City of stars, p.7
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       City of Stars, p.7

           Mary Hoffman
 
‘Are you sure you’re not sickening for something?’ asked Maura, when Georgia gave her fourth huge yawn at breakfast.

  ‘No, really, Mum, I’m fine – honestly,’ she said. ‘I just didn’t get much sleep last night.’

  This was true enough. Lucien had warned her about that. ‘I was always exhausted back home when I was stravagating every night,’ he had said. ‘But at least I had the excuse of being ill.’

  She thought she had been able to reassure him – and herself – on that point. She was pretty sure she didn’t have a serious illness.

  ‘Perhaps you should give the riding a miss today?’ said Russell, feigning brotherly concern. Georgia shot him a poisonous look.

  ‘Perhaps you shouldn’t play your “music” so late at night,’ she rejoined. ‘It kept me awake.’

  ‘Now, now, don’t squabble, you two,’ said Ralph. He hated any kind of disagreement at mealtimes.

  Georgia was already wearing her jodhpurs and riding boots. Sometimes, when she was very lucky, Ralph or Maura would give her a lift to the stables, but it was a long way out and took up the whole morning, since they had to wait for her. So most weeks, like today, she had to take the tube out to practically the end of the line, carrying her hard-hat and crop.

  Since these were difficult accessories to disguise, some wag or other was bound to ask, ‘Where’s the horse?’ on the journey and laugh uproariously at his wit. Today she barely noticed but kept score out of habit. ‘Only three,’ she muttered as she took the bus from the station to the stables. ‘I must be losing my touch.’

  The familiar smell of the stables made her think immediately of Remora, where horses were treated almost like gods, even when they didn’t have wings. She had spent most of last night – or the day before if you thought in Talian terms – talking to Lucien and Cesare about the di Chimici, Bellezza, stravagation and Talian magic. Now she couldn’t wait to go back and find out more about the horse race that seemed to dominate the city. And to see Lucien again.

  Lucien had ended their conversation by suggesting that she shouldn’t stravagate every night or she would be too tired. Then he had warned her that the gateway from her world was notoriously unstable. He and Dethridge and the mysterious Rodolfo, who was obviously a big hero to Lucien, were working on ways of stabilising it, but even if she missed out a week, she might find that only a day had passed in Talia.

  But could she bear to miss even one chance of seeing him? Common sense told her that she had as much hope of getting together with Lucien as if he really had died. After all he had, as far as her world was concerned. And even if she stravagated to Talia and stayed there permanently – which was certainly not on her agenda – she didn’t think he would ever be more than a friend. Remembering how he had looked when he talked about the young Duchessa of Bellezza made Georgia feel desperately sad all over again.

  The Duchessa was called Arianna, apparently, and there had been a secret about her birth – she was actually the daughter of the previous Duchessa and Rodolfo. Lucien had been Arianna’s friend long before she knew of her parentage and was just a simple girl from one of the islands in the Bellezzan lagoon. But then her mother had been assassinated and the truth had come out.

  ‘Georgia!’ called a voice, jolting her out of her reverie. ‘Are you going to ride today or just stand in the yard all morning?’

  It was Jean, who ran the stables and was one of Georgia’s favourite peopl`e.

  ‘Sorry – I was miles away,’ said Georgia, truthfully.

  Falco di Chimici was alone, apart from the servants. He had the whole palace to roam in. The di Chimici summer palace at Santa Fina, about ten miles from Remora, was the most lavish of all the homes of the Dukes of Giglia. It had been built by the second Duke, Alfonso, Falco’s grandfather, who had been too busy making money to get married until he was sixty-five.

  Despite his age he had gone on to sire four sons, the oldest, Niccolò, when he was sixty-seven and the youngest, Jacopo, now Prince of Bellona, ten years later. Duke Alfonso had died at the age of eighty-seven, more than twenty years before Falco had been born, leaving Niccolò to take over as Duke when he was only twenty. Alfonso’s wife, Renata, had been much younger than him and Falco could just remember her, a tiny, white-haired figure, hobbling about the palazzo with a stick, very bright-eyed and interested and very proud of her splendid sons and grandsons.

