A flash of understanding, especially when she realized Shira was acting more like a woman trying to brace herself for a truth that would wound.

“He wants to sniff my neck,” Cassidy said.

Shira hesitated, then nodded.

“And he’s not sure if that means something sexual.”

Another reluctant nod.

“It doesn’t.”

Shira’s eyes widened. “It doesn’t?”

“No. I’m not sure what the attraction is. I can’t see or feel anything. And I’m not sure what this impulse means to the males, except it’s not sexual.” She was pretty sure it wasn’t sexual. Maybe she should write to Jaenelle soon and ask. “When I was preparing to come here, Jaenelle told me any Warlord Prince who truly belongs to me will want to sniff my neck and I wasn’t to make a fuss about it.”

Shira’s mouth hung open. “Jaenelle? Witch told you that?”

Obviously the rest of the court knew what she’d told Talon about Jaenelle Angelline. Maybe that was why Theran had been so stiffly polite these past few days. “Yes. When I thought about it later, I realized I’d seen all the males in her First Circle stand behind her and a little to the right so that they could . . . Well, they weren’t obvious about it, but basically they were standing there in order to sniff her. But there wasn’t anything sexual about it. I suppose it was sexual with her Consort, but he arrived years after I had served my apprenticeship in the Dark Court, so Jaenelle’s brother Lucivar was the only one I saw kiss her on that spot, and it was friendly. Like when my brother, Clayton, gives me a kiss on the head.”

“It’s not sexual,” Shira said, not quite believing.

Cassidy shook her head and smiled. “Ranon is in love with you. I figured that out the first day when you offered your services to the court. So if the two of you want to find a suite of rooms in this place so you can live together, I have no objection. If you want to handfast, we’ll all ignore Theran’s mutters about expenses and have a party.” She frowned. “There are still Priestesses here, aren’t there?”

Looking a bit dazed, Shira nodded. “But I’m a Black Widow.”

“And judging by the reaction when you first came here, that’s not going to be an easy thing to be openly. But it shouldn’t stop you from being with someone you love.”

Shira walked over to the window and stared out. Since she kept wiping her cheeks, Cassidy went to the door, intending to slip out and give the other woman a little time to shed happy tears in private.

“How close are you?” Shira asked, turning her head a little. “To your moontime.”

“It will start in a few days. Maybe any day now, actually.”

“I can make up a brew that will delay it. Since you’re so close, I’m not sure it will delay it for a full cycle, but it will give you a little more time to get used to the males here.”

“Thank you.”

Cassidy left the room and paused outside the door. In Dharo, she had made few decisions that had meant much. Here, every decision she made, no matter how small, could ripple through the entire Territory.

Be what you are. That had been Jaenelle’s last bit of advice.

Maybe she wouldn’t accomplish much. Maybe her court would decide among themselves to keep her for a year as a token while they actually ruled. The Darkness knew they were all stronger than she, so there wasn’t anything she could do if they opposed her.

But she had done something of value today, and if she did nothing else while she was here, at least she’d made it possible for two people to love each other openly.

As she headed for the door that opened onto the terrace, Cassidy couldn’t stop smiling.

Gray pretended to rake the softened earth in front of him while he watched Cassie. The sun shone on that braid of fire as she walked across the lawn, and her strides were long and easy. Like the rest of her.

Every morning since the hurting she had come out to sit in the chair he set out for her. They talked about plants while he dug and weeded, reclaiming another piece of the gardens. And she talked to him about Protocol, since he studied a little more of the books each night and asked her questions.

He enjoyed the simple easiness of being around her, and looked forward to the hour or so they could spend together before she had to go inside to do her Queen work.

He hoped she would enjoy the surprise he had hidden in the wheelbarrow.

“Look,” Cassidy said, giving him a wide smile as she held up her hands. “No more bandages.”

Setting the rake aside, Gray scrubbed his hands on his pants to clean off a bit of the dirt before taking careful hold of her hands.

Healed. Not even a small scar to show the damage she had done to her hands.

Healed but not whole. Not yet. Maybe never. Maybe never as strong as before the hurting.

He had learned that painful lesson years ago.

“They’re not strong enough for digging,” Gray said. “Not yet.”

“I won’t know that until I—”

“No,” he said, his voice sharpened by a certainty he couldn’t explain. “They’re not strong enough yet, Cassie. Not for digging in ground that hasn’t been tended for too many years.”

She looked bewildered—and hurt—that he would snap at her like that.

He couldn’t stand to see her hurting, so he added quickly, “But you could plant.”


Gray stepped to one side so that Cassie could see inside the wheelbarrow.

“Oh,” Cassie said, picking up one seed pot. “What are they?”

No longer sounding hurt. Now she sounded curious and excited—the seedlings of happiness.

“Don’t know the fancy name for it, but the common name is blue river,” Gray said. “It’s a delicate trailing plant that has small blue flowers. Starts blooming in late spring and into summer. If you cut it back some at that point, it will have a second blooming season. I was thinking about that boulder you weren’t sure of.”

Still looking at the plant, Cassie nodded. “It has that funny hole in it.”

“I figure that hole is about the size of a good-size pot. So if you plant one blue river in that hole and the others in front of the boulder . . .”

“It will look like a waterfall tumbling down rocks into a river. Gray, that’s a wonderful idea.” She gave him a quick kiss, right on the mouth, before she turned back to the wheelbarrow and began crooning to the little plants.

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