As soon as she took the glass, he busily prepared one for himself so that he wouldn't insult her by laughing at her expression. She probably had the same look when one of her sons tried to hand her a large, ugly bug that only a small boy could find delightful.
"It's lamb's blood," he said mildly as he leaned back and crossed his legs at the knee.
"Oh." She smiled weakly. "Is that good?"
Her voice got husky when she was nervous, he noted with amusement.
"Yes, that's good. And probably far more to your liking than the human blood you feared was mixed with the wine."
She took a sip, trying hard not to gag.
"It's an acquired taste," Saetan said blandly. Had Jaenelle tasted the blood wine yet? If not, he'd have to correct that omission soon. "You've piqued my curiosity." He altered his deep voice so that it was coaxing, soothing. "Very few
Queens would willingly have an audience with me at midnight, let alone request one."
Sylvia carefully set her goblet on the table before pressing her hands against her legs. "I wanted a private meeting, High Lord."
Sylvia licked her lips, took a deep breath, and looked him in the eye. "Something's wrong in Halaway. Something subtle. I feel . . ." She frowned and shook her head, deeply troubled.
Saetan wanted to reach out and smooth away the sharp vertical line that appeared between her eyebrows. "What do you feel?"
Sylvia closed her eyes. "Ice on the river in the middle of summer. Earth leeched of its richness. Crops withering in the fields. The wind brings a smell of fear, but I can't trace the source." She opened her eyes and smiled self-consciously. "I apologize, High Lord. My former Consort used to say I made no sense when I explained things."
"Really?" Saetan replied too softly. "Perhaps you had the wrong Consort, Lady. Because I understand you all too well." He drained his goblet and set it on the table with exaggerated care. "Who among your people is being harmed the most?"
Sylvia took a deep breath. "The children."
A vicious snarl filled the room. It was only when Sylvia nervously glanced toward the door that Saetan realized the sound was coming from him. He stopped it abruptly, but the cold, sweet rage was still there. Taking a shuddering breath, he backed away from the killing edge.
"Excuse me." Giving her no time to make excuses to leave, Saetan walked out of his study, ordered refreshments, and then spent several minutes pacing the great hall until he had repaired the frayed leash that kept his temper in check. By the time he rejoined her, Beale had brought the tea and a plate of small, thin sandwiches.
She politely refused the sandwiches and didn't touch the tea he poured for her. Her uneasiness scraped at his temper. Hell's fire, he hated seeing that look in a woman's eyes.
Sylvia licked her lips. Her voice was very husky. "I'm
their Queen. It's my problem. I shouldn't have troubled you with it."
He slammed the cup and saucer down on the table so hard the saucer broke in half. Then he put some distance between them, giving himself room to pace but always staying close enough so that she couldn't reach the door before he did.
It shouldn't matter. He should be used to it. If she'd been afraid of him from the moment she stepped into the room, he could have handled it. But she hadn't been afraid. Damn her, shehadn't been afraid.
He spun around, keeping the couch and the table between them. "I have never harmed you or your people," he snarled. "I've used my strength, my Craft, my Jewels, and, yes, my temper to protect Dhemlan. Even when I wasn't visible, I still looked after you. There are many services—including highly personal services—that I could have required of you or any other Queen in this Territory, but I've never made those kinds of demands. I've accepted the responsibilities of ruling Dhemlan, and, damn you, I havenever abused my position or my power."
Sylvia's brown skin was bleached of its warm, healthy color. Her hand shook when she lifted her cup to take a sip of tea. She set the cup down, lifted her chin, and squared her shoulders. "I met your daughter recently. I asked her if she found it difficult living with your temper. She looked genuinely baffled, and said, 'What temper?' "
Saetan stared at her for a moment, then the anger drained away. He rubbed the back of his neck, and said dryly, "Jaenelle has a unique way of looking at a great many things."
Before he could summon Beale, the teapot and used cups vanished. A moment later a fresh pot of tea appeared on the table, along with clean cups and saucers and a plate of pastries.
Saetan gave the door a speculative look before returning to the couch. He poured another cup of tea for Sylvia and one for himself.
"He didn't bring them in," Sylvia said quietly.
"I noticed," Saetan replied—and wondered just how close his butler was standing to the study door. He put an aural shield around the room.
"Maybe he felt intimidated."
Saetan snorted. "Any man who is happily married to Mrs. Beale isn't intimidated by anyone—including me."
"I see your point." Sylvia picked up a sandwich and took a bite.
Relieved that her color was back and she was no longer afraid, he picked up his tea and leaned back. "I'll find out what's happening in Halaway. And I'll stop it." He sipped his tea to cover his hesitation, but the question had to be asked. "When did it start?"
- Sylvia looked at him sharply. "Your daughter isn't the cause, High Lord. I met her only briefly one afternoon when Mikal, my youngest son, and I were out walking; but I know she isn't the cause." She fiddled with her cup, nervous again. "But she may be the catalyst. Maybe it's fairer to say that it's her presence that has made me aware of it."
Saetan held his breath, waiting. Coaxing Jaenelle to try the Halaway school for the last few weeks before summer had been difficult. He'd hoped reconnecting with other children might stir her interest in contacting her old friends. Instead, she'd become more withdrawn, more elusive. And the politely phrased queries from Lord Menzar about her formal education—or lack of it—had dismayed him because, except for the Craft he had taught her, he had no idea how her education had been structured. But with each day since they'd come to the Hall, he had seen the threads he was trying to weave between himself and her unravel as fast as he could weave them, and he had had no idea, no clue as to why that was so. Until now.
Sylvia, lost in her own thoughts, stared at him, puzzled.
"Why is she the catalyst?" Saetan repeated.