In Venice in 1487, the secrets of glassblowing are guarded jealously. Renzo, a twelve-year-old laborer in a glassworks, has just a few months to prepare for a test of his abilities, and no one to teach him. If he passes, he will qualify as a skilled glassblower. If he fails, he will be expelled from the glassworks. Becoming a glassblower is his murdered father’s dying wish for him, and the means of supporting his mother and sister. But Renzo desperately needs another pair of hands to help him turn the glass as he practices at night.
One night he is disturbed by a bird—a small falcon—that seems to belong to a girl hiding in the glassworks. Soon Renzo learns about her and others like her—the bird people, who can communicate with birds and are condemned as witches. He tries to get her to help him and discovers that she comes with baggage: ten hungry bird-kenning children who desperately need his aid. Caught between devotion to his family and his art and protecting a group of outcast children, Renzo struggles for a solution that will keep everyone safe in this atmospheric adventure.
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Falcon in the Glass
Something rustled in the dark — a sound so faint, Renzo barely heard it at all, but it told him he was not alone.
Out of the corner of one ear, he heard it. His eyes and mind and heart had belonged entirely to the glass before him, and not to the signs of danger.
It glowed copper-orange, the glass — a veined and stunted sun blazing in the gloom of the workshop. Renzo had gathered it, molten, on the end of the blowpipe; he had rolled it on the stone malmoro; he had shaped it in the magiosso mold. He had set the pipe to his lips and breathed — just long enough and hard enough to belly out the glass in the slightest curve and begin to make it his.
Of sounds he’d taken no notice. Not the roar of the furnace, nor the splash of water when the magiosso dropped into its bath, nor even the soft, secret whoosh of his breath inside the pipe.
He heard them but did not mark them. Not until the new sound came — the rustling, faint and quick.
He stood still as stones now, waves of prickling gooseflesh coursing down his back. This was a different kind of sound, out of place in the glassworks in the dead of night. It was a sound an assassin might make, hiding deep in shadow, his legs beginning to cramp, not wanting to move but forced by pain to shift position. Or a hesitation sound, perhaps. The assassin wondering, Shall I make my move now, or later?
It was a sound Renzo’s father might have heard these many months since, on the last night of his life.
It came again:
Renzo peered up into the shadows, where the furnace’s glow flickered across the rafters.
And beheld a bird.
Renzo’s knees went weak; his breath escaped in a sigh of relief.
Only a bird.
He wanted to laugh then, at his foolishness. At his heart, still clattering between his ribs. At the glass, now a misshapen lump — darkening as it cooled, crumpling in upon itself.
Only a bird. A little falcon — a kestrel.
He watched it for a moment, breathing, waiting for his heart to settle. The assassins would not return, he told himself. They’d done what they’d come to do. And whatever befell his traitor of an uncle, it would be far from here.
The falcon rattled its feathers. Better get it out of here. The padrone did not tolerate birds in the glassworks. What if a feather — or worse — should fall on the smooth surface of a newly worked cup or bowl?
Renzo knocked the blowpipe against the rim of the pail at his feet; the glass cracked off and clattered among the heaped remains of his earlier failures. Simpler forms gave him no trouble, but the complicated ones . . . Sometimes he wished he had three hands.
He set the blowpipe on the rack beside the other pipes and rods, then made his way across the wide, open floor of the glassworks and opened the oaken door.
Outside, still waters lapped against stone. The chill winter breeze touched his face, carrying the smells of the lagoon: fish, and salt, and tar. Mist rose from the dark canal and crept like smoke along the lane, blurring the silent houses, making them wavery, gauzy — homes for ghosts. The sweat grew clammy on Renzo’s body and made him shiver. His shoulders and arms and back all ached; a dark pool of weariness pressed down on the crown of his head and seeped into his eyes.
Nothing had gone well tonight. And he was so far behind.
He stepped back inside, clapped his hands, shouted at the bird. But it must have felt snug there, high up in the rafters. It did not budge.
He scooped up a handful of pebbles from outside and tossed one at the bird. It let out a hoarse cry and took off flying. He pursued, throwing more pebbles, not trying to hit it, just drive it out the door.
“Cease with that! Basta!”
Renzo’s heart seized. He whirled round to see who had shouted.
The figure came hurtling out of the shadows behind the woodpile. Came so fast, Renzo barely had time to put up his hands to defend himself before she was raining blows down upon him. He might have lashed out, except that she was smaller than he, and he saw that she was a girl. No more than twelve or thirteen years old, he thought. No older than he, himself.
She dealt him one last shove and then bolted toward the open doorway. She twisted back and sent the kestrel a look — a strange look, like a summons. The bird sailed out of the workshop behind her.
Astounded, Renzo stared after them — girl and bird fleeing together, dissolving into the dark, into the mist. Before they vanished entirely, he thought he saw the kestrel swoop down and come to perch upon her shoulder as she ran.
But he must have imagined that.