The cold dismissal stung, but he accepted it. After double-checking that all the pieces and the dice were back in the box, he slipped it into the cloth bag and left the wagon. He returned the game to Blaed with faint thanks and hurried away.

No one approached him. No one asked what had happened. Even Thera took a long look at his face and left him alone.

Not a game to be played with an enemy, because it exposed the heart’s weaknesses.

All these long years later, he understood the quarrels between Belarr and Reyna as he never had before. Despite their Craft and their courage—or, perhaps, because of it— Healers didn’t have a strong sense of self-preservation and would drain themselves to the breaking point before they’d back away from a healing. Which was why, by Blood Law, every Healer had to be served by at least one Jeweled male unless she had a Jeweled consort or husband who would assume the duty of protecting her from herself.

Was that why courts had originally formed around Queens? To protect them from giving too much of themselves?

Since he’d never served in a court before he was Ringed, he’d never been with a Queen he respected let alone wanted to protect, never experienced the fierce loyalty and pride that he’d heard filled men when they served a good Queen.

For the rest of the morning, his thoughts chased each other, swinging from the Gray Lady to Reyna and back again. Speculation and memories kept poking at him until he felt savage and frightened. He couldn’t shake the idea that Reyna would like Lady Grizelle, and it troubled him. That Belarr would probably consider her a good Queen troubled him even more, because Belarr would question the honor of a Red-Jeweled Warlord who would abandon a Queen during a difficult journey.

Hell’s fire, he was aslave . He hadn’t agreed to serve her. Why shouldn’t he escape if he got the chance? He wanted to go home. He wanted to talk to Reyna. Wanted,needed to explain.

Belarr had never been a slave. There was no way he could fully appreciate the emotional difference. What would the Sadist do if he were here, wearing the Invisible Ring?

No answers. No answers. Just a churning uneasiness that came from knowing that he would have to make a choice soon.

Just when he thought the day couldn’t get any worse, it started raining again.

“Hell’s fire,” Randolf snarled. “What’s wrong with Garth now?”

“I don’t know,” Jared said as the big man ran awkwardly toward them, holding out his arms to help maintain his balance on the muddy road.

Garth tended to roam ahead of the rest of them and then shuffle back to keep them in sight, much as a pet dog would do. The fact that the Gray Lady didn’t keep him on a tighter leash was another thing about her that baffled the other males. Granted, Garth couldn’t ride the Winds by himself, if he had ever been able to, and it wasn’t likely that he could get far enough away on foot to prevent the Gray Lady from incapacitating him with the agony that could be sent through the Ring of Obedience, but that leniency wasn’t typical in a slave owner.

Jared shook his head. Right now, he wasn’t interested in puzzling over the peculiarities of female behavior. He was cold, wet, and tired. The afternoon light—what little of it there had been that day—was waning, and the only thing he was interested in was finding a place to make camp and getting something hot to eat. So his voice had an edge to it when he said, “What is it, Garth?”

Garth gave no sign of having heard him. Instead of continuing toward Jared, he suddenly veered toward Corry and Cathryn, waving his arms as if he were trying to herd small farm animals into a pen.

“Shoo! Shoo!” Garth shouted, waving his arms.

There was something sadly amusing about watching Garth, but there was nothing amusing about the way the children froze, their eyes getting bigger and bigger, or the fear in Corry’s face when he grabbed Cathryn’s hand and ran back to the wagon.

“Garth,” Jared yelled, starting toward him.

Garth changed directions and ran toward Eryk. ‘’Shoo! Shoo!“

“Garth!” Jared put the crack of a lash into his voice. He held his ground when Garth turned again, and clenched his teeth when the big man grabbed his upper arms and lifted him off his feet.

“ ‘Rauders!” Garth shouted, shaking him. “Fight ’rauders!”

Jared felt Randolfs bristling temper and wondered if this was going to turn into a maiming fight. Then he felt Brock’s battle calm and saw the other man silently come around behind Garth. Randolf might have been a well-trained guard before being made a slave, but in a fight, Jared would rather have Brock’s steadiness at his back any day.

“Put me down, Garth,” Jared said firmly.

“Fight ‘rauders!” Garth insisted.

“When you put me down.”

Garth dropped him.

Jared slipped on the mud and would have landed on his back if Garth hadn’t grabbed him again, planting his feet so firmly on the road it made his bones rattle.

“Damn it, Garth!” Jared snapped as he stepped out of reach.

Garth just hopped from one foot to the other in an anxious, shuffling dance. “ ‘Rauders!” he said, growing more insistent and more frantic.

Jared eyed the big man, then took a deep breath and blew it out. Hell’s fire. There weren’t any marauders. No one but slaves owned by a stubborn idiot of a Queen would be traveling on a day like this. Most likely, Garth had spotted an animal moving through the brush and trees that bordered the road. Although . . . unless they had been startled for some reason, even animals would find a spot to shelter in, wouldn’t they?

Made uneasy by that thought as well as Garth’s continued distress, Jared sent out a wide psychic probe that spanned the narrow road and extended several yards on either side. A few seconds later, he choked back a shiver of fear.

Still out of sight but coming steadily toward them were thirteen Blood males—twelve Warlords . . . and a Sapphire-Jeweled Warlord Prince whose psychic scent had that distinctive blend of viciousness and passion that separated Warlord Princes from other males. They were a law unto themselves, no matter what Jewels they wore. And they were always dangerous.

Jared took a step back before he could stop himself. “Hell’s fire, Mother Night, and may the Darkness be merciful.” He whipped around to face Randolf and Brock. “Get everyone back to the wagon. Now!”

Brock narrowed his eyes as if that would let him see farther in the pouring rain. “Jared—”


Anne Bishop Books | Science Fiction Books | The Black Jewels Series Books