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Stravaganza: City of Flowers

Prologue: Walking the Maze

In a black and white striped church in the north-west of the city, a friar in a black and white robe was waiting his turn to step on to a curious pattern set into the floor. It was a labyrinth made of strips of black and white marble contained roughly within a circle, and friars came and went along it, tracing the pattern with their footsteps. They walked in silence, but other friars were softly chanting plainsong from the choir stalls. It was early in the morning and the church was empty, save for the friars, weaving their silent patterns, moving past one another in the circle.

There were eleven circuits between the outside edge and the centre, but each was so folded into loops that the friars seemed to be thwarted in their goal the closer they got to it. Still, every few minutes one or two reached the centre, where they sank to their knees in heartfelt prayer for several moments before continuing on the path that led them to the edge again and back into the world.

Brother Sulien was the last to step on to the maze. It was his custom and his right as Senior Friar. Sulien walked the maze even more thoughtfully than usual and by the time he reached the centre he was the only one left. The other friars had gone about their business, some to feed the fish in the cloister pool, some to dig carrots and others to tend vines. Even the members of the choir had dispersed, and Brother Sulien was left alone in the uncertain dawn light of the church?s cool interior.

He knelt stiffly in the centre, on a circle surrounded by six lesser circles arranged like the petals of a flower. At the very heart was an inlaid figure that the friar?s robe concealed. Indeed, an early morning visitor to Saint-Mary-among-the-Vines would scarcely have been able to see Sulien either, his hood cast over his face, kneeling in stillness at the centre of the maze.

After a long meditation, Brother Sulien rose, said ?Amen? and started the slow return out of the maze to his daily life. So began every day for Sulien, but there was something different about this one. At the end of the ritual, he pulled a threadbare carpet over the pattern, as usual, but instead of walking back through the Great Cloister, to his work at the Farmacia, he sat in a pew, considering the future.

He thought about the threat to the city of Giglia; and how there was trouble brewing. The great di Chimici family, on whose wealth the city floated, was busier than usual. The Duke had announced the forthcoming weddings of several younger members of the family, including his three remaining sons, all to their cousins. And no one doubted that there was more to these marriages than love.

In was common knowledge that the Duke had organised a spreading network of spies throughout the city, led by a ruthless agent of his own known only as l?Anguilla, the Eel, because of his ability to get into and out of tight corners. The spies? purpose, both here and in other cities, was to sniff out all that could be known of a certain brotherhood or order of learned men and women — scientists, some people said, though others said magicians. Brother Sulien shifted on the hard wooden pew at the thought of this order, of which he was a member.

The di Chimici were resolutely opposed to the brotherhood and suspected that it was behind the resistance to their plans to expand their power throughout Talia. The Duke also believed that this brotherhood was responsible for the death of his youngest son, Prince Falco, less than a year ago. The young prince, horribly injured in a riding accident two years before, apparently committed suicide while staying at the di Chimici summer palace near Remora.

But everyone knew that the Duke believed it was murder — or perhaps something worse. Some said that the boy?s ghost walked abroad, others that he was not really dead at all. When the Duke returned from Remora with his son?s body, the whole city was shocked by the change in the Duke?s appearance: he had aged by years and now bore a head of white hair and his beard was silver.

The funeral of Prince Falco had been a mournful if splendid affair; the Duke had buried him in the chapel of his palazzo in the city?s centre and the great Giuditta Miele herself had carved his memorial statue. But Sulien knew that Giuditta?s next commission was to come from Bellezza, the independent city-state in the Eastern lagoon. Its ruling Duchessa, the lovely young Arianna Rossi, was rumoured to be coming to Giglia for the di Chimici weddings. Despite her city?s fierce resistance to all the di Chimici?s attempts to overcome its independence, she was surprisingly friendly with the Duke?s third son, Gaetano. He was one of the betrothed and so the Duchessa had accepted the invitation because of him.

Sulien was familiar with Bellezza, since he had only recently come from a religious house near the lagoon city to take over the friary at Saint-Mary-among-the-Vines. He saw the danger to the young Duchessa. The city of Giglia would be fuller than usual of strangers and visitors during the period of the weddings and it would be hard to afford the Duchessa the protection she needed. Indeed, he was a little surprised that her father and Regent, Senator Rodolfo, had agreed to it.

Now he gathered up the skirts of his robe and strode off to the Farmacia, as if he had come to a decision. He walked through the tranquil Lesser Cloister, with its series of chapels, and on to the Great Cloister, where a door opened into the first room, his laboratory.

As always as he climbed the two stone steps into his domain, Brother Sulien breathed its fragrant air with relief and joy. Things in the city might change but here, in the Saint-Mary-among-the-Vines, certain things remained the same — the maze, which always brought calm, and the perfumes and medicines distilled here in the Farmacia now newly under his guardianship.

He passed through the laboratory, where two young apprentices, in the robes of novices, were bent over the distillery equipment. After the briefest of greetings, he took himself into his inner, private room, hardly more than a cell, and sat at his desk. He was writing a list of recipes for all the perfumes, creams, lotions and medicines made here in the monastery?s church. Not forgetting its famous liqueur and the secret of making drinkable silver.

Now he pushed the parchment to one side and sat gazing at a small blue glass bottle with a silver stopper which he had taken from a shelf. Beside it he placed a silver cross, which he usually kept locked in a carved wooden box. He looked at the two for a long time. Then, ?It is time,? he said. ?I shall go there tonight.?