Peregrine had chosen chastity. A simple sacrifice, it offered him greater power. But if he ever broke it, his magic would fracture. It might kill him, or simply leave him mundane. A rare few survived with their magic intact, but those were stories told to awe apprentices, not something to aspire to.
Thankfully, he wouldn't have to worry about siring an heir. His elder brothers had been childless, but King Byron had been handsome, and in his youth bedded many women. Even if his brothers were dead, Peregrine might have a younger half-brother or -sister somewhere in Delvore. Since he would not be having a child, perhaps the banshee would allow one of them to succeed him.
Peregrine shivered in his darkening house. Foolish witch, kindle some light.
He moved around the room, lighting candles. Fire flowed through him easily tonight, and he was enjoying the spark and shiver of it in his blood when he heard the tap at the door.
He jostled the censer he was lighting but caught it before it could do more than rain a slow shower of gray ash onto the floor.
"Who is it?"
"One who seeks the services of a witch, sir." The man's voice was cool and held a trace of an accent.
"I'm closed. Come back tomorrow."
"It is of great importance," said the voice, "and I have money."
Peregrine heard the muffled jingle of a full purse. He turned back to the door and looked at it. Money, such a dreadful and needed commodity. As king he would want for nothing, but he'd been the guardian of the commons too long to be able to walk away from this opportunity.
One final reading, he decided. He could leave the money with the innkeeper on his way to the castle in the morning and ask him to feed the people until the coin ran out. "Please, come in."
The door to his house opened, and the wind lapped at him, stealing his warmth.
"Thank you, sir." A tall man stepped into the house and gently shut the door.
He was a summer market reveler, by the look of him. A black costume hid all but the general outlines of his form. The man had a beautiful body. Wiry, with a hint of muscle in his arms and long legs. Thick black hair tumbled out from beneath his mask and fell about his shoulders.
His clothes were simple but elegant. Black breeches, leather boots, and a black silk shirt that fell to mid-thigh. Tightly interwoven silver and blue threads darted across the shirt's hem. Subtle spellwork there, quieting the wearer's presence. A thief Peregrine knew wore something similar. So did the Delvore guard.
A feathered mask, also done in black, hid his eyes. The beak of the mask seemed to be that of a predator, and Peregrine felt unease settle somewhere low in his stomach.
"Greetings, sir," the man said. Without a door between them, his accent was clearer. Smooth, with a honeyed drawl.
Something from the north, Peregrine decided. A dangerous place, where a line of enchanted stones protected Delvore from the demon lands. After the war, some Delvorians had chosen to remain there and keep watch.
The speaker was a brave man, if he came from there. Peregrine would charge him half of his usual cost.
"Greetings," Peregrine said. "May I have your name, sir?"
Lovely name. "I'm Peregrine." He returned to his card table. "I must ask that you take your mask off. In order to read for you, I need to see your eyes."
Winter approached him. "Did you hear the banshee earlier?" he asked, his hands rising to his mask.
"I find the timing of the king's death interesting." Winter unhooked the straps that kept the mask on his face. "The summer solstice marks the beginning of light fading from the world, and this is the day he died. Ominous, wouldn't you say?"
Peregrine frowned. Officially, no Delvore king had ever died on that day. It was whispered, though, that the forgotten one had. "The timing is a coincidence. Nothing more."
"Strange words, coming from a witch."
Perhaps, perhaps not. Peregrine hadn't thought about the timing earlier. Later, after Winter left, he would consider it.
Winter bent his head, placing his hand across the front of the mask to keep it from falling.
For a moment, Peregrine thought the man was bowing, acknowledging something he couldn't know.
Then Winter's head came up, free of its avian confines.
Peregrine's breath stumbled and caught. Winter was handsome, with a narrow face and wide lips. Wisps of black hair fell about gray eyes.
So pale, those eyes. Like a cloudy sky devoid of rain, simply there to hide the sun.
Winter smiled, and then the blackness in the centers of his eyes bled out, devouring the irises.
"Demon," Peregrine whispered and took a step backward. He raised his hands, palms outward, and called on the fire he had been using to light the candles.
Flame blossomed from his fingers and curled toward the demon in a serpentine flash. Tongues and coils of fire burned Winter's clothes, searching for his flesh.
The demon stepped through the sudden fire as if it wasn't there.
"Greetings, your majesty. Kenth has sent me to kill you."