Suggesting a walk along the damp trails along the back of the property had been a whim, nothing more than Kith’s desire to get out of the house for a while and away from Morwen’s obvious disapproval. He hadn’t expected Jesse to see through the glamour on the unicorns, and he’d expected even less that Jesse would still be upright and alive five minutes after jumping the fence into their paddock. Instead Celina’s white mare nuzzled him like a pet and craned her neck around him when he stumbled back against her after breaking Kith’s own glamour.
Kith stepped forward, meaning to pull Jesse away—and not sure what he would do after that, now that they’d been revealed—but before he could even touch Jesse’s arm, Cato’s golden mare pushed his hand away with her nose. His own red mare put herself between them and Jesse disappeared behind a wall of unicorn bodies and horns; not quite a threat, but close.
“If this is about me calling you goats, I’m sorry.” He spread his hands but they only stared at him. “He’s just a human. And I’m not going to hurt him, so you can stop being so protective.”
“Elves lie,” Jesse pointed out from behind the mares. “I bet they know that even better than anyone else. You’ve been lying this entire time, Kith.”
“You didn’t have the most encouraging reaction,” Kith said, taking a step to the side just enough so he could see Jesse. The golden mare moved with him, pinning her ears. “We’ve done no harm here.”
“Yeah, except all those gifts and turning everyone who lives in town into mindless lovebots.” Jesse made a face. “Oh, that’s creepy. How many have you glamoured into sleeping with you?”
“None,” Kith said, mildly offended. “For one, I have no need to glamour anyone into my bed, and for another, do you sleep with animals?”
“Gee, thanks, Kith.” Jesse tangled his fingers in the white mare’s mane. “I should kick your ass back to the lower world right now.”
Kith smiled. “I think if you could, little mage, you would have already. If you send me back, I will be killed.”
“Yeah, like that isn’t the oldest excuse in the book.”
“And yet it’s true. While we are ruled by the lords and ladies of the dominions, the ones with real power are the crones, old women with no ties to any one family.” He smiled a little. “On occasion, the crones decide they have no more need for someone, and order him killed.”
Jesse gave him a doubtful look. “Yeah, right.”
“You aren’t actually able to tell lies around unicorns, did you know?” Kith didn’t bother to mention that the restriction only affected humans. “I am telling you the truth.”
Chewing on his bottom lip, Jesse studied him, eyes uncertain. “Well... What did you do? Kill someone?”
“They would likely find me more useful if I had killed someone,” Kith said dryly.
“And we’re the animals?” Jesse snorted. “Suppose I believe you. So what? When Jules gets home, she’ll kick your ass anyway. This isn’t your place and you don’t belong here.”
“Not if you don’t tell her.”
“Trust me, she’ll figure it out. She’s not as...” His cheeks went redder under the summer sunburn. “Not as stupid as I am.”
“Still, the opinion of her brother must count for something? As I said, we aren’t doing any harm here. We only need a safe place to live, and by the time your sister returns, we’ll have enough hold on this land that she won’t find it easy to simply banish us.”
“Okay, making threats is not the way to get me to help you.” Jesse stepped back again and the mares moved with him. “So go fuck yourself.”
Kith forced himself to be patient. “That isn’t what I meant. As elves, we... warp our surroundings to suit ourselves, whether we mean to or not. The longer we spend here, the more we become a part of this land. And while we have no reason to want to harm anyone now, it is our lives at stake otherwise. Don’t tell me you wouldn’t do the same thing to save your own life?”
“You can’t... I don’t know, talk to them? Or go find somewhere else in Elfland to live?”
Kith laughed. “You don’t discuss with crones. You only obey. And no, I cannot just find another place in ‘Elfland’. The dominions are all connected. Eventually I would be killed. Would you send me back to my death, Jesse?”
“That’s not fair,” Jesse said, but his face showed uncertainty. “You... Let me leave and I’ll think about it. And leave people the hell alone. Nobody asked for you to come in and warp things.” His eyes narrowed. “What about the people who lived here? Did you hurt them?”
