City of stars, p.25
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       City of Stars, p.25

           Mary Hoffman
 

  Enrico shivered. He didn’t want to think about it. ‘I think it might be up to us to do something about the opposition.’

  Riccardo shrugged. ‘What did you have in mind?’

  Enrico tapped the side of his nose. ‘Leave it to me,’ he said.

  *

  Luciano and Dethridge were joining in the celebration breakfast at the Ram. Everyone knew it was just a heat but excitement ran through Paolo’s house; the children were infected with it. The little girls had miniature red and yellow flags and were waving them enthusiastically.

  ‘Ram, Ram, Ram!’ they cried. ‘I’m the best, I am!’

  ‘I think Cesare’s the best this morning,’ said Teresa, smiling at him.

  Cesare basked in his family’s praise. Winning the heat had given him a taste of what victory in the Stellata would be like and he couldn’t wait to feel it again.

  The happy atmosphere generated by Cesare’s win took Georgia’s mind off her troubles with Rodolfo. But not for long. As soon as she and Luciano were alone together, she told him what Falco had said.

  Luciano was still smarting from Rodolfo’s reproaches but when he heard about Falco’s resolve it made him feel better.

  ‘He’s a brave kid,’ he said. ‘And I think we have to stand by him.’

  Georgia nodded. ‘It’ll take some courage to defy Rodolfo, though,’ she said. ‘It means believing we’re right and he’s wrong.’

  ‘He doesn’t know Falco,’ said Luciano. ‘He doesn’t understand what this means to him. I’ve disobeyed him before, you know. I came back to Bellezza at night-time – to see the fireworks I’d helped him make.’

  ‘And was he angry with you then?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘No. He said it must have been Fate or something. Because I saved the Duchessa from being assassinated.’

  ‘But everyone pretended she had been?’

  ‘No, that was later – the second time. Another person got killed in her place and Silvia just decided she’d had enough. She thought she could do better against the di Chimici if she went underground. She’s been quite active in Bellezzan politics since Arianna took over.’

  ‘Imagine having those two for your parents!’ Georgia felt almost sorry for Arianna.

  ‘I often do,’ said Luciano. ‘They’re both incredible when you get to know them, but it’s best not to cross them. Arianna’s like both of them.’ He sighed.

  ‘Do you think Rodolfo has told Doctor Dethridge and Paolo what we did?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘Hee has in dede,’ said a familiar voice. William Dethridge had come out to the stables with Paolo, to find them. ‘Ye are essaying to get that poore chylde translated.’

  ‘It was not something you should have undertaken without talking to us,’ said Paolo seriously. ‘Not only is it a great step for the boy himself and much too advanced a manoeuvre for an inexperienced Stravagante, but have you given any thought to the consequences for both of you here? If Falco dies, as he will surely appear to do here and soon, the Duke will be looking for revenge. And his eyes will turn first to the Ram. Where he will find supporters of Bellezza and my family, not to mention several Stravaganti. Your act has put our whole brotherhood in danger.’

  *

  Unaware of the storms brewing for the Ram, Cesare was down at the Campo, looking at the track. There had been no rain for several days now and the conditions were looking good. Whenever there were no heats going on, bands of Remorans took the opportunity to ‘walk the track’, treading the earth down so that it was compacted into a good surface for racing. Cesare nodded to a group of Archers who were doing so now.

  ‘Well ridden!’ they shouted. Their horse, Alba, had come third in the morning’s heat, ridden by Topolino, so they were quite pleased.

  ‘Well ridden, indeed!’ said a short man in a blue cloak. He was wearing the colours of the Ram but Cesare didn’t know him. That wasn’t surprising; at the time of the race, all sorts of people came back to Remora to support their Twelfth, even if they had been away from the city for years.

  ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ said the man, who seemed very friendly. ‘I’d like to hear all about you and the horse – Angelo is it?’

  ‘Arcangelo,’ said Cesare proudly. ‘The best horse we have had in the Ram for years. Apart from one,’ he added sadly, thinking of Merla.

  But he let the stranger buy him a drink. And he didn’t notice anything funny about the taste, he was so busy recounting past exploits on the chestnut gelding.

