Illusions of Grandeur: Part Seven
The next few hours were as boring as I expected them to be. Mother fussed, Cecilia shrank from me, and I did my best to stay out of everyone’s way. Within the carriage Mother forced us to ride in, however, there was no place to hide. I sat beside Cecilia on one side, and Mother sat facing us, her white-gloved hands resting primly in her lap. Cecilia looked out the window, her hair falling in soft curls to block her face from my sight. Beneath her deep rose dress, I could see her tail twitching nervously, much as my mine was.
I sat in my corner of the carriage, one boot resting upon the seat cushion as I watched my mother and sister. I tugged at the tie Mother had insisted I wear, trying to loosen it enough that I didn’t worry about being choked. I couldn’t help but worry as the carriage rolled onward, pulled by two of the strongest Whinny we kept. If Peregrine decided to disappear, I could do nothing about it and my request for Doug would be wasted. Yet, that worried me far less than the thought that Cecilia would bar me from her life after the afternoon’s happenings.
Mother broke me out of her thoughts with the request I had hoped she’d forgotten. “Gianni, will you not wear your beautiful face once more?”
I glanced over at her, seeing Cecilia do the same. “My response is as it ever has been,” I replied. “The laws forbid illusions of that sort, and I have worn this face for so long that it, not my unscarred features, is my true form.”
“Why?” Cecilia asked, the first word I’d heard her speak since Lord Peregrine left.
“Why to what part of it?”
She gave a slight shrug. “The true form part, I suppose.”
Behind her words, her eyes seemed to be asking something more. I hesitated, trying to formulate a coherent, simple, explanation for her.
“The way form is defined by magic is the form that a body will return to if healed,” I said at last. “If I repaired a broken sword, it would want to return to its sword shape. A plow, the same. A broken bone wishes to heal straight and true. Burned fur wants to regrow the same color as it used to be. My scars came from my own magic, my mutation from my own power. I reshaped my body, if ever so slightly, and while that would have been as illegal as illusion had I done it intentionally, that the explosion and effect surprised me as much as anyone else was deemed enough punishment, as nobody could heal me or explain to me how to reverse the effect.” I spread my hands. “Does that answer your question?”
Slowly, Cecilia nodded. “Thank you.”
I smiled, but her green eyes turned away from me, and each of us returned to our private reveries as the carriage bore us to Lady Merle’s ball.
Once there, our carriage’s driver, a blue Kyrii, opened the door and handed Mother and Cecilia out of the carriage. I exited, and the Kyrii turned the Whinny silently and they pulled the carriage away to the stables. Mother gave a polite cough and I sighed, bowing and offering her my arm. She rested her hand lightly on my elbow and drew me onwards, Cecilia trailing behind us. A footman opened the door to Lady Merle’s house for us, the green Lutari bowing and murmuring polite greetings. I endured the sudden increase in noise and light as we entered, assuming Mother would keep me from doing anything horridly impolite.
I was correct in that assumption; Mother led me through the crowd without pause, even as I adjusted to the light and sound. I could not tell where she led me at first, though I thought she was aiming for the hostess. The red Usul wore a golden gown, and though I knew her reputation for beauty, next to the man she stood conversing with she paled to nothing. The shadow Gelert wore an impeccable suit as pristine a black as his fur and hair, with a white shirt and a cravat a deep rose red. The only thing less than perfect about his countenance was a scar running down the side of his face, but even that created a dashing effect, not an unpleasant one.
Mother paused a few steps in front of the pair. Lady Merle turned and saw us, and with a pleased smile curtseyed to us. I bowed in return, and Mother said, “Lady Merle, this is my son, Lord Giovanni, a mage of some power. May I have the pleasure of knowing who you speak with?”
Lady Merle inclined her head to the Gelert and said, “This is Mr. Harlan Lockwood, an acquaintance of mine from Meridell. He is – was? – apprenticed to the Royal Sorcerer, Lady Lisha Borodere.”
