The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 10

September 24th, 2024

 

All of Rome had been made safe over the last few months, but not all of it was inhabited. So when Catarina found herself on a road far outside the bustling center of the city she was very much alone. The afternoon sun was beating down on her neck, and she had her pack and a day’s worth of supplies slung over her back. She was casually dressed for travel, but kept her sword on her back as well. Even in daytime, even in Rome, it never hurt to be careful.

The sun was bright and the world seemed filled with greenery. The ruined buildings around her were overcome with weeds, grass, and vines that choked the crumbling brick and rusting metal as decaying plaster fell in heaps at the base of walls, soon overcome by the inexorable spread of nature. It was quiet save for the chirping of insects and birds, and Catarina found herself enjoying the pleasantness of the afternoon. Even as she did, however, the familiarity of it kept striking a chord deep inside her. This was a route she had not taken in over a year, these roads back then had been dangerous, filled with the unknown and the undead. Catarina had been all but unarmed and very undersupplied, with nothing keeping her going but the will to survive and the hope that someone might still be alive in Rome.

She was a different person now than she had been, but the anxiety and the glances towards the shadows told her that she was not as different as she had hoped. Still, Cat didn’t falter or consider going back. She had made up her mind the other day.

She was going home.

Until now, Catarina had never returned to the Aldobrandini manor. That was part of her life that she had wanted to leave behind her, something to abandon as she started her new life as a hero. Now, however, as the full weight of what she wanted was bearing down on her, Cat needed reassurances. She needed to affirm the course of her life, and learn to take on more responsibility than just what she had wanted.

Catarina was the sole heir of the Aldobrandini bloodline. The possibility had always remained that her parents were alive, but the time had come for Catarina to accept that they were never coming back. This meant that Catarina had the choice to either abandon her birthright in favor of being solely a hero, or accept that she had responsibilities to both her family name and the magic community of Rome.

More than all of this, however, was a deep yearning within Catarina she couldn’t ignore. The desire for the familiar, to be around the things she’d adored in childhood to ground herself again. She loved the small townhouse she lived in back in Rome, she loved her new family as well. But she had grown up as the heiress of the Aldobrandinis, and had spent the vast majority of her life in the manor, it was time to go back.

It was about mid-afternoon when she arrived at the gates of the manor. The tall iron gates were closed but unlocked, and Cat reminded herself that she hadn’t bothered to lock them when she left. Maybe she had planned then to return, or maybe she simply wasn’t worried. Regardless, the great gate creaked and groaned with rust and age as Cat pulled it open and stepped onto the family property.

The Aldobrandini estate was a large and luxurious property. The manor itself as well as satellite buildings stood regally atop a hill before the gate, and a long meandering path guided her up the gentle grassy slope towards the main entrance. To either side, small wooded areas helped block of inquisitive eyes who might have tried to peer over the gates. Cat stopped for a while to admire the now overgrown woods that surrounded the hills. When she was a child, this tiny false forest had been her castles, her mountains, and her rainforests. She and her friend Alicia had played in them since they were old enough to run. Between the trees were the hunting calls of nobles, the courts of wyrd and faerie, and the lairs of lurking dragons.

The grass of the lawn was massively overgrown, well past her knees and stalks of it were poking up through the cracks in the path. Cat let her hands brush over the soft tops of the grass as she walked. As she turned back towards the manor, however, something made her pause and look back.

Near the edge of the woods was a small walled off plot, the family cemetery. It was mostly for show as the family had a history of cremation, but it held the headstones and memorials of fifteen generations of her ancestral house as well as those who served them. She knew the shape of it perfectly, the silhouette of every monument and plaque, and something different caught her eye.

Someone was standing in the graveyard.

Cat’s hand went instantly to her sword as she bent low so that her head was barely above the grass. The person was only a shape at this distance, but they didn’t seem to be doing anything, simply standing off on a side. They weren’t digging or rooting around, but it was a stranger standing in her family plot, it demanded her full attention. Slowly, Cat moved forward, quietly shifting through the grass with her hand tight on the hilt of her sword. She hadn’t drawn it yet, there was no sign of hostile intent yet, but she pulled it off her shoulder and kept the sheathed blade in hand to draw at a moment’s notice.

As she drew closer, she could hear that the person was speaking, though there was no one around to speak to.

“I’m sorry I’ve been away so long. A lot has happened and…well you wouldn’t believe half of it really. I knew I needed to come back, but I knew you’d never let me risk myself just to visit no matter how much I insisted. It reminds me of that time…”

Cat froze. That voice was alarmingly familiar. Soft and feminine, kind and gentle. It was a voice Cat thought she would never hear again.

Slowly she rose up above the grass, shock on her face.

“…Alicia?”

The girl in the graveyard turned, and in an instant her eyes were wide, mouth agape in surprise.

“C-Catarina!”

They stood there for a moment, one facing the other, before both of them threw themselves forward, cat abandoning her sword as she ran to embrace her friend. Alicia likewise ran forward, vaulting the knee-high wall of the plot to throw her arms around Cat.

“I never thought I’d see you again!” Cat shouted, not bothering to keep her voice down “You were all the way in Zurich!”

“I didn’t think I’d make it back either!” Alicia shouted “I only just made it to Rome this week! It’s incredible!”

Alicia was not technically Cat’s peer in the noble sense. The girl was a year younger than her and had been the daughter of the Aldobrandini family’s Housekeeper, which was not a small position for a manor of its size. Alicia’s family, the Biondis, had served the Aldobrandini line for generations, and many of them were buried on the family plot including, Cat realized, Alicia’s mother.

