Here is the first Chapter from the book! :)
The Marriage with the Sea
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
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 one day?’ 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
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
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
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
older. 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
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 bluegreen
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
‘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
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
‘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 waitingwomen,
who were all utterly dependent on her for
‘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
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
‘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.
At last the Ambassador turned to his other
neighbour and the Duchessa was free to look to her
left. Rodolfo, elegant in black velvet, smiled at her.
And the Duchessa smiled back behind her mask. After
all these years, his bony hawklike face still pleased her.
And this year she had a particular reason to be glad of
Rodolfo, aware as so often of what she was
thinking, raised his glass to her.
‘Another year, another Marriage,’ he said. ‘I could
get quite jealous of the sea, you know.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said the Duchessa. ‘It can’t beat you
for variety and slipperiness.’
‘Perhaps it’s your young oarsmen I should envy,
then,’ said Rodolfo.
‘The only young oarsman who ever meant anything
to me was you, Rodolfo.’
He laughed. ‘So much you wouldn’t let me become
one as I recall.’
‘Mandoliering wasn’t good enough for you. You
were much better off at the university.’
‘It was good enough for my brothers, Silvia,’ said
Rodolfo and he wasn’t laughing any more.
It was a delicate subject and the Duchessa was
surprised he had brought it up, especially tonight. She
hadn’t even known of Rodolfo’s existence when his
brothers Egidio and Fiorentino had applied to the
Scuola Mandoliera in the first year of her reign. As
was her right, she had selected them for training and,
as was her practice with the best-looking ones, she
had taken them as her lovers.
It was only when the youngest brother turned up at
the School a few months later that her heart had been
touched. She had sent Rodolfo to university in
Padavia and, when he had returned, equipped the
finest laboratory in Talia for him to do his
experiments in. And then they had become lovers.
The Duchessa reached out and briefly brushed the
back of Rodolfo’s hand with her silver-tipped fingers.
He took her hand and kissed it.
‘I must go, Your Grace,’ he said in a louder voice.
‘It is time for the fireworks.’
The Duchessa watched as his tall thin figure walked
the length of the banqueting-hall. If she had been an
ordinary woman, she would have wanted a confidante
at this moment. But she was Duchessa of Bellezza, so
she rose from her seat and everyone stood with her.
She made her way alone to the window-seat, which
overlooked part of the square and the sea. The sky
was a dark navy blue and the stars were about to be
rivalled in brightness.
In a minute, she must gesture to the Reman
Ambassador, Rinaldo di Chimici, to take his place
beside her. But for a moment, with her back to the
throng of Senators and Councillors, she removed her
mask and rubbed her hand over her tired eyes.
Then she caught sight of her reflection in the long
window. She regarded it with satisfaction. Her hair
and brows might have been helped to stay dark and
glossy, but her violet eyes owed nothing to artifice and
her pale skin was only lightly etched with lines. She
still looked younger than Rodolfo, with his silver hair
and slight stoop, though she was five years older than
The crowd in the square was getting merry with wine
and the sheer pleasure of a three-day holiday. The
Bellezzans and islanders knew how to enjoy
themselves. Now they were dancing in ragged circles,
arms linked, singing the bawdy songs that
traditionally accompanied the Marriage with the Sea.
The climax of the evening was coming. Rodolfo’s
mandola had been spotted making for the wooden raft
floating in the mouth of the Great Canal, which was
loaded with crates and boxes. Everyone was expecting
something special for the Duchessa’s twenty-fifth
Sposalizio – her Silver Wedding.
They were not disappointed. The display began
with the usual showers of shooting stars, rockets,
Reman candles and Catherine wheels. The faces of the
Bellezzans in the square turned green and red and gold
with the reflected light from the display in the sky
over the water. All eyes were now turned away from
the Palazzo and from the silver-masked figure
watching at the window.
Arianna and her brothers were in the square too,
jostled and crowded by their fellow-islanders.
