Randolf swore, but there was pain, not violence, in the words. “To do that to a Master . . .” he said softly.

“Let’s not waste time,” Jared said. “We’ve got to help Lia and Thera plan a defense against—”

“Jared—” Talon warned.

Before Jared could turn, Garth’s hand landed on his shoulder hard enough to make his knees buckle.

“Lllisten to Queen,” Garth said, giving Jared a little shake. “Queen sssmart. Confuses mmmales.”

“Confusing us is helpful?” Talon asked dryly.

Garth waved his other hand. Blaed prudently ducked.

“Hayll. All mmmales out there. Confuse mmmales here. Confuse mmmales there.” Garth gave them all a deadly smile. “Confuse Brock always. Sssmart Queen. You lllisten.”

Giving Jared a friendly whump on the back that tumbled him into Talon and Randolf, Garth left the room.

“Well,” Talon said after a moment, “he’s got a point.

It’s damn hard to block someone’s moves if you can’t figure out how she thinks.“

“Yes,” Jared replied thoughtfully. Something Brock had said about links and psychic scents and Jewels kept teasing him, but its significance stayed just out of reach. “Let’s find out a little more about this Queen’s gamble our Ladies are planning.”

“Even if it confuses us?” Blaed said with a hint of a smile.

Something. Something. “Especially if it confuses us.”

Chapter Thirty

Krelis leaned back against the table, crossed his feet at the ankles, and studied the surly man before him. “You disappointed me, Brock. You didn’t live up to your side of the bargain.”

“I did,” Brock replied belligerently. “I did what I agreed to do. Wasn’tmy fault there were problems that evenyou didn’t anticipate.”

Krelis crossed his arms to keep his hand away from his knife. “What kind of problems?”

When Brock took a step toward Krelis, two Opal-Jeweled Hayllian guards grabbed his arms and hauled him back.

Brock struggled uselessly for a moment.

Krelis caught a whiff of fear and found himself aroused by it. “What kind of problems?”

“A broken Black Widow who wasn’t broken,” Brock said, pouting. “A Warlord Prince who’d disguised what he was until we were well into the journey. Garth still having brains enough to figure out what the buttons were for and picking them up after I’d left them for the marauders to find. That damn Red-Jeweled nonman deciding to play Queen’s stud. You can’t blame me for any of that.”

“Perhaps not,” Krelis said. “But the fact is your inability to perform your task greatly inconvenienced the High Priestess—and there are penalties for inconveniencing the High Priestess of Hayll.”

“I did my part,” Brock insisted, trying to shake off the guards. “You’ve got the little bitch-Queen now.”

Krelis looked at the other four guards who had quietly entered the room. At his nod, the guards restraining Brock tightened their hold.

“But the inconvenience, Brock.” Krelis shook his head. “Some compensation has to be made for the inconvenience.” Smiling, he withdrew the large white feather from his leather vest and unsheathed his knife. “I have one more small task for you, and then our bargain will be complete.”

Chapter Thirty-one

“We’re going to build a psychic web,” Lia said in a voice that had all emotion washed out of it.

Jared glanced at the other men crowded into the tavern’s back room. Blank faces. Confused eyes. Talon rubbed the back of his neck and frowned at the chalk circle Lia had drawn on the table. Blaed looked at the ceiling, his eyes filled with wry humor.

Since Garth was the only one nodding as if that statement made sense, Jared wondered if he’d feel less confused if he banged his head against the table a few times.

Then he looked at Lia, and the trickle of amusement faded.

The Queen and the Black Widow who sat across from each other were suddenly strangers to him, filled with a wild unknown. There was something dangerous about the way they sat so still, so quiet.

“Jared, since you wear the darkest Jewel, you’re going to be the web’s focal point,” Lia said.

Great. Wonderful.Mother Night .

Jared shifted uneasily. “What’s it supposed to do?”

“It will give the weakest of you the protection of the strongest,” Thera said in that voice that made all the men shiver. “Through the strands of the web, all of you will be connected. A strike against any one of you will be absorbed by all of you. The Red Jewel will feed the web and keep it strong.”

“It sounds fine as a defense,” Talon said, “but Jared won’t be able to hold it long if they start unleashing their own Jewels.”

“They want Lia alive,” Thera said, staring at the circle drawn on the table. “They won’t risk a full attack until they have her.”

“Even if they do nothing, he still can’t hold it forever,” Talon argued. “And they’re not going to get bored and just go home.”

“Ten minutes,” Lia said. “Once the signal’s given, he only has to hold it for ten minutes.”

Only.

Jared wanted to laugh, but he was very afraid it would come out sounding hysterical. Didn’t they realize how many Hayllians were surrounding Ranon’s Wood?

Thera slashed a look in his direction—as if she’d heard the laughter. “You held Red shields against the marauders for that long.”

“There weren’t as many of them,” Jared said testily.

Thera shrugged. “They were fighting, always draining the shields. The Hayllians won’t be attacking with any strength. Alive, Lia is a valuable hostage. If they’d wanted her destroyed, the village and everyone in it would be gone by now.”

“When the Hayllians start to advance, everyone wearing the Jewels will provide a token resistance, gradually retreating toward the Coaches,” Lia said. “Jared will remain here in the tavern, where he can watch the road.”

“I can—” Jared began.

“Your task is to defend,” Lia said sharply.

“I don’t like it,” Randolf said, shaking his head. “We’re not going to achieve anything. Gaining a few more minutes won’t change the outcome of the battle.”

Thera’s eyes were ice with a hint of green. “You don’t have to like it, Warlord. You just have to obey.”

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