Theran jerked back as if he’d been slapped. Then, snarling, he took a step forward.

Using Craft to vanish the hourglass and flute, Ranon instinctively took a step to the side to give himself more room to maneuver.

He wore an Opal Jewel; Theran wore Green. They were both Warlord Princes, aggressive predators born to stand on the killing fields. If they unleashed their psychic strength against each other, they could destroy the Grayhaven mansion and kill many of the people living here before anyone else knew there was danger. Even without using the power that made the Blood who and what they were, they could cause a lot of harm to each other with just muscle and temper.

But if either of them was damaged so badly he couldn’t serve, the court would break, and Ranon’s hope for the Shalador people would break with it.

Remembering that, he backed away from the fight, indicating with a subtle shift of his body that Theran was the dominant male. Which was true, as far as the Jewels were concerned. But only as far as the Jewels were concerned. And that, too, Ranon conveyed with that subtle shift.

Fury flashed in Theran’s green eyes. Instead of accepting that Ranon had yielded, he took another step forward. Then . . .

*Theran? Theran!*

Saved by a Sceltie,Ranon thought as he watched Theran’s hasty retreat into the mansion moments before the small brown-and-white dog bounded up the terrace’s steps.

“Good morning, Lady Vae,” Ranon said with more courtesy than was required.

The little bitch growled at him.

Glancing at the Purple Dusk Jewel half hidden in her fur, Ranon offered no challenge. Vae was kindred—the name given to the Blood who were not human—and he’d seen her pull down a full-grown man in a fight. His caste outranked hers, since she was only a witch, and his Jewels outranked hers. On the other hand, she had speed, strong jaws, and sharp teeth.

*You are not usually so foolish as other human males, so I will not nip you this time,* Vae said.

“Thank you, Lady. I appreciate that.”

He also appreciated the implied threat that the next offense would earn him more than a nip.

Vae trotted into the mansion, no doubt intending to administer her own brand of justice on the other foolish male.

Ranon sighed. He’d come close to spoiling something that was as delicate as the honey pear seedlings growing in their pots.

Give her the best you have, Ranon,the Shalador Queens had told him when they left yesterday evening.Show her that Shalador’s heart and honor are worthy of such a Queen.

Cassidy was a Rose-Jeweled Queen from Dharo. A tall, gawky woman with red hair and freckles, she was nothing like the image of the beautiful, powerful Queen that Theran had painted when he’d told the surviving Warlord Princes about his plan to save Dena Nehele.

But when Ranon saw her that first day, he had felt the bond between Warlord Prince and Queen grab hold of his heart and gut, had felt theright-ness of handing over his life to her will. In the few weeks since her arrival, she had shown herself worthy of that trust, and in the wake of all she had done in the past week—fighting against a Warlord and his two grown sons to defend a landen family, as well as discovering the treasure that had been hidden on the Grayhaven estate—even the Warlord Princes who had been disappointed when they had first seen her were reassessing the Queen behind the long, plain face.

He didn’t like Theran. He never would. But because he was grateful for Cassidy’s presence—and because he knew how he would have felt if he’d been required to serve a Queen he didn’t believe in—he would do what he could to keep peace between himself and Theran.

And to bring back a little of the peace that had been spoiled, he called in his flute and played a while longer.

Theran paused in the dining room doorway and took a moment to watch the people around the table. Despite their commitment to serve, the men who made up the First Circle of Cassidy’s court had been wary of her. They had seen too much brutality done at the command of the twisted Queens who had ruled here. And no matter what they said, he knew they had been disappointed in their Queen’s lack of beauty and power.

Then Cassidy found the treasure that had been hidden by Lia and Thera, the Black Widow who had been Lia’s closest friend. Not only did that discovery restore the Grayhaven family’s personal wealth, it had uncovered journals and portraits that gave him and the other men in the First Circle a glimpse of the past that had helped to shape them—because the people in those portraits had known what it meant to have honor. And Cassidy, by her actions, had shown herself to be a Queen of the same caliber as Lia.

Because of those things, he had made the choice to be Cassidy’s First Escort in more than name, to serve her as if he felt the bond that the rest of the First Circle felt. But he didn’t feel that bond, and despite his best intentions, serving her scraped at him. He was grateful for what she had accomplished so far, but he still believed that if Cassidy could do this much, the kind of Queen he had wanted for Dena Nehele could do so much more. The Blood who saw Cassidy had to get past that plain face and Rose Jewel in order to consider if she had anything to offer the land or the people—and most of the Blood would be disappointed enough not to bother.

Her contract to rule Dena Nehele is only for a year,Theran thought as he walked over to the table and took a seat.I can put up with serving her for a year. And it gives me time to find the right Queen for Dena Nehele.

The right Queen wouldn’t stick a Shalador Warlord Prince in his face every damn day. His only excuse for his behavior this morning was that Ranon’s presence scraped at him even more than Cassidy’s. He’d spent his whole life beingGrayhaven, the last descendant of the Gray Queens’ bloodline and the man destined to becomethe male leader—the Warlord Prince the other men would follow. Until he brought Cassidy to Dena Nehele and she formed her court, that was exactly who he had been. Now people looked at the dark hair and golden skin that proclaimed Ranon’s heritage. Then they looked athim, and instead of seeing Grayhaven, they sawShalador.

Worse than that, when men saw him with other members of the First Circle, they responded to him asa leader, but not asthe leader. They acted like the Grayhaven name no longer meant as much now that Cassidy was here.

Feeling spiteful and pissed off at everyone, he started to help himself to a double serving of steak, eggs, and potatoes—taking Ranon’s share as well as his own—but as he stabbed the second piece of steak, Cassidy held out a clean plate and smiled at him. Noticing how sharply the other men around the table were watching him, he had no choice but to give her half of everything.