The contemplation gardens at the Grand Cathedral were located behind the sanctuary, between the long wings of the administrative offices to the left and the dormitory facilities to the right, and were almost large enough to be a small park. They were elaborate, with banks of flowering plants and a variety of trees including both deciduous and conifers. Carefully crafted hedges divided the gardens into a number of walks and grottoes, and religious artwork helped to emphasize the theme of calm meditation.
The gardens were open to the general public, like the sanctuary, yet Mage Consul Lillet Blan had never visited them during her eight years in the capital. That was all the more surprising because the young woman liked gardens—those of her own house were among the most elaborate of the estates on Argentine Way—and because her office brought her to the Grand Cathedral on a regular basis.
The sound of a choir singing the office of Sext drifted from the overarching windows, the voices sweet and solemn all at the same time, and the warmth of a noon sun was pleasant, dispelling some of the autumn chill. Lillet followed the secretary-priest who was her escort down one of the paths, then along another to a fountain in the image of the Archangel Michael pinning a serpentine devil with a lance. Arcs of water sparkled in the light, haloing the saint's figure and helping Lillet's imagination paint the archangel's wings in a golden radiance.
It was a relatively easy task for the magician, who had seen that heavenly glow on multiple occasions, both good and ill.
"Your Grace," the priest said, "Mage Consul Blan is here."
The white-robed figure who stood by the fountain turned at his secretary's voice.
"Thank you, Father Sutter; you may go."
The priest nodded and withdrew.
"Thank you for coming, Lillet," Archbishop Simon Beringer said. The kingdom's highest religious authority looked the part; he was a tall man with a long, patrician face and close-cut white hair that resembled a tonsure without actually being one. His voice and manner emphasized the part; one would assume that Archbishop Beringer had been one of the many younger sons of the nobility who went into the Church. In fact, he'd begun as curate to a country vicar, son of a cabinet-maker in the village, and had ascended the ranks strictly upon his own merits. Lillet wondered if that was one reason why she tended to get on well with him; she herself was the daughter of farmers, who'd chosen to try her luck with her magical potential in hopes of making a career that would pay for her two younger brothers to have an education.
She had to admit that she'd definitely succeeded at that.
"Simon," she replied, bowing her head in greeting. "I'm intrigued. We've dealt together in our offices for three years now, and I don't ever recall you asking me for a favor."
"I admit, it is somewhat unusual, but I think necessary."
"Tell me more."
"I've received a message by special courier from Martin Dubbel, the priest for the village of Jacob's Creek."
Lillet searched her memory, but couldn't recall ever having heard of the man or the village.
"Where is that?"
"Caithshire, about two days' travel from the border."
"But Father Dubbel wrote to you, not to Bishop Woodbridge? Is he an old friend of yours?"
Beringer caught the meaning behind Lillet's question.
"I'm afraid not."
"Church politics, then. And obviously magic is somehow involved, or else you wouldn't have come to me."
Caithshire was the most conservative province in the kingdom, an attitude which its bishop encouraged. The Low Church movement, with its emphasis on a simplicity in Church government, as well as the arch-conservative Dissenters with their embrace of an almost-puritanical lifestyle, were strong there as well, the attitudes running hand in glove. Lillet's friend Margarita had grown up in a village there, where her magical abilities would have had her more than likely burned at the stake for practicing witchcraft.
"So your local priest is aware of this problem, and skipped straight to the top because if he follows the chain of authority he'll end up wasting time that could be spent helping people while he convinces the Bishop to put up with a magician?"
"To a certain extent. Lillet, a person is dead, slaughtered horribly according to Father Dubbel's description, and not by human weapons. 'Ripped apart like a maddened animal' was, I believe, the phrase used. In short, he was killed by a monster, perhaps a creature of the Devil, certainly a magical one."
"And Bishop Woodbridge thinks all magic is deviltry, an attitude that both reflects and influences the local population, so there aren't any magically-trained investigators available." She didn't make it a question because it was her job to know; her Mage Consul title meant that she was responsible for overseeing magical matters in the kingdom in the same way that the Archbishop dealt with religious areas. More so, actually, as Lillet's authority was closer to absolute within her purview.
In this case, she knew very well that any magician who didn't have his or her official licensing papers up to date would be subject to arrest and execution regardless of what they may or may not might have done—the mere practice of magic was enough by itself under local law, whether it was the actual casting of Runes or the sale of magical goods such as charms or philtres, or even trading in the reagents and ingredients for them. Very few magicians had the courage to live in a region where they were the constant object of bigotry, harassment, and where bloodthirsty officers of the law were always waiting for them to put a foot wrong. Lillet rather admired the ones who did.
"It's actually worse than that. The Bishop's investigator was already in Jacob's Creek before the killing."
"By investigator, you mean witch-hunter, don't you?"
Beringer inclined his patrician head gravely.
"And Father Dubbel doubts his or her ability to do the job?"
"Hysteria and prejudice rarely make for a rational reaction to a crisis," he muttered sourly.
Lillet sighed. She herself had been lucky enough to escape the majority of the "thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" bigotry that had plagued her profession since the first conjuror had spoken to an elf, but that didn't mean that she didn't understand it.