‘Stay close to us, Arianna,’ warned Tommaso, ‘We
don’t want you going missing in this crush. Hold
Arianna nodded, but she had every intention of
going missing. She took the hand that Angelo held out
to her, brown with the sun and calloused from fishing,
and squeezed it affectionately. They were going to get
into such trouble when they went back to Torrone
After a pause, the dark blue sky began to brighten
with the fire-pictures of Rodolfo’s set pieces. First a
giant brazen bull pawing the sky, then a blue and
green wave of the sea, out of which grew a glittering
serpent. Then a winged horse flying above them and
seeming to sweep down into the water of the canal,
where it disappeared. Finally, a silver ram seemed to
emerge from the sea and grew massively large above
the watchers before it dissolved into a thousand stars.
Angelo let go of his sister’s hand to join in the
‘Signor Rodolfo has excelled himself this year,
hasn’t he?’ he said to Tommaso, who was also
clapping. ‘What do you think, Arianna?’ But when he
turned to look at her, she had gone.
Arianna had laid her plans well. She had to stay on
Bellezza overnight. The day after the Sposalizio was
the city’s great holiday and no one but a native-born
Bellezzan was allowed to stay on the main island.
Even the other lagooners, from Torrone, Merlino and
Burlesca, had to return to their islands at midnight.
The penalty for breaking this rule and remaining in
Bellezza on the Giornata Vietata – the forbidden day –
was death, but no one in living memory had taken the
Arianna was not taking any chances; she knew
exactly where she was going to hide. At midnight, the
bells of Santa Maddalena would ring out once more
and at the end of their peal every non-Bellezzan,
whether islander or tourist, must be away in their
boats across the water. Tommaso and Angelo would
have to go without her. But by then Arianna would be
She slipped into the cavernous cathedral while
everyone outside was still gasping ‘Ooh!’ as the
fireworks were let off and ‘Aah!’ as they fizzled out.
Santa Maddalena was still ablaze with candles but it
was empty. No one to notice a slight girl running up
the worn, steep steps to the museum.
It was Arianna’s favourite place in all Bellezza. She
could always get into it, even when the cathedral was
so thronged with tourists that they had to queue all
round the square and be let in in batches, like sheep
going through a dip. They didn’t seem to care
much for the museum, with its dusty books and
music manuscripts in glass cases. Arianna hurried
through the room with the four original brazen rams
and out on to the balcony where the Duchessa had
stood an hour or two earlier, between the two pairs of
Arianna looked down into the square, milling with
people. So many, it would be easy to mislay one. She
couldn’t pick out her brothers from the many swaying
revellers but her heart went out to them. ‘Don’t be
soft,’ she told herself sternly. ‘This is the only way.’
She settled down beside one brazen leg, clinging on to
it for comfort, as she got the best grandstand view of
the end of Signor Rodolfo’s display. It was going to be
a long, uncomfortable night.
Lucien woke to feel the sun on his face. His first
thought was that his mother had been in and opened
the window, but when he came to more fully, he saw
that he was out of doors.
‘I must still be dreaming,’ he thought, but he didn’t
mind. It was a lovely dream. He was in the floating
city, he knew that. It was very warm and yet still early
in the morning. The beautiful notebook was still in his
hand. He put it in his pyjama pocket.
He stood up; it was easy in the dream. He was in a
colonnade of cool marble, but between the columns,
where the bright sun splashed in, were warm pools of
light, as comforting as a hot bath. Lucien felt
different; he reached up to his head and felt his old
curls. This was definitely a dream.
He stepped out into the square. There seemed to
have been some huge party going on; the few people
who were about were sweeping up and putting
rubbish into bags – not plastic bin-bags, he noticed,
but more like sacks made of rough cloth. Lucien
gazed at the huge cathedral opposite him. It was
vaguely familiar, but something about it was not quite
He turned the other way and looked out over the
water; this was the most beautiful place he had ever
been in. But more beautiful still was being able to
walk about in it. Lucien had almost forgotten what it
was like to do that.
But a moment later, the dream changed completely.
Someone came up on him from behind and grabbed
his arm, dragging him back into the cool shadows of
the colonnade. A fierce boy, about his own age,
whispered in his ear, ‘Are you mad? You’ll be killed!’
Lucien looked at him in astonishment. His arm
really hurt, where the boy was pinching it. In his real
life Lucien couldn’t have borne such a touch; it would
have made him cry out in pain. But the point was, he
could feel it. This wasn’t a dream at all.