Illusions of Grandeur: Part Four
The night was long, but morning still came far too soon. I was woken by an impersonal rap on my door and groaned. I could remember my student days so easily now; the scent of the room, the feel of the sheets, the sound of the door. In a few more seconds, Katrina would be saying...
“Gianni, I know you’re awake. If you want to get to the Ark early enough to accomplish your goals before the ball begins, you must leave soon.”
I forced myself out of bed; unlike my student years, I didn’t feel the tiredness in my mind. Now, I felt it in my body. I suppressed a groan as I moved to my closet and chose the nearest set of clean clothing that came to hand. Almost all my clothes were subdued, colors suited to my fur and the woods in which I dwelt. I didn’t mind, and I doubted the students and professors at the Ark would mind either. Mother and most of her servants, however, would.
I dressed quickly and opened the door to find Katrina still waiting there. She wore her usual black and white uniform, simple but elegantly cut and suited to her form and color. I smiled and bowed with a flourish. “Good morning, Madame Katrina.”
The silver Wocky laughed. “The kitchen is under orders to accommodate your food-stealing habits, Master Gianni.” She fell into step beside me as I turned towards the servants’ stairs. “I see you recall your old ways still.”
“It’s hard to forget,” I said, allowing her to place her hand on my elbow. “Especially when my sleeping habits return to how they were.”
“I hope you did not stay up too late, Gianni.” Katrina’s voice was gently chastising. “Your mother expects you to be presentable and sociable during the ball.”
I sighed. “Cecilia tried to sneak out of the mansion last night wearing naught but a night-shift. I took her back to bed, but when I exited to the gardens, I found Lord Peregrine.” I fell silent, waiting to see if Katrina had any comment. All the reaction I received was a tightening of her hand on my arm as we descended the stairs. “What think you, Madame?”
“I think you are stepping into dangerous waters.” Katrina’s voice was barely audible, even to my ears. “Please, young master, do not alarm your mother at this time. I will deal with Cecilia; I have suspected her night-time activities for some time, and it is a simple matter to put a stop to.” She stopped midway down the stairs, gripping my arm tightly. “Do not tell the lady about Lord Peregrine’s intrusion; without a strong man in the mansion, he has become her source of solace.”
Her words dripped with distaste, and I raised my eyebrows. “Surely...”
Katrina shook her head. “If you allow, we may speak after the ball, when the lady has retired.”
I bowed my head in silent acquiescence and continued down the stairs. Upon reaching the door, I opened it for Katrina and allowed her to precede me into the kitchens. I couldn’t help but smile at the overwhelming variety of scents. I didn’t have time to pick and choose the best of what was available; I simply found the old standbys that had sometimes felt I lived off: bread, cheese, a slice of meat, and an apple. I bowed to Katrina one more time and took my leave, eating as I walked.
I had rarely had cause to enter the stables; I hadn’t enjoyed the idea of riding another person to the Ark each day and I disliked even more riding the Whinny and Alabriss we kept, and as I grew used to walking to the Ark I found I did not mind walking shorter distances. When Mother insisted I take a carriage, she arranged for it and often rode with me. As such, when I entered the stables I was unsure of what to expect. I found a clean set of rooms with all the accommodations one could desire, and more frivolities than most servants were allotted.
As I looked around, a young blue Mynci came up to me and bowed. “Lord Serifini? The lady requested you take a mount today, and suggested Johannes. As he agreed, he’ll be taking you to the Institute Arcanus today.”
I nodded my head. “Very good. Please, introduce me to Johannes.”
The Mynci bowed again and led me through the building to a field. A cream Uni with tan spots and splotches looked up and then bowed his head. “Lord Serefini, I assume? My name is Johannes, and it would be my honor to bear you to the Institute; I have heard wonderful things of it.”
“It is a pleasure, Johannes.” I looked at him thoughtfully, then glanced at the Mynci. “You may go.” I approached the Uni, pleased to see that he had already been saddled. I swung myself up and seated myself firmly. “Please go at whatever pace you desire,” I said. “I used to walk to the Ark and back; any pace of your will be faster than mine.”
Johannes laughed. “Hold on,” he advised. I crouched down over his neck, gripping as tightly as I dared with both arms and legs. As soon as I’d settled myself he began to run.
