Afterwards, Lillet would have liked to doze in Amoretta's arms, savoring the sweetness of her closeness as she had the spice of their passion, but there was no time for such intimacies. Regretfully, she rose from the bed and dressed, this time in more utilitarian garb: black leggings, a violet dress with a skirt that fell, loose for freedom of movement, to just above the knee, sturdy high boots, and a cloak of dark gray wool.
"I'd like to look up Jacob's Creek to see what sort of a place I'll be going to. Can you see to having a bag packed for me?"
"Of course. Only one?"
"Yes; I'll be going on foot instead of riding. Descending into a conservative village on dragonback wouldn't be the best way to make a good first impression."
Amoretta smiled, just a little, at the joke.
"You'll want your traveling grimoire, then?"
"Yes, thank you."
There was more to drawing a Rune than merely sketching out a pattern with a magic wand. One had to understand the proper application of mana, the way it flowed through the pattern, the intent the magician had to put into each step. Just copying a Rune out of a book wouldn't work, not unless one was very lucky indeed. There was a reason why the more advanced Runes often took years of study to master, and why a massive volume would be required for learning only four or five variations on a single Rune.
Lillet, of course, had mastered dozens of Runes, even created many. But she didn't know every single stroke of every one of the Runes she'd mastered. Hence the traveling grimoire, which was nothing but a collection of Rune imagery so that on those she didn't know by heart she wouldn't forget a symbol here or a line there. It was worthless as a resource to someone trying to learn the Runes, but it was very handy for when Lillet had to cast something more complex than a Fairy Ring, Laboratory, or Chaos Nest. Most magicians owned something of the sort—after all, one could hardly carry a library into battle!
"I'll also need a couple of the messenger-fairy rings, and a pouch of phantom coins. Brutal murder usually implies sorcery, and I want to be ready for an emergency."
"All right; I'll see to it."
"You know that I'm happy to help," Amoretta said matter-of-factly. She meant it literally—it gave her a feeling of happiness to do things that were useful for Lillet.
"I know," Lillet agreed, "but it's still polite to say thank you anyway." She bent over and gave Amoretta a peck on the cheek. "It's about the appreciation I feel, not whether you consider yourself inconvenienced by it."
The homunculus smiled at her.
"Human social codes are so strange; I don't know if I'll ever figure them out entirely." She pursed her lips. "It would be so much easier if people would just say what they mean."
"You're probably right, but I think we'd have to all be much better people for that to work."
"Maybe, but I don't think that you have to be so cynical. Really, it's not that people are selfish or dishonest, just that everybody expects a certain amount of courteous word choice and so if they don't get it, they feel much worse about hearing the plain truth than the facts or opinions alone would cause."
"That's true. I remember a few times early on in our relationship when that got us into trouble." Specifically, when Amoretta had said something that had hurt Lillet and hadn't had any idea why since she'd just been being honest rather than intending a cutting remark. Lillet smiled and added, "Somehow, though, I don't think I'll have any trouble saying exactly what I mean to the Bishop of Caithshire's witch-hunter."
~X X X~
Lillet slid the volume of Vendange's Gazetteer back into its place on the shelf and turned to head up along the flying gallery that made up the library's second story. Jacob's Creek, it seemed, was a more interesting place than it might have looked to an outsider, though of course a country girl like Lillet didn't tend to think that way generally.
On paper, it looked to be a fairly standard village, with a population around three hundred, largely self-sufficient through farming and peat-cutting. It was a bit off the beaten path, one of a number of settlements in that area of the kingdom founded when the Caithwood was being opened up to logging a couple of hundred years ago and the edge of the district was being pushed forward. Other routes had proven more efficient for trade and travel, so that although the village thrived it had not grown substantially; there was a coaching inn but Lillet suspected that it received infrequent use but for the post.
More interesting was the origin of the town's name and that of the stream it came from. "Jacob" in this case was the Venerable Jacob Blackstone, a well-respected holy man from the period. He'd been a wandering preacher, sort of a Low Church equivalent of a friar in the days when the Low Church movement was just getting started. Back in the days the village was first being settled as little more than a logging camp, Reverend Blackstone had driven out a witch's curse on the town, which had been much in line with the rest of his career according to the hagiography Lillet had skimmed about him. The thankful settlers had named the creek as well as their budding village after their rescuer.
