Winsol was actually a rather quiet season in the Dark Court, Daemon learned. Other courts would hold dozens of parties during the holidays, but, Saetan had told him, Jaenelle held only one, on Winsol itself, for her First Circle.
Daemon didn't mind. So many parties would just scrape his nerves, and while Jaenelle had repaired his chalice, she couldn't take away the scars. The last -- the only -- Winsol he'd had with her had been the beginning of the end.
They were in Kaeleer now, not Terreille, and neither Daemon nor Jaenelle was subject to Alexandra any longer. He was with all of his family, for the first time he could ever remember, and it was even bigger than he could have ever hoped in the centuries before he finally found out who his father was. He was free to give Jaenelle everything he had, rather than having to mask himself in front of people who could never understand either of them.
The scars would never go away, but they could be surpassed. Daemon studied himself in the mirror one last time, smiled, and went to look for his Lady.
"Here." A squalling bundle was unceremoniously dumped in his arms. "You watch him for awhile."
Lucivar absently shifted his weight to secure the screaming boy who was now beating with small, soft fists against the arms that restrained him. "Marian?"
"He's getting into everything," Marian informed him, raising her voice to be heard over the noise. Her hair was disheveled -- rather appealingly -- her hands were on her hips, and her eyes were flashing. "I can't prepare for Winsol with a toddler running around and making messes."
Lucivar studied his wife, and knew that this was not a time for stretching the bounds, this was a time for obeying. She looked tired, and irritated, and busy, and he wanted to protect her, even if it was from the screaming of their own son.
"I'll take him outside," Lucivar said. He'd only just come inside, so he was still wearing his wing-slitted cloak. "Come on, boyo," he told Daemonar, hefting the small boy's weight easily as he headed for the mud room and Daemonar's winter clothes. "You're going to spend the day with Papa now."
"Thank you, Lucivar," he heard from behind him, and he turned to smile at her. He would have liked to go kiss her, but he didn't put it past Daemonar to reach up and yank on her hair -- or his, for that matter.
"See you tonight," he said instead. That'd give her most of a day to herself, so she could calm down and make her preparations in peace for her favorite holiday without a young Eyrien boy underfoot and in the air.
"Mama!" Daemonar yelled, as Lucivar wrestled him into his own winter cloak. The boy didn't need that much covering -- he was Eyrien, and Eyriens survived the chill of high air without the bulky encumbrances of too much clothing. But he was still young, and didn't need to get too cold.
"Let's go play with Tassle and his pups, huh, boyo?" Lucivar suggested. He bounced Daemonar in his arms a few times, in the hopes of bouncing him into a better frame of mind.
That didn't work all or even most of the time, but it did now. Or maybe it was the mention of Tassle, because Daemonar stopped yelling and said, "Wolf?"
Lucivar laughed, leaning forward to press a kiss into Daemonar's hair. "Yes, Daemonar," he agreed. "Wolf. Let's go see if he wants to play."
"Play! Wolf!" Daemonar squealed.
Lucivar grinned. Whether or not Tassle really wanted to play, he was going to.
"I'm sorry, Karla. I really am."
Karla sighed. "You're sure, Kirsty?"
Kirsty nodded, wringing her hands. She was a Healer in Karla's court, with beautiful pale blond hair and pale blue eyes, and she was one of the few women Karla had ever met who preferred their own sex, the way Karla did. She was also asking for a transfer.
"I'm not cut out for a big court," Kirsty said, her hands tightening on each other. "I get nervous here. It's not because I don't like -- the people -- don't think that." She barely hesitated before saying the people, and Karla tried not to hope that it meant anything, because it wouldn't matter if it did. "I just think I'd be better off in a smaller court."
"Why now?" Karla asked. "You've only been here for a few months, and it's almost Winsol. At least wait until after the season?"
She felt a bit pathetic, trying to persuade Kirsty to wait, which would only prolong the hurt, even in the hopes of eventually changing Kirsty's mind. But she'd thought they had potential. Kirsty was sweet, but with enough steel and balls to fearlessly order around her patients, to go near Karla in a temper and try to calm her down, and to explain in person why she wanted to go.
It hadn't quite been a relationship yet, but it could have made it that far, and maybe it could have lasted.
But Kirsty shook her head, emphasizing that it couldn't have. "I should have decided earlier, but it was the preparations for Winsol that really made me see I'm not suited to be here," she explained. "It's so much busier here than it was in my home village. So much more frantic. Just the atmosphere is making me nervous. Please don't ask me to stay, Lady Karla."
Karla wanted to say something cutting about selective courage and how she could be strong for her patients but not for herself, but she kept her mouth shut. This didn't need to be any more bitter than it was. She already felt like she'd gone a few rounds with Lucivar, and didn't need to feel like it had been a few more.
"Go, then, with my blessings," Karla said. "May the Darkness embrace you, Sister."
"And you, Lady," Kirsty replied, stepping back and bowing. "Thank you," she said, then she smiled, and turned to leave.
