever the optimist. The light in the room, the laughter in the halls. To Claudia, she was the jeweled whip at her back. She did not look up as her Lord and Lady stepped down into the balcony to receive the approaching vessels arriving on the canal. The slight tremor from her Lord’s hand as he held it behind his back, would be difficult to conceal.

After the first families arrived, music and warm fires wrapped the elegant room in an air of excitement and revelry. It was the last night of the Carnival, and the world would have to be placed back in order in the morning. The dread of that thought would not slow Lady Helena down. Every guest was greeted with kisses and a large glass of Venice’s most expensive wine.

This Carnival would be hosting royalty and the thought sent ambitious daydreams through Helena’s mind. No one would know that the jewels were borrowed, the dresses on loan and the food purchased with debt. They only needed to sustain these lies for one more night. Venice would recover from the threats of the French Armies. And in turn, so would the nobility, the true inheritors of the city. Helena thought it was easy enough. Her husband, on the other hand, had begun to sweat.

Italian wine and French champagne flowed freely. Lots were cast at every table, and new lovers spun across the room guided by the orchestra’s music played in allegro. Dance after dance, noble people and peasants freely crossed paths hidden behind masks of all sorts.

Claudia looked on as young maidens giggled and danced. These delights were out of place in a Palazzo as refined as this. Whispers began to spread across the room, of the arrival of French nobility. The masks made it impossible to be sure.

“Claudia, fetch my fan, the room is becoming stifling. Quickly, there are new guests to greet.”

Lady Helena seemed unbothered by the rumours of said visitors.

Claudia ran off to her task, avoiding dancers and servants mingling about the room. As she reached the top of the stairs, she heard a muffled noise coming from a receiving room off to her left. Claudia waited. This time she heard a male’s voice. Claudia looked up and down the hall, and then towards the stairs where the echo of laughter, music and shouts almost convinced her to change her mind. As she approached the door, a woman’s voice began to match the sounds her male companion was making. Claudia carefully opened the door, just a small amount, to find a young man seated on a chaise, while a young woman with a large, powdered wig sat on his lap. His mouth devoured hers as his hands worked to release her breasts from the confines of her corset. The young woman was not wearing her mask. Claudia spotted it on a short table a top a French blue cloak. The table was next to the door and within her reach. She watched as the young man lifted the woman’s skirts to reveal her bare knees and thighs. The young woman moaned her approval. And on that que, Claudia delicately grabbed the cloak and mask.

It was now midnight and the party in full crescendo. The feast had been consumed, and drunken games were being played. Helena noted that the warmth of the room was getting to her. She looked around at the masked faces in the hall, but she could not see Claudia.

A loud blast of trumpets played over the music in the hall and its patrons went quiet. Wine glasses were put down and lovers adjusted themselves. The Doge had arrived. Lord Augustin and Lady Helena find each other in moments and lock eyes. It is Augustin who moves first with Helena quick on his heels. The hosts break through to the front of the crowd as Doge Ludovico and his entourage cast shadows over the archway of the grand hall. The crowd drunkenly bows, and curtsies and it is Augustin who finally breaks the painfully awkward welcome.

“My Lord, what an honour it is for you to grace Carnival. Myself and my wife are humbled by your visit.”

The Doge slowly takes in the room, showing no signs of approval or disgust, which in Helena’s eyes, was productive.

“If the French and Austrians are to be entertained by our foods and wines, it is only practical they know who the purveyor of this wealth is.”

“My Lord, tonight is a night for the entire world. If the French and Austrians have chosen to attend, it is our duty as hosts to attend them. What better way towards peace then in sharing of wine?” Helena meekly proclaimed despite the desperate looks from her husband.

“Indeed,” the Doge said. The Doge and his entourage made their way across the now, quiet room towards the private suite off the Grand Hall. Although Carnival was allowed to proceed, the Doge’s pious ideals would hardly approve it. Augustin gave Helena a stern look as he followed, quickly queuing the musicians to continue. Helena was not frazzled by her husband’s concerns. This was a party and opportunity like none other. There was little that even the Doge could do to change that. Where was Claudia when she was needed, was Helena’s last thought as she began to search for the young girl.

Claudia had not gone far. Clothed in the blue cloak and dazzling ruby mask, she entered the Hall, every bit the lady she dreamed she would be. The music changed from its slow tempo to an upbeat polka and Claudia was instantly swept up with the crowd. She watched her feet as she tried to keep up with the other dancers when she felt a large hand press against the small of her back.

“Mademoiselle,” came the deep timbre from behind a black velvet mask. “Allow me to lead you in this dance. It would be my honour.” The gentlemen bowed his head. Claudia’s eyes widened as her breath hitched. Unsure, she began to look around, but the gentlemen gently clasped her hand and began to walk her towards the centre of the room. She slowly attempted to mimic his steps. Before she knew, she was being spun and pulled in all directions.

“You learn quickly, mon cheri.”

“You lead very well senor,” Claudia remarked.

“It is easy when a lady is so light on her feet. Tell me, mademoiselle, is it often that your mistress allows you such excursion?”

“I..I..have no mistress,” Claudia responded slowly.

The stranger stopped moving and assessed her, a smile played across his lips. With an arched eyebrow he confessed “You are quite the intriguing creature little one, but I should warn you against telling lies even on a night such as this. My lady will be missing her mask although it looks better on you.” Claudia schooled her features to be still, although sweat had begun to pool between the arches of her brow from the heaviness of the wooden mask.

