Originally published on February 6, 2023. Unbeta'd.

I own nothing of the Black Jewels Trilogy or any of the following novels. All rights go to Anne Bishop. Thanks for Reading!

BJT:ANW

Chapter 19

Approaching Winsol, Arina's first year in the Realms (17 years of age)

Winsol was fast approaching, and most all of the letters that Arina was getting from her friends were full of plans for the upcoming holiday. It was all that people were talking about at the Court as well, as there would be a three-week long break where everyone would go home to their families for the festivities.

Arina was surprised to find that she was honestly looking forward to the celebration, though she also desperately needed to talk to Jaenelle, very soon, because she had just overheard some of the other apprentices talking about the 'Celebration of Witch' in reference to Winsol.

Seeing as that was not the impression that her friends had given of the holiday—she had thought it was more of a Yule thing than a Christmas thing, despite there being thirteen days of the holiday (or was it just the thirteen day holiday season and still just one day of the actual celebration?), and they called it the Celebration of the Darkness when she asked what it was about, but the idea of the celebration revolving around someone instead of just the longest night of the year was definitely more Christmas from what she had understood of the Christian holiday on Earth—she was now unsure of what was going to be expected of her.

Her friends might not actually expect anything from her, but she was willing to bet that her friends did have expectations, and were probably trying to pretend that they didn't, and Arina knew that that could cause problems down the line. Best to talk to Jaenelle first, as the other Witch had been through many Winsol's and would know how to handle it.

Until that happened, however, she was going to try not to worry about it, and instead try to stealthily hover around her friends here in Hayll to see if there were specific decorations that she would need to make arrangements for.

…Or maybe she should just try writing to her housekeeper and have her arrange to have the Manor decorated.

She would stop forgetting that she had people who worked for her at some point, surely. Hopefully it would get easier once she was permanently living at the Manor, but while she would never admit it out loud where anyone could hear her, but there were still times when it felt like she was simply having an exceptionally long and bizarre dream, and that at any moment she would end up waking up in that cold room on Earth.

It happened less and less, but sometimes in the quiet moments of the day, when the vivid colors of the jungle started to blur at the corners of her eyes…in those moments, it all just seemed too perfect, that surely this could not be hers. How could there be so many people who cared about her, who paid attention to her wishes and wanted to be a part of her life. Having people who depended on her for more than just being able to cheat on schoolwork.

Then the moment would pass, and the world would come back into focus, and the warmth of the sun on her skin convinced her that this could be nothing but real, and she would return to her work.

Despite the approaching holiday, the Court was still as busy as ever, only with a sense of ever-increasing excitement filling the halls. A few days ago Arina had woken up to find that Reyna had decorated the entire cottage with gold and silver shimmering threads. There was a decent sized evergreen tree in the common room downstairs, at first not with any decorations on it but over the next couple of days after it appeared, various ornaments started to show up on the branches. There was a wreath hanging on the door. It felt somewhat strange to have evergreen decorations in the middle of a tropical jungle atmosphere, but that was likely because she was from a part of Earth where it did get cold and snowy around the holidays and evergreens were common trees to see. Similar decorations had gone up around the entire Court that same day, and it was very interesting to walk out the front door and see the gardens in full bloom with delicate metallic webbing glittering with lights draped over some of the sturdier flowers and trees.

At the moment, Arina was alone in one of the inner courtyards of the Principia, nothing around her but the faint hum of the jungle beyond just barely audible at this distance. Settling down on a bench, Arina turned her head north towards Dhemlen, and the Hall. Technically she didn't need to look in the correct direction, but it did help her focus.

*Jaenelle?* she sent along the Red, reaching out the distance to the other woman, the other living Witch.

*Arina, hello. Is something wrong?* There was a sharp edge of concern at the other end of the thread, and Arina felt a pang of guilt. Did she really only ever get in touch with Jaenelle when she was in trouble with something?

*No, nothing is wrong. It's just that I have questions about Winsol, and I was hoping that you could answer them?*

*Ah,* Jaenelle murmured. Unspoken between them was the reality of what the upcoming holiday season was about. The Darkness—and, apparently, Witch. *If you would like and are free, I can make arrangements to come visit you tomorrow, so we can speak in person?*

*Please,* Arina agreed hopefully. It was going to be a somewhat awkward conversation as it was without trying to manage it remotely.

*Very well, then I will be seeing you tomorrow. Will lunchtime work?*

*Yes, there is a little restaurant in the town that we can visit,* Arina sent.

*Good, then I will see you there,* Jaenelle sent, and the thread between the two went quiet with a lingering sense of pleasure and amusement.

BJT:ANW

The next morning around 11, Arina was quietly dismissed by Marcus near the end of the morning session, and Arina left for Belan, the village that was just a little bit to the west of the court, a matter of minutes from the court by the Winds, but only about twenty minutes by horse. One of the grooms had already been ready with a saddled mare by the time that Arina reached the stable, and Arina headed out for the town on Whisper's back, silently missing her own horses, who had gone to Scelt to meet the rest of the Kindred herds.

It was unlikely that the whole herd that she had brought from Earth would come to Hayll and live with her at Starfire Manor, but hopefully Deathwind, Pewter Star and Shooting Star would join her, as those were the three that she had been closest with.

Arriving at Belan, Arina left her mare at the town's stable and went down the street to the little restaurant that she had found with Reyna a few months ago, not long after she had finally introduced her Hayllian friends to the Coterie from the Hall. (That had been an exceptionally tense weekend at the Manor, and Arina would forever be grateful to her housekeeper and the panthers who had prowled the halls of her home and forcefully kept order between the two groups.)

The silver eyed girl settled down at one of the tables, and it wasn't long before Jaenelle joined her, with Ladvarian settling down by their feet with a content huff.

They ordered food, and sat for a little bit in content silence, Jaenelle seeming to bask in the sun.

"It feels so nice to be warm in the sunlight again," the older Queen mused. "I've never been here, or really to any of the territories that are warm year-round, not that there are a lot of those, really."

"Is it cold and snowy at the Hall, then?" Arina asked dryly. Jaenelle had dropped off the Winds with a heavy wool coat on, that she had almost immediately vanished on arriving.

"There is so much snow right now, and I do love it, but it's also very nice to be properly warm," was the rueful response.

They waited until they had their food before getting into real conversation, which was good, as Arina was still trying to figure out how to word what she wanted to say.

"You are concerned about Winsol being the Celebration of Witch," Jaenelle said finally, setting her fork down on her plate.

Arina flushed and stared determinedly down at the table. "Yes," she murmured. "I just don't—is there something specific that I—we—are supposed to be doing over the holiday? I am not prepared for anything like that, I still don't feel like I know enough!"

Jaenelle reached over and laid her hand on top of Arina's clenched fist. The girl slowly relaxed her muscles until her hand was limp under the woman's.

"There are some songs, Witchsongs, that no one who is not Witch has ever known, they have not been recorded. After we eat, we can go back to your home and practice them, but I suspect that once we start, you will be able to finish them yourself. You know them, in your Self, but perhaps you do not yet know them in your mind. Beyond that, the biggest requirement is that pretty much everyone will want to dance with you at the parties and dances. That's true for most Queens, though typically reserved for the Territory Queens above anyone else, but you and I are a special case. You should start thinking about who you want to dance with at Winsol Midnight, as well."

Arina jerked her head up and stared a little wild eyed at the blonde.

"I dance the Midnight dance with my father," Jaenelle explained, pulling her hand back and starting to eat again. "But obviously that won't be something that you will be doing. That particular dance isn't particularly a lover's dance either, though, so I'm not sure that you will want to dance it with Lucien."

Arina made a faint desperate sound and went back to staring a hole in the table.

"There, are, after all, other dances for that," Jaenelle continued, serenely ignoring Arina's discomfort. "I would suggest dancing the Midnight dance with your Master of the Guard. For you, particularly, as both your Consort and your Steward are going to be of the long lived races. Having this dance be one that you share with the side of your triangle that will be ever changing is something that will matter to your Court."

It was easier to look at Jaenelle after she stopped talking about her relationship with Lucien. There were some things that Arina was not prepared for, and the mother of her boyfriend commenting casually on her possible (probably future) sex life was definitely one of them.

"Beyond those things, however…while we are Witch, this holiday is not just about us, but every Witch throughout history. It's about the Darkness itself. We are only a part of this holiday, not all of it. Try not to put too much pressure on yourself. It won't do you any good, and it isn't necessary either."

Arina leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. It's not all about you, she told herself. It was one of the most reliving things she could possibly imagine at the moment.

