The notes meandered like a stream winding its way through a summer meadow. Soft. Easy. Gray wasn’t sure if it was a song or just one note following another. Either way it was peaceful. Within minutes, both women were asleep.
The rustle of paper and the murmur of male voices twined with the flute, and Gray sensed the men relaxing. Their Queen was safe and she was content, so they could afford to let down their guard and rest.
*They’re proud of her,* Ranon said on a psychic spear thread. *She scared the shit out of all of us when she drained herself like that, but there’s a feeling of pride now. Even more than when she defended that landen family.*
*Why wouldn’t they be proud to serve Cassie?* Gray asked.
Ranon didn’t answer for a minute, but the music became bittersweet. *We’ve all seen too much, Gray. We’ve all done too much in defense of our people to trust without reservation. When she stood in front of us that first day, we knew we belonged to her, and that scared every one of us. We didn’t know what kind of woman claimed our loyalty and honor. Now we’ve got a better measure of what kind of Queen we serve, and we’re proud to be in her First Circle, almost to the last man.*
Theran sat across from Powell, his face turned to the Coach’s outer wall, shutting them all out, holding himself separate from the rest of them.
It was a shame that Cassie and Theran were back to strained tolerance with each other. The tentative peace that had begun between them after she found Lia’s treasure broke under the strain of her draining her power into the land. They were all back to enduring Theran’s undisguised unhappiness with the Queen he had brought from Kaeleer.
He was sorry that Theran was unhappy, but everyone else at Grayhaven—including the servants—was pleased to be serving Cassie, so Theran was the one who needed to accept the way she ruled. Hopefully once Theran saw how her understanding of the Queen’s connection to the land would help all their people, he would be able to accept her as the Lady who could restore Dena Nehele.
“Do you play chess?” Cassidy asked Shira as they walked from the landing web up to the Grayhaven mansion.
“Yes, I do,” Shira replied at the same time Ranon said, “No, she doesn’t.”
Cassidy laughed. “I was told chess is not a game that should be played between genders. Our style of playing is too different to be compatible.”
“Style of playing?” Ranon muttered. “Being irrational is not a ‘style.’ ”
“In the Dark Court, if a male couldn’t behave himself when playing chess with a female, he was required to play a game of cradle with her as compensation.”
“Cradle?” Shira asked.
“A card game Jaenelle played when she was young and then expanded on later. Well, she and the coven expanded on the basic game. The men loathed playing it because their thinking just wasn’t flexible enough.”
Gray snorted. Ranon growled.
Cassidy looked at Shira, who winked at her but otherwise kept a straight face.
She felt good. Rested. Ready for the next challenge. Tomorrow she would write a general letter to all the Queens in Dena Nehele, gently reminding them of the basic ritual for enriching the land with power. If they, like the Shalador Queens, no longer remembered that ritual, they would be welcome to come to Grayhaven where she would teach them.
She would ask Powell to help her smooth out the writing—or find someone who had skill with words. There had to be a wordsmith or two in a town this size.
As she pondered that, the door opened and Dryden, the butler, stared at her with a peculiar look of relief. For a moment, she thought he was going to lift her off her feet and hug her. Since she was almost as tall as he and had a bit more muscle, the intensity of his psychic scent and expression made her shift her weight and take a step back, bumping into Gray.
“Lady,” Dryden said.
One word. Gray stiffened, but she felt the change in Ranon and knew the Shalador Warlord Prince was rising to the killing edge in response to Dryden’s voice. She reached back and planted her hand against Ranon’s chest, her touch a light chain that was the only thing holding him back.
The other men, who had been loitering to stretch their legs after the Coach ride, moved with purpose now, and the Warlord Princes among them were all rising to the killing edge. As Talon’s second-in-command, if Ranon’s temper snapped the leash, the others would go with him.
And she sensednothing that would explain the reaction of any of the men—until she began to probe the mansion and picked up psychic scents that were familiar . . . and painful.
“You have visitors, Lady,” Dryden said. “From Dharo. They arrived two days ago. I did inform the Lady that you were not at home, but she said she was a friend and insisted that you were expecting her. Her Consort and escorts confirmed the invitation.”
There was a pleading look in Dryden’s eyes, but it was a struggle just to breathe, and whatever he was trying to tell her was beyond her ability to comprehend.
The violence that vibrated in Gray’s voice woke her up, snapped her out of her own bog of disbelief. If he, who was still learning to fit into the skin of an adult Warlord Prince, was that close to attacking her “visitors,” Ranon must be a heartbeat away from slaughter.
And because a part of her wanted to step aside and give Ranon a target for his barely leashed temper, she said briskly, “Since they’ve been here this long, I won’t keep my visitors waiting. Lady Shira, with me, please. Gentlemen, if you two will stand escort then the other men can settle in.”
Having Gray and Ranon with her would be bad enough without the rest of them crowding into the room. Thank the Darkness Theran was still in the Coach. She didn’t needhim witnessing this meeting.
As Dryden stepped aside to let them enter, she felt the full weight of male temper at her back and realized that even a direct order now wouldn’t stop any of her First Circle from coming in with her.
She walked into the large parlor and her heart clenched so hard she feared it would stop beating.
The woman who sprang up from one of the stuffed chairs looked as pretty and dainty as ever. The man standing beside her was as handsome as she remembered, but shouldn’t Jhorma look more satisfied? After all, he was pleasuring the woman he’d lusted after. The other three men who had served in her previous court looked embarrassed.
As well they should.
“Lady Kermilla,” Cassidy said with frigid courtesy.
“Oh,la, Cassidy,” Kermilla said. “Is that any way to greet a friend?”