“Claudia!”

Fear made Claudia’s blood boil. She felt a thin hand gripping her wrist pulling her towards the servant’s entrance into the alley. Before she could protest, she fell hard unto the ice-cold stones of the street, her elbow and knees would soon bruise.

“It is done, Claudia. You are done,” spoke lady Helena.

“But Senora…please, it was only a dance!” Claudia cried.

“You are 14 years old, Claudia! You are too old to be so stupid. Dancing with a French diplomat? Stealing from a French noble woman? Stealing from me?” Helena trembled with rage. “Get out. Consider this a mercy.” She let out a breath before plastering an exaggerated smile on her face and turned to walk back into the Hall.

Claudia would not cry. But she sat on those cold stones for a moment longer before she removed her mask.

“I did warn you child,” came that familiar timbre. “Lying leads to unnecessary discomforts.”

Claudia peered at the black mask in the night. She was not afraid, not for a moment. “I have lied too much senor. More than my mistress knows. If she only knew…how …her husband…,” Claudia wrapped her arms around herself as she forced the sob past her throat.

The French stranger extended his hand towards Claudia. Claudia reached up to clasp it.

“Your Lord and Lady are our hosts then? What of your Lord, mademoiselle?”

Back in the Hall, Helena was enjoying the gossip of the moment. Laughter echoed throughout the room as games of racing geese had the patrons falling over themselves with glee. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed the diplomat that Claudia had engaged with, was talking to a large man in a black cloak, a darkened wooden mask and leather gloves. She recognized the diplomat only by title. The dark man lifted his hand in a signal and Helena watched as two men in Austrian colours made their way towards the private suite of the Doge. A third was hurrying down the stairs, shirt untucked as the French noble woman followed, hiding her face with her fan. Helena dropped her wine glass, startling the other noble women and rushed towards the private suite. She could hear the angry protests from Augustin while Venetian soldiers unsheathed their swords and surrounded the Doge. A scream echoed throughout the hall, followed by many more as Gustavo lay dead, impaled by an Austrian sword.

“You must excuse the intrusion madams et monsieurs, but justice cannot wait,” began the booming voice of the dark stranger. The music ceased and all eyes turned towards the voice and the French soldiers standing behind him. The stranger removed his mask. A gasp escaped Helena’s mouth, for standing before her was Jean Lannes, the General of France.

“Although we can all agree, it is improper to mix pleasure with business.”

The Doge stepped out from his entourage and faced the General. “You come onto sovereign land, arrest a Lord, kill his servant, and call for justice? This is not France Senor Lannes.”

“I understand this may be new to you, but Venice is hardly to be considered sovereign anymore.”

“It has been brought to our attention that Lord Augustin Benzon di San Vidal, is not who he claims. He is a traitor!” began the French diplomat, now maskless and standing to the right of Augustin who was being held by his arms by two of the Austrian soldiers. “His insistence of hosting this party was to gather information, through his man servant, of French and Austrian movement, to the benefit of the Venetian Army. He betrays both France and Austria. This is in opposition of the commands of the Holy Father the Pope and your future sovereign Napoleon Bonaparte. Is that not correct Doge Ludovico?”

The guests were silent as they watched this drama unfold. Women held their hands over their hearts, and all were too drunk to properly react. Helena could do nothing but stare at her husband, tears starting to form in her eyes. All would be well, she thought. These accusations were unfounded. Unless...evidence and truth did not matter.

“We have a source that claimed specific instances of espionage in part of Lord Augustin. There is irrefutable evidence to that point as marked by this very party. The punishment for treason is death,” finished the diplomat.

The General stepped forward towards Augustin but faced the Doge. The Doge was pale, but he did not hesitate. “We are for Rome; we are for his Holy Father. If he has found Senor Napoleon Bonaparte worthy of leadership, then it is his laws we must follow.” With that the Doge all but ran as he turned towards the balcony to board his boat, followed by his soldiers and entourage.

“Your Lordship! I have committed no crime!” cried Augustin. His eyes fell upon Helena, wide as a short blade held by a French soldier pierced his chest. Helena did not scream, but hot tears escaped behind her mask, as Augustin crumpled to the floor.

“The end of these pagan festivals is upon you. I would consider your loyalties and sins carefully. For tonight, please feel free to enjoy the rest of party. It would be wasteful otherwise.” The General raised his glass before dropping it at the feet of a deceased Lord Augustin.

Upon the exit of the General and his men, the looting began. All around her, men and women, peasant and noble, ripped their treasures from the walls, floors, and halls. Helena stayed rooted to her spot, unable to move or make a sound. She did not know how long she stood there before she fell to her knees, but the pillaging of the Palazzo had settled. The bodies of the dead left untouched.

Helena felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to see a smiling Claudia looking down on her.

“Senora, I am so sorry. I do not know who could have given the diplomat that kind of information. It is terrible, isn’t it?” Helena only blinked. “But I found your ruby pin. It was only lost. May I help you to your room Senora? You must be tired.” Helena nodded absently and took

Claudia’s hand.

“Grazie Senora. This really was a beautiful carnival.” Fin.

HistoricalShort Story
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About the Creator

N.J. Gomez

I am an aspiring writer from Ontario, Canada. My field of experience and degrees are in Social Work and Political Science. I am currently working on a series of children's stories and I love to read mystery, romance, and fantasy.

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