“The five southern Provinces have agreed to join the Shalador reserves to create a new Territory,” Powell said. “All the District Queens and the Warlord Princes who are ruling on behalf of our Queen support the court’s decision to break away from Dena Nehele and build the kind of life we want in a land ruled by the Queen we have chosen to serve.”

The men around the table released their breath in a collective sigh. Exhilaration and trepidation. None of them wanted war, but all of them were willing to step onto as many killing fields as it would take to buy freedom for the people they loved.

“I’ve drafted a document,” Powell said, looking at Ranon and Gray.

“We’ll take it up to the Keep this afternoon and ask the High Lord to review it,” Gray said.

“Until we know how Theran and his Lady are going to react to this news, everyone goes out in tandem,” Talon said. “And you Ladies are to have an escort with you at all times.”

“But—” Shira said.

“Alltimes.” Talon stared at Shira until she nodded. “We can’t afford to lose either of you—or Reyhana. You’ll do what we need so that we can do what Shalador Nehele needs.”

“That’s fair,” Cassidy said, sounding too subdued for Ranon’s liking. “You should remember to talk to the Scelties about helping to guard the Queen’s square.”

Talon nodded as if he—and every other man in the room—hadn’t thought of that already. Having played hide-and-seek with the dogs in order to learn more of what they could do, the men had confirmed that no matter how well you could hide from another human, you couldn’t cover yourself in shields well enough or disguise yourself well enough to hide from kindred senses unless you were downwind ofall of them.

“Is that all?” Cassidy asked.

“Yes, Lady,” Powell replied.

Cassidy pushed away from the table and walked out of the room.

“Let me,” Ranon said, reaching across the empty space to stop Gray from following her.

He waited for Gray’s nod before he left the room to look for Cassidy.

Wasn’t hard to find her. The garden gave her comfort—even when it slept under snow.

He stood on her left side, wanting to touch her, wanting to offer simple contact. But he wasn’t sure she would welcome a touch right now, so he stayed where he was.

“I’m afraid,” she said. “You’ve put your faith in me as a Queen, and you’re risking your lives and your people’s lives based on that faith. What if I fail?”

“None of us know if we’ll measure up to the demands of the day,” Ranon said gently. “Considering what we’re about to do, only a fool wouldn’t be afraid of what may be ahead of us, and you’re no fool. But I’ll tell you the same thing Talon told me once: don’t fail until you fail.”

She gave him a puzzled look that made him smile. Then he looked away. It seemed easier to say the words when he wasn’t looking right at her. “I was seventeen the first time I stepped onto a killing field. Warlord Princes are born to stand on the killing fields, and everything we are gives us the temper and the instinctive skills to be predators and killers. But it also takes maturity to accept what you do on those fields. I was seventeen, and I wasn’t ready. Neither were any of the other boys who were training in that camp up in the mountains. But a decision had been made to eliminate a Province Queen who had gone beyond cruel in what she was doing to the people, and part of that decision was to pay whatever price needed to be paid.”

“So they sent young men to support the experienced warriors,” Cassidy said. “Is that why you’ve kept such a strict watch over Janos, kept him hidden from the Queens?”

“That’s why. I didn’t want him to face that before he had to.

“I remember Talon coming into the camp the night before the fight to talk to the leaders. He couldn’t be with us for the attack. I think he was committed to another killing field farther north. Besides, Talon couldn’t fight in daylight, but he was the best instructor we had. When he was done talking to the leaders, he took a couple of minutes with each of us. It got to be my turn, and instead of telling him I would be brave and strong and win the battle, I told him I was afraid to fail. And he said, ‘Don’t fail until you fail.’ So I didn’t. We destroyed that Queen and the warriors she sent against us. Most of us survived.” Ranon hesitated, then decided not to tell her that some of the boys who survived went back into the mountains and never came down again. “There have been plenty of times in the years since then when things have looked too bleak for any hope to survive, when I watched other men fall in battle while trying to save what we could. There were days when I thought I couldn’t stand to see another friend die, but I’d tell myself that as long as I could stand and fight for my people I hadn’t failed yet. I don’t know if that helps.”

“It does,” Cassidy said. “Yes, it does. Thank you, Ranon.”

He touched her shoulder. When she didn’t pull away, he drew her against him for a hug.

“We’ll do all right, Cassie,” he said as he eased back. “And since our land will be a third of Dena Nehele’s size, there will be two-thirds less . . .” Suddenly dizzy, he staggered back a step.

“Ranon?” Cassidy grabbed his arm. “What’s wrong?”

“We didn’t think of it. I swear we didn’t.”

“Think of what?”

“The tithes.”

She looked baffled. Completely, totally baffled. “What about them?”

“You’ll only get a third of the tithes you would have gotten if Dena Nehele stayed whole.” How could they have overlooked something that obvious?

More bafflement. “I know. Powell and I reviewed the accounts this week to make sure the court could still support itself, and we can, Ranon. All of you will receive your quarterly income.”

“What about your income?”

“I’ll have plenty.”

He wasn’t sure he believed her, so he’d talk to Powell. Oh, he was certain that thecourt’s expenses would be paid, and everyone who was owed a wage would get the full wage. He just wasn’t sure Cassidy would have a copper left to call her own. The woman was quite capable of brushing that little detail aside.

He huffed out a breath and watched it cloud the air between them. “You know, it’s colder than Hell out here. I could use a hot drink and some breakfast. How about you?”

Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction
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