  ‘Bit early in the day to be drunk, isn’t it?’ one of the other customers asked, as the man in the blue cloak led the younger man away, holding his weight up as his legs seemed to be giving way beneath him.

  ‘Hm,’ said the waiter. ‘Especially since the lad only had a lemon sherbet.’

  But a group of tourists came in calling for wine, so he thought no more about it.

  *

  A public coach brought Francesca to Remora, since Signor Albani wasn’t wealthy enough to keep a carriage. But she didn’t mind. She went straight to the hospital, sending her luggage to the Papal palace by porter. She was sure of her welcome with the Pope. The di Chimici stuck together, particularly in a family crisis.

  Gaetano jumped up when she came in, his sorrow momentarily dispelled at the sight of her.

  ‘How is he?’ asked Francesca.

  ‘As you see,’ said Gaetano, gesturing towards the bed where the thin, almost translucent, body of his brother lay. Niccolò sat in his usual place, beside the bed, holding one of his son’s hands. Francesca was shocked by Niccolò’s unshaven face and bloodshot eyes.

  ‘See who is here, Father,’ said Gaetano gently. ‘Francesca has come from Bellezza.’

  The Duke roused himself sufficiently to greet her, running his tongue over his dry lips before speaking.

  ‘Thank you, my dear,’ he said. ‘It was good of you to come. Not that you can do anything. No one can.’ He passed his free hand across his face.

  Beatrice bustled in. ‘Oh Francesca, thank goodness for another woman!’ she said. ‘You’ll help me with Father, won’t you? Father, look, now that Francesca is here with us, you can go back to the palace for some rest. You know we will send word if there is any change.’

  Gaetano began to protest that his cousin had only just arrived and must be tired from her long journey, but Francesca stopped him.

  ‘I’d be happy to sit and watch over him with you, Beatrice,’ she said. And, much to Gaetano’s surprise, Niccolò stood up, relinquishing Falco’s hand into Francesca’s.

  ‘I think I will take a little rest,’ he said. ‘You are a good girl, Francesca. And Beatrice, you swear to send Gaetano to me at once if anything changes?’

  ‘Wouldn’t you like me to come back to the palace with you, Father?’ asked Gaetano.

  ‘No,’ said the Duke. ‘You must be here if he opens his eyes. It is only next door. I shall go on my own.’

  He walked out of the hospital, through the small knot of well-wishers praying over rosaries or holding tokens of the goddess.

  *

  ‘What do you mean, not here?’ said Paolo.

  ‘Cesare isn’t here,’ said Teresa. ‘He must be down at the Campo.’

  ‘But it’s nearly time for the heat,’ said Paolo. ‘He needs to be here so he can ride Arcangelo down to the start.’

  There was no sign of Cesare anywhere about the stables. No one had seen him since breakfast. Paolo took Arcangelo down to the Campo himself, surrounded by the usual crowd of Twelvers from the Ram. Luciano and Georgia went with him, even though it was getting rather late for Georgia still to be in Talia. But Cesare was not waiting in the piazza either.

  A group of the Archer’s supporters waiting with Alba and her jockey came up to Paolo, perturbed to see Arcangelo riderless. In response to his whispered enquiries, they confirmed that they had seen Cesare in the Campo earlier in the day.

  ‘He went off to have a drink with a man in a blue cloak,’ said one of them. ‘He was a Ram – at le
ast he wore the Ram’s colours.’

  Luciano started. A man in a blue cloak meant only one thing to him – and it was bad news.

  ‘I think Cesare may have been kidnapped,’ he whispered to Georgia.

  ‘All horses to the starting line,’ called the Starter.

  ‘Oh, no! What will Paolo do?’ asked Georgia. There was a pause in the activity of horses and men milling around.

  ‘The Ram scratches,’ announced the Starter. ‘The other eleven to the starting line please. Take your places for the third heat.’

  And it was run without the Ram.

  *

  Cesare woke with a terrible headache. He had no idea where he was or how he had got there. He was in an unfurnished, hot and dusty room with tall barred windows. A stretch to see out of one of them showed him that he was very high up and looking out over hills and woods. Something seemed familiar but he was too befuddled to be sure what it was.

