“You know, if this is winter here, then I’m not sure I ever want to go back home,” Alex said as the extra-long sky-gondola pulled up over the fairy tale villa belonging to Isolde’s cousin.
The rain was streaming down in sheets over the wind and rain shield, making it a nasty day to go exploring the countryside, but Alex could see blue skies to the east as the clouds passed. Soon, the day would turn sunny.
It was like that a lot in Generasi, and so far—even as it was getting deeper into ‘winter’, the coldest it had been was during days of cool rain that only made things pleasant and fresh.
“But what about snow, Alex?” Selina said. “I miss snow.”
“I tell you what, when I get better at magic, I’ll make you some snow, okay?” .
He paused, noticing a strange look had passed over her face. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
“Fine,” she said quickly and returned to her captivated examination of the villa.
Before he could say anything else, Isolde spoke from the back of the gondola. “You may bring us down there,” she pointed out a landing pad on the grass that was centered within a ‘U’ shaped road in front of the villa.
“Right away, ma’am,” their sky-gondolier said.
“Excellent, so if I may have everyone’s attention,” she called to Alex, Theresa, Khalik, Selina and Thundar. “My cousin is what is known as Patrizia or ‘patrician’ in the common tongue: one of the landed noble families whose bloodline extends back to before Generasi was built. As none of us are his subjects—and since we are residents of the city while students at the university—we are expected to show him courtesy as a host, or in my case as kin, but there is no need for bowing.”
“Really?” Theresa asked. “I thought nobles got particular about that sort of thing.”
Khalik hid a cough.
Isolde raised an eyebrow and a wry smile took her features. “And do you find that I am particular about that sort of thing, Theresa? When we went to the weaponsmith’s shop to see her wares, did I ask that you walk behind me, bow and address me as ‘my lady’ or anything of the sort? Have you ever seen me demand that Hogarth and Svenia bow down as they served me? Do you see me as that ‘particular’?”
The huntress paled. “No, no! You didn’t! I mean, I don’t think of you that way! Uh, I’m sorry.”
Isolde let out a rare laugh. “No apologies needed, I am teasing, and to be truthful, in most cases, I am quite particular that aristocratic protocol be followed, but wizards are outside of the system of feudalism in these lands. We respect the ancestral guardians of the country, but we do not bow to them.”
Alex cocked his head in interest. That was a very interesting tidbit of information. He’d dreamed of becoming a wizard because it was the ticket to a safe and comfortable life, or so he’d thought at the time. In Thameland though, wizards were subjects of their lords—just like anyone else. It didn’t mean that some noble was going to enter a wizard’s tower and demand service, but it did mean paying taxes and having to follow orders if called into service. It also meant proper respect, such as bowing and the finer points of etiquette that had never really affected Alex Roth.
He imagined that for folk of these lands, it’d be even more attractive to become a wizard. For them, it would mean not only freedom in terms of practical skills, but also the ability to officially break out of the feudal hierarchy.
As the sky-gondola landed on the pad and its passengers—including a cerberus that never seemed to quite get used to the flying crafts—quickly scrambled out, they saw a tall man approaching them from the villa.
“Lady Isolde Von Anmut’s party?” he asked.
“Yes, that is us,” Isolde said.
The man bowed. “Welcome, Lady Isolde, to the villa of Patrizia dePaolo. I am Vincenzo, personal aid to the Patrizia. If you will please follow me.”
With a wave of a cane, something happened and Alex felt mana flow from the device. Suddenly, invisible shields appeared over them, providing protection from the rain.
They followed Vincenzo and as soon as they reached the villa’s overhang, towering entry doors cracked open. Several servants emerged flanking a tall man—maybe somewhere in his early thirties—with greying hair and the same sharp blue eyes as Isolde’s. A fine sword hung on his hip, which drew the attention of both Isolde and Theresa.
He smiled at the tall, young woman, kissing her lightly on each cheek. “Cousin, welcome, I see that you are right on time, despite the rain.”
“We set out early so that we would not be delayed,” Isolde said, shooting a look at Thundar, who glanced away guiltily.
Khalik had to go roust the slumbering minotaur at his dormitory room, then they’d had to sprint to the sky-pier to make it on time. Isolde had driven them all as if The Ravener itself was chasing them. She must have repeated: “we cannot be late!” twenty times before they reached their sky-gondola.
“Khalik Behr-Medr, Alex Roth, Theresa Lu, Selina Roth and Thundar, Son of Gulbiff; this is my cousin: Patrizia Giuseppi Marco DePaolo.”
“Pleased to meet you, and thank you for the invitation.” They all said.
