City of stars, p.20
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       City of Stars, p.20

           Mary Hoffman

  ‘It looks nice without,’ said Maura. ‘And it might be better not to wear it in Devon. Alice’s dad might think you’re a punk. Your hair’s getting longer too. I’m surprised you didn’t want to get it cut before going to Alice’s.’

  Georgia sighed. ‘I’ll put the ring back in as soon as the itching has gone. I shouldn’t think Alice’s dad will even notice it. And I don’t care about my hair while I’m away. There’ll be no one to see it but him and Alice. I’ll get it cut when I come back.’

  Merla’s wings were drooping. She wasn’t getting enough exercise and she still missed her mother. Because of her extraordinary growth rate, she was no longer in need of Starlight’s milk, but she was not eating well and she was looking thin.

  ‘You’ll have to take her out at night,’ Nello told Enrico, who was still living up at the palace.

  Enrico had come to the same conclusion. It was a risk but there was no point in having a flying horse if it couldn’t fly.

  ‘I’ll take her tonight,’ he said.

  Georgia finished her packing and went to bed early. At least, she tried to. But Russell had other ideas. He was lounging in his doorway in that way she so dreaded. It meant he had nothing to do and was looking for an excuse to torment her.

  And it appeared he had some new ammunition.

  ‘Where’d you pick up the boyfriend?’ he asked casually.

  Georgia froze. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said, as calmly as she could.

  ‘Maz saw you,’ he said. ‘In the Caledonian Road with some spastic. What is it with you? Freaks and geeks, you seem to attract them. I suppose it’s because you’re one yourself.’

  Georgia said nothing. It was a tactic that sometimes worked. Russell could get bored and leave her alone. Or he might be infuriated by it.

  ‘Maz said he was just a kid,’ he persisted. ‘A crippled kid. I wonder what Maura would say about that? Creepy old men and freaky little boys. What next?’

  It had taken Falco a long time to get back to sleep after he stravagated back to Santa Fina. He wanted to hold on to Georgia’s silver ring but Luciano took it from him.

  ‘You don’t want to end up back in England by mistake. Now, I’ll stay with you till you’re asleep and then I’ll go to my room.’

  Georgia had half hoped that she would find herself waking in Talia in Falco’s palace, since she had left from there when she last stravagated. But her flying horse took her to their usual place of entry in the hayloft of the Ram.

  She had to borrow a horse from Paolo and ride up to Santa Fina. The servant who took the horse from her and the other one who let her in both looked puzzled. As far as they were concerned, this young Remoran was sleeping late inside the palace and they couldn’t understand how he was arriving for the second time, on a horse, when he had turned up the previous evening with his companion in a carriage.

  But the servant let Georgia go up to her room and she opened the dividing door that led into Falco’s. He was still asleep, his face pale and drawn on the large heap of pillows. The door to the room on the other side opened and Luciano came in, with dark circles under his eyes. He saw Georgia and smiled.

  ‘You did it!’ he said. ‘Falco told me all about it. He thought it was all wonderful.’ He gave her back the silver ring.

  ‘Even the traffic?’ asked Georgia, fixing the ring back in.

  ‘Even the traffic,’ he said.

  Georgia sat down on a low chair, suddenly overwhelmed by the prospect of what she believed she must do.

  ‘I reckon we’ve got two weeks,’ she said, ‘if I’m lucky and can get here every night from Alice’s. He’d be going back to Giglia after the race anyway. And now that Russell’s damaged my talisman once, I daren’t leave it any longer than necessary. So we’ve got a fortnight to teach him everything he needs to know about living in the twenty-first century.’

  ‘We can do it,’ said Luciano. ‘We’ll do it together.’

  The next two weeks were the busiest in Georgia’s life. She left for Devon the next day, travelling down on the train with Alice. Alice’s father, Paul, was waiting to meet them in his 4x4.

  He was nice, bearded and tweedy and not a bit like Ralph, but friendly and funny. If Georgia hadn’t spent time in palaces in Talia she might have been overawed by his house, but as it was she accepted it. It was a big red-brick farmhouse, with outbuildings and stables and a paddock. The stables housed Alice’s horse, a tall brown mare called Truffle.

