Posted by Darth Krzysztof
25 Flocktime, 595 CY
Liberty climbed the creaking stairs to the Crooked House’s second floor and softly knocked on one of the doors. “Ilya? Ilya, it’s Liberty. May I come in, please?” After a moment, a key turned, and the door opened. Liberty entered and closed the door behind her before turning back to take in the sight of her.
To say that Ilya Starmane cleaned up well was an understatement. Her pale blond hair shone in daylight streaming from the open window. The simple white blouse, knee-length skirt, and sandals she wore seemed almost elegant against her fair skin. And when Ilya’s face broke into a genuine smile, Liberty nearly lost all ability to think.
If this is Ilya, she reminded herself. Don’t get sloppy. Not yet.
“Miss Liberty! I’m so relieved. I thought that, perhaps, the doppelgangers had gotten the better of you.” Ilya was not relieved enough to make a move toward her, though. Either doubts clawed at the elf, or this facedancer was as gifted an actor as the others Liberty had encountered.
“They nearly did. They played one of their tricks on us… a big one. I started questioning reality, sanity… everything that happened in the Sodden Hold.”
Ilya’s smile faltered, then vanished. “I see.” She took a chair next to a table, just large enough to support the plates left behind from breakfast. The elf’s hand was close to a table knife, if not too close. “Then you wonder if I am, indeed, Ilya Starmane. Or if the facedancers found me before you did, and I’m one of them, trying to lure you into another trap.”
“It’s possible, yes. It’s also possible that the Ilya Starmane I met was a doppelganger all along. They knew everything about us, you see. And it’d be just like someone who knows everything about me to mess with my head by sending a pretty elf my way.”
“You think I’m pretty?” Ilya blinked. Her features had a slightly boyish quality, the androgyny found in so many elves.
“I think Ilya is pretty.”
“I see.” The two words seemed suffused with the quality Liberty later came to think of as Elven Mystery. “I don’t blame you for being suspicious. Indeed, I would be disappointed if you weren’t. And if they wanted to trap me again, who better to send than the one face I trust?”
“Trust me? You don’t even know me.”
“I know that Liberty spoke kind words to me, even as I shouted at her and called her a monster. I know that she killed two facedancers with fire. I know that she valued my safety enough to warn me not to go home without her help. I know that she didn’t ask me where I was going. I know that she gave me some coins, and let me borrow her magic hat.” She gestured to a smart-looking cap perched on her bedpost. “And I know that she set me free. I can’t think of any reason for a facedancer to do any of those things.”
“Ilya, I – ”
“What I don’t understand is why Liberty did all of these things and didn’t ask for a reward. My understanding has always been that adventurers are a mercenary lot.”
“I’m not really interested in rewards.” Liberty wasn’t above refusing rewards, but now she had enough gold that she didn’t need to ask for them.
“So I gathered.” Ilya crossed her legs. “I asked about what happened here… about how you and your friends saved Tarquin from the doppelganger. You didn’t ask them for a reward, either. You even took pains to comfort Marta.”
The memory of Marta in her arms took on a different color, now that Ilya had grown so important in her mind’s eye. “Anyone would have done the same.”
Ilya’s laughter, though subdued and brief, sounded absolutely musical. “I very much doubt that. My point, though, is this: Liberty is a girl I can trust.” She looked right at Liberty for the first time, her eyes the color of wild violets. Gray elf, Liberty thought. Burn me down, she’s a gray elf. Noblest of the species… and she does make me feel more girl than woman.
“So it falls on me to prove myself to you.” And let that have whatever double meaning she sees in it. When the elf nodded, Liberty willed wild, bright flames into being around her hands. “Could any of the doppelgangers you saw do this?”
Ilya shook her head, then stood up to fetch the hat of disguise for Liberty. Once she’d put it on, the sorcerer willed it back to the semblance of the battered old top hat Constance had given her years before. “And if it’s an illusion, it’s a convincing one. So, what happens now? You still have no reason to trust me.”
“Take me to your home. We’ll find your facedancer, and I’ll burn it to ashes. And if you turn out to be one of them, too, then may the gods help you, because I sure as Hells won’t.”
“I find this proposition acceptable,” Ilya said.
* * *
The group walked awhile in silence. Liberty made a couple of attempts to engage Ilya in conversation, but the elf remained quiet. She’s been steeling herself for what’s to come since the last time you saw her, Liberty finally reminded herself. Let her have her tower of iron will, if it helps her.
As they got closer to the High Quarter, though, Ilya warmed to Xan’s questions about the Starmanes’ business. Liberty only half-listened to the answers, more wrapped up in the way Ilya said what she said. She was also glad beyond words to have her Xan back – not an impostor, and not the miserable survivor they’d found in the Sodden Hold.
Xan also supported her commitment to pursuing Ilya, even once he’d understood that Liberty wasn’t looking for the sort of casual fling he himself preferred. He’d been full of advice, at least some of which she meant to follow… it was strange, having known him all her life, to finally think of Alexander Quinn as a friend.
