Rating: PG in this section.
Summary: Junsu searches Venice with only the scent of another man to guide him.
Set a couple of years after Red Windmills.
It began simply with a kiss.
Their mouths met, soft and yielding, trapping a drop of wine between them. The pinot noir was dark, rich and tasted of pressed cherries, an intoxicating oak fragrance released in the heat of their lips. Around them, Carnivale raged, the night growing deep and starred with candles and soft lights. Music played somewhere nearby, a long sweet melody of loss and betrayal but neither heard a note, not with the sound of their own murmurs echoing in their ears.
One wore a papier-mâché half-bauta, gilded and baroque. It was new, bought from a mask maker on the west canal and sparkled with inlaid paste gems that matched his lust burgundy and gold clothes. The doublet fit snug across his chest, laced with black cords and trimmed with a thin ebony silk ribbon. His trousers were black, although the costumer insisted burgundy would look better but he was happy with the contrast. Even happier that the dark velvet hid his excitement when the other man’s fingers brushed his.
The other bore a simpler costume, a black leather domino creased and worn with age. His long body wore the thief’s costume well, suede breeches tucked into calf-length boots too broken in and comfortable to be just for show. A white linen shirt ruffled at the nape and cuffs with yellowed delicate lace as if stored in a chest for a few decades and brought out solely to contrast the man’s velvety, tanned skin.
They touched again, briefly laving at the corners of their mouths. The leather masked man cupped the other’s face, frustrated by the white and gold masque that kept him from stroking the other man’s cheeks with his thumbs but he knew Carnivale was a time when the elite could mingle with the gutter and none would say a word.
In the weeks before Ash Wednesday, Venice transformed to a land of exotic demons, sultry witches and cold-faced marionettes. It was the only time when he felt comfortable walking among them, hiding his face and dark almond eyes from the crowds. The domino protected him, more than any fist or cudgel could, veiling his oddity from prying eyes.
It was chance. A touch of fingers on his palm and then hands along the small of his back. Discovering the person touching him was a man was a surprise but the warmth of his mouth was welcome. Even more so, the round lush backside pressing into his palms when he let his hands wander down the other’s back.
He felt like money; smooth old coins and aged sweet wine. The doublet he wore was smooth, despite the elaborate embroidery picked out in gold thread. The lace tickling their chins was soft, tatted with silken care, brilliant ivory compared to his own time-dulled yellow.
But he tasted like sin.
For the man in burgundy, this was no simple kiss. It filled his soul, reaching deep into the darkness he coaxed back with sunshine smiles and witty charm. The moon lay on the other man’s tongue, shining silver light into the shadows he thought would never see the radiance of day. He needed more but there were too many layers of cloth between his hands and the warm skin of the man he held… of the man who held him in return. Frustrated and needy, he moaned, a slithering wanton sound that promised melted wax puddles after a long stormy night of passion.
The world faded around them, the costumed revelers becoming wisps of colour and light. There was no more music, just the sound of their mouths and breath mingling and the rough of their tongues danced slowly with the drunkenness of enraptured pleasure. The stars were gone, burnt out of the sky by the fire stoked between them. The universe stopped, slowed and captured in a burgundy and black amber kiss.
And then he was gone.
Carnivale erupted into a frenzy around them, pulling them apart and dragging them along like flotsam. A hurricane of people beat at their embrace, rendering them helpless to stop the tide tearing them in two. Hands pulled at their shoulders, arms and legs and voices begged for them to enjoy the night with others. ‘A sip of wine!’, someone shouted. ‘Dance with me!’, a woman gasped. ‘Sin with me!’, another man whispered.
Then they were lost to one another with only the moon to shed tears over their shattered kiss.
One Year Later
The lower floors of Ca’ Vendramin Calergi bustled with servants, many burdened with ornate costumes and headgear while others carried hand-written invitations closed with personal wax seals to guests staying during the Carnivale season. Suite doors were left open despite their occupants’ various stages of undress, a few of the newly arrived waiting for an entre to one of the important galas being thrown.
