City of masks, p.1
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       City of Masks, p.1

           Mary Hoffman
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City of Masks


  .

  Bloomsbury Publishing, London, Berlin and New York

  First published in Great Britain in 2002 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

  36 Soho Square, London, W1D 3QY

  This electronic edition published in April 2010 by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc

  Text copyright © Mary Hoffman 2002

  Illustrations copyright © Peter Bailey 2002

  The moral rights of the author and illustrator have been asserted

  All rights reserved

  You may not copy, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise

  make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or by any means

  (including without limitation electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying,

  printing, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the

  publisher. Any person who does any unauthorised act in relation to this publication

  may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  ISBN 978 1 4088 1242 6

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  .

  THE STRAVAGANZA SEQUENCE

  .

  By Mary Hoffman

  .

  Stravaganza: City of Masks

  Stravaganza: City of Stars

  Stravaganza: City of Flowers

  Stravaganza: City of Secrets

  Stravaganza: City of Ships

  .

  For Rhiannon, a true citizen of Bellezza

  .

  ‘Every time I describe a city, I am saying something about Venice.’

  Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

  g

  g

  ‘... everye man conceived in his minde a high contentation every time we came into the Dutchesse sight ... Neither was there any that thought it not the greatest pleasure he could have in the world, to please her, and the greatest griefe to offend her ...’

  Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier, 1561

  g

  Prologue: Reading the Future

  In a room at the top of a tall house overlooking a canal, a man sat dealing cards out on to a desk covered in black silk. He made a circle of twelve cards, face up, methodically moving widdershins, placed a thirteenth in the middle of the circle, then leaned back and contemplated the pattern.

  ‘Strange,’ he murmured.

  The card in the middle – the most important one – was the Sword, signifying danger. Rodolfo was used to that symbol setting the tone of his readings. It was no surprise either to see the Queen of Fishes as the seventh card, to the right of the Sword. Danger often appeared close to the most important woman in Bellezza and the water queen was obviously the Duchessa. But the Princess of Fishes was the first card, to the left of the Sword, and he had no idea what she could signify.

  It was the oddest reading he had ever seen. The only number cards to appear were fours, all four of them, one from each suit – Fishes, Birds, Salamanders and Serpents. They were ranged like guards on either side of the Princess and the Queen. All the other cards were major trumps – the Lovers, the Magician, the Goddess, the Tower, the Spring Maiden and, most disturbingly, Death.

  Rodolfo looked at the array for a long time before sweeping the cards up, shuffling them thoroughly and setting them out again. Princess of Fishes, Four of Serpents, the Lovers, the Magician … By the time he set the Sword down in the middle, Rodolfo’s hands were shaking. He had dealt exactly the same pattern.

  Hastily, he swept the cards up again and wrapped them in their black silk. He stowed them in a drawer of the carved desk and removed from another a velvet bag containing glass stones. Closing his eyes, he put a hand in the bag and drew out a handful of the stones, which he cast lightly on the desk top, where they glittered in the candlelight.

  Each nugget of shining glass had a silver emblem embedded in the middle. Wonderingly, Rodolfo identified a crown, a leaf, a mask, the number 16, a lock of hair, a book— He started when he saw the book.

  Then he stood up. ‘Silvia again,’ he murmured, holding the piece of smooth purple glass containing the silver crown. He walked to the window and looked out over his roof-garden. Lanterns swung gently between the trees, illuminating the flowers and leaves, bleached of their vivid daytime colours. In the distance a peacock screamed.

  He walked back to the desk and took a pair of twelve-sided dice from a drawer. Six and ten he threw, eight and eight, seven and nine – wherever he looked tonight the number sixteen kept coming up. That and the symbols of a young girl and danger. Whatever it meant, it was linked with the Duchessa and he would have to tell her about it. Knowing Silvia, she would not tell him whatever significance his divinations had for her, but at least she could prepare herself for whatever new danger was approaching.

  Sighing, Rodolfo put away his means of divination and prepared to visit the Duchessa.

  Chapter 1

  The Marriage with the Sea

  Light streamed on to the Duchessa’s satin bedcovers as her serving-woman flung open the shutters.

  ‘It’s a beautiful day, Your Grace,’ said the young woman, adjusting her mask of green sequins.

  ‘It’s always a beautiful day on the lagoon,’ said the Duchessa, sitting up and letting the maid put a wrapper round her shoulders and hand her a cup of hot chocolate. She was wearing her night-mask of black silk. She looked closely at the young woman. ‘You’re new, aren’t you?’

  ‘Yes, Your Grace,’ she curtsied. ‘And if I may say so, what an honour it is to be serving you on such a great day!’

  She’ll be clapping her hands next, thought the Duchessa, sipping the dark chocolate.

  The maid clasped her hands ecstatically. ‘Oh Your Grace, you must so be looking forward to the Marriage!’

  ‘Oh, yes,’ said the Duchessa wearily. ‘I look forward to it just the same every year.’

  *

  The boat rocked precariously as Arianna stepped in, clutching her large canvas bag.

