she poked him, and said worriedly, "You were joking, weren't you, Lucivar? Lucivar?"
With a whoop, he yanked her down on top of him and wrapped his arms around her tight enough to hold her and loose enough not to panic her. "You should have been Eyrien," he said once his laughter had settled to a quiet simmer. "You've got the brass for it."
Then he smoothed her hair away from her face. "What is it, Cat?" he asked quietly. "What am I going to find so bitter to swallow that you wanted to give me this burst of sweetness first?"
Jaenelle traced his collarbone. "You're healed now."
He could almost taste her reluctance. "So?"
She rolled away from him and leaped to her feet, a movement so graceful nothing tame could have made it.
He rose more slowly, snapped his wings open to clear away the dust and bits of grass, settled on the tree stump again, and waited.
"Even after the war between Terreille and Kaeleer, people came through the Gates," Jaenelle said quietly, her eyes fixed on the horizon. "Mostly those who'd been born in the wrong place and were seeking 'home.' And there's always been some trading between Terreille and Little Terreille.
"A couple of years ago, the Dark Council decided to allow more open contact with Terreille, and aristo Blood began pouring in to see the Shadow Realm. The number of lower-ranking Blood wanting to immigrate to Kaeleer should have warned the Council about what courts are like in Terreille, but Little Terreille opened its arms to embrace the kinship ties. However, Kaeleer is not Terreille. Blood Law and Protocol can be ... understood differently.
"Too many Terreilleans refused to understand that what they could get away with in Terreille isn't tolerated in Kaeleer, and they died.
"A year ago, in Dharo, three Terreillean males raped a young witch for sport. Raped her until her mind was so broken there was no one left to sing back to the body. She was my age."
Lucivar concentrated on his clenched hands, forcing them to open. "Did they catch the bastards who did it?"
Jaenelle smiled grimly. "The Dharo males executed those men. Then they banished the rest of the Terreilleans in Dharo, sending them back to Little Terreille. Within six months, the fatality rate for Terreilleans in most Territories was over ninety percent. Even in tittle Terreille it was over half. Since the slaughter strained good feelings between the Realms, the Dark Council passed some rules of immigration. Now, a Terreillean who wants to immigrate has to serve a Kaeleer witch to her satisfaction for a specified time. Non-Jeweled Blood have to serve for eighteen months. The lighter Jewels have to serve three years, the darker Jewels five. Queens and Warlord Princes of any rank have to serve five years."
Lucivar felt sick. His body shook. He felt detached sympathy for it.To her satisfaction. That meant the bitch could do anything to him and he would have to allow it if he wanted to stay in Kaeleer.
He tried to laugh. It sounded panicked.
She knelt beside him and petted him anxiously. "Lucivar, it won't be so bad. Truly. The Queens. . . . Serving in Kaeleer isn't like serving in Terreille. I know all of the Territory Queens. I'll help you find someone who suits you, someone you'll enjoy serving."
"Why can't I serve you?" He spread his hands over her shoulders, needing her to be his anchor as he fought against hurt and panic. "You like me—at least some of the time. And we work well together."
"Oh, Lucivar," Jaenelle said gently, cupping his face in her hands. "I always like you. Even when you're being a pain in the ass. But you should have the experience of serving in a Kaeleer court."
"You'll be setting up your court in a year or two."
"I'm not going to have a court. I don't want to have that kind of power over someone else's life. Besides, you don't want to serve me. You don't know about me, don't understand—"
He lost patience. "What? That you're Witch?"
She looked shocked.
He rubbed her shoulders, and said dryly, "Wearing the Black at your age makes it rather obvious, Cat. Anyway, I've known who, and what, you were since I met you." He tried to smile. "The night we met, I'd asked the Darkness for a strong Queen I'd be proud to serve, and there you were. Of course, you were a bit younger than I'd imagined, but I wasn't going to be picky about it. Cat, please. I've waited a lifetime to serve you. I'll do anything you want. Please don't send me away."
Jaenelle closed her eyes and rested her head against his chest. "It's not that easy, Lucivar. Even if you can accept what I am—"
"Ido accept what you are."
"There are other reasons why you might not be willing to serve me."
Something inside him settled. He understood the custom of passing tests or challenges in order to earn a privilege. Whether she realized it or not, she was offering him a chance. "How many?"
She looked at him blankly.
"How many reasons? Set a number, now. If I can accept them, then I can choose to serve you. That's fair."
She gave him a strange look. "And will you be honest with yourself as well as with me about whether you can really accept them?"
She pulled away from him, sitting just out of reach. After several minutes of tense silence, she said, "Three."
Three. Not a dozen or so to natter about. Just three. Which meant he had to take them seriously. "All right. When?"
Jaenelle flowed to her feet. "Now. Pack a bag and plan to stay overnight." She headed for the cabin at a swift pace.
Lucivar followed her but didn't try to catch up. Three tests would determine the next five years of his life.
She'd be fair. Whether she liked the end result or not, she'd be fair. And so would he.
As he approached the cabin, the wolves ran out to greet him, offering furry comfort to the adopted member of their pack.
Lucivar buried his hands in their fur. If he had to serve someone else, would he ever see them again? He would be honest. He wouldn't abuse her trust in him. But he was going to win.
3 / Kaeleer
Lucivar's heart pounded against his chest. He had never been inside the Keep, not even an outside courtyard. A half-breed bastard wasn't worthy of entering this place. If he'd learned nothing else in the Eyrien hunting camps, he'd learned that, no matter what Jewels he wore or how skilled he was with weapons, his birth made him unworthy to lick the boots of the ones who lived in Ebon Askavi, the Black Mountain.
Now he was here, walking beside Jaenelle through massive rooms with vaulted ceilings, through open courtyards and gardens, through a labyrinth of wide corridors—and the prickle between his shoulder blades told him that something had been watching him since he entered the Keep. Something that flitted inside the stone, hid inside shadows, created shadows where shadows shouldn't exist. Not malevolent—at least, not yet. But the stories about what guarded the Keep were the fireside tales that frightened young boys sleepless.