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Stravaganza: City of Stars

Prologue: The Flying Horse

Cesare had hardly left the stables for days. His favourite mare, Starlight, was heavy with foal and until she gave birth, his place was with her. He even slept in the straw in the empty stall beside hers, with the result that his brown hair was turning blond with strawdust and his clothes itched and prickled.

Now, after bolting his dinner before running back to the stables, he hiccupped as he groomed the grey mare, whistling softly to her between his teeth. Starlight?s mane was silver in the twilight and as he brushed it, she huffed at him through her nostrils. She stirred restlessly in her stall

Nothing mattered but Starlight. Cesare's family lived near the Ram stables and his father, Paolo, was the Horsemaster for the Twelfth of the Ram. Paolo had given him the responsibility of looking after Starlight and Cesare was determined not to let him down.

'Not long, now, my beauty,' he whispered and she whickered back at him, seeming to nod her white head in the darkening stables. The other horses were unsettled too. They were all part-Arab and highly strung; the Ram was interested only in racing animals. In a stall on the other side Arcangelo the young chestnut gelding shifted about in his sleep and twitched his ears as if dreaming of victory. 

Cesare settled down to sleep in the straw and his dreams were of victory too. He dreamed of the same thing, by day and by night - to ride the Ram?s horse in the race of the Stars and to win.

A small grey cat twined round the stable door and made her delicate way across to where Cesare was sleeping. Slowly, carefully, she insinuated herself into the crook of his arm and began to purr.

Just before midnight the sounds in the stable changed. Starlight was restless. At the same time Cesare woke up and was aware of his father?s presence. It was unnerving the way Paolo did that. He always knew where he was needed and when. He had brought a torch with him which he thrust into a bracket set high up in the wall so that sparks wouldn?t set the straw on fire. Cesare sprang lightly to his feet, dislodging the disgruntled cat, who went to wash in the doorway.

By the flickering light of the torch, father and son attended quietly to the mare, whose time had come. It was an easy delivery, not her first. But as the foal slipped out into Cesare?s hands, he recoiled as if it had been burning hot.

'What is it?' whispered Paolo. The whole stable seemed to be holding its breath. 'I don't know,' Cesare whispered back. 'Can't you feel it? Something's different about this one. When I caught it I felt a shock - like a bolt of lightning in the sky.'

Starlight turned her beautiful head to lick her new foal. The filly was not just dark with the wetness of her birth, but black, black as the night outside, where the bells of the city's churches were sounding midnight. She staggered to her feet, her mouth blindly rooting for its mother?s milk like any other newborn.  

The stable door, left ajar by Paolo, moved in a sudden gust of wind. A shaft of moonlight fell across the stall. Cesare gasped. By the silver light of the moon and the golden glow of the torch, the foal that had just been brought into life was a creature of myth and magic.

The little long-legged filly, pulling at her mother?s teat, was rapidly drying in the warm night air. Her coat was a glossy black and she was clearly going to be a first-rate racehorse. But that was not all. As she tried her new muscles, gaining confidence in her spindly legs, she flexed her shoulders and spread out two small, damp, black wings about the size of a young swan's.

'Dia!' said Paolo on a sharp intake of breath. 'It has happened. Here, in the Ram, the winged horse has been born to us.'

Even the grey cat came over for a closer look. And Cesare was suddenly aware that every horse in the stable, even Arcangelo, was awake and looking at the new foal. A wild feeling overtook him. He didn't know whether to whoop for joy or burst into tears. He only knew that something magnificent had happened and that from now on his life would never be the same again.