City of stars, p.5
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       City of Stars, p.5

           Mary Hoffman
 

  It had just been so good to spend time with a boy who didn’t hate her. She realised with a shock that it must be like that to have a proper brother. And for the first time she dared to think that the problems with Russell were his, not hers.

  She spent the lunch-break in the library, using the school computer to look up ‘Talia’, ‘Remora’, ‘di Chimici’ and ‘Stellata’. There was nothing under any of them, though she tried several spellings. She gave up on the computer and tried a dictionary of Greek and Roman mythology, which told her that Romulus and Remus had been the twin sons of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars.

  Their birth was a shameful secret and their great uncle had thrown them in a river and stolen their grandfather’s kingdom. After being fed by the she-wolf – the one bit of the story that Georgia already knew – they had been brought up by shepherds and, when grown up, had recovered their rights and decided to build a city. They couldn’t agree on a site and so each twin had started his own. When Romulus had built a boundary-wall of a few inches high, Remus had jumped over it in scorn and his brother had killed him in a rage.

  There was a lot more about Romulus, including the interesting fact that no one knew what had happened to his body after his death and so he had been made a god. But what really caught Georgia’s eye was a small footnote that said the twins had argued about whether to call their city Roma or Remora. Georgia sat back in astonishment. So in Talia the fight had gone the other way and Remus had founded the city she had visited and it had gone on to take the place in Talia’s history that Rome had in Italy’s.

  That means Romulus didn’t kill Remus in Talia, she thought.

  After school, she called in at Mr Goldsmith’s shop. He was delighted to see her. ‘Back so soon?’ he said. ‘I hope you don’t want to return the horse?’

  ‘No, far from it,’ said Georgia, who had transferred it to her jeans’ pocket. ‘I love it. I wanted to ask you more about it, in fact.’

  ‘Ask away,’ said Mr Goldsmith. ‘But first let me make us a cup of tea.’

  ‘OK,’ said Georgia, ‘though I can’t stay long – I’ve got a violin lesson.’

  Gaetano and his father were making their tour of the stables in Remora. Wherever they went, the Remorans, although startled, were honoured by the visit. Stable after stable showed off their racing horses – the greys and the chestnuts, the browns and the bays, the roans and piebalds.

  They left their visit to the Scales till last. This was tricky. The Lady and the Scales were adversaries. It had already been a little awkward in the Twelfth of the Bull, because although Niccolò and his son were lords of Giglia, the Lady’s city, they were hand in glove with Remora and the Twins were the Bull’s sworn enemy. These enmities and alliances were ancient in Remora; they went back centuries.

  The Scales’ Horsemaster, Giacomo, greeted Duke Niccolò and the young princeling cordially enough. After all, though the Lady was their foe, the Twins were one of the Scales’ allies, whose own guild, strangely enough, was that of the chemists – the chimici.

  Still, it irked Giacomo to see the green and purple ribbons in his stable and it took all his reserves of politeness to keep the anger out of his voice. ‘This is our mount for the Stellata, your Grace,’ he said, as neutrally as he could. ‘Il Corvo.’ Gaetano felt an immediate sympathy with the black horse. He was proud and highly strung like all the best Reman horses, but he was also beautiful, with strong clean lines. Gaetano would have loved to ride him.

  That of course was out of the question and the Duke brought their visit to the stable of the Scales to an end as soon as he decently could.

  ‘That’s that, then,’ he said to his son. ‘Duty done. Now I’ve visited them all. What did you think of that one?’

  ‘A real beauty,’ said Gaetano. ‘A pity it won’t win.’

  Niccolò gave him a quizzical look. ‘Prophecy now, is it? “There is no winner till the race is run” – isn’t that one of Remora’s most ancient sayings?’

  ‘Yes,’ said Gaetano, ‘and that might have been true when it was first said. When the Stellata was run fair and above board – before it was all rigged in favour of our family.’

  They had come back out into the Campo and automatically crossed the cobbles back to the Lady’s segment. Even the Duke of Giglia wouldn’t want to stand on enemy territory a minute longer than was necessary.

  Niccolò frowned. This was not the sort of conversation he wanted to have in broad daylight, especially so close to the Twelfth of the Scales.

