"Mr. Advocat!" Lillet yelped, jumping back a step in surprise. "It isn't nice to sneak up on people like that." She frowned and added, "How long have you been eavesdropping, anyway?"

"Oh, nearly the entire time. It was quite touching."

Advocat was the Magic Academy's sorcery instructor. He looked like a tall, slender gentleman with curling brown hair and a pointed goatee, dressed as always in elegant though slightly dated courtly fashion dominated by blacks and reds. He seemed the very image of a court dandy, a social butterfly whose greatest threat was to the fathers and husbands of easily influenced maidens.

Learning that his true name was Mephistopheles tended to dispel that impression.

"Spying on people isn't nice."

"Come, now, it's a teacher's duty to be aware of what his students are doing. Besides which, you're the most entertaining thing that's happened to this place in years, Lillet Blan."

"Mr. Advocat!"

"No, really. Tempting an angel into delicious sin. Sullying the lovely Amoretta's purity. I couldn't have done it better myself."

Lillet flushed a color somewhere between that of a tomato and a beet.

"It isn't like that," she snapped back hotly. "I love her!"

"Yes, I know. It's a flaw in the perfection of it, but one must take what one can get." He brushed imaginary dust specks from the front of his tunic.

Lillet suddenly broke into laughter. The truth was, she generally got on well with Advocat. The main thing, she'd found, was to remember that he was a devil and not expect him to follow human standards or morality.

"Does something amuse you?"

"Well, I was just thinking...if I didn't love Amoretta, then she'd never let me near her. As a devil, you can't love, so you're right--you couldn't have done it better yourself."

Advocat blinked in surprise, then laughed again, appreciating the point.

"Perhaps it's better that you do leave, then. I wouldn't want one day to find myself dancing to your tune like some conjured imp."

"Mr. Advocat, that isn't possible."

"Of course it isn't, but if you came to believe that it was, it could be very pleasant for me. Your soul would be quite the prize."

"Thank you."

He laughed again.

"How calmly you treat with devils, Lillet Blan. I truly will miss you." He swept her a deep, elegant bow, and in the next instant there was nothing there but a rat scuttling into the shadows. Lillet sighed, shook her head, and went back to her room. Gaff was busy sweeping, and looked up in surprise when Lillet opened the wardrobe door and started pulling out clothes.

"Hey, what's going on?" When she set her travel satchel next to the clothes, he added with a yelp, "You're not getting kicked out, are you? What did you do, get into a magical brawl with a teacher during the morning? Decide to dump Amoretta and run off to Albion after that Bartido guy?"

"In that order, no, no, and definitely not!"

"Then why are you packing?"

"Professor Gammel recommended me for a job as a Royal Magician! Amoretta and I are leaving for the capital tomorrow." She looked around. "I wonder if I can get another satchel. I didn't have much when I came, but now I have all these grimoires to take with me."

"A Royal Magician? But you only got here a couple of months ago!"

Lillet nodded, though she wasn't quite sure that she'd ever look at the passing of time in quite the same way ever again.

"Well, I'm not surprised," Gaff continued, buffing his nails on his green jacket. "After all, you did have me to look out for you."

"That's true," Lillet said. Then, suddenly, she spun, scooped up the elf boy, and hugged him, hard.

"I'm really going to miss you, Gaff. You were my first real friend here, even before Margarita."

"Hey, hey, hold on! That's nice and all but can you put me down?!" he shouted, squirming.

"Oh...oh, sorry," Lillet hastily apologized, setting him back down.

"Yeah, geez, what are you doing, picking up a fellow like that?" he muttered, getting his hat straight again. He was silent for a moment, not meeting her eyes, then said, "So, this Royal Magician stuff...I guess it means you'll be moving to the capital, then?"

"Uh huh."

He tapped his foot slowly.

"Pretty big place..." he mused. "A couple of girls alone there, who knows what could happen to them?"

Lillet wondered for a second where this was heading, then realized what Gaff was getting at. He can be such a boy sometimes! she thought, but a smile crept out.

