A musical clamor rose up from the porcelain tiles of the Scapanine Road as Julian de Nova Valencia lashed his horse on faster. His lateness for the soiree was now verging on being unfashionable — one of life’s great injustices, he had long maintained, was that only the splendidly wealthy could appear at the hour of their choosing. His own family fortune, accumulated by three generations of explorers and reavers, had been squandered less than a decade after his inheritance, and the transition from moneyed aristocrat to simple man of leisure had been jarring.
Julian was a gastronome, a seeker of rare delicacies, and for the past fortnight his imagination had been busy conjuring up what morsels might be presented to those attending the Contessa’s soiree. And it was because of this, with his thoughts wandering among tables groaning with spiced eagle’s talons and the stillborn fetuses of red-tailed antelope, that he failed to notice the manticore.
His horse caught the scent first and slowed, whickering uneasily, but true to its proud heritage the gelding did not panic – it was, in fact, the foal of Midnight’s Chase, that most excellent two-time winner of the Lancing Cross Derby.
The manticore coughed politely, and Julian blinked in surprise.
“Good heavens,” he said, his hand drifting to his pistol, “a manticore.”
“Good heavens,” replied the manticore, rising and stretching its great leonine body, “a fop.”
Bemused, Julian swept off his broad-brimmed hat. “A pleasure, beast. My name is Julian de Nova Valencia.”
The manticore shook its shaggy mane. “Greetings, Julian de Nova Valencia. It is good to meet a fellow traveler on this road. Perhaps we might walk a while together?”
Julian slowed his horse to a trot as the manticore padded up beside him. “Nothing would please me more,” he said politely, though in truth the beast’s presence did bother him a trifle.
He had seen photographs of manticores before, but the faded sepia prints rummaged from the trunks of his ancestor’s expeditions had failed to do this magnificent creature justice. The manticore’s body resembled a lion the size of a pony, dun-colored, with a pair of leathery wings folded upon its back. A glorious golden mane framed the oddest aspect of the manticore: its head was that of a large man, though its teeth tapered to carnivorous points.
Glancing at the broad, handsome features of the manticore, an idea struck Julian, and he smiled.
“Beast, what brings you to our empire, and most particularly the Contessa d’Veril’s demesne? For all these lands are hers, and she can be terrible when intruders arouse her fury.”
The manticore chuckled. “Julian de Nova Valencia, your words of caution are much appreciated. However, ancient and very dear friends have invited me to their den, and I must traverse these hills. It has been a long and tiring journey, through swamp and desert and steaming forest, and I have braved more fearsome dangers than your Contessa.”
Julian held up his hands. “Of course, beast, I had no intention of dissuading you from your path. But might I offer a suggestion, by which both of us can benefit from this chance encounter?”
“Go on,” rumbled the manticore.
“Along this road, not too far in the distance, lies the Contessa’s lovely estate, where I am in fact journeying so I might attend a soiree that will draw some of the Empire’s brightest personages. And as you can see,” here Julian spread out his arms, indicating himself, “I cut a rather drab figure. But you, friend, are an uncommon sight in the Tarnished Empire.”
“I think I see the outline of your proposal.”
Julian smiled broadly. “You are as intelligent as you are arresting. I suggest we enter the soiree together, you as my guest, and we beg permission from the Contessa to allow you to travel through her lands. It will be a marvelous spectacle.”
The manticore fell silent for a moment. Then with a click of its teeth it said, “Julian de Nova Valencia, there is wisdom in your words.”
“Excellent!” Julian cried, clapping his hands. “We are agreed. Now, beast, I would recommend you follow behind my horse by fifty paces or so, in order that I might explain your presence when we arrive.”
The manticore ducked its head and dutifully slowed as Julian spurred his gelding into a canter. When he had put a safe distance between himself and the manticore Julian eased his pace, fingers stroking the ivory handles of his pistols. Poor, simple creature. An entrance with the manticore beside him would cause a stir, no doubt, but many of the celestial courtiers in attendance owned even more fantastic beasts. However, Julian knew that the Contessa was a collector of exotic trophies, with an entire wing of her estate devoted to the taxidermical arts, and what would excite conversation more than the head of a manticore mounted on a plaque?
“For Nova Valencia!” he cried, pulling his pistols from their holsters as he wheeled his horse around.
“It is a marvelous specimen,” said Contessa d’Veril, her high silvery laugh shivering the delicate crystal latticework that draped the room. “You truly know my tastes.”
She sipped from her glass and tipped her head, the platinum stars and skulls woven into her midnight hair tinkling. Laughing again, she tossed back the last of her drink and studied the newest addition to her trophy wall.
The handsome face was frozen into an expression of shock, and there was even a bit of blood where the neck fused with the oaken mounting, but that could be improved upon at a later date; haste had been necessary, so that the guests could enjoy this delightful present.
The Contessa buried her hand in the manticore’s mane and stroked its neck, and was rewarded with a thunderous purr. “Old friend,” she said “did you have to eat the horse? It truly was a magnificent animal.”
Alec Hutson was the Spirit Award winner for Carleton College at the 2002 Ultimate Frisbee College National Championships. He has watched the sun set over the dead city of Bagan and rise over the living ruins of Angkor Wat. He grew up in a geodesic dome and a bookstore, and currently lives in Shanghai, China.