Playing The Fool

Entry by: Briergate

27th April 2016
The Masked Ball

She'd taken a gondola from her hotel to the island of Murano, taking care to lift the hem of her gown as she stepped from the boat to the wooden pier. She paused for a moment looking about her, drinking in the riot of colour as fellow party-goers laughed and chattered, swarming from water taxis to congregate on the wide steps of the palace.

Everywhere she looked, there were people in ball gowns and elaborate suits, dancing, taking crafty sips from flasks concealed beneath shawls, lifting their masks to whisper or drink. For this one evening each year, every person was equal. Servants and lords, women and men, were all the same; concealed, intriguing, and mysterious.

Colombina smoothed down her dress and adjusted her hair, arranging her hair so that it fell in two smooth streams at either side of the elaborate black and gold mask. She smiled as she glanced in to the Venetian canal, and saw a new reflection peeking back. Instead of her usual demure outfits and plaited hair, she looked wild and dazzling, the mask lending her a new confidence as it disguised her completely. The black silk and gold braid on her gown added to the mysterious image, and it felt liberating to adopt a new poise, a new personality, if only for this one night of festivities.

Walking quickly up the steps to the palace entrance, Columbina took a deep breath as she considered her task for the evening. She found herself seeking out each male before her as they jostled to enter in to the ballroom, looking for a particular broad shoulder and wide gait, which she knew she would recognise even though the bearer would be disguised as well as she was. It didn’t take long; she felt the jolting flush of recognition even before her eyes confirmed it; he was here.

Circling behind him, she watched as Arlecchino laughed and danced among a large group, as always commanding the floor with his humour and charisma. His outfit was dazzling. He wore a harlequin suit of vibrant reds, yellows and blues, completed by the white mask with diamond tears patterning each cheek. He was easy to track, and Columbina relaxed, taking a flute of champagne from one of the waiters hovering at the periphery of the room, and lifting her mask just enough to sip the bitter cool wine.

The music surged more loudly as the party atmosphere grew. Everywhere, women danced with men, none knowing whom their partner was, and Columbina let herself be led to the ballroom floor by a series of jesters, phantoms and elegantly-suited lords. She danced with a new freedo,. Revelling in her anonymity, while never once relaxing her gaze from Arlecchino. She spoke little, letting the music fill her with gaiety, and her steps grew more elaborate as the tempo of the band became faster and the dancers more wild.

Finally, out of breath, she walked through to the balcony and leaned a gloved hand upon the stone wall, looking down at the gardens and fanning herself. The music faded behind her, and she thought about why she was here, and what she wanted to achieve. She startled as someone placed a warm hand on her shoulder, making her spin around.

It was him. Arlecchino was in front of her, raising her gloved hand to his lips in an elegant kiss. She blushed beneath her mask and felt grateful again of the cover it provided. She inclined her head to one side as he gazed at her, taking in the cinched waist of her gown, and the way her cream skin bloomed above the daringly low neckline.

"I have been watching all of the women here, this evening, and yet none of them come close to being as beautiful as you," he commented, and Columbina inclined her head again, taking her finger and tracing his jaw with a single finger. She smiled to herself as he shuddered, and felt the power she suddenly wielded over him. Still, she would not speak.

"What is your name?" he asked her, and she shook her head, placing a finger over her lips and offering him her hand. Together, they walked the periphery of the ballroom, stepping in the shadows to avoid the throng of dancers who had reached heightened levels of exhilaration and excitement, fuelled by the endless supply of champagne and the extravagant music.

Arlecchino tucked her hand possessively under his arm and guided her to the doorway of the ballroom, and outside to the gardens they had been looking down at. Columbina felt the prickle of tension in the back of her neck, and she shivered with nervousness and the cool evening air. Noticing, Arlecchino removed his colourful cape and draped it around her shoulders, and she nodded her thanks as they strolled through the gardens to the unlit bandstand near a fountain.

Arlecchino didn’t seem to be deterred at all that she would not speak, and Columbina wondered if her silence made her somehow more of a conquest for him. Of course, he had always liked a conquest. She smiled to herself, thinking how she had known that he would seek her out. Her wig, her mask and gown; everything had been done just to attract his attention. She could not help but feel smug knowing how swiftly and effectively she had ensnared him.
She sat by the fountain, allowing him to pull her close as he whispered romantic nonsense in to her ear. She felt surreptitiously in the concealed pocket of her gown to reassure herself that the knife was still there in the soft silk bag. Her gloved hand gripped the ivory handle and she let her thumb play over the sharpened edge as he spoke. She remained motionless as he moved to unlace her gown a little, to more easily trail his fingers across the swelling of her breasts beneath.

"You remind me so much of someone…." he whispered, and she shrugged, looking away over the fountain towards the brightly-lit palace windows, where masked dancers were fanning themselves in the cool air on each balcony.

He had not changed, then. Not at all. Still the arrogant, self-confident and hedonistic person who had taken all she had, only to leave her when she had become just a shell of herself, with nothing behind the mask but the bitter hopelessness of betrayal. Yes, he dressed as a jester and played the fool, but beneath his gaudy exterior he had a soul as dark as the deep waters of the canal. He was an incubus, sucking out the light and hope of every woman whom he claimed, only to discard them when their light was extinguished.

She turned to him, and smiled.
"As do you, Arleccino," she commented, and felt his hand still as he recognised her voice.

"You?" he asked, drawing away from Columbina as if she had burned him. She reached out and pulled off his mask, and then her own, and the two sat staring in to each other's eyes for a moment. He looked disgusted, and Columbina gazed in to his horrified face for a moment longer, before taking the knife and quickly plunging it in to his heart.

"Yes. Me," she whispered, as the blood seeped in crimson blossoms across his harlequin chest and he slumped, eyes wide and staring.
"Columbina. The servant. The one who didn’t matter. The one whom you used, and discarded. Columbina, whom you called your 'Little Dove'. The one you replaced, again and again, when she was no longer affording you pleasure."

Standing, Columbina replaced her mask quickly and stepped away from Arlecchino's body, running in shadow until she neared the lights of the palace once more. She glanced down swiftly to check for any sign of what had taken place, pausing to wipe the blade of her knife on the black folds of her gown, and smooth down her hair and skirts.

She didn’t glance back at the fountain, but walked with purpose through the drunken throng of revellers and out to the front of the palace, to the gondolas queuing to take the guests home. She allowed herself to be guided in to one, sitting demurely as the boat pulled away from the wooden pier, to return her to the hotel where she worked, where Arlecchino had first seduced her.

The music faded, replaced by the calm ripple of the canal, and Columbina removed her mask, let her hair fall freely, and allowed herself to be lulled by the gentle swaying of the gondola as she looked up at the stars, and smiled.