City of stars, p.4
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       City of Stars, p.4

           Mary Hoffman
 

  The only women he knew now were his sisters-in-law and his nieces; the di Chimici were a predominantly male family. The only thing that bothered Ferdinando about this state of affairs was the succession. His second nephew Carlo would be Prince of Remora, but who would be Pope after him? It was unthinkable that such a role should now pass to someone outside the family. He had hoped that the visit from his third nephew Gaetano presaged an interest in the church, but so far the boy had seemed sulky and ill at ease in the palace.

  It made Ferdinando uncomfortable. For most of the time he was able to ignore the fact that he was a figurehead, a puppet manipulated by his cleverer and more ruthless older brother. Of course it had been Niccolò’s idea that Ferdinando should enter the church and his money that had ensured Ferdinando’s rapid rise to Cardinal and eventually Pope. It made him squirm to remember how conveniently the old Pope, Augustus II, had died. But he had been an old man; Ferdinando quickly turned his thoughts away from his predecessor.

  To be Prince of the country’s major city and head of its church ensured comfort, luxury even, and respect, at least on the surface. When he walked down the street, people fell to their knees as he passed. But he couldn’t always forget that he wasn’t like the Popes of the past when the Reman Empire was at its height. And the clear gaze of young Gaetano had brought it back to him.

  ‘Dinner is served, your Holiness,’ his serving-man announced.

  Ferdinando manoeuvred his considerable bulk out of his chair and made his way in to the meal. His eyes glittered at the sight of his silver dishes and goblets, the table ablaze with as many candles as the high altar in Remora’s Duomo. There were only himself, Niccolò and Gaetano to sit down at the snowy cloth, but there were at least a dozen servants to attend to their every need.

  After a brief Grace, intoned in Talic, the ancient tongue of Remora and all Talia, the three men set to. Ferdinando ate slowly with relish, savouring each carefully prepared dish. Niccolò ate little and drank a lot. Gaetano devoured everything put in front of him as fast as was compatible with good manners, as if he had put in a hard day’s labour in the fields instead of mooching about the palace missing his friends and his books.

  ‘How have you passed your day, brother?’ enquired Ferdinando.

  ‘Most profitably,’ answered Niccolò. ‘I have seen your fine Benvenuto, visited my Zarina, and then paid a call on the Ram.’

  Ferdinando raised his eyebrows. ‘And what are they running this year?’

  ‘A fine chestnut gelding called Arcangelo,’ said Niccolò. ‘A good-boned, high-spirited horse. I’d say they had a good chance.’

  Gaetano made a noise like a snort, then pretended his wine had gone down the wrong way.

  ‘You should have come with me, Gaetano,’ said his father smoothly. ‘You might have enjoyed yourself.’

  It was true that Gaetano loved horses; he was one of the best riders in the family. Perhaps it was the wine, but he felt his annoyance with his father and with Remora dissolving. ‘Perhaps I should,’ he replied pleasantly. ‘Is it your intention to visit all the stables? I should like to come with you tomorrow.’

  ‘Yes, perhaps I will,’ said Niccolò, who had had no such intention an instant ago. ‘It can do no harm to see the competition, and we don’t want the other Twelfths to feel neglected, do we?’

  *

  As they walked through the streets of Remora, Georgia’s jaw dropped. It was one thing to be told by Paolo that they were in the sixteenth century, quite another to be in a city with cobbled streets, no cars, and houses so close together that washing lines were strung across the street between them and cats leapt from one rooftop to another.

  Everywhere in what Georgia was learning to recognise as the Twelfth of the Ram, there were signs and symbols of that animal. At every crossroad there was a statue of the beast with its curled horns, some of the houses were draped with red and yellow banners displaying a prancing ram with a silver crown, and every few yards or so there were little iron rings under the shape of a ram’s forepart with its front legs raised.

  ‘What are they?’ asked Georgia, pointing to one.

  ‘Hitching posts for horses,’ said Cesare. ‘And look up!’

  Georgia raised her eyes and there, thirty feet off the ground, saw more of the rings.

  ‘For flying horses,’ whispered Cesare. ‘All the Twelfths have them, just in case.’

