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TITLE: Float Point
GENRE: fantasy steampunk
WORD COUNT: 50,761
SUMMARY: A maskmaker gets involved in a fight to save her city from being demolished by genetically engineered sea monsters.
January 15, 1880
Calle della Rosa, Venettezia
The wooden box with the brass hinges felt cold in her hands as the gondolier handed it to her. Sera had left her gloves back home in her haste to reach her latest appointment with the Conte di Noce. She tucked the box under her arm and dug into a coat pocket for a few lira to entice the gondolier to wait for her return.
“Grazie, Maestra DeAnglis!”
“I shouldn't be long. Fittings are usually not a protracted affair.”
The gondolier leaned against his pole and glanced down the still, gray canal. “Oh, no worries there, Maestra. It looks like today will be a slow day. I'll still be here.”
She nodded and then turned to climb up the three steps to the gothic arching facade of Ca'Cornaro, a palazzo that used to belong to an illustrious patrician family famous for producing a long line of Doges in the previous centuries. She had heard that the family was in dire financial straits these days, though, and had to sell off several of their palaces to make ends meet. This particular palazzo had been purchased by the Conte di Noce.
It was rumored that the Conte came from an impoverished noble family but had recouped the family fortune in trade. Along the way, he had also procured powerful political connections through shady dealings. What these shady dealings were, no one seemed to know, but it was sufficiently dubious that it would make anyone wary. Still, the Conte di Noce had money and for Sera, that was enough to mitigate enough sins that she was willing to take him on as a last minute client.
She quickly rapped on the front door with the bronze lion's head knocker and waited for a minute before it was opened by a gray-haired servant in a dark brown overcoat.
“I'm Serafina DeAnglis. I have an appointment with the Conte.”
The servant gestured for her to enter. She stepped into a chilly foyer that was only marginally warmer than the brisk outdoors. “Please wait here for a moment while I inform the Conte of your arrival.” He promptly closed the door, shutting out the cold winter air, and headed up a flight of stairs.
As the clacking of his shoes receded, she glanced about the foyer, noting the gleaming marble floors and the plain walls with only one gilt-framed painting that appeared to be a Titian or one of his proteges. At the end of the foyer were several doors, all of them closed.
The silence was unnerving.
Sera shifted the box to her opposite arm and tilted her head up to ease a crick in her neck. That was when her eye caught the mosaics on the ceiling. It was a scene of the Lagoon during summer time, filled with seabirds and fish. Upon the cool blue mosaic waves were sailing ships in the distance, glinting on tiles overlain with gold leaf.
Shoes clattered on the stairs. “Maestra DeAnglis. The Conte will see you in the drawing room. This way, please.”
She straightened and followed the servant to the second floor. The landing and connecting hallway were as austere as the first floor, the plainness punctuated only with another ceiling mosaic depicting the pastoral mainland and a pedestal at the end of the hallway holding the bust of a statesman, now long gone. The servant opened a door.
“Maestra DeAnglis, my lord.”
Sera stepped into the drawing room and executed a stiff half-curtsey because of the box. “My lord.”
The dark haired figure standing at the window finally turned and pinned her with an assessing dark stare. The Conte stood about half a head taller than she, but with a black suit and the wane light trickling from behind him, he seemed like a much bigger shadow. When he came closer, she noticed that the suit he wore, though of expensive material, was of a simple style. His overcoat had jet buttons that came up to his chin. The shoulders needed no padding.
“Maestra, please have a seat.” His voice was hoarse and low as if he rarely spoke with anyone.
She suppressed a shiver of unease and took the nearest chair, a lacquered and cushioned settee, next to the drawing board. She put the wooden box onto the table. “Grazie. I've brought a few samples for your perusal.” Without his prompting, she unlatched the brass clasps and pulled back the lid. “These are typical of the work that I do,” she rushed on. “I do some artistic work on request, but if you want a genuine costume mask, there are other masters I can refer you to. I generally make masks for professional engineers, doctors, and scientists. If there are any special modifications that you require it would, of course, take more time. Then, I cannot guarantee that I will be able to finish before the start of the carnavale season.”
The Conte moved toward the open box with a gliding gait that made Sera think of a ghost. He looked into the box and picked up one of the masks. It was one of the more popular metal masks preferred by the engineers. Goggles wielded to the eye sockets and two antennae with miniature lamps powered by an even smaller hand-cranked gear on the side of the mask created an insect-like appearance. He flicked the mouth piece aside and it swung away on soundless hinges, making it easier for the wearer to eat and talk.
“I am aware of your specialties, Maestra.” He set that mask aside and pulled out another one. It was a rather plain medical mask made of white cloth. The nose was rather long, mimicking the older beak masks worn by plague doctors. The Conte pulled away the nose, discovering the location of the replaceable air filters. “That is why I have called for you.”
The third mask he examined was a half-mask with an adjustable spy glass. He put it to his face and fiddled with the knob on the side. She fought the urge to fidget as he used her as a focal point. “I wish to commission something that is useful as well as decorative.” He finally pulled the half-mask away from his face, but it didn't make him any less inscrutable. “I like this one, if you could make it with the removable mouthpiece.”
“Yes, of course.” She inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. It was an easy request. Some of her customers liked to be more exacting and detailed in their preferences. “How long do you anticipate using the mask?”
“Probably only two or three hours at a time, at most. I am planning on using the mask at a short civic event.”
“Then all I need now is your measurements. The rest will be rather straightforward. I can have the mask made for you in a week.”
“Excellent.” He placed the sample mask back into the box. “What sort of measurements do you need?”
“I need measurements of your facial features.”
He walked over to a high backed chair and sat down on it. “Wouldn't it be easier to simply make a cast of my face?”
“That would only be necessary if you were planning to wear the mask the entire day and desired comfort over function.” She took out a small notebook, a pencil, and a slim lacquered case containing a pair of calipers from her coat pocket. “This won't take long.”
She got up and placed the three objects on the table. She took out the calipers and carefully measured the proportions of his face. Mentally, she noted the strong clean-shaven chin and the straight patrician nose. To measure his forehead, she brushed back a few black locks. His hair seemed soft, free from the strong and musky styling oils and cologne that most men of his station used. Instead, he smelled faintly of sandalwood and leather. But as impartially as she tried to take measurements, she was acutely aware of him tracking her movements with a cold blue gaze. With the final measurement, she stepped back to put the calipers back into its case and to note down the numbers in the notebook. Then she tucked them back into her pocket.
“That's it.” She briefly looked into the box to see that the mask samples were all inside and closed the lid. “Again, barring any unforeseen delays, I can have the mask ready in a week.”
“Very good, Maestra DeAnglis. From the craftsmanship of the sample masks I've had the privileged to see with my own eyes, I can see why some of the other mask makers recommended you to me. I look forward to seeing the finished product.”
Sera took the box again and curtseyed. The Conte nodded his head ever so slightly, leaving her with the feeling that she was one in a long line of people who left little impression on this austere aristocrat.