‘Look! She’s opening her eyes…’
‘Oh, good. I was afraid for a moment I had to go upstairs and look for something stronger…'
‘Victoria, are you all right?’
The girl slowly opened her eyes and tried to focus on the scene around her. She counted the heads: there was Joe of course, and Susanna, and Omobono and Teresa, ah!, there was Sara with Luca behind her, and she was quite sure she had heard Lucio and Agatha somewhere. Her heart missed a couple of beats, shame taking over.
So, she had traveled across Europe to be here, she was in the most amazing place ever and on top of that the most fantastic boy in the whole wide world loved her back, first thing he does is kiss her on the cheek and she faints! That was maybe even worse than all the other embarrassing things she had ever been able to do in her life!
Victoria groaned and tried to sit up. She felt hands helping her and once she sat straight, she turned to face them.
‘I’m sorry. I feel so silly.’
I think you forgot to eat or drink, am I right?’, asked Susanna, always a step ahead of her.
‘Spot on…’, answered Victoria weakly.
‘OK then, I’ll bring you something down. Everybody up, thank you! Oh, Omobono, would you be so kind and take a basket with you while you’re going upstairs?’
‘Yes, of course Susanna…’
‘And Sara perhaps?’
‘I’ll take two upstairs!’, Joe volunteered.
‘No, you stay here with Victoria, will you? The last two baskets can wait…’
The whole party took off, leaving Victoria and Joe both deeply embarrassed. They knew Susanna would soon be back with something to eat for the girl, but still they could not manage to speak for a little while.
Joe finally cleared his throat.
‘How are you feeling?’
‘I’m sorry, I hardly ever faint, I’m not a fainter really. I wish this had never happened, you must think I’m crazy!’
‘No! No, I don’t. I understand, and if you feel too awkward we could just pretend nothing ever happened and try to be friends, if you like.’
And this was Joe, always understanding…
‘No, I don’t think I can go back to something that never was, even if there has never been anything in the first place…’
‘Right… did you mind me kissing you on your cheek?’
Victoria never managed to answer that question: Susanna came out of the house making much more noise than necessary to announce her arrival.
‘Tommy, I am Italian! I don’t need bloody Jamie Oliver, bless him, to put something decent on the table!’, she called to the cat, carrying a tray with a large slice of fresh apple pie and a nice glass of apple juice.
‘I’m sorry, here you go dear.’
‘Now, eat everything and drink everything, and when the two of you are ready, come back upstairs. We expect Twang around noon, she’s staying at Omobono and Teresa’s though. Because of the dragons, you know.’ and with that Susanna departed again.
Victoria started eating, puzzled by what she had just heard. Since they were both very embarrassed, she asked between mouthfuls (gosh, this was a really good pie!):
‘Who is this Twang? And what is supposed to happen? Susanna invited me, but no-one told me anything…’
‘Oh, yes, well, it’s a bit of a long story. Do you mind?’
‘No! I’m eating anyway!’
That was the wrong answer. It had been rude and tactless and not something you want to say to someone who is your amazing would-be-boyfriend, you would rather like to hear him talking like forever! She saw his hurt expression and tried to correct the answer.
‘I said it in the wrong way. I’d love to hear you telling me, while I eat. That’s what I wanted to say. I hope you’ll forgive me.’
Joe laughed loudly and, looking at her again, he said:
‘OK, you are forgiven, don’t worry! In two days it’s going to be Michaelmas, on the 29th of September. It used to be the celebration of the Archangel Michael, who defeated the devil and sent him back to hell. They associate the Archangel with Saint George, you know, the one who killed the dragon and freed the princess…'
Victoria nodded, while eating one of the last mouthfuls of pie (such a shame she had had it all so quickly…), then said:
‘But Saint George’s day is on April 23rd… How…’
‘Yes, you are right, that’s your birthday, I remember,’ and he winked at her, making her blush violently, ‘but they are often seen as the same person, or saint. Anyway, the real story is quite different: a long time ago there were many more dragons, everyone knew they existed and most people weren’t afraid of them. Later on some people decided to use dragons for bad purposes, you know, like some breeds of dogs are used for stuff they shouldn’t be doing, it’s cruel… Well, the result is that people got afraid of dragons, a campaign was started against them and they had to be exterminated. Only some people like us, who were used to supernatural and magical things, thought differently and they invented the thing with Saint George, and from then on dragons have been into hiding. Only once a year they have to be in a certain spot on a certain day, in order to remain strong and keep their powers, otherwise they can’t get invisible. So that’s the catch.’