When she finally opened her eyes again, Jaenelle was smiling at her with obvious sympathy. "Feeling better, now?" the woman asked, and Arina nodded slowly. "Very good. Now, perhaps we could go to your cottage, and practice the songs in private? Lucien tells me that your little home here is quite nice."

Arina twitched slightly, both at the reminder of why it was that Lucien had visited the court here and because she didn't really want to talk to Jaenelle about Lucien when all she could hear was the woman talking about lover's dances.

"Yes, of course," was what she said, getting to her feet, laying a stack of notes on the table to cover her meal while Jaenelle did the same. She made quick arrangements for someone to take the horse she had ridden here back to the Court, then she leaped onto the Winds with Jaenelle and Ladvarian following closely behind her.

"Reyna?" Arina called out when she reached the cottage, opening the door while Jaenelle lingered approvingly over the flowers framing the building. Getting no response, she reached out on a thread to her roommate.

"Reyna, my roommate, is out shopping right now, so it's just us."

"Good," Jaenelle said. "That will help with your nerves, I'm sure."

Arina grumbled a little, but couldn't exactly deny it considering that Jaenelle was here and not back at the Hall.

Ignoring that pang that went through her at the sight of Ladvarian inspecting the cottage—she missed Janos so much—Arina hurried up to her room to collect her music sphere player, not wanting to leave Jaenelle and Ladvarian alone in her house for very long.

"Here's my player," she said, coming back down the stairs to find Jaenelle and Ladvarian sitting and waiting calmly for her in the opening room. "I don't have a piano or any instruments, and I can't play anything anyway."

"I have a recording of the music for the Midnight dance that I will leave with you, but for this, we won't need any music. Just our voices."

Arina carefully didn't show her grimace. She didn't have a bad voice, or at least she didn't think so, but she wasn't sure that she was prepared for this. She didn't exactly have any musical training. Jaenelle seemed to know what she was thinking anyway.

"It will come easily to you," she promised. "It's instinct."

Arina nodded, and sat down across from Jaenelle. "Alright, I'm as ready as I will ever be."

"The first Witchsong I will help you remember is the one we sing for the lost witches," Jaenelle began.

BJT:ANW

When Court dissolved for the holiday, everyone scattered to their home villages and cities, leaving Arina hesitating in the cottage long after everyone else left.

It wasn't that she didn't have options on what to do, where she could go…but part of her problem was that she had so many options. She had, in fact, been invited to every single one of her Hayllian friends homes for Winsol, had an invitation to the Hall, and had been invited by the entire Coterie to visit them at their homes as well. Or she could just go to Starfire manor and hide, which is what she really wanted to do.

Maybe next year she would accept the various invitations that she was sure to receive again, but this year, she was going to just go to her home, and have a good holiday for the first time. She just couldn't take the risk of accepting an invitation and then ending up in the way of an established family routine. There was no way that would end well, she was still making sure that her bonds with her friends were doing alright. She wasn't prepared for the strain of that.

Her friends would understand, she was sure. She had already made plans for the Coterie to come to Starfire manor two days before Winsol, and her friends from Court would be coming the day before. They would all scatter again after Winsol and return to their families.

It was a good plan. An excellent plan even, and Arina was quite pleased with it even as she arrived at Starfire later that evening.

Landing in the drive in front of the main doors, Arina stopped to marvel at the decorations that had been placed on the building. Strings of lights that gleamed with every color of the Jewels trailed along the lines of the building. Pine and evergreen wreaths and arrangements framed windows and the door, and there was ivy trailing over the parapet and down the walls. And beneath it all, glowing faintly in the sunset light, the white stone of the building.

It was beautiful.

Her new butler opened the door for her and bowed her inside the manor before she could even reach the door. "Welcome home, Lady," he murmured. "Shall I have dinner sent up to your room for tonight?"

"Yes, please," she said gratefully. Tomorrow she would eat in the dining area, like a normal person. Today she wanted to shut herself away and relax.

She opened the door to her bedroom and was promptly bowled over.

*Arina! I missed you! I have so much to tell you!*

"Janos," she breathed, and started crying, hiccupping laughter in the middle of it. "I've missed you too, buddy."

*Don't cry! It's good!*

"It is so good," she agreed. Managing to get upright, she rubbed his ears, and the big German Shepard went boneless on her, wiggling with joy. "Mind letting me up? We can cuddle on the bed and you can tell me everything you learned with the wolves."

Squirming off her lap, the canine started trying to push her into the room, and Arina laughingly allowed him to shepherd her into the room that he had prevented her from getting into in the first place. There was a dinner tray sitting on her desk, some of the dishes steaming gently. She collected it, and set it neatly on the air above the bed, changing quickly into a set of silk pants and a top, soft but light enough to wear in the jungle, and settled onto the bed. Janos curled up at her side and her back, and launched into an excited rendition of everything that he had learned while staying with the wolves while Arina picked through her dinner.

It was exactly what she needed.

She woke up the next morning in the predawn, feeling more rested than she had in several weeks. Arina wandered over to her massive window that looked out over the cliff behind the manor, spotted a few jaguars lounging in the trees, and smiled quietly.

A few minutes later, having changed into a pair of leather pants and a wrap top, Arina flung herself out the window while Janos sprinted out the door at the back of the manor.

She swooped over the edge of the cliff, laughing, and things quickly descended into a game of 'catch the bird' as the cats and Janos played at trying to bat her out of the sky as she wove through the trees.

When she finally returned to the manor almost two hours later, Arina was finally relaxed. There were 6 more days before Winsol, according to what she had learned at the Court, then Winsol itself, then another 6 days of celebration after. she had 4 days until everyone else arrived, that she would be able to spend as she wished, alone but for Janos and the kindred panthers lurking around in the jungle around.

And her staff, of course, but from what she had observed, that wouldn't be much of an imposition, as the staff wouldn't be particularly in her way.

There was a small part of her that felt guilty for how relieved that she was finally having the opportunity to be alone. it was, of course, very nice to have friends, for the first time in her life, of course, but the Blood here, and her friends as a result, were far clingier than she had ever imagined friends would be, and it was overwhelming. This was the first time since she had arrived in Kaeleer that she didn't have someone having some claim on her time. and while it wasn't bad to have people in her life…it was different. she was tired. She just wanted to not have to worry about making people happy for a little while.

For once.

So Arina was going to categorically ignore the distinct feeling that one of her friends were going to be particularly pleased to find out that she had been wandering around the manor alone for several days, and instead take the opportunity to thoroughly enjoy the time alone.

Wandering through the halls of her manor after waking, she took the long way to the smaller dining room in the manor, peaking in and out of the various rooms. there were a number of the guest rooms that she had been sending her paychecks from the Court for her staff to fill with furniture and make sure that they were in good repair, and was pleased with the state of them.

She also came across the solar, which while filled with light, didn't have the sun completely glaring in. It wasn't a huge room, but felt warm and welcoming. There was one of her favorite rugs that she had bought from Dharo spread through the middle of the room, and a lovely large desk of a pale wood, burnished and sanded, but otherwise natural. The chair for the desk was a large one, with golden burnished leather and what looked like thick padding. The back of the chair also looked somewhat strange, and after a few minutes of examination, she found where she could remove parts of the backing—to accommodate wings, it was fairly clear. She could easily see herself curled up there with a book in the evenings.

Reluctantly pulling herself away from the room, but making a note of where it was to go back to it later, Arina continued down the halls, down to the first floor, and followed her nose to the kitchen, only to be redirected to the dining room where her staff had set out more food than one person could possibly consume, even with her massively increased metabolism after getting her Jewel.

She could try though, and she somehow made a much larger dent in the food than she had thought that she could.

Arina had just about wrapped up with everything that she could eat, and was just sitting back in her seat with a mug of coffee in her hands when her housekeeper came in and settled behind one of the other chairs.

Arina eyed her a little warily, and her trepidation only increased when Lady Kara set a handful of crisp papers on the table and pushed them over to her.

Pushing gently at the pile with a single finger, Arina spread out the pages so that she could see them.

Invitations. Oh dear. This was not the plan. There was one from the village of Senka—surprise, surprise, Reyna had looked a little shifty as the Court had been disbanding. She should have seen this coming. The other four invitations in front of her had names that were less immediately familiar, but Arina had made a point of looking up all the villages around Starfire manor, and these were all names that she remembered from the maps of the surrounding area.

"Your neighbors would like to properly welcome you to the region," Kara told her, clearly suppressing a smile at the poorly disguised dismay on Arina's face. "Although they are aware that as you are newly arrived, you have a number of commitments already for getting your household properly arranged."

