17 High Court had a sad, kind of faded look to it, the look of something that had once thrived but now was slumping into a dismal end. The metal bar from which a shop-sign had hung jutted out empty over the street, and the windows were boarded up. There was no sign of the carriage in the road, but wheel-tracks in the splattered mud led down the adjoining alley. A tiny glint of light showed through a crack between the boards.
Inside the room, Lady Anheuser was not in a good humor, Her carefully-laid plans had gone badly wrong, and she needed to figure out something so she could come about. Her first instinct when she found she'd been tricked was to smash the flask and teach those blasted girls the price of crossing her, but that would be folly, especially since she still had no idea what could have caused Tempell to vanish like that.
"There's been no message from Master Benedictine?" she verified.
The leader of the men she kept on guard at the shop shook his head. There were four of them in all plus the coachman, all members of her house guard though dressed in ordinary clothes rather than their usual livery.
"No sign of him, milady," the guard confirmed, "not even that devilish rat of his."
Lady Anheuser scowled. It could not be coincidence; the wizard had obviously fallen foul of some trap of Lillet Blan's. The fact that she'd sent that creature to the crypt in her place proved it. Why else would she have tried such a trick unless she needed a free hand to be elsewhere?
"Milady, what are we going to do now?"
"I don't know; be quiet and let me think for--"
The front door flung open suddenly, crashing as it struck the wall. Everyone whirled to see the figure of Lillet framed in the door, with Amoretta behind her.
"It's over, Lady Anheuser," the magician announced. "We know everything about your plot, and Master Benedictine will testify about it to Her Majesty. Give Amoretta's flask back." She pointed to where it stood on the shop-counter.
"No, I don't think so." Moving quickly for a woman her age, she snatched up the flask and darted towards the back of the shop while her guards swiftly interposed themselves between Lillet and Amoretta and their employer. They drew their charmed blades at once, weapons enspelled by Benedictine to work against the familiars that they'd expected to have to fight when their lady had started this project.
Lady Anheuser was still five feet from the door into the back of the shop when it was pulled open from the other side.
"Lillet Blan!" she exclaimed. The girl standing there was an exact copy of the one that had come in the front.
"When you're dealing with a magician, you should always have more than one guard on duty."
Lady Anheuser took a couple of steps back.
"Why don't you make things easy on yourself and give back Amoretta's flask?"
"No! Come one step closer and I'll smash it! And don't try any magic, either; I may not be a magician, but I know what it looks like when one starts casting spells!" Without turning her head, she called to her men, "Captain, kill that freakish copy, and give the other one a few bruises as a lesson. As for you, Miss Blan, step back through that door. You're in my way."
The Lillet blocking her path did so, retreating cautiously as she advanced. The room at the back of the shop was bare, stripped of whatever it had once contained by the creditors of the last owner. The back door was open and the man on guard slumped halfway through it, asleep or unconscious.
Meanwhile, the swordsmen rushed Amoretta and the Lillet with her. Amoretta drew her own sword, but Lillet shouldered her back, keeping herself between Amoretta and the approaching blades.
"Protecting her, huh? Fine by me; you're the one we need to kill," said the captain, and chopped down at her with an overhead cut.
It was hard to say which startled him more, that his stroke was blocked with a flaming sword or that the spectral form of its wielder had passed through the two women to do that.
Two more of the ghostly warriors were upon them in another instant. One of the guards screamed and bolted, rushing towards the back of the shop. While the others' courage held, it was soon clear that their skill was not up to the task of confronting the phantoms of long-dead heroes Lillet had summoned.
When the terrified man burst into the back room, he bumped against his employer, making her stumble. Instinctively, she glanced back, seeing what had happened. She whirled back to Lillet, rage on her face.
"I told you what would happen if you tried any more tricks! This is on your head!" With that, she hurled the flask at the plank floor as hard as she could.
It traveled less than a foot before the doppelganger's tentacled arm covered the distance between them, wrapped around the neck of the flask, and pulled it in safely.
"We switched places on the way here," she said with Lillet's impish smile. "You should really expect misdirection when you try to pick a fight with a magician."
For a moment, Lady Anheuser just stared at her, her face flushed with impotent fury. Then, as if she, like her plans, were falling apart before their eyes, she staggered back until her back hit the doorjamb, and then she slowly slid down the wall until she was slumped on the floor, bitter tears of frustration just beginning to flow.
The chimera walked past her without a second glance and brought the flask back to the real Lillet, who passed it back to Amoretta.
"Lillet, your eyes...Is something wrong?"
Lillet sniffed and wiped away the tears that threatened to pour out from her.