  ‘Let’s go somewhere neutral,’ he said, and steered Gaetano down the Strada delle Stelle. They walked on the Goat’s side of the street, down into a little square near the Porta della Luna where there was a sleepy little inn.

  ‘I’m not so well known down here,’ said Niccolò, ‘so we can have a quiet talk in peace.’

  The inn-keeper brought a greenish wine for both of them and a large plate of sugary cakes, which only Gaetano paid any attention to.

  ‘There’s obviously something on your mind,’ said Niccolò, eyeing his son as he contemplated the cakes. ‘Do you want to tell me what it is?’

  ‘It’s this city,’ said Gaetano evasively, through a mouthful of crumbly pastry. ‘It’s so false. Everything divided up so neatly and everything run according to the rules. And yet when it comes to its precious race, all the rules are broken. It’s the Twelfth that can afford the biggest bribes that wins.’

  The Duke looked round cautiously. Even in neutral territory, there were things best said in a low voice if they had to be said at all.

  ‘You know how much this city believes in omens and portents,’ he said quietly. ‘If the winner isn’t the Lady or Twins, they take it as a sign that our power is waning.’

  ‘It could be the Bull or the Scorpion or the Goat, come to that,’ said Gaetano. ‘Our family rules all their cities. Or even the Scales, since Bellona’s one of ours too.’

  Niccolò sighed. It was of course maddening that Remora housed these ancient feudal loyalties within itself. But the tradition of each Twelfth owing allegiance to one of the twelve city-states went back centuries, much further than the di Chimici family; it couldn’t be changed overnight. Of course, all its citizens were Remorans and when outside the city they had nothing but fierce loyalty to it. Two Remorans in a foreign city would sit and drink together even if they were from rival Twelfths.

  But within the city itself a sort of madness reigned all year round, from one Stellata to the next. It was especially so in the weeks surrounding the race itself, and the streets were more dangerous the closer they were to the Campo, which was also the racetrack. Out by the city gates, all fourteen of them, people were fairly relaxed and that’s where the stables were. But the segmented pattern of the circular city meant that each Twelfth narrowed to a deadly daggerpoint aimed at the heart of the Campo. It was suicide to stray outside the boundary of your Twelfth on the day of the Stellata.

  It had been a Pope who decided to remodel the city after the zodiac, in an attempt to curry favour with a population much more interested in astrology than in the church. It had taken decades to re-name all the streets and squares and develop the crests and mottoes and banners of each Twelfth, and by then the misguided Pope was long dead. But the Remorans had taken to the new system like ducks to water. The city had anciently been divided roughly into twelve and the city loyalties long established. All that the next Pope, Benedict, had to do was build the broad neutral boulevard and the famous Campo – the citizens took care of the rest.

  So perhaps another Pope could modify the city again? Niccolò mused on his brother sitting in his comfortable palace fronting on to the Twins’ segment in the Campo delle Stelle. He could, over time, issue pronouncements banning the excessive displays of loyalty to any city but Remora itself. Niccolò found himself looking into the eyes of his son over an empty cake plate. A twitch of annoyance passed over his aristocratic features. Perhaps the church would have been the right career for this insatiable son of his? He coul
d have rivalled Ferdinando in paunch, given time.

  But Duke Niccolò was good at concealing his emotions. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said out loud. ‘I was thinking about what you said.’

  ‘But the real trouble is I don’t know why you have brought me here,’ mumbled Gaetano truculently. ‘Isn’t it time you told me what you have in mind?’

  ‘Certainly,’ said Niccolò. ‘How would you like to marry the young Duchessa of Bellezza?’

  ‘I don’t know that much about the Etruscans,’ said Mortimer Goldsmith, over an elegant cup of Earl Grey. ‘They’re more the speciality of archaeologists and anthropologists. I go in for more recent history – Chippendale and Sèvres are more my line. More tea?’

  ‘No thanks,’ said Georgia, who thought it smelt like aftershave and tasted like washing-up water. ‘But they were some sort of early Italians, weren’t they?’

  ‘Oh yes, that’s certain. Though I believe very little else is. There’s no literature, you know – just a few inscriptions.’

