In the south of this country, there’s a fashion town built into the upper walls of high cliffs where the sea crashes into the walls below.
The buildings of this village change color throughout the day, depending on the place of the sun in the sky. In evening time, the town is invisible. The buildings have the same muddy pink hue of stone bluffs at sundown.
Nobody knows how this town was built. The structures are ancient, and those skills were not passed to the masons of today. They don’t have the knowing to carve deep into the rock, to find the support for buildings jutting out from the cliffs and hanging over the ocean.
During winter storms, the waves get high enough to flood the streets with salt water. Yet the village stands, half buried in stone, half suspended over the sea.
The road to this fashion town is treachery. Guests must wind down a steep slope to reach the gates. Many a horse digs its heels in and refuses to go down that road.
It’s wise to travel light here, for more than one carriage has toppled at a curve and fallen down to the rocky sea, taking the horses, driver, and passengers to certain death.
“Who would go to such a place?” you wonder.
But it’s a fashion town.
It’s the place for the rich, the beautiful, and the very indulgent. The commerce of this village is pleasure and the danger of getting there is part of the appeal.
The season is short— only three months from the peak of spring to mid summer. Then the heat becomes uncomfortable.
This is the place for decadent Patrons who would rather play than work, hiding their excesses from the peasants who toil hard for their wealth.
This is the place for the spoiled, indolent sons of nobility. They arrive in packs, handsome wolves on the prowl for something unique to excite their senses.
This is the place for the powerful whose decisions affect us all. They come to this fashion town for relief from the responsibilities of state and commerce, from their families and their mistresses. They escape for a brief holiday of stolen freedom.
It is only through invitation that one can pass through the town gates. The guest list changes every year.
Desire is promised gratification in this fashion town.
This is the place for courtesans, the women who bring fantasy to life. Ecstasy is their art. The pursuit of pleasure is their livelihood. Only the most beautiful and notorious are invited to work their trade in this decadent oasis for the elite.
Those who are both gifted and sensible can retire after three seasons. The very best of them make a fortune that rivals the wealth of their lovers; then they are free to leave this life before it erodes their looks and allure.
All roads lead to the casino in this fashion town. It’s the oldest gambling house in the country.
This is the place where the beautiful people meet. Gentlemen dress in velvet coats and breeches in colors of hunter green, midnight blue, and classic black.
The ladies of ill repute are a sight to be seen in their glossy silks of ruby, emerald, sapphire, and pearl. Their gowns fit to their flesh like a second skin, and are cut to reveal their luscious curves.
The casino is the place where gamblers discover just how beloved they are by Fortuna, the capricious lady of chance.
The guests infected with greedy fever often lose regrettable pieces of their estate, for she is fickle in her favorites.
But this fashion town has no protection from Ella Bandita.
Last year, she struck big at the peak of their season. She took down the highest roller that was ever seen there.
He was winning when he first saw her.
He was a young nobleman from the north. He was a gambler to his core and that night belonged to him.
Like most indulgent sons of the upper class, he came with a large party of friends. They were at his side that night, cheering with each roll of the dice.
He could do no wrong with his predictions. Every time the dice stopped and revealed the numbers he called, the dealer pushed large piles of chips his way each time.
His father was a Patron of great property, but he had no interest in learning the business of the estate.
His passion for gaming came first, before work, study, love, drink, and pleasures of the flesh. Nothing gave him the euphoria he craved more than rolling the dice, calling the numbers and calling them right.
His luck was uncanny. They say he won every season he was invited to this fashion town. He could have easily lost the family fortune with the bets he made.
But the Gambling Man always won.
That night, he was in company with the most sought after courtesan that season, a beautiful woman known as Isabella.
Fancy name she had, but it wasn’t the one she was given at birth. The Courtesan Isabella would have been grateful to have her origins amongst people like us.
She was born wretched poor, but there was no proof of it that night. She stood next to and one step behind a young man blessed in birth, wealth, and luck.
She was dressed in a gown the same color as her skin, the neckline cut low. She had her shining hair piled high on her head. Her brown eyes were sparkling, more likely from drops of belladonna, but perhaps it was happiness.
Her escort was young and her favorite kind of handsome. She preferred gentleman built for elegance— slender with long limbs, the neat features of his face perfectly balanced.
His muddy hazel eyes were empty when he wasn’t at the tables, but Isabella was not such a woman to take notice of that. She was in company with a gambler on a winning streak and all she thought about was the promise of a lucrative reward.
She may have felt something akin to joy that night, or as close as she would ever know.
Just before the Gambling Man first saw the Thief of Hearts, the dealer pushed the rest of his chips to him and whispered to the watchman that he hadn’t enough for the next round.
The company of the Gambling Man laughed and cheered when they heard, but the friends standing at his side resented him.
Whoever placed their bets on the Gambling Man was sure to win, but his friends were almost as bitter as the opponents betting against him.
Those spoiled noblemen were jealous of his touch with the dice, and envy seared through them all every time the comely Isabella pressed into the back of the Gambling Man.
They had heard the talents of the Courtesan Isabella had to be experienced to be believed.
The gown she wore that night proved her reputation must be well deserved. She might as well have been standing there naked as the first woman Eve, dressed in shimmering cream that left them wondering where the silk ended and the flesh began.
While they waited for the games to resume, the Gambling Man twirled Isabella around ending with the flourish of a low dip. A lock of glossy black hair came free of her coif and trailed along her laughing face when her partner pulled her upright.
In a rare moment of natural radiance, her beauty was devastating. Those young men ached when they thought of the sensuous carnality their friend would know at night’s end, and likely for every night that season.
If he continued to win as he always did, he would be the only suitor the Courtesan Isabella would invite to her apartments.
But it was not to be.
Ella Bandita was in the casino that night and the Gambling Man was her chosen prey.
This is an excerpt from “The Bard Speaks,” Part II of my novel, “Ella Bandita and the Wanderer.”
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