  The quality of the light showed him that he had been unconscious for hours and it was the time of the evening heat. Cesare paced up and down the length of the room in an agony. Rattling the door had shown him that it must be bolted from the outside and he was caught like a rat in a trap.

  ‘Georgia,’ said Ralph the next day. ‘There’s a TV programme you might want to watch tonight. It’s about horses.’

  Georgia almost didn’t look at the newspaper he was showing her. She was still paralysed by what had happened in Remora last evening, just before she had had to stravagate back. For a Twelfth to pull out of a heat was terribly shaming, but Paolo had no substitute jockey waiting. He himself was too tall and heavy now to ride in the Stellata; he had been only fifteen when he had ridden to victory for the Ram twenty-five years ago. And now it was beginning to look as if Cesare had been kidnapped.

  Georgia had risked coming back so late because she knew no one would worry if she wasn’t down early for breakfast the next morning. But she was surprised to find Ralph still there. He explained that he was waiting in for an important delivery of parts. And now he was waving the Guardian supplement with the TV listings in front of her bleary eyes.

  Georgia suddenly snapped to attention. ‘PALIO,’ said the newspaper. ‘A Documentary about the Craziest Horse Race in the World. Channel 4 8pm.’

  ‘I thought you’d be interested,’ said Ralph, pleased with her reaction.

  ‘You bet,’ said Georgia. ‘Have we got a blank video I could use to record it? I think I might want to keep it.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Ralph. ‘You can tape over Four Weddings and a Funeral. I never want to see it again.’

  ‘Don’t be daft,’ said Georgia, grinning. ‘Maura would kill me. She loves that film.’

  ‘Only kidding,’ said Ralph. ‘You can use that tape we put the Oscars on; she won’t want to watch that again.’

  ‘I’d like to invite Fal – Nicholas over to watch,’ said Georgia. ‘You know he’s crazy about horses too.’

  ‘Good idea,’ said Ralph. ‘We can all watch it together on the big set in the living room.’

  This wasn’t quite what Georgia had in mind. She would have to warn Falco not to make comparisons with the Stellata; it was going to be hard for them both.

  ‘First Merla and now Cesare,’ said Paolo. ‘It has to be the di Chimici.’

  ‘I agree,’ said Rodolfo, who had been summoned to the Horsemaster’s house. ‘Though I am surprised that the Duke has moved while his son is still in danger. I thought he was too preoccupied.’

  ‘There are plenty of other family members in town,’ said Paolo.

  ‘What will you do?’ asked Teresa. The younger children were all in bed and she was now free to worry about her stepson.

  ‘I don’t think they will hurt him, Teresa,’ said Paolo. ‘I think they will just keep him a prisoner till after the race.’

  ‘But what will you do about the race?’ asked Luciano.

  ‘I think there is only one thing for it,’ said Paolo. ‘Georgia will have to ride for the Ram.’

  Completely unaware of the plans being made for her in Remora, Georgia watched the TV documentary mesmerised. She and Falco sat on the sofa with a large bowl of popcorn between them, popcorn being one of Falco’s favourite discoveries about his new life. Ralph was with them in an armchair but Maura was writing up case notes in the office and Russell had gone ostentatiously off to his room to watch a martial arts video.

  ‘It looks pretty brutal,’ said Ralph, frowning at the mad gallop round the shell-shaped Campo in Siena, the jockeys with their whips flailing.

  ‘They ride bareback, Georgia,’ whispered Falco, ‘just like our jockeys.’

  ‘It looks a lot harder than the bareback riding I do,’ she said, wondering if the real Stellata was as fast and furious as the Palio. The jockeys were all much older than Cesare and were apparently professionals, almost all of them from outside Siena.

  When Falco had been taken home by Ralph, Georgia decided on an early night. She wanted to be in Remora in time for the next heat; she had no idea what Paolo would do. She was making herself hot chocolate in the kitchen when Russell came down to raid the fridge.

  ‘I don’t know how you can bear to be around that kid,’ he said, giving an exaggerated shudder. ‘With his leg all deformed like that. He gives me the willies.’

  Maura, standing in the kitchen doorway, looked scandalised.

  ‘You don’t mean that, do you, Russell?’ she said.