"So what do you want me to do, Simon? Send someone there to look into matters?"
"I was hoping that you would go yourself."
"It's a question of skill as well as authority. Obviously, you're the best one to bring expert knowledge to bear on the problem, so far as magic goes."
"Moreover, you have ministerial rank. A Royal Magician is an officer of the Crown but still subject to law. As a Grand Council member, you can only be tried for any crime before the Queen herself; local courts have no authority over you."
Lillet's violet eyes met Beringer's brown ones.
"You mean, you're afraid that this witch-finder might have the local magistrate burn my investigator out of sheer panic and trumped-up evidence, then excuse it later with a shrug since technically a Royal Magician is as liable for the practice of genuinely unhallowed arcana as anyone."
The Archbishop nodded again.
"Exactly. Which would be a tragedy for the individual involved, but a disaster for the Church."
Lillet was fairly sure she knew what he meant by that, but she let him explain himself anyway.
"The Church is supposed to be the moral anchor of society," he went on without prompting. "We are the keepers of fundamental truths that do not change. Just as God created the natural laws by which the physical world operates, and the supernatural laws that you magicians deal with, so too did He create a moral law governing the conduct of human souls. And yet all too often our flawed human minds conflate God's law with our own cultural practices or personal prejudices. The Church has a solemn duty to fight this urge, to teach God's law rather than man's editing of it."
He smiled thinly at her.
"We have to be conservative, you know. Right and wrong are objective reality; they do not change just because society does or because human ingenuity discovers something new. Yet too often the knowledge that God's law does not change gets expanded into a fear of all change—which is twice foolish, because the world is by no means perfect and some change is therefore necessary."
"You hardly need to tell me that, Simon."
"Do not mistake me; there is much that is evil in magic and much that, if only a venial sin, is still a temptation to greater corruption. Glamour and some Alchemy may be no different than common science, where intent and use determine the right or wrong of an act, but the creation of artificial life treads in God's domain, Necromancy deals with the mysteries of the soul and no good can come of treating with devils, no matter how tightly they are leashed."
Lillet arched an eyebrow at the Archbishop. He sighed.
"My apologies; I didn't mean to get sidetracked."
"I do understand, you know."
"Understand, but not necessarily agree, at least concerning magic—I recall our previous discussions. Nonetheless, you're right; that is neither here nor there. The point that I am trying to make is that if the Church is to be a guide for people in the future it must not marginalize itself as the voice of fanatics only."
"So if the arch-conservatives of Jacob's Creek execute a Royal Magician, it serves to further divide the political factions within secular and religious authority both. Whereas if they execute me, Her Majesty will come down like a hammer on the regional barons and you'll have the excuse you need to purge the reactionaries from their power base by painting them as heretics preaching treason."
"That is hardly a subject for jesting," the Archbishop chided her.
"I wasn't actually joking."
"Lillet...Ah, well, I suppose I deserved that for going off into a lecture. I spent over twenty years preaching sermons, after all; it does become a habit."
"Dr. Chartreuse, my Alchemy professor from the Silver Star Tower, does the same thing."
"Even so! My point was that if respect for the law does not restrain the witch-hunter, the fear of the consequences might do a better job. And, of course, you are not without resources with which to defend yourself."
"There is that."
"Most importantly of all, Lillet...there is genuine deviltry afoot in Jacob's Creek, the kind that takes innocent lives. It shames the Church when our ideological agendas can be used as grounds to stand by when even one person's life is unjustly taken. The political implications of the case are just window dressing at the end of the day."
Beringer's voice was earnest in urging his plea.
"All right, Simon," Lillet told him. "I'll look into this for you."
~X X X~
Lillet wrote a short note to her secretary at the Royal House of Magic, explaining that she was leaving on business and that full details would follow, then borrowed one of the Archbishop's messengers to send the missive. She then went directly home to her estate. It was rather surprising, she thought as the driver took the carriage off to the stables and she walked through a door held open by a footman, that over the course of a few short years this stately mansion had somehow become "home" to her. It had been odd enough to live in the palace when she'd been a Royal Magician, but at least that had just been a room to herself—the fourth scullery-maid, after all, had quarters at the palace, too, and while a Royal Magician was considerably higher up the ranks the principle was the same.
But this fairy-tale castle of a home (and it was one, to the point of having gabled wings and a turret in one corner, to say nothing of the elf-kept gardens) was hers. She owned it, purchased it with money she'd earned honestly by her own efforts. She had a life that had seemed like a fantasy when she'd been a little girl listening to her mother's fairy tales.
Of course, in those days, she'd imagined herself as the princess in her castle rather than the witch, but that was really more of a flaw in the source material. The point was that she walked across the threshold of the townhouse with its tiled floors and paneled walls and polished fittings and she felt the same as when she'd crossed into the rustic homeyness of her mother's kitchen.
She passed what looked like a child in a green tunic and pants under a white apron, carrying a feather duster.
"Mika, do you know where Amoretta is?"
