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"Don't mess this up," Godfrey muttered, as if being stern with himself could stop the inevitable. Easier to stop the waves carrying his boat to Lord Sebastiano's door, or to command the gondolier to plant his pole so as to resist the tide. A stealthy glance at the gondolier confirmed Godfrey's fears – the man thought him mad, talking to himself.
The boat turned into one of Rialto's numerous identical canals, weaving through the maze as if by magic, until they stopped at a dock that looked no different to the others they'd passed.
"Palazzo Ziano," the gondolier said, offering his hand to Godfrey like his passenger was some fine lady.
Godfrey choked out a laugh and stepped from the boat to the dock without the boatman's assistance. A few coins changed hands and the gondolier poled away, disappearing around a corner before Godfrey could reconsider and call him back.
Godfrey eyed the double doors before him. Paint peeled at the bottom, where the wood had swelled in response to the endless stroking of the waves that even now threatened to lick tantalisingly at his feet. He rapped on the timber with more confidence than he felt, fuelled by desperation to keep his feet dry until he'd at least met with Lord Sebastiano.
The door opened inward, and a servant bowed him inside the cavernous space that evidently served as a warehouse for whatever Sebastiano traded in, when he wasn't transporting things for people.
"I think I've come to the wrong place," Godfrey said. "You see, I'm in Rialto to see Lord Sebastiano about a cargo his ships were to carry here from the Holy Land. He invited me to visit him at home, but…" This evidently wasn't it. Perhaps the boatman had decided a mere baron's youngest son was not worthy to enter the home of one of the city's patricians.
"Up the stairs. What name shall I tell the master?" the servant asked.
Godfrey's eyes adjusted to the gloom. The wide staircase before him led to a more lordly entrance on the level above. Perhaps he was in the right place after all.
"Godfrey. My father, the Baron of Maraschal, sent me."
"If you will follow me, Master Godfrey?"
Up the stairs and into the house proper, Godfrey's fears fluttered about inside his chest. He didn't want to open his mouth for fear they'd fly out.
"Master Godfrey, the Baron of Maraschal's son," the servant boomed, then stood aside to let Godfrey pass into the room.
Lord Sebastiano rose and moved around his desk to clasp Godfrey's hands in his. "Master Godfrey, it is a pleasure to meet you. Your uncle, Eustace, speaks well of you. He says you work magic with horses."
Godfrey hadn't seen Uncle Eustace in more than ten years, so how he could know such a thing…perhaps his father had sent him a letter. Yes, of course. A letter saying Godfrey would be collecting this shipment of horses.
"A pity you do not have the same power over ships. The convoy you are here for is a week overdue. It is likely nothing, but many cities along the coast have fallen to the Seljuks in the last few years. It would be ill luck indeed if they have attacked my ships…" Sebastiano patted Godfrey's hand before releasing him. "But it is a fool indeed who would attack such a well-armed convoy. Your horses will arrive safely, you'll see, and you'll have them home in time for Easter. Which reminds me…it is Carnevale this week, the final week of feasting before we fast. You must dine with us tonight."
Godfrey looked up to meet Sebastiano's expectant eyes. The invitation was no mere courtesy – the patrician wanted an answer. "I'd be honoured, and delighted," he managed to say.
Sebastiano smiled. "Good. You have caught me at a good time. I'd planned on visiting the harbour this afternoon. Will you accompany me?"
Godfrey could hardly refuse, and soon found himself back in a boat, moving with surprising swiftness across the lagoon.
Upon hearing that this was Godfrey's first visit to Rialto, Sebastiano maintained a running commentary about everything he saw, from the islands on either side of them to the people in the boats they passed to the fish in the lagoon waters below.
When Sebastiano paused for breath, Godfrey asked, "How long have your family ruled Rialto?"
Sebastiano laughed. "Ah, you must come from the barbarian kingdoms to the north. No one family rules Rialto. We are a republic, and our rulers are elected from among the noblest families in the city, her patricians. But it is no secret that my family can be traced back to Ziano, one of the first twelve tribunes who ruled when our Most Serene Republic was formed, more than four hundred years ago. We have given the city three Dukes to date, and no doubt more will be elected in the future."
A republic? Like the ancient cities, burned and conquered by the Northmen who Sebastiano called barbarians. Yet this city still stood. A city without walls, as it spread across the islands of the lagoon, from the mainland to the harbour. A city so open should surely be an easy target.
"How does this city defend itself, without walls?"