"Oh," Arina blurted out. "But I thought that I had already gotten most everything…sorted…out. Oh. You made an excuse for me."

Kara smiled fondly at her young mistress, so obviously overwhelmed.

"Yes, Lady. I had gathered from your letters that you were looking for quiet and solitude this Winsol, other than when your future Court is here. While I could not decline on your behalf, I did make it commonly known that it was unlikely you would be available this year."

"Well. Thank you, Kara."

"It was my pleasure, Lady. However, on that note, I would like to discuss how you plan to handle the holiday season for the staff."

"Oh, well, I was planning to follow how the Hall does it," Arina said, tugging on a lock of hair uncomfortably. "Jaenelle—Lady Angelline, that is, informed me that as a ward of the Hall, I have an allowance, which is what I have been using to handle the costs of the Manor and staff, and I have enough there for bonus' and such…"

BJT:ANW

Arina did end up declining all her invitations, as gracefully as she could, and in turn got back an acceptance of her declination and a pile of gifts from each village, which really only made her more grateful to have declined. For the moment, she set the gifts underneath the absolutely enormous tree that was set up in the middle of the Ballroom, and tried to forget that they were there.

Being given gifts in public, even if it was just as the new 'rich' neighbor and owner of the sprawling estate, was more than she was prepared for at this point. And while only her closest friend circle at the court of Hayll knew for certain that she was the next Witch, she was not unaware that there were a large number of rumors circling around the Territory about her, and considering that Reyna and Raleigh were from Senka…

Well. She was planning on leaving that panic moment of being publicly outed as Witch for the future. And also, she had told everyone that she wasn't going to any parties at all this year, and certainly wasn't going to get caught out going to a party with only a couple of her friends, no matter the excuse of 'neighbors'.

Instead, she spent the first four days of the Winsol celebration in blissful solitude. The panthers and jaguars who made up her Home Guard rotated in and out, the only indication that she had of their coming and going being when they brushed their psychic scents over her when they came on guard.

A whole pack had come to the Manor with Janos, a seven wolf pack without counting the Shepard dog, all of whom came prepared for the jungle heat. Apparently, the negotiations for joining the Guard had been rather fierce—Arina was glad that not only was she not there for it, but it wasn't even her job in the first place. That could be Farostel's problem, and she wished him joy of it.

But all the kindred respected Arina's clear wish for solitude, and after the first day, even Janos left the manor to rejoin the rest of the pack, and they didn't bother her any time other than her daily flights and drills that she completed outside.

She spent a truly astonishing amount of time in her little solar, fussing with everything in the room until it was completely perfect. What time she didn't spend in her solar she spent prowling the rest of the Manor, ensuring that everything was to her liking. She ended up trading out a couple of paintings and some throw pillows between other rooms and her solar, just because she could and she liked the ones in the other rooms better and wanted them in the solar.

Nesting instincts. She blamed the bird in her.

But by the end of the fourth day, the thick rug in the solar was ideal for sprawling on, and the furniture was gloriously soft and supple and she ended up curled in the armchair reading until she fell asleep there after having spent the entire day just laying spread out on the rug trying to draw, just sketching random items as practice.

She woke up to Lucien running his fingers through her hair, one of her panther guard sprawled out on the massive and fluffy pile of blankets and pillows that she had set up by the door for the kindred who wanted to use it.

"You're early," she murmured, trying for scolding but only managing affectionate.

"It is the day you said that we could come," Lucien disagreed, perfectly bland in the way that Arina had not heard anyone but Warlord Princes manage. "It's past dawn, even."

Arina squinted at him, suspicious. "You hate waking up just as much as your mom does," she accused.

"Some things are worth getting up for."

"Well, I'm not getting up. I'm going back to sleep." Closing her eyes, the female curled up even more tightly in her chair, determinedly ignoring Lucien's huff.

"Maybe you could sleep in an actual bed, instead of the chair?" Lucien suggested, amusement tinging the psychic touch that he trailed over her spine.

Arina grumbled a little, her shoulder twitching slightly as though to throw his touch off. "Comfy," she complained.

"It must be the cat in you, because that cannot be comfortable at all," Lucien observed. "Alright then, I will carry you to an actual bed, if you insist on not getting up." With that said, he wasted no time in scooping her out of the chair and pulling her up to his chest, where, as he had predicted, Arina shifted her curl so that she was cuddled into him instead of away from him on the chair.

"This was your plan all along, wasn't it?" Arina said, voice muffled from where she had firmly wedged her face into his neck.

Lucien hummed smugly, but didn't otherwise respond.

Tarquin, her guard for the day, heaved himself to his feet and trailed after the two of them, only peeling off and wandering away when Lucien carried Arina into her room and closed the door in his face. Arina had already, in fact, drifted back to sleep, and her fingers were clenched tightly in his shirt when he set her down on the bed.

Well, at this point, even if he had wanted to leave, he couldn't. Lucien curled himself carefully around the Queen, inhaling her scent and closing his eyes for a nap with perfect contentment.

BJT:ANW

Lucien woke up barely an hour later, roused by Farostel tapping deliberately on his inner barriers, clearly annoyed.

*What?* Lucien demanded, not bothering to open his eyes. His hand was thoroughly tangled in Arina's masses of unbraided hair, and she has somehow wiggled herself closer so that she is pressed into him. He had no intention of going anywhere.

*Get up, the others are going to be here soon enough,* Farostel demanded. *I want to see her too, you know.*

*You should have gotten here earlier, then,* was all Lucien said in response before deliberately cutting the link between them.

Farostel sent a deliberately hard hit to Lucien's barrier in clear annoyance, and Lucien sent a thread of smugness in response.

He did start working on unwinding his hand from Arina's hair though, which was enough to rouse her from her sleep alone. It was unfortunate that she was a light sleeper and an early riser, as he was neither of those things unless he had to be.

"What's happening?" she mumbled, lifting her head up and squinting at him.

"Farostel is here," he told her, brushing his free hand lightly over her cheek while she looked at him blearily.

"He's early too," Arina sighed, before sitting up and stretching out her limbs—very like a cat. Thankfully, he had already extracted his fingers from her hair, so she was able to roll off the massive bed and slink across her room to change from the loose and comfortable clothing that she had been wearing yesterday and all night into something clean, taking the time to shower quickly as well.

By the time she wandered out of the bathroom and went in search of Farostel, Lucien had also disappeared from her room, and Arina found them both in the small dining room on the first floor, with several of her Guard lounging in the room or lurking in the immediate area.

There was tension in the air when Arina came in, but from the looks of things, every single male was going to completely ignore that and tell her nothing at all, so Arina told herself firmly to just not bring it up at all, and just sat down opposite Farostel at the table and smiled at him. There was already a full plate in front of the seat that she had sat down in, which was something she was much better at just rolling with at this point, having been dealing with various males feeding her the entire time that she had been in the Realm. Months of adjustment time helped with accepting those odd moments.

She still wasn't completely comfortable with the way that the males were constantly actively trying to take care of her every need, it was so at odds with how things were on Earth, but it had been about seven months now, and she was much more used to it, even starting to consider it normal. Hopefully the odd feeling would go away soon.

Farostel smiled warmly at Arina, the plate in front of him mostly cleared. He leaned back in his seat, by all appearances completely relaxed now that she had walked in the door.

"You are both early," Arina pointed out, nibbling on her omelet, as she tried to eye her men severely.

"You did not tell us what time we were restricted to arriving at," Farostel pointed out. "I'm sure Lucien was here at the crack of dawn."

Arina had to smirk, and started laughing when Tarquin said sourly, *He was.*

"See? Clearly I wasn't that early," Farostel murmured. Arina inclined her head in agreement, still giggling a little at the faintly offended expression on Lucien's face.

"I thought that perhaps we could spar before the others arrive," Farostel said after a long period of comfortable silence, as Arina picked her way through the massive amount of food on her plate. She was quietly grateful that neither Lucien nor Farostel felt the need to fill the silence, and that the cats weren't overly chatty either. The Hayllian court was filled with very chatty people, and it was exhausting. It was good to spend time quietly with people.

"That sounds wonderful," Arina agreed instantly. "I haven't really been able to practice much against other people at the Court, there weren't a lot of people at the level that I am at."

She had, in fact, beaten Hunter soundly the first and only time that he had agreed to spar with her. After that incident, she had been informed by many very amused friends that Hunter had all but thrown himself into practicing and getting better. He had obviously figured out the level that he was going to need to be at in order to stand even with the others in her eventual court, and was determined to reach it.

She was still rather left without any good partners in the meantime that were able to meet her schedule.