  He led her into a small square. On the north side was a large impressive church and in the middle a fountain. The sun shone brightly down on the water, turning the fountain into a glittering fan. The water came spurting up through the mouth of a giant ram, whose horns were made of silver. More silver glinted on the tridents of the tritons surrounding the basin.

  ‘That’s the Fonte d’Argento, the silver fountain,’ explained Cesare. ‘The Ram is allied to the silversmiths’ guild and they decorated it for us. Every Twelfth is linked with one of the city guilds. The Lady’s one is Painters, the Twins’ is Bankers.’ He laughed. ‘It could be the other way round. The di Chimici are bankers and Giglia, the Lady’s city, is their headquarters. Still, they are famous for their patronage of the arts too, so painters is fair enough.’

  ‘You’ve lost me,’ said Georgia. ‘I thought the Lady was another section of this city. How can it belong to another one?’

  They sat down on the stone fountain-seat and Cesare explained patiently. ‘Each Twelfth of Remora owes allegiance to one of Talia’s city-states. Only the Twelfth of the Twins supports Remora itself. The Lady looks to Giglia and the Ram to Bellezza.’

  ‘What are the names of the other Twelfths?’ asked Georgia. ‘I’ve only heard you mention those three.’

  ‘The Bull, the Crab, the Lioness, the Scales, the Scorpion, the Archer, the Goat, the Water-carrier and the Fishes,’ recited Cesare, counting them off on his fingers.

  Georgia thought for a bit. Then, ‘I get it!’ she said triumphantly. ‘It’s the zodiac, isn’t it? Astrology? But wait a minute. Why Lioness? It’s just a lion where I come from – Leo.’

  ‘Only a lioness could have suckled the twins,’ said Cesare matter-of-factly. ‘You know – Romulus and Remus.’

  ‘It was a wolf in my world,’ said Georgia. ‘But why isn’t that Twelfth allied to Remora too?’

  ‘That one is for Romula,’ said Cesare.

  Georgia shook her head. It would take ages to get this lot sorted out.

  ‘Come to the Campo,’ said Cesare, getting up. ‘It will be easier to explain there.’

  They walked through a narrow alley and out into the most dazzling place Georgia had ever seen. Stepping out into the Campo was like being set free from prison, like being born after a long labour. It made Georgia want to shout out loud.

  The space was a circle, but a huge one, open to the bright sunshine, with houses and grand buildings all around. There was an elaborate fountain in the centre, with a slender pillar rising from it. And the space itself, floored in a sort of herring-bone pattern of bricks, was divided up into equal sections divided by straight lines. It looked like an orange cut in half horizontally. Each segment had a star sign in the centre of it.

  ‘You see,’ said Cesare. ‘Twelve sections – one for each Twelfth. And the way into each Twelfth of the city leads from its segment. We are standing on the Ram’s portion.’

  Georgia counted. ‘But there are fourteen sections, not twelve,’ she objected.

  ‘The extra ones both lead to the Strada delle Stelle,’ explained Cesare. ‘It’s a kind of neutral territory running between the Gate of the Sun and the Gate of the Moon. You see the signs of Sun and Moon in those segments. Anyone can walk along that street at any time.’

  ‘And you can’t on the other roads?’ said Georgia disbelievingly.

  ‘Well, it depends on your Twelfth,’ said Cesare. ‘The Ram is allied with the Lioness and the Archer, but in enmity with the Fishes. The Fishes is the Twelfth next to us on the south-west, so it is particularly dangerous for one of us to stray there.’
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  ‘How would they know?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘By the colours,’ said Cesare simply, pointing to the neckcloth he was wearing. It was the same red and yellow that Georgia had seen on one of the banners in the streets of the Ram. She realised that she was wearing one too, another badge of loyalty. She shook her head. It was like street gangs in Los Angeles.

  ‘Can’t you be independent?’ she asked. ‘I mean, not belong to any Twelfth?’

  ‘Not belong to a Twelfth?’ said Cesare incredulously. It reminded Georgia of the way Russell said ‘does not compute’ about anything he didn’t understand.

  ‘Everyone in Remora is born into a Twelfth,’ Cesare tried again. ‘Even if a baby comes unexpectedly while the woman is visiting in another part of the city, she will have travelled with a sack of earth from her Twelfth so that it can be spread under the bed and the child can be born on its own native soil.’

