Arbitratus Short Fiction

The Sixth Day of Fic-mas

aromatic-beverage-christmas-1666061

The Christmas That Wasn’t

Authors’ Note – Another title for this story could be Why Boston Is A Big Deal: The Sequel to the Second Day of Fic-mas 2018. Another tale of friendship, of the holiday, and of why revenge is a dish best served cold. To your boss. By making him wear a Santa suit while in his demon form.

 

Ben turned up the collar on his coat against the sharp, cutting breeze howling over the harbor and into the city. Lately it seemed like the only collections he could score were in places that already represented the cold side of Hell. He shivered as he walked briskly along the pier. He knew the cold wasn’t actually affecting him. He just hated it, even the idea of it. He wasn’t in any particular hurry. Although after he wrapped up this assignment, he wanted to check in on someone.

At the time he couldn’t have told anyone why he’d done it. He really had no idea what made him take the risk. It had cost him some to accomplish the task, too. But he’d plucked her soul from the Pit and taken her under his wing. She was a woman from a distant branch of his clan. She’d found her way to Hell in a very similar manner to him, a victim of Rome’s ambition. Sort of. Maybe that was why he’d done it, he supposed. Point was, he had. And that was that.

In any event, it turned out to be a good decision. She was smart, fierce when she had to be, and loyal. That last one went a long way in Hell. It was worth a lot to Ben anyway. It was like having a friend again. It seemed to him that’s what she really was. Ever the realist, Ben imagined it would be best not to count on her friendship. It had survived hundreds of years already, and he had scored her an appointment on Earth, for which she was here training. That probably bought him some time in the whole friendship department. These things couldn’t last forever though, not in Hell, but for now, it was nice. He’d been feeling especially lonely lately, too. That was half of why he’d asked for this collection job. It would be good to see her.

Ben caught himself just before he stepped off the edge of the pier. He’d have taken a tumble right into the water, too. “Damn it, Ben, pay attention,” he chided himself. He laughed softly at his seemingly incurable distractibility and retraced his steps, forcing himself to focus this time. He found the spot he’d been looking for and made his way up the gangway of a decent-sized merchant vessel.

Walking past the crew, silent and unnoticed, he headed into the belly of the ship. It smelled in here. Of what, he couldn’t really have said. But it wasn’t a pleasant smell. And it was practically dark. What an awful place to live out your last hours, he thought. Not that the dim hold bothered him any. He had some very pleasant plans for after his business concluded.

“Ronoven.” A figure appeared out of the shadows and stepped up next to him, dressed in a simple gold tunic, soft white wings, furled close to her back. She looked at him with disdain, clearly already annoyed with him, probably because he’d taken on flesh for a job that wasn’t going to need corporeal form to get done. That always bugged her.

“Hosanna,” he said simply, nodding politely at her.

“How’s Hell?” she asked starting to walk deeper into the ship.

He shrugged and fell into step beside her. “Hot, smells of sulphur, oh, and your brother is still an ass,” Ben said pleasantly. “How about Heaven?”

She smiled, and there was something distinctly mean about it, he thought. “Still Paradise,” came her snide reply.

Ben just nodded, his expression totally agreeable. “Good. Good. I had hoped for nothing more nor less.” He paused, cocking his head to one side like he was thinking. “Hey, you know what? Would you mind doing me a favor? I think you could really help me with something?”

She looked down her nose at him. “Why would an angel of the Lord do a favor for a demon?”

He wrung his hands a little, gesturing like she’d misunderstood, and it was somehow his fault. “I didn’t mean favor. You guys make me so nervous,” he said earnestly. “It’s more of a question really. Just something I’ve been wondering for a really long time.”

She sniffed. “Fine. Ask.”

“Um … so … Do they issue it, or do you have to get your own? And, like, what’s the procedure?”

She shook her head, looking altogether confused. “Pardon me? Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?”

“I’m sorry.” Ben opened his hands in apology. “I thought my meaning would be pretty obvious.

Her brow furrowed, but she didn’t say anything.

“Those sticks you angels all have wedged so firmly up your asses. I was wondering if that was voluntary or if it’s a required part of the uniform.”

“Funny.” Hosanna’s face pulled into a dark scowl and her eyes had a slightly dangerous sheen to them all of a sudden.

Ben kept his expression neutral, rather than laughing out loud like he wanted to at having so easily gotten under her skin. “No, come on now, I’m being serious. Because if you’d provide some insight, I’d really appreciate it. You’d be answering a truly burning question.”

