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Happily Ever After Requires Negotiation

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Elections were coming around again, and Sophie was thoroughly sick of the whole business. She had never much wanted to be famous, and she was tired of providing sound bites whenever she ventured outside the castle to do things as simple as pick up groceries or take a good long walk to keep herself healthy. She took to hiding her pale blonde hair under scarves and wearing huge sunglasses as a disguise, which worked rather less often than she had hoped.

Dorcas, on the other hand, was in her element. She was an old hand at politics, both the practical side and the public show. She refused to officially endorse either side, claiming an Oracle should be a neutral servant of all, but unofficially she took great joy in spreading rumors and slogans where they would do the most good for the Neo-Radicals. She had the High Commissioner and the rest of his party well trained now. They relied on her advice and didn't mind letting her and Sophie run a private consultancy between official appointments. She could break in a new lot of politicians if necessary -- in fact, the rank and file were already sneaking in with questions despite their leaders' official stance against myth and magic -- but she worried that the process would cut into their profits.

"That's a funny thing to fret about! I think it's more likely they'd send us both up north, to be guest-lecturers on levitation," Sophie said one night when Dorcas shut the castle door behind yet another member of the Party in the Right, who had crept in with great secrecy (which naturally meant everyone knew where he had gone) to beg the Oracle's advice and favor.

"Nonsense, dear. I'm much better suited to teaching poetry," Dorcas said. She sank into an antique armchair with a deep sigh. "I'm too old to keep all these evening appointments, especially after a day chasing down another swarm of petty fiends. But atmosphere is important, and nobody feels like they're getting away with secret meetings if they come during daylight."

"You're only as old as you think you are," Sophie reminded her. "I can handle morning demon emergencies if you want to sleep in, though -- at least until the elections."

Simulated firelight limned the faint wrinkles around Dorcas's eyes as she smiled. "Don't worry. I'm only complaining to hear myself talk. Besides, even if the Party in the Right win, they can't throw us out. I've saved up our consulting fees and bought this place outright last month. A woman ought to have solid title to her own home."

Sophie agreed that this was very sensible and deserved to be celebrated with a cup of tea, and then with a bottle of champagne. She felt quite proud and bubbly by the time they wavered off to their respective beds, and even dared to kiss Dorcas on the cheek and proclaim her the most brilliant witch in the world.

In the wee hours of the night, however, it occurred to her that properly speaking she didn't have a home. The castle had belonged to the government and now belonged to Dorcas; Sophie had no claim on a single inch. She relied on Dorcas for all kinds of things, come to think of it, from magic lessons to companionship to the occasional extravagant piece of treasure. At first she'd been the one helping Dorcas adjust to the modern world outside Urstwile, but now Dorcas could get along just fine. And though Sophie had learned a good deal of magic, she still had far to go before she could equal Dorcas's decades of experience. If Dorcas decided that she didn't like-- that she didn't need an Assistant Oracle anymore, what was Sophie meant to do?

Guest lecturing in levitation didn't sound appealing at all. Nor did living without Dorcas.

Sophie didn't think Dorcas was tired of her company, but then again, she'd thought she was in love with Simon once upon a time and she'd clearly been wrong on that front.

"How am I supposed to tell whether she likes me?" Sophie wondered aloud as she looked around her room at the glittery presents and magical paraphernalia Dorcas had given her over the years.

"It's human nature to seek and appreciate the company of other people," the cleaning robot said from its stand in the corner.

"That's not what I meant," said Sophie. "I know we're friends, but it's so hard to know if we could be something more. I learned all about Urstwilean courting rituals, but they're meant for a woman and a man, not two women, and the modern world is only just remembering how to be romantic so I can't find any good examples out here either!"

"The course of true love never did run smooth," the robot offered in its mellifluous voice.

"Argh," said Sophie, and threw herself back down onto her bed. Sleep, unfortunately, eluded her. The annoying thing about gnawing worries was that once she'd set her mind spinning, it was hard to calm down again.

Well, was she an Assistant Oracle or wasn't she?

Sophie tiptoed into the workroom she shared with Dorcas and eyed the inlaid summoning circle with a considering air. She wanted to know how Dorcas felt about her. She supposed she also wanted to know if she ought to look into buying her own home. And it couldn't hurt to sort out precisely what she felt about Dorcas -- there was no sense mistaking infatuation for true love a second time. She pulled out an electronic screen and stylus and began working out phrasings that couldn't be twisted to give misleading answers.

Then she paused and looked at the shelves that lined the entire opposite wall and held their collection of minor fiends in glass bottles. Most of them lay still and silent in the form of beetles, worms, snails, and other small and unpleasant creatures, but a few knocked against the walls of their prisons. The sparks set off with each collision lit the room like faintly glowing fireflies and the sound of their wings was a faintly painful whine just at the lower edge of human hearing. Sophie chewed on her stylus for a minute, then shook her head. Her questions weren't worth the price of dealing with infernal powers. Basic psychology solved most problems with much less fuss and trouble than magic.

She'd talk to Dorcas in the morning.