No, he was more than that; he’d called her family. Liberty hadn’t been able to tell him how much that meant to her, now that all the other Graces were lost to her, but Xan was smart enough to know it. And it made her doubly glad that she hadn’t fallen into bed with him and Lia that first night at the Crooked House…
Liberty had seen her share of impressive residences, but the Starmane estate’s elven architecture still took her breath away. She scarcely had time to admire it, though, as Ilya led them straight past the confused guards, down a couple of quiet hallways to a dining room, where the monster wearing Ilya’s face sat taking lunch with the rest of the Starmanes. “Ilya” hissed and bolted from its chair at once, trying to slip past the adventurers to escape. But Drake caught the doppelganger in a flying tackle, and Mom buried his greatsword in its chest, ending the encounter before it had even begun. Ilya gasped at the sight and ran off down the hall, leaving the adventurers to explain to the horrified Starmanes what they’d just witnessed.
Fortunately for Liberty, Xan was ready for this task, speaking his impeccable Elven. Once the Starmanes had calmed enough to allow Drake to remove the doppelganger’s corpse (after Liberty searched it for a mindclone sapphire, only to come up empty), Liberty excused herself.
* * *
She found Ilya in a bedroom that was bigger than some houses she’d visited in Diamond Lake. The bed that the elf sat on would have looked large in a more normal room; here, the silken sheets and delicately embroidered blankets became the focus. At least, they would have been, had Liberty eyes for anything but Ilya, who’d been weeping just moments before. “Oh,” the elf said, sniffing. “Hello, again. Someday, you will see me at my best.”
I’m not sure I could handle that. She closed the door behind her and approached, stopped about ten feet away, not wanting to draw any closer uninvited. “I saw the same thing in the Sodden Hold, Ilya. One of them wearing my face as it died…I was already having nightmares, and now I’ve been seeing that, too.”
“It’s not just that. She – it – stole my life from me… Nobody even noticed I was gone. And, in a way, that hurts more than anything they did to me in the Sodden Hold.” Ilya was on the verge of breaking down.
Liberty approached and sat on the bed, leaving a fair amount of space between them. “I know, Ilya,” she said, hoping her compassion came through. “I’m sorry this happened to you. It was never going to be easy for you to come back here. But you’re strong, and you’ll get through this.” I started talking without knowing where I was going with this, didn’t I? “And… I’ll help you. I still have work to do, but I’ll be here for you. As much as I can.” Gods, that sounds stupid.
She didn’t notice the presence of Ilya’s hand over hers until the elf gently squeezed. “Thank you, Liberty,” the elf said, a warm smile finding her face. “I am very fortunate that you and your friends found me. I don’t have many friends – many real ones, I mean.”
As if on cue, a large, sleek cat emerged from under the bed. Gray-brown with deep black stripes, it twined itself around the elf’s bare calves before butting its head against Liberty’s boot. “Well, except for Marlevaur, here,” Ilya said. “He’s always there for me. Not that he could tell the difference between me and the facedancer, the big dummy.” She playfully nudged the cat with one slender foot, causing him to half-meow/half-purr.
“That’s how good the doppelgangers are,” Liberty said, leaning down to pet Marlevaur. The cat rose on his back legs to meet her hand, landing with a thump. “He’s beautiful.”
“Thanks. He likes you!” Ilya seemed genuinely surprised. “That is so odd; he never likes anybody but me.” She slid off the bed to kneel on the floor, next to the cat. In a sing-song voice, she said, “You are so smart, Marlevaur! We are all friends, here.” Marlevaur tipped over onto his side, becoming putty in her hands as she switched to Elven: “Liberty has exquisite taste, does she not? She thinks we are both beautiful.”
“I do,” Liberty said in Common. She moved to join them on the floor, then she switched to Elven, too. “I have never seen anyone like you before.”
“I didn’t know you spoke Elven.” Ilya blushed fiercely, but kept using her native tongue.
Liberty used both hands to pet the parts of the cat that Ilya left neglected; there was plenty of him to go around. “I speak enough to get by. How much can you really know about me, anyway? We just met.”
“I know that, when you said ‘beautiful’ in the Sodden Hold, you weren’t talking about my name.” Ilya aimed a quick violet glance at her before looking back down at Marlevaur. “Well, not just about it.”
“You are beautiful, Ilya. I can’t be the first person to tell you that.”
“It seems different, coming from you.” Ilya smiled. “I know you mean it. Maybe we haven’t known each other for long, but already I think of you as… as a true friend.”
Liberty placed her hand atop Ilya’s, sure she could feel the blood coursing beneath the elf’s skin. “I am glad to hear this, but… could you think of me as anything more?”
“I… oh!” The elf’s blush returned, her eyes locked on their clasped hands. “You mean, as in a courtship?”
Liberty cursed the formality of her Elven lessons; she lacked the vocabulary to discuss this more casually. “You can call it that, of course. You aren’t married, are you?”