  ‘Careful!’ grumbled Tommaso, who was handing his sister into the boat. ‘You’ll capsize us. Why do you need so much stuff?’

  ‘Girls need a lot of things,’ Arianna answered firmly, knowing that Tommaso thought everything female a great mystery.

  ‘Even for one day?’ asked Angelo, her other brother.

  ‘Today’s going to be a long one,’ Arianna said even more firmly and that was the end of it.

  She settled in one end of the boat gripping her bag on her knees, while her brothers started rowing with the slow sure strokes of fishermen who spent their lives on the water. They had come from their own island, Merlino, to collect her from Torrone and take her to the biggest lagoon festival of the year. Arianna had been awake since dawn.

  Like all lagooners, she had been going to the Marriage with the Sea since she was a small child, but this year she had a special reason for being excited. She had a plan. And the things she had in her heavy bag were part of it.

  ‘I’m so sorry about your hair,’ said Lucien’s mother, biting her lip as she restrained herself from her usual comfort
gesture of running her hand across his curly head. The curls weren’t there any more and she didn’t know how to comfort him, or herself.

  ‘It’s all right, Mum,’ said Lucien. ‘I’ll be in fashion. Lots of boys at school even shave theirs off.’

  They didn’t mention that he wasn’t well enough to go to school. But it was true that he didn’t mind too much about the hair. What really bothered him was the tiredness. It wasn’t like anything he had ever felt before. It wasn’t like being knackered after a good game of football or swimming fifty lengths. It had been a long time since he’d been able to do either of those.

  It was like having custard in your veins instead of blood, getting exhausted just trying to sit up in bed. Like drinking half a cup of tea and finding it as difficult as climbing Everest.

  ‘It doesn’t affect everyone so badly,’ the nurse had said. ‘Lucien’s one of the unlucky ones. But it has no relation to how well the treatment is working.’

  That was the trouble. Feeling as drained and exhausted as he did, Lucien couldn’t tell whether it was the treatment or the disease itself that was making him feel so terrible. And he could tell that his parents didn’t know either. That was one of the scariest things, seeing them so frightened. It seemed as if his mother’s eyes filled with tears every time she looked at him.

  And as for Dad – Lucien’s father had never talked to him properly before he became ill, but they had got on pretty well. They used to do things together – swimming, going to the match, watching TV. It was when they couldn’t do anything together any more that Dad started really talking to him.

  He even brought library books into the bedroom and read to him, because Lucien didn’t have the strength to hold a book in his hands. Lucien liked that. Books that he knew already, like The Hobbit and Tom’s Midnight Garden, were followed by ones that Dad remembered from his boyhood and youth, like Moonfleet and the James Bond novels.

  Lucien lapped them all up. Dad found a new skill in inventing different voices for all the characters. Sometimes Lucien thought it had been almost worth being ill, to find this new, different Dad, who talked to him and told him stories. He wondered if he would turn back into the old Dad if the treatment worked and the illness went away. But such thoughts made Lucien’s head ache.

  After his most recent chemotherapy, Lucien was too tired to talk. And his throat hurt. That evening Dad brought him in a notebook with thin pages and a beautiful marbled cover, in which dark reds and purples swirled together in a way that made Lucien need to close his eyes.

  ‘I couldn’t find anything nice enough in WH Smith,’ Dad was saying. ‘But this was a bit of luck. We were clearing out an old house in Waverley Road, next to your school, and the niece said to dump all the papers in the skip. So I saw this and rescued it. It’s never been written in and I thought if I left it here on your bedside table, with a pencil, you could write down what you want to say to us when your throat hurts.’

  Dad’s voice droned on in a comforting background sort of way; he wasn’t expecting Lucien to reply. He was saying something about the city where the beautiful notebook had been made but Lucien must have missed a bit, because it didn’t quite make sense.

  ‘...floating on the water. You must see it one day, Lucien. When you come across the lagoon and see all those domes and spires hovering over the water, well, it’s like going to heaven. All that gold...’

  Dad’s voice tailed off. Lucien wondered if he’d thought he’d been tactless mentioning heaven. But he liked Dad’s description of the mysterious city – Venice, was it? As his eyelids got heavier and his mind fogged over with the approach of one of his deep sleeps, he felt Dad slip the little notebook into his hand.

  And he began to dream of a city floating on the water, laced with canals, and full of domes and spires...

  Arianna watched the whole procession from her brothers’ boat. They had the day off work, like everyone else on the lagoon islands, except the cooks. No one worked on the day of the Sposalizio who didn’t have to, but so many revellers had to be fed.

  ‘There it is!’ shouted Tommaso suddenly. ‘There’s the Barcone!’

  Arianna stood up in the boat, causing it to rock again, and strained her eyes towards the mouth of the Great Canal. In the far distance she could just see the scarlet and silver of the Barcone. Other people had seen the ceremonial barge too and soon the cheers and whistles spread across the water as the Duchessa made her stately way to her Marriage with the Sea.