If Lillet recalled correctly, "Venerable" was the lowest rank of those individuals whose cause had been taken up towards sainthood, with "Blessed" being next and full approval as a saint the final step, once the Church had verified the miraculous intercession of the candidate. For a Low Church reverend to have his cause taken up was relatively unusual; the movement tended to emphasize a direct relationship between worshipper and God, in part because of the desire to return religion to its roots of "purity and simplicity" and in part because disgust with some of the pardoner-scandals, traveling salesmen hawking relics or monasteries and shrines advertising this or that saintly intercession dueling over pilgrims' coin like coastal resorts, were what had given the movement so much popular support in the first place.
Curious, that. It would be interesting to look into how that had come about, Lillet thought—but after the job was finished, as it likely had no bearing on the case.
More likely to be relevant was the fact that Reverend Blackstone had once defeated witchcraft in the area. That could encompass a lot of things, from a simple delusion to some natural monster to an innocent magician to a genuine, malevolent sorcerer. The recorded accounts were annoyingly non-specific, but if there had been genuine magical activity in the past, then there might be a reason why modern sorcerers might seek it out now, explaining the death and why the witch-finder had gone to the village in the first place. Lillet would have to look into that further; very likely stories of the Venerable Jacob's exploits survived in the area and might contain a clue towards their original cause.
She hadn't found any small-scale maps of the region and doubted there were any, but had committed the general details to memory as best she could to better orient herself. It would have been nice to have found more information, but Lillet at least felt satisfied that she'd been able to lay hands on all the relevant details that were available remotely. To get the job done, she'd have to investigate at the scene.
To that end, she descended from the gallery by one of the wrought-iron spiral staircases, then went over to a shelf near to the laboratory door and plucked down a volume bound in green leather. This was a grimoire called Robin Goodfellow, a rare book of Glamour. An adulterated edition of the book (called Puck by some wag with a taste for fairy legends) was relatively well-known as the source of the pixie summon, but only the original grimoire had the Rune Lillet needed.
She met Amoretta on the terrace overlooking the garden. Her lover was carrying a sturdy leather pack with a shoulder strap. She handed Lillet two plain silver rings etched with a bow and arrow which Lillet slipped onto her index fingers, then a small blue cloth drawstring pouch that jingled, which Lillet tucked into one of her dress's pockets. The rings and coins were talismans that Lillet had enchanted to link to a previously summoned familiar so she could call it instantly without the need to cast a Rune.
"The traveling grimoire is in the bag," Amoretta told her.
Lillet called for four of the elven gardeners, and she and Amoretta descended into the garden to meet them. It was a true magician's garden; in addition to the cultivation of rare herbs and plants, the elves nurtured the trees and flowers to gather and concentrate mana into pre-established Glamour-aspected sanctuaries. There was a good reason why one didn't generally challenge a powerful magician on her home ground.
Lillet took out her wand and flipped open the grimoire, then began to sketch out the Rune on the ground before her, seeding every stroke with mana. In a little under a minute she was done, a bell-like tone chiming in her mind signifying it taking shape. The intricate pattern glowed with soft green light in front of her.
"All right, Lysander, Hermia, Helena, Demetrius, please fetch mana while I'm working on this," she instructed the elves.
"Yes, milady!" they chorused, and dashed off towards the nearest sanctuary. Their efforts would replenish her resources, replacing the mana she spent on the Rune so she wouldn't be drained when she got to Jacob's Creek. Somehow, she didn't think she'd make a good first impression on the witch-finder by immediately casting Runes and drawing mana upon her arrival in Jacob's Creek—and then again, who knew what resources would be available?
Focusing, she began to enhance the basic Rune with additional mana, building its potential. This was difficult work, and sweat dotted her brow by the time she was through, and she turned to Amoretta.
"I'll miss you," she said softly.
"And I you, my love." Amoretta passed Lillet the bag; she slung it over her own shoulder and they shared a quick, tight hug and a goodbye kiss. "Be careful."
"I promise. I love you."
"I love you, too."
Lillet waited for the elves to finish their work, then stepped across the border of the Rune. The light flared up around her.
