Lillet Blan bit her lip, then stepped out from behind the changing screen.
"Well, what do you think?"
She pivoted, letting herself be seen from all sides. The skirts of the crimson dress swirled up around her ankles with the movement. Expectantly, she looked at her...actually, the seventeen-year-old Royal Magician wasn't sure what to call Amoretta Virgine. "Girlfriend" sounded somehow childish and impermanent, while "lover" focused more, to her mind, on the salacious, sexual aspects of the relationship. Romantic appellations like "beloved" or "one true love" were closer to accurate but were endearments more than they were descriptions. "Wife" probably summed things up the best in terms of what the meaning implied, but since they weren't actually married didn't fit either.
Amoretta pursed her lips, her cool, scarlet gaze measuring the dress's effect.
"You look very pretty, Lillet, but is wearing a prostitute's dress appropriate for this event?"
Lillet's head jerked back as if struck.
"I..." she murmured, then found her tongue and protested, "What did you say?"
"I said that I wondered if a prostitute's dress was appropriate for the occasion," Amoretta repeated calmly, then added in a thoughtful tone, as if she were genuinely mulling it over, "I thought that you said this reception is for Royal Magicians to meet with certain ministers and nobles, and would require formal wear?"
"How could you say something like that?" Lillet shot back.
"How could...? But you asked me for my opinion, didn't you?" the homunculus said, her expression showing confusion.
"And you couldn't wait for the chance to give it, could you?"
"Lillet, what's wrong? There are tears in your eyes."
"Well, what do you expect when your lover calls you a whore?" Lillet snapped at her. "God, where do you get off saying that when you prance around half-dressed in most everything you wear, anyway?" Lillet could feel her nails biting into her palms, her fists were clenched so tightly. It was bad enough to be insulted, but then for Amoretta to just stand there like she couldn't figure out why Lillet could possibly be offended just fueled her anger.
Her soft tone made it easy for Lillet's voice to overwhelm hers.
"What is it, are you just jealous that magicians can't bring guests to the reception so I have to go without you?"
"I've never known you to be cruel and petty, Amoretta!" The tears were starting to cloud her vision and her voice was choking up so that her screech was more like a squawk.
Amoretta rose from her seat on the bed, extending a hand.
"Don't touch me!" Lillet jerked back away from the contact. "Don't...I don't even want to be around you right now!" She all but flung herself at the door, yanked it open, and rushed out into the hallway, nearly bowling over the boyish, green-clad elf waiting outside.
"Hey, are you done getting changed, 'cause I—whoa!" Gaff had started to talk but had gotten cut off by her mad rush. He peeked around the corner of the open door, seeing Amoretta standing there with a shocked and hurt look on his face. "Amoretta, what's going on?"
"I...I don't really understand!" she exclaimed, and then she, too burst into tears.
~X X X~
Gaff wasn't the only person that Lillet's pell-mell rush through the Royal House of Magic nearly collected in its wake. She almost collided with one of the apprentices, a boy her own age, who'd been carrying a message at nearly the same speed Lillet was running and only flung himself aside just in time to keep them from plowing into each other.
"Hey, watch where you're—" he started, then realized he wasn't addressing another apprentice and hastily corrected himself to, "Oh, sorry, Mistress Blan." She didn't even hear the complaint or the apology, but just kept running. She nearly connected with Mistress Absinthe as she came out of the laboratory with a newly-brewed potion, luckily just missing a messy collision, and actually did brush up against Mr. Gabbiano and made him drop his grimoire as he was coming out of one of the summoning rooms. She barely noticed that, either, even though she'd actually struck his arm with her shoulder.
Lillet didn't stop running until she reached one of the inner courtyards, and only that because she'd have to start opening doors and choosing directions and her upset mind didn't want to do those things. Instead she went right to the big maple in the center of the courtyard, leaned up against it, and sobbed into her folded arms until the storm of tears was at last spent. Taking long, ragged breaths, she fumbled for a way to wipe her face but realized that she'd left her handkerchief in her other clothes and, since the red dress was short-sleeved, had to settle for the back of her hand. Her face was hot; she probably looked like a blotchy mess. Amoretta's lucky that she can cry without making—
She broke off in mid-thought.
Lillet couldn't understand why her beloved would say something like that. It was so out of character for her. She could be blunt and tactless, and sharp-tongued when she lost her temper, but Lillet had never known her to be vicious.
It didn't make sense.