Sebastiano reached over the side of the boat and cupped seawater in his hands. "The sea protects us, for she is as much a part of our city as the people in it. And there is no fiercer protector than a wife and mother defending her own family." He let the water cascade down his hands, trickling back into the lagoon. "And just like a man knows the body of his wife, the men of the lagoon know every channel and shoal, navigating skilfully across all the curves of the seabed. He knows her moods, her passions, and how to skim smoothly through her waves to the deep channels she opens only to him."
Godfrey felt his face grow hot. Likening the cold water to a lover…he'd sooner love a corpse. Maybe madness was part of being a man of Rialto. And yet, he could almost hear a woman's whisper in the waves, inviting him into her depths.
Godfrey shook his head. A foolish notion.
"If you have need of female company while you are in Rialto, I'm sure my sons can help you find a suitable courtesan," Sebastiano said.
Oh, by all that was holy…
Sebastiano laughed. "When I was your age, my father had already found me a bride. Are you betrothed yet, Master Godfrey?"
Wordlessly, Godfrey shook his head. He managed to find his voice. "My older brothers are already married, with babes on the way, so there is no need for me to marry, or produce more heirs. My father has had me managing the horse stud, so when Uncle Eustace was due to send some new breeding stock, he sent me to fetch them."
"Then after dinner tonight, my sons will find you a courtesan," Sebastiano said. When Godfrey opened his mouth to protest, Sebastiano held up his hand to silence him. "You are in Rialto, a city famed for the beauty of its women. I cannot in conscience allow you to leave this jewel of a city without tasting its delights."
Not wanting to anger his host – that would certainly mess things up – Godfrey decided to ask about the numerous posts and flags sticking out of the water. He opened his mouth.
"I think you are in luck, Master Godfrey. My ships have come to greet you." Sebastiano pointed.
A forest of masts grew on the horizon, separating out into more than a dozen ships. Godfrey wouldn't know one vessel from another, but Sebastiano nodded with satisfaction as he surveyed the convoy coming into the harbour.
By the time Godfrey and Sebastiano reached the ship they wanted, the docks were swarming with men, unloading the ships and taking cargo to smaller boats which then set off for the city. Where it would be stored in the warehouses beneath the merchants' homes, Godfrey realised, for there were no storehouses here in the harbour.
"And here are your horses!" Sebastiano said proudly, as he led the way across the gangplank to the deck which had been turned into a makeshift stable.
Six horses occupied the deck, each as magnificent as any other animal in his father's stable. Mounts befitting a king or an emperor, who would breed countless more when they reached home.
"My men will take them ashore to stretch their legs, then they shall board a barge to take them to the mainland. They will be waiting for you at the Sailor's Rest, the inn nearest the docks. The innkeeper there will take good care of them while you enjoy the legendary hospitality of Rialto," Sebastiano said.
And no doubt charge him a hefty sum for every day, Godfrey thought but did not say. In the merchant city of Rialto, everything cost more. His father had given him plenty of coin for the journey, but Godfrey was sure his purse did not run to weeks of revelry. Or the company of one of the city's courtesans.
A roar came from the stable, followed by an explosion of straw. "What do you think you're doing with my horses, boy?" An old man, clad in stained rags, emerged from the stable. "Watch her footing on the gangplank! She's worth more than your life, and if the mare should be injured…" For an old beggar, he had the commanding voice of a much younger man.
The unfortunate sailor leading the priceless mare ducked his head, as though avoiding a blow from the man.
Godfrey started at the sound of his father's nickname – something he'd only heard his mother use – and found the old man staring at him. "No, I'm Godfrey," he said.
The old man straightened, then grimaced. "Tielo's youngest boy?" He hobbled across the deck and down the gangplank until he stood before Godfrey, then peered up at him.
This man looked old enough to be his grandfather, instead of his father's younger brother, but Godfrey asked anyway: "Uncle Eustace? What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be in the Holy City?"
"The city has fallen to the Seljuks. I was returning from the harbour, where I'd just seen the horses loaded aboard, and they had the city surrounded. Besieged. They'd demolished one wall and you could hear the screams from a mile away. When I saw there was no hope, I turned around and headed back to the harbour, as fast as my horse would carry me. I had to get word out. The Pope must hear of this, and call for a new crusade to free the Holy City from the infidels!" He thrust his fist up into the air to emphasise his point, but this seemed to be more than his body could bear. Eustace fell to his knees and toppled over, out cold.
Sebastiano helped Godfrey haul the unconscious man into a boat, suggesting he take his uncle to his lodgings and summon a healer to see to him. "He is also welcome to join us for dinner, if he recovers," Sebastiano said.
Godfrey mumbled something he hoped sounded obliging as he directed the boatman to the inn where he was staying. The breeze had picked up, whipping the lagoon into small, savage waves that soon woke Eustace. Godfrey could get no sense out of him, aside from a lengthy account of the state of the Holy City.
