“For Gray’s sake?”
“And for Dena Nehele. And for my own sake.”
Ranon joined them, looked toward the garden, and grinned, his relief at seeing Cassidy evident on his face. “Looks like Gray found her. That’s good.” Then the grin faded, and he looked wary. “Remember the letter Cassidy wrote to the Shalador Queens?”
“I remember,” Theran said.
“Well, they’re here. And they would like to meet the Queen.”
Theran probably looked as startled as Talon did. No one had expected the Shalador Queens to come out of hiding, much less leave the reserves.
He hesitated, automatically stalling for time until he could think of a reason why the other Queens couldn’t meet with Cassidy.
As he looked at Talon and Ranon, he realized they expected him to make an excuse. Maybe it was time for him to stop feeling disappointed that he hadn’t gotten what he’d wanted from this bargain, because Dena Nehele had gotten what it needed—a Queen who could help their land and all of its people.
It was time to be a First Escort.
“Wait here,” he told Ranon.
Then he walked over to the new part of the garden, where Gray and Cassidy were still talking about the flowers they could see and the ones that were still just seeds in the dirt.
“My apologies for the interruption, Lady,” Theran said.
Cassidy turned to look at him, her surprise at his formal address changing to wariness. “Is something wrong, Prince?”
He shook his head. “The Shalador Queens are here and have requested an audience.”
Her joy changed her plain face. It wasn’t pretty, would never be pretty, but for a moment, he almost understood what men like Ranon and Talon saw when they looked at her.
“Yes,” he said, smiling. “They came.” He held out his right hand, palm down.
She placed her left hand over his, an automatic response. Then she stopped, said, “Oh,” and looked at Gray.
And Theran saw Gray take another step toward becoming the man he should have been.
“Go on,” Gray said. “Right now, Dena Nehele needs the Queen. The garden and I will be here when you’re done with the day’s business.”
They hadn’t gone more than a couple of steps when Gray said, “Cassie? You might want to show them this flower bed. Some of the plants came from the reserves.”
She flashed a smile at Gray over her shoulder, then lengthened her stride until she and Theran were almost running to the house. They bounded up the terrace steps.
“Mother Night!” Cassidy skidded to a stop, looked down at herself, and gave him, Talon, and Ranon a look of undiluted female panic. “I can’t meet the Shalador Queens looking like this.”
A week ago he would have thought her taking so long to remember her appearance was a sign that she didn’t care how the people saw her. Now he understood it was a sign of how much the people mattered to her.
“Ranon and I can entertain the Ladies for a while and give you a chance to wash up,” Theran said.
She flashed him a smile almost as brilliant as the one she’d given Gray, then dashed into the house.
“Well,” Theran said, “we shouldn’t keep the Ladies waiting.”
But Ranon stepped outside, his expression a little dazed as he stared at the pots lining the terrace. “Look.”
Theran looked. Then he smiled.
The honey pears were starting to grow.