She studied him, and he had the sense that something in the past minute had shown her another point on the battlefield.

“Ranon? How do you think Theran will respond to this? Do you think he’ll let us go?”

“He’ll be pissed off, and I doubt he’ll be the best of neighbors, but I don’t think he’s enough of a fool to start a war. Not with Talon backing you.” But her question made him think of the reason they were risking war to begin with. “What about Kermilla? How is she going to respond?”

He looked into Cassidy’s eyes and knew the answer—just as he knew the reason before she said it.

“I think Kermilla is going to be very unhappy about losing a third of the tithes, and I don’t think she’ll let go of that income without a fight.”

Easy enough to take that stand when the bitch wasn’t going to be the one standing on the killing fields.

Cassidy hooked her arm through his and headed back to the house. “Let’s save that worry for another day and focus on today’s worry.”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Whether or not there’s anything besides porridge left for breakfast.”

He laughed as he opened the kitchen door and they both hurried into the warmth.

Don’t fail until you fail.

She didn’t want to fail the court or the people. And they weren’t about to fail her.

EBON ASKAVI

Prince Ranon and Prince Jared Blaed arrived at the Keep thirty minutes after sunset. That was just enough time for a man to wake up, clean up, and drink a glass of yarbarah. In Saetan’s experience, young men didn’t show up with that kind of precision in order to make a casual request. The fact that Jaenelle would have considered those two as Second Circle gave him even more reason to pay attention to the timing.

“Gentlemen,” Saetan said as they crossed the sitting room and stopped at the precise distance that was deemed courteous according to Protocol and gave him the precise bows owed his rank.

All that precision gave him a headache.

“High Lord,” Gray said.

When Gray hesitated, Saetan supplied the rest. “You have something you want to discuss, but it needs to be in confidence.”

“Yes,” Gray said.

“Will my keeping this confidence put anyone I care about at risk?”

A hesitation before Ranon said, “No one in Kaeleer.”

Interesting answer. “Very well.”

As soon as they had that much assurance from him, they both relaxed.

Gray called in a folded paper and held it out. “We’d like you to read this and tell us what we should fix. Powell said this is a copy, so you can mark it up if you want to.”

Saetan called in his half-moon glasses, unfolded the paper, and read the carefully written words.

Mother Night. These children had balls.

“Are you trying to start a war or avoid one?” he asked.

“Avoid one,” they replied.

Thank the Darkness for that. “Then there are a few phrases that should be reworded.”

As he turned toward a chair where he could work, he felt another dark presence in the Keep. Ranon and Gray felt it too and knew who was approaching the room. Since neither of them asked him to do anything to keep this meeting private, he settled into the chair, called in a lap desk and a pen, and began rereading the document that would break a Territory.

Lucivar walked into the room. A slashing glance at Gray and Ranon, an assessing look at him, and his Eyrien son had seen enough to know this wasn’t a battlefield.

Which didn’t mean Lucivar wouldn’t turn it into one if he decided there was a reason.

“Gray,” Lucivar said. “Ranon. What brings you here?”

The question wasn’t as idle as it sounded. Ebon-gray was asking Purple Dusk and Opal to explain their presence—and would get an explanation one way or another.

Since dealing with Lucivar had been a valuable lesson for all the boyos in Jaenelle’s First Circle, Saetan pretended to be unaware of this particular pissing contest. He didn’t want Gray and Ranon to get hurt, but he wasn’t going to step in unless it was necessary because every man needed to know when to stand and when to yield.

Gray glanced at Ranon, who nodded slightly.

“The Shalador reserves and the five southern Provinces are breaking from the rest of Dena Nehele to form a new Territory,” Gray said.

“That makes the Heartsblood River your northern boundary?” Lucivar asked.

“How did you know?” Ranon asked.

Foolish boy,Saetan thought, looking up to watch this part of the drama. An Eyrien could see a great deal from the air while riding the currents. Especially when that Eyrien was an Ebon-gray Warlord Prince.

Lucivar shrugged—and then winced so slightly no one but family would notice. “It’s a natural border, not to mention a means of travel and a source of water. Stands to reason you’d want to hold on to one side of it. How many Warlord Princes on your side of the line?”

“About forty,” Gray said. “That’s almost half of the adult Warlord Princes in Dena Nehele.”

“Adult,” Lucivar said. He gave Ranon a long look. “If this gets messy, your brother will end up on the killing fields with the rest of you. You know that.”

“I know,” Ranon said quietly.

“That’s why I’m looking over this document,” Saetan said. “To try to avoid the necessity of anyone standing on a killing field because of a preference for one Queen over another.”

Another assessing look at him before Lucivar focused on the other two men. “Have Talon deliver the copy of the document to Grayhaven. He’s the one man Theran won’t challenge.”

Saetan crossed out a sentence and wrote his changes in the margin. “And be sure to have a copy of the final, signed document brought here to the Keep. Documents can be lost or destroyed in a Territory when it’s convenient to hide information. Nothing can touch them here.”

That wasn’t quite true, but there was no one else in the room, including Lucivar, who could destroy a race so completely that all trace of them was eliminated from all the Realms.

Gray had brought a map of Dena Nehele, so while he, Ranon, and Lucivar reviewed how to make the best use of the trained warriors they had, Saetan worked through Powell’s draft, making subtle word changes that would place the burden of war squarely on Theran Grayhaven’s shoulders. Only a fool would start a war under these circumstances.

Of course, a man driven to serve a particular Queen could be ten times a fool. He might hate himself for it, but he’d still follow the Queen’s command and be her instrument.


Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction
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