part I: chapter 4

Soundtrack: INXS “Elegantly wasted” (click here to listen)

Smile had curved Gaia’s lips even before she had been fully awake and opened her eyes. She could have sworn there had been music in her dream. A softly flowing melody that had the rhythm of her heartbeat or that of waves, she wasn’t sure. And embrace. Warm as sunlight in spring. Arms that held her and seemed to promise freedom from all her monsters. And the smell of snow, leather, wind and burning fire. And jasmine. It all blended into the most soothing sensation she had ever felt. As though the world was suddenly void of worries, as though she was taken out of time and all that remained was serenity and bliss. The events of last night now felt like an extremely vivid dream instead of something real, and dreams weren’t meant to scare. Were they?

In the meantime Venezia had woken up to streets that were literally crammed with snow. It wasn’t the soft powdery kind of snow. It was the wet kind that reminded Gaia of cotton. And while the city had slept truckloads of cotton had been dumped onto it. The wet, heavy snow cotton covered everything – streets, gondolas and the piazza, it was sliding off roofs, awnings and every slanted surface it had found itself on. Nature had copied this “look” from a story book or a postcard, there was no denying that, and the snow that continued to fall and cause havoc with an ever increasing intensity only added to the strange, slightly irritating magic.

But then – upon its touch with the pavement – wet snow cotton met salt. Had nobody ever told these two they were to avoid close encounters by any means necessary? The magic was evaporating, getting poisoned. Fast. It was dreadful. And it turned the narrow streets into an ocean of watersnow, ankle deep in some places. Gaia had cringed stepping into yet another of such puddles – the only way around it would have been by flying, a talent she certainly had craved that moment but had lacked and there had been no changing that. Water had been seeping in where the stitches of her worn leather boots were threatening to come undone at any moment. In fact she had almost been able to imagine the leather falling off piece by piece and leaving her standing ankle deep in the watersnow, sox being the only – useless and non existent – protection. I seem incapable of choosing appropriate footwear. Constantly.

Gaia had felt the acqua alta of despair rising within her. Please, don’t. Please, don’t give up on me… She had aimed a pleading thought at her boots as though it was in the power of these inanimate objects to change the circumstances. She had only hoped the boots would hold. Just enough to let her get to the mask studio in Dorsoduro.

Now Gaia had a thundering headache. It seemed someone had set up a massive anvil in her brain and was hammering away at it like there was no tomorrow. She winced, covering her face with her palms. The idea to close the studio early had been ridiculously tempting, however, today Anna and the studio’s owner Lucrezia were out of town so there was nobody left to replace her. On any other day she might have been able to get away if the shop remained closed, but today that was not an option for there was an appointment – and Lucrezia had made extra emphasis on the fact that it was an extremely important one – so Gaia had had no choice but to stay in this world of masks with the blacksmith relentlessly banging away in her head.

The first part of the day at the studio had been a torture. Gaia had spent most of it sitting by the massive desk and blindly staring at the half-finished steam punk mask in front of her. She had taken several pills to cure the murderous headache, but there seemed to be no way of stopping the blacksmith still hammering in her head. Several tourists had wandered into the studio but all they had done – no surprise – was ooh and aah at Lucrezia’s exquisite creations before diving back into the maze of streets, however, the man who was supposed to come and pick up his costume had not showed up yet. I will murder him – whoever he is – if he makes me wait till the evening.

Gaia had just returned from a nearby bar where she had grabbed a few cichetti, hoping to stuff up the evil drummer boy in her head with food or to drown him with water, and sat down at the desk when somebody woke up the doorbell.

She had seen her share of interesting characters walk through the studio doors, but those were usually on their way out, dressed up in fancy costumes. This one was coming in. It was a man in his late thirties dressed in dark pants tucked into knee high biker style boots, black tailored jacket that seemed to be stitched together from pieces of various fabrics and dark teal shirt with unbuttoned collar and some print Gaia couldn’t make out without blatantly staring at him. He had a dark leather shoulder bag he wore cross-body style and there were what appeared to be swirling design tattoos running down the sides of both his palms and a bunch of bracelets made of different materials on both his wrists. For some reason she had imagined him to be a foreigner, however, he greeted Gaia in perfect Italian.

“I’m Damiano.” The words he spoke were flowing fluidly like water, his voice a hypnotic baritone. “Lucrezia told me I can pick up my costume today.”

Finally. “Yes.” Gaia forced herself to stand up and cross the room to the massive wardrobe that was cleverly disguised in the studio’s interior to appear much smaller than it actually was. She opened the exquisitely encrusted doors and reached for a dark costume bag hanging right in front. She took the bag and, giving a quick glance over her shoulder, noticed Damiano looking curiously at the mask she had been trying to work on.

“I believe this one is yours.” Gaia said, walking over to him with the costume bag in hand. She checked the name tag that read “Nelo Parris”. “Strange, Lucrezia must have forgotten to change the name tag. I will replace it for you.”

Gaia was about to take off the tag tied to the hanger with a black silk ribbon when Damiano touched her hand, which was surprisingly warm although Gaia had been certain he was freezing in his attire.

“No need. Everything is exactly as it should be.” He smiled, taking the costume bag from her, his eyes sparkling. “That is a beautiful mask you have there.” He made a slight nod in the direction of her work station. “Will you be wearing it to the carnival?”

Gaia shook her head. “I don’t think so.”

“Why not? Are you making it for someone else?”

Standing so close to Damiano in the space of the studio that suddenly felt too small for both of them she could feel he smelled of wind, leather, snow and burning fire. And jasmine. Curious and strange. “No, I’m not going to any carnival events.” Suddenly she desperately wished this man would leave, yet he seemed to be in no hurry to do so.

“You can turn your walking the streets into an event in itself if you wore this.”

“Right.” Gaia chuckled.

“I’m serious.”

“I’m not one who craves attention.” Rather the opposite. Gaia tried to sound nonchalant as she went back to the closet and closed its doors. That voice… Echoes of some long vanished events were roaming the furthest hallways of her memory’s palazzo, but failed to come close enough for her to recognize them, their voices muffled and words indistinguishable.

“Come to the Ball of Mirror Shadows with me.”

She turned, feeling astonished. “Pardon?”

“Come to the Ball of Mirror Shadows with me.” He repeated his words.

“We don’t even know each other.”

“So? There are still three weeks to go. We’ll have plenty of time to get acquainted.” He was still standing by the desk casually holding the costume bag over his shoulder by the hook of the hanger.

Gaia had never considered herself the most eloquent of people, but now she was truly lost for words. “Well…”

“Say yes, Gaia.”

“You know my name?”

“Lucrezia mentioned it.”

Gaia glanced at the mask on her desk – a whimsical creation that looked like a lovechild of a dark gothic god and a steampunk angel – and smiled to herself. She wanted to say no, but before she managed to stop herself, she heard her voice say, “All right, I will go with you.”

“Wonderful.” Damiano walked to the door, and looked at her. “I will see you soon then.”

As the studio’s door closed behind him, Gaia realised that her headache was gone.

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