When the door was closed behind her, Karla leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. Normally she was happy enough, but sometimes it hit her that she had no one to share her life that way, no Consort, no lover. The only one in the First Circle who didn't, now. Even Jaenelle finally had Daemon, and though certainly Karla did not begrudge Jaenelle her joy, it was difficult to see so many happy relationships and feel the lack of one herself.
She'd been intending to leave for Jaenelle's Winsol celebration a few days early, but now she thought she wouldn't. Instead, she sent a thought out on a psychic thread, aimed at one specific person.
Even his thought felt like an embrace, and she didn't hesitate to leave her study and go find him to get a real one.
Saetan did not spend much time in Hell anymore. He held an audience twice a month for any demons who needed to see him, but his duties as Steward of the Dark Court kept him in Kaeleer for much of his time.
But he had duties here as well, and this was one he discharged every Winsol without fail.
The tree no longer surprised him, as it had the first time, when he stepped off the landing web at the cildru dyathe's island. Jaenelle was just as faithful in the discharge of her duties, and this was one she appreciated just as much as he did.
Every year since her return to her body, she gave them the tree. After the first few Winsols, Saetan had wondered why she always gave them the tree, never varying the present, until Char had told him it was because Jaenelle knew the children wanted something stable, reliable, something they could count on. Saetan's gifts to them every year provided surprise and variety, but they appreciated the tree because the stability of a tradition every year was something many of them never had.
They were less skittish now, when he brought the presents. He thought most of them would never be entirely comfortable with him, and he didn't blame them, but he was touched that they managed to find it in themselves to trust him a little, and grateful to Jaenelle for being able to open their hearts that much.
He called in the boxes filled with his gifts and left them with Char, not wanting to intrude on the children decorating the tree. "Thank you, High Lord," Char said, watching the others. "We appreciate this."
Saetan cleared his throat. "My pleasure, Lord Char," he said. "Happy Winsol."
Char smiled. "Happy Winsol, High Lord."
Saetan nodded, then put a hand on Char's shoulder and squeezed it. He turned to leave, but when he glanced back for one last look at the tree, with its icicles and bells and colored ornaments and streamers, a bright spot in the bleak landscape, he caught the eyes of a few of the other children, and they waved at him.
He waved back, then turned again and left them to their celebration.
Surreal hated thinking up Winsol gifts. She'd never been in the habit of giving people anything besides her skills, and she found it difficult to find something that the few people she had cared about would appreciate.
Now in Kaeleer, that circle of friends had expanded far beyond what she'd ever expected. She wasn't exactly First Circle, and she wasn't a Queen like most of the women she'd grown closer to, but she was family. However inadvertently she'd claimed the SaDiablo family, they were hers now, and she had to get gifts to show she was glad to have them.
Some of them were easy. She got Jaenelle a few romance novels she hadn't seen in her personal library, and helpfully placed bookmarks in a few spots she thought Jaenelle -- and Daemon -- would appreciate. And for Lucivar she could get a knife. He was generally more into the bigger weapons, but he could still appreciate a good knife.
Others, however, were not nearly so easy. She especially wanted to get something good for Daemon, because he'd given her something every year in Terreille and every year she had no idea what to send in return.
Even after she'd made her horrendous mistake when she drank too much and propositioned him, he'd still sent the gifts. She'd never been able to send him one as well, as if she hadn't just broken their friendship. It hadn't felt right. Of course, it hadn't felt right to send nothing either, especially when he always went to the trouble, but it hadn't seemed like any gift would be able to make up for what she'd done.
They were over it, now, their relationship repaired by Jaenelle, and by Daemon's time in the Twisted Kingdom and recovering from it. But still she had no idea what to give him.
"Mother Night," she muttered. "Why can't he just make things easy and give me a damn list?"
Daemon never made lists for Winsol gifts. He just wasn't much of one for personal indulgences, even after he was no longer a slave and allowed to have whatever he wanted.
*Surreal?* Graysfang padded into the room from the balcony. *You're frustrated. Why are you frustrated?*
Great. Just what I need. A meddling teenage wolf who doesn't understand humans very well. He'd probably just suggest I give Daemon a dead rabbit.
But she looked into Graysfang's earnest eyes, showing how eager he was to help her, and swallowed the snap that had been about to come out. She sighed. "I'm just trying to think of Winsol gifts," she told him. "For Daemon especially."
*The Lady's mate?* Graysfang's tail wagged. *I like him. He is a hunter.*
"Yes, he is," Surreal agreed, thinking that that was a good, if wolfy, way to describe him. "But I need to get him a present. One he'd like."
Graysfang sat down and appeared to think about it. Finally, he said, *I am a hunter. I like rabbits. And deer. And fish. I could catch something for you, and you could give it to the Lady's mate.*
Surreal choked down a laugh. How did I get to know a wolf so well? "Thank you, Graysfang, but I don't think he needs food. Not as a present, at least."
Graysfang stared at her, as if confused by the idea that a hunter would not want free meat for a gift. "Screw it," she said. "I'll just give him a book."
"Karla?" Lucivar stepped into the garden at SaDiablo Hall. "You may have only gotten here yesterday, but you should know better than to miss practice."
"Go away, Lucivar," Karla said from her seat by the pool.