Khalik had told Isolde his surname earlier that morning and unsurprisingly—due to the distance between their realms—it seemed that she did not recognize it, just as he hadn’t recognized hers when she’d first revealed it in The Barrens. None of them recognized her cousin’s name or title either, or at least, no one said that they did.
If he took offence to this, he hid it well: his smile was a genuine one that reached his eyes, which only grew wider when Selina curtsied to him.
“Welcome to my home: any friend of my family is a welcome guest.” He gestured to his foyer. “I’ve had a table set up in the solarium so that we might have a light lunch there. In her note, Isolde mentioned that you might have an interest in seeing the grounds. So, perhaps once my guard captain returns from inspecting the house guards, we can have a little walk and I can show you around after lunch.”
He straightened slightly in pride as he spoke of showing off his home. “Now, come, come! No sense in standing out here in the damp.” He glanced at Brutus. “Well isn’t this a handsome devil. Even in Generasi, cerebri are rare beasts, and fewer still are as well-trained as this one. Who might I ask is his mast-”
He paused, glancing over all of them before his eyes focused on Theresa. “Oh, why ask for the answers to obvious questions: you are this beast’s master, are you not, young lady? He shows a close attachment to you.”
Theresa paused, blinking in surprise. “Mhm,” she said proudly. “This is Brutus; I raised him from a pup.”
At the Patrizia’s acknowledgement and mention of his name, one of Brutus’ heads turned to Theresa in curiosity while another rose up as though filled with pride.
Alex felt a touch of jealousy: it had taken him years and risking his life for this mutt to finally mostly warm to him, now he was happily soaking up attention from this man he’d just met-
‘Really, man?’ he thought to himself. ‘You don’t really get jealous when someone shows Theresa a bunch of attention—except for maybe that mana vampire on Fan-Dor’s ship when you thought he was a man who was staring at her—but you turn into a green-eyed monster when the three-headed dog warms up to someone?’
He shook his head. Each time he examined himself, he found that his issues ran deeper.
“I see you did an admirable job.” The Patrizia said, admiring Brutus and patting one of his heads. “We have a fine breed of hound in Generasi: Striga Cane Corso, or the Coursing Hounds of Striga. It is a breed of hunting dog—though not as large or as strong as a cerberus—that can scent mana. They were quite valuable when my ancestors and the wizards of Generasi were not always on the…best of terms.”
His face darkened. “If only they could scent mana vampires, the elusive devils that they are. In any case, might my groundskeeper escort your pup to the yard with my other hounds?”
Theresa paused. “Are they safe?”
The Patrizia laughed heartily. “They are safe, clever, and trained to only attack when ordered to, or when defending themselves. I am sure your Brutus will get along with them just fine.”
Theresa paused, looking down at Brutus. “Do you like the sound of that? Do you want to go play?”
Brutus let out three barks all at once and wagged his tail.
After watching Brutus follow the groundskeeper to the villa’s outbuildings—toward a walled kennel complex that was near a towering windmill that turned slowly in the rain and wind—they followed the Patrizia into his villa.
Having spent so much time at the university of Generasi, Alex was fairly sure that few buildings could surprise him anymore. He was wrong. While Patrizia DePaolo’s villa wasn’t filled with moving benches, Orbs of Air that cleaned up debris, and other wonders, it made up for those things in sheer opulence.
From masterfully done oil paintings covering the walls, to soaring muraled ceilings, marble floors and staircases, and windows of fine glass surrounded by hand carved frames, it all spoke of an owner that probably had more gold coins than they’d likely ever be able to spend in several mortal lifetimes.
Selina was absolutely taken with all the details immediately: her eyes shot around at all the embellishments, flourishes and architectural wonders that made up the Patrizia’s home. Thundar gaped at the wealth on display—as did Alex—while Prince Khalik walked through as naturally as if he were walking through a farmer’s market.
Alex supposed everything was relative.
His belly growled as they were led to the Solarium: a delightful scent drifted through the air, and he was really looking forward to whatever the source of lunch was. He wasn’t disappointed by a long table that occupied the centre of the glass room which overlooked nearby gardens. It was bursting with platters of pastries, hot breads, fresh fruits and vegetables, and an inviting display of cured meats with cubed cheeses in the centre.
Oh, and a lot of fresh grapes, wines and juices.
It was almost a shame that the conversation was so pleasant, as Alex would have loved nothing more than to occupy his mouth entirely with the feast that had been prepared for them.
Luckily, Isolde did most of the talking to her cousin—with the others only jumping in when he directly addressed them. Khalik seemed to pull the older man’s attention the most: they spoke of the politics and trade of the realms surrounding the Prinean sea. A lot of it went over the heads of Alex, Theresa, Thundar and Selina, but Isolde followed along with interest.