  Up until now, Georgia had imagined the city as being like a collection of fanatical football club supporters, but now she began to see that it was something far deeper.

  ‘OK,’ she said. ‘You have two close allies and one enemy. What about the other eight?’

  ‘Oh, it is safe enough to walk in those Twelfths,’ said Cesare. ‘Would you like to visit one?’

  They strolled across the Campo, which was full of stalls selling food and drink and banners and flags in a whole rainbow of colours. Georgia picked out the red and yellow ones of the Ram. She began noticing that every passer-by wore a neckcloth or some other coloured token. Some more grandly-dressed people sported satin ribbons instead.

  Blue and purple, green and yellow, red and black, Cesare pointed them out and assigned them without thinking: Scorpion, Goat, Lioness. And then they passed a group of young men wearing pink and blue ribbons. Immediately they started to point and jeer at Cesare and Georgia.

  ‘Quick,’ hissed Cesare. ‘Fishes!’ He dragged her into an alley on the far side of the Campo from where they had entered it. ‘This is Archer territory; they won’t follow us in here.’

  The Fish boys went clattering up a neighbouring alley. ‘They’ve gone into Scorpion,’ said Cesare, listening. ‘That’s one of their allies, of course.’

  ‘Of course,’ said Georgia sarcastically.

  Cesare gave her a serious look. ‘This is not a game,’ he said. ‘You need to learn these rules, if you want to be safe in Remora.’

  Georgia noticed that the Twelfth of the Archer was arranged very much like that of the Ram. There were the same statues everywhere – though these were of a centaur with bow and arrows – the same square in front of a church, with its fountain in the centre. This one was called the Fonte Dolorosa, according to Cesare. He nodded to a couple of boys who passed wearing red and purple colours and they waved back. ‘Archers,’ he whispered.

  ‘Dolorosa,’ said Georgia, rolling the syllables on her tongue. ‘That sounds so sad. Why?’

  Cesare shrugged. ‘I don’t know. The church is San Sebastiano; maybe it’s sad because of the arrows.’

  ‘Hang on,’ said Georgia. ‘You have these churches in all the Twelfths, and saints and things, but everything is arranged according to the signs of the zodiac. Isn’t that a problem? I mean in my world, the church is anti-astrology – it’s a bit too much like mumbo-jumbo. Mind you, the non-believers – which is most people – think the church is mumbo-jumbo too.’

  She could see that Cesare had no idea what she was talking about. So she dropped it and asked, ‘Which guild is the Archer associated with?’

  ‘Horsemen,’ said Cesare happily. ‘We are fortunate in our allies, aren’t we?’

  ‘Does every Twelfth have a stable?’ asked Georgia. She suddenly felt as if she could really belong in this city.

  ‘Of course,’ said Cesare. ‘Every Twelfth has its stable and its Horsemaster. They are responsible for the horse ridden in the Stellata.’

  ‘That’s the race your dad was talking about, isn’t it?’ asked Georgia.

  ‘Yes, the Race of the Stars,’ said Cesare. ‘We are running Arcangelo this year.’

  ‘The big chestnut?’ said Georgia. ‘He’s gorgeous. I wouldn’t mind riding him myself. Who will be the jockey?’

  ‘I will be, I hope,’ said Cesare modestly, but Georgia could tell he was bursting with pride.

  ‘The race is run in the Campo,’ he went on, ‘the Campo delle Stelle.’

  ‘What, that circular one we just crossed?’ said Georgia. ‘But it’s so small! I mean it’s huge for a Piazza but not for a race-track. How long does the race take?’

  Cesare looked offended. ‘At least a minute and a half,’ he said.

  Georgia could tell from his face that she wasn’t supposed to laugh. Cesare wasn’t joking. This race, which was such a big deal in this extraordinary city, would be over in less time than it took to write a text message. But if she was going to come here again, she had to learn to respect its customs. And she realised she did want to come back. Very much.

  As if he had read her mind, Cesare looked up at the sky. ‘It’ll be dark in an hour,’ he said. ‘We’d better get back to the Ram.’

  Georgia sat up in bed with a jolt. She was sweating and her mother was hammering on the door.

