"Oooh, that's the problem with meeting my future self," Lillet Blan muttered as she stretched out, star in hand. "I know I'm going to be taller, and a couple of inches would come in really handy right around now." She sighed and gave up. "I just can't reach. Amoretta, can you do this?"
Amoretta Virgine looked up from the tangle of ornaments she was sorting. Like Lillet, she was blonde, though a pale ash shade that was nearly white, and had a delicate, pale complexion rather than Lillet's rosy-cheeked country-girl look, and possessed a fine-boned, elegant beauty. Most importantly at that point, though, she was taller than the other girl.
"I'm a little busy right now, Lillet," she said, attaching a wire hook to a glass bulb.
"I'll give you a kiss," Lillet bribed.
"Well, in that case, all right."
She set down the ornaments, got up, and crossed over to Lillet, who handed her the star. Amoretta leaned forward and kissed the shorter girl. Lillet had been going to offer a quick smooch, but Amoretta apparently was having none of that. Her mouth was warm and open and insistent on Lillet's, who soon found her senses swimming. Only when her arms came up almost of their own accord to encircle Amoretta's waist was she reminded that they were not alone.
"Hey, you two, are you decorating or not? And if not, could you warn somebody next time?"
They sprang apart, Lillet blushing deep red while Amoretta had a shy but satisfied smile on her lips. Gaff the elf stared up at them, hands on hips.
"Sorry," Lillet said.
"My big brother was right," Gaff said. "Working for a girl in love is the worst, and here I am taking care of two of you."
"You knew that when we left the Magic Academy," Lillet said. "You didn't have to come with us."
"And who would look after you then, I ask? Without me you'd probably spend all day staring into each other's eyes."
"He's probably right," said Amoretta. She stood on tiptoe and stretched out as high as she could, and was just barely able to slip the star over the tip of the tree.
"Yay, you've got it!" Lillet cheered. She really hadn't wanted to summon up a fairy to fly the star onto the treetop; it just seemed frivolous somehow, after having called on the same creatures to fight against devils and ghosts.
"At least I earned my kiss," Amoretta responded.
The rest of the decorating went smoothly, the young women hanging things on the upper branches while the three-foot-tall Gaff dealt with the lower ones.
"Now, all we need is the lights."
"At home we'd have candles," Lillet explained, "by softening the wax on the bottom and melting them into place on the branches, but that's pretty dangerous. Farmer Meyers' tree caught fire one year and his cottage almost burned down." She flipped open her Fairy Ring grimoire and used her wand to sketch out one of the patterns she found there. A moment later, a shower of flashing lights the size of her thumbnail fell over the tree, holding in place where they touched the branches and twinkling in a rainbow of colors.
"There we are! Pixy lights won't set the tree on fire and come in all sorts of different colors."
"It's really pretty, Lillet," Amoretta said. "This was a lot of fun. I'm glad we got to have our own tree this year. Dr. Chartreuse didn't even bother with one in my first year, and last year we were too busy getting settled in to put up a tree of our own."
"Yeah, I'd only been a Royal Magician for a couple of months, then, and there wasn't enough time for a proper celebration, I was so busy getting caught up with my duties. I'm really glad you liked it. I always loved decorating the Christmas tree with my family every year."
"It was fun," Gaff agreed. "We should do this every year."
"You've never decorated a Christmas tree before either, Gaff?" Amoretta asked.
"Oh, that's right--most elves and fairies are pagans, aren't they?" Lillet realized. "I'm sorry, Gaff; I never even thought about that when I asked you to help."
"Ah, don't worry about it," he said with a dismissive wave. "I had fun. Just don't expect me to sing any hymns."
"We'll leave that to Amoretta." Lillet sighed happily, slipped an arm around Amoretta's waist, and leaned her head up against her shoulder while they both looked at the tree.
"Thank you, Lillet."
"For including me in this." She indicated the tree. "It's a tradition that you do with your family, with the people that you love. I'm glad to share that with you."
"Silly, you're the person I love most. Why wouldn't you be included?"
"Okay, again that's my cue to not be here," Gaff said. "Except there's too much cleanup to do, wrappings to put away, boxes to stack neatly, broken needles to sweep up, and who knows what else."
"We'd better get to work, then."