  ‘And models of flying horses,’ added Georgia.

  ‘Yes, and a few urns and things. There’s one in the BM if my memory serves,’ he said. ‘Or is it the V and A? I’ve definitely seen one somewhere.’

  Georgia had spent many Sundays in the places he was talking about. ‘The British Museum,’ she asked, to be sure, ‘or the one in South Kensington?’

  ‘I’m pretty sure it’s the British Museum,’ said Mr Goldsmith finally. ‘Figures from a bronze urn – something like sixth century BC. Those horses weren’t winged though – just part of some barbaric race where the riders rode bareback.’

  Georgia made a mental note to go to the British Museum and check – and to ask Paolo if the Stellata was run bareback.

  ‘I’m sorry, I have to go,’ she said getting up. ‘Thanks for the tea. It was nice talking to you.’

  ‘My pleasure,’ said Mr Goldsmith, making a formal little bow. ‘I’ll get some Darjeeling in for next time,’ he added, noticing her almost full cup. ‘And some chocolate biscuits. I don’t often have young people to entertain.’

  Georgia had to run all the way to her music lesson, her violin and music case banging against her leg. She didn’t make a very good stab at her piece, because it was so hard to concentrate. She couldn’t wait to get home.

  ‘I can’t believe it,’ said Luciano. ‘Another Stravagante? So soon? We must tell Rodolfo. Dottore, do you still have the hand mirror?’

  ‘In dede,’ said Dethridge. ‘It is inne mye satchele. Bot let signor Paolo telle us more.’

  ‘It is my son who spent more time with her – for it is a young woman this time,’ said Paolo.

  They were in the comfortable sitting room of Paolo and Teresa’s house in the west of the city, near the Gate of the Ram. The visitors had made a hearty breakfast indeed, of fresh baked rolls and fig jam and great bowls of milky coffee. The little children were playing in the yard under Teresa’s supervision as she fed the hens and collected eggs for a lunchtime frittata.

  Cesare and Luciano, after the stiff politeness of their first greetings, were beginning to relax with each other. And now that Luciano knew Cesare had met someone else from his world, all constraint was gone. It made him feel very strange. It was true that Talia was his world now but he couldn’t just forget that he had been a twenty-first-century boy, and the idea that he might meet someone from his own time was excitingly disturbing. Even Doctor Dethridge, Luciano’s foster-father, who had left that same world, albeit from a time many centuries before, was affected by the news.

  ‘Is she coming back?’ asked Luciano.

  ‘I’m sure she will if she can,’ said Cesare. ‘She was so interested in the flying horse.’

  That of course raised more questions than it answered and the horsemen of the Ram had to explain everything about the black filly, the visit of Duke Niccolò and their night-time expedition to Santa Fina to hide Merla and her mother.

  ‘It lyketh me noghte thatte such a felawe is in the citee,’ said Doctor Dethridge. ‘The Duke is up to noe goode, I trowe.’

  ‘He is officially visiting his brother the Pope,’ said Paolo. ‘But taking the opportunity to check on horses in his rivals’ stables at the same time.’

  ‘It’s all just a show, though, isn’t it?’ asked Luciano. ‘Rodolfo told us that the race is rigged every year for one of di Chimici’s favourites to win.’

  ‘That’s what usually happens,’ admitted Paolo. ‘But we don’t usually have a winged horse born in the city. I’m hoping that means victory for the Ram.’

  *

  ‘The Duchessa of Bellezza?’ said Gaetano stupidly; he was too surprised to stop himself. ‘What for?’

  His father sighed. ‘It will take a lot to make a diplomat of you,’ he said. ‘To make you Duke of course, and bring Bellezza into the fold.’

  ‘Into the family, you mean,’ said Gaetano, playing for time. But he didn’t hate the idea. Surely as Duke of Bellezza he would have ample time for his books and his music? ‘What is she like?’ he asked.

  ‘Very pretty,’ said Niccolò dryly, ‘and I should think about as easy to handle as Zarina.’

  It took Gaetano a moment or two to remember that Zarina was the Lady’s spirited grey mare.