  The girls went straight to see her, before unpacking.

  ‘She’s gorgeous,’ said Georgia, enviously. It was all very well having all the horses of the Ram’s stable available to ride in Talia, but she would never have one of her own in real life. And here was Alice, a girl of her own age and a student at her school, with her very own horse just waiting for her all the holidays and any weekend she could get down. Whereas Georgia would have to content herself with a visit to Jean’s stable once a fortnight.

  There was another occupant of the stables. ‘Meet Conker,’ said Paul. In the stall next to Truffle was a chestnut gelding, very like the Reman Arcangelo.

  ‘Where did he come from?’ asked Alice, as surprised as Georgia.

  ‘He’s my neighbour’s,’ explained Paul. ‘You know, Jim Gardiner down the road. He’s away on holiday and was going to put Conker out to livery but I said we’d look after him if my daughter’s friend could ride him. I was right, wasn’t I? You would like to ride while you’re here, wouldn’t you, Georgia? Alice tells me you’re pretty good. Do you think you could manage him?’

  Georgia was speechless with joy and could only nod. This was going to be heaven.

  The girls fell into a very happy routine. Georgia’s room was next to Alice’s and she was relieved to find that her friend was not an early riser. It meant that Georgia could usually manage to get at least a couple of hours sleep after her return from Talia.

  By the time that the two girls came down in the morning, Paul had been up for hours and gone off to his work as a solicitor in the nearest town. Georgia and Alice made huge brunches of pancakes and fruit and eggs and then spent the rest of the day riding.

  They took Truffle and Conker out on to the moors for hours, and when they had had enough, they let the horses graze while they lay on the springy turf picnicking on the doorstep sandwiches they had brought in their saddlebags.

  It was a magical time, the days long and sunny, when the girls talked endlessly about their families. Alice explained about her parents’ marriage. They had met at university. Her mother, Jane, had been a political activist, leader of the Student Union. And no one had ever expected her to get together with Paul, the only son of a local middle-class family.

  ‘They broke up soon after I was born,’ said Alice. ‘And when my grandparents died, my dad moved back down to Devon. I’ve been coming to this house for as long as I can remember.’

  ‘Do they get on, your mum and dad?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘Not too badly now,’ said Alice. ‘The last big quarrel was about my secondary school. Dad wanted me to go to a girls’ boarding school near here and my mum was against it. No private schooling for her daughter – she’s a Labour councillor now, you know. She insisted that the local comprehensive was good enough; Mum and I had moved to Barnsbury by then. They had a huge row and by the time I started at the boarding school they were hardly speaking. But as it happened, I wasn’t happy there and Mum got her way in the end and moved me to Barnsbury Comp.’

  ‘Do you think she was right?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘Well, it’s not bad, is it?’ said Alice. ‘The difficult thing is that I feel I have two different lives.’

  ‘I suppose that’s true of everyone whose parents have split up.’

  ‘Yes, but if you think of the ones in our class – Selina, Julie, Tashi, Callum, for a start – they’ve all got both parents in London. When they spend a weekend with their dads it’s not such a performance. It takes hours for me to get here and I only have one full day on
a weekend. But I love it so much. It’s what keeps me from going mad when I’m in the city. I’d like to live here all the time really, but Mum would never have that. But it makes me feel different from everyone else; my dad’s not like other people’s in the school. I’d die if they knew what our life here is like. You’re the only person from school I’ve ever brought here.’

  Georgia felt honoured. She thought that perhaps it was easier for her, having a dad she could hardly remember. She told Alice about her family too, especially Russell. Alice knew him of course, at least by sight, but she surprised Georgia now by telling her that there were several girls in their form who quite fancied him.

