City of stars, p.8
City of Stars, p.8Mary Hoffman
A Harp Plays in Santa Fina
Santa Fina was a revelation to Georgia. She had thought that Remora, with its narrow cobbled streets and sudden sun-filled piazzas, was the most amazing place she had ever seen. But Santa Fina seemed to consist entirely of churches and towers.
The main church, on what Cesare told her was the market square, was built like a fortress, with a broad flight of steps up to the front door. The steps were never empty; priests, pilgrims and tourists were constantly going to or coming from the church. Georgia could tell that this little hill-town was older than the present city of Remora. ‘Mediaeval’ was the word that came into her mind, yet it didn’t seem as ancient as that term suggested. ‘It must be because I’m in the sixteenth century here,’ she thought. ‘So the Middle Ages aren’t so far back.’
‘What are you thinking?’ asked Cesare, as they stood in the market square, with the daily life of Santa Fina teeming around them.
‘It’s like a film set,’ said Georgia. ‘I can’t believe it’s real.’
‘I don’t know what that means,’ said Cesare, a small knot forming on his brow. ‘But I know what you mean about it not seeming real. People often feel that way about Santa Fina.’
They turned off up a side street and walked their horses through a maze of little alleys, finally emerging outside the town to the west, where there was a large complex of stables, much bigger and grander than the ones in the Twelfth of the Ram. Luciano was waiting for them in the yard. He looked a bit embarrassed.
‘I came by carriage,’ he said. ‘I can’t ride.’
He looked up at Georgia in admiration and she felt her colour begin to rise.
‘It’s easy,’ she said quickly. ‘I could teach you.’
Luciano backed away a little, looking alarmed. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said. ‘I don’t really like horses. They scare me.’
Cesare laughed. Here at last was something he could do that the handsome young Stravagante could not. He jumped lightly down from his horse and led Georgia into the stables where he was quite at home. Roderigo, the Horsemaster of Santa Fina, was a large jolly man who welcomed the young people heartily and showed them where they could stable their horses. As soon as the animals were installed and given food and water, Roderigo took Cesare and Georgia and Luciano round to the back of his premises. It was clear that he thought all three of them were young men, and he was much amused by Luciano’s lack of experience with horses.
‘We have one here that wouldn’t frighten you, hey Cesare?’ he said, clapping Luciano on the shoulder. ‘Give her a few more weeks and she could carry you anywhere. You wouldn’t need to worry about clearing walls or fences. Then you could progress to a more ordinary mount. A young man like you needs a horse. How else are you to ride behind the carriage of your lady-love? Or fetch her treasures from distant cities?’
‘I live in Bellezza,’ said Luciano. ‘We don’t have horses there.’
‘Oh, that explains everything,’ said Roderigo. ‘To come to Remora from the City of Masks is a bit like going to sea for a farm boy. It just takes a while for you to find your new legs. We’ll get you up and riding before we send you back.’
They passed a farmhouse, where Roderigo obviously lived, and went round behind it to what looked like an old barn. One of Roderigo’s grooms sat outside on a bale of hay, whittling at a piece of wood with his knife.
‘All right, Diego?’ said Roderigo as they passed inside.
‘Yes, all quiet,’ said the groom. He was clearly guarding something and, like all guards, was bored by his duty.
It was dark and dusty inside the barn. A horse whinnied from the shadows at the back. Georgia went towards it. As her eyes became adjusted to the gloom she could just make out a beautiful pale grey mare.
‘Hello, Starlight,’ said Cesare affectionately, and the mare tossed her head in recognition.
‘She’s gorgeous,’ said Georgia, who had not really taken much notice of the mother the night she saw the winged foal. Even Luciano could see this was a fine animal.
‘But wait till you see her foal,’ said Roderigo proudly. ‘Come on, girl. You can trust us.’