"Open now for me, pathways of the wood and wild. Let me walk the hidden roads and wind through secret ways, past fairy ring and barrow mound to wither I would go," she incanted. The verdant light swirled even more brightly around Lillet as she firmly fixed her destination in her mind. It was better, of course, if she'd actually been there herself, but the Rune would work so long as she could fix a definitive and unique concept of what a place was in her mind, something that maps—and just as importantly, the ability to conceptualize what a representation on a map truly meant—were invaluable in establishing.
She took a last step forward into the precise center of the Rune.
Then she vanished.
~X X X~
The magic of Glamour was different than other fields of magic. While sorcery and necromancy peered beyond the veil of mortality to bind and compel service from spirits, and alchemy built new creations from the raw materials of life, glamour dealt with living creatures, including natural spirits and the entities that inhabited Faerie, a magical existence that shadowed and ran parallel to the normal one. The Runes of glamour were in the main magical contracts by which the summoned familiars willingly entered into the magician's service rather than fetters chaining a hostile will.
The interaction between humans and the creatures of Faerie were the subject of many legends and superstitions. Religious conservatives preached that their highly magical existence went hand-in-glove with the diabolic. Especially in rural areas, traditions abounded, from tales of kindly elves who would assist with household chores in exchange for suitable respect to more frightening legends of fairy-folk who would steal human children, leaving changelings in their place, or of people carried off to Faerie who returned—if they returned—years later, having scarcely aged a day, or more shockingly the reverse.
The key element of those latter legends was that time and space worked differently in Faerie than they did in the normal, human world. A day or a mile in one might be more or less than in the other. A sufficiently powerful magician could use that fact to her own benefit. The most advanced form of the Robin Goodfellow Rune opened temporary portals to Faerie, not unlike those occurring naturally, and let the magician walk the border between worlds to arrive in hours on a trip that would otherwise take days or even weeks. The Faery Road was faster than even dragonflight, and Lillet further thought it was a more sensible approach than to descend into a village where there had been a monster attack on the back of a clawed and fanged beast, no matter how well-leashed. To say nothing of the impossibility of arranging proper stabling.
Unless, of course, she landed on the witch-hunter's head. That might be productive.
Lillet was thinking about the witch-hunter as she set off onto the path before her. Swirling mists surrounded her, above and on both sides, and the monotony of the scenery made it easy to let her mind drift to other things. That could be dangerous; the Faery Road was not purely isolated from the magical realm it traveled through, and in places where it touched too strongly, creatures could pass the barrier. It was not only the rarity and difficulty of its conjuring Rune that made this method of travel little-used.
Even so, she couldn't help but think about the situation she was walking into. The relationship between magicians and the Church had never been a comfortable one, and the presence of devil-worshipping madmen and Bible-thumping madmen on their respective extremes didn't do anyone else any good. Only in the past couple of generations, since the fall of the Archmage, had serious progress been made in normalizing the role of magic in society. The old witchcraft laws had been scaled back; outside of certain practices defined as "trafficking in unhallowed arcana" (such as ritual sorcery without Runes, involving all kinds of nauseating and blasphemous acts) magic was legally considered a proper craft. The problem was that licensing was under the auspices of the local governments, and while conservative lords couldn't interfere with those holding a Crown charter, they could and did refuse to grant their own authorizations, and enforced the death penalty against those who performed magic without one. The definition of "performing magic" was a broad one; it included not only Rune or ritual magic, but alchemical experimentation, trading in magical goods, or teaching magic even without actively practicing it.
Margarita Surprise, Lillet knew, had ended up entangled with the Archmage's former minions because when her magical abilities had awakened as a child, she was placed in danger of being accused of witchcraft simply because of the perception they granted, the ability to perceive certain things beyond normal human senses without actually taking any action.
The rampant stupidity of such a situation appalled Lillet as much as it did the Queen, but she knew that the only way to change it was through time and familiarity. You couldn't really blame a rural peasant who heard nothing but anti-magic vitriol from court and pulpit for being fearful, whereas a citizen of the capital who grew up with magicians' shops on the main street and the arts put to work saving lives and making day-to-day labor easier would be accepting.
Lillet could and did, however, blame those who should have known better, who fueled the bigotry out of relentless fanaticism or in order to gain a political or financial advantage. Those were the dangerous kind, and "witch-finders" tended to be of that stamp. Since Bishop Woodbridge was, so far as she knew, sincere in his anti-magical beliefs, it was more likely that the witch-hunter was a fanatic rather than corrupt. That was probably the worse option: someone who was out for gain might have the pragmatism to have genuine knowledge, and Lillet's presence might well swing his or her attitude towards being helpful as to his or her benefit. The zealot saw everything through the lens of his or her distorted beliefs, making it impossible for them to rationally view the circumstances.
