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While sick in bed with cancer, Lucien begins making journeys to Belleza, a place in a parallel world that resembles Venice, Italy, and becomes caught up in the political intrigues surrounding the Duchessa who rules the city.
Light streamed on to the Duchessa's satin bedcovers as her serving-woman flung open the shutters.
`It's a beautiful day, Your Grace,' said the young woman, adjusting her mask of green sequins.
`It's always a beautiful day on the lagoon,' said the Duchessa, sitting up and letting the maid put a wrapper round her shoulders and hand her a cup of hot chocolate. She was wearing her night-mask of black silk. She looked closely at the young woman. `You're new, aren't you?'
`Yes, your Grace,' she curtsied. `And if I may say so, what an honour it is to be serving you on such a great day!'
She'll be clapping her hands next, thought the Duchessa, sipping the dark chocolate.
The maid clasped her hands ecstatically. `Oh your Grace, you must so be looking forward to the Marriage!'
`Oh, yes,' said the Duchessa wearily. `I look forward to it just the same every year.'
* * *
The boat rocked precariously as Arianna stepped in, clutching her large canvas bag.
`Careful!' grumbled Tommaso, who was handing his sister into the boat. `You'll capsize us. Why do you need so much stuff?'
`Girls need a lot of things,' Arianna answered firmly, knowing that Tommaso thought everything female a great mystery.
`Even for oneday?' asked Angelo, her other brother.
`Today's going to be a long one,' Arianna said even more firmly and that was the end of it.
She settled in one end of the boat gripping her bag on her knees, while her brothers started rowing with the slow sure strokes of fishermen who spent their lives on the water. They had come from their own island, Merlino, to collect her from Torrone and take her to the biggest lagoon festival of the year. Arianna had been awake since dawn.
Like all lagooners, she had been going to the Marriage with the Sea since she was a small child, but this year she had a special reason for being excited. She had a plan. And the things she had in her heavy bag were part of it.
* * *
`I'm so sorry about your hair,' said Lucien's mother, biting her lip as she restrained herself from her usual comfort gesture of running her hand across his curly head. The curls weren't there any more and she didn't know how to comfort him, or herself.
`It's all right, Mum,' said Lucien. `I'll be in fashion. Lots of boys at school even shave theirs off.'
They didn't mention that he wasn't well enough to go to school. But it was true that he didn't mind too much about the hair. What really bothered him was the tiredness. It wasn't like anything he had ever felt before. It wasn't like being knackered after a good game of football or swimming fifty lengths. It had been a long time since he'd been able to do either of those.
It was like having custard in your veins instead of blood, getting exhausted just trying to sit up in bed. Like drinking half a cup of tea and finding it as difficult as climbing Everest.
`It doesn't affect everyone so badly,' the nurse had said. `Lucien's one of the unlucky ones. But it has no relation to how well the treatment is working.'
That was the trouble. Feeling as drained and exhausted as he did, Lucien couldn't tell whether it was the treatment or the disease itself that was making him feel so terrible. And he could tell that his parents didn't know either. That was one of the scariest things, seeing them so frightened. It seemed as if his mother's eyes filled with tears every time she looked at him.
And as for Dad - Lucien's father had never talked to him properly before he became ill, but they had got on pretty well. They used to do things together - swimming, going to the match, watching TV. It was when they couldn't do anything together any more that Dad started really talking to him.
He even brought library books into the bedroom and read to him, because Lucien didn't have the strength to hold a book in his hands. Lucien liked that. Books that he knew already, like The Hobbit and Tom's Midnight Garden, were followed by ones that Dad remembered from his boyhood and youth, like Moonfleet and the James Bond novels.
Lucien lapped them all up. Dad found a new skill in inventing different voices for all the characters. Sometimes Lucien thought it had been almost worth being ill, to find this new, different Dad, who talked to him and told him stories. He wondered if he would turn back into the old Dad if the treatment worked and the illness went away. But such thoughts made Lucien's head ache.
After his most recent chemotherapy, Lucien was too tired to talk. And his throat hurt. That evening Dad brought him in a notebook with thin pages and a beautiful marbled cover, in which dark reds and purples swirled together in a way that made Lucien need to close his eyes.
`I couldn't find anything nice enough in WH Smith,' Dad was saying. `But this was a bit of luck. We were clearing out an old house in Waverley Road, next to your school, and the niece said to dump all the papers in the skip. So I saw this and rescued it. It's never been written in and I thought if I left it here on your bedside table, with a pencil, you could write down what you want to say to us when your throat hurts.'
