The affairs of state were not only settled in a council hall in open debate, nor across a polished oak table in a formal conference room, nor yet even in the dismal upstairs rooms of some den of iniquity where tobacco-smoke fouled the air and the odor of strong drink was the only thing that could make it palatable. Sometimes, the turn of a nation's fortunes and the turn of a couple on the dance floor at a Court Society ball went hand-in-glove.
Jules Courvoisier, then, was not surprised at all to see the Albionese deputy ambassador escort a young lady back to her mama at the close of the minuet. Dark-haired, handsome, and with an easy, self-confident manner, he'd put more than one impressionable maiden into a romantic swoon, and showed little sign that his charm would be fleeting. Indeed, if one were to overlook the possible irritations of marriage to a foreigner, he might be considered one of the Catches of the Season among the marriage-minded ladies.
The young man's face lit up when he caught sight of Jules.
"Ah, Count! It's good to see you," he called, crossing to the man's side quickly. Despite his origins, he spoke with almost no accent.
"Count, is it? And what brings forth this excess of formality, Deputy Ambassador?"
The diplomat grinned.
"Just being truthful. You see, I was hoping to take advantage of that royal blood of yours."
As his last name indicated, Jules was indeed, technically, a member of Her Majesty's family.
"And what can a fourth cousin--twice removed--of royalty do for you that you cannot?"
He grinned again.
"Cadge me an introduction to a pretty girl, of course!"
Jules chuckled. They were both of an age, in their early twenties, and appreciative of a pretty face and a well-turned ankle.
"What, have you fallen in love with a princess or something?"
His friend chuckled.
"No, I can't say that I aim quite so high as that."
Then who? I am agog with curiosity."
"Her." He indicated a tall blonde in a gown the color of amethysts.
"Mage Consul Blan?" Jules said incredulously.
"The very same."
"Good God, man, you'd be better off with a princess. She's said to be the most powerful magician since the Archmage! I may not speak for everyone, but give me a girl who can't turn me into a newt or call up a devil to eat me when we have a tiff, thank you. Besides, it's an open secret that she's not interested in men, if you know what I mean. She makes no attempt to hide the fact that she lives with that singer, Miss Virgine." He gave a salacious grin. "Can't say the name suits that one; she's quite the beauty, too."
"Jules, you should know better than to listen to irresponsible gossip about a lady--particularly a magician. Which, I may point out, is not something I am unfamiliar with."
"Oh, that's right. I always forget that about you since you never really make a point of it, but you're an Albionese Royal Magician, or whatever your equivalent is, aren't you?"
"Yes. We call it the Crown Wizardry Society, but the principle is the same as your Royal House of Magic."
"Well, I guess there's no objection, then. Come on."
Mage Consul Blan wasn't engaged for the quadrille that had just begun, so Jules led his friend over to where she was talking to the elegant Baron de Sangri.
"Pardon me for interrupting," Jules said, "but my friend here just had to make your acquaintance. Mage Consul Blan, may I present the Albionese Deputy Ambassador--"
The diplomat cut him off, grinning broadly as he spoke.
The kingdom's most powerful witch gaped at him in surprise.
-X X X-
The evening air was cool with a faint smoky scent to it as they strolled along the terrace.
"You didn't answer my letters, Lillet," Bartido said suavely. He'd grown in the years since she'd last seen him. His voice had deepened a bit, for one thing. For another, the brash arrogance of the boy had become an easy confidence in the man. His dark good looks hadn't changed, though. He was still as handsome as ever.
"Love letters from a boy I'd only known for a few weeks, and whom I hadn't seen in years?"
They'd been students together at the Silver Star Tower. Lillet had gotten to know Bartido well during her endless five days, the days she'd repeated over and over in loops of time until she'd at last mastered enough power to break free. Thus ironically she knew him much better than he knew her, because the present Bartido had only experienced those five days once, without memories of what might have been.
Not long after that time had ended, Bartido was expelled from the Tower as an Albionese spy. Lillet hadn't seen him in all the years since.
"What are you doing here, anyway? Since when do they let known spies back into the country?"
"Lillet, you wound me," he said, theatrically pressing his hand to his chest. The old Bartido wouldn't have done that; he'd have just gotten mad at her. "That was years ago. Now I'm a responsible diplomat. It's all government service, after all, only now I'm completely open about it."
"Well, you've certainly developed a silver tongue. Mr. Advocat would be proud of you."
"Now, if it were Hiram who said that, I believe I'd be justified in calling for satisfaction, but I believe you mean that as a compliment."
"Of course I did."
"You're not scared of him at all, even though he is a devil."
"He was my sorcery teacher, and he helped me in a lot of ways. But you weren't frightened of him, either--at least, not in the way that Hiram and Ms. Opalneria were."
"You know, Lillet, all these compliments don't go very far in explaining why you didn't answer my letters."
