He vanished the boxes one by one, left his study, and caught the Black Wind to thecildru dyathe's island.
Even for Hell, it was a bleak place made of rocks, sand, and barren fields. A place where even Hell's native flora and fauna couldn't thrive. He'd always wondered why Char had chosen that place instead of one of the many others that wouldn't have been so stark. And then Jaenelle had unthinkingly given him the answer: The island, in its starkness, in its unyielding bleakness, held no deceptions, no illusions. Poisons weren't sugar-coated, brutality wasn't masked by silk and lace. There was nowhere for cruelty to hide.
He took his time reaching that rocky place that was as dose to a shelter as the children would condone. As he reached the final bend in the twisting path and mentally prepared himself to watch them flee from him, he heard laughter—innocent, delighted laughter. He wrapped his cape tightly around him, hoping to blend into the rocks and remain unnoticed for a moment. To hear them laugh that way . . .
Saetan eased around the last rock and gasped.
In the center of their open "council" area stood a magnificent evergreen, its color undimmed by Hell's forever-twilight. Throughout the branches, little points of color winked in and out like a rainbow of fireflies performing a merry dance. Char and the other children were hanging icicles—real icicles—from the branches. Little silver and gold bells tinkled as they brushed against the branches. There was laughter and purpose, an animation and sparkle in their young faces that he'd never seen before.
Then they saw him and froze, small animals caught in the light. In another moment, they would have run, but Char turned at that instant, his eyes bright. He stepped toward Saetan, holding out his hands in an ancient gesture of welcome.
"High Lord." Char's voice rang with pride. "Come see our tree."
Saetan came forward slowly and placed his hands over Char's. He studied the tree. A single tear slipped down his cheek, and his lips trembled. "Ah, children," he said huskily, "it's truly a magnificent tree. And your decorations arewonderful. "
They smiled at him, shyly, tentatively.
Without thinking, Saetan put his arm around Char's shoulders and hugged him close. The boy jerked back, caught himself, and then hesitantly put his arms around Saetan and hugged him in return.
"You know who gave us the tree, don't you?" Char whispered.
"Yes, I know."
"I've never . . . most of us have never . . ."
"I know, Char." Saetan squeezed Char's shoulder once more. He cleared his throat. "They seem a bit . . . dull . . . compared with this, but there are gifts for you to put beneath the tree."
Char rubbed his hand across his face. "She said it would only last the thirteen days of Winsol, but that's all they ever last, isn't it?"
"Yes, that's all they ever last."
"High Lord." Char hesitated. "How?"
Saetan smiled tenderly at the boy. "I don't know. She's magic. I'm only a Warlord Prince. You can't expect me to explain magic."
Char smiled in return, a smile from one man to another.
Saetan called in the six boxes. "I'll leave these in your keeping." One finger gently stroked Char's burned, blackened cheek. "Happy Winsol, Warlord." He turned and glided quickly toward the path. As he passed the first bend, a sound came from a smattering of voices. When it was repeated, it was a full chorus.
"Happy Winsol, High Lord."
Saetan choked back a sob and hurried back to the Hall.
"You did tell me to give a Winsol gift to someone who might not get one, so . . . well . . ." Jaenelle nervously brushed her fingers along the edge of Saetan's blackwood desk.
"Come here, witch-child." Saetan gently hugged her. Putting his lips close to her ear, he whispered, "That was the finest piece of magic I've ever seen. I'm so very proud of you."
"Truly?" Jaenelle whispered back.
"Truly." He held her at arm's length so he could see her face. "Would you share the secret?" he asked, keeping his voice lightly teasing. "Would you tell an old Warlord Prince how you did it?"
Jaenelle's eyes focused on his Red Birthright Jewel hanging from its gold chain. "I promised the Prince, you see."
"See what?" he asked calmly as his stomach flip-flopped.
"I promised that if I was going to do any dream weaving I'd learn from the best who could teach me."
And you didn't come tome? "So who taught you, witch-child?"
She licked her lips. "The Arachnians," she said in a small voice.
The room blurred and spun. When it stopped revolving, Saetan gratefully realized he was still sitting in his chair. "Arachna is a closed Territory," he said through clenched teeth.
Jaenelle frowned. "I know. But so are a lot of places where I have friends. They don't mind, Saetan. Truly."
Saetan released her and locked his hands together. Arachna. She'd gone to Arachna. Beware the golden spider that spins a tangled web. There wasn't a Black Widow in all the history of the Blood who could spin dream webs like the Arachnians. The whole shore of their island was littered with tangled webs that could pull in unsuspecting—and even well-trained—minds, leaving the flesh shell to be devoured. For her to blithely walk through their defenses . . .
"The Arachnian Queen," Saetan said, fighting the urge to yell at her. "Whom did she assign to teach you?"
Jaenelle gave him a worried little smile. "She taught me. We started with the straight, simple webs, everyday weaving. After that . . ." Jaenelle shrugged.
Saetan cleared his throat. "Just out of curiosity, how large is the Arachnian Queen?"
"Um . . . her body's about like that." Jaenelle pointed at his fist.
The room tilted. Very little was known about Arachna—with good reason, since very few who had ever ventured there had returned intact—but one thing was known: the larger the spider, the more powerful and deadly were the webs.
"Did the Prince suggest you go to Arachna?" Saetan asked, desperately trying to keep the snarl out of his voice.
Jaenelle blinked and had the grace to blush. "No. I don't think he'd be too happy if I told him."
Saetan closed his eyes. What was done was done. "You will remember courtesy and Protocol when you visit them, won't you?"
"Yes, High Lord," Jaenelle said, her voice suspiciously submissive.
Saetan opened his eyes to a narrow slit. Jaenelle's sapphire eyes sparkled back at him. He snarled, defeated, Hell's fire, if he was so outmaneuvered by a twelve-year-old girl, what in the name of Darkness was he going to do when she was full grown?