Lockwood bowed ever so slightly. “Please, call me Lockwood. It is a pleasure to meet another sorcerer – we seem to have so few in Meridell."
I smiled, despite Lockwood’s cold manner. “It certainly is; I had not expected to see any such as you here tonight.” Beside us, Lady Merle engaged Mother in conversation, and they began to drift off. I let them; I cared little for what Mother talked of with her friends.
“Is that so?” Lockwood said, words impeccably polite. “How intriguing! And what sort did you expect to see?”
I waved a hand. “Ladies and their escorts, the sort who would come to a social event of chatter, which this is so much more than a true ball with focus on music and dance.”
“I confess I have never considered the matter. What is there to draw us to even so charming a ball as this, apart from the society?"
“Truthfully, it is that my mother agreed in my name.” I winced mentally as Lockwood’s face betrayed the barest hint of a smile. “I come here rarely, and she believes I would be more likely to stay if she brought me into society's eyes. The real result is that I find myself staying away.”
Lockwood’s polite expression never faltered, though I thought I could see something that was either contempt or boredom behind his mask. “Is that so? Then, if I may inquire, why are you here today? Setting aside, of course, a desire to gratify us all with your presence."
“Brightvale’s magical library is far more extensive than the collection the Haunted Woods have,” I said, on easier ground here. “I had a need to see some specialized books.”
“I believe my dear friend Lisha would positively revel in your company, for she is a great lover of books, you know,” said Lockwood. “There is really nothing dearer to her heart than a good library. I am very sorry she is not here to have the pleasure.”
I bowed, catching his hint. “A pleasure, Mr. Lockwood. Perhaps some other time I shall visit Meridell Castle itself, and have the delight of Lady Lisha’s company.”
“Perhaps so,” Lockwood agreed, returning my bow. He turned and moved into the circles of humanity that eddied and flowed through the ballroom, occasionally spreading into other nearby rooms or the Merle’s garden.
I watched the patterns, not particularly interested in finding any face but my sister’s, Doug’s, or Peregrine’s. Of the three, I suspected the one I was most likely to see was Peregrine’s; his distinctive hat and his height would make him fairly easy to spot. Doug, if he came, would find me before I found him, I knew. But the other two, I was unsure about. Cecilia could take care of herself better than I, in this situation, and if she didn’t want me to find her I had no doubt that she wouldn’t be found. And Peregrine likely had the same sense and ability.
As the crowd swirled around me, I slowly made my way to a corner where I would feel less lost, less in the way. There, I leaned against a wall and waited. I doubted anyone would choose to come near me; my face was not the sort that invited conversation from those who knew me not. And so I watched and waited and worried, trying to keep myself from fading into daydreams born of boredom. I didn’t succeed very well, for by the time I saw Doug’s silver-touched face I was remembering days where I could simply sneak away from the balls.
When I did catch sight of Doug, however, he simply grinned and jerked his head in a ‘come hither’ motion before disappearing back into the crowd. I groaned, but followed him as best I could, murmuring polite ‘excuse me’s whenever I bumped into someone. When at last I caught up to Doug, he was at the edge of the area set up for dancing, staring at a particular couple. I followed his gaze and muttered a curse. Cecilia was dancing with Peregrine, a fairly slow waltz that I knew could last for quite a while.
“I thought you’d like to know,” Doug said, glancing at me. “Thank you for the message, by the way; it didn’t explain much, but what you said was enough.”
I nodded curtly. “I didn’t tell Katrina much. Is there anything you want to know that I didn’t imply?”
“Why?” the Lupe asked, gesturing broadly towards the dancing pair. “That’s what I don’t understand. Why now? I searched the records for an Isaiah Peregrine and found him; a dropout who only came for a semester and a half, and that was thirty-six years ago.”
“Because my sister asked, according to him.” I sighed. “He might be lying, but I couldn’t tell.”