Which means I'm missing something, Lillet thought. She was a magician, after all. She knew the difference between the truly inexplicable and the merely complex.
"This is important, Lillet," she told herself out loud. She glanced around the courtyard, which was little more than a triangular alcove where three walls of the palace met. Aside from the area in the center where the tree grew, it was cobbled over, and there were three stone benches for sitting. Lillet dropped to one of the benches and fisted her hands in the muslin skirts that were at the heart of the problem.
But it was such a nice dress, and Lillet had thought she'd looked really pretty in it. And Amoretta had...
She started to tear up again, then shook her head angrily, fighting for control. She was hurt and mad, yes, but if she allowed herself to break down she'd be useless. And wouldn't her detractors love that idea? Lillet Blan blubbering over a fight with her girlfriend, like a schoolgirl! Her journey through the loops of time at the Silver Star Tower had given her centuries of study's worth of magical knowledge, but in terms of actual memories, she only had twenty days' worth more than her actual age. Which meant that in terms of actual life experience and the maturity it brought, she really was just a seventeen-year-old girl.
Then again, she thought, her professors at the Tower hadn't shown great maturity when it came to love despite their centuries of life. Ms. Opalneria, Dr. Chartreuse, and Lujei had been no better at dealing with romantic feelings then the apprentices. Considerably worse, if Lillet were to be honest about it!
Besides which, she'd probably have gone mad if she'd had to endure those five days all those times, watching her friends die over and over—and probably enduring her own death more than once, when she had been just a fumbling apprentice and not a master simply unaware of the scope of her knowledge. She still had occasional nightmares about the two times she remembered watching Amoretta die, her homunculus body disintegrating to reveal the angel's spirit within, the searing golden light that shone for a few short seconds, consuming all corruption within it, and then vanishing.
She loved Amoretta so much; losing her over and over again would be unbearable torture.
She thought Amoretta loved her, too. She'd never doubted it since they'd become a couple. In truth, Amoretta's very life was sustained by the love between them; as an artificial existence created by alchemy, she was born outside of God's creation and needed to find love in the world to fill that void.
And yet she'd done something so completely outside her own nature as to tell Lillet the dress made her look like a whore! Why on earth would Amoretta make nasty, cutting remarks at her expense? They hadn't had a fight that Lillet knew of. Was the accusation Lillet had hurled at her true—was she jealous that Lillet would be going to the reception alone? It was certainly a fact that Amoretta disliked being out of Lillet's presence for any extended period of time. But that didn't ring true. Amoretta was forthright, not catty. If she resented or disliked something she would say so, not hold it inside and vent her anger with unrelated cruelty.
At least, that's what Lillet would have said half an hour ago.
And besides which, Amoretta knew that Lillet would have much rather had her by her side. Frankly, the idea of a formal party with dignitaries of the Court was terrifying. Etiquette and deportment were not the strong suits of a girl who'd spent the first sixteen years of her life on a farm. At least it wasn't a ball—Lillet was pretty certain that what Court Society meant by "country dances" didn't have anything to do with what they'd done at village celebrations, and as for a waltz, quadrille, or minuet, she'd be lost! It would have been very nice to have one person beside her who was unquestionably on her side!
No, Lillet decided, there was definitely something that she was missing.
~X X X~
"Geez," Gaff said, "what happened? I haven't seen Lillet look that upset in...yeesh, I don't think I've ever seen her that upset. What did you do?"
Amoretta blinked away her tears. Why was he blaming her? Although, she supposed, it was a reasonable assumption; when there are two people in a room and one runs off crying it was likely it was the other person's fault. And indeed, Amoretta was certain that she had done something wrong.
"I don't know," she said helplessly.
She felt a coldness clawing within her, the numb feeling growing not in her body but her soul, that sense that she was drawing apart from the world again. It was the ghost of that first hundred and six days of her life, when she'd existed as an unloved creation.
Had she shattered something priceless, somehow? Lillet had been so angry, accusing her of petty cruelty, criticizing how she dressed. She'd obviously hurt her love deeply, enough to make the violet-eyed girl strike back at her like a wounded animal lashing out.
"You don't know?" Gaff boggled at her. "Amoretta, Lillet's in tears. How can you not know? Didn't she say anything? What were you doing at the time?"
