“Lady Kermilla, who is also from Dharo in the Realm of Kaeleer,” Theran replied.

Silence.

Hikaeda looked at his friend Elendill, then back at Theran. “What is it you want from us, Prince?”

“Lady Kermilla held back from forming a court here out of courtesy for Lady Cassidy, allowing Cassidy to finish her rule here uncontested. Because of that courtesy, Dena Nehele is left without a Queen or a ruling court. Our situation is a little better than it was a year ago, but the need for a Queen to rule our land remains. What I’m asking of you, Hikaeda, is the same thing I asked a year ago—that all of you offer yourselves for the Queen’s consideration, and if chosen, serve in her First Circle.”

“And Kermilla is the Queen you intend to have rule over us?” Hikaeda asked.

How many times was he going to have to say it? “Yes, because Kermilla is the right Queen for us.”

Another silence.

“Thank you for your words, Theran,” Hikaeda said politely. “Elendill and I will return to our Province and convey your message to the District Queens and the Warlord Princes who were unable to answer your summons. I am certain you will not wait long for an answer.”

What in the name of Hell did that mean?

Hikaeda and Elendill turned away from the platform and headed for the door. The other Warlord Princes turned and followed, not even glancing at him to confirm that this meeting was over.

He wanted to call them back, wanted to demand some kind of answer. But there was nothing he could say to them right now—and apparently, there was nothing they wanted to say to him.

CHAPTER 42

TERREILLE

“Library, library, library.” Ranon set those three letters on the stack marked for Gray to handle. Only a week had passed since the official creation of Shalador Nehele, and the mail coming in for Queen and court had tripled.

The day had turned cold and snowy, with a wind that cut like a mean-tempered bitch. Cassie was tucked in for the afternoon and he was the escort on duty, so he’d offered to sort the mail since Powell had more than enough to do right now. It wasn’t a job he enjoyed, but he didn’t mind it either, and doing something productive for the court made him feel less guilty about being warm and comfortable today while other members of the First Circle were out in that white misery fulfilling their own assignments.

“Request for a loan to repair a printing press and open a print shop and bookbindery.” He frowned at that letter for a moment, then put it in Gray’s stack. “Request for lessons with the Protocol instructors. Well, Gray can deal with that too.”

Then he hesitated and wondered if they were dumping too much on Gray, especially since hewas the First Escort and his first priority was taking care of the Queen.

“We really need a Second Circle to assist the First Circle,” he muttered. The problem was paying a Second Circle, although Powellhad hinted they could afford to bring in a few more people to work for the court. Well, for the time being, they would do the best they could with what they had.

Could a Sceltie learn to sort mail?

While he pondered what the dogs might be able to do with the reading skills they had, Dryden tapped on the door and said, “Prince Ferall is asking to see you.”

“Me?” When Dryden nodded, Ranon set the unsorted letters at one end of the big meeting table. Nothing really confidential in the stacks he’d sorted so far, but he used Craft to make a layer of witchlight over the papers, effectively preventing anyone from reading them. “Send him in.”

Ferall entered the room, still wearing his heavy winter coat and a shapeless hat.

He didn’t sense any shields around the man, but Ranon instinctively put a skintight Opal shield around himself under his clothing, just in case. A warrior like Ferall usually held on to his outer gear when he figured he’d have to leave in a hurry—and that usually meant after splattering the walls with blood.

He smiled and took a step forward as if he didn’t see the fury in the other man’s eyes.

Then Ferall grabbed two fistfuls of Ranon’s shirt and slammed his back against the wall.

“You self-serving son of a whoring bitch,” Ferall snarled. “Got what you wanted so you just let the rest of us flounder, is that it?”

Clamping his hands around Ferall’s wrists to prevent a grab for his throat, Ranon snarled back, “What in the name of Hell are you talking about?”

“You. This.” Ferall shook him. “Didn’t we work hard enough, try hard enough? Couldn’t you give us a chance before you cut us loose? I almost had a life. Damn you to the bowels of Hell, Ranon, I almost had a life! A widow with two young children, a boy and a girl. Lost her husband to one of those twisted bitches a few years back. Had the courage to let me into her life and into her bed. Let me be around her children. You know what that means, Ranon.You know. ”

Yes, he knew. And he understood now about those special gifts Ferall had purchased for Winsol.

Ferall leaned in, and despite the shield, Ranon could feel his chest muscles bruising under the pressure of the other man’s fists.

“I never had much of a home when I was young, and nothing you could call ahome since I was fifteen. Do you know what it feels like to settle into a place and not have everyone look at you with fear in their eyes because they’ve gotten used to you, gotten used to the idea that you’re there to protect them as well as be an instrument of the Queen’s will? Do you know what it feels like to be with a woman who cares about you? To have a boy waiting to see you at the end of the day to play a game of toss before dinner or have a little girl snuggle up next to you wanting you to read her a story? Do you?”

“I know,” Ranon said quietly. And he did know about that particular dream. He was hoping to have those same things with Shira someday.

“Then why?” Ferall pressed him harder into the wall. “You bastard! Tell me why!”

“Let him go.”

For a moment, Ranon wondered why Vae’s snarled words sounded so strange. Then he looked toward the door and thought,Oh, shit.

Cassie stood there, her red hair flowing down her back and her feet planted in a fighting stance. One hand held that club she’d used to defend James Weaver and his family back in Grayhaven. Vae stood beside her.

Both witches snarled at Ferall.

Pushing away from Ranon—and giving him a last knock into the wall in the process—Ferall took a step toward Cassidy, measured the wild look in her eyes, and took a step back.

“Why didn’t you give us a chance to prove ourselves before cutting us loose like that?” Ferall asked, his voice ringing with frustration and lost hope.

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