Illusions of Grandeur: Part Three
Late that night, I paced through the darkened mansion like the monster provincial villages tended to name me. I didn’t know what the newer servants thought of me, but I doubted any but those who knew me as a child felt comfortable with me now. I wished it were otherwise, but I could see no way to change that. As I walked through the portrait gallery, I thought of visiting Katrina.
I knew she would not mind, but still I hesitated; I did not wish to disturb her rest. I had almost decided to simply return to my room and rest for a time when I saw the flickering light of a candle ahead. Curiosity piqued, I moved towards it, eyes and ears straining for any clue as to who bore the candle. When the bearer rounded the corner to the portrait hall, I stopped in shock, as did she. “Cecilia?” I said, careful to keep my voice soft. “Why are—” I cut off my words as I realized she was wearing naught but a night-shift.
The Starry Kougra blushed, ducking her head. “I— I didn’t expect anyone else to be awake at this hour.”
“And rightly so,” I said, taking off my coat as I strode towards her. “But your dignity should not be dependent upon the presence of others.” I took the candle from her with one hand and gave her my coat with the other. “Please, cover yourself more fully and allow me to escort you back to your room.”
Cecilia looked up at me, worry in her beautiful green eyes, but she did ask I asked. “Will you tell Mother?” She looked like a little girl again; my coat was oversized on her.
I didn’t answer, but kept my gaze steadily upon her face. To answer either way would be to betray the trust both placed in me, and, while Mother was already irritated at me, I did not wish to displease her further; she was family, my mother, and I could not easily go against that bond. Nor could I betray the little sister I had helped raise. Cecilia looked away again and her eyes and tail dropped to the floor as she clutched my coat tighter around her body.
If I had not been holding the candle, I would have crossed my arms. She was acting much like a student caught sneaking from the dorms at night, and I had no wish to involve myself in this any more than I already had. As such, I chose to do nothing more than place my free hand on her back and guide her through the portrait hall to the main stairs. I did my best to avoid looking at the paintings; seeing either my once-handsome face or that of my father, who I used to resemble, made the pain of my mutation come back as fresh as the day it had happened.
Cecilia had no such restraint. She stopped in front of one of the pictures of Mother, Father, and my near-adult self, forcing me to stop as well. “She used to be so happy,” Cecilia murmured. “She was never happy after you left. Not until Lord Peregrine—” I heard warmth in her voice and held back a shiver “—came calling.”
“Was that before the so-called ghost appeared?” My voice was rougher than usual; though I refused to look at the painting, I knew it well. Mother had commissioned it shortly before the accident that took Father’s life. It showed Mother, dressed in pale blue, sitting in a chair draped with deep rose velvet. Father stood to her left, navy blue fur blending with the black suit he wore. I sat on the floor, hands clasped around one knee. Father had objected to my pose, but he had not been able to suggest a better alternative. My fur had been a rich yellow-green, like the first leaves of spring, with navy stripes, and I had worn dusk-colored clothes.
“Yes,” Cecilia said. I felt, more than saw, her look at me. “Giovanni, are you alright?”
I shook my head and continued walking, my hand on her back bringing her with me. “You never knew me before that accident,” I said, trying to keep sorrowed anger from my voice. “Please, try to avoid reminding me.” I took a deep, albeit shaky, breath. “Thank you for telling me about Peregrine and the ghost,” I said in a more normal, if formal, tone.
She stayed silent as we walked up the stairs, deep carpet muffling any sound our feet might have made. When we reached her room, she curtsied slightly and withdrew, slipping off my coat and letting me catch it as it fell to the floor. “Goodnight, Giovanni,” she said as she closed the door. “Sleep well.”
I bowed to her closed door. Glancing at the candle, I waved a hand to blow it out. Living in the Haunted Woods for so long had left me able to see in darkness much better than most, and I preferred the shadows and hidden places; it suited my nature better than the well-lit ballrooms of Mother’s circle. Restless, with memories now keeping me from sleep, I turned and made my way back down the gently curving stairs and across the hall to the garden exit. As I walked, I donned my coat once more, buttoning it securely.
I exited into the night, not noticing any chill in the air; the Woods were typically much cooler than any night in the kingdoms. The moon was half-full, and there were few clouds in the sky. I looked up at the stars and moon that lit the night in a soft silver light that made everything seem more beautiful.
My feet carried me towards the Weewoo statue where Father had been buried and the illusion had appeared. I could hear the soft splashing of water as it fell from the statue’s beak into the basic, and used the sound as my guide. As I rounded the final hedges, I froze. Lord Isaiah Peregrine stood by the statue, the ridiculous feather in his hat waving in the dying wind. I withdrew slowly and silently, hoping that he hadn’t seen me.
Why was he here? I had suspected, from what servants had told me, that Mother had given Peregrine free access to our mansion’s grounds. I hadn’t thought the permission would extend to night, when most sensible people were asleep. I sighed quietly, then straightened and strode into the fountain’s clearing, intentionally making my footsteps audible. Peregrine jumped, obviously startled, and turned to face me. His face froze for an instant, and then he said, “Giovanni! What a pleasant surprise.”
“I can hardly say the same,” I said, working to keep my voice level. “I had not known that you were allowed access to our grounds at night.”
The Acara waved one lightning-striped hand. “Lady Maria must have forgotten to mention it.” He turned his back to me, idly dipping his fingers into the fountain’s water. “What brings you here at this hour, Giovanni?”
“I believe I have more right to ask that question than you.” I stepped forward to join him, leaning on the stone and watching his face. “What brings you here at this hour, Isaiah? Do you not have your own gardens to wander?”
“Ah, but I asked first.” Peregrine looked at me, and his eyes widened. I wasn’t even trying to be intimidating; my mutated visage usually did that well enough on its own. “I... had business nearby and thought to stop by on my way home.”
I smiled pleasantly. “Lady Maria has been asleep for the past hour.” I tapped a fingernail on the stone, keeping my voice light. “But I met Cecilia sneaking outside not a quarter past.” I leaned towards him, almost touching my hand to his. “Would you happen to know any reason why such a well-bred young lady as her might be trying a thing such as that?”
“Of course not,” Peregrine said, sounding offended. “You have not yet answered my question, friend.”
What friendliness had been in my tone and posture turned to ice. “‘Friend’ may be a touch presumptuous, but I shall answer nonetheless. I am awake because I only just arrived from the Haunted Woods to find an illusion of my father’s ghost in this very spot, and now I am worried for my mother’s sanity and my sister’s honor.” I gently touched his hand, letting him feel my claw-like fingernails. “Please leave so that I have no cause to worry that you might harm either of those, friend.”
Silently, the electric Acara stepped back and doffed his hat with a bow. “I shall not forget this,” he said, stepping into the relative shadows of the hedges. “Goodnight, Lord Serefini.”
“Goodnight, Lord Peregrine.” I sighed, leaning more heavily on the fountain. “I would not expect you to.”
I stayed where I was, watching him leave the gardens with as much offended dignity as he could muster. As he disappeared, I smiled sadly. Gone were the days when I cared about my reputation; that would be ruined as soon as the nobility knew my history in the Haunted Woods and my current status at the Academy of Mystic Arts. Thus, I had no compunctions about insulting nobles to ensure that my family stayed safe.
I pushed off the stone basin, suddenly weary. I doubted I would be able to sleep easily or well; worries and nightmares haunted my dreams at the best of times. This was not the best of times, and here there was nobody to hold me if I awoke in the middle of the night shaking with fear. I pulled my coat closer and resigned myself to a night that would be far too long and sleepless.
To be continued...