She looked at the young elf measuringly. On the one hand, it didn't seem right to share the details of her private fight with Lillet, but Gaff was a close friend. Amoretta needed to talk to someone, and the only other person that made any sense was her cat, who wasn't actually a cat at all but a minor devil, a grimalkin. He might have something to answer as well, but he wasn't there, having gone off to hunt rats or do whatever other cat-like things he did when he wasn't sleeping or snuggled into her arms.
Maybe Gaff could help. In any case, elves were much more like humans than homunculi were, so he might better understand why Lillet had reacted as she did.
"Amoretta?" Gaff prompted, making her realize that she had left his questions go unanswered for nearly half a minute.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I was just deciding whether it was something I could tell you."
"...Well, that's direct."
"I would like your opinion, if you don't mind."
"I'm at your service," he said earnestly, drawing himself up. Gaff did rather like the idea of being helpful, Amoretta knew; she'd come to understand that a lot of his...not quite self-esteem, but his sense of importance, of prestige, even, was based on how indispensable he was to his magician mistress.
"Well, you know that Lillet has to attend the reception tomorrow night; there are going to be ministers, nobles, and other various members of Court Society there, and many people want to meet the prodigy. Master Freixenet made it clear that it was an important duty for her to attend."
"Uh-huh, I know."
"Well, she bought a new dress, since she did not own a fashionable gown and it was delivered today."
"I knew that, too. It's why she shooed me out. A girl doesn't want some guy underfoot while she's changing clothes."
"Gaff, I'm trying to go through the whole story so that I don't skip over something important."
"Okay, I get it. I'll stop interrupting."
"She changed into the dress behind the screen, because she said she wanted to surprise me, then stepped out and asked me what I thought. I told her that she looked pretty, because she did"—she blushed faintly, recalling her feelings—"but I got worried because it was a formal event before Court Society and so I asked her if wearing a prostitute's dress was appropriate."
Gaff stared at her.
"You told Lillet she looked like a tart?" he said incredulously. "And you're asking me what it was you did to make her mad?"
"Then you understand?" she asked eagerly. "Can you explain it to me?"
He boggled at her.
"Amoretta, what's to explain? You told her she looks like a prostitute. You do know what that is, don't you?"
"Yes; Lillet explained once. I always thought it was really sad, a life where an act of love was reduced to a business transaction. I can understand why people consider the trade to be disreputable." Thinking about it had reminded her of the hollowness of her own life before Lillet, particularly when she came to understand that most people in that work had not chosen it out of desire but desperation.
"And you don't see why it would hurt her?"
"Wouldn't she want to know? Knowing that the trade is considered improper, I thought that it might be inappropriate for her to dress that way for the reception."
The elf groaned.
"Aw, geez, Amoretta, it's times like this that I forget just how innocent you are."
"I'm not even a year old," she said, a little defensively. It stung when people thought less of her because she didn't understand something she hadn't been able to encounter yet, as if she was stupid instead of just ignorant. She knew Gaff didn't think that way, but he still teased her about her innocence now and again, and even that was a little—
"People just don't say things like that to each other," Gaff was explaining. "Even if it was true, couldn't you have put it more nicely? That was a really insulting thing to say!"
"But if it was true, why would it be an insult?" This was the part that had bothered her. She could see, now, the kind of thing that Lillet thought she had been saying, but she'd only been pointing out a fact, not jumping to false conclusions. Amoretta certainly hadn't said that Lillet conducted herself like a prostitute, or even that she normally dressed like one.
Gaff let out a pained sigh.
"There's a little thing called tact, you know. Saying things nicely instead of being all mean about it?"
"But I wasn't being mean!"
Gaff gave her a long, measuring look.
"Does Lillet think that?"
Now it was Amoretta's turn to sigh.
"No, she doesn't. I need to apologize to her." And maybe, if Lillet believed she hadn't meant anything bad by it, she could explain why it was it had come out that way.
~X X X~
Lillet had been sitting in the courtyard, trying to work things out in her mind, for roughly a quarter of an hour when one of the doors opened, the click of the latch intruding on the silence.
The ash-blonde homunculus's face was nervous, her voice hesitant.
"May I come in?"
"Go ahead." She hesitated a moment, then patted the bench seat. "Would you like to sit down?"
The gesture made Amoretta's expression lift slightly. She must have been really worried, Lillet thought. Given Lillet's explosive reaction, it was a genuine reason to be concerned. She sat down, then immediately rushed into an apology.
"Lillet, I'm really sorry! I wasn't trying to hurt you, and I didn't mean to imply that you acted like a prostitute or were unfaithful or anything like that."
