Helen Morning, a twenty-first century London teenager and history enthusiast, is grieving for her best friend who has recently died an unexpected death. Late one night, she goes to bed and finds herself waking up in the sixteenth century in Cittanuova, the Talian City of Fire, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Naples in our world. The city, southernmost of the twelve Talian city states, is ruled by the only family worse than the di Chimici – the Niandoris; namely, the elected but wildly corrupt, Duke Alvise Niandori. Helen is soon caught up in deadly political intrigue as her life becomes entwined with those of the young Prince Doriano and his father's ward, Vittoria, who is linked inextricably to the Stravaganti. Torn between her lonely, mundane London life and the adventure, friendship and love she finds in Talia, Helen has some important choices to make. And all the while, the great volcano is simmering treacherously on the horizon.
Links to the books: This story takes place a short while after the events of the latest book at the time of writing, City of Ships. Cittanuova is a long way from the other cities and I am going to create a lot of my own characters, but you can expect most of the others to appear at some point, and some to feature quite highly.
Historical note: I should point out now that I know very little about Naples, both in our time and in the sixteenth century, but I will do some research so as not to get it too badly wrong. Expect it to be largely inaccurate though. I have, however, been to Sorrento, which is a smaller city close to Naples, so at least I have visited the area. I'll probably add in a small historical note in each chapter to explain my most major deviations from actual history.
I'd like to clarify now that Naples was actually the Kingdom of Naples from the thirteenth to nineteenth century. I think the King of Naples when this was set (1580) was Philip I, and it was part of the Spanish Empire. Instead of that, I've gone with as much information on Cittanuova as I can get from Mary Hoffman's website (e.g. the duke of Naples=elected=Duke Alvise, Vesuvius=Ignis, Pompeii=Perseum). But I've basically made it all up. The basic setting I'll be using in Cittanuova is modelled on the Palazzo Real/Piazza del Plebiscito area, which wasn't actually built until a couple of centuries later; however, I think the 16th century buildings were kind of on the same site. Also, the volcano Vesuvius did not erupt between the eleventh and seventeenth centuries, and Pompeii was not discovered until the 1590s – but never mind that. It is an alternative world, and I shall be taking some artistic liberties.
Hope you enjoy!
Helen shut her book with the rest of the class as they dragged their bags from under the desks. She looked up at the classroom clock, which signalled that it was lunch time, and then at her watch, which also did. Of course. As she stood up Ms Tonder called out hopefully over the scuffling chairs, "For homework, read pages 31-35 of your textbook and make a table of the key points, please." Helen made an obliging mental note whilst already half-acknowledging that she would forget. Most of the class were already through the door and she joined them, glad to be outside and away from the empty chair.
She felt a yawn creep over her and tried to stifle it with her hand, not that anyone cared. One of the joys of being a teenager was everyone's dull acceptance of being constantly tired, though it wasn't something that Helen was used to. She didn't like going to bed these days. It brought thoughts into her mind that were never far away, had not been far away for several months now; thoughts about Amber Peters. Not that Helen was scared, she knew that what happened with Amber wouldn't happen with her, but it was hard to get her best friend out of her head when she turned off the light. Her late best friend. She was always late. Helen looked at her watch again. It was still lunch time. Of course.
She followed the others into the dinner hall and sat down five minutes later with some pizza and an apple, not feeling particularly hungry. She took a chair at a table with some of the girls who had also just come out of Ms Tonder's Geography class and politely listened to their conversation without much interest.
She had always got on reasonably well with the other students at Parkers Road Community College, but they had never been very close. Although she and Amber had hardly been outcasts and had attended a fair few social events, for the most part Helen and the others did not have anything that really interested them in common. She had only ever been close to Amber and that had been enough for her, but now, drifting impersonally into groups of classmates who accepted her quietly, she wasn't just alone. She was intolerably bored.