Dad's voice droned on in a comforting background sort of way; he wasn't expecting Lucien to reply. He was saying something about the city where the beautiful notebook had been made but Lucien must have missed a bit, because it didn't quite make sense.
`... floating on the water. You must see it one day, Lucien. When you come across the lagoon and see all those domes and spires hovering over the water, well, it's like going to heaven. All that gold ...'
Dad's voice tailed off. Lucien wondered if he'd thought he'd been tactless mentioning heaven. But he liked Dad's description of the mysterious city - Venice, was it? As his eyelids got heavier and his mind fogged over with the approach of one of his deep sleeps, he felt Dad slip the little notebook into his hand.
And he began to dream of a city floating on the water, laced with canals, and full of domes and spires ...
* * *
Arianna watched the whole procession from her brothers' boat. They had the day off work, like everyone else on the lagoon islands, except the cooks. No one worked on the day of the Sposalizio who didn't have to, but so many revellers had to be fed.
`There it is!' shouted Tommaso suddenly. `There's the Barcone!'
Arianna stood up in the boat, causing it to rock again, and strained her eyes towards the mouth of the Great Canal. In the far distance she could just see the scarlet and silver of the Barcone. Other people had seen the ceremonial barge too and soon the cheers and whistles spread across the water as the Duchessa made her stately way to her Marriage with the Sea.
The barge was rowed by a crew of the city's best mandoliers, those handsome young men who sculled the mandolas round the canals that took the place of streets in most of Bellezza. They were what Arianna particularly wanted to see.
As the Duchessa's barge drew level with Tommaso and Angelo's boat, Arianna gazed at the muscles of the black-haired, bright-eyed mandoliers and sighed. But not from love.
`Viva la Duchessa!' cried her brothers, waving their hats in the air, and Arianna dragged her eyes from the rowers to the figure standing immobile on the deck. The Duchessa was an impressive sight. She was tall, with long dark hair, coiled up on the top of her head in a complicated style, which was entwined with white flowers and precious gems. Her dress was of thin dark blue taffeta, shot with green and silver, so that she glittered in the sunlight like a mermaid.
Of her face there was little to be seen. As usual she wore a mask. Today's was made of peacock feathers, as shimmering and iridescent as her dress. Behind her stood her waiting-women, all masked, though more simply dressed, holding cloaks and towels.
`It is a miracle,' said Angelo. `She never looks a day olden Twenty-five years now she has ruled over us and ensured our happiness and yet she still has the figure of a girl.'
Arianna snorted. `You don't know what she looked like twenty-five years ago,' she said. `You haven't been coming to the Marriage that long.'
`Nearly,' said Tommaso. `Our parents first brought me when I was five and that was twenty years ago. And she did look just the same then, little sister. It is miraculous.' And he made the sign that lagooners use for luck - touching the thumb of the right hand to the little finger and placing the middle fingers first on brow and then on breast.
`And I came two years later,' added Angelo, frowning at Arianna. He had noticed a rebellious tendency in her where the Duchessa was concerned.
Arianna sighed again. She had first seen the Marriage when she was five, too. Ten years of watching and waiting. But this year was different. She was going to get what she wanted tomorrow or die in the attempt - and that was not just a figure of speech.
The barge had reached the shore of the island of Sant'Andrea, where the church's High Priest was waiting to hand the Duchessa out on to the red carpet that had been thrown over the shingle. She stepped down as lightly as a girl, followed by her entourage of women. From where they were on the water, Arianna and her brothers had a good view of the slim blue-green figure with the stars in her hair.
The mandoliers rested on their oars, sweating, as the music of the band on the shore floated over the water. At the climax of silver trumpets, two young priests reverently lowered the Duchessa into the sea from a special platform. Her beautiful dress floated around her in the water as she sank gently; the priests' shoulder-muscles bulged with the strain of keeping the ceremony slow and dignified.
As soon as the water lapped the top of the Duchessa's thighs, a loud cry of `Sposati' went up from all the watchers. Drums and trumpets were sounded and everyone waved and cheered, as the Duchessa was lifted out of the water again and surrounded by her women. For a split second everyone saw her youthful form as the thin wet dress clung to her. The dress would never be worn again.
`What a waste,' thought Arianna.
* * *
Inside the State Cabin of the barge another woman echoed her thought. The real Duchessa, already dressed in the rich red velvet dress and silver mask that was required for the Marriage feast, stretched and yawned.