"Hold it!" Gaff said, holding up a hand. "I'm the caretaker here, and this is a job for a professional. You two should go have a snowball fight or a romantic walk in the park or something so you're not underfoot."
"Thanks, Gaff. We'll do that." She grabbed her coat. "Come on, Amoretta, let's get out of the elf's way."
They were gone in under a minute and Gaff set to work. It wasn'tall kindness on his part to have let the two of them go off by themselves; it was an elf's nature to like things neat and organized. Humans, especially magicians, tended to have considerably more things to put in order and less inclination to do it, making for a more satisfying job. It reminded Gaff of a human folk-story he'd heard about Christmas: even legends needed elf help to make sure they were ready for the holidays. Of course, between the elven workforce and the flying reindeer the guy must have been a magician before the tale got twisted out of context while being passed down through the ages.
The job was nearly done when there was a knock on the door. Surprised by the interruption, Gaff went over and opened it. One of the palace pages was there, in the royal silver and blue livery, obviously acting as escort for a sturdily-built, smiling woman wearing a country goodwife's dress and with what had to be her Sunday-best bonnet perched on her short blond curls. She carried a rugged canvas satchel in one strong hand.
"A visitor for Royal Magician Lillet Blan," the page announced.
No doubt assuming that Lillet was inside the room, the woman called out, "Surprise! Merry Christmas, Lillet!"
-X X X-
Lillet and Amoretta were laughing as they walked back to their room. Snow was caught in their hair and flaked off their clothes, though they'd wiped their feet when they came inside.
"I can't believe you did that!" Amoretta said between laughs.
"Well, I had to defend the honor of the magicians against the squires, didn't I? And we were outnumbered eight to two!"
"I've never heard of a spell that animates snowmen before, though. Where did you learn it?"
Still remembering the squad of walking snow sculptures driving the squires from the field with a hail of snowballs, Lillet announced, "I just made it up right now. I'm glad I got it right; the kids that made them would have been really sad if I'd accidentally melted them or something." She reached for the door handle. "I ought to write that down, though. Maybe it'll lead to something useful if I tinker with it a bit and--"
"Lillet, what is it?" Amoretta asked, then she, too, saw the woman seated at the table, drinking a cup of tea.
"There you are, dear," the visitor said, setting the cup down and getting up.
"Mom?" Lillet gasped, staring.
"Now, Lillet, you look just like a fish, you're gaping so. Is it such a surprise?"
In the next instant the older woman had engulfed Lillet in a massive hug.
"Look at you, all grown up and living in the palace of all things. Why, this room of yours is as large as our cottage, and this nice young man says he looks after you--and he makes a wonderful cup of tea, too, so he's certainly good at what he does."
Lillet's heart pounded nervously. She loved her family very much, but her mother's appearance had filled her with stark fear.
"Mom, what are you doing here?"
"Well, it just didn't seem right, you being all by yourself two years in a row at Christmas," Mrs. Blan said. "Now, a child has to grow up and move out, and you've moved a bit farther--and higher--than I'd expected one of my chicks to go, but Christmas is a time to be with family. So, we decided that I should come up to the city and visit you while your father stays home with the boys. We'd all have come, but a farm doesn't stop working just because it's the holidays, you know."
"That's very sweet of you, Mrs. Blan," Amoretta said. "Lillet was just saying before we went out how Christmas was meant to be spent with the people you love."
"Well, there you have it. Are you a friend of Lillet's?" She turned back to her daughter. "Dear, you should introduce us. It's not nice for me to just rattle on like this while ignoring someone."
And there it was.
Well, Mom, you didn't waste any time, did you? The fear settled like a cold knot in Lillet's belly.
Lillet's teachers and peers at the Magic Academy hadn't so much as blinked about her relationship with Amoretta (well, okay, Bartido had been full of smart-aleck remarks but they hadn't been disapproving or mean-spirited, just mouthy). At court, most people didn't care, either--it was the cosmopolitan center of the kingdom, magicians were notoriously eccentric, and most people who might have had something unpleasant to say weren't inclined to press the point. Lillet's reputation might not be what Grand Witch Lujei's had been, but shewas the youngest-ever graduate of the Silver Star Tower and a Royal Magician. It insulated one somewhat from the slings and arrows of the closed-minded.
But this was her mother. This was someone who mattered.
She hadn't been this scared since the first time she'd met up with the ghost of Archmage Calvaros.