Lillet let out her breath in a long sigh. "I had mostly managed to figure that out for myself, but it really feels good to hear you say so." She let that rest for a few seconds before going ahead and asking the question she didn't have an answer for. "If you didn't mean that, though, then why did you say I look like one?"
"I said that you were wearing a prostitute's dress," Amoretta corrected, "not that you looked like a prostitute."
"Do you remember the day we went to Ketel's bookshop in the Old Quarter last month?"
"Yes; I found a volume of stories about the knights of Logres that I sent to my brothers." She smiled, recalling the twisting rooms stuffed full of books; she was very happy that Master Reisling had told her about it.
"Well, while you were getting us a cab after we were done shopping, I saw a lady of the evening who was wearing a dress of the same design as that one. When I saw you dressed that way, I remembered it."
"You remembered it from one glance, a month ago?" Lillet protested, then gave in before Amoretta even had to defend her recollection. "No, I know how your memory works. If you say you saw her wearing it, then you did." Lillet's shoulders slumped. "How could I have been so stupid?"
"You can put a dress on a pig and teach her magic, but that doesn't make her a lady," she said ruefully.
"A...pig?" Amoretta clearly didn't understand.
"It's an expression meaning to put a pretty veneer around something fundamentally unsound, that you can't change something's true nature with the external trappings of something else."
Amoretta reached out and laid her hand over Lillet's.
"You're not a pig, dearest."
"Aren't I?" Lillet said ruefully. Even so, though, she was cheered by the way the hesitation in Amoretta's manner had vanished, and by how the homunculus had easily understood what Lillet was saying.
"Just because you grew up on a farm doesn't mean that you're somehow unworthy of being at the palace. You can learn how to dress at a reception or which utensil to use at which dinner course, just like how you learned to read or to do magic. If you need advice about what kind of dress would be appropriate, why not ask one of the other female Royal Magicians? They come from all walks of life, so I'm sure several of them faced the same problem at one time or another."
Slowly, Lillet nodded.
"I guess that I should. I probably should have done that in the first place. Mistress Livingston might help; she's a marquis's daughter, so she would know all of the rules, even if she herself isn't interested in fashion." Lady Emily Livingston was an alchemy specialist, so most of her daywear was speckled by colorful stains and chemical burns, but she knew how to play the social game on the rare occasions when she could be coaxed out of the lab. "Or Mistress Absinthe, although I think I almost knocked her down when I was running through the halls." Lillet blushed, remembering how she'd bounced off people.
"Lillet, why didn't you ask someone for help initially?" Amoretta wondered.
Lillet thought about that.
"Pride, I suppose. I'm one of the youngest people here, younger by far than the other Royal Magicians and younger even than most of the apprentices, several of whom actually are qualified to become independent magicians but are continuing in the hope of winning a post here at the Royal House of Magic, like a law clerk does with a magistrate."
She paused, then turned to look Amoretta in the eyes.
"I guess...I feel that I need to prove I belong here, by being able to fulfill the requirements of a Royal Magician. And you and I both know that I'm not some amazing prodigy, but just have several extra lifetimes' worth of experience in which to master magic..."
"Isn't inappropriate modesty a kind of pride, too?"
Lillet winced, causing Amoretta to flinch.
"Oh, no! Did I do it again?"
"You...are a little blunt today."
"Gaff said that people don't say things to each other like I did, and I know he has to be right because of how you felt, but I don't understand what I should have done. I mean, the truth is the truth. That doesn't change."
"It's kind of hard to explain."
"Could you try?" Amoretta pleaded. "I don't want to accidentally hurt you again. I was so scared when you ran off angry; I was afraid that I'd made you stop loving me and I didn't even know why!"
Amoretta's eyes were wide and earnest with her sincerity.
"It's so unfair, Amoretta! Do you know hard it is to stay mad at you when you've already punished yourself for what you did wrong before you even understood what it was?"
"But I don't want you to be mad at me, so that's probably a good thing."
Lillet giggled, and Amoretta gave her a soft smile, glad that her attempt at humor had succeeded.
"Anyway, I'll try to explain. I know that the things you say are true, but people usually don't say hurtful truths to each other. With strangers or casual associates we usually don't say them at all unless they're directly related to the subject at hand, because it would hurt or embarrass them. Like...I would tell the news-hawker if he had set a stack of broadsheets in the gutter, but not that he had popped a stitch in the seat of his pants. I wouldn't want to hurt him by causing a scene, and by telling him flatly that at least one person—me—had noticed, it would cause him shame."
