Here is the first Chapter from the book! :)


Chapter 1

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.

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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,

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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

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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

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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

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

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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

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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

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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

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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.’

‘Repeat them.’

‘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

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

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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

2 5

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

2 6

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

2 7

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

2 8

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

Angelo’s hand.’

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,

2 9

and squeezed it affectionately. They were going to get

into such trouble when they went back to Torrone

without her.

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

3 0

boats across the water. Tommaso and Angelo would

have to go without her. But by then Arianna would be

safely hidden.

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

3 1

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

3 2

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.