What did she do to you? He couldn’t ask, but he knew something wasn’t quite right.

As he turned to go back to the mansion, Gray said,“Theran? She knows the land needs to be loved. The Queens who have been living here haven’t cared about that.”

A message there, but Gray had always had a sensitivity to the land, being more aware of it than the people around him were. That sensitivity had heightened after he’d been rescued.

I’m glad you’re not afraid of her, Gray, Theran thought as he walked back to the mansion, but what kind of Queen cares more about digging in the dirt than taking care of the people?

It took most of the afternoon to meet the Warlords who wanted to be considered for the court. Three belonged to her and were suited to serve in her First Circle. The others wanted status, safety, something else. Whatever it was, they wouldn’t find it with her.

Several Warlords who lived in the town of Grayhaven would be an asset in one of the other twelve circles that made up a court, and she hoped they would accept the offer when the Steward made it on her behalf.

Once she found a Steward. And a Master of the Guard.

And with every man who wasn’t accepted, Theran tensed a little more.

Toward the end of the afternoon the first, and only, Prince arrived. A middle-aged man whose skin sagged as if he’d once been hefty but hadn’t eaten well in quite some time and whose left hand had been broken and badly healed.

“What do you want, Powell?” Archerr asked in a challenging voice.

“I would like to be considered for a position in the court,” Powell replied courteously, looking at Cassidy. “I’m good at organizing schedules and duties.”

“You’re also good at skimming off a percentage of the Queen’s tithes,” Archerr snapped.

“That was never proved,” Ranon snapped in return.

Why would Ranon defend a man accused of stealing from a Queen? Unless the Warlord Prince knew, or suspected, something about Powell that the rest of the men didn’t know.

“Did you steal from the Queen you served?” Cassidy asked.

“Yes,” Powell replied.

Mutters from the Warlords and Warlord Princes who had remained in the room. Snarls from several of the Warlord Princes who were in her First Circle, but she couldn’t tell if they were snarling at Powell or at one another.

“Why?” Cassidy asked.

“The Province Queen I served liked luxury,” Powell said. “Well, they all did, didn’t they? And it was the tithes from the District Queens that had to support those luxuries. It was hard to walk through the town where the Queen lived and see children who were hungry or who were wearing clothes and shoes too patched and torn to be useful. So sometimes a few coins would find their way back to a family for food or clothing.”

“I see,” Cassidy said. “Is that why your hand was broken?”

Powell nodded. “Most people were careful to spread out the spending. One man was not. I claimed to have given the man some coins from my own wages, and the Queen couldn’t prove otherwise. That’s why she had my left hand broken instead of maiming the right hand.”

In Kaeleer, a tribunal of Queens would have known you were lying within minutes, Cassidy thought. But their wrath would have been aimed at the Queen who had mistreated her people and not you.

“I have to trust that the people who serve me will work for the good of Dena Nehele,” Cassidy said to Powell. “I understand your reasons, and I can’t say you were wrong. But everyone is going to be living lean for a while, and tithes will be necessary to support the court and take care of the expenses that come with the court. If you think someone is being tithed unfairly, I need to know. But the amount of the tithe, unfair or not, will be my decision. Is that understood?”

“Yes, Lady. That is understood,” Powell said.

“In that case, are you willing to wear the Steward’s ring?”

Silence. Disbelief from Theran that he didn’t bother to hide. Surprise from the other men in her First Circle. Except for Ranon. He looked thoughtful.

“I would be honored to serve as your Steward,” Powell said.

A commotion at the back of the room. Anger and resistance coming from the men nearest the door. Anger and a flash of worry coming from Ranon.

Vae launched herself into the men, using shields to plow a wide path that left several men staggering to keep their balance.

*Bad males!* Vae shouted. *Bad!*

The men glanced at the platform, then stepped away, since Cassidy wasn’t calling Vae off.

A woman, a witch, approached the platform.

“Your kind shouldn’t be here,” Theran said at the same time Ranon said, “Shira.”

He loves her, Cassidy thought, watching Ranon’s effort to remain neutral. But he didn’t want her to come here. Why?

“I have as much right to be here as you do, Theran Grayhaven,” Shira said. Her omitting his title was a deliberate slap in the face. “You can trace your bloodline back to Jared. I can trace my bloodline back to Jared’s cousin Shira. So if I don’t belong here, neither do you.”

Since that particular verbal slap left Theran speechless, Cassidy jumped in. “What can I do for you, Sister?”

Shira looked at her. “I want to offer my services. I’m a fully qualified Healer and—”

“That’s not all you are,” Theran snapped.

No, that wasn’t all Shira was. The hourglass pendant she wore above her Summer-sky Jewel proclaimed her to be something more powerful—and more dangerous—than a Healer.

“I’m not ashamed of what I am,” Shira said.

“Why should you be?” Cassidy asked. “You’ve completed your training in the Hourglass’s Craft?” The question was a formality. The pendant Shira wore, with all the gold dust in the bottom half of the hourglass, indicated a Black Widow who had completed her training and could spin the tangled webs of dreams and visions, as well as help people caught in the Twisted Kingdom. The Black Widows were also the caste of witches who were well versed in the making and use of poisons.

“Her kind were outlawed generations ago,” Theran said.

“You’re a natural Black Widow?” Cassidy asked Shira.

“That’s the only kind there are in Dena Nehele,” Shira replied.

“The penalty for training anyone in that Craft is execution,” Theran said.

Ranon snarled at Theran.

“Gentlemen,” Cassidy said, using Craft to enhance her voice. She waited until they had all quieted down. Then waited until a couple of Warlords got done swearing after Vae nipped them because they didn’t quiet fast enough to suit the Sceltie.

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