City of stars, p.16
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       City of Stars, p.16

           Mary Hoffman
 

  Arianna was sitting on a stone bench scattering seed for a magnificent peacock. She was simply dressed in green silk, with a plain silk mask. There were no jewels in sight and her hair was loose on her shoulders. She looked the girl that she was, a year younger than Gaetano but already ruler of a great city-state. Gaetano suddenly felt sorry for her.

  At his greeting, she rose and the peacock scuttled away; he heard it scream in the far distance.

  ‘Good morning, Principe,’ she said. ‘I hope you enjoyed your dinner last night?’

  ‘Very much,’ he replied, though having no recollection of any dish that was served. It crossed his mind fleetingly that this was not like him.

  ‘I hope also that it was a pleasure to see your cousin again,’ continued the Duchessa. ‘I was not sure if she would accept my invitation. You may know that she stood against me in the Ducal election?’

  ‘So I gather,’ said Gaetano, who had heard all the details from Francesca the night before. ‘I am sure your Grace understands that it was not my cousin’s idea.’

  ‘Oh it was your cousin’s idea all right,’ said the Duchessa. ‘Just not that cousin’s. Your family have many plans for Bellezza, don’t they?’

  It was hardly diplomatic language, but Gaetano had realised that this was to be no conventional courtship or proposal. Directness was going to serve him better than any courtly pretence.

  ‘Your Grace,’ he said. ‘I think you know why I am here. My father wrote to yours proposing an alliance between our two families. I am supposed to ask for your hand in marriage.’

  ‘And is this you doing it?’ asked the Duchessa, arching one eyebrow. ‘Should you not kneel and profess undying love?’

  ‘How can I?’ asked Gaetano. ‘I don’t know you and until I know someone I cannot love her or pretend to do so. But I have been brought up to obey my father. And I shall make this marriage if you are willing. And if we were to be married, I should strive to be a good husband and devote myself to your happiness.’

  The Duchessa’s manner softened. ‘You are honest, Principe, and I like you the better for it. But if you are to make a bargain in the marriage market, you should be able to inspect the goods.’ She began to untie her mask. ‘And during our courtship, if that is what it is, I think we should call each other by our given names. Mine is Arianna.’

  ‘I am Gaetano,’ said the young di Chimici, as he looked on the face of his father’s enemy and liked what he saw very much indeed.

  ‘It’s broken,’ said Georgia, feeling sick.

  ‘Yeah, sorry, I said,’ said Russell. ‘It was an accident.’

  ‘It was covered in bubble-wrap,’ said Georgia. ‘You must have unwrapped it.’

  ‘It can be mended,’ said Maura, anxious to keep the peace. ‘I can stick it together for you so that you won’t be able to see the join. It will be as good as new.’

  ‘You did it deliberately,’ Georgia said to Russell, ‘because you knew it was important to me.’

  ‘Why is that, George?’ Russell said, almost pleasantly. ‘I can’t see why that horse thing matters so much. It’s only an ornament and you have lots of china horses – quite childish really. Perhaps it’s something to do with that creep you bought it from – that old guy you’re so friendly with?’

  Maura and Ralph’s antennae quivered. ‘What man is this, Georgia?’ asked Maura.

  ‘It’s the old bloke at the antique shop,’ explained Russell. ‘She’s always popping in to have tea with him. I’m surprised you let her do it. My mates think he’s a pervert.’

  Chapter 14

  Wings

  The row rumbled on for ages and Russell slipped away, smiling quietly to himself. Georgia could almost hear him thinking, ‘my work here is done’. He had succeeded in diverting all the flak from himself to Georgia, who was now suspected of a clandestine friendship with a dirty old man. A broken ornament was hardly a comparable offence.

  But it was to Georgia. She knew that Russell had broken it on purpose. She also knew that Mr Goldsmith wasn’t the sort of person Russell had made him out to be and she answered Maura and Ralph’s questions distractedly, much more concerned about the talisman. Would it still work if it were mended in the way Maura had suggested?

  ‘Look,’ she said eventually, exasperated. ‘Why don’t you come and meet him? He’s a perfectly nice old man and we talk about stuff like the Etruscans and the horse race in Siena. There’s nothing sinister about that, is there?’

