It had been sunny and dry for the past week, so the wheels of the "Gryphon" stage rose a cloud of dust as they rattled across the dirt of the inn-yard. Stablehands rushed forward to secure the horses and help lift down the bags; the stages and post-chaises were the life's blood of the coaching-inn and the staff had their duties down to a practiced routine. The coachman descended, opened the door, lowered the step, and offered a hand down to his six passengers.
One by one they descended: a well-fed merchant in brightly colored coat and breeches, his elderly mother in an overly fancy traveling dress, the stiff-backed old man in dark clothing and clerical collar, the two young, blonde ladies, one cradling a black cat in her arms, and the boy in green. Contrary to the driver's initial impression of the man when he boarded, the parson was smiling at the younger of the two girls. The honey-blonde in purple and black had the fresh-faced, apple-cheeked robust prettiness of a farm girl, though her still-coltish body made him judge her no older than sixteen. She was the polar opposite of her companion, whose features were more delicate and ethereal but her body lushly pretty.
"Will you and your companions be traveling on with us tomorrow, Miss Blan?" the priest asked.
"I'm afraid not, Father Fetzer," Lillet Blan told him. "We're going directly to the Royal House of Magic, so we'll be hiring a private carriage here tomorrow to take us into the city."
"Oh, that's too bad. I was looking forward to continuing our discussion on the ethics of magic use. I've rarely had such a stimulating debate."
"I'll miss it, too, Father. I hope you don't mind me saying so, but I've rarely met a Low Church parson with an open-minded attitude towards magicians. I'm more used to them being fire-and-brimstone preachers."
Father Fetzer chuckled, clearly not offended.
"Well, I won't say that you're wrong there. But it takes zeal to reform the Church in ways to strengthen people's relationship with God, and unfortunately the line between the zealot and the fanatic can be a thin one."
"Which is true of any movement," Lillet agreed. "I've met more than one magician who was pretty intemperate in their beliefs. In any case, it's been a pleasure getting to talk with you." She turned to her traveling companions. "Come on, Amoretta, Gaff. We should see about getting our room."
The ash-blonde and the boy in green trailed along behind Lillet; their group ended up being second at the desk after the merchant and his mother.
"We'd like a room for the night, please."
"Passengers on the 'Gryphon'?" asked the innkeeper, his broad handlebar moustache with its waxed tips twitching as he spoke.
"Yes, sir. We'd like two beds and a bath if possible."
"Of course. You can have Room Four, and just ring when you want the bath brought up. Dinner's between six and eight in the common room; it's included with the room for coach passengers, but wine's extra."
"Just sign the register, if you please."
He turned the big book around to her and Lillet started to write the L, before realizing that she was making a mistake, judging by one 'Captain' and one 'The Hon.' in the names above hers. A thrill of excitement ran through her as she filled in Royal Magician Lillet Blan for the very first time, then the name of her home village.
"Oh, sorry." She turned and gave the pen to the ash-blonde, realizing that she'd stopped and just looked at the name for several seconds. "It's just, I've never gotten to write that anywhere before. It's kind of exciting," she said with a faint blush.
The other girl wrote in mechanically-perfect copperplate: Amoretta Virgine, Silver Star Tower.
"Is it a good feeling?" Amoretta asked.
"Mostly," Lillet said. "It makes it all feel like it's real, like it's actually happening. I mean, I know that it's real here"—she touched her temple—"but believing it inside is another thing. It still feels almost like a dream."
"I understand, I think. When life gives you everything you ever hoped for, it can be hard to really accept that it's true, even when you know that it really is."
Lillet supposed that Amoretta would understand. The other girl's beauty wasn't natural, but created in an alchemy lab, a homunculus crafted around an angel's spirit called down to be used as her core. As an artificial existence, she had been given life without the love that is the birthright of God's natural creatures, and her creator had regarded her only as a thing, his ultimate experiment in alchemy but not something to cherish, to take joy in. For the first few months of her existence that lack had left her hollow, aching inside for that warmth she needed to sustain herself, until Lillet had met her and fallen for her, had filled that emptiness within Amoretta with a love the magician had barely understood herself capable of giving.
Yes, Lillet thought, Amoretta would understand.
"Hey, you got a footstool or something for me to stand on?" Gaff asked. "I can't reach the book."
"It's all right, little boy," the innkeeper said gently. "One of the ladies can sign for you."
"Geez, I'm not a little boy!"