  Even me, thought Falco, as he limped slowly and painfully from room to room, using two wooden sticks. But that was an uncharacteristic thought; Falco didn’t approve of self-pity.

  He had been the adored youngest child of a wealthy and influential family and the best-looking son of his branch of it. His father, Duke Niccolò, had held him in his arms minutes after his birth and schemed of new princedoms to win or buy so that this beautiful child should bear a worthy title.

  Falco had three older brothers who were all gifted in different ways. Fabrizio and Carlo were both handsome and clever, Fabrizio well suited to be their father’s heir since he was interested in politics and diplomacy and spent many hours of each day closeted with the Duke. Carlo had more of a business brain, like the family’s founder. Even when he was a little boy, building castles out of wooden bricks, he wanted to charge his brothers to use them for their toy soldiers.

  The brother that Falco loved best was Gaetano, the closest to him in age, and he wasn’t handsome at all. In fact, he was quite ugly, with a big nose and a wide crooked mouth. He was supposed to look like their grandfather Alfonso, who had built the great palace at Santa Fina. But Gaetano was the cleverest of all the brothers, and the most interested in the libraries at Santa Fina and at their uncle’s Papal palace.

  He was also the most fun to be with. Gaetano could ride and fence and make up the most wonderful games. The happiest hours of Falco’s childhood had been spent with Gaetano at Santa Fina, acting out his invented romances of knights and ghosts and hidden treasure and family secrets of madmen and concealed wills and maps. Their older sister Beatrice could sometimes be persuaded to play the forlorn maidens or warrior queens which Gaetano’s invention required, but often Falco himself, with his delicate features and huge dark eyes, had to submit to being wrapped in scraps of muslin or brocade to take the female roles.

  His favourite romances, though, had been the ones involving swordfights. He and his brother had started with toy wooden weapons but graduated to bated foils when Falco was ten. They had fought their way up and down all the staircases of the palace from the grand sweep of the main marble one to the mysterious branched wooden stairs of the servants’ quarters. They had duelled under the heavy chandeliers of the ballroom, reflected a hundred times in its mirrored walls. They had feinted and parried even in the palace kitchens, overturning pans and startling the maids. Although Gaetano was four years older than his little brother, they were well matched in skill and always collapsed out of breath and laughing at the same point.

  It had been glorious. But it had all come to an end two years ago, when Gaetano turned fifteen. He was going to go to the university in Giglia and the boys’ tutor, Ignazio, would be left with only one pupil. They would still have had their long summer holidays to continue their fencing and play-acting, if it hadn’t been for Falco’s accident.

  He was thinking about it now, as he made his painful way up one of the staircases he had scaled so lightly in the past. He reached the great arched loggia overlooking the main entrance to the palace and rested, breathing heavily, on the parapet, surveying the countryside.

  You couldn’t see the stables from here and he was glad. He hadn’t ridden since the accident, hadn’t wanted to, didn’t even know if it was physically possible. He couldn’t face the indignity of being hauled awkwardly on to the backs of beasts he would once have sprung lightly up on unaided. Falco had his pride.

  Gaetano had been given a new horse for his fifteenth birthday – a nervous highly-bred grey gelding, called Caino. Falco begged to ride the animal and his brother had, unusually, denied him. ‘He’s too bi
g for you, Falconcino,’ Gaetano had said. ‘Wait till you are older.’

  The grown-ups had laughed and Falco had seethed. He had never been denied any treat on the grounds that he was too small or too young. And Gaetano of all his family should have known how strong and capable he was. Hadn’t he that morning pressed his older brother to yield as they fenced round the twenty-foot-long table in the great banqueting hall?

  He waited till after the grand birthday meal, held at that same table. Everyone ate and drank too much except Falco, who was too angry. After the table had been cleared, the guests all drifted off to different rooms on the cool upper floors of the palace for a siesta. Even Gaetano went to doze over his manuscripts in the library.

  Falco went out to the stables and saddled up Caino. It had been madness. The grooms were all at their own meal, the horses were sleepy in the early afternoon heat and the grey did not know this boy who was leading him out of the stables. Still, he let himself be mounted, flattening his ears back only a little, and seemed reassured by the rider’s sensitive hands.