He raised an eyebrow. "Normally you like practice," he said. "What's wrong?"
"There's an overbearing Warlord Prince annoying me," she snarled. "That's what's wrong."
"Because you're not at the practice field," he replied mildly. He sent a quick thought on a Sapphire spear thread to Falonar, telling him to get practice started without him. This might take a bit longer than just shoving Karla under a cold shower.
He may not have had Daemon's or their father's understanding of women, but he wasn't blind. Karla was hurting. She was also First Circle, and he couldn't just leave her hurting without trying to help, whether or not he was the best person to help her. He was there.
So he said, "Look. Saetan's also hiding somewhere--"
"I am not hiding."
"--and I think it has something to do with Sylvia because he glared at me worse than usual when I mentioned her. So here are your choices."
"Not another of your choices," she complained.
He ignored her. "You can come to the practice field with me, or you can go mope with Saetan. I've heard that misery loves company, and it'd be nice if you could both get it out of your systems before Winsol tomorrow, and the Darkness knows you'll manage to distract each other somehow, even if it's only be terrifying him."
"You're a prick, Lucivar."
Lucivar laughed. "You're not the first to call me that," he agreed. "What's it going to be? Practice or moping?"
She appeared to think about it, and Lucivar added, "If you don't want to tell me, don't tell me. But you should tell someone. And I think Saetan could do with the company of one of his darling nieces. I don't know what's going on with you, and I don't know what's going on with him and Sylvia, but you might be able to help each other."
Finally Karla sighed. "I'll go find Uncle Saetan." She stood up, brushing past him to the entrance to the garden. Just before she left, she glanced back at him and said, "Thanks, Lucivar. Kiss kiss."
He shrugged. "What's family for?" he said, mostly to himself, once Karla had gone inside.
Daemon had thought this was going to be the best Winsol of his life, and he was right. Even with his scars and his memories, this Winsol had already far outstripped all the others the moment he woke up and saw Jaenelle lying peacefully next to him in bed.
He'd had a cup of steaming coffee waiting with him when she woke up. It had been the first thing she'd reached for, but he hadn't minded the coffee-flavored kisses that followed.
After a light lunch, the family and First Circle gathered together, and Mrs. Beale brought out the tray with the silver bowl of hot blooded rum, and the small silver cups, meant to be shared. And, as he'd dreamed of doing for so long, as he'd wanted to do thirteen years ago, Daemon shared his with Jaenelle.
No one drank alone. Even the kindred had some to sip.
He didn't pay much attention to the gifts he received, though he appreciated all of them and was looking forward to going through them later. For now, though, he watched Jaenelle, who was smiling and laughing so sincerely, surrounded by so many people who loved her. It was such a contrast to that last Winsol in Chaillot that he was enchanted with the change, with how Jaenelle shone, so happy at the reactions to the gifts she'd given, so happy with the gifts she'd received and the smiles from everyone who'd given them.
When he unwrapped her gift to him, the paper fell away to reveal a book, with no title or author that he could see. The only thing on the cover was an hourglass. Quickly he flipped through a few pages, recognizing her handwriting.
"It's time you learned the Hourglass's Craft," she said softly in his ear from her position next to him, her voice low enough that he could only barely hear it over the din of the room. He appreciated that she respected his desire for discretion when it came to his being a Black Widow. "I'll start teaching you, but this will help as well."
He picked up her right hand and kissed the knuckle of her right-hand ring finger. "Thank you, sweetheart," he said. She touched his cheek, then went back to her own gifts.
When she opened his gift to her, she immediately took out the earrings she'd had in and replaced them with the new ones, sapphire drops in an intricate and elegant setting of gold. They weren't large or ostentatious, and he was pleased to see how well they suited her.
"Thank you, Daemon," she said, leaning closer to kiss his cheek, the earring brushing against him as she pulled back.
The rest of the day passed almost in a blur. The laughing and smiling and chatting among friends was still fairly new to him, but he thought he could get used to it very quickly. Even Karla and Saetan, who had seemed somewhat depressed the past several days, though he hadn't asked why, were mingling and smiling.
It was when the dancing started that everything came into focus for him again. This year, he did not have to perform for witless witches who wanted his services but never him. This year, he did not have to pretend service to women who could never approach, much less match, the splendor of the woman he'd waited longer centuries for.
This year, he could dance for the glory of Witch. He could dance with Witch.
He let the other First Circle males have their turns, patient with the knowledge that once he got her, she was his for the rest of the night. He danced with Marian, with Surreal, with Karla and Morghann and all the other female friends he'd made. But he always kept one eye on Jaenelle, and only when he could no longer stand the waiting did he go to her.
She slid into his arms as if she'd been waiting for him too. She rested her forehead against his neck, and for a moment he thought he could feel the light prick of a tiny unicorn's horn, the tips of claws on his shoulder, the brush of hair that was almost more like fur against his hand. But then the moment passed and she pulled back to look at him, and he happily let himself look at her.
"Happy Winsol, Daemon," she murmured, leaning close again to kiss him on the throat.
He whirled her around, caught up in the dance. "Happy Winsol, Witch," he replied.