Daemon Sadi, the Black-Jeweled Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, crossed the bridge that marked the boundary between private property and public land. On one side of the bridge was the drive leading to SaDiablo Hall, his family’s seat; on the other side was the public road leading to the village of Halaway.

Fluffy snow dusted the bottoms of his trousers as he walked toward the village in blissful solitude. Of course, he’d had to sneak out of his own home in order to have that solitude, and he recognized that there was something not quite right about the most powerful male in the Realm of Kaeleer sneaking out in order to avoid three snoozing Sceltie puppies. But whether he was allowing little bundles of fur to dictate his actions instead of using his rank and power to do as he pleased wasn’t the point. At this moment, here and now, he was alone on a crisp winter morning, and that was the point. No one was whining about having cold paws. No one was complaining that he walked too fast. No one was grumbling because he wouldn’t stop every few feet so interesting smells could be properly sniffed.

And no one was going to sulk because he refused to carry someone with wet fur under his coat and up against his white silk shirt.

Solitude. Bliss. And, if his mother had created the gift he’d asked her to make, fun.

Winsol was almost here. Those thirteen days were a celebration of the Darkness—and they were a celebration of Witch, the living myth, dreams made flesh.

It would be his first Winsol as the ruler of the Dhemlan Territory, his third celebration since he’d come to live in Kaeleer. The first year, he’d still been mentally fragile from the years when he’d wandered the roads in the Twisted Kingdom, lost in the insanity of guilt and grief. And in that first year, he’d also been lost in the wonder of finding Jaenelle Angelline again, alive and well—and still able to love him.

The second year, she had been the one who had been so terrifyingly fragile. She had unleashed her full power to prevent a war between Kaeleer and Terreille that would have destroyed both Realms—and had torn her body apart in the process. She shouldn’t have survived—wouldn’t have if the kindred and the Weaver of Dreams hadn’t done the impossible and remade the living myth, the Queen who was Witch.

But this year he and Jaenelle were together, they were married, and the worst thing looming over their heads was how many invitations to parties and public gatherings they needed to accept in order for him to fulfill his duties as Dhemlan’s ruler.

He made his way through Halaway’s quiet streets, noticing lights in the windows of most of the houses. The snow wasn’t marred yet by many footprints or cart wheels, but soon the merchants would open their shops, people and carriages would fill the sidewalks and streets, and the small village would bustle through another day of holiday preparations.

As he approached the cottage where his mother, Tersa, lived, he studied the walkways up to her cottage and the neighboring one that was occupied by Manny, an older woman he considered a friend rather than a former servant. Then he smiled and, using Craft, dealt with the snow as he glided up the walkway and knocked on the cottage door.

He waited a minute, then knocked again.

The third time, he put a bit of temper and Craft into the act of applying knuckles to wood, which guaranteed the sound would roll through the cottage like thunder.

A few seconds later, the door swung open as the young woman on the other side growled, “If someone doesn’t answer the door, you could take the hint that it’s too early for com—”

She blinked at him. He smiled at the journeymaid Black Widow who lived with Tersa as part of her training.

“Lady Allista,” he said politely.

“Prince Sadi.” Her tone was much less polite. Since he was who and what he was, she couldn’t shut the door in his face.

But she wanted to.

Obviously, Allista was one of those women who did not wake up cheerful. That was all right. A few months of marriage to Jaenelle had taught him the value of having a few tricks when it came to dealing with a witch who woke up grumpy—and he had become an expert at all of them.

“Tersa asked me to come early,” he said, slipping past Allista. “Since my timing is a bit off, why don’t I make breakfast for the two of you?”

He shrugged out of his overcoat and vanished it as he continued down the hall to the kitchen, not giving Allista time to answer.

All right. Tersa hadn’t told him to come this early, but she would be awake—and he wanted to slip out with his requested gift before too many people were up and about.

“Good morning, darling,” he said as he walked into the kitchen.

Tersa turned away from the counter and studied him for a moment. Then she smiled. “It’s the boy. It’s my boy.”

Her boy. His mother was a broken Black Widow lost in the madness the Blood called the Twisted Kingdom. Lost in the dreams and visions—and the shattered pieces of her mind. She remembered him as the child he had been before he’d been taken from her. She remembered him as the youth who had met her again but didn’t know who she was. And sometimes she remembered him as the man he was now. But however she saw him on any given day, he was always the boy. Her boy.

“I’ve come to cook you breakfast,” Daemon said. He gave her his best-boy grin. “And to talk about gifts.”

She narrowed her gold eyes as if she was about to argue. Then she shrugged and turned back to the counter. “There are bacon and eggs and bread for toast.”

“That sounds like breakfast,” Daemon said. “How would you like me to make the eggs?”

She hesitated—and he wondered if she would be able to answer or if her mind had turned down another path too far removed from such mundane things as bacon and eggs.

“I like them scrambled,” she finally said.

He put an arm around her, brushed his lips against her temple, and felt all his love for her well up and squeeze his heart. “Me too.”

Lucivar Yaslana backwinged and landed lightly on the walkway in front of Tersa’s cottage. He looked at the cottage directly in front of him, then at its neighbor.

Manny had spent most of her life as a servant, was used to working with her hands, and didn’t shun physical labor. Even now she’d taken on the duties of housekeeper for Tersa and Allista, an arrangement that satisfied all three women. But Manny wasn’t a young woman by any stretch of truth, and it seemed a bit early for her to have been out sweeping the walkways.

Not swept, he realized as he studied the sharp, perfect edge that divided the snowy lawn from the cleared walkway. Not even a hearth witch could get that kind of edge. Not with a shovel or broom, anyway. So someone had used Craft to remove the snow.