`What fools these Bellezzans are!' she said to her two attendants. `They all think I have the figure of a girl - and I do. What's her name this time?'
`Giuliana, Your Grace,' said one of them. `Here she comes!'
A bedraggled and sneezing girl, not now looking much like a duchess, was half carried down the stairway to the cabin by the waiting-women.
`Get her out of those wet things,' ordered the Duchessa. `That's better. Rub her hard with the towel. And you, take the diamonds out of her hair.' The Duchessa patted her own elaborate coiffure, which was the exact duplicate of the wet girl's.
Giuliana's face, though pleasant enough, was very ordinary. The Duchessa smiled behind her mask to think that the people had been so easily deceived.
`Well done, Giuliana,' she said to the shivering girl, who was trying to curtsey. `A fine impersonation.' She glanced at the amulet on a chain round the girl's neck. A hand, with the three middle fingers extended and the thumb and little finger joined. It was the islanders' good luck token, the manus fortunae - hand of Fortune - signifying the unity of the circle and the figures of the goddess, her consort and son, the sacred trinity of the lagoon. But it was doubtful that this child knew that. The Duchessa wrinkled her nose, not at the symbolism but at the tawdriness of the cheap gold version of it.
Giuliana was soon warm and dry, wrapped in a warm woollen robe and given a silver goblet of ruby red wine. She had taken off the peacock mask, which would be preserved, along with the salt-stained dress, along with twenty-four others in the Palazzo.
`Thank you, Your Grace,' said the girl, glad to feel the iciness of the lagoon's embrace receding from her legs.
`A barbarous custom,' said the Duchessa, `but the people must be indulged. Now, you have heard and understood the conditions?'
`Yes, Your Grace.'
`I must never tell anyone how I went into the water instead of Your Grace.'
`And if you do?'
`If I do - which I wouldn't, milady - I will be banished from Bellezza.'
`You and your family. Banished for ever. Not that anyone would believe you; there would be no proof.' The Duchessa glanced, steely-eyed, at her waiting-women, who were all utterly dependent on her for their living.
`And in return for your silence, and the loan of your fresh young body, I give you your dowry. Over the ages many young girls have been so rewarded for lending their bodies to their betters. You are more fortunate than most. Your virtue is intact - except for a slight incursion of sea water.'
The women dutifully laughed, as they did every year. Giuliana blushed. She had the suspicion that the Duchessa was talking dirty, but that didn't seem right for someone so important. She was longing to get home to her family and show them the money. And to tell her fiancé they could now afford to be married. One of the waiting-women had finished undoing her hair and was now briskly braiding it into a coil around her head.
* * *
Tommaso and Angelo rowed behind the Barcone as it travelled slowly back across the lagoon to Bellezza, the biggest island. On deck the Duchessa stood in a red velvet dress with a black cloak thrown over it, which blurred the lines of her figure. The setting sun glinted off her silver mask. She now matched the colours of the Barcone, was one with her vessel and the sea. The prosperity of the city was assured for another year.
And now it was time for feasting. The Piazza Maddalena, in front of the great cathedral, was filled with stalls selling food. The savoury smells made Arianna's mouth water. Every imaginable shape of pasta was on sale, with sauces piquant with peppers and sweet with onions. Roasted meats and grilled vegetables, olives, cheeses, bright red radishes, dark green bitter salad. Shining fish doused with oil and lemon, pink prawns and crabs and mounds of saffron rice and juicy wild mushrooms. Soups and stews simmered in huge cauldrons and terracotta bowls were filled with potatoes roasted in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and spikes of rosemary.
`Rosmarino - rose of the sea!' sighed Angelo, licking his lips. `Come, let's eat.' He tied up the boat where they would easily find it after the feasting and the young people went to join the throng in the square. But no one would eat just yet. All eyes were fixed on the balcony at the top of the cathedral. There stood four brazen rams and in a moment a scarlet figure would come out and stand between the two pairs.
`There she is!' the cry went up. And the bells of Santa Maddalena's campanile began to ring. The Duchessa waved to her people from the balcony, unable to hear their wild cheers because her ears were firmly stopped up with wax. She had failed to take this precaution on her first appearance at the Marriage feast - but never since.
Down in the square the feasting began. Arianna sat under one of the arches, with her legs tucked under her, a large heaped plate on her lap. Her eyes darted everywhere. Tommaso and Angelo steadily ate their way through mounds of food and kept their eyes on their plates. Arianna was content to stay with them for the time being; the moment to slip away would be when the fireworks started.
