Another quick update, yay! Although I'm back at college tomorrow so things might get a bit slower then. Unfortunately, I've chosen a month before my exams to finally get my arse in gear with this so I can't promise that there won't be another big delay. However, I'll keep it up for as long as I can and once I get my mega summer holiday I'll be writing a lot more.

Also, I apologise that the story isn't moving fast. I haven't used fanfiction net before so I don't know what people'll be expecting. Basically, I have a very detailed plan that covers about three months in Talia. So I'm aiming for producing something book-length even if not book-quality - that's why we're still in an introductory place.

Finally, I've read but don't own the last two books and I'd appreciate someone clarifying something for me: is there any mention of Francesca being pregnant at all? It's not important plotwise but I like to get the details right. Thanks.

Getting out of the palazzo had been easier than usual. Everyone was so preoccupied down in the courtyard and outside in the Piazza del Elezione that they paid no attention to one more scurrying figure in an old dress. Even if they had, they would have needed to peer hard to make out an identity under her headscarf. And then Doriano had conveniently made an appearance on the balcony and distracted everyone, though the sight of him had made Vittoria panic a bit. But, she thought as she calmed herself, he couldn't possibly have recognised her from up there.

And now she was by the harbour, which was often her first place of call when she got out on her own. Maybe it was the energy of the place, or perhaps the fond memories of watching the ships come and go with her father, but Vittoria retained a soft spot for Cittanuova's harbour. Today, however, she wasn't looking at the ships. Today, she was staring at a strange girl.

She really was very strange. Her clothes – well, her they must be her underclothes – were odd, even if you ignored the fact that she was roaming the street in her undergarments in the first place. She wandered over the road, not paying enough attention to the traffic and then jumping several times as carts swerved to avoid her. One of the drivers swore loudly at a near miss, but it didn't seem to bother the girl. She was in a world of her own. And then she looked up at Vittoria, right into her eyes.

All she could do was look back guiltily, because she didn't see strangeness there. She saw a trace of bemusement, a touch of confusion, but, beneath that, a penetrating sharpness that told her this was no lunatic. The girl was still staring at her, so she smiled and beckoned her over, side-stepping into a gap between two buildings. To Vittoria's satisfaction, the girl came towards her, even managing to avoid the carts on the way over. "Good morning," she said with false brightness, wondering what on earth she was doing.

"Good morning," said the girl uncertainly, "are you going to tell me where I am?"

It was the most bizarre question she'd ever heard. The girl's lips curved into a kind of half smile as she said it, as though she were repressing some private joke. "We're by the harbour," Vittoria said softly, as she might have spoken to a child had she known any. "Do you see the ships?" She moved to the side slightly, blocking the girl from the suspicious gaze of the street.

If she didn't know better, she could have sworn that the girl rolled her eyes. "Yes, I see the ships."

Feeling like a patronising idiot, Vittoria tried another question. "What's your name?"

"Helen," said the girl.

"Elena," repeated Vittoria. "Well, Elena, do you know where you're going?"

Elena shook her head. "I was just going to have a look around." She paused for a second. "I don't suppose you could tell me what year this is?"

Vittoria's list of 'strangest questions she'd ever heard' was growing by the minute. "Fifteen eighty," she replied, and thought she saw a flash of satisfaction in the other girl's eye. "What year did you think it was?" she asked, curiosity getting the better of her more gentle approach.

"Oh, I thought somewhere between the fourteen and sixteen hundreds," she said triumphantly, then frowned. "I'm sorry, I didn't ask your name. Dreaming-me must not be as polite as conscious-me."

"It's Ofelia," she lied, "and did you just say 'dreaming'?"

"Like in Shakespeare?"

"Pardon?"

"Ophelia. Oh, never mind," she said, and then, "Yes, dreaming. Though I've got to admit, I've never felt more awake."

Vittoria tried to run a hand through her hair, but realised she still had the headscarf on. She tugged at that anxiously instead. Fourteen and sixteen hundreds? Shakespeare? Dreaming? There was something more than strange about Elena, and she had no idea what to make of her. She wondered if it had been a good idea to take her into the mouth of the alley and out of the sight of the rest of the street. Then again, she really did not seem like a dangerous lunatic. Vittoria decided to tackle what appeared to be the most prominent problem first. "You're awake," she said, "and this place is real, I live here. You're real too – look." She grabbed the girl's hand and dug her nails in. The skin underneath went white and, when Elena snatched it away, she had two small crescents marked on her palm.

"Ow!"

"See?" she said triumphantly, "Real."

Elena, however, shook her head. "That only works in movies. I've had dreams recently where someone was there... and they couldn't be there. So I knew I had to be dreaming but I gave myself a good pinch and I still thought I felt it at the time." Her face fell and she went quiet, as though a dark thought had passed suddenly by.

Vittoria didn't know what to say, so she asked, "What's a movie?"

"Oh god. Never mind." She rubbed her hand. "Besides, there was no need for that. My knee hurts anyway, I just fell on it."

"Sorry," said Vittoria, at a loss for how to prove Elena's reality to her. Not that she seemed unhappy with her self-proclaimed dream state. "Well whether I'm a figment of your imagination or not," she said, "you still ought to put some clothes on. I can't stand here hiding you all day."

"Is that what you're doing?" Elena asked and, when Vittoria nodded, she peered out from behind her human shield to take another look at the street. Where they were standing was discreet and out of the way but, once they left it, Elena was certain to start attracting attention again. "Where can we get me something to wear?" she asked.

Vittoria pointed down the road to their left. "A few streets down they sell cloths and clothes," she said, "but I'm afraid I don't have any money on me." She had a feeling that she technically had an allowance of some kind, but it never reached her pockets – at least not in the form of something spendable. Things were bought for Vittoria, and a great many things at that, but she had no money of her own. Duke Alvise would never give his ward any silver coins, lest she do something imprudent with them. Like, for instance, running around the city alone and buying dresses for confused, half-naked young women.

"I don't have any money either," said Elena, "I'm sorry, but I don't have anything." For the first time, Vittoria thought she detected a trace of stress in the girl's voice.

"That's okay," she said, "I'll sort something out, just come with me." She'd have to try bargaining with someone. If worst came to worst, she could always try to bring Elena back to the palazzo, risky though that would be. She was not planning to divulge her living situation any time soon. It didn't do to promote that kind of thing when you were alone in the city, which was why quite a lot of commoners in the lower town were under the impression they had once met a well-spoken, mysterious young girl called Ofelia.

Elena didn't argue and followed her out of the shade and into the street. Vittoria turned to smile reassuringly at her, but instead her eyes widened and she inhaled sharply. Elena looked back at her in alarm. "What?" she asked worriedly.

"You have no shadow," Vittoria replied with wonder, staring at the sunny stone cobbles by Elena's feet. All of a sudden, it was an incredible day. All of a sudden, she wasn't bewildered any more. Excitement flooded through her.

"Oh." Said Elena simply, unconcerned. After all, to her mind, this was all a dream."What do you think that means?" she asked as she stared at the ground and pivoted, apparently appreciating her shadowlessness to the full.

"I think it means," said Vittoria, slowly and gleefully, "that you are a Stravagante."

This did not have the impact that she had hoped for. Elena just looked more confused. "What?" she asked again.

She pulled her closer and glanced warily around them. "They're time travellers. Magicians. Scientists," she whispered proudly.

"And it's a good thing?" Elena asked, apparently noticing the change in Vittoria's mood.

"Oh yes." Vittoria replied, taking both of Elena's hands in her own. "My father was one."