"I'm just so glad it's over, and that you're all right." She flung her arms around Amoretta's shoulders and crushed her lover to her, all but drowning in the rush of emotion as the tension and fear that had eaten the past few days drained away at last.
Amoretta smiled gently, using her free hand to stroke Lillet's hair.
"I don't know why you're so excited. I always knew you'd be there to save me."
-X X X-
"I just don't understand it," Thomas Collins remarked a week later to his friend Stefan de Sangri in the coffeehouse. "Yes, she was a bit high in the instep, but all the dowagers are. There's nothing new about that. How could she be guilty of...of..."
"Accessory to murder, kidnapping, extortion of a Crown officer, and trespass in heretical arcana," de Sangri recited.
"I don't even know what that last one means."
"It's the remnant of the old witchcraft laws, I believe. The practice of 'unhallowed sorcery,' or some such thing."
Collins was so shocked he dropped his half-empty coffee cup. It landed upright, but still sloshed onto the table.
"Never say they're going to burn her at the stake?"
"No, no, old boy, don't get all in a dither. It's the third charge that will do for her. Her Majesty is not fond of people who try to subvert officials of her government, especially in furtherance of a possibly treasonous plot. No, there will be no stake and fire for Lady Anheuser, but a simple trip to the headsman's block. I believe I shall attend; gossip has it there will be quite a crush."
"Bosom-bow of m'mother's, too," he said glumly. "Probably have to rusticate 'till the scandal dies down."
"Not before Friday, I hope."
"Well, as we're on the topic of Lady Anheuser, do you recall the girl who sung at her musicale? Well, the Gazette says that Miss Amoretta Virgine will be making her professional debut as the opening act at Camden Lane."
"I say! I'll have to catch that; she was wonderful!"
"Just don't get so carried away with her charms that you feel obliged to send flowers."
"Really, Thomas," de Sangri drawled, "no one's worn green to the theater in years. It's simply not done."
-X X X-
"Mage Consul! Lillet, that's wonderful!" Amoretta exclaimed.
"It's embarrassing, really. The worst of it is, Her Majesty thinks she's rewarding me for rooting out a treasonous plot and defeating a Royal Magician who'd turned mercenary."
She looked around the room.
"Well, I suppose it is a reward in one way. The salary is muchbetter--it's on par with a Grand Council minister's stipend. We'll be able to move into a townhouse!"
"A house?" Gaff interjected. "There's no way I can keep up with a whole house!"
"That's true," Lillet mused. "Well," she concluded brightly, "you'll just have to have a staff help you."
"Housekeeper, cook, maids, footmen, that kind of thing. You'll be the butler, of course, if you're willing."
"Me? A butler?"
"Certainly," Amoretta agreed. "Who else would we trust to be the head of staff?"
Gaff shook his head in amazement.
"A staff of humans working under me. Who'd have believed it? And serving a Mage Consul besides!"
"Why does it bother you?" Amoretta asked.
"It's just so silly. I'm only twenty, and that's a title for legendary mages. Professor Gammel would have been Mage Consul if he didn't prefer to run the academy."
"You're as great a magician as Professor Gammel."
"You can't mean that!"
"Didn't we already have this discussion, Lillet?" Amoretta chided. "You really have to get past this modesty of yours."
"My family will be really proud," she admitted.
"Well, then, we should celebrate."
Gaff groaned and shouldered his broom.
"I know what that means. Come on, Grimalkin; let's go for a walk."
Lillet heard Gaff mutter, "I could have listened to my mother and became a garden elf, but no, I had to work for a magician," before she tumbled, laughing, into Amoretta's arms.
-X X X-
The dimly lit halls of Bastion Dunjon-Keep were heavy with the scent of dust and smoke. The lack of proper ventilation due to the need for security made the atmosphere foul and dank.
Two guards marched a prisoner down the hall between the ranks of solitary cells. Moans issued from behind some of the massive, metal-fitted doors, and curses from behind others, but the majority gave nothing but dead silence.
"'Ere we are," one guard said. "Number one-forty-seven." His heavy iron key rattled in the lock, and he swung the door open. The second guard thrust the prisoner inside. The slender, thin-faced man almost stumbled, but caught his balance. Like so many did, he spun back to the door so that it almost struck him in the face when it closed.
"Who's this one?" the second guard asked.
"Magician fellow, name of Benedictine. Guilty o' murder, treason, an' a bunch o' other stuff, but testified against 'is co-conspirators at trial, so as he got 'is sentence commuted ter 'avin' 'is magic sealed an' twenty years solitary, 'stead o' a stretched neck. Why?"
"Just curious, is all. His face looked kind of familiar."