It was perhaps ironic, Opalneria Rain thought, that it was All Souls' Day, the night on which popular superstition held that the barriers between the mortal world and the afterlife were frayed and weakened, allowing the spirits of the dead to prowl unbidden. Many holiday traditions had been spawned from folk remedies to keep the fallen from one's door.
Those superstitions, she knew, were not entirely unfounded.
Opalneria was very familiar with the dead. She was, after all, a necromancer. Possibly the kingdom's most powerful and learned one—certainly, among the living. Death and the dead had never disturbed her. The soul was eternal, after all. This was a comforting thought. When she was a child, the adults around her had never seemed to understand that, for some reason. When she had pointed out the spirits around them, they had reacted with fear and horror. People insisted on seeing death and the dead as a reminded of their own mortality, when it was in fact a reminder of their own immortality. Even the priests, who preached that truth to their congregations and celebrated it in their prayers, somehow seemed to miss it.
No, the dead had never been Opalneria's problem. Rather, it was the living that had troubled her. Love, for example. Her pale friends were not good at that. They did not know the desire to clasp a strong, firm body in her arms, to feel the heat of warm lips on her own, to know the ecstasy of shared passions.
There had been times, many times, when she'd stood as she was now, at the window of her azure-and-black-draped sitting room, a slender flute of blood-red wine in her hand, and thought of slipping something into her glass that would take her gently into that peaceful night. Things would be so much simpler that way. Just look at Mistress Lujei, after all. Death had done nothing to slow the Grand Witch's spirit, whereas it was the passions of the living that had brought her betrayal, heartbreak, and the collapse of her dreams.
How many times, indeed, had Opalneria been driven to despair by Chartreuse Grande's refusal of her love? It was all the more painful because the curse that had transformed him into a bestial mockery of his former beauty would be broken by love! She'd pined for him for decades, while he'd brushed her off. Her heart had remained true, while his was cold.
She knew that she was a beautiful woman. The spotty complexion of her youth had cleared, the gangly limbs grown firm and rounded, the coltish figure filled out with attractive, even voluptuous curves. She needed her spectacles, but instead of peering owlishly through them had made them an asset, cultivating an elegant, reserved manner that they helped emphasize, even if her passionate nature often broke through it.
Yet he'd turned her down again and again, wounding her pride along with her heart. He'd even created that girl-thing, that homunculus she'd thought—feared—was his lover. Opalneria's jealousy wasn't entirely without reason, as Amoretta would have happily filled the role, but apparently Chartreuse had been as cold to his creation as he was to her. She knew that, now.
Opalneria let out her breath in a deep sigh, then settled into a chair. The thought of how misplaced her distrust and jealousy over Amoretta had proven reminded her of other things, of how much had changed in such a few short days, and the reason for her present disquiet.
First, after encouraging and supporting her for years, Mistress Lujei had abruptly reversed herself and told Opalneria to give Chartreuse up. She couldn't believe it, she hadn't believed it. The habit of obedience was long-established, but Opalneria had found the will to defy her, to make one last, desperate attempt—or maybe just a self-destructive explosion of despair, inasmuch as it had ended by a violent temper tantrum that had nearly wrecked the alchemist's laboratory, after which he had callously thrust her away.
I do not need you.
He hadn't even hated her, if he couldn't love her. Her devotion, her passion, hadn't been able to arouse strong emotion in him at all. The only thing she'd seen in Chartreuse's eyes was pity.
It was over, finished.
And she'd wasted years of her life.
Oh, yes, as a magician it wasn't as if she'd left her maidenhood forever behind; she was over a century old yet was no crone. But that didn't change the import of what she'd put herself through, only the future.
Opalneria sighed at the thought. The future. Until now, all her thoughts in that way had been fixed upon Chartreuse. But then, just two days after that, her apprentice Hiram had come to her and confessed his love into the heart of her despair. And Opalneria had felt...what? Something stir within her. Feelings that had been growing, perhaps, at the sight of a young man's devotion, even though she hadn't taken conscious notice on account of her own focus—fixation?—on Chartreuse. Enough, at least, for her to not simply brush him off but to instead quote Lujei's stricture against loving a student.
She looked into the depths of her wine-glass, watching the play of the light within it as the candles danced and guttered. Mistress Lujei would know, Opalneria thought. She'd loved Mevy, and Mevy murdered her on orders from the government, to keep her from getting her hands on the Philosopher's Stone. Love made a person vulnerable. Worse, the master-apprentice relationship was one in which the master held the power, the control. It created expectations, habits of thought so that in a love relationship, when there was no control, the vulnerability was disguised by those expectations. "Never love your student" was sound advice. The fact that Hiram had reacted by renouncing his apprenticeship wasn't relevant, because the dangerous trails had already been laid down.
