Andulvar shrugged. "Most healing brews have to be taken shortly after they're made. It was worth the gamble." He smiled at Saetan with all the arrogance only an Eyrien male was capable of. "However, if you're admitting your balls aren't as big—"
Saetan said something pithy and to the point.
"Then there's no problem, is there?" Andulvar replied.
They looked at each other, centuries of friendship, rivalry, and understanding reflected in two pairs of golden eyes. They raised their glasses and waited for the others to follow suit.
"To Jaenelle," Saetan said.
"To Jaenelle," the others replied.
Then they sighed in unison and swallowed half their tonic.
7 / Kaeleer
Not quite content, Saetan watched the lights of Riada, the largest Blood village in Ebon Rih and the closest one to the Keep, shine up from the valley's fertile darkness like captured pieces of starlight.
He had watched the sun rise today. No, more than that. He had stood in one of the small formal gardens and had actually felt the sun's warmth on his face. For the first time in more centuries than he cared to count, there had been no lancing pain in his temples, no brutal stomach-twisting headache to tell him just how far he had stepped from the living, no weakening in his strength.
He was as physically strong now as when he first became a Guardian, first began walking that fine line between living and dead.
Jaenelle and her tonic had done that. Had done more than that.
He'd forgotten how sensual food could be, and over the past few days had savored the taste of rare beef and new potatoes, of roasted chicken and fresh vegetables. He'd forgotten how good sleep could feel, instead of that semi awake rest Guardians usually indulged in during the daylight hours.
He'd also forgotten how hunger pangs felt or how fuzzy-brained a man could be when he was beyond tired.
Everything has a price.
He smiled cautiously at Cassandra when she joined him at the window. "You look lovely tonight," he said, making a small gesture that took in her long black gown, the open-weave emerald shawl, and the way she'd styled her dusty-red hair.
"Too bad the Harpy didn't bother to dress for the occasion," Cassandra replied tartly. She wrinkled her nose. "She could have at least worn something around her throat."
"And you could have refrained from offering to lend her a high-necked gown," Saetan snapped. Then he clenched his teeth to trap the rest of the words. Titian didn't need a defender, especially after her slur about the delicate sensibilities of prissy aristo witches.
He watched the lights of Riada wink out, one by one.
Cassandra took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh. "It wasn't supposed to be like this," she said quietly. "The Black were never meant to be Birthright Jewels. I became a Guardian because I thought the next Witch would need a friend, someone to help her understand what she would become after making the Offering to the Darkness. But what has happened to Jaenelle has changed her so much she'll never be normal."
"Normal?Just what do you call 'normal,' Lady?"
She looked pointedly at the corner of the room where Andulvar, Prothvar, Mephis, and Geoffrey were trying to
include Titian in the conversation and keep a respectful distance at the same time.
"Jaenelle just celebrated her fifteenth birthday. Instead of a party and a roomful of young friends, she spent the evening with demons, Guardians—and a Harpy. Can you honestly call that normal?"
"I've had this conversation before," Saetan growled. "And my answer is still the same: for her, thatis normal."
Cassandra studied him for a moment before saying quietly, "Yes, you would see it that way, wouldn't you?"
He saw the room through a red haze before he got his temper tightly leashed. "Meaning what?"
"You became the High Lord of Hell while you were still living. You wouldn't see anything wrong with her having thecildru dyathe for playmates or having a Harpy teach her how to interact with males."
Saetan's breath whistled between his teeth. "When you foresaw her coming, you called her the daughter of my soul. But those were just words, weren't they? Just a way to ensure that I would become a Guardian so that my strength would be at your disposal for the protection of your apprentice, the young witch who would sit at your feet, awed by the attention of the Black-Jewelled Witch. Except it didn't work out that way. The one who came reallyis the daughter of my soul, and she is awed by no one and sits at no one's feet."
"She may be awed by no one," Cassandra said coldly, "but she alsohas no one." Then her voice softened. "And for that, I pity her."
She has me!
The quick, sharp look Cassandra gave him cut his heart.
Jaenelle had him. The Prince of the Darkness. The High Lord of Hell. More than any other reason,that was why Cassandra pitied her.
"We should join the others," Saetan said tightly, offering his arm. Despite the anger he felt, he couldn't turn his back on her.
Cassandra started to refuse his gesture of courtesy until she noticed Andulvar's and Titian's cold stares.
"Draca wants to talk with all of us," Andulvar growled
as soon as they approached. He immediately moved away from them, giving himself room to spread his wings. Giving himself room to fight.
Saetan watched him for a moment, then began reinforcing his own considerable defenses. They were different in many ways, but he'd always respected Andulvar's instincts.
Draca entered the room slowly, calmly. Her hands, as usual, were tucked into the long sleeves of her robe. She waited for them to be seated, waited until their attention was centered on her before pinning Saetan with her reptilian stare.
"The Lady iss fifteen today," Draca said.
"Yes," Saetan replied cautiously.
"Sshe wass pleassed with our ssmall offeringss."
It was sometimes difficult to perceive inflections in Draca's sibilant voice, but the words sounded more like a command than a question. "Yes," Saetan said, "I think she was."
A long silence. "It iss time for the Lady to leave the Keep. You are her legal guardian. You will make the arrangementss."
Saetan's throat tightened. The muscles in his chest constricted. "I had promised her that she could stay here."
"It iss time for the Lady to leave. Sshe will live with you at SsaDiablo Hall."
"I propose an alternative," Cassandra said quickly, pressing her fists into her lap. She didn't even glance at Saetan. "Jaenelle could live with me. Everyone knows who—and what—Saetan is, but I—"