A cursory examination of my person (ridiculously small, pixie ears, round nose, likes mushrooms, only furry feet missing) is proof of my Shire-ish origins. So here I am, looking forward to distribute presents on my birthday.
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And Happy Valentine!
Who sets the mood
was a dazzling, swirling maelstrom of beauty. I smiled enraptured at every mask, every feathery, lacy wig and diadem that passed under my lofty look out at the top of the steps of the station.
I had hardly set foot into the city, and I was already drugged with the sensual beauty of the Carnival.
All but the drunkest wore furs and velvets to keep out the cold wind and the pale sand blowing in from the desert. Under the heavy cloaks, the finest laces, beads and pearls twinkled, shone and glittered at every step. Every cut of dress, every shape of mask and hairstyle, every manner of costume was represented in this magnificent free-flowing parade of sartorial skill, but all the costumes had one thing in common: they all were black, their somberness relieved by silver, gold, glittering gems and glimpses of silky bodies, white powdered hair, sparkling eyes, laughing mouths. Long slashes in the rich skirts and sleeves showed skin and shapes, veiling, unveiling, revealing, suggesting. The real carnival fineries would be uncovered more boldly in the sheltered porches, arcades and patios and in the echoing grand halls of the palaces of the old city.
The Grand Canal was a glittering river of reflected flames, a stream of liquid fire snaking across the town, carrying on its shimmering surface a harlequin flotilla of quiet power boats, gaudy lantern-dressed galleys, tiny sandolos, colorful racing caorlinas, fast, rakish viperas, heavy, slow barges full of luggage and merchandise, automated waterbuses packed with passengers. And, of course, shiny, black gondolas, with tall curvy prows and sterns, and nimble gondoliers who stood at their single oars waiting for passengers, or darted their long boats around with marvelous ability, turning in and out of narrow side-canals, cheerfully unconcerned by the throng of craft that crowded the water. The sharp steel figureheads of the gondolas often passed within an inch of the next boat, brushing but always avoiding by just a hairbreadth some disastrous collision.
The din was deafening.
a sea of revelers. Here were the most imposing costumes I had seen in the town. Human figures made huge by vast winged cloaks, tall head-dresses and fabulous feathery crowns seemed to sail over the packed crowds like black swans. But in truth nobody was sailing anywhere, because the throng was too packed even to walk. Crawling sideways through the press was all anyone could do. The quayside was alight with lanterns and shining fairy lights, and the moored galleys were all alive with parties on the decks. Here everyone wore masks, though not everyone wore clothes, but mostly they still had the good sense to keep their cloaks on against the chilly wind. I suspected that this might change later, at night.
We pushed our way over the worst of the crowd which was more or less stationed in the older part of the harbor and finally made it over the Ponte della Paglia, where the press seemed to be a bit thinner. On top of the bridge Lukan, who had been silent in the Piazza, where the din was simply too great for talking, gestured back towards San Marco.
“You must come in the morning if you want to see the palace and the cathedral. Hopeless after twelve.”
I nodded. He was fastidiously pulling back some locks of hair that had gone astray during the passage of the square and adjusting the embroidered wrists of his coat. He gave a vague wave towards the Bridge of Sighs, the Columns of San Marco and San Teodoro and the Campanile, clearly assuming that I knew already what was what and that there wasn’t any need to explain anything. He was only half right. I had hardly had time to really study maps and guides of NeuVenedig, and for the time being I was just lost in the general beauty of the place, unable to tell one magnificent building from the next.
As for him, he looked down a bit disgusted on the crowd in the Piazzetta. Later on I would learn he was mostly disgusted by having been squeezed, handled and fondled by half the revelers we had crossed on the way. Even in a mask and cloak his blond hair, elegant figure and pale eyes attracted quite a bit of attention, and he was a conspicuous target for many a roving hand in the crowd. I didn’t know at the time that it was quite a rare occurrence for him to cross San Marco during the height of the Carnival. The long walk along the Riva degli Schiavoni was easier; the crowd dwindled almost to nothing by the time we passed by the Arsenal, and the paved waterfront was empty when we reached the yacht quay. The solar yachts were a far more somber apparition than the galleys. Squatting silently under their solar shields, useless in this season, they waited for summer and the endless sunny day of NeuVenedig. Lukan walked up to a particular boat, which was moored far out towards the public gardens, almost at the eastern limit of the city. She was not very large, but not one of the smaller craft either. She looked like a true ship, at a time when yachts were often built to resemble something else: primitive rafts, sea animals, coral islands. This boat had a long, slender hull, black, with a long white stripe running its whole length, and golden scrollwork at the two ends. She had a luxurious yet rakish, fast look about her, like an old-fashioned clipper ship.
Lukan gave a crisp vocal command. “Alhambra, plank!” A gangplank shot out of the side towards the pier. He gestured me to follow him, and I stepped in awe on board the beautiful boat.
“This is mine. I don’t use it in winter obviously, but it should be comfortable enough for you, if you don’t mind the walk. You can always take a gondola to get home, if it’s too far. At least it’s quiet here. Sometimes I feel like moving in myself at this time of the year.”
He showed me around until I was speechless with wonder that I could spend six weeks in such spectacular accommodations. It was better than any luxury hotel, and indeed more private than the most private guest room.
“You must make yourself at home, Ivory, empty the galley, use the bar, the sauna, anything you need.” He waved his hand around absent-mindedly. “This is the Carnival. Feel free to bring guests.” He winked at me.
“Oh, and one last thing!” he said, on the way out. “I have a young friend, a girl about your age, whom you should meet. She will be delighted to show you around. She’s better company than I am. I will see that you two get together tomorrow or the day after, as soon as you are settled in. Have a good night’s sleep now. You’ll need to be rested before tasting the Carnival.”
He gave me a mischievous grin, kissed my hand, and with a last bow and flourish of his silver-headed walking cane, he walked out into the night.