  ‘But he’s hideous!’ said Georgia. Then she thought about it. She only ever saw Russell’s face with a sneer on it, his features distorted by his hatred of her. Perhaps if he smiled, he wouldn’t be so bad looking. He was tall and well built, with thick, brown hair and brown eyes. She had to concede that he wasn’t physically ugly. But he would always seem so to her because of his warped personality. He was a complete contrast to Gaetano, who was quite ugly, but had such courteous manners and such a good heart that everyone who knew him loved him.

  ‘I’ll take your word for it about Russell,’ said Alice. ‘He sounds horrible. I couldn’t fancy someone so cruel, even if he was really fit.’

  In the late afternoon, the girls rode slowly back to the farm and then practised bareback riding in the paddock. Georgia was already better at it than Alice, thanks to her regular attempts in Remora. But Alice soon improved. They were both good riders, in tune with their horses. Within a few days, Georgia knew she was going to miss Conker when she left Devon. He was quite the biggest horse she had ever ridden, but with a lovely temperament. He reminded her more and more of Arcangelo, although she had hardly ever ridden him, because Cesare was usually practising for the Stellata.

  Bareback riding was a completely different experience from riding with a saddle. It was uncomfortable to start with but you felt much more in tune with the horse because of the closer contact of knees and seat. (Russell would have a field day with that, thought Georgia.) She had seen it happen with Cesare, the complete union of horse and rider, what Doctor Dethridge called being like a centaur. Georgia was always going to want that now when riding at speed. She wondered what Jean would say if she suggested it at their fortnightly lessons.

  In Talia, Luciano now spent a lot of his time visiting Falco. His days fell into a pattern, like Georgia’s in Devon. He spent his early mornings on his secret riding lessons, then met Georgia in the Ram. Most days they took the carriage out to Santa Fina and spent time with Falco, preparing him for the great change in his life.

  Their lessons would have been incomprehensible to any passing Talian.

  ‘You’ll have to go to school,’ said Georgia. ‘And if you live near me, that will be my school, the one that Luciano went to as well.’

  ‘You’ll be in Year 9,’ said Luciano, ‘and you’ll have a whole year before you have to choose your options. So you’ll do all the subjects.’

  Georgia counted them off on her fingers: ‘English literature and language – that shouldn’t be too much of a problem, because you seemed to speak and understand English when you stravagated, just the way I do with Talian here, and you’re always reading.’

  Falco nodded. ‘Go on,’ he said.

  ‘Then there’s maths and science – chemistry, physics and biology.’

  ‘I have learned some mathematics and astronomy,’ said Falco. ‘And a little anatomy, but mainly for drawing.’

  ‘Ah yes,’ said Luciano. ‘You can do art, and music too.’

  ‘How about languages?’ asked Georgia. ‘Do you speak French? Come to think of it, is there even an equivalent of France in this world?’ she asked Luciano.

  ‘She means Gallia,’ explained Luciano.

  ‘I speak Gallian,’ said Falco. ‘Will that do?’

  ‘It’s much the same,’ said Luciano, ‘as far as I can gather. The way Talian is like Italian.’

  ‘You can do Italian in Year 11,’ said Georgia. ‘That could be one of your options. It’s ICT I’m worried about.’

  ‘What is that?’ asked Falco.

  They spent the rest of that day trying to explain to the young Talian about computers. He just couldn’t come to terms with it.

  Then there was television, the way cars worked, mobile phones, football, fast food, electric lights, CDs, Game Boys, microwaves, aeroplanes. Falco’s eyes just grew bigger and bigger. They realised that there were going to be huge differences in his understanding of history and geography too. They had had four centuries that he hadn’t and were starting on a fifth. His knowledge of the world that Talia was in centred on what he called the Middle Sea and was learned from globes that he had at his home in Giglia, which sounded to Luciano like the ones in the Ducal palace in Bellezza.

  On the other hand, he was very bright and quick to learn. PE and games would be out of the question till his leg was fixed, so he could spend extra hours in the library, working from books and using the computers. And wherever he lived, there would probably be a computer and access to the Internet too. That was also something he found difficult to understand. Like Rodolfo when Luciano had tried to explain it to him, Falco saw it as a big spider’s web and couldn’t believe that just anyone could tap into it for information.