  ‘No, just kidding,’ he said immediately.

  ‘Well, I don’t think it was at all funny,’ said Maura, sounding the crossest she had ever been with her stepson.

  Russell shot Georgia a poisonous look on his way out.

  ‘Come on, my beauty,’ Enrico whispered to Merla in the middle of the night. ‘We’re going somewhere special.’

  The black mare, fully grown now, flew strongly towards Remora, urged on by the man she was now used to. It was a longer flight than she usually made and she was enjoying the use of her wings.

  On and on through the starry night, flying ever south, over the walls of a great city, Merla felt memory stirring within her. She wanted to veer west but her rider held her on a true course to the heart of the city and then gently pulled her to a halt, so that she hovered in the air over an open circle. Merla had no idea what he wanted her to do; but she remembered that people who had treated her lovingly were somewhere nearby.

  *

  Cesare had spent a wretched night, knowing that he was still going to be holed up in this room when the early morning heat began. He had a dream that he heard a horse neighing right outside his window. It must have been a dream, because no horse could be up so high. Only Merla, he thought, drifting into another dream in which Arcangelo won the race without him. It was perfectly possible for a horse to win the Stellata ‘scosso’, without a rider. But not for it to start that way.

  Cesare heard bolts being pulled and he ran to the door, but two burly men he had never seen before made sure he could not get out. One of them set down a basket of rolls and fruit and a beaker of milk. And then he was on his own again, free to satisfy his physical hunger but still gnawed by mental anguish.

  *

  ‘I want you to ride Arcangelo for the Ram,’ said Paolo, waiting for Georgia in the hayloft, with Cesare’s jockey silks. ‘You can do it, can’t you? Ride bareback, I mean?’

  ‘Well, yes,’ said Georgia swallowing.

  ‘And you’ve ridden a horse as big as this?’ he persisted.

  Georgia remembered Conker. She nodded.

  ‘Then please put these clothes on and meet us in the yard,’ said Paolo. ‘We must get down to the track.’

  *

  Word had spread fast in Remora of a supernatural event. The Campo was full of people gazing upwards. They stood around in groups, far more of them than usually turned out for a morning heat.

  In the centre of the Campo the tall slender column rising from the fountain was no longer unadorned. At the top of it, far higher than anyone could reach wi
th a ladder, the rose and white banner of the Twins fluttered from the lioness’s neck.

  ‘It’s an omen,’ said the Remorans, making the Hand of Fortune. ‘The Twins will win, surely?’

  ‘No surprise about that,’ said others. ‘Only how the banner got there.’

  ‘It must have been the goddess,’ came a voice. And ‘Dia, Dia!’ echoed round the Campo.

  ‘The goddess – or someone on a flying horse,’ said someone.

  And that was how the rumour began that a winged horse was living again in Remora.

  Chapter 21

  Go and Return a Winner

  ‘There’s no time to worry about that,’ Paolo said, barely glancing at the column and the fluttering scarf. ‘Now, you understand there will be no use of whips today? All you have to do is stay on for three laps of the Campo. Don’t worry about where you come at the end.’

  It was good advice, since Georgia in fact came last. But she did stay on and the entire heat was very close, with most of the horses bunched together. The Water-carrier won by a length, with a horse called Uccello. His young jockey was famously always hungry and, unfortunately for him, was seen munching some breakfast just before mounting up. So ‘Salsiccio’ he would now for ever be.

  Georgia got her nickname too and it wasn’t very flattering. She had not even seen a heat before and had to be shown everything about where to wait and when to mount and what to do. ‘Zonzo’ she was called, the Talian equivalent of ‘dozy’, but it was quite an affectionate name and people were kind to her, even rival jockeys.

  Word had spread fast in Remora about Cesare’s disappearance and no one doubted that he had been removed from the scene because he was a threat to the di Chimici’s chances in the race. Such things had happened before.

  ‘Bad luck for the Ram,’ said Riccardo to Enrico, as they watched the fourth heat.

  ‘Terrible,’ agreed Enrico. ‘But it’s still only a heat. Maybe their substitute will improve.’

  Riccardo shook his head. ‘To miss a heat is a dreadful omen,’ he said. ‘They won’t recover from that.’

 
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