"In the nursery I think, ma'am." She wasn't a child at all, but an adult elf working as a parlormaid. nearly half the staff was made up of elves, in fact, starting with the majordomo Gaff, who'd been with her since the Silver Star Tower. Apparently it was quite the cachet in elven society to be the servant of a powerful magician, regardless of the specific duties. Then again, from the occasional comment she'd picked up, Lillet suspected her human staff was as smug about their service in the Mage Consul's home as the elves were. It wasn't every stablehand who could share tavern gossip starting, "While I was feeding the dragons this morning, Ralf told me..."
Lillet went upstairs, her long purple skirts swirling on the risers. In the nursery, she found two ash-blondes, the two females who were at the center of her life, seated on the soft, thick carpet playing patty-cake. Both of them looked up when the sound of the door opening interrupted their game, and their faces lit up with nearly identical expressions of joy.
Amoretta Virgine stood up smoothly, taking the toddler's hand and helping the child stand up as well. Smiling radiantly, she let their daughter wobble over towards her other mother.
"Mama!" the little girl repeated, opening her arms wide. Lillet scooped her up and hugged her as soon as she got close enough.
"And were you having fun with your other mommy, Cress?" Lillet cooed. Cressidor Marie Blan-Virgine nodded eagerly and giggled, her wide blue eyes shining. Lillet stayed and played with her two favorite ladies until Cressidor was thoroughly tired; the mothers laid her down for a nap, then left the nursery.
"You're home very early today. Did something happen?" Amoretta asked once the door was closed behind them. Lillet suspected she hadn't said it before for the same reason Lillet hadn't raised it herself; they didn't want to interrupt their time with their daughter with serious, adult matters.
"I may have to go out of town for an investigation," she said.
"Do you really mean 'may'?"
"Only as an idiom. Although, it isn't a requirement." Lillet walked down the hall towards the master bedroom suite. "Archbishop Beringer asked me as a personal favor to look into a case of a killing by some magical creature. Ordinarily, the investigation into a sudden death is the local magistrate's affair, though if it's a magical matter my office has the right to intervene." She smiled at Amoretta. "I think the lawyers call it 'concurrent jurisdiction.'"
She opened the door to the bedroom and they walked inside.
"Is it just because he asked that you want to go?" There was a trace of a pout in Amoretta's question, a clear implication that she didn't want Lillet to go. That was no surprise; she never wanted to be apart from Lillet if she could help it. The plain truth was, Amoretta would have been perfectly happy to spend twenty-four hours a day at Lillet's side; they only separated when some practical necessity made them do so.
In ordinary human relationships, that kind of devotion would have been strange, even frightening, and not a healthy way to live, but Amoretta was not ordinary. Nor was she human. She was a homunculus, an artificial life created by Alchemy. Dr. Chartreuse Grande had built her around the core of an angel's spirit, making her an independent being with vastly more advanced development than an ordinary homunculus, but she was still something created by human hands, not by God, and so her current existence was not part of God's all-encompassing love. She felt that lack acutely; in a very real way it was Lillet's love for her that allowed her to survive.
So Amoretta's reluctance to be separated did not bother Lillet the way it would had she been a human being that clung in the same way. Truthfully, the Mage Consul even appreciated it, because it gave a regular reminder of where her priorities stood in life. An ordinary couple might find themselves drifting apart, particularly given that both had quite consuming careers, but Amoretta's keen awareness of her own needs was a cue for Lillet to not get caught up in minutiae and find that she'd lost what really mattered.
"That's part of it, but not all. Not even most, honestly." She gave Amoretta the details as the Archbishop had told them to her; the homunculus understood the ramifications quickly, reaching several of the same conclusions that Lillet had.
"I see. You really are needed, then," Amoretta concluded. "I was going to ask if I could come with you, but under the circumstances I believe arriving with your non-human, female partner would do a great deal of potential harm."
"Not to mention putting you in danger! If there really is a devil there, then given how they react to you it wouldn't only be the villagers you'd have to worry about."
She nodded at Lillet.
"I know. And there is Cressidor to think of; your investigation might take several days." While they did have a capable and caring nanny since Lillet's ministerial post and Amoretta's position as the lead soprano at the City Theater were both time-consuming, there was a big difference between that and leaving their daughter solely in someone else's care for perhaps a whole week. She smiled wanly. "I will miss you very much."
"And I you, little love."
She took Amoretta's hands between her own, comforted by the touch of the other woman's flesh. The homunculus did not build body heat in the same way as the natural-born, nor did she perspire, so her touch was always soft and cool and unique to Amoretta, a sensation that always soothed Lillet's heart to feel. She bent and kissed her beloved softly.
It wasn't, after all, only Amoretta who would regret their temporary parting.
She lifted a hand, tracing the line of Amoretta's jaw with her fingertips. The homunculus nuzzled into the caress with a purr almost like a cat's, and Lillet knew that the two of them shared the same thought.
"I'll need to change before I go. A dress suited for the palace isn't appropriate for mucking about a village."
"I'll help you change, if you like."
Hooks and laces gave way under Amoretta's agile fingers. The purple dress whispered against Lillet's body as it slid down to pool at her feet, and the two women sank to the bed in each other's embrace.