Finishing up with her plate, Arina got to her feet and smiled sweetly at Farostel, who flashed a sharp-edged smile back at her. Lucien grumbled loudly in the background as the two swept out of the dining room and headed for the door. He had accepted, at this point, that Arina was more than able to physically floor him at any given moment—like his father, he wasn't much for physical fighting when not absolutely required. He was able to hold his own in the sparing ring and not embarrass himself, but that was about it.

Arina, on the other hand, very much enjoyed sparing and fighting. And while obviously the goal was that she would never actually need to use those skills, it was good to know that she had them, even if it was a little bit humbling to recognize the skill difference between himself and his lady.

Acceptance did not necessarily equate to being pleased about that, though, so Lucien hauled himself to his feet and followed the other two out the door, resigning himself to getting tossed in the dirt all morning.

It was several rather humiliating hours later that the others of the Coterie started to arrive, thankfully bringing the sparring session in the front lawn of the Manor to a halt. It would have been far less humiliating if it was just Farostel and Arina, but with the number of cats that had shown up in the trees around the manor to watch…well. He didn't exactly make a great showing of himself as Arina's mate. He wasn't even a terrible fighter! It was just that, when shown against the scion of the greatest warrior race in Kaeleer, and Arina, who had practiced fighting like it was the only thing that mattered her entire life…

Rose smirked at the clear relief on Lucien's face, deeply smug about the fact that she was a better fighter than her brother was, and he made a face at her, though careful to make sure that Arina didn't get a look at that expression before he wiped it away.

"It feels so strange to be warm at Winsol," Rose chirped brightly, turning to Arina deliberately. "You know, that it was snowing all week at the Hall. I kept thinking that I needed to bring sweaters, not light shirts."

Alexandra laughed, brushing herself off as she got to her feet from the grass. "Try coming from Glacia, at this time. The temperature shock was. It was a lot." Alexandra had been one of the first to arrive, before the group from the hall, and she had elected to settle in and just watch Arina and Farostel spar for a while. Jonathon had just joined in the sparing efforts, the traitor. He was currently Lucien's least favorite cousin, for not stopping it when he could have.

Despite the sparring session for most of the morning, though, by the time that the fairly large group settled into one of the large sitting rooms to relax and wind down, Lucien concluded that it had been one of the best days he had had in some time.

BJT:ANW

The arrival of the Hayllians the next day was thankfully much less stressful than the first meeting of her two friend groups had been, to Arina's immense relief.

Quinn was, to absolutely no one's surprise, not even Arina's at this point, the first to arrive.

What was concerning was the way that, after he had arrived and greeted Arina, Quinn, Lucien and Farostel all vanished into one of the second floor rooms that Arina knew was set up as an office, closing the door firmly behind them and with a Black shield going up moments later.

Arina stared at the closed door for a very long moment, before turning a flat look on Rose, who had been standing next to her.

"Is that—normal?" she asked, clearly wary.

"No, no it is not," Rose said cheerfully. "Let's just leave them to it, shall we?"

"Are you sure that's a good idea?" Arina demanded, even as she let the other girl tug her away down the hall.

"For me? Absolutely. For you? Definitely not, but it's a little late for that, my Lady."

"Wonderful," Arina grumbled. Rose just laughed at her and dragged her to the ballroom, where the rest of the Coterie and the staff were setting up decorations, which was certainly interesting enough to watch.

The decorations that the Coterie were setting up were unsettlingly close to the Christmas decorations that Arina had known back on Earth, in America, or in any of the Christian Dominated regions of the world (which was most of them). The great pine tree as a centerpiece, covered in various delicate decorations, ornaments, and twinkling lights winding around. Garlands were hanging from the lights of the room, and around the windows. There was even mistletoe being strung determinedly up by the youngest of the group, which Arina eyed with no small amount of dismay. And the pile of gifts that had already started to accumulate under the tree was far larger than it should be. Arina took a few steps closer to it and narrowed her eyes at the pile, spotting several of the gifts that she had thought were still tucked into her closet—one of the maids must have collected her gifts that had been waiting in her room and brought them here.

Not for the first time, Arina reflected on how strange it still felt to have people around whose job was literally to do things like dust her closet, which was pretty much the only way that those gifts should have been able to be found.

It was enough to make her wonder if she was really the first person to travel between the three Realms and Earth. Or maybe it was just a human instinct to decorate like this in cold weather, and if the cold weather areas were more dominant or widespread than warm weather, it just spread naturally? That was a little bit more than Arina wanted to think about.

The Hayllian tradition was to have pots of night-blooming flowers inside, and placing black candles that were delicately carved into dragons in every single room in the house, to invite the Darkness to join the celebration.

Arina honestly preferred the Hayllian traditions to the more typical ones. However, while small villages and individual households kept to the more local traditions only, the reason that Arina was seeing her Manor and the Court decorate with pine was because they were more social locations where there was expected to be a lot of travel between territories, so more widespread traditions were followed just for convenience. And that made sense…but Arina would not be doing that next year. Probably. Maybe.

Well, the big evergreen in the Ballroom was admittedly a good central point to gather for the expected holiday gift exchange where rain wasn't a concern…but next year would be less pine, more living night-bloom flowers and strings of starlights.

In the meantime, though, Arina put aside all that pondering and let herself be dragged into the decorating process. And if she made a point of ignoring the pinewood decorations and focused more on the flowers, and strings of silver, gold and black silk ribbons, and the dragon candles…well, no one was going to say anything. And she could almost physically see several of the Coterie making a mental note of her decorative preferences.

However, it looked like her staff was leaving the young aristos to handle the general, Realm wide, traditional decorations while they took care of setting up the decorations that were either more localized to Hayll Kaeleer, or just more effort in getting set up. There were only a few maids in the ballroom, though her new butler—Arina was mostly sure that his name was Hayden Laterden, and his caste was definitely Prince—was in there overseeing the Coterie decorating with a gimlet eye. There were staff everywhere in the halls of the building, making sure that each room had a black candle that had been delicately carved into the shape of a dragon, as well as checking on the night-blooming flowers that had been arranged in every room and throughout the halls. The regular candles and lights in the hallways were being replaced with lights that shone the colors of the Jewels. The candles, she had been told, were meant to be a representation of the Darkness itself, and therefore lighting the candle in any room where people were gathered was to invite the darkness to join in the celebration with them.

The other tradition that was apparently more local to Hayll, or at least she hadn't heard any whispers about it from the Coterie about it, was that in Hayll it was tradition to plant a new sapling tree the day after Winsol, so that by the next year's celebration, it was both larger and stronger, and for the Priestess to say the Winsol blessing at the tree when opening the season of celebration and when closing it. Arina had joined her staff at the small cinnamon tree that the previous Lady of the Manor had planted the year before at dawn of the first day of Winsol, and it had been a very moving experience. It wasn't like it was cold, in the depths of the jungle, and she had been told that the reason for the tradition had come from the fact that the Blood were to be the caretakers of the land. It had started when the aristo families had decided that if they were going to cut a tree down to use as a decoration, it was only just to replace the tree in return. Arina had been treated to many different conversations back at the Hayllian Court regarding what tree that she had decided that she was going to be planting, so had been thinking about it for a while. She had been given to understand that many people would pick a specific tree, and then start planting that one tree in random locations around their home, but Arina felt that, specifically for a race that lived to be 4,000 years old, that she would not be following that particular tradition, as this was a yearly celebration and that would be an awful lot of a single kind of tree.

She had decided that this year, she was going to be planting a willow tree at the edge of the waterfall, because and only because she had always thought that weeping willow trees were beautiful. She had started growing it two months ago, as directed by Lady Irene, so that it would be ready to plant the day after Winsol—three days from this moment. She had also been determinedly keeping her tree a secret from everyone else in the Court, as apparently many bets were being laid as to what her first tree was going to be, and she had been feeling rather petty about it. The baby willow was currently on the balcony outside her room, and she had already decided that she would be getting more plants to keep in pots on her balcony once it was gone, because she had taken to sitting by it at sunset and talking to it more often than not.

She was looking forward to watching her baby willow grow up—which was, she strongly suspected, the whole point of the tradition.

Augustine grabbed her hand and tugged her out of the way of a servant walking by with a large pot in hand, jostling her out of her ponderings and straight into Daemonar, who caught her at the shoulders and kept her upright while Augustine dropped her hand and hurried back to the far table, which was being meticulously decorated with tiny crystal snowflakes by Titian, Rose, and Lillian.

"This is crazy," she told the Eryian male. "You understand that, right? This is what I have staff for. So I don't have to do things like decorate myself."

