Authors: Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Maestro Sir Colin Davis
because it might have been
High, high overhead the horse circled slowly, majestically. He hovered on outstretched wings that glinted now black, now bronze, his beak flashing where the sun struck it in the splendor of the morning. Clouds fat and docile and pink as cherubs hung above him, and far below, the line of the coast was marked by a curling white mustache of breakers.
This was the land of the Cérocchi, a place of endless forests and broad rivers originating far inland, at fabled springs, guarded by immense and gorgeous citadels where lived sagacious wizards and golden emperors.
It was at the mouth of such a river that Nuova Genova had sprung up, a carnival gathering of piazzas and palazzos rising up like fingers at the end of a long, curving arm, a spit of land that reached into the sea from the marshy delta where the river bade a last, lingering farewell to the embrace of the land. In this location Nuova Genova beckoned the traveler in an eternal gesture of welcome.
The horse descended in lazy circles while his rider leaned back in the high jeweled saddle and plucked a few tunes on his chittarone and from time to time bent forward to admire the view as the city grew larger and more distinct. Now he could recognize the individual buildings by their distinctive features. There was the square façade of the Palazzo del Doge, as fitted this offshoot of Genova. Farther away but taller was the clock tower adorned with the five red balls of the Florentine Medici. Nearest of all was the palace of the Cérocchi prince, and as he passed over its timbered roof, women in fine garments of brocades, pearls and furs ran onto the gold-fronted balcony, shouting and pointing, their copper faces alight, their black hair framed by elaborate headdresses of feathers of every color, iridescent, now red and amber, now green and brass. Their voices drifted up to him, high and excited, in their unfamiliar tongue.
At last the horse landed, its gold-painted hooves and talons sinking into platinum-pale sand. Lodovico slung the chittarone over his shoulder by its long neck, then swung out of the saddle, one hand still firmly grasping the reins until Bellimbusto had furled his wings. He had seen many unwary riders taken by surprise when they bad relinquished the reins too soon and had watched in helpless dismay as their mounts soared aloft, unfettered.
Already there were quite a number of people rushing out of the gates of the city to meet him, many of them handsome Italians, a few disdainful Frenchmen, and among the rest, bejeweled Cérocchi nobles. They were headed in this scramble by the members of the Signoria of Nuova Genova.
Lodovico stood waiting, his arms clasped over his chest, just below the gold-and-sapphire collar that commemorated his heroic command of the expedition to the great Oriental stronghold of the Thousand Golden Towers where he had defeated the Great Mandarin in single combat. He was dressed for flying, in a short velvet doublet over a shirt of pleated taffeta, slightly rumpled after long hours in his airborne saddle. His hose were stiffly padded and banded with gold-edged embroidery, and his leggings—what could be seen of them above high-topped cavalry boots—were of fine-knitted wool. His hair flowed in chestnut curls to his shoulders, and the velvet hat he now doffed was caught at the edge of the brim by a jeweled brooch that held a long, lavish ostrich plume.
“Look! Who they’ve sent!” cried the leader of the Signoria to the others, his face filled with recognition and pleasure. The secretary who trotted along beside him turned to speak to the Cérocchi prince striding in his wake. “It’s Ariosto!” The others heard this and the intelligence spread through the crowd as they hurried forward even more eagerly.
When they were nearer, Lodovico spread out his arms, a smile on his handsome face. “Good people of Nuova Genova, I bring you greetings from Il Primàrio, the great Damiano de’ Medici himself!”
The leader of the Signoria very nearly stumbled into the magnificent winged horse as he came up to the illustrious visitor. “Ariosto!”
Lodovico reached out to hold the old man up, laughing heartily as he did. The long-necked chittarone thrummed against his back and his horse shied nervously. An easy pat from its master quieted the animal.
By now, many of the others had reached him, and Ariosto had much to do to keep his spirited horse from bolting while he grasped first one arm and then another that was reached out to him. He heard his name in a tumult of voices; his splendid eyes, the same chestnut shade as his shining hair, shone with joy.
“Good citizens! Good friends!” the leader of the Signoria called out at last as he turned to face the gathering, motioning for silence with his upraised hands. “You must step back. You must make room. Come, make way for this great man.” He motioned the people away, but they were reluctant to leave. “We cannot ask Ariosto to stand here on the beach like a vagabond.”
“But I am a vagabond,” Lodovico protested with his most sincere smile. “Think how much of the world I have seen, how few years I have been allowed to rest with my beloved Alessandra, how I have gone first here, then there, in the service of our great Italia Federata. What am I, if not a vagabond, a rover?”
“A hero!” shouted several voices in the crowd, but Lodovico shook his head, lowering his eyes. “No, no, good friends. I cannot aspire to so noble a name.” He looked up keenly, feeling the renewed courage of those who faced him. “But I am here to serve you, and perhaps at the end of our struggles, we will all deserve that fine name. If there is glory, it must be earned, and I can see that none of you would turn from an honest battle.”