  But Caino did not want to be out in the blazing sun and soon turned tetchy. He minced sideways to avoid stones on the road that he didn’t like the look of, slowed to a funereal pace and then, when Falco dug his heels in, accelerated into a gallop from a standing start and careered across the fields at full stretch. Falco was scared. He knew that Gaetano would be furious with him if he over-stretched his new mount. Strangely, he had no fears for himself.

  Caino saw a high wall in his way and bunched up his hindquarters to clear it. He almost did. But a bird flew up and startled him at the crucial moment and he fell back, crushing his rider.

  Only half an hour passed before a stable boy noticed that the grey was missing. The head groom alerted Niccolò, who rose irritably from his nap. ‘Stupid of the boy to take him out in this heat,’ he grumbled. ‘But I suppose he couldn’t wait to try his present.’

  ‘No, your Grace,’ said the groom. ‘Your manservant tells me that master Gaetano is in the library.’

  It took hours to find them. By then the horse was dead, his eyes rolled back and his beautiful head flecked with blood and foam. His neck was broken. It took five men to lift his body off the boy. One of them was the desperate Duke, who insisted on carrying the limp body of his youngest son back to the palazzo in his arms. He seemed to be scarcely breathing.

  A runner had been dispatched to the doctor in Santa Fina and he found the boy in a dreadful state. For three days Falco hovered between life and death. He could remember it – a sensation of floating high above his weeping family, like the cherubs painted on the high ceiling of his bedroom. Like them, he had no feelings; he was made of light and warmth and ideas. And then, on the fourth day, his spirit had returned to his broken body and he began his new life of pain.

  His broken ribs and his cuts and bruises healed with time, though he would always bear a scar on his cheek. But his right leg was shattered and all the doctor’s skill with splints and bandages couldn’t restore his lightness of movement and his easy gait. It had taken him two years to walk as well as he did now with his sticks, and each step still cost him effort and pain. He leaned now on the parapet with his chin resting on his thin hand, remembering how anguished his parents had been. His mother had died of a fever a year ago, giving Falco a new pain to carry. His father still loved him, he knew that. But it was a love he could never fully accept; the boy felt so ashamed of his now ruined body.

  Gaetano had been so racked with guilt that he could still scarcely bear to look at his brother. He couldn’t help feeling that the accident would never have happened if he hadn’t refused Falco’s request. Falco didn’t blame him; no one did. Falco knew that he had no one to blame but himself. He couldn’t forgive himself for the death of the beautiful horse and he felt that his own injuries were deserved. Sometimes he told himself that the loss of Gaetano’s easy companionship was one more punishment that he had to bear, but it was hard.

  ‘I wonder where Gaetano is now?’ he thought.

  And as if by magic, a horseman suddenly appeared on the dusty road from Remora. Falco knew straightaway that it was Gaetano – no one else sat a horse like that. In the old days, he would have run down to the entrance to fling his arms round his brother. Now he couldn’t, even if he wanted to. He stayed where he was, wondering what brought his brother here in such haste.

  Georgia felt much better for her ride. She was no longer tired but exhilarated. She was young, fit and healthy and she was going to see Lucien again tonight; she could spend all Sunday in bed if necessary. Even Russell’s sneering face waiting for her at home couldn’t affect her good mood.

  As soon as she got back, she ran herself a very hot bath, with jojoba-scented bubbles. She could hear Russell grumbling away outside the bathroom door, but it was one of Maura’s unbreakable rules that Georgia should have a hot soak after riding. She lay in the water till it grew cold, topping it up from the hot tap and daydreaming about Remora.

  With a jolt, she realised she was drifting off to sleep. She hastily got out of the bath and towelled herself vigorously. She slipped her dressing-gown on top of her underwear and dropped the jodhpurs into the clothes hamper, extracting the winged horse from the pocket first. It was protected by bubble-wrap. Awkward as it had been to have it there during the ride, she would not let it out of her possession. Not with Russell on the loose.

  Gaetano took the marble stairs two at a time. The servant at the door had told him where Falco was. He didn’t hesitate. He ran to Falco and took him in his arms as he hadn’t done for two years.