"Love letters?" Lillet said. "They were obviously just puffery, Bartido. You didn't know me long enough to form a 'grand passion that has haunted you the rest of your life'--wasn't that how you phrased it?"
"So you've committed my lines to memory? That's a hopeful sign, at least."
"Besides, you say as much every night to some girl or another. You've cut quite a dash through the Court ladies, you know. They say you're quite the player."
"Aha!" The smug, boyish grin she remembered spread across his face. "You've been paying attention to what they say about me. Hardly the act of a disinterested woman."
Lillet blushed. "It...it's not like that at all!" she protested hotly. "When I heard that someone I knew from the Magic Academy was at Court, I was naturally curious."
Sure. Right. Of course you were, his smile seemed to say, but Bartido didn't come out and say so the way he would have as a teenager.
"Anyway, you should know better than to listen to rumors about a person's love life. Why, if I believed what they say about you, Lillet, I'd think you were having a torrid lesbian affair with the city's finest singer."
"You don't believe that? Why?" Lillet was genuinely curious.
"Because I have an advantage that the ordinary gossipmongers don't have. I was Dr. Chartreuse's apprentice, the only person he trusted to assist him in his delicate experimental research. I helped him to create Amoretta. Unlike the people here, I know that she is a homunculus, created in the laboratory. I also know that she went with you because you loved her and that as an artificial life she needed love as her reason to be."
"You must have had some long talks with Dr. Chartreuse before Professor Gammel found out you were a spy."
"Even afterwards. He tried to defend me--but then, you know him; so long as I was an aid in breaking new research ground, he didn't care what ulterior motives I might have had. But, Professor Gammel felt he had a duty to Her Majesty, so I was sent packing."
Strains of music wafted out through the open doors to the ballroom; the musicians had started up a waltz.
"The point is," Bartido continued, "that I'm also aware that it didn't matter what kind of love Amoretta received; what mattered to her was to be loved."
Tell me to be your wife, and I will...Wish me to be your daughter, I would be. Amoretta's own words.
"Then," Bartido concluded, "while everyone else sees two women who deeply love one another living together and immediately jump to the most scandalous and prurient conclusion, I see things a bit differently." He bowed deeply to her. "And therefore, Lillet, since rumor has failed to suggest anyone else who may hold your heart, I beg your leave to offer myself in that role."
Lillet couldn't help herself. She broke up into a fit of the giggles.
"Do girls really fall for lines like that?"
He straightened, annoyance flickering across his face.
"What was wrong with that? I was being sincere!"
"I know, but it's still funny. I mean, you were always so direct and blunt that I used to call doing things by brute force settling them 'Bartido-style,' and now you're making elegant proposals? And I hate to say this, but you've got things really, really wrong, besides."
"What are you talking about, Lillet?"
"You know, I actually did have a crush on you, once. You were handsome, and had that kind of bad-boy act going on, and you were even kind of sweet. But then...I met Amoretta."
She leaned back against the balustrade that ran around the terrace, half-sitting on it.
"She was so sad and lost without love. She's beautiful and smart and talented and kind, and yet she never wanted anything those attributes could bring her. Not power or wealth or glory or knowledge or any of the things people like you and I want. All she ever asked from her existence was for someone, just one person, to love her." Lillet pressed her hand to her chest. "I think I lost my heart the moment I knew that."
She could feel her cheeks flush. It was embarrassing to say these things to a third person, but it felt good in a way, too. Bartido did understand Amoretta in a way other people couldn't. He could genuinely see what it was she was saying, presuming that his ego didn't get in the way.
Lillet lifted her gaze to his.
"You're right about Amoretta--what you said before. She'd have been ecstatic if I loved her as a sister. That's something else she's taught me, that love is love, and that's the important thing, not how we express it. So you're right that Amoretta would be with me if all I felt was the deep love that exists between close friends." She paused just a moment for emphasis, then said, "But that's not what my feelings are, Bartido."
She watched him closely for any sign of his feelings, but didn't have to. The old Bartido shone through the polished diplomat, bright and clear.
"Oh, man," he groaned with a pained expression. "Did I just go and make a complete fool of myself or what?"
"Of course not," Lillet said. "You're a spy, after all. You'll just have to think of a different way to worm the kingdom's magical secrets out of me than charming me with pillow talk."
"Is that what you think I was up to?" he yelped.
"I think that...we should agree that I think that was what you were up to," she replied.
In a moment, the diplomat's veneer was back in place.
"How clever you are to see through me, Lillet. I hope you won't hold it against me that I took so...unlikely...an approach as pretending to have treasured a schoolboy infatuation for years?"
"Not at all. I mean, you had to try," she said brightly.
"Then in that case," he said, extending his arm, "might I offer you a turn on the floor for the contre-danse I hear starting, as suits old friends?"
"I'd be delighted," she replied, and in the spirit of friendship decided that the faint, wet shimmer in Bartido's eyes was a trick of the moonlight.