Of the entire year, December gave Patrick the least freedom.
Not only did he have his usual dark-of-the-moon hunt to see to, but he needed to find a life to offer on the night of the solstice. And all this during the time of year when the sunlight was fading, a time elves generally found either wearying or stressful, according to individual temperament. Patrick, personally, tended to tire more easily, this close to the longest night, with sunlight in short supply.
His demon servants had no sympathy. They expected him to complete his side of the bargain, as he had each year for a decade. And, as unpleasant as he found this part of it, he intended to do so.
He'd arrived in this city yesterday; the dark moon was past, and he had a week still before the solstice to choose an appropriate sacrifice. Probably one of the street kids, they had no one to miss them except each other. Living like animals the way they did, what were their lives really worth? They had no possible future anyway. It was a mercy, ending it quickly.
A flash of bright gold caught his eye; he glanced in that direction, and paused, attention caught. The girl couldn't have been more than sixteen; she was certainly not mage-gifted. She was perched on the steps of an ancient limestone church with three humans of around her own age, sharing two pasteboard cups of fries between them; they could all have used a bath and some decent clothes, Patrick thought in distaste.
The girl looked in his direction, and her eyes narrowed—picking up on the presence of illusion, though unable to see through it, most likely. Very briefly, Patrick let his current human disguise slip, just long enough for her to see it.
Unsurprisingly, she left her companions, and came towards him; he waited.
“I'm not going back,” she said firmly.
“Oh, come on. Like someone didn't send you to find me and drag me back to my family?” She tossed one lock of hair, dyed vivid magenta, out of her eyes; the rest of her hair was its natural blonde, but cropped short.
“I have no idea who your family might be or where you might have come from,” Patrick assured her. “I'd be the last to try to make anyone go back to one of the villages, anyway, since I left Falias a decade ago and haven't been near any of them since.”
Blue eyes widened. “For real? You don't like all their rules and shit either?”
“Their rules,” Patrick said dryly, “are at the top of the list of what I don't like about them, along with their two-faced set of values that claims everyone is equal while giving special status to some.”
“Like the damned wolves,” she commiserated. “Think they rule the world and can get away with anything.”
Pity she wasn't a mage, but an elf would be a new flavour for his demon servants regardless. Obviously no one would miss her, and it should be easy enough to win her trust.
“What would you say to some supper?” he asked. “My treat. Then we can talk somewhere more comfortable.”
He wasn't at all surprised she accepted the offer instantly—the high elven metabolism must be extremely inconvenient living on the street, with chancy meals at best, especially with her body struggling to compensate for the winter cold.
She wouldn't survive the whole winter homeless. She'd starve or freeze or a combination of the two. Why let her suffer?
* * *
Wynne was where she should be, waiting outside the small restaurant where he'd bought her supper every evening for the past week.
Patrick went along with it—well-fed, her life would be stronger, would feed the demons better and give him more power. To stay casual and friendly grew harder with each passing day, though. More and more, she reminded him of Irina. Brilliant sixteen-year-old Irina, who had challenged him to a game elvenmages commonly played with illusions, all innocent smiles. Half-trained Irina, who had defeated her twenty-two-year-old cousin so thoroughly, so effortlessly, that he'd walked out of Falias, unable to bear that final humiliation of countless others. Deceitful Irina, who had feigned such distress over his rage and embarrassment, who hid her contempt behind a mask of concern that fooled everyone else.
And Wynne's mother had been a Lioren, like that arrogant showoff he'd encountered a year ago and not yet gotten around to tracking down. That meant she was a Lioren, by blood though not by name.
This year, he didn't think he'd find his task nearly as disagreeable as he usually did.
He encouraged her to eat as much as she could, and ate well himself—he wouldn't be able to grab quick snacks tonight, his mind would need to be on what he was doing.
“Tonight's solstice,” he commented, while they lingered over tea.
Wynne shrugged, carefully neutral. “Yeah, so?”
He gave her his best, most charming smile, and backed it with just a hint of magical suggestion. “The longest night of the year isn't a time I enjoy being alone. I don't know any elf who finds it a comfortable night. Maybe if we spend it together, it won't be so bad.” He left it up to her to interpret what he might mean specifically.
Briefly, Wynne hesitated, then nodded. “Solstice always makes me feel all tense,” she confessed. “I don't want to be alone either.”
He paid, and they walked back to his motel room.
Sikial was waiting, sitting in mid-air, legs crossed. It saw Wynne, and licked its lips.
Wynne stopped, suddenly uncertain. “What's that?”
Patrick closed the door. The lock snapped shut, and light coiled around the knob, sealing it in place so it couldn't be turned. With a thought, he ringed the entire room in light, soundproofing it—or rather, creating an illusion of silence from within, which amounted to the same thing.
“Let me tell you about my cousin Irina, Wynne,” he purred. “And about the new friends I found after I left Falias.”
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