  ‘Isn’t it reserved for the powerful?’ he asked once. Both Georgia and Luciano thought that if there were ever the Talian equivalent of the World Wide Web, Niccolò di Chimici would certainly want it under his control, but they didn’t share this thought with Falco.

  Another day they had to give him a lesson on twenty-first-century money.

  ‘You remember the note I showed you in London?’ asked Georgia. ‘That was twenty pounds and people of our age don’t often have them. But you’ll need to know pound coins and fifty pences and twenties and tens and fives at least.’

  It was frustrating not having the coins there to show him. But he liked the sound of the gold and silver coins though, being from Talia, where silver is valued above gold, he kept getting them the wrong way round.

  On the way back to Remora one day Luciano broached the question that had been haunting him ever since Falco had asked for their help.

  ‘You talk as if he’ll be somewhere in Islington, but where on earth will he live?’ he asked Georgia. ‘What’s going to happen to a handicapped Talian boy who turns up out of the blue?’

  Georgia wondered how much of the plan she had been formulating to share with Luciano.

  ‘You know my mum’s a social worker?’ she said. ‘Actually she’s a team leader in the section that deals with fostering and adoption. I’m going to try to work it so that she finds him a home. I think his best bet is to pretend that he’s lost his memory. Then it won’t matter if the authorities ask him questions he can’t answer.’


  Falco had begun to have strange dreams. He found himself over and over again in an underground tunnel with a thunderous dragon rushing towards him. He was in a tiny cell that travelled up and down with uncanny speed. He was at the top of a shining silver staircase that moved away from under his feet. His sticks clattered away from him and he fell headfirst. At this point he would wake, sweating and terrified.

  Then he would sleep again and another dream would begin, this one full of new images. He would hear a high mournful cry and a rushing sound like huge wings beating. But he knew the sound was not made by a bird. Even though just before the dream ended he would catch a glimpse of black feathers.

  The nights were long and troubled, particularly after one of his father’s frequent visits. Then he missed Gaetano the most. The two brothers had shared their thoughts on their father many times. It was hard to be part of their family and doubly hard to be sons of a father whose deeds were well known and hard to ignore. But Falco loved his father and he knew that his father loved him. Now he never knew which visit would be the last time he saw the Duke and he had al
ready said goodbye to his favourite brother.


  In Bellezza, Gaetano was still leading a double life, spending most evenings with the young Duchessa he was supposed to be courting and every day with the cousin he still loved as much as when they had played together as toddlers.

  But his feelings for Arianna were changing. And so were hers for him. He was a charming and witty companion, very knowledgeable and entertaining. And the longer she spent with him, the less she thought he was ugly. In fact she found herself looking forward to their evenings together. And much as she missed Luciano, it was relaxing to be with a fellow-Talian from a Ducal family, who understood her duties and her role without explanation. She had to keep reminding herself that his father was supposed to have been responsible for killing her mother.

  Gaetano had to keep remembering that too. He knew the rumour that Duke Niccolò had authorised someone to blow Arianna’s mother to pieces. It was that which made his father’s plans for Gaetano’s marriage both so outrageous and so typical.

  ‘What do you think of this young sprig of our enemies?’ asked a visitor of Rodolfo’s at dinner one evening. She was dressed as Talian widows are in dark colours, with a light veil. But her cobalt dress was stylishly cut and she wore a bracelet of sapphires.

  The Regent was on edge. ‘You know you shouldn’t visit me here, Silvia,’ he said in a low voice. ‘The risk is too great.’

  ‘I’ve seen him on the Canal with that foolish young woman who put herself up against Arianna in the election,’ said Silvia, ignoring his remark. ‘But he seems attentive enough to the Duchessa now.’

  ‘He is a fine young man,’ said Rodolfo. ‘Not like his father or his cousin the ambassador. But I think he is still following his orders rather than his heart.’

  The widow inclined her head. ‘Perhaps that is what people of his rank – and Arianna’s – should do. There is more to think of here than puppy love.’

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