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Stravaganza: City of Ships

Prologue: The Merchant of Classe

If she raised herself slightly from the stool she sat on, Flavia could see the masts of ships in the harbour. And that was a bonus of her position as senior trader in the market at Classe. Presiding over her stall in the square, Flavia was in the perfect place to see if a new
ship had come in.

From the goods spread in front of her, you might not realise just how rich this merchant in the russet dress was. Certainly she had unusual spices — cardamom, ginger, pepper, cloves — and bales of cloth, and dyes to colour them any shade a customer wanted. But when she wasn?t trading in the market square, Flavia had more wealthy patrons who called at her house to buy much more expensive merchandise — painted pottery from Western Europa beyond the mountains, glass and marbled paper from the city of Bellezza, coral and sugar from the islands off the coast of Talia.

Some of Flavia?s more exotic goods — the silks and rarer pigments, tapestries and woven carpets — came from further east, from the countries of Eastern Europa and the unexplored lands beyond the Middle Sea, including the lands of the powerful Gate people.

She had a network of reliable contacts that brought goods to the eastern ports and loaded them on to her merchant ships, which called at Bellezza before sailing down the coast to Classe.

And that journey from Bellezza to Classe was the most dangerous stretch; the waters there were infested by pirates. Merchant ships offered rich pickings for those who lived beyond the law: not just the sort of goods that Flavia traded in but valuable jewels and gold coins. Every merchant ship was armed with guns and guards but it was hard to counter the recklessness and bravery of the Talian pirates.

Flavia sighed; she had her own reasons for unease when she thought of pirates and not just because they stole her goods. And now that the winter was nearly over, she had sent out her first ship of the year. She pulled her mind away from her cargo and concentrated on selling a bolt of cotton and some cinnabar to a haggling buyer.

But just then one of the ragged boys the merchants employed to watch down at the harbour came running up to the stall and tugged at Flavia?s skirt. Her heart beat faster at the thought of what news he might bring but she calmly finished her business with the haggler and put the money away in the pouch at her waist before hearing what the urchin had to say.

?Pirates, Signora,? he said. ?Your ship the Silver Lady is back in port, but the Captain says they were boarded at sea.?

?Boarded and yet the ship came back?? asked Flavia.

?Back but lacking some of her cargo, Signora,? said the boy.

The merchant gave him a small coin. ?Tell the Captain to come to my house,? she said.

As he ran off back to the harbour, Flavia signalled to her assistant to start packing up; there would be no more trading today.

*****

Arianna was obliged to hear an embassy from the Admiral of her Bellezzan fleet. His visits to her had become more frequent over recent months and his news was never good.

The Duchessa of the lagoon city sighed, and then stretched. She was in her best formal costume: stiff, light blue taffeta embroidered with butterflies and a silver butterfly mask.

There were times when she felt ready to rule the city on her own as Duchessa in her own right. But at other moments, like now, when she needed to listen gravely to the Admiral?s news, she would have preferred to hand him over to the Regent, her father, Rodolfo Rossi, drag off her fine clothes and run through the piazza chasing pigeons.

Arianna was still only eighteen, and the cares of state sometimes weighed heavily on her. Her heart wasn?t in them; it was in Padavia where Luciano, the man she was going to marry, was studying at the University. There was all the rest of this term and the next to live through until he came back to Bellezza and they could be together for ever.

She missed him every minute but she wasn?t a lovesick island girl, mooning over her lover. She was Duchess of Bellezza and she had an admiral to receive.

Admiral Gambone was waiting in the elegant new Reception Room, which had replaced the Glass Room where the old Duchessa was believed to have been assassinated. Arianna was glad that the hateful and deceptive room with its misleading reflections had gone for good. Her ways were more direct than her mother?s and she wanted to see her petitioners and ambassadors face to face.

The Admiral?s face was even longer than usual and seemed to say clearly that he too would rather be having this audience with the wise and grave Regent and could not take seriously this inexperienced girl who wore the ducal regalia. But he had perfect manners and pulled himself together before launching into his news.

?Your Grace,? he said, bowing and accepting the chair she indicated to him, ?I come with grave news from the east. The Gate people are not content with blockading the Silk Road or sending their pirates to our waters. They are amassing a huge fleet of warships.?

?A bigger fleet than ours, Admiral?? asked Arianna, more calmly than she felt.

?My information is that their ships outnumber ours by maybe as much as four to one, Your Grace,? said Gambone. ?We need allies — and quickly.?

Chapter One: Imaginary Twin


Isabel Evans was feeling sick. She always did on results day. Not because she did badly; her results were usually quite respectable. But because Charlie always did better.

It wasn?t his fault that he was brilliant at school subjects any more than it was his fault that he excelled at all sports and could play any wind instrument. Or that he was attractive to girls and got on well with teachers. It wasn?t even their parents? fault that Isabel felt less favoured; they had always been scrupulously fair in their treatment of the twins.

Charlie was Isabel?s twin brother and she had to love him. She did love him. But twins were supposed to have this almost magical closeness and Isabel didn?t feel that at all. How she felt was jealous.

Her brother was the older by ten minutes and had been heavier at birth by a pound, which put Isabel in an incubator for a couple of days and left Charlie to breastfeed direct, while Isabel had to drink expressed milk. What a little thing to determine the course of the next sixteen, nearly seventeen, years! But it did. That accident of birth was something Isabel felt she had never caught up with: Charlie would always be older, stronger, in some way just more satisfactory than she was.

So she had invented a different twin for herself. Charlotte was a female version of Charlie but with the crucial difference that she had been born ten minutes after Isabel. This gave Isabel the chance to feel just a tiny bit superior and she knew that the imaginary Charlotte was a bit jealous of her. That made her feel special. If there was any magical twin-type closeness,
it was with Charlotte rather than Charlie.

?Hurry up, Bel!? called Charlie from outside the bathroom door. ?I need to brush my teeth.?

She wasn?t going to be sick after all, even though she had felt too nauseated to eat any breakfast. Isabel let Charlie in and he flashed her a look of concern.

?You OK? You?re looking a bit washed out.? ?

Thanks for nothing,? said Isabel, then realised she was being unreasonably touchy. ?Really, I?m fine. Just a bit Monday-morningish.?

?Tell me about it!? said Charlie indistinctly through his toothpaste. ?It?s the mocks results today, isn?t it??

?Yeah,? said Isabel, and ran downstairs two at a time, trying to show how l