“Hell’s fire,” Shaddo said, breaking the silence that followed Powell’s words. “I’d be ashamed to fight against men who wanted that.”
“I hope you remember what you just said,” Talon told Powell. “I think we’re going to need something in writing.”
“I’ll draft something,” Powell said. “With the Lady’s permission.”
Feeling a bit battered—and wondering why they were bothering to ask her permission when they were barreling forward with a speed that left her breathless—Cassidy nodded.
“If Jared Blaed and Ranon are agreeable, I’d like them to show my draft to the High Lord and get his opinion,” Powell said. “In confidence. He has a way with words, and we’re trying to avoid a war, not start one.”
“We can do that,” Gray said, glancing at Ranon. “Once we’ve declared ourselves independent of Dena Nehele, I’d like Lucivar to come here for a day or two to give his opinion about what kind of defenses we need and where. No offense to you or your ability, Talon, but . . .”
“No offense taken,” Talon said. “Lucivar Yaslana has been feared for centuries for what he does on a killing field. We’d be fools not to take advantage of his experience and listen to any suggestions or advice he wants to give.”
“I think Jared Blaed and Ranon should meet with the Warlord Princes in the five southern Provinces,” Shaddo said.
“Why?” Ranon asked.
“First Escort and the Master of the Guard’s second-in-command? Your words are going to hold a lot of weight with the other Warlord Princes. You, Ranon, have always stood for the Shalador people. Jared’s people. And Jared Blaed is descended from Thera and Blaed. Balanced against Theran using the Grayhaven name and being Lia’s last descendant, I’d say that evens the field.”
“So we move fast,” Powell said. “Cassie sends the letter to Theran, stripping him of the title of First Escort, citing his failure to honorably perform his duties as the reason for the demotion. As the High Lord suggested.”
“He’ll start recruiting openly in response,” Archerr said.
“In the northern Provinces,” Talon said. “He doesn’t know Kermilla showed her hand, so he’ll start talking to the Warlord Princes farthest away from Eyota. Also, I suspect he’s been giving those men the impression that Cassie is going back to Dharo in the spring, leaving Kermilla a clear field, and that there won’t be an established Queen and court to challenge the upstart. Unless a man is truly drawn to Kermilla, he’ll think twice about signing on to serve in her court when he realizes it means going up against the ruling Queen and her court.”
“I think those of us who have been acting as court liaisons for the southern Provinces should head out tomorrow and set up the meetings,” Haele said. “Make it an official request to meet with the new First Escort and the Master’s second-in-command. It would also be good if we told them the Queens would be welcome to have an audience with Cassidy.”
“They’re always welcome,” Cassidy said, looking at her men. This might not end up being a war, but they were still preparing for a kind of battle.
“One last thing,” Powell said. “What are we going to call this new Territory?”
Cassidy looked at Ranon, who kept his eyes fixed on the table. “Ranon?” she said softly.
Obeying the sound of her voice, he looked at her.
Hope. The fulfillment of a dream. But for the first time since she’d met him, he was holding back, acting with fierce restraint.
“You and your people have dreamed for a long time that you would have a place of your own again,” she said. “That you would live in a land called Shalador.”
Ranon looked around the table. Cassidy’s heart ached with pride as every man nodded, giving his blessing to the name.
Ranon’s dark eyes filled with tears. He blinked them away. Then he said, “We have dreamed of this, but the Shalador people won’t build this new land alone, and the name should reflect all the people who call this land their home.” He took a deep breath and blew it out slowly. “Shalador Nehele. I would like to call our new land Shalador Nehele.”
Cassidy swallowed hard to push down the lump in her throat. “That’s a fine name.”
“Then it’s settled,” Talon said, looking at her.
“It’s settled,” she agreed.
She’d barely said the words when someone tapped on the door. Dryden and the footman entered, carrying a tray of glasses and bottles of sparkling wine.
Seeing the number of bottles, Talon and Powell glanced at each other, then shrugged. Clearly, they had both sent an order to Dryden in anticipation of reaching an agreement.
Bottles were opened and glasses were filled.
The men and Shira raised their glasses.
“To Lady Cassidy and the Territory of Shalador Nehele,” Talon said.
Their voices rang all around her. “To Lady Cassidy.”
The next morning, the First Circle moved quietly, and they moved fast.
By the time Cassidy, Shira, and Reyhana had finished breakfast, Ranon and Gray were sitting down with Eyota’s elders and Tradition Keepers to explain the court’s decision to create a new Territory. By the time Cassidy and Reyhana had settled at the desk in the Queen’s office to sort and review all the requests and invitations again, the liaisons for the five southern Provinces were meeting with the Warlord Princes in those Provinces to arrange a formal visit with Ranon and Jared Blaed.
By the time the messenger arrived at the Grayhaven estate and delivered the letter from Lady Cassidy to Prince Theran Grayhaven, every Warlord Prince who lived south of the Heartsblood River knew something was about to happen—and they began sharpening their knives.
Worn out by a morning of useless meetings and a midday meal that still churned sour in his belly, Theran returned to the Grayhaven mansion and found Julien waiting for him. The look in the butler’s eyes chilled him because it signified another clash between butler and future Queen.
Julien called in a letter and held it out to him. “After you left, Lady Kermilla went into your study and opened the mail.All the mail.”
“Why in the name of Hell would she do that?” The words were out before he could stop himself.
“I wouldn’t know.” The tone said the butler knew quite well why a Queen would go through mail that wasn’t addressed to her—and what happened to a man if she found something she didn’t like. “When this letter arrived, I felt it was best to deliver it to you personally since it has Lady Cassidy’s seal.”