Two special guests of the Count de' Bardi and his wife, Her Royal Highness Infanta of Portugal, had no such worries. The silver tray near their door spilled over with intricately embossed parchments, many gilded and heavily ribboned. A few were plucked out for perusal by the mistress of the suite, her sensual mouth pulled into a contemplative pout as she read through the evening’s selections.
“Shall we begin at the party Gabriele d'Annunzio is throwing?” She asked her youngest son, absently tossing the parchment on a stack of possibilities.
The woman wore a loose robe of her signature colour, its rich scarlet satin a vibrant frame for her pale golden body. A crimson gown lay on the dressing table, stretched out to prevent any wrinkles that might ruin the silk. Delicate pink pearls strands waited for her neckline, elegantly positioned near her evening’s attire. Her exotic Pan-Asian features were already dusky from a thick line of kohl and swirls of powder although a golden-white cat mask adorned with a mane of golden feathers would cover her face.
“Susu? Did you hear me?” She asked, thoughtfully staring at the line of her youngest’s back. Here in Venice, she was known as Signora di Cremisi and while others called her Mistress, her beloved sons often called her nuna, a thoughtful consideration to acknowledge her youthful beauty. “And has your costume been delivered yet? I haven’t seen it.”
“I’m wearing the burgundy and black,” He replied, watching the gondolas drift down the Grand Canal.
He was considered too pretty for some in Venice’s high society, usually by older men he’d refused to spend time with. Others thought he looked cold despite his angelic face. The fashion of the day for men called for stiff lines, high collars and padded jackets but he eschewed these sensibilities in favour of a cut of clothes that hugged his slender waist and set off his shoulders and long legs. While other men were waxing mustaches, he remained clean shaven and his heavily lashed sloe eyes were the envy of many Venetian women. Despite these failings, his husky voice was a bright beacon for laughter in many drawing rooms and he was well-known to be a willing and able partner to those unfortunate daughters left to the wall during dances.
But each night, he left the parties and ballrooms alone, taking leave of the festivities with a solemn, regretful lack of companionship.
“You wore that last year,” Cremisi frowned, wondering what had gotten into him. “You can’t be seen wearing the same costume two years in a row. People will think I’d not paid my bills to the tailor.”
“Let people think what they want, nuna,” Junsu said, crossing the room to lean against the back of the settee. “I need to be wearing what I wore last year… in case he is looking for me.”
She sighed and lightly stroked his cheek. Her fingers touched his damp skin, drawing back with the silver of his tears. “Are you still pining for your scoundrel? It’s been a year, darling. He might not even be in Venice.”
“No,” Junsu shook his head and kissed his sorrow from her fingers. “He felt — alone. Shadowed. Like he lived in the echoes of Venice and only surfaced to be among the bright colours and lights of the city when he can hide among the thousands.”
“You were also the romantic one,” Cremisi tsked. “Your brothers should never have left you that night. And I should have been here. It’s not often I miss Carnivale, especially when all of you in Venice. I could have consoled your broken heart that night. I am so sorry I was not here.”
“It is alright,” Junsu murmured, gifting his mistress with a beatific smile. “The others were lost in one another. It was Jaejoong’s first Carnivale and Yunho was busy showing him the sights. We didn’t even exist for hyung and Min. When they weren’t breaking beds in the hotel room, Changmin was dragging Dong-Wook through ruins and museums. I don’t think they got any sleep for three weeks.”
“Well, get dressed then,” Cremisi said as she stood from the couch. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”
“Really?” Junsu’s eyebrows lifted to mock the woman who embraced him into her life. “You’ve mastered the ability to stop time? You take longer to get dressed than I do.”
“Keep it up, little one,” She laughed, slapping Junsu on the round of his ass. “And I shall not help you find your scoundrel. With your angelic face and my wicked ways, he will be helpless to escape.”