"You're right," she said in her best fake-mournful voice. "We'll be all alone there, without anyone to look after us."

"Wellll...I guess I could come along and help out. You know, because those palace servants certainly don't know anything after looking after a magician. You need someone you can trust or who knows what might go on?"

"Oh, Gaff, would you? I'm sure Amoretta would be so very grateful as well to have you along."

"It's got to be done," he decided. "I can't just leave you in the lurch like I was some pixie."

"Thank you, Gaff," she said sincerely. She'd had to choke down a laugh during her performance, but it had to be done. The young elf's pride would never let him admit that he wanted to go with Lillet because he liked working for her and considered her as much a friend as a magician to serve. Boys were funny that way, apparently whether they were human or not.

Since gushing would just embarrass him, she moved on quickly, asking him to talk to Dr. Chartreuse about special packing for Amoretta's flask. It was far too easy for fragile glass to come to grief and a mishap would not happen if Lillet had any say about it!

"Don't worry," Gaff said. "Just leave it to me, and between the doctor and I we'll have that bottle snugged up so tightly you'll be more likely to break than it will."

Remembering her last flight on dragonback, when she'd first traveled to the tower, Lillet didn't think that was all that strong an assurance. When she thought about how she'd whirled through the air, frozen wind beating at her face, her legs and bottom aching from being buffeted in the saddle by the flexing of the flying creature's powerful muscles, the straps holding her in place biting painfully into waist and thighs, she gave serious thought to walking to the capital.

At least I'm not afraid of dragons any more, she thought. Summoning them in Advocat's sorcery classes had cured her of that. I wonder if he has anything that can cure a fear of flying?

-X X X-

A few hours later, though, the thought of flying dragonback the next day was completely gone from Lillet's mind. She was far too nervous about what was coming next to be concerned about things that were that far off in the future!

Margarita dug an elbow into her side.

"Lillet, your knees are knocking so loudly that they can hear you three tables over!"

"I'm sorry, but does this have to be in front of everybody?"

"Um, yes, that's why they call it a ceremony."

On Lillet's other side, Amoretta said, "At least Professor Gammel is doing this now, at the dinner hour, instead of having a special, separate assembly for the purpose. He's probably doing it this way because he knows how self-conscious you are."

Lillet sighed.

"You're probably right."

"Are you going to finish that?" Margarita asked, pointing to the untouched slice of roast beef on her plate.

"Oh, no; I'm so nervous I can barely stand to eat anything."

"That's what I thought." Margarita deftly snagged it with her fork. "You should let Amoretta have that carrot you've been nibbling at. It would be like an indirect kiss!"

While Lillet blushed, Amoretta gave Margarita a curious look. "An indirect kiss? I don't think I understand."

"Because she put her mouth there, then you do the same thing, so it's like--oh, never mind. You get the real thing from her anyway, so you don't need to worry about schoolgirl imitations."

"You're right; you can't feel the warmth of a person's lips on a carrot."

Margarita sighed.

"I so need a boyfriend. Bartido went for you, Lillet, and then got sent home as a foreign spy, and though Hiram turned out to be a prince he was head-over-heels gone for Ms. Opalneria from the start."

"Maybe you can chat up one of the first-years," Lillet suggested. The dining hall was more crowded then it had been in ages, with over a dozen new students referred by the Magical Society having arrived in the past week.

"Nah, most of them are just kids. Only a couple of the guys are even fifteen." She sighed again, then grinned slyly. "Or I could follow my best friend's example and have Dr. Chartreuse make me one."

"Margarita!"

"I don't think that would work," Amoretta said seriously and without trace of offense. "A homunculus needs love to exist, and from what you say, you're looking more for a sense of romance, a light flirtation, and an object of lust."

"You're right, darn it. Oh, hey--Professor Gammel is standing up. This could be it!"

Lillet swallowed nervously. Gammel had indeed risen to his feet at the professors' table. With a few chimes of his spoon against his glass he quickly captured everyone's attention.

