City of swords, p.1
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       City of Swords, p.1

           Mary Hoffman
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City of Swords


  Contents

  Prologue: Darkening the Light

  1. Messages on the Skin

  2. When a Prince Dies

  3. Beware the Heir

  4. A City in Waiting

  5. A New Ruler

  6. A Fresh Wound

  7. Family Loyalty

  8. Within the Walls

  9. Deceptions

  10. The Army Moves

  11. The Girl from the Future

  12. Siege

  13. Portrait of a Young Woman

  14. First Strike

  15. Retaliation

  16. Old Wounds and New

  17. Complications

  18. Borderlands

  19. Treachery

  20. Trial and Execution

  21. Safe Conduct

  22. Lost Silver

  23. Murky Water

  24. In the Cathedral

  Epilogue: Saved

  Historical Note

  di Chimici Family Tree

  Dramatis Personae

  Acknowledgements

  Books by Mary Hoffman

  For Adam Priestley, a loyal reader

  And remembering all those emails from Emz

  ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?’

  William Shakespeare, As You Like It

  Prologue: Darkening the Light

  Prince Jacopo of Fortezza was dying. However much his wife tried to pretend it wasn’t happening and however much his daughters wished it wasn’t true, the red-headed giant of the di Chimici family was close to breathing his last. His personal physician looked solemn and the Prince had called for his priest to hear his final confession and give him the last rites.

  After Father Gregorio left the royal bedchamber, the

  women washed back in like the tide and found the Prince calmer than when they had left him.

  ‘My dear,’ said Princess Carolina, smoothing his no longer vivid hair from his forehead. ‘Is there anything more I can do for you?’

  ‘Stay with me,’ said Jacopo. ‘You and the girls.’

  The ‘girls’ were their two daughters, Bianca, the Duchessa of Volana, and Lucia, the widow of Prince Carlo di Chimici, a husband who had been murdered within an hour of their marriage. Bianca’s marriage had taken place at the same time and her husband, the Duke of Volana, had been the only di Chimici bridegroom to escape injury that terrible day not much more than a year before.

  Lucia had returned home to Fortezza to be tenderly looked after by her parents. Princess she might be, but she was neither married nor single: she was that rarest of women, a virgin widow. She was twenty-three years old and believed her life to be over.

  Not that she was thinking of her own situation now; every feeling she had was caught up with her father. It was impossible to believe that his constant presence in her life might be gone within hours.

  ‘Did Father Gregorio bring you peace, dearest?’ asked Carolina.

  The Prince had a long coughing fit and it was some time before he could answer.

  ‘He gave me absolution,’ wheezed Jacopo, ‘and that is all I could ask. He has known my worst crime for many years.’

  The women were silent. When Jacopo had been young, he had killed a man, a noble who had jilted his older sister, Eleanora, and this noble had been Donato Nucci. What had happened in that little piazza in Giglia so many years ago had been the first link in a chain of events that had led to the murder of Lucia’s brand new husband and left many others dead or dying.

  ‘Don’t think of the Nucci now,’ said Princess Bianca. ‘They are nothing to us.’

  ‘We can never forget them,’ said her father, looking at Lucia. ‘What they have done to us and what we – I – have done to them.’

  ‘You did what you had to for your sister’s honour,’ said Carolina.

  ‘The Nucci would say the same, I expect,’ said Lucia. She was sickened by the way that Talian nobles carried their vendettas from generation to generation.

  Jacopo sought her hand with his.

  ‘I don’t mean to distress you, my dear, by bringing up the old feud.’

  But you do distress me, she thought. You are dying. How can I bear it?

  ‘It is an old grief, Papa,’ she said, bending her head so he shouldn’t see her tears at her new one.

  *

  Not far from the Prince’s castle, in the Street of the Swordsmiths, a man was looking into a mirror. But not from vanity. He was a Stravagante and he wanted to get in touch with the leaders of his Order in Bellezza. In that lagoon city lived Guglielmo Crinamorte, the English alchemist who, when he was still William Dethridge, had accidentally discovered the secret of travelling between worlds: the art of stravagation.