“No. The property was a gift and the people were already thinking about leaving. I believe they said they were going to move to Montreal.”
“So you really did warp their minds.” Jesse came forward a few steps, pushing at the red mare until she reluctantly moved out of his way. “I bet these guys would attack you if you tried to hurt me here, right?”
“I have no wish to hurt you,” Kith said, a little surprised to find it was true, and not just because he didn’t want to deal with Jesse’s older sister coming for vengeance. “I swear to you on my own name that we are not here to take over or destroy anything.”
“Shake on it.” Jesse stuck his hand out, catching Kith’s gaze and holding it.
Kith studied him for a moment, then laughed. “All right.”
He took Jesse’s hand, keeping his gaze steady, and tried not to react to the obvious power that he felt all around Jesse at their touch. There was enough obvious strength there that he didn’t quite know the outcome if it did come to a fight between them, but he sensed it was unstable as well, held in check by a teenager still uncertain in his own place in the world. The sister was grounded, held and supported by her roots in the area, and he knew that would make her formidable if she did confront him. Jesse didn’t have the same protections.
“I’m going home now,” Jesse said, without letting go of his hand or dropping his eyes. “Remember, you swore it. No trouble. People aren’t here to serve you either, so knock it off. Clear?”
Fighting down a flare of anger, Kith flashed the most charming smile he could muster, pleased when Jesse blushed again. “I won’t stop you from leaving.”
“Good.” Jesse pushed past the mares, taking a deep breath as he moved past Kith. Keeping one eye on the mares, Kith reached out and stroked his hair lightly, unable to keep from smiling when Jesse jumped.
“You won’t go straight to your sister?” he asked. “I am trusting you with my life, Jesse.”
“I said I’d think about it. That’s the best you’re getting right now.” Jesse walked backwards a few steps, still watching him warily, then turned and jogged to the fence. Kith watched him climb it and head down the path towards the house and his truck, then turned back to the mares, who were all watching him innocently.
“You were a real help there,” he told them, and walked away, already planning what he would do if Jesse did turn on him.
He met Celina as he passed the barn and stopped to tell her about Jesse and to discuss plans to capture and kill the gryphon. She shrugged and told him Jesse was his problem, and that she was about to ride out with Cato to search the hay fields for any sign of the gryphon, and to bring it down if they were able.
“If not, cousin,” she said, smiling, “we may just lure it back here. Or I suppose we could try to set it on your little mage.”
Kith shook his head. “I told him I wouldn’t hurt him. And I doubt it would work anyway. Good luck in your hunt.”
She nodded and clapped him on the shoulder, then headed for the paddock. Kith lifted a hand to Cato, who was bringing their bows and a net that looked like it was made partially from the hockey net out of the barn, and went into the house to find San.
“Surely you’ve read all the books in this house,” he said when he found her in the library. He took the book from her hands and glanced at the cover, then tucked it under one arm. “I need your advice.”
“Will it get me my book back?” She studied him and he got the uncomfortable feeling that she was reading more of his expression than he wanted her to. “You seem... stressed, Lord.”
“Hardly stressed, but we do have something of a... situation.” He dropped into the desk chair, absently bending the book back and forth in his hands. “The mage, Jesse Morgan. He knows what we are.”
“I’m beginning to see why the crones want you dead.”
“I want advice, not attitude,” he said sharply. “Should I kill him?”
“Do you want to?”
He shrugged. “No, not particularly. It would mean outright war with his sister, and likely any other mages she could call in.”
“Then don’t kill him.” She held her hand out. “My book?”
“Is that all the advice you can give?”
“My advice is that you shouldn’t have gotten involved with him in the first place. But since you did, my advice now is to stay on his good side.” She shrugged. “And prepare to be sent home.”
“Would that make you happy?” he asked, genuinely curious. “Do you want to return home and continue on the path to becoming a crone?”
“I doubt I would be allowed to, after warning you, Lord.” She smiled a little. “But I enjoy it here. There are some very interesting books in this world.”
