Illusions of Grandeur: Part Two
I studied the rainbow colors, looking for any sign that they were simply concealing the silver-blue of a different ghost. Either way, this was not my father, but I could more easily get rid of a ghost than track down an illusionist, especially one clever enough to have thought up this trick to begin with. I let go of mage-sight, turning to Mother. As I opened my mouth to speak, I heard my father’s voice.
“Giovanni? Is that truly you?”
I looked back at the illusion, irritated. “Father had the mage-sight, if not the talent for aught else. He would know me even if he were a ghost and I looked nothing like I once did. You’re very good, but you’re still nothing more than illusion.”
The illusion looked at me for a few seconds, a wounded expression on its face, and then faded away.
“You just insulted your own father, telling him he can’t recognize you?” Mother shook one white-gloved finger in my face. “Gianni, I thought you better than that.”
“Vincent has come back to us, Gianni, and you defile that?” She turned back to the house, taking straight-backed steps along the gravel pathway. “The Haunted Woods changed you more than I thought.”
I watched her go, trying not to feel my heart breaking. Mother had been reasonable, last time I talked to her. She’d allowed me to explain yet again why I wasn’t allowed to hide my scars and faded green fur. She had told me she was just glad I didn’t have the oversized ears of transmogrified Kougras. Now, she wasn’t even letting me lay out my reasons for believing as I did. I sighed, turning back to the fountain. I wasn’t going to go back inside until one of the servants came back to tell me it was safe.
At least the servants still liked me, if Madame Katrina’s reaction was anything to go by. I’d always done my best to keep on their good sides, especially once I’d begun training at the Ark, and even more so after I’d become the Serefini lord. So I could wait outside, wandering through the garden, in weather that was much kinder than that of the Woods. I traced the outline of a Nuk-shaped bush, feeling the grace and potential for movement in every line. Mother spent her money well, when she spent it.
Gentle footsteps on the gravel path behind me made me turn, and the person I saw brought a smile to my face. “You’ve grown, Cece.”
The lithe Starry Kougra smiled as she approached me. “You haven’t changed a bit, Gianni.” She embraced me and I smiled, pulling my little sister close. When she released me, she looked up with an innocently curious expression that reminded me of the child she had once been. “Why are you visiting this time?”
I sighed, stepping back from her and shoving my hands into my pockets. “Has Mother told you about her ghost?”
Cecilia looked aghast at my blithe mention of the illusion. “Madame tells me that I mustn’t speak of it.”
“Madame is quite right. You mustn’t speak of it to anyone who doesn’t already know.” I grinned. “But since Mother has shown me the ghost and I’ve upset her by saying that it’s just an illusion, you may as well acknowledge it exists.”
“Cecilia, please.” I clasped one of her slender hands between mine. “I want to know who else she’s talked to about the ghost, that’s all.”
“Ask Madame,” Cecilia said, not meeting my eyes. “She knows more than I.”
I bowed over Cecilia’s hand, kissing her fingers as I released her. “Thank you, my lady.”
She laughed. “You’re family, Gianni. You need not call me a lady.”
“But you are one,” I said, smiling sadly. “You’re more of a lady than I have ever been a lord.”
Cecilia didn’t reply. I bowed again, retreating down the pathways. I took a round-about loop back towards the mansion, trying not to think too much upon the illusion. Mother would never believe me. Katrina, however, was quite likely to. She had always been sensible, and I’d told her a fair amount about magic both before I’d left for the Woods and during my visits after. The thought of having someone who wouldn’t cower from me when I told them that the ghost was nothing but an illusion was a nice one. Whether or not it was true I didn’t know, but I could hope.
When my wandering path finally brought me back to the side entrance, I was surprised to find another person there, a nobleman I didn’t recognize. The electric Acara glanced at me, turned away, and then looked back, brilliantly green eyes open wide. “Lord Serefini?”
I sighed, bowing. “Giovanni, please. Lord Serefini was my father, and the estate and rank will pass to Lady Cecilia in time.” I studied him, interested by the garments, based upon hunter’s leathers, he wore. “May I have the honor of your name?”
“Lord Isaiah Peregrine.” The Acara swept off his gaudily feathered hat, placing it upon his chest as he bowed. “I have the honor of being a close friend of your mother’s.”
I held back a number of comments that no proper noble would be able to take without insult. Perhaps Mother was right about the Woods corrupting me. “Lord Peregrine,” I said carefully, “I mean no disrespect, but I only returned an hour past. Perhaps I will see you again, and we shall come to know one another.”
“If you are simply Giovanni, then I must return the favor.” He smiled, replacing the hat on his slightly silvered hair. “Call me Isaiah. I wish you a good day, and I believe I will see you again quite soon.” He bowed slightly, stepping aside to let me through to the door.
I returned the bow, doing my best to ignore the glint in Isaiah’s lightning-framed eyes. I passed by him uneasily, wary of his steady gaze. As I entered the mansion, I thought I heard him laugh, but upon turning to look at him, I simply saw a nobleman walking down the garden path, looking as if he hadn’t a care in the world.