In a way, it helped to think of that. She'd beaten Calvaros, after all.
She took a deep breath.
"Lillet, are you all right? You're trembling," Amoretta asked, concerned. She touched Lillet's hand. "Your fingers are colder than when we were outside."
Lillet brought her other hand over and held Amoretta's between hers.
"Mom, this is Amoretta. I met her at the Magic Academy, and she came with me when I graduated. She lives with me now."
Lillet's mother may not have had a fancy education, but she was by no means stupid. Her eyes flicked to the room's single, queen-sized bed and back to Lillet and Amoretta. She fixed her daughter with a look Lillet knew well from childhood, the one that meant, "I know you're not telling me the full story, so out with it already!"
There was no escaping that look.
"We're...in love," she came out with it.
"I see. And since Miss Amoretta came with you from the Magic Academy, I gather this is not a new situation?"
"I couldn't stand to be separated from Lillet, so I came with her when she graduated," Amoretta said simply.
"Then would you please explain, Lillet, why in the two dozen letters we've had from you, you never saw fit to mention her?"
"Lillet, you didn't tell your family about me? It isn't right to keep secrets from the people you love." Amoretta had never minced words or beat around the bush for as long as Lillet had known her. "I...is it because you're ashamed of me?"
Helplessly, Lillet looked back and forth between her mother and Amoretta. It seemed as if she'd all but lost the power of speech. Suddenly, Amoretta yanked her hand free and in the next moment was out the door.
Lillet was left with her hand outstretched, staring at the opening. Tears welled up in her eyes, blurring her vision. It felt like an icicle had speared through her heart, the sense of her loss was so acute.
"I'm so stupid," she moaned, and slammed her fist against the wall in frustration. She couldn't believe it could hurt so badly in just a couple of seconds. It almost felt like...
It felt like when I watched her die.
No, it's worse.
At least then she'd had the knowledge that through the twisting loops of time she'd been caught in, she'd get another chance to save her. This was a mistake that couldn't be wiped away from existence, and worse, it was all her own mistake. No wizards or devils had been a part of it.
One thing was the same, though. In both situations it was up to her to solve the problem. Lillet rubbed her sleeve across her eyes to clear out the tears, and dashed out after Amoretta.
She caught up with her lover in one of the overlook towers adjoining the Royal House of Magic. Amoretta stood at a casement window which even closed let in drafts of frozen air. The view showed lights from buildings and lit street-lamps twinkling like stars among the snow-covered roofs of the capital, but its beauty was lost on Lillet.
"Amoretta, I'm so sorry," she said in a rush, her words tumbling out one after the other as if she was desperate to get them all said before Amoretta had a chance to stop her. "I'm not ashamed of you or of us or of anything. I was just scared of what might happen, unsure of myself. It's...the people you love have the power to hurt you more than anyone, and I didn't know what my family would say or think. I didn't want them to hate me."
"You're right," Amoretta said, her fingers tracing patterns on the glass. "The people we love do have more power to hurt us than anyone."
"Why would they hate you, Lillet?" the other girl asked. She sounded genuinely curious.
"Lots of people don't approve of same-sex romances," Lillet pointed out. "They think it's some kind of perversion or deviancy."
"I know. Some of them are the kind of people who still think wizards and witches should be burned at the stake. Do your parents think that way?"
Since she obviously didn't mean magicians, Lillet answered the question asked.
"I don't know. We never talked about it. I'm the oldest child, so my brothers are barely old enough to start thinking about love, and I'd never--I mean...you're the first time I ever fell for a girl."
"Really? You always seemed so confident about it."
Lillet blushed at the implication, which made Amoretta smile.
Oh, good! If it makes her feel better, it's worth being embarrassed.
She had a point, though, ignoring the double entendre.
"I don't know why. It just always felt right with you. Holding you, kissing you, touching you, loving you...it was so easy and natural, the way things were meant to be."
"Then...don't you trust your family? If you love someone, then you should want them to be happy."
"But you also don't want them to do something stupid or self-destructive. I mean, if I tried to pledge my soul to a devil lord to become the next Archmage, you'd try to stop me, wouldn't you?"
"Absolutely. I see--you're afraid that they'd want to save you from yourself? Or from me, if they thought I was the temptress that lured you off the straight and narrow."