The rest of his confession, though...
He'd only come to the Silver Star Tower for her sake, to meet her and get to know the real Opalneria. And how had he been able to arrange this? He was a prince! A prince, for God's sake! Nor was he lying about that, as she'd gotten the whole story out of Gammel later. He really was Hiram Courvoisier, third prince of the kingdom.
It was absurd.
Within five days, everything she'd known, everything she'd believed, had turned itself on its head.
"Drinking alone, Opalneria?"
She sprang to her feet at the sound of the voice, whirling so fast that wine sloshed over the rim of the flute and several drops spilled on the back of her hand.
"You! How did you get in here?"
He looked like a Court dandy of a hundred years past, with his fancy red-and-white costume right down to the lace collar and pointed shoes, his curled brown hair and neatly trimmed beard. He was no such thing.
"You mean, what devilish trickery did I use to come upon you so stealthily? 'Tis a pity to disappoint so lovely a lady, but the extent of my subterfuge was to open your door and walk in while you sat lost in thought."
"Get out of here, Advocat," she snapped.
The devil prince's eyes widened in mock surprise.
"But surely you do not wish to remain alone on such a festive night as this? When all your pale friends are swarming the halls?"
Opalneria snarled at him through clenched teeth. She knew well enough why Gammel kept Advocat around, but she'd never been able to bring herself to like it.
"And what would you know of it, devil?"
"I know that it's certainly unpleasant for me out there." Necromancy was the magical art of best use against devils, though a few stray ghosts would give Advocat little trouble. No doubt All Souls' Day did make him uncomfortable, but the explanation was clearly specious. Not that that stopped him. "I much prefer the creature comforts of a well-ordered home." He glanced around himself. "However tacky. Must you live in this mausoleum, Opalneria? One would think you'd been interred here instead of residing."
"If you've come to bandy insults..."
"No, no." He made an airy gesture with one hand, a courtier dismissing the idea. "Perish the thought. I merely came to join the party." He strode to the sideboard, picked up the decanter of port, and poured himself a glass. "I always thought drinking alone seemed so morbid."
"If you don't get out now, I'll make you—"
"Perhaps you could, at that." He sipped the wine. "After all, you do have that very interesting Rune Lujei was teaching you. Magic to destroy a devil, was it? Of course, unlike Grimlet, I'm not conveniently sealed up, so I certainly wouldn't stand still for the process. And have you solved that pesky little problem with it killing the magician who casts it, using their life as fuel for the spell? I should think that would be of some concern."
He took another sip of port.
"But then again, perhaps rushing into the grave holds no terrors for you. You must admit, allowing the dead to tell you who to love, who not to love, that's hardly the action of someone with strong ties to this side of the veil." He gave his glass a look of distaste. "And as for this wine, my word! Clearly whomever pressed this has no corporeal tongue." He set the glass aside.
"I don't allow—" Opalneria shot back hotly.
"You don't? And here I was under the impression that the late yet not departed Lujei Piche has been pressing our good lion-headed doctor on you, or rather the other way around, for ever so long now? I've certainly had the chance to note many an entertaining incident in that direction. All those passionate scenes, the shining eyes, the parted lips, the heaving bosom—"
"Out!" she screamed, cutting him off. As she did, she reached out with her power and the warding Runes engraved on the floor, walls, and ceiling blazed up with cold, blue light.
"As you wish, dear lady," Advocat mocked, giving her a courtly bow. "I can see that the warmth of my presence is not to your taste." He turned and departed, closing the door just in time for her glass to shatter against it, spraying wine and glittering shards. Opalneria stood there for a long moment, fists clenched, breath rasping sharply.
How dare he? she raged in her thoughts. How dare that devil come here and mock me? Mistress Lujei does not—
But hadn't Opalneria just been wrestling with herself on that very same point? Lujei's strictures against loving one of her students?
But there's good reason for that. Look at what happened to her! another part of her mind shouted.
Then what about Chartreuse? Hadn't it been Lujei who'd told her that her love would be what would break his curse? She'd known, of course, that Opalneria had once harbored a crush on the alabaster-skinned, blonde-haired, beautiful boy the alchemist had been, but only after her death had she discovered the antidote for the curse. Was it possible, the suggestion that Lujei had been the one to curse him for refusing her, and that until her death she'd been hoping he'd recant and offer what he'd denied her? Chartreuse had claimed that at least the former part was so.