"You don't like it at all?" he asked, looking around the room himself, taking in the carnage being left behind by all of the people he grew up with. Boxes and scraps of material covered the floors, as well as pine needles and various flower petals from the arrangements being fussed with around the room. Everyone was talking and laughing and clearly enjoying themselves.

Arina made a face, struggling for words, glancing around again. "This isn't…horrible," she said finally. "I've never had help with things like this, when they even happened. I still don't really want to. I wouldn't even know what to do."

Daemonar snickered, but for the most part managed to keep his face more neutral than mocking, which Arina appreciated because it made her want to deck him a little bit less. She knew that she was awkward enough as it was, she hated being forced into circumstances where she was so very out of her depth. And even now, this kind of social gathering was a lot for her. Mostly, she suspected, because there wasn't exactly a clear goal in mind, it was just 'decorate', which was very open ended and could have so many different things involved.

She was working on it. At least she was aware of that particular issue that she had.

Meanwhile, Daemonar gently pushed her in the direction of the table being decorated with snowflakes, which she didn't terribly appreciate, because it looked like they had things well in hand.

It was not an ideal situation, but it was only another hour or so before Rillian declared herself satisfied with the decorations in place. Arina sat back on her heels and glanced around the room to see a veritable winter wonderland in the middle of the jungle. Snowflake decorations covered the tables and hung from the ceiling, and there was pine and holly wreaths all around the room. The tree in the center of the room was covered in a bewildering array of decorations, and there was a massive pile of gifts below it.

The whole group ended up wandering down directly to the dining room, where there was already a massive spread of food set out for them to start devouring for an early dinner. Chatting about how everyone's families were preparing for the holiday was an excellent distraction for how uncomfortable she had been feeling for the past little bit, at least until Astira mentioned offhandedly how her mother was feeling a little bit sad that her children would not be celebrating Winsol with her.

Arina managed to move past that moment of freezing panic only because Lucien had just stepped up right behind her and tugged her back to lean against him while she ate. She managed to reassure herself that at some point all children grow up and a large number would stop celebrating certain holidays with their families anyway, as they created their own families, and this was nothing more than a universal truth.

But it did make her feel uneasily as though she was still interfering in the lives of her friends, which she absolutely hated feeling like. Which made her feel once more like an intruder in her own life. Never a pleasant feeling, that.

The end of the day wrapped up with them all gathered in the large library of the Manor, which was one of the few rooms both large enough and with enough seating already arranged for the whole group. Kara had caught Arina in the halls earlier and informed the younger woman that by tomorrow, one of the large drawing rooms would have enough seating for the entire Coterie and also her friends from the Hayllian Court.

Rose and Yaslana were both instantly captivated by the shear amount of books that had been left in the Manor by the previous mistress, who had left a large amount of the furniture and decorations in the manor when she had sold it to Arina and left for one of the border cities to be closer to her family. Apparently, there were a good number of books that were very rare, and that the SaDiablo's had never been able to get their hands on themselves, as despite being the High Lord of Hell, he was not from this specific jungle Territory, so that didn't mean anything to the women of this home.

"Then I will invite them to visit here, so that they can peruse the shelves themselves," Arina murmured after a fair number of strong hints in that direction by Yaslana, who smiled triumphantly and settled down next to his twin with a book on one of the old Wars of the Realm that had been the cause of the building of Starfire Manor.

And by the end of the night those two had found out that when the Manor had originally been built, it had been called the StarHold, as it was a war holding and not a family home at the time. Arina was seriously thinking about changing the name back to StarHold, as Starfire Manor was still strongly associated with the previous family, who had held the home for generations. Eventually everyone dispersed to their rooms, with Daemonar and Farostel both declaring that they would be holding weapons practice bright and early, and as it wasn't cold here, no one was allowed to be complaining about it.

BJT:ANW

Morning indeed dawned bright and early, and by the time the others had woken up and gathered on the front lawn for weapons practice, chivied by the two warriors of the group, Arina was just returning from her morning flight with her land bound shadows racing underneath her wings.

Lucien was somewhat amused by the knowledge that Arina was never going to understand the way that she looked to the others, descending from the sky with the sun behind her, throwing her massive winged shadow across the ground and up against the gleaming stone of her home, glorious and terrifying and otherworldly in such an amazing way.

And she still only thought of herself as someone who was a little strange maybe, but otherwise pretty much like anyone else, which was just baffling to him. Or perhaps it was just that she so badly wanted to be normal—his mother had pulled him aside not long after he had brought Arina to his world from the one she had been mistakenly born in, and told him quietly how much she had always wanted nothing more than to be normal.

Lucien suspected that if Jaenelle Angelline, who had been so set apart from every Witch before her, felt so strongly about it then there was a very good chance that Arina was feeling much the same way. She had been the one pulled into an entirely different world and then told that she was still going to be different.

Normalcy was something that Arina wanted so badly that she was pretending even to herself that she was nothing special, when everyone knew otherwise.

It would not be a kindness to bring up how special and amazing she was at this time. He had no proof, but he was aware that his mother had visited Arina a few times recently, and he would put a great deal of money on the reason why.

A quick glance at the others told him that there might be an issue, because everyone looked deeply awed, and Arina wouldn't want that.

Luckily, just as Arina landed, two of her local friends dropped from the Web landing point on the drive. Everyone turned to look, and the girl that Arina had introduced as her housemate, as well as one of her male friends who was certainly aiming for a position in Arina's Dark Court.

"Reyna, Raleigh, good morning," Arina called over, and the shorter other Hayllian girl came rushing over, the male following at a more leisurely pace as he and the already present males sized each other up.

They hadn't had more than one or two interactions before, Arina's two circles of friends, and no one wanted it to devolve into a nasty fight. Reyna herself was a good deterrent to anyone starting a fight, as she had dove right into the mix and didn't seem to care.

"Arina, you have to tell me. It's a cinnamon, right? I have 20 gold marks on it being a cinnamon. Mira thinks Mahogony. Tell me at least that it isn't that. I refuse to lose to a city girl."

Arina pried her housemate's hands off of her shoulders and smiled with perfect blandness.

"You will find out with the others in two days, Reyna. Are you here to join practice?"

"What? Practice what?" Looking around, Reyna seemed to notice that everyone around here was carrying practice sticks, and went pale. "Oh, Arina, no. You can't expect me to actually fight people. And this early."

"But you are here, and awake, yes?"

"Raleigh made me wake up! He dragged me here! I would have been fine getting here later!"

Raleigh, at this point, had gotten close enough to scoff loudly in disbelief. "You told me to make sure you were awake," he retorted, leaning in to give Arina a hug and simultaneously shoving Reyna back and away from the Queen.

Both the Hayllians were pretty deliberately ignoring the extra limbs that Arina was currently sporting, which was enough for Arina to settle her wings with a rustle and leave them out, instead of having them melt away like she usually did.

(On the Hayllian parts, Quinn had cornered everyone who had been invited to celebrate Winsol with Witch herself, and made it very excessively clear that no one was to bring up the Witch thing at all. Or Else. Frankly, not a single one of them wanted to test what Quinn was capable of doing, let alone what he was willing to do.)

Whatever the cause, the result was that Arina was put at enough ease to lighten Lucien's heart, and he was glad for it.

Then she spent the rest of the entire morning sparing with Daemonar, in and out of the air, because apparently, she has been neglecting practicing with her wings out, and he started feeling a lot less charitable about it.

He only had so much time with her these days. And while eventually it would not be an issue, for the moment, he certainly resented the vast majority of the time that she spent on other people. Some of her time, he was happy to give up. But he wanted, always, as much of her time as she was willing to give him.

Luckily for him, Quinn was the next to arrive—and this was someone that Lucien had been exchanging letters with for months, aware as he was that the two of them were going to be working together for a very long time. The two of them ended up in chairs that the staff of the Manor had brought out for them and set up on the front lawn, watching Arina and Daemonar attempting to kill each other in front of them, Quinn flinching fairly often at the harsher blows.

Which was fair—while Arina had been practicing while at the Hayllian Court, Quinn had not spent much time watching her do it, and it was always hard for males to watch a female fighting.

The other Hayllian court members arrived over the course of the morning, gaped at the massive feathered wings that Arina was sporting on this particular morning that the vast majority of had never seen or heard about, then took one look at the sharp edged smile on Quinn's face and carefully took that expression off their faces, contenting themselves with calling out their perfectly normal greetings and then availing themselves of the food spread laid out on the lawn and trying very hard to not think too hard about things.

It would be a little pathetic if it wasn't so funny. And when Lucien asked exactly what Quinn had on the others to get such instant obedience, the other male just smiled, a perfectly serene and bland smile, and changed the subject.