Doug laid a hand on my shoulder. “We’ll figure it out, Gianni.”
The two of us watched silently until the dance came to an end and Cecilia and Peregrine parted. I glanced at Doug and tilted my head towards Cecilia. Doug grinned and headed towards Peregrine, while I trailed my sister. I suspected she knew I was following her, as she seemed intent on moving through the thickest crowds she could. The only reason I managed to stay near her was because kind people helped point my way. Eventually, I caught up to her by a door to a garden where sweet roses bloomed.
The warm late-afternoon sunlight gilded the roses and Cecilia’s fur, caressing especially her bright blonde hair. I stopped in the doorway and watched her, waiting her to turn and see me. She lifted one deep rose to her nose and I could see her inhale. When she released the rose, she turned, and I saw a flash of fear on her face before she returned to the polite mask of a perfect young lady. “Gianni,” she said, curtseying to me. “A pleasure.”
I bowed and stepped down to join her, brushing my fingers across the silken roses and their sharp thorns. “It truly is a pleasure, Cecilia.” I stopped beside her, looking at the flowers. “And my desire to converse with you is very ill-suited to this beautiful place, but I am afraid I must.” I sighed and gently touched her shoulder. “I’m not going to hurt you,” I said softly, trying to get her to meet my eyes. “I promise I won’t hurt you. I’m trying to keep you from getting hurt by anyone, Cece.”
She kept her head bowed, though she looked at me with tear-stained eyes. “Gianni...” She took a deep, sobbing, breath. “Why did Father leave?”
I looked at her, then pulled her into a tight hug. “I don’t know,” I whispered into her golden hair. “I wish I knew, but I don’t. He just left on that trip, and then one thing led to another and...” My words trailed off as I held Cecilia, stroking her hair and trying to calm her sobs. My own vision was blurred by tears, but I didn’t let them fall. I’d cried all those tears already, cried them those nineteen years ago. So I simply held my sister and wished I knew what words I could say to comfort her; I had never needed to learn them before.
After what felt like an hour but I knew was likely only a few minutes, Cecilia raised her head. “Lord Peregrine said that he could bring Father back.”
“I know.” I closed my eyes for a moment before continuing. “Whose idea was it, originally?”
Cecilia looked away from me, but didn’t pull away. “Mine,” she said in a voice almost a whimper. “It was mine.”
I took a sharp breath and closed my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I...” I swallowed, instinctively tightening my arms around her. “There’s only so much I can do to protect you from the law.”
“I know,” she whispered. “I’m sorry too.” She stayed silent for another few seconds, then said, “He brought you here, though. And that’s what I meant, not... not what he tried to do.”
I couldn’t find any words to reply with. Even if I could, I doubted I would be able to speak past the lump in my throat. Instead, I just kissed the top of my sister’s head and promised myself that even if I couldn’t stay I’d come and visit much more often than I had been.
We stood there for longer than I believed possible before a red-gold explosion sent debris over our heads and into the back of my too-fine clothes. I started cursing, as much at Mother for insisting I wear fine silk and lace as at Doug for resorting to destruction. “Stay here.” I gave Cecilia a sharp look. “Try to keep yourself safe.”
I saw her nod, wide-eyed, before I ran inside the now-burning home, weaving threads of magic into a protective shield. I could see the source of the fire and thunderous echoes: Doug, his silvering blue fur stained ashen with his fire, and Lord Isaiah Peregrine, his electric fur sparking with true lightning. My curses intensified. He knew more than I had assumed. All the nobles were fleeing the ballroom, and I spared a fleeting thought for their safety as I passed through them and threw myself to the ground, opening myself to the grounding power of Earth.
Siobhan should be doing this.
That thought echoed desperately in my head as Earth consumed me.
To be continued...
Author’s Note: Many thanks to jokerhahaazzz for allowing me to use Lockwood in my story, and for helping me to write the scene with him.