“We saved these two for you,” Shira said.

Cassidy took one and chewed slowly. “Maydra, could you make another batch of these?”

“We’ve made enough for all the households to share, Daughter,” Devra said.

“I’d like to send them to someone as a special gift,” Cassidy said.

Maydra nodded. “We’ve got enough ingredients for one more batch. I can do that after dinner tonight. Didn’t make anything fancy for the evening meal, after all the baking this afternoon.”

“Gray and Ranon are dining out with Ferall and Hikaeda,” Cassidy said. “And Powell is out this evening.”

“Your father is going to eat with his apprentices so they can keep working for a few hours longer,” Devra said. “Since it’s just the women tonight, there’s no reason we can’t cook as we please.”

Cassidy took the last cookie. “That’s settled then.”

“A word with you, Cassie?” Talon asked.

Cassidy turned away from the dining room. “Of course.”

They went into the parlor. Now that they had privacy, he didn’t seem eager to speak.

“You’ve got your family here for Winsol,” he finally said.

She nodded. “My brother Clayton is coming tomorrow to be with us.”

“You still have half the court here, so you’ll be looked after.”

He was tiptoeing around something. “Talon, it’s Winsol. The next few days are social and fun. I don’t need looking after.”

“There are some who do,” he said quietly. “I wanted your consent to be gone for a few days. Thing is, the mountain passes still need to be guarded, so there are still men in the rogue camps. Some of them are there because they see that as their duty to Queen and land. Some of them are there because they’d seen too much when the twisted Queens ruled here, and they haven’t found the courage yet to come down to the villages.”

“Oh, Talon.” Cassidy’s eyes filled with tears.

“Now, don’t be doing that, Cassie. Don’t. It’s not as bad as you’re thinking. And it’s better this year than it’s been in a long time. Thing is, I trained a lot of those boys, so I’ve always made it a point to spend a little time in each of those camps around Winsol Eve and Winsol.”

“Then you should do that.” Cassidy blinked away the tears. “Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? We could have done something for them.”

“It’s been done. First Circle took care of it. Guess we should have told you, but you were already doing plenty.” Talon smiled. “Gray made up a bundle of books for each camp. Good entertainment on winter nights. Got new blankets and other supplies to pass out. Got baked goods and casseroles, fruits and coffee. Got a bit of a feast for each camp. They’ll already be making some of their own; this will add to it.”

“I’m glad. Do you know how many men are still up there?”

Talon shook his head. “Some went down to their home villages for a while, then went back into the mountains. I’ll have a better idea once I’ve seen the camps.”

“You’ll leave tomorrow?”

“As soon as the sun sets.”

“Powell is out this evening, so I’ll talk to him tomorrow morning and see what can be spared from the tithes for quarterly wages.”

“Wages? For what?”

Cassidy lifted her chin. “You said they’re guarding the passes for Queen and land. To me that sounds like they work for the court. And if they work for the court, they get paid by the court.”

“Cassie, that’s not why I told you.”

“I know that, Talon. It doesn’t make it any less true. If this is the work they do, they will be paid. We may not be able to give them what they deserve—not yet, anyway—but those men will be acknowledged.”

He stared at her for a long moment. Then he kissed her cheek and walked out of the room.

She gave herself another minute to settle before joining the other women for dinner.

CHAPTER 34

KAELEER

Daemon walked into the parlor where Jaenelle was tucking the last few presents under the tree before she created an illusion spell of the brightly wrapped boxes. Most, if not all, of those gifts would be going with her to the Keep this evening, so the illusion spell would maintain this room’s festive appearance.

He would tuck his special gift for her among the rest once he joined her at the Keep tomorrow for the family’s celebration of Winsol.

He held out a brown delivery box. “This came for you. Special delivery from Cassie.”

“From Cassie?” Jaenelle put the last box in place, frowned a little, rearranged a couple more, then nodded, finally satisfied with the arrangement.

Of course, if this package was supposed to go with the others, his darling wife could well pull them all out and start again.

He might find that annoying if he didn’t suspect she was trying to figure out what the gifts were without using Craft to probe the packages.

That was considered cheating.

Besides, if challenged, he would deny having done anything similar when he’d handled packages while putting his gifts under the tree.

Jaenelle opened the delivery box and uncovered a note and a large bakery tin.

“Chocolate chunk cookies,” she read. “Taste best when slightly warm.” She vanished the note, opened the bakery tin, and took a cookie.

Daemon narrowed his gold eyes as he watched her slowly chew and swallow. Until now, the only time he’d seenthat look on her face was when he was doing something especially pleasing with his hands or mouth.

“Let’s see those.” He reached for a cookie.

She hugged the tin, took a step back, and snarled, “Mine.”

“Darling,” he purred, “you’re sharing.”

“Why?”

“Because you like having sex with me.”

She watched him out of those sapphire eyes. “You think you can give me sex that’s as good as these cookies?”

“I think I can manage that.”

She put the last bite of cookie in her mouth. She chewed. Swallowed. Licked melted chocolate off her fingers.

And gave him a smile that made his knees weak and his blood sizzle.

“Did you have any plans for this afternoon?” she asked.

“I don’t remember.”

Her smile turned a bit feral and a whole lot hotter.

She handed him the bakery tin, walked to the door, and said over her shoulder, “Why don’t you tell Beale we’re going to miss the midday meal?”

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