No, Saetan wasn't aristo. Would never be aristo. Would never appreciate the wants and needs of any of the Hundred Families.
"There's still Zuulaman," Martella said. "The commission we'll receive from the new trade agreements with Dhemlan will help restore our status among the Hundred Families."
Hekatah rubbed her belly. She hadn't told her mother and aunts yet that Saetan was being stubborn about the new trade agreements. But Hayll was entitled to whatever Dhemlan could offer. After all, if Saetan hadn't made the bargain with the Dhemlan Queens, that Territory would have become the property of the Hundred Families.
Since hehad interfered, they would have to get what was owed them another way.
She smiled at her mother. "I think it's time to give my husband more incentive to take the trade agreements with Zuulaman seriously."
Saetan dropped the papers on his desk and stared at the Ambassador. "Is this your Queen's idea of a joke?"
"It is the trade agreement between Zuulaman and Dhemlan," the Ambassador replied calmly.
"This isshit, and you know it," Saetan snarled. "Zuulaman expects the Dhemlan Queens to hand over the surplus from all the harvests as well as a percentage of the livestock, pay a tithe on every product made by the Dhemlan people,and add a 'market' fee for anything that comes from other Territories that is not bought through a Zuulaman merchant. Have you all lost your minds? The Dhemlan Queens will never agree to this."
"They will if you insist upon it. You rule here. You are the law here. If you sign the agreement, they have to comply or suffer the consequences."
He felt himself sliding down into the abyss, sliding down to where his inner web rested at the depth of power signified by the Black Jewels… the cold, glorious Black. At the same time, he knew he was rising to the killing edge, that state of mind that revealed a Warlord Prince for what he truly was…a born killer, a natural predator. The effort to keep his temper leashed made his body quiver.
"I made an agreement with the Queens of this Territory to protect their people and their land with everything that I am. Now you expect me to use that power as the whip that will force them to turn their people into chattel for Zuulaman's pleasure." Saetan shook his head. "There is nothing Zuulaman can offer that is worth this. You may tell your Queen, and the Queens who answer to her, that there will be no trade agreement with Dhemlan."
The Ambassador bowed his head. "I will leave you to consider the matter."
"There's nothing more to consider."
The Ambassador turned and walked to the study door. Then he paused. "I should mention that your wife is now a guest of the Zuulaman Queens…and will remain so until an agreement has been reached. The message I received also indicated that there was a miscalculation by the Dhemlan Healer as to Lady Hekatah's time. She may give birth any day now, if the birthing hasn't already begun."
"Do you know who I am?" Saetan asked too softly.
The Ambassador smiled. "You are an honorable man."
"Do you know who… and what… I am?" he asked again.
The Ambassador's smile faltered. "Hopefully, you are a man who realizes a small inconvenience to the Dhemlan people is worth less than the well-being of your wife and child."
Saetan waited until the Zuulaman Ambassador had left the Hall before he sank into his chair behind the blackwood desk.
Hell's fire, Mother Night, and may the Darkness be merciful. What had possessed Hekatah to leave Hayll and go to Zuulaman? Why would she choose to travel so near her time? She'd been aware of the difficulties he'd been having with the Queens who ruled those islands. Had she gone thinking she'd be an honored guest, that the Queens would try to sway her in the hopes that she, in turn, could sway him to agree to something that would be of no benefit to the people he ruled? Now she was a hostage…and their unborn child with her.
So tempting to declare war on the Zuulaman Queens. He wouldn't need to gather the Dhemlan Warlord Princes to do it. He wouldn't need anyone or anything but himself to annihilate the Zuulaman courts. But Hekatah was so vulnerable right now, unable to use her own power until after the birthing. They would kill her the moment they felt his presence anywhere near their islands.
He had to find another way. There had to be another way.
They had issued the challenge, drawn the line. Did any of them realize that, by doing so, they had invited him to step onto a killing field? Did any of them realize what would happen if he did?
* * *
Andulvar Yaslana prowled the sitting room in Saetan's suite, too edgy and angry to remain still…and a little uneasy about the way Saetandid remain quietly at the window, watching Mephis and Peyton play in the enclosed garden bounded by the walls of the family wing. Anger needed sound and motion, unless it ripened to the point where it had a killing edge and needed to be quenched on a killing field. That was his kind of anger. Eyrien anger. But Saetan's stillness had a different quality to it. Always had, even before he'd made the Offering to the Darkness and came away from it wearing Black Jewels.
"What are you going to do?"Andulvar asked.
"Wait to see what Zuulaman wants," Saetan replied quietly.
"They made it clear enough," Andulvar growled as he picked up the trade agreements and dropped them back down on the table.
Turning away from the window, Saetan walked over to the table and stared at the agreements. "Either they really didn't think this through, or they intended something else all along and these agreements are just smoke."
"They're holding your wife hostage,"Andulvar pointed out. And as far as he was concerned, Zuulaman could keep Hekatah. Saetan was better off without the bitch.
"My wife is a Red-Jeweled Priestess from one of Hayll's Hundred Families," Saetan said. "If they lay a hand on her, they'll not only have me to deal with but Hayll as well. Zuulaman is enamored with Hayll, so they won't do anything that will make the Hayllian Queens turn on them."
"There's still those agreements."
Saetan reached out and pushed the papers with one finger. "Which aren't worth a damn thing. Say I sign them on the condition that the agreements are handed over to Zuulaman at the same time that the baby and Hekatah are returned to me."
"Then Zuulaman gets what it wants."
"For a few hours. As soon as we were home, I'd send a message to the Dhemlan Queens that I was stepping down as the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, giving up my claim to this Territory."
The words hit Andulvar like a fist in the belly. "You'd give up Dhemlan?"