Seven hundred years ago, Tersa had told him the living myth was coming. Seven hundred years of waiting, watching, searching, hoping. Seven hundred heartbreaking, exhausting years. He refused to give up, refused to wonder if she'd been mistaken, refused because his heart yearned too much for that strange, wonderful, terrifying creature called Witch.

In his soul, he knew her. In his dreams, he saw her. He never envisioned a face. It always blurred if he tried to focus on it. But he could see her dressed in a robe made of dark, transparent spidersilk, a robe that slid from her shoulders as she moved, a robe that opened and closed as she walked, revealing bare, night-cool skin. And there would be a scent in the room that was her, a scent he would wake to, burying his face in her pillow after she was up and attending her own concerns.

It wasn't lust—the body's fire paled in comparison to the embrace of mind to mind—although physical pleasure was part of it. He wanted to touch her, feel the texture of her skin, taste the warmth of her. He wanted to caress her until they both burned. He wanted to weave his life into hers until there was no telling where one began and the other ended. He wanted to put his arms around her, strong and protecting, and find himself protected; possess her and be possessed; dominate her and be dominated. He wanted that Other, that shadow across his life, who made him ache with every breath while he stumbled among these feeble women who meant nothing to him and never could.

Simply, he believed that he had been born to be her lover.

Daemon lit another cigarette and flexed the ring finger of his right hand. The snake tooth slid smoothly out of its channel and rested on the underside of his long, black-tinted fingernail. He smiled. Maris wondered if he had claws? Well, this little darling would impress her. Not for very long, though, since the venom in the sac beneath his fingernail was extremely potent.

He was lucky that he'd reached sexual maturity a little later than most Hayllians. The snake tooth had come along with the rest of the physical changes, a shocking surprise, for he'd thought it was impossible for a male to be a natural Black Widow. During that time, he'd been serving in a court where it was fashionable for men to wear their nails long and tint them, so no one had thought it strange when he assumed the fashion, and no one had ever questioned why he continued to wear them that way.

Not even Dorothea. Since the witches of the Hourglass covens specialized in poisons and the darker aspects of the Craft, as well as dreams and visions, he'd always thought it strange that Dorothea had never guessed what he was. If she had, no doubt she would have tried to maim him beyond recognition. She might have succeeded before he had made the Offering to the Darkness to determine his mature strength, when he had still worn the Red Jewel that had come to him at his Birthright Ceremony. If she tried now, even with her coven backing her, it would cost her dearly. Even Ringed, a Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince would be a formidable enemy for a Red-Jeweled Priestess.

Which is why their paths seldom crossed anymore, why she kept him away from Hayll and her own court. She had one trump card to keep him submissive, and they both knew it. Without Lucivar's life in the balance, even the pain inflicted by the Ring of Obedience wouldn't hold him anymore. Lucivar . . . and the wildcard that Tersa had added to the game of submission and control. The wildcard Dorothea didn't know about. The wildcard that would end her domination of Terreille. Once, the Blood had ruled honorably and well. The Blood villages within a District would look after, and treat fairly, the landen villages that were bound to them. The District Queens would serve in the Province Queen's court. The Province Queens, in their turn, would serve the Territory Queen, who was chosen by the majority of the darker-Jeweled Blood, both male and female, because she was the strongest and the best.

Back then, there was no need for slavery to control the strong males. They followed their hearts to the Queen who was right for them. They handed over their lives willingly. They served freely.

Back then, the Blood's complicated triangle of status hadn't leaned so heavily on social rank. Jewel rank and caste had weighed just as heavily in the balance, if not more. That meant control of their society was a fluid dance, with the lead constantly changing depending on the dancers. But in the center of that dance, always, was a Queen.

That had been the genius and the flaw in Dorothea's purges. Without any strong Queens to challenge her rise to power, she had expected the males to surrender to her, a Priestess, the same way they surrendered to a Queen. They didn't. So a different kind of purge began, and by the time it was done, Dorothea had the sharpest weapons of all—frightened males who stripped any weaker female of her power in order to feel strong and frightened females who Ringed potentially strong males before they could become a threat.

The result was a spiraling perversion of their society, with Dorothea at its center as both the instrument of destruction and the only safe haven.

And then it spread outward, into the other Territories. He had seen those other lands and people slowly crumble, crushed beneath Hayll's relentless, whispered perversion of the ways of the Blood. He had seen the strong Queens, bedded much too young, rise from their Virgin Night broken and useless.

He had seen it and grieved over it, furious and frustrated that he could do so little to stop it. A bastard had no social standing. A slave had even less, no matter what caste he was born to or what Jewels he wore. So while Dorothea played out her game of power, he played out his. She destroyed the Blood who opposed her. He destroyed the Blood who followed her.

In the end, she would win. He knew that. There were very few Territories that didn't live in Hayll's shadow now. Askavi had spread its legs for Hayll centuries ago. Dhemlan was the only Territory in the eastern part of the Realm that was still fighting with its last breaths to stay free of Dorothea's influence. And there were a handful of small Territories in the far west that weren't completely ensnared yet.

In another century, two at the most, Dorothea would achieve her ambition. Hayll's shadow would cover the entire Realm and she would bethe High Priestess, the absolute ruler of Terreille, which had once been called the Realm of Light.

Daemon vanished the cigarette and buttoned his shirt. He still had to attend to Marissa, Maris's daughter, before he could get some sleep.

He'd only gone a few steps when a mind brushed against his, demanding his attention. He turned away from the house and followed the mental tug. There was no mistaking that psychic sent, those tangled thoughts and disjointed images.

What was she doing here?

The tugging stopped when he reached the small woods at the far end of the gardens. "Tersa?" he called softly.

Anne Bishop Books | Science Fiction Books | The Black Jewels Series Books