It bothered me far more than I wanted to admit. Doing my best to ignore the unease he had spread over me, I reentered the mansion and glanced around to see if any of the servants were obviously about. Much to my disappointment, they weren’t. Without much enthusiasm, I began walking down one of the long halls, hoping my memories of the mansion hadn’t faded too much. I had often joined Katrina in the room my mother had allotted her, helping the maid organize all the other servants she led.
My feet remembered the path better than my mind, I discovered. I found Katrina’s room without very much trouble, and knocked on the door, feeling like a child once more. When the door opened and Katrina saw me, the old silver Wocky smiled. “Come in, child.” She stepped back, clearing the way for me.
I bowed to her and entered. Her office was just as neat as ever, and I relaxed, sitting in one of the chairs. “Mother showed me her ghost.”
Katrina shut the door and sat in the other, smoothing her pale blue dress. She bowed her head, allowing her moonlight-silver hair to slip over her shoulders. “It’s not him.” She took a deep breath, meeting my eyes. “Your mother is besotted with this ghost of Lord Serefini, but it isn’t him.”
“Katrina...” I slowly let out a breath. “I could see the magic. How did you know?”
“I heard them talking.” Katrina twisted a handkerchief in shaking hands. “The lady was talking to him about the state of the Serefini holdings, and she mentioned how she’d let some of the younger, more shaken, maids go after your transformation.” She blinked back tears. “He didn’t recognize their names.”
I closed my eyes. Father had known everyone in his household. He may have been strict, but he had been fair and cordial to everyone. “Mother didn’t notice?”
“No.” The note of quiet sorrow in Katrina’s voice was almost too much. I took another deep breath, willing back tears. “Gianni, I’m sorry.”
I opened my eyes, fixing them on the Wocky’s silver face. “I’m going to find that illusionist. He’s breaking all the rules, and he’s going to break my family. One is bad enough. Both?” I smiled. “Both means he’s doomed.”
Katrina enfolded me in a hug, as warm and comforting as ever. A moment later, remembering propriety, she straightened and her voice turned brisk and businesslike. “Your lady mother has requested your presence in her room, young master.”
I sighed. It was as likely as not that Mother would wish to berate me for denying that Father was indeed back. Despite all my knowledge of magic and my life spent handling ghosts, I’d lost most of my skill at relating to non-mages soon after entering the Academy, and Siobhan had handled most communication in our ghost-hunts. I wished he was with me, as much so that I would have someone to trust as anything else. I pushed myself out of my chair. “I shall attend to her, then,” I said, smoothing out the roughness in my voice.
With a slight smile, Katrina opened her door and curtsied, allowing me out. I shook my head, but returned her smile. “Thank you,” I said, beginning to walk down the corridor.
“Acknowledging the truth.”
Katrina didn’t reply, and I walked through the mansion to Mother’s rooms. I paid little attention to the tapestries and paintings Mother took such pride in; I had seen them all before, and only those with Father still held any interest to me. Today, however, I did not linger at those paintings, looking at the resemblances we still shared. I moved even more quickly past those that showed me as I had been before the accident that resulted in my mutated appearance.
Upstairs, Mother’s rooms were simple enough to find. She waited for me in her sunroom, sitting behind a low desk. She gestured for me to sit in on one of the soft chairs. I chose one that felt much like a backrest rising from the floor and sat cross-legged, waiting for her to speak.
Mother continued writing. I let the silence continue, with only the scratch of her quill to break it. In a way, it was soothing. I’d heard the sound many times, and fallen asleep to it more than once. I sank into a trance, paying little attention to the world around me. Only when the quill fell silent did I return to the world. I opened my eyes again, looking at Mother. She smiled, but her face seemed brittle. “Gianni.”
“Mother.” I inclined my head. “I was informed that you had requested my presence.”
She nodded. “Do you yet have plans for tomorrow?”
“I’m going to the Ark.”
“You are not going to the Institute.”
I grimaced. “Mother, you can’t stop me.”
“Correction: You are not going to the Institute tomorrow.” Mother pursed her lips. “Don’t look like that, Gianni. I have a reason.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“Lady Merle, a friend of mine, is throwing a ball tomorrow. She has invited the Serefini family, and I am taking you and Cecilia.” Mother placed her gloved hands on the desk, looking me in the eyes. “I expect you to attend, and to look presentable.”
“Merle is a Brightvalian name, isn’t it?” I smiled, crossing my arms. “And define ‘presentable’, in this context.”
She nodded slightly. “Clothes that will not shame the Serefini name.”
I relaxed, my smile broadening. “When does the Merle’s ball begin?”
“Seven o’clock.” Mother eyed me, her blue eyes narrowing. “Why do you ask?”
“I will come to this ball of yours, but I will still spend tomorrow at the Ark.” I shrugged. “You cannot stop me, and I never have minded the walk there and back.”
“You bring shame to our name.” Mother rose, her deep green dress rustling. As slight as she was, Mother’s gaze was still imposing. “Walking in the dust like a peasant? Ask Johannes to take you.”
“Mother...” I closed my eyes, leaning aback in the chair. “You never made me ride when I was a student.”
“You are the lord of the Serefini household now, much as you dislike and ignore the title.” Mother placed a hand on my shoulder. “I expect you to act like it.”
I nodded, resigned.
“I will inform Johannes.” Mother left quietly, and the sound of the door closing was the only overt sign that she had indeed gone.
To be continued...