“You were very young to begin training in the Hourglass’s ways,” Jared murmured.
Thera nodded. “Yes. Because of that, there was a lot she couldn’t teach me. I wasn’t mature enough mentally or emotionally to endure it. It wasn’t formal training. More like I’d show her how much I could do of what she’d shown me the last time. Sometimes we took the next step in that lesson; sometimes she began something new.
“She never actually said anything, but we all understood that her training me had to be a secret, that my being a Black Widow had to be a secret. By the time I reached puberty and would have been recognized for a child of the Hourglass, I’d learned how to mask my psychic scent well enough to fool even a darker Jewel.
“The ugliness had started by then—Queens and darker-Jeweled males muttering about Black Widows being dangerous, how they were emotionally unstable because of their journeys into the Twisted Kingdom, how only Hayllian witches had the lifespan and the maturity needed to handle the Black Widows’ Craft. The males began to break young Black Widows—for their own good, of course.”
“Bastards,” Jared snarled softly.
“The month before I turned eighteen, the Black Widow showed up unexpectedly. She said she’d been thinking about me while she was weaving a tangled web of dreams and visions. She said if I didn’t make the Offering to the Darkness before the next moon, I never would. And if I didn’t have my Virgin Night before the Offering, I would never reach my nineteenth year.”
Thera leaned against Jared. Surprised by her sudden weariness, he slipped his arm from her shoulder to her waist to support her.
“Auntie’s lover saw me through my Virgin Night,” Thera said quietly. “He wasn’t happy about it, but there was no one else we could trust, so he accepted his duty. He was generous and kind. When it was over and we were sure my inner web was intact and I still had my Jewels and my Craft ... I think he was more relieved than I.
“A week later, we went to a Sanctuary a couple of days’ ride from Auntie’s village. The Priestess there and the Black Widow were friends. I made the Offering and came away with the Green Jewels.
“The day after I turned eighteen, my sire sent a message. My mother was dying and asked to see me.”
“You went back to the court,” Jared said, his temper simmering.
“I went back.”
“It was a trick.”
“It was a trick,” Thera agreed.
“Your mother wasn’t dying, was she?”
“Oh, yes, she was,” Thera replied too calmly. “He’d tortured her. After what he’d done to her, there was nothing shecould do but die.
“She hadn’t asked for me. She hadn’t wanted to see me. The anguish in her eyes was all the warning I needed. I was the last cruelty, you see. She’d thwarted his having any control over me, so now he’d take me. He wanted her to know that all the sacrifices she’d made, all the pain she’d suffered was for nothing.
“He dragged me into the next room. There was a grille in the wall beside the door. There was no way she couldn’t hear what was happening in that room.
“He raped me.”
“Wait a minute!” Jared protested. “You said he wore the Opal. You outranked him. You were stronger.”
“She dragged herself to the grille and pleaded with him to stop. She couldn’t really talk, couldn’t really form words. Not that it would have made any difference.”
“Thera!” Red mist coated the road and land around them. Jared shook his head to clear the rage from his vision.
Thera stared at nothing. “When he found out he was too late to break me, he beat me.” Her eyes frosted. She looked fiercely triumphant. “And I let him.”
“Why?” Jared’s voice broke.
“To buy time. I’d slipped under his inner barriers just enough to find out why he’d done this. Revenge, Jared. He knew where Auntie lived. He’d learned enough to know about her lover and the Black Widow sister. He planned to have them all killed because my mother had defied him. He intended to make sure I had no one to run to if I managed to get away from him again. But he’d wanted me under his control before he ordered the executions. That was his first mistake.
“So I fought hard enough to enrage him, to excite him with the spilled blood. And while he raped me again, I sent a message to Auntie on a distaff thread and told her to leave, to vanish and never look back. The Green was strong enough to reach that far. I knew they’d warn the Black Widow.
“Even Auntie wouldn’t have recognized me when he was done. My mother died the next day. The day after that, he sold me to an acquaintance. He never told the man who I was. Since I couldn’t speak clearly, my owner gave me a name. By the time the bruises and swelling went down, I’d woven illusion spells around myself. I didn’t look like a fresh, young eighteen-year-old.” Thera laughed harshly. “I drooled a lot. Staggered around glassy-eyed. Anytime a male sat down, I’d climb into his lap and ask him if he’d like to be castrated because I was sure it would make him feel better not to have those nasty urges.
“The son of a whoring bitch couldn’t sell me fast enough.
“I’ve had nine owners in the past year. Sometimes the old one remembered to tell the new one my name. When he didn’t, I took another name, confusing the trail even more. My sire tried to keep track of me, you see. He never found my aunt or her lover or the Black Widow. Different names, a different place. They vanished like dreams.”
Jared didn’t know what to say. His grief for her made him ache. “You’ll never look for them, will you?”
“No. My sire lost me two owners ago. The name doesn’t match. The description doesn’t match. And by manipulating the last bastard into putting me on the auction block . . . no name, no land, no people. I became no one and anyone. I’d intended to snare some weak-willed fool who wouldn’t even be able to remember buying a female on the auction block. Once he got me out of Raej, I, too, would vanish.”
Thera bit her lip and shook her head. “But Lia bought me, so I guess I fouled that spell.” Pulling away from Jared, she started walking quickly.
Staggered by what she’d told him, Jared stood in the road for a full minute before he hurried to catch up to her. When he was an arm’s length behind her, he said, “Then your name isn’t Thera?”
She looked over her shoulder. What he saw in her eyes chilled him. “It is now.”