  There too was Rodolfo Rossi, father to the young Duchessa of Bellezza, and his former apprentice Luciano, the young man from the other world who, like William Dethridge, had permanently translated to Talia. The swordsmith of Fortezza was in awe of these mysterious beings.

  A lined, intelligent face, with dark hair almost all silver, appeared on the surface of the mirror.

  Fabio! The image sent a message without speaking: How do things stand in Fortezza? Rodolfo looked serious.

  Badly, Maestro, Fabio thought-spoke. The Prince is really dying.

  I am sorry to hear that. He was a good friend at the wedding massacre in Giglia.

  His doctor says he has never been quite the same since then – something about catching a chill during the flood.

  He was working with me to bring warmth and food to the victims. I should be sorry if he was now paying such a heavy price for that.

  I am worried about what happens next, Maestro.

  Princess Lucia will become ruler, will she not?

  She is the heir, said the swordsmith, but I am troubled by certain divinations I have made.

  The face in the mirror nodded; Rodolfo set great store by his own monthly divinations. What have they told you?

  There is much I don’t understand, involving the goddess and battles. But I was thinking it was time for me to stravagate to the other world.

  It sounds as if you are right, agreed Rodolfo.

  And he looked very grave indeed.

  Chapter 1

  Messages on the Skin

  ‘Well, who do you think is going to be next?’

  The Barnsbury Stravaganti were gathered in Nick’s attic room the first Saturday in May. Matt, Georgia, Sky, Isabel and Nick had all played dangerous parts in Talia. Isabel was almost back to normal after the harrowing experiences of the Sea Battle of Classe; her recovery had been greatly helped by Sky making it public that they were now an item.

  So she had voiced something that she had been wondering about for some time. No one replied straight away. They could have pretended not to know what she meant, but in that room were four people who had already been ‘chosen’ by talismans to travel in time and space to the world where Talia was still in the sixteenth century.

  And the fifth, Nick, had come from Talia to this world, dying out of one life to be re-born in another. All were students at Barnsbury Comprehensive, with Sky and Georgia in their last year there. And they all knew that Isabel meant that their task in Talia was not complete. A new Stravagante could be called by their talisman at any time.

  ‘I suppose,’ said Nick at last, ‘you could work it out by seeing what you lot have in common. I mean how you found your talismans and what was going on in your lives just before.’

  ‘You were working on that, weren’t you, Georgia?’ asked Matt.

  Georgia drew out a scruffy piece of paper from her jeans pocket and passed it round the group.

  ‘I don’t know why I carry it round with me,’ she said. ‘It didn’t help in the end with the business of getting us to different cities. It wa
s the Talian Stravaganti who cracked that. Doctor Dethridge really.’

  This was what it said:

  Lucien Notebook Skip in Waverley Road. Ill with cancer

  Georgia Flying horse Mortimer Goldsmith’s shop. Bullied

  Sky Perfume bottle found on doorstep. Looking after sick mother

  Matt Spell-book Mortimer Goldsmith’s. Dyslexic

  Isabel Bag of tesserae found at Barnsbury Comp. Overshadowed by twin

  It was a bit stark for all of them, reading in such brief, blank terms what had made them unhappy. Except for Lucien. He wasn’t there, even though he had been the first from their school to stravagate. In a way his place in the group had been taken by Nick, who had once been Prince Falco di Chimici, the youngest son of the most powerful family in Talia.

  Not long after Lucien had begun his new life in the other world, Falco had chosen to come to this one to cure his broken body and become Nick for ever. He lived in Lucien’s old home, as the adopted son of Lucien’s bereft parents.

  The Stravaganti didn’t need to talk about that; they all knew why Nick’s talisman wasn’t on the list and why Lucien’s was. This was a list of magical objects that transported their owners from twenty-first-century England to a sixteenth-century version of Italy – not the other way.

