Of all the quaint traditions of the southern lands, perhaps the sweet-est is to be found in the city-state of Cassaforte, where nightly its horns are sounded in a tradition that has been unbroken for centuries.
—Celestine du Barbaray, Traditions & Vagaries of the Azure Coast: A Guide for the Hardy Traveler
If someone could peer into her soul that night—her last at Caza Divetri—might they see how hotly it, too, burned?
In the twilight, the limestone balcony rail felt warm and comfortable where she sat. Just below her stretched the upper branches of a gnarled old olive tree. If Risa dangled her legs, she could tickle the soles of her feet with its leaves. Far below, the tree’s roots twisted among the rocks of the slope that dropped down to the canal, where a gondolier sang a slow, sweet tune as he punted by. Beyond the lone fig-ure lay the Piazza Divetri, and then the cream-colored build-ings of Cassaforte.
Standing beside her, leaning on the rail, Risa’s father caught the gondolier’s tune and hummed it to himself while he watched the city. Her mother, deep in concentration, sat nearby, on a bench erected upon the red and black tiles. Giu-lia Divetri always seemed to be smiling. Her long, dark hair, tamed by a silk cord woven through and around its length, fell like rope over her shoulder and down the front of her embroidered gown. In her hands she held her sketching board and a length of red chalk. Her fingers busily danced across the paper.
“Buonochio blood,” said Risa’s father, nodding at her mother’s drawing. He gave Risa a private wink. “Fiery and artistic!”
“You married me for my bold blood, Ero,” replied her mother, amused. She continued her sketching, capturing an image she later would render in one of her famed windows. “Would that I had more of it. See—I never capture the pal-ace dome quite right.” She held out the sketch board. Her perfectly placed lines outlined the rounded roof of the pal-ace’s throne room. A few more caught the two moons hover-ing above it, nestled squarely within two identical constella-tions.
“You have enough talent and fire for the both of us, love,” he murmured. “I recognized it the first day I saw you—when you leaned from that window and called to me!”
“I felt bold that day.”
“You were enchanting, my dear.”
“I knew a good man when I saw one.” Risa’s mother’s lips curved in recollection as she returned to her drawing. “Even if he did just happen to be a stranger passing on the street.” The familiar story made Risa smile; she was happy to hear it one last time.
No matter what hour of day or season, a hush always seemed to fall over the city as the time of the rite approached. Some nights, she swore she could see the king’s hornsman taking his place atop the palace dome, but her father said she was imagining things; although the dome was the city’s high-est point, the palace was simply too far away for her to spy such details.
“Risa?” As the streets quieted in anticipation, her father extended his hand. “Would you?”
Her face lit up at the invitation, though she couldn’t trust herself to say anything. Not yet—not when she was try-ing to make her memory of this last evening perfect. Experi-ence had proved, time and again, that opening her mouth only ruined things.
The dry heat of the tiles that seared her bare feet seemed to warm her heart as well. She loved this still and expectant moment of the day more than any other. Beside her, Ero was loosening the ties that held the Cassaforte banner aloft. He handed her the taut ropes, and together they lowered the rip-pling streamer to the ground, keeping pace in the nightly rite with Caza Portello to the east and Caza Catarre to the west. Once it was in her hands, Risa folded the rich purple and brown silk into its box. With respect, she knelt and slid the banner into its space beneath the pedestal, within which lay the Divetri horn.
It was her final night, she told herself with excitement. It was the last time she would help her father with the daily rite of fealty. Where there could have been sadness, she felt only joy. It frolicked inside her like one of the sacred deer in the royal forest, making her want to leap up and sing out. Tomorrow evening she would have a new home and be hear-ing the horns from far across the city.
She would no longer be merely Ero and Giulia’s child once she was declared a daughter of the moons. She would not be a child at all, once she was accepted at one of the insulas and started to learn things. Important things. She would finally be living her life, like her older brother and sisters, instead of merely waiting for it to begin.
Scarcely had she climbed to her feet when a blow from behind sent her reeling. She staggered into her father, dimly aware of the giggles echoing from across the courtyard. “Petro!” she shrieked at the top of her voice. “You maniac!”
Wild and sudden excitement propelled her back to her feet. With a scream of laughter she took off, bounding after her younger brother in crazy circles around the upper court-yard. She only had this one final night to play with him, she reminded herself. It might be her last chance. “Touch me again and I’ll strip you bare and throw you to the canal buzzards and let them shred you to the bones!” Her brother yelped in mock terror.
