A Sting in the Tail

?We have a new mare,? said Antonio. ?A grey — pure white and delicate boned. Benedetta, we call her — the blessed one. And she will be our blessing if she wins. But we mustn?t have a long start; she is highly strung and wouldn?t cope well with a lot of hanging around at the start-line.?

His fellow Water Capitani nodded. This was a perennial problem. The horses with the heart and spirit to win the Stellata were the intelligent ones, who were often too nervous to handle the delays that could happen before a valid start to the race was declared. The more placid animals who could brook the false starts were usually lacking that extra spark that made a winner. The Scorpion had chosen the other option in the August race and their solid brown gelding Matteo had come second, which, in Remora, was almost worse than coming last.

They guessed that Antonio had paid a good deal of money for Benedetta; the Twelvers of the Scorpion were so desperate for victory that they had dug deep in their pockets for a new mount. But what would that leave to spend out on pacts and bribes? It was no good having even the best horse in the city if you hadn?t laid out enough cash on your agreements with other Twelfths.

As Antonio crossed the circular Campo on his way back home from the meeting, he took a detour off into the black and white cathedral. It was in the Twins? territory, but that was all right. Twins and Scorpion were not allies but neither were they adversaries. It was much harder for Twelvers of the Bull, who had to cross into enemy territory every time they wanted to worship at the Duomo.

Workmen were busy in a side chapel, following orders of Maestro Giovanni. They were setting in one of the panels of his new pavement, sweating and straining with ropes while they lowered a segment of the astrological circle into place, shaped like one of the Twelfths of the city. (Like a slice of pizza, in fact, but no fifteenth-century Remoran would have thought of that comparison, since pizza had not been invented then.)

As he drew nearer, Antonio?s pulse quickened. He could see from the segments which had already been set into the floor, that the one being positioned now was his own, the house of the Scorpion. Surely this was an omen? He made the Hand of Fortune — thumb and little finger of the right hand touching — and swiftly pressed the middle fingers against his brow and breast, before crossing himself in the more orthodox manner of someone in a Christian church.

?Hey you!? shouted one of the workman rudely. ?Clear off! No previews before the race.?

Antonio backed hastily away, though the preoccupied sculptor looked round mildly and smiled at Antonio, as if he didn?t mind his work being seen before its official unveiling. He wasn?t a temperamental artist, but his workers were very protective of him and proud of their association with such a great man.

The Horsemaster, after saying a fervent prayer for victory, came out of the cool shadowy interior and down the steep back steps outside the cathedral, past the baptistery, and skirted the rest of the Campo till he reached the entrance to his own Twelfth. Entering its familiar streets calmed him down.

The blue and purple banners still fluttered from flagpoles and hung from balconies, where Twelvers had left them out after the race last month; no point in taking them down with the Straordinaria coming so soon after. At every crossroads stood a statue of their totem animal, not the most beautiful, as Antonio readily conceded, but their own symbol after all. ?In my tail do you see my true nature? was the motto of Scorpione, which each Twelver interpreted in his or her own way.

?Don?t underestimate us,? was Antonio?s reading of it; ?Don?t write us off, because we?ll surprise you in the end.?  His heart swelled as he walked up the broad Via Scorpione to the Piazza della Fonte Nuova. All the Water Twelfths made much of their fountains and the one in the Scorpion, the ?new fountain?, had been created at least two hundred years before by a sculptor whose name was now forgotten and who was known just as the ?Master of the New Fountain?.

Antonio sat on the broad marble ledge around the fountain and took off his blue and purple scarf to dip in the clear water.  He dabbed his hot face with the cool wet cloth and looked at the intricate carvings of insects and small animals that surrounded the rim of the white marble basin with its inner ring of scorpions. ?What a sculptor!? he thought. Then he stopped, with the cloth clamped to his head so that the water trickled down it in ever-warmer drops. If there had been anyone to see him, they would have thought their Horsemaster had lost his wits, but it was siesta-time and the square was empty.

?Sculptor!? he said out loud. The very Guild with which his Twelfth was associated was that of the sculptors — one reason it was so lavishly decorated with good models of its difficult-to-portray insect. And had a sculptor not just smiled on him — the very one whose work this extra Stellata was to celebrate?

?A second omen!? thought Antonio, amazed that he hadn?t made the connection before.

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