It seemed to Georgia as if the mare hesitated a little, looking carefully at her and Luciano, as if checking they were friends. But she obviously felt at home with Cesare and Roderigo. She moved aside a little and Georgia gasped. Both she and Luciano knew what they had come to see, but the sight was still stupefying, even though for Georgia it was for the second time. Luciano could not believe his own eyes and stood spellbound.
The black filly was perfectly made, with the blurred outline of a young animal still growing. But there on her back lay folded a pair of glossy black wings, something known only in legend. Even Cesare was impressed all over again.
‘How she’s grown!’ he exclaimed. ‘Father was right. He said these winged ones grow faster than ordinary horses.’
The wings had grown in perfect proportion. Their feathers were less downy than they had been at birth and, as they watched her, Merla lifted and stretched them as naturally as she arched her neck. It was an awesome sight.
‘How long before she can fly?’ asked Cesare.
‘Soon now,’ said Roderigo. ‘But we can only take her out at night. We can’t risk her being seen.’
‘I’m taking you out,’ said Gaetano. ‘You have been shut up in the palazzo for too long.’
‘But how?’ asked Falco. ‘I can’t ride.’
He limped away a few steps so that his brother shouldn’t see his expression.
‘You can sit in front of me,’ said Gaetano gently. ‘Surely you wouldn’t mind that? We could go down into town and I could buy us some granita.’
Falco suddenly felt an urge to see something outside the great palace. His hopes, as crushed as his body had been by the accident, were reviving, in spite of himself. Perhaps one day he would lead a nearly normal life again? At least he could make a start by going out with his big brother.
‘All right,’ he said, and was rewarded by one of Gaetano’s huge crooked smiles.
Enrico let his horse saunter along the side streets of Santa Fina. He had seen where the young men from the Ram had turned off and he had no doubt that it would be easy enough to track them down. His restless brain was only half involved with today’s task. His work for the Pope involved spying on the Twins’ rivals and he had decided to start with the Ram, but he wasn’t expecting any quick result.
Enrico was thorough. After the Rams, who were the Twins’ enemy because of the rivalry between the cities of Remora and Bellezza, he would investigate the Twelfth of the Bull, who were traditional adversaries of the Twins. And then he would see what he could find out in the stables of the Scales, who were traditionally at daggers drawn with the Lady. And of course he would keep his eyes open in the Twelfth of the Lady itself. He might be in the pay of Pope and Duke, but there were always possibilities of further employment when you were a spy and Enrico was quite accustomed to serving several masters.
He was in his element in Remora. Like his old master, Rinaldo, he had disliked being in a city without horses. And he resented the place that had taken away his fiancée. But there was more to it than that. He liked the way that this whole city revolved around ancient antagonisms and alliances. And he appreciated the skill involved in rigging the great annual race. That was the sort of thing Enrico himself was good at.
He found himself outside the town and looking at a large stableyard. ‘Interesting,’ thought Enrico. ‘I think my horse needs a rest.’
Georgia and the two boys left the stables in a daze. They were going to explore the town and come back for the horses later. Georgia was silent, thinking about what she had seen, and found herself back in the square with the huge church before she knew it.
Now she could see that Luciano was as intrigued by Santa Fina as she had been. His carriage from Remora had skirted the town, not being a
‘What do you think?’ asked Georgia.
‘It reminds me of Montemurato,’ said Luciano. ‘The place where I first met Doctor Dethridge. That has lots of towers too, though those are round the edge. He was working in a stable there.’
There was so much that Georgia didn’t know about Lucien’s new life. She wanted to ask him about every aspect of it, but she felt shy in front of Cesare.
‘You should see inside the church,’ said Cesare now. ‘It’s famous for its paintings.’
The three young people climbed the steep steps up to the undecorated façade of the church. They passed out of the brilliant sunshine into a darkness as deep as that of Roderigo’s barn. But this darkness was cold, not warm and friendly with the smell of horses. The smell here was of incense and the church was dimly lit at the altar end with large candles.