I had never experienced anything like it. The sheer power of Johannes’s body and muscles, transferred to me as I held on... it was glorious. I had to tighten my grip to ensure I wouldn’t fall from the Uni’s sun-gilded back, and, though I was almost certain my grip was tight enough to be painful for the Uni, Johannes didn’t slow until we were most of the way to the Ark. When he finally did and I was able to sit normally in the saddle, I was panting, as was he. Through quick breaths, I said, “Never go that fast again. Please.”
Johannes let out a wheezing laugh. “As you wish, m’lord. But you did give me free rein.”
“I regret that now,” I said. I wasn’t entirely sure if I spoke the truth emotionally, but mentally I was sure that I never wanted to repeat that experience; it was as terrifying as it was exhilarating.
I looked around and was pleasantly surprised to find that I recognized the landscape. If our current pace was any measure, and my memory was any good still, it would be less than half an hour until we reached the Ark proper. I expected that the return trip would take longer, as I had forbidden Johannes his glory-speed, but I didn’t imagine it would take more than an hour and a half, all told. I had plenty of time to look up illusionists and return for Mother’s ball, and I expected to use it.
Johannes kept up his swift and steady pace; it was somewhere between a walk and a trot, but I wasn’t familiar enough with Uni gaits to tell the difference. I knew that he was making wonderful time to the Ark, and I suspected that if I had caught my breath, he had caught his. I tapped his creamy neck gently. “Johannes, when did you join our servants?”
“About the time you last visited, m’lord.” Johannes tossed his head, glancing back at me with one eye. “I remember hearing everyone talking about you and having no idea who you were. Not long after, the topic switched to Lord Peregrine. But that’s faded now,” he added, after we’d continued in silence for a minute or two. “It’s back on you again.”
“Thank you, Johannes,” I said absently. “That’s... interesting.”
Johannes didn’t say anything to me for the rest of the journey, nor did I try to initiate conversation once more. I was too caught up in my musings, most of which revolved around Mother, Cecilia, Lord Peregrine, and the illusory ghost. Johannes almost had to shout to rouse me from my mind when we arrived at the Ark. I thanked him briefly as I dismounted, still caught in the dreamland of thoughts, and entered the gates of the Institute Arcanus Brightvale in the same way I always had: without paying any attention to the beautiful architecture that characterized the Ark.
To be fair, few students cared what the buildings they studied in looked like, so long as they served their purpose. But, after living in the Haunted Woods for years, I understood the aesthetic value of the Brightvalian buildings. The Library in particular was distinctive, with its oddly separate placement on the campus; it stood on a lawn covered in sparse trees, the central area around which the Ark curved and cradled. In the center of the lawn, there was a stand of tall trees; those formed the basic structure of the Library, a marvel of magic and architecture that Celeste, the Ark’s founder, had worked with Illusen to produce.
I loved the Library, as did almost every student. As I entered the grove, I stepped up the roots that had become stairs, heading for the central desks. Librarians waited there; few, if any, students tried to memorize the often chaotic organization of the Library, but the librarians either had exceptional memories or spells to aid them. I approached one, a Hissi with creamy pink scales, and paused, waiting for him to acknowledge my right to access the Library.
The Hissi looked up, and his sky-colored eyes met mine for the briefest of instants. He bowed. “Serefini, it is an honor to have you return.”
I bowed in return. “I am honored, Librarian. May I have knowledge of where your books on illusions and illusionists currently living in Brightvale and Meridell are?”
The librarian closed his eyes, humming to himself. His head wove back and forth and his tail traced patterns in the air. I waited for him silently. At last, the Hissi opened his eyes. “Books on illusion magic are on level three, tree eight. Illusionists are on level three, tree nine. Best of luck, Serefini.” He bowed again, and I echoed his bow before turning to the trees.
Once, I had memorized the structures that allowed movement between the Library’s trees. Now, I simply moved to the ninth tree – they were counted clockwise from the prime, or north, tree – and began climbing the stairs built onto its side. The first level was not, as one might expect, the level the reference desk was on, but the next one up from there. I climbed past that, and the next, until I reached the third platform braced on the grove’s thick, twisting, limbs. As I expected, few students were in the area this early; illusions were a favored study option, and I had spent long hours in this area myself.
With a smile, I began walking down the aisles, looking at the brass words marking out the subject of each. I ran my fingers lightly over the books as I passed them; the Haunted Woods had nowhere near the number of books as Brightvale, and, at last, I felt like I was home again.
To be continued...