Dangerous ground,Talon thought.Two Queens in the same house and all the men wary or edgy or just plain ready to kill. “Put caste aside for a moment and tell me what you’d say if this was about social standing.”
Powell relaxed. “Ah. Well. Plain girl. Comes from a simple family and expects to work for her keep. Earns the friendships she makes by being a friend. At a social gathering, she’s never asked by a handsome man for any of the romantic dances unless he’s an escort in training and is required to dance with the girls who wouldn’t have a partner otherwise. Her heart’s probably bruised because of that, but she’s learned to accept it.
“Then there’s the pretty girl. Spoiled and pampered. Her father’s darling.”
“Wait,” Talon interrupted. “Father’s darling would apply to both girls.” Having met Lord Burle, it was clear he was more than proud of Cassidy, and not because she was now the Queen of a whole Territory. That pride was for hisgirl, who just happened to be a Queen.
“You’re right,” Powell agreed. “However, the pretty girl is used to getting her own way, is used to being preferred over the other girls, always has her dance card filled before she arrives at the dance, and if she snubs one partner in favor of someone more polished or aristo, she expects to be forgiven—and her actions defended—because she is an aristo darling.
“These two girls have competed in the same social arena.”
“And when the plain girl did get a dance partner the pretty girl wanted, the pretty girl stole him just because she could,” Talon said. “Yeah, it’s clear enough there is some history between Kermilla and Cassidy.”
“Theran made no effort to hide his preference. Cassidy told Kermilla to leave; Theran said she could stay. That had to hurt Cassidy’s pride.”
“And the pretty girl wins again.” Talon sighed.Sweet Darkness, please let it be that simple. “Ranon and Gray have an intense dislike for her.”
“Which has made the others edgy and politely hostile toward our guests.” Powell paused, then added, “I have to say, Warlord Princes are the only caste of males who can act politely and still leave ‘I want to kill you’ hanging unspoken in a room. Ranon and Gray are the most attuned to Cassidy. Kermilla makes her unhappy, so they’re going to dislike her, no matter what.”
“And Theran? Is it a young man’s c**k lusting for a pretty girl, or is it a Warlord Prince feeling the pull of a Queen?”
“I don’t know,” Powell said.
“Shit.” Until he’d met Cassidy and had felt that pull himself, he hadn’t realized how powerful a chain that connection between Queen and Warlord Prince could be. If that was the reason Theran was reacting to Kermilla . . .
Talon scratched the back of his neck. “She came here for a reason. No matter what she says, Kermilla didn’t come here to visit a friend, so she was expecting to getsomething .”
“I agree, and I don’t think she got what she came for. But she did win something by Theran inviting her to stay. The First Escort countermanding the Queen’s order for his own pleasure? Can we allow that, Talon?”
“It’s his house. He’s right about that. And Kermilla being a Queen might not mean anything.”
“It means something to Cassidy.”
“Yeah, it does.” But was the rivalry between Queens or women? If he took Kermilla back to the Keep tonight, which is what he should do to soothe his Queen, Theran would blame Cassidy for Kermilla’s departure, and the tension between them could grow to an animosity that would cripple the court. If this was nothing more than a physical attraction between Theran and Kermilla, it could burn itself out in a few days anyway, and he would have widened the rift already present in the court for nothing.
“What should we do?” Powell asked.
“We wait—and we watch,” Talon replied.And hope I’m not hurting Cassidy too much by letting Theran take the lead on this and have the time to get to know the girl.
Cassidy slowly made her way up to her suite. Her head ached and her stomach burned. Not an unusual combination these days. All it took was hearing “Oh,la ” for the pain to start.
Shira had a tonic that could soothe the stomach and medicine that could ease the headache. But she couldn’t go to the Healer. Not again. The first time, Shira had performed her duties without comment. The second evening it happened, those dark eyes held a sharp reminder that Shira was a Black Widow as well as a Healer, and poisoning a “guest” would be a simple thing to do.
She had to write her report to Prince Sadi, and she didn’t know what to say. Didn’t know what shedared to say.
It was happening again. She had failed. Again.
Kermilla shone. She dazzled. Just like the last time. She flattered and flirted, wore a different gown every evening that had the men’s eyes popping out, and hinted that she was on the primary guest lists of the most influential aristos in Dharo.
Which may or may not be true, but there was no way to call Kermilla on it without sounding churlish.
Maybe she shouldn’t have been surprised, but it had been a shock to have Theran come up to her suite that first day and inform her that Kermilla was nowhis guest, just asshe was his guest, and he expected her to act her age instead of behaving like a pouting adolescent.
That statement coming from a man whose pants tented every time he was in the same room as Kermilla might have been funny in a dark, painful way if the rest of the court hadn’t started acting just like her old court had done. They looked at Kermilla and then at her as if they were judging her and finding fault. Seeing her and Kermilla in the same room . . . The difference between a draft horse and a thoroughbred, Jhorma had once said when he had escorted her and Kermilla to a small party. He’d said it in a tone of voice that was supposed to mean he was joking, but everyone in the room had known he meant it. And everyone must have known that he resented riding the draft horse when he lusted for the thoroughbred.
Everyone but her.
Even when he said things like that—and justified saying things like that—she hadn’t understood his enthusiasm in her bed had to do with getting his own relief and nothing to do with a commitment to take care of his Queen.
Did he enjoy taking care of Kermilla?
She couldn’t think about that. She did her best to ignore the other Queen by spending time in the garden with Gray and working with Powell to send out messages to the surviving Queens in Dena Nehele.