Giulia laughed. “She takes after you, dear. A Divetri with a mission is fearful to behold.”
With a wink at his wife, Ero proclaimed, “And thus our little lady transforms back into the lionkit we know and love so well.”
Her father had called her a lionkit so often that Risa wore the title as a badge of pride. People often commented on the similarities between Ero and his daughter. Her long chestnut hair, like his, seemed almost copper-colored in the sunlight. And while Giulia communicated her anger quietly, with flashing eyes and a dangerous tone to her voice, both father and daughter were known to shout their passions to the skies.
“Come back here, slimy wart!” she yelled after Petro.
“Never!” he caroled with defiance.
Around the balcony courtyard they chased each other. Petro dove headlong into Mattio, the chief craftsman of Ero’s workshop, just as the man was emerging into the cool eve-ning air. “By Muro’s foal!” Mattio exclaimed, laughing in sur-prise.
“Sorry,” Risa huffed as she dodged around the large-framed foreman to snatch at her brother. Petro dashed behind the skirts of their housekeeper, Fita, but the old woman was too busy to notice, quietly scolding one of the maids for wearing a dirty apron to the rite.
“Ah-ah-ah. Gently, gently,” chided a middle-aged man behind Mattio. His nose was crooked from an old break. “This is a solemn part of the day.” Cousin Fredo’s expression was, as ever, pious and weary of their behavior.
“Indeed it is,” agreed the housekeeper. She turned to the red-faced maid. “Go change into something clean immedi-ately.”
“Sorry, cousin,” called Petro, slowing down. “I’m sorry, Fita.”
“A-ha!” Risa cried in triumph. She seized him by the col-lar. Petro’s yap of protest was cut short as she dragged him backward. “I’ve got you now, you little bloody scab on a beg-gar’s behind!”
“Cazarrina,” begged Cousin Fredo with deep dismay, addressing Risa by her formal title. His hand shot toward her shoulder, but she managed to wriggle from his grasp before he could give her one of his vicious pinches. “Cazar-rina! Please! My nerves … !” He reached into the pocket of his surcoat to retrieve his little silver box of tabbaco da fiuto, with which he soothed himself. It was because of this creamy paste that their cousin’s approach was always preceded by the disagreeable scent of tobacco leaves, cloves, and pungent pine oil.
“My dears,” said Giulia from her bench, “it is nearly time. Grant your cousin’s nerves a small period of rest. You may yell yourselves hoarse later.”
Brother and sister exchanged glances. Cousin Fredo’s nerves were his favorite topic of conversation. Smothering their amusement, they turned their gazes to the ground in an attempt to appear solemn. “We’re sorry, cousin,” they intoned. Fredo nodded stiffly and, using the tip of his little finger, dabbed tabbaco da fiuto onto his gums in the hollows over his two canine teeth. Seeming refreshed, he straightened his broad collar as they darted past him to the far end of the balcony.
“You’ve got something in your hand,” said Risa, still gig-gling at Fredo’s pomposity.
“Give it to me.”
“You mean this?” Petro produced a ball of stitched and stuffed pigskin from his pocket. “Catch!” he yelled. He had obviously intended to throw it at his sister, but when Risa grabbed him by the collar and spun him around, the ball arced high into the air and landed with a sickening thud against a casement of leaded glass. Giulia frowned, but the enchantments had held, leaving the glass unbroken. Any other window would have shattered from such impact, but thanks to the blessings fortifying their structure, Divetri-made glass could withstand even the fiercest storms from the Azure Sea.
“Not that,” Risa said in a lower voice, while she tried to grab for the left fist Petro had kept clenched the entire time. “Your other hand.”
“It’s a letter,” taunted Petro. “A private letter for you … from you know who.”
“You know,” said Petro. With meaning he looked over at the craftsmen gathering near the doorway. She followed the direction of his glance. Emil, the youngest of the men in her father’s workshop, stood behind Mattio and Fredo, his nose deep in a book. “He loooooves you. He wants to pay court to you.”
Risa stiffened, torn between screeching with horror and laughing outright. “He does not!” she finally hissed. Emil was fine enough as the craftsmen went, but the loves of his life were sewn into folios and bound with leather.
“Pardon me.” Petro pitched his voice up a half octave and pretended to toss imaginary hair over his shoulder. “I am Risa Divetri, Cazarrina. When I marry, my husband must be a man of the Thirty and Seven.”
