Disclaimer and Author's Note: The Black Jewels universe belongs to Anne Bishop; I'm just sneaking in to play. As usual, I'm having trouble with .htm files (the document manager hates me...) so this is in .txt format. * is for psychic communication, underscore (_) is for italics. This is set about eighteen months before the opening of "Queen of the Darkness". Thanks to Rachel for the (much-needed) beta!

Author's Note #2: This is a repost, after I took the story down for personal reasons. Hopefully it's good enough to post twice; my apologies for taking it down in the first place. :-)

Chapter One


"We're going riding, Lady Benedict. Will you grace us with your company?"

Wilhelmina froze.

She'd been hurrying along a circuitous route to the family Craft library when she was intercepted by this friend of her fa- of Bobby's. A Green- Jeweled Prince, Lord Mericet was tall and devastatingly handsome, with melting brown eyes and sensual lips. He'd never interested her in the slightest, not with the poisonous, predatory undertone to his psychic scent.

She smiled prettily at him while her mind ticked through calculations. Close enough to the kitchens that the servants would hear her if she screamed, but much too far from the relative safety of her bedroom...Mericet wouldn't come after her alone, but she knew what would happen if she were foolish enough to accept his "invitation." The Sapphire Jewel she wore protected her, but it couldn't stand against the combined strength of Bobby and two or three of his friends.

So she folded her hands demurely and smiled up at Mericet. "I'd love to, I really would," she cooed. "But I believe Lady Leland wants me for this afternoon - flower arranging, I think - and she'd be just devastated if I abandoned her. Do please convey my regrets."

She forced an airy giggle and fled, leaving behind air grown thick with the psychic scent of thwarted hunger. Mericet knew perfectly well why she'd turned him down, that much was obvious, but she didn't know if he would tell Bobby. She didn't think he could. Not without breaking the subtle veil of hints and allusions that more and more Blood males used, the Web that let them prey on their own children and still believe themselves human. The only time the hints were stripped down to truth was in - was in -

No. She wasn't going to think about that place.

_There is no cure for Briarwood_, something whispered in her mind.

She passed the music room, ducked down a shadowy hallway, and took a little- used stairway down to the kitchen. Then it was through the kitchen, dodging tables, scullions, and Cook's concerned glance, and up the narrow servants' stairs to the family suites. If Bobby was really out riding, she should be more or less safe here. Alexandra was holding Court, dealing with the day's business, and Phillip wouldn't betray her to Bobby even if he did see her here.

Still, she didn't relax until she was in her room. It wasn't really home, with its determinedly sweet decoration and the array of dolls that hadn't been moved since she was twelve, but it was safe. And it had the cache of Craft books she'd been smuggling out of the library and reading by witchlight, deep into the night. The books were dusty and dry, in several senses of the word, but she was learning more from them than she ever could from Graff. At least the books didn't shout at her. And as long as she kept the books hidden, nobody could criticize her for an "eccentric" interest in outdated Craft. With the door Sapphire-locked behind her, no one in the house or out of it could enter without her permission. She'd had to work hard to convince the Jewel to extend its protection of her body to protection of her bedroom, but it was more than worth it to be able to sleep through the night again.

But oh, she wished the power was hers and not borrowed...She had only a faint bond with the Sapphire Jewel Jaenelle had given her, only enough for it to sense when she was in danger. Sometimes she could coax a little more response out of it, but it took hours of concentration and left her noticeably exhausted. And she couldn't ever let anybody notice.

The lock had caused a minor uproar the first time she used it, with Alexandra icily inquiring why she no longer trusted her family, and veiled threats from Bobby that she clearly needed more paternal supervision, if she was becoming so paranoid. But Leland, of all people, had smoothed the situation over with easy grace, saying that a young witch needed her privacy and telling a story or two about her own moody ways as a girl. For a moment, Wilhelmina had caught an odd, protective undertone in her stepmother's psychic scent, and it made her wonder.

Did Leland ever have to learn every corner of her house, to get from one place to another unseen, or spend nights sitting up in bed, listening with sick dread for footsteps in the hall? Did she have to create a strengthless, frivolous mask to hide from the males who feared and hated strong witches? And how long before mask and wearer became one?

How long did she have?

She had to go. Somehow.

She couldn't evade Bobby and his friends forever, and the warier she became, the more subtle were the traps they set for her. The only way to escape them was to hide in her room at all times, and that way led to words like "difficult" and "eccentric." That way led to Briarwood, or somewhere different on the surface and just as rotten at the core. Already Alexandra's expression held equal shares of worry and suspicion when she thought Wilhelmina couldn't see her.

But it was more than two years until her majority, and until then the family could bring her back from wherever they might find her. She didn't know how to find a place that an under-age witch could hide...

_Kaeleer_, whispered the Sapphire Jewel she held.

"_How_, damn it?" she snapped back.

Noble-born and noble-educated, she knew volumes about dancing, art, literature and music. But she knew hardly anything about the land, about travel or independence - she did know that she simply didn't have the skills for the Shadow Realm. Or the strength to get there; the Purple Dusk was a feeble defense against some of the males who prowled the Realms. Maybe, if she could find a safe place until she made the Offering, she could find her way there alone. And just maybe, find her sister, and then she wouldn't have to be alone any more.

She glanced over at the row of porcelain-faced dolls, remembering when they had decorated the nursery instead, twelve or more years ago. Remembering when she came stumbling in, in tears from a blistering lecture from Graff, and plopped down with her head in her hands. She'd jumped in startlement at a cool touch on her shoulders, and looked up to see Jaenelle standing precariously in her crib, baby face frowning in fierce concentration as the largest doll wrapped stuffed arms around Wilhelmina in a clumsy hug. The warmth from that still lingered, even when Jaenelle...well, scared her a little.

_I want my sister..._ she thought wistfully. Then, with a fierceness that surprised her, _I want her BACK!_

_Kaeleer_, the Jewel whispered again.

Lost in thought, this time she didn't answer.