But before she could raise the issue over breakfast, the High Commissioner himself came to call. He apologized for his breach of old-fashioned respectful courtesies, then launched into a lengthy, reverberating speech. Dorcas smiled and made the expected little gestures and noises of attentive listening. Sophie tuned him out after the first five minutes, confident that Dorcas would catch anything important.

The High Commissioner boomed his way through elegant phrases about altruism and reciprocity, the wonders of a simpler, nobler era, the misty, twilit glories of magic and fairy tale, the many-splendored nature of love... but finally he could avoid his point no longer. "My dear Madam Dorcas and Miss Oakroyd," he said, "while we respect your desire to maintain the position of Oracle as a bastion of political neutrality, on behalf of my party I humbly request that, as beloved symbols of the liberation from cold scientific sterility that accompanied our glorious victory in the last election, you consider making a statement to register your support for our cause in this delicate time. Together."

Dorcas smiled wider, baring her lovely white teeth. "Certainly," she said. "It has been too long since I've indulged in poetry for an audience greater than one."

Sophie put her hand on top of Dorcas's and laced their fingers together.

"Hmm!" said the High Commissioner, who had learned that Dorcas's poems often had a sting in their tail. "Perhaps a more concrete symbol? Folk wisdom teaches us that actions speak louder than words, and my wife" -- he coughed slightly after this word -- "assures me that this is true."

"Actions can be very memorable," Dorcas agreed. "I could summon a devil at a polling station and have it reveal the consequences of each party's victory."

Sophie bit the inside of her cheek to keep herself from laughing.

"Ah, no, no, we couldn't possibly ask something that draining of you," the High Commissioner boomed hurriedly. "Besides, that sort of thing might not go over so well among those who still cling to the inadequate tenets of science. We must be courteous and considerate toward all potential voters. Our love" -- here he coughed again -- "for them as fellow humans demands it."

"Shame," said Dorcas. "I could draw up a lovely summoning circle at the State University. They have the perfect room for it. Have you seen their Great Hall, sir?"

"Indeed, indeed. A very dramatic and picturesque venue. Perhaps we could keep that location, but change the proceedings to something more in keeping with the Arcadian values on whose subtleties your advice has been so invaluable? And seasonally appropriate?" The High Commissioner looked pointedly at their clasped hands.

At this, Sophie realized he was hinting around some specific idea, relating to her and Dorcas, a public event that was appropriate for spring, and those words he'd been coughing after suggested that...

She sat up straight in her chair and said, indignantly, "Are you telling us to get married as a publicity stunt?"

The High Commissioner did his best to look embarrassed. He was not very good at it.

"What makes you think we're even in lo-- interested in each other?"

The High Commissioner bestowed a broad smile across the breakfast table. "My dear Miss Oakroyd, I understand that love is a private beauty that grows in the heart, yet as you grow older you will come to see its signs blazoned clearly across the faces of--"

"I want a Ministry for Sophie," Dorcas interrupted.

"Excuse me?"

"A Ministry. For Sophie. In your new government. You've orated about magic and folklore for years but you still haven't put a single thing into practice. You need a Ministry of Magic to organize proper training for young witches and warlocks. Sophie needs a proper job now that I'm familiar with your world, before she realizes she's wasted as my assistant and flies away to seek her fortune. She's brilliant at organizing people and she understands your education system better than the lightweight you have running it now."

Sophie and the High Commissioner stared at her for a speechless moment. Then Sophie said, "Do you really--?"

"Yes," said Dorcas.

"You're not trying to get rid--?"

"No!"

"And you don't mind--?"

"Of course not, dear. Besides," Dorcas added, "this way you can finally cut down the number of idiots who summon minor demons without any precautions, so we'll have more time to spend at home instead of chasing all over the country trying to capture the little pests. I put both our names on the deed for a reason."

"Oh," said Sophie. She realized that Dorcas was still holding her hand, that she hadn't objected to the idea of marrying Sophie, that she was trying to help Sophie move up in the world (perhaps paying her back for talking the High Commissioner into building their castle in the first place?), and that apparently Sophie now owned half of the castle. Of their castle. It was all quite overwhelming, in a shining, joyful way.

She also realized the High Commissioner was still sitting at their table and hadn't given them an answer about the Ministry.

"A Ministry of Magic and a proper budget to hire demon hunters, or we'll go on cohabiting in rational, scientifically justified self-interest," she said.

The High Commissioner spread his hands and said, "I don't have the authority. It will have to go to committee, but I'm certain we can come to a friendly agreement before the elections."

"Don't be ridiculous. I know how your committees work," said Dorcas. She rose to her feet, resplendent in a magenta silk dress and gold hairpins, and tugged Sophie up to stand beside her. "We'll come with you. We want an answer one way or the other by suppertime. Right, dear?"

"Absolutely, darling," said Sophie, and silently summoned just enough elemental magic to make her eyes spark dramatically.

In the event, election day arrived too quickly for them to do anything more than publicly declare their engagement, but analysts later said that broadcast swung at least ten percent of undecided voters over to the Neo-Radicals. Sophie duly acquired her Ministry, and the wedding of Madam Dorcas and Minister Oakroyd, complete with bottled-demon fairy lights and personal vows written by the Oracle herself, was widely agreed to be the social event of the decade.