She growled, “Why am I stuck dealing with you? Every. Damned. Time.”

“No, really … I’m sincerely curious. I just want to know if your Dad is mad at you guys or if maybe you’re just an enthusiast.”

“Enough,” she said with deadly ice in her voice. Her eyes said the danger he’d sensed a moment before was no longer of a theoretical nature.

“I was thinking it was probably the latter, given its size and just how far up there it has to be.”

“Okay. We’re done,” she bit out.

He grinned. “So, my point again. That makes it … what … like a hundred and seven to nothing?”

Her chin tilted up haughtily. “I’m not playing. I’m certainly not keeping score.”

“Spoken like a true loser who knows they’re getting housed. And here I was about to suggest we call it based on the mercy rule or something.”

“Stop it. Just stop. Right now. Or I might just …”

“You might what?” he scoffed. “This is a sacred duty. You can’t touch me,” Ben grinned. He stopped walking a moment later. “And here we are.”

In a heavy cloth hammock in front of them lay a rail thin, sinewy, sunbaked relic. His breath came in ragged and labored gasps. A heart attack the day prior had laid the man low. Now, with mere minutes left, Ben and Hosanna weighed the man’s life. Ben ignored her self-important presence and just closed his eyes to do his job. The collected deeds, words, actions, and even thoughts washed over him, playing like a memory or a vivid dream behind his eyelids.

“This is close,” Ben frowned.

“It’s never this close,” Hosanna agreed, her irritation with her demon companion momentarily forgotten.

“Not close. Perfect balance,” said in a level, resonant voice that caused both Ben and Hosanna to startle and turn to face it. The plain man beside them went on like they should have been expecting him. “Our friend Kae here has led a life of balance.”

Ben opened his mouth to say something, then just closed it again, his whole face caught somewhere between a smile and a frown, though his expression was far from neutral.

The man spoke again, quite calmly given the fact that next to Ben an angel of the Lord was starting to allow her wings to unfurl. “This one belongs to neither of you. He’s mine. So, step aside, if you please.”

Ben’s face made up its mind to slip into a frown as he considered the man making these strange statements and request. Then he just looked at Hosanna and gave a shrug. He turned back toward the man. “Sure. Okay.” He took a step back.

Hosanna tossed a glare in his direction before giving her full attention to the perceived interloper. “I command you to speak your name, Defiled One!” she boomed, her presence and a new uncomfortable heavenly glow seeming to fill the space.

“Please.” The man’s mouth quirked up ever so slightly.

“I said …”

“I know what you said. They could hear you in the lowest level of Hell, I’m quite certain. Ask nicely.”

“What?!?”

Ben cleared his throat. “I … um … I think he wants you to say please.”

“Grrrr.” Hosanna stopped herself, took a deep breath, and smoothed the front of her tunic. “Please.”

“Please what?”

Her eyes flashed, and Ben flinched just a fraction. Hosanna was a match, more than a match, even for one of the Fallen. “Fine! Can I please have your name?”

The man didn’t flinch at all. Ben noticed his bearing but was pretty certain he was about to be collateral damage. He wasn’t normally one to be intimidated by even a furious angel, if he was on duty and the rules of engagement were in play, but in this situation, he had no idea what to expect.

“I’m the Keeper of the Balance. Asher. This soul is mine according to the oldest magic. I have a valid claim. The only valid claim as it turns out.”

Ben’s eyes were on Hosanna, now glowing like all of Heaven might be about to join her, so he only about half heard the man.

“Never heard of you,” Hosanna said dismissively. The glow intensified, and she drew a long, flaming sword from its scabbard hidden in the folds of her tunic.

Ben dropped back several steps. “Whoa, hey, Hosanna, no need to get all smitey in such close quarters, huh?”

Without looking at him, the man, Keeper or whatever his name was, said, “I agree with Ben.” Without so much as a whispered incantation or even a hand gesture, Hosanna found herself standing there robbed of both her glow and her sword. “I’ve been more than reasonable. And I grow tired of this exchange,” he said. “Good day, Angel.”

Ben felt the old man’s life cease and his soul slip away, beyond the reach of Heaven or Hell. The man faced Ben then and tipped him a nod and a wink. “See ya around, kid.”

With that, the man was gone. Ben shook himself, feeling altogether unsettled. “Well, that was surreal,” he observed, but realized almost before he’d finished speaking that he was alone.

That’s probably for the best, he thought. Hosanna was super pissed off. That was just a little bit scary. Annoyed was more Ben’s wheelhouse. In fact, he enjoyed causing annoyed with just about every angel he’d ever met. Even Lucifer. Which he knew was probably stupid, but that didn’t stop it from being fun. Especially when it was so cleverly done that the boss wasn’t even sure he was entitled to be irritated. But an angry angel who was still on God’s good side? That was often fatal. In the permanent way he was really dedicated to avoiding.

Ben shrugged and passed quickly back through the ship. Once he was back out on the pier with the wind biting through his coat, he decided he was going to get inside someplace warm, post haste. So … To the Office to file the incident report … Or to visit Aife, like he’d been thinking about all along?

Aife, of course, he thought, nodding to himself. Like he was going to prioritize paperwork over an evening with an old friend. He knew she was currently staying in a nice little townhouse on a busy street near the budding business district. He hadn’t seen her in … must be almost eighty Earth years now. He’d been trying to find a way to get her out of Hell for ages, and then about a hundred years ago, he’d won the right to appoint an Agent, someone to run Hell’s business and take care of demons like him when they were above. She’d been up here for decades, moving from Office to Office, learning the ropes, so to speak.

He’d missed her terribly, though he had managed to keep tabs on her. One of the benefits of being a noble, especially one the current king seemed to have something of a soft spot for, was his ability to get information, by means both fair and foul. When he’d made an inquiry right before coming up to see about Kae, he’d learned she should just be getting back into town. She’d been off in one of the nearby colonies, doing something either for or to someone. He couldn’t remember which. She wasn’t expecting him, and she hadn’t gotten back in yet, so he had a nice opportunity to surprise her.

The time of year made it an especially nice time to come up and see her. Yule was a tradition they kept to in their own ways, albeit secretly, and often together. In fact, one Yule, early in their association was probably why they’d become so close, despite what Hell did to try to keep demons from forming those types of associations. He did a bit of preparatory shopping on his way, his grin spreading in anticipation, and the warmth of his ideas sheltering him from the cold.

He found the house and tucked the package of items he’d acquired along the way under one arm to free his hands. The lock on the door and the protection charms were easily dealt with. He’d taught her the magic, after all. He did make a mental note to see to it she got more spell casting training. It was too easy to get in here, he thought, his own considerable skill aside. The door charm was a joke. Once he was inside, he kindled the fire and started his preparations.

Humming to himself, occasionally even singing softly under his breath, Ben got to work preparing a nice winter solstice feast. He opened a bottle of wine (that had been quite difficult to come by based on his usual experience) and poured the entire contents into a pot with some mulling spices, placing it on the back of the stove where it would warm but not bubble. Then he set about the baking he had planned while hunting for ingredients, also a more challenging endeavor than he would have thought. Though he supposed this wasn’t still called the New World for nothing.

Tonight would be a nice distraction from his strange collection gone awry and what would probably amount to a couple centuries worth of paperwork. He moved around the small kitchen, finding himself in an increasing bright mood. Warm holiday smells filled the small house. A nice dinner, catching up with one of his oldest, dearest friends would be just the thing.

The front door opened. “Alright, who’s in here? I’ll skin you alive and make book pages out of your carcass!” came an angry voice … No, more just annoyed. Yeah, annoyed, I’m good, Ben thought.

“Hey, Aife!” Ben called. “Is that any way to talk to your boss?” The smile was clear in Ben’s voice.

He heard the door close, followed by the tap of Aife’s shoes on the floorboards. “My Lord,” she curtsied mockingly as she entered. She took in the kitchen, the formally set table, the festive aromas drifting through every crack and crevice of her temporary home. “What the Hell are you doing?!?”

Ben’s face screwed up in confusion. “Um … I’m sorry for preparing a little Yuletide feast for a friend?”

She sighed. “Ben, love, it’s a lovely gesture, or it would be. Yule or, as the locals call it, Christmas, is illegal. Really illegal.”

“No … What? … No … Seriously?” She nodded solemnly. “What kind of fiend cancels Yule … or Christmas … or whatever you want to call it?”

“The Puritans. How do you not know this?” He really needed to get out more. “This is kind of important information considering you’re smack in the middle of Boston, which happens to be lousy with the joyless assholes,” she said with a fair amount of exasperation.

“I mean … I read … Okay, I skimmed … the briefing materials,” he hedged, knowing how lame it sounded even as it came out of his mouth.

“You need to study. You never study!” Aife shook her head.

“All I do is study! I spend half my eternity with my nose in some codex or scroll or …”

“I meant the stuff you’re supposed to study to be decent at your job,” she said, raising an eyebrow.

Ben huffed, jamming his hands into his pockets. “Yeah, but, that stuff is boring!” He shrugged. “I mean, it’s not like I don’t look at it at all … I just kinda lose interest.”

“Well, this ought to teach you that you need to read more carefully. Count your blessings that Boston isn’t my Office and I’m just here for training because I think I’d make you read their entire holy book and all their position papers before I let you leave as a disciplinary action!”

“Remind me never to need to use your Office,” he laughed, rolling his eyes.

Aife shook her head, and it was mostly with fondness. He could be such a boy sometimes. “Not to worry I suppose. The house charm ought to keep the mince sniffers at bay.”

Ben’s eyes widened. “The who that what, now?”

“Would it kill you to do at least the basic reading? You can read right? You haven’t been faking it all this time, have you?” she asked in exasperation.

“I love to read … Just not … you know … mission briefs. They’re dull and repetitive and usually not even useful,” he defended, sounding about as silly as he’d known he would, but not being able to come up with anything better.

“The mince sniffers are constables employed by the colony to walk around trying to find illicit holiday fun. Some of the morose bastards even volunteer for the job. That mince pie your cooking?” He swallowed hard, finally starting to look a little serious. She refrained from telling him it smelled wonderful, though it did. “That’s a dead giveaway. Fortunately, the house charm should keep what happens inside, well, on the inside. No sights, sounds, or smells should be noticed from the street. It’s a clever bit of work.”

“Sounds it, but about that door charm …”

“There’s no warding on the door … just the lock …” Her eyes narrowed. “What did you do, Ben?” she asked severely.

“I thought I detected some magic and I assumed …” Ben spread his hands, cheeks burning red to match the heat in his neck and his ears.

“Fine. I’ll go outside and fix it. And reinforce it.”

“Outside?”

“Yeah, it’s not a perfect solution, but it works. Pour me some wine and I’ll be right back. I’m sure you can make your carelessness up to me.”

He gave her an apologetic grin, then turned to fill a couple of warmed mugs with the brew. He set them on the table, pulled the pie out of the oven and set it on a trivet to cool, and lit the candles with a thought. He was sneaking a sip of the wine instead of waiting for her when he heard shouting. He listened for a moment. Oh, hell, that’s Aife.

“I said stay out of my house!”

“Miss, I can smell warm spices and mince!”

“Perhaps it’s from next door! House full of bachelors there, good sir. Their brewing barrel exploded the other day, mead all over the street. Where were you then?”

“Miss,” came the stern reply.

Ben missed the rest of what the man said as he slipped out the back door, figuring his presence would mean even more trouble, what with Aife’s cover being that of a spinster. He made his way around the back alley and back to the main thoroughfare. “Damn it! I shouldn’t have left the table set … or the food … or … son of a bitch … my hat.” Better double back and clear that stuff out before she gets in real trouble, he thought. Or, I could just wipe the guy’s memory and have done with it.

He cut down another alley that came out practically next door to Aife’s. Ben could see Aife arguing with a short, bald man, as a group of uniformed constables approached. “Damn it all to Hell and back anyway,” he growled under his breath. “This is not good.”

The constables and chief sniffer were forcing their way into her house, with Aife trailing behind still giving them an earful. And quite the crowd of neighbors and travelers was forming to watch things unfold. Shit. Hell was pretty restrictive about using magic up top here on a good day in ideal circumstances. If you were one on one with a human or even in a small group of civilians, you could get away with quite a bit. But if large groups or worse, government officials, were involved the higher ups got insanely tight assed about spell work. He’d have to proceed carefully.

Ben casually joined the crowd. “What’s going on here?” he asked one of the locals.

“Some lady’s making a Christmas feast or some such.”

“Oh,” Ben responded seriously. “That’s bad.”

“Well, it would be for me … but a lady like that, or a gentleman such as yourself?” He eyed Ben’s clothes and well-groomed appearance. “Probably not that big a problem.”

‘Really?” Ben asked, hoping his inflection was the right amount of curious about the consequences as well as disapproving of such a thing as a Christmas feast. Last thing he needed was to get made as the guy who’d cooked the damned thing. Aife was in training. He wasn’t. That wasn’t an ass chewing he particularly wanted to invite.

“Come along, sir. The fine is five shillings. That’s an awful lot to me, but I bet you got that in your pocket.”

Ben did, indeed, have five shillings and a good deal more. Coming to Earth without adequate funds was no fun at all. Instead of confirming his comfortable financial situation, he sniffed haughtily. “Still, it’s not proper.”

“True enough, sir. True enough.”

Ben walked away, feeling a little better about not having been able to erase any evidence or memories before the situation escalated. He’d find an inn to grab a bite to eat, then catch up with her later. He turned toward a place he’d noticed earlier, then stopped with his hand almost on the door. He decided he’d better head to the Office and report not only the events of earlier today, but also the Aife situation. She was this Office’s current trainee, and Hell had plenty of money. A fine of five shillings, one of any size, for that matter, was a non-issue. Even if they didn’t have the financial resources in place, odds were they owned the men who levied the fines anyway.

∞∞∞

“Look, I’ve already told you, here’s the money.” Aife tried, once again, to press the coins into the head constable’s hand.

She was going to kill Ben. Slowly.

“As I’ve explained, Miss, it’s not about the fact that you were celebrating Christmastide. But you were also entertaining a man, a man who was celebrating with you, and you won’t give us a name. It’s all most improper and quite against our laws and God’s.”

“I’ll pay his fine, too. He’s unfamiliar with our customs here is all. It’s nothing untoward, I assure you. He’s my brother.”

“I don’t believe you, Miss. If it’s your brother, why’s he run off? Where’d he go? What’s his name?”

“It’s really not important, I …”

“I should think it’s very important, Miss Cabot.” A tall stern man strode into the room.

“Reverend Knight.” The constable doffed his hat and bowed his head deferentially.

“Oh, Reverend, it’s so good of you to come. I’m sure you can help me clear this up,” Aife said with a forced smile.

Ben, I swear. Dead. D.E.A.D. Dead.

“Sister Prudence,” he said, somehow more informally and more menacingly all at once. “I do not recall any mention of a brother, living or otherwise.”

“But Reverend, it just hadn’t come up. I never thought he’d visit me here in the Colonies, you see.” It was a weak gambit, but she figured it was worth a shot.

“When we met, you told me you were an only child,” he said with a scowl.

“Did I? Well, I suppose it’s felt that way. He’s been so disapproving of my decision to come over from home, you see …”

I swear if they burn me, I will absolutely return the favor, Ben. And I absolutely don’t care if it gets me stripped of my powers and sent back to the Pit, Aife seethed.

“Oh, no, you were most explicit, dear Prudence.” She paled, and it was all the Revered needed. “Constable?”

“Yes, Revered?”

“Strip her, put her in the stocks, and paint a red ‘W’ on her forehead. Let all know we have a wanton woman among us. We’ll deal with questioning her further about her companion once she’d been softened by her penance.”

Aife kept quiet then, her eyes on the floor so they couldn’t see the fury there. She had no play to make here. She’d have to wait until she was alone or at least lightly guarded.

She put on all the appropriate protests and emotions as she was processed through a system that claimed to be of God but reminded her much more of her current employers. She was paraded through the streets in the freezing cold in nothing but her dressing gown, the cobblestones icy on her bare feet. No wonder Ben had ghosted. Still, she would pay him back for this someday. It was humiliating and infuriating … and … stupid!

The spectacle caught the attention of everyone along the route to the center of town. A few people jeered or threw things. Most just ignored her or gave a sad head shake, whether at any actions she might have taken that warranted this, or with the treatment itself, she couldn’t say. The wood of the stocks and the metal of the locks chilled her skin. At least I can’t freeze, she thought.

Despite the encroaching evening, the next few hours saw the expected small crowds of gawkers gather. She suspected their petty torments were to prove their own fake piousness to anyone who might be watching. A couple of them tossed eggs at her. None hit her in the face, thank goodness. A few spat in her general direction, but she was untouched by it since none of them had the balls to get too close, lest they be defiled by her wanton ways themselves. One brave kid, of about ten, got close enough to give her a glancing kick in the ass. Stupid humans, stupid rules. Hell had so many rules! It took all of her will not to break all of them and just extract herself from this embarrassing and unpleasant situation.

Around midnight, her one remaining guard ducked off to sleep. With a combination of her demonic strength and some hastily muttered incantations (that she was not about to credit Ben with having taught her at the moment), Aife freed herself. Then she took a moment to make herself unnoticeable with a nifty bit of obfuscation magic. It didn’t render her invisible, just completely unremarkable, unmemorable, to anyone who might notice her at this late hour.

She stalked furiously toward the Office. Ben would be waiting for her there, she was certain. Probably warm and snug with a mug of mulled mead, laughing his ass off with the Agent about this. “That’ll be a nice cozy place for him to die,” she muttered to herself.

She arrived at the office to find the door already being held open by the muscle whose name she had yet to commit to memory. He nodded pleasantly, quite able to see her since obfuscation magic doesn’t work on other demons. She forced herself to nod back. She liked the staff here kindly disposed, and since she was now going to need to apply for a transfer, she needed all the good will she could get.

She headed directly out back to the Agent’s working office. He was sitting there, quill in hand, working on a mountain of reports. No Ben in sight. The Agent looked up when he heard her huff of irritation. “Aife, you look like Hell.”

“Thanks,” she bit out. “Where is he?” she asked flatly.

“Ben? He got summoned back. He’s in a bit of hot water over the collection he was up on.”

“Good,” she growled. “I hope they skin him.” The Agent widened his eyes, but wisely stayed quiet. “I’m going to need a new cover and some help getting a transfer. I’m burned.”

He nodded. “Ben already filled out the paperwork for you. I was surprised you weren’t right behind him. He didn’t seem to think it was much of a big deal.”

“Not a … I really am going to kill him. Slowly. Over a hundred years, maybe. No. Maybe I won’t let him die. I’ll just torture him for a really long time.”

The Agent grinned. “Lucky Ben.” Her mouth dropped open to let him have it, too, but she found herself smiling instead. It wasn’t much of a smile, but it cooled her anger a bit. “I filed the transfer for you when Ben got pulled back.”

“Can I stay here until it comes through?”

“Of course. The room upstairs is empty. I’ll send Elspeth up with clothes for you. And water. You look like you could use a wash.”

She nodded. “Thank you. That would be great.” She turned to head upstairs, then stopped in the doorway, looking back at the Agent. “Royce, can I ask you a question?”

“By all means,” he replied. Answering her questions was part of his job as her training officer and frankly it would go better for him when she filed her own report of this if she was reasonably kindly disposed.

“Why must we tiptoe? Why can’t the mortals know? They can believe, but not know. What is that shit? I spent the day and most of the night in the stocks because I couldn’t stop it or put an end to it, because using my magic in front of them isn’t allowed. It’s … ridiculous!” She couldn’t come up with anything better to encapsulate her frustration.

“Oh, that.” He sighed a little. Never easy questions with this one. “Yeah, it’s kind of a mess. But as I understand it, it’s not just another one of their bullshit rules. It’s an agreement of some sort between God and Lucifer. They can’t have proof. The mortals, I mean.”

“Why the hell not?”

“I guess because it kind of balances things out, maintains free will for the mortals, the whole faith thing. Or some crap like that.”

She frowned, leaning on the door jamb. “Why would Heaven agree to something like that? If God is revealed, Hell shuts down due to lack of incoming souls.”

“I guess they can’t tell either because some outside force oversees enforcing the balance of power. No cheating on either side. God has the numbers, and the power, to do pretty much whatever he wants, but he can only act indirectly without breaking the contract. Hell, too, I guess.”

Her brow furrowed. “But Hell doesn’t act indirectly. Demons straight-up possess people. Or use the classic reward or force system. You give me x and you’ll get y. And Heaven …”

“Heaven can’t or won’t do that. You’re right. But they can use prophets and angelic influence. Free will is always maintained that way though. Even with possession, afterward the person can still choose how to act.

Aife thought she was catching on. “So they equal out.” She thought about it for another minute.

Royce added, “All the rules about how we operate on Earth aren’t arbitrary. They’re part of this deal.”

She sighed deeply. “That both makes sense and gives me more questions.”

“So the trials of the day didn’t change your outlook much,” he observed with a chuckle.

“Very funny. I’m going to go get cleaned up. Could you have Elspeth bring up some food, maybe something strong, and hopefully enchanted, to drink?”

“Sure, Aife, no problem.” He grinned a little wickedly. “A joyous Yule to you.”

“Yeah, right. Merry fucking Christmas, Royce.”

She stomped upstairs.

 

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