Illusions of Grandeur: Part One
I find myself recalling the days you spent at home more and more often these days. Your sister asks of you often, and I have naught of you to say to her. Even your father’s ghost wishes to see you once more. Please, my son, return home, even if only for a short time. I need you.
All my Love,
I read the letter twice. The first time, my heart caught up in my throat. The second, it sank to my stomach.
I looked up. “Siobhan, is there any reason you can think of for a ghost to appear after about twenty years?”
“What?” The brown Ruki turned from his own letters – likely from gypsy friends – with a frown. “Explain.”
“Mother says Father’s ghost is asking after me.” I folded the letter carefully before replacing it in the envelope. “Seeing as I lived there for years after we buried him and he never appeared, I have my suspicions.”
“Do you want to deal with nobles or not, Siobhan?” I sighed, running a hand through my thinning dust-brown hair. “I don’t like this, and I don’t want to drag you into this. Just because, well...” I smiled a little. “Gypsy.”
“That’s just your mother.” But he bowed slightly, conceding the point, and looked at me soberly. “Be careful, Gianni. When was the last time you tried dealing with something on your own?”
“Where I tried, or where I ended up doing so?” I thought back, frowning slightly. “The Neovia incident, I think, when I bound that ghost to your sunburst.”
Siobhan stepped forward and placed a hand on my arm. “Gianni.”
“I grew up with them.” I laid my hand on his and smiled. “I’ll come back.”
He smiled back, making his normally dour face shine. “I never doubted that.”
I squeezed his hand and rose to pack clothes and books into one of the utilitarian travel cases almost all Academy mages had. Mine was patched and scraped, but it hadn’t fallen apart yet, so I saw no reason to replace it. Besides, I had a fondness for all the marks; they reminded me of the missions where I had been able to make a difference in peoples’ lives, and the patches were almost all gifts from the villages where I’d torn my bag.
A dress coat thumped onto the top of the case. I looked up at Siobhan. He shrugged, looking embarrassed. “If I remember correctly, your mother is going to try to force you to dress nicely at least once. You may as well bring your own fancy clothes.”
I laughed, taking his advice. I should have remembered that to begin with; my mother adored balls and social occasions. Even Father, who had been much more interested in such events than I, had told her that enough was enough a few times. I wasn’t planning on staying with her for more than a week, but a week was more than enough time for her to gather ‘just a few friends’ together for a party. She’d tell me to mask my twisted features for it, of course. My mood suddenly plummeted, and I left the travel case. I’d packed enough, especially as Mother was likely to force new clothes upon me and what was left at home from previous visits would still fit.
I returned to my chair and the book I had been studying before Siobhan had brought me the letter. The book was almost entirely about illusion magic and the rules regarding it, including the one that forever bothered me: no mage was allowed to use illusions that either created a new ‘person’ from nothing or had the effect of changing what they – or any other person – looked like for any purpose but saving lives, and even then only when there was no other option. I was thus barred from hiding my mutated face, twisted and scarred by a magical accident almost twenty years ago now. It had ceased truly bothering me long ago, but I still chose to avoid mirrors when I had a choice.
I set to studying the rules of illusion magic even more carefully than before, alert for any loopholes that a clever mage might exploit. I knew many of them already, but there was always something new to find, and I became so absorbed in the book that I barely noticed when Siobhan lit a lantern and placed it beside me to combat the fading light of dusk. I only stopped reading when I finished the book, and blew out the lantern in a daze. Thoughts of illusions and loopholes filled my head as I collapsed into bed, and I fell asleep almost before I laid my head on the pillow.
I woke to Siobhan’s cheerful voice reciting a Shenkuan poem about the beauty of a sunrise. I opened my eyes the barest amount, winced at the light, and closed them again. Siobhan laughed, and I resisted the urge to throw a pillow at him. He put up with my habit of late-night reading, so I had to put up with his love of mornings. I rolled out of bed, barely noticing where I stepped until I passed a mirror. I scowled at my reflection. Seeing my face, once that of a normal aristocratic green Kougra and now mutated and scarred, tended to force me awake.
Siobhan waited until I was back in the central room before talking to me. I was grateful for that, since it usually took me that long to feel like a person again. He smoothed his dusky purple vest absently, and said, “If you’re going to arrive at Brightvale at a reasonable time, you need to leave soon.”
“I’m aware.” I glanced through the contents of my travel case and added the book of illusions before closing it and picking it up. “Did you ask someone to fly me?”
The Ruki nodded as he opened the door for me. “You never would’ve done so on your own.”
“That’s what partners are for,” I said, heading down the corridors.
The students we passed looked at us curiously. Siobhan and I were partners; seeing only one of us packed was bound to raise questions. I gave Siobhan a wry smile as we exited the building; he’d get to deal with all the questions and rumors that came up, and he’d tell me the best of them when I came back. Not for the first time, I wished that Siobhan were tied to an element other than earth so that we could communicate telepathically; my primary element, air, couldn’t connect to earth, though almost any other set of elements, no matter how odd, could.
As a result, I’d be on my own in Brightvale. Neither of us liked the idea of only one of us going into a potentially dangerous situation after years of working together; the previous times I’d visited home had been for no reason other than seeing my family and friends again, and the most dangerous parts had been the threat of storms as a Uni carried me between Brightvale and the Woods. This time there was either a ghost or an illusionist, and either could easily be deadly.