"I didn't know what to say, or how to explain what I felt for you. I mean, I was barely more than a kid then, or now for that matter. How was I supposed to find the words?" She sighed. "Sometimes I really envy you, Amoretta."
Amoretta tipped her head to the side, regarding her curiously.
"Because you always say what you feel, without hesitation or nervousness. You're the most honest person I know."
"It's not something I think about or strive to do. It's just the only way I know how to be."
"That's why I envy you. It would be so much easier, sometimes, if I didn't have to fight for exactly the right words, if I could always express exactly what I felt in my heart. I just didn't know how I could say it so my family would understand what it is I feel for you, or how happy your love makes me. You...you make my heart feel like our Christmas tree, all shining with light."
"But how could I say that to Mom and Dad, especially in a letter? And they weren't here with us, so it was easier just to ignore the whole thing and save myself the trouble. I always thought, well, I'd tell themsomeday, on my own terms, but in reality I was only hiding from the problem until it was forced on me."
She held out a hand to Amoretta.
"I was a coward, I admit it. Funny, isn't it, how I faced down Lujei's ghost and the Archmage and got the better of bargains with devils, and yet the idea of four ordinary people's scorn made me quake in my boots? But I swear that I was never ashamed of you or ever thought of turning you away. Like I told you before, all the love I have to give is yours if you want it, no matter what happens or who turns against us, Amoretta. Please believe me."
Her appeal hung in the air for a moment that could have been a year, and then Amoretta's arms were around her. Lillet felt the warmth of her lover's cheek against her own and inhaled the sweet fragrance that clung to Amoretta's hair. She clasped her tightly, almost fiercely close, and whispered softly, "Thank God."
"Well, I'm glad to see you both came to your senses."
The both turned towards the voice, releasing the embrace so they could move but not releasing each other.
"How long have you been watching, Mrs. Blan?"
"Almost the entire time," she said without a hint of embarrassment for her eavesdropping. "I had to know how you felt about one another, and you would hardly be open about it in front of me. Land sakes, I was a girl once, and I knew I couldn't have talked straight about your father to my ma either, at your age."
"And you don't mind about Amoretta?"
Mrs. Blan pursed her lips.
"Well, I won't go so far as to say it's what I expected for my girl, but it's clear she's the right one to make you happy and that means a heck of a lot more than whether it raises a few eyebrows among the neighbors. As for your father, I'm sure Sauvi will stomp around grumping for the better part of a couple weeks then forget he ever said a bad word about it, like he always does."
Amoretta smiled brightly.
"See, Lillet, I told you that you should trust your family."
"She's a smart girl. You should listen to her, Lillet."
"Yeah, I should at that," Lillet agreed, blinking away tears.
"Lillet, you're crying again." Amoretta's fingers brushed a stray tear from her cheek.
"I'm sorry; I'm just so happy to have everybody. You and Mom and Dad and my brothers and even Gaff. I've already got the best Christmas gift I could hope for."
"Does this mean I should return what I bought you?"
"Not on your life!" All three of them laughed at that one.
"Well, then, if we're all through that, shouldn't we get out of this drafty tower and back to your room? I asked that nice elf boy to put on another pot of tea, and he didn't seem the type to like it when people show up late."
"No, he's not."
"All right, then. Oh, and by the way, just because I'm saying it's fine with me you're in love with a girl, doesn't mean I'm not expecting grandchildren!"
"G-grandchildren? But how--?"
Her mother grinned and shrugged.
"You're the famous magician, aren't you? You figure it out."
Amoretta's laughter accompanied them all the way down the stairs.
NOTES: I wasn't quite sure whether a Christmas story would be appropriate in a fantasy universe, but there were enough citations in GrimGrimoire to Judeo-Christian theology (multiple Garden of Eden references, the Lemegeton being Solomon's grimoire, etc.) that I felt it wouldn't be particularly out of place. My biggest worry was about Lillet's mother still being alive, but the epilogue specifically refers to herparents being proud of her, so I guess she's just that rare exception to the RPG hero rule who actually comes with a fully intact family!
Farmer Meyers' name came from Meyers' rum, and the nickname of Lillet's father, Sauvi, is short for Sauvignon Blan(c).
And yes, Amoretta's line about Lillet being "lured from the straight and narrow" was an intentional pun. Not by her, of course, but by me. ;)