She paused, trying to think of another example.
"There's a neighbor of my parents', a Goodwife Molson. She's a very sweet lady in her fifties, and everyone likes her. She's always the first person to help out if someone's in trouble, or to share a bite of food with a traveler in need, or to assist with village projects. The problem is that she likes to bake fruitcakes and give them away to her neighbors every Christmas, and they're virtually inedible. Apparently, she's been doing it for thirty-five years, since she was first married. She bakes a couple of dozen each year, and they all end up as fertilizer or fed to the pigs. Everyone likes her so much that we'd never tell her, though; if she ever knew it would hurt her terribly."
"Just because of telling her the truth?"
"How would you feel if you were told that for year after year what you'd meant as a gesture of kindness was really just an annoyance?"
"I'd be very sorry, but...I'd want to know, too, so I could stop bothering people and start to do something they actually would enjoy."
There was no doubt in Lillet's mind that Amoretta meant exactly what she said. The magician couldn't help but smile.
"You're so pure, Amoretta."
"Don't you feel better knowing about your dress?"
"Yes, I do, but that's different. We're in love, so we should be able to tell each other difficult things. But you really could have been a little more tactful instead of just saying it straight out. Being told that way felt like a slap in the face. That's why I thought at first that you were being cruel and insulting, because normally people don't say negative things in that way without meaning cruelty."
Amoretta tilted her head to one side in an attitude of curiosity.
"So how would one say it?"
Lillet ran her fingers through her hair.
"It will vary from situation to situation, but the general rule is to be clear about the fact that you're not telling the person the hard truth out of malice. Like...like...if you'd said, 'I'm sorry to have to say this, Lillet, but when we went to the bookstore last month I saw a prostitute wearing that same dress.' It would still have hurt, of course, but I wouldn't have gotten mad at you. It does help to apologize in advance—if you know that feelings will be hurt, then you know there needs to be an apology, right?"
It felt so strange to be explaining things like, but how else would Amoretta have learned? Dr. Chartreuse wasn't very adept with the niceties of human emotion, and while Amoretta might be an adult she hadn't had a proper childhood, having emerged from her flask fully-grown.
"I think I see," Amoretta said, sounding a little dubious. "So, I caused you pain because you expected that if I had something bad to say about the dress, I would have told you more like what you just said?"
"Wouldn't it be easier if people just told each other the truth?" There was actually a faint note of chastisement in her tone, which Lillet suspected wasn't directed at her personally but at the human race in general, for hedging round plain speaking with social convention. She couldn't help but grin.
"I am really, really sorry."
"I am, too." She reached for Amoretta and pulled her into a tight hug. "We're a couple of prize idiots, aren't we?"
"Well, I'm ignorant about fashion, you're ignorant about manners, and we ended up yelling and scared and upset when we didn't have any real reason to be."
Amoretta blushed, her cheeks turning a soft coral pink.
"I feel so silly and embarrassed."
"There's one good excuse, though."
"Well, I'm seventeen and you're nearly one, so we average nine years old. You could say that we were just acting our age!"
Laughter was good medicine for the both of them.
~X X X~
A/N: Amoretta's truthfulness (and lack of knowledge of how to blunt that truthfulness for casual consumption) is something I've touched on before, in "The Making of a Family," and also in a draft of another story I was tinkering with. But it wasn't until deathcurse wrote "Try, Try Again" that I realized that I had a foil to play it off against—Lillet's lack of social training (which I also touched on in "Life in a Bottle" but in much-blunted form, since that story is set right at the end of Lillet's time as a Royal Magician, before she becomes Mage Consul) due to her commoner—peasant, really—upbringing. Fights are inevitable in regular relationships, and I can't imagine that Amoretta's non-human traits would make things any easier. Besides which, making up after fights is one of the best parts of a happy marriage!
I might note as an aside that the use of the term "Master" or "Mistress" among Royal Magicians is based upon respect rather than as a formal title; an apprentice would call any magician Master or Mistress, and a junior magician would call a senior magician Master or Mistress, while calling an equal or lesser one Mr./Mrs/Miss/Ms. Certain magicians would get Master-ed by everyone, the experts in their field (Master Tanqueray and Mistress Absinthe, for example, are the chief experts on warding magic within the Royal House of Magic). Lillet tends to be a bit freer with the "Masters" and "Mistresses" than is strictly necessary, due to her modesty and youth.