And there was no comfort at all in the way Theran kept looking at Cassie when he thought no one was watching.
“I don’t know which one is harder to get through,” Cassidy muttered a couple of days later as she stomped to the garden to work off a little frustration. “A man’s head or ground as solid as rock.”
The day they’d all worked together to clean up the part of the garden filled with witchblood, she’d thought she and Theran had finally settled into some kind of understanding, that he might actually listen to what she was saying instead of telling her it couldn’t be done “that way.” Hell’s fire! Anyone with a pebble’s worth of brain could figure out Dena Nehele couldn’t be ruled in “the ordinary way.” They didn’t have enough Queens to rule in “the ordinary way.” That had been the point! And there was nothing unusual about males ruling on a Queen’s behalf. It was done all the time in Kaeleer. Her cousin Aaron ruled Tajrana, the capital city of Nharkhava, on his Queen’s behalf. And Prince Yaslana ruled Ebon Rih. And she knew there were Warlords assigned to be a Queen’s representative who, in essence, ruled their home villages.
How in the name of Hell was she supposed to decide which available Queens might be able—and willing—to rule more than their little villages if she couldn’t talk to them? But Prince Grayhaven kept finding reasons for her not to travel and see other parts of Dena Nehele, and he was just as quick with the excuses for why the other Queens—even with an escort of Warlord Princes—couldn’t come to Grayhaven to talk to her.
And none of the other Warlord Princes challenged his asinine statements because he was Grayhaven.
“The man farts every time he opens his mouth,” Cassidy muttered as she reached the big stone shed.
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and blew it out. “And Poppi would whack your butt if he heard you say that,” she scolded herself.
Cassidy took a step closer to the shed’s open door. Nobody in the part of the shed she could see. Most of the tools were stored neatly now, except for that jumble of things in the back left corner.
She looked at the old blanket that separated Gray’s room from the rest of the shed.
“Gray?” she called softly. Theran was still in the house, so who was talking to Gray? The voice sounded familiar, but it was muffled too much for her to be sure, except it sounded male—and young.
Then Gray’s voice rose in a kind of desperate keening. “I’m Grayhaven! I’m Grayhaven!”
She rushed to the doorway and pulled the blanket aside—and saw him shivering on a pathetic excuse of a bed, caught in some kind of nightmare. He was wearing trousers and nothing else, and she felt her knees grow weak as she stared at the scars on his back.
“Mother Night, Gray,” she whispered. “What did they do to you?”
She wanted to touch him, wanted to shake him out of the nightmare—or the memory—but she was afraid touching him might frighten him even more.
She braced herself and said in a firm voice, “Prince Gray, your presence is requested.”
He jerked, whimpered. But she thought her use of Protocol had pulled him out of the dream-memory, because the next thing he said was, “Cassie?”
It took him a couple of tries to turn himself so he was facing the doorway. “Cassie?”
His dark hair was matted with sweat, and his face had the drawn, exhausted look of a man who had endured too much.
“What’s your name?” Cassidy asked, keeping her voice Queen firm. “What’s your full name? Your real name?”
He hesitated, then said, “Jared Blaed Grayhaven.”
She looked at the room—at the straight-backed chair that had a flat stone under one leg to keep it from wobbling, at the broken-down chest of drawers that had a single lamp, at the bookcase that had only one unbroken shelf.
“This is the best he could do?” she asked too softly as she looked at the room, piece by piece. “You’re his family, and this is the best he would do?”
She backed out of the room, letting the blanket fall across the opening.
“Cassie?” Gray called.
She walked out of the shed, her stride lengthening with every step she took toward the house.
She couldn’t stop, couldn’t answer. Because every step stoked her fury just a little more.
“This was your idea to begin with,” Ranon said, dogging Theran’s footsteps with as much persistence as that damn Sceltie. “Why are you so determined now to stand in the way?”
“I’m not standing in the way,” Theran tossed over his shoulder.
“You won’t even give Cassidy the courtesy of listening to what she has to say.”
He turned on Ranon. “If Warlord Princes are going to rule Dena Nehele, what was the point of trying to get a Queen?”
“And what’s the point of having a Queen if you won’t let her do anything?” Ranon snapped. “I can understand not wanting her to travel around the Territory right now, but why are you so determined not to have the few Queens who are left come to Grayhaven to meet her? After all, she rules them now.”
“And how many of those Queens that we passed over are going to be impressed with a witch who wears a Rose Jewel?” Theran asked, feeling bitter again. He had to hide that bitterness from Talon, but he’d be damned if he’d hide it from the rest of the First Circle. Especially Ranon.
“The Shalador Queens might be willing to come and talk to her—and listen to what she has to say,” Ranon said.
“Shalador. Shalador. That’s all you harp about, isn’t it? Every meeting of the First Circle, you bring up something about the reserves.”
“Someone has to remember our people,” Ranon said with his own touch of bitterness.
“Just because our Queen has given her consent for you to mount a Black Widow—”
“Watch your tongue, Grayhaven,” Ranon snarled.
Theran caught a movement out of the corner of his eye and turned to see Cassidy coming toward him, her hands clenched and a look on her face....
“You coldhearted son of a whoring bitch!”
She rammed him with a force that knocked him into the wall.
Instinct and temper took over, and he shoved her hard enough that she would have fallen if Ranon hadn’t caught her. She shook off the Opal-Jeweled Warlord Prince, and the expression on Ranon’s face would have been amusing if the woman didn’t look ready to kill someone.