It was boring to feel so subdued. Helen and Amber had been loud together. Loud and bold and funny and clever and, she had a good idea, fairly annoying to boot. She still had doodles covering her pencil case, and none of them were hers. Drawing anything, even the silly faces that were - had been - Amber's doodling speciality, was a bit beyond Helen. She could do numbers, words and facts and she could do them very well indeed. Amber could too, of course, almost as well and always at the last possible moment. She could do art too, and drama and one day she was going to learn to play the guitar. Except that she wasn't, not any more.
"Party, Helen. Next Saturday, yes?" She jumped and looked round as the chair beside her was unexpectedly but decisively filled. The owner of the chair-occupying backside in question was a girl who had been to the same primary school as Helen and Amber. Zoë Tinsley was a small girl with exceptionally long eyelashes and very short hair, and someone who deserved better than to be referred to as a chair-occupying backside. Helen was very grateful for Zoë; she was genuinely likeable and fun and quite insistent that the dead girl's friend would not mope her last year of school away. There wasn't long left here now. After she had finished her A levels, most of the year group would head off to into jobs or universities and life, in a sense, could start over again. Parkers Road was small and empty and Helen was weary of it -sad, useless and sick of life but terrified, nonetheless, at its terminal transience, every time she lay down to sleep.
"Oh, erm," she brought her attention back to the group. They were used to her being distant, but not silent. She had never had it in her to be silent for long. Helen was well-known in the school for being quite a 'Lisa Simpson' when it came to the megaphone. She had an unusually developed political spirit for a seventeen-year-old and, with Amber's help, had started up an Amnesty International society at the school, as well as an environmental concern committee. Not that it was good for anything - Parkers Road Community College was unusually small for a London comprehensive. She was looking forward to voting for the first time in the next election though, and realised as she thought it that Amber never would. Disgusted by her pitiful thought-track, she answered Zoë .
"Yeah, sounds great. Where?"
"My place, seven o'clock," she smiled and leaned around Helen to tap her friend Samantha on the shoulder.
The rest of lunch dragged on slowly with some mundane conversation about a television show she had heard of but never watched.
It started raining halfway through fourth lesson which made the trigonometry practice feel even more monotonous and droned on all through German so loudly that they could barely hear the tape. When she finally got home at about four o'clock she was soaked through, despite having used her little blue umbrella that fitted so neatly into her school bag. It had white and grey stars decorating the surface, but from a distance just looked speckled. She tried not to remember who had bought it for her. Leaving the speckled umbrella on the radiator, she dripped quietly into the living room and found her dad and sister playing a game of snap with her old deck of cards. He had taken the day off work to look after Kate, who had remained at home complaining of a cold, although in fairness to the seven year-old she had not complained much. Sometimes Helen thought that her little sister was tougher than she was. She joined in for a couple of hands and then spent the next couple of hours reading a book by the same author who had written the set text for her English coursework. Victorian authors were all pretty much as miserable as each other, in her opinion, though, Thomas Hardy would come out top in that respect.
They ate earlier than usual, as soon as the girls' mother Felicity was home from the office, so that Kate could go to bed.
"Is your book any good?" Felicity asked her over pasta and garlic bread and Helen replied wearily, "They all die." Her parents exchanged anxious looks and suddenly it seemed like a stupid thing to have said. It was just a dark and dull read, was all she had been trying to say.
She spent the rest of the evening mindlessly surfing the internet, and ended up on Wikipedia as she so often did. But the little clock in the corner of the screen was winking accusingly at her, and so at last she swivelled out off her computer chair, yawning and ordering the last page to print. She stumbled into the bathroom with worn-out eyes. She really had to stop staying up this late on a school night. It wasn't affecting her grades yet, but there was something demoralizing about waking up not just sleepy but tired. Tonight she had been reading about the early life of Henry VIII's second wife. History was her intense interest, politics seeming more of a duty to her mind, though she wasn't actually sure why she liked it so much. She had a very modern outlook on life, but she did have a kind of fascination with the way the world had once been and the people who had lived there then.