Once their eyes had adjusted, they could see that the walls were covered with paintings. Georgia could make out scenes from the life of Christ. But suddenly she spotted a side chapel with other subjects on the wall – Leda and the Swan, Andromeda and the sea-serpent – and there was Pegasus, flying through the painted clouds. She pointed him out to Cesare and Luciano.
On the floor was a circular marble inlay that was a bit like the Campo delle Stelle. It showed all the signs of the zodiac round the edge and was divided up like the great Piazza, except that it didn’t show the Sun and Moon segments. It would have been quite out of place in a church in England, thought Georgia, but it seemed natural in Santa Fina.
They were all very quiet in the church, a bit overawed by the atmosphere. But they eventually came out into some cool cloisters, surrounding a grassy square with a fountain in the middle. And from beyond the cloisters, Georgia could distinctly hear the sound of a harp.
The journey wasn’t as bad as Falco had feared. He let Gaetano lift him in his strong arms and place him in front of the saddle, where he clung on to the horse’s mane. His right leg dangled uselessly, but his left knee came up and instinctively pressed against the horse’s flank. Falco buried his face in the coarse hair of the mane and inhaled; it was good to be on horseback again. Gaetano was soon up behind him, passing his arms around Falco’s waist to hold the reins. He had bound his brother’s sticks behind the saddle.
And so they travelled, slowly, into the town of Santa Fina. It was filled with life: stallholders called out their wares in the market square, customers haggled loudly, dogs barked, birds wheeled round the many towers, the sound of chanting came from the big church.
They made their way round the edge of the square and out through an arch on the other side. They were heading for a place that had been a favourite haunt of theirs in years gone by, a tiny shop behind the church, where a woman known as La Mandragola made exquisite granita. Gaetano dismounted and tied his horse to an iron ring in the wall. Then he helped Falco slide off the horse’s neck and propped him up until his sticks were restored to him.
As they sat on chairs outside the ice shop, spooning up the cold crystals of frozen apricot and melon, the notes of a harp tumbled and splashed through the warm still air. ‘I must be in heaven,’ Falco said to his brother. ‘I can hear angels.’
Enrico soon made himself at home in Roderigo’s stables. His eyes darted everywhere. He had easily identified the mounts of his quarries and spotted the two carriage horses with the Bellezzan rosettes on their harnesses hanging up in the stall. His easy ways and familiarity with horses ensured that the grooms were friendly to him. But it was when one of them left and another appeared from round the back of the farmhouse that Enrico’s sixth sense kicked in.
‘That looks like a change of watch,’ he thought, even as he exchanged banter with two other grooms, and he went out of his way to be cordial to the newcomer, whose name was Diego.
‘You look as if you’ve had a hard morning,’ he said eventually. ‘Let me buy you a drink.’
In a little square behind the church cloisters a young man sat playing a harp. He had straight black hair falling below his shoulders and an expression of intense concentration. He played without reference to any written notes and a small crowd had gathered around him, drawn by the purity of the melody. A young woman stood at his shoulder and, as soon as the last cascade of notes had reverberated to an end and the applause began, she moved briskly among the listeners, holding an old green velvet hat, which soon grew heavy with silver.
Three young men on the edge of the crowd, all wearing the red and yellow colours of the Reman Ram, dug into their pockets. On the other side of the square, two others, more richly dressed, who had only just arrived, asked the woman if the harpist would play again. The younger of those two had a twisted leg and leaned heavily on two sticks.
She went and bent over the young man, who sat with his eyes closed, oblivious of the people gathered around him.
‘Aurelio,’ she whispered. ‘Will you play some more? There is an injured boy who wants to hear you.’
The young man nodded, opened his eyes and put his hands back on the strings. Everyone in the square fell silent, even the two men drinking outside a bar in the far corner.
