Did shewant them to fail? Krelis wondered. Why deny a fierce enemy when the denial fooled no one? Taking that many men was a sound fighting decision.
He hesitated, almost tempted to explain this to Dorothea. Instead he said, “It’s not unusual for guards to be called from various stations throughout a Territory to participate in a specific training exercise or a special assignment. The Masters of the Guard in the minor courts won’t give it a second thought. And the guards themselves won’t think past having an opportunity to be observed by the Masters in the stronger courts in the hopes of being offered a contract. There’s no reason they have to know this isn’t a chance for them to show off their skills. And there won’t be anyone else to say differently.”
Dorothea began her slow, hip-swaying pacing. “How long?”
Krelis swallowed carefully, keeping his eyes away from the thing. “A couple of days, Priestess, before I’ll be able to hand the Gray Lady’s bitch into your keeping.”
“A couple of days,” Dorothea murmured.
He caught a flash of amusement in her eyes. He held his breath and waited. By tomorrow evening, his cousin or the young Warlord whose training he’d been overseeing would look like that quivering thing. His pet’s information had come two days too late, which was something Krelis wasn’t going to forget when he got to Ranon’s Wood.
“A couple of days,” Dorothea murmured again. Pausing at the table, she selected a knife and looked at the quivering thing.
It whimpered. Tried to shift its position.
Dorothea put the knife down and approached Krelis. “This has been a difficult time for you, hasn’t it, darling?” she said as she stroked his cheek. “And I do understand how wearing it can be when a person’s concentration is split between business and family. Since you’ve obviously taken my incentives to heart, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. Your cousin and protégé will remain confined but untouched. We’ll discuss their future upon your return.”
Krelis turned his face just enough to kiss her palm. “Thank you, Priestess.” When she lifted her hand, he stepped back and bowed low. “If you’ll excuse me, there’s a great deal to do.”
He took a step toward the door. Stopped. Turned back. Cutting off his ability to feel anything, he carefully studied the thing that had been a man.
Dorothea eyed him curiously. “Is there a problem. Lord Krelis?”
Krelis’s lips curved in a small smile. “My pet has not fulfilled his duties satisfactorily and will, I fear, require discipline.”
Dorothea’s eyes filled with glittering pleasure. “Yes, fear is always a useful tool. Something your predecessor didn’t understand.”
Krelis almost reached the door when she added quietly, “But then,he was an honorable man.”
Jared poured another two fingers of whiskey into his glass. Raising it to eye level, he studied it.
A liquid cloak to cover the heart and protect it from lethal shards of pain. A fluid wall to keep grief at bay.
He turned away from such thoughts. If he kept his mind harnessed to practical matters, he didn’t really have to think at all.
And right now, he couldn’t afford to think.
“Jared.” Yarek sipped his whiskey, hesitated.
Jared leaned back and waited. He and Yarek were the only ones left in the inn’s dining room. Lia, Thera, and Blaed had gone for a walk after the midday meal. He suspected Lia needed a little time away from the pulsing needs everyone in the village was trying so hard to keep reined in. He’d seen the hunger in the males’ eyes, the relief in the witches‘. And he’d seen the way Lia had quietly accepted and eaten the full bowl of stew that had been placed before her—theonly full bowl that had been served. She hadn’t shamed the village by refusing the food offered, hadn’t denied them the honor of serving a Queen.
She must have choked on every mouthful with all those eyes anxiously watching her, but she never showed it.
Sitting beside her, his heart had swelled with pride . . . and something more.
He would never burden her with his feelings. Having been a pleasure slave—having his self so divided and debased—made it impossible for him to have what he wanted most.
But he would love her for the rest of his life.
“Jared,” Yarek said again.
Jared pulled his attention back to his uncle. “What is it?”
Yarek cleared his throat. Took another sip of whiskey. “The witchling . . . the Lady. She’s got a kind heart, but . . .”
“If she says there’s a place for all of you in Dena Nehele, then there is,” Jared replied.
“A land can only give so much, can only hold so many before the scales tip and we take too much.”
“I think Dena Nehele can absorb a hundred of Shalador’s own.” A hundred survivors out of two thriving villages. Jared took another swallow of whiskey.
“More and more people are going over the mountains,” Yarek said worriedly. “Plenty of them settle in the other Territories, but—”
Jared laid a hand over Yarek’s. “You were the one who always told me not to plant troubles where there aren’t any.”
“Suppose I did.”
“So Dena Nehele will gain Shalador’s best and be better for it.”
Naked grief filled Yarek’s eyes before he looked away.
Jared leaned back, unable to offer any words of comfort that wouldn’t shatter his own fragile control.
Shalador’s best would never leave Shalador—unless they found their way to the Dark Realm. The war had seen to that.
“The Coaches are intact?” Yarek asked after a moment.
Jared nodded. The two Coaches that belonged to the destroyed Coach station hadn’t been damaged in the attack, but he still hadn’t figured out how they were going to fit everyone who couldn’t ride the Winds on their own into two Coaches that comfortably held thirty people between them. And he didn’t know who would handle them. The three Warlord brothers who had run the Coach station hadn’t survived the attack, and no one else had the training.
Yarek frowned, gave Jared an uneasy glance, frowned harder. “Didn’t have a Black Widow in Wolfs Creek.”
“Not every village has one, any more than they have a Priestess or a Queen,” Jared said, wondering where this was leading.
Yarek rubbed his chin. “The Hourglass covens have different ways. Stands to reason considering the kind of Craft they do.”