  The barge was rowed by a crew of the city’s best mandoliers, those handsome young men who sculled the mandolas round the canals that took the place of streets in most of Bellezza. They were what Arianna particularly wanted to see.

  As the Duchessa’s barge drew level with Tommaso and Angelo’s boat, Arianna gazed at the muscles of the black-haired, bright-eyed mandoliers and sighed. But not from love.

  ‘Viva la Duchessa!’ cried her brothers, waving their hats in the air, and Arianna dragged her eyes from the rowers to the figure standing immobile on the deck. The Duchessa was an impressive sight. She was tall, with long dark hair, coiled up on the top of her head in a complicated style, which was entwined with white flowers and precious gems. Her dress was of thin dark blue taffeta, shot with green and silver, so that she glittered in the sunlight like a mermaid.

  Of her face there was little to be seen. As usual she wore a mask. Today’s was made of peacock feathers, as shimmering and iridescent as her dress. Behind her stood her waiting-women, all masked, though more simply dressed, holding cloaks and towels.

  ‘It is a miracle,’ said Angelo. ‘She never looks a day older. Twenty-five years now she has ruled over us and ensured our happiness and yet she still has the figure of a girl.’

  Arianna snorted. ‘You don’t know what she looked like twenty-five years ago,’ she said. ‘You haven’t been coming to the Marriage that long.’

  ‘Nearly,’ said Tommaso. ‘Our parents first brought me when I was five and that was twenty years ago. And she did look just the same then, little sister. It is miraculous.’ And he made the sign that lagooners use for luck – touching the thumb of the right hand to the little finger and placing the middle fingers first on brow and then on breast.

  ‘And I came two years later,’ added Angelo, frowning at Arianna. He had noticed a rebellious tendency in her where the Duchessa was concerned.

  Arianna sighed again. She had first seen the Marriage when she was five, too. Ten years of watching and waiting. But this year was different. She was going to get what she wanted tomorrow or die in the attempt – and that was not just a figure of speech.

  The barge had reached the shore of the island of Sant’Andrea, where the church’s High Priest was waiting to hand the Duchessa out on to the red carpet that had been thrown over the shingle. She stepped down as lightly as a girl, followed by her entourage of women. From where they were on the water, Arianna and her brothers had a good view of the slim blue-green figure with the stars in her hair.

  The mandoliers rested on their oars, sweating, as the music of the band on the shore floated over the water. At the climax of silver trumpets, two young priests reverently lowered the Duchessa into the sea from a special platform. Her beautiful dress floated around her in the water as she sank gently; the priests’ shoulder-muscles bulged with the strain of keeping the ceremony slow and dignified.

  As soon as the water lapped the top of the Duchessa’s thighs, a loud cry of ‘Sposati’ went up from all the watchers. Drums and trumpets were sounded and everyone waved and cheered, as the Duchessa was lifted out of the water again and surrounded by her women. For a split second everyone saw her youthful form as the thin wet dress clung to her. The dress would never be worn again.

  ‘What a waste,’ thought Arianna.

  *

  Inside the State Cabin of the barge another woman echoed her thought. The real Duchessa, al
ready dressed in the rich red velvet dress and silver mask that was required for the Marriage feast, stretched and yawned.

  ‘What fools these Bellezzans are!’ she said to her two attendants. ‘They all think I have the figure of a girl – and I do. What’s her name this time?’

  ‘Giuliana, Your Grace,’ said one of them. ‘Here she comes!’

  A bedraggled and sneezing girl, not now looking much like a duchess, was half carried down the stairway to the cabin by the waiting-women.

  ‘Get her out of those wet things,’ ordered the Duchessa. ‘That’s better. Rub her hard with the towel. And you, take the diamonds out of her hair.’ The Duchessa patted her own elaborate coiffure, which was the exact duplicate of the wet girl’s.

  Giuliana’s face, though pleasant enough, was very ordinary. The Duchessa smiled behind her mask to think that the people had been so easily deceived.

  ‘Well done, Giuliana,’ she said to the shivering girl, who was trying to curtsey. ‘A fine impersonation.’ She glanced at the amulet on a chain round the girl’s neck. A hand, with the three middle fingers extended and the thumb and little finger joined. It was the islanders’ good luck token, the manus fortunae – hand of Fortune – signifying the unity of the circle and the figures of the goddess, her consort and son, the sacred trinity of the lagoon. But it was doubtful that this child knew that. The Duchessa wrinkled her nose, not at the symbolism but at the tawdriness of the cheap gold version of it.

  Giuliana was soon warm and dry, wrapped in a warm woollen robe and given a silver goblet of ruby red wine. She had taken off the peacock mask, which would be preserved, along with the salt-stained dress, along with twenty-four others in the Palazzo.

  ‘Thank you, Your Grace,’ said the girl, glad to feel the iciness of the lagoon’s embrace receding from her legs.

  ‘A barbarous custom,’ said the Duchessa, ‘but the people must be indulged. Now, you have heard and understood the conditions?’

  ‘Yes, Your Grace.’

 
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