Amoretta handed him the pen while Lillet lifted the register down for Gaff to sign.
"I'm sorry; it's plain that you're a big boy," the innkeeper said indulgently. It reminded Lillet of her parents talking to her younger brothers, so she guessed the innkeeper had children of his own.
"Actually, he's an elf, sir," Lillet explained as she replaced the book. "He's my..." She fished for a word, so Gaff ended up filling in.
"Y'know, Lillet, 'servant' isn't an insult."
"I just don't like to give people the wrong impression."
"What's to impress? You're the magician, I'm the elf. We've got a legitimate contract. It's not like I'm some ghost you raised up and now it has to do whatever you order it to."
"I guess you're right. I just don't want people to think that." Not to mention it feels really weird, me having a servant! After all, Lillet was only a few months removed from living on her parents' farm (if one didn't count centuries upon centuries of repeating the same five days over and over, which she didn't since she only actually remembered five such loops).
As for the innkeeper, the byplay had obviously had an impact on him. Words like 'elf' and 'magician' did not exactly pass unnoticed, and he'd immediately glanced down at the register, seeing what they'd written. As the proprietor of a major coaching-inn, he prided himself on being a cosmopolitan, but even so he had drawn himself up nervously.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Mistress Blan?" he asked stiffly.
"We'd like to arrange for a private carriage to take us to the palace tomorrow," she said. "Would that be possible?"
"Of course. It will be ready whenever you wish to leave in the morning." He made a few notes on a scrap of paper.
"Thank you. How much will I owe you?"
"Hm, one double room with bath for three coach passengers will be four and six, and the carriage for a one-day hire five silver."
"Very well, thank you."
He handed her their room key and summoned one of the inn-boys. Their bags and trunks had already been brought inside from the coach, and in a few minutes were efficiently deposited in a homey, comfortable-looking room with two beds, washstand, and a copper-bound tub behind a large folding screen which could be used for privacy. Lillet tipped the boy and they set about getting out the things they'd need for the evening and the next day. By the time they'd unpacked and refreshed themselves from the coach trip, it was after six and the appetizing smell of roasting meat could be scented from the dining room below.
"Mm, that smells good!" Lillet rubbed her belly.
"Hmph, do they serve elves?" Gaff groused, folding his arms over his chest.
"I don't think that many people recognize what an elf looks like," Amoretta said.
"That Father Fetzer did; it's how he and Lillet got into that big talk on the ethics of alchemy." He snickered, then added, "At least the rest of us got a good nap out of it. It was like having a sermon and a class lecture all at the same time."
"I thought it was very interesting," Amoretta said mildly.
"Well, you would; you do magic so you learn from the lecture, and you've got that angel in you so you'd appreciate the sermon."
"Be nice," Lillet chided. She extended a hand to Amoretta. "Shall we go down, or would you rather have them send a tray up?"
"This is my first time staying at an inn," Amoretta said, "so I'd like to see what it's like."
"Okay." Lillet hadn't thought of that; they'd flown by dragonback to one of the Magical Society branch-houses in Banrock Station and stayed the night there, then taken the "Gryphon" out the next day. It was so like Amoretta to be eager for a new experience, too. Sometimes the homunculus seemed like a much older woman, with a calm, serene wisdom, and other times she was like a child, her joys and frustrations completely consuming her. "I hope you'll have fun. I know that I will," she added as Amoretta took her hand, "walking in on the arm of the prettiest girl in the room. Gaff, are you coming?"
"I watched you two make goo-goo eyes at each other through a meal last night and again this morning, and that was quite enough. I'll stay here with Grimalkin, thank you."
Amoretta's cat yawned and stretched from the nest he'd built for himself on Gaff's pillow.
"If possible, coulds't you send up some fish or fowl for me as well?"
"We'll ask them," Amoretta said. "I'm sure they'll at least have some milk."
"Thank you." He kneaded the pillow with his paws and settled back in to sleep.
Lillet and Amoretta went downstairs. They stopped at the desk for Lillet to arrange for Gaff and Grimalkin's supper, which the innkeeper assured them would be ready right away. His manner bordered on the obsequious, which Lillet was already starting to recognize as one of two possible options for the reaction of people not familiar with magic. While more useful than the other response, suspicion and hatred, it was almost as annoying. Maybe someday, she thought, we can reach the point where most people just see magic as a craft. We can't get around the fact that it's a source of power, but at least if it could be accepted as a natural one, like a government position or skill at arms...