  Maura sighed. ‘It often starts like that, Georgia. A paedophile will “groom” a prospective victim by giving her presents and seeming to be harmless.’

  ‘Mr Goldsmith isn’t a paedophile!’ shouted Georgia. ‘And he hasn’t given me presents – only biscuits. Why don’t you ever listen to me? I saved up and bought the horse. And now Russell has broken it and you won’t even do anything to him. Mr Goldsmith is my friend. Practically the only one I’ve got.’ At least in this world, she thought.

  Niccolò took Falco back to the summer palace in his carriage. It grieved him to part with his youngest son again so soon. But if that was what would make the boy happy, he would go along with it. And Falco did seem much more cheerful, chatting happily to his father about Gaetano’s trip to Bellezza and the state visit of the Duchessa for the Stellata.

  ‘Do you think she’ll like him, Papa?’ he asked. ‘I don’t see why she wouldn’t – he’s so nice.’

  ‘Liking him doesn’t come into it,’ said the Duke. ‘It’s a question of whether she likes the other terms of the offer.’

  Falco knew his father too well to ask what the other terms were. ‘Do you think she’s looking forward to the race?’ he asked instead.

  ‘How could she not?’ said Niccolò. ‘It’s the big moment of the Reman year – what the whole city lives and breathes for.’

  Falco had seen every Stellata from the year he was five to the year he was eleven. Since the accident, though, he hadn’t had the heart to watch twelve healthy young men race round the Campo on magnificent horses.

  ‘You will let me bring you back for the race, won’t you?’ said Niccolò. ‘You said you’d see it this year and I’m sure it would do you good. You can sit on the stage with your brothers and me and your uncle and our honoured guests.’

  ‘Yes, Papa, I’ll come,’ said Falco, but his heart was heavy, knowing he might not be in Talia by the time of the race.

  *

  Raffaella was an unexpected guest at Paolo’s house when Cesare, Luciano and Doctor Dethridge returned from Santa Fina. They had no good news to report. And the female Manoush seemed to know of their trouble already.

  ‘Aurelio sent me,’ she said simply. ‘He said you might need help.’

  ‘Has the harpist second sight?’ asked Paolo.

  ‘He sees what others do not,’ said Raffaella, ‘even though he can’t see what others do.’

  ‘Tell her,’ said Luciano. ‘We can trust the Manoush.’

  ‘Something precious of ours has gone missing,’ said Paolo. ‘A horse of a special nature. She is only a week old but much bigger than an ordinary horse of that age. She has the gift of flight.’

  Raffaella went quite still. ‘A zhou volou?’ she said reverently. ‘You have one?’

  ‘We had one,’ said Cesare bitterly.

  ‘It was our good omen,’ said Paolo. ‘Born in the Ram and destined to bring us good luck, we hope. Now, things are different. Someone may have stolen the luck.’

  ‘Then it will turn to ill for them,’ said Raffaella. ‘With your permission, I shall put the word out among our people. We have family everywhere in the region; someone may have seen something.’

  ‘How do you know about this kind of horse?’ asked Luciano.

  ‘We know about all kinds of horses,’ said Raffaella. ‘The zhou volou is a good omen for the Manoush too.’

  Cesare hesitated. ‘Forgive me for asking,’ he said, ‘but if your people value the flying horse, would they return her to the Ram?’

  Raffaell
a looked at him gravely. ‘We are not horse-thieves,’ she said. ‘Even of ordinary horses. The winged one would be a sacred creature to us and we would return it to its proper guardians.’

  ‘I’m sorry,’ said Cesare. ‘I want to trust you, but I’m just so worried about Merla. I helped deliver her.’

  ‘I understand,’ said Raffaella. ‘I would feel the same.’

  *

  It had not been easy, stealing the flying horse. Enrico had hidden in the bushes again at midnight while Diego let the filly exercise her wings high up above the stable yard. The lunge was even longer than before and it did tend to get entangled in tree branches. At one such moment, Enrico had crept from his hiding-place and cut through the leather, holding tight on to the part that was still linked to the flying horse.