“I am not like that!” With a deft snatch, Risa seized the folded paper that was clutched in her younger brother’s palm. “Hah!” she exulted, unfolding it. Though her brother had attempted to disguise his handwriting with the fancy script of his elders, his authorship was painfully obvious from the blots and the bits of quill feather stuck to the ink.
Risa let her eyes run over the letter. To anyone other than herself or her brother, the message might seem innocuous enough, but with Petro, she knew better. She scanned the note quickly for its buried message. Then, with a squawk of outrage and no courtesy for Cousin Fredo’s nerves what-soever, she yelled, “Duck nose? You’re calling me a duck nose, you little whelp?”
Petro was giddy with glee. Before Risa could strangle him again, he dashed off in the direction of his parents, gain-ing enough of a head start to turn a triumphant cartwheel.
“Someone is going to have a broken nose!” Risa shouted. She was not really angry at all, of course. She just enjoyed the noise of the roar as it flew from her lungs. Admittedly, there was also a particular joy in the sight of Fredo instantly clapping his hands over his ears.
“Gently, gently,” he pleaded as she passed. “My nerves … Cazarra, please,” he added, appealing to Giulia.
“Risa, what is this silliness?” her mother said as she approached. She held out her hand for the crumpled paper, then smoothed it out on her sketch board while restraining Risa’s arm. “Your cousin is a sensitive man …” Privately, Risa knew her mother no more believed in Fredo’s nerves than did anyone else in the caza. Giulia was always polite to Fredo, however, even in the most trying of circumstances.
“That brat who is allegedly your son called me a duck nose,” Risa said, pointing to the letter.
“This note seems quite complimentary, though the script could stand improvement,” said Giulia. “Where does it call you a duck nose?”
Risa ran her finger along the right side of the paper, pointing at the last letter on each line.
d u c k n o s e
“It’s our secret code,” she said. “See?”
Her mother raised an eyebrow. Risa could tell she was trying not to laugh, which would give Fredo reason to com-plain. Though he could not overhear them at this distance, he was studying them closely. “Very clever,” said Giulia at last. “Quite ingenious. Aren’t you a mite old for this foolery, however?” Risa bowed her head slightly. She had intended to keep this evening perfect, after all. “As a courtesy to your father’s cousin and his … nerves, if you could restrain from murdering your brother until after the rite, I would take it as a personal favor.” She folded the note and slipped it under her drawing, where neither of her children would be tempted to filch it.
A horn’s rich cry resonated from the palace. It seemed to shimmer through the air as it drowned out Cassaforte’s last few evening noises. The clop-clop of donkey hooves on the pavement, the cries of the gondoliers on the canals, and the friendly babble of the crowds all ceased at its musical tone. Risa’s playfulness halted as well.
The rite of fealty had been set into motion; it was time once more to think of herself as a sober young citizen, not a child.
Each of the cazas belonging to Cassaforte’s seven great families had been built upon islands around the city’s coast, Risa knew. The complex of bridges and canals that united them to the mainland, however, made it difficult to tell where the seven cazas began and the capital city left off. The cazas were separate from Cassaforte, yet of it, all at once.
From the farthest caza east, well beyond sight, came the silvery answering cry of the oldest family of the Seven. “Sweet Caza Cassamagi,” breathed Risa, enchanted by the sound, as she was every night. Instinctively she reached for her younger brother’s hand. If it was the two gods’ will to separate her from Petro during the ceremony the next day, it might be the last evening they spent together for years to come.
Caza Portello, just east of their own island, was the sec-ond oldest caza in all of Cassaforte. As the call of Cassama-gi’s horn swept across the darkening sky, Portello’s red and white silks climbed the flagpole. Cassamagi was known for its research into the discipline of enchantments; Portello was known far and wide for its architecture. Its walls rose high and proud, and its enchantment-strengthened bridges and spires rivaled Cassaforte’s royal palace in grace and delicacy. When its colors reached the top of the pole, an answering cry, from its tenor horn, poured from Portello’s heights.
At the cue, Ero began pulling the rope that would take Divetri’s blue and green banner into the skies. He grinned, as he always did, to see the family’s colors flying against the deepening twilight and to hear the silks snapping crisply in the sea breezes. Then, with two strides of his muscular legs, he crossed to the pedestal. He removed the large domed lid, green-blue with patina, and placed it on the ground. A brass horn lay atop the purple cushion within. Like a hunting horn, its tube was coiled upon itself until, after three turns, it flared into a bell.