  Nick had a talisman to take him back to Talia, but he hadn’t stumbled across it; he had been given it by Brother Sulien of Giglia. It was a black feathered quill pen and now his most treasured possession.

  ‘What’s the link?’ asked Sky. ‘Two came from Mortimer’s shop; the other three are quite different.’

  ‘Hang on,’ said Georgia. ‘Mortimer told me that my flying horse came from a house in Waverley Road that used to belong to an old lady that died, so that’s another link.’

  ‘We live in that house,’ said Sky. ‘It’s next to the school. After the owner died it was turned into flats.’

  ‘And both the school and that house are near where Doctor Dethridge’s house and laboratory used to be,’ said Isabel. ‘In Elizabethan times.’

  ‘You went there, didn’t you?’ asked Nick.

  It was true and Isabel shuddered at the memory. There had been one disastrous night – was it really only a month ago? – when her twin, Charlie, had taken her talisman and ended up not just in Talia but also in Elizabethan England in the middle of an earthquake.

  ‘Don’t remind me,’ she said. ‘It was terrifying. I thought we wouldn’t get back here or even to Talia but just be stuck back there for ever.’

  Sky reached out to take her hand. ‘But you did get back. And it wasn’t your fault – it was stupid of Charlie to take your talisman without knowing what it did.’

  It was Georgia’s turn to shudder. Her brutal stepbrother, Russell, had stolen her flying horse – twice. Only now did she wonder what would have happened if he’d fallen asleep holding it and ended up in the city she used to visit in Talia. Russell in Remora did not bear thinking of – though losing him for ever somewhere in the past was quite appealing.

  ‘What about the spell-book, Matt?’ asked Isabel. ‘Did Mortimer say where it came from?’

  ‘No,’ he said. ‘But it could have come from that same house, couldn’t it?’

  ‘Or your Stravagante in Talia might have brought it to Mortimer’s?’ said Georgia.

  ‘It’s a bit odd the way the talismans make their way there,’ said Nick. ‘Maybe Mortimer’s a Stravagante himself?’

  The others looked at him as if he’d suggested the old antique dealer was from Mars.

  ‘Moving on,’ said Isabel. ‘All the talismans are connected with the school or the house on Waverley Road and/or Mortimer Goldsmith’s shop – is that right?’

  No one disagreed.

  ‘So those places are where the next one will turn up, and I think we can rule out Sky’s flat as a one-off. There are no other teenagers there.’

  ‘And they are always teenagers,’ said Nick. ‘The new Stravaganti.’

  ‘And always miserable,’ said Georgia. It was now Nick who took her hand.

  ‘So,’ said Sky. ‘We need to be on the lookout for a potential talisman in school or in Mortimer’s shop and for a person our age, who is really miserable?’

  ‘Laura,’ said Isabel without thinking. Then, more confidently, ‘I think it will be Laura.’

  *

  Laura was sitting alone in her room with the curtains drawn, even though it was mid-morning. Her door was locked and she had rolled up the long sleeves of her top, to get at her inner arm. It was already criss-crossed with scars, some faint and silver as snail trails, others still angry red.

  Tears rolled down her cheeks as she took the razor blade from the jewellery box where several lay hidden under a tray full of rings and bracelets she hardly ever wore. She hated doing this, hated that she needed to do it, but every time it happened – and she always put it off for as long as she could – there was such a sweet relief that it made it all worthwhile.

  No one would understand why she was so unhappy or even that she was unhappy. Even her best friends at school, like Isabel and Ayesha, rarely saw her outside the school day and she usually managed to put on a good enough front from nine till going-home time. But there were things they didn’t know. Things she had not shared with anyone in her new school.

  At home, her parents, who should have realised, would have been appalled to think that their beloved child was so miserable she had to cut herself to relieve the pain.

  Laura didn’t completely understand it herself.

