The Snake and the Mirror

Chapter 28

 

“So, when we got back to the city, Rosa, Torleif and I went to the training fields and met this new guy, Nicomede,” Cat said, cup of tea in her hand, sitting in the study of the Aldobrandini manor across from Gisela.

“Ah, yes, Nicomede, I’d received news of him,” Gisela said.

“What? How?” Cat asked suspiciously. “You’re not allowed to leave.”

“And I do not leave,” Gisela said. “Your friend, Alicia, passes news along when I manage to pull her into conversation.”

“Be nice to Alicia,” Cat gestured her half-full cup at Gisela, brow furrowed.

“I have no interest in manipulating her for some ulterior motive, I just like to get news.” Gisela said. “Going back to your story, I’m not surprised the northern champions are made of tougher stuff. They’ve had it much harder than you Romans.”

“I guess,” Cat said. “She’s still just a little kid though, and she was powerful but not…trained.”

“As is the case with an alarming number of you champions,” Gisela said smoothly, taking another drink. “Mmm good tea, my compliments to Scheherazade.”

“Well, I guess Rosa’s training with Capi nowadays, but what do you mean?” Cat asked. “Aurelio’s the best hunter in Rome!”

“Aurelio is still an amateur,” Gisela said coldly.

“He beat you,” Cat said.

“And I am one of the weakest and most bookish servants there is,” Gisela said. “Not all servants are created equal, and I am both far from my patron’s center of power and blessed with only the lightest of physical enhancements, and yet I very nearly beat Aurelio after soundly trouncing the homunculus.”

“Well, it’s not like there’s a place to train this stuff,” Cat said.

“Many abilities of a champion are easy to train, it simply requires the will and drive to surpass oneself. My compliments to Rosa for realizing this; have you been seeing improvement?”

“Well…not so much on the training field, we’re still about equal there,” Cat said, looking down into her tea. She remembered how Rosa had taken charge at Malcesine. Making and executing a plan on the fly as she’d helped lead the attack. “She’s gotten better at strategizing, I guess.”

“Understandable,” Gisela said. “The Wolf of Rome is much more conqueror than warrior, and I suspect she is trying to shift Rosa from a champion of Ares to a champion of Mars, a subtle yet distinctive difference.”

“So what do you think of Nicomede, from what you’ve heard?” Cat asked.

“What I’ve heard isn’t much,” Gisela said. “I can’t speak for his character or his fighting skills, but he is a man who lead a company of over a hundred through monster-ridden territory and over the Alps on the hope of finding allies. That takes a level of skill and a force of personality not to be underestimated.”

“Sure, but he said he should lead the attack on Nidhoggr!” Cat said, irritation slipping into her voice. “That’s so…”

“Presumptuous? Arrogant?” Gisela offered.

“Ya!” Cat said. “It’s so full of him to just try and take command like that.”

“Clearly it should be you,” Gisela said, her expression neutral.

Cat paused before another word could escape.

“…you’re testing me.”

“That is my job,” Gisela said dryly.

“Well…fine I’ll take the bait. Why shouldn’t I lead? You said it yourself, I’m the best-suited person there is to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Killing Nidhoggr and leading the force to do so are not necessarily the same task; in fact, it might be even more effective to have them separated.”

“It should be led by a Roman first of all,” Cat said.

“The legions certainly,” Gisela said. “But we are discussing the task force to kill Nidhoggr, a much smaller and more specialized group. One that, in all likelihood, will be a joint effort of many nations and free agents.”

“I feel like you’re just saying whatever will knock me down a peg,” Cat gritted her teeth. “Can you go even one conversation without deliberately being an ass?”

“Then allow me to be as blunt as possible,” Gisela said, lowering her tea. “I think you are unfit for command. You might have some ability to rally others to a cause but you do not understand how to inspire discipline.”

“Who would you pick?” Cat asked. “Just to get it out in the air.”

“Nicomede, once I had some time to evaluate his abilities,” Gisela said. “But his experience leading soldiers certainly outweighs yours. Rosaria is a good candidate as well.”

“Rosa? Seriously?” Cat asked. “Who else do you want to throw on the pile just to knock me down? Going to argue Torleif next?”

“Catarina this is hardly a personal attack,” Gisela scowled at her. “Nicomede has proven himself in at least one respect. And while Rosaria had…temperament issues from what I experienced, your reports and what little communication I am allowed paints someone who is rapidly maturing, not to mention that she is being trained by a wolf with access to several of history’s greatest military minds and centuries of experience.”

“I have Scheherazade,” Cat said. “And Albion training me as well. And I have you!”

“You have a font of knowledge certainly,” Gisela said. “But Scheherazade is first and foremost a storyteller. Her teachings require a narrative structure which, while useful, has its limits. Albion Nassar is teaching you magic, which you should do, but you and I have both agreed he is likely trying to manipulate you. As for me…well gods help you, you certainly do have me, and I’ll do all I can.”

“Why not Hildegard then?” Cat asked.

“Shall we go down the list?” Gisela asked sarcastically. “I haven’t exactly had the ability to psychoanalyze all of your friends and companions, so I need to make do on your stories, scattered reports, and what rare meetings I actually get. I believe either Rosaria or Nicomede would be most suited for the role.”

“Ugh, fine! Keep your opinions,” Cat stood up. “I’m heading back into town.”

“We still have progress to make,” Gisela said to her back as she turned from the room.

