The arrested look on Rainier’s face told her he hadn’t considered that. “Maybe,” he said slowly. “A Black Widow might have been able to recognize where the spells were to avoid triggering them.”

“Then why—” She stopped and switched to a psychic thread. "If that’s the case, why would anyone invite Sadi?"

"We don’t know he was invited." He shrugged when she just looked at him. "I don’t think there is anyone beyond Jaenelle’s friends and the Dhemlan Queens who know he’s a Black Widow. But I don’t see your point."

"I’m wondering if whoever created this game counted on one of us being a Black Widow—or if he’d counted on none of his guests being part of the Hourglass. Are we missing things we should be seeing?"

“Mystery books.” Rainier raked his fingers through his hair.

“Sometimes there are clues that aren’t recognized when they’re first seen.”

“And maybe we’re basing our assumptions on our own intelligence instead of considering the intelligence of whoever put this together.” Surreal grabbed one of the lamps and headed for the door. “Let’s take a look at the next room. Gather up the sheep.”

“Our enemy seems to be fairly intelligent,” Rainier said, raising his voice over the children’sbaa ing and snickers.

She stopped in the doorway and looked at him. “Do you think so? Wouldyou want to give Yaslana and Sadi a reason to be coming after you?”

Bitch. She’d actually given him a shiver down his spine. But he’d covered his tracks. They wouldn’t find him. Even when his next book came out, they wouldn’t connect Jarvis Jenkell, renowned author from Little Terreille, with the tragedy that took place in a landen village in the middle of Dhemlan.

But because she’d given him that momentary shiver, he really hopedLady Surreal was the person who found the first big surprise.

Power and temper blew the message-station door open, almost ripping it from its hinges, but the Station Master held his ground behind the counter as the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan strode across the room. The gold eyes were glazed—a warning to everyone that a Warlord Prince was riding the killing edge—and that beautiful face was a cold, cold mask.

The Prince placed a piece of paper on the counter, folded and sealed with the SaDiablo crest pressed into the bloodred wax. “Assign your fastest messenger to deliver this. Send him now.” He turned and walked away. As he reached the door, he added, “And may the Darkness have mercy on you if that message doesn’t reach my brother in time.”

The Station Master’s hand shook as he picked up the paper and read the name and location of delivery just to be sure. Not that he had any doubt aboutwho was supposed to receive the message. Then he looked at the young men watching from the doorway of the room where they sorted through their messages or waited for an assignment.

The Station Master pointed to a messenger. The young Warlord came forward, shaking his head.

“Not me,” the messenger said. “I’ve already been there once today. I’ve completed my assigned runs. I’ve—”

“Do you want to tell the man who walked out of here that the message wasn’t delivered in time?” In time for what, none of them would ever ask—and most of them hoped they would never find out.

He watched, puzzled, as the messenger shielded himself before taking the message, then put a shield around the message before putting it into his carry bag as if it were a sack full of poisonous snakes instead of a piece of paper, andthen putanother shield around the carry bag.

The messenger looked at him and grimaced. “Youdidn’t deliver the last message.” Then he added under his breath, “And I don’t wanthim kicking my ass.”

The Station Master decided not to ask. He just patted the Warlord’s shoulder. “Good lad. Get moving.”

And may the Darkness have mercy on all of us.

A dining room. Table, chairs, and a rug that had swirls of colors that had been muddied by age and dirt—or had been like that in the first place. No tools by the fireplace. She was hoping for another poker to start arming the children. They might not have any skill, but she figured anyone could whack at something that was trying to hurt them.

Guess we only get two weapons,she thought as she set her lamp at one end of the table and began a slow counterclockwise circuit around the outside of the room while Rainier made the same circuit in the opposite direction.

Three windows. The two along the side of the house had been bricked over. The one in the back, if she could trust what she was seeing, looked out on some kind of veranda. A doorway that opened into a small storeroom and an entryway with a door thatmight work. And a closed door.

Surreal studied the door, then looked at the room again. A triangular hutch in one corner, but it held nothing but teapots and matching cups and saucers. So behind the door was probably the storage cupboard for dishes and linens.

She reached for the knob. Any door might be an exit, right?

Her hand froze above the knob. Instinct? Or something less easy to define? Didn’t matter. If she’d been fully shielded, she might have opened the door just to find out what was making her skin crawl—and then kill it. As it was, she backed away from the door, raising the poker like a sword.

“Surreal?” Rainier asked, stopping his circuit to watch her.

“Something here,” she said.

“Is it something spooky?” Trist asked.

The children had been nicely huddled together when they got into the room. Now they were starting to spread out and explore.

She gave them all a hard look. “Stay away from this door.” She put enough bite in her voice so there wouldn’t be any question that this was a command and not a suggestion. Put enough snap in the words so that none of the children would think she was playing “spooky house” with them.

As she looked at them, she remembered another boy, a little Yellow-Jeweled Warlord who had been a killer’s intended prey. That boy had survived because he had obeyed her orders.

She felt some of the tension in her shoulders ease.

These children were old enough to understand they were in a dangerous situation. Despite the verbal pissing contests they seemed to want to engage in, and despite her calling them idiot sheep, they were smart enough to realize she and Rainier were trying to keep them safe.

And theywould keep the children safe—at least as long as she and Rainier were both standing.

Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction