"I came to see you." Daemon crossed his legs and steepled his fingers, resting them lightly on his chin.
She glanced up, gasped, and then busily rearranged the cakes.
Puzzled by the stunned look on her face, Daemon watched her rearrange everything twice. Searching for a neutral topic, he said, "The place looks good. Keeping it up isn't too much work for you?"
"The young people in the village help out," Manny said mildly.
Daemon frowned. "Aren't there sufficient funds for a handyman and cleaning woman?"
"Sure there are, but why would I want some other grown woman clumping about my house, telling me how to polish my furniture?" She grinned slyly. "Besides, the girls are willing to help with the heavy work in exchange for pocket money, a few of my special recipes, and a chance to flirt with the boys without their parents standing around watching them. And the boys are willing to help with the outside work in exchange for pocket money, food, and an excuse to strip off their shirts and show their muscles to the girls."
Daemon's laughter filled the kitchen. "Manny, you've become the village matchmaker."
Manny smiled smugly. "Jo's working on a cradle right now for one of the young couples."
"I hope there was a wedding beforehand."
"Of course." Manny said indignantly. She thumped the platter of nut cakes in front of him. "Shame on you, teasing an old woman."
"Do I still get nut cakes?" he asked contritely.
She ruffled his hair in answer and took the kettle off the stove.
Daemon stared into space. So many questions, and no answers.
"You're troubled," Manny said, filling the tea ball.
Daemon shook himself. "I'm looking for information that may be hard to find. A friend told me to beware of the Priest."
Manny slipped the tea ball into the pot to steep. "Huh. Anyone with a lick of sense takes care around the Priest."
Daemon stared at her. She knew the Priest. Were the answers really this close? "Manny, sit down for a moment."
Manny ignored him and hurriedly slid the cups onto the table, keeping out of his reach. "The tea's ready now. I'll call Jo—"
"Who is the Priest?"
"—he'll be glad to see you."
Daemon uncoiled from the chair, clamped one hand around her wrist, and pulled her into the other chair. Manny stared at his hand, at the ring finger that wore no Jeweled ring, at the long, black-tinted nails.
"Who is the Priest?"
"You mustn't talk about him. You must never talk about him."
"Who is the Priest?" His voice became dangerously soft.
"The tea," she said weakly.
Daemon poured two cups of tea. Returning to the table, he crossed his legs and steepled his fingers. "Now."
Manny lifted the cup to her lips but found the tea too hot to drink. She set the cup down again, fussing with its handle until it was exactly parallel to the edge of the table. Finally she dropped her hands in her lap and sighed.
"They never should have taken you away from him," she said quietly, looking at memories. "They never should have broken the contract. The Hourglass coven in Hayll has been failing since then, just like he said it would. No one breaks a contract with the Priest and survives."
"You were supposed to go to him for good that day, the day you got your Birthright Jewel. You were so proud that he was going to be there, even though the Birthright Ceremony was in the afternoon instead of evening like it usually is. They planned it that way, planned to make him come in the harshest light of day, when his strength would be at its lowest."
"After you had your Birthright Red Jewel and were standing with your mother and Dorothea and all of Dorothea's escorts, waiting for the okay to walk out of the ceremonial circle to where he was waiting and kneel to him in service . . . that's when that woman, that cruel, scheming woman said you belonged to the Hourglass, that paternity was denied, that he couldn't have sired you, that she'd had her guards service the Dhemlan witch afterward to ensure she was seeded. It was a warm afternoon, but it got so cold, so awfully cold. Dorothea had all the Hourglass covens there, dozens and dozens of Black Widows, watching him, waiting for him to walk into the circle and break honor with them."
"But he didn't. He turned away."
"You almost broke free. Almost reached him. You were crying, screaming for him to wait for you, fighting the two guards who were holding your arms, your fingers clenched around that Jewel. There was a flash of Red light, and the guards were flung backward. You hurled yourself forward, trying to reach the edge of the circle. He turned, waiting. One of the guards tackled you. You were only a hand span away from the edge. I think if so much as a finger had crossed that circle, he would have swept you away with him, wouldn't have worried anymore if it was good for you to live with him, or to live without your people."
"You didn't make it. You were too young, and they were too strong."
"So he left. Went to that house you keep visiting, the house you and your mother lived in, and destroyed the study. Tore the books apart, shredded the curtains, broke every piece of furniture in the room. He couldn't get the rage out. When I finally dared open the door, he was kneeling in the middle of the room, his chest heaving, trying to get some air, a crazy look in his eyes."
"He finally got up and made me promise to look after you and your mother, to do the best I could. And I promised because I cared about you and her, and because he'd always been kind to me and Jo."
"After that, he disappeared. They took your Red Jewel and put the Ring of Obedience on you that night. You wouldn't eat. They told me I had to make you eat. They had plans for you and you weren't going to waste away. They locked Jo up in a metal box, put him out where there wasn't any shade and said he'd get food and water when I got you to eat. When I got you to eat two days in a row, they'd let him out."
"For three days you wouldn't eat, no matter how I begged. I don't think you heard me at all during those days. I was desperate. At night, when I'd go out and stand as close to the box as I was allowed, I'd hear Jo whimpering, his skin all blistered from touching that hot metal. So I did something bad to you. I dragged you out one morning and made you look at that box. I told you you were killing my man out of spite, that he was being punished because you were a bad boy and wouldn't eat, and if he died I would hate you forever and ever."
"I didn't know Dorothea had run your mother off. I didn't know I was all you had left. But you knew. You felt her go."