Viktor Ketel's bookshop was one of Lillet Blan's favorite places in the capital. His storefront was in the Old Quarter, the twisted mass of close-set medieval buildings that were the original heart of the city. He'd started small, an immigrant with a couple of shoprooms and an eye for a deal, but had soon thrived and sought to expand. However, due to the irregular nature of the leases and ownership of the block of adjoining buildings around his store, he'd been forced to expand in odd ways--an attic here, a second-floor room there and the like, all connected by a nest of narrow, ill-lit staircases, almost like a kind of plant growing up through the block. Lillet liked it because it was one of the weird, almost magical places in the city that had a sense of wonder and mystery about them. Stepping inside raised a ghost of the feeling of enchantment she'd felt when as a teenage girl she'd entered the Magic Academy at the Silver Star Tower for the first time.
Thus, when the Mage Consul felt a tug on her dress and looked down to see a small boy with tousled black hair looking at up at her with wide eyes, it didn't strike her so much as a matter for concern as being just one more unusual happening, the kind of magical randomness that occurred in that type of place.
"C-can you find my mommy?" the boy asked. He looked to be no more than five or six, and there were faint hints of tears starting in his eyes. Lillet immediately gave him her biggest, most reassuring smile.
"Of course!" she said, hoping as she said it that the boy's mother was just off in another room and not miles away or dead or something like that. Just because he wanted his mother didn't mean that was whom he'd come to Ketel's with. "I'm a magician, after all!"
"Nuh-uh," the boy said, shaking his head.
"Yes, I am."
"Nuh-uh," the boy insisted again. "You're young an' pretty, an' witches are all old and wrinkly like Grammy, an' they wear pointy black hats, an' they have crookedy pointy noses like beaks!"
Somebody likes fairy tales, Lillet thought.
"Well, your grammy was young and pretty once, too, and I do have a pointy black hat; I just left it downstairs because it would bump on the ceiling." That was essentially true; the ceilings were only six and a half or seven feet high in many of the rooms.
The boy looked at her doubtfully.
"Are you sure?"
"I'll prove it!"
Lillet rubbed her thumb over a plain silver ring on her right hand. Since even a magician as powerful as she was took a minute or two to cast a Rune and summon a familiar, she'd enchanted a number of talismans in advance by binding various spirits to them, in case she needed to summon something in a hurry. At once, a fairy appeared in mid-air, a delicate blonde girl in a green dress with iridescent dragonfly-like wings buzzing to keep her aloft.
"I'm here!" the fairy said cheerfully. "What's happening?"
"Wow!" the boy exclaimed, his mouth an open O. "You really can do magic!"
"I told you. So let's find your mommy, okay? What's her name?"
The boy looked confused. "It's...it's...She's Mommy."
"Well, what's your name?"
"Adam," he said.
"What's your last name?"
"Go look for his mother," she told the fairy. "She should be in the store somewhere--isn't that right?" she asked Adam.
"Uh-huh," he agreed, nodding.
"Okay, fine!" the fairy chirped, and flew off.
"There! She'll find your mommy for you."
"Shouldn't we look too?"
"Nope. When you're lost, you should always wait in a safe place and let the people looking come find you. If you move around, you might go somewhere they've already looked."
"But I'm not lost! Mommy is!"
"She doesn't know that, I bet. She probably thinks you're the one who's lost."
"Really?" Adam asked, as if unable to understand how anyone could possibly believe that.
"Really! I grew up on a farm, and my mommy would get lost in our corn fields all the time when I was a little girl, but she'd always think it was me who was lost. I think it's just part of being a mommy."
Adam wrinkled up his nose.
"Yeah, but we'd better wait here anyway, or else she'll just get scared and probably mad at us."
"Mmm." He paused, then an idea hit him. "Hey, do some more magic!"
"I shouldn't do that. Mr. Ketel would get mad if I damaged any of his books." She patted the nearest shelf, which reached all the way to the ceiling. The odd rows of shelves made the place even more maze-like than its crazy-quilt architecture; you could be ten feet away from a dozen people and never know it. It was no wonder, Lillet thought, that a boy Adam's age had gotten lost. "I'll tell you a story, though."
His eyes grew wide.
"Really? With knights an' dragons an' everything?"
"Yes, with knights and dragons and everything," she said with a laugh. Since he clearly hadn't gotten his fair share of "good witch" tales, she told him the story of Sir Gareth, who was the son of a petty king but had pretended to be a kitchen boy so he could prove himself worthy on his own, and how he'd helped the enchantress Lynnette rescue her sister from the evil Sir Ironside of the Red Lands. Around halfway through, Lillet's fairy brought back a plump woman clutching an armload of books, but Adam was so spellbound that she remained quiet despite her obvious relief at finding him safe.
Adam was surprised when they got to the end of the story and Sir Gareth married the witch instead of the rescued sister.
"I thought when you rescued a princess you got to marry her."
"Well, he didn't know her, and who'd want to marry a girl they didn't know?"
"Not me!" Adam agreed at once.
"Right, and heroic knights shouldn't do silly things that you're smart enough to avoid."
"That was a great story, though."
"You should tell your mommy about it," Lillet said, and pointed. Adam turned around and his eyes widened.
"Mommy!" Adam launched himself at the woman and glomped tightly onto her leg. She shifted her books to free an arm and hugged him just as tightly to her.
"She was calling for him," the fairy said, "but this place is weird; she was only one room away but there's a whole apartment in between there and here so you couldn't hear her."