  It had started with secondary school and she knew why but it got worse a year and a half ago when she was feeling the pressure of school exams, trying to keep up with work and envying girls who seemed naturally popular. Everything was just such a lot of effort. She would have liked a boyfriend but that had never happened and her two closest friends were now in a cosy foursome with Matt Wood and Sky Meadows, two of the best-looking boys in the sixth form.

  The only boy she had ever really liked was Isabel’s twin, Charlie, and he was one of what she thought of as the ‘golden people’. Not a chance he would ever look twice at her.

  She ran the edge of the blade across the surface of her skin as lightly as a whisper. It always took a while to summon up the courage to cut herself. The unhappiness would increase over a period of days and it was only at the weekend, as it stretched before her without any social life to distract her, that it would drive her to the point where the only way out was to inflict real physical pain.

  Laura flicked the hair away from her face and wiped the tears from her cheeks with one of the tissues she had ready. Steeling herself against the initial pain, she dug deeper with the razor, but not deep enough to reach a vein, and scored a new red signature on the waiting page of her skin.

  Fabio was in his workshop, still shaken by his stravagation to the other world. He had been there before, several times, but this time he had taken a talisman to be found by one of the mysterious beings from the future who had helped his Brotherhood before. He had never met one in Talia but he had heard of the heroic deeds of the young people who had fought the di Chimici in many encounters, bringing strength of purpose and great bravery to the task.

  It was a heavy responsibility and he hoped he had chosen the right place, where it would be found by the right person. He had certainly made the talisman to the best of his ability.

  Fabio had no doubt that his city was going to need outside help, and very soon. There was a restlessness in the air and a feeling that the very walls were waiting for Prince Jacopo to die.

  There was a faction in Fortezza that did not believe that a woman should inherit the title and the leadership of the City of Swords. If Lucia’s husband, Prince Carlo of Giglia, had lived, they would have accepted them as joint rulers. But the sad-faced young widow, only recently out of black, did not seem to them like the right successor.

  Fabio did not doubt that if there had been another candidate a part of the citizenry and even some of the army wo
uld rise up in support. But they were also loyal to the di Chimici family so there were all kinds of tensions abroad on the streets.

  It was always noisy in the workshop, with the clang of metal on metal or the hiss of new blades being quenched. It didn’t normally bother the swordsmith; it was as natural to him as the sound of his own breathing. But today he had a headache. Maybe the last stravagation had disturbed his equilibrium.

  He stepped out into the street for a breath of fresh air and almost knocked over a tall figure. It was one of the wandering people known as Manoush, a young man dressed soberly for one of his kind, but Fabio remembered that the goddess-worshippers were in danger in any city with a di Chimici ruler. Prince Jacopo had enacted the laws against magic which outlawed the practice of the Manoush religion.

  This one was polite enough, bowing to the swordsmith though it was Fabio who had crashed into him. There was much courteous brushing down of clothes and mutual apology. In the course of it, Fabio spotted a dagger at the young man’s waist.

  ‘May I see?’ he asked.

  The rusty-haired Manoush graciously offered it for Fabio’s professional inspection.

  ‘A fine blade,’ was his verdict, after hefting it for weight and balance. ‘May you rarely have need of it.’

  ‘Is that a swordsmith’s blessing?’ asked the young man, smiling and revealing very pointed canine teeth, as he tucked the dagger back in his belt.

  ‘Something like that,’ said Fabio. ‘I spend all day making weapons which are beautiful in themselves, but when I think of what they can do …’

  ‘What they are made to do,’ said the Manoush.

  Mortimer Goldsmith made himself a pot of Earl Grey tea and poured himself a cup using some nice antique bone china. Over his drink he reread a letter from his new friend Eva. He had turned the sign on his door to CLOSED during his tea break but now he was aware of a girl looking in the shop window.

  He sighed but the shop wasn’t making so much money that he could afford to turn away custom. He peered closely at the girl through the glass before turning the sign and opening the door.

 

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