He knew their names, but it was understood that no names were spoken at this kind of meeting. Foolish, really, when there were so few of them left they all knew one another, but that caution had been too well trained into them.
“Prince.” A Purple Dusk Warlord Prince stepped forward. “I’ve been asked to be the voice of my Brothers.”
Theran tipped his head to acknowledge the man—and to acknowledge that these men had gathered for a discussion at least once without him. “I’m listening.”
“The day after I reached my majority and my training was declared complete, I walked onto my first killing field. I’ve been fighting for Dena Nehele in one way or another ever since. I guess that’s true for all of us here.”
The other twenty-six Warlord Princes nodded.
Only twenty-eight of us to guard four Provinces,Theran thought.How in the name of Hell are we going to do that?
“I’ve fought for Dena Nehele,” the Warlord Prince said. “My father and my grandfather and his father before him all fought and bled and died for Dena Nehele. And as much as we respect Ranon and Jared Blaed, we want to live in Dena Nehele. The Queens in our Provinces feel the same. We don’t want Dena Nehele to become nothing more than a memory.”
Thank the Darkness. “Then come back to Grayhaven with me. Meet with Lady Kermilla. Help me form a court so that—”
“No.” The Warlord Prince took a step back. “We’ll protect Dena Nehele. We’ll defend the Blood against the landens, and we’ll fight to keep our Provinces safe from outside attack. But none of us will serve Kermilla.”
Theran’s temper flared hot. “You’ve never given her a chance. She’s young, and she doesn’t have as much experience as she thinks she has, but she’s not an evil woman or a bad Queen. Befriending Correne was a mistake, and I know the girl’s influence on Kermilla’s behavior left a bad taste in a few men’s mouths, but—”
The breach of etiquette shocked him cold.
“We’ve heard words like this before, Theran. Heard them from good men who couldn’t see the blood on their Queens’ hands or tried to justify brutality because they couldn’t live with the truth.”
Theran said nothing.
“We won’t serve her, and we won’t stand by and let her become Queen of what is left of our land. We serve Dena Nehele, and we’re willing to let the Grayhaven line stand as the ruler. But not her. Never her. If we have to meet you on a killing field and end the Grayhaven line to make sure she doesn’t become Queen, then that is what we will do.”
He didn’t want to believe the words, but he couldn’t doubt what he saw in their eyes. If he helped Kermilla set up a court, they would kill him—and then they would kill her.
“She gave up everything to stay here and be our Queen,” he said, desperate to make them understand.
“I doubt she gave up anything, but you believe what you choose. It’s clear enough she’s your Queen; that doesn’t make her ours.” The Warlord Prince sighed. “Two weeks, Prince. She’s safe from us for two more weeks. After that, we’ll come hunting.”
They flowed around him, predators heading back to the territories they claimed as their own.
Theran stood there, alone, long after the last man had caught the Winds.
Where was the promise of a new life, a better life? Where was the hope? There had been hope a year ago, hadn’t there? Gone now. All gone. He didn’t know how to fix it, any of it.
And he didn’t know what he was going to say to Kermilla.
Days ticked by. Theran spent the time riding through the town. Dena Nehele’s capital had too many empty houses, too many empty shops. The people who remained watched him ride by, their eyes accepting and dull.
He rode into the landen part of town and stared at the craftsmen’s courtyard where Cassidy had defended a landen family against a Warlord and his two sons.
People’s eyes hadn’t been accepting and dull then.
To avoid Kermilla and the questions he couldn’t answer, he walked around the Grayhaven estate, slogging on slushy paths and riding trails until his trousers were soaked and his legs ached. Or he’d stare at the flower beds Gray had restored, at the spring flowers that had already bloomed or would bloom in a couple more weeks, according to Julien. And more often, he would end up in front of the bed full of witchblood, remembering the day they all discovered what it was—and what it meant.
The days ticked by, and soon there would be no days left. He had to make a choice before the other Warlord Princes made it for him.
A gorgeous spring day. Sweet air and sun that gave warmth as well as light.
Theran stood on the terrace, enjoying this teasing hint of the days to come. It was still too early in the season for the land to shrug off winter altogether, but this was a day to savor.
And there, tucked in the shelter of the terrace’s raised beds, was the little honey pear tree, which had survived the winter.
He heard the terrace door open and knew without turning who was there. Her psychic scent was irresistible even on a day like today when her physical presence had less than no appeal.
Dredging up a smile, he turned toward the door. Kermilla was wrapped in a shawl and a sulky mood.
The shawl wasn’t one he’d seen before, and he wondered if that was because it was something she tended to wear in the spring or if he was going to receive an apology and a bill from one of the merchants.
“Why are you wasting time?” Kermilla asked. “Why aren’t you bringing the Warlord Princes here so that I can choose my court?”
“It’s complicated, Kermilla.” He’d been trying to work out a way for everyone to get something, even if he couldn’t give her what she really wanted.
“It’s not complicated, Theran. Justtell them.” She walked over to the table where he’d set a few papers down. Giving him a defiant look, she moved until she could read as much of the top page as was visible around the fist-sized rock serving as a paperweight.
“I can’ttell them anything.”
Since it wasn’t interesting, she gave up on trying to read the top page. “You’re the darkest-Jeweled Warlord Prince in this miserable excuse of a Territory. Of course you can tell them.”
He bristled, insulted on behalf of his people and his land.
Then he tightened the leash and forced himself to keep his temper out of this conversation.