Aurelio paused a moment and then played an even more beautiful piece of music. All the listeners in the square were entranced. For Cesare it stirred visions of riding Arcangelo to victory, carrying the banner of the Stellata to the cheers of his Twelfth. For Luciano the music brought back memories of his mother and long evenings of his childhood. For Georgia, it told hauntingly of unrequited love and lost idylls.
For Gaetano, it conjured up a vision of female beauty – an amalgam of the cousin Francesca he remembered and the Bellezzan Duchessa he imagined. For Falco, it was as if he really had been transported to a higher existence. It was a day he would remember for the rest of his life. His brother had returned to him, he had ridden a horse again, tasted anew La Mandragola’s granita and now he was listening to the sounds of heaven. After two years his life had begun again.
Even Enrico was not unmoved. ‘It reminds me of my Giuliana,’ he whispered to Diego, wiping his eyes with his sleeve. ‘Lost to me for ever.’ Even Diego felt sentimental. He had no girlfriend, but if he had, he would have been thinking of her now.
The spell lasted a full minute after Aurelio had stopped playing. This time the hat was even more full of coins. Gaetano spoke to the young woman, who brought him over to the harpist, now sitting very still with his arms hanging at his sides. The majority of the crowd, seeing that there was to be no more music, started to drift away.
But the three of the Ram stayed as if mesmerised.
‘That was sublime,’ said Gaetano. ‘I hope you’ll come and play for my uncle.’ He took a seal-ring from his finger and gave it to the silent musician. ‘Present this at the Papal palace in Remora at any time and I shall have you and your companion treated like royalty.’
Cesare clutched Luciano’s arm. ‘Di Chimici,’ he hissed. The spell was broken.
‘Or if you prefer, come to the Duke’s palace in Giglia in the summer,’ Gaetano was saying. ‘He is my father and he could make your reputation.’
‘Perhaps you would like to come to Bellezza instead,’ said Luciano, stepping forward. Georgia was surprised. He was now no longer the dreamy-eyed boy she knew, but a wealthy courtier, prepared to go head to head with one of the sinister di Chimici.
‘The Duchessa would love to hear your music, I know,’ Luciano continued. ‘I am apprenticed to her Regent and father, Senator Rossi, and I am sure that he would approve of my invitation.’
The harpist got to his feet and the young woman took the ring from him. He was very tall.
‘I thank you both,’ he said to Gaetan
Cesare looked pointedly at the velvet hat, but the glance was lost on Aurelio. As he turned his face indiscriminately towards them, they understood that his dark blue eyes were unseeing. He put out his hand to the young woman, who prepared to lead him from the square. She had intercepted Cesare’s glance and now put her finger to her lips.
Georgia understood in an instant that Aurelio did not know about the collection and that the young woman – his sister? his girlfriend? – did not want him to know.
‘Don’t go,’ said Gaetano. ‘I didn’t mean to offend you. Will you come back with us to our palazzo to take some refreshment, at least?’
Aurelio was silent, but turned his head to the young woman as if waiting to see what she thought.
‘There are places nearer at hand for refreshment,’ said Luciano firmly. ‘I should be honoured if you would be my guests.’ He didn’t know why he was so drawn to this musician but he wasn’t going to stand by and see him carried off by the di Chimici.
Luciano and Gaetano stood glaring at each other beside the blind musician and his helper. Falco had come hobbling over to them. With Georgia and Cesare, the young people now made quite a knot in the middle of the square.
‘I should be glad of food and drink, Raffaella,’ said Aurelio.
Raffaella had transferred the silver and the di Chimici seal-ring to a purse at her waist and now put the hat in Aurelio’s hand.
‘Then let one of these kind gentlemen buy it for you,’ she said.
‘I should be happier if they both did so,’ said Aurelio. ‘When two contenders are balked of the same prize, they may become friends.’ He crushed the velvet hat on to his black hair, oblivious of the effect his words had created.
‘Now there’s something you see only when a Pope dies,’ said Enrico to his new friend. ‘Once in a blue moon.’
City of Stars by Mary Hoffman / Fantasy / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes