"Oh Jasin, anyone can be dragged kicking and screaming into the dark; few will step into it willingly. I propose a wager."
Jasin díLyr glanced at the blonde woman seated across from him in the carriage. Her velvet gown glowed crimson in the moonlight, reminding him of the color of new blood. Flickering shadows played across her pale face and rubies flashed in her hair and at her throat.
"What kind of wager?"
Analaise was nothing if not creative, her dark humour never ceasing to amaze or amuse him.
"We will each choose one soul at the ball tonight, and we must convince that soul to relinquish itself, willingly, into the dark."
Jasin looked at her doubtfully. "Willingly?"
"Of course," said Analaise with a soft laugh. "And just to make the game a little more interesting, the souls we choose must know us for what we are--and still agree."
An intriguing challenge; certainly one of her better ones.
"And how long will we have to accomplish this impossibility?"
"Since we can both be extremely persuasive," she said with a small smile, "this one night should be sufficient."
"And the winner getsÖ?"
Her eyes flashed sapphire in the moonlight. "The winner is granted absolute dominion over the nation of Krill for the next thousand years."
Jasin chuckled at her audacity. "Not even you can guarantee that, Analaise. Marsallis was still Shadow Master, last time I checked."
"Iím sure I can persuade him to agree." She smiled wickedly. "He is a man, after all. I could probably convince him to walk into the sun, given the proper incentive."
"Iím sure," replied Jasin with a faint smile.
"So," she asked. "Will you join me in my little game?"
It would certainly be entertaining, and Jasin was forced to admit to a certain amount of boredom lately.
"All right," he agreed. "I'll play."
Analaise laughed. "Excellent!"
"Are you sure you can convince a soul to come to you willingly, Analaise?" he teased. "I know how much you enjoy the hunt."
Analaise gave him a playful smile. "They all come to me willingly, Jasin, whether they know it or not."
Jasin chuckled, returning his gaze to the window as the carriage drew up in front of the manor. A liveried servant appeared, pulling the door open and he stepped out onto the cobbled drive, turning to offer Analaise his hand. Together, they climbed the stairs toward the sounds of music and laughter.
Their host greeted them at the door. The Earl of Halin. Portly, with greying dark hair, his pale blue satin breeches and waistcoat suited a much younger, much thinner man.
"Lord díLyr!" gushed the Earl. "Welcome. And the Lady Analaise! Iím so glad you both could come."
Jasin bowed. "How could we refuse such a gracious invitation, Tyrus."
The Earl beamed. "Ellyn will be thrilled to know two such important guests would take the time to help us celebrate her birthday."
"And where is the fair Ellyn?" asked Analaise.
"Inside somewhere," said Tyrus, waving toward the ballroom. "Under her motherís watchful eye."
Jasin smiled, and he and Analaise entered the house. They removed their cloaks, passing them to the footman standing at the entrance to the ballroom, then he led her into the glittering swirl of music and light.
The ballroom was large enough to accommodate three hundred people in comfort and its mirrored walls made it appear larger yet. Six massive chandeliers cast brilliant light upon the highly polished, tiled floor, while red and white candles burned in silver sconces. Red velvet couches and chairs were arranged about the room and servants, in white livery, passed among the guests bearing silver trays of amber wine. An orchestra took up one end of the room and vases of red and white roses decorated the tables and low pedestals surrounding the dance floor.
A young blond man advanced towards them. Jasin recognized him as the Earl of Halinís son. He smiled at Analaise, taking her hand, kissing it gallantly.
"Lady Analaise! You look lovely, as ever." He nodded to Jasin. "Lord díLyr, how nice to see you again."
"Why thank you, Baren," said Analaise. "You grow more handsome each time I see you."
The young man flushed with embarrassed pleasure as Analaise took him by the arm. She flashed Jasin a mischievous grin.
"Shall we dance, Baren?" she asked.
Jasin watched with amusement as she led the young man away.
He leaned against one of the fluted columns as he watched the crowd mill about him. He recognized Barons and Earls. Dukes and Princes. It appeared most of the nobility of Krill was in attendance to celebrate Ellyn of Halinís eighteenth birthday. Across the floor, Jasin saw Ellyn, herself, on her motherís arm. Her hair fell in a golden wave to her hips and her dark blue satin gown shone in the light cast by the chandeliers. She was beautiful.
A perfect choice.
He called to her, a gentle whisper that brushed the edges of her awareness; asking for her. But not with words.
She frowned in confusion, her green-eyed gaze wandering about the room until it met his. He smiled faintly as he offered her a small bow. She blushed and looked away as her mother led her towards a group of noblewomen. Jasin watched her for a time as she spoke with them, enjoying her beauty and her grace. There was an aura about her; a radiance and innocence that spilled from her, enthralling all it touched.
She nodded graciously as she listened to the women chatter, but he felt her growing frustration and he smiled at the irritated desperation in her eyes. Perhaps it was time he asked the fair Ellyn to dance.
Ellyn of Halin smiled politely. If she had to listen to one more tale about a favorite son or nephew's marvelous prospects at the court of King Timonen, she swore she would run screaming from the room. Her mind worked desperately as she searched for a suitable reason to excuse herself. Her father was involved in an animated discussion with the Baron Delaren and her mother flirted shamelessly with the Aeriean ambassador. She looked for her brother; even Barenís company was preferable to this gaggle of well meaning, but unbelievably boring women, but Baren was busy with the Lady Analaise; he could not rescue her either.
"Lady Halin," said a soft male voice.
Ellyn looked up into the golden eyes of the Lord Jasin díLyr.
"Please forgive my terrible manners. I should have approached you immediately to wish you a happy birthday."
Ellyn felt herself blush. "Thank you, Lord díLyr."
"Would you care to dance? Iím sure these lovely ladies wonít mind if I steal you away for awhile."
He offered the gathered women his most charming smile, sending them into a flurry of giggles and whispers as he offered Ellyn his hand. She smiled as she allowed him to help her to her feet.
"I would love to, thank you."
He led her onto the dance floor, holding her easily and comfortably in his arms as they moved to the music.
"You looked rather like a trapped animal," said Jasin with a small smile. "I hope you donít mind that I came to your rescue."
"They really are lovely ladies," Ellyn insisted. "JustÖ"
"A little overbearing?" Jasin finished.
Ellyn giggled. "Just a little."
They were silent for a moment, and Ellyn found she was very aware of his arm around her waist as he held her. His eyes drew her; golden and ageless they held the memory of events witnessed that were better left unspoken. A dark loneliness lived behind those eyes; an eternity of shadow and sorrow that whispered the promise of eternal night; a promise she feared, even as she was drawn to it.
"My father told me he had invited you," she said, tearing her gaze from his. "He wasnít sure you would come."
"And why would I not?"
"He was told you were in Karthian."
Jasin smiled. "My business was concluded more quickly than I expected," he said. "I could hardly miss the opportunity to wish a beautiful young woman a happy birthday."
Ellyn flushed. Jasin díLyr was a handsome and charming man and the darkness in his soul called to her; the way he looked at her made her tremble inside.
The music faded, and they stopped, applauding politely. As the orchestra began again, Jasin bowed graciously.
"Thank you, Lady Halin."
"It was my pleasure, Lord díLyr," she murmured. Someone called her name and she turned to see her father approaching from across the floor.
"Ellyn, my dear, your guests are asking about you! Forgive me, Lord díLyr, but may I steal my daughter away?"
Jasin smiled. "Of course, Tyrus." He took Ellynís hand, kissing it gently. "I certainly donít wish to monopolize the fair Ellynís attentions."
Ellyn smiled, shivering at the touch of his lips on her hand. Her father led her away and she glanced back in time to see the Lady Analaise approach Jasin from across the room, then yet another group of well-meaning courtiers surrounded her.
"Well Jasin," said Analaise. "An interesting choice, I must say."
Jasin smiled. "And young Baren, Analaise? Are brother and sister both to be persuaded to step into the shadows?"
Analaise took his arm, leading him toward a long linen-draped table piled with food. She took a plate and chose one or two things from the assortment before her.
"We havenít discussed what would happen in the event of a draw," said Jasin, taking a glass of wine from the tray of a passing servant.
Analaise looked thoughtful. "A draw, Jasin? You mean if we both should win?"
"If we both lose -- well, I suppose we will have to admit weíre not quite as persuasive as we thought. Difficult, to be sure, since weíre both such accomplished hunters. If we both win, I will ask Marsallis to divide Krill between us."
"You? Willing to share, Analaise? That would be a first."
"There are very few of our kind I would share with Jasin," she replied. "But I would be willing to share with you."
"And what have I done to deserve such an honor?" he asked, sipping his wine.
"Youíre willing to indulge in my little adventures," she said with a smile. "In fact, I believe you enjoy them as much as I do. Yes?"
Jasin chuckled. "Yes, Analaise. I must admit, they do make the game more interesting."
Analaise looked across the room. Baren stood in the corner among a group of his friends. She flashed Jasin a smile.
"I believe Iíll ask young Baren to dance," she said, setting her plate on the table. "He really is a very pliable young man."
Ellyn watched him. The light from the chandeliers and candles cast silver and blue shadows through his raven hair, and his plain white shirt and black breeches were a stark contrast to the brightly coloured velvets and silks surrounding him. His only ornamentation was the narrow, silver chain he wore at his waist.
He leaned easily against the wall, his arms folded across his chest. Standing slightly apart, he was an island of calm in a sea of glittering confusion and she felt his presence acutely as she moved about the room. She smiled. She danced. She spoke with dozens of young men who flattered and bowed, but Lord Jasin díLyrís presence anchored her. No matter where she was, or who she spoke with, her thoughts and gaze always returned to him.
She saw him slip from the room into the garden and she excused herself, moving toward the stone flagged terrace.
Jasin moved from the glittering chaos of the ballroom into the quiet solitude of the garden. The darkness was soothing and he allowed it to calm his turbulent thoughts.
He had lived over a thousand mortal years and was surprised that Ellyn of Halin could move him as she had. He had seen so much innocence lost; destroyed so much of it himself Ė that he thought he had become immune to it, but there it was -- bright and joyous -- shining in her eyes.
The night was warm and moonlight illuminated the path leading through the flowering trees. He stood in the shadows as he listened to the music and laughter drifting through the open door. Somewhere above a nightingale sang, and the air was filled with the soft scent of lilacs and summer roses. In the corner of the garden, a fountain glittered in the moonlight, its gentle music mingling with the chirp of the crickets.
The soft click of heels on stone drew his attention and he watched Ellyn approach along the path.
She was as light as he was dark. As golden as he was shadowed.
She turned at the sound of his voice. She was trembling, he could see it, even from where he stood.
"Lord díLyr," she whispered, "IÖthought I saw you come out here. I wantedÖI was worried about youÖ"
Jasin moved towards her, his eyes never leaving hers.
"Youíre unchaparoned," he said with a faint smile. "Your mother would hardly approve."
Ellyn glanced toward the door, then looked back to him. "Iím eighteen today," she said, a hint of defiance in her voice. "A woman."
"A woman," agreed Jasin softly. He felt the beating of her heart. It merged with his own, filling him with quiet thunder. "Still, you should not be here."
He stood very close to her now and he reached to caress her face.
"I wantedÖto see you," she whispered.
"Do you know what I am?"
"YesÖ" came the barely audible reply. "You are...a Night Walker...I saw itÖin your eyesÖ"
"And still you came? I am a monster, Ellyn. A nightmare. You should fear me. You should run as fast and as far from me as you can."
She closed her eyes and Jasin felt her spirit tremble. "I canít."
"BecauseÖI amÖdrawn to you. There is suchÖsorrow in youÖsuch loneliness. And becauseÖ"
She hesitated, lowering her eyes.
"Yes?" Jasin prompted.
"BecauseÖyou can make me live forever."
Jasin smiled faintly. "Forever is a very long time. Are you sure thatís what you want?"
She looked up at him, and Jasin felt her longing like a physical ache. He saw it in her eyes. She wanted him, it was as clear as if she had spoken the words aloud.
Moonlight spilled through the leaves and the creatures of the night were suddenly silent as Jasin drew her near, his lips brushing the side of her neck. He smelled the soft scent of her hair, the faint fragrance of her perfume. She twined her fingers through his hair and the nearness of her body caused the dragon to stir within him. He trembled against the force of his desire as the fever rose in him. He wanted her. Needed her.
He had chosen her. And she had come to him.
The dark tide rose about them as Jasinís spirit called to hers, bringing visions of shadow and longing. Sharing the secret of his existence and the heady sweetness of blood, the fever rose to burn and consume as he allowed the dragon free reign within him.
And her spirit answered, radiant and joyous, flooding his darkened soul with visions of all he had lost. The memory of sunlight, warm upon his skin. The softness of a summer breeze. Spring rain and winter storm and sunrise flashing fire upon the sea.
