The second point of interest was the serving dishes on the table. Breakfast and the midday meal were usually set out on the huge sideboard so that everyone could fill a plate and take a seat as they pleased. Dinner was the only meal that had a set starting time, and was the only meal where the footmen served the food.This midday meal had been set out family-style, as if only a small number of people were expected.

That was fine, Surreal thought as she began filling her plate from the closest serving dishes. That was justfine — as long as everyone else was going hungry to avoid eating with the guests. But if she found out that another midday meal was being quietly served elsewhere, she was going to have a few things to say tosomeone about not being told.

"May I sit with you?" Aaron asked quietly as he joined her.

She was about to make a tart reply about there being plenty of chairs when she saw the hunted look in his eyes.

As if her noticing him had given him some kind of permission, he shifted closer to her. Close enough for her to feel the way his muscles quivered with the strain of keeping strong emotions tightly leashed.

"Why don't you sit over here, Aaron?" Vania said, giving him a coy smile while she patted the chair on her right.

Well, that more than explained the hunted look.

During the time Surreal had been at the Hall, she'd observed that the males—from the most menial male servant right up to the High Lord—had some very particular ideas about what was considered acceptable physical distance, and the cold courtesy they could all turn on a woman was usually an effective determent when that distance wasn't respected. The males in the First Circle not only tolerated being approached and touched by all of the witches in the First Circle, they welcomed that friendly intimacy. But they didn't welcome it from anyone else.

He considers me one of them,she realized, feeling a jolt of pleasure at the acceptance.He considers me safe. Because of that, her "Of course," in reply to his question was as soothing as she could make it. Which, for some reason, distressed him.

I was a good whore, she thought as she picked up the serving fork and the carving knife from the platter holding the roasted turkey.A damnedgood whore. So why is it that, all of a sudden, males are impossible to figure out?


Surreal turned her head to look at Aaron, the carving knife poised over the turkey. "You weren't going to suggest that I don't know how to handle a knife, were you, sugar?"

Aaron's eyes widened. "I would never be so foolish as to suggest that a Dea al Mon witch didn't know how to handle a knife," he said, sounding suspiciously meek. "I was going to ask if you would mind cutting a slice for me."

"Of course you were," she replied tartly. She felt something in him relax and swore silently about perverse male behavior. Then again, she mused as she cut the turkey breast, maybe the males were just so used to that blend of tart and sweet in a witch's personality, they could relax around it. It could be an acquired taste, like pickleberries.

The thought made her chuckle.

After placing the serving fork and carving knife back on the platter, she settled down to eat. There wasn't much conversation, which suited her just fine—especially since all of Vania's remarks were aimed at Aaron and his replies had become curt to the point of rudeness.

Hoping to break, or at least change, the tension that was getting thicker by the minute, Surreal looked up, intending to ask Alexandra when she and her party were going to leave. But she didn't say anything because she found herself looking straight at Vania. There was a nasty kind of anger in the woman's eyes directed right at Aaron.

After toying with her food for a minute, Vania pushed her plate away and smiled coyly. "I declare, I'm just too tired to eat right now. Aaron wasso stimulating this morning."

It took Surreal a moment too long to understand that remark.

With a howl of rage, Aaron lunged across the table, grabbed Vania by the hair, and yanked her forward. His left hand closed on the carving knife and swung it toward her throat.

Surreal grabbed Aaron's left wrist with both hands and pulled back as hard as she could. He gave her a couple of inches before his muscles bunched and his arm surged forward.

The knife's point jabbed Vania's neck. She screamed as blood began flowing from the wound.

Surreal poured the power of her Gray Jewels into her hands to give her added strength, but there was some kind of tight shield around Aaron that just absorbed the power.

All right. Muscle against muscle. She could hold him off for the few seconds needed for the other men at the table to help her.

Except no one moved.

Then she got a glimpse of Aaron's face and knew none of the other people in the room were going to approach a Warlord Prince who looked that cold and merciless.

She fought harder, used every bit of leverage she could find. She didn't give a damn if Vania got her throat slit, but she didn't want Aaron to get into trouble because the bitch had pushed him too far.

*Surreal?* Graysfang said anxiously.

*Help me!*

The wolf must have been nearby because he was in the dining room seconds after she called.

*Surreal ... *

*Don't just stand there. Do something!*

*Aaron is First Circle,* Graysfang whined. *I can't bite Aaron.*

*Then find someone who can!*

Graysfang rushed out of the room.

If she could have, she would have used Craft to vanish the knife, but Aaron had extended that damned shield to include the weapon. She couldn't get the knife, couldn't even break his wrist to stop him.

Her grip on his wrist slipped for an instant—long enough for the knife to slice Vania's neck again.

Then Chaosti was there, his hands clamped on Aaron's right wrist. Lucivar's hands closed over hers, adding more force and strength.

Aaron fought against them mindlessly, intent only on the kill.

"Damn it, Aaron," Lucivar snarled. "Don't force me to break your wrist."

Good luck,Surreal thought sourly as Lucivar's hands tightened on hers. She just hoped he remembered her hands were in the way before he started breaking bones.

Aaron seemed far past the ability to hear them, but he reacted when an icy midnight voice said, "Prince Aaron,attend."

Aaron began shivering uncontrollably. Lucivar quickly took the carving knife away from him and vanished it. Chaosti pried Aaron's right hand open, releasing Vania's hair.

Vania kept screaming—had been screaming, Surreal realized, since the first jab.


Ice instantly coated all the glasses on the table. Vania glanced in Jaenelle's direction and stopped screaming.

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