Yoochun sipped at the merlot his housekeeper left uncanted on the dining room table. In the candlelight, the wine appeared black, only showing its true vibrancy when he tilted the glass to take a drink. She’d prepared him a simple dinner; roasted chicken and butter-sweet basil spaghetti but his stomach churned at the thought of eating more than a few bites. Tonight was the first night of Carnivale and he would soon be among the living as they danced under the Venice moonlight.
To an outsider, the apartment would seem Spartan, barren of the gee-gaws and heavy furniture found in most Venetian homes but the top floor of the palazzo suited Yoochun. Its open rooms and arched windows gave him a view of an ever-changing city and its canals. From his bed he heard the morning calls of the gondoliers as they pick up passengers heading into the inner city and the sounds of the water hitting the docks lulled him to sleep as the sun rose.
He woke to the streets coming alive for the night, the merchants returning home from their rounds and the baker hawking the last few loaves he’d not sold earlier. At times he would awaken early enough to exchange a few pleasant words with his housekeeper before she left. Unlike the others, she was a dour-faced woman who kept mostly to herself. With little to no curiosity about her odd employer and the hours he kept, she polished the woodwork to a sheen and arranged for workers to come in for repairs, oftentimes haranguing the tuners when they complained about having to climb three flights of stairs to restring one of his pianos. He called her Signora and paid her well. She called him idiot and grumbled when Yoochun slipped her an envelope full of money at Yuletide.
It was the perfect arrangement and he would be sorry when he would finally have to let her go.
By the time he’d picked enough meat from the chicken to satisfy his stomach’s grumbling, it was well into the night and the Canal was alive with boats bearing glittering party-goers to their destinations. He dressed slowly, lacing up his black suede breeches until they hugged his thighs.
A pair of thigh boots would have to serve him this year. The last pair he’d purchased were lost to a puppy the downstairs tenants let wander about. He didn’t begrudge the young dog the leather but the couple was mortified and wouldn’t stop sending notes of apology until Yoochun finally told his housekeeper to inform them they would be evicted if he heard another word about the matter. The dog was now half-grown and a closer watch was kept on both it and his shoes.
He unfolded an antique white shirt from its place in the dower chest. Slipping his arms through, Yoochun half-heartedly fussed at the lace froth at his wrists, remembering when the tatting was a brilliant white and starched stiff. He’d not done much with the shirt other than wash it, scrubbing the nights from its weave before hanging it to dry each evening before Ash Wednesday. He wore it and the others like it only during Carnivale, searching for a small hint of who he had been before the night turned to ash in his mouth.
Pulling his thick black hair into a queue, Yoochun tied it back with a leather strip, its ends weighted with silver beads. His vest was next, its soft suede panels laced across his chest and down his stomach, flat and trimly snug. Last came the black leather domino.
He studied the masque, thoughtfully pulling at the ribbons falling from its edges. A loud cheer erupted from the Canal below and Yoochun looked up, startled by the noise. A silver-backed mirror captured his face, holding him there in that moment of surprise and he almost looked away, unable to bear witness to what he’d become.
“You are not yet that animal,” He scolded softly. “Not yet. Maybe soon.”
Forcing himself to stare at the man frozen against the silver, Yoochun studied his face, seeing the strangeness of his features in the glass. In the soft candlelight, many would not be able to see the cinnamon kiss of his eyes but the curse laid on his blood turned the dimness to near day and he could clearly make out the claret of his irises and the soft pink flush of his full mouth. The almond shape to his lids gave him pause and he lifted the domino, tying it tightly above the knot holding his queue.
Covering half of his face, the battered leather hid his high cheekbones and slanted eyes and he choked back a sob, swallowing the anguish scraping his throat raw. His need grew, haunting his body and turning his skin to fire even though the water-scented wind cooled the room.
Confronted with the evidence of his horrific nature, Yoochun turned away from the mirror, hoping not to see any more. The domino might have hid his strangeness, it did nothing to hide his sensuous mouth or, for that matter, the sharp fangs that showed the world the beast he truly was.