Tia looked down at her legs in the silk leggings; a bit thin, but then she was dressed as a page. No one would necessarily expect a page to be muscular. She twirled around in front of the mirror, the jacket fit as though it had been made for her, the short trousers well decorated so that her other shortfall for a masculine body was not apparent.
A tap on the door, so quiet she almost missed it. “Are you ready?” he whispered. There he stood, her brother Aldo, looking like a nobleman in his sleek black suit and cape. His height and build suddenly seeming both more and less. More authority, less of the builder. As he moved the dark wine-red lining of his cape showed briefly, like a memory of colour against the black.
Tia nodded and picked up the mask with her gloved hand as he held his mask. They looked at each other and put them on. As the masks touched their skin they moulded on. 12 hours the man had promised. Enough time to get there and back with no-one able to tell who they were at a glance.
Out into the street, leaving the modest hotel behind. Along the walkway and suddenly they were in the main street, filled with people all dressed in costumes, some fanciful, some gross, and some who seemed to just be themselves. Although maybe like her they had taken on another persona for the night.
The music, dancing lights along the canal, the jostling people, and the entertainers, each with a small space around them as people watched and some threw them coins. She felt entranced, in a magic world.
Carnivale! An alternate reality, for one night only in the year, all rules suspended. Although any major crimes would be followed up as well as possible. This was her first time. Aldo, her brother came every year, and last year met a woman who, he said, had stolen his heart away. They had agreed to meet this year, and at her request in their normal clothes. Her brother explained he was sure she was a great lady, and to win her he would have to appear as a noble, the accompanying page a necessity for any of them. So Aldo had persuaded a friend to ‘borrow’ the clothes from where he worked.
On they wandered, Aldo sometimes pushing ahead faster than she would have liked. So much to see, hear, smell, guess. Then at last they came to the public gardens. Laid out in squares for dancing, tables between with scurrying waiters.
Aldo merged with the crowd, seemingly at home with their manners and behaviour. This was not the brother she knew, he really seemed to be a nobleman. Now and then some woman would touch his arm, and they would dance off for a while. She hadn’t know he could dance so well.
Aldo moved easily through the crowd, she found it easiest to be right behind him, like a small vehicle, using the wind of his passing to pull her along in close attendance and faster than she would have managed alone. Suddenly he stopped. Tia walked right into him, making him take an inadvertent step forward. She peeped round past his shoulder and saw not one young woman but two. Both wearing the pale blue the mysterious woman had promised to wear. One lavishly dressed as befitted a noblewoman, the other very plain, an attendant. Both also wearing cling-masks so that no-one would recognise them.
He walked up to them and bowed, as would a nobleman to the lavishly dressed woman. “My lady, I have come as promised” he began. The woman took a step forward and put out her hand. A slender hand, obviously unused to work of any kind. He took it in his big hand, the gloved one, bowed over and kissed her hand.
Then they moved off to the dance floor, leaving the ‘page’ and attendant alone. Tia looked at the woman and felt a sense of comfort. Here was a woman of their own kind. She smiled, then realised smiles looked forced under the masks. The woman looked at her and said “What a pity he did not recognise me. But then as he is noble I can’t really expect him to be in love with me.”
Tia felt thunderstruck. Who was the woman Ado was dancing with if this was the woman he met the previous year? “Who is that woman?” she whispered, leaning closer so that the femaleness of her voice did not betray her.
“That is Lady Eida, my mistress. The only way I could be free to come this evening was with her. Unfortunately she wanted us both to wear the same colour. Now he will be in love with her, and my heart will never recover.”
Tia looked at her brother dancing stiffly with the woman in blue, and back to her companion. A tear trickled down the cheek of her companion. “What is your name” Tia asked. “Juli”, replied the woman. The name on her brothers lips for a year! No mistaking it, and here he was whisking the wrong woman off to dance, and maybe to elope as was not unknown on this night.
The music stopped briefly, Ado and Lady Eida were returning to them, Ado holding her hand high as was the custom of the nobles. When they returned to Tia and the attendant, Ado bent over Lady Eida’s hand, kissed it and said “My Lady I thank you for the dance, but I fear my heart is not what it was last year. I cannot lie to you.”
Tia was about to speak when Ado suddenly jerked sideways, falling into her. As he fell she could see the knife sticking into his chest, still quivering from the blow.
Tia called out “Ado”, but Juli was even faster, catching him and cushioning his fall with her own body. Lady Eida shrieked, and was suddenly surrounded by three men in noble dress, not wearing masks. They hastened her away, leaving no time for explanations.
Tia and Juli sat on the ground with Ado, who was already dying, frothy blood trickling from his mouth and nose as he tried unsuccessfully to breathe.
Each of them holding his hand they sat, as his struggles to breathe stopped. No one would offer much help, it had been too obvious who the attackers were. No one in the city dared to talk about Lord Watten, the ruler, and his family who had become so powerful no one dared to resist them.
Juli had tears running down her face, the mask wrinkling a little. “My poor lady, she said, only one dance of freedom ever, they are forcing her to marry to support their political needs. And now I’ll be thrown out, for helping her, when really she was helping me come to meet Ado. Obviously when he realised I was only a maid he would not have wanted me, but I did love him.”
Tia took her hand sadly, across Ado’s body and said “Juli, we too are not noble, but Ado so wanted you he was prepared to do anything, even pretend to be who he was not to gain you.”
Juli, confused by the words of a page, stood and looked down at the two of them in their rich fabrics and said “If he’d really loved me then he would have come dressed as himself, as I did.”