Outside, he thought as he climbed to his feet, but still within the Hall. The sunken garden, that place of peace and power that his father had made for private meditations, was protected by the imposing structure Saetan had built as the SaDiablo family seat.
He found no peace in this garden—at least, not while he was sober—but he ended up here on the nights when his sleep was haunted by dreams, or on the nights when he couldn’t sleep at all.
Raised flower beds bordered all four sides except where the stone steps led down into the garden. A raised stone slab and the wooden seat were positioned between the two statues that dominated the space.
As he brushed at his clothes, Daemon kept his eyes fixed on the grass. He couldn’t look at the female statue, couldn’t look at that face. Not today. So he turned to the other statue, as he’d often done over the past year. The crouched male that was a blend of human and animal. A feline head supported by massive shoulders. Teeth bared in a snarl. One paw/ hand braced on the ground near the body of a small, sleeping woman while the other was raised above her, its claws unsheathed. Glittering, green stone eyes stared at him.
Honor, cherish, and protect. It was the male’s duty, and his privilege, to honor, cherish, and protect. To serve.
He had one last duty to perform for the woman who had been his Queen—and his wife.
Vanishing the brandy bottles, Daemon left the sunken garden and returned to his suite. The conspicuous absence of servants in the corridors meant Beale had known where he was and had made sure no one would see him before he chose to be seen.
When he reached his suite, he turned the physical lock on the door. That simple request for privacy wouldn’t alarm anyone, even today.
A fresh set of clothes was laid out for him—his typical black jacket and trousers and a white silk shirt.
He stripped out of his clothes and left them on the clothes stand for Jazen to deal with. Naked, he stepped in front of the dresser and looked in the mirror. No torn flesh. No gaping hole in his chest. He saw the visual evidence of his pain only when dreaming.
Tears filled his eyes as he looked at his gold wedding ring. His right hand trembled. His left hand closed into a fist so tight his nails broke the skin in his palm. Protective. Resisting the need to obey that last command just a little while longer.
A year to grieve, because your heart won’t ever let go if I ask for less. So take your year to grieve, and when that year is over, promise me you’ll take up your life again. Promise me, Daemon.
They’d had seventy years together. Seventy rich and wonderful years. Jaenelle had been healthy and vibrant right up to the afternoon when she had kissed him and gone to her room for her usual nap, leaving him in his study with a mound of paperwork.
She lay down to take a nap—and never woke up.
Dreams made flesh did not become demon-dead. She had slipped away from him without warning, without a chance to say a final good-bye—or hold on to her for a while longer. But a few months earlier, during a quiet evening of the last Winsol they’d shared, Jaenelle had asked for a promise that amounted to her last command.
One year. She had been dead one year, and it was time to keep his promise.
He called in a small, beautifully carved jewelry box and used Craft to open the lid. Inside was her wedding ring.
Forcing his left hand open, he removed his wedding ring, placed it next to hers, closed the lid, and vanished the box.
Then he went into the bathroom to shower away the grief—and hide the last tears.
Comfortably settled in a small, sunny breakfast room, Surreal ate a solitary meal and waited. Sadi would be down soon, dressed as elegantly as usual—a contrast to the gold eyes that had been dulled by grief for the past year.
She almost hoped those eyes, and Daemon’s highly intelligent brain, would remain dulled by grief for one more day. She would prefer having this particular fight after the fact.
The door opened. Daemon walked into the room, followed by Beale, who set a fresh pot of coffee on the table and retreated.
Daemon took a seat and poured a cup of coffee for himself. “Surreal.”
“Sadi.” She topped off her own coffee, debated for a moment about the wisdom of scratching his temper, then leaned back in her seat and stared at him.
Grief had dimmed the beauty of his face, but that wasn’t a permanent change. Seventy years was nothing to someone from the long-lived races, and since he was only eighteen hundred years old, he still looked like a well-toned Warlord Prince in his prime—seductive, sensual, washing the room with sexual heat just by passing through. She had spent the past few years discouraging idiot women who looked at Jaenelle and figured Sadi had to be looking for sex outside of the marriage bed because how could a man who looked like that want to bed an old, white-haired woman in her nineties?
Jaenelle had gotten old in years, but she was never old, and whether those idiot women wanted to believe it or not, Jaenelle Angelline had been more than able to handle Daemon Sadi in bed and out.
Surreal just hoped she had done her job as second-in-command sufficiently well that Sadi hadn’t been aware of those women. He wouldn’t have done anything while Jaenelle lived because that would have called attention to why those women were sniffing around him. And he hadn’t been interested in doing anything for the past year. But now? Had any of them come to his attention enough that he would hone his temper and go hunting?
“Something wrong?” Daemon asked, sounding edgy and brittle.
“You look like shit.”
“You do know how to flatter me.”
The silence that followed was uneasy on her part and chilly turning toward predatory on his. That was why she wanted to jump up and hug Beale when he entered the room and set a covered dish in front of Daemon.
Beale lifted the cover. Daemon looked at the simple breakfast and swallowed hard.
None of them knew if Daemon’s refusal to eat anything before the midday meal was a personal gesture of mourning or an inability to keep down food during the first few hours after waking up alone, but they had all known he would be at the breakfast table today whether he could keep the food down or not.
Daemon said, “Thank you, Beale,” picked up his fork, and began to eat his first breakfast in a year.
Surreal finished her own breakfast, glad of the delay, however fleeting, before she told him about the day’s task.
“What are you doing here?” Daemon asked. “I thought you would be in Amdarh for . . . something Holt had mentioned.”
“It’s a celebration for Lady Zhara, and it’s next week.” She swallowed some coffee, then added, “You’ll also be attending.”