‘Oh, that sucks.’
‘Yeah, I know. But that’s how magical creatures sometimes live, with catches and stuff.’
‘Hang on! You just said invisible? Can they become invisible when they want to??’ Victoria asked.
‘Most definitely! I thought you knew, since you’ve been around Omobono so much…’
‘No, I was just trying to get past my fear of dragons. You don’t seem to mind them though…’
‘I don’t, as a matter of fact: I couldn’t believe my luck when I was told that they existed!'
Boys! Of course: it’s potentially dangerous, it spits fire, it’s cute…
When Victoria had had her juice, they went back upstairs to the others.
Silence fell as they entered the kitchen, the rest of the party was seated on the veranda, except for Luca, Victoria noticed.
‘Where is Luca?’
‘Oh, he just went out for a stroll, he should be back when Twang arrives.’ Sara said.
‘Who is this Twang again?’
‘Yeah, sorry, I forgot to tell you…’ said Joe, ‘She’s… she’s…’
‘She’s really something!’ was Omobono’s answer.
‘Let’s say you wait for her to be here before we tell you anything more.’ said Susanna.
They all heard a sudden and energetic knock on the door. Susanna pulled it open and Victoria, who was right behind her, had a full view of the person standing there. A girl, about twenty years of age, with a black top hat askew, a black veil hanging over her left eye and a pair of blue round sunglasses was standing there, a big cheeky smile on her thin pale face. She was wearing a short-sleeved shirt with laced puffy sleeves, a very tight black corset with strings on the front and a short skirt with several layers of crinoline visible underneath that kept it wide out. To complete her outfit, she was also wearing high healed boots with strings up half way her calf. She took off her glasses with one meaningful movement, showing her dark eyes and smiling even broader, and entered the house calling out:
‘Hello everybody! Now let’s start this party, shall we?’
The whole house boomed with cheers and laughter, just as when Victoria had come in a few hours before. The girl greeted Susanna and the Andreis, then she took Sara by the hand and pulled her in a tight squeeze. She then turned to Victoria and Joe, who was standing next to the girl, and she introduced herself:
‘Hi, my name is Alexandra, you may call me Twang though…’, she said, and laughing at the puzzled look Victoria was giving her, she added, ‘I shoot very well, especially with the crossbow, which is my favorite weapon, and “twang” is the sound the crossbow makes when you shoot an arrow!’ she explained with one final wink at her.
Victoria looked at her. She did not know what to think, this young lady had managed to astonish her with her appearance and her name. She heard Joe cough softly next to her.
‘Hi bro, how are you? Have you been here all this time?’
Bro?! Victoria turned to look at him. Had she failed to notice that this girl was actually his sister? Or was it a figure of speech? How come she knew him too? And what did she mean with “all this time”? He gave her a meaningful look, she knew that explanation would follow in due time.
‘No, I got here only six weeks ago, the day before Victoria left. I’ve been here ever since. What’s new?’
‘Oh, same old same old, you know how it goes.’ she looked around, ‘Now, where is the poltergeist?’
They all laughed. Luca seemed to materialize out of thin air, as always.
‘I’m here! I just took a look at the dragons. You didn’t bring all of them, though, am I right?’
‘Observant as always… I left the old ones at home, I just took the young ones with me.’
‘Oh, so you are a Dragon Handler as well…’, Victoria remarked.
‘Yes, I am!’ Twang answered proudly.
‘Twang was raised by vampires, you know?’ Joe added out of the blue. Victoria had no idea what to do with this piece of information, but just played along.
‘Really? I mean, you aren’t one yourself, right? How…’
‘It’s like being raised by anybody else, I suppose. Although you do tend to forget to eat all your veggies when you grow up among vamps, I guess.’ and she gave Victoria another wink. What was wrong with this girl? Did she have a tick or something?
‘Let’s take the boys down to our house now!’ cried Omobono excited.