Ero grasped the instrument and pointed it up to the heav-ens. He faced toward King
Alessandro’s palace. Risa watched with admiration as he took in a massive breath. Chest enlarged and feet braced, Ero blew into the Divetri horn.
Though she had heard the same velvet peal every eve-ning of her life, its beauty and force always astonished her. As the single note grew in volume, it seemed to cast out a cord, invisible yet sparkling, that tied together Caza Divetri’s inhabitants.
It tightened around them all, then flew out in the direction of the palace itself, over the city and its build-ings. To Risa it was almost a tangible sensation, that cord. She wondered for the first time if anyone else ever felt it. The others, however, seemed merely attentive, not enchanted. Why was it so vivid for her?
The velvety sound faded, though everyone remained still for another moment. The ancient rite of fealty had been completed. For another night, as it had for centuries, Caza Divetri would stand.
They listened for horns to sound from Catarre and Buonochio, book makers and artists, then from Piratimare and Dioro, ship builders and crafters of weapons. Seven cazas, united through this nightly rite with the country’s most sacred relics and the symbols of the king—the Olive Crown and Scepter of Thorn.
After the cazas’ loyalty had been proclaimed for all the city to hear, the palace hornsman played one last, long note. It lingered, then vanished into the sunset.
As the moment dissipated, everyone perceptibly relaxed. The craftsmen began to file out. The last to leave, of course, was Cousin Fredo, who lingered over his prayers to the god Muro and Muro’s sister, the goddess Lena. Neither of the two moons adorning the night sky seemed to notice his muttered entreaties.
“My youngest have grown up too swiftly,” she sighed. Risa disagreed. She was not being allowed to grow up quickly enough.
“I’m not grown up,” Petro asserted. “I’m only eleven. Next year, though!”
Ero laughed. “You’re old enough, my boy. Old enough. Did you enjoy your last evening? Yes?”
“Papa.” Petro suddenly sounded frightened. He was still so young, thought Risa.
Perhaps he was only now realizing that tomorrow he would be taken from the caza to live with the Penitents or with the Children, depending upon whose blessing he received. “What would happen if you fell ill after tomorrow? Who would blow our horn at sunset?”
From behind, Risa pounced on him and tickled him lightly. Petro squealed. The solemnity of the rite had faded, and she once more felt playful. “No one!” she growled. “No one would blow the horn or raise the banners, and then demons would devour the caza and it would no longer be ours!”
As she and her brother laughed, her father shook his head. His curls glinted in the dancing light of the raised bra-zier, whose flames illuminated the family’s banner every night. “That won’t happen, Petro. You know very well that Romeldo would come from the insula to take over my duties until I felt better. He’s the oldest, and heir to the caza. Remember how I had the sun sickness once when you were younger? He came then.”
“And what if Romeldo is sick?”
“Are you worried that we’ll fall to pieces when you leave tomorrow?”
Petro hesitated. “No. Well, maybe.”
“When you are big enough,” said Ero affectionately, kneeling down and grabbing his son’s nose with his fingers, “you may perform the rite and keep us all safe in our caza.”
“I’m older than Petro!” Risa protested, not for the first time. “I could perform the rite!”
Without even looking at his wife, Ero replied just as Risa knew he would. “The protection of a caza is not the respon-sibility of women.”
“Now, Ero,” said Giulia, her gentle voice a contrast to his stubborn tones. It was an old argument between them. “You well know my good kinswoman Dana raises the flags as cazarra of Buonochio. Buonochio’s cazarra has always done so, since the house’s founding. In the past, Cassamagi …”
Ero raised a hand. “In Caza Divetri, the rite of fealty is the cazarro’s responsibility. It has always been so, and will always be.” He got to his feet and winked once more at his daughter. “Women are good for other things, eh? Bewitching men’s hearts, primarily. You’ll learn.”
He grinned broadly at his wife, who shook her head while returning the smile. “By Lena, you are an old-fashioned bull,” was her only retort. Still talking, they moved toward the door that led down into the residence.
Risa stared after them, defiance dancing in her heart. “I am good for many more things than bewitching men’s hearts,” she said, voicing the opinion she dared not utter in front of her father. “After tomorrow I’ll prove it.”
“I don’t think you could bewitch a toad, with your duck nose!” Petro cried gleefully. Before she could catch him, he dashed away after their parents, laughing at the top of his lungs.