She had to smile at herself, then. She hadn't even gotten to the Royal House of Magic to formally take up her duties and she was already dreaming about changing the world. But then, it was good to have a dream, something to think of while living her life that could keep her on the right track in the face of distractions.
With that thought in mind, she went with Amoretta into the common room. The low ceiling was crossed by thick oak beams, and oil lamps on the walls kept the room bathed in golden light, although they plus the massive hearth kept the room slightly too warm for the season. The bar along one wall and the tables scattered over the floor were at least two-thirds full; the inn clearly served more coach lines than just the "Gryphon," or else its custom was known and favored in the village, both of which were good signs. They sat at a respectably clean table and a serving-maid came over almost at once.
"What can I get you, ladies?"
Lillet asked her what was available, then decided on the roast pork with potatoes and onions and a side of peas. Trusting the casks better than the well in such places, she settled on a small beer rather than the water. Amoretta didn't seem to have the same concern, since she asked for a cup of water with her bowl of stew.
"Do you not drink alcohol, little love?" Lillet asked her curiously.
"I've never had it before," Amoretta explained, "and I'm not sure how or if it might affect me since my body is different than a human's. I think that if I do experiment that it should be in private rather than a public place." She frowned slightly. "I'm not sure that I understand the appeal of liquor, though."
"Oh? In what way?"
"The idea of deliberately consuming a chemical which changes a person's perceptions and way of thinking. I don't see why people would want to do that."
Lillet thought about that. She knew a few people in her home village who drank to excess.
"I think it might be that they don't much like what they see with their own senses, so changing their perceptions is something they'd appreciate. Or 'bottle courage,' that sort of thing, when someone wants to change their way of thinking. But most people don't drink alcohol to excess anyway. And then sometimes people drink beer or wine because they can't trust the water, like in some cities or on a long sea voyage."
"I see." Amoretta's voice was thoughtful, as if she was genuinely taking in what Lillet was saying. Lillet liked that about her; the homunculus always took the time to seriously hear her side out, even if she didn't end up agreeing.
What she might or might not have said in this case was lost as the waitress brought their dinner to the table. Hungry from the long coach ride, during which they hadn't even stopped for luncheon, they both tucked in to the food. While it didn't compare to her mother's kitchen, nor was up to the standard of the Silver Star Tower's dining hall, the meat was tender, the vegetables crisp, and Lillet's hunger made it taste even better than it was. Amoretta, too, seemed to delve eagerly, if daintily, into her food. As a homunculus, she required less to eat than a human, sustaining herself as much by the magical processes that created her as by normal means, but even so she seemed to be thoroughly enjoying her dinner.
I guess even a homunculus can get hungry from traveling all day, Lillet thought, smiling. She supposed that in any new relationship, people learned new things about the other person all the time, but with Amoretta it seemed even more common, since so often those new things had to do with what she was in addition to whom.
Indeed, before they'd even finished eating, another such example provided itself. A young, bearded man entered the common room and sat down on the hearth. He unslung a leather case from his back, opened it, and took out a mandolin, leaving the case open next to the hearth. He turned the pegs, making a few adjustments, occasionally plucking a string to make sure that the instrument was properly tuned.
"So, gentles, who'd like a song?" he called out.
"Lillet, what is he doing?" Amoretta asked as various diners began to call out requests.
"He's a busker," Lillet explained, "a musician who plays for the crowds. The innkeeper probably gives him shelter and a meal in exchange for entertaining the guests, plus he gets any coins the diners give him, if we like his songs."
"You've never heard a song before?" Lillet said, surprised, but then realized that perhaps it wasn't that unusual. Dr. Chartreuse certainly hadn't been the type of person to sing, and it wasn't as if there had been musicians or concerts at the Magic Academy. The only way she'd have heard music was if one of the students or perhaps the elves or fairies had been singing near her. "It's...well, you'll hear."
Indeed, in the next moment, the young minstrel commenced to play, starting out with the jaunty folk tune "On the Road to Maydown." His playing was indifferent, if Lillet was any judge, but he had a good tenor voice and the upbeat tone caught the crowd's attention, more than one diner pausing in his or her eating to clap or stomp the beat along with the refrain.
Amoretta was delighted. Her face lit up like a child's, almost rapt in its attention. Lillet smiled at her love's reaction; Amoretta looked like she'd been given a special treat, no, more than that, it reminded the young magician more of how she would react when they'd been apart for a time and met one another again. She must have been enjoying it very much indeed.