“I came back here as soon as I could get permission.” Alicia said “I’m new here so a lot of restrictions are tight but…I saw it abandoned and…ah! Lord and lady Aldobrandini, are they…?”

Cat tried not to let her expression darken as she shook her head “no, just me now. This si the first time I…well I’m back now.”

Alicia smiled, pulling herself away slightly as she gave a mock but still flawlessly-executed curtsy “Well then, welcome back to the manor, Miss Aldobrandini.”

Cat couldn’t help but grin “Knock it off, Alicia.”

“Well I mean you’re head of the house now.” Alicia said “You own this whole place, Cat.”

“I…guess I do.” Cat said looking back towards the manor. The Aldobrandini estate ahd always felt too large even for her family and their servants. It felt…empty. How could one person hope to fill it.

“Well, we’re still pretty far from the city center” Cat said “It would be inconvenient to just move in. not to mention hard to get everything working.”

“So you need to tell me where you’ve been!” Alicia said as the pair of them started walking “What have you been doing all this time?”

“Well…” Catarina wasn’t sure where to begin “It’s a bit of a long story.”

The two of them talked throughout the afternoon and well into the evening. Cat had told Hilde and Hanne that she might be gone for the night, so even as the sun began to set the two of them kept talking. They walked loops around the manor before heading inside with the setting sun, building up a fire in the large ancient fireplace of the drawing room, and snacking on Cat’s supplies as night fell.

Alicia had been studying in Zurich when the Days of Revelation had occurred, and Cat had never had high hopes of seeing her again. Though she had survived and made it back to Rome, her story was lacking in magic, swords, and dragons compared to Cat’s.

“That’s incredible” Alicia said as Cat finished her tale at the defeat of Nidhoggr. “It’s just like those games we used to play except…you know, real.”

“I know, I can barely believe it at times. It just feels like a dream or a story.”

“But what brought you back here?” Alicia asked.

“Hmm?”

“Why come back to the manor now if you’ve been away all this time?”

“I…well…” Cat started, but she had trouble putting it into words. “I’m just having trouble figuring out what I want I guess…who I am…I don’t know, it sounds stupid when I say it.”

“No I think I understand” Alicia said “You spend a year and a half being a hero, fighting monsters and helping people, and you sort of lose track of who you were. I’m having trouble not thinking of myself as a refugee still.”

“Mmm to tell you the truth” Cat said “I’m…well I’m really scared.”

It felt good to admit. Cat had never felt comfortable telling anyone else just how she felt. She might have beaten the shade of Nidhoggr, but with every day she dreaded the inevitable confrontation. She had wanted to be a hero, to be someone to be admired and seen as courageous. Who could a hero go to so they can admit that they’re afraid? There was more to it than fear of death, however. Cat was afraid of losing who she was. Gisela’s words about being a hero, an archetype, had unsettled her. What else was she, other than a would-be hero?

“Well of course you are” Alicia said “Fighting monsters and dragons, I’d be terrified!”

“Well it’s not just that but…well like I said, it’s time I faced the fact that I’m an Aldobrandini, and figure out what that means.”

“Hmmm” Alicia thought before speaking, eyes looking into the fire. “I guess it’s more than just a big house, isn’t it?”

“Ya, even if it is a really big house” Cat said, smiling ruefully. “But it’s not like we have a family creed or some ancient charter. The way my dad put it, the purpose of the Aldobrandinis was just to continue the line, keep the blood going.”

“Well that’s a bit awkward.” Alicia said “I don’t really know how mage dating goes. Have you been looking around for potential guys?”

“No I’m not really looking for…you know…guys.”

“Oh…ooooooh.” Alicia said after a moment’s pause, face reddening slightly “Well I mean…you know pressure’s off so…you do you.”

“Ya well I haven’t really been looking around at all recently.” Cat admitted “It’s just been this hero thing from day one.”

“Cat” Alicia smiled “You’re the bravest, smartest, and nicest person I know…but you’re also kind of dumb sometimes.”

“Hey!”

“I mean that in a nice way” Alicia laughed “You’re allowed to be more than the knight in shining armor. You’re allowed to deal with family stuff, to take days off, to make friends and date whoever you want. I mean…look at my Mom, she was the housekeeper in charge of all the staff, she was an award-winning gardener and a master-level chess player, to me though she was mostly just my Mom. When you do your heroics thing…and I know you, you’re always going to be doing that, that’s how most people will see you. But that doesn’t mean you need to be that hero they see one hundred percent of the time.”

“When did you get so smart, Alicia?” Cat smiled at her.

“I did go to college, Cat.” Alicia grinned “Not all of us stop at learning magic spells.”

“Well maybe I should make you call me Miss Aldobrandini to put you back in your place” Cat said teasingly.

“Well if you ever get this place up and running again you’re going to need a housekeeper.”

“Ooh, you’d look cute in a French maid outfit.” Cat said, steepling her fingers.

“Hell no” Alicia said flatly.

“Well, this place will be in reclaimed territory pretty soon” Cat said “I didn’t see a single cacodaemon coming down here…it’d be a bit lonely with just two people though.”

“No reason to stop at two.” Alicia said “There’s a lot of room here for friends and others, maybe even some sweet paramour someday.”

“Oh quiet” Cat said “Maybe I’ll just die a spinster.”

“A waste to the world” Alicia teased “But like I said, you do you. This place is yours and you’re the last Aldobrandini. I think if you got some smart heads together we can easily figure out just what that means.”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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