  ‘Brother,’ he gasped. ‘I had to see you. Father wants me to get married!’

  Falco was touched. This was like the old days, when the two brothers had confided everything to one another. He returned Gaetano’s embrace affectionately, looking into his troubled face.

  ‘Who is she?’ he asked. ‘You don’t seem very happy about it.’

  ‘Oh, as for that, I don’t care,’ said Gaetano, rather more bitterly than his words suggested. ‘I never expected to have much say in the matter. But I had begun to think Father wanted me to enter the church.’

  ‘And are you disappointed?’ asked Falco, surprised.

  ‘No, no,’ said Gaetano, impatiently pacing the loggia. ‘You don’t understand. It’s not just about me. It seems that Father has now decided that you are to be the next Pope in the family!’

  Falco was stunned. His quick mind understood it all, even as his brother’s had. He was no longer the beautiful youngest son, fit to bear a crown or marry into any of Talia’s princely families. No woman could be expected to look at him. So he could be relegated to the church, whose priests did not marry. He would grow old, having known no female touch but that of his mother and sister. And by the time Uncle Ferdinando died, Falco would be an eligible cardinal. The election would be rigged and he would be Pope.

  Falco loved his father, but he had no illusions about him. Niccolò would fix everything and, if he died before Ferdinando, he would have made sure that his successor Fabrizio would carry out his plan. Falco felt that his whole future was mapped out for him at the age of thirteen. There was a tiny part of his brain that didn’t even mind. He could become a great scholar-priest, write treatises on philosophy, become an expert on fine wines. He could see it all. But he was only a boy, even if a very clever one, and he hadn’t quite accepted that his active life was over.

  Gaetano looked stricken. ‘I can’t let this happen to you. We have to think of another way. The person I’m supposed to marry is the new Duchessa of Bellezza. She’s only a girl – younger than me. Father showed me her portrait; she’s very beautiful.’

  ‘They always are in paintings, aren’t they?’ said Falco. ‘Remember the story of the Princess Rosa Miranda?’

  Gaetano smiled his great twisted smile. The story of the princess had been one of his best inventions. It had carried them through one whole summer, a long complicated tale of lovers betrayed and family feuds, with
many exciting swordfights. It wrung Gaetano’s heart to remember that time, when Falco had been equally happy springing from stair to stair as the Baron of Moresco or wrapped in an old blue velvet curtain pretending to be the beautiful princess.

  ‘Listen,’ said Gaetano. ‘This Duchessa. Her father and regent is Rodolfo Rossi. He’s a powerful magician. Father told me he’s a Stravagante.’

  Falco’s eyes grew even huger. ‘What’s that?’

  Gaetano hesitated. ‘I don’t know exactly. But I do know that Father and the others are really impressed by them. They know all sorts of secrets. There seems to be enmity between them and our family though. Father would never just ask for their help.’

  ‘About what?’ asked Falco.

  ‘About you,’ said Gaetano. ‘If I go through with this and marry the girl, I’m going to ask her father to help you. I’m sure he has skills that can make you better. Then you wouldn’t have to be Pope. You could do whatever you want.’

  Falco’s eyes filled with tears. Not because he thought the Stravagante of Bellezza could cure him. He didn’t believe that for a moment. But because Gaetano was his friend again.

  *

  This time Georgia was expected in the stables of the Ram. A horse had been saddled for her. Cesare smiled at her. ‘We’re going to visit Merla,’ he said. ‘Shall I give you a leg up?’

  ‘Riding by day and by night,’ thought Georgia, nodding. ‘I’ll have muscles like Schwarzenegger!’

  ‘Where’s Luciano?’ she asked, as Cesare mounted his own horse.

  ‘He’s going to meet us there,’ he said.

  The two of them walked their horses up the cobbled street to the Gate of the Ram and through it. They trotted alongside the city wall, passing the Gate of the Bull and that of the Twins, till they reached the broad road that led north from the Gate of the Sun. They quickened their pace as they passed the Twelfth of the Twins, but a shadow on horseback slipped out of the Twins’ gate behind them and followed their path. Not right behind them of course; he let several carts and travellers pass between them. Enrico was much too skilled a spy to let himself be seen.

 
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