  Supper was fish and chips, followed by ice cream. It was usually Georgia’s favourite because there wasn’t anything Maura or Ralph could do to ruin it. Only tonight she just wasn’t hungry. She wanted to rush through her homework and get an early night. Even Russell wasn’t making much impression on her.

  ‘Homework on a Friday night?’ was all he could manage to hiss at her. ‘You’re turning into a real geek as well as a freak.’

  She didn’t remind him that it was her Saturday for riding tomorrow. She just wanted to keep her head down and not draw attention to herself. But the evening dragged on interminably. Maths, English, French, then bed. And once in bed no chance of sleep. She had the winged horse in her tracksuit pocket and a clear vision of the hayloft in Remora in her mind, but sleep refused to come. Perhaps it was because she was so eager to get there. Or it might have been something to do with Russell’s metal music blaring out in the room next door.

  ‘Please,’ she wished as hard as she could. ‘Let me be in the City of Stars.’

  Luciano was pacing excitedly up and down the room. ‘I bet it has something to do with Arianna’s visit here,’ he said. ‘I don’t know how much you know about my stravagation, but Rodolfo thought I was brought to Bellezza to save the last Duchessa. Perhaps this girl from my world is needed because of a plot against Arianna? You know that’s why we are here, because she has been invited to the Stellata?’

  ‘Yes, wee are supposed to lerne al thatte we canne about the citee,’ nodded Dethridge, ‘and its wayes and maneres during this race of such grete importe.’

  ‘And I bet the Duke is up to something too,’ added Luciano. ‘It’s too much of a coincidence that he’s here at the same time as us.’

  There was a light tap at the door. Paolo went to open it while Luciano continued his pacing.

  ‘I really don’t think it’s safe for her to come here,’ he was saying. ‘Everything we know about the city makes it seem a hotbed of villainy – I mean, it’s the centre of the di Chimici’s world, isn’t it?’

  His pacing had brought him opposite the door. His jaw fell open when he saw the slight short-haired figure with the silver eyebrow ring.

  And the effect on Georgia was no less dramatic. She recognised the black-haired boy. She had been staring at his photograph only a few hours ago at her violin teacher’s house.

  ‘I promised you two more Stravaganti, didn’t I, Georgia?’ said Paolo smiling.

  ‘Lucien!’ said Georgia – and vanished.

  Chapter 5

  The Shadow of Doubt

  Georgia woke suddenly in her bed in London, her heart racing, but it wasn’t morning. The house was quiet and dark. She was in a whirl of confusion. Dreaming of a city with flying horses was one thing – ev
en if it turned out not to be a dream and the city was real. But coming face to face with someone from her own world, someone she knew to be dead – that was something else again.

  She lay in the darkness, holding the flying horse in a tight grip, waiting for her heart to slow and her thoughts to settle. Half of her wanted to go back to Remora immediately, but the other half was still terrified. It had definitely been Lucien that she had seen in Paolo’s house. There was no way she could have mistaken him, even in his sixteenth-century Talian clothes. Georgia was an expert where Lucien Mulholland was concerned.

  He had been in the year above her when she joined Barnsbury Comprehensive, and she had seen him once or twice at his mother’s when she went to violin lessons after school. But it had been only in Year 10 that she had begun to feel differently about him. Russell was quite wrong about her; she was interested in boys – at least in one boy. But Georgia was shy as well as unhappy and her butch image had been developed to protect her feelings.

  If Lucien had been aware of those feelings, he had never shown it. They both played in the school orchestra and the irony of being second fiddle to Lucien wasn’t lost on her. But once Georgia had joined the orchestra, it not only gave her more chance of seeing him, it meant that when they met at his house, he would actually talk to her. Gradually she had realised that he was shy too. He didn’t have girlfriends; that was one blessing at least.

  But just when she was hoping that they could be friends and that perhaps one day he might return her feelings, he had become ill. Lying there in the dark, Georgia re-lived last year’s agony of discovering that Lucien was seriously ill, that he had to be off school for weeks having chemotherapy, that he had lost his beautiful hair. His mother stopped teaching and Georgia was cut off from all news of him, except what she could glean from the school gossip machine.

 
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