  This had made her tug harder against the restraint of the much shorter length of lunge, which made it more difficult to lead her away from the stable. Enrico had to guide her from many feet below, till she was flying over a field where he could gently reel her in till she stood on firm ground again. And all the time it was impossible to see her against the starless sky. She folded her strong black pinions and stood shivering, while Enrico spoke soothingly to her and draped a blanket over her tell-tale wings.

  But now Enrico was well established at Santa Fina. His note from the Duke had gained him entry into the di Chimici summer palace, where he had a very comfortable room with all the food and drink he could consume. He had smuggled the black filly into a stall in the stables, where he quickly made friends with Nello, the Duke’s head groom. Nello was well aware of his master’s nature, so when a strange man turned up in the middle of the night with an obviously stolen horse, he didn’t turn a hair. Even when he saw what kind of horse it was. The other servants were equally discreet about the new visitor; it didn’t pay to ask too many questions where the Duke’s affairs were concerned.

  Enrico explored the palace, amazed by the sheer number of rooms and the size of the staircases.

  ‘Dia!’ he exclaimed to himself. ‘I had no idea just how rich these di Chimici were.’

  Today the palace was buzzing with activity. A message had come to say that the Duke was bringing his youngest son back to the palace for a few weeks. Falco was a great favourite with the household because of his sweet nature and angelic looks and the tragedy of his situation. The cook was bustling around making his favourite dishes and the maids were cleaning his bedroom and dusting all the formal rooms so that there should be nothing for the Duke to find fault with.

  Enrico was watching from the loggia above the main entrance when the carriage came into view on the road from Remora. He decided to make himself scarce until the Duke had established his son in his quarters. He headed back out to the stables to check up on his prize. Actually, he was avoiding contact with young Falco; Nello had told him all about the accident and Enrico, who would slide a blade between a man’s ribs without a second thought, if he was being paid enough, was squeamish about illness and physical defects, especially in children.

  Georgia lay on her bed, clutching the broken horse, tears scalding her cheeks. In the last twenty-four hours her world seemed to have collapsed. She wished for the millionth time that she had stravagated on Tuesday night instead of wimping out. Now she didn’t know if she would ever be in Talia again. And Russell had got away with his mean trick and was spreading vile rumours about an innocent friendship. How did he do that? He was in the wrong, no question about that, but she was the one that Ralph and Maura were arguing about downstairs. How she hated him!

  She thought of Gaetano and Cesare and Luciano and how they treated her with respect and affection. Falco too. And lately she had caught him looking at her with something more in his expression. There was her new friend Alice at school too. They had started having lunch together regularly and had met a few times after school. It felt good to have a female friend again. If it weren’t for Russell, her life would definitely be improving. Now she just felt trapped, unable to escape from the strain of living in the same house with someone so hateful. And she wouldn’t even be able to visit Mr Goldsmith if Russell succeeded in his scare campaign.

  Suddenly she wished she were a di Chimici, with the money and the power to have her enemies eliminated. She wouldn’t have hesitated at that moment to send an assassin to Russell’s room. Then she was horrified at her own thoughts. So that was what it was like to be someone like the Duke! The only difference between them was that he did have the power and money. Georgia felt ashamed.

  There was a knock on her door.

  ‘Georgia,’ Maura called softly. ‘Can I come in?’

  ‘My Lord!’ came a whisper from behind the Duke. By a strong effort of will, he managed not to jump but turned round slowly.

  ‘Ah!’ said Niccolò, letting the breath hiss out between his teeth when he saw who it was. ‘You are getting better at this.’

  ‘Sorry if I startled you, my Lord,’ said Enrico. ‘But I thought you might be about to leave. And I didn’t want you to miss what I have to show you.’

  He led the Duke into the stables and back to the furthest stall. Darker than the shadows in which she stood, wings drooping, was the flying horse.

  ‘You did it!’ said the Duke, eyes shining. ‘The little miracle!’

  He stepped forward and stroked the filly’s muzzle. She huffed sadly down her nostrils.

  ‘Nello!’ called the Duke. ‘Come here!’

  His stableman appeared out of the shadows.

  ‘Your Grace,’ he bowed.

  ‘What can you do for the little one?’ Niccolò asked.

  ‘She is moping a little, my Lord,’ said Nello.