Twang nodded and they quickly left together with Teresa.
Joe had been very busy with the apples all day, probably to give Victoria some space. He had been kind enough to leave a beautiful rose on her pillow, with a note:
I sleep in the room downstairs If you can’t sleep tonight, you can always come down for a chat ;-) Joe
Although boys his age never meant a proper chat when they said they wanted one, Victoria was sure that Joe actually meant a nice conversation and nothing else. And that was probably why Susanna had not seen anything wrong in having them sleep in the same house.
Victoria had had some catch up with Sara, who had told her about the new headmaster, a decent man, the new activities for teens at the Institution, like the drama and ballet classes Sara was attending, and Luca, of course. Things had not improved over the last six weeks. Of course Victoria had known all along, for she had kept in touch with her friend as well, but seeing her in person had given her the chance to talk somewhat better about the matter.
Victoria hoped to hear something more about Michaelmas after dinner, when she would be alone with Joe and Susanna, for Sara had to go back to the Institution and Luca did not want to hang around. Victoria imagined he would go see her friend in secret, but she dared not ask. Twang would stay at the Andreis, busy with her dragons: they were something special, Victoria was told.
‘What’s going to happen with Michaelmas? Joe already told me a few things…’, said Victoria during tea.
‘We’ll have to go to the Lake Lucone, not very far from here, for the celebration. We go there every year, we wait for the full Moon again and when the Moon rays hit that lake, the Magic covers everything and everyone in the valley. The dragons need that for their powers, but the swan nymphs need it too, they too need the Moon to stay healthy and well.’
Victoria tried to picture the whole scene. But it did not matter how hard she tried, she failed to imagine it. Susanna continued.
‘You’ll be amazed by the place, it’s so beautiful, there are woods on the hills all around, and the Lake is breathtaking…’
‘It’s in the shape of a pair of glasses, you know…’ said Joe blushing slightly and looking away.
‘Wow! I can’t wait… So we have to go down after sunset, am I right?’
‘No, we’ll go down in the afternoon, we have to bring all the dragons first, about three dozens, and Omobono and Twang want to see how far they can spit… they both get so excited! I want you to meet Penelope, the swan nymph in charge of the place. She keeps us posted on the changes of the environment, of the populations of the wild animals, of the health of the Lake and the air… Nymphs are other magical creatures that help us taking care of the area. Actually we are going there tomorrow afternoon, so that we can have a look at the place before we start up on the next day.’
Victoria felt genuinely excited at the idea of going to visit this lake she had never even heard of, and its shape also made it very interesting to see, she guessed.
‘Tomorrow morning you could both practice some of your “special effects” in the garden, just for fun…’
Oh, right. Victoria had forgotten how Joe had told her that he had been the Protector of his area, that he too had some powers like hers, although the magical place he came from had been destroyed and his powers were almost non-existent anymore. He never wanted to tell her where he came from or what had happened, although Twang seemed quite in the know. Victoria did not like the idea that this other girl knew so much more about him than she did, even if she could tell that there could not be anything romantic between the two. She was definitely not jealous!
They had a cup of herbal tea after dinner: Susanna had told Victoria she had to sleep and that the tea would help her getting some rest. The cats had come in early, they too wanted to go to sleep. Victoria was very fond of them both, although she noticed that Tommy and Joe were quite close now, judging from the way the cat kept asking him about things that were more than obvious and unnecessary, like “how do you pluck the apples with you paws” or “do you think you feel more out of balance without a tail?”
Victoria felt for a moment that Tommy was trying to keep Joe from interacting with her…
She soon started to feel quite dull and tired, so when it was sociably acceptable, she got up and bade the others good night. Joe sprang up, knocking Tommy to the ground, who was half seated on his lap. Victoria blushed and went downstairs, followed by the boy. She heard the cat make a comment about her being perfectly capable of finding her room on her own, but Susanna hushed him right away.
They went slowly downstairs and reached Victoria’s room. She knew that Joe was dying to tell her something, maybe to kiss her good night, but she hardly dared look at him. She just stood there, embarrassed, waiting for him to say or do something. Finally he took a deep breath and hugged her.
‘I’m happy you came.’
He kissed the top of her head and got back upstairs so quickly that she even wondered if it had happened at all.