She brushed her teeth and applied about three different face washes to her skin, hazel eyes blinking back at her. That was when she remembered that she had not even started Ms Tonder's geography homework, but never mind that now. She dragged a comb through her long, black hair, which immediately lost some of its curl and became thicker and a little frizzier. No matter, as she was just going to bed. Knowing that the rest of her family were already asleep, she tiptoed out of the bathroom and pushed open her bedroom door quietly. The door had a key ring blue tacked onto it.
"Name: Helen," it said, "Gender: female. Origin: Greek. Meaning: ray of light." Followed by some vague, complimentary description about girls named Helen that no-one would disagree with about themselves. It was all rubbish really, it was only on her door because it had always been there, ever since she was ten and Amber had brought it back from York for her. The only bit that really interested her was the 'origin'. 'Greek' it said, and she knew who it was referring to. Helen of Troy, that was the original Helen. The first of note, at least, and it wasn't a person she would have elected as her own namesake. The woman whose fickle vanity had led to the deaths of hundreds in the Trojan wars; the face that sailed a thousand ships, she'd heard. That beautiful, bloodstained bride. It was probably unfair, and most probably very untrue. As a woman she should think better of Helen, since some accounts claimed she had been kidnapped anyhow.
A thousand ships. She took a quick glance in the mirror as she pulled the duvet back from her bed. She had pretty eyes, prominent cheekbones and a strong jaw. When framed by her, sometimes tamed, mass of dark hair she looked quite striking if not classically beautiful, but it satisfied her and her teenage vanity. She could get away with one or two ships at least.
She sighed and lay back in bed, her thoughts turning automatically to Amber, who had done the same one month ago, for the very last time. The seventeenth of September, then. A couple of tears leaked from her scrunched up eyes and she turned over in frustration. She opened the draw of her bedside table and brought out her last present to her best friend. It was a very small music box that sat comfortably in her palm.
In the summer, Helen and her family had visited Naples and she had bought a similar box as a gift for Amber, with an inlaid wooden pattern on the lid. The box she was holding now, however, was from a second-hand shop back home. The original had been lost somewhere between the market and the girls' hotel room in Naples and so a disappointed Helen had gone to visit her friend gift-less, until she passed by a shop window and saw a little music box that was almost identical. She bought it at once, arrived at Amber's and explained the situation to her bemused friend who nonetheless admired the present.
But now it was Helen's again. It had been returned to her by Amber's grief stricken parents in a box of things they thought she 'might like to have', which had included notebooks they had scribbled in, toys they had played with as children and a variety of photographs that showed children of five sitting on swings in a play park, right up to sixteen year olds with fake moustaches drawn on their faces with felt tip pens. They had been sponsored to speak French for a day at school.
She turned the key at the back of the box and it started to play its tune. Even that sounded the same as the first box. As it twinkled on, Helen felt her eyes closing on memories of the bay at Naples; a recent but happier time.
The next thing she knew, she was sitting up on a cobbled stone floor in the light autumn sunshine. She looked around wildly; she appeared to be in a very small alleyway. Confused, she stood up and ran a hand along the rough stone wall, realising as she did so that she was still holding the little music box. She gripped it more tightly. The sound of passers-by reached her ears and she followed it into a wider and busy street, where people dressed like Shakespearean actors bustled by, talking loudly and carrying bundles and baskets. What a strange dream, Helen told herself, she really must stop web browsing this late into the night.
A horse and carriage trundled passed, revealing behind it the view of a harbour just a few metres away, where one or two ships came and went through a small forest of white sails and, towering behind them, was a sight she recognised: the brooding hulk of Mount Vesuvius dominated the skyline.
"I've really done it this time," she muttered to herself.
I'm new here, by the way, not sure how long you're used to waiting for next chapters but I'll do my best! Feedback would be really appreciated.