  ‘Only natural,’ agreed Enrico. ‘Missing her mother.’

  ‘But she will pull round,’ said Nello. ‘Have no fear, my Lord. I shall look after her as if she was my own baby.’

  ‘Me too, my Lord,’ said Enrico.

  The Duke looked at his two men and shuddered slightly. But he did have faith in their knowledge of horses.

  *

  ‘I wish Georgia were here,’ said Cesare miserably.

  ‘Whatte coulde shee doe thatte we canne not?’ asked Dethridge.

  ‘Nothing, I suppose,’ said Cesare. ‘I just wish she knew about Merla.’

  ‘But the portal has probably stabilised, hasn’t it?’ said Luciano. ‘I mean, ever since she started stravagating, the times in the two worlds have matched. If she’s not here today, then it’s likely only one night has passed in her world.’

  ‘Not necessarily,’ said Paolo. ‘She could return tomorrow and we could find her four years older. But you are probably right.’

  Neither Luciano nor Cesare liked the idea of Georgia coming back older than them.

  The atmosphere in the stables of the Ram was bleak. They had searched Santa Fina all afternoon and returned late to Remora, planning to start again the next morning. No one really believed that Merla had gone missing by accident, or that she would be found wandering free in the countryside. Even if she were, what were the chances of someone who found her not keeping her to bring luck to his own house?

  But, if someone had taken her, that meant that the Ram’s secret was known.

  ‘You are sure that neither of you let anything slip to the di Chimici?’ asked Paolo.

  ‘Certain,’ said Cesare. ‘We never really talked about horses, did we?’

  ‘No,’ said Luciano. ‘And what’s more, even if we had, I don’t think they’d have told their father. Or anyone else.’

  ‘Ye seme almoste to favoure these chimists nowe,’ said Dethridge. ‘Have yow forgot whatte they did to yow? And to the Dutchesse?’

  ‘How could I?’ asked Luciano. ‘I live with the results of their actions every day. But those two, the young ones, are quite different from their father. And from their cousin, come to that. I don’t think either of them cares about the family’s plans.’

  ‘And yette the ill-favoured one wolde make a marriage with yonge Arianne, to plese his
fathire,’ said Dethridge.

  ‘Ah,’ said Luciano, more calmly than he felt. ‘So you know about that?’

  His foster-father looked very uncomfortable.

  ‘I am sorye, Lucian; Maister Rudolphe told mee. I meant not to speak of it, bot ye semed so certayne thatte the yonge nobile is yowre freend. Al I saye is – hee is his fathire’s sonne and wol doo whatte he is bidden.’

  ‘And what about Arianna?’ said Luciano. ‘What do you think she will do? Sell herself to the son and her city to his father? She would never do anything like that. She is her mother’s daughter.’

  ‘There,’ said Maura. ‘We’ll put it in the airing-cupboard to dry and it will be as good as new.’

  The wings were back on the horse and the joins could not be seen. Maura had done a good job with the glue.

  ‘No,’ said Georgia. ‘It’s not going out of my room.’

  Her mother sighed. ‘Have it your own way. But it will take longer to harden the glue if you don’t put it somewhere warm.’

  ‘It can go on the window-sill,’ said Georgia. ‘I’ll wait. I’m not letting Russell get his hands on it again. You saw that it must have been broken deliberately.’

  It was true. The wings looked as if they had been snapped off cleanly from the horse’s back. But Maura didn’t want to believe that Russell had been guilty of such vandalism. She wanted the family to work and simply could not face the idea that her daughter and stepson hated one another.

  ‘I see that you are very unhappy, Georgia,’ she said now. ‘Would you like to go away for a while?’

  Georgia looked at her mother in amazement. Doctor Kennedy had pronounced her well enough to return to school the next day – ‘Just a bit run down; it often happens towards the end of term. Too much homework,’ had been her diagnosis.

  ‘What about school?’ she asked.

  ‘Oh, you can do these next two days,’ said Maura. ‘You won’t get any more homework anyway. But Alice’s mother asked me if you’d like to go with Alice when she goes to stay with her father in Devon on Sunday. Alice asked if you could and she has a horse down there, you know.’

 
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