"Ladies, gentlemen, as some of you are aware there is a presentation to be made this evening, one in which I take the greatest pleasure in giving. I thought it best to wait until everyone has had the chance to eat; when you get to be my age you learn that speeches are better digested as a dessert rather than as an appetizer."

He paused while there were a few appreciative chuckles, then went on.

"When I founded this academy, magic was largely considered to be a frightful and dangerous thing. People feared it as unnatural and outside their experience, or they believed it to be a devil's trick despised by God. Some of you"--his eyes flashed to Margarita--"have experience with this sort of attitude even today, so you can easily imagine how things were then. The fact that the Archmage Calvaros had used magic in his attempt to overthrow the social order, to try to conquer this kingdom and no doubt the world, only emphasized this negative impression.

"Thus, the purpose of the Magic Academy was twofold. On the one hand it provides a place where the teaching of magic can proceed in an orderly fashion, not hiding away in shadows but openly and honestly, like any other branch of human knowledge. On the other, it provides you, the students, with the opportunity to explore your magical gifts freely, to learn and grow and to become the person you were meant to be without having to face fear and ignorance at every step. I tell every student upon arrival that classes are organized around you; this is not a pithy motto but the simple truth, for it is you, the students, whom this academy exists to serve."

Off to Gammel's side at the head table, Advocat rolled his eyes theatrically. Lillet frowned at the devil teacher and he grinned back, unrepentant.

"When a student completes a course of study here," Gammel continued, apparently unaware of the byplay, "it is more than just a rite of passage, but a victory, one fought and won by that student on his or her own behalf and on behalf of all magicians, past, present, and future. It is thus my very great honor and pleasure that we celebrate such a victory tonight."

He turned directly to Lillet and she quivered in her seat.

"We all of us owe Lillet Blan a debt we can never repay for her actions during her stay here. It is not my intention to go into that once again; many of you already know the story and in any case that is not the victory we are here to celebrate. Rather, I wish to congratulate Miss Blan on another accomplishment of hers, one that may not become celebrated in legends and ballads but one which I hope will lead her to greater happiness in the future. Please rise, Miss Blan."

Legs trembling, Lillet got to her feet. I don't think I was this frightened when I faced down Grimlet, she realized.

Gammel reached into his robes and took out a scroll of bright ivory-colored parchment, tied at its ends with glittering silver cords and sealed with crimson wax.

"Lillet Blan, as you have completed fully all the courses of study offered at the Magic Academy at the Silver Star Tower it is my honor as founder and principal of the Academy to confer upon you this diploma of graduation and to confirm your status as a full-fledged magician of this kingdom."

He extended the scroll towards her. Lillet stood paralyzed for a moment, but managed to start forward without needing a push from her friends. She strode between the tables, down the center aisle towards the head table, gaining confidence with every step. She took in the faces of each teacher: Advocat's smug smile, Dr. Chartreuse's solemnity, Opalneria Rain's stern approval. Most of all was the look of pride and affection on the face of the fatherly old wizard that stood awaiting her. Though she couldn't see them, she also felt the eyes of her friends on her: Gaff and Margarita, Hiram, and most of all Amoretta's love, which was like a tangible force urging her onwards. She wished her parents and brothers could be there as well; it wasn't every family of country farmers who'd enthusiastically support their eldest child's desire to pursue a career in magic, let alone send her off to school for it. She wanted so much to repay their support and trust in her, and this would be a wonderful first step.

At last she reached the head table, and Gammel placed the scroll solemnly into her hands.

"Congratulations, Miss Blan."

Behind her, Margarita let out an enthusiastic whoop and began to clap. The sound was joined by another pair of hands and another, and another, until the dining hall swelled to bursting with the applause. Tears of joy pooled in Lillet's eyes. Thank you, she thought, thinking of everyone who'd become so dear to her over these few short days, this strange eternity. Thank you all so much.

And then she turned back to a future, knowing that she had at last reached an end that wasn't really an end at all, but just another step along the way.