Are you betrothed, Ilya Starmane? Spoken for?”
When she found herself unable to speak, Ilya shook her head. Then: “No. No, there is nobody serious. Despite Mother’s incessant meddling.”
“I know how brave you are. This cannot be as frightening as all that.”
Still looking at their hands, Ilya said, “I have never been courted by a human.” She paused. “Or a woman.”
”Woman” is good. This would be a bad time for her to think of me as a girl again. “I don’t want you to agree to this because you feel obligation to your rescuer. If my intention offends you, you have but to say so. I will happily be your friend, instead.”
“No!” the elf exclaimed, loud enough to startle Marlevaur. As the cat disappeared under the bed with his tail puffed up to an impossible size, Ilya finally met Liberty’s gaze. “No. I never said that. But you must understand, my parents… they would not approve.”
“You would not wish to offend them.” Liberty’s heart sank toward her navel. Blood will tell. It always does.
“Not after I just got them back, no. Not when I spent every waking moment fearing that I’d never see them again.” She seemed back on the brink of tears. “But then, they have always decided every part of my life for me. Trying to make me into a responsible businesswoman and a proper lady, when they’ve already got Ilrune to run the house when they’re gone. He’s already married and everything, sure to have whole litters of heirs. They don’t need me, Liberty, but they won’t let me go.” She made a fist with her free hand, weakly bringing it down on the rug. “Especially now that they’ve almost lost me forever.”
Liberty moved a little closer. “Not long ago, my life was all laid out for me, too. But I realized that it wasn’t my destiny; none of it was. I left it all behind for what I was really meant to become.”
Ilya gave her a dubious look. “Are you saying that you’re my destiny?”
“No. But I’m saying that you, and only you, have the right to answer that question.”
The elf nodded, sighed, then sat up straight. “Then my answer is yes. I would be honored if you would court me, Liberty…” She paused. “Do you have a family name? If you do, I still don’t know it.”
She said yes. She said yes! “It’s Grace.”
“Liberty Grace?” Ilya smiled. “It sounds so meaningful.”
“My mother was fond of the ‘virtue names,’ even before she married my father.”
“Interesting. I’ve never met anyone like you, either. I have so much to learn about you… but surely your friends must be waiting for you.”
Liberty had nearly forgotten about them, hypnotized by Ilya’s violet spell. “You are right, of course. We still have much to do! But you should be safe here.”
“Of course! Marlevaur’s with me, now. As long as there’s only one of me around, he’ll protect me. Father says he has the blood of the cat sith, you know.” She leaned forward, bringing her mouth to Liberty’s ear. In Elven, she whispered, “But send word when you’re free, and I will come to you.” Ilya’s breath was warm on her neck, yet her flesh still broke out in goosebumps.
“I will,” Liberty managed. She raised Ilya’s hand to her lips, placed a tender kiss upon it that made the elf shiver. “Though I suppose I could stay a bit longer.”
At that, the door opened, allowing Ilya’s mother into the room. She, too, was beautiful, with the same pale golden hair and boyish features, unmarked by her extra century or two of life. Her silver gown was exquisite, her jewelry very tasteful, her graceful movements somehow measured and carefree as she approached. “Are you well, Ilya?” she asked in Common, presumably for the human’s benefit.
“I am. Or I will be. Mother, this is Liberty Grace. I owe her and her friends my life. Liberty, this is Veranis Starmane, my mother.”
Veranis made a very small bow, causing Liberty to do the same, though she still sat on the floor, holding Ilya’s hands in hers. “Your home is very lovely,” Liberty said in Elven. “I’m sorry that I ran off, but I was worried about Ilya as well.”
“Of course. We had no idea she had been taken from us. We are in your debt, Miss Grace.”
She doesn’t like being in anyone’s debt, especially a human’s. Liberty hated herself for thinking this, but she couldn’t quite shake it off. “Think nothing of it, really.”
“We were… well, we were about to have lunch. Have you eaten?” It took Veranis great effort to ask, but she still made the effort. Maybe Ilya was wrong about her parents…
Liberty shook her head. “That’s very kind of you; sadly, we don’t have time. There are more of those creatures loose in the city, and we’ve got to find them.” She let go of Ilya’s hands, touched her on the shoulder as she got to her feet. “We really should be going. But I know you and Ilya will have much to talk about.”
Ilya stood up as well, giving Liberty a hug so light that it almost seemed ethereal. “Goodbye, Liberty. Sweet water and light laughter until next.”
“May it be so, for us all,” Liberty said with a smirk.
* * *
She found Xan talking business with Ilya’s father and brother, while Mom leaned against the wall, bored to tears. Drake had returned from his grisly errand, but he, too, waited in the corner, uncomfortably biding his time. “If you fellows are ready,” she called, “let’s go finish this.”
She dodged everyone’s questions about her time with Ilya the whole way back to the Sodden Hold, though the spring in her step and the smile on her face told them just what they needed to know.