“If I walk out of this room, what will you do?”
“Meet the others in Ranon’s Wood and take them to Dena Nehele.”
When she looked at him again, he saw a Queen with shadows in her eyes.
“I took them out of Raej. I hold their lives in my hands because of that choice. So until we stand within the borders of Dena Nehele, they’re my people, Lord Jared.”
And he wasn’t? Oh, no, she wasn’t getting away with that.
Smiling, Jared walked up to her and held out his hands. “Time for bed. We need a good night’s sleep if we’re heading for Ranon’s Wood at first light.”
She looked wary, but she slipped her hands into his.
“You know,” he said pleasantly as he helped her to her feet, “I’m going to have to remember how good a liar you are when your back’s against the wall.”
“What?” Lia said weakly.
He kept a firm grip on her hands. “I’ve spent this entire journey chasing my own tail because I couldn’t sense the Ring in order to confirm that it existed. If you’d told me a couple of days ago that you had made it all up, I would have believed you.”
“Why won’t you believe me now?” Lia wailed.
Jared gave her a sharp smile. “Because we had help last night. A Warlord Prince I know did the healing. Just before he left, he confirmed that I wear the Invisible Ring. The Silver Ring.”
Lia tried to tug her hands free. “Why would you believehim ?”
“He had no reason to lie. You, on the other hand, didn’t mention it until I threatened to drag you back to Dena Nehele. If you were in my place, what would you think?”
“That you’re an idiot.”
Slipping an arm around her waist, Jared led her to the bed. “I don’t think you’re an idiot. It was just bad timing on your part.”
She muttered something that sounded nasty.
“Come on, Lady Grumpy. Put your nightgown on, and I’ll tell you a bedtime story. Unless, of course, you’re like me and prefer to sleep in nothing but your skin.”
Her face had a lot of color now.
“Maybe you could sleep somewhere—”
“Not a chance.”
“Oh. I ... I’ll change in the bathroom.”
“You do that.” He waited until she was at the bathroom door. “Oh, Lia. Just in case you get any ideas about slipping out of here without me, you should know that I’ve put a Red shield around the bathroom as well as this room and a Red lock on the door that leads to the adjoining bedroom.”
The mutter that got cut off by the bathroom door closing wasdefinitely nasty.
Her brains were still as wobbly as her legs, Jared decided as he undressed. Why bother to tell him now, even if it was true? He’d just go to Ranon’s Wood, andshe was going to Ranon’s Wood, may the Darkness protect the stubborn little idiot. She thought she could push him out of her life before he was ready to go? Well, she could think again.
And hewould go as soon as he got her safely to Dena Nehele. He’d said nothing less than the truth when he’d told her all male slaves carried scars. Nine years as a pleasure slave had carved some deep ones into his soul.
He had no future in Dena Nehele. Or maybe it was more honest to say that he wouldn’t allow his heart to show him something that could never be more than a wistful dream.
Jared settled into bed and waited for Lia.
But he’d keep her safe until then. Safe so that, someday, a man without scars on his soul would be able to love her the way she deserved to be loved.
Krelis pressed his palms against the desk to keep his hands from curling into fists.
Don’t believe too quickly, he reminded himself as he stared at the Second Circle guard standing in front of him.Don’t hope at all .
“Are you sure the man wasn’t selling you a lie for a few silver marks?” Krelis finally asked.
“The bastard had no reason to lie, Lord Krelis,” the guard replied with a feral smile. “And I paid him nothing. Whenever I take leave time outside Hayll, I find it more ... lucrative . . . not to travel as a guard. These loose-tongued merchants and traders from other Territories are much more willing to complain and gossip with a fellow trader trying to make a little profit. They say things they wouldn’t even dare think in the presence of a Hayllian court guard.”
A clever man, Krelis thought as he leaned back in his chair. A dangerous man. A man who knew how to fashion lies to look like bright truths. A man who, one day soon, would find a way to speak to the High Priestess directly. And if he, Krelis, wasn’t very careful, he’d find himself condemned by compliments. “This loose-tongued merchant is sure he saw a Shalador Warlord at a traveler’s inn?”
The guard nodded. “A Red-Jeweled Shalador Warlord who looked like he’d been doing some hard traveling lately.”
“He was alone?”
The guard shrugged. “The bitch didn’t walk through the front door with him. Maybe he slipped the leash.”
“Or maybe she slipped in the back way.” Krelis rubbed his chin. The bitch-Queen had been traveling north or northwest since his pet had left the first message. So what was that Shadalor bastard doing so far south? Where were the others? If the bitch really wasn’t with him, if hehad slipped the leash, why wasn’t he heading for his home Territory to hide for a few days?
Unless he was deliberately showing himself to lay a false trail. Or had the fool gone to that inn hoping to strike a bargain?
“This merchant. He was sure about the rest of it?”
The guard shifted his feet. He pressed his lips together. “It’s hard to mistakethat one for any other.”
A chill started in Krelis’s lower back and crept up his spine. “Yes, it is.” Hell’s fire, he needed a drink! “Your diligence to your duty is highly commendable, Warlord. You may be certain I’ll keep it in mind. Inform Lord Maryk that his presence is required.” Krelis gestured toward the door.
Accepting the dismissal, the guard bowed and left.
Krelis called in a bottle of brandy, but Maryk knocked on the door before he could consume enough of it to settle his nerves. Smothering a curse, he vanished the bottle, and snapped, “Come in!”
Maryk’s bland expression was a subtle insult, but he hadn’t been able to completely extinguish the contempt from his eyes.
“I’ve received some information about the little bitch-Queen who’s been such an annoyance to the High Priestess,” Krelis said. “I’m going to look into it personally. Until I return, you’re in charge. If the High Priestess summons, you’ll have to answer her.”