Alright, Lucien can kind of see why the others are so wary of him. He knows that he is stronger than Quinn, but he is also aware of some of the very old books that can be found here

He is also aware of the kind of books that Quinn has taken to reading, and the fact that he is exchanging letters with the High Lord of Hell.

Lucien hadn't actually doubted it before, but at that point he decided that Quinn was going to be just as good and terrifying as a Steward of the Dark Court that Saetan SaDiablo had been. There was something about that smile that was deeply unnerving

"Why thank you, I have been practicing it," was the only thing Quinn had to say about it when Lucien mentioned it.

Well, alright then.

BJT:ANW

This gathering was the third time that the entire Coterie and Arina's friends from the Hayllian court was spending time together, and there were a fair number of near clashes between them, narrowly avoided mostly by the spirit of the celebration.

Of course, there were a few pairs across the groups who had started writing to each other after the second time they had met, but it was still a rough gathering. Both groups wanted to like the other side but also didn't like them—for the most part, the majority of the Coterie were of the short lived races, and knew that the Hayllians were going to get more time to spend with Arina then they were going to get, but also wanted Arina to have friends that would stay with her throughout her life. And the Hayllian court members were aware of how much Arina loved her friends that she had known before them, and couldn't help but feel overshadowed by the children of the legends of the Realm. They were nobodies from a Territory that everyone was predisposed to dislike due to things that the counterpart of their Territory in Terrielle had done, and the Coterie were all the children of the Queens of the Realm and members of the SaDiablo family to boot.

It made for rough moments.

Arina was peripherally aware of the reasons why her friends didn't get along, but absolutely no one was willing to clarify what the problem was for her, so she spent most of her time hovering between the two groups anxiously, no matter how much they tried to make it better. There was a growing sinking sensation in the bottom of Arina's stomach by the end of the night, and the realization that this whole arrangement with her friends was just not going to work out was even worse than she had suspected that it would be.

Arina excused herself early, trying to smile as though nothing was wrong even as she slid away from her friends and up to her room, where she locked the door behind her and put a Red Shield up, which was more symbolic than anything else, considering several of the males would be able to get through it with little issue.

Janos lifted his head up from where he had been sleeping curled up on her bed.

*Arina? Why are you sad? All of your pack is here,* the canine pointed out, whining at her anxiously as she went over to join him on the large mattress, pressing himself into her side.

"I know they are," she said quietly, digging her fingers into his fur and making a concentrated effort at keeping them as normal human fingers and not claws. "But that is also what is wrong. I don't have a pack, Janos, I have two packs, and they…they don't want to be one pack."

The dog didn't have anything to say at that, just let Arina pet him until she fell asleep, occasionally nosing at her stomach and checking to see if her scent changed from the lingering taint of heavy sadness.

Waiting until his Lady fell asleep next to him, Janos pondered what to do about the friction between the two packs that she had created. Something had to be done, because he was not going to stand for his Lady to be so wounded by the ones that she loved. Once she fell asleep, the sadness heaviness lifted from her, and was replaced by just a general scent of exhaustion and general stress. Janos wrinkled his nose at it, not pleased that the joy scent was so fully gone from her.

Huffing angrily, he jumped off the bed and passed through the door and the shield set around the room without a problem—getting back in would be much harder, but for the moment he had no problems. Carefully checking around the area told the dog that all of Arina's pack's humans were still down in the big room downstairs, and he trotted confidently through the halls to the room. He wasn't even close to the room when he started hearing the arguing from inside.

The door to the room was not fully closed, so Janos didn't hesitate to shove his way in, the door hitting the wall with a crack, and planting himself firmly in the middle of the doorway when everyone turned to look at him.

*You are making her sad,* he growled at them. *Why will you not be a single pack? Why do you have to stay as two packs?*

"Ah, well…"

"Um."

"I—"

"It's just that—"

*No.* Janos interrupted the sputtered and angry defenses he was getting hit with. *This is easy. Why do you not like each other?*

There was a sudden, deeply awkward silence in the room, as no one was quite willing to look at each other.

*the Lady was nervous but excited. Now she is only sad. You are making her sad. You can fix this. Will you?*

"You make it sound so simple," Hunter drawled after a frozen moment.

Janos growled at the human. *It is easy,* he snapped. *You make it hard.*

"She's only even friends with us because she didn't want to pick favorites with these people, and even then she still has her favorites of them and everyone knows it," Mirabelle finally erupted. "if she had to pick between us it wouldn't even be a competition."

Astira stared at the Hayllian girl. "What?" she demanded. "You lot are the ones who are going to make up her central court. You are the ones who are of the same long lived race that she is, and will be around for her whole life. We are barely anything to her. She is going to leave us behind in a matter of decades, barely a blink of an eye to her, but our whole lives. You are going to end up with so much more than we will ever get!"

Reyna snapped out "You—this Coterie, as she calls it—are the first people in her life to ever care for her. To go looking for her, to rescue her, to be her friends. There is nothing that will ever superseded that, and we know it well. She will cling to your decedents for the rest of her life if only because they will remind her of you all. There will forever be a shadow of you in her heart. Don't tell me I don't know it, we have seen this before when the long lived races make true friends with the short lived races. There is a reason that we don't tend to leave our Territories much."

"She picked you over us!"

"She is never going to trust us like she does you, she won't tell us things the way she so easily tells you. Most of us are not Aristos, and not really, and you are as Aristo as it gets. It's better for her to choose you, because it gives her power and connections that we can't give her."

"It's not like she even cares about that in the first place! She's Witch herself, the next Queen of the Black Mountain! She doesn't need to care about our parents!"

Janos heaved out a sigh as they all squabbled and snarled at each other. Such foolishness. These were all silly human concerns. The Lady didn't care about any of that. She just wanted to be a part of her pack, and to make the pack stronger, and to be happy.

Humans always made things more complicated then they needed to.

*She loves all of you. Maybe she loves you different. But she loves you all. If you cannot accept that, then that is you and not her causing these problems. If she cries tomorrow because of you, you will leave her home.*

"Understood, Prince," Quinn said abruptly, kicking Reyna in the ankle when the girl opened her mouth to protest. "There won't be any problems tomorrow."

Deeply suspicious, the canine finally wandered away after all the humans in the room had given some sort of agreement that they were going to get along tomorrow. Quinn kept an eye on the large window of the parlor they had been settled in by the staff, watching the darkest shadow looming on the branch of the nearest tree even while the others shifted in confusion around him.

"I feel that we should consider very carefully if we truly want to fight each other here. We should all realize consider that we are currently surrounded by the only known branch of the Kindred who did not come to the side of the Lady Angelline, kindred that we are going to be very hard pressed to defend ourselves against if they decide that we are causing a problem for their chosen Lady and Queen."

The air of the room had already been tense, but at Quinn's carefully chosen words, it turned into a much less focused wariness, instead of anger and resentment simmering in the air.

"He is right," Leon said sharply before anyone could start anything again. He ran his hand through his flaming red hair and leaned back in the chair he had chosen and looked at the ceiling. "We need to stop taking our fear and frustration out on each other, or we are going to be the cause of the exact thing that we are afraid of—Arina walking away from us." Dragging his gaze back down, he looked around at everyone in the room. "The problem is that we thought we had accepted who she was, but we were only seeing parts of her. Its now that we are seeing more of her, and we are having to deal with our fear again."

"She is a short lived soul in a long lived body, and she will always be torn between the two. If we can't get over that, we can't be friends with her. We can't be a part of her Court, because her Court will have to support her in a different way than is typical," Reyna said slowly. The others turned to look at her, and Lucien arched his eyebrow at her demandingly. "Our teacher in our Black Widow lessons told me the first part before we left for Winsol. Sort of. I didn't understand it until now."

"I think we all know how cryptic Black Widows can be," Laurauna said dryly.

Morton snorted in agreement, tapping his fingers against the arm of his chair. "What I, at least, am getting from the assorted warnings and comments that are coming together, is that Arina is going to be…walking the balance of life and death, I think. As the Queen of Ebon Askavi, but not the Queen of the Darkness. As the type of kindred that are called to her are like living shadows."

"I think it's fair and not unknown to most everyone here to say that until less than a year ago, Arina was basically something akin to the dead, though she herself was not dead," Yaslana said slowly, testing out his thoughts out loud. "When she came to us, she was so deeply withdrawn in herself that she was barely able to feel any kind of emotion. She was alive without actually being alive. And now she walks around feeling everything so strongly that it is almost as crippling as not feeling anything. She lived the first part of her life expecting every day to die, wishing for it even. And now she wants to live, and has the opportunity to live for far longer than anything that she could have anticipated, but that wasn't something she had been prepared for."