"It was good work. Thank you very much," Lillet told her familiar.
"Of course!" the fairy said smugly, and in another instant the nature spirit had vanished back into Faerie.
Adam's mother was busily trading off between being happy her son was safe and chastising him for not staying close to her like she'd told him, but she took the time to turn back to Lillet.
"Thank you so much for looking after him. I...I don't know what I'd have done if...if anything had..."
"Aw, it's okay, Mrs. Samuels. I have a couple of little brothers. I know how boys that age are."
"Still, at least let me thank you properly, Miss--"
Apparently, Mrs. Samuels had heard the name; she paled suddenly and despite being encumbered by her books on one side and Adam on the other managed to give a passable imitation of a curtsey.
"I'm...I'm so sorry to have put you to so much trouble, Mage Consul," she said in a very small voice.
"Oh, don't be silly."
"Mommy, do you know this lady?" Adam asked.
"She's the Mage Consul, Her Majesty's personal adviser on magical matters."
"Wow!" Adam said, probably not understanding most of that but realizing from his mother's reaction that it meant something important.
"Well, today," Lillet said, smiling, "I'm just a passing witch who tells stories and finds lost mothers for good children."
"Y-yes, my lady."
Lillet sighed. Mrs. Samuels was clearly a hopeless case when faced with authority.
"Just take care in the future, okay? You've got a real treasure to protect."
No longer in the mood to shop, Lillet left the bookstore and let her carriage take her home. It was annoying when a title made people act weird around her, but she supposed it was only to be expected. That was the nature of power, any power, and was only enhanced by the unnaturalness of magic. It was still annoying.
Lillet's townhouse was a mansion in the New City, one of many such estates that marched along Argentine Way, each a little island behind its brick walls. Lillet's wall was different from most because it lacked the nasty-looking spikes so many had, instead featuring stone gargoyles every twenty feet or so. These weren't merely decorative statues but genuine alchemical creations, symbols that would awaken and breathe fire at those attempting entry by force. The gates swung open automatically at the carriage's approach, then closed behind them as the coachman took them up the front drive. He stopped before the door and Lillet hopped down without waiting for him to come around and assist.
Lillet had just gotten through the front door into the foyer when the sound of scampering footsteps preceded a beautiful ash-blonde into the room.
"Lillet, you're back!"
Amoretta Virgine looked to be around eighteen. She'd looked that way when Lillet had first met her six years ago, when Amoretta had been one hundred and six days old, and she'd look the same for however long she continued to exist, as was the nature of a homunculus. She had been the ultimate creation of Lillet's alchemy instructor, Chartreuse Grande, the spirit of an angel incarnated in an artificially crafted body. Very much unlike most homunculi she had not stayed with her creator but had followed Lillet, who could offer her the one thing that Chartreuse could not, something that made her existence complete.
Since Lillet's arms were empty, she opened them as Amoretta rushed towards her, closing around the other woman in a gentle embrace.
"Were you in the front parlor so you could see when I came back?" Lillet teased.
"I missed you," Amoretta said. "I hate being apart."
"Me, too," agreed Lillet, though she didn't mean it in quite the same way. Togetherness was almost a physical need for the homunculus, while Lillet only suffered the ache in her heart caused by the separation from the one she loved when they were apart. She let out a long sigh, holding Amoretta against her.
"Lillet, what's wrong? Did something happen? You never come home from Ketel's without any books, and now you feel so tense."
"I...I just had a hard reminder of what my life has cost me."
Amoretta slipped a hand up and gently cupped the side of Lillet's face, meeting her gaze with a look of concern that was so intense it carried tangible force.
"Please tell me, my love. Let me bear any burden along with you," she said, and as always Lillet's heart melted.
"All right." She told Amoretta everything about Adam and his mother. Amoretta listened intently--she always did--laughing at the funny parts, looking sad at the end when Mrs. Samuels had been overcome at the realization of Lillet's high rank.
"It can be hard, living in a world where you're always set apart from those around you."
"You'd know better than I would about that."
"I think it's easier for me in some ways, though. I never was human, so I've been different from the day I was made and have always known it. Nothing I do will make me human, and I wouldn't want to be because it would mean losing part of me. You, though, have changed what you are and how you're seen through your own choices. That's different, because you aren't just imagining what it's like to be the same as other people but you actually know it."
"You're too good for me, little love," Lillet said with a wistful smile. "But the truth is, while it's annoying and it does hurt when people bow and scrape...or when they get scared and angry because they think I'm a freak or a monster...I wouldn't give up my magic just to be accepted and I wouldn't give up you for anything. That isn't what it was that upset me."
Amoretta tipped her head to one side, looking at Lillet from a slightly off-angle, a mannerism that she often used when she was curious.
"Oh? Then what was it?"
Lillet smiled wistfully.
"It reminded me of how much I'd wanted children."
NOTE: Viktor Ketel's name comes from Ketel One vodka, and Adam Samuels is from Sam Adams beer. The version of Gareth Beaumains' story which Lillet tells to Adam is my favorite variation on the tale and I believe originated with Tennyson's "The Idylls of the King"--Malory has Gareth marrying Lionors instead of Lynnette (um, and I think uses the spellings Lionors and Linnet...but I digress). Incidentally, Ketel's bookstore is based on an actual used-book shop that was open in Champaign, Illinois when I was an undergrad; the place wasn't quite as mazelike as Ketel's but the second floor was divided up into a bunch of different rooms that required a fair bit of exploring to make sure you'd actually found everything that was there. I wonder if it's still open...