  ‘Georgia, hurry up, you’ll be late for school,’ yelled Maura. ‘I wish you wouldn’t lock your door.’

  ‘What’s happened?’ thought Georgia groggily. It was taking her a while to adjust to being back in her proper life. The prospect of a day in Barnsbury Comp. seemed suddenly unbearably dreary.

  She had lain down on a rough mattress in Paolo’s hayloft and fallen asleep with the model of the winged horse in her hand. The last thing she remembered was Paolo and Cesare preparing to take Merla to her refuge in Santa Fina, wherever that was.

  ‘I must remember to ask,’ she muttered, heading for the shower. And then she realised she was still holding the little Etruscan horse. She thrust it quickly into the pocket of her sweatpants. She didn’t want Russell to see it.

  Whatever it all meant and wherever the horse city of Remora might really be, that little winged horse was the key to the way back to it.

  Chapter 4

  A Ghost

  A horse-drawn carriage pulled to a stop outside the Horsemaster’s house in the Twelfth of the Ram. Two passengers descended, one stiffly, moving his joints with caution. The other, much younger, jumped down with a lithe step and offered his arm for the older man to lean on. There was an obvious affection between the two. Father and son, an observer might have said, but they looked very different. The boy was slender with a profusion of curly black hair, allowed to grow long in the Talian fashion and tied back loosely with a purple ribbon. His clothes indicated wealth but not extravagance.

  The older man was broad and vigorous looking, in spite of his stiffness. His hair was white and he had a distinguished look; he might have been a professor at a university, yet he had the calloused hands of one who does practical work.

  The two of them now stood on the cobbles of Remora in the early morning air, looking round them in evident curiosity.

  ‘Anothire citee, Lucian,’ said the older man. ‘And a fyne one too. Yet whatte wolde they saye if they knewe from how farre we hadde really travelled?’

  The young man had no time to answer before the door of the house opened and a large, grizzled man stood before them.

  ‘Maestro!’ he said, his eyes lighting up. ‘Well met! I’m glad to see you. And your son, too.’

  The two men hugged like brothers and the Horsemaster then took the younger man into his burly arms.

  ‘You must meet my Cesare – you’re much of an age. Come in, come in, both of you. Teresa will give you a hearty breakfast.’

  Georgia passed most of the day in a daze. She didn’t even notice when Russell called her Dopey at breakfast. For the first time in years she had something to think about which took her attention away from him.

  She had known, even when she was there, that the star city would seem like a
dream when she returned to her own world. But she knew it hadn’t been a dream. She might not have had a shadow there, but she had been perfectly solid, had drunk some ale and eaten some bread and olives before settling down to sleep in the hayloft. She had thought it would take her ages to drift off, especially since she knew that Cesare and Paolo were going to move the winged horse and her mother during the night.

  She would have loved to stay and be part of that adventure, but Paolo had explained that, if she remained in Talia at night, her body would be found unconscious in her bed in the morning in her own world.

  ‘Your parents would be frightened,’ he had said. ‘They would think you were sick. You must go back and you will, as soon as you fall asleep – as long as you are holding your talisman.’

  And he had been right. Whether it was the ale or having lived two days one on top of the other, Georgia soon fell into a deep sleep.

  She found it very difficult waking up in her own room. Everything seemed loud and harsh – the radio blaring out the news and weather, even the toaster and kettle carrying out their morning duties and Maura checking if everyone had what they needed for the day. When Ralph’s mobile rang, Georgia nearly jumped out of her chair.

  But in spite of the noise and bustle, her world also suddenly seemed thin – a meaningless jumble of events and busyness without purpose and focus. Georgia realised that the formal design and the many rules of Remora, as well as its obsession with horses, made her feel oddly at home in a way she no longer seemed to be in her own world.

  ‘Ridiculous,’ she thought. ‘I’ve spent one afternoon there and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to get back.’ And yet she couldn’t stop thinking about it – the Twelfths, the Campo delle Stelle, the winged horse, Cesare. It was like being in love, but not with a person, with a whole place. This struck her with a sudden force. She had liked Cesare and he was a nice-looking boy two years older than her. Theoretically, she should have had an enormous crush on him, mad though that would have been – like falling for a young man in a Renaissance painting – but she hadn’t.

 
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