Talon stared at the fire, saying nothing. Then he shook himself out of whatever thoughts had pulled him away. “Didn’t intend to disturb your quiet evening. I just wanted to stop by and give you these.” He called in two wrapped packages, one large and one small.

Theran’s face burned. With the way they’d parted, he hadn’t expected to see Talon or Gray, hadn’t expected to be remembered. So, feeling the pinch in his purse, he hadn’t bought anything for them. “Talon . . .”

Talon waved a hand dismissively. “Freely given. Freely taken.”

The words Cassidy used the first time she had offered Talon blood from her vein. Apparently the phrase was being used for other kinds of gifts as well.

Setting aside the smaller gift, Theran opened the larger package, then exclaimed in delight as he lifted the winter coat out of the tailor’s box. He slipped it on.

Talon nodded. “You and Gray are the same size, so we thought it would fit you. There are gloves in the box as well.”

Theran found them and tried them on. Fine leather. Excellent workmanship.

“I don’t know what to say except thank you.”

“You’re welcome. The coat and gloves are from Gray and me. The other is from Cassidy.”

Something burned in his throat as he removed the coat and gloves and carefully set them aside. He swallowed that burning and opened the other gift.

“A book?” He opened it to the title page and stared.

“She had the account of Jared and Lia’s journey made into books so that the people in Dena Nehele would know their story. She thought you should have one.”

Theran closed the book. His fingers stroked the leather cover. “I’ll send a proper thank-you after the holidays, but please convey my thanks. This is . . . special.”

“Well.” Talon pushed out of the chair. “I guess . . .”

“Could you stay?” Theran set the book aside and looked at the man who had raised him.

“Were you lying about those parties or the invitations for tonight?” Talon asked.

“No, I wasn’t lying. I really didn’t want to attend another party tonight. But I’d like to spend some time with you. Maybe play some cards or a game of chess?”

“You going to serve the blooded rum at midnight?”

“I am.”

Talon smiled. “In that case, let’s see if you’ve learned anything about chess.”

Talon said that every time they had played, even though Theran won almost half the time.

Theran smiled as he called in the chess set that had been a Winsol gift from a few years back.

They played until midnight, then shared a traditional cup of blooded rum to celebrate Winsol. An hour later, Talon caught the Winds and headed back to Eyota.

For an hour after that, Theran sat by the fire, swirling brandy in a snifter and staring at the flames—and feeling oddly content.

CHAPTER 35

KAELEER

“Lady Kermilla.” Sabrina gestured to the visitor’s chair before taking her seat behind the desk. “I don’t usually grant audiences the day after the Winsol holidays, but I didn’t think this discussion should wait any longer—which is why my Steward yielded to your request and made this appointment.”

Kermilla sat in the chair. “There has been a serious misunderstanding.” “Yes.” Sabrina opened the file on her desk. “That error is as much my fault as yours. I had thought that a First Circle that was experienced working together could balance the inexperience of a Queen ruling her first territory. Unfortunately, that was not the case, and too much damage was done before the problems were discovered to rectify the matter in any way except starting over.”

Kermilla frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Sabrina sighed and sat back in her chair. “Like other Blood whose innate abilities are linked to their caste, Queens have an instinctive desire to rule and maintain the Blood’s connection to the land. A Queen is born a Queen, but she also needs training in order to be agood Queen. In the usual way of things, you would have gone from your training with a District Queen to serving in the Second or Third Circle of a Province Queen to continue your education. Instead, you stepped into another Queen’s place, acquiring her court and the villages she ruled.”

“That courtwanted to serve me!” Kermilla felt the sting of Sabrina’s words because it sounded like Cassidy had handed over things the freckle-faced bitch no longer wanted instead of herwinning over those men.

“Yes, they did,” Sabrina said. “And the decision to let you rule Bhak and Woolskin was based on their experience, not yours, and the assumption that they would have the collective balls to stand firm if your inexperience was leading the court or the people you ruled into trouble. That wasn’t the case.”

Kermilla lifted her chin. “A friend needed my help and my counsel. Since theywere experienced, I thought my court would be able to handle Bhak and Woolskin during my visit. I was wrong.”

“Visit?” Sabrina tapped her fingertips together. “You haven’t been in residence in Bhak since early summer. Being absent from the village you’re supposed to be ruling for almost half a year isn’t visiting a friend; it’s blatant neglect of your duties—especially when you had a one-year provisional contract to prove yourself capable of ruling. If you truly needed that much time away to help a friend, you should have discussed it with Lady Darlena or me. We could have suspended your contract and reassigned your court until you returned. Or we might have allowed your court to manage the villages in your absence and had your Steward and Master of the Guard report directly to Lady Darlena.”

Having Darlena or Sabrina poking their noses into her finances was exactly what she’d been trying to avoid. And their Stewardswould have poked into everything, just like they did when they came to collect the autumn tithes and started all this trouble.

Kermilla lifted her chin a little higher. “Frankly, Lady Sabrina, I don’t think Bhak is a sufficient challenge for someone of my abilities, and that was part of the reason for my absence. But I’m back now, and I’ll get things straightened out.”

“Things are already straightened out,” Sabrina said. “And to be just as frank, Lady Kermilla, looking at the desperate situation in two villages that were happy and prosperous a year ago, my conclusion is that ruling a small village like Bhak ismore than your current abilities can handle.” She slapped the file closed and let out an angry sigh. “There’s no easy way to say this. I’ve given you an opportunity to voice your opinion, so let’s end this dance. You failed to prove your ability to rule. At their request, the villages under your hand will be given to another Queen when your contract ends this spring. Since the villages are in her Province, Lady Darlena will rule Bhak and Woolskin unofficially until that time. You may reside in the Queen’s house until spring if you choose, but you’ll be living in Bhak as a resident of the village,not as the ruling Queen.”

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