“Fine.” He pushed himself to his feet and handed her the book, but kept hold of it and didn’t let her pull it free. “I’m still unsure of your loyalty, apprentice.”
“Probably the smartest thing you’ve said since we got here, Lord.” She smiled and tugged on the book, and he let her have it. “If you do want real advice, be wary of Morwen around the mage. She doesn’t like him at all, and to be honest, I don’t blame her.”
Kith bowed slightly. “I’ll keep it in mind. Thank you.”
The day passed slowly as he waited for the first sign that he’d made the wrong decision, keeping him distracted and impatient even with Corvin and Morwen. He left in the early evening for a long ride on the motorcycle and returned to the farm in time to meet Celina and Cato, coming home from their hunt. Cato displayed a string of hares and grouse, but Celina only shook her head when Kith asked if they’d seen the gryphon.
It took Jesse three days to come back to the farm, pulling up in front of the house in the pickup truck on a windy, cloudy day. Alerted by the noise, Kith came outside to meet him, waiting in the shelter of the porch overhang until Jesse got out of the truck.
“I still haven’t made my decision,” Jesse said, shoving his hands into the pockets of his worn shorts and rocking back and forth on his heels. “But I figured we should talk at least a little. I’ve got questions, and it’d be kind of neat to have them answered by a real elf.” He smiled a little, the barest upturn of the corner of his mouth.
“All right.” Kith stepped out from under the porch and reached out to take Jesse’s arm, but dropped his hand when Jesse flinched back. “The trails again?”
Jesse nodded. “By the unicorns. And Dmitri knows I’m here, so if I don’t show up for dinner, he’s going to get suspicious.”
“I already said I wouldn’t hurt you,” Kith said, fighting the urge to roll his eyes. He walked towards the start of the trails, behind the barn, and after a moment Jesse caught up and walked beside him, keeping far enough away that they couldn’t even accidentally brush against each other.
They walked in silence until the barn and the house were hidden by a rise in the trail behind them and they’d reached the corner of the unicorn paddock, where all the mares except Celina’s were cropping at the thick green grass. Jesse leaned against the fence and whistled, and to Kith’s irritation, the red mare was the first to respond, trotting up to the fence like a loyal dog. The others followed and Jesse spent a few minutes rubbing their noses and laughing when they pushed each other out of the way for his attention.
“They eat grass?” he asked, glancing over his shoulder at Kith.
“They can, but it’s like you eating candy. You don’t need it, but you enjoy it.” He leaned on the fence beside Jesse, keeping a slight distance between them.
“What do they need then?”
“Moonlight. That’s what sustains them.”
“That’s pretty cool. I wouldn’t have thought something as simple as grass would be like junk food.” Jesse stroked his fingers gently up the spiral horn jutting from the red mare’s forehead. “Why do you want to stay here so bad, Kith? Why does anything from the lower world want to be here, except to cause trouble? You can’t even cast magic openly or people would freak out.”
“For change.” Kith looked out over the field, trying to choose his words carefully, both so Jesse would understand and because it was hard to describe the differences to someone who didn’t know any better. “Your world changes. Where I come from, it’s always a perfect summer day. We get day and night, but there’s no difference to them. The temperature is always the same and the stars do nothing except shine. It’s like a pale imitation of your world.”
Jesse snorted. “Tell me that when you’ve been through a Canadian winter.”
“It isn’t a joke.” Kith tried to keep the sharpness out of his voice when Jesse gave him a wide-eyed look. “You might think that constant summer is perfect, but it stagnates. There are so many... things here. The weather, the people, even the animals and the technology.” He smiled a little. “Even cable TV is fascinating to people who don’t even have electricity. Yes, I can conjure up a million lights with barely a thought, but even decadence becomes boring when it’s all you ever know.”
“I guess. So why do you come and make a huge mess if it’s so great? You in general, though you’ve fucked things around enough personally. Creatures from the lower world.”
“No self-control.” Kith smiled faintly. “Most of us who come here are like children in a candy store. Powerful children who have lived their entire lives with the knowledge that they can do as they wish and that mortal humans are beneath them.”
“Oh yeah, that’s a turn-on,” Jesse muttered. “How do you know so much about this world anyway? You talk kind of formal sometimes, but you speak English, and you seem pretty well-acquainted with our technology.”
“We learn quickly, and you would be amazed at how many of the people of the lower world come back and forth without you and your kind even knowing. Not to mention the ones that are registered here. Mages think that they know everything that happens in their territories, but if it isn’t outright destruction, then much of it goes right over your heads. You had a full-fledged dragon here a few years ago, and almost no one knew.”
“Jules did,” Jesse said defensively. “She told me about it. That was Toronto Magia anyway. So much weird shit goes down there that it’s hard to keep on top of it at the best of times. And it’s not here anymore.”
“So defensive,” Kith said, laughing, reaching out automatically to give Jesse’s shoulder a friendly shove.
“Hey!” Jesse stumbled and horns swung towards Kith, then dropped again when Jesse recovered his balance and shoved Kith back. “Jerk.”
“I’m only pointing out that you think you have complete control, and you don’t. Humans never do.”
“And you do?” Jesse turned to face him. “You’re pretty much relying on a human right now.”
“Well, you are a mage. One step up.”
Jesse made a face. “You’re such an ass. Don’t you ever get bored of being superior?”
“I never get bored of the truth.” Kith offered a hand. “Should we continue our walk?”
Jesse eyed his hand suspiciously, half-raised his own and hesitated, then carefully let the tips of his fingers rest on Kith’s palm. Kith drew him back to the path and released him, surreptitiously shaking his hand out down by his side to get rid of the tingle of mage magic. Silence settled over them again but it was a more comfortable silence, and Jesse moved a step closer to Kith, away from the muddy edge of the trail.
The trail wound gradually away from the unicorn paddock and into the thick woods that bordered the edge of the property. Under the trees it was dark and damp, and Kith idly thought that if he was going to kill Jesse, here would be the place to do it. He considered it for a moment, reaching out to catch Jesse when he tripped over a tree root, then dismissed the idea.
“I swear these things pop up out of nowhere just to trip me,” Jesse muttered, kicking at the root.
“I don’t think they have much of a mind of their own. You just aren’t aware of your surroundings, and you aren’t very graceful.” He caught the look Jesse shot him. “What?”
“I’m suddenly getting a really good idea as to why the Magia always wants to kick you guys back to your own world.” He smiled suddenly. “I kind of want to see you pull that attitude on Jules. Now that would be hilarious, as long as I was wearing all the right protective gear.”
“I can’t be that bad if you’re still here, walking with me.” He offered his arm again. “In case any more rogue tree roots attack.”
Jesse laughed a little and took his arm, giving him a challenging look like he was daring Kith to make any sort of joke. Kith said nothing, though inwardly he was pleased that Jesse was starting to relax, and they continued to follow the path in silence, until it looped back around and met one leading back to the house.
“Here’s the deal,” Jesse said when they’d reached the truck. “I can’t keep it from Jules. For one, she’d murder me, and for another, this is her territory. She’s going to know you’re here basically as soon as she gets back and starts paying attention to things.”
“But?” Kith prompted.
“But I’ll talk to her, okay? I’ll tell her what you told me and that you’re not here to destroy anything. But your half of the deal is to turn off whatever glamour you’ve got going that makes people drool when they see you. No mind control bullshit, no getting people to give you everything for free. Work for it, like the rest of us have to.” Jesse looked up at him, crossing his arms but not backing away despite how close they were standing. “Deal?”
“You’re asking me to put a lot of trust in you. And trust in your sister, that she’ll listen to even one word from you.”
“I don’t think you have much of a choice here, Kith. I’m trusting you. The least you can do is return the favour.”
Kith smiled. “The arrogance of youth almost matches the arrogance of elves.”
“Eat me.” Jesse backed away, cheeks red, and climbed into the truck. “Deal or not?”
“We have a deal,” Kith said, hoping he wouldn’t regret it. “I’ll trust you.”