Kermilla’s words felt like a knife twisting in her gut, but Vae’s words hurt more.Was she giving up on this court because her former court had walked away?Was she giving up without even asking what her First Circle wanted?Was she running away, whining, instead of fighting for what belonged to her?

Would a Sceltie give up her flock to another dog when she knew the dog would hurt what she’d promised to protect?

“Do Scelties ever get scared?”

*We get scared. But we still fight.*

Which are you going to be, Cassidy? A coward or a Queen?

Sighing, she kicked off her shoes and approached the bed. “Move over, Vae. I really don’t feel well right now. I need to rest for a bit.”

When Vae shifted, Cassidy lay down on top of the covers and closed her eyes.

*Cassie? What will you tell your males?*

“I don’t know. I’m confused.”

Vae settled beside her, warming her back. *That is foolish. This is not confusing. They are yours, and you will fight for them so they will not be forced to serve the bad Queen.*

Cassidy closed her eyes. Could it be that simple?

Gray stamped the snow off his boots and walked into Ranon’s kitchen. “It’s colder than Hell out there.” He stripped off his coat and hung it on a peg, then removed his boots and called in the soft house shoes Burle and Devra had given him for Winsol. “Ranon, you got anything hot to drink?”

“I’m making coffee, and have some whiskey to go with it,” Ranon replied.

Powell sat at the kitchen table with Shaddo. Archerr stayed near one of the windows, looking out at the yard—or at the Queen’s Residence.

Archerr was the escort on watch today. Why wasn’t the man at the Residence instead of standing in Ranon’s kitchen?

When Ranon asked him to stop by the house to talk, there had been some urgency in the psychic communication, but the Shalador Warlord Prince hadn’t indicated it was a court meeting rather than a personal conversation.

“What’s wrong?” Gray asked.

Ranon put the pot of coffee, the bottle of whiskey, and five mugs on the table. “It’s Powell’s meeting.”

“This came with the rest of the day’s correspondence.” Powell called in a piece of expensive paper and handed it to Gray.

Ranon came around the table. Leaning over Gray’s shoulder, he read the letter and began swearing viciously as he paced around the kitchen. Gray read it and handed it to Shaddo, whose eyes glazed with killing fury as he gave the paper to Archerr.

“That bitch was gone,” Shaddo snarled. “Talon told us she had gone back to Dharo for good.”

“Because that’s what Theran told him,” Archerr said.

“No, Theran only said Kermilla had gone back to Dharo to celebrate Winsol with her people,” Ranon said. “Talon had the impression Theran didn’t expect her to return, but Grayhaven didn’tsay that.”

“Doesn’t matter what was or wasn’t said. She was gone, and now she’s back,” Shaddo snapped.

“Where is Cassie?” Gray asked.

Ranon whirled to face Powell. “Is she giving up and running again? Hell’s fire! What more do we need to do before she believes in us?”

Hearing grief and desperation under Ranon’s anger, Gray raised a hand—and immediately felt the other Warlord Princes in the room yank on the leash to regain control of their tempers.

“Cassie isn’t going to run anywhere,” he said quietly. He didn’t think she would run. Not anymore. But if she did because of Kermilla, he’d find her and bring her back. “Powell?”

“After reading Kermilla’s letter, she said she wasn’t feeling well and went up to her room. Vae went with her.” Dry amusement filled Powell’s shadowed eyes. “Don’t worry, Ranon. Lady Cassidy isn’t going anywhere without our being informed.”

The tension in the room eased a little.

Powell’s amusement faded. “Perhaps I was too dismissive and didn’t take into account Cassidy’s feelings about the other Queen.”

“Kermilla is a scar on Cassie’s heart, and that scar bleeds every time Kermilla brushes against Cassie’s life,” Gray said. “But she’ll get past today’s hurt and go on.”

Cassie would learn to live with her scars just like he was learning to live with his.

“Is she going to let that bitch keep threatening everything we’ve all worked for?” Archerr asked.

“Cassie isn’t letting that bitch do anything,” Shaddo growled. “This mess is Theran’s doing.”

“There’s an easy way to fix it,” Archerr said. “It’s not like we haven’t done it before.”

They looked at him, and Gray saw the same question in all their eyes. “No, that isn’t the way to fix it. Not this time. When Cassie knows we’ve prepared for this, when she knows we’re going to stand with her, she’ll stand with us. She won’t turn her back on her people.”

“Then let’s make sure she knows we’re going to stand with her,” Ranon said.

“I’ve already contacted those I could reach in the First Circle who were working beyond the village today,” Powell said. “They’ll contact the others, so we’ll all be here around sunset.”

“Fine,” Gray said. “Then let’s have some of that coffee before we all get back to work.”

Cassie opened her eyes. Full dark outside. She must have slept for a few hours—and someone must have thrown a blanket over her and added a warming spell to it. Otherwise she would have gotten cold and woken up.

She tried to shift. The blanket grunted and yawned. A moment later, a small ball of witchlight floated near the bedroom door, lighting the room enough for her to see that she was pinned down by Scelties. Vae, Khollie, and Darkmist. Darcy, Keelie, and . . .

Catching the scent of leather and horses, she twisted to look behind her.

. . . Lloyd.

“Let me up.”

They were awake and watching her. Not one of them moved.

“I have to pee.Now. Let me up.”

They jumped off the bed. One of them used Craft to open her door. Darcy and Lloyd took up a position in the hallway, blocking access to anything except the bathroom and other bedrooms on this side of the staircase. Vae and Keelie trotted in front of her. Darkmist and Khollie followed so close behind she was afraid of kicking them if she raised her foot for a normal step. So she shuffled to the bathroom.