* * *
Inside the Palazzo, a rather more refined feast was in progress. The Duchessa was disinclined to eat much while wearing her silver mask; she would have a substantial meal sent up to her room later. But she could drink easily enough and now that the day's farce was over, she was happy to do that. On her right sat the Reman Ambassador and it took a lot of the rich red Bellezzan wine to put up with his conversation. But it was her single most important task for the evening to keep him sweet, for reasons of her own.
Excerpted from Stravaganza by Mary Hoffman Copyright © 2002 by Mary Hoffman
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted February 18, 2012
I stumbled upon this book in my library, and it was a great find! It was very interesting, something that hasn't been done a thousand times. It has whimsical qualities; it's set mostly in Talia (which is like an alternate version of Venice, Italy) and is a world full of magic, masks, and traditions. (It reminds me a bit of 'The Thief Lord', they are both set in Venice and involve magic; so if you enjoyed that book i'm sure you will enjoy this one as well). This book is great for anyone looking for adventure; and the characters are well developed, there are true friendships not just fluffy romance. A great read, I will definitely be reading the rest of the books.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted January 8, 2012
Posted October 5, 2011
I saw this at my school library and picked it up for the heck of it. I started reading it, and I couldn't put it down. It's a diamond in the rough, a fantastic book that no one has heard of, and if you read it you can be a hipster trendsetter and read an amazing series. I want more!!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 27, 2011
I was combing the libary one random afternoon and was really bored so i was going through ALL the shelves when i randomly picked this book up. I was instantly enthralled and am now a huge fan of the series. It has action, fantasy, intrugue, and everything you could ask for in a series. PICK IT UP AND READ IT NOW!!!!!!! YOU WILL NOT REGRET IT!!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 1, 2006
This book brings a normal boy fighting cancer in one world to another world for a second chance. Mary Hoffman's fantastic characters and amazing plot will have you dreaming about being there your self!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 3, 2005
I picked this book up off my cousin's shelf one day and started to read it. I couldn't put it down until I had finished it, and now I refuse to give it back to her. I love this book and I am eagerly anticipating the rest of the trilogy.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 22, 2004
This book was one of the best books I have ever read. I checked it out of my school library because of its cool cover, but once I started reading it I could not put it down. Not even to eat dinner. I highly recommend this book. Mary Hoffman does an extrodinary job bringing this story to life.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 9, 2004
Posted April 19, 2004
Posted February 27, 2004
This book is amazing! I first saw it at the book fair earlier in the year, but didn't get it. I checked it out of my school library a few days ago. Now I wonder why I didn't buy it. The way Mary Hoffman twisted the plot so many times kept me reading. I loved the book. I can't wait to read the next book in the series!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2004
This is a riveting, excellent, and enchanting book that truly anyone could love! Hoffman has the ability to excite her readers just as Rowling and Nix do. Her characters are so well woven into the plot that you feel as if you could reach out and touch them. If you are stuck in the midwest with all of the snow, this is the perfect book to snuggle up with!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 27, 2003
Posted July 31, 2003
Posted August 14, 2003
I can't believe it took me this long to pick the book off my shelf. I got the book for Christmas last year (2002), and here it is August of 2003 and I read it in a night. So bad that here I am at 2 AM leaving a review for it looking for the sequal that is apparently not out yet. I loved the book, everything clicks together in the end, and you're just sitting there, 'OHHHH! So that's why she told us that!' Mary Hoffman rivals JK Rowlings writing, but that's what you get with British authors. (Just joking.) Definatly a book for someone at least in 8th grade in my opinion, the kids are almost 16 in the book, and they think the same way. Not to mention that it's another realm of space and time which would be harder for a younger kid to read. I enjoyed it a lot, and I'm 17 so, it was definatly worth the late night. Easily something to quench your thirst for more Harry Potter, just the minor flaw that now I'm waiting for both installments.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 17, 2003
Really really good book, next to harry potter and the old kingdom books. Anyone who is really into exciting books should read this. Plot twisters the works. Keeps you into the book. I can't wait for the next one to come out.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 4, 2003
Posted May 9, 2003
I really enjoyed this book and plan on getting a copy for myself A.S.A.P! I really got into it in just the first chapter, unlike a lot of books I've read where you get into it later on.. boring! I just couldn't stop reading it, and I was sad to finish it so soon. I hope there are more to come!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 20, 2003
Posted March 25, 2003
Posted December 13, 2002