And for one brief moment, the brilliance that was Ellyn of Halin caused the shadows within him to fade, and he felt alive again as he gave voice to the promise of forever. If she gave her soul to him.
And as she trembled in his arms, she gave him her reply.
Yes. She would come. And as Jasin gazed into her eyes he saw another promise. The promise of a kinder, gentler night. A night without pain. A night without blood.
And for the first time in a thousand years, Jasin díLyr felt shame.
Gently, he released her; promising he would come to her, when her guests were gone.
She moved back onto the path and walked towards the house. Pausing at the door, she glanced back at him, the flame of desire and the unspoken promise still smoldering in her eyes. Jasin stood beneath the trees, feeling the fading warmth of her spirit within him as he closed his eyes.
That was the agreement, wasnít it Analaise? They must come willingly?
Jasin stood in the shadows watching her window. She was waiting for him to fulfill his promise. To give her forever. Eternity.
Yes, he could give her eternity.
An eternity of shadow, never seeing the sun again. Hunting in darkness driven by the fever. Suffering the madness the hunger brought.
He closed his eyes against the guilt that rose to choke him.
He should not be here; he should never have chosen her. It had begun as a game -- a challenge accepted in a moment of weakness. He never should have agreed.
"Havenít you taken her yet?" asked Analaise from behind him.
Jasin opened his eyes. "I thought you would have sought me out before now, Analaise," he said. "To gloat about your victory over young Baren."
"Young Baren proved to be less pliable than I anticipated," she admitted with annoyance. "He declined my gracious offer. With regret, of course."
Jasin chuckled. "Of course."
"It will be dawn soon," she reminded him. "Youíre running out of time."
"We exist outside of time, Analaise. Or have you forgotten?"
He heard her laugh. "No, Jasin. It isnít something Iím likely to forget. But for the purpose of our wager, you must take her before the dawn."
Jasin stared at the lighted window.
Analaise touched his arm and he turned to face her.
"Of course you can, Jasin. Sheís already agreed." A flicker of doubt passed across the beautiful face. "She has agreed, hasnít she?"
Jasin chuckled. "Yes, Analaise. She has."
"Then take her."
Analaise laughed. "She knows what she does, Jasin; the choice is hers. She knows her spirit will die tonight."
Jasin felt a twinge of pain as he recalled the fire and brilliance he had touched.
"No, Analaise," he said bitterly. "It wonít die. Iíll kill it."
"And will she be the first youíve made?"
Jasin closed his eyes against the amused contempt in Analaiseís voice.
"Youíve made hundreds, Jasin. Thousands. Taken their souls without the slightest hint of remorse. What could possibly be different about this one mortal woman?"
Jasin shook his head as he looked back to Ellynís window.
"Iíve lived over a thousand mortal years," he said, "trading love and life for an eternity of blood and death. Iíve destroyed more souls than I care to remember, and in all that time, I always understood the rules of the game. I always knew what I was and what it meant. Iím a child of the dark. A creature of shadow." He looked back to Analaise. "She doesnít understand the game. Sheís offered her soul to me, but she has no idea what that means, or what sheíll be made to sacrifice." Jasin looked back to Ellyn's window. "There is a reason we take souls the way we do, Analaise. It's because no one would ever willingly choose to become what we are."
"Why Jasin," said Analaise softly. "I do believe youíre developing a conscience."
"Call it what you like, Analaise. I wonít take her. The game is over. You win."
Analaise studied him in silence for a long moment and Jasin met her eyes steadily as she weighed his resolve. Finally she sighed.
"Well. Not quite the victory I envisioned."
"But youíll take it nonetheless," he said dryly.
"Of course. I donít often win against you, Jasin. Not even at my own games."
He looked toward the lightening sky. "The dawn comes. We have to go."
Analaise glanced back toward the window. "Sheíll hate you, Jasin. For breaking your promise. For denying her forever."
"I wonít give her that kind of forever," he whispered.
Jasin closed his eyes as he released his spirit, sending his essence into the departing night.
Ellyn of Halin would wait for him, in vain. She would weep for him, cursing him and the empty promise he had made. But her soul would remain her own, and he would carry the memory of her warmth within him like a secret fire.
He would deny her the promise of endless life.
And give her instead the gift of death.
Bio: Sharon Partington lives in Edmonton, Canada. She is the moderator of the Worlds of Wonder writers group, and managing Editor of Worlds of Wonder: A webzine of Fantasy and SF.
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