It was too bad, really, because Lillet would have been glad of some trained help with local knowledge. She wasn't a trained investigator, and what magical crises she'd solved had been because she'd been plunged into the middle of them. To be sent out to discover a killer—human or otherwise—from an examination of available clues was something quite different. I just hope that I don't make any mistakes that get someone hurt or killed, she thought.
Honestly, it was the kind of job best suited for her old friends from the Silver Star Tower, Hiram Courvoisier and Opalneria Rain. The two of them regularly went out investigating magical cases so had more experience; Ms. Opalneria especially was a powerful necromancer expert in fighting devils, and Hiram was a prince, so far as official standing and political considerations went. But the fact was that Hiram and Opalneria weren't doing this job and Lillet was, and wishing wouldn't change that.
So instead she needed to think about the problem. Questions came to her one after another. Was the killing really the result of some magical creature, or had the witch-hunter's presence made people misread an animal attack as a sorcerous murder? Had a clever human murderer disguised a crime as witchcraft? If a magical creature was involved, what kind was it, and was it free-roaming or under a magician's control? There were many possibilities to consider, and Lillet hoped she'd be able to eliminate a few of them. After all, while she didn't have investigative experience, she did have more magical knowledge than anyone she knew, or knew of.
She only hoped that it would be enough.
The mists to Lillet's right grew thick and shadowy, commanding her attention. Floral scents came to her, rose and honeysuckle teasing her nostrils. It reminded her of her own elf-tended garden, and knew this was a place where the border between the path and Faerie grew thin. Thankfully, no one and no thing came through, and Lillet moved on past the arching shadows of trees until the monotony of the mists resumed.
Encounters like that one were common when traveling the Faery Road. A careless traveler could easily blunder off the path into Faerie, where one would be at the mercy of its denizens, and there was also the danger of particularly aggressive or inquisitive creatures coming through into the misty path, leaving the traveler suddenly face-to-face with, say, a manticore or griffon. In this case, however, Lillet continued on without interruption, and although there were more times when the veil grew thin, none were so near as the first, and the time passed quickly, a few hours' walk rather than days of travel.
She was almost to the road's end when it happened. Without warning, the misty walls of the road began to seethe and twist as if the fog were water coming to a roiling boil. This was not a breach in the Faery Road, but something different, something altogether unusual that Lillet had neither seen nor heard of. She looked back, but the effect seemed to extend in both directions as far as she could see; there was no way to retreat to safety and study the problem from a distance.
Suddenly, the "walls" of the road seemed to collapse, as if the force shaping the misty tunnel had fallen apart, and the fog reached in from all directions. It swallowed Lillet, engulfing her in mists that seemed to go on and on, plunging her into a world of endless gray. There was a sudden wrenching sensation, as if every muscle in her body was being sharply, painfully clenched, her guts twisting—
—and then she collapsed to her hands and knees in the grass, the cool air of an approaching evening upon her.
"Owww..." she murmured. The pain swiftly receded, though, and Lillet pushed herself back to her feet.
What was that? she thought. It was as if the Faery Road just tore itself to pieces and dropped me back into the world. But why? She worried that she'd botched the Rune, but that wasn't likely; in that case the misty patch shouldn't have opened in the first place, or directed to the wrong location, or if it did somehow form while unstable, Lillet should have been able to observe that something was wrong from the beginning, but in this case she hadn't. Everything had been seemingly fine—and then it hadn't.
It was probable, therefore, although not certain, that it had not been a mistake by Lillet that had created the problem. That left her wondering, was it a mere accident of magic? Or had some outside force disrupted the Faery Road?
If it had been an outside force, then it at least did not seem to be an attack on her. There was no follow-up, no challenge, no additional force. She'd merely been deposited on a grassy hillside. Lillet looked down and saw a winding dirt road, a stream, forests and fields, and about an hour's walk away, a cluster of buildings—wooden houses and shops, and a church steeple. At least she'd soon learn how far off her intended course she'd been knocked. Lillet shifted her bag back into place and set off down the hillside.