"Do you think that instead of anything else, she is supposed to be the Queen of Hell?" Jonathon asked, abruptly. "If she is so called to the dead?"

The uproar that that question caused was, in a way, deeply unifying for the group. Every single one of them vehemently denied the very idea.

"Besides, Witch cannot become Demon-Dead anyway, and I don't think they can be Guardians either. Not Witch Witch at least, I know that Black Jeweled Queens who are called Witch can be Guardians, but that's because they aren't Dreams Made Flesh," Rose said quickly, shaking her head anxiously. "Arina is, so she couldn't be the ruler Queen of Hell."

"And also, she does have connections across the entire Realm here. She doesn't have any real connection to Hell other than that she is basically engaged to the High Lord's grandson," Alexandra said dryly, looking up from her book for the first time all evening. She had been one of the few to actually forge a connection across the two groups—she was writing to Quinn, and had formed a close friendship with Mirabelle as well, exchanging regular letters with them both.

"If you guys cared so much about the long lived thing, then you should start distancing yourself from several of your own good friends, as it appears to have escaped your notice that there are a fair number of the people that you grew up with who are at least partially of the long lived races, and are therefore going to outlive you by a lot. Hm?" She continued pointedly, waving a hand at Titian and Jasper, Rose and Yaslana, Daemonar and his younger siblings. "it was never about the fact that Arina is of the long lived races. Its about how now she is moving on and making friends without us and most of us are afraid that she is going to leave us behind because she is Witch, and how could we actually get so lucky."

"And you lot," turning abruptly the the Hayllians in the room and shocking them, "You are just scared that she is going to decide that you aren't actually worth it and walk away from you."

Reyna flinched a little bit, and most of the room was very stiff and awkwardly staring at the floor or the wall while Alexandria lectured.

"Arina doesn't care. She is never going to walk away from us unless we force her to. And if we stand here and decide that she has to pick between us, I for one do not think that any of us are going to like the answer that we get. Because I agree with Quinn, I do not think that it will end particularly well if the Kindred here take exception to us."

"Right," Rose said a little faintly, staring wide eyed at her cousin. "That…you may have a point."

"But you didn't need to say it like that," Titian grumbled, shifting her shoulders uneasily as she glanced over at the Hayllians.

"Yes I did," Alexandria said calmly. "None of you would have listened otherwise."

"You are just a little bit terrifying, you know that?" Hunter said, deeply admiring.

Alexandria turned her head to look at him, face perfectly even, and smiled blandly at him. The Prince twitched back hard in instinctive reaction. That was so much creepier than even Quinn usually managed, probably because while when Quinn did that type of smile, he was radiating silent threat and blackmail, while this witch was just. Eerie. She was so perfectly calm while smiling like she knew that there was nothing that he could possibly do about her.

That kind of confidence was amazingly hot, actually, and Hunter quickly buried that thought down, quite certain that right now was not the time for that whatsoever.

"I think that we should sleep on this, and just try to get along tomorrow," Quinn said, getting to his feet and putting the book he had been looking at away. "At this point there isn't much that we can do otherwise. Just at least pretend to be friendly and not like we all want to rip each other's throats out, yes?" He offered his arm to Alexandria, who took it with a genteel nod, and then both of the peacemakers swept out the door of the parlor room, leaving a humming silence in their wake.

It didn't take long for everyone to mumble their goodnights and flee from the room to the relative safety of their own bedrooms, though none of them slept that well.

BJT:ANW

Morning dawned before most anyone wanted it to, even on a day of celebration that they had been looking forward to for months. The group of young adults were all struggling with what they were going to do, knowing what they wanted, but also struggling with themselves as to how they planned to get to that point.

There was a new sense of sympathy for how hard it must have been for Arina to change her habits to fit her new world. She had to adapt to so much, change so many long held understanding's and beliefs to fit a world that did not meet those expectations. In contrast, all they had to do was apologize to both Arina and the opposite group, and yet it was so much harder than it should have been.

Breakfast that morning was a quiet affair, pretty much everyone lost in their own thoughts or only speaking quietly to the people sitting right by them. Arina swept in late, trailed by a smug Prince Challa and with twigs and a few leaves stuck in her hair, wings still out and visible. She had clearly just come in from a flight through the surrounding jungle. And evidently, Challa was the only one of the great cats who had been able to keep track of her, judging by the smugness coming from him and the annoyance and resignation coming from the other cats trailing into the breakfast room after the first pair.

"Good morning, my Lady," Quinn said brightly, sliding a plate that was already made up according to her preferences over in her direction when she slid into the seat next to him. Lucien gave him a hard side eye from where he was hunched over his coffee on her other side.

"Is this…normal behavior?" Lillian asked quietly to Reyna, sitting nearby.

Reyna made a noise of abject disgust as she tried to drown herself in her coffee cup. "Morning people," she grumbled, almost unintelligibly.

Jace snorted from down the table. "Oh yeah, they do this pretty much every morning. Usually while going over some sort of paperwork. It's downright disgusting."

"They do paperwork. First thing in the morning while eating breakfast. Voluntarily?" Daemonar said, not a little bit horrified.

"All the time. Sometimes its scheduling for the day, sometimes it's the financial accounts that they were put in charge of by Lady Irene's steward, sometimes its who knows what. But almost every morning I come downstairs to find them huddled over some sort of papers while eating breakfast."

"At least they don't do it in my house anymore," Reyna grumbled.

"Yes, because now they do it in mine."

"Better you than me," Reyna said dismissively. "I don't want any part of that nonsense."

"You do realize that if you are a part of Arina's Court, you will have to do your own paperwork. Right?" Yaslana checked, leaning forward, consciously biting down a snide comment and instead trying to reach out an olive branch of perfectly pleasant conversation.

"but I won't have to do it at ass o'clock in the morning or be happy about it," was Reyna's retort, pointedly sticking her nose in the air.

"Or you'll just make someone else do the paperwork for you," Mirabelle murmured to her plate, a tiny smile pulling at her lips.

"Would I do that?" Reyna demanded.

"Yes," chorused everyone from the Hayllian court, including Arina and Quinn.

"Well. Rude."

"Accurate," Arina countered, pointing her fork at her roommate. "How many times have you waited til the last second to complete your assignments and then come complaining to me about it begging for help?"

"I don't want to answer that question," Reyna grumbled.

"Because the answer is too many times," Arina continued ruthlessly, stabbing at her steak.

Cassandra leaned forward from where she was sitting down at the farther end of the table and glared. Arina caught the look and hunched her shoulders a little bit, hastily putting another bite in her mouth.

"Dare I ask?" Jasper said gleefully, looking between the normally sweet looking Healer and the chastised Queen.

"Arina went around for a while without eating a proper breakfast," the Healer said comfortably, while Arina hissed around her fork. "That's actually what started her eating breakfast with Quinn. They are the only ones who are actually functional at that time of day and someone needs to keep an eye on her to make sure she eats enough. She still forgets about it sometimes."

"I didn't mean to!" Arina sputtered.

"Oh yeah, we had noticed that habit of hers. Usually as long as you catch her sitting down you can get snacks into her. We were all carrying around jerky and other easily stored snacks for the first 6 months and forcing them on her at every opportunity," Emerald said, nodding along.

"That's not a terrible plan, actually," Raleigh said thoughtfully. "I mean, it can't hurt, right?"

Cassandra shrugged. "Her weight still isn't staying solidly where I would like it to be. And on that note, Arina, I want to get a full work up on you while we are here. With all the parts and pieces, if you please. I know your typical standards, but I want to make sure that if anything happens when you aren't pretending to be human there are things in place to deal with it."

Alexandria nodded in calm agreement. "I fully agree," she murmered. "I will also ask Jaenelle about it, but I think that until we are certified we are going to just have to content ourselves with general things, unfortunately."

"Well, there is that. I'm due to get my certification next year, what about you?"

"Fifteen months, should all go well."

Arina groaned loudly as the two of them devolved into Healer's talk.

It was in many ways very sweet, but also, she did not need more healers ganging up on her and hovering and worrying all the time. The only good thing about that was that her friends appeared to be getting along this morning. It was stiff, and more than a little bit awkward on all counts, but it wasn't the very false politeness that had been all of yesterday.

Her friends were genuinely trying to get along for the first time, and she wasn't willing to do anything to jeopardize that. So she would let her Healer friends poke at her for their own comfort, and hope that it was going to be enough to help them become decent friends perhaps without her being there as a buffer. Ideally, at least.

It was almost too good to be true, her friends finally getting along after so long of just hoping desperately for it.