The busker knew his business; having engaged his audience, he now moved to play on their emotions with "Barbara Lee," a mournful romantic ballad that plucked at the heartstrings and showed off his good voice. Amoretta was just as rapt at this tune, though a tear trickled from the inner corner of her eye and ran down her cheek. the third song was upbeat again, to keep the mood light; he'd picked "Robin's Run," which had started in the music-halls of the capital around ten years ago and spread out through the kingdom. Lillet guessed it was deliberate, to engage the audience, and it worked: as was usual when he got to the first chorus, the merchant from the "Gryphon" and one of the other patrons immediately joined in. Lillet swallowed a bite and did so herself for the last two lines.
Amoretta looked at her, glancing around the room, lips slightly parted in shock and pleasure.
"It's proper to join in?"
"Yes, a lot of these songs, the audience is expected to sing the chorus along with the player. Since the words of the chorus are usually the same, people don't have to remember all the lyrics the way the musician does."
"Oh, thank you!"
Lillet grinned, since it wasn't like she had done anything. It came as absolutely no surprise to her that the next time the refrain came around, Amoretta chose to join in.
What did come as a surprise was her voice.
Amoretta had been created by a man whose pleasures and passions were entirely of the intellect, analysis and logic, experiment and discovery. She had never heard music—even of music—before. And yet her voice was flawless. No, more than flawless; that word implied a mere lack of mistakes, a perfectly tuned instrument, and this was better than that. She managed to exactly capture the mood of the song, the playful humor at the title character's misadventures that was its story.
Amoretta's singing did not go unnoticed; more than one head turned in her direction and the busker's eyes fell on the homunculus as well.
"Here, now, miss, that's a fine voice you have to be sure. Why don't you come up and let us all have a duet or two?"
"Oh! But I really don't know any..."
He smiled winningly at her.
"I'd be more than happy to teach you the words. Come, now, don't be shy. What do you say, gentles?" he said to the room as a whole. "Would you like to hear the lady?"
General acclaim greeted his request, and a delicate blush graced Amoretta's cheeks.
"Would...would you mind, Lillet?"
"Not if you'd like to," Lillet said at once.
"It sounds like fun!"
"Then why not try it?"
Her smile grew, and she almost hopped out of her chair. The musician held a quick, whispered conversation with her, humming a bit, then they turned and faced the room, he set his fingers to the strings, and they set at once into a rendition of "Merry Masquerade." the song was a good ice-breaker for any nerves Amoretta might have felt, with its easy melody and infectiously funny lyrics, and the homunculus was laughing as much as anyone else by the time they were done.
Lillet wasn't surprised her beloved could do so well with just a few moments of whispered instruction; as an artificial existence her memory seemed to work differently than a human's. Like a perfectly organized library, whenever Amoretta looked for something in her mind she could find it at once; Lillet had never known her to forget anything she'd ever been aware of. Remembering lyrics and music was easy for her.
The busker's next tune was sweet and sentimental as he continued to vary things, a common love-song called "Once 'Neath the Dawn." Lillet couldn't help but wonder if the musician hadn't been thinking about more than just his art when he picked a passionate duet between two lovers. If he was attempting to charm a pretty girl with his fine voice and his music, though, the outcome proved more funny to Lillet than irritating, because rather than engage with the busker when she sang—as would have been proper for a good performance—Amoretta stared right at Lillet as she sang every achingly beautiful lyric by which the song's character professed her true love. Even the minstrel had to smile, "easy come, easy go" no doubt being a principle on which the traveler's wooing was well-based. Nor could he be too upset, since Amoretta's presence had definitely increased the number of coins that were tossed into his mandolin case! They sung one more song together, before he sent her back to the table; Lillet had already tipped the serving-woman and rose to greet her love.
"That was so fun!" Amoretta said, eyes shining as Lillet took her hands.
"So you like music, then?"
"Oh, I do! There's something about it that feels like it's talking to my heart. Does that make any sense to you, Lillet?"
The young musician smiled at her companion.
"Yes, yes it does." The homunculus's obvious joy made Lillet's own heart surge with a longing that was almost painful. "Do you know, Amoretta, there's an idiom that I've used in the past about beautiful music, but I don't think I'll ever say it again because you just showed me what it really means."
"Oh? What's that?"
Lillet leaned forward and brushed her lips lightly over the other girl's.
"'You sing like an angel.'"