[continuing yesterday’s extract from my historical romance The Tiger and the Cauldron]
“So soon, Hassan?”
Hassan faced his mother across the room. Her eyes were pleading. He felt his small sister tugging at his tunic, trying to lead him off for yet another game in the garden. Her brother too had transferred his allegiance and was being dandled on Giovanni’s knee.
He was torn in two. Here in Italy were all the people he truly loved in the world, and he meant to leave them to risk his life on an adventure among people he now scarcely knew. And he did not even understand why. He might never return to Venice, might never see little Yasmina or Nico again, might never again feel the warmth of his mother’s smile or the sensitive touch of her hand on his cheek. As for Giovanni, who for four years had been his protector, his mentor and friend, and the father he had always wanted, Hassan could scarcely bear to contemplate a life from which he was absent. Yet he seemed to be drawn by invisible chains more powerful than the combined power of the love he was leaving behind.
‘If I don’t go now, I may have to wait four months for another ship.’ The tugging of his tunic became more insistent and he looked down. The child’s eyes were deep brown and they fastened on him, wide and innocent.
‘Are you going ‘way, ‘Sano?’
‘Only for a little while, Yasmina cara,’ Hassan replied. He did not know when, or if, he would return to Venice, but he knew no words to express such an uncertainty to an adoring sister. ‘And when I come back I shall bring you a grand present – perhaps some sweetmeats, or a yashmak of the finest silk so you can become a Persian princess.’
The boy took this as a signal to slide from Giovanni’s lap. He began bouncing up and down in excitement.
‘Me, ‘Sano. Me too!’
‘Of course, Nico. You shall have a little wooden sword, and become conqueror of the world.’ Hassan picked the infant up, held him close and nuzzled his hair. He could feel the rapid, steady beat of his brother’s heart against his chest. For a moment his own seemed to have stopped. His eyes were still on his mother’s face.
‘What is four months?’ Nadia was saying. ‘What are twelve? You are young, just fifteen. Wait at least until Umid returns to Venice.’
‘He promised to bring us news within two years,’ added Giovanni. ‘There’s bound to be a Turkish merchantman docking at the Arsenal before summer is in.’
‘My mind is made up,’ Hassan said. ‘I pray you do not make the parting more difficult.’
‘What else is a mother to do?’ Nadia was fighting back her tears. ‘But if you will not listen to me, or to Giovanni, think of the little ones. See how little Nico clings to your neck and Yasmina clutches your tunic. Are you to deny them the love and companionship of an elder brother?’
‘To leave them will be an agony, because I love them. But you will not dissuade me, mother. And have I not promised to come back to them?’ Hassan tried to remain light-hearted and convincing but there was a lump in his throat.
‘Then, Hassan …’
‘Take a mother’s love with you and …’ She was stumbling over the words, trying to stifle her anguish, to hide her misgivings. ‘Promise … promise me … you will take great care.’
‘And will you also promise me something, Assano di Montecervino?’ said Giovanni. ‘I’m proud to give you that name, and I beg you be proud to bear it. But once in Persia beware how you use it. There may be some who remember!’
Nadia sat alone on the terrace. Grey clouds had settled over the distant hills, obscuring the setting sun. Their undersides were tinged with red. For the time of year it was unusually cool, and Nadia had wrapped a heavy shawl round her brocaded gown. Since Hassan’s departure for Venice, she had been haunted by the memory of her vision and, indeed, scenes from the banks of the wide river had twice flashed before her eyes. In the first, the tiger had leapt across the current and stood between the cauldron and the shadowy figure in grey. In the second, tiger and human figure were fused together in a chimera that was at once both and neither.
As she sat watching evening fall over the estate, other memories from long ago crowded into Nadia’s mind. She turned away from the setting sun and lifted her eyes instead towards the darkening skies of the Orient.
Too late, Nadia knew the identity of the tiger. The wheel of destiny had already been spun and she was helpless to check it.
‘He has gone!’ She spoke aloud into the dusk. ‘He has gone, and I have not told him.’