And then another of Advocat's barbs came back to sting her, the taunt about the flaw in her devil-slaying Rune, the one she'd been preparing to use to prevent Grimlet's awakening. It wasn't her Rune, not really. It was actually Mistress Lujei's, something she'd been working on before she died. The ghost witch had taught it to her, assuring her that it would work to destroy the sealed devil. Then, suddenly, she'd reversed herself, the same night as when she'd also reversed herself about Opalneria's pursuing Chartreuse.
Had Lujei known about the danger? The risk involved had come out during Gammel's examination of the new student, Lillet Blan, about the destruction of Calvaros, Grimlet, and the Philosopher's Stone. Opalneria and Gammel had gone over the Rune and found that the girl's claims about it were absolutely correct, yet another factor that had helped establish the truth of her story about looping time.
Spilled wine pooled on the iron bands of the door and fell like drops of blood to the store beneath, just missing the edge of the carpet.
Did Mistress Lujei know all along, and let me proceed?
Would it truly surprise Opalneria if she had? The witch was capable of astounding cruelty or kindness as the whim struck her. And she was a ghost—had been so for decades. Would she even look at the concept of death in the same way?
Chartreuse. Hiram. Grimlet.
Through necromancy Opalneria was steeped in the world of the dead. But she herself was a living, breathing woman.
For all that I've let a dead woman live my life for me these past few dozen years, she though bitterly.
Far above her, the bells of the tower clock began to chime, their tolling magically echoing through every room no matter how deeply buried within it might be. Once, twice, three times they rang, all the way up to twelve.
All Souls' Day had passed. The reign of the dead over the earth had gone.
And over me, Opalneria vowed, wresting the door open. She strode down the corridor at a furious pace, nearly colliding with Lillet Blan in the hall connecting to the student rooms.
No, death held few terrors for the mistress of necromancy. But that didn't mean that she was going to let living pass her by.
~X X X~
A rat chittered by Lillet's feet. In the next instant, it swelled into the shape of the arch-devil.
"You nearly stepped on me!" he said, affronted.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Advocat. I didn't expect her to be in such a hurry!"
"Now, that is our Opalneria. When her passions have been aroused, she rushes ahead heedlessly, letting nothing stand in her way. Not even thought," he muttered under his breath.
"Mr. Advocat, that wasn't very nice."
He arched an eyebrow at the blonde girl.
"Perhaps you forget, Lillet Blan, that I am a devil. 'Nice' is not part of my job description."
"That wasn't evil, that was just bad-tempered and snippy," Lillet chided him.
Advocat smiled. He enjoyed Lillet's company. So few of the other folk at the Magic Academy would talk with him casually. Gammel would, of course, but the old man was always so fussy. Lillet had that sparkle of youth that set her apart, a sense of humor, even.
Of course, that made her soul an even more appealing prize for him to win. If he didn't end up on the losing side, which possibility only added spice to the game. Or they might never end up crossing paths over such weighty matters and he could just enjoy the pleasure of her company. There was no reason to deny himself life's small joys, after all.
"No doubt it is a reaction to doing a good deed, encouraging our fair Opalneria to seize upon love and happiness while it stands before her. And all for someone who doesn't even like me."
"Mr. Advocat, you don't really expect me to believe that you went along with my idea out of altruism, do you?"
"A true gentleman is always ready to do the bidding of a lady."
"And if Ms. Opalneria and Hiram fall in love, it will not only keep her from falling into despair but also create firmer ties between the Magic Academy and the crown—which is important now that the excuse of finding the Philosopher's Stone doesn't exist any more on Professor Gammel's side. Both of those things contribute to keeping the school up and running, which in turn gives you more opportunity to win your bet with Professor Gammel. If the Magic Academy shut down, you'd lose, after all."
She smiled sunnily at him.
"You'd worked that all out before you even asked for my help, didn't you, Lillet Blan?"
"Of course! I knew I'd need an argument if you asked for a favor from me in return."
Advocat chuckled. Of course, he'd seen the point as soon as Lillet asked and had agreed, hoping that his apparent good will would positively influence her. But it was more entertaining that she'd seen through that ruse as well. That was, he felt, what separated him from brutes like Grimlet; he savored the game itself, not merely its outcome.
After all, it wasn't only Opalneria who could look to an enjoyable future.
~X X X~
A/N: Incidentally, I do know that you're not supposed to drink red wine from a flute (the narrow glass is designed to help champagne retain its carbonation while drinking it), but I assume that Opalneria likes the design of it. The name of the student who became Lujei's staff, by the way, is taken from Lujei's guest appearance in Soul Nomad and the World Eaters.