Arina slid a side glance over at Challa, who was looking incredibly smug. *Do you know what's going on?* she asked him. *Yesterday everyone was very angry, and today they are getting along, what happened?*

*Prince Janos had some things to say to them last night. It appears that they have thought about it, which is good.*

*I…see.*

*I do not think so,* the feline responded, before digging into his own meal.

Arina turned back to picking at her plate, a little bit disturbed and not quite sure how to deal with that particular revelation.

"Time for presents!" Rose chirped as soon as everyone has mostly finished up their breakfast. She herded everyone out of the room and up the stairs to the ballroom where the tree had been set up. Arina was gently pushed to the center of the group, and settled in the middle of the soft couch that had been set up in front of the tree overnight. There were a number of other small couches set around the tree area, as well as armchairs and large pillows set around on the floor. Everyone settled in and immediately started tearing into their gifts, ribbing each other about what they had given each other.

Arina was much slower when going through her gift pile, which was also larger than anyone else's. she had been given in her pile the gifts from the Coterie's parents as well as her friends own gifts, while all of the others had already exchanged gifts with their families. Brushing her fingers delicately over the wrappings and ribbons, Arina was determined not to start crying in the middle of the room.

She felt loved. Just looking through the gifts she had been given—new books on the local languages, lovely notebooks and stationery, music spheres, lovely shirts and other clothes items that suited her coloring and figure…everything that she had been given was something that was tailored to what she would like. Nothing was a generic gift that was just a placeholder gift. Every single thing that she had been given was chosen specifically with her in mind.

It was so much more than she had really been prepared for. even knowing that it was coming wasn't enough to prepare her for this. But this time she wasn't terrified that it was too much, that she didn't deserve it, or that it was going to disappear on her. This time she knew it was real, and that was why she was just trying not to cry, even as Lucien gently tugged her so that she was curled into his side.

Her friends were trying to get along, she had the man she loved here with her, as well as the people that she wanted to spend the rest of her life with—or the rest of theirs, as needs must. It was unquestionably the best holiday that she had ever experienced in her life. Last night had been a struggle, but. The night before had been a struggle, but at that moment, it no longer mattered. In that moment, it all felt worth it.

There were several hours where they were all relaxing in the ballroom with food everywhere and so many different drinks and little things for them to try from all over the Realm.

"Is it a magnolia?" Mirabelle demanded at some point, turning to Arina.

"Ok, seriously, why are you all asking Arina about trees?" Morton demanded. "Once was odd enough, but this is the fifth time it's happened."

'Oh, its just a local Winsol tradition," Mirabelle said airily, waving a hand lazily, even as Raleigh snickered into his drink next to her. "Nothing terribly important. But really, Arina, you've been keeping things under such wraps. You are planting it tomorrow, surely it won't hurt to tell us?"

"If it's so unimportant and I am going to be planting it tomorrow, then surely you don't need to know that desperately?" Arina countered, leaning further into Lucien's side and letting her eyes go half lidded.

"Well, in all fairness, there is a large amount of money riding on this question," Jace said brightly.

"My, I never would have guessed," Arina drawled.

"You aren't going to tell us what your tree is, are you?" he said.

"You can find out tomorrow with everyone else," Arina said sweetly.

"I figured," the male said, then saluted Arina with his drink and wandered off to where Alex was talking a little bit anxiously with Leon and Jonathan.

Arina wasn't sure if she should have invited Alex, in all honesty. He was nice enough, but the only reason that he even interacted with Arina at all was because he was in her small group at the Court, and now that he was here surrounded by so many strong personalities, she regretted inviting him a bit.

There was nothing wrong with him, by any means, but he didn't fit into a group with any of her friends. He had been hovering awkwardly at the sides the entire time, intimidated and overwhelmed.

Arina sighed. She was going to have to pull him aside and talk with him about this later, and she so very much did not want to.

Shifting around, she curled herself into a small ball pressed into Lucien's side, one wing draping over his legs, and decided that it was time for her to take a nap and not think about it for a while.

"Wake me up when it's time for dinner and dancing," she murmured, before letting her more feline instincts pull her to sleep.

"Of course dear," Lucien replied softly, running his fingers through her hair gently. She purred softly as she went under.

BJT:ANW

It was absolutely a good thing that Arina had gone over her plans for how the dancing was going to go with her triangle before the event. Lucien wasn't thrilled that Arina would not be dancing with him at midnight, but resigned himself to it well before the actual holiday.

Farostel was both thrilled and honored. Lucien, just a little bit, sulked in the shadows of the ballroom, while everyone else just stood and watched Farostel and Arina swirling around the floor to such beautiful and Eerie music.

By the time the dancing was over it was dawn, and Arina had danced with all of the males who were there, as well as several of the females in attendance. As the sun started to come up, Arina winged up to her balcony to collect her baby willow tree, then headed in silence over to the spot at the waterfall that she had prepared for the tree.

She planted it while humming witchsongs under her breath, while everyone who had trailed after her to watch waited in silence. It was a heavy, solemn air that as surrounding the group, and even the non-Hayllians who didn't know anything about the tradition of planting could still feel how right it felt for them to be doing it.

While there were a number of Territories that could not really adopt such a tradition because it was just too cold at this time of year to be planting young trees—in Glacia, the ground was pretty much completely frozen for months in both ends of the holiday, for instance—it was a wonderful idea that was fueled primarily and really only by the original calling and duties of the Blood—to care for and nurture the land. Planting a single tree due to cutting a tree for their celebration was a fair exchange, a price paid for the act of cutting.

Once Arina was finished fussing with the tree, she rose to her feet and beckoned Jasmine forward—the only Priestess among her Hyallian friends, and the only one who had the right to speak the Winsol blessing over the tree, even if she was technically too young. Her estate didn't exactly have a resident Priestess, and this wasn't a city or town or even village where one was nearby. The Priestess in Senka was probably in the middle of her own tree blessing for the village regardless.

And while they were all young and still in their apprenticeships—they were also growing older, and in a few short years would be taking their offerings to the darkness and becoming recognized adults with all the rights and responsibilities thereof.

It never hurt to practice on relatively low stakes situations among friends.

It wasn't until they had left the tree and reached the dining room of the Manor that anyone started talking, and the first thing anyone said was Reyna demanding loudly that Arina verify that Quinn did not, in fact, know what the tree had been before-hand.

"Since he's your favorite," Reyna snipped, glaring a little hotly at the male in question.

"I see. And no, for the record, the only one that knew what my tree was Lucien, and he had no idea why I was keeping a baby willow in my room."

"So Quinn did not know?"

"Correct, Reyna. Quinn did not know what my tree was, because I did not tell him what the tree was, because I was aware that you were all betting on it and didn't tell anyone other than Lady Irene."

"Alright, alright, I guess I believe you," Reyna sighed. And then she started pulling money out of her pockets and shoving it sullenly at Quinn, who accepted it with a mild little smile. The other Hayllian's started pulling out their own notes to hand over to the steward in training.

"How did you guess, by the way?" Cassandra asked after paying up herself.

Quinn shrugged as he vanished his winnings. "Arina told me months ago that she thought willow trees were her favorite. I figured there was an excellent chance that she was going to choose to plant one for her first Winsol Trust."

"I can't believe you remember that," Arina murmured, glancing over at him in surprise. "That was so long ago, far before I ever found out about the tradition."

"This may shock you, my Lady, but I do tend to remember the details that you tell me about what you do and do not like."

"Well then," was all Arina had to say at that, blinking slowly at him in mild surprise before busying herself with her eggs.

Lucien shot Quinn a smirk over her head.

Arina caught it, and rolled her eyes. Her boys were ridiculous. But they were hers, and she did love them desperately.

It was a wonderful experience for her First ever Winsol holiday, despite the rocky part in the middle. By the time her friends were all heading back out to their families' homes, there were a larger number of tentative friendships and agreements to write across the two groups, and Arina was able to tell herself and actually believe that things were going to be alright between her friends, and that they would be able to get along in more than just a false or blandly polite tolerance.

Smiling, Arina tipped her head back the last night of the holiday, once more alone in her home but for the Kindred patrolling her territory. The night was quiet, with a bare breeze drifting along carrying the sweet scent of various night blooming flowers on the wind. It was in the quiet moments like this that she felt close to the Darkness, moments that reminded her of the feeling that she found in her WaterRise in the Abyss.

*Thank you for creating me, and thank you for making sure that I was able to find my way here, to this Realm and to these people,* she sent on the darkest thread that she could manage, straight into the wind around her.

Her own Offering for the holiday that was created to celebrate the Darkness itself, and the beings like herself that came from the Darkness.