This was greeted with such enthusiastic approval that Lodovico turned to the leader of the Signoria with an embarrassed chuckle. “What more can I tell them? My successes, such as they are, have been as much luck as tiny bravery on my part. Fortune is a fickle goddess, and may desert me at any time. For these good people, with so much of the right with them, they have no need of a champion. But if my presence means so much to them, then I will accept this great honor they give me.”
The leader of the Signoria clucked his tongue. “You must not mind, Ariosto, if they express their faith in you. We have had little to encourage us since the prince here”—he nodded toward the tall Cérocchi who stood not far away, resplendent in feathers of many hues and beadwork of jade and chalcedony and ivory—”brought us word of the king of the Fortezza Serpente. When we sent our request for aid to il Primàrio, we had no idea that he would send you to help us.”
Suddenly Lodovico’s expression grew serious; even the winking light in his eyes was muted. “I have read the dispatch you sent. A terrible business, Podestà Benci.” He looked down into the face of the leader of the Signoria. “I bring you the promise of Damiano himself that Nuova Genova will be protected with all the might of Italia Federata. As I left, orders were being sent to Venezia, commanding that nine troop ships set sail at once.”
Andrea Benci’s old eyes filled with tears of gratitude. “Nine troop ships!” he repeated, as if unable to believe the words. It was a litany of hope. “Oh, Ariosto, you cannot know what this news will mean to our city.” He beckoned to his secretary and repeated this information so that it could be issued as a public proclamation He also motioned the Cérocchi Prince to come nearer then gave his attention to Lodovico once more. “The Prince has sent word to the king of the Pau Attan north of here.”
“And what was his response?” Lodovico demanded, a martial determination straightening his stance and lighting his features. He touched the chittarone slung across his back as if it were his great sword Falavedova now safely stowed in the wooden scabbard attached to his saddle.
“Alas, messages move slowly in this land. This is not Italia, where there are paved and guarded roads from Savoia to Sicilia. Here the men must make their way through the trackless forest. There are not only enemies of the Cérocchi to contend with, but there are dangerous animals and great marshes where seductive wraiths lure the unwary to terrible death.” Andrea Benci sighed and crossed himself, then squared his shoulders. “No, we must not despair. Now that you are here, we will take heart again, I know it.”
Lodovico gave him another of his wide, flashing smiles, and wished that he could have more time to explore this gigantic, unknown land. If there were wraiths in the marshes and dangerous animals, he did not know how he would be able to resist them. If only he had not accepted the commission to lead the troops for il Primàrio! How he hated to turn away from such a challenge! He put his arm over Andrea Benci’s shoulder and gestured toward the gates of Nuova Genova “I’ve been in the saddle for two days, aloft” he said. “And damned uncomfortable it becomes after the first few hours. I would welcome a meal and a bath, and then, Podestà Benci, royal Cérocchi, we must talk strategy.” He reached for the reins of his horse and led the celebrating populace toward the ornate gates standing open to receive him, armed captains saluting as he went through the gates, and calling his name.
“Ariosto!” the voice said more harshly, and an unfriendly hand was laid on his shoulder. “By San Giovanni!”
Lodovico opened his near-sighted eyes, blinking in the light. Beside him, the ink was dry on his quill. Somewhat belatedly he put his arms across the parchment pages in front of him. “I dozed off,” he explained lamely.
Andrea Benci, personal secretary to il Primàrio, Damiano di Piero de’ Medici, gave an irritated sigh as he looked down at the poet. “We are supposed to be in the loggia now. We’re expected to help prepare the reception for the English ambassador and his mission. You, if it hasn’t escaped your attention, are going to read the saludictory verses to them, welcoming them all to Italia Federata.”
“I remember, naturally,” Lodovico said with dignity, hating the superior air Benci gave himself, simply because he was closely associated with il Primàrio. “It’s been difficult, writing the verses. Poliziano himself,” he added in a mutter, “could not have found a word to rhyme with Wessex. Wessex!”
“Does that mean that the verses are not finished?” Benci, though an old man of sixty-two, stood very tall, with the hauteur of a born courtier.
“Oh, they’re finished, such as they are,” Lodovico growled. “I am only warning you that they are not as beautiful as I would wish. English is a terrible language for poetry. How can anyone write poetry in a tongue in which all the words end in
and half the vowels are left out altogether?” He made a show of gathering up the pages while he stuffed a few of the parchment sheets into the portfolio lying open on the table.
Benci gave him a look of polite condescension. “Great poet, laureate of La Federazione, stymied by few unruly syllables?”
“Poetry isn’t like yard goods: snip, snip and this all you need for a sonetta. Poetry is the passion, the soul, a way for expressing things that cannot be said in the ordinary way. Daily life obscures so much. How can you cut lengths of cloth and think of the nature of courage?” He saw that Benci’s expression had not altered. “You are one of those cutting cloth, aren’t you?” He heard Benci laugh indulgently, and realizing that there was quite a large ink smear on his sleeve, he gave a furtive twist to the material.