Leaving the Woods, however, I didn’t mind; Siobhan was the only one here who I would even want to talk to, simply because he was the only one I could truly and easily call a friend. In Brightvale, I kept up correspondence with mages and nobles alike, and would term many of those relations friends. I sighed, turning to face Siobhan. We were at the stables, and a Uni was waiting for me. I ignored the Uni for now, the Ruki’s face. “Fare well,” I said at last. Any words of parting sounded strange, and I couldn’t easily recall the last time I’d spoken them.
He smiled. “Best of luck, Gianni.” He clasped my hand for a second longer before releasing me, turning back toward the Academy proper and walking steadily away.
I watched him go for a moment, and then turned my attention to the patient Uni. This one was a simple yellow color, and I nodded in greeting. One of his panniers held what I assumed were missives and books, and the other was empty. I placed my travel case into it, making sure everything was properly secured. I eyed the muscular Uni and decided that there wasn’t any need to apologize for the weight. I mounted, strapped myself into the saddle, and said, “Let’s go.”
I’d barely spoken the words before the Uni was in the air, his giant wings unfolding to carry us higher into the sky. I smiled. I rarely got to enjoy a ride of this sort, as Siobhan disliked flying and I didn’t mind walking. As a result of that, we had always received assignments in the Woods, and only occasionally went to another city. So now, with the wind rushing through my fur and the sky all around me, I was free to enjoy myself and just exist in my element.
I watched the clouds around us and the ground below. Sometimes I caught glimpses of the small cities that sat, hidden, in the endless plains, but those weren’t the cities I was waiting for. I longed to see Brightvale, with its white, gold, and green lances reaching towards the sky and flags rippling in the wind. When those towers finally came into sight, I could feel it in my body. I leaned forward, and the Uni sped up to cover the final distance to the Institute Arcanus, Brightvale’s magical academy and the place I had studied magic from for all my adolescent years.
There, I thanked the Uni and took my travel case from his panniers. If I wished, I could have taken one of the Ark – as the Institute Arcanus was typically called – Unis to my home, but I had walked the miles near-daily when I studied here, and I wished to walk that path once again. So I set off along the road, and an ache set in as my feet carried me down a remembered road. No matter how many times I visited, I could not get used to the changes. Gardens were planted or taken away; trees cut or treehouses built; houses painted, remodeled, destroyed; dirt paths now cobblestone roads, and new trails where there had been naught but wilderness before.
When the summer sun was high overhead and I reached my destination, however, I found that the Serefini house hadn’t changed a bit. The gardens still held bushes carefully trimmed to look like birds in flight, stalking predators, or simply graceful animals. The façade of the house was still wood painted light, pink-tinged silver. I smiled, knocking on the door. The knocker was new, I noted. Our old one had been shaped like a pair of feathered wings. This one was similar, but distinctly different: an eagle in glory, wings fully spread.
The door opened, and I recognized the elderly maid. The silver Wocky clapped a paw to her mouth. “Giovanni?”
I smiled. “Mother asked me to come, Katrina. Would you please send someone to inform her I’ve arrived? I can find my own way to my room, I think.”
Madame Katrina nodded, a smile breaking onto her kindly face. “I’m glad you’re back, Gianni. Something left this house when you took to the Woods. Perhaps you’ll bring it back.” She turned and hurried off, dress brushing the polished wood floor.
My smile faded. I wouldn’t be staying any longer than I had to, much as I would like to. Mother would never permit Siobhan to live here, and I refused to leave my dearest friend. With a sigh, I left those thoughts behind and took the curving staircase to the upper level. The house’s décor had barely changed in all the years I’d been gone, and I wasn’t sure if I was glad. When Father had lived...
I shook my head, reaching my room. Mother would have left it alone, I knew. She always had faith that I would return, one way or another. I was proving her right, even if my return involved a ghost, or the illusion of one, for that would have nothing to do with why I was here, to her. I placed my travel case at the foot of my bed and glanced around. I didn’t have many decorations in my room. Everything was plain, but serviceable, just as it was in my Academy apartment.
Hurried footsteps alerted me to Mother’s presence, and I turned, a smile on my face. Mother had ever been full of grace and beauty, and age had done nothing to change that. Her yellow fur didn’t show the silver of age, and her summer-sky blue eyes were aglow. I embraced her, pleased to feel the strength in her arms, and said, “Hello, Mother.”
“Gianni.” She pressed her face into the fur of my neck. I endured it, knowing that she had to make sure it truly was me. “I’ve been hoping— no, it would be better for you to see. Come, Gianni. I want you to see your father again.”
I followed her, bemused by the emotions in her voice. Fear, yes, but joy in equal measure. She wanted me to reassure her that it was indeed my father, that Lord Vincent Serefini had come back to her. I could understand that. I wanted to believe her, but there were too many factors, and so many more possibilities for illusion than a true ghost. So I held back my judgment, letting her lead me through the house, seeing once more the paintings, the hangings, the woodwork – all the things that made the Serefini mansion my home.
Mother took me out to the garden, to the fountain where a Weewoo statue sang bubbling notes shaped of water. My father was buried under that statue, carefully interred in our ancestral grounds. A shimmering silver-blue ghost stood in front of the fountain, every detail of my father perfect. The simple ruffed clothing, the crooked smile, the nicked ear, braided hair, and short beard – all the little details of my father were there. I sucked in my breath, closing my eyes. I heard Mother ask if I was alright, but I ignored her, taking hold of my magic to see the truth of the world.
When I opened my eyes, the world was overlaid with the colors of magic and life. Stones and plants were more intense grays and greens. Water became opalescent, as did the clouds. All the little insects shone as tiny dots, and the so-called ghost was the rainbow of illusion.
To be continued...