“An error in judgment.” His voice was hard as stone. “You almost kill yourselffor no reason , and you think it’s nothing more than an error?”

He started to walk away. She grabbed his arm—then jerked her hand away in shock when he snarled at her.

“Gray, talk to me,” she pleaded.

“I have nothing to say.”

Her temper snapped. She could feel the heat of it rising through her body until she was sure her hair was going to stand on end like a fan of fire.

“If you’re not going to talk to me, then you damn well better talk to somebody because I’ve had enough of your temper and your silence.”

“Fine. I’ll do that.” As he walked away from her, Gray shouted, “Vae! You’re with me.”

“At least that will get both of you out of my hair,” Cassidy muttered as she stomped back to the garden.

Reyhana looked away, wrestled with a weed, and swore politely when the top of the plant broke off, leaving the tap root.

“You can’t pull the tap roots of those weeds out unless you do it after a soaking rain,” Cassidy said, kneeling beside the younger woman. “But you can use Craft to create a slick shaft around the root so you can pull it out.”

“Can you show me?” Reyhana asked.

“I can show you,” Cassidy replied, then added silently,Without those two yapping at me.

Ranon watched Gray head right for him. Prudence and training told him he should shield when another warrior came toward him in a way that screamed aggression. But this was Gray, so he held his ground until the other man took that last step and grabbed a fistful of his shirt.

“You guard her, Ranon,” Gray said, his voice so rough it was hardly recognizable. “You hear me? First Escort or not, Theran doesn’t care enough about her to do what’s right, so you guard her until I get back.”

“Where are you going?” Ranon asked.

Gray’s smile was razor-sharp. “I’m following my Queen’s command. I’m going to talk to somebody.”

*I will take care of Gray,* Vae said, using a private psychic thread aimed at him.

Ranon waited until Gray rounded the corner of the house. Then he rubbed his hands over his face and sighed. After days of observing Gray and Cassidy’s silent argument, he wanted to talk to someone too. But he’d have to wait until Gray returned—or until Talon rose this evening and could take over the watch. Then he would go to his grandfather’s house, and Yairen would make a brew of spiced whiskey and coffee, a drink the old man only made when men needed to speak to other men about difficult matters.

He had no right to interfere between a man and a woman, but Cassidy was also his Queen, and he needed guidance in order to walk this particular knife’s edge.

He crossed the yard and knelt on the other side of Cassidy, who ignored him and continued to explain to Reyhana something about drawing out the full root of a weed.

“Look,” Ranon said quietly, “you probably don’t want anyone with a c**k within twenty paces of you right now.”

“That is correct,” Cassidy said, still not looking at him.

“If you promise that you’ll do nothing to hurt yourself because you’re upset with Gray, I’ll leave you in peace.” Soon after she’d come to Dena Nehele, she’d worked her hands into a bloody mess because she was distraught over something Theran had done. The court had learned a hard lesson that day, and he wasn’t about to let it happen again. “Cassidy?”

“Why would she hurt herself over a man?” Reyhana said, bristling with challenge.

His temper sharpened. Reyhana wore Purple Dusk; he wore Opal. He couldn’t allow a challenge to go unanswered, even if the girl was a Queen.Especially because the girl was a Queen.

“Sister, you’re being disrespectful,” Cassidy said.


“No,” Cassidy said. “Prince Ranon has reason to ask the question, and as one of my First Circle, he is within his rights to challenge me if he believes I am acting in a way that will cause me harm.”

“Oh,” Reyhana said in a small voice.

“Are you asking as one of my First Circle?” Cassidy asked, finally looking at him.

He shook his head. “I’m asking as a friend.”

Emotions flashed in her hazel eyes, which turned tear-bright for a moment—and he wondered if anyone in her previous court had given her more than duty.

“In that case, I give you my word as a friend that I won’t act imprudently because of this quarrel with Gray.” She hesitated, then added on a psychic thread. *This quarrel with Gray upsets me, but it hasn’t hurt me.*

He nodded to indicate he understood the difference. “Then I’ll leave you Ladies to your work.”

When he turned toward the boardinghouse, he froze for a moment before he strode across the lawn. With the exception of Talon and Theran, the rest of the First Circle was waiting for him.

“Is the Queen all right?” Powell asked when he joined them.

Ranon nodded.

“Is there anything we should do?” Archerr asked. “Powell, you’ve read those Protocol books more thoroughly than the rest of us. What do you say?”

“She gave her word that she wouldn’t do anything to hurt herself,” Ranon said quietly—and felt some of the tension ease in the other men.

“Can we scrounge a couple of chairs and a small table from somewhere?” Shaddo asked.

“For what?” Archerr asked.

“I noticed flagstones under the big tree,” Shaddo said. “They’re grown over some, but I think that area used to be a place for people to sit out under the shade.”

“Ah.” Powell smiled. “Chairs, a small table, cold drinks, and something to nibble. A subtle invitation to balance work and rest.”

“If we start cleaning up the flagstones and hauling furniture out to the tree, won’t it be obvious what we’re doing—and why?” Archerr asked.

“Yes,” Ranon said. “But sometimes a suggestion made by actions instead of words is more easily heard—and also less likely to offend.”


*High Lord? High Lord!*

“Now what?” Saetan muttered. Setting aside the book and just-warmed glass of yarbarah, he pushed out of the comfortable stuffed chair. Didn’tanyone remember that he had retired from the living Realms? “Come.”

But it was Gray, not Vae, who walked into the room. One look at the young Warlord Prince’s face, and Saetan knew the reason for this particular visit.

Tags: Anne Bishop The Black Jewels Science Fiction
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