Men, women and children, chained up and sold into slavery, or slaughtered if they put up the slightest resistance. Oh, but not the women. Any woman who resisted was taken to entertain the soldiers, until they tired of her and left her lying in a pool of her own blood on the ground.
"Is this true?" the gondolier demanded.
Godfrey shook his head, but Eustace reared up. "Of course it's true! I saw it with my own eyes. Raping virgins in the Holy City. Savages, the lot of them. The Pope must hear of it, and call for all good men to put a stop to it! For the Holy Land to be so befouled…"
The gondolier's eyes widened, and he poled faster.
The sun was sinking by the time the healer left Godfrey's lodgings, having dressed the wounds hidden beneath Eustace's rags. He'd given Eustace a draught to make him sleep before extracting an arrowhead from one of the wounds and binding that, too.
"Will he be all right?" Godfrey asked.
The healer shrugged. "If I have stopped the infection in time, then yes. If one of the wounds festers…I shall return on the morrow."
Godfrey paid the man, then turned to watch his uncle snoring. Amid Eustace's babblings, he'd also told the tale of his escape from the city amid a storm of arrows, some of which had found their mark in his flesh. No wonder he looked twenty years older than Father, instead of ten years younger.
Sebastiano would understand if Godfrey did not turn up for dinner, he was sure. The patrician would accept his apologies. But that meant staying here, watching his uncle sleep, and worrying that he might not wake. Better that Godfrey go out for a while, and return when his uncle woke.
Godfrey dressed in clean garb, then summoned a boatman to take him to Palazzo Ziano for the second time that day.
He barely noticed the journey this time. He could not have answered whether the sun still shone or whether the waves wet him on the way, for all too soon he found himself at Sebastiano's doors. This time, he didn't hesitate to knock.
Sebastiano's dining chamber could have been the twin of the office he'd visited earlier in the day, with the low ceiling and cosy fire making it look like a private room in an inn instead of a nobleman's dining hall. Even the table where Sebastiano sat had benches on both sides, despite sitting on a dais.
"Please, sit," Sebastiano said, rising. He gestured toward the seat across from him. Only then did Godfrey realise what was wrong with the room – Sebastiano sat at what would be the place of honour on his father's table, but with benches on each side of the table, he was offering a seat of equal honour to his guest, and leaving the seat at the head of the table vacant. "How is your uncle?"
Godfrey blinked, bringing his thoughts back to his host and not the man's furniture. "He is resting. He was wounded. It looked like some of the enemy archers used him for target practice. The healer did what he could for him, but…" Godfrey didn't dare finish, for what could he say? That his uncle might die? Sebastiano was Eustace's friend. He would not like to hear such things any more than Godfrey wanted to say them.
Sebastiano nodded gravely. "Sometimes rest and time are better healers than all the potions in the world. Followed closely by the company of one's family, for which I must apologise. I know I promised you would meet my sons, but they – "
Sons. Courtesans. Godfrey had completely forgotten, yet it seemed Sebastiano had not. Did Sebastiano seriously think Godfrey would want to take some painted whore to the bed where his uncle lay dying?
Copper caught the candlelight, dazzling Godfrey into blindness. When he managed to blink away the lights in his eyes, what he saw stole his breath instead.
Soft copper waves floated above a sea the same shade of aqua blue as the lagoon outside, when the sun caressed the water. Her silk gown shimmered in the candlelight, cut as modestly as that belonging to some highborn matron, but the wicked fire in her eyes would have tempted the devil himself – she was no man's faithful wife.
If this woman was the courtesan Sebastiano's sons had chosen, they had plucked an angel from heaven, and he would fall to his knees and beg for a smile from such a paragon. Nay, he'd offer her every coin he possessed and pledge his life in servitude…
Her lips quirked, parting just the slightest bit, and Godfrey was consumed with the desire to kiss her. Kiss her until he ran out of breath, and then he might die happily.
He would sell his father's horses, and the clothes on his back, and then maybe, just maybe…
"May I present my daughter, Lady Penelope?" Sebastiano said.
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A brave knight. A lady beset by suitors. An enchanted horse that topples cities.
Once upon a time...
Disgraced knight Sir Godfrey would do anything to regain his honour. So when the famed Trojan Horse appears at court, Sir Godfrey volunteers to lead a crusade on the magical beast.
Lady Penelope is sick of life at a convent, waiting for her father to decide who she shall marry. So when a knight appears in the convent garden with a magic horse, she jumps at the chance to escape.
The enchanted horse may have ended one war, but with Penelope missing, it may be about to start another.
Can a knight and his lady stop history repeating?
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