The conversation did eventually take a turn that caught Alex’s interest.
“The mana vampire is not only a horrid creature, but also bad for trade,” Giuseppe complained. “As fear heightens, people want to travel less, and as they want to travel less, they want to buy less. Of course, then there’s that other monster to worry about.”
“Yes,” Khalik said. “Isolde did mention that to us, I know there are some monsters in the countryside here. Are this creature’s activities so beyond those of the ones in this area?”
“The countryside does have its monsters, my friend, but we who live out here as well as the city officials make sure that their populations are kept low and that the roads are safe. These days, you mostly find the occasional muupkara troop that’s adapted to life outside of The Barrens, and a few other beasts. This creature, though, avoided a team of seasoned, experienced monster hunters. The mere sighting of it was enough to heighten fear even further.”
He sighed, patting the sword on his hip. “A decade ago and I would have gone out with my hounds and house guards to hunt the thing myself, but now I have a family to think of and responsibilities. Those tend to take a lot of the fun out of adventuring: the mind focuses on risks and the body hesitates.”
“I am sure you have many thrilling stories you could tell,” Khalik said, sipping the wine from his goblet. He made an appreciative sound. “An excellent vintage. It is one of yours?”
“My father’s, casked ten years ago,” Giuseppe smiled wistfully. “Back when my head was filled with song and wonder, and my hand was filled with the hilt of my sword.”
“Sounds thrilling,” Theresa added, with a note of longing in her voice.
“Oh, it was—I was quite the duelist at your age—but the life of a lord and vinter has its own thrills…” he paused, shooting the group a coy look. “And adventure still remains fairly close at hand. Isolde told me that you might have an interest in the dryads?”
“Yes,” Khalik, Thundar, Theresa and Selina said at once, echoing each other—with identical enthusiasm, but for very different reasons.
“Indeeeed,” Isolde said drawing out the word with a slight frown of disapproval at her male cabalmates.
Alex, meanwhile, was using The Mark to keep his face as neutral and natural as he could.
“Well, they are not at my beck and call.” The Patrizia squinted through the solarium’s glass ceiling. “But I do note that the sun is coming out and I think we could use a little post-lunch exercise. So, why don't we enter the woods and I can show you their trails and some of their magnificent works. Perhaps, if we are fortunate, one of them might greet us.”
“Oooo, that sounds great,” Theresa said, looking at Alex excitedly.
He exchanged a smile with her, and a knowing look with Khalik and Thundar.
He pointedly ignored Isolde’s judging eyes.
“Oh my gosh, look at this!” Selina ran up ahead on the forest path, staring at a strange construction: a sculpture of what looked to be a giant humanoid, woven together by living trees—as if they’d purposefully grown in that shape.
“That’s incredible!” Theresa quickly followed her while the rest of the group strolled along the path.
The forest—scented with an earthiness awakened by the fresh rain—loomed over them, filled with trees bearing brightly coloured leaves that shed rain droplets when the wind blew. The ground was soaking wet, but Guiseppe had led them onto a dryad path—which was coated in a water-absorbent moss that was soft on the foot, hoof, or shoe while soaking up water quickly before it could turn the earth into a mud-sink.
“Careful not to stray from the path,” Giuseppe—flanked by his house guards and guard captain—called to them. “My family has been given permission to use the dryads’ paths to travel, but not to step too far into their lands.”
“We’ll be careful!” Selina promised.
“Just don’t go too far from Theresa!” Alex added. “And stay where I can see you!”
He glanced at the trees, thinking about the mana vampire and other monster their host had mentioned. They were surrounded by armed guards and the Patrizia had assured them that the forest had been checked and was safe. Still, he wondered if he should have cast force shield on Selina just in case.
At least Theresa was with her, and so far, nothing had happened.
“What is that?” Selina asked excitedly, still looking up at the sculpture of woven trees.
“It’s a marker,” Giuseppe said. “It separates my lands from those of the dryads.” The road broke into a fork. “I, my household and guests can travel on the left path, but not the right without their permission.”
“Ach, that’s too bad,” Thundar said. “Looks like no dryads today. Ah well, at least the kid’s hap-”
The minotaur’s words suddenly cut off.
All went still and Theresa suddenly froze, eyeing the trees around them. Her hand fell to her knife.
“Theresa, what’s hap-”
“Do not move, mara-vitar, or your face will have a very, very red new decoration,” a voice said from right beside Alex.
He froze and slowly turned to his left.
Protruding halfway out of the closest tree was a woman.
And that woman had a sword pointed only inches away from his face.