In late evening Vienna, which was also early morning Vienna, candles and lanterns still burned in many windows along streets and canalways, red wax dripping down candleshafts onto the aging marble of softly arching bridges. Soft wafts of music drifted here and there from various balls both private and public that had not yet called it a night, though the horizon was beginning to faintly lighten in the east.
It was through this perfumed, pre-dawn fairyland that I and Lucia were walking, hanging on to each other as the heady whirl of the waltz and the spin of a cup too much of good wine unbalanced our steps just a touch. Not that we needed it, but it all gave us a rather fine excuse to have out arms about each other as we turned to cross a canal and paused in the middle of one of the bridges, leaning upon the solid stone rail. From here, it was a wonderful bit of ancient beauty, to see the unearthly casts of lights and shadows from the various balls playing across the buildings, and the candles and lanterns flickering by the flowing water.
“What are those?” Lucia asked, pointing at one of the decorated floats drifting down the canal, and I smiled, pleased to be able to share the tale I had learned only a few days before about the thick candles on the round, heavily decorated little floats, like strange fey flower blossoms more than a foot across. “They’re meant to be beautiful, like everything – like you, bella – but they are also said to be a memorium. The carnival of Vienna is full of delights and enticements, but every year there are tragedies. Too much fun, too much drink, and in the canals folk have fallen. Each of these is said to represent one of those who have lost their life into the Carnival, and is supposedly decorated in the colors of what they were wearing when they were lost – though how folk would know that is beyond me..”
I leaned closer, trailing my fingertips up her bare arm, my lips nearly brushing her ear as I whispered, “And it is said that, if you call out to them, one of the lost spirits will rise to rejoin the Carnival.” I could feel the shiver thrill down her arm, goosebumps rising on the skin, and smiled, shifting my hand to rest against the warm gathered blue satin at her lower back. Arousal tinged with fear, I had found, was all the more delectable.
Despite the thrill I had given her, though, she suddenly laughed, and leaned away to wrest a candle loose from the stone railing, while the float drifted ever closer; its candle was stark white in comparison to the thick garners of orange and russet silk and organza surrounding it. “Come, o lost spirit!” Lucia cried out gaily, and she leaned out over the water, my hand steadying her (and, I must admit, slipping a bit from her back to her bottom; who could resist such a sweet swell, even covered by bustled cloth as it was?) as she stretched out and tilted the candle, letting the molten wax stream from it onto the surface of the canal, and into the path of which the orangey float gently bobbed. The red wax dribbled across the folds of cloth and the silk flowers, and then a few drops fell right into the pool of heat-clarified white wax atop the candle.
Without warning, the lot of it tilted and lifted, water running off the sides to reveal a white porcelain mask underneath. The float was abruptly no mere float, but was in fact a broad and elaborate hat for someone who peered up at us, the eyeholes pinched down at the nose and up at the outer ends like cat-eyes. There was kohl or makeup around their eyes, darkening all of it, and Lucia’s laughter cut off in a yelp of surprise. Orange cloth dipped down from the broad hat to tie under the shin, and seemed to meet more cloth at the neck, though it was difficult to see from that distance, in the dark.
Difficult to see until, with no assistance, the figure rose straight up from the water to float before the bridge, and then drifted close, reaching out gloved hands for Lucia’s, covering them around the candle. There was silence, although I think my mouth was working, trying to put word to any one of the impossible explanations my mind threw up, turned over, and discarded. Over the rail it floated, and then turned, swooping around Lucia in a circle but still holding her hands in a very definite beat that I realized after several paired turnings was a waltz.
“Nih- Nico?” she stammered as she was pulled in the lilting rhythm across the bridge, and then brought to a halt by the far rail.
“I’m… It must be a trick,” I managed, and my voice was unconvincing even to myself. I should have dashed forward, stopped it from raising Lucia’s hands and the candle; I winced as it forced it to tilt, pouring wax upon Lucia’s piled-up hair, and she yelped, I hope more in outrage than as pain. Then the straightened candle was settled upon it – and Lucia released, before being abruptly shoved over the railing on that side of the bridge by the thing swathed in the elaborate orange costume. I heard her cry out, and the splash, and then I ran for the railing, past the thing which was standing there looking down.
As I came alongside, it swept away, dancing toward the street I’d just left in time to a strain of violins I could barely hear before I screamed out for Lucia, calling her name, and again.
Then the round float, piled high with blue gathered satin and dark ribbons the color of Lucia’s curls, floated up out of the water, and the red candle was in the center. Before it even made it to the air, it was burning.
This piece of Nightmare Fuel was inspired by this picture, artist unknown:
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