“I’ll be back tomorrow!” Cat shouted from the hall as she made for the door, making doubly sure the locks and seals on Gisela’s comfortable prison were in place before walking out the door.

Cat needed an actual friend she could talk to right now, and she kicked herself for having let Gisela drag her into a conversation like that. The dark-haired woman always looked to any opportunity to needle her. Why shouldn’t Cat lead a Nidhoggr-killing force? She was the one who had the best shot of killing Nidhoggr!

Fuming, Cat made her way back into the city, the sun settling into late afternoon as she wandered from the street into the tree-strewn greenery of the Roman Shrine Complex, soon following the sound of light humming on the wind to a young woman in robes of red and white sweeping the steps of the shrine.

“Hey, Megame,” Cat said, her voice coming out more tired than she meant it to.

“Welcome back, Cat-chan,” Megame smiled at her. “Can I get you anything, tea?”

“No, I’m fine,” Cat said. “Just someone to talk to.”

“Well, you always have me for that,” Megame smiled. “It’s what friends are for.”

“Just got in an argument with Gisela.”

“Ah it’s one of those days again. What about this time?”

“Commanding, and whoever’s going to be in charge of bringing down Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I had a visitor about that the other day,” Megame smiled.

“Wait, who?” Cat asked.

“A young Grecian man, Nicomede. Very pretty and quite polite, bit of a charmer really,” Megame’s face reddened a little. “He was here looking for me, asking about the champions in the city interested in fighting Nidhoggr.”

“So he’s already getting started…He’s rushing pretty quickly.”

“Well, it was more asking for interest,” Megame said. “I told him to talk to you.”

“You did?” Cat asked.

“Of course,” Megame smiled. “You and Gisela are at the front of all this.”

“So what else did he say, or were you too busy swooning?” Cat said, shooting Megame a teasing smile.

“I don’t ‘swoon’, Cat-chan, at least not in public,” Megame smiled at her. “He told me a little about himself, asked about the shrine and Inari-sama, just small talk really. You should talk to him.”

“He told me he thinks he should lead an expedition to kill Nidhoggr.”

“Oh, I quite agree,” Megame said.

“Wait, what?” Cat practically did a double-take as she turned to look askance at Megame.

“Hmm?” Megame looked back at her. “He led a small army all the way here, he’s dedicated and powerful, and it’s not like he wants to lead the legions or anything.”

“But Megame, with what Gisela’s said and my sword don’t you think…”

“I think you are the best suited to kill Nidhoggr,” Megame nodded. “But Cat-chan, did you want to lead this expedition simply to be the leader of it, or do you believe you are the best suited for the role?”

“Er…” Cat paused before changing track. “Gisela also thinks Rosa could do it. Can you imagine that? Rosa?”

“Rosaria has been maturing a lot recently,” Megame said. “Even you’ve commented on it. She’s a lot less angry and violent than she was when I first arrived here. She even comes by now and then to talk, and she’s quite pleasant to chat with, if a bit…mm I think ‘brusque’ for my tastes?”

“Ya I guess she’s…matured a bit,” Cat remembered how Rosa had fought at Malcesine, and their conversations on the road as well. Compared to the angry redhead she’d met on the training fields months ago she was practically a new person. More restrained, kinder, smarter…

Megame seemed to notice something as she leaned in.

“I think, Cat-chan, you might have some other things to work out about yourself,” Megame smiled.

“Maybe I guess…”

There was a brief silence between them, Cat’s face slightly red as Megame simply smiled her usual serene smile, until a new voice interrupted them.

“Hey Megame, hey Cat.”

Cat turned to see Kara, Megame’s pale-skinned Valkyrie friend walking up to join them.

“Hey, Kara,” Cat nodded her as Megame greeted her with her usual upbeat. “Kara-chan.”

“We were just talking about Nicomede, you met him?” Cat asked.

“Oh, that womanly-looking guy Megame was swooning over the other day?” Kara asked.

“I do not swoon!”

“Ya, him,” Cat said, smiling as it was Megame’s turn to redden in the face.

“I saw him, haven’t chatted with him yet. And ya, shrine maiden, I’ve met a lot of maidens in my day and you swoon with the best of them.”

“Hmph!”

“Well what did you think of him?” Cat asked.

“I don’t go for guys prettier than me,” Kara said. “Just a personal policy.”

“I meant did he seem strong?”

“In what sense?” Kara asked. “I didn’t exactly arm wrestle the guy, but he had a pretty potent spiritual aura for a human. Comes with being a champion I guess.”

“R-right…” Cat had to remind herself now and then that Kara wasn’t human. Being a Valkyrie meant she was pure spirit. Stronger, faster, and much older than she looked. Gisela and Scheherazade had both warned her that underestimating a spirit’s power could get her killed, and that learning to fight the spirits Nidhoggr commanded was almost as crucial as learning to fight Nidhoggr itself.

“I think, Cat-chan, if you want a full measure of him, you should probably go talk to him again,” Megame said.

“Right…” Cat said. “I’ll try my best not to swoon.”

She smiled as Megame turned red again, and Kara gave her a light chuckle.

“I might head to the training fields after meeting Gisela tomorrow…” Cat said, thinking it over. “Actually…speaking of that…hey Kara?”

“Hmm?” Kara turned to look at her.

“You free for a little bit?”

 

 

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The Cities Eternal©2017, Evan Murdoch, Ben Sousa

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